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Page 39


After the first ominous novelty of wearing the manacles wore off, Mike looked questioningly at his father and Chief Borton, not sure why this was supposed to be such a horrible punishment for the "vags" (Borton's word for them) that had drifted into town in the twenties and thirties. The knobs made the chair a little uncomfortable to sit in, sure, and the manacles on your wrists and ankles made it hard to shift to a more comfortable position, but -


'Well, you're just a kid," Chief Borton said, laughing. "What do you weigh? Seventy, eighty pounds? Most of the vags Sheriff Sully posted into that chair in the old days would go twice that. They'd feel a bit oncomfortable after an hour or so, really oncomfortable after two or three, and right bad after four or five. After seven or eight hours they'd staat bellerin, and after sixteen or seventeen they'd staat cryin, mostly. And by the time their twenty-four-hour tour was up, they'd be willin to swear before God and man that the next time they came riding the rods up New England way they'd give Derry a wide berth. So far as I know, most of cm did. Twenty-four hours in the tramp-chair was a helluva persuader."


Suddenly there seemed to be more knobs in the chair, digging more deeply into his buttocks, spine, the small of his back, even the nape of his neck. "Can I get out now, please?" he said politely, and Chief Borton laughed again. There was a moment, one panicked instant of time, when Mike thought the Chief would only dangle the key to the manacles in front of Mike's eyes and say, Sure I'll let you out... when your twenty-four hours is up.


"Why did you take me there, Daddy?" he asked on the way home.


"You'll know when you're older," Will had replied.


"You don't like Chief Borton, do you?"


"No," his father had replied in a voice so curt that Mike hadn't dared ask any more.


But Mike enjoyed most of the places in Derry his father sent or took him to, and by the time Mike was ten Will had succeeded in conveying his own interest in the layers of Derry's history to his son. Sometimes, as when he had been trailing his fingers over the slightly pebbled surface of the stand in which the Memorial Park birdbath was set, or when he had squatted down to look more closely at the trolley tracks which grooved Mont Street in the Old Cape, he would be struck by a profound sense of time... time as something real, as something that had unseen weight, the way sunlight was supposed to have weight (some of the kids in school had laughed when Mrs Greenguss told them that, but Mike had been too stunned by the concept to laugh; his first thought had been, Light has weight? Oh my Lord, that's terrible!)... time as something that would eventually bury him.


The first note his father left him in that spring of 1958 was scribbled on the back of an envelope and held down with a salt-shaker. The air was spring-warm, wonderfully sweet, and his mother had opened all the windows. No chores, the note read. If you want to, ride your bike out to Pasture Road. You'll see a lot of tumbled masonry and old machinery out in the field on your left. Have a look around, bring back a souvenir. Don't go near the cellarhole! And be back before dark. You know why.


Mike knew why, all right.


He told his mother where he was going and she frowned. "Why don't you see if Randy Robinson wants to go with you?"


"Yeah, okay, I'll stop by and ask him," Mike said.


He did, too, but Randy had gone up to Bangor with his father to buy seedling potatoes. So Mike rode his bike over to Pasture Road alone. It was a goodish ride-a little over four miles. Mike reckoned it was three o'clock by the time he leaned his bike against an old wooden slat-fence on the left side of Pasture Road and climbed into the field beyond. He would have maybe an hour to explore and then he would have to start home again. Ordinarily, his mother would not be upset with him as long as he was back by six, when she put dinner on the table, but one memorable episode had taught him that wasn't the case this year. On that one occasion when he had been late for dinner, she had been nearly hysterical. She took after him with a dishrag, whopping him with it as he stood open-mouthed in the kitchen entryway, his wicker creel with the rainbow trout in it at his feet.


"Don't you ever scare me like that!" she had screamed. "don't you ever! Don't you ever! Ever-ever-ever!"


Each ever had been punctuated by another dishrag swat. Mike had expected his father to step in and put a stop to it, but his father hadn't done so... Perhaps he knew that if he did she would turn her wildcat anger on him as well. Mike had learned the lesson; one whopping with the dishrag was all it took. Home before dark. Yes ma'am, right-o.


