They collect, the horde, and she eases her car through them, pushing them out of the way or down under her wheels, which crunch over their limbs or torsos. If she stops, if the car stalls, she is dead, she knows. To go faster would be to risk damage to the car, so she pushes through at a steady pace, while the man sitting next to her watches with blank eyes the crowd of walking bodies in the pool of light ahead of them.
This is a sight indeed, Temple says. We got armageddon every direction it looks like. They got a plague of meatskins here, don’t they? I don’t know about you, dummy, but it’s been a long time since I been reminded so of the end of things.
She leans forward in the seat and grasps the steering wheel more firmly.
Still and all, she says, this does give us one advantage. Brother Todd is gonna have a nightmare time following us through this mess—especially after we stirred em up like we’re doin.
She drives the car forward, and the city of the dead moves in jerks and eddies around them.
BY THE time the sun comes up, they have made it to the outskirts of the city, a series of rolling hills capped by multistoried gable houses with stone entries and marble steps. She has turned off the main road and is now traveling west as best as she can figure it, and the slugs have thinned out considerably.
Beyond the clusters of houses, the road opens up and they find themselves in estate country—wide tracts of grassy land with mansions set way back in the distance. Most of the fields are enclosed by sturdy white horse fences that circle the property. Many of the fences are worn and broken through in spots, and now slugs graze where horses used to.
The road climbs up over a rise and reveals a valley on the other side. To the south of the road is untended grassland, but to the north is the largest estate she’s seen yet. Even from this distance she can see the size of it, that mansion of gloating white, built up on the top of the hill as though it were crowning majestically the earth itself.
She pulls over.
Ain’t that something, she says. Let’s take a look.
There are eight columns in the front, she can count them from where she stands in the road, and a driveway that leads from the gate straight up to the house with a circle out front and a fountain in the middle of the circle spitting water high up into the air.
Look at that fountain, dummy. I’ll be damned if there ain’t someone livin there. And I got an idea about how they keep them meatskins away.
The fence surrounding the property is different from the others in the area. Instead of being white wooden planks, it consists of metal wires strung horizontal about six inches apart.
You stay away from that now, she says. You probably don’t even know what an electrified fence is, and I guess it’s best you don’t find out firsthand.
She tells the man to stay by the car, and she approaches the wide gate and discovers that it too is wired.
Doggone it, she says. How we gonna get in there? Here, wait, I got an idea.
She goes to the car and gets a pistol from the duffel bag in the backseat.
You’re lucky I’m the brains of this operation.
She points the pistol in the air and fires three times in deliberately paced succession. The reports echo loud through the canyon.
Now, she says, that’s gonna draw somebody’s attention. Let’s just hope the residents of Castle Cleanteeth up there get curious before our local meatskins do.
A few minutes later, she can see a figure come around from behind the house rather than from the front door. It’s a black man, and he’s wearing a green smock, the full kind of smock that has a bib and ties neatly around the waist. He’s tall, but she notices as he gets closer, taking his time walking down the driveway with a delicate step, that he seems even taller than he actually is because of a quality of pride that emanates from him. Around his temples, his close-cropped hair is graying, and his half smile is polite but distant.
Can I help you, miss? he says through the gate.
What’s your name?
Johns? Like John except more than one?
That’s correct. May I help you?
That your house?
Belle Isle belongs to Mrs. Grierson.
Well I don’t know what you just said, but how about lettin us come in and get some rest? We’re just travelin through, and it looks like you got some hospitality to spare.
I’m afraid this is a private residence, miss.
Private residence? Where you from anyway? I don’t suppose you been informed that your downtown’s got the worst slug infestation I ever seen. There ain’t no private residences anymore, mister. There’s just places where slugs are and places where they ain’t.
I am sorry, you’ll have to try somewhere else.
He begins to turn away.
Wait, hold up now. Mister, do you know how old I am?
I do not.
I’m fifteen years old. You gonna feed a defenseless fifteen-year-old girl to the meatskins just to avoid setting another couple places for supper? How’s that gonna sit with your conscience? Because I know it would sure enough bother me.
He looks at her for a long time, and she does her best to put on her truant waif look.
Then he lifts a panel on the stone column and punches in a code, and the two sides of the gate roll back automatically.
Thanks mister, you’re a right guy.
And this gentleman is . . .
Oh, don’t worry about him. He’s just a dummy. He won’t steal nothin of yours.
Johns presses a button once they are through and the gates close behind them.
She has a desire to run up to the circle and bathe herself in the fountain and cry out to the mistress of the house, Yoohoo, Mrs. Grierson, I’m here for a visit! But she decides to play it safe and not make anyone nervous. These people seem to have it pretty good, and she doesn’t want to spook them. So she holds her hands behind her back like a little lady should, and she follows Johns up the driveway to the house.
Inside, the house looks like something she’s seen in movies—metalwork frilly like lace, the whole place kingly and oblivious. The front entrance opens onto a long hall that extends all the way through to the back around a central staircase that winds in a circle up to the second floor. Descending from the ceiling like a shower of ice is a chandelier that seems to hold the light locked selfish in its crystals rather than giving it out. The floor of the entry is marble in black-and-white diamonds and along the walls are grandfather clocks and half-circle tables with model ships and mahogany sideboards with sprays of flowers or ancient yellow dolls under glass bells.
The place seems untouched by the mass walking death everywhere else in the world. She looks for the stand of guns by the door, but instead she finds a rack for coats and umbrellas, a closet for muddy boots. There are no boards nailed across the windows—instead there are layers of lace and muslin tied open with thick burgundy ropes that have large toylike tassels on the ends. There is no blood crusted brown on the walls and the floors. No lookout stations. No gunner nests. It is as though she has entered a different era entirely.