It

Page 29


Henry rolled over. Tried to stand. Fell back. Managed to get to his hands and knees. And finally tottered to his feet. He stared at Ben with those black eyes. The front of his flattop now leaned this way and that, like cornhusks after a high wind has passed through.


Ben was suddenly angry. No-this was more than being angry. He was infuriated. He had been walking with his library books under his arm, having an innocent little daydream about kissing Beverly Marsh, bothering nobody. And look at this. Just look. Pants shredded. Left ankle maybe broken, badly sprained for sure. Leg all cut up, tongue all cut up, Henry goddam Bowers's monogram on his stomach. How about all that happy crappy, sports fans? But it was probably the thought of his library books, for which he was liable, that drove him to charge Henry Bowers. His lost library books and his mental image of how reproachful Mrs Starrett's eyes would become when he told her. Whatever the reason-cuts, sprain, library books, or even the thought of the soggy and probably illegible rank-card in his back pocket-it was enough to get him moving. He lumbered forward, squashy Keds spatting in the shallow water, and kicked Henry squarely in the balls.


Henry uttered a horrid rusty scream that sent birds beating up from the trees. He stood spraddle-legged for a moment, hands clasping his crotch, staring unbelievingly at Ben. "Ug," he said in a small voice.


"Right," Ben said.


"Ug," Henry said, in an even smaller voice.


"Right," Ben said again.


Henry sank slowly back to his knees, not so much falling as folding up. He was still looking at Ben with those unbelieving black eyes.


"Ug."


"Damn right," Ben said.


Henry fell on his side, still clutching his testicles, and began to roll slowly from side to side.


"Ug!" Henry moaned. "My balls. Ug! Oh you broke my balls. Ug-ug!" He was now beginning to gain a little force, and Ben started to back away a step at a time. He was sickened by what he had done, but he was also filled with a kind of righteous, paralyzed fascination. "Ug!-my fuckin sack-ug-UG!-oh my fuckin BALLS!"


Ben might have remained in the area for an untold length of time-perhaps even until Henry recovered enough to come after him-but just then a rock struck him above the right ear with such a deep, drilling pain that, until he felt warm blood flowing again, Ben thought he had been stung by a wasp.


He turned and saw the other two striding up the middle of the stream toward him. They each had a handful of water-rounded rocks. Victor pegged one and Ben heard it whistle past his ear. He ducked and another struck his right knee, making him yell with surprised hurt. A third bounced off his right cheekbone, and that eye filled with water.


He scrambled for the far bank and climbed it as fast as he could, grabbing onto protruding roots and hauling on handfuls of bushes. He made it to the top (one final stone struck his buttocks as he pulled himself up) and took a quick look back over his shoulder.


Belch was kneeling beside Henry while Victor stood half a dozen feet away, firing stones; one the size of a baseball clipped through the man-high bushes beside Ben. He had seen enough; in fact, he had seen much more than enough. Worst of all, Henry Bowers was getting up again. Like Ben's own Timex watch, Henry could take a licking and keep on ticking. Ben turned and smashed his way into the bushes, lumbering along in a direction he hoped was west. If he could cross to the Old Cape side of the Barrens, he could beg a dime off somebody and take the bus home. And when he got there he would lock the door behind him and bury these tattered bloody clothes in the trash and this crazy dream would finally be over. Ben thought of himself sitting in his chair in the living room, freshly tubbed, wearing his fuzzy red bathrobe, watching Daffy Duck cartoons on The Mighty Ninety and drinking milk through a strawberry Flav-R-Straw. Hold that thought, he told himself grimly, and kept lumbering along.


Bushes sprang into his face. Ben pushed them aside. Thorns reached and clawed. He tried to ignore them. He came to a flat area of ground that was black and mucky. A thick stand of bamboo-like growth spread across it and a fetid smell rose from the earth. An ominous thought


(quicksand)


slipped across the foreground of his mind like a shadow as he looked at the sheen of standing water deeper into the grove of bamboo-stuff. He didn't want to go in there. Even if it wasn't quicksand, the mud would suck his sneakers off. He turned right instead, running along the front of the bamboo-grove and finally into a patch of real woods.


The trees, mostly firs, were thick, growing everywhere, battling each other for a little space and sun, but there was less undergrowth and he could move faster. He was no longer sure what direction he was moving in, but still thought he was, on measure, a little ahead of the game. The Barrens were enclosed by Derry on three sides and bounded by the half-finished turnpike extension on the fourth. Sooner or later he would come out somewhere.


