Sometimes They Come BackStephen King
SOMETIMES THEY COME BACK
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
'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
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
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
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
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?
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
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