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The Stand, Page 3

Stephen King

  "God-damn," Norm Bruett shouted, almost screamed. He turned away, clutched his ample belly, and was sick. It wasn't the man who had fallen out (Hap had caught him neatly before he could thump to the pavement) but the smell that was issuing from the car, a sick stench compounded of blood, fecal matter, vomit, and human decay. It was a ghastly rich sick-dead smell.

  A moment later Hap turned away, dragging the driver by the armpits. Tommy hastily grabbed the dragging feet and he and Hap carried him into the office. In the glow of the overhead fluorescents their faces were cheesy-looking and revolted. Hap had forgotten about his insurance money.

  The others looked into the car and then Hank turned away, one hand over his mouth, little finger sticking off like a man who has just raised his wineglass to make a toast. He trotted to the north end of the station's lot and let his supper come up.

  Vic and Stu looked into the car for some time, looked at each other, and then looked back in. On the passenger side was a young woman, her shift dress hiked up high on her thighs. Leaning against her was a boy or girl, about three years old. They were both dead. Their necks had swelled up like inner tubes and the flesh there was a purple-black color, like a bruise. The flesh was puffed up under their eyes, too. They looked, Vic later said, like those baseball players who put lampblack under their eyes to cut the glare. Their eyes bulged sightlessly. The woman was holding the child's hand. Thick mucus had run from their noses and was now clotted there. Flies buzzed around them, lighting in the mucus, crawling in and out of their open mouths. Stu had been in the war, but he had never seen anything so terribly pitiful as this. His eyes were constantly drawn back to those linked hands.

  He and Vic backed away together and looked blankly at each other. Then they turned to the station. They could see Hap, jawing frantically into the pay phone. Norm was walking toward the station behind them, throwing glances at the wreck over his shoulder. The Chevy's driver's side door stood sadly open. There was a pair of baby shoes dangling from the rear-view mirror.

  Hank was standing by the door, rubbing his mouth with a dirty handkerchief. "Jesus, Stu," he said unhappily, and Stu nodded.

  Hap hung up the phone. The Chevy's driver was lying on the floor. "Ambulance will be here in ten minutes. Do you figure they're--?" He jerked his thumb at the Chevy.

  "They're dead, okay." Vic nodded. His lined face was yellow-pale, and he was sprinkling tobacco all over the floor as he tried to make one of his shitty-smelling cigarettes. "They're the two deadest people I've ever seen." He looked at Stu and Stu nodded, putting his hands in his pockets. He had the butterflies.

  The man on the floor moaned thickly in his throat and they all looked down at him. After a moment, when it became obvious that the man was speaking or trying very hard to speak, Hap knelt beside him. It was, after all, his station.

  Whatever had been wrong with the woman and child in the car was also wrong with this man. His nose was running freely, and his respiration had a peculiar undersea sound, a churning from somewhere in his chest. The flesh beneath his eyes was puffing, not black yet, but a bruised purple. His neck looked too thick, and the flesh had pushed up in a column to give him two extra chins. He was running a high fever; being close to him was like squatting on the edge of an open barbecue pit where good coals have been laid.

  "The dog," he muttered. "Did you put him out?"

  "Mister," Hap said, shaking him gently. "I called the ambulance. You're going to be all right."

  "Clock went red," the man on the floor grunted, and then began to cough, racking chainlike explosions that sent heavy mucus spraying from his mouth in long and ropy splatters. Hap leaned backward, grimacing desperately.

  "Better roll him over," Vic said. "He's goan choke on it."

  But before they could, the coughing tapered off into bellowsed, uneven breathing again. His eyes blinked slowly and he looked at the men gathered above him.

  "Where's ... this?"

  "Arnette," Hap said. "Bill Hapscomb's Texaco. You crashed out some of my pumps." And then, hastily, he added: "That's okay. They was insured."

  The man on the floor tried to sit up and was unable. He had to settle for putting a hand on Hap's arm.

  "My wife ... my little girl ..."

  "They're fine," Hap said, grinning a foolish dog grin.

  "Seems like I'm awful sick," the man said. Breath came in and out of him in a thick, soft roar. "They were sick, too. Since we got up two days ago. Salt Lake City ..." His eyes flickered slowly closed. "Sick ... guess we didn't move quick enough after all ..."

