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The City of Mirrors (The Passage #3)(3)
Justin Cronin

CENTRAL PENNSYLVANIA

August 98 A.V.

Eight months after the liberation of the Homeland

The ground yielded easily under her blade, unlocking a black smell of earth. The air was hot and moist; birds were singing in the trees. On her hands and knees, she stabbed the dirt, chopping it loose. One handful at a time, she scooped it away. Some of the weakness had abated but not all. Her body felt loose, disorganized, drained. There was pain, and the memory of pain. Three days had passed, or was it four? Perspiration beaded on her face; she licked her lips to taste the salt. She dug and dug. The sweat ran in rivulets, falling into the earth. That’s where everything goes, Alicia thought, in the end. Everything goes into the earth.

The pile beside her swelled. How deep was enough? Three feet down, the soil began to change. It became colder, with the odor of clay. It seemed like a sign. She rocked back on her boots and took a long drink from her canteen. Her hands were raw; the flesh at the base of her thumb had peeled back in a sheet. She placed the web of her hand to her mouth and used her teeth to sever the flap of skin and spat it into the dirt.

Soldier was waiting for her at the edge of the clearing, his jaws loudly working on a stand of waist-high grass. The grace of his haunches, his rich mane and blue roan coat, the magnificence of his hooves and teeth and the great black marbles of his eyes: an aura of splendor surrounded him. He possessed, when he chose, an absolute calm, then, in the next moment, could perform remarkable deeds. His wise face lifted at the sound of her approach. I see. We’re ready. He turned in a slow arc, his neck bent low, and followed her into the trees to the place where she had pitched her tarp. On the ground beside Alicia’s bloody bedroll lay the small bundle, swaddled in a stained blanket. Her daughter had lived less than an hour, yet in that hour Alicia had become a mother.

Soldier watched as she emerged. The baby’s face was covered; Alicia drew back the cloth. Soldier bent his face to the child’s, his nostrils flaring, breathing in her scent. Tiny nose and eyes and rosebud mouth, startling in their humanness; her head was covered in a cap of soft red hair. But there was no life, no breath. Alicia had wondered if she would be capable of loving her—this child conceived in terror and pain, fathered by a monster. A man who had beaten her, raped her, cursed her. How foolish she’d been.

She returned to the clearing. The sun was directly overhead; insects buzzed in the grass, a rhythmic pulsing. Soldier stood beside her as she laid her daughter in the grave. When her labor had started, Alicia had begun to pray. Let her be all right. As the hours of agony dissolved into one another, she had felt death’s cold presence inside her. The pain pounded through her, a wind of steel; it echoed in her cells like thunder. Something was wrong. Please, God, protect her, protect us. But her prayers had fallen into the void.

The first handful of soil was the hardest. How did one do it? Alicia had buried many men. Some she’d known, and some she hadn’t; only one she’d loved. The boy, Hightop. So funny, so alive, then gone. She let the dirt sift through her fingers. It struck the cloth with a pattering sound, like the first spits of rain upon leaves. Bit by bit her daughter disappeared. Goodbye, she thought, goodbye, my darling, my one.

She returned to her tent. Her soul felt shattered, like a million chips of glass inside her. Her bones were tubes of lead. She needed water, food; her stores were exhausted. But hunting was out of the question, and the creek, a five-minute walk down the hillside, felt like miles away. The needs of the body: what did they matter? Nothing mattered. She lay on her bedroll and closed her eyes, and soon she was asleep.

She dreamed of a river. A wide, dark river, and above it the moon was shining. It laid its light across the water like a golden road. What lay ahead Alicia did not know, only that she needed to cross this river. She took her first cautious step upon its glowing surface. Her mind felt divided: half marveled at this unlikely mode of travel; the other half did not. As the moon touched the far shore, she realized she had been deceived. The shining pathway was dissolving. She broke into a run, desperate to reach the other side before the river swallowed her. But the distance was too great; with every step she took, the horizon leapt farther away. The water sloshed around her ankles, her knees, her waist. She had no strength to fight its pull. Come to me, Alicia. Come to me, come to me, come to me. She was sinking, the river was taking her, she was plunging into darkness…

She awoke to a muted orange light; the day had nearly passed. She lay motionless, assembling her thoughts. She had grown accustomed to these nightmares; the pieces changed but never the feeling of them—the futility, the fear. Yet this time something was different. An aspect of the dream had traveled into life; her shirt was sopping. She looked down to see the widening stains. Her milk had come in.

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