The Passage Page 53

"You should double-check the second cell," Elton said from his chair. He was spooning curds of sheep's cheese from a cup into his mouth.

"There's nothing wrong with the second cell."

"Just do it," he said. "Trust me."

Michael sighed and called the battery monitors back up on the screen. Sure enough: the charge on number two was dropping: 53 percent, 52. The temperature was nudging up as well. He would have asked Elton how he'd known but his answer was always the same-an enigmatic c*ck of the head, as if to say, I could hear it, Michael.

"Open the relay," Elton advised. "Do it again and see if it settles down."

Second Evening Bell was moments away. Well, they could run on the other five cells if they had to, then figure out what the problem was. Michael opened the relay, waited a moment to vent any gas in the line, and closed it again. The meter stayed flat at 55.

"Static is all," said Elton, as Second Bell began to ring. He gave his spoon a little wave. "That relay's a bit squirrelly, though. We should swap it out."

The door of the Lighthouse opened then. Elton lifted his face.

"That you, Sara?"

Michael's sister stepped inside, still dressed to ride and covered in dust. "Evening, Elton."

"Now, what's that I smell on you?" He was smiling from ear to ear. "Mountain lilac?"

She pushed a strand of sweat-dampened hair from behind an ear. "I smell like sheep, Elton. But thanks." She directed her words to Michael. "Are you coming home tonight? I thought I'd cook."

Michael thought he should probably stay where he was, with one of the cells acting up. Night was also the best time for the radio. But he hadn't eaten all day, and at the thought of warm food, his stomach let loose an empty rumble.

"You mind, Elton?"

The old man shrugged. "I know where to find you if I need you. You go now if you like."

"You want me to bring you something?" Sara offered as Michael was rising from his chair. "We've got plenty."

But Elton shook his head, as he always did. "Not tonight, thanks." He took the earphones from their place on the counter and held them up. "I've got the whole wide world for company."

Michael and his sister stepped out into the lights. After so many hours in the dim hut, Michael had to pause on the step and blink the glare away. They moved down the path past the storage sheds, toward the pens; the air was rich with the organic funk of animals. He could hear the bleating of the herd and, as they walked, the nickering of horses from the stables. Continuing onto the narrow path that edged the field, underneath the south wall, Michael could see the runners moving back and forth along the catwalks, their shapes silhouetted against the spots. Michael saw Sara watching also, her eyes distant and preoccupied, shining with reflected light.

"Don't worry," Michael said. "He'll be fine."

His sister didn't respond; he wondered if she'd heard him. They said nothing more until they reached the house. At the kitchen pump, Sara washed up while Michael lit the candles; she stepped out onto the back porch and returned a moment later, swinging a good-sized jackrabbit by the ears.

"Flyers," Michael said, "where'd you get him?"

Sara's mood had lifted; her face wore a proud smile. Michael could see the wound where Sara's arrow had skewered the animal through the throat.

"Upper Field, just above the pits. I was riding along and there he was, right out in the open."

How long had it been since Michael had eaten rabbit? Since anyone had even seen a rabbit? Most of the wildlife was long gone, except for the squirrels, which seemed to multiply even faster than the virals could kill them off, and the smaller birds, the sparrows and wrens, which they either didn't want or couldn't catch.

"You want to clean him?" Sara asked.

"I'm not even sure I'd remember how," Michael confessed.

Sara made a face of exasperation and drew her blade from her belt. "Fine, make yourself useful and set the fire."

They made the rabbit into a stew, with carrots and potatoes from the bin in the cellar, and cornmeal to thicken the sauce. Sara claimed to remember their father's recipe, but Michael could tell she was guessing. It didn't matter; soon the savory aroma of cooking meat was bubbling from the kitchen hearth, filling the whole house with a cozy warmth that Michael hadn't felt in a long time. Sara had taken the empty skin out to the yard to scrape it while Michael tended the stove, waiting for her return. He had bowls and spoons set when she stepped back inside, wiping her hands on a rag.

"You know, I know you're not going to listen to me, but you and Elton should be careful."

