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Page 7


Soft voices woke him. Mortimer's eyes pried themselves open. Darkness. He blinked a few times, and shadows took shape. The bonfire had dwindled, but there was just enough light to see after his eyes had adjusted. His subconscious had mercifully padlocked the nightmares into an unused corner of his mind. Still, a vague dread weighed heavily on him.

He lay perfectly still, listened. The cannibals' party had waned and finally petered out. But those voices, somewhere close in the night. He tilted his head only slightly. The voices were just around the other side of the stump, two women.

The first voice: "I'm so tired. Some party."

The other: "Yes. Roger's sleeping it off."

"Isn't it your anniversary? I thought Doris was on guard duty with me tonight."

"She's not feeling well, and Roger couldn't get it up anyway. He had so much fermented blood."

"I get a little tired of the fermented blood sometimes."

A pause. "Really?"

"It seems so long since I had a nice glass of wine or a Dr. Pepper."

"You really don't like the fermented blood? Seriously?"

"Oh, I like it. Don't get me wrong. The fermented blood is great. Love the fermented blood, but..."

"A little bit overkill with all the human flesh and everything?"

"Exactly. Sometimes I'd trade it all for a nice green salad and a glass of Shiraz."

"I hear you. But you wouldn't give it up. The blood and the human flesh and the whole lifestyle. You don't mean that, do you?"

"No, of course not. All my friends are here."

As the women spoke, Mortimer had stealthily slunk around the stump, froze when he saw a pair of slim legs wearing pink-and-black cowboy boots stretching away from the stump. The women appeared to be leaning against the stump, facing back toward the compound. They probably should have been facing out instead. A little luck at last. Now Mortimer could slink away without their seeing. He prepared to do just that, when one of the women stood and stretched.

"I'm going to take a wee-wee. Back soon." She picked her way through the bushes and out of sight.

Mortimer changed his plan, hardly even thought about it.

He circled the stump and grabbed the remaining woman, pulled her toward him. She drew breath for a scream, but Mortimer quickly clapped a hand over her mouth. His other arm went around her throat. She struggled, kicked.

Her hands came up, tried to claw his eyes, but he pulled her down, squeezed. He wanted to end it quickly, crushed her windpipe with his forearm. She went stiff briefly, then limp in his arms. He put her back in front of the stump, arranged her to look as if she'd curled up asleep. A crude spear leaned against the trunk and he grabbed it, darted back to his hiding place on the other side of the stump.

His hands shook; his breathing was shallow, verging on hyperventilation. He'd never killed anyone with his bare hands before. Up close. A woman.

He held the spear, squatting and ready to spring.

A long way off an owl hooted.

The other woman returned.

"Jesus, Lydia, you're not supposed to sleep on guard duty. What if...Lydia?"

Mortimer went for her, spear held out front. He saw this one's face and almost balked. She looked young, dark hair in a ponytail, expression wide-eyed and innocent like the naïve daughter on a feminine hygiene commercial. Her mouth fell open, and Mortimer struck.

The spearhead caught her square in the throat. Blood bubbled out of her mouth. He yanked out the spear, stabbed her again in the chest. She sank to her knees, coughed more blood and fell on top of her friend.

These hadn't been the cannibals Mortimer had expected, not drooling savages with bones through the nose. They could have been members of the PTA. Soccer moms. God, forgive me.

Then he remembered the grotesque cookout only a few hours earlier.

He knelt next to the bodies, searched them. The one he'd speared had a good bowie knife with an eight-inch blade. He took it, strapped it to his belt. He coveted their dry clothing, but they were both too small. He checked their pockets, had hoped for the miracle of a book of matches. No luck.

Without thinking, Mortimer headed for the sleeping camp.

There was a gap in the bone fence wide enough for one person to walk through at a time. Mortimer went in, crouching low and grasping the spear with tight, nervous hands. The stench of scorched flesh mixed with campfire smoke still hung in the air.

In the dim, dirty orange light, Mortimer now saw a line of shabby huts on the other side of the compound, crude dwellings pieced together from mismatched scraps of wood. His eyes darted in all directions. Presumably, there were other guards. Mortimer kept to the shadows as he crept toward the poles where the limp bodies of his friends were still tied.

He went to Bill first, lifted his head, slapped his face lightly. Come on, man. Wake up.

Bill's eyes creaked open slightly, regarded Mortimer at half-mast. When Bill saw who it was, his eyes shot open with surprise and hope. He opened his mouth to speak, and Mortimer put a hand over it, shook his head. Bill's eyes slowly moved back and forth. He remembered where he was and nodded his head.

