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a sudden little river

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“You talk a hell of a lot for a dead guy, you know.”

“What?” the gunslinger manages through cracked lips.

“Nothing important.” Eddie is assiduously banging Roland’s flint and steel together over a rough stack of swordgrass and driftwood. “Just, you know, you’ve got one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. I wasn’t expecting you to be so chatty.”

“My apologies.” Roland may be three-quarters dried out with fever, but he still manages to pull the flint and steel from Eddie’s hands and scrape a spark into the kindling, which catches readily. He notes that his hands are shaking less than those of his companion.

Eddie stretches out beside the fire, his back cracking as loudly as the flames, and holds his hands out to it. “How do you feel now?”

“Dead,” Roland says after a moment’s consideration, settling with his head near his companion’s. Every time he lies down he wonders whether he’ll ever get up again; it’s when he’s not moving that his body makes its myriad aches and pains best known.

“I imagine we’ll both feel that way if this damn beach doesn’t end soon.”

To that, Roland has no response.


The little tablets that Eddie doles out to him three times a day prove to work, though, and as his health and temperament improve, so does Eddie brighten up. Perhaps being trapped in the middle of nowhere with company is an improvement over being trapped in the middle of nowhere with a  walking dead man.

Eddie talks a lot himself, as it happens, constantly rattling on about whatever comes to mind. Sometimes he asks Roland questions about where they’re going and where he came from, but mostly he seems to be talking to fill in the silence between them, to chase away the endless roar of the ocean, and just to fight off the megrims.

His hands shake less and less as time passes, though; Roland notices this the way he notices everything, filing the information away along with all the rest of the things he knows about Eddie. Mostly that if he’s given half a chance, he won’t hesitate to get right back on the drug that made him so jittery in the first place, even though he surely must know by now just how bad it is for him.

 

“How could anyone be so desperate as to need to escape their life so?” he asks late one afternoon, the sun slanting shadows across the beach; soon they’ll need to find shelter or risk the wrath of the lobstrosities.

Eddie gives him a startled look, and then laughs. It’s a hurting sound. “Do you even have poor people in your world, Roland? Or does everyone pitch in a hand to help them get along?”

It takes the gunslinger a minute to answer. “People made do where they could,” he says cautiously. “But...”

“But people still chew the weed, man, you told me that much. People who would do that, they’d be the sort of people who’d reach for something stronger, if it was available.” He gives Roland a shrewd look. “They say cigarettes can be a gateway drug.”

“Tobacco strengthens the lungs,” Roland says shortly. “What was so bad in your life, Eddie?”

Eddie seems about to snap something sarcastic, but falls silent instead. They push on through a drift of sand that’s fine like snow, and then up and over a dune that falls away on the other side to reveal nothing but more beach and rocks and scrubby twisted treelets that look like skeletons of their former selves.

 

They keep on for another hour until the sun is a sliver on the horizon and the low threatening chatter from the sea urges them away from the tide line. Eddie sets and lights the fire; Roland scavenges through his purse for the last shreds of tobacco at the very bottom and rolls a pitiful cigarette. It’s enough to chase off the hunger pangs, at least until Eddie cracks the carapace of a small lobstrosity with a rock so they can dine on its meat.

The waterskin drips its last as Roland holds it over Eddie’s mouth.

“That’s that, then,” Eddie says.

“Yes,” Roland says, but he rolls the skin and tucks it into his purse anyway.

Overhead, Old Star and Old Mother face each other across the darkening sky. Roland lies down by the fire; Eddie stretches out at right angles to him, his head maybe half a foot away. The sky grows darker and then seems to grow lighter as more stars blink into life.

“My brother,” Eddie says, just as Roland is expecting him to start snoring. “I loved him, but he was the bad thing in my life.”

Roland considers this for a moment. Then he rolls to his stomach, reaches out, and grasps Eddie’s hand. He’s not sure if it’s a contact that will be welcomed, but Eddie’s hand turns under his, fingers threading through his. Roland says nothing, but nothing needs to be said. Whatever effect Henry Dean had on the life of his younger brother, it can only recede into the past, digested by time like Jack Andolini by the lobstrosities, like New York by the slamming of a door.

Still, Roland thinks, it will linger a while yet.

Eddie’s hand is shaking under his.


There are pilings. Two of them. Mostly rotted with time, the remnants are petrified wood with ancient barnacles clinging to them and the imprint of seaweed stems that have long been dust. They stand sentinel at the edge of the beach, and Eddie’s the one to trace the imaginary line back with his eyes to where the tiny hut stands on teetering legs.

