The Passage Page 119

By morning, Alicia had begun to strain at the straps. All color had drained from her skin; her eyes, behind her lids, were rosy with burst capillaries.

"Give her more."

"Peter, I don't know what I'm doing," Sara said. She was worn down, threadbare; they all were. "It could kill her."

"Do it."

They gave her the rest of the vial. Outside it had begun to snow again. Greer and Hollis left to scout the woods and returned an hour later, half frozen. It was really coming down, they said.

Hollis pulled Peter aside. "Food's going to be a problem," he said quietly. They had taken an inventory of Lacey's cupboard; most of the jars were smashed.

"I know."

"There's another thing. I know the bomb was underground, but there could be radiation. Michael says that at the very least it's in the water table. He doesn't think we should stay here much longer. There's some kind of structure on the other side of the valley. It looks like there's a ridge we can use to cut to the east."

"What about Lish? We can't move her."

Hollis paused. "I'm just saying we could get stuck here. Then we're in real trouble. We don't want to try it half-starving in a blizzard."

Hollis was right, and Peter knew it. "You want to scout it out?"

"When the snow lets up."

Peter offered a concessionary nod. "Take Michael with you."

"I was thinking of Greer."

"He should stay here," said Peter.

Hollis was silent a moment, taking Peter's meaning. "All right," he said.

The squall blew through with the night; by morning, the sky was crisp and bright. Hollis and Michael gathered their gear to go. If all went well, Hollis said, they'd be back before nightfall. But it could be as long as a day. In the snowy yard, Sara hugged Hollis, then Michael. Greer and Amy were inside with Alicia. In the last twenty-four hours, since they'd given her the second dose of the virus, her condition seemed to have reached a kind of stasis. But her fever was still high, and her eyes had gotten worse.

"Just don't ... let it go too long," Hollis told Peter. "She wouldn't want you to."

They waited. Amy was staying close to Alicia now, never leaving her bedside. It was clear to all what was occurring. The merest light in the room made her flinch, and she had begun to strain at the straps again.

"She's fighting it," Amy said. "But I'm afraid that she is losing."

Darkness fell, with no sign of Michael and Hollis. Peter had never felt so helpless. Why wasn't it working, as it had with Lacey? But he wasn't a doctor; they were only guessing about what to do. The second dose could be killing her, for all he knew. Peter was aware of Greer watching him, waiting for him to act. And yet he could do nothing.

It was just past dawn when Sara shook him awake. Peter had fallen asleep in a chair, his head rocked forward onto his chest.

"I think ... it's happening," she said.

Alicia was breathing very rapidly. Her whole body was taut, the muscles of her jaw twitching, a fluttering beneath the surface of her skin. A low, effortful moan issued from the back of her throat. For a moment she relaxed. Then it happened again.


He turned to see Greer, standing in the doorway. He was holding a blade.

"It's time."

Peter rose, positioning his body between Greer and the bed where Alicia lay. "No."

"I know it's hard, but she's a soldier. A soldier of the Expeditionary. It's time for her to take the trip."

"I meant no, it's not your job." He held out his hand. "Give me the blade, Major."

Greer hesitated, searching Peter's face with his eyes. "You don't have to do this."

"Yes, I do." He felt no fear, only resignation. "I gave her my word, you see. I'm the only one who can."

Reluctantly, Greer surrendered the knife. A familiar heft and balance: Peter saw that it was his own, the one he'd left at the gate with Eustace.

"I'd like to be alone with her, if that's all right."

They said their goodbyes. Peter heard the door to the house open and close again. He went to the window and yanked one of the boards free, dousing the room with the soft gray light of morning. Alicia moaned and turned her head away. Greer was right. Peter didn't think he had more than a couple of minutes. He remembered what Muncey had said at the end, how quickly it comes on. How he wanted to feel it coming out of him.

Peter sat on the edge of the bed, the blade in his hand. He wanted to say something to her, but words seemed too small a thing for what he felt. He sat for a quiet moment, letting his mind fill with thoughts of her. Things they'd done and said, and what still lay unspoken between them. It was all he could think to do.

