It

Page 28


"Jeezum, he sounds just like a pig," Victor said. He twisted Ben's wrist. "don't he sound like a pig?"


"He sure do," Belch giggled.


Ben lunged first one way and then the other. Belch and Victor went with him easily, letting him lunge, then yanking him back.


Henry grabbed the front of Ben's sweatshirt and yanked it upward, exposing his belly. It hung over his belt in a swollen droop.


"Lookit that gut!" Henry cried in amazed disgust. "Jesus-please-us!"


Victor and Belch laughed some more. Ben looked around wildly for help. He could see no one. Behind him, down in the Barrens, crickets drowsed and seagulls screamed.


"You just better quit!" he said. He wasn't blubbering yet but was close to it. "You just better!"


"Or what?" Henry asked as if he was honestly interested. "Or what, Tits? Or what, huh?"


Ben suddenly found himself thinking of Broderick Crawford, who played Dan Matthews on Highway Patrol-that bastard was tough, that bastard was mean, that bastard took zero shit from anybody-and then he burst into tears. Dan Matthews would have belted these guys right through the fence, down the embankment, and into the puckerbrush. He would have done it with his belly.


"Oh boy, lookit the baby!" Victor chortled. Belch joined in. Henry smiled a little, but his face still held that grave, reflective cast-that look that was somehow almost sad. It frightened Ben. It suggested he might be in for more than just a beating.


As if to confirm this idea, Henry reached into his jeans pocket and brought out a Buck knife.


Ben's terror exploded. He had been whipsawing his body futilely to either side; now he suddenly lunged straight forward. There was an instant when he believed he was going to get away. He was sweating heavily, and the boys holding his arms had greasy grips at best. Belch managed to hold on to his right wrist, but just barely. He pulled entirely free of Victor. Another lunge -


Before he could make it, Henry stepped forward and gave him a shove. Ben flew backward. The railing creaked more loudly this tune, and he felt it give a little under his weight. Belch and Victor grabbed him again.


"Now you hold him," Henry said. "You hear me?"


"Sure, Henry," Belch said. He sounded a trifle uneasy. "He ain't gonna get away. Don't worry."


Henry stepped forward until his flat stomach almost touched Ben's belly. Ben stared at him, tears spilling helplessly out of his wide eyes. Caught! I'm caught! a part of his mind yammered. He tried to stop it-he couldn't think at all with that yammering going on-but it wouldn't stop. Caught! Caught! Caught!


Henry pulled out the blade, which was long and wide and engraved with his name. The tip glittered in the afternoon sunshine.


"I'll gonna test you now," Henry said in that same reflective voice. "It's exam time, Tits, and you better be ready."


Ben wept. His heart thundered madly in his chest. Snot ran out of his nose and collected on his upper lip. His library books lay in a scatter at his feet. Henry stepped on Bulldozer, glanced down, and dealt it into the gutter with a sideswipe of one black engineer boot.


"Here's the first question on your exam, Tits. When somebody says "Let me copy" during finals, what are you going to say?"


"Yes!" Ben exclaimed immediately. "I'm going to say yes! Sure! Okay! Copy all you want!"


The Buck's tip slid through two inches of air and pressed against Ben's stomach. It was as cold as an ice-cube tray just out of the Frigidaire. Ben gasped his belly away from it. For a moment the world went gray. Henry's mouth was moving but Ben couldn't tell what he was saying. Henry was like a TV with the sound turned off and the world was swimming... swimming...


Don't you dare faint! the panicky voice shrieked. If you faint he may get mad enough to kill you!


The world came back into some kind of focus. He saw that both Belch and Victor had stopped laughing. They looked nervous... almost scared. Seeing that had the effect of a head-clearing slap on Ben. All of a sudden they don't know what he's going to do, or how far he might go. However bad you thought things were, that's how bad they really are... maybe even a little worse. You got to think. If you never did before or never do again, you better think now. Because his eyes say they're right to look nervous. His eyes say he's crazy as a bedbug.


"That's the wrong answer, Tits," Henry said. "If just anyone says "Let me copy," I don't give a red fuck what you do. Got it?"


"Yes," Ben said, his belly hitching with sobs. "Yes, I got it."


"Well, okay. That's one wrong, but the biggies are still coming up. You ready for the biggies?"


"I... I guess so."


A car came slowly toward them. It was a dusty '51 Ford with an old man and woman propped up in the front seat like a pair of neglected department store mannequins. Ben saw the old man's head turn slowly toward him. Henry stepped closer to Ben, hiding the knife. Ben could feel its point dimpling his flesh just above his bellybutton. It was still cold. He didn't see how that could be, but it was.


