The Dead Zone Chapter 1
The two things Sarah remembered about that night later were his run of luck at the Wheel of Fortune and the mask. But as time passed, years of it, it was the mask she thought about—when she could bring herself to think about that horrible night at all.
He lived in an apartment house in Cleaves Mills. Sarah got there at quarter to eight, parking around the corner, and buzzing up to be let in. They were taking her car tonight because Johnny’s was laid up at Tibbets’ Garage in Hampden with a frozen wheel-bearing or something like that. Something expensive, Johnny had told her over the phone, and then he had laughed a typical Johnny Smith laugh. Sarah would have been in tears if it had been her car—her pocketbook.
Sarah went through the foyer to the stairs, past the bulletin board that hung there. It was dotted with file cards advertising motorbikes, stereo components, typing services, and appeals from people who needed rides to Kansas or California, people who were driving to Florida and needed riders to share the driving and help pay for the gas. But tonight the board was dominated by a large placard showing a clenched fist against an angry red background suggesting fire. The one word on the poster was STRIKE! It was late October of 1970.
Johnny had the front apartment on the second floor—the penthouse, he called it—where you could stand in your tux like Ramon Navarro, a big slug of Ripple wine in a balloon glass, and look down upon the vast, beating heart of Cleaves Mills: its hurrying after-show crowds, its bustling taxis, its neon signs. There are almost seven thousand stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.
Actually Cleaves Mills was mostly a main street with a stop-and-go light at the intersection (it turned into a blinker after 6 P.M.), about two dozen stores, and a small moccasin factory. Like most of the towns surrounding Orono, where the University of Maine was, its real industry was supplying the things students consumed—beer, wine, gas, rock ’n’ roll music, fast food, dope, groceries, housing, movies. The movie house was The Shade. It showed art films and ’40’s nostalgia flicks when school was in. In the summertime it reverted to Clint Eastwood spaghetti Westerns.
Johnny and Sarah were both out of school a year, and both were teaching at Cleaves Mills High, one of the few high schools in the area that had not consolidated into a three- or four-town district. University faculty and administration as well as university students used Cleaves as their bedroom, and the town had an enviable tax base. It also had a fine high school with a brand-new media wing. The townies might bitch about the university crowd with their smart talk and their Commie marches to end the war and their meddling in town politics, but they had never said no to the tax dollars that were paid annually on the gracious faculty homes and the apartment buildings in the area some students called Fudgey Acres and others called Sleaze Alley.
Sarah rapped on his door and Johnny’s voice, oddly muffled, called, “It’s open, Sarah!”
Frowning a little, she pushed the door open. Johnny’s apartment was in total darkness except for the fitful yellow glow of the blinker half a block up the street. The furniture was so many humped black shadows.
“Johnny . . . ?”
Wondering if a fuse had blown or something, she took a tentative step forward—and then the face appeared before her, floating in the darkness, a horrible face out of a nightmare. It glowed a spectral, rotting green. One eye was wide open, seeming to stare at her in wounded fear. The other was squeezed shut in a sinister leer. The left half of the face, the half with the open eye, appeared to be normal. But the right half was the face of a monster, drawn and inhuman, the thick lips drawn back to reveal snaggle teeth that were also glowing.
Sarah uttered a strangled little shriek and took a stumble-step backward. Then the lights came on and it was just Johnny’s apartment again instead of some black limbo, Nixon on the wall trying to sell used cars, the braided rug Johnny’s mother had made on the floor, the wine bottles made into candle bases. The face stopped glowing and she saw it was a dime-store Halloween mask, nothing more. Johnny’s blue eye was twinkling out of the open eyehole at her.
He stripped it off and stood smiling amiably at her, dressed in faded jeans and a brown sweater.
“Happy Halloween, Sarah,” he said.
Her heart was still racing. He had really frightened her. “Very funny,” she said, and turned to go. She didn’t like being scared like that.
He caught her in the doorway. “Hey . . . I’m sorry.”
“Well you ought to be.” She looked at him coldly—or tried to. Her anger was already melting away. You just couldn’t stay mad at Johnny, that was the thing. Whether she loved him or not—a thing she was still trying to puzzle out—it was impossible to be unhappy with him for very long, or to harbor a feeling of resentment. She wondered if anyone had ever succeeded in harboring a grudge against Johnny Smith, and the thought was so ridiculous she just had to smile.
“There, that’s better. Man, I thought you were going to walk out on me.”
“I’m not a man.”
He cast his eyes upon her. “So I’ve noticed.”
