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Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Ziesing Books, 1994

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Horror
Sub-Genre Tags: Psychic Abilities
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(142 reads / 62 ratings)


Ralph Roberts has an incurable case of insomnia, but lack of sleep is the least of his worries. Each night he stays awake, he witnesses more of the odd activity taking place in his town after dark than he wants to know. His bizarre visions keep getting more intense, the strange deaths have just begun, and Ralph knows he isn't hallucinating.


Chapter 1


About a month after the death of his wife, Ralph Roberts began to suffer from insomnia for the first time in his life.

The problem was mild to begin with, but it grew steadily worse. Six months after the first interruptions in his heretofore unremarkable sleep cycle, Ralph had reached a state of misery he could hardly credit, let alone accept. Toward the end of the summer of 1993 he began to wonder what it would be like to spend his remaining years on earth in a starey-eyed daze of wakefulness. Of course it wouldn't come to that, he told himself, it never does.

But was that true? He didn't really know, that was the devil of it, and the books on the subject Mike Hanlon steered him to down at the Derry Public Library weren't much help. There were several on sleep disorders, but they seemed to contradict one another. Some called insomnia a symptom, others called it a disease, and at least one called it a myth. The problem went further than that, however; so far as Ralph could tell from the books, no one seemed exactly sure what sleep itself was, how it worked, or what it did.

He knew he should quit playing amateur researcher and go to the doctor, but he found that surprisingly hard to do. He supposed he still bore Dr. Litchfield a grudge. It was Litchfield, after all, who had originally diagnosed Carolyn's brain tumor as tension headaches (except Ralph had an idea that Litchfield, a lifelong bachelor, might actually have believed that Carolyn was suffering from nothing but a moderate case of the vapors), and Litchfield who had made himself as scarce as medically possible once Carolyn was diagnosed. Ralph was positive that if he had asked the man about that point-blank, Litchfield would have said he had handed the case off to Jamal, the specialist... all quite proper and aboveboard. Yes. Except Ralph had made it his business to get a good look into Litchfield's eyes on the few occasions he had seen him between Carolyn's first convulsions last July and her death this March, and Ralph thought that what he'd seen in those eyes was a mixture of unease and guilt. It was the look of a man trying very hard to forget he has fucked up. Ralph believed the only reason he could still look at Litchfield without wanting to knock his block off was that Dr. Jamal had told him that an earlier diagnosis probably would have made no difference; by the time Carolyn's headaches started, the tumor was already well entrenched, and no doubt sending out little bursts of bad cells to other areas of the brain like malignant CARE packages.

In late April Dr. Jamal had left to establish a practice in southern Connecticut, and Ralph missed him. He thought that he could have talked about his sleeplessness to Dr. Jamal, and he had an idea that Jamal would have listened in a way Litchfield wouldn't... or couldn't.

By late summer Ralph had read enough about insomnia to know that the type with which he was afflicted, while not rare, was a lot less common than the usual slow-sleep insomnia. People unaffected by insomnia are usually in first-stage sleep seven to twenty minutes after turning in. Slow-sleepers, on the other hand, sometimes take as long as three hours to slip below the surface, and while normal sleepers begin to ramp down into third-stage sleep (what some of the old books called theta sleep, Ralph had discovered) forty-five minutes or so after drifting off, slow-sleepers usually took an additional hour or two to get down there... and on many nights they did not get all the way down at all. They awoke unrefreshed, sometimes with unfocused memories of unpleasant, tangled dreams, more often with the mistaken impression that they had been awake all night.

