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This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Knight Moves

Johnny Smith's visions of the apocalyptic future didn't come in order, but they made a narrative nonetheless. He didn't know how to make sense of it – the black tower of the Washington Monument, the satellites relaying devastation, the bloody hand outstretched on the bed – but he knew that there was sense lurking underneath. There always was. Like the pieces of string he used to connect the pictures and articles about Stillson on the board in his basement, there were threads weaving the isolated visions into a larger web.

And Stillson was the spider.

The thing was, about spider webs: they caught a lot of random insects, too. Johnny didn't like to think of the people he helped as accidents of proximity, but he had to wonder why Cleaves Mills should be chosen to have a fixer, when the rest of the world had to travel on one track, no do-overs. They were unintended beneficiaries; if Johnny hadn't been needed to save the world, the hockey players and runaway girls would have lived out their tragedies like everyone else subject to life's ordinary tricks and twists.

Johnny didn't believe that he was a prophet. A prophet should have a better idea of what he was doing. A prophet should be more comfortable with being disbelieved when he met new people. A prophet should be willing to do what was necessary to save the world from Greg Stillson.

At the same time, Johnny was well aware that the prophets of the Bible had often screamed and fought against destiny. Jonah had fled so far that God had sent great storms to wrack his boat, and the sailors had been angry when they found out that there was a prophet on board, endangering them with his recalcitrance. Jonah had tried to escape, and found himself in the belly of a big fish. Johnny couldn't say he had much sympathy for Jonah's reason for resistance: Jonah was convinced – correctly, as it turned out – that if Jonah preached that God was about to punish the wicked for their sins, the wicked would reform, the punishment would be averted, and Jonah would be standing there looking like an idiot for promising doom that never materialized.

Johnny thought that Jonah had missed the point of the if-then prophecy. Jonah might have looked a little jumpy, a tad Chicken Littlish, but he wouldn't have been wrong.

If only God would speak more directly. Johnny thought, maybe, he could kill Greg Stillson if he knew for sure that he'd succeed. But – like the book of Revelation – his visions were long on disaster and short on policy proposals.

Jonah had it easy.

****

johnny's in america, low-techs at the wheel

"–riots are nearly under control, General Langevoort promises. Meanwhile, President Hubble today denied the recent allegations in the strongest language yet," the radio says over Johnny's shoulder.

He's in a diner, at a seat by the window. He's sitting across from a blonde teenage girl, who's smiling at him, her lips bubblegum-pink. "Can you believe that?" she asks him, flipping her shoulder-length hair back with a twist of her hand that manages to be both natural and practiced. "What a jerk. He should just step down, you know."

Johnny stares at her. She seems so familiar.

"Jay?" she asks. "What's wrong?"

"In related news, local psychic Johnny Smith made headlines again with further claims that the troubles in Washington are connected to the 2004 murder of Rachel Carlson and the subsequent attempt her sister Rebecca Carlson made to assassinate then-Representative Greg Stillson."

Johnny drops his head into his hands and groans.

The girl reaches across the table and puts a sympathetic hand on his wrist. "Jay, you can't let him ruin your life."

"Too late," he says, looking up through what Johnny is appalled to see is a haze of tears. "He already has."

****

Johnny knew that JJ's complaint was teenage exaggeration – angst and bull in equal measure. That didn't make it any more pleasant to hear.

He needed to stay in the future longer. Every time he went, he learned a fragment, but it was slow and frustrating. He tried not to think of the ordinary visions as petty or less important, but of course they were less important to the survival of the human race as a whole, and their simplicity was part of that lesser significance. There were one or two crucial bits of information that the future had to deliver him, and then he could generally do what needed to be done. By contrast, the Stillson future was a puzzle being handed to him a piece at a time, and he still had no idea what the picture was supposed to represent; he didn't even know how big it was or where the edges and corners were.

****

no-one needs anyone, they don't even just pretend
johnny's in america

They leave Bruce in Philadelphia.

