The Passage Page 14

Grey trudged to the barracks through the snow and ate a plate of tacos in the commissary before returning to his room. Tuesday was Bingo Night, but Grey couldn't work up a head of steam over that; he'd played a couple of times and come up at least twenty dollars down, and the soldiers always won, which made him think it was rigged. It was a stupid game anyway, really just an excuse to smoke, which he could do for free in his room. He lay on his bed, propped a couple of pillows behind his head and an ashtray on his stomach, and flipped on the television. A lot of the stations were blacked out; no CNN, no MSNBC, no GOVTV or MTV or E!-not that he ever looked at those stations anymore-and where commercials would have been the screen went blue for a minute or two until the program came back on. He surfed through the channels until he came to something interesting, a show on the War Network about the Allied invasion of France. Grey had always liked history, had even done pretty well in it back in school. He was good with dates and names, and it seemed that if you kept these straight in your head, the rest was just fill-in-the-blank. Stretched out on his bed, still wearing his coveralls, Grey watched and smoked. On the screen, GIs were tumbling onto the beaches by the boatload, blasting away and dodging shells and hurling their grenades. Behind them, out to sea, huge guns poured fire and thunder onto the cliff sides of Nazi-occupied France. Now that, Grey thought, was a war. The footage was jittery and out of focus half the time, but in one shot Grey could clearly see an arm-a Nazi arm-reaching out from the slotted window of a pillbox that some nice American kid had just used a flamethrower on. The arm was all burned up and smoking like a chicken wing left on a barbecue grill. Grey's old man had done two tours as a medic in Vietnam, and he wondered what he would have said about a thing like that. Grey sometimes forgot that his father was a medic; when Grey was a kid, the guy hadn't so much as put a Band-Aid on his knee, not once.

He smoked a last Parliament and turned off the television. Two days ago, the one named Jack and the one named Sam had up and left, not a word to anyone, so Grey had agreed to take a double shift. This would put him back on Level 4 by 06:00. It was a shame, those guys leaving like they had; unless you worked the full year, you forfeited the money. Richards had let it be known in no uncertain terms that this development did not make him one goddamn bit happy, and if anybody else was thinking of skipping, they had better think about this long and hard-very long and hard, he had said, giving the room a long, slow scan, like a pissed-off gym teacher. He gave this little speech in the dining hall during breakfast, and Grey locked his eyes on his scrambled eggs the whole time. He figured what happened to Sam and Jack was none of his business, and in any event the warning didn't apply to him: he, for one, wasn't going anywhere, and it wasn't like he'd been friends with those guys, not really. They'd talked a bit about this and that, but it was really just passing the time, and their leaving meant more money for Grey. An overtime shift was an extra five hundred; you pulled three in a week, they gave you an extra hundred as a bonus, too. As long as the money kept rolling in, filling up his account with all those zeros lined up like eggs in a carton, Grey would sit there on the mountaintop until the last cat was hung.

He peeled off his coveralls and doused the light. Pellets of snow were blowing against his window, a sound like sand shaking in a paper sack; every twenty seconds the blinds flared as the beacon on the west perimeter swung across the glass. Sometimes the drugs made Grey restless or he got leg cramps, but a couple of ibuprofen usually did the trick. He sometimes got up in the middle of the night to smoke or take a leak, though usually he slept straight through. He lay in the dark and tried to calm his thoughts but found himself thinking about Zero again. Maybe it was the burned-up Nazi arm; he couldn't seem to push the image of Zero from his mind. Zero was a prisoner of some kind. His table manners weren't anything to brag about, and it was nothing nice to look at, the business with the rabbits. Still, food was food and Zero wasn't having any of it. All he did was hang there like he was sleeping, though Grey didn't think he was. The chip in Zero's neck broadcast all kinds of data to the console, some of which Grey understood and some of which he didn't. But he knew what sleep looked like, that it looked different from being awake. Zero's heart rate was always the same, 102 beats per minute, give or take a beat. The technicians who came into the control room to read the data never said anything about this, just nodded and checked off the boxes on their handhelds. But 102 seemed mighty awake to Grey.

