Read an Excerpt From Stephen King's 'Holly'
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A young woman has gone missing in a small town. All that remains of her are an abandoned bike, a missing earring, and some surly classmates who don't want to talk. Then the mystery deepens.
"God, please help me do the best I can for Penny Dahl and for her daughter. If someone took that young woman, I hope she’s still alive, and it’s your will I should find her. I’m taking my Lexapro, which is good. I’m smoking again, which is bad.” She thinks of Saint Augustine’s prayer and smiles into her clasped hands. “Help me to stop . . . but not today.”
With that taken care of, Holly Gibney opens her Covid drawer. There’s a box of fresh masks beside the box of wipes. She takes one and heads out to begin her investigation into the disappearance of Bonnie Rae Dahl.
Twenty minutes later Holly is driving slowly up Red Bank Avenue. Just short of Deerfield Park she passes a Dairy Whip where a bunch of kids are skateboarding in the nearly deserted parking lot. She passes John-Boy’s Storage Center, Rates By Month And By Year. She passes an abandoned Exxon station that’s been sprayed with tags. There’s a Quik-Pik, also abandoned, the front windows boarded up.
After a weedy vacant lot, she comes to the auto repair shop where Bonnie’s bike was discovered. It’s a long building with a sagging roof and rusty corrugated metal sides. The cement parking area out front is sprouting weeds and even a few sunflowers through its cracked surface. To Holly it doesn’t look like a building worth saving, let alone buying, but Marvin Brown must have felt differently, because there’s a sale pending sign in front. The sign features a photo of a smiling moon-faced man who is identified as George Rafferty, Your City Real Estate Specialist. Holly parks in front of the roll-up doors and notes down the agent’s name and number. She keeps a box of nitrile gloves in the console. Barbara Robinson special- ordered them for her as a birthday present, and they’re covered with various emojis: smiley faces, frowny faces, kissy faces and pissy faces. Quite amusing. Holly snaps on a pair, then goes around to the back of her little car and opens the trunk. There’s a neatly folded raincoat on top of her toolbox. She won’t need that, the day is sunny and hot, but she wants her red rubber galoshes. It isn’t Covid she’s worried about out here in the open, but there are bushes on both sides of the deserted repair shop, and she’s very susceptible to poison ivy. Also, there might be snakes. Holly hates snakes. Their scales are bad, their beady black eyes are worse. Oough.
She pauses to consider Deerfield Park across the street. Most of it is a landscaper’s dream, but over here on the edge of Red Bank Ave, the trees and bushes have been allowed to grow wild, with greenery actually poking through the wrought-iron fence and invading the space of sidewalk strollers. She sees one interesting thing: a rough downward slash, almost a ravine, topped by a slab of rock. Even from across the street Holly can see it’s been heavily tagged, so kids must gather there, possibly to smoke pot. She thinks that rock would have a good view of this side of the avenue, including the auto repair shop. She wonders if any kids were there on the evening Bonnie left her bike, and thinks of the ones she saw goofing off in the parking lot of the Dairy Whip.
She pulls on her galoshes, tucks her pants into them, and walks along the front of the building—past the three roll-up garage doors, then the office. She doesn’t expect to find anything, but stranger things have happened. When she reaches the corner she turns and goes back, walking slowly, head bent. There’s nothing.
Now for the hard part, she thinks. The poopy part.
She starts up the south side of the building, moving slowly, pushing aside the bushes, looking down. There are cigarette butts, an empty Tiparillo box, a rusty White Claw can, an ancient athletic sock. The going is faster along the back, because someone has dumped oil (a big no-no) and there are fewer bushes. She sees something white and pounces on it, but it turns out to be a cracked sparkplug.
Holly turns the far corner and starts wading through more bushes. Some of them have reddish leaves that look suspiciously oily, and she’s glad she wore the gloves. There is no bike helmet. She supposes it might have been cast far over the chainlink fence behind the shop, but Holly thinks she’d probably still see it, because it’s another vacant lot over there.
