The Dead Zone, Page 2Stephen King
He opened the car door and as he stepped out into the dust of the driveway a big mean farm dog advanced out of the barn, its ears laid back. It volleyed barks. “Hello, pooch,” Greg said in his low, pleasant, but carrying voice—at twenty-two it was already the voice of a trained spellbinder.
The pooch didn’t respond to the friendliness in his voice. It kept coming, big and mean, intent on an early lunch of traveling salesman. Greg sat back down in the car, closed the door, and honked the horn twice. Sweat rolled down his face and turned his white linen suit darker gray in circular patches under his arms and in a branching treeshape up his back. He honked again, but there was no response. The clodhoppers had loaded themselves into their International Harvester or their Studebaker and gone into town.
Instead of shifting into reverse and backing out of the driveway, he reached behind him and produced a Flit gun—only this one was loaded with ammonia instead of Flit.
Pulling back the plunger, Greg stepped out of the car again, smiling easily. The dog, which had settled down on its haunches, immediately got up again and began to advance on him, growling.
Greg kept smiling. “That’s right, poochie,” he said in that pleasant, carrying voice. “You just come on. Come on and get it.” He hated these ugly farm dogs that ran their half-acre of dooryard like arrogant little Caesars: they told you something about their masters as well.
“Fucking bunch of clodhoppers,” he said under his breath. He was still smiling. “Come on, doggie.”
The dog came. It tensed its haunches down to spring at him. In the barn a cow mooed, and the wind rustled tenderly through the corn. As it leaped, Greg’s smile turned to a hard and bitter grimace. He depressed the Flit plunger and sprayed a stinging cloud of ammonia droplets directly into the dog’s eyes and nose.
Its angry barking turned immediately to short, agonized yips, and then, as the bite of ammonia really settled in, to howls of pain. It turned tail at once; a watchdog no longer but only a vanquished cur.
Greg Stillson’s face had darkened. His eyes had drawn down to ugly slits. He stepped forward rapidly and administered a whistling kick to the dog’s haunches with one of his Stride-King airtip shoes. The dog gave a high, wailing sound, and, driven by its pain and fear, it sealed its own doom by turning around to give battle to the author of its misery rather than running for the barn.
With a snarl, it struck out blindly, snagged the right cuff of Greg’s white linen pants, and tore it.
“You sonofabitch!” he cried out in startled anger, and kicked the dog again, this time hard enough to send it rolling in the dust. He advanced on the dog once more, kicked it again, still yelling. Now the dog, eyes watering, nose in fiery agony, one rib broken and another badly sprung, realized its danger from this madman, but it was too late.
Greg Stillson chased it across the dusty farmyard, panting and shouting, sweat rolling down his cheeks, and kicked the dog until it was screaming and barely able to drag itself along through the dust. It was bleeding in half a dozen places. It . was dying.
“Shouldn’t have bit me,” Greg whispered. “You hear? You hear me? You shouldn’t have bit me, you dipshit dog. No one gets in my way. You hear? No one.” He delivered another kick with one blood-spattered airtip, but the dog could do no more than make a low choking sound. Not much satisfaction in that. Greg’s head ached. It was the sun. Chasing the dog around in the hot sun. Be lucky not to pass out.
He closed his eyes for a moment, breathing rapidly, the sweat rolling down his face like tears and nestling in his crew-cut like gems, the broken dog dying at his feet. Colored specks of light, pulsing in rhythm with his heartbeat, floated across the darkness behind his lids.
His head ached.
Sometimes he wondered if he was going crazy. Like now. He had meant to give the dog a burst from the ammonia Flit gun, drive it back into the barn so he could leave his business card in the crack of the screen door. Come back some other time and make a sale. Now look. Look at this mess. Couldn’t very well leave his card now, could he?
He opened his eyes. The dog lay at his feet, panting rapidly, drizzling blood from its snout. As Greg Stillson looked down, it licked his shoe humbly, as if to acknowledge that it had been bested, and then it went back to the business of dying.
