It was seven thirty AM. They had all gathered round, even the late Benny Drake’s wretched, red-eyed mother. Alva had her arm around Alice Appleton’s shoulders. All that little girl’s former sass and spunk was gone now, and as she breathed, rales rattled in her narrow chest.
When Sam finished what he had to say, there was a moment of silence … except, of course, for the omnipresent roar of the fans. Then Rusty said: “It’s crazy. You’ll die.”
“If we stay here, will we live?” Barbie asked.
“Why would you even try to do such a thing?” Linda asked. “Even if Sam’s idea works and you make it—”
“Oh, I t’ink it’ll work,” Rommie said.
“Sure it will,” Sam said. “Guy named Peter Bergeron told me, not long after the big Bar Harbor fire back in forty-seven. Pete was a lot of things, but never a liar.”
“Even if it does,” Linda said, “why ?”
“Because there’s one thing we haven’t tried,” Julia said. Now that her mind was made up and Barbie had said he would go with her, she was composed. “We haven’t tried begging.”
“You’re crazy, Jules,” Tony Guay said. “Do you think they’ll even hear ? Or listen if they do?”
Julia turned her grave face to Rusty. “That time your friend George Lathrop was burning ants alive with his magnifying glass, did you hear them beg?”
“Ants can’t beg, Julia.”
“You said, ‘It occurred to me that ants also have their little lives.’ Why did it occur to you?”
“Because …” He trailed off, then shrugged.
“Maybe you did hear them,” Lissa Jamieson said.
“With all due respect, that’s bullshit,” Pete Freeman said. “Ants are ants. They can’t beg.”
“But people can,” Julia said. “And do we not also have our little lives?”
To this no one replied.
“What else is there to try?”
From behind them, Colonel Cox spoke up. They had all but forgotten him. The outside world and its denizens seemed irrelevant now. “I’d try it, in your shoes. Don’t quote me, but … yes. I would. Barbie?”
Linda handed over three green Hefty bags. In two of them she had packed clothes for herself and Rusty and a few books for the girls (the shirts, pants, socks, and underwear now lay carelessly discarded behind the little group of survivors). Rommie had donated the third, which he’d used to carry two deer rifles. Sam examined all three, found a hole in the bag that had held the guns, and tossed it aside. The other two were intact.
“All right,” he said, “listen close. It should be Missus Everett’s van that goes out to the box, but we need it over here first.” He pointed to the Odyssey. “You sure about the windows bein rolled up, Missus? You gotta be sure, because lives are gonna depend on it.”
“They were rolled up,” Linda said. “We were using the air-conditioner.”
Sam looked at Rusty. “You’re gonna drive it over here, Doc, but the first thing you do, is turn off the fac’try air. You understand why, right?”
“To protect the environment inside the cabin.”
“Some of the bad air’ll get in when you open the door, sure, but not much if you’re quick. There’ll be good air inside still. Town air. The folks inside can breathe easy all the way to the box. That old van’s no good, and not just because the windows’re open—”
“We had to,” Norrie said, looking at the stolen phone company van. “The air-conditioning was busted. G-Grampy said. ” A tear rolled slowly out of her left eye and cut through the dirt on her cheek. There was dirt everywhere now, and soot, almost too fine to see, sifting down from the murky sky.
“That’s fine, honey,” Sam told her. “The tires ain’t worth a tin shit, anyway. One look and you know whose used car lot that pup came from.”
“Guess that means my van if we need another vehicle,” Rommie said. “I’ll get it.”
But Sam was shaking his head. “It better be Missus Shumway’s car, on account of the tires are smaller and easier to handle. Also, they’re brand-new. The air inside them’ll be fresher.”
Joe McClatchey broke into a sudden grin. “The air from the tires! Put the air from the tires in the garbage bags! Homemade scuba tanks! Mr. Verdreaux, that is genius !”
Sloppy Sam grinned himself, showing all six of his remaining teeth. “Can’t take the credit, son. Pete Bergeron gets the credit. He told about a couple of men got trapped behind that fire in Bar Harbor after it went and crowned. They were okay, but the air wasn’t fit to breathe. So what they did was bust the cap off a pulp-truck tire and took turns breathin right from the stem until the wind cleared the air. Pete said they told him it was nasty-tasting, like old dead fish, but it kep em alive.”
“Will one tire be enough?” Julia asked.
“Might be, but we dassn’t trust the spare if it’s one of those little emergency doughnuts built to get you twenty miles down the highway and no more.”
“It’s not,” Julia said. “I hate those things. I asked Johnny Carver to get me a new one, and he did.” She looked toward town. “I suppose Johnny’s dead now. Carrie, too.”
“We better take one off the car as well, just to be safe,” Barbie said. “You’ve got your jack, right?”
Rommie Burpee grinned without much humor. “I’ll race you back here, Doc. Your van against Julia’s hybrid.”
“I’ll drive the Prius over,” Piper said. “You stay where you are, Rommie. You look like shit.”
“Nice talk from a minister,” Rommie grumbled. “You ought to be thankful I still feel lively enough to talk some trash.” In truth Reverend Libby looked far from lively, but Julia handed over her keys anyway. None of them looked ready to go out drinking and juking, and Piper was in better shape than some; Claire McClatchey was as pale as milk.
