Johnny knew something was wrong the minute Sarah pulled open the Bannermans' front door. Her face was anxious in a way that was familiar to him from a hundred high-school tests, a hundred cello auditions. He stood on the porch, balancing parcels in the crook of each arm, and waited for her to push open the screen door for him. But she didn't.
"He knows," Sarah whispered through the screen.
"What?" Instinctively, Johnny lowered his voice to match hers, and when she glanced over her shoulder, he followed her eyes back through the hallway, toward the kitchen.
"Walt," Sarah whispered, and she didn't need to say anything else.
It had been wrong, and they'd both known it. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife— especially if your neighbor was Walt, who saved your bacon twice a week. These were your top-ten rules, not minor infractions. Except it didn't seem fair. Sarah had been his wife in all but name in those bright, dream-like days before the accident. People stronger than they were would have succumbed to the temptation to make love just one more time. And it had only been that one time, because all rationalizations aside, they'd felt the wrongness of it before the sweat had dried.
"You told him it's over, right?" Johnny asked uncertainly.
Sarah almost laughed. "Yeah. I told him, though it's kind of hard to believe when—" She raised her hands to gesture helplessly toward him, then let them fall to her sides. "We were up half the night," she said with a sigh, "and I wanted to cancel today but—"
Now it was Johnny who was looking nervously over Sarah's shoulder. "Yeah, you really could have given me a heads-up, here—"
"—he wouldn't let me." Sarah's lip trembled and Johnny saw that she was on the verge of tears. "He said that nothing had changed from last week, so why cancel dinner?"
Johnny winced; sure, nothing had changed from last week's "family" dinner—other than that his host now knew that Johnny'd slept with his wife. Of course, that wasn't really news either—J.J. was the living blond proof of that—but Sarah hadn't been Walt's wife then. And now she was, and Johnny had slept with her anyway.
"What," Johnny began, shifting his packages—box of pastries for Sarah, bottle of scotch for Walt, two kinds of ice cream for J.J.—in his arms again, "do you want me to—"
"John!" and if he hadn't just had this conversation with Sarah, he might not have heard the bitterness under the hearty greeting. Walt showed him a wide, tight smile—but Walt was never a big one for smiling, and his eyes were hard. "Come on back, we're on the deck. J.J.'s practicing his golf swing." Walt pushed open the screen door.
Just be normal, Johnny thought. Just be normal, just be normal. "Golf? Golf's great practice for hockey," he said, wiping his feet on the mat and stepping into the Bannermans' hall, "which is, of course, the only sport that matters. Here," he added, handing Sarah the baker's box, "and this is ice cream, it's got to go in the freezer." That left him holding the bottle of scotch, and Johnny stared down at it for a moment before saying, awkwardly, "Uh, this is for you," and handing it to Walt.
Walt took the bottle, turned it in his hand, and looked at the label. It was, Johnny knew, Walt's favorite, and he'd actually gone through a lot of trouble to get it. But now it was wrong, the gesture ruined—patronizing where he'd meant to be friendly.
"Well," Walt said softly, not raising his eyes from the bottle. "Thanks. I think I just might have me some of this. Where's the ice?"
Walt stood over the grill with a tumbler of scotch in one hand and a pair of tongs in the other, while Sarah set plates and glasses out on the picnic table, which was covered with a bright yellow tablecloth and shaded by an umbrella.
Johnny went to help J.J. master the fine art of putting. "The thing is," Johnny said, planting his feet and using his cane to demonstrate his swing, "golf is a game of physics, not strength. You can't force it. You've got to be smooth..."
J.J. made a face, but he carefully folded his hands around the handle of his club, planted his feet, and swung. The ball rolled smoothly into the cup with a satisfying thunk.
Johnny raised his arms in triumph. "Yesss! Way to go!" J.J. looked up at him quizzically, and Johnny realized that, as far as his son was concerned, he had just attained major dorkitude. Johnny coughed into his fist and stepped away. J.J. returned his attention to the makeshift green, where he sank a second ball, a third, and then a fourth.
"J.J.! Go wash your hands!" Sarah called out. "We're going to eat in a minute!" J.J. dropped his club and ran into the house while Johnny drifted over to the picnic table and shared a quick look with Sarah while Walt's back was turned. "Here. Johnny. Sit down," she said, and nodded toward a chair. "Can I get you something to drink?"
"No, I—" Johnny began, but then his eye caught the scotch bottle, and damn if there wasn't a third gone from it already. "Well," he amended and shot Sarah a significant look, "maybe I'll have a big glass of water. Walt, you have one too."
"Nah." Walt raised the top of the grill, and the smell of cooking meat wafted across the deck. "M'good," he said, picking up his tumbler and rattling the ice in it. "This is—really good stuff that you bought."
Yeah, and it was supposed to last more than one meal. Johnny heard the whirr of the sliding glass door, and a moment later, J.J. plopped into the plastic chair beside him. "Dad," J.J. called to Walt, "I want hot dogs, can I have two hot dogs?"
"Absolutely." Walt leaned over the table and unsteadily grabbed J.J.'s plate. A moment later, he handed it back to J.J. with two hot dogs on it. J.J. grinned and began loading them up with all the extras: mustard, ketchup, kraut, relish—
The steak landed with a wet thwap, so huge that it was actually hanging off the plate. Johnny stared down at it; there was something very nearly obscene about that much meat. "Walt," Johnny said, looking up at him, "I can't eat this whole—"
"C'mon, sure you can." Glass clinking against glass, Walt unsteadily poured himself another tumbler of scotch, and then one for Johnny. "Nothing but the best for our guest, right, Sarah? Mi casa es su casa. What's mine is yours."
"Walt, please," Sarah murmured, averting her eyes.
"It's all right," Johnny said quietly. He stared down at his steak, then picked up his knife and began to cut into it gingerly. "I know just how he feels."
Walt leaned forward, fingers tight around his glass. "Oh, you think so, do you?"
"Walt." Sarah sounded desperate now.
"Hey J.J.," Johnny said casually, looking over at his son, "where'd you learn to putt like that? That was pretty amazing."
J.J. looked up, holding an overstuffed hot dog in both hands, and jerked his head toward Walt. "Dad taught me," he replied. "We've been practicing every weekend. Dad says that if I get good, he'll buy me a set of clubs for my birthday."
"That's great, J.J.," Johnny said, eyes moving to Walt, who was staring miserably down at his plate. "Golf's a great sport. You can play it your whole life."
Walt was still clutching his scotch glass; his other hand was practically clawing at the plastic arm of his chair. "You should take him down to the Cleaves Mills Country Club," he said in a soft, rough voice. "You're a member, right?"
Johnny frowned at him. "Yes, but—"
"And J.J.'s your son, he can be a member, too. That way, he can meet the right sort of people. Your sort of people—"
"All right, that's it," Sarah said, and stood up so fast she nearly hit her head on the umbrella. "J.J.—sweetheart—go upstairs for a while, okay? You can take your other hot dog with you," and J.J. swallowed nervously and disappeared inside, the door whirring open and shut as he made his escape.
Walt was fixated on Sarah. "What, you don't like the idea of J.J. spending more time with Johnny? Because it's really something you ought to get used to." Walt pulled a regretful face, but his voice was thick with bitterness. "Face it, Sarah: Johnny can give him all sorts of things that we can't: private school, fancy college, country club—"
"Walt, stop it," Sarah said in a choked-sounding voice.
"—debutantes, connections, a big job, maybe, in New York or Boston. You want those things for J.J., don't you?"
Johnny stood up and quietly said to Sarah: "I'm going. I'm just making things worse."
Walt pushed unsteadily back from the table, stood up, and stabbed his finger at Sarah. "So maybe J.J. goes to live with Johnny for a little while—"
"Sarah, don't worry," Johnny murmured. "That's not going to happen."
"—what's the big deal? It's all in the family, right? We're just one big happy family here, all of us. You can share your son, right? Oh. Wait," and Walt's face became a parody of dawning comprehension. "You haven't had to share anything."
"Walt," Johnny said warningly, and took a step toward him; he couldn't let Walt attack Sarah like this. "You're going to feel like shit about this in the morning. Stop before you break something you can't fix."
"Why the hell are you taking her side?" Walt demanded, throwing his arms out in frustration. "You have to share, I have to share—what the hell is she sharing? This is a lousy love triangle, man; you and me, we're getting shafted. Fuck, we ought to—just to—" and Johnny instinctively raised his hands as Walt staggered toward him, prepared to duck or protect his face if Walt threw a punch. But he was utterly unprepared for Walt to grab him, pull him close, and kiss him.
The kiss was hostile, punishing, really almost a punch, and Johnny flailed blindly and tried to shove Walt away—
—but Walt's hands were sliding up his body, warm and kind of grabby, pushing him back steadily until his back was at the wall. Johnny pushed his hands against Walt's chest, but Walt leaned into him, hot and hard, trapping Johnny's hands between them. Walt was kissing him, hands sliding into Johnny's hair, tilting his head back—
—and Johnny moaned, and slid his hands up Walt's chest, pausing to clutch at Walt's shoulders before sliding one arm around his neck—
—and pulling him close, and Christ, who was he? What was this? Was he somehow inhabiting Sarah's body, or was Walt really kissing him? Walt's tongue was gently coaxing Johnny's mouth open, and Walt's hips were rhythmically grinding against his—and suddenly Johnny's hips caught the rhythm. He tightened his arm around Walt's neck, opened his mouth, and stroked his tongue against Walt's—
—while rubbing their cocks together. Walt's arm came unsteadily around Johnny's waist, and his mouth had gone soft and sweet, and Johnny deepened the kiss—
—and he never thought he could feel like this with a guy, but he was so turned on he was dizzy with it. Maybe he was Sarah; maybe he was having a vision of what it felt like to be Sarah—except suddenly Walt pulled away and touched his fingers to Johnny's throat, and there was no way to believe he was Sarah. He was Johnny Smith, and that was Walt Bannerman. He could feel his cock throbbing. He was this close to coming, and he closed his eyes and leaned forward to kiss Walt again—
—and Walt moaned softly into his mouth, and it was only the soft whirring of the sliding glass door that brought Johnny back to himself. He broke off the kiss, and was sort of shocked to find his arms around Walt, and Walt's arms wrapped around him. Walt's eyes were closed and he was breathing hard. Johnny jerked back, feeling suddenly sick. What the hell had they done here? Where was Sarah?
Walt steadied himself against the deck's railing; he looked almost green. "That—wasn't supposed to happen."
Johnny couldn't resist taking a shot. "You don't say," he said bitterly. "You mean that sometimes people have sex when they shouldn't? Gee, I don't believe it."
"That wasn't—" Walt waved an erratic hand between them. "—wasn't—"
"No?" Johnny asked skeptically; he was still trying to catch his breath, and he couldn't help but be aware that he was hard. He could still feel the dream-Walt's hands on his body.
"No! That was— I don't know what that was!" Walt sounded almost panicked. "That was—"
"A vision, actually." Johnny picked up Walt's half-full glass of scotch, and drained it. It tasted like Walt, and he trembled.
"A vision?" Walt asked shakily.
"Yeah. I had a vision of you and me—you know." Johnny looked away; he couldn't meet Walt's eyes. "Doing it."
"Doing it?" Walt repeated. "You mean..."
"Yeah. Having sex. Sometime in the future." He had a sudden, visceral memory of Walt's tongue in his mouth, and he pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. "Really good sex, actually."
"That's not—" Walt began, but he seemed to get sidetracked: "It was good?"
"It was great, yeah," Johnny admitted, letting his hand drop. "Really, really good."
Walt stared at him for a long moment, then said tightly: "That's not possible. I'm not like that. I don't do that."
Johnny couldn't help himself; he had to laugh. He hadn't expected this either, but if he had to deal with this blow to his self-image, he didn't see why Walt should escape. "Well, actually, Walt, I happen to have it on very good information that you will do that. In fact, it's pretty much a certainty." He raised his hands and meanly wiggled his fingers in the air. "Psychic, remember?"
Walt was shaking his head numbly. "No, that can't— We'll stop it," he said. "We stop things like that, right? We've stopped a million weirder things before breakfast."
Johnny remembered what it felt like to have Walt's fingers skimming his throat, and felt confused and angry and maybe, if he was honest with himself, a little disappointed. Damn Walt for starting all of this anyway. "Yeah, well, maybe we can stop it, but that doesn't mean you're not capable of it." He stepped closer to Walt, and lowered his voice: "That's one of the worst things about the psychic gig; you learn what everybody is capable of."
Walt raised his chin defiantly, but he took a step back, putting space between them. "Oh yeah? What about you, then? You're capable of it, too."
Johnny had to close his eyes. He was more than capable of it. He'd physically lived in that future, and he knew that when the time came, he would beg for it. "Oh, believe me. The things I'm capable of?" Johnny opened his eyes. "This is the least of it."
Walt made him promise that he wouldn't come to the house for a while, or to the station, or see Sarah at all, though Johnny drew the line at not seeing J.J., and so Walt agreed that he'd bring J.J. over to Johnny's.
"Fine," Johnny said, staring down at the thick redwood boards of the deck.
"Fine," Walt repeated, and sat down hard in a plastic chair. He raised his hands to his flushed face, rubbed his palms against his temples, then slid his hands nervously over his hair. "That ought to change things. Nothing weird can happen if we all just stay apart."
Johnny took a deep breath and tightly clutched the head of his cane. "Fine."
"I knew this whole situation was fubar," Walt muttered. "This just proves it."
"Can I go now?" Johnny asked.
"Yeah." Walt's mouth was a grim line. "You can go."
Johnny smiled at him tightly. "Thanks for the steak," he said, and passed through the sliding glass door. He strode up the hallway toward the front door, looking for Sarah but not seeing her, wondering whether or not to call up to tell J.J. he was leaving. He decided not to; he was too pissed off, and he didn't want his son to see him like that. There'd be plenty of time to explain things to J.J., and so he opened the front door—and saw that Sarah was hunched miserably on the porch steps.
"Sarah." Johnny pulled the door shut behind him and went to sit beside her. She lifted her head and Johnny saw that her cheeks were wet. Johnny reached out helplessly and brushed away her tears with his thumb. "Sarah..."
"I'm an idiot," Sarah said with a wet-sounding laugh. "To get so upset." She took a deep breath and said, in a more resolved voice: "But Walt's right: I don't think I did understand how hard it was for both of you. I never worried about losing J.J. to you. You're his father, I just wanted him to know you—and love you." She took Johnny's hand in hers, and he squeezed it. "And I wanted you to like Walt, and him to like you." She laughed again, a little forcedly: "Though not that much..."
"Sarah," Johnny began, desperate to find the right words. Were there right words for this? "What just happened, between Walt and me—"
"He was trying to punish me," Sarah said in a quiet voice. "And it worked. I can't believe he kissed you. I saw how he kissed you—"
"I kissed him," Johnny admitted, staring down at the concrete step. He shot a quick glance at Sarah, who was staring at him, gape-mouthed. "I didn't mean to," he added quickly. "It was a vision."
Sarah looked more surprised than she had since he'd risen from the nearly dead. "A vision? What does that mean? You kissed Walt in a vision?"
Johnny winced and nodded. "Yeah. I—shit, Sarah, I know how nuts this sounds, but I had a vision of Walt and me being—" and he felt like his throat was closing up, but Sarah had the right to know. If he'd learned anything from this mess, it was that honesty was the only policy, however much that sucked. He swallowed hard. "—involved."
"Involved?" Sarah repeated in a high voice. "With Walt? You and Walt?"
"Yeah—in the future—in a vision. That's why that kiss was so—" and actually, maybe there was such a thing as too much honesty. "Look, I don't know why it happens, or even if it does, but Walt thinks maybe I should stay away for a while." Johnny tapped the tip of his cane nervously against the stoop. "Try to avert that particular future."
"Wow." Sarah was blinking confusedly into space, like she couldn't process what he'd been saying. "That's—wow." She shook her head a little and looked at Johnny like he was some sort of space alien. "I didn't know you liked Walt—that way."
"I like Walt fine," Johnny replied testily. "I'm as surprised as you are, Sarah, okay?"
Sarah raised her hands. "Okay, okay! Just, I mean—you wouldn't think that something like this comes out of nowhere. The future comes out of the past, right?"
Great; why did Sarah have to choose now to become a philosopher? "I guess. Maybe. Look," he said, and used his cane to lever himself up, "I just wanted you to know. I've never lied to you, Sarah, and I won't start now. I'm going to leave you guys alone—"
Sarah frowned. "That's what Walt wants. Is that what you want?"
Johnny felt a sudden lurching in the pit of his stomach. He didn't know what he wanted. Some part of him thought that maybe he wanted—Walt. "Yes," he said, and so much for not lying to Sarah. "That's what I want. I need—time to think."
Sarah's eyes were huge as she looked up at him. "Okay, then. Maybe a little time apart would be a good thing for all of us."
It was fun for about a week. For the first couple of days, Johnny just kicked back—slept in, played all the video games he'd supposedly bought for J.J., ate pizza and watched sports. After that, he began to feel like his brain was rotting, so he took a cup of coffee and a copy of that Truman biography he'd been meaning to read out to his mother's rose garden. The book was a page-turner and Johnny read fast, zipping through Truman's childhood in Independence, Missouri and then going through his years as a farmer, judge, and senator. He was in the middle of reading about how Truman, who had only been vice-president for a couple of weeks before Roosevelt upped and died on him, was suddenly given the problem of whether or not to use the atomic bomb on Japan, when he freaked out a little and threw the book into a hedge. Later, he looked around for it, wondering if Truman had anything constructive to say on the subject of being wildly unprepared for destiny, but he couldn't find the right hedge.
It didn't matter. After that, Johnny spent most of his time in the basement.
He had a few items—a button from Stillson's congressional campaign, a bible Stillson had borrowed from Reverend Purdy and waved around as a prop a couple of times—that were guaranteed vision-givers; whenever he clutched the STILLSON FOR CONGRESS button in his palm, the world exploded in fire behind his eyes. Still, after he'd ascertained that yes, the world was still going to end in nuclear apocalypse and yes, Stillson was still at the center of it, he felt as helpless as ever.
Some psychic he was. Still, okay, being psychic wasn't his only advantage. He was still a rich, unemployed guy with time on his hands—or was that redundant?
He became very good friends with some guys on the internet who knew a hell of a lot about nuclear weapons. He became very familiar with the Freedom of Information Act. He bought another whiteboard and spent a lot of time charting out possible scenarios for the end of everything. He discovered there were four broad categories of nuclear war—accidental, aggressive, pre-emptive, and retaliatory—and calculated that the most likely triggers were a glitch in Russia's antiquated equipment or a terrorist attack on Israel. He played out a number of other scenarios—war between India and Pakistan, China and Taiwan—but couldn't see how that would get bombs to Washington. The wrong false alarm in Russia, though, and—
Yeah, that would do it. Glasnost notwithstanding, both Russia and the U.S. still relied on "launch on warning" systems, which gave only three or four minutes of decision-making time after a threat was detected. After that: counterstrike, boom. Worse yet, the Russians had worked something out called the "dead hand" strategy, which—
—the Brookings Institute described as "a special system designed to ensure quasi-automatic retaliation in the event of military decapitation," which meant—
—that if Moscow was destroyed or unable to respond, the power to launch missiles would instantly be transferred to hundreds of regional commanders, each of which had the power to—
"Johnny." J.J. pulled the published proceedings of the CND's most recent conference out of his hands, even though he was still reading Bruce Oxwiler's paper on NATO's nuclear policy review. "You're freaking me out!"
For an insane half-second, Johnny nearly snatched the book back, and then he saw his son's unhappy face. "Oh, J.J..."
J.J.'s face was flushed with anger. "You said you'd watch the movie with me. But you've just been sitting there with your dumb book!" J.J. threw the book hard against the wall, and Johnny was about to rebuke him when he saw that his son was near tears. He closed a hand around the boy's thin arm, and it was a sign of how distraught J.J. was that he let Johnny pull him close and hug him tightly. "It's not fair!"
