The Big Picture
A Dead Zone story for Therienne.
Author's Note: Thank you to Shalott for plotting help and Terri for being absolutely and totally invaluable. Thanks, too, to Merry and Res for their careful beta reads and excellent suggestions.
Some Information for the Dead Zone neophyte. Some of you may have read Stephen King's novel The Dead Zone or seen the really terrific film starring Christopher Walken as Johnny Smith and Martin Sheen as Greg Stillson. The TV show—which is also terrific, new season starting June 12, 2005! other seasons out on DVD!!—changes the story a little bit. Here's the primer.
When he was a kid, young Johnny Smith hit his head playing hockey; ever since then, he's had the occasional psychic flash—nothing huge, but he's not a guy you want to bet against at roulette. He grows up perfectly normal, though, and we find him in his early 20s working as a biology teacher at the local high school and engaged to be married to his best friend and forever girlfriend Sarah Bracknell, a music teacher at the same school. Then disaster strikes—one day, driving home in the rain after a local carnival, Johnny gets into a head-on collision with a tractor-trailer and goes into what everyone thinks is an irreversible coma.
The real action starts six years later when, miraculously, Johnny comes out of the coma. He wakes up in long-term care at Bangor Medical Center—scaring the hell out of everybody—and discovers that his whole life has changed; most crushingly, his girlfriend Sarah has married someone else and had a son. Worse yet, Johnny is now almost virulently psychic. When he touches things, he gets visions of the past or future—not always, but often enough that Johnny avoids shaking hands. Not only does he tend to see looming personal crises and neighborhood disasters—hm, once a week, in fact, and sometimes more—but there's also a larger, looming plot: Johnny senses that a nuclear holocaust is going to be triggered at some time in the future by the junior Maine congressman, Greg Stillson.
Now here come the spoilers.
In the book and the film, Johnny is living on borrowed time—once out of his coma, Johnny's an isolated loner-prophet whose God-given job it is to stop Stillson and the coming apocalypse—which he does, and then he gets shot and dies. (Whoops.)
In order to create a more stable situation for the plot, the TV people have made a couple of key changes—the most important of which for this story are that 1) they make Sarah's husband, Walt Bannerman, the local sheriff; thus, week after week, Johnny and Walt fight crime together—and over the course of the show, you can see them moving from mutual suspicion (because hey!—husband! boyfriend! jealousy-o-rama!) to grudging—and then real—friendship; and 2) they make Walt and Sarah's son J.J. Johnny's biological child (a fact which Walt knew when he married her, and which they eventually decide to tell J.J.—the whole thing is handled in a very adult, sharing custody, everyone's gonna have to get along sort of way. The Stillson plot is still happening—Johnny's slowly accruing information on a giant whiteboard called the "Wall of Doom" in his basement—but it's being stretched over a much longer period of time, and they've already evoked and dismissed the plot where Johnny tries to assassinate Stillson and gets shot; however the holocaust is gonna get stopped, it's not going to be that way.
Anyway, that's basically it; if you're still with me, enjoy the story. Happy birthday Therienne!!
After Johnny woke up, the doctors told him not to worry, because this time his coma had been triggered by a very specific and treatable cause: the murderous rage of Dr. Kevin Finkle (now in custody at the Penobscot County police station). After all, Johnny's doctors explained, it was easy enough to induce a coma by means of a neural disruptor, and of course Dr. Finkle had known that, and in light of Johnny's very public history as a coma victim, it was logical that Finkle would try to eliminate him by means of—
That was the point at which Sarah covered her face and began to weep uncontrollably.
Walt was beside her in a moment, arms wrapping tightly around her narrow shoulders. Sarah buried her face against Walt's chest and sobbed into his shirt. Johnny tried to sit up, tried to reach for her, but he was dizzy and his IV was pulling and—
Walt looked over her head at Johnny, and grimly nodded toward the door. "I'm gonna..."
Johnny sighed and sank back into his pillows. "Yeah," he said, and then he could only watch helplessly as Walt murmured into Sarah's hair and steered her out of the room.
She never looked back. Johnny closed his eyes and ignored whatever else the doctors were there to tell him.
The next day, J.J. appeared during visiting hours—looking shyly around the doorframe at first, but running to the bed when he saw how happy Johnny was to see him.
"Hey!" Johnny raised his IV'd hand for a high-five. "J.J!"
He was trying to sound cheerful, but J.J. frowned and gave him a look of appraisal so honest that it bordered on rude. "You don't look so bad," J.J. said finally.
"Hey, is that a compliment?" Johnny deadpanned. "Because I have to say: I've had better."
J.J. didn't even smile. "Some guy tried to kill you, huh?"
Johnny gave in, sighed, nodded; trust kids to get to the heart of things. "Yeah." It was probably good that J.J. had two fathers, so he had one for backup. Johnny's eyes drifted to the doorway, where Walt was now leaning, arms crossed, giving them space.
"I'm really glad you're okay," J.J. said. Johnny reached out and gave him a tight, one-armed hug, and J.J. stares at Sarah, who is sitting on the edge of the sofa with a tissue clutched in her hand. "Is he—?" and J.J. bursts into tears. Johnny gripped J.J.'s arms and pulled back so that he could see his face. His son's eyes were scared and strangely far away as he tried to work out what he wanted to say. "I didn't know if you were gone or not."
"Not gone," Johnny said deliberately. "I'm right here—look," and when J.J. finally did smile, Johnny pulled him back into his arms and kissed his cheek.
J.J. squirmed away from him; lately, he acted like he was too old for mushy stuff. "Okay, so will you be at the game Saturday?" J.J. asked. "We're playing Wilton."
Walt answered the question from his position by the doorway: "I think that's a little fast, sport, don't you? Give Johnny a break. There'll be other games this season."
It was only then that Johnny realized that Sarah wasn't with them. "Hey," he asked J.J., "what's your Mom doing?"
Again it was Walt who answered: "She was feeling a little under the weather. Probably coming down with something. I told her to stay home," and it was only the way that J.J. looked away from him that told Johnny that wasn't exactly the truth.
Johnny was zipping up his overnight bag as the nurse went over what pills he had to take and when. He wanted to snap at her, because he'd been around this block a couple of times already, but she was new, and young, and trying to do a good job, plus her boyfriend was about to break up with her and she had no idea it was coming, and so he just smiled and nodded like he really appreciated her help.
When she finally took her leave, he turned and saw Walt in the doorway.
"Came to pick you up," Walt said, and jingled his car keys; Walt never really was much for small talk.
"Oh." That sounded ungrateful, so Johnny quickly added, "Thanks. I thought Bruce was—"
"Bruce couldn't make it; Mrs. Dowd fell and pulled something. So he called this morning and asked if I'd—you know, if we'd—"
Johnny quickly busied himself with picking up his bag. I. We. Right. Bruce had undoubtedly called Sarah, but Sarah hadn't come. "Great, let's hit it."
Awkwardly, Walt reached out and tried to take his bag. "Here, let me—"
But Johnny didn't let go of the handle. "I got it, I'm fine. Nothing wrong with my arms, just my brain," and suddenly they were both grinning stupidly, because all guys were basically fourteen and brain damage was almost as funny as farting.
"Yeah," Walt said. "You know, this coma shit is becoming a habit with you. Stop it."
And it was such a relief to make jokes, to refuse to take any of this seriously. "Hey, I'm trying to cut down," Johnny said.
Walt yanked the room's door open and waved him through. "Maybe you can find a support group."
"Oh, sure. 'Hi, my name is Johnny and I'm a psychic who goes into comas a lot.' 'Hello, Johnny....'"
Walt shrugged and followed him out. "I didn't say it would be a popular support group..."
The young nurse was pushing an empty wheelchair up the hallway toward them. "Your chariot, Mr. Smith."
Johnny groaned. "Really. I don't need to—"
Walt looked smug and took his bag. "Meet you at the car, old man."
Walt had gotten Johnny's bag out of the back seat and unlocked and opened the front door (Sarah's keys, Johnny noted, catching the glint of the silver key ring) by the time Johnny limped up the steps behind him.
To his surprise, the place had been aired out and there was a cardboard box of groceries on the counter. Walt must have seen the look on his face, because he launched into a quick, dismissive summary: "I came by to open some windows and figured I'd pick up a few basics. I didn't know what you wanted, so I got milk, coffee, beer—"
Johnny reached into the box and pulled out a box of Captain Crunch, a carton of chocolate donuts, a six pack of Sam Adams, a couple of thick steaks, two frozen pizzas: this was serious man shopping. No orange juice, no wheat germ, no broccoli, no Sarah.
"Walt," Johnny said, staring down at the Captain's crazy hat and manic expression; this was a guy having a hell of a sugar rush. "Where's Sarah?"
Walt didn't answer, and when Johnny looked up, he saw the discouraged slump of Walt's shoulders. "Yeah," Walt said, letting his ass drop onto one of the kitchen stools, "I figured you were going to ask me about that."
"Is she all right?" Johnny asked quietly.
"I don't know. She just—" Walt sighed and idly scrubbed at his hair for a moment. "She had a really hard time with you, this time. The doctors thought it was a relapse, figured you were about done for. If they hadn't twigged to the neural disruptor..." Johnny nodded grimly. He knew what that meant: another long stretch in cold storage. "Anyway, you were gone again, dead again, back again, and this time?" Walt looked at him seriously. "Johnny, she's not dealing with it. It's like she's decided she's had enough."
Johnny managed to scrape the words out of his throat. "Enough of what?"
"Enough of..." Walt, wearing a pained expression, seemed to be searching for the right words. Still, the wrong words hung in the air between them, loud and clear: enough of you. "...well, of worrying, mainly," Walt said at last, and Johnny was reminded that Walt was a really good guy, because that was about the nicest way you could have put it. "It's like she's had all the worry she can stand, and just, she can't take being worried about you right now." Then Walt's mouth twisted, and he showed Johnny a look that was half amusement, half anger. "Which should be great, right? For me, anyway, if not for you. It should be great. Except—" and Walt surprised him by banging a fist down against the countertop so hard that Johnny gasped aloud like a girl.
Walt looked at him guiltily. "Hey, sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to scare you."
"No, it's okay," Johnny said quickly, lifting a reassuring hand to show Walt he wasn't, like, having a heart attack or something.
"No, it's not okay, okay? This isn't your fault—I mean, I know, I do know that none of this is your fault," Walt said, and Johnny couldn't remember Walt ever talking to him like this before. "But this in particular is not your fault; you were attacked by a psycho in my town on my watch. And Sarah..." and suddenly Johnny saw, to his astonishment, that Walt was angry at Sarah, really and genuinely angry. "Sarah's engineered this whole situation where you're in our lives and you're my son's father and she can't just—"
Walt stopped, took a breath, and seemed to regain control of himself.
"So we decided that Sarah's gonna take a little time-out," Walt said, and there, Johnny could hear the voice of Walt, the patient and experienced father, who probably wanted to strangle somebody but wouldn't. "A little Johnny-Smith-time-out. I told her that I'd pick up the slack, bring J.J. over for visits, all that, until—you know."
"Until she's able to cope?" Johnny suggested.
"Yeah, that. I was gonna say, 'until she gets it through her thick head that she can't go on making decisions for all of us,' but that works, too."
Johnny wasn't sure what to say to that; it was true, of course, but there was no way he could say anything against Sarah, not even to Walt. "You want a beer? I got beer, Captain Crunch, and chocolate donuts."
"Hey, breakfast of champions," Walt said, and popped a top.
Sometimes Walt dropped J.J. off Saturday mornings on his way to work; Johnny waved from the doorway as J.J. scampered up the stairs, and he saw Walt's raised hand of acknowledgement before he drove off, car wheels churning gravel on the drive. Sometimes Johnny met Walt at one of J.J.'s hockey games, or at scout meetings, or at the school's end of the year show. They still worked together pretty regularly, too; once, Walt came to his house in the middle of the night, pale-faced and grim, because a car had been found and the teenaged boy driving it had gone missing; another time, they had to shut Walt's office door and pull the blinds before bursting out laughing; it was Walt who found the suspiciously large turquoise taffeta dress, but it was Johnny's vision upon touching it that confirmed for them that the mysterious lady who had been seen gliding through the woods behind the McGovern farm was, in fact—well, Mr. Saul McGovern.
Johnny saw a fair amount of Sarah too, sometimes at the sheriff's office, more often at J.J.'s school. "Hi, Johnny," Sarah said, and smiled at him, but it was the same smile she gave everyone; friendly and warm and neighborly—nothing special, nothing that was just for him. She no longer asked him over to the house. She no longer stopped to ask how he was doing. Instead, she asked how things were going, which was a really different question. Sometimes she called to tell him things he needed to know about J.J., important things, but these were more like business meetings: "J.J.'s math teacher says he's struggling with algebra, would you," or "I've told J.J. he can't have any more Game Boy cartridges until Christmas, so don't you go buying him any." They were the kinds of conversations where he nodded a lot and took notes on the backs of envelopes, or on the whiteboard in his kitchen. Help with algebra. No new game cartridges. Check.
But it was Walt who talked to him. Sometimes, Walt came over with J.J. to watch football, and they all of them sprawled on the big, comfortable couches to watch Johnny's huge TV, throwing a nerf football between them and yelling and gesticulating at the screen when something interesting happened. Walt always brought the best junk food ever—truly noxious stuff like snowballs and cheetos, things that stained your fingers orange and made your tongue blue—as well as really good beer. It took Johnny a while to realize that Walt was using Johnny's living room as a staging ground for his own personal rebellion; Johnny's mother had never let him eat any of this stuff, and Johnny bet that Sarah didn't allow it either. "Little sugar never killed anyone," Walt muttered.
"Hey Johnny! My tongue's blue!" J.J. had that maniacal look familiar to Johnny from the front of the Captain Crunch box.
"Mine too!" Johnny stuck out his own tongue to show him. Walt grinned and licked orange stuff off his fingers.
"I dunno," Walt told him one Sunday after the game was over and they'd sent J.J. upstairs to do some history homework, "sometimes I don't even feel like it's my house anymore."
They were both still sprawled on the sofas, both still drinking beers, and Johnny didn't know if Walt had had as many as he had, but he was feeling sloppy and kind of sentimental. "Hey, man, don't say that," he said, and nudged Walt's leg with his foot. "You don't mean that."
"No, but—I do mean it, though," Walt said, turning his head to look at him. "I feel like—I mean, I didn't pick out the furniture. I don't decide what we eat. I'm not even—" and Walt clamped down on that thought so fast that Johnny knew what it was: I'm not even my son's real father. "I just show up, man. That's the story of my fucking life."
"Hey, well, thank God you show up," Johnny said feelingly, meaning it. "I mean, lately? I'm pretty glad you show up. Especially when you're armed."
Walt waved dismissively. "That's only because most of your friends are serial killers."
"Hey! Beggars can't be choosers," Johnny replied.
Walt shot him a swift, perceptive glance, and Johnny realized that this was a little too close to the truth; after Bruce and Walt, the field got pretty thin.
He was about to change the subject—-talk about the game, offer Walt another beer—when Walt frowned and said, "You know, mostly things aren't your fault, Johnny, but this? This might be your fault."
"My fault?" Johnny asked; he could feel his eyebrows straining upward. "You didn't pick out your own furniture and it's my fault?"
"Yeah," Walt said, and he looked serious enough, but there was a hint of a smile in his voice. "I mean, I've been kind of competing with you for years. It's not like you ever ended things properly. And as boyfriends go, you were kind of a doormat."
Johnny stared at him. "I was in a coma!"
"That's what I'm saying! I mean, you weren't exactly asserting yourself in the relationship, is what I'm saying."
"I was in a coma."
"And I'm not arguing with you about that. But it did kind of leave Sarah with the idea that she could make decisions for the both of you."
"Yeah. She could. Cause I was in a coma. You are not in a coma."
"No, but apparently not for lack of trying," Walt said, and draped an arm over his eyes. "I mean, I've tried to be as passive as you are—"
"Co-ma," Johnny said in a sing-songy voice, not really hoping to derail whatever weird train Walt was riding.
"—take a back seat, let her set the agenda, cause I thought, you know, it was really important to her to have you in her life. But now it's really important to her to not have you in her life. So maybe this is just about Sarah wanting things her own damn way all the time. Maybe there is no larger principle at stake."
"I just really want to insist that I am not a doormat," Johnny said.
Walt lowered his arm from his face and grinned at him. "You were when you were in a coma. It's like that joke about the quadriplegic: 'Mrs. Smith, Mrs. Smith—can Johnny come out and play?'"
"You are not telling that joke," Johnny warned, but he was already laughing, and more than that—something inside him was expanding, something that had been cramped and afraid ever since the accident.
"'But kids, he can't walk!' Mrs. Smith says." Walt was mangling the joke, but something gleeful inside Johnny didn't care. "'Oh, we know that, Mrs Smith. We just want to use him for third base!'"
Johnny lunged off the couch, hooked one arm around Walt's neck, and began beating his face with one of the sofa pillows. Laughing, Walt flailed around blindly, trying to grab a pillow of his own. Johnny kicked away the only one that was within reach, leaving Walt no other option but to try to wrest Johnny's away from him. They struggled for it, and Johnny managed to brace his strong leg against the floor and use his leverage and superior position effectively—until Walt suddenly twisted and pushed into him. Johnny's heel skidded and he slid off balance and crashed to the floor, laughing. Walt fell on top of him, and then it was an all-out wrestle of limbs and rolling on the carpet, and Johnny only got a couple more good shots—Blammo! Whap! Taste my upholstery!—before there was the sudden scrape of wood and then the horrible shattering crash of glass.
Johnny froze, still breathing hard, pillow upraised and ready to crash down on Walt's face. Walt stared up at him guiltily, looking flushed and kind of chafed. "Did you, uh—"
"Yeah," Johnny said, and dropped the pillow. "I think we, uh—"
"Broke something, yeah. Man, I'm really sorry."
