They started up the steps and the guard said, “Wait a minute.”
They stopped, looked back down at him.
He was smiling, pointing a finger at them.
“I know you guys.” His voice had a singsong lilt to it.
Teddy didn’t speak. Chuck didn’t speak.
“I know you guys,” the guard repeated.
Teddy managed a “Yeah?”
“Yeah. You’re the guys who got stuck with roof detail. In the fuck ing rain.” He laughed and extended the finger and slapped the card table with his other hand.
“That’s us,” Chuck said. “Ha ha.”
“Ha fucking ha,” the guard said.
Teddy pointed back at him and said, “You got us, pal,” and turned up the stairs. “You really got our number.”
The idiot’s laughter trailed them up the stairs.
At the first landing, they paused. They faced a great hall with an
arched ceiling of hammered copper, a dark floor polished to mirror
gloss. Teddy knew he could throw a baseball or one of Chuck’s apples
from the landing and not reach the other side of the room. It was empty
and the gate facing them was ajar, and Teddy felt mice scurry along his ribs as he stepped into the room because it reminded him of the room in his dream, the one where Laeddis had offered him a drink and Rachel had slaughtered her children. It was hardly the same room—the one in his dream had had high windows with thick curtains and streams of light and a parquet floor and heavy chandeliers—but it was close enough.
Chuck clapped a hand on his shoulder, and Teddy felt beads of sweat pop out along the side of his neck.
“I repeat,” Chuck Whispered with a weak smile, “this is too easy.
Where’s the guard on that gate? Why isn’t it locked?”
Teddy could see Rachel, wild-haired and shrieking, as she ran through the room with a cleaver.
“I don’t know.”
Chuck leaned in and hissed in his ear. “This is a setup, boss.”
Teddy began to cross the room. His head hurt from the lack of
sleep. From the rain. From the muffled shouting and running feet
above him. The two boys and the little girl had held hands, looking over their shoulders. Trembled.Teddy could hear the singing patient again: “... you take one down, pass it around, fifty-four bottles of beer on the wall.” They flashed before his eyes, the two boys and that girl, swimming through the swimming air, and Teddy saw those yellow pills Cawley had placed in his hand last night, felt a slick of nausea eddy in his stomach.
“Fifty-four bottles of beer on the wall, fifty-four bottles of beer...”
“We need to go right back out, Teddy. We need to leave. This is bad. You can feel it, I can feel it.”
At the other end of the hall, a man jumped into the doorway.He was barefoot and bare-chested, wearing only a pair of white pajama bottoms. His head was shaved, but the rest of his features were impossible to see in the dim light.
He said, “Hi!”
Teddy walked faster.
The man said, “Tag! You’re it!” and bolted from the doorway.
Chuck caught up with Teddy. “Boss, for Christ’s sake.”
He was in here. Laeddis. Somewhere. Teddy could feel him. They reached the end of the hall and were met with a wide stone landing and a stairwell that curved down steeply into darkness, another that rose toward the shouting and the chattering, all of it louder now, and Teddy could hear snaps of metal and chains. Heard someone shout, “Billings! All right now, boy! Just calm down! Nowhere to run. Hear?”
Teddy heard someone brelthing beside him. He turned his head to the left, and the shaven head was an inch from his own. “You’re it,” the guy said and tapped Teddy’s arm with his index finger.
Teddy looked into the guy’s gleaming face.
“I’m it,” Teddy said.
“’Course, I’m so close,” the guy said, “you could just flick your wrist and I’d be it again and then I could flick mine and you’d be it and we could go on like that for hours, all day even, we could just stand here turning each other into it, over and over, not even break for lunch, not even break for dinner, we could just go on and on.” “What fun would that be?” Teddy said.
“You know what’s out there?” The guy gestured with his head in the direction of the stairs. “In the sea?”
“Fish,” Teddy said.
“Fish.” The guy nodded. “Very good. Fish, yes. Lots of fish. But, yes, fish, very good, fish, yes, but also, also? Subs. Yeah. That’s right. Soviet submarines. Two hundred, three hundred miles off our coast. We hear that, right? We’re told. Sure. And we get used to the idea. We forget, really. I mean, ‘Okay, there are subs. Thanks for the info.’ They become part of our daily existence. We know they’re there, but we stop thinking about it. Okay? But there they are and they’re armed with rockets. They’re pointing them at New York and Washington. At Boston. And they’re out there. Just sitting. Does that ever bother you ?”
Teddy could hear Chuck beside him taking slow breaths, waiting for his cue.
Teddy said, “Like you said, I choose not to think about it too much.”
“Mmm.” The guy nodded. He stroked the stubble on his chin. “We hear things in here. You wouldn’t think so, right? But we do. A new guy comes in, he tells us things. The guards talk. You orderlies, you talk. We know, we know. About the outside world. About he H-bomb tests, the atolls. You know how a hydrogen bomb works?” “With hydrogen?” Teddy said.
“Very good. Very clever. Yes, yes.” The guy nodded several times. “With hydrogen, yes. But, also, also, not like any other bombs. You drop a bomb, even an atom bomb, it explodes. Right? Right you are. But a hydrogen bomb, it implodes. It falls in on itself and goes through a series of internal breakdowns, collapsing and collapsing.
But all that collapsing? It creates mass and density. See, the fury of its
own self-destruction creates an entirely new monster. You get it? Do
you? The bigger the breakdown, then the bigger the destruction of
self, then the more potent it becomes. And then, okay, Okay? Fucking
blammo! Just... bang, boom, whoosh. In its absence of self, it
spreads. Creates an explosion off of its implosion that is a hundred
times, a thousand times, a million times more devastating than any
bomb in history. That’s our legacy. And don’t you forget it.” He