Richard Sloat was beginning to think that he had seen Too Much. He had actually been ready to feel that right from the moment he looked out the window at Thayer House and saw the loping creatures calling for his passenger, but he'd managed to hold out for a long time. Longer than he would have thought possible. The thing about Too Much was that it was dangerously close to Too Much To Handle, and if that happened and Richard just let his mind slide on out of reality, Jack would be alone. He'd be leaving Jack alone to face whatever was out there, and that might (almost inconceivably) be worse than flat-headed mutant dogs and whatever worm-filled thing Reuel Gardener had been and big evil hotels made of black wood.
It might be his own father. And Richard didn't think he could leave Jack alone to face hi -- to face that. He shook himself hard and tuned in to Jack's frequency -- his friend was whispering to himself in a voice even quieter than his usual tone and straining to hear what he was saying took Richard's mind off other things. He listened and listened to the rustle of Jack's voice, let it run through his brain, let the words sort themselves out, and it all fell in with a snap --
i love you
Richard glanced up, mouth open, but Jack was looking faraway, lips moving like he wasn't even aware of them.
and will be back. thanks i love you and will be back. thanks i love you --
The desperation was enough to make Richard dizzy. He looked away and tried not to think of the terrible determined look in Jack's eyes.
They walked and walked along the old railroad ties, and each step got a little bit heavier but Richard kept going anyhow, because Jack was walking along beside him easily, the only marks on him of what they'd been through in the worried set of his mouth and the way he kept scratching at his hands. But then, Jack had always been like that. He hadn't always been this beautiful in the strange way that made Richard keep sneaking glances at him, but he'd always held up well in the face of adversity. Part of it was his mother's blood -- you could see traces of her smile (that famous smile) around the edges of Jack's mouth sometimes -- but most of it was simply Jack, and the way he was.
In a way, it wasn't all that surprising for Richard to find out that his childhood friend was something special. There was really nobody else he would rather have with him here, if he had to be here at all.
"Holding up okay, Ritchie?" Jack asked him idly. Richard nodded. It was getting harder to hold his head up and he had to carefully slow down his breathing before he answered. He had the feeling his body might give out in a while, and he didn't want Jack to have to worry about that before it happened.
"Copacetic," Richard said. He could feel the blisters around his mouth cracking when he said it and did his damndest not to wince; he could see the concern on Jack's face, his fine clear brow. Richard couldn't help but feel a little bit resentful -- you're the one brought me here, through all this madness, and *I'm* the one with the record-breaking pizzaface? -- but then Jack reached out to steady him and his wrists looked all puffed up, like there were clumps of tiny rotting red berries just below the surface of his skin and Richard's irritation evaporated, leaving behind only a dry, dusty resignation. Jack's face when his fingers closed over Richard's forearm had shifted from broad, general worry to something sharper and more immediate, and although he'd schooled it quickly back Richard had caught the look.
That bad, eh, Jacky? Well, don't you worry about Richard Sloat. My daddy's the one in charge, don't you remember that? It's not like he'd let anything bad happen to me, would he? It's not like he'd let me end up like good ol' Reuel, with his head busted open across your fingers, would he? No, it would at least be something special for his own flesh and blood. You just gotta cheer up, Jacky. Cheer up, cheer up, the sun is red....
"-- live love laugh and be happy," Richard croaked. Jack glanced at him, showing teeth. He wasn't smiling, though.
"Catchy song," Jack said. His voice was even, but there was a little crack to it, the kind that little kids got that made their moms look over like somebody was being mean to them. Richard started to think that maybe Jack had just about seen Too Much himself.
"You remember," Jack said, "when we were driving down to that old waterpark, that one in Irvine." It wasn't really a question, but Richard nodded anyway.
"Your dad drove us," he said. "Mine was gonna meet us there because he had work to keep him in town longer." The two of them fell silent for a moment; a mental genuflection before the knowledge that it maybe wasn't this world's town that delayed Morgan Sloat from joining his son and oldest, best friend on holiday.
Jack swallowed and shoved his hands in his pockets. His brown hair fell across his face when he tipped his head down, and Richard watched each strand slide, brown like clear creek water, over Jack's eyelashes, his nose, his pointy, pained mouth. "There was that guy we drove past. That guy by the gas station, wearing that stupid jacket that said 'Keep on Trucking' on it." He lifted his head now, squinting thoughtfully at the sun. "Remember he screamed something at us, when we drove by?"
"Maybe. I don't know." Richard shook his head. "That was a long time ago, pardner."
"I know. But I remember it well. He screamed something at us and all I caught was '--aggots'." He tipped his head at Richard. "Faggots? I thought I saw his mouth, though. Thought I saw an m."
"Jack," Richard said tiredly. "What does it matter now? Besides, one's just as bad as the other."
"I suppose," Jack said. His voice was flavourless, paper-thin, and the toe of one of his sneakers stubbed against a railway tie. Richard looked at him, the taut slash of his mouth and all that pretty brown hair, and couldn't bring himself to look away. He could barely keep himself from reaching out and sinking his fingers into Jack's clothes, pulling him close and burying his face in Jack and breathing in as hard as he could, trying to get one last little smell of that gloriously fresh air from the other place. From the other place before they got on that awful train, that is.
His fingers and nose twitched, and Richard bit down on his lip and faced front and kept plodding. All boys are filthy, filthy. It's axiomatic, oh yes my boy.
It's while they're stumbling along the railroad ties that seem to stretch out forever that Richard starts to go a bit delirious. He's actually kind of relieved. There's not much difference between fever dreams and reality, now. So it wouldn't matter much if he just lay down on the stubbly grass and gravel --
and then Jack was there, his face shining with beauty so strong it dazzled, and he was holding Richard's clinging, clawed hands, and he was holding a hammer, a big rusty thing and Jack smiled. Richard gasped and felt his whole body shudder with the radiance of that smile. Jack sprawled one of Richard's hands down splat against the floor, pinned it there by the wrist. Richard gaped and his fingernails scratched weakly once before Jack held his fingers still and raised the hammer. "God pounds his nails, Ritchie," Jack said sadly, still smiling, and brought his hammer down
-- and the next thing Richard knew, he was on Jack's back, arms slung around his friend's shoulders and the fever-dream already dissipating in his mind and leaving nothing but sourness in his mouth. There was the smell of brine in the air. Salt water. They were getting close, yes indeed, nearer to Point Venuti than anybody really should be. But Jack (single-natured, single-minded) didn't seem to be having the same reaction as Richard, the same urge to turn around and run as far as he could from that place. Or maybe he did. Maybe he was feeling the exact same way. Good old Jack, though, didn't show any of that as he jogged steadily down the tracks toward an old car-barn, pace never slacking, bob bob bobbin' along. Richard pressed his cheek against Jack's warm head and gurgled weakly with laughter. "Red red robin," he mumbled. "Old chum."
Jack huffed out a laugh himself, and Richard could practically taste it, the rich burst of love in that sound. He could curl up and go to sleep in that sound, never wake up. "Hate to break it to you, pal, but you're no Batman."
Richard only smiled and pushed his nose deeper into Jack's soft, wonderful, fragrant hair.