Authors: Stephen King
He has a bad moment in the parking garage when the Fusion won't start, then remembers he has to have his foot on the brake pedal. Duh, he thinks.
He drives to Pine Plaza, both enjoying the feeling of being behind the wheel again and paranoid about getting in a fender-bender or attracting the attention of the police (two cruisers pass him on the three-mile trip) in some other way. At Harps he buys meat, milk, eggs, bread, crackers, bag salad, dressing, and some canned goods. He doesn't meet anyone he knows, and really, why would he? Evergreen Street is in Midwood, and people who live in Midwood shop at Save Mart.
He pays for his groceries with his Dalton Smith Mastercard and drives back to Pearson Street. He parks in the crumbling driveway beside the house and goes downstairs with his groceries. The apartment is empty. Alice is gone.
He purchased a couple of cloth shopping bags to put his groceries inâHARPS and HOMETOWN FRESH printed on themâand they sag almost to the floor as he looks at the empty living room and kitchen. The bedroom door is open and he can see that's empty too, but he calls her name anyway, thinking she might be in the bathroom. Except that door is also open and if she was in there she'd close it, even with him gone. He knows this.
He isn't scared, exactly. It's more likeâ¦ what? Is he hurt? Disappointed?
I guess I am, he thinks. Stupid, but there it is. She reconsidered her options, that's all. You knew it could happen. Or you should have.
He goes into the kitchen, puts the bags on the counter, sees their breakfast dishes in the drainer. He sits down to think about what he should do next and sees a paper towel anchored by the sugar bowl. On it she's written two words: OUT BACK.
Okay, he thinks, and lets out a long breath. Just out back.
Billy puts away the stuff that needs to go in the fridge, then goes out the front door and around the house, once more using the umbrella. Alice has moved the barbecue out of the puddle. She's scrubbing away at the grill, her back to him. She must have raided the Jensens' front closet again, because the green raincoat she's wearing has to belong to Don. It goes all the way down to her calves.
She yells and jumps and almost knocks the grill over. He reaches out to steady her.
“Scare a person, why don't you?” she says, then whoops in a big breath.
“I'm sorry. Didn't mean to creep up on you.”
“â¦ you did.”
“Give me the first line of âTeddy Bears' Picnic.'â” Only half-joking.
“â¦ remember it.”
“If you go down to the woods todayâ¦” He raises his hands and wiggles his fingers in a come-on gesture.
“If you go down to the woods today, you're in for a big surprise. Did you get some stuff?”
“Yes. At first I thought you were gone.”
“Well I'm not. I don't suppose you got any Scrubbies, did you? Because this is the last one from upstairs, and it's pretty well done-in.”
“Scrubbies weren't on the list. I didn't know you were going on a cleaning binge in the rain.”
She closes the lid on the barbecue and looks at him with a hopeful expression. “Want to watch some more
“Yes,” he says, so that's what they do. Three more episodes. Between the second and third, she goes to the window and says, “It's stopping. The sun's almost out. I think we can barbecue tonight. Did you remember the salad?”
This is going to work, Billy thinks. It shouldn't, it's crazy, but it's going to work for as long as it has to.
The sun comes out that afternoon, but slowly, as if it doesn't really want to. Alice grills the chops, and although they're a little burned outside and a little pink in the middle (“I'm not much of a cook, sorry,” she says), Billy eats all of his and then gnaws the bone. It's good, but the salad is better. He doesn't realize how starved he's been for greens until he starts in on them.
They go upstairs and watch some more
, but she's restless, moving from the couch to the seat-sprung easy chair that must be Don Jensen's roost when he's home, then back to the couch again. Billy reminds himself that she's seen all these episodes before, probably with her mother and sister. He's getting a little bored with it himself now that he's figured out Red Reddington's schtick.
“You ought to leave some money,” she says when they turn the TV off and get ready to go back downstairs. “For the Netflix.”
Billy says he will, although he guesses that thanks to their windfall, Don and Bev don't exactly need financial help.
She tells him it's his turn for the bed, and after a night on the couch he doesn't argue the point. He's asleep almost at once, but some deep part of his brain must have already trained itself to listen for her panic attacks, because he comes wide awake at quarter past two, hearing her whoop for breath.
He's left the door ajar in case of this. He reaches it, then stops with his hand on the knob. She's singing, very softly.
“If you go down to the woods todayâ¦”
She goes through the first verse twice. Her gasps for breath come further apart, then stop. Billy goes back to bed.
Neither of them knowsâno one doesâthat a rogue virus is going to shut down America and most of the world in half a year, but by their fourth day in the basement apartment, Billy and Alice are getting a preview of what sheltering in place will be like. On that fourth morning, a day before Billy has decided to set sail into the golden west, he is doing his sprints up to the third floor and back. Alice has neatened up the apartment, which hardly needed it since neither of them is particularly messy. With that done she subsided to the couch. When Billy comes in, out of breath from half a dozen stair-sprints, she's watching a cooking show on TV.
“Rotisserie chicken,” he says. “Looks good.”
“Why make it at home when you can buy one just as good at the supermarket?” Alice turns off the TV. “I wish I had something to read. Could you download a book for me? Maybe a detective story? On one of the cheap laptops, not yours.”
Billy doesn't answer. An idea, audacious and frightening, has come into his head.
She misreads his expression. “I didn't look or anything, I just know it's yours because the case is scratched. The others look brand new.”
Billy isn't thinking she tried to snoop in his computer. She'd never get past the password prompt, anyway. He's thinking of the M151 spotter scope, and how he didn't explain its purpose because what he was writing was only for himself. No one else would ever
read it. Only now there is someone, and what harm can it do, considering what she knows about him already?