“Okay,” Sam said. “We got one other little problem, but first—”
“What?” Linda asked. “What other problem?”
“Don’t worry about that now. First let’s get our rollin iron over here. When do you want to try it?”
Rusty looked at The Mill’s Congregational minister. Piper nodded. “No time like the present,” Rusty said.
The remaining townies watched, but not alone. Cox and almost a hundred other soldiers had gathered on their side of the Dome, looking on with the silent attention of spectators at a tennis match.
Rusty and Piper hyperventilated at the Dome, loading their lungs with as much oxygen as possible. Then they ran, hand-in-hand, toward the vehicles. When they got there they separated. Piper stumbled to one knee, dropping the Prius keys, and all the watchers groaned.
Then she snatched them from the grass and was up again. Rusty was already in the Odyssey van with the motor running as she opened the door of the little green car and flung herself inside.
“Hope they remembered to turn off the air-conditioning,” Sam said.
The vehicles turned in almost perfect tandem, the Prius shadowing the much larger van like a terrier herding a sheep. They drove quickly to the Dome, bouncing over the rough ground. The exiles scattered before them, Alva carrying Alice Appleton and Linda with a coughing Little J under each arm.
The Prius stopped less than a foot away from the dirty barrier, but Rusty swung the Odyssey around and backed it in.
“Your husband’s got a good set of balls on him and an even better set of lungs,” Sam told Linda matterof-factly.
“It’s because he gave up smoking,” Linda said, and either did not hear Twitch’s strangled snort or affected not to.
Good lungs or not, Rusty didn’t linger. He slammed the door behind him and hustled to the Dome. “Piece of cake,” he said … and began to cough.
“Is the air inside the van breathable, like Sam said?”
“Better than what’s here.” He laughed distractedly. “But he’s right about something else—every time the doors open, a little more good air gets out and a little more bad air gets in. You probably can get out to the box without tire-air, but I don’t know if you can get back without it.”
“They ain’t gonna be driving, neither one of them,” Sam said. “ I’m gonna drive.”
Barbie felt his lips turn up in the first genuine grin to grace his face in days. “Thought you lost your license.”
“Don’t see any cops out here,” Sam said. He turned to Cox. “What about you, Cap? See any local yokels or County Mounties?”
“Not a one,” Cox said.
Julia drew Barbie aside. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
“You know the chances hover somewhere between slim and none, right?”
“How are you at begging, Colonel Barbara?”
He flashed back to the gym in Fallujah: Emerson kicking one prisoner’s balls so hard they flew up in front of him, Hackermeyer pulling another up by his keffiyeh and putting a gun to his head. The blood had hit the wall like it always hits the wall, right back to the time when men fought with clubs.
“I don’t know,” he said. “All I know is it’s my turn.”
Rommie, Pete Freeman, and Tony Guay jacked up the Prius and pulled off one of the working tires. It was a small car, and under ordinary circumstances they might have been able to lift the rear end with their bare hands. Not now. Although the car was parked close to the fans, they had to run back to the Dome repeatedly for air before the job was done. In the end, Rose took over for Tony, who was coughing too hard to continue.
Finally, though, they had two new tires leaning against the Dome.
“So far, so good,” Sam said. “Now for that other little problem. I hope somebody’s got an idear, because I sure don’t.”
They looked at him.
“My friend Peter said those guys busted off the valve and breathed direct from the tire, but that ain’t gonna work here. Gotta fill up those garbage bags, and that means a bigger hole. You can punch into the tires, but without somethin to stick in the holes—somethin like a straw—you’re gonna lose more air than you catch. So … what’s it gonna be?” He looked around hopefully. “Nobody brought a tent, I don’t suppose? One of them with the hollow aluminum poles?”
“The girls have a play-tent,” Linda said, “but it’s back home in the garage.” Then she remembered that the garage was gone, along with the house it was attached to, and laughed wildly.
“How about the barrel of a pen?” Joe asked. “I’ve got a Bic….”
“Not big enough,” Barbie said. “Rusty? What about the ambulance?”
“A trach tube?” Rusty asked doubtfully, then answered his own question. “No. Still not big enough.”
Barbie turned. “Colonel Cox? Any ideas?”
Cox shook his head reluctantly. “We’ve probably got a thousand things over here that would work, but that doesn’t help much.”
“We can’t let this stop us!” Julia said. Barbie heard frustration and a raw edge of panic in her voice. “Never mind the bags! We’ll take the tires and breathe directly from them!”
Sam was already shaking his head. “Not good enough, Missus. Sorry, but it’s not.”
Linda bent close to the Dome, took several deep breaths, held the last. Then she went to the back of her Odyssey van, rubbed some of the soot from the back window, and peered in. “The bag’s still there,” she said. “Thank God.”
“What bag?” he asked, taking her by the shoulders.
“The one from Best Buy with your birthday present in it. November eighth, or did you forget?”
“I did. On purpose. Who the hell wants to turn forty? What is it?”
“I knew if I brought it in the house before I was ready to wrap it, you’d find it….” She looked at the others, her face solemn and as dirty as a street-urchin’s. “He’s a nosy old thing. So I left it in the van.”
