Riding the Bullet
by STEPHEN KING
SCRIBNER/ PHILTRUM PRESS
1230 Avenue of the Americas New York, NY 10020 www. SimonSays. com
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Copyright © 2000 by Stephen King All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
scribner and design are trademarks of Macmillan Library Reference USA, Inc., used under license
by Simon & Schuster, the publisher of this work.
cover illustration by shasti o’leary cover design by john fontana text design by erich hobbing
I’ve never told anyone this story, and never thought I would not because I was afraid of being disbelieved, exactly, but because I was ashamed . . . and because it was mine. I’ve always felt that telling it would cheapen both me and the story itself, make it smaller and more mundane, no more than a camp counselor’s ghost story told before lights- out. I think I was also afraid that if I told it, heard it with my own ears, I might start to disbelieve it myself. But since my mother died I haven’t been able to sleep very well. I doze off and then snap back again, wide awake and shivering. Leaving the bedside lamp on helps, but not as much as you might think. There are so many more shadows at night, have you ever noticed that? Even with a light on there are so many shadows. The long ones could be the shadows of anything, you think.
Anything at all.
I was a junior at the University of Maine when Mrs. McCurdy called about ma. My father died when I was too young to remember him and I was an only child, so it was just Alan and Jean Parker against the world. Mrs. McCurdy, who lived just up the road, called at the apartment I shared with three other guys. She had gotten the number off the magnetic minder- board ma kept on her fridge.
Twas a stroke, she said in that long and drawling Yankee accent of hers. Happened at the restaurant. But don’t you go flyin off all half- cocked. Doctor says it wa’ant too bad. She’s awake and she’s talkin.
Yeah, but is she making sense? I asked. I was trying to sound calm, even amused, but my heart was beating fast and the living room suddenly felt too warm. I had the apartment all to myself; it was Wednesday, and both my roomies had classes all day.
Oh, ayuh. First thing she said was for me to call you but not to scare you. That’s pretty sensible, wouldn’t you say?
Yeah. But of course I was scared. When someone calls and tells you your mother’s been taken from work to the hospital in an ambulance, how else are you supposed to feel?
She said for you to stay right there and mind your schoolin until the weekend. She said you could come then, if you didn’t have too much studyin t’do.
Sure, I thought. Fat chance. I’d just stay here in this ratty, beer- smelling apartment while my mother lay in a hospital bed a hundred miles south, maybe dying.
She’s still a young woman, your ma, Mrs. McCurdy said. It’s just that she’s let herself get awful heavy these last few years, and she’s got the hypertension. Plus the cigarettes. She’s goin to have to give up the smokes.
I doubted if she would, though, stroke or no stroke, and about that I was right my mother loved her smokes. I thanked Mrs. McCurdy for calling.
First thing I did when I got home, she said. So when are you coming, Alan? Sad’dy? There was a sly note in her voice that suggested she knew better.
I looked out the window at a perfect afternoon in October: bright blue New England sky over trees that were shaking down their yellow leaves onto Mill Street. Then I glanced at my watch. Twenty past three. I’d just been on my way out to my four o’clock philosophy seminar when the phone rang.
You kidding? I asked. I’ll be there tonight. Her laughter was dry and a little cracked around the edges Mrs. McCurdy was a great one to talk about giving up the cigarettes, her and her Winstons. Good boy! You’ll go straight to the hospital, won’t you, then drive out to the house?
I guess so, yeah, I said. I saw no sense in telling Mrs. McCurdy that there was something wrong with the transmission of my old car, and it wasn’t going
anywhere but the driveway for the foreseeable future. I’d hitchhike down to Lewiston, then out to our little house in Harlow if it wasn’t too late. If it was, I’d snooze in one of the hospital lounges. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d ridden my thumb home from school. Or slept sitting up with my head leaning against a Coke machine, for that matter.
I’ll make sure the key’s under the red wheelbarrow, she said. You know where I mean, don’t you?
