BY STEPHEN KING
Considering that it was probably the end of the world, Maddie Pace thought she was doing a good job. Hellof a good job. She thought that she just might be coping with the End of Everything better than anyone else on earth. And she was positiveshe was coping better than any other pregnantwoman on earth.
Maddie Pace, of all people.
Maddie Pace, who sometimes couldn't sleep if, after a visit from Reverend Peebles, she spied a dust-bunny under the dining room table - just the thought that Reverend Peebles mighthave seen that dust-bunny could be enough to keep her awake until two in the morning.
Maddie Pace, who, as Maddie Sullivan, used to drive her fiance Jack crazy when she froze over a menu, debating entrees sometimes for as long as half an hour.
"Maddie, why don't you just flip a coin?" he'd asked her once after she had managed to narrow it down to a choice between the braised veal and the lamb chops... and then could get no further. "I've had five bottles of this goddam German beer already, and if you don't make up y'mind pretty damn quick, there's gonna be a drunk lobsterman under the table before we ever get any food onit!"
So she had smiled nervously, ordered the braised veal... and then lay awake until well past midnight, wondering if the chops might not have been better.
She'd had no trouble coping with Jack's proposal, however; she accepted it and him quickly, and with tremendous relief. Following the death of her father, Maddie and her mother had lived an aimless, cloudy sort of life on Deer Isle, off the coast of Maine. "If I wasn't around to tell them women where to squat and lean against the wheel," George Sullivan had been fond of saying while in his cups and among his friends at Buster's Tavern or in the back room of Daggett's Barber Shop, "I don't know what the hell they'd do."
When he died of a massive coronary, Maddie was nineteen and minding the town library weekday evenings at a salary of $41.50 a week. Her mother was minding the house - or had been, that was, when George reminded her (sometimes with a good, hard shot to the ear) that she had a house that needed minding.
He was right.
They didn't speak of it because it embarrassed them, but he was right and both of them knew it. Without George around to tell them where to squat and lean to the wheel, they didn't know what the hell to do. Money wasn't the problem; George had believed passionately in insurance, and when he dropped down dead during the tiebreaker frame of the League Bowl-Offs at Big Duke's Big Ten in Yarmouth, his wife had come into better than a hundred thousand dollars. And island life was cheap, if you owned your own home and kept your garden weeded and knew how to put up your own vegetables come fall. The problemwas having nothing to focus on. The problemwas how the center seemed to have dropped out of their lives when George went facedown in his Island Amoco bowling shirt just over the foul line of lane nineteen in Big Duke's (and goddam if he hadn't picked up the spare they needed to win, too). With George gone their lives had become an eerie sort of blur.
It's like being lost in a heavy fog, Maddie thought sometimes. Only instead of looking for the road, or a house, or the village, or just some landmark like that lightning-struck pine in the Altons' woodlot, I am looking for the wheel. If I can ever find the wheel, maybe I can tell myselfto squat and lean my shoulder to it.
At last she found her wheel; it turned out to be Jack Pace. Women marry their fathers and men their mothers, some say, and while such a broad statement can hardly be true all of the time, it was true in Maddie's case. Her father had been looked upon by his peers with fear and admiration - "Don't fool with George Sullivan, chummy," they'd say. "He's one hefty son of a bitch and he'd just as soon knock the nose off your face as fart downwind."
It was true at home, too. He'd been domineering and sometimes physically abusive... but he'd also known things to want and work for, like the Ford pickup, the chain saw, or those two acres that bounded their place on the left. Pop Cook's land. George Sullivan had been known to refer to Pop Cook (out of his cups as well as in them) as one stinky old bastid, but there was some good hardwood left on those two acres. Pop didn't know it because he had gone to living on the mainland when his arthritis really got going and crippled him up bad, and George let it be known on the island that what that bastid Pop Cook didn't know wouldn't hurt him none, and furthermore, he would kill the man or woman that let light into the darkness of Pop's ignorance. No one did, and eventually the Sullivans got the land. And the wood, of course. The hardwood was logged off for the two wood stoves that heated the house in three years, but the land would remain. That was what George said and they believed him, believed inhim, and they worked, all three of them. He said you got to put your shoulder to this wheel and pushthe bitch, you got to push ha'ad because she don't move easy. So that was what they did.
In those days Maddy's mother had kept a roadside stand, and there were always plenty of tourists who bought the vegetables she grew - the ones George toldher to grow, of course, and even though they were never exactly what her mother called "the Gotrocks family," they made out. Even in years when lobstering was bad, they made out.
Jack Pace could be domineering when Maddie's indecision finally forced him to be, and she suspected that, loving as he was in their courtship, he might get around to the physical part - the twisted arm when supper was cold, the occasional slap or downright paddling - in time; when the bloom was off the rose, so as to speak. She saw the similarities... but she loved him. And needed him.
"I'm not going to be a lobsterman all my life, Maddie," he told her the week before they married, and she believed him. A year before, when he had asked her out for the first time (she'd had no trouble coping then, either - had said yes almost before all the words could get out of his mouth, and she had blushed to the roots of her hair at the sound of her own naked eagerness), he would have said, "I ain'tgoing to be a lobsterman all my life." A small change... but all the difference in the world. He had been going to night school three evenings a week, taking the ferry over and back. He would be dog tired after a day of pulling pots, but he'd go just the same, pausing only long enough to shower off the powerful smells of lobster and brine and to gulp two No Doz with hot coffee. After a while, when she saw he really meant to stick to it, Maddie began putting up hot soup for him to drink on the ferry ride over. Otherwise, he would have had no supper at all.
