Author: Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman).
Genre: Fiction, school shooting, teen, mental health.
Publication Date: 1977
Summary: A highschool show-and-tell session explodes into a nightmare of evil when Charlie Decker, a Maine high school senior, pulls out a gun, shoots the teacher, and takes the class hostage. What follows is a tense stand-off and games of cat-and-mouse with authority figures, and a tense but surprising group dynamic and developments within the sealed-off classroom.
My rating: 5.5/10.
♥ Two years ago. To the best of my recollection, that was about the time I started to lose my mind.
♥ I turned around, groping in my back pocket for the pipe wench that was no longer there, and now my breakfast was a hard hot ball inside my guts. But I wasn't afraid, not even when she wasn't there. I've read too many books.
♥ High-school toilets are all the same; they sound like 747s taking off. I've always hated pushing that handle. It makes you sure that the sound is clearly audible in the adjacent classroom and that everybody is thinking: Well, there goes another load. I've always thought a man should be alone with what my mother insisted I call lemonade and chocolate when I was a little kid. The bathroom should be a confessional sort of place. But they foil you. They always foil you. You can't even blow your nose and keep it a secret. Someone always got to know, someone's always got to peek. People like Mr. Denver and Mr. Grace even get paid for it.
♥ "You do what you have to do. What you and Mr. Grace decided to do. But don't you try to understand me."
"Charlie, understanding is part of my job."
"But helping you do your job isn't part of mine," I said. "So let me tell you one thing. To sort of help open the lines of communications, okay?"
I held my hands tightly in my lap. They were trembling. "I'm sick of your and Mr. Grace and all the rest of you. You used to make me afraid and you still make me afraid but now you make me tired too, and I've decided I don't have to put up with that. The way I am, I can't put up with that. What you think doesn't mean anything to me. You're not qualified to deal with me. So just stand back. I'm warning you. You're not qualified.
♥ You are disturbed, Charlie.
The Cherokees used to slit their noses... so everyone in the tribe could see what part of them got them in trouble.
The words echoed greenly in my head, as if at great depths. They were shark words at deep fathoms, jaws words come to gobble me. Words with teeth and eyes.
♥ I gave him every chance.
I waited for him to charge out and grab me, all the way to the staircase. I didn't want salvation. I was either past that point or never reached it. All I wanted was recognition... or maybe for someone to draw a yellow plague circle around my feet.
He didn't come out.
And when he didn't, I went ahead and got it on.
You can go through your whole life telling yourself that life is logical, life is prosaic, life is sane. Above all, sane. And I think it is. I've had a lot of time to think about that. And what I keep coming back to is Mrs. Underwood's dying declaration: So you understand that when we increase the number of variables, the axioms themselves never change.
I really believe that.
I think; therefore I am. There are hairs on my face; therefore I shave. My wife and child have been critically injured in a car crash; therefore I pray. It's all logical, it's all sane. We live in the best of all possible worlds, so hand me a Kent for my left, a Bud for my right, turn on Starsky and Hutch, and listen to that soft, harmonious note that is the universe turning smoothly on its celestial gyros. Logic and sanity. Like Coca-Cola, it's the real thing.
But as Warner Brothers, John D. MacDonald, and Long Island Dragway know so well, there's a Mr. Hyde for every happy Jekyll face, a dark face on the other side of the mirror. The brain behind that face never heard of razors, prayers, or the logic of the universe. You turn the mirror sideways and see your face reflected with a sinister left-hand twist, half mad and half sane. The astronomers call that line between light and dark the terminator.
The other side says that the universe has all the logic of a little kid in a Halloween cowboy suit with his guts and his trick-or-treat candy spread all over a mile of Interstate 95. This is the logic of napalm, paranoia, suitcase bombs carried by happy Arabs, random carcinoma. This logic eats itself. It says life is a monkey on a stick, it says life spins as hysterically and erratically as the penny you flick to see who buys lunch.
