I. Springvale to Gurleyville
It was mid-November when Clay decided Johnny was ready to travel. They were cutting it fine; it was snowing every second or third night, and while the runoff was usually gone by midmorning, Clay guessed they were only a week or two away from the first storm of the season. He wanted to be done with travelling before that happened, holed up somewhere safe with a permanent roof over their heads. There was no guarantee that they'd make it to wherever Tom and Jordan had ended up, or that they'd be able to find them when they got there, but there was really no choice: Clay had to try. There was a tiny voice in the back of his mind telling him not to be a pessimist. They'd be there, it promised. All he had to do was get himself and Johnny to Rangeley in one piece, and let Tom's directions do the rest.
Johnny. Johnny-Gee again, sometimes, while his brain went about the task of rebuilding itself. Rebooting, Jordan would say, but Clay wasn't hot on that description. Computer analogies were for phoners, and Johnny wasn't a phoner anymore. He wasn't a normie either; he was something new, probably unique, and a little unsettling. Clay thought that he'd never be truly disturbed again (if you could watch a girl tear out someone's throat with her teeth and not go crazy, you were probably okay for life), but he had to admit that Johnny's abilities freaked him out just a bit.
He could levitate. That was one thing. Not for long, and not very high, only a couple of feet at most. But it was still a remnant of his phoner self, and it wasn't going away. He was getting better at it, in fact. Clay kept an eye on him and tried to take it lightly; Johnny would never have a problem getting things from high shelves or seeing over people's heads at a concert. Just because it was a phoner skill didn't necessarily make it bad, right?
For another, Johnny still had some telepathy. Clay'd had to teach him to speak aloud all over again, and he'd picked it up quickly (from "Dieey" to complete sentences in less than a week, thank God), but he ... received thoughts, is how Clay named it to himself. Johnny didn't steal images from his mind or attempt any control at all; he just picked up on what Clay was thinking occasionally. Clay didn't know whether the ability would stick around, but if it did, Johnny was going to have to learn to control it damn quick.
He approached the subject one day while they were out gathering wood for the stove.
"It's like eavesdropping," he explained, while Johnny's brow furrowed in an attempt to understand. "Like listening in on a private phone call. You wouldn't want other people seeing what's in your head all the time, would you?"
"No." Johnny shook his head, then darted a look upward. "Sometimes I can't help it, though. You think stuff pretty loud sometimes."
"Like what?" Clay asked.
"Like those other people," Johnny said. "The ones you left to come get me. You keep wondering where they are, and ... and whether we'll be able to meet up with them."
He looked at Clay with wide, clear eyes that weren't dulled by incomprehension or dementia; eyes that showed no hint of the sly, clever madness of the President of Harvard. It was just the worried gaze of a twelve-year-old boy who wanted reassurance from his dad that they weren't going to be alone forever.
"We'll find 'em, kiddo," Clay said at last, pulling Johnny in for a hug. He thought of the empty roads north of here, single-lane blacktop with spray-painted arrows and a wood cabin waiting at the end. "All we need to do is get started."
"Can we, Dad?" Johnny's voice was muffled against his chest. He pulled back to look at Clay's face. "Can we go today?"
Fuck it, Clay thought. Why not? And watched Johnny's face light up at the unspoken assent.
"All right then," he said out loud, ruffling his son's hair. "Go get your stuff packed. We'll need to pick up some camping gear at the general store first, then we'll be ready to roll. Okay?"
Johnny smiled at him, and it was like the sun coming up. He started back to the cottage, but stopped halfway there and turned around, looking puzzled.
"Who's Tom, Daddy?" he asked.
"Johnny," Clay said in a warning tone, but Johnny stayed curious. He was stubborn like that. Like himself, Clay thought, resigned to explanation.
"Tom is my friend," he said. "I met him when ... when I was stuck in Boston. We travelled together afterward, and he promised to leave directions for us when we get past Rangeley. That's north," he added. Johnny wasn't great with directions.
"You think about him a lot," Johnny said.
"I ... do?" Clay was startled. He'd been trying not to think of Tom at all, or Jordan either, but obviously he'd been fooling himself. Hell, maybe he was broadcasting The Tom McCourt Show in psychic IMAX; how would he know?
