Station Eleven (Page 52)

“Forgive me,” the gunman murmured.

“The fallen walk among us. We must be the light. We are the light.”

“We are the light,” the other four repeated in murmured unison. The clarinet shifted painfully—the movement brought a storm of dark spots over her vision—and craned her neck until she saw Sayid. He was ten or twelve feet away, tied up.

“The road is fifty paces due east,” he mouthed. “Turn left when you get there.” The clarinet nodded and closed her eyes against a wave of nausea.

“Your clarinet friend still sleeping?” The archer’s voice.

“If you touch her, I’ll kill you,” Sayid said.

“No need for that, friend. No one will bother her. We’re just hoping to avoid a repeat …”

“Let her sleep,” the prophet said. “The Symphony’s stopped for the night anyway. We’ll catch up to them in the morning.”

When the clarinet opened her eyes, the men were apparently sleeping, bundled on the forest floor. Some time had passed. Had she slept? She was less ill than she had been. Someone had placed a cloth over Dieter’s face. Sayid was sitting where she’d seen him last, talking to the boy with the machete, who had his back to her.

“In the south?” the boy was saying. “I don’t know, I don’t like to think about it. We did what we had to.”

She didn’t hear Sayid’s reply.

“It hollows you out,” the boy said, “thinking about it. Remembering what we did, it just guts me. I don’t know how else to put it.”

“But you believe in what he says? All of you?”

“Well, Clancy’s a true believer,” she heard the boy say very softly. He gestured toward the sleeping men. “Steve too, probably most of the others. If you’re not a true believer, you’re not going to talk about it. But Tom? The younger gunman? To be honest, I think he’s maybe just in it because our leader’s married to his sister.”

“Very shrewd of him,” Sayid said. “I still don’t get why the prophet’s with you.”

“He comes along on patrols and such every now and again. The leader must occasionally lead his men into the wilderness.” Was she imagining the sadness in his voice? The clarinet lay still for a while, until she located the North Star. She discovered that it was possible, by lying on her side and arching her back, to bring her feet close enough to her hands to loosen the rope that bound her ankles. Sayid and the boy were still talking quietly.

“Okay,” she heard Sayid say, “but there are six of you, and thirty of us. Everyone in the Symphony’s armed.”

“You know how quiet we are.” The boy sighed. “I’m not saying it’s right,” he said. “I know it’s not right.”

“If you know it’s not right …”

“What choice do I have? You know how this … this time we live in, you know how it forces a person to do things.”

“That seems a strange statement,” Sayid said, “coming from someone too young to remember any different.”

“I’ve read books. Magazines, I even found a newspaper once. I know it all used to be different.”

“But getting back to the subject at hand, there are still only six of you, and—”

“You didn’t hear us come up behind you on the road, did you? This is our training. We move silently and we attack from behind. This is how we disarmed ten towns and took their weapons for our leader before we reached St. Deborah by the Water. This is how we took two of our leader’s wives. And look, your friend for example”—the clarinet closed her eyes—“we came up behind her in the forest and she heard nothing.”

“I don’t—”

“We can pick you off one by one,” the boy said. He sounded apologetic. “I’ve been training since I was five. You’ve got weapons, but you don’t have our skills. If the Symphony won’t swap you for the girl, we can kill you one at a time from the safety of the forest until you give her back to us.”

The clarinet began to move again, frantically working the knot at her ankles. Sayid could see her, she realized, but he was keeping his gaze on the boy’s face. A long time passed when she didn’t listen to the conversation, concentrating on nothing but the rope. When her ankles were unbound, she struggled to her knees.