But it could do harm, of course. To him. If she didn't like it. If she said it was boring and asked for something more interesting.
“What's going on with you?” she asks. “You look weird.”
“Nothing. I meanâ¦ I've been writing something. Kind of a life story. I don't suppose you'd want toâ”
He can't bear to watch her sitting with his Mac Pro on her lap, reading the words he wrote here and in Gerard Tower, so he goes upstairs to the Jensens' to spritz Daphne and Walter. He puts a twenty on the kitchen table, with a note that says
, and then just walks around. Paces around, actually, like an expectant father in an old cartoon. He looks at the Ruger in the drawer of Don's nightstand, picks it up, puts it back, closes the drawer.
It's ridiculous to be nervous, she's a business school student, not a literary critic. She probably sleepwalked through her high school English courses, happy with Bs and Cs, and very likely the only thing she knows about Shakespeare is that his name rhymes with kick in the rear. Billy understands he's downplaying her intelligence to protect his ego in case she doesn't like it, and he understands that's stupid because her opinion shouldn't matter, the story itself shouldn't matter, he's got more important things to deal with. But it does.
Finally he goes back downstairs. She's still reading, but when she looks up from the screen he's alarmed to see her eyes are red, the lids puffy.
She wipes her nose with the heel of her hand, a childish gesture,
oddly winning. “Did that really happen to your sister? Did that man reallyâ¦
her to death? You didn't make that up?”
“No. It happened.” Suddenly he feels like crying himself, although he didn't cry when he wrote it.
“Is that why you saved me? Because of her?”
I saved you because if I'd left you in the street the cops would have eventually come here, he thinks. Except that's probably not all the truth. Do we ever tell ourselves all of it?
“I don't know.”
“I'm so sorry that happened to you.” Alice begins to cry. “I thought what happened to me was bad, butâ”
“What happened to you
“âbut what happened to her is worse. Did you really shoot him?”
And you got put in a home?”
“Yes. You can stop if it's upsetting you.” But he doesn't want her to stop and he's not sorry for upsetting her. He's glad. He reached her.
She grips the laptop as if afraid he might pull it away. “I want to read the rest.” Then, almost accusingly: “Why haven't you been doing this instead of watching a stupid TV show upstairs?”
“All right. I get that, I feel the same, so stop looking at me. Let me read.”
He wants to thank her for crying, but that would be weird. Instead he asks what her sizes are.
“There's a Goodwill store close to Harps. I could get you a couple of pairs of pants and some shirts. Maybe a pair of sneakers. You don't want me to watch you reading and I don't want to watch you do it. And you have to be tired of that skirt.”
She gives him an impish grin and it makes her pretty. Or would, if not for the bruises. “Not afraid to go out without the umbrella?”
“I'll take the car. Just remember if the cops come back instead of me, you were afraid to leave. I said I'd find you and hurt you.”
“You'll come back,” Alice says, and writes down her sizes.
He takes his time in the Goodwill, wanting to give
time. He sees no one he knows, and no one pays particular attention to him. When he gets back, she's finished. What took him months to write has taken her less than two hours to read. She has questions. None are about the spotter scope; they're about the people, especially Ronnie and Glen and “that poor little one-eyed girl” in the House of Everlasting Paint. She says she likes how he wrote like a kid when he was a kid but changed it up when he got older. She says he should keep writing. She says she'll go upstairs while he does it, watch TV and then take a nap. “I'm tired all the time. It's crazy.”
“It's not. Your body is still working to get over what those fucks did to it.”
Alice stands in the doorway. “Dalton?” It's what she calls him, even though she knows his real name. “Did your friend Taco die?”
“A lot of people did before it was over.”
“I'm sorry,” she says, and closes the door behind her.
He writes. Her reaction lifts him. He doesn't spill many words on the slack time between April and November of 2004, when they were supposed to be winning hearts and minds and won neither. He gives it a few more paragraphs, then goes to the part that still hurts.
They were pulled back for a couple of days after Albie's death because there was talk of a ceasefire, and when the Hot Nine (now the Hot Eight, each of them with ALBIE S. written on his helmet) got back to base, Billy looked everywhere for the baby shoe, thinking he might have left it there. The others also looked, but it was
nowhere to be found and then they went back in, back to the job of clearing houses, and the first three were okay, two empty and one inhabited only by a boy of twelve or fourteen who raised his hands and screamed
No gun Americans, no gun love New York Yankees no shoot!
The fourth house was the Funhouse.
Billy stops there for exercise. He thinks maybe he and Alice will stay on Pearson Street a little longer, maybe three more days. Until he finishes with the Funhouse and what happened there. He wants to write that losing the baby shoe made no difference one way or the other, of course it didn't. He also wants to write that his heart still doesn't believe it.
He does a few stretches before running up and down the stairs, because he can't go to a walk-in clinic if he pops a hamstring. He hears no TV behind the Jensens' door, so Alice is probably sleeping. And healing, he hopes, although Billy doubts that any woman ever heals completely after being raped. It leaves a scar and he guesses that on some days the scar aches. He guesses that even ten years laterâtwenty, thirtyâit still aches. Maybe it's like that, maybe it's like something else. Maybe the only men who can know for sure are men who have been raped themselves.
As he runs the stairs, he thinks about the men who did it to her, and they
men. She said that Tripp Donovan is twenty-four, and Billy guesses Jack and Hank, Donovan's rapin' roomies, must be about the same age. Men, not boys. Bad ones.
He comes back into the basement apartment out of breath, but feeling loose and warm, ready to get back at it for another hour or maybe even two. Before he can get going, his laptop bings with a text message. It's from Bucky Hanson, now hunkered down in the Great Wherever.
No money has been transferred. Don't think it's going to happen. What are you going to do?
, Billy texts back.