The Passage Page 42

He struck a bargain with her: he would count to three; she would open her eyes and keep them open for another count of three.

"One," he began. "Two. Three!"

She opened her eyes, every muscle in her face taut with fear. He began to count again, running the flashlight's beam over her face. No glass, no trace of visible injury: her eyes were clear.


She closed her eyes again, shaking and fiercely weeping.

He dressed Amy's skin with burn cream from the first aid kit, wrapped her eyes with a bandage, and carried her upstairs to bed. "Your eyes are going to be fine," he assured her, though he didn't know if this was so. "I think it's just temporary, from looking at the flash." For a while he sat with her, until her breathing quieted and he knew she was asleep. They should try to get away, he thought, to put some distance between themselves and the blast, but where would they go? First the fires and then the rain, and the road off the mountain had all but washed away. They could try it on foot, but how far could he hope to get, barely able to walk himself, leading a blind girl through the woods? The best he could hope for was that the blast was small, or farther away than he thought it was, or that the wind would push the radiation in the other direction.

In the first aid kit he found a small sewing needle and a ball of black thread. It was just an hour before dawn when he descended the stairs to the kitchen. At the table, by lamplight, he removed the knotted rag and his blood-soaked pants. The cut was deep but remarkably clean, the skin like torn butcher's paper over a blood-red slab of steak. He'd sewed on buttons, once hemmed a pair of his pants. How hard could it be? From the cabinet over the sink he retrieved the bottle of Scotch he'd found at Milton's, all those months ago. He poured himself a glass. He sat and took the Scotch, quickly, tipping his face back to drink without tasting, poured a second, and drank that, too. Then he rose, washed his hands at the kitchen sink, taking his time, and dried them on a rag. He sat once more, wadded the rag, and put it in his mouth; he took the bottle of Scotch in one hand and the threaded needle in the other. He wished he had more light. He drew a long breath and held it. Then he poured Scotch over the cut.

This, it turned out, was the worst part. After that, sewing the wound closed was almost nothing.

He awoke to find he'd slept with his head on the table; the room was ice-cold, and the air held a strange chemical smell, like burning tires. Outside a gray snow was falling. On his bandaged leg, throbbing with pain, Wolgast hobbled from the lodge onto the porch. Not snow, he realized: ashes. He descended the steps. Ashes fell onto his face, into his hair. Strangely, he felt no fear, not for himself or even for Amy. It was a wonder. He tipped his face upward, receiving them. The ashes were full of people, he knew. A raining ash of souls.

· · ·

He could have moved them to the basement, but there seemed no point. The radiation would be everywhere, in the air they breathed, in the food they ate, in the water that ran from the lake to the pump in the kitchen. They kept to the second floor, where at least the boarded-up windows offered some protection. Three days later, the day he removed Amy's bandages-she could see after all, just as he'd promised-Wolgast began to vomit and couldn't stop. He wretched long after the only thing left to come up was a thin black mucus, like roofing tar. The leg was infected, or else the radiation had done something to it. Green pus ran from the wound, soaking the bandages. It gave off a foul smell, a smell that was in his mouth too, in his eyes and nose. It seemed to be in every part of him.

"I'll be fine," he told Amy, who was, after everything that had happened, the same. Her scalded skin had peeled away, exposing, beneath it, a new layer, white as moonlit milk. "Just a few days off my feet and I'll be right as rain."

He took to his cot under the eaves in the room next to Amy's. He felt the days passing around him, through him. He was dying, he knew. The fast-dividing cells of his body-the lining of his throat and stomach, his hair, the gums that held his teeth-were being killed off first, because wasn't that what radiation did? And now it had found the core of him, reaching into him like a great, lethal hand, black and bird-boned. He felt himself dissolving, like a pill in water, the process irrevocable. He should have tried to get them off the mountain, but that moment was long passed. At the periphery of his consciousness, he was aware of Amy's presence, her movements in the room, her watchful, too-wise eyes upon him. She held cups of water to his broken lips; he did his best to drink, wanting the moisture but wanting, even more, to please her, to offer some assurance that he would become well. But nothing would stay down.

