by Stephen King
George's mother went to the door, hesitated there, came back, and tousled George's hair. "I don't want you to worry," she said. "You'll be all right. Gramma, too."
"Sure. I'll be okay. Tell Buddy to lay chilly."
George smiled. "To stay cool."
"Oh. Very funny." She smiled back at him, a distracted, going-in-six-directions-at-once smile. "George, are you sure -- "
"I'll be fine."
Are you sure what? Are you sure you're not scared to be alone with Gramma? Was that what she was going to ask?
If it was, the answer is no. After all, it wasn't like he was six anymore, when they had first come here to Maine to take care of Gramma, and he had cried with terror whenever Gramma held out her heavy arms toward him from her white vinyl chair that always srnelled of the poached eggs she ate and the sweet bland powder George's mom rubbed into her flabby, wrinkled skin; she held out her white-elephant arms, wanting him to come to her and be hugged to that huge and heavy old white-elephant body. Buddy had gone to her, had been enfolded in Gramma's blind embrace, and Buddy had come out alive... but Buddy was two years older.
Now Buddy had broken his leg and was at the CMG Hospital in Lewiston.
"You've got the doctor's number if something should go wrong. Which it won't. Right?"
"Sure," he said, and swallowed something dry in his throat. He smiled. Did the smile look okay? Sure. Sure it did. He wasn't scared of Gramma anymore. After all, he wasn't six anymore. Mom was going up to the hospital to see Buddy and he was just going to stay here and lay chilly. Hang out with Gramma awhile. No problem.
Mom went to the door again, hesitated again, and came back again, smiling that distracted, going-six-ways-at-once smile. "If she wakes up and calls for her tea -- "
"1 know," George said, seeing how scared and worried she was underneath that distracted smile. She was worried about Buddy, Buddy and his dumb Pony League, the coach had called and said Buddy had been hurt in a play at the plate, and the first George had known of it (he was just home from school and sitting at the table eating some cookies and having a glass of Nestle's Quik) was when his mother gave a funny little gasp and said, Hurt? Buddy? How bad?
"I know all that stuff, Mom. I got it knocked. Negative perspiration. Go on, now."
"You're a good boy, George. Don't be scared. You're not scared of Gramma anymore, are you?"
"Huh-uh," George said. He smiled. The smile felt pretty good; the smile of a fellow who was laying chilly with negative perspiration on his brow, the smile of a fellow who Had It Knocked, the smile of a fellow who was most definitely not six anymore. He swallowed. It was a great smile, but beyond it, down in the darkness behind his smile, was one very dry throat. It felt as if his throat was lined with mitten-wool. "Tell Buddy I'm sorry he broke his leg."
"I will," she said, and went to the door again. Four-o'clock sunshine slanted in through the window. "Thank God we took the sports insurance, Georgie. I don't know what we'd do if we didn't have it."
"Tell him I hope he tagged the sucker out."
She smiled her distracted smile, a woman of just past fifty with two late sons, one thirteen, one eleven, and no man. This time she opened the door, and a cool whisper of October came in through the sheds.
"And remember, Dr. Arhnder -- "
"Sure," he said. "You better go or his leg'll be fixed by the time you get there."
"She'll probably sleep the whole time," Mom said. "I love you, Georgie. You're a good son." She closed the door on that.
George went to the window and watched her hurry to the old '69 Dodge that burned too much gas and oil, digging the keys from her purse. Now that she was out of the house and didn't know George was looking at her, the distracted smile fell away and she only looked distracted -- distracted and sick with worry about Buddy. George felt bad for her. He didn't waste any similar feelings on Buddy, who liked to get him down and sit on top of him with a knee on each of George's shoulders and tap a spoon in the middle of George's forehead until he just about went crazy (Buddy called it the Spoon Torture of the Heathen Chinee and laughed like a madman and sometimes went on doing it until George cried), Buddy who sometimes gave him the Indian Rope Burn so hard that little drops of blood would appear on George's forearm, sitting on top of the pores like dew on blades of grass at dawn, Buddy who had listened so sympathetically when George had one night whispered in the dark of their bedroom that he liked Heather MacArdle and who the next morning ran across the schoolyard screaming GEORGE AND HEATHER UP IN A TREE, KAY-EYE-ESS-ESS-EYE-EN-GEE! FIRSE COMES LOVE AN THEN COMES MARRITCH! HERE COMES HEATHER WITH A BABY CARRITCH! like a runaway fire engine. Broken legs did not keep older brothers like Buddy down for long, but George was rather looking forward to the quiet as long as this one did. Let's see you give me the Spoon Torture of the Heathen Chinee with your leg in a cast, Buddy. Sure, kid -- EVERY day.
