The Dead Zone


By the time he graduated from college, John Smith had forgotten all about the bad fall he took on the ice that January day in 1953. In fact, he would have been hard put to remember it by the time he graduated from grammar school. And his mother and father never knew about it at all.

They were skating on a cleared patch of Runaround Pond in Durham. The bigger boys were playing hockey with old taped sticks and using a couple of potato baskets for goals. The little kids were just farting around the way little kids have done since time immemorial—their ankles bowing comically in and out, their breath puffing in the frosty twenty-degree air. At one corner of the cleared ice two rubber tires burned sootily, and a few parents sat nearby, watching their children. The age of the snowmobile was still distant and winter fun still consisted of exercising your body rather than a gasoline engine.

Johnny had walked down from his house, just over the Pownal line, with his skates hung over his shoulder. At six, he was a pretty fair skater. Not good enough to join in the big kids’ hockey games yet, but able to skate rings around most of the other first graders, who were always pinwheeling their arms for balance or sprawling on their butts.

Now he skated slowly around the outer edge of the clear patch, wishing he could go backward like Timmy Benedix, listening to the ice thud and crackle mysteriously under the snow cover farther out, also listening to the shouts of the hockey players, the rumble of a pulp truck crossing the bridge on its way to U.S. Gypsum in Lisbon Falls, the murmur of conversation from the adults. He was very glad to be alive on that cold, fair winter day. Nothing was wrong with him, nothing troubled his mind, he wanted nothing ... except to be able to skate backward, like Timmy Benedix.

He skated past the fire and saw that two or three of the grown-ups were passing around a bottle of booze.

“Gimme some of that!” he shouted to Chuck Spier, who was bundled up in a big lumberjack shirt and green flannel snowpants.

Chuck grinned at him. “Get outta here, kid, I hear your mother callin you.”

Grinning, six-year-old Johnny Smith skated on. And on the road side of the skating area, he saw Timmy Benedix himself coming down the slope, with his father behind him.

“Timmy!” he shouted. “Watch this!”

He turned around and began to skate clumsily backward. Without realizing it, he was skating into the area of the hockey game.

“Hey kid!” someone shouted. “Get out the way!”

Johnny didn’t hear. He was doing it! He was skating backward! He had caught the rhythm—all at once. It was in a kind of sway of the legs ...

He looked down, fascinated, to see what his legs were doing.

The big kids’ hockey puck, old and scarred and gouged around the edges, buzzed past him, unseen. One of the big kids, not a very good skater, was chasing it with what was almost a blind, headlong plunge.

Chuck Spier saw it coming. He rose to his feet and shouted, “Johnny! Watch out!”

John raised his head—and the next moment the clumsy skater, all one hundred and sixty pounds of him, crashed into little John Smith at full speed.

Johnny went flying, arms out. A bare moment later his head connected with the ice and he blacked out.

Blacked out ... black ice ... blacked out ... black ice ... black. Black.

They told him he had blacked out. All he was really sure of was that strange repeating thought and suddenly looking up at a circle of faces—scared hockey players, worried adults, curious little kids. Timmy Benedix smirking. Chuck Spier was holding him.

Black ice. Black.

“What?” Chuck asked. “Johnny ... you okay? You took a hell of a knock.”

“Black,” Johnny said gutturally. “Black ice. Don’t jump it no more, Chuck.”

Chuck looked around, a little scared, then back at Johnny. He touched the large knot that was rising on the boy’s forehead.

“I’m sorry,” the clumsy hockey player said. “I never even saw him. Little kids are supposed to stay away from the hockey. It’s the rules.” He looked around uncertainly for support.

“Johnny?” Chuck said. He didn’t like the look of Johnny’s eyes. They were dark and faraway, distant and cold. “Are you okay?”

“Don’t jump it no more,” Johnny said, unaware of what he was saying, thinking only of ice—black ice. “The explosion. The acid.”

“Think we ought to take him to the