Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut
written by Stephen King and narrated by Dana Ivey

 

“There are holes in the middle of things,” Homer said, and he sat up straighter, like he was mad. “Right in the damn middle of things, not even to the left or right where your p‘riph’ral vision is and you could say ‘Well, but hell-’ They are there and you go around them like you’d go around a pothole in the road that would break an axle. You know? And you forget it. Or like if you are plowin, you can plow a dip. But if there’s somethin like a break in the earth, where you see darkness, like a cave might be there, you say ‘Go around, old hoss. Leave that alone! I got a good shot over here to the left’ards.’ Because it wasn’t a cave you was lookin for, or some kind of college excitement, but good plowin.

“Holes in the middle of things.”

He fell still a long time then and I let him be still. Didn’t have no urge to move him. And at last he says:

“She disappeared in August. I seen her for the first time in early July, and she looked ... ” Homer turned to me and spoke each word with careful, spaced emphasis. “Dave Owens, she looked gorgeous! Gorgeous and wild and almost untamed. The little wrinkles I’d started to notice around her eyes all seemed to be gone. Worth Todd, he was at some conference or something in Boston. And she stands there at the edge of the deck-I was out in the middle with my shirt off-and she says, ‘Homer, you’ll never believe it.’

“ ‘No, missus, but I’ll try,’ I says.

“ ‘I found two new roads,’ she says, ‘and I got up to Bangor this last time in just sixty-seven miles.’

“I remembered what she said before and I says, ‘That’s not possible, missus. Beggin your pardon, but I did the mileage on the map myself, and seventy-nine is tops ... as the crow flies.’

“She laughed, and she looked prettier than ever. Like a goddess in the sun, on one of those hills in a story where there’s nothing but green grass and fountains and no puckies to tear at a man’s forearms at all. ‘That’s right,’ she says, ‘and you can’t run a mile in under four minutes. It’s been mathematically proved.’

“ ‘It ain’t the same,’ I says.

“ ‘It’s the same,’ she says. ‘Fold the map and see how many miles it is then, Homer. It can be a little less than a straight line if you fold it a little, or it can be a lot less if you fold it a lot.’

“I remembered our ride then, the way you remember a dream, and I says, ‘Missus, you can fold a map on paper but you can’t fold land. Or at least you shouldn’t ought to try. You want to leave it alone.’

“ ‘No sir,’ she says. ‘It’s the one thing right now in my life that I won’t leave alone, because it’s there, and it’s mine.’

“Three weeks later-this would be about two weeks before she disappeared-she give me a call from Bangor. She says, ‘Worth has gone to New York, and I am coming down. I’ve misplaced my damn key, Homer. I’d like you to open the house so I can get in:’

“Well, that call come at eight o‘clock, just when it was starting to come down dark. I had a sanwidge and a beer before leaving—about twenty minutes. Then I took a ride down there. All in all, I’d say I was forty-five minutes. When I got down there to the Todds’, I seen there was a light on in the pantry I didn’t leave on while I was comin down the driveway. I was lookin at that, and I almost run right into her little go-devil. It was parked kind of on a slant, the way a drunk would park it, and it was splashed with muck all the way up to the windows, and there was this stuff stuck in that mud along the body that looked like seaweed ... only when my lights hit it, it seemed to be movin.

I parked behind it and got out of my truck. That stuff wasn’t seaweed, but it was weeds, and it was movin ... kinda slow and sluggish, like it was dyin. I touched a piece of it, and it tried to wrap itself around my hand. It felt nasty and awful. I drug my hand away and wiped it on my pants. I went around to the front of the car. It looked like it had come through about ninety miles of splash and low country. Looked tired, it did. Bugs was splashed all over the windshield—only they didn’t look like no kind of bugs I ever seen before. There was a moth that was about the size of a sparrow, its wings still flappin a little, feeble and dyin. There was things like mosquitoes, only they had real eyes that you could see-and they seemed to be seein me. I could hear those weeds scrapin against the body of the go-devil, dyin, tryin to get a hold on somethin. And all I could think was Where in the hell has she been? And how did she get here in only three-quarters of an hour? Then I seen somethin else. There was some kind of a animal half-smashed onto the radiator grille, just under where that Mercedes ornament is-the one that looks kinda like a star looped up into a circle?

