Later – Stephen King

I don’t like to start with an apology—there’s probably even a rule against it, like never ending a sentence with a preposition —but after reading over the thirty pages I’ve written so far, I feel like I have to. It’s about a certain word I keep using. I learned a lot of four-letter words from my mother and used them from an early age (as you will find out), but this is one with five letters. The word is later, as in “Later on” and “Later I found out” and “It was only later that I realized.” I know it’s repetitive, but I had no choice, because my story starts when I still believed in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy (although even at six I had my doubts). I’m twenty-two now, which makes this later, right? I suppose when I’m in my forties—always assuming I make it that far—I’ll look back on what I thought I understood at twenty-two and realize there was a lot I didn’t get at all. There’s always a later, I know that now. At least until we die. Then I guess it’s all before that. My name is Jamie Conklin, and once upon a time I drew a Thanksgiving turkey that I thought was the absolute cat’s ass. Later—and not much later—I found out it was more like the stuff that comes out of the cat’s ass. Sometimes the truth really sucks. I think this is a horror story. Check it out. 1 I was coming home from school with my mother.

She was holding my hand. In the other hand I clutched my turkey, the ones we made in first grade the week before Thanksgiving. I was so proud of mine I was practically shitting nickels. What you did, see, was put your hand on a piece of construction paper and then trace around it with a crayon. That made the tail and body. When it came to the head, you were on your own. I showed mine to Mom and she’s all yeah yeah yeah, right right right, totally great, but I don’t think she ever really saw it. She was probably thinking about one of the books she was trying to sell. “Flogging the product,” she called it. Mom was a literary agent, see.

It used to be her brother, my Uncle Harry, but Mom took over his business a year before the time I’m telling you about. It’s a long story and kind of a bummer. I said, “I used Forest Green because it’s my favorite color. You knew that, right?” We were almost to our building by then. It was only three blocks from my school. She’s all yeah yeah yeah. Also, “You play or watch Barney and The Magic Schoolbus when we get home, kiddo, I’ve got like a zillion calls to make.” So I go yeah yeah yeah, which earned me a poke and a grin. I loved it when I could make my mother grin because even at six I knew that she took the world very serious. Later on I found out part of the reason was me.

She thought she might be raising a crazy kid. The day I’m telling you about was the one when she decided for sure I wasn’t crazy after all. Which must have been sort of a relief and sort of not. “You don’t talk to anybody about this,” she said to me later that day. “Except to me. And maybe not even me, kiddo. Okay?” I said okay. When you’re little and it’s your mom, you say okay to everything. Unless she says it’s bedtime, of course. Or to finish your broccoli.

We got to our building and the elevator was still broken. You could say things might have been different if it had been working, but I don’t think so. I think that people who say life is all about the choices we make and the roads we go down are full of shit. Because check it, stairs or elevator, we still would have come out on the third floor. When the fickle finger of fate points at you, all roads lead to the same place, that’s what I think. I may change my mind when I’m older, but I really don’t think so. “Fuck this elevator,” Mom said. Then, “You didn’t hear that, kiddo.” “Hear what?” I said, which got me another grin. Last grin for her that afternoon, I can tell you.

I asked her if she wanted me to carry her bag, which had a manuscript in it like always, that day a big one, looked like a five-hundred-pager (Mom always sat on a bench reading while she waited for me to get out of school, if the weather was nice). She said, “Sweet offer, but what do I always tell you?” “You have to tote your own burden in life,” I said. “Correctamundo.” “Is it Regis Thomas?” I asked. “Yes indeed. Good old Regis, who pays our rent.” “Is it about Roanoke?” “Do you even have to ask, Jamie?” Which made me snicker. Everything good old Regis wrote was about Roanoke. That was the burden he toted in life. We went up the stairs to the third floor, where there were two other apartments plus ours at the end of the hall.

Ours was the fanciest one. Mr. and Mrs. Burkett were standing outside 3A, and I knew right away something was wrong because Mr. Burkett was smoking a cigarette, which I hadn’t seen him do before and was illegal in our building anyway. His eyes were bloodshot and his hair was all crazied up in gray spikes. I always called him mister, but he was actually Professor Burkett, and taught something smart at NYU. English and European Literature, I later found out. Mrs. Burkett was dressed in a nightgown and her feet were bare.

