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The Lotus Eater

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The pocket watch had a mirrored surface, a silver chain, and the vaguely unsettling organic feel that the gunslinger associated with items from the distant past.

Roland wound the chain around his wrist, sinuous metal coiling cold against his skin. The pocket watch ticked like a tiny beating heart gripped tight in the palm of his hand. It still kept good time by the sound of it. Roland had not opened the watch yet, for he had the distinct feeling that once he did things would begin to happen very quickly.

It was icy in his hand, and he could feel a strange shiver go through it, a tiny thrumming that seemed to make his hand pulse. Carefully, he opened his palm and looked at it. Dull silver, worn smooth with time. He felt along the edge until he found the clasp, and it clicked open with a shiver. Inside, gears turned relentlessly just beyond the glass face. There were faint traces of letters and numbers, but they had been worn beyond recognition.

The inside of the watch cover was polished to a mirrored shine. Roland tilted it so he could see his own eye reflected in it. There were more lines around it now than he remembered, but the iris was the same clear, pitiless blue it had always been. Roland had a feeling that if the mirror were bigger, if he could see more of his face, he would no longer recognize it.

He turned the watch so that the light fell on it at another angle, and somehow he was not surprised at all to find it was no longer his own eye that peered back at him.

***

Eddie stared at himself in the cracked mirror, water dripping off his face. Droplets clung to bristly stubble. Dark circles pooled under his eyes, and his face looked hollow for lack of good food, but it wasn't food that he wanted.

He stared at his arm, at a tiny trickle of dried blood just above the spot where he had tied off at the bicep and he sighed, feeling the lingering traces of ecstasy leave him as abruptly as a long-exhaled breath.

He rubbed his face with a handful of rough paper towels and looked in the mirror again.

Faded denim eyes stared back at him, and he was so shocked that he put his fist through the mirror, sending shards glittering to the ground, a thousand pairs of blue eyes staring back at him from every splinter.

Eddie brought his foot down on the largest piece, shattering it. He felt a sliver go into his sole, and when he raised his foot again, three fat drops of blood dripped from the cut to obscure the vision in the glass. Then, the blood beaded like liquid mercury, and rolled off. Eddie didn't see what happened next; he had already turned and fled.

He could feel the last of his fix fading. The shock of the mirror had done it. It was his last hit, and he’d wasted it. Wasted it, because goddamn Roland wouldn’t stay in the dustbin of history where he belonged. That son of a bitch just didn’t know how to take no for an answer.

But Eddie had made his choice. A quiet anonymous life in the real world, with TV and hot running water and no fucking monsters hounding his steps. He had done it half-knowing how it would end, but willing to accept that as part of the bargain. Better to die a real, tangible, solid death from shooting poison into his veins than to become just another sacrifice shoveled into the insatiable maw of the Dark Tower.

No, Eddie had made up his mind. If Roland couldn’t accept that, then that was his problem.

***

Roland watched the mirror of curved metal inside the watch for a long time, but Eddie’s face did not appear again. His heart was still racing as he forced himself to examine the rest of the watch’s mechanisms.

The clockwork was impossibly complex. There were hundreds of gears on the other side of the glass, some no bigger than individual grains of sand. Roland knew that the watch had been entrusted to him – had entrusted itself – for a reason. This was no simple timepiece, anyone could see that. He’d found some uses for ancient technology in the past, though sometimes he felt that the technology was using him just as much as he was using it.

Roland looked back at the others, caught in delirious dreaming. He had dragged them, one by one from where they had collapsed senseless, at the edge of a great sea of blood-red poppies that somehow passed him by, leaving him unaffected.

He trickled more water into their mouths, trying to keep their bodies alive, but it couldn't last long the way things were going. It was a grim parody of palaver, holding vigil over the unconscious three who were tucked into their blankets against the nights that grew colder by the day. They lay insensible while he grappled with himself, trying to find a way to wake them from their endless sleep.

Keeping the pocket watch pressed tight in one hand, Roland rose and moved to Eddie’s side. He was sitting up and his eyes were open, but he clearly saw nothing. It had been several days since he had eaten anything, but his face was already gaunt and drawn to the point of emaciation, as if something were devouring him from within.

The demon heroin, Roland thought grimly. Though he had only seen Eddie briefly in the pocket watch, he had noted his sallow skin, his sunken eyes, his pronounced cheekbones.

