The New York Times
Cellby Stephen King
THERE'S A REASON CELL RHYMES WITH HELL.
On October 1, God is in His heaven, the stock market stands at 10,140, most of the planes are on time, and Clayton Riddell, an artist from Maine, is almost bouncing up Boylston Street in Boston. He's just landed a comic book deal that might finally enable him to support his family by making art instead of teaching/b>… See more details below
THERE'S A REASON CELL RHYMES WITH HELL.
On October 1, God is in His heaven, the stock market stands at 10,140, most of the planes are on time, and Clayton Riddell, an artist from Maine, is almost bouncing up Boylston Street in Boston. He's just landed a comic book deal that might finally enable him to support his family by making art instead of teaching it. He's already picked up a small (but expensive!) gift for his long-suffering wife, and he knows just what he'll get for his boy Johnny. Why not a little treat for himself? Clay's feeling good about the future.
That changes in a hurry. The cause of the devastation is a phenomenon that will come to be known as The Pulse, and the delivery method is a cell phone. Everyone's cell phone. Clay and the few desperate survivors who join him suddenly find themselves in the pitch-black night of civilization's darkest age, surrounded by chaos, carnage, and a human horde that has been reduced to its basest nature...and then begins to evolve.
There's really no escaping this nightmare. But for Clay, an arrow points home to Maine, and as he and his fellow refugees make their harrowing journey north they begin to see crude signs confirming their direction: KASHWAK=NO-FO. A promise, perhaps. Or a threat...
There are one hundred and ninety-three million cell phones in the United States alone. Who doesn't have one? Stephen King's utterly gripping, gory, and fascinating novel doesn't just ask the question "Can you hear me now?" It answers it with a vengeance.
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By Stephen King
ScribnerCopyright © 2006 Stephen King
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Chapter OneClay's attention was attracted by the tinkle of an ice cream truck. It was parked across from the Four Seasons Hotel (which was even grander than the Copley Square) and next to the Boston Common, which ran along Boylston for two or three blocks on this side of the street. The words mister softee were printed in rainbow colors over a pair of dancing ice cream cones. Three kids were clustered around the window, bookbags at their feet, waiting to receive goodies. Behind them stood a woman in a pants suit with a poodle on a leash and a couple of teenage girls in lowrider jeans with iPods and earphones that were currently slung around their necks so they could murmur together - earnestly, no giggles.
Clay stood behind them, turning what had been a little group into a short line. He had bought his estranged wife a present; he would stop at Comix Supreme on the way home and buy his son the new issue of Spider-Man; he might as well treat himself, as well. He was bursting to tell Sharon his news, but she'd be out of reach until she got home, three forty-five or so. He thought he would hang around the Inn at least until he talked to her, mostly pacing the confines of his small room and looking at his latched-up portfolio. In the meantime, Mister Softee made an acceptable diversion.
The guy in the truck served the three kids at the window, two Dilly Bars and a monster chocolate-and-vanilla swirl sof'-serve cone for the big spender in the middle, who was apparently paying for all of them. While he fumbled a rat's nest of dollar bills from the pocket of his fashionably baggy jeans, the woman with the poodle and the power suit dipped into her shoulder bag, came out with her cell phone - women in power suits would no more leave home without their cell phones than without their AmEx cards - and flipped it open. Behind them, in the park, a dog barked and someone shouted. It did not sound to Clay like a happy shout, but when he looked over his shoulder all he could see were a few strollers, a dog trotting with a Frisbee in its mouth (weren't they supposed to be on leashes in there, he wondered), acres of sunny green and inviting shade. It looked like a good place for a man who had just sold his first graphic novel - and its sequel, both for an amazing amount of money - to sit and eat a chocolate ice cream cone.
When he looked back, the three kids in the baggies were gone and the woman in the power suit was ordering a sundae. One of the two girls behind her had a peppermint-colored phone clipped to her hip, and the woman in the power suit had hers screwed into her ear. Clay thought, as he almost always did on one level of his mind or another when he saw a variation of this behavior, that he was watching an act which would once have been considered almost insufferably rude - yes, even while engaging in a small bit of commerce with a total stranger - becoming a part of accepted everyday behavior.
