The Dead Zone PART TWO The Laughing Tiger Chapter Twenty

1.

In mid-August, Johnny found himself alone at the Chatsworth estate except for Ngo Phat, who had his own quarters over the garage. The Chatsworth family had closed up the house and had gone to Montreal for three weeks of r&r before the new school year and the fall rush at the mills began.

Roger had left Johnny the keys to his wife's Mercedes and he motored up to his dad's house in Pownal, feeling like a potentate. His father's negotiations with Charlene MacKenzie had entered the critical stage, and Herb was no longer bothering to protest that his interest in her was only to make sure that the house didn't fall down on top of her. In fact, he was in full courting plumage and made Johnny a little nervous. After three days of it Johnny went back to the Chatsworth house, caught up on his reading and his correspondence, and soaked up the quiet.

He was sitting on a rubber chair float in the middle of the pool, drinking a Seven-Up and reading the New York Times Book Review, when Ngo came over to the pool's apron, took off his zori, and dipped his feet into the water.

'Ahhhh,' he said. 'Much better.' He smiled at Johnny. 'Quiet, huh?'

'Very quiet,' Johnny agreed. 'How goes the citizenship class, Ngo?'

'Very nice going,' Ngo said. 'We are having a field trip on Saturday. First one. Very exciting. The whole class will be tripping.'

'Going,' Johnny said, smiling at an image of Ngo Phat's whole citizenship class freaking on LSD or psilpcybin.

'Pardon?' He raised his eyebrows politely.

'Your whole class will he going.'

'Yes, thanks. We are going to the political speech and rally in Trimbull. We are all thinking how lucky it is to be taking the citizenship class in an election year. It is most instructive.'

'Yes, I'll bet it is. Who are you going to see?'

'Greg Stirrs...' He stopped and pronounced it again, very carefully. 'Greg Stillson, who is running independently for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.'

'I've heard of him,' Johnny said. 'Have you discussed him in class at all, Ngo?'

'Yes, we have had some conversation of this man. Born in 1933. A man of many jobs. He came to New Hampshire in 1964. Our instructor has told us that now he is here long enough so people do not see him as a carpetfogger.'

'Bagger,' Johnny said.

Ngo looked at him with blank politeness.

'The term is carpetbagger.'

'Yes, thanks.'

'Do you find Stillson a bit odd?'

'In America perhaps he is odd,' Ngo said. 'In Vietnam there were many like him. People who are ...' He sat thinking, swishing his small and delicate feet in the blue-green water of the pool. Then he looked up at Johnny again.

'I do not have the English for what I wish to say. There is a game the people of my land play, it is called the Laughing Tiger. It is old and much loved, like your baseball. One child is dressing up as the tiger, you see. He puts on a skin. And the other children tries to catch him as he runs and dances. The child in the skin laughs, but he is also growling and biting, because that is the game. In my country, before the Communists, many of the village leaders played the Laughing Tiger. I think this Still-son knows that game, too.'

Johnny looked over at Ngo. disturbed.

Ngo did not seem disturbed at all. He smiled. 'So we will all go and see for ourselves. After, we are having the picnic foods. I myself am making two pies. I think it will be nice.'

'It sounds great.'

'It will be very great,' Ngo said, getting up. 'Afterward, in class, we will talk over all we saw in Trimbull. Maybe we will be writing the compositions. It is much easier to write the compositions, because one can look up the exact word. Le mot juste.

'Yes, sometimes writing can be easier. But I never had a high school comp class that would believe it.'

Ngo smiled. 'How does it go with Chuck?'

'He's doing quite well.'

'Yes, he is happy now. Not just pretending. He is a good boy.' He stood up. 'Take a rest, Johnny. I'm going to take a nap.'

'All right.'

He watched Ngo walk away, small, slim, and lithe in blue jeans and a faded chambray work shirt.

The child in the skin laughs, but he is also growling and biting, because that is the game ... I think this Stillson knows that game, too.

That thread of disquiet again.

The pool chair bobbed gently up and down. The sun beat pleasantly on him. He opened his Book Review again, but the article he had been reading no longer engaged him. He put it down and paddled the little rubber float to the edge of the pool and got out. Trimbull was less than thirty miles away. Maybe he would just hop into Mrs. Chatsworth's Mercedes and drive down this Saturday. See Greg Stillson in person. Enjoy the show. Maybe... maybe shake his hand.

No. No!

