After the Flood (1957)
The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years—if it ever did end—began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.
The boat bobbed, listed, righted itself again, dived bravely through treacherous whirlpools, and continued on its way down Witcham Street toward the traffic light which marked the intersection of Witcham and Jackson. The three vertical lenses on all sides of the traffic light were dark this afternoon in the fall of 1957, and the houses were all dark, too. There had been steady rain for a week now, and two days ago the winds had come as well. Most sections of Derry had lost their power then, and it was not back on yet.
A small boy in a yellow slicker and red galoshes ran cheerfully along beside the newspaper boat. The rain had not stopped, but it was finally slackening. It tapped on the yellow hood of the boy’s slicker, sounding to his ears like rain on a shed roof . . . a comfortable, almost cozy sound. The boy in the yellow slicker was George Denbrough. He was six. His brother, William, known to most of the kids at Derry Elementary School (and even to the teachers, who would never have used the nickname to his face) as Stuttering Bill, was at home, hacking out the last of a nasty case of influenza. In that autumn of 1957, eight months before the real horrors began and twenty-eight years before the final showdown, Stuttering Bill was ten years old.
Bill had made the boat beside which George now ran. He had made it sitting up in bed, his back propped against a pile of pillows, while their mother played Für Elise on the piano in the parlor and rain swept restlessly against his bedroom window.
About three-quarters of the way down the block as one headed toward the intersection and the dead traffic light, Witcham Street was blocked to motor traffic by smudgepots and four orange sawhorses. Stencilled across each of the horses was DERRY DEPT. OF PUBLIC WORKS. Beyond them, the rain had spilled out of gutters clogged with branches and rocks and big sticky piles of autumn leaves. The water had first pried fingerholds in the paving and then snatched whole greedy handfuls—all of this by the third day of the rains. By noon of the fourth day, big chunks of the street’s surface were boating through the intersection of Jackson and Witcham like miniature white-water rafts. By that time, many people in Derry had begun to make nervous jokes about arks. The Public Works Department had managed to keep Jackson Street open, but Witcham was impassable from the sawhorses all the way to the center of town.
But everyone agreed, the worst was over. The Kenduskeag Stream had crested just below its banks in the Barrens and bare inches below the concrete sides of the Canal which channelled it tightly as it passed through downtown. Right now a gang of men—Zack Denbrough, George’s and Bill’s father, among them—were removing the sandbags they had thrown up the day before with such panicky haste. Yesterday overflow and expensive flood damage had seemed almost inevitable. God knew it had happened before—the flooding in 1931 had been a disaster which had cost millions of dollars and almost two dozen lives. That was a long time ago, but there were still enough people around who remembered it to scare the rest. One of the flood victims had been found twenty-five miles east, in Bucksport. The fish had eaten this unfortunate gentleman’s eyes, three of his fingers, his penis, and most of his left foot. Clutched in what remained of his hands had been a Ford steering wheel.
Now, though, the river was receding, and when the new Bangor Hydro dam went in upstream, the river would cease to be a threat. Or so said Zack Denbrough, who worked for Bangor Hydroelectric. As for the rest—well, future floods could take care of themselves. The thing was to get through this one, to get the power back on, and then to forget it. In Derry such forgetting of tragedy and disaster was almost an art, as Bill Denbrough would come to discover in the course of time.
George paused just beyond the sawhorses at the edge of a deep ravine that had been cut through the tar surface of Witcham Street. This ravine ran on an almost exact diagonal. It ended on the far side of the street, roughly forty feet farther down the hill from where he now stood, on the right. He laughed aloud—the sound of solitary, childish glee a bright runner in that gray afternoon—as a vagary of the flowing water took his paper boat into a scale-model rapids which had been formed by the break in the tar. The urgent water had cut a channel which ran along the diagonal, and so his boat travelled from one side of Witcham Street to the other, the current carrying it so fast that George had to sprint to keep up with it. Water sprayed out from beneath his galoshes in muddy sheets. Their buckles made a jolly jingling as George Denbrough ran toward his strange death. And the feeling which filled him at that moment was clear and simple love for his brother Bill . . . love and a touch of regret that Bill couldn’t be here to see this and be a part of it. Of course he would try to describe it to Bill when he got home, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to make Bill see it, the way Bill would have been able to make him see it if their positions had been reversed. Bill was good at reading and writing, but even at his age George was wise enough to know that wasn’t the only reason why Bill got all A’s on his report cards, or why his teachers liked his compositions so well. Telling was only part of it. Bill was good at seeing.