She remembered agonizing over the canned soups in the store - there were so many! Would he want tomato? Some people didn't like tomato soup. In fact, some people hatedtomato soup, even if you made it with milk instead of water. Vegetable soup? Turkey? Cream of chicken? Her helpless eyes roved the shelf display for nearly ten minutes before Charlene Nedeau asked if she could help her with something - only Charlene said it in a sarcastic way, and Maddie guessed she would tell all her friends at high school tomorrow and they would giggle about it - about her - in the Girls' Room, because Charlene knew what was wrong; the same thing that was always wrong. It was just Maddie Sullivan, unable to make up her mind over so simple a thing as a can of soup. How she had ever been able to decide to accept Jack Pace's proposal was a wonder and a marvel to all of them... but of course they didn't know how, once you found the wheel, you had to have someone to tell you when to stoop and where exactly to lean against it.
Maddie had left the store with no soup and a throbbing headache.
When she worked up nerve enough to ask Jack what his favorite soup was, he had said: "Chicken noodle. Kind that comes in the can."
Were there any others he specially liked?
The answer was no, just chicken noodle - the kind that came in the can. That was all the soup Jack Pace needed in his life, and all the answer (on that one particular subject, at least) that Maddie needed in hers. Light of step and cheerful of heart, Maddie climbed the warped wooden steps of the store the next day and bought the four cans of chicken noodle soup that were on the shelf. When she asked Bob Nedeau if he had any more, he said he had a whole damn caseof the stuff out back.
She bought the entire case and left him so flabbergasted that he actually carried the carton out to the truck for her and forgot all about asking why she had wanted all that chicken soup - a lapse for which his wife Margaret and his daughter Charlene took him sharply to task that evening.
"You just better believe it," Jack had said that time not long before the wedding - she never forgot, "More than a lobsterman. My dad says I'm full of shit. He says if it was good enough for his old man, and his old man's old man, and all the way back to the friggin' Garden of Eden to hear himtell it, if it was good enough for all of them, it ought to be good enough for me. But it ain't - isn't, I mean - and I'm going to do better." His eye fell on her, and it was a loving eye, but it was a stern eye, too. "More than a lobsterman is what I mean to be, and more than a lobsterman's wife is what I intend for you to be. You're going to have a house on the mainland."
"And I'm not going to have any friggin' Chevrolet." He took a deep breath. "I'm going to have an Oldsmobile." He looked at her, as if daring her to refute him. She did no such thing, of course; she said yes, Jack, for the third or fourth time that evening. She had said it to him thousands of times over the year they had spent courting, and she confidently expected to say it millionsof times before death ended their marriage by taking one of them - or, hopefully, both of them together.
"More than a friggin' lobsterman, no matter what my old man says. I'm going to do it, and do you know who's going to help me?"
"Yes," Maddie had said. "Me."
"You," he responded with a grin, sweeping her into his arms, "are damned tooting."
So they were wed.
Jack knew what he wanted, and he would tell her how to help him get it and that was just the way she wanted things to be.
Then Jack died.
Then, not more than four months after, while she was still wearing weeds, dead folks started to come out of their graves and walk around. If you got too close, they bit you and you died for a little while and then yougot up and started walking around, too.
Then, Russia and America came very, very close to blowing the whole world to smithereens, both of them accusing the other of causing the phenomenon of the walking dead. "How close?" Maddie heard one news correspondent from CNN ask about a month after dead people started to get up and walk around, first in Florida, then in Murmansk, then in Leningrad and Minsk, then in Elmira, Illinois; Rio de Janeiro; Biterad, Germany; New Delhi, India; and a small Australian hamlet on the edge of the outback.
(This hamlet went by the colorful name of Wet Noggin, and before the news got out of there, most of Wet Noggin's populace consisted of shambling dead folks and starving dogs. Maddie had watched most of these developments on the Pulsifers' TV. Jack had hated their satellite dish - maybe because they could not yet afford one themselves - but now, with Jack dead, none of that mattered.)
In answer to his own rhetorical question about how close the two countries had come to blowing the earth to smithereens, the commentator had said, "We'll never know, but that may be just as well. My guess is within a hair's breadth."
Then, at the last possible second, a British astronomer had discovered the satellite - the apparently livingsatellite - which became known as Star Wormwood.
Not one of ours, not one of theirs. Someone else's. Someone or something from the great big darkness Out There.
Well, they had swapped one nightmare for another, Maddie supposed, because then - the last thenbefore the TV (even all the channels the Pulsifers' satellite dish could pull in) stopped showing anything but snow - the walking dead folks stopped only biting people if they came too close.
The dead folks started tryingto get close.
The dead folks, it seemed, had discovered they likedwhat they were biting.
Before all the weird things started happening, Maddie discovered she was what her mother had always called "preg," a curt word that was like the sound you made when you had a throatful of snot and had to rasp some of it up (or at least that was how Maddie had always thought it sounded). She and Jack had moved to Genneseault Island, a nearby island simply called Jenny Island by those who lived there.
She had had one of her agonizing interior debates when she had missed her time of the month twice, and after four sleepless nights she had made a decision... and an appointment with Dr. McElwain on the mainland. Looking back, she was glad. If she had waited to see if she was going to miss a third period, Jack would not even have had one month of joy... and she would have missed the concerns and little kindnesses he had showered upon her.
Looking back - now that she was coping - her indecision seemed ludicrous, but her deeper heart knew that going to have the test had taken tremendous courage. She had wanted to be sick in the mornings so she could be surer; she had longed for nausea. She made the appointment when Jack was out dragging pots, and she went while he was out, but there was no such thing as sneakingover to the mainland on the ferry. Too many people saw you. Someone would mention casually to Jack that he or she had seen his wife on The Gullt'other day, and then Jack would want to know who and why and where, and if she'd made a mistake, Jack would look at her like she was a goose.
But it had been true, she was with child (and never mind that word that sounded like someone with a bad cold trying to rake snot off the sides of his throat), and Jack Pace had had exactly twenty-seven days of joy and looking forward before a bad swell had caught him and knocked him over the side of My Lady-Love, the lobster boat he had inherited from his Uncle Mike. Jack could swim, and he had popped to the surface like a cork, Dave Eamons had told her miserably, but just as he did, another heavy swell came, slewing the boat directly into Jack, and although Dave would say no more, Maddie had been born and brought up an island girl, and she knew: could, in fact, hearthe hollow thud as the boat with its treacherous name smashed her husband's head, leaving blood and hair and bone and brain for the next swell to wash away from the boat's worn side.
