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Prologue

Clay Gilbert stood through the whole ceremony. It wasn’t terribly long, and it wasn’t intentionally moving, but he was wiping a tear by the time it was over and his father’s ashes were scattered to the sea. He turned from the funeral dock, turned and faced the headland.

A hand grasped his. “Hey Clay,” said his older sister, Marie, “going to be okay?”

“I think so,” said Clay.

Another hand took his other hand. He looked down: Yvette, Marie’s kid, gave him a quick smile and then looked up meaningfully at the top of the broken mountain. “Is that an old castle there?” she asked. “Was there a castle up there when you were little?”

“No,” said Clay, “it’s just a lookout tower. It’s pretty ruined.” He looked up to the rounded stony peak overlooking the harbor and remembered looking down from there as a child, maybe Yvette’s age, with his mom and dad. Dad would of course have made his lookout tower joke: Do you know why it’s called a lookout tower? Because if it falls on you, they yell, “Look out! Tower!” Every time. And gosh darn it, Clay was wiping a few more tears away.

“Clay,” said Marie.

“I’m fine.”

“I know. I am too. Listen, Clay.” He turned and looked into her eyes: blue into blue. She was six years older than him, and they were the only surviving children of Peter Gilbert and Annelise Amande. Annelise, died in an accident with their younger sister Gina ten years ago. Peter, died of cancer, leaving behind the woman with whom he had tried to start a new family twelve years ago. Now, it was Clay and Marie, and Marie’s husband John, and Yvette.

And the girl Clay was supposed to be dating, years ago, was it years now? They were together just long enough for Dad to get the idea that she ought to be penciled into the family. Clay could remember her face. Her name. Her kiss, not that it was anything amazing. Her talk, her incessant talk of nothing. Her odd indifferent half smile when he actually got to talk.

Marie was saying something and Clay hurried to focus. “Just us,” she was saying. “We need to rely on each other. You promise me you’ll be with us for the holidays? Clay? Promise?”

“I promise,” said Clay.

“Uncle Clay?” asked Yvette, and he looked gravely down upon her, expecting her to demand that he super promise. “Did you grow up in the lookout tower?”

“Ah, no,” he said, “we were in Rockport when I grew up. Mom was a teacher.”

“It was a nice ceremony, wasn’t it?” said Marie’s husband John, joining the conversation on the dock after an obligatory chat with the priestess. “Very moving.”

“Can’t argue with the weather,” said Clay.

“No, never any reason to do that anyway,” said Dad’s cousin What’s His Name from Halifax. A few of the other hardly-known relatives laughed in the next conversation over, while Clay and Marie and Yvette and John gazed off over the harbor. It really was a beautiful day: as people liked to say, days like this were why you lived in Maine, as if there weren’t days like this in Halifax or Scotland or Iceland or Greenland or New Zealand or the Ross Peninsula. Perhaps not so much in Iceland or Greenland. It rained a lot there.

“I’m serious,” said Marie. “Be with us for Christmas. It’ll mean a lot to me. You, all by yourself.” She held his eyes a moment and added, “We need to stick together, we’re all we got.”

“I know,” said Clay.

“You gonna be okay? From here?”

“Yes! Yes, Marie, I’m gonna be okay. You?”

“I’m not worried about me, Clay.”

“Marie,” said Clay. “It was great seeing you. Have a safe trip. You staying in town tonight?”

“Yes, we thought we’d head back in the morning. And you?”

“I’m heading back on the evening train,” said Clay. “I think I’ll walk around the old burg for a little first, then catch my ride. Marie.” He gave her a hug, then grabbed Yvette in a hug that lifted her off the ground with a squeal. He put her down again, gave Marie one more kiss and said, “See you. Promise.”

He walked away from the dock and across the field next to it. The wooden ships still floated in the nearer harbor to the left of the dock, just as they had when Clay was a child, but this field, had it not once been a parking lot? Now it was a lovely garden. That must be regarded as an improvement, as must most things about Life on Earth that had changed since Clay was a boy, and still, he could not help think, it seemed like they were in the midst of cleaning the place up to close it down. “The world has moved on,” as King had written in days of yore: perhaps the Dark Tower was inspired by that ruined lookout tower on the headland. Dad had liked to say that the place was going down the tubes, going to the dogs, circling the drain, but he had been wrong about that, in that way that he was always wrong. He had chosen an opinion and he had stuck to it through thin and thick and irregardless of evidence to the contrary. The world was not going to the dogs or down the tubes: in many ways, everything was getting slowly better, the healing, the slow healing of the past hundred years, that had gone on all Dad’s life, was still measurably going on.

But Clay could not shake the feeling that they were making the corpse presentable for the funeral. Perhaps that was too strong, perhaps it was suggested by the circumstances, but there was something to it. Maybe it was the lovely park where there had been a factory or a superstore or a busy parking lot. Was it an improvement? Sure. Was it a sign of rebirth? Maybe. Was it a sign of resurgence? Not so much.

He crossed the street and walked up the next street and slowed down outside a café, where he had eaten a fine lunch today and would shortly have a fine dinner before walking to the station and heading back to Bangor. He pulled out his phone and looked at it, punched the screen, waited for an answer, and then said, “Yes, Su? It’s Clay. Clay Gilbert. Yes, I’m signing on. Yep. I’m sure. I’m sure I’m sure. I’m going.”

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