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Five

Ezekiel Wilkes shivered at the entrance to the old water runoff system. He stared into the hole as if it might eat him, or as if he wanted it tobecause he was having second thoughts about this whole thing. But his third thoughts were insistent. Hed come this far. He only had a few yards to go, through a large tunnel and into a city that had been functionally dead since before he was born.

The lantern in his hand quivered with the chilled shakes of his elbow. In his pocket, a folded, wrinkled map was wadded into a nub. He only carried it as a matter of formality. He knew it by heart.

But there was one thing he didnt know, and it bothered him greatly.

He didnt know where his parents had once lived. Not exactly.

His mother had never mentioned an address, but he was sure theyd lived up on Denny Hill, which gave him a place to start looking. The hill itself wasnt so big, and he knew roughly what the house looked like. At bedtime when he was younger, Zekes mother had described it to him as if itd been a castle. If it still stood, it was lavender and cream, with two full stories and a turret. It had a porch that wrapped around the front of the house; and on that porch was a rocking chair painted to look like it was made of wood.

It was actually made of metal, and fitted with a mechanism that connected to the floor. When a crank was wound, the chair would rock itself for the benefit of anyone who was sitting in it at the time.

Zeke found it almost infuriating how little he knew about the man whod made it work. But he thought he knew where to look for answers. All he had to do was hike through the tunnel and head up the hill to his immediate left, which ought to be Denny Hill.

He wished he had somebody to ask, but there wasnt anybody.

There wasnt anything, except a wafting stink from the heavy fumes of a mysterious gas that still leaked out from the earth inside the wall.

Now was as good a time as any to put on his mask.

He took a deep breath before sliding the harness over his face and securing it. When he exhaled, the interior fogged for a second and then cleared.

The tunnel looked even more distant and unearthly when he viewed it through the masks visor. It appeared elongated and strange, and the darkness seemed to wobble and twist when he turned his head. The straps of the mask rubbed itchily where they lay over and under his ears. He slipped a finger up underneath the leather and ran it back and forth.

He checked his lantern for the dozenth time and yes, it was full of oil. He checked his bag and yes, it had all the supplies hed been able to swipe. He was as ready as he was ever going to be, which was only just ready enough.

Zeke turned up the lanterns wick to give himself as much light as possible.

He crossed the threshold, forcing himself past the line between mere night and someplace darker. His lantern filled the interior of the brick-lined, man-made cave with a wash of gold.

Hed meant to leave earlier, in the morning after his mother had gone to the Waterworks. But itd taken all day to get his supplies together, and Rector had been difficult about the details.

So now it was almost dark outside, and perfectly dark inside.

The lantern cast a bubbled halo that carried him forward, into the unknown. He navigated the crumbled spots where the ceiling had dropped itself in pieces and piles; and he dodged the hanging tendrils of moss that was thicker than seaweed; and he ducked beneath the spiderwebs that dangled, waving, from brick to brick.

Here and there he saw signs of prior passage, but he didnt know if he felt reassured that he was not the first to come this way. On the walls he saw black scuff marks where matches had been struck or cigarettes stubbed out; and he spied tiny, shapeless wads of wax that were too small to work as candles any longer. The initials W.L. were rubbed onto one cluster of bricks. Shards of broken glass glittered between weather-widened cracks.

All he could hear was the rhythmic tap of his footsteps, his muffled breaths, and the rusty hinge of the swinging lantern as it bounced back and forth.

And then there was another sound, one that made him think he was being followed.

He swung the lantern around, but saw no one. And there was no place for anyone to hideit was a straight shot from the bricks where he stood to the beach. Forward, the way was less clear. As far as he could see, at the very edges of the lanterns reach, nothing but more emptiness waited.

The grade rose. He was going up, very slightly. The open places above him where the bricks had come away did not show any sky because they were covered by earth. The echoes of the small sounds in the tunnel became more smothered and close. Zeke had expected it, but it made him more uncomfortable than he wouldve thought. He knew that the geography jerked up away from the coast, and that the exposed tunnel wormed a path underneath the city proper.

If Rector was right, at the end of the main pathway the route would split four ways. The leftmost one would lead up to the basement of a bakery. The roof of that building would be a semisafe place to get a handle on his surroundings.

Underground and in the dark, the way seemed to curve left, and then right. Zeke didnt think hed made a full circle, but he was definitely disoriented. He hoped that hed still be able to pin down Denny Hill when he broke the surface.

After what felt like milesbut was surely only a fraction of thatthe way widened and fractured as Rector had promised. Zeke took the hole on the far left and followed it another hundred feet before it terminated in a total dead endor so he thought, until he backtracked slightly and found the secondary passage. This new corridor did not appear crafted, but dug. It did not look reinforced or secure. It looked temporary, spontaneous, and ready to fall.

He took it anyway.

The walls were more mud than stone or brick, and they were filthy wet. So was the floor, which was mostly a mash of decomposing sawdust, soil, and plant roots. It bit down on his boots and tried to hold him, but he slogged forward and finally, at the end of another twist and on the other side of another turn, he found a ladder.

