That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French
Written by Stephen King and narrated by Becky Ann Baker

 

Floyd, what’s that over there? Oh shit.

The man’s voice speaking these words was vaguely familiar, but the words themselves were just a disconnected snip of dialogue, the kind of thing you heard when you were channel-surfing with the remote. There was no one named Floyd in her life. Still, that was the start. Even before she saw the little girl in the red pinafore, there were those disconnected words.

But it was the little girl who brought it on strong. “Oh-oh, I’m getting that feeling,” Carol said.

The girl in the pinafore was in front of a country market called Carson’s—BEER, WINE, GROCERIES, FRESH BAIT, LOTTERY—crouched down with her butt between her ankles and the bright-red apron-dress tucked between her thighs, playing with a doll. The doll was yellow-haired and dirty, the kind that’s round and stuffed and boneless in the body.

“What feeling?” Bill asked.

“You know. The one you can only say what it is in French. Help me here.”

“Déjà vu,” he said.

“That’s it,” she said, and turned to look at the little girl one more time. She’ll have the doll by one leg, Carol thought. Holding it upside down by one leg with its grimy yellow hair hanging down.

But the little girl had abandoned the doll on the store’s splintery gray steps and had gone over to look at a dog caged up in the back of a station wagon. Then Bill and Carol Shelton went around a curve in the road and the store was out of sight.

“How much farther?” Carol asked.

Bill looked at her with one eyebrow raised and his mouth dimpled at one corner—left eyebrow, right dimple, always the same. The look that said, You think I’m amused, but I’m really irritated. For the ninety trillionth or so time in the marriage, I’m really irritated. You don’t know that, though, because you can only see about two inches into me and then your vision fails.

But she had better vision than he realized; it was one of the secrets of the marriage. Probably he had a few secrets of his own. And there were, of course, the ones they kept together.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve never been here.”

“But you’re sure we’re on the right road.”

“Once you get over the causeway and onto Sanibel Island, there’s only one,” he said. “It goes across to Captiva, and there it ends. But before it does we’ll come to Palm House. That I promise you.”

The arch in his eyebrow began to flatten. The dimple began to fill in. He was returning to what she thought of as the Great Level. She had come to dislike the Great Level, too, but not as much as the eyebrow and the dimple, or his sarcastic way of saying “Excuse me?” when you said something he considered stupid, or his habit of pooching out his lower lip when he wanted to appear thoughtful and deliberative.

“Bill?”

“Mmm?”

“Do you know anyone named Floyd?”

“There was Floyd Denning. He and I ran the downstairs snack bar at Christ the Redeemer in our senior year. I told you about him, didn’t I? He stole the Coke money one Friday and spent the weekend in New York with his girlfriend. They suspended him and expelled her. What made you think of him?”

“I don’t know,” she said. Easier than telling him that the Floyd with whom Bill had gone to high school wasn’t the Floyd the voice in her head was speaking to. At least, she didn’t think it was.

Second honeymoon, that’s what you call this, she thought, looking at the palms that lined Highway 867, a white bird that stalked along the shoulder like an angry preacher, and a sign that read SEMINOLE WILDLIFE PARK, BRING A CARFUL FOR $10. Florida the Sunshine State. Florida the Hospitality State. Not to mention Florida the Second-Honeymoon State. Florida, where Bill Shelton and Carol Shelton, the former Carol O’Neill, of Lynn, Massachusetts, came on their first honeymoon twenty-five years before. Only that was on the other side, the Atlantic side, at a little cabin colony, and there were cockroaches in the bureau drawers. He couldn’t stop touching me. That was all right, though, in those days I wanted to be touched. Hell, I wanted to be torched like Atlanta in Gone With the Wind, and he torched me, rebuilt me, torched me again. Now it’s silver. Twenty-five is silver. And sometimes I get that feeling.

They were approaching a curve, and she thought, Three crosses on the right side of the road. Two small ones flanking a bigger one. The small ones are clapped-together wood. The one in the middle is white birch with a picture on it, a tiny photograph of the seventeen-year-old boy who lost control of his car on this curve one drunk night that was his last drunk night, and this is where his girlfriend and her girlfriends marked the spot—

Bill drove around the curve. A pair of black crows, plump and shiny, lifted off from something pasted to the macadam in a splat of blood. The birds had eaten so well that Carol wasn’t sure they were going to get out of the way until they did. There were no crosses, not on the left, not on the right. Just roadkill in the middle, a woodchuck or something, now passing beneath a luxury car that had never been north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Floyd, what’s that over there?

“What’s wrong?”

“Huh?” She looked at him, bewildered, feeling a little wild.

“You’re sitting bolt-upright. Got a cramp in your back?”

“Just a slight one.” She settled back by degrees. “I had that feeling again. The déjà vu.”

“Is it gone?”

