It

Page 105


"Those balloons aren't just images," Beverly says, and jerks a thumb over her shoulder at them. "They're real."


"That's not true, though," Richie says, and they all look at him. "Images are real. Sure they are. They-


And suddenly something else clicks into place, something new: it clicks into place with such firm force that he actually puts his hands to his ears. His eyes widen behind his glasses.


"Oh my God!" he cries suddenly. He gropes for the table, half-stands, then falls back into his chair with a boneless thud. He knocks his can of beer over reaching for it, picks it up, and drinks what's left. He looks at Mike while the others look at him, startled and concerned.


"The burning!" he almost shouts. "The burning in my eyes! Mike! The burning in my eyes-"


Mike is nodding, smiling a little-


"R-Richie?" Bill asks. "What i-is it?"


But Richie barely hears him. The force of the memory sweeps through him like a tide, turning him alternately hot and cold, and he suddenly understands why these memories have come back one at a time. If he had remembered everything at once, the force would have been like a psychological shotgun blast let off an inch from his temple. It would have torn off the whole top of his head.


"We saw It come!" he says to Mike. "We saw It come, didn't we? You and me... or was it just me?" He grabs Mike's hand, which lies on the table. "did you see it too, Mikey, or was it just me? Did you see it? The forest fire? The crater?"


"I saw it," Mike says quietly, and squeezes Richie's hand. Richie closes his eyes for a moment, thinking he has never felt such a warm and powerful wave of relief in his life, not even when the PSA jet he had taken from LA to San Francisco skidded off the runway and just stopped there-nobody killed, nobody even hurt. Some luggage had fallen out of the overhead bins and that was all. He had jumped onto the yellow emergency slide and helped a woman away from the plane. The woman had turned her ankle on a hummock concealed in the high grass. She was laughing and saying, "I can't believe I'm not dead, I can't believe it, I just can't believe it." So Richie, who was half-carrying the woman with one arm and waving with the other to the firemen who were making frantic come-on gestures to the deplaning passengers, said: "Okay, you're dead, you're dead, you feel better now?" and they both laughed crazily. That had been relief-laughter... but this relief is greater.


"What are you guys talking about?" Eddie asks, looking from one to the other.


Richie looks at Mike, but Mike shakes his head. "You go ahead, Richie. I've had my say for the evening."


"The rest of you don't know or maybe don't remember, because you left," Richie tells them. "Me and Mikey, we were the last two Injuns in the smoke-hole."


"The smoke-hole," Bill muses. His eyes are far and blue.


"The burning sensation in my eyes," Richie says, "under my contact lenses. I felt it for the first time right after Mike called me in California. I didn't know what it was then, but I do now. It was smoke. Smoke that was twenty-seven years old." He looks at Mike. "Psychological, would you say? Psychosomatic? Something from the subconscious?"


"I would say not," Mike answers quietly. "I would say that what you felt was as real as those balloons, or the head I saw in the icebox, or the corpse of Tony Tracker that Eddie saw. Tell them, Richie."


Richie says: "It was four or five days after Mike brought his dad's album down to the Barrens. Sometime just after the middle of July, I guess. The clubhouse was done. But... the smoke-hole thing, that was your idea, Haystack. You got it out of one of your books."


Smiling a little, Ben nods.


Richie thinks: It was overcast that day. No breeze. Thunder in the air. Like the day a month or so later when we stood in the stream and made a circle and Stan cut our hands with that chunk of Coke bottle. The air was just sitting there, waiting for something to happen, and later Bill said that was why it got so bad in there so quick, because there was no draft.


July 17th. Yes, that was it, that had been the day of the smoke-hole. July 17th, 1958, almost a month after summer vacation began and the nucleus of the Losers-Bill, Eddie, and Ben-had formed down in the Barrens. Let me look up the weather forecast for that day almost twenty-seven years ago, Richie thinks, and I'll tell you what it said before I even read it: Richard Tozier, aka the Great Mentalizer. "Hot, humid, chance of thundershowers. And watch out for the visions that may come while you're down in the smoke-hole..."


It had been two days after the body of Jimmy Cullum was discovered, the day after Mr Nell had come down to the Barrens again and sat right on the clubhouse without knowing it was there, because by then they had capped it off and Ben himself had carefully overseen the replacement of the sods. Unless you got right down on your hands and knees and crawled around, you'd have no idea anything was there. Like the dam, Ben's clubhouse had been a roaring success, but this time Mr Nell didn't know anything about it.


