Rating: R, overall for violence, language and sexual situations.
Summary: The world of Lotrips mingles with Stephen King's The Stand (and The DarkTower). Billy, Sean and Toni go foraging, and pick up something they hadn't anticipated.
Feedback: is much loved and appreciated.
Disclaimers: This is entirely fictional. No disrespect to anyone, real or fictional, is intended. The Stand was written by Stephen King. The title comes from T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men.
Previous chapters: Chaps. 1 through 45; Chap. 46; Chap. 47; Chap. 48 Chap. 49
This Is the Way the World Ends, Chap. 50
"You know what we should do?" Sean asks. He's using his helpful "good idea" voice and, just at the moment, Billy finds it grating. He doesn't want to hear any good ideas or helpful suggestions. He just wants to sit quietly in the passenger seat of their borrowed U-Haul lorry and smoke, letting his thoughts drift away until they've reached Post Falls and he's forced to return to the practical.
They've scouted out a propane dealership on the outskirts of the city, and at the top of the day's list lies the acquisition of a propane-powered washing machine, dryer and fridge, along with as much of the fuel as they can carry. It's Viggo's idea: he's been reading books on living off the grid, as if there is a grid to live off of, anymore. They've been given a list of materials he needs to start constructing solar panels, his next project, as well.
Dom would have loved that, once, Billy thinks. He'd have been all over it; perhaps even given Vig some legitimate help. He always was clever with his hands, good at following diagrams, able to jolly things in their houses back into a state functioning when Billy's hopeless.
Billy shakes his head, takes a last long puff on his cigarette and extinguishes the fag-end on the outside of the door--he's been holding it out the window to try to keep the worst of the smoke out of Sean's disapproving eyes.
"We should get Dom his own iPod. Seriously. I could find a laptop and a bunch of
CD's, and we could rip--" Sean trots the word out proudly. Obviously Seanwise, who's by far the least technologically minded of them all, has been talking electronics with Elijah. "--Them for him, and then he'd have something to do, right, when he's left on his own?"
"He won't be left on his own much longer now," Billy answers, when what he's really thinking (as he glares at the little metallic-blue rectangle currently charging from the cigarette lighter) is, That world--iPods, laptops, CD's-is gone, Sean. Let it go. Just fucking let it go. He's in such a mood that Astin's thoughtfulness, his optimism, don't do anything but oppress him.
He hates this, scavanging through the wreckage of the old world, even though he knows it's necessary for now, until they've learned all they need to learn about surviving another way. He hates his own bitterness, and the way he seems to feel angry all the time. That is, when he doesn't feel too bruised to let much of anything in. He's never in his life been a bitter person, or an angry person--he's been, for years now, the sensible balance to Dom's drama--and he mourns the loss of his old self nearly as much as he mourns the loss of Dom.
Perhaps it's paranoia, but it's begun to creep into his head lately that perhaps Dom doesn't actually remember him--well, really, remember any of them, but he doesn't much care about that bit, if he's being entirely honest. It's their own life together he's concerned about, and how can they have a life if he's not even in Dom's head? It's little things Dom's let drop, little gaps, little inconsistencies. It's the way Dom will turn to him with an anxious look, as if he's trying to search Billy's face for clues on how to act, when the truth is he can't see anything.
It makes him feel half mental that Dom can't even see him. He misses that feeling of Dom practically eating him up with his eyes, those hungry, stormy stares fixed on his face, his body, that humbling feeling of being so completely loved, needed, appreciated.
He misses Dom being boldly, unabashedly Dom.
Billy wishes he dared light up another cigarette. He's just not up, at the moment, to the pressure of Sean's disapproval, all the more so because he knows Sean's right: with his family history and the lack of medical care available to them, the last thing he should be doing is smoking, especially when Dom needs him so terribly. When Dom may always need him so terribly.
How can Dom need him, but not know him? Billy can't understand that. Is it just a sense of self-preservation, or something else--his love for Billy remaining even when the memories that created the love have gone away?
If they have gone away, that is. If Billy's not merely giving in to some sort of mad apprehension.
Damn, but he wants another cigarette. He's hungry for that rush, that pure lightning joy when the nicotine hits his system.
It's not as if there's much else left that feels good anymore.
