The Passage Page 113

For a while the convoy had traveled east, but now they were moving south again, on what felt to Sara like a road; the worst of the bouncing, the lurching from side to side and the sound of spinning mud and snow, spattering against the wheel wells beneath her, had stopped. She felt nauseated and cold, chilled to the core, her limbs achy from the hours of banging in the back of the truck. The convoy of vehicles and horses and men proceeded in fits and starts, as Alicia's scouting party gave the all clear. The goal for their first day of travel was Durango, where a fortified shelter in an old grain elevator, one of nine such refuges along the supply road to Roswell, offered safety for the night.

She had decided she wasn't angry that Peter had left without telling her. She had been at first, when Hollis came to the mess to give her the news; but with Sancho and Withers to take care of, she hadn't dwelt on these feelings for long. And the truth was, she'd sensed it coming-if not Peter's and Amy's departure exactly, then something like it. Something final. When she and Hollis had discussed leaving with the convoy, always in the background, unstated, was the feeling that Peter and Amy wouldn't be going with them.

But Michael had been angry. More than angry-furious. Hollis had practically had to restrain him from heading off after the two of them, into the snow. Strange how Michael had become so brave, almost recklessly so, over the months. She had always felt herself to be a kind of standin parent, responsible for him in some deep, incontrovertible way. Somewhere along the way, she had let these feelings go. So maybe it wasn't Michael who had changed; perhaps it was she herself.

She wanted to see Kerrville. The name hung in her mind with a shimmering weightlessness. To think: thirty thousand souls. It gave her a hope she hadn't felt since the day Teacher had taken her out the door of the Sanctuary, into the broken world. Because it wasn't broken, after all; the little girl Sara had been, the one who slept in the Big Room and played with her friends and felt the sun on her face as she swung on the tire in the courtyard, believing the world to be a fine place that she could be a part of-that little girl had been right all along. Such a simple thing to want. To be a person; to live a human life. That was what she would have in Kerrville, with Hollis. Hollis, who loved her, and told her so, again and again. It was as if he'd opened something up inside her, something long clenched; for the feeling had filled her at once, that first night on watch, somewhere in Utah, when he'd put his rifle down and kissed her; and again each time he said the words in his quiet, almost embarrassed way, their faces so close she could feel the tangles of his beard on her cheeks, as if he were confessing the deepest truth of himself. He told her he loved her and she loved him in return, at once and infinitely. She did not believe in fate; the world seemed far chancier than that, a series of mishaps and narrow escapes you somehow managed to survive until, one day, you didn't. Yet that's what loving Hollis felt like: like fate. As if the words were already written down someplace, and all she had to do was live out the story. She wondered if her parents had felt that way about each other. Though she did not like to think about them and avoided this whenever she could, she found herself, riding in the back of the cold truck, wishing they were still alive, so she could ask this question.

It wasn't fair, what they had done. It was Michael, poor Michael, who had found the two of them in the shed that terrible morning. He was eleven; Sara had just turned fifteen. Part of her believed that their parents waited until she was old enough to look after her brother, that her age was part of the rationale for what they'd done. By the time Michael's yells had pulled her out of bed and down the stairs and across the yard to the shed behind their house, he had flung his arms around their legs, trying to hold them up; she'd stood in the door, speechless and immobile, Michael crying and begging her to help him, and known that they were dead. What she had felt at that moment was not horror or grief but something like wonder-a mute amazement at the factually declarative nature of the scene, its merciless mechanics. They had used ropes and a pair of wooden stools. They had tied the ropes around their necks, slipping the knots tight, and kicked the stools aside, employing the weight of their bodies to strangle themselves. She wondered: Did they do it together? Had they counted to three? Did first one go and then the other? Michael was pleading, Please Sara, help me, help me save them, and yet that was all she saw. The night before, her mother had made johnnycake; the pan was still sitting on the kitchen table. Sara had searched her mind for some evidence that her mother had gone about this task in any way that seemed different, knowing, as she must have, that she was preparing a breakfast she would not eat, for children she would never see again. And yet Sara could remember nothing.

