Page 17

"Tom," she said. "Tom, I have to-"

"You're smoking," he said. His voice seemed to come from a distance, as if over a pretty good radio. "Looks like you forgot, babe. Where you been hiding them?"

"Look, I'll put it out," she said, and went to the bathroom door. She flipped the cigarette-even from here he could see the teeth-marks driven deep into the filter-into the bowl of the John. Fsssss. She came back out. "Tom, that was an old friend. An old old friend. I have to-"

"Shut up, that's what you have to do!" he shouted at her. "Just shut up!" But the fear he wanted to see-the fear of him-was not on her face. There was fear, but it had come out of the telephone, and fear was not supposed to come to Beverly from that direction. It was almost as if she didn't see the belt, didn't see him, and Tom felt a trickle of unease. Was he here? It was a stupid question, but was he?

This question was so terrible and so elemental that for a moment he felt in danger of coming completely unwrapped from the root of himself and just floating off like a tumbleweed in a high breeze. Then he caught hold of himself. He was here, all right, and that was quite enough fucking psycho-babble for one night. He was here, he was Tom Rogan, Tom by-God Rogan, and if this dippy cunt didn't straighten up and fly right in the next thirty seconds or so, she was going to look like she got pushed out of a fast-moving boxcar by a mean railroad dick.

"Got to give you a whuppin," he said. "sorry about that, babe."

He had seen that mixture of fear and aggressiveness before, yes. Now for the first time ever it flashed out at him.

"Put that thing down," she said. "I have to get out to O'Hare as fast as I can."

Are you here, Tom? Are you?

He pushed the thought away. The strip of leather which had once been a belt swung slowly before him like a pendulum. His eyes flickered and then held fast to her face.

"Listen to me, Tom. There's been some trouble back in my home town. Very bad trouble. I had a friend in those days. I guess he would have been my boyfriend, except we weren't quite old enough for that. He was only an eleven-year-old kid with a bad stutter back then. He's a novelist now. You even read one of his books, I think... The Black Rapids?"

She searched his face but his face gave no sign. There was only the belt penduluming back and forth, back and forth. He stood with his head lowered and his stocky legs slightly apart. Then she ran her hand restlessly through her hair-distractedly-as if she had many important things to think of and hadn't seen the belt at all, and that haunting, awful question resurfaced in his head again: Are you there? Are you sure?

"That book laid around here for weeks and I never made the connection. Maybe I should have, but we're all older and I haven't even thought about Derry in a long, long time. Anyway, Bill had a brother, George, and George was killed before I really knew Bill. He was murdered. And then, the next summer-"

But Tom had listened to enough craziness from within and from without. He moved in on her fast, cocking his right arm back over his shoulder like a man about to throw a javelin. The belt hissed a path through the air. Beverly saw it coming and tried to duck away, but her right shoulder struck the bathroom doorway and there was a meaty whapl as the belt struck her left forearm, leaving a red weal.

"Gonna whup you," Tom repeated. His voice was sane, even regretful, but his teeth showed in a white and frozen smile. He wanted to see that look in her eyes, that look of fear and terror and shame, that look that said Yes you're right I deserved it, that look that said Yes you're there all right, I feel your presence. Then love could come back, and that was right and good, because he did love her. They could even have a discussion, if she wanted it, of exactly who had called and what all this was about. But that must come later. For now, school was in session. The old one-two. First the whuppin, then the fuckin.

"Sorry, babe."

"Tom, don't do th-"

He swung the belt sidearm and saw it lick around her hip. There was a satisfying snap as it finished on her buttock. And...

And Jesus, she was grabbing at it! She was grabbing at the belt!

For a moment Tom Rogan was so astounded by this unexpected act of insubordination that he almost lost his punisher, would have lost it except for the loop, which was tucked securely into his fist.

He jerked it back.

"Don't you ever try to grab something away from me," he said hoarsely. "You hear me? You ever do that again and you'll spend a month pissing raspberry juice."

"Tom, stop it," she said, and her very tone infuriated him-she sounded like a playground monitor talking down to a tantrumy six-year-old. "I have to go. This is no joke. People are dead, and I made a promise a long time ago-"

Tom heard little of this. He bellowed and ran at her with his head down, the belt swinging blindly. He hit her with it, driving her away from the doorway and along the bedroom wall. He cocked his arm back, hit her, cocked his arm back, hit her, cocked his arm back, hit her. Later that morning he would not be able to raise the arm above eye level until he had swallowed three codeine tablets, but for now he was aware of nothing but the fact that she was defying him. She had not only been smoking, she had tried to grab the belt away from him, and oh folks, oh friends and neighbors, she had asked for it, and he would testify before the throne of God Almighty that she was going to get it.