At the front corner of the building something glitters deep in a patch of those suspiciously oily leaves. Holly pushes them aside, careful that no leaf should touch her bare skin, and picks up a clip-on earring. A gold triangle. Surely not real gold, just an impulse buy at T.J. Maxx or Icing Fashion, but Holly feels a hot burst of excitement. There are days when she doesn’t know why she does this job, and there are days when she knows exactly why. This is one of the latter. She’ll have to photograph it and send it to Penny Dahl to be sure, but Holly has no doubt the earring belonged to Bonnie Rae. Perhaps it just fell off—clip-on earrings do that—but maybe it was pulled or jolted off. Possibly in a struggle.
And the bike, Holly thinks. It wasn’t out back or around one of the sides. It was in front. I’ll have to confirm that, but I don’t think Brown and the real estate man went wading through the bushes like I just did. To her mind, there’s only one scenario where that makes sense.
She tightens her grip on the earring until she feels its sharp corners biting into her palm, and decides to reward herself with a cigarette. She tweezes off her emoji-decorated nitrile gloves and puts them in the footwell of her car. Then she leans against the passenger-side front tire, where hopefully no one passing on the avenue will see her, and fires up. She considers the empty building while she smokes.
When she’s finished her cigarette, she butts it on the concrete and tucks it away in a tin cough drop box she keeps in her purse as a portable ashtray. She checks her phone. Penny has sent the pictures of her daughter. There are sixteen of them, including the one of Bonnie on her bike. Holly cares about that one most of all, but she scrolls through the others. There’s one of Bonnie and a young man—likely Tom Higgins, the ex-boyfriend—with their foreheads pressed together, laughing. They are in profile to the camera. Holly uses her fingers to enlarge the picture until all she can see is the side of Bonnie’s face.
And there on her earlobe, sparkling, is a gold triangle.
Holly is much better at talking to strangers—even interrogating them—than she ever thought she would be, but the idea of introducing herself to those laughing, trash-talking boys at the Dairy Whip brings back unpleasant memories. It brings back trauma, if you want to call a spade a spade. She was relentlessly teased and made fun of by boys like that in high school. Girls, too, who have their own brands of poisonous cruelty, but Mike Sturdevant was the worst. Mike Sturdevant, who started calling her Jibba- Jibba, because she was (he said) jibba-jibba- gibbering. Her mother allowed her to switch high schools—Oh, Holly, I suppose—but for the rest of her nightmare years of secondary education, she lived in fear that the nickname would follow her like a bad smell: Jibba-Jibba Gibney.
What if she started jibba-jibba-gibbering when talking to those boys? I wouldn’t, she thinks. That was another girl.
But even if that were true (she knows it isn’t, not entirely), they might talk more easily to a young man not much older than themselves. Holly has enough self-awareness to know that while this might be so, it’s also a rationalization. Nevertheless, she calls Jerome Robinson. At least she won’t be interrupting his work; he always pushes back by noon, and it’s almost noon now. Isn’t 10:50 pretty close to noon?
“Hollyberry!” he exclaims.
“How many times have I told you not to call me that?”
“I never will again, I solemnly promise.”
“Bullshit,” she says, and smiles when he laughs. “Are you working? You are, aren’t you?”
“Stopped dead in the water until I make some calls,” he says. “Need information. Can I help you? Please say I can. Barbara’s clacking away down the hall, making me feel guilty.”
“What is she clacking away on in the middle of summer?”
“I don’t know, and she gets grumpy when I ask. And this has actually been going on since last winter. I think she’s having meetings with someone about it, whatever it is. I asked her once if it was a guy and she tells me to chill, it’s a lady. An old lady. What’s up with you?”
Holly explains what’s up with her and asks Jerome if he would take the lead in questioning some boys skateboarding at the Dairy Whip. If they’re still there, that is.
“Fifteen minutes,” he says.
“Are you sure?”
“Absolutely. And Holly . . . so sorry about your mom. She was a character.”
