Word Processor of the Gods, Page 2Stephen King
He looked from the blank place on the wall where Lina's picture had been to the word processor his dead nephew had cobbled together.
You might be surprised, he heard Nordhoff saying in his mind. You might be surprised, you might be surprised, oh yes, if some kid in the fifties could discover particles that travel backwards through time, you might be surprised what your genius of a nephew could do with a bunch of discarded word processor elements and some wires and electrical components. You might be so surprised that you' II feel as if you're going insane.
The transformer smell was richer, stronger now, and he could see wisps of smoke rising from the vents in the screen housing. The noise from the CPU was louder, too. It was time to turn it off -- smart as Jon had been, he apparently hadn't had time to work out all the bugs in the crazy thing.
But had he known it would do this?
Feeling like a figment of his own imagination, Richard sat down in front of the screen again and typed:
MY WIFE'S PICTURE IS ON THE WALL
He looked at this for a moment, looked back at the keyboard, and then hit the execute key.
He looked at the wall.
Lina's picture was back, right where it had always been.
"Jesus," he whispered. "Jesus Christ."
He rubbed a hand up his cheek, looked at the keyboard (blank again now except for the cursor), and then typed:
MY FLOOR IS BARE
He then touched the insert button and typed:
EXCEFf FOR TWELVE TWENTY-DOLLAR GOLD PIECES IN A SMALL COTTON SACK
He pressed execute.
He looked at the floor, where there was now a small white cotton sack with a drawstring top. wells fargo was stenciled on the bag in faded black ink.
"Dear Jesus," he heard himself saying in a voice that wasn't his. "Dear Jesus, dear good Jesus -- "
He might have gone on invoking the Savior's name for minutes or hours if the word processor had not started beeping at him steadily. Flashing across the top of the screen was the word overload
Richard turned off everything in a hurry and left his study as if all the devils of hell were after him.
But before he went he scooped up the small drawstring sack and put it in his pants pocket.
When he called Nordhoff that evening, a cold November wind was playing tuneless bagpipes in the trees outside. Seth's group was downstairs, murdering a Bob Seger tune. Lina was out at Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrows, playing bingo.
"Does the machine work?" Nordhoff asked.
"It works, all right," Richard said. He reached into his pocket and brought out a coin. It was heavy -- heavier than a Rolex watch. An eagle's stern profile was embossed on one side, along with the date 1871. "It works in ways you wouldn't believe."
"I might," Nordhoff said evenly. "He was a very bright boy, and he loved you very much, Mr. Hagstrom. But be careful. A boy is only a boy, bright or otherwise, and love can be misdirected. Do you take my meaning?"
Richard didn't take his meaning at all. He felt hot and feverish. That day's paper had listed the current market price of gold at $514 an ounce. The coins had weighed out at an average of 4.5 ounces each on his postal scale. At the current market rate that added up to $27,756. And he guessed that was perhaps only a quarter of what he could realize for those coins if he sold them as coins.
"Mr. Nordhoff, could you come over here? Now? Tonight?"
"No," Nordhoff said. "No, I don't think I want to do that, Mr. Hagstrom. I think this ought to stay between you and Jon."
"But -- "
"Just remember what I said. For Christ's sake, be careful." There was a small click and Nordhoff was gone.
He found himself out in his study again half an hour later, looking at the word processor. He touched the ON/OFF key but didn't turn it on just yet. The second time Nordhoff said it, Richard had heard it. For Christ's sake, be careful. Yes. He would have to be careful. A machine that could do such a thing --
How could a machine do such a thing?
He had no idea... but in a way, that made the whole crazy thing easier to accept. He was an English teacher and sometime writer, not a technician, and he had a long history of not understanding how things worked: phonographs, gasoline engines, telephones, televisions, the flushing mechanism in his toilet. His life had been a history of understanding operations rather than principles. Was there any difference here, except in degree?
He turned the machine on. As before it said: happy birthday, uncle richard' JON He pushed execute and the message from his nephew disappeared.
