This is where the original, edited version of the book begins. Since I read the edited version first, this, for me, is where the book truly starts. I like this edited version a little better, because this way, we don’t know what’s going on before the characters do. When we first see the dead bodies, we are just as confused as Stu Redman is. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Norman Bruett, Tommy Wannamaker, Henry Charmicael and Stu Redman are sitting around at Bill Hapscomb’s Texaco gas station, talking about how bad the economy is.
“Now what I say is this,” Hap told them, putting his hands on his knees and leaning forward. “They just gotta say screw this inflation shit. Screw this national debt shit. We got the presses and we got the paper. We’re gonna run off 50 million thousand dollar bills and hump them right the Christ into circulation.”
When someone points out the obvious flaws in this plan, Hap gets annoyed. Apparently he owes a lot of people a lot of money.
We are then told that Stu Redman grew up poor. After he graduated high school Stu was about to go to college on a football scholarship in an attempt to get out of poverty when his mother died, and he had to raise his brother. So he turned down the scholarship. His brother, on the other hand, grew up, went to college, got a degree in something to do with computers, and never looked back. We are then told that Stu Redman had a wife, but that she died of cancer.
It’s always interesting, in these sorts of books, to try and pick out who will survive the coming disaster vs who won’t. The fact that we get a lot of background information about Stu was a tip off to the fact that he’s one of the survivors.
As the men argue, Stu looks out the window and sees a car coming.
A Chevy, no lights on, doing no more than 15 miles per hour, weaving all over the road. No one had seen it yet but him….the way it was going Stu didn’t think it was going to make it much farther. It crossed the white line and its lefthand tires spumed up dust from the left shoulder. Now it lurched back, held its own lane briefly, then nearly pitched off into the ditch.
All of a sudden, the car starts heading straight for the gas station. One wonders if Charlie Campion, knowing that he and his wife are dying, knowing that he has made a terrible mistake, is trying to fix that mistake by…. crashing into the gas station pumps and burning themselves in an explosion? Would that have even worked? Can the superflu be controlled by burning the corpses? This never gets answered, and that’s kind of disappointing.
“So I say with more money in circulation you’d be–”
“Better turn off your pumps, Hap,” Stu said mildly.
“The pumps, what?”
Stu leans over and flips all the switches to the pumps. I’m not sure what that does… prevents an explosion, I guess? Anyway, the car hits the gas pumps, destroying them.
Norm remarks that the guy driving it must be drunk. Probably not an unfair assumption, at this point. The men rush out to the car and open the door.
It wasn’t the man who had fallen out, but the smell that was issuing from the car, a sick stench compounded of blood, fecal matter, vomit, and human decay. It was a ghastly rich sick-dead smell.
How long have Campion’s wife and son been dead? Doesn’t it take a while to start stinking? Oh nevermind.
At this point, I started trying to figure out what exactly it was these people had. would these symptoms be consistent with a deadly strain of flue? The disease will later be called “the superflu,” but it’s unknown if King actually intended it to be like the flu as we know it in our world. I’m willing to bet King did do some research, but honestly, I don’t think we’re supposed to look into it too much. The disease isn’t the main point of the story. It’s just a method by which King kills off a large portion of the world’s population. The novel isn’t really about the disease and its progression, it’s about how people react to a majority of the population disappearing.
Now do you see why this book gets compared to Left Behind? No? Ok we’ll get there.
A moment later Hap turned away, dragging the driver by the armpits. Tommy hastily grabbed the dragging feet and he and Hap carried him into the office.
Why are they moving him at all? Even if we assume the disease is nothing deadly, that man has just been in a car crash. Isn’t it common wisdom to not move the passengers until the ambulance gets there? Was that the prevailing advice when King first wrote this?
Hank looks at the other 2 passengers, and goes to vomit. Sally and LaVon are obviously dead.
Their [Sally and LaVon’s] necks had swelled up like inner tubes and the flesh there was a purple black color, like a bruise. The flesh was puffed up under their eyes, too. They looked, Vic later said, like those baseball players who put lampblack under their eyes to cut the glare. Their eyes bulged sightlessly. Thick mucus had run from their noses and was now clotted there. Flies buzzed around them, lighting in the mucus, crawling in and out of their open mouths.
