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The Man in the Black Suit : 4 Dark Tales, Page 2

Stephen King

  "I’ve saved you a nasty sting, perhaps," he said, and then to my horror, he came down to the bank to where I sat with a dead bee in my wet lap and a bamboo fishing pole in my nerveless hands. His slick-soled city shoes should have slipped on the low, grassy weeds dressing the steep bank, but they didn’t nor did they leave tracks, I saw. Where his feet had touched--or seemed to touch--there was not a single broken twig, crushed leaf, or trampled shoe-shape.

  Even before he reached me, I recognized the aroma baking up from the skin under the suit--the smell of burned matches. The smell of sulfur. The man in the black suit was the Devil. He had walked out of the deep woods between Motton and Kashwakamak, and now he was standing here beside me. From the corner of one eye I could see a hand as pale as the hand of a store-window dummy. The fingers were hideously long.

  He hunkered beside me on his hams, his knees popping just as the knees of any normal man might, but when he moved his hands so they dangled between his knees, I saw that each of those long fingers ended in not a fingernail but a long yellow claw.

  "You didn’t answer my question, fisherboy," he said in his mellow voice. It was, now that I think of it, like the voice of those radio announcers on the big-band shows years later, the ones that would sell Geritol and Serutan and Ovaltine and Dr. Granbow pipes. "Are we well met?"

  "Please don’t hurt me," I whispered, in a voice so low I could barely hear it. I was more afraid than I could ever write down, more afraid than I want to remember. But I do. I do. it never crossed my mind to hope I was having a dream, although it might have, I suppose, if I had been older. But I was nine, and I knew the truth when it squatted down beside me. I knew a hawk from a handsaw, as my father would have said. The man who had come out of the woods on that Saturday afternoon in midsummer was the Devil, and inside the empty holes of his eyes his brains were burning.

  "Oh, do I smell something?" he asked, as if he hadn’t heard me, although I knew he had. "Do I smell something ...wet?"

  He leaned toward me with his nose stuck out, like someone who means to smell a flower. And I noticed an awful thing; as the shadow of his head travelled over the bank, the grass beneath it turned yellow and died. He lowered his head toward my pants and sniffed. His glaring eyes half closed, as if he had inhaled some sublime aroma and wanted to concentrate on nothing but that.

  "Oh, bad!" he cried. "Lovely-bad!" And then he chanted: "Opal! Diamond! Sapphire! Jade! I smell Gary’s lemonade!" He threw himself on his back in the little flat place and laughed.

  I thought about running, but my legs seemed two counties away from my brain. I wasn’t crying. I was too scared to cry. I suddenly knew that I was going to die, and probably painfully, but the worst of it was that that might not be the worst of it. The worst might come later. After I was dead.

  He sat up suddenly, the smell of burnt matches fluffing out from his suit and making me feel gaggy in my throat. He looked at me solemnly from his narrow white face and burning eyes, but there was a sense of laughter about him.

  "Sad news, fisherboy," he said. "I’ve come with sad news."

  I could only look at him--the black suit, the fine black shoes, the long white fingers that ended not in nails but in talons.

  "Your mother is dead."

  "No!" I cried. I thought of her making bread, of the curl lying across her forehead and just touching her eyebrow, of her standing there in the strong morning sunlight, and the terror swept over me again, but not for myself this time. Then I thought of how she’d looked when I set off with my fishing pole, standing in the kitchen doorway with her hand shading her eyes, and how she had looked to me in that moment like a photograph of someone you expected to see again but never did. "No, you lie!" I screamed.

  He smiled--the sadly patient smile of a man who has often been accused falsely. "I’m afraid not," he said. "It was the same thing that happened to your brother, Gary. It was a bee."

  "No, that’s not true," I said, and now I did begin to cry. "She’s old, she’s thirty-five--if a bee sting could kill her the way it did Danny she would have died a long time ago, and you’re a lying bastard!"

  I had called the Devil a lying bastard. I was aware of this, but the entire front of my mind was taken up by the enormity of what he’d said. My mother dead? He might as well have told me that the moon had fallen on Vermont. But I believed him. On some level I believed him completely, as we always believe, on some level, the worst thing our hearts can imagine.

