L.T.'S Theory Of Pets, Page 2Stephen King
'Chip, go on in.
'That an order?' He smiled vacuously over Jim's head.
'You flunk me on that test?’
'Yeah, that's . . .' The rest was an under-the-breath mumble.
Jim turned to Robert Lawson. 'You're new,' he said. 'I just wanted to tell you how we run things around here.’
'Sure, Mr Norman.' His right eyebrow was split with a small scar, a scar Jim knew. There could be no mistake. It was crazy, it was lunacy, but it was also a fact. Sixteen years ago, this kid had driven a knife into his brother.
Numbly, as if from a great distance, he heard himself beginning to outline the class rules and regulations. Robert Lawson hooked his thumbs into his garrison belt, listened, smiled, and began to nod, as if they were old friends.
'Is something wrong?’
'Those Living with Lit boys still giving you a hard time?’
'Why don't you go to bed early tonight?' But he didn't.
The dream was very bad that night. When the kid with the strawberry birthmark stabbed his brother with his knife, he called after Jim: 'You next, kid. Right through the bag.’
He woke up screaming.
He was teaching Lord of the Flies that week, and talking about symbolism when Lawson raised his hand.
'Robert?' he said evenly.
'Why do you keep starin' at me?' Jim blinked and felt his mouth go dry.
'You see somethin' green? Or is my fly unzipped?' A nervous titter from the class.
Jim replied evenly: 'I wasn't staring at you, Mr Lawson. Can you tell us why Ralph and Jack disagreed over -'You were starin' at me.’
'Do you want to talk about it with Mr Fenton?' Lawson appeared to think it over.
'Naw.' 'Good. Now can you tell us why Ralph and Jack -' 'I didn't read it. I think it's a dumb book.' Jim smiled tightly. 'Do you, now? You want to remember that while you're judging the book, the book is also judging you. Now can anyone else tell me why they disagreed over the existence of the beast?’
Kathy Slavin raised her hand timidly, and Lawson gave her a cynical once-over and said something to Chip Osway. The words leaving his lips looked like 'nice tits'. Chip nodded.
'Isn't it because Jack wanted to hunt the beast?’
'Good.' He turned and began to write on the board. At the instant his back was turned, a grapefruit smashed against the board beside his head.
He jerked backward and wheeled around. Some class members laughed, but Osway and Lawson only looked at Jim innocently.
Jim stooped and picked up the grapefruit. 'Someone,' he said, looking towards the back of the room, 'ought to have this jammed 'down his goddamn throat.’
Kathy Slavin gasped.
He tossed the grapefruit in the wastebasket and turned back to the blackboard.
He opened the morning paper, sipping his coffee, and saw the headline about halfway down. 'God!' he said, splitting his wife's easy flow of morning chatter.
His belly felt suddenly filled with splinters -'Teen-Age Girl Falls to Her Death: Katherine Slavin, a seventeen-year-old junior at Harold Davis High School, either fell or was pushed from the roof of her downtown apartment house early yesterday evening. The girl, who kept a pigeon coop on the roof, had gone up with a sack of feed, according to her mother.
'Police said an unidentified woman in a neighbouring development had seen three boys running across the roof at 6.45 p.m., just minutes after the girl's body (continued page 3)-’
'Jim, was she one of yours?' But he could only look at her mutely.
Two weeks later, Simmons met him in the hall after the lunch bell with a folder in his hand, and Jim felt a terrible sinking in his belly.
'New student,' he said flatly to Simmons. 'Living with Lit.’
Sim's eyebrows went up. 'How did you know that?’
Jim shrugged and held his hand out for the folder.
'Got to run,' Simmons said. 'Department heads are meeting on course evaluations.
You look a little run-down. Feeling okay?’
That's right, a little run-down. Like Billy Stearns.
'Sure,' he said.
'That's the stuff,' Simmons said, and clapped him on the back.
When he was gone, Jim opened the folder to the picture, wincing in advance, like man about to be hit.
