Station Eleven (Page 53)
When they came to the highway there was a sign indicating the direction to the airport, but finding the airport would have been as simple as following the traffic jam. Everyone had apparently been trying to get there at the end, just before they ran out of gasoline or had to abandon their cars in the gridlock or died of flu at the wheel. There was no sign of the prophet, no movement among the endless lines of cars glittering in sunlight.
They walked on the gravel shoulder. There was a place where ivy had spread from the forest and covered acres of highway in green. They waded through it, the leaves soft on Kirsten’s sandaled feet. Every sense attuned to the air around her, trying to sense the prophet’s position—behind or ahead?—and met only by the racket of the world around them, the cicadas, the birds, dragonflies, a passing family of deer. The alignment of the cars was askew, some stopped at odd angles, some hard up against the bumper of the next vehicle, others halfway off the road. The windshield wipers were up, puddles of rusted chains tangled around some of the wheels. It had been snowing, then, perhaps heavily, and the highway hadn’t been plowed. The cars had slipped and skidded on packed snow and ice.
“What is it?” August asked, and she realized that she’d stopped. The flu, the snow, the gridlock, the decision: wait in the car, boxed in now by all the cars that have piled up behind, idling to keep the heat on until you run out of gas? Or abandon your car to walk, perhaps with young children, but where exactly? Farther on, toward the airport? Back home?
“Do you see something?” Sayid spoke in a whisper. August had been supporting him for the last mile or so, Sayid’s arm over his shoulders.
I see everything. “It’s nothing,” Kirsten said. She had once met an old man up near Kincardine who’d sworn that the murdered follow their killers to the grave, and she was thinking of this as they walked, the idea of dragging souls across the landscape like cans on a string. The way the archer had smiled, just at the end.
They took the exit to the airport and reached the roadblock in the midafternoon. An ancient plywood quarantine sign warning of the Georgia Flu, a line of fallen traffic cones and orange plastic fencing collapsing to the ground. The thought of walking here in the snowstorm, desperate to get away from the sickness in town, and at the end of that walk there’s this sign, and when you read it you understand that it isn’t going to be possible to get away from this. By now perhaps you’re already ill, perhaps carrying a feverish small child in your arms. Kirsten turned away from the roadblock, and knew without looking that there would be skeletons in the forest here. Some people would have turned back and retraced their steps for miles, tried to find another way to escape from an illness that was everywhere, that was inescapable by then. Others, sick or very tired, would have stepped off the road and lay down on their backs to watch the snow falling down upon them, to look up at the cold sky. I dreamt last night I saw an airplane. She stopped walking, overcome by the thought of Dieter, and in that moment of stillness she heard the distant bark of a dog.
“Kirsten,” August said over his shoulder. She saw in his face that he hadn’t heard what she had. “We’re almost there.”
“Into the woods,” she said quietly. “I think I heard the prophet’s dog.” They helped Sayid off the road. He was very pale now. He collapsed into the underbrush, gasping, and closed his eyes.
In the quiet that followed the dog’s bark, Kirsten crouched in the bushes and listened to her heartbeat. The prophet and his men had been some distance behind them. A long time passed before she heard their footsteps. The sound seemed strangely amplified, but she knew it was only the tension singing through her, her senses made acute by fear. The sunlight on this stretch of road was filtered through leaves, and her first sighting was the long barrel of the prophet’s rifle moving in and out of shadow as he walked. He led the group, serene and unhurried, the dog trotting by his side. The boy who’d escaped Kirsten and August’s ambush that morning carried a handgun now, the machete strapped to his back, and behind them walked a man with a complicated weapon of a kind that Kirsten had never seen before, a vicious metal crossbow with four short arrows preloaded, and a fourth man with a shotgun.
Don’t stop. Don’t stop. But as the dog drew alongside the bush where Kirsten was hiding, he slowed and raised his nose in the air. Kirsten held her breath. She hadn’t gone far enough from the road, she realized. She was no more than ten paces away.
