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Authors: Stephen King

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BOOK: Firestarter
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Andy looked at the GA for a long time without saying anything. Ralph an illusion? Well, maybe so. It had all the paranoid elements of a dope dream, certainly; Andy seemed to remember thinking Ralph was some sort of secret agent who had wasted all sorts of people. He smiled a little. The GA smiled back … a little too readily, Andy thought. Or was that paranoia, too? Surely it was.

The guy who had been sitting up and talking when Andy woke up was now being escorted from the room, drinking from a paper cup of orange juice.

Cautiously, Andy said: “No one got hurt, did they?”

“Hurt?”

“Well—no one had a convulsion, did they? Or—”

The grad assistant leaned forward, looking concerned. “Say, Andy, I hope you won't go spreading anything like that around campus. It would play bloody hell with Dr. Wanless's research program. We have Lots Seven and Eight coming up next semester, and—”

“Was there anything?”

“There was one boy who had a muscular reaction, minor but quite painful,” the GA said. “It passed in less than fifteen minutes with no harm done. But there's a witch-hunt atmosphere around here now. End the draft, ban ROTC, ban Dow Chemical job recruiters because they make napalm.… Things get out of proportion, and I happen to think this is pretty important research.”

“Who was the guy?”

“Now you know I can't tell you that. All I am saying is please remember you were under the influence of a mild hallucinogenic. Don't go mixing up your drug-induced fantasies with reality and then start spreading the combination around.”

“Would I be allowed to do that?” Andy asked.

The GA looked puzzled. “I don't see how we could stop you. Any college experimental program is pretty much at the mercy of its volunteers. For a lousy two hundred bucks we can hardly expect you to sign an oath of allegiance, can we?”

Andy felt relief. If this guy was lying, he was doing a really superlative job of it. It had all been a series of hallucinations. And on the cot beside his, Vicky was beginning to stir.

“Now what about it?” the GA asked, smiling. “I think I'm supposed to be asking the questions.”

And he did ask questions. By the time Andy finished answering them, Vicky was fully awake, looking rested and calm and radiant, and smiling at him. The questions were detailed. Many of them were the questions Andy himself would have asked.

So why did he have the feeling they were all window dressing?

14

Sitting on a couch in one of the smaller Union lounges that evening, Andy and Vicky compared hallucinations.

She had no memory of the thing that troubled him the most: that bloody hand waving limply above the knot of white tunics, striking the chart, and then disappearing. Andy had no recollection of the thing that was most vivid to her: a man with long blond hair had set up a folding table by her cot, so that it was just at her eye level. He had put a row of great big dominoes on the table and said, “Knock them down, Vicky. Knock them all down.” And she had raised her hands to push them over, wanting to oblige, and the man had gently but firmly pressed her hands back down on her chest. “You don't need your hands, Vicky,” he had said. “Just knock them down.” So she had looked at the dominoes and they had fallen over, one after the other. A dozen or so in all.

“It made me feel very tired,” she told Andy, smiling that small, slantwise smile of hers. “And I had gotten this idea somehow that we were discussing Vietnam, you know. So I said something like, ‘Yes, that proves it, if South Vietnam goes, they all go.' And he smiled and patted my hands and said, ‘Why don't you sleep for a while, Vicky? You must be tired.' So I did.” She shook her head. “But now it doesn't seem real at all. I think I must have made it up entirely or built a hallucination around some perfectly normal test. You don't remember seeing him, do you? Tall guy with shoulder-length blond hair and a little scar on his chin?”

Andy shook his head.

“But I still don't understand how we could share
any
of the same fantasies,” Andy said, “unless they've developed a drug over there that's a telepathic as well as an hallucinogenic. I know there's been some talk about it in the last few years … the idea seems to be that if hallucinogens can heighten perception …” He shrugged, then grinned. “Carlos Castenada, where are you when we need you?”

“Isn't it more likely that we just discussed the same fantasy and then forgot we did?” Vicky asked.