"I'm sorry," Johnny murmured as he rubbed J.J.'s back. "You're right. I'm wrong—"
—and J.J. lifted his head, and shouldered his rifle, and paused just a moment before bang! crash! hitting the first milk bottle, and bang! crash! hitting the second, and Johnny just stood there and watched in astonishment as his son broke eight of the ten milk bottles that had been propped on the low stone wall.
"That's good!" and Johnny whipped his head around and saw Walt nodding approvingly. He was standing in the clearing behind them, wearing a suede coat and carrying a rifle of his own. "That's very good, J.J.—now get those last two."
"Okay, Dad!" J.J. said, aiming his rifle again.
"I still don't like this," and it was like hearing an echo inside his own head. Johnny watched himself step into the clearing, wearing the navy blue peacoat that he knew for a fact was currently upstairs in his closet. The other Johnny drifted closer to Walt and lowered his voice still further. "Giving J.J. a gun—"
"Johnny, look at him." Walt lifted a hand and gestured toward J.J., who had picked off the last two milk bottles—kablam! kablam! "He's a natural."
"He's a child," Johnny heard himself say, and way to go, him; thank God he was making sense. "We're arming a child, Walt."
"Yeah," Walt said quietly. "But we're not going to be here to protect him. It's the least we can do."
"—ow, you're hurting me. Johnny," and J.J. was pushing at his arms, but Johnny pressed his face into his son's neck and held on for dear life.
"Look, I understand that you are in touch with supernatural forces and all that, but you're a psychic, not a vampire. There's no reason for you to give up the sun entirely." Bruce was standing on his doorstep, arms crossed. "Are you going to invite me in or what?"
"Bruce." Johnny stared awkwardly down at the floorboards. "I don't really have time—"
Bruce snorted as he pushed past him, apparently headed for the kitchen. Johnny shut the front door and hurried after him. "Oh, you have time, my brother. From what I can see, you've got nothing but time." Bruce opened his cupboard, found a bag of caramel popcorn, and pulled two cokes out of the fridge. "Nobody's seen you for a couple weeks," he said, and sat down on a kitchen stool. "You don't answer your phone. You haven't even returned your library books—"
"Hey, the status of a man's library books is between him and his God!" Johnny protested.
"Not under the current administration," Bruce said, and took a swig of his coke. "Seriously, man, you think the government's not paying attention to the kind of stuff you check out? Global Thermonuclear War? Ten Ways To Armageddon? Your Nuclear Death and You?"
Johnny sighed and sat down on a stool, leaning his cane against the counter. "I returned that one."
"Well, you owe the Penobscot Public Library forty-three bucks. Cassie the librarian—who has a crush on you, not that you've noticed—told me to tell you." Bruce stuffed a handful of caramel corn into his mouth.
"Yeah, well, I'm not interested in Cassie the librarian."
"Fair enough." Bruce licked his fingers and looked up at him expectantly. "So what are you interested in, these days?"
Johnny winced. "Global thermonuclear war?"
"Like I figured. You must be fun at parties."
Johnny hunched forward on his stool and leaned over the counter. "It's just that I think things are speeding up. It's all I can think about lately—"
"Lately?" Bruce interrupted, sounding almost angry. "Lately you have done nothing but sit in your house and obsess about this thing. I'm prepared to make a damn good argument about how it's not healthy for you, but you know what? Forget you. Because you have this gift, man, and are you using it? No, you are not. Do you read the newspaper, or do you just skip to the Nuclear Armageddon section?"
Johnny frowned as Bruce reached across the counter, picked up Johnny's copy of the Bangor Daily News, and thwapped it down in front of him. Johnny looked down at the headline: FOURTH MAN FOUND BEATEN, as Bruce said, with quiet intensity, "Someone's preying on old people."
July 16, 2005.
FOURTH MAN FOUND BEATEN. VICIOUS ATTACKS ON THE ELDERLY CONTINUE
By Dana Bright.
BANGOR — Police found 79-year-old George Kleinmann unconscious in his apartment on Saturday morning. Kleinmann had been savagely beaten and was taken to Bangor Medical Center where he was treated for a variety of injuries, including inflammation of the brain resulting from head trauma. He remains in critical condition. Police confirm that Mr. Kleinmann was also robbed and that this crime seems to be the work of the same perpetrator who attacked Emmaline Hurst, age 83, Sanford Mars, age 79, and Randolph Jergens, age 78, during the last two weeks.
Johnny looked up to find Bruce staring at him. "You haven't been by the station lately, either. You and Walt have a falling out?"
Falling out? Johnny rubbed the heel of his hand just above his eye, where the headaches always started. It felt more like a falling in. "No," Johnny began. "I mean, not exactly—"
Bruce interrupted, snatching the paper from him. "Because this would not be a good time for you to adopt a policy of—"
Johnny averted his eyes. "I slept with Sarah. Walt found out."
That shut Bruce up fast, so fast that Johnny had to glance at him to make sure he was still there. He was, and glowering. "Oh, that's just great," he said, slapping the paper down onto the kitchen counter. "Great. Now little old ladies have to die because you couldn't keep it in your pants."
That wasn't fair. "C'mon, Bruce, give me a—"
"How'd he find out, anyway?" Bruce demanded.
"How the hell should I know?" Johnny said irritably. "Maybe Sarah told him. There wasn't exactly an appropriate moment to ask—"
"—while he was chasing you through the house with a meat cleaver?" Bruce asked.
Now it was Johnny's turn to shut up. "No. Actually, he gave me a really big steak," he admitted, running a hand over his oh-so-stupid head. "And a glass of scotch. But it was served with a mighty amount of sarcasm," he added emphatically, lest Bruce think he was a wuss or something.
Bruce arched an eyebrow at him. "Sarcasm? I think you got off pretty damn easy, my brother."
Johnny ducked his head, embarrassed. "Yeah, I guess so."
"Okay, well," Bruce said, sighing, "that explains that. Having escaped the meat cleaver, maybe hiding out in your house is the way to go. I have to say, though," and here, he fixed Johnny with a look, "I really wish you'd re-establish contact with some member of the police force. Maybe not Walt, under the circumstances, but—"
"But someone," Johnny said quietly, and picked up the paper again. "I gotcha."
"This thing, man; it's bigger than you." Bruce looked serious. "Don't waste it."
Anyone but Walt, Johnny thought as he examined the records of the other officers. Stan Peterson was a good guy and Walt's friend—and that was probably the best thing. Jack Gardieux was real smart, and had cracked some high-profile murders earlier in the year—but that might make him Walt's competition for sheriff one day, and Johnny had no desire to aid the competition. Mike Nickerson was nice, but just not bright enough.
In the end, though, it was Walt, after all. Johnny was slouched deep in his sofa, watching the late night news, when he heard a knock on the kitchen door and glanced at the grandfather clock; nearly 11:30 p.m. Frowning, Johnny muted the television, grabbed his cane, and walked through the living room and into the dark kitchen, where he could see a shadowy figure on the back stoop in the light of the porch lamp. Walt.
Johnny opened the door and just stood there. Walt looked as awkward as he felt.
"John." Walt shifted nervously, obviously uncomfortable in his role, here. "I—can I come in?"
"Yeah," Johnny said, and quickly backpedaled to make room. "Sure. Can I, um," and sheesh, if it had been awkward between them before, it was excruciating now, "get you something to drink, or—a Coke, maybe?"
Walt shook his head and tightened his grip on the paper bag in his hand. "No, this is police business."
"Is it about the beatings?" Johnny asked, and Walt looked instantly relieved.
"Yeah." Walt put the paper bag on the counter, visibly swallowed, and said: "Look, I know we decided that you and me would stay out of each other's way for a while, but this case—it's kind of exceptional."
"I understand," Johnny said feelingly. "I want to help."
"Okay. Maybe you could touch that stuff." Walt pushed the paper bag toward him.
Johnny nodded, uncrinkled the top of the paper bag, and peered inside, though he couldn't make out any of the items in the darkness of the kitchen. He reached in and—
—the old man peered out through his kitchen window, apparently confused, then fumbled for the heavy black-framed glasses in his breast pocket. He peered out again. This time he seemed to recognize whoever it was, and hurried to the door, unlocking first the chain and then the bolt before pulling it open.
"Hello, Ken," the old man said. "I didn't order anything—" and Ken smiled and raised his arm and—
"His name's Ken," Johnny said, carefully turning the pair of glasses in his hand. "White guy—brown hair, bad skin, early 20s. A delivery guy, I think; the man who owned these glasses opened the door for him, said something about an order."
"Delivery makes sense. Try the other things; maybe we'll get more of the picture."
Johnny nodded and reached into the bag again, and after touching a woman's shawl, a man's watch, and a pair of cufflinks, he had the full picture: Ken and his girlfriend Shelley worked down at the drugstore, and they not only filled prescriptions for and made deliveries to the old people, but they were filing their insurance claims. Shelley worked the computers, cross-referencing insurance policies, bank statements, social security pay dates, and assets; Ken did the dirty work, beating the victims with a sock filled with wrapped rolls of coins from the pharmacy register.
"Okay," Walt said, scribbling on his leather-covered notepad. "Okay. That's great. If you're right, their pill bottles will all have the same label."
"Yeah, and check Shelley's computer; I don't think she knows that files aren't really deleted when you 'delete' them."
"Yeah. Good thought." Walt tucked his pad away and looked up, grinning wolfishly—and then he seemed to remember where he and Johnny stood, and his smile faded. Johnny wondered if he ought to tell Walt about the vision with J.J. and the rifle. He liked that future a lot less than the future where he had sex with Walt, and wondered vaguely if stopping the one had somehow brought about the other.
And then Walt said, like he was reading Johnny's mind: "You know, I wonder if maybe we averted that future we were worried about. I mean, we've made decisions, taken actions—the future's got to respect our choices, right?"
"The future can change," Johnny agreed cautiously. "The future changes all the time."
Walt's face cleared. "Right. Right. So if we've changed, uh—our future," Walt said quickly, and glanced away, "then maybe you and I can at least work together."
"Yeah. Maybe." Johnny wasn't quite sure how to say this next bit, especially under the current circumstances. "Do you want me to—I mean, I could try to find out—"
It took Walt a moment to understand, but then his jaw clenched. "I—yeah," he said, sounding nervous, but also as if he was daring the universe to challenge his will. "All right. Fine." He held his arm out to Johnny, offering it to his touch.
Johnny just stood there for a moment, staring, before he could find the right words. "That—I'm sorry, Walt, but that won't work. I mean, I touch you all the time, I've touched you a million times, and I never saw anything. It only happened because you—" kissed me, Johnny thought, but he couldn't say that. He took a deep breath and said, "I think I need to touch you in a place that I...don't normally touch you."
For a moment, Johnny was sure that Walt was going to tell him to go to hell, and then Walt lifted his hands in a gesture of surrender, holding his arms away from his body, his face stoic and tense. Johnny swallowed, then stepped forward and carefully put his hands on Walt, pressing his palms to Walt's torso—
The thin blanket didn't do anything to cushion his knees from the hard wooden floor underneath. Walt's muscular arm was wrapped across Johnny's bare chest when he looked down at himself, and Walt's hand was toying with his cock, playing with him, stroking and teasing him till he was straining and tight. Johnny closed his eyes and let his head fall back, already panting with pleasure. Walt's hand began to slide up and down, milking him gently, and Walt's mouth brushed his ear and whispered his name.
"God, f-fuck me," he heard himself say, except when the hell had he ever sounded like this, so desperate and uninhibited? "C'mon, c'mon—"
"Shh, take it easy." Walt's arm tightened around him, drawing him even closer, and that—god, yeah, that was Walt's cock pressed against him, hard and smooth. "Easy..."
He shoved himself back against Walt's dick. "I can't, shit, don't argue with me—"
"Johnny." Walt sounded strained.
He could barely breathe now; he was practically shaking with wanting it. He pushed back against the warm front of Walt's body, and felt Walt's muscles take almost all his weight for a long, teetering moment—and then Walt was shoving him forward, pushing him onto his hands and knees, and Johnny gasped and braced himself against the floor, spreading his fingers and locking his elbows. "Come—yeah—come on—" and then Walt was holding on to him tightly and pushing into him with soft, desperate-sounding grunts.
Johnny pushed back hard, steadily, until he was impaled on Walt's cock, moaning and writhing as his stuttering body adjusted. Behind him, he could feel the ragged rise and fall of Walt's chest against his back, and Walt's hands were moving all over him, smoothing over his skin, grasping needily at his hips, before sliding between his legs. His cock had softened at the pain of being entered, but now it hardened against Walt's hand.
"Come on," Johnny groaned, "move already!"
Walt moved; Walt gripped his hips and began to fuck him, hard enough that his arms began to buckle, hard enough that pleasure surged up his spine. Gasping, Johnny scrabbled to brace himself, but the blanket beneath his palms skidded out from under him. For a moment he was crumpled on the floor, braced on his forearms, sweating and moaning —and then Walt yanked him upright and held him tight in his arms, pulling Johnny onto his thighs, kissing him while still straining to fuck him—
—and Walt had him, Walt was holding onto him tightly, which was a good thing because his knees were buckling, and he was shuddering and coming hard in his pants, and Christ, they hadn't changed the future, not at all.
"Jesus." Walt was rapidly backing away, shocked eyes moving from Johnny's face down to what was doubtless the wet spot spreading over the front of Johnny's khakis.
Johnny gripped the edge of the countertop and tried to control his breathing; what was he supposed to say, "Sorry, but touching you makes me come in another life?" Except that was exactly the truth—no, no, not exactly the truth, because touching Walt had made him come right now, right here, and if his brain hurt from the thought, his body was singing.
"I'm sorry," Johnny finally managed to say. "It was the vision—"
"Not of me." Walt had backed about as far away from Johnny as he could get, almost against the back door. His shoulders were hunched protectively, like Johnny might suddenly leap across the kitchen and tear his throat out. Apparently he had no idea that Johnny's legs were made of jello. "This vision, whatever vision you're having," and Walt was trying to seem tough, but his hand was shaking, "that's not me. For some, for some reason," and Walt's voice was shredded, "your brain has put my face on your, on whatever your thing is. It's got nothing to do with me," and then Walt yanked the kitchen door open and bolted through it, leaving Johnny standing there in the dark.
He needed help, that was clear, but where the hell was he supposed to get it? A spiritual advisor might accept the fact of his visions, but have problems with his whole "wanting to be fucked by Walt" thing; a psychologist might help him deal with his sexuality but have him committed for talking about visions.
What he needed, Johnny thought savagely, slamming the Cleaves Mills phone book shut, having failed to find the precise social service necessary, was an exorcist, somebody who could command the spirit of Walt Bannerman to up and vamoose.
He ended up where he so often ended up these days: in the basement, on his laptop, using Google.
He was surprised when a casual search led to a flood of links connecting psychic power and bisexuality. Johnny leaned forward and read about Tiresius, the blind Greek seer who lived as both a man and a woman, about Native American berdaches, about the mahu of Polynesia. In ancient times, Johnny read, the Two-Spirit shaman mediated between the tribe and the world beyond the ordinary. In every culture, Johnny read, a bisexual shaman fulfilled a bridging function, connecting past to future, this world and the next, and the male and female erotic roles. In most mythologies, Johnny read, the bisexual prophet is marked by a wound—and Johnny blinked, looked over at his cane, and quickly shoved the laptop cover down. Stupid, he thought, but he was sweating.
You couldn't believe everything you read on the internet.
Technology having failed him, he called Bruce. "Yo, reach out and touch someone. I knew you could do it," Bruce said when he picked up the phone. "How're you doing?"
Johnny sank down into the recesses of his sofa. "Well, aside from having discovered that I'll probably end this life blind or in drag, fine."
He'd assumed that Bruce would think he was joking, but Bruce surprised him, and not for the first time. "Oh, so you're reading up on the prophet thing?"
"Yeah," Johnny said, and jerked up to a sitting position. "Exactly. Wait, you knew about that?"
"Hey, I know a lot about injury and a little bit about mythology," Bruce said with an audible shrug. "In my line of work, it's useful to be able to point out that most guys with real mojo have had wounds, injuries, or disabilities. It's practically a cliché, man—the blind seer, the wounded prophet, strength flowing from weakness, blah, blah. Still," Bruce mused, "your case is pretty convincing: head injury as a kid plus car crash as an adult equals major fuckin' mojo—"
"What about the drag part?" Johnny was clutching the telephone so tightly the plastic creaked in his hand. "You know anything about that?"
"Don't worry, man." Bruce sounded amused. "I think it's mostly a metaphor. See, to be convincing, your prophet figure has to be both an outsider and all-knowing at the same time. Ultimate empathy," Bruce said, and then he let his voice drop into Barry White territory: "or to put it another way, he has to understand everyone's needs."
Johnny's stomach was so knotted that he thought he might throw up. "Bruce," he said, just managing to get the words out. "What if it's—not a metaphor?"
Bruce said, "Huh?"
Johnny cleared his throat. "What if it's not a metaphor?" he repeated, and the words sounded stronger this time. "What if that's just how it works?"
"Maybe it does work like that, who knows? The wound thing turned out to be true, so maybe you'll wake up one day and find yourself lusting after some guy. Still, I wouldn't worry about it until you...oh."
"Yeah," Johnny said bitterly. "My case is pretty convincing all around."
"I, uh. Gee. Oh. Wow. Okay, uh—"
Johnny sighed. "I knew I could count on you. Words of wisdom, man."
"Now, wait, wait, just gimme a second to get my head around this, okay?" Bruce had never sounded so totally flummoxed. "I mean, you just dropped that bomb on me about sleeping with Sarah—"
Johnny groaned and let the phone fall away from his ear, but he could still hear Bruce talking. His voice was far away and tinny.
"—which nearly got a bunch of old people killed, and now you're talking about a whole other kind of sex thing, with a whole other sex. Man, I had no idea you were such a player. I mean, I thought it was girls for you—and not even girls, just the one girl, just Sarah—"
Johnny pulled the phone back to his ear. "It is just Sarah—"
"—except now, what, you've got a hankering for some dude? Who's the dude? It's not me, is it?" Johnny dropped the phone onto the sofa, where it burbled away to itself. "No, of course it's not me, because you would say something. You would say something, Johnny, wouldn't you? Johnny? Johnny?"
Johnny picked up the phone with a sigh. "I was trying to think of a way to tell you. The sonnet form, I can't remember if it's ABAB, or ABBA, or—"
"Okay, fine, up yours," Bruce said, but he sounded relieved. "Or wait, no, I guess that's not PC. Up yours, fuck you, bite me, it's all pretty gay, isn't it? Geez, I didn't realize that English was such a homophobic language—"
"Look, you've been a big help," Johnny interrupted. "I'm going to go hang myself now."
"No, no, wait; I want to help," Bruce said quickly. "I mean, hey!—bisexuality is great!—like Woody Allen said, it doubles your chance of a date on Saturday night. And you're a guy who could use better odds, let's face it. Besides, maybe it'll help you see past Sarah for five minutes, and that's got to be a good thing. Walt's sure to be thrilled—"
Johnny hung up and threw the phone across the room.
That week, Johnny prevented two accidents without even trying.
Tuesday, when his groceries were delivered, he got a powerful vision off a box of Captain Crunch, and so he telephoned the market and told them that he was Johnny Smith and—no, no, his order was fine, thanks. No, actually he was calling in his capacity as the local psychic, and something bad was about to happen, and everybody had to get out of the store right now, really right now.
Five minutes later the heavy ceiling collapsed, sending the entire upstairs inventory crashing down onto the shelves below, ketchup splattering, breakfast cereal scattering, and dented cans of peas flying everywhere. A slow-leaking pipe, Johnny read in the next morning's news, had weakened the concrete and plaster. Thirty-five shoppers and staff saved by an anonymous tip. Half-price sale on all canned goods until further notice.
