The Passage Page 54

And that was when she told her.

Sara hadn't believed her at first. But not exactly that: she felt as if her mind had split in two, and one half, the half that didn't know, that believed she was still a Little, sitting in circle and playing in the courtyard and waiting for her parents to tuck her in at night, was saying goodbye to the half that somehow always had. Like she was saying goodbye to herself. It made her feel dizzy and sick, and then she started to cry, and Teacher took her by the hand once more and led her down another hallway and out of the Sanctuary, where her parents were waiting for her, to take her home-the home that Sara and Michael lived in still, that she'd never known existed until that very day. It isn't true, Sara was saying through her tears, it isn't true. And her mother, who was crying too, picked her up and held her close, saying, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. It is, it is, it is.

This was the memory that always replayed in her mind whenever she approached the Sanctuary, which seemed so much smaller to her than it had back then, so much more ordinary. An old brick schoolhouse with the name F. D. Roosevelt Elementary etched in stone over the door. From the path she could see the figure of a single Watcher standing on the top of the front steps: Hollis Wilson.

"Howdy, Sara."

"Evening, Hollis."

Hollis was balancing a crossbow on his hip. Sara didn't like them; they had a lot of power but were too slow to reload, and heavy to carry besides. Everyone said how it was just about impossible to tell Hollis apart from his brother until he'd shaved his beard, but Sara didn't see why; even as Littles-the Wilson brothers had come up three years ahead of her-she had always known which was which. It was the little things that told her, details that a person might not notice at first glance, like the fact that Hollis was just a little taller, a little more serious in the eyes. But they were obvious to her.

As she ascended the steps, Hollis tipped his head at the pot she was carrying, his lips turned up in a grin. "Whatcha bring me?"

"Jack stew. But it's not for you, I'm afraid."

His face was amazed. "I'll be damned. Where'd you get him?"

"Upper Field."

He gave a little whistle, shaking his head. Sara could read the hunger in his face. "I can't tell you how much I miss jack stew. Can I smell it?"

She drew the cloth aside and opened the lid. Hollis bent to the pot and inhaled deeply through his nose.

"I couldn't maybe talk you into leaving it here with me while you go inside?"

"Forget it, Hollis. I'm taking it to Elton."

A jaunty shrug; the offer wasn't serious. "Well, I tried," said Hollis. "Okay, let's have your blade."

She withdrew her knife and passed it to him. Only Watchers were allowed to carry weapons into the Sanctuary, and even they were supposed to keep them out of sight of the children.

"Don't know if you heard," Hollis said, tucking it into his belt. "We've got a new resident."

"I was out with the herd all day. Who is it?"

"Maus Patal. No big shock there, I guess." Hollis gestured with his cross toward the path. "Galen just left. I'm surprised you didn't see him."

She'd been too lost in thought. Gale could have walked right past her and she wouldn't have noticed. And Maus, pregnant. Why was she surprised?

"Well." She managed a smile, wondering what she was feeling. Was it envy? "That's great news."

"Do me a favor and tell her that. You should have heard the two of them arguing. Probably woke up half the Littles."

"She's not happy about it?"

"It was more Galen, I think. I don't know. You're a girl, Sara. You tell me."

"Flattery will get you nowhere, Hollis."

He laughed wryly. She liked Hollis, his easy manner. "Just passing the time," he said, and motioned with his head toward the door. "If Dora's awake, tell her hi from her uncle Hollis."

"How's Leigh doing? With Arlo gone."

"Leigh's been down this road. I told her, lots of reasons they might not be back today."

Inside, Sara left the stew in the empty office and went to the Big Room, where all the Littles slept. At one time it had been the school's gymnasium. Most of the beds were empty; it had been years since the Sanctuary had operated at anything close to capacity. The shades were drawn over the room's tall windows; the only illumination came from narrow slices of light that fell over the sleeping forms of the children. The room smelled like milk, and sweat, and sun-warmed hair: the smell of children, after a day. Sara crept between the rows of cots and cribs. Kat Curtis and Bart Fisher and Abe Phillips, Fanny Chou and her sisters Wanda and Susan, Timothy Molyneau and Beau Greenberg, whom everyone called "Bowow," a mangling of his own name that had stuck to him like glue; the three J's, Juliet Strauss and June Levine and Jane Ramirez, Rey's youngest.