The Dodge backed out of the driveway and paused while his mother looked both ways, although nothing would be coming; nothing ever was. His mother would have a two-mile ride over washboards and ruts before she even got to tar, and it was nineteen miles to Lewiston after that.
She backed all the way out and drove away. For a moment dust hung in the bright October afternoon air, and then it began to settle.
He was alone in the house.
Hey! Negative perspiration! Just lay chilly, right?
"Right," George said in a low voice, and walked across the small, sunwashed kitchen. He was a towheaded, good-looking boy with a spray of freckles across his nose and cheeks and a look of good humor in his darkish gray eyes.
Buddy's accident had occurred while he had been playing in the Pony League championship game this October 5th. George's Pee Wee League team, the Tigers, had been knocked out of their tournament on the first day, two Saturdays ago (What a bunch of babies! Buddy had exulted as George walked tearfully off the field. What a bunch of PUSSIES!)... and now Buddy had broken his leg. If Mom wasn't so worried and scared, George would have been almost happy.
There was a phone on the wall, and next to it was a note-minder board with a grease pencil hanging beside it. In the upper corner of the board was a cheerful country Gramma, her cheeks rosy, her white hair done up in a bun; a cartoon Gramma who was pointing at the board. There was a comic-strip balloon coming out of the cheerful country Gramma's mouth and she was saying, "REMEMBER THIS, SONNY!" Written on the board in his mother's sprawling hand was Dr. Arlinder, 681-4330. Mom hadn't written the number there just today, because she had to go to Buddy; it had been there almost three weeks now, because Gramma was having her "bad spells" again.
George picked up the phone and listened.
" -- so I told her, I said, 'Mabel, if he treats you like that -- ' "
He put it down again. Henrietta Dodd. Henrietta was always on the phone, and if it was in the afternoon you could always hear the soap opera stories going on in the background. One night after she had a glass of wine with Gramma (since she started having the "bad spells" again, Dr. Arlinder said Gramma couldn't have the wine with her supper, so Mom didn't either -- George was sorry, because the wine made Mom sort of giggly and she would tell stories about her girlhood), Morn had said that every time Henrietta Dodd opened her mouth, all her guts fell out. Buddy and George laughed wildly, and Mom put a hand to her mouth and said Don't you EVER tell anyone I said that, and then she began to laugh too, all three of them sitting at the supper table laughing, and at last the racket had awakened Gramma, who slept more and more, and she began to cry Ruth! Ruth! ROO-OOOTH! in that high, querulous voice of hers, and Mom had stopped laughing and went into her ro
Today Henrietta Dodd could talk all she wanted, as far as George was concerned. He just wanted to make sure the phone was working. Two weeks ago there had been a bad storm, and since then it went out sometimes.
He found himself looking at the cheery cartoon Gramma again, and wondered what it would be like to have a Gramma like that. His Gramma was huge and fat and blind; the hypertension had made her senile as well. Sometimes, when She had her "bad spells," she would (as Mom put it) "act out the Tartar," calling for people who weren't there, holding conversations with total emptiness, mumbling strange words that made no sense. On one occasion when she was doing this last, Mom had turned white and had gone in and told her to shut up, shut up, shut up! George remembered that occasion very well, not only because it was the only time Mom had ever actually yelled at Gramma, but because it was the next day that someone discovered that the Birches cemetery out on the Maple Sugar Road had been vandalized -- gravestones knocked over, the old nineteenth-century gates pulled down, and one or two of the graves actually dug up -- or something. Desecrated was the word Mr. Burdon, the principal, had used the next day when he convened all eight grades for Assembly and lectured the whole school on Malicious Mischief and how some things Just Weren't Funny. Going home that night, George had asked Buddy what desecrated meant, and Buddy said it meant digging up graves and pissing on the coffins, but George didn't believe that... unless it was late. And dark.
