The Passage Page 43

Only the good Lord knows why he spared Philadelphia long as he did. I barely remember it now, except the feeling of it, time to time. Little things, like stepping out with my daddy at night to get a water ice up the corner, and my friends at school, Joseph Pennell Elementary, and a little girl named Sharise who lived down the corner from us, the two of us could just keep each other going for hours and hours. I looked for her on the train but I never did find her.

I remember my address: 2121 West Laveer. There was a college near there, and stores, and busy streets, and all sorts of people going to and fro in the day to day. And I remember a time when my daddy took me downtown, out of our neighborhood, on the bus to see the windows at Christmastime. I couldn't have been much more than five years old at the time. The bus carried us past the hospital where my daddy worked, taking X-rays, which were photographic pictures of people's bones, he'd had that job since he'd gotten out of the service and met my mama, and he always said it was the perfect job for a man like him, how he got to look at the insides of things. He'd wanted to be a doctor but taking the X-rays was the next best thing. Outside the store he showed me the windows, all done up fancy for Christmas, with lights and snow and a tree and moving figures inside them, elves and reindeer and such. I'd never been happy like that in all my life, just to see so beautiful a sight, standing in the cold like we were, the two of us together. We were going to pick up a present for Mama, he told me, his big hand on my head like he did, a scarf or maybe gloves. The streets were all full of people, so many people, all different ages and looks to them. I like to think about it even now, to send my mind back to that day. No one remembers Christmas anymore, but it was a bit like First Night is now. I don't recall if we got the scarf and gloves or not. Probably we did.

That's all gone now, all of it. And stars. Time to time I think that's what I miss seeing most of all, back in the Time Before. From the window of my bedroom I could look over the roofs of the buildings and the houses and see them, these points of light in the sky, hanging there like God his own self had strung the sky for Christmas. It was my mama who told me the names for some and how you could watch them awhile and start to see pictures up there, simple things like spoons and people and animals. I used to think you could look at the stars and that was God, right there. Like looking straight into his face. You needed the dark to see him plain. Maybe he forgot us and maybe he didn't. Maybe it was us who forgot, when we couldn't see the stars no more. And to tell the truth they're the one thing I'd like to see again before I die.

There were other trains, I do believe. We'd heard about trains leaving from all over, that other cities had sent them before the jumps got in. Maybe it was just people talking like they do when they're scared, grasping at any bit of hope that floats on past. I don't know how many made it all the way to where they were going. Some were sent to California, some to places with names I don't just now recall. There was only one we ever heard from, back in the early days. Before the Walkers and the One Law, when radio was still allowed. Someplace in New Mexico, I do believe it was. But something happened to their lights and we didn't hear from them again after that. From what Peter and Theo and the others tell me, I do believe we are the only one left now.

But the train and Philadelphia and what all happened that winter was what I meant to write on. Folks was in the worst way. The Army was everywhere, not just soldiers but tanks and other things of the kind. My daddy said they were there to protect us from the jumps, but to me they were just big men with guns, most of them white, and my daddy had always told me to look on the bright side, Ida, but not to trust the white man-that's how he said it, like they was all one man-though of course that seems funny now, folks all blended together like they are. Probably whoever is reading this doesn't even know what I'm talking about. We knew a fellow from up the way got himself shot, just for trying to catch a dog. I suppose he thought eating a dog was better than nothing. But the Army shot him and strung him up on a light post on Olney Avenue with a sign pinned to his chest that said "looter." Don't know what he was trying to loot except maybe a dog that was half starved and going to die anyway.

Then one night we heard the loudest boom and then another and another and planes screaming over our heads, and my daddy told me they'd blown the bridges, and all the next day we saw more planes and smelled fire and smoke, and we knew the jumps was close. Whole parts of the city were on fire. I went to bed and woke up later to the sounds of a set-to. Our place was just four rooms and voices had a way of carrying, you couldn't sneeze in one room without somebody in another saying bless you. I heard my mama crying and crying, and my father saying to her, you can't, we have to, you be strong, Anita, things of the kind, and then the door to my room swung open and I saw my daddy standing there. He was holding a candle and I'd never in my life seen him with such a look upon his face. Like he'd seen a ghost, and the ghost was his own self. He dressed me quick for the cold and said, be good now, Ida, and go say goodbye to your mother, and when I did she held me a long, long time, crying so hard it makes me hurt to think of it, even now, all these years gone by. I saw the little suitcase by the door and said, are we going somewhere, Mama? We leaving? But she didn't answer me, she just went on crying and crying and holding me like she did, until my daddy made her let go. Then we left, my daddy and me. Just the two of us.

