Authors: Stephen King
Nick points a finger gun at him. It's his trademark, Billy knows, probably picked it up from some Vegas lounge act, but Billy doesn't care for having even a make-believe gun pointed at him. “Exactly right. Hoff deliver your weapon yet?”
“You seen him?”
“No, and don't much want to.”
“Okay.” Nick sighs and runs a hand through his hair. “Probably you'd like to sight the gun in, right? Take a few shots out in the country?”
“Maybe,” Billy says, but he won't risk shooting, even out in the toolies where every stop sign has been riddled with bullet holes. He can zero the rifle with an iPhone app and a laser gadget they sell on Amazon.
Nick leans forward, hands clasped in front of his considerable
basket. He wears an expression of friendly concern. To Billy it makes him look like an imposter. “How are you doing out there inâ¦ what's it called? Midwood?”
“Midwood, yeah. Pretty good.”
“Kind of a shithole, I know, but the payoff will be worth it.”
“Yeah.” Thinking it's actually a pretty nice neighborhood.
“Keeping a low profile?”
Billy nods. No need for Nick to know about the Monopoly games, or the get-together in his backyard, or the drink he had with Phil Stanhope. Now or ever.
“Have you thought any more about the getaway plan I mentioned to you? Because, as you see, the boys will be ready when it's time. Reggie's no rocket scientist, but Dana is a thinking cat. And both of them can drive.”
“I just run around the corner, right? And get in the back of the van.”
“Right, and change into one of the coveralls like the ones the city employees wear. You guys ask the cops if you can help with crowd control or something.” Like Billy has forgotten all this. “If they say yesâthey probably won't, but if they doâyou pitch right in. Either way, you'll be out of state and on your way to Wisconsin by nightfall. Maybe sooner. So what do you think?”
Billy pictures himself not on his way to Wisconsin but lying dead beside a county road in a ditch along with the beer cans and discarded Big Mac boxes. That picture is very clear.
smileâand says, “It sounds good. Better than anything I could have thought up.”
Which is bullshit, what he's thought up seems strong to him no matter how much he turns it this way and that. There are risks, but they are minimal. Nick doesn't need to know his actual getaway plan. He may be pissed off later, but really, how pissed can he be if the job gets done?
Nick rises to his feet. “Good. Glad to help you out, Billy. You're a good man.”
No I'm not, and neither are you
. “Thanks, Nick.”
“Last job, huh? You really mean that?”
“Well come here, bambino, and give me a hug.”
It isn't that he doesn't trust Nick, he thinks on his way back to the yellow house. It's just that he trusts himself more. Always has, always will.
A couple of days later there's a knock on the door of his little office suite. Billy has been writing, lost in a past that's partly Benjy Compson's but mostly his. He saves his work, shuts down, and opens the door. It's Ken Hoff. He looks like he's lost ten pounds since Billy saw him in June. The scruff on his face is scruffier than ever. Maybe he still thinks it makes him look like the leading man in an action movie, but to Billy he looks like a guy one day off a five-day drunk. His breath doesn't help. The mint he's chewing can't disguise the shot or two he had on his way here, at ten-forty in the morning. His tie is natty, but his shirt is wrinkled and a bit untucked on one side. This is trouble on two legs, Billy thinks.
“It's Dave, remember?”
“Sure, Dave, right.” Hoff looks over his shoulder, making sure there's no one in the hall that might have overheard his mistake. “Can I come in?”
“Sure, Mr. Hoff.” He's not going to call the man who's essentially his landlord Ken. He stands aside.
Hoff takes another look over his shoulder and comes in. They're
standing in what would be the reception area if this was an actual business office. Billy closes the door. “What can I do for you?”
“Nothing, I'm fine.” Hoff wets his lips and Billy realizes the man is afraid of him. “Just came by to see if everything was, you know, all right. If you needed anything.”
Nick sent him, Billy thinks. The message? You got off on the wrong foot with Billy and he's our man on the spot, so get right with him.
“Just one thing,” Billy says. “You'll make sure the merch is there when I need it, right?” Meaning the M24. What Hoff called a Remington 700.