He walked across the field toward the titanic ruins standing in the center. This was, of course, the remains of the Kitchener Ironworks-he had ridden past it but had never thought to actually explore it, and he had never heard any kids saying that they had. Now, stooping to examine a few tumbled bricks that had formed a rough cairn, he thought he could understand why. The field was dazzlingly bright, washed by sun from the spring sky (occasionally, as a cloud passed before the sun, a great shutter of shadow would travel slowly across the field), but there was something spooky about it all the same-a brooding silence that was broken only by the wind. He felt like an explorer who has found the last remnants of some fabulous lost city.


Up ahead and to the right, he saw the rounded side of a massive tile cylinder rising out of the high field grass. He ran over to it. It was the Ironworks" main smokestack. He peered into its bore, and felt a fresh chill worm up his spine. It was big enough so he could have walked into it if he had wanted. But he didn't want to; God knew what strange guck there might be, clinging to the smoke-blackened inner tiles, or what nasty bugs or beasts might have taken up residence inside. The wind gusted. When it blew across the mouth of the fallen stack it made a sound eerily like the sound of the wind vibrating the waxed strings he and his dad put in the mooseblowers every spring. He stepped back nervously, suddenly thinking about the movie he and his father had watched last night on the Early Show. It had been called Rodan, and watching it had seemed like great fun at the time, his father laughing and shouting "Git that bird, Mikey!" every time Rodan made its appearance, Mike shooting with his finger until his mom popped her head in and told them to hush up before they gave her a headache with the noise.


It didn't seem so funny now. In the movie Rodan had been released from the bowels of the earth by these Japanese coal-miners who had been digging the world's deepest tunnel. And looking into the black bore of this pipe, it was all too easy to imagine that bird crouched at the far end, leathery batlike wings folded over its back, staring at the small, round boyface looking into the darkness, staring, staring with its gold-ringed eyes...


Shivering, Mike pulled back.


He walked aways down the smokestack, which had sunken into the earth to half of its circumference. The land rose slightly, and on impulse he scrambled his way up on top. The stack was a lot less scary on the outside, its tiled surface sunwarm. He got to his feet and strolled along, holding his arms out (the surface was really too wide for him to need to worry about falling off, but he was pretending he was a tightwire-walker in the circus), liking the way the wind blew through his hair.


At the far end he jumped down and began to examine stuff: more bricks, twisted molds, hunks of wood, pieces of rusty machinery. Bring back a souvenir, his father's note had said: he wanted a good one.


He wandered closer to the mill's yawning cellarhold, looking at the debris, being careful not to cut himself on the broken glass. There was a lot of it around.


Mike was not unmindful of the cellarhold and his father's warning to stay out of it; neither was he unmindful of the death that had been dealt out on this spot fifty-odd years before. He supposed that if there was a haunted place in Derry, this was it. But either in spite of that or because of it, he was determined to stay until he found something really good to take back and show his father.


He moved slowly and soberly toward the cellarhold, changing his course to parallel its ragged side, when a warning voice inside whispered that he was getting too close, that a bank weakened by the spring rains could crumble under his heels and pitch him into that hole, where God only knew how much sharp iron might be waiting to impale him like a bug, leaving him to die a rusty twitching death.


He picked up a window-sash and tossed it aside. Here was a dipper big enough for a giant's table, its handle rippled and warped by some unimaginable flash of heat. Here was a piston too big for him to even budge, let alone lift. He stepped over it. He stepped over it and -


What if I find a skull? he thought suddenly. The skull of one of the kids who were killed here while they were hunting for chocolate Easter eggs back in nineteen-whenever-it-was?


He looked around the sunwashed empty field, nastily shocked by the idea. The wind blew a low conch-note in his ears and another shadow cruised silently across the field, like the shadow of a giant bat... or bird. He became aware all over again of how quiet it was here, and how strange the field looked with its straggling piles of masonry and its beached iron hulks leaning this way and that. It was as if some horrid battle had been fought here long ago.


Don't be such a dip, he replied uneasily to himself. They found everything there was to find fifty years ago. After it happened. And even if they didn't, some other kid-or grownup-would have found... the rest... since then. Or do you think you're the only person who ever came here hunting for souvenirs?


No... no, I don't think that. But...


But what? that rational side of his mind demanded, and Mike thought it was talking just a little too loud, a little too fast. Even if there was still something to find, it would have decayed long ago. So... what?


Mike found a splintered desk drawer in the weeds. He glanced at it, tossed it aside, and moved a little closer to the cellarhold, where the stuff was thickest. Surely he would find something there.