  "I understand your grief, little fisherboy, but that particular argument just doesn’t hold water, I’m afraid." He spoke in a tone of bogus comfort that was horrible, maddening, without remorse or pity. "A man can go his whole life without seeing a mockingbird, you know, but does that mean mockingbirds don’t exist? Your mother--"

  A fish jumped below at us. The man in the black suit frowned, then pointed a finger at it. The trout convulsed in the air, its body bending so strenuously that for a split second it appeared to be snapping at its own tail, and when it fell back into Castle Stream it was floating lifelessly. It struck the big gray rock where the waters divided, spun around twice in the whirlpool eddy that formed there, and then floated away in the direction of Castle Rock. Meanwhile, the terrible stranger turned his burning eyes on my again, his thin lips pulled back from tiny rows of sharp teeth in a cannibal smile.

  "Your mother simply went through her entire life without being stung by a bee," he said. "But then--less than an hour ago, actually--one flew in through the kitchen window while she was taking the bread out of the oven and putting it on the counter to cool."

  I raised my hands and clapped them over my ears. He pursed his lips as if to whistle and blew at me gently. It was only a little breath, but the stench was foul beyond belief--clogged sewers, outhouses that have never know a single sprinkle of lime, dead chickens after a flood.

  My hands fell away from the sides of my face.

  "Good," He said. "You need to hear this, Gary; you need to hear this, my little fisherboy. It was your mother who passed that fatal weakness to your brother. You got some of it, but you also got a protection from your father that poor Dan somehow missed." He pursed his lips again, only this time he made a cruelly comic little tsk-tsk sound instead of blowing his nasty breath at me. "So although I don’t like to speak ill of the dead, it’s almost a case of poetic justice, isn’t it?" After all, she killed your brother Dan as surely as if she had put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger."

  "No," I whispered. "No, it isn’t true."

  "I assure you it is," he said. "The bee flew in the window and lit on her neck. She slapped at it before she even knew what she was doing--you were wiser than that, weren’t you, Gary?--and the bee stung her. She felt her throat start to close up at once. That’s what happens, you know, to people who can’t tolerate bee venom. Their throats close and they drown in the open air. That’s why Dan’s face was so swollen and purple. That’s why your father covered it with his shirt."

  I stared at him, now incapable of speech. Tears streamed down my cheeks. I didn’t want to believe him, and knew from my church schooling that the Devil is the father of lies, but I did believe him just the same.

  "She made the most wonderfully awful noises," the man in the black suit said reflectively, "and she scratched her face quite badly, I’m afraid. Her eyes bulged out like a frog’s eyes. She wept." He paused, then added: "She wept as she died, isn’t that sweet? And here’s the most beautiful thing of all. After she was dead, after she’s been lying on the floor for fifteen minutes or so with no sound but the stove ticking with that little thread of a bee stinger still poking out of the side of her neck--so small, so small--do you know what Candy Bill did? That little rascal licked away her tears. First on one side, and then on the other."

  He looked out at the stream for a moment, his face sad and thoughtful. Then he turned back to me and his expression of bereavement disappeared like a dream. His face was as slack and as avid as the face of a corpse that has died hungry. His eyes blazed. I c
ould see his sharp little teeth between his pale lips.

  "I’m starving," he said abruptly. "I’m going to kill you and eat your guys, little fisherboy. What do you think about that?"

  No, I tried to say, please no, but no sound came out. He meant to do it, I saw. He really meant to do it.

  "I’m just so hungry," he said, both petulant and teasing. "And you won’t want to live without your precious mommy, anyhow, take my word for it. Because your father’s the sort of man who’ll have to have some warm hole to stick it in, believe me, and if you’re the only one available, you’re the one who’ll have to serve. I’ll save you all that discomfort and unpleasantness. Also, you’ll go to Heaven, think of that. Murdered souls always go to Heaven. So we’ll both be serving God this afternoon, Gary. Isn’t that nice?"

