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Needful Things(12)
Author: Stephen King

He put his citation book on top of his briefcase and then bent over to get whatever it was he had knocked out of the glove compartment. He held it up so it caught the glow of the arc-sodium light and stared at it a long time, feeling the old dreadful ache of loss and sorrow steal into him. Polly's arthritis was in her hands; his, it seemed, was in his heart, and who could say which of them had gotten the worst of it?

The can had belonged to Todd, of course-Todd, who would have undoubtedly lived in the Auburn Novelty Shop if he had been allowed.

The boy had been entranced with the cheapjack arcana sold there: joy buzzers, sneezing powder, dribble glasses, soap that turned the user's hands the color of volcanic ash, plastic dog turds.

This thing is still here. Nineteen months they've been dead, and it's still here. How in the hell did I miss i't? Christ.

Alan turned the round can over in his hands, remembering how the boy had pleaded to be allowed to buy this particular item with his allowance money, how Alan himself had demurred, quoting his own father's proverb: the fool and his money soon parted. And how Annie had overruled him in her gentle way.

Listen to you, Mr. Amateur Magician, sounding like a Puritan. I love it! Where do you think he got this?" nsane love of gags and tricks in the first place? No one in my family ever kept a framed picture of Houdiny' on the wall, believe me. Do you want to tell me you didn't buy a dribble glass or two in the hot, wild days of your youth? That you wouldn't have just about died to own the old snake-in-the-can-of-nuts trick if you'd come across one in a display case somewhere?

He, hemming and hawing, sounding more and more like a pompous stuffed-shirt windbag. Finally he'd had to raise a hand to his mouth to hide a grin of embarrassment. Annie had seen it, however. Annie always did. That had been her gift... and more than once it had been his salvation. Her sense of humor-and her sense of perspective as well-had always been better than his.

Sharper.

Let him have it, Alan-he'll only be young once. And it is sort Of funny.

So he had. [email protected] three weeks after that he spilled his milkshake on the seat and four weeks after that he was dead! They were both dead! Wow.' Imagine that! Time surely does fly by, doesn't it, Alan!

But don't worry.' Don't worry, because I'll keep reminding you! Yes, sir! I'll keep reminding you, because that's my J'Oh and I mean to do it!

The can was labeled TASTEE-MUNCH MIXED NUTS. Alan twisted off the top and five feet of compressed green snake leaped out, struck the windshield, and rebounded into his lap. Alan looked at it, heard his dead son's laughter inside his head, and began to cry. His weeping was undramatic, silent and exhausted. It seemed that his tears had a lot in common with the possessions of his dead loved ones; you never got to the end of them. There were too many, and just when you started to relax and think that it was finally over, the joint was clean, you found one more. And one more. And one more.

Why had he let Todd buy the goddam thing? Why was it still in the goddam glove compartment? And why had he taken the goddam wagon in the first place?

He pulled his handkerchief out of his back pocket and mopped the tears from his face. Then, slowly, he jammed the snake-just cheap green crepe-paper with a metal spring wound up inside itback into the bogus mixed-nuts can. He screwed on the top and bounced the can thoughtfully on his hand.

Throw the goddam thing away.

But he didn't think he could do that. Not tonight, at least. He tossed the joke-the last one Todd had ever bought in what he considered the world's finest store back into the glove compartment and slammed the hatch shut. Then he took hold of the doorhandle again, grabbed his briefcase, and got out.

He breathed deeply of the early-evening air, hoping it would help.

It didn't. He could smell decomposed wood and chemicals, a charmless odor which drifted down regularly from the paper mills in Rumford, some thirty miles north. He would call Polly and ask her if he could come over, he decided-that would help a little.

A truer thought was never thunk! the voice of depression agreed energetically. And by the way, Alan, do you remember how happy that snake made him? He tried it on everyone! just about scared Norris Ridgewick into a heart attack, and you laughed until you almost wet your pants! Remember? Wasn't he lively? Wasn't he great?

And Annie remember how she laughed when you told her? She was lively and great, too, wasn't she? Of course, she wasn't quite as lively at the very end, not quite as great, either, but you didn,t really notice, did you? Because you had your own fish to fry. The business with Thad Beaumont, for instance-you really couldn't get that off your mind, What happened at their house by the lake, and how, after it was all over, he used to get drunk and call you. And then his wife took the twins and left him... all of that added to the usual around-town stuff kept you pretty busy, didn't it? Too busy to see what was happening right at home.

