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Mile 81, Page 2

Stephen King

  He went over to one of the mesh-covered windows, staring out at the empty concrete islands where the gas pumps used to be, and the traffic beyond. Light traffic. He supposed that when summer came it would once more be bumper to bumper with tourists and summer people, unless his dad was right and the price of gas went to seven bucks a gallon and everybody stayed home.

  Now what? He'd played darts, he'd looked at enough shaved pussies to last him . . . well, maybe not a lifetime but at least a few months, there were no murders to solve, so now what?

  Vodka, he decided. That was what came next. He'd try a few sips just to prove he could, and so future brags would have that vital ring of truth. Then, he supposed, he would pack up his shit and go back to Murphy Street. He would do his best to make his adventure sound interesting--thrilling, even--but in truth, this place wasn't such of a much. Just a place where the Really Big Kids could come to play cards and make out with girls and not get wet when it rained.

  But booze . . . that was something.

  He took his saddlebag over to the mattresses and sat down (being careful to avoid the stains, of which there were many). He took out the vodka bottle and studied it with a certain grim fascination. At ten-going-on-eleven, he had no particular longing to sample adult pleasures. The year before he had hawked one of his grandfather's cigarettes and smoked it behind the 7-Eleven. Smoked half of it, anyway. Then he had leaned over and spewed his lunch between his sneakers. He had obtained an interesting but not very valuable piece of information that day: beans and franks didn't look great when they went into your mouth, but at least they tasted good. When they came back out, they looked fucking horrible and tasted worse.

  His body's instant and emphatic rejection of that American Spirit suggested to him that booze would be no better, and probably worse. But if he didn't drink at least some, any brag would be a lie. And his brother George had lie-radar, at least when it came to Pete.

  I'll probably puke again, he thought, then said: "Good news is I won't be the first in this dump."

  That made him laugh again. He was still smiling when he unscrewed the cap and held the mouth of the bottle to his nose. Some smell, but not much. Maybe it was water instead of vodka, and the smell was just a leftover. He raised the mouth of the bottle to his mouth, sort of hoping that was true and sort of hoping it wasn't. He didn't expect much, and he certainly didn't want to get drunk and maybe break his neck trying to climb back down from the loading dock, but he was curious. His parents loved this stuff.

  "Dares go first," he said for no reason at all, and took a small sip.

  It wasn't water, that was for sure. It tasted like hot, light oil. He swallowed mostly in surprise. The vodka trailed heat down his throat, then exploded in his stomach.

  "Holy Jeezum!" Pete yelled.

  Tears sprang into his eyes. He held the bottle out at arm's length, as if it had bitten him. But the heat in his stomach was already subsiding, and he felt pretty much okay. Not drunk, and not like he was going to puke, either. He tried another little sip, now that he knew what to expect. Heat in the mouth . . . heat in the throat . . . and then, boom in the stomach.

  Actually not bad. Now he felt a tingling in his arms and hands. Maybe his neck, too. Not the pins-and-needles sensation you got when a limb went to sleep, but more like something was waking up.

  Pete raised the bottle to his lips again, then lowered it. There was more to worry about than falling off the loading dock or crashing his bike on the way home (he wondered briefly if you could get arrested for drunk biking and supposed you could). Having a few swigs of vodka so you could brag on it was one thing, but if he drank enough to get loaded, his mother and father would know when they came home. It would only take one look. Trying to act sober wouldn't help. They drank, their friends drank, and sometimes they drank too much. They would know the signs.

  Also, there was the dreaded HANGOVER to consider. Pete and George had seen their mom and dad dragging around the house with red eyes and pale faces on a good many Saturday and Sunday mornings. They took vitamin pills, they told you to turn the TV down, and music was absolutely verboten. The HANGOVER looked like the absolute opposite of fun.

  Still, maybe one more sip might not hurt.

  Pete took a slightly larger swallow and shouted, "Zoom, we have liftoff!" This made him laugh. He felt a little light-headed, but it was a totally pleasant feeling. Smoking he didn't get. Drinking, he guessed he did.

