The Passage Page 103

When the sun was high they stopped to rest. They could see the line of mountains plainly now, a rugged bulk against the eastern skyline, the peaks dolloped in white. The day had grown warm again, enough to make them sweat; but up high, where they were going, winter had already arrived.

"More snow up there," Hollis said.

He was sitting beside Peter on a fallen log, its rotted bark blackened with dampness. No one had spoken a word in at least an hour. The others were scattered around, all except Alicia, who had gone ahead to scout the terrain. Hollis knifed open a can and begun to spoon the contents to his mouth, some kind of shredded meat. A bit got caught in the coarse tangle of his beard; he wiped it away, washed the last of his meal down with a long, throat-pumping drink of water, and passed the can to Peter.

Peter took the can and ate. Sara, sitting across from him with her back against a tree, was writing in her book. She paused, her eyes focused intently at what she'd written; her pencil was just a nub, almost too short to hold. While Peter watched, she drew her blade from her belt, scraped it across the tip, and then resumed her patient scribbling.

"What are you writing about?"

Sara shrugged, hooking a stray strand of hair behind her ear. "The snow. What we ate, where we slept." She lifted her face to the trees, squinting into the sunlight descending through the sodden branches. "How beautiful it is here."

He felt himself smile. How long had it been since he'd smiled?

"I guess it is, isn't it?"

A new feeling seemed to have come over Sara since they'd left the farmstead, Peter thought, an unhurried calm. It was as if she had decided something and, in so doing, had moved more deeply into herself, into a state beyond worry or fear. He felt a flicker of regret; watching her now, he realized how foolish he'd been. Her hair was long and matted, her face and bare arms streaked with grime. Her nails were blackened with crescents of dirt. And yet she'd never looked more radiant. As if all that she had seen had become a part of her, infusing her with a glowing stillness. It wasn't a small thing, to love a person. That was the gift she had offered him, had always offered him. And yet he had refused it.

Sara met his eyes then. She cocked her head in puzzlement. "What?"

He shook his head, embarrassed. "Nothing."

"You were staring."

Sara shifted her gaze to Hollis; the corners of her mouth lifted in a quick flash of a smile. Just a moment, but Peter felt it keenly, the invisible line of connection between the two of them. Of course. How could he have been so blind?

"It wasn't anything," he managed. "Just ... you looked happy, sitting there. It surprised me is all."

Alicia emerged from the brush. Balancing her rifle against a tree, she retrieved a can from the pile of packs and bladed it open, frowning at the contents.

"Peaches," she groaned. "Why do I always get peaches?" She took a place on the log and began to spear the soft yellow fruit from the can, straight into her mouth.

"What's down there?" Peter asked.

Juice was dripping down her chin. She gestured with her blade in the direction she had come. "About half a click east, the river narrows and turns south. There's hills on either side, heavy cover, lots of high points." The peaches gone, she drained the can into her mouth and cast it aside, wiping her hands on her gaps. "The middle of the day like this, we're probably okay. But we shouldn't hang around too long."

Michael was sitting a few meters away on the damp ground, his back braced against a log. The days of walking had made him leaner, harder; his chin now sported a wisp of pale beard. A shotgun was resting across his lap, his finger close to the trigger.

"No sign in what, seven days?" He spoke with his eyes closed, his face tipped toward the sun. He was wearing only a T-shirt; his jacket was tied around his waist.

"Eight," Alicia corrected. "That doesn't mean we should let our guard down."

"I'm just saying." He opened his eyes and turned toward Alicia, shrugging. "A lot of things could have killed that cat. Maybe it died of old age."

Alicia gave a laugh. "Sounds good to me," she said.

Amy was standing by herself at the edge of the glade. She was always drifting off like this. For a while this habit had made Peter worry, but she never went very far, and by now they were all accustomed to it.

He rose and went to her. "Amy, you should eat something. We're moving on soon."

For a moment the girl said nothing. Her eyes were directed toward the mountains, rising in the sunlight beyond the river and the grassy fields beyond.

"I remember the snow," she said. "Lying down in it. How cold it was." She looked at him, squinting. "We're close, aren't we?"

Peter nodded. "A few days, I think."

"Telluride," Amy said.

"Yes, Telluride."

She turned away again. Peter saw her shiver, though the sun was warm.

"Will it snow again?" she asked.

"Hollis thinks so."

Amy nodded, satisfied. Her face had filled with a warm light; the memory was a happy one. "I would like to lie down in it again, to make snow angels."

She often spoke like this, in vague riddles. Yet something felt different this time. It was as if the past were rising up before her eyes, stepping into view like a deer from the brush. Even to move would scare it away.

"What are snow angels?"

"You move your arms and legs, in the snow," she explained. "Like the ones in heaven. Like the ghost Jacob Marley."

Peter was aware that the others were listening now. A single strand of black hair pushed over her eyes in the wind. Watching her, he felt himself transported back through the months to that night in the Infirmary when Amy had washed his wound. He wanted to ask her: How did you know, Amy? How did you know my mother misses me, and how much I miss her? Because I never told her, Amy. She was dying, and I never told her how much I would miss her when she was gone.

"Who's Jacob Marley?" he asked.

Her brow furrowed with a sudden grief. "He wore the chains he forged in life," she said, and shook her head. "It was such a sad story."

They followed the river, into the afternoon. They were in the foothills now, leaving the plateau behind. The land began to rise and thicken with trees-naked, twiglike aspens and huge, ancient pines, their trunks wide as houses, towering over their heads. Beneath their vast canopies, the ground was open and shaded, pillowed with needles. The air was cold with the dampness of the river. They moved, as always, without speaking, scanning the trees. All eyes.