As if obeying some final, tacit command, she and Michael had eaten it all, every bite. And by the time they were done, Sara knew, as Michael surely did as well, that she would take care of her brother from that day forward, and that part of this care was the unspoken agreement that they would never speak of their parents again.

The convoy had slowed. Sara heard a shout from up ahead, calling them to halt, and then the sound of a single horse, galloping past them through the snow. She climbed to her feet and saw that Withers's eyes were open and looking about. His bandaged arms lay over his chest, on top of the blankets. His face was flushed, damp with sweat.

"Are we there?"

Sara felt his forehead with the base of her wrist. He didn't seem to have a fever; if anything, his skin was too cold. She retrieved a canteen from the floor and dribbled a bit into his waiting mouth. No fever, and yet he looked much worse; he couldn't seem to lift his head at all.

"I don't think so."

"This itching is driving me crazy. Like my arms are crawling with ants."

Sara capped the canteen and put it aside. Fever or no fever, his color had her worried.

"That's a good sign. It means you're healing under there."

"It doesn't feel like it." Withers took a long breath and let the air out slowly. "Fuck."

Sancho was in the berth beneath him, swaddled in bandages; only the small pink circle of his face was showing. Sara knelt and took a stethoscope from her med kit to listen to his chest. She heard a wet rattle, like water sloshing in a can. It was dehydration, as much as anything, that was killing him; and yet he was drowning in his own lungs. His cheeks were blazing to the touch; the air around him was sharp with the smell of infection. She tucked the blanket around him and moistened a rag and held it to his lips.

"How's he doing?" Withers asked from above.

Sara rose.

"He's close, isn't he? I can see it in your face."

She nodded. "I don't think it will be long now."

Withers closed his eyes once more.

She pulled on her parka and climbed from the back of the truck, into the snow and sunlight. The orderly lines of soldiers had dissolved into clusters of three or four men, standing around with scowls of bored impatience on their faces, hoods drawn up over their heads, their noses runny from the cold. Up ahead, she saw where the problem lay. One of the trucks sat with its hood open, exhaling a plume of steam into the air. It was ringed by a group of soldiers, who were looking at it with bewilderment, as if it were a giant carcass they'd happened upon in the road.

Michael was standing on the bumper, his arms buried to the elbows in the engine. Greer, from atop his horse, said, "Can you fix it?"

Michael's head emerged from under the hood. "I think it's just a hose. I can replace it if the housing isn't cracked. We'll need more coolant, too."

"How long?"

"Not more than half a hand."

Greer lifted his head and shouted to the men, "Let's tighten that perimeter! Blue up front, and mind that line of trees! Donadio! Where the hell's Donadio?"

Alicia came riding from the front, her rifle slung, wreaths of steam swirling around her face. Despite the cold she had shucked her parka and was wearing only a compartmented vest over her jersey.

Greer said, "Looks like we're stuck here for a while. Might as well have a look at what's down the road. We're going to have to make up some time."

Alicia heeled her horse and galloped away, riding without a glance past Hollis, who was advancing toward them from the front of the line. Greer had assigned him to one of the supply trucks, handing out food and water to the men.

"What's going on?" he asked Sara.

"Hang on a minute. Major Greer," she called.

Greer was already moving down the line. He turned his horse to face her.

"It's Sancho, sir. I think he's dying."

Greer nodded. "I see. Thank you for telling me."

"You're his CO, sir. I thought he might appreciate a visit from you."

His face showed no emotion. "Nurse Fisher. We've got four hours of light to cover six hours of open ground. That's what I'm thinking about right now. Just do the best you can. Is that all?"

"Did he have anyone he was close to? Somebody who could be with him?"

"I'm sorry, I can't spare the men right now. I'm sure he'd understand. Now, if you'll excuse me." He rode away.

Standing in the snow, Sara realized she was suddenly fighting back tears.