Sara knew all about the radio; the way she came in and out of the Lighthouse, it had been impossible to avoid this. But he had kept the rest from her.

"It's just a receiver, Sara. We're not even transmitting."

"What all do you listen to out there, anyway?"

Sitting at the table, he offered a shrug, hoping to kill the conversation as fast as possible. What was there to say? He was looking for the Army. But the Army was dead. Everyone was dead, and the lights were going out.

"Just noise, mostly."

She was looking at him closely, her hands on her h*ps as she stood with her back to the sink, waiting him out. When Michael said nothing more, she sighed and shook her head.

"Well, don't get caught," his sister said.

They ate without speaking at the table in the kitchen. The meat was a little stringy but so delicious Michael could barely stop himself from moaning as he chewed. Usually he didn't go to bed until after dawn, but he could have lain down right there at the table, his head cradled in his folded arms, and fallen instantly asleep. There was something familiar as well-not just familiar but also a little sad-about eating jack stew at the table. Just the two of them.

He lifted his eyes to find Sara's looking back at him.

"I know," she said. "I miss them too."

He wanted to tell her then. About the batteries, and the logbook, and their father, and what he'd known. Just to have one other person carry this knowledge. But this was a selfish wish, Michael knew, nothing he could actually allow himself to do.

Sara pushed back from the table and carried their dishes to the pump. When she was finished washing up, she filled an earthenware pot with the leftover stew and wrapped it with a piece of heavy cloth to keep it warm.

"You taking that to Walt?" Michael asked.

Walter was their father's older brother. As the Storekeeper, he was in charge of Share, a member of the Board of Trade, and Household too-the oldest living Fisher-a three-legged stool of responsibilities that made him one of the most powerful citizens of the Colony, second only to Soo Ramirez and Sanjay Patal. But he was also a widower who lived alone-his wife, Jean, had been killed on Dark Night-and he liked the shine too much and often neglected to eat. When Walt wasn't in the Storehouse, he could usually be found fussing with the still he kept in the shed behind his house, or else passed out somewhere inside.

Sara shook her head. "I don't think I could face Walt right now. I'm taking it to Elton."

Michael watched her face. He knew she was thinking of Peter again. "You should get some rest. I'm sure they're okay."

"They're late."

"Just a day. It's routine."

His sister said nothing. It was terrible, Michael thought, what love could do to a person. He couldn't see the sense in it.

"Look, Lish is riding with them. I'm sure they're safe."

Sara scowled, looking away. "It's Lish I'm worried about."

She headed first to the Sanctuary, as she often did when sleep eluded her. Something about seeing the children, tucked in their beds. She didn't know if it made her feel better or worse. But it made her feel something, besides the hollow ache of worry.

She liked to recall her own days there as a Little, when the world seemed like a safe place, even a happy place, and all there was to concern her was when her parents would come to visit, or if Teacher was in a good mood that day or not, and who was friends with whom. For the most part, it hadn't seemed odd that she and her brother lived in the Sanctuary and their parents somewhere else-she'd never known a different existence-and at night when her mother or father or the two of them together came to say good night to her and Michael, she never thought to ask them where they went when the visit was over. We have to go now, they'd say, when Teacher announced it was time, and that one word, go, became the whole of the situation in Sara's mind, and probably Michael's too: parents came, and stayed for a bit, and then they had to go. Many of her best memories of her parents came from those brief bedtime visits when they would read her and Michael a story or just tuck them into their cots.

And then one night she'd ruined it, quite by accident. Where do you sleep? she asked her mother as she was preparing to depart. If you don't sleep here, with us, where do you go? And when Sara asked this, something seemed to fall behind her mother's eyes, like a shade being quickly drawn down a window. Oh, her mother said, gathering her expression into a smile that Sara detected as false, I don't sleep, not really. Sleep is something for you, Little Sara, and for your brother, Michael. And the look on her mother's face as she said these words was the first time, Sara now believed, that she'd glimpsed the terrible truth.

