The Passage Page 104


She was sniffing the air. Peter smelled it too: a strange and powerful odor, stinging his nostrils.

Behind him, Sara whispered, "What is that?"

Hollis pointed with his rifle over their heads. "Look-"

Suspended from the limbs above their heads were dozens of long strands of small, white objects, bunched like fruit.

"What the hell is that?"

But Alicia was looking at the ground now, anxiously scanning the carpeted earth beneath their feet. She dropped to a knee and brushed the heavy covering of dead leaves aside.

"Oh, shit."

Peter heard the groan of the dropping weight. Before he could speak the net had swallowed them; they were rising, lifting through the air, all of them yelling and tumbling, their bodies caught in its weave. It reached the apex of its ascent, everything cradled in suspension for one weightless instant, and then they descended, a hard drop, their bodies jamming together as the ropes compressed them into a single, twisting, captive mass.

Peter was upside down. Somebody, Hollis, was on top of him. Hollis and also Sara and a sneaker, close to his face, which he recognized as Amy's. It was impossible to tell where one body ended and the next began. They were spinning like a top. His chest was compressed so tightly he could barely breathe. The skin of his cheek was pressed against the ropes, which were made of some heavy, fibrous twine. The ground was twirling under him, a rush of undifferentiated color.


"I can't move!"

"Can anyone?"

Michael: "I think I'm going to be sick!"

Sara, her voice shrill with panic: "Michael, don't you dare!"

There was no way Peter could reach his blade; even if he could have, severing the ropes would have sent them all plunging headlong to the ground. The spinning motion slowed, then stopped, then started again, its velocity increasing as they were flung in the opposite direction. Somewhere above him in the jumble of bodies he heard Michael wretch.

They spun and spun and spun some more. It was on the sixth rotation that Peter detected, from the corner of his rolling eye, a tremulous motion in the brush. Like the woods were moving, coming to life. But by then he was too disoriented to speak. Part of him felt fear, but the rest of him could not seem to find this part.

"Holy goddamn," a voice below them said, "they're strags."

And then Peter saw: they were soldiers.


In the first days, Mausami slept-sixteen, eighteen, twenty hours at a stretch. Theo had chased the mice away from the upstairs bedroom, whisking them down the stairs and out the door with a broom and a great deal of yelling. In a closet they had found, folded with an eerie care, smelling of time and dust, a pile of sheets and blankets, even a couple of pillows, one for her head and a second to fold between her knees to straighten her back. Random electric currents, exquisitely painful, had begun to shoot down one of her legs-the baby, compressing her spine. She took it as a sign that the baby was doing what it was supposed to do, making space for himself in the densely packed room of her body. Theo came and went, fussing over her like a nurse, bringing her meals and water. He slept during the afternoons on the old saggy sofa downstairs, and when evening fell he dragged a chair out to the porch, where he sat through the night, a shotgun on his lap, staring into the dark.

Then one morning she awoke to a fresh, new vigor coursing through her. The drought of energy was over; the days of rest had done their work. She drew up to a sitting position and saw that the sun was shining in the window. The air was cool and dry, pushing a gentle breeze that shifted in the curtains. She did not remember opening the window but perhaps Theo had done this, sometime in the night.

The baby was sitting on her bladder. Theo had left a pail for her, but she didn't want to use this, now that she no longer needed to. She would make the long march to the privy, to show Theo that she was finally awake.

Even now, she could detect his movements somewhere in the house below. She rose, pulled a sweater over her long-tailed shirt-she was suddenly much too big for the only pair of gaps she had-and descended the stairs. Her center of gravity seemed to have shifted overnight; the frank bulge of her stomach made her feel top-heavy and clumsy. She supposed this was just something to get used to. Not even six months, and here she was, huge already.