No one looks at that side unless they have to, and I can understand that. You look at it if you hitch a ride with a drunk in a GTO who puts it up to one-ten and starts blubbering about how his wife turned him out; you look at it if some guy decides to drive across Indiana shooting kids on bicycles; you look at it if your sister says "I'm going down to the store for a minute, big guy" and then gets killed in a stickup. You look at it when you hear your dad talking about slitting your mom's nose.
It's a roulette wheel, but anybody who says the game is rigged is whining. No matter how many numbers there are, the principle of that little white jittering ball never changes. Don't say it's crazy. It's all so cool and sane.
And all that weirdness isn't just going on outside. It's in you too, right now, growing in the dark like magic mushrooms. Call it the Thing in the Cellar. Call it the Blow Lunch Factor. Call it the Looney Tunes File. I think of it as my private dinosaur, huge, slimy, and mindless, stumbling around in the stinking swamp of my subconscious, never finding a tarpit big enough to hold it.
But that's me, and I started to tell you about them, those bright college-bound students that, metaphorically speaking, walked down to the store to get milk and ended up in the middle of an armed robbery. I'm a documented case, routine grist for the newspaper mill. A thousand newsboys hawked me on a thousand street corners. I had fifty seconds on Chancellor-Brinkley and a column and a half in Time. And I stand here before you (metaphorically speaking, again) and tell you I'm perfectly sane. I do have one slightly crooked wheel upstairs, but everything else is ticking along just four-o, thank you very much.
So, them. How do you understand them? We have to discuss that, don't we?
♥ There isn't any division of time to express the marrow of our lives, the time between the explosion of lead from the muzzle and the meat impact, between the impact and the darkness. There's only barren instant replay that shows nothing new.
I shot her; she fell; and there was an indescribable moment of silence, an infinite duration of time, and we all stepped back, watching the ball go around and around, ticking, bouncing, lighting for an instant, going on, heads and tails, red and black, odd and even.
I think that moment ended. I really do. But sometimes, in the dark, I think that hideous random moment is still going on, that the wheel is even yet in spin, and I dreamed all the rest.
What must it be like for a suicide coming down from a high ledge? I'm sure it must be a very sane feeling. That's probably why they scream all the way down.
♥ They looked at me, and I looked at them. Maybe they still could have bolted, and they're still asking me why they didn't. Why didn't they cut and run, Charlie? What did you do to them? Some of them ask that almost fearfully, as if I had the evil eye. I don't answer them. I don't answer any questions about what happened that morning in Room 16. But if I told them anything, it would be that they've forgotten what it is to be a kid, to live cheek-by-jowl with violence, with the commonplace fistfights in the gym, brawls at the PAL hops in Lewiston, beatings on television, murders in the movies. Most of us had seen a little girl puke pea soup all over a priest right down at our local drive-in. Old Book Bags wasn't much shakes by comparison.
I'm not taking on any of those things, hey, I'm in no shape for crusades these days. I'm just telling you that American kids labor under a huge life of violence, both real and make-believe. Besides, I was kind of interesting: Hey, Charlie Decker went apeshit today, didja hear? No! Did he? Yeah. Yeah. I was there. It was just like Bonnie and Clyde, except Charlie's got zitzes and there wasn't any popcorn.
I know they thought they'd be all right. That's part of it. What I wonder about is this: Were they hoping I'd get somebody else?
♥ Ted didn't say anything, but he offered me a strange little grin that made me think he might have been wondering about how I might taste.
♥ Susan Brooks was one of those girls who never say anything unless called upon, the ones that teachers always have to ask to speak up, please. A very studious, very serious girl. A rather pretty but not terribly bright girl—the kind who isn't allowed to give up and take the general or the commercial courses, because she had a terribly bright older brother or older sister, and teachers expect comparable things from her. In fine, one of those girls who are holding the dirty end of the stick with as much good face and manners as they can muster. Usually they marry truck drivers and move to the West Coast, where they have kitchen nooks with Formica counters—and they write letters to the Folks Back East as seldom as they can get away with. They make quiet, successful lives for themselves and grow prettier as the shadow of the bright older brother or sister falls away from them.
