THE BOOGEYMAN by Stephen King (read online)
‘I came to you because I want to tell my story,’ theman on Dr Harper’s couch was saying. The man was Lester Billings from Waterbury, Connecticut.According to the history taken from Nurse Vickers, he was twenty-eight,employed by an industrial firm in New York, divorced, and the father of three children. Alldeceased.
‘I can’t go to a priest because I’m not a Catholic. Ican’t go to a lawyer because I haven’t done anything to consult a lawyer about.All I did was kill my kids. One at a time. Killed them all.’
Dr Harper turned on the tape recorder.
Billings lay straight as a yardstick on the couch, not giving it an inch ofhimself. His feet protruded stiffly over the end. Picture of a man enduringnecessary humiliation. His hands were folded corpselike on his chest. His facewas carefully set… He looked at the plain white composition ceiling as ifseeing scenes and pictures played out there.
‘Do you mean you actually killed them, or -‘
‘No.’ Impatient flick of the hand. ‘But I wasresponsible. Denny in 1967. Shirl in 1971. And Andy this year. I want to tellyou about it.’
Dr Harper said nothing. He thought that Billings looked haggardand old. His hair was thinning, his complexion sallow. His eyes held all themiserable secrets of whisky.
‘They were murdered, see? Only no one believes that.If they would, things would be all right.’
‘Why is that?’
Billings broke off and darted up on his elbows, staring across the room. ‘What’sthat?’ he barked. His eyes had narrowed to black slots.
‘The closet,’ Dr Harper said. ‘Where I hang my coatand leave my overshoes.’
‘Open it. I want to see.’
Dr Harper got up wordlessly, crossed the room, andopened the closet. Inside, a tan raincoat hung on one of four or five hangers.Beneath that was a pair of shiny goloshes. The New York Times had beencarefully tucked into one of them. That was all.
‘All right?’ Dr Harper said.
‘All right.’ Billingsremoved the props of his elbows and returned to his previous position.
‘You were saying,’ Dr Harper said as he went back tohis chair, ‘that if the murder of your three children could be proved, all yourtroubles would be over. Why is that?’
‘I’d go to jail,’ Billings said immediately. ‘For life. And youcan see into all the rooms in a jail. All the rooms.’ He smiled at nothing.
‘How were your children murdered?’
‘Don’t try to jerk it out of me!’
Billings twitched around and stared balefully at Harper.
‘I’ll tell you, don’t worry. I’m not one of yourfreaks strutting around and pretending to be Napoleon or explaining that I gothooked on heroin because my mother didn’t love me. I know you won’t believe me.I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. Just to tell will be enough.’
‘All right.’ Dr Harper got out his pipe.
‘I married Rita in 1965 – I was twenty-one and she waseighteen. She was pregnant. That was Denny.’ His lips twisted in a rubbery,frightening grin that was gone in a wink. ‘I had to leave college and get ajob, but I didn’t mind. I loved both of them. We were very happy.
‘Rita got pregnant just a little while after Denny wasborn, and Shirl came along in December of 1966. Andy came in the summer of1969, and Denny was already dead by then. Andy was an accident. That’s whatRita said. She said sometimes that birth-control stuff doesn’t work. I thinkthat it was more than an accident. Children tie a man down, you know. Womenlike that, especially when the man is brighter than they. Don’t you find that’strue?’
Harper grunted non-commitally.
‘It doesn’t matter, though. I loved him anyway.’ Hesaid it almost vengefully, as if he had loved the child to spite his wife.
‘Who killed the children?’ Harper asked.
‘The boogeyman,’ Lester Billings answered immediately.‘The boogeyman killed them all. Just came out of the closet and killed them.’He twisted around and grinned. ‘You think I’m crazy, all right. It’s writtenall over you. But I don’t care. All I want to do is tell you and then getlost.’
‘I’m listening,’ Harper said.
