The Passage Page 39

Which meant today was Friday. Not that it mattered.

"I need some supplies," Wolgast said. "Ammunition."

The man looked him over, his heavy gray eyebrows furrowed appraisingly. "What you got?"

"Springfield. A .45," Wolgast said.

The man drummed his fingers on the counter. "Well, let's have a look. I know you got it on you."

Wolgast withdrew the gun from its place against his spine. It was the one Lacey had left on the floor of the Lexus. The clip was empty; whether she'd been the person to fire it or somebody else, Wolgast didn't know. Maybe she had said something, but he couldn't remember. In all the chaos it had been hard to tell what was what. In any event, the gun was familiar to him; Springfields were standard Bureau issue. He freed the clip and locked the slide to show the man it was empty and placed it on the counter.

The man took the weapon in his big hand and examined it. Wolgast could tell, from the way he turned it around, letting its finish hold the light, that he knew guns.

"Tungsten frame, beveled ejection port, titanium pin with the short trigger reset. Pretty fancy." He looked at Wolgast expectantly. "I didn't know better, I'd say you were a fed."

Wolgast did his best to look innocent. "You could say I used to be. In a former life."

His man's face took up a sad smirk. He placed the gun on the counter. "A former life," he said with a dispirited shake of his head. "Guess we've all got one of those. Let me take a look."

He passed through the curtain into the back, returning a moment later with a small cardboard box.

"This is all I have in a .45 ACP. Keep some around for a fellow retired from the ATF, likes to take a twelve-pack up into the woods and shoot the cans as he empties them. Calls it his recycling day. But I haven't seen him in a while. You're the first person to come in here in most of a week. You might as well have them as anyone." He placed the box on the counter: fifty rounds, hollow points. He tipped his head toward the counter. "Go on, they're no good in the box. You go right ahead and load it if you want."

Wolgast freed the clip and began thumbing rounds into place.

"Anyplace else I can get more?"

"Not unless you want to go down into Whiteriver." The man tapped his breastbone, twice, with his index finger. "They're saying you got to hit them right here. One shot. They go down like a hammer if you do it right. Otherwise, that's it, you're history." He stated this fact flatly, without satisfaction or fear; he might have been telling Wolgast what the weather was. "Doesn't matter if it used to be your sweet old grandma. She'll drink you dry before you can aim twice."

Wolgast finished loading the clip, pulled the slide to chamber a round, and checked the safety. "Where'd you hear that?"

"Internet. It's all over." He shrugged. "Conspiracy theories, government cover-ups. Vampire stuff. Most of it sounds half crazy. Hard to tell what's bullshit and what ain't."

Wolgast returned his weapon to the hollow of his spine. He considered asking the man if he could use his computer, to see the news for himself. But he already knew more than enough. It was entirely possible, he realized, that he knew more than any person alive. He'd seen Carter and the others, what they could do.

"I'll tell you one thing. There's a guy, calls himself 'Last Stand in Denver.' Posting a video blog from a high-rise downtown. Says he's barricaded in there with a high-powered rifle. Got some good footage, you should see these bastards move." The man tapped his breastbone again. "Just remember what I told you. One shot. You don't get two. They move at night, in the trees."

The man helped Wolgast gather up supplies and carry them to the car: canned goods, powdered milk and coffee, batteries, toilet paper, candles, fuel. A pair of fishing rods and a box of tackle. The sun was high and bright; around them, the air seemed frozen with an immense stillness, like the silence just before an orchestra began to play.

At the back of the car, the two shook hands. "You're up at Bear Mountain, aren't you?" the man said. "You don't mind my asking."

There seemed no reason to hide it. "How did you know?"

"The way you came." The man shrugged. "There's nothing else up there except for the camp. Don't know why they never could sell it."

"I went there as a kid. Funny, it hasn't changed at all. I guess that's the point of places like that."

"Well, you're smart. It's a good spot. Don't worry, I won't tell anyone."

"You should bug out, too," Wolgast said. "Head higher into the mountains. Or go north."