Following Carolyn's death, Ralph began to suffer from premature waking. He continued to go to bed most nights following the conclusion of the eleven o'clock news, and he continued to pop off to sleep almost at once, but instead of waking promptly at six-fifty-five, five minutes before the clock-radio alarm buzzed, he began to wake at six. At first he dismissed this as no more than the price of living with a slightly enlarged prostate and a seventy-year-old set of kidneys, but he never seemed to have to go that badly when he woke up, and he found it impossible to get back to sleep even after he'd emptied what had accumulated. He simply lay in the bed he'd shared with Carolyn for so many years, waiting for it to be five of seven (quarter till, anyway) so he could get up. Eventually he gave up even trying to drop off again; he simply lay there with his long-fingered, slightly swollen hands laced together on his chest and stared up at the shadowy ceiling with eyes that felt as big as doorknobs. Sometimes he thought of Dr. Jamal down there in Westport, talking in his soft and comforting Indian accent, building up his little piece of the American dream. Sometimes he thought of places he and Carolyn had gone in the old days, and the one he kept coming back to was a hot afternoon at Sand Beach in Bar Harbor, the two of them sitting at a picnic table in their bathing suits, sitting under a big bright umbrella, eating sweet fried clams and drinking Bud from longneck bottles as they watched the sailboats scudding across the dark-blue ocean. When had that been? 1964? 1967? Did it matter? Probably not.

The alterations in his sleep schedule wouldn't have mattered, either, if they had ended there; Ralph would have adapted to the changes not just with ease but with gratitude. All the books he hunted through that summer seemed to confirm one bit of folk wisdom he'd heard all his life--people slept less as they got older. If losing an hour or so a night was the only fee he had to pay for the dubious pleasure of being "seventy years young," he would pay it gladly, and consider himself well off.

But it didn't end there. By the first week of May, Ralph was waking up to birdsong at 5:15 a.m. He tried earplugs for a few nights, although he doubted from the outset that they would work. It wasn't the newly returned birds that were waking him up, nor the occasional delivery-truck backfire out on Harris Avenue. He had always been the sort of guy who could sleep in the middle of a brass marching band, and he didn't think that had changed. What had changed was inside his head. There was a switch in there, something was turning it on a little earlier every day, and Ralph hadn't the slightest idea of how to keep it from happening.

By June he was popping out of sleep like Jack out of his box at 4:30 a.m., 4:45 at the latest. And by the middle of July--not quite as hot as July of '92, but bad enough, thanks very much--he was snapping to at around four o'clock. It was during those long hot nights, taking up too little of the bed where he and Carolyn had made love on so many hot nights (and cold ones), that he began to consider what a hell his life would become if sleep departed entirely. In daylight he was still able to scoff at the notion, but he was discovering certain dismal truths about F. Scott Fitzgerald's dark night of the soul, and the grand-prize winner was this: at 4:15 a.m., anything seems possible. Anything.

During the days he was able to go on telling himself that he was simply experiencing a readjustment of his sleep-cycle, that his body was responding in perfectly normal fashion to a number of big changes in his life, retirement and the loss of his wife being the two biggest. He sometimes used the word loneliness when he thought about his new life, but he shied away from The Dreaded D-Word, stuffing it back into the deep closet of his subconscious whenever it happened to glimmer for a moment in his thoughts. Loneliness was okay. Depression most certainly was not.

Maybe you need to get more exercise, he thought. Do some walking, like you used to last summer. After all, you've been leading a pretty sedentary life--get up, eat toast, read a book, watch some TV, get a sandwich across the street in the Red Apple for lunch, potter around in the garden a little, maybe go to the library or visit with Helen and the baby if they happen to be out, eat supper, maybe sit on the porch and visit with McGovern or Lois Chasse for awhile. Then what? Read a little more, watch a little more TV, wash up, go to bed. Sedentary. Boring. No wonder you wake up early.

Except that was crap. His life sounded sedentary, yes, no doubt, but it really wasn't. The garden was a good example. What he did out there was never going to win him any prizes, but it was a hell of a long way from "pottering around." Most afternoons he weeded until sweat made a dark tree-shape down the back of his shirt and spread damp circles at his armpits, and he was often trembling with exhaustion by the time he let himself go back inside. "Punishment" probably would have been closer to the mark than "pottering," but punishment for what? Waking up before dawn?

Ralph didn't know and didn't care. Working in the garden filled up a large piece of the afternoon, it took his mind off things he didn't really care to think of, and that was enough to justify the aching muscles and the occasional flights of black spots in front of his eyes. He began his extended visits to the garden shortly after the Fourth of July and continued all through August, long after the early crops had been harvested and the later ones had been hopelessly stunted by the lack of rain.