Thursday afternoon, Johnny forced himself to leave the house, because J.J.'s hockey team was playing the Brewster Bruins after school, and the rivalry between Brewster and Cleaves Mills Elementary schools was so deep and so strong that Johnny, who'd graduated elementary school in 1982 with a mongo crush on Olivia Newton John, still wanted to see them get their asses handed to them. The fantasy that his very own son—Johnny Junior (In Spirit But Not Technically Since His Last Name Was Bannerman)—might be the Ass Distributor Of Record was enough to spur Johnny to venture out of the house, apocalypse and Walt Bannerman be damned. He would just go to the rink and sit quietly in the back, cheer and watch the game, stay out of everyone's way.
It didn't exactly work out that way. A little girl, who was laughing and being chased by another little girl, bumped into him just as he was about to enter the gate—and in a sudden flash of light, he saw the speeding car and the screech of tires and the drunk driver crashing onto the sidewalk and into the girl. Johnny turned around fast, bumping into a woman behind him, who glared at him and asked, snottily, "What's the rush?"
Johnny had no time to tell her. Instead, he ran as fast as he could down the sidewalk, yelling, "Hey! Wait! Girls!" He caught up with them at the corner, grabbing each of them by the shoulder of their t-shirts as they giggled and pushed at each other. Shocked, they stared up at him with wide eyes. "Okay, listen to me," Johnny said, gritting his teeth as he squatted down beside them. "There's about to be an accident right here, so if you're standing here in five minutes, you're going to get hurt. I can't explain how I know this—"
"You're Johnny Smith," the girl who bumped into him said. "The psychic."
"Okay, yeah, that would be how I know," Johnny admitted. "So I need you guys to run back, fast as you can, and stay inside the school gates. Okay? Can you do that for me?"
The two girls looked at each other. "Is he for real?" the other girl said, and the girl who'd bumped into him shrugged and replied: "My mom swears he's got powers—"
Johnny pulled out his wallet. "Look, I'll give you each a dollar," and they grinned and put out their hands. "Run quick," he said, and watched them take off.
Grunting, he hauled himself up to his feet and looked around; he was pretty sure that the car had been a blue Toyota, that the driver had been a dark-haired male, and that it had crashed not twenty yards ahead. He didn't see a Toyota, but he did suddenly notice a Penobscot County police car parked behind the ice cream truck outside the school gates—and okay, maybe it was Walt, but probably it wasn't, and what did it matter?
He hurried to the car, caning his way across the sidewalk, and it wasn't Walt; it was Mike Nickerson. "Mike," Johnny said, relieved. "I need your help. I just had a vision of a drunk driver, a young guy, mid-twenties, dark hair, driving a late model blue Toyota—"
"Wait, hang on a minute," Nickerson said, frowning. "You saw a drunk driver?"
"Not really, not yet; in a vision." Johnny looked up and down the street nervously; no sign yet. "In my vision, he jumped the curb and ran over a little girl. Right there. You could maybe set up a blockade—"
"He's going to kill a little girl?" Nickerson asked.
"Well, no, because I sent her away, but he could kill someone else. If you don't stop him," and geez, was that enough of a hint? "Hurry, he'll be here soon."
"But Mr. Smith—" Nickerson was still frowning, and Johnny had to restrain himself from banging on the hood of the police car in sheer frustration, "—you say you saw a drunk driver in a vision, but how do I know that? I can't just pull people over for no reason. There is such a thing as probable cause—" and Johnny sighed and pointed at where a blue Toyota was speeding past and visibly weaving back and forth across the yellow line, and Nickerson said, "Oh," and reached for his bullhorn two seconds before the Toyota crashed into a tree two blocks from the school.
Johnny didn't stick around; he figured that even Mike Nickerson had to be smart enough to do a blood alcohol test and call an ambulance. Instead, he went back to the school's athletic complex, loitered behind the penalty box, and watched Cleaves Mills beat Brewster 3-2.
Johnny was thankful that nobody had mentioned his role in the grocery store evacuation, but there was no way Mike Nickerson hadn't reported his involvement in the drunk driving thing to Walt: Mike had neither the imagination nor the motivation to lie.
So Johnny was briefly startled but not shocked when someone rang the back bell at ten minutes past midnight on Thursday night. It had to be Walt, coming off-shift; who else could it be? Johnny had already called it a night and gone upstairs to his room, but now he slid out of bed in his flannel pants and thermal shirt, slid his feet into slippers, and put on a bathrobe for good measure before tromping downstairs. He took a deep breath and tried to stay calm, but his body remembered the warm rush of orgasm, and his psyche was tensed for rejection. He hesitated a moment upon entering the kitchen, hand over the light switch, and then he didn't turn it on; he didn't think he could bear to be seen too clearly.
Walt had probably brought another bag of things for him to touch. Johnny just had to be as professional as possible, because he and Walt had to get past this thing. Mike Nickerson was as dumb as a post. He needed Walt.
Johnny glanced through the glass of the kitchen door—Walt—before opening it. "Hey, Walt," he said, and stepped back. "Come on in."
Walt stepped into the kitchen and closed the door behind him. He wasn't wearing his uniform and heavy police coat, just jeans and his own leather jacket. He was pale and fidgeting nervously, hands gripping his own arms. He didn't seem to be able to look Johnny straight in the eye. Not official business, then.
Johnny took another step back and swallowed hard. "So. What brings you here?"
Walt squeezed his eyes shut, his face so pained that Johnny felt it like a slam to the gut. He'd done this to Walt, and he didn't know how to make things better. What kind of comfort could he offer? He was afraid even to touch Walt's shoulder. Any touches might be misconstrued—or worse yet, might trigger a vision, or even another orgasm.
"You should go," Johnny said urgently, keeping his hands firmly at his sides. "Go home, it's late. I'm beat, I was halfway to bed when you—" Walt opened his eyes and even in the dark, Johnny could see the despair in them; it was time to break out the big guns. "I mean it, you should go home now. Sarah'll be waiting for you."
"I can't." Walt's voice was quiet; he sounded wrecked. "I can't stop thinking about—"
He hit Walt with his best shot. "Either you go home to Sarah or I will, okay? You don't belong here. You were right the first time: this isn't about you—"
"Except it is, John, isn't it?" and Johnny couldn't answer, because he couldn't lie to him. "Right," Walt said softly, as if that were no more and no less than he had expected, and he was standing way too close.
"Walt," Johnny said, and he felt like he was strangling. Walt, meanwhile, seemed to have calmed himself; he was speaking deliberately, if a little breathlessly: "You said this is going to happen, and you're never wrong, I know that." He gripped Johnny's biceps, then skimmed his hands down Johnny's arms to his wrists. A moment later, Walt lifted Johnny's hands, pulled them into the open gap of his jacket, and pressed them to his thin cotton shirtfront. "So maybe this is it," and Walt's chest was hard and hot beneath his fingertips. "Is this your vision, Johnny? Is this what you saw?"
Johnny just stood there for a moment, breathing hard, and then he nervously slipped a finger between the third and fourth buttons of Walt's shirt to touch an unfamiliar inch of skin. There was no vision, but Johnny felt weak-kneed anyway, and Walt's hands darted out to steady him.
"What do you see, Johnny?" Walt whispered, hands tightening on him.
"Nothing," Johnny whispered. "This isn't a vision," and then, God help him, he was leaning forward and kissing Walt's soft mouth. Walt's hands came up to hold his head steady, and Johnny's fingers scrabbled at Walt's shirtfront, undoing a few buttons to skim his fingertips across hot skin. Walt pushed him back against the counter and deepened the kiss, and Johnny opened his mouth and shoved his hands fully beneath Walt's open shirt. Walt was all sinuous power and rough energy, pressing him hard against the counter, tilting his head back for kisses. Johnny, his heart pounding, clenched his fingers into the smooth skin at Walt's waist and dragged his cock hard against Walt's, shuddering as Walt groaned into his mouth.
Walt broke off the kiss and backed away with a gasp; he was still wearing his leather jacket, but his shirt was unbuttoned, the tails tugged awkwardly out over his belt. His mouth was open slightly as he panted. He looked lost, and for a moment Johnny was torn between consoling him and dragging him down to the floor—and then he wrenched Walt's jacket and shirt together off his shoulders. Walt let his arms hang down and leaned in to kiss Johnny as his jacket crumpled to the floor. He was bare-chested now, and Johnny wrapped his arms tightly around Walt's body and let his hands roam greedily. He had a series of fast, flickering visions—Walt straddling him, kneeling beneath him, on his back, mouth around his cock, holding him close—and Walt's mouth was drifting up his jawline, tonguing his ear, hot breath ghosting across his face.
"John. Is there somewhere we can..."
Johnny felt a twinge, hard and low, at the base of his dick. "My room. Upstairs," and then Walt's hand was knotted in his bathrobe, pulling him through the kitchen, shoving him through the dark hallway toward the staircase.
They nearly didn't make it; Johnny stumbled on the way up the stairs, and a moment later, he was on his back, and Walt was sprawled on top of him, tongue in his mouth, a hand shoved up under Johnny's thermal shirt. Johnny moaned and grabbed at Walt's hair, only vaguely distracted by the steps cutting into his back. They kissed hard, mouths working aggressively. Then Walt lifted up, grabbed two handfuls of bathrobe, and hauled Johnny to his feet and up to the landing.
Johnny took it from there, steering Walt down the hallway and through his bedroom door. The room was brighter than the hallway had been— moonlight was streaming in through the room's large windows—and they stopped suddenly and looked at each other. In the cool blue light, Walt looked like he had stepped out of one of Johnny's visions, his bare skin almost luminescent. Johnny passed a hand over his forehead—this was crazy, they were crazy—and he had just opened his mouth to say so when Walt took a deep breath and said, in a low and gravelly voice: "We're gonna do this thing, let's do it."
Walt stripped out of his clothes with a complete lack of self-consciousness. He seemed blithely athletic, comfortable in his body in a way that Johnny could remember from his years of hockey but no longer feel. He'd taken his body for granted before the accident, trusting it would do whatever he asked it to. Now, between his dead zone, his frequently-trembling hands, and the long, deep scars on his legs, his body was more of a challenge. Still, Johnny gamely shoved off his bathrobe and reached for the hem of his thermal shirt. It went up over his head faster than he'd expected; Walt had stepped in to help, yanking his shirt up, then pushing Johnny's flannel pants down his legs. Finally, Walt pulled him down into the rumple of the unmade bed, and kissed him, and ran his hands along the puckered, shiny skin of Johnny's scars.
They kissed and groped at each other, rolling on the bed in a tangle of limbs and mouths, listening to each other's harsh, ragged gasps. Walt was a little rough with him, and that was good—it made him feel alive and not fragile, thank God. Johnny gave back as good as he got, yanking Walt's head close for kisses, licking and biting his jaw, listening to his soft groans and exhalations. He rubbed his erect cock against Walt's belly, and felt Walt's cock dragging across his hip. Then, between one moment and the next, their struggle for dominance turned serious. Walt's hand tightened on Johnny's wrist so hard the bones ground together, and when Johnny flinched, Walt held him down and got on top of him. Johnny felt a moment of fear and nearly threw a punch—except then he heard the sound of Walt's breathing—way too fast, hyperventilating—and realized that it was Walt who was panicking.
"It's all right," Johnny whispered. "Walt. It's all right," but Walt couldn't seem to stop; he was locked in a battle without realizing that Johnny had already surrendered. Walt pinned Johnny down and shoved a knee hard between his legs, lodging it firmly at the base of his cock—and Johnny gasped, because that hurt a little and felt amazing at the same time, and God, he was so fucked. Walt bent down and kissed him like he thought Johnny would resist, but Johnny didn't resist—he just opened his mouth and lay there as Walt pressed him against the mattress and kissed him raggedly and rubbed off against his stomach. And then, as abruptly as it had come on, Walt's savage mood departed, his mouth on Johnny's softening and becoming almost desperately gentle, his tongue working deep into Johnny's mouth. His fingers relaxed on Johnny's wrists, and Johnny pulled a hand out of his grip and stroked Walt's hair till he moaned.
After a while, Walt lifted his head. His dark eyes were dilated. "I didn't know it would feel like this. I don't even know what to do with this."
Johnny stared up at him. He knew that feeling well, and so did Sarah, and he couldn't decide if he was relieved or horrified that Walt had joined them in the world of emotional and sexual confusion, but they were all on the same page now.
"It's okay. Here," Johnny whispered, leaning up to kiss him. "Let me show you."
Afterwards, with Walt nearly asleep in his arms and more than half unconscious himself, Johnny murmured, "Do you need to call..."
"Mn-nn." Walt burrowed deeper into the covers. "Told her I was working late. She doesn't need to know about this."
"But—" Johnny opened his eyes in the darkness, prepared to argue, but quickly closed his mouth; there was a time and a place for this conversation, but this wasn't it. Johnny was in no position to make an argument that honesty was the best policy; not to Walt, anyway. He felt a twinge of guilt, closed his eyes, and protectively tightened the arm he had slung across Walt's body. His mind was full of Walt, of the way Walt had gasped and shuddered, and closed his eyes, and said, "Johnny," as he came. He could still feel the grip of Walt's hand, the vague stickiness of his own orgasm on his belly.
Right now, that was the only thing that mattered.
There would be time for everything else.
"Don't start with me on this again, Johnny." Walt was rummaging through his fridge. "I think I get a hall pass on this one. For this, I get a hall pass from God."
"I just think," Johnny began.
"Yeah, well—don't." Walt turned, holding a Coke. He popped the top, took a long swig, and then gestured at Johnny with the can: "That's your first mistake right there. You think too damn much."
Johnny took a deep breath and tried appealing to Walt's sense of empathy. "Look, you've been in her position—"
"Yeah," Walt said flatly. "I have."
"Okay, so? It was better to know, wasn't it? We should tell her."
"Not to break it to you, Johnny, but I suspected, okay? Hell, I dreamed about it. Now, I don't know what put that crazy thought into my mind," Walt added, sardonically twirling a finger at his temple, "but my many years of high-level cop training told me that you guys were going to be doing it once you were, you know, conscious. So when Sarah told me—I mean, don't get me wrong, it sucked, but it was kind of a relief, too. At least I wasn't crazy or paranoid."
"What, and you don't think Sarah suspects?" Johnny asked.
"No," Walt said. "I don't. When she—and you—well, around that time," Walt said, averting his eyes, "everything went to hell. The relationship, our sex lives—man, we couldn't even take in a movie. I'd come out and say, 'Hey, that was good, huh?' and she would be all, like, 'Sorry, what?' She wouldn't even have seen the damn thing; she'd have spent the whole time mooning over you. Me, I'm not mooning," Walt said, but he put down the can of Coke and stepped deliberately into Johnny's space in a way that made him start to go hard. Walt took a slow, deep breath, and Johnny didn't have to be psychic to know he was feeling it, too. "Look, you said this would be good, and it is," Walt said, raising a hand to touch Johnny's shoulder, "and to be honest with you, it's about time I got something good out of this, but it's good with Sarah and me, too. We're fine; everything between us is great."
Johnny knew that was true: he'd had visions while having sex with Walt of Walt making love to Sarah, and there didn't seem to be any problems there. In fact, he could understand how having—(what? a lover? was that what he was?)—could actually improve one's sex life: Walt had, these last few weeks, seemed more relaxed and confident, and just generally happier, than Johnny'd ever known him to be. He'd only ever caught glimpses of this Walt before, mostly in visions of alternate realities where their triangle wasn't quite so—triangular: visions where he hadn't survived to throw Walt off his axis, or where he had survived and Walt was just a friend. Once or twice in real life he'd caught Walt in moments of uncomplicated happiness: sleeping in a deck chair with a beer bottle loosely clasped between his fingertips, or looking on with obvious pride as J.J. sped past during hockey practice. Mainly, though, Walt Bannerman had had a sadness in his eyes, a shadow that had deepened every time Walt looked at him, because of course he was the source of it. But now, for the first time, there was no pain in Walt's eyes when he looked at Johnny, and by God, that was nice. Impulsively, he leaned forward and gave Walt a brief, heartfelt kiss. Walt looked surprised and pleased when Johnny pulled away.
"So I win? You'll leave this alone?"
"Not a chance," Johnny said. "I still think we should tell her."
"You know," Walt said, and reached for his coat, "I'd hit you in the head if I didn't think you'd—I don't know, start to levitate objects or something."
"We should tell her, Walt."
Walt moved toward the back door. "God, you're stubborn. I'll catch you later. I'm dropping J.J. over."
"Yeah, yeah," Johnny said with a wave of his hand, as the back door slammed shut.
Sarah called later that afternoon.
"Hey there, Phoenix," she said with an audible grin, "this is Lilac." This was their joke ever since Walt had declared a moratorium on meetings between them. Total radio silence hadn't lasted long, but they still talked less than they used to, mainly because Johnny didn't know what to say.
He tucked the phone between his shoulder and ear, picked up a wooden spoon, and began to stir the pasta he was making himself for lunch. "Hey there, Lilac: read you loud and clear. I hear that Big Eagle's bringing the parakeet over tonight."
"Mm, that's why I'm calling. Have you got anything planned? I'm packing his bag."
"No plans yet," Johnny said, lifting the cover off a bubbling pot of tomato sauce; it was jarred, okay, but the smell of garlic was making his stomach rumble. "How long can I keep him?"
"Well, actually," Sarah said, and cleared her throat, and Johnny let the cover fall back on the tomato sauce and straightened up. "I was going to ask: you don't mind keeping him for the whole weekend, do you?"
"Mind?" Johnny was grinning so hard his mouth hurt. "On what planet would I mind?" and he could hear Sarah's little laugh of relief. "That's great, that's fantastic," and instantly his brain was surfing through things they could do; important, memorable, father-son type things. He could take J.J. up to Baxter State Park, or hey, they could hit that giant new rollercoaster they built up in Millinocket. "So what—tonight through Sunday? Can I bring him home late on Sunday?"
"Yeah, sure. In fact, that's just perfect. We're going down to Boston for the weekend."
Johnny blinked away the Thundercoaster and carefully turned off the stove. "Oh?"
"Walt's taking me to the symphony, can you believe it?" Sarah sounded like she could hardly believe it herself. "And not the Pops, either; the Philharmonic."
"Hey, that's great." He was more of an AC/DC guy himself—in more ways than one, apparently—but he knew how much classical music meant to Sarah, and it seemed Walt did too. "I'm glad things are working out for you."
"Oh, they are, Johnny, really. I mean, lately? Walt's like a new man. I mean, he works harder than ever—he's out nearly all the time now—but it's like he's invigorated. He's got all this energy, and he's—confident, just like he was when I married him. Johnny, I miss you so much, but I'm starting to think that maybe Walt needed to recover from the shock of us, to work through all the implications of our relationship."
Johnny leaned against the kitchen wall with a groan. They were working through the implications, all right.
"Give it time, Johnny. I'm sure that once Walt feels secure, he'll want you back in our lives."
Johnny closed his eyes. "You think so, huh?"
"I do, I really do. I mean, he's already much less hostile toward you, haven't you noticed? You must have seen him a couple of times, at the station or at crime scenes—"
—in the bedroom, in the living room, up against the wall in the kitchen—
"—and seen how he's changed. He looks fantastic, Johnny," and really, Johnny was the last guy who was going to debate that. "It makes me feel that—well, that I just didn't understand how hard it was for him, you and me. Men like to own things. They think that you can only love one person at a time, but of course that's not true."
"Uh, hello—man over here," Johnny objected, not knowing whether to be grateful that Sarah was at least professing to be open-minded or worried that she seemed to think he was a girl. "John Smith, sharing you and my son and pretty much everything else that matters to me, for years: nice to meet you."
Sarah tsked and harrumphed. "Yeah, but you're not a typical man—"
"I am so!" Johnny protested, startled by the dismissal of his manhood; just because he was having sex with Walt, that didn't mean—or did it mean? "I am totally a typical man—a manly man, a man of manliness. I drink beer and fart and burp and watch sports and—and—I've fathered children. See me beat my chest, hear me roar—"
"Right. With the coma and the miracle and the psychic powers; you're Joe Everyguy," Sarah snorted. "Look, J.J.'ll be home from school around three, and Walt said he'd drop him at your place sometime after that, will that work?" Johnny struggled to wrench his brain back into gear—J.J., weekend, Boston, symphony, Thundercoaster. "Yeah, sure."