♥ They were still looking at me expectantly, as if awaiting the punch line of a rather good joke.
Others were studying their hands, obviously embarrassed. But Susan Brooks looked altogether radiant and vindicated. It was a very nice thing to see. I felt like a farmer, spreading shit and growing corn.
♥ In this bright day and age when everybody thinks psychology is God's gift to the poor old anally fixated human race and even the president of the United States pops a trank before dinner, it's really a good way to get rid of those Old Testament guilts that keep creeping up our throats like the aftertaste of a bad meal we overate. If you say your father hated you as a kid, you can go out and flash the neighborhood, commit rape, or burn down the Knights of Pythias bingo parlor and still cop a plea.
♥ All at once it occurred to me how wonderful it would be to break all those storm windows. To break them one by one; the upper panes, and then the lower ones.
You might think it was a piece of revenge, conscious or unconscious, a way to get back at the spit-and-polish, all-hands-on-deck old man. But the truth is, I can't remember putting my father in that particular picture at all. The day was fine and beautiful. I was four. It was a fine October day for breaking windows.
..Funny, in a way—there was no sense of doing anything wrong, just of doing something pleasurable. A little kid's selective perception is a strange thing; if the windows had been fastened on, I never would have dreamed of breaking them.
♥ She screamed—what a fright it can give you when a grown-up screams!—and ran over and put her finger down Herk's throat. Herk threw up the mouse, the hamburger he'd eaten for lunch, and some pasty glop that looked like tomato soup. He was just starting to ask his mother what was going on when she threw up. And there, in all that puke, that old dead mouse didn't look bad at all. It sure looked better than the rest of the stuff. The moral seemed to be that puking up your past when the present is even worse makes some of the vomitus look nearly tasty.
♥ A man with a headful of sharp, prying instruments. A mind-fucker, a head-stud. That's what a shrink is for, my friends and neighbors; their job is to fuck the mentally disturbed and make them pregnant with sanity. It's a bull's job, and they go to school to learn how, and all their courses and variations on a theme: Slipping It to the Psychos for Fun and Profit, Mostly Profit. And if you find yourself someday lying on that great analyst's couch where so many have lain before you, I'd ask you to remember one thing: When you get sanity by stud, the child always looks like the father. And they have a very high suicide rate.
But they get you lonely, and ready to cry, they get you ready to toss it all over if they will just promise to go away for a while. What do we have? What do we really have? Minds like terrified fat men, begging the eyes that look up in the bus terminal or the restaurant and threaten to meet ours to look back down, uninterested. We lie awake and picture ourselves in white hats of varying shapes. There's no maidenhead too tough to withstand the seasoned dork of modern psychiatry. But maybe that was okay. Maybe now they would play my game, all these shysters and whores.
♥ Irma's eyes rolled in caged and desperate triumph. Her neck was slick and shiny with sweat: the anxious sweat of the adolescent damned, the ones who sit home Friday nights and watch old movies on TV and also the clock. The ones for whom the phone is always mute and the voice of the mother is the voice of Thor. The ones who peck endlessly at the mustache shadow between nose and upper lip. The one who go to see Robert Redford with their girlfriends and then come back alone on another day to see him again, with their palms clutched damply in their laps. The ones who agonize over long, seldom-mailed letters to John Travolta, written by the close, anxious light of Tensor study lamps. The ones for whom time has become a slow and dreamy sledge of doom, bringing only empty rooms and the smell of old sweats. Sure, that neck was slimy with sweat. I wouldn't kid you, any more than I would myself.
♥ They understood that. They all understood it. This is not the same as comprehension, but it was good enough. When you stop to think, the whole idea of comprehension has a faintly archaic taste, like the sound of forgotten tongues or a look into a Victorian camera obscura. We Americans are much higher on simple understanding. It makes it easier to read the billboards when you're heading into town on the expressway at plus-fifty. To comprehend, the mental jaws have to gape wide enough to make the tendons creak. Understanding, however, can be purchased on every paperback-book rack in America.
