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The event that came to be known as The Pulse began at 3:03 P.M., eastern standard time, on the afternoon of October 1. The term was a misnomer, of course, but within ten hours of the event, most of the scientists capable of pointing this out were either dead or insane. The name hardly mattered, in any case. What mattered was the effect.
At three o'clock on that day, a young man of no particular importance to history came walking -- almost bouncing -- east along Boylston Street in Boston. His name was Clayton Riddell. There was an expression of undoubted contentment on his face to go along with the spring in his step. From his left hand there swung the handles of an artist's portfolio, the kind that closes and latches to make a traveling case. Twined around the fingers of his right hand was the drawstring of a brown plastic shopping bag with the words small treasures printed on it for anyone who cared to read them.
Inside the bag, swinging back and forth, was a small round object. A present, you might have guessed, and you would have been right. You might further have guessed that this Clayton Riddell was a young man seeking to commemorate some small (or perhaps even not so small) victory with a small treasure, and you would have been right again. The item inside the bag was a rather expensive glass paperweight with a gray haze of dandelion fluff caught in its center. He had bought it on his walk back from the Copley Square Hotel to the much humbler Atlantic Avenue Inn where he was staying, frightened by the ninety-dollar pricetag on the paperweight's base, somehow even more frightened by the realization that he could now afford such a thing.
Handing his credit card over to the clerk had taken almost physical courage. He doubted if he could have done it if the paperweight had been for himself; he would have muttered something about having changed his mind and scuttled out of the shop. But it was for Sharon. Sharon liked such things, and she still liked him -- I'm pulling for you, baby, she'd said the day before he left for Boston. Considering the shit they'd put each other through over the last year, that had touched him. Now he wanted to touch her, if that was still possible. The paperweight was a small thing (a small treasure), but he was sure she'd love that delicate gray haze deep down in the middle of the glass, like a pocket fog.
Copyright © 2006 by Stephen King
Clay'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.
Clay gave up his chase of the Mister Softee truck and stood with one foot on the sidewalk and the other planted in the gutter, watching as it swerved into the center lane of Boylston Street, still tinkling. He was about to turn back to the unconscious girl and dying woman when another Duck Boat appeared, this one not loafing but roaring at top speed and yawing crazily from port to starboard. Some of the passengers were tumbling back and forth and howling -- pleading -- for the driver to stop. Others simply clung to the metal struts running up the open sides of the ungainly thing as it made its way up Boylston Street against the flow of traffic.
A man in a sweatshirt grabbed the driver from behind, and Clay heard another of those inarticulate cries through the Duck Boat's primitive amplification system as the driver threw the guy off with a mighty backward shrug. Not "Rast!" this time but something more guttural, something that sounded like "Gluh!" Then the Duck Boat driver saw the Mister Softee truck -- Clay was sure of it -- and changed course, aiming for it.
"Oh God please no!" a woman sitting near the front of the tourist craft cried, and as it closed in on the tinkling ice cream truck, which was approximately one-sixth its size, Clay had a clear memory of watching the victory parade on TV the year the Red Sox won the World Series. The team rode in a slow-moving procession of these same Duck Boats, waving to the delirious multitudes as a cold autumn drizzle fell.
"God please no!" the woman shrieked again, and from beside Clay a man said, almost mildly: "Jesus Christ."
The Duck Boat hit the ice cream truck broadside and flipped it like a child's toy. It landed on its side with its own amplification system still tinkling out the Sesame Street theme music and went skidding back toward the Common, shooting up friction-generated bursts of sparks. Two women who had been watching dashed to get out of the way, holding hands, and just made it. The Mister Softee truck bounced onto the sidewalk, went briefly airborne, then hit the wrought-iron fence surrounding the park and came to rest. The music hiccuped twice, then stopped.
The lunatic driving the Duck Boat had, meanwhile, lost whatever marginal control he might have had over his vehicle. It looped back across Boylston Street with its freight of terrified, screaming passengers clinging to the open sides, mounted the sidewalk across and about fifty yards down from the point where the Mister Softee truck had tinkled its last, and ran into the low brick retaining wall below the display window of a tony furniture shop called Citylights. There was a vast unmusical crash as the window shattered. The Duck Boat's wide rear end (Harbor Mistress was written on it in pink script) rose perhaps five feet in the air. Momentum wanted the great waddling thing to go end-over-end; mass would not allow. It settled back to the sidewalk with its snout poked among the scattered sofas and expensive living room chairs, but not before at least a dozen people had gone shooting forward, out of the Duck Boat and out of sight.
