The Passage Page 18

"I'm sorry, Officers," Arnette said, "could you tell me your names again?"

"Of course." That smile again: confident, ingratiating. So far, the young one hadn't said a single word. "I'm Agent Wolgast, this is Agent Doyle." He glanced around. "So, is Amy here?"

Sister Claire cut in. "Why do you want her?"

"I'm afraid I can't tell you ladies everything. But you should know, for your own safety, that Amy is a federal witness. We're here to place her under protection."

Federal protection! Arnette's chest tightened with panic. It was worse than she had thought. Federal protection! Like something on TV, on those police shows she didn't want to watch but sometimes did, because the other sisters wanted to.

"What did Lacey do?"

The agent's eyebrows lifted with interest. "Lacey?"

He was trying to pretend that he knew, to open a space for her to talk so he could draw information out of her; Arnette could see this clearly. But of course that's just what she'd done; she'd given them Lacey's name. No one had said anything about Lacey except Arnette. Behind her, she could feel the other sisters' silence pressing upon her.

"Sister Lacey," she explained. "She told us Amy's mother was a friend."

"I see." He glanced at the other agent. "Well, perhaps we'd better talk to her as well."

"Are we in any danger?" Sister Louise said.

Sister Arnette turned to her with a silencing scowl. "Sister, I know you mean well. But let me handle this, please."

"I wouldn't say danger, not exactly," the agent explained. "But I think it would be best if we could speak to her. Is she in the house now?"

"No." This was Sister Claire. She was standing defiantly, her arms crossed over her chest. "They left. At least an hour ago."

"Do you know where they went?"

For a moment, no one said anything. Then, within the house, the telephone rang.

"Please excuse me, gentlemen," Arnette said.

She retreated to the kitchen. Her heart was pounding. She was grateful for the interruption, as it could give her a chance to think. But when she answered the phone, the voice on the other end was no one she recognized.

"Is this the convent? I know I've seen you ladies over there. You'll have to pardon my calling like this."

"Who is this?"

"Sorry." He was speaking in a rush, his voice distracted. "The name's Joe Murphy. I'm head of security at the Memphis Zoo."

There was some kind of commotion in the background. For a moment he spoke to someone else: Just open the gate, he said. Just do it, now.

Then he was back on the line. "Do you know anything about a nun who might be over here with a little girl? A black lady, dressed like you all do."

A buzzing weightlessness, like a swarm of bees, filled Sister Arnette. On a perfectly pleasant morning, something had happened, something terrible. The door to the kitchen swung open; the agents stepped into the room, trailed by Sister Claire and Sister Louise. Everyone was staring at her.

"Yes, yes, I know her." Arnette was trying to keep her voice low but knew this was pointless. "What is it? What's going on?"

For a moment the line was muffled; the man at the zoo had placed his hand over the receiver. When he lifted his hand she heard yelling, and crying children, and behind it, something else: the sound of animals. Monkeys and lions and elephants and birds, screeching and roaring. It took Arnette a moment to realize that she wasn't just hearing these sounds over the phone; they were coming through the open window, too, traveling clear across the park into the kitchen.

"What's going on?" she pleaded.

"You better get over here, Sister," the man said. "This is the goddamnedest thing I've ever seen."

Lacey, breathless and running, soaked to the bone: she was carrying Amy now, clutching the little girl to her chest, the girl's legs clamped tightly around her waist, the two of them lost in the zoo, its maze of pathways. Amy was crying, sobbing into Lacey's blouse-what I am, what I am-and other people were running, too. It had started with the bears, whose movements had grown more and more frantic until Lacey had pulled Amy away from the glass, and then, behind them, the sea lions, who began to hurl themselves in and out of the water with manic fury; and as they turned and dashed back toward the zoo's center, the grassland animals, the gazelles and zebras and okapis and giraffes, who broke into wild circles, running and charging the fences. It was Amy who was doing it, Lacey knew-something about Amy. Whatever had happened to the polar bears was happening to everything now, not just the animals but the people too, a ring of chaos widening over the entire zoo. They passed by the elephants and at once she felt their size and force; they stomped the ground with their immense feet and lifted their trunks to trumpet into the Memphis heat. A rhino charged the fence, a huge noise like a car crashing, and began, furiously, to bang it with his massive horn. The air was suddenly swollen with these sounds, great and terrible and full of pain, and people were tearing about and calling out to their children, pushing and shoving and pulling, the crowds parting for Lacey as she raced ahead.

