The Dark Tower



When Jake awoke from a night of troubled dreams, most of them set in the Dixie Pig, a thin and listless light was seeping into the cave. In New York, that kind of light had always made him want to skip school and spend the entire day on the sofa, reading books, watching game-shows on TV, and napping the afternoon away. Eddie and Susannah were curled up together inside a single sleeping-bag. Oy had eschewed the bed which had been left him in order to sleep beside Jake. He was curled into a U, snout on left forepaw. Most people would have thought him asleep, but Jake saw the sly glimmer of gold beneath his lids and knew that Oy was peeking. The gunslinger's sleeping-bag was unzipped and empty.
Jake thought about this for a moment or two, then got up and went outside. Oy followed along, padding quietly over the tamped dirt as Jake walked up the trail.
Roland looked haggard and unwell, but he was squatting on his hunkers, and Jake decided that if he was limber enough to do that, he was probably okay. He squatted beside the gunslinger, hands dangling loosely between his thighs. Roland glanced at him, said nothing, then looked back toward the prison the staff called Algul Siento and the inmates called the Devar-Toi.
It was a brightening blur beyond and below them. The sun-electric, atomic, whatever-wasn't shining yet.
Oy plopped down next to Jake with a little whuffing sound, then appeared to go back to sleep. Jake wasn't fooled.
"Hile and merry-greet-the-day," Jake said when the silence began to feel oppressive.
Roland nodded. "Merry see, merry be." He looked as merry as a funeral march. The gunslinger who had danced a furious commala by torchlight in Calla Bryn Sturgis might have been a thousand years in his grave.
"How are you, Roland?"
"Good enough to hunker."
"Aye, but how are you?"
Roland glanced at him, then reached into his pocket and brought out his tobacco pouch. "Old and full of aches, as you must know. Would you smoke?"
Jake considered, then nodded.
"They'll be shorts," Roland warned. "There's plenty in my purse I was glad to have back, but not much blow-weed."
"Save it for yourself, if you want."
Roland smiled. "A man who can't bear to share his habits is a man who needs to quit them." He rolled a pair of cigarettes, using some sort of leaf which he tore in two, handed one to Jake, then lit them up with a match he popped alight on his thumbnail. In the still, chill air of Can Steek-Tete, the smoke hung in front of them, then rose slowly, stacking on the air. Jake thought the tobacco was hot, harsh, and stale, but he said no word of complaint. He liked it. He thought of all the times he'd promised himself he wouldn't smoke like his father did-never in life-and now here he was, starting the habit. And with his new father's agreement, if not approval.
Roland reached out a finger and touched Jake's forehead... his left cheek... his nose... his chin. The last touch hurt a little. "Pimples," Roland said. "It's the air of this place."
He suspected it was emotional upset, as well-grief over the Pere-but to let Jake know he thought that would likely just increase the boy's unhappiness over Callahan's passing.
"You don't have any," Jake said. "Skin's as clear as a bell.
"No pimples," Roland agreed, and smoked. Below them in the seeping light was the village. The peaceful village, Jake thought, but it looked more than peaceful; it looked downright dead.
Then he saw two figures, little more than specks from here, strolling toward each other. Hume guards patrolling the outer run of the fence, he presumed. They joined together into a single speck long enough for Jake to imagine a bit of their palaver, and then the speck divided again. "No pimples, but my hip hurts like a son of a bitch. Feels like someone opened it in the night and poured it full of broken glass. Hot glass. But this is far worse." He touched the right side of his head. "It feels cracked."
"You really think it's Stephen King's injuries you're feeling?"
Instead of making a verbal reply, Roland laid the forefinger of his left hand across a circle made by the thumb and pinky of his right: that gesture which meant I tell you the truth.
"That's a bummer," Jake said. "For him as well as you."
"Maybe; maybe not. Because, think you, Jake; think you well. Only living things feel pain. What I'm feeling suggests that King won't be killed instandy. And that means he might be easier to save."
Jake thought it might only mean King was going to lie beside the road in semi-conscious agony for awhile before expiring, but didn't like to say so. Let Roland believe what he liked. But there was something else. Something that concerned Jake a lot more, and made him uneasy.
"Roland, may I speak to you dan-dinh?"
The gunslinger nodded. "If you would." A slight pause. A flick at the left corner of the mouth that wasn't quite a smile. "If thee would."
