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The Twelve

The Twelve

Page 20

He strode briskly down the hallway, moving past the empty common room and the vacant nurse's station and farther still, into the early morning.

Chapter 15

It was late on the second day, approaching the Missouri border, that Grey saw an obstruction ahead. They were in the middle of nowhere, miles from any town. He brought the car to a halt.

Lila looked up from the magazine she was reading: Today's Parenting. Grey had gotten it for her at a mini-mart in Ledeau, with a pile of others. Family Life, Baby and Child, Modern Toddler. In the last day, her attitude toward him had shifted somewhat. Perhaps it was the mental effort of maintaining the fiction that their journey was nothing out of the ordinary, but she was becoming increasingly impatient with him, speaking to him as if he were an uncooperative husband.

"Will you look at that." She dropped the magazine to her lap. On the cover was the image of a ruddy-cheeked girl in a pink jumper. WHEN PLAY DATES GO BAD, the caption read. "What is that?"

"I think it's a tank."

"What's it doing there?"

"Maybe it's lost or something."

"I don't think they just lose tanks, Lawrence. Like, excuse me, have you seen my tank anyplace? I know it was around here somewhere." She sighed heavily. "Who just parks a tank in the road like that? They'll have to move it."

"So you're saying you want me to ask them," Grey stated.

"Yes, Lawrence. That's exactly what I'm saying."

He didn't want to, but to say no seemed impossible. He exited the car into the falling dusk. "Hello?" he called. He glanced back at Lila, who was watching him with her head angled through the open passenger window. "I think it's empty."

"Maybe they just can't hear you."

"Let's just turn around. We can find another road."

"It's the principle of the thing. They can't just block the road like that. Try the hatch. I'm sure there has to be somebody inside."

Grey doubted this, but he didn't want to argue. He clambered up on the exposed treads and hoisted himself to the top of the turret. He positioned his face above the hatch, but it was too dark to see anything down there. Lila had exited the Volvo and was standing at the base of the tank, holding a flashlight.

"I'm not sure this is such a good idea," Grey said.

"It's just a tank, Lawrence. Honestly. Sometimes you men are all the same, you know that?"

She passed him the flashlight. There was nothing to do now but look inside. Grey pointed the beam through the hatch.

Jesus f**k.

"So? What's down there?"

Grey guessed there had probably been two of them. It wasn't the easiest thing to sort out, visually. It looked like somebody had dropped a grenade, that's how torn up the soldiers were. But it wasn't a grenade.

Do you see, Grey?

He startled, as if hit by a jolt of current. The voice. Not like the one in the garage; the voice was in his head. The voice of Zero. Lila was staring at him from the base of the tank. He tried to say something, to warn her, but no words would leave his mouth.

Are you ... hungry, Grey?

He was. Not just hungry: famished. The sensation seemed to take hold of every part of him, each cell and molecule, the tiniest atoms whirring inside him. Never in his life had he felt a hunger so profound.

It is my gift to you. The gift of blood.

"Lawrence, what's the matter?"

He swallowed. "I'll be ... just a sec."

Down the hole he went. He had dropped his flashlight, but that didn't matter; the tank's dark interior was bright to his eyes, each surface glowing with its beautiful coating of blood. A titanic need seized him, and he pushed his face against the cold metal to drag his tongue along it.

"Lawrence! What are you doing in there?"

He was on his hands and knees now, licking the floor, burying his face in the syrupy remains. So wonderful! As if he hadn't eaten for a year, a decade, a century, only to be presented with the richest banquet in the history of the world! All the joys of the body rolled into one, a trance of purest pleasure!

The spell was broken by a violent boom. His fingers were in his mouth; his face was covered in blood. What the hell was he doing? And what was that sound, like thunder?

"Lawrence! Come quick!"

Another boom, louder than the first. He scrambled up the ladder. Something was wrong with the sky; everything seemed lit by a fiery glow.

Lila took one look at his bloody face and began to scream.

