By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

6. The Passage, by Justin Cronin, pp. 209-246

The PassageII. The Year of Zero
Wolgast ditches the Lexus, which had belonged to Fortes, trading it for a beat-up old Corolla, and makes his way to an abandoned camp in the mountains of Oregon. The camp is one he had attended when he was a boy, and they take up residence in the lodge.

He recalls how he had met Lila in the emergency room of a hospital where she treated him for a ruptured Achilles tendon. When they married, she was four months pregnant, but in her thirty-fourth week she was diagnosed with preeclampsia, and delivered Eva three weeks before the due date.

Amy grows stronger, but she is acutely sensitive to light. He also notices that her hair doesn't grow. He begins reading to her from a box of classic novels he has found, but one day she decides to read to him, and does so in a sophisticated, adult way, without pausing for difficult words and unfazed by archaic diction. He also starts to teach her to swim, but although she says she doesn't know how, she immediately begins to do so expertly.

In search of supplies, he finds a small store down the mountains, on the porch of which are some newspaper vending boxes. The only newspaper in them is a USA Today, which is several days old. He reads an account of the outbreak of the virus in Colorado, Nebraska, Utah and Wyoming. The president has blamed it on "anti-American extremists." The Colorado borders have been sealed and the military placed on high alert. The virus is estimated by a spokesman for the CDC to have a fifty-percent mortality rate and to have caused fifty thousand deaths. And Wolgast realizes that reports that the Colorado National Guard has been taking the sick from hospitals to an "undisclosed location" means that they're rounding them up and shooting them. All this, he calculates, has taken place in just eighteen days.

The store's owner, Carl Milton, sells Wolgast some ammunition and tells him what he's learned from the Internet: that the infected can only be killed with a shot to the breastbone and that they "move at night, in the trees." When Wolgast tells Carl that he should leave and move higher into the mountains, Carl takes him into the living area behind the store where his wife, Martha, lies in a hospital bed. She has multiple sclerosis, Carl tells him, and they used to have a visiting nurse, but she hasn't shown up for a while.

In August, forest fires threaten the camp, but the wind shifts and a storm puts out the fire. Wolgast goes down to check on Carl and Martha and finds them dead. He siphons the gas from Carl's van and packs up as much of what remains in the store as he can. He also takes a month-old copy of USA Today that he has found. In it he reads that millions have died from the "vampire" virus, Chicago has fallen, California -- so far unaffected by the virus -- has seceded from the United States, the virus has spread to Canada and Mexico but not overseas, and India is threatening to use nukes against Pakistan. He remembers a military term: "OBE. Overcome by events. That was what was happening now. The world -- the human race -- had been overcome by events."

In October, Amy sees her first snowfall and tells Wolgast that she knows her mother is dead. She also tells him that she feels the others: "They're sad. They're so many. They've forgotten who they were." And when he asks who they were, she says, "Everyone. They're everyone."

In March a snowmobile arrives at the camp, driven by a man who is bleeding from a wound in the neck. He tells Wolgast that he and five others had moved into a hunting camp after Seattle was destroyed: "Everybody's sick, dying, ripping each other to shreds, the Army shows up, then poof, the place goes up in smoke." He asks Wolgast to kill him and burn the body, but at the last minute he's hit by a spasm of pleasure and asks Wolgast to stop. Wolgast shoots him, burns the body and buries the ashes.

Spring arrives and one night he awakes from a dream about Lila to see Amy standing at the window. There is a blinding light and the window shatters. Wolgast picks himself up after being blasted across the room. Amy is covered with bits of glass and can't see. He thinks she is bleeding, but finds that the blood is his own, from a shard of glass in his left leg. He realizes that it has been a nuclear explosion due west of where they are. He tends to Amy, soothing her burns with ointment and bandaging her eyes, then pours Scotch on his wound and sews it up with thread.

Ash begins to fall, and three days later Amy is better, having regained her sight. Wolgast realizes that there is nothing they can do about the radiation and that his leg has become infected. As she gets better she nurses him. He knows he is dying, and reflects that "Amy would not, could not die," although he worries about what will happen to her after he dies.

One night he awakes and realizes that Amy is gone. He goes out into the forest and sits down under a tree, aware that something is moving overhead in the branches. And he thinks, "Amy, Amy, Amy." 

[This is artfully done: the destruction caused by the virus witnessed only through glimpses and rumors. It does, however, raise one of those Questions You're Probably Supposed Not to Ask when you're reading a thriller: How is a newspaper reported, edited, printed and distributed, especially to a remote location, in such circumstances? (There are other QYPSNA that have occurred to me: Like, why did Richards not shoot Wolgast and Doyle and take Amy? Or at least Doyle, if Richards is aware that Wolgast and Amy have a special connection?) And as an old copyperson, I'm bothered by the lack of editing that allows Cronin, who should know better, to say -- twice -- that someone "wretched," when he means "retched."] 

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