Swan Song Chapter 7

Sister thought Beth Phelps had gone into some kind of trance. She'd watched Beth's eyes suddenly glaze over. Like artie, Beth hadn't moved for over thirty seconds. "Hey!" Sister said. She reached out and poked Beth. "Hey, what's wrong with youi"

Beth looked up. Her eyes cleared. "Whati"

"Nothing. I think it's time we got some rest." Sister started to take the glass circle back, but the Spanish woman abruptly grabbed it and scrambled away, sinking down amid the broken stones and clasping it to her body. Both Sister and Beth stood up - and Beth thought she felt her stomach slosh.

Sister walked to the Spanish woman, who was sobbing with her head bent over. Sister knelt beside her and said gently, "Come on, let me have that back, okayi"

"Mi niia me perdona," the woman sobbed. "Madre de Dios, mi niia me perdona."

"What's she sayingi" Beth asked, standing behind Sister.

"I don't know." Sister put her hand around the glass ring and slowly pulled it toward her. The Spanish woman held onto it, shaking her head back and forth. "Come on," Sister urged. "Let me have it - "

"My child forgives me!" the Spanish woman suddenly said. Her eyes were wide and full of tears. "Mother of God, I saw my child's face in this! and she said she forgives me! I'm free! Mother of God, I'm free!"

Sister was stunned. "I... didn't think you knew English."

Now it was the Spanish woman's turn to blink dazedly. "Whati"

"What's your namei How come you haven't spoken English before thisi"

"My name is Julia. Julia Castillo. Englishi I don't... know what you mean."

"Either I'm crazy or she is," Sister said. "Come on, let me have this." She pulled the ring away, and Julia Castillo let it go. "Okay. Now how come you haven't spoken English before now, Juliai"

"No comprendo," she replied. "Good morning. Good day. I am happy to see you, sir. Thank you." She shrugged and motioned vaguely southward. "Mantanzas," she said. "Cuba."

Sister turned her head toward Beth, who had stepped back a couple of paces and had a weird expression on her face. "Who's crazy, Bethi Julia or mei Does this lady know English or noti"

Beth said, "She... was speaking in Spanish. She never said one word of English. Did you... understand what she saidi"

"Hell yes, I understood her! Every damned word! Didn't..." She stopped speaking. Her hand holding the glass ring was tingling. Beyond the bonfire, artie suddenly sat up and hiccuped. "Hey!" he said in a slightly slurred voice. "Where's the partyi"

Sister held the glass circle out toward Julia Castillo again. The Spanish woman touched it hesitantly. "What did you say about Cubai" Sister asked.

"I'm... from Mantanzas, in Cuba," Julia replied, in perfect English. Her eyes were large and puzzled. "My family came over in a fishing boat. My father could speak a little English, and we came north to work in a shirt factory. How do you... know my languagei"

Sister looked at Beth. "What do you heari Spanish or Englishi"

"Spanish. Isn't that what you heardi"

"No." She pulled the ring out of Julia's grasp. "Now say something. Say anything."

Julia shook her head. "Lo siento, no comprendo."

Sister stared at Julia for a moment, and then she slowly lifted the ring closer to her face to peer into its depths. Her hand was trembling, and what felt like little jolts of energy coursed through her forearm to her elbow. "It's this," Sister said. "This glass thing. I don't know why or how, but... this thing lets me understand her, and she can understand me, too. I heard her speak English, Beth... and I think she heard me speak Spanish."

"That's crazy!" Beth said, but she thought of the cool stream that had flowed across her lap, and her throat that was no longer parched. "I mean... it's just glass and jewels, isn't iti"

"Here." Sister offered it to her. "Find out for yourself."

Beth traced one of the spires with a finger. "The Statue of Liberty," she said.


"The Statue of Liberty. That's what this reminds me of. Not the statue itself, but... the lady's crown. "She lifted the circle to her head, the spires jutting up. "Seei It could be a crown, couldn't iti"

"I've never seen a lovelier princess," said a man's voice, from the darkness beyond the bonfire.

Instantly Beth had the glass circle protected in her arms and was backing away from the direction of the voice. Sister tensed. "Who's therei" She sensed movement: Someone was walking slowly across the ruins, approaching the firelight's edge.

He stepped into the light. His gaze lingered on each of them in turn. "Good evening," he said politely, addressing Sister.

He was a tall, broad-shouldered man with a regal bearing, dressed in a dusty black suit. a brown blanket was wrapped around his shoulders and throat like a peasant's serape, and across his pallid, sharp-chinned face were the scarlet streaks of deep burns, like welts inflicted by a whip. a blood-crusted gash zigzagged across his high forehead, cut through his left eyebrow and ended at his cheekbone. Most of his reddish-gray hair remained, though there were bare spots the size of silver dollars on his scalp. The breath curled from his nose and mouth. "Is it all right if I come neareri" he asked, his voice pained and halting.

Sister didn't answer. The man waited. "I won't bite," he said.

He was shivering, and she could not deny him the fire. "Come ahead," she said cautiously, and she stepped back as he did.

He winced as he hobbled forward, and Sister saw what was hurting him: a jagged splinter of metal had pierced his right leg just above the knee and stuck out about three inches on the other side. He passed between Sister and Beth and went straight to the fire, where he warmed his outstretched hands. "ah, that feels good! It must be thirty degrees out there!"

Sister had felt the cold as well, and she returned to the fire. Behind her, Julia and Beth, who was still protectively clinging to the glass ring, followed.

"Who the hell are youi" artie stared bleary-eyed across the bonfire.

"My name is Doyle Halland," the man answered. "Why didn't you people leave with the rest of themi"

"The rest of whoi" Sister asked, still watching him warily.