Mortimer sliced through the ropes with the bowie knife, and Bill collapsed to the ground. He silently began to rub the circulation back into his legs and wrists.

Tyler's bright, clear eye was already open and alert. She wordlessly urged Mortimer to hurry. He cut her down, and she fell also, a grimace across her face as she bit back a groan. Being tied to a post for hours obviously hadn't been very comfortable.

Mortimer freed the two muscle guys. One of the big men wept openly, and Mortimer shot him an angry glance, mouthed the words Shut up. Soon they were all on their feet, headed back for the gap in the fence.

Yells from behind, the whole camp suddenly and angrily rousing from sleep.

"Run!" Mortimer shouted.

He sprinted for the fence, the others staggering behind. Soon they were in the forest, running blind, tree branches lashing them in the darkness. Mortimer stumbled, righted himself, kept running. He risked a glance over his shoulder.

The glow of torches, shouts of pursuit.

"Scatter!" Bill yelled.

Mortimer didn't wait to see where the others went. He picked a direction and ran, his arms and legs shouting hatred at him, his face and arms stinging from a dozen shallow cuts. He ran until the glow of torches faded. He ran until the shouts faded to a muffled murmur and then finally to nothing at all, until his own breathing and his own heartbeat pounding in his ears were the only sounds in the world.

And then he ran some more.



Like so many nightmares, this one involved falling.

First he fell into water, deep and dark and cold, so far into the depths he thought he'd fallen to the center of the earth. But then he splashed through the other side, fell through the branches of a huge tree.

Aching limbs, sopping clothes.

Then something cottony soft broke his fall. Mortimer felt warm and dry. The nightmare feeling ebbed. Perhaps he was dead. That would be a relief. A soft light above him. A clean bright face, blue eyes, blonde hair glowing soft and gold like a halo. Clothed in raiment of white.

An angel. Taking me to Heaven.

She spoke, but Mortimer couldn't understand. Maybe it was Latin. Ancient angel language.

What is it, little angel? Speak to me in your holy tongue.

"I asked if you wanted some soup," the woman said.

Mortimer propped himself up on one elbow, rubbed a knuckle into his eyes. He lay in bed. Clean sheets. He looked around the room. Almost like a hospital room but softer, less sterile, flowered curtains, personal belongings, books and things spread about.

He looked at the woman, who was young and fresh faced. No more than twenty. She wore clean white pajamas. No, not pajamas. Hospital scrubs.

"Where am I?"

"Saint Sebastian's of the Woods," she said, her voice soothing, calm.

A hospital, thought Mortimer, or some sort of clinic. Thank God. He'd been found, or some good Samaritan had brought him. He flirted with the brief fantasy that the past nine years had all been a coma delusion, but that was going too far.

The room's heavy curtains were drawn. The light came from a bulb in an overhead fixture.

His many cuts and scrapes had been cleaned. A bandage over a deeper slash under his left eye. A fresh bandage on his pinkie stump. He'd been bathed and wore a clean hospital gown. He ran a hand down the soft cotton.

"Your clothes are in the washing machine," she said.

Washing machine. The words were almost alien to him. He remembered his first washer and dryer, a gift from Anne's parents. It seemed the ultimate luxury when they no longer had to make those weekly trips to the Laundromat.

"Who are you?"

"Ruth. Who are you?"

"Mortimer. How did you find me?"

"Not me," Ruth said. "Mother Lola. She said it was fate to find you just in time."

How far had Mortimer fled in his blind panic? Five miles? More maybe. He remembered being dizzy, pressing on. He didn't remember finally collapsing but figured he must have dropped from exhaustion.

"Did she find anyone else? I was with some other people."

She shook her head. "Just you."

Mortimer felt a pang of regret. He wondered if he'd see Bill again. Found that he hoped he would. The cowboy was the closest thing Mortimer had to a friend.

"It's mushroom soup," Ruth prompted.

He was hungry, famished in fact. "Okay."

She smiled, childlike, as if she'd accomplished something by getting him to eat. "I'll be right back." She left, closed the door behind her.

He sat up, arranged his pillows.

Another woman brought a tray with his soup. She was older, sagging white skin and frightened brown eyes. She approached tentatively, set the tray gently on his lap.


She gasped, jerked back.

"It's okay," Mortimer said. "I didn't mean to startle-"

She yelped and ran from the room, waving her hands in the air.

Mortimer blinked. "What the fuck?"

He shrugged and picked up the spoon, filled his mouth with mushroom soup. He spooned fast and slurped. In three minutes, he'd finished the whole bowl. He belched and wiped his mouth on a white cloth napkin.

