Swan song, p.9
Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font       Night Mode Off   Night Mode

       Swan Song, p.9

           Robert McCammon
 
Chapter 9

 

  "and one more thing," he added. "If - when - we get out. . . we might not like what we find. Everything might be changed. It might be like. . . waking up after the worst nightmare you can think of, and finding that the nightmare followed you into daylight. Understandi"

  again, Swan nodded. She'd already thought about what he was saying, because no one had ever come to get them out like her mama had said. She put on her most grown-up face and waited for him to make the next move.

  "Okay," Josh said. "Let's start digging. "

  Twenty-nine

  Josh Hutchins stared, squinted and blinked. "Light," he said, the walls of the tunnel pressing against his shoulders and back. "I see light!"

  Behind him, about thirty feet away in the basement, Swan called, "How far is iti" She was utterly filthy, and there seemed to be so much dirt up her nostrils that they might sprout gardens, too. The thought had made her giggle a few times, a sound she'd never believed she'd make again.

  "Maybe ten or twelve feet," he answered, and he continued digging with his hands and pushing the dirt behind him, then pushing it further back with his feet. The pickaxe and shovel approach had been a valiant effort, but after three days of working they'd realized the best tools were their hands. Now, as he squeezed his shoulders forward to grab more dirt, Josh looked at the weak red glimmer way up at the gopher hole's entrance and thought it was the most beautiful light he'd ever seen. Swan entered the tunnel behind him and scooped the loose dirt up in a large can, carrying it back to the basement to empty over the slit trench. Her hands, arms, face, nostrils and knees - everything that was covered with dirt - tingled all the way down to her bones. She felt like she had a flame burning in her backbone. across the basement, the young green shoots were four inches tall.

  Josh's face was plastered with dirt; even his teeth were gritty with it. The soil was heavy, with a thick, gummy consistency, and he had to stop to rest.

  "Joshi You all righti" Swan asked.

  "Yeah. Just need a minute to get my wind. " His shoulders and forearms ached mercilessly, and the last time he'd been so weary was after a ten-man battle royal in Chattanooga. The light seemed further away than he'd first reckoned, as if the tunnel - which they'd both come to love and hate - was elongating, playing a cruel trick of perception. He felt as if he'd crawled into one of those Chinese tubes that lock your fingers, one stuck into each end, except his whole body was jammed tight as a monk's jockstrap.

  He started again, bringing a double handful of the heavy earth back and underneath him as if he were swimming through dirt. My mama raised herself a gopher, he thought, and he had to grin despite his weariness. His mouth tasted like he'd been dining on mud pies.

  Six more inches dug away. One more foot. Was the light closer, or further awayi He pushed himself onward, thinking about how his mama used to scold him for not scrubbing behind his ears. another foot, and another. Behind him, Swan crawled in and carried the loose dirt out again and again, like clockwork. The light was getting closer now; he was sure of it. But now it wasn't so beautiful. Now it was sickly, not like sunlight at all. Diseased, Josh thought. and maybe deadly, too. But he kept going, one double handful after the next, inching slowly toward the outside world.

  Dirt suddenly plopped down on the back of his neck. He lay still, expecting a cave-in, but the tunnel held. For God's sake, don't stop now! he told himself, and he reached out for the next handful.

  "I'm almost there!" he shouted, but the earth muffled his voice. He didn't know if Swan had heard or not. "Just a few more feet!"

  But just short of the opening, which was not quite as large as Josh's fist, he had to stop and rest again. Josh lay staring longingly at the light, the hole about three feet away. He could smell the outside now, the bitter aromas of burned earth, scorched cornstalks and alkali. Rousing himself, he pushed onward. The earth was tougher near the surface, full of glazed stones and metallic lumps. The fire had burned the dirt into something resembling pavement. Still he strained upward, his shoulders throbbing, his gaze fixed on the hole of ugly light. and then he was close enough to thrust his hand through it, but before he tried he said, "I'm there, Swan! I'm at the top!" He clawed away dirt, and his hand reached the hole. But the underside of the surface around it felt like pebbled asphalt, and he couldn't get his fingers through. He balled up his fist, the flesh mottled gray and white, and pushed. Harder. Harder still. Come on, come on, he thought. Push, damn it!

  There was a dry, stubborn cracking sound. at first Josh thought it was his arm breaking, but he felt no pain, and he kept pushing as if trying to punch the sky.

  The earth cracked again. The hole began to crumble and widen. His fist started going through, and he envisioned what it might look like to someone standing on the surface: the blossoming of a zebra-blotched fist like a strange new flower through the dead earth, the fist opening and fingers stretching petal-like under the weak red light.

  Josh shoved his arm through almost to the elbow. Cold wind snapped at his fingertips. That movement of air exhilarated him, jarred him as if from a long somnolence. "We're out!" he shouted, about to sob with joy. "Swan! We're out!"

  She was behind him, crouched in the tunnel. "Can you see anythingi"

  "I'm going to put my head through," he told her. "Here goes. "

  He pushed upward, his shoulder following his arm, breaking the hole wider. Then his entire arm was out, and the top of his head was ready to press through. as he pushed he thought of watching his sons being born, their heads straining to enter the world. He felt as giddy and afraid as any infant could possibly be. Behind him, Swan was pushing at him, too, giving him support as he stretched to break free.

  The earth parted with a sound like baked clay snapping apart. With a surge of effort, Josh thrust his head through the opening and into a biting, turbulent wind.

  "are you there yeti" Swan asked. "What can you seei"

  Josh narrowed his eyes, his hand up to ward off flying grit.

  He saw a desolate, grayish-brown landscape, featureless except for what appeared to be the mangled remnants of the Bonneville and Darleen's Camaro. Overhead was a low sky plated with thick gray clouds. From dead horizon to dead horizon, the clouds were slowly, ponderously rotating, and here and there were quicksilver glints of harsher scarlet. Josh looked over his shoulder. about fifteen feet behind him and to his left was a large dome of dirt, mashed-down cornstalks, pieces of wood and metal from the gas pumps and cars. He realized it was the grave they'd been buried in, and at the same time he knew that if the tons of cornfield dirt hadn't sealed them in they would have been burned to death. Other than that, and a few drifts of cornstalks and debris, the land was scraped clean.

  The wind was blowing into his face. He crawled up out of the hole and sat on his haunches, looking around at the destruction, while Swan emerged from the tunnel. The cold sliced to her bones, and her bloodshot eyes moved incredulously over what had become a desert. "Oh," she whispered, but the wind stole her voice. "Everything's. . . gone. . . "

  Josh hadn't heard her. He couldn't get any sense of direction. He knew the nearest town - or what was left of it - was Salina. But which direction was east, and which westi Where was the suni Flying grit and dust obscured everything beyond twenty yards or so. Where was the highwayi "There's nothing left," Josh said, mostly to himself. "There's not a damned thing left!"

  Swan saw a familiar object lying nearby. She stood up and walked with an effort against the wind to the small figure. Most of the blue fur had been burned off of it, but its plastic eyes with the little black rolling pupils were intact. Swan reached down and picked it up. The cord with its pull ring dangled from the doll's back; she yanked it and heard the Cookie Monster ask for more cookies in a slow, distorted voice.