She stepped into a room she barely remembered; it took her a moment to absorb the fact that a great deal had changed. The sofa and chairs, which before had been pushed against the walls, now stood in the middle of the room at right angles to the fireplace, facing one another. Between them rested a small wooden table atop a threadbare woolen rug. The floor under her bare feet was free of dirt, swept clean. Theo had laid more blankets over the sofa, tucking the edges in, to cover the places where it was worn through and stained.

But what drew her attention were the pictures propped on the mantel. A series of yellowed photographs-the same people, at different ages and in different configurations, all posed before the very house in which she now stood. A man and his wife and three children, a boy and two girls. The photos seemed to have been taken at intervals of a year; in each, the children had grown. The youngest, a baby in the first photograph, held in his mother's arms-a tired-looking woman wearing a pair of dark glasses perched above her forehead-was, by the final image, a boy of five or six. He was standing in front of his older sisters, grinning greedily for the camera, showing the gap in his smile where he had lost a tooth. His T-shirt read, incomprehensibly, UTAH JAZZ.

"They're something, aren't they?"

Mausami turned to discover Theo observing her from the kitchen door.

"Where did you find them?"

He approached the mantel and took the last photograph, with the smiling boy, in his hands. "They were in a crawl space, under the stairs. See this here?" He tapped the glass to show her: in the background, at the edge of the photo, an automobile, packed to the tops of its windows, with more belongings lashed to the roof. "It's the same car we found in the barn."

Mausami regarded the photos another moment. How happy they all looked. Not just the smiling boy but his parents and sisters, as well-all of them.

"You think they lived here?"

Theo nodded, returning the picture to its place on the mantel with the others. "My guess is, they came here before the outbreak and got stranded. Or else they just decided to stay on. And don't forget the four graves out back."

Mausami was about to point out that there were four graves, not five. But then she realized her error. The fourth grave would have been dug by the last survivor, who couldn't bury himself.

"Hungry?" Theo asked her.

She ran a hand through her dirty hair. "What I'd really like is a bath."

"As it happens, I thought you might." He was wearing a sly smile. "Come on."

He led her out to the yard. A large cast-iron pot now hung from a length of chain over a pile of glowing embers; beside it was a metal trough, long and deep enough for a person to sit in. He used a plastic bucket to fill the trough with water from the pump, then, gripping the handle with a heavy cloth, lifted the metal pot and poured the steaming contents into the trough as well.

"Go on, get in," Theo said.

She felt suddenly embarrassed.

"It's okay," he said, laughing gently, "I won't watch."

It seemed foolish, after everything, to be shy about her body. And yet she was. With Theo's eyes averted, she removed her clothing quickly, standing na**d for a moment in the autumn sunshine. The air was cold against her tightening skin, the taut, round shape of her belly. She eased herself into the water, which rose to cover her stomach, her swollen br**sts, laced with a nimbus of blue veins.

"Okay if I turn around?"

"I feel so huge, Theo. I can't believe you want to see me like this."

"You'll get bigger before you get smaller. Might as well get used to it."

What was she afraid of? They could have a baby together, but she wouldn't let him see her na**d? They hadn't so much as touched in days; she realized she had been waiting for him to do this, to cross the barrier that separated them, now that they were alone.

"It's okay, you can turn around."

For a moment his eyebrows raised at the sight of her. But just a moment. She saw that he was holding a blackened fry pan, full of some hard, glistening substance. He placed it on the ground by the trough and knelt to carve a wedge-shaped piece with his blade.

"My God, Theo. You made soap?"

"I used to make it with my mother sometimes. I don't know if I used enough ash, though. The fat comes from a pronghorn I shot yesterday morning. They're lean sons of bitches, but I got enough to render one batch."

"You shot a pronghorn?"

He nodded. "It was hell dragging him back here, too," he said. "At least five clicks. And there's lots of fish in the river. I'm figuring we can put up enough stores to make it through the winter easy." He rose, dusting his hands on his trouser legs. "Go ahead and finish and I'll make breakfast."