"Come on," Hollis said, and took her by the arm. "I'll help you."

They made their way back to the truck. Withers had fallen asleep again. They pulled a couple of crates beside Sancho's berth. His breathing had gotten more ragged; a bit of foam had collected on his lips, which were blue with hypoxia. Sara didn't need to check his pulse to know his heart was racing, running out the clock.

"What can we do for him?" asked Hollis.

"Just be with him, I guess." Sancho was going to die, she'd known that since the start, but now that it was actually happening, all her efforts seemed too meager. "I don't think it will be long now."

It wasn't. While they watched, his breathing began to slow. His eyelids fluttered. Sara had heard it said that, in the last moments, a person's life would pass before his eyes. If that was true, what was Sancho seeing? What would she be seeing, if she were the one lying there? Sara took his bandaged hand and tried to think of what to say, what words of kindness she could offer. But nothing came to her. She didn't know anything about him, only his name.

When it was over, Hollis drew the blanket over the dead soldier's face. Above them they heard Withers rousing. Sara stood to find his eyes open and blinking, his gray face shining with sweat.

"Did he-?"

Sara nodded. "I'm sorry. I know he was your friend."

But he did nothing to acknowledge her; his mind was somewhere else.

"Goddamn," he groaned. "What a f**king dream. Like I was really there."

Hollis was standing beside Sara now. "What did he say?"

"Sergeant," Sara pressed, "what dream?"

He shuddered, as if trying to loosen its hold from his memory. "Just horrible. Her voice. And that stink."

"Whose voice, Sergeant?"

"Some fat woman," Withers answered. "Some big ugly fat woman, breathing smoke."

At the head of the line, lifting his head from the engine of the disabled five-ton, Michael saw Alicia-racing down the ridge, galloping through the snow. She tore past him toward the back of the line, calling for Greer.

What the hell?

Wilco was standing beside Michael, mouth open, eyes following the path of Alicia's horse. The rest of Alicia's squad was coming down the ridge now, riding toward them.

"Finish this," Michael said, and when Wilco said nothing, he pressed the wrench into his hand. "Just do it and be quick. I think we're moving out."

Michael took off after her, following the tracks she had made in the snow. With every step the feeling grew: Alicia had seen something, something bad, over the ridge. Hollis and Sara climbed from the back of the truck, all of them converging on Greer and Alicia, who had both dismounted; Alicia was pointing over the ridge, her arm swinging in a broad swath, then kneeling, drawing frantically in the snow. As Michael came upon them, he heard Greer saying, "How many?"

"They must have moved through last night. The tracks are still fresh."

"Major Greer-" This was Sara.

Greer held up a hand, cutting her off. "How many, goddamnit?"

Alicia rose. "Not many," she said. "The Many. And they're headed straight for that mountain."


Theo awoke not with a start but with a feeling of tumbling; he was rolling and falling, into the living world. His eyes were open. They had been open, he realized, for some time. The baby, he thought. He reached for Mausami and found her beside him. She shifted under his touch, drawing her knees upward. That's what it was. He'd been dreaming of the baby.

He was chilled to the bone, and yet his skin was slick with sweat. He wondered if he had a fever. You had to sweat to break a fever; that's what Teacher had always said, and his mother, too, her fingers stroking his face as he lay in bed, burning up. But that was long ago, a memory of a memory. He hadn't had a fever in so many years he'd forgotten what it felt like.

He pushed the blankets aside and rose to his feet, shivering in the cold, the moisture on his body sucking the last heat from him; he was wearing the same thin shirt he'd worn all day, stacking wood in the yard. They were ready at last for winter, everything battened down and put up and locked away. He drew off his sweat-soaked shirt and took another from the bureau. In one of the outbuildings he had found lockers full of clothes, some still in their packaging from the store: shirts and pants and socks and thermal underwear and sweaters made of a material that felt like cotton but wasn't. The mice and moths had gotten into some of it but not all. Whoever had stocked this place had stocked it for the long haul.

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