A bottle of licorice whips stood on the corner of Mr Keene's desk. He offered it to Eddie.
"No thank you," Eddie said politely.
Mr Keene sat down in the swivel chair behind his desk and took one. Then he opened his drawer and took something out. He put it down next to the tall bottle of licorice whips and Eddie felt real alarm course through him. It was an aspirator. Mr Keene tilted back in his swivel chair until his head was almost touching the calendar on the wall behind him. The picture on the calendar showed more pills. It said SQUIBB. And -
- and for one nightmare moment, when Mr Keene opened his mouth to speak, Eddie remembered what had happened in the shoe store when he was just a little kid, when his mother had screamed at him for putting his foot in the X-ray machine. For that one nightmare moment Eddie thought Mr Keene would say: "Eddie, nine out of ten doctors agree that asthma medicine gives you cancer, just like the X-ray machines they used to have in the shoe stores. You've probably got it already. Just thought you ought to know."
But what Mr Keene did say was so peculiar that Eddie could think of no response at all; he could only sit in the straight wooden chair on the other side of Mr Keene's desk like a nit.
"This has gone on long enough."
Eddie opened his mouth and then closed it again.
"How old are you, Eddie? Eleven, isn't it?"
"Yes, sir," Eddie said faintly. His breathing was indeed shallowing up. He wasn't yet whistling like a tea-kettle (which was how Richie put it: Somebody turn Eddie off! He's reached the boil!'), but that might happen at any time. He looked longingly at the aspirator on Mr Keene's desk, and because something else seemed required, he said: "I'll be twelve in November."
Mr Keene nodded, then leaned forward like a TV pharmacist in a commercial and clasped his hands together. His eyeglasses gleamed in the strong light thrown by the overhead fluorescent bars. "do you know what a placebo is, Eddie?"
Nervously, taking his best guess, Eddie said: "Those are the things on cows that the milk comes out of, aren't they?"
Mr Keene laughed and rocked back in his chair. "No," he said, and Eddie blushed to the roots of his flattop haircut. Now he could hear the whistle creeping into his breathing. "A placebo-"
He was interrupted by a brisk double tap at the door. Without waiting for a come-in call, Ruby entered with an oldfashioned ice-cream-soda glass in each hand. "Yours must be the chocolate," she said to Eddie, and gave him a grin. He returned it as best he could, but his interest in ice-cream sodas was at its lowest ebb in his entire personal history. He felt scared in a way that was both vague and specific; it was the way he felt scared when he was sitting on Dr Handor's examination table in his underpants, waiting for the doctor to come in and knowing his mother was out in the waiting room, taking up most of one sofa, a book (most likely Norman Vincent Peak's The Power of Positive Thinking or Dr Jarvis's Vermont Folk Medicine) held firmly up to her eyes like a hymnal. Stripped of his clothes and defenseless, he felt caught between the two of them.
He sipped some of his soda as Ruby went out, hardly tasting it.
Mr Keene waited until the door was shut and then smiled his dry sun-on-mica smile again. "Loosen up, Eddie. I'm not going to bite you, or hurt you."
Eddie nodded, because Mr Keene was a grownup and you were supposed to agree with grownups at all costs (his mother had taught him that), but inside he was thinking: Oh, I've heard that bullshit before. It was about what the doctor said when he opened his sterilizer and the sharp frightening smell of alcohol drifted out, stinging his nostrils. That was the smell of shots and this was the smell of bullshit and both came down to the same thing: when they said it was just going to be a little prick, something you hardly felt at all, that meant it was going to hurt plenty.
He tried another half-hearted suck on his soda straw, but it was no good; he needed all the space in his narrowing throat just to suck in air. He looked at the aspirator sitting in the middle of Mr Keene's blotter, wanted to ask for it, didn't quite dare. A weird thought occurred to him: maybe Mr Keene knew he wanted it but didn't dare ask for it, that maybe Mr Keene was
teasing him. Except that was a really stupid idea, wasn't it? A grownup-particularly a health-dispensing grownup-wouldn't tease a little kid that way, would he? Surely not. It wasn't even to be considered, because consideration of such an idea might necessitate a terrifying reappraisal of the world as Eddie understood it.
But there it was, there it was, so near and yet so far, like water just beyond the reach of a man who was dying of thirst in the desert. There it was, standing on the desk below Mr Keene's smiling mica eyes.
