Jake Chambers—sometimes ’Bama—is going downstairs with his bookbag. There is Earth Science, there is Geography, there is a notepad, a pencil, a lunch his mother’s cook, Mrs. Greta Shaw, has made for him in the chrome-and-Formica kitchen where a fan whirrs eternally, sucking up alien odors. In his lunch sack he has a peanut butter and jelly sandwich; a bologna, lettuce, and onion sandwich; and four Oreo cookies. His parents do not hate him, but they do seem to have overlooked him. They have abdicated and left him to Mrs. Greta Shaw, to nannies, to a tutor in the summer and The Piper School (which is Private and Nice, and most of all, White) the rest of the time. None of these people have ever pretended to be more than what they are—professional people, the best in their fields. None have folded him to a particularly warm bosom as usually happens in the historical romance novels his mother reads and which Jake has dipped into, looking for the “hot parts.” Hysterical novels, his father sometimes calls them, and sometimes “bodice-rippers.” You should talk, his mother says with infinite scorn from behind some closed door where Jake listens. His father works for The Network, and Jake could pick him out of a line-up of skinny men with crewcuts. Probably.
Jake does not know that he hates all the professional people but Mrs. Shaw. People have always bewildered him. His mother, who is scrawny in a sexy way, often goes to bed with sick friends. His father sometimes talks about people at The Network who are doing “too much Coca-Cola.” This statement is always accompanied by a humorless grin and a quick little sniff of the thumbnail. Now he is on the street, Jake Chambers is on the street, he has “hit the bricks.” He is clean and well-mannered, comely, sensitive. He bowls once a week at Mid-Town Lanes. He has no friends, only acquaintances. He has never bothered to think about this, but it hurts him. He does not know or understand that a long association with professional people has caused him to take on many of their traits. Mrs. Greta Shaw (better than the rest of them, but gosh, is that ever a consolation prize) makes very professional sandwiches. She quarters them and cuts off the breadcrusts so that when he eats in the gym period four he looks like he ought to be at a cocktail party with a drink in his other hand instead of a sports novel or a Clay Blaisdell Western from the school library. His father makes a great deal of money because he is a master of “the kill”—that is, placing a stronger show on his Network against a weaker show on a rival Network. His father smokes four packs of cigarettes a day. His father does not cough, but he has a hard grin, and he’s not averse to the occasional shot of the old Coca-Cola.
Down the street. His mother leaves cab fare, but he walks every day it doesn’t rain, swinging his bookbag (and sometimes his bowling bag, although mostly he leaves it in his locker), a small boy who looks very American with his blond hair and blue eyes. Girls have already begun to notice him (with their mothers’ approval), and he does not shy away with skittish little-boy arrogance. He talks to them with unknowing professionalism and puzzles them away. He likes geography and bowling in the afternoon. His father owns stock in a company that makes automatic pin-setting machinery, but Mid-Town Lanes does not use his father’s brand. He does not think he has thought about this, but he has.
Walking down the street, he passes Bloomie’s, where the models stand dressed in fur coats, in six-button Edwardian suits, some in nothing at all; some are “bare-naked.” These models—these mannequins—are perfectly professional, and he hates all professionalism. He is too young to have learned to hate himself yet, but that seed is already there; given time, it will grow, and bear bitter fruit.
He comes to the corner and stands with his bookbag at his side. Traffic roars by—grunting blue-and-white busses, yellow taxis, Volkswagens, a large truck. He is just a boy, but not average, and he sees the man who kills him out of the corner of his eye. It is the man in black, and he doesn’t see the face, only the swirling robe, the outstretched hands, and the hard, professional grin. He falls into the street with his arms outstretched, not letting go of the bookbag which contains Mrs. Greta Shaw’s extremely professional lunch. There is a brief glance through a polarized windshield at the horrified face of a businessman wearing a dark-blue hat in the band of which is a small, jaunty feather. Somewhere a radio is blasting rock and roll. An old woman on the far curb screams—she is wearing a black hat with a net. Nothing jaunty about that black net; it is like a mourner’s veil. Jake feels nothing but surprise and his usual sense of headlong bewilderment—is this how it ends? Before he’s bowled better than two-seventy? He lands hard in the street and looks at an asphalt-sealed crack some two inches from his eyes. The bookbag is jolted from his hand. He is wondering if he has skinned his knees when the car belonging to the businessman wearing the blue hat with the jaunty feather passes over him. It is a big blue 1976 Cadillac with whitewall Firestone tires. The car is almost exactly the same color as the businessman’s hat. It breaks Jake’s back, mushes his guts to gravy, and sends blood from his mouth in a high-pressure jet. He turns his head and sees the Cadillac’s flaming taillights and smoke spurting from beneath its locked rear wheels. The car has also run over his bookbag and left a wide black tread on it. He turns his head the other way and sees a large gray Ford screaming to a stop inches from his body. A black fellow who has been selling pretzels and sodas from a pushcart is coming toward him on the run. Blood runs from Jake’s nose, ears, eyes, rectum. His genitals have been squashed. He wonders irritably how badly he has skinned his knees. He wonders if he’ll be late for school. Now the driver of the Cadillac is running toward him, babbling. Somewhere a terrible, calm voice, the voice of doom, says: “I am a priest. Let me through. An Act of Contrition . . .”