"That's her!" a voice rang out, and the words struck Lacey from behind-hit her like an arrow. Lacey spun to see the man with the camera, pointing a long finger right at her. He was standing beside a security guard in a pastel yellow jersey. "That's the kid!"

Still clutching Amy, Lacey turned and ran, past cages of shrieking monkeys, a lagoon where swans were honking and flapping their huge, useless wings, tall cages erupting with the cries of jungle birds. Terrified crowds were pouring out of the reptile house. A group of panicked schoolchildren in matching red Tshirts stepped into Lacey's path and she twisted around them, nearly falling but somehow staying upright. The ground before her was littered with the debris of flight, brochures and small articles of clothing and blobs of melting ice cream stuck to paper. A group of men tore past, breathing hard; one was carrying a rifle. From somewhere, a voice was saying, with robotic calm, "The zoo is now closed. Please move quickly to the nearest exit. The zoo is now closed ... "

Lacey was going in circles now, looking for a way out, finding none. Lions were roaring, baboons, meerkats, the monkeys she'd listened to from her bedroom window on summer nights. The sounds came from everywhere, filled up her mind like a chorus, ricocheting like the sound of gunfire, like the gunfire in the field, like her mother's voice crying from the doorway: Run away, run away as fast as you can.

She stopped. And that was when she felt it. Felt him. The shadow. The man who wasn't there but also was. He was coming for Amy, Lacey knew that now. That's what the animals were telling her. The dark man would take Amy to the field where the branches were, the ones Lacey had watched for hours and hours as she lay and looked at the sky as it paled from night to morning, hearing the sounds of what was happening to her and the cries coming from her mouth; but she had sent her mind away from her body, up and up through the branches to heaven, where God was, and the girl in the field was someone else, nobody she remembered, and the world was wrapped in a warm light that would keep her safe forever.

The stinging taste of salt was in her mouth, but it wasn't just the water from the tank. She was weeping now, too, watching the path through the shimmering curtain of her tears, holding Amy fiercely as she ran. Then she saw it: the snack stand. It appeared before her like a beacon, the snack stand with the big umbrella where she had bought the peanuts, and beyond it, standing open like a mouth, the wide gate of the exit. Guards in their yellow jerseys were barking into their walkie-talkies and waving people frantically through. Lacey took a deep breath and moved into the crowd, holding Amy to her chest.

She was just a few feet from the exit when a hand gripped her arm. She turned sharply: one of the guards. With his free hand he gestured over her head to someone else, his grip tightening.

Lacey. Lacey.

"Ma'am, please come with me-"

She didn't wait. With a shove she pushed forward with all the strength she had left, felt the crowd bending. Behind her she heard the grunts and cries of people falling as she broke free, and the guard calling out for her to stop; but they were through the gate now, Lacey tearing down the pathway into the parking lot and the sound of sirens drawing near. She was sweating and breathing hard and knew that at any moment she could fall. She didn't know where she was going but it didn't matter. Away, she thought, away. Run as fast as you can, children. Away with Amy, away.

Then, from behind her, somewhere in the zoo, she heard a rifle shot. The sound cleaved the air, freezing Lacey in her tracks. In the sudden silence of its aftermath a van pulled up, skidding to a stop in front of her. Amy had gone limp against her chest. It was their van, Lacey saw, the one the sisters used, the big blue van they drove to the Pantry and to run errands. Sister Claire was driving, still in her sweats. A second vehicle, a black sedan, pulled in behind them as Sister Arnette burst from the van's passenger seat. Around them the crowds were streaming past, cars were zooming out of the lot.

"Lacey, what in the world-"

Two men emerged from the second vehicle. Darkness poured off them. Lacey's heart clenched, her voice stopped in her throat like a cork. She didn't have to look to know what they were. Too late! All lost!