It's necessary. At least that's what Johnny tells himself, when he walks away from the one man who'd never let him down since he returned to the land of the upright. And Bruce is needed in Boston, sorely needed, at a time when everyone with medical training is precious to the survivors.

But it isn't that, because there are survivors everywhere. In reality, they leave Bruce because even in the midst of everything else, white men traveling with a black man stand out. They catch in the mind, in the memory. And they can very ill afford to be remembered. It doesn't matter that Bruce would have shaved his dreadlocks. His skin, in this America as always, is the most important thing about him to too many people who see him.

Bruce's face in the rear-view mirror is tight with anger, anger and fear. Johnny doesn't trust that he'll stay behind, but he might be better off following them separately. Johnny can imagine an action-movie scenario in which Bruce busts in to save the day, surprising bad and good guys alike, ending with a quip like, "I told you white folks you couldn't do this on your own." Only Bruce would work in some Zen reference, and Johnny would wince.

He wants more than anything else for his fantasy to turn into a vision, but instead he reaches out and runs his fingers over the voudoun luck charm Bruce acquired in one of his side trips into parts of Boston he wouldn't let Johnny go.

He sees nothing but darkness.

****

The vision didn't mean that Bruce was going to die, Johnny told himself.

Which was supremely foolish, since the point was to avoid that future entirely. Bruce's survival was not a necessary incentive.

Bruce asked about the subject delicately these days. Now that Johnny had Rebecca to tell things, it was easier for him to avoid telling Bruce about the flashes of the burning city, how the images had stayed the same for years now.

****

i'm afraid of americans i'm afraid of the world

"Don't make this difficult," the man in the military uniform says. Johnny laughs, and the laughter tears something inside his chest, turning into coughs that shake his whole body against the bonds holding him to the chair. Bloody spittle flies from his mouth, landing on the pitted concrete floor, narrowly missing the man.

There's a fly buzzing in the room, behind his head somewhere. Johnny very much wishes that someone would swat it.

"What is your connection to John Smith?" the man asks, in a tone that suggests he's been asking for some time now.

"I told you," he says, the smile hurting his bruised cheeks, "I am him. I'm him right now. Except he's not right now, so he's not the John Smith you're looking for. I can take a message," he suggests cheerfully. His interrogator takes a half-step forward, then checks himself.

There's a sharp pain at the base of his skull.

****

Johnny was fairly sure he should appreciate the present more than he did. If his visions came true, pleasant fall days full of red and yellow maples and crisp star-blazoned New England nights would be gone. Bruce would tell him to enjoy it while it lasted, since fretting was doing nothing to change the future anyway.

Don't let the best be the enemy of the good, he'd told his students who had trouble getting their work turned in because they couldn't do it perfectly. And to the students paralyzed with fear that anything less than an A would keep them out of college and doom them to gas stations and burger-flipping: Don't let the future be the enemy of the now.

That wasn't very helpful advice, when Johnny knew that the future was the enemy. Each tick of the clock brought the world closer to that last midnight.

He'd been traveling to Washington in that vision with Bruce. Maybe that was his mistake – staying away too long while Stillson consolidated his power. Maybe -

As if anyone in the federal government would take himseriously. Still, if he went down now, set up shop in Washington, he could eventually prove himself the same way he'd proved himself to Reverend Purdy and Walt. Even if the military's secret program wouldn't vouch for him, enough reports of his accurate visions could filter through to give him credibility.

****

i'm afraid i can't help it i'm afraid i can't
johnny's in america

There's blood on the walls, thin strings thrown off by the force of the blows. The inside of his mouth is bleeding freely, cut on teeth and fragments of teeth.

There's blood on the carpet too, and this is more understandable, given that he's been on the floor since seconds after the three men started in on him. He worries, crazily, that he'll lose his deposit if he ruins the carpet – money has been a concern of late, and it was hard enough finding a place that wouldn't kick him out after a Stillson-inspired Secret Service visit.

