The Passage Page 38

Finally, just before dawn, Lila said she had to push. Had to. Nobody believed she was ready but the doctor checked her and found, miraculously, that she was at ten centimeters. Everybody began running around, rearranging the room with all its wheeled objects, snapping on fresh gloves, folding away a section of the bed below Lila's pelvis. Wolgast felt useless, a rudderless ship at sea. He took Lila's hand as she pushed, once, twice, three times. Then it was over.

Somebody held out a pair of angled scissors, for Wolgast to cut the cord. The nurse put Eva in a warmer and did her Apgars. Then she put a hat on the baby's tiny head and wrapped her in a blanket and handed her to Wolgast. How astonishing! Suddenly it was all behind them, all the pain and panic and worry, and here was this sparkling new being in the room. Nothing in his life had prepared him for this, the feel of a baby, his daughter, in his arms. Eva was small, just five pounds. Her skin was warm and pink-the pink of sun-ripened peaches-and, as he pressed his face close to hers, gave off a smoky smell, as if she'd been plucked from a fire. They were sewing Lila up; she was still groggy from the drugs. Wolgast was surprised to find there was blood on the floor, a wide dark slick below her; in all the confusion, he had never seen this happen. But Lila was fine, the doctor said. Wolgast showed her their baby and then held Eva a long, long time, saying her name over and over, before they took her to the nursery.

· · ·

Amy grew stronger by the day, but her sensitivity to light did not abate. Wolgast found, in one of the outbuildings, stacks of plywood and a ladder, and a hammer and saw and nails. He had to measure and cut the boards by hand, then carry them up the ladder and hold them in place while he nailed, to seal the windows of the second floor. But after the long climb at the compound-a feat that, in hindsight, seemed completely incredible-this small, ordinary chore seemed like not so much.

Amy rested most of each day, awakening at dusk to eat. She asked him about where they were-Oregon, he explained, in the mountains, a place where he had gone to camp as a boy-but never why; she either knew already or didn't care. The lodge's propane tank was nearly full. He cooked small, easy meals on the stove, soups and stews from cans, crackers and cereal wetted with powdered milk. The camp's water supply was faintly sulfurous but otherwise drinkable, and poured from the kitchen pump so icy cold it made his fillings tingle. He could see right away he hadn't brought nearly enough food; he'd have to go down the mountain soon. In the basement he'd found boxes of old books-classic novels in a bound set, moldy with age and dampness-and at night under the glow of candlelight he read to her: Treasure Island, Oliver Twist, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Sometimes she would come out during the day, if it was cloudy, and watch him do the chores-cutting wood, fixing a hole in the roof under the eaves, trying to make heads or tails of an old gasoline generator he'd found in one of the sheds. Amy would sit on a tree stump in the shade, wearing her glasses and cap, with a long towel tucked under the headband to cover her neck. But these visits never lasted long; an hour, and her skin would turn a ferocious pink, as if scalded by hot water, and he'd send her back upstairs again.

One evening, after they had been at the camp for nearly three weeks, he took her down the path to the lake to bathe. Apart from her brief hours outside watching him work, she hadn't ventured from the lodge, and never so far. At the base of the path was a rickety dock, extending thirty feet past the grassy shoreline. Wolgast stripped to his underclothes and told Amy to do the same. He'd brought towels, shampoo, a bar of soap.

"Do you know how to swim?"

Amy shook her head.

"All right, I'll teach you."

He took her by the hand and led her into the lake. The water was shockingly cold. They stepped together into deeper water, until it reached Amy's chest. Wolgast picked her up then and, holding her horizontally, told her to move her arms and legs, like so.

"Let go," she told him.

"Are you sure?"

She was breathing quickly. "Uh-huh."

He released her; she sank like a stone. Through the ice-clear water, Wolgast could see that she'd stopped moving; her eyes were open and looking around, like an animal examining some new habitat. Then, with a startling grace, she extended her arms and brought them around, turning her shoulders and pushing herself through the water in a deft, froglike motion. A perfect whip kick: in an instant she was gliding along the sandy bottom, gone. Wolgast was about to dive in after her when she emerged ten feet away, in water that reached well over her head, smiling with exhilaration.