Eddie wished, more than anything else, that he was down in the Barrens with his friends around him. The thought of a monster, some great monster, lurking under the city where he had been born and where he had grown up, using the sewers and drains to creep from place to place-that was a frightening thought, and the thought of actually fighting that creature, of taking it on, was even more frightening... but somehow this was worse. How could you fight a grownup who said it wasn't going to hurt when you knew it was? How could you fight a grownup who asked you funny questions and said obscurely ominous things like This has gone on long enough? And almost idly, in a kind of side-thought, Eddie discovered one of his childhood's great truths. Grownups are the real monsters, he thought. It was no big deal, not a thought that came in a revelatory flash or announced itself with trumpets and bells. It just came and was gone, almost buried under the stronger, overriding thought: I want my aspirator and I want to be out of here.
"Loosen up," Mr Keene said again. "Most of your trouble, Eddie, comes from being so tight and stiff all the time. Take your asthma, for instance. Look here."
Mr Keene opened his desk drawer, fumbled around inside, and then brought out a balloon. Expanding his narrow chest as much as possible (his tie bobbed like a narrow boat riding a mild wave), he huffed into it and blew it up. CENTER STREET DRUG, the balloon said. PRESCRIPTIONS, SUNDRIES, OSTOMY SUPPLIES. Mr Keene pinched the balloon's rubber neck and held the balloon out in front of him. "Now pretend for just a moment that this is a lung," he said. "Your lung. I should really blow up two, of course, but since I only had one left from the sale we had just after Christmas-"
"Mr Keene, could I have my aspirator now?" Eddie's head was starting to pound. He could feel his windpipe sealing itself up. His heartrate was up, and sweat stood out on his forehead. His chocolate ice-cream soda stood on the corner of Mr Keene's desk, the cherry on top sinking slowly into a goo of whipped cream.
"In a minute," Mr Keene said. "Pay attention, Eddie. I want to help you. It's time somebody did. If Russ Handor isn't man enough to do it, I'll have to. Your lung is like this balloon, except it's surrounded by a blanket of muscle; these muscles are like the arms of a man operating a bellows, you understand? In a healthy person, those muscles help the lungs to expand and contract easily. But if the owner of those healthy lungs is always getting stiff and tight, the muscles begin to work against the lungs rather than with them. Look!"
Mr Keene wrapped a bunched, bony, liverspotted hand around the balloon and squeezed. The balloon bulged over and under his fist and Eddie winced, trying to get ready for the pop. Simultaneously he felt his breathing stop altogether. He leaned over the desk and grabbed for the aspirator on the blotter. His shoulder struck the heavy ice-cream-soda glass. It toppled off the desk and shattered on the floor like a bomb.
Eddie heard that only dimly. He was clawing the top off the aspirator, slamming the nozzle into his mouth, triggering it off. He took a tearing heaving breath, his thoughts a ratrun of panic as they always were at moments like this: Please Mommy I'm suffocating I can't BREATHE oh my dear God oh dear Jesus meekandmild I can't BREATHE phase I don't want to die don't want to die oh please -
Then the fog from the aspirator condensed on the swollen walls of his throat and he could breathe again.
"I'm sorry," he said, nearly crying. "I'm sorry about the glass... I'll clean it up and pay for it... just please don't tell my mother, okay? I'm sorry, Mr Keene, but I couldn't breathe -
There was that double tap at the door again and Ruby poked her head in. "Is everything-"
"Everything's fine," Mr Keene said sharply. "Leave us."
"Well I'm saw-ry!" Ruby said. She rolled her eyes and closed the door.
Eddie's breath was starting to whistle in his throat again. He took another pull at the aspirator and then began his fumbling apology once more. He ceased only when he saw that Mr Keene was smiling at him-that peculiar dry smile. Mr Keene's hands were laced over his middle. The balloon lay on his desk. A thought came to Eddie; he tried to hold it back and couldn't. Mr Keene looked as if Eddie's asthma attack had tasted better to him than his half-finished coffee soda.
"Don't be concerned," he said. "Ruby will clean up the mess later, and if you want to know the truth, I'm rather glad you broke the glass. Because I promise not to tell your mother that you broke it if you promise not to tell her we had this little talk."
"Oh, I promise that," Eddie said eagerly.
"Good," Mr Keene said. "We have an understanding. And you feel much better now, don't you?"
"Why? Well... because I had my medicine." He looked at Mr Keene the way he looked at Mrs Casey in school when he had given an answer he wasn't quite sure of.