‘It started when Denny was almost two and Shirl wasjust an infant. He started crying when Rita put him to bed. We had atwo-bedroom place, see. Shirl slept in a crib in our room. At first I thoughthe was crying because he didn’t have a bottle to take to bed any more. Ritasaid don’t make an issue of it, let it go, let him have it and he’ll drop it onhis own. But that’s the way kids start off bad. You get permissive with them,spoil them. Then they break your heart. Get some girl knocked up, you know, orstart shooting dope. Or they get to be sissies. Can you imagine waking up somemorning and finding your kid – your son – is a sissy?
‘After a while, though, when he didn’t stop, I startedputting him to bed myself. And if he didn’t stop crying I’d give him a whack.Then Rita said he was saying “light” over and over again. Well, Ididn’t know. Kids that little, how can you tell what they’re saying. Only amother can tell.
‘Rita wanted to put in a nightlight. One of thosewall-
plug things with Mickey Mouse or Huckleberry Hound orsomething on it. I wouldn’t let her. If a kid doesn’t get over being afraid ofthe dark when he’s little, he never gets over it.
‘Anyway, he died the summer after Shirl was born. Iput him to bed that night and he started to cry right off. I heard what he saidthat time. He pointed right at the closet when he said it.“Boogeyman,” the kid says. “Boogeyman, Daddy.”
‘I turned off the light and went into our room andasked Rita why she wanted to teach the kid a word like that. I was tempted toslap her around a little, but I didn’t. She said she never taught him to saythat. I called her a goddamn liar.
‘That was a bad summer for me, see. The only job Icould get was loading Pepsi-Cola trucks in a warehouse, and I was tired all thetime. Shirl would wake up and cry every night and Rita would pick her up andsniffle. I tell you, sometimes I felt like throwing them both out a window.Christ, kids drive you crazy sometimes. You could kill them.
‘Well, the kid woke me at three in the morning, righton schedule. I went to the bathroom, only a quarter awake, you know, and Ritaasked me if I’d check on Denny. I told her to do it herself and went back tobed. I was almost asleep when she started to scream.
‘I got up and went in. The kid was dead on his back.Just as white as flour except for where the blood had... had sunk. Back ofthe legs, the head, the a-the buttocks. His eyes were open. That was the worst,you know. Wide open and glassy, like the eyes you see on a moosehead some guyput over his mantel. Like pictures you see of those gook kids over in Nam. But anAmerican kid shouldn’t look like that. Dead on his back. Wearing diapers andrubber pants because he’d been wetting himself again the last couple of weeks. Awful,I loved that kid.’
Billings shook his head slowly, then offered the rubbery, frightening grinagain. ‘Rita was screaming her head off.
She tried to pick Denny up and rock him, but Iwouldn’t let her. The cops don’t like you to touch any of the evidence. I knowthat -‘
‘Did you know it was the boogeyman then?’ Harper askedquietly.
‘Oh, no. Not then. But I did see one thing. It didn’tmean anything to me then, but my mind stored it away.’
‘What was that?’
‘The closet door was open. Not much. Just a crack. ButI knew I left it shut, see. There’s dry-cleaning bags in there. 3 A kid messes around with oneof those and bango. Asphyxiation. You know that?’
‘Yes. What happened then?’
Billings shrugged. ‘We planted him.’ He looked morbidly at his hands, which hadthrown dirt on three tiny coffins.
‘Was there an inquest?’
‘Sure.’ Billings’seyes flashed with sardonic brilliance.
‘So me back-country fuckhead with a stethoscope and ablack bag full of Junior Mints and a sheepskin from some cow college. Cribdeath, he called it! You ever hear such a pile of yellow manure? The kid wasthree years old!’
‘Crib death is most common during the first year,’Harper said carefully, ‘but that diagnosis has gone on death certificates forchildren up to age five for want of a better -‘
Bulishit!’ Billingsspat out violently.
Harper relit his pipe.