Inside Citylights, a burglar alarm began to clang.
"Jesus Christ," said the mild voice from Clay's right elbow a second time. He turned that way and saw a short man with thinning dark hair, a tiny dark mustache, and gold-rimmed spectacles. "What's going on?"
"I don't know," Clay said. Talking was hard. Very. He found himself almost having to push words out. He supposed it was shock. Across the street, people were running away, some from the Four Seasons, some from the crashed Duck Boat. As he watched, a Duck Boat run-awayer collided with a Four Seasons escapee and they both went crashing to the sidewalk. There was time to wonder if he'd gone insane and was hallucinating all this in a madhouse somewhere. Juniper Hill in Augusta, maybe, between Thorazine shots. "The guy in the ice cream truck said maybe terrorists."
"I don't see any men with guns," said the short man with the mustache. "No guys with bombs strapped to their backs, either."
Neither did Clay, but he did see his little small treasures shopping bag and his portfolio sitting on the sidewalk, and he saw that the blood from Power Suit Woman's opened throat -- ye gods, he thought, all that blood -- had almost reached the portfolio. All but a dozen or so of his drawings for Dark Wanderer were in there, and it was the drawings his mind seized on. He started back that way at a speed-walk, and the short man kept pace. When a second burglar alarm (some kind of alarm, anyway) went off in the hotel, joining its hoarse bray to the clang of the Citylights alarm, the little guy jumped.
"It's the hotel," Clay said.
"I know, it's just that...oh my God." He'd seen Power Suit Woman, now lying in a lake of the magic stuff that had been running all her bells and whistles -- what? Four minutes ago? Only two?
"She's dead," Clay told him. "At least I'm pretty sure she is. That girl..." He pointed at Pixie Light. "She did it. With her teeth."
"I wish I was."
From somewhere up Boylston Street there was another explosion. Both men cringed. Clay realized he could now smell smoke. He picked up his small treasures bag and his portfolio and moved them both away from the spreading blood. "These are mine," he said, wondering why he felt the need to explain.
The little guy, who was wearing a tweed suit -- quite dapper, Clay thought -- was still staring, horrified, at the crumpled body of the woman who had stopped for a sundae and lost first her dog and then her life. Behind them, three young men pelted past on the sidewalk, laughing and hurrahing. Two had Red Sox caps turned around backward. One was carrying a carton clutched against his chest. It had the word panasonic printed in blue on the side. This one stepped in Power Suit Woman's spreading blood with his right sneaker and left a fading one-foot trail behind him as he and his mates ran on toward the east end of the Common and Chinatown beyond.
Copyright © 2006 by Stephen King
Clay dropped to one knee and used the hand not clutching his portfolio (he was even more afraid of losing it after seeing the sprinting kid with the panasonic carton) to pick up Pixie Light's wrist. He got a pulse at once. It was slow but strong and regular. He felt great relief. No matter what she'd done, she was just a kid. He didn't want to think he had bludgeoned her to death with his wife's gift paperweight.
"Look out, look out!" the little guy with the mustache almost sang. Clay had no time to look out. Luckily, this call wasn't even close. The vehicle -- one of those big OPEC-friendly SUVs -- veered off Boylston and into the park at least twenty yards from where he knelt, taking a snarl of the wrought-iron fence in front of it and coming to rest bumper-deep in the duck-pond.
The door opened and a young man floundered out, yelling gibberish at the sky. He fell to his knees in the water, scooped some of it into his mouth with both hands (Clay had a passing thought of all the ducks that had happily shat in that pond over the years), then struggled to his feet and waded to the far side. He disappeared into a grove of trees, still waving his hands and bellowing his nonsense sermon.
"We need to get help for this girl," Clay said to the man with the mustache. "She's unconscious but a long way from dead."
"What we need to do is get off the street before we get run over," said the man with the mustache, and as if to prove this point, a taxi collided with a stretch limo not far from the wrecked Duck Boat. The limo had been going the wrong way but the taxi got the worst of it; as Clay watched from where he still knelt on the sidewalk, the taxi's driver flew through his suddenly glassless windshield and landed in the street, holding up a bloody arm and screaming.
