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L.T.'S Theory Of Pets

Stephen King

  L.T.'S Theory Of Pets

  Stephen King


  by Stephen King.

  Jim Norman's wife had been waiting for him since two, and when she saw the car pull up in front of their apartment building, she came out to meet him. She had gone to the store and bought a celebration meal - a couple of steaks, a bottle of Lancer's, a head of lettuce, and Thousand Island dressing. Now, watching him get out of the car, she found herself hoping with some desperation (and not for the first time that day) that there was going to be something to celebrate.

  He came up the walk, holding his new briefcase in one hand and four texts in the other. She could see the title of the top one - Introduction to Grammar. She put her hands on his shoulder and asked, 'How did it go?’

  And he smiled.

  But that night, he had the old dream for the first time in a very long time and woke up sweating, with a scream behind his lips.

  His interview had been conducted by the principal of Harold Davis High School and the head of the English Department. The subject of his breakdown had come up.

  He had expected it would.

  The principal, a bald and cadaverous man named Fenton, had leaned back and looked at the ceiling. Simmons, the English head, lit his pipe.

  'I was under a great deal of pressure at the time,' Jim Norman said. His fingers wanted to twist about in his lap, but he wouldn't let them.

  'I think we understand that,' Fenton said, smiling. 'And while we have no desire to pry, I'm sure we'd all agree that teaching is a pressure occupation, especially at the high-school level. You're on-stage five periods out of seven, and you're playing to the toughest audience in the world. That's why,' he finished with some pride, 'teachers have more ulcers than any other professional group, with the exception of air-traffic controllers.’

  Jim said, 'The pressures involved in my breakdown were extreme.’

  Fenton and Simmons nodded noncommittal encouragement, and Simmons clicked his lighter open to rekindle his pipe. Suddenly the office seemed very tight, very close. Jim had the queer sensation that someone had just turned on a heat lamp over the back of his neck. His fingers were twisting in his lap, and he made them stop.

  'I was in my senior year and practice teaching. My mother had died the summer before - cancer - and in my last conversation with her, she asked me to go right on and finish. My brother, my older brother, died when we were both quite young.

  He had been planning to teach and she thought . .

  He could see from their eyes that he was wandering and thought: God, I'm making a botch of this.

  I did as she asked,' he said, leaving the tangled relation-ship of his mother and his brother Wayne - poor, murdered Wayne - and himself behind. 'During the second week of my intern teaching, my fiancee was involved in a hit-and-run accident. She was the hit part of it. Some kid in a hot rod. . . they never caught him.’

  Simmons made a soft noise of encouragement.

  'I went on. There didn't seem to be any other course. She was in a great deal of pain - a badly broken leg and four fractured ribs - but no danger. I don't think I really knew the pressure I was under.’

  Careful now. This is where the ground slopes away.

  'I interned at Center Street Vocational Trades High,' Jim said.

  'Garden spot of the city,' Fenton said. 'Switchblades, motorcycle boots, zip guns in the lockers, lunch-money protection rackets, and every third kid selling dope to the other two. I know about Trades.’

  'There was a kid named Mack Zimmerman,' Jim said. 'Sensitive boy. Played the guitar. I had him in a composition class and he had talent. I came in one morning and two boys were holding him while a third smashed his Yamaha guitar against the radiator. Zimmerman was screaming. I yelled for them to stop and give me the guitar. I started for them and someone slugged me.' Jim shrugged.

  'That was it. I had a breakdown. No screaming meemies or crouching in the corner. I just couldn't go back. When I got near Trades, my chest would tighten up. I couldn't breathe right, I got cold sweat -’

  'That happens to me, too,' Fenton said amiably.

  'I went into analysis. A community therapy deal. I couldn't afford a psychiatrist. It did me good. Sally and I are married. She has a slight limp and a scar, but otherwise, good as new.' He looked at them squarely. 'I guess you could say the same for me.’

  Fenton said, 'You actually finished your practice teaching requirement at Cortez High School, I believe.’

