The Green Mile
by Stephen King

2.

When we brought John back to E Block that night, the gurney was a necessity instead of a luxury. I very much doubt if he could have made it the length of the tunnel on his own; it takes more energy to walk at a crouch than it does upright, and it was a damned low ceiling for the likes of John Coffey. I didn't like to think of him collapsing down

there. How would we explain that, on top of trying to explain why we had dressed Percy in the madman's dinner-jacket and tossed him in the restraint room?

But we had the gurney - thank God - and John Coffey lay on it like a beached whale as we pushed him back to the storage-room stairs. He got down off it, staggered, then simply stood with his head lowered, breathing harshly. His skin was so gray he looked as if he'd been rolled in flour. I thought he'd be in the infirmary by noon ... if he wasn't dead by noon, that was.

Brutal gave me a grim, desperate look. I gave it right back. “We can't carry him up, but we can help him,” I said. “You under his right arm, me under his left.”

“What about me?” Harry asked.

“Walk behind us. If he looks like going over backward, shove him forward again.”

“And if that don't work, kinda crouch down where you think he's gonna land and soften the blow,” Brutal said.

“Gosh,” Harry said thinly, “you oughta go on the Orpheum Circuit, Brute, that's how funny you are.”

“I got a sense of humor, all right,” Brutal admitted.

In the end, we did manage to get John up the stairs. My biggest worry was that he might faint, but he didn't. “Go around me and check to make sure the storage room's empty,” I gasped to Harry.

“What should I say if it's not?” Harry asked, squeezing under my arm. “Avon calling,, and then pop back in here?”

“Don't be a Wisenheimer,” Brutal said.

Harry eased the door open a little way and poked his head through. It seemed to me that he stayed that way for a very long time. At last he pulled back, looking almost cheerful. “Coast's clear. And it's quiet.”

“Let's hope it stays that way,” Brutal said. “Come on, John Coffey, almost home.”

He was able to cross the storage room under his own power, but we had to help him up the three steps to my office and then almost push him through the little door. When he got to his feet again, he was breathing stertorously, and his eyes had a glassy sheen. Also - I noticed this with real horror - the right side of his mouth had pulled down, making it look like Melinda's had, when we walked into her room and saw her propped up on her pillows.

Dean heard us and came in from the desk at the head of the Green Mile. “Thank God! I thought you were never coming back, I'd half made up my mind you were caught, or the Warden plugged you, or-” He broke off, really seeing John for the first time. “Holy cats, what's wrong with him? He looks like he's dying!”

“He's not dying ... are you, John ?” Brutal said. His eyes flashed Dean a warning.

“Course not, I didn't mean actually dyin” - Dean gave a nervous little laugh - “but, jeepers . .”

“Never mind,” I said. “Help us get him back to his cell.”

Once again we were foothills surrounding a mountain, but now it was a mountain that had suffered a few million years, worth of erosion, one that was blunted and sad. John Coffey moved slowly, breathing through his mouth like an old man who smoked too much, but at least he moved.

“What about Percy?” I asked. “Has he been kicking up a ruckus?”

“Some at the start,” Dean said. “Trying to yell through the tape you put over his mouth. Cursing, I believe.”

“Mercy me,” Brutal said. “A good thing our tender ears were elsewhere.”

“Since then, just a mulekick at the door every once in awhile, you know.” Dean was so relieved to see us that he was babbling. His glasses slipped down to the end of his nose, which was shiny with sweat, and he pushed them back up. We passed Wharton's cell. That worthless young man was flat on his back, snoring like a sousaphone. His eyes were shut this time, all right.

Dean saw me looking and laughed.

“No trouble from that guy! Hasn't moved since he laid back down on his bunk. Dead to the world. As for Percy kicking the door every now and then, I never minded that a bit. Was glad of it, tell you the truth. If he didn't make any noise at all, I'd start wonderin if he hadn't choked to death on that gag you slapped over his cakehole. But that's not the best. You know the best? It's been as quiet as Ash Wednesday morning in New Orleans! Nobody's been down all night!” He said this last in a triumphant, gloating voice. “We got away with it, boys! We did!”