He agreed it was a strong possibility, but he still felt
disquieted by the whole experience. It had been, as they say, a bummer.

Taking his courage in his hands, he said, “The only thing I really am sure of is that I seem to be falling in love with you, Vicky.”

She smiled nervously and kissed the corner of his mouth. “That's sweet, Andy, but—”

“But you're a little afraid of me. Of men in general, maybe.”

“Maybe I am,” she said.

“All I'm asking for is a chance.”

“You'll have your chance,” she said. “I like you, Andy. A lot. But please remember that I get scared. Sometimes I just … get scared.” She tried to shrug lightly, but it turned into something like a shudder.

“I'll remember,” he said, and drew her into his arms and kissed her. There was a moment's hesitation, and then she kissed him back, holding his hands firmly in hers.

15

“Daddy!”
Charlie screamed.

The world revolved sickly in front of Andy's eyes. The sodium arc lamps lining the Northway were below him, the ground was above him and shaking him loose. Then he was on his butt, sliding down the lower half of the embankment like a kid on a slide. Charlie was below him rolling helplessly over and over.

Oh no, she's going to shoot right out into the traffic—

“Charlie!” he yelled hoarsely, hurting his throat, his head. “Watch it!”

Then she was down, squatting in the breakdown lane, washed by the harsh lights of a passing car, sobbing. A moment later he landed beside her with a solid
whap!
that rocketed all the way up his spine to his head. Things doubled in front of his eyes, tripled, and then gradually settled down.

Charlie was sitting on her haunches, her head cradled in her arms.

“Charlie,” he said, touching her arm. “It's all right, honey.”

“I wish I did go in front of the cars!” she cried out, her voice bright and vicious with a self-loathing that made
Andy's heart ache in his chest. “I deserve to for setting that man on fire!”

“Shhh,” he said. “Charlie, you don't have to think of that anymore.”

He held her. The cars swashed by them. Any one of them could be a cop, and that would end it. At this point it would almost be a relief.

Her sobs faded off little by little. Part of it, he realized, was simple tiredness. The same thing that was aggravating his headache past the screaming point and bringing this unwelcome flood of memories. If they could only get somewhere and lie down.…

“Can you get up, Charlie?”

She got to her feet slowly, brushing the last of the tears away. Her face was a pallid moonlet in the dark. Looking at her, he felt a sharp lance of guilt. She should be snugly tucked into a bed somewhere in a house with a shrinking mortgage, a teddy bear crooked under one arm, ready to go back to school the next morning and do battle for God, country, and the second grade. Instead, she was standing in the breakdown lane of a turnpike spur in upstate New York at one-fifteen in the morning, on the run, consumed with guilt because she had inherited something from her mother and father—something she herself had had no more part in determining than the direct blue of her eyes. How do you explain to a seven-year-old girl that Daddy and Mommy had once needed two hundred dollars and the people they had talked to said it was all right, but they had lied?

“We're going to hook us a ride,” Andy said, and he couldn't tell if he had slung his arm around her shoulders to comfort her or to support himself. “We'll get to a hotel or a motel and we'll sleep. Then well think about what to do next. That sound all right?”

Charlie nodded listlessly.

“Okay,” he said, and cocked his thumb. The cars rushed by it, unheeding, and less than two miles away the green car was on its way again. Andy knew nothing of this; his harried mind had turned back to that night with Vicky in the Union. She was staying at one of the dorms and he had dropped her off there, relishing her lips again on the step just outside the big double doors, and she had put her arms hesitantly around his neck, this girl who had still been a virgin. They had been young, Jesus they had been young.

The cars rushed by, Charlie's hair lifted and dropped in each backwash of air, and he remembered the rest of what had happened that night twelve years ago.

16

Andy started across campus after seeing Vicky into her dorm, headed for the highway where he would hitch a ride into town. Although he could feel it only faintly against his face, the May wind beat strongly through the elms lining the mall, as if an invisible river ran through the air just above him, a river from which he could detect only the faintest, farthest ripples.

