Authors: Stephen King
“Soft, Susannah Dean, soft,” the gunslinger said, smiling a little. He unbraided the network of straps which made up the harness, set the seat-piece aside, then pigtailed the straps back together. He wedded this to his last good hank of rope with an old-fashioned sheetbend knot. As he worked, he listened for the warbling of the thinny . . . as the four of them had listened for the god-drums; as he and Eddie had listened for the lobstrosities to begin asking their lawyerly questions (“Dad-a-cham? Did-a-chee? Dum-a-chum?”) as they came tumbling out of the waves each night.
Ka is a wheel,
he thought. Or, as Eddie liked to say, whatever went around came around.
When the rope was finished, he fashioned a loop at the bottom of the braided section. Jake stepped a foot into it with perfect confidence, gripped the rope with one hand, and settled Oy into the crook of his other arm. Oy looked around nervously, whined, stretched his neck, licked Jake’s face.
“You’re not afraid, are you?” Jake asked the bumbler.
“ ’Fraid,” Oy agreed, but he was quiet enough as Roland and Eddie lowered Jake down the side of the Barony Coach. The rope wasn’t quite long enough to take him all the way down, but Jake had no trouble twisting his foot free and dropping the last four feet. He set Oy down. The bumbler trotted off, sniffing, and lifted his leg against the side of the terminal building. This was nowhere near as grand as the Cradle of Lud, but it had an old-fashioned look that Roland liked—white boards, overhanging eaves, high, narrow windows, what looked like slate shingles. It was a
look. Written in gold gilt on a sign which stretched above the terminal’s line of doors was this message:
ATCHISON, TOPEKA, AND SANTA FE
Towns, Roland supposed, and that last one sounded familiar to him; had there not been a Santa Fe in the Barony of Mejis? But that led back toward Susan, lovely Susan at the window with her hair unbraided and all down her back, the
smell of her like jasmine and rose and honeysuckle and old sweet hay, smells of which the oracle in the mountains had been able to make only the palest mimicry. Susan lying back and looking solemnly up at him, then smiling and putting her hands behind her head so that her breasts rose, as if aching for his hands.
If you love me, Roland, then love me . . . bird and bear and hare and fish . . .
“. . . next?”
He looked around at Eddie, having to use all of his will to pull himself back from Susan Delgado’s when. There were thinnies here in Topeka, all right, and of many sorts. “My mind was wandering, Eddie. Cry your pardon.”
“Susannah next? That’s what I asked.”
Roland shook his head. “You next, then Susannah. I’ll go last.”
“Will you be okay? With your hand and all?”
“I’ll be fine.”
Eddie nodded and stuck his foot into the loop. When Eddie had first come into Mid-World, Roland could have lowered him easily by himself, two fingers short the full complement or no, but Eddie had been without his drug for months now, and had put on ten or fifteen pounds of muscle. Roland accepted Susannah’s help gladly enough, and together they lowered him down.
“Now you, lady,” Roland said, and smiled at her. It felt more natural to smile these days.
“Yes.” But for the nonce she only stood there, biting her lower lip.
“What is it?”
Her hand went to her stomach and rubbed there, as if it ached or griped her. He thought she would speak, but she shook her head and said, “Nothing.”
“I don’t believe that. Why do you rub your belly? Are you hurt? Were you hurt when we stopped?”
She took her hand off her tunic as if the flesh just south of her navel had grown hot. “No. I’m fine.”
Susannah seemed to think this over very carefully. “We’ll talk,” she said at last. “We’ll
if you like that better. But you were right before, Roland—this isn’t the place or time.”
“All four of us, or just you and me and Eddie?”
“Just you and me, Roland,” she said, and poked the stump of her leg through the loop. “Just one hen and one rooster, at least to start with. Now lower away, if you please.”
He did, frowning down at her, hoping with all his heart that his first idea—the one that had come to mind as soon as he saw that restlessly rubbing hand—was wrong. Because she had been in the speaking ring, and the demon that denned there had had its way with her while Jake was trying to cross between the worlds. Sometimes—
—demonic contact changed things.
Never for the better, in Roland’s experience.
