The roosters began to crow on the rooftop of Building Three next door, but Louis didn't hear them. He was reading The Farmer's Almanac 2014, turning each dry, brittle page with extreme care. The edges of the pages were yellow and beginning to flake off. One page had been ripped, and some clear paper had been placed over the rip on both sides, holding the page together, keeping the precious words printed upon it intact. Louis delicately ran his finger over the strange clear tape, which was turning yellow itself. Every so often the Hunters brought back remarkable treasures – metal weapons that fired projectiles by means of controlled explosions, called guns; shaped and polished discs of glass that made faraway objects as clear as if they were only a few paces away, called binoculars; long, smooth fibers cunningly wound together until they made one very strong cable, called nylon rope. Of course, the guns didn't work anymore, but the Hunters had found enough binoculars with intact lenses so that each Guard station had a pair, and they would never run out of uses for nylon rope.
But as far as Louis was concerned, this strange clear paper that would adhere to other papers, repair them, yet still allow the printed words beneath to be visible, was as strange and miraculous as anything else the Hunters found while they were Outside. No one else seemed to care, though, which was something Louis was quite used to.
The roosters crowed again, and Louis heard them this time. He hadn't known it was that close to daybreak already. Rising, he crossed to his bedroom window. Jeremy said he never bothered to lock his shutters at night, but Louis couldn't conceive of such a thing. He slid out the metal rod locking the two panels in place, then slid the shutters open, revealing the window and the rosy light beyond. The hinge shutters squeaked. He would need to grease them soon. Hearing his father moving around in the room next door – he was being very loud this morning – Louis hurried back to his desk and blew out the candles. Father would call him wasteful, and ask why Louis hadn't just waited till daybreak to read.
But when Louis had the nightmare, he couldn't go back to sleep. He couldn't just lay in bed, or he would go over it, again and again, replaying every grisly detail in his mind, unable to stop. So when he had the nightmare, he had to get out of bed, had to light a candle or two, had to read. But he didn't think he could explain that to Father.
Louis knows it's a nightmare, knows that he is not really here, that this is all just a dream, but that never makes any difference. He sees himself, as though he were watching a play on the stage, and he wants to scream out, but his throat is caught in a vice. He can only watch, see the horror play out as it has so many times before.
It happens like this:
They are leaving the theater. Father has gone ahead, with a few of the other Guards. They are telling some story that Louis is too young to hear. Mother holds Louis's hand, and she smiles down at him. “I can tell you a story, if you like.” Louis realizes that although he can remember what play was performed that night at the theater (“A Midsummer Night's Dream), the number of people walking with them back to Two, Three and Four (there were eight of them: Father, Mother, Father's friends Harold and Melissa, Miss Janae and Miss Taylor, Jeremy and of course Louis himself), and even the end of Father's story, the story he was too young to hear, but their voices were too loud up ahead, and he heard it anyway (“and then,” Father says, already laughing, and so are the Guards, “she realized it was his penis!”), Louis cannot remember what Mother's face looked like.
There is a woman looking down at him, her face nondescript, perhaps not even there at all, and he supposes it is Mother. But what if it isn't? What if she was already that other woman, that thing? That Outsider?
“Tell me a story,” he says. He doesn't know what is coming, what is inside the wall even know. The sirens won't sound for another thirty seconds, and by then it will be too late.
“This is a story my father told me, and his father told him. It's a story from Before.” There are only so many stories from Before, so Louis is sure he will already know this one. But that doesn't matter. “Once upon a time,” Mother begins, “there was a farmer named Luke Starwalker. Luke had a farm on the moon, and he grew robots.”
“You can't grow robots, Mother!” Louis says, laughing, even though he doesn't really know what a robot even is. Mother laughs, too. They are walking very slowly now. Everyone, even old Miss Janae and old Miss Taylor, are ahead of them. Louis likes being alone with Mother, though. It is though she is his, and only his. And if they walked a little more slowly, then Louis could pretend they were the only people in the whole city.
“But one day, the evil Empire lands on the moon, too...” Mother goes on, but before she can say anymore, the siren screams out so suddenly, with no warning at all, that Louis bites his tongue. The sharp copper tang of blood fills his mouth, and when he wakes up from the nightmare, he will still taste it, as though he had been the one to bite Mother, as though he had been the one to rip out her throat.