Dressed in a heavy hooded parka and down-filled pants and boots, Jack Pace had sunk like a stone. They had buried an empty casket in the little cemetery at the north end of Jenny Island, and the Reverend Peebles (on Jenny you had your choice when it came to religion: you could be a Methodist, or if that didn't suit you, you could be a Methodist) had presided over this empty coffin, as he had so many others, and at the age of twenty-two Maddie had found herself a widow with an almost half-cooked bun in her oven and no one to tell her where the wheel was, let alone when to put her shoulder to it.
She thought she would go back to Deer Isle, back to her mother, to wait for her time, but she knew her mother was as lost - maybe even morelost - than she was herself, and held off.
"Maddie," Jack told her again and again, "the only thing you can ever decide on is not to decide."
Nor was her mother any better. They talked on the phone and Maddie waited and hoped for her mother to tell her to come home, but Mrs. Sullivan could tell no one over the age of ten anything. "Maybe you ought to come on back over here," she had said once in a tentative way, and Maddie couldn't tell if that meant please come homeor please don't take me up on an offer which was really just made for form's sake, and she spent sleepless nights trying to decide and succeeding in doing only that thing of which Jack had accused her: deciding not to decide.
Then the weirdness started, and that was a mercy, because there was only the one small graveyard on Jenny (and so many of the graves filled with those empty coffins - a thing which had once seemed pitiful to her now seemed another blessing, a grace) and there were two on Deer Isle, bigger ones, and it seemed so much safer to stay on Jenny and wait.
She would wait and see if the world lived or died.
If it lived, she would wait for the baby.
That seemed like enough.
And now she was, after a life of passive obedience and vague resolves that passed like dreams an hour or two after getting out of bed, finally coping. She knew that part of this was nothing more than the effect of being slammed with one massive shock after another, beginning with the death of her husband and ending with one of the last broadcasts the Pulsifers' TV had picked up - a horrified young boy who had been pressed into service as an INS reporter, saying that it seemed certain that the president of the United States, the first lady, the secretary of state, the honorable senator from Oregon (which honorable senator the gibbering boy reporter didn't say), and the emir of Kuwait had been eaten alive in the White House ballroom by zombies.
"I want to repeat," the young reporter said, the fire-spots of his acne standing out on his forehead and chin like stigmata. His mouth and cheeks had begun to twitch; the microphone in his hand shook spastically. "I want to repeat that a bunch of dead people have just lunched up on the president and his wife and a whole lot of other political hotshots who were at the White House to eat poached salmon and cherries jubilee. Go, Yale! Boola-boola! Boola-fuckin-boola!" And then the young reporter with the fiery pimples had lost control of his face entirely, and he was screaming, only his screams were disguised as laughter, and he went on yelling Go, Yale! Boola-boola!while Maddie and the Pulsifers sat in dismayed silence until the young man was suddenly swallowed by an ad for Boxcar Willy records, which were not available in any store, you could only get them if you dialed the 800 number on your screen, operators were standing by. One of little Cheyne Pulsifer's crayons was on the end table beside the place where Maddie was sitting, and she took down the number before Mr. Pulsifer got up and turned off the TV without a single word.
Maddie told them good night and thanked them for sharing their TV and their Jiffy Pop.
"Are you sure you're all right, Maddie dear?" Candi Pulsifer asked her for the fifth time that night, and Maddie said she was fine for the fifth time that night (and she was, she was copingfor the first time in her life, and that really wasfine, just as fine as paint), and Candi told her again that she could have that upstairs room that used to be Brian's anytime she wanted, and Maddie had declined her with the most graceful thanks she could find, and was at last allowed to escape. She had walked the windy half mile back to her own house and was in her own kitchen before she realized that she still had the scrap of paper on which she had jotted the 800 number in one hand. She dialed it, and there was nothing. No recorded voice telling her all circuits were currently busy or that number was out of service; no wailing siren sound that indicated a line interruption (had Jack told her that was what that sound meant? she tried to remember and couldn't, and really, it didn't matter a bit, did it?), no clicks and boops, no static. Just smooth silence.
That was when Maddie knew - knew for sure.
She hung up the telephone slowly and thoughtfully.
The end of the world had come. It was no longer in doubt. When you could no longer call the 800 number and order the Boxcar Willy records that were not available in any store, when there were for the first time in her living memory no Operators Standing By, the end of the world was a foregone conclusion.
She felt her rounding stomach as she stood there by the phone on the wall in the kitchen and said it out loud for the first time, unaware that she had spoken: "It will have to be a home delivery. But that's all right, as long as you remember, Maddie. There isn't any other way, not now. It will have to be a home delivery."
She waited for fear and none came.
"I can cope with this just fine," she said, and this time she heard herself and was comforted by the sureness of her own words.
When the baby came, the end of the world would itself end.
"Eden," she said, and smiled. Her smile was sweet, the smile of a madonna. It didn't matter how many rotting dead people (maybe Boxcar Willy among them) were shambling around on the face of the world.
She would have a baby, she would have a home delivery, and the possibility of Eden would remain.
