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Note: this story will make very little sense if you have not seen "Visions," the season two finale.
In The Bleak Midwinter
In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter,
Bitter, but not burning. He rinses the water around in his mouth a few more times and spits most of it onto the ground, lets a few drops trickle down his throat, and waits. The sole on his left boot is starting to come loose. He'll need to find a new pair soon.
Fifteen minutes, and he feels okay. He looks around again, making sure no one came up behind him, and unstraps his pack to get out the kettle. Time to move quick. The pack isn't enough to make him a target unless someone's truly desperate. But there are a lot of desperate people now, and he doesn't trust the visions to warn him.
He uses his cup to scoop the rest of the water out of the hollow. It leaves a black and grimy stain on the scrap of bed sheet he uses to filter it. It doesn't take him long to fill the kettle. Water is too heavy to carry much. He seals it up, making sure the seams are sealed with soft wax, and puts it carefully down into the bottom of the pack. The silver cane handle is glittering next to it. He doesn't touch it; he closes the pack up, lifts it carefully to his shoulder, and starts the long trudge back.
The front of the house is charred black, windows a mess of jagged shards and broken shutters. The fence around the property fell over a long time ago, leaving nothing but twisted wire with weeds growing out of it. He has to watch himself picking through the yard, but the back of the house is in good shape, and the fireplace works. Two weeks here so far, one of the longest stretches he's spent in one camp. He has another five weeks traveling to get to Maine, and what was left of summer these days has already slipped past. He knows he probably should have been on the road by now.
He puts the water on to boil and dumps his pack out on the carpet. More magazines today. The library in this town clearly wasn't much even before it burned, but he found a half-dozen weeklies in the dumpster behind the ruins of the building, damaged, but not rotted like newspaper would be by now. They smell sickening, redolent of decayed garbage. He will read them anyway, whatever he can make out.
Loose, the cane handle rolls around in a half-circle, firelit and casting thin reflected slivers on the walls. He ignores it. First he will read, eat, do his mending, repack everything, bank the fire. Then he can touch. Then he can see.
Johnny's face changed when he zoned out on one of his visions; this was different. He wasn't seeing a different world, but he kept looking over to the side, like something had stepped into this one. Something he didn't really want to see.
Walt gave him a couple weeks to snap out of it. The third time it happened while Johnny was over for dinner, he still didn't say anything, but he started watching a lot more closely. When it was happening, Johnny's hands would wrap around the top of his cane so tight that the blood would leave his fingers, and his eyes would start tracking something no one else could see. Johnny's face had gotten harder in the last year, lines coming out of nowhere, as if the missing six years were catching up with him all at once.
Sarah still hadn't noticed anything; she was smiling, a little artificially, and collecting the plates. J.J. came back to the table with his latest science paper and Johnny bent over it, but he didn't stop glancing up. By the time J.J. was sent off to bed, Walt could pretty much guess that Johnny was seeing a person, someone moving around the kitchen watching them. Creepy as hell, like being haunted, and he was torn between making Johnny tell him what it was and not really wanting to know.
"I'll give you a ride home," he said. He knew it was a bad idea. He'd always been too curious for his own good.
"No, it's okay," Johnny said. "It's a nice night, I'll just walk."
Walt ignored him, kissed Sarah on the cheek, and put on his coat. John looked at the person that wasn't there again, then gave Sarah a stilted smile and went out the door Walt was holding for him.
"Is whatever you're looking at in there with her?" Walt asked quietly, outside the car.
Johnny stared at him for a second, eyes swimming black in his pale face under the street light. "No," he said. "No, he's with me."
Walt let it rest there, and pretended he didn't see Johnny looking in the rear-view mirror all the way home. They didn't talk about it, but he could feel Johnny's tension, how little he wanted to be home, alone with his ghost.
Johnny took the cane to bed with him now, and his hand stayed on the silver while he slept. Like a penance to have the shadow of the future sitting in the corner, huddled in a dark coat, watching him. Wey didn't ask for it, but his white, scarred face was hungry, and he stayed even when there was nothing to say. Sometimes he looked different: one day a fresh scrape, bloody red against his bleached skin; on another, lips purpled with cold and a dusting of snow on his coat that didn't melt in front of Johnny's fireplace. He never smiled, and sometimes he looked at Johnny with so much hatred in his eyes that Johnny would flinch and almost take his hand off the cane. Almost.
Sunday dinners were hardest. Wey watched Sarah and J.J., sometimes as if they belonged to him, which was bad enough. Other times he looked at them with a pitiless cold glare, mouth twisted sharp and cruel as a knife, as if they were already dead, already extinguished, consumed in fire. Johnny bore it and said things he didn't remember at the table, protecting the ordinary dinner conversation, their uncomplicated happiness.
Sarah talked over Walt's silences a little too brightly, trying to fill in the gaps, but Johnny understood them better than she did and made no effort to draw him into conversation. Walt's steady gaze measured him, held him responsible, and every week he made another silent promise in answer, vows they would never know about.
After he'd guessed about Wey, Walt always drove him home. Johnny could have brought his own car, but the drive made another fifteen minutes he didn't have to hear more about the latest magazines and papers Wey had collected, the ones full of Johnny's name. Sometimes Walt came in and had coffee, on the opposite side of the counter, Wey watching them from the far end with his hands in his pockets; they never really talked about anything, conscious of the presence in the room with them, but it made things easier.