They disentangled themselves and sat up, looking around to see what they'd broken. Johnny saw instantly that they'd knocked over one of his mother's many occasional tables, which was now surrounded by a million pieces of glowing, tangerine-colored glass. The vase had been pretty— a Leerdam vase, his mother had called it, though Johnny couldn't remember if Leerdam was the artist or the factory or what.
"I'm sorry, John," he heard Walt say softly, from just behind him. "I shouldn't've been—"
Johnny just shrugged and turned to Walt with a rueful smile. "You know, I didn't pick out most of this furniture either," but before Walt could answer, J.J. was standing there, looking anxious and saying, "Dad? Johnny? What happened?" and they had to get up off the floor and be grownups for a while.
"Get out of the way, Sheriff," Edgar Reston said, and tried to gesture Walt away with a wave of his gun. "For if anyone touches the unclean thing, then he too shall be guilty—"
But Walt just shook his head and held his ground. He spoke calmly, looked relaxed, and kept Johnny tucked safely behind him. "Johnny Smith is not a thing, Mr. Reston. Johnny Smith is a person. Johnny Smith has been a member of this community since he was born, and his family's lived in Cleaves Mills for generations," and yeah, this was all part of the "dealing with a complete whack-job" handbook, humanize the victim , but shit, it was humiliating that his humanity had to be explained to this fruitcake in the middle of a public square, "and it is my duty to protect him—"
Reston poked Walt in the chest with the barrel of the gun while shaking his head. "We are called to beware of the false prophets, which come to us in sheep's clothing, but—"
"Let him who is without sin cast the first stone!"
Everyone turned, and shit, one of Walt's guys had handed Reverend Purdy a bullhorn. The police had obeyed Walt's order to hang back, but clearly Purdy had convinced somebody that he spoke Reston's language. Beside him, half-hiding behind the open door of the police cruiser, Johnny saw Sarah and Bruce. Sarah looked wide-eyed and pale. Bruce's arm was slung protectively around her shoulders.
Reston's eyes lit up with excitement. He yelled toward Purdy: "But there are false prophets among the people, just as there are false teachers among us!"
Reverend Purdy didn't seem fazed: "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?"
Johnny let his forehead thunk down onto Walt's suede-covered shoulder. This was just great: his life was the grand prize in the First Annual Cleaves Mills Scripture-Quoting Contest. "I don't believe this," he muttered.
"Shh," Walt hissed.
"For there shall arise false prophets," Reston was screaming, "and they shall show such great signs and wonders that they shall deceive the very elect!"
The gun was wavering in Reston's hand, and Johnny froze; was it his imagination, or was there some slight movement in the crowd beyond them?
Purdy's voice thundered, strong and confident, through the bullhorn. "James and John asked Jesus, 'Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to destroy them?' But Jesus turned and he rebuked them!"
Reston looked like he was coming undone; he was distracted, shaking his head from side to side, the gun's barrel veering wildly. Then suddenly he raised his head and pointed the barrel straight at Walt, like he was planning to shoot right through him to get Johnny. "The false prophet must be put to death," Reston said in a wavering voice, "because he preached rebellion against the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt and—"
Johnny heard the screams before he processed the sound of the shot, and then he was being pulled to the ground and Walt was on top of him, climbing on top of him and shoving his face and shoulders down against the pavement, and there were more screams and another shot and—
"Suspect is down! Repeat! Suspect is down!" and then Walt was rolling off him and grabbing him under the armpits and, in one swift movement, hauling him to his feet and away from Reston's crumpled body, which was quickly being surrounded by armed officers and EMTs. Everything was moving so fast—suddenly, Walt was patting him down, hands moving quickly over Johnny's head, through his hair, down over shoulders, ribs, and chest, and then Walt said, "He's okay," and turned to confer with one of his deputies about Reston, and then Johnny blinked and Bruce was in front of him and looking incredibly relieved.
"Man," Bruce breathed, and then he was almost laughing from the stress of it. "Man. Just—whoa, stay away from those guys, okay?" and then Bruce was hugging him tightly, and Johnny closed his eyes and hugged back. The adrenaline was leaking out of his system now, and he felt like he could sleep for a year. "I mean, here's a tip, okay? If they say they're Christians, but they're carrying guns or wearing hoods—"
Johnny suddenly tuned in to Reverend Purdy's voice: "I must protest this in the strongest possible terms!" Purdy was saying, and Johnny opened his eyes and saw that Purdy was staring at the EMTs working on Reston and looking sick. "We were in dialogue!" Purdy nearly shouted at Walt. "I could have persuaded him! There was no need to—"
But Walt wasn't listening to Purdy. He was staring off, somewhere beyond, and Johnny followed his eyes. Sarah had sagged against the side of the police cruiser, hugging herself tightly. Then she looked over at Walt with huge, hollow, terrified eyes before abruptly pushing herself off the cruiser and walking, unsteadily, off across the square.
He found out that Walt had left Sarah by the sheerest accident. It was raining buckets when Walt arrived to pick up J.J. at the end of a long weekend, so Walt had come around to the kitchen door. He was already soaking wet, though it could only have been a twenty-second run from the car to the house.
"God, it's miserable out there," Walt said, trying to stand on the mat and carefully bracing the umbrella against the wall so that he wouldn't get water everywhere.
"Looks it," Johnny agreed. "You don't want to drive in that. Come in and have coffee, wait out the worst of it. I've got donuts..."
Standing there in his wet raincoat, Walt showed him a quick, tired smile. "Oh, you vile tempter of cops," he said, but then he shook his head no. "No thanks, Johnny; it's a nice thought, but— I mean, I gotta— We really should—"
Johnny frowned at him—Walt looked tired, and it wasn't like him to turn down a cup of coffee—but didn't press the issue. "Okay," he said, and then he limped toward the doorway and called up, "Yo, J.J.! Get your stuff! Your dad's here!"
"Okay!" J.J. called down the stairs. "Be there in a minute!"
Johnny turned back to Walt and said, "Look, water's hot already—have a cup of instant, or tea, maybe."
"I—" Walt scraped wet hair away from his forehead. "Yeah, okay. Tea would be—"
Johnny didn't have to be told twice. "I got great teas," he said. "I got teas that don't taste like tea."
"Oh yeah? What's the point of that?" Walt asked.
"I'll show you," Johnny said and quickly put together a hot, milky cup of vanilla tea. It smelled like cake. "Here," he said gleefully, and brought the cup to Walt. "Try—"
Walt reached for the mug, and his hand was shaking. Johnny stared, openmouthed, for a second, then put the tea down onto the counter and took Walt's cold hand in both of his. "Walt—"
Rain was sheeting into his face as he ran between the house and the car, loading up two suitcases, a dufflebag, two large cardboard boxes. He was drenched by the time he looked up at the house—and Sarah was watching him from the upstairs window, her face pale in the gloom. The wind picked up, and the black tree branches whipped around, banging into the house. He slammed the trunk closed harder than he needed to, and when he shielded his eyes and looked up at the house again, Sarah had disappeared and the curtains had been drawn. He slid behind the wheel of the car and—
Johnny yanked his hands away from Walt's and stared at him, shocked. "Walt, you can't—you didn't—"
Walt stared down at the hand Johnny had clasped as if he couldn't believe it had betrayed him. "I—" Walt began, and then he looked up at Johnny with tired eyes. "Johnny, it's not working. We tried, we—"
"You tried this, too," Johnny said, surprised at how angry he sounded, "or don't you remember? You worked through it. You got over it—"
"That was when you were the problem," Walt said flatly. "Now, I'm the problem."
Johnny just couldn't process this. "How could you be the—"
"She's tired of worrying, Johnny!" and suddenly Walt was leaning forward, yelling into his face, dripping onto his shoes. "It happens all the time! Cops' wives, they—"
"I'm ready!" J.J. declared, appearing in the kitchen doorway.
Walt pulled himself together with a visible effort. "All right," he began. "Let's—"
"No," Johnny interrupted. "J.J., go wait in the living room—"
"No, come here. We're going," Walt said raggedly. "We're going out for ice cream, and we're going to have a talk, you and me—"
"J.J.," Johnny said in a warning voice. "Go wait in the living room. You can play an hour of Halo," but it was too late to pretend things were normal; J.J. was wide-eyed and staring from one of them to the other, his face an agony of indecision. He didn't know who to listen to—and this was wrong, this was bad, and Johnny was just about to say, "Never mind, get your coat," when Walt suddenly croaked, "It's okay—listen to Johnny. Go play Halo," and J.J. hesitated for only a moment before nodding and darting away.
Walt seemed to crumple once J.J. was out of sight. "I've got to tell him. He's got to know—"
"Yes," Johnny said, in the calmest, most reassuring voice he could manage. "And you're going to tell him, but first you're going to sit down and dry off and eat something," and then he pulled Walt into a quick, one-armed hug before tugging him off the mat and into the house.
Johnny gave Walt some dry clothes and a sandwich, then called J.J. into the kitchen. He edged toward the door to give them some privacy, but Walt looked up and said, "No, don't. You should stay," and so Johnny had to stand there and listen to Walt explain that he and Sarah were going to try living apart again, but they both loved J.J. very much and that would never, ever change. J.J. sighed and slumped back in his chair as if he were really disappointed in all of them and more than a little bored with the whole situation, which Johnny figured he had every right to be. Johnny crossed his arms and held his tongue; what he really wanted to say was, "Your parents are idiots, J.J.—they'll be back together again in two months, just you watch," but of course you weren't allowed to say things like that, because the "Helping Your Kids Cope" handbook (which they had all read many, many times despite its not having the really useful chapters like, "What To Tell Your Child When His Daddy Comes Out Of A Coma" or "Holding Hands, Reading Minds" or "Breaking The Bad News: Both Your Daddies Are Missing") said that you should never get a child's hopes up about a reconciliation.
Kids always hoped too much as it was.
After Walt had finished explaining and J.J. had assured them both a bunch of times and in multiple ways that yes, he was okay, and he understood perfectly, and yes, he knew this wasn't his fault, and he knew they loved him and yes, he loved them too, they all had ice cream topped with every gooey, goopy, sugary thing that Johnny had in the house—chocolate sauce and sprinkles and little marshmallows and whipped cream—and then, Johnny insisted that he would take J.J. home and that Walt would just stay there and chill out, because it was ridiculous to go to a hotel this time of night.
Walt made some noises about really, no, he couldn't possibly—but Johnny was at the end of his rope and told him to shut up, and even J.J. pointed out that the worst room in the Smith house was better than the musty room at the Castle Rock Inn where Walt had stayed the last time he and Sarah had split up. "That room smelled, Dad."
"Okay, okay," and they left Walt sitting at the kitchen counter, holding his head.
Johnny drove slowly because of the rain, but it was just as well: it gave him a little extra time with J.J. "Look, if you need me for anything, anything at all—"
"Thanks, Johnny," J.J. said, and then he bit his lip and said: "It might be better this way."
"Really?" Johnny asked, surprised.
J.J. looked guilty and admitted: "Yeah. I mean, Dad just seems to stress Mom out lately. If he's with you, we can all hang out and it might be less...I dunno, tense." J.J. shrugged.
"Okay," Johnny said, but he was still trying to get his head around this as he parked in front of the Bannerman house. "Wait here," he told J.J., and then he got out and opened the umbrella and slung J.J.'s dufflebag over his shoulder before coming to get J.J. out of the passenger side. J.J. huddled under the umbrella until they hit the protection of the porch and then he ran up the stairs and rang the doorbell while Johnny followed behind.
Light flooded the porch as Sarah opened the door, and she looked at Johnny warily before putting a smile on for J.J. and giving him a warm, tight hug.
"I know all about everything," J.J. said breathlessly. "Dad's not going to live with us anymore and I'm fine with it and I know it's not my fault and everything."
"Uh, okay," Sarah said cautiously. J.J. kissed her cheek and disappeared inside. She straightened, put one hand on her hip, and looked hard at Johnny, who was still standing on the porch. She didn't ask him to come in. "Thanks for bringing J.J. home."
"You're welcome." Johnny couldn't remember ever feeling more awkward around Sarah, and that included those first, terrible conversations when she'd had to confess that she'd married someone else. Johnny had vaguely imagined this moment on the drive over, and he'd thought that maybe he could talk some sense into her, or maybe she'd reach for him and whisper that it was him, that it had always been him—
Instead, she was looking at him with faint impatience, her head cocked, waiting.
"Uh," Johnny said. "I, uh, just wanted to tell you that Walt'll be staying with me for a while." This wasn't, as yet, strictly true, but he had to say something.
To his surprise, Sarah laughed out loud. "That's not a solution, Johnny," she said wryly. "That's a sitcom."
Johnny fumbled for a comic retort, and came up with: "Hey, the fun never stops when the town sheriff shacks up with the local psychic—"
He could still hear Sarah laughing after she shut the door.
He put Walt in one of the empty bedrooms on the second floor, deliberately choosing one just about as far from his own suite of rooms as possible. He was hoping that putting a lot of space between them would encourage Walt to stay—though he honestly wasn't sure why it felt so damn important to him that Walt stay. Partly, he knew, it was that having Walt in the house would inevitably increase his time with J.J.—after all, two daddies had to at least equal one mommy, even in the eyes of the law.
But, if Johnny was honest with himself, he also had to admit that he was trying to hurt Sarah a little by opening his house to Walt. Her rejection had left him feeling vulnerable and in need of an ally—and Walt was a great ally, top notch. Besides, having Walt on his side made it two against one, so maybe the fact that he and Walt had thrown in together would convince Sarah that she was making a mistake cutting them out of her life. One of them might be wrong or crazy, but they couldn't both be, could they?
Walt already had Sarah's key, so Johnny just gave him some space and ignored him for a couple of days—and sure enough, when Walt approached him to say that he'd found a cheap apartment, he did so with the attitude of a man willing to be talked out of it.
Johnny looked up from spooning coffee into the percolator, shrugged, and said, "Sure, if you want, but why bother?"
Walt set his Stetson down on the counter and said, "I can't just live here."
"Yeah," Johnny said, arching an eyebrow, "because I'm real pressed for space."
"But—" Walt was frowning, and Johnny couldn't tell if he was trying to marshal his objections or dismiss them. "I can't just live off you—"
"How much for the apartment?" Johnny asked.
"Five hundred and fifty dollars," Walt replied.
"Fine; I'll give you the upstairs room, use of the facilities, and a shelf in the fridge for an even five hundred. Four-fifty if you protect me from serial killers," Johnny added, and when Walt cracked a smile, Johnny knew he had him.
Johnny blinked and turned toward the voice; Walt was standing just inside the doorway, still wearing his Stetson and heavy suede coat. "Hi, Walt."
"Hey there, John." Walt arched an eyebrow and tipped his head toward the table. "Interesting table, huh?"
Yeah. Well, that was embarrassing. Johnny was vaguely aware that he lost time here and there, spellbound by visions: the old house was full of memories, all of them interesting, most of them pleasant. Still, he didn't want Walt to think he spent all day communing with the furniture.
"Uh, yeah," Johnny said, scratching his head. He turned back to the table and pretended to consider it. "It's French. 18th century. Oak, I think." Actually, he'd been having a vision of his mother hoisting him up on top of it to tighten the laces of his winter boots.
"Uh-huh." Walt hung his hat on the rack by the door, then shrugged off the heavy coat and hung that up, too. Then he reached into the huge side pocket and fished out something in a plastic bag. A Blockbuster bag. "I picked up a movie on my way home," he said, and handed it to Johnny: Double Indemnity, the DVD Special Edition. "Thought we'd order a pizza."
"Sounds good," Johnny said, then added: "Or you could join me in contemplating the beauty of this table."
Walt came to stand beside him, and together they considered the table for a second.
"Yeah," Walt said. "No."
"Right, okay. I'll place the order," Johnny said, and went for the phone.
"Car keys. Car keys," Walt said, standing impatiently next to where Johnny was washing dishes. "Car keys," he said again, like this was a foreign language and Johnny spoke only Chinese or something. "C'mon, I'm late for J.J.'s scout meeting—"
"Okay! Fine!" Johnny said, exasperated, and yanked a dripping hand out of the soapy water and pressed it to Walt's jacket, leaving a big, wet handprint on the pale suede. "In your closet, gray tweed jacket, inside pocket."
"I don't even have a gray tweed jacket!" Walt yelled over his shoulder as he thumped up the stairs. "Okay, maybe I do," he amended, passing through the kitchen again on his way out the back door, "though I wouldn't so much call it gray as—"
"Yeah, you're welcome. Asshole," Johnny said as the door slammed shut.
"No—wait!" Johnny said urgently, grabbing Walt hard by the biceps. It had only been a glimpse, but—
"What?" Walt asked, but Johnny was already standing outside a house on Princetown Road, and he has to stop himself from consciously raising his hands and covering his ears, the music's so loud. People are milling outside on the lawn carrying plastic cups of beer and God knows what else, and Johnny can see the people in neighboring houses glaring disapprovingly through their windows.
Suddenly a young woman comes running out of the house, her face contorted, her blouse torn a little at the shoulder. A boy runs out after her, calling, "Wait, Gina, I'll take you home," and suddenly another boy grabs him by the jacket and spins him around.
"You keep away from her," the second boy says, and shoves him. The first boy pushes back, and there's the sound of glass breaking, and within moments, the lawn is the site of an all-out brawl.
