The Passage Page 75

And yet the longer he stood there, skulking in the shadows, the more his impulse to douse the lights seemed wholly unrelated to, and hence beyond the reach of, the idea of his sleeping family. He felt strange within himself, very strange, as if his vision were collapsing. He stepped away from his house and by the time he reached the base of the Wall, he knew what he had to do. He felt an overwhelming relief, soothing as a bath of water, as he ascended the ladder, which connected with Firing Platform Nine. Firing Platform Nine was known as the odd-man post; because of its location above the cutout, an irregularity in the shape of the Wall to accommodate the power trunk, it was not visible from either of the adjacent platforms. It was the worst duty, the loneliest duty, and this was where Jimmy knew Soo Ramirez would be tonight.

Though her emotions had yet to consolidate into anything more specific than a nameless dread, Soo as well had been feeling troubled all night. But these feelings, of something vaguely not right, were diffused by other, more personal recriminations: the array of disappointments brought about by being asked to step down as First Captain. As Soo had discovered in the hours since the inquest, this was not an entirely unwelcome development-the responsibilities had begun to take their toll-and she would've had to step down eventually. But getting herself fired was hardly the way she wanted to do it. She'd gone straight home and sat in her kitchen and cried for a good two hours. Forty-three years old, nothing ahead of her but nights on the catwalk and the odd dutiful meal with Cort, who meant well enough but who'd run out of things to say to her about a thousand years ago; the Watch was all she had. Cort was in the stables like always, and for a minute or two she wished he was at home, though it was just as well he wasn't, since he probably would have just stood there with that helpless look on his face, not moving to comfort her, such gestures being completely beyond his powers of expression. (Three dead babies inside her-three!-and he'd never known what to say even then. But that was years ago.)

She had no one to blame but herself. That was the worst part about it. Those stupid books! Soo had come across them at Share, idly sifting through the bins where Walter kept the stuff nobody wanted. It was all because of those stupid books! Because once she'd cracked the binding on the first one-she'd actually sat down on the floor to read, folding her legs under her like a Little in circle-she'd felt herself being sucked down into it, like water down a drain. ("Why, if it isn't Mr. Talbot Carver," exclaimed Charlene DeFleur, descending the stairs in her long rustling ball gown, her eyes wide in an expression of frank alarm at the sight of the tall, broad-shouldered man standing in the hallway in his dusty riding breeches, the fabric smoothly taut against his virile form. "What ever could you intend, coming here while my father is away?") Belle of the Ball by Jordana Mixon; The Passionate Press, Irvington, New York, 2014. There was a picture of the author inside the back cover: a smiling woman with flowing handfuls of dark hair, reclining on a bed of lacy pillows. Her arms and throat were bare; atop her head was perched a peculiar, disklike hat-a hat not large enough even to keep the rain off.

By the time Walter Fisher had appeared by the bin, Soo had read to chapter three; the sound of his voice was so intrusive, so alien to her experience of the words on the pages, that she actually jumped. Anything good? Walter asked, his eyebrows lifting inquisitively. You seem pretty interested. Seeing as it's you, Walter went on, I can let you have the whole box for an eighth. Soo should have bargained, that's what you did with Walter Fisher, the price was never the price; but in her heart she'd already bought them. Okay, she said, and hoisted the box off the floor. You've got yourself a deal.

The Lieutenant's Lover, Daughter of the South, The Hostage Bride, A Lady at Last: never in all her life had Soo read anything like these books. Whenever Soo imagined the Time Before, the thought was synonymous with machines-cars and engines and televisions and kitchen stoves and other things of metal and wire she had seen in Banning but did not know the purpose of. She supposed it had also been a world of people, too, all kinds of people, going about their business in the day-to-day. But because these people were gone, leaving behind only the ruined machines they had made, the machines were what she thought of. And yet the world she found between the covers of these books did not appear so very different from her own. The people rode horses and heated their homes with wood and lit their rooms with candlelight, and this material sameness had surprised her, while also opening her mind to the stories, which were happy stories of love. There was sex, too, lots of sex, and it wasn't at all like the sex she knew with Cort. It was fiery and passionate, and sometimes she found herself wanting to hurry through the pages to get to one of these scenes, though she didn't; she wanted to make it last.

