“Before the Play” by Stephen King
Scene IV. And Now this Word from New Hampshire
(read Scene I here)
(read Scene II here)
(read Scene III here)
In that long hot summer of 1953, the summer Jacky Torrance
turned six, his father came home drunk one night from the hospital
and broke Jacky’s arm. He almost killed the boy. He was drunk.
Jacky was sitting on the front step of the porch and reading a
Combat Casey comic book when his father came down the street,
listing to one side, torpedoed by beer somewhere down the line. As
he always did, the boy felt a mixture of love-hate-fear rise in his
chest at the sight of his old man, who looked like a giant
malevolent ghost in his hospital whites. He was an orderly at the
Berlin Community Hospital. His father was like God, like Nature,
sometimes lovable, sometimes terrible. You never knew which it
would be. Jacky’s mother feared and served him. His brothers hated
him. Only Jacky of all of them still loved him in spite of the fear
and the hate, and sometimes the volatile mixture of emotions made
him want to cry out at the sight of his father coming, to simply cry
out: I love you, daddy! Go away! Hug me! I’ll kill you! I’m so afraid
of you! I need you! And his father seemed to sense in his stupid way
- he was a stupid man, and selfish - that all of them had gone
beyond him but Jacky, the youngest, that the only way he could
touch the others was to bludgeon them to attention. But with Jacky
there was still love, and there had been times when he had cuffed
the boy’s mouth into running blood and then hugged him with
frightful force, the killing force just barely held back by some other
thing, and Jacky would let himself be hugged deep into the
atmosphere of malt and hops that hung around his old man forever,
quailing, loving, fearing.
He leaped off the step and ran halfway down the path before
something stopped him.
"Daddy?" he said. "Where’s the car?"
Torrance came toward him, and Jacky saw how very drunk he was.
"Wrecked it up," he said thickly.
"Oh …" Careful now. Careful what you say. For your life, be
careful. “That’s too bad.”
His father stopped and regarded Jacky from his stupid pig eyes.
Jacky held his breath. Somewhere behind his father’s brow, under
the, lawnmowered brush of his crewcut, the scales were turning.
The hot afternoon stood still while Jacky waited, staring up
anxiously into his father’s face to see if his father would throw a
rough bear arm around his shoulder, grinding Jacky’s cheek against
the cracked rough leather of the belt that held up his white pants
and say Walk me into the house, big boy in the hard and
contemptuous way that was the only way he could even approach
love without destroying himself, or if it would be something else.
Tonight it was something else.
The thunderheads appeared on his father’s brow. “What do you
mean that’s too bad? What kind of shit is that?”
"Just … too bad, daddy. That’s all I meant. It’s-"
Torrance’s hand swept out at the end of his arm, huge hand,
hamhock arm, but speedy, yes, very speedy, and Jacky went on his
ass with churchbells in his head and a split lip.
"Shitass," his father said, giving it the broad A.
Jacky said nothing. Nothing would do any good now. The balance
had swung the wrong way.
"You ain’t gonna sass me," Torrance said. "You won’t sass your
daddy. Get up here and take your medicine.”
Something in his face this time, some dark and blazing thing. And
Jacky suddenly knew that this time there might be no hug at the
end of the blows, and if there was he might be unconscious and
unknowing … maybe even dead.
Behind him, his father let out a bellow of rage and chased him, a
flapping specter in his hospital whites, a juggernaut of doom
following his son from the front yard to the back.
Jacky ran for his life. The treehouse, he was thinking. He can’t get
up there, the ladder nailed to the tree won’t hold him, I’ll get up
there, talk to him, maybe he’ll go to sleep, - Oh God. Oh please let
him go to sleep - he was weeping in terror as he ran.
"Come back here, goddammit!" His father was roaring behind him.
"Come back here and take your medicine! Take it like a man!"
