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A Bend In The Road

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1.

"You know what I miss?" Eddie asked out of nowhere.

They were maybe two or three weeks along the Path of the Beam from that Green Palace where the ka-tet had faced down the Tick-Tock Man and Marten (known as Flagg, or Maerlyn, or perhaps even Walter), two or three weeks of low skies and roiling clouds and the rare glimpse of the waning Peddler's moon. The fields stretched forever: wide, open plains of grass cut into rough rectangles by strips of a tangling undergrowth so thick in places they'd had to heft Susannah's chair up on their shoulders. On the loping flats, at least, she could be pushed, as Jake was doing now, Eddie on one side, Roland on the other, Oy ambling along at his heels.

"America's Dunkin'," Jake drawled now, not missing a beat. "'Fresh to your home from ours, fresh every four hours.'"

Eddie managed to look both annoyed and wistful at the same time, prompting a laugh from Susannah. Roland gave them his calm 'I do not understand you' look.

"You know what I miss?" Eddie asked, staring Jake down, who just grinned back. "Proper bathrooms."

"Oh, dear God, sugar, yes," Susannah cried, clapping her hands together in a way that made Eddie think of old Revivals, made him half expect a 'Say Hallelujah!' to follow.

"I do kind of miss proper showers," Jake said reluctantly. "I mean," he added quickly, with a glance at Roland, "washing in a stream is pretty great too."

"That too," Eddie agreed, "but I was thinking more porcelain a la commode."

"With a proper seat," Susannah added, fervently. Her legs were not good for squatting.

"A flush," Jake offered and then, with more fervor, "and toilet paper."

"Sweet Jesus, yes," Eddie said, and now he sounded to himself like a Sunday morning "Testify!" "The kid hits it outta the park! Right outta sight!"

"Soft and smooth," Susannah said in a low, worshipful tone, and Jake nodded along. Oy nodded too in mimic.

Roland just looked at them mildly. "What a marvel your where and when is, that paper might be so uselessly wasted."

"Well, cry your pardon, gunslinger," Eddie said. "Just as soon as we've found the Dark Tower, we'll pop on back to New York and give them a good talking to. Hell, we could make a fortune--" His voice deepened, mock announcer. "'Do you want a really clean wipe you can feel right up into your guts? Then you need dock leaves! New, from Long Tall Ugly Pharmaceuticals!'"

Susannah elbowed him hard, and then just smiled innocently at his aggrieved look.

"Damp dock leaves are the best," Jake said, in the experienced tone of one who has been forced to wipe his ass with devilweed.

"So say we all," Susannah said, giving Eddie a look.

He grinned back, throwing her a sloppy salute. "Yes, ma'am."

Roland just nodded, walking on with his same tireless tread.

 

2.

They'd been going on for some time in companionable silence, Eddie pushing her now and Jake walking behind at Roland's heels, when Susannah first spotted the side-track. She'd been making snares. Roland had taught them enough trail-craft by now that she could spot the signs of rabbits without his prompting and, in these game-scarce parts, they lost nothing chancing an easy catch when the rabbits came out at dusk and dawn to forage. Susannah's hands had been doing all the working, cutting the stakes, making the loops, leaving her eyes free to sweep the road from side to side; never again would they be taken unaware as they had on the bridge into Lud, not if she could help it. At first it had seemed only another artifact of the Beam, pointing south-east like the trees and shadows and clouds (or, mayhap, where south-east had been before the world moved on), and she had seen it without really seeing it, noted it without conscious thought.

Afternoon had come upon them, a pearly-grey sheen to the overcast sky, and evening threatened; Susannah was just thinking that night would catch them half way into the thick gorse that blocked their direct route, when she turned her head just so and saw what she had been seeing all along, the way Eddie could see shapes in wood, the way Roland marked exits and escape routes. The dry skips between the grasses were the overgrown remains of an old track, a proper one that curved maybe a wheel away from their path, around the gorse a few miles ahead and up over a low knoll before rejoining the path of the Beam.

Susannah squinted ahead, and then pointed. "We can make camp there. It's not too far off the Beam, is it Roland?"

"No, Susannah," Roland said. "You see true."

"Well, shee-it," Eddie exclaimed when the track was pointed out to him. "Don't I feel blind as a bat."

"I didn't see it either," Jake said, shrugging one shoulder, his backpack rising and falling.

Eddie winked at him. "You and me, kid. Best buds now."

"'uds!" echoed Oy.

They took the new track. It was flat packed under their feet and Susannah's wheels, and she had a strange feeling of knowing that once, long ago, it had been cobbled. She half expected some ancient rock to come slipping under her wheels to send her tumbling, but none came.

They made good time; as good as they might have on a New York sidewalk. As they got closer to the knoll, Oy, who had been foraging ahead of them, dropped back to Jake's heels, long neck stretched forward, but his head held down. Susannah gave her wheels a push until Eddie got the idea and pushed her in line with them, so she could lean over and run her fingers through Oy's soft fur. He looked up at her with his gold-ringed eyes for a moment -- in the awkward pre-dusk light they looked almost pearl-silver -- and then went back to Jake who was frowning a little.

"Something wrong, sug?" Susannah asked.

Roland gave them both a questioning look. She shook her head slightly, and he turned away again.

"No," said Jake uncertainly. "I thought-- But it's just the grass."

Susannah looked ahead, trying to see what he had seen. She remembered doing this before, after Shardik, with Roland and Eddie, remembered Eddie saying "Look at the shadows," and did. The knoll had seemed smooth at first distance but now it had bumps and rolls and if you looked at it right, those there were legs tucked in, and there was the curl of a large, flattened ear, and there, a long tube of a nose tucked into two more thick, round legs. She let out a startled laugh.

"Why," she said. "It looks just like a elephant, lying on its side."

"Yes," said Jake, with something like relief.

"Well ain't that mah-velous," Eddie crowed. "Let's wake it up; we can ride the rest of the way in style."

"Isn't there a saying about not waking sleeping elephants?" Susannah asked primly.

"That's dogs, Suze," Eddie said, and Roland forestalled the argument that might have followed by saying, "It's just a hill."

It stayed just a hill, even when they were on it. Roland let Susannah take the lead and she considered a moment before picking a spot on the elephant's shoulder.

"We can set a fire safe there," she said, pointing, "and the prevailing wind will keep our smells away from the rabbit holes. We can set our rolls down a way to keep the breeze off us direct while we sleep." She looked at Roland to see if she'd picked true, though she already knew she had -- knew it the way the answer to a riddle was obvious once heard -- and smiled anyway when Roland nodded grave agreement.

Sure, proper bathing facilities would have been nice, Susannah missed her bath as much as toilets, but not so much -- never so much! -- that she would give this up for that.

 

3.

"Spark-a-dark, where's my sire?" Jake murmured over the sharp chik!chik!chik! of the flint and steel. "Will I lay me? Will I stay me? Bless this camp with fire."

There was a spark. The kindling caught, crinkling and curling in the sudden heat. He watched carefully until he was sure the fire was spreading before moving back, returning the tinder-box to Roland's purse. Susannah had set the trips while they had been bringing firewood, moving swiftly and silently over the grass on her hands, and now Roland returned to them with a plump dead rabbit in each hand. He handed one to Eddie, who took it without comment, and one to Jake, who looked up in surprise.

"Gut, skin, and butcher it," Roland said. "Eddie can show you the how of it."

"Welcome to Eddie Dean's Survivalist Suppers," Eddie said, taking the old hide Susannah had brought him and setting it out between them to work on. "On tonight's show: roasting with rabbits. With just a few simple moves, you too can be up to your wrists into animal guts."

The look he gave Jake said he was waiting for a laugh, or disgust maybe, but Jake just looked back calmly. A liquid shrug rolled across Eddie's shoulders, and he nodded Jake to come in close and watch. Susannah moved around them, fixing their bedrolls and bringing knives and stakes when needed, while Roland set a clay pot of water to boil.

"First you gotta squeeze the piss out," Eddie said, hefting the rabbit one-handed under its front legs and using the other to push down its abdomen, "or the meat spoils."

Acrid urine splattered into the grass.

"That's gross," Jake said with horrified fascination, eyes gleaming.

"Better out than in," Eddie said portentously and grinned when Jake giggled. "Now this is the really gross bit."