Mother's hand squeezes his, so tightly that she breaks the little finger, though no one realizes this for two days. She pulls, and they are running to the nearest building, Six or Seven, Louis doesn't know. But the door has already been locked, and no one answers when Mother bangs on it hard with her fist. “Open up!” she screams, and Louis feels his bladder let go, feels hot urine trickle down his leg.
They run to the next building, but that door is locked, too. Will no one let them in?
“Goddamn it, goddamn it!” Mother yells. Louis has never heard her voice sound like this. He has never heard her say those words before, either, and he knows they are wicked words. Those words, more than anything, make him understand that this is real, this is actually happening. He has always been told that this could happen someday – a breach, they would say, in tones that communicated terror and dread and yet the oddest undercurrent of something like longing – but he never thought it would happen, not to him. They're supposed to be inside, they're supposed to be in a building, on a roof. They're supposed to be somewhere safe.
This isn't how it's supposed to be!
“Come on, hurry, Louis,” Mother says, and she's dragging him again, in a different direction. Louis can hear people running, somewhere in the city, maybe two streets over – by the gardens? But Mother pulls him behind Building Eight, the building that used to be something called a pharmacy. Louis can see the outline of where a sign had once been nailed to the side. There's an outline there, still clear even though the sign has been gone for years and years. Under that outline, as though it were marking it out, is one of the 'shine barrels. Mother pulls off the lid, grimacing, tendons standing out in her arms.
“Mother, you can't,” Louis whispers. Everyone knows you're not supposed to touch the 'shine barrels. They're a “last resort.” Louis doesn't know what that means, not now. That's just what everyone always said, when they taught the children about the city defenses. The barrels were a last resort.
During the day, when the sun shone down brightly, the 'shine would be clear as water, but now, with only a half-moon above, the liquid inside the barrel is as black as ink. Before Louis can even think to protest, Mother picks him up with a grunt and tries to put him in the barrel. He's a little too heavy, though, and she only gets one leg in. “Stop!” he cries, his voice thin, cracking in the middle. But Mother pushes, her breath coming in and out in horrible gasps, and Louis falls inside.
The 'shine stings his eyes, and some gets inside his mouth and burns worse than any fire. Louis coughs, grabbing onto the edges of the barrel, trying to pull himself out. Mother puts a hand on the top of his head and shoves him down, until his toes scrape the bottom, and the 'shine comes up to his chin. “Stay here,” she orders, and she puts the lid back on the barrel.
Sounds disappear, all but the sloshing of the 'shine against the inside of the wooden barrel. Louis can't seem to catch his breath, the 'shine is terribly cold, his toes are already numb, he feels like the barrel is getting smaller and smaller, and panic starts to tear at his chest with greedy fingers. Louis pushes up on the lid, but Mother has pushed it down enough that the pins on the sides of the barrel have caught in the lid's grooves. Louis sinks down a little, the 'shine coming up to his nose, but he keeps his lips clamped tightly shut this time. He jumps up, pushing up against the lid with all his might. It doesn't open, but he feels it move, just a little. He pinches his nose shut, sinks down lower, and jumps again. This time the lid comes up an inch, but before he can sink down again, Louis hears what's happening out on the street.
He hears Mother's voice.
“Peter!” she screams. His father's name. “Peter!” The scream is filled with such fear that Louis sobs, his hands scrabble against the bottom of the barrel lid, one of the nails rips off but he doesn't even feel it. But the lid doesn't budge. He hooks his fingers in the space between the lid and the barrel's top, the inch of space he was able to make, and he pulls his head up and shoves it to the side, enough that he can peer out with one wide eye.
He can see Mother, ten or twelve paces away, her arms spread wide. Defending the alley behind, the barrel she's hidden him inside. Something is on the other side of her, but Louis cannot see it, Mother's body blocks it from view.
But he knows what it is. There's only one thing it could be. An Outsider.
“Peter!” she screams one last time, and then her body tenses, and then she throws something, a rock, he thinks, and then there is a second that stretches forever, stretches for years and years, and every time Louis has the nightmare he thinks that maybe this time, it will just stretch indefinitely, this last second, the second that cleaves his life in two.