It wasn't till we were outside that I realized it was still the middle of the night. It was cold and blowing. Flakes were falling and I thought it was snow but when I licked one off my hand I realized it was ashes. You could smell the smoke and it was stinging my eyes and throat. We had to walk a long way, most of the night. The only things moving on the streets were the Army trucks, some of them with horns on top and voices coming out of them, telling people not to steal, stay calm, about the evacuation. There were some folks about but not many, though we saw more and more the farther we went, until the streets were thick with people, no one saying a word, all walking the same direction as us, carrying they things. I don't think I'd even figured it out in my mind that it was just the Littles who were going.

It was still dark when we got to the station. I've already said a thing or two about that. My father told me we'd got there early so as to avoid the lines, he always hated lines, but it was like half the city had the same idea. We waited a long time, but things were turning ugly, you could feel it. Like a storm was coming, the air whizzing and cracking with it. Folks was too afraid. The fires were going out, the jumps were coming, that's what people were saying. We could hear great booms in the distance, like thunder, and planes flying overhead, fast and low. And each time you saw one your ears would pop and you'd hear a boom a second after, and the ground would shake below your feet. Some folks had Littles with them but not all. My father held my hand tight. There was an opening in the fence where the soldiers were letting people in and that's what we had to get through. It was so tight with the people pressed together I could hardly take a breath. Some of the soldiers had dogs. Whatever happens, you hold on to me, Ida, my daddy said. Just hold on.

We got close enough that we could see the train, down below us. We were on a bridge, the rails running under it. I tried to follow its length with my eyes but I couldn't, that's how long it was. It seemed to stretch forever, a hundred cars long. It didn't look like any train I ever saw. The cars didn't have no windows, and long poles stuck out from the sides with nets hanging from them, like the wings of a bird. On the roof there were soldiers with big guns in metal cages, like something you'd put a canary in. At least I supposed they were soldiers, on account of they were wearing shiny silver suits, to protect them from the fires.

I don't remember what happened to my father. Certain things you can't remember because your mind won't take them up once they're done and gone. I remember a woman who had a cat in a box and a soldier saying, lady, what do you think you're doing with that cat, and then something happened quick and believe it or not that soldier shot her, right there. And then there was more shooting, and folks tearing about and pushing and screaming, and my daddy and me got separated in all of it. When I reached for my daddy his hand wasn't there no more. The crowd was moving like a river, dragging me along with it. It was a horrible thing. People was yelling that the train wasn't full but it was leaving anyway. If you can imagine I'd lost my suitcase and that's what I was thinking of, I've lost my suitcase and my daddy's going to be hopping mad at me for that. He was always saying, look after your things, Ida, don't be careless. We work hard to have the things we do, so don't go treating them like nothing. So I had just about figured I was in the worst trouble of my life all on account of the suitcase when something knocked me to the ground and when I got up I saw all the dead folks around me. And one was a boy I thought I knew from school. Vincent Gum, that's what we always called him, Vincent Gum, both names together, and wouldn't you know, that boy was always getting in trouble on account of he liked to chew gum and always had a piece in his mouth at school. But now he had a hole in him right in the center of his chest and he was lying on his back on the ground in a puddle of blood. There was more blood coming out of the hole in his chest in little bubbles, like soap in a bath. I remember thinking, that's Vincent Gum, lying dead right there. A bullet went through his body and killed him. He's never going to move or talk or chew his gum or do nothing at all, and he'll be right there in that spot forever with that forgetful look on his face.

I was still on the bridge over the train, and folks was starting to leap down to it. Everyone was screaming. A lot of the soldiers were shooting at them, like somebody had told them to just shoot anything no matter what it was. I looked over the edge and saw the bodies piled up there like logs on a fire and blood everywhere, so much blood you'd think the world had sprung a leak.