"The ones who got out. Yesterday, I guess it was. Hundreds of them, leaving" - he smiled wanly and waved his hand around - "leaving the Garden State. Maybe there are shelters further west. I don't know. anyway, I didn't expect anyone was left."

"We came from Manhattan," Beth told him. "We made it through the Holland Tunnel."

"I didn't think anybody could've lived through what hit Manhattan. They say it was at least two bombs. Jersey City burned fast. and the winds... my God, the winds." He closed his fists before the flames. "It was a tornado. More than one, I think. The winds just... tore buildings off their foundations. I was lucky, I suppose. I got into a basement, but the building blew apart over my head. The wind did this." He gingerly touched the metal splinter. "I've heard of tornadoes putting straws unbroken through telephone poles. I guess this is about the same principle, huhi" He looked at Sister. "I realize I'm not at my best, but why are you staring at me like thati"

"Where'd you come from, Mr. Hallandi"

"Not far. I saw your fire. If you don't want me to stay, just say so."

Sister was ashamed of what she'd been thinking. He winced again, and she saw that fresh blood had begun to ooze around the splinter. "I don't own this place. You can stay wherever you please."

"Thank you. It's not a pleasant night to be walking." His gaze moved to the sparkle of the glass circle Beth was holding. "That thing shines, doesn't iti What is iti"

"It's..." She couldn't find the right word. "It's magic," she blurted out. "You won't believe what just happened! You see that woman over therei She can't speak English, and this thing - "

"It's junk," Sister interrupted, taking it from Beth. She didn't trust this stranger yet, and she didn't want him knowing any more about their treasure. "It's just shiny junk, that's all." She put it into the bottom of her bag, and the glow of the gems faded and went out.

"You want shiny junki" the man inquired. "I'll show you some." He looked around, then hobbled away a few yards and painfully bent down. He picked up something and brought it back to the fire. "Seei It shines just like yours," he said, showing them what he held.

It was a piece of stained-glass window, a swirl of deep blue and purple.

"You're standing in what used to be my church," he said, and he pulled the blanket away from his throat to reveal the soiled white collar of a priest. Smiling bitterly, he tossed the colored glass into the fire.  


In the darkness, sixteen civilians - men, women and children - and three badly injured members of Colonel Macklin's army struggled to work the tightly jammed puzzle of rocks loose from the lower-level corridor. It's only six feet to the food, Macklin had told them, six feet. It won't take you long to break through, once you get a hole opened. The first one to reach that food gets a triple ration.

They had been laboring in total darkness for almost seven hours when the rest of the ceiling caved in on their heads with no warning.

Roland Croninger, on his knees in the cafeteria's kitchen, felt the floor shake. Screams drifted up through an air vent - and then silence.

"Damn!" he said, because he knew what had happened. Who was going to clear that corridor nowi But then, on the other side of the coin, the dead didn't use up air. He went back to his task of scooping up bits of food from the floor and putting them into a plastic garbage bag.

He'd suggested that Colonel Macklin set up headquarters in the gymnasium. They'd found a treasure: a mop bucket, in which they could store the toilet bowl water. When Roland, his stomach gnawing with hunger, had left them to forage in the kitchen, both Macklin and Captain Warner had been asleep; Roland had the Ingram gun on a strap around his shoulder, and the handle of the holy axe was secured by his waistband. Near him, the flashlight lay on the floor, illuminating clumps of food that had exploded from cans in the pantry. The kitchen garbage pails had yielded some finds, too: banana peels, bits of tomato, cans with not all their contents quite scraped out, and a few breakfast biscuits. anything and everything edible went into Roland's bag, except for the biscuits, which were his first meal since the disaster.

He picked up a black piece of something and started to shove it into the bag but hesitated. The black thing reminded him of what he'd done to Mike armbruster's pet hamsters the day armbruster had brought them to biology class. The hamsters had been left at the back of the room after school, while armbruster went to football practice. Roland had gotten the cage of hamsters, without being seen by the cleaning women, and had sneaked stealthily to the school's automotive workshop. In one corner stood a metal vat that held a greenish-brown liquid, and over the vat was a red sign that said Wear Your Gloves!

Roland had put on a pair of heavy asbestos gloves and made cooing noises to the two little hamsters, and he'd thought about Mike armbruster laughing and spitting on him while he was down in the dust.

Then he'd picked up the cage by its handle and lowered it into the vat of acid, which was used to make rusted radiators shine like new.

He'd let the hamsters stay under until the bubbles stopped. When he brought the cage up, he noted that the acid had attacked the metal and chewed it down to a polished gleam. Then he took his gloves off and carried the cage back to the biology room on the end of a broom.

He'd often wondered what Mike armbruster's face had looked like when he saw the two black things where the hamsters used to be. armbruster hadn't realized, Roland often mused later, the many ways a King's Knight can get even.

Roland tossed whatever it was into the bag. He turned up a box of oatmeal and - wonder of wonders! - a single green apple. Both of those went into the bag. He continued crawling, lifting the smaller rocks and avoiding the fissures in the floor.

He was getting too far from the flashlight, and he stood up. The garbage bag had some weight to it now. The King was going to be well pleased. He started toward the light, stepping nimbly over the dead.

There was a noise behind him. Not a loud noise, just a whirrrr of disturbed air, and he knew he was no longer alone.

Before he could turn, a hand clamped across his mouth. "Get the bag!" a man said. "Hurry!"

It was torn from his grip. "Little fucker's got an Ingram gun!" That, too, was ripped off his shoulder. The hand moved from his mouth, replaced by an arm at his throat. "Where's Macklini Where's the sonofabitch hidingi"

"I can't... I can't breathe," Roland croaked.

