The Pagan Stone (Epilogue)
HE WOKE ALONE IN BED, WHICH HE FIGURED WAS a damn shame since he felt nearly normal again. The sun blasted through the windows. He'd probably been out for hours, Gage thought. And small wonder. Dying took a lot out of a man.
He couldn't remember much of the trip back. The entire trip had been one of those "one foot in front of the other" ordeals, and with several stints of that made with his arms slung around Fox's and Cal's shoulders. But he'd wanted to get the hell back-all of them had.
He'd been weak as a baby, that much he remembered. So weak even after they'd gotten back to the house that Cal and Fox had had to help him shower off the blood and dirt, and Christ only knew what he'd brought back from hell with him.
But it no longer hurt to breathe-a good sign. And when he sat up, nothing spun. When he got to his feet, the floor stayed steady and nothing inside him wept with pain. Taking a moment to be sure he remained upright, he glanced at the scar across his wrist, then explored the one on his shoulder with his fingertips.
The light, and the dark. He'd carried both in with him.
He pulled on jeans and a shirt to go downstairs.
The front door was open, letting in more sunshine and a nice summer breeze. He spotted Cal and Fox on the front deck, with Lump laid out between their chairs. When he stepped out, both of them grinned at him-and Fox flipped the top of the cooler that sat beside him, took out a beer, offered it.
"Read my mind."
"Can do." Fox rose, as did Cal. They tapped bottles, drank.
"Kicked its ass," Fox said.
"That we did."
"Glad you're not dead," Cal added.
"So you said a couple dozen times on the way back."
"I wasn't sure you remembered. You were in and out."
"I'm in now. The Hollow?"
"My dad, Hawbaker, a few others, they held it during the worst. It got bad," Cal added, staring out at his front gardens. "Fires, looting-"
"Your usual random acts of violence," Fox continued. "There are some people in the hospital, others who'll have to decide if they want to rebuild. But Jim Hawkins. Hero time."
"He's got a broken hand, some cuts, and a lot of bruises, but he came through. The farm, too," Cal told him. "We went out to check on things, pick up Lump, and swung through town while you were getting your beauty sleep. It could've been a lot worse. Hell, it has been a lot worse. No new fatalities. Not a single one. The Hollow owes you, brother."
"Shit, it owes all of us." Gage tipped back his beer. "But yeah, especially me."
"Speaking of owing," Fox reminded him. "That'll be a grand-for each of us."
Gage lowered his beer, grinned. "It's one bet I don't mind losing." Then staggered back when Fox threw an arm around him, and kissed him square on the mouth.
"Changed my mind about the manly handshake."
"Jesus, O'Dell." Even as Gage lifted a hand, Cal moved in and repeated the gesture. Laughing now, Gage swiped a hand over his mouth. "Good thing nobody saw that, or I'd have to deck you both."
"Twenty-one years is a long time to say this, and mean it." Cal lifted his beer again. "Happy birthday to us."
"Fucking A." Fox lifted his.
As Gage tapped bottles, Quinn and Layla stepped out. "There he is. Pucker up, handsome."
When Quinn grabbed him, planted one on, Gage nodded. "Now that's what I'm talking about."
"My turn." Layla elbowed Quinn aside, pressed her lips to Gage's. "Are you up for a party?"
"We've got Fox's family and Cal's on hold. We'll give them a call if you're up for it."
A birthday party, he thought. Yeah, it had been a hell of a long time. "That'd be good."
"Meanwhile, there's someone in the kitchen who'd like to see you."
She wasn't in the kitchen, but out on the back deck, alone. When he walked out, she turned. And everything he needed bloomed on her face. Then she was in his arms, hers locked tight around him as he swung her in a circle.
"We did okay," he told her.
"We did just fine."
When he lowered her, he kissed the bruise on her temple. "How banged up are you?"
"Not very, which is another small miracle in a streak of them. I've become a fan of Fate again."
"Dent. It was Dent in there with me."
She brushed back his hair, traced her fingers over his face, his shoulders. "You told us a little. You were pretty weak, a little delirious at times."
"I was going to make it-I mean finish it. I felt that. I knew that. But that was going to be it, that was all I had left. Then there was the light-a shaft of it, then, Jesus, an explosion of it. A nova of it."
"We saw it, too."
"I saw Dent-in my head. Or I think in my head. I had the stone in my hand. It was on fire, flames just shooting between my fingers. It started to-it sounds crazy."
"Sing," she finished. "It sang. Both stones sang."
"Yeah, it sang. A thousand voices. I felt Dent's hand close over mine. Mine over the stone, his over mine. I felt… linked. You know what I mean."
"'It is not death.' That's what he said to me, then we punched the stone right into the heart. I heard it scream, Cybil. I heard it scream, and I felt it… implode. From the heart out. Then that's it until I came back. Not like last time, when the bastard bit me. This was like cruising on a really good drug."
"The light tore through it," she told him. "I'd have to say vaporized it. It's the closest I can come. Gage, I saw them, for just a moment-less than a moment. I saw Giles Dent and Ann Hawkins holding each other. I saw them together, I felt them together. And I understood."
"It was to be his sacrifice all along. He needed us, and he needed you to willingly offer. For you to take the stone in, knowing it would be your life. Because we did what we've done, because you were willing to give your life, he could give his instead. It is not death, he told Ann, and us, and you. He existed still, all these years. And last night, through us, through you, he was the sacrifice demanded to end it. He could finally let go. He's with Ann now, and they're-clich¨¦ time-at peace. We all are."
"It's going to take a while to get used to. But I'm all about trying." He took her hand. "I figure this. We stick around for a couple of days, until everything settles down. Then we'll take off for a couple of weeks. The way my luck's running, I figure I can win enough to buy you a ring the size of a door-knob, if you like the idea."
"I do, if that's an actual proposal rather than a hypothetical."
"How's this for actual? Let's get married in Vegas. We can talk everyone who matters into going out for it."
"In Vegas." She cocked her head, then laughed. "I don't know why, but that sounds absolutely perfect. You're on." She took his face in her hands, kissed him. "Happy birthday."
"I keep hearing that."
"Expect to hear it more. I baked you a cake."
"A seven-layer cake-as promised. I love you, Gage." She slid into his arms. "I love everything about you."
"I love you, too. I've got a woman who's ready to get married in Vegas, bakes cakes, and has brains. I'm a lucky guy."
He laid his cheek on the top of her head, holding on while he looked out to the woods where the beaten path led to the Pagan Stone.
And at the end of the path, past Hester's Pool, where the water flowed cool and clean, the once-scorched earth of the clearing greened again. On the new ground, the Pagan Stone stood silent in the streaming sun.