Ruth entered, smiled at the empty bowl. "Oh, my."

"I was hungry."

She held a glass and handed it to him. Water. He drank. It was cool and clean.

Ruth asked, "Is there anything I can get you? Anything you need?"

"I'm trying to think of what to ask," Mortimer said. "Where is this place?"

She frowned. Not angry. A little kid confused. "I told you. Saint Sebastian's of the Woods."

He laughed. "But where is that? I know we're south of Evansville, but I don't know how far."

She offered a blank look in return.

"I was on my way to Chattanooga."

One of her eyebrows went up. "I've heard of that town."

"Uh...maybe I'd better talk to...who did you say was in charge?"

"Mother Lola."

"A nun?"

The frown again. "None of what?"

"I think I'd better talk to Mother Lola."

"Oh, that won't be any problem at all," Ruth said. "She wants to speak with you too. She says you've been sent to us. You're the talk of the society."

"What society?"

"The society. All that is everything. Together we are all the society."

"And when exactly can I see Mother Lola?"

"When she returns."

"Returns from where?"

"From without the society."

"Listen, do you have any drugs or whiskey or anything I can have?" asked Mortimer.

"Do you have pain?" Ruth looked alarmed. "I can treat it with acupuncture. I've been reading a book on how to do it."

"Never mind."

The frightened woman stuck her head in the door again, mouth hanging slightly open as she eyed Mortimer with trepidation.

"It's okay," Ruth said. "You can come in."

She darted in, set Mortimer's clothing on the foot of the bed and scampered out again.

"She'll talk your ear off if you let her."

Ruth laughed.

"Thanks for the soup. I feel better. I think I'd like to get dressed now."

"Of course." She didn't budge.

Mortimer made shooing motions.

Ruth looked toward the door, then back at Mortimer. "Oh." She left, closed the door with a loud click.

He stripped off his gown, naked underneath, and began to dress. He paused, examined his pants and shirt. They were laundered and pressed. Rips had been sewn with fine stitching. Even the socks had been bleached. Boxers lightly starched. He put it all on and felt like a new man.

His boots hadn't been returned to him.

Mortimer went to the window and swept the curtains aside. The boarded-up window surprised him, wide planks fastened snugly crossways. Only a thin slice of light between planks told him it was daylight. He wondered how long he'd been asleep. No clocks in the room.

In the bathroom, he urinated, washed his hands and splashed water in his face. He dried himself with a fluffy white towel. The towel smelled fresh, like a meadow, with just a hint of bleach.

He opened the door and found Ruth waiting for him in the hallway. Fluorescent lights, a slight antiseptic odor. It seemed like any hospital he'd ever been in.

"Feeling okay?" she asked.

"Where are my boots?"

"We don't like to track dirt in from the outside," Ruth said. "They're in storage."

Mortimer noticed Ruth wore fuzzy white bedroom slippers.

"If you're feeling up to it, I can show you around," Ruth offered. "I sensed you were curious about the society. I can show you how we live."

"Sounds good. I am a little curious."

Her smile radiated innocent pleasure. "This way." She motioned for him to follow.

They walked the long hall, passed rooms with closed doors. Sleeping quarters, Ruth explained. A woman Mortimer hadn't seen before passed them, pushing a cart full of clean laundry. She was tall and haggard, late forties with dark circles under her eyes. She wore the same white scrubs and slippers as Ruth. Mortimer wiggled his fingers in a friendly wave. She returned only wide-eyed silence.

They found a stairwell and went down two levels, came out in a wide main corridor.

Mortimer asked, "How big is this place?"

"Three main floors, and then two five-story towers on either side of the garden," she said. "There are two sublevels, housing the kitchens, laundry and other maintenance facilities, including the power station. Sixty-three thousand, five hundred and sixty square feet all together."

She sounded like she'd memorized a brochure. Maybe she had.

Ruth led him through a set of wide double doors into a sudden open space, sunlight pouring down on them. Mortimer estimated it was only just after noon. Trees and plants, fat, ripe tomatoes in ceramic pots surrounded by a chest-high wire fence. The temperature was mild, and Mortimer realized they weren't outside. A huge glass dome arched over them. It was some kind of gigantic arboretum. Completely enclosed, walls rising all around. Mortimer could see blue sky and the towers on either side, but that was all.

An ancient woman tended a dozen goats. There were also chickens and a few ducks. The old woman wore a loose, flowing white gown of light cotton and walked barefoot among the animals. She spotted Ruth and Mortimer, approached and curtsied, her old joints creaking.

"Hello, Ruth. Hello, mister." Her voice sounded like a rusty hinge.