“Shouldn’t have torn my pants,” he said to it. “Pants cost me five bucks, you shitpoke dog.”
He had to get out of here. Wouldn’t do him any good if Clem Kadiddlehopper and his wife and their six kids came back from town now in their Studebaker and saw Fido dying out here with the bad old salesman standing over him. He’d lose his job. The American TruthWay Company didn’t hire salesmen who killed dogs that belonged to Christians.
Giggling nervously, Greg went back to the Mercury, got in, and backed rapidly out of the driveway. He turned east on the dirt road that ran straight as a string through the corn, and was soon cruising along at sixty-five, leaving a dust plume two miles long behind him.
He most assuredly didn’t want to lose the job. Not yet. He was making good money—in addition to the wrinkles the American TruthWay Company knew about, Greg had added a few of his own that they didn’t know about. He was making it now. Besides, traveling around, he got to meet a lot of people ... a lot of girls. It was a good life, except—
Except he wasn’t content.
He drove on, his head throbbing. No, he just wasn’t content. He felt that he was meant for bigger things than driving around the Midwest and selling Bibles and doctoring the commission forms in order to make an extra two bucks a day. He felt that he was meant for ... for ...
Yes, that was it, that was surely it. A few weeks ago he had taken some girl up in the hayloft, her folks had been in Davenport selling a truckload of chickens, she had started off by asking if he would like a glass of lemonade and one thing had just led to another and after he’d had her she said it was almost like getting diddled by a preacher and he had slapped her, he didn’t know why. He had slapped her and then left.
Actually, he had slapped her three or four times. Until she had cried and screamed for someone to come and help her and then he had stopped and somehow—he had had to use every ounce of the charm God had given him—he had made it up with her. His head had been aching then, too, the pulsing specks of brightness shooting and caroming across his field of vision, and he tried to tell himself it was the heat, the explosive heat in the hayloft, but it wasn’t just the heat that made his head ache. It was the same thing he had felt in the dooryard when the dog tore his pants, something dark and crazy.
“I’m not crazy,” he said aloud in the car. He unrolled the window swiftly, letting in summer heat and the smell of dust and corn and manure. He turned on the radio loud and caught a Patti Page song. His headache went back a little bit.
It was all a matter of keeping yourself under control and—and keeping your record clean. If you did those things, they couldn’t touch you. And he was getting better at both of those things. He no longer had the dreams about his father so often, the dreams where his father was standing above him with his hard hat cocked back on his head, bellowing: “You’re no good, runt! You’re no fucking good!”
He didn’t have the dreams so much because they just weren’t true. He wasn’t a runt anymore. Okay, he had been sick a lot as a kid, not much size, but he had gotten his growth, he was taking care of his mother—
And his father was dead. His father couldn’t see. He couldn’t make his father eat his words because he had died in an oil-derrick blowout and he was dead and once, just once, Greg would like to dig him up and scream into his moldering face You were wrong, dad, you were wrong about me! and then give him a good kick the way—
The way he had kicked the dog.
The headache was back, lowering.
“I’m not crazy,” he said again below the sound of the music. His mother had told him often that he was meant for something big, somet
hing great, and Greg believed it. It was just a matter of getting things—like slapping the girl or kicking the dog—under control and keeping his record clean.
Whatever his greatness was, he would know it when it came to him. Of that he felt quite sure.
He thought of the dog again, and this time the thought brought a bare crescent of a smile, without humor or compassion.
His greatness was on the way. It might still be years ahead—he was young, sure, nothing wrong with being young as long as you understood you couldn’t have everything all at once. As long as you believed it would come eventually. He did believe that.
And God and Sonny Jesus help anyone that got in his way.
Greg Stillson cocked a sunburned elbow out the window and began to whistle along with the radio. He stepped on the go-pedal, walked that old Mercury up to seventy, and rolled down the straight Iowa farm road toward whatever future there might be.