"Can you feed him?" Sarah asked tentatively. "That way, we get on the road—"
"Of course, yeah: all meals are included." Johnny raised his fist to his forehead and massaged his temple. "Maybe J.J. and I will take our own trip, go upstate or fishing."
"Oh, Johnny, that would be so great for him. I'll pack his swimsuit, and his extra-thick socks, and..."
"Right, great," Johnny said distractedly, wondering: was this the slippery slope of gayness? Had he somehow changed? Did Sarah sense something different about him? Were his Judy Garland albums in the mail? "Catch you later, Lilac," he said, and hung up, suddenly afraid that "Lilac" had been his idea.
Partly to distract himself, Johnny took his spaghetti downstairs and went on line. He ignored his homepage (automatically-generated Stillson updates, newsletter from the CND, RSS feeds from nuclear watchdog groups) and went instead to the Maine tourism board website. There were cabins for rent up near Baxter State Park, and a cheesy resort hotel across the road from the Thundercoaster. Johnny weighed the options for a moment—hiking, fishing, an opportunity to have long, quiet talks vs. a rollercoaster shaped like a giant lightning bolt—and then plumped decisively for the latter, making a reservation for them and discovering that—hey, bonus—the resort had an 18 hole miniature golf course on the premises.
Whistling happily, he shut the laptop's lid and went upstairs to pack a bag. Let Sarah and Walt have their violins; he and J.J. were going to ride the loop-de-loop until one of them passed out or threw up. They'd hit the road as soon as J.J. got there, head north, stop for dinner at some roadside diner. It was going to be great.
When the doorbell rang, Johnny dropped his dufflebag at the foot of the stairs and went to answer it. Walt and J.J. were standing on the doorstep, and Johnny felt an unexpected twinge of—something strange, some strange yet manly emotion he couldn't identify.
Johnny quickly moved his eyes from Walt to his son. "Hey there, champ; ready for Fun Fest '05?"
J.J. looked skeptical, but he shrugged in a game and slightly patronizing manner. "Yeah, I guess."
"Now, you've got my cell phone number," Walt told J.J., "and your mother's, so if something happens, you just call us, okay? Otherwise, we'll be back Sunday night."
"We're gonna have a great time, J.J., I promise," Johnny said, reaching down to brush his son's blond bangs away from his—
—forehead, and J.J. raised his hand to protect his eyes against the bright summer sun. "What about a paddleboat, can we rent a paddleboat?" he asked.
"I don't know," Johnny heard himself say. "You know what your mother's like."
J.J. groaned in disappointment. "But it's not dangerous...."
Johnny looked from J.J. to himself and back. They were standing on a path that carved through a vibrantly green lawn. There were tennis courts in the distance, and it all seemed strangely familiar—except that wasn't him, and it wasn't J.J., either. It was almost them; hell, these guys looked good enough at a glance, and they might even pass with someone who didn't know Johnny or J.J. very well. The resemblance, Johnny thought, was astounding, and it made him very, very nervous; what kind of plot would require look-alikes of Johnny and his son?
"No, no; I know," Not-Johnny soothed.
"I mean, paddleboats don't capsize!" Not-J.J. argued, almost whining. "It's not like a kayak, or even a canoe—though I could handle a canoe myself, Dad, I swear. I learned—"
And suddenly Johnny felt a goose walk over his grave, and found himself murmuring along with the kid: "—to pilot a canoe at camp."
Holy shit, Johnny thought, his heart thundering in his chest; that wasn't J.J., that was him—that was him at J.J.'s age, and that was his father. Johnny felt tears stinging his eyes; God, he'd never seen his father like this before, face to face, as a man of his own height, his own age. A man who could have been a friend.
"All right," his dad said, and gave him a mischief-filled smile as familiar from his mirror as it was from his memory. "We'll get a paddleboat, and I'll work on your mother about getting you a canoe for tomorrow." Johnny watched, throat aching, as his father slung an arm around his neck and began to draw him down the path toward the—
Toward the boathouse, Johnny remembered, and his mother hadn't ever let him take out a canoe, though his father had taken him out in a rowboat a couple of times. His memory was hazy, indistinct. He remembered the boats, and the feeling of conspiracy with his father; he remembered a dark restaurant, and his father letting him drink coffee for the first time. He remembered his mother sitting in a rose garden wearing a big hat.
Where was this place? He turned in a slow circle, trying to jog his memory. It was a resort; the sort of exclusive place that his mother liked. He seemed to remember that the place had private bungalows rather than hotel rooms, and that there was a central compound with a restaurant, a pro shop, and other amenities. He came back around to where he had started, and saw, with a tremendous feeling of loss, that he and his father had gone a long ways down the path. For a moment, he was tempted to run after them, to spend just a few more precious minutes in his father's—
"Johnny?" J.J. asked worriedly.
Johnny saw that his fingertips were still in J.J.'s hair, and snatched his hand back. "Sorry. I just spaced out for a second." He glanced up at Walt, and saw concern on his face, too.
"S'okay," J.J. said. "I just asked where we were going."
Johnny was just about to open his mouth to say, "Dude, we're gonna ride the Thundercoaster!" when he stopped himself, because it wasn't every day he saw his father, and his father had just taken him to a fancy resort in the wilds of Maine.
"It's a surprise," Johnny said, and wasn't that the truth.
He put his and J.J.'s bags into the Jeep, told J.J. to take a final trip to the bathroom, and began to lock up the house. Walt followed him. "Look, if you're feeling at all funny—"
"I don't feel funny, except in the humorous sense." Johnny slid the bolt on the kitchen door. "Did you ever hear the one about the nun and the pogo stick?"
Walt didn't crack a smile; just followed him into what used to be his father's office. "That vision you just had; was it anything important?"
This was the room he associated most strongly with his father, and for that reason alone, Johnny couldn't work there; just standing in front of the heavy wooden desk made him feel like a kid. He reached for the inlaid box his father had used in lieu of a Rolodex, opened it, and began to flip through the cards, feeling the green grass and bright sky almost as an electric shock when he touched the right one.
The Birches. Allagash Road. Johnny tucked the card into his shirt pocket.
"Johnny." Walt's voice was strained. "I asked you a question. That vision, was it—"
"No, Walt. It was just a childhood memory." Johnny touched his fingers to his pocket and felt the stiff outline of the card. "Of my father."
"All right," Walt said quietly, visibly relaxing. "Just checking. If something serious happens—"
Johnny went back to the kitchen to check his security system. "Nothing serious is going to happen. Enjoy the symphony."
"I hate the symphony," Walt muttered. "But Sarah likes it, and we honeymooned in Boston, so—"
Johnny jerked around to look at him. "You honeymooned in Boston? That's romantic—why didn't you go all out and take her to Newark or Baltimore?"
Walt crossed his arms. "Tell you what—when your wife is eight months pregnant with my child, then you can tell me where to honeymoon, okay?"
Johnny didn't know if he was happy or pissed off that Walt thought he might someday have a wife and child. "Okay, sorry. I wasn't thinking."
"S'alright. Just be careful, okay?" and it was only when Walt jerked and backpedaled across the room that Johnny realized that Walt had been on the verge of kissing him.
"All right, I'm out of here," Walt called, making a beeline for the door. "Have a good time, take care of J.J.."
"You too; take care of Sarah," Johnny called back, and then J.J. appeared at the door and said, "Hey, can we go now?"
Okay, Johnny thought, peering out the Jeep's windshield, this was a really stupid idea. He looked again at the Jeep's GPS. They'd taken I-95 to US-2, and US-2 to ME-11, and that had at least still been a highway, but ME-62 was barely paved and ME-6 was nothing more than a dirt road. And now, as far as the GPS was concerned, they had come to the end of the earth; a dirt road still stretched out ahead of them, but they'd come to the end of their electronic map. It reminded Johnny a bit of his adventures in Keyhole, New Hampshire: apparently, Keyhole wasn't the only blackout zone in New England.
He stopped in the middle of the "road" and put the Jeep into neutral. It was dark now, and he couldn't see much farther than the path of his headlights.
A voice came from the seat beside him. "Pretty creepy out here," J.J. said.
"Yeah," Johnny admitted, turning to look at his son; J.J.'s face was tinted greenish from the GPS's LCD display. "I hate to say it, sport, but maybe we should turn back, find a hotel, try again in the morning." He gestured at the display. "According to that, what I'm looking for isn't here."
"According to that, there's nothing here," and Johnny recognized three generations in J.J.'s wicked smile. "That's kinda exciting, huh? I've never seen the GPS be wrong before. Mom's never is. Maybe there's a black hole. Or monsters!"
Johnny knew J.J. was saying these things for the pleasure of scaring himself silly, but he also remembered being ten well enough to know that sometimes you scared yourself a little too well. "No monsters," he said, reaching out to sling an arm around J.J.'s shoulders, and he wasn't surprised at all that J.J. leaned into him a little and shivered involuntarily. "But I'm thinking the hotel I wanted to go to isn't there anymore."
"You didn't see that coming?" J.J. asked curiously. "With all your visions and everything?"
Johnny sighed and slumped back in his seat. "I had a vision, all right, but this wasn't it. I saw myself here as a kid, with my dad, when I was about your age."
"Your dad?" J.J. sounded startled, like it had never occurred to him that Johnny had had parents.
"Yeah. I guess he was your grandfather. That's kind of weird, huh?" Johnny took a breath, put the Jeep into drive, and began maneuvering around in the small space.
"We could keep going," J.J. said. "If you want. I mean, this is kind of cool."
Johnny smiled to himself in the darkness; he'd dragged his son halfway up a mountain in the middle of Backwoods, Maine in pursuit of God Only Knew What, and now the kid was enjoying himself. "It's cool, but I think we should save the adventure for daylight, okay? Right now, we need a bed and a bathroom."
"Okay," J.J. reluctantly agreed, "but you know, I learned survival skills at camp."
The only place Johnny could find after an hour of driving looked like the Bates motel with half the charm. They had to wake up the owner, who lived in an apartment carved out of the first two rooms, in order to get a key, and the room he showed them—Number 11—was filled with old furniture, dusty drapes, and the ugliest bedspreads Johnny had ever seen.
J.J. loved it. "Wow," he said, staring at the 15 inch black and white television set, and then reaching out tentatively to touch the rabbit ears of the antenna. The snowy picture crackled. "Mom would totally freak if she knew we were staying here!" and when J.J. turned around, Johnny saw he was grinning from ear to ear.
"Teeth," Johnny directed, pointing at the bathroom, where there was a cracked sink and a toilet covered in terrifying-looking stains, and where he'd already had a vision of a young tattooed guy tying off and shooting up. "Brush. Now. And keep your bag zipped," Johnny said after J.J.'d gotten his toothbrush out. "In case of, uh—"
"Spiders?" J.J. asked, obligingly zipping his case back up.
Johnny coughed and looked away. "I didn't say spiders."
"I bet there are giant spiders here," J.J. said excitedly, "which is good, because they eat lots of other bugs. But hey, there could be earwigs. Earwigs are cool, we studied them in science class, they have these little pincers and—"
"There aren't any earwigs," Johnny said firmly, but when J.J. disappeared into the bathroom, Johnny stripped both beds, and took the pillows out of their cases, and examined the mattress ticking, just in case. "No earwigs," he announced triumphantly when J.J. came back, but J.J. just gave him a patronizing smile and scrambled into bed.
Johnny turned out the lights, then went into the bathroom to get ready for bed. When he came out, he quietly fiddled with the television, trying to get the local news to come in clearly. He thought that J.J. had dropped off, but then he heard him say, in a small voice, "Can you sit here and watch tv?"
Johnny turned, and J.J. looked weirdly young in the flickering light of the television, or maybe he just seemed lost in the queen-sized bed. "Yeah," Johnny replied softly. "Sure, J.J.," and he slid onto the bed beside J.J. and leaned back against the headboard to watch the news. A barn had collapsed up near Sayersville. A man was shot in a robbery near Halford. A truck overturned near—and J.J. had squirmed closer and was using his leg as a pillow. Johnny's chest tightened, and when he finally dared to look down, he saw that his son was sleeping deeply, pale lashes fluttering a little, eyes moving beneath the soft, faintly purplish tinge of his eyelids. Johnny felt a nearly unbearable tenderness, and reached down to brush the soft, soft skin of J.J.'s cheek. His son. His boy.
He fell asleep half-sitting up like that, and his back hurt like hell in the morning.
It took them forty minutes to get back to the part of ME-6 where the GPS cut out on them, but it didn't look quite so scary in the daytime. The trees were dense, though, and it was pretty clear that this road hadn't been used regularly for a long time, which made it highly unlikely that The Birches was still a functioning resort. Still, Johnny figured, they'd come this far, and J.J. was gamely peering through the front window, full of the spirit of adventure. Together, they barreled off the map.
It was another twenty minutes before they came to the place, which was behind a high stone wall. The road led through a gap in the wall framed by two tall pillars, each with an iron lantern on top. Johnny slowed the Jeep and stared at the small brass square attached to one of the pillars: "The Birches."
"Do you think we can go in?" J.J. asked. "It doesn't look open."
"It sure doesn't." Johnny leaned forward and rested his chin on the steering wheel thoughtfully. "It's not blocked, though. There's nothing to stop us from going in, right?"
J.J. grinned and nodded conspiratorially. "Right," he said, and Johnny grinned back and put the Jeep into gear.
They followed the winding drive through the trees, and Johnny had a deep and visceral memory of being in the back of his parents' car and staring excitedly out the window, almost sick with wanting to get there already. Nothing on earth could capture the excitement of the word "vacation" when you were a kid; it was the uber-word, because it combined with both of those other powerhouse words: "Christmas" and "summer."
Now, though, the drive was cracked and overgrown with weeds, and Johnny had to ease the Jeep over a splintered tree that had fallen across the road. They came around a turn into a sudden clearing—and there was a large white mansion at the top of a circular drive. For a moment, Johnny saw it as he remembered it—gleaming in the sun, red and white striped awnings sloping down over the large windows, huge, gold-tasseled sun umbrellas dotting the broad stone verandah, white-clad waiters serving drinks on silver trays—before blinking and seeing it as it was: shuttered and abandoned. He pulled into the circle and stopped the Jeep at the bottom of the broad stone stairs that swept up to the house.
"This place is coooool," J.J. said in a low, appreciative voice. "You used to come here as a kid?"
"Yeah," Johnny said, ducking his head to peer up at the house. "This was the main part of it—the front desk was in there, and a restaurant," and the memory came back to him suddenly; his mother in a gold lame dress, his father in a tuxedo, and they had let him stay in the bungalow by himself, which made him feel grown-up and a little bit terrified, "and a ballroom, I think. I think they used to have dancing and stuff."
Johnny got out of the Jeep and slowly turned around; it was the same, and yet so very different; the green slope of lawn had gone wild, obscuring the paths which led to the bungalows, the lake, the tennis courts. He turned back toward the house only to see J.J. already scrambling up the steps. "Hey, wait!" Johnny called, following quickly, "don't get too far ahead!" But by the time he reached the top of the staircase, J.J. had disappeared around the corner of the verandah. Johnny stopped and turned to take in the view again, and from here he thought he could make out the slate tops of some of the cabins, and a treeless area that must be the lake. They were surrounded by mountains on all sides, a backdrop of astoundingly beautiful blues, greens and purples. He felt overwhelmed by—
—the women, milling about him in their sundresses and hats. "Honestly," one woman said, taking a mimosa from a silver tray without so much as a thank you, "I wish he were a better painter. Last year's exhibition was wonderful, because DeFranco really understands color. McCracken on the other hand...well, even with all this inspiration," she said, waving a hand at the purple mountains' majesty, "his work looks as drab and colorless as an old photograph." "You're missing the point," another woman said quietly. "Mr. McCracken is an expressionist. He paints the mountains as he feels them," and when Johnny turned to look, he saw that the skies behind the mountains were full of dark and menacing storm clouds. The green grass and trees had darkened nearly to black, and people were coming out of the forest, toward the mansion, swarming up the staircase toward him, their faces pale and desperate. Hands reached out for him and—
J.J. was bouncing with excitement, hands gripping Johnny's jacket, and Johnny lifted his hand from the balustrade. "—so cool, come on, you gotta see this," and then J.J. was tugging him across the inlaid stone floor, and around the corner, to a small door. It seemed to be the service entrance, and it was unlocked, so Johnny stepped inside with J.J. at his side—and saw from the small, dusty sneakerprints that J.J. had already ventured a few feet inside before stopping and racing out to get him.
It took a moment for his eyes to adjust, and then he saw that they were standing in a huge kitchen. Aside from being dusty, everything looked in good shape: the long stainless steel counters, the racks and racks of hanging pots and pans, the long serving counter with its wall of dusty bottles—probably where they made the drinks and mixed the mimosas. There was some light coming in through the cracks of the kitchen's high, shuttered windows, enough so that Johnny could navigate his way to the swinging doors on the far side of the room. He raised his palm to push them open—
and an immaculately clad waiter pushed out into the dining room, and a young man wearing a Weezer t-shirt pushed into the kitchen. Surprised, Johnny followed him with his eyes, and saw that the kitchen was bustling. People—mostly young people in jeans and t-shirts—were lined up before a row of vats, pots, and trays, plates in hand: it looked like a camp chow line, or a soup kitchen, and—
"Johnny, come on!" J.J. was pulling him through the door, and they emerged into a giant, almost cathedral-like space. The air was dusty with light from the shuttered windows, and Johnny saw that the immediate area was set up as a restaurant, with tables, chairs, and a long oak bar against one wall. A series of empty planters divided this space from what had to be the main lobby area, though the furniture was all cloth-covered.
J.J. was wandering around the room, dwarfed in the enormous space. Johnny was about to tell him to come back, but then closed his mouth; he wasn't so far from ten that he couldn't imagine how cool this must be to explore, and it looked safe enough. He himself was drifting across the lobby toward the heavy oak door with its tasteful plaque reading "Office," when he heard what sounded like a shot.
With a squeak of sneakers, J.J. ran to his side, nearly knocking him over: "Didja hear that?"
"Yeah," Johnny said, and put a protective arm around his son's shoulder. "It's probably nothing, but just in case... Stay in here until I call for you, okay?"
J.J. frowned and looked like he might argue with him, and Johnny was moved by his son's obvious concern. Then J.J. nodded reluctantly and said, "Okay," and Johnny gently ran a hand over his son's head before making his way back through the kitchen and outside.
A blue pick-up truck was parked behind his Jeep, and an old man was standing in the drive, holding a shotgun. Johnny shielded his eyes from the sun and sized the man up before stepping away from the building and calling out, "Hello!"
The man turned toward his voice, half-bringing up the shotgun. Johnny started down the steps, using his cane rather more than he needed to, hoping to look non-threatening. The shotgun barrel dropped. "This is private property, Mister."
"Yes, I know—I'm sorry." Johnny extended a hand as he approached. "John Smith."
"Elijah Ralston," the man said, grudgingly. "I keep an eye on the place."
"I didn't know it had closed."
"Ayuh, years ago—twenty-five at least." Ralston made a hawking noise and spat into the dirt beside the drive. "The Birches has been around since 1890, but it couldn't survive the seventies. It was cheap plane fares killed the place; nobody's gonna drive all the way to western Maine when you can be in London, England in six hours, or Paris, France in seven. The luxury crowd took their business elsewhere, and so they closed the place up."
"It's a shame," Johnny said. "My father took me here when I was young, so I brought my son—kind of on a whim, I'm afraid. Obviously, I should have called first, but I couldn't imagine that the hotel wouldn't be here."
"Your son?" Ralston asked, and Johnny turned back toward the house and called for J.J., who instantly appeared from behind the balustrade like a puppet; he must have been hiding there and listening. Ralston grinned as J.J. barreled down the stairs. "My son, J.J.," Johnny said, feeling all paternal as J.J. shook Ralston's hand and then shrank back against Johnny's side. "This is Mr. Ralston," Johnny explained. "He's the caretaker—and we, I'm afraid, are trespassing."
