The sound of the shots was deafening in the small space. Walt's ears were ringing, and the taste of gunpowder was thick in his mouth as he lowered his gun. He'd fired twice, just to be sure, because Michael Lacey's hands were on the rifle, one finger already crooked around the trigger. Walt wasn't going to risk Lacey squeezing off a shot, so he fired twice—blam, blam!—and saw the rifle fall to the floor.
Walt's vision grew ultra-sharp and clear, as if it were compensating for his momentary hearing-loss. He felt like he could see every picture and read every torn article that had been collaged on the wall: "Terror Alert Raised to Red," "Pope Paul VI Replaced by Double," "Feds Spy on Journalists; Phones Tapped," "Nazis in South America," "Epidemic of Ritual Killings." There hadn't been a conspiracy in the last 50 years that Michael Lacey wasn't hip to: "Black Leaders Drugged and Imprisoned," "Bird Flu=Global Economic Collapse," and of course, the ones that had gotten Johnny's attention: "Stillson Set For Another Landslide," and "Greg Stillson: From Maine To Washington?"
Still holding his gun, Walt stepped toward the body, moving slowly, like in a dream. No movement, and Walt took another step. No movement, and Walt squatted down, gun in his right hand, and felt for Michael Lacey's pulse with his left. He was dead, thank God; otherwise he would have had to call in the EMTs to satisfy protocol, never mind that Lacey had two of Walt Bannerman's bullets in his brain. But there were other victims to attend to, and Walt heaved himself up, holstered his gun, and turned to Johnny Smith.
Johnny wasn't with him. Johnny was someplace else—someplace worse, if that was possible, though it was hard to imagine anywhere worse than this place with its paranoid collages, mutilated animal carcasses, and bloodstained sink. But Johnny was half-collapsed against the wall and shuddering violently, his eyes rolled up in their sockets ("U.S. Government Shot Down Flight 93," Walt read over his right shoulder; "John Lennon Murdered By CIA") and so Walt knew that Johnny was somewhere really terrible.
"John," Walt said, feeling a bit ridiculous, because if two gunshots hadn't brought Johnny back from wherever he was, what use was a human voice? Still, though. "John—come on, buddy," Walt said softly, going nearer. "It's over. Come on, I'll buy you a drink or—" and then he saw that Johnny's right fist was clenched white-knuckle tight, and that drops of blood were welling up between his fingers and dripping onto the floor.
A moment later Walt had Johnny's fist clutched in both his hands and was trying to prize his fingers apart. Johnny convulsed almost violently at his touch. "Johnny," Walt said, more to himself than to Johnny, using the same low, urgent voice he used on cornered perps and would-be suicides, "John, open up. C'mon. Whatever you got there, give it to me. Johnny, come on..." and then, miraculously, Johnny's fingers began to loosen. "That's it," Walt murmured. "Attaboy, John," and hell, it was a goddamned "Stillson for Congress" button, its pin sticking deep into Johnny's palm. Walt carefully pulled it out, then fumbled in his pocket for a clean, white handkerchief, which he pressed hard against the pad of Johnny's swollen and bleeding hand.
When Walt glanced up, he saw that Johnny was with him again, lucid and watching him with those otherworldly eyes. Walt kept his expression deliberately neutral: he felt, as he often felt, that Johnny was studying him, searching his face for something, some cue. He was still holding Johnny's hand in his, but he didn't pull back or jerk away: Walt Bannerman knew better than most what an admission of guilt looked like.
"You all right?" Walt asked.
Johnny didn't exactly answer the question. Instead he said, in a low voice, "He's been making sacrifices—animals—in an attempt to p-propitiate—" and then he jerked sharply and his eyelids twitched, like he'd received an electrical shock. Walt steadied him with a hand on his waist, and Johnny's expression calmed, his eyes closing, his breathing returning to normal. "He knows something bad is coming," Johnny murmured, "but he doesn't know what, and so he's trying anything he can think of to stave off the—" Johnny's eyes opened, and Walt found himself staring into them: they were blue, bloodshot, and frightened. "Walt," Johnny was scrabbling frantically at Walt's jacket with his blood-stained hand, and Walt realized that Johnny was more than frightened; he was damn near terrified. "Oh my God. Am I that crazy?"
"No," Walt said instantly, reassuringly, still using his suicide voice. "John. Don't be—" but Johnny had turned his head and was staring at Michael Lacey, 25 years old, from a good Bangor family, who had unexpectedly taken to shooting random people with a Cheytac long range sniper rifle. Michael Lacey, former champion skier, who had been diagnosed last year with a brain tumor, and who had been slitting the throats of squirrels, rabbits, and dogs. Michael Lacey, whom Walt had just shot twice in the head. "Johnny," Walt repeated, but Johnny wasn't listening; Johnny seemed transfixed and horrified by the dead boy, like he hadn't been in the room when Walt shot him—though Walt supposed he really hadn't been. "Johnny, listen to me," Walt said, and then he reached out, took John's chin firmly in his hand, and turned his face back so they were staring at each other. "Michael Lacey killed three people, are you listening? We didn't go after him for his crackpot theories or obsessive love of collage," and Johnny looked shocked for a moment and then burst out laughing. Walt, relieved, let himself laugh, too, and then he hooked an arm around Johnny's neck and pulled him into a hug. He was shaking with adrenaline, though that wasn't surprising; not with the blowback still coating his fingers.
