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appalling strangeness (i have not forgotten your face)

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Susannah planted roses: Eddie found himself staring at them sometimes, a glass of lemonade or a bottle of beer sweating away in his hand, until why he had come out to the garden at all was a distant memory (dream) to him. All the roses were the same bloody (crimson) shade and they were all ringed with thorns. It was the thorns that made the rose, Eddie knew, because if there was anything of value in this world, you had to bleed to take it.

Unless, in the end, your paradise just tumbled into your lap while you were standing a crowd with your little brother. It was strange, how the way he had met Susannah didn’t match, at all, with the truth he knew in his heart from looking at the roses.

He thought, I was waiting for something remarkable, and the condensation from the beer bottle ran down his bare wrist, and he tumbled back into his life as if from some unimaginable height.

*

Eddie dreamed every night. In their house, though, that wasn’t strange: he sometimes woke up from his own muddled thoughts of a featureless beach of gray sand to Susannah breathing heavily, kicking waves and ripples into the sheets of their bed, and when he woke her, she would look right through him and say, “I couldn’t feel my feet, sugar. I couldn’t feel my feet,” and he would press his cold toes against hers until she knew that there was solid reality even on down from her knees, and they would fall asleep holding each other, and he would dream again of the beach, and wake up later himself clawing at the insides of his arms, as if an itch he couldn’t scratch were buried there, somewhere underneath his skin.

Jake, who may have dreamed more than any of them, started sleepwalking: Eddie would wake up to make pancakes, or some domestic shit like that, and find Jake bumping off the walls, talking to himself. One, he looked right at Eddie, and said, “I took French leave. I saw you with your brother,” and Eddie said, “You’re my brother,” and it felt like, if not a lie, only part of the truth.

“I have not forgotten the face of my father,” Jake said, and then, without saying anything else, he took himself over to the couch and laid down on it, pressing his face into the cushions, and went to normal, soundless sleep. Eddie stood there, cold all the way down to his bones. He could not remember the face of his father. He could not remember his father at all.

He made pancakes. They all ate in silence, their eyes bruised from lack of sleep, and even Oy too tired to beg for table scraps.

This is supposed to be heaven, Eddie thought.

Ka’s a bitch, and then you live.

The shit that he found in his head sometimes; like dust bunnies underneath the furniture. He didn’t know what half of it meant.

*

He kept his workshop out behind the house. In the summer, he propped an old box fan—three bucks at a thrift shop—up in the window and let it push the air and sawdust around, whisk the sweat from his skin, but it made him cough, and most of the time, if he could breathe through the heat at all, he went without, working with his shirt off, and always pushing his hair out of his eyes. He was still surprised, even after all this time, how much people would pay for the things he made: bookshelves with climbing vines carved into the sides, chess sets, bows. On commission, he’d make whatever they asked, but sometimes, when he found a particularly interesting piece of wood, with a grain that broke his heart somehow, he would put it aside to make something for himself, or Suze, or Jake.

This time, it was a block of wood so dark that it was like a hole in the world. He spent a few hours going through the pictures he kept of the different woods, knowing that he was wasting time, but not able to care, because he had never seen anything like this before: two shades darker than midnight, than ebony. He couldn’t find anything that matched it in his pictures of his memory, shitty and unreliable though his memory was turning out to be.

He couldn’t even remember where he’d gotten it from.

He was supposed to have a cabinet to some people by Thursday, but fuck it, he’d work late Wednesday and finish it. He did his best work when he was down to the wire.

All that day, he worked carefully on the mystery piece of wood. It wanted to be something special, he could feel it, but his eyes burned and stung with sweat, and he almost felt as though he were working blindly, shaving off scraps wood with nothing more than a knife, going entirely by feel, and it’d be more luck than he deserved if he didn’t lose a finger to this bullshit. But (it’s beautiful, Eddie) something about this meant something (everything) to him.

(I haven’t forgotten your face.)

What did it want to be? A stone? A rose? A door?

His head cleared: what he was holding in his hand was something like a chess piece, a rook, only without the ridges along the top.

He slipped it into his pocket.

*

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

A Fistful of Dollars.

Fucking anything with gunslingers, really: he’d sit glued to the couch and watch. He couldn’t decide whether it was the wide vistas that stole his breath away from him or the granite-faced men who let their guns speak for them, in massive thunderous barks. Once, when Susannah curled up next to him, he put his arm around her and said absently, when Good Old Clint was off the screen, “He should smile more. Somebody should make him smile. Christ, it’s like he’s got another six-shooter rammed up his ass, and if he relaxes, he’ll lose the fucker.”