"But you didn't have any medicine," Mr Keene said. "You had a placebo. A placebo, Eddie, is something that looks like medicine and tastes like medicine but isn't medicine. A placebo isn't medicine because it has no active ingredients. Or, if it is medicine, it's medicine of a very special sort. Head-medicine." Mr Keene smiled. "do you understand that, Eddie? Head-medicine."
Eddie understood, all right; Mr Keene was telling him he was crazy. But through numb lips he said, "No, I don't get you."
"Let me tell you a little story," Mr Keene said. "In 1954, a series of medical tests on ulcer patients was run at DePaul University. One hundred ulcer patients were given pills. They were all told the pills would help their ulcers, but fifty of the patients really got placebos... They were, in fact, M amp;M's given a uniform pink coating." Mr Keene uttered a strange shrill giggle-that of a man describing a prank rather than an experiment. "Of those one hundred patients, ninety-three said they felt a definite improvement, and eighty-one showed an improvement. So what do you think? What conclusion do you draw from such an experiment, Eddie?"
"I don't know," Eddie said faintly.
Mr Keene tapped his head solemnly. "Most sickness starts in here, that's what I think. I've been in this business a long, long time, and I knew about placebos a mighty stretch of years before those doctors at DePaul University did their study. Usually it's old folks who end up getting the placebos. The old fellow or the old girl will go to the doctor, convinced that they've got heart disease or cancer or diabetes or some damn thing. But in a good many cases it's nothing like that at all. They don't feel good because they're old, that's all. But what's a doctor to do? Tell them they're like watches with wornout mainsprings? Huh! Not likely. Doctors like their fees too much." And now Mr Keene's face wore an expression somewhere between a smile and a sneer.
Eddie just sat there waiting for it to be over, to be over, to be over. You didn't have any medicine: those words clanged in his mind.
The doctors don't tell them that, and I don't tell them that, either. Why bother? Sometimes an old party will come in with a prescription blank that will say it right out: Placebo, or 25 grains Blue Skies, which was how old Doc Pearson used to put it."
Mr Keene cackled briefly and then sucked on his coffee soda.
"Well, what's wrong with it?" he asked Eddie, and when Eddie only sat there, Mr Keene answered his own question. "Why, nothing! Nothing at all!
"At least... usually.
"Placebos are a blessing for old people. And then there are other cases-folks with cancer, folks with degenerative heart disease, folks with terrible things that we don't understand yet, some of them children just like you, Eddie! In cases like that, if a placebo makes the patient feel better, where is the harm? Do you see the harm, Eddie?"
"No sir," Eddie said, and looked down at the splatter of chocolate ice cream, soda-water, whipped cream, and broken glass on the floor. In the middle of all this was the maraschino cherry, as accusing as a blood-clot at a crime scene. Looking at this mess made his chest feel tight again.
"Then we're like Ike and Mike! We think alike! Five years ago, when Vernon Maitland had cancer of the esophagus-a painful, painful sort of cancer-and the doctors had run out of anything effective they could give him for his pain, I came by his hospital room with a bottle of sugar-pills. He was a special friend, you see. And I said, "Vern, these are special experimental pain-pills. The doctor doesn't know I'm giving them to you, so for God's sake be careful and don't tattle on me. They might not work, but I think they will. Take no more than one a day, and only if the pain is especially bad." He thanked me with tears in his eyes. Tears, Eddie! And they worked for him! Yes! They were only sugar-pills, but they killed most of his pain... because pain is here."
Solemnly, Mr Keene tapped his head again.
Eddie said: "My medicine does so work."
"I know it does," Mr Keene replied, and smiled a maddening complacent grownup's smile. "It works on your chest because it works on your head. HydrOx, Eddie, is water with a dash of camphor thrown in to give it a medicine taste."
"No," Eddie said. His breath had begun to whistle again.
Mr Keene drank some of his soda, spooned some of the melting ice cream, and fastidiously wiped his chin with his handkerchief while Eddie used his aspirator again.
"I want to go now," Eddie said.
"Let me finish, please."
"No! I want to go, you've got your money and I want to go!"
"Let me finish," Mr Keene said, so forbiddingly that Eddie sat back in his chair. Grownups could be so hateful in their power sometimes. So hateful.
"Part of the problem here is that your doctor, Russ Handor, is weak. And pan of the problem is that your mother is determined you are ill. You, Eddie, have been caught in the middle."
"I'm not crazy," Eddie whispered, the words coming out in a bare husk.