“But I’m not sure I quite follow,” Sayid was saying. “That part in your philosophy about being the light. How do you bring the light if you are the light? I wonder if you could just explain to me …”

The clarinet was one of the Symphony’s best hunters. She had survived alone in the forest for three years after the collapse, and now, even sick with whatever poison they’d used on her, even with her wrists bound behind her back, it was possible to turn and vanish noiselessly between the trees, away from the clearing, to make almost no sound at all as she stepped out onto the road. Running as night faded to gray dawn and the sun rose, walking and stumbling through the dragging hours, hallucinating now, dreaming of water, falling into the arms of the Symphony’s rear scouts in the morning as the sky darkened overhead, delivering her message—“You must change the route”—as they carried her back to the Symphony, where the last tree blocking the road had just been sawed away. The first raindrops were falling as the conductor heard the message and ordered an immediate change of course, scouts sent to find Kirsten and August—fishing somewhere along the road ahead—but unable to locate them in the storm, the Symphony veering inland into a new route, a circuitous combination of back roads that would take them eventually to the Severn City Airport, the clarinet slipping in and out of consciousness in the back of the first caravan while Alexandra held a bottle of water to her lips.


THE KNIFE TATTOOS on Kirsten’s wrist:

The first marked a man who came at her in her first year with the Symphony, when she was fifteen, rising fast and lethal out of the underbrush, and he never spoke a word but she understood his intent. As he neared her, sound drained from the world, and time seemed to slow. She was distantly aware that he was moving quickly, but there was more than enough time to pull a knife from her belt and send it spinning—so slowly, steel flashing in the sun—until it merged with the man and he clutched at his throat. He shrieked—she couldn’t hear him, but she watched his mouth open and she knew others must have heard, because the Symphony was suddenly all around her, and this was when the volume slowly rose and time resumed its normal pace.

“It’s a physiological response to danger,” Dieter told her, when Kirsten mentioned the soundlessness of those seconds, the way time stretched and expanded. This seemed a reasonable-enough explanation, but there was nothing in her memories to account for how calm she was afterward, when she pulled her knife from the man’s throat and cleaned it, and this was why she stopped trying to remember her lost year on the road, the thirteen unremembered months between leaving Toronto with her brother and arriving in the town in Ohio where they stayed until he died and she left with the Symphony. Whatever that year on the road contained, she realized, it was nothing she wanted to know about.

The second knife was for a man who fell two years later, outside Mackinaw City. The Symphony had been warned of brigands in the area, but it was a shock when they materialized out of fog on the road ahead. Four men, two with guns and two with machetes. One of the gunmen asked for food, four horses, and a woman, in a flat monotone voice. “Give us what we want,” he said, “and no one has to die.” But Kirsten sensed rather than heard the sixth guitar fitting an arrow to his bow behind her back. “Guns first,” he murmured, close to her ear. “I’ve got the one on the left. One, two—” and on three the men with guns were falling, one staring past the arrow protruding from his forehead and the other clutching at Kirsten’s knife in his chest. The conductor finished the others with two quick shots. They retrieved the weapons, dragged the men into the forest to be food for the animals, and continued on into Mackinaw City to perform Romeo and Juliet.

She’d hoped there would never be a third. “There was a new heaven and a new earth,” the archer whispered. She saw the look on August’s face just afterward and realized that the gunman had been his first—he’d had the colossal good fortune to have made it to Year Twenty without killing anyone—and if she weren’t so tired, if it didn’t take all of her strength to keep breathing in the face of Sayid’s terrible news, she could have told him what she knew: it is possible to survive this but not unaltered, and you will carry these men with you through all the nights of your life.

Where was the prophet? They walked mostly in silence, stunned by grief, Sayid limping, listening for the dog. The signs for the airport led them away from the lake, out of downtown, up into residential streets of wood-frame houses. A few of the roofs had collapsed up here, most under the weight of fallen trees. In the morning light there was beauty in the decrepitude, sunlight catching in the flowers that had sprung up through the gravel of long-overgrown driveways, mossy front porches turned brilliant green, a white blossoming bush alive with butterflies. This dazzling world. An ache in Kirsten’s throat. The houses thinned out, longer spaces between the overgrown driveways, and now the right lane of the road was clogged with cars, rusted exoskeletons on flat tires. When she glanced in the windows, she saw only trash from the old world, crumpled chip bags, the remains of pizza boxes, electronic objects with buttons and screens.

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