“He never did smile much,” Susannah said. She laid her head on his shoulder. “You made him smile, Eddie.”

And for a second, he almost remembered something pivotal: the axis on which his whole world had spun, once, a long time ago, but then the commercial ended and there was Clint again, and the dust that was thrown up from his boots, and Eddie realized that neither of them had been making much sense, but what the hell, it was late.

He fell asleep and dreamed of dragging a travois across the beach while giant fucking lobsters skittered and clacked in the sea-foam and tried to lure him away. No, he said to their repeated, moronic inquiries. No, I have to stay with him, I have to save him, but when he looked behind him, the travois was empty, and he wasn’t on a beach at all, but in his own backyard, lush with green grass and definitely lacking in talking seafood. He put his hand into his pocket and the tower was still there.

*

It was like a bubble rising through his thoughts, always popped before it could quite reach the surface.

Still: I have not forgotten your face.

Still: There was a time when all I fucking wanted was to see you smile.

And he dreamed of the tower, the dark tower, and blue eyes that were so cold they burned, like frostbite.

This is not the right way in.

Come a little closer.

His own eyes changing colors in a mirror. Someone, on that endless ash-gray, old-gym-socks beach, holding him, while he burned in hell, and vomited, and tried intermittently to die—and the ice of those eyes had been the only thing that could cool him down. I walked you down the whole length of the beach. I walked you to the second door. I loved you. What was your name, what was your fucking name?

Come a little closer.

I made you a key. You said it was beautiful.

I made you a key to put in a lock, to save you, but where’s my key?

He held the tower tight in his hand, until the shape of it was a red and aching imprint on his skin, and he didn’t even know anymore whether or not he was dreaming. The sky above him was the blue of washed-out denim, and he had heard before, somewhere, that no one dreamed in color, so either he wasn’t dreaming or that person had been talking out of his ass, and considering Eddie and his whole family spent every fucking night with their heads full of things that couldn’t have happened, science, he figured, was fucked, and he might as well wake up to a tomorrow where people rode sparkly unicorns with rainbow tails down the streets, for what reality was worth. And he was going off in some stupid direction, his mind restless, trying to pop the bubble before it could rise on its own, because he’d died, hadn’t he, and this was supposed to be heaven, except it never would be, not for him, not for Suze, and not for Jake, because Eddie wouldn’t be in any club that would have him as a member, any ka-tet with no use for its dinh, and for him there was no heaven if Roland wasn’t there.

Roland. Roland Deschain, of Gilead.

He woke up—so there was the resolution to that mystery, hallelujah for small favors—saying, over and over again, “I killed you with my heart,” and when Susannah, stirring, asked him what the hell he was talking about, exactly, he said, “I remember everything,” because he did. He may have killed Roland with his heart, but the not-remembering shit, he’d shot it with his fucking mind.

*

He told them the story, the dark tower he’d made crouched on the coffee table just at their knees, where all their lines of sight were drawn to meet it. The Beams, Eddie guessed. He told them the story, but it made him itchy and jittery, like he was craving another hit of a drug that had, in this lifetime, never been anywhere near his system. He told them the story, but the story didn’t matter, Roland mattered. Roland mattered, and they’d fucking left him. Or Eddie had. He hadn’t even seen the Tower in its field of roses.

Jake, chalk white, already having thrown up once, said, “I don’t think we can say that’s your fault, exactly.”

Susannah held his hand. “You died, Eddie,” she said, and it was the first thing she had said in a long time where he could hear Detta Walker in her voice, even without all the crazy-talk: there was something hard in her voice. The echo of the gunslinger she’d been in Mid-World. “You didn’t leave.”

“Ka’s a fucking wheel,” Eddie said, snappish because he’d been gnawing at this ever since he had woken up with the memory of Roland’s warm hand on his, trying to figure out what the hell had happened, exactly. “I should have come back. Jake died,” and that was a shitty thing to bring up, and he shouldn’t have, and he didn’t even care, “and he came back. Or I should have stayed dead, and I mean dead-dead,” and he pulled a face, eyes half-bugged out, tongue lolling from his mouth, neck crooked at as an impossible an angle as he could get to possibly, not at all like he’d actually died, in the sweltering darkness of his head with spiders sticking their legs into his brain, or so it had felt, but it was the kind of vicious thing he wanted to do right now. “This isn’t the clearing at the end of the path. We shouldn’t be here. Ka-fucking-tet, all for one and one for all, and I know we’re not in the clearing or heaven or the grand Hawaiian vacation beach home, because he isn’t here.”

