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Sometimes They Come Back

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


  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


  '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


  '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


  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


  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 i
n 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


  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


  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 usually 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