And the other thing was, Zero felt awake. There Grey went again, thinking about how Zero made him feel, which was nuts, but even so. Grey had never had much use for cats, but this was the same kind of thing. A cat sleeping on a step wasn't really sleeping. A cat sleeping on a step was a coiled spring waiting for a mouse to totter along. What was Zero waiting for? Maybe, Grey thought, he was just tired of rabbit. Maybe he wanted Ding Dongs, or a bologna hoagie, or turkey tetrazzini. For all Grey could tell, the guy would have eaten a piece of wood. With choppers like that, there pretty much wasn't anything he couldn't bore right through.

Ugh, Grey thought with a shudder, the teeth, and that was when he knew he had to do something else to make himself sleep besides just lying there, stewing in his thoughts. It was already midnight. Six A.M. would jump out at him like a jack-in-the-box before he knew it. He rose and took a couple of ibuprofen, smoked a cigarette and emptied his bladder again for good measure, then slid back between the covers. The spotlights grazed the windows once, twice, three times. He made an effort to close his eyes and imagine the escalator. This was a trick Wilder had taught him. Grey was what Wilder called "suggestible," meaning he was easily hypnotized, and the escalator was the thing Wilder had used to do this. You imagined being on an escalator, slowly going down. It didn't matter where the escalator was, an airport or mall or whatever, and Grey's escalator wasn't anyplace in particular. The point was, it was an escalator, and you were on it, alone, and the escalator went down and down and down, headed toward the bottom, which wasn't a bottom in the ordinary sense of being the end of something but a place of cool, blue light. Sometimes it was one escalator; sometimes it was a series of shorter escalators that descended one floor at a time with turns in between. Tonight it was just the one. The mechanism clicked a little under his feet; the rubber handrail was smooth and cool to the touch. Riding the escalator, Grey could feel the blueness waiting below him, but he didn't avert his gaze to look at it, because it wasn't a thing you saw; it came from inside you. When it filled you up and took you over, you knew you were asleep.


The light was in him now, but it wasn't blue; that was the funny thing. The light was a warm orange color, and throbbing like a heart. Part of his brain said, You are asleep, Grey; you are asleep and dreaming. But another part, the part that was actually in the dream, took no mind of this. He moved through the pulsing orange light.

Grey. I am here.

The light was different now, golden; Grey was in the barn, in the straw. A dream that was a memory, but not exactly: he had straw all over him from rolling around in it, sticking to his arms and face and hair, and the other boy was there, his cousin Roy, who wasn't his real cousin, but he called him that; and Roy was covered too, and laughing. They'd been rolling around, fighting, sort of, and then the feeling of it changed, the way a song changed. He could smell the straw, and his own sweat mixing with Roy's, all of it combining in his senses to make the smell of a summer afternoon as a boy. Roy was saying, quietly, It's okay, take off them jeans, I'll take mine off too, ain't nobody coming. Just do like I do, I'll show you how it's done, it's the best feeling in the world. Grey knelt beside him in the straw.

Grey. Grey.

And Roy was right; it was the best feeling. Like climbing a rope in gym class only better, like a big sneeze building inside him, starting from down low and climbing up through all the hallways and alleyways and channels inside him. He closed his eyes and let the feeling rise.

Yes. Yes. Grey, listen. I am coming.

But it wasn't just Roy with him, not anymore. Grey heard the roar and then the footsteps on the ladder, like the song changing again. He saw Roy one last time from the corner of his eye and he was all burned up and smoking. His father was using the belt, the heavy black one, he didn't need to see it to know, and he buried his face in the straw as the belt fell across his bare back, slapping and ripping, again, again; and then something else, deeper, tearing at him from the inside.

You like this, is this what you like, I'll show you, be quiet now and take it.

This man-he wasn't his father. Grey remembered now. It wasn't just the belt he was using and it wasn't his father who was using it; his father had been replaced by this man, this man named Kurt who'll be your daddy now, and by this feeling of being torn up inside, the way his real father had torn himself up in the front seat of his truck on the morning it had snowed. Grey couldn't have been more than six years old when it happened. He awoke one morning before anyone else was up and about, the light of his bedroom floating with a glowing weightlessness, and right away he knew what had called him out of sleep, that snow had fallen in the night. He threw the cover aside and yanked back the drapes of his window, blinking into the smooth brightness of the world. Snow! It never snowed, not in Texas. Sometimes they got ice but that wasn't the same, not like the snow he saw in books and on TV, this wonderful blanket of whiteness, the snow of sledding and skiing, of snow angels and snow forts and snowmen. His heart leapt with the wonder of it, the pure possibility and newness of it, this marvelous, impossible present waiting outside his window. He touched the glass and felt the coldness leap onto his fingertips, a sudden sharpness, like an electric current.

