He’s burned before. There’s always a point at which the waves of pain crest, and he waits patiently for that crest, accepts it, then rides it down as his nerves char and he starts to lose everything, even the pain. He rides it down until he can’t feel anything at all. Just a lump of blackened meat, and then ash, and then dust.
No one steps in to save him, thank fucking God or whoever’s occupying the chair. His passage is blissfully unimpeded. He slides out of life and into something else, exactly like he wanted.
That something else isn’t much of anything, but at least there’s no pain, and no blood hunger, his constant companion since that night in the bog. His current state of being is like... the bog, actually. There's cold, or at least the absence of warmth. He's floating. Numb. He’s not sure if he even has a body anymore, but he feels… edges. He starts somewhere and ends somewhere, that's all he knows.
There’s a part of his vague, scattered consciousness that wonders, is this it, then? Is this forever?
And it feels like forever until suddenly it doesn’t. The edges to his self sharpen. Nerves re-bloom. He has lungs now, lungs that crave air. Arms that flail in the cold water.
Something reaches down and pulls him upwards.
There’s firm ground under his knees.
That voice sounds an awful lot like Jesse.
He grips the earth, curls his fingers into it and pukes up a gout of water. He doesn’t want to open his eyes yet. Because what if he’s in hell, and when he looks up, some joker of a demon with a grinning mouthful of shark teeth and Jesse’s voice stabs him with a fucking pitchfork and throws him back in the bloody bog?
But he can’t help it. He opens his eyes. And there’s Jesse, plain as day, kneeling and grinning with human teeth and a sparkle in his one eye. Not old Jesse or young Jesse—he looks just like the day they said goodbye. It hadn’t been a long goodbye at the time, because Tulip and Jesse had it in their thick heads that he was coming back, while Cassidy had greedily memorized every second because he already knew that he never would.
It’s all he can think of to choke out, “Why?” and wave wildly at Jesse’s improbable eye patch.
“Oh, the eye?” Jesse laughs. It sounds so good, after all these years, to hear that laugh. “Yeah, I had my eye back for a while, when we were in Heaven. But we ain’t in Heaven no more. We got a little restless and decided to come looking for you.”
There’s another, lighter touch on his shoulder. “This place, it’s somewhere in between,” Tulip says. He turns to her and staggers upright. She’s wearing the same cream-colored sundress from the goodbye day, but there are mud stains on the hem. He wants to wash them off for her. He wants so many things right now.
Jesse puts a hand on his shoulder and in a mildly pissed-off voice, says, “You should have come back.”
“Let him be,” orders Tulip. She’s got something shiny in her hand. Car keys. The purple gleam of the Chevelle’s hood comes clear in the distance now that the air is lightening. “We can hassle him on the ride outta here.”
He never told them what he did to Denis, which was at the heart of why he never came back: the hunger that always ruined everything. “I don’t know if I can go with you,” he says, his voice breaking. He takes a deep breath of the cool morning air and wonders if he has to say goodbye all over again, because he will, if he has to. “I don’t know what I am anymore—I don’t know if I can.”
“Let’s find out,” says Tulip. She folds out a little pen knife from the bunch of keys and does something with it. A trickle of red runs down her left palm. Cassidy’s heart twists and he groans out loud.
“Shssh,” says Jesse, his hand still pressing against Cassidy's shoulder.
She puts her hand to his face, close enough for him to smell the salty tang. “Do you feel it?” she asks softly. “It’s okay, either way.”
He doesn’t feel it. There’s nothing clawing at the back of his throat. Absolutely nothing. He shakes his head. The sense of relief is amazing.
“Well that’s settled,” Jesse says. “Get in the fucking car already, Cass. Turns out there’s lots of places besides Heaven and Hell, but the roads between them ain’t what you'd call reliable. We gotta move on.”
“I’m driving, of course,” Tulip says with a sweet smile. “Forget the backseat, though. You can squeeze yourself on in up front, if you’d like.”
Jesse nods in agreement.
“I’d like that very much,” Cassidy says. It still hurts to talk, but it’s a good kind of pain, the kind that lets him know he’s alive. Even if he’s not. None of it makes any goddamn sense but it feels right and he’s exactly where he wants to be.
So Tulip and Jesse walk him to the car.
They drive into the sunrise beyond the end of the world, the three of them.