Sure. My mother kept an old red wheelbarrow by the door to the back shed; in the summer it foamed with flowers. Thinking of it for some reason brought Mrs. McCurdy’s news home to me as a true fact: my mother was in the hospital, the little house in Harlow where I’d grown up was going to be dark tonight there was no one there to turn on the lights after the sun went down. Mrs. McCurdy could say she was young, but when you’re just twenty- one yourself, forty- eight seems ancient.
Be careful, Alan. Don’t speed. My speed, of course, would be up to whoever I hooked a ride with, and I personally hoped that whoever it was would go like hell. As far as I was concerned, I couldn’t get to Central Maine Medical Center fast enough. Still, there was no sense worrying Mrs. McCurdy.
I won’t. Thanks.
Welcome, she said. Your ma’s going to be just fine. And won’t she be some happy to see you.
I hung up, then scribbled a note saying what had happened and where I was going. I asked Hector Passmore, the more responsible of my roommates, to call my adviser and ask him to tell my instructors what was up so I wouldn’t get whacked for cutting two or three of my teachers were real bears about that. Then I stuffed a change of clothes into my backpack, added my dog- eared copy of Introduction to Philosophy, and headed out. I dropped the course the following week, although I had been doing quite well in it. The way I looked at the world changed that night, changed quite a lot, and nothing in my philosophy textbook seemed to fit the changes. I came to understand that there are things underneath, you see underneath and no book can explain what they are. I think that sometimes it’s best to just forget those things are there. If you can, that is.
It’s a hundred and twenty miles from the University of Maine in Orono to Lewiston in Androscoggin County, and the quickest way to get there is by I- 95. The turnpike isn’t such a good road to take if you’re hitchhiking, though; the state police are apt to boot anyone they see off even if you’re just standing on the ramp they give you the boot and if the same cop catches you twice, he’s apt to write you a ticket, as
well. So I took Route 68, which winds southwest from Bangor. It’s a pretty well- traveled road, and if you don’t look like an out- and- out psycho, you can usually do pretty well. The cops leave you alone, too, for the most part.
My first lift was with a morose insurance man and took me as far as Newport. I stood at the intersection of Route 68 and Route 2 for about twenty minutes, then got a ride with an elderly gentleman who was on his way to Bowdoinham. He kept grabbing at his crotch as he drove. It was as if he was trying to catch something that was running around in there.
My wife allus told me I’d wind up in the ditch with a knife in my back if I kept on picking up hitchhikers, he said, but when I see a young fella standin t’side of the rud, I allus remember my own younger days. Rode my thumb quite a bit, so I did. Rode the rods, too. And lookit this, her dead four year and me still a- goin, drivin this same old Dodge. I miss her somethin turrible. He snatched at his crotch. Where you headed, son?
I told him I was going to Lewisto
n, and why. That’s turrible, he said. Your ma! I’m so sorry! His sympathy was so strong and spontaneous that it made the corners of my eyes prickle. I blinked the tears back. The last thing in the world I wanted was to burst out crying in this old man’s old car, which rattled and wallowed and smelled quite strongly of pee.
Mrs. McCurdy the lady who called me said it isn’t that serious. My mother’s still young, only fortyeight.
Still! A stroke! He was genuinely dismayed. He snatched at the baggy crotch of his green pants again, yanking with an old man’s oversized, clawlike hand. A stroke’s allus serious! Son, I’d take you to the CMMC myself drive you right up to the front door if I hadn’t promised my brother Ralph I’d take him up to the nursin home in Gates. His wife’s there, she has that forgettin disease, I can’t think what in the world they call it, Anderson’s or Alvarez or somethin like that
Alzheimer’s, I said. Ayuh, prob’ly I’m gettin it myself. Hell, I’m tempted to take you anyway.
You don’t need to do that, I said. I can get a ride from Gates easy.
Still, he said. Your mother! A stroke! Only fortyeight! He grabbed at the baggy crotch of his pants. Fucking truss! he cried, then laughed the sound was both desperate and amused. Fucking rupture! If you stick around, son, all your works start fallin apart. God kicks your ass in the end, let me tell you. But you’re a good boy to just drop everythin and go to her like you’re doin.
