The Passage Page 86

Day 13

Good news-Michael says he may try to start one of the Humvees tomorrow. We all have our fingers crossed. Everyone is anxious to get going.

I came across a crate in the third room marked Human Remains Pouch and when I opened it and saw what was there I realized they were bags the Army used to put dead soldiers in. I repacked the crate and hope no one asks me about it.

Day 16

I haven't written for a couple of days because I've been learning to drive.

Two days ago Michael and Caleb finally got the first of the Humvees running, tires and all. Everyone was shouting and laughing, we were all so happy. Michael said he wanted to go first and with just a few scrapes he managed to back it out of the bunker. We all took turns at the wheel with Michael telling us what to do, but none of us is very good.

The second Humvee rolled out this morning. Caleb says that's it, that's what we're going to get, but we don't really need more than two anyway. If one breaks down we can use the other as a backup. Michaels thinks we can carry enough diesel to get to Las Vegas, maybe farther, before we have to find more.

We're off in the morning to the fuel depot.

Day 17

Gassed and ready to go. We spent the morning shuttling back and forth to the depot, filling the Humvees and the extra cans.

Everyone is exhausted but excited, too. It's like the trip has finally, truly begun. We're riding as two groups of four. Peter is going to drive one Humvee, and I'm going to drive the other, with Hollis and Alicia riding up top to man the guns, fifty-caliber machine guns, which we mounted this afternoon. Michael found some batteries to hold a charge so we can talk to each other with the walkie-talkies, at least until the batteries run out. Peter thinks we should try to go around Las Vegas, stay to the backcountry, but Hollis says it's the quickest way if we want to get to Colorado, and the interstates are best, because they follow the easiest terrain. Alicia sided with Hollis, and Peter finally agreed, so Las Vegas it will be, I guess. Everyone is wondering what we will find there.

I feel like we're a proper expedition now. We threw away our old clothing and everyone is wearing Army clothes, even Caleb, though they're much too big on him. (Maus is hemming a pair of pants for him.) After dinner Peter gathered everyone around and showed us our route on the map, and then he said, I think we should celebrate, Hollis, don't you, and Hollis nodded and said, I think that's right, and held up a bottle of whiskey he'd found in one of the desks in the office. It tasted a little like shine and felt the same, and before long everyone was laughing and singing, which felt wonderful but was a little sad too, because we were all remembering Arlo and his guitar. Even Amy drank some, and Hollis said, Maybe it will put her in the mood to say something, and at that she smiled, the first time I think I've ever seen her do this. It really feels like she's one of us now.

It's late now, and I have to go to bed. We're setting out at first light. I can't wait to leave, but I think I will miss this place, too. None of us knows what we'll find or if we'll ever see home again. I think without our realizing it, we've become a family here. So, to whoever is reading this, that's really all I have to say.

Day 18

We made it to Kelso in plenty of time. The landscape we're in seems totally dead-the only living creatures seem to be lizards, which are everywhere, and spiders, huge hairy ones the size of your hand. No other buildings besides the depot. After the bunker, it feels like we're out in the open, totally exposed, even though the windows and doors are all boarded up. There's a pump but no water, so we are running on what we brought. If it stays this hot we better find more soon. I can tell no one's going to sleep much. I hope Amy can keep them away, like Peter says.

Day 19

They came last night, a pod of three. They entered through the roof, tearing the wood apart like paper. When it was over, two of them were dead and the third had scattered. But Hollis had been shot. Alicia says she thinks she did it, but Hollis said he actually shot himself, trying to load one of the pistols. Probably he was just saying that to make her feel better. The bullet passed through his upper arm, just a nick really, but any wound is serious, especially out here. Hollis is too tough to show it, but I can tell he's in a lot of pain.

I'm writing this in the early-morning hours, just before dawn. Nobody's going back to sleep. We're all just waiting for sunrise so we can get out of here. Our best chance is to make it to Las Vegas with enough time to find shelter for the night. What everybody's thinking, but not saying, is that there's no real safety from here on out.