But the face wasn't instantly familiar. Just a kid's face. Maybe he'd seen it before, maybe not. The kid, David Garcia, was a hulking, dark-haired boy with rather negroid lips and dark, slumbering eyes. The yellow sheet said he was also from Milford High and that he had spent two years in Granville Reformatory. Car theft.
Jim closed the folder with hands that trembled slightly.
She looked up from her ironing. He had been staring at a TV basketball game without really seeing it.
'Nothing,' he said. 'Forgot what I was going to say.’
'Must have been a lie.’
He smiled mechanically and looked at the TV again. It had been on the tip of his tongue to spill everything. But how could he? It was worse than crazy. Where would you start? The dream? The breakdown? The appearance of Robert Lawson?
No. With Wayne - your brother.
But he had never told anyone about that, not even in analysis. His thoughts turned to David Garcia, and the dreamy terror that had washed over him when they had looked at each other in the hall. Of course, he had only looked vaguely familiar in the picture. Pictures don't move or twitch.
Garcia had been standing with Lawson and Chip Osway, and when he looked up and saw Jim Norman, he smiled and his eyelid began to jitter up and down and voices spoke in Jim's mind with unearthly clarity:
Come on, kid, how much you got? F-four cents.
You fuckin' liar - look, Vinnie, he wet himself’
'Jim? Did you say something?’
'No.' But he wasn't sure if he had or not. He was getting very scared.
One day after school in early February there was a knock on the teachers'-room door, and when Jim opened it, Chip Osway stood there. He looked frightened. Jim was alone; it was ten after four and the last of the teachers had gone home an hour before. He was correcting a batch of American Lit themes.
'Chip?' he said evenly.
Chip shuffled his feet. 'Can I talk to you for a minute, Mr Norman?’
'Sure. But if it's about that test, you're wasting your -’
'It's not about that. Uh, can I smoke in here?’
He lit his cigarette with a hand that trembled slightly. He didn't speak for perhaps as long as a minute. It seemed that he couldn't. His lips twitched, his hands came together, and his eyes slitted, as if some inner self was struggling to find expression.
He suddenly burst out: 'If they do it, I want you to know I wasn't in on it! I don't like those guys! They're creeps!’
'What guys, Chip?’
'Lawson and that Garcia creep.’
'Are they planning to get me?' The old dreamy terror was on him, and he knew the answer.
'I liked them at first,' Chip said. 'We went out and had a few beers. I started bitchin' about you and that test. About how I was gonna get you. But that was just talk! I swear it!’
'They took me right up on it. Asked what time you left school, what kind of car you drove, all that stuff. I said what have you got against him and Garcia said they knew you a long time ago. . . hey, are you all right?’
'The cigarette,' he said thickly. 'Haven't ever got used to the smoke.’
Chip ground it out. 'I asked them when they knew you and Bob Lawson said I was still pissin' my didies then. But they're seventeen, the same as me.’
'Well, Garcia leans over the table and says you can't want to get him very bad
if you don't even know when he leaves the fuckin' school. What was you gonna do?
So I says I was gonna matchstick your tyres and leave you with four flats.' He looked at Jim with pleading eyes. 'I wasn't even gonna do that. I said it because 'You were scared?' Jim asked quietly.
'Yeah, and I'm still scared.’
'What did they think of your idea?’
Chip shuddered. 'Bob Lawson says, is that what you was gonna do, you cheap prick? And I said, tryin' to be tough, what was you gonna do, off him? And Garcia - his eyelids starts to go up and down - he takes something out of his pocket and clicked it open and it's a switchknife. That's when I took off.’
'When was this, Chip?’
'Yesterday. I'm scared to sit with those guys now, Mr Norman.’
'Okay,' Jim said. 'Okay.' He looked down at the papers he had been correcting without seeing them.
'What are you going to do?’
'I don't know,' Jim said. 'I really don't.’
On Monday morning he still didn't know. His first thought had been to tell Sally everything, starting with his brother's murder sixteen years ago. But it was impossible. She would be sympathetic but frightened and unbelieving.