That nightgown was pretty thin. I could see most of her stuff right through it. My mother said, “Marty, what’s wrong?” Before he could say anything back, I showed him my turkey. Because he looked sad and I wanted to cheer him up, but also because I was so proud of it. “Look, Mr. Burkett! I made a turkey! Look, Mrs. Burkett!” I held it up for her in front of my face because I didn’t want her to think I was looking at her stuff. Mr. Burkett paid no attention. I don’t think he even heard me.

“Tia, I have some awful news. Mona died this morning.” My mother dropped her bag with the manuscript inside it between her feet and put her hand over her mouth. “Oh, no! Tell me that’s not true!” He began to cry. “She got up in the night and said she wanted a drink of water. I went back to sleep and she was on the couch this morning with a comforter pulled up to her chin and so I tiptoed to the kitchen and put on the coffee because I thought the pleasant smell would w-w-wake… would wake…” He really broke down then. Mom took him in her arms the way she did me when I hurt myself, even though Mr. Burkett was about a hundred (seventy-four, I found out later). That was when Mrs. Burkett spoke to me.

She was hard to hear, but not as hard as some of them because she was still pretty fresh. She said, “Turkeys aren’t green, James.” “Well mine is,” I said. My mother was still holding Mr. Burkett and kind of rocking him. They didn’t hear her because they couldn’t, and they didn’t hear me because they were doing adult things: comforting for Mom, blubbering for Mr. Burkett. Mr. Burkett said, “I called Dr. Allen and he came and said she probably had a soak.

” At least that’s what I thought he said. He was crying so much it was hard to tell. “He called the funeral parlor. They took her away. I don’t know what I’ll do without her.” Mrs. Burkett said, “My husband is going to burn your mother’s hair with his cigarette if he doesn’t look out.” And sure enough, he did. I could smell the singeing hair, a kind of beauty shop smell. Mom was too polite to say anything about it, but she made him let go of her, and then she took the cigarette from him and dropped it on the floor and stepped on it.

I thought that was a groady thing to do, extreme litterbugging, but I didn’t say anything. I got that it was a special situation. I also knew that talking to Mrs. Burkett any more would freak him out. Mom, too. Even a little kid knows certain basic things if he’s not soft in the attic. You said please, you said thank you, you didn’t flap your weenie around in public or chew with your mouth open, and you didn’t talk to dead folks when they were standing next to living folks who were just starting to miss them. I only want to say, in my own defense, that when I saw her I didn’t know she was dead. Later on I got better at telling the difference, but back then I was just learning. It was her nightgown I could see through, not her.

Dead people look just like living people, except they’re always wearing the clothes they died in. Meanwhile, Mr. Burkett was rehashing the whole thing. He told my mother how he sat on the floor beside the couch and held his wife’s hand till that doctor guy came and again till the mortician guy came to take her away. “Conveyed her hence” was what he actually said, which I didn’t understand until Mom explained it to me. And at first I thought he said beautician, maybe because of the smell when he burned Mom’s hair. His crying had tapered off, but now it ramped up again. “Her rings are gone,” he said through his tears. “Both her wedding ring and her engagement ring, that big diamond. I looked on the night table by her side of the bed, where she puts them when she rubs that awfulsmelling arthritis cream into her hands—” “It does smell bad,” Mrs.

Burkett admitted. “Lanolin is basically sheep dip, but it really helps.” I nodded to show I understood but didn’t say anything. “—and on the bathroom sink, because sometimes she leaves them there…I’ve looked everywhere.” “They’ll turn up,” my mother soothed, and now that her hair was safe, she took Mr. Burkett in her arms again. “They’ll turn up, Marty, don’t you worry about that.” “I miss her so much! I miss her already!” Mrs. Burkett flapped a hand in front of her face. “I give him six weeks before he’s asking Dolores Magowan out to lunch.

” Mr. Burkett was blubbing, and my mother was doing her soothing thing like she did to me whenever I scraped my knee or this one time when I tried to make her a cup of tea and slopped hot water on my hand. Lots of noise, in other words, so I took a chance but kept my voice low. “Where are your rings, Mrs. Burkett? Do you know?” They have to tell you the truth when they’re dead. I didn’t know that at the age of six; I just assumed all grownups told the truth, living or dead. Of course back then I also believed Goldilocks was a real girl. Call me stupid if you want to. At least I didn’t believe the three bears actually talked. “Top shelf of the hall closet,” she said.