He drove her along the wall, swinging the belt, raining blows on her. Her hands were up to protect her face, but he had a clear shot at the rest of her. The belt made thick bull whip cracks in the quiet room. But she did not scream, as she sometimes did, and she did not beg him to stop, as she usually did. Worst of all, she did not cry, as she always did. The only sounds were the belt and their breathing, his heavy and hoarse, hers quick and light.

She broke for the bed and the vanity table on her side of it. Her shoulders were red from the belt's blows. Her hair streamed fire. He lumbered after her, slower but big, very big-he had played squash until he had popped an Achilles tendon two years ago, and since then his weight had gotten out of hand a little bit (or maybe "a lot" would have been a better way to put it), but the muscle was still there, firm cordage sheathed in the fat. Still, he was a little alarmed at how out of breath he was.

She reached the vanity and he thought she would crouch there, or maybe try to crawl under it. Instead she groped... turned... and suddenly the air was full of flying missiles. She was throwing cosmetics at him. A bottle of Chantilly struck him squarely between the nipples, fell to his feet, shattered. He was suddenly enveloped in the gagging scent of flowers.

"Quit it!" he roared. "Quit it, you bitch!"

Instead of quitting it, her hands flew along the vanity's littered glass top, grabbing whatever they found, throwing it. He groped at his chest where the bottle of Chantilly had struck him, unable to believe she had hit him with something, even as other objects flew around him. The bottle's glass stopper had cut him. It was not much of a cut, little more than a triangular scratch, but was there a certain red-haired lady who was going to see the sun come up from a hospital bed? Oh yes, there was. A certain lady who -

A jar of cream struck him above the right eyebrow with sudden, cracking force. He heard a dull thud seemingly inside his head. White light exploded over that eye's field of vision and he fell back a step, mouth dropping open. Now a tube of Nivea cream struck his belly with a small slapping sound and she was-was she? was it possible?-yes! She was yelling at him!

"I'm going to the airport, you son of a bitch! Do you hear me? I have business and I'm going! You want to get out of my way because I'M GOING!"

Blood ran into his right eye, stinging and hot. He knuckled it away.

He stood there for a moment, staring at her as if he had never seen her before. In a way he never had. Her breasts heaved rapidly. Her face, all flush and livid pallor, blazed. Her lips were drawn back from her teeth in a snarl. She had, however, denuded the top of the vanity table. The missile silo was empty. He could still read the fear in her eyes... but it was still not fear of him.

"You put those clothes back," he said, struggling not to pant as he spoke. That would not sound good. That would sound weak. "Then you put the suitcase back and get into bed. And if you do those things, maybe I won't beat you up too bad. Maybe you'll be able to go out of the house in two days instead of two weeks."

"Tom, listen to me." She spoke slowly. Her gaze was very clear. "If you come near me again, I'll kill you. Do you understand that, you tub of guts? I'll kill you."

And suddenly-maybe it was because of the utter loathing on her face, the contempt, maybe because she had called him a tub of guts, or maybe only because of the rebellious way her breasts rose and fell-the fear was suffocating him. It was not a bud or a bloom but a whole goddam garden, the fear, the horrible fear that he was not here.

Tom Rogan rushed at his wife, not bellowing this time. He came as silently as a torpedo cutting through the water. His intent now was probably not merely to beat and subjugate but to do to her what she had so rashly said she would do to him.

He thought she would run. Probably for the bathroom. Maybe for the stairs. Instead, she stood her ground. Her hip whacked the wall as she threw her weight against the vanity table, pushing it up and toward him, ripping two fingernails down to the quick when the sweat on her palms caused her hands to slip.

For a moment the table tottered on an angle and then she shoved herself forward again. The vanity waltzed on one leg, mirror catching the light and reflecting a brief swimmy aquarium shadow across the ceiling, and then it tilted forward and outward. Its leading edge slammed into Tom's upper thighs and knocked him over. There was a musical jingle as bottles tipped over and shattered inside. He saw the mirror strike the floor on his left and threw an arm up to shield his eyes, losing the belt. Glass coughed across the floor, silver on the back. He felt some of it sting him, drawing blood.

