Station Eleven (Page 24)
Now Alexandra walked quietly, sullen because she hadn’t been allowed to join the expedition to the school. The Symphony walked through the end of the day, clouds gathering and the air pressing down from above, rivulets of sweat running down Kirsten’s back. The sky low and dark by late afternoon. They were moving through a rural area, no driveways. Rusted-out cars here and there along the road, abandoned where they’d run out of gas, the caravans weaving carefully around them. Flashes of lightning and thunder, at first distant and then close. They waited out the rainstorm in the trees by the side of the road at twilight, pitched their tents on the wet ground when it was over.
“I dreamt last night I saw an airplane,” Dieter whispered. They were lying a few feet apart in the dark of his tent. They had only ever been friends—in a hazy way Kirsten thought of him as family—but her thirty-year-old tent had finally fallen apart a year ago and she hadn’t yet managed to find a new one. For obvious reasons she was no longer sharing a tent with Sayid, so Dieter, who had one of the largest tents in the Symphony, had been hosting her. Kirsten heard soft voices outside, the tuba and the first violin on watch. The restless movements of the horses, penned between the three caravans for safety.
“I haven’t thought of an airplane in so long.”
“That’s because you’re so young.” A slight edge to his voice. “You don’t remember anything.”
“I do remember things. Of course I do. I was eight.”
Dieter had been twenty years old when the world ended. The main difference between Dieter and Kirsten was that Dieter remembered everything. She listened to him breathe.
“I used to watch for it,” he said. “I used to think about the countries on the other side of the ocean, wonder if any of them had somehow been spared. If I ever saw an airplane, that meant that somewhere planes still took off. For a whole decade after the pandemic, I kept looking at the sky.”
“Was it a good dream?”
“In the dream I was so happy,” he whispered. “I looked up and there it was, the plane had finally come. There was still a civilization somewhere. I fell to my knees. I started weeping and laughing, and then I woke up.”
There was a voice outside then, someone saying their names. “Second watch,” Dieter whispered. “We’re up.”
The first watch was going to sleep. They had nothing to report. “Just goddamned trees and owls,” the tuba muttered. The second watch agreed on the usual arrangement: Dieter and Sayid would scout the road a half mile behind them, Kirsten and August would keep watch at the camp, the fourth guitar and the oboe would scout a half mile ahead. The scouts set off in their separate directions and Kirsten was alone with August. They circled the camp perimeter and then stood on the road, listening and watching for movement. Clouds breaking apart to reveal the stars overhead. The brief flare of a meteor, or perhaps a falling satellite. Is this what airplanes would have looked like at night, just streaks of light across the sky? Kirsten knew they’d flown at hundreds of miles per hour, inconceivable speeds, but she wasn’t sure what hundreds of miles per hour would have looked like. The forest was filled with small noises: rainwater dripping from the trees, the movements of animals, a light breeze.
She didn’t remember what airplanes had looked like in flight but she did remember being inside one. The memory was sharper than most of her other memories from the time before, which she thought must mean that this had been very close to the end. She would have been seven or eight years old, and she’d gone to New York City with her mother, though she didn’t remember why. She remembered flying back to Toronto at night, her mother drinking a glass of something with ice cubes that clinked and caught the light. She remembered the drink but not her mother’s face. She’d pressed her forehead to the window and saw clusters and pinpoints of light in the darkness, scattered constellations linked by roads or alone. The beauty of it, the loneliness, the thought of all those people living out their lives, each porch light marking another house, another family. Here on this road in the forest two decades later, clouds shifted to reveal the moon and August glanced at her in the sudden light.
“Hair on the back of my neck’s standing up,” he murmured. “You think we’re alone out here?”
“I haven’t heard anything.” They made another slow circle of the camp. Barely audible voices from inside one or two of the tents, the sighs and soft movements of horses. They listened and watched, but the road was still.
“These are the times when I want to stop,” August whispered. “You ever think about stopping?”
“You mean not traveling anymore?”
