In the Tall GrassStephen King
In the Tall Grass
Stephen King, Joe Hill
In the Tall Grass
IN THE TALL GRASS
He wanted quiet for a while instead of the radio, so you could say what happened was his fault. She wanted fresh air instead of the AC for a while, so you could say it was hers. But since they never would have heard the kid without both of those things, you’d really have to say it was a combination, which made it perfect Cal-and-Becky, because they had run in tandem all their lives. Cal and Becky DeMuth, born nineteen months apart. Their parents called them the Irish Twins.
“Becky picks up the phone and Cal says hello,” Mr. DeMuth liked to say.
“Cal thinks party and Becky’s already written out the guest list,” Mrs. DeMuth liked to say.
Never a cross word between them, even when Becky, at the time a dorm-dwelling freshman, showed up at Cal’s off-campus apartment one day to announce she was pregnant. Cal took it well. Their folks? Not quite so sanguine.
The off-campus apartment was in Durham, because Cal chose UNH. When Becky (at that point unpregnant, if not necessarily a virgin) made the same college choice two years later, you could have cut the lack of surprise and spread it on bread.
“At least he won’t have to come home every damn weekend to hang out with her,” Mrs. DeMuth said.
“Maybe we’ll get some peace around here,” Mr. DeMuth said. “After twenty years, give or take, all that togetherness gets a little tiresome.”
Of course they didn’t do everything together, because Cal sure as hell wasn’t responsible for the bun in his sister’s oven. And it had been solely Becky’s idea to ask Uncle Jim and Aunt Anne if she could live with them for a while-just until the baby came. To the senior DeMuths, who were stunned and bemused by this turn of events, it seemed as reasonable a course as any. And when Cal suggested he also take the spring semester off so they could make the cross-country drive together, their folks didn’t put up much of a fuss. They even agreed that Cal could stay with Becky in San Diego until the baby was born. Calvin might be able to find a little job and chip in on expenses.
“Pregnant at nineteen,” Mrs. DeMuth said.
“You were pregnant at nineteen,” Mr. DeMuth said.
“Yes, but I was mar-ried,” Mrs. DeMuth pointed out.
“And to a damned nice fellow,” Mr. DeMuth felt compelled to add.
Mrs. DeMuth sighed. “Becky will pick the first name and Cal will pick the second.”
“Or vicey-versa,” Mr. DeMuth said-also with a sigh. (Sometimes married couples are also Irish Twins.)
Becky’s mother took Becky out for lunch one day not long before the kids left for the West Coast. “Are you sure you want to give the baby up for adoption?” she asked. “I know I don’t have a right to ask, I’m only your mother, but your father is curious.”
“I haven’t entirely made up my mind,” Becky said. “Cal will help me decide.”
“What about the father, dear?”
Becky looked surprised. “Oh, he gets no say. He turned out to be a fool.”
Mrs. DeMuth sighed.
So there they were in Kansas, on a warm spring day in April, riding in an eight-year-old Mazda with New Hampshire plates and a ghost of New England road salt still splashed on the rusty rocker panels. Quiet instead of the radio, open windows instead of the AC. As a result, both of them heard the voice. It was faint but clear.
“Help! Help! Somebody help me!”
Brother and sister exchanged startled looks. Cal, currently behind the wheel, pulled over immediately. Sand rattled against the undercarriage.
Before leaving Portsmouth they had decided they would steer clear of the turnpikes. Cal wanted to see the Kaskaskia Dragon in Vandalia, Illinois; Becky wanted to make her manners to the World’s Largest Ball of Twine in Cawker City, Kansas (both missions accomplished); the pair of them felt they needed to hit Roswell and see some groovy extraterrestrial shit. Now they were well south of the Twine Ball-which had been hairy, and fragrant, and altogether more impressive than either of them had anticipated-out on a leg of Route 400. It was a well-maintained stretch of two-lane blacktop that would take them the rest of the way across the flat serving platter of Kansas to the Colorado line. Ahead of them were miles of road with nary a car or truck in sight. Ditto behind.
