The Passage Page 120

And then he did. Theo felt his tiny chest inflate, a discernible click, then something warm and sticky, spraying into his hand like a sneeze. The baby took a second breath, filling his lungs, and Theo felt a force of life flowing into him. Theo turned him over, reaching for a rag. The baby had begun to cry, not the robust complaints he had expected but a kind of mewing. He wiped his nose and lips and cheeks and scooped the last mucus from his mouth with a finger, and placed him, the cord still attached, on Mausami's chest.

Her face was exhausted, heavy-lidded and worn. At the corners of her eyes he saw a fan of wrinkles that hadn't been there just a day ago. She managed a weak but grateful smile. It was over. The baby had been born, the baby was here at last.

He placed a blanket over the baby, over the two of them, and sat beside them on the bed, and let it all go: he wept.

It was deep night when Theo awoke, thinking: Where was Conroy?

Maus and the baby were asleep. They had decided-or, rather, Maus had decided, and Theo had quickly agreed-to name him Caleb. They had swaddled him tightly in a blanket and placed him on the mattress beside her. The air of the room was still heavy with a rich, earthy smell, of blood and sweat and birth. She had fed the baby, or tried to-her milk wouldn't be coming in for a day or so-and taken a bit of food herself, a mush of boiled potatoes from the basement and a few bites of a mealy apple from their winter stores. She would need protein soon, Theo knew; but there was plenty of small game around, now that the weather had warmed. As soon as they were settled, he would have to leave to hunt.

It seemed obvious, suddenly, that they would never be departing this place. They had everything they needed to make a life here. The house had stood the years, waiting for someone to make it a home again. He wondered why it had taken him so long to see this. When Peter came back, that was what Theo would say to him. Maybe there was something on that mountain and maybe there wasn't. It didn't matter. This was home; they would never be leaving.

He sat awhile, mulling over these things, full of a quiet amazement that seemed to lodge in the deepest part of him. But eventually exhaustion overcame him. He crawled in beside them and soon was fast asleep.

Now, awake, he realized he'd forgotten all about Conroy. He searched his memory for the last time he'd been aware of the dog's presence. Sometime late, close to sunset, Conroy had started to whine, asking to be let out. Theo had done this quickly, not wanting to leave Maus's side for even an instant. Conroy never wandered far, and as soon as he was done with his business, he'd be scratching at the door. Theo had been so preoccupied that he had simply slammed the door and raced back up the stairs and forgotten all about him.

Until now. It was odd, he thought, that he hadn't heard so much as a peep. No scratching at the door or barking from outside. For a period of days after he had found the footprints in the barn, Theo had kept a watchful eye, never venturing far from the house, keeping the shotgun handy. He had told Mausami nothing, not wanting to worry her. But as time passed, with no other signs, he had let his mind turn toward the more pressing matter of the baby. He'd found himself wondering if he had misread what he'd seen. The footprints could have been his own, after all, the can something Conroy had fished out of the trash.

He rose quietly, taking the lantern and his boots and the shotgun from its place beside the door, and descended to the living room. He sat on the stairs to put on his boots, not bothering with the laces; he lit a piece of kindling off the coals of the fire, setting it to the wick of the lantern, and opened the door.

He had expected to find Conroy sleeping on the porch, but it was empty. Raising the lantern to spread its light, Theo stepped down into the yard. No moon or even stars; a damp spring wind was blowing, bearing rain. He lifted his face into the gathering mist, a light spattering on his brow and cheeks. The dog, wherever he'd run off to, would be glad to see him. He'd want to get inside, out of the rain.

"Conroy!" he called. "Conroy, where are you?"

The other houses stood silent. Conroy had never shown more than passing interest in these structures, as if, through some dog sense, he knew them to be of no value. There were things inside, the man and the woman made use of them, what did it matter to him?

Theo advanced slowly down the trace, the shotgun clenched under one arm while, with the other, he swept the area with the light of his lantern. If it started to rain in earnest, he didn't think he'd be able to keep the thing lit. That goddamn dog, he thought. Now was not the time for him to run off like this.