The Wheel of Fortune
The two things Sarah remembered about that night later were his run of luck at the Wheel of Fortune and the mask. But as time passed, years of it, it was the mask she thought about—when she could bring herself to think about that horrible night at all.
He lived in an apartment house in Cleaves Mills. Sarah got there at quarter to eight, parking around the corner, and buzzing up to be let in. They were taking her car tonight because Johnny’s was laid up at Tibbets’ Garage in Hampden with a frozen wheel-bearing or something like that. Something expensive, Johnny had told her over the phone, and then he had laughed a typical Johnny Smith laugh. Sarah would have been in tears if it had been her car—her pocketbook.
Sarah went through the foyer to the stairs, past the bulletin board that hung there. It was dotted with file cards advertising motorbikes, stereo components, typing services, and appeals from people who needed rides to Kansas or California, people who were driving to Florida and needed riders to share the driving and help pay for the gas. But tonight the board was dominated by a large placard showing a clenched fist against an angry red background suggesting fire. The one word on the poster was STRIKE! It was late October of 1970.
Johnny had the front apartment on the second floor—the penthouse, he called it—where you could stand in your tux like Ramon Navarro, a big slug of Ripple wine in a balloon glass, and look down upon the vast, beating heart of Cleaves Mills: its hurrying after-show crowds, its bustling taxis, its neon signs. There are almost seven thousand stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.
Actually Cleaves Mills was mostly a main street with a stop-and-go light at the intersection (it turned into a blinker after 6 P.M.), about two dozen stores, and a small moccasin factory. Like most of the towns surrounding Orono, where the University of Maine was, its real industry was supplying the things students consumed—beer, wine, gas, rock ‘n’ roll music, fast food, dope, groceries, housing, movies. The movie house was The Shade. It showed art films and ’40’s nostalgia flicks when school was in. In the summertime it reverted to Clint Eastwood spaghetti Westerns.
Johnny and Sarah were both out of school a year, and both were teaching at Cleaves Mills High, one of the few high schools in the area that had not consolidated into a three- or four-town district. University faculty and administration as well as university students used Cleaves as their bedroom, and the town had an enviable tax base. It also had a fine high school with a brand-new media wing. The townies might bitch about the university crowd with their smart talk and their Commie marches to end the war and their meddling in town politics, but they had never said no to the tax dollars that were paid annually on the gracious faculty homes and the apartment buildings in the area some students called Fudgey Acres and others called Sleaze Alley.
Sarah rapped on his door and Johnny’s voice, oddly muffled, called, “It’s open, Sarah!”
Frowning a little, she pushed the door open. Johnny’s apartment was in total darkness except for the fitful yellow glow of the blinker half a block up the street. The furniture was so many humped black shadows.
“Johnny ... ?”
Wondering if a fuse had blown or something, she took a tentative step forward—and then the face appeared before her, floating in the darkness, a horrible face out of a nightmare. It glowed a spectral, rotting green. One eye was wide open, seeming to stare at her in wounded fear. The other was squeezed shut in a sinister leer. The left half of the face, the half with the open eye, appeared to be normal. But the right half was the face of a monster, drawn and inhuman, the thick lips drawn back to reveal snaggle teeth that were also glowing.
Sarah uttered a strangled little shriek and took a stumble-step backward. Then the lights came on and it was just Johnny’s apartment again instead of some black limbo, Nixon on the wall trying to sell used cars, the braided rug Johnny’s mother had made on the floor, the wine bottles made into candle bases. The face stopped glowing and she saw it was a dime-store Halloween mask, nothing more. Johnny’s blue eye was twinkling out of the open eyehole at her.
He stripped it off and stood smiling amiably at her, dressed in faded jeans and a brown sweater.
“Happy Halloween, Sarah,” he said.
Her heart was still racing. He had really frightened her. “Very funny,” she said, and turned to go. She didn’t like being scared like that.
He caught her in the doorway. “Hey ... I’m sorry.”
