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Insomnia, Page 2

Stephen King

  The Datsun bounced along the short unpaved stretch of lane between the gate and the Harris Street Extension. A horn blared suddenly, and Ralph saw a blue Ford Ranger, heading west on the Extension, swerve to avoid the oncoming Datsun. The driver of the pickup saw the danger too late, and Ed apparently never saw it at all (it was only later that Ralph came to consider Ed might have rammed the Ranger on purpose). There was a brief scream of tires followed by the hollow bang of the Datsun's fender driving into the Ford's sidewall. The pickup was driven halfway across the yellow line. The Datsun's hood crumpled, came unlatched, and popped up a little; headlight glass tinkled into the street. A moment later both vehicles were dead in the middle of the road, tangled together like some weird sculpture.

  Ralph stood where he was for the time being, watching as oil spread beneath the Datsun's front end. He had seen several road accidents in his almost-seventy years, most of them minor, one or two serious, and he was always stunned by how quickly they happened and how little drama there was. It wasn't like in the movies, where the camera could slow things down, or on a videotape, where you could watch the car go off the cliff again and again if you so chose; there was usually just a series of converging blurs, followed by that quick and toneless combination of sounds: the cry of the tires, the hollow bang of metal crimping metal, the tinkle of glass. Then, voila - tout finis.

  There was even a kind of protocol for this sort of thing: How One Should Behave When Involved in a Low-Speed Collision. Of course there was, Ralph mused. There were probably a dozen two-bit collisions in Derry every day, and maybe twice that number in the wintertime, when there was snow and the roads got slippery. You got out, you met your opposite number at the point where the two vehicles had come together (and where, quite often, they were still entwined), you looked, you shook your heads. Sometimes - often, actually - this phase of the encounter was marked with angry words: fault was assigned (often rashly), driving skills impugned, legal action threatened. Ralph supposed what the drivers were really trying to say without coming right out and saying it was, Listen, fool, you scared the living hell out of me!

  The final step in this unhappy little dance was the Exchange of the Sacred Insurance Screeds, and it was at this point that the drivers usually began to get control of their galloping emotions . . . always assuming that no one had been hurt, as appeared to be the case here. Sometimes the drivers involved even finished up by shaking hands.

  Ralph prepared to watch all this from his vantage point less than a hundred and fifty yards away, but as soon as the driver's door of the Datsun opened he understood that things were going to go differently here - that the accident was maybe not over but still happening. It certainly did not seem that anyone was going to shake at the end of these festivities.

  The door did not swing open; it flew open. Ed Deepneau leaped out, then simply stood stock-still beside his car, his slim shoulders squared against a background of deepening clouds. He was wearing faded jeans and a tee-shirt, and Ralph realized he had never seen Ed in a shirt that didn't button up the front. And there was something around his neck: a long white something. A scarf? It looked like a scarf, but why would anyone be wearing a scarf on a day as hot as this one had been?

  Ed stood beside his wounded car for a moment, seeming to look in every direction but the right one. The fierce little pokes of his narrow head reminded Ralph of the way roosters studied their barnyard turf, looking for invaders and interlopers. Something about that similarity made Ralph feel uneasy. He had never seen Ed look that way before, and he supposed that was part of it, but it wasn't all of it. The truth of the matter was simply this: he had never seen anyone look exactly like that.

  Thunder rumbled in the west, louder now. And closer.

  The man getting out of the Ranger would have made two of Ed Deepneau, possibly three. His vast, deep belly hung over the rolled waistband of his green chino work-pants; there were sweatstains the size of dinner-plates under the arms of his open-throated white shirt. He tipped back the bill of the West Side Gardeners gimme-cap he was wearing to get a better look at the man who had broadsided him. His heavy-jowled face was dead pale except for bright patches of color like rouge high on his cheekbones, and Ralph thought: There's a man who's a prime candidate for a heart attack. If I was closer I bet I'd be able to see the creases in his earlobes.

  'Hey!' the heavyset guy yelled at Ed. The voice coming out of that broad chest and deep gut was absurdly thin, almost reedy. 'Where'd you get your license? Fuckin Sears n Roebuck?'

  Ed's wandering, jabbing head swung immediately toward the sound of the big man's voice - seemed almost to home in, like a jet guided by radar - and Ralph got his first good look at Ed's eyes. He felt a bolt of alarm light up in his chest and suddenly began to run toward the accident. Ed, meanwhile, had started toward the man in the sweat-soaked white shirt and gimme-cap. He was walking in a stiff-legged, high-shouldered strut that was nothing at all like his usual easygoing amble.