Too bad you didn't see it. If you had, why, they might still be alive!

That's something you shouldn't forget, either, and so I'll just keep reminding You... and reminding you... and reminding you. Okay?

Okay!

There was a foot-long scratch along the side of the wagon, just above the gasoline port. Had that happened since Anne and Todd died?

He couldn't really remember, and it didn't matter much, anyway. He traced his fingers along it and reminded himself again to take the car to Sonny's Sunoco and get it fixed. On the other hand, why bother?

Why not just take the damned thing down to Harrie Ford in Oxford and trade it in on something smaller? The mileage on it was still relatively low; he could probably get a decent trade-inBut Todd spilled his milkshake on the front seat! the voice in his head piped up Indignantly. He did that when he was ALIVE, Alan old buddy! And Anni'e"Oh, shut up," he said.

He reached the building, then paused. Parked close by, so close that the office door would have dented in its side if pulled all the way open, was a large red Cadillac Seville. He didn't need to look at the license plates to know what they were: KEETON 1. He ran a hand thoughtfully over the car's smooth hide, then went in.

2

Sheila Brigham was sitting in the glass-walled dispatcher's cubicle, reading People magazine and drinking a Yoo-Hoo. The combined Sheriff's Office/Castle Rock Police Department was otherwise deserted except for Norris Ridgewick.

Norris sat behind an old IBM electric typewriter, working on a report with the agonized, breathless concentration only Norris could bring to paperwork. He would stare fixedly at the machine, then abruptly lean forward like a man who has been punched in the belly, and hit the keys in a rattling burst. He remained in his hunched position long enough to read what he had written, then groaned softly. There was the click-rap! click-rap! click-rap! sound of Norris using the IBM's CorrecTape to back over some error (he used one CorrecTape per week, on the average), and then Norris would straighten up. There would be a pregnant pause, and then the cycle would repeat itself After an hour or so of this, Norris would drop the finished report into Sheila's IN basket. Once or twice a week these reports were even intelligible.

Norris looked up and smiled as Alan crossed the small bullpen area. "Hi, boss, how's it going?"

"Well, Portland's out of the way for another two or three weeks.

Anything happen here?"

"Nah, just the usual. You know, Alan, your eyes are red as hell.

Have you been smoking that wacky tobaccy again?"

"Ha ha," Alan said sourly. "I stopped for a couple of drinks with a couple of cops, then stared at people's high beams for thirty miles.

Have you got your aspirin handy?"

"Always," Norris said. "You know that." Norris's bottom desk drawer contained his own private pharmacy. He opened it, rummaged, produced a giant-sized bottle of strawberry-flavored Kaopectate, stared at the label for a moment, shook his head, dropped it back into the drawer, and rummaged some more. At last he produced a bottle of generic aspirin.

"I've got a little job for you," Alan said, taking the bottle and shaking two aspirins into his hand. A lot of white dust fell out with the pills, and he found himself wondering why generic aspirin always produced more dust than brand-name aspirin. He wondered further if he might be losing his mind.

"Aw, Alan, I've got two more of these E-9 boogers to do, and-"

"Cool your Jets." Alan went to the water-cooler and pulled a paper cup from the cylinder screwed to the wall. Blub-blub-blub went the water-cooler as he filled the cup. "All you've got to do is cross the room and open the door I just came through. So simple even a child could do it, right?"

"What-"

"Only don't forget to take your citation book," Alan said, and gulped the aspirin down.

Norris Ridgewick immediately looked wary. "Yours is right there on the desk, next to your briefcase."

"I know. And that's where it's going to stay, at least for tonight."

Norris looked at him for a long time. Finally he asked.

"Buster?"

Alan nodded. "Buster. He's parked in the crip space again. I told him last time I was through warning him about it."

Castle Rock's Head Selectman, Danforth Keeton III, was referred to as Buster by all who knew him... but municipal employees who wanted to hold onto their jobs made sure to call him Dan or Mr. Keeton when he was around. Only Alan, who was an elected official, dared call him Buster to his face, and he had done it only twice, both times when he was very angry. He supposed he would do it again, however. Dan "Buster" Keeton was a man Alan Pangborn found it very easy to get angry at.

 

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