"Easy," she said, treading with her legs. "Like flying."

Wolgast, dumbfounded, could only laugh. "Be careful-" he said, but before he could finish she'd filled her lungs with a gulp of air and dived down again.

He washed her hair, did his best telling her how to do the rest. By the time they were done, the sky had darkened from purple to black. Stars by the hundreds, their flickering light doubled in the lake's still surface; no sounds at all except for their own voices and the basal throb of the lake's water against the shoreline. He led them up the path with the beam of his flashlight. They ate a dinner of soup and crackers in the kitchen, and afterward, he took her upstairs to her room. He knew she would be awake for hours; the night was her domain now, as it was becoming his own as well. Sometimes he'd sit up half the night, reading to her.

"Thank you," Amy said as he was settling down with a book: Anne of Green Gables.

"What for?"

"For teaching me to swim."

"It looked like you already knew. Somebody must have showed you."

She considered this claim with a puzzled expression. "I don't think so," she said.

He didn't know what to make of any of it. So much of Amy was a mystery. She seemed well-better than well, in fact. Whatever had happened to her at the compound, whatever the virus was, she appeared to have weathered it; and yet the business with the light was strange. And other things: why, for instance, did Amy's hair not seem to grow? Wolgast's hair now curled below his collar; and yet Amy, as he looked at her, appeared exactly the same. He'd never trimmed her fingernails either, nor seen her do this. And of course the deeper mysteries: What had killed Doyle and everyone else in Colorado? How could that have been both Carter and not Carter on the hood of the car? What had Lacey meant when she'd said to him that Amy was his, that he'd know what to do? It seemed so; he had known what to do. And yet he could explain none of this.

Later, when he finished reading for the night, he told her that in the morning he'd be going down the mountain. She was well enough, he thought, that she could stay in the lodge by herself. It would only be for an hour or two. He'd be back before she knew it, before she was even awake.

"I know," she told him, and Wolgast didn't know what to make of this, either.

He left at a little after seven. After so many weeks sitting idle, collecting pollen from the trees, the Toyota put up a long, wheezing protest when he tried to start it, but eventually the engine caught and held. The morning fog off the lake was just beginning to burn away. He put it in gear and began his long creep down the drive.

The closest real town was thirty miles away, but Wolgast didn't want to go that far. If the Toyota broke down, he'd be stranded, and so would Amy. The gas gauge was close to empty in any event. He retraced the route of their arrival, pausing at each fork to double-check his memory. He saw no other vehicles, which wasn't surprising in such a remote place; and yet this absence disturbed him. The world he was returning to, however briefly, felt like a different place than the one he'd left three weeks ago.

Then he saw it: MILTON'S DRY GOODS / HUNTING, FISHING LIC. In the dark, that first night, it had seemed larger than it was; in fact it was just a small, two-story house of weathered shingles. A cottage in the woods, like something in a fairy tale. No other cars were in the lot, though an old van, mid-1990s vintage, was parked on the grass at the rear. Wolgast exited the Toyota and stepped to the front door.

On the porch were half a dozen newspaper vending boxes, all empty but one: USA Today. He could see the large headline splashed across it through the dusty door, which was propped open. When he withdrew a copy, he found that the paper was just two folded sheets long. He stood on the porch and read.


Rocky Mountain State Overrun by Killer Virus; Borders Sealed

Outbreaks Reported in Nebraska, Utah, Wyoming

President Places Military on High Alert, Asks the Nation to

Remain Calm in the Face of "Unprecedented Terroristic Threat"

WASHINGTON, May 18-President Hughes vowed tonight to take "all necessary measures" to contain the spread of the so-called Colorado fever virus and punish those responsible, declaring, "The righteous anger of the United States of America will swiftly befall the haters of liberty and the outlaw governments that give them harbor."

The president spoke from the Oval Office in his first address to the nation since the crisis began, eight days ago.