“Yes,” she said, but she was lying. It had retreated a little, but that was all. She’d had this before, but never so continuously. It came up and went down, but it didn’t go away. She’d been aware of it ever since that thing about Floyd started knocking around in her head—and then the little girl in the red pinafore.

But, really, hadn’t she felt something before either of those things? Hadn’t it actually started when they came down the steps of the Lear 35 into the hammering heat of the Fort Myers sunshine? Or even before? En route from Boston?

They were coming to an intersection. Overhead was a flashing yellow light, and she thought, To the right is a used-car lot and a sign for the Sanibel Community Theater.

Then she thought, No, it’ll be like the crosses that weren’t there. It’s a strong feeling but a false feeling.

Here was the intersection. On the right there was a used-car lot—Palmdale Motors. Carol felt a real jump at that, a stab of something sharper than disquiet. She told herself to quit being stupid. There had to be car lots all over Florida and if you predicted one at every intersection sooner or later the law of averages made you a prophet. It was a trick mediums had been using for hundreds of years.

Besides, there’s no theater sign.

But there was another sign. It was Mary the Mother of God, the ghost of all her childhood days, holding out her hands the way she did on the medallion Carol’s grandmother had given her for her tenth birthday. Her grandmother had pressed it into her hand and looped the chain around her fingers, saying, “Wear her always as you grow, because all the hard days are coming.” She had worn it, all right. At Our Lady of Angels grammar and middle school she had worn it, then at St. Vincent de Paul high. She wore the medal until breasts grew around it like ordinary miracles, and then someplace, probably on the class trip to Hampton Beach, she had lost it. Coming home on the bus she had tongue-kissed for the first time. Butch Soucy had been the boy, and she had been able to taste the cotton candy he’d eaten.

Mary on that long-gone medallion and Mary on this billboard had exactly the same look, the one that made you feel guilty of thinking impure thoughts even when all you were thinking about was a peanut-butter sandwich. Beneath Mary, the sign said MOTHER OF MERCY CHARITIES HELP THE FLORIDA HOMELESS—WON’T YOU HELP US?

Hey there, Mary, what’s the story—

More than one voice this time; many voices, girls’ voices, chanting ghost voices. These were ordinary miracles; there were also ordinary ghosts. You found these things out as you got older.

“What’s wrong with you?” She knew that voice as well as she did the eyebrow-and-dimple look. Bill’s I’m-only-pretending-to-be-pissed tone of voice, the one that meant he really was pissed, at least a little.

“Nothing.” She gave him the best smile she could manage.

“You really don’t seem like yourself. Maybe you shouldn’t have slept on the plane.”

“You’re probably right,” she said, and not just to be agreeable, either. After all, how many women got a second honeymoon on Captiva Island for their twenty-fifth anniversary? Round trip on a chartered Learjet? Ten days at one of those places where your money was no good (at least until MasterCard coughed up the bill at the end of the month) and if you wanted a massage a big Swedish babe would come and pummel you in your six-room beach house?

 

Things had been different at the start. Bill, whom she’d first met at a crosstown high-school dance and then met again at college three years later (another ordinary miracle), had begun their married life working as a janitor, because there were no openings in the computer industry. It was 1973, and computers were essentially going nowhere and they were living in a grotty place in Revere, not on the beach but close to it, and all night people kept going up the stairs to buy drugs from the two sallow creatures who lived in the apartment above them and listened endlessly to dopey records from the sixties. Carol used to lie awake waiting for the shouting to start, thinking, We won’t ever get out of here, we’ll grow old and die within earshot of Cream and Blue Cheer and the Dodgem cars down on the beach.

Bill, exhausted at the end of his shift, would sleep through the noise, lying on his side, sometimes with one hand on her hip. And when it wasn’t there she often put it there, especially if the creatures upstairs were arguing with their customers. Bill was all she had. Her parents had practically disowned her when she married him. He was a Catholic, but the wrong sort of Catholic. Gram had asked why she wanted to go with that boy when anyone could tell he was shanty, how could she fall for all his foolish talk, why did she want to break her father’s heart. And what could she say?

It was a long distance from that place in Revere to a private jet soaring at forty-one thousand feet; a long way to this rental car, which was a Crown Victoria—what the goodfellas in the gangster movies invariably called a Crown Vic—heading for ten days in a place where the tab would probably be … well, she didn’t even want to think about it.

Floyd? … Oh shit.

“Carol? What is it now?”

“Nothing,” she said. Up ahead by the road was a little pink bungalow, the porch flanked by palms—seeing those trees with their fringy heads lifted against the blue sky made her think of Japanese Zeros coming in low, their underwing machine guns firing, such an association clearly the result of a youth misspent in front of the TV—and as they passed a black woman would come out. She would be drying her hands on a piece of pink towelling and would watch them expressionlessly as they passed, rich folks in a Crown Vic headed for Captiva, and she’d have no idea that Carol Shelton once lay awake in a ninety-dollar-a-month apartment, listening to the records and the drug deals upstairs, feeling something alive inside her, something that made her think of a cigarette that had fallen down behind the drapes at a party, small and unseen but smoldering away next to the fabric.

