At the end of period three on Tuesday, Matt walked up to the office and Ben Mears was there waiting for him.
'Hi,' Matt said. 'You're early.'
Ben stood up and shook hands. 'Family curse, I guess. Say, these kids aren't going to eat me, are they?'
'Positive,' Matt said. 'Come on.'
He was a little surprised. Ben had dressed in a nice-?looking sport coat an a pair of gray double-knit slacks. Good shoes that looked as if they hadn't been worn much. Matt had had other literary types into his classes and they were usually dressed in casual clothes or something downright weird. A year ago he had asked a rather well known female poet who had done a reading at the Univer?sity of Maine at Portland if she would come in the following day and talk to a class about poetry. She had shown up in pedal pushers and high heels. It seemed to be a subcon?scious way of saying: Look at me, I've beaten the system at its own game. I come and go like the wind.
His admiration for Ben went up a notch in comparison. After thirty-plus years of teaching, he believed that nobody beat the system or won the game, and only suckers ever thought they were ahead.
'It's a nice building,' Ben said, looking around as they walked down the hall. 'Helluva lot different from where I went to high school. Most of the windows in that place looked like loopholes.'
'First mistake,' Matt said. 'You must never call it a building. It's a "plant". Blackboards are "visual aids". And the kids are a "homogenous mid-teen coeducational student body".'
'How wonderful for them,' Ben said, grinning.
'It is, isn't it? Did you go to college, Ben?'
'I tried. Liberal arts. But everybody seemed to be play?ing an intellectual game of capture-the-flag - you too can find an ax and grind it, thus becoming known and loved. Also, I flunked out. When Conway's Daughter sold, I was bucking cases of Coca-Cola onto delivery trucks.'
'Tell the kids that. They'll be interested.'
'You like teaching?' Ben said.
'Sure I like it. It would have been a busted-axle forty years if I didn't.'
The late bell rang, echoing loudly in the corridor, which was empty now except for one loitering student who was wandering slowly past a painted arrow under a sign which read 'Wood Shop'.
'How's drugs here?' Ben asked.
'All kinds. Like every school in America. Ours is booze more than anything else.'
'I don't consider pot a problem and neither does the administration, when it speaks off the record with a few knocks of Jim Beam under its belt. I happen to know that our guidance counselor, who is one of the best in his line, isn't averse to toking up and going to a movie. I've tried it myself. The effect is fine, but it gives me acid indigestion.'
'Shhh,' Matt said. 'Big Brother is listening everywhere. Besides, this is my room.'
'Don't be nervous,' Matt said, and led him in. 'Good morning, folks,' he said to the twenty or so students, who were eying Ben closely. 'This is Mr Ben Mears.'
At first Ben thought he had the wrong house.
When Matt Burke invited him for supper he was quite sure he had said the house was the small gray one after the red brick, but there was rock 'n' roll music pouring from this one in a steady stream.
He used the tarnished brass knocker, got no answer, and rapped again. This time the music was turned down and a voice that was unmistakably Matt's yelled, 'It's open! Come on in!'
He did, looking around curiously. The front door opened directly on a small living room furnished in Early American Junk Shop and dominated by an incredibly ancient Motorola TV. A KLH sound system with quad speakers was putting out the music.
Matt came out of the kitchen, outfitted in a red-and?white-checked apron. The odor of spaghetti sauce wand?ered out after him.
'Sorry about the noise,' Matt said. 'I'm a little deaf. I turn it up.'
'I've been a rock fan ever since Buddy Holly. Lovely music. Are you hungry?'
'Yeah,' Ben said. 'Thanks again for asking me. I've eaten out more since I came back to 'salem's Lot than I have in the last five years, I guess.'
'It's a friendly town. Hope you don't mind eating in the kitchen. An antique man came by a couple of months ago and offered me two hundred dollars for my dining room table. I haven't gotten around to getting another one.'
'I don't mind. I'm a kitchen eater from a long line of kitchen eaters.'
