15

Big Jim awoke in the dark, grabbing at his chest. His heart was misfiring again. He pounded at it. Then the alarm on the generator went off as the current tank of propane reached the danger point: AAAAAAAAAAA. Feed me, feed me.

Big Jim jumped and cried out. His poor tortured heart was lurching, missing, skipping, then running to catch up with itself. He felt like an old car with a bad carburetor, the kind of rattletrap you might take in trade but would never sell, the kind that was good for nothing but the junkheap. He gasped and pounded. This was as bad as the one that had sent him to the hospital. Maybe even worse.

AAAAAAAAAAAA : the sound of some huge, gruesome insect—a cicada, maybe—here in the dark with him. Who knew what might have crept in here while he was sleeping?

Big Jim fumbled for the flashlight. With the other hand he alternately pounded and rubbed, telling his heart to settle down, not to be such a cotton-picking baby, he hadn’t gone through all of this just to die in the dark.

He found the flashlight, struggled to his feet, and stumbled over the body of his late aide-de-camp. He cried out again and went to his knees. The flashlight didn’t break but went rolling away from him, casting a moving spotlight on the lowest lefthand shelf, which was stacked with boxes of spaghetti and cans of tomato paste.

Big Jim crawled after it. As he did, Carter Thibodeau’s open eyes moved.

“Carter?” Sweat was running down Big Jim’s face; his cheeks felt coated with some light, stinking grease. He could feel his shirt sticking to him. His heart took another of those looping larrups and then, for a wonder, settled into its normal rhythm again.

Well. No. Not exactly. But at least into something more like a normal rhythm.

“Carter? Son? Are you alive?”

Ridiculous, of course; Big Jim had gutted him like a fish on a riverbank, then shot him in the back of the head. He was as dead as Adolf Hitler. Yet he could have sworn… well, almost sworn… that the boy’s eyes

He fought back the idea that Carter was going to reach out and seize him by the throat. Telling himself it was normal to feel a little bit (terrified) nervous, because the boy had nearly killed him, after all. And still expecting Carter to sit up and draw him forward and bury hungry teeth in his throat.

Big Jim pressed his fingers under Carter’s jaw. The blood-sticky flesh was cold and no pulse moved there. Of course not. The kid was dead. Had been dead for twelve hours or more.

“You’re eating dinner with your Savior, son,” Big Jim whispered. “Roast beef and mashed. Apple cobbler for dessert.”

This made him feel better. He crawled after the flashlight, and when he thought he heard something move behind him—the whisper of a hand, perhaps, slipping across the concrete floor, blindly questing—he didn’t look back. He had to feed the generator. Had to silence the AAAAAA.

While he was pulling one of the four remaining tanks out of the storage cubby, his heart went into arrhythmia again. He sat beside the open trapdoor, gasping and trying to cough his heart back into a regular rhythm. And praying, unaware that his prayer was basically a series of demands and rationalizations: make it stop, none of it was my fault, get me out of here, I did the best I could, put everything back the way it was, I was let down by incompetents, heal my heart.

“For Jesus’ sake, amen,” he said. But the sound of the words chilled rather than comforted. They were like bones rattling in a tomb.

By the time his heart had settled a little, the hoarse cicada-cry of the alarm had stilled. The current tank had run dry. Save for the glow of the flashlight, it was now as dark in the fallout shelter’s second room as in the first; the remaining emergency light in here had flickered its last seven hours ago. Struggling to remove the empty tank and get the fresh one onto the platform beside the generator, Big Jim had a faint memory of stamping NO ACTION on a shelter-maintenance requisition that had come across his desk a year or two ago. That requisition had probably included the price of fresh batteries for the emergency lights. But he couldn’t blame himself. There was only so much money in a town budget and people always had their hands out: Feed me, feed me.

Al Timmons should have done it on his own initiative, he told himself. For God’s sake, is a little initiative too much to ask? Isn’t that part of what we pay the maintenance staff for? He could have gone to that frog Burpee and asked for them as a donation, for heaven’s sake. That’s what I would have done.

He connected the tank to the generator. Then his heart stuttered again. His hand jerked, and he knocked the flashlight into the storage bin, where it clanged against one of the remaining tanks. The lens shattered and he was left once more in total darkness.

“No!” he screamed. “No, goddammit, NO!”

But from God there was no answer. The quiet and the dark pressed in on him as his overstrained heart choked and struggled. Traitorous thing!

“Never mind. There’ll be another flashlight in the other room. Matches, too. I’ll just have to find them. If Carter had stockpiled them to begin with, I could go right to them.” It was true. He had overestimated that boy. He had thought the kid was a comer, but in the end he had turned out to be a goer. Big Jim laughed, then made himself stop. The sound in such total darkness was a little spooky.

Never mind. Start the generator.

Yes. Right. The generator was job one. He could double-check the connection once it was running and the air purifier was queeping away again. By then he’d have another flashlight, maybe even a Coleman lantern. Plenty of light for the next tank switchover.

“That’s the ticket,” he said. “If you want something done right in this world, you have to do it yourself. Just ask Coggins. Just ask the Perkins rhymes-with-witch. They know.” He laughed some more. He couldn’t help it, because it really was rich. “They found out. You don’t tease a big dog if you only have a little stick. Nosir. Nosirree.”

He felt around for the starter-button, found it, pushed it. Nothing happened. Suddenly the air in the room seemed thicker than ever.

I pushed the wrong button, that’s all.

Knowing better but believing it because some things have to be believed. He blew on his fingers like a crap-shooter hoping to heat up a cold pair of dice. Then he felt around until his fingers found the button.

“God,” he said, “this is Your servant, James Rennie. Please let this darned old thing start. I ask it in the name of Your Son, Jesus Christ.”