The man with the mustache was right, of course. Such rationality as Clay could muster -- only a little managed to find its way through the blanket of shock that muffled his thinking -- suggested that by far the wisest course of action would be to get the hell away from Boylston Street and under cover. If this was an act of terrorism, it was like none he had ever seen or read about. What he -- they -- should do was get down and stay down until the situation clarified. That would probably entail finding a television. But he didn't want to leave this unconscious girl lying on a street that had suddenly become a madhouse. Every instinct of his mostly kind -- and certainly civilized -- heart cried out against it.
"You go on," he told the little man with the mustache. He said it with immense reluctance. He didn't know the little man from Adam, but at least he wasn't spouting gibberish and throwing his hands in the air. Or going for Clay's throat with his teeth bared. "Get inside somewhere. I'll..." He didn't know how to finish.
"You'll what?" the man with the mustache asked, then hunched his shoulders and winced as something else exploded. That one came from directly behind the hotel, it sounded like, and now black smoke began to rise over there, staining the blue sky before it got high enough for the wind to pull away.
"I'll call a cop," Clay said, suddenly inspired. "She's got a cell phone." He cocked his thumb at Power Suit Woman, now lying dead in a pool of her own blood. "She was using it before...you know, just before the shit..."
He trailed off, replaying exactly what had happened just before the shit hit the fan. He found his eyes wandering from the dead woman to the unconscious girl and then on to the shards of the unconscious girl's peppermint-colored cell phone.
Warbling sirens of two distinctly different pitches rose in the air. Clay supposed one pitch belonged to police cars, the other to fire trucks. He supposed you could tell the difference if you lived in this city, but he didn't, he lived in Kent Pond, Maine, and he wished with all his heart that he were there right now.
What happened just before the shit hit the fan was that Power Suit Woman had called her friend Maddy to tell her she'd gotten her hair done, and one of Pixie Light's friends had called her. Pixie Dark had listened in to this latter call. After that all three of them had gone crazy.
You're not thinking --
From behind them, to the east, came the biggest explosion yet: a terrific shotgun-blast of sound. Clay leaped to his feet. He and the little man in the tweed suit looked wildly at each other, then toward Chinatown and Boston's North End. They couldn't see what had exploded, but now a much larger, darker plume of smoke was rising above the buildings on that horizon.
While they were looking at it, a Boston PD radio-car and a hook-and-ladder fire truck pulled up in front of the Four Seasons across the street. Clay glanced that way in time to see a second jumper set sail from the top story of the hotel, followed by another pair from the roof. To Clay it looked as if the two coming from the roof were actually brawling with each other on the way down.
"Jesus Mary and Joseph NO!" a woman screamed, her voice breaking. "Oh NO, no MORE, no MORE!"
The first of the suicidal trio hit the rear of the police car, splattering the trunk with hair and gore, shattering the back window. The other two hit the hook and ladder as firemen dressed in bright yellow coats scattered like improbable birds.
"NO!" the woman shrieked. "No MORE! No MORE! Dear GOD, no MORE!"
But here came a woman from the fifth or sixth floor, tumbling like a crazy acrobat, striking a policeman who was peering up and surely killing him even as she killed herself.
From the north there came another of those great roaring explosions -- the sound of the devil firing a shotgun in hell -- and once again Clay looked at the little man, who was looking anxiously back up at him. More smoke was rising in the sky, and in spite of the brisk breeze, the blue over there was almost blotted out.
"They're using planes again," the little man said. "The dirty bastards are using planes again."
As if to underline the idea, a third monstrous explosion came rolling to them from the city's northeast.
"But...that's Logan over there." Clay was once again finding it hard to talk, and even harder to think. All he really seemed to have in his mind was some sort of half-baked joke: Did you hear the one about the [insert your favorite ethnic group here] terrorists who decided to bring America to its knees by blowing up the airport?
"So?" the little man asked, almost truculently.
"So why not the Hancock Building? Or the Pru?"
The little man's shoulders slumped. "I don't know. I only know I want to get off this street."
As if to emphasize his point, half a dozen more young people sprinted past them. Boston was a city of young people, Clay had noticed -- all those colleges. These six, three men and three women, were running lootless, at least, and they most assuredly weren't laughing. As they ran, one of the young men pulled out his cell phone and stuck it to his ear.
