Authors: Stephen King
I know what fire can do, she said. If I ever forget I only need to look at this arm to remember. Donnie said he was sorry, and I did too. I didn't have anything to apologize for, I just felt bad because she got burned but also happy because it wasn't her face, which was pretty. Anyway we was all friends again after that, although Donnie Wigmore was never a friend to me like Ronnie and Glen were.
“We had some good times in the Demo Derby,” Billy says.
He's looking out the window at the courthouse again. August has given way to September, but still the heat shimmers. He can see waves of it coming off the street. It reminds him of the way the air used to shimmer above the big incinerator behind the House of Everlasting Paint's kitchen.
The Specks were the Stepeneks, Ronnie Givens was Robin Maguire, Glen Dutton was Gadsden Drake. Gadsden after the Gadsden Purchase, Billy figured. He had read a book while still in the Marines,
Slavery, Scandal, and Steel Rails
, which had covered the purchase of that arid chunk of land from Mexico. He'd read it in Fallujah, between Operation Vigilant Resolve in April of '04 and Phantom Fury in November. Gad said that before his mother died of lung cancer, she'd told him that his long-gone daddy had been a history teacher, so it made a degree of sense.
I might not be the only Gadsden in the world
, he said once while they were out in Demo Derby, pretending to go somewhere,
but I bet there's not more than a dozen. With it as a first name, that is
Billy has changed the names of his friends, but Demo Derby was always Demo Derby, and they really did have some good times there before Gad joined the army and Robin ran off toâ¦ what did she tell him?
“To seek my fortune in seven-league boots,” he says. That was it. Only her boots hadn't been of the seven-league variety, just scuffed suede with tired elastic sides.
I loved her among the wrecks, Billy thinks, and goes back to write another paragraph or two before calling it a day.
Two bad things happen on Labor Day weekend. One is stupid and alarming, the other casts a light on the rather unpleasant person Billy never meant to become. Taken together, they make him realize that the sooner he gets out of Red Bluff, the better. I never should have taken a job with such a long lead time, he thinks when the weekend is over, but there was no way to know.
To know what? That the Ackermans and the others on Evergreen Street would take such a liking to him, for one thing. That he would take a liking to them, for another.
There's a parade downtown on the Saturday of the holiday weekend. Billy and the Ackermans go in a van Jamal borrowed from Excellent Tire. Shanice holds her mother's hand on one side and Billy's on the other as they work through the crowd and find a place on the corner of Holland and Main. When the parade actually comes, Jamal perches his daughter on his shoulders and Billy hoists Derek onto his. The kid feels good up there.
The parade is okay, even letting a kid who is later going to find out he was sitting on the shoulders of an assassin is okayâ¦ sort of. The stupid and alarming thing, the
, comes on Sunday. Next to the Midwood suburb of Red Bluff is the semi-rural town of Cody, and there a ratty little carnival set up shop during the last two weeks of summer, wanting a final shot of income before the kids go back to school.
Because Jamal still has the van and Sunday is nice, nothing will do but a trip to the carnival with the kids. Paul and Denise Ragland from down the street come along. The seven of them stroll the midway, eating sweet sausages and drinking sodas. Derek and Shanice ride the carousel, the Tooterville Trolley, and the Wild Cups. Mr. and Mrs. Ragland go off to play Bingo. Corrie Ackerman throws darts at water balloons and wins a spangly headband that says WORLD'S GREATEST MOM. Shanice tells her she looks cute, like a princess.
Jamal tries his hand at knocking over wooden milk bottles and wins nothing, but he bangs the Test Your Strength weight all the way to the top, ringing the bell. Corrie applauds and says, “My hero.” For this feat of strength he gets a cardboard top hat with a paper flower stuck in the band. When he puts it on, Derek laughs so hard he has to cross his legs and then run for the nearest Porta-John so he won't wet his pants.
The kids ride a few more of the rides, but Derek won't go on the Wonky Caterpillar because he says it's for babies. Billy goes with Shan, and the fit is so tight that Jamal has to yank him out like a cork from a bottle when the ride is over. That makes them all laugh.
They are walking back to find the Raglands when they come to Dead-Eye Dick's Shooting Gallery. Half a dozen men are having a go with BB guns, shooting at five rows of targets moving in opposite directions, plus tin rabbits that pop up and down. Shanice points to a giant pink flamingo atop the wall of prizes and says, “I'd love to have that for my bedroom. Could I buy it out of my allowance?”
Her father explains that it's not for sale, you have to win it.
“Then you win it, Dad!” she says.
The man running the shooting shy is wearing a striped shirt, a rakishly tilted straw boater, and a fake curly mustache. He looks like he belongs in a barber shop quartet. He hears Shanice and waves Jamal over. “Make your little girl happy, mister, knock over
three rabbits or four of the birds in the top row and she's going home with Freddy Flamingo.”