As if conjured by his name, Stillson's voice drops down to where Johnny is lying on the floor.

"You shouldn't have come here," Stillson says. "But you know that." The man does love to hear himself talk.

"Right now, I'm having some of my friends pay a visit to that black fellow you like so much. They'll find his body in Illinois – if it's ever found. As for you – you think you'll still have visions when your brain's the consistency of a milkshake? There's a thought," he says, as if to himself. "I could go for a milkshake. Chocolate, with vanilla syrup."

Someone picks Johnny's head up from the floor by the scruff of his neck, and raises him far enough that the blood from his nose has time to form into drops before it splashes into the cheap seventies carpet. His hands struggle to form into fists, jerking against the rough yellowed synthetics, and he –

****

It was a relief to have a vision of things going worse than before. It meant that change was possible. Washington, DC was clearly out as a location for his stop-Stillson work, but the good news was that Maine was a safe place. Stillson was apparently too busy in Washington, too afraid of Johnny's friends back in Cleaves Mills, to strike there.

If only the headaches weren't worsening so quickly. Johnny knew he survived long enough to see the apocalypse, but sometimes he wondered how that could be possible, with the lightning storms in his head.

He was so grateful to Rebecca. He'd never imagined himself as the type for a cool blonde city woman, but she was unexpectedly right for him. Logical, intelligent, willing to reserve judgment – and boy, did Johnny need a girl who'd reserve judgment these days. Caring, if not as conventionally demonstrative as Sarah; he didn't want Rebecca to pull him into a closet for stolen kisses. Even the idea of her staging a surprise birthday party for him was a little out of character; breakfast in bed, a private expression of affection, was more her style.

****

johnny wants a brain, johnny wants to suck on a coke
johnny wants a woman, johnny wants to think of a joke

He hasn't bothered to undress – hasn't dared to undress; it's cold outside and the abandoned building holds less heat than he'd prefer. His pants are loose enough now that he barely needs to unbutton and unzip, but he does so anyway, because that's part of the ritual.

Ritual is important. He never realized that, before.

His hand is cold and rough against his dick. He closes his eyes, doubling the darkness, and imagines the time before. His wife had a way she moved her hand, a sort of hesitation, often coming at just the wrong time, but now the memory gets him hard, closer to happiness than he's been since he woke from his coma.

His other hand is cold too, not warming from the motion of flesh on flesh. The metal of the cane steals whatever heat his body tries to produce; his fingers are numb, though he can feel the raised design on the silver pressing into his palm like a brand made of ice instead of fire. "You with me, John?" he asks, a cackle in the stillness of the night. "You having fun yet?"

He moves his hand faster. Young John is keeping watch, but he could come back inside at any time, and he's not far gone enough to want to inflict this on the son.

He knows who to blame.

****

Johnny had forgotten that Christopher Wey was a big jerk before he went into his own coma. Johnny thought he'd come out of his multiyear nap pretty much the same nice guy he'd been before, wacky visions aside, and it stood to reason that Mr. Wey would remain a classic asshole. Suffering didn't ennoble everyone; in fact, after seeing so much tragedy in his visions, all the aftermaths that he averted, Johnny was of the opinion that suffering ennobled far too few people, despite the fact that most people were capable of grace at least once in a while.

Christopher Wey had woken to a world utterly destroyed, a face no longer his own, and then the visions. Johnny tried to find some sympathy for him, and usually succeeded, but he couldn't help feeling somewhat superior: Less than two weeks after Johnny rose from his coma, the planes hit the World Trade Center. As far as he was concerned, the world he woke up in was always tense and shattered. There was no safety left, and the fact that the other people of his acquaintance also had their certainties uprooted in September 2001 never really had the same immediacy to him.

Not that September 11 was the same as apocalypse, but it was world-altering nonetheless, and Johnny felt that he'd handled matters much better.