She was wearing a bulky fur coat—imitation raccoon or something vulgar like that—and his innocent lechery made her smile again. “In this thing you couldn’t tell.”
“Oh, yeah, I can tell,” he said. He put an arm around her and kissed her. At first she wasn’t going to kiss back, but of course she did.
“I’m sorry I scared you,” he said, and rubbed her nose companionably with his own before letting her go. He held up the mask. “I thought you’d get a kick out of it. I’m gonna wear it in homeroom Friday.”
“Oh, Johnny, that won’t be very good for discipline.”
“I’ll muddle through somehow,” he said with a grin. And the hell of it was, he would.
She came to school every day wearing big, schoolmarmish glasses, her hair drawn back into a bun so severe it seemed on the verge of a scream. She wore her skirts just above the knee in a season when most of the girls wore them just below the edges of their underpants (and my legs are better than any of theirs, Sarah thought resentfully). She maintained alphabetical seating charts which, by the law of averages, at least, should have kept the troublemakers away from each other, and she resolutely sent unruly pupils to the assistant principal, her reasoning being that he was getting an extra five hundred a year to act as ramrod and she wasn’t. And still her days were a constant struggle with that freshman teacher demon. Discipline. More disturbing, she had begun to sense that there was a collective, unspoken jury—a kind of school consciousness, maybe—that went into deliberations over every new teacher, and that the verdict being returned on her was not so good.
Johnny, on the face of it, appeared to be the antithesis of everything a good teacher should be. He ambled from class to class in an agreeable sort of daze, often showing up tardy because he had stopped to chat with someone between bells. He let the kids sit where they wanted to so that the same face was never in the same seat from day to day (and the class thugs invariably gravitated to the back of the room). Sarah would not have been able to learn their names that way until March, but Johnny seemed to have them down pat already.
He was a tall man who had a tendency to slouch, and the kids called him Frankenstein. Johnny seemed amused rather than outraged by this. And yet his classes were mostly quiet and well-behaved, there were few skippers (Sarah had a constant problem with kids cutting class), and that same jury seemed to be coming back in his favor. He was the sort of teacher who, in another ten years, would have the school yearbook dedicated to him. She just wasn’t. And sometimes wondering why drove her crazy.
“You want a beer before we go? Glass of wine? Anything?”
“No, but I hope you’re going well-heeled,” she said, taking his arm and deciding not to be mad anymore. “I always eat at least three hot dogs. Especially when it’s the last county fair of the year.” They were going to Esty, twenty miles north of Cleaves Mills, a town whose only dubious claim to fame was that it held ABSOLUTELY THE LAST AGRICULTURAL FAIR OF THE YEAR IN NEW ENGLAND. The fair would close Friday night, on Halloween.
“Considering Friday’s payday, I’m doing good. I got eight bucks.”
“Oh . . . my . . . God,” Sarah said, rolling her eyes. “I always knew if I kept myself pure I’d meet a sugar daddy someday.”
He smiled and nodded. “Us pimps make biiig money, baby. Just let me get my coat and we’re off.”
She looked after him with exasperated affection, and the voice that had been surfacing in her mind more and more often—in the shower, while she was reading a book or prepping a class or making her supper for one—came up again, like one of those thirty-second public-service spots on TV. He’s a very nice man and all that, easy to get along with, fun, he never makes you cry. But is that love? I mean, is that all there is to it? Even when you learned to ride your two-wheeler, you had to fall off a few times and scrape both knees. Call it a rite of passage. And that was just a little thing.
“Gonna use the bathroom,” he called to her.
“Uh-huh.” She smiled a little. Johnny was one of those people who invariably mentioned their nature calls—God knew why.
She went over to the window and looked out on Main Street. Kids were pulling into the parking lot next to O’Mike’s, the local pizza-and-beer hangout. She suddenly wished she were back with them, one of them, with this confusing stuff behind her—or still ahead of her. The university was safe. It was a kind of never-never land where everybody, even the teachers, could be a part of Peter Pan’s band and never grow up. And there would always be a Nixon or an Agnew to play Captain Hook.
