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There was a mud- or manure-splattered pickup truck with a trailer full of what looked like farm implements behind it. An Indian motorcycle with a sidecar. A couple of station wagons. And a two-tone Plymouth Fury.
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I pulled on my pants, undershirt, and shoes. Then I slipped out of the cabin and walked across the courtyard. The chilly air bit at my bed-warm skin, but I barely felt it. I peeked in and saw a scatter of textbooks. Some student, maybe headed south to visit his folks on spring break. Just another not-quite-on-key chime as the past harmonized with itself. I touched the trunk, as I had back in Lisbon Falls, then returned to the bungalow.
Sadie had pushed the sheet down to her waist, and when I came in, the draft of cool air woke her up. She sat, holding the sheet over her breasts, then let it drop when she saw it was me. One thing led to another. I lay watching the smoke drift up and turn blue in the occasional moonlight coming through the half-drawn curtains.
She inhaled deeply, enjoying her cigarette guiltlessly, as people do in the Land of Ago. But it stands to reason. The rest of your past is made up, after all. I liked George de Mohren--schildt better for the devil role.
I hoped de Mohrenschildt was like that. Sadie snubbed her cigarette. Her voice was calm, but her eyes were dark. I would have died before I said it when I was there, but Reno was a nightmare.
Losing you for good. But I do have to ask one teensy question. Legally single? Is that what you want to know? She let out a comic sigh and grinned like a kid. Then she sobered. Let me help you. Her lower lip crept into her mouth. She bit down on it with her teeth. Something I have to witness. And you really will marry me? Of course. About The Author. Stephen King. Product Details. Gallery Books July Length: Related Articles. I Have a Theory: Conspiracy Books Are the Best.
Happy Birthday, Stephen King! Reading XXL: Resources and Downloads. Get a FREE e-book by joining our mailing list today! More books from this author: See more by Stephen King. You could say that. Or you could say it took awhile. Jake, i need to see you. Ste phe n K in g Thanks. Make it even sooner, if you can. Time is, as they say, of the essence.
And he hung up, just like that, without even a goodbye. So i swept the stack into my briefcase and left. Shed be in all next week, closing the books on another school year, and i was going to come in on Monday and clean out the snack cupboardthat was a promise id made to myself.
Otherwise the teachers who used the west wing teachers room during summer session would find it crawling with bugs. Places like that can look tacky, but Al had disguised the concrete blocks upon which his establishment stood with pretty beds of flowers. There was even a neat square of lawn, which he barbered himself with an old push-type lawn mower. The lawn mower was as well tended as the flowers and the lawn; not a speck of rust on the whirring, brightly painted blades.
There was once, but it fell victim to the big-box stores back around the turn of the century. Judging by the sign, it was something more serious. Less than that, really. Almost manic, in fact. Do people who are getting sicksick enough to close the businesses theyve run single-handed for over twenty yearstalk about taking vacations?
Some, maybe, but probably not many. The door opened while i was still reaching for the handle, and Al stood there looking at me, not smiling. The day was warm but the fog was cold.
At that point i still could have turned and walked out of it, back into the June sunshine, and part of me wanted to do that. Mostly, though, i was frozen by wonder and dismay. Also horror, i might as well admit it. And mortally was probably more like it. The impossible part was that in the twenty-two hours since id last seen him, Al Templeton appeared to have lost at least thirty pounds. Maybe even forty, which would have been a quarter of his Ste phe n K in g previous body weight.
And this, i think, is where that fog of unreality swallowed me whole. Al smiled, and i saw he had lost teeth as well as weight.
His gums looked pale and unhealthy. How do you like the new me, Jake? And he began to cough, thick chaining sounds that came from deep inside him. The idea of flight again came to some craven, disgusted part of my mind, but even if that part had been in control, i couldnt have done it. Al got the coughing under control and pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket. He wiped first his mouth and then the palm of his hand with it. Will you listen?
Al, i said.
11 22 63 A Novel
My voice was so low and strengthless i could hardly hear it myself. Whats happened to you? Of course. Youll have questions, and ill answer as many as i can, but try to keep them to a minimum. Hell, i dont have much strength left. The diner was dark and cool and empty. The only thing missing was the customers. Well, and the cook-proprietor, of course.