  Josh rose to his feet. Well, he thought, now we're out. Now what the hell do we doi Where do we goi He shook his head in disgust. Maybe there was nowhere to go. Maybe everything, everywhere
, was just like this. What was the point of leaving their basementi He looked grimly at the hole they'd just crawled from, and he thought for a moment of shimmying back down there like a big gopher and spending the rest of his days licking out cans and shitting in a slit trench.

  Careful, he warned himself. Because that hole back to the basement - back to the grave - was suddenly too appealing. Much, much too appealing. He stepped away from the hole a few paces and tried to think coherently.

  His gaze slid toward the child. She was covered with tunnel dirt, her ragged clothes flapping around her. She stared into the distance, her eyes narrowed against the wind, with that dumb doll cradled in her arms. Josh looked at her for a long time.

  I could do it, he told himself. Sure. I could make myself do it, because it would be the right thing. Might be the right thing. Wouldn't iti If everything is like this, what's the damned point of living, righti Josh opened his hands, closed them again. I could make it quick, he thought. She'd never feel a thing. and then I could just mosey over to that junk pile and find a nice piece of metal with a sharp edge and finish the job on myself, too.

  That would be the right thing to do. Wouldn't iti

  Protect the child, he thought - and a deep, terrible shame stabbed him. Some protection! he thought. But Jesus Christ, everything's gone! Everything's been blown to Hell!

  Swan turned her head, and her eyes sought his. She said something, but he couldn't understand her. She walked closer to him, shivering and bowed against the wind, and she shouted, "What are we going to doi"

  "I don't know!" he shouted back.

  "It's not like this everywhere, is iti" she asked him. "There must be other people somewhere! There must be towns and people!"

  "Maybe. Maybe not. Damn, it's cold!" He trembled; he'd been dressed for a hot July day, and now he hardly had a shirt on.

  "We can't just stand here!" Swan said. "We've got to go somewhere!"

  "Right. Well, take your choice of directions, little lady. They all look the same to me. "

  Swan stared at him for a few seconds more, and again Josh felt shamed. Then she turned in all directions as if trying to choose one. Suddenly her eyes filled with tears, and they stung so much she almost screamed; but she bit her lower lip, bit it until it almost bled. She had wished for a moment that her mama was at her side, to help her and tell her what to do. She needed her mama to guide her, now more than ever. It wasn't fair that her mama was gone! It wasn't kind, and it wasn't right!

  But that was thinking like a little girl, she decided. Her mama had gone home, to a peaceful place far from this - and Swan had to make some decisions for herself. Starting right now.

  Swan lifted her hand and pointed away from the source of the wind. "That way," she decided.

  "any particular reasoni"

  "Yes. " She turned and gave him a look that made him feel like the stupidest clown on earth. "Because the wind'll be at our backs. It'll push us, and walking won't be as hard. "

  "Oh," Josh said meekly. In the distance she'd pointed out was nothing - just swirling dust and utter desolation. He couldn't see the reason in making his legs move.

  Swan sensed he was ready to sit down, and when he did that there was no way she could pry his giant butt up again. "We worked hard to get out of there, didn't wei" she shouted to him over the wind. He nodded. "We proved we could do something if we really wanted to, didn't wei You and mei Kind of like a teami We worked hard, and we shouldn't ought to stop working hard now. "

  He nodded dully.

  "We've got to try!" Swan shouted.

  Josh looked down at the hole again. at least it was warm down there. at least they'd had food. What was so wrong with stay -

  He sensed movement from the corner of his eye.

  The little girl, Cookie Monster doll in arms, had begun to walk off in the direction she'd chosen, the wind pushing her along.

  "Hey!" Josh yelled. Swan didn't stop or slow down. "Hey!" She kept going.

  Josh took the first step after her. The wind hit him behind his knees - a clip! Fifteen yards penalty! he thought - and then caught him in the small of the back, staggering him forward. He took a second step, then a third and a fourth. and then he was following her, but the wind was so strong at his back that it seemed more like flying than walking. He caught up with her, walking a few yards off to the side, and again Josh felt a pang of shame at his weakness, because she didn't even grace him with a glance. She was walking with her chin uplifted, as if in defiance of the bleakness that faced them; Josh thought that she looked like the little queen of a realm that had been stolen from her, a tragic and determined figure.

  There's nothing out there, Swan thought. a deep, terrible sadness wrenched at her, and if the wind hadn't been pushing so hard she might've crumpled to her knees. It's all gone. all gone.

  Two tears ran through the crusted dirt and blisters on her face. Everything can't be gone, she told herself. There have to be towns and people left somewhere! Maybe a mile ahead. Maybe two. Just through the dust and over the horizon.

  She kept going, step after step, and Josh Hutchins walked at her side.

  Behind them, the gopher popped his head out of the crater and looked in all directions. Then he made a little chattering sound and disappeared again into the safety of the earth.

  Thirty

  Two figures trudged slowly along Interstate 80, with the snow-covered Pocono Mountains of eastern Pennsylvania at their backs. The fallen snow was dirty gray, and from it protruded rough rocks like warts growing in leprous flesh. New gray snow was tumbling from the sullen, sickly green and sunless sky, and it hissed softly amid the thousands of leafless black hickories, elms and oaks. The evergreens had turned brown and were losing their needles. From horizon to horizon, as far as Sister and artie could see, there was no green vegetation, not a green vine or leaf.

  The wind whipped past them, blowing the ashy snow into their faces. Both of them were bundled up with layers of clothes they'd been able to scavenge in the twenty-one days since they'd escaped from the monster that called itself Doyle Halland. They'd found a looted Sears department store on the outskirts of Paterson, New Jersey, but almost everything had been carried out of it except for some merchandise at the back, under a big sign with painted icicles that read WINTER IN JULY SaLE! SaVE THE SEaRS WaY!

  The racks and tables had been untouched, and they yielded up heavy herringbone overcoats, plaid mufflers, wool caps and gloves lined with rabbit fur. There was even thermal underwear and a supply of boots, which artie praised as being high-quality merchandise. Now, after more than one hundred miles, the boots were supple but their feet were bloody, wrapped in rags and newspapers after their socks had fallen apart.

  Both of them carried knapsacks on their backs, laden with other scavenged objects: cans of food, a can opener, a couple of sharp all-purpose knives, some kitchen matches, a flashlight and extra batteries, and the lucky find of a six-pack of Olympia beer. around her shoulder, as well, Sister supported a dark green duffel bag from the Paterson army-Navy surplus store, which had taken the place of the smaller Gucci bag and held a thermal blanket, some bottles of Perrier and a few items of packaged cold cuts found in an almost-empty grocery store. at the bottom of the duffel bag was the glass circle, placed so Sister could feel it through the canvas whenever she wanted to.

  a red plaid muffler and an electric green woolen cap protected Sister's face and head from the wind, and she was wrapped in a woolen coat over two sweaters. Baggy brown corduroy pants and leather gloves completed her wardrobe, and she moved slowly through the snow with the weight that pressed on her, but at least she was warm. artie, too, was burdened with a heavy coat, a blue muffler and two caps, one over the other. Only the area around their eyes was exposed to the blowing snow, the flesh raw and windburned. The gray, ugly snow swirled about them; the interstate pavement was covered to a depth of about four inches, and higher drifts grew amid the denuded forest and deep ra
vines on either side.