It was true, what everyone said: you hated Teacher for telling you. How Sara had loved Teacher, until that day. As much as she loved her own parents, maybe even more. Her eighth birthday: she knew something would happen, something wonderful, that the children who turned eight went someplace special, but nothing more specific than that. The ones who returned-to visit a younger sibling or to have Littles of their own-were older, so much time having passed that they had become different people entirely, and where they'd been and what they'd done was a secret you couldn't know. It was precisely because it was a secret that it was so special, this new place that awaited outside the walls of the Sanctuary. Anticipation gathered inside her as her birthday approached. So keen was her excitement that never did it occur to her to wonder what would happen to Michael without her; his own day would come. You were warned by Teacher never to talk about this, but of course the Littles did, when Teacher wasn't around. In the washroom or dining hall or at night in the Big Room, whispers passing up and down the lines of cots, the talk was always of release and who was next in line. What was the world like, outside the Sanctuary? Did people live in castles, like the people in books? What animals would they find, and could they speak? (The caged mice Teacher kept in the classroom were, to a one, discouragingly silent.) What wonderful foods were there to eat, what wonderful toys to play with? Never had Sara been so excited, waiting for this glorious day when she would step into the world.

She awoke on the morning of her birthday feeling as if she were floating on a cloud of happiness. And yet somehow she would have to contain this joy until rest time; only then, when the Littles were asleep, would Teacher take her to the special place. Though no one said as much, all through morning meal and circle time she could tell that everyone was delighted for her, except for Michael, who did nothing to hide his envy, grumpily refusing to speak with her. Well, that was Michael. If he couldn't be happy for her, she wasn't going to let it spoil her special day. It wasn't until after lunch, when Teacher called everyone around to say goodbye, that she began to wonder if maybe he knew something she didn't. What is it, Michael? asked Teacher. Can't you say goodbye to your sister, can't you be happy for her? And Michael looked at her and said, It's not what you think, Sara, then hugged her quickly and ran from the room before she could say a word.

Well, that was strange, she'd thought at the time, and still did, even now, all these years gone by. How had Michael known? Much later, when the two of them were alone again, she'd remembered this scene and asked him about it. How did you know? But Michael could only shake his head. I just did, he said. Not the details, but the kind of thing it was. The way they spoke to us, Mom and Dad, at night, tucking us in. You could see it in their eyes.

But back then, the afternoon of her release, with Michael darting away and Teacher taking her hand, she hadn't wondered for long. Just chalked it up to Michael being Michael. The final goodbyes, the embraces, the feeling of the moment arriving: Peter was there, and Maus Patal, and Ben Chou and Galen Strauss and Wendy Ramirez and all the rest, touching her, saying her name. Remember us, everyone said. She was holding the bag that contained her things, her clothing and slippers and the little rag doll that she'd had since she was small-you were allowed to take one toy-and Teacher took her by the hand and led her out from the Big Room, into the little courtyard ringed by windows where the children played when the sun was high in the sky, with the swings and the seesaw and the piles of old tires to climb, and through another door into a room she'd never seen before. Like a classroom but empty, the shelves barren, no pictures on the walls.

Teacher sealed the door behind them. A curious and premature pause; Sara had expected more. Where was she going? she asked Teacher. Would it be a long journey? Was someone coming for her? How long was she to wait here, in this room? But Teacher seemed not to hear these questions. She crouched before her, positioning her large, soft face close to Sara's. Little Sara, she asked, what do you suppose is out there, outside this building, beyond these rooms where you live? And what of the men you sometimes see, the ones who come and go at night, watching over you? Teacher was smiling, but there was something different about this smile, thought Sara, something that made her afraid. She didn't want to answer, but Teacher was looking straight at her, her face expectant. Sara thought of her mother's eyes, the night she'd asked her where she slept. A castle? she said, for in her sudden nervousness that was the only thing she could think of. A castle, with a moat? A castle, Teacher said. I see. And what else, Little Sara? The smile was suddenly gone. I don't know, Sara said. Well, Teacher said, and cleared her throat. It's not a castle.

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