Wolgast could read it in the man's eyes; he was making a decision.

"Come on," he said finally. "I'll show you something."

He led Wolgast back into the store and passed through the beaded curtain. Behind it lay the store's small living area. The air was stale and close, the shades drawn tight. An air conditioner hummed in the window. Wolgast paused in the doorway, letting his eyes adjust. In the center of the room was a large hospital bed on which a woman lay sleeping. The head of the bed was elevated at a forty-five-degree angle, showing her drawn face, which was tipped to the side, toward the light that pulsed in the shaded windows. Her body was covered with a blanket, but Wolgast could see how thin she was. On a small table were dozens of pill bottles, gauze and ointment, a chrome basin, syringes sealed in plastic; an oxygen tank, pale green, was parked beside the bed. A corner of the blanket had been drawn aside, exposing her na**d feet. Cotton balls were tucked between her yellowed toes. A chair had been pulled up to the foot of the bed, and on it Wolgast saw a nail file and bottles of colored polish.

"She always liked to have pretty feet," the man said quietly. "I was doing them for her when you came in."

They retreated from the room. Wolgast didn't know what to say. The situation was obvious; the man and his wife weren't going anywhere. The two of them stepped back into the bright sunlight of the parking area.

"She has MS," the man explained. "I was hoping to keep her at home as long as I could. That's what we agreed, when she started to get bad last winter. They're supposed to send a nurse, but we haven't seen one in a while now." He shifted his feet on the gravel and wetly cleared his throat. "My guess is, nobody's making any more house calls."

Wolgast told him his name. The man was Carl; his wife was Martha. They had two grown sons, one in California, the other in Florida. Carl had been an electrician at Oregon State down in Corvallis, until they'd bought the store and retired up here.

"What can I do?" Wolgast asked.

They'd shaken hands before but did so again. "Just keep yourself alive," Carl said.

Wolgast was driving back to the camp when, suddenly, he thought of Lila. They were memories of another time, another life. A life that was over now-over for him, over for everyone. Thinking about Lila, as he had: he was saying goodbye.


It was August, the days long and dry, when the fires came.

Wolgast smelled smoke one afternoon as he was working in the yard; by morning the air was thickened with an acrid haze. He climbed to the roof to look but saw only the trees and the lake, the mountains rolling away. He had no way of knowing how close the fires were. The wind could blow the smoke, he knew, for hundreds of miles.

He hadn't been off the mountain in over two months, not since his trip down to Milton's. They'd found a routine: Wolgast slept each day till nearly noon, worked outside till dusk; then, after dinner and a swim, the two of them stayed up half the night, reading or playing board games, like passengers on a long sea voyage. He'd found a box of games stored in one of the cabins: Monopoly, Parcheesi, checkers. For a while he let Amy win, but then found he didn't need to; she was a shrewd player, especially at Monopoly, buying up property after property and swiftly calculating the rents they'd bring in and counting her money with glee. Boardwalk, Park Place, Marvin Gardens. What did the names of these places mean to her? One night he'd settled in to read to her-20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which they'd read before but she wanted to hear again-when she took the book from his hand and, in the flickering candlelight, started to read aloud to him. She didn't so much as pause over the book's difficult words, its contorted, old-fashioned syntax. When did you learn to do that? he asked her, utterly incredulous, as she paused to turn the page. Well, she explained, we read it before. I guess I just remembered.

The world off the mountain had become a memory, remoter by the day. He'd never managed to get the generator working-he'd hoped to use the shortwave-and had long since stopped trying. If what was happening was what he thought was happening, he reasoned, they were better off not knowing. What could he have done with the information? Where else could they go?

But now the woods were burning, driving a wall of choking smoke from the west. By the afternoon of the next day it was clear they had to leave; the fire was headed their way. If it jumped the river, there'd be nothing else to stop it. Wolgast loaded the Toyota and placed Amy, wrapped in a blanket, in the passenger seat. He had a soaked cloth for each of them, to hold over their mouths, their stinging eyes.