"Naaah," Ralston said, waving that away, "you go on, have a look around with your boy. Just, sound carries out here, and I wanted to make sure you weren't vandals or looters."
Johnny raised a hand in oath. "Not a vandal or a looter, promise."
Ralston grinned as he headed back to his truck. "I'm gonna drive around, check out the perimeter of the place. You two feel free to explore the grounds."
"Great. Thanks a lot, Mr. Ralston," and Johnny and J.J. began to walk the thickly-weeded path toward the lake.
They passed the cracked red clay tennis court. Its lines were faded, its net long gone. They walked along the lakeside path and saw an overturned rowboat and a rotting wood pagoda which had once provided a view of the water. They passed an abandoned boathouse; J.J. rushed up to try the door, but it was locked. They reached the first of the small cabins where the guests stayed; they were spaced for privacy, some smaller, some larger. Johnny remembered the little gardens they'd had, and the gardens had all grown wild or died. He stopped as he recognized the bungalow he and his parents had occupied, the pink roses his mother had admired having grown into a huge pink rosebush that blocked the window and part of the door. Helplessly, Johnny drifted up the path until he was standing in front of the cabin, then slowly raised his hand and touched his fingers to the door, which flew open to reveal Sarah Bannerman—
Johnny leapt back, falling off the single step and landing hard on his ass. "Ow."
"Johnny! Are you all right?" J.J. was kneeling beside him on the path, but Johnny barely glanced at him: he couldn't take his eyes from the door. Sarah had been there. Sarah had been there. "Was it a vision?" J.J. asked worriedly.
"I. Uh. Yeah," Johnny said, trying to get his brain to work. He raised his hands and scrubbed at his face for a moment; he'd been hoping for a glimpse of his own mother, and he'd seen Sarah instead. Was that Freudian? Were his wires crossed? Or was that really a vision of past-or-future Sarah? "It's nothing, I'm fine, help me up."
He wanted to try again, but he was oddly disquieted at the thought of seeing Sarah again. Instead, he circled around to the back of the cottage, where another door let on to a dilapidated patio, and behind that, a copse of trees bordered by a low stone—
It wasn't a vision, but it felt like one; it had that same, strange, slow-motion, rapid-speed quality that his visions had, like time was out of joint. He followed a dirt path through the trees, dimly aware that J.J. was following him and saying his name over and over, but unable to stop. He came to a clearing and looked around: the wall was the same, every rock and crag was the same, and he reached out to grip the trunk of a tree and—
"That's good!" and Johnny whipped his head around and saw Walt nodding approvingly. He was standing in the clearing behind them, wearing a suede coat and carrying a rifle. "That's very good, J.J.—now get those last two."
"Okay, Dad!" J.J. said, and aimed his rifle again.
Johnny let go of the tree and went over to Walt. "I still don't like this," he said in a low voice. "Giving J.J. a gun—"
"Johnny, look at him." Walt lifted a hand and gestured toward J.J., who had picked off the last two milk bottles—kablam! kablam! "He's a natural."
"He's a child," Johnny pleaded. "We're arming a child, Walt."
"Yeah," Walt said quietly. "But we're not going to be here to protect him. It's the least we can do. Besides," he added with a shrug, "my dad taught me to hunt when I was his age. It's a Maine tradition." Walt briefly gazed up at the tall trees and the patches of sunlight streaming through them. "This is all a Maine tradition," Walt added in a quiet voice, and then he grinned and clapped Johnny on the back, "and I like it. Dirigo."
"Dirigo?" Johnny repeated.
"Dirigo." J.J. was behind him, holding his rifle in a cradle carry. Walt grinned and stretched out his hand, and J.J. smiled back and put his small hand on top of Walt's larger one. Then they both looked at Johnny, who quickly covered J.J.'s hand with his.
J.J. turned to look at him, and his pale blue eyes were almost translucent, like water. "This is the place," he said in a terrifyingly clear voice, "of new beginnings—"
—and Johnny blinked down at their joined hands, then looked up at his son's face. J.J. seemed unruffled at their sudden change of dimension. "I know this is going to sound weird," J.J. began, and then he made a face and added: "well, except, maybe not to you, because your whole life is weird. But I dreamed about being here. And Mom was here, and you, and Dad—my other dad," J.J. added awkwardly. "And then more people came, and then even more, after the war," and Johnny must have had some look on his face, because J.J. rolled his eyes and said, "Yeah, I know about the war, Dad. I'm not stupid," and right about then, Johnny decided he ought to sit down, and did.
"Okay, so—" Johnny pressed the heel of his hand against his right eye; he had a hell of a headache coming on. "—you've only had visions of—"
"They're not visions," J.J. interrupted; he was now sitting on the ground beside Johnny. "I told you: they're dreams. I'm asleep. They're nothing like what happens to you."
Johnny glared at him. "Aside from being prophetic images of the future?" J.J. suddenly looked frightened, like he'd never thought of it that way, and Johnny swallowed guiltily; he hadn't meant to scare the boy. "J.J., I'm sorry," he said, more gently. "I just—it's a lot to take in. Does anyone else know about this? Your mom or dad?"
"I told Mom the first time it happened; I thought it was just a weird dream. It was only when I began having the dream over and over—except, it wasn't the same dream. It was different each time, and really clear and real. I felt like I was there—"
"Where?" Johnny asked.
"Here." J.J. slammed his hand down onto the ground and then clawed at the dirt with his fingers. "I dream about here, about us being here. In the dream, we live here, and Mom is always here, and Bruce, and sometimes lots of other people, too, though sometimes not so many." J.J. frowned for a moment, looking thoughtful. "I think it depends on whether or not the war happens," he said, and Johnny felt shaken by the ease with which the words came out of his son's mouth. "Sometimes there's a war, and sometimes there's not. Sometimes you're here—and when you are, you're, like, the leader—but mostly you're not here. Dad's mostly not here, either, but when he is, he teaches me things: how to light a fire, filter water, check the Geiger counters—"
The wave of nausea was so strong that Johnny was sure he was going to retch, and so he turned and braced his palm on the ground, closed his eyes, and sucked desperately for air. It seemed to pass after a moment.
"Johnny?" J.J. scrambled closer, and clutched Johnny's shoulder with his small hand. "Dad? Are you all right?"
"I—yeah, yeah, yes," Johnny said, feeling oddly out of breath, or maybe that was panic coming; panic, finally, yes: hello. "I'm fine, I—" just got confirmation that I'm not crazy, that the war is really coming, that I'm supposed to be doing something: God, what am I supposed to be doing? "—just felt bad for a moment." He turned to brush his hand over J.J.'s soft blond hair, then cupped the back of his head and drew him in for a hug. J.J.'s arms came around him, and Johnny squeezed his son tighter and dropped a kiss on top of his head before pressing his cheek there.
"You know," Johnny said finally, pulling back and looking into his son's face, "I always wanted us to be closer, but not like this. I'm sorry if I have anything to do with—" and Johnny paused to touch two fingers to his son's forehead.
J.J.'s forehead wrinkled under his fingertips. "You really think I'm psychic?"
"I don't know," Johnny sighed. "Anybody ever drop you on your head?"'
But J.J. was already lost in his own thoughts. "So all that is really going to happen? We're going to come live here? And then maybe there's a war, like in your books? That's why you're reading those books, right?" J.J. said with all the smugness of a fourth-grader in on a secret. "You're trying to stop the war. You and Dad, you're going to stop it, right? You have a plan, and this place—this is part of the plan, right?"
There was only one answer to that question. "Absolutely," Johnny said feverently. "This is one hundred percent, totally part of my plan. Which is a great plan—but it's a secret, and so I need you to promise that you won't tell anybody about this, okay? Not even your Mom and Dad. This has got to be between us for right now. Promise?"
"I promise," J.J. said, and mimed zipping his lip.
He held J.J.'s hand as they made their way back across the resort to the Jeep, and it was like he'd been plugged directly into his son's brain and could see all of his dreams at once. The resort was suddenly thronged with people—some speeding past them in fast-forward, others in slow motion. Sarah seemed to be everywhere: chopping kindling in jeans and workboots, a red bandana tied around her hair; cheerfully yelling for J.J. to come help, he was needed in the henhouse; supervising the massive garden that had sprung up where the golf course had been; hugging a weeping teenaged boy and assuring him that he was all right, he was safe now. As before, the place seemed to be populated mostly by young people, which made the adults easier to pick out: Bruce—God, leading a cow? Was that a cow?—past him while talking to a young girl; Walt, who startled him by yelling, "What the hell are you people doing? I need ten guys at the south wall—now!" and striding off. Johnny's head turned to follow Walt, and he wanted to run after him and ask what they were doing here? Was this crazy commune his idea?—but J.J. was holding his hand, so Johnny kept walking.
He only saw himself once, alone, in a copse of trees, apart from everyone else. He seemed to be wandering aimlessly while muttering to himself —and that was just great; it was good to know that while Sarah and Bruce and Walt were preserving humanity in the face of the apocalypse, he could be counted on to talk to trees and freak out. Way to go, man. Huge leadership qualities, there.
J.J. let go of his hand and took off across the grass, abruptly dropping Johnny into isolation as everyone disappeared. He stopped, momentarily shocked by the return to reality—an overgrown golf course where the garden had been, a dilapidated shack where there had been a neat-looking hen house, the emptiness of miles where there had been a thriving community. He turned slowly and saw the place with different eyes. The mountains formed a natural barrier, useful for shunting away harsh weather or nuclear fallout. The valley seemed to be unusually soil-rich. Maine lake water was potable...
J.J. was walking up the mansion's broad stone banister, arms stretched out to either side like a tightrope walker, when Johnny finally caught up with him. "Get down from there!" he yelled, "now!" and his heart jumped into his throat as J.J. nimbly turned on his sneakers, then took a flying leap down, stumbling and ending up in a crouch. "Great," Johnny snorted, swatting J.J. when he came close, "you're gonna fall and crack your stupid head open and then you really will be psychic."
"Sorry," J.J. said, and he really did look sorry.
"Get in the Jeep," Johnny sighed, "and I'll take you down to Millinocket to ride the rollercoaster," and if there was a better way to take a kid's mind off an oncoming nuclear apocalypse, Johnny didn't know what it was.
Johnny enjoyed the amusement park more than he was expecting to. He'd had a sudden, sweating case of the heebie jeebies just before they went in: what if it was like the carnival he'd taken Sarah to the night of his accident? But the jeebies had abated the moment he passed through the turnstile: the park was huge, clean, and mechanical, a near-scientific exercise in flinging children around on big machines. Nothing supernatural about it: no wheel of fortune, no cryptic-looking gypsies, not so much as a guy in a turban. Instead, everything was huge and cheerful and yellow, and Johnny bought a giant wad of tickets and decided to let J.J. ride anything he was tall enough for as many times as he wanted.
Later, when he and J.J.'d ridden the Thundercoaster three times and been spun around so much they both had hair that was sticking up on one side, they checked in at the bright and child-friendly hotel across the street. They had hamburgers, fries, and vanilla shakes for dinner and J.J.—who was, by this time, crashing fast—made him promise that they'd play a round of miniature golf in the morning before heading back to Cleaves Mills. Johnny promised that they would.
That night, Johnny again sprawled on J.J.'s bed to watch the evening news on the hotel television (a 27 inch color television with cable) while J.J. drifted to sleep in a bed that was undoubtedly earwig-free. Senator John Seldon was traveling through Maine to draw attention to issues of rural poverty. Police arrested three in a drug bust in Haddonville. Bangor's annual Railroad History day was a success—toot toot!
"Can I tell you something?" Johnny looked down, and for a second, he thought he was hallucinating, because J.J. seemed to be asleep. Then his eyelids fluttered and opened.
"Course you can," Johnny murmured, gently tucking the blankets up around J.J.'s shoulders. "You can tell me anything."
For a moment, he thought that J.J. was just going to fall straight back to sleep, but J.J. snuffled and frowned and said: "It's just that I used to be Johnny. That was my name before you came, and then," and here, J.J.'s eyes started to close, "Dad started calling me J.J. It was weird, and I was kind of mad at you about it."
Johnny stared down in a mute sort of horror, not knowing what to say. "J.J.," he began, and then caught himself. "John—Johnny, I mean—I'm sorry."
"It's okay, I'm over it," J.J. said, and then yawned hugely, helplessly. "J.J.'s a cool name, too. It's like I have a secret identity. Like Spiderman."
"Just like Spiderman," Johnny agreed, thumb rhythmically stroking J.J.'s forehead. J.J. fell asleep smiling.
It was after sunset the next day when Johnny drove past the sign welcoming them back to Cleaves Mills. J.J. had fallen asleep all buckled into the passenger seat, having been worn out by a morning round of miniature golf, lunch at the food court of a video arcade, and an impromptu stop at a Toys R Us in the middle of their four hour drive back, where Johnny'd bought him a futuristic, radio-controlled vehicle that worked both on land and in water. It had been wildly overpriced, but Johnny couldn't help himself: a) it was really wildly cool and b) he really, really needed to spoil his son rotten right now.
The lights were on at the Bannerman house when Johnny pulled up in front. J.J. was blinking owlishly into the darkness, and Johnny said, "You want me to carry you in?"
J.J. looked appalled at the suggestion, and jerked upright. "No way!" he said. "Are you kidding, I'm ten! Nearly eleven!"
"Okay, whoa, sorry," Johnny said, defensively raising his hands. "My mistake!"
J.J. unlatched his seatbelt and said, "Fine, just don't do it again," and then he was flinging himself across the front of the Jeep and hugging Johnny, who hugged back in delighted surprise. "This was, like, the best weekend ever," J.J. said earnestly.
Yeah, great weekend: father-son bonding over an apocalyptic future, followed by rides, toys, and miniature golf. "Luke," Johnny said seriously, "I am your father."
J.J. rolled his eyes. "Great, I gotta be Luke, now? I was just getting to like J.J.."
"Get out of my Jeep," Johnny said, and J.J. grinned and half slithered over the seat to grab his backpack. "And don't forget your robot car!"
"I won't," J.J. said and slammed the door. "Thanks again, Dad—see you next week?"
Johnny leaned out the window. "Yeah, but it's not going to be rides and visions every weekend, okay? Maybe next time, just a movie."
"That's okay, too," J.J. said. He headed up the walk and rang the bell, and Johnny watched as a shadow crossed behind the drawn living room curtains and then opened the door. Sarah—and God, it had been so long since he'd seen her. He sat there and stared as J.J. hugged her and disappeared into the house. But Sarah just stood in the light of the hallway, framed by the screen door, and Johnny saw she was smiling. He reached up to flick on the Jeep's dome light, and her smile widened as she saw him. She raised her hand to wave, and he raised his hand in return—
—and suddenly Walt was there, pushing past her and opening the screen door and striding down the walk toward his Jeep. Johnny reached up quickly and flicked the dome light off; this scene, maybe, didn't need to be so brightly lit.
Walt leaned in the open passenger side window and said, with low urgency, "Say something to me, like we're having a conversation."
"We are having a conversation, Walt. Except only one of us is making sense."
"Great, great, that's good," Walt said. "Maybe just say one more thing."
"What the hell is the matter with you?" Johnny asked.
"Okay, fine," Walt said, and pushed up off the car. "Stay here while I get my jacket."
"What?" but Walt was already jogging up the steps to his front door. In the light of the hallway, Johnny saw Walt grab his jacket off the hook and say something to Sarah, who nodded and leaned up to kiss him—not routinely, giving him the shy peck on the cheek he so often observed, but hotly, one arm snaking around his neck. Walt's arm slid around her waist and tightened, jerking her up against him—and then Walt was pushing the screen door open and striding back toward him, and Sarah was smiling and waving at them both. Johnny was guessing the weekend had been a success.
Walt yanked open the passenger side door, got in, and slammed it shut. "Drive," he said.
Johnny stared across the front seat at him; Walt seemed to be simmering with energy, like he was elated, or angry, maybe even a bit high. "Where do you want to go?"
"Anywhere. I don't care. Just go," and Johnny put the Jeep in gear and drove off through the cool night air. "'How was your weekend, Walt?'" Walt said after a moment.
"How was your weekend, Walt?" Johnny repeated gamely, nervously moving his eyes between Walt and the road.
"It was great," Walt said, and he sounded a little breathless. "I mean, it was really great, Johnny."
"Yeah," Johnny said, arching an eyebrow. "Mahler has that effect on me, too."
"Fuck Mahler. That was three hours on Saturday night, and for the price of two tickets I got to see Sarah in a low cut dress she hasn't worn since J.J. was a toddler. Wait—slow down," Walt said suddenly, and Johnny put his foot on the brakes. "There," he said, pointing to what looked like a dirt driveway up ahead, "turn there—"
Johnny was confused but obeyed, slowing the Jeep down and turning into the narrow driveway. It was a wooded lot with a large corrugated shack up ahead, barely visible beyond his headlights. He heard the click of Walt's seat belt. "Okay. What's here?"
"Nothing," Walt replied. "It's commercial," and then Walt was shoving him up against the door, one hand cupping his jaw, the other fumbling in his pants.
"Jesus—" Johnny hissed before Walt smothered his mouth, and opening his mouth to protest just got him a mouthful of Walt's tongue. Walt slid his hand through the unzipped fly of Johnny's khakis and groped his dick through his underwear, rubbing him until he was hard, fingers seeking out and pressing against his sweet spots. Johnny struggled for air, and had just managed to worm his hands between them, grip Walt's shoulders, and push him away—when a message from his body reached his brain: fuck, he was really turned on, cock hard and leaking, and it had been a strange weekend and the war was coming (communes, fallout, and cows, apparently: Dirigo), and Walt's skin where his neck met his shoulders was rough and hot to the touch.
So why the fuck not? Johnny grabbed Walt's shirt and jerked him back, and they explored each other's mouths for long minutes while he humped Walt's hand. It was Walt who finally broke off the kiss, teasing Johnny's lower lip with his teeth before breaking away and saying, between rapid breaths: "We hardly left the hotel room, Sarah and me."
Johnny was sucking for air, too, but he raised his chin defiantly. "Oh yeah?"
"Yeah," Walt said, and then he leaned in for another rough kiss, and there was a flash of vision, this time—Sarah naked in Walt's lap, arms around his neck, head rolling backwards as he thrust up into her and she bore down on him,—and Johnny grabbed him by the hair to hold him for a few more seconds—Walt's hairy arm tightly curved around her waist, his other hand stroking down her belly until his thumb was circling her clit—when Walt tried to pull away. When Walt finally jerked back, Johnny twisted his face away, feeling angry and horny and desperate. He wanted to hit Walt, he wanted to see more, he wanted to come—and then Walt said in a low voice, still stroking his cock: "I used to picture you with her and it made me angry. Now it just makes me crazy."
"You're crazy, all right." Johnny felt hurt and wanted to hurt back, just a little. "What the hell is wrong with you?"
"I don't know. You tell me. I want both of you," and then, to his surprise, Walt went unresistingly down on him, one arm sliding around his lower back while he fumbled Johnny's erection out of his pants. Johnny groaned softly and slumped back against the Jeep's seat, spreading his thighs. Walt's mouth was wet and soft on his cock, and Johnny draped his arm over the seat back to get it out of the way. Panting raggedly, Johnny closed his eyes tightly as Walt sped up on him, using more of his mouth, licking and sucking more rhythmically. Oh, fuck, that was good, and suddenly he was there, shuddering in Walt's mouth and hearing his own incoherent groans and curses: "Oh, god, fuck—" He felt Walt inhale sharply and then swallow a couple of times.
Johnny lay there gasping, trying to find the breath to say, "Oh my God, this is so fucked up," when Walt lifted up from his lap and shocked him by murmuring, "I love you, John," before kissing him with sticky lips.
Johnny clutched at Walt's head and kissed him back with stupid desperation. "Yeah, I—me too," and he couldn't really decide if this made things more fucked up or less. "Come back to the house," he murmured against Walt's mouth. "I need you to—"
"Yeah," Walt said. "Yes. Okay."