Simmons? Also impossible. Simmons would think he was mad. And maybe he was. A man in a group encounter session he had attended had said having a breakdown was like breaking a vase and then gluing it back together. You could never trust yourself to handle that vase again with any surety. You couldn't put a flower in it because flowers need water and water might dissolve the glue.
Am I crazy, then?
If he was, Chip Osway was, too. That thought came to him as he was getting into his car, and a bolt of excitement went through him.
Of course! Lawson and Garcia had threatened him in Chip Osway's presence. That might not stand up in court, but it would get the two of them suspended if he could get Chip to repeat his story in Fenton's office. And he was almost sure he could get Chip to do that. Chip had his own reasons for wanting them far away.
He was driving into the parking lot when he thought about what had happened to Billy Stearns and Katy Slavin.
During his free period, he went up to the office and leaned over the registration secretary's desk. She was doing the absence list.
'Chip Osway here today?' he asked casually.
'Chip . . . ?' She looked at him doubtfully.
'Charles Osway,' Jim amended. 'Chip's a nickname.’
She leafed through a pile of slips, glanced at one, and pulled it out., 'He's absent, Mr Norman.’
'Can you get me his phone number?’
She pushed her pencil into her hair and said. 'Certainly.' She dug it out of the 0 file and handed it to him. Jim dialled the number on an office phone.
The phone rang a dozen times and he was about to' hang up when a rough, sleep-blurred voice said, 'Yeah?’
'Barry Osway's been dead six years. I'm Gary Denkinger.’
'Are you Chip Osway's stepfather?’
'What'd he do?' 'Pardon?’
'He's run off. I want to know what he did.’
'So far as I know, nothing. I just wanted to talk with him. Do you have any idea where he might be?’
'Naw, I work nights. I don't know none of his friends.’
'Any idea at a-’
'Nope. He took the old suitcase and fifty bucks he saved up from stealin' car parts or sellin' dope or whatever these kids do for money. Gone to San Francisco to be a hippie for all I know.’
'If you hear from him, will you call me at school? Jim Norman, English wing.’
Jim put the phone down. The registration secretary looked up and offered a quick meaningless smile. Jim didn't smile back.
Two days later, the words 'left school' appeared after Chip Osway's name on the morning attendance slip. Jim began to yvait for Simmons to show up with a new folder. A week later he did.
He looked dully down at the picture. No question about this one. The crew cut had been replaced by long hair, but it was still blond. And the face was the same, Vincent Corey. Vinnie, to his friends and intimates. He stared up at Jim from the picture, an insolent grin on his lips.
When he approached his period-seven class, his heart was thudding gravely in his chest. Lawson and Garcia and Vinnie Corey were standing by the bulletin board outside the door - they all straightened when he came towards them.
Vinnie smiled his insolent smile, but his eyes were as cold and dead as ice floes. 'You must be Mr Norman. Hi, Norm.’
Lawson and Garcia tittered.
'I'm Mr Norman,' Jim said, ignoring the hand that Vinnie had put out. 'You'll remember that?’
'Sure, I'll remember it. How's your brother?’
Jim froze. He felt his bladder loosen, and as if from far away, from down a long corridor somewhere in his cranium, he heard a ghostly voice: Look, Vinnie, he wet himself’
'What do you know about my brother?' he asked thickly. 'Nothin',' Vinnie said.
'Nothin' much.' They smiled at him with their empty dangerous smiles.
The bell rang and they sauntered inside.
Drugstore phone booth, ten o'clock that night.
'Operator, I want to call the police station in Stratford, Connecticut. No I don't know the number.’
Clickings on the line. Conferences.
The policeman had been Mr Nell. In those days he had been white-haired, perhaps in his mid-fifties. Hard to tell when you were just a kid. Their father was dead, and somehow Mr Nell had known that.
Call me Mr Nell, boys.