And it's not as if Sean hasn't given in to his own little indulgences. At the very least, he has Sonja, and they can lose themselves in one another's bodies at night. Or during the day, if it comes to that. How many times have the two of them disappeared, only to reappear half an hour or an hour later, rosy and smiley (on Sean's part) or sleepy-eyed and languid as a cat (on Sonja's). It's no wonder to any of them that Sonja's already pregnant
"Billy…" Sean admonishes.
"I only meant it's getting colder," Billy says. "We'll be inside more, with him." He gives Sean his innocent look (one he may well have learnt from Dom), forcing a smile. Sean buys it absolutely, beaming. A moody Billy doesn't fit in with his sense of the world.
"It's a good idea," Billy tells him. "About the music. He'd like that, I think." He absolutely must shake off this foul state of mind--it's as if he's escaped the physical effects of his hangover, but not the mental depression. It's not fair to either Sean or Toni, and it's not good for their mission. Grumpy and brooding, he's less likely to keep them safe. Not that he knows, with Flagg gone, what he's meant to be keeping them safe from.
His mood's even made him border on being cruel, toward Dom, too, and that's simply unforgivable.
What if that's the last time you saw him, he chides himself. What if that was the last time, ever, and you didn't leave him with a kiss?
"When Christine…" Sean begins, then there's the inevitable moment as he swallows, struggling to regain the composure that slips a bit every time he speaks his wife's name. "When Christine was pregnant for the first time. With Aly?" Again, there's that fight for control.
"Mmn." Billy answers gently, reaching out to lay his small hand over Sean's larger one, squeezing a little. He will shake this off. He will. For his own sake, as well as his companions'; he hates the knotted feeling it's left in the pit of his stomach, even after his hangover is long gone.
"Umn. Yeah. Thanks, Billy. Anyway, when Christine was pregnant with Aly, she got, just, the worst morning sickness in the history of womankind. Like, practically since the date of conception with her head in the toilet, just sick, sick, sick. And you know how pretty she was…"
A gentle smile has come over his face, but his eyes have flooded too, so much so that Billy hopes he can still see the road adequately and won't go crashing into Toni in the SUV ahead. "It was practically all I could do to touch her. Not that she wanted very much to be touched. But she looked like… I dunno. Crap. She even smelled bad. At least Dom doesn't smell bad."
Billy laughs softly. "That's true." And it is. Awful as he feels, Dom smells lovely, like sunlight, somehow, if sunlight could be said to have a smell. It's just that isn't the way his Dom smells. His Dom, though clean, has a certain quality all his own: earthy, a little wild, undeniably masculine. "And point taken."
"It means a lot to our… umn… spouses. To feel loved. Not to feel bad, even when they feel bad. Sometimes it's up to us to make a point of it, y'know?"
"I know." Billy wonders if Dom's been talking to Sean and, if so, what's been said--and he resents it suddenly. What could Dom possibly have to say to Sean that he couldn't say to him? Dom and Sean are friends, of course, but not in the way Dom and Elijah are friends, or even Dom and Orli--and certainly not in the way Dom will tell anything to Billy, do anything for Billy. Their natures are such polar opposites that if circumstances hadn't thrown them together on the trilogy, they'd never have sought one another out.
And yet, since they've been home, it's been Sean, more than any other, who's taken on the burden of Dom's care.
"I shouldn't let you do so much," Billy blurts out suddenly. "For Dom, that is."
"Why's that?" Sean gives him a look of honest surprise.
"It's my duty."
Sean laughs at him. "Billy, Billy, Billy. When did you get so serious about everything? I figure you're usually up half the night, you could probably use a break in the daytime. 'Sides, man, it's what I do. You guys don't call me 'Seanwise' for nothing."
"True enough." Billy laughs a little too. If Sean had been on the Titanic, he'd probably have been running around making sure everyone else got into the lifeboats. Most likely bringing them packets of sandwiches and flasks of hot cocoa for the journey, as well.
"Sometimes…" Billy begins. There's a lump in his throat and it's hard to speak, he finds, much less put his paranoia into words. "I'm not sure Dom remembers me."
His friend throws him a sharp look--as sharp as he's capable of, anyway. "What makes you say that?" The words themselves sound abrupt, but his tone, even for Sean, is extraordinarily kind.