The kitchen was astringently neat. On the small four-?burner stove, a pot of spaghetti sauce simmered and a colander full of spaghetti stood steaming. A small drop-leaf table was set with a couple of mismatched plates and glasses which had animated cartoon figures dancing around the rims - jelly glasses, Ben thought with amusement. The last constraint of being with a stranger dropped away and he began to feel at home.
'There's Bourbon, rye, and vodka in the cupboard over the sink,' Matt said, pointing. 'There's some mixers in the fridge. Nothing too fancy, I'm afraid.'
'Bourbon and tap water will do me.'
'Go to it. I'm going to serve this mess up.'
Mixing his drink, Ben said, 'I liked your kids. They asked good questions. Tough, but good.'
'Like where do you get your ideas?' Matt asked, mimick?ing Ruthie Crockett's sexy little-girl lisp.
'She's quite a piece.'
'She is indeed. There's a bottle of Lancers in the icebox behind the pineapple chunks. I got it special.'
'Say, you shouldn't - '
'Oh come, Ben. We hardly see best-selling authors in the Lot every day.'
'That's a little extravagant.'
Ben finished the rest of his drink, took a plate of spaghetti from Matt, ladled sauce over it, and twirled a forkful against his spoon. 'Fantastic,' he said. 'Mamma mia.'
'But of course,' Matt said.
Ben looked down at his plate, which had emptied with amazing rapidity. He wiped his mouth a little guiltily.
'Half a plate, if it's okay. It's great spaghetti.'
Matt brought him a whole plate. 'If we don't eat it, my cat will. He's a miserable animal. Weighs twenty pounds and waddles to his dish.'
'Lord, how did I miss him?'
Matt smiled. 'He's cruising. Is your new book a novel?'
'A fictionalized sort of thing,' Ben said. 'To be honest, I'm writing it for money. Art is wonderful, but just once I'd like to pull a big number out of the hat.'
'What are the prospects?'
'Murky,' Ben said.
'Let's go in the living room,' Matt said. 'The chairs are lumpy but more comfortable than these kitchen horrors. Did you get enough to eat?'
'Does the Pope wear a tall hat?'
In the living room Matt put on a stack of albums and went to work firing up a huge, knotted calabash pipe. After he had it going to his satisfaction (sitting in the middle of a huge raft of smoke), he looked up at Ben.
'No,' he said. 'You can't see it from here.'
Ben looked around sharply. 'What?'
'The Marsten House. I'll bet you a nickel that s what you were looking for.'
Ben laughed uneasily. 'No bet.'
'Is your book set in a town like 'salem's Lot?'
'Town and people,' Ben nodded. 'There are a series of sex murders and mutilations. I'm going to open with one of them and describe it in progress, from start to finish, in minute detail. Rub the reader's nose in it. I was outlining that part when Ralphie Glick disappeared and it gave me . . . well, it gave me a nasty turn.'
'You're basing all of this on the disappearances of the thirties in the township?'
Ben looked at him closely. 'You know about that?'
'Oh yes. A good many of the older residents do, too. I wasn't in the Lot then, but Mabel Werts and Glynis May?berry and Milt Crossen were. Some of them have made the connection already.'
'Come now, Ben. The connection is pretty obvious, isn't it?'
I suppose so. The last time the house was occupied, four kids disappeared over a period of ten years. Now it's occupied again after a thirty-six-year period, and Ralphie Glick disappears right off the bat.'
'Do you think it's a coincidence?'
'I suppose so,' Ben said cautiously. Susan's words of caution were very much in his ears. 'But it's funny. I checked through the copies of the Ledger from 1939 to 1970 just to get a comparison. Three kids disappeared. One ran off and was later found working in Boston - he was sixteen and looked older. Another one was fished out of the Androscoggin a month later. And one was found buried off Route 116 in Gates, apparently the victim of a hit-and-run. All explained.'
'Perhaps the Glick boy's disappearance will be ex?plained, too.'
'But you don't think so. What do you know about this man Straker?'