"Go ahead, yell," Henry said. "You'll be pickin your fuckin guts off your sneakers." They were close enough to kiss. Ben could smell the sweet smell of Juicy Fruit gum on Henry's breath.


The car passed and continued on down Kansas Street, as slow and serene as the pace car in the Tournament of Roses Parade.


"All right, Tits, here's the second question. If I say "Let me copy" during finals, what are you going to say?"


"Yes. I'll say yes. Right away."


Henry smiled. "That's good. You got that one right, Tits. Now here's the third question: how am I going to be sure you never forget that?"


"I... I don't know," Ben whispered.


Henry smiled. His face lit up and was for a moment almost handsome. "I know!" he said, as if he had discovered a great truth. "I know, Tits! I'll carve my name on your big fat gut!"


Victor and Belch abruptly began laughing again. For a moment Ben felt a species of bewildered relief, thinking it had all been nothing but make-believe-a little shuck-and-jive the three of them had whomped up to scare the living hell out of him. But Henry Bowers wasn't laughing, and Ben suddenly understood that Victor and Belch were laughing because they were relieved. It was obvious to both of them that Henry couldn't be serious. Except Henry was.


The Buck knife slid upward, smooth as butter. Blood welled in a bright red line on Ben's pallid skin.


"Hey!" Victor cried. The word came out muffled, in a startled gulp.


"Hold him!" Henry snarled. "You just hold him, hear me?" Now there was nothing grave and reflective on Henry's face; now it was the twisted face of a devil.


"Jeezwm-crow Henry don't really cut im!" Belch screamed, and his voice was high, almost a girl's voice.


Everything happened fast then, but to Ben Hanscom it all seemed slow; it all seemed to happen in a series of shutterclicks, like action stills in a Life-magazine photo-essay. His panic was gone. He had discovered something inside him suddenly, and because it had no use for panic, that something just ate the panic whole.


In the first shutterclick, Henry had snatched his sweatshirt all the way up to his nipples. Blood was pouring from the shallow vertical cut above his bellybutton.


In the second shutterclick, Henry drew the knife down again, operating fast, like a lunatic battle-surgeon under an aerial bombardment. Fresh blood Sowed.


Backward, Ben thought coldly as blood flowed down and pooled between the waistband of his jeans and his skin. Got to go backward. That's the only direction I can get away in. Belch and Victor weren't holding him anymore. In spite of Henry's command, they had drawn away. They had drawn away in horror. But if he ran, Bowers would catch him.


In the third shutterclick, Henry connected the two vertical slashes with a short horizontal line. Ben could feel blood running into his underpants now, and a sticky snail-trail was creeping down his left thigh.


Henry leaned back momentarily, frowning with the studied concentration of an artist painting a landscape. After H comes E, Ben thought, and that was all it took to get him moving. He pulled forward a little bit and Henry shoved him back again. Ben pushed with his legs, adding his own force to Henry's. He hit the white-washed railing between Kansas Street and the drop into the Barrens. As he did, he raised his right foot and planted it in Henry's belly. This was not a retaliatory act; Ben only wanted to increase his backward force. And yet when he saw the expression of utter surprise on Henry's face, he was filled with a clear savage joy-a feeling so intense that for a split second he thought the top of his head was going to come off.


Then there was a cracking, splintering sound from the railing. Ben saw Victor and Belch catch Henry before he could fall on his ass in the gutter next to the remains of Bulldozer, and then Ben was falling backward into space. He went with a scream that was half a laugh.


Ben hit the slope on his back and buttocks just below the culvert he had spotted earlier. It was a good thing he landed below it; if he had landed on it, he might well have broken his back. As it was? he landed on a thick cushion of weeds and bracken and barely felt the impact. He did a backward somersault, feet and legs snapping over his head. He landed sitting up and went sliding down the slope backward like a kid on a big green Chute-the-Chute, his sweatshirt pulled up around his neck, his hands grabbing for purchase and doing nothing but yanking out tuft after tuft of bracken and witch-grass.


He saw the top of the embankment (it seemed impossible that he had just been standing up there) receding with crazy cartoon speed. He saw Victor and Belch, their faces round white O's, staring down at him. He had time to mourn his library books. Then he fetched up against something with agonizing force and nearly bit his tongue in half.


It was a downed tree, and it checked Ben's fall by nearly breaking his left leg. He clawed his way back up the slope a little bit, pulling his leg free with a groan. The tree had stopped him about halfway down. Below, the bushes were thicker. Water falling from the culvert ran over his hands in thin streams.