"Unmistakable evidence exists that this devastating epidemic is not an occurrence of nature but the work of anti-American extremists, operating within our own borders but supported by our enemies abroad," Hughes told an anxious nation. "This is a crime not only against the people of the United States but against all humanity."

His speech came after a day when the first cases of the illness were reported in neighboring states, just hours after Hughes ordered Colorado's borders closed and placed the nation's military on high alert. All domestic and international air travel was also grounded by presidential order, leaving the nation's transportation hubs in turmoil, as thousands of stranded travelers sought other means to get home.

Seeking both to reassure the country and counter growing criticism that his administration has been slow to act on the crisis, Hughes told the nation to prepare for a formidable struggle.

"I ask you tonight for your trust, your resolve, and your prayers," the president told the country. "We will leave no stone unturned. Justice will be swift."

The president did not specify which groups or nations were the targets of federal scrutiny. He also declined to elaborate on the nature of any evidence the administration had uncovered to indicate the epidemic is the work of terrorists.

Presidential spokesman Tim Romer, when asked about a possible military response, told reporters, "We're ruling nothing out at this point."

Reports from local officials inside the state indicate that as many as fifty thousand people may have died already. It is unclear how many of the victims succumbed to the disease itself and how many were slain by violent attacks at the hands of those infected. Early signs of exposure include dizziness, vomiting, and a high fever. After a brief incubation period-as short as six hours-the illness appears, in some cases, to bring about a marked increase in physical strength and aggressiveness.

"Patients are going crazy and killing everybody," said one Colorado health official, who asked to remain anonymous. "The hospitals are like war zones."

Shannon Freeman, spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, downplayed these reports as "hysteria" but conceded that communication with officials inside the quarantine zone had broken down.

"What we know is that this illness has a very high fatality rate, as high as fifty percent," said Freeman. "Other than that, we can't really tell what's going on in there. The best thing anyone can do for the moment is stay indoors."

Freeman confirmed reports of outbreaks in Nebraska, Utah, and Wyoming, but declined to elaborate.

"That appears to be happening," she said, adding, "Anyone who thinks they have been exposed should report to the nearest law enforcement official or hospital emergency room. That's what we're telling people at this point."

The cities of Denver, Colorado Springs, and Fort Collins, placed under martial law on Tuesday, were all but empty tonight, as residents ignored Colorado Governor Fritz Millay's orders to "evacuate in place" and fled the cities in droves. Rumors that Homeland Security forces had been ordered to use deadly force to turn back refugees from the border were widespread but unconfirmed, as were reports that units of the Colorado National Guard had begun to evacuate the ill from hospitals and move them to an undisclosed location.

There was more; Wolgast read and read again. They were rounding up the sick and shooting them-that much seemed clear, if between the lines. May 18, Wolgast thought. The paper was three-no, four-days old. He and Amy had arrived at the camp on the morning of May 2.

Everything in the paper: it had happened in just eighteen days.

He heard movement in the store behind him-just enough to tell him he was being watched. Tucking the paper under his arm, Wolgast turned and stepped through the screen door. A small space, smelling of dust and age, crammed to the rafters with every kind of merchandise: camping supplies, clothing, tools, canned goods. A large buck's head was suspended over a doorway, guarded by a beaded curtain, that led to the rear. Wolgast recalled when he'd come down here with his friends to buy candy and comic books. Back then, a spinning wire rack had stood by the front door: Tales from the Crypt, Fantastic Four, the Dark Knight series, Wolgast's favorite.

On a stool behind the counter sat a large man, bald, in a checked flannel shirt, his jeans held up on his wide waist by a pair of red suspenders. On his hip he wore, in a tight leather holster, a .38 revolver. They exchanged wary nods.

"Paper's two bucks," the man said.

Wolgast took a pair of bills from his pocket and put them on the counter. "Got anything newer than this?"

"That's the last I've seen," the man said, tucking the bills into the register. "Guy who delivers hasn't shown up since Tuesday."

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