With a skip and a jump he extricated himself from the gummy muck and seized the ladder hard. He lifted himself out and up, and into a basement so thickly dusted that even the mice and roaches left tracks on every surface. And there were footprints, tooquite a number of them.

At a rough glance he counted maybe ten sets of feet that had passed this way. He told himself that it was good, that he was glad to see that other people had survived the trip without trouble, but in truth it made him queasy. Hed hoped, and partly plotted, to find an empty city filled with mindless perils. Everybody knew about the rotters. Rector had told Zeke about the quiet societies that kept underground and out of sight, but mostly Zeke hoped to avoid them.

And, footprints well

Footprints implied he might run into other people at some point.

As he surveyed the room and determined that it held nothing of value, he resolved to be on his most careful behavior. While he climbed the stairs in the corner, he vowed to stick to the shadows and keep his head down, and his gun ready.

Really, he liked the thought of it. He enjoyed the prospect of being one boy against the universe, on a grand and dangerous adventureeven if it was only going to last a few hours. He would move like a thief in the night. He would be as invisible as a ghost.

On the first floor, all the windows were boarded and covered, reinforced and braced from corner to corner. A counter with a splintered glass cover rotted along the wall, and a set of old striped awnings lay forgotten in a pile. Stacks of rusting pans cluttered a broken-down sink, and a dilapidated cash box was scattered in pieces across the floor.

He found a ladder propped in an empty pantry. At the top of the ladder a trapdoor had been left unlocked. He pushed against it with his hand, his head, and his shoulder, and it opened away from him. In a moment, he was on the roof.

And then there was something cold and hard pressed against the back of his neck.

He froze, one foot still on the ladders top step.

Hi there.

Zeke replied, without turning around, Hello yourself. He tried to keep it low and growly, but he was scared and it came out at a higher pitch than hed hoped for. In front of him he saw nothing but the corners of an empty rooftop; as far as the visor and his own peripheral vision could tell him, he was alone except for whomever was behind him with the very cold-barreled gun.

He set the lantern down with all the precision and caution he could muster.

What are you doing up here, boy?

He said, Same as you, I reckon.

And what exactly do you think Im doing? his interrogator asked.

Nothing youd like to get caught at. Look, let me alone, will you? I dont got any money or anything. Zeke slowly stepped out of the hole, balancing carefully, with his hands held uselessly aloft.

The cold, circular chill of something hard and dangerous didnt leave the exposed patch at the base of his skull.

No money, eh?

Not a penny. Can I turn around? I feel stupid standing here like this. You can shoot me just as easy if Im facing you. Im not armed or nothing. Come on, let me loose. I didnt do nothing to you.

Let me see your bag.

Zeke said, No.

The pressure came harder against his neck. Yes.

Its just papers. Maps. Nothing worth anything. But I can show you something neat if youll let me.

Something neat?

Look, Zeke said, trying to wriggle himself away by inches and not succeeding very well. Look, he said again, trying to buy time. Im a peace-abiding man, myself, he exaggerated. I keep Maynards peace. I keep it, and I dont want any trouble.

You know a bit about Maynard, do you?

Well, I ought to, he grumbled. He was my granddad.

Get out, said the voice behind him, and it sounded more honestly impressed than dubious. No, you aint. Id have heard about you, if you were.

No, its true. I can prove it. My mom, she was

The interrogator interrupted, The Widow Blue? Now, come to think of it, she did have a boy, didnt she? He fell silent.

Yeah. She had me.

Zeke felt the cold circle against his neck slide, so he took a chance and stepped awaystill keeping his hands in the air. He turned around slowly, and then dropped his hands with an exasperated yelp. You were going to shoot me with a bottle?

No. The man shrugged. It was a glass bottle with the remnants of a black-and-white label stuck raggedly to its side. I never heard of anyone getting shot with a bottle. I just wanted to make sure.

Make sure of what?

That you understood, he said vaguely, and sat down against the wall with a sliding, slumping motion that implied he was reinstating the position hed held when Zeke had interrupted him.

The man was masked as a matter of necessity, and he was wearing at least one fatly knitted sweater and two coatsthe outer one of which was a very dark blue, or maybe black. A row of buttons pocked the front, and a pair of dark, oversized pants lurked beneath it. His boots were mismatched: One was tall and brown; the other was shorter and black. At his feet lay an oddly shaped cane. He picked it up and gave it a twist, then set it in his lap.

Whats wrong with you? Zeke demanded. Whyd you scare me like that?

Because you were there, he said, and there didnt seem to be any smirk or smugness behind it. And why were you, anyway?

Why was I what?

Why were you there? I mean, why are you here? This aint no place for a boy, even if you are Maynards. Shit, it might be a worse place for you, if you run around firing off claims like that, whether theyre true or not. Youre lucky, I guess, the man said.

Lucky? How you figure?

Youre lucky its me who found you, and not somebody else.

How was that lucky? Zeke asked.

He wiggled the bottle that still swung from his hand. I didnt stick you up with anything thatd hurt you.