Sitting at the counter, Walt took the mug full of coffee and said, "How about you telling me what's going on?"
Johnny blinked and looked up from the empty mugs in his hands; he'd just taken them from the cupboard. He turned around. Walt was coming into the kitchen, taking his coat off. "You know, I'm kinda tired. Maybe we should call it a night."
Walt gave him a knowing look before he slung his coat on a chair and sat down at the counter. He didn't make a move to go. "Maybe you should tell me what's going on, John," he said, quietly. His eyes were strangely tender.
Johnny poured the coffee, handed one of the mugs over, and Walt reached up to take it. He didn't say anything for a while, trying to come up with something plausible, and waited too long. Walt put down the mug, got up, and opened the basement door. It wasn't locked, and the light was still on downstairs; these days Johnny kept a stepladder and a box of spare light bulbs handy, and almost never turned it off. Walt went down the narrow stairs carefully, his heavy shoes thumping on the steps loud enough for Johnny to hear him the whole way down.
Then he was in a car, driving away: Walt was with him. Sarah was watching them go, standing in front of a cabin somewhere deep in the woods, with her arms around J.J., her face white and scared. And later, down in the basement, Walt was loading a hunting rifle, and Stillson was on television with a campaign appearance date running in the news ticker at the bottom of the screen.
"You can't do it," Walt said. "You're the only one who can tell if it changes anything. It can't be you."
Johnny let go of the coffee cup. Walt was still at the counter, waiting. "I want your word Sarah and J.J. don't find out about this," Johnny said.
They had forgotten about him. Johnny was holding on to the cane out of habit. Bannerman was sitting in front of the billboard, hands clasped between his legs, head bowed down.
"Go to hell, Walt. I would give anything for it not to be true," Johnny said angrily. "Does it look to you like I'm having a good fucking time down here?"
"All right!" Bannerman said. There was a pause. "All right. I get it, I'm sorry." He didn't raise his head. "It's just a little much to take in. The end of the world? Christ, Johnny, even after everything else."
"Yeah. I know. I know." Johnny sat down next to him and let go of the cane to put a hand on his shoulder.
They go out like a blown candle.
The billboard is still there, with a few more photographs, different articles; he set it back up on its stand when he came downstairs. The bulb overhead is burnt black, and there are droppings in the corners of the room. He goes back upstairs, still holding the handle. The house is in strangely good shape. The furniture is grey with dust, but untouched by anyone but the mice, and the fireplace is laid. Thick curtains hang at the windows, a good wool blanket is still lying folded on the couch; there are even cans left in the cupboard. All the other houses on this block have been smashed up and looted; he looked inside a few as he struggled down the road.
The white drifts are up to the windowsills outside, mixed snow and ash, and every sound is strangely muffled. He half wants to shout, though he has been walking through an empty world for more than a year now. But the silence here has a terrible quality to it, thick with ghosts and despair, and the weight of it is almost more than he can bear. He puts the handle on the hearth, lights the fireplace, and heats a can of soup mixed with a can of vegetables; it's the best he's eaten in some time with so little effort. The smell of the soup and the red glow help make the place bearable.
He stretches out on the couch and pulls the blanket over him. The light changes, suddenly warmer, and the furniture brightens, polished, dust-free surfaces reflecting the fire. The blanket was lying spread out on the floor in front of the hearth, and Johnny was stretched out on his back, breathing hard and savagely, Bannerman's hands braced against the floor on either side of his shoulders.
He throws the blanket off violently, almost thrashing against it. The corner falls through the place where they were lying, lands too close to the fire and catches, nylon edge going up with a bright stinking flame. He has to grab it and smother it against the stone of the hearth by touch, listening while the two of them strained and gasped behind him.
He's never much liked porn. Five months ago he found a stained copy of Hustler in a trash can, and he got his first hard-on since waking up, looking at pictures that would've made him sick before. It's still in his pack, wrapped in one of his few precious ziplock bags. If he doesn't look at their faces, he can pretend it wasn't real. They were outlined with orange-red against the fire, moving too hard and fast for it to be anything but fucking. They didn't really talk, but Johnny said, "Yeah," in a thickened voice every once in a while, or "Please," staring straight up at the ceiling.
He's so hard. He has his hand on his dick and the blanket in his lap, sitting behind Johnny's head. Johnny couldn't see him. The son of a bitch owes him this: he let this fucking happen, he let the world end, he died in his own disaster and left everyone else dead or starving in a winter that was going to last for years. He keeps his jaw clenched shut and jerks himself hard, spitting into his hand every once in a while, watching them.
He comes when Johnny did; Bannerman kept going for a while longer before he finished. The two of them lay panting, side by side, not looking at each other. He slumps forward over his lap, his hand wet, a damp stain spreading over the blanket.
Bannerman eventually said, "I thought we weren't going to do this anymore."
Johnny sat up and rubbed his face. "It's late. You should probably go home," he said.
"That's not what I meant. Shit." Bannerman got up, and when he pulled Johnny to his feet, the two of them stepped off the blanket.
The past and all the warmth vanishes with them, and he is alone again, in the silence of the present, in the ashes of the world.