He made a shallow incision in the belly of the rabbit with the knife, tearing it wider with his fingers so as not to risk cutting into the entrails. Turning the rabbit over, he lifted it by the legs, bending them back as he gave the rabbit a hard shake. Its guts dropped out of the hole onto the hide, cooled, congealing blood splattering a little, as Eddie first tore the bottom free and then showed Jake how to reach in under the ribs and remove the golf-ball sized stomach, how to slice the diaphragm open to get out the heart and lungs.

"Have at it, kiddo," he said, handing Jake the knife.

Jake repeated the operation on the second rabbit, a little hesitantly, but cleanly enough, though his frown didn't cease the whole time.

"Too icky for you, hon?" Susannah asked from where she was cleaning the guns under Roland's watchful eye.

"It's not that exactly," Jake said, shrugging one shoulder. "I kinda feel sorry for them, is all."

"If they didn't want to be eaten, they shouldn't be made of tasty meat," Eddie said cheerfully.

Roland gave him a reproving look. "Not wasting any part of the animal is our way of honoring them for the sacrifice."

"Eat more, kill less," Eddie said like a radio jingle, or an ad blurb from one of Jake's dad's network shows.

"Waste not, want not," Jake offered.

"Do you say so?" Roland asked, giving a small pleased nod at Jake's turn of phrase. "Then it is so."

Jake smiled, feeling Roland's smile, the one that didn't really touch his lips, but was there in his eyes, and then Eddie was catching his attention again, showing him how to skin the rabbit, starting him off and then leaving him to it so he could do his own. It was easier than Jake expected to pull the skin away, disconcertingly like pulling open a book whose pages have come a little sticky. When it was peeled back as far is it would go, Eddie showed him how to remove the legs at the joint, and the head, snapping vertebrae with a quick twist. While Eddie finished up, setting the offal to burn and the meat to cook, Susannah showed Jake how the pelt was tanned, first scraped, and then soaked and ashed. Jake's was a little raggedy at the edges but when he looked up, Roland gave him another little nod of approval that made Jake feel warm all the way down, even in those places the fire couldn't reach.

"See much. Say little," Eddie said, his smile equal parts exasperated and affectionate. "That's our Roland."

"Yar," said Jake, nodding seriously and then blinked owlishly when Eddie laughed raucously.

 

4.

See much, say little, Roland thought, later, after the others had all turned in. Night had brought no gaps in the clouds. Scattered here and there across the knoll, quartz rocks, crystals, maybe even the glass of some bygone age, glittered in the dying light of the fire as if the stars, denied the heavens, had settled themselves to the earth.

He rolled himself a cigarette. There was little of the tobacco left, though whoever had repacked their bags after the Green Palace -- the Kibble Elves as Eddie had maybe said -- had topped that up too, enough that he could indulge. He did, drawing the smoke deep and letting it out slow. Jake was closest, sleeping with one arm resting across Oy; Susannah and Eddie slept a little way over, chests rising and falling in slow unison, their breath mingling. One of Susannah's hands lay, almost protectively, against her belly. Roland breathed out smoke and watched the fingers of the breeze drag it to tatters.

Thoughts drifted through his mind, and he let them come and go as they would, neither helping nor hindering; thoughts of Susan, and of the Dark Tower; thoughts of Susannah and her secret and what it might mean; thoughts of Jake, growing up a fine gunslinger, and Eddie, too, aye, and Susannah Dean; thoughts of all that had come before, and might come ahead; thoughts of ka, that bastard turning wheel. The fire burned down, burned low, burned out. The stones glittered and went dark, one by one.

First comes smiles, then lies, he heard himself say, some where, some when. Last comes gunfire.

He closed his eyes.

 

5.

"Jeesum kee-rist, you pussy," Henry bellowed. "You wanna get your fuckin hands outta your pants sometime today?"

Brooklyn sprawled around them, not made any cleaner or fresher by the snow clinging to everything it could. Eddie was on the sidewalk, slush under the muddy white of his sneakers. They were all there, the old gang, Tommy Fredericks, Georgie Pratt, Frank Duganelli, Jimmie Polio, and that soon to be Great Sage and Eminent Junkie but right now just plain old Henry fuckin Dean, hefting the mother of all snowballs in one cold-pale hand.

"Too much of that and you'll go blind, squirt," Henry said, laughing like this was the height of hilarity. His smile was wide, blinding, and Eddie found himself smiling back, even though seeing Henry like this, the way he was, god, the way they all were, it hurt like the bejeezus.

I'm early, Eddie thought. Before Dutch Hill and the Mansion and Jake. Before all that. I'm just a kid in the street, playing the old game. Yeah, that's the ticket. That's the god damn stuff.

"I'm coming," he called, though he didn't move, just watching them all, as Frank and Jimmie argued over who was on whose team, like the pisser wouldn't turn into a free-for-all eventually anyway, leave everybody with a fucking rupture. Jimmie, Georgie and Tommy all lumped in together, leaving Frank to take Henry.

It was always Frank, too, it occurred to Eddie with that sudden side-tracking certainty he sometimes got in dreams, inconsequential detail seeming suddenly of divine importance when it never was. Always Frank, never Frankie, no ending y like the rest of them. The man out. He wondered what had happened to Frank and then wondered why he was wondering; the kid was right there in front of him, ready to play. They all were, save Eddie, zonin' like a pussy, like Henry always called it.

"I'm with you, right, Henry? I'm on your team."

"Yeah, yeah," said Henry, magnanimously. "The little sissy's with me. We doin' this or what?"

"Sure," said Jimmie agreeably, setting off up the bank in his shuffling, twisted-foot walk, sliding, but never falling, oddly graceful. The others started following after, spreading out as they went, ducking here and there to grab snow, knowing that, at any second, there would be some silent moment of agreement and projectiles would all fly. Aye, and hit too, say thankya.

Winter sunlight flashed off a passing car and the world sparkled around Eddie like so much broken glass, piles of powdery, glinting smithereens; then it was just snow again, half white, half slushy grey.

"Move your ass, shithead," Henry yelled.

Laughing, Eddie did.

 

6.

"--the Man in Black," Andrew said.

He had been talking for a while, his words washing over her in a warm tide, ebbing and flowing as his attention was momentarily caught by some indecent snarl of traffic. This, though, caught her attention, like sudden seaweed catching your ankles as you waded out into the ocean.

"I beg pardon?"

"The country singer, Miz Holmes," Andrew said, with almost paternal patience. "And gospel too; he's a good Christian boy, that one. Sure and you've heard of him?"

"Well, of course, Andrew; I know him well," Susannah said. "I like that song of his -- 'I Walk the Line'? It's--"

No, she thought suddenly, a thunderous headache rumbling up to full pound above her left eyebrow. She hadn't known him, not by that name. Of course she hadn't; she'd gone out in maybe sixty-five and the Johnny Cash show hadn't been till seventy, the way Jake and Eddie told it, sixty-nine at the latest. And the song, that had come after, seventy-one, -two, she didn't know. She could hear someone talking at the back of her head, that bitch Detta Walker mayhap, but couldn't make out the words.

"Are you feeling okay, Miz Holmes?" Andrew asked, gently, solicitously -- and then, with a little more hesitation, "Is it one of your megrims?"

"Just a little touch, Andrew, so it is," Susannah said, and it was, already fading, along with whatever thought had prompted it. "Mayhap you could crack the windows a little? 'Tis lovely fresh out and the breeze will do me a wonder."

"Aye, aye," Andrew agreed, reaching for the winder, "that it will. Sure and it's a lovely, crisp morning for you today."

He continued on in this vein, his accent making yeh of you, mornen of morning, until his voice had merged with the rumble of the engine and the bustle of the city in curious symphony. It was busy out. Deep snow, went the New York thought, was no reason to drive any slower than you could. Flurries thrown up by passing vehicles struck their windows, even slipped through the crack with the fresh, spice-scented breeze, though Susannah didn't let Andrew close it up, just brushed the glittering flecks away.

There was an Allen Drury novel next to her, the new one she had been meaning to read, That Summer. She picked it up, thumbed through the pages, then returned to the beginning to read. Andrew continued to talk. New York continued to blare and grumble, chime and shout. More flecks came fluttering in and Susannah brushed them away again from her legs, without comment or complaint; the cold was a little touch of sharpness that brought out the simple pleasure of the moment, as a touch of salt might improve a savory dish.