"I'm all right," she told him, again and again, though perhaps he was dreaming this. Her voice was quiet, close to his ear. She stroked his forehead with a cloth. He felt her soft breath on his face in the darkened room. "I'm all right."

She was a child. What would become of her, after he was gone? This girl who barely slept or ate, whose body knew nothing of illness or pain?

No, she wouldn't die. That was the worst of it, the terrible thing they'd done. Time parted around her, like waves around a pier. It moved past her while Amy stayed the same. And all the days of Noah were nine hundred and fifty years. However they had done it, Amy would not, could not die.

I'm sorry, he thought. I did my best and it wasn't enough. I was too afraid from the start. If there was a plan, I couldn't see it. Amy, Eva, Lila, Lacey. I was just a man. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry.

Then one night he awoke and he was alone. He sensed this right away: a feeling in the air around him of departure, of absence and flight. Just lifting the blanket required all the strength he could muster; the feel of its weave in his hand was like sandpaper, like spikes of fire to the touch. He rose to a sitting position, a monumental effort. His body was an immense, dying thing his mind could scarcely contain. And yet it was still his-the same body he'd lived in all the days of his life. How strange it was to die, to feel it leaving him. Yet another part of him had always known. To die, his body told him. To die. That is why we live, to die.

"Amy," he said, and heard his voice, the palest croak. A weak and useless sound, without form, speaking a name to no one in a dark room. "Amy."

He managed his way down the stairs to the kitchen and lit the lamp. Under its flickering glow, everything appeared just as it had been, though somehow the place seemed changed-the same room where he and Amy had lived together a year, yet someplace completely new. He could not have said what hour it was, what day, what month. Amy was gone.

He stumbled from the lodge, down the porch, into the dark forest. A lidded eye of moon was hanging over the tree line, like a child's toy suspended on a wire, a smiling moon face dangling above a baby's crib. Its light spilled over a landscape of ashes, everything dying, the world's living surface peeled away to reveal the rocky core of all. Like a stage set, Wolgast thought, a stage set for the end of all things, all memories of things. He moved through the broken white dust without direction, calling, calling her name.

He was in the trees now, in the woods, the lodge some nameless distance behind him. He doubted he could find his way back, but this didn't matter. It was over; he was over. Even weeping was beyond his power. In the end, he thought, it came down to choosing a place. If you were lucky, that's what you got to do.

He was above the river, under the moon, among the na**d, leafless trees. He sank to his knees and sat with his back against one and closed his weary eyes. Something was moving above him in the branches, but he sensed this only vaguely. A rustling of bodies in the trees. Something someone had told him once, many lifetimes past, about moving in the trees at night. But to recall the meaning of these words required a force of will he no longer possessed; the thought left him, alone.

A new feeling moved through him then, cold and final, like a draft from an open door onto the deepest hour of winter, onto the stilled space between stars. When daybreak found him he would be no more. Amy, he thought as the stars began to fall, everywhere and all around; and he tried to fill his mind with just her name, his daughter's name, to help him from his life.

Amy, Amy, Amy.




2 A.V.

Music, when soft voices die,

Vibrates in the memory;

Odors, when sweet violets sicken,

Live within the sense they quicken.

Rose leaves, when the rose is dead,

Are heaped for the beloved's bed;

And so thy thoughts, when thou art gone,

Love itself shall slumber on.


"Music, When Soft Voices Die"


U.S. Military Forces Command

Eastern Quarantine Zone, Philadelphia, PA

By order of Gen. Travis Cullen, Acting General of the Army and Supreme Commander of the Eastern Quarantine Zone, and His Honor George Wilcox, Mayor of the City of Philadelphia:

All minor children between four (4) and thirteen (13) years of age and residing in the uninfected areas MARKED IN GREEN ("Safe Zones") within the City of Philadelphia and the three counties west of the Delaware River (Montgomery, Delaware, Bucks) are ordered to report to AMTRAK 30th STREET STATION for immediate embarkation.

Each child MUST bring:

A birth certificate, Social Security card, or valid United States passport.

Proof of residency, such as a utility bill in the name of parent or legal guardian, or a valid refugee card.