Jim and his brother met at lunchtime every day and they went into the Stratford Diner to eat their bag lunches. Mom gave them each a nickel to buy milk - that was before school milk programmes started. And sometimes Mr Nell would come in, his leather belt creaking with the weight of his belly and his .38 revolver, and buy them each a pie ~ Ia mode.
Where were you when they stabbed my brother, Mr Nell?
A connection was made. The phone rang once.
'Hello, My name is James Norman, Officer. I'm calling long-distance.' He named the city. 'I want to know if you can give me a line on a man who would have been on the force around 1957.’
'Hold the line a moment, Mr Norman.’
A pause, then a new voice.
'I'm Sergeant Morton Livingston, Mr Norman. Who are you trying to locate?’
'Well,' Jim said, 'us kids just called him Mr Nell. Does that -’
'Hell, yes! Don Nell's retired now. He's seventy-three or four.’
'Does he still live in Stratford?’
'Yes, over on Barnum Avenue. Would you like the address?’
'And the phone number, if you have it.’
'Okay. Did you know Don?’
'He used to buy my brother and me apple pie a'la mode down at the Stratford Diner.’
'Christ, that's been gone ten years. Wait a minute.' He came back on the phone and read an address and a phone number. Jim jotted them down, thanked Livingston, and hung up.
He dialled 0 again, gave the number, and waited. When the phone began to ring, a sudden hot tension filled him and he leaned forward, turning instinctively away from the drugstore soda fountain, although there was no one there but a plump teen-age girl reading a magazine.
The phone was picked up and a rich, masculine voice, sounding not at all old, said, 'Hello?' That single word set off a dusty chain reaction of memories and emotions, as startling as the Pavlovian reaction that can be set off by hearing an old record on the radio.
'Mr Nell? Donald Nell?’
'My name is James Norman, Mr Nell. Do you remember me, by any chance?’
'Yes,' the voice responded immediately. 'Pie a'la mode. Your brother was killed . . . knifed. A shame. He was a lovely boy.’
Jim collapsed against one of the booth's glass walls. The tension's sudden departure left him as weak as a stuffed toy. He found himself on the
verge of spilling everything, and he bit the urge back desperately.
'Mr Nell, those boys were never caught.’
'No,' Nell said. 'We did have suspects. As I recall, we had a lineup at a Bridgeport police station.’
'Were those suspects identified to me by name?’
'No. The procedure at a police showup was to address the participants by number.
What's your interest in this now, Mr Norman?’
'Let me throw some names at you,' Jim said. 'I want to know if they ring a bell in connection with the case.’
'Son, I wouldn't -’
'You might,' Jim said, beginning to feel a trifle desperate. 'Robert Lawson, David Garcia, Vincent Corey. Do any of those -'Corey,' Mr Nell said flatly. 'I remember him. Vinnie the Viper. Yes, we had him up on that. His mother alibied him. I don't get anything from Robert Lawson. That could be anyone's name. But Garcia . . . that rings a bell. I'm not sure why. Hell. I'm old.' He sounded disgusted.
'Mr Nell, is there any way you could check on those boys?’
'Well, of course, they wouldn't be boys anymore.’
'Listen, Jimmy. Has one of those boys popped up and started harassing you?’
'I don't know. Some strange things have been happening. Things connected with the stabbing of my brother.’
'Mr Nell, I can't tell you. You'd think I was crazy.’
His reply, quick, firm, interested: 'Are you?’
Jim paused. 'No,' he said.
'Okay, I can check the names through Stratford R&I. Where can I get in touch?’
Jim gave his home number. 'You'd be most likely to catch me on Tuesday night.’
He was in almost every ~ight, but on Tuesday evenings Sally went to her pottery class.
'What are you doing these days, Jimmy?’
'Good. This might take a few days, you know. I'm retired now.’
'You sound just the same.’
'Ah, but if you could see me!' He chuckled, 'D'you still like a good piece of pie a' la mode, Jimmy?’
'Sure,' Jim said. It was a lie. He hated pie a la mode.
'I'm glad to hear that. Well, if there's nothing else, I'll -' 'There is one more thing. Is there a Milford High in Stratford?’