That made him think of why we'd gone through the whole comedy in the first place, and he asked about Melinda.

“She's fine,” I said. We had reached John 's cell. What Dean had said was just starting to sink in: We got away with it, boys ... we did.

“Was it like ... you know ... the mouse?” Dear asked. He glanced briefly at the empty cell when Delacroix had lived with Mr. Jingles, then down a the restraint room, which had been the mouse's seeming point of origin. His voice dropped, the way people's voices do when they enter a big church where even the silence seems to whisper. “Was it a...” He gulped. “Shoot, you know what I mean - was it a miracle?”

The three of us looked at each other briefly, confirming what we already knew. “Brought her back from her damn grave is what he did,” Harry said. “Yeah, it was a miracle, all right.”

Brutal opened the double locks on the cell, and gave John a gentle push inside. “Go on, now, big boy. Rest awhile. You earned it. We'll just settle Percy's hash”

“He's a bad man,” John said in a low, mechanical voice.

“That's right, no doubt, wicked as a warlock,” Brutal agreed in his most soothing voice, “but don't you worry a smidge about him, we're not going to let him near you. You just ease down on that bunk of yours and I'll have that cup of coffee to you in no time. Hot and strong. You'll feel like a new man.”

John sat heavily on his bunk. I thought he'd fall back on it and roll to the wall as he usually did, but he just sat there for the time being, hands clasped loosely between his knees, head lowered, breathing hard through his mouth. The St. Christopher's medal Melinda had given him had fallen out of the top of his shirt and swung back and forth in the air. He'll keep you safe, that's what she'd told him, but John Coffey didn't look a bit safe. He looked like he had taken Melinda's place on the lip of that grave Harry had spoken of.

But I couldn't think about John Coffey just then I turned around to the others. “Dean, get Percy's pistol and hickory stick.”

“Okay.” He went back up to the desk, unlocked the drawer with the gun and the stick in it, and brought them back.

“Ready?” I asked them. My men - good men, and was never prouder of them than I was that night, nodded. Harry and Dean both looked nervous; Brutal as stolid as ever. “Okay. I'm going to do the talking. The less the rest of you open your mouths, the better it'll probably be and the quicker it'll probably wrap up ... for better or worse. Okay?”

They nodded again. I took a deep breath and walked down to the Green Mile restraint room.

Percy looked up, squinting, when the light fell on him. He was sitting on the floor and licking at the tape I had slapped across his mouth. The part I'd wound around to the back of his head had come free (probably the sweat and brilliantine in his hair had loosened it), and he'd gotten a ways toward getting the rest off, as well. Another hour and he would've been bawling for help at the top of his lungs.

He used his feet to shove himself a little way backward when we came in, then stopped, no doubt realizing that there was nowhere to go except for the southeast corner of the room.

I took his gun and stick from Dean and held them out in Percy's direction. “Want these back?” I asked.

He looked at me warily, then nodded his head.

“Brutal,” I said. “Harry. Get him on his feet.”

They bent, hooked him under the canvas arms of the straitjacket, and up he came. I moved toward him until we were almost nose to nose. I could smell the sour sweat in which he'd been basting. Some of it probably came from his efforts to get free of the quiet-down coat, or to administer the occasional kicks to the door Dean had heard, but I thought most of his sweat had come as a result of plain old fear: fear of what we might do to him when we came back.