“You ever think about it? There’s got to be a steadier life than this.”
“Sure, but in what other life would I get to perform Shakespeare?”
There was a sound just then, a disturbance passing over the surface of the night as quickly as a stone dropped into water. A cry, cut off abruptly? Had someone called out? If she’d been alone, Kirsten might have thought she’d imagined it, but August nodded when she looked at him. The sound had come from somewhere far down the road, in the direction from which they’d come. They were still, straining to hear, but heard nothing.
“We have to raise the third watch.” Kirsten drew her two best knives from her belt. August disappeared among the tents. She heard his muffled voice—“I don’t know, a sound, maybe a voice down the road, I need you to take our places so we can go check it out”—and two shadows emerged to replace them, yawning and unsteady on their feet.
August and Kirsten set off as quickly and quietly as possible in the direction of the sound. The forest was a dark mass on either side, alive and filled with indecipherable rustlings, shadows like ink against the glare of moonlight. An owl flew low across the road ahead. A moment later there was a distant beating of small wings, birds stirred from their sleep, black specks rising and wheeling against the stars.
“Something disturbed them,” Kirsten said quietly, her mouth close to August’s ear.
“The owl?” His voice as soft as hers.
“I thought the owl was flying at a different angle. The birds were more to the north.”
They waited in the shadows at the side of the road, trying to breathe quietly, trying to look everywhere at once. The claustrophobia of the forest. The first few trees visible before her, monochrome contrasts of black shadow and white moonlight, and beyond that an entire continent, wilderness uninterrupted from ocean to ocean with so few people left between the shores. Kirsten and August watched the road and the forest, but if anything was watching them back, it wasn’t apparent.
“Let’s walk farther,” August whispered.
They resumed their cautious progress down the road, Kirsten gripping her knives so tightly that her heartbeat throbbed in the palms of her hands. They walked far beyond the point where the scouts should have been, two miles, three, looking for signs. At first light they returned the way they had come, speechless in a world of riotous birdsong. There was no trace of the scouts, nothing at the edges of the forest, no footprints, no signs of large animals, no obviously broken branches or blood. It was as though Dieter and Sayid had been plucked from the face of the earth.
“I JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND,” the tuba said, midmorning, after several hours of searching for Sayid and Dieter. No one understood. No one responded. The disappearances were incomprehensible. They could find no trace. The Symphony searched in teams of four, grimly, methodically, but the forest was dense and choked with underbrush; they could have passed within feet of Dieter and Sayid and not known it. In those first hours there were moments when Kirsten caught herself thinking that there must have simply been some misunderstanding, that Dieter and Sayid must have somehow walked by them in the dark, somehow gone the wrong way down the road, that they’d reappear with apologies at any moment, but scouts had gone back and forth on the road for miles. Again and again Kirsten stopped still in the forest, listening. Was someone watching her? Just now, had someone stepped on a branch? But the only sounds were of the other search teams, and everyone felt watched. They met in the forest and on the road at intervals, looked at one another and said nothing. The slow passage of the sun across the sky, the air over the road unsteady with heat waves.
When night began to fall they gathered by the lead caravan, which had once been an extended-bed Ford pickup truck. “Because survival is insufficient,” words painted on the canopy in answer to the question that had dogged the Symphony since they’d set out on the road. The words were very white in the rising evening. Kirsten stood by Dieter’s favorite horse, Bernstein, and pressed her hand flat against his side. He stared at her with an enormous dark eye.
“We have traveled so far together,” the conductor said. There are certain qualities of light that blur the years. Sometimes when Kirsten and August were on watch together at dawn, she would glance at him as the sun rose and for a fleeting instant she could see what he’d looked like as a boy. Here on this road, the conductor looked much older than she had an hour earlier. She ran a hand through her short gray hair. “There have been four times,” she said, “in all these years, when Symphony members have become separated from the Symphony, and in every single instance they have followed the separation protocol, and we’ve been reunited at the destination. Alexandra?”