Gramma was noisy when she had her "bad spells," but mostly she just lay in the bed she had taken to three years before, a fat slug wearing rubber pants and diapers under her flannel nightgown, her face runneled with cracks and wrinkles, her eyes empty and blind -- faded blue irises floating atop yellowed corneas.
At first Gramma hadn't been totally blind. But she had been going blind, and she had to have a person at each elbow to help her totter from her white vinyl egg-and-baby-powder-smelling chair to her bed or the bathroom. In those days, five years ago, Gramma had weighed well over two hundred pounds.
She had held out her arms and Buddy, then eight, had gone to her. George had hung back. And cried.
But I'm not scared now, he told himself, moving across the kitchen, in his Keds. Not a bit. She's just an old lady who has "bad spells" sometimes.
He filled the teakettle with water and put it on a cold burner. He got a teacup and put one of Gramma's special herb tea bags into it. In case she should wake up and want a cup. He hoped like mad that she wouldn't, because then he would have to crank up the hospital bed and sit next to her and give her the tea a sip at a time, watching the toothless mouth fold itself over the rim of the cup, and listen to the slurping sounds as she took the tea into her dank, dying guts. Sometimes she slipped sideways on the bed and you had to pull her back over and her flesh was soft, kind ofjiggly, as if it was filled with hot water, and her blind eyes would look at you...
George licked his lips and walked toward the kitchen table again. His last cookie and half a glass of Quik still stood there, but he didn't want them anymore. He looked at his schoolbooks, covered with Castle Rock Cougars bookcovers, without enthusiasm.
He ought to go in and check on her.
He didn't want to.
He swallowed and his throat still felt as if it was lined with mitten wool.
I'm not afraid of Gramma, he thought. If she held out her arms I'd go right to her and let her hug me because she's just an old lady. She's senile and that's why she has "bad spells." That's all. Let her hug me and not cry. Just like Buddy.
He crossed the short entryway to Gramma's room, face set as if for bad medicine, lips pressed together so tightly they were white. He looked in, and there lay Gramma, her yellow-white hair spread around her in a corona, sleeping, her toothless mouth hung open, chest rising under the coverlet so slowly you almost couldn't see it, so slowly that you had to look at her for a while just to make sure she wasn't dead.
Oh God, what if she dies on me while Mom's up to the hospital?
She won't. She won't.
Yeah, but what if she does?
She won't, so stop being a pussy.
One of Gramma's yellow, melted-looking hands moved slowly on the coverlet: her long nails dragged across the sheet and made a minute scratching sound. George drew back quickly, his heart pounding.
Cool as a moose, numbhead, see? Laying chilly.
He went back into the kitchen to see if his mother had been gone only an hour, or perhaps an hour and a half -- if the latter, he could start reasonably waiting for her to come back. He looked at the clock and was astounded to see that not even twenty minutes had passed. Mom wouldn't even be into the city yet, let alone on her way back out of it! He stood still, listening to the silence. Faintly, he could hear the hum of the refrigerator and the electric clock. The snuffle of the afternoon breeze around the corners of the little house. And then -- at the very edge of audibility -- the faint, rasping susurrus of skin over cloth... Gramma's wrinkled, tallowy hand moving on the coverlet.
He prayed in a single gust of mental breath:
PleaseGoddon' tletherwakeupuntilMomcomeshomeforJesus' -sakeAmen.
He sat down and finished his cookie, drank his Quik. He thought of turning on the TV and watching something, but he was afraid the sound would wake up Gramma and that high, querulous, not-to-be-denied voice would begin calling Roo-OOTH! RUTH! BRING ME M'TEA! TEA! ROOO-OOOOOTH!
He slicked his dry tongue over his drier lips and told himself not to be such a pussy. She was an old lady stuck in bed, it wasn't as if she could get up and hurt him, and she was eighty-three years old, she wasn't going to die this afternoon.
George walked over and picked up the phone again.
