It's 1960 in the fictional town of Castle Rock, Maine. Ray Brower, a boy from a nearby town, has disappeared, and twelve-year-old Gordie Lachance and his three friends set out on a quest to find his body along the railroad tracks. This story formed the basis of the movie Stand by Me.
Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.
Excerpt: The Body
We got to the dump around one-thirty, and Vern led the way down the embankment with a Paratroops over the side! We went to the bottom in big jumps and leaped over the brackish trickle of water oozing listlessly out of the culvert which poked out of the cinders. Beyond this small boggy area was the sandy, trash-littered verge of the dump.
There was a six-foot security fence surrounding it. Every twenty feet weather-faded signs were posted. They said:
CASTLE ROCK DUMP
HOURS 4-8 P.M.
TRESPASSING STRICTLY FORBIDDEN
We climbed to the top of the fence, swung over, and jumped down. Teddy and Vern led the way toward the well, which you tapped with an old-fashioned pump—the kind from which you had to call the water with elbow-grease. There was a Crisco can filled with water next to the pump handle, and the great sin was to forget to leave it filled for the next guy to come along. The iron handle stuck off at an angle, looking a one-winged bird that was trying to fly. It had once been green, but almost all of the paint had been rubbed off by the thousands of hands that had worked that handle since 1940.
The dump is one of my strongest memories of Castle Rock. It always reminds me of the surrealist painters when I think of it—those fellows who were always painting pictures of clockfaces lying limply in the crotches of trees or Victorian living rooms standing in the middle of the Sahara or steam engines coming out of fireplaces. To my child’s eye, nothing in the Castle Rock Dump looked as if it really belonged there.
We had entered from the back. If you came from the front, a wide dirt road came in through the gate, broadened out into a semicircular area that had been bulldozed as flat as a dirt landing-strip, and then ended abruptly at the edge of the dumping-pit. The pump (Teddy and Vern were currently standing there and squabbling about who was going to prime it) was at the back of this great pit. It was maybe eighty feet deep and filled with all the American things that get empty, wear out, or just don’t work anymore. There was so much stuff that my eyes hurt just looking at it—or maybe it was your brain that actually hurt, because it could never quite decide what your eye should stop on. Then your eye would stop, or be stopped, by something that seemed as out of place as those limp clockfaces or the living room in the desert. A brass bedstead leaning drunkenly in the sun. A little girl’s dolly looking amazedly between her thighs as she gave birth to stuffing. An overturned Studebaker automobile with its chrome bullet nose glittering in the sun like some Buck Rogers missile. One of those giant water bottles they have in office buildings, transformed by the summer sun into a hot, blazing sapphire.
There was plenty of wildlife there, too, although it wasn’t the kind you see in the Walt Disney nature films or at those tame zoos where you can pet the animals. Plump rats, wood-chucks grown sleek and lumbering on such rich chow as rotting hamburger and maggoty vegetables, seagulls by the thousands, and stalking among the gulls like thoughtful, introspective ministers, an occasional huge crow. It was also the place where the town’s stray dogs came for a meal when they couldn’t find any trashcans to knock over or any deer to run. They were a miserable, ugly-tempered, mongrel lot; slat-sided and grinning bitterly, they would attack each other over a flyblown piece of bologna or a pile of chicken guts fuming in the sun.
But these dogs never attacked Milo Pressman, the dump-keeper, because Milo was never without Chopper at his heel. Chopper was—at least until Joe Camber’s dog Cujo went rabid twenty years later—the most feared and least seen dog in Castle Rock. He was the meanest dog for forty miles around (or so we heard), and ugly enough to stop a striking clock. The kids whispered legends about Chopper’s meanness. Some said he was half German shepherd, some said he was mostly boxer, and a kid from Castle View with the unfortunate name of Harry Horr claimed that Chopper was a Doberman pinscher whose vocal cords had been surgically removed so you couldn’t hear him when he was on the attack. There were other kids who claimed Chopper was a maniacal Irish wolfhound and Milo Pressman fed him a special mixture of Gaines Meal and chicken blood. These same kids claimed that Milo didn’t dare take Chopper out of his shack unless the dog was hooded like a hunting falcon.