A pair of jets roared low overhead, splitting the air with their velocity; a violent white sheen lit the sky, and Grey was slapped by a wall of heated air that knocked him off the roof of the tank. He landed hard, the wind sailing out of him. More planes shot past, the sky to the east flashing with light.

Lila was backing away from him, her hands held protectively before her face. "Get away from me!"

There was no time to explain, and what would he have said? It was clear what was happening now, they had wandered into the war. Grey grabbed her by the arm and began to drag her to the car. She was kicking, screaming, thrashing in his grip. Somehow he managed to open the passenger door and shove her in, but then he realized his mistake: the instant he closed the door, Lila hit the locks.

He pounded on the glass. "Lila, let me in!"

"Get away, get away!"

He needed something heavy. He scanned the ground near the car but found nothing. In another moment Lila would realize what she had to do; she would take the wheel and drive away.

He couldn't let that happen.

Grey reared back, squeezing his hand into a fist, and sent it plunging into the driver's window. He expected to be met by a wall of pain, all the bones of his hand shattering, but that didn't happen; his hand passed through the glass as if it was made of tissue, detonating the window in a cascade of glinting shards. Before Lila could react, he opened the door and wedged himself into the driver's seat and jammed the car into reverse. He spun into a 180, shifted into drive, and hit the gas. But the moment of escape had passed; suddenly they were in the midst of everything. As more planes rocketed past, a wall of fire rose before them; Grey swung the wheel to the right, and in the next instant they were barreling through the corn rows, the tires spinning wildly in the soft earth, heavy green leaves slapping the windshield. They burst from the field and, too late, Grey saw the culvert. The Volvo rocketed down, then up, the car going aloft before crashing onto its wheels again. Lila was screaming, screaming-screaming-screaming, and that was when Grey found it: a road. He yanked the wheel and shoved the accelerator to the floor. They were racing parallel with the culvert; the sun had dipped below the horizon, sinking the fields into an inky blackness while the sky exploded with fire.

But not just fire: suddenly the car was washed with a brilliant light.

"Stop your vehicle."

The windshield filled with an immense dark shape, like a great black bird alighting. Grey jammed his foot on the brake, pitching both of them forward. As the helicopter touched down on the roadway, Grey heard a tinkle of breaking glass and something dropped into his lap: a canister the size and weight of a soup can, making a hissing sound.

"Lila, run!"

He threw the door open, but the gas was already inside him, in his head and heart and lungs; he made it all of ten feet before he succumbed, the ground rising like a gathering wave to meet him. Time seemed undone; the world had gone all watery and far away. A great wind was pushing over his face. At the edge of his vision he saw the space-suited men lumbering toward him. Two more were dragging Lila toward the helicopter. She was suspended face-down, her body limp, her feet skimming the ground. "Don't hurt her!" Grey said. "Please don't hurt the baby!" But these words seemed not to matter. The figures were above him now, their faces obscured, floating bodiless over the earth, like ghosts. The stars were coming out.

Ghosts, Grey thought. I really must be dead this time. And he felt their hands upon him.

Chapter 16

They drove through the day; by the time the convoy halted, it was late afternoon. Porcheki emerged from the lead Humvee and strode back to the bus.

"This is where we leave you. The sentries at the gate will tell you what to do."

They were in some kind of staging area: trucks of supplies, military portables, refuelers, even artillery. Kittridge guessed he was looking at a force at least the size of two battalions. Adjacent to this was a gated compound of canvas tents, ringed by portable fencing topped with concertina wire.

"Where are you off to?" Kittridge asked. He wondered where the fight was now.

Porcheki shrugged. Wherever they tell me to go. "Best of luck to you, Sergeant. Just remember what I said."

The convoy drew away. "Pull ahead, Danny," Kittridge said. "Slowly."

Two masked soldiers with M16s were positioned at the gate. A large sign affixed to the wire read: FEDERAL EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY REFUGEE PROCESSING CENTER. NO REENTRY. NO FIREARMS PAST THIS POINT.

