"Thanks for coming, everyone," Michael Copeland smiles faintly at everyone, including the two ladies present by Skype. "I'm especially interested to meet you, Rose. You and I have something in common." He looks around the conference table, and at the split fifty-inch monitor screen. "We're the only people in this room Stephen King never wrote about."
(Copeland does not think of himself as good with children. He's correct.)
"What does that mean?" she says. "For us? I mean, are we more or less real?"
"Well, that's a good question," Michael begins -- and then Marian catches his eye, and he nods. "But maybe not for today. Um. Everyone has either read the story, or the abstract that we prepared, I hope?"
Nods all around. "I'll just... start," he says, "with a quick summing up, then." He's anxious; he's talking to the brass, the ones who really matter. The board doesn't intimidate him nearly as much. He's the only man in the room, and a quiet, scholarly part of himself that never quite sleeps wonders when the company became a matriarchy, and what that says about King's progression as a writer. A lot of the focal characters in the new book are women...
"N.," he says, focusing, "begins with the words Dear Charlie. I'm sure that wasn't lost on any of us." On the right side of the split screen, Charlie McGee shifts in her seat; her smile is wry, and not entirely comfortable. "From there, it progresses as the story, mainly, of a psychiatrist dealing with an Obsessive-Compulsive patient. That's not the only time OCD comes up in the course of the collection, by the way." His staff has word counters, their own benign form of OCD ticking over databases. "The psychiatrist's name is John Bonsaint. As some of us know... Nancy's been seeing a psychiatrist named John Benesanto, since she took her leave of absence."
Nancy Deepneau has always been a mouse of a woman; now she's faded almost to the point of transparency. She nods, on the left side of the split screen. "He's a good man," she says.
"So... in some sense, this message has possibly been targeted. To us. It also deals with a piece of property, which is our bailiwick. The property features eight stones, in a ring; they in some way guard a hole in the fabric of space, beyond which are living nightmares. One of these eight stones has a tendency to disappear. With the implication of disaster to follow. It can be returned to existence by viewing the field through a film or pane of glass, but it must be held there in human memory. The field cannot be electronically observed."
"The implication is that the act of being viewed by a human being is what begins the process of the stone vanishing. The consequence of this viewing and ... memory-fixing, on the person involved, is debilitating Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. The observers inevitably commit suicide and pass on the burden to another person, who has heard the story. They are sent a key. Notably, the first patient is not told the story; he finds the field on his own and is sent the key by the relieved previous observer."
"So: the points." He ticks them off on his fingers. "Human contact with the anomaly seems to cause the problem. Contact with the anomaly is ultimately destructive to the observer. Anyone exposed to an observer's story seems to be... sucked in, by obsessive thoughts about what they were told, but this is not the only way the chain of guardianship may be preserved. What lies behind the anomaly can perhaps destroy universes, if unleashed -- quite possibly has already done so. Are we all clear?"
Rose Toren raises her hand. "I have a question."
"Yes, Rose?" Marian says.
"Maybe I'm missing something, but... what if we just leave it alone? If the last observer ... dies, or whatever, won't it be safe again?"
Copeland nods. "No, that's very astute. And the story itself seems to imply, even implore, to leave the anomaly alone, because it's written in an epistolary style. But if that's the case, why does the story exist at all?"
"It could be a trap," Susannah says. "Could be King didn't have any choice in the matter. Obsession. Compulsion. What he writes is true... sometimes. Doesn't mean it's a truth that's good for us to know."
"The field itself, though," Charlie says, leaning forward. "Does it exist? I mean, does it exist here?"
Marian nods. "We've tracked it down. It's like the rose, in a respect -- there's a world-mingling in the outlying territory. It's accessible from Keystone Rose and at least sixteen other worlds that blur together around the boundary. We've had a team there since a few days after publication. It was easy to find." She sounds aware of the troubling implications of that.
"That's seventeen," Nancy says. "Seventeen worlds. Eighteen would be better."
"So how long," Charlie asks, "before one of those guards gets it in his head to walk up the road and see what he's guarding?"
Marian nods, conceding the point. "Can we stay out of it?"
"By the internal storylogic," Copeland says, "we have received the message. We're marked--" as the next contestant on Who Wants To Be A Suicide, he thinks. Editing the faux-witty King-speak out of his own thoughts has become a necessary habit. "In this kind of Lovecraftian story, the slow struggle against a grim inevitability only ever ends one way."
"But that doesn't mean we have to -- that it has to go that way," Rose says. She looks around the table. "Does it? I mean, this isn't just a story."
No one quite knows how to answer.