The most common story was that Pressman had trained Chopper not just to sic but to sic specific parts of the human anatomy. Thus an unfortunate kid who had illegally scaled the dump fence to pick up illicit treasures might hear Milo Pressman cry: “Chopper! Sic! Hand!” And Chopper would grab that hand and hold on, ripping skin and tendons, powdering bones between his slavering jaws, until Milo told him to quit. It was rumored that Chopper could take an ear, an eye, a foot, or a leg . . . and that a second offender who was surprised by Milo and the ever-loyal Chopper would hear the dread cry: “Chopper! Sic! Balls!” And that kid would be a soprano for the rest of his life. Milo himself was more commonly seen and thus more commonly regarded. He was just a half-bright working joe who supplemented his small town salary by fixing things people threw away and selling them around town.
There was no sign of either Milo or Chopper today.
Chris and I watched Vern prime the pump while Teddy worked the handle frantically. At last he was rewarded with a flood of clear water. A moment later both of them had their heads under the trough, Teddy still pumping away a mile a minute.
“Teddy’s crazy,” I said softly.
“Oh yeah,” Chris said matter-of-factly. “He won’t live to be twice the age he is now, I bet. His dad burnin his ears like that. That’s what did it. He’s crazy to dodge trucks the way he does. He can’t see worth a shit, glasses or no glasses.”
“You remember that time in the tree?”
The year before, Teddy and Chris had been climbing the big pine tree behind my house. They were almost to the top and Chris said they couldn’t go any further because all of the branches up there were rotten. Teddy got that crazy, stubborn look on his face and said fuck that, he had pine tar all over his hands and he was gonna go up until he could touch the top. Nothing Chris said could talk him out of it. So up he went, and he actually made it—he only weighed seventy-five pounds or so, remember. He stood there, clutching the top of the pine in one tar-gummy hand, shouting that he was king of the world or some stupid thing like that, and then there was a sickening, rotted crack as the branch he was standing on gave way and he plummeted. What happened next was one of those things that make you sure there must be a God. Chris reached out, purely on reflex, and what he caught was a fistful of Teddy Duchamp’s hair. And although his wrist swelled up fat and he was unable to use his right hand very well for almost two weeks, Chris held him until Teddy, screaming and cursing, got his foot on a live branch thick enough to support his weight. Except for Chris’s blind grab, he would have turned and crashed and smashed all the way to the foot of the tree, a hundred and twenty feet below. When they got down, Chris was gray-faced and almost puking with the fear reaction. And Teddy wanted to fight him for pulling his hair. They would have gone at it, too, if I hadn’t been there to make peace.
“I dream about that every now and then,” Chris said, and looked at me with strangely defenseless eyes. “Except in this dream I have, I always miss him. I just get a couple of hairs and Teddy screams and down he goes. Weird, huh?”
“Weird,” I agreed, and for just one moment we looked in each other’s eyes and saw some of the true things that made us friends. Then we looked away again and watched Teddy and Vern throwing water at each other, screaming and laughing and calling each other pussies.
“Yeah, but you didn’t miss him,” I said. “Chris Chambers never misses, am I right?”
“Not even when the ladies leave the seat down,” he said. He winked at me, formed an O with his thumb and forefinger, and spat a neat white bullet through it.
“Eat me raw, Chambers,” I said.
“Through a Flavor Straw,” he said, and we grinned at each other.
Vern yelled: “Come on and get your water before it runs back down the pipe!”
“Race you,” Chris said.
“In this heat? You’re off your gourd.”
“Come on,” he said, still grinning. “On my go.”
We raced, our sneakers digging up the hard, sunbaked dirt, our torsos leaning out ahead of our flying bluejeaned legs, our fists doubled. It was a dead heat, with both Vern on Chris’s side and Teddy on mine holding up their middle fingers at the same moment. We collapsed laughing in the still, smoky odor of the place, and Chris tossed Vern his canteen. When it was full, Chris and I went to the pump and first Chris pumped for me and then I pumped for him, the shocking cold water sluicing off the soot and the heat all in a flash, sending our suddenly freezing scalps four months ahead into January. Then I re-filled the lard can and we all walked over to sit down in the shade of the dump’s only tree, a stunted ash forty feet from Milo Pressman’s tarpaper shack. The tree was hunched slightly to the west, as if what it really wanted to do was pick up its roots the way an old lady would pick up her skirts and just get the hell out of the dump.
