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The Dark Half, Page 2

Stephen King

  She stumbled backward, struck a rolling Ross tray on which almost two dozen instruments had been neatly laid out, and knocked it over. It struck the tiled floor with an echoing dang which was followed by a number of smaller tinkling sounds.

  "Hilary!" the head nurse shouted. Her voice was full of shock and surprise. She forgot herself so far as to actually take half a step toward the fleeing woman in her flapping green-gown.

  Dr. Albertson, who was assisting, kicked the head nurse briefly in the calf with one of his slippered feet. "Remember where you are, please. "

  "Yes, Doctor." She turned back at once, not even looking toward the O. R. door as it banged open and Hilary exited stage left, still screaming like a runaway fire engine.

  "Get the hardware in the sterilizer," Albertson said. "Right away. Chop-chop. "

  "Yes, Doctor. "

  She began to gather up the instruments, breathing hard, clearly flustered but under control.

  Dr. Pritchard seemed to have noticed none of this. He was looking with rapt attention into the window which had been carved in Thad Beaumont's skull.

  "Incredible," he murmured. "Just incredible. This is really one for the books. If I weren't seeing it with my own eyes--"

  The hiss of the sterilizer seemed to wake him up, and he looked at Dr. Albertson.

  "I want suction," he said sharply. He glanced at the nurse. "And what the fuck are you doing? The Sunday Times crossword? Get your ass over here with those!"

  She came, carrying the instruments in a fresh pan.

  "Give me suction, Lester," Pritchard said to Albertson. "Right now. Then I'm going to show you something you never saw outside of a county fair freak-show. "

  Albertson wheeled over the suction-pump, ignoring the head nurse, who leaped back out of his way, balancing the instruments deftly as she did so.

  Pritchard was looking at the anesthesiologist.

  "Give me good B. P., my friend. Good B. P. is all I ask. "

  "He's one-oh-five over sixty-eight, Doctor. Steady as a rock. "

  "Well, his mother says we've got the next William Shakespeare laid out here, so keep it that way. Suck on him, Lester--don't tickle him with the goddam thing!"

  Albertson applied suction, clearing the blood. The monitoring equipment beeped steadily, monotonously, comfortingly, in the background. Then it was his own breath he was sucking in. He felt as if someone had punched him high up in the belly.

  "Oh my God. Oh Jesus. Jesus Christ." He recoiled for a moment . . . then leaned in close. Above his mask and behind his horn-rimmed spectacles, his eyes were wide with sudden glinting curiosity. "What is it?"

  "I think you see what it is," Pritchard said. "It's just that it takes a second to get used to. I've read about it but never expected to actually see it. "

  Thad Beaumont's brain was the color of a conch shell's outer edge--a medium gray with just the slightest tinge of rose.

  Protruding from the smooth surface of the dura was a single blind and malformed human eye. The brain was pulsing slightly. The eye pulsed with it. It looked as if it were trying to wink at them. It was this--the look of the wink--which had driven the assisting nurse from the O. R.

  "Jesus God, what is it?" Albertson asked again.

  "It's nothing," Pritchard said. "Once it might have been part of a living, breathing human being. Now it's nothing. Except trouble, that is. And this happens to be trouble we can handle. "

  Dr. Loring, the anesthesiologist, said: "Permission to look, Dr. Pritchard?"

  "He still steady?"

  "Yet. "

  "Come on, then. It's one to tell your grandchildren about. But be quick. "

  While Loring had his look, Pritchard turned to Albertson. "I want the Negli," he said. "I'm going to open him a little wider. Then we probe. I don't know if I can get all of it, but I'm going to get all of it I can. "

  Les Albertson, now acting as head O. R. nurse, slapped the freshly sterilized probe into Pritchard's gloved hand when Pritchard called for it. Pritchard--who was now humming the Bonanza theme-song under his breath--worked the wound quickly and almost effortlessly, referring to the dental-type mirror mounted on the end of the probe only occasionally. He worked chiefly by sense of touch alone. Albertson would later say he had never witnessed such a thrilling piece of seat-of-the-pants surgery in his entire life.