He pulled his rope back up after Eddie had caught Susannah around the waist and helped her to the platform. The gunslinger walked forward to one of the piers which had torn through the train’s bullet snout, fashioning the rope’s end into a shake-loop as he went. He tossed this over the pier, snubbed it (being careful not to twitch the rope to the left), and then lowered himself to the platform himself, bent at the waist and leaving boot-tracks on Blaine’s pink side.
“Too bad to lose the rope and harness,” Eddie remarked when Roland was beside them.
ain’t sorry about that harness,” Susannah said. “I’d rather crawl along the pavement until I got chewin-gum all the way up my arms to the elbows.”
“We haven’t lost anything,” Roland said. He snugged his hand into the rawhide foot-loop and snapped it hard to the left. The rope slithered down from the pier, Roland gathering it in almost as fast as it came down.
“Neat trick!” Jake said.
“Eat! Rick!” Oy agreed.
“Cort?” Eddie asked.
“Cort,” Roland agreed, smiling.
“The drill instructor from hell,” Eddie said. “Better you than me, Roland. Better you than me.”
As they walked toward the doors leading into the station, that low, liquid warbling sound began again. Roland was amused to see all three of his cohorts wrinkle their noses and pull down the corners of their mouths at the same time; it made
them look like blood family as well as
. Susannah pointed toward the park. The signs looming over the trees were wavering slightly, the way things did in a heat-haze.
“Is that from the thinny?” Jake asked.
“Will we be able to get around it?”
“Yes. Thinnies are dangerous in much the way that swamps full of quicksand and saligs are dangerous. Do you know those things?”
“We know quicksand,” Jake said. “And if saligs are long green things with big teeth, we know them, too.”
“That’s what they are.”
Susannah turned to look back at Blaine one last time. “No silly questions and no silly games. The book was right about that.” From Blaine she turned her eyes to Roland. “What about Beryl Evans, the woman who wrote
Charlie the Choo-Choo
? Do you think she’s part of this? That we might even meet her? I’d like to thank her. Eddie figured it out, but—”
“It’s possible, I suppose,” Roland said, “but on measure, I think not. My world is like a huge ship that sank near enough shore for most of the wreckage to wash up on the beach. Much of what we find is fascinating, some of it may be useful, if
allows, but all of it is still wreckage. Senseless wreckage.” He looked around. “Like this place, I think.”
“I wouldn’t exactly call it wrecked,” Eddie said. “Look at the paint on the station—it’s a little rusty from the gutters up under the eaves, but it hasn’t peeled anywhere that I can see.” He stood in front of the doors and ran his fingers down one of the glass panels. They left four clear tracks behind. “Dust and plenty of it, but no cracks. I’d say that this building has been left unmaintained at most since . . . the start of the summer, maybe?”
He looked at Roland, who shrugged and nodded. He was listening with only half an ear and paying attention with only half a mind. The rest of him was fixed upon two things: the warble of the thinny, and keeping away the memories that wanted to swamp him.
“But Lud had been going to wrack and ruin for
,” Susannah said. “This place . . . it may or may not be Topeka, but what it really looks like to me is one of those creepy little towns on
The Twilight Zone
. You boys probably don’t remember that one, but—”
“Yes, I do,” Eddie and Jake said in perfect unison, then looked at each other and laughed. Eddie stuck out his hand and Jake slapped it.
“They still show the reruns,” Jake said.
“Yeah, all the time,” Eddie added. “Usually sponsored by bankruptcy lawyers who look like shorthair terriers. And you’re right. This place
like Lud. Why would it be? It’s not in the same
as Lud. I don’t know where we crossed over, but—” He pointed again at the blue Interstate 70 shield, as if that proved his case beyond a shadow of a doubt.
“If it’s Topeka, where are the people?” Susannah asked.
Eddie shrugged and raised his hands—who knows?
Jake put his forehead against the glass of the center door, cupped his hands to the sides of his face, and peered in. He looked for several seconds, then saw something that made him pull back fast. “Oh-oh,” he said. “No wonder the town’s so quiet.”