“That's all in hand. All in hand, my friend. Do you want it now, orâ”
“No. One of our friends will tell you when it's time. Until then, keep it someplace safe.”
“No problem. It's in myâ”
“I don't want to know. Not yet.” Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof, he thinks. Book of Matthew. What he wants on this day is to get back to what he was doing. He had no idea how good writing could make you feel.
“Okay, sure. Listen, you want to go for a drink sometime?”
“That wouldn't be a good idea.”
Hoff smiles. Probably it's charming when he's on his game but he's not on it now. He's in a room with a paid killer. That's part of it but not all of it. This is a man who feels the walls closing in, and Billy doesn't think it's because Hoff suspects he might be played for a patsy. He should know but he doesn't. Maybe he can't conceive of it, the way Billy can't conceive of black holes far out in space as actual real things.
“It'd be okay. You're a
, after all. Socially, you're in my zone.”
Whatever that means, Billy thinks. “Wouldn't be good later. For you. You could answer any questions, say you had no idea what I
was really doing here, but it'd be better if the questions never got asked.”
good, Billy, right?”
“It's Dave. You need to get used to that so you don't slip up. And sure, we're good, why wouldn't we be?” Billy gives him the wide-eyed
It works. This time Hoff's grin is marginally more charming, because his tongue doesn't come out to slurp his lips in the middle of it. “Dave now and forever. I won't forget again. You're sure you don't need anything? Because, hey, I own the Carmike Cinema at the Southgate Mall, nine screens, got IMAX coming in next year. I could get you a pass, if youâ”
“That would be great.”
“Terrific. I'll bring it around this afternâ”
“Why don't you mail it? Here, or to the address on Evergreen Street. You've got it, right?”
“Sure, yeah. Your agent gave it to me. All the big pictures play in the summer, you know.”
Billy nods as if he can't wait to go see a bunch of actors in super-suits.
“And listen, Dave, I've got an in at an escort service. Very nice girls, very discreet. I'd be happy toâ”
“Better not. Low profile, remember?” He opens the door. Hoff isn't just trouble, Hoff is an accident waiting to happen.
“Irv Dean treating you all right?”
The security guard who works days in the lobby. “Yeah. He and I match for buck scratch-off tickets sometimes.”
Hoff laughs too loudly, then looks over his shoulder again for people who might overhear. Billy wonders if Colin White and the other staff members of Business Solutions have Ken Hoff on their call list. Probably not. The people Ken is in debt toâand he
in debt, Billy is sure of itâdon't call you on the phone. At a certain point they just come to your house, drown your dog in the
swimming pool, and break your fingers on the hand that doesn't write the checks.
“Good, that's good. And Steve Broder?” Off Billy's blank look: “Building manager.”
“Haven't even seen him,” Billy says. “Listen, Ken, thanks for stopping by.” Billy puts an arm around the shoulders of the man's wrinkled shirt, escorts him into the hall, and turns him toward the elevators.
“You bet. And I'll be johnny on the spot with that item.”
“I know you will be.”
Hoff starts down the hall, but just when Billy thinks he's rid of him, Hoff comes back. No hiding the desperation in those eyes now. He speaks low. “We're really good, right? I mean, if I did anything to offend you, or piss you off, I apologize.”
“Really good,” Billy says. Thinking, This guy could blow. And if he does, it won't be Nick Majarian on ground zero. It'll be me.
“Because I need this,” Hoff says. Still speaking low. Smelling of Certs and booze and Creed cologne. “It's like I'm a quarterback and my receivers are covered but then a slot opens up, opens like magic, and Iâyou know, Iâ”
In the middle of this strangled metaphor the door to the lawyers' office down the hall opens. Jim Albright steps out, headed for the bathroom. He sees Billy and lifts a hand. Billy lifts his in return.
“I get it,” Billy says. “Everything's going to be fine.” And because he can think of nothing else, “Touchdown ahead.”
Hoff brightens. “Third and goal!” he says. He grabs Billy's hand, gives it a brisk shake, then heads down the hall, trying to look jaunty.