He sees the black robe and knows sudden horror. It is him, the man in black. Jake turns his face away with the last of his strength. Somewhere a radio is playing a song by the rock group Kiss. He sees his own hand trailing on the pavement, small, white, shapely. He has never bitten his nails.
Looking at his hand, Jake dies.
The gunslinger hunkered in frowning thought. He was tired and his body ached and the thoughts came with aggravating slowness. Across from him the amazing boy slept with his hands folded in his lap, still breathing calmly. He had told his tale without much emotion, although his voice had trembled near the end, when he had come to the part about the “priest” and the “Act of Contrition.” He had not, of course, told the gunslinger about his family and his own sense of bewildered dichotomy, but that had seeped through anyway—enough for the gunslinger to make out its shape. The fact that there had never been such a city as the boy described (unless it was the mythic city of Lud) was not the most upsetting part of the story, but it was disturbing. It was all disturbing. The gunslinger was afraid of the implications.
“Do you want to remember this when you wake up, or forget it?”
“Forget it,” the boy said promptly. “When the blood came out of my mouth I could taste my own shit.”
“All right. You’re going to sleep, understand? Real sleep now. Go ahead and lie over, if it do please ya.”
Jake laid over, looking small and peaceful and harmless. The gunslinger did not believe he was harmless. There was a deadly feeling about him, the stink of yet another trap. He didn’t like the feeling, but he liked the boy. He liked him a great deal.
“Shhh. I’m sleeping. I want to sleep.” “Yes. And when you wake up you won’t remember any of this.”
The gunslinger watched him for a brief time, thinking of his own boyhood, which usually seemed to have happened to another person—to a person who had leaped through some fabulous lens of time to become someone else—but which now seemed poignantly close. It was very hot in the stable of the way station, and he carefully drank some more water. He got up and walked to the back of the building, pausing to look into one of the horse stalls. There was a small pile of white hay in the corner, and a neatly folded blanket, but there was no smell of horse. There was no smell of anything in the stable. The sun had bled away every smell and left nothing. The air was perfectly neutral.
At the back of the stable was a small, dark room with a stainless steel machine in the center. It was untouched by rust or rot. It looked like a butter churn. At the left, a chrome pipe jutted from it, terminating over a drain in the floor. The gunslinger had seen pumps like it in other dry places, but never one so big. He could not contemplate how deep they (some long-gone they) must have drilled before they struck water, secret and forever black under the desert.
Why hadn’t they removed the pump when the way station had been abandoned?
He shuddered abruptly, an abrupt twisting of his back. Heatflesh poked out on his skin, then receded. He went to the control switch and pushed the ON button. The machine began to hum. After perhaps half a minute, a stream of cool, clear water belched from the pipe and went down the drain to be recirculated. Perhaps three gallons flowed out of the pipe before the pump shut itself down with a final click. It was a thing as alien to this place and time as true love, and yet as concrete as a Judgment, a silent reminder of the time when the world had not yet moved on. It probably ran on an atomic slug, as there was no electricity within a thousand miles of here and even dry batteries would have lost their charge long ago. It had been made by a company called North Central Positronics. The gunslinger didn’t like it.
He went back and sat down beside the boy, who had put one hand under his cheek. Nice-looking boy. The gunslinger drank some more water and crossed his legs so he was sitting Indian fashion. The boy, like the squatter on the edge of the desert who kept the bird (Zoltan, the gunslinger remembered abruptly, the bird’s name was Zoltan), had lost his sense of time, but the fact that the man in black was closer seemed beyond doubt. Not for the first time, the gunslinger wondered if the man in black was letting him catch up for some reason of his own. Perhaps the gunslinger was playing into his hands. He tried to imagine what the confrontation might be like, and could not.