  Far off but getting closer, they could hear the whoop of the Arnette Volunteer Ambulance.

  "Man," Tommy Wannamaker said. "Oh man."

  The sick man's eyes fluttered open again, and now they were filled with an intense, sharp concern. He struggled again to sit up. Sweat ran down his face. He grabbed Hap.

  "Are Sally and Baby LaVon all right?" he demanded. Spittle flew from his lips and Hap could feel the man's burning heat radiating outward. The man was sick, half crazy, he stank. Hap was reminded of the smell an old dog blanket gets sometimes.

  "They're all right," he insisted, a little frantically. "You just ... lay down and take it easy, okay?"

  The man lay back down. His breathing was rougher now. Hap and Hank helped roll him over on his side, and his respiration seemed to ease a trifle. "I felt pretty good until last night," he said. "Coughing, but all right. Woke up with it in the night. Didn't get away quick enough. Is Baby LaVon okay?"

  The last trailed off into something none of them could make out. The ambulance siren warbled closer and closer. Stu went over to the window to watch for it. The others remained in a circle around the man on the floor.

  "What's he got, Vic, any idea?" Hap asked.

  Vic shook his head. "Dunno."

  "Might have been something they ate," Norm Bruett said. "That car's got a California plate. They was probably eatin at a lot of roadside stands, you know. Maybe they got a poison hamburger. It happens."

  The ambulance pulled in and skirted the wrecked Chevy to stop between it and the station door. The red light on top made crazy sweeping circles. It was full dark now.

  "Gimme your hand and I'll pull you up outta there!" the man on the floor cried suddenly, and then was silent.

  "Food poisoning," Vic said. "Yeah, that could be. I hope so, because-- "

  "Because what?" Hank asked.

  "Because otherwise it might be something catching." Vic looked at them with troubled eyes. "I seen cholera back in 1958, down near Nogales, and it looked something like this."

  Three men came in, wheeling a stretcher. "Hap," one of them said. "You're lucky you didn't get your scraggy ass blown to kingdom come. This guy, huh?"

  They broke apart to let them through--Billy Verecker, Monty Sullivan, Carlos Ortega, men they all knew.

  "There's two folks in that car," Hap said, drawing Monty aside. "Woman and a little girl. Both dead."

  "Holy crow! You sure?"

  "Yeah. This guy, he don't know. You going to take him to Braintree? "

  "I guess." Monty looked at him, bewildered. "What do I do with the two in the car? I don't know how to handle this, Hap."

  "Stu can call the State Patrol. You mind if I ride in with you?"

  "Hell no."

  They got the man onto the stretcher, and while they ran him out, Hap went over to Stu. "I'm gonna ride into Braintree with that guy. Would you call the State Patrol?"


  "And Mary, too. Call and tell her what happened."


  Hap trotted out to the ambulance and climbed in. Billy Verecker shut the doors behind him and then called the other two. They had been staring into the wrecked Chevy with dread fascination.

  A few moments later the ambulance pulled out, siren warbling, red domelight pulsing blood-shadows across the gas station's tarmac. Stu went to the phone and put a quarter in.

  The man from the Chevy died twenty miles from the hospital. He drew one
final bubbling gasp, let it out, hitched in a smaller one, and just quit.

  Hap got the man's wallet out of his hip pocket and looked at it. There were seventeen dollars in cash. A California driver's license identified him as Charles D. Campion. There was an army card, and pictures of his wife and daughter encased in plastic. Hap didn't want to look at the pictures.

  He stuffed the wallet back into the dead man's pocket and told Carlos to turn off the siren. It was ten after nine.


  There was a long rock pier running out into the Atlantic Ocean from the Ogunquit, Maine, town beach. Today it reminded her of an accusatory gray finger, and when Frannie Goldsmith parked her car in the public lot, she could see Jess sitting out at the end of it, just a silhouette in the afternoon sunlight. Gulls wheeled and cried above him, a New England portrait drawn in real life, and she doubted if any gull would dare spoil it by dropping a splat of white doodoo on Jess Rider's immaculate blue chambray workshirt. After all, he was a practicing poet.