  He reached for me again with his long, pale hands, and without thinking what I was doing, I flipped open the top of my creel, pawed all the way down to the bottom, and brought out the monster brookie I’d caught earlier--the one I should have been satisfied with. I held it out to him blindly, my fingers in the red slit of its belly, from which I had removed its insides as the man in the black suit had threatened to remove mine. The fish’s glazed eye stared dreamily at me, the gold ring around the black center reminding me of my mother’s wedding ring. And in that moment I saw her lying in her coffin with the sun shining off the wedding band and knew it was true--she had been stung by a bee, she had drowned in the warm, bread-smelling air, and Candy Bill had licked her dying tears from her swollen cheeks.

  "Big fish!" the man in the black suit cried in a guttural, greedy voice. "Oh, biiig fiiish!"

  He snatched it away from me and crammed it into a mouth that opened wider than any human mouth ever could. Many years later, when I was sixty-five (I know it was sixty-five, because that was the summer I retired from teaching), I went to the aquarium in Boston and finally saw a shark. The mouth of the man in the black suit was like that shark’s mouth when it opened, only his gullet was blazing orange, the same color as his eyes, and I felt heat bake out of it and into my face, the way you feel a sudden wave of heat come pushing out of a fireplace when a dry piece of wood catches alight. And I didn’t imagine that heat, either--I know I didn’t--because just before he slid the head of my nineteen-inch brook trout between his gaping jaws, I saw the scales along the sides of the fish rise up and begin to curl like bits of paper floating over an open incinerator.

  He slid the fish in like a man in a travelling show swallowing a sword. He didn’t chew, and his blazing eyes bulged out, as if in effort. The fish went in and went in, his throat bulged as it slid down his gullet, and now he began to cry tears of his own--except his tears were blood, scarlet and thick.

  I think it was the sight of those bloody tears that gave me my body back. I don’t know why that should have been, but I think it was. I bolted to my feet like a Jack released from its box, turned with my bamboo pole still in one hand, and fled up the bank, bending over and tearing tough bunches of weeds out with my free hank in an effort to get up the slope more quickly.

  He made a strangled, furious noise--the sound of any man with his mouth too full--and I looked back just as I got to the top. He was coming after me, the back of his suit coat flapping and his thin gold watch chain flashing and winking in the sun. The tail of the fish was still protruding from his mouth and I could smell the rest of it, roasting in the oven of his throat.

  He reached for me, groping with his talons, and I fled along the top of the bank. After a hundred yards or so, I found my voice and went to screaming--screaming in fear, of course, but also screaming in grief for my beautiful dead mother.

  He was coming after me. I could hear snapping branches and whipping bushes, but I didn’t look back again. I lowered my head, slitted my eyes against the bushes and low-hanging branches along the stream’s bank, and ran as fast as I could. And at every step I expected to feel his hands descending on my shoulders, pulling me back into a final burning hug.

  That didn’t happen. Some unknown length of time later--it couldn’t have been longer than five or ten minutes, I suppose, but it seemed like forever--I saw the bridge through layerings of leaves and firs. Still screaming, but breathlessly now, sounding like a teakettle that has almost boiled dry, I reached this second, steeper bank and charged up.

  Halfway to the top, I slipped to my knees, looked over my shoulder, and saw the man in the black suit almost at my heels, his white face pulled into a convulsion of fury and greed. His cheeks were splattered with his bloody tears and his shark’s mouth hung open like a hinge.

  "Fisherboy!" he snarled, and started up the bank after me, grasping at my foot with one long hand. I tore free, turned, and threw my fishing pole at him. He batted it down easily, but it tangled his feet up somehow and he went to his knees. I didn’t wait to see any more; I turned and bolted to the top of the slope. I almost slipped at the very top, but managed to grab one of the support struts running beneath the bridge and save myself.

  "You can’t get away, fisherboy!" he cried from behind me. He sounded furious, but he also sounded as if he were laughing. "It takes more than a mouthful of trout to fill me up!"