  'That's no bed of roses, either,' Simmons said.

  'I wanted a hard school,' Jim said. 'I swapped with another guy to get Cortez.’

  'A's from your supervisor and critic teacher,' Fenton commented.


  'And a four-year average of 3.88. Damn close to straight A's.’

  'I enjoyed my college work.’

  Fenton and Simmons glanced at each other, then stood up. Jim got up.

  'We'll be in touch, Mr Norman,' Fenton said. 'We do have a few more applicants to interview -'Yes, of course.’

  '- but speaking for myself, I'm impressed by your academic records and personal candour.’

  'It's nice of you to say so.’

  'Sim, perhaps Mr Norman would like a coffee before he goes.’

  They shook hands.

  In the hall, Simmons said, 'I think you've got the job if you want it. That's off the record, of course.’

  Jim nodded. He had left a lot off the record himself.

  Davis High was a forbidding rockpile that housed a remarkably modern plant - the science wing alone had been funded at 1.5 million in last year's budget. The classrooms, which still held the ghosts of the WPA workers who had built them and the postwar kids who had first used them, were furnished with modern desks and soft-glare blackboards. The students were clean, well dressed, vivacious, affluent. Six out of ten seniors owned their own cars. All in all a good school.

  A fine school to teach in during the Sickie Seventies. It made Center Street Vocational Trades look like darkest Africa.

  But after the kids were gone, something old and brooding seemed to settle over the halls and whisper in the empty rooms. Some black, noxious beast, never quite in view. Sometimes, as he walked down the Wing 4 corridor towards the parking lot with his new briefcase in one hand, Jim Norman thought he could almost hear it breathing.

  He had the dream again near the end of October, and that time he did scream. He clawed his way into waking reality to find Sally sitting up in bed beside him, holding his shoulder. His heart was thudding heavily.

  'God,' he said, and scrubbed a hand across his face. 'Are you all right?’

  'Sure. I yelled, didn't I?’

  'Boy, did you. Nightmare?’


  'Something from when those boys broke that fellow's guitar?’

  'No,' he said. 'Much older than that. Sometimes it comes back, that's all. No sweat.’

  'Are you sure?’


  'Do you want a glass of milk?' Her eyes were dark with concern.

  He kissed her shoulder. 'No. Go to sleep.’

  She turned off the light and he lay there, looking into the darkness.

  He had a good schedule for the new teacher on the staff. Period one was free.

  Two and three were freshman comp, one group dull, one kind of fun. Period four was his best class: American Lit with college-bound seniors who got a kick out of bashing the ole masters around for a period each day. Period five was a 'consultation period,' when he was supposed to see students with personal or academic problems. There were very few who seemed to have either (or who wanted to discuss them with him), and he spent most of those periods with a good novel.

  Period six was a
grammar course, dry as chalkdust.

  Period seven was his only cross. The class was called Living with Literature, and it was held in a small box of a classroom on the third floor. The room was hot in the early fall and cold as the winter approached. The class itself was an elective for what school catalogues coyly call 'the slow learner'.

  There were twenty-seven 'slow learners' in Jim's class, most of them school jocks. The kindest thing you could accuse them of would be disinterest, and some of them had a streak of outright malevolence. He walked in one day to find an obscene and cruelly accurate caricature of himself on the board, with 'Mr Norman' unnecessarily chalked under it. He wiped it off without comment and proceeded with the lesson in spite of the snickers.

  He worked up interesting lesson plans, included a/v materials, and ordered several high-interest, high-comprehension texts - all to no avail. The classroom mood veered between unruly hilarity and sullen silence. Early in November, a fight broke out between two boys during a discussion of Of Mice and Men. Jim broke it up and sent both boys to the office. When he opened his book to where he had left off, the words 'Bite It' glared up at him.

  He took the problem to Simmons, who shrugged and lit his pipe. 'I don't have any real solution, Jim. Last period is always a bitch. And for some of them, a D grade in your class means no more football or basketball. And they've had the other gut English courses, so they're stuck with it.’

