ADAM IS STRUGGLING, HIS battered body a wreck, but he keeps moving. The light's almost completely gone, and we need to stop. Apart from a single helicopter in the distance and a fast-moving truck a few miles back, we haven't seen or heard anyone for hours. Things have changed-when the fighting first started there were people everywhere. Maybe it's because I'm moving at a fraction of my normal pace that the world seems empty? Part of me still thinks I should just dump Adam and go on alone. We'll find somewhere to stop and rest for the night. When I'm ready to get moving again I'll decide whether I'm going to take him with me.
"There," he says, pointing across the road with his badly broken hand. His fingers jut out at unnatural angles, and I can't see what he's gesturing at. "Look... through the trees..."
On the opposite side of the road we're following is a dense forest. I squint into the semidarkness to try to see whatever it is he thinks he's spotted. He shuffles around and hops away from me, moving toward a gap in the trees that stretches farther into the gloom. I look down and see that there are muddy tire tracks curving onto the road from the mouth of a barely visible track.
"What do you reckon?" he asks.
"Got to be worth a look. There wouldn't be a track if it didn't lead somewhere."
"Might be more of them down there..."
He tries to speed up again, eager to kill, but I pull him back. I'm not sure. This doesn't feel right. I can see the outline of a large building up ahead on the edge of a clearing, and I cautiously edge closer. The building is huge and box-shaped, like a warehouse-but why here out in the middle of nowhere? I take another few steps forward, and realization slowly begins to dawn. Shit, I know what this place is.
"What's the matter, Dan?"
I don't answer. Can't answer. My mouth's suddenly dry, and my legs feel like lead. I should turn around and walk away, but I don't, and I keep moving forward on autopilot, my mind racing. We enter a dusty, gravel-covered yard, lines of mazelike wooden barriers making it look like a deserted, out-of-season tourist attraction. Up ahead the building's doors hang open like a gaping mouth.
"What is this?"
"You don't know?"
He shrugs his shoulders.
Adam leans against the nearest barrier and works his way along it toward the open door.
"You told me about these places, but I..."
"What? You didn't believe me?"
"It's not that..."
He stops talking and I stop listening. Like a character in a bad horror movie, I walk into the building. It's almost pitch black inside, but I can see enough to know that we're in a narrow corridor with a set of heavy double doors directly ahead. It's musty and damp in here, the faint scents of the forest and wood smoke mixing with the heavy, acrid stench of chemicals and decay. I wish I had a flashlight. The gloom makes it too easy to remember the night I almost died in a place like this. Standing here in the dark I can still see the helpless, terrified faces of the people crammed around me as we were herded like cattle toward the killing chamber. I remember their lost and desperate expressions, the confusion, frustration, and pain so evident. I remember my own terror, convinced I was about to die...
"You okay?" Adam asks, finally catching up and nudging into me from behind. I hadn't even realized I'd stopped walking. I feel like I've stepped out of my body and now I'm watching from a distance. It's a nauseous, unsettling feeling, like the nervous relief you feel when you walk away without a scratch from a crash that's just written off your car. You're thinking, How did I get away with it? How close was I to biting the bullet? and then your mind starts with the "what ifs" and "if onlys"... I know that if I'd have been another hundred or so people farther along the line that night, I'd be a dead man now.
I lean up against one of the doors in front of me. It moves freely, and I shove it open and walk into what must have been the gas chamber. The dark hides the details of what I know is all around me. There are bodies here. I have no idea how many, but I can see their shapes stacked up in featureless piles. The cavernous room is filled with the buzzing of thousands of flies gorging on dead flesh, and I keep looking up to avoid looking down. There's a hole in the roof three-quarters of the way down the length of the room, and I can just about make out metal gantries and walkways high up on either side. Wide-gauge pipework weaves in and out of the walls of the building, and an enormous exhaust fan has been mounted at the far end of the room, its blades still turning slowly in the gentle evening breeze.
"Let's get out," Adam whispers from somewhere close behind me. "Fucking stinks in here."