"Conroy, damnit, where did you go?"

Theo found him lying at the base of the last house. He knew at once the dog was dead. His slender body was still, his silvery mane drenched in blood.

Then, coming from the house-the sound traveling with an arrow's swift assurance to pierce his mind with terror-he heard Mausami scream.

Thirty steps, fifty, a hundred: the lantern was gone, dropped on the ground by Conroy's body, he was racing through the dark in his unlaced boots, first one and then the other launching off his feet. He hit the porch at a leap, ripped open the door, and dashed up the stairs.

The bedroom was empty.

He tore through the house, calling her name. No sign of a struggle; Maus and the baby had simply vanished. He raced through the kitchen and out the back, just in time to hear her scream again, the sound strangely muted, as if rising toward him through a mile of water.

She was in the barn.

He entered at a dead sprint, bursting through the door, spinning his body to sweep the dark interior with the shotgun. Maus was in the backseat of the old Volvo, clutching the baby to her chest. She was waving frantically, her words muffled by the thickness of the glass.

"Theo, behind you!"

He turned and as he turned the shotgun was knocked away, slapped like a twig from his hands. Then something grabbed him, not any single part but the whole of him, Theo entire; he felt himself lifted up. The car with Mausami and the baby in it was somewhere below him and he was flying through the dark. He hit the hood of the car with a crunch of buckling metal, rolling, tumbling; he landed face-up on the ground and came to a stop but then something, the same something, grabbed him, and he was flying again. The wall, this time, with its shelves of tools and stores and cans of fuel. He hit it face-first, glass exploding, wood splintering, everything falling in a clattering rain; as the ground rose to meet him, slowly and then quickly and finally all at once, he felt a crunch of bone.

Agony. Stars filled his vision, actual stars. The thought reached him, like a message from some distant place, that he was about to die. He should be dead already. The viral should have killed him. But this would happen soon enough. He could taste blood in his mouth, feel it stinging his eyes. He was lying face-down on the floor of the barn, one leg, the broken one, twisted under him; the creature was above him now, a looming shadow, preparing to strike. It was better this way, Theo thought. Better that the viral should take him first. He didn't want to watch what would happen to Mausami and the baby. Through the murk of his battered brain, he heard her calling out to him.

Look away, Maus, he thought. I love you. Look away.





To me, fair friend, you never can be old,

For as you were when first your eye I ey'd,

Such seems your beauty still.


Sonnet 104


They came down the mountain as the river was thawing, riding on top of the snow. They came down as one, wearing their packs, brandishing blades. They came down to the valley, Michael at the wheel of the Sno-Cat with Greer beside him, the others up top, the wind and sun in their faces. They came down at last, into the wild country they had reclaimed.

They were going home.

They had been on the mountain one hundred and twelve days. In all that time they had seen not a single viral. For days after they had crossed the ridge, the snow had poured down, sealing them inside the lodge of the old hotel. A great stone building, its doors and windows covered by sheets of plywood, set into the frame with heavy screws. They had expected to find bodies inside but the place was empty, the furniture around the hearth of its cavernous front room draped in ghostly white sheets, the larder of its vast kitchen stocked with every kind of can, many still with their labels. Upstairs, a warren of bedrooms, and in the basement, a huge, silent furnace and long racks lining the walls, holding skis. The place was as cold as the grave. They didn't know if the chimney was blocked; at the very least it would be full of leaves and birds' nests. The only thing to do was light a fire and hope for the best. In the office, they found boxes of paper packed away in a closet; they rolled it up for kindling and, with Peter's axe, chopped up a pair of dining room chairs. After a few smoky minutes, the room blazed with light and warmth. They dragged mattresses down from the second floor and slept by the fire, while the snow piled up outside.

They had found the Sno-Cats the following morning: three of them, resting on their treads in a garage behind the lodge. You think you can get one of these things running? Peter asked Michael.