The man cursed and flung him to the floor. Roland's glasses flew off, and a boot pressed down on his spine. "Who you gonna kill with that gun, kidi You gonna make sure you get all the food for yourself and the coloneli"

One of the others retrieved the flashlight and aimed it in Roland's face. He thought there were three of them from the voices and movements, but he couldn't be positive. He flinched as he heard the Ingram gun's safety click off. "Kill him, Schorr!" one of the men urged. "Blow his fucking brains out!"

Schorr. Roland knew that name. Hospitality Sergeant Schorr.

"I know he's alive, kid." Schorr was standing over nun, his foot planted on Roland's back. "I went down to the command center, and I found those people working in the dark. I found Corporal Prados, too. He told me a kid got Macklin out of a hole, and that the colonel was hurt. He just left Prados down there to die, didn't hei"

"The corporal... couldn't move. He couldn't stand up, because of his leg. We had to leave him."

"Who else is with Macklini"

"Captain Warner," Roland gasped. "That's all."

"and he sent you here to find foodi Did he give you the Ingram gun and tell you to kill everybody elsei"

"No, sir." The wheels of Roland's brain were spinning, trying to find a way to squirm out of this.

"Where's he hidingi How many weapons does he havei"

Roland was silent. Schorr bent down beside him and put the gun's barrel to Roland's temple. "There are nine other people not too far from here who need food and water, too," Schorr said tersely. "My people. I thought I was going to die, and I've seen things..." He stopped, shaken, couldn't go on for a moment. "Things nobody ought to see and live to remember. Macklin's to blame for all this. He knew this place was falling apart - he must've known it!" The barrel bruised Roland's skull. "High and mighty Macklin with his tin soldiers and his worn-out medals! Just marching the suckers in and out of here! He knew what was going to happen! Isn't that righti"

"Yes, sir." Roland felt the holy axe pressed against his stomach. Slowly, he began to work his hand under his body.

"He knows there's no way in Hell to get to the emergency food, doesn't hei So he sent you here to get the scraps before anybody else could! You little bastard!" Schorr grabbed his collar and shook him, which helped Roland slide his hand closer to the holy axe.

"The colonel wants to stockpile everything," Roland said. Buy time! he thought. "He wants to get everybody together and ration out the food and wa - "

"You're a liar! He wants it all for himself!"

"No! We can still get through to the emergency food."

"Bullshit!" the man roared, and insanity leapt in his voice. "I heard the rest of Level One fall in! I know they're all dead! He wants to kill all of us so he can have the food!"

"Finish him, Schorr," the other man said. "Shoot his balls off."

"Not yet, not yet. I want to know where Macklin is! Where's he hiding, and how many weapons does he havei"

Roland's fingers were almost touching the blade. Closer... closer. "He's got... he's got a lot of guns. Got a pistol. and another machine gun." Closer, and closer still. "He's got a whole arsenal in there."

"In therei In wherei"

"In... one of the rooms. It's way down the corridor." almost got it!

"What room, you little shiti" Schorr grabbed him again, shook him angrily, and Roland took advantage of the movement; he slid the holy axe out of his waistband and lay on top of it, getting a good, strong grip around the handle. When he decided to strike, it would have to be fast, and if the other two men had guns, he was finished.

Cry! he told himself. He forced a sob. "Please... please don't hurt me! I can't see without my glasses!" He blubbered and shook. "Don't hurt me!" He made a retching noise - and he felt the Ingram gun's barrel move away from his skull.

"Little shitter. Little candy-ass shitter! Come on! Stand up like a man!" He grasped Roland's arm and started to haul him to his feet.

Now, Roland thought - very calmly, very deliberately. a King's Knight was not afraid of death.

He let the man's strength pull him up, and then he uncoiled like a spring, twisting around and slashing out with the holy axe that still bore some of the King's dried blood on its blade.

The flashlight's beam glinted off the cleaver; the blade sliced into Schorr's left cheek like it was carving off a piece of Thanksgiving turkey. He was too shocked to react for a second, but then the blood burst out of the wound and his finger jerked involuntarily on the trigger, sending a rattle of bullets whining past Roland's head. Schorr staggered backward, half his face peeled open to the bone. Roland rushed him, hacking wildly before the man could aim that gun again.

One of the others grabbed Roland's shoulder, but Roland broke away, tearing the rest of his shirt almost off. He swung again at Schorr and caught the meaty part of his gun arm. Schorr stumbled over a dead body, the Ingram gun clattering to the stones at Roland's feet.

Roland scooped it up. His face contorted into a savage rictus and he whirled upon the man holding the flashlight. He braced his legs in the firing position the colonel had taught him, aimed and squeezed the trigger.

The gun hummed like a sewing machine, but its recoil knocked him back over the rubble and set him on his ass. as he fell he saw the flashlight explode in the man's hand, and there was a grunt followed by a shrill cry of pain. Someone whimpered and scrabbled away across the floor. Roland fired into the dark, the red trajectories of tracer bullets ricocheting off the walls. There was another scream that broke into gurgling fragments and grew distant, and Roland thought that one of the men must've stepped into a hole in the floor and fallen through. He sprayed the cafeteria with bullets, and then he stopped firing because he knew he was alone again.

He listened; his heart was racing. The sweet aroma of a fired weapon hung in the air. "Come on!" he shouted. "You want some morei Come on!"

But there was only silence. Whether he'd killed them all or not, he didn't know. He was sure he'd hit at least one. "Bastards," Roland breathed. "You bastards, next time I'll kill you."

