The Passage Page 57

Surely Theo had known that; that was the largeness inside him, inside all the men of the Long Rides. Peter had made up his mind, long ago, not to hold it against Theo, what his mother had said on the morning she'd died. Take care of your brother, Theo. He's not strong, like you. The truth was the truth, and as the years went by, Peter discovered that knowing this about himself was bearable; at times it almost came as a relief. It was a difficult and desperate thing their father had attempted, built on a faith that flew in the face of every fact, and if Theo was to be the Jaxon to shoulder this burden-shoulder it for the two of them-Peter could accept that. But telling Arlo that there was no point, that the only thing left to do was keep the lights on as long as they could-saying this to Arlo, of all people, who had a Little in the Sanctuary-this was not the Theo he knew. Something had changed in his brother. He wondered what it could be.

They stayed at the station five days. Finn and Rey spent the first day restoring power to the fence, then got to work on the west field, regreasing the turbine housings. Arlo, Theo, and Alicia took turns escorting them, in shifts of two, always returning well before sundown to lock the place down tight. With nothing else to occupy his time, Peter resorted to playing solo from a deck with three missing cards and leafing through a box of books in the storage room. A random assemblage of titles: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, A History of the Ottoman Empire, Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage (Classics of Western Literature). In the back of each book was a cardboard pocket, printed with the words PROPERTY OF RIVERSIDE COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRARY, and tucked inside it a card with a list of dates in faded ink: September 7, 2014; April 3, 2012; December 21, 2016.

"Who got these?" he asked Theo one night, after the group had returned from the field. A pile of books was stacked on the floor by Peter's bunk.

Theo was rinsing his face at the washbasin. He turned, drying his hands on the front of his shirt. "I think they've been here a long time. I don't know if Zander could read much, so he put them away. Anything good?"

Peter held up the book he had been reading: Moby-Dick; or, The Whale.

"To tell you the truth, I'm not even sure this is English," Peter said. "It's taken me most of today to get through a page."

His brother gave a tired-sounding laugh. "Let's see that ankle."

Theo sat on the edge of Peter's cot. Gently he took Peter's foot in his hands and rolled it on the joint. The two of them had barely spoken since the night of the attack. None of them had, really.

"Well, it looks better." Theo rubbed his stubbled chin. His eyes, Peter saw, were hollowed with exhaustion. "The swelling's down. Think you can ride?"

"I'd crawl if I had to, to get out of here."

They set out after breakfast the next morning. Arlo had agreed to stay behind with Rey and Finn until the next relief party arrived. Caleb said he wanted to stay too, but Theo convinced him otherwise-with Arlo there, and as long as they stayed inside the fence, a fourth was unnecessary. And Caleb had been through more than enough.

The other question was the guns. Theo wanted to leave them where they were; Alicia argued that it made no sense to leave them all behind. They still didn't know what had happened to Zander or why the smokes hadn't killed Caleb when they'd had the chance. In the end, they reached a compromise. The party would ride back armed but hide their guns outside the Wall for safekeeping. The rest would stay under the stairs.

"I doubt I'll need 'em," Arlo said, as the group was mounting up. "Any smokes show up, I can just talk them to death." Though it was also true that he was wearing a rifle over his shoulder. Alicia had shown him how to load and clean it and let him fire off a few rounds in the yard for practice. "Holy damn!" he'd yelled in his big voice, and squeezed off another round, knocking the target can clean off its post. "Is that ever something!" Theo was right, Peter thought; once you had a gun, it was a hard thing to let go of.

"I mean what I say, Arlo," Theo warned. The horses, after so many days without exercise, were antsy to go, shifting beneath them, tamping down the dust. "Something's not right. Stay inside the fence. Lock it down each night before you see the first shadow. Agreed?"

"No worries, cuz." Grinning through his beard, Arlo looked at Finn and Rey, whose faces, Peter thought, did nothing to conceal their feeling of doom. Stuck in the station with Arlo and his stories; probably he'd just break down and sing for them, guitar or no guitar. Hanging from Arlo's neck was the key they'd taken from Zander's body. Theo had the other one.