His stomach throbbed painfully, and he pulled up the remains of his sweatshirt for a look. He winced and drew a whistle of air in over his teeth. His belly looked like a grotesque Christmas-tree ball, all caked red blood and smeared green from his slide down the embankment. He pulled the sweatshirt down again. Looking at that mess made him feel like blowing lunch.


Now he heard a low humming noise from ahead-it was one steady note just above the low range of his hearing. An adult, intent only on getting the hell out of there (the mosquitoes had found Ben now, and while nowhere near as big as sparrows, they were pretty big), would have ignored it, or simply not heard it at all. But Ben was a boy, and he was already getting over his fright. He swerved to his left and pushed through some low laurel bushes. Beyond them, sticking out of the ground, were the top three feet of a cement cylinder about four feet wide. It was capped with a vented iron manhole cover. The cover was stamped with the words DERRY SEWER DEFT. The sound-this close it was more a drone than a hum-was coming from someplace deep inside.


Ben put one eye to a venthole but could see nothing. He could hear that drone, and water running down there someplace, but that was all. He took a breath, got a whiff of a sour smell that was both dank and shitty, and drew back with a wince. It was a sewer, that was all. Or maybe a combined sewer and drainage-tunnel-there were plenty of those in flood-conscious Derry. No big deal. But it had given him a funny sort of chill. Part of it was seeing the handiwork of man in all this overgrown jumble of wilderness, but he supposed part of it was the shape of the thing itself-that concrete cylinder jutting out of the ground. Ben had read H. G. Wells's The Time Machine the year before, first the Classics Comics version and then the whole book. This cylinder with its vented iron cap reminded him of the wells which lead down into the country of the slumped and horrible Morlocks.


He moved away from it quickly, trying to find west again. He got to a link clearing and turned until his shadow was as directly behind him as he could get it. Then he headed off in a straight line.


Five minutes later he heard more running water ahead, and voices. Kids" voices.


He stopped to listen, and that was when he heard snapping branches and other voices behind him. They were perfectly recognizable. They belonged to Victor, Belch, and the one and only Henry Bowers.


The nightmare was not over yet, it seemed.


Ben looked around for a place to go to earth.


10


He came out of his hiding place about two hours later, dirtier than ever, but a little refreshed. Incredible as it seemed to him, he had dozed off.


When he had heard the three of them behind him, coming after him still, Ben had come dangerously close to freezing up completely, like an animal caught in the headlamps of an oncoming truck. A paralytic drowsiness began to steal over him. The idea of simply lying down, curling up into a ball like a hedgehog, and letting them do whatever they felt they had to occurred to him. It was a crazy idea, but it also seemed like a strangely good idea.


But instead Ben began to move toward the sound of the running water and those other kids. He tried to untangle their voices and get the sense of what they were saying-anything to shake off that scary paralysis of the spirit. Some project. They were talking about some project. One or two of the voices were even a little familiar. There was a splash, followed by a burst of good-natured laughter. The laughter filled Ben with a kind of stupid longing, and made him more aware of his dangerous position than anything else had done.


If he was going to be caught, there was no need to let these kids in for a dose of his medicine. Ben turned right again. Like many large people, he was remarkably light-footed. He passed close enough to the boys to see their shadows moving back and forth between him and the bright water, but they neither saw him nor heard him. Gradually their voices began to fall behind.


He came to a narrow path which had been beaten down to the bare earth. Ben considered it for a moment, then shook his head a little. He crossed it and plunged into the undergrowth again. He moved more slowly now, pushing bushes aside rather than stampeding through them. He was still moving roughly parallel to the stream the other kids had been playing beside. Even through the intervening bushes and trees he could see it was much wider than the one into which he and Henry had fallen.


Here was another of those concrete cylinders, barely visible amid a snarl of blackberry creepers, humming quietly to itself. Beyond, an embankment dropped off to the stream, and here an old, gnarled elm tree leaned crookedly out over the water. Its roots, half-exposed by bank erosion, looked like a snarl of dirty hair.


Hoping there wouldn't be bugs or snakes but too tired and numbly frightened to really care, Ben had worked his way between the roots and into a shallow cave beneath. He leaned back. A root jabbed him like an angry finger. He shifted his position a little and it supported him quite nicely.


Here came Henry, Belch, and Victor. He had thought they might be fooled into following the path, but no such luck. They stood close by him for a moment-any closer and he could have reached out of his hiding place and touched them.