  'And me, too,' Jim said glumly.

  Simmons nodded. 'Show them you mean business, and they'll buckle down, if only to keep their sports eligibility.’

  But period, seven remained a constant thorn in his side.

  One of the biggest problems in Living with Lit was a huge, slow-moving moose named Chip Osway. In early December, during the brief hiatus between football and basketball (Osway played both), Jim caught him with a crib sheet and ran him out of the classroom.

  'If you flunk me, we'll get you, you son of a bitch!' Osway yelled down the dim third-floor corridor. 'You hear me?’

  'Go on,' Jim said. 'Don't waste your breath.’

  'We'll get you, creepo!’

  Jim went back into the classroom. They looked up at him blandly, faces betraying nothing. He felt a surge of unreality, like the feeling that had washed over him before before .

  We'll get you creepo.

  He took his grade book out of his desk, opened it to the page titled 'Living with Literature', and carefully lettered an F in the exam slot next to Chip Osway's name.

  That night he had the dream again.

  The dream was always cruelly slow. There was time to see and feel everything.

  And there was the added horror of reliving events that were moving towards a known conclusion, as helpless as a man strapped into a car going over a cliff.

  In the dream he was nine and his brother Wayne was twelve. They were going down Broad Street in Stratford, Connecticut, bound for the Stratford Library. Jim's books were two days overdue, and he had hooked four cents from the cupboard bowl to pay the fine. It was summer vacation. You could smell the freshly cut grass.

  You could hear a ballgame floating out of some second-floor apartment window, Yankees leading the Red Sox six to nothing in the top of the eighth, Ted Williams batting, and you could see the shadows from the Burrets Building Company slowly lengthening across the street as the evening turned slowly towards dark.

  Beyond Teddy's Market and Burrets, there was a railroad overpass, and on the other side, a number of the local losers hung around a closed gas station - five or six boys in leather jackets and pegged jeans. Jim hated to go by them. They yelled out hey four-eyes and hey shit-heels and hey you got an extra quarter and once they chased them half a block. But Wayne would not take the long way around. That would be chicken.

  In the dream, the overpass loomed closer and closer, and you began to feel dread struggling in your throat like a big black bird. You saw everything: the Burrets neon sign, just starting to stutter on and off; the flakes of rust on the green overpass; the glitter of broken glass in the cinders of the railroad bed; a broken bike rim in the gutter.

  You try to tell Wayne you've been through this before, a hundred times. The local losers aren't hanging around the gas station this time; they're hidden in the shadows under the trestle. But it won't come out. You're helpless.

  Then you're underneath, and some of the shadows detach themselves from the walls and a tall kid with a blond crew cut and a broken nose pushes Wayne up against the sooty cinder-blocks and says: Give us some money.

  Let me alone.

  You try to run, but a fat guy with greasy black Hair grabs you and throws you against the wall next to your brother. His left eyelid is uttering up and down nervously and he says: Come on, kid, how much you got?

  F-four cents.

  You fuckin' liar.

  Wayne tries to twist free and a guy with odd, orange-coloured hair helps the blond one to hold him. The guy with the jittery eyelid suddenly bashes you one in the mouth. You feel a sudden heaviness in your groin, and a dark patch appears on your jeans.

  Look, Vinnie, he wet himself!

  Wayne's struggles become frenzied, and he almost - not - quite - gets free.

  Another guy, wearing black chinos and a white T-shirt, throws him back. There is a small strawberry birthmark on his chin. The stone throat of the overpass is beginning to tremble. The metal girders pick up a thrumming vibration. Train coming.

  Someone strikes the books out of your hands and the kid with the birthmark on his chin kicks them into the gutter. Wayne suddenly kicks out with his right foot, and it connects with the crotch of the kid with the jittery face. He screams.

  Vinnie, he's gettin' away!

  The kid with the jittery face is screaming about his nuts, but even his howls are lost in the gathering, shaking roar of the approaching train. Then it is over them, and its noise fills the world.