"Oh, come on, guys," Arlo called to the wrenches, and clapped his hands. "Buck up. It'll be like a party." But as he stepped to Theo's horse, his expression sobered abruptly. "Put this in your pouch," Arlo said quietly, slipping him a folded sheet of paper. "For Leigh and the baby, if anything happens."

Theo tucked the paper away without looking at it. "Ten days. Stay inside."

"Ten days, cuz."

They rode out into the valley. Without a cart to pull, they cut across the fields toward Banning, bypassing the Eastern Road to shave a few kilometers off the route. No one was talking; they were saving their energies for the long ride ahead.

As they approached the edge of town, Theo drew up.

"I almost forgot." He reached into his saddlebag and removed the curious object that Michael had given him at the gate, six days ago. "Anybody remember what this thing is?"

Caleb drew his mount alongside, taking the board from Theo to examine it. "It's a motherboard. Intel chip, Pion series. See the nine? That's how you can tell."

"You know about this stuff?"

"Have to." With a shrug, Caleb handed the board back to Theo. "The turbine controls use Pions. Ours are hardened military, but basically the same. They're tough as nails and faster than snot. Sixteen gigahertz without overclocking."

Peter was watching Theo's expression: he had no idea what this meant, either.

"Well, Michael wants one."

"You should have said something. We have plenty of extras at the station."

Alicia laughed. "I have to say, you surprise me, Caleb. You sound like the Circuit. I didn't even know you wrenches could read."

Caleb twisted in the saddle to face her; but if he was offended, he gave no sign. "Are you kidding me? What else is there to do down here? Zander was always sneaking off to the library to get more books. There're, like, boxes and boxes of them stacked in the toolshed. And not just technical stuff. Guy would read anything. Said books were more interesting than people."

For a moment, no one spoke.

"What did I say?" asked Caleb.

The library was located near the Empire Valley Outlet Mall on the north edge of town: a squat, square building surrounded by hardpan tufted with tall weeds. They took shelter behind a filling station and dismounted; Theo retrieved the binoculars from his saddlebag and scanned the building.

"It's pretty sanded up. The windows are still intact above ground level, though. The building looks tight."

"Can you see inside?" Peter asked.

"The sun's too bright, reflecting off the glass." He passed the binoculars to Alicia and turned to Hightop. "You're certain?"

"That Zander came here?" The boy nodded. "Yes, I'm certain."

"Did you ever go with him?"

"Are you serious?"

Alicia had clambered up a dumpster to the roof of the filling station to have a better look.


She drew down the binoculars. "You're right, the sun's too bright. I don't see how there'd be anything inside, though, with all those windows."

"That's what Zander always said," Caleb added.

"I don't get it," Peter said. "Why would he come out here alone?"

Alicia dropped down. She dusted off her hands on the front of her jersey and pushed a sweat-dampened strand of hair off her face. "I think we should check it out. Middle of the day like this, we're not going to have a better chance."

Theo's face said, Why am I not surprised? He turned toward Peter. "What's your vote?"

"Since when do we vote?"

"Since now. If we do this, everyone has to agree."

Peter tried to read Theo's expression, to guess what he wanted to do. In the question before him, he felt the weight of challenge. He thought, Why this? Why now?

He nodded his assent.

"Okay, Lish," Theo said, and reached for his rifle. "You've got your smokehunt."

They left Caleb with the horses and approached the building in a loose line. The sand was pushed high against the windows, but the front entrance, at the top of a short flight of stairs, was clear. The door opened easily; they stepped inside. They were in some kind of entryway. Hung on the wall just inside the door was a bulletin board covered with paper signs, faded but still legible. CAR FOR SALE, '14 NISSAN SERATA, LOW MILES. LOSE WEIGHT NOW, ASK ME HOW! BABYSITTER WANTED, AFTERNOONS, SOME EVENINGS, MUST HAVE CAR. CHILDREN'S STORY HOUR, TUESDAYS AND THURSDAYS 10:30-11:30. And, larger than the rest, on a sheet of curling yellow paper:





They moved inside, into a wide room lit by tall windows that faced the parking lot. The air was sharp and thick with heat.