On their side of the highway there were a few houses, a boarded-up church called the Black Rock of the Redeemer (which Becky thought a queer name for a church, but this was Kansas), and a rotting Bowl-a-Drome that looked as if it might last have operated around the time the Trammps were committing pop-music arson by lighting a disco inferno. On the other side of 400 there was nothing but high green grass. It stretched all the way to a horizon that was both illimitable and unremarkable.
“Was that a-” Becky began. She was wearing a light coat unzipped over a midsection that was just beginning to bulge; she was well along into her sixth month.
He raised a hand without looking at her. He was looking at the grass. “Sh. Listen!”
They heard faint music coming from one of the houses. A dog gave a phlegmy triple bark-roop-roop-roop-and went still. Someone was hammering a board. And there was the steady, gentle susurration of the wind. Becky realized she could actually see the wind, combing the grass on the far side of the road. It made waves that ran away from them until they were lost in the distance.
Just when Cal was beginning to think they hadn’t, after all, heard anything-it wouldn’t be the first time they had imagined something together-the cry came again.
“Help! Please help me!” And: “I’m lost!”
This time the look they exchanged was full of alarmed understanding. The grass was incredibly tall. (For such an expanse of grass to be over six feet high this early in the season was an anomaly that wouldn’t occur to them until later.) Some little kid had wandered into it, probably while exploring, almost certainly from one of the houses down the road. He had become disoriented and wandered in even deeper. He sounded about eight, which would make him far too short to leap up and find his bearings that way.
“We should haul him out,” Cal said.
“Yep. Little rescue mission. Pull into the church parking lot. Let’s get off the side of the road.”
He left her on the margin of the highway and turned into the dirt lot of the Redeemer. A scattering of dust-filmed cars was parked here, windshields beetle bright in the glare of the sun. That all but one of these cars appeared to have been there for days-even weeks-was another anomaly that would not strike them until later.
While he took care of the car, Becky crossed to the other shoulder. She cupped her hands to her mouth and shouted. “Kid! Hey, kid! Can you hear me?”
After a moment he called back: “Yes! Help me! I’ve been in here for DAYS!”
Becky, who remembered how little kids judged time, guessed that might mean twenty minutes or so. She looked for a path of broken or trampled grass where the kid had gone in (probably making up some video game or stupid jungle movie in his head as he did), and couldn’t see one. But that was all right; she pegged the voice as coming from her left, at about ten o’clock. Not too far in, either. Which made sense; if he’d gotten in very far, they wouldn’t have heard him even with the radio off and the windows open.
She was about to descend the embankment to the edge of the grass, when there came a second voice, a woman’s-hoarse and confused. She had the groggy rasp of someone who has just come awake and needs a drink of water. Badly.
“Don’t!” shouted the woman. “Don’t! Please! Stay away! Tobin, stop calling! Stop making noise, honey! He’ll hear you!”
“Hello?” Becky yelled. “What’s going on?”
Behind her, she heard a door slam. Cal, on his way across the street.
“We’re lost!” the boy shouted. “Please! Please, my mom is hurt, please! Please help!”
“No!” the woman said. “No, Tobin, no!”
Becky looked around to see what was taking Cal so long.
He had crossed a few dozen feet of the dirt parking lot and then hesitated by what looked like a first-generation Prius. It was filmed with a pale coat of road dust, almost completely obscuring the windshield. Cal hunched slightly, shielded his eyes with one hand, and squinted through the side window at something in the passenger seat. Frowning to himself for a moment, and then flinching, as if from a horsefly.
“Please!” the boy said. “We’re lost and I can’t find the road!”
“Tobin!” the woman started to call, but then her voice choked. As if she didn’t have the spit for talk.
Unless this was an elaborate prank, something was very wrong here. Becky DeMuth was not conscious of her hand drifting to press against the tight, beach-ball-firm curve of her abdomen. Nor did she connect the way she felt then with the dreams that had been bothering her for close to two months now, dreams she had not discussed even with Cal-the ones about driving at night. A child shouted in those dreams, too.
