The Passage Page 41

A blaze of light in the windows, and footsteps on the porch-heavy, stumbling. Wolgast rose quickly, all his senses instantly alert. The Springfield was in his hand. He racked the slide and released the safety. The door shook with three hard pounds.

"Somebody's outside." The voice was Amy's. Wolgast turned and saw her standing at the bottom of the stairs.

"Upstairs!" Wolgast spoke to her in a harsh whisper. "Go, quickly!"

"Is anybody inside there?" A man's voice on the porch. "I can see the smoke! I'll step away!"

"Amy, upstairs, now!"

More pounding on the door. "For godsakes, somebody, if you can hear me, open the door!"

Amy retreated up the stairs. Wolgast moved to the window and looked out. Not a car or truck but a snowmobile, with containers lashed to its chassis. In the headlights, at the foot of the porch, was a man in a parka and boots. He was positioned in a crouch, his hands on his knees.

Wolgast opened the door. "Keep back," he warned. "Let me see your hands."

The man lifted his arms weakly. "I'm not armed," he said. He was panting, and that was when Wolgast saw the blood, a bright ribbon down the side of his parka. The wound was in his neck.

"I'm sick," the man said.

Wolgast stepped forward and raised his gun. "Get out of here!"

The man sank to his knees. "Jesus," he moaned. "Jesus Christ." Then he tipped his face forward and wretched onto the snow.

Wolgast turned to see Amy, standing in the doorway.

"Amy, go inside!"

"That's right honey," the man said, lifting a bloody hand to give a listless wave. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Do what your daddy says."

"Amy, I said inside, now."

Amy closed the door.

"That's good," the man said. He was on his knees, facing Wolgast. "She shouldn't see this. Jesus, I feel like shit."

"How did you find us?"

The man shook his head and spat onto the snow. "I didn't come looking for you, if that's what you mean. Six of us were holed up about forty miles west of here. A friend's hunting camp. We'd been there since October, after they took out Seattle."

"Who's they?" Wolgast asked. "What happened to Seattle?"

The man shrugged. "Same thing as everywhere else. Everybody's sick, dying, ripping each other to shreds, the Army shows up, then poof, the place goes up in smoke. Some people say it's the U.N. or the Russians. It could be the man in the moon, for all I know. We headed south, into the mountains, thought we'd ride out the winter and then try to make it into California. Then those f**kers came. None of us even got a shot off. I hauled ass out of there, but one of them bit me. Bitch just swooped down out of nowhere. I don't know why she didn't kill me like the rest, but they say they do that." He smiled weakly. "I guess it was my lucky day."

"Were you followed?"

"Fuck if I know. I smelled your smoke at least a mile from here. Don't know how I did that. Like bacon in a pan." He lifted his face with a look abject wretchedness. "For godsakes, I'm begging you. I'd do it myself if I had a gun."

It took Wolgast a moment to understand what the man was asking. "What's your name?" Wolgast asked.

"Bob." The man licked his lips with a dry, heavy tongue. "Bob Saunders."

Wolgast gestured with the Springfield. "We have to move away from the house."

They walked into the woods, Wolgast following at five paces. The man's progress was slow in the deep snow. Every few steps he paused to brace himself with his hands on his knees, breathing hard.

"You know what's funny?" he said. "I used to be an actuarial analyst. Life and casualty. You smoke, you drive without a seat belt, you eat Big Macs for lunch every day, I could tell you when you were going to die pretty much to the month." He was clutching a tree for balance. "I guess nobody ever ran the tables on this, did they?"

Wolgast said nothing.

"You're going to do this thing, aren't you?" Bob said. He was looking away, into the trees.

"Yes," Wolgast said. "I'm sorry."

"That's all right. Don't beat yourself up about it." He breathed heavily, licking his lips. He turned and touched his chest as Carl had done, all those months ago, to show Wolgast where to shoot. "Right through here, okay? You can shoot me through the head first, if you want, but make sure you put one in here."

Wolgast could only nod, caught short by the man's frankness, his matter-of-fact tone.