Of course he'd had Sarah – sort of, in a way – and Bruce, and the prospect of a relationship with his son. Christopher Wey had been alone with strangers whose own loved ones had mostly been killed. So Johnny tried to cut him some slack – and compared to what Wey could have done to hurt him, he supposed, a little circle jerk was nothing.

****

johnny's in america

He knows he's just had a vision about the little blonde girl looking up at him. Half her hair is caught up in a clip – Johnny's not sure whether it's a ponytail if the remaining hair is loose, or what; he's never been good with things like that, preferring to ignore the giggling of his female students when they went into their arcane girl-rituals. He'd expected to learn one day, with a little girl of his own, his and Sarah's, but -

Well.

The little girl is clean, but she doesn't look healthy. Her skin is too pale, the veins showing through in the way of a very elderly person.

It doesn't seem fair that in this wrecked world he's still getting visions, when all that he can do for this little girl is change the mode of her death – sickness instead of violence, perhaps; starvation instead of slavery.

He only knows that he is still going to try to keep the vision from coming true, and hopes that he won't fail as badly as he did before.

****

Johnny wished very much he could get a vision of himself saving at least one person in the future. Except that would mean that holocaust was inevitable, wouldn' t it? It was so very confusing.

He wondered if this sort of thing happened to Nostradamus. There was a comfort in predicting the future beyond one's own death – it was up to other people to interpret the prophecies.

Take this cup from me, he thought.

Jesus comparisons were a tad self-pitying. He'd been in a coma, not crucified. Though judging by how angry Christopher Wey was, and the manhunt in his future, maybe that was on its way too.

Or maybe he would have been better off in the military's custody. The problem was that there were too many paths and no way to choose. The future wasn't a coin, heads you win, tails I lose; the task was too big to say, "don't step off that curb" or "don't go in that house" and be done with it. The future had a million facets, and Johnny could predict the way the dice would come up but he never understood why they landed the way they did, or how to get snake eyes. He was heavy-handed, able to change the future only when the way was clear, not when matters were subtle and twilight-colored. He was a prophet who needed a magician's touch, some sleight of hand, marked cards, weighted dice.

Christopher Wey was a con man of sorts, but he was in a coma now and not all that inclined to help when he was awake.

It hit him then – he was annoyed at himself for not having realized it earlier. Christopher was unhelpful because Christopher didn't know what to do, either. He wasn't just being cryptic to toy with Johnny's emotions. He was ignorant, desperately trying to hide his ignorance, stuck like the shaman from hundreds of years back with incomprehensible information. He'd seen Johnny's face in the papers, remembered Johnny from before the coma, and then he'd met Johnny in these freaky-deaky visions he now had – of course he was convinced Johnny was responsible, but that was the extent of his knowledge.

That explained an awful lot. Even if it was still unhelpful. Maybe next time they talked, Johnny could reassure Christopher that they were in this together.

****

johnny's in america, johnny looks up at the stars
johnny combs his hair and johnny wants pussy and cars

His mouth tastes like chalk. The room is dirty, the windows blown out with only jagged stalactites and stalagmites standing in the windowframes. Christopher has his back to Johnny, looking out into the darkness.

He can smell fire – things burning that have no business burning, plastic and cloth and maybe flesh.

"I never wanted this," Christopher says, entirely unnecessarily. But it's an attempt to communicate, and Johnny tries to respect that.

"I know," he says, gently as if he were speaking to a cat up a tree. "And it doesn't have to happen. Help me, please."

"I want my wife," Christopher continues unabated. "She wouldn't – I was going to – there was going to be time."

"I know," Johnny says again, because he does. Doesn't matter that his time was going to be spent worshiping Sarah, whereas Christopher's was going to be wasted cheating and hoping that his wife didn't kick him out. Time and possibility were the same, either way. "Tell me what I can do to stop this."

