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Slip the Border

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"Only two choices here," Roland whispers. "Don't know how it is in your world, but only two choices here. Stand and maybe live, or die on our knees with your head down and the stink of your own armpits in your nose. Nothing . . . " He hacks out a cough. "Nothing to me."

"Who are you?" Eddie screams at him.

"Your destiny, Eddie," the gunslinger whispers.

"Why don't you just eat shit and die?" Eddie asks him. The gunslinger tries to speak, but before he can he floats off as the cards {{shuffle}}

(The Drawing Of the Three 188)

one. the promise.

Fuck this fucking beach, fuck this fucking door, and fuck this entire fucking idea. He is dreaming, he is dreaming, he is on the nod and he will wake up, wake up, wake up right now, please wake up Eddie, please wake up and realise this is not happening.

And just like that, it isn't. He is walking out of his co-op, free as a kite, the deal went down just fine and now Eddie's certified platinum: money out the yin-yang. He's just scored some very white White from a guy he knows and he's gonna share it with Henry after he picks up some KFC. He can smell the exhaust from the city buses. Mercy me, and there's Mrs. Pilatski, who always wears a giant purple muumuu. Eddie waves gaily at her and she looks at him with a frown and she opens her mouth and yells, in a volume so loud it sounds like a plane just crashed,

"Cuthbert! Cuthbert! NO QUARTER!"

Eddie is ripped neatly out of New York and shoved back into Hell. As he comes awake, he has to turn his head aside and dry-heave into the sand. He can feel his whole body shaking in great wild jerks.

"HILE, GUNSLINGERS, TO ME! TO ME!" To Eddie it sounds like some kind of Nazi slogan and as he manages to pull himself painfully into a sitting position, the dirty, scarred man next to him continues screaming himself hoarse.

"ELD BRINGS THE WORLD'S END!" The gunslinger is standing, legs wide apart. His arms flail in great wide motions as if he is signalling an army.

Eddie falls back onto his very sparse bedroll. The nausea has passed and is slowly being replaced by stomach cramps and what, if Eddie is not mistaken, will soon be a fabulous attack of the shits.

"I could use some world's end myself," he says wearily. The sun outlines Roland and bounces off the buckles on his gear. As he waves his arms, his ripped bandages flutter. Eddie, too tired to do anything but watch, gapes frankly as the gunslinger totters on very unsteady legs.

"NO QUARTER!" shouts Roland again, takes two steps forward, and collapses heavily into Eddie?s lap. Eddie grunts only from reflex: Roland weighs almost nothing and the arm sprawled across his thighs is lined with red like Eddie's old school papers used to be.

"Shit," mutters Eddie, eyeing Roland and then the sun. The last time he'd shoved a Keflex down Roland's throat had been . . . early in the morning, but had it been this morning? He has no clue. He is too tired for this and his hands are trembling like an arthritic grandma's.

And yet, and yet. He shoves Roland off his legs and onto the sand, rolling him over onto his back. Roland's eyes are squeezed shut and his mouth moves in a soundless whisper -- almost soundless.

"Hey Jude," comes the whisper from that fever-ravaged throat. "I see you, lad."

The words are different, the tune unmistakeable. "The fuck?" says Eddie, surprised in spite of himself.

"I killed them all," croaks Roland. "The folk and the damn fat woman preacher too. Sent her on to the Man Jesus -- such eyes she had!"

"Yeah, yeah." Eddie has heard about the woman preacher before. Roland raves about her and mentions the boy Jake just about every hour. "Switch out of reruns, honey." He digs around in Roland's breast pocket, which is where the Keflex is living for the present. When he finds the little packet, he has to tear it open with his teeth because his hands don't work.

He wrestles the water bottle out from beside his bedroll, panting. Not much water left. Gonna have to find a stream soon. Shit. Don't think about it. It takes him forever to get the top of it off, and he drinks from it first gratefully, then grabs Roland and lifts up one arm, pinches him mercilessly right above and to the side of his nipple.

It's a tried-and-true way to wake the gunslinger up from his fever dream, and it works this time too. Roland jerks sharply and opens his eyes. Focusses, with effort, on Eddie's face.