But why not? After all, he had more or less made politicians his hobby this election year. What could possibly be so upsetting about going to see one more?

But he was upset, no question about that. His heart was knocking harder and more rapidly than it should have been, and he managed to drop his magazine into the pool. He fished it out with a curse before it was saturated.

Somehow, thinking about Greg Stilison made him think about Frank Dodd.

Utterly ridiculous. He couldn't have any feeling at all about Stillson one way or the other from having just seen him on TV.

Stay away.

Well, maybe he would and maybe he wouldn't. May-be he would go down to Boston this Saturday instead. See a film.

But a strange, heavy feeling of fright had settled on him by the time he got back to the guest house and changed his clothes. In a way the feeling was like an old friend - the sort of old friend you secretly hate. Yes, he would go down to Boston on Saturday. That would be better.

Although he relived that day over and over in the months afterward, Johnny could never remember exactly how or why it was that he ended up in Trimbull after all. He had set out in another direction, planning to go down to Boston and take in the Red Sox at Fenway Park, then maybe go over to Cambridge and nose through the book-shops. If there was enough cash left over (he had sent four hundred dollars of Chatsworth's bonus to his father, who in turn sent it on to Eastern Maine Medical - a gesture tantamount to a spit in the ocean) he planned to go to the Orson Welles Cinema and see that reggae movie, The Harder They Come. A good day's program, and a fine day to implement it; that August 19 had dawned hot and dear and sweet, the distillation of the perfect New England summer's day.

He had let himself into the kitchen of the big house and made three hefty ham-and-cheese sandwiches for lunch, put them in an old-fashioned wicker picnic basket he found in the pantry, and after a little soul-searching, had topped off his haul with a sixpack of Tuborg Beer. At that point he had been feeling fine, absolutely first-rate. No thought of either Greg Stillson or his homemade bodyguard corps of iron horsemen had so much as crossed his mind.

He put the picnic basket on the floor of the Mercedes and drove southeast toward 1-95. All clear enough up to that point. But then other things had begun to creep in. Thoughts of his mother on her deathbed first. His mother's face, twisted into a frozen snarl, the hand on the counterpane hooked into a claw, her voice sounding as if it were coming through a big mouthful of cotton wadding.

Didn't I tell you? Didn't I say it was so?

Johnny turned the radio up louder. Good rock 'n' roll poured out of the Mercedes's stereo speakers. He had been asleep for four-and-a-half years but rock 'n' roll had remained alive and well, thank you very much. Johnny sang along.

He has a job for you. Don't run from him, Johnny.

The radio couldn't drown out his dead mother's voice. His dead mother was going to have her say. Even from beyond the grave she was going to have her say.

Don't hide away in a cave or make him have to send a big fish to swallow you.

But he had been swallowed by a big fish. Its name was not leviathan but coma. He had spent four-and-a-half years in that particular fish's black belly. and that was enough.

The entrance ramp to the turnpike came up - and then slipped behind him. He had been so lost in his thoughts that he had missed his turn. The old ghosts just wouldn't give up and let him alone. Well, he would turn around and go back as soon as he found a good place.

Not the potter but the potter's clay, Johnny.

'Oh, come on,' he muttered. He had to get this crap off his mind, that was all. His mother had been a religious crazy, not a very kind way of putting it, but true all the same. Heaven out in the constellation Orion, angels driving flying saucers, kingdoms under the earth. In her way she had been at least as crazy as Greg Stillson was in his.

Oh for Christ's sake, don't get off on that guy.

'And when you send Greg Stillson to the House of Representatives, you gonna say HOT DOG! SOMEONE GIVES A RIP AT LAST!'

He came to New Hampshire Route 63. A left turn would take him to Concord, Berlin, Ridder's Mill, Trimbull. Johnny made the turn without even thinking about it. His thoughts were elsewhere.

Roger Chatsworth, no babe in the woods, had laughed over Greg Stillson as if he were this year's answer to George Carlin and Chevy Chase all rolled up into one. He's a clown, Johnny.

And if that was all Stillson was, then there was no problem, was there? A charming eccentric, a piece of blank paper on which the electorate could write its message: You other guys are so wasted that we decided to elect this fool for two years instead. That was probably all Stillson was, after all. Just a harmless crazy, there was no need at all to associate him with the patterned, destructive madness of Frank Dodd. And yet ... somehow he did.