“What did you get him, Linnie?” Jackie Wettington asked.
“I hope a present for all of us,” Linda said.
When they were ready, Barbie, Julia, and Sloppy Sam hugged and kissed everybody, even the kids. There was little hope in the faces of the nearly two dozen exiles who would remain behind. Barbie tried to tell himself it was just because they were exhausted and now chronically short of breath, but he knew better. These were goodbye kisses.
“Good luck, Colonel Barbara,” Cox said.
Barbie gave him a brief nod of acknowledgment, then turned to Rusty. Rusty who really mattered, because he was under the Dome. “Don’t give up hope, and don’t let them give up hope. If this doesn’t work, take care of them as long as you can and as well as you can.”
“I hear you. Give it your best shot.”
Barbie tilted his head toward Julia. “It’s mostly her shot, I think. And hell, maybe we’ll make it back even if it doesn’t work.”
“Sure you will,” Rusty said. He sounded hearty, but what he believed was in his eyes.
Barbie slapped him on the shoulder, then joined Sam and Julia at the Dome, once more taking deep breaths of the fresh air that came trickling through. To Sam he said, “Are you sure you really want to do this?”
“Ayuh. I got somethin to make up for.”
“What would that be, Sam?” Julia asked.
“I druther not say.” He smiled a little. “Specially not to the town newspaper lady.”
“You ready?” Barbie asked Julia.
“Yes.” She grabbed his hand, gave it one brief hard squeeze. “As much as I can be.”
Rommie and Jackie Wettington stationed themselves at the rear doors of the van. When Barbie shouted “Go!” Jackie opened the doorgate and Rommie threw the two Prius tires inside. Barbie and Julia hurled themselves in directly after, and the doors were slammed behind them a split-second later. Sam Verdreaux, old and booze-raddled but still spry as a cricket, was already behind the Odyssey’s wheel and revving the engine.
The air inside the van stank of what was now the outside world—an aroma that was charred wood on top and a painty, turpentine-y stench beneath—but it was still better than what they had been breathing at the Dome, even with dozens of fans blasting.
Won’t be better for long, Barbie thought. Not with three of us sucking it up.
Julia grabbed the distinctive yellow-and-black Best Buy sack and turned it over. What fell out was a plastic cylinder with the words PERFECT ECHO on it. And, beneath that: 50 RECORDABLE CDS. She began to pick at the sealed cellophane overwrap with no immediate success. Barbie reached for his pocketknife, and his heart sank. The knife wasn’t there. Of course not. It was now just a hunk of slag under whatever remained of the PD.
“Sam! Please tell me you have a pocketknife!”
Without a word, Sam tossed one back. “That was my dad’s. I been carryin it my whole life, and I want it back.”
The knife’s sides were wood-inlay rubbed almost smooth with age, but when he opened it, the single blade was sharp. It would work on the overwrap, and it would make nice neat punctures in the tires.
“Hurry up!” Sam yelled, and revved the Odyssey’s engine harder.
“We ain’t goin till you tell me you got the right thing, and I doubt the engine’ll run forever in this air!”
Barbie slit the overwrap. Julia stripped it away. When she rotated the plastic cylinder half a turn to the left, it came off the base. The blank CDs that had been meant for Rusty Everett’s birthday sat on a black plastic spindle. She dumped the CDs on the floor of the van, then closed her fist around the spindle. Her mouth tightened with effort.
“Let me do tha—” he said, but then she snapped it off.
“Girls are strong, too. Especially when they’re scared to death.”
“Is it hollow? If it isn’t, we’re back to square one.”
She held the spindle up to her face. Barbie looked down one end and saw her blue eye staring back from the other. “Go, Sam,” he said. “We’re in business.”
“You sure it’ll work?” Sam shouted back, dropping the van’s transmission into drive.
“You bet!” Barbie returned, because How the hell should I know would cheer nobody up. Including himself.
The survivors at the Dome watched silently as the van tore down the dirt track that led back to what Norrie Calvert had taken to calling “the flash-box.” The Odyssey dimmed into the hanging smog, became a phantom, and then disappeared.
Rusty and Linda were standing together, each carrying a child. “What do you think, Rusty?” Linda asked.
He said, “I think we need to hope for the best.”
“And prepare for the worst?”
“That too,” he said.
They were passing the farmhouse when Sam called back, “We’re goin into the orchard now. You want to hold onto your jockstraps, kiddies, because I ain’t stoppin this bitch even if I rip the undercarriage right out’n it.”
“Go for it,” Barbie said, and then a vicious bump tossed him in the air with his arms wrapped around one of the spare tires. Julia was clutching the other one like a shipwreck victim clutching a life ring. Apple trees flashed by. The leaves looked dirty and dispirited. Most of the fruit had fallen to the ground, shaken free by the wind that had sucked through the orchard after the explosion.
Another tremendous bump. Barbie and Julia went up and came down together, Julia sprawling across Barbie’s lap and still holding onto her tire.
“Where’d you get your license, you old fuck?” Barbie shouted. “Sears and Roebuck?”
“Walmart!” the old man shouted back. “Everything’s cheaper at Wally World!” Then he stopped cackling. “I see it. I see the blinkyass whoremaster. Bright purple light. Gonna pull right up beside it. You wait until I stop before you go carvin on those tires, less you want to tear em wide open.”