Now most small animals you kill on the road is bore right under the car, because they are crouching when it hits them, hoping it’ll just go over and leave them with their hide still attached to their meat. But every now and then one will jump, not away, but right at the damn car, as if to get in one good bite of whatever the buggardly thing is that’s going to kill it-I have known that to happen. This thing had maybe done that. And it looked mean enough to jump a Sherman tank. It looked like something which come of a mating between a woodchuck and a weasel, but there was other stuff thrown in that a body didn’t even want to look at. It hurt your eyes, Dave; worse’n that, it hurt your mind. Its pelt was matted with blood, and there was claws sprung out of the pads on its feet like a cat’s claws, only longer. It had big yellowy eyes, only they was glazed. When I was a kid I had a porcelain marble—a croaker-that looked like that. And teeth. Long thin needle teeth that looked almost like darning needles, stickin out of its mouth. Some of them was sunk right into that steel grillwork. That’s why it was still hanging on; it had hung its own self on by the teeth. I looked at it and knowed it had a headful of poison just like a rattlesnake, and it jumped at that go-devil when it saw it was about to be run down, tryin to bite it to death. And I wouldn’t be the one to try and yonk it offa there because I had cuts on my hands-hay-cuts-and I thought it would kill me as dead as a stone parker if some of that poison seeped into the cuts.

“I went around to the driver’s door and opened it. The inside light come on, and I looked at that special odometer that she set for trips ... and what I seen there was 31.6.

“I looked at that for a bit, and then I went to the back door. She’d forced the screen and broke the glass by the lock so she could get her hand through and let herself in. There was a note that said: ‘Dear Homer—got here a little sooner than I thought I would. Found a shortcut, and it is a dilly! You hadn’t come yet so I let myself in like a burglar. Worth is coming day after tomorrow. Can you get the screen fixed and the door reglazed by then? Hope so. Things like that always bother him. If I don’t come out to say hello, you’ll know I’m asleep. The drive was very tiring, but I was here in no time! Ophelia.’

“Tirin! I took another look at that bogey-thing hangin offa the grille of her car, and I thought Yessir, it must have been tiring. By God, yes.”

He paused again, and cracked a restless knuckle.

“I seen her only once more. About a week later. Worth was there, but he was swimmin out in the lake, back and forth, back and forth, like he was sawin wood or signin papers. More like he was signin papers, I guess.

“ ‘Missus,’ I says, ‘this ain’t my business, but you ought to leave well enough alone. That night you come back and broke the glass of the door to come in, I seen somethin hangin off the front of your car-’

“ ‘Oh, the chuck! I took care of that,’ she says.

“ ‘Christ!’ I says. ‘I hope you took some care!’

“ ‘I wore Worth’s gardening gloves,’ she said. ‘It wasn’t anything anyway, Homer, but a jumped-up woodchuck with a little poison in it.’

“ ‘But missus,’ I says, ‘where there’s woodchucks there’s bears. And if that’s what the woodchucks look like along your shortcut, what’s going to happen to you if a bear shows up?’

“She looked at me, and I seen that other woman in her—that Diana-woman. She says, ‘If things are different along those roads, Homer, maybe I am different, too. Look at this.’

“Her hair was done up in a clip at the back, looked sort of like a butterfly and had a stick through it. She let it down. It was the kind of hair that would make a man wonder what it would look like spread out over a pillow. She says, ‘It was coming in gray, Homer. Do you see any gray?’ And she spread it with her fingers so the sun could shine on it.

“ ‘No’m,’ I says.

“She looks at me, her eyes all a-sparkle, and she says, ‘Your wife is a good woman, Homer Buckland, but she has seen me in the store and in the post office, and we’ve passed the odd word or two, and I have seen her looking at my hair in a kind of satisfied way that only women know. I know what she says, and what she tells her friends ... that Ophelia Todd has started dyeing her hair. But I have not. I have lost my way looking for a shortcut more than once ... lost my way ... and lost my gray.’ And she laughed, not like a college girl but like a girl in high school. I admired her and longed for her beauty, but I seen that other beauty in her face as well just then ... and I felt afraid again. Afraid for her, and afraid of her.

“ ‘Missus,’ I says, ‘you stand to lose more than a little sta’ch in your hair.’

“ ‘No,’ she says. ‘I tell you I am different over there ... I am all myself over there. When I am going along that road in my little car I am not Ophelia Todd, Worth Todd’s wife who could never carry a child to term, or that woman who tried to write poetry and failed at it, or the woman who sits and takes notes in committee meetings, or anything or anyone else. When I am on that road I am in the heart of myself, and I feel like-’

“ ‘Diana,’ I said.

“She looked at me kind of funny and kind of surprised, and then she laughed. ‘0 like some goddess, I suppose,’ she said. ‘She will do better than most because I am a night person—I love to stay up until my book is done or until the National Anthem comes on the TV, and because I am very pale, like the moon-Worth is always saying I need a tonic, or blood tests or some sort of similar bosh. But in her heart what every woman wants to be is some kind of goddess, I think-men pick up a ruined echo of that thought and try to put them on pedestals (a woman, who will pee down her own leg if she does not squat! it’s funny when you stop to think of it)—but what a man senses is not what a woman wants. A woman wants to be in the clear, is all. To stand if she will, or walk ...’ Her eyes turned toward that little go-devil in the driveway, and narrowed. Then she smiled. ‘Or to drive, Homer. A man will not see that. He thinks a goddess wants to loll on a slope somewhere on the foothills of Olympus and eat fruit, but there is no god or goddess in that. All a woman wants is what a man wants-a woman wants to drive.’

