Gwendy's Button BoxStephen King
Cemetery Dance Publications
Gwendy’s Button Box Copyright © 2017 by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
Cemetery Dance Publications
132-B Industry Lane, Unit #7
Forest Hill, MD 21050
The characters and events in this book are fictitious.
Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Cover Artwork © 2017 by Ben Baldwin
Interior Artwork © 2017 by Keith Minnion
Interior Design by Dan Hocker
There are three ways up to Castle View from the town of Castle Rock: Route 117, Pleasant Road, and the Suicide Stairs. Every day this summer—yes, even on Sundays—twelve-year-old Gwendy Peterson has taken the stairs, which are held by strong (if time-rusted) iron bolts and zig-zag up the cliffside. She walks the first hundred, jogs the second hundred, and forces herself to run up the last hundred and five, pelting—as her father would say—hellbent for election. At the top she bends over, red-faced, clutching her knees, hair in sweaty clumps against her cheeks (it always escapes her ponytail on that last sprint, no matter how tight she ties it), and puffing like an old carthorse. Yet there has been some improvement. When she straightens up and looks down the length of her body, she can see the tips of her sneakers. She couldn’t do that in June, on the last day of school, which also happened to be her last day in Castle Rock Elementary.
Her shirt is sweat-pasted to her body, but on the whole, she feels pretty good. In June, she felt ready to die of a heart attack every time she reached the top. Nearby, she can hear the shouts of the kids on the playground. From a bit farther away comes the chink of an aluminum bat hitting a baseball as the Senior League kids practice for the Labor Day charity game.
She’s wiping her glasses on the handkerchief she keeps in the pocket of her shorts for just that purpose when she is addressed. “Hey, girl. Come on over here for a bit. We ought to palaver, you and me.”
Gwendy puts her specs on and the blurred world comes back into focus. On a bench in the shade, close to the gravel path leading from the stairs into the Castle View Recreational Park, sits a man in black jeans, a black coat like for a suit, and a white shirt unbuttoned at the top. On his head is a small neat black hat. The time will come when Gwendy has nightmares about that hat.
The man has been on this same bench every day this week, always reading the same book (Gravity’s Rainbow, it’s thick and looks mighty arduous), but has never said anything to her until today. Gwendy regards him warily.
“I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.”
“That’s good advice.” He looks about her father’s age, which would make him thirty-eight or so, and not bad looking, but wearing a black suit coat on a hot August morning makes him a potential weirdo in Gwendy’s book. “Probably got it from your mother, right?”
“Father,” Gwendy says. She’ll have to go past him to get to the playground, and if he really is a weirdo he might try to grab her, but she’s not too worried. It’s broad daylight, after all, the playground is close and well-populated, and she’s got her wind back.
“In that case,” says the man in the black coat, “let me introduce myself. I’m Richard Farris. And you are—?”
She debates, then thinks, what harm? “Gwendy Peterson.”
“So there. We know each other.”
Gwendy shakes her head. “Names aren’t knowing.”
He throws back his head and laughs. It’s totally charming in its honest good humor, and Gwendy can’t help smiling. She still keeps her distance, though.
He points a finger-gun at her: pow. “That’s a good one. You’re a good one, Gwendy. And while we’re at it, what kind of name is that, anyway?”
“A combination. My father wanted a Gwendolyn—that was his granny’s name—and my mom wanted a Wendy, like in Peter Pan. So they compromised. Are you on vacation, Mr. Farris?” This seems likely; they are in Maine, after all, and Maine proclaims itself Vacationland. It’s even on the license plates.
“You might say so. I travel here and there. Michigan one week, Florida the next, then maybe a hop to Coney Island for a Redhot and a ride on the Cyclone. I am what you might call a rambling man, and America is my beat. I keep an eye on certain people, and check back on them every once and again.”
Chink goes the bat on the field past the playground, and there are cheers.
“Well, it’s been nice talking to you, Mr. Farris, but I really ought to—”
“Stay a bit longer. You see, you’re one of the people I’ve been keeping an eye on just recently.”
This should sound sinister (and does, a little), but he’s still smiling in the aftermath of his laughter, his eyes are lively, and if he’s Chester the Molester, he’s keeping it well hidden. Which, she supposes, the best ones would do. Step into my parlor, said the spider to the fly.
“I’ve got a theory about you, Miss Gwendy Peterson. Formed, as all the best theories are, by close observation. Want to hear it?”
“Sure, I guess.”
“I notice you are a bit on the plump side.”
Maybe he sees her tighten up at that, because he raises a hand and shakes his head, as if to say not so fast.
“You might even think of yourself as fat, because girls and women in this country of ours have strange ideas about how they look. The media…do you know what I mean by the media?”
“Sure. Newspapers, TV, Time and Newsweek.”
“Nailed it. So okay. The media says, ‘Girls, women, you can be anything you want to be in this brave new world of equality, as long as you can still see your toes when you stand up straight.’”
He has been watching me, Gwendy thinks, because I do that every day when I get to the top. She blushes. She can’t help it, but the blush is a surface thing. Below it is a kind of so-what defiance. It’s what got her going on the stairs in the first place. That and Frankie Stone.