Jason Gearneigh Hall was on his way and he stopped in front of its dark bulk. Around it, the trees with their new foliage danced sinuously in the unseen current of that river of wind. A cool chill wormed its way down his spine and then settled in his stomach, freezing him lightly. He shivered even though the evening was warm. A big silver-dollar moon rode between the growing rafts of clouds—gilded keelboats running before the wind, running on that dark river of air. The moonlight reflected on the building's windows, making them glare like blankly unpleasant eyes.

Something happened in there,
he thought.
Something more than what we were told or led to expect. What was it?

In his mind's eye he saw that drowning, bloody hand again—only this time he saw it striking the chart, leaving a bloodstain in the shape of a comma … and then the chart rolling up with a rattling, smacking sound.

He walked toward the building. Crazy. They're not going to let you into a lecture hall at past ten o'clock. And—

And I'm scared.

Yes. That was it. Too many disquieting half-memories. Too easy to persuade himself they had only been fantasies; Vicky was already on her way to accomplishing that. A test subject clawing his eyes out. Someone screaming that she wished she were dead, that being dead would be better than this, even if it meant going to hell and burning there for eternity. Someone else going into cardiac arrest and then being bundled out of sight with chilling professionalism. Because,
let's face it, Andy old kid, thinking about telepathy doesn't scare you. What scares you is the thought that one of those things might have happened.

Heels clicking, he walked up to the big double doors and tried them. Locked. Behind them he could see the empty lobby. Andy knocked, and when he saw someone coming out of the shadows, he almost ran. He almost ran because the face that was going to appear out of those swimming shadows would be the face of Ralph Baxter, or of a tall man with shoulder-length blond hair and a scar on his chin.

But it was neither; the man who came over to the lobby doors and unlocked them and stuck his querulous face out was a typical college security guard: about sixty-two, lined cheeks and forehead, wary blue eyes that were rheumy from too much bottle time. A big time clock was clipped to his belt.

“Building's closed!” he said.

“I know,” Andy said, “but I was part of an experiment in Room Seventy that finished up this morning and—”

“That don't matter! Building closes at nine on weeknights! Come back tomorrow!”

“—and I think I left my watch in there,” Andy said. He didn't own a watch. “Hey, what do you say? Just one quick look around.”

“I can't do that,” the night man said, but all at once he sounded strangely unsure.

With no thought at all about it one way or another, Andy said in a low voice: “Sure you can. I'll just take a look and then I'll be out of your way. You won't even remember I was here, right?”

A sudden weird feeling in his head: it was as if he had reached out and
pushed
this elderly night security man, only with his head instead of his hands. And the guard did take two or three uncertain steps backward, letting go of the door.

Andy stepped in, a little concerned. There was a sudden sharp pain in his head, but it subsided to a low throb that was gone half an hour later.

“Say, are you all right?” he asked the security man.

“Huh? Sure, I'm okay.” The security man's suspicion was gone; he gave Andy a smile that was entirely friendly. “Go on up and look for your watch, if you want to. Take your time. I probably won't even remember that you're here.”

And he strolled off.

Andy looked after him disbelievingly and then rubbed his forehead absently, as if to soothe the mild ache there. What in God's name had he done to that old duck?
Something,
that was for sure.

He turned, went to the stairs, and began climbing them. The upper hall was deeply shadowed and narrow; a nagging feeling of claustrophobia slipped around him and seemed to tighten his breathing, like an invisible dogcollar. Up here, the building had poked into that river of wind, and the air went skating under the eaves, screaming thinly. Room 70 had two double doors, the top halves two squares of frosted, pebbled glass. Andy stood outside them, listening to the wind move through the old gutters and downspouts, rattling the rusty leaves of dead years. His heart was thudding heavily in his chest.

He almost walked away from it then; it seemed suddenly easier not to know, just to forget it. Then he reached out and grasped one of the doorknobs, telling himself there was nothing to worry about anyway because the damn room would be locked and good riddance to it.

BOOK: Firestarter
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