Ruth smiled. "And how are the goats today, Felicity?"

"My mommy says if I milk them all before dinner I'm to have a treat."

Mortimer stared at the old woman. What the...?

"You're a good girl, Felicity. Run along and make sure the goats stay out of the tomatoes this time."

Felicity trotted back to the goats, tittering, a creepy burlesque of a little girl's giggle.

Mortimer looked at Ruth. "Is she okay?"

"She has a good way with animals," Ruth said. "Come on. I have so much to show you."

Mortimer followed, a little dazed. What is going on here?

They passed through a storage area marked RECREATIONAL EQUIPMENT. Croquet mallets, a Ping-Pong table, Frisbees, horseshoes, a soccer ball and other sporting gear. Mortimer noticed three large archery targets but neither bows nor arrows.

Ruth took him to the first sublevel, where a big hydroponics setup impressed Mortimer. Ruth explained that they grew a variety of sprouts as well as carrots and other vegetables. They had several books on gardening and hydroponics in the hospital library. Gardening had been considered very good therapy during the hospital's heyday, and they'd started with a good variety of seeds.

They paused to watch a young girl about Ruth's age plant seedlings into small plastic pots lined in neat rows. She had bland brown hair, pale, sickly skin and bone-thin arms and legs. And white bedroom slippers.

"Hello, Emma."

"Hello, R-Ruth."

Ruth said, "This is Mortimer. He's been sent to us. I'm showing him the ways of the society."

Mortimer nodded. "Hi."

Like the others, Emma looked at him like he was from Mars. "H-hello."

"What have we here?" Ruth picked up one of the seedlings, squinted at it.

"B-banana p-peppers," Emma said.

"Emma has quite a green thumb." Ruth passed the seedling to Mortimer.

He looked at it briefly before setting it back on the table. "Great."

A panicked, high-pitched noise popped out of Emma's mouth. She bent over the seedling, lined it up exactly with the rest of the seedlings in the row. She examined it from every angle, making sure it was perfectly aligned.

"She likes things just right," Ruth said.

Mortimer smiled weakly. "Who doesn't?"

She showed him through the kitchens, then took him down another level. She opened a big steel door, and Mortimer balked at the darkness and the damp smell. But Ruth took a lantern hanging from the wall and flipped it on. It hummed and buzzed to life, casting a blue glow on the rough cavern walls beyond. She led, and he followed.

The tunnel's low ceiling was a mere two inches from his head, but it soon opened into a wide cave. The sound of rushing water. She held up the lantern, showing Mortimer the pool of water, the underground river flowing in one side and out the other. Mortimer thought of his own caves, where he'd hidden from the world for so long.

"We catch fish here," Ruth said. "This isn't the drinking water. The hospital has a system fed by a very deep well. But we have plans to put in a hydroelectric waterwheel here if the solar panels on the roof give out. There are complete diagrams for how to build a waterwheel in a book in the hospital library."

She took Mortimer through the rest of the hospital, showing him inconsequential nooks and crannies. The entire time something about the place nagged at him, something beyond the general strangeness of the people he'd met. He couldn't quite put his finger on it.

"How many live here?" Mortimer asked.

"Eighty-eight," said Ruth. "Fewer than in the old times."

"The old times?"

"Before. The time before the society."


A large room with many shelves and books was obviously the hospital library. Ruth credited the written knowledge within for a good portion of the society's survival. Everything anyone needed to know, she claimed, was written down in one book or another. How to make soap or repair a furnace or catch fish or set a broken arm or...well...anything.

Mortimer wandered while Ruth chattered on about the wonders of the library, her bubbly voice fading to background music. He drifted toward a wall where several framed newspaper articles hung. The newspaper had yellowed almost to brown. He scanned the headlines and photos.

A man in a hard hat and a business suit breaking ground with a ceremonial golden shovel. Another photo dated almost twenty-four months later, of a sharply dressed woman cutting a ribbon. Various headlines:




Mortimer scanned the articles, frowned as other headlines and bits of story jumped out at him.




Something cold and leaden sagged in the pit of Mortimer's stomach. He glanced sideways at Ruth, who still gestured airily at the many volumes. Oh, hell, he thought. I'm in a nuthouse.

Mortimer cleared his throat. "Uh...well, this has been fun. If I could just get my boots, I really need to hit the road."

Ruth tilted her head, frowned at him. "The road?"

"I want to leave. Thanks for the soup."

She shook her head. "Nobody leaves. This is the society. We are within, safe from the outside. No one leaves. Ever."

Mortimer suddenly realized what was so strange about the hospital. He'd not seen a single open door or window.

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