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Four Past Midnight - 3 - Secret Window, Secret Garden

Stephen King


  A note on 'Secret Window, Secret Garden'

  I'm one of those people who believe that life is a series of cycles - wheels within wheels, some meshing with others, some spinning alone, but all of them performing some finite, repeating function. I like that abstract image of life as something like an efficient factory machine, probably because actual life, up close and personal, seems so messy and strange. It's nice to be able to pull away every once in awhile and say, 'There's a pattern there after all! I'm not sure what it means, but by God, I see it!'

  All of these wheels seem to finish their cycles at roughly the same time, and when they do - about every twenty years would be my guess - we go through a time when we end things. Psychologists have even lifted a parliamentary term to describe this phenomenon - they call it cloture.

  I'm forty-two now, and as I look back over the last four years of my life I can see all sorts of cloture. It's as apparent in my work as anywhere else. In It, I took an outrageous amount of space to finish talking about children and the wide perceptions which light their interior lives. Next year I intend to publish the last Castle Rock novel, Needful Things (the last story in this volume, 'The Sun Dog,' forms a prologue to that novel). And this story is, I think, the last story about writers and writing and the strange no man's land which exists between what's real and what's make-believe. I believe a good many of my long-time readers, who have borne my fascination with this subject patiently, will be glad to hear that.

  A few years ago I published a novel called Misery which tried, at least in part, to illustrate the powerful hold fiction can achieve over the reader. Last year I published a book called The Dark Half where I tried to explore the converse: the powerful hold fiction can achieve over the writer. While that book was between drafts, I started to think that there might be a way to tell both stories at the same time by approaching some of the plot elements of The Dark Half from a totally different angle. Writing, it seems to me, is a secret act - as secret as dreaming - and that was one aspect of this strange and dangerous craft I had never thought about much.

  I knew that writers have from time to time revised old works - John Fowles did it with The Magus, and I have done it myself with The Stand - but revision was not what I had in mind. What I wanted to do was to take familiar elements and put them together in an entirely new way. This I had tried to do at least once before, restructuring and updating the basic elements of Bram Stoker's Dracula to create 'Salem's Lot, and I was fairly comfortable with the idea.

  One day in the late fall of 1987, while these things were tumbling around in my head, I stopped in the laundry room of our house to drop a dirty shirt into the washing machine. Our laundry room is a small, narrow alcove on the second floor. I disposed of the shirt and then stepped over to one of the room's two windows. It was casual curiosity, no more. We've been living in the same house for eleven or twelve years now, but I had never taken a good hard look out this particular window before. The reason is perfectly simple; set at floor level, mostly hidden behind the drier, half blocked by baskets of mending, it's a hard window to look out of.

  I squeezed in, nevertheless, and looked out. That window looks down on a little brick-paved alcove between the house and the attached sunporch. It's an area I see just about every day ... but the angle was new. My wife had set half a dozen pots out there, so the plants could take a little of the early-November sun, I suppose, and the result was a charming little garden which only I could see. The phrase which occurred to me was, of course, the title of this story. It seemed to me as good a metaphor as any for what writers - especially writers of fantasy - do with their days and nights. Sitting down at the typewriter or picking up a pencil is a physical act; the spiritual analogue is looking out of an almost forgotten window... a window which offers a common view from an entirely different angle ... an angle which renders the common extraordinary. The writer's job is to gaze through that window and report on what he sees.

  But sometimes windows break. I think that, more than anything else, is the concern of this story: what happens to the wide-eyed observer when the window between reality and unreality breaks and the glass begins to fly?

  'You stole my story,' the man on the doorstep said. 'You stole my story and something's got to be done about it. Right is right and fair is fair and something has to be done.'

  Morton Rainey, who had just gotten up from a nap and who was still feeling only halfway into the real world, didn't have the slightest idea what to say. This was never the case when he was at work, sick or well, wide awake or half asleep; he was a writer, and hardly ever at a loss when it became necessary to fill a character's mouth with a snappy comeback. Rainey opened his mouth, found no snappy comeback there (not even a limp one, in fact), and so closed it again.

  He thought: This man doesn't look exactly real. He looks like a character out of a novel by William Faulkner.

  This was of no help in resolving the situation, but it was undeniably true. The man who had rung Rainey's doorbell out here in the western Maine version of nowhere looked about forty-five. He was very thin. His face was calm, almost serene, but carved with deep lines. They moved horizontally across his high brow in regular waves, cut vertically downward from the ends of his thin lips to his jawline, and radiated outward in tiny sprays from the corners of his eyes. The eyes were bright, unfaded blue. Rainey couldn't tell what color his hair was; he wore a large black hat with a round crown planted squarely on his head. The underside of the brim touched the tops of his ears. It looked like the sort of hat Quakers wore. He had no sideburns, either, and for all Morton Rainey knew, he might be as bald as Telly Savalas under that round-crowned felt hat.

  He was wearing a blue work-shirt. It was buttoned neatly all the way to the loose, razor-reddened flesh of his neck, although he wore no tie. The bottom of the shirt disappeared into a pair of blue-jeans that looked a little too big for the man who was wearing them. They ended in cuffs which lay neatly on a pair of faded yellow work-shoes which looked made for walking in a furrow of played-out earth about three and a half feet behind a mule's ass.