The road branched ahead. Left branch to Berlin and Ridder's Mill, right branch to Trimbull and Concord. Johnny turned right.

But it wouldn't hurt to just shake his hand, would it?

Maybe not. One more politician for his collection. Some people collected stamps, some coins, but Johnny Smith collects handshakes and -

- and admit it. You've been looking for a wild card in the deck all along.

The thought shook him so badly that he almost pulled over to the side of the road. He caught a glimpse of himself in the rear-view mirror and it wasn't the contented, everything-is-resting-easy face he had gotten up with that morning. Now it was the press conference face, and the face of the man who had crawled through the snow of the Castle Rock town common on his hands and knees. The skin was too white, the eyes circled with bruised-looking brown rings, the lines etched too deep.

No. It isn't true.

But it was. Now that it was out, it couldn't be denied. In the first twenty-three years of his life he had shaken hands with exactly one politician; that was when Ed Muskie had come to talk to his high school government class in 1966. In the last seven months he had shaken hands with over a dozen big names. Arid hadn't the thought flashed across the back of his mind as each one stuck out his hand What's this guy all about? What's he going to tell me?

Hadn't he been looking, all along, for the political equivalent of Frank Dodd?

Yes. It was true.

But the fact was, none of them except Carter had told him much of anything, and the feelings that he had gotten from Carter were not particularly alarming. Shaking hands with Carter had not given him that sinking feeling he had gotten just from watching Greg Stillson on TV. He felt as if Stillson might have taken the game of the Laughing Tiger a step further: inside the beast-skin, a man, yes.

But inside the man-skin, a beast.

2.

Whatever the progression had been, Johnny found himself eating his picnic lunch in the Trimbull town park instead of the Fenway bleachers, He had arrived shortly after noon and had seen a sign on the community notice board announcing the rally at three P.M.

He drifted over to the park, expecting to have the place pretty much to himself so long before the rally was scheduled to begin, but others were already spreading blankets, unlimbering Frisbees, or settling down to their own lunches.

Up front, a number of men were at work on the bandstand. Two of them were decorating the waist-high railings with bunting. Another was on a ladder, hanging colorful crepe streamers from the bandstand's circular eave. Others were setting up the sound system, and as Johnny had guessed when he watched the CBS newsclip, it was no four-hundred-dollar podium PA set. The speakers were Altec-Lansings, and they were being carefully placed to give surround-sound.

The advance men (but the image that persisted was that of roadies setting up for an Eagles or Geils band concert) went about their work with businesslike precision. The whole thing had a practiced, professional quality to it that jarred with Stillson's image of the amiable Wild Man of Borneo.

The crowd mostly spanned about twenty years, from midteens to mid-thirties. They were having a good time. Babies toddled around clutching melting Dairy Queens and Slush Puppies. Women chatted together and laughed. Men drank beer from styrofoam cups. A few dogs bounced around, grabbing what there was to be grabbed, and the sun shone benignly down on everyone.

'Test,' one of the men on the bandstand said laconically into the two mikes. 'Test-one, test-two ...' One of the speakers in the park uttered a loud feedback whine, and the guy on the podium motioned that he wanted it moved backward.

This isn't the way you set up for a political speech and rally, Johnny thought. They're setting up for a love-feast or a group grope.

'Test-one, test-two . . . test, test, test.'

They were strapping the big speakers to the trees, Johnny saw. Not nailing them but strapping them. Stillson was an ecology booster, and someone had told his advance men not to hurt so much as one tree in one town park. The operation gave him the feeling of having been honed down to the smallest detail. This was no grab-it-and-run-with-it deal.

Two yellow school buses pulled into the turnaround left of the small (and already full) parking lot. The doors folded open and men and women got out, talking animatedly to one another. They were in sharp contrast to those already in the park because they were dressed in their best - men in suits or sports coats, ladies in crisp

skirt-and-blouse combinations or smart dresses. They were gazing around with expressions of nearly childlike wonder and anticipation, and Johnny grinned. Ngo's citizenship class had arrived.

He walked over to them. Ngo was standing with a tall man in a corduroy suit and two women, both Chinese.

'Hi, Ngo,' Johnny said.

Ngo grinned broadly. 'Johnny!' he said. 'Good to see you, man! It is being a great day for the state of New Hampshire, right?'

'I guess so,' Johnny said.

Ngo introduced his companions. The man in the corduroy suit was Polish. The two women were sisters from Taiwan. One of the women told Johnny that she was much hoping for shaking hands with the candidate after the program and then, shyly, she showed Johnny the autograph book in her handbag.