  Walking a few yards in front of artie, Sister lifted her hand and pointed to the right. She trudged over to four dark clumps lying in the snow, and she peered down at the frozen corpses of a man, a woman and two children. all were wearing summer clothes: short-sleeved shirts and light pants. The man and woman had died holding hands. Except the third finger of the woman's left hand had been chopped off. Her wedding ring, Sister thought. Somebody had cut the whole finger off to get it. The man's shoes were gone, and his feet were black. His sunken eyes glistened with gray ice. Sister turned away.

  Since crossing over into Pennsylvania, passing a big green sign that said WELCOME TO PENNSYLVaNIa, THE KEYSTONE STaTE about thirty miles and seven days ago, they had found almost three hundred frozen bodies on Interstate 80. They'd sheltered for a while in a town called Stroudsburg, which had been decimated by a tornado. The houses and buildings lay scattered under the filthy snow like the broken toys of a mad giant, and there'd been plenty of corpses, too. Sister and artie had found a pickup truck - the tank drained of gas - on the town's main thoroughfare and had slept in the cab. Then it was back onto the interstate again, heading west in their supple, blood-filled boots, passing more carnage, wrecked cars and overturned trailers that must have been caught in a crush of traffic fleeing westward.

  The going was rough. They could make, at the most, five miles a day before they had to find shelter - the remnants of a house, a barn, a wrecked car - anything to hold back the wind. In twenty-one days of traveling they'd seen only three other living people; two of those were raving mad, and the third had fled wildly into the woods when he'd seen them coming. Both Sister and artie had been sick for a while, had coughed and thrown up blood and suffered splitting headaches. Sister had thought she was going to die, and they'd slept huddled together, each of them breathing like a bellows; but the worst of the sickness and weak, feverish dizziness had gone, and though they both sometimes still coughed uncontrollably and vomited up a little blood, their strength had returned, and they had no more headaches.

  They left the four corpses behind and soon came to the wreckage of an exploded airstream trailer. a scorched Cadillac had smashed into it, and a Subaru had rear-ended the Caddy. Nearby, two other vehicles had locked and burned. Further on, another group of people lay where they'd frozen to death, their bodies curled around one another in a vain search for warmth. Sister passed them without pausing; the face of death was no stranger to her now, but she couldn't stand to look too closely.

  about fifty yards further, Sister stopped abruptly. Just ahead of her, through the tumbling snow, an animal was gnawing at one of two corpses that lay against the right-hand guardrail. The thing looked up and tensed. It was a large dog, Sister saw - maybe a wolf, come down from the mountains to feed. The beast was about the size of a German shepherd, with a long snout and a reddish-gray hide. It had chewed a leg down to the bone, and now it crouched over its prize and stared menacingly at Sister.

  If that bastard wants fresh meat, we're dead, she thought. She stared back at the thing, and they challenged each other for about thirty seconds. Then the animal gave a short, muttering growl and returned to its gnawing. Sister and artie gave it a wide berth, and they kept looking back until they'd rounded a curve and the thing was out of sight.

  Sister shuddered under her freight of clothes. The beast's eyes had reminded her of Doyle Halland's.

  Her fear of Doyle Halland was worst when darkness fell - and there seemed to be no regularity to the coming of darkness, no twilight or sense of the sun going away. The darkness might fall after two or three hours of gloom, or it might hold off for what seemed like twenty-four hours - but when it did fall, it was absolute. In the dark, every noise was enough to make Sister sit up and listen, her heart pounding and cold sweat popping up on her face. She had something the Doyle Halland-thing wanted, something he didn't understand - as she certainly did not - but that he'd vowed to follow her to get. and what would he do with the glass ring if he got iti Smash it to piecesi Probably so. She kept looking over her shoulder as she walked, fearful of seeing a dark figure coming up behind her, its face malformed, with jagged teeth showing in a sharklike grin.

  "I'll find you," he'd promised. "I'll find you, bitch. "

  The day before, they'd sheltered in a broken-down barn and had made a small fire in the hay. Sister had taken the glass ring from her duffel bag. She'd thought of her future-predicting glass eight-ball, and she'd mentally asked: What's ahead for usi

  Of course, there was no little white polyhedron surfacing with all-purpose answers. But the colors of the jewels and their pulsing, steady rhythm had soothed her; she'd felt herself drifting, entranced by the glow of the ring, and then it seemed as if all her attention, all her being, was drawn deeper and deeper into the glass, deeper and deeper, as if into the very heart of fire. . .

  and then she'd gone dreamwalking again, across that barren landscape where the dome of dirt was, and the Cookie Monster doll lay waiting for a lost child. But this time it was different; this time, she'd been dreamwalking toward the dome - with the sensation of her feet not quite touching the earth - when she suddenly stopped and listened.

  She thought she'd heard something over the noise of the wind - a muffled sound that might have been a human voice. She listened, strained to hear it again, but could not.

  and then she saw a small hole in the baked ground, almost at her feet. as she watched, she imagined that she saw the hole begin to widen, and the earth crack and strain around it. In the next moment. . . yes, yes, the earth was cracking, and the hole was getting larger, as if something was burrowing underneath it. She stared, both fearful and fascinated, as the sides of the hole crumbled, and she thought, I am not alone.

  From the hole came a human hand.

  It was splotched with gray and white - a large hand, the hand of a giant - and the thick fingers had clawed upward like those of a dead man digging himself out of a grave.

  The sight had startled her so much that she'd jerked backward from the widening hole. She was afraid to see what kind of monster was emerging, and as she ran across the empty plain she'd wished frantically, Take me back, please, I want to go back where I was. . .

  and she was sitting before the small fire in the broken-down barn. artie was looking at her quizzically, the raw flesh around his eyes like the Lone Ranger's mask.

  She'd told him what she'd seen, and he asked her what she thought it meant. Of course, she couldn't say; of course, it was probably just something plucked from her mind, perhaps a response to seeing all the corpses on the highway. Sister had put the glass ring back in her duffel bag, but the image of that hand stretching upward from the earth was burned into her brain. She could not shake it.

  Now, as she trudged through the snow, she touched the ring's outline in the canvas bag. Just knowing it was there reassured her, and right now that was all the magic she needed.

  Her knees locked.

  another wolf or wild dog or whatever it was stood in the road before her, about fifteen feet away. This one was skinny, with raw red sores on its hide. Its eyes bored into hers, and the lips slowly pulled away from the fangs in a snarl.

  Oh, shit! was her first reaction. This one looker hungrier and more desperate than the other. and behind it in the gray snow were two or three more, loping to the right and left.

  She looked over her shoulder, past artie. Two more wolf shapes were behind them, half hidden by the snow but near enough that Sister could see their outlines.

  Her second reaction was, Our butts are hambur -

  Something leapt from the left - a blur of motion - and slammed into artie's side. He yelled in pain as he fell, and the beast - which Sister thought might have been the reddish-gray animal they'd seen feasting on a corpse - grabbed part of artie's knapsack between its teeth and violently shook its head back and forth, trying to rip the pack off. Sister reached down to grasp artie's outstretched hand, but the beast dra
gged artie about ten feet through the snow before it let go and darted off just to the edge of visibility. It continued to circle and lick its chops.