She’s a good mom, I said, and once again I felt the tears bite. I never felt very homesick when I went away to school a little bit the first week, that was all but I felt homesick then. There was just me and her, no other close relatives. I couldn’t imagine life without her. Wasn’t too bad, Mrs. McCurdy had said; a stroke, but not too bad. Damn old lady better be telling the truth, I thought, she just better be.
We rode in silence for a little while. It wasn’t the fast ride I’d hoped for the old man maintained a steady forty- five miles an hour and sometimes wandered over the white line to sample the other lane but it was a long ride, and that was really just as good. Highway 68 unrolled before us, turning its way through miles of woods and splitting the little towns that were there and gone in a slow blink, each one with its bar and its self- service gas station: New Sharon, Ophelia, West Ophelia, Ganistan (which had once been Afghantistan, strange but true), Mechanic Falls, Castle View, Castle Rock. The bright blue of the sky dimmed as the day drained out of it; the old man turned on first his parking lights and then his headlights. They were the high beams but he didn’t seem to notice, not even when cars coming the other way flashed their own high beams at him.
My sister’n- law don’t even remember her own name, he said. She don’t know aye, yes, no, nor maybe. That’s what that Anderson’s Disease does to you, son. There’s a look in her eyes . . . like she’s sayin
‘Let me out of here’ . . . or would say it, if she could think of the words. Do you know what I mean?
Yes, I said. I took a deep breath and wondered if the pee I smelled was the old man’s or if he maybe had a dog that rode with him sometimes. I wondered if he’d be offended if I rolled down my window a little. Finally I did. He didn’t seem to notice, any more than he noticed the oncoming cars flashing their highs at him.
Around seven o’clock we breasted a hill in West Gates and my chauffeur cried, Lookit, son! The moon! Ain’t she a corker?
She was indeed a corker a huge orange ball hoisting itself over the horizon. I thought there was nevertheless something terrible about it. It looked both pregnant and infected. Looking at the rising moon, a sudden and awful thought came to me: what if I got to the hospital and my ma didn’t recognize me? What if her memory was gone, completely shot, and she didn’t know aye, yes, no, nor maybe? What if the doctor told me she’d need someone to take care of her for the rest of her life? That someone would have to be me, of course; there was no one else. Goodbye college. What about that, friends and neighbors?
Make a wish on it, boyo! the old man cried. In his excitement his voice grew sharp and unpleasant it was like having shards of glass stuffed into your ear. He gave his crotch a terrific tug. Something in there made a snapping sound. I didn’t see how you could
yank on your crotch like that and not rip your balls right off at the stem, truss or no truss. Wish you make on the ha’vest moon allus comes true, that’s what my father said!
So I wished that my mother would know me when I walked into her room, that her eyes would light up at once and she would say my name. I made that wish and immediately wished I could have it back again; I thought that no wish made in that fevery orange light could come to any good.
Ah, son! the old man said. I wish my wife was here! I’d beg forgiveness for every sha’ap and unkind word I ever said to her!
Twenty minutes later, with the last light of the day still in the air and the moon still hanging low and bloated in the sky, we arrived in Gates Falls. There’s a yellow blinker at the intersection of Route 68 and Pleasant Street. Just before he reached it, the old man swerved to the side of the road, bumping the Dodge’s right front wheel up over the curb and then back down again. It rattled my teeth. The old man looked at me with a kind of wild, defiant excitement everything about him was wild, although I hadn’t seen that at first; everything about him had that broken- glass feeling. And everything that came out of his mouth seemed to be an exclamation.
I’ll take you up there! I will, yessir! Never mind Ralph! Hell with him! You just say the word!
I wanted to get to my mother, but the thought of another twenty miles with the smell of piss in the air and cars flashing their brights at us wasn’t very pleasant. Neither was the image of the old fellow wandering and weaving across four lanes of Lisbon Street. Mostly, though, it was him. I couldn’t stand another twenty miles of crotch- snatching and that excited broken- glass voice.