“My theory is that somebody tweaked you about your weight, or how you look, or both, and you decided to take the matter in hand. Am I close? Maybe not a bullseye, but at least somewhere on the target?”
Perhaps because he’s a stranger, she finds herself able to tell him what she hasn’t confided to either of her parents. Or maybe it’s his blue eyes, which are curious and interested but with no meanness in them—at least not that she can see. “This kid at school, Frankie Stone, started calling me Goodyear. You know, like—”
“Like the blimp, yes, I know the Goodyear Blimp.”
“Uh-huh. Frankie’s a puke.” She thinks of telling the man how Frankie goes strutting around the playground, chanting I’m Frankie Stoner! Got a two-foot boner! and decides not to.
“Some of the other boys started calling me that, and then a few of the girls picked it up. Not my friends, other girls. That was sixth grade. Middle school starts next month, and…well…”
“You’ve decided that particular nickname isn’t going to follow you there,” says Mr. Richard Farris. “I see. You’ll also grow taller, you know.” He eyes her up and down, but not in a way she finds creepy. It’s more scientific. “I’m thinking yo
u might top out around five-ten or -eleven before you’re done. Tall, for a girl.”
“Started already,” Gwendy says, “but I’m not going to wait.”
“All pretty much as I thought,” Farris says. “Don’t wait, don’t piss and moan, just attack the issue. Go head-on. Admirable. Which is why I wanted to make your acquaintance.”
“It’s been nice talking to you, Mr. Farris, but I have to go now.”
“No. You need to stay right here.” He’s not smiling anymore. His face is stern, and the blue eyes seem to have gone gray. The hat lays a thin line of shadow over his brow, like a tattoo. “I have something for you. A gift. Because you are the one.”
“I don’t take things from strangers,” Gwendy says. Now she’s feeling a little scared. Maybe more than a little.
“Names aren’t knowing, I agree with you there, but we’re not strangers, you and I. I know you, and I know this thing I have was made for someone like you. Someone who is young and set solidly on her feet. I felt you, Gwendy, long before I saw you. And here you are.” He moves to the end of the bench and pats the seat. “Come sit beside me.”
Gwendy walks to the bench, feeling like a girl in a dream. “Are you…Mr. Farris, do you want to hurt me?”
He smiles. “Grab you? Pull you into the bushes and perhaps have my wicked way with you?” He points across the path and forty feet or so up it. There, two or three dozen kids wearing Castle Rock Day Camp tshirts are playing on the slides and swings and monkey bars while four camp counselors watch over them. “I don’t think I’d get away with that, do you? And besides, young girls don’t interest me sexually. They don’t interest me at all, as a rule, but as I’ve already said—or at least implied—you are different. Now sit down.”
She sits. The sweat coating her body has turned cold. She has an idea that, despite all his fine talk, he will now try to kiss her, and never mind the playground kids and their teenage minders just up the way. But he doesn’t. He reaches under the bench and brings out a canvas bag with a drawstring top. He pulls it open and removes a beautiful mahogany box, the wood glowing a brown so rich that she can glimpse tiny red glints deep in its finish. It’s about fifteen inches long, maybe a foot wide, and half that deep. She wants it at once, and not just because it’s a beautiful thing. She wants it because it’s hers. Like something really valuable, really loved, that was lost so long ago it was almost forgotten but is now found again. Like she owned it in another life where she was a princess, or something.
“What is it?” Gwendy asks in a small voice.
“A button box,” he says. “Your button box. Look.”
He tilts it so she can see small buttons on top of the box, six in rows of two, and a single at each end. Eight in all. The pairs are light green and dark green, yellow and orange, blue and violet. One of the end-buttons is red. The other is black. There’s also a small lever at each end of the box, and what looks like a slot in the middle.
“The buttons are very hard to push,” says Farris. “You have to use your thumb, and put some real muscle into it. Which is a good thing, believe me. Wouldn’t want to make any mistakes with those, oh no. Especially not with the black one.”
Gwendy has forgotten to feel afraid of the man. She’s fascinated by the box, and when he hands it to her, she takes it. She was expecting it to be heavy—mahogany is a heavy wood, after all, plus who knows what might be inside—but it’s not. She could bounce it up and down on her tented fingers. Gwendy runs a finger over the glassy, slightly convex surface of the buttons, seeming to almost feel the colors lighting up her skin.
“Why? What do they do?”
“We’ll discuss them later. For now, direct your attention to the little levers. They’re much easier to pull than the buttons are to push; your little finger is enough. When you pull the one on the left end—next to the red button—it will dispense a chocolate treat in the shape of an animal.”
“I don’t—” Gwendy begins.
“You don’t take candy from strangers, I know,” Farris says, and rolls his eyes in a way that makes her giggle. “Aren’t we past that, Gwendy?”
“It’s not what I was going to say. I don’t eat chocolate, is what I was going to say. Not this summer. How will I ever lose any weight if I eat candy? Believe me, once I start, I can’t stop. And chocolate is the worst. I’m like a chocoholic.”