  'Well?' he asked when Rainey continued to say nothing.

  'I don't know you,' Rainey said finally. It was the first thing he'd said since he'd gotten up off the couch and come to answer the door, and it sounded sublimely stupid in his own cars.

  'I know that,' said the man. 'That doesn't matter. I know you, Mr Rainey. That's what matters.' And then he reiterated: 'You stole my story.'

  He held out his hand, and for the first time Rainey saw that he had something in it. It was a sheaf of paper. But not just any old sheaf of paper; it was a manuscript. After you've been in the business awhile, he thought, you always recognized the look of a manuscript. Especially an unsolicited one.

  And. belatedly, he thought: Good thing for you it wasn't a gun, Mort old kid. You would have been in hell before you knew you were dead.

  And even more belatedly, he realized that he was probably dealing with one of the Crazy Folks. It was long overdue, of course; although his last three books had been best-sellers, this was his first visit from one of that fabled tribe. He felt a mixture of fear and chagrin, and his thoughts narrowed to a single point: how to get rid of the guy as fast as possible, and with as little unpleasantness as possible.

  'I don't read manuscripts - ' he began.

  'You read this one already,' the man with the hard-working sharecropper's face said evenly. 'You stole it.' He spoke as if stating a simple fact. like a man noting that the sun was out and it was a pleasant fall day.

  All of Mort's thoughts were belated this afternoon,
it seemed; he now realized for the first time how alone he was out here. He had come to the house in Tashmore Glen in early October, after two miserable months in New York; his divorce had become final just last week.

  It was a big house, but it was a summer place, and Tashmore Glen was a summer town. There were maybe twenty cottages on this particular road running along the north bay of Tashmore Lake, and in July or August there would be people staying in most or all of them . . . but this wasn't July or August. It was late October. The sound of a gunshot, he realized, would probably drift away unheard. If it was heard, the hearers would simply assume someone was shooting at quail or pheasant - it was the season.

  'I can assure you - '

  'I know you can.' the man in the black hat said with that same unearthly patience. 'I know that.'

  Behind him, Mort could see the car the man had come in. It was an old station wagon which looked as if it had seen a great many miles, very few of them on good roads. He could see that the plate on it wasn't from the State of Maine, but couldn't tell what state it was from; he'd known for some time now that he needed to go to the optometrist and have his glasses changed, had even planned early last summer to do that little chore, but then Henry Young had called him one day in April, asking who the fellow was he'd seen Amy with at the mall - some relative, maybe? - and the suspicions which had culminated in the eerily quick and quiet no-fault divorce had begun, the shitstorm which had taken up all his time and energy these last few months. During that time he had been doing well if he remembered to change his underwear, let alone handle more esoteric things like optometrist appointments.

  'If you want to talk to someone about some grievance you feel you have,' Mort began uncertainly, hating the pompous, talking-boilerplate sound of his own voice but not knowing how else to reply, 'you could talk to my ag -'

  'This is between you and me,' the man on the doorstep said patiently. Bump, Mort's tomcat, had been curled up on the low cabinet built into the side of the house - you had to store your garbage in a closed compartment or the racoons came in the night and pulled it all over hell - and now he jumped down and twined his way sinuously between the stranger's legs. The stranger's bright-blue eyes never left Rainey's face. 'We don't need any outsiders, Mr Rainey. It is strictly between you and me.'

  'I don't like being accused of plagiarism, if that's what you're doing,' Mort said. At the same time, part of his mind was cautioning him that you had to be very careful when dealing with people of the Crazy Folks tribe. Humor them? Yes. But this man didn't seem to have a gun, and Mort outweighed him by at least fifty pounds. I've also got five or ten years on him, by the look, he thought. He had read that a bonafide Crazy Guy could muster abnormal strength, but he was damned if he was simply going to stand here and let this man he had never seen before go on saying that he, Morton Rainey, had stolen his story. Not without some kind of rebuttal.

  'I don't blame you for not liking it,' the man in the black hat said. He spoke in the same patient and serene way. He spoke, Mort thought, like a therapist whose work is teaching small children who are retarded in some mild way. 'But you did it. You stole my story.'

  'You'll have to leave,' Mort said. He was fully awake now, and he no longer felt so bewildered, at such a disadvantage. 'I have nothing to say to you.'

  'Yes, I'll go,' the man said. 'We'll talk more later.' He held out the sheaf of manuscript, and Mort actually found himself reaching for it. He put his hand back down to his side just before his uninvited and unwanted guest could slip the manuscript into it, like a process server finally slipping a subpoena to a man who has been ducking it for months.

  'I'm not taking that,' Mort said, and part of him was marvelling at what a really accommodating beast a man was: when someone held something out to you, your first instinct was to take it. No matter if it was a check for a thousand dollars or a stick of dynamite with a lit and fizzing fuse, your first instinct was to take it.

  'Won't do you any good to play games with me, Mr Rainey,' the man said mildly. 'This has got to be settled.'

