I’m sure I can tell this story. I’m also sure no one will believe it. That’s fine with me. Telling it will be enough. My problem—and I’m sure many writers have it, not just newbies like me—is deciding where to start.
My first thought was with the shed, because that’s where my adventures really began, but then I realized I would have to tell about Mr. Bowditch first, and how we became close. Only that never would have happened except for the miracle that happened to my father. A very ordinary miracle you could say, one that’s happened to many thousands of men and women since 1935, but it seemed like a miracle to a kid.
Only that isn’t the right place, either, because I don’t think my father would have needed a miracle if it hadn’t been for that goddamned bridge. So that’s where I need to start, with the goddamned Sycamore Street Bridge. And now, thinking of those things, I see a clear thread leading up through the years to Mr. Bowditch and the padlocked shed behind his ramshackle old Victorian.
But a thread is easy to break. So not a thread but a chain. A strong one. And I was the kid with the shackle clamped around his wrist.
Good old Hillview High! Seems like a long time ago to me now. In the winter I rode the bus, sitting at the back with Andy Chen, a friend of mine since elementary. Andy was a jock who went on to play basketball for Hofstra. Bertie was gone by then, moved away. Which was kind of a relief. There is such a thing as a good friend who is also a bad friend. In truth, Bertie and I were bad for each other.
In the fall and spring, I rode my bike because we live in a hilly town and biking was a good way to build up muscle strength in my legs and backside. It also gave me time to think and be alone, which I liked. Heading home from HHS it was Plain Street to Goff Avenue, then Willow Street to Pine. Pine Street intersected with Sycamore at the top of the hill that led down to the goddam bridge. And on the corner of Pine and Sycamore was the Psycho House, so named by Bertie Bird when we were only ten or eleven.
It was actually the Bowditch house, the name was right on the mail-box, faded but still legible, if you squinted. Still, Bertie had a point. We had all seen that movie (along with such other required eleven-year-old viewing as The Exorcist and The Thing), and it did look sort of like the house where Norman Bates lived with his stuffed mother. It wasn’t like any of the other neat little duplexes and ranchers on Sycamore and in the rest of our neighborhood. The Psycho House was a rambling slump-roofed Victorian, once probably white but now faded to a shade I’d call Feral Barncat Gray. There was an ancient picket fence running the length of the property, leaning forward in places and sagging back in others. A rusty waist-high gate barred the broken paving of the walk. The grass was mostly weeds that had run rampant. The porch looked like it was slowly coming detached from the house to which it belonged. All the shades were drawn, which Andy Chen said was pointless, since the windows were too dirty to see through, anyway. Half-buried in the tall grass was a NO TRESPASSING sign. On the gate was a bigger sign reading BEWARE OF DOG.
Half-buried in the tall grass was a NO TRESPASSING sign.
Andy had a story about that dog, a German Shepherd named Radar, like the guy in the M*A*S*H TV show. We’d all heard him (not knowing this Radar was actually a her), and had gotten the occasional glimpse, but Andy was the only one who’d seen the dog up close. He said he stopped on his bike one day because Mr. Bowditch’s mailbox was open and stuffed so full of junk mail that some of it had fallen to the sidewalk and was blowing around.
“I picked up the litter and crammed it back in with the rest of the crap,” Andy said. “I was just trying to do him a favor, for crying out loud. Then I hear this growling and a barking that was like YABBA-YABBA-ROW-ROW, and I look up and here comes this fucking monster dog, must have weighed a hundred and twenty pounds at least, and he’s all teeth with slobber flying back and his eyes are fucking red.”
“Sure,” Bertie said. “Monster dog. Like Cujo in that movie. Riii-ight.”
“It was,” Andy said. “Swear to God. If it hadn’t been for the old guy yelling at him, he would have gone right through that gate. Which is so old it needs Medicure.”
“Medicare,” I said.
“Whatever, dude. But the old guy came out on the porch and he yells, ‘Radar, down!’ and the dog dropped right down on its belly. Only it never stopped looking at me and it never stopped growling. Then the guy goes, he goes ‘What are you doing there, boy? Are you stealing my mail?’ So I go ‘No sir, it was blowing around and I was picking it up. Your mailbox is awful full, sir.’ And he goes, then he goes ‘I’ll worry about my mailbox, you just get out of here.’ Which I did.” Andy shook his head. “That dog would have torn my throat out. I know it.”