The glittering drops fell unnoticed to the floor and melted together.

 

7.

"I've talked with Piper," Elmer said.

Jake looked up at his father, wondering if he was supposed to make some sort of comment. There was a smile on his father's face, and it wasn't the sort of smile Jake ever remembered being there before; it wasn't the hard smile of the master of the kill, the sharp smile of a man who was dipped once more into the powdery for-specials, or the satisfied smile of a man secure with his appreciable lot in life. It was, in fact, quite kind and paternal, and so had about as much reason to be on Elmer Chambers face as a fish in the desert.

His mother, who was sat next to him in her living room rocker, though they were in his father's office, squeezed his hand, reassuringly. She smiled down at him with clear, focused eyes, and Jake thought, oh, shit, this is it -- Sunnyvale, here I come. Basket weaving every morning, electroshock right after lunch.

"It's okay, Jake," she said, patting the hand she held, and Jake gaped at her. Jake. Not Johnny, or John, but Jake. "We understand that you've been put under a lot of pressure."

There was a radio on somewhere nearby. It was playing A Boy Named Sue. Jake nodded absently.

"That's right," Elmer boomed. "And you've stood up to it admirably, son; admirably, I say. Why, I myself have had the exam jitters. It's nothing. All is forgiven."

"Th-thanks?" Jake offered, bemused.

Elmer chuckled magnanimously. "And so I have the perfect solution. The way I see it, son, is that it's all about scheduling."

There were small piles of paper all over his desk -- Jake recognized the top of one as being his final English paper -- held down by thumb-sized, amorphous, grey-white crystal paperweights. They sort of reminded Jake of those puzzles you get, where all the little pieces slot together to make a big lock or large star, though the paperweights weren't quite the regular and each one had a station logo in it, if you turned your head right. Like those boards people had to move soldiers around on, to keep tracks of wars, that's what it was like. His English paper was under the logo for ABC Family, and Jake had to bite off a laugh.

"All work and no play makes Jake a dull boy," Elmer was saying. He clapped his hands together and then rubbed them, palm to palm. "So we're going to lighten your work load at the school -- that French teacher of yours says he can do tutoring on weekends, to spread it out more. We've increased your bowling privileges and your allowance too. Time to start investing!"

He chortled at this, and Jake's mother smiled, nudging Jake in a friendly sort of way. Isn't he a laugh? that nudge said. Isn't he a hoot?

"I've taken time off," his mother said, as if there was something she could be taking time off from; banging her masseuse, perhaps. "I'm going to be here when you get home, at least half the week. Your father too."

"Bonding time is good for us all," Elmer said weightily, as if he had personally invented the concept of families pulling together. "You can show us your papers, and we can help you with your homework -- isn't that right, Greta?"

"Oh, yes," said Mrs Shaw, who was sat on Jake's other side. "And then we'll put them up on the refrigerator, like we do; isn't that right, 'Bama?"

"Right as rain," his mother put in, smiling genteelly down at him, and squeezing his hand again. "There'll be time for all your friends. They can come around here, or you can sleep over with them; whatever you need, Jake, that's what we'll give to you. Because we love you."

"I love thee," Mrs Shaw echoed.

Elmer nodded, saying gruffly, "I love you, son."

Jake nodded, said, "This isn't real," and opened his eyes. There was pure darkness over head, no stars, no moon, and when he looked side to side, the others were barely visible, just thick shapes that could have easily been bumps in the ground, folds in the thick hide of the elephant, not people at all. His quick questing hands found Oy, and the bumbler let out a quiet, inquisitive whine. Jake stroked him, the dream already all but faded from his mind.

It was only when Jake buried his face in the bumbler's fur that he realized his cheeks were streaked with tears.

 

8.

"Hile, gunslinger," Cuthbert called cheerfully when Roland returned to their camp, carrying the fresh kill.

"Hist," Roland swore at him. "Use the names we're travelling under, even among ourselves."

"And us not a day out of Gilead, dear Dearborn," Cuthbert said reprovingly.

Roland ignored this, crossing to the fire and Alain, and between them they set to making dinner, accepting bowls and cups and cutlery as Cuthbert passed them. Each time he leaned forward, the rook skull swung around his neck and firelight caught in the dead hollows of its eyes, so that by the time they were done cooking it had grown an annoyance beyond Roland's ability to not comment.

"Lose that damn thing, would you?"

Cuthbert mumbled something agreeable around a thick mouthful of stew, but Roland knew that when they left, the rook skull would be riding once more on the horn of Cuthbert's saddle. It was not, he felt, a good omen; but Cuthbert would not be persuaded and Roland had not the heart for yet another argument.

It was a pleasant night indeed, balmy and clear, and though Alain soon slept, filling the night's quiet with his snores, Cuthbert and Roland remained awake, watching the skies. There Old Star rose, marking the north, and Old Mother too, giving them east, and from them Roland could mark the direction to Mejis, to Hambry and Delgado and the counting to come. Cuthbert, too, looked the same way, his fine skin pale-golden in dying flames of their camp-fire, hair gone black as the night, eyes twinkling like stars. The skull -- the Lookout -- rose and fell with each breath. In his hands he held a piece of milky crystal or broken glass, something no doubt picked up on the trail, for Cuthbert was an inveterate collector of rubbish.

"Oddities," Cuthbert corrected airily when Roland voiced these thoughts and then, grinning, added, "It's why I keep you around, Roland."

The light from the fire died. In Cuthbert's restless hands, the turning stone was a pearlescent shade, now smooth, now rough. It made Roland think suddenly of Marten, for reasons he could not have articulated, and he plucked it easily from Cuthbert's grip with his uncanny speed.

"Hai!" Cuthbert exclaimed, startled, and then he lunged for Roland, laughing. Roland dropped the crystal in order to grab him and they went rolling, Cuthbert trying to get over him to get it back, Roland trying to stop him.

A few minutes in the dust and they gave up all pretensions of doing anything but just wrestling for its own sake, like they were eight, seven, six again and in the stables, long before Hax, before Cort, even, just boys at play. Back and forth they went, first Cuthbert, then Roland getting the upper hand, Roland the faster but Cuthbert the smarter, not entirely unevenly matched -- until a particular vigorous tussle lead to the cord snapping, and the lookout going flying. Cuthbert pulled back with a loud noise of protest, quick eyes marking its path to where it fell against the ashes of the fire.

"Bastard!"

"You'll wake Alain," Roland said, though he was grinning.

"Sure and he'd sleep through the last trumpet," Cuthbert said, and pounced again, digging his fingers into Roland's ribs, tickling hard.

Roland gasped and shoved at him, and they went rolling again, away from the fire, out down the cool, slightly damp glass, while the sky wheeled overhead, until finally Roland had Cuthbert down on his back and was lying on him, full weight, to hold him still.

"Cry off," he commanded, breathlessly. Cuthbert tried to struggle up and Roland pushed him back down. "Cry off, for your--"

"I yield," Cuthbert laughed, grinning up at him, dark eyes full of moon. "I yield!"

Roland nodded once, and rolled off, they lay together, side by side, touching at shoulder and leg, breathing hard. The racing of Roland's heart had slowed to something more usual when Cuthbert rolled onto his side, pushing his head up on one elbow, and grinned down at him.

"I can think of a better use to put my hand to, anyway," he said, reaching for the ties of Roland's britches.

Roland closed his eyes, putting his own hands behind his head, feeling the cool of the night against his sweat flushed skin, then the rough, familiar warmth of Cuthbert's hand on him, and he smiled through all that followed, until they were both boneless and limp against each other, and Cuthbert was pressing a kiss against his shoulder and bidding him goodnight, stumbling back to his roll and asleep as soon as his head touched down.

Wiping his hands off on the grass, Roland returned to his own sleeping place. The dropped crystal was there, and he tossed it towards the fire and the skull, for Cuthbert to take or leave as he would, before settling on his own roll. He was satisfied and easy and the sky was beautiful, a million celestial objects dancing, and as he dropped off to sleep he absently reached his right hand down to check his slug-horn was still at his hip.

His fingers -- just the two of them now -- touched hair. He blinked up at the blank overhang on the sky, for a moment still lost in the moment between sleep and awakening, and looked down, expecting somehow to see Cuthbert, or even Alain (both dead now, long dead and gone everywhere but in his memories and his dreams), and found his short-cut hand resting on Jake's head.

