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Now he was fading, like a light with one of those special switches. There had been one in the house, the dining room of the house he’d been raised in, the one that had burned down. A dimmer switch, that’s what his mother had called it.

Turn the dimmer down, let’s make dinner seem romantic.

Little by little the light that was Pete was getting dimmer. He was romantic.

He had been like a rubber band stretched out. Like one end was attached to his body and the other end was . . . well, wherever he was now. But with his body gone the rubber band was contracting.

It wasn’t so bad.

He could see the Darkness. The Darkness, too, could reach into this space of Pete’s. It, too, had been dimming, the creature that named itself gaiaphage, but now it was stronger with a body to anchor it.

Pete could listen to the gaiaphage’s mind sometimes. Pete knew the Darkness was watching him. Laughing at him as he weakened, but nervous, too.

So many times the Darkness had reached to him with its tendrils, sneaking up behind him, trying to find him, trying to make him believe things, do things.

The Darkness wanted Pete to dim. When Pete was all the way gone, all his power would be gone, too.

The Darkness whispered to him. It won’t hurt, my little Nemesis. It will just be the end, like the end of the stories your sister used to read to you. Remember how you always wanted them to end because her voice and her eyes and her yellow hair hurt you?

Don’t fight it, Nemesis.

The end is the best part of any story. The end.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.

Orc had memorized the verse. In his head he said it “yeah” instead of “yea,” but that didn’t change the meaning. What it meant was, if you’re scared, don’t be, because God is there. That much was clear. But the next bit about a rod and a staff . . . as far as Orc knew, a rod was maybe a stick and a staff was, like, all the guys who worked for you. My staff.

My staff will comfort you. Which made sense because if you were God you’d need a staff of, like, angels or whatever to take care of comforting people and so on.

He had walked up Trotter’s Ridge at sundown, up above the town of Perdido Beach. But as he’d reached the top of the hill where the barrier sliced it in two, he’d crouched lower and lower, afraid even to be outlined against the stars. He’d finished the last hundred feet on his belly.

You still couldn’t touch the barrier, that hadn’t changed; it would still zap you. But now you could see right through it. Like it was just plain old glass. Which meant people out there could see in.

That thought made him sick to his stomach.

He peered through a crispy, dead stand of tall yellow grass, and there it was. The other side. The out there.

No one was on the hill right where he was; they were all down on the highway and around there. It was so amazingly bright out there. The hamburger place was lit up like light cost nothing. The motels, so many lights. Like Christmas or something. He could see the lights of cars and vans and campers backed up in the world’s biggest traffic jam. It went on as far as he could see. There were police lights flashing all over the place, near and far, the Highway Patrol trying to get things organized. Problem was, the highway just hit the barrier and stopped. Someone had bulldozed a turnaround, but with cars lining both sides of the highway as well as jamming the highway itself, that whole turnaround thing wasn’t working. There was a slow-moving stream of red taillights.

Up against the barrier in the out there were a few big news trucks all covered in antennas and satellite dishes and crazy bright lights. A little past them it looked like some kind of army base, because earlier he had seen green uniforms and Humvees.

Above all there was the neon, red and gold and a little green—a Carl’s Jr. His mouth watered. Fries. He would do just about anything for some fries and a chocolate shake.

From this angle he couldn’t see the kids up against the inside of the barrier, but he knew they were there, because unlike the stuff outside he could hear the things inside. He heard voices, some yelling like they didn’t believe no one could hear through the barrier.

A girl with a high-pitched voice was yelling, “Mommy! Mommy!”

Everyone seemed to think it was all going to end. They all thought the barrier had to come down now—sooner, not later. Caine, who called himself King Caine, had told Orc to help him get people back from the barrier, get them back to work, because here in the FAYZ every day was hungry, and starvation was never more than a couple days off.

But of course Orc had said no. No way. If he went down there, every camera would point toward him. People would scream: he wouldn’t be able to hear them, but he’d see them, see their mouths making big Os and see them point at him.

Orc had always been a big kid, but he was more than big now. He was probably more than six feet tall and almost that wide just standing with his arms down at his side. And he was made of something that looked a lot like wet gravel, or maybe concrete that hadn’t set yet.

He was a monster.

He wanted a drink of booze so bad. If he got really rip-roaring crazy drunk, then maybe he could go down there, down into the valley of the shadow. But not sober, no, he couldn’t take that.

His mom might be there, if his dad hadn’t killed her yet.

He tried to picture her and succeeded. Then Orc tried to picture his mother without a bruise on the side of her head or a cast on her wrist and he couldn’t.

And his father . . . he didn’t want to picture his father, but he couldn’t help it, the pictures came: pictures of his father in a cold and evil drunk, sizing up his son, making sure that Charles Merriman, who had long been known as Orc, was hanging his head and looking away. Making sure his son was afraid.

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