This machine is not going to work for long, he thought suddenly. He felt sure that Jon must have still been working on it when he died, confident that there was time, Uncle Richard's birthday wasn't for three weeks, after all --
But time had run out for Jon, and so this totally amazing word processor, which could apparently insert new things or delete old things from the real world, smelled like a frying train transformer and started to smoke after a few minutes. Jon hadn't had a chance to perfect it. He had been --
Confident that there was time?
But that was wrong. That was all wrong. Richard knew it Jon's still, watchful face, the sober eyes behind the thick spectacles... there was no confidence there, no belief in the comforts of time. What was the word that had occurred to him earlier that day? Doomed. It wasn't just a good word for Jon; it was the right word. That sense of doom had hung about the boy so palpably that there had been times when Richard had wanted to hug him, to tell him to lighten up a little bit, that sometimes there were happy endings and the good didn't always die young.
Then he thought of Roger throwing his Magic Eight-Ball at the sidewalk, throwing it just as hard as he could; he heard the plastic splinter and saw the Eight-Ball's magic fluid -- just water after all -- running down the sidewalk. And this picture merged with a picture of Roger's mongrel van, hagstrom's wholesale deliveries written on the side, plunging over the edge of some dusty, crumbling cliff out in the country, hitting dead squat on its nose with a noise that was, like Roger himself, no big deal. He saw -- although he didn't want to -- the face of his brother's wife disintegrate into blood and bone. He saw Jon burning in the wreck, screaming, turning black.
No confidence, no real hope. He had always exuded a sense of time running out. And in the end he had turned out to be right.
"What does that mean?" Richard muttered, looking at the blank screen.
How would the Magic Eight-Ball have answered that? ask
AGAIN LATER'' OUTCOME IS MURKY'' Or perhaps IT IS CERTAINLY SO?
The noise coming from the CPU was getting louder again, and more quickly than this afternoon. Already he could smell the train transformer Jon had lodged in the machinery behind the screen getting hot.
Magic dream machine.
Word processor of the gods.
Was that what it was? Was that what Jon had intended to give his uncle for his birthday? The space-age equivalent of a magic lamp or a wishing well?
He heard the back door of the house bang open and then the voices of Seth and the other members of Seth's band. The voices were too loud, too raucous. They had either been drinking or smoking dope.
"Where's your old man, Seth?" he heard one of them ask.
"Goofing off in his study, like usual, I guess," Seth said. "I think he -- " The wind rose again then, blurring the rest, but not blurring their vicious tribal laughter.
Richard sat listening to them, his head cocked a little to one side, and suddenly he typed:
MY SON IS SETH ROBERT HAGSTROM
His finger hovered over the delete button.
What are you doing? his mind screamed at him. Can you be serious? Do you intend to murder your own son?
"He must do somethin in there," one of the others said.
"He's a goddam dimwit," Seth answered. "You ask my mother sometime. She'll tell you. He -- "
I'm not going to murder him. I'm going to... to DELETE him.
His finger stabbed down on the
" -- ain't never done nothing but -- "
The words my son is seth robert hagstrom vanished from the screen.
Outside, Seth's words vanished with them.
There was no sound out there now but the cold November wind, blowing grim advertisements for winter.
Richard turned off the word processor and went outside. The driveway was empty. The group's lead guitarist, Norm somebody, drove a monstrous and somehow sinister old LTD station wagon in which the group carried their equipment to their infrequent gigs. It was not parked in the driveway now Perhaps it was somewhere in the world, tooling down some highway or parked in the parking lot of some greasy hamburger hangout, and Norm was also somewhere in the world, as was Davey, the bassist, whose eyes were frighteningly blank and who wore a safety pin dangling from one earlobe, as was the drummer, who had no front teeth. They were somewhere in the world, somewhere, but not here, because Seth wasn't here, Seth had never been here.
Seth had been DELETED.
"I have no son," Richard muttered. How many times had he read that melodramatic phrase in bad novels? A hundred? Two hundred? It had never rung true to him. But here it was true. Now it was true. Oh yes.
The wind gusted, and Richard was suddenly seized by a vicious stomach cramp that doubled him over, gasping. He passed explosive wind.
When the cramps passed, he walked into the house.