“That’s one way of putting it,” Holly says. She’s sitting here with her bottom on hot concrete, leaning against a tire, stupid red galoshes splayed out in front of her, feet sweating, and getting ready to cry. Again. It’s absurd, really absurd.
“Your eulogy was great.”
“Thanks, Jerome. Are you really s—”
“You asked that already, and I am. Red Bank Ave, across from the Thickets, real estate sign out front. Be there in fifteen.”
She stows her phone in her little shoulder bag and wipes away her latest tears. Why does it hurt so much? Why, when she didn’t even like her mother and she’s so angry about the stupid way her mother died? Was it the J. Geils Band that said love stinks? Since she has time (and five bars), she looks it up on her phone. Then she decides to explore.
The arched entrance to Deerfield Park nearest the big rock is flanked by signs: please dispose of pet feces and respect your park! do not litter! Holly takes the shady, upward-tending walk slowly, pushing aside a few overhanging branches, always looking to her left. Near the top, she sees a beaten path leading into the undergrowth. She follows it and eventually comes out at the big rock. The area around it is littered with cigarette butts and beer cans. Also nests of broken glass that were probably once wine bottles. So much for do not litter, Holly thinks.
She sits down on the sun-warmed rock. As she expected, she has an excellent view of Red Bank Ave: the deserted gas station, the deserted convenience store, the U-Store-It, the Jet Mart further up, and—the star of our show—a repair garage now presumably owned by Marvin Brown. She can see something else as well: the white rectangle of a drive-in movie screen. Holly thinks that anyone sitting up here after dark could watch the show for free, albeit soundlessly. She’s still sitting there when Jerome’s used black Mustang pulls in next to her Prius. He gets out and looks around. Holly stands on the rock, cups her hands around her mouth, and calls, “Jerome! I’m up here!”
He spots her and waves.
“I’ll be right down!”
She hurries. Jerome is waiting for her outside the gate and gives her a strong hug. To her he looks taller and handsomer than ever.
“That’s Drive-In Rock where you were standing,” he says. “It’s famous, at least on this side of town. When I was in high school, kids used to go up there on Friday and Saturday nights, drink beer, smoke dope, and watch whatever was playing at Magic City.”
“From the amount of litter up there,” Holly says disapprovingly, “they still do. What about on weeknights?” Bonnie disappeared on a Thursday.
“I’m not sure there are shows on weeknights. You could check, but the indoor theaters are weekends only since Covid.”
There’s another problem, too, Holly realizes. Bonnie exited the Jet Mart with her soda at 8:07, and it would have been mere minutes before she reached the auto repair shop where her bike was found. On July first it wouldn’t have been dark enough to start a drive-in movie until at least nine PM, and why would kids gather at Drive-In Rock to watch a blank screen?
“You look bummed,” Jerome says.
“Minor bump in the road. Let’s go talk to those kids. If they’re still there, that is.”
Most of the skateboards are gone, but four diehards are sitting around one of the picnic tables at the far end of the Dairy Whip parking lot, chowing down on burgers and fries. Holly tries to hang back, but Jerome isn’t having that. He takes her elbow and keeps her right beside him.
“I wanted you to take the lead!” “Happy to help out, but you start. It’ll be good for you. Show them your ID card.”
The boys—Holly guesses their average age is somewhere around twelve or fourteen—are looking at them. Not with suspicion, exactly, just sizing them up. One of them, the clown of the group, has a couple of French fries protruding from his nose.
“Hello,” Holly says. “My name is Holly Gibney. I’m a private detective.”
“Truth or bullshit?” one of them asks, looking at Jerome.
“True, Boo,” Jerome says.
Holly fumbles for her wallet, almost knocking her portable ashtray onto the ground in the process, and shows them her laminated private investigator’s card. They all lean forward to look at her awful photograph. The clown takes the French fries from his nose and, to Holly’s dismay (oough), eats them.
The spokesman of the group is a redhaired, freckled boy with his lime green skateboard propped beside him against the picnic table bench. “Okay, whatever, but we don’t snitch.”