They didn't get two miles before they saw the flames. The road was blocked with smoke, the air unbreathable, a toxic wall. A hard wind was blowing, driving the fire up the mountain toward them. They would have to turn back.

He didn't know how long they would have until the fires arrived. He had no way to wet the roof of the lodge-they would simply have to wait it out. The sealed windows at least offered some protection from the smoke, but by nightfall they were both coughing and sputtering.

In one of the outbuildings was an old aluminum canoe. Wolgast dragged it to the shore, then fetched Amy from upstairs. He paddled to the middle of the lake while he watched the fires burning up the mountain toward the camp, a sight of furious beauty, as if the gates of hell had opened. Amy lay against him in the bottom of the canoe; if she was afraid, she showed no sign. There was nothing else to do. All the energy of the day left him and, despite himself, he fell asleep.

When he awoke in the morning, the camp was still standing. The fires hadn't jumped the river after all. The wind had shifted sometime in the night, pushing the flames to the south. The air was still heavy with smoke, but he could tell the danger had passed. Later that afternoon, they heard a great boom of thunder, like a huge sheet of tin shaking over their heads, and rain poured down, all through the night. He couldn't believe their luck.

In the morning he decided to use the last of his gasoline to drive down the mountain to check on Carl and Martha. He would bring Amy this time-after the fires, he intended never to let her out of his sight again. He waited until dusk and set out.

The fires had come close. Less than a mile away from the camp's entrance the forest had been reduced to smoking ruins, the ground scorched and denuded, like the aftermath of a terrible battle. From the roadway Wolgast could see the bodies of animals, not just small creatures like possums and raccoons but deer and antelope and even a bear, folded onto himself at the base of a blackened tree trunk as he'd searched the ground for a pocket of breathable air and perished.

The store was still standing, undisturbed. No lights were on, but of course the power would be out. Wolgast told Amy to wait in the car, retrieved a flashlight, and stepped onto the porch. The door was locked. He knocked, loudly, again and again, calling Carl's name, but received no reply. Finally he used the flashlight to break the window.

Carl and Martha were dead. They were spooned together in Martha's hospital bed, Carl curled against her back with one arm draped over her shoulder, as if they were napping. It could have been the smoke, but the air in the room told Wolgast they'd been dead much longer than that. On the nightstand was a half-empty bottle of Scotch and, beside it, a folded newspaper, like the first one he'd seen, disquietingly thin, with a huge, shouting headline he averted his eyes from, choosing instead to put it in his pocket to read later. He stood a moment at the foot of the bed where the bodies lay. Then he closed up the room and, for the first time, he wept.

Carl's van was still parked behind the store. Wolgast cut a length of garden hose and drew the Toyota around to the rear, to siphon the contents of the van's tank into his car. He didn't know where they might need to go, but the fire season wasn't over. It had been a mistake, nearly fatal, to let himself be caught off guard. He'd found an empty gas can in a shed behind the house, and when the Toyota's tank was topped off, he filled this as well. Then Amy helped him go through the store to gather supplies. He took all the food and batteries and propane he thought he could fit, put it all in boxes and carried it to the car. Then he returned to the room where the bodies lay and, carefully, holding his breath, removed Carl's .38 from the holster on his waist.

In the early hours of the morning, when Amy was finally asleep, Wolgast took the paper from the pocket of his jacket. Just a single sheet this time, dated July 10-almost a month ago. Who knew where Carl had gotten it. Probably he'd driven down into Whiteriver, and then, when he returned, and because of what he'd read and seen, put an end to things. The house was full of medicine; it would have been easy enough for him to accomplish this task. Wolgast had put the paper in his pocket out of fear, but also a fatalistic certainty about what he would find written there. Only the details would be new to him.


"Vampire" Virus Reaches East Coast; Millions Dead

Quarantine Line Moves East to Central Ohio

California Secedes from Union, Vows to Defend Itself

India Rattles Missile Might, Threatens "Limited" Nuclear Strike Against Pakistan

Prev Next