  Light flashes on switchblades. The kid with the blond crew cut is holding one and Birthmark has the other. You can't hear Wayne, but his words are in the shape of his lips:

  Run Jimmy Run.

  You slip to your knees and the hands holding you are gone and you skitter between a pair of legs like a frog. A hand slaps down on your back, groping for purchase, and gets none. Then you are running back the way you came, with all of the horrible sludgy slowness of dreams. You look back over your shoulder and see -He woke in the dark, Sally sleeping peacefully beside him. He bit back the scream, and when it was throttled, he fell back.

  When he had looked back, back into the yawning darkness of the overpass, he had seen the blond kid and the birthmarked kid drive their knives into his brother - Blondie's below the breast-bone, and Birthmark's directly into his brother's groin.

  He lay in the darkness, breathing harshly, waiting for that nine-year-old ghost to depart, waiting for honest sleep to blot it all away.

  An unknown time later, it did.

  The Christmas vacation and semester break were combined in the city's school district, and the holiday was almost a month long. The dream came twice, early on, and did not come again. He and Sally went to visit her sister in Vermont, and skied a great deal. They were happy.

  Jim's Living with Lit problem seemed inconsequential and a little foolish in the open, crystal air. He went back to school with a winter tan, feeling cool and collected.

  Simmons caught him on the way to his period-two class and handed him a folder.

  'New student, period seven. Name is Robert Lawson. Transfer.’

  'Hey, I've got twenty-seven in there right now, Sim. I'm overloaded.’

  'You've still got twenty-seven. Bill Stearns got killed the Tuesday after Christmas. Car accident. Hit-and-run.’


  The picture formed in his mind in black and white, like a senior photograph.

  William Stearns, Key Club 1, Football 1,2, Pen & Lance, 2. He had been one of the few good ones in Living with Lit. Quiet, consistent A's and B's on his exams. Didn't volunteer often, but u
sually summoned the correct answers (laced with a pleasing dry wit) when called on. Dead? Fifteen years old. His own mortality suddenly whispered through his bones like a cold draught under a door.

  'Christ, that's awful. Do they know what happened?’

  'Cops are checking into it. He was downtown exchanging a Christmas present.

  Started across Rampart Street and an old Ford sedan hit him. No one got the licence number, but the words "Snake Eyes" were written on the side door. the way a kid would do it.’

  'Christ,' Jim said again.

  'There's the bell,' Simmons said.

  He hurried away, pausing to break up a crowd of kids around a drinking fountain.

  Jim went towards his class, feeling empty.

  During his free period he flipped open Robert Lawson's folder. The first page was a green sheet from Milford High, which Jim had never heard of. The second was a student personality profile. Adjusted IQ of 78. Some manual skills, not many. Antisocial answers to the Barnett-Hudson personality test. Poor aptitude scores. Jim thought sourly that he was a Living with Lit kid all the way.

  The next page was a disciplinary history, the yellow sheet. The Milford sheet was white with a black border, and it was depressingly well filled. Lawson had been in a hundred kinds of trouble.

  He turned the next page, glanced down at a school photo of Robert Lawson, then looked again. Terror suddenly crept into the pit of his belly and coiled there, warm and hissing.

  Lawson was staring antagonistically into the camera, as if posing for a police mug shot rather than a school photographer. There was a small strawberry birthmark on his chin.

  By period seven, he had brought all the civilized rationalizations into play. He told himself there must be thousands of kids with red birthmarks on their chins.

  He told himself that the hood who had stabbed his brother that day sixteen long dead years ago would now be at least thirty-two.

  But, climbing to the third floor, the apprehension remained. And another fear to go with it: This is how you felt when you were cracking up. He tasted the bright steel of panic in his mouth.

  The usual group of kids was horsing around the door of Room 33, and some of them went in when they saw Jim coming. A few hung around, talking in undertones and grinning. He saw the new boy standing beside Chip Osway. Robert Lawson was wearing blue jeans and heavy yellow tractor boots - all the rage this year.