The Passage Page 24

Grey felt ill. "I'm sorry," he managed. "I really gotta go."

"Where do you have to go, Grey?"

"Where?" He tried to swallow. "To work. I have to go to work."

"No you don't." Finally releasing Grey's wrist, Paulson took a spoon from Grey's tray and began to twirl it on the tabletop with the point of his index finger. "You've got three hours till your shift. I can tell time, Grey. We're chatting here, goddamnit."

Grey watched the spoon, waiting for Paulson to say something else. He suddenly needed a smoke with every molecule of his body, a force like possession. "What do you want from me?"

Paulson gave the spoon a final spin. "What do I want, Grey? That's the question, isn't it? I do want something, you're right about that." He leaned toward Grey, making a "come closer" gesture with his index finger. His voice, when he spoke, was just above a whisper. "What I want is for you to tell me about Level Four."

Grey felt his insides drop, like he'd placed a foot on a step that wasn't there.

"I just clean. I'm a janitor."

"Pardon me," Paulson said. "But no. I don't buy that for a second."

Grey thought again of the cameras. "Richards-"

Paulson snorted. "Oh, f**k him." He looked up at the camera, gave a little wave, then slowly rotated his hand, clenching all but his middle finger. He held it that way for a few seconds.

"You think anybody's actually watching those things? All day, every day, listening to us, watching what we do?"

"There's nothing down there. I swear."

Paulson shook his head slowly; Grey saw that wild look in his eyes again. "We both know that's bullshit, so can we please? Let's be honest with each other."

"I just clean," Grey said weakly. "I'm just here to work."

Paulson said nothing. The room was so quiet Grey thought he could hear his own heart beating.

"Tell me something. You sleep okay, Grey?"


Paulson's eyes narrowed with menace. "I'm asking, do ... you ... sleep ... okay?"

"I guess," he managed. "Sure, I sleep."

Paulson gave a little fatalistic laugh. He leaned back and rocked his eyes toward the ceiling. "You guess. You guess."

"I don't know why you're asking me this stuff."

Paulson exhaled sharply. "Dreams, Grey." He pushed his face close to Grey's. "I'm talking about dreams. You fellas do dream, don't you? Well, I sure as hell dream. All goddamn night long. One after the other. I am dreaming some crazy shit."

Crazy, Grey thought; that just about summed the situation up, right there. Paulson was crazy. The wheels weren't on the road anymore, the oars were out of the water. Too many months on the mountain, maybe, too many days of cold and snow. Grey had known guys like that in Beeville, fine when they got there but who, before even a few months had gone by, couldn't string two sentences together that made a lick of sense.

"Want to know what I dream about, Grey? Go on. Take a guess."

"I don't want to."

"Take a f**king guess."

Grey looked down at the table. He could feel the cameras watching-could feel Richards, somewhere, taking all of this in. He thought: Please. For godsakes. No more questions.

"I don't ... know."

"You don't."

He shook his head, his eyes still averted. "No."

"Then I'll tell you," Paulson said quietly. "I dream about you."

For a moment neither spoke. Paulson was crazy, Grey thought. Crazy crazy crazy.

"I'm sorry," he stammered. "There's really nothing down there."

He made to leave again, waiting to feel Paulson's hand on his elbow, stopping him.

"Fine," Paulson said, and gave a little wave. "I'm done for now. Get out of here." He twisted in his chair to look up at Grey, standing with his tray. "I'll tell you a secret, though. You want to hear it?"

Grey shook his head.

"You know those two sweeps who left?"


"You know those guys." Paulson frowned. "The fat ones. Dumbshit and his friend."

"Jack and Sam."

"Right." Paulson's eyes drifted. "I never did get the names. I guess you could say the names didn't come with the deal."

Grey waited for Paulson to say something else. "What about them?"

"Well, I hope they weren't friends of yours. Because here's a little bulletin. They're dead." Paulson rose; he didn't look at Grey as he spoke. "We're all dead."

It was dark, and Carter was afraid.

