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Home > Station Eleven(12)

Station Eleven(12)
Author: Emily St. John Mandel

“You have permission to leave?” he called out.

The conductor motioned to the first flute, who was driving the lead caravan—keep moving—and went to speak with the boy. “Good evening,” she said. Kirsten stopped walking and lingered a few feet away, listening.

“What’s your name?” he asked, suspicious.

“People call me the conductor.”

“And that’s your name?”

“It’s the only name I use. Is that dinner?”

“Did you get permission to leave?”

“The last time we were here,” she said, “no permission was required.”

“It’s different now.” The boy’s voice hadn’t broken yet. He sounded very young.

“What if we didn’t have permission?”

“Well,” the boy said, “when people leave without permission, we have funerals for them.”

“What happens when they come back?”

“If we’ve already had a funeral …,” the boy said, but seemed unable to finish the sentence.

“This place,” the fourth guitar muttered. “This goddamned hellhole.” He touched Kirsten’s arm as he passed. “Better keep moving, Kiki.”

“So you wouldn’t advise coming back here,” the conductor said. The last caravan was passing. Sayid, bringing up the rear, seized Kirsten’s shoulder and propelled her along the road.

“How much danger do you want to put yourself in?” he hissed. “Keep walking.”

“Don’t tell me what to do.”

“Then don’t be an idiot.”

“Will you take me with you?” Kirsten heard the boy ask. The conductor said something she couldn’t hear, and when she looked back the boy was staring after the departing Symphony, his squirrel forgotten at the end of the stick.

The night cooled as they left St. Deborah by the Water. The only sounds were the clopping of horseshoes on cracked pavement, the creaking of the caravans, the footsteps of the Symphony as they walked, small rustlings from the night forest. A fragrance of pine and wildflowers and grass in the air, the stars so bright that the caravans cast lurching shadows on the road. They’d left so quickly that they were all still in their costumes, Kirsten holding up her Titania dress so as not to trip over it and Sayid a strange vision in his Oberon tuxedo, the white of his shirt flashing when he turned to look back. Kirsten passed him to speak with the conductor, who walked as always by the first caravan.

“What did you tell the boy by the road?”

“That we couldn’t risk the perception of kidnapping,” the conductor said.

“What did the prophet say to you after the concert?”

The conductor glanced over her shoulder. “You’ll keep this to yourself?”

“I’ll probably tell August.”

“Of course you will. But no one else?”

“Okay,” Kirsten said, “no one else.”

“He suggested that we consider leaving Alexandra, as a guarantee of future good relations between the Symphony and the town.”

“Leaving her? Why would we …?”

“He said he’s looking for another bride.”

Kirsten dropped back to tell August, who swore softly and shook his head. Alexandra was walking by the third caravan, oblivious, looking up at the stars.

Sometime after midnight the Symphony stopped to rest. Kirsten threw the Titania gown into the back of a caravan and changed into the dress she always wore in hot weather, soft cotton with patches here and there. The reassuring weight of knives on her belt. Jackson and the second oboe took two of the horses and rode back along the road for a mile, returned to report that no one seemed to be following.

The conductor was studying a map with a few of the older Symphony members in the moonlight. Their flight had taken them in an awkward direction, south down the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. The only reasonably direct routes to their usual territory took them either back through St. Deborah by the Water, or close by a town that had been known to shoot outsiders on sight, or inland, through a wilderness that in the pre-collapse era had been designated a national forest.

“What do we know about this particular national forest?” The conductor was frowning at the map.

“I vote against it,” the tuba said. “I know a trader who went through there. Said it was a burnt-out area, no towns, violent ferals in the woods.”

“Charming. And the south, along the lakeshore?”

“Nothing,” Dieter said. “I talked to someone who’d been down there, but this was maybe ten years ago. Said it was sparsely populated, but I don’t remember the details.”

“Ten years ago,” the conductor said.