Sara came to a crib at the end of the last row: Dora Wilson, Leigh and Arlo's girl. Leigh was sitting in a nursing chair beside her. New mothers were allowed to stay in the Sanctuary up to a year. Leigh was still a little heavy from her pregnancy; in the pale light of the room, her wide face seemed almost transparent, the skin pallid from so many months indoors. In her lap was a fat skein of yarn and a pair of needles. She lifted her eyes from her knitting at Sara's approach.

"Hey," she said quietly.

Sara acknowledged her with a silent nod and bent over the crib. Dora, wearing only a diaper, was sleeping on her back, her lips parted in a delicate O shape; she was snoring faintly through her nose. The soft, damp wind of her breathing brushed Sara's cheekbones like a kiss. Looking at a sleeping baby, you could almost forget what the world was, she thought.

"Don't worry, you won't wake her." Leigh yawned into her hand and resumed her knitting. "That one, she sleeps like the dead."

Sara decided not to look for Mausami. Whatever was going on between her and Galen, it was none of her business. In a way she felt sorry for Gale. He had always had a thing for Maus-it was like an illness he could never quite shake off-and everyone said that when he'd asked Maus to pair with him, she'd said yes only because Theo had already refused her. That, or he'd never gotten around to asking, and Maus was trying to goad him into action. She'd hardly be the first woman who'd ever made that mistake.

But as she moved down the path, Sara wondered: Why couldn't some things just be easy? Because it was the same with her and Peter. Sara loved him, she always had, even back when they were just Littles in the Sanctuary. There was no explaining it; as long as she could remember, she had felt it, this love, like an invisible golden thread that bound the two of them together. It was more than physical attraction; it was the broken thing inside him she loved most of all, the unreachable place where he kept his sadness. Because that was the thing about Peter Jaxon that nobody knew but her, because she loved him like she did: how terribly sad he was. And not just in the day-to-day, the ordinary sadness everyone carried for the things and people they had lost; his was something more. If she could find this sadness, Sara believed, and take it from him, then he would love her in return.

Which was the reason she had chosen to become a nurse; if she couldn't be Watch-and she absolutely couldn't-the Infirmary, where Prudence Jaxon presided, was the next best place to be. A hundred times she'd almost asked the woman: What can I do? What can I do to make your son love me? But in the end Sara had kept silent. She had gone about the work of learning her trade as best she could and waited for Peter, hoping he would know what she was offering him, simply by being in that room.

Peter had kissed her, once. Or maybe Sara had kissed him. The question of who had kissed whom, exactly, seemed unimportant in the face of the thing itself. They had kissed. It was First Night, late and cold. They'd all been drinking shine, listening to Arlo strum his guitar under the lights, and as the group dispersed in the last hour before dawn, Sara had found herself walking with Peter alone. She was a little lightheaded from the shine, but she didn't think she was drunk, and she didn't think that he was, either. A nervous silence fell over them as they moved down the path, not an absence of sound or speech but something palpable and faintly electric, like the spaces between the notes from Arlo's guitar. It was in this bubble of expectancy that they walked together under the lights, not touching but connected nonetheless, and by the time they reached her house, neither one having acknowledged that this was their destination-the silence was a bubble but it was also a river, pulling them along in its current-there seemed no stopping what would happen next. They were against the wall of her house, standing in a wedge of shadow, first his mouth and then the rest of him pressed against her. Not like the kissing games they'd all played in the Sanctuary, or the first clumsy fumblings of puberty-sex was not discouraged, you pretty much got around to anyone you were even vaguely interested in; the unwritten rule was this and no more, all of it, in the end, feeling like a kind of rehearsal-but something deeper, full of promise. She felt herself enveloped by a warmth she almost didn't recognize: the warmth of human contact, of truly being with another, no longer alone. She would have given herself to him right then, whatever he wanted.