We moved Shirl into Denny’s old room a month after thefuneral. Rita fought it tooth and nail, but I had the last word. It hurt me, ofcourse it did. Jesus, I loved having the kid in with us. But you can’t getoverprotective. You make a kid a cripple that way. When I was a kid my mom usedto take me to the beach and then scream herself hoarse. “Don’t go out sofar! Don’t go there! It’s got an undertow! You only ate an hour ago! Don’t goover your head!” Even to watch out for sharks, before God. So whathappens? I can’t even go near the water now. It’s the truth. I get the cramps ifI go near a beach. Rita got me to take her and the kids to Savin Rock once whenDenny was alive. I got sick as a dog. I know, see? You can’t overprotect kids.And you can’t coddle yourself either. Life goes on. Shirl went right intoDenny’s crib. We sent the old mattress to the dump, though. I didn’t want mygirl to get any germs.
‘So a year goes by. And one night when I’m puttingShirl into her crib she starts to yowl and scream and cry. “Boogeyman,Daddy, boogeyman, boogeyman!”
‘That threw a jump into me. It was just like Denny.And I started to remember about that closet door, open just a crack when wefound him. I wanted to take her into our room for the night.’
‘No.’ Billingsregarded his hands and his face twitched. ‘How could I go to Rita and admit Iwas wrong? I had to be strong. She was always such a jellyfish... look howeasy she went to bed with me when we weren’t married.’
Harper said, ‘On the other hand, look how easily youwent to bed with her.’
Billings froze in the act of rearranging his hands and slowly turned his head tolook at Harper. ‘Are you trying to be a wise guy?’
‘No, indeed,’ Harper said.
‘Then let me tell it my way,’ Billings snapped. ‘I came here to get thisoff my chest. To tell my story. I’m not going to talk about my sex life, ifthat’s what you expect. Rita and I had a very normal sex life, with none ofthat dirty stuff. I know it gives some people a charge to talk about that, butI’m not one of them.’
‘Okay,’ Harper said.
‘Okay,’ Billingsechoed with uneasy arrogance. He seemed to have lost the thread of his thought,and his eyes wandered uneasily to the closet door, which was firmly shut.
‘Would you like that open?’ Harper asked.
‘No!’ Billingssaid quickly. He gave a nervous little laugh. ‘What do I want to look at yourovershoes for?
‘The boogeyman got her, too,’ Billings said. He brushed at his forehead, asif sketching memories. ‘A month later. But something happened before that. Iheard a noise in there one night. And then she screamed. I opened the door realquick – the hall light was on – and... she was sitting up in the crib cryingand... something moved. Back in the shadows, by the closet. Somethingslithered.’
‘Was the closet door open?’
‘A little. Just a crack.’ Billings licked his lips. ‘Shirl wasscreaming about the boogeyman. And something else that sounded like“claws”. Only she said “craws”, you know. Little kids havetrouble with that “I” sound. Rita ran upstairs and asked what thematter was. I said she got scared by the shadows of the branches moving on theceiling.’
‘Crawset?’ Harper said.
‘Crawset... closet. Maybe she was trying to say“closet”.’
‘Maybe,’ Billingssaid. ‘Maybe that was it. But I don’t think so.I think it was“claws”.’ His eyes began seeking the closet door again. ‘Claws, longclaws.’ His voice had sunk to a whisper.
‘Did you look in the closet?’
‘Y-yes.’ Billings’shands were laced tightly across his chest, laced tightly enough to show a whitemoon at each knuckle.
‘Was there anything in there? Did you see the -‘
‘I didn’t see anything!’ Billings screamed suddenly. And the wordspoured out, as if a black cork had been pulled from the bottom of his soul:‘When she died I found her, see. And she was black. All black. She swallowedher own tongue and she was just as black as a nigger in a minstrel show and shewas staring at me. Her eyes, they looked like those eyes you see on stuffedanimals, all shiny and awful, like live marbles, and they were saying it gotme, Daddy, you let it get me, you killed me, you helped it kill me.
His words trailed off. One single tear very large andsilent, ran down the side of his cheek.