He laughed. It startled him, because it didn't sound like the laughter of anyone he knew. He wished the men would come back. He wanted another chance at killing them.

Roland searched for his glasses. He found the garbage bag, but his glasses were lost. Everything would be blurred from now on, but that was okay; there was no more light, anyway. His hands found warm blood and a body to go with it. He spent a minute or two kicking the dead man's skull in.

Roland picked up the garbage bag and, keeping the Ingram gun ready, carefully moved across the cafeteria toward where he knew the exit to be; his toes probed for holes in the floor, but he made it safely into the corridor.

He still trembled with excitement. Everything was black and silent but for the slow dripping of water somewhere. He felt his way toward the gymnasium with his bag of booty, eager to tell the King that he'd fought off three tunnel trolls, and that one of them was named Schorr. But there would be more trolls! They wouldn't give up so easily, and besides, he wasn't sure if he'd killed the hospitality sergeant or not.

Roland grinned into the darkness, his face and hair damp with cold sweat. He was very, very proud of himself for protecting the King, though he regretted losing the flashlight. In the corridor he stepped on bodies that were swelling like gasbags.

This was turning out to be the greatest game he'd ever played. This beat the computer version by a light-year!

He'd never shot anybody before. and he'd never felt so powerful before, either.

Surrounded by darkness and death and carrying a bagful of scraps and a warm Ingram gun, Roland Croninger knew true ecstasy.  


a squeaking sound coming from a corner of the basement made Josh reach to his side for the flashlight and switch it on. The weak bulb threw a dim yellow spear of light, but Josh guided it toward that corner to find out what was over there.

"What is iti" Swan asked, sitting up a few feet beside him.

"I think we've got a rat." He played the light around, saw only a tangle of timbers, cornstalks and the mound of dirt where Darleen Prescott lay buried. Josh quickly moved the light away from the grave. The child was just now getting her senses back. "Yeah, I think it's a rat," Josh decided. "Probably had a nest hidden down here somewhere. Hey, Mr. Rat!" he called. "Mind if we share your basement for a whilei"

"He sounds like he's hurt."

"He probably thinks we sound pretty bad, too." He kept the flashlight's beam away from the little girl; he'd already seen her once in the meager light, and that was enough. almost all of her beautiful blond hair was burned away, her face a mass of red, watery blisters. Her eyes, which he remembered as being so stunningly blue, were deep-sunken and a cloudy gray. He was aware that the blast hadn't spared his looks, either; the backwash of the light revealed splotched gray burns that covered his hands and arms. More than that, he didn't care to know. He was going to wind up looking like a zebra. But at least they were both still alive, and though he had no way of calculating how much time had passed since the explosion, he thought they'd been down here for maybe four or five days. Food was no longer a problem, and they had plenty of canned juices. air must be entering from somewhere, though the basement remained stuffy. The worst concern Josh had was the latrine's smell, but that couldn't be helped right now. Maybe later he'd figure out a neater sanitation system, perhaps using the empty cans and burying those in the dirt.

Something moved in the light's beam.

"Look!" Swan said. "Over there!"

a small, burned little animal perched on a tiny hillock of dirt. Its head tilted toward Swan and Josh, and then the animal squeaked again and disappeared into the debris.

Josh said, "That's not a rat! It's a - "

"It's a gopher!" Swan finished for him. "I've seen lots of them before, digging out near the trailer park."

"a gopher," Josh repeated. He remembered PawPaw's voice, saying Gopher's in the hole!

Swan was pleased to see something else alive down here with them. She could hear it sniffing in the dirt, over beyond the light and the mound where... She let the thought go, because she couldn't stand it. But her mama wasn't hurting anymore, and that was a good thing. Swan listened to the gopher snuffling around; she was very familiar with the things, because of all the holes they dug in her garden...

all the holes they dug, she thought.

"Joshi" Swan said.


"Gophers dig holes," she said.

Josh smiled faintly at what he took to be just a childlike statement - but then his smile froze as what she was getting at struck him. If a gopher had a nest down here, then there might indeed be a hole, leading out! Maybe that was where the air was coming from! Josh's heart leaped. Maybe PawPaw knew there was a gopher hole somewhere in the basement, and that was the message he'd been trying to relay. a gopher hole could be enlarged to make a tunnel. We've got a pickaxe and shovel, he thought. Maybe we can dig ourselves out!

Josh crawled to where the old man lay. "Hey," Josh said. "Can you hear mei" He touched PawPaw's arm.

"Oh Lord," Josh whispered.

The old man's body was cool. It lay stiffly, the arms rigid by the sides. Josh shone the light into the corpse's face, saw the mottled scarlet burns like a strange birthmark across the cheeks and nose. The eye sockets were dark brown, gaping holes. PawPaw had been dead for several hours, at least. Josh started to close PawPaw's eyelids, but there were none; those, too, had been incinerated and vaporized.

The gopher squeaked. Josh turned away from the corpse and crawled toward the noise. Probing into the debris with his light, he found the gopher licking at its burned hind legs. It abruptly darted under a piece of wood wedged into the corner. Josh reached after it, but the wood was stuck tight. as patiently as he could, he began to work it free.

The gopher chattered angrily at the invasion. Slowly, Josh got the splintered piece of timber loose and pulled it away. The light revealed a small round hole in the dirt wall, about three inches off the floor.

"Found it!" Josh exclaimed. He got down on his belly and shone the light up into the hole. about two or three feet out of the basement, it crooked to the left and continued on beyond the range of the light. "This thing's got to lead to the surface!" He was as excited as a kid on Christmas morning, and he was able to get his fist up into the hole. The ground was hard-packed and unyielding, burned even at this depth to the solidity of asphalt. Digging through it was going to be an absolute bitch, but following the hole would make the work easier.

