Authors: Stephen King
He climbed two rungs, then looked back down. The Barony
Coach already felt dead.
dead, in fact, just another artifact of a world that had moved on.
Blaine,” Eddie said. “So long, partner.”
And he followed his friends out through the emergency exit in the roof.
Jake stood on the slightly tilted roof of Blaine the Mono, looking southeast along the Path of the Beam. The wind riffled his hair (now quite long and decidedly un-Piperish) back from his temples and forehead in waves. His eyes were wide with surprise.
He didn’t know what he had expected to see—a smaller and more provincial version of Lud, perhaps—but what he had
expected was what loomed above the trees of a nearby park. It was a green roadsign (against the dull gray autumn sky, it almost screamed with color) with a blue shield mounted on it:
Roland joined him, lifted Oy gently out of his shirt, and put him down. The bumbler sniffed the pink surface of Blaine’s roof, then looked toward the front of the mono. Here the train’s smooth bullet shape was broken by crumpled metal which had peeled back in jagged wings. Two dark slashes—they began at the mono’s tip and extended to a point about ten yards from where Jake and Roland stood—gored the roof in parallel lines. At the end of each was a wide, flat metal pole painted in stripes of yellow and black. These seemed to jut from the top of the mono at a point just forward of the Barony Coach. To Jake they looked a little like football goalposts.
“Those are the piers he talked about hitting,” Susannah murmured.
“We got off lucky, big boy, you know it? If this thing had been going much faster . . .”
Eddie said from behind them. He sounded as if he might be smiling.
Roland nodded. “Just so.
Jake dismissed the transteel goalposts and turned back toward the sign. He was half-convinced it would be gone, or that it would say something else (
MID-WORLD TOLL ROAD
, perhaps, or
BEWARE OF DEMONS
), but it was still there and still said the same thing.
“Eddie? Susannah? Do you see that?”
They looked along his pointing finger. For a moment—one long enough for Jake to fear he was having a hallucination—neither of them said anything. Then, softly, Eddie said: “Holy shit. Are we back home? If we are, where are all the people? And if something like Blaine has been stopping off in Topeka—
Topeka, Topeka, Kansas—how come I haven’t seen anything about it on
?” Susannah asked. She was shading her eyes, looking southeast toward the sign.
“TV show,” Eddie said. “You missed it by five or ten years. Old white guys in ties. Doesn’t matter. That sign—”
“It’s Kansas, all right,” Susannah said. “
Kansas. I guess.” She had spotted another sign, just visible over the trees. Now she pointed until Jake, Eddie, and Roland had all seen it:
“There a Kansas in your world, Roland?”
“No,” Roland replied, looking at the signs, “we’re far beyond the boundaries of the world I knew. I was far beyond most of the world I knew long before I met you three. This place . . .”
He stopped and cocked his head to one side, as if he was listening to some sound almost too distant to hear. And the expression on his face . . . Jake didn’t like it much.
“Say, kiddies!” Eddie said brightly. “Today we’re studying Wacky Geography in Mid-World. You see, boys and girls, in Mid-World you start in New York, travel southeast to Kansas, and then continue along the Path of the Beam until you come to the Dark Tower . . . which happens to be smack in the middle of everything. First, fight the giant lobsters! Next, ride the psychotic train! And then, after a visit to our snackbar for a popkin or two—”
“Do you hear anything?” Roland broke in. “Any of you?”
Jake listened. He heard the wind combing through the trees of the nearby park—their leaves had just begun to turn—and he heard the click of Oy’s toenails as he strolled back toward them along the roof of the Barony Coach. Then Oy stopped, so even that sound—
A hand seized him by the arm, making him jump. It was Susannah. Her head was tilted, her eyes wide. Eddie was also listening. Oy, too; his ears were up and he was whining far down in his throat.
Jake felt his arms ripple with gooseflesh. At the same time he felt his mouth tighten in a grimace. The sound, though very faint, was the auditory version of biting a lemon. And he’d heard something like it before. Back when he was only five or six, there had been a crazy guy in Central Park who thought he was a musician . . . well, there were
of crazy guys in Central Park who thought they were musicians, but this was the only one Jake had ever seen who played a workshop tool. The guy had had a sign beside his upturned hat which read
S GREATEST SAW-PLAYER
SOUNDS HAWAIIAN DOESN
PLEASE CONTRIBUTE TO MY WELFARE
Greta Shaw had been with Jake the first time he encountered the saw-player, and Jake remembered how she had hurried past the guy. Just sitting there like a cellist in a symphony orchestra he’d been, only with a rust-speckled handsaw spread across his open legs; Jake remembered the expression of comic horror on Mrs. Shaw’s face, and the quiver of her pressed-together lips, as if—yes, as if she’d just bitten into a lemon.
This sound wasn’t
like the one
(SOUNDS HAWAIIAN DOESN’T IT)
the guy in the park had made by vibrating the blade of his saw, but it was close: a wavery, trembly, metallic sound that made you feel like your sinuses were filling up and your eyes
would shortly begin to gush water. Was it coming from ahead of them? Jake couldn’t tell. It seemed to be coming from everywhere and nowhere; at the same time, it was so low he might have been tempted to believe the whole thing was just his imagination, if the others hadn’t—
“Watch out!” Eddie cried. “Help me, you guys! I think he’s going to faint!”