'Nothing at all,' Ben said. 'I'm not even sure I want to meet him. I've got a viable book working right now, and it's bound up in a certain concept of the Marsten House and inhabitants of that house. Discovering Straker to be a perfectly ordinary businessman, as I'm sure he is, might knock me off kilter.'
'I don't think that would be the case. He opened the store today, you know. Susie Norton and her mother dropped by, I understand . . . hell, most of the women in town got in long enough to get a peek. According to Dell Markey, an unimpeachable source, even Mabel Werts hobbled down. The man is supposed to be quite striking. A dandy dresser, extremely graceful, totally bald, And charming. I'm told he actually sold some pieces.'
Ben grinned. 'Wonderful. Has anyone seen the other half of the team?'
'He's on a buying trip, supposedly.'
Matt shrugged restlessly. 'I don't know. The whole thing is probably perfectly on the level, but the house makes me nervous. Almost as if the two of them had sought it out. As you said, it's like an idol, squatting there on top of its hill.'
'And on top of everything else, we have another child disappearance. And Ralphie's brother, Danny. Dead at twelve. Cause of death pernicious anemia.'
'What's odd about that? It's unfortunate, of course - '
'My doctor is a young fellow named Jimmy Cody, Ben. I had him in school. He was a little heller then, a good doctor now. This is gossip, mind you. Hearsay.'
'I was in for a check-up, and happened to mention that it was a shame about the Glick boy, dreadful for his parents on top of the other one's vanishing act. Jimmy said he had consulted with George Gorby on the case. The boy was anemic, all right. He said that a red cell count on a boy Danny's age should run anywhere from eighty-five to ninety-eight per cent. Danny's was down to forty-five per cent.'
'Wow,' Ben said.
'They were giving him B12 injections and calf liver and it seemed to be working fine. They were going to release him the next day. And boom, he dropped dead.'
'You don't want to let Mabel Werts get that,' Ben said. 'She'll be seeing natives with poison blowguns in the park.'
'I haven't mentioned it to anyone but you. And I don't intend to. And by the way, Ben, I believe I'd keep the subject matter of your book quiet, if I were you. If Loretta Starcher asks what you're writing about, tell her it's archi?tecture.'
'I've already been given that advice.'
'By Susan Norton, no doubt.'
Ben looked at his watch and stood up. 'Speaking of Susan - '
'The courting male in full plumage,' Matt said. 'As it happens, I have to go up to the school. We are reblocking the third act of the school play, a comedy of great social significance called Charley's Problem.'
'What is his problem?'
'Pimples,' Matt said, and grinned.
They walked to the door together, Matt pausing to pull on a faded school letter jacket. Ben thought he had the figure of an aging track coach rather than that of a seden?tary English teacher - if you ignored his face, which was intelligent yet dreamy, and somehow innocent.
'Listen,' Matt said as they went out onto the stoop, 'what have you got on the stove for Friday night?'
'I don't know,' Ben said. 'I thought Susan and I might go to a movie. That's about the long and short of it around here.'
'I can think of something else,' Matt said. 'Perhaps we should form a committee of three and take a drive up to the Marsten House and introduce ourselves to the new squire. On behalf of the town, of course.'
'Of course,' Ben said. 'It would be only common cour?tesy, wouldn't it?'
'A rustic welcome wagon,' Matt agreed.
'I'll mention it to Susan tonight. I think she'll go for it.'
Matt raised his hand and waved as Ben's Citro?n purred away. Ben tooted twice in acknowledgment, and then his taillights disappeared over the hill.
Matt stood on his stoop for almost a full minute after the sound of the car had died away, his hands poked into his jacket pockets, his eyes turned toward the house on the hill.
There was no play practice Thursday night, and Matt drove over to Dell's around nine o'clock for two or three beers. If that damn snip Jimmy Cody wouldn't prescribe for his insomnia, he would prescribe for himself.
