The Passage Page 11

The other sisters were pleased; they never had visitors, or at least very rarely, and these were always religious-priests, other sisters. But a little girl: this was something new. The minute Sister Arnette had climbed the stairs to her room, they all began to talk. How did Sister Lacey know the girl's mother? How old was Amy? What did she like to do? To eat? To watch? To wear? They were so excited they scarcely noticed how seldom Amy spoke, that in fact she said nothing at all; Lacey did the talking. For dinner, Amy would like hamburgers and hot dogs-these were her favorites-with potato chips, and chocolate-chip ice cream. She enjoyed coloring and crafts, and liked to watch movies with princesses in them, and rabbits if they had anything like that at the store. She would need clothes; her mother, in her haste, had forgotten the little girl's suitcase, she was so frazzled by her own mission of mercy (to Arkansas, near Little Rock; the little girl's grandmother was diabetic, with heart trouble), and when she'd said she would go home for it, Lacey had insisted no, she could easily manage. The lies poured forth so gracefully upon ears so willing to believe that, within the hour, all the sisters seemed to have a slightly different version of the same story. Sister Louisa and Sister Claire took the van to Piggly Wiggly for the hamburgers and hot dogs and chips, then to Walmart, for clothing and movies and toys; in the kitchen, Sister Tracy set about planning the evening meal, announcing that not only could they expect the promised hamburgers and hot dogs and ice cream, but to go with the ice cream, a three-tier chocolate cake. (They always looked forward to Fridays, Sister Tracy's night to cook. Her parents owned a restaurant in Chicago; before she'd entered the Sisters, she had trained at Cordon Bleu.) Even Sister Arnette seemed to catch the spirit, sitting with Amy and the other sisters in the den to watch The Princess Bride while dinner was prepared.

Through it all, Sister Lacey set her mind on God. When the movie, which everyone agreed was wonderful, ended, and Sister Louise and Sister Claire took Amy to the kitchen to show her some of the toys they'd bought at Walmart-coloring books, crayons and paste and construction paper, a Barbie Pet Shop Kit that had taken Sister Louise fifteen minutes to free from the prison of its plastic package with all of its little parts, the combs and brushes for the dogs and the tiny dishes and the rest-Lacey climbed the stairs. In the silence of her room she prayed on this mystery, the mystery of Amy, listening for the voice that would sweep through her, filling her with the knowledge of His will; but as she lifted her mind to God, all that came to her was the feeling of a question with no certain answer. This, she knew, was another way God could speak to a person. His will was elusive most of the time, and although this was frustrating, and it would be nice if, from time to time, He chose to make His intentions more explicit, this wasn't how things worked. Though most of the sisters prayed in the little chapel behind the kitchen, and Lacey did this too, she reserved her most earnest, searching prayers for this time alone in her room, not even kneeling but sitting at her desk or on the corner of her narrow bed. She'd put her hands in her lap, close her eyes, and send her mind out as far as she could-since childhood, she had imagined it as a kite on a string, lifting higher as she let the line out-and wait to see what happened. Now, sitting on the bed, she sent the kite as high as she dared, the imaginary ball of string growing smaller in her hand, the kite itself just a speck of color far above her head, but all she felt was the wind of heaven pushing upon it, a force of great power against a thing so small.

After dinner, the sisters returned to the living room to watch a program on TV, a hospital show they had been following all year, and Sister Lacey took Amy upstairs to prepare for bed. It was eight o'clock; usually all the sisters were in bed by nine, to rise at five for morning devotions, and it seemed to Lacey that these were the kind of hours a girl of Amy's age could also keep. She gave Amy a bath, scrubbing her hair with raspberry shampoo and working in a dollop of conditioner for the tangles, then combing it all out so it was straight and glossy, its rich black hue deepening with each pull of the comb, before taking her old clothing downstairs to the laundry. By the time she returned Amy had put on the pajamas Sister Claire had bought that afternoon at Walmart. They were pink, with a pattern of stars and moons with smiling faces, and made of a material that rustled and shone like silk. When Lacey entered the room, she saw that Amy was looking at the sleeves with a bewildered expression; they were too long, flopping clownishly over her hands and feet. Lacey rolled them up; while she watched, Amy brushed her teeth and put her toothbrush back in its case and then turned from the mirror to face her.

"Do I sleep in here?"