“Snitches are bitches,” says the clown. He’s got shoulder-length black hair that needed to be washed two weeks ago.
“Snitches get stitches,” says the one with the glasses and the hightop fade.
“Snitches end up in ditches,” says the fourth. He has a cataclysmic case of acne.
Having completed this roundelay, they look at her, waiting for whatever comes next. Holly is relieved to discover her fear has left. These are just boys not long out of middle school (maybe still in it), and there’s no harm in them, no matter what silly rhymes they know from the hip-hop videos.
“Cool deck,” Jerome says to the leader. “Baker? Tony Hawk?”
Leader Boy grins. “Do I look like money, honey? Just a Metroller, but it does me.” He switches his attention to Holly. “Private eye like Veronica Mars?”
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“I don’t have as many adventures as she does,” Holly says . . . although she’s had a few, oh yes indeed. “And I don’t want you to snitch about anything. I’m looking for a missing woman. Her bike was found about a quarter of a mile up the street—” She points. “—at a deserted building that used to be a car repair shop. Do any of you recognize either her or the bike?”
She calls up the picture of Bonnie on her bike. The boys pass her phone around.
“I think I seen her once or twice,” the longhair says, and the boy sitting next to him nods. “Just buzzing down Red Bank on her bike. Not lately, though.”
“Wearing a helmet?”
“Well duh,” the longhair says. “It’s the law. The cops can give you a ticket.”
“How long since you’ve seen her?” Jerome asks.
Longhair and his buddy consider. The buddy says, “Not this summer. Spring, maybe.”
Jerome: “You’re sure?”
“Pretty sure,” the longhair says. “Good-looking chick. You gotta notice those. It’s the law.”
They all laugh, Jerome included.
The leader says, “You think she took off on her own or somebody grabbed her?”
“We don’t know,” Holly says. Her fingers steal to the outside of the pocket of her pants and touch the triangular shape of the earring.
“Come on,” says the boy with the spectacles and the hightop fade. “Be real. She’s good-looking but no teenager. If she just took off, you wouldn’t be looking for her.”
“Her mother is very worried,” Holly says.
That they understand.
“Thanks,” Jerome says.
“Yes,” Holly says. “Thank you.”
They start to turn away, but the redhead with the freckles—Leader Boy—stops them. “You want to know whose mother is worried? Stinky’s. She’s half-crazy and the cops don’t do anything because she’s a juicer.”
Holly turns back. “Who’s Stinky?”
NOVEMBER 27, 2018
It will be a cold winter in this city by the lake, lots of snow, but on this night the temperature is an unseasonable sixty-five degrees. Mist is rising from the seal-slick surface of Red Bank Avenue. The streetlights illuminate a dense cloud cover less than a hundred feet up.
Peter “Stinky” Steinman rides his Alameda deck down the empty sidewalk at quarter to seven, giving it an occasional lazy push to keep it rolling. He’s bound for the Dairy Whip. Ahead is the giant lighted sof’ serve cone, haloed in mist. He’s looking at that and doesn’t notice the van parked on the tarmac of the deserted Exxon station, between the office and the islands where the pumps used to be. Once upon a time, long long ago (well, three years, which seems like long long ago when you’re eleven), young Steinman was known to his peers as Pete rather than Stinky. He was a boy of average intelligence who had nevertheless been gifted with a vivid imagination. On that long-ago day as he walked toward Neil Armstrong Elementary School (where he was currently enrolled in Mrs. Stark’s third grade class), he was pretending he was Jackie Chan, fighting a host of enemies in an empty warehouse with his excellent kung fu skills. He had already laid a dozen low, but more were coming at him. So absorbed was he (“Hah!” and “Yugh!” and “Hiyah!”) that he did not notice an extremely large pile of sidewalk excrement left by an extremely large Great Dane. He walked through it and entered Neil Armstrong Elementary in an odiferous state. Mrs. Stark insisted he take off his sneakers—one of them shit-stained all the way up to the Converse logo—and leave them in the hall until it was time to go home. His mother made him hose them off and then she threw them in the washing machine. They came out good as new, but by then it was too late. On that day, and forever after, Pete Steinman became Stinky Steinman.