Dell's was sparsely populated on nights when no band played. Matt saw only three people he knew: Weasel Craig, nursing a beer along in the corner; Floyd Tibbits, with thunderclouds on his brow (he had spoken to Susan three times this week, twice on the phone and once in person, in the Norton living room, and none of the conver?sations had gone well); and Mike Ryerson, who was sitting in one of the far booths against the wall.
Matt walked over to the bar, where Dell Markey was polishing glasses and watching 'Ironside' on a portable TV.
'Hi, Matt. How's it going?'
'Fair. Slow night.'
Dell shrugged. 'Yeah. They got a couple of motorcycle pictures over to the drive-in in Gates. I can't compete with that. Glass or pitcher?'
'Make it a pitcher.'
Dell drew it, cut the foam off, and added another two inches. Matt paid, and after a moment's hesitation, walked over to Mike's booth. Mike had filtered through one of Matt's English classes, like almost all the young people in the Lot, and Matt had enjoyed him. He had done above-average work with an average intelligence because he worked hard and had asked over and over about things he didn't understand until he got them. In addition to that, he had a clear, free-running sense of humor and a pleasant streak of individualism that made him a class favorite.
'Hi, Mike,' he said. 'Mind if I join you?'
Mike Ryerson looked up and Matt felt shock hit him like a live wire. His first reaction: Drugs. Heavy drugs.
'Sure, Mr Burke. Sit down.' His voice was listless. His complexion was a horrid, pasty white, darkening to deep shadows under his eyes. The eyes themselves seemed overlarge and hectic. His hands moved slowly across the table in the tavern's semigloom like ghosts. A glass of beer stood untouched before him.
'How are you doing, Mike?' Matt poured himself a glass of beer, controlling his hands ' which wanted to shake.
His life had always been one of sweet evenness, a graph with modulate highs and lows (and even those had sunk to foothills since the death of his mother thirteen years before), and one of the things that disturbed it was the miserable ends some of his students came to. Billy Royko dying in a Vietnam helicopter crash two months before the cease-fire; Sally Greer, one of the brightest and most vivacious girls he had ever had, killed by her drunken boy friend when she told him she wanted to break up; Gary Coleman, who had gone blind due to some mysterious optic nerve degeneration; Buddy Mayberry's brother Doug, the only good kid in that whole half-bright clan, drowning at Old Orchard Beach; and drugs, the little death. Not all of them who waded into the waters of Lethe found it necessary to take a bath in it, but there were enough - kids who had made dreams their protein.
'Doing?' Mike said slowly. 'I don't know, Mr Burke. Not so good.'
'What kind of shit are you on, Mike?' Matt asked gently.
Mike looked at him uncomprehendingly.
'Dope,' Matt said. 'Bennies? Reds? Coke? Or is it - '
'I'm not on dope,' Mike said. 'I guess I'm sick.'
'Is that the truth?'
'I never did no heavy dope in my life,' Mike said, and the words seemed to be costing him a dreadful effort. 'Just grass, and I ain't had any of that for four months. I'm sick . . . been sick since Monday, I think it was. I fell asleep out at Harmony Hill Sunday night, see. Never even woke up until Monday morning.' He shook his head slowly. 'I felt crappy. I've felt crappy ever since. Worse every day, it seems like.' He sighed, and the whistle of air seemed to shake his frame like a dead leaf on a November maple.
Matt leaned forward, concerned. 'This happened after Danny Glick's funeral?'
'Yeah.' Mike looked at him again. 'I came back to finish up after everybody went home but that fucking - excuse me, Mr Burke - that Royal Snow never showed up. I waited for him a long time, and that's when I must have started to get sick, because everything after that is . . . oh, it hurts my head. It's hard to think.'
'What do you remember, Mike?'
'Remember?' Mike looked into the golden depths of his beer glass and watched the bubbles detaching themselves from the sides and floating to the surface to release their gas.
'I remember singing,' he said. 'The sweetest singing I ever heard. And a feeling like . . . like drowning. Only it was nice. Except for the eyes. The eyes.'
He clutched his elbows and shuddered.