Twenty feet from the entrance, the soldiers motioned for them to halt. One of the sentries stepped to the driver's window. A kid, not a day over twenty, with a spray of acne on his cheeks.

"How many?"

"Twelve," Kittridge answered.

"City of origin?"

The tags had long since been stripped from the bus. "Des Moines."

The soldier stepped back, mumbling into the radio clipped to his shoulder. The second was still standing at the sealed gate with his weapon pointing skyward.

"Okay, kill the engine and stay where you are."

Moments later the soldier returned with a canvas duffel bag, which he held up to the window. "Put any weapons and cell phones in here and pass it to the front."

The ban on weapons Kittridge understood, but cell phones? None of them had gotten a signal in days.

"This many people, the local network would crash if people tried to use them. Sorry, those are the rules."

This explanation struck Kittridge as thin, but there was nothing to be done. He received the bag and moved up and down the center aisle. When he came to Mrs. Bellamy, the woman yanked her purse protectively to her waist.

"Young man, I don't even go to the beauty parlor without it."

Kittridge did his best to smile. "And right you are. But we're safe here. You have my word."

With visible reluctance she withdrew the enormous revolver from her purse and deposited it with the rest. Kittridge toted the bag to the front of the bus and left it at the base of the stairs; the first soldier reached inside and whisked it away. They were ordered to disembark with the rest of their gear and stand clear of the bus while one of the soldiers searched their luggage. Beyond the gate Kittridge could see a large, open shed where people had gathered. More soldiers were moving up and down the fence line.

"Okay," the sentry said, "you're good to go. Report to the processing area, they'll billet you."

"What about the bus?" Kittridge asked.

"All fuel and vehicles are being commandeered by the United States military. Once you're in, you're in."

Kittridge saw the stricken look on Danny's face. One of the soldiers was boarding the bus to drive it away.

"What's with him?" the sentry asked.

Kittridge turned to Danny. "It's okay, they'll take good care of it."

He could see the struggle in the man's eyes. Then Danny nodded.

"They better," he said.

The space was packed with people waiting in lines before a long table. Families with children, old people, couples, even a blind man with a dog. A young woman in a Red Cross T-shirt, her auburn hair pulled back from her face, was moving up and down the lines with a handheld.

"Any unaccompanied minors?" Like Porcheki, she'd given up on the mask. Her eyes were harried, drained by sleeplessness. She looked at April and Tim. "What about you two?"

"He's my brother," April said. "I'm eighteen."

The woman looked doubtful but said nothing.

"We'd like to all stay together," said Kittridge.

The woman was jotting on her handheld. "I'm not supposed to do this."

"What's your name?" Always good, Kittridge thought, to get a name.

"Vera."

"The patrol that brought us in said we'd be evacuated to Chicago or St. Louis."

A strip of paper slid from the handheld's port. Vera tore it off and passed it to Kittridge. "We're still waiting on buses. It shouldn't be long now. Show this to the worker at the desk."

They were assigned a tent and given plastic disks that would serve as ration coupons, then moved into the noise and smells of the camp: wood smoke, chemical toilets, the human odors of a crowd. The ground was muddy and littered with trash; people were cooking on camp stoves, hanging their laundry on tent lines, waiting at a pump to fill buckets with water, stretched out in lawn chairs like spectators at a tailgate party, a look of dazed exhaustion on their faces. All the garbage cans were overflowing, clouds of flies hovering. A cruel sun was beating down. Apart from the Army trucks, Kittridge saw no vehicles; all the refugees appeared to have come in on foot, their gasless cars abandoned.

Two people had already been billeted in their tent, an older couple, Fred and Lucy Wilkes. They were from California but had family in Iowa and had been visiting for a wedding when the epidemic hit. They'd been in the camp six days.

"Any word on the buses?" Kittridge asked. Joe Robinson had gone off to find out about rations, Wood and Delores to see about water. April had let her brother run off with some children from the adjacent tent, warning him not to wander far. Danny had accompanied him. "What are people saying?"

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