How are flies on them already? They’re in a closed environment (a car) so unless the flies just came in when the car crashed, I’m not sure where they’re coming from. But what I really want to know is if all this is consistent with the flu. It almost looks like King just came up with the most gruesome scenario possible and went with it, regardless of how realistic it was.
And really, we’re not supposed to look into the disease too much. It’s just a plot device. So it wouldn’t really do to dwell on it too much.
In any case, Hap finally uses the pay phone to call an ambulance. Pay phones. Remember them? You put money in to make a call. Except for 911 calls. 911 calls were free. Was 911 a thing when King originally wrote this, or did Hap have to find the number?
You know what, nevermind. That is a textbook case of me being nitpicky. Let’s just move on.
Charlie starts to try and speak.
Whatever had been wrong with the woman and child in the car was also wrong with this man. His nose was running freely, and his respiration had a peculiar undersea sound, a churning from somewhere in his chest. The flesh beneath his eyes was puffing, not black yet, but a bruised purple. His neck looked too thick, and the flesh had pushed up in a column to give him two extra chins. He was running a high fever; being close to him was like squatting on the edge of an open Barbecue pit where good coals have been laid.
Some of this almost sounds like pneumonia. What is this, the symptoms of nearly all diseases ever all thrown into one? How did something like this form? Was it formed by humans? I don’t recall if this ever gets explained.
And how did it take out LaVon and Sally before Charlie, since Charlie is patient zero? Well, I guess it makes sense the baby would die first, but why Sally?
“The dog,” he muttered. “Did you pull him out?”
“Mister,” Hap said, shaking him gently. ” I called the ambulance. You’re going to be alright.”
“Clock went red,” the man on the floor grunted, and then began to cough, racking chainlike explosions that sent heavy mucus spraying from his mouth in long and ropy splatters. Hap leaned backward, grimacing desperately.
So, Hap is infected.
Charlie asks where he is, and asks about his wife and child. Hap lies, saying that they’re fine.
“Seems like I’m awful sick,” the man said…..”they were sick, too. Since we got up 2 days ago. Salt Lake City…Sick. Guess we didn’t move quick enough after all… I felt pretty good until last night. Coughing, but all right. Woke up with it in the night. Didn’t get away quick enough. Is Baby LaVon okay?”
Just then, everyone hears an ambulance siren. Hap lies again, telling Charlie his wife and child are all right. Normally I don’t like it when people lie about things like this, but Charlie is clearly dying anyway. Might as well let him hope he didn’t basically kill his wife and child by diving under the door before he could be contained.
The men speculate on what disease Charlie could have. Someone suggests food poisoning, or so they hope.
“because otherwise it might be something catching.” Vic looked at them with troubled eyes. ” I seen cholera back in 1958, down near Nogales, and it looked something like this.”
Here is a link that talks about the symptoms of cholera. Except for vomiting, this looks literally nothing like what King describes here. I’m not sure if Vic is supposed to be wrong here, or if we’re supposed to take him at his word.
In any case, if it actually is cholera, there’s not much reason to worry. Turns out cholera is mainly spread through feces getting into the groundwater, so it’s not really a problem in countries like the US where we have good sanitation and hospitals that are able to deal with this sort of thing.
The ambulance comes, and the people there don’t actually know what to do with the dead bodies. I’ve worked on an ambulance before, and we took dead bodies to the hospital when we had to, so this confusion doesn’t read as realistic to me.
Charlie dies before ever making it to the hospital. You know, I wonder about this, actually. Charlie, at some point, knew that he and his family were sick, for at least the last 2 days. Why were they not trying to make it to the hospital already? Did Charlie not want to expose more people? Then why drive around randomly? I mean, yeah, his mind was wandering toward the end, but before that, 2 days ago, he had enough presence of mind to know that he and his family were sick. So why avoid the hospital?
In any case, Hap, who for some reason is allowed to ride in the ambulance, opens Charlie’s wallet and finds out that the dead man’s name is Charles D Campion. When I first read this, I thought we were told this because the virus was going to be called Campion’s Disease. In the edited version it sorta made sense to include this because otherwise we wouldn’t know the man’s name, as the prologue was not included. Here, it could have mostly been cut.
Hap stuffed the wallet back into the dead man’s pocket and told Carlos to turn off the siren. It was ten after 9.
That’s the end of the chapter. Next week we’ll meet another main protagonist of the story.