  She knew it was Jess because his ten-speed was bolted to the iron railing that ran behind the parking attendant's building. Gus, a balding, paunchy town fixture, was coming out to meet her. The fee for visitors was a dollar a car, but he knew Frannie lived in town without bothering to look at the RESIDENT sticker on the comer of her Volvo's windshield. Fran came here a lot.

  Sure I do, Fran thought. In fact, I got pregnant right down there on the beach, just about twelve feet above the high tide line. Dear Lump: You were conceived on the scenic coast of Maine, twelve feet above the high tide line and twenty yards east of the seawall. X marks the spot.

  Gus raised his hand toward her, making a peace sign.

  "Your fella's out on the end of the pier, Miss Goldsmith."

  "Thanks, Gus. How's business?"

  He waved smilingly at the parking lot. There were maybe two dozen cars in all, and she could see blue and white RESIDENT stickers on most of them.

  "Not much trade this early," he said. It was June 17. "Wait two weeks and we'll make the town some money."

  "I'll bet. If you don't embezzle it all."

  Gus laughed and went back inside.

  Frannie leaned one hand against the warm metal of her car, took off her sneakers, and put on a pair of rubber thongs. She was a tall girl with chestnut hair that fell halfway down the back of the buff-colored shift she was wearing. Good figure. Long legs that got appreciative glances. Prime stuff was the correct frathouse term, she believed. Looky-looky-looky-here-comes-nooky. Miss College Girl, 1990.

  Then she had to laugh at herself, and the laugh was a trifle bitter. You are carrying on, she told herself, as if this was the news of the world. Chapter Six: Hester Prynne Brings the News of Pearl's Impending Arrival to Rev. Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale he wasn't. He was Jess Rider, age twenty, one year younger than Our Heroine, Little Fran. He was a practicing college-student-undergraduate-poet. You could tell by his immaculate blue chambray workshirt.

  She paused at the edge of the sand, feeling the good heat baking the soles of her feet even through the rubber thongs. The silhouette at the far end of the pier was still tossing small rocks into the water. Her thought was partly amusing but mostly dismaying. He knows what he looks like out there, she thought. Lord Byron, lonely but unafraid. Sitting in lonely solitude and surveying the sea which leads back, back to where England lies. But I, an exile, may never--

  Oh balls!

  It wasn't so much the thought that disturbed her as what it indicated about her own state of mind. The young man she assumed she loved was sitting out there, and she was standing here caricaturing him behind his back.

  She began to walk out along the pier, picking her way with careful grace over the rocks and crevices. It was an old pier, once part of a breakwater. Now most of the boats tied up on the southern end of town, where there were three marinas and seven honky-tonk motels that boomed all summer long.

  She walked slowly, trying her best to cope with the thought that she might have fallen out of love with him in the space of the eleven days that she had known she was "a little bit preggers," in the words of Amy Lauder. Well, he had gotten her into that condition, hadn't he?

  But not alone, that was for sure. And she had been on the pill. That had been the simplest thing in the world. She'd gone to the campus infirmary, told the doctor she was having painful menstruation and all sorts of embarrassing eructations on her skin, and the doctor had written her a prescription. In fact, he had given her a month of freebies.

  She stopped again, out over the water now, the waves beginning to break toward the beach on her right and left. It occurred to her that the infirmary doctors probably heard about painful menstruation and too many pimples about as often as druggists heard about how I gotta buy these condoms for my brother--even more often in this day and age. She could just as easily have gone to him and said: "Gimme the pill. I'm gonna fuck." She was of age. Why be coy? She looked at Jesse's back and sighed. Because coyness gets to be a way of life. She began to walk again.

  Anyway, the pill hadn't worked. Somebody in the quality control department at the jolly old Ovril factory had been asleep at the switch. Either that or she had forgotten a pill and then had forgotten she'd forgotten.

  She walked softly up behind him and laid both hands on his shoulders.

  Jess, who had been holding his rocks in his left hand and plunking them into Mother Atlantic with his right, let out a scream and lurched to his feet. Pebbles scattered everywhere, and he almost knocked Frannie off the side and into the water. He almost went in himself, head first.