He didn’t know where Roland would have fit in, exactly. Not in this little slice of Leave It to Beaver, the modern upgrade, with rose gardens and backyard workshops and weekend block parties where people had mostly stopped like at him and Suze funny. He couldn’t imagine Roland slumped in a La-Z-Boy, drinking a beer, watching Saturday Night Live. Well, they’d all left their world for Roland’s once before. They could do it again. They were all more flexible than he was—younger and prettier, too—and less grumpy about change.

And they’d all belonged in Mid-World, with Roland. He remembered that, too.

“It’s my fault,” he said, to Susannah and to Jake, “because I must have done something. There’s always a door. Door one, door two, lady, tiger, and I must have chosen the wrong one.” He held his hands up above his eyes, cutting out the light. He couldn’t remember having a choice. He remembered saying goodbye to them, in the dark with the spiders, and he remembered Roland’s hand, and Susannah’s, and Jake’s—remembered loving them and being loved—and then some sense of grace, of earned rest.

Then nothing until Eddie Toren and his little brother Jake, and yes, his heart ached from the loss of Henry, too, pruned neatly away from this life-that-wasn’t, too imperfect to live, because he’d been a shitty older brother, but Eddie had loved him all the same, and losing all memory of him wasn’t fair. Even if it eased some deeply fucked-up thing inside him, it wasn’t fair, and he wouldn’t have chosen it, not knowingly. Not that. And not the loss of Roland, who had put the splintered pieces of his soul back together again somewhere on that endless beach, who had danced the commala—never that.

He said, half to them and half to Gan, God, Stephen King, Who- or Whatever was listening: “I went first.” Jake and Susannah and even Oy, they’d come along because he’d made an undertow. Because they loved him. “But I don’t want to be here.” He held Susannah’s hand tight enough that his bones ached from it, but she was squeezing back just as hard, and she didn’t say anything wives usually said when their husbands gave up on their quiet lives in their nice little tree-lined houses and said they wanted to go back to the beach, the danger, the noise of the guns, the man with the lined face and the startlingly bright eyes. She wanted to go back, too.

And Jake. And Oy.

Jake said, his voice husky, as if he’d cried, only he hadn’t, not Jake Chambers, not Jake Toren: kid was tough as nails, “Other worlds than these,” and Eddie hugged him.

Oy barked.

“Well said, mutt,” Eddie said, a little freaked out by Oy now, honestly, because once you knew that your dog used to be some kind of fucking talking raccoon, it was hard not to think about it.

They all held hands and waited for ka to do something useful for a change, but Eddie should have known that that was way too much to ask, because nothing happened except everybody started wriggling a little because they were getting itchy, or hungry, or whatever, waiting for Scotty to beam them up to the Starship Mid-World already.

“Okay,” Eddie said, determined to be as practical and sensible about the whole thing as somebody could be when he’d just discovered that his entire life was a lie that he had to escape so he could presumably go die horribly a second time around, “I think I need to find a door.”

“Worked for me,” Jake said, shrugging. “You know, that first time I died.”

“Honeybunch,” Susannah said to him, “nobody likes a show-off.”

*

Eddie tried every door in the house. He’d thought that he knew stupid, but he guessed that he hadn’t really come face to face with it until he’d swung open the linen closet door with dramatic flourish only to find a bunch of sheets that he didn’t remember having bought, ever: kiddie shit that Jake wouldn’t have slept on willingly for at least six years now. He pulled them out and looked at them. He was very proud of his voice not shaking when he said, “Okay, team, we may be making progress here,” and handed them over to Suze, who hissed at them a little before passing them to Jake.

Blue choo-choo train sheets, embroidered at the seam of the pillowcase in what Eddie could only think of as a cowboy-stitch, rodeo style, with the name: Charlie the Choo-Choo!

“Is it a sign or a warning?” Susannah asked.

“Maybe both,” Eddie said.

Jake spit on the pillowcase, neatly as could be, and laid it down on the floor beside him. “Is there anything else in there?”

“Well, yeah,” Eddie said. “There’s—linen.”

Jake rolled his eyes. “I meant anything like this,” and he nudged the Charlie sheets with his foot and then rubbed his toes against the carpet, as if he didn’t like having touched them.

