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The Twelve

The Twelve

Page 32

A great round shape, wrapped with a glowing penumbra, was sliding over the sun.

An eclipse.

As the sirens went off, he tore down the row. Everyone else was running, too, yelling, Eclipse! Eclipse! The hardboxes, get to the hardboxes! He burst from the corn, practically running straight into Cruk and Dee.

"Where are the girls?"

Dee was frantic. "I can't find them!"

The darkness was spreading like ink. Soon the whole field would be enveloped.

"Cruk, get these people in the boxes. Dee, go with him."

"I can't! Where are they?"

"I'll find them." He drew his pistol from his waistband. "Cruk, get her out of here!"

Vorhees raced back into the field.

Tifty, his heart pounding with adrenaline, was sweeping the field from the tower. No sign yet, but it was only a matter of time. And the truck: what was it? Still it idled on the far edge of the windbreak. He tried to get Cruk on the walkie but couldn't raise him. In all the chaos, probably the man couldn't hear him.

He tightened the stock against his shoulder. Where would they come from? The trees? An adjacent field? Everything had been swept by Dillon's team. Which didn't mean the virals weren't there, only that he couldn't see them.

Then: at the periphery of his vision, a faint movement of the cornstalks, no more than a rustling, near one of the flags at the edge of the field. He swung the scope in close and pressed his eye to the lens. The hatch of the hardbox stood open.

It was the one place they hadn't looked. They'd never checked the hardboxes.

Everyone was running, grabbing their children, dashing into the field toward the flags. Tifty emerged from the base of the tower at a dead sprint.

"No!"

Cruk was carrying two children, Presh Martinez and Reese Cuomo, under his arms. Dee was running beside him, Cece and Ali just steps behind-Cece hugging little Louis to her chest, Ali with Merry and Satch.

"The hardboxes!" Cruk was yelling. "Get to the hardboxes!"

"They're in the hardboxes!"

A burst of gunfire exploded in the field. Dee saw Tifty drop to a knee and fire off three quick rounds. She turned as the first of the virals burst from the corn.

It landed right on top of Ali Dodd.

Dee felt an urge to vomit. Suddenly she couldn't make her feet move. The viral, which had finished with Ali, was now burying its jaws in Cece's neck. The woman was twitching, shrieking, arms and legs flailing like an overturned insect's. The image seared Dee's vision like a burst of light; all she could do was watch in helpless horror.

Cruk stepped forward, shoved the barrel of his rifle against the side of the creature's head, and fired.

Where was Satch? The boy was suddenly nowhere. Merry was standing in the dust, screaming. Dee hoisted the little girl to her waist and began to run.

The virals were everywhere now. In blind panic, people were dashing for the tent, a pointless gesture; it could offer no safety at all. The virals swarmed over it, tearing it to pieces, the air filling with screams. "The tower!" Tifty was yelling. "Head for the tower!" But it was too late; nobody was listening. Dee thought of her daughters, saying goodbye. How stark everything became, at the end, all the wishes for one's children distilled by the world's swift cruelty into the desperate hope that death would take them fast. She prayed they would not suffer. Or, worse, be taken up. That was the worst thing: to be taken up.

An immense force careened into her from behind. Dee tumbled to the ground, little Merry rocketing from her arms. Face-down in the dirt, she lifted her eyes to see her brother, twenty feet away, pointing his rifle at her. Shoot me, Dee thought. Whatever's about to happen, I don't want it. A prayer of childhood found her lips and she closed her eyes and muttered it quickly, into the dust.

A shot. Behind her, something fell with an animal grunt. Before her mind could process this, Cruk was yanking her to her feet, his mouth moving incomprehensibly, saying words she couldn't quite make out. His rifle was gone; all he had was the pistol, Abigail. Why would a man name a gun Abigail? Why would he name it at all? Something must have happened to her head, she realized, because here she was, worrying over Cruk's gun, when everyone was dying. Other thoughts came to her, strange things, awful things. How it would feel to be ripped in two, like Ali Dodd. Her daughters, in the field, and what was happening to them now. How terrible, Dee thought, to live one second longer than one's own babies. In a world of terrible things, surely that was the most terrible of all. Cruk was dragging her toward the door. He was doing what he thought she wanted, but she didn't, not at all-she couldn't die fast enough, in fact-and with a burst of strength Dee tore away from him, racing into the field, calling to her children.