The first thing he noticed was that Seth's ratty tennis shoes -- he had four pairs of them and refused to throw any of them out -- were gone from the front hall. He went to the stairway banister and ran his thumb over a section of it. At age ten (old enough to know better, but Lina had refused to allow Richard to lay a hand on the boy in spite of that), Seth had carved his initials deeply into the wood of that banister, wood which Richard had labored over for almost one whole summer. He had sanded and filled and revarmshed, but the ghost of those initials had remained. They were gone now.
Upstairs Seth's room. It was neat and clean and unlived-in, dry and devoid of personality. It might as well have had a sign on the doorknob reading guest room
Downstairs. And it was here that Richard lingered the longest. The snarls of wire were gone; the amplifiers and microphones were gone; the litter of tape recorder parts that Seth was always going to "fix up" were gone (he did not have Jon's hands or concentration). Instead the room bore the deep (if not particularly pleasant) stamp of Lina's personality -- heavy, florid furniture and saccharin velvet tapestries (one depicting a Last Supper at which Christ looked like Wayne Newton, another showing deer against a sunset Alaskan sky-line), a glaring rug as bright as arterial blood. There was no longer the faintest sense that a boy named Seth Hagstrom had once inhabited this room. This room, or any of the other rooms in the house.
Richard was still standing at the foot of the stairs and looking around when he heard a car pull into the driveway.
Lina, he thought, and felt a surge of almost frantic guilt. It's Lina, back from bingo, and what's she going to say when she sees that Seth is gone? What... what...
Murderer! he heard her screaming. You murdered my boy!
But he hadn't murdered Seth.
"I DELETED him," he muttered, and went upstairs to meet her in the kitchen.
Lina was fatter.
He had sent a woman off to bingo who weighed a hundred and eighty pounds or so. The woman who came back in weighed at least three hundred, perhaps more; she had to twist slightly sideways to get in through the back door. Elephantine hips and thighs rippled in tidal motions beneath polyester slacks the color of overripe green olives. Her skin, merely sallow three hours ago, was now sickly and pale. Although he was no doctor, Richard thought he cold read serious liver damage or incipient heart disease in that skin. Her heavy-lidded eyes regarded Richard with a steady, even contempt.
She was carrying the frozen corpse of a huge turkey in one of her flabby hands. It twisted and turned within its cellophane wrapper like the body of a bizarre suicide.
"What are you staring at, Richard?" she asked.
You, Lina. I'm staring at you. Because this is how you turned out in a world where we had no children. This is how you turned out in a world where there was no object for your love -- poisoned as your love might be. This is how Lina looks in a world where everything comes in and nothing at all goes out. You, Lina. That's what I'm staring at. You.
"That bird, Lina," he managed finally. "That's one of the biggest damn turkeys I've ever seen."
"Well don't just stand there looking at it, idiot! Help me with it!"
He took the turkey and put it on the counter, feeling its waves of cheerless cold. It sounded like a block of wood.
"Not there!" she cried impatiently, and gestured toward the pantry. "It's not going to fit in there! Put it in the freezer!"
"Sorry," he murmured. They had never had a freezer before. Never in the world where there had been a Seth.
He took the turkey into the pantry, where a long Amana freezer sat under cold white fluorescent tubes like a cold white coffin. He put it inside along with the cryogenically preserved corpses of other birds and beasts and then went back into the kitchen. Lina had taken the jar of Reese's peanut butter cups from the cupboard and was eating them methodically, one after the other.
"It was the Thanksgiving bingo," she said. "We had it this week instead of next because next week Father Phillips has to go in hospital and have his gall-bladder out. I won the coverall." She smiled. A brown mixture of chocolate and peanut butter dripped and ran from her teeth.
"Lina," he said, "are you ever sorry we never had children?''
She looked at him as if he had gone utterly crazy. "What in the name of God would I want a rug-monkey for?" she asked. She shoved the jar of peanut butter cups, now reduced by half, back into the cupboard. "I'm going to bed. Are you coming, or are you going back out there and moon over your typewriter some more?"
"I'll go out for a little while more, I think," he said. His voice was surprisingly steady. "I won't be long."
"Does that gadget work?"