Now that the cat was out of the proverbial bag, he knew he'd have a hell of a time trying to keep his mind off Tom. He was surprised to admit that Johnny was right; he was worried that they wouldn't make it in time, before winter really set in and stranded them somewhere. And he was a little taken aback at just how much he was looking forward to seeing Tom again; to bask in that smartass wit that was so well hidden unless you knew where to look. To get another one of those McCourt Special hugs, to see Jordan's too-thin, too-pale face again: yeah, he was pretty interested in that. Clay looked back at Johnny, who was watching him curiously.
"All right, kiddo," he said. "Let's get packing. Sooner we leave here, the sooner we get there, right?"
Johnny grinned at him and dashed inside the cottage. Clay followed more slowly after, turning these new thoughts over in his mind for a minute and then putting them aside. There'd be time enough for that on the road. Suddenly, all he wanted was to get out of here as quickly as possible. This place had been a way station, and now its purpose was served. There were better things waiting over the horizon.
II. Gurleyville to Rangeley
It was a much better trip north the second time. The going was slow to start with, as Johnny got used to the walking and the weight of his backpack. Clay looked for another set of wheels to get them going, but knew that there was no real point in trying to drive until they cleared the road-reefs that littered Route 160 all the way to Gurleyville. That was two days of solid walking for Clay alone; he added another day for Johnny's slower pace. Three days until Gurleyville, then, and if God loved him at all there'd be a car there with gas in the tank and keys in the ignition, and they could be in Rangeley before night fell on the fourth day.
The sky rumbled above, threatening to storm. So far it had held off on delivery, but Clay knew their luck was almost gone. Mother Nature wouldn't wait. He was enjoying the walk, especially with Johnny so vibrant and alive and sane beside him, but if a free ride came along he'd take it. He was in a hurry to get to the new home waiting at the end of the road.
A new home. The phrase circled around in his head, pausing now and then to show him a glimpse of the truth that lay behind. Clay hadn't admitted it to himself yet, even, but the acknowledgement of that truth drew closer with every step. On the third day, as they passed the Gurleyville Volunteer Fire Department (Go-hell, mynuck), he grew impatient with his own coyness.
Just say it, he thought. You don't want to find the others for company, or because Johnny needs other people. You want to find Tom. Jordan too, but mostly Tom. And when you do find him ...
He left the thought unfinished, waiting for something to happen – a heart attack maybe, or his cock shrivelling up and falling off as a warning to would-be fags everywhere. As the minutes passed and he kept on walking, remained as he had always been, he felt nothing but peace and a growing sense of anticipation. Apparently, his subconscious already knew all about this development and was just waiting for him to catch up. Clay wondered what else was hidden away in his headspace, then decided he didn't really want to know. There was a reason it was called subconscious, after all.
He saw Johnny shoot him a half-curious, half-knowing glance that was older than his years. Clay had no way of knowing how loudly he was broadcasting, but that look told him now was not the time for more navel-gazing. He turned his thoughts to the task of finding somewhere to spend the night.
They found a burned-out shell of a house off Route 11 shortly before sunset, just when Clay had given up hope. He was carrying a three-man tent he'd liberated from the caretaker's cottage in Springvale, but he wanted to avoid using it for as long as possible. They bedded down reasonably well in the shelter of the house, dined on undamaged cans of turkey and fruit salad from their absent host's pantry, then bedded down for the night.
III. Rangeley: Just Passing Through
If Clay dreamed, he didn't remember it. But he woke the next morning clear-eyed and keen to get on the road. Johnny seemed to share his mood, sitting beside him with a smile on his face. Last night, for the first time since Clay found him, Johnny hadn't burrowed into some small dark space to sleep, but sprawled on his back by the fire as he used to do before. It was a quiet but significant victory.
They ate and packed up in record time, setting a good pace along the empty road. Johnny sang his favourite pop songs at the top of his lungs, Clay joining in for the parts he knew. And all the while, in a small room at the back of Clay's mind, a whisper of a chant began.
He barely heard it, but he knew it was there, and soon his footsteps fell into its rhythm.
Around midday they struck pay dirt: a late model Jeep Liberty, keys still in the ignition. Clay expected it to be dead, but the engine coughed and turned over on the third try. He grinned at Johnny.