I'll be okay, they ain't killers, Percy would think... and then, maybe, he'd think of Old Sparky and it would cross his mind that yes, in a way we were killers. I'd done seventy-seven myself, more than any of the men I'd ever put the chest-strap on, more than Sergeant York himself got credit for in World War I. Killing Percy wouldn't be logical, but we'd already behaved illogically, he would have told himself as he sat there with his arms behind him, working with his tongue to get the tape off his mouth. And besides, logic most likely doesn't have much power over a person's thoughts when that person is sitting on the floor of a room with soft walls, wrapped up as neat and tight as any spider ever wrapped a fly.

Which is to say, if I didn't have him where I wanted now, I never would.

“I'll take the tape off your mouth if you promise not to start yowling,” I said. “I want to have a talk with you, not a shouting match. So what do you say? Will you be quiet?”

I saw relief come up in his eyes as he realized that, if I wanted to talk, he really did stand a good chance of getting out of this with a whole skin. He nodded his head.

“If you start noising off, the tape goes back on,” I said. “Do you understand that, too?”

Another nod, rather impatient this time.

I reached up, grabbed the end of the runner he'd worked loose, and gave it a hard yank. It made a loud peeling sound. Brutal winced. Percy yipped with pain and began rubbing his lips. He tried to speak, realized he couldn't do it with a hand over his mouth, and lowered it.

“Get me out of this nut-coat, you lugoon,” he spat.

“In a minute,” I said.

“Now! Now! Right n-”

I slapped his face. It was done before I'd even known I was going to do it ... but of course I'd known it might come to that. Even back during the first talk about Percy that I'd had with Warden Moores, the one where Hal advised me to put Percy out for the Delacroix execution, I'd known it might come to that. A man's hand is like an animal that's only half-tame; mostly it's good, but sometimes it escapes and bites the first thing it sees.

The sound was a sharp snap, like a breaking branch. Dean gasped. Percy stared at me in utter shock, his eyes so wide they looked as if they must fall out of their sockets. His mouth opened and closed, opened and closed, like the mouth of a fish in an aquarium tank.

“Shut up and listen to me,” I said. “You deserved to be punished for what you did to Del, and we gave you what you deserved. This was the only way we could do it. We all agreed, except for Dean, and he'll go along with us, because we'll make him sorry if he doesn't. Isn't that so, Dean?”

“Yes,” Dean whispered. He was milk-pale. “Guess it is.”

“And we'll make you sorry you were ever born,”

I went on. “We'll see that people know about how you sabotaged the Delacroix execution - ”

“Sabotaged-!”

“how you almost got Dean killed. We'll blab enough to keep you out of almost any job your uncle can get you.”

Percy was shaking his head furiously. He didn't believe that, perhaps couldn't believe that. My handprint stood out on his pale cheek like a fortune-teller's sign.

“And no matter what, we'd see you beaten within an inch of your life. We wouldn't have to do it ourselves. We know people, too, Percy, are you so foolish you don't realize that? They aren't up in the state capital, but they still know how to legislate certain matters. These are people who have friends in here, people who have brothers in here, people who have fathers in here. They'd be happy to amputate the nose or the penis of a shitheels like you. They'd do it just so someone they care for could get an extra three hours in the exercise yard each week.”

Percy had stopped shaking his head. Now he was only staring. Tears stood in his eyes, but didn't fall. I think they were tears of rage and frustration. Or maybe I just hoped they were.

“Okay - now look on the sunny side, Percy. Your lips sting a little from having the tape pulled off them, I imagine, but otherwise there's nothing hurt but your pride ... and nobody needs to know about that but the people in this room right now. And we'll never tell, will we, boys?”

They shook their heads. “Course not,” Brutal said. “Green Mile business stays on the Green Mile. Always has.”

“You're going on to Briar Ridge and we're going to leave you alone until you go,” I said. “Do you want to leave it at that, Percy, or do you want to play hardball with us?”

There was a long, long silence as he considered.

I could almost see the wheels turning in his head as he tried out and rejected possible counters. And at last, I think a more basic truth must have overwhelmed the rest of his calculations: the tape was off his mouth, but he was still wearing the straitjacket and probably he had to piss like a racehorse.