Zeke didnt see anything on the man that might have actually hurt him, but he didnt mention it. He picked up his lantern again, adjusted his bag, and scowled. Its a good thing for you I didnt have my gun out.

Youve got a gun?

Yeah, I do, he said, standing up straighter.

Where is it?

Zeke patted the bag.

Youre an idiot, said the seated man with the bottle and the bulky clothes. Then he brought the mouth of the bottle up to the edge of his mouth, where it knocked loudly against his gas mask.

He gazed sadly at the bottle and swirled its last few drops around in the bottom.

Im an idiot? My momma has an expression about a pot and a kettle, you jackass.

The man looked as if he were about to say something ungallant about Zekes mother, but he didnt. He said, I dont think I caught your name, kid.

I didnt offer it.

Do so now, he said. There was a hint of menace underlying the command.

Zeke didnt like it. No. You tell me yours first, and Ill think about telling you mine. I dont know you, and I dont know what youre doing here. And I He fumbled with his bag until hed pulled his grandfathers old revolver out. It took about twenty seconds, during which the man on the roof didnt bother to budge. I have a gun.

So you do, the man said. But he didnt sound impressed this time. And now youve got it in your hands, at least. Aint you got a belt? A holster?

Dont need one.

Fine, he said. Now whats your name?

Zeke. Zeke Wilkes. And whats yours? he demanded.

Inside his mask, the man grinned, presumably because hed gotten the boys name before giving away his own. Zeke could only see the smile because of the way his eyes crinkled behind the visor. Zeke. Wilkes, even. Cant say I blame you for dropping the color, kid. And before Zeke could complain or retort, he added, Im Alistair Mayhem Osterude, but you can join the rest of the world in calling me Rudy, if you want.

Your middle name is Mayhem?

It is if I say it is. And if you dont mind my asking, Zeke Wilkes, what the hell are you doing inside this place? Shouldnt you be in school, or at work, or something? And better yet, does your momma know youre here? I hear shes a real firecracker of a lady. I bet she wouldnt like it if she knew you done took off.

My mothers working. She wont be home for hours, and Ill be home by then. What she dont know wont hurt her, he said. And Im wasting time here talking to you, so if youll excuse me, Ill be on my way.

He stuffed the gun back into his bag and turned his back on Rudy. He breathed slowly and evenly through his masks filters and tried to remember exactly where he was, and exactly where he was trying to go.

Rudy asked, from his spot up against the wall, Where you going?

None of your business.

Fair, and all right. But if you tell me what youre looking for, I might be able to tell you how to get there.

Zeke walked to the edge and looked down, but he didnt see anything through the thick, sticky air. His lantern revealed nothing except more of the tainted fog in all directions. He said, You could tell me how to get to Denny Hill.

And Rudy said, I could, yeah. Then he asked, But where on Denny Hill? It wraps around this whole area. Oh. I get it. Youre trying to go home.

Before he could think to argue or be vague, Zeke said, It aint home. It never was. I never saw it.

I did, Rudy told him. It was a nice house.

Was? Is it gone now?

He shook his head, No, I dont think so. As far as I know its still standing. I only meant that its not nice no more. Nothing inside here is. The Blight eats up paint and fixings, and makes everything go yellow-brown.

But you know where it is?

Roughly. Rudy untangled his legs and stood, leaning on his cane and wobbling. I could get you there, easily. If thats where you want to go.

Thats where I want to go. He nodded. But what do you want for helping me?

Rudy considered his response, or maybe he only waited for his head to clear. He said, I want to go looking through that house. Your pa was a rich man, and I dont know if its been cleaned out good or not, yet.

Whats that supposed to mean?

Exactly what it sounds like, Rudy almost snapped. These houses, and these businessesnobody owns them no more, or at least nobodys coming back inside after them. Half the people who used to live here are dead, anyhow. So those of us who are left, we He hunted for a word that sounded less direct than the truth. Scavenge. Or we salvage, anyway. We aint got much choice.

Something about the logic sounded wrong, but Zeke couldnt put his finger on it. Rudy was looking to bargain, but Zeke didnt have anything to counter with. This might be the perfect opportunity, if he played it right. He said, I guess thats fair. If you take me to the house, you could take some of the things you find left there.

Rudy snorted. Im glad to have your permission, young Mr. Wilkes. Thats mighty big of you.

Zeke knew when he was being made fun of, and he didnt care for it. Fine, then. If youre going to act like that, maybe I dont need a guide at all. Maybe I can find it on my own. I told you, Ive got maps.

And a gun, yes. I believe you mentioned it. That makes you a big man ready to take on the Blight, and the rotters, and all the other outlaws like myself. Id say youre all ready to go. He sat down on the roofs edge as if hed changed his mind.

I can find it on my own! Zeke insisted, too loudly.

Rudy made a hushing motion with his hands and said, Keep it low, boy. Im telling you for your own good, and for mine. Keep your voice low. There are worse things out here than me by a long shot, and you dont want to meet any of them, I promise.


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