A moment later he stamped on the brake and brought the Odyssey to a scrunching halt that sent Barbie and Julia sliding into the back of the rear seat. Now I know what a pinball feels like, Barbie thought.
“You drive like a Boston cabbie!” Julia said indignantly.
“You just make sure you tip”—Sam was stopped by a hard fit of coughing—“twenty percent.” His voice sounded choked.
“Sam?” Julia asked. “Are you all right?”
“Maybe not,” he said matter-of-factly. “I’m bleedin somewhere. Could be throat, but it feels deeper. B’lieve I might have ruptured a lung.” Then he was coughing again.
“What can we do?” Julia asked.
Sam got the coughing under control. “Make em shut off their fuckin jammer so we can get out of here. I got no more smokes.”
“This is all me,” Julia said. “Just so you know that.”
Barbie nodded. “Yessum.”
“You’re strictly my air-boy. If what I try doesn’t work, we can change jobs.”
“It might help if I knew exactly what you had in mind.”
“There’s nothing exact about it. All I have is intuition and a little hope.”
“Don’t be such a pessimist. You’ve also got two tires, two garbage bags, and a hollow spindle.”
She smiled. It lit up her tense, dirty face. “Duly noted.”
Sam was coughing again, doubled over the wheel. He spat something out. “Dear God and sonny Jesus, don’t that taste nasty,” he said. “Hurry up. ”
Barbie punctured his tire with the knife and heard the pwoosh of air as soon as he pulled the blade free. Julia slapped the spindle into his hand as efficiently as an OR nurse. Barbie jammed it into the hole, saw the rubber grip it … and then felt a divine rush of air spurt into his sweaty face. He breathed deeply once, unable to help himself. The air was much fresher, much richer, than that pushed through the Dome by the fans. His brain seemed to wake up, and he came to an immediate decision. Instead of putting a garbage bag over their makeshift nozzle, he tore a large, ragged swatch from one of them.
“What are you doing ?” Julia screamed.
There was no time to tell her she wasn’t the only one with intuitions.
He plugged the spindle with the plastic. “Trust me. Just go to the box and do what you have to do.”
She gave him a final look that seemed to be all eyes, then opened the Odyssey’s doorgate. She half fell to the ground, picked herself up, stumbled over a hummock, and went to her knees beside the flash-box. Barbie followed her with both tires. He had Sam’s knife in his pocket. He fell on his knees and offered Julia the tire with the black spindle sticking out of it.
She yanked the plug, breathed in—her cheeks hollowing with the effort—exhaled to one side, then breathed in again. Tears were rolling down her cheeks, cutting clean places there. Barbie was crying, too. It had nothing to do with emotion; it was if they had been caught out in the world’s nastiest acid rain. This was far worse than the air at the Dome.
Julia sucked in more. “Good,” she said, speaking on the exhale and almost whistling the word. “So good. Not fishy. Dusty.” She breathed in again, then tilted the tire toward him.
He shook his head and pushed it back, although his lungs were beginning to pound. He patted his chest, then pointed at her.
She took another deep breath, then sucked in one more. Barbie pushed down on top of the tire to help her along. Faintly, in some other world, he could hear Sam coughing and coughing and coughing.
He’ll rip himself apart, Barbie thought. He felt as if he might come apart himself if he didn’t breathe soon, and when Julia pushed the tire at him a second time, he bent over the makeshift straw and sucked in deeply, trying to draw the dusty, wonderful air all the way to the bottom of his lungs. There wasn’t enough, it seemed there could never be enough, and there was a moment when panic
(God I’m drowning )
almost engulfed him. The urge to bolt back to the van—never mind Julia, let Julia take care of herself— was nearly too strong to resist … but he did resist it. He closed his eyes, breathed, and tried to find the cool, calm center that had to be there someplace.
Easy. Slow. Easy.
He dragged in a third long, steady inhale from the tire, and his pounding heart began to slow a little. He watched Julia lean forward and grip the box on either side. Nothing happened, and this didn’t surprise Barbie. She had touched the box when they first came up here, and was now immune to the shock.
Then, suddenly, her back arched. She moaned. Barbie tried to offer her the spindle-straw, but she ignored it. Blood burst from her nose and began to trickle from the corner of her right eye. Red drops slid down her cheek.
“What’s happenin?” Sam called. His voice was muffled, choked.
I don’t know, Barbie thought. I don’t know what’s happening.
But he knew one thing: if she didn’t take more air soon, she’d die. He pulled the spindle out of the tire, clamped it between his teeth, and plunged Sam’s knife into the second tire. He drove the spindle into the hole and plugged it with the swatch of plastic.
Then he waited.
This is the time that is no time:
She’s in a vast white roofless room with an alien green sky above. It’s … what? The playroom? Yes, the playroom. Their playroom.
(No, she’s lying on the floor of the bandstand. )
She’s a woman of a certain age.
(No, she’s a little girl. ) There is no time.
(It’s 1974 and there’s all the time in the world. )
She needs to breathe from the tire.