‘It was a brain convulsion, see? Kids get thosesometimes. A bad signal from the brain. They had an autopsy at HartfordReceiving and they told us she choked on her tongue from the convulsion. And Ihad to go home alone because they kept Rita under sedation. She was out of hermind. I had to go back to that house all alone, and I know a kid don’t just getconvulsions because their brain frigged up. You can scare a kid intoconvulsions. And I had to go back to the house where it was.’
He whispered, ‘I slept on the couch. With the lighton.,
‘Did anything happen?’
‘I had a dream,’ Billingssaid. ‘I was in a dark room and there was something I couldn’t... couldn’tquite see, in the closet. It made a noise… a squishy noise. It reminded me ofa comic book I read when I was a kid. Tales from the Crypt, you remember that?Christ! They had a guy named Graham Ingles; he could draw every god-awful thingin the world – and some out of it. Anyway, in this story this woman drowned herhusband, see? Put cement blocks on his feet and dropped him into a quarry. Onlyhe came back. ‘He was all rotted and black-green and the fish had eaten awayone of his eyes and there was seaweed in his hair. He came back and killed her.And when I woke up in the middle of the night, I thought that would be leaningover me. With claws… long claws .
Dr Harper looked at the digital clock inset into hisdesk. Lester Billings had been speaking for nearly half an hour. He said, ‘Whenyour wife came back home, what was her attitude towards you?’
‘She still loved me,’ Billings said with pride. ‘She still wantedto do what I told her. That’s the wife’s place, right? This women’s lib onlymakes sick people. The most important thing in life is for a person to know hisplace. His. his… .uh.
‘Station in life?’
‘That’s it!’ Billingssnapped his fingers. ‘That’s it exactly. And a wife should follow her husband.Oh, she was sort of colourless the first four or five months after – draggedaround the house, didn’t sing, didn’t watch the TV, didn’t laugh. I knew she’dget over it. When they’re that little, you don’t get so attached to them. Aftera while you have to go to the bureau drawer and look at a picture to evenremember exactly what they looked like.
‘She wanted another baby,’ he added darkly. ‘I toldher it was a bad idea. Oh, not for ever, but for a while. I told her it was atime for us to get over things and begin to enjoy each other. We never had achance to do that before. If you wanted to go to a movie, you had to hasslearound for a baby-sitter. You couldn’t go into town to see the Mets unless herfolks would take the kids, because my mom wouldn’t have anything to do with us.Denny was born too soon after we were married, see? She said Rita was just atramp, a common little corner-walker. Corner-walker is what my mom alwayscalled them. Isn’t that a sketch? She sat me down once and told me diseases youcan get if you went to a cor... to a prostitute. How your pri... your penishas just a little tiny sore on it one day and the next day it’s rotting rightoff. She wouldn’t even come to the wed-ding.’
Billings drummed his chest with his fingers.
‘Rita’s gynaecologist sold heron this thing called anIUD – interuterine device. Foolproof, the doctor said. He just sticks it up thewoman’s... her place, and that’s it. If there’s anything in there, the eggcan’t fertilize. You don’t even know it’s there.’ He smiled at the ceiling withdark sweetness. ‘No one knows if it’s there or not. And next year she’spregnant again. Some foolproof.’
‘No birth-control method is perfect,’ Harper said.‘The pill is only ninety-eight per cent. The IUD may be ejected by cramps,strong menstrual flow, and, in exceptional cases, by evacuation.’
‘Yeah. Or you can take it out.’
‘So what’s next? She’s knitting little things, singingin the shower, and eating pickles like crazy. Sitting on my lap and sayingthings about how it must have been God’s will. Piss.’
‘The baby came at the end of the year after Shirl’sdeath?’
‘That’s right. A boy. She named it Andrew LesterBillings. I didn’t want anything to do with it, at least at first. My motto wasshe screwed up, so let her take care of it. I know how that sounds but you haveto remember that I’d been through a lot.