  She heard a guttural growl and turned just as the skinny animal with the red sores leapt for her. It struck her shoulder and knocked her sprawling, the jaws snapping shut inches from her face with a noise like a bear trap cracking together. She smelled rotted meat on its breath, and then the animal had the right sleeve of her coat and was tearing at it. another beast feinted in from the left, and a third darted boldly forward and grabbed her right foot, trying to drag her. She thrashed and yelled; the skinny one spooked and ran, but the other one pulled her on her side through the snow. She grasped the duffel bag in both arms and kicked with her left boot, hitting the beast three times in the skull before it yelped and released her.

  Behind her, artie was attacked by two at once, from opposite sides. One caught his wrist, the teeth almost meeting flesh through his heavy coat and sweater, the second snapping at his left shoulder and worrying him with a frenzied surge of strength. "Get off! Get off!" he was screaming as they strained at each other to pull him in different directions.

  Sister tried to stand. She slipped in the snow, fell heavily again. Panic hit her like a punch to the gut. She saw artie being dragged by an animal that held his wrist, and she realized the beasts were trying to separate them, much like they might separate a herd of deer or cattle. as she was struggling up one of the things lunged in and grabbed her ankle, dragging her another few yards from artie. Now he was just a struggling form, surrounded by the shapes of the circling animals in the swirling gray murk.

  "Get away, you bastard!" she shouted. The animal jerked her so hard she thought her leg had popped from its socket. With a scream of rage, Sister swung the duffel bag at it, clipping its snout, and the thing turned tail. But a second later another one was straddling her, its fangs snapping for her throat; she threw her arm up, and the jaws clamped onto it with brutal force. The wolf-dog started shredding the cloth of her coat. She swung her left fist at it, caught it in the ribs and heard it grunt, but it kept tearing through the coat, now reaching the first layer of sweater. Sister knew this sonofabitch wasn't stopping until he tasted meat. She hit it again and tried to wrench free, but now something had her ankle again and was pulling her in another direction. She had the crazy mental image of saltwater taffy being stretched until it snapped.

  She heard a sharp crack! and thought that this time her leg had broken. But the beast that was worrying her shoulder yelped and jumped, running madly off through the snow. There was a second crack! followed closely by a third. The wolf-dog that had her ankle shuddered and shrieked, and Sister saw blood spewing from a hole in its side. The animal let her go and began to spin in a circle, snapping at its tail. a fourth shot rang out - Sister realized the beast had been pierced by a bullet - and she heard an agonized howling over where artie Wisco lay. Then the others were fleeing, slipping and sliding and crashing into one another in their haste to escape. They were gone from sight within five seconds.

  The wounded animal fell on its side a few feet away from Sister, its legs kicking frantically. She sat up, stunned and dumbfounded, and saw artie struggling to rise, too. His feet went out from under him, and he flopped down again.

  a figure wearing a dark green ski mask, a beat-up brown leather jacket and blue jeans glided past Sister. He had on snowshoes laced around battered boots, and slung around his neck was a cord that pierced the necks of three empty plastic jugs, knotted at the ends to keep them from sliding off. On his back was a dark green hiker's pack, a bit smaller than the ones Sister and artie carried.

  He stood over Sister. "You okayi" His voice sounded like steel wool scrubbing a cast-iron skillet.

  "Yeah, I think so. " She had bruises on bruises, but nothing was broken.

  He planted the rifle he was carrying butt first in the snow, then unwrapped the cord that held the plastic jugs from around his shoulder. He set these down, too, near the still-kicking animal. His pack was shrugged off, and then he unzipped it with gloved fingers and took out an assortment of various-sized Tupperware bowls with sealed plastic lids. He set them in an orderly row in the snow before him.

  artie came trudging toward them, holding his wrist. The man with the ski mask looked up quickly and then continued his work, taking off his gloves and untying one of the knots in the cord so he could slide the jugs off. "Sonofabitch get youi" he asked artie.

  "Yeah. Gashed my hand. I'm okay, though. Where'd you come fromi"

  "That way. " He jerked his head toward the woods, then began to uncap the plastic jugs with rapidly reddening fingers. The animal was still kicking violently. The man stood up, pulled his rifle out of the snow and began to smash the animal's skull in with the weapon's butt. It took a minute to finish, but then the beast made a muffled, moaning sound, trembled and lay still. "I didn't think anybody else would be coming this way," the man said. "Thought everybody was long gone by now. " He knelt again next to the body, took a knife with a long, curved blade from a pouch at his belt and cut a slit in the gray underbelly. The blood gouted. He reached for one of the plastic jugs and held it beneath the stream; the blood pattered merrily in, rapidly filling up the jug. He capped it, put it aside and reached for another as Sister and artie watched with sickened fascination. "Thought everybody else must be dead by now," he continued, paying close attention to his work. "Where are you two fromi"

  "Uh. . . Detroit," artie managed to say.

  "We came from Manhattan," Sister told him. "We're on our way to Detroit. "

  "You run out of gasi Have a blowouti"

  "No. We're walking. "

  He grunted, glanced at her and then went back to his task. The stream of blood was weakening. "Long way to walk," he said. "Hell of a long way, especially for nothing. "

  "What do you meani"

  "I mean that there's no Detroit anymore. It was blown away. Just like there's no Pittsburgh or Indianapolis or Chicago or Philadelphia anymore. I'd be surprised if any city's left. By now, I guess the radiation's done a number on the little towns, too. " The flow of blood had almost stopped. He capped the second jug, which was about half full, and then he carved a longer slit in the dead animal's belly. He thrust his naked hands into the steaming wound up to his wrists.

  "You don't know that!" artie said. "You can't know that!"

  "I know," the man replied, but he offered nothing more. "Lady," he said, "start opening those Tupperware bowls for me, will youi"

  She did as he asked, and he started pulling out handfuls of bloody, steaming intestines. He chopped them up and began filling the bowls. "Did I get that other bastardi" he asked artie.

  "Whati"

  "The other one I shot at. I think you'll remember that it was chewing on your arm. "

  "Oh. Right. Yeah. " artie watched the guts being stuffed into brightly colored Tupperware bowls. "No. I mean. . . I think you hit him, but he let me go and ran off. "

  "They can be tough motherfuckers," he said, and then he began to carve the animal's head from its neck. "Open that big bowl, lady," he told her.

  He reached up into the severed head, and the brains plopped into the big bowl.

  "You can put the lids on now," he said.

  Sister did, about to choke on the coppery smell of blood. He wiped his hands on the beast's hide and then slid the two jugs back on the cord and retied the knot; he put his gloves back on, returned the knife to its pouch and the filled Tupperware containers to his pack, and then rose to a standing position. "You two got any gunsi"

  "No," Sister said.

  "How about foodi"

  "We've. . . we've got some canned vegetables and fruit juice. and some cold cuts, too. "

  "Cold cuts," he repeated disdainfully. "Lady, you can't go very far in this weather on cold cuts. You say you've got some vegetablesi I hope it's not broccoli. I hate broccoli. "

  "No. . . we've got some corn, and green beans, and
boiled potatoes. "

  "Sounds like the makings of a stew to me. My cabin's about two miles north of here, as the crow flies. If you want to go back with me, you'll be welcome. If not, I'll say have a good trip to Detroit. "

  "What's the nearest towni" Sister asked.