Jacky flashed past the back steps. His mother, that thin and
defeated woman, scrawny in a faded housedress, had come out
through the screen door from the kitchen, just as Jacky ran past
with his bellowing father in persuit. She opened her mouth as if to
speak or cry out, but her hand came up in a fist and stopped
whatever she might have said, kept it safe behind her teeth. She
was afraid for her son, more afraid that her husband would turn on
"No you don’t Come back here!"
Jacky reached the large elm in the back yard, the elm where last
year his father had smoke-drugged a colony of wasps and then
burned their nest with gasoline. The boy went up the haphazardly
nailed-on rungs like greased lightning and still he was nearly not
fast enough. His father’s clutching, enraged hand grasped the boy’s
ankle in a grip like flexed steel, then slipped a little and only
succeeded in pulling off Jacky’s loafer. Jacky went up last three
rungs and crouched on the floor of the treehouse twelve feet above
the ground, panting and crying on his hands and knees.
His father seemed to go crazy. He danced around the tree like an
Indian, bellowing his rage. He slammed his fists into it, making bark
fly and bringing lattices of blood to his knuckles. He kicked it. His
huge moon face was white with frustration and red with anger.
"Please, daddy," Jacky moaned. "Whatever I said … I’m sorry I said
"Come down! You come down out of there and take your fucking
medicine, you little cur! Right now!”
"I will … I will if you promise not to … to hit me too hard … not
hurt me … just spank me but not hurt me …”
"Get out of that tree!" his father screamed.
Jacky looked toward the house but that was hopeless. His mother
had retreated somewhere far away, to neutral ground.
"GET OUT RIGHT NOW!"
"Oh, daddy, I don’t dare!" he cried out, and that was the truth.
Because now his father might kill him.
There was a period of stalemate. A minute, perhaps, or perhaps
two. His father circled the tree, puffing and blowing like whale.
Jacky turned around and around on his hands and knees, following
the movement. They were like parts of a visible clock.
The second or third time he came back to the ladder nailed to the
tree, Torrance stopped. He looked speculatively at the ladder. And
laid his hands on the rung before his eyes. He began to climb.
"No, daddy, it won’t hold you," Jacky whispered.
But his father came on relentlessly, like fate, like death, like
doom. Up and up, closer to the treehouse, one rung snapped off
under his hands and he almost fell but caught the next one up with
a grunt and a lunge, and one of the rungs twisted around from the
horizontal to the perpendicular under his weight with a rasping
scream of pulling nails, but it did not give way, and then his
working, congested face was visible over the edge of the treehouse
floor, and for that one moment of his childhood Jack Torrance had
his father at bay, if he could have kicked that face with the foot
that still wore its loafer, kicked it where the nose terminated
between the piggy eyes) he could have driven his father off the
ladder backwards, perhaps killed him (but if he had killed him,
would anyone have said anything but “Thanks, Jacky”?), but it was
love that stopped him, and love that would not let him just put his
face in his hands and give up as first one of his father’s pudgy,
short-fingered hands appeared on the boards and then the other.
"Now, by God -" his father breathed. He stood above his huddled
son like a giant.
"Oh daddy, " Jacky mourned for both of them. And for a moment
his father paused, his face sagged into lines of uncertainty, and
Jacky felt a thread of hope.
Then the face drew up, he could smell the beer, and his father
said, “I’ll teach you to sass me,” and all hope was gone as the foot
swung out, burying itself in his belly, driving the wind from his body
in a whoosh as he flew from the treehouse platform and fell to the
ground, turning over once and on the point of his left elbow, which
snapped with a greenstick crack. He didn’t even have breath enough
to scream. The last thing he saw before he blacked out was his
father’s face, which seemed to be at the end of a long dark tunnel.
It seemed to be filling with surprise, the way a vessel may fill with
some pale liquid.
He is just starting to know what he did, Jacky thought
And on the heels of that a thought with no meaning at all,
coherent or otherwise, a thought that chased him into blackness as
he fen back on the chewed and tattered grass of the back lawn in a
What you see is what you’ll be, what you see is what you’ll be,
The break in his arm was cleanly healed in six months. The
nightmares went on much longer. In a way, they never stopped.