Rainy Season nad-13Stephen King
( Nightmares and Dreamscapes - 13 )
It was half past five in the afternoon by the time John and Elise Graham finally found their way into the little village that lay at the center of Willow, Maine, like a fleck of grit at the center of some dubious pearl. The village was less than five miles from the Hempstead Place, but they took two wrong turns on the way. When they finally arrived on Main Street, both of them were hot and out of sorts. The Ford’s air-conditioner had dropped dead on the trip from St. Louis, and it felt about a hundred and ten outside. Of course it wasn’t anything at all like that, John Graham thought. As the old-timers said, it wasn’t the heat, it was the humidity. He felt that today it would be almost possible to reach out and wring warm dribbles of water from the air itself. The sky overhead was a clear and open blue, but that high humidity made it feel as if it were going to rain any minute. Fuck that – it felt as if it were raining already.
‘There’s the market Milly Cousins told us about,’ Elise said, and pointed.
John grunted. ‘Doesn’t exactly look like the supermarket of the future.’
‘No,’ Elise agreed carefully. They were both being careful. They had been married almost two years and they still loved each other very much, but it had been a long trip across country from St. Louis, especially in a car with a broken radio and air-conditioner. John had every hope they would enjoy the summer here in Willow (they ought to, with the University of Missouri picking up the tab), but he thought it might take as long as a week for them to settle in and settle down.
And when the weather turned yellow-dog hot like this, an argument could spin itself out of thin air. Neither of them wanted that kind of start to their summer.
John drove slowly down Main Street toward the Willow General Mercantile and Hardware.
There was a rusty sign with a blue eagle on it hanging from one corner of the porch, and he understood this was also the postal substation. The General Mercantile looked sleepy in the afternoon light, with one single car, a beat-to-shit Volvo, parked beside the sign advertising ITALIAN SANDWICHES PIZZA GROCS FISHING LICENCES, but compared with the rest of the town, it seemed to be all but bursting with life. There was a neon beer sign fizzing away in the window, although it would not be dark for almost three hours yet. Pretty radical, John thought. Sure hope the owner cleared that sign with the Board of Selectmen before he put it in.
‘I thought Maine turned into Vacationland in the summer,’ Elise murmured.
‘Judging from what we’ve seen so far, I think Willow must be a little off the tourist track,’ he replied.
They got out of the car and mounted the porch steps. An elderly man in a straw hat sat in a rocker with a cane seat, looking at them from shrewd little blue eyes. He was fiddling a home-made cigarette together and dribbling little bits of tobacco on the dog which lay crashed out at his feet. It was a big yellow dog of no particular make or model. Its paws lay directly beneath one of the rocker’s curved runners. The old man took no notice of the dog, seemed not even to realize it was there, but the runner stopped a quarter of an inch from the vulnerable paws each time the old man rocked forward. Elise found this unaccountably fascinating.
‘Good day to ye, lady n man,’ the old gentleman said. ’Hello,’ Elise answered, and offered him a small, tentative smile.
‘Hi,’ John said. ‘I’m…’
‘Mr. Graham,’ the old man finished placidly. ‘Mr. and Missus Graham. Ones that took the Hempstead Place for the summer. Heard you was writin some kind of book.’
‘On the in-migration of the French during the seventeenth century,’ John agreed. ‘Word sure gets around, doesn’t it?’
‘It do travel,’ the old party agreed. ‘Small town, don’tcha know.’ He stuck the cigarette in his mouth, where it promptly fell apart, sprinkling tobacco all over his legs and the dog’s limp hide. The dog didn’t stir. ‘Aw, flapdoodle,’ the old man said, and peeled the uncoiling paper from his lower lip. ‘Wife doesn’t want me to smoke nummore anyway. She says she read it’s givin her cancer as well as m’ownself.’
‘We came into town to get a few supplies,’ Elise said. ‘It’s a wonderful old house, but the cupboard is bare.’