“Some elderly guys have an allergy to kids. Steer clear of him would be my advice, Charlie.”
I was sure Andy was exaggerating, he had a habit of doing that, but I asked Dad about Mr. Bowditch that night. Dad said he didn’t know much about him, just that he was a lifelong bachelor who’d been living in that wreck of a house for longer than Dad had been living on Sycamore Street, which was going on twenty-five years.
“Your friend Andy isn’t the only kid he’s yelled at,” Dad said. “Bowditch is famous for his foul temper and his equally foul-tempered German Shepherd. The town council would love for him to die so they can tear that place down, but so far he’s hanging in there. I speak to him when I see him—which is rarely—and he seems civil enough, but I’m an adult. Some elderly guys have an allergy to kids. Steer clear of him would be my advice, Charlie.”
Which was no problem until that day in April of ’13. Which I will now tell you about.
I stopped at the corner of Pine and Sycamore on my way home from baseball practice to unpeel my left hand from the handlebars of my bike and give it a shake. It was still red and throbbing from that afternoon’s drills in the gym (the field was still too muddy to be playable). Coach Harkness—who coached baseball as well as hoops—had me on first while a number of guys trying out for pitcher practiced pickoff throws. Some of those guys threw really hard. I won’t say Coach was getting back at me for refusing to play basketball—where the Hedgehogs had gone 5–20 the previous season—but I won’t say he wasn’t, either.
Mr. Bowditch’s slumped and rambling old Victorian was on my right, and from that angle it looked more like the Psycho House than ever. I was wrapping my hand around the left grip of my bike, ready to get going again, when I heard a dog let out a howl. It came from behind the house. I thought of the monster dog Andy had described, all big teeth and red eyes above its slavering jaws, but this was no YABBA-YABBA-ROW-ROW of a vicious attack animal; it sounded sad and scared. Maybe even desolate. I have thought back on that, wondering if it’s only hindsight, and have decided it wasn’t. Because it came again. And a third time, but low and kind of unwinding, as if the animal making it was thinking what’s the use.
Then, much lower than that last unwinding howl: “Help.”
This was no YABBA-YABBA-ROW-ROW of a vicious attack animal; it sounded sad and scared.
If not for those howls, I would have coasted down the hill to my house and had a glass of milk and half a box of Pepperidge Farm Milanos, happy as a clam. Which could have been bad for Mr. Bowditch. It was getting late, the shadows drawing long toward evening, and that was a damn cold April. Mr. Bowditch could have lain there all night.
I got the credit for saving him—another gold star for my college applications, should I throw modesty to the winds as my father suggested and attach the newspaper article that was published a week later—but it wasn’t me, not really.
It was Radar that saved him, with those desolate howls.
I pedaled around the corner to the gate on Sycamore Street and leaned my bike against the sagging picket fence. The gate—short, hardly up to my waist—wouldn’t open. I peered over it and saw a big bolt, as rusty as the gate it was barring. I yanked on it, but it was frozen solid. The dog howled again. I slipped out of my backpack, which was loaded with books, and used it for a step. I clambered over the gate, banging my knee on the BEWARE OF DOG sign and going to the other knee on the far side when one of my sneakers caught at the top. I wondered if I could broad-jump it back to the sidewalk if the dog decided to come after me the way it had at Andy. I remembered the old cliché about fear giving somebody wings and hoped I wouldn’t have to find out if that was true. I was football and baseball. I left high-jumping to the trackies.
I ran around to the back, the high grass whickering against my pants. I don’t think I saw the shed, not then, because I was mostly looking for the dog. It was on the back porch. Andy Chen said it must have gone a hundred and twenty pounds, and maybe it did when we were just little kids with high school far in our future, but the dog I was looking at couldn’t have weighed more than sixty or seventy. It was skinny, with patchy fur and a bedraggled tail and a muzzle that was mostly white. It saw me, started down the rickety steps, and almost fell avoiding the man who was sprawled on them. It came at me, but this was no full-out charge, just a limping, arthritic run.