"We're gonna arrive in style, Johnny-Gee," he said.
"They won't care," Johnny replied with certainty.
"No, they won't. But it'll be nice anyway, don't you think?"
"Yeah." Johnny smiled back at him and got into the car.
Clay waited till he put his seatbelt on, then they were off in a flurry of snow and mud. He'd nearly forgotten how to do this; the speed startled him after so much walking, but then muscle memory took over and he remembered how it was done. He checked the gas tank and saw it was almost empty. They wouldn't get all the way on what remained, but there was enough to get them to Rangeley, maybe a bit further. They'd save three or four days on the road at least. Much as he liked walking with Johnny, Clay was by now thinking only of the end of the journey. He had things to do when he got there (tomtomtomtomtomtom), and the list was growing daily.
His eagerness grew as the miles fell behind them, until he was pressing down hard on the gas pedal, cursing under his breath when the Jeep coughed and spluttered to a halt. Their meagre supply of gas was exhausted. It was four-thirty, the sun starting to edge over the western horizon. They'd passed Rangeley forty-five minutes ago, leaving Route 11 when the promised spray painted arrows started to appear on the blacktop every twenty miles, just like clockwork. Clay had kept their speed to a moderate fifty miles per hour, which meant they had ten or fifteen miles to go on foot. One more night on the road, max.
Rather than pitch the tent (he regretted ever packing the damned thing), Clay lowered the rear seats in the Jeep and they slept there, in relative warmth and comfort. One more night, he kept thinking. Just one more. And then what?
Whatever, came the answer. There's no rules now, bud. Just show up and see what happens.
Pretty good advice, Clay decided. He'd sleep on it. But as he closed his eyes, Tom's face floated before him.
IV. Home Sweet Home
Morning saw them on the road early. Clay caught himself whistling at one point – "We're Off To See The Wizard" – and Johnny tried to copy him, laughing when he couldn't hold the notes. They'd made better time than Clay had thought yesterday, and judging by the growing frequency of painted arrows (sometimes with a smiley face next to them, which made Johnny smile in turn) they were getting close. They'd find the others today, he was sure of it. His heart thumped harder at the thought.
They continued to follow the arrows, breaking only once for a lunch of MREs on the side of the road. Late in the afternoon they came to Greenville, a fair-sized town on Route 6, and there they stopped to rest briefly before moving on again. Clay eyed the heavy cloud cover gathering above, thinking that if they didn't end this treasure hunt soon they'd have to hole up in a hotel and wait out the weather. To be so close and be thwarted in his desire pissed him off like nothing else. He'd give it another hour; if they hadn't found any sign of the others nearby, they'd backtrack to town and hunker down for a couple of days. Mother Nature had been as patient as she could, but the mild weather was about to break in one hell of a big way.
Johnny was standing about thirty yards ahead, staring at a tree. It marked the beginning of a gravel driveway of sorts, leading back into the shadows of the woods. The tree was nearly covered in spray paint in five different colors, a garish riot that reminded Clay, inexplicably, of Alice. He knew then that this was Jordan's handiwork, and that meant they were home.
"I think you've found them, kiddo," he said, staring down the path.
Johnny stared with him for a few seconds, then cocked his head to the side in that already-familiar gesture.
"They're waiting," he said, and started walking.
Clay trailed a few steps behind, not quite believing this was it. There'd been no catastrophes, no near-death experiences; hell, they were even early. It was, at last, finally over.
The path rounded in a gentle curve once they got back off the road, and once Johnny got there he paused for a second, squinting. Then a smile broke out on his face, he whooped like a native and took off out of Clay's sight. Clay reached the turn a moment later to see Jordan at the end of the driveway, standing in front of a wooden cabin, swinging Johnny around in the air. Both of them were laughing.
Seated on the front steps of the cabin was Tom. But not the Tom Clay remembered. This Tom was leaner, looser, and clean-shaven. He seemed taller somehow, relaxing in a sprawl with a beer held between two fingers, watching the boys with a smile on his face. Then he turned and caught sight of Clay, and his smile lit up like a sunrise.
Clay didn't think; he just began to run. His pack bounced annoyingly on his back, slowing him down and making him clumsy. He shrugged out of it without stopping and let it fall to the ground. Jordan saw him coming and lowered Johnny to the ground, still grinning.
