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The Passage

The Passage

Page 49

"Any idea where they might have gone?" Theo asked.

Finn had balled up his shirt to douse it in the trough and was wiping down his chest and armpits. "One of the tool carts is missing. A jenny, too." He cocked his head, shifting his eyes to Rey, then back to Theo, as if to say, Here's a theory. "They could still be out on the turbines. Zander likes to play it close sometimes."

Zander Phillips was the Station Chief. He wasn't much to talk to, or look at, for that matter. All that time out in the sun and wind had dried him like a raisin, and the days of isolation had made him gruff to the point of silence. It was said that nobody had ever heard him say so much as five words in a row.

"How close?"

Finn shrugged again. "Look, I don't know. Ask him when he gets back."

"Who else is down here?"

"Just Caleb."

Theo moved out of the shadow of the livery, to face the turbine field. The sun had just begun its dip behind the mountain; soon its shadow would stretch clear across the valley to the foothills on the far side. When that happened, there was no question: they'd have to seal the hatch. Caleb Jones was just a kid, barely fifteen; everyone called him Hightop.

"Well, they've got half a hand," Theo said finally. Everyone knew this, but still it needed to be said. He looked at each of their party in turn, a quick glance to verify that his meaning was acknowledged. "Let's get the animals inside."

They led the animals down the ramp into the stable and sealed the bulkhead for the night. By the time they finished, the sun had dropped behind the mountain. Peter left Arlo and Alicia in the control room and went to join Theo where he was waiting at the gate, scanning the turbine field with his binoculars. Peter felt the first flickering chill of night across his arms, on the sun-baked skin at the back of his neck. His mouth and throat were dry again, tasting of dust and horses.

"How long do we wait?"

Theo didn't answer. The question was rhetorical, just words to fill the silence. Something had happened, or Zander and Caleb would have been back by now. Peter was also thinking of their father, as he believed Theo was as well: Demo Jaxon, gone into the turbine field without a trace, headed out on the Eastern Road. How long had they waited that night to close the hatch on Demo Jaxon?

Peter heard footsteps approaching and turned to find Alicia striding in their direction from the hatch. She took a place beside them, directing her gaze across the darkening field. They stood without speaking for another moment, watching the night march down the valley. As the mountain's shadow touched the foothills on the far side, Alicia drew a blade and wiped it on the hem of her jersey.

"I hate to say it-"

"You don't have to." Theo turned to face the two of them. "Okay, we're done here. Let's lock it up."

The day-to-day. That was the term they used. Thinking neither of a past that was too much a story of loss and death, nor of a future that might never happen. Ninety-four souls under the lights, living in the day-to-day.

Yet it was not always so for Peter. In idle moments, standing the Watch when all was quiet, or lying in his bunk waiting for sleep to come, he would often find himself thinking of his parents. Though there were those in the Colony who still spoke of heaven-a place, beyond physical existence, where the soul went after death-the idea had never made sense to him. The world was the world, a realm of the senses that could be touched and tasted and felt, and it seemed to Peter that the dead, if they went anywhere at all, would pass into the living. Perhaps it was something Teacher had told him; perhaps he had come to the idea on his own. But for as long as he could recall, since he had come out of the Sanctuary and learned the truth of the world, he had believed this to be so. As long as he could hold his parents in his mind, some part of them would go on; and when he himself should die, these memories would pass with him into others still living, so that in this manner, all of them-not just Peter and his parents but everyone who had gone before and those who would come after-would continue.

He could no longer envision his parents' faces. This had been the first thing to go, leaving him in just a matter of days. When he thought of them, it wasn't a question of something seen but something felt-a wash of remembered sensations that flowed through him like water. The milky sound of his mother's voice and the look of her hands, pale and fine-boned but strong too, as she went about her work in the Infirmary, touching here and there, offering what comforts she could; the creak of his father's boots ascending the ladder of the catwalk on a night when Peter was running between the posts, and the way he had passed beside him without speaking, acknowledging Peter only with a hand on his shoulder; the heat and energy of the living room in the days of the Long Rides, when his father and uncle and the other men would gather to plan their routes, and later, the sounds of their voices as they drank shine on the porch well into the night, telling the stories of all they'd seen in the Darklands.