Hey, no, I said, that’s okay. You go on and take care of your brother. I opened the door and what I’d feared happened he reached out and took hold of my arm with his twisted old man’s hand. It was the hand with which he kept tearing at his crotch.
You just say the word! he told me. His voice was hoarse, confidential. His fingers were pressing deep into the flesh just below my armpit. I’ll take you right to the hospital door! Ayuh! Don’t matter if I never saw you before in my life nor you me! Don’t matter aye, yes, no, nor maybe! I’ll take you right . . .
It’s okay, I repeated, and all at once I was fighting an urge to bolt out of the car, leaving my shirt behind in his grip if that was what it took to get free. It was as if he were drowning. I thought that when I moved, his grip would tighten, that he might even go for the nape of my neck, but he didn’t. His fingers loosened, then slipped away entirely as I put my leg out. And I wondered, as we always do when an irrational moment of panic passes, what I had been so afraid of in the first place. He was just an elderly carbon- based life- form in an elderly Dodge’s pee- smelling ecosystem, looking disappointed that his offer had been refused. Just an old man who couldn’t get comfortable in his truss. What in God’s name had I been afraid of?
I thank you for the ride and even more for the offer, I said. But I can go out that way I pointed at Pleasant Street. and I’ll have a ride in no time.
He was quiet for a moment, then sighed and nodded. Ayuh, that’s the best way to go, he said. Stay right out of town, nobody wants to give a fella ride in town, no one wants to slow down and get honked at.
He was right about that; hitchhiking in town, even a small one like Gates Falls, was futile. I guess he had spent some time riding his thumb. But, son, are you sure? You know what they say about a bird in the hand.
I hesitated again. He was right about a bird in the hand, too. Pleasant Street became Ridge Road a mile or so west of the blinker, and Ridge Road ran through fifteen miles of woods before arriving at Route 196 on the outskirts of Lewiston. It was almost dark, and it’s always harder to get a ride at night when headlights pick you out on a country road, you look like an e
scapee from Wyndham Boys’ Correctional even with your hair combed and your shirt tucked in. But I didn’t want to ride with the old man anymore. Even
now, when I was safely out of his car, I thought there was something creepy about him maybe it was just the way his voice seemed full of exclamation points. Besides, I’ve always been lucky getting rides.
I’m sure, I said. And thanks again. Really. Any time, son. Any time. My wife . . . He stopped, and I saw there were tears leaking from the corners of his eyes. I thanked him again, then slammed the door shut before he could say anything else.
I hurried across the street, my shadow appearing and disappearing in the light of the blinker. On the far side I turned and looked back. The Dodge was still there, parked beside Frank’s Fountain & Fruits. By the light of the blinker and the streetlight twenty feet or so beyond the car, I could see him sitting slumped over the wheel. The thought came to me that he was dead, that I had killed him with my refusal to let him help.
Then a car came around the corner and the driver flashed his high beams at the Dodge. This time the old man dipped his own lights, and that was how I knew he was still alive. A moment later he pulled back into the street and piloted the Dodge slowly around the corner. I watched until he was gone, then looked up at the moon. It was starting to lose its orange bloat, but there was still something sinister about it. It occurred to me that I had never heard of wishing on the moon before the evening star, yes, but not the moon. I wished again I could take my own wish back; as the dark drew down and I stood there at the crossroads, it was too easy to think of that story about the monkey’s paw.
I walked out Pleasant Street, waving my thumb at cars that went by without even slowing. At first there were shops and houses on both sides of the road, then the sidewalk ended and the trees closed in again, silently retaking the land. Each time the road flooded with light, pushing my shadow out ahead of me, I’d turn around, stick out my thumb, and put what I hoped was a reassuring smile on my face. And each time the oncoming car would swoosh by without slowing. Once, someone shouted out, Get a job, monkeymeat! and there was laughter.