Eddie checked. He came up with a pillowcase with a cross-stitched pattern on it of a bloody eye—the sigil of the Crimson King. Carefully not screaming, he tucked it back between polka-dotted sheets. “No,” he said. “Nothing else.” If it were a warning, it didn’t matter: they weren’t turning back.

*

But they searched all night and found nothing else.

*

That night, Eddie dreamed of Roland, and the beach. They were sitting there with their feet in the surf, and Eddie was worried about the lobstrosities, because ka was nothing if not a wheel, but Roland said that this time, there were no monsters in the water. He said it with those faint crinkles around his eyes that meant that he was in a surprisingly good mood, as though he were pleased, after all, to have Eddie back with him, and Eddie felt warm all over, like he could bask in this moment.

Then Roland leaned over and touched his forehead. “Be at peace, Eddie,” he said. “Don’t remember.”

“No,” Eddie said, and shook his head, because there were times to do what Roland wanted and there were times to run all the way in the other direction, and he hadn’t lived and died with the man to not know the difference. “I won’t forget again.”

“I kill the people I love,” Roland said.

“Well,” Eddie said, thinking of the end of Some Like It Hot, which had to be one of the best movies ever made, and one of the things he would miss about his world, “nobody’s perfect,” and he kissed Roland on the forehead, where Roland had touched him, and he wasn’t sure if that was love or apology or forgiveness or a blessing or just what ka demanded of him, but either way, it closed the circle that made the wheel, and he woke up knowing exactly what he needed to do.

*

He slipped out of bed in the dark. He did not wake Susannah or Jake to say goodbye, although his heart ached with having to leave them there, sleeping, unaware of him going out into the night. Ka was relentless, though, and he was afraid of deviating from the course (the Beam) that it had set. He would go first, and create the undertow, as he had done before: always, he was the one who left their world—whatever world was theirs—and they were the ones who came after, like he’d kicked down the door and they’d blown in with the weather. He was always having to do the hard part. Go first. Make the life that they would find. He was crying, and that mattered, but he was also grinning a lunatic grin, and that mattered, too. He was steel. Balthazar would have recognized him like this, if Balthazar had a place in this makeshift world of happy endings, which Eddie doubted.

He stopped first at the garden, and then he went into his workshop.

He placed the tower down on the table, and around it, with the point of his knife, he drew the outline of a door. Carefully, he moved the tower to where the handle would have been, and it nested there, took root. It would turn, but not yet.

He took up the knife again and scratched into the wood. It gave way easily.

THE DEAD, he wrote, and underneath it, because it wasn’t true enough yet to give him passage, THE FIRST.

Then he slid the knife into its leather sheath and, lacking a belt to hang it from, or anything other than the blue-and-white striped pajama pants and undershirt he’d been sleeping in, and Roland could just thank his lucky stars that Eddie hadn’t been sleeping bare-ass lately, he held it in his left hand and turned the tower-handle with his right. It opened out, the front of the worktable swinging to the side, and thumping against the invisible hinge. He looked through it as best as he could from the side, but all he could see was gray. Well, he figured, fuck it, he could have seen Blaine and man-eating tigers and Jack Andolini and the bullet that had destroyed his brain, and he would have gone through all the same. Ka was a wheel, and vicious, but he would take it over this.

It occurred to him, mildly, that this could be mercy, too: the second time around, to choose.

He knew his choice.

He looked back at the house for just a second, though. “Find me,” he said. And he believed they would. He further believed that he would get half-throttled for making them worry, but that was what family was for, and whoever he was, Eddie Dean or Eddie Toren, he knew that. Family found you. Family kicked your ass for being such a headache.

But first they found you.

He had the knife and, gently, between his fingers, he took up the gift, too.

He hoisted himself up the side of the table and, lacking any graceful way of shifting around, tumbled ass over teakettle into another world.

*

He landed on the beach, with a crick in his neck, and heard dad-a-chum in the background.

Roland, you fucking liar.

He came slowly to his feet.

What had been missing from his heaven was coming slowly towards him, one hand resting on the butt of his gun, and Eddie didn’t know if he was remembered or not, loved or not, forgiven or not, but if Roland didn’t shoot him dead, there would be time to figure out all that later. There were still tears on his face; tears and salt from the sea-wind that was blowing in, pushing them towards each other.

“Hey, man,” Eddie said, trying to make his smile less relieved, less crazy, and knowing that it wasn’t working. He held out his gift: he would be glad to give it up, anyway. It was making his fingers bleed. “I brought you a rose.”