Max pushed his back against the wall and his palms to the rock seat, removed his heel from the newly formed crack. Gradually, the shudders slowed, then stopped. He carefully filed away the memory, somewhere within easy reach, then looked up.
The creature, the guide, Billy’s mother, was kneeling beside her son, whispering in his ear. The boy looked even hollower than usual. He seemed to sense Max’s attention, because he twitched his head and gave a hesitant smile.
Billy’s mother stood. ‘Welcome back, outsider.’
Max said nothing, could think of nothing to say. The memory had left a prickly fuzz in his throat.
‘I have spoken to my son,’ said Billy’s mother, returning to her seat. ‘I cannot ask him to forgive me, but he and I have come to an... understanding. He is stronger than I shall ever be.’ Pride and sadness.
Max swallowed, began to shift various internal gears from the past to the present. He recalled the price asked of him: him and Billy. Travelling together. Could, would it work?
‘What about his father?’ he asked.
‘He ain’t around no more, mister,’ said Billy. ‘At least, according to... mum?’ Yes, that word was an alien visitor here. Billy’s mum placed a hand on her son’s shoulder. ‘Yeah, anyway... he’s one of them now. Lost his memory, or something. Never knew him anyway, so it don’t make much difference.’ A shrug, which Max suspected lied when it said Billy wasn’t bothered.
‘The world’s eye, outsider,’ said Billy’s mum. ‘Or, should I call you Max - if you are to travel with my son, I should use your name, a common courtesy. It has been a long time since I have used a name. Regardless. Max: the world’s eye. That place is not as the rest of this cracked world. If there is anywhere where my son will be safe, it is there. Where you will be safe. That is, if it still exists.’
Max thought about the seven hours Cap had given them, and nodded. ‘If anything’s survived from before, that place has.’
‘Odd. You speak as if you have - you have, haven’t you? You’ve been there?’
The creature stared, and Max sensed a cold hunger. Sharp bone shadows sheared across the dents which once were eyes. Briefly, the sword perked up and his hand itched towards it. Then the creature sagged, the sword lost interest, and Billy’s mum only looked tired. ‘No, don’t tell me, Max. It would merely stir thoughts that can never be more. My place is here.’
Silence wanted to settle, but Billy wouldn’t let it. ‘So what d’you say, mister? You an me? I ain’t staying here, not with what... what I heard. I’m goin out no matter what, and this world’s eye don’t sound half bad.’
So what did he say?
Thoughts became voices which clamoured for attention; an old one grabbed the metaphorical talking stick.
Max was used to being on his own, it said; he could only rely on himself. He knew nothing of children, knew nothing of their needs. Billy had never been beyond his motel, Billy was blind. He might slow Max down, he could be a liability.
A relative newcomer which lately had been gathering increasing support pried free the metaphorical talking stick.
Might, could, blah, blah.
That appeared to be the end of that voice’s argument.
So what about the world’s eye, then?
The talking stick was not required to debate that topic; all voices were in agreement.
His sole strong desire: answers. And he now knew that if there were ever to be any, he’d find them at the world’s eye, and if there was any place where the rocks ended, the world’s eye was that place. The place that promised results. The world’s eye tugged at life, and it tugged at Max, as it had been tugging at him even after he’d forgotten the name of his destination. If he were to retrace his steps from now to before Brac, he was certain, bar the revisit to Horace, he’d find a straight line.
Then he made two realisations.
One: while he couldn’t precisely place what he sought beyond answers and an end, an end to the confusion, the rocks, and the world they’d so cruelly battered, simply surviving seemed no longer sufficient.
Two: this would be his final journey. After this - no more. Whatever the outcome.
He stared at Billy.
The boy managed to return the stare, and send with it with a mixture of anticipation, optimism, hope, care. Splashes of pink squiggly bits were a very distant memory. Max made realisations numbers three and four.
Three: Billy was not just a source for those feelings, but a mirror too.
Four: this may be his final journey, but he didn’t have to make it alone.
‘Okay, Billy,’ he said. ‘We’ll go to the world’s eye together.’
Billy’s mum released a soft sigh, and for a moment Max was worried that her son was about to run over and hug him.
To his relief, he got a pointy smile instead. ‘Yeah, I knew it. I knew you’d say yes.’ Billy sniffed. ‘Just hope you won’t slow me down, is all.’
Then it was Max’s turn to smile, a strange, recent habit, but, yeah, he figured he could probably get used to it.