“You smell something, Luli?” the man with the crossbow asked. The dog barked once. Kirsten held her breath. The men gathered around the dog.
“Probably just another squirrel,” the boy said, but he sounded uneasy. Kirsten saw that he was afraid, and the realization carried such sadness. I never wanted any of this.
“Or maybe there’s someone in the woods.”
“Last time he barked, it was just a squirrel.”
The dog had gone still, his nose twitching. Please, she thought, please. But Luli barked again and stared directly at Kirsten through her screen of leaves.
The prophet smiled.
“I see you,” the man with the crossbow said.
She could rise out of the underbrush and throw a knife, and as it spun through the air she would be felled by a bullet or a metal arrow—the crossbow and three guns were trained on her now—or she could remain unmoving until they were forced to approach, attack at close range and be killed by one of the others. But would they approach at all, or would they fire into the bush behind which she was hiding? She felt August’s anguish, a low current in the air. He was better hidden than she, crouched behind a stump.
A metal arrow drove into the dirt by her feet with a hollow thud.
“The next one lands in your heart.” The man with the crossbow was older than the prophet, an old burn scar on his face and neck. “Stand up. Slowly. Hands in the air.”
Kirsten rose out of hiding.
“Drop the knife.”
She let it fall from her hand into the underbrush. Acutely aware of the other two knives in her belt, so close but unreachable. If she reached now, if she were fast enough, would there be time to at least take out the prophet before the first bullet tore her heart? Unlikely.
“Step forward. If you reach for those knives, you’ll be dead.” The man with the crossbow spoke calmly. Nothing about this situation was new to him. The boy looked stricken.
The shock of realizing that this was probably actually the ending, after a lifetime of near misses, after all this time. She walked forward through the radiant world, the sunlight and shadow and green. Thinking of trying to do something heroic, sending a knife spinning through the air as she fell. Thinking, please don’t let them find August and Sayid. Thinking of Dieter, although thoughts of Dieter carried a pain that was almost physical, like probing at an open wound. She stepped up onto the hard surface of the road and stood before the prophet, her hands in the air.
“Titania,” the prophet said. He raised the point of his rifle to the spot between her eyes. In his gaze she saw only curiosity. He was interested to see what would happen next. All three guns were on Kirsten. The man with the crossbow was sighting his weapon into the underbrush, but nothing in his aim or his movements suggested that he’d seen August or Sayid. The prophet nodded to the boy, who stepped forward and pulled her knives very gently from her belt. She recognized him now. He’d been the sentry as they left St. Deborah by the Water, standing watch and roasting his dinner on a stick. He didn’t meet her eyes. The dog had apparently lost interest in following scents from the woods and had laid down on the pavement, watching them, his chin resting on his paw.
“On your knees,” the prophet said. She knelt. The point of the rifle followed her. He stepped closer.
She swallowed. “Do you have a name?” she asked. Some vague instinct to stall.
“Sometimes names are an encumbrance. Where are your companions?”
“The Symphony? I don’t know.” The pain of this, even now when it was too late to matter anymore. Thinking of the Symphony, the horse-drawn caravans moving under the summer sky, the clopping of horses. Traveling somewhere or perhaps already at the airport, in safety, in grace. She loved them so desperately.
“And your other companions? The ones who helped you kill my men on the road this morning.”
“We had no choice.”
“I understand,” he said. “Where are they?”
“Are you sure?” He moved the rifle just slightly, tracing a small circle in the air.
“There were three of us,” she said, “including Sayid. Your archer got the other two before he died.” It was plausible. The boy with the machete had run away before the archer fell. She was careful not to look at him.
“My archer was a good man,” the prophet said. “Loyal.”
Kirsten was silent. She understood the calculations August was making at that moment. The prophet’s rifle was an inch from her forehead. If August revealed his position by taking out one of the men, the others would be upon him and Sayid in an instant. Sayid was defenseless, lying bloodied and weakened, and Kirsten—kneeling on the road, disarmed, a gun to her head—would in all likelihood still die.