The first news had come out of a small Florida town on the Tamiami Trail. The name of this town was not as colorful as Wet Noggin, but it was still pretty good: Thumper. Thumper, Florida. It was reported in one of those lurid tabloids that fill the racks by the checkout aisles in supermarkets and discount drugstores. DEAD COME TO LIFE IN SMALL FLORIDA TOWN!the headline of Inside Viewread. And the subhead: Horror Movie Comes to Life!The subhead referred to a movie called The Night of the Living Dead, which Maddie had never seen. It also mentioned another movie she had never seen. The title of this piece of cinema was Macumba Love. The article was accompanied by three photos. One was a still from Night of the Living Dead, showing what appeared to be a bunch of escapees from a lunatic asylum standing outside an isolated farmhouse at night. One was a still from Macumba Love, showing a woman with a great lot of blond hair and a small bit of bikini-top holding in breasts the size of prize-winning gourds. The woman was holding up her hands and screaming at what appeared to be a black man in a mask. The third purported to be a picture taken in Thumper, Florida. It was a blurred, grainy shot of a human whose sex was impossible to define. It was walking up the middle of a business street in a small town. The figure was described as being "wrapped in the cerements of the grave," but it could have been someone in a dirty sheet.
No big deal. Bigfoot Rapes Girl Scouts last week, the dead people coming back to life this week, the dwarf mass murderer next week.
No big deal until they started to come out everywhere. No big deal until the first news film ("You may want to ask your children to leave the room," Dan Rather introduced gravely) showed up on network TV, creatures with naked bone showing through their dried skin, traffic accident victims, the morticians' concealing makeup sloughed away either in the dark passivity of the earth or in the clawing climb to escape it so that the ripped faces and bashed-in skulls showed, women with their hair teased into dirt-clogged beehives in which worms and beetles still squirmed and crawled, their faces alternately vacuous and informed with a kind of calculating, idiotic intelligence; no big deal until the first horrible stills in an issue of Peoplemagazine that had been sealed in shrink-wrap like girly magazines, an issue with an orange sticker that read Not For Sale To Minors!
Then it was a big deal.
When you saw a decaying man still dressed in the mud-streaked remnants of the Brooks Brothers suit in which he had been buried tearing at the breast of a screaming woman in a T-shirt that read Property of the Houston Oilers, you suddenly realized it might be a very big deal indeed.
Then the accusations and the saber rattling had started, and for three weeks the entire world had been diverted from the creatures escaping their graves like grotesque moths escaping diseased cocoons by the spectacle of the two great nuclear powers on what appeared to be an undivertable collision course.
There were no zombies in the United States, Tass declared: This was a self-serving lie to camouflage an unforgivable act of chemical warfare against the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Reprisals would follow if the dead comrades coming out of their graves did not fall down decently dead within ten days. All U.S. diplomatic people were expelled from the mother country and most of her satellites.
The president (who would not long after become a Zombie Blue Plate Special himself) responded by becoming a pot (which he had come to resemble, having put on at least fifty pounds since his second-term election) calling a kettle black. The U.S. government, he told the American people, had incontrovertible evidence that the only walking dead people in the USSR had been set loose deliberately, and while the premier might stand there with his bare face hanging out and claim there were over eight thousand lively corpses striding around Russia in search of the ultimate collectivism, wehad definite proof that there were less than forty. It was the Russianswho had committed an act - a heinousact - of chemical warfare, bringing loyal Americans back to life with no urge to consume anything but other loyal Americans, and if these Americans - some of whom had been good Democrats - did not lie down decently dead within the next fivedays, the USSR was going to be one large slag pit.
The president expelled all Soviet diplomatic people... with one exception. This was a young fellow who was teaching him how to play chess (and who was not at all averse to the occasional grope under the table).
Norad was at Defcon-2 when the satellite was spotted. Or the spaceship. Or the creature. Or whatever in hell's name it was. An amateur astronomer from Hinchly-on-Strope in the west of England spotted it first, and this fellow, who had a deviated septum, fallen arches, and balls the size of acorns (he was also going bald, and his expanding pate showcased his really horrible case of psoriasis admirably), probably saved the world from nuclear holocaust.
The missile silos were open all over the world as telescopes in California and Siberia trained on Star Wormwood; they closed only following the horror of Salyut/Eagle-I, which was launched with a crew of six Russians, three Americans, and one Briton only three days following the discovery of Star Wormwood by Humphrey Dagbolt, the amateur astronomer with the deviated septum, et al. He was, of course, the Briton.
And he paid.
* * *
The final sixty-one seconds of received transmission from the Gorbachev/Trumanwere considered too horrible for release by all three governments involved, and so no formal release was ever made. It didn't matter, of course; nearly twenty thousand ham operators had been monitoring the craft, and it seemed that at least nineteen thousand of them had been running tape decks when the craft had been - well, was there really any other word for it? - invaded.
Russian voice: Worms! It appears to be a massive ball of -
American voice: Christ! Look out! It's coming for us!
Dagbolt: Some sort of extrusion is occurring. The port-side window is -
Russian voice: Breach! Breach! Suits!
American voice: - and appears to be eating its way in -
Female Russian voice(Olga Katinya): Oh stop it stop the eyes -
(Sound of an explosion.)
Dagbolt: Explosive decompression has occurred. I see three - no, four - dead - and there are worms... everywhere there are worms -
American voice: Faceplate! Faceplate! Faceplate!
Russian voice: Where is my mamma? Where -
(Screams. Sounds like a toothless old man sucking up mashed potatoes.)
Dagbolt: The cabin is full of worms - what appears to be worms, at any rate - which is to say that they really areworms, one realizes - they have extruded themselves from the main satellite - what we took to be - which is to say one means - the cabin is full of floating body parts. These space-worms apparently excrete some sort of aci -
(Booster rockets fired at this point; duration of the burn is seven point two seconds. This may or may not have been attempt to escape or possibly to ram the central object. In either case, the maneuver did not work. It seems likely that the chambers themselves were clogged with worms and Captain Vassily Task - or whichever officer was then in charge - believed an explosion of the fuel tanks themselves to be imminent as a result of the clog. Hence the shutdown.)