  He got up, staggered a little, caught his balance, and laughed some more. "Jump into that fucking sandpit all you want, sugarbears," he told the empty restaurant. "I'm fuckin stinko, and fuckin stinko is better." This was very funny, and he laughed hard.

  Am I really stinko? On just three sips?

  He didn't think so, but he was definitely high. No more. Enough was enough. "Drink responsibly," he told the empty restaurant, and snorted.

  He'd hang out here for a while and wait for it to wear off. An hour should do it, maybe two. Until three o'clock, say. He didn't have a wristwatch, but he'd be able to tell three o'clock from the chimes of St. Joseph's, which was only a mile or so away. Then he'd leave, first hiding the vodka (for possible further research) and putting the wedge back under the door. His first stop when he got back to the neighborhood was going to be the 7-Eleven, where he'd buy some of that really strong Teaberry gum to take the smell of the booze off his breath. He'd heard kids say vodka was the thing to steal out of your parents' liquor cabinet because it had no smell, but Pete was now a wiser child than he'd been an hour ago.

  "Besides," he told the hollowed-out restaurant in a lecturely tone, "I bet my eyes are red, just like Dad's when he has too marny mantinis." He paused. That wasn't quite right, but what the fuck.

  He gathered up the darts, went back to the Beeber Line, and shot them. He missed Justin with all but one, and this struck Pete as the most hilarious thing of all. As he gathered them up, he sang a few lines of "Baby," Justin's big hit from last year. He wondered if Justin could have a hit with a song called "My Baby Shaves Her Pussy," and this struck him so funny that he laughed until he had to bend over with his hands on his knees.

  When the laughter passed, he wiped double snot-hangers from his nose, flicked them onto the floor (there goes your Good Restaurant rating, he thought, sorry, Burger King), and then trudged back to the Beeber Line. He had even worse luck the second time. He wasn't seeing double or anything, he just couldn't nail the Beeb.

  Also, he felt a little sick, after all. Not much, but he was glad he hadn't tried a fourth sip. "I would have popped my Popov," he said. He laughed, then uttered a ringing belch that burned coming up. Blick. He left the darts when they were and went back to the mattresses. He thought of using his magnifying glass to see if anything really small was crawling there, and decided he didn't want to know. He thought about eating some of his Oreos, but was afraid of what they might do to his stomach. It felt, let's face it, a little tender.

  He lay down and laced his hands behind his head. He had heard that when you got really drunk, everything started spinning around. Nothing like that was happening to him, but he wouldn't mind a little nap. Sleeping it off kind of thing.

  "But not too long."

  No, not too long. That would be bad. If he wasn't home when his folks came home, and if they couldn't find him, he would be in trouble. Probably George would be, too, for going off without him. The question was, could he wake himself up when the St. Joseph's chimes struck?

  Pete realized, in those last few seconds of consciousness, that he'd just have to hope so. Because he was going.

  He closed his eyes.

  And slept in the deserted restaurant.

  Outside, in the southbound travel lane of I-95, a station wagon of indeterminate make and vintage appeared. It was traveling well below the posted minimum turnpike speed. A fast-moving semi came up behind it and veered into the passing lane, blatting its air horn.

  The station wagon, almost coasting now, veered into the entrance lane of the rest area, ig
noring the big sign reading CLOSED NO SERVICES NEXT GAS AND FOOD 27 MI. It struck four of the orange barrels blocking the lane, sent them rolling, and came to a stop about seventy yards from the abandoned restaurant building. The driver's side door opened, but nobody got out. There were no hey-stupid-your-door's-open chimes. It just hung silently ajar.

  If Pete Simmons had been watching instead of snoozing, he wouldn't have been able to see the driver. The station wagon was splattered with mud, and the windshield was smeared with it. Which was strange, because there had been no rain in northern New England for over a week, and the turnpike was perfectly dry.

  The car sat there a little distance up the entrance ramp, under a cloudy April sky. The barrels it had knocked over came to a stop. The driver's door hung open like an invitation.