The boat nearly whistled along the diagonal channel, just a page torn from the Classified section of the Derry News, but now George imagined it as a PT boat in a war movie, like the ones he sometimes saw down at the Derry Theater with Bill at Saturday matinees. A war picture with John Wayne fighting the Japs. The prow of the newspaper boat threw sprays of water to either side as it rushed along, and then it reached the gutter on the left side of Witcham Street. A fresh streamlet rushed over the break in the tar at this point, creating a fairly large whirlpool, and it seemed to him that the boat must be swamped and capsize. It leaned alarmingly, and then George cheered as it righted itself, turned, and went racing on down toward the intersection. George sprinted to catch up. Over his head, a grim gust of October wind rattled the trees, now almost completely unburdened of their freight of colored leaves by the storm, which had been this year a reaper of the most ruthless sort.
Sitting up in bed, his cheeks still flushed with heat (but his fever, like the Kenduskeag, finally receding), Bill had finished the boat—but when George reached for it, Bill held it out of reach. “N-Now get me the p-p-paraffin. ”
“What’s that? Where is it? ”
“It’s on the cellar shuh-shuh-shelf as you go d-downstairs, ” Bill said. “In a box that says Guh-Guh-hulf . . . Gulf. Bring that to me, and a knife, and a b-bowl. And a puh-pack of muh-muh-matches. ”
George had gone obediently to get these things. He could hear his mother playing the piano, not Für Elise now but something else he didn’t like so well—something that sounded dry and fussy; he could hear rain flicking steadily against the kitchen windows. These were comfortable sounds, but the thought of the cellar was not a bit comfortable. He did not like the cellar, and he did not like going down the cellar stairs, because he always imagined there was something down there in the dark. That was silly, of course, his father said so and his mother said so and, even more important, Bill said so, but still—
He did not even like opening the door to flick on the light because he always had the idea—this was so exquisitely stupid he didn’t dare tell anyone—that while he was feeling for the light switch, some horrible clawed paw would settle lightly over his wrist . . . and then jerk him down into the darkness that smelled of dirt and wet and dim rotted vegetables.
Stupid! There were no things with claws, all hairy and full of killing spite. Every now and then someone went crazy and killed a lot of people—sometimes Chet Huntley told about such things on the evening news—and of course there were Commies, but there was no weirdo monster living down in their cellar. Still, this idea lingered. In those interminable moments while he was groping for the switch with his right hand (his left arm curled around the doorjamb in a deathgrip), that cellar smell seemed to intensify until it filled the world. Smells of dirt and wet and long-gone vegetables would merge into one unmistakable ineluctable smell, the smell of the monster, the apotheosis of all monsters. It was the smell of something for which he had no name: the smell of It, crouched and lurking and ready to spring. A creature which would eat anything but which was especially hungry for boymeat.
He had opened the door that morning and had groped interminably for the switch, holding the jamb in his usual deathgrip, his eyes squinched shut, the tip of his tongue poked from the corner of his mouth like an agonized rootlet searching for water in a place of drought. Funny? Sure! You betcha! Lookit you, Georgie! Georgie’s scared of the dark! What a baby!
The sound of the piano came from what his father called the living room and what his mother called the parlor. It sounded like music from another world, far away, the way talk and laughter on a summer-crowded beach must sound to an exhausted swimmer who struggles with the undertow.
His fingers found the switch! Ah!
They snapped it—
—and nothing. No light.
Oh, cripes! The power!
George snatched his arm back as if from a basket filled with snakes. He stepped back from the open cellar door, his heart hurrying in his chest. The power was out, of course—he had forgotten the power was out. Jeezly-crow! What now? Go back and tell Bill he couldn’t get the box of paraffin because the power was out and he was afraid that something might get him as he stood on the cellar stairs, something that wasn’t a Commie or a mass murderer but a creature much worse than either? That it would simply slither part of its rotted self up between the stair risers and grab his ankle? That would go over big, wouldn’t it? Others might laugh at such a fancy, but Bill wouldn’t laugh. Bill would be mad. Bill would say, “Grow up, Georgie . . . do you want this boat or not? ”
As if this thought were his cue, Bill called from his bedroom: “Did you d-d-die out there, Juh-Georgie? ”
“No, I’m gettin it, Bill, ” George called back at once. He rubbed at his arms, trying to make the guilty gooseflesh disappear and be smooth skin again. “I just stopped to get a drink of water. ”
“Well, h-hurry up!”