So many hours had passed since she'd heard the girl's voice that Lacey wasn't sure she'd heard the question correctly. She searched the little girl's face. The question, strange as it was, made sense to her.

"Why would you sleep in the bathroom, Amy?"

She looked at the floor. "Mama says I have to be quiet."

Lacey didn't know what to make of this. "No, of course not. You'll sleep in your room. It's right next to mine, I'll show you."

The room was clean and spare, bare-walled with just a bed and a bureau and a small writing table, not even a rug on the floor to warm it, and Lacey wished she had something to make it nice for a little girl. She thought that, tomorrow, she would ask Sister Arnette if she could buy a small rug to put by the bed, so Amy's feet wouldn't have to touch the cold floorboards in the mornings. She tucked Amy under the blankets and sat on the edge of the mattress. Through the floor she could hear the faint rumble of the television downstairs, and the tick of pipes expanding behind the walls, and outside, the wind fingering the March leaves of the oaks and maples and the soft hum of evening traffic on Poplar Avenue. The zoo was two blocks behind the convent, at the far end of the park; on summer nights when the windows were open, they could sometimes hear the colabus monkeys, whooping and screeching in their cages. This was a strange and wonderful thing for Lacey to hear, so many thousands of miles from home, but when she had visited the zoo she'd discovered it was an awful place, like a jail; the pens were small, the cats were kept in barren cages behind walls of Plexiglas, the elephants and giraffes wore chains on their legs. All the animals looked depressed. Most could barely be bothered to move at all, and the people who came to see them were loud and boorish and let their children throw popcorn through the bars to make the animals notice them. It was more than Lacey could bear, and she had left quickly, close to tears. It broke her heart to see God's creatures treated so cruelly, with such coldhearted indifference, for no purpose.

But now, sitting on the edge of the bed, she thought that it might be something Amy would like. Perhaps she'd never been to a zoo at all. As long as there was nothing Lacey could do to ease the animals' suffering, it didn't seem sinful, a second wrong piled on top of the first, to bring a little girl who had so little happiness in her life to see them. She would ask Sister Arnette in the morning about this, when she asked about the rug.

"There now," she said, and adjusted Amy's blanket. The girl was lying very still, almost as if she were afraid to move. "All safe and sound. And I'm just next door if you need anything. Tomorrow we'll do something fun, you'll see. The two of us."

"Can you leave the light on?"

Lacey told her she would. Then she leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. The air around her smelled like jam, from the shampoo.

"I like your sisters," Amy said.

Lacey felt herself smiling; with everything that had happened, she had somehow failed to anticipate this misunderstanding. "Yes. Well. It's difficult to explain. You see, we're not actual sisters, not how you mean. We do not have the same parents. But we are sisters nonetheless."

"But how can you be?"

"Oh, there are other ways to be sisters. We are sisters in spirit. We are sisters in the eyes of God." She jostled Amy's hand. "Even Sister Arnette."

Amy frowned. "She's cranky."

"So she is. But it's just her way. And she's glad you're here. Everyone is. I don't think we even realized how much we were missing, until you came here." She touched Amy's hand again and rose. "Now, enough talk. You need your sleep."

"I promise I'll be quiet."

At the doorway, Lacey stopped. "You do not have to be," she said.

That night Lacey dreamed; in the dream she was a little girl again, in the fields behind her house. She was huddled under a low palm bush, its long fronds like a tent around her, licking the skin of her arms and face, and her sisters were there, too, though not exactly; her sisters were running away. Behind them she heard men or, rather, she felt them, their dark presences; she heard the pop of gunfire and her mother's voice, yelling, screaming, telling them, Run away, children, run as fast as you can, though she, Lacey, was frozen in place with fear; she seemed to have turned into some new substance, a kind of living wood, and couldn't move a muscle. She heard more popping, and with the pops came flashes of light, severing the darkness like a blade. At those instants she could see everything around her: her house and the fields and the men moving through them, men who sounded like soldiers but weren't dressed like soldiers, who swept the ground before them with the barrels of their rifles. The world appeared to her this way, in a series of still pictures; she was afraid but could not look away. Her legs and feet were wet, not cold but curiously warm; she realized she had urinated on herself, though she did not remember doing this. In her nose and mouth she tasted bitter smoke, and sweat, and something else, which she knew but could not name. It was the taste of blood.