"No!" She was backing away. "No!"

Arnette gripped her by the arm. "Sister, get ahold of yourself!"

People were pulling at her. Hands were trying to wriggle the child free. With every ounce of strength Lacey held fast, squeezing the child to her chest. "Don't let them!" she cried. "Help me!"

"Sister Lacey, these men are from the FBI! Please, do as they ask!"

"Don't take her!" Lacey was on the ground now. "Don't take her! Don't take her!"

It was Arnette, after all; it was Sister Arnette who was taking Amy from her. As it had been in the field, Lacey kicking and fighting and screaming.

"Amy, Amy!"

She shook with a huge sob then, the last of her strength leaving her body in a rush; a space opened around her as she felt Amy lifted away. She heard the girl's small voice crying out to her, Lacey, Lacey, Lacey, and then the muffling clap of the car's doors as Amy was sealed away inside. She heard the sound of an engine, wheels turning, a car pulling away at high speed. Her face was in her hands.

"Don't take me, don't take me," she was sobbing. "Don't take me, don't take me, don't take me."

Claire was beside her now. She put an arm around Lacey's shaking shoulders. "Sister, it's all right," she said, and Lacey could tell she was crying, too. "It's all right. You're safe now."

But it wasn't; she wasn't. No one was safe, not Lacey or Claire or Arnette or the woman with the baby or the guard in his yellow shirt. Lacey knew that now. How could Claire tell her everything was all right? Because it wasn't all right. That was what the voices had been saying to her all these years, since that night in the field when she was just a girl.

Lacey Antoinette Kudoto. Listen. Look.

In her mind's eye she saw it, saw it all at last: the rolling armies and the flames of battle; the graves and pits and dying cries of a hundred million souls; the spreading darkness, like a black wing stretching over the earth; the last, bitter hours of cruelty and sorrow, and terrible, final flights; death's great dominion over all, and, at the last, the empty cities, becalmed by the silence of a hundred years. Already these things were coming to pass. Lacey wept, and wept some more. Because, sitting on the curb in Memphis, Tennessee, she saw Amy too; her Amy, whom Lacey could not save, as she could not save herself. Amy, time-stilled and nameless, wandering the forgotten, lightless world forever, alone and voiceless, but for this:

What I am, what I am, what I am.

Chapter SEVEN

Carter was someplace cold; that was the first thing he could tell. They took him off the plane first-Carter had never been on a plane in his life and would have liked to have had a window seat, but they'd stuffed him in the back with all the rucksacks, his left wrist chained to a pipe and two soldiers to watch him-and as he stepped onto the stairs leading down to the tarmac, the cold hit his lungs like a slap. Carter had been cold before, you couldn't sleep under a Houston freeway in January and not know what cold was, but the cold here was different, so dry he could feel his lips puckering. His ears had clogged up, too. It was late, who knew how late exactly, but the airfield was lit like a jailyard; from the top of the stairs, Carter counted a dozen aircraft, big fat ones with huge doors dropped open at the back like a kid's pajamas, and forklifts moving to and fro along the tarmac, loading pallets draped with camo. He wondered if maybe they were going to make some kind of soldier out of him, if that's what he'd traded his life for.

Wolgast: he remembered the name. It was funny how he'd found himself trusting the man. Carter hadn't trusted anyone in a long, long time. But there was something about Wolgast that made him think the man knew the place he was in.

Carter's wrists and feet were shackled, and he made his way gingerly down the stairs, minding his balance, one soldier ahead of him, one behind. Neither had spoken a word to him or even to each other that Carter could tell. He was wearing a parka over his jumpsuit, but it was unzipped for the chains, and the wind cut through him easily. They led him across the field toward a brightly lit hangar where a van was idling. The door slid open as they approached.

The first soldier poked him with his rifle. "In you go."

Carter did as he said, then heard a small motor whir and the door closed behind him. At least the seats were comfortable, not like the hard bench on the plane. The only light was from a little bulb in the ceiling. He heard two thumps on the door and the van pulled away.

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