Jake gathered his courage. "Why are you so angry now? What are you angry at? Or whom?" Now it was his turn to pause. "Is it me?"
Roland's eyebrows rose, then he barked a laugh. "Not you, Jake. Not a bit. Never in life."
Jake flushed with pleasure.
"I keep forgetting how strong the touch has become in you. You'd have made a fine Breaker, no doubt."
This wasn't an answer, but Jake didn't bother saying so.
And the idea of being a Breaker made him repress a shiver.
"Don't you know?" Roland asked. "If thee knows I'm what Eddie calls royally pissed, don't you know why?"
"I could look, but it wouldn't be polite." But it was a lot more than that. Jake vaguely remembered a Bible story about Noah getting loaded on the ark, while he and his sons were waiting out the flood. One of the sons had come upon his old man lying drunk on his bunk, and had laughed at him. God had cursed him for it. To peek into Roland's thoughts wouldn't be the same as looking-and laughing-while he was drunk, but it was close.
"Thee's a fine boy," Roland said. "Fine and good, aye." And although the gunslinger spoke almost absently, Jake could have died happily enough at that moment. From somewhere beyond and above them came that resonant CLICK! sound, and all at once the special-effects sunbeam speared down on the Devar-
Toi. A moment later, faintly, they heard the sound of music:
"Heyjude," arranged for elevator and supermarket. Time to rise and shine down below. Another day of Breaking had just begun.
Although, Jake supposed, down there the Breaking never really stopped.
"Let's have a game, you and I," Roland proposed. 'You try to get into my head and see who I'm angry at. I'll try to keep you out."
Jake shifted position slightly. "That doesn't sound like a fun game to me, Roland."
"Nevertheless, I'd play against you."
"All right, if you want to."
Jake closed his eyes and called up an image of Roland's tired, stubbled face. His brilliant blue eyes. He made a door between and slightly above those eyes-a litde one, with a brass knob-and tried to open it. For a moment the knob turned. Then it stopped. Jake applied more pressure. The knob began to turn again, then stopped once again. Jake opened his eyes and saw that fine beads of sweat had broken on Roland's brow.
"This is stupid. I'm making your headache worse," he said.
"Never mind. Do your best."
My worst, Jake thought. But if they had to play this game, he wouldn't draw it out. He closed his eyes again and once again saw the little door between Roland's tangled brows. This time he applied more force, piling it on quickly. It felt a little like arm-wrestling. After a moment the knob turned and the door opened. Roland grunted, then uttered a painful laugh. "That's enough for me," he said. "By the gods, thee's strong!"
Jake paid no attention to that. He opened his eyes. "The writer? King? Why are you mad at him?"
Roland sighed and cast away the smoldering butt of his cigarette; Jake had already finished with his. "Because we have two jobs to do where we should have only one. Having to do the second one is sai King's fault. He knew what he was supposed to do, and I think that on some level he knew that doing it would keep him safe. But he was afraid. He was tired." Roland's upper lip curled. "Now his irons are in the fire, and we have to pull them out. It's going to cost us, and probably a-dearly."
"You're angry at him because he's afraid? But..." Jake frowned. "But why wouldn't he be afraid? He's only a writer. A tale-spinner, not a gunslinger."
"I know that," Roland said, "but I don't think it was fear that stopped him, Jake, or not jurffear. He's lazy, as well. I felt it when I met him, and I'm sure that Eddie did, too. He looked at the job he was made to do and it daunted him and he said to himself,
"All right, I'll find an easier job, one that's more to my liking and more to my abilities. And if there's trouble, they'll take care of me. They'll have to take care of me.' And so we do."
"You didn't like him."
"No," Roland agreed, "I didn't. Not a bit. Nor trusted him.
I've met tale-spinners before, Jake, and they're all cut more or less from the same cloth. They tell tales because they're afraid of life."
"Do you say so?" Jake thought it was a dismal idea. He also thought it had the ring of truth.
"I do. But..." He shrugged. It is what it is, that shrug said.
Ka-shume, Jake thought. If their ka-tet broke, and it was King's fault... If it was King's fault, what? Take revenge on him? It was a gunslinger's thought; it was also a stupid thought, like the idea of taking revenge on God.
"But we're stuck with it," Jake finished.
"Aye. That wouldn't stop me from kicking his yellow, lazy ass if I got the chance, though."