So he walked down the four steps to the cellar shelf, his heart a warm, beating hammer in his throat, the hair on the nape of his neck standing at attention, his eyes hot, his hands cold, sure that at any moment the cellar door would swing shut on its own, closing off the white light falling through the kitchen windows, and then he would hear It, something worse than all the Commies and murderers in the world, worse than the Japs, worse than Attila the Hun, worse than the somethings in a hundred horror movies. It, growling deeply—he would hear the growl in those lunatic seconds before it pounced on him and unzipped his guts.
The cellar-smell was worse than ever today, because of the flood. Their house was high on Witcham Street, near the crest of the hill, and they had escaped the worst of it, but there was still standing water down there that had seeped in through the old rock foundations. The smell was low and unpleasant, making you want to take only the shallowest breaths.
George sifted through the junk on the shelf as fast as he could—old cans of Kiwi shoepolish and shoepolish rags, a broken kerosene lamp, two mostly empty bottles of Windex, an old flat can of Turtle wax. For some reason this can struck him, and he spent nearly thirty seconds looking at the turtle on the lid with a kind of hypnotic wonder. Then he tossed it back . . . and here it was at last, a square box with the word GULF on it.
George snatched it and ran up the stairs as fast as he could, suddenly aware that his shirttail was out and suddenly sure that his shirttail would be his undoing: the thing in the cellar would allow him to get almost all the way out, and then it would grab the tail of his shirt and snatch him back and—
He reached the kitchen and swept the door shut behind him. It banged gustily. He leaned back against it with his eyes closed, sweat popped out on his arms and forehead, the box of paraffin gripped tightly in one hand.
The piano had come to a stop, and his mom’s voice floated to him: “Georgie, can’t you slam that door a little harder next time? Maybe you could break some of the plates in the Welsh dresser, if you really tried. ”
“Sorry, Mom, ” he called back.
“Georgie, you waste, ” Bill said from his bedroom. He pitched his voice low so their mother would not hear.
George snickered a little. His fear was already gone; it had slipped away from him as easily as a nightmare slips away from a man who awakes, cold-skinned and gasping, from its grip; who feels his body and stares at his surroundings to make sure that none of it ever happened and who then begins at once to forget it. Half is gone by the time his feet hit the floor; three-quarters of it by the time he emerges from the shower and begins to towel off; all of it by the time he finishes his breakfast. All gone . . . until the next time, when, in the grip of the nightmare, all fears will be remembered.
That turtle, George thought, going to the counter drawer where the matches were kept. Where did I see a turtle like that before?
But no answer came, and he dismissed the question.
He got a pack of matches from the drawer, a knife from the rack (holding the sharp edge studiously away from his body, as his dad had taught him), and a small bowl from the Welsh dresser in the dining room. Then he went back into Bill’s room.
“W-What an a-hole you are, Juh-Georgie, ” Bill said, amiably enough, and pushed back some of the sick-stuff on his nighttable: an empty glass, a pitcher of water, Kleenex, books, a bottle of Vicks VapoRub—the smell of which Bill would associate all his life with thick, phlegmy chests and snotty noses. The old Philco radio was there, too, playing not Chopin or Bach but a Little Richard tune . . . very softly, however, so softly that Little Richard was robbed of all his raw and elemental power. Their mother, who had studied classical piano at Juilliard, hated rock and roll. She did not merely dislike it; she abominated it.
“I’m no a-hole, ” George said, sitting on the edge of Bill’s bed and putting the things he had gathered on the nighttable.
“Yes you are, ” Bill said. “Nothing but a great big brown a-hole, that’s you. ”
George tried to imagine a kid who was nothing but a great big a-hole on legs and began to giggle.
“Your a-hole is bigger than Augusta, ” Bill said, beginning to giggle, too.
“Your a-hole is bigger than the whole state, George replied. This broke both boys up for nearly two minutes.