(She doesn’t. )
Something is looking at her. Something terrible. But she is terrible to it, as well, because she’s bigger than she’s supposed to be, and she’s here. She’s not supposed to be here. She’s supposed to be in the box. Yet she is still harmless. It knows that, even though it is
(just a kid )
very young; barely out of the nursery, in fact. It speaks.
—You are make-believe.
—No, I’m real. Please, I’m real. We all are.
The leatherhead regards her with its eyeless face. It frowns. The corners of its mouth turn down, although it has no mouth. And Julia realizes how lucky she is to have found one of them alone. There are usually more, but they have
(gone home to dinner gone home to lunch gone to bed gone to school gone on vacation, doesn’t matter they’re gone )
gone somewhere. If they were here together, they would drive her back. This one could drive her back alone, but she is curious.
This one is female, like her.
—Please let us go. Please let us live our little lives.
No answer. No answer. No answer. Then:
—You aren’t real. You are—
What? What does she say? You are toys from the toyshop? No, but it’s something like that. Julia has a flicker-memory of the ant farm her brother had when they were kids. The recollection comes and goes in less than a second. Ant farm isn’t right, either, but like toys from the toyshop, it’s close. It’s in the ballpark, as they say.
—How can you have lives if you aren’t real?
—WE ARE SO REAL! she cries, and this is the moan Barbie hears.—AS REAL AS YOU!
Silence. A thing with a shifting leather face in a vast white roofless room that is also somehow the Chester’s Mill bandstand. Then:
—Give me your hand.
—I have no hand. I have no body. Bodies aren’t real. Bodies are dreams.
—Then give me your mind!
The leatherhead child does not. Will not.
So Julia takes it.
This is the place that is no place:
It’s cold on the bandstand, and she’s so scared. Worse, she’s … humiliated? No, it’s much worse than humiliation. If she knew the word abased, she would say Yes, yes, that’s it, I’m abased. They took her slacks.
(And somewhere soldiers are kicking naked people in a gym. This is someone else’s shame all mixed up with hers. )
(He feels like crying, but doesn’t. Right now they have to cover this up. )
The girls have left her now, but her nose is still bleeding—Lila slapped her and promised to cut her nose off if she told and they all spit on her and now she is lying here and she must have cried really hard because she thinks her eye is bleeding as well as her nose and she can’t seem to catch her breath. But she doesn’t care how much she bleeds or from where. She’d rather bleed to death on the bandstand floor than walk home in her stupid baby underpants. She’d gladly bleed to death from a hundred places if it meant she didn’t have to see the soldier
(After this Barbie tries not to think of that soldier but when he does he thinks “Hackermeyer the hackermonster.” ) pull the naked man up by the thing
he’s wearing on his head, because she knows what comes next. It’s what always comes next when you’re under the Dome.
She sees that one of the girls has come back. Kayla Bevins has come back. She’s standing there and looking down at stupid Julia Shumway who thought she was smart. Stupid little Julia Shumway in her baby pannies. Has Kayla come back to take the rest of her clothes and throw them up onto the bandstand roof, so she has to walk home naked with her hands over her woofie? Why are people so mean?
She closes her eyes against tears and when she opens them again, Kayla has changed. Now she has no face, just a kind of shifting leather helmet that shows no compassion, no love, not even hate.
Only … interest. Yes, that. What does it do when I do … this ?
Julia Shumway is worthy of no more. Julia Shumway doesn’t matter; find the least of the least, then look below that, and there she is, a scurrying Shumway-bug. She is a naked prisoner-bug, too; a prisoner-bug in a gymnasium with nothing left but the unraveling hat on his head and beneath the hat a final memory of fragrant, freshly baked khubz held out in his wife’s hands. She is a cat with a burning tail, an ant under a microscope, a fly about to lose its wings to the curious plucking fingers of a third-grader on a rainy day, a game for bored children with no bodies and the whole universe at their feet. She is Barbie, she is Sam dying in Linda Everett’s van, she is Ollie dying in the cinders, she is Alva Drake mourning her dead son.
But mostly she is a little girl cowering on the splintery boards of the Town Common bandstand, a little girl who was punished for her innocent arrogance, a little girl who made the mistake of thinking she was big when she was small, that she mattered when she didn’t, that the world cared when in reality the world is a huge dead locomotive with an engine but no headlight. And with all her heart and mind and soul she cries out:
—PLEASE LET US LIVE! I BEG YOU, PLEASE!
And for just one moment she is the leatherhead in the white room; she is the girl who has (for reasons she cannot even explain to herself) come back to the bandstand. For one terrible moment Julia is the one who did it instead of the one who was done by. She is even the soldier with the gun, the hackermonster Dale Barbara still dreams about, the one he didn’t stop.
Then she is only herself again.
Looking up at Kayla Bevins.
Kayla’s family is poor. Her father cuts pulp on the TR and drinks down at Freshie’s Pub (which will, in the fullness of time, become Dipper’s). Her mother has a big old pink mark on her cheek, so the kids call her Cherry Face or Strawberry Head. Kayla doesn’t have any nice clothes. Today she is wearing an old brown sweater and an old plaid skirt and scuffed loafers and white socks with saggy tops. One knee is scraped where she fell or was pushed down on the playground. It’s Kayla Bevins, all right, but now her face is made of leather. And although it shifts through many shapes, none of them is even close to human.