“Way in the back, behind the scrapbooks.” “Why there?” I asked, and my mother gave me a strange look. As far as she could see, I was talking to the empty doorway…although by then she knew I wasn’t quite the same as other kids. After a thing that happened in Central Park, not a nice thing—I’ll get to it—I overheard her telling one of her editor friends on the phone that I was “fey.” That scared the shit out of me, because I thought she meant she was changing my name to Fay, which is a girl’s name. “I don’t have the slightest idea,” Mrs. Burkett said. “By then I suppose I was having the stroke. My thoughts would have been drowning in blood.” Thoughts drowning in blood.

I never forgot that. Mom asked Mr. Burkett if he wanted to come down to our apartment for a cup of tea (“or something stronger”), but he said no, he was going to have another hunt for his wife’s missing rings. She asked him if he would like us to bring him some Chinese take-out, which my mother was planning for dinner, and he said that would be good, thank you Tia. My mother said de nada (which she used almost as much as yeah yeah yeah and right right right), then said we’d bring it to his apartment around six, unless he wanted to eat with us in ours, which he was welcome to do. He said no, he’d like to eat in his place but he would like us to eat with him. Except what he actually said was our place, like Mrs. Burkett was still alive. Which she wasn’t, even though she was there. “By then you’ll have found her rings,” Mom said.

She took my hand. “Come on, Jamie. We’ll see Mr. Burkett later, but for now let’s leave him alone.” Mrs. Burkett said, “Turkeys aren’t green, Jamie, and that doesn’t look like a turkey anyway. It looks like a blob with fingers sticking out of it. You’re no Rembrandt.” Dead people have to tell the truth, which is okay when you want to know the answer to a question, but as I said, the truth can really suck. I started to be mad at her, but just then she started to cry and I couldn’t be.

She turned to Mr. Burkett and said, “Who’ll make sure you don’t miss the belt loop in the back of your pants now? Dolores Magowan? I should smile and kiss a pig.” She kissed his cheek…or kissed at it, I couldn’t really tell which. “I loved you, Marty. Still do.” Mr. Burkett raised his hand and scratched the spot where her lips had touched him, as if he had an itch. I suppose that’s what he thought it was. 2 So yeah, I see dead people. As far as I can remember, I always have.

But it’s not like in that movie with Bruce Willis. It can be interesting, it can be scary sometimes (the Central Park dude), it can be a pain in the ass, but mostly it just is. Like being left-handed, or being able to play classical music when you’re like three years old, or getting early-onset Alzheimer’s, which is what happened to Uncle Harry when he was only forty-two. At age six, forty-two seemed old to me, but even then I understood it’s young to wind up not knowing who you are. Or what the names of things are—for some reason that’s what always scared me the most when we went to see Uncle Harry. His thoughts didn’t drown in blood from a busted brain vessel, but they drowned, just the same. Mom and me trucked on down to 3C, and Mom let us in. Which took some time, because there are three locks on the door. She said that’s the price you pay for living in style. We had a six-room apartment with a view of the avenue.

Mom called it the Palace on Park. We had a cleaning woman who came in twice a week. Mom had a Range Rover in the parking garage on Second Avenue, and sometimes we went up to Uncle Harry’s place in Speonk. Thanks to Regis Thomas and a few other writers (but mostly good old Regis), we were living high on the hog. It didn’t last, a depressing development I will discuss all too soon. Looking back on it, I sometimes think my life was like a Dickens novel, only with swearing. Mom tossed her manuscript bag and purse on the sofa and sat down. The sofa made a farting noise that usually made us laugh, but not that day. “Jesus-fuck,” Mom said, then raised a hand in a stop gesture. “You—” “I didn’t hear it, nope,” I said.

“Good. I need to have an electric shock collar or something that buzzes every time I swear around you. That’d teach me.” She stuck out her lower lip and blew back her bangs. “I’ve got another two hundred pages of Regis’s latest to read—” “What’s this one called?” I asked, knowing the title would have of Roanoke in it. They always did. “Ghost Maiden of Roanoke,” she said. “It’s one of his better ones, lots of se…lots of kissing and hugging.” I wrinkled my nose. “Sorry, kiddo, but the ladies love those pounding hearts and torrid thighs.