He hadn’t waited long to start shooting up again, or perhaps it only seemed that way to Roland. Who could say how much time had passed for Eddie, how time moved in the endless dream in which he was caught. Perhaps he had been waiting a long time for someone to come for him; perhaps he had given up waiting entirely.

Roland glanced at Susannah and Jake, equally insensate and starved-looking. He could not leave them alone, not even for Eddie’s sake. But he knew that if he deliberated too long, he ran the risk of losing them all.

Yes, save Eddie first, then have faith that the means would be provided for him to rescue the other two. In an instant, Roland was decided. He didn’t have to like it; he just had to do it.

***

Past midnight, and the bus station was quiet. Eddie fumbled through the fractured recesses of his mind and at last he came up with the name of a town: Peoria, Illinois. There wasn’t much poetry to it, but it sounded hard and crudely functional, and, more importantly, worlds away from New York.

In the time it had taken Eddie to shoot up in the men’s room, his bus had departed. So had the two or three other passengers who had gotten off at the same time he had. There had been cars to meet them in the snowy parking lot. Reunions were had. Happy words clanged through the air, jarring his nerves. It was enough to make you want to puke.

In the bathroom, Eddie had managed right up until the end to avoid looking in the warped mirror that hung over the sink. He’d only glanced into it briefly, right before he left.

The only eyes that stared back at him were his own: greenish, bloodshot, mercifully unfamiliar. Maybe Roland had finally gotten the hint and given up. Or maybe, he reminded himself bitterly, there was no Roland at all. Maybe there never had been. Maybe he’d never been anything but a junkie with a body that was slowly breaking down. A junkie who had once, in an opium haze, dreamed of being a great man.

No, he knew that wasn’t right. Eddie was not so far down the path he'd chosen that he could no longer distinguish reality from dreams. But the line was becoming thinner and blurrier, more fragile by the day. He was looking forward to the moment that it disappeared entirely; perhaps then, at last, he could begin the long hard work of forgetting.

Eddie started down the cold, abandoned sidewalk. Even a shithole like Peoria had to have a YMCA or somewhere he could get a cup of coffee and a shower. The Greyhound station was downtown, and as Eddie walked he passed the darkened front windows of whistle-stop cafes and souvenir shops. A few had security lights still burning within, and they cast strange long phantom shadows on the swept and scrubbed tile floors.

But the dark windows were worse, for in each of these Eddie could see his own reflection, pale and ragged, a shade called back from the Land of the Dead. When he passed these windows, he did not dare turn to look himself in the face. He kept his head down, his shoulders bowed over. His hands, stuffed deep in the pockets of his leather jacket, stumbled through the jerky motions of their familiar junkie dance.

“Eddie.”

It was not the sound of his name that startled him, but rather the voice in which it was said. It seemed that Eddie recognized that voice before he even managed to put a meaning to the syllables.

“Go away…” Eddie said quietly, his eyes fixed on the pavement, his hands shoved into his coat, his voice too loud and harsh in the silence of the deserted street.

“I can’t do that, Eddie,” Roland said to him. “Look at me.”

“No…”

“Look at me.”

“Go fuck yourself!” Eddie shouted. The words echoed back, bouncing off the cold brick walls of Main Street as if echoing through a narrow canyon. In the silence that followed, no dog barked in reply. No apartment-dweller raised a window to yell down at him.

Silence, all was silence and desolation.

“Eddie,” Roland tried again, more gently now. “It’s all a dream.”

This time, Eddie’s head snapped up. He saw, for a dizzying moment, his own pallid ghost reflected in the window, and then, beside him, another. Roland’s reflection was clear and sharp like crystal. There was a slight luminescence to him, as if the bright light of day shone upon him.

“No it isn’t,” Eddie said petulantly. He felt miserable, like a child having his toys taken away. “It’s not a dream. It’s not a dream. It’s not…”

“Stop it.” Roland’s voice cut through his protests like a saber and left Eddie’s mouth hanging open, no sound coming out. “Pull yourself together. I need you to do this for me. I need you now, Eddie.”

It was only through some effort that Eddie managed to cleave his tongue from the roof of his mouth. “I don’t give a damn what you think you need. This is where I belong. Where I’ve always belonged.”

“A prisoner,” Roland said. “A slave.”