She never should have brought one to the Wall that night, the night the girl had appeared. That was her big mistake. Soo hadn't meant to, not really; she'd been carrying the book around in her pouch all day, hoping for a free minute, and had forgotten it was there. Well, maybe not forgotten, not exactly; but certainly it hadn't been Soo's intention, as things had occurred, that she should decide to make a quick visit to the Armory-where, alone in the quiet with no one to see her, she had pulled it out and started to read. The book she'd brought was Belle of the Ball (she'd read them all and started over), and encountering its opening passages for the second time-the impetuous Charlene descending the stairs to find the arrogant and mutton-whiskered Talbot Carver, her father's rival, whom she loved but also hated-Soo found herself instantly reliving the pleasures of her first discovery, a feeling magnified by the knowledge that Charlene and Talbot, after much hemming and hawing, would find each other in the end. That was the best thing about the stories in the books: they always ended well.

These were Soo's thoughts when, twenty-four hours later, busted from First Captain, Belle of the Ball still stashed in her pouch (why couldn't she just leave the damn thing at home?), she heard footsteps ascending behind her and turned to see Jimmy Molyneau climbing off the ladder onto Firing Platform Nine. Of course it would be Jimmy. Probably he had come to gloat, or apologize, or some awkward combination of the two. Though he was hardly one to talk, Soo thought bitterly, not showing up at First Bell.

Jimmy? she said. Where the hell have you been?

· · ·

The night was inhabited by dreams. In the houses and barracks, in the Sanctuary and Infirmary, dreams moved through the dozing souls of First Colony, alighting here and there, like wafting spirits.

Some, like Sanjay Patal, had a secret dream, one they'd been having all their lives. Sometimes they were aware of this dream and sometimes they were not; the dream was like an underground river, constantly flowing, that might from time to time rise to the surface, briefly washing their daylight hours with its presence, as if they were walking in two worlds at the same time. Some dreamed of a woman in her kitchen, breathing smoke. Others, like the Colonel, dreamed of a girl, alone in the dark. Some of these dreams became nightmares-what Sanjay did not remember, had never remembered, was the part of the dream that involved the knife-and sometimes the dream wasn't like a dream at all; it was more real than reality itself, it sent the dreamer stumbling helplessly into the night.

Where did they come from? What were they made of? Were they dreams or were they something more-intimations of a hidden reality, an invisible plane of existence that revealed itself only at night? Why did they feel like memories, and not just memories-someone else's memories? And why, on this night, did the entire population of First Colony seem to lapse into this dreamer's world?

In the Sanctuary, one of the three J's, Little Jane Ramirez, daughter of Belle and Rey Ramirez-the same Rey Ramirez who, having found himself suddenly and terrifyingly alone at the power station, and troubled by dark urges he could neither contain nor express, was, at that moment, cooking himself to a crisp on the electrified fence-was dreaming of a bear. Jane had just turned four years old. The bears she knew were the ones in books and in stories Teacher told-large, mild creatures of the forest whose hairy bulk and gentle faces were the seat of a benign animal wisdom-and that was true of the bear in her dream, at least at the beginning. Jane had never seen an actual bear, but she had seen a viral. She was among the Littles of the Sanctuary who had actually beheld the viral Arlo Wilson with her own eyes. She had been rising from her cot, which was positioned in the last row, farthest from the door-she was thirsty and had meant to ask Teacher for a cup of water-when he had burst through the window in a great shattering of glass and metal and wood, landing practically on top of her. She had thought at first it was a man, because it seemed like a man, with a man's displacement and presence. But he wasn't wearing any clothes, and there was something different about him, especially his eyes and mouth, and the way he seemed to glow. He was looking at her in a sad way-his sadness seemed suggestively bearlike-and Jane was about to ask him what was wrong and why he glowed like that when she heard a cry behind her and turned to see Teacher racing toward them. She passed over Jane like a cloud, the blade she kept hidden in a sheath beneath her billowing skirt clutched in her outstretched hand, one arm raised over her head to bring it down upon him like a hammer. The next part Jane did not see-she had dropped to the floor and begun to scramble away-but she heard a soft cry and a ripping sound and the thud of something falling. This was followed by more yelling-"Over here!" someone was saying, "look over here!"-and then more screams and shouts and a general commotion of grown-ups, of mothers and fathers coming in and out, and the next thing Jane knew she was being pulled from under her cot and whisked with all the other Littles up the stairs by a woman who was crying. (Only later did she realize that this woman was her mother.)