Jake wheeled toward the gunslinger and saw that his face had gone as white as cottage cheese above the dusty no-color of his shirt. His eyes were wide and blank. One corner of his mouth twitched spastically, as if an invisible fishhook were buried there.
“Jonas and Reynolds and Depape,” he said. “The Big Coffin Hunters. And
The Cöos. They were the ones. They were the ones who—”
Standing on the roof of the mono in his dusty, broken boots, Roland tottered. On his face was the greatest look of misery Jake had ever seen.
“Oh Susan,” he said. “Oh, my dear.”
They caught him, they formed a protective ring around him, and the gunslinger felt hot with guilt and self-loathing. What had he done to deserve such enthusiastic protectors? What, besides tear them out of their known and ordinary lives as ruthlessly as a man might tear weeds out of his garden?
He tried to tell them he was all right, they could stand back, he was fine, but no words would come out; that terrible wavery sound had transported him back to the box canyon west of Hambry all those years ago. Depape and Reynolds and old limping Jonas. Yet most of all it was the woman from the hill he hated, and from black depths of feeling only a very young man can reach. Ah, but how could he have done aught else but hate them? His heart had been broken. And now, all these years later, it seemed to him that the most horrible fact of human existence was that broken hearts mended.
My first thought was, he lied in every word/That hoary cripple, with malicious eye . . .
What words? Whose poem?
He didn’t know, but he knew that women could lie, too; women who hopped and grinned and saw too much from the
corners of their rheumy old eyes. It didn’t matter who had written the lines of poesy; the words were true words, and that was all that mattered. Neither Eldred Jonas nor the crone on the hill had been of Marten’s stature—nor even of Walter’s—when it came to evil, but they had been evil enough.
Then, after . . . in the box canyon west of town . . . that sound . . . that, and the screams of wounded men and horses . . . for once in his life, even the normally voluble Cuthbert had been struck silent.
But all that had been long ago, in another
in the here and now, the warbling sound was either gone or had temporarily fallen below the threshold of audibility. They would hear it again, though. He knew that as well as he knew the fact that he walked a road leading to damnation.
He looked up at the others and managed a smile. The trembling at the corner of his mouth had quit, and that was something.
“I’m all right,” he said. “But hear me well: this is very close to where Mid-World ends, very close to where End-World begins. The first great course of our quest is finished. We have done well; we have remembered the faces of our fathers; we have stood together and been true to one another. But now we have come to a thinny. We must be very careful.”
“A thinny?” Jake asked, looking around nervously.
“Places where the fabric of existence is almost entirely worn away. There are more since the force of the Dark Tower began to fail. Do you remember what we saw below us when we left Lud?”
They nodded solemnly, remembering ground which had fused to black glass, ancient pipes which gleamed with turquoise witchlight, misshapen bird-freaks with wings like great leathern sails. Roland suddenly could not bear to have them grouped around him as they were, looking down on him as folk might look down on a rowdy who had fallen in a barroom brawl.
He lifted his hands to his friends—his new friends. Eddie took them and helped him to his feet. The gunslinger fixed his enormous will on not swaying and stood steady.
“Who was Susan?” Susannah asked. The crease down the center of her forehead suggested she was troubled, and probably by more than a coincidental similarity of names.
Roland looked at her, then at Eddie, then at Jake, who had dropped to one knee so he could scratch behind Oy’s ears.
“I’ll tell you,” he said, “but this isn’t the place or time.”
“You keep sayin that,” Susannah said. “You wouldn’t just be putting us off again, would you?”
Roland shook his head. “You shall hear my tale—this part of it, at least—but not on top of this metal carcass.”
“Yeah,” Jake said. “Being up here is like playing on a dead dinosaur or something. I keep thinking Blaine’s going to come back to life and start, I don’t know, screwing around with our heads again.”
“That sound is gone,” Eddie said. “The thing that sounded like a wah-wah pedal.”
“It reminded me of this old guy I used to see in Central Park,” Jake said.
“The man with the saw?” Susannah asked. Jake looked up at her, his eyes round with surprise, and she nodded. “Only he wasn’t old when I used to see him. It’s not just the geography that’s wacky here. Time’s kind of funny, too.”
Eddie put an arm around her shoulders and gave her a brief squeeze. “Amen to that.”
Susannah turned to Roland. Her look was not accusing, but there was a level and open measurement in her eyes that the gunslinger could not help but admire. “I’m holding you to your promise, Roland. I want to know about this girl that got my name.”
“You shall hear,” Roland repeated. “For now, though, let’s get off this monster’s back.”
That was easier said than done. Blaine had come to rest slightly askew in an outdoor version of the Cradle of Lud (a littered trail of torn pink metal lay along one side of this, marking the end of Blaine’s last journey), and it was easily twenty-five feet from the roof of the Barony Coach to the cement. If there was a descent-ladder, like the one which had popped conveniently through the emergency hatch, it had jammed when they crunched to a halt.
Roland unslung his purse, rummaged, and removed the deerskin harness they used for carrying Susannah when the going got too rough for her wheelchair. The chair, at least,
would not worry them anymore, the gunslinger reflected; they had left it behind in their mad scramble to board Blaine.
“What you want that for?” Susannah asked truculently. She always sounded truculent when the harness came into view.
I hate them honky mahfahs down in Miss’ippi worse’n I hate that harness,
she had once told Eddie in the voice of Detta Walker,
but sometimes it be a close thing, sugar.