'I am so glad to be here in America,' she said. 'But it is strange, is it not, Mr. Smith?'

Johnny, who thought the whole thing was strange, agreed.

The citizenship class's two instructors were calling the group together. 'I'll see you later, Johnny,' Ngo said. 'I've got to be tripping.'

'Going,' Johnny said.

'Yes, thanks.'

'Have a fine time, Ngo.'

'Oh, yes, I am sure I will.' And Ngo's eyes seemed to glint with a secret amusement. 'I am sure it will be most entertaining, Johnny.'

The group, about forty in all, went over to the south side of the park to have their picnic lunch. Johnny went back to his own place and made himself eat one of his sandwiches. It tasted like a combination of paper and library paste.

A thick feeling of tension had begun to creep into his body.

3.

By two-thirty the park was completely full; people were jammed together nearly shoulder to shoulder. The town police, augmented by a small contingent of State Police, had closed off the streets leading to the Trimbull town park. The resemblance to a rock concert was stronger than ever. Bluegrass music poured from the speakers, cheery and fast. Fat white clouds drifted across the innocent blue sky.

Suddenly, people started getting to their feet and craning their necks. It was a ripple effect passing through the crowd. Johnny got up too, wondering if Stillson was going to be early. Now he could hear the steady roar of motorcycle engines, the beat swelling to fill the summer afternoon as they grew closer. Johnny got an eyeful of sun-arrows reflecting off chrome, and a few moments later about ten cycles swung into the turnaround where the citizenship buses were parked. There was no car with them. Johnny guessed they were an advance guard.

His feeling of disquiet deepened. The riders were neat enough, dressed for the most part in clean, faded jeans and white shirts, but the bikes themselves, mostly Harleys and BSAs, had been customized almost beyond recognition: ape-hanger handlebars, raked chromium manifolds, and strange fairings abounded.

Their owners killed the engines, swung off, and moved away toward the bandstand in single file. Only one of them looked back. His eyes moved without haste over the big crowd; even from some distance away Johnny could see that the man's irises were a brilliant bottle green. He seemed to be counting the house. He glanced left, at four or five town cops leaning against the chain-link backstop of the Little League ballfield. He waved. One of the cops leaned over and spit. The act had a feeling of ceremony to it, and Johnny's disquiet deepened further. The man with the green eyes sauntered to the bandstand.

Above the disquiet, which now lay like an emotional floor to his other feelings, Johnny felt predominantly a wild mix of horror and hilarity. He had a dreamlike sense of having somehow entered one of those paintings where steam engines are coming out of brick fireplaces or clockfaces are lying limply over tree limbs. The cyclists looked like extras in an American-International bike movie who had all decided to Get Clean For Gene. Their fresh, faded jeans were snugged down over square-toed engineer boots, and on more than one pair Johnny could see chromed chains strapped down over the insteps. The chrome twinkled savagely in the sun. Their expressions were nearly all the same: a sort of vacuous good humor that seemed directed at the crowd. But beneath it there might have been simple contempt for the young mill workers, the summer students who had come over from UNH in Durham, and the factory workers who' were standing to give them a round of applause. Each of them wore a pair of political buttons. One of them showed a construction worker's yellow hard hat with a green ecology sticker on the front. The other bore the motto STILLSON'S GOT 'EM IN A FULL-NELSON.

And sticking out of every right hip pocket was a sawed-off pool cue.

Johnny turned to the man next to him, who was with his wife and small child. 'Are those things legal?' he asked.

'Who the hell cares,' the young guy responded. laughing. 'They're just for show, anyway.' He was still applauding. 'Go-get-em-Greg!' he yelled.

The motorcycle honor guard deployed themselves around the bandstand in a circle and stood at parade rest.

The applause tapered off, but conversation went on at a louder level. The crowd's mass mouth had received the meal's appetizer and had found it good.

Brownshirts, Johnny thought, sitting down. Brown-shirts is all they are.

Well, so what? Maybe that was even good. Americans had a rather low tolerance for the fascist approach - even rock-ribbed righties like Reagan didn't go for that stuff; nothing but a pure fact no matter how many tantrums the New Left might want to throw or how many songs Joan Baez wrote. Eight years before, the fascist tactics of the Chicago police had helped lose the election for Hubert Humphrey. Johnny didn't care how clean-cut these fellows were; if they were in the employ of a man running for the House of Representatives, then Stillson couldn't be more than a few paces from overstepping himself. If it wasn't quite so weird, it really would be funny.