  'So far as I'm concerned, it is,' Mort said, and closed the door on that lined, used, and somehow timeless face.

  He had only felt a moment or two of fear, and those had come when he first realized, in a disoriented and sleep-befogged way, what this man was saying. Then it had been swallowed by anger - anger at being bothered during his nap, and more anger at the realization that he was being bothered by a representative of the Crazy Folks.

  Once the door was closed, the fear returned. He pressed his lips together and waited for the man to start pounding on it. And when that didn't come, he became convinced that the man was just standing out there, still as a stone and as patient as same, waiting for him to reopen the door ... as he would have to do, sooner or later.

  Then he heard a low thump, followed by a series of light steps crossing the board porch. Mort walked into the master bedroom, which looked out on the driveway. There were two big windows in here, one giving on the driveway and the shoulder of hill behind it, the other providing a view of the slope which fell away to the blue and agreeable expanse of Tashmore Lake. Both windows were reflectorized, which meant he could look out but anyone trying to look in would see only his own distorted image, unless he put his nose to the glass and cupped his eyes against the glare.

  He saw the man in the work-shirt and cuffed blue-jeans walking back to his old station wagon. From this angle, he could make out the license plate's state of issue - Mississippi. As the man opened the driver's-side door, Mort thought: Oh shit. The gun's in the car. He didn't have it on him because he believed he could reason with me ... whatever his idea of 'reasoning' is. But now he's going to get it and come back. It's probably in the glove compartment or under the seat

  But the man got in behind the wheel, pausing only long enough to take off his black hat and toss it down beside him. As he slammed the door and started the engine, Mort thought, There's something different about him now. But it wasn't until his unwanted afternoon visitor had backed up the driveway and out of sight behind the thick screen of bushes Mort kept forgetting to trim that he realized what it was.

  When the man got into his car, he had no longer been holding the manuscript.


  It was on the back porch. There was a rock on it to keep the individual pages from blowing all over the little dooryard in the light breeze. The small thump he'd heard had been the man putting the rock on the manuscript.

  Mort stood in the doorway, hands in the pockets of his khaki pants, looking at it. He knew that craziness wasn't catching (except maybe in cases of prolonged exposure, he supposed), but he still didn't want to touch the goddam thing. He supposed he would have to, though. He didn't know just how long he would be here - a day, a week, a month, and a year all looked equally possible at this point - but he couldn't just let the fucking thing sit there. Greg Carstairs, his caretaker, would be down early this afternoon to give him an estimate on how much it would cost to reshingle the house, for one thing, and Greg would wonder what it was. Worse, he would probably assume it was Mort's, and that would entail more explanations than the damned thing was worth.

  He stood there until the sound of his visitor's engine had merged into the low, slow hum of the afternoon, and then he went out on the porch, walking carefully in his bare feet (the porch had needed painting for at least a year now, and the dry wood was prickly with potential splinters), and tossed the rock into the juniper-choked gully to the left of the porch. He picked up the little sheaf of pages and looked down at it. The top one was a title page. It read:


  By John Shooter

  Mort felt a moment's relief in spite of himself. He had never heard of John Shooter, and he had never read or written a short story called 'Secret Window, Secret Garden' in his life.

  He tossed the manuscript in the kitchen wastebasket on his way by, went back to the couch in the living room, lay down again, and was asleep in five minutes.
/>   He dreamed of Amy. He slept a great lot and he dreamed of Amy a great lot these days, and waking up to the sound of his own hoarse shouts no longer surprised him much. He supposed it would pass.


  The next morning he was sitting in front of his word processor in the small nook off the living room which had always served as his study when they were down here. The word processor was on, but Mort was looking out the window at the lake. Two motor-boats were out there, cutting broad white wakes in the blue water. He had thought they were fishermen at first, but they never slowed down - just cut back and forth across each other's bows in big loops. Kids, he decided. Just kids playing games.

  They weren't doing anything very interesting, but then, neither was he. He hadn't written anything worth a damn since he had left Amy. He sat in front of the word processor every day from nine to eleven, just as he had every day for the last three years (and for about a thousand years before that he had spent those two hours sitting in front of an old Royal office model), but for all the good he was doing with it, he might as well have traded it in on a motor-boat and gone out grab-assing with the kids on the lake.

  Today, he had written the following lines of deathless prose during his two-hour stint:

  Four days after George had confirmed to his own satisfaction that his wife was cheating on him, he confronted her. 'I have to talk to you, Abby,' he said.

  It was no good.

  It was too close to real life to be good.

  He had never been so hot when it came to real life. Maybe that was part of the problem.

  He turned off the word processor, realizing just a second after he'd flicked the switch that he'd forgotten to save the document. Well, that was all right. Maybe it had even been the critic in his subconscious, telling him the document wasn't worth saving.

  Mrs Gavin had apparently finished upstairs; the drone of the Electrolux had finally ceased. She came in every Tuesday to clean, and she had been shocked into a silence very unlike her when Mort had told her two Tuesdays ago that he and Amy were quits. He suspected that she had liked Amy a good deal more than she had liked him. But she was still coming, and Mort supposed that was something.