Vorhees could hear his daughters, laughing in the corn. They were, he knew, too young to be afraid. They had snuck away to do exactly what they'd been told not to, and it was all a kind of game to them, this funny thing with the light. Vorhees raced down the rows, shouting their names, his breath heaving with panic, trying to home in on their voices. The sound was behind him, it was ahead, it was on either side. It seemed to be coming from everywhere, even inside his head.

"Nit! Siri! Where are you?"

Then there was a woman. She was standing in the middle of the row. She was draped in a dark cloak, like a woman in a fairy tale, some dweller of the forest; her head was covered by a hood, her eyes by dark glasses that concealed the upper half of her face. So total was Vorhees's surprise that for a moment he thought he might be imagining her.

"Are they your daughters?"

Who was she, this woman of the corn? "Where are they?" he panted. "Do you know where they are?"

With a languid gesture she removed her glasses, revealing a face sensuously smooth and youthfully beautiful, with eyes that glinted in their sockets like diamonds. He felt a surge of nausea.

"You're tired," she said.

Suddenly, he was. Curtis Vorhees had never been so tired in his life. His head felt like an anvil; it weighed a thousand pounds. It took every ounce of will for him to remain standing.

"I have a daughter. Such a beautiful daughter."

Behind him he heard the final, random pops of panicked gunfire. The field and sky had sunk into an unearthly darkness. He felt the urge to weep, but even this seemed beyond his command. He had dropped to his knees; soon he would fall.

"Please," he choked.

"Come to me, beautiful children. Come to me in the dark."

Somebody yanked him to his feet: Tifty. His face was very close. Vorhees could barely focus on it. The man was pulling him by the arm.

"Vor, come on!"

His tongue was thick in his mouth. "The woman ..." But there was no one; the place where she had stood was empty. "Did you see her?"

"There's no time! We have to get to the tower!"

Vorhees would have none of it; with the last of his strength he jerked away.

"I have to find them!"

It was the butt of Tifty's rifle that brought everything to a halt. A single, crisp blow to the head, expertly aimed; Vorhees's vision swarmed with stars. Then the world turned upside down as Tifty grabbed him by the waist and hurled him to his shoulder and began to run. Fat leaves streamed past, slapping his face. Vorhees was calling, "Nit! Siri! Come back!" But he had no strength to resist. His family was dead, he knew that; Tifty would not have come for him if they were still alive. More gunfire, the shouts of the dying all around. The hardboxes, a voice said. They came from the hardboxes. Who would survive this day? And Vorhees knew, to his infinite sorrow, that once again he would be one of the lucky ones.

They burst from the corn onto open ground. The shelter was wrecked, the tarp torn away, everything scattered. Bodies strewn everywhere, but he saw no children; the little ones were gone. Come to me, beautiful children. Come to me in the dark. And as the door of the tower slammed behind him and he tumbled to the floor, slipping at last into a merciful unconsciousness, his final thought was this:

Why did it have to be Tifty?

Chapter 24

Wolgast had come to Amy at last. He had come to her in dreams.

They were sometimes in one place and sometimes another. They were stories of things that had happened, events and feelings from the past replayed; they were a jumble, a pastiche, an overlap of images that in their reconfiguration felt entirely new. They were her life, her past and present commingling, and they occupied her consciousness with such completeness that upon awakening she would startle to discover herself existing in a simple reality of firm objects and ordered time. It was as if the waking world and the sleeping world had exchanged positions, the latter possessing a superseding vividness that did not abate as she moved into the traces of her day. She would be pouring water from a pot, or reading to the children in circle, or sweeping leaves in the courtyard and without warning her mind would drown with sensation, as if she had slipped beneath the surface of the visible world into the currents of an underground river.

A carousel, its gyring lights and ringing, bell-like music falling. A taste of cold milk and the dust of powdered sugar on her lips. A room of blue light, her mind floating with fever, and the sound of a voice-Wolgast's voice-gently leading her out of the darkness.