Put it in Dark Wanderer, sweetheart, Sharon said. The version of her he kept in his mind spoke often and was bound to have her say. This was true of the real-world Sharon as well, separation or no separation. Although not on his cell phone. Clay didn't own one.
The peppermint-colored phone played the opening notes of that Crazy Frog tune that Johnny loved - was it called "Axel F"? Clay couldn't remember, perhaps because he had blocked it out. The girl to whom the phone belonged snatched it off her hip and said, "Beth?" She listened, smiled, then said to her companion, "It's Beth." Now the other girl bent forward and they both listened, nearly identical pixie haircuts (to Clay they looked almost like Saturday-morning cartoon characters, the Powerpuff Girls, maybe) blowing together in the afternoon breeze.
"Maddy?" said the woman in the power suit at almost exactly the same time. Her poodle was now sitting contemplatively at the end of its leash (the leash was red, and dusted with glittery stuff), looking at the traffic on Boylston Street. Across the way, at the Four Seasons, a doorman in a brown uniform - they always seemed to be brown or blue - was waving, probably for a taxi. A Duck Boat crammed with tourists sailed by, looking high and out of place on dry land, the driver bawling into his loudhailer about something historic. The two girls listening to the peppermint-colored phone looked at each other and smiled at something they were hearing, but still did not giggle.
"Maddy? Can you hear me? Can you -"
The woman in the power suit raised the hand holding the leash and plugged a long-nailed finger into her free ear. Clay winced, fearing for her eardrum. He imagined drawing her: the dog on the leash, the power suit, the fashionably short hair ... and one small trickle of blood from around the finger in her ear. The Duck Boat just exiting the frame and the doorman in the background, those things somehow lending the sketch its verisimilitude. They would; it was just a thing you knew.
"Maddy, you're breaking up! I just wanted to tell you I got my hair done at that new ... my hair? ... MY ..."
The guy in the Mister Softee truck bent down and held out a sundae cup. From it rose a white Alp with chocolate and strawberry sauce coursing down its sides. His beard-stubbly face was impassive. It said he'd seen it all before. Clay was sure he had, most of it twice. In the park, someone screamed. Clay looked over his shoulder again, telling himself that had to be a scream of joy. At three o'clock in the afternoon, a sunny afternoon on the Boston Common, it pretty much had to be a scream of joy. Right?
The woman said something unintelligible to Maddy and flipped her cell phone closed with a practiced flip of the wrist. She dropped it back into her purse, then just stood there, as if she had forgotten what she was doing or maybe even where she was.
"That's four-fifty," said the Mister Softee guy, still patiently holding out the ice cream sundae. Clay had time to think how fucking expensive everything was in the city. Perhaps the woman in the power suit thought so, too - that, at least, was his first surmise - because for a moment more she still did nothing, merely looked at the cup with its mound of ice cream and sliding sauce as if she had never seen such a thing before.
Then there came another cry from the Common, not a human one this time but something between a surprised yelp and a hurt yowl. Clay turned to look and saw the dog that had been trotting with the Frisbee in its mouth. It was a good-sized brown dog, maybe a Labrador, he didn't really know dogs, when he needed to draw one he got a book and copied a picture. A man in a business suit was down on his knees beside this one and had it in a necklock and appeared to be - surely I'm not seeing what I think I'm seeing, Clay thought - chewing on its ear. Then the dog howled again and tried to spurt away. The man in the business suit held it firm, and yes, that was the dog's ear in the man's mouth, and as Clay continued to watch, the man tore it off the side of the dog's head. This time the dog uttered an almost human scream, and a number of ducks which had been floating on a nearby pond took flight, squawking.
"Rast!" someone cried from behind Clay. It sounded like rast. It might have been rat or roast, but later experience made him lean toward rast: not a word at all but merely an inarticulate sound of aggression.