"Little things." Billy rubs at his throat; he feels as if he's swallowed a boulder.
"Little things," Sean echoes, shaking his head. "Oh, Billy, you have no idea…" He pauses, sucking in a deep breath. "I'm afraid it's not so little. How does 1990 sound to you?"
"1990?" In that year he'd been the age Dom was when they first met, well into his job at the bookbindery. In 1990 Dom would have been what? Fourteen--no, thirteen, for most of the year anyway, since his birthday came at the end. A precocious boy barely into his teens. "Sean, what are you telling me?"
"I wasn't supposed to say, but what the hell? You should know. You need to know."
"Know what?" Billy can hear his own voice dropping low, a dangerous note creeping in.
"Hey, you don't need to go all gunslinger on me."
"Sorry." Billy rubs his eyes. "Sorry. For 'going gunslinger,' that is." He gestures suddenly. "Oi! Toni's turning."
"Is this the place? I thought it was later." Incredibly, Sean flicks on his turn signal, and Billy can't help laughing at him, just a bit.
"Safety Sean! And I say it with love."
"Screw you," Sean answers, laughing too. "I can't seem to break the habit. It's in my muscle memory--is that what it's called?--or something."
"Forget it. What did you mean by 'how does 1990 sound?'"
"Hold that thought." Sean follows Toni down the exit ramp, barely squeezing by a place where a red convertible's rear-ended an ancient estate wagon, climbing halfway up onto its roof, both cars crumpled against the guard rail. "Whew! That was close."
Pointedly, neither of them look at the corpses inside the two cars.
"That's where it is inside Dom's head," Sean continues, once the wreck's well behind them. Following Toni, they're coming into the nearly-deserted carpark of a smallish shopping precinct. There's the propane place, a sporting goods store (they've marked that one for exploration, also), a Chinese restaurant, a bowling alley and a coffee shop that isn't Starbucks. "It's 1990. Summer, I think. He doesn't remember turning fourteen. He misses Germany a lot. And his mom and dad and Matthew. He knows he's not a kid anymore, but the only part of now that's left is what comes in the bad dreams. Everything else? Nada. Zippo. Zilch."
Sometimes, Billy thinks, ignorance is bliss. It's impossible, at the moment, even to look at Sean. He's suddenly, terrifically pissed at Dom for lying to him, for pretending to love him when he doesn't, can't possibly, love him at all. If he had the proper authorities present, he'd divorce him on the spot.
"You're being unreasonable," Sean tells him, with such extreme reasonableness Billy makes some muttered, incoherent comment and turns away.
"No, listen, you stubborn Scottish bastard." Even now, Sean doesn't sound angry. He sounds loving, more than anything else. "You're being unreasonable. Do you think you're going to go home to Dom and give him a hard time about this, like it's his fault? Billy, be yourself, for once. Be our Billy."
Billy feels as if his bones are melting. He slumps in his seat, anger like lava in his stomach.
"How hard do you think it is, being a grown man with only the memories of a teenager--a young teenager, at that? Being completely shattered physically, surrounded by people you don't know, everyone you do know dead. 'Cause that's all Dom does know about the present as it relates to his past, that his dad and his brother are dead. How do you think that feels?"
For a moment, Billy's speechless, and then he hears his own voice saying the cruelest thing he can possibly think of to say. "What do you care? You never even liked Dom. You didn't. You were jealous."
"Of what? You?" Sean laughs, and it's still not an angry sound. "You flatter yourself, Mr. Boyd!" He parks the lorry by the propane store's loading dock, turning in his seat to rest a hand on Billy's shoulder. "Billy, 'never' is a big word. You get that, don't you? I'll be the first to admit that, back in the day, I didn't feel as close to Dom as to you and Elijah, but that doesn't mean I didn't always love all four of you. You guys are my brothers, all the more so now Mac's gone. All of us, here in Idaho, are family, and you know me--I'm not going to let my family get hurt, not even by one of our own." He squeezes Billy's shoulder then, almost hard enough to be painful. "Besides, you're still almost the only thing Dom thinks about. Do you think a little blip like amnesia would make him stop loving you?"
There's a rap on the window, one that makes Billy jump nearly a foot in his seat.
"Guys?" Toni calls to them from the other side of the glass. "Y'all planning on coming out any time soon? We have heavy appliances to move, and I'm not doing that by myself."