One question nagged at him: did they want to get out of the basement anytime sooni The radiation might kill them outright. God only knew what the surface world would be like. Did they dare find outi

Josh heard a noise behind him. It was a hoarse rattling sound, like congested lungs struggling for air.

"Joshi" Swan had heard the noise too, and it made the remaining hairs on the back of her neck stand up; she had sensed something moving in the darkness just a few seconds before.

He turned and shone the light at her. Swan's blistered face was turned to the right. again, there came that hideous rattling noise. Josh shifted the light - and what he saw made him feel as if a freezing hand had clenched his throat.

PawPaw's corpse was shivering, and that awful noise was emanating from it. He's still alive, Josh thought incredulously; but then: No, no! He was dead when I touched him! He was dead!

The corpse lurched. Slowly, arms still stiff at its sides, the dead man began to sit up. Its head started turning inch by inch, like a clockwork automaton, toward Josh Hutchins, its raw eye sockets seeking the light. The burned face rippled, the mouth straining to open - and Josh thought that if those dead lips parted he would lose whatever marbles he had left right then and there.

With a hiss and rattle of air, the mouth opened.

and from it came a voice like the rush of wind through dried-up reeds. It was at first an unintelligible sound, thin and distant, but it was getting stronger, and it said: "Pro... tect..."

The eye sockets faced the beam of light as if there were still eyeballs in them. "Protect," the awful voice repeated. The mouth with its gray lips seemed to be straining to form words. Josh shrank backward, and the corpse racheted out, "Protect... the... child."

There was a quiet whoosh of air. The corpse's eye sockets caught fire. Josh was mesmerized, and he heard Swan give a soft, stunned "Oh." The corpse's head burst into a fireball, and the fire spread and enveloped the entire body in a writhing, reddish-blue cocoon. an intense wave of heat licked at Josh's face, and he put up his hand to shield his eyes; when he lowered it again, he saw the corpse dissolving at the center of its fiery shroud. The body remained sitting upright, motionless now, every inch of it ablaze.

The burning went on for maybe thirty seconds longer; then the fire began to flicker out, and the last to burn were the soles of PawPaw's shoes.

But what lingered was white ash, in the shape of a man sitting upright.

The fire went out. The ashen shape crumbled; it was ash through and through, even the bones. It collapsed in a heap on the floor, and what remained of PawPaw Briggs was ready for a shovel.

Josh stared. ash drifted lazily through the light. I'm going off my bird! he thought. all those body slams've caught up with me!

Behind him, Swan bit her lower lip and fought off frightened tears. I won't cry, she told herself. Not anymore. The urge to sob passed, and she let her shocked eyes drift toward the black giant.

Protect the child. Josh had heard it. But PawPaw Briggs had been dead, he reasoned. Protect the child. Sue Wanda. Swan. Whatever had spoken through the dead man's lips was gone now; it was just Josh and Swan, alone.

He believed in miracles, but of the biblical version - the parting of the Red Sea, the turning of water to wine, the feeding of the multitude from a basket of bread and fish; up until this moment, he'd thought the age of miracles was long past. But maybe it was a small miracle that they'd both found this grocery store, he realized. It was certainly a miracle that they were still alive, and a corpse that could sit up and speak was not something you saw every day.

Behind him, the gopher scrabbled in the dirt. He smells the food leaking from the cans, Josh figured. Maybe that gopher hole was a small miracle, too. He could not stop staring at the pile of white ashes, and he would hear that reedy voice for the rest of his life - however long that might be.

"You all righti" he asked Swan.

"Yes," she replied, barely audible.

Josh nodded. If something beyond his ken wanted him to protect the child, he thought, then he was damned well going to protect the child. after a while, when he got his bones thawed out again, he crawled to get the shovel, and then he switched off the light to let it rest. In the darkness, he covered the ashes of PawPaw Briggs with cornfield dirt.  



a pack of Winstons was offered. Sister took one of the cigarettes. Doyle Halland flicked a gold butane lighter with the initials RBR on its side. When the cigarette was lit, Sister drew the smoke deeply into her lungs - no use to fret about cancer now! - and let it trickle through her nostrils.

a fire crackled in the hearth of the small, wood-framed suburban house in which they'd decided to shelter for the night. all the windows were broken out, but they'd been able to trap some heat in the front room due to a fortunate discovery of blankets and a hammer and nails. They'd nailed the blankets up over the largest windows and huddled around the fireplace. The refrigerator yielded up a can of chocolate sauce, some lemonade in a plastic pitcher, and a head of brown lettuce. The pantry held only a half-full box of raisin bran and a few other cans and jars of left-behinds. Still, all of it was edible, and Sister put the cans and jars in her bag, which was beginning to bulge with things she'd scavenged. It was soon going to be time to find a second bag.

During the day they had walked a little more than five miles through the silent sprawl of the east Jersey suburbs, heading west along Interstate 280 and crossing the Garden State Parkway. The bitter cold gnawed at their bones, and the sun was no more than an area of gray in a low, muddy brown sky streaked with red. But Sister noted that the further away they got from Manhattan, the more buildings were still intact, though almost every one of them had blasted-out windows, and they leaned as if they'd been knocked off their foundations. Then they reached an area of two-story, close-cramped houses - thousands of them, brooding and broken like little gothic manors - on postage-stamp-sized lawns burned the color of dead leaves. Sister noted that none of the trees or bushes she saw had a scrap of vegetation. Nothing was green anymore; everything was colored in the dun, gray and black of death.