There was no Placerville; it was easy to see what had occurred. The narrow valley, the river carving through it. In spring, when the snowpack melted, it would be a raging torrent. Like Moab, the town had washed away.

They sheltered that night at the river's edge, stretching the tarp between a pair of trees to fashion a roof and laying their sleeping bags in the soft dirt. Peter was on the third shift, with Michael. They took their positions. The night was still and cold, filled with the sound of the river. Standing at his post, trying to keep motionless despite the chill, Peter thought of Sara, and the feeling he had detected between her and Hollis in that private gaze, and realized he was honestly happy for the two of them. He'd had his chance, after all, and Hollis obviously loved her, as she deserved to be loved. Hollis had told him as much, he realized, that night at Milagro, when Sara was taken: Peter, you of all people should know I have to go. Not just the words themselves but the look in his eyes-an absolute fearlessness. He'd given it up, right then; he'd given it up for Sara.

The sky was just paling when Alicia stepped from the shelter and walked toward him.

"So," she said, and gave a loose-jawed yawn. "Still here."

He nodded. "Still here."

Each night without sign made him wonder how much longer their luck could hold. But he never thought about this for long; it seemed dangerous, like daring fate, to question their good fortune.

Alicia said, "Turn around, I have to go."

Facing away, he heard Alicia unbuckle her trousers and lower herself to a squat. Ten meters upstream, Michael was resting on the ground with his back against a boulder. Peter realized he was fast asleep.

"So what do you make of this business?" Alicia asked. "Ghosts and angels and all that."

"Your guess is as good as mine."

"Peter," she scolded, "I don't believe that for a second." A moment passed, then: "Okay, you can turn around now."

He faced her again. Alicia was cinching her belt. "You're the reason we're here, after all," she said.

"I thought Amy was."

Alicia turned her eyes away, toward the trees on the far side of river. She let a silent moment pass. "We've been friends as long as I can remember. Nothing can change that. So what I'm going to tell you is between us. Understood?"

Peter nodded.

"The night before we left, the two of us were in the trailer outside the lockup. You asked me what I saw when I looked at Amy. I don't think I ever answered, and probably I didn't know at the time. But I'll tell you my answer now. What I see is you."

She was regarding him closely, wearing an expression that was almost pained. Peter fumbled for a response. "I don't ... understand."

"Yes, you do. You may not know it, but you do. You never talk about your father, or the Long Rides. I've never pressed. But that doesn't mean I didn't know what they meant to you. You've been waiting for something like Amy to come along your whole life. You can call it destiny if you want, or fate. Auntie would probably call it the hand of God. Believe me, I've heard those speeches too. I don't think it matters what name you give it. It is what it is. So you ask me why we're here, and I'll say, sure, we're here because of Amy. But she's only half the reason. The funny thing is, everybody knows it but you."

Peter didn't know what to say. Ever since Amy had come into his life, he had felt himself caught in a strong current, and that this current was pulling him toward something, something he had to find. Every step along the way had told him so. But it was also true that each of them had played a part, and a great deal had simply come down to luck.

"I don't know, Lish. It could have been anyone that day at the mall. It could have been you. Or Theo."

She dismissed this with a wave. "You give your brother too much credit, but you always did. And where is he now? Don't get me wrong, I think he did the right thing. Maus was in no shape to travel, and I said so from the start. But that's not the only reason he stayed behind." She shrugged. "I'm only saying this because you might need to hear it. This is your Long Ride, Peter. Whatever's up that mountain, it's yours to find. Whatever else happens, I hope you get that chance."

Another silence fell. Something about the way she was speaking disturbed him. It was as if these words were final ones. As if she were saying goodbye.

"You think they're all right?" he asked. "Theo and Maus."

"I couldn't say. I hope so."

"You know," he said, and cleared his throat, "I think Hollis and Sara-"

"Are together?" She gave a quiet laugh. "And here I was, thinking you hadn't noticed. You should tell them you know. Personally, it will be a load off everyone's mind."

He was completely astounded. "Everyone knows?"

"Peter." She met his eye with a correcting frown. "This is exactly what I'm taking about. It's all well and good to save the human race. You could say I'm in favor. But you might want to pay a little more attention to what's right in front of you."

"I thought I was."

"That's what you thought. We're just people. I don't know what's up that mountain, but I do know that much. We live, we die. Somewhere along the way, if we're lucky, we may find someone to help lighten the load. You should tell them it's okay. They're waiting to hear from you."

It still confounded him, how slow he'd been to detect what was happening with Sara and Hollis. Perhaps, he thought, it was something he hadn't wanted to see. Looking at Alicia now, her hair shining in the morning light, he found himself recalling their night together on the roof of the power station, the two of them talking about pairing, having Littles; that strange and amazing night, when Alicia had given him the gift of stars. At the time, just the idea of it, of living a normal life, or what passed for one, had seemed as distant and impossible as the stars themselves. Now here they were, more than a thousand kilometers from home-a home they would probably never see again-the same people they had always been, but also not the same, because something had happened; love was among them.

That's what Alicia was telling him now; that's what she had been trying to tell him that night on the roof of the power station, in that last easy hour before everything had happened. That what they did, they did for love. Not just Sara and Hollis; all of them.

"Lish-" he began.

But she shook her head, cutting him off. Her face was suddenly flustered. Behind her, Sara and Hollis were emerging from the shelter, into the morning.

"Like I said, we're all here because of you," Alicia said. "Me more than anyone. Now, are you going to wake up the Circuit or am I?"

They broke camp; by the time they were moving downriver, the sun had lifted over the crest of the valley, filling the branches of the trees with a vaporous light.

It was almost half-day when Alicia, at the head of the line, abruptly halted. She raised a hand to silence everyone.

"Lish," Michael called from the rear, "why are we stopping?"

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