I Know What You Need
by Stephen King

'I know what you need.'

Elizabeth looked up from her sociology text, startled, and saw a rather nondescript young man in a green fatigue jacket. For a moment she thought he looked familiar, as if she had known him before; the feeling was close to deja vu. Then it was gone. He was about her height, skinny, and ... twitchy. That was the word. He wasn't moving, but he seemed to be twitching inside his skin, just out of sight. His hair was black and unkempt. He wore thick horn-rimmed glasses that magnified his dark brown eyes, and the lenses looked dirty. No, she was quite sure she had never seen him before.

'You know,' she said, 'I doubt that.'

'You need a strawberry double-dip cone. Right?'

She blinked at him, frankly startled. Somewhere in the back of her mind she had been thinking about breaking for an ice cream. She was studying for finals in one of the third-floor carrels of the Student Union, and there was still a woefully long way to go.

'Right?' he persisted, and smiled. It transformed his face from something over-intense and nearly ugly into something else that was oddly appealing. The word 'cute' occurred to her, and that wasn't a good word to afflict a boy with, but this one was when he smiled. She smiled back before she could roadblock it behind her lips. This she didn't need, to have to waste time brushing off some weirdo who had decided to pick the worst time of the year to try to make an impression. She still had sixteen chapters of Introduction to Sociology to wade through.

'No thanks,' she said.

'Come on, if you hit them any harder you'll give yourself a headache. You've been at it two hours without a break.'

'How would you know that?'

'I've been watching you,' he said promptly, but this time his gamin grin was lost on her. She already had a headache.

'Well, you can stop,' she said, more sharply than she had intended. 'I don't like people staring at me.'

'I'm sorry.' She felt a little sorry for him, the way she sometimes felt sorry for stray dogs. He seemed to float in the green fatigue jacket and. . . yes, he had on mismatched socks. One black, one brown. She felt herself getting ready to smile again and held it back.

'I've got these finals,' she said gently.

'Sure,' he said. 'Okay.'

She looked after him for a moment pensively. Then she lowered her gaze to her book, but an after-image of the encounter remained: strawberry double-dip.

When she got back to the dorm it was 11.15p.m. and Alice was stretched out on her bed, listening to Neil Diamond and reading The Story of 0.

'I didn't know they assigned that in Eh-17,' Elizabeth said.

Alice sat up. 'Broadening my horizons, darling. Spreading my intellectual winds. Raising my. . . Liz?'

'Hmmm?'

'Did you hear what I said?'

'No, sorry, I-'

'You look like somebody conked you one, kid.'

'I met a guy tonight. Sort of a funny guy, at that.'

'Oh? He must be something if he can separate the great Rogan from her beloved texts.'

'His name is Edward Jackson Hamner. Junior, no less. Short. Skinny. Looks like he washed his hair around

Washington's birthday. Oh, and mismatched socks. One black, one brown.'

'I thought you were more the fraternity type.'

'It's nothing like that, Alice. I was studying at the Union on the third floor the Think Tank - and he invited me down to the Grinder for an ice-cream cone. I told him no and he sort of slunk off. But once he started me thinking about ice-cream, I couldn't stop. I'd just decided to give up and take a break and there he was, holding a big, dnppy strawberry, double-dip in each hand.'

'I tremble to hear the denouement.'

Elizabeth snorted. 'Well, I couldn't really say no. So he sat down, and it turns out he had sociology with Professor Branner last year.'

'Will wonders never cease, lawd a mercy. Goshen to Christmas -,

'Listen, this is really amazing. You know the way I've been sweating that course?'

'Yes. You talk about it in your sleep, practically.'

'I've got a seventy-eight average. I've got to have an eighty to keep my scholarship, and that means I need at least an eighty-four on the final. Well, this Ed Hamner says Branner uses almost the same final every year. And Ed's eidetic.'

'You mean he's got a whatzit . . . photographic memory?'

'Yes. Look at this.' She opened her sociology book and took out three sheets of notebook paper covered with writing.

Alice took them. 'This looks like multiple-choice stuff.'