American voice: Oh my Christ they're in my head, they're eating my fuckin br -
Dagbolt: I am retreating to the aft storage compartment. At the present moment, this seems the most prudent of my severely limited choices. I believe the others are all dead. Pity. Brave bunch. Even that fat Russian who kept rooting around in his nose. But in another sense I don't think -
Dagbolt: - dead at all because the Russian woman - or rather, the Russian woman's severed head, one means to say - just floated past me, and her eyes were open. She was looking at me from inside her -
Dagbolt: - keep you -
Dagbolt: Is it possible for a severed penis to have an orgasm? I th -
Dagbolt: - around me. I repeat, all around me. Squirming things. They - I say, does anyone know if -
(Dagbolt, screaming and cursing, then just screaming. Sound of toothless old man again.)
The Gorbachev/Trumanexploded three seconds later. The extrusion from the rough ball nicknamed Star Wormwood had been observed from better than three hundred telescopes earthside during the short and rather pitiful conflict. As the final sixty-one seconds of transmission began, the craft began to be obscured by something that certainly lookedlike worms. By the end of the final transmission, the craft itself could not be seen at all - only the squirming mass of things that had attached themselves to it. Moments after the final explosion, a weather satellite snapped a single picture of floating debris, some of which was almost certainly chunks of the worm-things. A severed human leg clad in a Russian space suit floating among them was a good deal easier to identify.
And in a way, none of it even mattered. The scientists and political leaders of both countries knew exactly where Star Wormwood was located: above the expanding hole in earth's ozone layer. It was sending something down from there, and it was not Flowers by Wire.
Missiles came next.
Star Wormwood jigged easily out of their way and then returned to its place over the hole.
More dead people got up and walked.
Now they were all biting.
The final effort to destroy the thing was made by the United States. At a cost of just under six hundred million dollars, four SDI "defensive weapons" satellites had been hoisted into orbit by the previous administration. The president of the current - and last - administration informed the Soviet premier of his intentions to use the SDI missiles, and got an enthusiastic approval (the Russian premier failed to note the fact that seven years before he had called these missiles "infernal engines of war and hate forged in the factories of hell").
It might even have worked... except not a single missile from a single SDI orbiter fired. Each satellite was equipped with six two-megaton warheads. Every goddamn one malfunctioned.
So much for modern technology.
Maddie supposed the horrible deaths of those brave men (and one woman) in space really hadn't been the last shock; there was the business of the one little graveyard right here on Jenny. But that didn't seem to count so much because, after all, she had not been there. With the end of the world now clearly at hand and the island cut off - thankfullycut off, in the opinion of the island's residents - from the rest of the world, old ways had reasserted themselves with a kind of unspoken but inarguable force. By then they all knew what was going to happen; it was only a question of when. That, and being ready when it did.
Women were excluded.
It was Bob Daggett, of course, who drew up the watch roster. That was only right, since Bob had been head selectman on Jenny since Hector was a pup. The day after the death of the president (the thought of him and the first lady wandering witlessly through the streets of Washington, D.C., gnawing on human arms and legs like people eating chicken legs at a picnic was not mentioned; it was a little too much to bear, even if the bastid and his big old blond wife wereDemocrats). Bob Daggett called the first men-only Town Meeting on Jenny since someplace before the Civil War. So Maddie wasn't there, but she heard. Dave Eamons told her all she needed to know.
"You men all know the situation," Bob said. He had always been a pretty hard fellow, but right then he looked as yellow as a man with jaundice, and people remembered his daughter, the one on the island, was only one of four. The other three were other places... which was to say, on the mainland.
But hell, if it came down to that, they allhad folks on the mainland.
"We got one boneyard here on the island," Bob continued, "and nothin' ain't happened yet, but that don't mean nothin' will. Nothin' ain't happened yet lots of places... but it seems like once it starts, nothin' turns to somethin' pretty goddam quick."
There was a rumble of assent from the men gathered in the basement of the Methodist church. There were about seventy of them, ranging in age from Johnny Crane, who had just turned eighteen, to Bob's great-uncle Frank, who was eighty, had a glass eye, and chewed tobacco. There was no spittoon in the church basement and Frank Daggett knew it well enough, so he'd brought an empty mayonnaise jar to spit his juice into. He did so now.
"Git down to where the cheese binds, Bobby," he said. "You ain't got no office to run for, and time's a-wastin'."
There was another rumble of agreement, and Bob Daggett blushed. Somehow his great-uncle always managed to make him look like an ineffectual fool, and if there was anything in the world he hated worse than looking like an ineffectual fool, it was being called Bobby. He owned property, for Chrissake! He supportedthe old fart, for Chrissake.
But these were not things he could say. Frank's eyes were like pieces of flint.
"Okay," he said curtly. "Here it is. We want twelve men to a watch. I'm gonna set a roster in just a couple minutes. Four-hour shifts."
"I can stand watch a helluva lot longer'n four hours!" Matt Arsenault spoke up, and Davey told Maddie that Bob said after the meeting that no frog setting on a welfare lily pad like Matt Arsenault would have had the nerve enough to speak up like that if his great-uncle hadn't called him Bobby, like he was a kid instead of a man three months shy of his fiftieth birthday, in front of all the island men.
"Maybe so," Bob said, "but we got enough men to go around, and nobody's gonna fall asleep on sentry duty."
"I ain't gonna - "
"I didn't say you," Bob said, but the way his eyes rested on Matt Arsenault suggested that he mighthave meant him. "This is no kid's game. Sit down and shut up."
Matt Arsenault opened his mouth to say something more, then looked around at the other men - including old Frank Daggett - and wisely sat down again.
"If you got a rifle, bring it when it's your trick," Bob continued. He felt a little better with Frere Jacques out of the way. "Unless it's a twenty-two. If you got no rifle bigger'n that, or none at all, come and get one here."
"I didn't know Reverend Peebles kept a supply of 'em handy," Cal Partridge said, and there was a ripple of laughter.
"He don't now, but he's gonna," Bob said, "because every man jack of you with more than one rifle bigger than a twenty-two is gonna bring it here." He looked at Peebles. "Okay if we keep 'em in the rectory, Tom?"
Peebles nodded, dry-washing his hands in a distraught way.