Jamal laughs and hands over five bucks for twenty shots. “Prepare for disappointment, sweetie,” he says, “but I might win you one of the smaller prizes.”
“You can do it, Dad,” Derek says stoutly.
Billy watches Jamal shoulder the rifle and knows he'll be lucky to wind up with one of the stuffed turtles that are the consolation prizes for two hits.
“Go for the birds,” Billy says. “I know the rabbits are bigger, but you can only take snap shots when they pop up.”
“If you say so, Dave.”
Jamal pops off ten shots at the birds in the top row and hits exactly none. He lowers his sights, pops a couple of the lumbering tin moose in the bottom row, and accepts one of the turtles. Shanice eyes it without much enthusiasm but says thank you.
“What about you, hoss?” the barber shop quartet guy asks Billy. Most of his other customers have drifted away. “Want to give it a try? Five bucks buys you twenty shots and you only need to hit four of the birdies to make your pretty little pal the happy owner of Frankie Flamingo.”
“I thought it was Freddy,” Billy says.
The concession guy smiles and tips his straw boater the other way. “Frankie, Freddy, or Felicia, make a little girl happy.”
Shanice looks at him hopefully but says nothing. It's Derek who convinces him to do the stupid thing when he says, “Mr. Ragland says all these games are a cheat and nobody wins the big prizes.”
“Well, let's test that out,” Billy says, and lays down a five-spot. Mr. Barber Shop Quartet loads a paper spill of BBs and hands Billy a rifle. A few other men and two women are currently at the shy's counter. Billy moves down partly to give them room, but also because he's noticed that the tin birdsâplus the targets on the other four levelsâslow down a bit before they turn out of sight.
Probably the chain drives need to be oiled. Which is lazy. The shy's proprietor should pay for that.
“Are you going for the birds, Dave?” Derek asks. It's been quite awhile since they stopped calling him Mr. Lockridge. “Like you told Dad?”
“Absolutely,” Billy says. He takes a breath, lets it out, takes another and lets it out, takes a third and holds it. He makes no effort to use the little rifle's sight, which will be wildly out of true. He just snugs his head against the rifle's stock and fires quicklyâ
. The first one misses; his next four knock over four tin birds. He knows he's doing a stupid thing and should quit, but he can't resist knocking over one of the rabbits when it rises from its hole.
The Ackermans applaud. So do the other shooters. And, to his credit, so does Mr. Barber Shop Quartet before grabbing the pink flamingo and handing it over to Shanice, who hugs it and laughs.
“Wow, Dave!” Derek says. His eyes are shining. “You rock!”
Now Jamal will ask me where I learned to shoot like that, Billy thinks. And then he thinks, How do you know you're an idiot? Because if everyone is looking at you, like they are now, you're an idiot.
It's actually Corrie who asks him, as they resume their stroll to the Bingo tent. Billy tells her it was in ROTC. That he was just naturally good at it. Telling her he killed at least twenty-five mujin in Fallujah, shooting from rooftops during the nine days of Operation Phantom Fury, would be a bad idea.
Oh, you think? he asks himself with a sarcasm that's very unlike himâin his thoughts or aloud.
The other thingâthe character-checkâhappens on Monday, the actual holiday. Because he's a freelance writer working his own hours, he can take off when he wants and also work when others are enjoying a federally mandated day of rest. Gerard Tower is all but deserted. The lobby door is unlocked (such trusting souls in
the border south), and no one is at the security stand. When the elevator passes the second floor, he hears no shouts as the denizens of Business Solutions psych each other up and no ringing phones. Apparently debtors are also getting the day off, and good for them.
Billy writes for two hours. He's almost up to Fallujah now, and wondering what he should say about itâa little, a lot, or maybe nothing at all. He shuts down and decides to put in an appearance at Pearson Street, re-establishing his existence with Beverly Jensen and her husband, who will no doubt be taking the day off. He drives over in his leased car, wig, mustache, and fake pregnancy belly in place. Don is mowing the lawn. Beverly is sitting on the stoop in unfortunate lime green shorts. The three of them bat the breeze a little, talking about how hot the summer has been, how glad they are it's over, and Dalton Smith's impending trip to Huntsville, Alabama, where he'll install a state-of-the-art computer system at the new Equity Insurance HQ. Shouldn't take too long. After that, he says, he hopes to be back for awhile.
“They sure do keep you on the hop,” Don says.
Billy agrees and then asks Beverly about her mother, who lives in Missouri and has been poorly. Beverly sighs and says she's about the same. Billy says he hopes she'll be better soon and Beverly says she sure hopes so. As she's telling him this, Billy looks over her shoulder and sees Don slowly shaking his head. That he doesn't want his wife to know what he thinks about his mother-in-law's chances makes Billy like him. He thinks that Don Jensen would never tell his wife that her lime green shorts make her look fat.