"If it doesn't have to be this way, then why am I living it?" Christopher turns at last. His ruined face is terrible. Tears have crawled down his dirty face, leaving paths like lightning strikes. "If I'm living it, doesn't that mean it has to be this way, because it is?"

Johnny nods respectfully. "Those are good questions. I don't know the limits of my visions. I do know that I've changed things I've seen and that I've shared visions with a man from the past. With my help, he was able to change things too, make them right." Only – the shaman had been able to save his people so that they didn't disappear, so that Johnny's future came out the same as it had been. By that logic, Christopher could be leading him to that ruined future rather than helping him change it.

Johnny's head hurts.

He feels the vision slipping away from him, like a flock of frightened birds rising into flight.

"I'm not sure what I can do – but isn't it worth a try?"

****

He couldn't shake the feeling that events were speeding up. Stillson was moving forward, set to have his first major legislative victory, built in what he doubtless found a pleasing irony on Rachel Carson's death. It was like stomping on her corpse, like desecrating her grave, and there was nothing Johnny or Rebecca could do about it.

Johnny longed for the days when Walt Bannerman's belief in him allowed him to prevent most of what he saw in his visions.

Walt, he knew, took JJ out on the weekends and taught him to shoot. Traditional Maine father-son activity. Johnny approved.

He just wished his approval didn't have selfishness in it. The time might come when JJ would need to be able to defend himself, because Johnny had failed him.

****

johnny's in america

Johnny sees the blonde woman, Stillson's aide-de-camp. She's wearing a sequined gown, a deep teal that compliments her coloring. She's holding something – his vision focuses in like a telescope — a pack of cards, the presidential seal on a white background.

As he watches, the sequins sparkle like sunlight on a lake, and she begins to disappear, a reflection shattering apart as the water moves. The cards fall from her hand in a flutter of wings. Blood beads and begins to drip over the edges of the cards, turning the white into a sea of red, but it refuses to adhere to the presidential seal and the seal floats over the blood.

One of the cards has landed face up, still white.

The Joker has Johnny's face.

****

Symbolic visions had been rare, at least when Johnny was in his right mind. Blood had been a theme in the nonliteral ones: the tide of blood signalling that there was a mystery surrounding his mother's death, the wine that turned into blood when Johnny had refused to denounce Stillson's campaign opponent Harrison Fisher.

The blood was calling out to him, like Abel's spilled blood calling out to God from the soaked earth.

He wanted to scream out to God in return, like one of the prophets of old, back in ancient Israel where that kind of thing wouldn't earn a man a straitjacket and a heavy dose of antipsychotic medication. God, he'd yell, God, I know there's something I'm supposed to be doing! You don't need to send me any more messages! You're like a bill collector who keeps coming around when you know I don't have the money to pay! Don't just tell me that Stillson is dangerous. Tell me what to do, help me out, because I'm ready. Point me in the right direction and I'm your man. I'll do what it takes, because I'm just one man and one man is nothing in Your greater scheme. Just, please – no more directionless blood.

****

god is an american

And so it is now that he sees, now that he hears. Back in the world that most people call reality, his head is pounding and he is falling, falling to the floor, but the most important part of him is watching Rebecca walk towards Stillson. She is swift and careful, polished as ever, her mouth in a grim line.

"Don't save Rebecca," he listens to himself say again, as he watches the blood bloom on her chest like flowers, like carnations – did she kill Stillson? He can't see, can't turn and look around the scene as he usually can in a vision – maybe it's the buzzsaw in his head that disables him.

"Don't save Rebecca," which is oddly funny since at the moment he can't even save himself.

It's easy, he realizes as he watches the frantic security people and news reporters whirl around, looking for other attackers, looking for the best footage of this shocking event. It's easy to sacrifice yourself for the greater good. It's a lot easier than sacrificing someone else.

All along, he's been saying he's a prophet. He forgot that other people have had words with God, too.

And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?

Johnny raises the knife and waits for the angel.

End

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