Tom got to his feet as Clay drew near enough to touch.
"Welcome ba—" he began, but that was as far as he got because Clay reached him then, and a second later he held Tom's face in his hands and a second after that he was kissing Tom, like he'd been dreaming it for weeks without knowing. And it was so good it scared him a little, but after the initial shock Tom kissed him back, and that was better; that was just phenomenal.
When Clay finally drew back, he faced two startled faces, though he could already see Johnny's surprise fading into nonchalance. He made a note to talk with the kid later, to explain and to reassure. He wouldn't forget Sharon, but that life was over. Johnny would understand.
"Well." Jordan spoke first, his grin turned gleeful. "I was going to ask how you are, but I think I'll withdraw the question."
"Nobody likes a smartass, kid," Clay said, and pulled him into a hug.
"As I was saying, before I was so rudely interrupted," Tom said, "welcome back." But he was still smiling as he spoke, and there was a glint in his eyes that Clay liked. A lot. He'd like to get to know that look better. Later, he promised himself, and Tom grinned wider as if he'd heard him.
"Good to be back." Clay reached an arm around Tom's neck and kissed him again, quick and sharp, because Tom was close enough, finally, and he couldn't think of a reason not to. Tom slid his own arm round Clay's waist and turned them to face the house.
"Home sweet home," he said. "It's not much, but it'll do for a while. Dan and Denise have got a place a couple of miles away. They wanted to have a bit of distance until the baby starts sleeping through the night."
Clay was glad that Denise had come through her labor okay – from the sound of it, anyway. Tom saw the question on his face before he asked it.
"A week ago. Girl," he said. "Pretty healthy, we think, and a pretty easy birth. Denise was up and walking around three days afterward. They've called her Dawn."
"That's nice. I'm glad." Clay would go over and see them in a few days, after they'd gotten settled here. He didn't think it would take long.
"Dad? Are you guys done kissing for now?" Johnny looked up at him innocently. "'Cause I'm real hungry, and there's pumpkin pie in the kitchen. I'll wait for you inside, okay?"
He ran up the front steps and into the house, already perfectly comfortable here. Tom and Jordan watched him go, then turned curious looks on Clay. He shrugged.
"He's all right. Mostly, anyway. He's normal and everything. There's just a couple of ... enhancements, I guess."
"Wicked," Jordan breathed, staring after Johnny. Clay did a double take, then smothered a grin.
"Jordan, he's twelve," he said with mock sternness. "Whatever nefarious scheme you're hatching, it can wait a few years, okay?"
Jordan blushed and stammered his way through an apology, then shoved Clay's shoulder when he laughed. Clay watched him follow Johnny up the stairs, wondering but not really thinking about it. There would be time for Jordan and Johnny later.
Tom bumped his shoulder gently, reclaiming his attention. "Hey," he said.
"Hey, yourself," Clay replied. "Didn't see this coming, I bet." He waved his hand back and forth between them.
"No," Tom agreed. "Hoped for, maybe, one day. Not quite like this, and definitely not quite so abruptly. But I'm not going to bitch about it, believe you me."
Clay grinned – he was doing that more and more often now – and leaned in for another kiss. This is getting ridiculous, his mind whispered, can't you go five minutes without thinking of your dick? Then his stomach rumbled, and they broke apart laughing.
"Inside," Tom ordered. "I cooked today, so you're fairly safe. But be careful on alternate days; and at all costs beware Jordan's Slap-Up Chili Of Doom."
"I am duly warned," Clay said solemnly. "Lead on, Macduff. I'm starving."
Tom hesitated, opened his mouth, then shut it again. Clay tilted his head in query.
"Nothing. Never mind. I was just ..."
"Just what?" Clay asked.
Tom looked at him, almost shyly.
"Are you sure about this?"
Clay took his hand and kissed the palm, then folded Tom's fingers over it.
"That all depends," he said. "Will you still respect me in the morning?"
Tom rolled his eyes and shoved him, but Clay could see him relaxing.
"What makes you think I respect you now?"
"Oh, thanks. Bitchy much?"
"Maybe later," Tom said, and bounded up the stairs.