"Where am I?" he says. Eddie, familiar with this spiel as well, does not answer. Instead he shoves two Keflex into Roland's cheek, bares his teeth, and says, "Swallow, don't spit, honey." And Roland does, finishing all the water in the skin and washing down the pills pretty easily, all things considered.

Eddie caps the waterskin and puts it behind him. As he does, the familiar fear strikes him -- is the gunslinger still breathing? Or has he died and left Eddie alone in this wasteland full of God knows what monsters? He turns back and eyes Roland consideringly.

But Roland's eyes are open and his mouth too: he looks like a kid at Christmas. Eddie can see his eyes focussing again, watches him smile softly. It transforms his whole face into something -- someone -- else. Eddie is shocked into silence.

Roland whispers into the noon shadows: "Cuthbert, is that you? Gunslinger, do you yet live?"

Eddie has absolutely nothing to say, just sits there on his hands and knees, bent over a man seeing something else.

"I thought you were dead. Oh Cuthbert, I thought you were dead."

"I am dead," says Eddie finally. "As a fucking doornail." But Roland doesn't appear to hear or understand. The wonder doesn't go out of his eyes, and Eddie is actually obscurely grateful for this. But who is Cuthbert that he can make a man of nails and barbed wire smile like someone seeing a miracle?

"And if you're still alive, then maybe we can still get ahead of them -- avenge Alain and Jamie. For Susan. For our fathers, Cuthbert -- if you're here, we can do anything." Roland scrabbles with one hand like he's going to grab Eddie, but he can't quite make it and finally lays still.

"I promise you'll make it -- we'll reach the Tower together. I'll protect you, Cuthbert, I swear it. I love you, Cuthbert."

The look slowly fades out of his eyes and he closes them. Eddie sits still, almost afraid to move, but the gunslinger appears to be sleeping. So -- the problem of Cuthbert, but more pressingly, the problem of water, and even more pressingly, the problem of heroin withdrawal and what it's doing to his lower intestine. He scrambles as well as he can, hunched over, sweating and half-moaning with the pain of the cramps.

"Protect him, huh? You sure did, didn't you Roland? You protected his ass right into a six-foot hole. What am I doing here? I want to go home."

He stumbles, he groans, and he listens for water. Hears instead, far off, the cry of a very large something. Hears the wind moan into the sea. Hears a battle cry -- Eld and the end of the world -- and believes it.

two. i see you very well.

Roland has stumbled along the edge of the beach for most of the afternoon, probably in a misguided effort to keep Eddie's arms intact, but now he cannot keep it up and collapses up where the scrub grass and rocks mark the highest of high tide lines. Eddie drags the travois up to him and stands there blowing like a winded horse, unable to unlock his knees.

The worst of the symptoms of withdrawal have passed and been replaced by the symptoms of a soft man working himself into the ground. Heroin-induced shakes are now genuine muscle trembling, and Eddie is sure that all this exercise has sweated every last bit of drug out of him. He misses it terribly: he feels constantly on the edge of tears, as if crying for it will bring New York and Henry and heroin back.

Finally his legs bend and he drops like a stone to the sand. How long have they been staggering down this endless beach? Eddie isn't sure. Probably not more than five days, because the Keflex is running out and will be gone in a day or so. And the gunslinger is getting better. Not better enough to walk very far, no, but better. And the panic clawing at Eddie's brain (under the endless whining for H) is subsiding. Roland will not leave him alone and alien.

It is late afternoon but they will not be going any farther today. Eddie simply cannot do it. He will be able to drag himself to the waterline to shoot another crab-thing; he will be able to find water if it is necessary and that is all.

The gunslinger bends himself carefully into a sitting position, putting arms on knees and bowing his head. Eddie can see that the fever-lines have almost faded down to Roland's wrists. It makes him queasily happy, like someone about to jump off a cliff with a napkin for a parachute.

The sun moves further down in the sky and neither of them speak. Eddie just tries to feel the sunlight on his back: to like the fact that he's outside. On a day like this at home, he and Henry would be stoned in front of the TV, screaming at episodes of Match Game from 1975. Assuming Henry was still alive, and Eddie tries not to kid himself about that.