He hurried from the window and quickly drew on jeans, thrust his bare feet into sneakers, not even bothering to tie the laces; if there was snow outside, he had to be out there in it. He crept from his room and down the stairs to the living room. It was Saturday morning. There'd been a party the night before, folks over to the house, lots of talk and loud voices that he'd heard from his room, and the smell of cigarettes that even now clung to the air like a greasy cloud. Upstairs, his parents would sleep for hours.

He opened the front door and stepped onto the porch. The air was cool and still, and there was a smell to it, like clean laundry. He breathed it in.

Grey. Look.

That was when he saw it: his father's truck. Parked like it always was in the drive, but something was different. Grey saw a splash of dark red, like a squirt of spray paint, on the driver's window, darker and redder because of the snow. He considered what he was seeing. It seemed like it might be some kind of joke-that his father had done something to tease him, to play a game, to give him something funny and strange to see when he got up in the morning before anybody else was awake. He descended the stairs of the porch and stepped across the yard. Snow filled his sneakers but he kept his eyes locked on the truck, which gave him a worried feeling now, like it wasn't the snow that had called him out of sleep but something else. The truck was running, pushing a gray smear of exhaust onto the snowy drive; the windshield was fogged with heat and moisture. He could see a dark shape pressed against the window where the redness was. His hands were little and he had no strength but still he'd done it, he'd opened the door of the truck; and as he did, his daddy tumbled past him and onto the snow.

Grey. Look. Look at me.

The body had landed face-up. One eye was pointed up at Grey, but really at nothing; Grey could tell that right off. The other eye was gone. So was that whole side of his face, like something had turned it inside out. Grey knew what dead was. He'd seen animals-possums and coons and sometimes cats or even dogs-broken to pieces on the side of the road, and this was like that. This was over and out. The gun was still in his daddy's hand, the finger curling through the little hole the way he'd showed Grey that day on the porch. See now, see how heavy it is? You never ever point a gun at anyone. There was blood everywhere too, mixed in with other stuff, like bits of meat and white pieces of something smashed, all over his daddy's face and jacket and the seat of the truck and the inside of the door, and Grey smelled it, so strong it seemed to coat the insides of his mouth like a melting pill.

Grey, Grey. I am here.

The scene started changing then. Grey felt movement all around him, like the earth was stretching; something was different about the snow, the snow had started moving, and when he lifted his face to look, it wasn't snow he saw anymore but rabbits: thousands and thousands of fluffy white rabbits, all the rabbits in the world, bunched so closely together that a person could walk across the yard and never touch the ground; the yard was full of rabbits. And they turned their soft faces toward him, pointed their little black eyes at him, because they knew him, knew what he had done, not to Roy but to the other ones, the boys with their knapsacks walking home from school, the stragglers, the ones who were alone; and that was when Grey knew that it wasn't his daddy anymore, lying in the blood. It was Zero, and Zero was everywhere, Zero was inside him, ripping and tearing, emptying him out like the rabbits, and he opened his mouth to scream but no sound came.

Grey Grey Grey Grey Grey Grey Grey.

In his office on L2, Richards was sitting at his terminal, his mind deep inside a game of free cell. Hand number 36,592, he had to admit, was squarely kicking his ass. He'd played it a dozen times already, coming close but never quite figuring out how to build his columns, how to clear out all the aces when he needed to, to free up the red eights. In that sense it reminded him a little of game 14,712, which was all about the red eights, too. It had taken him most of a day to crack that one.

But every game was winnable. That was the beauty of free cell. The cards were dealt, and if you looked at them right, if you made the right moves, one after the other, sooner or later the game was yours. One victorious click of the mouse and all the cards sailed up the columns. Richards never got tired of it, which was good, because he still had 91,048 games to go, counting this one. There was a twelve-year-old kid in Washington State who claimed to have won every hand, in order-including 64,523, the death's head of free cell-in just under four years. That was eighty-eight games a day, every day, including Christmas, New Year's, and the Fourth of July, so assuming the kid took a day off every now and again, to do kid things or even just come down with a good case of the flu, the real number was probably more like a hundred. Richards didn't see how that was possible. Didn't he ever go to school? Didn't he have homework? When did the little bastard sleep?

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