  "St. Johns, I guess. Hazleton's the nearest town of any size, and that's about ten miles south of St. Johns. There may be a few people left, but after that flood of refugees washed in from the east I'd be surprised if you'd find much in any town along I-80. St. Johns is about four or five miles west. " The man looked at artie, who was dripping blood onto the snow. "Friend, that's going to attract every scavenger within smelling distance - and believe me, some of those bastards can sniff blood a long, long way. "

  "We ought to go with him," artie said to Sister. "I might bleed to death!"

  "I doubt it," the man countered. "Not from a scratch like that. It'll freeze up pretty soon, but you'll have a blood smell on your clothes. Like I say, they'll come out of the mountains with knives and forks between their teeth. But you do what you want to do; I'm hitting the trail. " He shrugged into his pack, wrapped the cord around his shoulder and picked up his rifle. "Take care," he said, and he started gliding across the snowy highway toward the woods.

  It took Sister about two more seconds to make up her mind. "Wait a minute!" He stopped. "Okay. We'll come with you, Mr. - "

  But he was already moving again, heading into the edge of the dense forest.

  They had no choice but to hurry after him. artie looked over his shoulder, terrified of more lurking predators coming up behind him. His ribs ached where the beast had hit him, and his legs felt like short pieces of soft rubber. He and Sister entered the woods after the shuffling figure of the man in the ski mask and left the highway of death behind.

  Thirty-one

  The outlines of small, blocky one-story buildings and red brick houses began to appear from the deepening scarlet gloom. a town, Josh realized. Thank God!

  The wind was still shoving mightily at his back, but after what seemed like eight hours of walking yesterday and at least five today, he was about to topple to the ground. He carried the exhausted child in his arms, as he had for the past two hours, and walked stiff-legged, the soles of his feet oozing with blisters and blood in shoes that were coming apart at the seams. He thought he must look like a zombie, or like the Frankenstein monster carrying the fainted heroine in his arms.

  They had spent last night in the windbreak of an overturned pick-up truck; bound-up bales of hay had been scattered around, and Josh had lugged them over to build a makeshift shelter that would contain their body heat. Still, they'd been out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by wasteland and dead fields, and both of them had dreaded first light because they knew they had to start walking again.

  The dark town - just a scatter of wind-ravaged buildings and a few widely spaced houses on dusty lots - beckoned him onward. He saw no cars, no hint of light or life. There was a Texaco station with one pump and a garage whose roof had collapsed. a sign flapping back and forth on its hinges advertised TUCKER'S HaRDWaRE aND FEEDS, but the store's front window was shattered and the place looked bare as Mother Hubbard's cupboard. a small cafe had also collapsed, except for the sign that read GOOD EaTS! Every step an exercise in agony, Josh walked past the crumbled buildings. He saw that dozens of paperback books lay in the dust around him, their pages flipping wildly in the restless hand of the wind, and to the left were the remains of a little clapboard structure with a hand-painted SULLIVaN PUBLIC LIBRaRY sign.

  Sullivan, Josh thought. Whatever Sullivan had once been, it was dead now.

  Something moved at the corner of his vision. He looked to the side, and something small - a jackrabbiti he wondered - darted out of sight behind the ruins of the cafe.

  Josh was stiff with cold, and he knew Swan must be freezing, too. She held onto that Cookie Monster doll like life itself and occasionally flinched in her tormented sleep. He approached one of the houses but stopped when he saw a body curled up like a question mark on the front porch steps. He headed for the next house, further along and across the road.

  The mailbox, supported on a crooked pedestal, was painted white and had what appeared to be an eye, with upper and lower lids, painted on it in black. The hand-lettered name was Davy and Leona Skelton. Josh walked across the dirt lot and up the porch steps to the screen door. "Swani" he said. "Wake up, now. " She mumbled, and he set her down; then he tried the door but found it latched from the inside. He lifted his foot and kicked at its center, knocking it off its hinges, and they crossed the porch to the front door.

  Josh had just put his hand on the knob when the door flew open and the barrel of a pistol looked him in the eyes.

  "You broke my screen door," a woman's voice said in the gloom. The pistol did not waver.

  "Uh. . . I'm sorry, ma'am. I didn't think anybody was here. "

  "Why'd you think the door was locked, theni This is private property!"

  "I'm sorry," Josh repeated. He saw the woman's gnarled finger on the trigger. "I don't have any money," he said. "I'd pay you for the door if I did. "

  "Moneyi" She hawked and spat past him. "Money ain't worth nothin' no more! Hell, a screen door is worth a bagful of gold, fella! I'd blow your damn head off if I wouldn't have to clean up the mess!"

  "If you don't mind, we'll just go on our way. "

  The woman was silent. Josh could see the outline of her head, but not her face; her head angled toward Swan. "a little girl," she said softly. "Oh, my Lord. . . a little girl. . . "

  "Leona!" a weak voice called from inside the house. "Leo - " and then it was interrupted by a strangling, terrible spasm of coughing.

  "It's all right, Davy!" she called back. "I'll be there directly!" She turned her attention to Josh again, the pistol still stuck in his face. "Where'd you two come fromi Where're you goin'i"

  "We came from. . . out there. " He motioned toward one end of the town. "and I guess we're going that way. " He motioned to the other end.

  "Not much of a travel plan. "

  "I don't guess it is," he agreed, uneasily watching the black eye of that pistol.

  She paused, looked down at the little girl again and then sighed deeply. "Well," she finally said, "since you're halfway broke in already, you might as well come on in the rest of the way. " She motioned with the gun and retreated through the doorway.

  Josh took Swan's hand, and they entered the house.

  "Shut the door," the woman said. "Thanks to you, we'll be up to our ears in dust pretty soon. "

  Josh did as she asked. a small fire was burning in the fireplace, and the woman's squat figure was outlined in red as she moved about the room. She lit a hurricane lantern on the mantel, then a second and third lantern placed strategically around the room to give the most light. The pistol was uncocked, but she kept it at her side.

  She finished with the lanterns and turned around to get a good look at Josh and Swan.

  Leona Skelton was short and wide, wearing a thick pink sweater atop ragged overalls and furry pink slippers on her feet. Her square face appeared to have been carved from an apple, then dried under the sun; there wasn't a smooth place on it for all the winding cracks and ravines. Her large, expressive blue eyes were surrounded by webs of wrinkles, and the deep lines in her broad forehead looked like a clay etching of ocean waves. Josh figured she was in her mid-to-late sixties, though her curly, swept-back hair was dyed garish red. Now, as her gaze wandered between Josh and Swan, her lips slowly parted, and Josh saw that several of her front teeth were silver.