"You ought to quit that," Bill McGovern told him one night as they sat on the porch, drinking lemonade. This was in mid-August, and Ralph had begun to wake up around three-thirty each morning. "It's got to be hazardous to your health. Worse, you look like a lunatic."

"Maybe I am a lunatic," Ralph responded shortly, and either his tone or the look in his eyes must have been convincing, because McGovern changed the subject.


He did begin walking again--nothing like the Marathons of '92, but he managed two miles a day if it wasn't raining. His usual route took him down the perversely named Up-Mile Hill, to the Derry Public Library, and then on to Back Pages, a used-book store and newsstand on the corner of Witcham and Main.

Back Pages stood next to a jumbled junkatorium called Secondhand Rose, Secondhand Clothes, and as he passed this store one day during the August of his discontent, Ralph saw a new poster among the announcements of outdated bean suppers and ancient church socials, placed so it covered roughly half of a yellowing PAT BUCHANAN FOR PRESIDENT placard.

The woman in the two photographs at the top of the poster was a pretty blonde in her late thirties or early forties, but the style of the photos--unsmiling full face on the left, unsmiling profile on the right, plain white background in both--was unsettling enough to stop Ralph in his tracks. The photos made the woman look as if she belonged on a post office wall or in a TV docudrama... and that, the poster's printed matter made clear, was no accident.

The photos were what stopped him, but it was the woman's name that held him.



was printed across the top in big black letters. And below the simulated mug-shots, in red:


There was a small line of print at the very bottom of the poster. Ralph's close vision had deteriorated quite a bit since Carolyn's death--gone to hell in a handbasket might actually have been a more accurate way of putting it--and he had to lean forward until his brow was pressed against the dirty show window of Secondhand Rose, Secondhand Clothes before he could decipher it:

Paid for by the Maine LifeWatch Committee

Far down in his mind a voice whispered: Hey, hey, Susan Day! How many kids did you kill today?

Susan Day, Ralph recalled, was a political activist from either New York or Washington, the sort of fast-speaking woman who regularly drove taxi-drivers, barbers, and hardhat construction workers into foaming frenzies. Why that particular little jangle of doggerel had come into his mind, however, he couldn't say; it was tagged to some memory that wouldn't quite come. Maybe his tired old brains were just cross-referencing that sixties Vietnam protest chant, the one which had gone Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?

No, that's not it, he thought. Close, but no cigar. It was--

Just before his mind could cough up Ed Deepneau's name and face, a voice spoke from almost beside him. "Earth to Ralph, earth to Ralph, come in, Ralphie-baby!"

Roused out of his thoughts, Ralph turned toward the voice. He was both shocked and amused to find he had almost been asleep on his feet. Christ, he thought, you never know how important sleep is until you miss a little. Then all the floors start to tilt and all the corners on things start to round off.

It was Hamilton Davenport, the proprietor of Back Pages, who had spoken to him. He was stocking the library cart he kept in front of his shop with brightly jacketed paperbacks. His old corncob pipe--to Ralph it always looked like the stack of a model steamship--jutted from the corner of his mouth, sending little puffs of blue smoke into the hot, bright air. Winston Smith, his old gray tomcat, sat in the open doorway of the shop with his tail curled around his paws. He looked at Ralph with yellow-eyed indifference, as if to say, You think you know old, my friend? I'm here to testify you don't know dick about getting old.

"Sheesh, Ralph," Davenport said. "I must have called your name at least three times."

"I guess I was woolgathering," Ralph said. He stepped past the library cart, leaned in the doorway (Winston Smith held his place with regal disinterest), and grabbed the two papers he bought every day: a Boston Globe and a USA Today. The Derry News came right to the house, courtesy of Pete the paperboy. Ralph sometimes told people that he was sure one of the three papers was comic relief, but he had never been able to make up his mind which one it was. "I haven't--"

He broke off as Ed Deepneau's face came into his mind. It was Ed he'd heard that nasty little chant from, last summer, out by the airport, and it really wasn't any wonder it had taken him a little while to retrieve the memory. Ed Deepneau was the last person in the world from whom you'd expect to hear something like that.