He could have stayed that way a day, a year, a hundred years. But he could wait no longer, he knew. He rose and positioned himself above her on the bed, straddling her waist. Holding the blade with both hands, he placed its tip at the base of her breastbone. The sweet spot. He felt his life dividing into halves: that which had come before and all that would come after. He felt her rise against him, her body clenching against the restraints. His hands were trembling, his vision blurry with tears.

"I'm sorry, Lish," he said, and closed his eyes as he lifted the blade, gathering all his strength inside himself before finding the will to bring it down.


It was spring and the baby was coming.

Maus had been having contractions for days. She would be cleaning in the kitchen, or lying in bed, or watching Theo work in the yard, when suddenly she felt it: a quick tightening across her midriff that made her breath catch in her chest. Is this it? Theo would ask her. Is he coming? Is the baby coming now? For a moment she would look away, her head cocked to the side, as if listening for some distant sound. Then she would return her attention to him, offering a reassuring smile. There. You see? It was nothing. Just the one. It's all right. Go back to what you were doing, Theo.

But now it wasn't nothing. It was the middle of the night. Theo was dreaming, a simple, happy dream of sunlight falling on a golden field, when he heard Maus's voice, calling his name. She was in the dream, too, but he couldn't see her; she was hiding from him, she was playing some kind of game. She was ahead of him, then behind, he didn't know where she was. Theo. Conroy was yipping and barking, bounding through the grass, racing away from him and tearing back again, urging him to follow. Where are you, Theo called, where are you? I'm wet, Mausami's voice was saying. I'm wet all over. Wake up, Theo. I think my water's broken.

Then he was awake and standing up, fumbling in the dark, trying to put his boots on. Conroy was up too, wagging his tail, shoving his damp nose in Theo's face as he knelt to light the lantern. Is it morning? Are we going out?

Mausami drew a sharp breath through her teeth. "Ooo." She arched her back off the sagging mattress. "Ooo."

She had told him what to do, the things she'd need. Sheets and towels to put under her, for the blood and all the rest. A knife and fishing line for the cord. Water, to clean the baby, and a blanket to wrap him in.

"Don't go anywhere, I'll be right back."

"Flyers," she moaned, "where would I go?" Another contraction surged through her. She reached for his hand and squeezed it tight, digging her nails into his palm, gritting her teeth in pain. "Oh, f**k." Then she turned and wretched onto the floor.

The room filled with the tang of vomit. Conroy thought it was for him, a wonderful present. Theo shoved the dog away, then helped Mausami ease back onto the pillows.

"Something's wrong." Her face was pale with fear. "It shouldn't hurt like this."

"What should I do, Maus?"

"I don't know!"

Theo raced down stairs, Conroy following at his heels. The baby, the baby was coming. He'd meant to put all the supplies together in one place, but of course he never had. The house was freezing, the fire had burned down; the baby would need to be kept warm. He put an armful of logs into the cradle, then knelt before it, blowing on the embers so it would catch. He got rags and a pail from the kitchen. He'd intended to boil water, to sterilize it, but it didn't seem like there was time for that now.

"Theo, where are you!"

He filled the pail and got a sharp knife and carried it all up to the bedroom. Maus was sitting up now, her long hair spilling over her face, looking afraid.

"I'm sorry about the floor," she said.

"Any more contractions?"

She shook her head.

Conroy was back at the mess on the floor. Theo shooed him out and got down on his hands and knees to clean it up, holding his breath. How ridiculous. She was about to have a baby, and here he was, flinching at the smell of vomit.

"Uh-oh," Maus said.

By the time he'd risen, the contraction was upon her. She'd pulled her legs upward, drawing her heels toward her buttocks. Tears were squeezing from the corners of her eyes.

"It hurts! It hurts!" She rolled suddenly onto her side. "Press my back, Theo!"

She had never said anything about this. "Where? How should I press it?"

She was shouting into the pillow. "Anywhere!"

He gave an uncertain push.

"Lower! For godsakes!"

He curled his hand into a ball and pressed his knuckles into her; he felt her pushing back. He counted the seconds: Ten, twenty, thirty.

"Back labor." She was panting for breath. "The baby's head is shoving against my spine. It'll make me want to push. I can't push yet, Theo. Don't let me push."