The boy had been on his left when Roland went to sleep; he must have climbed over Roland to get to where he was, on the side where he wouldn't be in the way if Roland needed to go fast for his revolver. It was well done, Roland thought. He's a smart boy.

Jake stirred a little under his touch.

"Dreams?" Roland asked.

Jake nodded against him, not looking up. "Sorry."

"It's fine," Roland said softly, and squeezed the boy's shoulder before setting on his own head back. The sky was cloud-dark above them, the boy a warm weight against his side. He closed eyes. He slept.

And he dreamed of long ago and far away, of boys and horses and guns in a world that had not yet moved on quite so completely.

 

9.

Eddie spent a long time that day on the stoop, whittling. Henry had ridden his ass about it for a while but, when Eddie had explained how he was making a sling-shot, making them a sling-shot, Henry had paused with his Fosters half-way to his mouth, his shit-eating grin had turned considering, and he'd finally given Eddie the go-ahead nod, like God granting the waters leave to divide. It was almost done, all but done, actually done, then totally, really, finally done, and then done just a little more because it had to be goddamn perfect or Henry would be pissed. Hell, Henry would give him a damn rupture and no mistake, for Eddie letting Henry get caught up in his sissy boy shit. So Eddie finished it slow, for Henry, stringing it double stranded, using a five-finger-discounted leather cuff for the cup.

They went out down to nearest vacant lot, a garbage dump of a place, overgrown with weeds and strewn with broken bricks, old cans, newspapers, picked over animal corpses. Henry brought the beer with him. Eddie did the fast-shoe shuffle around him on the way, ducking this way and that to snatch up likely looking stones and pebbles. He found old cans too, and set them up on a broken wall that might once have been part of a whole room but now barely came up to Eddie's chest, and he was by no means a tall kid, not yet anyway. Henry opened the beer. There was a radio playing in some nearby store, a real oldie, Folsom Prison Blues. Eddie stretched the slingshot in time to its beat, testing the spring of the elastic, making sure the cup wouldn't slip.

Henry drank, snatched the slingshot, drank some more, then tossed his empty can aside. There were three more at his feet -- Henry had had to give the old hobo one to get him to buy them and he drunk too more himself -- but he ignored them for now, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand and then waving it imperiously at Eddie for ammo. Eddie obliged, and Henry set his stone, eyeing the range. He pulled back. He shifted right, just a little. He let fly.

A can twirled neatly on the spot, and then fell, a hole punched neatly in its front and ripped roughly through its back.

"Hol-ee fuckin shee-it!" Henry hollered. Eddie laughed and cheered. "Not bad, little brother," Henry said, drawling the vowel in bad out to ridiculous lengths. "Not baaaaaaaad at all." He kicked the beers Eddie's way. "Hell, hang yourself on one."

Eddie took one with awe, because Henry never shared that easy, not ever, and cracked a can before it could be taken back, taking a long gulp and then coughing and cursing at the foul taste. Henry just laughed at him, and Eddie drank again, shuddering but feeling great at the same time, older and wiser and better, though certainly not older or wiser or better than Henry. No, never that.

Of the nine cans up, Henry got down six clean and tapped a seventh enough to wobble it after two wild shots had slipped either side to an accompanied "Fuck-monkey!" He grabbed himself a beer after, and sent Eddie to set them up again with a, "See you beat that."

Eddie found the cans. He picked them up gingerly, avoiding the sharp edges, not just of them, but of the broken, murky glass on the ground as well. The cans, he set back on the wall, turned so Henry's holes went through them left to right, not front to back. The glass he kicked sideways with his sneakers into a rough, circular patch, iridescent grey-white against the dirt and dead earth. He came back to Henry after, cheeks already flushed with the beer, feeling loose and easy.

He missed his first shot completely, and they both cracked up laughing, tears streaming from their eyes.

"That one doesn't even count," Henry said generously, slapping Eddie so hard on the back he actually went down on one knee to stop falling completely. Eddie laughed at this too, scrambling back up, and Henry tugged him back, saying, "I shot from here," though it was actually a good four feet further back.

Eddie raised the slingshot. I aim with my eye, he heard a voice in his head say, and realized it was his own. He felt cool, suddenly; the heat of the beer washed away, everything washed away, but the stones and the sling and the targets. He fired. Again. Again. Not waiting for the hits, just snatching another stone with uncanny speed and letting fly. Three cans went down easy, four, five, six. Henry went silent as anything beside him, too suddenly, and too slow for Eddie to stop his hands doing their work, to stop the seventh going down, just as sweet and easy.

The radio played the final chords of It Ain't Me, Babe, Cash doing Dylan. There was a heavy, accusing silence.

"Man, I fluked the fuck out of that one," Eddie said, putting a whole lot of relief in his voice. "I thought I'd missed for sure. The wind must have caught it or something. Goddamn!"

"Yeah," said Henry, smiling again, though the day was still as anything. "Must have."

Eddie missed the last two cans, both times by just a little, so Henry wouldn't think he was letting him win, so Henry would clap him on the shoulder and say hard luck, shithead, the way Eddie liked. Missing was okay. Eddie was cool with it. He had his slingshot, and his brother, and his beer, and it was a nice bright day. Clouds covered the sky, completely but thinly too, catching the sun behind them and turning into suffuse, pale-grey-white. Eddie fancied he could almost see a rainbow sheen to them too, faint, glimmering waves of almost color. Perhaps it was the beer.

The radio started playing Don't Take Your Guns to Town. It was a goddamn revival, church of Johnny Cash. Another good one from the Man in Black.

"Not bad, little brother," Henry said again, cracking open the last two cans, taking a deep draught of one, and shoving the other out at Eddie.

"I don't know, Henry," Eddie said, but he took the can. Of course he did. Not taking the can would have made Henry nervous, and Eddie didn't like Henry nervous. Henry was there to look out for him, after all. Henry was.

"Pussy," Henry said, without heat.

Eddie flipped him off and drank.

 

10.

It was the plate that caught Susannah's attention as Andrew pushed her through -- she wasn't sure, Macy's, maybe. She was not even sure it was her own attention that got caught, but suspected, rather, that it was Detta Walker that saw it, not china, nor white with blue webbing, but close enough to be a forspecial anyway.

They'd been shopping for a while, that sort of lazy, purposeless, meandering shopping that only the very poor and very rich can occupy themselves, the former because they know they can have nothing, the latter because they can have everything and so nothing matters. It was pleasant, mindless, and perhaps not something that someone such as she, so caught up in social justice, should have spent her time on. Still, it had been a long time, and everyone should take a break now and then, she thought, to restock and recuperate, to clean and polish and put their parts back together. And so here they were, and here it was, gleaming at her.

"Why, that's awful lovely," said Andrew, following her gaze. "Is it mother-of-pearl, do you think?"

"No," said Susannah, hearing herself speak as if from a great distance, her eyes still fixed on the plate. "It's too lightly colored for that. It's some kind of glass, I think, or tinted crystal."

Somewhere on the store radio, someone was singing, "Take care of my baby and tell him darling, that I'm going home on the evening train."

As she reached for the plate, Susannah realized it wasn't quite a plate as she had thought, certainly not flat, but more of a very shallow bowl. The underside was a perfect smooth curve. The topside rose to a rippled ridge that put Susannah in mind a circle of just forming icicles. She ran her finger along the edge, and the bowl-plate let out a note -- no, chimes, high and clear and beautiful and jangling, somehow, setting her nerves on edge like biting into something unexpectedly cold. Her reflection in the plate seemed all at once a complete stranger, a horrible, desperate, needy thing, and she let out a cry, shoving away.

It was dark. Eddie was lying beside her, mumbling a little in his sleep. Her shoving hands were scrambling in the earth. She pulled them back, sighing and brushing the crumbles away. It was good earth, not too wet or dry, not too much clay or too little, not too loose or too thick but perfectly meaty, with flecks of bone-white in the rich gravy brown. Fertile ground, Susannah thought. We're sleeping on fertile ground. Her hand touched her belly. She slept again.

"Miz Holmes," Andrew asked, tentatively. "It, ah, well, it seemed like you went away for a moment there."

"Oh, just lost in my thoughts," she said, idly. Hadn't there been something she'd been looking at? She couldn't remember. Nothing on the shelves caught her eye. She nodded to Andrew. "Perhaps we should stop for some refreshments?" He brightened at that and agreed, pushing her towards the exit and the small cafe not but two blocks away, even as she was saying, "A nice cup of tea will brighten me right up, I'm sure of it."