That was what Peter had wanted: to feel himself a part of them. To be one of the men of the Long Rides. And yet he had always known this would never happen. Listening from his bed to the voices on the porch, their rich masculine sound, he knew it about himself. Something was missing. He did not know the name for this thing; he wasn't sure it had a name at all. It was something more than courage, more than giving it up, though these were a part of it. The only word that came to him was largeness; that was what the men of the Long Rides possessed. And when the time came for one of the Jaxon boys to join them, Peter knew it would be Theo whom his father would call to the gate. He would be left behind.

His mother had known it about him too. His mother, who had so stoically borne their father's disgrace and then his final ride, everyone knowing but never daring to utter the truth; his mother, who, in the end, even when the cancer had taken everything else from her, had spoken not a single ill word of their father for leaving them. He's in his own time now. It was summer, as it was now, the days long and blazing with heat, when she'd taken to her bed. Theo was Full Watch by this time, not yet a Captain though that was soon to follow; the duty of their mother's care had fallen to Peter, who sat with her through the days and nights, helping her eat and dress and even bathe, an awkward intimacy they both endured because it was simply necessary. She might have gone to the Infirmary; that was how things were usually done. But his mother was First Nurse, and if Prudence Jaxon wanted to die at home in her bed, no one was going to tell her otherwise.

Whenever Peter recalled that summer, its long days and endless nights, it seemed a period of his life from which he had never completely departed. It reminded him of a story Teacher had told them once about a turtle approaching a wall; each time the turtle moved forward, he decreased the distance by half, guaranteeing that he would never reach his destination. That was how it felt to Peter, watching his mother die. For three days she had drifted in and out of a feverish sleep, speaking hardly a word, answering only the simplest questions required for her care. She would take a few sips of water, but that was all. Sandy Chou, the nurse on duty, had been to visit that afternoon, and told Peter to be ready. The room was dim, the light of the spots filtered into dappled shadow by the tree that stood beyond the window. A sheen of sweat gleamed on her pale brow; her hands-the hands that Peter had watched for hours in the Infirmary, going about their careful work-lay motionless at her sides. Since nightfall Peter hadn't set foot from the room, fearing that she would awaken to find herself alone. That she was close to death, within hours, Peter knew; Sandy had made this clear. But it was the stillness of her hands where they rested on the blankets, all their patient labors ended, that told him so.

He wondered: How did you say goodbye? Would it frighten her, to hear him say the word? And what would fill the silence that came after? There had been no chance to do this with his father; in many ways, that had been the worst of it. He had simply slipped away, into oblivion. What would Peter have said to his father if he'd had the chance? A selfish wish, but still he thought it: Choose me, Peter would have said. Not Theo. Me. Before you go, choose me. The scene was perfectly clear in his mind-as Peter imagined it, the sun was coming up; they were sitting on the porch, just the two of them, his father dressed to ride, holding his compass, flicking the cover open with his thumb and closing it again, as was his habit-and yet the scene did not conclude. Never had he imagined how his father might have answered.

Now here was his mother, dying; if death was a room the soul entered, she was standing at the threshold; and yet Peter could not find the words to tell her how he felt-that he loved her and would miss her when she was gone. In their family, it had always been true that Peter was hers, as Theo's was their father's. Nothing was ever said about this; it was simply a fact. Peter knew there had been miscarriages, and at least one baby that was born early with something wrong and died within hours. He thought this baby was a girl. It had happened when Peter was just a Little himself, still in the Sanctuary, so he didn't really know. So perhaps that was the missing thing-not something inside him, but inside her-and the reason that he had always felt his mother's love so fiercely. He was the one she would keep.