'It is. Ed says it's Branner's last year's final word for word.'

Alice said flatly, 'I don't believe it.'

'But it covers all the material!'

'Still don't believe it.' She handed the sheets back. 'Just because this spook -'

'He isn't a spook. Don't call him that.'

'Okay. This little guy hasn't got you bamboozled into just memorizing this and not studying at all, has he?'

'Of course not,' she said uneasily.

'And even if this is like the exam, do you think it's exactly ethical?'

Anger surprised her and ran away with her tongue before she could hold it. 'That's great for you, sure. Dean's List every semester and your folks paying your way. You aren't

Hey, I'm sorry. There was no call for that.'

Alice shrugged and opened 0 again, her face carefully neutral. 'No, you're right. Not my business. But why don't you study the book, too. . . just to be safe?'

'Of course I will.'

But mostly she studied the exam notes provided by Edward Jackson Hamner, Jr.

When she came out of the lecture hall after the exam he was sitting in the lobby, floating in his green army fatigue coat. He smiled tentatively at her and stood up. 'How'd it go?'

Impulsively, she kissed his cheek. She could not remember such a blessed feeling of relief. 'I think I aced it.,

'Really? That's great. Like a burger?'

'Love one,' she said absently. Her mind was still on the exam. It was the one Ed had given her, almost word for word, and she had sailed through.

Over hamburgers, she asked him how his own finals were going.

'Don't have any. I'm in Honours, and you don't take them unless you want to. I was doing okay, so I didn't.'

'Then why are you still here?'

'I had to see how you did, didn't I?'

'Ed, you didn't. That's sweet, but -, The naked look in his eyes troubled her. She had seen it before. She was a pretty girl.

'Yes,' he said softly. 'Yes, I did.'

'Ed, I'm grateful. I think you saved my scholarship. I really do. But I have a boy4riend, you know.'

'Serious?' he asked, with a poor attempt to speak lightly.

'Very,' she said, matching his tone. 'Almost engaged.'

'Does he know he's lucky? Does he know how lucky?'

'I'm lucky, too,' she said, thinking of Tony Lombard.

'Beth,' he said suddenly.

'What?' she asked, startled.

'Nobody calls you that, do they?'

'Why. . . no. No, they don't.'

'Not even this guy?'

'No -' Tony called her Liz. Sometimes Lizzie, which was even worse.

He leaned forward. 'But Beth is what you like best, isn't it?'

She laughed to cover her confusion. 'Whatever in the world -'

'Never mind.' He grinned his gamin grin. 'I'll call you Beth. That's better. Now eat your hamburger.'

Then her junior year was over, and she was saying goodbye to Alice. They were a little stiff together, and Elizabeth was sorry. She supposed it was her own fault; she had crowed a little loudly about her sociology final when grades were posted. She had scored a ninety-seven - highest in the division.

Well, she told herself as she waited at the airport for her flight to be called, it wasn't any more unethical than the cramming she had been resigned to in that third-floor carrel. Cramming wasn't real studying at all; just rote memorization that faded away to nothing as soon as the exam was over.

She fingered the envelope that poked out of her purse. Notice of her scholarship-loan package for her senior year-two thousand dollars. She and Tony would be working together in Boothbay, Maine, this summer, and the money she would earn there would put her over the top. And thanks to Ed Hamner, it was going to be a beautiful summer. Clear sailing all the way.

But it was the most miserable summer of her life.

June was rainy, the gas shortage depressed the tourist trade, and her tips at the Boothbay Inn were mediocre. Even worse, Tony was pressing her on the subject of marriage. He could get a job on or near campus, he said, and with her Student Aid grant, she could get her degree in style. She was surprised to find that the idea scared rather than pleased her.

Something was wrong.

She didn't know what, but something was missing, out of whack, out of kilter. One night late in July she frightened herself by going on a hysterical crying jag in her apartment. The only good thing about it was that her room-mate, a mousy little girl named Sandra Ackerman, was out on a date.

The nightmare came in early August. She was lying in the bottom of an open grave, unable to move. Rain fell from a white sky on to her upturned face. Then Tony was standing over her, wearing his yellow high-impact construction helmet.

'Marry me, Liz,' he said, looking down at her expressionlessly. 'Marry me or else.'

She tried to speak, to agree; she would do anything if only he would take her out of this dreadful muddy hole. But she was paralyzed.

'All right,' he said. 'It's or else, then.'

He went away. She struggled to break out of her paralysis and couldn't.

Then she heard the bulldozer.

A moment later she saw it, a high yellow monster, pushing a mound of wet earth in front of the blade. Tony's merciless face looked down from the open cab.

He was going to bury her alive.

Trapped in her motionless, voiceless body, she could only watch in dumb horror. Trickles of dirt began to run down the sides of the hole -A familiar voice cried, 'Go! Leave her now! Go!'

Tony stumbled down from the bulldozer and ran.

Huge relief swept her. She would have cried had she been able. And her saviour appeared, standing at the foot of the open grave like a sexton. It was Ed Hamner, floating in his green fatigue jacket, his hair awry, his horn-rims slipped down to the small bulge at the end of his nose. He held his hand out to her.

'Get up,' he said gently. 'I know what you need. Get up, Beth.'

And she could get up. She sobbed with relief. She tried to thank him; her words spilled out on top of each other. And Ed only smiled gently and nodded. She took his hand and looked down to see her footing. And when she looked up again, she was holding the paw of a huge, slavering timber wolf with red hurricane-lantern eyes and thick, spiked teeth open to bite.

She woke up sitting bolt upright in bed, her nightgown drenched with sweat. Her body was shaking uncontrollably. And even after a warm shower and a glass of milk, she could not reconcile herself to the dark. She slept with the light on.

A week later Tony was dead.

She opened the door in her robe, expecting to see Tony, but it was Danny Kilmer, one of the fellows he worked with. Danny was a fun guy; she and Tony had doubled with him and his girl a couple of times. But standing in the doorway of her second-floor apartment, Danny looked not only serious but ill.

'Danny?' she said. 'What -'

'Liz,' he said. 'Liz, you've got to hold on to yourself. You've. . . ah, God!' He pounded the jamb of the door with one big-knuckled, dirty hand, and she saw he was crying.

'Danny, is it Tony? Is something.'

'Tony's dead,' Danny said. 'He was -' But he was talking to air. She had fainted.

The next week passed in a kind of dream. The story pieced itself together from the woefully brief newspaper account and from what Danny told her over a beer in the Harbor Inn.

They had been repairing drainage culverts on Route 16. Part of the road was torn up, and Tony was flagging traffic. A kid driving a red Fiat had been coming down the hill. Tony had flagged him, but the kid never even slowed. Tony had been standing next to a dump truck, and there was no place to jump back. The kid in the Fiat had sustained head lacerations and a broken arm; he was hysterical and also cold sober. The police found several holes in his brake lines, as if they had overheated and then melted through. His driving record was A-1; he had simply been unable to stop. Her Tony had been a victim of that rarest of automobile mishaps: an honest accident.

Her shock and depression were increased by guilt. The fates had taken out of her hands the decision on what to do about Tony. And a sick, secret part of her was glad it was so. Because she hadn't wanted to marry Tony. . . not since the night of her dream.

She broke down the day before she went home.

She was sitting on a rock outcropping by herself, and after an hour or so the tears came. They surprised her with their fury. She cried until her stomach hurt and her head ached, and when the tears passed she felt not better but at least drained and empty.

And that was when Ed Hamner said, 'Beth?'

She jerked around, her mouth filled with the copper taste of fear, half expecting to see the snarling wolf of her dream. But it was only Ed Hamner, looking sunburned and strangely defenceless without his fatigue jacket and blue jeans. He was wearing red shorts that stopped just ahead of his bony knees, a white T-shirt that billowed on his thin chest like a loose sail in the ocean breeze, and rubber thongs. He wasn't smiling and the fierce sun glitter on his glasses made it impossible to see his eyes.

'Ed?' she said tentatively, half convinced that this was some grief-induced hallucination. 'Is that really -'

'Yes, it's me.'

'How -'

'I've been working at the Lakewood Theatre in Skowhegan. I ran into your room-mate . . . Alice, is that her name?'

'Yes.'

'She told me what happened. I came right away. Poor Beth.' He moved his head, only a degree or so, but the sun glare slid off his glasses and she saw nothing wolfish, nothing predatory, but only a calm, warm sympathy.

She began to weep again, and staggered a little with the unexpected force of it. Then he was holding her and then it was all right.

They had dinner at the Silent Woman in Waterville, which was twenty-five miles away; maybe exactly the distance she needed. They went in Ed's car, a new Corvette, and he drove well - neither showily nor fussily, as she guessed he might. She didn't want to talk and she didn't want to be cheered up. He seemed to know it, and played quiet music on the radio.

And he ordered without consulting her - seafood. She thought she wasn't hungry, but when the food came she fell to ravenously.

When she looked up again her plate was empty and she laughed nervously. Ed was smoking a cigarette and watching her.

'The grieving damosel ate a hearty meal,' she said. 'You must think I'm awful.'

'No,' he said. 'You've been through a lot and you need to get your strength back. It's like being sick, isn't it?'

'Yes. Just like that.'

He took her hand across the table, squeezed it briefly, then let it go. 'But now it's recuperation time, Beth.'

'Is it? Is it really?'

'Yes,' he said. 'So tell me. What are your plans?'

'I'm going home tomorrow. After that, I don't know.'

'You're going back to school, aren't you?'

'I just don't know. After this, it seems so. . so trivial. A lot of the purpose seems to have gone out of it. And all the fun.'

'It'll come back. That's hard for you to believe now, but it's true. Try it for six weeks and see. You've got nothing better to do.' The last seemed a question.

'That's true, I guess. But. . . Can I have a cigarette?'

'Sure. They're menthol, though. Sorry.'

She took one. 'How did you know I didn't like menthol cigarettes?'

He shrugged. 'You just don't look like one of those, I guess.'

She smiled. 'You're funny, do you know that?'

He smiled neutrally.

'No, really. For you of all people to turn up. . .I thought I didn't want to see anyone. But I'm really glad it was you, Ed.'

'Sometimes it's nice to be with someone you're not involved with.'

'That's it, I guess.' She paused. 'Who are you, Ed, besides my fairy godfather? Who are you really?' It was suddenly important to her that she know.

He shrugged. 'Nobody much. Just one of the sort of funny-looking guys you see creeping around campus with a load of books under one arm -'Ed, you're not funny-looking.' 'Sure I am,' he said, and smiled. 'Never grew all the way out of my high-school acne, never got rushed by a big frat, never made any kind of splash in the social whirl. Just a dorm rat making grades, that's all. When the big corporations interview on campus next spring, I'll probably sign on with one of them and Ed Hamner will disappear for ever.'

'That would be a great shame,' she said softly. He smiled, and it was a very peculiar smile. Almost bitter.

'What about your folks?' she asked. 'Where you live, what you like to do -'

'Another time,' he said. 'I want to get you back. You've got a long plane ride tomorrow, and a lot of hassles.'

The evening left her relaxed for the first time since Tony's death, without that feeling that somewhere inside a mainspring was being wound and wound to the breaking point. She thought sleep would come easily, but it did not.

Little questions nagged.

Alice told me. . . poor Beth.

But Alice was summering in Kittery, eighty miles from Skowhegan. She must have been at Lakewood for a play.

The Corvette, this year's model. Expensive. A backstage job at Lakewood hadn't paid for that. Were his parents rich?

He had ordered just what she would have ordered her-self. Maybe the only thing on the menu she would have eaten enough of to discover that she was hungry.

The menthol cigarettes, the way he had kissed her good night, exactly as she had wanted to be kissed. And -You've gota long plane ride tomorrow.

He knew she was going home because she had told him. But how had he known she was going by plane? Or that it was a long ride?

It bothered her. It bothered her because she was halfway to being in love with Ed Hamner.

I know what you need.

Like the voice of a submarine captain tolling off fathoms, the words he had greeted her with followed her down to sleep.

He didn't come to the tiny Augusta airport to see her off, and waiting for the plane, she was surprised by her own disappointment. She was thinking about how quietly you could grow to depend on a person, almost like a junkie with a habit. The hype fools himself that he can take this stuff or leave it, when really -'Elizabeth Rogan,' the PA blared. 'Please pick up the white courtesy phone.'

She hurried to it. And Ed's voice said, 'Beth?'

'Ed! It's good to hear you. I thought maybe .

'That I'd meet you?' He laughed. 'You don't need me for that. You're a big strong girl. Beautiful, too. You can handle this. Will I see you at school?'

'I... yes, I think so.'

'Good.' There was a moment of silence. Then he said, 'Because I love you. I have from the first time I saw you.'

Her tongue was locked. She couldn't speak. A thousand thoughts whirled through her mind.

He laughed again, gently. 'No, don't say anything. Not now. I'll see you. There'll be time then. All the time in the world. Good trip, Beth. Goodbye.'

And he was gone, leaving her with a white phone in her hand and her own chaotic thoughts and questions.

September.

Elizabeth picked up the old pattern of school and classes like a woman who has been interrupted at knitting. She was rooming with Alice again, of course; they had been roomies since freshman year, when they had been thrown together by the housing-department computer. They had always got along well, despite differing interests and personalities. Alice was the studious one, a chemistry major with a 3.6 average. Elizabeth was more social, less bookish, with a split major in education and math.

They still got on well, but a faint coolness seemed to have grown up between them over the summer. Elizabeth chalked it up to the difference of opinion over the sociology final, and didn't mention it.

The events of the summer began to seem dreamlike. In a funny way it sometimes seemed that Tony might have been a boy she had known in high school. It still hurt to think about him, and she avoided the subject with Alice, but the hurt was an old-bruise throb and not the bright pain of an open wound.

What hurt more was Ed Hamner's failure to call.

A week passed, then two, then it was October. She got a student directory from the Union and looked up his name. It was no help; after his name were only the words 'Mill St'. And Mill was a very long street indeed. And so she waited, and when she was called for dates - which was often - she turned them down. Alice raised her eyebrows but said nothing; she was buried alive in a six-week biochem project and spent most of her evenings at the library. Elizabeth noticed the long white envelopes that her room-mate was receiving once or twice a week in the mail - since she was usually back from class first but thought nothing of them. The private detective agency was discreet; it did not print its return address on its envelopes.

When the intercom buzzed, Alice was studying. 'You get it, Liz. Probably for you anyway.'

Elizabeth went to the intercom. 'Yes?'

'Gentleman door-caller, Liz.'

Oh, Lord.

'Who is it?' she asked, annoyed, and ran through her tattered stack of excuses. Migraine headache. She hadn't used that one this week.

The desk girl said, amused, 'His name is Edward Jackson Hamner. Junior, no less.' Her voice lowered. 'His socks don't match.'

Elizabeth's hand flew to the collar of her robe. 'Oh, God.

Tell him I'll be right down. No, tell him it will be just a minute. No, a couple of minutes, okay?'

'Sure,' the voice said dubiously. 'Don't have a haemorrhage.'

Elizabeth took a pair of slacks out of her closet. Took out a short denim skirt. Felt the curlers in her hair and groaned. Began to yank them out.

Alice watched all this calmly, without speaking, but she looked speculatively at the door for a long time after Elizabeth had left.

He looked just the same; he hadn't changed at all. He was wearing his green fatigue jacket, and it still looked at least two sizes too big. One of the bows of his horn-rimmed glasses had been mended with electrician's tape. His jeans looked new and stiff, miles from the soft and faded 'in' look that Tony had achieved effortlessly. He was wearing one green sock, one brown sock.

And she knew she loved him.

'Why didn't you call before?' she asked, going to him.

He stuck his hands in the pockets of his jacket and grinned shyly. 'I thought I'd give you some time to date around. Meet some guys. Figure out what you want.

'I think I know that.'

'Good. Would you like to go to a movie?'

'Anything,' she said. 'Anything at all.'

 

 

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