“You’re damn right.”

“You know that your destiny lies with me, Eddie.” Roland gestured towards his breast with his mangled right hand. “It lies by my side.”

Eddie felt a flush rise to his cheeks, and his heart seemed to groan with the effort of circulating his old, tired, tainted blood. “Just because we… because you…”

“I love you,” the gunslinger said, and if he had said it with a bit more conviction then it might have been enough. But those words were rusty with disuse upon his lips, and they came out too shrewd, too calculating.

Eddie felt them glance off the armor he had made for himself. A palpable hit, but not a killing blow. “It’s too late for that.”

Roland did not speak again. Although he began to, his image in the storefront window shimmered and became indistinct. His eyes skated away from Eddie’s face, and he seemed to be studying something in his hand, something that Eddie could not see.

Eddie didn't wait around for an explanation. As soon as Roland’s attention was diverted, he turned and ran.

***

Roland was left holding the silent pocket watch. The mirrored cover had misted over slightly, so that the reflection of his blue eyes appeared cloudy and cataracted. Beneath the glass cover, the innumerable gears were still. A cold knot of fear collected in the pit of his stomach. If the watch was broken now, then all had been for nothing. Eddie would be lost to him.

Then Roland remembered the tiny silver key that jutted out from the side of the watch. Of course, it was not broken; it had simply wound down. His hand trembling with desperate hope, Roland seized the key between two fingers and twisted it. It turned smoothly, and the watch’s inner workings gave off a healthy tick-tick-tick. Roland forced himself to slow down until he saw the gears beneath the glass resetting themselves.

It was too complex for him to possibly comprehend, but he put the whole of his attention on it. He used Cort's old trick, letting his consciousness slip out of focus as he would let his eye slip out of focus to aim a pistol, taking in the mechanism as a whole rather than a collection of parts.

Presently, a pattern began to emerge.

The clockwork was a map, he realized. The tiny gears and springs were twists in an enormous and elaborate labyrinth. And somehow he already knew what lay at the end.

***

Eddie ran until his chest burned and his throat was raw from gulping the cold night air. Main Street was endless and utterly uninhabited. He didn't see a single person, not even the headlights of a passing car.

He knew now that something was terribly wrong with this place, and yet he couldn't stop. He was running now more out of momentum then out of a desire to flee. The higher levels of his brain, where thinking and rationalizing happened, knew that Roland was gone; but the lower, animal parts kept telling him to move. To go, and never look back.

Eddie turned off Main Street at the next intersection. He was running now down a spruce-lined lane with a number of old houses butted up close to the sidewalk. The houses were in the mid-century style, each with a number of large windows. Not a single light on in a single house, and when Eddie realized this, a sheen of cold sweat appeared on his brow.

Still he went on, more cautiously now, no longer running. The overhanging spruce trees gave the lane a closed-in, claustrophobic feel.

He had scarcely caught his breath when he knew that he was being watched. Roland’s gaze seemed to drive the cold before it. Out of the corner of his eye, Eddie saw the gunslinger appear in the big picture window of one of the houses.

This time, he didn't give Roland a chance to speak before he ran again.

Eddie came abreast of the next house, and out of the corner of his eye he saw a dozen images, as if Roland were simultaneously standing at every window, looking out at him in concern.

Stop running, said a voice that seemed to come to him on the air itself. Eddie, stop running.

Eddie heard a low wail from somewhere nearby, realized belatedly that he was the one making it. He didn’t bother yelling back; he knew that Roland would not listen.

In desperation, Eddie turned down an alley between two of the yards. At once, he was enclosed on all sides by high cinderblock walls. There were no windows back here, no reflections, but still Roland’s voice went on and on.

Stop running, Eddie. Stop running. Stop.

Eddie took a hard right into another alley. He had found his way into an elaborate network of maintenance shortcuts and irrigation ditches behind the neighborhood. He turned again, then again, no longer keeping track of which direction he was headed or how to get back to the street he had left behind.

By the time he realized that the alleys were a maze, he was already impossibly lost.

Eddie froze, then turned in a slow circle. He jerked his head back convulsively and looked at the sky, but the moon and the pole star were hidden behind an overgrown canopy of spruce trees. The night was very still. Eddie thought of the empty town he had left behind, and a cold terror gripped him.

“Roland…?” he said quietly, experimentally.