“ ‘Be careful where you drive, missus, is all,’ I says, and she laughs and give me a kiss spang in the middle of the forehead.

“She says, ‘I will, Homer,’ but it didn’t mean nothing, and I known it, because she said it like a man who says he’ll be careful to his wife or his girl wheri he knows he won’t ... can’t.

“I went back to my truck and waved to her once, and it was a week later that Worth reported her missing. Her and that go-devil both. Todd waited seven years and had her declared legally dead, and then he waited another year for good measure—I’ll give the sucker that much-and then he married the second Missus Todd, the one that just went by. And I don’t expect you’ll believe a single damn word of the whole yarn.”

In the sky one of those big flat-bottomed clouds moved enough to disclose the ghost of the moon—half-full and pale as milk. And something in my heart leaped up at the sight, half in fright, half in love.

“I do though,” I said. “Every frigging damned word. And even if it ain’t true, Homer, it ought to be.”

He give me a hug around the neck with his forearm, which is all men can do since the world don’t let them kiss but only women, and laughed, and got up.

“Even if it shouldn’t ought to be, it is,” he said. He got his watch out of his pants and looked at it. “I got to go down the road and check on the Scott place. You want to come?”

“I believe I’ll sit here for a while,” I said, “and think.”

He went to the steps, then turned back and looked at me, half-smiling. “I believe she was right,” he said. “She was different along those roads she found ... wasn’t nothing that would dare touch her. You or me, maybe, but not ber.

“And I believe she’s young.”

Then he got in his truck and set off to check the Scott place.

 

 

That was two years ago, and Homer has since gone to Vermont, as I think I told you. One night he come over to see me. His hair was combed, he had a shave, and he smelled of some nice lotion. His face was clear and his eyes were alive. That night he looked sixty instead of seventy, and I was glad for him and I envied him and I hated him a little, too. Arthritis is one buggardly great old fisherman, and that night Homer didn’t look like arthritis had any fishhooks sunk into his hands the way they were sunk into mine.

“I’m going,” he said.

“Ayuh?”

“Ayuh.”

“All right; did you see to forwarding your mail?”

“Don’t want none forwarded,” he said. “My bills are paid. I am going to make a clean break.”

“Well, give me your address. I’ll drop you a line from one time to the another, old hoss.” Already I could feel loneliness settling over me like a cloak ... and looking at him, I knew that things were not quite what they seemed.

“Don’t have none yet,” he said.

“All right,” I said. “Is it Vermont, Homer?”

“Well,” he said, “it’ll do for people who want to know.”

I almost didn’t say it and then I did. “What does she look like now?”

“Like Diana,” he said. “But she is kinder.”

“I envy you, Homer,” I said, and I did.

I stood at the door. It was twilight in that deep part of summer when the fields fill with perfume and Queen Anne’s Lace. A full moon was beating a silver track across the lake. He went across my porch and down the steps. A car was standing on the soft shoulder of the road, its engine idling heavy, the way the old ones do that still run full bore straight ahead and damn the torpedoes. Now that I think of it, that car looked like a torpedo. It looked beat up some, but as if it could go the ton without breathin hard. He stopped at the foot of my steps and picked something up-it was his gas can, the big one that holds ten gallons. He went down my walk to the passenger side of the car. She leaned over and opened the door. The inside light came on and just for a moment I saw her, long red hair around her face, her forehead shining like a lamp. Shining like the moon. He got in and she drove away. I stood out on my porch and watched the taillights of her little go-devil twinkling red in the dark ... getting smaller and smaller. They were like embers, then they were like flickerflies, and then they were gone.

Vermont, I tell the folks from town, and Vermont they believe, because it’s as far as most of them can see inside their heads. Sometimes I almost believe it myself, mostly when I’m tired and done up. Other times I think about them, though—all this October I have done so, it seems, because October is the time when men think mostly about far places and the roads which might get them there. I sit on the bench in front of Bell’s Market and think about Homer Buckland and about the beautiful girl who leaned over to open his door when he come down that path with the full red gasoline can in his right hand-she looked like a girl of no more than sixteen, a girl on her leamer’s permit, and her beauy was terrible, but I believe it would no longer kill the man it turned itself on; for a moment her eyes lit on me, I was not killed, although part of me died at her feet.

Olympus must be a glory to the eyes and the heart, and there are those who crave it and those who find a clear way to it, mayhap, but I know Castle Rock like the back of my hand and I could never leave it for no shortcuts where the roads may go; in October the sky over the lake is no glory but it is passing fair, with those big white clouds that move so slow; I sit here on the bench, and think about ’Phelia Todd and Homer Buckland, and I don’t necessarily wish I was where they are ... but I still wish I was a smoking man.

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