"You d-deserved it," Bill said.
"I keel you, rotten gringo sumbeesh," Richie said. "We doan need no stinkin-"
"Will you guys stop it?" Beverly asked. "This is interesting." And she favored Ben with such a warm look that Richie believed steam would start curling out of Haystack's ears in a couple of minutes.
"Okay, B-B-Ben," Bill said. "Go o-o-on."
"Sure," Ben said. The word came out in a croak. He had to clear his throat and start again. "When the smoke-hole was finished, they'd start a fire down there. They'd use green wood so it would be a really smoky fire. Then all the braves would go down there and sit around the fire. The place would fill up with smoke. The book said this was a religious ceremony, but it was also kind of a contest, you know? After half a day or so most of the braves would bug out because they couldn't stand the smoke anymore, and only two or three would be left. And they were supposed to have visions."
"Yeah, if I breathed smoke for five or six hours, I'd probably have some visions, all right," Mike said, and they all laughed.
"The visions were supposed to tell the tribe what to do," Ben said. "And I don't know if this part is true or not, but the book said that most times the visions were right."
A silence fell and Richie looked at Bill. He was aware that they were all looking at Bill, and he had the feeling-again-that Ben's story of the smoke-hole was more than a thing you read about in a book and then had to try for yourself, like a chemistry experiment or a magic trick. He knew it, they all knew it. Perhaps Ben knew it most of all. This was something they were supposed to do.
They were supposed to have visions... Most times the visions were right.
Richie thought: I'll bet if we asked him, Haystack would tell us that book practically jumped into his hand. Like something wanted him to read that one particular book and then tell us about the smoke-hole ceremony. Because there's a tribe right here, isn't there? Yeah. Us. And, yeah, I guess we do need to know what happens next.
This thought led to another: Was this supposed to happen? From the time Ben got the idea for an underground clubhouse instead of a treehouse, was this supposed to happen? How much of this are we thinking up ourselves, and how much is being thought up for us?
In a way, he supposed such an idea should have been almost comforting. It was nice to imagine that something bigger than you, smarter than you, was doing your thinking for you, like the adults that planned your meals, bought your clothes, and managed your time-and Richie was convinced that the force that had brought them together, the force that had used Ben as its messenger to bring them the idea of the smoke-hole-that force wasn't the same as the one killing the children. This was some kind of counterforce to that other... to
(oh well you might as well say it)
It. But all the same, he didn't like this feeling of not being in control of his own actions, of being managed, of being run.
They all looked at Bill; they all waited to see what Bill would say.
"Y-You nuh-nuh-know," he said, "that sounds rih-really n-neat."
Beverly sighed and Stan stirred uncomfortably... that was all.
"Rih-rih-really nuh-neat," Bill repeated, looking down at his hands, and perhaps it was only the uneasy flashlight beam in Ben's hands or his own imagination, but Richie thought Bill looked a little pale and a lot scared, although he was smiling. "Maybe we could u-use a vih-hision to tell us what to d-d-do about o-our pruh-pruh-hob-lem."
And if anyone has a vision, Richie thought, it will be Bill. But about that he was wrong.
"Well," Ben said, "it probably only works for Indians, but it might be flippy to try it."
"Yeah, we'll probably all pass out from the smoke and die in here," Stan said gloomily. That'd be really flippy, all right."
"You don't want to, Stan?" Eddie asked.
"Well, I sort of do," Stan said. He sighed. "I think you guys are making me crazy, you know it?" He looked at Bill. "When?"
Bill said, "W-Well, nun-no t-time like the puh-puh-puh-hresent, i-is there?"
There was a startled, thoughtful silence. Then Richie got to his feet, straight-arming the trapdoor open and letting in the muted light of that still summer day.
"I got my hatchet," Ben said, following him out. "Who wants to help me cut some green wood?"
In the end they all helped.
It took them about an hour to get ready. They cut four or five armloads of small green branches, from which Ben had stripped the twigs and leaves. "They'll smoke, all right," he said. "I don't even know if we'll be able to get them going."
Beverly and Richie went down to the bank of the Kenduskeag and brought back a collection of good-sized stones, using Eddie's jacket (his mother always made him take a jacket, even if it was eighty degrees-it might rain, Mrs Kaspbrak said, and if you have a jacket to put on, your skin won't get soaked if it does) as a makeshift sling. Carrying the rocks back to the clubhouse, Richie said: "You can't do this, Bev. You're a girl. Ben said it was just the braves that went down in the smoke-hole, not the squaws."