  "God a'mighty," she said quietly. "You two got burnt, didn't youi Oh, Jesus. . . I'm sorry, I don't mean to stare, but. . . " She looked at Swan, and her face seemed to compress with pain. There was a glimmer of tears in her eyes. "Oh, Lord," Leona whispered. "Oh, my Lord, you two have been. . . hurt so bad. "

  "We're alive," Josh said. "That's what counts. "
/>
  "Yes," she agreed, nodding. Her eyes found the hardwood floor. "Forgive my rudeness. I was brought up better'n that. "

  "Leona!" the man rasped, and again he was savaged by a fit of coughing.

  "I'd best see to my husband," she said, leaving the room through a hallway. While she was gone, Josh looked around the room; it was sparsely furnished, with unpainted pine furniture and a threadbare green throw rug in front of the fireplace. He avoided peering into a mirror on one wall and walked toward a glass-fronted cabinet nearby. On the cabinet's shelves were dozens of crystal spheres of varying sizes, the smallest about pebble-sized and the largest as big as both of Josh's fists clenched together - about half as big as a bowling ball. Most of them were the size of baseballs and perfectly clear, though others held tints of blue, green and yellow. added to the collection were different kinds of feathers, some dried-out corncobs with multicolored kernels, and a couple of fragile-looking, almost transparent snake-skins.

  "Where are wei" Swan asked him, still hugging her Cookie Monster. Beneath her eyes were dark purple hollows of fatigue, and thirst burned the back of her throat.

  "a little town called Sullivan. There's not much here. It looks like everybody's already gone, except these people. " He approached the mantel to examine some framed Polaroids displayed there; in one of the pictures, Leona Skelton was sitting in a porch swing with a smiling, stout, middle-aged man who had more belly than hair, but his eyes were young and a bit mischievous behind wire-rimmed spectacles. He had his arm around Leona, and one hand appeared to be creeping toward her lap. She was laughing, her mouth full of silver flash, and her hair wasn't quite as red; in any event, she appeared to be at least fifteen years younger.

  In another picture, Leona was rocking a white cat in her arms like a baby, the cat's feet stuck up contentedly in the air. a third picture showed the pot-bellied man with a younger fellow, both of them carrying fishing rods and displaying bite-sized fish.

  "That's my family," Leona said, coming into the room. She had left the gun behind. "My husband's name is Davy, our son's named Joe and the cat's called Cleopatra. Was called Cleopatra, I mean. I buried her about two weeks ago, out back. Put her deep, so nothin' could get at her. Have you two got names, or were you hatchedi"

  "I'm Josh Hutchins. This is Sue Wanda, but she's called Swan. "

  "Swan," Leona repeated. "That's a pretty name. I'm pleased to meet the both of you. "

  "Thank you," Swan said, not forgetting her manners.

  "Oh, Lordy!" Leona bent and picked up some farming and House Beautiful magazines that had tumbled off the coffee table, and then she took a broom from the corner and started sweeping dust toward the fireplace. "House is a godawful wreck!" she apologized as she worked. "Used to be able to keep it as neat as a needle, but lately time slips away. I ain't had no visitors for quite a number of days!" She swept up the last of the dust and stood staring out a window at the red gloom and the wind-lashed remains of Sullivan. "Used to be a fine town," she said listlessly. "Had more'n three hundred people livin' right around here. Fine people, too. Ben McCormick used to say he was fat enough to make three more folks. Drew and Sissy Stimmons lived in that house, over there. " She pointed. "Oh, Sissy loved her hats! Had about thirty of 'em, wore a different hat every Sunday for thirty Sundays and then started over again. Kyle Doss owned the cafe. Geneva Dewberry ran the public library, and oh, Lordy, could she talk about books!" Her voice was getting quieter and quieter, drifting away. "Geneva said she was gonna sit down and write herself a romance someday. I always believed she would. " She motioned in another direction. "Norm Barkley lived down there at the end of the road. You can't see the house from here, though. I almost married Norman, when I was a young thing. But Davy stole me away with a rose and a kiss on a Saturday night. Yes, sir. " She nodded, and then she seemed to remember where she was. Her spine stiffened, and she returned the broom to its corner as if she were giving up a dance partner. "Well," she said, "that was our town. "

  "Where'd they all goi" Josh asked.

  "Heaven," she replied. "Or Hell. Whichever claimed them first, I reckon. Oh, some of 'em packed up and lit out. " She shrugged. "Where to, I can't say. But most of us stayed here, in our homes and on our land. Then the sickness started hitting folks. . . and Death moved in. It's like a big fist a-knockin' at your door - boom boom, boom boom, like that. and you know you can't keep it from comin' in, but you got to try. " She moistened her lips with her tongue, her eyes glazed and distant. "Sure is some kinda crazy weather for august, ain't iti Cold enough to freeze a witch's tit. "

  "You. . . do know what's happened, don't youi"

  She nodded. "Oh, yes," she said. "Lee Procter had the radio goin' full blast at the hardware store when I was there buyin' nails and wire to hang a picture. I don't know what station he was tuned to, but all of a sudden there was a godawful squallin', and this man's voice came on talkin' real fast about a state of emergency and bombs and all. Then there was a sizzlin' noise like grease in a hot skillet and the radio went dead. Couldn't raise a whisper on it. Wilma James come runnin' in, yellin' for everybody to look up at the sky. We went out and looked, and we seen the airplanes or bombs or whatever they were passin' overhead, some of 'em near about to collide with each other. and Grange Tucker said, 'It's happenin'!' armageddon is happenin'!' and he just plopped down on the curb in front of his store and watched those things fly past.

  "Then the wind came, and the dust, and the cold," she said, still staring out the window. "The sun went blood-red. Twisters passed through, and one of 'em hit the McCormick farm and just took it away, didn't leave nothin' but foundation stones. Not a trace of Ben, Ginny or the kids. 'Course, everybody in town started comin' to me, wantin' to know what lay in the future and all. " She shrugged. "I couldn't tell 'em I saw skulls where their faces used to be. How can you tell your friends somethin' like thati Well, Mr. Laney - the postman from Russell County - didn't show up, and the phone lines were down and there was no 'lectricity. We knew whatever had happened had been a whomper. Kyle Doss and Eddie Meachum volunteered to drive the twenty miles to Matheson and find out what was goin' on. They never come back. I saw skulls where their faces were, too, but what could I sayi You know, sometimes there just ain't no sense in tellin' somebody their time's about up. "

  Josh wasn't following the old woman's ramblings. "What do you mean, you saw skulls where their faces werei"

  "Oh. Sorry. I forget that everybody beyond Sullivan don't know about me. " Leona Skelton turned from the window, a faint smile on her dried-apple face. She picked up one of the lamps, walked across the room to a bookcase and withdrew a leather-bound scrapbook; she took it to Josh and opened it. "There you go," she said. "That's me. " She pointed to a yellowed picture and article, carefully scissored from a pulp magazine.

  The headline read, KaNSaS SEER FORETOLD KENNEDY DEaTH 6 MONTHS BEFORE DIXON! and below that, a smaller line proclaimed, Leona Skelton sees riches, new prosperity for america! The photograph showed a much younger Leona Skelton surrounded by cats and crystal balls.