"Shit on that," Orrin Campbell said. "I got a wife and two kids at home. Am I s'posed to leave 'em with nothin if a bunch of cawpses come for an early Thanksgiving dinner while I'm on watch?"
"If we do our job at the boneyard, none will," Bob replied stonily. "Some of you got handguns. We don't want none of those. Figure out which women can shoot and which can't, and give 'em the pistols. We'll put 'em together in bunches."
"They can play Beano," old Frank cackled, and Bob smiled, too. That was more like it, by the Christ.
"Nights, we're gonna want trucks posted around so we got plenty of light." He looked over at Sonny Dotson, who ran Island Amoco, the only gas station on Jenny - Sonny's main business wasn't gassing cars and trucks - shit, there was no place much on the island to drive, and you could get your go ten cents cheaper on the mainland - but filling up lobster boats and the motorboats he ran out of his jackleg marina in the summer. "You gonna supply the gas, Sonny?"
"Am I gonna get cash slips?"
"You're gonna get your ass saved," Bob said. "When things get back to normal - if they ever do - I guess you'll get what you got coming."
Sonny looked around, saw only hard eyes, and shrugged. He looked a bit sullen, but in truth he looked more confused than anything, Davey told Maddie the next day.
"Ain't got n'more'n four hunnert gallons of gas," he said. "Mostly diesel."
"There's five generators on the island," Burt Dorfman said (when Burt spoke everyone listened; as the only Jew on the island, he was regarded as a creature both quixotic and fearsome, like an oracle that works about half the tune). "They all run on diesel. I can rig lights if I have to."
Low murmurs. If Burt said he could, he could. He was an electrician, and a damned good one... for a Jew, anyway.
"We're gonna light that place up like a friggin' stage," Bob said.
Andy Kinsolving stood up. "I heard on the news that sometimes you can shoot one of them... things... in the head and it'll stay down, and sometimes it won't."
"We got chain saws," Bob said stonily, "and what won't stay dead... why, we can make sure it won't move too far alive."
And, except for making out the duty roster, that was pretty much that.
Six days and nights passed and the sentries posted around the island graveyard were starting to feel a wee bit silly ("I dunno if I'm standin' guard or pullin' my pud," Orrin Campbell said one afternoon as a dozen men stood around a small cemetery where the most exciting thing happening was a caterpillar spinning a cocoon while a spider watched it and waited for the moment to pounce) when it happened... and when it happened, it happened fast.
Dave told Maddie that he heard a sound like the wind wailing in the chimney on a gusty night... and then the gravestone marking the final resting place of Mr. and Mrs. Fournier's boy Michael, who had died of leukemia at seventeen - bad go, that had been, him being their only get and them being such nice people and all - fell over. Then a shredded hand with a moss-caked Yarmouth Academy class ring on one finger rose out of the ground, shoving through the tough grass. The third finger had been torn off in the process.
The ground heaved like (like the belly of a pregnant woman getting ready to drop her load, Dave almost said, and hastily reconsidered) well, like the way a big wave heaves up on its way into a close cove, and then the boy himself sat up, only he wasn't nothing you could really recognize, not after almost two years in the ground. There was little pieces of wood sticking to him, Davey said, and pieces of blue cloth.
Later inspection proved these to be shreds of satin from the coffin in which the boy had been buried away.
("Thank Christ Richie Fournier dint have that trick," Bill Pulsifer said later, and they had all nodded shakily - many of them were still wiping their mouths, because almost all of them had puked at some point or other during that hellacious half hour... these were not things Dave Eamons could tell Maddie, but Maddie guessed more than Dave ever guessed she guessed.)
Gunfire tore Michael Fournier to shreds before he could do more than sit up; other shots, fired in wild panic, blew chips off his marble gravestone, and it was a goddam wonder someone on one side hadn't shot someone on one of the others, but they got off lucky. Bud Meechum found a hole torn in the sleeve of his shirt the next day, but liked to think that might have been nothing more than a thorn - there had been raspberry bushes on his side of the bone-yard. Maybe that was really all it was, although the black smudges on the hole made him think that maybe it had been a thorn with a pretty large caliber.
The Fournier kid fell back, most of him lying still, other parts of him still twitching.
But by then the whole graveyard seemed to be rippling, as if an earthquake was going on there - but onlythere, no place else.
Just about an hour before dusk, this had happened.
Burt Dorfman had rigged up a siren to a tractor battery, and Bob Daggett flipped the switch. Within twenty minutes, most of the men in town were at the island cemetery.
Goddam good thing, too, because a few of the deaders almost got away. Old Frank Daggett, still two hours away from the heart attack that would carry him off after it was all over and the moon had risen, organized the men into a pair of angled flanks so they wouldn't shoot each other, and for the final ten minutes the Jenny boneyard sounded like Bull Run. By the end of the festivities, the powder smoke was so thick that some men choked on it. No one puked on it, because no one had anything left to puke up. The sour smell of vomit was almost heavier than the smell of gunsmoke... it was sharper, too, and lingered longer.
And still some of them wriggled and squirmed like snakes with broken backs... the fresher ones, for the most part.
"Burt," Frank Daggett said. "You got them chain saws?"
"I got 'em," Burt said, and then a long, buzzing sound came out of his mouth, a sound like a cicada burrowing its way into tree bark, as he dry-heaved. He could not take his eyes from the squirming corpses, the overturned gravestones, the yawning pits from which the dead had come. "In the truck."
"Gassed up?" Blue veins stood out on Frank's ancient, hairless skull.
"Yeah." Burt's hand was over his mouth. "I'm sorry."
"Work y'fuckin gut all you want," Frank said briskly. "But get them saws while you do. And you... you... you... you..."
The last "you" was his grandnephew Bob.