But when she looked down again, she found her fingers were covered in dirt.

 

11.

It's better this time, Jake thought, and then didn't know why. What was better than what? He couldn't remember.

New York surrounded him. No parents, no Piper school. Just the city and a lovely day to see it in. He walked past cops and they didn't bother him, save for a few, yeah, keep walking kid, glances. The other pedestrians, streaming both ways on the sidewalk, they didn't bother him either. Sure, the businessmen tried to walk through him like he wasn't there, and twice had people -- one, an Asian guy in his twenties in a black string tie, the other a pale faced white kid maybe not more than a year or two older than himself -- offered to sell him weed, but that didn't bother him either.

A fat, friendly looking black woman with the biggest afro Jake had ever seen, tried to sell him on the idea of the man Jesus, and then laughed heartily before he could say a thing, said, "Your face is worth a thousand words, sugar; you keep that faith you have, you hear? You keep it true."

"I will, ma'am," he'd said, though he was pretty sure what faith he had certainly wasn't in the man Jesus. He tried to remember the last time he'd been in a church, seemed to recall eating a popkin sat on the steps of one a few months back, and then decided, no, that had been a courthouse, hadn't it? Or had it been a bank building? He really couldn't remember. He'd still had the key back then.

He was walking down Second Avenue. Of course he was. The Manhattan Restaurant of the Mind stood ahead of him, with it's Today's Specials chalkboard hanging the door. Jake didn't go in. There were no words on the sign, just a drawing, the rear end of an elephant. The big end, Jake thought, and shivered, despite the pleasant warmth of the day. He walked on.

There was a cocktail lounge called Redemption, which made Jake snort, a dark hole of the place, the windows above covered with light-grey card. He walked on. A grey stone building rose on his left, the perfect grid of the blocks broken by the just slightly too big windows. On the opposite side of the street, painted bright red, was the Turtle Bay Grill and Lounge. It looked to Jake more like a firehouse than a restaurant. He walked on, crossing Fifty-second, expecting to see Chew Chew Mama's on the corner, but instead there was the Old Print Gallery, its dark windows all but opaque. He walked on.

It was bright, almost hazy with the sun. People saw him and nodded a hello and walked on without bothering him. A street vendor tossed him a bottle of Pepsi as he was closing up -- "Empty is better than just one, rattling around," the man said with a grin -- and Jake thanked him, drinking as he went. It was cold and sweet -- in a plastic bottle, not the glass he was expecting, slippery damp with condensation under his fingers -- and good. Everything was good; maybe not as brilliant as his day on French leave, but getting there.

A good day to light out for the territories, Jake thought -- then a car backfired, an old, beat-up jalopy come crawling through the intersection despite the lights, the grizzled old driver flipping off the other cars with their screaming horns and mugging toothlessly at Jake who was panting with fright, bottle spinning at his feet, his hand scrabbling uselessly at the space where his Ruger wasn't. Of course it wasn't. Susannah was carrying it.

There was a restaurant called Cornerstone on the corner of Fifty-first. There was something in the window, and he dodged across the street to get a closer look, ignoring the horns and the cries of pedestrians. There was something in the window. It was a bowl, or, at least, bowl shaped, and a sort of slimy, shimmering, grey-white color. It seemed to shift constantly in ways that drew the eye, held it, almost wondrously, but wrong all the same. Jake pulled his eyes away and realized his fingers were pressed to the glass; if it hadn't been there, he was sure, they would have been pressed to the bowl. Inside the restaurant, he could see people smiling, laughing, like characters at the end of a stupid cartoon. A waiter was even waving for him to come in, for God's sake!

Jake pulled back, then shut his eyes savagely and turned, running blindly down the street, shouting apologies to anyone he bumped into. A startled scream and a squeal of brakes made him open his eyes just in time to realize he had almost plunged straight out into the next intersection, and he grabbed at a tree for balance. It had a lost pet poster pinned to it, 'Have you seen our puppy, he is a quiet little thing but beware his bite', dollar signs and a number that swam in and out and might have started nineteen or ninety-nine.

Even in the shadows of the tree, everything was bright. Too bright; there was a sort of sheen behind everything, like a backdrop on a stage or the light of a rear projector, an odd, underlying pearlescent glow. He found himself thinking suddenly of Glinda, the Good Witch -- the one who hadn't told Dorothy she'd had the way out all along, who'd sent her to dethrone the Wizard and kill the Bad Witches, and ruled after. Good witch. Good day.

Good was not the same as true, Jake thought. Not by a long shot.

 

12.

"Sleeping in the crystal, she was," Sheemie insisted. "Say truey-true."

He was sitting on his mule between their horses, Roland at his left, Cuthbert at his right, his eyes wide and sincere as he told his story of being caught out in a storm and seeking shelter in a nearby cave. Roland's eyes were cold. Cuthbert, still bearing bruises for he has faced Cort and won his guns not even a day before this, is grinning, filled with adventure.

"All burned she was, right horrid," Sheemie said, "but she were breathing, so she was. Saw it, I did, and her babby in her arms, going up-up with it, so he was. You believe me, don't you?"

"Our Roland doesn't doubt you speak the truth of what you saw," Cuthbert told Sheemie, though he was looking at Roland when he said it. "He just doubts what you saw was true."

"There are glamors in the caves," Roland said, but not quickly enough, nor with enough authority, not with Cuthbert itching with his new title and guns.

Besides, arguing came as naturally to Cuthbert as breathing. Roland's was a plodding intelligence, stomping into problems head on and pushing and pushing and pushing until they gave, but Cuthbert was (ka) like the wind, like the wild autumn storms, coming at you from every angle, front and back, above and below, sideways and twistways. There was no directive he couldn't, and wouldn't, turn inside out eight ways to Sunday before he'd let it drop.

Sheemie, at least, got left behind; Roland managed that compromise. Alain and Jamie took him off, leaving Roland and Cuthbert to ride on alone. The caves themselves were no more than an hour's leisurely ride, still well within the borders of Gilead, hollows worn in the hills by hungry underground wells. The world was thin there; not quite a thinny, but pushing on it, might even be it in a handful of decades. The world was moving on.

They left their horses at the foot of the place and climbed the rest of the way on foot, Cuthbert with nary a wince, though Roland was sure he must be feeling it. The scree was loose, but there were large stones enough to climb on and they made quick time, reaching the cave entrance in minutes. Roland took the lead inside, and Cuthbert let him. Neither drew their revolvers, though Cuthbert was fast enough that that little mattered, Roland so fast it barely mattered at all. At first, the cave got darker as expected, and Roland was about to tell Cuthbert they'd come ka-mai, on a fool's errand indeed, when he realized there was a downwards twist in the cave, and a grayish light leaking out around it. Shoulder to shoulder, with barely cautious speed, they took the drop.

"Gods be kind," Cuthbert whispered with a sort of awed dismay.

Sheemie had not been wrong, nor taken by a glamour. There was indeed a woman lying there, in an open topped crystal casket. Short blond hairs topped one side of her head. The other was bare and pink, mottled with burns that stretched down her face and disappeared under the simple white shift, reappearing again to run down one gnarled arm, to twist around both legs and make mockeries of the feet beyond. There was a baby in the crook of one arm, a handsome little chap, with a proper mop of blond hair. In the other crook was something like a geode, smooth as pearl on the outside and rising more than half of a sphere's curve into spikes, like an egg with its shell cracked and its top spooned off. Crystals grew together inside, twisting and merging, slowly filling the space with impossible depth. The grey-white light was coming from it in pulses that matched the woman's slow breathing.

Roland crossed to the bed, for it was a bed, no coffin this, and with that intuition that served as his version of the touch driving him, grabbed up the crystal -- gods was it heavy! -- and slung it away, further into the cave. It made a sound like a bell when it hit, like chimes as it rolled away. He ignored it, touched the woman instead, expecting cold, finding warmth. The baby, a boy, stirred, and blinked sleepy, bombardier blue eyes at him. Roland snatched the baby easily from his resting place and passed him to Cuthbert, who gaped at him, but took the boy readily enough, rocking him gently and cooing. Roland put his hands to the woman's shoulders and shook her, once, hard.