Al Templeton had been replaced by an elderly, ailing ghost. When he turned the doors thumb-latch, locking us in, the sound was very loud. He tapped the pocket of his shirt, and i saw it was empty. The ever-present pack of camel straights was gone. Over fifty damn years. Three packs a day until the price went way up in Then i made a sacrifice and cut back to two a day. He laughed wheezily. When id come in one day in the late winter and asked him why he was working the grill with a kids birthday hat on, hed said Because today Im fifty-seven, buddy.
Which makes me an official Heinz. That was exactly right. The answer is simple enough.
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This was news to me; if hed been doing any coughing, it hadnt been while i was around. Also, he was doing that badmath thing again. Al, hello? Seven months ago it was December. He waved a hand at methe fingers thin, his Marine corps ring hanging on a digit that used to clasp it cozilyas if to say Pass that by for now, just pass it.
At first i thought i just had a bad cold. Then i started losing weight. Well, i aint stupid, buddy, and i always knew the big c might be in the cards for me. Ste phe n K in g mother smoked like goddam chimneys and lived into their eighties. He started coughing again, and pulled out the handkerchief.
When the hacking subsided, he said: Harder than stopping with the cigarettes, actually. Okay, i said, agreeably enough. Long story short, i went to a doctor and got an X-ray, and there they were, big as billy-be-damned. Two tumors. Advanced necrosis. An X-ray, i thoughtdid they still use those to diagnose cancer?
From where? From my vacation. His eyes looked fixedly at me from the dark hollows into which they were disappearing. Al, none of this makes any sense to me. Yesterday you were here and you were fine. Take a good close look at my face. Start with my hair and work your way down. Try to ignore what the cancers doing to meit plays hell with a persons looks, no doubt about thatand then tell me im the same man you saw yesterday.
Well, you obviously washed the dye out never used any. You think an X-ray machine did that? Or strontium in the milk?
Get in touch with your, you know, feminine side. Look at me the way women look at other women when theyre judging age. There were webworks of lines spraying out from the corners of his eyes, and the lids had the tiny, delicately ruffled wrinkles you see on people who no longer have to flash their Senior Discount cards when they step up to the multiplex box office.
Skin-grooves that hadnt been there yesterday evening now made sine-waves across Als brow. Two more linesmuch deeper onesbracketed his mouth. His chin was sharper, and the skin on his neck had grown loose. The sharp chin and wattled throat could have been caused by Als catastrophic weight loss, but those lines.
He was smiling a little. Which somehow made it worse. Dont worry, Al, you said, if that stupid party hat catches on fire while youre hanging over the grill, ill grab the fire extinguisher and put you out. You said you were an official Heinz. So i did. And now im sixty-two. He touched his forehead, then the corner of one eye.
These are authentic age-tattoos. Shock, isnt it? He looked at me sympathetically. Youre thinking, either im crazy, hes crazy, or we both are. He levered himself out of the booth with an effort, his right hand going up beneath his left armpit, as if he were trying to hold himself together, somehow. Then he led me around the counter. As he did so, i put my finger on another element of this unreal encounter: He took a sparkling glass down and drew me a glass of water from a sparkling chrome-plated tap.
Only seeing isnt the right word. Drink up, buddy. That craven part of me was expecting to be jumped, like the first unwitting victim in one of those maniac-on-the-loose movies that always seem to have numbers in their titles. The hand was wrinkled, the knuckles big. Do what? You have a tan. You get those either from radiation or too much sun. Well, since i havent had any radiation treatments, that leaves the sun. So far as i knew, Al had spent most of the last four years flipping burgers and making milkshakes under fluorescent lights, but i didnt say so.
When i set the glass down on the Formica counter, i noticed my hand was shaking slightly. Okay, what is it you want me to see? Or to experience? He led me down the long, narrow galley area, past the double grill, the Fry-O-Lators, the sink, the FrostKing fridge, and the humming waist-high freezer.