“All right,” he said. “We'll consider the matter closed. Now get me out of this coat. It feels like my shoulders are - ”

Brutal stepped forward, shouldering me aside, and grabbed Percy's face with one big hand - fingers denting in Percy's right cheek, thumb making a deep dimple in his left.

“In a few seconds,” he said. “First, you listen to me. Paul here is the big boss, and so he has to talk elegant sometimes.”

I tried to remember anything elegant I might've said to Percy and couldn't come up with much. Still, I thought it might be best to keep my mouth shut; Percy looked suitably terrorized, and I didn't want to spoil the effect.

“People don't always understand that being elegant isn't the same as being soft, and that's where I come in. I don't worry about being elegant. I just say things straight out. So here it is, straight out: if you go back on your promise, we'll most likely take an ass-fucking. But then we'll find you - if we have to go all the way to Russia, we'll find you - and we will fuck you, not just up the ass but in every hole you own. We'll fuck you until you'll wish you were dead, and then we'll rub vinegar in the parts that are bleeding. Do you understand me?”

He nodded. With Brutal's hand digging into the soft sides of his face the way it was, Percy looked eerily like Old Toot-Toot.

Brutal let go of him and stepped back. I nodded to Harry, who went behind Percy and started unsnapping and unbuckling.

“Keep it in mind, Percy,” Harry said. “Keep it in mind and let bygones be bygones.”

All of it suitably scary, three bogeymen in bluesuits - but I felt a kind of knowing despair sweep through me, all the same. He might keep quiet for a day or a week, continuing to calculate the odds on various actions, but in the end two things - his belief in his connections and his inability to walk away from a situation where he saw himself as the loser would combine. When that happened, he would spill his guts. We had perhaps helped to save Melly Moores's life by taking John to her, and I wouldn't have changed that (“not for all the tea in China,” as we used to say back in those days), but in the end we were going to hit the canvas and the ref was going to count us out. Short of murder, there was no way we could make Percy keep his end of the bargain, not once he was away from us and had started to get back what passed for his guts.

I took a little sidelong glance at Brutal and saw he knew this, too. Which didn't surprise me. There were no flies on Mrs. Howell's boy Brutus, never had been. He gave me a tiny shrug, just one shoulder lifting an inch and then dropping, but it was enough. So what? that shrug said. What else is there, Paul? We did what we had to do, and we did it the best we could.

Yes. Results hadn't been half-bad, either.

Harry undid the last buckle on the straitjacket. Grimacing with disgust and rage, Percy pawed it off and let it drop at his feet. He wouldn't look at any of us, not directly.

“Give me my gun and my baton,” he said. I handed them over. He dropped the gun into its holster and shoved the hickory stick into its custom loop.

“Percy, if you think about it - ”

“Oh, I intend to,” he said, brushing past me. “I intend to think about it very hard. Starting right now. On my way home. One of you boys can clock me out at quitting time.” He reached the door of the restraint room and turned to survey us with a look of angry, embarrassed contempt - a deadly combination for the secret we'd had some fool's hope of keeping.

“Unless, of course, you want to try explaining why I left early.”

He left the room and went striding up the Green Mile, forgetting in his agitation why that green floored central corridor was so wide. He had mad this mistake once before and had gotten away with it. He would not get away with it again.

I followed him out the door, trying to think of a way to soothe him down - I didn't want him leaving E Block the way he was now, sweaty and dishevelled, with the red print of my hand still on his cheek. The other three followed me.

What happened then happened very fast - it was all over in no more than a minute, perhaps even less. Yet I remember all of it to this day - mostly, I think, because I told Janice everything when I got home and that set it in my mind. What happened afterward - the dawn meeting with Curtis Anderson, the inquest, the press-meeting Hal Moores set up for us (he was back by then, of course), and the eventual Board of Enquiry in the state capital - those things have blurred over the years like so much else in my memory. But as to what actually happened next there on the Green Mile, yes, that I remember perfectly well.