He had questioned them carefully, officially, taking down their answers in his black notebook, but there had been little they could tell him-at least about Jimmy Cullum-and Mr Nell had gone away again, after reminding them once more that they were not to play in the Barrens alone... ever. Richie guessed that Mr Nell would have told them simply to get out if anyone in the Derry Police Department had really believed that the Cullum boy (or any of the others) had actually been killed in the Barrens. But they knew better; because of the sewer and stormdrain system, that was simply where the remains tended to finish up.


Mr Nell had come on the 16th, yes, a hot and humid day also, but sunny. The 17th had been overcast.


"Are you going to talk to us or not, Richie?" Bev asks. She is smiling a little, her lips full and a pale rose-red, her eyes alight.


"I'm just thinking about where to start," Richie says. He takes his glasses off, wipes them on his skirt, and suddenly he knows where: with the ground opening up at his and Bill's feet. Of course he knew about the clubhouse-so did Bill and the rest of them, but it still freaked him out, seeing the ground suddenly open on a slit of darkness like that.


He remembers Bill riding him double on the back of Silver to the usual place on Kansas Street and then stowing his bike under the little bridge. He remembers the two of them walking along the path toward the clearing, sometimes having to turn sideways because the brush was so thick-it was midsummer now, and the Barrens was at that year's apogee oflushness. He remembers swatting at the mosquitoes that hummed maddeningly close to their ears; he even remembers Bill saying (oh how clearly it all comes back, not as if it happened yesterday, but as if it is happening now), "H-H-Hold it a s-s-s-


2


-econd, Ruh-Richie. There's a damn guh-guh-hood one on the b-back of your neh-neck."


"Oh Christ," Richie said. He hated mosquitoes. Little flying vampires, that's all they were when you got right down to the facts. "Kill it, Big Bill."


Bill swatted the back of Richie's neck.


"Ouch!"


"Suh-suh-see?"


Bill held his hand in front of Richie's face. There was a broken mosquito body in the center of an irregular patch of blood. My blood, Richie thought, which was shed for you and for many. "Yeeick," he said.


"D-Don't w-worry," Bill said. "Li'l fucker'll neh-never dance the tuh-tuh-tango again."


They walked on, slapping at mosquitoes, waving at the clouds of noseeums attracted by something in the smell of their sweat-something which would years later be identified as "pheromones." Whatever they were.


"Bill, when you gonna tell the rest of em about the silver bullets?" Richie asked as they approached the clearing. In this case "the rest of them" meant Bev, Eddie, Mike, and Stan-although Richie guessed Stan already had a good idea of what they were studying up on down at the Public Library. Stan was sharp-too sharp for his own good, Richie sometimes thought. The day Mike brought his father's album down to the Barrens Stan had almost flipped out. Richie had, in fact, been nearly convinced that they wouldn't see Stan again and the Losers" Club would become a sextet (a word Richie liked a lot, always with the emphasis on the first syllable). But Stan had been back the next day, and Richie had-respected him all the more for that. "You going to tell them today?"


"Nuh-not t-today," Bill said.


"You don't think they'll work, do you?"


Bill shrugged, and Richie, who maybe understood Bill Denbrough better than anyone ever would until Audra Phillips, suspected all the things Bill might have said if not for the roadblock of his speech impediment: that kids making silver bullets was boys" book stuff, comic-book stuff... In a word, it was crap. Dangerous crap. They could try it, yeah. Ben Hanscom might even be able to bring it off, yeah. In a movie it would work, yeah. But...


"so?"


"I got an i-i-i-idea," Bill said. "simpler. But only if Beh-Beh-Beverly-"


"If Beverly what?"


"Neh-hever mind."


And Bill would say no more on the subject.


They came into the clearing. If you looked closely, you might have thought that the grass there had a slightly matted look-a slightly used look. You might even have thought that there was something a bit artificial-almost arranged-about the scatter of leaves and pine needles on top of the sods. Bill picked up a Ring-Ding wrapper-Ben's, almost certainly-and put it absently in his pocket.


The boys crossed to the center of the clearing... and a piece of ground about ten inches long by three inches wide swung up with a dirty squall of hinges, revealing a black eyelid. Eyes looked out of that blackness, giving Richie a momentary chill. But they were only Eddie Kaspbrak's eyes, and it was Eddie, whom he would visit in the hospital a week later, who intoned hollowly: "Who's that trip-trapping on my bridge?"