"Shouldn't you kiss her?" Cuthbert asked, in a tone that tried for joking and fell short.

"Nay," Roland said curtly, staring down at her, waiting, waiting, waiting.

Eyes slowly opened. Gray eyes, eyes the color of fog, of a gunmetal sky. They met his, and scarred lips spread into smile. An arm rose -- and then she seemed to come awake all at once, her hands a blur as she came up off the casket, reaching for his gun even as her eyes swung around the cave. He'd barely reached to catch her wrist when her eyes alighted on the baby, safe in Cuthbert's grip, and she relaxed all at once.

"There," she said.

"Aye," Roland agreed, feeling, hoping, knowing as she turned to him, as her eyes met his. Knowing suddenly of the fire and the darkness, of the charms and the way-station, and of what she had been given over to, to pay for Ka. Understanding how this must be, how this had to be. Understanding what had been returned to him, understanding that there would be water if Gan willed it, and Gan willed it.

"Bird and bear and hare and fish," she said, crying now, smiling too. "Am I still thee's greatest wish?"

Voice-breaking, tears in his own eyes, he named her, for once and for true. "Susan!"

 

13.

"You know what I don't miss?" Eddie said.

"Your dick?" Henry asked cheerfully. He took another slug of beer.

"Fuck you and the horse you rode in on," Eddie said without rancor. "No, I don't miss being drunk."

"You wouldn't be drunk if you weren't such a fucking lightweight, sissy-boy," Henry said, still in that cheerful tone, and held his can out. Eddie stared at it for a moment, and then clanged his against it. "Right on."

They drank in silence for a while. It was silence, Eddie realized. The radio had stopped. Perhaps it had stopped some time back. Perhaps time itself had stopped. Everything seemed slow and hazy and unreal. He could have been here forever. He could be here forever. They had plenty of cans, and it was warm (hadn't it been winter? nah, couldn't have been) and the day was damn fine. He looked up, watching the grey-white clouds piling up from the horizon in every direction, building upwards to where the sun still shone bright in a wheel of blue.

"I miss feeling sure," Eddie said. "I miss feeling real, you know?"

Henry considered this seriously for a moment, then started laughing so hard he spilled his beer.

"Oh, fuck you," Eddie said, but he was grinning too.

They drank. They shot the breeze. They shot the breeze and they drank. There was no time. There was no memory. There was no past, no future, maybe not even a present. Just the haze white-grey and the soft warmth. Just an endless iridescent almost moment of something like dreamy perfection somewhere in the endless vagaries between sober and drunk, and Eddie--

The whole word shook with the force of it, with a feeling too big and complex, that left him gasping, clutching at his heart, a name in his head and on his lips. Susan. Susan! No.

"Susannah."

"Wassat?" Henry asked.

"Suze! Jesus Christ, I forgot all about Suze," Eddie whined, staggering to his feet. He felt suddenly sober again; worse, hung-over, like his body just skipped forward a few hours, from buzzed to buggered. He pulled away from Henry, shaking his head, trying to clear it.

"Have another drink," Henry said belligerently, pushing himself up and coming after Eddie, waving the can. "Don't be a pussy."

Eddie knocked the can away, and Henry whined in turn. Eddie ignored him, moving away, finding himself back at the wall they were shooting cans off of. He grabbed hold of it for balance. Everything was hazy. It dragged at him, submerged his thoughts into its foggy grip. What else had he forgotten? What else had he missed? He could hear himself in his head, except he sounded like Roland, and he was telling himself, use your eyes, for your father's sake, use your eyes. He pushed himself up from the wall, past it. He looked.

There was something -- where he had pushed the glass, he remembered, with his sneakers. The white-grey round. Except it wasn't just a circle now. It had grown. Melted and twisted together and grown out of the spot, laid down in layers, maybe, like some monstrous pearl. But that was wrong too. It wasn't complete, not yet. It looked like a bowling boll with the top pounded in. It made his eyes hurt but, when Eddie looked up, he realized the shape of the clear space in the sky was the exact match of the broken shape in the top of the ball, the one the clouds were pushing into -- and looking down again, he saw the ball was still growing, knitting itself back together and pulsing like some pearly heart.

"What is this?" Eddie asked. "What the fuck is this?"

"Hey, man," Henry whined, and Eddie knew that voice; it was the one Henry used just before he broke down, before he admitted to everything, claimed his sins and poured out his shame, so that Eddie would do anything, had done anything, to make it stop, to get his big brother back, the way he should be.

Henry gave up his whole life you, his mother cried in his head. His whole life.

"Yeah," Eddie said. "You did. Head lopped right the fuck off. So come on, Mister Eminent Junkie, Mister Great Sage." He yanked his weapon from his belt. "Come on, big brother. Tell me what the fuck this is?"

But Henry's eyes were wider than everything, afraid as anything, staring fixedly at Eddie's hand and, when Eddie looked down, he saw not the slingshot, but a beyond massive revolver with a sandalwood grip.

On the steel, the sigul of the line of Eld gleamed pure and perfect White.

 

14.

A fist closed around her heart and squeezed hard. Susannah cried out, falling forward, almost sliding right out of her chair. Her hands moved by themselves, pulling her back, setting her right. Electricity crackled under her skin.

Eddie, she thought, it's Eddie -- cried his name, "Eddie!" -- and then, on top of that, no, it's all of us, Eddie and Jake, Roland and Oy, and me, it's got me, it's got us!

She tried to waken, as she had before, felt the world slip and slide around her, felt the others helping, Odetta and Detta and (others) pulling and pushing as she struggled. Andrew slipped in and out. The whole world slipped in and out. It couldn't grasp her, not properly, but it wouldn't let her go either. Manhattan flashed like a strobe around her, buildings flicking into pearly haze, haze flicking into buildings.

"I will not," she cried to the world, not knowing what she was denying, but denying it all the same. "I am Susannah, daughter of Dan; I have not forgotten the face of my father, and I WILL NOT!"

IT'S SO NICE, a voice came whispering inside and outside her, soft and solicitous and squirming horribly. IT'S SO EASY. IT'S SO CLEAN. IT'S SO QUICK. IT'S SO PURE, SUSANNAH, SO GLORIOUSLY PURE.

She pushed herself away from the table. Andrew came to her automatically. He pushed her back, then cursed, and pulled her away again.

"Miz Holmes," he gasped, forcing the words out, "I don't-- There's a voice in my head!"

"Fight it, Andrew," she cried, searching for an exit, hands on her wheels, pumping. Andrew, still holding the handles of her chair, was pulled along with her.

Manhattan bent crazily. Straights that should have been flat as anything were curving, rising in every direction, buildings becoming crushed into each other as they smashed into a suddenly solid horizon, a pearl white-gray horizon, a dome, that rose almost all the way above her, that rose further with every second.

"It's a dream," she yelled to Andrew. "It's just a dream. How do you wake up from a dream?"

"It-- It's talking to me," Andrew moaned. "It's saying I'm not real, that I'm part of it, that you will be part of it too."

"You might be a part of it," Susannah allowed, "but it made you from me, Andrew, don't you see? It used my memories to form this place, and so it is bound by my rules, and I say that you will not. Say it. Say it, for your father's sake!"

"I, I will, I will not," Andrew said, voice trembling with the strain of it. "I will not. I will not!" They cried it together. "I WILL NOT!"

"Do you hear me, whatever you are?" Susannah asked, though she had an inkling, was thinking of grapefruit. "We will not be part of you! Life is not perfect! It is hard and cruel and we will stand and be true, all the way to the Dark Tower if ka wills it. We will stand, you bastard!"

YOU WILL SLEEP, it said implacably. YOU WILL SLEEP AND DREAM UNTIL YOUR BODIES ARE WORM FOOD AND YOUR SOULS ARE MINE.

"Sleep," said Susannah, and then, "An alarm. We need an alarm."

She started wheeling herself towards a shop and then Andrew took over, pushing her harder, changing their direction so they were headed to an antique store. Susannah crowed her pleasure. They burst through the doors, still picking up speed, and she pointed.

"There! With the piper's kits and drums!"

"I see it," Andrew said. "We'll--"

The store manager, moving impossibly sprightly for a man whose hair was as paper white as his skin, lunged out of nowhere at them. Susannah's hand dropped uselessly to the gun she wasn't carrying, and he was on them, and then Andrew was on him. The two went crashing into a case of ancient muskets, weapons falling.