The second ends, and the Outsider is upon her. Louis cannot see much more than a dark shape, but he knows, he knows. He screams for her, but the sound is swallowed up, by old wood and dark moonshine, by a crisp, clear night, by the stars hanging overhead as though nothing were wrong. But more than anything, his screams are drowned by Mother's screams, the terrible agony of the Outsider's teeth ripping into her flesh.
Then he hears a sound that he does not understand, not then. Later, he will come to learn that it was the sound of Mother trying to breathe, her throat torn open, blood filling her lungs.
Now is the time when Louis tries to awaken. He does his best to escape the nightmare, but it holds him down, as relentlessly as Mother's hand on the top of his head had pushed him into the barrel. Sometimes Louis can feel himself fighting the dream with his body, can feel his hands locked into fists at his sides, the blankets trammeling him in. But no matter how hard he fights, he always dreams just a little more.
This didn't happen, he knows that, but he sees it all the same. And in some way, this nightmare has become more real to him than the reality. The reality only happened once, but he has dreamed this a hundred times.
Silence. Thick, cloying. How can the sound of nothing carry such menace, such foreboding?
And then a scraping, a groaning. Louis tries to close his eyes but cannot; he must stare out, the inch-wide gap between the barrel and the lid, a sliver of horror hanging before him. His mother moves, she stands, and just the way she stands, the way her arms hang at her sides, is wrong. Wrong, utterly wrong, the angle of her head as she turns it to peer his way, it's all so wrong that Louis wants to run, the need to run is so strong that his chest seems to shake. Mother laughs, a dry paper sound.
She walks toward him. Slow steps, scuffling steps.
No, you're not Mother, get away, don't come this way. Louis tries to speak, but his throat is locked up, and the terror batters against his brain with hammering fists.
“Louis,” she says, her voice and yet not her voice. She drags the last syllable out, a long, sibilant hiss that turns into another laugh. This is the sound of bodies on the pyre, flames crackling against an indifferent sky; this is the sound of crows flying at midnight, screaming out profanities in cryptic tongues; this is the sound of madness, this laugh, and Louis can only hope his own death is quick.
Mother crouches down, peeking in at him through the gap. Her face seems frozen, her mouth twisted by a grin too huge, a grotesque mockery of a grin. Louis can see the ruin of her throat, blood still weeping down her chest. “Louis,” she hisses again, teeth clicking together, only an inch from his face. Those teeth come even closer, her hands shoving against the lid, and Louis sinks down into the 'shine, the thick, cold blackness swallowing him up.
Her fingers tangle in his hair.
Louis always wakes up then, heart hammering in his chest, so hard he's surprised Father doesn't hear it in his bedroom next door. The blanket is damp beneath him, and sweat beads on his brow. His room, of course, is pitch black, not even the faint edge of light above and below the metal shutters on his window that would tell him that daybreak had come. Louis stares and stares, unable to help himself, sure in those first few seconds after wakening that Mother is here, Mother is waiting, Mother is only biding her time. He can't stop staring, can't close his eyes, because in that moment he will feel the edge of his bed dip as she sits beside him, feel her icy fingers on his skin, and hear that laugh, that terrible, terrible laugh.
So he just gets up. He lights a stick in the still-warm embers of the little stove in the corner, then brings the candle stubs on his desk to life. He peers all around, until he assures himself that he is alone, and that no one lurks in the shadows of his room.
(Of course no one's there, he's fifteen years old now, far too old to be frightened by nightmares like this. Mother's been dead for almost ten years now, they burned her body with the rest out on the plain, there's nothing left to come for him. But in that first second or two, when the nightmare still feels like a solid, tangible weight on his chest, when his limbs are locked and he can't even seem to draw a breath, Louis knows she's here, that she's always been here, that she'll always be here.)
This morning, an hour or two ago, he has no idea how long exactly, was the same as any after the nightmare. Louis lit his candles, he checked the corners, and he sat at his desk. The Farmer's Almanac 2014. Weather predictions. When to plant your crops and where. Horoscopes. Louis lost himself in the comforting pages, the soothing words.