Giggles from below, and a flashlight flicker.


"Thees ees the rurales, senhorr," Richie said, squatting down, twirling an invisible mustache, and speaking in his Pancho Vanilla Voice.


"Yeah?" Beverly asked from below. "Let's see your badges."


"Batches'?" Richie cried, delighted. "We dean need no stinkin batches!"


"Go to hell, Pancho," Eddie replied, and slammed the big eyelid closed. There were more muffled giggles from below.


"Come out with your hands up!" Bill cried in a low, commanding adult voice. He began to tramp back and forth across the sod-covered cap of the clubhouse. He could see the ground springing up and down with his back-and-forth passage, but just barely; they had built well. "You haven't got a chance!" he bellowed, seeing himself as fearless Joe Friday of the LAPD in his mind's eye. "Come on out of there, punks! Or we'll come in SHOOTIN!"


He jumped up and down once to emphasize his point. Screams and giggles from below. Bill was smiling, unaware that Richie was looking at him wisely-looking at him not as one child looks at another but, in that brief moment, as an adult looks at a child.


He doesn't know that he doesn't always, Richie thought.


"Let them in, Ben, before they crash the roof in," Bev said. A moment later a trapdoor flopped open like the hatch of a submarine. Ben looked out. He was flushed. Richie knew at once that Ben had been sitting next to Beverly.


Bill and Richie dropped down through the hatch and Ben closed it again. Then there they all were, sitting snug against board walls with their legs drawn up, their faces dimly revealed in the beam of Ben's flashlight.


"S-S-So wh-what's g-g-going o-on?" Bill asked.


"Not too much," Ben said. He was indeed sitting next to Beverly, and his face looked happy as well as flushed. "We were just-"


"Tell em, Ben," Eddie interrupted. Tell em the story! See what they think."


"Wouldn't do much for your asthma," Stan told Eddie in his best someone-has-to-be-practical-here tone of voice.


Richie sat between Mike and Ben, holding his knees in his linked hands. It was delightfully cool down here, delightfully secret. Following the gleam of the flashlight as it moved from face to face, he temporarily forgot what had so astounded him outside only a minute ago. "What are you talkin about?"


"Oh, Ben was telling us a story about this Indian ceremony," Bev said. "But Stan's right, it wouldn't be very good for your asthma, Eddie." "It might not bother it," Eddie said, sounding-to his credit, Richie thought-only a little uneasy. "Usually it's only when I get upset. Anyway, I'd like to try it."


"Try w-w-what?" Bill asked him.


"The Smoke-Hole Ceremony," Eddie said.


"W-W-What's th-that?"


The beam of Ben's flashlight drifted upward and Richie followed it with his eyes. It tracked aimlessly across the wooden roof of their clubhouse as Ben explained. It crossed the gouged and splintered panels of the mahogany door the seven of them had carried back here from the dump three days ago-the day before the body of Jimmy Cullum was discovered. The thing Richie remembered about Jimmy Cullum, a quiet little boy who also wore spectacles, was that he liked to play Scrabble on rainy days. Not going to be playing Scrabble anymore, Richie thought, and shivered a little. In the dimness no one saw the shiver, but Mike Hanlon, sitting shoulder to shoulder with him, glanced at him curiously.


"Well, I got this book out of the library last week," Ben was saying. "Ghosts of the Great Plains, it's called, and it's all about the Indian tribes that lived out west a hundred and fifty years ago. The Paiutes and the Pawnees and the Kiowas and the Otoes and the Comanches. It was really a good book. I'd love to go out there sometime to where they lived. Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah..."


"Shut up and tell about the Smoke-Hole Ceremony," Beverly said, elbowing him.


"Sure," he said. "Right." And Richie believed his response would have been the same if Beverly had given him the elbow and said, "drink the poison now, Ben, okay?"


"See, almost all those Indians had a special ceremony, and our clubhouse made me think of it. Whenever they had to make a big decision-whether to move on after the buffalo herds, or to find fresh water, or whether or not to fight their enemies-they'd dig a big hole in the ground and cover it up with branches, except for a little vent in the top."


"The smuh-smuh-smoke-hole," Bill said.


"Your quick mind never ceases to amaze me, Big Bill," Richie said gravely. "You ought to go on Twenty-One. I'll bet you could even beat ole Charlie Van Doren."


Bill made as if to hit him and Richie recoiled, bumping his head a pretty good one on a piece of shoring.

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