'Whose eyes?' Matt asked, leaning forward.
'They were red. Oh, scary eyes.'
'I don't remember. No eyes. I dreamed it all.' He pushed it away from himself. Matt could almost see him do it. 'I don't remember anything else about Sunday night. I woke up Monday morning on the ground, and at first I couldn't even get up I was so tired. But I finally did. The sun was coming up and I was afraid I'd get a sunburn. So I went down in the woods by the brook. Tired me out. Oh, awful tired. So I went back to sleep. Slept till . . . oh, four or five o'clock.' He offered a papery little chuckle. 'I was all covered with leaves when I woke up. I felt a little better, though. I got up and went back to my truck.' He passed a slow hand over his face. 'I must have finished up with the little Glick boy Sunday night, though. Funny. I don't even remember.'
'Grave was all filled in, Royal or no Royal. Sods tamped in and all. A good job. Don't remember doing it. Must have been really sick.'
'Where did you spend Monday night?'
'At my place. Where else?'
'How did you feel Tuesday morning?'
'I never woke up Tuesday morning. Slept through the whole day. Never woke up until Tuesday night.'
'How did you feel then?'
'Terrible. Legs like rubber. I tried to go get a drink of water and almost fell down. I had to go into the kitchen holding on to things. Weak as a kitten.' He frowned. 'I had a can of stew for my dinner - you know, that Dinty Moore stuff - but I couldn't eat it. Seemed like just looking at it made me feel sick to my stomach. Like when you've got an awful hangover and someone shows you food.'
'You didn't eat anything?'
'I tried, but I threw it up. But I felt a little better. I went out and walked around for a while. Then I went back to bed.' His fingers traced old beer rings on the table. 'I got scared before I went to bed. Just like a little kid afraid of the Allamagoosalum. I went around and made sure all the windows were locked. And I went to sleep with all the lights on.'
'And yesterday morning?'
'Hmmm? No . . . never got up until nine o'clock last night.' He offered the papery little chuckle again. 'I remember thinking if it kept up I'd be sleeping the clock right around. And that's what you do when you're dead.' Matt regarded him somberly. Floyd Tibbits got up and put a quarter in the juke and began to punch up songs.
'Funny,' Mike said. 'My bedroom window was open when I got up. I must have done it myself. I had a dream . . . someone was at the window and I got up . . . got up to let him in. Like you'd get up to let in an old friend who was cold or . . . or hungry.'
'Who was it?'
'It was just a dream, Mr Burke.'
'But in the dream who was it?'
'I don't know. I was going to try and eat, but the thought of it made me want to puke.'
'What did you do?'
'I watched TV until Johnny Carson went off. I felt a lot better. Then I went to bed.'
'Did you lock the windows?'
'And slept all day?'
'I woke up around sundown.'
'I hope to tell.' He passed a hand over his face. I feel so low!' he cried out in a breaking voice. 'It's just the flu or something, isn't it, Mr Burke? I'm not really sick, am I?'
'I don't know,' Matt said.
'I thought a few beers would cheer me up, but I can't drink it. I took one sip and it like to gag me. The last week . . . it all seems like a bad dream. And I'm scared. I'm awful scared.' He put his thin hands to his face and Matt saw that he was crying.
'Mike.' Gently, he pulled Mike's hands away from his face. 'I want you to come home with me tonight. I want you to sleep in my guest room. Will you do that?'
'All right. I don't care.' He wiped his sleeve across his eyes with lethargic slowness.
'And tomorrow I want you to come see Dr Cody with me.'
'Come on. Let's go.'
He thought of calling Ben Mears and didn't.
When Matt knocked on the door, Mike Ryerson said, 'Come in.'
Matt came in with a pair of pajamas. 'These are going to be a little big - '
'That's all right, Mr Burke. I sleep in my skivvies.' He was standing in his shorts now, and Matt saw that his entire body was horribly pale. His ribs stood out in circular ridges.
'Turn your head, Mike. This way.'
Mike turned his head obediently.