‘But I warmed up to him, you know it? He was the onlyone of the litter that looked like me, for one thing. Denny looked like hismother, and Shirl didn’t look like anybody, except maybe my Grammy Ann. ButAndy was the spitting image of me.
‘I’d get to playing around with him in his playpenwhen I got home from work. He’d grab only my finger and smile and gurgle. Nineweeks old and the kid was grinning up at his old dad. You believe that?’
‘Then one night, here I am coming out of a drugstorewith a mobile to hang over the kid’s crib. Me! Kids don’t appreciate presentsuntil they’re old enough to say thank you, that was always my motto. But thereI was, buying him silly crap and all at once I realize I love him the most ofall. I had another job by then, a pretty good one, selling drill bits forCluett and Sons. I did real well, and when Andy was one, we moved to Waterbury. The old placehad too many bad memories.
‘And too many closets.
‘That next year was the best one for us. I’d giveevery finger on my right hand to have it back again. Oh, the war in Vietnam wasstill going on, and the hippies were still running around with no clothes on,and the niggers were yelling a lot, but none of that touched us. We were on aquiet street with nice neighbours. We were happy,’ he summed up simply. ‘Iasked Rita once if she wasn’t worried. You know, bad luck comes in threes andall that. She said not for us. She said Andy was special. She said God haddrawn a ring around him.’
Billings looked morbidly at the ceiling.
‘Last year wasn’t so good. Something about the housechanged. I started keeping my boots in the hall because I didn’t like to openthe closet door any more. I kept thinking: Well, what if it’s in there? Allcrouched down and ready to spring the second I open the door? And I’d startedthinking I could hear squishy noises, as if something black and green and wetwas moving around in there just a little.
‘Rita asked me if I was working too hard, and Istarted to snap at her, just like the old days. I got sick to rny stomachleaving them alone to go to work, but I was glad to get out. God help me, I wasglad to get out. I started to think, see, that it lost us for a while when wemoved. It had to hunt around, slinking through the streets at night and maybecreeping in the sewers. Smelling for us. It took a year, but it found us. It’sback. It wants Andy and it wants me. I started to think, maybe if you think ofa thing long enough, and believe in it, it gets real. Maybe all the monsters wewere scared of when we were kids, Frankenstein and Wolfman and Mummy, maybethey were real. Real enough to kill the kids that were supposed to have falleninto gravel pits or drowned in lakes or were just never found. Maybe. .
‘Are you backing away from something, Mr Billings?’
Billings was silent for a long time – two minutes clicked off the digital clock.Then he said abruptly: ‘Andy died in February. Rita wasn’t there. She got acall from her father. Her mother had been in a car crash the day after NewYear’s and wasn’t expected to live. She took a bus back that night.
‘Her mother didn’t die, but she was on the criticallist for a long time – two months. I had a very good woman who stayed with Andydays. We kept house nights. And closet doors kept coming open.’
Billings licked his lips. ‘The kid was sleeping in theroom with me. It’s funny, too. Rita asked me once when he was two if I wantedto move him into another room. Spock or one of those other quacks claims it’sbad for kids to sleep with their parents, see? Supposed to give them traumasabout sex and all that. But we never did it unless the kid was asleep. And Ididn’t want to move him. I was afraid to, after Denny and Shirl.’
‘But you did move him, didn’t you?’ Dr Harper asked.
‘Yeah,’ Billings said. He smiled a sick, yellow smile.‘I did.’
Silence again. Billings wrestled with it.
‘I had to!’ he barked finally. ‘I had to! It was allright when Rita was there, but when she was gone, it started to get bolder. Itstarted.. .’ He rolled his eyes at Harper and bared his teeth in a savagegrin. ‘Oh, you won’t believe it. I know what you think, just another goofy foryour casebook, I know that, but you weren’t there, you lousy smug head-peeper.