All the same, he wished he hadn't come.

4.

Just before three o'clock, the thud of a big bass drum impressed itself on the air, felt through the feet before actually heard by the ears. Other instruments gradually began to surround it, and all of them resolved into a marching band playing a Sousa tune. Small-town election hoopla, all of a summer's day.

The crowd came to its feet again and craned in the direction of the music. Soon the band came in sight - first a baton-twirler in a short skirt, high-stepping in white kidskin boots with pompons on them, then two majorettes, then two pimply boys with grimly set faces carrying a banner that proclaimed this was THE TRIMBULL HIGH SCHOOL MARCHING BAND and you had by. God better not forget it. Then the band itself, resplendent and sweaty in blinding white uniforms and brass buttons.

The crowd cleared a path for them, and then broke into a wave of applause as they began to march in place. Behind them was a white Ford van, and standing spread-legged on the roof, face sunburned and split into a mammoth grin under his cocked-back construction hat, was the candidate himself. He raised a battery-powered bullhorn and shouted into it with leather-lunged enthusiasm: 'HI, Y'ALL!'

'Hi, Greg!' The crowd gave it right back.

Greg, Johnny thought a little hysterically. We're on first-name terms with the guy.

Stillson leaped down from the roof of the van, managing to make it look easy. He was dressed as Johnny had seen him on the news, jeans and a khaki shirt. He began to work the crowd on his way to the bandstand, shaking hands, touching other hands outstretched over the heads of those in the first ranks. The crowd lurched and swayed deliriously toward him, and Johnny felt an answering lurch in his own guts.

I'm not going to touch him. No way.

But in front of him the crowd suddenly parted a little and he stepped into the gap and suddenly found himself in the front row. He was close enough to the tuba player in the Trimbull High School Marching Band to have reached out and rapped his knuckles on the bell of his horn, had he wanted to.

Stillson moved quickly through the ranks of the band to shake hands on the other side, and Johnny lost complete sight of him except for the bobbing yellow helmet. He felt relief. That was all right, then. No harm, no foul. Like the pharisee in that famous story, he was going to pass by on the other side. Good. Wonderful. And when he made the podium, Johnny was going to gather up his stuff and steal away into the afternoon. Enough was enough.

The bikies had moved up on both sides of the path through the crowd to keep it from collapsing in on the candidate and drowning him in people. All the chunks of pool cue were still in the back pockets, but their owners looked tense and alert' for trouble. Johnny didn't know exactly what sort of trouble they expected - a Brownie Delight thrown in the candidate's face, maybe - but for the first time the bikies looked really interested.

Then something did happen, but Johnny was unable to tell exactly what it had been. A female hand reached for the bobbing yellow hard hat, maybe just to touch it for good luck, and one of Stillson's fellows moved in quickly. There was a yell of dismay and the woman's hand disappeared quickly. But it was all on the other side of the marching band.

The din from the crowd was enormous, and he thought again of the rock concerts he had been to. This was what it would be like if Paul McCartney or Elvis Presley decided to shake hands with the crowd.

They were screaming his name, chanting it: 'GREG ...GREG...GREG...'

The young guy who had billeted his family next to Johnny was holding his son up over his head so the kid could see. A young man with a large, puckered burn scar on one side of his face was waving a sign that read:

LIVE FREE OR DIE, HERE'S GREG IN YER EYE!

An achingly beautiful girl of maybe eighteen was waving a chunk of watermelon, and pink juice was running down her tanned arm. It was all mass confusion. Excitement was humming through the crowd like a series of high-voltage electrical cables.

And suddenly there was Greg Stillson, darting back through the band, back to Johnny's side of the crowd. He didn't pause, but still found time to give the tuba player a hearty clap on the back.

Later, Johnny mulled it over and tried to tell himself that there really hadn't been any chance or time to melt back into the crowd; he tried to tell himself that the crowd had practically heaved him into Stilison's arms. He tried to tell himself that Stillson had done everything but abduct his hand. None of it was true. There was time, because a fat woman in absurd, yellow damdiggers threw her arms around Stillson's neck and gave him a hearty kiss. which Stillson returned with a laugh and a 'You bet I'll remember you, hon.' The fat woman screamed laughter.