“Radar, down,” I said. Not really expecting it to obey me, but it went to its belly in the weeds and began to whine. I gave it a wide berth on my way to the back porch, just the same.
Mr. Bowditch was on his left side. There was a knot pushing out his khaki pants above his right knee. You didn’t need to be a doctor to know the leg was broken, and based on that bulge, the break had to be pretty bad. I couldn’t tell how old Mr. Bowditch was, but pretty old. His hair was mostly white, although he must have been a real carrot-top when he was younger, because there were still streaks of red in it. They made it look like his hair was rusting. The lines on his cheeks and around his mouth were so deep they were grooves. It was cold, but his forehead was beaded with sweat.
“Need some help,” he said. “Fell off the fucking ladder.” He tried to point. That made him shift a little on the steps and he groaned.
“Have you called 911?” I asked.
He looked at me as if I was stupid. “The phone’s in the house, boy. I’m out here.”
I didn’t understand that until later. Mr. Bowditch had no cell phone. Had never seen the need to get one, hardly knew what they were.
He tried to move again and bared his teeth. “Jesus, this hurts.”
“Then you better stay still,” I said.
Mr. Bowditch had no cell phone. Had never seen the need to get one, hardly knew what they were.
I called 911 and told them I needed an ambulance at the corner of Pine and Sycamore, because Mr. Bowditch took a fall and broke his leg. I said it looked like a bad break. I could see the bone poking out the leg of his pants and his knee looked swollen, too. The dispatcher asked me for the house number, so I asked Mr. Bowditch.
He gave me that was-you-born-stupid look again and said, “Number 1.”
I told the lady that and she said they’d send an ambulance right away. She said I should stay with him and keep him warm.
“He’s sweating already,” I said.
“If the break is as bad as you say, sir, that’s probably shock.”
Radar limped back, ears flattened, growling.
“Stop it, girl,” Bowditch said. “Get low.”
Radar—she, not it—went on her belly at the foot of the steps with what looked like relief and started to pant.
I took off my letter jacket and started to spread it over Mr. Bowditch. “What the hell are you doing?”
“I’m supposed to keep you warm.”
“I am warm.”
But I saw that he really wasn’t, because he’d started to shiver. He lowered his chin to look at my jacket. “High school kid, are you?”
“Red and gold. So Hillview.” “Yes.”
“Football and baseball.”
“The Hedgehogs. What—” He tried to move and gave a cry. Radar pricked up her ears and looked at him anxiously. “What a silly name that is.”
I couldn’t disagree. “You better try not to move, Mr. Bowditch.”
“Steps are digging into me everywhere. I should have stayed on the ground, but I thought I could make it to the porch. Then inside. Had to try. Going to be fucking cold out here before long.”
I thought it was pretty fucking cold already.
“Glad you came. Guess you heard the old girl howling.”
“Her first, then you calling,” I said. I looked up at the porch. I could see the door, but I don’t think he would have been able to reach the knob without getting up on his good knee. Which I doubted he’d have been able to do.
Mr. Bowditch followed my gaze. “Dog door,” he said. “Thought maybe I could crawl through.” He grimaced. “I don’t suppose you have any painkillers, do you? Aspirin or something stronger? Playing sports and all?”
I shook my head. Faint, very faint, I could hear a siren. “What about you? Do you have any?”
He hesitated, then nodded. “Inside. Go straight down the hall. There’s a little bathroom off the kitchen. I think there’s a bottle of Empirin in the medicine cabinet. Don’t touch anything else.”
“I won’t.” I knew he was old and in pain, but I was still a little cheesed off by the implication.
He reached out and grabbed my shirt. “Don’t snoop.”
I pulled away. “I said I won’t.”
I went up the steps. Mr. Bowditch said, “Radar! Go with!”
Radar limped up the steps and waited for me to open the door rather than using the hinged flap cut in the bottom panel. She followed me down the hall, which was dim and sort of amazing. One side was stacked with old magazines done up in bundles that were tied with hayrope. I knew of some, like Life and Newsweek, but there were others—Collier’s, Dig, Confidential, and All Man—that I’d never heard of. The other side was stacked with books, most of them old and with that smell that old books have. Probably not everyone likes that smell, but I do. It’s musty, but good must.