Julia thinks: I’m seeing how the child looks to the ant, if the ant looks up from its side of the magnifying glass. If it looks up just before it starts to burn.
—PLEASE, KAYLA! PLEASE! WE ARE ALIVE!
Kayla looks down at her without doing anything. Then she crosses her arms in front of her—they are human arms in this vision—and pulls her sweater over her head. There is no love in her voice when she speaks; no regret or remorse.
But there might be pity.
Julia was hurled away from the box as if a hand had swatted her. The held breath blew out of her. Before she could take another one, Barbie seized her by the shoulder, pulled the swatch of plastic from the spindle, and pushed her mouth onto it, hoping he wouldn’t cut her tongue, or—God forbid—skewer the hard plastic into the roof of her mouth. But he couldn’t let her breathe the poisoned air. As oxygen-starved as she was, it might send her into convulsions or kill her outright.
Wherever she’d been, Julia seemed to understand. Instead of trying to struggle away, she wrapped her arms around the Prius tire in a deathgrip and began sucking frantically at the spindle. He could feel huge, shuddering tremors racing through her body.
Sam had finally stopped coughing, but now there was another sound. Julia heard it, too. She sucked in another vast breath from the tire and looked up, eyes wide in their deep, shadowed sockets.
A dog was barking. It had to be Horace, because he was the only dog left. He—
Barbie grabbed her arm in a grip so strong she felt he would break it. On his face was an expression of pure amazement.
The box with the strange symbol on it was hovering four feet above the ground.
Horace was first to feel the fresh air, because he was lowest to the ground. He began to bark. Then Joe felt it: a breeze, startlingly cold, against his sweaty back. He was leaning against the Dome, and the Dome was moving. Moving up. Norrie had been dozing with her flushed face resting on Joe’s chest, and now he saw a lock of her dirty, matted hair begin to flutter. She opened her eyes.
“What—? Joey, what’s happening?”
Joe knew, but was too stunned to tell her. He could feel a cool sliding sensation against his back, like an endless sheet of glass being raised.
Horace was barking madly now, his back bowed, his snout on the ground. It was his I-want-to-play position, but Horace wasn’t playing. He stuck his nose beneath the rising Dome and sniffed cold sweet fresh air.
On the south side of the Dome, Pfc Clint Ames was also dozing. He sat cross-legged on the soft shoulder of Route 119 with a blanket wrapped around him Indian-style. The air suddenly darkened, as if the bad dreams flitting through his head had assumed physical form. Then he coughed himself awake.
Soot was swirling up around his booted feet and settling on the legs of his khaki everydays. Where in God’s name was it coming from? All the burning had been inside. Then he saw. The Dome was going up like a giant windowblind. It was impossible—it went miles down as well as up, everybody knew that—but it was happening.
Ames didn’t hesitate. He crawled forward on his hands and knees and seized Ollie Dinsmore by the arms. For a moment he felt the rising Dome scrape the middle of his back, glassy and hard, and there was time to think If it comes back down now, it’ll cut me in two. Then he was dragging the boy out.
For a moment he thought he was hauling a corpse. “No!” he shouted. He carried the boy up toward one of the roaring fans. “Don’t you dare die on me, cow-kid!”
Ollie began coughing, then leaned over and vomited weakly. Ames held him while he did it. The others were running toward them now, shouting jubilantly, Sergeant Groh in the forefront.
Ollie puked again. “Don’t call me cow-kid,” he whispered.
“Get an ambulance!” Ames shouted. “We need an ambulance!”
“Nah, we’ll take him to Central Maine General in the helicopter,” Groh said. “You ever been in a helicopter, kid?”
Ollie, his eyes dazed, shook his head. Then he puked on Sergeant Groh’s shoes.
Groh beamed and shook Ollie’s filthy hand. “Welcome back to the United States, son. Welcome back to the world.”
Ollie put an arm around Ames’s neck. He was aware that he was passing out. He tried to hold on long enough to say thank you, but he didn’t make it. The last thing he was aware of before the darkness took him again was the southern soldier kissing him on the cheek.
On the north end, Horace was the first one out. He raced directly to Colonel Cox and began to dance
around his feet. Horace had no tail, but it didn’t matter; his entire hind end was wig-wagging.
“I’ll be damned,” Cox said. He picked the Corgi up and Horace began to lick his face frantically.
The survivors stood together on their side (the line of demarcation was clear in the grass, bright on one side and listless gray on the other), beginning to understand but not quite daring to believe. Rusty, Linda, the Little Js, Joe McClatchey and Norrie Calvert, with their mothers standing to either side of them. Ginny, Gina Buffalino, and Harriet Bigelow with their arms around each other. Twitch was holding his sister Rose, who was sobbing and cradling Little Walter. Piper, Jackie, and Lissa were holding hands. Pete Freeman and Tony Guay, all that remained of the Democrat ’s staff, stood behind them. Alva Drake leaned against Rommie Burpee, who was holding Alice Appleton in his arms.
They watched as the Dome’s dirty surface rose swiftly into the air. The fall foliage on the other side was heartbreaking in its brilliance.
Sweet fresh air lifted their hair and dried the sweat on their skin.