♥ The Pen had an older sister, Lilly Dano, who was a senior when we were all freshmen. She had a face that looked a lot like Pig Pen's, which made her nobody's candidate for Teen Queen. A hook-nosed junior named LaFollet St. Armand began squiring her about, and then knocked her up higher than a kite. LaFollet joined the Marines, where they presumably taught him the difference between his rifle and his gun—which was for shooting and which was for fun. Mrs. Dano appeared at no PTA functions for the next two months. Lilly was packed off to an aunt in Boxford, Massachusetts. Shortly after that, Mrs. Dano returned to the same old stand, grinning harder than ever. It's a small-town classic, friends.
♥ "You're crazy, too," Ted said worriedly. "God, you're all going crazy right along with him."
♥ To make a very clumsy analogy, I was beginning to suspect that Ted was to my classmates what Eisenhower must always have been to the dedicated liberals of the fifties—you had to like him, that style, that grin, that record, those good intentions, but there was something exasperating and a tiny bit slimy about him. You can see I'm fixated on Ted... Why not? I'm still trying to figure him out. Sometimes it seems that everything that happened on that long morning is just something I imagined, or some half-baked writer's fantasy. But it did happen. And sometimes, now, it seems to me that Ted was at the center of it all, not me. It seems that Ted goaded them all into people they were not... or into the people they really were.
♥ I thought of her married to some slob with give two-button suits and fancy pastel toilet paper in the bathroom. It hurt me with its inevitability. They all find out sooner or later how unchic it is to pop your buttons at the Sadie Hawkins dance, or to crawl into the trunk so you can get into the drive-in for free. They stop eating pizza and plugging dimes into the juke down at Fat Sammy's. They stop kissing boys in the blueberry patch. And they always seem to end up looking like the Barbie doll cutouts in Jack and Jill magazine. Fold in at Slot A, Slot B, and Slot C. Watch Her Grow Old Before You Very Eyes. For a second I thought I might actually turn on the waterworks, but I avoided that indignity by wondering if she was wearing white panties today.
♥ Finally Carol clapped her hands and said we were all going outside and play follow the leader, the game which asks the burning question: Are you ready for tomorrow's society?
♥ Joe looked at me. He wanted to look out for me, and suddenly I felt more terrified than at any time since I woke up on that hunting trip up north. After a while, being somebody's responsibility makes them hate you. And I was scared that Joe might hate me someday. I didn't know all that then, not at twelve, but I sensed some of it.
♥ No whips, no chains, no night sweats. Small-town virgin, fresh, bright, pretty, and someday maybe she would blow Placerville and have a real life. Sometimes they change in college. Some of them discover existentialism and anomie and hash pipes. Sometimes they only join sororities and continue with the same sweet dream that began in junior high school, a dream so common to the pretty small-town virgins that it almost could have been cut from a Simplicity pattern, like a jumper or a Your Yummy Summer blouse or play skirt. There's a whammy on bright girls and boys. If the bright ones have a twisted fiber, it shows. If they don't, you can figure them as easily as square roots. Girls like Carol have a steady boyfriend and enjoy a little necking (but, as the Tubes say, "Don't Touch Me There"), nothing overboard. It's okay, I guess. You'd expect more, but, so sorry please, there just isn't. Bight kids are like TV dinners. That's all right. I don't carry a big stick on that particular subject. Smart girls are just sort of dull.
♥ "I'm a virgin," Carol said defiantly, startling me up out of my thoughts. She crossed her legs as if to prove it symbolically, then abruptly uncrossed them. "And I don't think it's so bad, either. Being a virgin is like being bright."
"It is?" Grace Stanner asked doubtfully.
"You have to work at it," Carol said. "That's what I meant, you have to work at it." The idea seemed to please her. It scared the hell out of me.