He turned back toward the ice cream truck in time to see Power Suit Woman lunge through the serving window in an effort to grab Mister Softee Guy. She managed to snag the loose folds at the front of his white tunic, but his single startle-step backward was enough to break her hold. Her high heels briefly left the sidewalk, and he heard the rasp of cloth and the clink of buttons as the front of her jacket ran first up the little jut of the serving window's counter and then back down. The sundae tumbled from view. Clay saw a smear of ice cream and sauce on Power Suit Woman's left wrist and forearm as her high heels clacked back to the sidewalk. She staggered, knees bent. The closed-off, well-bred, out-in-public look on her face - what Clay thought of as your basic on-the-street-no-face look - had been replaced by a convulsive snarl that shrank her eyes to slits and exposed both sets of teeth. Her upper lip had turned completely inside out, revealing a pink velvet lining as intimate as a vulva. Her poodle ran into the street, trailing its red leash with the hand-loop in the end. A black limo came along and ran the poodle down before it got halfway across. Fluff at one moment; guts at the next.
Poor damn thing was probably yapping in doggy heaven before it knew it was dead, Clay thought. He understood in some clinical way he was in shock, but that in no way changed the depth of his amazement. He stood there with his portfolio hanging from one hand and his brown shopping bag hanging from the other and his mouth hanging open.
Somewhere - it sounded like maybe around the corner on Newbury Street - something exploded.
The two girls had exactly the same haircut above their iPod headphones, but the one with the peppermint-colored cell phone was blond and her friend was brunette; they were Pixie Light and Pixie Dark. Now Pixie Light dropped her phone on the sidewalk, where it shattered, and seized Power Suit Woman around the waist. Clay assumed (so far as he was capable of assuming anything in those moments) that she meant to restrain Power Suit Woman either from going after Mister Softee Guy again or from running into the street after her dog. There was even a part of his mind that applauded the girl's presence of mind. Her friend, Pixie Dark, was backing away from the whole deal, small white hands clasped between her breasts, eyes wide.
Clay dropped his own items, one on each side, and stepped forward to help Pixie Light. On the other side of the street - he saw this only in his peripheral vision - a car swerved and bolted across the sidewalk in front of the Four Seasons, causing the doorman to dart out of the way. There were screams from the hotel's forecourt. And before Clay could begin helping Pixie Light with Power Suit Woman, Pixie Light had darted her pretty little face forward with snakelike speed, bared her undoubtedly strong young teeth, and battened on Power Suit Woman's neck. There was an enormous jet of blood. The pixie-girl stuck her face in it, appeared to bathe in it, perhaps even drank from it (Clay was almost sure she did), then shook Power Suit Woman back and forth like a doll. The woman was taller and had to outweigh the girl by at least forty pounds, but the girl shook her hard enough to make the woman's head flop back and forth and send more blood flying. At the same time the girl cocked her own blood-smeared face up to the bright blue October sky and howled in what sounded like triumph.
She's mad, Clay thought. Totally mad.
Pixie Dark cried out, "Who are you? What's happening?"
At the sound of her friend's voice, Pixie Light whipped her bloody head around. Blood dripped from the short dagger-points of hair overhanging her forehead. Eyes like white lamps peered from blood-dappled sockets.
Pixie Dark looked at Clay, her eyes wide. "Who are you?" she repeated ... and then: "Who am I?"
Pixie Light dropped Power Suit Woman, who collapsed to the sidewalk with her chewed-open carotid artery still spurting, then leaped at the girl with whom she had been chummily sharing a phone only a few moments before.
Clay didn't think. If he had thought, Pixie Dark might have had her throat opened like the woman in the power suit. He didn't even look. He simply reached down and to his right, seized the top of the small treasures shopping bag, and swung it at the back of Pixie Light's head as she leaped at her erstwhile friend with her outstretched hands making claw-fish against the blue sky. If he missed -
He didn't miss, or even hit the girl a glancing blow. The glass paperweight inside the bag struck the back of Pixie Light's head dead-on, making a muffled thunk. Pixie Light dropped her hands, one bloodstained, one still clean, and fell to the sidewalk at her friend's feet like a sack of mail.