  In addition to the eye, they found part of a nostril, three fingernails, and two teeth. One of the teeth had a small cavity in it. The eye went on pulsing and trying to wink right up to the second when Pritchard used the needle-scalpel to first puncture and then excise it. The entire operation, from initial probe to final excision, took only twenty-seven minutes. Five chunks of flesh plopped wetly into the stainless-steel pan on the Ross tray beside Thad's shaven head.

  "I think we're clear," Pritchard said at last. "All the foreign tissue seemed to be connected by rudimentary ganglia. Even if there are other chunks, I think the chances are good that we've killed them. "

  "But . . . how can that be, if the kid's still alive? I mean, it's all a part of him, isn't it?" Loring asked, bewildered.

  Pritchard pointed toward the tray. "We find an eye, some teeth, and a bunch of fingernails in this kid's head and you think it was a part of him? Did you see any of his nails missing? Want to check?"

  "But even cancer is just a part of the patient's own--"

  "This wasn't cancer," Pritchard told him patiently. His hands went about their own work as he talked. "In a great many deliveries where the mother gives birth to a single child, that child actually started existence as a twin, my friend. It may run as high as two in every ten. What happens to the other fetus? The stronger absorbs the weaker. "

  "Absorbs it? Do you mean it eats it?" Loring asked. He looked a little green. "Are we talking about in utero cannibalism here?"

  "Call it whatever you like; it happens fairly often. If they ever develop the sonargram device they keep talking about at the med conferences, we may actually get to find out how often. But no matter how frequently or infrequently it happens, what we saw today is much more rare. Part of this boy's twin went unabsorbed. It happened to end up in his prefrontal lobe. It could just as easily have wound up in his intestines, his spleen, his spinal cord, anywhere. Usually the only doctors who see something like this are pathologists--it turns up in autopsies, and I've never heard of one where the foreign tissue was the cause of death. "

  "Well, what happened here?" Albertson asked.

  "Something set this mass of tissue, which was probably submicroscopic in size a year ago, going again. The growth clock of the absorbed twin, which should have run down forever at least a month before Mrs. Beaumont gave birth, somehow got wound up again . . . and the damned thing actually started to run. There is no mystery about what happened; the intracranial pressure alone was enough to cause the kid's headaches and the convulsion that got him here. "

  "Yes," Loring said softly, "but why did it happen?"

  Pritchard shook his head. "If I'm still practicing anything more demanding than my golf-stroke thirty years from now, you can ask me then. I might have an answer. All I know now is that I have located and excised a very specialized, very rare sort of tumor. A benign tumor. And, barring complications, I believe that's all the parents need to know. The kid's father would make Piltdown Man look like one of the Quiz Kids. I can't see explaining to him that I gave his eleven-year-old son an abortion. Les, let's close him up. "

  And, as an afterthought, he added pleasantly to the O. R. nurse:

  "I want that silly cunt who ran out of here fired. Make a note, please. "

  "Yes, Doctor. "

  Thad Beaumont left the hospital nine days after his surgery. The left side of his body was distressingly weak for nearly six months afterward, and occasionally, when he was very tired, he saw odd, not-quite-random patterns of flashing lights before his eyes.

  His mother had bought him an old Remington 32 typewriter as a get-well present, and these flashes of light happened most frequently
when he was hunched over it in the hour before bedtime, struggling with the right way to say something or trying to figure out what should happen next in the story he was writing. Eventually these passed, too.

  That eerie, phantom chirruping sound--the sound of squadrons of sparrows on the wing--did not recur at all following the operation.

  He continued to write, gaining confidence and polishing his emerging style, and he sold his first story--to American Teen--six years after his real life began. After that, he just never looked back.

  So far as his parents or Thad himself ever knew, a small benign tumor had been removed from the prefrontal lobe of his brain in the autumn of his eleventh year. When he thought about it at all (which he did less and less frequently as the years passed), he thought only that he had been extremely lucky to survive.

  Many patients who underwent brain surgery in those primitive days did not.