Just then, the police cruisers pull up, screeching, to the curb. Walt is first out of the car and sprinting up the three steps to the walkway in front of the house, practically hurling himself over the iron railing into the yard. "Hey!" Walt yells, pulling one of the boys off the other, but they're out of their heads with rage. "Police! Quit it! Right the hell now!"—and then one of them turns and shoves Walt—
—and then, like in slow motion, Johnny sees that Walt's boot lace is untied and is being stepped on by a tall, heavyset boy standing to Walt's right, so that when Walt tries to roll with the push rather than resist it, one foot comes but not the other. Walt loses his balance, and the boy who pushed him has a killer fucking instinct and pushes him again, and this time Walt goes down, falling backwards, his feet going from under him, his head, Christ, smashing into the railing—
—and for a moment, the kids don't notice, they all just keep fighting, though some of them are screaming, "Stop it! The cops are here! The cops!" But nobody's noticed that Walt is bleeding where his head hit the railing except Johnny. Johnny, like a ghost, slips through the crowd and drops to his knees next to Walt, horror-struck, and he's saying, "Get an ambulance. Quick. Get—" but nobody else can hear him.
"Johnny. John. What do you see?" Walt asked in a calm, deliberate voice, and Johnny took a deep breath and said, "Don't wear those shoes."
Walt laughed out loud, looking relieved. "What, you saw a future where I'm being mocked for my footwear?"
"No," Johnny said, and he couldn't help himself—he reached out to briefly touch the part of Walt's head that got staved in before pulling his hand away. "Wear shoes without laces. You're going to a party to break up a fight. Watch out for the kid in the U. Maine t-shirt—he's gonna go after you. Plus you might want to run a rape kit on a girl named Gina, I don't know her last name, but she's about 5'4", blonde, wearing—"
"Okay, hang on, hang on, hang on," Walt said, unsnapping his leather pad and reaching for his pencil.
Johnny was slumped deep into the sofa cushions watching the late night news and talking on the phone to Bruce. They were doing a whole long segment on Greg Stillson, Your State Representative, and when the telephone rang, Johnny had known it was Bruce without even having to be psychic about it.
"Man, can you believe it?" Bruce asked, and Johnny watched Stillson shaking hands, kissing babies, and smiling awkwardly while surrounded by chihuahuas, having apparently designated it "Love Your Pet" day in Penobscot County. "That white boy sure loves to get his face on the television."
"He's biding his time," Johnny mused, slouching down and tucking the phone between his ear and his chin. "Greasing palms and kissing asses—" and then something pink and gauzy dropped into his lap. He tilted his head back and saw Walt. "What's this?"
"What's what?" Bruce asked, in his ear.
Johnny jerked the receiver toward his mouth. "Hang on."
"It's my aunt's scarf," Walt replied. "Can you tell me if she's mad at me for forgetting her birthday, and if so, is candy enough or do I need to go all the way up to dinner out?"
Johnny picked up the filmy scarf and said, "Take your aunt out to dinner."
"You just totally made that up, didn't you," Walt accused.
"You betcha," Johnny said, and held the scarf up for him, while tilting the receiver back to his mouth. "Sorry, Bruce."
"Great, thanks." Walt snatched it back. "Some psychic you are."
"Shut up and take your aunt out to dinner already. What is she, 70? She's not going to live forever, you know. Sorry, Bruce," Johnny said into the telephone, "hang on. And you should take J.J., too. It'll make her so happy."
"How did you know she was 70?" Walt asked suspiciously.
"I think I liked you better when you were comatose."
"Hard cheese. Sorry, Bruce," Johnny said, and then yelled after Walt: "And get me a beer, will you?"
Walt sighed. "Import or local?"
"Local, man—what are you, a commie? And bring out that bag of peanuts! Sorry, Bruce," Johnny said, as Walt disappeared into the kitchen. "What were you saying?"
...his mother is rummaging through the bureau drawer, hands sliding beneath the lace camisoles and silk stockings, fingertips running along the carefully made joints of the
cabinetry, skimming until she finds the small, smooth hole. She tucks her finger into it, and crooks it, and pulls, and the false bottom of the drawer
"John, you're freaking me out, here—stop it."
lifts up. She tosses it aside, and reaches down to pull out two thick bundles of letters, tied up with ribbons and smelling of
"John!" and Johnny blinked. Walt was holding him by the wrists and staring at him worriedly. "It's not that interesting, man!"
"Perfume," Johnny blurted.
"What?" Walt asked.
"Perfume. Perfume," Johnny repeated as if it were obvious, and then he yanked away his wrists and began pulling his own clothes out of the bureau drawer, unceremoniously dumping them onto the floor.
Walt took a step back as Johnny's underwear landed on his boots. "What the hell are you—"
Johnny knocked on the bottom of the drawer; it sounded solid enough. He began to run his fingertips around the perimeter of the smooth, tightly fitted wood.
"John Smith," Walt repeated in his Sheriff-voice, "you have five seconds to start making sense before I drag you down to the hospital and shove you into an MRI machine. You have been standing here, staring down into that drawer for at least—"
But Johnny's finger had found the tiny hole, and he was pulling. The false drawer bottom lifted out, and there they were: two bundles of letters, addressed to his mother, and a satchel of faint-but-vile-smelling potpourri.
"Ah-hah!" Johnny said triumphantly and held the letters up to Walt's face.
"Eureka," Walt agreed, gamely enough. "What are they?"
"Letters. Women never throw away letters, Walt," Johnny said, feeling triumphant and moving easily into lecture mode.
"Gee, thanks for the tip." Walt rolled his eyes and put his Stetson on. "Anything else I need to know, here?"
"Well, these were my mother's," Johnny began, "and I think she dated several prominent citizens of Cleaves Mills before eventually having the good taste to choose my—"
"Right, I didn't think so," Walt said, turning. "I'm going to work. Don't fall in love with a bookcase or anything."
He didn't know how long it was before Walt found him again. Long enough that he'd read all his mother's letters once and some of them twice— he'd been charmed and made deeply nostalgic by the innocence of his mother's adolescent romances, even if some of the letters were from Purdy. He remembered feeling like that—young and in love and with everything to look forward to, and that's how he came to make the mistake of fishing out his own collection of love letters and photographs and the seven Cleaves Mills High School yearbooks (four as students, three as teachers) and every other reminder he had of the woman he knew best when she was Sarah Bracknell.
Johnny sat on the floor of his room at the foot of the bed and started flipping through photos—Sarah at seven, at a birthday party at his house; Sarah at fifteen, making a funny face into the camera; him and Sarah looking—geez, so young!—at the prom, Sarah wearing the worst 80s dress ever (a purple strapless dress with a ruffed miniskirt) and him so fair that he looked like an albino scarecrow in a tux. Sarah with a violin tucked beneath her chin, playing in the Southern Maine Symphony Orchestra, sitting on a stool playing guitar in front of a mike at the Side Door Coffeehouse. And then the letters— he hadn't meant to save any of this stuff, but in high school he'd gotten into the habit of emptying his pockets into an empty shoebox on his desk, and he always seemed to have notes from Sarah in his pockets. Most of them were quick, "Meet U at 2:45 at bus stop—howzabout Nicky's for pizza?" but later, when they'd been apart, Sarah had written him letters and sent Polaroid pictures of herself making kissy faces and—
He let his head thunk back against the bedspread. Tears stung his eyes, and fuck, it was so damn unfair having to lose her over and over again. He'd lost Sarah during the coma, and he'd lost her again when he realized that she loved Walt, and he'd lost her again when he realized that Walt was actually worthy of her, and he'd lost her again when she had finally and truly broken with the both of them.
He heard Walt's heavily-booted footsteps along the thin runner lining the hall and sat up, quickly swiping a hand over his eyes. He looked down at the —man, what a mess: he'd scattered pictures and letters and paper all around him on the carpet, not to mention that his underwear was still all over the floor. He must look like a lunatic.
The footsteps stopped at the open door to his bedroom, and internally, Johnny winced at the picture he must present. In a desperate stab at normality, he said, "Hey, Walt! Come look at this," before realizing that, uh, maybe inviting Walt to a private showing of his Sarah collection was just a little freaking weird. He bit his lip as Walt's cowboy boots came into his frame of vision, wondering what Walt would say when he saw what Johnny was doing—but to his surprise, Walt softly murmured, "Oh, cool," and just sank down beside him on the carpet, long legs folding Indian style.
"Oh my God," Walt said, sounding amused, unerringly going to the picture of Sarah wearing the purple ruffled nightmare and Johnny the grinning scarecrow. "I've never seen this. She—" and Walt's hand moved indecisively from one photograph to another, like he couldn't decide which to pick up first, "—she didn't bring any personal stuff to the house when we got married, no pictures, nothing, and geez, now I get it." Walt picked up a photo of him and Sarah at about seven years old—Sarah smiling wide like Shirley Temple, him skinny as a rail and looking vaguely annoyed. "God, you look just like J.J."
In his mind, Johnny heard himself saying, "Yeah, it's funny how that happens," but he had a lump in his throat so huge that he didn't trust himself to speak. He gave up on being witty and tried to focus on, hey, maybe not crying. But when he dared to glance at Walt, he saw that Walt wasn't doing so well either—Walt was fixated on the picture of Johnny at seven, his mouth set in a grim line. A moment later, Johnny understood why.
"You don't think," Walt began miserably, "that Sarah would ever try to stop me from seeing—"
"Walt!" and oddly, Walt's unhappiness jolted him out of his own. "Of course not. That's not—look, that's just never gonna happen, okay?" Johnny insisted. "However it works out, you're J.J.'s father, and Sarah knows it, and I know it and—"
"But what legal standing would I have?" Walt muttered, putting the photograph down on the carpet.
"—and J.J. knows it, which is the most important thing—and what do you care about legal standing, you don't need legal standing, nobody's going to court—"
Walt gnawed at his lip. "But she could; Sarah could—"
"Sarah couldn't," Johnny said, believing it with all of his heart, "she just wouldn't," and he looked down at a picture of him and Sarah clowning around in the snow during their senior year, and God, if Sarah wasn't wearing the stupidest hat ever, pink with purple pompoms, and whatever happened to the days when he could drink a quart of chocolate milk with every meal and never gain a pound? "Maybe some things change, maybe some things—" and okay, this was a road he didn't want to go down, "—but other things, you know, they just don't. Sarah'd never want to take J.J. away from you. Besides, there's two of us: it'd be two against one."
Walt raised an eyebrow. "Oh yeah? And how do I know I can trust you?"
"Wow, I don't know. I guess you can't." He widened his eyes in a deliberate parody of thought. "Wait—whoa—how do we know anything? How do I know I'm really here? How do you know that your green is my green?" Walt cracked a grin and Johnny smacked Walt's arm with the back of his hand. "Christ, don't be so lame."
"Yeah, all right. So what's that picture anyway—the prom? You look like you're maybe ninety pounds soaking wet."
"Yeah, well, not all of us can be dumb jocks. Some of us were—"
"Geeks? Nerds? Incredibly awkward?"
"Riiight. And what about this—where was this?" Walt tapped the picture of Sarah playing guitar at the coffeehouse.
"Okay, that's at the Side Door—Sarah played there every Tuesday night. I was her number one groupie, I took a ton of pictures, wait, look, this one here was probably her first time playing in public ever—" and Johnny gave Walt a pictorial tour through the life of Sarah Bracknell, from her early days in their school talent show, through junior high school marching band (Johnny quickly snatching away the evidence of his own disastrous one-semester involvement in drum corps; Walt didn't need to see him with acne and wearing epaulettes), high school orchestra, and into her symphony orchestra and singer-songwriter period. Then Walt slowly paged through their yearbooks, asking questions about Sarah and making fun of Johnny's clothes, but he seemed to be enjoying himself.
Finally, Walt put the last yearbook down and leaned back against the mattress, contemplating Johnny's Sarah archive. "Wow, I'm just—there's so much I missed."
"Yeah," Johnny snorted. "Tell me about it."
That put a frown on Walt's face. "Okay, yeah, I'm sorry," he said, "that was stupid of me. I wish I could—" and then he trailed off, frown deepening.
"What?" Johnny asked.
Walt looked at him for a long moment, and then he said, "I don't know. Maybe I can," and then he gripped Johnny's wrist and pulled his hand up, hesitating only a moment before pulling it to his face. Johnny cupped Walt's jaw and was momentarily stunned at the intimacy of the touch—the scrape of beard, the soft skin under the ear, and—
Sarah's looking up at him, and she's so young and beautiful and he's so glad to see her—except her eyes are full of tears. She's crying, she's sitting next to a hospital bed and crying, and that pale, unconscious figure in the bed is him. He isn't surprised that Walt didn't recognize him when he came out of the coma; he doesn't recognize himself. Sarah's holding Johnny's pale hand tightly, but she's staring up at Walt, at him, at Walt, and the look she gives him, the look she gives Walt is—
Sarah's in her wedding dress—flushed and beaming, practically glowing—and Johnny realizes he's never seen her wedding pictures; Sarah must have kept them away from him the way she kept pictures of Johnny away from Walt. He hadn't pictured Sarah as the fairy princess type, but there she is, wearing a dress with a huge poofy skirt of some floaty fabric—oh. Suddenly he understands—she's pregnant, by him, with J.J., and now that he's looking for it, he can see it, the rise of her belly—
His hands are spread, splay-fingered, across the rise of her belly—except they're not his fingers; they're Walt's. He can see the wedding band on his finger, new enough that the gold's still shining—and what must it have been like for Walt to have married another man's fianceé while she was carrying that other man's child? Somehow Johnny'd never allowed himself to imagine their wedding, much less think about their wedding night, but suddenly he's living it. Sarah's hands are cupping his face, drawing his mouth down for a kiss, and he feels one of his hands sliding lower, fingers slipping into her panties, while his other hand seeks out the curve of her breast. Sarah grabs at his hair in a way he remembers, and moans into his mouth in a way he doesn't, and the white-hot passion he feels for her as he licks into her mouth and feels her wetness on his fingers is tainted only by the vague, nagging worry that Walt is better in bed than he is. Did she moan like this for him all those nights in the backseat of his—
But then Sarah pulls him even closer, and he drowns in her. She tastes like he remembers, and Christ, her body's so soft. She shudders around his fingers, then lies back and wiggles out of her panties. She spreads her legs with a breathless gasp—and Johnny's never made love to a pregnant woman before but Walt has, so he kneels between her legs and enters her gently, keeping most of his weight on his tensed thighs, and caressing her hips with his hands. His cock slides in and out of her, gliding so sweetly, so easily, sending waves of ecstasy up his spine and then he presses his hand to the side of her belly, to the baby inside her, the other man's baby—no, his baby— their baby—and lets his eyes close and his head roll back on his shoulders as he comes inside her—
—and when he opens his eyes, Sarah's on a gurney, speeding down a hallway, and she's moaning and he's running after her, calling, "Sarah? Honey?—"
and the doors slam! open as the gurney smashes through them, and Sarah is wailing now, long and low and at a frequency that makes him want to kill people, kill anyone or anything that's hurting her—
"John," and Walt's hands were gripping his wrists, pulling Johnny's hands down from his face. Johnny nearly punched him—god, he wanted to go back, he needed to go back—to see J.J. being born. But Walt's hands gripped him tightly, keeping him away. "John."
"I need to—see—" and what was wrong with his voice?
"Johnny," Walt said, his voice oddly gentle, and only when Walt's hand reached out for him, broad, flat thumb brushing under his eye, did Johnny understand that he was crying, tears streaming down his cheeks. "Just—maybe not all six years today," and suddenly everything went blurry, and he couldn't see anything, and it sounded like there was a wounded animal somewhere in the house. He let his face fall onto Walt's shoulder, and Walt's hand landed heavily on his head and began roughly stroking his hair.
He let out a few harsh, helpless sobs, and then he pulled himself together and yanked himself away from Walt, covering his eyes with his hand. "God, I'm sorry—I'm an idiot."
"It's okay," Walt said quietly. "It was a stupid idea. I should have realized that—"
"No," Johnny interrupted, taking a deep breath and trying to sound normal, "it was a great idea, I nearly—I mean, I nearly saw J.J. being born—Walt, I have to see that—"
"All right. Okay," Walt said in the soft, reassuring voice of a parent trying to calm an overtired child. His hand had somehow found its way back to Johnny's hair again. "But not today, all right? I think it's enough today," and afterwards, Johnny didn't know how it had happened, if he had leaned into it or if Walt had cupped his jaw and tugged him forward, but Walt's face was suddenly close to his, and then their mouths were brushing, and then touching—and the kiss they shared was brief, but weirdly heartfelt.
Johnny jerked back, heart pounding, and said, "Okay, that was weird."
"Yeah." Walt looked shocked, and there were two bright red patches of color high on his cheeks, like he'd gotten a sunburn. "Uh, okay, clearly this situation is very stressful—"
"Very stressful," Johnny agreed, nodding fervently. "Very."
"—and people do weird things under stress, so that's no big deal. I say we just, like—" and Walt seemed to be fumbling for words, "just forget this ever—"
"Forgotten," Johnny said instantly.
"—and just, like, start drinking heavily right away."
"Got a brand new bottle of Glenlivet in the pantry. Let's kill it," Johnny said.
This turned out not to be such a good idea, because they hadn't eaten and the tortilla chips and peanuts and leftover hamburgers they crammed into their mouths (nuking them to barely lukewarm) didn't exactly count as dinner, and so it only took a couple of drinks before Johnny's legs turned to rubber. He tottered into the living room and sat down on the sofa, then he let his head rest against the seat back, and then he decided that horizontal was—yeah, horizontal was good. Walt fell asleep face down on the other sofa, arm hanging over the side, still clutching a cut-glass tumbler.
They jerked up, moaning, hands going to cover their ears when the phone rang. "God, make it stop!" Johnny croaked.
"It's J.J.," Walt moaned, barely lifting his head off the couch cushion before setting it down again. "It's my weekend..."
"Okay. Okay." Johnny fumbled on the floor for his cane, found it, then hoisted himself up off the sofa. Arm extended, he floundered for the telephone receiver. "Hello?"
