Stephen King is the author of more than sixty books, all of them worldwide bestsellers. His recent work includes The Institute, Elevation, The Outsider, Sleeping Beauties (cowritten with his son Owen King), and the Bill Hodges trilogy: End of Watch, Finders Keepers, and Mr. Mercedes (an Edgar Award winner for Best Novel and an AT&T Audience Network original television series). His novel 11/22/63 was named a top ten book of 2011 by The New York Times Book Review and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Mystery/Thriller. His epic works The Dark Tower and It are the basis for major motion pictures, with It now the highest grossing horror film of all time. He is the recipient of the 2018 PEN America Literary Service Award, the 2014 National Medal of Arts, and the 2003 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. He lives in Bangor, Maine, with his wife, novelist Tabitha King.
11/22/63 CHAPTER 1
Harry Dunning graduated with flying colors. I went to the little GED ceremony in the LHS gym, at his invitation. He really had no one else, and I was happy to do it.
After the benediction (spoken by Father Bandy, who rarely missed an LHS function), I made my way through the milling friends and relatives to where Harry was standing alone in his billowy black gown, holding his diploma in one hand and his rented mortarboard in the other. I took his hat so I could shake his hand. He grinned, exposing a set of teeth with many gaps and several leaners. But a sunny and engaging grin, for all that.
“Thanks for coming, Mr. Epping. Thanks so much.”
“It was my pleasure. And you can call me Jake. It’s a little perk I accord to students who are old enough to be my father.”
He looked puzzled for a minute, then laughed. “I guess I am, ain’t I? Sheesh!” I laughed, too. Lots of people were laughing all around us. And there were tears, of course. What’s hard for me comes easily to a great many people.
“And that A-plus! Sheesh! I never got an A-plus in my whole life! Never expected one, either!”
“You deserved it, Harry. So what’s the first thing you’re going to do as a high school graduate?”
His smile dimmed for a second—this was a prospect he hadn’t considered. “I guess I’ll go back home. I got a little house I rent on Goddard Street, you know.” He raised the diploma, holding it carefully by the fingertips, as if the ink might smear. “I’ll frame this and hang it on the wall. Then I guess I’ll pour myself a glass of wine and sit on the couch and just admire it until bedtime.”
“Sounds like a plan,” I said, “but would you like to have a burger and some fries with me first? We could go down to Al’s.”
I expected a wince at that, but of course I was judging Harry by my colleagues. Not to mention most of the kids we taught; they avoided Al’s like the plague and tended to patronize either the Dairy Queen across from the school or the Hi-Hat out on 196, near where the old Lisbon Drive-In used to be.
“That’d be great, Mr. Epping. Thanks!”
“Jake, you bet.”
So I took Harry to Al’s, where I was the only faculty regular, and although he actually had a waitress that summer, Al served us himself. As usual, a cigarette (illegal in public eating establishments, but that never stopped Al) smoldered in one corner of his mouth and the eye on that side squinted against the smoke. When he saw the folded-up graduation robe and realized what the occasion was, he insisted on picking up the check (what check there was; the meals at Al’s were always remarkably cheap, which had given rise to rumors about the fate of certain stray animals in the vicinity). He also took a picture of us, which he later hung on what he called the Town Wall of Celebrity. Other “celebrities” represented included the late Albert Dunton, founder of Dunton Jewelry; Earl Higgins, a former LHS principal; John Crafts, founder of John Crafts Auto Sales; and, of course, Father Bandy of St. Cyril’s. (The Father was paired with Pope John XXIII—the latter not local, but revered by Al Templeton, who called himself “a good Catlick.”) The picture Al took that day showed Harry Dunning with a big smile on his face. I was standing next to him, and we were both holding his diploma. His tie was pulled slightly askew. I remember that because it made me think of those little squiggles he put on the ends of his lower-case y’
s. I remember it all. I remember it very well.
Two years later, on the last day of the school year, I was sitting in that very same teachers’ room and reading my way through a batch of final essays my American Poetry honors seminar had written. The kids themselves had already left, turned loose for another summer, and soon I would do the same. But for the time being I was happy enough where I was, enjoying the unaccustomed quiet. I thought I might even clean out the snack cupboard before I left. Someone
ought to do it, I thought.
Earlier that day, Harry Dunning had limped up to me after homeroom period (which had been particularly screechy, as all homerooms and study halls tend to be on the last day of school) and offered me his hand.
“I just want to thank you for everything,” he said.
I grinned. “You already did that, as I remember.”
“Yeah, but this is my last day. I’m retiring. So I wanted to make sure and thank you again.”
As I shook his hand, a kid cruising by—no more than a sophomore, judging by the fresh crop of pimples and the serio-comic straggle on his chin that aspired to goatee-hood—muttered, “Hoptoad Harry, hoppin down the av-a-new.