She dropped down the embankment in two long-legged steps. It was steeper than it looked, and when she reached the bottom, it was clear the grass was even higher than she thought, closer to seven feet than six.
The breeze gusted. The wall of grass surged and retreated in a soft shushing tide.
“Don’t look for us!” the woman called.
“Help!” said the boy, contradicting her, almost shouting over her-and his voice was close. Becky could hear him just off to the left. Not close enough to reach in and grab, but surely no more than ten or twelve yards from the road.
“I’m over here, buddy,” she called to him. “Keep walking toward me. You’re almost to the road. You’re almost out.”
“Help! Help! I still can’t find you!” the boy said, his voice even closer now. This was followed by a hysterical, sobbing laugh that cooled Becky’s skin.
Cal took a single skipping step down the embankment, slid on his heels, and almost fell on his ass. The ground was wet. If Becky hesitated to wade into the thick grass and go get the boy, it was because she didn’t want to soak her shorts. Grass that high would hold enough water, suspended in glittering drops, to make a small pond.
“Why are you waiting?” Cal asked.
“There’s a woman with him,” Becky said. “She’s being weird.”
“Where are you?” the boy cried, almost babbled, from just a few feet away in the grass. Becky looked for a flash of his pants or shirt, but didn’t see them. He was just a little bit too far in for that. “Are you coming? Please! I can’t find my way out!”
“Tobin!” the mother yelled, her voice distant and strained. “Tobin, stop!”
“Hang on,” Cal said, and stepped into the grass. “Captain Cal, to the rescue. Have no fear. When kids see me, they want to be me.”
By then, Becky had her cell phone out, cupped in one hand, and was opening her mouth to ask Cal if they should call highway patrol or whatever they had out here that was blue.
Cal took one step, then another, and suddenly all Becky could see of him was the back of his denim shirt, and his khaki shorts. For no rational reason at all, the thought of him moving out of sight caused her pulse to jump.
Still, she glanced at the face of her little black touchscreen Android and saw that she had the full complement of five bars. She dialed 9-1-1, and hit Call. As she lifted the phone to her ear, she took a long step into the grass.
The phone rang once, then a robot voice announced that her call was being recorded. Becky took another step, not wanting to lose sight of the blue shirt and light-brown shorts. Cal was always so impatient. Of course, so was she.
Wet grass began to whicker against her blouse, shorts, and bare legs. From the bathing machine came a din, Becky thought, her subconscious coughing up part of a half-digested limerick, one of Edward Gorey’s. As of jollification within. It was heard far and wide and the something something tide blah blah. She had written a paper on limericks for her Freshman Lit class that she had thought was rather clever, but all she got for her trouble was a headful of dumb rhymes she couldn’t forget, and a C+.
A real live lady-voice supplanted the robot. “Kiowa County 9-1-1, what is your location and the nature of your emergency, caller?”
“I’m on Route 400,” Becky said. “I don’t know the name of the town, but there’s some church, the Rock of the Redeemer or something. . and this broken-down old roller-skating rink. . no, I guess it’s a bowling alley. . and some kid is lost in the grass. His mother, too. We hear them calling. The kid’s close, the mother not so much. The kid sounds scared, the mother just sounds-” Weird, she meant to finish, but didn’t get the chance.
“Caller, we’ve got a very bad connection here. Please restate your-”
Then nothing. Becky stopped to look at her phone and saw a single bar. While she was watching, it disappeared, to be replaced by NO SERVICE. When she looked up, her brother had been swallowed by the green.
Overhead, a jet traced a white contrail across the sky at thirty-five thousand feet.
“Help! Help me!”
The kid was close, but maybe not quite as close as Cal had thought. And a little farther to the left.
“Go back to the road!” the woman screamed. Now she sounded closer, too. “Go back while you still can!”