"Hi, Johnny." J.J.'s voice was cheerful and normal and wayyyyy too fucking loud. Wincing, Johnny pulled the receiver away from his ear. "Dad's supposed to come get me, but he's not here yet—did he leave?"
"Uh." Johnny looked over at Walt, who was, okay, fully dressed, but not in any condition to drive. Still, he couldn't tell J.J. that. "No. Not exactly. Look, J.J., your father's having car trouble," except there was the Jeep, why couldn't Walt take the Jeep? "and uh, my registration has expired, so, uh—look, I'm going to send a car for you, okay?" He supposed he could ask Sarah, but that would mean asking Sarah, and all in all he'd rather send a car. "I'm calling now, so it should be there in about 20 minutes, okay?"
"Umm, okay," J.J. agreed tentatively, and Johnny said, "Okay, then. See you soon," and hung up. Taking a deep breath, and steeling himself, he limped into the kitchen, pulled a can of Coca-Cola out of the fridge, and brought it to Walt. "Here," he said, taking the scotch glass from Walt's fingers and putting the cold soda can there instead. "Drink this. I'm making coffee, but that should tide you over till it's ready," and it took the Coke, four cups of coffee, and three chocolate donuts before Walt was ready to face the day.
Not only didn't they talk about it afterwards, but they went out of their way to give each other a wide berth. Johnny noticed that even when Walt was around (which wasn't often; he spent weeks trying to unravel a series of burglaries, then worked a bunch of late nights with the D.A. putting together a case against Penobscot County's biggest drug dealer) he was careful to stay well out of range. This was okay by Johnny, who was suffering from raging paranoia after reading an article about Greg Stillson in the New York Times ("Politicians To Watch Out For: Greg Stillson Serves Up Values With A Smile.") and spent the next three weeks down in the basement, pacing, surfing the web, and writing to famous political scientists asking them to sketch out their nightmare scenarios of global nuclear war.
Around this time, Johnny vaguely realized that he was losing time again. He'd head down to the basement with a cup of coffee at about ten, and then suddenly it would be four-thirty and his body would be stiff and his mouth would be dry and the milk in the coffee would have congealed into thick swirls. Normally, when he got lost in a vision—"communing with the furniture," Walt called it—he could at least remember what the vision was about. But with these timeslips, he couldn't.
It was unnerving, but small beer compared to the oncoming apocalypse.
Or so he thought until one day, when he opened his eyes and saw Walt frowning down at him. "Hi, Walt."
"Don't move, okay?" Walt's hand landed on his shoulder and stayed there, and Johnny realized he was lying on the basement's concrete floor. "The ambulance is coming—"
"Ambulance? I don't need an—"
Walt had his patient, fatherly voice on again. "Johnny, you've been lying here for fifteen hours. I had to break the door down."
The mention of the locked door suddenly reminded Johnny of the wall of doom and his timeline, and he tried to sit up—he couldn't let the EMTs see all that. Walt, however, was able to keep him down just by pressing on his chest. "Your boards are covered. I got everything covered, Johnny, seriously," and Johnny sighed and lay back, knowing that was true.
They took him to Bangor Medical Center, where he saw a lot of familiar faces and had a lot of tests that he'd had before. Dr. Lao kept him overnight, but confessed in the morning that he didn't know anything more about Johnny's condition than when he'd first arrived.
"You'll never believe this," Dr. Lao deadpanned, "but you're using a part of your brain most people don't use. In fact, you might call it—"
"—a dead zone, right, yeah," Johnny said, and snatched the film of his brain scan out of the doctor's hands. He held it up to the light and looked at it briefly—and you knew something had gone terribly wrong in your life when you could recognize your own brain on sight. "That's one good looking brain, ain't it, doc?"
"One of my favorites," Dr. Lao replied.
"Can I go home?"
"Sure. If you've got someone to come get you," and so Johnny was forced to call Walt at the station, and Walt came and picked him up in a squad car.
"So they didn't find anything?" Walt asked, glancing nervously at him across the front seat of the cruiser. He was wearing his hat.
Johnny sighed. "Nope. I got the 'our brains are very mysterious' speech."
Walt sounded almost angry. "Even though you were unconscious for over fifteen hours."
"Oh yeah," Johnny said, rolling his eyes, "because that's the big mystery here—not the brain damage or the fact that I'm psychic—"
"Oh, shut up," Walt said, hands tightening on the wheel. A moment later, he added: "That's weird stuff I know about. This is weird stuff that's new."
It was less new, though, when Walt found him unconscious on the living room rug a couple of days later. Back they went to the hospital, and this time Walt didn't leave; instead he hung back and watched the doctors do their thing. Johnny had woken up with a terrible pounding headache, so he just lay there as they ran blood tests and scans and shoved him back into the MRI machine for the millionth time, before finally leaving him alone with Walt and his bleeping monitors.
He had to turn his head to see Walt; Walt was hovering near the wall, standing just about as far from Johnny's bed as he could be, arms crossed and gnawing his lip. He saw Johnny looking at him, and sighed, and said, "You know, I think I'm beginning to see Sarah's point. It's really hard to watch this."
That hurt, somehow. He wanted his reply to sound flippant, but it came out as anything but. "So," Johnny managed, and really, it was hard to be flippant when you couldn't lift your brain-damaged head off the pillow, "are you going to freak out and leave?"
"No." Walt seemed to have taken the question seriously. "I don't think so," and Johnny felt almost lightheaded, he was that relieved.
Again, Bangor Medical found nothing wronger-than-usual with him and released him, and again, he toppled over three days later—except this time Walt was there and saw his head wobble back and forth and his eyes roll back in their sockets and how he began to slide off the kitchen stool. In a flash, Walt had caught him, grabbing him under the armpits before he hit the floor.
"Johnny," Walt called, gently easing Johnny's body down before shaking him and slapping his face lightly. "Johnny, wake up!" and Johnny obediently blinked and came to with a groan; he'd been out for maybe fifteen seconds instead of fifteen hours but was suffering from the worst headache yet.
"I'm calling the ambu—" Walt began, but Johnny gripped his forearm and said, "Not again. We've been through this. They don't know anything." Walt hesitated, torn between his natural instinct to defer to medical authority and the plain fact that he'd seen for himself that the doctors were helpless. "Just—help me up to bed, okay? My head is killing me."
Walt hesitated for a moment, and then nodded, slinging one of Johnny's arms around his neck and half-bracing him, half-carrying him upstairs. He crossed the room with Johnny, then let him sink down onto the bed. Johnny groaned and closed his eyes.
"You know," Walt said, still panting with the exertion of having hauled Johnny up the stairs, "you really need to be living with somebody. A guy like you, in your condition—"
Johnny opened one eye and squinted at him. "I thought I was."
"Yeah, okay, you are, but if you weren't, you would really need to. Because this," and here Walt stopped and waved his hand vaguely at Johnny, "this shit is ridiculous."
"Okay, thanks for that really un-useful advice. You can go now."
"I mean it, Johnny. Fuckin' ridiculous," and then Walt was gone, and pulling the bedroom door closed behind him.
Johnny drifted into and out of sleep for the rest of the day, his head swimming with disturbing images that he couldn't quite remember when he opened his eyes. Walt came up periodically to check that he was alive, and made him drink glasses of Gatorade and nibble on toast. It hurt to even lift his head off the pillow.
"Okay, you look terrible," Walt said, and crossed his arms judgmentally. "You've been sleeping all day and you look worse than when you started."
"Thing is, I can't sleep." Johnny closed his eyes and rubbed at his aching temple. "I mean, I'm sleeping, but I'm not—it's my head. When I sleep, there are visions, and I—"
"Visions of what?" Walt asked him.
"I'm not sure," Johnny sighed. "When I wake up, they're gone."
Walt stared down at him for a long moment, then sat down on the edge of the bed and switched off Johnny's reading lamp. "Try to relax, okay?" he said, and then he picked up Johnny's hand and pressed it to the warm skin of his neck—
—and Sarah's on a gurney, speeding down a hallway, and she's moaning and he's running after her, calling, "Sarah? Honey?" The doors slam open as the gurney smashes through them, and Sarah is wailing now, long and low and at a frequency that makes him want to kill people, kill anyone or anything that's hurting her. They're prepping her for an emergency c-section, something about how the baby—his baby, their baby—has turned in the womb, and they're rigging up a curtain across her midriff and telling her, "Curl, Sarah—curl around your baby," so that her spine curves in the right way for the epidural. Sarah's crying, she's frightened, so he holds her hand tightly and strokes her face, and after a while she quiets, and he kisses her face and her fingers and whispers that he loves her. He makes the mistake of glancing over the curtain and quickly looks away; Christ, there's major abdominal surgery going on over there, and suddenly he's really conscious of the soft clinks and clanks of the surgical tools. "Does it hurt?" he asks, but thankfully, Sarah shakes her head no; she's numb and dizzy, excited and a little impatient—and then suddenly the doctor says, "Oh, yes, here he is," and now he has to look.
The scene shocks him—that's his son, his son, being pulled, squalling and shrieking from—Christ, that's Sarah's uterus—and he tries to focus on the perfection of his son's first moments of life. The doctor is holding the baby in both hands, and he's covered in blood and muck but he's crying, flailing, fists beating at the air—and Christ, Johnny wants him, he can feel himself moving toward the baby with his hands extended, and the doctor smiles and says, "Just one more second, Mr. Bannerman." It seems to take forever before they give him the baby, but finally they do, and he cuddles him to his chest and strokes one finger down that tiny, perfect cheek before bringing him over to Sarah and whispering, "Look. Look. Oh, baby, just look what you did..."
Johnny let his hand fall away from Walt's jaw and onto the covers beside him. Tears were spilling down his cheeks. "Thank you," he managed. "I'm okay now."
But Walt didn't leave; instead, he stretched out on the bedspread beside Johnny and draped a reassuring arm across him as Johnny drifted off to sleep.
In the morning, Walt was gone, but there was a distinct Walt-shaped outline on the bedspread, and one of his pillows had been wadded in half. He took stock of himself and realized he felt a lot better, actually, and he was just fantasizing about a big breakfast of eggs and bacon and maybe even a couple of those plastic toaster waffles that J.J. liked so much when Walt came in without knocking and said, "I think I've got it. The paper."
Johnny propped himself up on his elbows and looked at Walt curiously. "The what?"
"The paper," Walt repeated, and waved around a folded copy of the Bangor Daily News, "—and good morning, you look better."
"Yeah, I feel better. What's the deal with the paper?"
"Only that I spent some time thinking about your seizures and the only thing they have in common is the paper. The first one," Walt said, ticking it off on his finger, "you were in the basement doing your freaky newspaper-clipping thing."
"You mean, compiling information in an attempt to save us from the coming nuclear holocaust?" Johnny asked, and arched an eyebrow.
Walt ignored him. "The second time, in the living room, the Bangor News was on the coffee table—"
Johnny frowned. "Yeah, okay, I remember that; I was looking for—"
"—and the third time, in the morning, you were reading the paper and drinking coffee; I was there, so I saw you. So I'm thinking, maybe it's something with the paper—the ink, or maybe some chemical that—"
Johnny sat up and grimly extended his hand for the paper. "So let's test it."
Walt looked skeptical. "Oh, sure. And if you die—hey, that was it, huh?"
"You're here," Johnny pointed out. "Just pull it away if things go wrong."
"Let's just have it analyzed. We'll send it to the lab and—"
"Walt," Johnny sighed, "do you really think they're gonna find anything? It's a newspaper with a circulation of 70,000. We would have heard if there was something poisonous about it—hell, you're holding it now and you're no crazier than normal."
Walt sighed, thought about this, and relented. "Okay, yeah," he said, and then he came forward and put one knee on the bed. "Just don't touch till I say so, okay?"
"Yeah," Johnny agreed. "Okay, fine."
"Okay." Walt settled himself within arm's reach, then sighed and handed Johnny the paper. Johnny glanced down at the headline—
and there was a flash! and a pop! and his brain sizzled in pain like a lightbulb blowing out
—and Walt's fingers were gripping him, hurting him, shaking him, and he felt the sharp slap of Walt's hand on his face. "Johnny! C'mon, Johnny—"
"I'm awake," Johnny blurted; his head ached again, though not as bad as yesterday. "What happened?"
"Well, it's the paper, all right. Man, you only held that thing for, like, two seconds and your eyes rolled up in your head. What does it feel like?"
Johnny thought. "Like an electrical shock. Like everything's overloading."
"Hm," Walt said, and stared down at the newspaper. "I wonder if... The doctors didn't find anything wrong with you. Or anything wronger than normal. Maybe your brain's just doing what it normally does. Maybe it's just a vision."
"Yeah, a vision of extreme pain," Johnny snorted—but Walt didn't laugh.
"Yeah," Walt agreed thoughtfully. "What if it is? What if it's a vision your brain's not letting you see or remember?"
"It's not!" Johnny said, surprised by his own vehemence. "It's not a vision—I'd remember if it was, it wouldn't be this total fucking blank bullshit—" but Walt was looking at him funny, and Johnny realized that his hands were clenched and his heart was pounding with fear.
"Okay, John," Walt said in a voice he normally reserved for suicides or lunatics. "Just calm down..."
Johnny nervously combed his fingers through his hair. "I'm calm, I'm—shit, Walt."
"I think there's a vision there," Walt said quietly. "So let's find out what it is."
In the end, Walt offered to guide Johnny through it, and so Johnny had to agree to try.
"Just take a deep breath," Walt said. "Keep breathing. Now give me your hand," and okay, it was weird holding hands with Walt, but he did actually feel more grounded. Walt picked up the paper with his other hand. "Okay, now, just touch it with your fingertips—if anything happens, I'm going to pull it away, all right?"
"This is stupid," Johnny said tightly. "I feel like an idiot."
"You know when you look stupid? When you're passed out on the floor and twitching, so shut up and touch the paper when I tell you to."
Johnny swallowed, and jerked a nod at Walt. "Okay."
"Go," Walt said, and Johnny let the fingers of his right hand touch the newspaper, and there was a bright flash! and a pop! and he's blinded by the white-hot light of the — Walt gripped his hand almost painfully while yanking the paper away from his fingertips. "Johnny," he whispered, slowly bringing the paper back up. "Concentrate," and there was—a bright flash! and for a moment, he can see the thick lines of type in the headline, the grainy black and white photo on the front page, and then there's a pop! and his brain was leaking out of his ears.
"Johnny," Walt murmured. "C'mon, look at it."
"I can't," Johnny gasped; he was squeezing Walt's hand tightly now.
"How bad can it be? You've seen the apocalypse—can this really be worse?" but yes, it was; yes, it was, Walt; please don't make me. But Walt was whispering encouragement and rhythmically squeezing his hand. "C'mon, Johnny. You can do it," and again, Johnny's fingers brushed the paper, and this time the flash illuminates the headline and Johnny moans softly, knowing this is his last chance to turn away.
"Please," John moaned. "Don't make me—"
—but it was too late, and now he could read the headline before it went up in flames: CHILD FOUND DEAD NEAR BREWER LAKE.
The picture below the headline was of J.J.
"No. No way, that can't be..." Walt had gone white. "That can't be, that's—"
Johnny lay back against the pillows, numb from the shock, feeling almost dissociated. His voice seemed to be coming from somewhere else. "It hasn't happened yet. We have to stop it from happening."
"We have to stop it from—damn right, we have to stop it from happening!" Walt nearly shouted—and for a moment, Johnny was sure that Walt was going to slug him. But then Walt took a breath and said, with a forced calm, "Details, Johnny. I need details." He offered Johnny the newspaper again.
"I—yes." Johnny swallowed and took the paper; now that he'd processed the worst of it, he thought he'd be able to handle the rest. Still, he reached out blindly for Walt's hand again.
May 16, 2005.
CHILD FOUND DEAD NEAR BREWER LAKE.
By Dana Bright.
BANGOR — Police found the body of 9-year-old John J. Bannerman in a weeded area near Brewer Lake early Friday morning—
—and he sees the long, tall grass on the side of the pond—flash!—an empty size 6 1/2 sneaker—flash!—a small white hand—flash!—and then (Christ, his head is going to explode, and only Walt's hand is anchoring him to reality) he flashes on a blood-streaked leg and—God—God!—
"Okay, stop it!" Walt's voice was commanding. "Stop it now!" and Johnny was shaking and sucking violently for breath, right on the edge of seizure.
"Oh God. Walt. They killed him, somebody killed him—" and there was no way he could tell Walt about the bloody mess that was J.J.'s abdomen, or the horrible diamond shape carved into his arm. He'd stroke before he got the words out.
"Johnny," and Walt's professional training must have been kicking in, because how else could he sound this calm? "I know how hard this is, but you're going to tell me everything. Because it might save J.J.'s life," and that helped, that put things into perspective—and of course Walt was right. So Johnny took a deep breath and told Walt about the headline, about the date, about Brewer Lake—and then, with more difficulty, about the great, gaping hole in J.J.'s midsection and the diamond carved into his arm.
After Johnny finished, Walt pulled him to the side of the bed and pushed his head down between his knees. "Breathe, John," Walt said, one hand heavy on his back, and Johnny took some long, deep breaths. "Breathe—you did good."
Finally, Johnny felt well enough to lift his head and look at Walt, whose pale face was schooled into a familiar look of professionalism—except a muscle in his cheek kept twitching. "Good?" he managed, finally. "Christ, Walt—J.J.—he killed—"
"He hasn't done anything yet." Walt's jaw was set. "And he won't, Johnny—we've got a lead—you're our lead—and we're gonna crack this thing."
"But—" Johnny looked at his bedside clock—9:53 a.m.—like that could tell him the date. "The paper said May sixteenth—that's only ten days!"