Billy watches him until he steps into the elevator car and disappears from view. Maybe I should just run, he thinks. Buy a beater as Dalton Smith and run.
But he knows he won't, and the pending million-five is only half of the reason. What's waiting for him in the office/conference room
is the other half. Maybe more than half. What Billy most wants to do isn't play Monopoly or drink beer with Don Jensen or go to bed with Phil Stanhope or shoot Joel Allen. What he most wants to do is write. He sits down and powers up the laptop. Opens the document he's been working on and falls into the past.
I went over to him and said to myself I might have to shoot him again. If I had to I would. He was my mother's boyfriend but he was wrong. He looked dead but I had to make sure so I lick my hand good and wet and kneeled down beside him. I put my wet hand in front of his mouth and nose so I could feel if there was still any breath in him. There wasn't so then I knew for sure he was dead.
I knew what to do next, but first I went over to Cassie. I was hoping but I knew she was dead too. Had to be, with her chest all crush like it was. But I lick my hand good and wet again and put it in front of her mouth but there was no breath in her either. I held her in my arms and cried, thinking of what my mom always said when she left for the laundry, take care of your sister. But I didn't take care of her. I should have shot that son of a bitch before, that would have been taking care of her. And it would have been taking care of my mother too because I knew he hit her sometimes and she would laugh at her black eye or split lip and say we were just rassling around Benjy and I hit my face. Like I would believe that. Even Cassie didn't believe that and she was only 9.
After I finished crying I went to the phone. It worked. It didn't always but that day it did because the bill was paid. I call 911 and a lady answered.
I said hello, my name is Benjy Compson and I just killed my mothers boyfriend after he killed my sister. The lady asked me if I was
sure the man was dead. I said I was. She said what is your address son. I said it is 19 Skyline Drive in the Hillview Trailer Park. She said is your mother there. I said no, she is at the 24 Hour Laundry in Edendale where she works. She said are you sure your sister is dead. I said I was because he stomped on her and crush her chest all in. I said I lick my hand and felt for breath and there wasn't any. She said okay son you stay where you are and officers will be with you shortly. I said thank you ma'am.
You might think police would be coming already what with the gunshot and all, except the trailer park was on the edge of town and people were always popping off at deers and coons and woodchucks in their gardens. Besides, this was Tennessee. People shoot guns there all the time, in Tennessee it's like a hobby.
I thought I heard something, like maybe mom's boyfriend was getting up to make a run at me even though he was dead. I knew he couldn't do that except I was thinking of a movie I sneaked into. I sneaked Cassie in with me and she hid her eyes at the gorie parts and later she had nightmares and I knew it was mean of me to take her. I don't know why I took her. I think there's something mean in people and sometimes it comes out like blood or puss. I would take that movie back if I could but not shooting the boyfriend. He was a bad, bad person to kill a harmless little girl. I would have done it even if it meant going to the reform school.
Anyway there are only zombies in horror movies. He was dead as dogshit. I wondered if I should put a blanket or something over Cassie but thought no, that would be sad and awful, so I call the 24 Hour Laundry from the paper taped to the wall where the phone was. A lady answered 24 Hour Laundry and I said my name is Benjy Compson and I have to talk to my mother Arlene Compson, she works on the mangle. She said is this an emergency. I said yes ma'am it is. She said we're awfully busy this morning, what is this big emergency. Which I thought was nosey and snotty, maybe just because I was so upset but I don't think so. I said my sister is dead. That is the
big emergency. She said oh my God are you sure and I said please let me speak to my mom. Because I had enough of that nosey bitch.
I waited and then mom came on the phone all out of breath and said Benjy what happened? This better not be a joke. And I thought it would be better for all of us if it was a joke but it's not. I said her boyfriend came in all drunk with his arm in a cast and killed Cassie and tried to kill me but I shot him dead. I said the police are coming, I can hear the sirens, so you come home and don't let them take me to jail because it was him or me.