"Bet them little snotholes back there saw him," Belch said.


"Well, let's go find out," Henry replied, and they headed back the way they had come. A few moments later Ben heard him roar: "What the fuck you kids doin here?"


There was some sort of reply, but Ben couldn't tell what it was: the kids were too far away, and this close the river-it was the Kenduskeag, of course-was too loud. But he thought the kid sounded scared. Ben could sympathize.


Then Victor Criss bellowed something Ben hadn't understood at all: "What a fuckin baby dam!"


Baby dam? Baby damn? Or maybe Victor had said what a damn bunch of babies and Ben had misheard him.


"Let's break it!" Belch proposed.


There were yells of protest followed by a scream of pain. Someone began to cry. Yes, Ben could sympathize. They hadn't been able to catch him (or at least not yet), but here was another bunch of little kids for them to take out their mad on.


"Sure, break it," Henry said.


Splashes. Yells. Big moronic gusts of laughter from Belch and Victor. An agonized infuriated cry from one of the little kids.


"Don't gimme any of your shit, you stuttering little freak," Henry Bowers said. "I ain't takin no more shit from nobody today."


There was a splintering crack. The sound of running water downstream grew louder and roared briefly before quieting to its former placid chuckle. Ben suddenly understood. Baby dam, yes, that was what Victor had said. The kids-two or three of them it had sounded like when he passed by-had been building a dam. Henry and his friends had just kicked it apart. Ben even thought he knew who one of the kids was. The only "stuttering little freak" he knew from Derry School was Bill Denbrough, who was in the other fifth-grade classroom.


"You didn't have to do that!" a thin and fearful voice cried out, and Ben recognized that voice as well, although he could not immediately put a face with it. "Why did you do that?"


"Because I felt like it, fucknuts!" Henry roared back. There was a meaty thud. It was followed by a scream of pain. The scream was followed by weeping.


"Shut up," Victor said. "shut up that crying, kid, or I'll pull your ears down and tie em under your chin."


The crying became a series of choked snuffles.


"We're going," Henry said, "but before we do, I want to know one thing. You seen a fat kid in the last ten minutes or so? Big fat kid all bloody and cut up?"


There was a reply too brief to be anything but no.


"You sure?" Belch asked. "You better be, mushmouth."


"I-I-I'm sh-sh-sure," Bill Denbrough replied.


"Let's go," Henry said. "He probably waded acrost back that way."


"Ta-ta, boys," Victor Criss called. "It was a real baby dam, believe me. You're better off without it."


Splashing sounds. Belch's voice came again, but farther away now. Ben couldn't make out the words. In fact, he didn't want to make out the words. Closer by, the boy who had been crying now resumed. There were comforting noises from the other boy. Ben had decided there was just the two of them, Stuttering Bill and the weeper.


He half-sat, half-lay where he was, listening to the two boys by the river and the fading sounds of Henry and his dinosaur friends crashing toward the far side of the Barrens. Sunlight flicked at his eyes and made little coins of light on the tangled roots above and around him. It was dirty in here, but it was also cozy... safe. The sound of running water was soothing. Even the sound of the crying kid was sort of soothing. His aches and pains had faded to a dull throb, and the sound of the dinosaurs had faded out completely. He would wait awhile, just to be sure they weren't coming back, and then he would make tracks.


Ben could hear the throb of the drainage machinery coming through the earth-could even feel it: a low, steady vibration that went from the ground to the root he was leaning against and then into his back. He thought of the Morlocks again, of their naked flesh; he imagined it would smell like the dank and shitty air that had come up through the ventholes of that iron cap. He thought of their wells driven deep into the earth, wells with rusty ladders bolted to their sides. He dozed, and at some point his thoughts became a dream.


11


It wasn't Morlocks he dreamed of. He dreamed of the thing which had happened to him in January, the thing which he hadn't quite been able to tell his mother.


It had been the first day of school after the long Christmas break. Mrs Douglas had asked for a volunteer to stay after and help her count the books that had been turned in just before the vacation. Ben had raised his hand.


"Thank you, Ben," Mrs Douglas had said, favoring him with a smile of such brilliance that it warmed him down to his toes.,'suckass," Henry Bowers remarked under his breath.


It had been the sort of Maine winter day that is both the best and the worst: cloudless, eye-wateringly bright, but so cold it was a little frightening. To make the ten-degree temperature worse, there was a strong wind to give the cold a bitter cutting edge.

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