The Green Mile
by Stephen King

13.

1956.

Alabama in the rain.

Our third grandchild, a beautiful girl named Tessa, was graduating from the University of Florida. We went down on a Greyhound. Sixty-four, I was then, a mere stripling. Jan was fifty-nine, and as beautiful as ever. To me, at least. We were sitting in the seat all the way at the back, and she was fussing at me for not buying her a new camera to record the blessed event. I opened my mouth to tell her we had a day to shop in after we got down there, and she could have a new camera if she wanted one, it would fit the budget all right, and furthermore I thought she was just fussing because she was bored with the ride and didn't like the book she'd brought. A Perry Mason, it was. That's when everything in my memory goes white for a bit, like film that's been left out in the sun.

Do you remember that accident? I suppose a few folks reading this might, but mostly not. Yet it made front-page headlines from coast to coast when it happened. We were outside Birmingham in a driving rain, Janice complaining about her old camera, and a tire blew. The bus waltzed sideways on the wet pavement and was hit broadside by a truck hauling fertilizer. The truck slammed the bus into a bridge abutment at better than sixty miles an hour, crushed it against the concrete, and broke it in half. Two shiny, rain-streaked pieces spun in two opposite directions, the one with the diesel tank in it exploding and sending a red-black fireball up into the rainygray sky. At one moment Janice was complaining about her old Kodak, and at the very next I found myself lying on the far side of the underpass in the rain and staring at a pair of blue nylon panties that had spilled out of someone's suitcase. WEDNESDAY was stitched on them in black thread. There were burst-open suitcases everywhere. And bodies. And parts of bodies. There were seventy-three people on that bus, and only four survived the crash. I was one of them, the only one not seriously hurt.

I got up and staggered among the burst-open suitcases and shattered people, crying out my wife's name. I kicked aside an alarm clock, I remember that, and I remember seeing a dead boy of about thirteen lying in a strew of glass with P.F. Flyers on his feet and half his face gone. I felt the rain beating on my own face, then I went through the underpass and it was gone for awhile. When I came out on the other side it was there again, hammering my cheeks and forehead. Lying by the shattered cab of the overturned fertilizer truck, I saw Jan. I recognized her by her red dress - it was her second-best. The best she had been saving for the actual graduation, of course.

She wasn't quite dead. I have often thought it would have been better - for me, if not for her - if she had been killed instantly. It might have made it possible for me to let her go a little sooner, a little more naturally. Or perhaps I'm only kidding myself about that. All I know for sure is that I have never let her go, not really.

She was trembling all over. One of her shoes had come off and I could see her foot jittering. Her eyes were open but blank, the left one full of blood, and as I fell on my knees next to her in the smoky-smelling rain, all I could think of was that jitter meant she was being electrocuted; she was being electrocuted and I had to hold the roll before it was too late.

“Help me!” I screamed. “Help me, someone help me!”

No one helped, no one even came. The rain pounded down - a hard, soaking rain that flattened

My still-black hair against my skull - and I held her in my arms and no one came. Her blank eyes looked up at me with a kind of dazed intensity, and blood poured from the back of her crushed head in a freshet. Beside one trembling, mindlessly spasming hand was a piece of chromed steel with the letters GREY on it. Next to that was roughly one quarter of what had once been a businessman in a brown Wool suit.

“Help me!” I screamed again, and turned toward the underpass, and there I saw John Coffey standing in the shadows, only a shadow himself, a big man with long, dangling arms and a bald head. “John!” I screamed. “Oh John , please help me! Please help Janice!”

Rain ran into my eyes. I blinked it away, and he was gone. I could see the shadows I had mistaken for John ... but it hadn't been only shadows. I'm sure of that. He was there. Maybe only as a ghost, but he was there, the rain on his face mixing with the endless flow of his tears.

She died in my arms, there in the rain beside that fertilizer truck with the smell of burning diesel fuel in my nose. There was no moment of awareness - the eyes clearing, the lips moving in some whispered final declaration of love. There was a kind of shivery clench in the flesh beneath my hands, and then she was gone. I thought of Melinda Moores for the first time in years, then, Melinda sitting up in the bed where all the doctors at Indianola General Hospital had believed she would die; Melinda Moores looking fresh and rested and peering at John Coffey with bright, wondering eyes. Melinda saying I dreamed you were wandering in the dark, and so was I. We found each other.

I put my wife's poor, mangled head down on the wet pavement of the interstate highway, got to my feet (it was easy; I had a little cut on the side of my left hand, but that was all), and screamed his name into the shadows of the underpass.

“John! JOHN COFFEY! WHERE ARE YOU, BIG BOY?”