But the outdoors here isn't friendly and isn't normal. Those fucking lobster things? Not normal. Huge giant predators out there somewhere, cruising for blood? Not normal, at least outside of Montana or something.

And speaking of the lobster things, they will be coming out as the sun sinks lower. Eddie wearily pulls out the gunslinger's revolver, checks the ammunition and flips the safety off. He's not an expert, but the gun hasn't failed him yet, and oddly enough, he trusts it. Not like its owner, who turns his head and addresses Eddie for the first time in hours.

"We'll be at the next door soon, I reckon."

"Do you?" says Eddie, feeling nasty and not really hiding it. "Spidey-sense tingling, is it?"

"What?"

"It means I think -- I wish -- damn it." Eddie plows his hand through his hair, staring at the gun in his lap. "You should have left me."

Roland's faded eyes don't thaw at all. "So you could go back to your drug? Would you? After you held your brother's head in your arms?"

"I told you to shut up about Henry." Eddie doesn't even feel angry: he's too tired. "I'd rather be a sorry-ass junkie in New York than your wet-nurse."

That brings a half-laugh out of Roland's chest. It sounds like tinfoil rattling. "You'd argue yourself back into a coma. You really are like him." The last is said quietly, but Eddie picks it up and runs.

"Like Cuthbert?"

"Very like." Another coughing laugh. "Give him a rook's head to mock him, a horse o'Barony under him, and he could argue the birds out of the sky."

"Yeah?" And this makes him angrier even than the reference to his dead brother. He kneels, shoving the gun into his waistband and shouting as loud as he dares, which isn't very loud, considering what's out in the dark. "You know the difference between me and Cuthbert? Huh?"

"Yes." The gunslinger sits straight, staring Eddie down. Eddie doesn't want to have his thunder stolen so he says it anyway.

"I don't want to follow you. I hate your stupid Tower, your half-assed quest. Cuthbert loved you and he died for it. And I. . . ." Eddie stops, cursing quietly. He can't bring himself to say "I hate you" to this ghost of a man, even though he is sure that he does.

"How do you know he died?" Roland looks mildly surprised. "I talked about it in my fever?"

"Yeah, you did, but that's not it. You're alone, aren't you? You'll walk over anyone, drop a child off a bridge, rip a man right out of his home -- shit. I just want to see New York again!" It sounds petulant and stupid and Eddie knows it, and he still can't stop himself from saying it.

"You will," says the gunslinger. It's absolutely authorititave, the voice that had gotten Eddie into this mess in the first place. The gunslinger puts out his whole left hand and wipes away the tears that Eddie hadn't even known he was shedding. "I see you, Eddie. I see you very well, and I tell you that you'll walk in your city again." They kneel there still, watching one another in side glances, as the sun bites into the sea. Then the gunslinger smiles one of his beautiful smiles and his left hand dips downward. Eddie jerks, startled, at the feel of Roland's fingers through his shirt. Then he hears the click of a spring as Roland lets down the hammer of his revolver.

"Your gun's cocked. No point in blowing off your balls."

"Might need those," says Eddie weakly, trying to catch his breath, feeling the burn of those clever fingers. From down the beach comes the first of the lobsters' endless questions.

"Might," says Roland, turning to look out into the scrub brush. "I'll fetch wood and water tonight." He hauls himself to his feet and lurches off into the dark. Eddie stands too, ready to take on the catch of the day.

"See me very well, huh?" he mutters to himself. "Just see your way to that next door. And then I'm gone, babe, move me on down the line. Keep your fucking Tower. I'm gone."

And even as he makes his way down toward the beach to snare a seagull, Eddie knows he is lying to himself. The Tower is already in his dreams. But he keeps his wish close: to find his way off this beach and get to the nearest White Castle, to smell exhaust and see traffic lights and bop down to Brooklyn, preferably with ZZ Top blaring out of a speaker somewhere.

"Time to slip the border," hums Eddie, hearing New York. Aiming with his eye and his hand, seeing not the face of his father but Roland's careful smile. Thumbing back the hammer. Shooting to kill.

--the end--

Notes: Both "move me on down the line" and "time to slip the border" are from ZZ Top songs. Happy Yule, Cereta! I hope you enjoyed.