"You can tell your daughter I drew on you," he added. "She shouldn't know about this. And burn the body when you're done. Gasoline, kerosene, something hot like that."

They were approaching the bank above the river. In the moonlight, the scene possessed an unearthly stillness, bathed in blue. Wolgast could hear, beneath the snow and ice, the river's quiet gurgle. As good a place as any, Wolgast thought.

"Turn around," he said. "Face me."

But the man, Bob, seemed not to have heard him. He took two more steps forward in the snow and stopped. He had begun, unaccountably, to undress, removing his bloody parka and dropping it into the snow, then unfolding the suspenders of his bibbed snowpants to pull his sweatshirt over his head.

"I said, Turn around."

"You know what sucks?" Bob said. He had removed his thermal undershirt and was kneeling to unlace his boots. "How old's your daughter? I always wanted to have kids. Why didn't I do that?"

"I don't know, Bob." Wolgast raised the Springfield. "Get up and face me, now."

Bob rose. Something was happening. He was fingering the bloody tear on his neck. Another spasm shook him, but the expression on his face was pleasurable, almost sexual. In the moonlight, his skin seemed almost to glow. He arched his back like a cat, his eyes heavy-lidded with pleasure.

"Whoa, that's good," Bob said. "That's really ... something."

"I'm sorry," Wolgast said.

"Hey, wait!" With a start, Bob opened his eyes; he held out his hands. "Hang on a second here!"

"I'm sorry, Bob," Wolgast repeated, and then he squeezed the trigger.

• • •

The winter ended in rain. For days and days the rain poured down, filling the woods, swelling the river and lake, washing away what remained of the road.

He'd burned the body just as Bob had instructed, dousing it with gasoline and, when the flames died out, soaking the ashes with laundry bleach and burying it all beneath a mound of rocks and earth. The next morning he searched the snowmobile. The containers strapped to the frame turned out to be gas cans, all empty, but in a leather pouch slung from the handlebars he found Bob's wallet. A driver's license with Bob's picture and a Spokane address, the usual credit cards, a few dollars in cash, a library card. There was also a photograph, shot in a studio: Bob in a holiday sweater, posed with a pretty blond woman who was obviously pregnant and two children, a little girl in tights and a green velvet dress and an infant in pajamas. All of them were smiling fiercely, even the baby. On the back of the photograph was written, in a feminine hand, "Timothy's first Christmas." Why had Bob said he'd never had children? Had he been forced to watch them die, an experience so painful that his mind had simply erased them from his memory? Wolgast buried the wallet on the hillside, marking the spot with a cross he fashioned from a pair of sticks bound together with twine. It didn't seem like much, but it was all he could think to do.

Wolgast waited for others to come; he assumed Bob was just the first. He left the lodge only to perform the most necessary chores, and only in the daytime; he kept the Springfield with him at all times and left Carl's .38, loaded, in the glove compartment of the Toyota. Every few days he turned the engine over and let it run, to keep the battery charged. Bob had said something about California. Was it still safe there? Was any place safe? He wanted to ask Amy: Do you hear them coming? Do they know where we are? He had no map to show her where California was. Instead he took her up to the roof of the lodge one evening, just after sunset. See that ridge? he said, pointing to the south. Follow my hand, Amy. The Cascades. If anything happens to me, he said, follow that ridge. Run and keep on running.

But the months passed, and still they were alone. The rains ended, and Wolgast stepped from the lodge one morning to the taste and smell of sunshine and the feeling that something had changed. Birdsong swelled the trees; he looked toward the lake and saw open water where before had been a solid disk of ice. A sweet green haze dressed the air, and at the base of the lodge, a line of crocuses was pushing from the dirt. The world could be blowing itself apart, yet here was the gift of spring, spring in the mountains. From every direction came the sounds and smells of life. Wolgast didn't even know what month it was. Was it April or May? But he had no calendar, and the battery in his watch, unworn since autumn, had long since died.