The kitchen was full of old appliances, the stove a Hotpoint, the sink porcelain with rust-rings from our hard water, the faucets with those old-timey spoke handles, the floor linoleum so worn I couldn’t tell what the pattern was. But the place was neat as a pin. There was one plate and one cup and one set of silverware—knife, fork, spoon—in the dish drainer. That made me feel sad. There was a clean dish on the floor with RADAR printed around the rim, and that made me feel sad, too.
I went into the bathroom, which was not much bigger than a closet—nothing but a toilet with the lid up and more rust rings around the bowl, plus a basin with a mirror over it. I swung the mirror back and saw a bunch of dusty patent medicines that looked like they came over on the Ark. A bottle on the middle shelf said Empirin. When I grabbed it, I saw a little pellet behind it. I thought it was a BB.
Radar waited in the kitchen, because there really wasn’t room enough for both of us in the bathroom. I took the cup from the dish drainer and filled it from the kitchen tap, then walked back down the Hall of Old Reading Matter with Radar padding right behind me. Outside, the siren was louder and closer. Mr. Bowditch was lying with his head down on one forearm.
“You okay?” I asked.
He raised his head so I could see his sweaty face and haggard, dark- ringed eyes. “Do I look okay?”
“Not really, but I’m not sure you should be taking these pills. The bottle says they expired in August of 2004.”
“Give me three.”
“Jeez, Mr. Bowditch, maybe you should wait for the ambulance, they’ll give you—”
“Just give them to me. Whatever does not kill me makes me stronger. Don’t suppose you know who said that, do you? They teach you nothing these days.”
“Nietzsche,” I said. “Twilight of the Idols. I’m taking World History this quarter.”
“Bully for you.” He fumbled in his pants pocket, which made him groan, but he didn’t stop until he brought out a heavy ring of keys. “Lock that door for me, boy. It’s the silver key with the square head. The front one’s locked already. Then give them back to me.”
I worked the silver key off the keyring, then gave the ring back. He got it into his pocket, groaning some more as he did it. The siren was close now. I hoped they’d have better luck with the rusty bolt than I’d had. Otherwise they’d have to knock the gate off the hinges. I started to get up, then looked at the dog. Her head was on the ground between her paws. She never took her eyes off Mr. Bowditch.
“What about Radar?”
He gave me that was-you-born-stupid look again. “She can go inside through the dog door and out when she needs to do her business.”
A kid or small adult who wanted to have a look around and steal something could also use it, I thought. “Yeah, but who’s going to feed her?” I probably don’t need to tell you that my first impression of Mr. Bowditch wasn’t good. I thought he was a bad-tempered grouch, and it was no wonder he was living alone; a wife would have killed him or left. But when he looked at the aging German Shepherd, I saw something else: love and dismay. You know that saying about being at your wits’ end? Mr. Bowditch’s face said he was there. He must have been in excruciating pain, but right then all he could think about—all that he cared about—was his dog.
“Shit. Shit, shit, shit. I can’t leave her. I’ll have to take her to the goddam hospital.”
The siren arrived out front and unwound. Doors slammed.
“They won’t let you,” I said. “You must know that.”
His lips tightened. “Then I’m not going.”
Oh yes you are, I thought. And then I thought something else, only it didn’t seem like my thought at all. I’m sure it was, but it didn’t seem that way. We had a deal. Never mind picking up litter on the highway, this is where you hold up your end of it.
“Hello?” someone shouted. “EMTs here, is there someone who can open the gate?”
“Let me keep the key,” I said. “I’ll feed her. Just tell me how much and—”
“Hello? Someone answer or we’re coming in!”
“—and how often.”
He was sweating heavily now, and the rings under his eyes were darker, like bruises. “Let them in before they break down the goddam gate.” He let out a harsh, ragged sigh. “What a fucking mess.”
From FAIRY TALE by Stephen King. Copyright © 2022 by Stephen King. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Stephen King is the author of more than sixty books, most recently If It Bleeds and The Institute. He was born in Portland, Maine in 1947, the second son of Donald and Nellie Ruth Pillsbury King.