Come back to me, Amy, come back.

Most powerful of all was the dream of the room: dirty, stale-smelling, clothing scattered in piles, containers of old food atop every surface, a television blaring with meaningless cruelty in the corner, and the woman Amy understood to be her mother-she experienced this awareness with a gush of hopeless longing-moving through the cramped space with panicked energy, scooping things from the floor, tossing them into sacks. Come on, honey, wake up now. Amy, we got to go. They were leaving, her mother was leaving, the world had cleaved in two with Amy on one side of the gap and her mother on the opposite, the moment and its sentiments of parting unnaturally prolonged, as if she were watching her mother from the stern of a boat as it sailed away from the pier. She understood that it was here, in this room, that her life had actually begun. That she was witnessing a kind of birth.

But it wasn't just the two of them. Wolgast was there as well. This made no sense; Wolgast had entered her life later. Yet the logic of the dream was such that his presence was intrinsically unremarkable; Wolgast was there because he was. At first Amy experienced his presence not as a bodily reality but a vaporous glow of emotion hovering over the scene. The more she felt her mother moving away from her, into a private urgency Amy neither shared nor comprehended-something terrible had happened-the more vivid became her sense of him. A deep calm infused her; she watched with a feeling of detachment, knowing that these events, which seemed to be occurring in a vivid present, had actually happened long ago. She was simultaneously experiencing them for the first time while also remembering them-she was both actor and observer-with the anomaly of Wolgast, whom she now discovered was sitting on the edge of the bed, her mother nowhere to be seen. He was wearing a dark suit and tie; his feet were bare. He was gazing absorbedly at his hands, which he held before him with the tips of his fingers touching. Here is the church, he intoned, weaving all but his index fingers together, and here is the steeple. Open the door-his thumbs separated to reveal his wriggling digits-and see all the people. Amy, hello.

-Hello, she said.

I am sorry I have been away. I've missed you.

-I've missed you, too.

The space around them had altered; the room had dispersed into a darkness in which only the two of them existed, like a pair of actors on a spotlit stage.

Something is changing.

-Yes. I think that it is.

You will need to go to him, Amy.

-Who? Who should I go to?

He's different from the others. I could see it the first time I laid eyes on him. A glass of iced tea. That was all he wanted, to cool himself off in the heat. He loved that woman with his whole heart. But you know that, too, don't you, Amy?

-Yes.

An ocean of time, that's what I told him. That's what I can give you, Anthony, an ocean of time. A sudden bitterness came into his face. I always did hate Texas, you know.

He had yet to look at her; Amy sensed that the conversation neither required nor even allowed this. Then:

I was thinking just now about the camp. The two of us, reading together, playing Monopoly. Park Place, Boardwalk, Marvin Gardens. You always beat me.

-I think you let me.

Wolgast chuckled to himself. No, it was always you, fair and square. And Jacob Marley. A Christmas Carol, that was your favorite. I think you had the whole book memorized. Do you remember?

-I remember all of it. The day it snowed. Making the snow angels.

He wore the chains he forged in life. Wolgast frowned in sudden puzzlement. It was such a sad story.

Here was the river, Amy thought. The great, coursing river of the past.

I could have gone on that way forever. Wolgast angled his eyes upward, addressing the darkness. Lila, don't you see? This was what I wanted. It was all I ever wanted. Then: Do you ... know this place, Amy?

-I don't think it's anywhere. I think that I'm asleep.

He considered these words with a faint nod. Well. That does sound right to me. Now that you say it, that makes a lot of sense. He took a long breath and let the air out slowly. It's strange. There's so much I can't remember. That's what it's like, you know. Like there's only this little bit of yourself you get to keep. But things are coming clearer now.

-I miss you, Daddy.

I know you do. I miss you, too, sweetheart, more than you'll ever know. I don't think I've ever been happier than I was with you. I wish I could have saved you, Amy.

-But you did. You saved me.

You were just a little girl, alone in the world. I never should have let them take you. I tried, but not hard enough. That's the real test, you know. That's the true measure of a man's life. I was always too afraid. I hope you can forgive me.

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