"It's less than that." Walt's voice was quiet and strained in a way that was unfamiliar—and a little bit frightening. "The headline you saw said they found him on May 16th. But they released his name—which means he was reported missing, and his name and picture had already been released to the papers. And we wouldn't do that for at least 48 hours after the missing person report had been filed—"
"Oh my god," Johnny breathed.
"Right," Walt said flatly. "I mean, it's possible I sped things up some—I mean, no way they'd let me run the investigation, but even so: sheriff's son goes missing, they're gonna hop to it."
Johnny felt like his heart was trying to pound its way out of his chest. "But we can't count on that. Two days before it's released to the press, another day before it's reported to the police—at the most it's six days, Walt. Maybe less."
"Definitely less. I mean this guy—what you describe—" and the muscle in Walt's cheek was twitching violently, now. "That takes time, that kind of killing. We can't assume we've got more than three or four days to stop this, tops."
"Three days?" Johnny stared at him. "Walt, how the hell are we—?"
"It's a crime. We have to solve it." Walt gnawed his lip nervously. "The only tricky part is that it hasn't happened yet."
"Jesus! You think?"
But Walt was lost in his own thoughts. "The newspaper wasn't given the details—the diamond-shape, the condition of the body. The whole thing feels like a serial killer—"
"Oh my god," Johnny said, and covered his face with his hands.
But Walt surprised him. "No, that's good: there'll be a pattern, an M.O., something to trace. There'll be other victims—"
Johnny instantly thought of the national crime database down at the station; they could put all the details into the computer, see what came up. "Right, great, let's go!" He made to get up but Walt pushed hard on his shoulder, forcing him to lie back on the bed.
"I'm going to make some calls. You're going to lie down for ten minutes, because you look like shit and I need you on top of your game today. And I'm going to bring you some breakfast, because I don't know when we're gonna eat next—"
Johnny closed his eyes, stomach roiling. "No way. I can't eat—"
"You'll eat," Walt said implacably. "Just—something. To keep your strength up," and then Johnny felt Walt's cool, dry hand on his forehead, first checking for a temperature and then brushing back his hair from his face.
"I won't sleep," Johnny muttered, and he heard Walt sigh as he got up off the bed.
"I know. But you're fuckin' exhausted, so try to gather your strength together. Meanwhile, I'm gonna put some stuff into motion. I'll be right back."
Johnny lay there, feeling boneless, for about twenty minutes, then got up and went downstairs to find Walt. Walt was sitting at the kitchen counter, phone tucked beneath his chin, scribbling on a legal pad. He looked up when Johnny came in, then waved him toward where coffee was up and a plate of toast and jam was waiting for him.
Johnny poured himself a cup of coffee, then took the plate and limped over to take a seat catty-corner to Walt.
"Okay, so broaden the search then—and what about the Feds, doesn't somebody have an in with them?" Walt tapped his pen against his legal pad impatiently as he listened. "Look, Stan—please. I need this kept quiet, because this is not..." Walt trailed off, searching for the right words, "...well, let's just say this is not yet an official police investigation. This is one of our unofficial-type investigations, but it is real and it is serious, do you understand me?" Walt lifted his eyes from his legal pad and looked at Johnny, then said, "Yeah, you got it. But for the record, let's call it an anonymous tip, okay? Talk to me in an hour—and I want a report from my house every hour on the hour, you got that? All right, good." Walt clicked the phone off, put it down on the counter, and rubbed his eyes. "Okay, I got two units on the house, front and back."
"How'd you get that past Sarah?" Johnny asked.
"I told her the same thing I told them down at the station; anonymous tip says that someone's out to kidnap the sheriff's son. Sarah knows that you're the anonymous tip, but that's all she knows—I thought it'd be better not to mention, you know. The rest." Walt reached out, took Johnny's coffee, and took a long swig. "My guys, though," he said, putting the mug down, "I told them—not everyone, just Stan, Mike. Jack. I told 'em that our kidnapper might be a serial killer and fed 'em the specs. Stan's coordinating the investigation from down there, Mike's running what we know through the computer for matches, Jack's working it from the other direction—putting together a suspect pool, looking to see if anybody already on our radar is capable of this."
Walt pushed the coffee cup toward Johnny, and Johnny pushed it back toward him with a smile. "Drink up," he said, "you did a good job. So us, what do we do?"
"We," Walt said, taking the coffee, "are going to work the psychic angle."
Johnny put his elbows on the counter and massaged his head. "Oh, we are, are we?"
"Yeah. Listen to me, John: the only way we're gonna survive this is to treat it like any other crime. Except we're lucky and it hasn't happened yet. And we got a lot from you and that newspaper," Walt said, and began ticking the points off on his fingers, "we got a time, and an M.O., and a crime scene to work. So hurry up and eat your toast," Walt added, and waved his hand at it. "You and me, we're going up to Brewer Lake."
They took Johnny's jeep, the better to remain inconspicuous. Walt was driving, but he kept looking nervously across the cab at Johnny as they drove the seventy miles north. Finally, Johnny was forced to say: "I'm okay, Walt. Really."
"Okay." Walt fixed his eyes on the road and shrugged. "Except, you know, you weren't doing so well with that newspaper—"
"I said I'm okay."
"—and now, you know, we're getting close to the crime scene—"
"Yeah. Thanks for reminding me. I forgot for half a second."
Walt drove slower once they formally entered the area of Brewer State Park, and Johnny leaned forward, peering out the window, one hand braced against the dash, looking for landmarks. Walt looked expectantly between him and the road as they coasted around the lakefront drive, and Johnny was just beginning to worry that he wouldn't be able to identify the place when they came around a turn and he heard himself saying, "Stop!"
It was the grouping of three dilapidated picnic tables that caught his attention, but as Walt pulled over and jerked the Jeep into park, Johnny saw that everything was just like in the vision: the rough shore of the small lake, the twisted branches of narrow trees, the areas of tall grass, the shape of the mountains in the background. The season wouldn't start till Memorial Day, and it was much too cold for swimming, so the park was deserted. Johnny sat in the passenger seat of the Jeep and shivered.
Walt unbuckled his seat belt and turned to look at him, and Johnny could see that Walt was wearing his holster under his leather jacket, packing heat just in case. "You okay?"
"Yeah," Johnny said, and reached for his cane. "Let's go."
They crossed the road and walked into the picnic area. Johnny headed straight for the thick weeds beside the lake, while Walt trailed along behind him, looking around, sometimes turning in circles to take in the larger scene. Johnny, vaguely annoyed at Walt's slowness, waded through the weeds, poking at them with his cane.
It took him a long time to recognize the spot, because there was nothing to recognize—no grass crushed underfoot, no blood, no body. But suddenly he became certain that he had found the spot—it was the right distance from the lake, on his left; the right distance from the mountains, there on the horizon; the right distance from the grouping of picnic tables—but it was just an innocuous patch of weeds, faded green in the bright sunlight.
He felt Walt approach, and stop beside him, and together they stared down at the patch of tall grass. "This is it?" Walt asked quietly.
"Yeah." Johnny's throat felt tight, but he owed Walt the best description he could give. "This is where," he said, and that sentence didn't need finishing. "His head was," and he gestured with the cane; J.J.'s head had been put down on an angle, head pointing toward the lake. "Feet here," he said, and pointed again.
Walt had pulled out his leather notebook and was nodding and sketching out the scene. "Okay," he said, and his voice was scratchy; he was maybe doing a better job than Johnny was of keeping his feelings under control, but this was their son they were talking about, and they both knew it. "Now think for a minute: was there blood," and Walt's voice broke a little on the word, and he cleared his throat quickly, "blood under the body, or how big was the bloodstain?"
Johnny thought about it for a moment, and in his mind's eye he could see J.J.'s pale, broken body, lying in the weeds, his stomach ripped open, and— "No," he said, surprised at the fact of it, but: "No, there was hardly any blood at all. The grass around him was green—"
"Okay, good," Walt muttered, still scribbling in his notebook. "So he was moved here, which gives us more to work with. Our guy needs a house, or someplace he can work with privacy, and a way to move a body without being seen. No near neighbors, or maybe some kind of industrial space, or a place with a big garage. Also, he has to make the drive out here, find this spot, so we're talking about a guy who knows the park—maybe he's a tour guide or a regular visitor, maybe a workman, a gardener, something like that. Also," Walt said, and he was talking to himself now, staring down at his pad, "we can get surveillance on this area, just in case; catch him when he comes in, though—"
"Though by the time he gets here, J.J.'s already dead," Johnny said in a barely controlled voice.
"Yeah," and just then, Walt's cell phone rang. He yanked it off his belt and said, "Bannerman," before listening to what the caller said with a tense expression. "Uh-huh," Walt said finally, not looking at all pleased. "All right. Well, keep at it. Hound the Feds," and then he snapped his phone shut and said, "So far, we got a whole lot of nothing; no match on the diamond shape, no previous murders fitting this description, nothing." Walt waved his arm around the lakefront picnic site, and said: "What about here, you get anything else here?"
Johnny gamely tried to pick up a vision from the scene, touching the earth where J.J. would lie, pressing his hand to the nearby trees, the picnic table, even squatting and letting his fingers trail in the cool lake water. "Nothing," he said, looking up at Walt.
"All right," Walt said, and Johnny could sense his barely suppressed frustration. "Okay. Let me think for a second," and Johnny stood up and wiped his wet hand on his jeans while Walt frowned down at the water. "We need more information," he said finally. "The way you catch these guys is, you find a pattern. And we don't have a pattern yet—we got one killing, J.J. Bannerman, abducted from Cleaves Mills, body recovered at Brewer Lake. So okay, that's one data point, but we need others, other victims—"
Johnny sighed. "But there aren't any, right? You just said—no previous murders."
"There's got to be," Walt interrupted, eyes flashing like Johnny'd just insulted him. "This thing just screams serial killer—"
Johnny raised defensive hands. "I agree, but you said nothing matches."
"Yeah." The admission seemed to hurt Walt. "So far. But there'll be more, there's got to be—I'd stake my reputation on it. Guy does this kind of thing, he doesn't stop at just one. He's gonna—" and then suddenly Walt's eyes went wide, and Johnny wondered if this was what he looked like when he was having a vision.
"Wait, I'm being dumb," Walt said, and grabbed Johnny's arm. "Maybe J.J.'s the first. Maybe the other victims come later, come after—maybe the pattern we're looking for is in the future, not the past. Maybe this guy hasn't even started yet." Walt let go of Johnny and turned away, apparently captivated by the possibility. "There'll be a string of killings with a similar pattern—and I can stop them, I can figure out the pattern because I have a psychic."
Whoa, no pressure or anything. "Walt," Johnny cautioned. "Slow down. You want to figure out the underlying pattern in a series of murders that haven't happened yet?"
"Yeah," Walt said excitedly. "Just like a regular investigation, except investigating in advance."
"Okay, but how do we find these other victims?" Johnny waved his hand around the lake. "There's no one here but J.J.—or at least, I haven't gotten a vision of anyone but J.J. Where am I going to find this guy's other victims?"
Walt thought about this for a second, then snapped his fingers. "The morgue," he said.
The Penobscot County Morgue was a dismal and terrifying place even if you didn't have psychic visions, and so Johnny had to steel himself with thoughts of J.J. (three days, three days, three days) before he could make himself step through the door. Inside, it was freezing—a thermometer on the wall read 38 degrees—and Johnny instinctively hugged himself for warmth. Walt seemed not to notice either the temperature or the creepiness, and walked right over to the ten numbered doors, two rows of five. Tags on the handles indicated that six were currently occupied.
"You ready?" Walt asked, and when Johnny nodded, he yanked open the first door and pulled out an empty metal slab. Johnny took a deep breath, and touched it and—
the car screeches and hits the lamppost, her hands shake as she pours the pills into her palm, and the pain in his chest is excruciating as he hauls his 278 pounds up another two steps before feeling the clot rush to her brain and—
"Johnny," Walt said, and yanked Johnny's hand away, and Johnny panted and said, "That sucks, but nothing there for us."
"Okay," Walt said, and pushed the slab back in. Johnny saw heart attacks, strokes, stabbings, shootings, car accidents, and an accidental fall down a flight of stairs before—
a bright flash! and a pop! and he's blinded before he can let himself see (but he had seen) his son, bloodless and blue-lipped, on the slab
"Okay," and Walt was dragging him across the room to a chair, "let's take five."
"I—no, I'm fine," Johnny gasped, "it's just—"
Walt raised a finger. "Take five," he ordered, then opened the door and yelled for one of the cops on duty to bring then a couple of Cokes.
The Coke helped, the cold mix of sugar and caffeine working to send his headache into remission. Johnny drained the bottle and determined to invest.
Walt was watching him warily. "Better?"
"You wanna tell me about it?"
Faster was better, like pulling off a bandaid. "It's J.J.," Johnny said. "Let's move on."
He found what they were looking for on the very last slab, a dark-haired boy, maybe ten years old, eviscerated, a diamond shape carved into his arm. Johnny braces himself for pain, but there isn't any—this is a terrible crime, but it isn't his son, and so his vision has the same dreamlike clarity he's come to think of as usual. His brain lets him see.
The boy's white face looks even whiter next to his dark hair, and Johnny sees a ring of finger-shaped bruises around one of his arms. The other arm has the diamond shape carved into it, and for the first time, Johnny's able to get a good look at it—it looks like it was done with a common knife, nothing surgical or razor-sharp. Same thing with the boy's mutilated abdomen—the flesh is ragged, jagged, like an animal gutted by a hunter.
He drifts down the slab and examines the white tag tied to the boy's big toe: Michael Craft, Age: 10, Race: W, Sex: M, Tagged: 5/22/05 by David White, Medical Examiner, 9:45 p.m. Michael Craft—and he looks up at the boy's face again, frowning, trying to remember where he—
He looked at Walt, and it was a relief to be able to find his own way out of a vision for a change. He was getting tired of Walt slapping him in the face. "Michael Craft," Johnny began, and Walt looked satisfied and yanked his pad out as Johnny reeled off the details. "Thing is, I know that name," Johnny said, finally, "but I don't know where from."
"Probably goes to school with J.J.," Walt pointed out. "You've probably seen him on the class lists."
"That's not it, though." Johnny closed his eyes and tried to picture where he'd seen the name: Michael Craft. Not typewritten; handwritten. On a white background. On a small square. An envelope. And then he remembered, and opened his eyes: "Walt—Michael Craft is my paperboy."
Together, they went to the Craft house, and Walt pulled out his badge as Mrs. Craft opened the door. "Good afternoon, ma'am; is Michael home?"
She looked nervously from Walt to Johnny and back. "Is anything wrong? Is Mikey in some sort of trouble?"
"No, no," Walt assured her. "We just wanted to have a few words with him. This is John Smith," he added, and Johnny smiled and tried to look as pleasant as possible. "He's something of a local celebrity, as you know, and there have been reports of people trespassing on his property. Your son delivers the paper to his house, so we thought he might be able to answer a few questions, tell us if he's seen anyone unusual..."
Her face had already cleared. "Oh. Yes. Of course. Please come in, Sheriff—Mr. Smith. Mikey's doing his homework in the kitchen."
Michael Craft was at the kitchen table all right, but he looked like he was daydreaming with a pencil in his hand. "Mikey, this is Sheriff Bannerman and Mr. Smith. They want to ask you a few questions—"
"Actually, ma'am," Walt said, getting his pad out, "maybe I could ask you a question or two while Mr. Smith talks to your son. Would that be all right?"
"Of course," Mrs. Craft said, "but I don't know how I could possibly...please, come this way," Walt shot him a look that said, be quick, before following her out.
John pulled out a chair and sat down. "Hey there, Mike. My name is—"
"John Smith, I know, you're the psychic. You live over in that mansion on Main Street. You take the Bangor Daily News, The Boston Herald, the New York Times—"
Johnny was about to cut him off, because God knew that listing the newspapers he subscribed to could take all day, and then quickly decided not to. Instead, he kept smiling and nodding and gently reached out to pat Michael's hand—
and the boy's body is sprawled behind a large waste pipe on—and Johnny walks around the pipe until he finds the dirt-smeared sign: Waste Outlet, Route 35. His shirt has been removed and his jeans have been pushed down his legs. His arm bears the diamond shape, and his midriff is bloody and slimy with a glimpse of white intestine—and yet, as with J.J., there's no blood under the body. The body has been—
—"and the Chicago Trib...hey, Mister, are you all right?" and Johnny smiled at him and said yes; yes, he was.
Walt and Johnny spent the rest of the night with their heads together, comparing notes. Walt had actually gotten a lot of information from Mrs. Craft, including a list of Michael's friends, school activities, and the details of his paper route. Now they sat there and listed every point of comparison they could find: age, common friends (they had several), common activities (band and scouting, though they played different instruments and were in different troops), and schedules as well as the differences. J.J. was blond where Michael was dark. Michael was among the oldest students in his year; J.J. among the youngest. Michael often went unsupervised in the morning, during his paper route; J.J. in the afternoons, when he went from school to hockey practice and then home by himself. They made note of the boys' birthdays, the number of letters in their names, what streets they lived on—anything that might attract the attention of a serial killer, or indicate why these two boys had been chosen out of all the boys in Penobscot County.
"It's not enough," Walt said finally, sitting back in his chair. "It's a start, but—"
"We need more than a start, Walt. There's no time—"
"Look, I'll throw them both into protective custody if I have to, all right?" Walt seemed on the edge of snapping. "I'll put you on television and tell everyone there's a serial killer on the loose and all boys between 8 and 14 should be kept home until further notice—"
"It won't work," Johnny said miserably. "He'll just kill someone else, two girls or something—"
Walt's voice was flat and deadly. "Right now, I don't care who he kills as long as it's not J.J.," he said, and then he seemed to hear himself, and his shoulders slumped. "God, I'm sorry. I don't mean that—"
"It's all right," Johnny said quietly, reaching out to drop a reassuring hand on Walt's own. "I know what you mean."