Clay glanced across the street and saw that a second black-and-white unit had pulled up behind the first. No need to use Power Suit Woman's cell phone after all (which was good, since he'd decided he really didn't want to do that). He could just walk across the street and talk to them...except he wasn't sure that he dared to cross Boylston Street just now. Even if he did, would they come over here to look at one unconscious girl when they had God knew how many casualties over there? And as he watched, the firemen began piling back on board their hook-and-ladder unit; it looked like they were heading someplace else. Over to Logan Airport, quite likely, or --
"Oh my God-Jesus, watch out for this one," said the little man with the mustache, speaking in a low, tight voice. He was looking west along Boylston, back toward downtown, in the direction Clay had been coming from when his major object in life had been reaching Sharon on the phone. He'd even known how he was going to start: Good news, hon -- no matter how it comes out between us, there'll always be shoes for the kid. In his head it had sounded light and funny -- like the old days.
There was nothing funny about this. Coming toward them -- not running but walking in long, flat-footed strides -- was a man of about fifty, wearing suit pants and the remains of a shirt and tie. The pants were gray. It was impossible to tell what color the shirt and tie had been, because both were now shredded and stained with blood. In his right hand the man held what looked like a butcher knife with an eighteen-inch blade. Clay actually believed he had seen this knife, in the window of a shop called Soul Kitchen, on his walk back from his meeting at the Copley Square Hotel. The row of knives in the window (SWEDISH STEEL! the little engraved card in front of them proclaimed) had shone in the cunning glow of hidden downlighters, but this blade had done a good deal of work since its liberation -- or a bad deal of it -- and was now dull with blood.
The man in the tattered shirt swung the knife as he closed in on them with his flat-footed strides, the blade cutting short up-and-down arcs in the air. He broke the pattern only once, to slash at himself. A fresh rill of blood ran through a new rip in his tattered shirt. The remains of his tie flapped. And as he closed the distance he hectored them like a backwoods preacher speaking in tongues at the moment of some divine godhead revelation.
"Eyelah!" he cried. "Eeelah-eyelah-a-babbalah naz! A-babbalah why? A-bunnaloo coy? Kazzalah! Kazzalah-CAN! Fie! SHY-fie!" And now he brought the knife back to his right hip and then beyond it, and Clay, whose visual sense was overdeveloped, at once saw the sweeping stroke that would follow. The gutting stroke, made even as he continued his nuthouse march to nowhere through the October afternoon in those flat-footed declamatory strides.
"Look out!" the little guy with the mustache screamed, but he wasn't looking out, not the little guy with the mustache; the little guy with the mustache, the first normal person with whom Clay Riddell had spoken since this craziness began -- who had, in fact, spoken to him, which had probably taken some courage, under the circumstances -- was frozen in place, his eyes bigger than ever behind the lenses of his gold-rimmed spectacles. And was the crazy guy going for him because of the two men, the one with the mustache was smaller and looked like easier prey? If so, maybe Mr. Speaking-in-Tongues wasn't completely crazy, and suddenly Clay was mad as well as scared, mad the way he might have been if he'd looked through a schoolyard fence and seen a bully getting ready to tune up on a smaller, younger kid.
"LOOK OUT!" the little man with the mustache almost wailed, still not moving as his death swept toward him, death liberated from a shop called Soul Kitchen where Diner's Club and Visa were no doubt accepted, along with Your Personal Check If Accompanied By Bank Card.
Clay didn't think. He simply picked up his portfolio again by its double handle and stuck it between the oncoming knife and his new acquaintance in the tweed suit. The blade went all the way through with a hollow thuck, but the tip stopped four inches short of the little man's belly. The little man finally came to his senses and cringed aside, toward the Common, shrieking for help at the top of his lungs.
The man in the shredded shirt and tie -- he was getting a bit jowly in the cheek and heavy in the neck, as if his personal equation of good meals and good exercise had stopped balancing about two years ago -- abruptly ceased his nonsense peroration. His face took on a look of vacuous perplexity that stopped short of surprise, let alone amazement.
What Clay felt was a species of dismal outrage. That blade had gone through all of his Dark Wanderer pictures (to him they were always pictures, never drawings or illustrations), and it seemed to him that the thuck sound might as well have been the blade penetrating a special chamber of his heart. That was stupid when he had repros of everything, including the four color splash-pages, but it didn't change how he felt. The madman's blade had skewered Sorcerer John (named after his own son, of course), the Wizard Flak, Frank and the Posse Boys, Sleepy Gene, Poison Sally, Lily Astolet, Blue Witch, and of course Ray Damon, the Dark Wanderer himself. His own fantastic creatures, living in the cave of his imagination and poised to set him free from the drudgery of teaching art in a dozen rural Maine schools, driving thousands of miles a month and practically living out of his car.