  'Ed!' Ralph shouted, but the freshening breeze - cold now with the promise of rain - seemed to snatch the words away before they could even get out of his mouth. Certainly Ed never turned. Ralph made himself run faster, the ache in his legs and the throbbing in the small of his back forgotten. It was murder he had seen in Ed Deepneau's wide, unblinking eyes. He had absolutely no previous experience upon which to base such an assessment, but he didn't think you could mistake such a naked glare; it was the look fighting cocks must wear when they launch themselves at each other, spurs up and slashing. 'Ed! Hey, Ed, hold up! It's Ralph!'

  Not so much as a glance around, although Ralph was now so close that Ed must have heard, wind or no wind. Certainly the heavyset man glanced around, and Ralph could see both fear and uncertainty in his look. Then Heavyset turned back to Ed and raised his hands placatingly.

  'Look,' he said. 'We can talk--'

  That was as far as he got. Ed took another quick step forward, reached up with one slim hand - it was very white in the rapidly darkening day - and slapped Heavyset across his far from inconsiderable jowls. The sound was like the report of a kid's air rifle.

  'How many have you killed?' Ed asked.

  Heavyset pressed back against the side of his pickup, his mouth open, his eyes wide. Ed's queer, stiff strut never faltered. He walked into the other man and stood belly to belly with him, seemingly oblivious of the fact that the pickup's driver was four inches taller and outweighed him by a hundred pounds or more. Ed reached up and slapped him again. 'Come on! Fess up, brave boy - how many have you killed?' His voice rose to a shriek that was lost in the coming storm's first really authoritative clap of thunder.

  Heavyset pushed him away - a gesture not of aggression but of simple fright - and Ed went reeling backward against the crumpled nose of his Datsun. He bounced back at once, fists clenched, gathering himself to leap at Heavyset, who was cringing against the side of his truck with his gimme-cap now askew and his shirt untucked in the back and at the sides. A memory flashed across Ralph's mind - a Three Stooges short he'd seen years ago, Larry, Curly, and Moe playing painters without a clue - and he felt a sudden surge of sympathy for Heavyset, who looked absurd as well as scared to death.

  Ed Deepneau did not look absurd. With his yanked-back lips and wide, unblinking eyes, Ed looked more like a fighting cock than ever. 'I know what you've been doing,' he whispered to Heavyset. 'What kind of comedy did you think this was? Did you think you and your butcher friends could get away with it forev--'

  At that moment Ralph arrived, puffing and gasping like an old carthorse, and put an arm around Ed's shoulders. The heat beneath the thin tee-shirt was unnerving; it was like putting an arm around an oven, and when Ed turned to look at him, Ralph had the momentary (but unforgettable) impression that that was exactly what he was looking into. He had never seen such utter, unreasoning fury in a pair of human eyes; had never even suspected such fury might exist.

  Ralph's immediate impulse was to recoil, but he suppressed it and stood firm. He had an idea th
at if he pulled back, Ed would fall on him like a rogue dog, biting and clawing. It was absurd, of course; Ed was a research chemist, Ed was a member of the Book of the Month Club (the kind who took the twenty-pound histories of the Crimean War they always seemed to offer as alternates to the main selection), Ed was Helen's husband and Natalie's dad. Hell, Ed was a friend.

  . . . except this wasn't that Ed, and Ralph knew it.

  Instead of pulling back, Ralph leaned forward, grasped Ed's shoulders (so hot under the tee-shirt, so incredibly, throbbingly hot), and moved his face until it blocked Heavyset from Ed's creepy fixed gaze.

  'Ed, quit it!' Ralph said. He used the loud but steadily firm voice he assumed one used with people who were having hysterics. 'You're all right! Just quit it!'

  For a moment Ed's fixed gaze didn't waver, and then his eyes moved over Ralph's face. It wasn't much, but Ralph felt a small surge of relief just the same.

  'What's the matter with him?' Heavyset asked from behind Ralph. 'He crazy, do you think?'