They did see their first cars that weren't twisted into junk. abandoned vehicles, their paint blistered off and windshields smashed, stood here and there on the streets, but only one of them had a key, and that one was broken off and wedged in the ignition. They went on, shivering in the cold, as the gray circle of the sun moved across the sky.

a laughing woman wearing a flimsy blue robe, her face swollen and lacerated, sat on a front porch and jeered at them as they passed. "You're too late!" she shouted. "Everybody's gone! You're too late!" She was holding a pistol in her lap, and so they kept going. On another corner, a dead man with a purple face, his head hideously misshapen, leaned against a bus stop sign and grinned up at the sky, his hands locked around a business briefcase. It was in the coat pocket of this corpse that Doyle Halland had found the pack of Winstons and the butane lighter.

Everyone was, indeed, gone. a few corpses lay in front lawns or on curbs or draped over steps, but those who were still living and still halfway sane had fled from the radius of the holocaust. Sitting in front of the fire and smoking a dead man's cigarette, Sister envisioned an exodus of suburbanites, frantically packing pillowcases and paper bags with food and everything they could carry as Manhattan melted beyond the Palisades. They had taken their children and abandoned their pets, fleeing westward before the black rain like an army of tramps and bag ladies. But they had left their blankets behind, because it was the middle of July. Nobody expected it to get cold. They just wanted to get away from the fire. Where were they going to run to, and where were they going to hidei The cold was going to catch them, and many of them would already be deep asleep in its embrace.

Behind her, the others were curled up on the floor, sleeping on sofa cushions and covered by rugs. Sister drew on the cigarette again and then looked at Doyle Halland's craggy profile. He stared into the fire, a Winston between his lips, one long-fingered hand tentatively massaging his leg where the splinter was driven through. The man was damned tough, Sister thought; he'd never once asked to stop and rest his leg today, though the pain of walking had bled his face chalky.

"So what were you planning on doingi" Sister asked him. "Staying around that church foreveri"

He hesitated a moment before he answered. "No," he said. "Not forever. Just until... I don't know, just until someone came along who was going somewhere."

"Why didn't you leave with the other peoplei"

"I stayed to give the last rites to as many as I could. Within six hours of the blast, I'd done so many that I lost my voice. I couldn't speak, and there were so many more dying people. They were begging me to save their souls. Begging me to get them into Heaven." He glanced quickly at her and then away. He had gray eyes flecked with green. "Begging me," he repeated softly. "and I couldn't even speak, so I gave them the Sign of the Cross, and I... I kissed them. I kissed them to sleep, and they all trusted me." He drew on the cigarette, exhaled the smoke and watched it drift toward the fireplace. "St. Matthew's has been my church for over twelve years. I kept coming back to it and walking through the ruins, trying to figure out what had happened. We had some lovely statues and stained-glass windows. Twelve years." He slowly shook his head.

"I'm sorry," Sister offered.

"Why should you bei You didn't have anything to do with this. It's just... something that got out of control. Maybe nobody could've stopped it." He glanced at her again, and this time his gaze lingered at the crusted wound in the hollow of her throat. "What's thati" he asked her. "It looks almost like a crucifix."

She touched it. "I used to wear a chain with a cross on it."

"What happenedi"

"Someone - " She stopped. How could she describe iti Even now her mind skittered away from the memory; it was not a safe thing to think about. "Someone took it from me," she continued.

He nodded thoughtfully and leaked smoke from the corner of his mouth. Through the blue haze, his eyes searched hers. "Do you believe in Godi"

"Yes, I do."

"Whyi" he asked quietly.

"I believe in God because someday Jesus is going to come and take everyone worthy up in the Rap - " No, she told herself. No. That was Sister Creep babbling about things she'd heard other bag ladies say. She paused, getting her thoughts in order, and then she said, "I believe in God because I'm alive, and I don't think I could've made it this far by myself. I believe in God because I believe I will live to see another day."

"You believe because you believe," he said. "That doesn't say much for logic, does iti"

"are you saying you don't believei"

Doyle Halland smiled vacantly. The smile slowly slipped off his face. "Do you really think that God has His eye on you, ladyi Do you think He really cares whether you live one more day or noti What singles you out from all those corpses we passed todayi Didn't God care about themi" He held the lighter with its initials in the palm of his hand. "What about Mr. RBRi Didn't he go to church enoughi Wasn't he a good boyi"

"I don't know if God has an eye on me or not," Sister replied. "But I hope He does. I hope I'm important enough - that we're all important enough. as for the dead... maybe they were the lucky ones. I don't know."

"Maybe they were," he agreed. He returned the lighter to his pocket. "I just don't know what there is to live for anymore. Where are we goingi Why are we going anywherei I mean... one place is as good as another to die in, isn't iti"

"I'm not planning on dying anytime soon. I think artie wants to get back to Detroit. I'll go there with him."

"and after thati If you make it as far as Detroiti"

She shrugged. "Like I say, I'm not planning on dying. I'll keep going as long as I can walk."

"No one plans on dying," he said. "I used to be an optimist, a long time ago. I used to believe in miracles. But do you know what happenedi I got older. and the world got meaner. I used to serve and believe in God with all my heart, with every ounce of faith in my body." His eyes narrowed slightly, as if he were looking at something far beyond the fire. "as I say, that was a long time ago. I used to be an optimist... now I suppose I'm an opportunist. I'm very good at judging which way the wind blows - and I'd have to say that now I judge God, or the power that we know as God, to be very, very weak. a dying candle, if you like, surrounded by darkness. and the darkness is closing in." He sat without moving, just watching the fire burn.

"You don't sound much like a priest."

"I don't feel much like one, either. I just feel... like a worn-out man in a black suit with a stupid, dirty white collar. Does that shock youi"

"No. I don't think I can be shocked anymore."