He pushed the starter-button.

Nothing.

He sat in the dark with his feet dangling in the storage compartment, trying to push back the panic that wanted to descend and eat him raw. He had to think. It was the only way to survive. But it was hard. When you were in the dark, when your heart was threatening full revolt at any second, thinking was hard.

And the worst of it? Everything he’d done and everything he’d worked for during the last thirty years of his life seemed unreal. Like the way people looked on the other side of the Dome. They walked, they talked, they drove cars, they even flew in airplanes and helicopters. But none of it mattered, not under the Dome.

Get hold of yourself. If God won’t help you, help yourself.

Okay. The first thing was light. Even a book of matches would do. There had to be something on one of the shelves in the other room. He would just feel along—very slowly, very methodically—until he found it. And then he would find batteries for the cotton-picking starter-motor. There were batteries, of that he was sure, because he needed the generator. Without the generator he would die.

Suppose you do get it started again? What happens when the propane runs out?

Ah, but something would intervene. He wasn’t meant to die down here. Roast beef with Jesus? He’d pass on that meal, actually. If he couldn’t sit at the head of the table, he’d just as soon skip the whole thing.

That made him laugh again. He made his way very slowly and carefully back to the door leading into the main room. He held his hands out in front of him like a blind man. After seven steps they touched the wall. He moved to the right, trailing his fingertips over the wood, and… ah! Emptiness. The doorway. Good.

He shuffled through it, moving more confidently now in spite of the blackness. He remembered the layout of this room perfectly: shelves to either side, couch dead ahea—

He tripped over the goddam cotton-picking kid again and went sprawling. He hit his forehead on the floor and screamed—more in surprise and outrage than in pain, because there was a carpet to pad the blow. But oh God, there was a dead hand between his legs. It seemed to be clutching at his balls.

Big Jim got to his knees, crawled forward, and hit his head again, this time on the couch. He let out another yell, then crawled up onto it, pulling his legs after him quickly, the way a man might pull his legs from water he’s just realized is infested with sharks.

He lay there trembling, telling himself to calm down, he had to calm down or he really would have a heart attack.

When you feel these arrhythmias, you need to center yourself and take long deep breaths, the hippy doctor had told him. At the time, Big Jim had considered this New Age bullshit, but now there was nothing else—he didn’t have his verapamil—so he’d have to try it.

And it seemed to work. After twenty deep breaths and long, slow exhales, he could feel his heart settling. The coppery taste was leaving his mouth. Unfortunately, a weight seemed to be settling on his chest. Pain was creeping down his left arm. He knew these were heart attack symptoms, but he thought indigestion from all the sardines he’d eaten was just as likely. More likely. The long, slow breaths were taking care of his heart just fine (but he would still get it looked at when he was out of this mess, maybe even give in and get that bypass surgery). The heat was the problem. The heat and the thick air. He had to find that flashlight and get the gennie going again. Just one more minute, or maybe two—

Someone was breathing in here.

Yes, of course. I’m breathing in here.

And yet he was quite sure he heard someone else. More than just one someone. It seemed to him that there were several people in here with him. And he thought he knew who they were.

That’s ridiculous.

Yes, but one of the breathers was behind the couch. One was lurking in the corner. And one was standing not three feet in front of him.

No. Stop it!

Brenda Perkins behind the couch. Lester Coggins in the corner, his jaw unhinged and hanging.

And standing dead ahead—

“No,” Big Jim said. “That’s crap. That’s bullshit.

He closed his eyes and tried to concentrate on taking those long slow breaths.

“It sure smells good in here, Dad,” Junior droned from in front of him. “It smells like the pantry. And my girlfriends.”

Big Jim shrieked.

“Help me up, bro,” Carter said from where he lay on the floor. “He cut me up pretty bad. Shot me, too.”

“Stop it,” Big Jim whispered. “I don’t hear any of that, so just stop it. I’m counting breaths. I’m settling my heart.”

“I still have the papers,” Brenda Perkins said. “And lots of copies. Soon they’ll be tacked to every telephone pole in town, the way Julia tacked up the last issue of her newspaper. ‘Be sure your sin will find you out’—Numbers, chapter thirty-two.”

“You’re not there!”

But then something—it felt like a finger—kissed its way down his cheek.

Big Jim shrieked again. The fallout shelter was full of dead people who were nevertheless breathing the increasingly foul air, and they were moving in. Even in the dark he could see their pale faces. He could see his dead son’s eyes.

Big Jim bolted up from the couch, flailing at the black air with his fists. “Get away! All of you get away from me!”

He charged for the stairs and tripped over the bottom one. This time there was no carpet to cushion the blow. Blood began to drip into his eyes. A dead hand caressed the back of his neck.

“You killed me,” Lester Coggins said, but with his broken jaw it came out Ooo ill eee.

Big Jim ran up the stairs and hit the door at the top with all his considerable weight. It squalled open, pushing charred lumber and fallen bricks in front of it. It went just far enough for him to squeeze through.

“No!” he barked. “No, don’t touch me! None of you touch me!”

It was almost as dark in the ruins of the Town Hall conference room as in the shelter, but with one big difference: the air was worthless.

Big Jim realized this when he pulled in his third breath. His heart, tortured beyond endurance by this final outrage, once more rose into his throat. This time it stuck there.

Big Jim suddenly felt as if he were being crushed from throat to navel by a terrible weight: a long burlap sack filled with stones. He struggled back to the door like a man moving through mud. He tried to squeeze through the gap, but this time he stuck fast. A terrible sound began to emerge from his gaping mouth and closing throat, and the sound was AAAAAAA: feed me feed me feed me.

He flailed once, again, then once more: a hand reaching out, grasping for some final rescue.

It was caressed from the other side. “Daaady,” a voice crooned.

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