"If we do decide to intervene," Marian says, after a brief pause, "we have people in place. It's in the eclipse corridor, as identified in Dolores Claiborne."
"The mighty Androscoggin," Copeland murmurs.
Rose looks at Susannah, who nods. "Rose has pointed out that we know some of those landmarks. Motton isn't that far from Castle Rock."
"Castle Rock doesn't exist in most worlds," Copeland says. "That's a King trademark."
"So are Daddy and Uncle Jake in danger?" Rose asks.
"That's why we have guards there," Marian says.
"And if we take the guards away," Nancy says, "then if it's not them, it will be someone else. We can't assume it will stay untouched just because we don't touch it. And now we've been there. We aren't talking about avoiding it, now -- we're talking about w-walking away."
"I still say it's a trap," Susannah says. "Like Insomnia. King himself admits that one was a trap, in the last book."
"It's true that King casts doubt on Insomnia as a primary text in the last book of the D-- the, uh, sequence," Copeland says, after a cool look from Susannah. "But I have a theory that integrates it. Or would integrate it, if not for the timeline alterations you told us about. On which note, Susannah, I thought you might be interested to know that there are four appearances of St. Christopher's medals in the new collection, in four different stories."
"Now that is interesting," Susannah murmurs, and shakes off a questioning glance from Rose. "Nothing, sugar. Nothing to do with this."
"I tend to agree that it's a message, to us. This is what we do," Marian says. "But maybe I'm just anxious to do something that matters," she adds sourly.
"W-will the board fight it? Buying another property, in the middle of nowhere."
"I'll handle it," Marian says heavily. Wearily.
"I'll split the difference," Copeland says. "I think it's a trap, and I think we have to walk into it. We're checkmated."
"What are we suggesting as precautions?"
"We can't destroy it," says Charlie. "Not like 1408, not if I read this right. It wouldn't seal off the hole, it'd ..." She gestures, pulling her clasped hands apart as though describing an explosion. "Blow it wide open."
Copeland nods in agreement. "I think building a wall would be best. It would be best if someone could do it without anyone ever seeing the stones, but erecting even a temporary barrier blind would be... difficult."
"So we're talking about asking someone to..." Rose shakes her head. "What, volunteer to go crazy? Maybe kill themselves?"
"It's winter," Copeland says. "At this time of year, the burden is described as very light. It's linked to the solstices. But in time, yes, they'd develop OCD symptoms. The feeling of carrying an unbearable burden, for the sake of the world."
"Not that any of us know anything about that," Charlie says wryly. The laughter that follows is bitter, and Rose doesn't join in.
"We could ease it," Marian says. "To an extent. The person would know they are not, in a real sense, insane. Their tics really are preserving the world. And they wouldn't need to try and maintain an ordinary life around the symptoms. We could provide a round-the-clock caretaker. They could count black shoes and line up loose objects full-time, if necessary."
The question is, who? The same thought seems to be passing among them, and for a long time no one speaks, only trading looks back and forth. Charlie's troubled glance rests longest on Copeland, her mouth tucked inward in a way that suggests she's biting her lip. (Just call me Pandora, she wrote to him once. But the story has made very clear what happens to daughters of Pandora in this place.)
"We could open it to the security teams --" Marian begins, her reluctance clear in her voice, and she's interrupted.
Nancy Deepneau says: "I'll do it."
"Nancy, no." Marian Carver is not just shocked; she's horrified, her complexion fading to grey.
"I haven't been r-r-right," Nancy says. "Since that b-b-b-bitch sh-sho--" Her thoughts snarl, and her tongue tangles; she still can't talk about what she saw or learned that day. "I'm broken," she cries, almost shouts, hacking through the tangle. "But maybe I can be useful again."
Charlie sits up very straight at that; her inhalation is too smooth to be a gasp, but it's pronounced nonetheless. She's not smiling.
Susannah breaks the silence; her voice is heavy. "Thank you, Nancy." Marian Carver turns a furious look on her.
"Marian." Susannah's voice is a warning.
"This is obscene," Marian hisses.
"It's m-m-my ch--" Nancy flinches, and chokes on the word. "Choice! I w-w-want to h-help--"
"You've done enough!" Marian says. Her head whips between the screen and Susannah. "She has given everything, Susannah. You can't allow her--"
"There isn't anyone else." Any trace of temper is gone from Susannah's voice now, she's looking down into the gloss of the table, and Marian's expression seems to shimmer as she clings to the edge of composure, falling silent. "I think the meeting can be adjourned now?" Susannah adds, to mumbled general agreement.
(Michael Copeland had something else, but the time no longer seems right.)
Marian leaves the room first, in a hurry, and nobody tries to get in her way.