He could swear he had heard them moan when the madman's Swedish blade pierced them where they slept in their innocency.
Furious, not caring about the blade (at least for the moment), he drove the man in the shredded shirt rapidly backward, using the portfolio as a kind of shield, growing angrier as it bent into a wide V-shape around the knife-blade.
"Blet!" the lunatic hollered, and tried to pull his blade back. It was caught too firmly for him to do so. "Blet ky-yam doe-ram kazzalah a-babbalah!"
"I'll a-babbalah your a-kazzalah, you fuck!" Clay shouted, and planted his left foot behind the lunatic's backpedaling legs. It would occur to him later that the body knows how to fight when it has to. That it's a secret the body keeps, just as it does the secrets of how to run or jump a creek or throw a fuck or -- quite likely -- die when there's no other choice. That under conditions of extreme stress it simply takes over and does what needs doing while the brain stands off to one side, unable to do anything but whistle and tap its foot and look up at the sky. Or contemplate the sound a knife makes going through the portfolio your wife gave you for your twenty-eighth birthday, for that matter.
The lunatic tripped over Clay's foot just as Clay's wise body meant him to do and fell to the sidewalk on his back. Clay stood over him, panting, with the portfolio still held in both hands like a shield bent in battle. The butcher knife still stuck out of it, handle from one side, blade from the other.
The lunatic tried to get up. Clay's new friend scurried forward and kicked him in the neck, quite hard. The little fellow was weeping loudly, the tears gushing down his cheeks and fogging the lenses of his spectacles. The lunatic fell back on the sidewalk with his tongue sticking out of his mouth. Around it he made choking sounds that sounded to Clay like his former speaking-in-tongues babble.
"He tried to kill us!" the little man wept. "He tried to kill us!"
"Yes, yes," Clay said. He was aware that he had once said yes, yes to Johnny in exactly the same way back when they'd still called him Johnny-Gee and he'd come to them up the front walk with his scraped shins or elbows, wailing I got BLOOD!
The man on the sidewalk (who had plenty of blood) was on his elbows, trying to get up again. Clay did the honors this time, kicking one of the guy's elbows out from under him and putting him back down on the pavement. This kicking seemed like a stopgap solution at best, and a messy one. Clay grabbed the handle of the knife, winced at the slimy feel of half-jellied blood on the handle -- it was like rubbing a palm through cold bacon-grease -- and pulled. The knife came a little bit, then either stopped or his hand slipped. He fancied he heard his characters murmuring unhappily from the darkness of the portfolio, and he made a painful noise himself. He couldn't help it. And he couldn't help wondering what he meant to do with the knife if he got it out. Stab the lunatic to death with it? He thought he could have done that in the heat of the moment, but probably not now.
"What's wrong?" the little man asked in a watery voice. Clay, even in his own distress, couldn't help being touched by the concern he heard there. "Did he get you? You had him blocked out for a few seconds and I couldn't see. Did he get you? Are you cut?"
"No," Clay said. "I'm all r -- "
There was another gigantic explosion from the north, almost surely from Logan Airport on the other side of Boston Harbor. Both of them hunched their shoulders and winced.
The lunatic took the opportunity to sit up and was scrambling to his feet when the little man in the tweed suit administered a clumsy but effective sideways kick, planting a shoe squarely in the middle of the lunatic's shredded tie and knocking him back down. The lunatic roared and snatched at the little man's foot. He would have pulled the little guy over, then perhaps into a crushing embrace, had Clay not seized his new acquaintance by the shoulder and pulled him away.
"He's got my shoe!" the little man yelped. Behind them, two more cars crashed. There were more screams, more alarms. Car alarms, fire alarms, hearty clanging burglar alarms. Sirens whooped in the distance. "Bastard got my sh -- "
Suddenly a policeman was there. One of the responders from across the street, Clay assumed, and as the policeman dropped to one blue knee beside the babbling lunatic, Clay felt something very much like love for the cop. That he'd take the time to come over here! That he'd even noticed!
"You want to be careful of him," the little man said nervously. "He's -- "
"I know what he is," the cop replied, and Clay saw the cop had his service automatic in his hand. He had no idea if the cop had drawn it after kneeling or if he'd had it out the whole time. Clay had been too busy being grateful to notice.