“Mom! Mommy! They want to HELP!”
Then the kid just screamed. It rose to an ear-stabbing shriek, wavered, suddenly turned into more hysterical laughter. There were thrashing sounds-maybe panic, maybe the sounds of a struggle. Cal bolted in that direction, sure he was going to burst into some beaten-down clearing and discover the kid-Tobin-and his mother being assaulted by a knife-wielding maniac out of a Quentin Tarantino movie. He got ten yards and was just realizing that had to be too far when the grass snarled around his left ankle. He grabbed at more grass on his way down and did nothing but tear out a double handful that drooled sticky green juice down his palms to his wrists. He fell full-length on the oozy ground and managed to snork mud up both nostrils. Marvelous. How come there was never a tree around when you needed one?
He got to his knees. “Kid? Tobin? Sing-” He sneezed mud, wiped his face, and now smelled grass-goo when he inhaled. Better and better. A true sensory bouquet. “Sing out! You too, Mom!”
Mom didn’t. Tobin did.
“Help me pleeease!”
Now the kid was on Cal’s right, and he sounded quite a lot deeper in the grass than before. How could that be? He sounded close enough to grab.
Cal turned around, expecting to see his sister, but there was only grass. Tall grass. It should have been broken down where he ran through it, but it wasn’t. There was only the smashed-flat place where he’d gone full length, and even there the greenery was already springing back up. Tough grass they had here in Kansas. Tough tall grass.
“Chill, I’m right here,” she said, and although he couldn’t see her, he would in a second; she was practically on top of him. She sounded disgusted. “I lost the 9-1-1 chick.”
“That’s okay, just don’t lose me.” He turned in the other direction, and cupped his hands to his mouth. “Tobin!”
“What?” Faint. Jesus Christ, what was the kid doing? Lighting out for Nebraska? “Are you coming? You have to keep coming! I can’t find you!”
“KID, STAND STILL!” Shouting so loud and so hard it hurt his vocal cords. It was like being at a Metallica concert, only without the music. “I DON’T CARE HOW SCARED YOU ARE, STAND STILL! LET US COME TO YOU!”
He turned around, once more expecting to see Becky, but he only saw the grass. He flexed his knees and jumped. He could see the road (farther away tha
n he expected; he must have run quite some way without realizing it). He could see the church-Holy Hank’s House of Hallelujah, or whatever it was called-and he could see the Bowl-a-Drome, but that was all. He didn’t really expect to see Becky’s head, she was only five-two, but he did expect to see her route of passage through the grass. Only the wind was combing through it harder than ever, and that made it seem like there were dozens of possible paths.
He jumped again. Soggy ground squashed each time he came down. Those little licking peeks back at Highway 400 were maddening.
“Becky? Where the hell are you?”
• • •
Becky heard Cal bellow for the kid to stand still no matter how scared he was, and let them come to him. Which sounded like a good plan, if only her idiot brother would let her catch up. She was winded, she was wet, and she was for the first time feeling truly pregnant. The good news was that Cal was close, on her right at one o’clock.
Fine, but my sneakers are going to be ruined. In fact, the Beckster believes they’re ruined already.
“Becky? Where the hell are you?”
Okay, this was strange. He was still on her right, but now he sounded closer to five o’clock. Like, almost behind her.
“Here,” she said. “And I’m going to stay here until you get to me.” She glanced down at her Android. “Cal, do you have any bars on your phone?”
“I don’t have any idea. It’s in the car. Just keep yakking until I get to you.”
“What about the kid? And the crazy mom? She’s gone totally dark.”
“Let’s get back together-then we’ll worry about them, okay?” he said. Becky knew her brother, and she didn’t like the way he sounded. This was Cal being worried and trying not to show it. “For now, just talk to me.”
Becky considered, then began to recite, stamping her muddy sneakers in time. “There once was a guy named McSweeney, who spilled some gin on his weenie. Just to be couth he added vermouth, then slipped his girl a martini.”