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Rule Number Three

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He remembered the boy standing before the people of Calla Bryn Sturgis in the torchlight, his face young and fair, as if he would live forever. I am Jake Chambers, son of Elmer, the line of Eld, the ka-tet of the Ninety and Nine, he had said, and oh, aye, for here he was in the Ninety and Nine, with his grave all dug, clean and ready for him.

Roland began to weep again. He put his hands over his face and rocked back and forth on his knees, smelling the sweet aromatic needles and wishing he had cried off before ka, that old and patient demon, had taught him the real price of his quest. He would have given anything to change what had happened, anything to close this hole with nothing in it, but this was the world where time ran just one way.

She looks from the book to the paper where she's copied the words -- all I can see is black and white and white and pink with blades of blue -- and crosses out those words with a steady hand.

"There," she murmurs to the page. "That's a start."

***

See this now, see it very well:

The writer (who must stay anonymous, for aren't those the rules?) at a table for four, angled from the wall. In front of her lies a small, round aluminum tray with a half-gone organic-fair trade-sulfate-and-antibiotic-free pepperoni pizza on it. Next to the tray, a stack of fat hardcovers, the kind that can double as doorstops when pressed; next to the books, a black iPod with wires snaking from the top, and earbuds pushed far in. Every so often she looks up, smiles faintly at the handmade prayer flags strung across the room, and takes a sip of lemonade.

Were it later in the day, the lemonade would be beer, but it's still early afternoon and it's not the voice of her father but her mother that says firmly that while it might be five o'clock somewhere, that somewhere ain't here. Besides, she's got a good three hours to knock out as much as she can, whether it's mind-work or real drafting, before her friend is done at her day job and they retire to SoPo for dinner and nerd TV.

Three days in Portland, she had thought, why not? Last year, after all, it took a field trip to Laramie to get Yuletide on its way, and considering this year's assignment, it couldn't hurt to inject some local color into the writing process. And she does like the Old Port; living where she does, she misses the smell of salt water and the sight of boats, and she can get both at the pizza joint, so why not work there?

The thin winter light fills the room she's in, as best it can: it's a few weeks before she's off south for the relative route, and while there will be more sunlight then -- and presence of certain relatives aside, she's looking forward to it -- she feels like she's racing a deeper, more sinister evening. Probably something related to the problem she's trying to work out on the paper.

She looks up -- not at the prayer flags, this time, or at the ferries lined up at their dock, ready to head for the islands, but at the brick oven and the skinny, scruffy young man levering a pizza out of it -- and murmurs again, "Quit procrastinating."

The problem is that there's not much opportunity for good father-son moments -- at least, not much that Steve-O didn't take already himself. Maybe the first book affords the best opportunity, but if you write about the first book, that ending will always hang over your head: go, then, there are other worlds than these.

Maybe that Abraham-and-Isaac story is an old one, maybe we know that it resolves itself, maybe we know there's a birth and resurrection coming, or a deus ex machina, but it still makes for a bummer of a story at a time of year when most folks don't like to be bummed out.

So what do you do when you've read those passages over and over, to the point where the structure of the sentences seems to make up the bones in Roland's arm, the walls of the cave overlooking Blue Heaven, the rafters of the barn at the Eisenhart place in Calla Bryn Sturgis, the detritus in the vacant lot at 46th and Second? What do you do when you love them so much you have to have more? What do you do when you're not the writer -- because there's a guy who splits his time between Bangor and the Redneck Riviera that's got that job -- but merely a writer?

What the hell do you do, she wonders, when you can't have it easy?

There are three rules that she keeps in the front of her notebook, as advice. No reason not to go back to the rules, to see if they'll help.

Rule number one: Kill your darlings. She looks down at those words and snorts aloud. I think we have that covered, she thinks.

Rule number two: The gun on the mantel in the first act must go off by the end of the play. She flips back in the notebook, reviewing the first scrawled pages, and makes a face.

Rule number three: Driver picks the music, shotgun shuts his cakehole.