"I don't know," Billy says softly, glaring down at his hands, all knotted together in his lap, like he's halfway through some muddled-up game of here-is-the-church-here-is-the-steeple. Open the doors and see all the people, he thinks. "Christ, Sean, I wish I did."
It takes them slightly less than two hours to load the appliances into the back of the lorry, then fill and carefully stow several dozen canisters of propane. After, the sporting goods store is explored and raided for fishing tackle, fleece-lined Wellies, warm socks and gloves and raingear. It proves to house a fairly well equipped gun section also--Billy's able to locate ammunition for six of their weapons: Vig and Sonja's rifles and shotguns as well as his own pair of six-shooters.
"You should wear a bandalero, like Clint Eastwood in one of those movies," Toni laughs. Billy quite suspects she's never seen a Spaghetti Western in her life. "You'd look pretty badass, Bill."
"Yeah." Sean grins. "We could star in a movie and call it, 'The Short, the Fat and the Bossy.'"
Toni slips an arm around Sean's waist, leaning her head on his shoulder, her braids whispering as they slide across the fabric of his shirt. "I'm not that short." She tips Billy a bit of a wink, and then he can't help laughing too. Hard, physical work and the company of these two is good for him.
"What do you say we ditch the truck here for now?" Sean says. "There's a bigger mall a couple exits down. They'll probably have a Best Buy there, or something, so we can get Dom's prezzie and scope out the other stores for anything good. I'm not quite up to dealing with Post Falls today."
Billy understands that. More than any town they've visited, the shopping areas of Post Falls are full of the dead: in restaurants, in shops, in cars. It's unnerving walking through those silent streets, watched and not watched by so many dead and sunken eyes.
He shivers lightly thinking of it, glad he won't have to face that today. Really, he'd like to leave now, head home to their own, proper house, that's full of activity, light, living voices. He'd help to wrestle the appliances into place, hook up the fuel, then spend a bit of time with Dom in the lounge. It's wrong to be angry, he knows now, even if a little of the anger lingers. At least if they're talking honestly, Dom might lose a bit of the haunted, anxious look that seems to hover around him. Perhaps he'll relax a little into his old self.
He's thinking of Dom, imagining holding Dom, breathing in his new, sunlight smell. He wonders if that's what Dom smelled like when he was very young, and it's come back to him now, like a return to innocence--except Billy can't help but laugh at the thought. "Dom" and "innocence" are not two nouns that, in the natural order of things, would normally go hand in hand.
"Someone's feeling better," Sean says softly.
Billy shrugs. "I might come round after all."
"Good." Sean smiles. "Good, Billy. I'm glad." Everything about him appears cheerful as he strides to the SUV, and even the pistol holstered on his right hip doesn't take away from the effect. "Elijah made a list," he calls over his shoulder as he slides into the driver's seat. "Of the CD's and stuff we should get. I don't recognize more than half of the bands."
Billy and Toni exchange grins: by now everyone's aware of Sean's musical taste, so awful it's endearing.
"Looks like daddy's driving," Toni chuckles. "C'mon, darling Billy, let's find something to make your man happy." She walks backwards toward the SUV, singing in her sweet, sultry voice,
Baby, can you dig your man?
He's a righteous man.
Billy joins her, singing at the top of his voice, "Baby, can you dig your man?" It's still a terrible song, completely banal, but it's also a good time, singing with Toni beneath the bright September sun, Toni nearly laughing her arse off because of the way his Scottish accent renders the word "righteous."
"Hey, I still like that song!" Sean tells them, even as he laughs at their impromptu duet, "You know what else we should get? A guitar for Billy!"
"No, no," Billy insists, though a part of him likes the idea. It's such a freeing thing, music, and something he can carry with him into this new age without bitterness. They should have instruments. They should play and sing, and remember the brilliant songs that have been, even when there's no longer any such thing as iPods or CD players, or the electricity to make them function.
"Or, maybe yes," Billy says.
"That's our Bill," Sean tells him quietly.
It's nearly evening when they load their swag into the back of the SUV, including a guitar that's almost decent (it will hold its tuning well enough, and the tone's not bad, though Billy's determined he'll be on the lookout for a better one as soon as there's time), an iPod Classic with an almost frightening amount of memory for Dom, a laptop and a bin bag full of CD's. There's a portable DVD player, too, one that can be charged from the car, and DVD's.