I went out on the top step of the trailer, which weren't really steps at all but cement blocks my mom's last boyfriend, the one before the bad boyfriend, made into steps. That one's name was Milton and he was okay. I wish he stayed but he left. He didn't want the responsibility of two kids, mom said. Like it was our fault. Like we ask to be born. Anyway I went out on those steps because I didn't want to be in the trailer with dead people. I kept asking myself if Cassie could really be dead and telling myself yes she really is.
The first cops came and I was telling them what happen when my mom came. The cops tried to keep her from going in but she went in anyway and when she saw Cassie she scream and moaned and carry on so much I put my hands over my ears. And I was mad at her. I thought what did you think was going to happen. He hit us before just like he hit you so what did you think would happen. Sooner or later bad people do bad things, even a kid knows that.
By then all our neighbors were out and looking. One of the cops was nice. He sat me in the cop car where the neighbors couldn't look so easy and give me a hug. He said he had some candy in the glove compartment and did I want a piece and I said no thank you. He said okay Benjy just tell me what happened. So I did. I don't know how many times I told that story but it was quite a few. Anyway I started to cry and the cop give me another hug and called me a brave kid and I wished my mother would have a boyfriend like that guy.
While I was sitting in the cop car and telling what happened, more cops came and a van that said MAYVILLE POLICE FORENSICS UNIT. One cop from the van took pictures and I later saw some at the hearing but not the bodies. I don't know why the people at the hearing felt like I couldn't look at pictures of bodies I already saw in person. But what I want to say is that one of the pictures that man took got in the newspaper. It showed the cookies my sister made, how they were scattered all over the floor. Underneath it said SHE WAS KILLED FOR COOKIES. I never forgot that, how it was mean and true at the same time.
I had to go to the hearing. It wasn't with a judge but with 3 people. They were 2 men and 1 woman who looked like teachers and talked like teachers. There was nobody in the room except for them and me and my mother and the cops who were first to get to the trailer, which they called “the scene.” We didn't have a lawyer like in Law & Order on TV and we didn't need one. The woman said I was a brave boy and told my mother I should get counseling. My mother said that was a good idea, then later said to me some people think money grows on trees.
We go to leave and I thought it was over but then 1 of the men said just a minute, Mrs. Compson. I need to say something. I need to say that you have to shoulder some of the blame for this tragedy. Then he told a story about how a scorpion beg a ride across a raging river from a kind-hearted frog but halfway across the scorpion stung the frog and the frog said why did you do that, now we will both drown and the scorpion said it is my nature to sting and you knew I was a scorpion when you let me ride on your back.
Then the man said you picked up a scorpion Mrs. Compson and he stung your little girl to death. You could have lost your son as well. You didn't but this trommer will be with him for the rest of his life. I suggest the next time you come across a scorpion you crush it under your foot instead of giving it a ride.
My mom got all red in the face and said how dare you. I never
would have put my children at risk if I knew something like this could happen. The man said you are keeping custody of young Benjamin because we can't prove otherwise. But if you did not have warnings of Mr. Russell's violent nature, maybe only a few, maybe many, I would be very surprised.
My mother started to cry and that made me want to cry. She said you are so unfair, sitting there on your high horse. When was the last time you had to do 40 hours of sweat-labor to bring home groceries? He said this isn't about me, Mrs. Compson. You have lost one child because of poor choices, don't lose the other. This hearing is closed.
At some point during that summerâhis season of many identitiesâBilly re-reads the story of Bob Raines's death and the hearing that followed. Then he goes to the window and looks out at the courthouse, where a sheriff's car has pulled up to the curb. Two cops in county brown get out of the front seat. One opens the back door and they wait for the man in there to climb out. The prisoner is rangy and skinny, wearing carpenter's jeans that bag in the seat and a bright purple sweatshirtâtoo hot for this dayâthat has the Arkansas Razorback on it. Even at five hundred yards he looks to Billy like one sad fucking sack. Each cop takes an arm and they lead him up the wide steps toward whatever justice awaits him. It's exactly the shot Billy will have to make when (and if) the time comes, but he barely sees it. He's thinking about his story.