By the time she was done, the water was opaque with dirt and filmed with grease from the soap. She rose to her feet and used the rest of the heated water to rinse herself off, standing na**d in the yard to let the sun dry her, feeling the moisture wicking off her skin in the arid air. She couldn't remember when she'd felt so clean.

She dressed-her clothing felt filthy against her skin; she'd have to see about doing the laundry-and reentered the house. More surprises from the basement: Theo had set the table-actual china, laid out with utensils and drinking cups, the glass murky with age. He was cooking some kind of steak in a fry pan, with translucent slivers of onion. The room was roaring with heat from the stove, fueled by logs taken from a pile he'd stacked at the door.

"The last of the antelope," he explained. "The rest is up for smoking." He flipped the steaks and turned toward her, drying his hands on a rag. "It's a little stringy but not bad. There's wild onions down by the river, and bushes I think may be blackberries, though we'll have to wait till spring."

"Flyers, Theo, what else?" The question wasn't serious; she was amazed at all he'd done.



"They're mostly gone to seed now, but we can still use some. I've moved a bunch down to the bins in the cellar." With a long fork he speared the steaks onto their plates. "We won't starve. There's lots, once you look."

After breakfast, he washed the dishes in the sink while she watched. She wanted to help, but he insisted that she do nothing.

"Feel up to a walk?" he asked.

He disappeared into the barn and returned with a bucket and a pair of fishing poles, still strung with plastic monofilament. He gave her a small spade and the shotgun to carry, and a handful of shells. By the time they reached the river, the sun was high in the sky. They were at a spot where the river slowed and widened into a broad, shallow bend; the banks were dense with vegetation, tall weeds golden with autumnal color. Theo had no hooks but had found, tucked in a kitchen drawer, a small sewing kit, containing a tin of safety pins. While Maus dug in the dirt for worms, Theo tied these to the ends of their lines.

"So, how do you fish, exactly?" Maus said. Her hands were full of wriggling dirt; everywhere she looked, the ground was teeming with life.

"I think you just put them in the water and see what happens."

They did. But after a while, this seemed silly. Their hooks were sitting in the shallows where they could see them.

"Stand back," Theo said. "I'm going to try to get mine farther out."

He drew back the latch on his reel, lifted the rod over his shoulder, and threw the line forward. It shot out in a long arc over the water, disappearing into the current with a plunk. Almost at once, the tip of the rod bent sharply.

"Shit!" His eyes went wide with panic. "What do I do?"

"Don't let him get away!"

The fish broke the surface with a shimmering splash. Theo began to reel him in.

"He feels huge!"

As Theo pulled the fish toward shore, Maus stumbled into the shallows-the water was astonishingly cold, filling her boots-and bent to grab him. He darted away, and in another moment her ankles were all wrapped up in the fishing line.

"Theo, help!"

They were both laughing. Theo snatched the fish and rolled him onto his back, which seemed to have the desired effect; the fish gave up his struggles. Maus managed to untangle herself and retrieved the bucket from shore while Theo pulled the fish from the river-a long, glimmering thing, like a single slab of muscle flecked with brilliant color, as if hundreds of tiny gems were set into its flesh. The pin was hooked through its lower lip, the worm still on it.

"What part do you eat?" Maus asked.

"I guess that depends on how hungry we get."

He kissed her then; she felt a flood of happiness. He was still Theo, her Theo. She could feel it in his kiss. Whatever had happened in that cell hadn't taken this away from her.

"My turn," she said, pushing him away, and took up her rod to cast as he had done.

They filled the bucket with wriggling fish; the abundance of the river seemed almost too much, like an overly extravagant present. The wide blue sky and the sun-dappled river and the forgotten countryside and the two of them together, in it: it all seemed, somehow, miraculous. Walking back to the house, Maus found her mind returning to the family in the pictures. The mother and the father and the two girls and the boy with his victorious, gap-toothed smile. They had lived here, died here. But most of all, she felt certain, they had lived.

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