  "That's from Fate magazine, back in 1964. See, I wrote a letter to President Kennedy warning him to stay out of Dallas, because he was giving a speech on television and I saw a skull where his face was, and then I used the tarot cards and the Ouija board and found out that Kennedy had a powerful enemy in Dallas, Texas. I even got part of the name, but it came out as Osbald. anyway, I wrote this letter, and I even made a copy of it. " She flipped the page, showing him a battered, almost illegible handwritten letter dated april 19, 1963. "Two FBI men came to the house and wanted to have a long talk with me. I was pretty calm, but they like to have scared poor Davy out of his clodhoppers! Oh, they were silky-talkin' fellas, but they could look a hole right through you! I saw they thought I was a crazy lunatic, and they told me not to write any more letters and then they left. "

  She turned another page. The headline on this article read TOUCHED BY aN aNGEL aT BIRTH, KaNSaS 'JEaNNE DIXON' VOWS. "That'
s from the National Tattler, about 1965. I just happened to mention to that writer lady that my mama always told me she had a vision of an angel in white robes kissin' my forehead when I was a baby. anyway, this one came out right after I found a little boy who'd been missin' from his folks in Kansas City. He just got mad and ran away from home, and he was hidin' in an old house about two blocks away. " She flipped more pages, proudly pointing to different articles from the Star, the Enquirer, and Fate magazine. The last article, in a small Kansas newspaper, was printed in 1987. "I haven't been doin' so well lately," she said. "Sinus trouble and arthritis. Kinda clouded me up, I guess. anyway, that's who I am. "

  Josh grunted. He'd never believed in extrasensory perception, but from what he'd witnessed lately, anything was possible. "I noticed your crystal balls over there. "

  "That's my most favorite collection! Those are from all over the world, you know!"

  "They're real pretty," Swan added.

  "Thank you kindly, little lady. " She smiled down at Swan, then returned her gaze to Josh. "You know, I didn't see this thing happenin'. Maybe I'm gettin' too old to see much anymore. But I had a bad, deep-down gut feelin' about that astro-nut president. I thought he was the kind to let too many cooks stir the pot. Davy and me, neither one of us voted for him, no sir!"

  The coughing rattled from the back room again. Leona cocked her head, listening intently, but the coughing faded, and Leona visibly relaxed once more. "I don't have much to offer in the way of food," she explained. "Got some old corn muffins as hard as cinder blocks and a pot of vegetable soup. I can still do my cookin' over the fireplace, but I've gotten used to eatin' food that's as cold as a virgin's bed. Got a well in the back yard that still pumps up clean water. So you're welcome to whatever you'll have. "

  "Thank you," Josh said. "I think some soup and corn muffins would be pretty fine, cold or not. Is there any way I can get some of this dirt off mei"

  "You mean you want to take a bathi" She thought for a minute. "Well, I reckon we can do it the old-fashioned way: heat buckets of water in the fire and fill the tub up like that. Little lady, I expect you ought to scrub up, too. 'Course, my drains might clog with all the dirt, and I don't believe the plumber makes housecalls anymore. What've you two been doin'i Rollin' in the groundi"

  "Sort of," Swan said. She thought a bath - warm water or cold - was a fine idea. She knew she smelled like a pigsty; still, she was afraid of what her skin might look like under all the dirt. She knew it wasn't going to be very pretty.

  "I'll fetch you a couple of buckets, then, and you can pump your own water. Which one wants to go firsti"

  Josh shrugged and motioned to Swan.

  "all righty. I'd help you pump, but I've got to be close to Davy in case he has a spell. You bring the buckets in, and we'll warm 'em up in the fireplace. I've got a nice claw-footed bathtub that hasn't nestled a body since this damned mess started. "

  Swan nodded and said thank you, and Leona Skelton waddled off to get the buckets from the kitchen. In the back bedroom, Davy Skelton coughed violently a few times, then the noise subsided.

  Josh was tempted to step back there and take a look at the man, but didn't. That coughing sounded bad; it reminded him of Darleen's coughing just before she'd died. He figured it must be radiation poisoning. "The sickness started hitting folks," Leona had said. Radiation poisoning must have wiped out almost the whole town. But it had occurred to Josh that some people might be able to resist the radiation better than others; maybe it poleaxed some right off and slowly crept up on the rest. He was tired and weak from walking, but otherwise he felt okay; Swan, too, was in pretty good shape except for her burns, and Leona Skelton seemed healthy enough. Back in the basement, Darleen had been fit and boisterous one day, laid low and scalding with fever the next. Maybe some people could go for weeks or months without feeling the full effects of it. He hoped.

  But right now the idea of a warm bath and a meal eaten from a bowl with a real spoon made him delirious. "You okayi" he asked Swan, who stared into space.

  "I'm better," she replied, but her mind had drifted back to her mama, lying dead under the dirt, and to what PawPaw - or whatever had taken hold of PawPaw - had said. What did it meani What was the giant supposed to protect her fromi and why heri

  She thought of the green seedlings growing from the dirt in the shape of her body. Nothing like that had ever happened to her before. She really hadn't even had to do anything, not even knead the dirt between her hands. Of course, she was used to the tingling sensation, to feeling sometimes like a fountain of energy was coming up from the earth and through her backbone. . . but this was different.

  Something had changed, she thought. I could always make flowers grow. Bringing them up from wet earth when the sun shone down was easy. But she'd made grass grow in the dark, without water, and she hadn't even tried. Something had changed.

  and it came to her, just like that: I'm stronger than I was before.

  Josh crossed to the window and peered out at the dead town, leaving Swan alone with her thoughts. a figure caught his attention out there - a small animal of some kind, standing in the wind. Its head lifted, watching Josh. a dog, he realized. a little terrier. They stared at each other for a few seconds - and then the dog darted away.

  Good luck to you, he thought, and then he turned away, because he knew the animal was bound to die, and he had a sickened gutful of death. Davy coughed twice and called weakly for Leona. She brought the buckets in from the kitchen for Swan's bathwater, and then she hurried back to see about her husband.

  Thirty-two

  Sister and artie had found a little piece of Heaven.

  They walked into a small log cabin, hidden in a grove of naked evergreens on the shore of an ice-skimmed lake, and into the wonderful warmth of a kerosene space heater. Tears almost burst from Sister's eyes as she stumbled across the threshold, and artie gasped with pleasure.

  "This is the place," the man in the ski mask said.

  Four other people were already in the cabin: a man and woman, both dressed in ragged summer clothing, who appeared to be young, maybe in their early twenties - but it was hard to tell, because both of them had severe, brown-crusted burns in weird geometric shapes on their faces and arms and under the torn places of their clothing. The young man's dark hair hung almost to his shoulders, but the crown of his scalp was burned bald and splotched with the brown marks. The woman might have been pretty, with large blue eyes and the fine bones of a fashion model, but her curly auburn hair was almost all scorched away, and the brown crusted marks lay diagonally, like precise penstrokes, across her face. She was wearing cutoff blue jeans and sandals, and her bare legs were also splotched with burns. Her feet were swathed in rags, and she was curled up next to the heater.

  The other two were a thin older man, maybe in his mid-fifties, with bright blue burns disfiguring his face, and a teen-aged boy, sixteen or so, wearing jeans and a T-shirt with BLaCK FLaG LIVES! in untidy, scrawled letters on the front. Two small studs were pinned in the boy's left earlobe, and he had all of his rooster-cut orange hair, but gray burn marks streamed down his strong-jawed face as if someone had lit a candle over his forehead and let the wax drip. His deep-socketed green eyes watched Sister and artie with a hint of amusement.