He was somewhere down below, way down; he'd seen four buttons on the elevator, the numbers running backward, like the buttons in an underground garage. By the time they'd put him in there on the gurney, he was woozy and feeling no pain-they'd given him something, some kind of shot that made him sleepy but not actually asleep, so he'd felt it a little, what they were doing to the back of his neck. Cutting there, putting something in. Restraints on his wrists and feet-to make him comfortable, they said. Then they'd wheeled him to the elevator and that was the last thing he remembered, the buttons, and somebody's finger pushing the one that said L4. The guy with the gun, Richards, had never come back like he'd promised.

Now he was awake, and though he couldn't say for sure, he felt like he was down, way down in the hole; he was still bound at the wrists and ankles and probably his waist, too. The room was cold and dark, but he could see lights blinking somewhere, he couldn't tell how far, and hear the sound of a fan blowing air. He couldn't remember much of the conversation he'd had with the men before they'd brought him down. They'd weighed him, Carter remembered that, and done other things like any doctor would do, taking his blood pressure and asking him to pee in a cup and tapping his knees with the hammer and peering inside his nose and mouth. Then they'd put the tube in the back of his hand-that hurt, that hurt like hell, he remembered saying so, God damn-and hooked the tube up to the bag on the hanger, and the rest was all a blur. He recalled a funny light, glowing bright red on the tip of a pen, and all the faces around him suddenly wearing masks, one of them saying, though he couldn't tell which one, "This is just the laser, Mr. Carter. You may feel a little pressure." Now, in the dark, he remembered thinking, before his brain had gone all watery and far away, that God had played one last joke on him and maybe this was his ride to the needle after all. He'd wondered if he'd be seeing Jesus soon or Mrs. Wood or the Devil his own self.

But he hadn't died, all he'd done was sleep, though he didn't know how long. His mind had drifted for a while, out of one kind of darkness and into another, like he was walking through a house without lights; and with nothing to look at now, he had no way to get his bearings. He couldn't tell up from down. He hurt all over and his tongue felt like a balled-up sock in his mouth, or some strange furry animal, burrowing there. The back of his neck, where it met his shoulder blades, was humming with pain. He lifted his head to look around, but all he could see were some little points of light-red lights, like the one on the pen. He couldn't tell how far away they were or how big. They could have been the lights of a distant city for all he knew.

Wolgast: the name floated up to his mind out of the darkness. Something about Wolgast, that thing he'd said, about time being like an ocean and his to give. I can give you all the time in the world, Anthony. An ocean of time. Like he knew what was in the deepest place of Carter's heart, like they hadn't just met but had known each other for years. Nobody had talked to Anthony like that for as long as he could remember.

It made him think of the day that had started it all, like the two were of a piece. June: it was June; he remembered that. June, the air under the freeway sizzling hot, and Carter, standing in a wedge of dirty shade and holding his cardboard sign over his chest-HUNGRY, ANYTHING WILL HELP, GOD BLESS YOU-had watched as the car, a black Denali, drew up to the curb. The passenger window opened: not just the usual crack, so whoever was inside could pass him a few coins or a folded bill without their fingers even touching his, but gliding all the way down in a single, liquid motion, so that Carter's reflection in the window's dark tint fell like a curtain in reverse-like a hole had opened in the world, revealing a secret room within. The hour was just noon, the lunchtime traffic building on the surface roads and on the West Loop, which banged in a tight rhythm over his head, like a long clicking line of freight cars.

"Hello?" the driver was calling. A woman's voice, straining over the roar of cars and the echoing acoustics under the freeway. "Hello there? Sir! Excuse me, sir!"