The cop looked at the lunatic. Leaned close to the lunatic. Almost seemed to offer himself to the lunatic. "Hey, buddy, how ya doin?" he murmured. "I mean, what the haps?"
The lunatic lunged at the cop and put his hands on the cop's throat. The instant he did this, the cop slipped the muzzle of his gun into the hollow of the lunatic's temple and pulled the trigger. A great spray of blood leaped through the graying hair on the opposite side of the lunatic's head and he fell back to the sidewalk, throwing both arms out melodramatically: Look, Ma, I'm dead.
Clay looked at the little man with the mustache and the little man with the mustache looked at him. Then they looked back at the cop, who had holstered his weapon and was taking a leather case from the breast pocket of his uniform shirt. Clay was glad to see that the hand he used to do this was shaking a little. He was now frightened of the cop, but would have been more frightened still if the cop's hands had been steady. And what had just happened was no isolated case. The gunshot seemed to have done something to Clay's hearing, cleared a circuit in it or something. Now he could hear other gunshots, isolated cracks punctuating the escalating cacophony of the day.
The cop took a card -- Clay thought it was a business card -- from the slim leather case, then put the case back in his breast pocket. He held the card between the first two fingers of his left hand while his right hand once more dropped to the butt of his service weapon. Near his highly polished shoes, blood from the lunatic's shattered head was pooling on the sidewalk. Close by, Power Suit Woman lay in another pool of blood, which was now starting to congeal and turn a darker shade of red.
"What's your name, sir?" the cop asked Clay.
"Can you tell me who the president is?"
Clay told him.
"Sir, can you tell me today's date?"
"It's the first of October. Do you know what's -- "
The cop looked at the little man with the mustache. "Your name?"
"I'm Thomas McCourt, 140 Salem Street, Malden. I -- "
"Can you name the man who ran against the president in the last election?"
Tom McCourt did so.
"Who is Brad Pitt married to?"
McCourt threw up his hands. "How should I know? Some movie star, I think."
"Okay." The cop handed Clay the card he'd been holding between his fingers. "I'm Officer Ulrich Ashland. This is my card. You may be called on to testify about what just happened here, gentlemen. What happened was you needed assistance, I rendered it, I was attacked, I responded."
"You wanted to kill him," Clay said.
"Yes, sir, we're putting as many of them out of their misery as fast as we can," Officer Ashland agreed. "And if you tell any court or board of inquiry that I said that, I'll deny it. But it has to be done. These people are popping up everywhere. Some only commit suicide. Many others attack." He hesitated, then added: "So far as we can tell, all the others attack." As if to underline this, there was another gunshot from across the street, a pause, then three more, in rapid succession, from the shadowed forecourt of the Four Seasons Hotel, which was now a tangle of broken glass, broken bodies, crashed vehicles, and spilled blood. "It's like the fucking Night of the Living Dead." Officer Ulrich Ashland started back toward Boylston Street with his hand still on the butt of his gun. "Except these people aren't dead. Unless we help them, that is."
"Rick!" It was a cop on the other side of the street, calling urgently. "Rick, we gotta go to Logan! All units! Get over here!"
Officer Ashland checked for traffic, but there was none. Except for the wrecks, Boylston Street was momentarily deserted. From the surrounding area, however, came the sound of more explosions and automotive crashes. The smell of smoke was getting stronger. He started across the street, got halfway, then turned back. "Get inside somewhere," he said. "Get under cover. You've been lucky once. You may not be lucky again."
"Officer Ashland," Clay said. "Your guys don't use cell phones, do you?"
Ashland regarded him from the center of Boylston Street -- not, in Clay's opinion, a safe place to be. He was thinking of the rogue Duck Boat. "No, sir," he said. "We have radios in our cars. And these." He patted the radio in his belt, hung opposite his holster. Clay, a comic-book fiend since he could read, thought briefly of Batman's marvelous utility belt.
"Don't use them," Clay said. "Tell the others. Don't use the cell phones."
"Why do you say that?"
"Because they were." He pointed to the dead woman and the unconscious girl. "Just before they went crazy. And I'll bet you anything that the guy with the knife -- "
"Rick!" the cop on the other side shouted again. "Hurry the fuck up!"
"Get under cover," Officer Ashland repeated, and trotted to the Four Seasons side of the street. Clay wished he could have repeated the thing about the cell phones, but on the whole he was just glad to see the cop out of harm's way. Not that he believed anyone in Boston really was, not this afternoon.
Copyright © 2006 by Stephen King