‘Ayuh,’ the old man said. ‘Good to meet you folks. I’m Henry Eden.’ He hung one bunched hand out in their direction. John shook with him, and Elise followed suit. They both did so with care, and the old man nodded as if to say he appreciated it. ‘I expected you half an hour ago. Must have taken a wrong turn or two, I guess. Got a lot of roads for such a small town, you know.’ He laughed. It was a hollow, bronchial sound that turned into a phlegmy smoker’s cough. ‘Got a power of roads in Willow, oh, ayuh!’ And laughed some more.
John was frowning a little. ‘Why would you be expecting us?’
‘Lucy Doucette called, said she saw the new folks go by,’ Eden said. He took out his pouch of Top tobacco, opened it, reached inside, and fished out a packet of rolling papers. ‘You don’t know Lucy, but she says you know her grandniece, Missus.’
‘This is Milly Cousins’s great-aunt we’re talking about?’ Elise asked.
‘Yessum,’ Eden agreed. He began to sprinkle tobacco. Some of it landed on the cigarette paper, but most went onto the dog below. Just as John Graham was beginning to wonder if maybe the dog was dead, it lifted its tail and farted. So much for that idea, he thought. ‘In Willow, just about everybody’s related to everybody else. Lucy lives down at the foot of the hill. I was gonna call you m’self, but since she said you was comin in anyway… ‘ ‘How did you know we’d be coming here?’ John asked.
Henry Eden shrugged, as if to say Where else is there to go?
‘Did you want to talk to us?’ Elise asked.
‘Well, I kinda have to,’ Eden said. He sealed his cigarette and stuck it in his mouth. John waited to see if it would fall apart, as the other one had. He felt mildly disoriented by all this, as if he had walked unknowingly into some bucolic version of the CIA.
The cigarette somehow held together. There was a charred scrap of sandpaper tacked to one of the arms of the rocker. Eden struck the match on it and applied the flame to his cigarette, half of which incinerated on contact.
‘I think you and Missus might want to spend tonight out of town,’ he finally said.
John blinked at him. ‘Out of town? Why would we want to do that? We just got here.’
‘Good idea, though, mister,’ a voice said from behind Eden.
The Grahams looked around and saw a tall woman with slumped shoulders standing inside the Mercantile’s rusty screen door. Her face looked out at them from just above an old tin sign advertising Chesterfield cigarettes – TWENTY-ONE GREAT TOBACCOS MAKE TWENTY WONDERFUL SMOKES. She opened the door and came out on the porch. Her face looked sallow and tired but not stupid. She had a loaf of bread in one hand and a six-pack of Dawson’s Ale in the other. ’I’m Laura Stanton,’ she said. ‘It’s very nice to meet you. We don’t like to seem unsociable in Willow, but it’s the rainy season here tonight.’
John and Elise exchanged bewildered glances. Elise looked at the sky. Except for a few small fair-weather clouds, it was a lucid, unblemished blue.
‘I know how it looks,’ the Stanton woman said, ‘but that doesn’t mean anything, does it, Henry?’
‘No’m,’ Eden said. He took one giant drag on his eroded cigarette and then pitched it over the porch rail.
‘You can feel the humidity in the air,’ the Stanton woman said. ‘That’s the key, isn’t it, Henry?’
‘Well,’ Eden allowed, ‘ayuh. But it is seven years. To the day.’
very day,’ Laura Stanton agreed.
They both looked expectantly at the Grahams.
‘Pardon me,’ Elise said at last. ‘I don’t understand any of this. Is it some sort of local joke?’ This time Henry Eden and Laura Stanton exchanged the glances, then sighed at exactly the same moment, as if on cue.
‘I hate this,’ Laura Stanton said, although whether to the old man or to herself John Graham had no idea.
‘Got to be done,’ Eden replied.
She nodded, and then sighed. It was the sigh of a woman who has set down a heavy burden and knows she must now pick it up again.
‘This doesn’t come up very often,’ she said, ‘because the rainy season only comes in Willow every seven years…’ ‘June seventeenth,’ Eden put in. ‘Rainy season every seven years on June seventeenth. Never changes, not even in leap-year. It’s only one night, but rainy season’s what it’s always been called. Damned if I know why. Do you know why, Laura?’
‘No,’ she said, ‘and I wish you’d stop interrupting, Henry. I think you’re getting senile.’