Beverly paused, looking at Richie with mixed amusement and irritation. A lock of hair had escaped from her pony-tail; she pushed out her lower lip and blew it off her forehead.
"I could wrestle you to a fall any day, Richie. And you know it."
"Dat doan mattuh, Miss Scawlett!" Richie said, popping his eyes at her. "You is still a girl and you is always goan be a girl! You sho ain't no Injun brave!"
"I'll be a bravette, then," Beverly said. "Now are we going to take these rocks back to the clubhouse or am I going to bounce a few of them off your asshole skull?"
"Lawks-a-mussy, Miss Scawlett, I ain't got no asshole in man skull!" Richie screeched, and Beverly laughed so hard she dropped her end of Eddie's jacket and all the stones fell out. She scolded Richie all the time they were picking them up again, and Richie joked and screeched in many Voices, and thought to himself how beautiful she was.
Although Richie had not been serious when he spoke of excluding her from the smoke-hole on the basis of her sex, Bill Denbrough apparently was.
She stood facing him, her hands on her hips, her cheeks flushed with anger. "You can just take that and stuff it with a long pole, Stuttering Bill! I'm in on this too, or aren't I a member of your lousy club anymore?"
Patiently, Bill said: "I-It's not l-like that, B-B-Bev, and y-you nun-know i-it. Somebody has to stay u-uh-up here."
Bill tried, but the roadblock was in again. He looked at Eddie for help.
"It's what Stan said," Eddie told her quietly. "About the smoke. Bill says that might really happen-we could pass out down there. Then we'd die. Bill says that's what happens to most people in housefires. They don't burn up. They choke to death on the smoke. They-"
Now she turned to Eddie. "Well, okay. He wants somebody to stay up on top in case there's trouble?"
Miserably, Eddie nodded.
"Well, what about you? You're the one with the asthma."
Eddie said nothing. She turned back to Bill. The others stood around, hands in their pockets, looking at their sneakers.
"It's because I'm a girl, isn't it? That's really it, isn't it?"
"You don't have to talk," she snapped. "Just nod your head or shake it. Your head doesn't stutter, does it? Is it because I'm a girl?"
Reluctantly, Bill nodded his head.
She looked at him for a moment, her lips trembling, and Richie thought she would cry. Instead, she exploded.
"Well, fuck you!" She whirled around to look at the others, and they flinched from her gaze, so hot it was nearly radioactive. "Fuck all of you if you think the same thing!" She turned back to Bill and began to talk fast, rapping him with words. "This is something more than some diddlyshit kid's game like tag or guns or hide-and-go-seek, and you know it, Bill. We're supposed to do this. That's part of it. And you're not going to cut me out just because I'm a girl. Do you understand? You better, or I'm leaving right now. And if I go, I'm gone. For good. You understand?"
She stopped. Bill looked at her. He seemed to have regained his calm, but Richie felt afraid. He felt that any chance they had of winning, of finding a way to get to the thing that had killed Georgie Denbrough and the other kids, getting to It and killing It, was now in jeopardy. Seven, Richie thought. That's the magic number. There has to be seven of us. That's the way it's supposed to be.
A bird sang somewhere; stopped; sang again.
"A-A11 r-right," Bill said, and Richie let his breath out. "But suh-suh-somebody has to s-stay tuh-hopside. Who w-w-wants to d-do it?"
Richie thought Eddie or Stan would surely volunteer for this duty, but Eddie said nothing. Stan stood pale and thoughtful and silent. Mike had his thumbs hooked into his belt like Steve McQueen in Wanted: Dead or Alive, nothing moving but his eyes.
"Cuh-cuh-come o-on," Bill said, and Richie realized that all pretense had gone out of the thing now; Bev's impassioned speech and Bill's grave, too-old face had seen to that. This was a part of it, perhaps as dangerous as the expedition he and Bill had made to the house at 29 Neibolt Street. They knew it... and no one was backing down. Suddenly he was very proud of them, very proud to be with them. After all the years of being counted out, he was counted in. Finally counted in. He didn't know if they were still losers or not, but he knew they were together. They were friends. Damn good friends. Richie took his glasses off and rubbed them vigorously with the tail of his shirt.