Tonight he’s hoping to find his skateboarding pals doing ollies and kick-flips in the parking lot. Two of them are: Richie Glenman (the boy with a habit of sticking French fries up his nose, and sometimes in his ears) and Tommy Edison (redhaired, freckles, the acknowledged leader of their little gang). Two is better than none, but they are out of money, it’s getting late, and they’re just getting ready to leave.
“Come on, hang out awhile,” Stinky says.
“Can’t,” Richie says. “WWE Smackdown, dude. Can’t miss the awesomeness.”
“Homework,” Tommy says glumly. “Book report.”
The two boys leave, skateboards under their arms. Stinky does a couple of runs, tries a kick-flip and falls off his deck (glad Richie and Tommy aren’t there to see). He looks at his skinned elbow and decides to go home. If his mother is upstairs, he can watch the Smackdown himself, keeping the volume down low so he doesn’t bother her while she does her accounting shit. She works a lot since she cleaned up her act.
The Whip is open and he’d kill for a cheeseburger, but he only has fifty cents. Plus, Wicked Wanda is on duty. If he asks her for credit—or maybe a buck and a half out of the tip jar—she’ll laugh in his face.
He heads back to Red Bank Avenue and once he’s outside the misty circle cast by the light at the front of the parking lot—where Wicked Wanda can’t see him and laugh, that is—he starts dispatching enemies. Tonight, having reached a more mature age, he’s imagining himself as John Wick. It’s harder to bring down his enemies when he has his deck under one arm and only one hand with which to cut and chop, but he has great skills, supernatural skills, and so—
He’s jerked out of his fantasy and sees an old guy standing just outside the security light at the edge of the parking lot (not to mention the Dairy Whip’s lone video surveillance camera). He’s hunched over a cane and wearing a cool wide-brimmed hat like in an old black-and-white spy movie.
“Did I startle you? I’m sorry, but I need some help. My wife is in a wheelchair, you see, and the battery died. We have a disability van with a ramp, but I can’t push her chair up by myself. If you could help . . .”
Stinky, currently in full hero mode, is perfectly willing to help. He’s been told repeatedly not to talk to strangers, but this geezer looks like he’d have trouble knocking over a row of dominoes, let alone pushing a wheelchair up a crip ramp. “Where is it?”
The old guy points diagonally across the street. Through the rising mist, Stinky can just make out the shape of a van parked on the tarmac of the old Exxon station. And beside it, a wheelchair with someone sitting in it.
Roddy and Emily take turns being the one stranded in the dead wheelchair, and it’s really Roddy’s turn, but Em’s sciatica is now so bad—mostly thanks to the damned stubborn Craslow girl—that she actually needs the chair.
“I’ll give you ten dollars to help me push her up the ramp and into our van,” the old guy says.
Stinky thinks of the burger he was just wishing for. With a ten-spot he could add fries and a chocolate shake and still have money left over. Plenty. But would Jackie Chan take money for doing a good deed?
“Nah, I’ll do it for free.”
“That is very kind.”
They walk into the misty night together, the geezer leaning on his cane. They cross the avenue. When they reach the sidewalk in front of the gas station, the old lady in the wheelchair gives Stinky a weak wave. He returns it and turns to the geezer, who has one hand in the pocket of his overcoat.
“I was just thinking.”
“Maybe you could give me three bucks for pushing her up the ramp. Then I could go back to the Whip and get a Burger Royale.”
“Hungry, are you?”
The geezer smiles and pats Stinky’s shoulder. “I understand. Hunger must be assuaged.”
Copyright © 2023 by Stephen King. From the forthcoming book Holly, by Stephen King, to be published by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., in September. Printed by permission.
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Stephen King is the author of more than sixty books, most recently If It Bleeds and The Institute. He was born in Portland, Maine in 1947, the second son of Donald and Nellie Ruth Pillsbury King.
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