‘Well, pardon me for livin, I just fell off the hearse,’ the old man said, clearly nettled.
Elise threw John a glance that was a little frightened. Are these people having us on? it asked.
Or are they both crazy?
John didn’t know, but he wished heartily that they had gone to Augusta for their supplies; they could have gotten a quick supper at one of the clam-stands along Route 17.
‘Now listen,’ the Stanton woman said kindly. ‘We reserved a room for you at the Wonderview Motel out on the Woolwich Road, if you want it. The place was full, but the manager’s my cousin, and he was able to clear one room out for me. You could come back tomorrow and spend the rest of the summer with us. We’d be glad to have you.’
‘If this is a joke, I’m not getting the point,’ John said.
‘No, it’s not a joke,’ she said. She glanced at Eden, who gave her a brisk little nod, as if to say Go on, don’t quit now. The woman looked back at John and Elise, appeared to steel herself, and said, ‘You see, folks, it rains toads here in Willow every seven years. There. Now you know.’
‘Toads,’ Elise said in a distant, musing, Tell-me-I’m-dreaming-all-this voice.
‘Toads, ayuh!’ Henry Eden affirmed cheerfully.
John was looking cautiously around for help, if help should be needed. But Main Street was utterly deserted. Not only that, he saw, but shuttered. Not a car moved on the road. Not a single pedestrian was visible on either sidewalk. We could be in trouble here, he thought. If these people are as nutty as they sound, we could be in real trouble. He suddenly found himself thinking of Shirley Jackson’s short story ‘The Lottery’ for the first time since he’d read it in junior high school.
‘Don’t you get the idea that I’m standin here and soundin like a fool ‘cause I want to,’ Laura Stanton said. ‘Fact is, I’m just doin my duty. Henry, too. You see, it doesn’t just sprinkle toads. It pours.’
‘Come on,’ John said to Elise, taking her arm above the elbow. He gave them a smile that felt as genuine as a six-dollar bill. ‘Nice to meet you folks.’ He guided Elise down the porch steps, looking back over his shoulder at the old man and the slump-shouldered, pallid woman two or three times as he did. It didn’t seem like a good idea to turn his back on them completely. The woman took a step toward them, and John almost stumbled and fell off the last step.
‘It is a little hard to believe,’ she agreed. ‘You probably think I am just as nutty as a fruitcake.’ ‘Not at all,’ John said. The large, phony smile on his face now felt as if it were approaching the lobes of his ears. Dear Jesus, why had he ever left St. Louis? He had driven nearly fifteen hundred miles with a busted radio and air-conditioner to meet Farmer Jekyll and Missus Hyde. ‘That’s all right, though,’ Laura Stanton said, and the weird serenity in her face and voice made him stop by the ITALIAN SANDWICHES sign, still six feet from the Ford. ‘Even people who have heard of rains of frogs and toads and birds and such don’t have a very clear idea of what happens in Willow every seven years. Take a little advice, though: if you are going to stay, you’d be well off to stay in the house. You’ll most likely be all right in the house.’
‘Might want to close y’shutters, though,’ Eden added. The dog lifted his tail and articulated another long and groaning dog-fart, as if to emphasize the point.
‘We’ll… we’ll do that,’ Elise said faintly, and then John had the Ford’s passenger door open and was nearly shovelling her inside.
‘You bet,’ he said through his large frozen grin.
‘And come back and see us tomorrow,’ Eden called as John hurried around the front of the Ford to his side. ‘You’ll feel a mite safer around us tomorrow, I think.’ He paused, then added: ‘If you’re still around at all, accourse.’
John waved, got behind the wheel, and pulled out.
There was silence on the porch for a moment as the old man and the woman with the pale, unhealthy skin watched the Ford head back up Main Street. It left at a considerably higher speed than that at which it had come.
‘Well, we done it,’ the old man said contentedly.
‘Yes,’ she agreed, ‘and I feel like a horse’s ass. I always feel like a horse’s ass when I see the way they look at us. At me.’
‘Well,’ he said, ‘it’s only once every seven years. And it has to be done just that way. Because…’
‘Because it’s part of the ritual,’ she said glumly.