I move forward again, dragging my feet along the ground so I don't trip over anything I can't see, convinced that the entire floor is covered with gore and bits of bodies. I kick bits of wood and twisted chunks of metal out of the way-remnants of the fallen section of roof-and finally reach the far wall, my pace almost as slow as Adam's. I work my way along, trying to find a way out. In the farthest corner, hidden from view by another unidentifiable pile of rubbish, is a wide door that's hanging off its hinges, half open. I duck underneath it, then turn back and prop it open fully so Adam can get through. His uneven footsteps and grunts and moans of effort make him sound like a monster in the shadows.
"We can't stay here," he says.
"Might be some other buildings around."
As soon as he's completely outside, I put my arm around him and support his weight. We've only taken a few steps when he stops.
"Fuck me," he mumbles. "Would you look at that..."
At the side of the long, narrow building is another clearing, out of sight until now, and the ground is almost completely covered with bodies for as far as I can see. There are hundreds of them, thousands probably, stacked up in massive piles. I leave Adam again and move toward the nearest one. From a distance the gloom makes it look like a single, unidentifiable mass, only distinguishable as human remains because of the countless hands, arms, and legs that stick out from it at awkward angles. As I get closer, however, a level of sickening detail is revealed. These bodies have been dumped-not even laid out-and those at the bottom have been crushed by the weight of the rest, leaving them unnaturally thin, almost like they've been vacuum-packed. Higher up, countless squashed, frozen, waxy faces stare back at me unblinking. Their discolored flesh, hollow cheeks, and sunken eyes give each of them grotesque, nightmarish, masklike expressions. Seeing them makes me think about my own mortality. I don't feel anything for any of the people here-they're just empty shells now, each of them a spent force-but I swear I won't end up like this.
"Look on the bright side," Adam shouts across the clearing.
"There's a bright side?"
"'Course there is. You got away. That could have been you, that could. Could have been me..."
I ignore him and keep walking farther into the clearing, following a narrow pathway between another two fifty-yard-or-so-long piles of death. Distracted, I lose my footing when I reach the end of the rows, and the ground suddenly starts to crumble beneath my boots. I fall back and find myself sitting on my backside on the edge of a vast hole, at least twenty yards square and deep enough for me not to be able to see the bottom in some parts. I know immediately what it is-a mass grave filled with an incalculable number of people like Adam and me. I get up and carefully walk around the edge. There's a bulldozer up ahead with a massive metal scoop. At first I think they must have used it to dig the pit, but then I see there's a scrap of clothing caught on the teeth of the scoop and I realize they were using it to fill it. Directly below me there are corpses reaching almost all the way up to the surface, piled up where they were tipped out. They look like they're climbing over each other to get out.
I jog back over to Adam, forcing myself to look away from the dead. How many sites like this were there, and are any still in operation? Even now as I'm wasting time here, are more of our people being killed elsewhere? Then another thought crosses my mind that makes me go cold: my daughter, Ellis. Did she end up in a place like this? Is she there now, waiting to die? Is she here? For a few desperate seconds I turn back toward the corpses and start looking through them, terrified the next face I see will be my little girl's. Then, as quickly as sudden panic just took hold, common sense takes over again. If she's here there's nothing I can do. I have to believe she's still alive. She's all I've got left.
"So where are they all?" Adam asks.
"The fuckers who did this. Where'd they go?"
"I don't know," I answer as I lead him out behind the main building toward a group of three square-shaped, light-colored, prefabricated huts that look new in comparison to everything else. "Just abandoned the place, I guess. Maybe they were attacked?"
"Hope the bastards got what they deserved."
Two of the almost identical shedlike buildings are locked. The corrugated metal roller door on the front of the third, however, is not. I open it fully and go inside. It's small, cramped, and half full of bags of chemicals. Doesn't matter. It'll do for tonight. No one with any sense will come here, and even if they do, we'll just play dead. I'd have fought side by side with any of the thousands of people who died here, but they're just rotting meat now, and we'll use them as cover.
Adam sits down on a pile of sacks, struggling to get comfortable and still talking nonstop about nothing of any importance. I close the door, then find myself a scrap of space in the far corner of the hard concrete floor and try to sleep, resting my head on another plastic sack full of Christ-knows-what. It could be poisonous or corrosive, but it doesn't matter. I cover it with my coat and close my eyes, too tired to care.
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