Current immunization record.

A responsible adult to assist with evacuation processing.

Each child MAY bring:

ONE container for personal effects, measuring no larger than 22″ × 14″ × 9″. DO NOT BRING PERISHABLES. Food and water will be provided on the train.

A bedroll or sleeping bag.

The following items will NOT be permitted on the trains or within the EVACUEE PROCESSING AREA:


Any knife or penetrating weapon longer than 3 inches


No parents or guardians will be allowed to enter Amtrak 30th Street Station.

Any person or persons interfering with the evacuation will be SHOT.

Any unauthorized person attempting to board the trains will be SHOT.

God Save the People of the United States and the City of Philadelphia


From the Journal of Ida Jaxon ("The Book of Auntie")

Presented at the Third Global Conference on the North American Quarantine Period

Center for the Study of Human Cultures and Conflicts

University of New South Wales, Indo-Australian Republic

April 16-21, 1003 A.V.

[Excerpt begins.]

... and it was chaos. So many years gone by, but you never forget a sight like that, the thousands of people, all of them so frightened, pressing against the fences, the soldiers and dogs trying to keep folks calm, the shots fired in the air. And me, not more than eight years old, with my little suitcase, the one my mama had packed for me the night before, bawling the whole time, because she knew what she was doing, that she was sending me away forever.

The jumps had taken New York, Pittsburgh, D. C. Most the whole country, as far as I recall. I had folks in all those places. There was lots we didn't know. Such as what happened to Europe or France or China, though I'd heard my daddy talking to some other men from our street about how the virus was different there, it just flat-out killed everyone, so I'm supposing it was possible that Philadelphia was the last city left with people in it in the whole world at that time. We were an island. When I asked my mama about the war, she explained that the jumps were people like you and me, just sick. I'd been sick myself so it scared me about out my skin when she told me this, I just started crying my eyes out, thinking I would wake up one day and kill her and my daddy and my cousins the way the jumps liked to do. She hugged me hard and told me, no no, Ida, it's different, that's not the same kind of a thing at all, you hush now and stop your crying, which I did. But even so for a while it didn't make no sense to me, why there was a war on and there was soldiers everywhere if folks had just come down with a sniffle or something in they throat.

That's what we called them, jumps. Not vampires, though you heard the word said. That's what my cousin Terrence said they were. He showed me in a comic that he had, which was a kind of picture book as I recall, but when I asked my daddy about that and showed him the pictures he told me no, vampires were just something in a made-up story, nice-looking men in suits and capes with good manners, and this here's real, Ida. Ain't no story about it. There's lots of names for them now, of course, flyers and smokes and drinks and virals and such, but we called them jumps on account of that's what they did when they got you. They jumped. My daddy said, no matter what you call them, they are some mean sons of bitches. You stay inside like the Army says, Ida. It shocked me to hear him speaking such, because my daddy was a deacon of the A.M.E., and I'd never heard him talk like that, use words of the kind. Nights was the worst of it, especially that winter. We didn't have the lights like we do now. There weren't much food except what the Army gave us, no heat except what you could find to burn. The sun went down and you could feel it, that fear, snapping down like a lid on everything. We didn't know if that would be the night the jumps got in. My daddy had boarded up the windows of our house and he kept a gun, too, kept it with him all night as he sat at the kitchen table by candlelight, listening to the radio, maybe sipping a bit. He'd been a communication officer in the Navy and knew about such things. One night I came in and found him crying there. Just sitting with his face in his hand and shaking and weeping, the tears all running down his cheeks. Don't know what it was that woke me except maybe the sound of him. He was a strong man, my daddy, and it shamed me to see him in such a state as that. I said Daddy, what is it, why you crying like you are, did something scare you? And he shook his head and said, God don't love us no more, Ida. Maybe it was something we did. But he don't. He's up and flown the coop on us. Then my mama came in and told him to hush up Monroe, you're drunk, and shooed me back to bed. That was my daddy's name, Monroe Jaxon the Third. My mama was Anita. At the time I didn't know it, but I think maybe the night he was crying was when he heard about the train. It could have been something else.

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