As he stepped forward to the open window, Carter could feel the cool air of the inside of the car on his face; could smell the sweet smokiness of new leather and then, closer still, the scent of the woman's perfume. She was leaning toward the passenger window, her body straining against her seat belt, sunglasses perched on top of her head. A white woman, of course. He'd known that even before he looked. The black Denali with its shining paint job and huge gleaming grille. The eastbound lane on San Felipe, connecting the Galleria with River Oaks, where the big houses were. The woman was young, though, younger than he would have thought for a car like that, thirty at the most, and wearing what looked like tennis clothes, a white skirt and top that matched, her skin moist and shining. Her arms were lean and strong and coppered by the sun. Straight hair, blond with streaks of a darker color, pulled back from the planes of her face, her delicate nose and well-cut cheekbones. No jewelry he could see except a ring, a diamond fat as a tooth. He knew he shouldn't look any closer, but he couldn't stop himself; he let his eyes skim through the back of the car. He saw a baby seat, empty, with brightly colored plush toys hanging over it and beside it a large shopping bag that was made of paper but looked like metal. The name of the store, Nordstrom, was written on the bag.

"Whatever you can give," Carter muttered. "God bless you."

Her purse, a fat leather satchel, was resting on her lap. She began tossing the contents out onto the seat: a tube of lipstick, an address book, a tiny, jewel-like phone. "I want to give you something," she was saying. "Would a twenty be enough? Is that what people do? I don't know."

"God bless you now." The light, Carter knew, was about to change. "Whatever you can do."

She withdrew her wallet just as, behind them, they heard the first impatient honk. The woman turned her head quickly at the sound, then looked up at the traffic signal, now green. "Oh, damnit, damnit." She was frantically riffling through the wallet, a huge thing the size of a book, with snaps and zippers and compartments crammed with slips of paper. "I don't know," she was saying, "I don't know."

More honking, and then, with a roar, the vehicle behind her, a red Mercedes, accelerated to jam itself across the middle lane, cutting off an SUV. The driver of the SUV slammed on his brakes and leaned on his horn.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," the woman kept saying. She was looking at the wallet like it was a locked door she couldn't find the key to open. "It's all plastic in here, I thought I had a twenty, maybe it was a ten, oh goddamnit, goddamnit ... "

"Hey, a**hole!" A man leaned his head from the window of a big pickup, two cars back. "Can't you see the light? Get out of the road!"

"'Sall right," Anthony said, backing away. "You should go."

"You heard me?" the man cried. More long blasts of the horn. He waved a bare arm out the window. "Get outta the f**king way!"

The woman arched her back to look into the rearview. Her eyes grew very wide. "Shut up!" she cried bitterly. She hit the steering wheel with her fists. "Jesus, just shut up!"

"Lady, move your f**king car!"

"I wanted to give you something. That's all I wanted. Why should it be so hard, just to do this one thing, I wanted to help ... "

Carter knew it was time to run. He could see how the rest was going to unfold: the car door flying open; the furious footsteps coming toward him; a man's face pressed close to Carter's, sneering-You bothering this lady? What you think you're doing, fella?-and then more men, who knew how many, there were always plenty of men when the time came, and no matter what the woman said, she wouldn't be able to help him, they'd see what they wanted to see: a black man and a white woman with a baby seat and shopping bags, her wallet open in her lap.

"Please," he said. "Lady, you got to go."

The door of the pickup swung open, disgorging a huge red-faced man in jeans and a T-shirt, with hands big as catcher's mitts. He'd crush Carter like a bug.

"Hey!" he yelled, pointing. His big round belt buckle gleamed in the sunshine. "You there!"

The woman lifted her eyes to the mirror and saw what Carter did: the man was holding a gun. "Oh my God, oh my God!" she cried.

"He's carjacking her! That little nigger's stealing her car!"

Carter was frozen. It was all bearing down on him, a furious roar, the whole world honking and shouting and coming to get him, coming to get him at last. The woman reached quickly across the passenger seat and opened the door.

"Get in!"

Still he couldn't move.

"Do it!" she shouted. "Get in the car!"

And for some reason, he did. He dropped his sign and got in fast and slammed the door behind him. The woman hit the gas, jumping the light, which had turned from green to red again. Cars swerved all around them as they rocketed through the intersection. For a second Carter thought they were going to crash for sure and closed his eyes tight, bracing himself for the impact. But nothing happened; everybody missed.

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