There was a shriek from above him. Ben looked up again and saw Henry Bowers come flying over the drop, his knife clenched between his teeth. He landed on both feet, body thrown backward at a steep angle so he would not overbalance. He skidded to the end of a gigantic set of footprints and then began to run down the embankment in a series of gangling kangaroo leaps.


"I'n goin oo kill ooo, Its!" Henry was shrieking around the knife, and Ben didn't need a UN translator to tell him Henry was saying I'm going to kill you, Tits.


"I'n gain oo huckin kill ooo!"


Now, with that cold general's eye he had discovered up above on the sidewalk, Ben saw what he had to do. He managed to gain his feet just before Henry arrived, the knife now in his hand and held straight out in front of him like a bayonet. Ben was peripherally aware that the left leg of his jeans was shredded, and his leg was bleeding much more heavily than his stomach... but it was supporting him, and that meant it wasn't broken. At least he hoped that's what it meant.


Ben crouched slightly to maintain his precarious balance, and as Henry grabbed at him with one hand and swept the knife in a long flat arc with the other, Ben stepped aside. He lost his balance, but as he fell down he stuck out his shredded left leg. Henry's shins struck it, and his legs were booted out from under him with great efficiency. For a moment Ben gaped, his terror overcome with a mixture of awe and admiration. Henry Bowers appeared to be flying exactly like Superman over the fallen tree where Ben had stopped. His arms were straight out in front of him, the way George Reeves held his arms out on the TV show. Only George Reeves always looked like flying was as natural as taking a bath or eating lunch on the back porch. Henry looked like someone had shoved a hot poker up his ass. His mouth was opening and closing. A string of saliva was shooting back from one corner of it, and as Ben watched, it splatted against the lobe of Henry's ear.


Then Henry crashed back to earth. The knife flew out of his hand. He rolled over on one shoulder, landed on his back, and slid away into the bushes with his legs splayed into a V. There was a yell. A thud. And then silence.


Ben sat, dazed, looking at the matted place in the bushes where Henry had done his disappearing act. Suddenly rocks and pebbles began to bounce by him. He looked up again. Victor and Belch were now descending the embankment. They were moving more carefully than Henry, and hence more slowly, but they would reach him in thirty seconds or less if he didn't do something.-" He moaned. Would this lunacy never end?


Keeping his eye on them, he clambered over the downed tree and began to scramble down the embankment, panting harshly. He had a stitch in his side. His tongue hurt like hell. The bushes were no w almost as tall as Ben himself. The randy green smell of stuff growing out of control filled his nose. He could hear running water somewhere close, chuckling over stones and rilling between them.


His feet slipped and here he went again, rolling and sliding, smashing the back of his hand against a jutting rock, shooting through a patch of thorns that hooked blue-gray puffs of cotton from his sweatshirt and little divots of meat from his hands and cheeks.


He slammed to a jarring halt sitting up, with his feet in the water. Here was a little curving stream which wound its way into a thick stand of second-growth trees to his right; it looked as dark as a cave in there. He looked to his left and saw Henry Bowers lying on his back in the middle of the stream. His half-open eyes showed only whites. Blood trickled from one ear and ran toward Ben in delicate threads.


Oh my God I killed him! Oh my God I'm a murderer! Oh my God!


Forgetting that Belch and Victor were behind him (or perhaps understanding they would lose all interest in beating the shit out of him when they discovered their Fearless Leader was dead), Ben splashed twenty feet upstream to where Henry lay, his shirt in ribbons, his jeans soaked black, one shoe gone. Ben was vaguely aware that there was precious little left of his own clothes and that his body was one big rattletrap of aches and pains. His left ankle was the worst; it had already puffed tight against his soaking sneaker and he was favoring it so badly that he was really not walking but lurching like a sailor on shore for the first time after a long sea voyage.


He bent over Henry Bowers. Henry's eyes popped wide open. He grabbed Ben's calf with one scraped and bloody hand. His mouth worked, and although nothing but a series of whistling aspirations emerged, Ben could still make out what he was saying: Kill you, you fat shit.


Henry was trying to pull himself up, using Ben's leg as a pole. Ben pulled backward frantically. Henry's hand slipped down, then off. Ben flew backward, whirling his arms, and fell on his ass for a record-breaking third time in the last four minutes. He also bit his tongue again. Water splashed up around him. A rainbow glimmered for an instant in front of Ben's eyes. Ben didn't give a fuck about the rainbow. He didn't give a fuck about finding a pot of gold. He would settle for his miserable fat life.

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