"What the hell?" Mister Softee Guy cried. His voice was improbably high. Maybe shock had given him that high tenor.
"I don't know," Clay said. His heart was hammering. "Help me quick. This other one's bleeding to death."
From behind them, on Newbury Street, came the unmistakable hollow bang-and-jingle of a car crash, followed by screams. The screams were followed by another explosion, this one louder, concussive, hammering the day. Behind the Mister Softee truck, another car swerved across three lanes of Boylston Street and into the courtyard of the Four Seasons, mowing down a couple of pedestrians and then plowing into the back of the previous car, which had finished with its nose crumpled into the revolving doors. This second crash shoved the first car farther into the revolving doors, bending them askew. Clay couldn't see if anyone was trapped in there - clouds of steam were rising from the first car's breached radiator - but the agonized shrieks from the shadows suggested bad things. Very bad.
Mister Softee Guy, blind on that side, was leaning out his serving window and staring at Clay. "What's going on over there?"
"I don't know. Couple of car wrecks. People hurt. Never mind. Help me, man." He knelt beside Power Suit Woman in the blood and the shattered remnants of Pixie Light's pink cell phone. Power Suit Woman's twitches had now become weak, indeed.
"Smoke from over on Newbury," observed Mister Softee Guy, still not emerging from the relative safety of his ice cream wagon. "Something blew up over there. I mean bigtime. Maybe it's terrorists."
As soon as the word was out of his mouth, Clay was sure he was right. "Help me."
"WHO AM I?" Pixie Dark suddenly screamed.
Clay had forgotten all about her. He looked up in time to see the girl smack herself in the forehead with the heel of her hand, then turn around rapidly three times, standing almost on the toes of her tennies to do it. The sight called up a memory of some poem he'd read in a college lit class - Weave a circle round him thrice. Coleridge, wasn't it? She staggered, then ran rapidly down the sidewalk and directly into a lamppost. She made no attempt to avoid it or even put up her hands. She struck it face-first, rebounded, staggered, then went at it again.
"Stop that!" Clay roared. He shot to his feet, started to run toward her, slipped in Power Suit Woman's blood, almost fell, got going again, tripped on Pixie Light, and almost fell again.
Pixie Dark looked around at him. Her nose was broken and gushing blood down her lower face. A vertical contusion was puffing up on her brow, rising like a thunderhead on a summer day. One of her eyes had gone crooked in its socket. She opened her mouth, exposing a ruin of what had probably been expensive orthodontic work, and laughed at him. He never forgot it.
Then she ran away down the sidewalk, screaming.
Behind him, a motor started up and amplified bells began tinkling out the Sesame Street theme. Clay turned and saw the Mister Softee truck pulling rapidly away from the curb just as, from the top floor of the hotel across the way, a window shattered in a bright spray of glass. A body hurtled out into the October day. It fell to the sidewalk, where it more or less exploded. More screams from the forecourt. Screams of horror; screams of pain.
"No!" Clay yelled, running alongside the Mister Softee truck. "No, come back and help me! I need some help here, you sonofabitch!"
No answer from Mister Softee Guy, who maybe couldn't hear over his amplified music. Clay could remember the words from the days when he'd had no reason not to believe his marriage wouldn't last forever. In those days Johnny watched Sesame Street every day, sitting in his little blue chair with his sippy cup clutched in his hands. Something about a sunny day, keepin' the clouds away.
A man in a business suit came running out of the park, roaring wordless sounds at the top of his lungs, his coattails flapping behind him. Clay recognized him by his dogfur goatee. The man ran into Boylston Street. Cars swerved around him, barely missing him. He ran on to the other side, still roaring and waving his hands at the sky. He disappeared into the shadows beneath the canopy of the Four Seasons forecourt and was lost to view, but he must have gotten up to more dickens immediately, because a fresh volley of screams broke out over there.
Excerpted from Cell by Stephen King Copyright © 2006 by Stephen King . Excerpted by permission.
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