Nobody had explained these confusing events, nor had Jane told anyone what she'd seen. Teacher was nowhere around; some of the Littles-Fanny Chou and Bowow Greenberg and Bart Fisher-were whispering that she was dead. But Jane didn't think she was. To be dead was to lie down and sleep forever, and the woman whose airborne leap she had witnessed did not seem even slightly tired. Just the opposite: at that moment, Teacher had seemed wondrously, powerfully alive, animated by a grace and strength that Jane had never experienced-that even now, a whole night later, excited and embarrassed her. Hers was a compact existence of compact movements, a place of order and safety and quiet routine. There were the usual squabbles and hurt feelings, and days when Teacher seemed cross from beginning to end, but in general the world Jane knew was bathed in an essential mildness. Teacher was the source of this feeling; it radiated from her person in a blush of maternal warmth, as the rays of the sun heated the air and earth; but now, in the perplexing aftermath of the night's events, Jane sensed she had glimpsed something secret about this woman who had so selflessly cared for all of them.

That was when it had occurred to Jane that the thing she'd seen was love. It could be nothing less than the force of love that had lifted Teacher into the air, into the waiting arms of the glowing bear-man, whose light was the radiance of royalty. He was a bear-prince who had come to take her away to his castle in the forest. So perhaps that was where Teacher had gone off to now, and why all the Littles had been moved upstairs: to wait for her. When she returned to them, her rightful identity as a queen of the forest revealed, they would be brought back downstairs to the Big Room, to welcome and celebrate her with a grand party.

These were the stories Jane was telling herself as she fell asleep in a room with fifteen other sleeping Littles, all dreaming their various dreams. In Jane's dream, which commenced as a rewriting of the prior night's events, she was jumping up and down on her bed in the Big Room when she saw the bear come in. He did not enter through the window this time but through the door, which seemed small and far away, and he was different than he'd been the night before, fat and woolly like the bears in books, lumbering his wise and friendly way toward her on all fours. When he reached the foot of Jane's bed he sat on his haunches and gradually drew himself upright, revealing the downy carpet of his great smooth tummy, his immense bear head and damp bear eyes and huge, paddled hands. It was a wonderful thing to see, strange and yet expected, like a present Jane had always believed would arrive, and her four-year-old's heart was moved to a rush of admiration for this great noble being. He stood in this manner a moment, taking her in with a thoughtful expression, then said to Jane, who had continued her happy bouncing, addressing her in the rich, masculine tone of his woodland home, Hello, Little Jane. I'm Mister Bear. I have come to eat you up.

This came out as funny-Jane felt a tickling in her stomach that was the beginning of a laugh-but the bear did not react, and as the moment elongated, she noticed there were other aspects to his person, disturbing aspects: his claws, which emerged in white curves from his mittlike paws; his wide and powerful jaws; his eyes, which did not seem friendly or wise anymore but dark with unknowable intention. Where were the other Littles? Why was Jane alone in the Big Room? But she wasn't alone; Teacher was in the dream now also, standing beside the bed. She looked as she always looked, though there was something vague about the features of her face, as if she were wearing a mask of gauzy fabric. Come on now, Jane, urged Teacher. He's already eaten all the other Littles. Be good and stop that jumping so Mister Bear can eat you up. I-don't-want-to, Jane replied, still bouncing, for she did not want to be eaten-a request that seemed more silly than frightening, but even so. I-don't-want-to. I mean it, warned Teacher, her voice rising. I am asking you nicely, Little Jane. I am going to count to three. I-don't-want-to, Jane repeated, applying the greatest possible vigor to her defiant bouncing. I-don't-want-to. Do you see? said Teacher, turning to the bear, who had continued his upright vigil at the foot of the cot. She raised her pale arms in exasperation. Do you see now? This is what I have to put up with, all day long. It's enough to make a person lose her mind. Okay, Jane, she said, if that's how you're going to be. Don't say I didn't warn you.

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