  'He's fine, I'm sure,' Ralph said, although he was sure of no such thing. He spoke out of the corner of his mouth, and didn't take his eyes from Ed. He didn't dare take his eyes from Ed - that contact felt like the only hold he had over the man, and tenuous at best. 'Just shaken up from the crash. He needs a few seconds to calm d--'

  'Ask him what he's got under that tarp!' Ed yelled suddenly, and pointed over Ralph's shoulder. Lightning flashed, and for a moment the pitted scars of Ed's adolescent acne were thrown into sharp relief, like some strange organic treasure map. Thunder rolled. 'Hey, hey, Susan Day!' he chanted in a high, childlike voice that made Ralph's forearms break out in goosebumps. 'How many kids did you kill today?'

  'He ain't shook up,' Heavyset said. 'He's crazy. And when the cops get here, I'm gonna see he gets tooken in.'

  Ralph glanced around and saw a blue tarpaulin stretched across the bed of the pickup. It had been tied down with bright yellow hanks of rope. Round shapes bulked beneath it.

  'Ralph?' a timid voice asked.

  He glanced to his left and saw Dorrance Marstellar - at ninety-something easily the oldest of the Harris Avenue Old Crocks - standing just beyond Heavyset's pickup truck. There was a paperback book in his waxy, liver-spotted hands, and Dorrance was bending it anxiously back and forth, giving the spine a real workout. Ralph supposed it was a book of poetry, which was all he had ever seen old Dorrance read. Or maybe he didn't really read at all; maybe he just liked to hold the books and look at the artfully stacked words.

  'Ralph, what's wrong? What's happening?'

  More lightning flashed overhead, a purple-white snarl of electricity. Dorrance looked up at it as if unsure of where he was, who he was, or what he was seeing. Ralph groaned inside.

  'Dorrance -' he began, and then Ed lunged beneath him, like some wild animal which has only lain quiet to regain its strength. Ralph staggered, then pushed Ed back against the crumpled hood of his Datsun. He felt panicky - unsure of what to do next or how to do it. There were too many things going on at once. He could feel the muscles in Ed's arms humming fiercely just below his grip; it was almost as if the man had somehow swallowed a bolt of the lightning now loose in the sky.

  'Ralph?' Dorrance asked in that same calm but worried voice. 'I wouldn't touch him anymore, if I were you. I can't see your hands.'

  Oh, good. Another lunatic to deal with. Just what he needed.

  Ralph glanced down at his hands, then looked at the old man. 'What are you talking about, Dorrance?'

  'Your hands,' Dorrance said patiently. 'I can't see your--'

  'This is no place for you, Dor - why don't you get lost?'

  The old man brightened a little at that. 'Yes!' he said in the tone of one who has just stumbled over a great truth. 'That's just what I oughtta do!' He began to back up, and when the thunder cracked again, he cringed and put his book on top of his head. Ralph was able to read the bright red letters of the title: Buckdancer's Choice. 'It's what you ought to do, too, Ralph. You don't want to mess in with longtime business. It's a good way to get hurt.'

  'What are you--'

  But before Ralph could finish, Dorrance turned his back and went lumbering off in the direction of the picnic area with his fringe of white hair - as gossamer as the hair on a new baby's head - rippling in the breeze of the oncoming storm.

  One problem solved, but Ralph's relief was short-lived. Ed had been temporarily distracted by Dorrance, but now he was looking daggers at Heavyset again. 'Cuntlicker!' he spat. 'Fucked your mother and licked her cunt!'

  Heavyset's enormous brow drew down. 'What?'

  Ed's eyes shifted back to Ralph, whom he now seemed to recognize. 'Ask him what's under that tarp!' he cried. 'Better yet, get the murdering cocksucker to show you!'

  Ralph looked at the heavyset man. 'What have you got under there?'

  'What's it to you?' Heavyset asked, perhaps trying to sound truculent. He sampled the look in Ed Deepneau's eyes and took two more sidling steps away.

  'Nothing to me, something to him,' Ralph said, lifting his chin in Ed's direction. 'Just help me cool him out, okay?'

  'You know him?'

  'Murderer!' Ed repeated, and this time he lunged hard enough under Ralph's hands to drive him back a step. Yet something was happening, wasn't it? Ralph thought the scary, vacant look was seeping out of Ed's eyes. There seemed to be a little more Ed in there than there had been before . . . or perhaps that was only wishful thinking. 'Murderer, baby murderer!'