“Well you ought to be.” She looked at him coldly—or tried to. Her anger was already melting away. You just couldn’t stay mad at Johnny, that was the thing. Whether she loved him or not—a thing she was still trying to puzzle out—it was impossible to be unhappy with him for very long, or to harbor a feeling of resentment. She wondered if anyone had ever succeeded in harboring a grudge against Johnny Smith, and the thought was so ridiculous she just had to smile.
“There, that’s better. Man, I thought you were going to walk out on me.”
“I’m not a man.”
He cast his eyes upon her. “So I’ve noticed.”
She was wearing a bulky fur coat—imitation raccoon or something vulgar like that—and his innocent lechery made her smile again. “In this thing you couldn’t tell.”
“Oh, yeah, I can tell,” he said. He put an arm around her and kissed her. At first she wasn’t going to kiss back, but of course she did.
“I’m sorry I scared you,” he said, and rubbed her nose companionably with his own before letting her go. He held up the mask. “I thought you’d get a kick out of it. I’m gonna wear it in homeroom Friday.”
“Oh, Johnny, that won’t be very good for discipline.”
“I’ll muddle through somehow,” he said with a grin. And the hell of it was, he would.
She came to school every day wearing big, schoolmarmish glasses, her hair drawn back into a bun so severe it seemed on the verge of a scream. She wore her skirts just above the knee in a season when most of the girls wore them just below the edges of their underpants (and my legs are better than any of theirs, Sarah thought resentfully). She maintained alphabetical seating charts which, by the law of averages, at least, should have kept the troublemakers away from each other, and she resolutely sent unruly pupils to the assistant principal, her reasoning being that he was getting an extra five hundred a year to act as ramrod and she wasn’t. And still her days were a constant struggle with that freshman teacher demon. Discipline. More disturbing, she had begun to sense that there was a collective, unspoken jury—a kind of school consciousness, maybe—that went into deliberations over every new teacher, and that the verdict being returned on her was not so good.
Johnny, on the face of it, appeared to be the antithesis of everything a good teacher should be. He ambled from class to class in an agreeable sort of daze, often showing up tardy because he had stopped to chat with someone between bells. He let the kids sit where they wanted to so that the same face was never in the same seat from day to day (and the class thugs invariably gravitated t
o the back of the room). Sarah would not have been able to learn their names that way until March, but Johnny seemed to have them down pat already.
He was a tall man who had a tendency to slouch, and the kids called him Frankenstein. Johnny seemed amused rather than outraged by this. And yet his classes were mostly quiet and well-behaved, there were few skippers (Sarah had a constant problem with kids cutting class), and that same jury seemed to be coming back in his favor. He was the sort of teacher who, in another ten years, would have the school yearbook dedicated to him. She just wasn’t. And sometimes wondering why drove her crazy.
“You want a beer before we go? Glass of wine? Anything?”
“No, but I hope you’re going well-heeled,” she said, taking his arm and deciding not to be mad anymore. “I always eat at least three hot dogs. Especially when it’s the last county fair of the year.” They were going to Esty, twenty miles north of Cleaves Mills, a town whose only dubious claim to fame was that it held ABSOLUTELY THE LAST AGRICULTURAL FAIR OF THE YEAR IN NEW ENGLAND. The fair would close Friday night, on Halloween.
“Considering Friday’s payday, I’m doing good. I got eight bucks.”
“Oh ... my ... God,” Sarah said, rolling her eyes. “I always knew if I kept myself pure I’d meet a sugar daddy someday.”
He smiled and nodded. “Us pimps make biiig money, baby. Just let me get my coat and we’re off.”
She looked after him with exasperated affection, and the voice that had been surfacing in her mind more and more often—in the shower, while she was reading a book or prep-ping a class or making her supper for one—came up again, like one of those thirty-second public-service spots on TV. He’s a very nice man and all that, easy to get along with, fun, he never makes you cry. But is that love? I mean, is that all there is to it? Even when you learned to ride your two-wheeler, you had to fall off a few times and scrape both knees. Call it a rite of passage. And that was just a little thing.