“Ah, but that’s the beauty of the chocolates the button box dispenses,” says Richard Farris. “They are small, not much bigger than jelly beans, and very sweet…but after you eat one, you won’t want another. You’ll want your meals, but not seconds on anything. And you won’t want any other treats, either. Especially those late-night waistline killers.”
Gwendy, until this summer prone to making herself Fluffernutters an hour or so before bedtime, knows exactly what he’s talking about. Also, she’s always starving after her morning runs.
“It sounds like some weird diet product,” she says. “The kind that stuffs you up and then makes you pee like crazy. My granny tried some of that stuff, and it made her sick after a week or so.”
“Nope. Just chocolate. But pure. Not like a candybar from the store. Try it.”
She debates the idea, but not for long. She curls her pinky around the lever—it’s too small to operate easily with any of the others—and pulls. The slot opens. A narrow wooden shelf slides out. On it is a chocolate rabbit, no bigger than a jellybean, just as Mr. Farris said.
She picks it up and looks at it with amazed wonder. “Wow. Look at the fur. The ears! And the cute little eyes.”
“Yes,” he agrees. “A beautiful thing, isn’t it? Now pop it in! Quick!”
Gwendy does so without even thinking about it, and sweetness floods her mouth. He’s right, she never tasted a Hershey bar this good. She can’t remember ever having tasted anything this good. That gorgeous flavor isn’t just in her mouth; it’s in her whole head. As it melts on her tongue, the little shelf slides back in, and the slot closes.
“Good?” he asks.
“Mmm.” It’s all she can manage. If this were ordinary candy, she’d be like a rat in a science experiment, working that little lever until it broke off or until the dispenser stopped dispensing. But she doesn’t want another. And she doesn’t think she’ll be stopping for a Slushee at the snack bar on the far side of the playground, either. She’s not hungry at all. She’s…
“Are you satisfied?” Farris asks.
“Yes!” That’s the word, all right. She has never been so satisfied with anything, not even the two-wheeler she got for her ninth birthday.
“Good. Tomorrow you’ll probably want another one, and you can have another one if you do, because you’ll have the button box. It’s your box, at least for now.”
“How many chocolate animals are inside?”
Instead of answering her question, he invites her to pull the lever at the other end of the box.
“Does it give a different kind of candy?”
“Try it and see.”
She curls her pinky around the small lever and pulls it. This time when the shelf slides out of the slot, there’s a silver coin on it, so large and shiny she has to squint against the morning light that bounces off it. She picks it up and the shelf slides back in. The coin is heavy in her hand. On it is a woman in profile. She’s wearing what looks like a tiara. Below her is a semicircle of stars, interrupted by the date: 1891. Above her are the words E Pluribus Unum.
“That is a Morgan silver dollar,” Farris tells her in a lecturely voice. “Almost half an ounce of pure silver. Created by Mr. George Morgan, who was just thirty years old when he engraved the likeness of Anna Willess Williams, a Philadelphia matron, to go on what you’d call the ‘heads’ side of the coin. The American Eagle is on the tails side.”
“It’s beautiful,” she breathes, and then—with huge reluctance—she holds it out to him.
Farris crosses his hands on his chest and shakes his head. “It’s not mine, Gwendy. It’s yours. Everything that
comes out of the box is yours—the candy and the coins—because the box is yours. The current numismatic value of that Morgan dollar is just shy of six hundred dollars, by the way.”
“I…I can’t take it,” she says. Her voice is distant in her own ears. She feels (as she did when she first started her runs up the Suicide Stairs two months ago) that she may faint. “I didn’t do anything to earn it.”
“But you will.” From the pocket of his black jacket he takes an old-fashioned pocket watch. It shoots more arrows of sun into Gwendy’s eyes, only these are gold instead of silver. He pops up the cover and consults the face within. Then he drops it back into his pocket. “My time is short now, so look at the buttons and listen closely. Will you do that?”
“First, put the silver dollar in your pocket. It’s distracting you.”
She does as he says. She can feel it against her thigh, a heavy circle.
“How many continents in the world, Gwendy? Do you know?”
“Seven,” she says. They learned that in third or fourth grade.
“Exactly. But since Antarctica is for all practical purposes deserted, it isn’t represented here…except, of course, by the black button, and we’ll get to that.” One after another, he begins to lightly tap the convex surfaces of the buttons that are in pairs. “Light green: Asia. Dark green: Africa. Orange: Europe. Yellow: Australia. Blue: North America. Violet: South America. Are you with me? Can you remember?”
“Yes.” She says it with no hesitation. Her memory has always been good, and she has a crazy idea that the wonderful piece of candy she ate is further aiding her concentration. She doesn’t know what all this means, but can she remember which color represents which continent? Absolutely. “What’s the red one?”
“Whatever you want,” he says, “and you will want it, the owner of the box always does. It’s normal. Wanting to know things and do things is what the human race is all about. Exploration, Gwendy! Both the disease and the cure!”
I’m no longer in Castle Rock, Gwendy thinks. I’ve entered one of those places I like to read about. Oz or Narnia or Hobbiton. This can’t be happening.