Now she was crying, her breath coming in high, screamy sobs. Time after time she had seen herself leaving him, leaving Tom's tyranny as she had left that of her father, stealing away in the night, bags piled in the trunk of her Cutlass. She was not a stupid woman, certainly not stupid enough even now, standing on the rim of this incredible shambles, to believe that she had not loved Tom and did not in some way love him still. But that did not preclude her fear of him... her hate of him... and her contempt of herself for choosing him for dim reasons buried in the times that should be over. Her heart was not breaking; it seemed rather to be broiling in her chest, melting. She was afraid the heat from her heart might soon destroy her sanity in fire.

But above all this, yammering steadily in the back of her mind, she could hear Mike Hanlon's dry, steady voice: It's come back, Beverly... it's come back... and you promised...

The vanity heaved up and down. Once. Twice. A third time. It looked as if it were breathing.

Moving with careful agility, her mouth turned down at the corners and jerking as if in prelude to some sort of convulsion, she skirted the vanity, toe-stepping through the broken glass, and grabbed the belt just as Tom heaved the vanity off to one side. Then she backed up, sliding her hand into the loop. She shook her hair out of her eyes and watched to see what he would do.

Tom got up. Some of the mirror-glass had cut one of his cheeks. A diagonal cut traced a line as fine as thread across his brow. He squinted at her as he rose slowly to his feet, and she saw drops of blood on his boxer shorts.

"You just give me that belt," he said.

Instead she took two turns of it around her hand and looked at him defiantly.

"Quit it, Bev. Right now."

"If you come for me, I'm going to strap the shit out of you." The words were coming out of her mouth but she couldn't believe it was her saying them. And just who was this caveman in the bloody undershorts, anyway? Her husband? Her father? The lover she had taken in college who had broken her nose one night, apparently on a whim? Oh God help me, she thought. God help me now. And still her mouth went on. "I can do it, too. You're fat and slow, Tom. I'm going, and I think maybe I'll stay gone. I think maybe it's over."

"Who's this guy Denbrough?"

"Forget it. I was-"

She realized almost too late that the question had been a distraction. He was coming for her before the last word was out of his mouth. She whickered the belt through the air in an arc and the sound it made when it smashed across his mouth was the sound of a stubborn cork coming out of a bottle.

He squealed and clapped his hands to his mouth, his eyes huge, hurt and shocked. Blood began to pour between his fingers and over the backs of his hands.

"You broke my mouth, you bitch!" he screamed, muffled. "Ah God you broke my mouth!"

He came at her again, hands reaching, his mouth a wet red smear. His lips appeared to have burst in two places. The crown had been knocked from one of his front teeth. As she watched, he spit it to one side. Part of her was backing away from this scene, sick and moaning, wanting to shut her eyes. But that other Beverly felt the exultation of a death-row convict freed in a freak earthquake. That Beverly liked all of this just fine. I wish you'd swallowed it! that one thought. Wish you'd choked on it!

It was this latter Beverly who swung the belt for the last time-the belt he had used on her buttocks, her legs, her breasts. The belt he had used on her times without number over the last four years. How many strokes you got depended on how badly you'd screwed up. Tom comes home and dinner is cold? Two with the belt. Bev's working late at the studio and forgets to call home? Three with the belt. Oh hey, look at this-Beverly got another parking ticket. One with the belt... across the breasts. He was good. He rarely bruised. It didn't even hurt that much. Except for the humiliation. That hurt. And what hurt worse was knowing that part of her craved the hurt. Craved the humiliation.

Last time pays for all, she thought, and swung.

She brought the belt in low, brought it in sidearm, and it whacked across his balls with a brisk yet heavy sound, the sound of a woman striking a rug with a carpet-beater. That was all it took. All the fight promptly went out of Tom Rogan.

He uttered a thin, strengthless shriek and fell on his knees as if to pray. His hands were between his legs. His head was thrown back. Cords stood out on his neck. His mouth was a tragedy-grimace of pain. His left knee came down squarely on a heavy, pointed hook of shattered perfume bottle and he rolled silently over on one side like a whale. One hand left his balls to grab his squirting knee.

The blood, she thought. Dear Lord, he's bleeding everywhere.

He'll live, this new Beverly-the Beverly who seemed to have surfaced at Mike Hanlon's phone call-replied coldly. Guys like him always live. You just get the hell out of here before he decides he wants to tango some more. Or before he decides to go down cellar and get his Winchester.

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