"—I'm just saying that we can take more extreme measures when the time comes, but right now, I'm still trying to solve this thing, okay?"
"Okay. So what next?"
Walt's chair squeaked against the hardwood floor as he stood up. "Bed next," he said tiredly. "There's nothing else we can do tonight—but first thing tomorrow morning, we take this show on the road. We've got two victims here in Cleaves Mills; so what about Surrey, Moose Point, Montville, Dexter, Belmont—" Walt was ticking the towns off.
"Right," Johnny agreed, relieved to have a plan. "He might be working over a larger geographical area. There might be a bigger picture."
"Exactly. So get some sleep and set your alarm for six. We've got a lot of ground to cover."
The next day, they started visiting all the morgues in towns within a hundred miles. They found nothing in Dexter or Belmont, but hit their first lead as they turned north: one boy in the morgue in Surrey (Chester McGovern, age 9), one in Moose Point (Kenny Verbis, age 10), and two in Dedham (John Criss and Eddie Talbot, both age 10).
Walt had insisted on visiting all the boys, and so they'd established a routine: Johnny would make small talk (and try for a vision) with the boys while Walt interviewed their parents. He saw one boy dead near some railroad tracks ("Probably the Maine Eastern Railroad," Walt told him, back in the Jeep; he had a large map spread out over the dashboard, the better to keep track of where the boys were from and where their bodies were found); two more dumped in the underbrush near secondary roads; another in the soft mud beneath an overpass. Walt also filled two notebooks with information gleaned from the parents—the boys' birthdays, pets' names, school activities, sports or instruments played, daily schedules, best friends, anything he could think of.
He'd also made a chart of the key facts:
"There's more," Walt said, nearly pulling his hair out as he stared down at the chart. "Look at those gaps—what the hell was he doing between May 22nd and June 8th? And between June 21st and July 11th? It's too long—those are boys we haven't found yet."
"Maybe," John hedged. "But that's also Memorial Day weekend, Fourth of July. Our guy, he likes to dump the bodies near parks, campgrounds, lakes. Those weekends, maybe there's too many people around."
Walt was rapidly cross-checking the dates against phases of the moon. "I don't know, Johnny. Guys like this, they get started, they can't stop. After J.J., he's killing once a week, maybe more. It's a compulsion. He's not going to take a day off."
It was starting to get dark, and Walt glanced at his watch and decided that it would be a waste of time to drive back to Cleaves Mills and then out to Montville and Unity tomorrow. Besides, they hadn't eaten in what felt like days, and so Johnny drove them to a roadside diner where they each had huge bowls of soup and two hamburgers apiece and a mound of fries as they pored over their charts and maps, drawing on them with brightly colored markers. Then they had pie and coffee and more pie.
By the time they shoved the sticky plates away, they had a game plan and a working theory; the data points on the map clearly showed a killer whose center of operations was northeast of Cleaves Mills, probably centered between Dedham and Unity. Walt would get his guys to focus on that area, run a search on anyone who might encounter Maine's fourth-graders on a regular basis. They'd also check again for psychos, animal mutilators, child molesters, anyone who might even possibly be a suspect. They'd also visit the morgues at Montville and Unity, and if they couldn't find a connection, they'd give their data to the Feds, take all the kids into protective custody, and keep their fingers crossed.
Walt got a motel recommendation from the waitress, and ten minutes later, they pulled into the Red Barn up on Route 22. The room they got was small and kind of dingy, but Johnny was too tired to care, and he saw that Walt—normally a guy who was careful with his clothes and things—had dumped his jacket onto the seat of a chair, left his shirt turned inside out, and left his jeans puddled on top of his shoes. Johnny himself couldn't be bothered to make much more of an effort, though he did hang his jacket more squarely on the chair back, and carefully folded his khakis seam-to-seam. He was surprised when he looked up and found Walt standing beside him. Walt reached for Johnny's wrist and pulled Johnny's hand to his face. Johnny stood there for a moment, waiting for a vision, but none came, and there suddenly seemed to be no air in the room.
"Get anything?" Walt asked softly.
"No," Johnny breathed, and then Walt's hands were cupping Johnny's head, and Johnny was pushing his tongue into Walt's mouth and feeling the hot, desperate press of Walt's body against his. He wrapped an arm around Walt's neck to kiss him, and they teetered as their kisses grew sloppy and desperate. Johnny felt Walt's warm hand grope his side, and then Walt was tugging him away from the chair and back toward the bed.
Walt pulled him down to the scratchy nylon bedspread, and Johnny moaned and slid his hand down the hard-muscled curve of Walt's back and suddenly John sees a line of people behind him, strung out like paper dolls. Four girls in blue spandex dresses, who had to be Cleaves Mills High School cheerleaders. A petite blonde with huge blue eyes, and a serious-looking brunette with glasses and straight hair that went down almost to her waist; college girlfriends, maybe. Two professional-looking women in their twenties, wearing high heels and jangly silver bracelets. Alison Roberts, Walt's best friend's wife. Lastly, there was Sarah: nine years younger, wide-eyed, and gorgeous.
Johnny felt weirdly jealous, and not just because of the cheerleaders. He and Sarah had been inseparable since fourth grade, and he'd only slept with one other woman before his accident. That was during his first year of college, when he and Sarah had briefly decided that they should try seeing other people, maybe be less co-dependent.
It hadn't lasted. He'd never wanted anybody but Sarah, ever. But he was suddenly acutely aware that he'd probably lost the best sexual years of his life; man, but it was cruel to go into a coma and wake up thirty.
He moaned into Walt's mouth as Walt rolled on top of him, warm and heavy; Christ, it had been ages since he'd been touched. He wrapped one arm tight around Walt and skimmed his other hand down the warm, smooth skin of Walt's side, then down past the waistband of Walt's white briefs to cup and squeeze his ass. He'd never done this before, but he was hard for it, desperate for it—and maybe the jealousy he was feeling was just a little bit for Walt, who'd been a jock and not a geek, who'd dated cheerleaders and slinky looking professional women in silk blouses.
Still, Walt was panting in his ear now, and he could feel Walt's hard-on rubbing against his hip. Urgently, Johnny tongued Walt's ear and began tugging fruitlessly at his underwear. Walt stopped him by clutching his head between his palms and kissing him until he couldn't breathe—and then Walt rolled them to their sides and efficiently tugged their underwear off (Johnny's boxers coming easier than Walt's briefs) before reaching out and—God—taking Johnny's cock in his hot, tight fist.
Johnny opened his mouth for Walt's tongue and groped blindly for him, wanting to reciprocate but feeling clumsy and inexperienced. Walt was working him rhythmically, hand sliding up and down his shaft. But Johnny'd never touched a cock that wasn't his own, and it was hot and thick and at the wrong angle entirely, though it felt good in his hand. He began to stroke, and Walt responded by tightening his hand and speeding up. Their mouths broke apart, but were still nearly touching as they panted and gasped—and fuck, Walt was squeezing him gently and rubbing his thumb against the sensitive lip just behind the head, and that felt just too good, and Johnny let out a long, slow breath and began to come, jerking long strings of come onto his belly. Walt loosened his hand a little but kept milking him steadily, and Johnny tried to keep moving his hand but he was pleasure-distracted, completely ambushed by the warmth spreading throughout his body.
He had a brief moment of panic when Walt groaned and rolled on top of him again, pressing him back against the mattress. He could still feel Walt's erection digging into him, but now the tip was slick and leaving trails of wetness against his hip. Walt slid his tongue deep into Johnny's mouth, then pulled back to the merest brush of lips against lips. "Johnny," and Johnny felt the words more than heard them, "please,"—and Johnny didn't know what Walt was asking for, but it didn't matter, because when push came to shove there wasn't anything he could refuse him.
"Yeah," Johnny gasped, not knowing what he was agreeing to. "Okay," and Walt began to rub against him, humping him, pinning him flat against the mattress and kissing him before finally coming all over him, and it was fucking terrifying, and it was one of the most intense moments of his life.
Walt tucked a pillow under his head, and Johnny switched off the light, and they fell asleep like that, limbs entwined, still sticky with come.
When Johnny opened his eyes, he saw that Walt was awake and staring down at him, chin propped on his hand, forehead creased in a frown. Almost instinctively, Johnny raised his hand to touch Walt's freckled shoulder—and Walt jerked away and sat up. Something inside Johnny went cold, but his hand kept moving—up, up, till his fingers combed through his own hair, as if that was what he'd been meaning to do all along.
"We should go," Walt said.
"I—need a shower," Johnny said, carefully neglecting to mention the reason for the necessity.
"Me too," and Walt wasn't meeting his eyes. "Go ahead, you go first."
Johnny hesitated for a minute, then nodded and got out of bed. He avoided looking in Walt's direction, but was sure that he felt Walt's eyes on his body. He tried to act normal, like they were just two guys in the locker room. "I'll be out in a sec," he told Walt, and Walt was looking away, but damn if he wasn't flushed.
He meant to make it quick, but his body was still excited and he ended up jerking off, eyes screwed shut, trying not to connect this feeling to Walt. But there was no convenient bottle of Glenlivet lying around this time, so pure repression would just have to do. So they'd had sex; these things happened. It didn't have to mean anything. It was just that it had been so long, his body was making more of it than it was worth. He wasn't experienced enough to be sophisticated about sex; his body still treated every orgasm like it was Some Big Thing, but this was just—sex between friends, stress-release after a long day. He'd just been jealous of having missed out on casual sex; now here he was, getting some. It was about fucking time.
Still, his body insisted on connecting his orgasm to Walt, the way it had connected every sexual thought to Sarah for twenty years. Maybe his body was fucking retarded, Johnny thought savagely, sticking his face under the spray and soaking his head. For certain he needed to get out more. Fuck somebody who wasn't named Bannerman. Get past the fucking Bs and into the rest of the alphabet. Get on with his life.
But it was hard not to look at Walt when he went back into the room, and he tried to disguise his look by a vigorous toweling of his hair. Thankfully, Walt didn't hesitate, but went straight into the bathroom, and Johnny dressed quickly and went out to buy breakfast. By the time he returned with Egg McMuffins and paper cups of coffee, Walt was dressed and holstered and looking like the Penobscot County Sheriff again.
Walt was vaguely distant all morning, keeping to his side of the Jeep, drifting to the other side of the room when they talked to the Sheriff of Unity County—and Johnny could certainly see the point; they had enough to deal with without trying to work out this new twist in their relationship. Still, it made him oddly miserable to have Walt at arm's length, chatting near the morgue doors as Johnny shuddered through two strokes, an overdose, a stabbing, and a cold, slow drowning.
But there was no ten-year-old boy, no destroyed abdomen, no diamond shape. Walt shook hands with the sheriff and the medical examiner, though he didn't clap a hand on Johnny's shoulder to guide him through the door, as he would have done yesterday. Walt wasn't a big talker, but he communicated through series of gentle cuffs to the head, nudges to the ribs, and backslaps. Now he seemed to be far away and lost in his own thoughts, and Johnny—who figured he was just vastly more used to dealing with weird stuff—tried to give him his space, let him work it out for himself.
Still, he reached for Walt almost instinctively, but Walt was on the far side of the Montville morgue, and so Johnny had to grab the edge of the metal gurney tightly to hold himself upright. The boy's body was in the worst shape he'd seen, rotting so badly that it was difficult even to make out the carved diamond shape on his arm. He also completely disrupted the pattern of Walt's chart; Christian Polaczik, age 10, had been tagged by the Montville Medical Examiner on 9/5/05, months after the other murders. Based on the condition of the body, Johnny guessed that the boy had been killed within their timeframe; for some reason, he just hadn't been found for months.
Johnny stared at his hands as they drove over to the Polaczik house. When he was just out of the hospital and struggling a lot with the pain in his leg, Bruce had suggested meditation as a form of pain management—a great idea, except Johnny couldn't stand to envision his heart as a flower opening to light, or imagining his pain as a sea wave. Bruce, God bless him, had been inventive, though, and found that just calmly reciting words from song lyrics (Nirvana seemed to work particularly well for this) or the table of elements did just about the same thing (though sometimes they got mixed up in his mind). Right now, Johnny felt like he couldn't let his brain land on anything—he couldn't bear to think about J.J., and he couldn't think about last night (Walt's hands gliding over him, desperately fucking Walt's fist) either. So he stared down at his hands while his brain murmured, Come. As You Are. Hydrogen. As You Were. Helium. As I Want You To. Lithium —and hey, that one worked both ways.
Nobody answered at the Polaczik house, so they got back in the Jeep and headed over to Montville Elementary School.
The principal, Mr. Farrell, snapped to attention at Walt's badge and ordered the school secretary to pull Christian out of fourth grade math. Walt nodded his head to tell Johnny to go for it, so Johnny pulled two chairs together and began to ask the boy his bullshit questions, smiling and nodding until he got the chance to pat his knee, and God, no wonder poor Christian hadn't been found right away; his body's been wrapped in black plastic and dumped into one of the huge metal garbage containers at the Black Mountain campsite. Johnny asked the boy where his parents were, and learned that Dad was an accountant at Lerner and Co., and Mom worked as an administrator at Montville General.
They went to Lerner and Co. and asked for a few moments of Mr. Polaczik's time. Walt asked about Christian's habits, friends, and activities while Johnny studied the framed certificates and pictures on the office wall. A diploma for Michael Polaczik, Certified Public Accountant, from Boston University. A picture of the entire family, taken in what looked like a department store photography studio. A picture of Mr. Polaczik and son, Christian gleefully holding up a large silver fish—and it was Walt who was in these sort of pictures with J.J., not him. He'd never felt comfortable being photographed with J.J.—it made him feel like he was trying to prove something, defiantly inserting himself where he didn't belong. His eyes moved to a group shot of twenty or so boys posed behind a large, orange felt banner: TROOP 17. Johnny leaned closer to study the picture, and frowned.
"Your son's a scout?" Johnny asked, turning around—only then realizing that he'd interrupted whatever conversation they'd been having.
"Yes," Michael Polaczik said, warily. "As I was just telling Sheriff Bannerman."
"Mine, too," Johnny said, and forced a casual smile. "Troop 57, Cleaves Mills."
Polaczik suddenly looked pleased. "Oh, so you're in our Area Council; I'll probably see you at the summer picnic."
Johnny's palms were sweating, but he tried to stay calm. Walt's face was neutral, but he was flipping through the pages of his notebook. "Area Council—how big an area is that?"
Polaczik shrugged. "Mostly northeast of Bangor. We're Oak Tree Council, and I think that by time you get to Portland, you're in Pine Tree Council—"
"Is that you in the picture?" Johnny asked, tilting his head toward the framed picture.
Polaczik smiled and drifted toward the photograph. "Yeah. That was from last year—I used to be Assistant Scoutmaster but I had to give it up; too much work to do here." He raised a finger and pointed. "That's Dickie Devereux, he's Scoutmaster now. That's Jake Calhoun, he's still an Assistant, and Paul Farnaux, he resigned with me. Those guys—they're from the Council. That's Mitch Feeney, he's Council Executive, and Phil Washburn, Council Commissioner. There's another guy, but he didn't come that day."
Johnny opened his mouth to ask a question about the missing guy, but Walt interrupted and pointed his pencil at the other photograph. "Nice fish, where'd you catch that?"
"White Mountain Lake," Polaczik answered, and then he and Walt were talking about lures and trout and bluefish, and then they were talking about skateboards, and how dangerous they were for kids, and Johnny just stood there and stared at them, mystified.
"What the hell was that?" Johnny said out of the corner of his mouth, after Walt had shaken Mr. Polaczik's hand and they were pushing out through the stenciled door of Lerner and Co. Once they were outside, Walt lengthened his stride and headed off for the Jeep, forcing Johnny to use his cane more aggressively to catch up. "Walt!" he called, and if Walt had been in reach, Johnny might seriously have whacked him one; he'd had just about enough of this distance shit. But Walt was already unlocking the door and sliding in, and by the time Johnny got in on the other side, Walt was knee deep in notes and maps.
Johnny was just about to start yelling when Walt murmured, "Bannerman, Troop 57. Craft, Troop 61. Verbis, Troop 10. McGovern, Troop 32, Criss and Talbot, Troop 38—what do you want to bet they're all in the same Area Council?"
Johnny crossed his arms and glared at him. "We don't have to bet. We could have borrowed his computer and googled it—"
Walt shook his head vehemently. "It's none of his business. This is our investigation—"
"—and besides that," Johnny continued, raising his voice over Walt's, "I've seen those guys before," and Walt looked up, sharply; that had gotten his attention. "The council guys," Johnny continued doggedly. "That's why I asked about the picture in the first place."
"You don't go to scout meetings," Walt said, eyes narrowed.
"That's not where I saw them," Johnny explained. "Remember how Mrs. Verbis had that whole wall of photographs? She had a picture that looked just like Polaczik's—group of kids holding a banner, posed with the visiting guys from the council. Talbot had one too—it's probably a thing they do, pose once a year, send the pictures home to the parents. I bet they've all got them. I've bet Sarah's got one, too, stuck in a drawer somewhere."
"All right," Walt said, turning the Jeep's engine over. "It's a connection, a good one, the first good one we've had. Let me get to a phone."
Johnny frowned as Walt jerked the Jeep into gear. "You've got your cell, don't you? I've got mine on me, too."
"Yeah. Okay," but Walt wasn't really paying attention.
Walt pulled the Jeep into a supermarket parking lot, said, "Wait here," and got out; a moment later he was loping across the concrete toward a battered-looking pay phone. He fished in his jeans, came up with a handful of coins, and popped them into the slot. A moment later, he'd tucked the black plastic receiver between his ear and his shoulder and was busily taking notes.