“For we saw as if through a glass darkly,” Piper Libby said. She was weeping. “But now we see as if face to face.”
Horace jumped from Colonel Cox’s arms and began turning figure eights through the grass, yapping, sniffing, and trying to pee on everything at once.
The survivors looked unbelievingly up at the bright sky arching over a late fall Sunday morning in New England. And above them, the dirty barrier that had held them prisoner still rose, moving faster and faster, shrinking to a line like a long dash of pencil on a sheet of blue paper.
A bird swooped through the place where the Dome had been. Alice Appleton, still being carried by Rommie, looked up at it and laughed.
Barbie and Julia knelt with the tire between them, taking alternate breaths from the spindle-straw. They watched as the box began to rise again. It went slowly at first, and seemed to hover a second time at a height of about sixty feet, as if doubtful. Then it shot straight up at a speed far too fast for the human eye to follow; it would have been like trying to see a bullet in flight. The Dome was either flying upward or somehow being reeled in.
The box, Barbie thought. It’s drawing the Dome up the way a magnet draws iron filings.
A breeze came beating toward them. Barbie marked its progress in the rippling grass. He shook Julia by the shoulder and pointed dead north. The filthy gray sky was blue again, and almost too bright to look at. The trees had come into bright focus.
Julia raised her head from the spindle and breathed.
“I don’t know if that’s such a good—” Barbie began, but then the breeze arrived. He saw it lift Julia’s hair and felt it drying the sweat on his grime-streaked face, as gentle as a lover’s palm.
Julia was coughing again. He pounded her back, taking his own first breath of the air as he did so. It still stank and clawed at his throat, but it was breathable. The bad air was blowing south as fresh air from the TR-90 side of the Dome—what had been the TR-90 side of the Dome—poured in. The second breath was better; the third better still; the fourth a gift from God.
Or from one leatherhead girl.
Barbie and Julia embraced next to the black square of ground where the box had been. Nothing would grow there, not ever again.
“Sam!” Julia cried. “We have to get Sam!”
They were still coughing as they ran to the Odyssey, but Sam wasn’t. He was slumped over the wheel, eyes open, breathing shallowly. His lower face was bearded with blood, and when Barbie pulled him back, he saw that the old man’s blue shirt had turned a muddy purple.
“Can you carry him?” Julia asked. “Can you carry him to where the soldiers are?”
The answer was almost certainly no, but Barbie said, “I can try.”
“Don’t,” Sam whispered. His eyes shifted toward them. “Hurts too much.” Fresh blood seeped from his mouth with each word. “Did you do it?”
“Julia did,” Barbie said. “I don’t know exactly how, but she did.”
“Part of it was the man in the gym,” she said. “The one the hackermonster shot.”
Barbie’s mouth dropped open, but she didn’t notice. She put her arms around Sam and kissed him on each cheek. “And you did it, too, Sam. You drove us out here, and you saw the little girl on the bandstand.”
“You ’us no little girl in my dream,” Sam said. “You ’us grown up.”
“The little girl was still there, though.” Julia touched her chest. “Still here, too. She lives.”
“Help me out of the van,” Sam whispered. “I want to smell some fresh air before I die.”
“You’re not going to—”
“Hush, woman. We both know better’n that.”
They both took an arm, gently lifted him from behind the wheel, and laid him on the ground.
“Smell that air,” he said. “Good Lord.” He breathed in deeply, then coughed out a spray of blood. “I’m gettin a whiff of honeysuckle.”
“Me too,” she said, and brushed his hair back from his brow.
He put his hand over hers. “Were they … were they sorry?”
“There was only one,” Julia said. “If there had been more, it never would have worked. I don’t think you can fight a crowd that’s bent on cruelty. And no—she wasn’t sorry. She took pity, but she wasn’t sorry.”
“Not the same things, are they?” the old man whispered.
“No. Not at all.”
“Pity’s for strong people,” he said, and sighed. “I can only be sorry. What I done was because of the booze, but I’m still sorry. I’d take it back if ever I could.”
“Whatever it was, you made up for it in the end,” Barbie said. He took Sam’s left hand. The wedding ring hung on the third finger, grotesquely large for the scant flesh.
Sam’s eyes, faded Yankee blue, shifted to him, and he tried to smile. “Maybe I did … for the doin. But I was happy in the doin. I don’t think you can ever make up for a thing like—” He began to cough again, and more blood flew from his mostly toothless mouth.
“Stop now,” Julia said.
“Stop trying to talk.” They were kneeling on either side of him. She looked at Barbie. “Forget about carrying him. He tore something inside. We’ll have to go for help.”
“Oh, the sky !” Sam Verdreaux said.
That was the last. He sighed his chest flat, and there was no next breath to lift it. Barbie moved to close his eyes but Julia took his hand and stopped him.
“Let him look,” she said. “Even if he’s dead, let him look as long as he can.”
They sat beside him. There was birdsong. And somewhere, Horace was still barking.
“I suppose I ought to go and find my dog,” Julia said.
“Yes,” he said. “The van?”
She shook her head. “Let’s walk. I think we can handle half a mile if we go slow—don’t you?”
He helped her up. “Let’s find out,” he said.