‘One night every door in the house blew wide open. Onemorning I got up and found a trail of mud and filth across the hall between thecoat closet and the front door. Was it going out? Coming in? I don’t know!Before Jesus, I just don’t know! Records all scratched up and covered withslime, mirrors broken... and the sounds... the sounds…
He ran a hand through his hair. ‘You’d wake up atthree in the morning and look into the dark and at first you’d say, “It’sonly the clock.” But underneath it you could hear something moving in astealthy way. But not too stealthy, because it wanted you to hear it. A slimysliding sound like something from the kitchen drain. Or a clicking sound, likeclaws being dragged lightly over the staircase banister. And you’d close youreyes, knowing that hearing it was bad, but if you saw it.
‘And always you’d be afraid that the noises might stopfor a little while, and then there would be a laugh right over your face andbreath of air like stale cabbage on your face, and then hands on your throat.’
Billings was pallid and trembling.
‘So I moved him. I knew it would go for him, see.Because he was weaker. And it did. That very first night he screamed in themiddle of the night and finally, when I got up the cojones to go in, he wasstanding up in bed and screaming. “The boogeyman, Daddy... boogeyman.
wanna go wif Daddy, go wif Daddy.”‘
Billings’s voice had become a high treble, like achild’s. His eyes seemed to fill his entire face; he almost seemed to shrink onthe couch.
‘But I couldn’t,’ the childish breaking treblecontinued, ‘I couldn’t. And an hour later there was a scream. An awful gurglingscream. And I knew how much I loved him because I ran, in, I didn’t even turnon the light, I ran, ran, ran, oh, Jesus God Mary, it had him; it was shakinghim, shaking him just like a terrier shakes a piece of cloth and I could seesomething with awful slumped shoulders and a scarecrow head and I could smellsomething like a dead mouse in a pop bottle and I heard. .
He trailed off, and then his voice clicked back intoan adult range. ‘I heard it when Andy’s neck broke.’ Billings’s voice was cooland dead. ‘It made a sound like ice cracking when you’re skating on a countrypond in winter.’
‘Then what happened?’
‘Oh, I ran,’ Billings said in the same cool, deadvoice. ‘I went to an all-night diner. How’s that for complete cowardice? Ran toan all-night diner and drank six cups of coffee. Then I went home. It wasalready dawn. I called the police even before I went upstairs. He was lying onthe floor and staring at me. Accusing me. A tiny bit of blood had run out ofone ear. Only a drop, really. And the closet door was open – but just a crack.’
The voice stopped. Harper looked at the digital clock.Fifty minutes had passed.
‘Make an appointment with the nurse,’ he said. ‘Infact, several of them. Tuesdays and Thursdays?’
‘I only came to tell my story,’ Billings said. ‘To getit off my chest. I lied to the police, see? Told them the kid must have triedto get out of his crib in the night and... they swallowed it. Course theydid. That’s just what it looked like. Accidental, like the others. But Ritaknew. Rita. finally... knew .
He covered his eyes with his right arm and began toweep.
‘Mr Billings, there is a great deal to talk about,’ DrHarper said after a pause. ‘I believe we can remove some of the guilt you’vebeen carrying, but first you have to want to get rid of it.’
‘Don’t you believe I do?’ Billings cried, removing hisarm from his eyes. They were red, raw, wounded.
‘Not yet,’ Harper said quietly. ‘Tuesdays andThursdays?’
After a long silence, Billings muttered, ‘Goddamnshrink. All right. All right.’
‘Make an appointment with the nurse, Mr Billings. Andhave a good day.’
Billings laughed emptily and walked out of the officequickly, without looking back.
The nurse’s station was empty. A small sign on thedesk blotter said: ‘Back in a Minute.’
Billings turned and went back into the office.‘Doctor, your nurse is -,
The room was empty.
But the closet door was open. Just a crack.
‘So nice,’ the voice from the closet said. ‘So nice.’The words sounded as if they might have come through a mouthful of rottedseaweed.
Billings stood rooted to the spot as the closet doorswung open. He dimly felt warmth at his crotch as he wet himself.
‘So nice,’ the boogeyman said as it shambled out. It still held its Dr Harper mask in one rotted, spade-claw hand.