"Good. Then that means you're becoming less of an optimist too, doesn't iti" He grunted. "I'm sorry. I guess I don't sound like Spencer Tracy in Boys Town, do Ii But those last rites I gave... they fell out of my mouth like ashes, and I can't get that damned taste out of my mouth." His gaze slipped down to the bag at Sister's side. "What's that thing I saw you with last nighti That glass thingi"

"It's something I found on Fifth avenue."

"Oh. May I see iti"

Sister brought it out of her bag. The jewels trapped within the glass circle burst into blazing rainbow colors. The reflections danced on the walls of the room and striped both Sister's and Doyle Halland's faces. He drew in his breath, because it was the first time he'd really gotten a good look at it. His eyes widened, the colors sparkling in his pupils. He reached out to touch it but drew his hand back at the last second. "What is iti"

"Just glass and jewels, melted together. But... last night, just before you came, this thing... did something wonderful, something I still can't explain." She told him about Julia Castillo and being able to understand each other's language when they were linked by the glass circle. He sat listening intently. "Beth said this thing's magic. I don't know about that, but I do know it's pretty strange. Look at it pick up my heartbeat. and the way the thing glows - I don't know what this is, but I'm sure as hell not going to throw it away."

"a crown," he said softly. "I heard Beth say it could be a crown. It looks like a tiara, doesn't iti"

"I guess it does. Not quite like the tiaras in the Tiffany windows, though. I mean... it's all crooked and weird-looking. I remember I wanted to give up. I wanted to die. and then I found this, and it made me think that... I don't know, it's stupid, I guess."

"Go on," he urged.

"It made me think about sand," Sister told him. "That sand is about the most worthless stuff in the world, yet look what sand can become in the right hands." She ran her fingers over the velvet surface of the glass. "Even the most worthless thing in the world can be beautiful," she said. "It just takes the right touch. But seeing this beautiful thing, and holding it in my hands, made me think I wasn't so worthless, either. It made me want to get up off my ass and live. I used to be crazy, but after I found this thing... I wasn't so crazy anymore. Maybe part of me's still crazy, I don't know; but I want to believe that all the beauty in the world isn't dead yet. I want to believe that beauty can be saved."

"I haven't seen very much beauty in the last few days," he replied. "Except for that. You're right. It is a very, very beautiful piece of junk." He smiled faintly. "Or crown. Or whatever it is you choose to believe."

Sister nodded and peered into the depths of the glass circle. Beneath the glass, the threads of precious metals flared like sparklers. The pulsing of a large, deep brown topaz caught her attention; she could sense Doyle Halland watching her, could hear the crackle of the fire and the sweep of the wind outside, but the brown topaz and its hypnotic rhythm - so soft, so steady - filled up her vision. Oh, she thought, what are youi What are youi What -

She blinked.

She was no longer holding the circle of glass.

and she was no longer sitting before the fire in the New Jersey house.

Wind swept around her, and she smelled dry, scorched earth and... something else. What was iti

Yes. Now she knew. It was the odor of burned corn.

She was standing on a vast, flat plain, and the sky above her was a whirling mass of dirty gray clouds through which electric-blue streaks of lightning plunged. Charred cornstalks lay about her by the thousands - and the only feature on that awful wasteland was a large dome that looked like a grave about a hundred yards away.

I'm dreaming, she thought. I'm really sitting in New Jersey. This is a dreamscape - a picture in my mind, that's all. I can wake up anytime I want to, and I'll be back in New Jersey again.

She looked at the strange dome and wondered how far she could push the limits of this dream. If I take a step, she thought, will the whole thing fall to pieces like a movie seti She decided to find out, and she took a single step. The dreamscape remained intact. If this is a dream, she told herself, then, by God, I'm dreamwalking somewhere a long way from New Jersey, because I can feel that wind in my face!

She walked over the dry earth and cornstalks toward the dome; no dust plumed beneath her feet, and she had the sensation of drifting over the landscape like a ghost instead of actually walking, though she knew her legs were moving. as she neared the dome she saw it was a mass of dirt, thousands of burned cornstalks, pieces of wood and cinder blocks all jammed together. Nearby was a twisted thing of metal that might once have been a car, and another one lay ten or fifteen yards beyond the first. Other pieces of metal, wood and debris lay scattered around her: here was what appeared to be the nozzle from a gas pump, there was the burned lid of a suitcase. The rags of clothes - small clothes - were lying about. Sister walked - dreamwalked, she thought - past part of a wagon wheel half buried in the dirt, and there was the remnant of a sign that still held barely decipherable letters: P... a... W.

She stopped about twenty yards from the gravelike dome. This is a funny thing to be dreaming about, she thought. I could be dreaming about a thick steak and an ice cream sundae.

Sister looked in all directions, saw nothing but desolation.

But no. Something on the ground caught her eye - a little figure of some kind - and she dreamwalked toward it.

a doll, she realized as she got nearer. a doll with a bit of blue fur still clinging to its body, and two plastic eyes with little black pupils that Sister knew would jiggle around if it was picked up. She stood over the doll. The thing was somehow familiar, and she thought of her own dead daughter perched in front of the TV set. Reruns of an old show for kids called "Sesame Street" had been one of her favorite programs.

and Sister remembered the child pointing gleefully at the screen and shouting: "Cooookies!"

The Cookie Monster. Yes. That's who that was, lying there at her feet.

Something about that doll there on the desolate plain struck a note of terrible sadness in Sister's heart. Where was the child to whom this doll belongedi Blown away with the windi Or buried and lying dead under the earthi

She bent down to pick up the Cookie Monster doll.

and her hands went right through it - as if either the scene or she were made of smoke.

