Pandemonium (Delirium 2) - Page 32

I break off as Bram says, Shhh. Sarah scrambles to her feet again. Suddenly we are all tense, alert. We all heard itthe crack of a twig in the woods, sharp as a rifle report. As I look around at usall of our faces still and listening, anxiousIm reminded of the deer we saw two days ago in the woods, the way it froze, and tensed, just before bounding away.

The woods are stark-still, brushstrokes of straight black leafless trees, expanses of white, collapsed logs and rotten tree trunks hunched in the snow.

Then, as I am watching, one of the logsfrom a distance, just a mass of gray and browntwitches.

And I know that something is very, very wrong. I open my mouth to say so, but in that exact second everything explodes: Scavengers appear from all around us, shaking off their cloaks and furstrees becoming people becoming arms and knives and spearsand we are scattering, running, screaming in all directions.

This is, of course, how they want us: panicked, weak, and separated.

We are easier to kill that way.

The tunnel we are following slopes downward. For a minute I imagine that we are tunneling toward the center of the earth.

From up ahead, there is light and movement: a fiery glow, and sounds of banging and babbling. My neck is wet with sweat, and the dizziness is worse than ever. I am having trouble staying on my feet. I trip and barely manage to right myself. Rat-man steps forward and seizes one of my arms. I try to wrench away from his grasp, but he keeps one hand firmly on my elbow, walking beside me now. He smells terrible.

The light breaks, expands, and becomes a cavernous room filled with fire and people. The ceiling above us is vaulted, and we emerge from the darkness into a space with tall platforms on either side of us; on them, more monsterstattered, ragged, dirty people, all of them bloodless and pale, squinting and hobbledmove among metal trash cans where several fires are burning, so the air is clotted with smoke and an old, oily smell. The walls are tiled, and papered with faded advertisements and graffiti.

As we advance along the tracks, people turn and stare. They are all withered or damaged in some way. Many of them are missing limbs, or have other kinds of defects: shriveled infant-hands, strange tumor-growths on their faces, curved spines or crippled knees.

Up, the rat-man says, jerking his chin toward the platform. It is impossibly high.

Julians hands are still tied behind his back. Two of the larger men on the platform come forward and grab him under the armpits, help haul him up out of the tracks. The hunchback moves with surprising grace. I get a glimpse of strong arms and delicate, tapered wrists. A woman, then.

II cant, I say. The people on the platforms have stopped now. They are staring at Julian and me. Its too high.

Up, Rat-man repeats. I wonder if these are the only words he knowsstand, walk, up, down.

The platform is at eye level. I place my hands flat on the concrete and try to heave myself up, but Im far too weak. I collapse backward.

Shes hurt! Julian cries out. Cant you see that? For Gods sakewe need to get out of here.

Its the first time he has spoken since the Scavengers tracked us down, and his voice is full of pain and fear.

The rat-man is piloting me back toward the platform, but this time, as though by silent agreement, some of the observers move simultaneously forward toward us. They crouch at the platform lip; they reach out their arms. I try and twist away, but the rat-man is behind me. He grabs me firmly by the waist.

Stop it! Now Julian is trying to break free of his captors. The two men who helped him onto the platform are still holding him firmly. Let her go!

Hands are grabbing me from all directions. Monstrous faces loom above me, floating in the flickering light.

Julian is still screaming. Do you hear me? Get off her! Let her go!

A woman comes through the crowd toward me. She seems to be missing part of her face; her mouth is twisted into a horrible grin.

No. I want to scream. Hands are gripping me, lifting me onto the platform. I kick out; there is a release. I land hard on my side, rolling onto my back. The woman with the half face looms over me. She reaches for me with both hands.

She is going to strangle me.

Get away from me! I scream out, flailing, trying to push her away. My head smacks back against the platform, and for a second my vision explodes with color.

Be still, she is saying, in a soothing voicea lullaby voice, surprisingly gentleas the pain stops, and the screaming stops, and I drift away into a fog.

then

We scatter, panicked and blind. Weve had no time to load our weapons, and we have no strength to fight. My knife is in my packuseless to me now. No time to stop and retrieve it. The Scavengers are fast and strong: bigger, I think, than any normal people should be, bigger than anybody should be who makes a home in the Wilds.

This way! This way! Raven runs ahead of me, dragging Sarah by the hand. Sarah is too scared to cry. She can barely keep up with Raven. She is stumbling in the snow.

Terror is a heartbeat drumming in my chest. There are three Scavengers behind us. One of them has an ax. I can hear the blade whistling in the air. My throat is burning, and with each step I sink six inches, have to wrench my legs forward. My thighs are shaking from the effort.