  "Leave me alone!" I screamed back at him. I grabbed the bridge’s railing and threw myself over it in a clumsy somersault, filling my hanks with splinters and bumping my head so hard on the boards when I came down that I saw stars. I rolled over on my belly and began crawling. I lurched to my feet just before I got to the end of the bridge, stumbled once, found my rhythm, and then began to run. I ran as only nine-year-old boys can run, which is like the wind. It felt as if my feet only touched the ground with every third or fourth stride, and, for all I know, that may be true. I ran straight up the right-hank wheel rut in the road, ran until my temples pounded and my eyes pulsed in their sockets, ran until I had a hot stitch in my left side from the bottom of my ribs to my armpit, ran until I could taste blood and something like metal shavings in the back of my throat, When I couldn’t run anymore I stumbled to a stop and looked back over my shoulder, puffing and blowing like a wind-broken horse. I was convinced I would see him standing right there behind me in his natty black suit, the watch chain a glittering loop across his vest and not a hair out of place.

  But he was gone. The road stretching back toward Castle Stream between the darkly massed pines and spruces was empty. An yet I sensed him somewhere near in those woods, watching me with his grassfire eyes, smelling of burned matches and roasted fish.

  I turned and began walking as fast as I could, limping a little--I’d pulled muscles in both legs, and when I got out of bed the next morning I was so sore I could barely walk. I kept looking over my shoulder, needing again and again to verify the road behind my was still empty. It was each time I looked, but those backward glances seemed to increase my fear rather than lessen it. The firs looked darker, massier, and I kept imagining what lay behind the trees that marched beside the road--long, tangled corridors of forest, leg-breaking deadfalls, ravines where anything might live. Until that Saturday in 1914, I had thought that bears were the worst thing the forest could hold.

  A mile or so farther up the road, just beyond the place where it came out of the woods and joined the Geegan Flat Road, I saw my father walking toward me and whistling "The Old Oaken Bucket." He was carrying his own rod, the one with the fancy spinning reel from Monkey Ward. In his other hand he had his creel, the one with the ribbon my mother had woven through the handle back when Dan was still alive. "Dedicated to Jesus" that ribbon said. I had been walking, but when I saw him I started to run again, screaming Dad! Dad! Dad! at the top of my lungs and staggering from side to side on my tired, sprung legs like a drunken sailor. The expression of surprise on his face when he recognized me might have been comical under other circumstances. He dropped his rod and creel into the road without so much as a downward glance at them and ran to me. It was the fastest I ever saw my dad run in his life; when we came together it was a wonder the impact didn’t knock us both senseless,
and I struck my face on his belt buckle hard enough to start a little nosebleed. I didn’t notice that until later, though. Right then I only reached out my arms and clutched him as hard as I could. I held on and rubbed my hot face back and forth against his belly, covering his old blue workshirt with blood and tears and snot.

  "Gary, what is it? What Happened? Are you all right?"

  "Ma’s dead!" I sobbed. "I met a man in the woods and he told me! Ma’s dead! She got stung by a bee and it swelled her all up just like what happened to Dan, and she’s dead! She’s on the kitchen floor and Candy Bill . . . licked the t-t-tears . . . off her . . ."

  Face was the last word I had to say, but by then my chest was hitching so bad I couldn’t get it out. My own tears were flowing again, and my dad’s startled, frightened face had blurred into three overlapping images. I began to howl--not like a little kid who’s skinned his knee but like a dog that’s seen something bad by moonlight--and my father pressed my head against his hard flat stomach again. I slipped out from under his hand, though, and looked back over my shoulder. I wanted to make sure the man in the black suit wasn’t coming. There was no sign of him; the road winding back into the woods was completely empty. I promised myself I would never go back down that road again, not ever, no matter what, and I suppose now that God’s greatest blessing to His creatures below is that they can’t see the future. It might have broken my mind if I had known I would be going back down that road, and not two hours later. For that moment, though, I was only relieved to see we were still alone. Then I thought of my mother-- my beautiful dead mother--and laid my face back against my father’s stomach and bawled some more.

  "Gary, listen to me," he said a moment or two later. I went on bawling. He gave me a little longer to do that, then reached down and lifted my chin so he could look down into my face and I could look up into his. "Your mom’s fine," he said.

  I could only look at him with tears streaming down my cheeks. I didn’t believe him.