Johnny felt the familiar compact coldness come over him, the trance feeling. The sensation that nothing mattered except to know. He even smiled a little, but it wasn't his smile. He put his hand out, and Stilison seized it in both of his and began to pump it up and down.

'Hey, man, hope you're gonna support us in...'

Then Stillson broke off. The way Eileen Magown had. The way Dr. James (just like the soul singer) Brown had. The way Roger Dussault had. His eyes went wide, and then they filled with - fright? No. It was terror in Still-son's eyes.

The moment was endless. Objective time was replaced by something else, a perfect cameo of time as they stared into each other's eyes. For Johnny it was like being in that dull chrome corridor again, only this time Stilison was with him and they were sharing... sharing

(everything)

For Johnny it had never been this strong, never. Everything came at him at once, crammed together and screaming like some terrible black freight train highballing through a narrow tunnel, a speeding engine with a single glaring headlamp mounted up front, and the headlamp was knowing everything, and its light impaled Johnny Smith like a bug on a pin. There was nowhere to run and perfect knowledge ran him down, plastered him as flat as a sheet of paper while that night-running train raced over him.

He felt like screaming, but had no taste for it, no voice for it.

The one image he never escaped

(as the blue filter began to creep in)

was Greg Stillson taking the oath of office. It was being administered by an old man with the humble, frightened eyes of a fieldmouse trapped by a terribly proficient, battlescarred

(tiger)

barnyard tomcat. One of Stillson's hands clapped over a Bible, one upraised. It was years in the future because Stillson had lost most of his hair. The old man was speaking, Stillson was following. Stillson was saying

(the blue filter is deepening, covering things, blotting them out bit by bit, merciful blue filter, Stillson's face is behind the blue ... and the yellow -. - the yellow like tiger-stripes)

he would do it 'So help him God.' His face was solemn, grim, even, but a great hot joy clapped in his chest and roared in his brain. Because the man with the scared fieldmouse eyes was the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court and

(oh dear God the filter the filter the blue filter the yellow stripes)

now all of it began to disappear slowly behind that blue filter - except it wasn't a filter; it was something real. It was

(in the future in the dead zone)

something in the future. His? Stillson's? Johnny didn't know.

There was the sense of flying - flying through the blue - above scenes of utter desolation that could not quite be seen. And cutting through this came the disembodied voice of Greg Stillson, the voice of a cut-rate God or a comic-opera engine of the dead: 'I'M GONNA GO THROUGH THEM LIKE BUCKWHEAT THROUGH A GOOSE! GONNA GO THROUGH THEM LIKE SHIT THROUGH A CANEBRAKE!'

'The tiger,' Johnny muttered thickly. 'The tiger's behind the blue. Behind the yellow.'

Then all of it, pictures, images, and words, broke up in the swelling, soft roar of oblivion. He seemed to smell some sweet, coppery scent, like burning high-tension wires. For a moment that inner eye seemed to open even wider, searching; the blue and yellow that had obscured everything seemed about to solidify into ... into something, and from somewhere inside, distant and full of terror, he heard a woman shriek: 'Give him to me, you bastard!'

Then it was gone.

How long did we stand together like that? he would ask himself later. His guess was maybe five seconds. Then Stillson was pulling his hand away, ripping it away, staring at Johnny with his mouth open, the color draining away from beneath the deep tan of the summertime campaigner. Johnny could see the fillings in the man's back teeth.

His expression was one of revolted horror.

Good! Johnny wanted to scream. Good! Shake yourself to pieces! Total yourself! Destruct! Implode! Disintegrate! Do the world a favor!

Two of the motorcycle guys we're rushing forward and now the sawedoff pool cues were out and Johnny felt a stupid kind of terror because they were going to hit him, hit him over the head with their cues, they were going to make believe Johnny Smith's head was the eight ball and they were going to blast it right into the side pocket, right back into the blackness of coma and he would never come out of it this time, he would never be able to tell anyone what he had seen or change anything.

That sense of destruction - God! It had been everything!

He tried to backpedal. People scattered, pressed back, yelled with fear (or perhaps with excitement). Stillson was turning toward his bodyguards, already regaining his composure, shaking his head, restraining them.

Johnny never saw what happened next. He swayed on his feet, head lowered, blinking slowly like a drunk at the bitter end of a week-long binge. Then the soft, swelling roar of oblivion overwhelmed him and Johnny let it; he gladly let it. He blacked out.

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