Then she felt it: someone was near. It was one of the men. She could hear the rattle of his breaths in his chest, his searching footsteps; she could smell the fear and anger wicking off his body like a glowing vapor. Don't move, Lacey, said the voice, fierce and burning. Don't move. She closed her eyes, not even daring to breathe; her heart was beating so hard inside her, it was as if that's all she was now, a beating heart. His shadow fell upon her, passing over her face and body like a great black wing. When she opened her eyes again he was gone; the fields were empty, and she was alone.

She awoke with a start, terror coursing through her. But even as she realized where she was, she felt the dream breaking up inside her; it turned a corner and darted out of sight. The touch of leaves on her skin. A voice, whispering. A smell, like blood. But now even that was gone.

Then she felt it. Someone was in the room with her.

She sat up abruptly and saw Amy standing in the doorway. Lacey glanced at the clock. It was just midnight; she had slept only a couple of hours.

"What is it, child?" she said softly. "Are you all right?"

The little girl stepped into the room. Her pajamas shimmered in the light of the streetlamp outside Lacey's window, so that her body seemed draped with stars and moons. Lacey wondered for a moment if the girl was sleepwalking.

"Amy, did you have a bad dream?"

But Amy said nothing. In the darkness, Lacey couldn't see the child's face. Was she crying? She pulled the bedcovers aside to make room for her.

"It's all right, come here," Lacey said.

Without a word, Amy climbed into the narrow bed beside her. Her body was giving off waves of heat-not a fever, but nothing ordinary, either. She was glowing like a coal.

"You don't have to be afraid," Lacey said. "You're safe here."

"I want to stay," the girl said.

Lacey realized she didn't mean the room, or Lacey's bed. She meant permanently, to live. Lacey didn't know how to respond. By Monday she would have to tell the truth to Sister Arnette; there was simply no avoiding it. What would happen after that-to both of them-she didn't know. But she saw it now, clearly: by lying about Amy, she had wrapped their fates together.

"We'll see."

"I won't tell anyone. Don't let them take me away."

Lacey felt a shiver of fear. "Who, Amy? Who will take you away?"

Amy said nothing.

"Try not to worry," Lacey said. She put her arm around Amy and pulled her close. "Now sleep. We need our rest."

But in the dark, for hours and hours, Lacey lay awake, her eyes wide open.

It was a little after three A.M. when Wolgast and Doyle reached Baton Rouge, where they turned north, toward the Mississippi border. Doyle had driven the first shift, taking the wheel from Houston to a little east of Lafayette, while Wolgast tried to sleep; shortly after two they'd stopped at a Waffle House off the highway to change places, and since then, Doyle had barely stirred. A light rain was falling, just enough to mist the windshield.

To the south lay the Federal Industrial District of New Orleans, which Wolgast was glad to avoid. Just the thought of it depressed him. He had visited Old New Orleans once before, on a trip to Mardi Gras with friends from college, and been instantly taken by the city's wild energy-its pulsing permissiveness, its vivid sense of life. For three days he'd barely slept, or felt the need to. One early morning he found himself in Preservation Hall-which was, despite its name, little more than a shack, hotter than the mouth of hell-listening to a jazz sextet playing "St. Louis Blues" and realized he'd been up for almost forty-eight hours straight. The air of the room was as tumescent as a greenhouse; everyone was dancing and shuffling and clapping along, a crowd of people of all ages and colors. Where else could you find yourself listening to six old black men, none of them a day under eighty, playing jazz at five o'clock in the morning? But then Katrina hit the city in '05, and Vanessa a few years later-a full-blown Category 5 that roared ashore on 180-mile-per-hour winds, pushing a storm surge thirty feet tall-and that was the end of that. Now the place was little more than a giant petrochemical refinery, ringed by flooded lowlands so polluted that the water of its fouled lagoons could melt the skin right off your hand. Nobody lived inside the city proper anymore; even the sky above it was off-limits, patrolled by a squadron of fighter jets out of Kessler AFB. The whole place was ringed by fencing and patrolled by Homeland Security forces in full battle dress; beyond the perimeter, radiating outward for ten miles in all directions, was the N.O. Housing District, a sea of trailers once used for evacuees but now serving as a gigantic human storage facility for the thousands of workers who made the city's industrial complex hum day and night. It was little more than a giant outdoor slum, a cross between a refugee camp and some frontier outpost from the Wild West; among law enforcement, it was generally known that the murder rate inside the N.O. was completely off the charts, though because it wasn't officially a city of any kind, not even part of any state, this fact went mostly unreported.

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