Jake burst out laughing at that, and the gunslinger smiled.
Then Roland got to his feet with a grimace, both hands planted on the ball of his right hip. "Bugger," he growled.
"Hurts bad, huh?"
"Never mind my aches and mollies. Come with me. I'll show you something more interesting."
Roland, limping slightly, led Jake to where the path curled around the flank of the lumpy little mountain, presumably bound for the top. Here the gunslinger tried to hunker, grimaced, and settled to one knee, instead. He pointed to the ground with his right hand. "What do you see?"
Jake also dropped to one knee. The ground was littered with pebbles and fallen chunks of rock. Some of this talus had been disturbed, leaving marks in the scree. Beyond the spot where they knelt side by side, two branches of what Jake thought was a mesquite bush had been broken off. He bent forward and smelled the thin and acrid aroma of the sap. Then he examined the marks in the scree again. There were several of them, narrow and not too deep. If they were tracks, they certainly weren't human tracks. Or those of a desert-dog, either.
"Do you know what made these?" Jake asked. "If you do, just say it-don't make me arm-rassle you for it."
Roland gave him a brief grin. "Follow them a little. See what you find."
Jake rose and walked slowly along the marks, bent over at the waist like a boy with a stomach-ache. The scratches in the talus went around a boulder. There was dust on the stone, and scratches in the dust-as if something bristly had brushed against the boulder on its way by.
There were also a couple of stiff black hairs.
Jake picked one of these up, then immediately opened his fingers and blew it off his skin, shivering with revulsion as he did it. Roland watched this keenly.
"You look like a goose just walked over your grave."
"It's awful!" Jake heard a faint stutter in his voice. "Oh God, what was it? What was w-watching us?"
"The one Mia called Mordred." Roland's voice hadn't changed, but Jake found he could hardly bring himself to look into the gunslinger's eyes; they were that bleak. "The chap she says I fathered."
"He was here? In the night?"
Roland nodded.
"Listening...?"Jake couldn't finish.
Roland could. "Listening to our palaver and our plans, aye,
I think so. And Ted's tale as well."
"But you don't know for sure. Those marks could be anything."
Yet the only thing Jake could think of in connection with those marks, now that he'd heard Susannah's tale, were the legs of a monster spider.
"Go thee a little further," Roland said.
Jake looked at him questioningly, and Roland nodded. The wind blew, bringing them the Muzak from the prison compound
(now he thought it was "Bridge Over Troubled Water"),
also bringing the distant sound of thunder, like rolling bones.
"Follow," Roland said, nodding to the stony talus on the slope of the path.
Jake did, knowing this was another lesson-with Roland you were always in school. Even when you were in the shadow of death there were lessons to be learned.
On the far side of the boulder, the path carried on straight for about thirty yards before curving out of sight once more. On this straight stretch, those dash-marks were very clear. Groups of three on one side, groups of four on the other.
"She said she shot off one of its legs," Jake said.
"So she did."
Jake tried to visualize a seven-legged spider as big as a human baby and couldn't do it. Suspected he didn't want to do it.
Beyond the next curve there was a desiccated corpse in the path. Jake was pretty sure it had been flayed open, but it was hard to tell. There were no innards, no blood, no buzzing flies.
Just a lump of dirty, dusty stuff that vaguely-very vaguely-resembled something canine.
Oy approached, sniffed, then lifted his leg and pissed on the remains. He returned to Jake's side with the air of one who has concluded some important piece of business.
"That was our visitor's dinner last night," Roland said.
Jake was looking around. "Is he watching us now? What do you think?"
Roland said, "I think growing boys need their rest."
Jake felt a twinge of some unpleasant emotion and put it behind him without much examination. Jealousy? Surely not.
How could he be jealous of a thing that had begun life by eating its own mother? It was blood-kin to Roland, yes-his true son, if you wanted to be picky about it-but that was no more than an accident.
Wasn't it?
Jake became aware that Roland was looking at him closely, looking in a way that made Jake uneasy.
"Penny for em, dimmy-da," the gunslinger said.
"Nothing," Jake said. 'Just wondering where he's laid up."
"Hard to tell," Roland said. "There's got to be a hundred holes in this hill alone. Come."
Roland led the way back around the boulder where Jake had found the stiff black hairs, and once he was there, he began to methodically scuff away the tracks Mordred had left behind.