He set out to tell it as the
, but it turned into something else and he only realized it after reading it cold. The
is there, all right, any reader (Nick and Giorgio, for instance) would say the man who wrote it sticks mostly to
funnybooks, but there's something more. It's the
voice of the
. Billy never set out to write in that voiceâconsciously, at leastâbut that's what he did. It's as if he has been regressed under hypnosis. Maybe that's what writing is, when it really matters.
it matter? When the only people who'll ever see it are him and a couple of Vegas hardballs who may already have lost interest?
“It does,” Billy says to the window. “Because it's mine.”
Yes, and because it's true. He's changed the names a littleâCassie instead of Cathy, and his mother's name was Darlene, not Arleneâbut mostly it's true. The child's voice is true. That voice never had a chance to speak, not even at the hearing. He answered the questions he was asked but no one asked how it felt to hold Cathy with her crushed chest. No one asked how it felt to be told
take care of your sister
and fail at the most important job in the whole round world. No one asked how it felt when you held your wet hand in front of your sister's mouth and nose, hoping even though you knew hope was gone. No one ever knew that the gun's recoil had made him burp as if he had done no more than drink a soda fast. Not even the cop who hugged him asked those questions, and what a relief it is to let that voice speak.
He goes back to the open MacBook and sits down. Looks at the screen. He thinks, When I get to the Stepenek House partâonly I'll call it Speck HouseâI can let that voice be a little more grownup. Because I was a little more grownup.
Billy begins to tap the keys, slowly at first, then picking up speed. The summer rolls on around him.
After the hearing me and my mom went back home. We buried Cassie. I don't know who buried the boyfriend and don't care. In the fall I went back to school where some of the kids started calling me
Bang Bang Benjy and I got held back that year. I didn't get in trouble for fighting but I skipped school a lot and my mother said I had to smarten up if I didn't want to get taken away and put into a foster home. I didn't want that so next year I tried harder and passed my courses. When I got sent to Speck House it wasn't my fault, it was my mom's.
She started drinking heavy after Cassie died, mostly at home but sometimes she would go out to bars and sometimes bring a man home with her. To me those men all looked like the bad boyfriend, assholes in other words. I don't know why my mother would go back to the same types of men after what happened but she did. She was like a dog that pukes and then laps it up. I know how that sounds, but I will not take it back.
Her and those men, there were three at least and maybe five, would go in the bedroom and she said they were just rassling around but of course by then I was older and knew they were fucking. Then one night when she was drinking in the trailer she went out to the 7-11 for a box of Cheezits and on her way back she got pulled over. She was charged with drunk driving and put in the jail for 24 hours. She got to keep me that time too, but she lost her license for six months and had to take the bus to the laundry.
A week after she got her license back she got stopped for drunk driving again. There was another hearing, this time just about me, but what do you know, that same man who told the story about the scorpion and the frog was sitting at the table along with 2 new ones! He said you again. My mother said that's right, me again and you know I lost my daughter. You know what I've been through. The man said I do know, and you don't seem to have learned your lesson, Mrs. Compson. My mom said you have never walked in my shoes. She had a lawyer that time but he didn't say much. After, she gave him hell and asked what he was good for. The lawyer said you haven't given me much to work with, Mrs. Compson. She said you're fired. He said you can't fire me because I quit.
When we came back to the hearing room a day later they said I would have to go into foster care at a place called Speck House because she was an unfit mother. She said you are bullshit artists and I will fight this all the way to the supreme court. The man who told the story about the frog and the scorpion said have you been drinking. My mother said kiss my ass you fat bastard. He didn't come back on her for that but said you have 24 hours to put Benjy's things together, Mrs. Compson, and to say goodbye. It will mean more to him if you're sober when you do it. Then him and the other 2 walked out.
We took the bus home. My mother said we're going to run away, Benjy. We will go to another town and change our names. We will start over. But we were still there the next day, and that was my last day in Hillview Trailer Park, the last day I lived with my mother. A county cop came to take me to the Speck House. I wished the cop had been the one who hug me, but it was another one. Deputy Malkin wasn't so bad though.