This is a dream, Sister thought. This is not real! This is a mirage inside my head, and I'm dreamwalking through it!

She stepped back from the doll. It was for the best that it remain there, in case the child who had lost it someday came back this way.

Sister squeezed her eyes shut. I want to go back now, she thought. I want to go back where I was, back far away from here. Far away. Far a -

"... for your thoughts."

Sister was startled by the voice, which seemed to be whispered right into her ear. She looked to her side. Doyle Halland's face hovered above her, caught between the firelight and the reflection of the jewels. "Whati"

"I said, a penny for your thoughts. Where'd you goi"

Where indeed, Sister wondered. "Far away from here," she said. Everything was as it had been before. The vision was gone, but Sister imagined she could still smell burned corn and feel that wind on her face.

The cigarette was burning down between her fingers. She took one last draw from it and then thumped it into the fireplace. She put the glass ring down into her bag again and held the bag close to her body. Behind her eyes, she could still clearly see the dome of dirt, the wagon wheel, the mangled remains of cars and the blue-furred Cookie Monster.

Where was Ii she asked herself - and she had no answer.

"Where do we go in the morningi" Halland inquired.

"West," she answered. "We keep going west. Maybe we'll find a car with a key in the ignition tomorrow. Maybe we'll find some other people. I don't think we'll have to worry much about food for a while. We can scavenge enough to eat as we go. I was never very fussy about my meals, anyway." Water was still going to be a problem, though. The kitchen and bathroom faucets in this house were dry, and Sister figured that the shock waves had shattered water mains all over the metro area.

"Do you really think it's going to be better anywhere elsei" He lifted his burned eyebrows. "The wind's going to throw radiation all over this country. If the blast and the fires and the radiation don't finish people off, it's going to be hunger, thirst and the cold. I'd say there's nowhere to go after all, is therei"

Sister stared into the fire. "Like I say," she said finally, "nobody has to go with me who doesn't want to. I'm getting some sleep now. Good night." She crawled over to where the others were huddled under the rugs, and she lay down between artie and Beth and tried to find sleep while the wind shrieked beyond the walls.

Doyle Halland carefully touched the metal splinter in his leg. He sat slightly slumped forward, and his gaze ticked toward Sister and the bag she held so protectively. He grunted thoughtfully, smoked his cigarette down to the filter and tossed it into the fireplace. Then he positioned himself in a corner, facing Sister and the others, and he stared at them for perhaps a full five minutes, his eyes glittering in the gloom, before he leaned his head back and went to sleep sitting up.  


It began with a mangled voice calling from beyond the gymnasium's barricaded door: "Coloneli Colonel Macklini"

Macklin, on his knees in the dark, did not answer. Not far away, Roland Croninger clicked the safety off the Ingram gun, and he could hear Warner's harsh breathing over to his right.

"We know you're in the gym," the voice continued. "We searched everywhere else. Got yourself a nice little fortress, don't youi"

as soon as Roland had reported the incident at the cafeteria, they'd gone to work blocking the gym's doorway with stones, cables and parts of broken-up Nautilus machines. The boy had had the good idea to scatter shards of glass out in the corridor, to cut the marauders up when they came creeping through the dark on their hands and knees. a moment before the voice, Macklin had heard curses and pained mutterings, and he knew the glass had done its job. In his left hand he held a makeshift weapon that had been part of a Nautilus Super Pullover machine - a curved metal bar about two feet long, with twelve inches of chain and a dangling, macelike sprocket at its business end.

"Is the boy in therei" the voice inquired. "I'm looking for you, boy. You really did a job on me, you little fucker." and now Roland knew Schorr had escaped, but from the way he sounded the hospitality sergeant had lost half his mouth.

Teddybear Warner's nerve shattered. "Go away! Leave us alone!"

Oh, shit, Macklin thought. Now they know they've got us!

There was a long silence. Then, "I've got some hungry people to feed, Colonel, sir. We know you've got a bagful of food in there. It's not right for you to have it all, is iti" When Macklin didn't reply, Schorr's distorted voice roared, "Give us the food, you sonofabitch!"

Something gripped Macklin's shoulder; it felt like a cold, hard claw digging into his skin. "More mouths, less food," the Shadow Soldier whispered. "You know what it's like to be hungry, don't youi Remember the pit, back in Nami Remember what you did to get that rice, misteri"

Macklin nodded. He did remember. Oh, yes, he did. He remembered knowing that he was going to die if he didn't get more than one fourth of a small rice cake every time the Cong guards dropped one down, and he'd known the others - McGee, Ragsdale and Mississippi - could read their own tombstones, too. a man had a certain look in his eyes when he was pushed against the wall and stripped of his humanity; his entire face changed, as if it was a mask cracking open to show the face of the real beast within.

and when Macklin had decided what it was he had to do, the Shadow Soldier had told him how to do it.

Ragsdale had been the weakest. It had been a simple thing to press his face into the mud while the others were sleeping.

But one third of the rice wasn't enough, the Shadow Soldier said. Macklin had strangled McGee, and then there were two.

Mississippi had been the toughest to kill. He was still strong, and he'd fought Macklin off again and again. But Macklin had kept at him, attacking him when he tried to sleep, and finally Mississippi had lost his mind and crouched in the corner, calling for Jesus like a hysterical child. It had been an easy thing, then, to grasp Mississippi's chin and wrench his head violently backward.

Then all the rice was his, and the Shadow Soldier said he'd done very, very well.

"Can you hear me, Colonel, siri" Schorr sneered beyond the barricade. "Just give us the food and we'll go!"
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