Percy was walking up the right side of the Mile with his head lowered, and I'll say this much: no ordinary Prisoner could have reached him. John Coffey wasn't an ordinary prisoner, though. John Coffey was a giant, and he had a giant's reach.

I saw his long brown arms shoot out from between the bars and yelled, “Watchit, Percy, watch it!” Percy started to turn, his left hand dropping to the butt of his stick. Then he was seized and yanked against the front of John Coffey's cell, the right side of his face smashing into the bars.

He grunted and turned toward Coffey, raising the hickory club. John was certainly vulnerable to it; his own face was pressed so strenuously into the space between two of the center bars that he looked as if he was trying to squeeze his entire head through. It would have been impossible, of course, but that was how it looked. His right hand groped, found the nape of Percy's neck, curled around it, and yanked Percy's head forward. Percy brought the club down between the bars and onto John 's temple. Blood flowed, but John paid no attention. His mouth pressed against Percy's mouth. I heard a whispering rush - an exhalatory sound, as of long-held breath. Percy jerked like a fish on a hook, trying to get away, but he never had a chance; John 's right hand was pressed to the back of his neck, holding him firm. Their faces seemed to melt together, like the faces of lovers I have seen kissing passionately through bars.

Percy screamed, the sound muffled as it had been through the tape, and made another effort to pull back. For an instant their lips came apart a little, and I saw the black, swirling tide that was flowing out of John Coffey and into Percy Wetmore. What wasn't going into him through his quivering mouth was flowing in by way of his nostrils. Then the hand on the nape of his neck flexed, and Percy was pulled forward onto John 's mouth again; was almost impaled on it.

Percy's left hand sprang open. His treasured hickory baton fell to the green linoleum. He never picked it up again.

I tried to lunge forward, I guess I did lunge forward, but my movements felt old and creaky to myself. I grabbed for my gun, but the strap was still across the burled-walnut grip, and at first I couldn't get it out of its holster. Beneath me, I seemed to feel the floor shake as it had in the back bedroom of the Warden's neat little Cape Cod. That I'm not sure of, but I know that one of the caged lightbulbs overhead broke. Fragments of glass showered down. Harry yelled in surprise.

At last I managed to thumb loose the safety strap over the butt of my .38, but before I could pull it out of its holster, John had thrust Percy away from him and stepped back into his cell. John was grimacing and rubbing his mouth, as if he had tasted something bad.

“What'd he do?” Brutal shouted. “What'd he do, Paul?”

“Whatever he took out of Melly, Percy's got it now,” I said.

Percy was standing against the bars of Delacroix's old cell. His eyes were wide and blank-double zeros. I approached him carefully, expecting him to start coughing and choking the way John had after he'd finished with Melinda, but he didn't. At first he only stood there.

I snapped my fingers in front of his eyes. “Percy! Hey, Percy! Wake up!”

Nothing. Brutal joined me, and reached toward Percy's empty face with both hands.

“That isn't going to work,” I said.

Ignoring me, Brutal clapped his hands sharply together twice, right in front of Percy's nose. And it did work, or appeared to work. His eyelids fluttered and he stared around -dazed, like someone hit over the head struggling back to consciousness. He looked from Brutal to me. All these years later, I'm pretty sure he didn't see either of us, but I thought he did then; I thought he was coming out of it.

He pushed away from the bars and swayed a little on his feet. Brutal steadied him. “Easy, boy, you all right?” Percy didn't answer, just stepped past Brutal and turned toward the duty desk. He wasn't staggering, exactly, but he was listing to port.

Brutal reached out for him. I pushed his hand away. “Leave him alone.” Would I have said the same if I'd known what was going to happen next? I've asked myself that question a thousand times since the fall of 1932. There's never any answer.