"I can't, Uncle Frank," Bob said sickly. He looked around and saw at least twenty men lying in the tall grass. They had swooned. Most of them had seen their own relatives rise out of the ground. Buck Harkness over there lying by an aspen tree had been part of the cross fire that had cut his late wife to ribbons before he fainted when her decayed brains exploded from the back of her head in a grisly gray fan. "I can't. I c - "
Frank's hand, twisted with arthritis but as hard as stone, cracked across his face.
"You can and you will, chummy," he said grimly.
Bob went with the rest of the men.
Frank Daggett watched them grimly and rubbed his chest.
"I was nearby when Frank spoke to Bob," Dave told Maddie. He wasn't sure if he should be telling her this - or any of it, for that matter, with her almost halfway to foaling time - but he was still too impressed with the old man's grim and quiet courage to forbear. "This was after... you know... we cleaned the mess up."
Maddie only nodded.
"I'll stop," Dave said, "if you can't bear it, Maddie."
"I can bear it," she said quietly, and Dave looked at her quickly, curiously, but she had averted her eyes before he could see the secret in them.
* * *
Davey didn't know the secret because no one on Jenny knew. That was the way Maddie wanted it, and the way she intended to keep it. There had been a time when she had, in the blue darkness of her shock, pretended to be coping. And then something happened that madeher cope. Four days before the island cemetery vomited up its corpses, Maddie Pace was faced with a simple choice: cope or die.
She had been sitting in the living room, drinking a glass of the blueberry wine she and Jack had put up during August of the previous year - a time that now seemed impossibly distant - and doing something so trite it was laughable: She was Knitting Little Things (the second bootee of a pair this evening). But what else wasthere to do? It seemed that no one would be going across to the mall on the mainland for a long time.
Something had thumped the window.
A bat, she thought, looking up. Her needles paused in her hands, though. It seemed that something was moving out there in the windy dark. The oil lamp was turned up high and kicking too much reflection off the panes to be sure. She reached to turn it down and the thump came again. The panes shivered. She heard a little pattering of dried putty falling on the sash. Jack was going to reglaze all the windows this fall, she thought stupidly, and then: Maybe that's what he came back for. Because it was Jack. She knew that. Before Jack, no one from Jenny had drowned for nearly three years. Whatever was making them return apparently couldn't reanimate whatever was left of their bodies. But Jack...
Jack was still fresh.
She sat, poised, head cocked to one side, knitting in her hands. A little pink bootee. She had already made a blue set. All of a sudden it seemed she could hear so much. The wind. The faint thunder of surf on Cricket's Ledge. The house making little groaning sounds, like an elderly woman making herself comfortable in bed. The tick of the clock in the hallway.
It was Jack. She knew it.
"Jack?" she said, and the window burst inward and what came in was not really Jack but a skeleton with a few mouldering strings of flesh hanging from it.
His compass was still around his neck. It had grown a beard of moss.
The wind blew the curtains out in a cloud as he sprawled, then got up on his hands and knees and looked at her from black sockets in which barnacles had grown.
He made grunting sounds. His fleshless mouth opened and the teeth chomped down. He was hungry... but this time chicken noodle soup would not serve. Not even the kind that came in the can.
Gray stuff hung and swung beyond those dark barnacle-crusted holes, and she realized she was looking at whatever remained of Jack's brain. She sat where she was, frozen, as he got up and came toward her, leaving black kelpy tracks on the carpet, fingers reaching. He stank of salt and fathoms. His hands stretched. His teeth champed mechanically up and down. Maddie saw he was wearing the remains of the black-and-red-checked shirt she had bought him at L.L. Bean's last Christmas. It had cost the earth, but he had said again and again how warm it was, and look how well it had lasted, even under water all this time, even -
The cold cobwebs of bone which were all that remained of his fingers touched her throat before the baby kicked in her stomach - for the first time - and her shocked horror, which she had believed to be calmness, fled, and she drove one of the knitting needles into the thing's eye.
Making horrid, thick, draggling noises that sounded like the suck of a swill pump, he staggered backward, clawing at the needle, while the half-made pink bootee swung in front of the cavity where his nose had been. She watched as a sea slug squirmed from that nasal cavity and onto the bootee, leaving a trail of slime behind it.
Jack fell over the end table she'd gotten at a yard sale just after they had been married - she hadn't been able to make her mind up about it, had been in agonies about it, until Jack finally said either she was going to buy it for their living room or he was going to give the biddy running the sale twice what she was asking for the goddam thing and then bust it up into firewood with -
- with the -
He struck the floor and there was a brittle, cracking sound as his febrile, fragile form broke in two. The right hand tore the knitting needle, slimed with decaying brain tissue, from his eye socket and tossed it aside. His top half crawled toward her. His teeth gnashed steadily together.
She thought he was trying to grin, and then the baby kicked again and she thought: You buy it, Maddie, for Christ's sake! I'm tired! Want to go home and get m'dinner! You want it, buy it! If you don't, I'll give that old bat twice what she wants and bust it up for firewood with my -
Cold, dank hand clutching her ankle; polluted teeth poised to bite. To kill her and kill the baby.
She tore loose, leaving him with only her slipper, which he tried to chew and then spat out.
When she came back from the entry, he was crawling mindlessly into the kitchen - at least the top half of him was - with the compass dragging on the tiles. He looked up at the sound of her, and there seemed to be some idiot question in those black eye sockets before she brought the ax whistling down, cleaving his skull as he had threatened to cleave the end table.
His head fell in two pieces, brains dribbling across the tile like spoiled oatmeal, brains that squirmed with slugs and gelatinous sea worms, brains that smelled like a woodchuck exploded with gassy decay in a high-summer meadow.
Still his hands clashed and clittered on the kitchen tiles, making a sound like beetles.
She chopped... she chopped... she chopped.
At last there was no more movement.
A sharp pain rippled across her midsection and for a moment she was gripped by terrible panic: Is it a miscarriage? Am I going to have a miscarriage?But the pain left... and the baby kicked again, more strongly than before.
She went back into the living room, carrying an ax that now smelled like tripe.