It had taken most of the winter. By then, everyone was half stir-crazy, anxious to be leaving. The days were longer, and the sun seemed to hold a distant, remembered warmth; but still the snow was deep, rising in great drifts against the walls of the lodge. They had burned most of the furniture and the railings of the porch. From the three Sno-Cats, Michael had harvested enough parts to make one go, or so he believed; it was fuel that was the problem. The large tank behind the shed was empty, fissured with rot. All he had was what was in the Cats themselves, just a few gallons, badly contaminated by rust. He siphoned this off into plastic pails and poured it through a funnel lined with rags. He let it settle overnight, then repeated the process, each time stripping more debris away but also depleting his supply. By the time he was satisfied, he had just five gallons left, which he poured back into the Cat.

"No promises," he warned everyone. He'd done his best to flush the fuel tank, running gallon after gallon of melted snow through it, but it wouldn't take much to gum up a fuel line. "The damn thing could kick a hundred meters from here," he said. Though he knew they wouldn't take this warning seriously.

It was a sunny morning when they rolled the Cat from the shed and loaded up their gear. Gigantic icicles, like long, jeweled teeth, hung from the eaves of the lodge. Greer, who had helped Michael with the repairs-it turned out he'd been an oiler once and knew a thing or two about engines-took a place in the cab beside him. The others would ride on top, on a wide metal platform with a rail. They had removed the plow to cut the weight, hoping to squeeze a few more miles from what little fuel they had.

Michael opened the window and directed his voice to the rear of the vehicle. "Is everyone on board?"

Peter was lashing the last of the gear to the back of the Sno-Cat. Amy had taken her position at the rail; Hollis and Sara stood below him, passing up the skis. "Hold on a minute," he said. He rose and cupped his hands around his mouth. "Lish, let's get a move on!"

She emerged from the lodge. Like all of them, she was wearing a red nylon jacket with the words SKI PATROL printed on the back, and small leather boots that fit the skis, her leggings covered to the knees by a pair of canvas gaiters. Her hair had grown back, an even more vivid shade of red, mostly hidden now beneath the band of her long-brimmed cap. Over her eyes she wore dark glasses with leather pieces attached to the lenses, hugging the sides of her face like a pair of goggles.

"Seems like we're always leaving somewhere," she answered. "I just wanted to say goodbye to the place."

She was standing on the edge of the porch, ten meters away, roughly level with the platform on the Sno-Cat. Peter detected, in the sudden, curving grin on her face and the way she tipped her head, first this way and then the other, what she was about to attempt-that she was gauging the distance and angle. She removed her hat, releasing her red hair into the sunshine, and tucked it inside her Velcroed jacket; she took three steps back, bending at the knees. Her hands, at her sides, gave a watery shake, then stilled. She rose on her toes.


Too late; two quick bounds and she was up. The porch where she had stood was empty; Alicia was lifting through the air. It was, Peter thought, a sight to see. Alicia Blades, Youngest Captain Since The Day; Alicia Donadio, the Last Expeditionary, airborne. She swept across the sun, arms outstretched, feet together; at the apex of her ascent, she tucked her chin against her chest and rolled head over heels, aiming the soles of her boots at the Sno-Cat, arms rising, her body descending toward them like an arrow. She hit the platform with a shuddering clang, melting to a crouch to absorb the force of the impact.

"Fuck!" Michael swiveled at the wheel. "What was that?"

"Nothing," Peter said. He could still feel the metallic hum of her landing, chiming through his bones. "Just Lish."

Alicia rose and tapped the glass of the cab. "Relax, Michael."

"Flyers, I thought we'd blown the engine."

Hollis and Sara climbed aboard; Alicia took her place at the rail and turned to Peter. Even through the smoky opaqueness of her glasses, Peter could detect the orange thrum of her eyes.

"Sorry," she said with a guilty grin. "I thought I could nail it."

"I don't think I'll ever get used to you doing that," he said.

The blade had never fallen. Or rather, it had fallen, when suddenly it stopped.

Everything had stopped.

It was Alicia who had done it, seizing Peter by the wrists. Freezing the blade in its downward arc, inches from her chest. The restraints had ripped away, like paper. Peter felt the power in her arms, a titanic force, more than human, and knew he was too late.

But when she opened her eyes, it was Alicia he saw.

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