The funny thing is, I don't mind so much, not really. I hope we don't all die out here, of course. But I think I'd rather be here than anywhere else, with these people. It's different being afraid when there's the hope that it will amount to something. I don't know what we'll find in Colorado, if we ever get there. I'm not even sure it matters. All those years, waiting for the Army, and it turns out the Army is us.


They drove in from the south, into the fading day, into a vision of towering ruins.

Peter was at the wheel of the first Humvee, Alicia up top, scanning the terrain with the binoculars; Caleb sat beside him in the passenger seat with the map over his lap. The highway had all but disappeared, its course vanished under waves of cracked, pale earth.

"Caleb, where the hell are we?"

Caleb was twisting the map this way and that. He arched his neck and shouted up to Alicia, "Do you see the 215?"

"What's the 215?"

"Another highway, like this one! We should be crossing it!"

"I didn't know we were even on a highway!"

Peter brought the vehicle to a halt and picked up the radio from the floor. "Sara, what's your fuel gauge say?"

A crackle of static, and then Sara's voice came through: "A quarter tank. Maybe a little more."

"Let me talk to Hollis."

He watched in the rearview as Hollis, his injured arm wrapped in a sling, scrambled down from the gun post and took the radio from Sara. "I think we may have lost the road," Peter told him. "We both need fuel, too."

"Is there an airport anywhere?"

Peter took the map from Caleb to examine it. "Yes. If we're still following Highway 15, it should be ahead of us, to the east." He shouted up to Alicia: "Do you see anything that looks like an airport?"

"How the hell should I know what an airport looks like?"

Through the radio, Hollis said, "Tell her to look for fuel tanks. Big ones."

"Lish! Do you see any fuel tanks?"

Alicia dropped down into the cabin. Her face was coated with dust. She rinsed out her mouth from her canteen and spat out the window. "Dead ahead, about five clicks."

"You're sure?"

She nodded. "There's a bridge up ahead. I'm thinking that could be the overpass at Highway 215. If I'm right, the airport is just on the other side."

Peter picked up the radio again. "Lish says she thinks she sees it. We're going ahead."

"All eyes, cuz."

Peter put the vehicle in gear and drew forward. They were on the city's southern outskirts, an open plain tufted with weeds. To the west, purpling mountains lifted against the desert sky like the backs of great animals rising from the earth. Peter watched as the cluster of buildings at the heart of the city began to take shape beyond his windshield, resolving into a pattern of discrete structures, bathed in a golden light. It was impossible to tell how big they were or how far away. In the backseat, Amy had removed her glasses and was squinting at the landscape outside her window. Sara had done a thorough job of cutting the mats away; what remained of her hair, that wild tangle, was a trim, dark helmet, tracing the lines of her cheeks.

They came to the overpass; the bridge was gone, collapsed in sheets of broken concrete. The highway below was a choked gulley of cars and debris, completely impassable. There was nothing to do but try to go around. Peter guided the Humvee east, tracing the highway below them. A few minutes later they came to a second bridge, which appeared intact. A gamble, but they were running out of time.

He radioed Sara. "I'm going to try to get across. Wait until we're over."

Their luck held; they traversed it without incident. Pausing on the far side for Sara to cross, Peter took the map from Caleb once again. If he was correct, they were on Las Vegas Boulevard South; the airport, with its fuel tanks, would be due east.

They pressed on. The landscape began to change, thickening with structures and abandoned vehicles. Most were pointed south, away from the city.

"Those are Army trucks," said Caleb.

A minute later they saw the first battle tank. It was resting upside down in the center of the road, like a huge capsized turtle; both of its tracks had been blown off its wheels.

Alicia crouched to peek her head back into the cabin. "Pull forward," she said. "Slowly."