As they walked, hands linked above the grassy crown of the old supply road, she told him as much as she could about what she called “being inside the box.”
“So,” he said when she had finished. “You told her about the terrible things we’re capable of—or showed them to her—and she still let us go.”
“They know all about terrible things,” she said.
“That day in Fallujah is the worst memory of my life. What makes it so bad is …” He tried to think how Julia had put it. “I was the doer instead of the one done by.”
“You didn’t do it,” she said. “That other man did.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Barbie said. “The guy’s just as dead no matter who did it.”
“Would it have happened if there had only been two or three of you in that gym? Or if it had been just you been alone?”
“No. Of course not.”
“Then blame fate. Or God. Or the universe. But stop blaming yourself.”
He might not ever be able to do that, but he understood what Sam had said at the end. Sorrow for a wrong was better than nothing, Barbie supposed, but no amount of after-the-fact sorrow could ever atone for joy taken in destruction, whether it was burning ants or shooting prisoners.
He had felt no joy in Fallujah. On that score he could find himself innocent. And that was good.
Soldiers were running toward them. They might have another minute alone. Perhaps two.
He stopped and took her by the arms.
“I love you for what you did, Julia.”
“I know you do,” she said calmly.
“What you did was very brave.”
“Do you forgive me for stealing from your memories? I didn’t mean to; it just happened.”
The soldiers were closer. Cox was running with the rest, Horace dancing at his heels. Soon Cox would be here, he’d ask how Ken was, and with that question the world would reclaim them.
Barbie looked up at the blue sky, breathed deeply of the clearing air. “I can’t believe it’s gone.”
“Will it ever come back, do you think?”
“Maybe not to this planet, and not because of that bunch. They’ll grow up and leave their playroom, but the box will stay. And other kids will find it. Sooner or later, the blood always hits the wall.”
“Maybe, but can I tell you something my mother used to say?”
He recited, “‘For every night, twice the bright.’”
Julia laughed. It was a lovely sound.
“What did the leatherhead girl say to you at the end?” he asked. “Tell me quick, because they’re almost here and this belongs just to us.”
She seemed surprised that he didn’t know. “She said what Kayla said. ‘Wear it home, it’ll look like a dress.’”
“She was talking about the brown sweater?”
She took his hand again. “No. About our lives. Our little lives.”
He thought it over. “If she gave it to you, let’s put it on.”
Julia pointed. “Look who’s coming!”
Horace had seen her. He put on speed and wove through the running men and, once he was past them, dropped low to the ground and hit fourth gear. A large grin wreathed his chops. His ears were laid back flat to his skull. His shadow raced along beside him on the soot-stained grass. Julia knelt and held out her arms.
“Come to mama, sweetheart!” she shouted.
He leaped. She caught him and sprawled backward, laughing. Barbie helped her to her feet.
They walked back into the world together, wearing the gift that had been given them: just life.
Pity was not love, Barbie reflected … but if you were a child, giving clothes to someone who was naked had to be a step in the right direction.
November 22, 2007–March 14, 2009
I first tried to write Under the Dome in 1976, and crept away from it with my tail between my legs after two weeks’ work that amounted to about seventy-five pages. That manuscript was long lost on the day in 2007 when I sat down to start again, but I remembered the opening section—“The Airplane and the Woodchuck”—well enough to recreate it almost exactly.
I was overwhelmed not by the large cast of characters—I like novels with generous populations—but by the technical problems the story presented, especially the ecological and meteorological consequences of the Dome. The fact that those very concerns made the book seem important to me made me feel like a coward —and lazy—but I was terrified of screwing it up. So I went on to something else, but the idea of the Dome never left my mind.
In the years since, my good friend Russ Dorr, a physician’s assistant from Bridgeton, Maine, has helped me with the medical details in many books, most notably The Stand. In the late summer of 2007, I asked him if he would be willing to take on a much larger role, as head researcher on a long novel called Under the Dome. He agreed, and thanks to Russ, I think most of the technical details here are right. It was Russ who researched computer-guided missiles, jet stream patterns, methamphetamine recipes, portable generators, radiation, possible advances in cell phone technology, and a hundred other things. It was also Russ who invented Rusty Everett’s homemade radiation suit and who realized people could breathe from tires, at least for a while. Have we made mistakes? Sure. But most will turn out to be mine, either because I misunderstood or misinterpreted some of his answers.
My first two readers were my wife, Tabitha, and Leanora Legrand, my daughter-in-law. Both were tough, humane, and helpful.
Nan Graham edited the book down from the original dinosaur to a beast of slightly more manageable size; every page of the manuscript was marked with her changes. I owe her a great debt of thanks for all the mornings when she got up at six AM and took her pencil in her hand. I tried to write a book that would keep the pedal consistently to the metal. Nan understood that, and whenever I weakened, she jammed her foot down on top of mine and yelled (in the margins, as editors are wont to do), “Faster, Steve! Faster!”
Surendra Patel, to whom the book is dedicated, was a friend and an unfailing source of comfort for thirty years. In June of 2008, I got the news that he had died of a heart attack. I sat on the steps of my office and cried. When that part was over, I went back to work. It was what he would have expected.
And you, Constant Reader. Thanks for reading this story. If you had as much fun as I did, we’re both well off.