I walked toward those shadows, kicking aside a teddy-bear with blood on its fur, a pair of steel rimmed eyeglasses with one shattered lens, a severed hand with a garnet ring on the pinky finger. “You saved Hal's wife, why not my wife? Why not Janice? WHY NOT MY JANICE?”

No answer; only the smell of burning diesel and burning bodies, only the rain falling ceaselessly out of the gray sky and drumming on the cement while my wife lay dead on the road behind me. No answer then and no answer now. But of course it wasn't only Melly Moores that John Coffey saved in 1932, or Del's mouse, the one that could do that cute trick with the spool and seemed to be looking for Del long before Del showed up ... long before John Coffey showed up, either.

John saved me, too, and years later, standing in the pouring Alabama rain and looking for a man who wasn't there in the shadows of an underpass, standing amid the spilled luggage and the ruined dead, I learned a terrible thing: sometimes there is absolutely no difference at all between salvation and damnation.

I felt one or the other pouring through me as we sat together on his bunk - November the eighteenth, nineteen and thirty-two. Pouring out of him and into me, whatever strange force he had in him coming through our joined hands in a way our love and hope and good intentions somehow never can, a feeling that began as a tingle and then turned into something tidal and enormous, a force beyond anything I had ever experienced before or have ever experienced since. Since that day I have never had pneumonia, or the flu, or even a strep throat. I have never had another urinary infection, or so much as an infected cut. I have had colds, but they have been infrequent - six or seven years apart, and although people who don't have colds often are supposed to suffer more serious ones, that has never been the case with me. Once, earlier on in that awful year of 1956, I passed a gallstone. And although I suppose it will sound strange to some reading this in spite of all I have said, part of me relished the pain that came when that gallstone went. It was the only serious pain I'd had since that problem with my waterworks, twenty-four years before. The ills that have taken my friends and same-generation loved ones until there are none of them left - the strokes, the cancers, the heart attacks, the liver diseases, the blood diseases - have all left me untouched, have swerved to avoid me the way a man driving a car swerves to avoid a deer or a raccoon in the road. The one serious accident I was in left me untouched save for a scratch on the hand. In 1932, John Coffey inoculated me with life. Electrocuted me with life, you might say. I will pass on eventually - of course I will, any illusions of immortality I might have had died with Mr. Jingles - but I will have wished for death long before death finds me. Truth to tell, I wish for it already and have ever since Elaine Connelly died. Need I tell you?

I look back over these pages, leafing through them with my trembling, spotted hands, and I wonder if there is some meaning here, as in those books which are supposed to be uplifting and ennobling. I think back to the sermons of my childhood, booming affirmations in the church of Praise Jesus, The Lord Is Mighty, and I recall how the preachers used to say that God's eye is on the sparrow, that He sees and marks even the least of His creations. When I think of Mr. Jingles, and the tiny scraps of wood we found in that hole in the beam, I think that is so. Yet this same God sacrificed John Coffey, who tried only to do good in his blind way, as savagely as any Old Testament prophet ever sacrificed a defenseless Iamb ... as Abraham would have sacrificed his own son if actually called upon to do so. I think of John saying that Wharton killed the Detterick twins with their love for each other, and that it happens every day, all over the world. If it happens, God lets it happen, and when we say “I don't understand,” God replies, “I don't care.”

I think of Mr. Jingles dying while my back was turned and my attention usurped by an unkind man whose finest emotion seemed to be a species of vindictive curiosity. I think of Janice, jittering away her last mindless seconds as I knelt with her in the rain.

Stop it, I tried to tell John that day in his cell. Let go of my hands, I'm going to drown if you don't. Drown or explode.

“You won't 'splode,” he answered, hearing my thought and smiling at the idea. And the horrible thing is that I didn't. I haven't.

I have at least one old man's ill: I suffer from insomnia. Late at night I lie in my bed, listening to the dank and hopeless sound of infirm men and women coughing their courses deeper into old age. Sometimes I hear a call-bell, or the squeak of a shoe in the corridor, or Mrs. Javits's little TV tuned to the late news. I lie here, and if the moon is in my window, I watch it. I lie here and think about Brutal, and Dean, and sometimes William Wharton saying That's right, nigger, bad as you'd want. I think of Delacroix saying Watch this Boss Edgecombe, I teach Mr. Jingles a new trick. I think of Elaine, standing in the door of the sunroom and telling Brad Dolan to leave me alone. Sometimes I doze and see that underpass in the rain, with John Coffey standing beneath it in the shadows. It's never just a trick of the eye, in these little dreams; it's always him for sure, my big boy, just standing there and watching. I he here and wait. I think about Janice, how I lost her, how she ran away red through my fingers in the rain, and I wait. We each owe a death, there are no exceptions, I know that, but sometimes, oh God, the Green Mile is so long.