  Fool's Stuffing

  Machine straightened the paper-clips slowly and carefully with his long. strong fingers. "Hold his head. Jack," he said to the man behind Halstead. "Hold it tightly, please. "

  Halstead saw what Machine meant to do and began to scream as Jack Rangely pressed his big hands against the sides of his head, holding it steady. The screams rang and echoed is the abandoned warehouse. The vast empty space acted as a natural amplifier. Halstead sounded like an open singer warming up on opening night.

  "I'm back," Machine said. Halstead squeezed his eyes shut, but it did so good. The small steel rod slid effortlessly through the left lid and punctured the eyeball beneath with a faint popping sound. Sticky, gelatinous fluid began to seep out. "I'm back from the dead and you don't seem glad to see me at all, you ungrateful son of a bitch. "

  --Riding to Babylon

  by George Stark




  The May 23rd issue of People magazine was pretty typical.

  The cover was graced by that week's Dead Celebrity, a rock and roll star who had hanged himself in a jail cell after being taken into custody for possession of cocaine and assorted satellite drugs. Inside was the usual smorgasbord: nine unsolved sex murders in the desolate western half of Nebraska; a health-food guru who had been busted for kiddie porn; a Maryland housewife who had grown a squash that looked a bit like a bust of Jesus Christ--if you looked at it with your eyes half-closed in a dim room, that was; a game paraplegic girl training for the Big Apple Bike-A-Thon; a Hollywood divorce; a New York society marriage; a wrestler recovering from a heart attack; a comedian fighting a palimony suit.

  There was also a story about a Utah entrepreneur who was marketing a hot new doll called Yo Mamma! Yo Mamma! supposedly looked like "everyone's favorite (?) mother-in-law." She had a built-in tape recorder which spat out bits of dialogue such as "Dinner was never cold at my house when he was growing up, dear" and "Your brother never acts like I'm dog-breath when I come to spend a couple of weeks." The real howler was that, instead of pulling a string in the back of Yo Mamma! to get her to talk, you kicked the fucking thing as hard as you could. "Yo Mamma! is well-padded, guaranteed not to break, and also guaranteed not to chip walls and furniture," said its proud inventor, Mr. Gaspard Wilmot (who, the piece mentioned in passing, had once been indicted for income tax evasion--charges dropped).

  And on page thirty-three of this amusing and informative issue of America's premier amusing and informative magazine, was a page headed with a typical People cut-line: punchy, pithy, and pungent. BIO, it said.

  "People, " Thad Beaumont told his wife Liz as they sat side by side at the kitchen table, reading the article together for the second time, "likes to get right to the point. BIO. If you don't want a BIO. move on to IN TROUBLE and read about the girls who are getting greased deep in the heart of Nebraska. "

  "That's not that funny, when you really think about it," Liz Beaumont said, and then spoiled it by snorting a giggle into one curled fist.

  "Not ha-ha, but certainly peculiar," Thad said, and began to leaf through the article again. He rubbed absently at the small white scar high on his forehead as he did so.

  Like most People BIOS, it was the one piece in the magazine where more space was allotted to words than to pictures.

  "Are you sorry you did it?" Liz asked. She had an ear cocked for the twins, but so far they were being absolutely great, sleeping like lambs.

  "First of all," Thad said, "I didn't do it. We did it. Both for one and one for both, remember?" He tapped a picture on the second page of the article which showed his wife holding a pan of brownies out to Thad, who was sitting at his typewriter with a sheet rolled under the platen. It was impossible to tell what, if anything, was written on the paper. That was probably just as well, since it had to be gobbledegook. Writing had always been hard work for him, and it wasn't the sort of thing he could do with an audience--particularly if one member of the audience happened to be a photographer for People magazine. It had come a lot easier for George, but for Thad Beaumont it was goddam hard. Liz didn't come near when he was trying--and sometimes actually succeeding--in doing it. She didn't bring him telegrams, let alone brownies.

  "Yes, but--"

  "Second of all . . . "

  He looked at the picture of Liz with the brownies and him looking up at her. They were both grinning. These grins looked fairly peculiar on the faces of people who, although pleasant, were careful doling out even such common things as smiles. He remembered back to the time he had spent as an Appalachian Trail Guide in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. He'd had a pet raccoon in those dim days, name of John Wesley Harding. Not that he'd made any attempt to domesticate John; the coon had just sort of fallen in with him. He liked his nip on cold evenings, too, did old J. W., and sometimes, when he got more than a single bite from the bottle, he would grin like that.