We come over a hill and suddenly, looming ahead of us, there is an outcropping of rock, large boulders shouldering together at angles like people crowding together for warmth. The rocks are slick with ice and form a series of interlinking caves, dark mouths where the snow has not penetrated. There is no way to go around them, or climb over them. We will be caught there, pinioned, like animals in a corral.

Raven freezes for just a second, and I can see the terror in her whole body. A Scavenger lunges for her, and I cry out. She unfreezes, dragging Sarah forward again, running straight for the rock because there is nowhere else to run. I see her fumbling at her belt for her long knife. Her fingers are clumsy, frozen solid. She cant work it out of its pouch, and I realize, heart sinking, that she intends to make a stand. That is her only plan; we will die out here, and our blood will seep into the snow.

My throat is grating, aching; bare branches whip my face, stinging my eyes with tears. A Scavenger is close to me now, so close I can hear his heavy panting and see his shadow running in tandem with mineto our left, twin figures cast long on the snowand in that moment, just before he catches up to me, I think of Hana. Two shadows on the Portland streets; sun hot and high; legs beating in tandem.

Then there is no place left to run.

Go! Raven is screaming, as she pushes Sarah forward into a dark space, one of the caves made by the rocks. Sarah is small enough to fit. Hopefully the Scavengers will not be able to get to her. Then there is a hand on my back, and I am tumbling roughly to my knees, teeth ringing as I bite down on ice. I roll onto my back, six inches from the wall of sheer rock.

He is above me: a giant, a leering monster. He raises his ax, and its blade glitters in the sun. Im too scared to move, to breathe, to cry.

He tenses, ready to swing.

I close my eyes.

A rifle shot explodes in the silence, then two more. I open my eyes and see the Scavenger above me collapse to one side, like a puppet whose strings have been suddenly cut. His ax falls blade-first in the snow. Two other Scavengers have fallen too, pierced cleanly with bullets: Their blood is spreading against the whiteness.

Then I see them: Tack and Hunter jogging toward us, rifles in hand, thin and pale and haggard and alive.

When I come to, Im lying on my back on a dingy sheet. Julian is kneeling next to me, his hands unbound.

How are you feeling?

All of a sudden I rememberthe rats, the monsters, the woman with the half face. I struggle to sit up. Little fireworks of pain go off in my head.

Easy, easy. Julian puts his arm under my shoulders and helps move me into a seated position. You cracked your head pretty badly.

What happened? We are sitting in an area that has been partially blocked off by dismantled cardboard boxes. All along the platform, flowered sheets are strung up between broken slats of plywood, offering some privacy to the squatters inside; mattresses have been placed inside enormous, sagging cardboard structures; walls and blockades have been made by interlocking broken chairs and three-legged tables. The air is still hot, stinking of ash and oil. I watch the smoke trace a line along the ceiling, before getting sucked up and out through a tiny vent.

They cleaned you up, Julian says quietly, in a tone of disbelief. At first I thought they were going to He breaks off, shaking his head. But then a woman came, with bandages and everything. She wrapped up your neck. It was bleeding again.

I touch my neck: It has been taped up with thick gauze. Theyve taken care of Julian, too; the cut on his lip has been cleaned, and the bruises on his eyes are less swollen.

Who are these people? I say. What is this place?

Julian shakes his head again. Invalids. Seeing me flinch, he adds, I dont know any other word for them. For you.

Were not the same, I say, watching the bent and crippled figures moving beyond the smoky fire. Something is cooking; I can smell it. I dont want to think about what kind of food they eat down herewhat kind of animals they manage to trap. I think of the rats, and my stomach lurches. Dont you get that yet? Were all different. We want different things. We live different ways. Thats the whole point.

Julian opens his mouth to respond, but at that moment the monster woman appears, the one I tried to fight off at the edge of the platform. She pushes aside the cardboard barricade, and it strikes me that they must have arranged it that way so Julian and I would have some privacy.

Youre awake, the woman says. Now that Im not so terrified, I see that shes not missing part of her face, as I imagined; the right side of her face is just much smaller than the left, collapsed inward, as though her face is composed of two different masks, imperfectly joined. Birth defect, I think, even though Ive seen only a few defectives in my life, and all of them were in textbooks. In school we were always taught that kids born from the uncured would end up like this, crippled and mangled in some way. The priests told us this was the deliria manifesting in their bodies.

Children born of the healthy and the whole are healthy and whole; children born of the disease will have sickness in their bones and blood.

All these people, born crippled or bent or misshapen, have been driven underground. I wonder what would have happened to them as babies, as children, if they had stayed aboveground. I remember, then, what Raven told me about finding Blue. You know what they say about deliria babies. . . . She would probably be taken and killed. She wouldnt even be buried. . . . She d be burned, and packed up with the waste.

The woman doesnt wait for me to answer before kneeling in front of me. Julian and I are both silent. I want to say something to her, but I dont have the words. I want to look away from her face, but I cant.

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