I grabbed for him, my intention to make him apologize, but Harry stopped me. His smile was easy and unoffended. “Nah, don’t bother. I’m used to it. They’re just kids.”
“That’s right,” I said. “And it’s our job to teach them.”
“I know, and you’re good at it. But it’s not my job to be anybody’s whatchacallit—teachable moment. Especially not today. I hope you’ll take care of yourself, Mr. Epping.” He might be old enough to be my father, but Jake
was apparently always going to be beyond him.
“You too, Harry.”
“I’ll never forget that A-plus. I framed that, too. Got it right up beside my diploma.”
“Good for you.”
And it was. It was all good. His essay had been primitive art, but every bit as powerful and true as any painting by Grandma Moses. It was certainly better than the stuff I was currently reading. The spelling in the honors essays was mostly correct, and the diction was clear (although my cautious college-bound don’t-take-a-chancers had an irritating tendency to fall back on the passive voice), but the writing was pallid. Boring. My honors kids were juniors—Mac Steadman, the department head, awarded the seniors to himself—but they wrote like little old men and little old ladies, all pursey-mouthed and ooo, don’t slip on that icy patch, Mildred.
In spite of his grammatical lapses and painstaking cursive, Harry Dunning had written like a hero. On one occasion, at least.
As I was musing on the difference between offensive and defensive writing, the intercom on the wall cleared its throat. “Is Mr. Epping in the west wing teachers’ room? You by any chance still there, Jake?”
I got up, thumbed the button, and said: “Still here, Gloria. For my sins. Can I help you?”
“You have a phone call. Guy named Al Templeton? I can transfer it, if you want. Or I can tell him you left for the day.”
Al Templeton, owner and operator of Al’s Diner, where all LHS faculty save for yours truly refused to go. Even my esteemed department head—who tried to talk like a Cambridge don and was approaching retirement age himself—had been known to refer to the specialty of the house as Al’s Famous Catburger instead of Al’s Famous Fatburger. Well of course it’s not really cat,
people would say, or
probably not cat, but it can’t be beef, not at a dollar-nineteen.
“Jake? Did you fall asleep on me?”
“Nope, wide awake.” Also curious as to why Al would call me at school. Why he’d call me at all, for that matter. Ours had always been strictly a cook-and-client relationship. I appreciated his chow, and he appreciated my patronage. “Go on and put him through.”
“Why are you still here, anyway?”
“I’m flagellating myself.”
“Ooo!” Gloria said, and I could imagine her fluttering her long lashes. “I love it when you talk dirty. Hold on and wait for the ringy-dingy.”
She clicked off. The extension rang and I picked it up.
“Jake? You on there, buddy?”
At first I thought Gloria must have gotten the name wrong. That voice couldn’t belong to Al. Not even the world’s worst cold could have produced such a croak.
“Who is this?”
“Al Templeton, didn’t she tellya? Christ, that hold music really sucks. Whatever happened to Connie Francis?” He began to ratchet coughs loud enough to make me hold the phone away from my ear a little.
“You sound like you got the flu.”
He laughed. He also kept coughing. The combination was fairly gruesome. “I got something, all right.”
“It must have hit you fast.” I had been in just yesterday, to grab an early supper. A Fatburger, fries, and a strawberry milkshake. I believe it’s important for a guy living on his own to hit all the major food groups.
“You could say that. Or you could say it took awhile. Either one would be right.”
I didn’t know how to respond to that. I’d had a lot of conversations with Al in the six or seven years I’d been going to the diner, and he could be odd—insisted on referring to the New England Patriots as the Boston Patriots, for instance, and talked about Ted Williams as if he’d known him like a brudda—but I’d never had a conversation as weird as this.
“Jake, I need to see you. It’s important.”
“Can I ask—”
“I expect you to ask plenty, and I’ll answer, but not over the phone.”
I didn’t know how many answers he’d be able to give before his voice gave out, but I promised I’d come down in an hour or so.
“Thanks. Make it even sooner, if you can. Time is, as they say, of the essence.” And he hung up, just like that, without even a goodbye.
I worked my way through two more of the honors essays, and there were only four more in the stack, but it was no good. I’d lost my groove. So I swept the stack into my briefcase and left. It crossed my mind to go upstairs to the office and wish Gloria a good summer, but I didn’t bother. She’d be in all next week, closing the books on another school year, and I was going to come in on Monday and clean out the snack cupboard—that was a promise I’d made to myself. Otherwise the teachers who used the west wing teachers’ room during summer session would find it crawling with bugs.
If I’d known what the future held for me, I certainly would have gone up to see her. I might even have given her the kiss that had been flirting in the air between us for the last couple of months. But of course I didn’t know. Life turns on a dime.