He goes down to his pleasingly cool basement apartment. David Lockridge has his book and Dalton Smith has his laptops. Smith's work might not matter, but because it might matter a great deal somewhere down the line, he does it carefully (even though after working on Benjy Compson's story, it seems boring and mechanical). He finishes up with a quick review of the three screens. 10 FAMOUS CELEBS WHO ALMOST DIED; THESE 7 FOODS
CAN SAVE YOUR LIFE; THE 10 MOST INTELLIGENT DOGS. Good clickbait. He posts them on facebook.com/ads. He really could do this for a living, but who would want to?
He shuts down, reads a little (he's currently on an Ian McEwan binge), then checks the fridge. The half-and-half is holding out, but the milk has gone spunky. He decides on a trip to the Zoney's Go-Mart to replace it. When he finds Don and Beverly still on the porch, now sharing a can of beer, he asks if they want anything.
Beverly asks if he'll see if they have any Pop Secret. “We're going to watch something on Netflix tonight. You're welcome to join, if you want.”
He almost says yes, which is close to appalling. He tells them instead that he's going to make it an early night because he's driving to Alabama first thing in the morning.
He walks down to the sad little strip mall. Merton Richter's blue SUV with the scratched side is nowhere to be seen and the office is closed. So is the Nu You Tanning Salon, Hot Nails, and the Jolly Roger Tattoo Parlor. Beyond Hot Nails is an abandoned launderette and a Dollar Store with a sign in the window reading VISIT OUR NEW LOCATION IN PINE PLAZA. The Zoney's is at the very end. Billy gets his milk out of the cooler. There's no Pop Secret, but there's Act II, so he grabs a box of that. The clerk is a middle-aged woman with hennaed hair who looks like she's been down on her luck for awhile, maybe twenty years or so. She offers him a carry sack and Billy says no thank you. Zoney's uses plastic bags, which are bad for the environment.
On the way back, he passes two young men standing outside the abandoned launderette. One is white. The other is black. They are both wearing hoodies, the kind with kangaroo pockets in front. The pockets sag with the weight of what's inside them. Their heads are together as they murmur to each other. They give Billy identical glances of narrow assessment as he passes. He doesn't look at them directly but sees them perfectly well from the corner of his
eye. When he doesn't slow, they go back to whispering together. They might as well be wearing placards around their necks that say WE PLAN TO CELEBRATE LABOR DAY BY ROBBING THE LOCAL ZONEY'S.
Billy walks out of the sad little strip mall and back to the street. He can feel them looking at him. There's no telepathy involved in that, unless it's the ordinary telepathy of someone who has survived a war zone with only a half-gone great toe and two Purple Hearts (long since discarded) to show for it.
He thinks of the woman who sold him his goods, a hard-luck mama from the look of her. Her luck isn't going to change on this holiday, either. Billy never considers going back to brace them, judging from their cranked-up expressions that would be a fine way to get killed, but he does consider calling 911. Only there are no pay phones in the vicinity, not anymore, and the phone he's carrying is Dalton Smith's. If he calls the cops, he'll burn it. Then the rest of his identity will catch fire, because what is it made of? Just paper.
He goes back to the apartment building instead and tells Beverly they didn't have any Pop Secret. She says Act II is fine. There's scant traffic on Pearson Street at the best of times, and it's even scanter on this holiday. He keeps his ear cocked for gunshots. He doesn't hear any. Which means nothing.
Billy downloaded an app for the local newspaper shortly after arriving in this city he can't wait to put behind him, and the following day he looks for a Zoney's robbery. He finds the story on the Close to Home page, just a snippet in a roundup of minor news items. It says two thieves armed with handguns made off with just under a hundred dollars (which would include my dollars and Beverly's,
Billy thinks). The clerk, Wanda Stubbs, was alone in the store at the time. She was taken to Rockland Memorial, where she was treated for a head wound and released. So one of those scumbuckets hit her, probably with the butt of his gun, and probably because she wasn't emptying the register fast enough to suit him.
Billy can tell himself it could have been a lot worse (and does). He can tell himself the robbery would have gone down much as it did even if he had called 911 (and does). It doesn't change the fact that he feels like the priest and Levite who passed by on the other side of the road before a good Samaritan came along and saved the day.
Billy read the Bible from cover to cover while he was in the suck, every Marine got one on request. He has often regretted it and this is one of those times. The Bible has a story to puncture every equivocation and denial. The BibleâNew Testament as well as Oldâdoes not forgive.
Me and Mr. Speck went to Chattanooga, which was where I joined the Marines. I thought I would have to go to a Marine base to sign up, but it was just an office in a shopping mall with a vacuum cleaner store on one side and a place to get your taxes written up on the other. There was a flag over the door with NOOGA STRONG printed on one of the stripes. In the window was a photo of a Marine that said THE FEW THE PROUD and DO YOU HAVE WHAT IT TAKES.