"Why are you doing that?" Jake asked, more sharply than he had intended.
"There's no need for Eddie and Susannah to know about this," Roland said. "He only means to watch, not to interfere in our business. At least for the time being."
How do you know, Jake wanted to ask, but that twinge came again-the one that absolutely couldn't be jealousy-and he decided not to. Let Roland think whatever he wanted.
Jake, meanwhile, would keep his eyes open. And if Mordred should be foolish enough to show himself...
"It's Susannah I'm most concerned about," Roland said.
"She's the one most likely to be distracted by the chap's presence.
And her thoughts would be the easiest for him to read."
"Because she's its mother," Jake said. He didn't notice the change of pronoun, but Roland did.
"The two of them are connected, aye. Can I count on you to keep your mouth shut?"
"And try to guard your mind-that's important, as well."
"I can try, but..." Jake shrugged in order to say that he didn't really know how one did that.
"Good," Roland said. "And I'll do the same."
The wind gusted again. "Bridge Over Troubled Water" had changed to (Jake was pretty sure) a Beatles tune, the one with the chorus that ended Beep-beep-mmm-beep-beep, yeah! Did they know that one in the dusty, dying towns between Gilead and Mejis? Jake wondered. Were there Shebs in some of those towns that played "Drive My Car" jagtime on out-of-tune pianos while the Beams weakened and the glue that held the worlds together slowly stretched into strings and the worlds themselves sagged?
He gave his head a hard, brisk shake, trying to clear it.
Roland was still watching him, and Jake felt an uncharacteristic flash of irritation. "I'll keep my mouth shut, Roland, and at least try to keep my thoughts to myself. Don't worry about me."
"I'm not worried," Roland said, and Jake found himself fighting the temptation to look inside his dinh's head and find out if that was actually true. He still thought looking was a bad idea, and not just because it was impolite, either. Mistrust was very likely a kind of acid. Their ka-tet was fragile enough already, and there was much work to do.
"Good," Jake said. "That's good."
"Good!" Oy agreed, in a hearty that's settled tone that made them both grin.
"We know he's there," Roland said, "and it's likely he doesn't know we know. Under the circumstances, there's no better way for things to be."
Jake nodded. The idea made him feel a little calmer.
Susannah came to the mouth of the cave at her usual speedy crawl while they were walking back toward it. She sniffed at the air and grimaced. When she glimpsed them, the grimace turned into a grin. "I see handsome men! How long have you boys been up?"
"Only a little while," Roland said.
"And how are you feeling?"
"Fine," Roland said. "I woke up with a headache, but now it's almost gone."
"Really?" Jake asked.
Roland nodded and squeezed the boy's shoulder.
Susannah wanted to know if they were hungry. Roland nodded. So did Jake.
"Well, come on in here," she said, "and we'll see what we can do about that situation."
Susannah found powdered eggs and cans of Prudence corned beef hash. Eddie located a can-opener and a small gas-powered hibachi grill. After a litde muttering to himself, he got it going and was only a bit startled when the hibachi began talking.
"Hello! I'm three-quarters filled with Gamry Bottled Gas, available at Wal-Mart, Burnaby's, and other fine stores! When you call for Gamry, you're calling for quality! Dark in here, isn't it? May I help you with recipes or cooking times?"
"You could help me by shutting up," Eddie said, and the grill spoke no more. He found himself wondering if he had offended it, then wondered if perhaps he should kill himself and spare the world a problem.
Roland opened four cans of peaches, smelled them, and nodded. "Okay, I think," he said. "Sweet."
They were just finishing this repast when the air in front of the cave shimmered. A moment later, Ted Brautigan, Dinky Earnshaw, and Sheemie Ruiz appeared. With them, cringing and very frightened, dressed in fading and tattered biballs, was the Rod Roland had asked them to bring.
"Come in and have something to eat," Roland said amiably, as if a quartet of teleports showing up was a common occurrence.
"There's plenty."
"Maybe we'll skip breakfast," Dinky said. "We don't have much t-"
Before he could finish, Sheemie's knees buckled and he collapsed at the mouth of the cave, his eyes rolling up to whites and a thin froth of spit oozing out between his cracked lips. He began to shiver and buck, his legs kicking aimlessly, his rubber moccasins scratching lines in the talus.