But what if there are ghosts? That's but what. What if I see hands coming over the edge of that cellarhold, and what if they start to come up, kids in the remains of their Easter Sunday clothes, clothes that are all rotted and torn and marked with fifty years of spring mud and fall rain and caked winter snow? Kids with no heads (he had heard at school that, after the explosion, a woman had found the head of one of the victims in a tree in her back yard), kids with no legs, kids flayed open like codfish, kids just like me who would maybe come down and play... down there where it's dark... under the leaning iron girders and the big old rusty cogs...


Oh, stop it, for the Lord's sake!


But a shudder wrenched its way up his back and he decided it was time to take something-anything-and get the dickens out of here. He reached down, almost at random, and came up with a gear-toothed wheel about seven niches in diameter. He had a pencil in his pocket and he used it, quickly, to dig the dirt out of the teeth. Then he slipped his souvenir in his pocket. He would go now. He would go, yes -


But his feet moved slowly in the wrong direction, toward the cellarhold, and he realized with a dismal sort of horror that he needed to look down inside. He had to see.


He gripped a spongy support-beam leaning out of the earth and swayed forward, trying to see down and inside. He couldn't quite do it. He had come to within fifteen feet of the edge, but that was still a little too far to see the bottom of the cellarhold.


I don't care if I see the bottom or not. I'm going back now. I've got my souvenir. I don't need to look down into any crummy old hole. And Daddy's note said to stay away from it.


But the unhappy, almost feverish curiosity that had gripped him would not let go. He approached the cellarhold step by queasy step, aware that as soon as the wooden beam was out of his reach there would be no more grab-holds, also aware that the ground here was indeed squelchy and crumbly. In places along the edge he could see depressions, like graves that had fallen in, and knew that they were the sites of previous cave-ins.


Heart thudding in his chest like the hard measured strides of a soldier's boots, he reached the edge and looked down.


Nested in the cellarhold, the bird looked up.


Mike was not at first sure what he was seeing. All the nerves and pathways in his body seemed frozen, including those which conducted thoughts. It was not just the shock of seeing a monster bird, a bird whose breast was as orange as a robin's and whose feathers were the unremarkable fluffy gray of a sparrow's feathers; most of it was the shock of the utterly unexpected. He had expected monoliths of machinery half-submerged in stagnant puddles and black mud; instead he was looking down into a giant nest which filled the cellarhold from end to end and side to side. It had been made out of enough timothy grass to make a dozen bales of hay, but this grass was silvery and old. The bird sat in the middle of it, its brightly ringed eyes as black as fresh, warm tar, and for an insane moment before his paralysis broke, Mike could see himself reflected in each of them.


Then the ground suddenly began to shift and run out from beneath his feet. He heard the tearing sound of shallow roots giving way and realized he was sliding.


With a yell he threw himself backward, pinwheeling his arms for balance. He lost it and thumped heavily to the littered ground. Some hard, dull chunk of metal pressed painfully into his back, and he had time to think of the tramp-chair before he heard the whirring, explosive sound of the bird's wings.


He scrambled to his knees, crawled, looked back over his shoulder, and saw it rising out of the cellarhold. Its scaly talons were a dusky orange. Its beating wings, each more than ten feet across, blew the scraggy timothy grass this way and that, patternlessly, like the wind generated by helicopter rotors. It uttered a buzzing, chirruping scream. A few loose feathers slipped from its wings and spiraled back down into the cellarhold.


Mike gained his feet again and began to run.


He pounded across the field, not looking back now, afraid to look back. The bird did not look like Rodan, but he sensed it was the spirit of Rodan, risen from the cellarhold of the Kitchener Ironworks like a horrible bird-in-the-box. He stumbled, went to one knee, got up, and ran on.


That weird chirruping buzzing screech came again. A shadow covered him and when he looked up he saw the thing: it had passed less than five feet over his head. Its beak, dirty yellow, opened and closed, revealing a pink lining inside. It whirled back toward Mike. The wind it generated washed across his face, bringing a dry unpleasant smell with it: attic dust, dead antiques, rotting cushions.


He jigged to his left, and now he saw the fallen smokestack again. He sprinted for it, running all-out, his arms pumping in short jabbing strokes at his sides. The bird screamed, and he heard its fluttering wings. They sounded like sails. Something slammed into the back of his head. Warm fire traced its way up the nape of his neck. He felt it spread as blood began to trickle down the back of his shirt-collar.

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