Johnny closed his eyes and laid his head back against the headrest. God willing, it was one of these guys—Feeney, Washburn, or the other guy who hadn't come that day. Hopefully they'd find evidence, or at the very least, a vision telling him that it was one of them. It hadn't escaped him that not a single vision he'd had in these nightmarish days had featured the killer—he'd seen the boys on slabs, and where their bodies were dumped, but not one single image of the man who'd killed them, or even of their abductions—
The door opened, and Walt got back in the car. "Okay. Here goes. Yes, these boys all belong to Boy Scout troops in Maine's Oak Tree Council. Yes, the council visits each of the troops once a year, and yes, they take a picture to commemorate the event. Yes," Walt added, looking up, and Johnny saw that Walt was jittering with barely concealed excitement, "the dates fit—the schedule's been posted on the Council's website."
"So Cleaves Mills is next," Johnny said, hardly daring to believe it.
"You got it. This weekend."
"Holy shit," Johnny breathed. "Okay. So which one of them is it?"
"Don't know for sure, but I'm guessing Washburn. Feeney is married with two kids, lives in a fancy development outside of Bangor. Walsh is married with three; they live up Dedham way. But listen to this," Walt said and began to read: "Phillip Washburn, age 45, divorced ten years ago, one child. Wife and son moved clear across the country, last known address in New Mexico." He looked up at Johnny. "I say last known because they've fallen off the radar, whether willingly or unwillingly I don't know. Washburn lives alone in a house up near—do you want to guess?"
Guess? Johnny frowned and stared at Walt for a moment as his brain churned through the various possibilities. And then he had it. "Brewer Lake."
Walt nodded and glanced at his watch. "We can get there by sundown if we put pedal to the metal."
"Let's go," Johnny said, and then added, "no, wait. We need supplies," and got out of the car to buy sandwiches and bottled water at the supermarket.
The sun was just setting over the tops of the mountains when Walt turned into the gravel-paved road that led up to Phillip Washburn's house. They'd been driving so fast that even Johnny, who loved speed, had braced himself against the dashboard a couple of times. But now, suddenly, Walt slowed the car, and Johnny was just about to remind him that the Jeep was an off-road vehicle and could handle a little gravel, when he saw the house.
It was a big old farmhouse, and it looked like it had been kept up. Flowers had been planted in the beds, and the shutters were painted, and the split rail fence was in good condition. What looked like a brand new pick-up truck was sitting, sparkling, in the drive. The whole place looked orderly, clean, and sane, and Johnny had his first doubts.
Walt pulled up behind the pick-up truck and set the brake. Johnny turned to him and said: "Okay, so—what now?"
Walt looked surprised at the question. "What now? We go in there, and you tell me if it's the guy—that's what now."
Johnny looked nervously through the windshield at the house. "And what if it is? Maybe we should call for backup or something. I mean, this guy's a psycho-killer."
But Walt didn't seem concerned. "Not yet, he isn't. In fact, right now? This guy is textbook innocent—which is good for us, because he's got no reason to be paranoid," and with that, Walt got out of the Jeep and headed up the front walk.
Johnny followed him up the three steps to the porch, clutching his cane tightly, and watched as Walt rang the bell. He heard the ring dimly echoing inside the house, and a moment later Phillip Washburn opened the door.
He was a tall, lean man with thinning hair, and he was wearing jeans, cowboy boots, and a blue flannel shirt. Rounded glasses in metal frames gave him a slightly owlish look; he looked like a typical salt-of-the-earth Mainer, and Johnny's doubts grew steadily deeper.
"Phillip Washburn?" Walt asked, and the man nodded uncertainly. "My name is Walt Bannerman, I'm Sheriff of Penobscot County, just south of here. This is—" and before Walt could say, "Johnny Smith; he's a psychic, assisting us with an investigation," Johnny quickly leaned forward and extended his hand; some people wouldn't touch him once they knew who he was. Instinctively, Washburn shook his hand and—
—he's at the wheel of the pick-up, and he turns his head to the side and there's J.J. with his backpack slung over his shoulder, walking home from school. He slows the truck and waves a hand out the window. "Hey! J.J.!" and J.J. turns and squints before recognizing him and coming over to the pick-up; he knows not to talk to strangers, but of course, Washburn isn't a stranger. "Hey, Mr. Washburn," J.J. says politely, and Christ, Johnny feels such love for him at that moment that he feels his heart may burst. Run, J.J! Please... Washburn is asking him questions about Troop 57, and hell, the guy knows how to talk to kids. He's telling J.J. how much he enjoyed his recent visit, and describing how much fun they're going to have at the upcoming Council picnic, and asking J.J. about how his season's going, so when he suddenly says, offhandedly, "Hey, hop in; I'll give you a ride home," it seems like no big deal, and J.J. is in the middle of telling Washburn all about his season when he realizes that they aren't heading toward the Bannerman house, and J.J. frowns and says, "Wait, we're going the wrong way," but Washburn just smiles and says, not taking his eyes off the road, "We're going a different way,"—but John J. Bannerman hasn't just fallen off the turnip truck, not with a sheriff for a father and a psychic for a father, and suddenly J.J. is yanking at the door handle, but it's locked, and the buttons on the passenger side don't work, and God, how Johnny loves his son, who starts banging at the window, harder and harder, and the truck swerves violently on the road as Washburn tries to steer and pull J.J. back at the same time. But J.J.'s going for it and leaps almost into Washburn's lap—fighting, kicking, biting—and Washburn has to pull over or crash, and J.J.'s halfway out the driver's side window when Washburn drags him back inside and punches him in the face—
"You all right?" Washburn ducked down a bit to look into Johnny's face, and Johnny almost couldn't believe this was the guy, even though he'd just seen it.
"I—yeah," Johnny said, and snatched his hand back, and it's a good thing he didn't just have a seizure, because Walt wasn't in any position to catch him. "Fine, I just—I'm sorry, I get these headaches."
"I can give you an aspirin if you want one," Washburn said, backing up to give them room to pass. "Come on inside."
Johnny looked at Walt, unsure if this was courtesy or a trap, but Walt walked in without hesitation, and so Johnny smiled tightly and followed.
The inside of the house was just as orderly as the outside; neat, country-style furniture made of hardwoods and plain fabrics, a few books, a few tools; Johnny didn't know if he'd been dreading finding a house decorated with human skulls, or hoping for it; it would have been evidence at least, probable cause outside of his own mind.
"We just wanted to ask you a few questions," Walt explained. "If you don't mind."
"I don't mind," Washburn replied, looking totally unconcerned, and then Johnny really understood what Walt had meant by saying that Washburn wasn't a killer yet; this guy didn't think this visit had anything to do with him. Then Washburn looked over at Johnny and added, "Let me get you that aspirin first."
Washburn pushed through a swinging door into what had to be the kitchen, and Johnny whispered to Walt, "It's him, I saw him abduct J.J."
Walt blew out a long, slow breath. "Okay. All right."
"Yeah—'all right'—but now what?"
"Now we stop it," Walt murmured back.
"What—?" but Washburn was pushing back through the door carrying a glass of water and a small individually-wrapped packet of two aspirin. "Thanks," Johnny said, and popped them, because a couple of aspirin seemed like an excellent idea right now.
"Mr. Washburn," Walt began, "this is Johnny Smith—" and Washburn's eyes widened and he turned to stare at Johnny.
"—the psychic," Washburn said, then let out a low whistle. "I knew you seemed familiar. I've seen you on the TV."
Johnny flashed a thin, uncomfortable smile of acknowledgment. Walt cleared his throat and took the floor again. "Johnny's been working with us on investigations for a couple of years now, and I've never known him to be wrong. I know it sounds incredible, but there it is. Mr. Washburn," and Johnny recognized that voice; it was the one Walt used to administer Miranda warnings, "we're here to stop you from murdering those boys."
Johnny shot a shocked glance at Walt, tightly gripping his cane in case Washburn grew violent. But Washburn just sat down slowly on a gingham-covered ottoman, and took off his wire-rimmed glasses. He looked a lot younger without his glasses on. "That's not...I didn't," Washburn said, but he looked badly shaken. "I couldn't have."
Walt looked hard at Johnny, and Johnny sighed and said, "You did. I saw you."
"No," Washburn said, but it was in the uncertain voice of a man trying to convince himself. "You're lying. You're brain-damaged. You're—"
"—never wrong," Walt said flatly, in the voice of all authority, and what was left of Washburn's confidence seemed to crumble.
"What do you want me to say?" Washburn asked, and his voice was eerily hollow. "I mean I do sometimes think about—you know, ever since she took my boy, I've been— sometimes I feel..." and he raised a clenched fist to each side of his head and doubled over with a guttural sound of pain. "They were dreams, they were only dreams, a fantasy, I wasn't going to— oh God, it wasn't supposed to happen!"
Johnny quickly pulled up a chair and said, "It doesn't have to happen. You can stop it, you can get help," but then Washburn started shaking his head and muttering about his wife, and their boy, and how that boy had never loved him, that he'd never meant to hurt him. Johnny looked up over Washburn's bowed head at Walt, looking for help, guidance, something, but Walt just stood there, staring them down, no help at all.
Johnny blew out a frustrated breath and put his hand on Washburn's shoulder, and J.J.'s mouth is covered with duct tape, and his wrists are tightly wrapped together, and he's red-faced and near to suffocating— and Johnny snatched his hand back. "Mr. Washburn," he said, feeling increasingly desperate, because maybe this was the test; save this guy and he saved J.J. "Phil. Listen to me. If there's one thing I learned since my visions kicked in, it's that the future's not fixed, and we've all got choices—good ones and bad ones, better ones and worse ones. You've got a chance here, Phil; you've got something that most people never get: advance warning. You can head off disaster for yourself and tragedy for ten families. You can get help."
Washburn's face was like a fist, and Johnny saw that tears were leaking out of the corners of his squeezed-shut eyes. "I—yes. I will! I swear I will!" and Johnny reached out and clasped Washburn's hand between both of his, and J.J.'s gasping, and my God, oh my dear God, how can he still be alive with his guts—and Johnny's brain shrieks with pain and short-circuits and when he opened his eyes he found himself on the floor. Washburn was bent over him, hand extended to help him up, and then Walt said, in a shaky-sounding voice, "Mr. Washburn, please don't touch him, stand up," and when Washburn straightened up and backed away, Walt took out his gun and shot him three times in the head.
"I'm sorry," Walt said, hands shaking as he lowered the gun. "Johnny. I had to."
Johnny looked at Washburn's body, head half blown off, blood soaking into the thick rug, and felt surprisingly calm and clearheaded. "I know. Nothing had changed."
"Are you all right?" Walt was fumbling to put the gun back into his shoulder holster.
Johnny nodded, grabbed for his cane, and hauled himself to his feet. "Yeah, are you?"
"Yeah," Walt said, but he was breathing irregularly, and his hands were still shaking; aftershocks, Johnny supposed. "I just—I need a minute to—" He took another deep breath, and then swallowed hard. "Okay. Give me the phone."
Johnny frowned at him. "What?"
"The police," Walt said, and put a hand against the wall to steady himself. "I'm going to turn myself in," and it took Johnny only a few steps to reach him when he teetered.
"Okay," Johnny breathed, tightening his arm around Walt and guiding him to the nearest chair, "now you're going to sit down." The back door of the police cruiser opens, and two uniformed officers escort Walt out in handcuffs and guide him into the Brewer Lake Police Station through the press of the crowd and the pop of flashbulbs— Christ, they weren't going to let Walt off with a slap on the wrist; Washburn had no criminal record, and Walt had shot him in cold blood on the word of a psychic.
"It's for the best." Walt sat down heavily with his head in his hands. "What else can we do? They're cops, they'll catch me..."
"No," Johnny said. "They won't."
He went first to Washburn's body, kneeled, and touched it, and there's a room full of crime scene personnel, most of them wearing white dust masks. A police photographer is taking pictures of Washburn's body, which is lying just as it was, while three other technicians dust for fingerprints. A third calls out, "Hey Captain, take a look at this," and eagerly digs something out of the wall with tweezers.
Johnny walks over and studies the lump of metal between the tweezers—a bullet—and then notes the location of the hole in the wall. He then goes to look over the shoulders of the fingerprint technicians; the first hasn't found anything, but the second and third have hit pay dirt—one holds the glass that Johnny had used to take his aspirin, one finds a whole mess of fingerprints at the oak table where Walt is sitting right now.
He let go of Washburn, slipped on the gloves he always carried with him, and went into the kitchen, where he found paper towels and a spray bottle of cleanser on the counter. He wiped down the glass and put it in the drainer, then sprayed down the table, and—just to be safe, the wall where Walt had braced himself, although they hadn't searched there.
"Do you have a knife?" he asked Walt, but Walt didn't seem to hear him; Walt had done what needed doing, and now he was finished, exhausted, spent. "Walt," Johnny repeated, quietly. "I need a knife and an evidence bag," and this time Walt slowly nodded, and fumbled in his jacket pockets and found first one and then the other.
Johnny crossed to the wall and carefully used Walt's penknife to dig out the little slug. He examined it closely, then stripped off one glove and pinched the metal between thumb and forefinger and he's standing next to two detectives in what had to be the police lab. The white-coated technician explains they've recovered two bullets, but think there were at least three shots; somebody dug a third bullet out of the wall. Still, it looks to the technician like a professional hit—not just because of the missing third bullet, but because there are no fingerprints (Johnny sighs with relief). The bullet which took out most of Washburn's brain is unusable, she explains, and holds it up, and Johnny sees that the metal is squashed beyond all recognition. However, she continues, with a little smile, the ballistics aren't entirely unhelpful; there's a second bullet, lodged in the parietal bone. Here she turns on a light box, revealing an x-ray of Washburn's smashed skull. This, she explains almost smugly, shows that their killer—and Johnny can't help but flinch at the word—was using Speer Gold Dot +P 124-grain high tech hollow point bullets, and one of the detectives sits back and says, "Whoa, our boy's a cop."
Johnny put the slug into the evidence bag and the evidence bag into his pocket, then tugged his glove back on. He found a pair of gloves in the front coat closet and brought them to Walt. "Here," he said, and dropped them on the table. Walt seemed to come out of his daze and looked up. "Put those on," he said, and Walt nodded numbly and slid the leather over his hands. "I need you to help me ransack the house."
It took them less than an hour to go through the place, pulling books out of shelves, examining drawers, closets, the desk, the deep recesses of the basement. It didn't escape Johnny's notice that they hadn't found anything incriminating—no pornography, no weapons, no pictures of kids, no dead animals, no tokens from previous crimes, not even drugs. Jesus, how the hell would they ever have stopped the guy if Walt hadn't done what he did? There was no other proof, nothing else they could use—nothing.
"Okay," Walt said, and rubbed his wrist against his forehead. "Is that good?"
"Yeah, I think so. Except we should take something; we're robbers, we should take something. What should we take?"
They stared at each other for a moment, and then Walt said, "I got it," and disappeared toward the back of the house. He returned holding an external hard drive in his gloved hands. "This'll drive them nuts. Leaves a great dusty footprint, too."
"Okay, good," Johnny said. "Great," and then he took one last slow look around the living room. Fingerprints wiped, house ransacked, property stolen, nothing left but what was left. "Walt," he said in a low, urgent voice, "just stay there," and then he went back to Washburn's body, dropped onto his knees with a grunt, and pulled out Walt's knife.
"Johnny—what are you—oh, Jesus," and he turned away while Johnny dug the bullet out of Washburn's parietal bone.
Afterwards, Johnny quickly turned his bloody gloves inside out and bolted for the door—he had to get out, out, out. Walt, God bless him, moved quickly to pull the door open for him, then pulled it shut behind them both with his gloved hand.
Outside, it was already dark and colder than usual for May. Johnny was grateful for the unusual weather; he braced himself on his cane for support and just stood there, breathing in the cool night air. He felt more than saw Walt come to stand beside him in the darkness. "Now what?" Walt asked quietly. "What do we do?"
"We go back to Montville," Johnny replied. "That's where we've been today, that's where we ought to be tonight. Tomorrow, we go check out another morgue, whatever town you want. Patterns," he said, trying to make out Walt's face in the darkness. "We need to keep doing what we've been doing. C'mon," he added. "I'll drive."
The roads between Brewer Lake and Montville were dark and empty, and Johnny drove mechanically, guided only by the luminescent lines and the reflectors embedded in the road surface. His mind kept drifting back to the horrors of the evening—his son being killed, Walt in handcuffs, the blood and the little gristly pieces of bone that were even now still trapped inside his gloves—and he had to forcibly wrench his thoughts back to the present moment, reminding himself that J.J. was okay, all the boys would live, and Walt was safe in the seat beside him. Without thinking, he reached across the car, found Walt's leg, and squeezed it. Walt's warm dry hand dropped heavily on top of his—fingers curling and lacing together, broad thumb stroking the side of his hand—and the contact felt so good, so reassuring, that it took him a moment to process the implications. Walt hadn't flinched away, and—
Of course he hadn't flinched away; Christ, how stupid had he been? Johnny turned to stare at Walt across the dark interior of the Jeep, but Walt was looking out the window, lost in his own thoughts. Walt had already decided to stop the killing by any means necessary, no matter what it cost him; he hadn't been avoiding Johnny, he'd been avoiding Johnny's visions. Had Walt thought that Johnny would condemn him, look down on his choice when it was Washburn's life or their son's? He believed his visions were a tool of the good, but God knew he was being drawn into some morally dodgy territory lately. Was he supposed to kill Stillson to prevent the coming Armageddon? Was this some sort of dress rehearsal? A test designed to demonstrate that sometimes there were no other alternatives?