He tugged Walt upstairs and began to strip him. When he'd first envisioned this, he was stunned to find out that he'd beg for it, but now begging felt easy. "C'mon—c'mon, Walt—hurry..." He tightened his grip on the headboard and let his head drop between his outstretched arms. Walt's hands were stroking down his sides and up his thighs, but Johnny didn't want it gentle; instead, he shut his eyes and shoved back hard, forcing Walt to flex every muscle or be flung backwards. Walt's fingers clawed into Johnny's skin, and his cock slid deep into Johnny's body. Christ, oh, it hurt, and Johnny went very still, sweating, his body trembling violently at the pleasure of it. Behind him, Walt shuddered, too, and buried his hot face against the back of Johnny's neck.
Finally, Johnny took a deep breath and exhaled it as, "Move," and Walt obeyed, moving slowly at first but picking up speed as Johnny urged him on, hissing encouragement. He was suddenly moaning incoherently, they both were, skin slipping against each other as they grunted and sweated and called out "...ohhhyeah..." and "...come on..." and "Jesus!" and then Johnny was convulsing and coming all over himself, and Walt was shoving him hard against the headboard and really giving it to him, and when Walt finally collapsed onto his back, Johnny just slid down and sank into a heap.
Walt rolled over and flung an arm across Johnny, who hooked his leg over Walt's before passing out.
He woke up with a start, and realized that Walt was gently disentangling himself. "It's all right, it's just me," Walt murmured through the darkness. "Go to back to sleep."
"Wait, don't," Johnny said, jerking up and blindly grabbing at Walt's chest and arms.
Walt stopped, hands skimming over him soothingly, trying to ease him back down. "Shh, it's okay. I've got to go. I told Sarah I had to help you with something—"
"That's right, yeah, you do." Johnny clutched at Walt's wrist. "Walt, I need—" and he stopped, because he was coming awake and his panic was ebbing. He glanced at the bedside clock: 2:30. Jesus, he'd fallen asleep; they must both have.
He turned back and saw that Walt was now staring at him with concern. "You all right?"
"I—" and it didn't have to be now. Not at three in the morning certainly. He'd been living with this nightmare for years, and having sex with Walt for weeks now, and he'd only found out that J.J. might be psychic yesterday, and "—oh my God, Walt, I need to tell you something. Right now."
He ended up taking Walt down to the basement, and there was just nothing like sitting in your bathrobe and explaining the end of the world to your police sheriff/lover/husband-of-your-child's-mother while he stood there, cross-armed, in his boxer shorts and frowned at your five years' worth of paranoid diagrams. He thought it was a testament to Walt's amazing strength of character that he just listened patiently to everything Johnny had to say— Stillson, the apocalypse, the coming nuclear winter, the various versions of the future he'd observed, J.J.'s dreams, the commune, Sarah, Bruce, and the cow—without interrupting or saying, "What?" or "Are you nuts?" or backing away slowly and calling 911. Instead, Walt just nodded at occasional key points to show that he was following all this, understanding and believing it, and oh, how Johnny loved him, then.
When Johnny finally rolled to a stop, Walt blew out a breath and said, "Well. Okay. Wow," and okay, great that he was staying calm, but that was maybe even a little too calm.
"Wow?" Johnny repeated. "Is that all you've got to say?"
"Well, I'm a lot less worried about my retirement than I was forty minutes ago," Walt retorted, "but other than that, 'wow' seems to cover it. It's a lot to take in, John."
"I know. I know." Johnny began to pace nervously in his bathrobe. "I'm sorry."
Walt went over to the whiteboard and began studying his timeline with the same intensity he brought to his regular police cases: the accident, his visions, the key dates of Greg Stillson's rapidly ascending career, and then his projection of the nuclear blast, the destruction of the whole eastern seaboard at a minimum and—
"Jesus." Walt raised his hands to his head. "Jesus, God."
"Yeah," Johnny said, swallowing.
Walt turned to look at him with wide, staring eyes. "You really believe this."
"And you've known about this for how long?"
"Three years," Johnny said, and rubbed his own aching head. "Give or take."
Walt was using the same blank, steady voice that Johnny had heard him use at particularly horrible crimes scenes. "Who else knows?"
"Bruce—well, sort of," Johnny sighed. "He calls it my 'Chicken Little' thing."
"Right," Walt said softly, and turned back to the whiteboard. "The sky is falling."
Walt stood there for another moment, staring, and then began to back away slowly. "I need to think," he said, almost inaudibly. "I need to think," and then he suddenly seemed to remember that Johnny was there, and jerked to look at him. "I need to sleep on this. I need to, just, process—my brain is fried, I can't even..."
"It's okay," Johnny murmured. "Do you want me to drive you home?"
"I'm not going," Walt said, and picked up the phone. "I've got to call Sarah."
Johnny grabbed his arm, shocked. "You can't. It's four in the morning—"
Walt yanked his arm away as he punched in the number. "Don't worry, we got a system." He put the phone to his ear and said, "She turns her cell off at night and checks her voicemail first thing if I don't—hey, Sarah," Walt interrupted, "it's me, I'm fine, I'm gonna stay at Johnny's tonight, okay? Call me here or on my cell if you want me, otherwise I'll check in tomorrow. Bye." Walt beeped the phone off, put it down on the desk, and stared at it. "You know, I told her that you wanted to talk to me about a vision you were having, a really bad one. See what you get for lying to your wife?"
"Lying is bad," Johnny said quietly, "and what we're doing—well, God knows what we're doing. But it's not that bad, Walt. Nothing's that bad. Nobody deserves—"
"Shh. Don't say it. I can't think about it now. I need to sleep."
But Walt didn't sleep—not at first, anyway; not for a long time. They lay there together in the darkness, staring up through the dim light at the ceiling. After a while, Walt rolled over and buried his face against Johnny's shoulder, and Johnny cupped his hand around Walt's neck, gently stroking his thumb against the soft, warm skin. Finally, Walt seemed to drop off—but Johnny felt the sudden speeding of Walt's heart even before he heard his panicked gasp, and then Walt jerked up and said, from out of the nightmare: "Sarah! J.J.! We have to get them out of here, we've got to get them somewhere safe—"
"Yeah," Johnny replied instantly, hands going to Walt's shaking shoulders. "We're gonna do that, okay? I think we do that, I think that's how the commune starts."
"Right. Okay," Walt said, and he seemed calm enough now, but Johnny could feel heat steaming off him; his heart was pounding, and he was sweating. "The commune..."
"Shh, come here," Johnny said, and drew him down again, and maybe it was the exhaustion that comes in the wake of adrenaline, but Walt dropped into his arms and was unconscious within seconds.
Johnny woke with a start, alone, in bed, at—what? God, past eleven o'clock in the morning, and for a moment, he was sure that he'd dreamed everything, because face it, the whole weekend had a surreal quality, what with Armageddon and the roller coasters and the sex—
Except those were Walt's boots. Johnny sat up in bed and stared at them, and a moment later, he became aware that the door to the terrace was open a crack.
Walt was sitting outside in the cool morning air wearing his jeans and Johnny's bathrobe, a cup of coffee on one side, a legal pad braced on his knee. He was sitting on a wicker deck chair that Johnny never used, bare feet braced on an ottoman; Johnny himself came out here only very occasionally, mostly on nights when he couldn't sleep, to wander around and look at the stars.
"Hey," Johnny said, and Walt looked up. "It's late, I thought you left already."
"I called in," Walt said distractedly, looking down at his notes again. "They'll beep me if something important comes up," and Johnny saw that Walt had his cell phone clipped to the bathrobe's pocket. "C'mere," Walt added, and waved Johnny over to the other chair. "I want to talk about this."
"About what?" Johnny asked, and sat down in his pajamas.
"A plan," Walt said.
"A plan, any plan, about maybe having one. Because we should have one. And right now we don't, do we?"
"No we don't," Johnny sighed, "but we weren't a 'we' until about two seconds ago. 'We' were a 'me' and a Bruce making fun of me."
"Well, I'm not making fun of you. Not about this, anyway," Walt added, and reached for his coffee. "But those pajamas are cute."
Johnny crossed his arms and refused to look down. "They're warm."
"I get cold at night."
"I know," Walt said softly; in fact the knowledge in his voice made Johnny's stomach flip.
Johnny swallowed, then crossed his legs to hide his growing erection. Damn thermal pajamas showed everything. "So? What's your plan, Planmeister?"
Walt instantly looked down at his pad, and Johnny breathed a quiet sigh of relief. "Well, most of all that we should have one. More than one, in fact. It seems to me from what you've said that you've been mostly waiting, hoping for some kind of tangible evidence to—"
"That's not fair," Johnny interrupted, sitting up angrily. "It hasn't just been waiting, I've been investigating, and Reverend Purdy said—" and he couldn't believe that he was about to quote Purdy's point of view on anything, but he couldn't help it; he believed it, "—Purdy believes that everything that happened, everything that is happening, is helping me prepare for—something. This."
"Purdy knows?" Walt asked with a frown.
Johnny shook his head and sighed. "No, but Purdy's a religious man. He thinks I'm a prophet, and he figures that God doesn't make with the prophets unless something pretty big's about to go down."
Walt thought about that for a moment, then said: "Well, I hate to say it, but he's got a point." Johnny's shock must have been evident on his face, because Walt looked uncomfortable and quickly added: "I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm not Mr. Sunday School or anything, but it's hard not to believe there's some point to all of this. Sure, accidents happen, and bad things happen to good people, but not this. You in an accident, okay; you in a coma, okay; you coming out of that coma," and here, Walt began to look skeptical, "and being psychic? That means something, and I believe in it, whatever it is. And I don't think we can wait anymore—"
"I wasn't just waiting," Johnny ground out. "I was investigating—"
"I don't mean that as an insult. I think you did a lot just figuring out what was happening, learning how your visions work. I think Purdy's right: these years have been some kind of preparation for you. I mean, you're really good at this now. You're really on your game with this thing. But I think maybe we've got to start being proactive, take the fight to them—"
"To who?" Johnny asked.
"To Stillson, for one thing," Walt said, tapping his pen against the pad. "There's got to be some way to take him down, to find out what kind of threat he represents and neutralize it. But that's not it, that can't be all—we need a plan B and a plan C and a plan D. And also, we've gotta get Sarah and J.J. out of here, not just because of the war, but because if we take the fight to Stillson, he's gonna hit us back, and that's where we hurt most, you and me."
Johnny frowned. "Yeah, you said this last night, and I told you—I mean, I think that's what the commune is for. That's probably why we go up there. It must have been your idea—"
"What was my idea?" Walt asked patiently.
"The commune. I told you—J.J. and me have both been having visions of a compound in the mountains. It used to be a resort, it's got a lake, it's surrounded by mountains, it's defensible—"
"Hell, I like it so far," Walt said.
"—it's got decent soil and," Johnny drifted off into memory, "it was full of young people. Our future, I guess, if the war comes, or maybe just people we have to protect. We grew vegetables and raised chickens and cows. You taught J.J. to shoot—"
"Hey, I learned to hunt when I was his age," Walt said, a bit defensively. "My dad taught me."
"Yeah, that's what you said," Johnny sighed. "A Maine tradition. Dirigo," and then he stopped and frowned at Walt. "I just remembered that. In the vision you said, 'Dirigo': any idea what that means?"
"I'm guessing you don't work for the government. And not just because of your big fancy house, here. It's the state motto," Walt explained with a wry smile, "Dirigo, it's on the, you know, stationery and stuff, the flag, the—" Walt waved his hand impatiently, "—shield, crest, whateverthehell, right under a picture of the North Star. Dirigo, it's, I don't know, must be Latin, I guess, and it means, 'I direct' or 'I lead'—you know, because of the star; you get guided by the North Star when you..." and suddenly Walt's face changed. He stared at Johnny for a long moment and then said, slowly, "When you're sailing. Or lost. Oh my God."
Johnny leaned forward and gripped Walt's arm tightly. "Don't freak out on me, man! You're creeping me out, here!"
Walt yanked his arm away and stumbled to his feet, pad crashing to the floor, pen rolling away. "I'm creeping you out? Jesus Christ! This from the guy who brought you the Twilight Zone!"
"Walt." In a second Johnny was up, too, palms raised; he felt weirdly desperate. "Just take a minute, okay? I know this is hard, but—"
"Hard? Is that what you think?" and he didn't think he'd ever seen Walt so flipped out; Walt Bannerman never flipped out, not like this. "Well, you're wrong. It's not hard, it's easy," Walt said, and his palms were raised against Johnny, like he was the threat. "Don't you get it? I'm the only one in the world who's not lost. I'm the only one who knows where the North Star is."
"I know. I know. Believe me," and he eased close and put his arms around Walt when he lost it.
Walt absolutely forbade him to discuss anything of any importance on the telephone, ("because Stillson knows enough to know you don't like him, and I don't trust Purdy as far as I could throw him, not to mention that the Feds probably have a file on you an inch thick"), and so Johnny called Walt and just said, "I need to see you."
He could hear strange noises in the background, and then Walt said, "I can't get away right now; I'm at J.J.'s game, semifinals," and so that was the noise: screaming parents. "I could come by later, if you want, or why don't you come over here? We're only a few minutes into the first period."
Johnny glanced at his watch, then said, "Okay. I'll be right over."
Walt was waiting for him at the entrance to the rink, and he followed him to a high, empty bleacher with a decent view of play. Johnny handed him a large manila envelope and said, "Check this out." It had taken some fancy hacking to track down who owned the Birches now: its original owner had been Halbert Dennis, but the place had been sold to a corporation in 1980, and that corporation had been eaten by two others in the mergers and acquisitions fury of the eighties and nineties, and then it had been spun off as a valuable tax write-off to the retiring CEO of one of those companies, who had died and left it to his philanthropist wife, who, too, had died and, like Vera Smith, left all her assets to—
"Oh, you're shitting me," Walt muttered, having worked his way to the end of the documents. "Faith Heritage?"
"Uh-huh." The crowd suddenly cheered—a goal for the Clams!—and Johnny clapped along with them. "But they don't know they have it. It's just a random asset tucked in among the other random assets they've got squirreled away. It's worthless, I'm sure I can get it—"
"No." Walt's head jerked up. "I mean, yes, but you don't want to draw any attention to it. What we need is a dummy corporation, something that can't be traced to us. Actually, I know a guy who might be able to help us with that."
The crowd roared again, and they both looked at the ice, instinctively applauding. "Old friend?" Johnny asked.
"Yep," Walt said, and grinned. "I arrested him, twice. Leave this part of it to me." Walt folded the papers in half and tucked them into an inside pocket. "You just pry some of your assets out of the Reverend Purdy's tight-fisted hands."
"Right. Will do," Johnny said, and then they watched the game companionably for a while, cheering and pointing out plays. J.J. was playing well, and the Clams had the lead, and Johnny turned to Walt at the end of the second period to ask if maybe they ought to take J.J. out for a celebratory dinner.
"I will." Walt was wearing an oddly serious expression. "You should go see Sarah," and everything went away like Walt had pressed a mute button for the entire rink. He could vaguely see the kids clustered on the bench in their white uniforms and helmets, and was dimly aware of the sign-waving and chatter of overexcited parents, but the only thing in the whole world right now was Walt Bannerman and his amazing, insane suggestion.
"I mean it. You should go see her, you should—" and Johnny could see a muscle twitching in Walt's cheek, he could see what it was costing Walt to say this, "—just, go, all right? I know she wants to see you, she still misses you, she—" and here, Walt looked away, "still says your name sometimes, when—"
"Jesus!" Johnny hissed. "Are you out of your freakin'—"
Walt's hand clamped down hard on Johnny's wrist. "We're going to have to tell her about the war soon. We're going to have to tell her that we want her to start a commune in the middle of Western Maine so that civilization doesn't die when the nuclear holocaust comes. We're probably going to have to tell her—everything." Walt's face was grim, but his fingers relaxed a little. "But right now," Walt said, taking a deep breath and turning back toward the rink, "I'm going to watch the rest of this game and then take J.J. out for pizza and ice cream, win or lose. I won't be home until seven at the earliest."
Johnny felt knotted inside: everything he wanted was being dangled in front of him, but God, it was wrong in at least three different ways. "Walt. Christ. I can't—"
But Walt just stared out at the ice, refusing to meet his eyes. "Yes, you can. Everything's about to change, John. We're living on borrowed time: we have almost no more normal life left." He lifted his chin and repeated: "I won't be home until seven at the earliest." Johnny just sat there, stunned and hyperventilating, until Walt turned to him with a desperate expression and said, almost angrily: "For God's sake—go!" and Johnny got up and fled the arena.
Johnny sat, paralyzed, in the driver's seat of his Jeep, unable to make himself leave the parking lot. He couldn't possibly do what Walt had suggested: okay, Walt had said it, but he hadn't meant it. Because he couldn't mean it, and even if he did—even if Walt was right and he should carpe every diem before the whole world was a yawning black hole in an ocean of fire—well, that was hardly fair to Sarah, was it?
He clutched the wheel tightly. Sarah didn't know what the special occasion was. It wasn't right.
They could just talk, Johnny decided. Walt had told him to go see Sarah, and so that's what he'd do: he'd go see Sarah. They weren't horny teenagers anymore, and they'd both gotten used to being 'just friends'. Sarah would make him coffee, and she'd ask him what was new, and he'd—well, he'd change the subject. But there were plenty of other things to talk about. She was his best friend, after all.
He practically ran up the walk to the Bannerman house. The front door was open, but the screen door was locked, so Johnny rapped nervously on it and called out "Sarah?" He squinted through the screen as Sarah emerged from the laundry room, glanced toward the door, and spotted him.
Sarah smiled and started to run for the door. "Johnny?" she said, and then she was shoving the screen door open and throwing her arms around him. Johnny felt like his heart was about to burst with emotion: Sarah had never greeted him like this, not since the accident, anyway. At first she'd been too shocked to touch him, like he might break—or maybe like she would. After that, they'd kept their distance because of the palpable sexual tension between them, greeting each other with clasped hands and smiles and maybe a chaste kiss on the cheek. Later, after they'd given into temptation, guilt had kept them apart, avoiding each other's touch. But now, maybe due to the months of separation or maybe because her relationship with Walt felt more secure, Sarah was greeting him the way she used to—with a hug so big that he was helpless to do anything but sweep her up into his arms. "Johnny!"
"Sarah," Johnny murmured into her hair, and some part of him thought he just might die of this.
She pulled out of his arms and looked left and right before pulling him into the house and closing the door. "What are you doing here?" she asked, though she seemed flushed with pleasure to see him, and a little giggly. "If Walt finds out—"
"Walt sent me here," Johnny said, and saw surprise cross her face. "I was just with him, down at J.J.'s game, and he said—"
"He said what?" Sarah asked.
"He said you missed me. And he knows how much I miss you. And he said," and Johnny was going to hyperventilate if he wasn't careful, "he said you were home and that I should come over and see you."
Sarah let out a laugh that was more than half relief. "Well, thank God, the man's finally come to his senses," and then she was hugging him again and he was—God—so intoxicated with the feel of her. "And he's right," Sarah said softly. "Oh, Johnny, I've missed you so much..." He had only come to talk, but he hadn't known that he would have the chance to hold her, to hug and kiss—
It was so easy to kiss her, so natural, and Sarah slid an arm around his neck and kissed him back for a long, slow moment that left him dizzy. And then, all of a sudden, he couldn't be slow anymore, and he slid his hands down the curve of her back to her ass and lifted her up, pulling her hard against his body before pushing her back against the wall. Christ, he wanted her so bad, and she was breathless and grinding against him, her arm crooked tight around his neck, her other hand in his hair.
When they broke for air, Sarah let her head fall back and panted up at the ceiling. "Walt—"
"He knows," Johnny murmured, breathlessly kissing and licking her throat.
"What?" Sarah stared at him.
"He knows, Sarah. It's all right, I swear," and Sarah stared at him for one more second before grabbing his hair, pulling his mouth to hers, and kissing him hard—and holy shit, this was really going to happen. When Sarah pulled hair she was seriously turned on.