Sudden laughter, low and a little smug, and the writer reaches for the very last book, for a consultation.


He thinks of Jake. He's sorry as hell that Jake died, and he guesses that when this last book is published, the readers are going to be just wild. And why not?

He thinks of Misery -- Annie Wilkes calling Paul Sheldon a cockadoodie brat for trying to get rid of silly, bubbleheaded Misery Chastain. Annie shouting that Paul was the writer and the writer is God to his characters, he doesn't have to kill any of them if he doesn't want to.

But he's not God. At least not in this case. He knows damned well that Jake Chambers wasn't there on the day of his accident, nor Roland Deschain, either -- the idea's laughable, they're make-believe, for Christ's sake -- but he also knows that at some point the song he hears when he sits at his fancy Macintosh writing-machine became Jake's death-song, and to ignore that would have been to lose touch with Ves'-Ka Gan entirely, and he must do that. Not if he is to finish. That song is the only thread he has, the trail of breadcrumbs he must follow if he is ever to emerge from this bewildering forest of plot he has planted --

She looks at the words, and reads them again, and thinks, So it's a song. I think I have a luxury that you didn't. My prerogative.

As she flips through her iPod one more time -- past Dylan's Christmas album (the one where Mr. Zimmerman sounds like David Lee Roth imitating Bing Crosby and Brak at the same time), past some of King's own usual suspects -- she thinks, one more time:

Driver picks the music.

Shotgun shuts his cakehole.

I'll take this leg, Mr. King. Call it a side trip. You're done driving for now, anyway.

 

***

 

In the end it's not so hard to imagine the place where they can meet, one and the same: the father and the son, Roland and Jake, the gunslinger of Gilead and the boy of New York.

The St. Vrain River drains into the South Platte in northern Colorado, before that river runs into Nebraska. On its way down from the mountains its two branches join at Lyons, north of Boulder, before heading southeast and beyond our area of interest.

The main route through Lyons is US 36, and it's just off this highway that the St. Vrain flows past a modest amount of acreage that sees a fair amount of use twice a year, once in July and once in August -- about the only months that camping in comfort is possible -- and the reason they all come is the music.

The middle of August sees day-trippers up from Denver and Colorado Springs; the hardier hippies among them are the ones who camp. Tents lurk in the forest, decorated with lights and torches in the coming dusk, but most of their occupants are out of the woods and in front of the stage, a massive sea of fleece and gore-tex and unwashed hair.

But forget the hippies: we're interested in the two standing off to the right

(ain't gonna study war no more)

down by the riverside.

One tall and dark -- old long, tall, and ugly -- and one short and light -- the golden boy. The younger keeps casting glances at the river landing and the children playing there as though he might like to join them: hippies or no hippies, Colorado or no Colorado, it's a fine thing to go down to the river in mid-August. But he glances up at the man beside him and doesn't move.

Roland Deschain, for his part, has his eyes on the sky, which is just beginning to darken off to their left; the sky above the red rock cliffs is a brilliant orange-pink. The weather should be fine through the end of the evening.

His gaze shifts from the sky to the stage: the troupe of players and their guitar, fiddle, bass-fiddle, and jawharp seem to be pleasing the crowd, none of whom dance with any skill, but all of whom dance with great enthusiasm.

You'd have to know the gunslinger well to see his amusement; Jake can see it, and he glances up at Roland once more. "Are you having an okay time?" he asks. He feels like it's his responsibility to ensure that, even though this wasn't his idea, and even though this isn't New York. This is his world, or close enough, even if there are things he doesn't recognize -- the little communication devices some of them sport, and that some hold up in the air like some kind of salute. Jake likes that, when he thinks about it a little: it's nice for the ones on stage to know that the song is appreciated, and for people not here to be able to enjoy it.