"What -- " Then he understood and he felt another flash of guilt. She knew about the word processor, of course she did. Seth's DELETION had not affected Roger and the track that Roger's family had been on. "Oh. Oh, no. It doesn't do anything."
She nodded, satisfied. "That nephew of yours. Head always in the clouds. Just like you, Richard. If you weren't such a mouse, I'd wonder if maybe you'd been putting it where you hadn't ought to have been putting it about fifteen years ago." She laughed a coarse, surprisingly powerful laugh -- the laugh of an aging, cynical bawd -- and for a moment he almost leaped at her. Then he felt a smile surface on his own lips -- a smile as thin and white and cold as the Amana freezer that had replaced Seth on this new track.
"I won't be long," he said. "I just want to note down a few things."
"Why don't you write a Nobel Prize-winning short story, or something?" she asked indifferently. The hall floorboards creaked and muttered as she swayed her huge way toward the stairs. "We still owe the optometrist for my reading glasses and we're a payment behind on the Betamax. Why don't you make us some damn money?''
"Well," Richard said, "I don't know, Lina. But I've got some good ideas tonight. I really do."
She turned to look at him, seemed about to say something sarcastic -- something about how none of his good ideas had put them on easy street but she had stuck with him anyway -- and then didn't. Perhaps something about his smile deterred her. She went upstairs. Richard stood below, listening to her thundering tread. He could feel sweat on his forehead. He felt simultaneously sick and exhilarated.
He turned and went back out to his study.
This time when he turned the unit on, the CPU did not hum or roar; it began to make an uneven howling noise. That hot train transformer smell came almost immediately from the housing behind the screen, and as soon as he pushed the execute button, erasing the happy birthday, uncle richard! message, the unit began to smoke.
; Not much time, he thought. No... that's not right. No time at all. Jon knew it, and now I know it, too.
The choices came down to two: Bring Seth back with the insert button (he was sure he could do it; it would be as easy as creating the Spanish doubloons had been) or finish the job.
The smell was getting thicker, more urgent. In a few moments, surely no more, the screen would start blinking its overload message.
MY WIFE IS ADELINA MABEL WARREN HAGSTROM
He punched the delete button. He typed:
I AM A MAN WHO LIVES ALONE.
Now the word began to blink steadily in the upper right-hand comer of the screen: overload overload overload. Please. Please let me finish. Please, please, please... The smoke coming from the vents in the video cabinet was thicker and grayer now. He looked down at the screaming CPU and saw that smoke was also coming from its vents... and down in that smoke he could see a sullen red spark of fire.
Magic Eight-Ball, will I be healthy, wealthy, or wise? Or will I live alone and perhaps kill myself in sorrow? Is there time enough?
CANNOT SEE NOW TRY AGAIN LATER
Except there was no later.
He struck the insert button and the screen went dark, except for the constant overload message, which was now blinking at a frantic, stuttery rate.
EXCEPT FOR MY WIFE, BELINDA, AND MY SON, JONATHAN
He hit the execute button.
The screen went blank. For what seemed like ages it remained blank, except for overload, which was now blinking so fast that, except for a faint shadow, it seemed to remain constant, like a computer executing a closed loop of command. Something inside the CPU popped and sizzled, and Richard groaned.
Then green letters appeared on the screen, floating mystically on the black:
I AM A MAN WHO LIVES ALONE EXCEPT FOR MY WIFE, BELINDA, AND MY SON, JONATHAN
He hit the execute button twice.
Now, he thought. Now I will type: ALL THE BUGS IN THIS WORD PROCESSOR WERE FULLY WORKED OUT BEFORE MR. NORDHOFF BROUGHT IT OVER HERE. Or I'll type: I HAVE IDEAS FOR AT LEAST TWENTY BEST-SELLING NOVELS. Or I'll type: MY FAMILY AND I ARE GOING TO LIVE HAPPILY EVER AFTER. Or I'll type-But he typed nothing. His fingers hovered stupidly over the keys as he felt -- literally felt -- all the circuits in his brain jam up like cars grid-locked into the worst Manhattan traffic jam in the history of internal combustion. The screen suddenly filled up with the word: