The Man in the Black Suit
Written by: Stephen King
Narrated by: John Cullum

I turned and began walking as fast as I could, limping a little—I’d pulled muscles in both legs, and when I got out of bed the next morning I was so sore I could barely walk. I didn’t notice those things then, though. I just kept looking over my shoulder, needing again and again to verify that the road behind me was still empty. It was, each time I looked, but those backward glances seemed to increase my fear rather than lessening it. The firs looked darker, massier, and I kept imagining what lay behind the trees which marched beside the road—long, tangled corridors of forest, leg-breaking deadfalls, ravines where anything might live. Until that Saturday in 1914, I had thought that bears were the worst thing the forest could hold.

Now I knew better.

 

A mile or so further up the road, just beyond the place where it came out of the woods and joined the Geegan Flat Road, I saw my father walking toward me and whistling “The Old Oaken Bucket.” He was carrying his own rod, the one with the fancy spinning reel from Monkey Ward. In his other hand he had his creel, the one with the ribbon my mother had woven through the handle back when Dan was still alive. DEDICATED TO JESUS, that ribbon said. I had been walking but when I saw him I started to run again, screaming Dad! Dad! Dad! at the top of my lungs and staggering from side to side on my tired, sprung legs like a drunken sailor. The expression of surprise on his face when he recognized me might have been comical under other circumstances, but not under these. He dropped his rod and creel into the road without so much as a downward glance at them and ran to me. It was the fastest I ever saw my Dad run in his life; when we came together it was a wonder the impact didn’t knock us both senseless, and I struck my face on his belt-buckle hard enough to start a little nosebleed. I didn’t notice that until later, though. Right then I only reached out my arms and clutched him as hard as I could. I held on and rubbed my hot face back and forth against his belly, covering his old blue workshirt with blood and tears and snot.

“Gary, what is it? What happened? Are you all right?”

“Ma’s dead!” I sobbed. “I met a man in the woods and he told me! Ma’s dead! She got stung by a bee and it swelled her all up just like what happened to Dan, and she’s dead! She’s on the kitchen floor and Candy Bill … licked the t-t-tears … off her … off her …”

Face was the last word I had to say, but by then my chest was hitching so bad I couldn’t get it out. My tears were flowing again, and my Dad’s startled, frightened face had blurred into three overlapping images. I began to howl—not like a little kid who’s skun his knee but like a dog that’s seen something bad by moonlight—and my father pressed my head against his hard flat stomach again. I slipped out from under his hand, though, and looked back over my shoulder. I wanted to make sure the man in the black suit wasn’t coming. There was no sign of him; the road winding back into the woods was completely empty. I promised myself I would never go back down that road again, not ever, no matter what, and I suppose now God’s greatest blessing to His creatures below is that they can’t see the future. It might have broken my mind if I had known I would be going back down that road, and not two hours later. For that moment, though, I was only relieved to see we were still alone. Then I thought of my mother—my beautiful dead mother—and laid my face back against my father’s stomach and bawled some more.

“Gary, listen to me,” he said a moment or two later. I went on bawling. He gave me a little longer to do that, then reached down and lifted my chin so he could look into my face and I could look into his. “Your Mom’s fine,” he said.

I could only look at him with tears streaming down my cheeks. I didn’t believe him.

“I don’t know who told you different, or what kind of dirty dog would want to put a scare like that into a little boy, but I swear to God your mother’s fine.”

“But … but he said …”

“I don’t care what he said. I got back from Eversham’s earlier than I expected—he doesn’t want to sell any cows, it’s all just talk—and decided I had time to catch up with you. I got my pole and my creel and your mother made us a couple of jelly fold-overs. Her new bread. Still warm. So she was fine half an hour ago, Gary, and there’s nobody knows any different that’s come from this direction, I guarantee you. Not in just half an hour’s time.” He looked over my shoulder. “Who was this man? And where was he? I’m going to find him and thrash him within an inch of his life.”

I thought a thousand things in just two seconds—that’s what it seemed like, anyway—but the last thing I thought was the most powerful: if my Dad met up with the man in the black suit, I didn’t think my Dad would be the one to do the thrashing. Or the walking away.

I kept remembering those long white fingers, and the talons at the ends of them.

“Gary?”

“I don’t know that I remember,” I said.

“Were you where the stream splits? The big rock?”

I could never lie to my father when he asked a direct question— not to save his life or mine. “Yes, but don’t go down there.” I seized his arm with both hands and tugged it hard. “Please don’t. He was a scary man.” Inspiration struck like an illuminating lightning-bolt. “I think he had a gun.”

He looked at me thoughtfully. “Maybe there wasn’t a man,” he said, lifting his voice a little on the last word and turning it into something that was almost but not quite a question. “Maybe you fell asleep while you were fishing, son, and had a bad dream. Like the ones you had about Danny last winter.”

I had had a lot of bad dreams about Dan last winter, dreams where I would open the door to our closet or to the dark, fruity inte rior of the cider shed and see him standing there and looking at me out of his purple strangulated face; from many of these dreams I had awakened screaming, and awakened my parents, as well. I had fallen asleep on the bank of the stream for a little while, too—dozed off, anyway—but I hadn’t dreamed and I was sure I had awakened just before the man in the black suit clapped the bee dead, sending it tumbling off my nose and into my lap. I hadn’t dreamed him the way I had dreamed Dan, I was quite sure of that, although my meeting with him had already attained a dreamlike quality in my mind, as I suppose supernatural occurrences always must. But if my Dad thought that the man had only existed in my own head, that might be better. Better for him.

“It might have been, I guess,” I said.

“Well, we ought to go back and find your rod and your creel.”

He actually started in that direction, and I had to tug frantically at his arm to stop him again, and turn him back toward me.

“Later,” I said. “Please, Dad? I want to see Mother. I’ve got to see her with my own eyes.”

He thought that over, then nodded. “Yes, I suppose you do. We’ll go home first, and get your rod and creel later.”

So we walked back to the farm together, my father with his fishpole propped on his shoulder just like one of my friends, me carrying his creel, both of us eating folded-over slices of my mother’s bread smeared with black currant jam.

“Did you catch anything?” he asked as we came in sight of the barn.

“Yes, sir,” I said. “A rainbow. Pretty good-sized.” And a brookie that was a lot bigger, I thought but didn’t say. Biggest one I ever saw, to tell the truth, but I don’t have that one to show you, Dad. I gave that one to the man in the black suit, so he wouldn’t eat me. And it worked … but just barely.

“That’s all? Nothing else?”

“After I caught it I fell asleep.” This was not really an answer, but not really a lie, either.

“Lucky you didn’t lose your pole. You didn’t, did you, Gary?”

“No, sir,” I said, very reluctantly. Lying about that would do no good even if I’d been able to think up a whopper—not if he was set on going back to get my creel anyway, and I could see by his face that he was.

Up ahead, Candy Bill came racing out of the back door, barking his shrill bark and wagging his whole rear end back and forth the way Scotties do when they’re excited. I couldn’t wait any longer; hope and anxiety bubbled up in my throat like foam. I broke away from my father and ran to the house, still lugging his creel and still convinced, in my heart of hearts, that I was going to find my mother dead on the kitchen floor with her face swelled and purple like Dan’s had been when my father carried him in from the west field, crying and calling the name of Jesus.

But she was standing at the counter, just as well and fine as when I had left her, humming a song as she shelled peas into a bowl. She looked around at me, first in surprise and then in fright as she took in my wide eyes and pale cheeks.

“Gary, what is it? What’s the matter?”

I didn’t answer, only ran to her and covered her with kisses. At some point my father came in and said, “Don’t worry, Lo—he’s all right. He just had one of his bad dreams, down there by the brook.”

“Pray God it’s the last of them,” she said, and hugged me tighter while Candy Bill danced around our feet, barking his shrill bark.

 

“You don’t have to come with me if you don’t want to, Gary,” my father said, although he had already made it clear that he thought I should—that I should go back, that I should face my fear, as I suppose folks would say nowadays. That’s very well for fearful things that are make-believe, but two hours hadn’t done much to change my conviction that the man in the black suit had been real. I wouldn’t be able to convince my father of that, though. I don’t think there was a nineyear-old that ever lived who would have been able to convince his father he’d seen the Devil come walking out of the woods in a black suit.

“I’ll come,” I said. I had walked out of the house to join him before he left, mustering all my courage in order to get my feet moving, and now we were standing by the chopping-block in the side yard, not far from the woodpile.

“What you got behind your back?” he asked.

I brought it out slowly. I would go with him, and I would hope the man in the black suit with the arrow-straight part down the left side of his head was gone … but if he wasn’t, I wanted to be prepared. As prepared as I could be, anyway. I had the family Bible in the hand I had brought out from behind my back. I’d set out just to bring my New Testament, which I had won for memorizing the most psalms in the Thursday night Youth Fellowship competition (I managed eight, although most of them except the Twenty-third had floated out of my mind in a week’s time), but the little red Testament didn’t seem like enough when you were maybe going to face the Devil himself, not even when the words of Jesus were marked out in red ink.

My father looked at the old Bible, swelled with family documents and pictures, and I thought he’d tell me to put it back, but he didn’t. A look of mixed grief and sympathy crossed his face, and he nodded. “All right,” he said. “Does your mother know you took that?”

“No, sir.”

He nodded again. “Then we’ll hope she doesn’t spot it gone before we get back. Come on. And don’t drop it.”

 

Half an hour or so later, the two of us stood on the bank looking down at the place where Castle Stream forked, and at the flat place where I’d had my encounter with the man with the red-orange eyes. I had my bamboo rod in my hand—I’d picked it up below the bridge—and my creel lay down below, on the flat place. Its wicker top was flipped back. We stood looking down, my father and I, for a long time, and neither of us said anything.

Opal! Diamond! Sapphire! Jade! I smell Gary’s lemonade! That had been his unpleasant little poem, and once he had recited it, he had thrown himself on his back, laughing like a child who has just discovered he has enough courage to say bathroom words like shit or piss. The flat place down there was as green and lush as any place in Maine that the sun can get to in early July … except where the stranger had lain. There the grass was dead and yellow in the shape of a man.

I looked down and saw I was holding our lumpy old family Bible straight out in front of me with both thumbs pressing so hard on the cover that they were white. It was the way Mama Sweet’s husband Norville held a willow-fork when he was trying to dowse somebody a well.

“Stay here,” my father said at last, and skidded sideways down the bank, digging his shoes into the rich soft soil and holding his arms out for balance. I stood where I was, holding the Bible stiffly out at the ends of my arms like a willow-fork, my heart thumping wildly. I don’t know if I had a sense of being watched that time or not; I was too scared to have a sense of anything, except for a sense of wanting to be far away from that place and those woods.

My Dad bent down, sniffed at where the grass was dead, and grimaced. I knew what he was smelling: something like burnt matches. Then he grabbed my creel and came on back up the bank, hurrying. He snagged one fast look over his shoulder to make sure nothing was coming along behind. Nothing was. When he handed me the creel, the lid was still hanging back on its cunning little leather hinges. I looked inside and saw nothing but two handfuls of grass.

“Thought you said you caught a rainbow,” my father said, “but maybe you dreamed that, too.”

Something in his voice stung me. “No, sir,” I said. “I caught one.”

“Well, it sure as hell didn’t flop out, not if it was gutted and cleaned. And you wouldn’t put a catch into your fisherbox without doing that, would you, Gary? I taught you better than that.”

“Yes, sir, you did, but—”

“So if you didn’t dream catching it and if it was dead in the box, something must have come along and eaten it,” my father said, and then he grabbed another quick glance over his shoulder, eyes wide, as if he had heard something move in the woods. I wasn’t exactly surprised to see drops of sweat standing out on his forehead like big clear jewels. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

I was for that, and we went back along the bank to the bridge, walking quick without speaking. When we got there, my Dad dropped to one knee and examined the place where we’d found my rod. There was another patch of dead grass there, and the lady’s slipper was all brown and curled in on itself, as if a blast of heat had charred it. While my father did this, I looked in my empty creel.

“He must have gone back and eaten my other fish, too,” I said.

My father looked up at me. “Other fish!”

“Yes, sir. I didn’t tell you, but I caught a brookie, too. A big one. He was awful hungry, that fella.” I wanted to say more, and the words trembled just behind my lips, but in the end I didn’t.

We climbed up to the bridge and helped one another over the railing. My father took my creel, looked into it, then went to the railing and threw it over. I came up beside him in time to see it splash down and float away like a boat, riding lower and lower in the stream as the water poured in between the wicker weavings.

“It smelled bad,” my father said, but he didn’t look at me when he said it, and his voice sounded oddly defensive. It was the only time I ever heard him speak just that way.

“Yes, sir.”

“We’ll tell your mother we couldn’t find it. If she asks. If she doesn’t ask, we won’t tell her anything.”

“No, sir, we won’t.”

And she didn’t and we didn’t and that’s the way it was.

 

That day in the woods is eighty-one years gone, and for many of the years in between I have never even thought of it … not awake, at least. Like any other man or woman who ever lived, I can’t say about my dreams, not for sure. But now I’m old, and I dream awake, it seems. My infirmities have crept up like waves which will soon take a child’s abandoned sand castle, and my memories have also crept up, making me think of some old rhyme that went, in part, “Just leave them alone/And they’ll come home/Wagging their tails behind them.” I remember meals I ate, games I played, girls I kissed in the school cloakroom when we played Post Office, boys I chummed with, the first drink I ever took, the first cigarette I ever smoked (corn shuck behind Dicky Hammer’s pig-shed, and I threw up). Yet of all the memories, the one of the man in the black suit is the strongest, and glows with its own spectral, haunted light. He was real, he was the Devil, and that day I was either his errand or his luck. I feel more and more strongly that escaping him was my luck—just luck, and not the intercession of the God I have worshipped and sung hymns to all my life.

As I lie here in my nursing-home room, and in the ruined sand castle that is my body, I tell myself that I need not fear the Devil—that I have lived a good, kindly life, and I need not fear the Devil. Sometimes I remind myself that it was I, not my father, who finally coaxed my mother back to church later on that summer. In the dark, however, these thoughts have no power to ease or comfort. In the dark comes a voice which whispers that the nine-year-old boy I was had done nothing for which he might legitimately fear the devil either … and yet the Devil came. And in the dark I sometimes hear that voice drop even lower, into ranges which are inhuman. Big fish! it whispers in tones of hushed greed, and all the truths of the moral world fall to ruin before its hunger. Biiig fiiish!

The Devil came to me once, long ago; suppose he were to come again now? I am too old to run now; I can’t even get to the bathroom and back without my walker. I have no fine large brook trout with which to propitiate him, either, even for a moment or two; I am old and my creel is empty. Suppose he were to come back and find me so?

And suppose he is still hungry?

 

 

——