  She started to giggle helplessly and backed away with her hands over her mouth as he turned furiously around, a well-built young man with black hair, gold-rimmed glasses, and regular features which, to Jess's eternal discomfort, would never quite reflect the sensitivity inside him.

  "You scared the hell out of me!" he roared.

  "Oh Jess," she giggled, "oh Jess, I'm sorry, but that was funny, it really was."

  "We almost fell in the water," he said, taking a resentful step toward her.

  She took a step backward to compensate, tripped over a rock, and sat down hard. Her jaws clicked together hard with her tongue between them--exquisite pain!--and she stopped giggling as if the sound had been cut off with a knife. The very fact of her sudden silence--you turn me off, I'm a radio--seemed funniest of all and she began to giggle again, in spite of the fact that her tongue was bleeding and tears of pain were streaming from her eyes.

  "Are you okay, Frannie?" He knelt beside her, concerned.

  I do love him, she thought with some relief. Good thing for me.

  "Did you hurt yourself, Fran?"

  "Only my pride," she said, letting him help her up. "And I bit my tongue. See?" She ran it out for him, expecting to get a smile as a reward, but he frowned.

  "Jesus, Fran, you're really bleeding." He pulled a handkerchief out of his back pocket and looked at it doubtfully. Then he put it back.

  The image of the two of them walking hand in hand back to the parking lot came to her, young lovers under a summer sun, her with his handkerchief stuffed in her mouth. She raises her hand to the smiling, benevolent attendant and says: Hung-huh-Guth.

  She began to giggle again, even though her tongue did hurt and there was a bloody taste in her mouth that was a little nauseating.

  "Look the other way," she said primly. "I'm going to be unladylike."

  Smiling a little, he theatrically covered his eyes. Propped on one arm, she stuck her head off the side of the pier and spat--bright red. Uck. Again. And again. At last her mouth seemed to clear and she looked around to see him peeking through his fingers.

  "I'm sorry," she said. "I'm such an asshole."

  "No," Jesse said, obviously meaning yes.

  "Could we go get ice cream?" she asked. "You drive. I'll buy."

  "That's a deal." He got to his feet and helped her up. She spat over the side again. Bright red.

  Apprehensively, Fran asked him: "I d
idn't bite any of it off, did I?"

  "I don't know," Jess answered pleasantly. "Did you swallow a lump?"

  She put a revolted hand to her mouth. "That's not funny."

  "No. I'm sorry. You just bit it, Frannie."

  "Are there any arteries in a person's tongue?"

  They were walking back along the pier now, hand in hand. She paused every now and then to spit over the side. Bright red. She wasn't going to swallow any of that stuff, uh-uh, no way.


  "Good." She squeezed his hand and smiled at him reassuringly. "I'm pregnant."

  "Really? That's good. Do you know who I saw in Port--"

  He stopped and looked at her, his face suddenly inflexible and very, very careful. It broke her heart a little to see the wariness there.

  "What did you say?"

  "I'm pregnant." She smiled at him brightly and then spat over the side of the pier. Bright red.

  "Big joke, Frannie," he said uncertainly.

  "No joke."

  He kept looking at her. After a while they started walking again. As they crossed the parking lot, Gus came out and waved to them. Frannie waved back. So did Jess.

  They stopped at the Dairy Queen on US 1. Jess got a Coke and sat sipping it thoughtfully behind the Volvo's wheel. Fran made him get her a Banana Boat Supreme and she sat against her door, two feet of seat between them, spooning up nuts and pineapple sauce and ersatz Dairy Queen ice cream.

  "You know," she said, "D.Q. ice cream is mostly bubbles. Did you know that? Lots of people don't."

  Jess looked at her and said nothing.

  "Truth," she said. "Those ice cream machines are really nothing but giant bubble machines. That's how Dairy Queen can sell their ice cream so cheap. We had an offprint about it in Business Theory. There are many ways to defur a feline."

  Jess looked at her and said nothing.

  "Now if you want real ice cream, you have to go to some place like a Deering Ice Cream Shop, and that's--"

  She burst into tears.

  He slid across the seat to her and put his arms around her neck. "Frannie, don't do that. Please."

  "My Banana Boat is dripping on me," she said, still weeping.

  His handkerchief came out again and he mopped her off. By then her tears had trailed off to sniffles.