"Oh, aye," comes the affirmative, and it's true: Roland is having an okay time. He's recalling maybe the last okay time for good, when there were worries, but not any so immediately pressing, the night of the welcome 'do in Calla Bryn Sturgis: there were worse dancers there than here, say true, and though there might not be any fancy color-changing lights, the lights around the standy-shelter burn steadily in different colors, and he can see from here the men in red and saffron robes with close-cropped hair practicing a little good-mind for themselves, and teaching their ways to others.

He even fits in here, he thinks. He can be a little separate from this crowd, but when their focus rests on the stage, as does his, he's a little less other than usual. He's certainly not the only one accompanied by a boy, or a girl. 'Tis a gift, he thinks, briefly, as a tune ends on the stage and the audience breaks into applause and catcalls. We've a space, for a time.

He turns to Jake, meaning to ask if he'd like to get a treat -- they've ice here, and great pastries, and little sanditches, and damned if Roland hasn't been watching the folken run to and from the stand that seems to be dispensing beer -- but the next tune starts up, and his head shoots up in shock.

"Is that -- "

Jake's grinning, bright and young and alive. "No, but -- "

The words are going fast, and he's barely able to catch a few of them: my Yvonne, sweetest one, me-oh-my-oh, pick guitar, fill fruit jar, and be gay-o. It's not the content that shocks him, but the speed -- and thus the similarity, at least as far as the music goes, to the Rice Song.

He notices, belatedly, that his foot's tapping. He doesn't make it stop.

Jake notices, too, and he beams at the stage, where one of the guitarists is picking up a storm, fingerstyle. He knows the song from somewhere -- not like Elmer Chambers listened to country, or any music at all, but he supposes it's one of those things where you soak the song up from context and can't quite place the where and when. At any rate, he likes it. He likes the look it puts on Roland's face -- lighter, somehow, and approving, and (if he's not stretching it a little) relaxed.

And if "Hey Jude" can bleed through, he supposes --

"HANK WILLIAMS IS THE SHIT!" one of the hippies yells at the stage, and the audience in the immediate vicinity cheers as the fiddler lifts his bow in a brief salute.

Jake looks at the little kids on the sandy landing by the St. Vrain, laughing and splashing; looks at the audience, maybe a little drunk and wholly approving; looks at Roland, as close to happy as Jake's ever seen him, and he's pretty sure he thinks Hank Williams is the shit too.

"Come-come-commala," Roland says, low and amused, for Jake's ears only, "drinking's gonna follow." He says it to make Jake laugh, and Jake does, and Roland doesn't even think about it when he puts his arm around Jake's shoulders.

 

***

 

The writer explains it a little to her friend, as best she can, once the sun's down over the Old Port and the folks who work there start to go home and the dinner crowd starts to trickle in the pizza place, and they're on their way over the Casco Bay Bridge. She trips over the fourth-wall hijinks, and finally she laughs and gives it up, choosing instead to slip some Wilco in the stereo and they sing along -- the world record players on a tour of Japan, Charlie's fixing his van, he's waiting on a postcard -- all the way back to the house.

Later they make cupcakes and they listen to Andrew Bird -- I crack the codes, you end the war -- and she sends the story off to beta as they settle in front of the TV.

Her mind wanders, though. There's a bit in the last book, right before the Empathica section, where Stephen King's talking to his dog on a Maine evening in August, maybe about sixty miles northwest or so, and where he decides to send Roland and Susannah some Robert Browning as a gift. A Christmas gift, maybe: they receive it right after their Christmas dinner with Joe Collins. Their Christmas deus ex machina -- doesn't King say as much himself, in his note?

The story means a lot to me, as a writer, and as a reader, and even as a musician, she thinks, because if you look at the story it's like a little history of popular music in itself. It's a love letter to everything I love best. She pulls her leg under her on the couch and stares at her laptop screen. And it's not like anything I'd write would change canon. I can send out an image, put it in the popular consciousness, and still get at the truth of the matter. Because they loved each other. They did. And it doesn't hurt anything to have them in Colorado for a little while, and to make them happy.

"It's my own little deus ex machina," she murmurs. "MERRY and CHRISTMAS."