“The most!” Chris said, laughing, tossing his tangled hair back from his brow.
“A blast,” I said, nodding, still laughing myself.
“This is really a good time,” Vern said simply, and he didn’t just mean being off-limits inside the dump, or fudging our folks, or going on a hike up the railroad tracks into Harlow; he meant those things but it seems to me now that there was more, and that we all knew it. Everything was there and around us. We knew exactly who we were and exactly where we were going. It was grand.
We sat under the tree for awhile, shooting the shit like we always did—who had the best ballteam (still the Yankees with Mantle and Maris, of course), what was the best car (’55 Thunderbird, with Teddy holding out stubbornly for the ’58 Corvette), who was the toughest guy in Castle Rock who wasn’t in our gang (we all agreed it was Jamie Gallant, who gave Mrs. Ewing the finger and then sauntered out of her class with his hands in his pockets while she shouted at him), the best TV show (either The Untouchables or Peter Gunn—both Robert Stack as Eliot Ness and Craig Stevens as Gunn were cool), all that stuff.
It was Teddy who first noticed that the shade of the ash tree was getting longer and asked me what time it was. I looked at my watch and was surprised to see it was quarter after two.
“Hey man,” Vern said. “Somebody’s got to go for provisions. Dump opens at four. I don’t want to still be here when Milo and Chopper make the scene.”
Even Teddy agreed. He wasn’t afraid of Milo, who had a pot belly and was at least forty, but every kid in Castle Rock squeezed his balls between his legs when Chopper’s name was mentioned.
“Okay,” I said. “Odd man goes?”
“That’s you, Gordie,” Chris said, smiling. “Odd as a cod.”
“So’s your mother,” I said, and gave them each a coin. “Flip.”
Four coins glittered up into the sun. Four hands snatched them from the air. Four flat smacks on four grimy wrists. We uncovered. Two heads and two tails. We flipped again and this time all four of us had tails.
“Oh Jesus, that’s a goocher,” Vern said, not telling us anything we didn’t know. Four heads, or a moon, was supposed to be extraordinarily good luck. Four tails was a goocher, and that meant very bad luck.
“Fuck that shit,” Chris said. “It doesn’t mean anything. Go again.”
“No, man,” Vern said earnestly. “A goocher, that’s really bad. You remember when Clint Bracken and those guys got wiped out on Sirois Hill in Durham? Billy tole me they was flippin for beers and they came up a goocher just before they got into the car. And bang! they all get fuckin totalled. I don’t like that. Sincerely.”
“Nobody believes that crap about moons and goochers,” Teddy said impatiently. “It’s baby stuff, Vern. You gonna flip or not?”
Vern flipped, but with obvious reluctance. This time he, Chris, and Teddy all had tails. I was showing Thomas Jefferson on a nickel. And I was suddenly scared. It was as if a shadow had crossed some inner sun. They still had a goocher, the three of them, as if dumb fate had pointed at them a second time. Abruptly I thought of Chris saying: I just get a couple of hairs and Teddy screams and down he goes. Weird, huh?
Three tails, one head.
Then Teddy was laughing his crazy, cackling laugh and pointing at me and the feeling was gone.
“I heard that only fairies laugh like that,” I said, and gave him the finger.
“Eeee-eeee-eeee, Gordie,” Teddy laughed. “Go get the provisions, you fuckin morphadite.”
I wasn’t really sorry to be going. I was rested up and didn’t mind going down the road to the Florida Market.
“Don’t call me any of your mother’s pet names,” I said to Teddy.
“Eeee-eee-eeee, what a fuckin wet you are, Lachance.”
“Go on, Gordie,” Chris said. “We’ll wait over by the tracks.”
“You guys better not go without me,” I said.
Vern laughed. “Goin without you’d be like goin with Slitz instead of Budweiser’s, Gordie.”
“Ah, shut up.”
They chanted together: “I don’t shut up, I grow up. And when I look at you I throw up.”
“Then your mother goes around the corner and licks it up,” I said, and hauled ass out of there, giving them the finger over my shoulder as I went. I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, did you?