But then it was over; suddenly he pulled away. "I'm sorry," he managed, as if he believed she wished he hadn't done it, though the kiss should have told him that she did, she did; but by then something had shifted in the air, the bubble had popped, and both of them were too embarrassed, too flustered, to say anything else. He left her at her door, and that was the end of it. They hadn't been alone together since that night. They'd barely spoken a word.

Because she knew; she knew it when he kissed her, and then after, and more and more as the days went by. Peter wasn't hers, could never be hers, because there was another. She'd felt it like a ghost between them, in his kiss. It all made sense now, a hopeless kind of sense. While she'd been waiting for him in the Infirmary, showing him what she was, he had been on the Wall with Alicia Donadio the entire time.

Now, on her way to the Lighthouse with the stew, Sara remembered Gabe Curtis and decided to stop at the Infirmary. Poor Gabe-just forty, and already the cancer. There wasn't much anyone could do for him. Sara guessed it had started in the stomach, or else the liver. It didn't really matter. The Infirmary, located across the Sunspot from the Sanctuary, was a small frame structure in the part of the Colony they called Old Town-a block of half a dozen buildings that had once held various stores and shops. The building that served as the Infirmary had once been a grocery store; when the afternoon sun hit the front windows just right, you could still make out the name-Mountaintop Provision Co., Fine Foods and Spirits, Est. 1996-etched into its frosted glass.

A single lantern lit the outer room, where Sandy Chou-everyone called her Other Sandy, since there had once been two Sandy Chous, the first being Ben Chou's wife, who had died in childbirth-was bent over the nurse's desk, crushing dillonweed seeds with a mortar and pestle. The air was hot and heavy with moisture; behind the desk, a kettle was chuffing out a plume of steam from on top of the stove. Sara put the stew aside and removed the kettle from the heat, placing it on a trivet. Returning to the desk, she tipped her head toward the dillonweed, which Sandy was shaking out into a strainer.

"Is that for Gabe?"

Sandy nodded. Dillonweed was thought to be an analgesic, though they employed it to treat a variety of ailments-head colds, diarrhea, arthritis. Sara couldn't say for a fact that it accomplished anything at all, but Gabe claimed it helped with the pain, and it was the only thing he was keeping down.

"How's he doing?"

Sandy was pouring the water through the strainer into a ceramic mug, the lip chipped and worn. On it were the words NEW DADDY, the letters spelled with the image of safety pins.

"He was asleep a while ago. The jaundice is worse. His boy just left, Mar's in there with him now."

"I'll bring him the tea."

Sara took the mug and stepped through the curtain. The ward had six cots in it, but only one was occupied. Mar was sitting in a ladder-backed chair beside the cot on which her husband lay, covered by a blanket. A thin, almost birdlike woman, Mar had shouldered the load of Gabe's care through the months of his illness, a burden plain to see in the crescents of sleeplessness hung beneath her eyes. They had one child, Jacob, sixteen or so, who worked in the dairy with his mother: a large, hulking boy with a face of perpetually vacant sweetness, who could neither read nor write and never would, who was capable of basic tasks as long as someone was there to direct him. A hard, unlucky life, and now this. Past forty, and with Jacob to look after, it was unlikely that Mar would marry again.

As Sara approached, Mar looked up, holding a finger to her lips. Sara nodded and took a chair beside her. Sandy was right: the jaundice was worse. Before he'd gotten sick, Gabe had been a large man-large as his wife was small-with great knotty shoulders and bulky forearms made for work and a prosperously round belly that hung over his belt like a meal sack: a solidly useful man whom Sara had never once seen in the Infirmary until the day he'd come in complaining of back pain and indigestion, apologizing for this fact as if it were a sign of weakness, a failure of character rather than the onset of a serious illness. (When Sara had palped his liver, the tips of her fingers instantly registering the presence that was growing there, she realized he must have been in agony.)

Now, half a year later, the man Gabe Curtis had once been was gone, replaced by a husk that clung to life by will alone. His face, once as full and richly hued as a ripe apple, had withered to a collection of lines and angles, like a hastily drawn sketch. Mar had trimmed his beard and nails; his cracked lips were glazed with glistening ointment from a wide-mouthed pot on the cart beside his bed-a small comfort, small and useless as the tea.

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