"Ralphie?" Davenport said. "You just shut down on me."

Ralph blinked. "Oh, sorry. I haven't been sleeping very well, that's what I started to say."

"Bummer... but there are worse problems. Just drink a glass of warm milk and listen to some quiet music half an hour before bed."

Ralph had begun to discover this summer that everyone in America apparently had a pet remedy for insomnia, some bit of bedtime magic that had been handed down through the generations like the family Bible.

"Bach's good, also Beethoven, and William Ackerman ain't bad. But the real trick"--Davenport raised one finger impressively to emphasize this--"is not to get up from your chair during that half hour. Not for anything. Don't answer the phone, don't wind up the dog and put out the alarm-clock, don't decide to brush your teeth... nothing! Then, when you do go to bed... bam! Out like a light!"

"What if you're sitting there in your favorite easy chair and all at once you realize you have a call of nature?" Ralph asked. "These things can come on pretty suddenly when you get to be my age."

"Do it in your pants," Davenport said promptly, and burst out laughing. Ralph smiled, but it had a dutiful feel. His insomnia was rapidly losing whatever marginal humor value it might once have had. "In your pants!" Ham chortled. He slapped the library cart and wagged his head back and forth.

Ralph happened to glance down at the cat. Winston Smith looked blandly back at him, and to Ralph his calm yellow gaze seemed to say, Yes, that's right, he's a fool, but he's my fool.

"Not bad, huh? Hamilton Davenport, master of the snappy comeback. Do it in your... " He snorted laughter, shook his head, then took the two dollar bills Ralph was holding out. He slipped them into the pocket of his short red apron and came out with some change. "That about right?"

"You bet. Thanks, Ham."

"Uh-huh. And all joking aside, try the music. It really works. Mellows out your brain-waves, or something."

"I will." And the devil of it was, he probably would, as he had already tried Mrs. Rapaport's lemon-and-hot-water recipe, and Shawna McClure's advice on how to clear his mind by slowing his respiration and concentrating on the word cool (except when Shawna said it, the word came out cuhhhh-ooooooooooool ). When you were trying to deal with a slow but relentless erosion of your good sleeptime, any folk remedy started to look good.

Ralph began to turn away, then turned back. "What's with that poster next door?"

Ham Davenport wrinkled his nose. "Dan Dalton's place? I don't look in there at all, if I can help it. Screws up my appetite. Has he got something new and disgusting in the window?"

"I guess it's new--it's not as yellow as the rest of them, and there's a notable lack of flydirt on it. Looks like a wanted poster, only it's Susan Day in the photos."

"Susan Day on a--son of a bitch!" He cast a dark and humorless look at the shop next door.

"What is she, President of the National Organization of Women, or something?"

"Ex-President and co-founder of Sisters in Arms. Author of My Mother's Shadow and Lilies of the Valley--that one's a study of battered women and why so many of them refuse to blow the whistle on the men that batter them. She won a Pulitzer Prize for it. Susie Day's one of the three or four most politically influential women in America right now, and she can really write as well as think. That clown knows I've got one of her petitions sitting right by my cash register."

"What petitions?"

"We're trying to get her up here to speak," Davenport said. "You know the right-to-lifers tried to firebomb WomanCare last Christmas, right?"

Ralph cast his mind cautiously back into the black pit he'd been living in at the end of 1992 and said, "Well, I remember that the cops caught some guy in the hospital's long-term parking lot with a can of gasoline, but I didn't know--"

"That was Charlie Pickering. He's a member of Daily Bread, one of the right-to-life groups that keep the pickets marching out there," Davenport said. "They put him up to it, too--take my word. This year they're not bothering with gasoline, though; they're going to try to get the City Council to change the zoning regulations and squeeze WomanCare right out of existence. They just might do it, too. You know Derry, Ralph--it's not exactly a hotbed of liberalism."

"No," Ralph said with a wan smile. "It's never been that. And WomanCare is an abortion clinic, isn't it?"