"I know how to do it," Bev said, and took a book of matches from her pocket. On the front, so tiny you'd need a magnifying glass to get a really good look at them, were pictures of that year's candidates for the title of Miss Rheingold. Beverly lit a match and then blew it out. She tore out six more and added the burned match. She turned away from them, and when she turned back the white ends of the seven matches poked out of her closed fist. "Pick," she said, holding the matches out to Bill. "The one who picks the match with the burned head stays up here and pulls the rest out if they go flippy."
Bill looked at her levelly. "Th-This is h-h-how you w-want i-it?"
She smiled at him then, and her smile made her face radiant. "Yeah, you big dummy, this is how I want it. What about you?"
"I luh-luh-love you, B-B-Bev," he said, and color rose in her cheeks like hasty flames.
Bill did not appear to notice. He studied the match-tails sucking out of her fist, and at length he picked one. Its head was blue and unburned. She turned to Ben and offered the remaining six.
"I love you too," Ben said hoarsely. His face was plum-colored; he looked like he was on the verge of a stroke. But no one laughed. Somewhere deeper in the Barrens, the bird sang again. Stan would know what it was, Richie thought randomly.
"Thank you," she said, smiling, and Ben picked a match. Its head was unburned.
She offered them to Eddie next. Eddie smiled, a shy smile that was incredibly sweet and almost heartbreakingly vulnerable. "I guess I love you, too, Bev," he said, and then picked a match blindly. Its head was blue.
Beverly now offered the four match-tails in her hand to Richie.
"Ah loves yuh, Miss Scawlett!" Richie screamed at the top of his voice, and made exaggerated kissing gestures with his lips. Beverly only looked at him, smiling a little, and Richie suddenly felt ashamed. "I do love you, Bev," he said, and touched her hair. "You're cool."
"Thank you," she said.
He picked a match and looked at it, positive he'd picked the burned one. But he hadn't.
She offered them to Stan.
"I love you," Stan said, and plucked one of the matches from her fist. Unburned.
"You and me, Mike," she said, and offered him his pick of the two left.
He stepped forward. "I don't know you well enough to love you," he said, "but I love you anyway. You could give my mother shoutin lessons, I guess."
They all laughed, and Mike took a match. Its head was also unburned.
"I guess it's y-y-you a-after all, Bev," Bill said.
Looking disgusted-all that flash and fire for nothing-Beverly opened her hand.
The head of the remaining match was also blue and unburned.
"Y-Y-You jih-jig-jiggered them," Bill accused.
"No. I didn't." Her tone was not one of angry protest-which would have been suspect-but flabbergasted surprise. "Honest to God I didn't."
Then she showed them her palm. They all saw the faint mark of soot from the burned match-head there.
"Bill, I swear on my mother's name!"
Bill looked at her for a moment and then nodded. By common unspoken consent, they all handed the matches back to Bill. Seven of them, their heads intact. Stan and Eddie began to crawl around on the ground, but there was no burned match there.
"I didn't," Beverly said again, to no one in particular.
"So what do we do now?" Richie asked.
"We a-a-all go down," Bill said. "Because that's w-what w-w-we're suh-supposed to do."
"And if we all pass out?" Eddie asked.
Bill looked at Beverly again. "I-If B-Bev's t-telling the truh-truth, and s-she i-i-is, w-we won't."
"How do you know? Stan asked.
"I-I j-just d-d-do."
The bird sang again.
Ben and Richie went down first and the others handed the rocks down one by one. Richie passed them on to Ben, who made a small stone circle in the middle of the dirt clubhouse floor. "Okay," he said. That's enough."
The others came down, each with a handful of the green twigs they'd cut with Ben's hatchet. Bill came last. He closed the trapdoor and opened the narrow hinged window. Th-Th-There," he said. "Th-there's our smuh-smoke-hole. Do we h-have any kih-kih-kin-dling?"
"You can use this, if you want," Mike said, and took a battered Archie funnybook out of his hip pocket. "I read it already."
Bill tore the pages out of the funnybook one by one, working slowly and gravely. The others sat around the walls, knee to knee and shoulder to shoulder, watching, not speaking. The tension was thick and still.
Bill laid small twigs and branches over the paper and then looked at Beverly. "Y-Y-You g-got the muh-matches," he said.