  2. DOUG CLAYTON ('09 Prius)

  Doug Clayton was an insurance man from Bangor, bound for Portland, where he had a reservation at the Sheraton Hotel. He expected to be there by two o'clock at the latest. That would leave plenty of time for an afternoon nap (a luxury he could rarely afford) before searching out dinner on Congress Street. Tomorrow he would present himself at the Portland Conference Center bright and early, take a nametag, and join four hundred other agents in a conference called Fire, Storm, and Flood: Insuring for Disaster in the Twenty-First Century. As he passed the Mile 82 marker, Doug was closing in on his own personal disaster, but it was nothing the Portland conference would cover.

  His briefcase and suitcase were in the backseat. Lying in the passenger bucket was a Bible (King James version; Doug would have no other). Doug was one of four lay preachers at the Church of the Holy Redeemer, and when it was his turn to preach, he liked to call his Bible "the ultimate insurance manual."

  Doug had taken Jesus Christ as his personal savior after ten years of drinking that spanned his late teens and most of his twenties. This decadelong spree ended with a wrecked car and thirty days in the Penobscot County Jail. He had gotten down on his knees in that smelly, coffin-sized cell on his first night there, and he'd gotten down on them every night since.

  "Help me get better," he had prayed that first time, and every time since. It was a simple prayer that had been answered first twofold, then tenfold, then a hundredfold. He thought that, in another few years, he would be up to a thousandfold. And the best thing? Heaven was waiting at the end of it all.

  His Bible was well-thumbed, because he read it every day. He loved all the stories in it, but the one he loved the best--the one he meditated on most often--was the parable of the Good Samaritan. He had preached on that passage from the Gospel of Luke several times, and the Redeemer congregation had always been generous with their praise afterward, God bless them.

  Doug supposed it was because the story was so personal to him. A priest had passed by the robbed and beaten traveler lying at the side of the road; so had a Levite. Then who comes along? A nasty, Jew-hating Samaritan. But that's the one who helps, nasty Jew-hater or not. He cleanses the traveler's cuts and scrapes, then binds them up. He loads the traveler on his donkey, and fronts him a room at the nearest inn.

  "So which of these three do you think was a neighbor to him who fell among thieves?" Jesus inquires of the hotshot young lawyer who asked him about the requirements for eternal life. And the hotshot, clearly not stupid, replies: "The one who shewed mercy."

  If Doug Clayton had a horror of anything, it was of being like the Levite in that story. Of refusing to help when help was needed. Of passing by on the other side. So when he saw the muddy station wagon parked a little way up the entrance ramp of the deserted rest area--the downed orange barrier-barrels in front of it, the driver's door hanging ajar--he hesitated only a moment before flicking on his turn signal and pulling in.

  He parked behind the wagon, put on his four-ways, and started to get out. Then he noticed that there appeared to be no license plate on the back of the station wagon . . . although there was so much damn mud it was hard to tell for sure. Doug took his cell phone out of the Prius's center console and made sure it was on. Being a good Samaritan was one thing; approaching a plateless dog of a car without caution was just plain stupid.

  He walked toward the wagon with the phone clasped loosely in his left hand. Nope, no plate, he was right about that. He tried to peer through the back window and could see nothing. Too much mud. He walked toward the driver's side door, then paused, looking at the car as a whole, frowning. Was it a Ford or a Chevy? Darned if he could tell, and that was strange, because he had to've insured thousands of station wagons in his career.

  Customized? he asked himself. Well, maybe . . . but who would bother to customize a station wagon into something so anonymous?

  "Hi, hello? Everything okay?"

  He walked toward the door, squeezing the phone a little tighter without being aware of it. He found himself thinking of some movie that had scared heck out of him as a kid, some haunted house thing. A bunch of teenagers had approached the old deserted house, and when one of them saw the door standing ajar, he'd whispered "Look, it's open!" to his buddies. You wanted to tell them not to go in there, but of course they had.

  That's stupid. If there's someone in that car, he could be hurt.

  Of course the guy might have gone up to the restaurant, maybe looking for a pay phone, but if he was really hurt--


  Doug reached for the door handle, then thought better of it and stooped to peer through the opening. What he saw was dismaying. The bench seat was covered with mud; so were the dashboard and the steering wheel. Dark goo dripped from the old-fashioned knobs of the radio, and on the wheel were prints that didn't look exactly as if hands had made them. The palm prints were awfully big, for one thing, but the finger marks were as narrow as pencils.