Davenport gave him an out-of-patience look and jerked his head in the direction of Secondhand Rose. "That's what assholes like him call it," he said, "only they like to use the word mill instead of clinic. They ignore all the other stuff WomanCare does." To Ralph, Davenport had begun to sound a little like the TV announcer who hawked run-free pantyhose during the Sunday afternoon movie. "They're involved in family counselling, they deal with spouse and child abuse, and they run a shelter for abused women over by the Newport town line. They have a rape crisis center at the in-town building by the hospital, and a twenty-four-hour hotline for women who've been raped or beaten. In short, they stand for all the things that make Marlboro Men like Dalton shit bullets."

"But they do perform abortions," Ralph said. "That's what the pickets are about, right?"

There had been sign-carrying demonstrators in front of the low-slung, unobtrusive brick building that housed WomanCare for years, it seemed to Ralph. They always looked too pale to him, too intense, too skinny or too fat, too utterly sure that God was on their side. The signs they carried said things like THE UNBORN HAVE RIGHTS, TOO and LIFE, WHAT A BEAUTIFUL CHOICE and that old standby, ABORTION IS MURDER! On several occasions women using the clinic--which was near Derry Home but not actually associated with it, Ralph thought--had been spat upon.

"Yeah, they perform abortions," Ham said. "You got a problem with that?"

Ralph thought of all the years he and Carolyn had tried to have a baby--years that had produced nothing but several false alarms and a single messy five-months miscarriage--and shrugged. Suddenly the day seemed too hot and his legs too tired. The thought of his return journey--the Up-Mile Hill leg of it in particular--hung in the back of his mind like something strung from a line of fishhooks. "Christ, I don't know," he said. "I just wish people didn't have to get so... so shrill."

Davenport grunted, walked over to his neighbor's display window, and peered at the bogus wanted poster. While he was looking at it, a tall, pallid man with a goatee--the absolute antithesis of the Marlboro Man, Ralph would have said--materialized from the gloomy depths of Secondhand Rose like a vaudeville spook that has gotten a bit mouldy around the edges. He saw what Davenport was looking at, and a tiny disdainful smile dimpled the corners of his mouth. Ralph thought it was the kind of smile that could cost a man a couple of teeth, or a broken nose. Especially on a dog-hot day like this one.

Davenport pointed to the poster and shook his head violently.

Dalton's smile deepened. He flapped his hands at Davenport--Who gives a shit what you think? the gesture said--and then disappeared back into the depths of his store.

Davenport returned to Ralph, bright spots of color burning in his cheeks. "That man's picture should be next to the word prick in the dictionary," he said.

Exactly what he thinks about you, I imagine, Ralph thought, but of course did not say.

Davenport stood in front of the library cart full of paperbacks, hands stuffed into his pockets beneath his red change apron, brooding at the poster of

(hey hey)

Susan Day.

"Well," Ralph said, "I suppose I better--"

Davenport shook himself out of his brown study. "Don't go yet," he said. "Sign my petition first, will you? Put a little shine back on my morning."

Ralph shifted his feet uncomfortably. "I usually don't get involved in confrontational stuff like--"

"Come on, Ralph," Davenport said in a let's-be-reasonable voice. "We're not talking confrontation here; we're talking about making sure that the fruits and nuts like the ones who run Daily Bread--and political Neanderthals like Dalton--don't shut down a really useful women's resource center. It's not like I'm asking you to endorse testing chemical warfare weapons on dolphins."

"No," Ralph said. "I suppose not."

"We're hoping to send five thousand signatures to Susan Day by the first of September. Probably won't do any good--Derry's really not much more than a wide place in the road, and she's probably booked into the next century anyhow--but it can't hurt to try."

Ralph thought about telling Ham that the only petition he wanted to sign was one asking the gods of sleep to give him back the three hours or so of good rest a night they had stolen away, but then he took another look at the man's face and decided against it.

Carolyn would have signed his damned petition, he thought. She was no fan of abortion, but she was also no fan of men coming home after the bars close and mistaking their wives and kids for soccer balls.