"Upstairs," Sarah gasped the next time they broke for air. "Johnny," and maybe she'd expected him to put her down, but for the first time since the accident he felt strong enough to take her and the stairs at the same time, and so he carried her up. He stopped outside her bedroom door to push her back against the wall and slide his fingers down the neck of her blouse, unbuttoning one, two, three tiny mother of pearl buttons until he could reach in to unhook the front-closure of her bra. She gasped as he exposed her breasts, and he leaned forward to put his mouth on her, needing to do it, desperate to do it. He cupped the underside of her breast, tongue moving unerringly to her nipple, which went hard and tight in his mouth.
She groaned, and he slid her down the wall until she found her feet so he could cup her breasts with both hands while he licked and sucked. Her chest was rising and falling rapidly as she gasped for air and made little, breathy noises that nearly drove him out of his mind. He was sinking to his knees, hand sliding down to tease the denim seam that ran between her legs, when she grabbed the hem of his shirt and tugged it up over his head. "Bedroom, now—"
He got to his feet and tried to unbutton her jeans as they stumbled through the doorway, though he kept being distracted by her hands, which were nimbly unbuckling his belt, unzipping his fly, and reaching into his pants. He hissed with pleasure as her hand clutched him through his underwear, and he gave up suddenly on the fourth button of her tight buttonflies and just slid his hand down against her flat stomach and into her underwear. She gasped and closed her eyes as he shoved his fingers deeper, lower, worming his way in—God, hot damp tangle of curls, reminding him of the happy eternity they'd spent on third base back in the day. Kissing for hours on the front seat of the Cadillac, his hand between her legs. How she'd been so nervous at first, and had kept tightening her thighs on his wrist, and how after—God, what had it been? Days? Weeks?—she had grown comfortable enough to let him touch her there, stroke her there, lick and kiss her there. Man, he'd gone down on her for hours in the back seat of that big ol' Cadillac, and then he had fucked her till she shivered—God, he wanted to do that again, he wanted to go back, to relive it. He wanted his life back.
"Christ, I loved that car," Johnny blurted.
Sarah looked up from where she was trying to undo the remaining buttons of her jeans around his hand, which had pulled the fabric even tighter, driving his hand against her harder, and her face was suddenly suffused with unbearable tenderness. "Oh, me too, Johnny. Me, too."
His mind was so full of Sarah—Sarah here, in his arms; Sarah there, in the car; Sarah lying stretched along the front seat to give him head as he gasped and clutched the wheel; Sarah pushing him down on the Cadillac's long back seat; Sarah pushing him back onto the bed—that it wasn't until his head sank into the pillow that he was suddenly ambushed by Walt, rolling on top of Sarah, her smooth legs curving around his back, ankles crossing and, God, yes, he was fucking her, and—"Johnny?" Sarah was above him, straddling him, staring down at him worriedly. "Are you all right?" and Johnny sucked in a deep breath and reached up for a breast and said, "I'm fantastic," and this was Walt's bed, too, Walt and Sarah's, and Johnny was suddenly sure that if he just turned his head, he would see him, lying there on the bed beside them. Walt would be sleeping or reading or just jerking off, or he would be curled behind Sarah with his arms around her, cuddling her and kissing the back of her neck, and Sarah was down between his legs, hand pulling his cock to her soft, wet lips, and Walt was fucking her from behind, one hand slipping down between her legs to—and Johnny pushed her onto her back and got on top of her, burying himself inside of her, feeling her arms come around his neck and her knees grasp at his hips, and then he was moving inside her, faster and faster, and it was only the two of them: Johnny and Sarah, making love.
Afterwards, Johnny dozed briefly in her arms, and then woke with a start; he had to get Sarah home, her roommate would be—
He lifted his head and looked at the clock: 6:43.
—home around seven. Johnny lifted his body up further but was stopped by Sarah's hand on his arm. God, she was beautiful: bare-breasted, her brown nipples round and hard, her mouth red with kisses, her eyes serious and curious.
"Johnny," Sarah said in the soft, reasonable voice you used to talk to upset children or the insane, "when you say that Walt knows, you mean...?"
Johnny blew out a breath and rolled over on his back; he should have known that he was going to have to field these questions, but he had no idea how. Honesty, he supposed, but perhaps limited honesty—at least, for now. "I mean that he knows. About us," he said, and reached out to take Sarah's hand in his. "About this," he said, and squeezed her fingers. "I mean, face it, Sarah: we haven't changed, you and me. We've stayed apart these few months, but we're not any different. I still love you and I think you still love me." He looked at her for confirmation and she nodded, blinking away tears. "But Walt—" and this was the hard part to explain, "Walt has changed. He and I, we've been spending a lot of time together, and we've," God, "talked a lot about—well, everything, and, like. Walt and me, we're um—we're good. We've come to what you might call an—understanding."
Sarah sat up, knees bent, and rubbed tiredly at her eyes. "An understanding? What kind of understanding could you possibly have?" she asked, letting her hands drop with a soft thwack to her bare thighs. "I've spent years trying not to be torn between the two of you, and now—what, suddenly it's fine?"
Johnny bit his lip. "Maybe. I mean, Walt is...a lot less threatened by me now. And he's a lot more confident in his relationship with you. I think he knows now, deep down, that the last thing I want is to get between the two of you," except God, that was a lie, that was the wrong image entirely, think of—dolphins; dolphins jumping in the aquarium, somersaulting for fish. "I mean, that I don't want to take you away from him, I don't want to break up your marriage, I'm not trying to steal you or J.J.—"
"Johnny, calm down," Sarah said softly, and put her hands on his shoulders.
"I am not trying to destroy your lives, I swear," Johnny said, feeling like he was maybe having a heart attack, his heart was pounding so fast. "I love you. I love both of you," and that was all the truth he could manage right now, all the truth he could stand to share.
"All right, it's all right," Sarah murmured, and she was using her upset child/crazy person voice again. "Just—stay calm," but Johnny glanced at the clock, leapt out of bed, and began searching for his clothes. Sarah caught his sense of urgency and also began getting dressed fast.
"Sarah, please, just promise me," Johnny said, shoving a leg into his pants, "that you won't torture Walt with questions about this. I mean, he's been trying so hard to make things work, to show you how much he loves you—"
Sarah's eyebrows flew up. "Is that what this is about?"
"Yes. No. Sarah, please," and where the hell was his shirt? Right, the hallway, "just give it a little time, okay?" Johnny slid his shirt over his head and tucked it into his pants. "This isn't the way any of us thought our lives were going to work out, but maybe when push comes to shove, too much love is better than not enough."
They'd made it downstairs to the kitchen by the time Walt and J.J. came back. Sarah quickly made a pot of coffee and put out a plate of cookies, and Johnny slurped down half a cup and messily ate two cookies to create the impression of—well, just a couple of old friends, catching up over coffee.
Johnny heard the screen door bang even before he heard J.J.'s yell of "Mom!" A moment later, J.J. was in the kitchen, flushed and breathless and waving his stick. "We won the semifinals!—hi, Johnny."
"All right!" Sarah gave J.J. a high five, while Johnny said: "Hey, J.J., that's great."
There was a barely-perceptible moment of tension as Walt came into the kitchen, looked at him, then looked at Sarah—and then everything was normal, normaller than normal, hyper-normal. "Hey, Johnny, how're you doin'?" Walt asked, but he was crossing the kitchen toward Sarah and bending to give her a kiss on the cheek—and then a second, hotter kiss to her mouth.
"Great, fine," Johnny said. "What was the final score?"
"3-1. It was a killer game, right, J.J.?" and then J.J. was describing the game in great detail, and they could all of them just breathe a sigh of relief and relax. Sarah put together a quick dinner.
"Walk me out to the Jeep?" Johnny asked Walt as he was leaving, and Walt called over his shoulder to Sarah, who was loading the dishwasher, "Be right back, okay?" It had gotten dark, and Walt followed Johnny out to where he'd parked, and only then, when they were a safe distance from the house, did Walt say, in a low voice, "What did you want to tell me?" and Johnny pushed him up against the door and kissed him, once, deeply, before getting into the Jeep and driving away.
A few days later, Walt showed up at the house with a pepperoni pizza and the papers for a dummy corporation called North Star, Inc. Johnny examined them carefully, then told Walt that he'd decided to buy the Birches through an intermediary, one of his father's friends, a stockbroker in Portland.
"My father knew money the way my grandfather knew mines," Johnny explained, "and he had a lot of friends in the financial markets who can agent purchases for us, guys we can trust. What's important, I think, is that we don't use the same intermediary twice; we should spread ourselves out over a network, buy things discreetly. That way, we're not leaving a trail of invoices for somebody to find. We—well, not us, North Star—North Star is going to be buying a helluva lot of stuff."
"Let's start with guns," Walt said grimly. "I'm thinking small arms, mostly self-defense weapons, but maybe a couple of stationary cannons, too. And knives—knives are going to be essential."
Johnny twisted the top off a bottle of beer. "Medical supplies. Canned goods, bottled water, water purification tables. Blankets. Matches. Wire. Rope. Duct tape. Candles."
Walt was nodding to himself now: "Fuel: oil, kerosene, gas, batteries, a couple of generators," he said, pulling over a pad of paper and beginning to scribble things down. "We can't count on electricity or running water if the worst comes. We'll need hardware and as many different kinds of tools as we can get our hands on. Radios, both for listening and the two-way kind, for communication—"
Johnny pressed the cold bottle of beer to his forehead. "Oh my god, we're so out of our depth—"
"We'll be all right," Walt said, looking up. "But I want to go up there as soon as possible, find out what's on site. I'm hoping that the place has got a lot of supplies already, or at least room for them; if it was a resort, I'm betting it'll have a massive pantry, a massive freezer—"
"Right," Johnny said, suddenly flooded with relief. "Linens. Lightbulbs. People do this, they run hotels; we just pretend that we're running a hotel. That's how we'll do it, we'll find a company to stock the place, buy things in bulk, soap, toilet paper—"
"The Hotel Dirigo," Walt said, staring down at his list. "Visit us here at the end of the world. Check out's a quarter past Doomsday." He sighed, and rubbed at his face. "Johnny, we need Sarah."
Johnny groaned softly. "I know. But I'm not ready, Walt; how do I tell her that the world might end?"
"I don't know, but we have to; she's smart, she'll think of things, and we need as many brains as possible. And after we talk to Sarah, you've got to have a sit down with Bruce. After that, I'm not sure who we should tell, who we can trust—"
"I think I'll know," Johnny said quietly. He looked down at his hands, and then lifted them, turning them palms up. "I think my gift will be good for that much. We'll know who to tell."
Walt stared at him for a long moment, and then nodded, and then he was gripping Johnny's hand tightly and pulling him up, off the kitchen stool he was sitting on. Johnny went easily, letting Walt tug him into the living room and down onto the sofa. They lay there, half-draped across each other, groping each other roughly as they kissed. Finally, Johnny shoved Walt backwards and pushed his thighs apart. Walt's chest heaved wildly as Johnny went down on him, biting and sucking him through the fabric of his pants before unzipping him and sucking his cock down. Johnny teased him for a long time, drawing his tongue up against the long, throbbing vein on the underside and around the smooth, swollen head, and Walt lay there writhing and gasping until he pushed Johnny off and grabbed himself with both hands, jerking himself frantically until he came in three hard spurts along his belly.
Johnny reached out almost helplessly and slid his fingers through the trail of semen. "Oh yeah," Walt murmured. "Go on, touch yourself," and Johnny shivered at the intense want in his voice. "I want to watch," and Johnny closed his eyes and lay back against the soft cushions of the sofa, unzipping himself and slowly stroking himself with his come-slick hand. He heard Walt moan softly and opened his eyes. Walt was touching himself, too: cupping his balls and occasionally stroking his half-hard cock. "Did you and Sarah—?" Walt asked breathlessly.
"Yes," Johnny gasped, and stroked himself faster.
"Where, upstairs? In our bed?"
Walt's face contorted with what looked like pain, but he didn't stop stroking himself. "God, it hurts, but at the same time, it's good, it's—Jesus. Did you have visions of me?"
"Yes. Yes. You were everywhere."
"God, that's not fair. I want to see you and her, I want to watch you do it," and suddenly Johnny was thrashing, fucking his fist hard and coming all over himself. A second later, Walt was hovering over him, hands kneading his hips, leaning down to lick come off his belly.
"You know what's funny?" Walt asked, lifting his head. "I don't mind that you've seen me with Sarah, and I want to see you with Sarah, but I can't stand the thought of her knowing about us. I mean, I don't think I could even kiss you in front of her, let alone—you know. But when it's us, here, alone? I really want to fuck you. God, I want to fuck you stupid."
"She has to know," Johnny said breathlessly. "We have to tell her," and he wanted to tell Walt that there would be no way to hide what they were doing if they all went up to live at the Hotel Dirigo. They'd have to tell Sarah or stop—but Walt had pulled Johnny's pants off and was lifting his legs up over his shoulders, and Johnny knew right there that he would never tell Walt to stop.
The Hotel Dirigo was sold to the North Star corporation on a Thursday afternoon, and Walt arranged for J.J. to spend the following Saturday night at a friend's house so that Johnny could invite them over for dinner, and he and Walt could break the news about the end of the world to Sarah. Johnny figured that the whiteboard was at his place, and the Stillson clippings, and the files, and anything else he might need to convince Sarah of the oncoming apocalypse; it was also a more isolated location if she got upset. Johnny was too nervous to cook, and so had the whole thing catered; still, it was all he could manage to uncork the wine and light a couple of candles, and he swigged a couple of glasses to calm his nerves. His tie seemed to be tied too tightly.
He saw right away that Sarah guessed something was up; she was smiling as she handed him a bottle of wine and the fresh cheesecake she'd bought at Gianni's, but her eyes were curious. He'd never invited her over for a formal dinner, preferring to take her to restaurants, which seemed more public and therefore more appropriate; Sarah was a married woman, after all. He'd certainly never invited her and Walt over as a couple, even though they had him over to dinner weekly; Walt had made it clear, in his more hostile days, that Johnny's role was to be that of guest and his posture one of gratitude, and Johnny had followed the rules. So he had never played host, and now, maybe he'd overdone it a little; just as Sarah said, "Oh, what a beautiful table you've put together!" Walt passed him and muttered, "Sometimes I forget you're so damn rich."
Johnny poured them each a drink and waved them to sit down and relax while he went to check on the food. But Sarah followed him into the kitchen and took over the meal, instructing him to take the salad and the basket of bread out to the table, suiting up with oven mitts to peer at the salmon and vegetables heating in the oven, and setting the timer before stripping off the mitts and gliding into the dining room with a smile. Incredibly, they managed to make small talk—or at least, Sarah and Johnny did. Sarah told Johnny what had been going on with J.J. that week, and Johnny told her that some mutual friends of theirs had just had a baby—a girl.
"I don't think they even knew about the coma," Johnny said wryly, pouring himself another glass of wine. "They just called the same number they always used to call, and here I was."
"They're in California," Sarah explained to Walt.
"It was kind of nice," Johnny said, and twisted the stem of his wine glass. "They didn't have any of that, 'oh, I'm so sorry to hear about your tragic accident' tone, they just jumped right into, 'Hey, Johnny, guess what?'" Johnny frowned and added, "Is it possible that they were drunk?"
"Not drunk; really, really tired," Sarah said with a knowing smile. "Though it feels kind of the same."
Walt was unusually quiet for most of the evening; he just sat there, fiddling with his scotch glass, the tension of waiting clear on his face. Sarah was making little apologetic faces at Johnny, who waved them away and mouthed, "It's fine," at her when Walt wasn't looking.
They cleared the dishes and set the dessert plates and coffee cups on the thick white tablecloth, and then Johnny looked at Walt, who set his jaw and nodded. It was time to start.
"Sarah," Johnny began, and Sarah instantly clinked her china coffee cup down on its saucer and gave Johnny her full attention. He swallowed. "I know that—well, you've probably guessed that I asked you to come here for a reason." God, this was hard, but Sarah was nodding slowly, reassuringly, and that helped. "I have something to tell you, and—you aren't going to like it. It's not going to be easy to—"
Sarah suddenly interrupted him. "Johnny, it's okay. I know. You're having an affair with Walt."
Johnny stared at her, utterly taken aback. "Sarah—"
"Yes," Walt said, not looking up from his glass.
"Sarah, I—we were going to tell you, just, things got complicated and..."
Sarah wasn't listening; she was staring down at her hands, which were clasped tightly around her coffee cup. "You guys don't know how I've struggled with this. I mean, I know that it's possible to love more than one person at the same time, but... God, I was so angry with you both."
Johnny turned to Walt, feeling desperate and a little inclined to blame; so much for Sarah not suspecting. But Walt was visibly struggling to control himself. "We were—just waiting for the right time," Johnny said.
"I thought you guys were just friends," Sarah said with just a touch of bitterness. "I thought, wow, they've finally figured out how much they have in common. But then you were spending so much time together, I started wondering what you could possibly be talking about. And then..." Sarah turned her face away. "I wondered whether you were talking at all." A muscle twitched beneath the smooth, creamy skin of her cheek. "You weren't just talking, were you?"
"No," Walt said quietly.
"Sarah, please, you have to understand; we never wanted to hurt you. I mean, we tried to stay apart. But we needed to work together, we kept being thrown together, and things just, one thing led to another and—"
"I can't explain it." Walt staring down at the tablecloth, seemingly unable to meet her eyes. "It wasn't anything I was looking for—totally the opposite. It just," and here his voice cracked a little, "happened."
"Oh, Walt," Sarah sighed, reaching out to touch his hand. "Look, I was angry, I can't say I wasn't angry, but then I saw that—well, whatever Johnny is to you, it's obviously working for you—"
Johnny braced his elbow against the table and covered his eyes with his hand. "I'm sitting right here."
"—and I love you so much," and suddenly Sarah's voice was quivering. "And you've obviously been happy, and I can't say I've felt deprived. I mean, if anything, it's like you've had more to give. I kept wanting to be resentful, but things have been so good. Everything's been easier. And the sex has been—"
"—sitting right here," Johnny muttered.
"Look, I know that loving one person doesn't mean you stop loving another," Sarah said. "I know that, Walt, and Johnny knows it, too."
Johnny glanced up just in time to see Walt turn away. "Well, I didn't," Walt said tightly. "Some part of me still doesn't. This thing—it drives me crazy. It's so hard not to be jealous—"
"Well, men don't share very well," Sarah said.
"Man, here," Johnny groaned, vaguely waving his hand. "Sharing pretty well since 2001."
Walt snorted softly and said, "You're not typical, John."
"Would you guys please stop saying that?" Johnny buried his face in his hands. "Maybe I'm not typical, but then neither are you, and neither is Sarah. This whole situation is hardly typical, and I'm not the only one in it; you guys have been with me since the beginning. And it's only going to get worse—" He stopped suddenly, mouth falling open, and saw the reflection of his horror on Walt's face. "Oh my God."
"What?" Sarah asked, looking nervously from one to the other of them.
"Uh," Johnny said, having completely forgotten his earlier script. "This wasn't what we— This actually wasn't what we wanted to talk to you about."
They took Sarah downstairs to see the whiteboard. Sarah stood in front of it, but Johnny didn't think she was seeing it, or anything else. Still, he told her everything in as calm and steady a voice as he could manage: about Stillson and the visions, and about the plan he'd hatched with Walt: the North Star corporation, the Hotel Dirigo, how they were going to establish a base of operations, how he and Walt were going to try to stop Armageddon from happening.
Sarah swiped at the skin just under her eyes; she wasn't crying, but she didn't seem to know that she wasn't. "We'll need books," she said unsteadily. "Not just for the children, but for us: we don't know what kind of information we'll be able to get up there if—"
"Right," Johnny said in a low voice. "Books are a good idea." Walt nodded.
"I used to know how to can fruit," Sarah said, sounding dazed. "I mean, my grandmother did and I used to help her, but we'll need supplies. The right jars and lids—"
"We're hoping the hotel will have a pantry," Walt said tactfully. "We can stock it with canned goods."