Sitting at the front desk was a body.

The woman-Peter could tell it was a woman-appeared to have shot herself. The gun, a small revolver, was still clutched in her hand where it had fallen to her lap. The corpse was brown as leather, the woman's desiccated flesh stretched taut over the bones, but the bullet hole in the side of her skull was plainly visible. Her head was tipped to the side, as if she had dropped something and had taken a moment to look.

"I'm glad Arlo isn't here to see that," Alicia murmured.

They moved in silence into the stacks. Books were strewn everywhere on the floor, so many it was like walking on drifts of snow. They circled back around to the front; Theo gestured with the barrel of his rifle toward the stairs.

"All eyes."

The stairs opened on a large room flooded with sunlight that poured from the windows. A feeling of spaciousness: the shelves had all been pushed aside to make room for the lines of cots that had taken their place.

Each cot bore a body.

"There must be fifty of them," Alicia whispered. "Is it some kind of infirmary?"

Theo moved deeper into the room, sliding between the rows of cots. An odd muskiness clung to the air. Halfway down the column, Theo paused beside one of the cots and reached down to remove a small object. Something floppy, made of disintegrating cloth. He held it up for Peter and Alicia to see. A stuffed doll.

"I don't think that's what this is."

The images began to resolve in Peter's mind, forming a pattern. The smallness of the bodies. The stuffed animals and toys clutched by tiny hands of leathered bone. As Peter stepped forward, he felt and heard the crunch of plastic. A syringe. There were dozens of them, scattered over the floor.

The meaning hit him like a fist.

"Theo, this is ... these are ... " The word stopped in his throat.

His brother was already headed to the stairs. "Let's get the hell out of here."

They didn't stop until they were outside. They stood on the front stoop, breathing in great gulps of fresh air. In the distance, Peter could see Caleb standing on the roof of the filling station, still scanning the scene with the binoculars.

"They must have known what was happening," Alicia said quietly. "Decided it was better this way."

Theo slung his rifle and took a long drink of water. His face was ashen; Peter saw that his brother's hands were trembling. "Goddamn Zander," Theo said. "Why the f**k would he come here?"

"There's a second flight of stairs at the back," Alicia said. "We should check it."

Theo spat and shook his head, hard.

"Let it go, Lish," Peter said.

"What's the point of checking the building if we don't check the whole thing?"

Theo turned sharply. "I don't want to spend another second in this place." He was resolved, his words would be final. "We torch it. No discussion."

They pulled books from the shelves and fashioned a pile near the front desk. The paper caught swiftly, flames leaping from book to book. They retreated through the door and stood back fifty meters to watch the building burn. Peter took a drink from his canteen, but nothing would wash away the taste in his mouth; the taste of bodies, of death. He knew his eyes had beheld something that would stay with him for all the days of his life. Zander had come here, but not just for books. He'd come to see the children.

And that was when the drifted sand at the base of the building began to move.

Alicia, standing beside him, saw this first.

"Peter ... "

The sand collapsed; the virals poured forth, clawing from the sand where it had covered the basement windows. A pod of six, chased into the blazing light of midday by the flames.

They screamed. A great, high-pitched wail that shattered the air with pain and fury.

The library was fully engulfed now. Peter raised his rifle and fumbled for the trigger. His movements felt vague, without focus. Everything about the scene seemed only half real, his mind finding no traction on any of it. More virals were emerging through the heavy black smoke that roiled from the upper windows, the glass exploding in a glittering rain of shards, their flesh blazing, trailing liquid fronds of flame. It seemed that whole stretches of time had passed since he'd lifted his rifle, intending to fire. The first group had taken refuge in a pocket of shade where the library steps rose from the sand, a single huddled mass, their faces pressed to the ground like Littles in a game of hide-and-seek.

Prev Next
Romance | Vampires | Fantasy | Billionaire | Werewolves | Zombies