The first soft light of morning was in the windows when he heard her breathing change, catching in her chest like a hiccup. For a terrible instant he believed the moment had come, but then he saw her eyes were open. Mama? he said, taking her hand. Mama, I'm here.

Theo, she said.

Could she see him? Did she know where she was? Mama, he said, it's Peter. Do you want me to get Theo?

She seemed to be looking into some deep place inside herself, infinite and without borders, a place of eternity. Take care of your brother, Theo, she said. He's not strong, like you. Then she closed her eyes and did not open them again.

He had never told his brother about this. There seemed no point. There were times when he thought, wishfully, that he might have misheard her, or else could attribute these final words to the delirium of illness. But try as he might to construe them otherwise, her words and meaning seemed clear. After everything, the long days and nights he had cared for her, it was Theo she had placed at her bedside in her final hours; Theo to whom she had given the last words of her life.

Nothing more was said of the missing station crew. They fed the animals and then themselves and retired to the barracks, a cramped, foul-smelling room of bunk beds and soiled mattresses stuffed with musty straw. By the time Peter lay down, Finn and Rey were already snoring away. Peter wasn't accustomed to going to bed so early, but he'd been up for twenty-four hours straight and felt himself quickly drifting off.

He awoke disoriented, his mind still swimming in the current of anxious dreams. His internal clock told him it was half-night or later. All the men were still asleep, but Alicia's bunk was empty. He made his way down the dim hall to the control room, where he found her sitting at the long table, turning the pages of a book by the light of the panel. The clock read 02:33.

She lifted her eyes to meet his. "Don't know how you slept, with all that snoring."

He took a chair across from her. "I didn't, not really. What are you reading?"

She closed the book and rubbed her eyes with the tips of her fingers. "Damned if I know. I found it in the storage room. There's boxes and boxes of them." She slid it across the table to him. "Go ahead and look if you want."

Where the Wild Things Are, the title read. A thin volume, containing mostly pictures. Peter turned the brittle, dusty-smelling pages one by one. A little boy in some kind of animal costume, with ears and a tail, brandishing a fork as he chased a small white dog; the boy's banishment to his room, and the room being enveloped by a forest, magically growing; a moonlit night descending, and a journey across the sea to an island of monsters, unimaginable beings of grasping claws and gnashing teeth and huge yellow eyes. The Wild Things.

"That whole business about the boy looking them in the eyes and telling them to be still," Alicia said. She yawned into her hand. "I don't see how that would do any good at all."

Peter closed the book and put it aside. He had no idea what to make of any of it, but that was the way of most things from the Time Before. How did people live? What did they eat, wear, think? Did they walk in the dark, as if this were nothing? If there were no virals, what made them afraid?

"I think it's all made up." He shrugged. "Just a story. I think he's dreaming."

Alicia lifted her eyebrows, her expression saying, Who knows? Who can say what the world used to be?

"I was actually hoping you'd wake up," she announced then, rising from her chair. She lifted a lantern from the floor. "I've got something to show you."

She led him back through the barracks and into one of the storage rooms. The walls were lined with metal shelving, stacked with supplies: greasy tools, coils of wire and solder, plastic jugs of water and alcohol. Alicia placed the lantern on the floor and stepped to one of the shelves and began to move its contents onto the floor.

"Well? Don't just stand there."

"What are you doing?"

"What does it look like? And keep your voice down-I don't want to wake the others."

When they'd cleared everything away, Alicia instructed him to stand at one end of the shelf, positioning herself on the opposite side. Peter realized that the back of the shelf was a sheet of plywood, concealing the wall behind it. They pulled the shelf away.

A hatch.

Alicia stepped forward and turned the ring and swung it open. A narrow, tubelike space, with a flight of metal stairs rising in a spiral. Metal crates were stacked against the wall. The stairs vanished in the gloom, some unknowable distance over Peter's head. The air was stale and choked with dust.

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