  "Is someone in there?" He shifted his cell phone to his right hand and took hold of the driver's door with his left, meaning to swing it wide so he could look into the backseat. "Is someone hur--"

  There was a moment to register an ungodly stink, and then his left hand exploded into pain so great it seemed to leap through his entire body, trailing fire and filling all his hollow spaces with agony. Doug didn't, couldn't, scream. His throat locked shut with the sudden shock of it. He looked down and saw that the door handle appeared to have impaled the pad of his palm.

  His fingers were barely there. He could see only the stubs of them, just below the last knuckles where the back of his hand started. The rest had somehow been swallowed by the door. As Doug watched, the third finger broke. His wedding ring fell off and clinked to the pavement.

  He could feel something, oh dear God and dear Jesus, something like teeth. They were chewing. The car was eating his hand.

  Doug tried to pull back. Blood flew, some against the muddy door, some splattering his slacks. The drops that hit the door disappeared immediately, with a faint sucking sound: slorp. For a moment he almost got away. He could see glistening fingerbones from which the flesh had been sucked, and he had a brief, nightmarish image of chewing on one of the Colonel's chicken wings. Get it all before you put that down, his mother used to say, the meat's sweetest closest to the bone.

  Then he was yanked forward again. The driver's door opened to welcome him: hello, Doug, come on in. His head connected with the top of the door, and he felt a line of coldness across his brow that turned hot as the station wagon's roofline sliced through his skin.

  He made one more effort to get away, dropping his cell phone and pushing at the rear window. The window yielded instead of supporting, then enveloped his hand. He rolled his eyes and saw what had looked like glass now rippling like a pond in a breeze. And why was it rippling? Because it was chewing. Because it was chowing down.

  This is what I get for being a good Sam--

  Then the top of the driver's door sawed through his skull and slipped smoothly into the brain behind it. Doug Clayton heard a large bright SNAP, like a pine knot exploding in a hot fire. Then darkness descended.

  A southbound delivery driver glanc
ed over and saw a little green car with its flashers on parked behind a mud-coated station wagon. A man--presumably he belonged to the little green car--appeared to be leaning in the station wagon's door, talking to the driver. Breakdown, the delivery driver thought, and returned his attention to the road. No good Samaritan he.

  Doug Clayton was jerked inside as if hands--ones with big palms and pencil-thin fingers--had seized his shirt and pulled him. The station wagon lost its shape and puckered inward, like a mouth tasting something exceptionally sour . . . or exceptionally sweet. From within came a series of overlapping crunches--the sound of a man stamping through dead branches in heavy boots. The wagon stayed puckered for ten seconds or so, looked more like a lumpy clenched fist than a car. Then, with a pouck sound like a tennis ball being smartly struck by a racquet, it popped back into its station wagon shape.

  The sun peeked briefly through the clouds, reflecting off the dropped cell phone and making a brief hot circle of light on Doug's wedding ring. Then it dived back into the cloud cover.

  Behind the wagon, the Prius blinked its four-ways. They made a low clocklike sound: Tick . . . tick . . . tick.

  A few cars went past, but not many. The two workweeks surrounding Easter are the slowest time of year on the nation's turnpikes, and afternoon is the second-slowest time of the day; only the hours between midnight and 5 AM are slower.

  Tick . . . tick . . . tick.

  In the abandoned restaurant, Pete Simmons slept on.

  3. JULIANNE VERNON ('05 Dodge Ram)

  Julie Vernon didn't need King James to teach her how to be a good Samaritan. She had grown up in the small town of Readfield, Maine (population 2,400), where neighboring was a way of life, and strangers were also neighbors. Nobody had told her this in so many words; she had learned from her mother, father, and big brothers. They had little to say about such issues, but teaching by example is always the most powerful teaching of all. If you saw a guy lying by the side of the road, it didn't matter if he was a Samaritan or a Martian. You stopped to help.