Guns, guns, everywhere, Susannah thought wildly, and not a bullet to shoot.

"Go, Miz Holmes," Andrew cried. "I can hold him. Go!"

She did, wheeling hard until the chair caught in the too small aisles and then flinging herself from it, crawling forward on hands and stumps with best speed. She found the drums, discarded them, found a bugle that sounded flat, tossed that aside, and then saw it. A slug horn, old as anything, but oiled and gleaming. She snatched the bugle back up, flung it hard, and caught the knocked down slug horn easily in one hand.

"Sleepers AWAKEN!" she cried, set the horn to her lips, and blew.

 

15.

"I want to wake up now," Jake said. "I want to wake up."

He doesn't. Nothing changes. There's a whole rack of Clay Blaisdell westerns in the window of the nearest store. A dozen different cowboys stare merciless out at him, their hands on their guns. He twisted away to find himself face to face with a poster on the wall, dirty, old and ripped, but words clear:

Once upon a time there was an engineer,
Choo Choo Charlie was his name, we hear.
He had an engine and he sure had fun.
He used GOOD & PLENTY candy to make his train run.

The poster began to bulge towards him, the locomotive pushing its way out, and Jake yelled with startled disgust, stumbled backwards, then turned and ran back the way he came. Everything grew brighter, like he was running through iridescent fog he couldn't quite see. The air got thicker, pulling at him, slowing him. He pushed forward, feet sliding, fell to his knees, started to crawl. He could hear the train, its chuff and rumble, smell the oil and the smoke, feel the heat of it on his back, see its shadow falling over him. He opened his mouth to scream.

A musical roar burst over him, shaking the world and shattering all the windows. The force pulling at him vanished and he tumbled forward, rolling over in time to see the oncoming train explode like so much ink in the air and get swept away by a wind he could see but not feel.

There was a long, startled hush. He pushed himself to his feet, moved backwards, glass crunching under his sneakers and then suddenly cutting against his moccasins. He turned again, picking his way gingerly across it, then running on the clear bits, having no idea where he was going. Why had he turned back? He should have gone on, to the vacant lot and the rose. He turned back again. Now there were people in the street. They'd gotten out of their cars. They'd started coming out of the buildings. They were all looking at him.

JAKE.

He jerked, startled. The voice had been loud, like the city itself talking, but inside his head, somehow, not outside. His name in ancient, sepulchral, gray tones.

THERE'S NO NEED TO RUN, JAKE. ISN'T IT A PERFECT DAY? HAVEN'T I GIVEN YOU BACK YOUR NEW YORK?

It made Jake think of the thinny, of the way Roland had described it talking to him, but this was worse, he realized. This was the voice of the world, the voice of the bend in the road and the light behind, the voice of the Elephant.

YOU CAN GO HOME AGAIN, JAKE. YOU CAN GO HOME TO PARENTS THAT WILL LOVE YOU, THAT WILL CARE.

"It's not real," Jake yelled. He could feel the sucking force coming back, and resisted, pushing at it with his hands, with his mind, with what Roland called the touch. "You're not real."

TO A SIMPLE SCHOOL THAT WILL TEACH YOU ALL YOU WANT, HOW YOU WANT, the voice continued implacably. NO MORE MONSTERS OR SHADOWS.

Jake clamps his hands over his ears, but it made no difference. He could hear the voice vibrating in his bones. He ran uselessly, the crowd converging to block every exit.

I'M SO TIRED OF THE SMALL DREAMS OF RABBITS AND DEER. THEY'RE BARELY SNACKS. I NEED PROPER, FILLING SUSTENANCE.

He tried to back into the shelter of a doorway, but there were people inside, pushing out, trying to grab hold of him. He lunged away, skirting under the window and more hands, finding a brick wall beyond and setting his back to it, broken glass under his feet, a radio playing 'Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This' somewhere behind him.

ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS LET YOURSELF SLEEP, the voice of the Elephant said. ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS DREAM ME WHOLE AGAIN.

"It won't even hurt," said an old Hispanic lady, smiling easily at him.

"It'll just be perfect, forever," agreed a white lady in a big pink dress that made her look like blancmange. "Your body will return to the earth from which it came, refreshing and renewing the ground, and you will live on here, forever."

"The Elephant never forgets," a white, slick-haired banker put in.

"It really is paradise," agreed a Korean kid on a bike, a delivery box at his back. "Like the best dream you ever had, never ending. It's not death. It's just sleeping in the light."

"No," said Jake flatly, pressing himself back into the wall, shooting glares at them, flicking from one to the next and back again as all the ones he wasn't looking at inched closer.

"The turtle can't help you," a dark-skinned post-woman said. "Nothing can help you."

"It'll use every part of you," the delivery kid said. "That's how it honors your sacrifice. Waste not, want not."

"Will you cry for god, John, son of Elmer? Will you cry his pardon?" the old lady asked.

The blancmange lady laughed, shaking her head mockingly. "Sad to see a boy's faith fail."

(You keep that faith you have, you hear. You keep it true.)

"I have faith," Jake said, and then again, louder, stronger. "I have faith. I have faith in the Rose and in the Tower for which it stands, I have faith in Susannah and Eddie and the Line of Eld, and, you son of a bitch, I have faith in Roland of Gilead! Oy! To me!"

The old lady reached for him, they all reached for him, but then there was a sudden flash in the air and screams and a spray of blood and Oy, landing neatly on all paws, muzzle red, teeth bared. Pausing long enough for a single shrill bark, he leapt up again, fangs sinking into an outstretched arm. Jake ducked low, snatching up broken shards of glass, throwing them hard into the crowd, aiming for eyes and throats, for bellies where he could, and legs, aiming for the soft places and the weak and those that would hurt, aiming and hitting. Oy was a dervish, lunging and biting, biting and lunging, and Jake grabbed and threw, and there was blood, god, there was so much blood, but still they were being driven back, closed in on, slowing the horde but not stopping them.

"Dream a little dream of," the radio sang out, and caught, skipped back on itself, did it again, "dream a little, dream a little dream of, dream a little dream of, dream a little--"

This isn't fair, Jake thought desperately. I already did this once -- twice, even. I shouldn't have to do it again. I shouldn't have to keep doing it over and over, goddamn you. Wasn't it enough? Didn't I learn my lesson, when I could taste my own shit, when he let me fall? Haven't I been true? Haven't I?!

Tilting his head back, he screamed the name to the grey, pearlescent sky. "ROLAND!"

 

16.

They had kissed and kissed again, made what love they could, and then Susan had brought Roland to Cuthbert and the babe, and he had held it, held him, held his son.

"He looks just like you," Cuthbert said, smiling fit to burst. "Wrinkled and ugly." He laughed and dodged away at Susan's laughing swing.

"He's beautiful," said Roland. "What have you called him?"

"After I was pulled from the fire, still alive but only just, I was delivered to the Manni folk and their healing ways, where he was born, safe and whole, thanks to their medicines and magics. Thereafter, with Mejis still set against me, I was sent on to thee," Susan said. "For we are ka-tet, are we not? We share khef."

"Aye, lady," Cuthbert agreed with uncommon seriousness. "We are one from many. Tell us the name."

"I called him Jake," she said.

There came a thunder at that moment, a deep bass note, rumbling out of the deeper cave, on and on, higher and higher, until it brought with it a name, his name, screamed in terror and hope and need, screamed, "ROLAND!"

"Gods!" Roland cried, almost dropping the baby. Cuthbert took him quick as Roland reeled. "Jake!"

(Go then. There are other worlds than these.)

"He sees it," Cuthbert said, sad and happy all at once, bouncing the baby in his eyes. "Doesn't he, wee one? So he does; yar, so he does."

"This isn't real," Roland said, and it hurt so to say it. "You're neither real. You died, both of you."

"Death is not the end," Susan said.

"And we are real, of a sort," Cuthbert agreed. "We are a part of it--"

"--but we are a much greater part of thee," Susan said, "and so we come to this moment free."

The horn came again. The scream came again. Roland pulled back in an agony of indecision.

"You can not hold onto us," Cuthbert said.

"You should not," Susan said.

"I can not leave thee again," Roland said. "Nor you, Cuthbert. I'm not brave enough."

Cuthbert made scoffing noises, and the baby giggled.