" -- that same day! And she even knew he was married! Gorry, I hate these cheap little corner-walkers that think they're so smart! So at Grange I said -- "
George guessed that Henrietta was on the phone with Cora Simard. Henrietta hung on the phone most afternoons from one until six with first Ryan's Hope and then One Life to Live and then All My Children and then A* the World Turns and then Search for Tomorrow and then God knew what other ones playing in the background, and Cora Simard was one of her most faithful telephone correspondents, and a lot of what they talked about was 1) who was going to be having a Tupperware party or an Amway party and what the refreshments were apt to be, 2) cheap little corner-walkers, and 3) what they had said to various people at 3-a) the Grange, 3-b) the monthly chufch fair, or 3-c) K of P Hall Beano.
" -- that if I ever saw her up that way again, I guess I could be a good citizen and call -- "
He put the phone back in its cradle. He and Buddy made fun of Cora when they went past her house just like all the other kids -- she was fat and sloppy and gossipy and they would chant, Cora-Cora from Bora-Bora, ate a dog turd and wanted more-a! and Mom would have killed them both if she had known that, but now George was glad she and Henrietta Dodd were on the phone. They could talk all afternoon, for all George cared. He didn't mind Cora, anyway. Once he had fallen down in front of her house and scraped his knee -- Buddy had been chasing him -- and Cora had put a Band-Aid on the scrape and gave them each a cookie, talking all the time. George had felt ashamed for all the times he had said the rhyme about the dog turd and the rest of it.
George crossed to the sideboard and took down his reading book. He held it for a moment, then put it back. He had read all the stories in it already, although school had only been going a month. He read better than Buddy, although Buddy was better at sports. Won't be better for a while, he thought with momentary good cheer, not with a broken leg.
He took down his history book, sat down at the kitchen table, and began to read about how Cornwallis had surrendered up his sword at Yorktown. His thoughts wouldn't stay on it. He got up, went through the entryway again. The yellow hand was still. Gramma slept, her face a gray, sagging circle against the pillow, a dying sun surrounded by the wild yellowish-white corona of her hair. To George she didn't look anything like people who were old and getting ready to
die were supposed to look. She didn't look peaceful, like a sunset. She looked crazy, and...
... yes, okay, and dangerous -- like an ancient she-bear that might have one more good swipe left in her claws.
George remembered well enough how they had come to Castle Rock to take care of Gramma when Granpa died. Until then Mom had been working in the Stratford Laundry in Stratford, Connecticut. Granpa was three or four years younger than Gramma, a carpenter by trade, and he had worked right up until the day of his death. It had been a heart attack.
Even then Gramma had been getting senile, having her "bad spells." She had always been a trial to her family, Gramma had. She was a volcanic woman who had taught school for fifteen years, between having babies and getting in fights with the Congregational Church she and Granpa and their nine children went to. Mom said that Granpa and Gramma quit the Congregational Church in Scarborough at the same time Gramma decided to quit teaching, but once, about a year ago, when Aunt Flo was up for a visit from her home in Salt Lake City, George and Buddy, listening at the register as Mom and her sister sat up late, talking, heard quite a different story. Granpa and Gramma had been kicked out of the church and Gramma had been fired off her job because she did something wrong. It was something about books. Why or how someone could get fired from their job and kicked out of the church just because of books, George didn't understand, and when he and Buddy crawled back into their twin beds under the eave, George asked.
There's all kinds of books, Senor El-Stupido, Buddy whispered.
Yeah, but what kind?
How should I know? Go to sleep!
Silence. George thought it through.
What! An irritated hiss.
Why did Mom tell us Gramma quit the church and her job?
Because it's a skeleton in the closet, that's why! Now go to sleep!
But he hadn't gone to sleep, not for a long time. His eyes kept straying to the closet door, dimly outlined in moonlight, and he kept wondering what he would do if the door swung open, revealing a skeleton inside, all grinning tombstone teeth and cistern eye sockets and parrot-cage ribs; white moonlight skating delirious and almost blue on whiter bone. Would he scream? What had Buddy meant, a skeleton in the closet? What did skeletons have to do with books? At last he had slipped into sleep without even knowing it and had dreamed he was six again, and Gramma was holding out her arms, her blind eyes searching for him; Gramma's reedy, querulous voice was saying, Where's the little one, Ruth? Why's he crying? I only want to put him in the closet... with the skeleton.