He was very hot, but no longer felt sick. The nursery rhyme occurred to him again, but this time instead of his mother, he thought of Cort—Cort, an ageless engine of a man, his face stitched with the scars of bricks and bullets and blunt instruments. The scars of war and instruction in the arts of war. He wondered if Cort had ever had a love to match those monumental scars. He doubted it. He thought of Susan, and his mother, and of Marten, that incomplete enchanter.
The gunslinger was not a man to dwell on the past; only a shadowy conception of the future and of his own emotional make-up saved him from being a man without imagination, a dangerous dullard. His present run of thought therefore rather amazed him. Each name called up others—Cuthbert, Alain, the old man Jonas with his quavery voice; and again Susan, the lovely girl at the window. Such thoughts always came back to Susan, and the great rolling plain known as the Drop, and fishermen casting their nets in the bays on the edge of the Clean Sea.
The piano player in Tull (also dead, all dead in Tull, and by his hand) had known those places, although he and the gunslinger had only spoken of them that once. Sheb had been fond of the old songs, had once played them in a saloon called the Traveller’s Rest, and the gunslinger hummed one tunelessly under his breath:
Love o love o careless love
See what careless love has done.
The gunslinger laughed, bemused. I am the last of that green and warm-hued world. And for all his nostalgia, he felt no self-pity. The world had moved on mercilessly, but his legs were still strong, and the man in black was closer. The gunslinger nodded out. When he awoke, it was almost dark and the boy was gone.
The gunslinger got up, hearing his joints pop, and went to the stable door. There was a small flame dancing in darkness on the porch of the inn. He walked toward it, his shadow long and black and trailing in the reddish-ochre light of sunset.
Jake was sitting by a kerosene lamp. “The oil was in a drum,” he said, “but I was scared to burn it in the house. Everything’s so dry—”
“You did just right.” The gunslinger sat down, seeing but not thinking about the dust of years that puffed up around his rump. He thought it something of a wonder that the porch didn’t simply collapse beneath their combined weight. The flame from the lamp shadowed the boy’s face with delicate tones. The gunslinger produced his poke and rolled a cigarette.
“We have to palaver,” he said.
Jake nodded, smiling a little at the word.
“I guess you know I’m on the prod for that man you saw.”
“Are you going to kill him?”
“I don’t know. I have to make him tell me something. I may have to make him take me someplace.” “Where?”
“To find a tower,” the gunslinger said. He held his cigarette over the chimney of the lamp and drew on it; the smoke drifted away on the rising night breeze. Jake watched it. His face showed neither fear nor curiosity, certainly not enthusiasm.
“So I’m going on tomorrow,” the gunslinger said. “You’ll have to come with me. How much of that meat is left?”
“Only a little.”
“A little more.”
The gunslinger nodded. “Is there a cellar?”
“Yes.” Jake looked at him. The pupils of his eyes had grown to a huge, fragile size. “You pull up on a ring in the floor, but I didn’t go down. I was afraid the ladder would break and I wouldn’t be able to get up again. And it smells bad. It’s the only thing around here that smells at all.”
“We’ll get up early and see if there’s anything down there worth taking. Then we’ll go.”
“All right.” The boy paused and then said, “I’m glad I didn’t kill you when you were sleeping. I had a pitchfork and I thought about doing it. But I didn’t, and now I won’t have to be afraid to go to sleep.”
“What would you be afraid of?”
The boy looked at him ominously. “Spooks. Of him coming back.” “The man in black,” the gunslinger said. Not a question.
“Yes. Is he a bad man?”
“I guess that depends on where you’re standing,” the gunslinger said absently. He got up and pitched his cigarette out onto the hardpan. “I’m going to sleep.”
The boy looked at him timidly. “Can I sleep in the stable with you?”
The gunslinger stood on the steps, looking up, and the boy joined him. Old Star was up there, and Old Mother. It seemed to the gunslinger that if he closed his eyes he would be able to hear the croaking of the first spring peepers, smell the green, almost-summer smell of the court lawns after their first cutting (and hear, perhaps, the indolent click of wooden balls as the ladies of the East Wing, attired only in their shifts as dusk glimmered toward dark, played at Points), could almost see Cuthbert and Jamie as they came through the break in the hedges, calling for him to ride out with them . . .
It was not like him to think so much of the past.
He turned back and picked up the lamp. “Let’s go to sleep,” he said.
They crossed to the stable together.