  'Jesus, what a loony tune,' Heavyset said, but he went to the rear of the truckbed, yanked one of the ropes free, and peeled back a corner of the tarpaulin. Beneath it were four pressboard barrels, each marked WEED-GO. 'Organic fertilizer,' Heavyset said, his eyes flicking from Ed to Ralph and then back to Ed again. He touched the bill of his West Side Gardeners cap. 'I spent the day workin on a set of new flower-beds outside the Derry Psych Wing . . . where you could stand a short vacation, friend.'

  'Fertilizer?' Ed asked. It was himself he seemed to be speaking to. His left hand rose slowly to his temple and began to rub there. 'Fertilizer?' He sounded like a man questioning some simple yet staggering scientific development.

  'Fertilizer,' Heavyset agreed. He glanced back at Ralph and said, 'This guy is sick in the head. You know it?'

  'He's confused, that's all,' Ralph answered uneasily. He leaned over the side of the truck and rapped a barrel-top. Then he turned back to Ed. 'Barrels of fertilizer,' he said. 'Okay?'

  No response. Ed's right hand rose and began to rub at his other temple. He looked like a man sinking into a terrible migraine.

  'Okay?' Ralph repeated gently.

  Ed closed his eyes for a moment, and when they opened again, Ralph observed a sheen in them he thought was probably tears. Ed's tongue slipped out and dabbed delicately first at one corner of his mouth and then the other. He took the end of his silk scarf and wiped his forehead, and as he did, Ralph saw there were Chinese figures embroidered on it in red, just above the fringe.

  'I guess maybe -' he began, and then broke off. His eyes widened again in that look Ralph didn't like. 'Babies!' he rasped. 'You hear me? Babies!'

  Ralph shoved him back against his car for the third or fourth time - he'd lost count. 'What are you talking about, Ed?' An idea suddenly occurred to him. 'Is it Natalie? Are you worried about Natalie?'

  A small, crafty smile touched Ed's lips. He looked past Ralph at the heavyset man. 'Fertilizer, huh? Well, if that's all it is, you won't mind opening one of them, will you?'

  Heavyset looked at Ralph uneasily. 'Man needs a doctor,' he said.

  'Maybe he does. But he was calming down, I thought . . . could you open one of those barrels? It might make him feel better.'

  'Yeah, sure, what the heck. In for a penny, in for a pound.'

  There was another flash of lightning, another heavy blast of thunder - one that seemed to go rolling all the way across the sky this time - and a cold spackle of rain struck the back of Ralph's sweaty neck. He gla
nced to his left and saw Dorrance Marstellar standing at the entrance to the picnic area, book in hand, watching the three of them anxiously.

  'It's gonna rain a pretty bitch, looks like,' Heavyset said, 'and I can't let this stuff get wet. It starts a chemical reaction. So look fast.' He felt around between one of the barrels and the sidewall of his truck for a moment, then came up with a crowbar. 'I must be as nutty as he is, doin this,' he said to Ralph. 'I mean, I was just goin along home, mindin my business. He hit me.'

  'Go on,' Ralph said. 'It'll only take a second.'

  'Yeah,' Heavyset replied sourly, turning and setting the flat end of the crowbar under the lid of the nearest barrel, 'but the memories will last a lifetime.'

  Another thunderclap rocked the day just then, and Heavyset did not hear what Ed Deepneau said next. Ralph did, however, and it chilled the pit of his stomach.

  'Those barrels are full of dead babies,' Ed said. 'You'll see.'

  Heavyset popped the lid on the end barrel, and such was the conviction in Ed's voice that Ralph almost expected to see tangles of arms and legs and bundles of small hairless heads. Instead, he saw a mixture of fine blue crystals and brown stuff. The smell which rose from the barrel was rich and peaty, with a thin chemical undertone.

  'See? Satisfied?' Heavyset asked, speaking directly to Ed again. 'I ain't Ray Joubert or that guy Dahmer after all. How 'bout that!'

  The look of confusion was back on Ed's face, and when the thunder cracked overhead again, he cringed a little. He leaned over, reached a hand toward the barrel, then looked a question at Heavyset.

  The big man nodded to him, almost sympathetically, Ralph thought. 'Sure, touch it, fine by me. But if it rains while you're holdin a fistful, you'll dance like John Travolta. It burns.'

  Ed reached into the barrel, grabbed some of the mix, and let it run through his fingers. He shot Ralph a perplexed look (there was an element of embarrassment in that look as well, Ralph thought), and then sank his arm into the barrel all the way to the elbow.

  'Hey!' Heavyset cried, startled. 'That ain't a box of Cracker Jack!'