Roland stepped up behind Jake and peered in over the boy’s head, cupping his own hands to reduce his reflection. The gunslinger drew two conclusions before even looking at what Jake had seen. The first was that although this was most assuredly a
station, it wasn’t really a
station . . . not a cradle. The other was that the station did indeed belong to Eddie’s, Jake’s, and Susannah’s world . . . but perhaps not to their
It’s the thinny. We’ll have to be careful.
Two corpses were leaning together on one of the long benches that filled most of the room; but for their hanging, wrinkled faces and black hands, they might have been revellers who had fallen asleep in the station after an arduous party and missed the last train home. On the wall behind them was a board marked
, with the names of cities and towns and baronies marching down it in a line.
, read one.
, read another.
, read a third. Roland had once known a one-eyed gambler named Omaha; he had died with a knife in his throat at a Watch Me table. He had stepped into the clearing at the end of the path with his head thrown back, and his last breath had sprayed blood all the way up to the ceiling. Hanging down from the ceiling of this room (which Roland’s stupid and laggard mind insisted on thinking of as a stage rest, as if this were a stop along some half-forgotten road like the one that had brought him to Tull) was
a beautiful four-sided clock. Its hands had stopped at 4:14, and Roland supposed they would never move again. It was a sad thought . . . but this was a sad world. He could not see any other dead people, but experience suggested that where there were two dead, there were likely four more dead somewhere out of sight. Or four dozen.
“Should we go in?” Eddie asked.
“Why?” the gunslinger countered. “We have no business here; it doesn’t lie along the Path of the Beam.”
“You’d make a great tour-guide,” Eddie said sourly. “ ‘Keep up, everyone, and please don’t go wandering off into the—’ ”
Jake interrupted with a request Roland didn’t understand. “Do either of you guys have a quarter?” The boy was looking at Eddie and Susannah. Beside him was a square metal box. Written on it in blue was:
covers Kansas like no other!
Your hometown paper!
Read it every day!
Eddie shook his head, amused. “Lost all my change at some point. Probably climbing a tree, just before you joined us, in an all-out effort to avoid becoming snack-food for a robot bear. Sorry.”
“Wait a minute . . . wait a minute . . .” Susannah had her purse open and was rummaging through it in a way that made Roland grin broadly in spite of all his preoccupations. It was so damned
somehow. She turned over crumpled Kleenex, shook them to make sure there was nothing caught inside, fished out a compact, looked at it, dropped it back, came up with a comb, dropped
She was too absorbed to look up as Roland strode past her, drawing his gun from the docker’s clutch he had built her as he went. He fired a single time. Susannah let out a little scream, dropping her purse and slapping at the empty holster high up under her left breast.
“Honky, you scared the livin
out of me!”
“Take better care of your gun, Susannah, or the next time someone takes it from you, the hole may be between your eyes instead of in a . . . what is it, Jake? A news-telling device of some kind? Or does it hold paper?”
“Both.” Jake looked startled. Oy had withdrawn halfway down the platform and was looking at Roland mistrustfully.
Jake poked his finger at the bullet-hole in the center of the newspaper box’s locking device. A little curl of smoke was drifting from it.
“Go on,” Roland said. “Open it.”
Jake pulled the handle. It resisted for a moment, then a piece of metal clunked down somewhere inside, and the door opened. The box itself was empty; the sign on the back wall read
WHEN ALL PAPERS ARE GONE, PLEASE TAKE DISPLAY COPY
. Jake worked it out of its wire holder, and they all gathered round.
“What in God’s name . . . ?” Susannah’s whisper was both horrified and accusing. “What does it mean? What in God’s name
Below the newspaper’s name, taking up most of the front page’s top half, were screaming black letters:
“CAPTAIN TRIPS” SUPERFLU RAGES UNCHECKED
Govt. Leaders May Have Fled Country Topeka Hospitals Jammed with Sick, Dying Millions Pray for Cure
“Read it aloud,” Roland said. “The letters are in your speech, I cannot make them all out, and I would know this story very well.”
Jake looked at Eddie, who nodded impatiently.
Jake unfolded the newspaper, revealing a dot-picture (Roland had seen pictures of this type; they were called “fottergrafs”) which shocked them all: it showed a lakeside city with its skyline in flames.
CLEVELAND FIRES BURN UNCHECKED
, the caption beneath read.