After a moment, Walt stroked what he hoped was a comforting hand through the thick blond hair at the back of Johnny's head. Then he made to pull away, but Johnny, still half-laughing, held on tight. "I nearly—" Johnny murmured, his breath hot against Walt's ear. "I mean, I once—" and then Walt heard Johnny swallow hard. "I've thought about shooting Stillson."
Walt found himself staring at a headline that said, "The Next Ice Age Is Coming Soon." "Okay," he said finally, not knowing what else to say.
Johnny's fingers tightened on him painfully. "More than once," he whispered. "Sometimes it seems like the only reasonable—"
"But you haven't," Walt interrupted, grabbing Johnny's arms and shoving him back just enough to stare that message into his face. "You haven't and you didn't and you wouldn't, John. That’s not who you are," but he knew that was bullshit, he was whistling in the dark, because Johnny Smith could have been Michael Lacey. Change just one thing and everything changes; Walt had known that even before he'd met Johnny Smith.
"Walt," Johnny said in a low, urgent voice. "You don't understand," but Walt did understand; he knew all about alternate lives and how easy it was to become someone else. Walt even understood how his wife could have loved one man but married another, because he had turned on a similar dime himself, and he shoved Johnny hard against the wall, roughly clasped Johnny's head, and kissed him. Johnny went still for a moment, and then he was kissing back, mouth crushing against Walt's and his hands moving, needy and demanding, into his coat. Johnny's hands slid over his chest, then impatiently dropped to fumble at Walt's belt. Walt groaned and pushed his cock against Johnny's hands, which were clumsily searching for his zipper. Johnny's hands were normally so graceful, was it possible he had never—and suddenly Walt could picture Johnny's hands, like in a vision, shaking a little as he reached out, and he grabbed Johnny's wrists and yanked his hands up, slamming them back against the wall.
Johnny looked startled, but Walt held on, his hands gripping the cuffs of Johnny's long-sleeved shirt, keeping his hands away. Johnny of all people had to know how easily things could change, how entire worlds could shift, but that didn't mean—
"Walt," Johnny said softly. "It's all right. I know," and Christ, it was terrifying to be known like this—what the hell had Johnny seen?—but it was weirdly liberating, too, and Walt leaned in to kiss him again, hard, bruising his lips. Johnny opened his mouth but let his arms go lax, letting Walt keep him pinned to the wall. Walt shoved against him, mouthing his neck and humping him helplessly, and when he pulled his hands away to tug Johnny's shirt up and unbutton his pants, needing to touch, Johnny kept his wrists hard-pressed to the wall. His chest rose and fell under Walt's hands.
Walt mashed his mouth against John's ear. "John," he whispered. "John. It's okay," and then John's hands were on him, strong and sliding over him, gripping him hard. Then they were scrabbling at Walt's hips, pushing his pants down, groping for his cock. A moment later, Walt and Johnny were grunting and pushing into each other's hands.
It was fast—too fast; suddenly Johnny's face was hot against his neck and he was shaking, and Walt's slickened hand was wet and streaked with come. Walt squeezed his eyes shut and shuddered hard through his own orgasm, Johnny's other hand landing heavy on his shoulder before moving to clumsily stroke his head. Wordlessly, they shared Walt's bloodstained handkerchief and cleaned themselves off, tucked themselves back into their pants, zipped themselves up. When he was finished, Johnny seized him by the shoulders and landed a kiss on his mouth, and then another—and Walt understood that Johnny was trying to reassure him; somewhere in there, he had become the one who needed reassurance.
"It's all right," Johnny murmured. "Everything's going to be all right," but now it was Johnny who was whistling in the dark; Johnny of all people knew how everything could change between one second and the next. Hell, Johnny's entire post-coma life was dedicated to that proposition, and Johnny had a kind of genius for picking just the right moment, putting pressure on exactly the right nerve—and changing everything.
"Maybe," Walt said in a low voice. "I'm not so sure," because sometimes you couldn't avoid those troublesome versions of yourself, those other realities. Johnny, he knew, was damn well capable of killing Stillson, and Walt could have been someone else, too—and once, he had been. "Look, I won't let you shoot Stillson, and you can't let me—"
Johnny's pale skin flushed. "I'll let you," he said, raising his chin defiantly, putting pressure on just the right nerve, and Walt felt his gut twist with want. "And don't rule anything out when it comes to Stillson," Johnny added in a whisper. "Not yet."
Walt was already shaking his head. "No—Johnny—-I can't—" but Johnny's hands were on his face, and Johnny was kissing him again, and when Walt put his hands back on Johnny, he could feel the future change.