“Hon?”

“Nothing, I said.” They passed the house. There was no woman. An old man—white, not black—sat in a rocking chair, watching them pass. There were rimless glasses on his nose and a piece of ragged pink towelling, the same shade as the house, across his lap. “I’m fine now. Just anxious to get there and change into some shorts.”

His hand touched her hip—where he had so often touched her during those first days—and then crept a little farther inland. She thought about stopping him (Roman hands and Russian fingers, they used to say) and didn’t. They were, after all, on their second honeymoon. Also, it would make that expression go away.

“Maybe,” he said, “we could take a pause. You know, after the dress comes off and before the shorts go on.”

“I think that’s a lovely idea,” she said, and put her hand over his, pressed both more tightly against her. Ahead was a sign that would read PALM HOUSE 3 MI. ON LEFT when they got close enough to see it.

The sign actually read PALM HOUSE 2 MI. ON LEFT. Beyond it was another sign, Mother Mary again, with her hands outstretched and that little electric shimmy that wasn’t quite a halo around her head. This version read MOTHER OF MERCY CHARITIES HELP THE FLORIDA SICK—WON’T YOU HELP US?

Bill said, “The next one ought to say ‘Burma Shave.’”

She didn’t understand what he meant, but it was clearly a joke and so she smiled. The next one would say “Mother of Mercy Charities Help the Florida Hungry,” but she couldn’t tell him that. Dear Bill. Dear in spite of his sometimes stupid expressions and his sometimes unclear allusions. He’ll most likely leave you, and you know something? If you go through with it that’s probably the best luck you can expect. This according to her father. Dear Bill, who had proved that just once, just that one crucial time, her judgement had been far better than her father’s. She was still married to the man her Gram had called “the big boaster.” At a price, true, but what was that old axiom? God says take what you want … and pay for it.

Her head itched. She scratched at it absently, watching for the next Mother of Mercy billboard.

Horrible as it was to say, things had started turning around when she lost the baby. That was just before Bill got a job with Beach Computers, out on Route 128; that was when the first winds of change in the industry began to blow.

Lost the baby, had a miscarriage—they all believed that except maybe Bill. Certainly her family had believed it: Dad, Mom, Gram. “Miscarriage” was the story they told, miscarriage was a Catholic’s story if ever there was one. Hey, Mary, what’s the story, they had sometimes sung when they skipped rope, feeling daring, feeling sinful, the skirts of their uniforms flipping up and down over their scabby knees. That was at Our Lady of Angels, where Sister Annunciata would spank your knuckles with her ruler if she caught you gazing out the window during Sentence Time, where Sister Dormatilla would tell you that a million years was but the first tick of eternity’s endless clock (and you could spend eternity in Hell, most people did, it was easy). In Hell you would live forever with your skin on fire and your bones roasting. Now she was in Florida, now she was in a Crown Vic sitting next to her husband, whose hand was still in her crotch; the dress would be wrinkled but who cared if it got that look off his face, and why wouldn’t the feeling stop?

She thought of a mailbox with RAGLAN painted on the side and an American-flag decal on the front, and although the name turned out to be Reagan and the flag a Grateful Dead sticker, the box was there. She thought of a small black dog trotting briskly along the other side of the road, its head down, sniffling, and the small black dog was there. She thought again of the billboard and, yes, there it was: MOTHER OF MERCY CHARITIES HELP THE FLORIDA HUNGRY—WON’T YOU HELP US?

Bill was pointing. “There—see? I think that’s Palm House. No, not where the billboard is, the other side. Why do they let people put those things up out here, anyway?”

“I don’t know.” Her head itched. She scratched, and black dandruff began falling past her eyes. She looked at her fingers and was horrified to see dark smutches on the tips; it was as if someone had just taken her fingerprints.

“Bill?” She raked her hand through her blond hair and this time the flakes were bigger. She saw they were not flakes of skin but flakes of paper. There was a face on one, peering out of the char like a face peering out of a botched negative.

“Bill?”

“What? Wh—” Then a total change in his voice, and that frightened her more than the way the car swerved. “Christ, honey, what’s in your hair?”

The face appeared to be Mother Teresa’s. Or was that just because she’d been thinking about Our Lady of Angels? Carol plucked it from her dress, meaning to show it to Bill, and it crumbled between her fingers before she could. She turned to him and saw that his glasses were melted to his cheeks. One of his eyes had popped from its socket and then split like a grape pumped full of blood.

And I knew it, she thought. Even before I turned, I knew it. Because I had that feeling.

A bird was crying in the trees. On the billboard, Mary held out her hands. Carol tried to scream. Tried to scream.

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