Percy made twelve or fourteen paces, then stopped again, head lowered. He was outside of Wild Bill Wharton's cell by then. Wharton was still making those sousaphone noises. He slept through the whole thing. He slept through his own death, now that I think of it, which made him a lot luckier than most of the men who ended up here. Certainly luckier than he deserved.

Before we knew what was happening, Percy drew his gun, stepped to the bars of Wharton's cell, and emptied all six shots into the sleeping man" just bam-bam-bam, bam-bam-bam, as fast as he could pull the trigger. The sound in that enclosed space was deafening; when I told Janice the story the next morning, I could still hardly hear the sound of my own voice for the ringing in my ears.

We ran at him, all four of us. Dean got there first - I don't know how, as he was behind Brutal and me when Coffey had hold of Percy - but he did. He grabbed Percy's wrist, prepared to wrestle the gun out of Percy's hand, but he didn't have to. Percy just let go, and the gun fell to the floor. His eyes went across us like they were skates and we were ice. There was a low hissing sound and a sharp ammoniac smell as Percy's bladder let go, then a brrrap sound and a thicker stink as he filled the other side of his pants, as well. His eyes had settled on a far corner of the corridor. They were eyes that never saw anything in this real world of ours again, so far as I know. Back near the beginning of this I wrote that Percy was at Briar Ridge by the time that Brutal found the colored slivers of Mr. Jingles's spool a couple of months later, and I didn't lie about that. He never got the office with the fan in the comer, though; never got a bunch of lunatic patients to push around, either. But I imagine he at least got his own private room.

He had connections, after all.

Wharton was lying on his side with his back against the wall of his cell. I couldn't see much then but a lot of blood soaking into the sheet and splattered across the cement, but the coroner said Percy had shot like Annie Oakley. Remembering Dean's story of how Percy had thrown his hickory baton at the mouse that time and barely missed, I wasn't too surprised. This time the range had been shorter and the target not moving. One in the groin, one in the gut, one in the chest, three in the head.

Brutal was coughing and waving at the haze of gunsmoke. I was coughing myself, but hadn't noticed it until then.

“End of the line,” Brutal said. His voice was calm, but there was no mistaking the glaze of panic in his eyes.

I looked down the hallway and saw John Coffey sitting on the end of his bunk. His hands were clasped between his knees again, but his head was up and he no longer looked a bit sick. He nodded at me slightly, and I surprised myself - as I had on the day I offered him my hand - by returning the nod.

“What are we going to do?” Harry gibbered. “Oh Christ, what are we going to do?”

“Nothing we can do,” Brutal said in that same calm voice. “We're hung. Aren't we, Paul?”

My mind had begun to move very fast. I looked at Harry and Dean, who were staring at me like scared kids. I looked at Percy, who was standing there with his hands and jaw dangling. Then I looked at my old friend, Brutus Howell.

“We're going to be okay,” I said.

Percy at last commenced coughing. He doubled over, hands on his knees, almost retching. His face began to turn red. I opened my mouth, meaning to tell the others to stand back, but I never got a chance. He made a sound that was a cross between a dry heave and a bullfrog's croak, opened his mouth, and spewed out a cloud of black, swirling stuff. It was so thick that for a moment we couldn't see his head. Harry said “Oh God save us” in a weak and watery voice. Then the stuff turned a white so dazzling it was like January sun on fresh snow. A moment later the cloud was gone. Percy straightened slowly up and resumed his vacant gaze down the length of the Green Mile.

“We didn't see that,” Brutal said. “Did we, Paul?”

“No. I didn't and you didn't. Did you see it, Harry?”

“No,” Harry said.

“Dean?”

“See what?” Dean took his glasses off and began to polish them. I thought he would drop them out of his trembling hands, but he managed not to.

“ See what, that's good. That's just the ticket. Now listen to your scoutmaster, boys, and get it right the first time, because time is short. It's a simple story. Let's not complicate it.”