True enough, but that wouldn't have been her main reason for signing; she would have done it on the off-chance that she might get to hear an authentic firebrand like Susan Day up close and in person. She would have done it out of the ingrained curiosity which had perhaps been her dominating characteristic--something so strong not even the brain tumor had been able to kill it. Two days before she died she had pulled the movie ticket he'd been using as a bookmark out of the paperback novel he'd left on her bedside table because she wanted to know what he'd been to see. It had been A Few Good Men, as a matter of fact, and he was both surprised and dismayed to discover how much it hurt to remember that. Even now it hurt like hell.

"Sure," he told Ham. "I'll be happy to sign it."

"My man!" Davenport exclaimed, and clapped him on the shoulder. The broody look was replaced by a grin, but Ralph didn't think the change much of an improvement. The grin was hard and not especially charming. "Step into my den of iniquity!"

Ralph followed him into the tobacco-smelling shop, which did not seem particularly iniquitous at nine-thirty in the morning. Winston Smith fled before them, pausing just once to look back with his ancient yellow eyes. He's a fool and you're another, that parting stare might have said. Under the circumstances, it wasn't a conclusion Ralph felt much inclined to dispute. He tucked his newspapers under his arm, leaned over the ruled sheet on the counter beside the cash register, and signed the petition asking Susan Day to come to Derry and speak in defense of WomanCare.


He did better climbing Up-Mile Hill than he had expected, and crossed the X-shaped intersection of Witcham and Jackson thinking There, that wasn't so bad, was--

He suddenly realized that his ears were ringing and his legs had begun to tremble beneath him. He stopped on the far side of Witcham and placed one hand against his shirt. He could feel his heart beating just beneath it, pumping away with a ragged fierceness that was scary. He heard a papery rustle and saw an advertising supplement slip out of the Boston Globe and go seesawing down into the gutter. He started to bend over and get it, then stopped.

Not a good idea, Ralph--if you bend over, you're more than likely going to fall over. I suggest you leave that one for the sweeper.

"Yeah, okay, good idea," he muttered, and straightened up. Black dots surged across his vision like a surreal flock of crows, and for a moment Ralph was almost positive he was going to wind up lying on top of the ad supplement no matter what he did or didn't do.

"Ralph? You all right?"

He looked up cautiously and saw Lois Chasse, who lived on the other side of Harris Avenue and half a block down from the house he shared with Bill McGovern. She was sitting on one of the benches just outside Strawford Park, probably waiting for the Canal Street bus to come along and take her downtown.

"Sure, fine," he said, and made his legs move. He felt as if he were walking through syrup, but he thought he got over to the bench without looking too bad. He could not, however, suppress a grateful little gasp as he sat down next to her.

Lois Chasse had large dark eyes--the kind that had been called Spanish eyes when Ralph was a kid--and he bet they had danced through the minds of dozens of boys during Lois's high-school years. They were still her best feature, but Ralph didn't much care for the worry he saw in them now. It was... what? A little too neighborly for comfort was the first thought to occur to him, but he wasn't sure it was the right thought.

"Fine," Lois echoed.

"You betcha." He took his handkerchief from his back pocket, checked to make sure it was clean, and then wiped his brow with it.

"I hope you don't mind me saying it, Ralph, but you don't look fine."

Ralph did mind her saying it, but didn't know how to say so.

"You're pale, you're sweating, and you're a litterbug."

Ralph looked at her, startled.

"Something fell out of your paper. I think it was an ad circular."

"Did it?"

"You know perfectly well it did. Excuse me a second."

She got up, crossed the sidewalk, bent (Ralph noticed that, while her hips were fairly broad, her legs were still admirably trim for a woman who had to be sixty-eight), and picked up the circular. She came back to the bench with it and sat down.

"There," she said. "Now you're not a litterbug anymore."

He smiled in spite of himself. "Thank you."

"Don't mention it. I can use the Maxwell House coupon, also the Hamburger Helper and the Diet Coke. I've gotten so fat since Mr. Chasse died."

"You're not fat, Lois."