“Oh, boy,” he says, clearing his dry throat twice. “What do you think that was for?”

Roland looks sidelong at him and doesn’t point out that the best way to find out is to look.

The hut’s floor stands maybe a foot above the drifting sand. Eddie places his hands on the edge of the doorframe and tenses to boost himself up, but then stops.

“Is this thing going to fall apart on me?”

“Probably,” Roland says. “Best be careful.”

Eddie goes up anyway. The hut sways alarmingly, and Eddie tumbles back out in short order as the whole shebang goes sideways with a crash. When the dust settles there’s just a pile of wood, some of which might still burn, and a thing that makes the gunslinger’s mouth gush with saliva.

“Is that a...”

“Pump handle,” Roland says, already fumbling for his purse and the waterskin therein.

Eddie sets to pumping. The old iron squalls in protest, and Eddie snarls at it and throws his weight even harder against the handle. Roland considers cautioning him against roughness, lest the aged metal snap. But then the smell of minerals drawn from deep below the ground comes to his nose, and before he fully registers the odor and that he’s moving, he’s on his knees beside Eddie, cupping his hands to catch the first trickle of stale, brown, but real water.

The taste of rust on his lips is sweeter than the endless salt of the sea.

“Get the skin,” Eddie pants. “I can feel it coming.”

Roland gets the waterskin ready as the water turns from murky to merely silty. He half fills the skin and then gestures for Eddie to stop; as soon as Eddie does so, Roland splashes him liberally with the water.

“Ow, Jesus, that’s freezing!” But he’s laughing, his eyes dancing with real pleasure, and he lifts his hands to run them through his hair, tossing his head in a gesture that Roland finds heartbreakingly familiar. “Don’t waste it, man – I can always wash in the sea, provided there’s no biting company around.”

Roland upends the skin over his own head. “There’ll be more water down there,” he says with such assurance that Eddie gives him an incredulous look.

“How can you know?”

“I just feel it.” Useless to explain that the water below the ground sings to the water in his body, like his hands are a dowsing rod. He knows now how the well-finders managed it, especially in Mejis, where the sea could easily confuse a seeker.

But he will not think of Mejis.

Eddie is pulling his shirt off, running it under the pump, rinsing out the stiffness that the salt air brings. He slings it around his shoulders and then douses his head, shaking the water off like an exuberant dog.

“Here.” He holds out his hands for the waterskin, and the gunslinger hands it to him, watching as his fingers make quick work of fitting the mouth under the spout of the pump and then dart back to the handle, which is moving a little easier now.

“Keep going,” Roland requests once the skin is full, and he ducks his own head, feeling the chill down his spine as a few errant drops steal under his shirt. He puts his hands under the stream and can practically feel his pores opening with relief.

Both of them know better than to glut themselves on water straight away, but Eddie gargles for a minute and then spits with a flourish.

“I feel all shiny and new. And you... you look a hell of a lot better, my man.”

Roland rubs his cheek, feeling the scratch of bristles there, and then touches Eddie’s cheek. “We look like a pair of sots drunk on water instead of wine.”

Eddie reaches up and covers Roland’s hand with his own. “Right now I feel drunk. I never thought water could taste so good.” His eyes are laughing hazel, shades and shades lighter than Cuthbert’s, and yet in this moment it’s his old friend who Roland hears and sees and feels.

But he will not think of Cuthbert either.

The moment passes; they both finish slaking their thirsts and Roland loads his purse with as much of the dry wood as he can manage. Some of the pieces have words scratched into them; most seem to be names and dates, but one reads all that you love will be carried away. Roland decides against taking that one along with them.

In this place, at this time, hope is precious hard to come by, and even small things like that odd phrase can erode it. But things like the unexpected water and the hope that the light in Eddie’s eyes will grow stronger and overcome the haze of withdrawal, those are the things that make hope flower, even in this arid land.


That night when they lie down to rest, Eddie’s hand slips into his before Roland can even reach out for it, and Eddie’s breathing slows to the soft susurrus of sleep within minutes. His fingertips are still a little damp from carrying the full waterskin, and Roland presses his lips to them briefly before letting his eyes fall closed.

That night, the deadly chorus from the waterline is silent, the squalling of the cats in the foothills is stilled, and the sound of the breaking waves lulls Roland to sleep.