” She looked at the bag with Ghost Maiden of Roanoke inside, secured with the usual six or eight rubber bands, one of which always snapped and made Mom give out some of her best swears. Many of which I still use. “Now I feel like I don’t want to do anything but have a glass of wine. Maybe the whole bottle. Mona Burkett was a prize pain the ass, he might actually be better off without her, but right now he’s gutted. I hope to God he’s got relatives, because I don’t relish the idea of being Comforter in Chief.” “She loved him, too,” I said. Mom gave me a strange look. “Yeah? You think?” “I know. She said something mean about my turkey, but then she cried and kissed him on the cheek.

” “You imagined that, James,” she said, but half-heartedly. She knew better by then, I’m sure she did, but grownups have a tough time believing, and I’ll tell you why. When they find out as kids that Santa Claus is a fake and Goldilocks isn’t a real girl and the Easter Bunny is bullshit—just three examples, I could give more—it makes a complex and they stop believing anything they can’t see for themselves. “Nope, didn’t imagine it. She said I’d never be Rembrandt. Who is that?” “An artist,” she said, and blew her bangs back again. I don’t know why she didn’t just cut them or wear her hair a different way. Which she could, because she was really pretty. “When we go down there to eat, don’t you dare say anything to Mr. Burkett about what you think you saw.

” “I won’t,” I said, “but she was right. My turkey sucks.” I felt bad about that. I guess it showed, because she held out her arms. “Come here, kiddo.” I came and hugged her. “Your turkey is beautiful. It’s the most beautiful turkey I ever saw. I’m going to put it up on the refrigerator and it will stay there forever.” I hugged as tight as I could and put my face in the hollow of her shoulder so I could smell her perfume.

“I love you, Mom.” “I love you too, Jamie, a million bunches. Now go play or watch TV. I need to roll some calls before ordering the Chinese.” “Okay.” I started for my room, then stopped. “She put her rings on the top shelf of the hall closet, behind some scrap-books.” My mother stared at me with her mouth open. “Why would she do that?” “I asked her and she said she didn’t know. She said by then her thoughts were drownding in blood.

” “Oh my God,” Mom whispered, and put her hand to her neck. “You should figure out a way to tell him when we have the Chinese. Then he won’t worry about it. Can I have General Tso’s?” “Yes,” she said. “And brown rice, not white.” “Right right right,” I said, and went to play with my Legos. I was making a robot. 3 The Burketts’ apartment was smaller than ours, but nice. After dinner, while we were having our fortune cookies (mine said A feather in the hand is better than a bird in the air, which makes no sense at all), Mom said, “Have you checked the closets, Marty? For her rings, I mean?” “Why would she put her rings in a closet?” A sensible enough question. “Well, if she was having a stroke, she might not have been thinking too clearly.

” We were eating at the little round table in the kitchen nook. Mrs. Burkett was sitting on one of the stools at the counter and nodded vigorously when Mom said that. “Maybe I’ll check,” Mr. Burkett said. He sounded pretty vague. “Right now I’m too tired and upset.” “You check the bedroom closet when you get around to it,” Mom said. “I’ll check the one in the hall right now. A little stretching will do me good after all that sweet and sour pork.

” Mrs. Burkett said, “Did she think that up all by herself? I didn’t know she was that smart.” Already she was getting hard to hear. After awhile I wouldn’t be able to hear her at all, just see her mouth moving, like she was behind a thick pane of glass. Pretty soon after that she’d be gone. “My mom’s plenty smart,” I said. “Never said she wasn’t,” Mr. Burkett said, “but if she finds those rings in the front hall closet, I’ll eat my hat.” Just then my mother said “Bingo!” and came in with the rings on the palm of one outstretched hand. The wedding ring was pretty ordinary, but the engagement ring was as big as an eyeball.

A real sparkler. “Oh my God!” Mr. Burkett cried. “How in God’s name…?” “I prayed to St. Anthony,” Mom said, but cast a quick glance my way. And a smile. “‘Tony, Tony, come around! Something’s lost that must be found!’ And as you see, it worked.” I thought about asking Mr. Burkett if he wanted salt and pepper on his hat, but didn’t. It wasn’t the right time to be funny, and besides, it’s like my mother always says—nobody loves a smartass.


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