There followed a whispered conversation of the sort which means very little to anyone save small boys: accusations of who was the biggest a-hole, who had the biggest a-hole, which a-hole was the brownest, and so on. Finally Bill said one of the forbidden words—he accused George of being a big brown shitty a-hole—and they both got laughing hard. Bill’s laughter turned into a coughing fit. As it finally began to taper off (by then Bill’s face had gone a plummy shade which George regarded with some alarm), the piano stopped again. They both looked in the direction of the parlor, listening for the piano-bench to scrape back, listening for their mother’s impatient footsteps. Bill buried his mouth in the crook of his elbow, stifling the last of the coughs, pointing at the pitcher at the same time. George poured him a glass of water, which he drank off.
The piano began once more-Für Elise again. Stuttering Bill never forgot that piece, and even many years later it never failed to bring gooseflesh to his arms and back; his heart would drop and he would remember: My mother was playing that the day Georgie died.
“You gonna cough anymore, Bill? ”
Bill pulled a Kleenex from the box, made a rumbling sound in his chest, spat phlegm into the tissue, screwed it up, and tossed it into the wastebasket by his bed, which was filled with similar twists of tissue. Then he opened the box of paraffin and dropped a waxy cube of the stuff into his palm. George watched him closely, but without speaking or questioning. Bill didn’t like George talking to him while he did stuff, but George had learned that if he just kept his mouth shut, Bill would usually explain what he was doing.
Bill used the knife to cut off a small piece of the paraffin cube. He put the piece in the bowl, then struck a match and put it on top of the paraffin. The two boys watched the small yellow flame as the dying wind drove rain against the window in occasional spatters.
“Got to waterproof the boat or it’ll just get wet and sink, ” Bill said. When he was with George, his stutter was light—sometimes he didn’t stutter at all. In school, however, it could become so bad that talking became impossible for him. Communication would cease and Bill’s schoolmates would look somewhere else while Bill clutched the sides of his desk, his face growing almost as red as his hair, his eyes squeezed into slits as he tried to winch some word out of his stubborn throat. Sometimes—most times—the word would come. Other times it simply refused. He had been hit by a car when he was three and knocked into the side of a building; he had remained unconscious for seven hours. Mom said it was that accident which had caused the stutter. George sometimes got the feeling that his dad—and Bill himself—was not so sure.
The piece of paraffin in the bowl was almost entirely melted. The match-flame guttered lower, growing blue as it hugged the cardboard stick, and then it went out. Bill dipped his finger into the liquid, jerked it out with a faint hiss. He smiled apologetically at George. “Hot, ” he said. After a few seconds he dipped his finger in again and began to smear the wax along the sides of the boat, where it quickly dried to a milky haze.
“Can I do some? ” George asked.
“Okay. Just don’t get any on the blankets or Mom’ll kill you. ”
George dipped his finger into the paraffin, which was now very warm but no longer hot, and began to spread it along the other side of the boat.
“Don’t put on so much, you a-hole!” Bill said. “You want to sink it on its m-maiden cruise? ”
“I’m sorry. ”
“That’s all right. Just g-go easy. ”
George finished the other side, then held the boat in his hands. It felt a little heavier, but not much. “Too cool, ” he said. “I’m gonna go out and sail it. ”
“Yeah, you do that, ” Bill said. He suddenly looked tired—tired and still not very well.
“I wish you could come, ” George said. He really did. Bill sometimes got bossy after awhile, but he always had the coolest ideas and he hardly ever hit. “It’s your boat, really. ”
“She, Bill said. ”You call boats sh-she. ”
“She, then. ”
“I wish I could come, too, ” Bill said glumly.
“Well . . . ” George shifted from one foot to the other, the boat in his hands.
“You put on your rain-stuff, ” Bill said, “or you’ll wind up with the fluh-hu like me. Probably catch it anyway, from my juh-germs. ”
“Thanks, Bill. It’s a neat boat. ” And he did something he hadn’t done for a long time, something Bill never forgot: he leaned over and kissed his brother’s cheek.
“You’ll catch it for sure now, you a-hole, ” Bill said, but he seemed cheered up all the same. He smiled at George. “Put all this stuff back, too. Or Mom’ll have a b-bird. ”
“Sure. ” He gathered up the waterproofing equipment and crossed the room, the boat perched precariously on top of the paraffin box, which was sitting askew in the little bowl.
George turned back to look at his brother.
“Be c-careful. ”
“Sure. ” His brow creased a little. That was something your Mom said, not your big brother. It was as strange as him giving Bill a kiss. “Sure I will. ”
He went out. Bill never saw him again.