“I’m here.”

It was not what he had wanted. He was exhausted, and his body was a network of small savage pains, but Eddie found the fortitude to run again. It was gunslinger strength he relied upon now, there was no doubt about that. The knowledge was bitter to him, and somewhere in the back of his mind he knew he was running only to stay in the same place. There would be no progress, here.

Eddie was no longer running full-speed, reduced to a brisk jog. A cramp had started in his left side, and he ran bent over slightly, his hand pressed into the soft place below his ribs. He forced his burning lungs to take in air. Forced his heart to hardness as he heard Roland’s voice reverberate around him.

Oh, my friend…

Eddie turned right at the next juncture, and he found himself confronted with a dead end. On the cinderblock wall at the far end of the alley a small round mirror winked at him from within a silver frame.

“No,” Eddie said. But he was limping closer, his fist knotted into the cramp in his side and his eyes huge and wild in their sockets.

Roland was waiting for him in the glass. His expression one of infinite patience, his eyes not unkind.

“Have you had enough?” he asked.

“Never,” Eddie replied, his voice a thick rasp. “I’m never going back there. I’d rather be dead.”

“You may die on this side then, an it please you.”

“It does not,” Eddie said. “If I’m going to die, then it’s going to be on my terms.”

“I will not argue with you, Eddie. The world you inhabit is not the world of your birth. It is an illusion. Even now, your body fades and withers. As does Susannah’s body, and Jake’s.”

“My body?” Eddie said bitterly. He held out his stick-thin arms so that Roland could see the scars that glinted angrily on the insides of his elbows. “I haven’t given a shit about my body in a long time.”

“I said, I will not argue.”

Eddie felt himself gripped by anger. He reached out, snatching the mirror off the wall and smashing it at his feet. Shards leapt out of the frame like small silver fish scattering in a pool.

After that, he felt a little better.

Eddie took a single shaky step back, and then he felt arms encircle him. He froze, knowing that there was no point in struggling against that gentle, firm grip.

Roland drew him back against his body. Eddie felt the sturdiness of his chest against his shoulder blades, and he heard the slight intake of his breath close to his ear. He was aware of the hollow between the gunslinger’s lean hips, and the way his own body fit neatly against it. Then the world fell away, and Eddie was plunged into darkness.

***

When Eddie came to, he was cradled in the older man's arms. Roland’s hand was on his brow, stroking his hair with a tenderness that was almost womanly and utterly welcome. Eddie could smell leather and cordite and gun oil, and the not-unfamiliar, not-unpleasant smells that he had come to associate with the man.

Slowly, Eddie’s eyes fluttered open. Roland stopped what he was doing at once, arresting his hand in mid-motion.

“At last…” he said quietly.

Eddie tried to sit up. He thought that if he could manage that, then he would certainly be able to muster some of the anger he should have felt.

“You never fucking listen to a goddamn thing anybody else says, do you?” Eddie said in a harsh whisper. “Always fucking kidnapping people. Like you own them or something.”

He made it halfway up, but a white light went off in front of his eyes and his ears filled with static. When both had cleared, he was resting once more against Roland’s shoulder. He was weak as a kitten, but it was the weakness that accompanied a few skipped meals rather than a few skipped fixes.

“Don’t try to move yet,” Roland said. “You’ve been asleep for… for days. I lost count.”

“That’s not like you,” Eddie murmured, subdued now.

“Yes, I know.”

The gunslinger bent over him in a swift, sure motion, bringing their lips together. Eddie stiffened beneath the kiss, but did not pull away. He felt the burn of Roland’s stubble against his cheeks, and he was comforted by it. When Roland pulled away again, Eddie reached up to touch his weathered cheek with the backs of his fingers.

“You really love me?”

“Yes, of course I do.”

“It was pretty obvious. I should I have guessed.”

Eddie moved his hand slowly, tracing Roland's cheek back to the hairline. He ran the tip of one of his fingers around the curve of an ear. “I’m not going to thank you for what you did, you know.”

“I don’t need your thanks. Perhaps, in time, you will grant me your forgiveness, though.”

Eddie sighed, feeling the air fill his lungs. It was the good clean air of Roland’s world, untainted by pollution or smoke or the filthy tendrils of civilization.

“You did what was right,” he said at last. “I don’t know what there is to forgive.”

~The End