He stopped in front of the silent Thats it, he said. Through that door. Strictly a rhetorical question; id seen him bring out enough cans, sacks of potatoes, and bags of dry goods over the years to know damn well what it was. Al seemed not to have heard. Did you know i originally opened this joint in Auburn? He nodded, and just that was enough to kick off another bout of coughing. He stifled it with the increasingly gruesome handkerchief. When the latest fit finally tapered off, he tossed the handkerchief into a handy trash can, then grabbed a swatch of napkins from a dispenser on the counter.
Wanted one ever since my dad took me to the chat n chew in bloomington, back when i was a kid. There were too many other quick-bite joints in the neighborhood, some good, some not so good, all of em with their regulars.
Also, in those days Als Famous Fatburger sold for two-fifty. Then how in hell do you sell it for less than half that now? Unless it really is cat. He snorted, a sound that produced a phlegmy echo of itself deep in his chest. Do i know what people say? What else can you do? Stop people from talking? You might as well try to stop the wind from blowing. Al smiled. Ste phe n K in g Yeah, gettin off on one of those sidetracks, i know, but at least this ones part of the story.
And its all because of whats behind that pantry door. What are you talking about? He looked at me steadily from his watery, newly old eyes. Talkings done for now. You need to find out for yourself. Go on, open it. Think of it as a dying mans last request, he said. Go on, buddy. Open the door. There were shelves stacked with big restaurant-sized cans on both walls. At the far end of the room, where the roof curved down, were some cleaning supplies, although the broom and mop had to lie flat The floor was the same dark gray linoleum as the floor of the diner, but rather than the faint odor of cooked meat, in here there was the scent of coffee, vegetables, and spices.
There was another smell, too, faint and not so pleasant. Okay, i said. You get an A in supply management, if there is such a thing. What do you smell? Spices, mostly. Maybe air freshener, too, im not sure. Uh-huh, i use Glade. Are you saying you dont smell anything else? Yeah, theres something. Kind of sulphury.
Makes me think of burnt matches. Did cancer treatments make you fart? Other stuff, too, none of it chanel no. More craziness, but all i said in a tone of absurd cocktail-party politeness was, really? He smiled again, exposing those gaps where teeth had been the day before. What youre too polite to say is that Worumbo has been closed since Hector was a pup. That in fact it mostly burned to the ground back in the late eighties, and whats standing out there nowhe jerked a thumb back over his shoulderis nothing but a mill outlet store.
Youre also thinking its about time you grabbed your cell phone and called for the men in the white coats. That about the size of it, buddy? You arent going to call anybody, youre right about that, because i want you to give me your cell phone, your wallet, and all Ste phe n K in g the money you have in your pockets, coins included.
Will you do that? How long is this going to take, Al? Take an hour and really look around, if you want, but i wouldnt, not the first time, because its a shock to the system. Youll see. Will you trust me on this? Something he saw on my face tightened his lips over that reduced set of teeth. Please, Jake.
Dying mans request. His eyes seemed to have retreated deeper into their sockets in the short time wed been talking. Also, he was exhausted. Just the two dozen steps from the booth at one end of the diner to the pantry at the other had left him swaying on his feet. And the bloody handkerchief, i reminded myself.
Dont forget the bloody handkerchief. Let go and let God, they like to say in the meetings my ex-wife goes to, but i decided this was going to be a case of let go and let Al. Up to a point, at any rate. And hey, i told myself, you have to go through more rigamarole than this just to get on an airplane these days. He isnt even asking me to put my shoes on a conveyor. Keep the keys, they dont matter.
Well, they did to me, but i kept my mouth shut. Al reached into his pocket and brought out a sheaf of bills considerably thicker than the one id deposited on top of the carton. He held the wad out to me. Mad money. Go on and take it. Why wouldnt i use my own money for that?
Just as if this crazy conversation made sense. The experience will answer most of your questions better than i could even if i was feeling tip-top, and right now im on the absolute other side of the world from tip-top. Take the money. There were ones on top and they looked okay.
Then i came to a five, and that looked both okay and not okay. Al sounded wearily amused. Maybe notit felt as real as it lookedbut there was no bleedthrough image. Just put the money in your pocket, Jake. Are you carrying a pocket calculator?
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Any other electronics? Turn around so youre looking at the back of the pantry. The who?