‘Ayuh. It’s the ritual.’
As if agreeing it was so, the dog flipped up his tail and farted once more.
The woman booted it and then turned to the old man with her hands clamped on her hips. ‘That is the stinkiest mutt in four towns, Henry Eden!’
The dog arose with a grunt and staggered down the porch stairs, pausing only long enough to favor Laura Stanton with a reproachful gaze.
‘He can’t help it,’ Eden said. She sighed, looking up the road after the Ford. ‘It’s too bad,’ she said. ‘They seem like such nice people.’
‘Nor can we help that,’ Henry Eden said, and began to roll another smoke.
So the Grahams ended up eating dinner at a clam-stand after all. They found one in the neighboring town of Woolwich (‘Home of the scenic Wonderview Motel,’ John pointed out to Elise in a vain effort to raise a smile) and sat at a picnic table under an old, overspreading blue spruce. The clam-stand was in sharp, almost jarring contrast to the buildings on Willow’s Main Street. The parking lot was nearly full (most of the cars, like theirs, had out-of-state licence plates), and yelling kids with ice cream on their faces chased after one another while their parents strolled about, slapped blackflies, and waited for their numbers to be announced over the loudspeaker. The stand had a fairly wide menu. In fact, John thought, you could have just about anything you wanted, as long as it wasn’t too big to fit in a deep-fat fryer.
‘I don’t know if I can spend two days in that town, let alone two months,’ Elise said. ‘The bloom is off the rose for this mother’s daughter, Johnny.’
‘It was a joke, that’s all. The kind the natives like to play on the tourists. They just went too far with it. They’re probably kicking themselves for that right now.’
‘They looked serious,’ she said. ‘How am I supposed to go back there and face that old man after that?’
‘I wouldn’t worry about it – judging from his cigarettes, he’s reached the stage of life where he’s meeting everyone for the first time. Even his oldest friends.’
Elise tried to control the twitching corners of her mouth, then gave up and burst out laughing.
‘Honest, maybe, but not evil. I won’t say he had Alzheimer’s, but he did look as if he might need a roadmap to find his way to the bathroom.’
‘Where do you suppose everyone else was? The town looked totally deserted.’
‘Bean supper at the Grange or a card-party at the Eastern Star, probably,’ Joh
n said, stretching.
He peeked into her clam basket. ‘You didn’t eat much, love.’
‘Love wasn’t very hungry.’
‘I tell you it was just a joke’ he said, taking her hands. ‘Lighten up.’
‘You’re really, really sure that’s all it was?’
‘Really-really. I mean, hey – every seven years it rains toads in Willow, Maine? It sounds like an outtake from a Steven Wright monologue.’
She smiled wanly. ‘It doesn’t rain,’ she said, ‘it pours.’
‘They subscribe to the old fisherman’s credo, I guess – if you’re going to tell one, tell a whopper. When I was a kid at sleep-away camp, it used to be snipe hunts. This really isn’t much different. And when you stop to think about it, it really isn’t that surprising.’
‘That people who make most of their yearly income dealing with summer people should develop a summer-camp mentality.’
‘That woman didn’t act like it was a joke. I’ll tell you the truth, Johnny – she sort of scared me.’
John Graham’s normally pleasant face grew stern and hard. The expression did not look at home on his face, but neither did it look faked or insincere.
‘I know,’ he said, picking up their wrappings and napkins and plastic baskets. ‘And there’s going to be an apology made for that. I find foolishness for the sake of foolishness agreeable enough, but when someone scares my wife – hell, they scared me a little, too – I draw the line. Ready to go back?’
‘Can you find it again?’
He grinned, and immediately looked more like himself. ‘I left a trail of breadcrumbs.’
‘How wise you are, my darling,’ she said, and got up. She was smiling again, and John was glad to see it. She drew a deep breath – it did wonders for the front of the blue chambray work-shirt she was wearing – and let it out. ‘The humidity seems to have dropped.’
‘Yeah.’ John deposited their waste into a trash basket with a left-handed hook shot and then winked at her. ‘So much for rainy season.’