“Like I said, nothing. But look, if we keep going south we’ll eventually have to turn inland anyway, unless you’re especially eager to see what became of Chicago.”

“Did you hear that story about snipers in the Sears Tower?” the first cello asked.

“I lived that story,” Gil said. “Wasn’t there supposed to be a population to the south of here, down by Severn City? A settlement in the former airport, if I’m remembering correctly.”

“I’ve heard that rumor too.” It wasn’t like the conductor to hesitate, but she studied the map for some time before she spoke again. “We’ve talked about expanding our territory for years, haven’t we?”

“It’s a risk,” Dieter said.

“Being alive is a risk.” She folded the map. “I’m missing two Symphony members, and I still think they went south. If there’s a population in Severn City, perhaps they’ll know the best route back to our usual territory. We continue south along the lakeshore.”

Kirsten climbed up to the driver’s seat on the second caravan, to drink some water and to rest. She shrugged her backpack from her shoulders. Her backpack was child-size, red canvas with a cracked and faded image of Spider-Man, and in it she carried as little as possible: two glass bottles of water that in a previous civilization had held Lipton Iced Tea, a sweater, a rag she tied over her face in dusty houses, a twist of wire for picking locks, the ziplock bag that held her tabloid collection and the Dr. Eleven comics, and a paperweight.

The paperweight was a smooth lump of glass with storm clouds in it, about the size of a plum. It was of no practical use whatsoever, nothing but dead weight in the bag but she found it beautiful. A woman had given it to her just before the collapse, but she couldn’t remember the woman’s name. Kirsten held it in the palm of her hand for a moment before she turned to her collection.

She liked to look through the clippings sometimes, a steadying habit. These images from the shadow world, the time before the Georgia Flu, indistinct in the moonlight but she’d memorized the details of every one: Arthur Leander and his second wife, Elizabeth, on a restaurant patio with Tyler, their infant son; Arthur with his third wife, Lydia, a few months later; Arthur with Tyler at LAX. An older picture that she’d found in an attic stuffed with three decades’ worth of gossip magazines, taken before she was born: Arthur with his arm around the pale girl with dark curls who would soon become his first wife, caught by a photographer as they stepped out of a restaurant, the girl inscrutable behind sunglasses and Arthur blinded by the flash.

13

THE PHOTO FROM THE TABLOID:

Ten minutes before the photograph, Arthur Leander and the girl are waiting by the coat check in a restaurant in Toronto. This is well before the Georgia Flu. Civilization won’t collapse for another fourteen years. Arthur has been filming a period drama all week, partly on a soundstage and partly in a park on the edge of the city. Earlier in the day he was wearing a crown, but now he’s wearing a Toronto Blue Jays cap that makes him look very ordinary. He is thirty-six years old.

“What are you going to do?” he asks.

“I’m going to leave him.” The girl, Miranda, has a recent bruise on her face. They’re speaking in whispers to avoid being overheard by the restaurant staff.

He nods. “Good.” He’s looking at the bruise, which Miranda hasn’t been entirely successful in concealing with makeup. “I was hoping you’d say that. What do you need?”

“I don’t know,” she says. “I’m sorry about all this. I just can’t go home.”

“I have a suggestion—” He stops because the coat-check girl has returned with their coats. Arthur’s is magnificent, smooth and expensive-looking, Miranda’s a battered peacoat that she found in a thrift store for ten dollars. She turns her back on the restaurant as she puts it on in an effort to hide the torn lining—when she turns back, something in the hostess’s smile suggests that this effort was in vain—while Arthur, who by this point in his life is extravagantly famous, flashes his best smile and palms a twenty to the coat-check girl. The hostess is surreptitiously hitting Send on a text to a photographer who gave her fifty dollars earlier. Outside on the sidewalk, the photographer reads the message on his phone: Leaving now.

“As I was saying,” Arthur murmurs, close to Miranda’s ear, “I think you should come stay with me.”

“At the hotel? I can’t—” Miranda whispers.

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