.."I was walking along Congress Street in Portland just before Christmas last year. I was with Donna Taylor. We were buying Christmas presents. I'd just bought my sister a scarf in Porteus-Mitchell, and we were talking about it and laughing. Just silly stuff. We were giggling. It was about four o'clock and just starting to get dark. It was snowing. All the colored lights were on, and the shop windows were full of litter and packages... pretty... and there was one of those Salvation Army Santa Clauses on the corner by Jones's Book Shop. He was ringing his bell and smiling. I felt good. I felt really food. It was like the Christmas spirit, and all that. I was thinking about getting home and having hot chocolate with whipped cream on top of it. And then this old car drove by, and whoever was driving cranked his window down and yellow, 'Hi, cunt!'"
Anne Lasky jumped. I have to admit that the word did sound awfully funny coming out of Carol Granger's mouth.
"Just like that," she said bitterly. "It was all wrecked. Spoiled. Like an apple you thought was good and then bit into a worm hole. 'Hi, cunt.' As if that was all there was, no person, just a huh-h-h..." Her mouth pulled down in a trembling, agonized grimace. "And that's like being bright, too. They want to stuff things into your head until it's all filled up. It's a different hole, that's all. That's all."
♥ With something like shock I realized she was angry and upset because she was. Anger is a very difficult emotion for a programmed adolescent to handle.
♥ At times I was almost tempted to feel (foolish conceit) that I was holding them myself, by sheer willpower. Now I know, of course, that nothing could have been further from the truth. I had one real hostage that day, and his name was Ted Jones.
♥ Sandra's hands made slow, languorous gestures. I suddenly knew that her natural habitat would be in a porch hammock at the very August height of summer, temperature ninety-two in the shade, reading a book (or perhaps just staring at the heat shimmer rising over the road), a can of Seven-Up beside her with an elbow straw in it, dressed in cool white short-shorts and a brief halter with the straps pushed down, small diamonds of sweat stoppled across the upper swell of her breasts and her lower stomach...
♥ She shook her head vaguely. "But it was very real. I can remember everything—the music, the way he smiled, the sound his zipper made when he opened it—everything."
She smiled at me, that strange, dreamy smile.
"But this has been better, Charlie."
And the strange thing was, I couldn't tell if I felt sick or not. I didn't think I did, bit it was really too close to call. I guess when you turn off the main road, you have to be prepared to see some funny houses. "How do people know they're real?" I muttered.
♥ Things had gotten out of control. There was no real way that could be denied anymore. I had a sudden urge to laugh at all of them, to point out that I had started out as the main attraction and had ended up as the sideshow.
♥ The music sounded distant on this side, blending and almost being covered by the rhythmic sound of the waves.
There was a slip of a moon and a ghost of a breeze. The scene was so frozenly beautiful that for a moment I thought I had walked into a black-and-white picture postcard. The cabin behind and above was only a dim blur. The trees climbed on both sides, pines and spruces that sloped off to naked rock headland—twin spurs of it, which cupped the crescent-shaped beach where the waves licked. Straight ahead was the Atlantic, pinpointed with uncertain nets of light from the moon. I could see the faintest curve of an island far out to the left, and wondered who walked there that night beside the wind.
♥ The moon watched me closely, perhaps to see if I might cry. I didn't.
♥ "You won't shoot me?"
"Are you going to the bathroom or not?" I asked. I wasn't sure if I was going to shoot her. I was still disturbed by (jealous of?) the fact that Sandra's story seemed to have so much more power than my own. In some undefined way, they had gained the upper hand. I had the crazy feeling that instead of my holding them, it was the other way around. Except for Ted, of course. We were all holding Ted.
♥ Ted was grinning at me, but I don't think he knew it. I looked at his face, at the flat, conventionally good looking planes of his cheeks, at the forehead, barricading all those memories of summer country-club days, dances, cars, Sandy's breasts, calmness, ideals of rightness; and suddenly I knew what the last order of business was; perhaps it had been the only order of business all along; and more importantly, I knew that his eye was the eye of a hawk and his hand was stone. He could have been my own father, but that didn't matter. He and Ted were both remote and Olympian: gods. But my arms were too tired to pull down temples. I was never cut out to be Samson.