He turned the wheel to navigate around the overturned tank. By now it was obvious what lay ahead: the city's defensive perimeter. They were moving through a vast debris field of tanks and other vehicles. Peter saw, beyond it, a line of sandbags backed against a concrete barrier, topped with coils of wire.

"What do you want to do now?" Sara asked over the radio.

"We'll have to go around somehow." He released the Talk button and lifted his voice to Alicia, who was scanning with the binoculars. "Lish! East or west?"

She ducked down again. "West. I think there's a break in the wall."

It was getting late; the attack the night before had left them all shaken. The last hands of daylight were like a funnel, drawing them down toward night. With each passing minute, the decisions they made became more irrevocable.

"Alicia says west," Peter radioed.

"That'll take us away from the airport."

"I know. Put Hollis on again." He waited for Hollis's acknowledgment, then continued: "I think we have to use the gas we've got to find shelter for the night. All those buildings up ahead, there has to be something we can use. We can backtrack to the airport in the morning."

Hollis's voice was calm, but Peter could detect the underlying note of worry. "It's your call."

He glanced through the rearview at Alicia, who nodded.

"We're going around," Peter said.

· · ·

The break in the perimeter was a ragged gap twenty meters across. The remains of a burned-out tanker truck lay on its side near the opening. Probably, Peter thought, the driver had tried to run the blockade.

They continued on. The landscape was changing again, thickening with structures as they moved into the city. No one was talking; the only sounds were the low rumble of the engine and the scrape of weeds on the underside of the Humvee's carriage. They had somehow gotten on Las Vegas Boulevard again; a creaking sign, still held aloft on its wires above the street, jostled in the wind. The buildings were larger now, monumental in scope, towering above the roadway with their great ruined faces. Some were burned, empty cages of steel girders, others half-collapsed, their facades fallen away to reveal the honeycombed compartments within, dressed with dripping gardens of wire and cable. They passed beneath signs bearing mysterious names: Mandalay Bay. The Luxor. New York New York. Rubble of all kinds littered the spaces between the buildings, forcing Peter to move at a creep. More Humvees and tanks and sandbagged positions; there had been a battle here. Twice he had to stop completely and search for an alternate route around some obstacle.

"This is too dense," Peter said finally. "We'll never make it through. Caleb, find me a way out of here."

Caleb directed him west, onto Tropicana. But a hundred meters later the road disappeared, subsumed once again under a mountain of rubble. Peter reversed direction, returned to the intersection, and fought his way north again. They were stopped this time by a second perimeter of concrete barricades.

"It's like a maze in here."

He tried one more route, heading farther east. This, too, was impassable. The shadows were lengthening; they had maybe half a hand of good light left. It had been a mistake, he knew, to head through the heart of the city. Now they were trapped.

He took the radio from the dashboard. "Any ideas, Sara?"

"We can go back the way we came."

"It'll be dark by the time we get out of here. We don't want to be caught out in the open, not with all these high points."

Alicia dropped down from the roof. "There's one building that looks tight," she said quickly. "Back down this road about a hundred meters. We passed it coming in."

Peter relayed this information to the second Humvee. "I don't see that we have a lot of options."

It was Hollis who answered. "Let's do it."

They reversed course. Angling his eyes upward through the windshield, Peter identified the structure Alicia had indicated: a white tower, fantastically tall, rising from the lengthening shadows into sunlight. It appeared solid, though of course he couldn't see the other side; the rear of the building might be completely peeled away, for all they knew. The structure was separated from the roadway by a masonry wall and a broad, bowl-like depression, with pipes extruding from the drifts of sand and debris that littered the bottom. Peter was worried they would have to traverse this somehow, or else leave the Humvees on the street, but then they came to a break in the wall just as Alicia called down, "Turn here."

He was able to pull the Humvee right up to the base of the tower, parking beneath a kind of portico, wreathed with skeletal vines. Sara pulled in behind him. The front of the building was boarded up, the entrance barricaded by sandbags. Exiting the vehicle, Peter felt a sudden chill; the temperature was dropping.

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