Had he needed that test? Walt hadn't; Walt hadn't hesitated, and God, but Johnny loved him for it—and impulsively, he turned the wheel to the right and pulled the Jeep to the side of the road. Walt turned to him with a question on his parted lips, but he didn't have time to get it out before Johnny pushed him up against the Jeep's door and kissed him, one hand snaking up his shirt. He didn't expect Walt to push him away and Walt didn't; Walt's hand sank deep into his hair and pressed their mouths together. Johnny's fingers slid up over Walt's pecs to his nipple, and his brain floods with images, some of them memories and some of them visions. Walt in a car, head thrown back—but it's not this car, and Walt's seventeen years old and behind the wheel. A girl with a blond ponytail is bent with her head in his lap, and as Johnny kisses Sarah and gently settles her down in the back seat of the Cadillac, she hooks her leg around his. He tugs her panties to the side and strokes her deep with his fingers, and she gasps in his ear, and Walt's hands clutch Johnny's pale, narrow hips, thumbs massaging circles into his hipbones; Johnny just lies there on the motel bedsheets, and he should feel embarrassed but he doesn't.
He was kissing Walt's mouth and chin and trying to work his pants open at the same time, which was hard because Walt was wearing a thick leather belt as well as tight jeans, though the girl with the blond ponytail knows what to do, she's managed to push Walt's jeans just far enough down that she can grab his cock with her small, pink-manicured hand. She brings the soft head to her lipglossed mouth, and she's licking and sucking and one of the things that Johnny's learned from years of visions is that good advice comes from the weirdest places, and besides, it seemed to be driving Walt crazy. So once he'd gotten Walt's belt open and flicked the button and pulled the zipper on his pants, he gave Walt one hard, last, heartfelt kiss and slid down, opening his mouth and groping in Walt's lap.
"Oh Jesus," Walt moaned, and it was the last coherent thing he said.
Johnny closed his eyes and let his tongue play over Walt's cockhead, and it was easier than it seemed, the skin smoother and hotter than he'd imagined. He slid his mouth over the top two inches and heard Walt cry out, felt Walt's hands sink into his hair and caress his head. It was so nice to have someone's hands on him, and know they wanted nothing more than to touch him. Walt brushed his fingertips softly across Johnny's face, and Johnny began to suck harder, his own cock hardening in response. Walt's head lolled backwards and he began groaning uncontrollably, until finally he came, thickly, onto Johnny's waiting tongue.
Afterwards, Walt was panting against the Jeep's upholstered seatback as Johnny wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Wait— I'll— You didn't—"
Johnny kissed him again. "Shh," he murmured, smothering the words against Walt's mouth. "It's okay. That was for you."
"Don't," Walt began, still gasping for breath, "be stupid," and then Walt's strong hands were dragging him back to Walt's side of the car, and sliding into his pants, and stroking and fondling him until he was shaking and coming all over himself.
He was a mess, in more ways than one, so Walt had to drive them the rest of the way to Montville and get them a room. Inside, Johnny stripped out of his clothes, washed his underwear at the sink, and then began to scrub the come-stain off his pants with the corner of a wet towel. Walt had shrugged out of his clothes and was already half asleep in the bed nearest the window, but eventually he got out of bed, came over to the lighted sink area, and took the pants out of Johnny's hands.
"It's good enough," Walt said, taking the pants into the bathroom and hanging them over the shower rod. "Go to bed."
Johnny rubbed his face; he needed a shave. He knew he was jittering, just looking for something to do with his hands. Taking a deep breath to calm himself down, he pulled back the covers on the other bed, threw the extra pillows onto a nearby chair, and got in. The bathroom light went off, and Walt came out and got back into his own bed.
Johnny lay there for a while, staring up at the shadows the parking lot lights made on the stuccoed motel ceiling, and then he heard Walt shift and sit up and murmur, "I'm sorry. I think I have to—" and then Walt got into bed with him.
Johnny wrapped his arms around Walt's shoulders and felt Walt's nose and mouth pressing hotly against the skin of his neck, and murmured, "Walt. What you did today—" Walt flinched, and Johnny tightened his arms and kissed Walt until he relaxed again.
"Do you mean it?" Walt asked in a low, breathless voice.
He meant it. He meant everything. "Yes," Johnny said, and leaned in to kiss him again.
The next morning, he woke up and found Walt naked and straddling him, hands clutching Johnny's pale, narrow hips, thumbs massaging circles into his hipbones. Johnny just lies there on the motel bedsheets, and he should feel embarrassed but he doesn't, this felt good, this felt right. It had been a long time since he'd been naked with anybody like this—Dana, maybe, but that had been kind of a disaster, and even Dana didn't look at his body quite the way Walt was looking at him, though Walt had a glint of mischief in his eye that reminded him of Dana, though he suspected that Walt would have been offended by the comparison.
"Do you think this is strange?" Walt asked, taking Johnny's rapidly-hardening cock in his hand. "You and me?"
Johnny had to think about that for a second. "Define strange."
The corner of Walt's mouth quirked into a lopsided grin as he began to stroke. "Guess you've got a point. Not even the strangest thing this week."
"Not even—close," Johnny said, gasping a little. "And we—really have—a lot in common."
"Too much," Walt replied darkly, and then he bent closer to grip both of their cocks in his fist, and Johnny groaned and helplessly followed Walt's eyes to where their cocks were pressed together, sliding against each other—and Johnny suddenly had a stunningly vivid premonition of what Walt liked, and tried it.
They waited two days before heading back to Cleaves Mills, and by then the story of Washburn had hit the newspapers, big news in Maine: BOY SCOUT COMMISSIONER FOUND KILLED IN ROBBERY. All the local papers had noted that the police currently had no suspects, but they were launching an investigation into the Scouting hierarchy based on information found (or rather, Johnny knew—not found) at the crime scene. They spent those two days disposing of evidence (the gloves they'd used, Washburn's hard drive, the two bullets) and touring three more police stations, sometimes at the same time—Walt had dropped the two tiny evidence bags into a file cabinet at the Treemont Sheriff's Office, where he assured Johnny they would never be found, and Johnny had surreptitiously thrown his bloody gloves into the Wellington police station incinerator, which was right down the hall from their morgue, in the basement.
Johnny was still puzzled by the diamond shape, and made Walt stop at the Wellington Public Library; Walt sat there frowning and reading account after account of the Washburn murder while Johnny pulled books of symbolism off the shelves and finally resorted to Google, carefully erasing the cache afterwards. A diamond could be a warning or a sign of friendship or the symbol of an HOV lane, but none of those sounded right. He was more interested to learn that all Vietnam Vets confirmed dead had their names marked with a diamond at the Memorial Wall in Washington, but Washburn was too young to have been a vet. White diamonds, blue diamonds, Neil Diamond, Diamonds Are Forever; diamonds were used in cards, in sports, to mark the 60th or 75th wedding anniversary. A diamond was a kind of stock, a mathematical language, and a town in Illinois, Missouri, Ohio, and West Virginia, but not Maine—and Johnny finally slammed the encyclopedia shut and got up and limped outside the library to call Bruce.
"You want to know—what?" Bruce asked dubiously, his voice sounding oddly tinny even though Johnny had a very expensive cell phone.
"Diamonds, diamonds," Johnny said, irritably poking the concrete sidewalk with his cane. "Do they mean anything to you? Symbolically?"
"Gee, man, I didn't know you cared," and okay, that was funny, but not nearly as funny as it would have been a week ago. He wondered what Bruce would think about him sleeping with Walt.
"I'm serious," Johnny said, and he realized that he was being elliptical with Bruce for no particular reason— there were no diamonds attached to the Washburn murder, there were no diamonds carved into any boys; the diamond thing had never happened, thanks to Walt. "Seriously like, what would it mean to the mind of a killer, serious," he said.
Bruce's voice dropped to a whisper: "Is that where you guys are? Chasing a killer?"
"Kind of, yeah," Johnny answered uncomfortably; he didn't like being anything less than honest with Bruce, but some things would be between him and Walt only, forever.
"Well, go get 'em. Okay, diamonds—are we talking about the stone or the shape?"
"The shape," Johnny said, relieved to have Bruce's brain working on it.
"Okay, well, I assume you've thought of all the obvious things—cards, baseball, that sort of thing, hm, hang on a second," and he heard Bruce moving through his house. "You know," Bruce said, and Johnny heard the sound of flipping pages, "a diamond is also a rhombus," and why hadn't he thought of that? and when had Bruce become Mr. Mathematician Guy? "and rhombus shapes feature pretty heavily in pagan religions and also in Japan—wait, here. In Scythian Symbology, the rhombus signifies the sun; life, vitality—long life," and hell, that was ironic, Johnny thought glumly. "The Greek bull-roarer was pretty much a rhombus on the end of a string, and they used it to make rain—"
Johnny sighed and stared up at the blue Maine sky. "Sun, rain, which is it?" he asked rhetorically, trying to come to terms with the fact that he might never understand any of it; his visions always gave him just enough information to act on, but they were never really great on giving him the big picture. It was hard not to feel strung along—and then his brain tuned in to Bruce's highly non-rhetorical answer.
"Well, it's both," Bruce told explained. "The sun, the rain—it's power, it's about being the source of all life when you're not sure what life is. It's the father," and suddenly everything on that Wellington street went crisp—the wind, the blue mailbox, the shape of every brick in the library's facade, "the rain-maker, the bringer of wind and—hey, that might work, rainmakers sometimes sacrificed children; it was kind of like a pagan version of the Abraham and Isaac thing, except they actually did it—"
"Yeah," Johnny said numbly. "That sounds right, Bruce. I think that's it."
He stood there, on the Wellington street, just processing this until Walt came out of the library, nudged him in the ribs, and murmured, "C'mon, let's go home." Johnny nodded and followed Walt to the Jeep, and only once they were speeding south, toward Cleaves Mills, did Johnny tell Walt what he'd learned from Bruce.
Walt's face tensed rapidly as he listened to the story of the rhombus and the rainmaker, and then he said, tightly, "I think I've got the other half of that story," and pulled a number of folded sheets out of his inside jacket pocket. Johnny frowned and unfolded the pages—photocopies, he saw, of the story as covered in various area papers. But Walt had drawn agitated looking stars next to certain places in each article.
"I can't believe it," said Mitchell Feeney, Executive of thePine Tree Council and a close friend of Washburn's. "I can't imaginewhy anyone would want to hurt him. Phil was a great guy, devoted to theScouts and the values Scouting represents."
"This is a tragedy not only for our town but for the entirePine Tree Area Council," said Bill Wareham, Mayor of Brewer Lake,Maine. "Phil Washburn was a guy who devoted himself to serving theneeds of others, and the Brewer Lake Police Department will not restuntil they find the perpetrator or perpetrators of this senseless actof violence that has disrupted our community."
"He was a nice man, quiet, though I never thought he washappy," said Laurel Astor, a longtime neighbor. "He never looked happyafter his wife took his boy from him. He was devoted to that boy, and Ithink that a lot of his devotion to the Scouts was about trying toreplace that in his life, to be there for boys who'd maybe lost theirfathers."
"Well, it fits with what Washburn said about losing his son," Johnny sighed, flipping through the pages, "and it fits with Bruce's ideas about the diamond equaling father-power. His wife took his son away, he was maybe getting his son back in some messed-up way. Still, I don't believe any normal guy would—"
"I think I should resign," Walt said quietly.
"What?" Johnny turned to stare at Walt. "Walt, are you nuts?"
"I'm a cop, Johnny—I'm supposed to be an agent of order, not a 'perpetrator of senseless violence that has disrupted'—"
"Oh, that's bullshit," Johnny said angrily, "they don't know what they're talking about! Jesus Christ on a crutch, they don't know what disorder looks like—and neither do you. You didn't see it, all those kids with their guts ripped out and dumped like so much trash. Do you have any idea what that would have done to 'the community', all those families and schools and everyone across eastern Maine wondering if their kid is next? You were an agent of order, believe me. You and me both," and that gave Walt something to think about for the rest of the drive back to Cleaves Mills.
It never occurred to him that Walt would go anywhere but straight to J.J., so he wasn't surprised when Walt pulled up to the Bannerman house. Walt was out of the Jeep and running up the walk before Johnny'd even unbuckled his seat belt, and then he hesitated, because Sarah was already at the door and looking surprised to see Walt. Walt leaned in to kiss her—and then he was bending down and sweeping J.J. into his arms, and J.J. was nearly ten and well over all that mushy stuff, but he was no match at all for Walt, who lifted him clear off the ground, legs still working.
Johnny took his hand off the door and just stared, feeling simultaneously joyful and aching. J.J. was alive and safe in the arms of his father. Sarah was leaning against the doorjamb and grinning at Walt, who was squeezing J.J. tight and kissing his cheek and ruffling his blond hair. J.J. was laughing, maybe not knowing how else to deal with Walt's unexpected display of emotion, maybe just ticklish.
He didn't belong here. This wasn't his house. He glanced at the steering wheel, and saw that Walt had left the keys in the ignition. Being careful about his leg, he slid across to the driver's side of the Jeep, and reached for the—
"Johnny," Walt said, and Johnny looked up. Walt had brought J.J. down to him, and as Johnny just sat there, staring at his beautiful, wide-grinning son, Walt pulled the Jeep's door open and J.J. scrambled up into his arms.
J.J. brings his radio to his mouth and says, "Cambridge, I want heavy clearing cover so I can bring Team Leader into base; Over."
"I can make it," Johnny mutters.
"Yeah," J.J. says, swinging his gun off his shoulder. "Dad, you're slow like a slow thing. I'm not risking it."
The radio crackles. "Heavy cover at the ready; prepare to approach."
"We're just drawing attention to ourselves," Johnny mutters.
"Roger that," J.J. says, and then: "Yeah, cause you're normally so inconspic—"
"Approach in five. Four. Three," the radio says, and J.J. shoulders his weapon and says to Johnny, "Go," just as the first round of defensive fire shatters the silence.
Johnny goes, hobbling as fast as he can with his cane over the ripped-up cobblestone and brick streets. The small door is just ahead of him, and he fixes on it doggedly—and then he becomes aware that the neoludds are returning fire. Instinctively he stops, turns to see—is that a gun? are they using an Air—and then J.J. is hurtling toward him, grabbing him and practically dragging him through the chipped green door, where other hands grab him and pull him—-
Riley had survived because he'd been in a bank vault when the bomb blew. Dexter had been shielded from the worst of the blast when a car had rolled over in front of him, nearly crushing him against Argyle Point Rock. Laurence had lost an arm and his left eye, but had crawled his way, bleeding, to the outpost at—
—down the bends and twists of a dark hallway and through three or four heavy metal doors, and then there are other hands, familiar hands. Walt.
"What the hell took you so long?" and Walt is half pulling him, half dragging him to a chair. Johnny is happy to get off his feet; his leg is killing him, and he fishes a vial of painkillers out of his Kevlar vest. "Are you listening to J.J?" Walt demands, then turns to his son: "J.J., is this guy listening to you?"
"Listening is not what I'd call it," J.J. says absently; he's focused on reloading his weapon. "But it wasn't his fault: the ludds knocked out the bridge."
"You should have called in," Walt insists.
"We weren't in range!" Johnny retorts and dry-swallows a pill.
"I'm going to eat something," J.J. interrupts, and Walt roughly jerks him close to kiss the side of his blond head before slapping his shoulder and pushing him toward the mess. "Hey, you be nice to my Dad," J.J. adds, grinning over his shoulder, and that's an old, old joke by now, but Johnny's weirdly reassured each and every time he hears it.
"So?" Walt says, dragging a chair over. "How did it go?"
Johnny feels the faint smile fall off his face. "Not good," Johnny says quietly. "There were only fragments, but—we missed something." He raises a hand to his head, which has started to ache—not as badly as it did during the vision, but bad. "It's not President Stillson or America Now or Congress, it's not just the terrorists cells or the development of the AA17 Relay System—"
"Christ," Walt mutters, his head dropping into his hands.
"—but it's something else, something before that—by the time Stillson's in the Senate, it's too late. We need to do something faster, earlier—"
"...faster, earlier..." Johnny murmured, and Walt lifted his head and said, blearily, "What?"
"We need to do something sooner," Johnny repeated sleepily—and then he jerked awake and opened his eyes. "Oh my God," he said, and he was halfway to bolting upright when Walt's warm arm slid across his chest and tightened around him, anchoring him to the bed.
"Calm down," Walt said, closing his eyes again. "It's just a vision. Go back to sleep."
There was no way he could go back to sleep, not even with Walt all heavy and warm and surrounding him. The future was different; the future had changed. It was a better future than it'd been— he wasn't blind, for one thing, and Walt and J.J. were still alive and part of some kind of organized resistance, but Armageddon had still happened.He stared up at the ceiling.
Still, Future-Him still seemed to think that the nightmare could be avoided entirely, which was pretty damn optimistic, considering what Future-Him had probably gone through. Then again, he'd had a partner—and he turned his head and looked at Walt. Maybe there was some plan he and Walt could pull off together that he couldn't have pulled off alone. He and Walt had taken out Washburn; maybe they could take down Stillson, too.
"Walt," Johnny murmured, reaching up to stroke Walt's hair.
"You're just not gonna shut up, are you?" Walt mumbled.
"No," Johnny said. "Sorry."
Walt groaned softly into his pillow, then sighed, rolled, and turned on the bedside lamp. "All right, lay it on me."
"I've got some good news and some bad news," Johnny told him frankly. "The good news is—you now survive the apocalypse. The bad news is—"
"—uh, that there's an apocalypse?" Walt finished dryly.
"Yeah," Johnny said with a tired smile. "I was thinking maybe you could help me with that," and Walt looked at him for a long moment, and then leaned in to kiss him.
"All right," Walt said in a resigned voice. "I'll get my notebook," and Johnny had an entirely unsupernatural premonition that things were going to work out fine.