  "Second of all what?"

  Second of all, there's something funny about a one-time National Book Award nominee and his wife grinning at each other like a couple of drunk raccoons, he thought, and could hold onto his laughter no longer: it bellowed out of him.

  "Thad, you'll wake the twins!"

  He tried, without much success, to muffle the gusts.

  "Second of all, we look like a pair of idiots and I don't mind a bit," he said, and hugged her tight and kissed the hollow of her throat.

  In the other room, first William and then Wendy started to cry.

  Liz tried to look at him reproachfully, but could not. It was too good to hear him laugh. Good, maybe, because he didn't do enough of it. The sound of his laughter had an alien, exotic charm for her. Thad Beaumont had never been a laughing man.

  "My fault," he said. "I'll get them. "

  He began to get up, bumped the table, and almost knocked it over. He was a gentle man, but strangely clumsy; that part of the boy he had been still lived in him.

  Liz caught the pitcher of flowers she had set out as a centerpiece just before it could slide over the edge and shatter on the floor.

  "Honestly, Thad!" she said, but then she began to laugh, too.

  He sat down again for a moment. He didn't take her hand, exactly, but caressed it gently between both of his. "Listen, babe, do you mind?"

  "No," she said. She thought briefly of saying It makes me uneasy, though. Not because we look mildly foolish but because . . . well, I don't know the because. It just makes me a little uneasy, that's all.

  Thought of it but didn't say it. It was just too good to hear him laugh. She caught one of his hands and gave it a brief squeeze. "No," she said. "I don't mind. I think it's fun. And if the publicity helps The Golden Dog when you finally decide to get serious about finishing the damned thing, so much the better. "

  She got up, pressing him back down by the shoulders when he tried to join her.

  "You can get them next time," she said. "I want you to sit right there until your subconscious urge to destroy my pitcher finally passes. "

  "Okay," he said, and smiled. "I love you, Liz.

  "I love you, too." She went to get the twins, and Thad Beaumont began to leaf through his BIO again.

  Unlike most People articles, the Thaddeus Beaumont BIO began not with a full-page photograph but with one which was less than a quarter-page. It caught the eye regardless, because some layout man with an eye for the unusual had bordered the picture, which showed Thad and Liz in a graveyard, in black. The lines of type below stood out in almost brutal contrast.

  In the photograph, Thad had a spade and Liz had a pick. Set off to one side was a wheelbarrow with more cemetery implements in it. On the grave itself, several bouquets of flowers had been arranged, but the gravestone itself was still perfectly readable.



  Not a Very Nice Guy

  In almost jagged contrast to the place and the apparent act (a recently completed interment of what, from the dates, should have been a boy barely in his teens), these two bogus sextons were shaking their free hands across the freshly placed sods--and laughing cheerily.

  It was a posed job, of course. All of the photos accompanying the article--burying the body, exhibiting the brownies, and the one of Thad wandering lonely as a cloud down a deserted Ludlow woods road, presumably "getting ideas"--were posed. It was funny. Liz had been buying People at the supermarket for the last five years or so, and they both made fun of it, but they both took their turn leafing through it at supper, or possibly in the john if there wasn't a good book handy. Thad had mused from time to time on the magazine's success, wondering if it was its devotion to the celebrity sideshow that made it so weirdly interesting, or just the way it was set up, with all those big black-and-white photographs, and the boldface text, consisting mostly of simple declarative sentences. But it had never crossed his mind to wonder if the pictures were staged.

  The photographer had been a woman named Phyllis Myers. She informed Thad and Liz that she had taken a number of photographs of teddy bears in child-sized coffins, all of the teddies dressed in children's clothes. She hoped to sell these as a book to a major New York publisher. It was not until late on the second day of the photo-and-interview session that Thad realized the woman was sounding him out about writing the text. Death and Teddy Bears, she said, would be "the final, perfect comment on the American way of death, don't you think so, Thad?"