♥ His eyes were so clear and so straight, so frighteningly purposeful—they were politician's eyes.
♥ Pictures whirled in front of my eyes, hundreds of them, fragments from dreams, fragments from reality. It was impossible to separate one from the other. Lunacy is when you can't see the seams where they stitched the world together anymore.
♥ Pat Fitzgerald's brown hands worked on his paper plane like the sad, moving fingers of death itself.
♥ And then a funny thing happened to me... except, when I think about it, it wasn't funny at all. There must be a line in all of us, a very clear one, just like the line that divides the light side of a planet from the dark. I think they call that line the terminator. That's a very good word fr it. Because at one moment I was freaking out, and at the next I was as cool as a cucumber.
♥ ..I sang, whacking the blackboard in time. Every time I hit it, Mr. Carlson jumped. Every time Mr. Carlson jumped, I felt a little better. Transitional action analysis, baby. Dig it. The Mad Bomber, that poor sad sack from Waterbury, Connecticut, must have been the most well-adjusted American of the last quarter-century.
♥ She had been sleeping a lot, with the help of a Librium prescription. Her breath was sour and dry with it. It smelled like dreams gone rancid.
♥ He wasn't expecting it. It jerked him off balance, and when he started to run a little to catch it back, I tripped him up and he thumped to the oil-stained concrete floor. Maybe he had forgotten I wasn't four anymore or nine years old and cowering in a tent, having to take a whiz while he yucked it up with his friends. Maybe he had forgotten or never knew that little boys grow up remembering every blow and word of scorn, that they grow up and want to eat their fathers alive.
..That made him mad, and he lunged at me, and I hit him across the face with the belt. He put his hands up to his face, and I dropped the belt and hit him in the stomach as hard as I could. The air whiffled out of him, and he doubled over. His belly was soft, even softer than it had looked. I didn't know whether to feel disgust or pity suddenly. It occurred to me that the man I really wanted to hurt was safely out of my reach, standing behind a shield of years.
♥ Yes, folks, things got bad very fast indeed, and they went from bad to worse. But I've always been fairly quick on the uptake, and I don't forget many lessons that I've learned well. I certainly learned the lesson about how you could get anyone's number with a big enough stick. My father picked up the hardhead rake, presumably planning to trepan my skull with it, but when I picked up the hatchet, he put it back.
I never saw that pipe wrench again, but what the fuck. I didn't need that anymore, because that stick wasn't big enough. I'd known about the pistol in my father's desk for ten years. Near the end of April I started to carry it to school.
♥ I watched them. There was nothing. I was afraid it wouldn't come, couldn't come. So tight, so frozen, all of them, When you're five and you hurt, you make a big noise unto the world. At ten you whimper. But by the time you make fifteen you begin to eat the poisoned apples that grow in your own inner tree of pain. It's the Western Way of Enlightenment. You begin to cram your fists into your mouth to stifle the screams. You bleed on the inside. But they had gone so far...
♥ I closed my eyes and put my face in my hands. All I saw was gray. Nothing but gray. Not even a flash of white light. For no reason at all, I thought of New Year's Eve, when all those people crowd into Times Square and scream like jackals as the lighted ball slides down the pole, ready to shed its thin party glare on three hundred and sixty-five new days in this best of all possible worlds. I have always wondered what it would be like to be caught in one of those crowds, screaming and not able to hear your own voice, your individuality momentarily wiped out and replaced with the blind empathic overslop of the crowd's lurching, angry anticipation, hip to hip and shoulder to shoulder with no one in particular.
I began to cry.
♥ About the custard: it's only a little secret, but having a secret makes me feel better. Like a human being again.
That's the end. I have to turn off the light now. Good night.