She had met Johnny when they started teaching in September, but she had known his face from the Ed courses they had shared. She had been pinned to a Delta Tau Delta, and none of the judgments that applied to Johnny had applied to Dan. He had been almost flawlessly handsome, witty in a sharp and restless way that always made her a trifle uncomfortable, a heavy drinker, a passionate lover. Sometimes when he drank he turned mean. She remembered a night in Bangor’s Brass Rail when that had happened. The man in the next booth had taken joking issue with something Dan had been saying about the UMO football team, and Dan had asked him if he would like to go home with his head on backward. The man had apologized, but Dan hadn’t wanted an apology; he had wanted a fight. He began to make personal remarks about the woman with the other man. Sarah had put her hand on Dan’s arm and asked him to stop. Dan had shaken her hand off and had looked at her with a queer flat light in his grayish eyes that made any other words she might have spoken dry up in her throat. Eventually, Dan and the other guy went outside and Dan beat him up. Dan had beaten him until the other man, who was in his late thirties and getting a belly, had screamed. Sarah had never heard a man scream before—she never wanted to hear it again. They had to leave quickly because the bartender saw how it was going and called the police. She would have gone home alone that night (Oh? are you sure? her mind asked nastily), but it was twelve miles back to the campus and the buses had stopped running at six and she was afraid to hitch.
Dan didn’t talk on the way back. He had a scratch on one cheek. Just one scratch. When they got back to Hart Hall, her dorm, she told him she didn’t want to see him anymore. “Any way you want it, babe,” he said with an indifference that had chilled her—and the second time he called after the Brass Rail incident she had gone out with him. Part of her had hated herself for that.
It had continued all that fall semester of her senior year. He had frightened and attracted her at the same time. He was her first real lover, and even now, two days shy of Halloween 1970, he had been her only real lover. She and Johnny had not been to bed.
Dan had been very good. He had used her, but he had been very good. He would not take any precautions and so she had been forced to go to the university infirmary, where she talked fumblingly about painful menstruation and got the pill. Sexually, Dan had dominated her all along. She did not have many orgasms with him, but his very roughness brought her some, and in the weeks before it had ended she had begun to feel a mature woman’s greediness for good sex, a desire that was bewilderingly intermixed with other feelings: dislike for both Dan and herself, a feeling that no sex that depended so much on humiliation and domination could really be called “good sex,” and self-contempt for her own inability to call a halt to a relationship that seemed based on destructive feelings.
It had ended swiftly, early this year. He flunked out. “Where will you be going?” she asked him timidly, sitting on his roomie’s bed as he threw things into two suitcases. She had wanted to ask other, more personal questions. Will you be near here? Will you take a job? Take night classes? Is there a place for me in your plans? That question, above all others, she had not been able to ask. Because she wasn’t prepared for any answer. The answer he gave to her one neutral question was shocking enough.
“Vietnam, I guess.”
He reached onto a shelf, thumbed briefly through the papers there, and tossed her a letter. It was from the induction center in Bangor: an order to report for his physical exam.
“Can’t you get out of it?”
“No. Maybe. I don’t know.” He lit a cigarette. “I don’t think I even want to try.” She had stared at him, shocked.
“I’m tired of this scene. College and get a job and find a little wifey. You’ve been applying for the little wifey spot, I guess. And don’t think I haven’t thought it over. It wouldn’t work. You know it wouldn’t and so do I. We don’t fit, Sarah.”
She had fled then, all her questions answered, and she never saw him again. She saw his roommate a few times. He got three letters from Dan between January and June. He was inducted and sent down south somewhere for basic training. And that was the last the roommate had heard. It was the last Sarah Bracknell heard, too.
At first she thought she was going to be okay. All those sad, torchy songs, the ones you always seem to hear on the car radio after midnight, they didn’t apply to her. Or the clichés about the end of the affair or the crying jags. She didn’t pick up a guy on the rebound or start doing the bars. Most evenings that spring she spent studying quietly in her dorm room. It was a relief. It wasn’t messy.
It was only after she met Johnny—at a freshman mixer dance last month; they were both chaperoning, purely by luck of the draw—that she realized what a horror her last semester at school had been. It was the kind of thing you couldn’t see when you were in it, it was too much a part of you. Two donkeys meet at a hitching rail in a western town. One of them is a town donkey with nothing on his back but a saddle. The other is a prospector’s donkey, loaded down with packs, camping and cooking gear, and four fifty-pound sacks of ore. His back is bent into a concertina shape from the weight. The town donkey says, That’s quite a load you got there. And the prospector’s donkey says, What load?
In retrospect it was the em...
Biographie de l'auteur
Stephen King has written some 40 books and novellas, including CARRIE, THE STAND and RITA HAYWORTH AND SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (from the collection DIFFERENT SEASONS), BAG OF BONES, ON WRITING and most recently CELL and LISEY'S STORY. He wrote several novels under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman, including BLAZE (June 2007). He won America's prestigious National Book Award and was voted Grand Master in the 2007 Edgar Allen Poe awards. He lives with his wife, novelist Tabitha King, in Maine, USA.
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