That night, sitting in his chair by the door with the Springfield in his hand, he dreamed of Lila. Part of him knew this was a dream about sex, about making love, and yet it did not seem so. Lila was pregnant, and the two of them were playing Monopoly. The dream had no particular setting-the area beyond the place where the two of them sat was veiled in darkness, like the hidden regions of a stage. Wolgast was gripped by the irrational fear that what they were doing would hurt the baby. "We have to stop," he told her urgently. "This is dangerous." But she seemed not to hear him. He rolled the dice and moved his piece to find he had landed on the square with the image of the policeman blowing his whistle. "Go to jail, Brad," Lila said, and laughed. "Go directly to jail." Then she stood and began taking off her clothes. "It's all right," she said, "you can kiss me if you want. Bob won't mind." "Why won't he mind?" Brad asked. "Because he's dead," Lila said. "We're all dead."

He awoke with a start, sensing he wasn't alone. He turned in his chair and saw Amy, standing with her back toward him, facing the wide windows that looked toward the lake. In the glow of the woodstove, he watched as she lifted a hand and touched the glass. He rose.

"Amy? What is it?"

He was stepping forward when a blinding light, immense and pure, filled the glass, and in that instant Wolgast's mind seemed to freeze time: like a camera shutter his brain caught and held a picture of Amy, her hands lifting against the light, her mouth open wide to release its cry of terror. A rush of wind shook the cabin, and then, with a concussive thump, the windows burst inward and Wolgast felt himself lifted off the floor and hurled back across the room.

One second later, or five, or ten: time reassembled itself. Wolgast found himself on his hands and knees, pushed against the far wall. Glass was everywhere, a thousand pieces of it on the floor, their edges twinkling like shattered stars in the alien light that bathed the room. Outside, a bulbous glow was swelling the horizon to the west.


He went to where she lay on the floor.

"Are you burned? Are you cut?"

"I can't see, I can't see!" She was thrashing violently, waving her arms in formless panic before her face. There were pieces of glass glimmering all over her, affixed to the skin of her face and arms. And blood, too, soaking her T-shirt as he leaned over her and tried to calm her.

"Please, Amy, hold still! Let me look to see if you're hurt."

She relaxed in his arms. Gently he brushed the bits of glass away. There were no cuts anywhere. The blood, he realized, was his own. Where was it coming from? He looked down then to find a long shard, curved like a scimitar, buried in his left leg, halfway between his knee and groin. He pulled; the glass exited cleanly, without pain. Three inches of glass in his leg. Why hadn't he felt it? The adrenaline? But as soon as he thought this, the pain arrived, a late train roaring into the station. Motes of light dappled his vision; a wave of nausea surged through him.

"I can't see, Brad! Where are you!"

"I'm here, I'm here." His head was afloat in agony. Could you bleed to death from a cut like that? "Try to open your eyes."

"I can't! It hurts!"

Flash burns, he thought. Flash burns on the retina, from looking into the heart of the blast. Not Portland or Salem or even Corvallis. The explosion was straight west. A stray nuke, he thought, but whose? And how many more were there? What could it accomplish? The answer, he knew, was nothing; it was just one more violent spasm of the world's excruciating extinguishment. He realized that he'd allowed himself to think, when he'd stepped out into the sun and tasted spring, that the worst was behind them, that they would be all right. How foolish he'd been.

He carried Amy to the kitchen and lit the lamp. The glass in the window over the sink had somehow held. He sat her on a chair, found a dishrag, and quickly tied it around his wounded leg. Amy was crying, pressing her palms to her eyes. The skin of her face and arms, where she'd faced the blast, was a bright pink, already beginning to peel.

"I know it hurts," he told her, "but you have to open them for me. I have to see if there's any glass in there." He had a flashlight on the table, ready to scan her eyes the moment she opened them. An ambush, but what else could he do?

She shook her head, pulling away from him.

"Amy, you have to. I need you to be brave. Please."

Another minute of struggle, but at last she relented. She let him pull her hands away and opened her eyes, the thinnest crack, before closing them again.

"It's bright!" she cried. "It hurts!"

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