Somebody picked me up then. I thought it was my daddy, he'd come to find me after all, but it wasn't, it was just a man. A big fat white man with a beard. He snatched me up by the waist and ran to the other side of the bridge, where there was a kind of pathway down through some weeds. We were at the top of a wall above the tracks and the man held me by the hands and lowered me down and I thought, he's going to drop me and I'm going to die like Vincent Gum did. I was looking right at that man and I'll never forget his eyes. They were the eyes of a person who knew he was good as dead. When you have that look, you're not young or old, or black or white, or even a man or a woman. You're gone from all those things. He was yelling, somebody take her, somebody take this girl here. And then somebody grabbed my legs from below and lifted me down and the next thing I knew I was on the train and it was moving. And somewhere in there I came to think I'd never be seeing any of them again, not my mama or daddy or anybody I had known in my life to that day.

What I remember after that is more like a feeling than any actual thing. I remember children crying, and being hungry, and the dark and heat and smell of bodies all crammed in. We could hear gunfire outside and feel the heat from the fires passing through the walls of the train like the whole world was aflame. They got to be so hot you couldn't even touch them without burning the skin of your hand. Some of the children weren't no more than four years old, practically babies. We had two Watchers in the car with us, a man and a woman. Folks think the Watchers were Army but they weren't, they were from the FEMA. I remember that because it was written in big yellow letters on the backs of their jackets. My daddy had people down in New Orleans, he'd grown up there before the service, and he always said that FEMA stood for "Fix Everything My Ass." I don't remember what became of the woman but that man was First Family, a Chou. He married another Watcher, and after she died, he had two other wives. One of those wives was Mazie Chou, Old Chou's grandmother.

The thing was, the train didn't stop. Not for anything. Time to time we'd hear a great big boom and the car would shake like a leaf in the wind but still we kept right on. One day the woman left the car and went back to help with some of the other children and came back all crying. I heard her tell the man that the other cars behind us were gone. They'd built the train so that if the jumps got into a car, they could leave it behind, and those were the booms we'd heard, one car after another falling away. I didn't want to think about those cars and the children inside them, and to this day I don't. So I'm not going to write anything more about that here.

What you'll want to know about is when we got here, and I do remember something of that, because that was how I found Terrence, my cousin. I didn't know he was on the train with me, he was in one of the other cars. And it was a lucky thing he hadn't been in one of the cars at the back, because by the time we arrived there weren't more than three, and two mostly empty. We were in California, the Watchers told us. California wasn't a state like it used to be, they said, it was a whole different country. Buses would be meeting us to take us up the mountain, someplace safe. The train slowed to a stop and everyone was afraid but excited too, to be getting off the train after all the days and days, and then the door opened and the light was so bright we all had to hold our hands over our faces. Some of the children were crying because they thought it was the jumps, the jumps were coming to get us, and someone else said, don't be stupid, it ain't the jumps, and when I opened my eyes I was relieved to see a soldier standing there. We were someplace in the desert. They took us off and there were lots more soldiers around and a line of buses parked in the sand and helicopters thwocking overhead, stirring up the dust all around and making every kind of a racket. They gave us water to drink, cold water. All my days I've never been so glad just to taste cold water. The light was so bright to my eyes it still hurt me even to look around but that's when I saw Terrence. He was standing there in the dust like the rest of us, holding a suitcase and a dirty pillow. I'd never hugged a boy so hard or long in my life and we were both laughing and crying and saying, look at you. We weren't first cousins but more like second, as I recall. His father was my daddy's nephew, Carleton Jaxon. Carleton was a welder at the shipyard, and Terrence later told me his daddy was one of the men who built the train. A day before the evacuation, Uncle Carleton had taken Terrence to the station and put him in the engine car, closest to Driver, and told him to stay there. You stay put, Terrence. Do what Driver tells you. So that was how Terrence had come to be with me now. He was just three years older than me but it seemed like more at the time, so I said to him, you'll look after me, won't you Terrence? Say you'll do that. And he nodded and said yes he would, and that was just what he did, until the day he died. He was the first Jaxon who was Household and a Jaxon's been Household ever since.

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