"I will be brave for the both of us," Susan said, and she was pressing a gun into his left hand. "Go to him, Roland. Stay with him, if you can. Love him, love them, and let them love thee."

"Go," called Cuthbert, "and cry our names at the base of the Dark Tower."

"I love you," Roland said to Cuthbert. "I love thee," he said to Susan. "I will always love thee, be it a thousand years, a million until we meet in the clearing at the end of the path, I will love thee still."

Cuthbert was laughing and crying. "Go, Roland, for your father's sake."

"Go!" Susan cried, and the sound was caught somehow, made louder, larger, ringing with echoes of Jake's cry and something else, something older and brighter and White.

Roland went, running, and then suddenly the cave was a field, was the Drop, and there were horses, a horse, Rusher, and he swung up until the saddle on the run. The air was hazy, thick, the color of pearls. He looked back once. Susan was burning, Cuthbert was blood drenched, but they stood resolute, arm in arm, waving him on, and he went. There was a cry and he followed it, followed it ka-me, crashing over and through all that came before him, pushing on, until something broke around him with a sound like glass at Rusher was thundering down a New York street.

His gun sounded, impossible loud. The horn sounded. The whole world sounded. Jake cried his name with wonder, snatching a barking Oy up as Roland rode down on them. Leaning over in the saddle, he threw out an arm and Jake leaped into it, swinging himself onto the horse in front of Roland, Oy held safe and tight. Rusher leapt up, over the crowd, trampling down those who tried to stop him. Jake cheered. Oy barked. The horn sounded. The gun boomed.

"For Gilead," Roland roared, and Jake cried, "For the White!"

Wheeling Rusher around, they charged for the edge of the world.

 

17.

The noise was loud, beyond loud. He heard it with his bones, not his ears, a horn like the deep bass note of the Big Bang, guns like cannons, the thunder of hooves the world's biggest, most apocalyptic storm. And the voice, god, the voice, stabbing into his brain, howling and screaming with rage and something that Eddie was certain was a touch of fear. Henry heard it too, clutching at his ears, then letting his hands drop and falling to his knees when they made no difference.

I WOULD HAVE LOVED YOU, the unholy voice screamed. I WOULD HAVE KEPT YOU SAFE FORVER IN A PERFECT WORLD. I STILL CAN!

It was hard to think. Impossible to think. Everything was slipping away from him in the noise and the haze. I won't remember this, he thought. He couldn't remember this. It was already fading. Everything was fading. Their beer had gone. The wall had gone. The city beyond the lot had gone, and the lot itself had lost all details. Only Henry remained close to solid, Henry and the still pulsing, still closing ball.

"It was broken," Henry yelled at him, though Eddie more read the words off his lips than heard them. "It tried to rise up against the Bear and was cast down along the Beam, broken to all but dust."

"What was?" Eddie yelled. "What is it?"

"It feeds on dreams," Henry said. "It made me."

"No," Eddie said with surety. "You're my brother. You'll always be my brother, Henry."

The world was a haze. Henry was a blur. Eddie felt blurred too, drawn out and melting. He kept forgetting where he was, what he was doing -- but the gun! The gun was steady. The gun was true. Because, like Henry, the gun was a piece of him.

"I do not shoot with my hand," he cried, leveling Roland's revolver at the ball. "He who shoots with his hand has forgotten the face of his father. I shoot with my mind!"

"Do it," Henry cried, as the howling grew louder, and the pleading too, as the air filled with horses and the triumphant trumpeting horn.

The world pushed and dragged and sucked at him. The clouds raced towards the sun, shrinking the space, filling it in, closing up before him and around him. There was so much he suddenly wanted to say, to demand, but the ball, the pearl, the piece of rainbow was almost closed, almost renewed. There was no time. There was never any time, and already the moment was slipping from him.

(For Gilead! For the White! For your father's sake! Eddie!)

"Henry," Eddie said, voice thick, "I love you."

"Love you too, little brother," Henry said right back. "Now stand and be true, you little sissy. Stand and be--"

I kill with my goddamn heart, Eddie thought, and fired.

 

18.

The walls cracked and cracked and cracked again.

YOU'LL FORGET, came the voice. YOU'LL FORGET IT ALL, JUST DREAMS. BUT I'LL REMEMBER. I'LL REMEMBER YOU VERY WELL. ELEPHANTS NEVER FORGET!

Susannah blew the horn again, and again, blew until it felt her lungs would give and there were red pounding shadows behind her eyes and then blew some more. Andrew was gone. The shop was gone. The whole world was gone. She was spinning in pearl-grey haze, and she blew the horn, and the cracks grew with every note.

PLEASE, it begged now. PLEASE! JUST LET LOVE YOU! LET ME HOLD YOU, LET ME DREAM FOR YOU, PLEASE DON'T LEAVE ME!

"You're nothing," Susannah cried back. "You're well forgotten, you foul, foolish thing."

HE'LL REACH THE TOWER ALONE, it growled at her now. YOU'LL ALL BE DEAD AND GONE BEFORE ROLAND COMES THE END OF HIS QUEST.

"Mayhap," Susannah agreed, raising the horn again, and it wailed.

I WOULD HAVE BEEN A CLEANER DEATH, SUSANNAH-MIO! I WOULD HAVE BEEN SWEETER! I WOULD HAVE REMEMBERED YOU FOREVER!

"Even forever ends," Susannah said coldly.

It screamed once more, cracking, cracking, everything cracking, the whole world, the whole ball trembling on the edge of dissolution.

Last time pays for all, Susannah thought, setting the slug-horn to her lips. Last time

 

19.

Jake blinked and sat up.

The rising sun was just cresting the horizon and its first rays turned the dew-wet grass into a sparkling array, like he'd woken in a sea of diamonds and pearls. He rubbed at his eyes until he could see clearly again and turned, jumping a little to find himself face-to-snout with Oy. Oy licked his cheek and Jake grinned, wiping it on his sleeve and petting Oy with his free hand.

"You know what else I miss?" Eddie said from the other side of the camp as he stood, leaning with his hands in the small of his back. "Proper beds."

"A hard surface is good for your back," Susannah said as she stretched too.

"Sure," Eddie agreed easily, "but it's a pain in my soul."

"You know that they say, sugar. You can never go home again."

Jake felt a sudden shiver of recognition, a half-memory of something almost but not quite real, but it faded before he could hold onto it.

"Yeah," Eddie was saying, "but they could send a bed over. FedEx to End World, tower special."

Susannah, who had been looking at Jake, ignored this in favor of asking, "You okay, hon?"

Jake nodded. "I had a dream, but I don't remember it. About being home, but being here too -- I guess it's not important."

"Not the doorkeeper again?" Eddie asked, and Jake shook his head.

"It will come to you if you need it," Roland advised him, joining Susannah in cleaning up the remains of the fire.

Jake nodded again, and started helping Eddie pick up their rolls. When they were all tidied away, he took a sip from the water bag, swilled it around and spat it out, rubbing at his teeth with a finger until his mouth felt clean. The clouds had thinned a little, and he caught spots of blue.

"I like it," he said, and the others looked at him questioningly, Susannah and Eddie both paused in the middle of taking breakfast burritos from Roland, in mirror image, which made Jake grin. "Here," he added in explanation. "Beds or no beds; toilets or no toilets."

"Yeah," Eddie said, nodding. "Me too, kid."

"Ka-tet," Susannah agreed, and Jake nodded. "One from many, say thankya."

Eddie handed Jake his burrito and Jake hunkered down to feed Oy some while the fire ashes were scattered and the last traces of their presence were neatly cleaned away. Standing on it like this, the hillock didn't look like an elephant; it didn't look like anything at all. The track curved back to join the way through the fields, merging into the line where the grass, the shadows and the clouds all bent south-east.

"Off we jolly well go then," Eddie said, in a ridiculous Dick Van Dyke-esque British accent as they set off down the curve of the slope. "Back to the road and on to the Tower; right, Roland?"

"Does a gunslinger shit in the woods?" Roland asked blandly.

Eddie's mouth dropped open in a gape so comical it cracked Jake up more than Roland's line had, and Eddie gave him a disgusted, smiling look. "Yeah, yeah; yuck-yuck-yuck."

They went on, in easy loping strides, Eddie pushing Susannah, Oy scouting ahead, Roland behind, Jake alongside, and his laughter rose over them, bright and clear, to the herring bone trail of the Beam.