Al’s Diner was housed in a silver trailer across the tracks from Main Street, in the shadow of the old Worumbo mill. Places like that can look tacky, but Al had disguised the concrete blocks upon which his establishment stood with pretty beds of flowers. There was even a neat square of lawn, which he barbered himself with an old push-type lawn mower. The lawn mower was as well tended as the flowers and the lawn; not a speck of rust on the whirring, brightly painted blades. It might have been purchased at the local Western Auto store the week before . . . if there had still been a Western Auto in The Falls, that was. There was once, but it fell victim to the big-box stores back around the turn of the century.
I went up the paved walk, up the steps, then paused, frowning. The sign reading WELCOME TO AL’S DINER, HOME OF THE FATBURGER! was gone. In its place was a square of cardboard reading CLOSED & WILL NOT REOPEN DUE TO ILLNESS. THANK YOU FOR YOUR BUSINESS OVER THE YEARS & GOD BLESS.
I had not yet entered the fog of unreality that would soon swallow me, but the first tendrils were seeping around me, and I felt them. It wasn’t a summer cold that had caused the hoarseness I’d heard in Al’s voice, nor the croaking cough. Not the flu, either. Judging by the sign, it was something more serious. But what kind of serious illness came on in a mere twenty-four hours? Less than that, really. It was two-thirty. I had left Al’s last night at five forty-five, and he’d been fine. Almost manic, in fact. I remembered asking him if he’d been drinking too much of his own coffee, and he said no, he was just thinking about taking a vacation. Do people who are getting sick—sick enough to close the businesses they’ve run single-handed for over twenty years—talk about taking vacations? Some, maybe, but probably not many.
The door opened while I was still reaching for the handle, and Al stood there looking at me, not smiling. I looked back, feeling that fog of unreality thicken around me. The day was warm but the fog was cold. At that point I still could have turned and walked out of it, back into the June sunshine, and part of me wanted to do that. Mostly, though, I was frozen by wonder and dismay. Also horror, I might as well admit it. Because serious illness does
horrify us, doesn’t it, and Al was seriously ill. I could see that in a single glance. And mortally
was probably more like it.
It wasn’t just that his normally ruddy cheeks had gone slack and sallow. It wasn’t the rheum that coated his blue eyes, which now looked washed-out and nearsightedly peering. It wasn’t even his hair, formerly almost all black, and now almost all white—after all, he might have been using one of those vanity products and decided on the spur of the moment to shampoo it out and go natural.
The impossible part was that in the twenty-two hours since I’d last seen him, Al Templeton appeared to have lost at least thirty pounds. Maybe even forty, which would have been a quarter of his previous body weight. Nobody loses thirty or forty pounds in less than a day, nobody.
But I was looking at it. And this, I think, is where that fog of unreality swallowed me whole.
Al smiled, and I saw he had lost teeth as well as weight. His gums looked pale and unhealthy. “How do you like the new me, Jake?” And he began to cough, thick chaining sounds that came from deep inside him.
I opened my mouth. No words came out. The idea of flight again came to some craven, disgusted part of my mind, but even if that part had been in control, I couldn’t have done it. I was rooted to the spot.
Al got the coughing under control and pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket. He wiped first his mouth and then the palm of his hand with it. Before he put it back, I saw it was streaked with red.
“Come in,” he said. “I’ve got a lot to talk about, and I think you’re the only one who might listen. Will you listen?”
“Al,” I said. My voice was so low and strengthless I could hardly hear it myself. “What’s happened to you?” “Will you listen?”
“You’ll have questions, and I’ll answer as many as I can, but try to keep them to a minimum. I don’t have much voice left. Hell, I don’t have much strength
left. Come on in here.”
I came in. The diner was dark and cool and empty. The counter was polished and crumbless; the chrome on the stools gleamed; the coffee urn was polished to a high gloss; the sign reading IF YOU DON’T LIKE OUR TOWN, LOOK FOR A TIMETABLE was in its accustomed place by the Sweda register. The only thing missing was the customers.
Well, and the cook-proprietor, of course. Al Templeton had been replaced by an elderly, ailing ghost. When he turned the door’s thumb-latch, locking us in, the sound was very loud.
“Lung cancer,” he said matter-of-factly, after leading us to a booth at the far end of the diner. He tapped the pocket of his shirt, and I saw it was empty. The ever-present pack of Camel straights was gone. “No big surprise. I started when I was eleven, and smoked right up to the day I got the diagnosis. Over fifty damn years. Three packs a day until the price went way up in ’07. Then I made a sacrifice and cut back to two a day.” He laughed wheezily.
I thought of telling him that his math had to be wrong, because I knew his actual age. When I’d come in one day in the late winter and asked him why he wa...