Toni shakes her head as Sean drops a boxed set of the trilogy into the bag. "You guys!"
"It's for Dom," Sean protests. "So he'll know. It's important, Toni. Maybe he can't watch, but he can listen."
"You guys," she repeats, though in a different tone, one that's loving, almost motherly.
"We declare you an honorary hobbit," Sean tells her.
"No." Toni shakes her head, braids whispering again. Her tone, when she goes on, is completely serious. "Y'all were part of something magic. I mean that as a real thing; we believe in magic where I come from. You were part of something magic and the universe, or God, or the good loas, whatever's out there, let you keep each other in these terrible times, and that's something Sonja, little Max and I won't ever share--even Vig and Orli won't share in it completely. Do you understand how special it is, that you were allowed to have each other, when everything else in the world was broken apart?" A single tear slips over each of her lower lids, and Billy can't look away as the silver trickles slowly over her honey-brown skin. "Do you get that?"
Abruptly, she turns from them, climbing into the driver's seat of the SUV.
Sean and Billy exchange glances. "Where did that come from?" Sean asks.
"Dunno," Billy answers, though in his heart he believes he knows. In his heart, he believes Toni's right--though how or why he couldn't say. We few. We happy few. We band of brothers, he thinks, as he once thought what now seems a lifetime ago, in the peach-coloured house in the Napa valley.
"Shotgun," Sean says, almost absently.
Billy doesn't argue, only slides into the backseat, leaning forward briefly to rub Toni's shoulders. She stretches like a cat, her face turning back to regard him, her eyes, usually so expressive, strangely unreadable.
They're silent all the way back to the carpark where they've left the lorry.
The wind's shifted and there's a funny smell in the air, a rotted-meat smell that's too familiar these days. Either there's a corpse or corpses somewhere near, or things have gone very wrong with the supplies inside the former restaurant--which puts paid to Billy's half-thought-out plan to scrounge for interesting spices. He wouldn't set foot inside now if his life depended on it.
"God, that's foul!" Sean exclaims. Toni has the neck of her t-shirt up over her nose and mouth, breathing shallowly through the thin cotton. "I don't know about you, but I've had enough--let's blow this popsicle stand!"
Sometimes Billy still has no idea what Sean's on about, but Toni's nodding, and he, too, has had enough. They scurry into their respective vehicles quickly and are on the road before two minutes have passed. Good thing, too,, he thinks--the shadows are beginning to fall.
Sean's drumming his fingertips on the steering wheel as he drives. For a moment, Billy thinks it's nervousness, but then, with amusement, he recognizes the rhythms, such as they are, of "Baby, Can You Dig Your Man?"
"It's stuck in my head, now," Sean explains, sheepishly, then. "Did we get some Eau de Rotting Chinese food on us? 'Cause I can still smell it."
Billy sniffs. Sean's right: there's a faint yet unmistakable pong in the air. "Good thing we have the laundry machines now; we won't have to burn our clothes."
"Yeah, but we still have the privilege of living with it all the way back home."
"We won't smell it after a bit," Billy answers--and it's true, after a few miles, traveling through the increasing darkness, he doesn't smell anything; it's not until they're winding up the dirt road toward home that he's assaulted by another whiff, this time so strong it nearly makes him gag.
"Good God in Heaven!" Sean spits out. "What the hell is that?" He's driving with one hand over his nose and mouth now, eyes wild. "Billy, is it in the truck with us? What if it's in the truck with us?"
Instantly, all Billy's gunslinger senses spring into overdrive. Sean's right: it's there with them, right behind them in the cargo area of the lorry, a cargo area they were too bleeding stupid to check before they drove off so blithely, having left the U-haul alone for such a long time.
In another instant, as Sean jerks the lorry to a halt behind the house, Billy knows what the smell is, what the intruders behind them are: something with its own malevolence, something that wasn't wiped out along with its master, Flagg.
"Sean," Billy breathes. "It's the wolves. The wolves have caught up to us."
He's out of the lorry in a heartbeat, his guns springing into his hands.
All shall be well and all shall be well
- Fic: This Is the Way the World Ends, Chapter 50