'Mike, where did you get those marks?'
Mike's hand touched his throat below the angle of the jaw. 'I don't know.'
Matt stood restively. Then he went to the window. The catch was securely fastened, yet he rattled it back and forth with hands that were distraught. Beyond, the dark pressed against the glass heavily. 'Call me in the night if you want anything. Anything. Even if you have a bad dream. Will you do that, Mike?'
'I mean it. Anything. I'm right down the hall.'
Hesitating, feeling there were other things he should do he went out.
He didn't sleep at all, and the only thing now that kept him from calling Ben Mears was knowing that everyone at Eva's would be in bed. The boardinghouse was filled with old men, and when the phone rang late at night, it meant that someone had died.
He lay restively, watching the luminous hands of his alarm clock move from eleven-thirty to twelve. The house was preternaturally silent - perhaps because his ears were consciously attuned to catch the slightest noise. The house was an old one and built solidly, and its settling groans had mostly ceased long before. There were no sounds but the clock and the faint passage of the wind outside. No cars passed on Taggart Stream Road late on week nights.
What you're thinking is madness.
But step by step he had been forced backward toward belief. Of course, being a literary man, it had been the first thing that had come to mind when Jimmy Cody had thumbnailed Danny Glick's case. He and Cody had laughed over it. Maybe this was his punishment for laugh?ing.
Scratches? Those marks weren't scratches. They were punctures.
One was taught that such things could not be; that things like Coleridge's 'Cristabel' or Brain Stoker's evil fairy tale were only the warp and woof of fantasy. Of course monsters existed; they were the men with their fingers on the thermonuclear triggers in six countries, the hijackers, the mass murderers, the child molesters. But not this. One knows better. The mark of the devil on a woman's breast is only a mole, the man who came back from the dead and stood at his wife's door dressed in the cerements of the grave was only suffering from locomotor ataxia, the bogey?man who gibbers and capers in the corner of a child's bedroom is only a heap of blankets. Some clergymen had proclaimed that even God, that venerable white warlock, was dead.
He was bled almost white.
No sound from up the hall. Matt thought: He is sleeping like the stones himself. Well, why not? Why had he invited Mike back to the house, if not for a good night's sleep, uninterrupted by . . . by bad dreams? He got out of bed and turned on the lamp and went to the window. From here one could just see the roof tree of the Marsten House, frosted in moonlight.
But it was worse than that; he was dead scared. His mind ran over the old protections for an unmentionable disease: garlic, holy wafer and water, crucifix, rose, run?ning water. He had none of the holy things. He was a nonpracticing Methodist, and privately thought that John Groggins was the asshole of the Western world.
The only religious object in the house was -
Softly yet clearly in the silent house the words came, spoken in Mike Ryerson's voice, spoken in the dead ac?cents of sleep:
'Yes. Come in.'
Matt's breath stopped, then whistled out in soundless scream. He felt faint with fear. His belly seemed to have turned to lead. His testicles had drawn up. What in God's name had been invited into his house?
Stealthily, the sound of the hasp on the guest room window being turned back. Then the grind of wood against wood as the window was forced up.
He could go downstairs. Run, get the Bible from the dresser in the dining room. Run back up, jerk open the door to the guest room, hold the Bible high: In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, I command you to be gone -
But who was in there?
Call me in the night if you want anything.
But I can't, Mike. I'm an old man. I'm afraid.
Night invaded his brain and made it a circus of terrifying images which danced in and out of the shadows. Clown?-white faces, huge eyes, sharp teeth, forms that slipped from the shadows with long white hands that reached for . . . for . . .
A shuddering groan escaped him, and he put his hands over his face.
I can't. I am afraid.
He could not have risen even if the brass knob on his own door had begun to turn. He was paralyzed with fear and wished crazily that he had never gone out to Dell's that night.
I am afraid.
And in the awful heavy silence of the house, as he sat impotently on his bed with his face in his hands, he heard the high, sweet, evil laugh of a child
- and then the sucking sounds.