"Thank you, Ralph, you're a perfect gentleman, but let's not change the subject. You had a dizzy spell, didn't you? In fact, you almost passed out."

"I was just catching my breath," he said stiffly, and turned to watch a bunch of kids playing scrub baseball just inside the park. They were going at it hard, laughing and grab-assing around. Ralph envied the efficiency of their air-conditioning systems.

"Catching your breath, were you?"


"Just catching your breath."

"Lois, you're starting to sound like a broken record."

"Well, the broken record's going to tell you something, okay? You're nuts to be trying Up-Mile Hill in this heat. If you want to walk, why not go out the Extension, where it's flat, like you used to?"

"Because it makes me think of Carolyn," he said, not liking the stiff, almost rude way that sounded but unable to help it.

"Oh, shit," she said, and touched his hand briefly. "Sorry."

"It's okay."

"No, it's not. I should have known better. But the way you looked just now, that's not okay, either. You're not twenty anymore, Ralph. Not even forty. I don't mean you're not in good shape--anyone can see you're in great shape for a guy your age--but you ought to take better care of yourself. Carolyn would want you to take care of yourself."

"I know," he said, "but I'm really--"

--all right, he meant to finish, and then he looked up from his hands, looked into her dark eyes again, and what he saw there made it impossible to finish for a moment. There was a weary sadness in her eyes... or was it loneliness? Maybe both. In any case, those were not the only things he saw in them. He also saw himself.

You're being silly, the eyes looking into his said. Maybe we both are. You're seventy and a widower, Ralph. I'm sixty-eight and a widow. How long are we going to sit on your porch in the evenings with Bill McGovern as the world's oldest chaperone? Not too long, I hope, because neither of us is exactly fresh off the showroom lot.

"Ralph?" Lois asked, suddenly concerned. "Are you okay?"

"Yes," he said, looking down at his hands again. "Yes, sure."

"You had a look on your face like... well, I don't know."

Ralph wondered if maybe the combination of the heat and the walk up Up-Mile Hill had scrambled his brains a little. Because this was Lois, after all, whom McGovern always referred to (with a small, satiric lift of his left eyebrow) as "Our Lois." And okay, yes, she was still in good shape--trim legs, nice bust, and those remarkable eyes--and maybe he wouldn't mind taking her to bed, and maybe she wouldn't mind being taken. But what would there be after that? If she happened to see a ticket-stub poking out of the book he was reading, would she pull it out, too curious about what movie he'd been to see to think about how she was losing his place?

Ralph thought not. Lois's eyes were remarkable, and he had found his own eyes wandering down the V of her blouse more than once as the three of them sat on the front porch, drinking iced tea in the cool of the evening, but he had an idea that your little head could get your big head in trouble even at seventy. Getting old was no excuse to get careless.

He got to his feet, aware of Lois looking at him and making an extra effort not to stoop. "Thanks for your concern," he said. "Want to walk an old feller up the street?"

"Thanks, but I'm going downtown. They've got some beautiful rose-colored yarn in at The Sewing Circle, and I'm thinking afghan. Meanwhile, I'll just wait for the bus and gloat over my coupons."

Ralph grinned. "You do that." He glanced over at the kids on the scrub ballfield. As he watched, a boy with an extravagant mop of red hair broke from third, threw himself down in a headfirst slide... and fetched up against one of the catcher's shinguards with an audible thonk. Ralph winced, envisioning ambulances with flashing lights and screaming sirens, but the carrot-top bounced to his feet laughing.

"Missed the tag, you hoser!" he shouted.

"The hell I did!" the catcher responded indignantly, but then he began to laugh, too.

"Ever wish you were that age again, Ralph?" Lois asked.

He thought it over. "Sometimes," he said. "Mostly it just looks too strenuous. Come on over tonight, Lois--sit with us awhile."

"I might just do that," she said, and Ralph started up Harris Avenue, feeling the weight of her remarkable eyes on him and trying hard to keep his back straight. He thought he managed fairly well, but it was hard work. He had never felt so tired in his life.

Copyright © 1994 by Stephen King



- pauljames


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