Sarah let out a soft breath that wasn't anything like a laugh. "Canned goods are disposable: you eat them and they're gone. That'll be fine if—if this is only temporary, but if we really have to start over, nobody'll be making canned goods anymore. Nobody'll be making anything anymore. So we should buy anything we think we'll need to be self-sustaining. It seems to me the three big categories are raw materials, tools, and information."
"We thought of tools," Walt mumbled.
"Great," Sarah said, and pushed her fingers into her short, shiny hair. "That's just great."
They went back upstairs, and it felt to Johnny like things were moving in slow motion. Sarah sat down on the carpet in front of the fireplace, her skirt puddled around her, and stared into the flames. Walt went into the dining room, filled his scotch glass with ice, and sat down hard on one of chairs. Johnny wandered aimlessly from room to room, passing Sarah, passing Walt, moving through the kitchen, his mother's sunroom, his father's office. It felt like the day his father died, more than twenty-five years ago. Then, too, the house had been full of strangely helpless adults, and the weight of their silent grief.
"Johnny?" Sarah turned to look at him the next time he passed through the living room.
Johnny stopped immediately, pathetically grateful to have been called. "Yeah?"
"Do you think," Sarah began, and then she turned back to the fire, her lip tucked between her teeth. Johnny came closer, then lowered himself to the rug next to her, pulling the throw off the sofa and wrapping it around Sarah's shoulders. She glanced at him and smiled faintly. "This is such a stupid, girly question, but—"
"It's okay." Johnny said wryly, idly knocking his cane against the side of his boot. "I'm apparently not your typical man, so."
"I just can't help but wonder," Sarah said in a strange-sounding voice, "if this is why you and Walt..."
Johnny stared at her, confused. "I don't understand."
"Well, I mean, you had visions of you and Walt, you told me about them. Ages ago, remember?"
"Yeah," Johnny said, frowning at her, "on the porch, but—"
Sarah twisted her shoulders a little as she thought it through. "And your visions are usually pretty important. And you tried for it to not happen, and it happened anyway. So maybe this is why. Maybe you and Walt needed to be—I don't know, together—in order to fight this thing."
Johnny rolled his eyes. "Oh, right. Cause I won't try to save the world unless there's sex in it for me."
"Don't make fun of me, I'm serious!" and Sarah did, in fact, look upset. "I mean, what if you need Walt to stop the war, and I was just your way to him? I mean, maybe that's my whole role in this, to be a connector, to bring you guys together so that you can—"
"Wait, wait, whoa," Johnny said, and wrapped his hand around her fingers. "Sarah, we've known each other since first grade. You've been at the center of my life for thirty years. You're the mother of my son. You're my—my—" and God, why wasn't there a word?
Sarah seemed on the verge of tears. "Your what?"
He leaned in and kissed her, and her hand came up to caress his cheek. "Wife," he murmured against her mouth, because that was the only word he had.
He tasted salt on Sarah's face, and slid his arm around her so he could hold her close and kiss her more deeply. Her arms came around him tightly, almost desperately. He slid his tongue into her mouth and felt, more than heard, her soft moan, and then she was pulling him down, tugging him on top of her. He slid his leg between her thighs and braced his hand on the floor, feeling her rise up to him, feeling the edge of the carpet against his—
—and his fingers knew instantly; he felt vibrations thrumming along the grain of the wood, and looked up to see shoes, dress shoes, because Walt had worn a jacket and a tie—
—and Johnny jerked his head up, panting, breaking off the kiss. If he hadn't known where to look, he wouldn't have seen him, especially not with the firelight burning his eyes and making the rest of the house seem even darker. Walt was standing in the shadows, not even fully in the room.
Sarah cupped his neck and tried to draw him back down for a kiss. "Johnny—"
Johnny pulled away from her hand and sat up. "Walt?"
"Walt?" and now Sarah was pushing herself up, the afghan falling off her shoulders. Her blouse, he saw, was open a couple of buttons: she looked shameless and beautiful. "Where?"
Johnny stared at her for a long moment, and then at the faint glow of Walt's white dress shirt in the darkness, feeling utterly helpless, suddenly sure he was going to lose both of them. If he let go of Sarah and went after Walt, Walt would be out the kitchen door before Johnny could even lever himself up to his feet, and they would have a long, painful argument in the driveway ("You should be with her, John; you should have her. I'm the one who doesn't belong.") while Sarah ran upstairs and locked herself in the bathroom. If he kept making love to Sarah and ignored Walt, Sarah would shove him away ("My God, Johnny, what's the matter with you?"), but Walt had seen enough to know that they would have made love if he hadn't been there. He would be stoic, but pained beyond the telling of it.
"Sarah?" Johnny said finally, reaching up to stroke her hair. "Please trust me?"
Sarah frowned at him for a moment, then nodded slowly, and he bent forward to kiss her again. She went stiff for a moment ("God, Johnny, what's the matter with you?") but slowly began to relax as he deepened the kiss and eased her back down, hand reaching to cup her breast. His thigh pushed between her legs again, and this time he nudged his leg deliberately and rhythmically against her, and slid his hand up under her skirt. She moaned into his mouth as he circled her nipple with his thumb, and began to rub herself off against his leg.
He nearly lost himself in her, in the feel and the scent of her, but then he came to himself, broke off the kiss, and gasped: "Walt?" He reached out blindly toward where he'd last seen Walt standing. "Walt, come here—"
Johnny could hear his heart beat in the silence, and he was suddenly afraid that Walt wasn't going to answer—or worse yet, that he'd misjudged Walt and he was gone. He turned his head to peer into the doorway where Walt had been, and then heard Walt say, in a hoarse voice, "I told you. I can't."
Immediately, Johnny put his arm down and focused his attention on Sarah, who was panting up at him, her eyes wide. "I won't touch you," he told Walt, and cupped Sarah's cheek. "Just—be here with me," and then he ducked his head and licked into Sarah's mouth. She clasped his head in both her hands and kissed him back for a long time, long enough that when they broke off the kiss, Walt was sitting on the ottoman only a couple of feet away. Johnny kissed Sarah again, then turned to Walt and said, softly, "Come do this with us," and when Sarah—-glowing with heat, blouse open and skirt up around her waist—stretched out her hand, Walt took it and let her pull him down off the ottoman.
Johnny backed off to give Walt some space, and watched as he slid into Sarah's arms easily, with a comfortable grace that surprised him until he remembered that Sarah and Walt had been having sex for years. The thought gave him a strong twinge of jealousy, but it was also erotic to watch the sure, easy dance of them. Walt was more forceful with Sarah then he ever would have been, dragging her onto his lap and fondling her roughly before yanking her blouse down off her shoulders, but Sarah seemed to be into it, pushing back against him with breathy little moans. They made love like two people who knew just what they liked and wasted no time getting there, Sarah blindly unzipping Walt's pants in a smooth, practiced move, Walt hooking his thumb into the leghole of Sarah's panties and tugging the fabric to one side so that he could enter her. Sarah nudged deeper into his lap, straddling his hips with her thighs and letting him hold her upright to fuck her. Walt groaned and pushed his face against her collarbone.
Johnny's eyes fluttered shut as he slid a hand down to his erection and stroked himself through his pants. He could still hear the soft, wet sounds of them, their muted gasps and moans—and Jesus, they could hear him, too. This wasn't a vision; this was really happening—and he blindly pushed himself up to a sitting position. He wanted to watch, couldn't watch, had to stay, couldn't stay. He wanted to be part of this, but how on earth could he? Johnny slid a few inches backwards on his ass, not wanting to make any sudden movements, but desperate to escape—and Walt's hand shot out and grabbed his arm.
Walt lifted his face from Sarah's neck—and Christ, she was still moving on him, her eyes closed and her head lolling backwards—and looked at Johnny. He was flushed and sweaty, his eyes occasionally drifting near-closed before snapping open again. Johnny swallowed hard and made a vague, helpless 'I've got to go' gesture, but Walt frowned at this and then jerked him forward, hesitating only a moment before giving him a clumsy and awkward kiss. It was brief: a press of lips that almost missed his mouth entirely, and nearly broke his heart. Afterwards, Walt averted his eyes, though he gruffly stroked his hand down the buttons of Johnny's shirt, and it took everything Johnny had not to reach out for him or kiss him back. Desperate, he turned to Sarah and kissed her instead, boggled and amazed at how events had conspired to make her an acceptable object of his sexual attention.
Her lips were trembling against his, her body thrumming around Walt's cock. Johnny sat beside her and deepened the kiss, moving his hands over her, caressing her breast and the curve of her hip before sliding behind her and letting his hand glide down between her legs. She was still wearing her underwear, and he brushed his fingertips down over the wet cotton —Jesus, the scrap of fabric was soaking—briefly before pressing down more firmly and rubbing harder. She jerked in his arms and gasped, and his hand slipped, fingers sliding down over—God, Walt's cock, where it was buried inside her. In a long, slow moment, as a unit, they all three of them inhaled sharply—and then suddenly Johnny was frantically pressing up against her, his hand caressing them where they joined, and Walt was groaning and thrusting up inside her, and Sarah was pressed between them, wailing softly and rhythmically convulsing in orgasm. A moment later, Walt's breath hitched in a way that Johnny found achingly familiar, and he went very still, shoulders shuddering. Johnny let his head drop onto Sarah's shoulder and closed his eyes, trying to gain control of himself—and so he jerked back, surprised, when Sarah twisted around and pushed him down onto his back. Before he knew what was happening, she was stretched over him, unzipping his pants and taking his cock into her soft, perfect mouth. Johnny gasped as she began to lick and suck him, hands clenching automatically into fists—and it was only when he was shaking and coming, head banging back against the rug, that he realized that Walt was holding his hand.
"Okay, so," Johnny gasped, letting the sack of cement fall off his shoulder to the ground, "I vote that since I'm kind of the leader here, plus, you know, camp psychic, I should do a lot less heavy lifting."
Bruce stopped mixing the concrete and wiped across his sweaty forehead with his sleeve. "Okay, first of all, Leader-Guy, we're mainly all of us taking our orders from Walt. At least until the bomb drops."
"Well, that's just because I don't know that much about masonry. Or, um, wiring. And I'm not terrific with power tools. And he's got a lot of natural authority, sheriff's office, blah blah. However," and here Johnny raised a finger to show Bruce that this was the crucial point, "we are being guided by my near-constant visions of a dangerous future. I'd say that makes me the creative talent on this project; the vision-guy, literally. Walt's more of an implementation manager; really, almost staff—"
Bruce shoved the handle of the hoe toward Johnny. "Less bullshit, more implementing."
Johnny sighed, beat his work-gloved hands together twice, then braced his foot against the long, low tub and grabbed the handle.
"Keep mixing, don't let it harden." Bruce dropped to his knees, picked up a trowel, and began rapidly laying stones in the outer wall, patching holes and reinforcing weaknesses. "You know, the psychic thing isn't your best argument. I say limp more and keep reminding people about the accident."
The muscles in his arms were burning; the concrete was thick and hard to stir. "Will that work?"
Bruce actually laughed aloud. "Not on me, man, but you might fool one of the kids."
They worked for a while in companionable silence under the hot sun, until Bruce grunted, "I'm gonna need some bigger stones."
"There's a joke—there—" Johnny said through gritted teeth, still stirring, "but I'm—too tired to—"
"Hey! Johnny!" Both Johnny and Bruce looked up, and saw Pete Lockerman cresting the hill, running toward them. Pete was a skinny kid in his teens, and a runaway; he'd been grimly standing on the side of US-2 holding a sign that said, "Anywhere But Here." Walt had pulled the Jeep over to ask him a few questions, make sure the boy was all right, but it was Johnny who'd touched the dirt-stiff fabric of Pete's jean jacket and seen how he had survived the car accident that killed his parents, how he ran away when his older brother kept beating him, and how great he was with J.J., maybe because he knew how much it meant to have the approval of an older kid—
"He's with us," Johnny had told Walt, and Walt had glared at him for a moment, and then sighed and thrown Pete's dufflebag into the Jeep. Pete now lived in the boys' dorm with Mike, Joe, Keith, Tom, the two Davids, and J.J., who had begged until they let him live with the other kids.
Pete skidded to a halt, gasping; he'd clearly run really hard. "Sarah's—looking for you."
Johnny frowned and dropped the handle. "She all right?"
"I dunno. I mean, yeah, she's not hurt, but—" Pete took a deep breath. "She seems upset. She sent me to come get you."
"Okay." Johnny stripped off his work gloves and tossed them to Pete. "Here, help Bruce until I get back."
"Sure, Johnny," and Pete was beaming, clearly pleased to have been asked.
He found Sarah in the small bungalow he shared with her and Walt, sitting at the kitchen table and gnawing nervously at her fingernail. She looked up as he came in, and her eyes were shiny with unshed tears. "Oh, Johnny," she said. "I think I might have screwed up."
"What do you mean?" Johnny asked, frowning.
Sarah stood up, her wooden chair scraping the floor. "Just, I may have, kind of, messed with the plan. I don't know how it happened! I mean, I don't even know if it did happen." She stretched her hand out to him and said, "I need to borrow your psychic thing."
"O-kay," Johnny said cautiously, and came closer. "You want me to touch something?"
"Yeah," Sarah said, almost tearfully. "Me," and then she was taking Johnny's hand in hers and pulling it to her—
—slithering eels, a whole school of them, swimming frantically and then smashing into the surface of the planet. Hallucinogenic circles into circles, kaleidoscopic, a bean, a basketball, and Sarah is red-faced and yelling as a woman gives her quiet, clear directions to push and—
"Oh my God." Johnny was awash in a relentless sea of images: dark hair, a purple blanket, brown eyes, tiny sneakers, a yellow tricycle, his hand pressed to Sarah's belly. "It's a girl. She's Walt's. Her name is Wendy," and then the rest of the name came to him, and he jerked in surprise. "Wendy Smith," he explained breathlessly, "Walt's idea—for symmetry. Holy shit." His voice was hushed as he pulled his hand off Sarah's body. "I think I have to take you to Baltimore."
"What?" Sarah was gaping at him like he'd lost his mind. "Johnny, God, don't you understand? We tried, years ago, Walt and me, and—God, why now? Could there possibly be a worse time?"
Johnny stared at her, shocked. "No! No, it's the right time, it's the—the—" and he gestured helplessly with both hands at her belly, "—it's the time!"
But Sarah was already shaking her head. "But we're here, and the war, and you and Walt have to stop it, we all have so much to do, how can we possibly manage to—"
Johnny put his arms around her. "We'll make it work, I swear we will."
"Make what work?" Walt was standing in the doorway, toolbelt slung low around his waist, and Johnny pulled away and let Sarah break the news to him.
Later, he took Walt up to the central compound. They waved hi to Ellie, John, and the rest of the dinner shift, who were already hard at work whipping up a meal for the 89-and-counting of them, and broke into the hotel bar. Johnny found ice and a really good bottle of scotch and poured them each a celebratory drink. Walt still seemed more than a little stunned. "I can't believe it." He looked down at the glass Johnny gave him like he wasn't sure what to do with it, and then took a deep breath and said, "You're gonna do some serious diaper duty on this one, pal. You owe me that."
"I will, I swear." Johnny knocked his glass against Walt's, took a sip, and shuddered. God, he wasn't sure how Walt drank the stuff. "Late night feedings too, the works. I missed out the first time."
Walt wasn't listening; he was still staring down at the glass of scotch Johnny had poured for him, and then he pushed it away. "John. For God's sake, tell me: she got born okay, she was—?"
"Yes," Johnny said. "I saw her. She was fine, and Sarah was fine, too. It was a normal birth, no complications—we had a doctor there, a woman, maybe a midwife, but everything was fine."
"And what was the last vision you had of her?" Walt asked quietly.
"She was a child—walking, riding a tricycle. I saw enough to know she looks like you: brown hair, brown eyes. Are you... asking where she is when the bomb drops?" Johnny asked tentatively, and Walt shocked him by slamming his hand violently down against the bar, and saying, "Yes, goddammit! Of course that's what I'm asking! That's the question—isn't that the only fucking question?"
"Look, she's my daughter too, sort of," except it was a lot more than 'sort of': Johnny's visions had showed him that Wendy would be his girl much as J.J. had always been Walt's boy. "What kind of a world are we bringing her into? A bad one. But it's the only one; there's no other choice."
Walt's eyes were dark with pain. "But she survives, right?"
Johnny scrubbed at his forehead; he'd been having vivid, post-apocalyptic visions ever since they'd come up here. The fire, the thunder—they'd be aware of it, but it would be a far-distant storm. The power would go, their radio transmissions would be cut off, and they would be left together, huddling in the dark—prepared, Johnny hoped, for a future without civilization, or organization, or government.
"She survives. You do, I do, Sarah and J.J. both do—all of us up here do. Dirigo."
"Dirigo," Walt repeated quietly.
"We'll survive, but—" Johnny sighed and poured himself another drink. "Do we want to live in the world we survive into? I don't know. So we try to stop the war from happening, and meanwhile work to make a world we can stand to live in. Which is why I'm so happy about Wendy: she's the first thing I'm really looking forward to. She makes me want to stay alive."
"Yeah. Me too," and then Walt picked up his glass, knocked it against Johnny's, and drank.
They celebrated that night back at the bungalow, skipping the communal dinner and cooking a meal for themselves in the small kitchen. They broke out their stores of everything special, and ate and talked for hours before leaving the dishes where they were, turning off the lights, and going back to the bedroom. Johnny maintained a separate bedroom in the bungalow, not just for appearance's sake but because there were things that Walt still couldn't do in front of Sarah. Walt had relaxed a lot, and was now comfortable touching and kissing Johnny with Sarah there. He'd even recently let Johnny suck him in front of Sarah, though Johnny strongly suspected that it would be a long time before Walt would be able to handle it the other way. He understood it, he supposed—that Walt might feel like less of a man if he was sucking cock or getting fucked in front of his wife—though it was a vaguely intellectual understanding, and Johnny didn't feel that way himself. Maybe that whole bisexual prophet/ bridging thing had some merit to it after all.
They deliberately hadn't talked about the future at dinner, but their lovemaking—unusually tender, almost sorrowful—showed that they all knew what had to happen. Johnny and Walt hadn't planned to leave until after the spring thaw, but they didn't have that kind of time, now; not if they wanted to be with Sarah when she gave birth. Johnny lay there, gasping, as Walt kissed him and Sarah stroked him to orgasm, and wondered if Sarah's pregnancy was God's way of setting a timer; now they had fewer than nine months to do whatever needed doing, to stop the war if it was ever going to be stopped.
Afterwards, with Sarah nestled in the crook of his arm and drifting off, Johnny heard Walt whisper, "You said we survive the bomb—"
"Yes," Johnny whispered back. "I'm sure of it. When the bomb falls, we're all of us here, and all of us safe. J.J.'s seen it, too."
Walt pressed closer and snaked an arm around Johnny's neck. "Right, but what if the bomb doesn't drop? What if we stop it? Then all bets are off, aren't they?"
Johnny felt a sudden cold shiver. "But that's a better future; it's got to be!"
"Yes," Walt said quietly. "For millions of people. But maybe not for us. We have to face the possibility that if we succeed, everything changes, and we might not be here for Sarah or J.J. or Wendy." Walt sighed, and tugged Johnny's head close so their foreheads were pressed together. "You paid a price for this so-called gift of yours; six years of your life. I can't help thinking that we're not going to stop the destruction of tens of millions of lives without paying—something."
All Johnny could do was force himself to keep breathing. "Walt. Jesus. Jesus—"
But Walt seemed calm. "I want to give J.J. a gun, John. Teach him to shoot. Just in case we don't—you know."
"No." Johnny felt barely able to get the words out. "Walt, you've got to stay. One of us has to stay, and it can't be me, I've got to try to change this, but you—you should—"
"I'm going with you. You need me."
"It's not up for discussion, John."
"I—okay, all right, yes. I love you," Johnny blurted, and then he was pressing his mouth to Walt's. "I love you so damn much," and as Walt cupped his head and kissed him, all Johnny could think was that he'd lost one lover and gained two, lost one child and gained two. So maybe Walt was right and there was always a price to be paid, but in his experience, God always repaid, with interest.