She drew up onto her hands and knees. She was wearing only a T-shirt. The sheets beneath her were soaked with fluid, giving off a warm, sweet smell, like mown hay. He remembered his dream of the field, the waves of golden sunlight.

Another contraction; Mausami groaned and dropped her face into the mattress.

"Don't just stand there!"

Theo got on the bed beside her, positioning his fist on the ridge of her spine, and leaned in, pushing with all his might.

Hours and hours. The contractions continued, hard and deep, through the length of the day. Theo stayed with her on the bed, pressing her spine until his hands were numb, his arms rubbery with fatigue. But compared to what was happening to Mausami, this small discomfort was nothing. He left her side only twice, to call Conroy in from the yard and then, as the day was ending and he heard him whining at the door, to let him out again. Always by the time he returned up the stairs Mausami was shouting his name.

He wondered if it was always like this. He didn't really know. It was horrible, endless, like nothing he'd ever experienced. He wondered if Mausami would have the energy, when the time came, to push the baby out. Between contractions she seemed to float in a kind of half sleep; she was focusing her mind, he knew, readying herself for the next wave of pain to move through her. All he could do was press her back, but this seemed to be helping very little. It didn't seem to be helping at all.

He was lighting the lantern-a second night, he thought with despair, how could this go on a second night?-when Maus gave a sharp cry. He turned to see watery blood pour from her, running in ribbons down her thighs.

"Maus, you're bleeding."

She had rolled onto her back, pulling her thighs upward. She was breathing very quickly, her face drenched with sweat. "Hold. My legs," she gasped.

"Hold them how?"

"I'm going. To push. Theo."

He positioned himself at the foot of the bed and placed his hands against her knees. As the next contraction came, she bent at the waist, driving her weight toward him.

"Oh, God. I can see him."

She had opened like a flower, revealing a disk of pink skin covered in wet black hair. Then, in the next instant, this vision was gone, the flower's petals folding over it, drawing the baby back inside her.

Three, four, five more times she bore down; each time the baby appeared and, just as quickly, vanished. For the first time he thought it: this baby doesn't want to be born. This baby wants to stay just where it is.

"Help me, Theo," she begged. All her strength was gone. "Pull him out, pull him out, please, just pull him out."

"You have to push one more time, Maus." She seemed completely helpless, insensate, on the verge of final collapse. "Are you listening? You have to push!"

"I can't, I can't!"

The next contraction took her; she lifted her head and released an animal cry of pain.

"Push, Maus, push!"

She did; she pushed. As the top of the baby's head appeared, Theo reached down and slipped his index finger inside her, into her heat and dampness. He felt the orbital curve of an eye socket, the delicate bulge of a nose. He couldn't pull the baby, there was nothing to hold on to, the baby would have to come to him. He drew back and positioned a hand beneath her, leaning his shoulder against her legs to brace the force of her effort.

"We're almost there! Don't stop!"

Then, as if the touch of his hand had given it the will to be born, the baby's face appeared, sliding from her. A vision of magnificent strangeness, with ears and a nose and a mouth and bulging, froglike eyes. Theo cupped his hand below the smooth, wet curve of its skull. The cord, a translucent, blood-filled tube, was looped around its neck. Though no one had told him to do this, Theo placed a finger under it, gently lifting it away. Then he reached inside Mausami and tucked a finger under the baby's arm, and pulled.

The body wriggled free, filling Theo's hands with his slippery, blue-skinned warmth. A boy. The baby was a boy. Still he had not breathed, or made the slightest sound. His arrival in the world was incomplete, but Maus had explained the next part well enough. Theo rolled the baby in his hands, bracing his skinny body lengthwise with his forearm and supporting his downturned face with his palm; he began to rub the baby's back, moving the fingers of his free hand in a circular motion. His heart was hammering in his chest, but he felt no panic; his mind was clear and focused, his entire being brought to bear on this one task. Come on, he was saying, come on and breathe. After everything you just went through, how can that be so hard? The baby had only just been born, but already Theo felt his hold upon him-how, simply by existing, this small, gray thing in his arms had obliterated all other ways in which Theo might live. Come on, baby. Do it. Open your lungs and breathe.

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