  "Meet my other guests," the man in the ski mask said, laying his pack on a bloodstained porcelain counter next to the sink after he'd shut the door and latched it. "Kevin and Mona Ramsey" - he motioned toward the young couple - "Steve Buchanan" - toward the teenage boy - "and the most I can get out of the old man is that he's from Union City. I didn't get your names. "

  "artie Wisco. "

  "You can call me Sister," she said. "What's yoursi"

  He peeled off the ski mask and hung it on the hook of a coatrack. "Paul Thorson," he told her. "Citizen of the world. " He took off the jugs of blood and lifted the Tupperware bowls with their grisly contents from his pack.

  Sister was shock
ed. Paul Thorson's face was unmarked by burns, and it had been a long time since Sister had seen a normal human face. He had long black hair flecked with gray, and gray swirled back from the corners of his mouth in his full black beard. His flesh was white from lack of sunshine, but it was weathered and wrinkled, and he had a high, deeply creased forehead and the rough-hewn look of an outdoorsman. Sister thought he resembled a mountain man, somebody who might have lived alone in a shack and come down to the valley only to trap beavers or something. Beneath black eyebrows, his eyes were a frosty gray-blue surrounded by dark circles of weariness. He shrugged off his parka - which had made him appear a lot heftier than he actually was - and hung that up as well, then started dumping the contents of the bowls into the sink. "Sister," he said, "let's have some of those vegetables you're carrying around. We're going to have asshole stew tonight, folks. "

  "asshole stewi" Sister asked, and frowned. "Uh. . . what the hell is thati"

  "It means you're a stupid asshole if you don't eat it, because that's all we've got. Come on, let's have the cans. "

  "We're going to eat. . . thati" artie recoiled from the bloody mess. His ribs were hurting, and he had his hand pressed on the pain under his coat.

  "It's not too bad, man," the teenager with orange hair said, in a flat Brooklyn accent. "You get used to it. Hell, one of those fuckers tried to eat me. Serves 'em right to be eaten by us, huhi"

  "absolutely," Paul agreed, going to work with his knife.

  Sister took off her pack, opened the duffel bag and gave him some of the canned vegetables. Paul opened them with a can opener and dumped them into a big iron pot.

  Sister shuddered, but the man obviously knew what he was doing. The cabin seemed to be only two large rooms. In this front room, along with the space heater, was a small fireplace of rough stones, a fire burning cheerfully within it and throwing off more warmth and light. a few candles melded to saucers and a kerosene lamp were set around the room, which contained two unrolled sleeping bags, a cot, and a nest of newspapers tucked away in a corner. a cast-iron stove and a good-sized pile of split logs stood on the other side of the room, and when Paul said, "Steve, you can get the stove going now," the boy got up off the floor, took a shovel from beside the fireplace and put burning pieces of wood into the stove. Sister felt a new rush of joy. They were going to have a hot meal!

  "It's time now," the old man spoke up, looking at Paul. "It's time, isn't iti"

  Paul glanced at his wristwatch. "Nope. Not quite yet. " He continued chopping up the intestines and brains, and Sister noted that his fingers were long and slender. He had artistic hands, she thought - particularly unsuited to the task they were now performing.

  "This your placei" she asked.

  He nodded. "Been living here. . . oh, about four years now. During the summer, I'm the caretaker for the Big Pines Ski area, about six or seven miles that way. " He motioned in the direction of the lake behind the cabin. "In the winter, I cozy on in and live off the land. " He glanced up and smiled grimly. "Winter came early this year. "

  "What were you doing on the highwayi"

  "The wolves go up there to chow down. I go up there to hunt wolves. That's how I found all these other poor souls, wandering around on I-80. I've found quite a few more, too. Their graves are out back. I'll show you, if you like. "

  She shook her head.

  "See, the wolves have always lived in the mountains. They've never had reason to come down before. They eat rabbits, deer, and whatever other animals they can find. But now the small animals are dying in their holes, and the wolves can smell new food. So they're coming down in droves to Supermarket I-80 for the freshest meat. These people made it here before the snow started falling - if you can call that radioactive shit snow. " He grunted with disgust. "anyway, the food chain's been knocked off kilter. No small animals for the big ones to eat. Just people. and the wolves are getting real desperate - and real brave. " He plopped the hunks of innards into the pot, then uncapped one of the blood jugs and poured the stuff in. The smell of blood permeated the room. "More wood in there, Steve. We want this shit to boil. "

  "Right. "

  "I know it's time!" the old man whined. "It's got to be!"

  "No, it's not," Kevin Ramsey told him. "Not until after we've had our food. "

  Paul added the other jug of blood to the pot and began to stir it with a wooden spoon. "You people might as well take off your coats and stay for dinner, unless you want to head for the next restaurant down the road. "

  Sister and artie looked at each other, both of them queasy from the smell of the stew. Sister was the first to take off her gloves, coat and woolen cap, and then artie reluctantly did the same.

  "Okay. " Paul lifted the pot and put it on one of the stove's burners. "Stoke that baby's engine and let's get the fire up. " as Steve Buchanan worked on the fire, Paul turned to a cupboard and produced a bottle that still had a little red wine left in it. "This is the last soldier," he told them. "Everybody gets one good jolt. "

  "Wait. " Sister unzipped her knapsack again and brought out the six-pack of Olympia beer. "This might go better with the stew. "

  Their eyes lit up like penny candles.

  "My God!" Paul said. "Lady, you just bought my soul. " He gingerly touched the six-pack as if afraid it might evaporate, and when it didn't, he worked one can from its plastic ring. He shook it carefully, was pleased to find it hadn't frozen. Then he popped the tab and tilted it to his mouth, drinking long and deep with his eyes closed in rapture.

  Sister handed beers to everyone but artie and shared the bottle of Perrier with him. It wasn't as satisfying as the beer, but it tasted fine anyway.

  The asshole stew made the cabin reek like a slaughterhouse. From outside came a low, distant howling.

  "They smell it," Paul said, glancing out a window. "Oh, those bastards are going to be all around this place in a few minutes!"

  The howling continued and grew as more wolf voices added dissonant notes and vibrato.

  "It's got to be time!" the old man insisted after he'd finished his beer. "Isn't iti"

  "It's almost time. " Mona Ramsey had a gentle, lovely voice. "But not yet. Not yet. "

  Steve was stirring the pot. "It's boiling. I think the shit's as ready as it's gonna be. "

  "Great. " artie's stomach was about to curdle.

  Paul ladled the stew out in brown clay bowls. It was thicker than Sister had thought it would be, and the smell was heavy, but not quite as bad as some of the things she'd scavenged from garbage bags back in Manhattan. The stuff was dark red, and if you didn't look too closely you might have thought it was just a bowl of hearty beef stew.

  Outside, the wolves howled in unison, much closer to the cabin than before, as if they knew that one of their kin was about to go down human gullets.

 
Turn Navi Off
Turn Navi On
Scroll Up
Scroll

ROBERT MCCAMMON SERIES:

Matthew Corbett
Michael Gallatin

 

Other author's books:


Add comment

Add comment