His legs had somehow managed to stand.
"Jack, I loved you so much," she said, and brought the ax down in a whistling arc that split him at the pelvis, sliced the carpet, and drove deep into the solid oak floor beneath.
The legs, separated, trembled wildly... and then lay still.
She carried him down to the cellar piece by piece, wearing her oven gloves and wrapping each piece with the insulating blankets Jack had kept in the shed and which she had never thrown away - he and the crew threw them over the pots on cold days so the lobsters wouldn't freeze.
Once a severed hand tried to close over her wrist... then loosened.
That was all.
There was an unused cistern, polluted, which Jack had been meaning to fill in. Maddie Pace slid the heavy concrete cover aside so that its shadow lay on the earthen floor like a partial eclipse and then threw the pieces of him down, listening to the splashes, then worked the heavy cover back in place.
"Rest in peace," she whispered, and an interior voice whispered back that her husband was resting in pieces, and then she began to cry, and her cries turned to hysterical shrieks, and she pulled at her hair and tore at her breasts until they were bloody, and she thought, I am insane, this is what it's like to be in -
But before the thought could be completed, she had fallen down in a faint that became a deep sleep, and the next morning she felt all right.
She would never tell, though.
She understood, of course, that Dave knew nothing of this, and Dave would say nothing at all if she pressed. She kept her ears open, and she knew what he meant, and what they had apparently done. The dead folks and the... the parts of dead folks that wouldn't... wouldn't be still... had been chain-sawed like her father had chain-sawed the hardwood on Pop Cook's two acres after he had gotten the deed registered, and then those parts - some stillsquirming, hands with no arms attached to them clutching mindlessly, feet divorced from their legs digging at the bullet-chewed earth of the graveyard as if trying to run away - had been doused with diesel fuel and set afire. She had seen the pyre from the house.
Later, Jenny's one fire truck had turned its hose on the dying blaze, although there wasn't much chance of the fire spreading, with a brisk easterly blowing the sparks off Jenny's seaward edge.
When there was nothing left but a stinking, tallowy lump (and still there were occasional bulges in this mass, like twitches in a tired muscle), Matt Arsenault fired up his old D-9 Caterpillar - above the nicked steel blade and under his faded pillowtick engineer's cap, Matt's face had been as white as cottage cheese - and plowed the whole hellacious mess under.
The moon was coming up when Frank took Bob Daggett, Dave Eamons, and Cal Partridge aside.
"I'm havin a goddam heart attack," he said.
"Now, Uncle Frank - "
"Never mind Uncle Frank this 'n' that," the old man said. "I ain't got time, and I ain't wrong. Seen half my friends go the same way. Beats hell out of getting whacked with the cancer-stick. Quicker. But when I go down, I intend to staydown. Cal, stick that rifle of yours in my left ear. Muzzle's gonna get some wax on it, but it won't be there after you pull the trigger. Dave, when I raise my left arm, you sock your thirty-thirty into my armpit, and see that you do it a right smart. And Bobby, you put yours right over my heart. I'm gonna say the Lawd's Prayer, and when I hit amen, you three fellows are gonna pull your triggers."
"Uncle Frank - " Bob managed. He was reeling on his heels.
"I told you not to start in on that," Frank said. "And don't you darefaint on me, you friggin' pantywaist. If I'm goin' down, I mean to staydown. Now get over here."
Frank looked around at the three men, their faces as white as Matt Arsenault's had been when he drove the dozer over men and women he had known since he was a kid in short pants and Buster Browns.
"I ain't got long," Frank said, "and I only got enough jizzum left to get m'arm up once, so don't you fuck up on me. And remember, I'd 'a' done the same for any of you. If that don't help, ask y'selves if you'dwant to end up like those we just took care of."
"Go on," Bob said hoarsely. "I love you, Uncle Frank."
"You ain't the man your father was, Bobby Daggett, but I love you, too," Frank said calmly, and then, with a cry of pain, he threw his left hand up over his head like a guy in New York who has to have a cab in a rip of a hurry, and started in: "Our father who art in heaven - Christ, that hurts! - hallow'd be Thy name - oh, son of a gun, I - Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it... as it..."
Frank's upraised left arm was wavering wildly now. Dave Eamons, with his rifle socked into the old geezer's armpit, watched it as carefully as a logger would watch a big tree that looked like it meant to fall the wrong way. Every man on the island was watching now. Big beads of sweat had formed on the old man's pallid face. His lips had pulled back from the even, yellowish white of his Roebuckers, and Dave had been able to smell the Polident on his breath.
"...as it is in heaven!" the old man jerked out. "Lead us not into temptation butdeliverusfromevilohshitonitforeverandeverAMEN!"
All three of them fired, and both Cal Partridge and Bob Daggett fainted, but Frank never did try to get up and walk.
Frank Daggett intended to staydead, and that was just what he did.
Once Dave started that story he had to go on with it, and so he cursed himself for ever starting. He'd been right the first time; it was no story for a pregnant woman.
But Maddie had kissed him and told him she thought he had done wonderfully, and Dave went out, feeling a little dazed, as if he had just been kissed on the cheek by a woman he had never met before.
As, in a way, he had.
She watched him go down the path to the dirt track that was one of Jenny's two roads and turn left. He was weaving a little in the moonlight, weaving with tiredness, she thought, but reeling with shock, as well. Her heart went out to him... to all of them. She had wanted to tell Dave she loved him and kiss him squarely on the mouth instead of just skimming his cheek with her lips, but he might have taken the wrong meaning from something like that, even though he was bone-weary and she was almost five months pregnant.
But she didlove him, loved allof them, because they had gone through a hell she could only imagine dimly, and by going through that hell they had made the island safe for her.
Safe for her baby.
"It will be a home delivery," she said softly as Dave went out of sight behind the dark hulk of the Pulsifers' satellite dish. Her eyes rose to the moon. "It will be a home delivery... and it will be fine."
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com