"Christ! This is madness."
Even behind the mask he wears to protect him from the dust and smoke, Bill's voice is not muffled.
"It's too dangerous. You know that."
"Darkness bleeds into light." Mr. S. is poised on a pile of rubble. "They demand to see both." He removes his mask and speaks clearly. "Theymust see both."
"There are still bodies." A Fire Department Chief shifts his flashlight so it is shining full on Mr. S. "There are civilians and fire fighters." The light quavers in his hand. "There are pieces of meat with clothes still attached. How can you allow children to see that?"
"It's their world now." Mr. S. does not blink in the strong light. "It will be their world longer than it will be ours." He glances at the twins. "They deserve to see the best and worst."
"Turn off the light, please."
"What?" The Fire Chief is startled, and swivels toward the voice. His erratic movement reveals smouldering ruin and twisted metal.
"Turn out the light, please." Jerica shoves her mask below her chin, and does not look at the Fire Chief as she speaks. "The dark tells us things."
"The dark can kill you." The Fire Chief barks the words as he switches off the light in his hand.
"Bill says dawn comes in half an hour." Jerica replaces her mask, and begins to follow her brother. "We'll be careful."
The twins let their eyes adjust to the darkness, then start to move forward. The fires eat holes out of the dark, and banks of emergency lighting create harsh pools scattered across the ruined landscape.
There are so many rank smells, they are difficult to distinguish. Even the raw, twisted steel leaves its own metallic stink. Through it all weave tendrils of harsh aviation fuel, and the dank odour of congealing blood. A transition is happening, for the rotting decay of death is starting to settle over everything.
Janus is not careful as he clambers over piles of concrete, and around shattered spikes of glass and metal. Jerica wants to tug him back, but she understands his impatience, and shares his fear. They have never before entered a place that is so empty. There is no life force present, no potential, and no hope. It's as if the only thing present is the physical, and the physical is beyond repair.
Jerica looks back to get some reassurance from Bill. She is horrified to catch him staring at her as if he has never seen her before. She scrambles ahead, and does grab her brother's sleeve.
"Bill isn't with us."
"None of them are."
Janus glances at the adults who both trail and flank him. The fire and police officials are shocked beyond sense. The only thing which makes them function is their training. Bill has been taken back to the despair of his drunken days on the street. He is as distant as when he first met the twins.
Janus next looks at Caleb and Dorkas. The bond between them from so many years of marriage is strong, but what they see makes them sharply become the individuals they are. They can not share this experience as a couple.
Beyond them, Agnes keeps an equal distance between Bill and Breeze, not knowing which one can help take away her panic. She is feeling as alone as she ever has in her life. If she could find a standing wall, she would lean her back against it.
"Are you with me, Jerica?"
"Yes." She lets go of his sleeve and takes his hand. "They don't understand, do they?"
"They don't want to believe." Janus drags his sister up a heap of debris. The dust is so deep they wade through it like snow. "They are fighting the truth."
"Except Mr. S." Jerica whispers through her mask. "But even he can't help."
Mr. S. has not noticed the twins have stopped, and he moves slowly ahead. Breeze is not far away, and although it's the first time he has wanted to shield her from something, he doesn't try to get closer. Breeze, who fears the dreams which take her to the future, wishes there was sleep to take her from this place. She understands this living nightmare won't allow her to wake - won't allow her even to scream.
As sunrise begins to spread across the acres of devastation, the twins decide to go no further. When the numerous adults realize this, they also stop.
Because tons of dust have settled overnight, and smoke from the fire has decreased, the exhausted officials start to get their clearest view of the destruction. Although most have been on the site over thirteen hours, they are made speechless by what they see. Many believe the reality of hell can be no worse than the hell spreading in every direction.
The twins keep holding hands as they watch the effects of the rising sun. Dust and smoke turn chalky white. Undamaged windows from the surrounding shattered buildings, reflect streaks of orange and red, the colours darkened by the heavy air.
"Look." Janus stares at light glancing off glass. "Windows."
"People had to fly." Jerica tilts her face upward, and points with her free hand.
"No." Janus pulls her against him. He makes her move in a tiny circle as they stare into the sky. "People had to jump."
"From the windows?" Jerica feels dizzy, staring straight up through the empty air, which this time yesterday contained thousands and thousands of windows.
"To get away from the fire." Janus has his arm around her neck, and their faces touch. "A flood of fire."
"Out of the fire, into the frying pan." Jerica feels the scrape of heat across her forehead, then closes her eyes. "That's what Bill would say."
"Bill won't ever joke about this." Janus shuts his own eyes, for the birds he sees are not birds.
"I said it to hear his voice." Jerica whispers into her brother's ear." Bill looked at me and didn't care."
"They've burrowed into themselves, like mice inside a wall." Janus turns his head, for he knows the ungainly birds can not fly. "They refuse to come out."
"They can't stay hidden." She also twists her head, her mouth on his ear. "That's what they know."
"Oh. Jerica." Janus shoves his sister away from the ungainly falling birds. "Cover your ears."
Bill and Breeze, and those standing closest to the twins, hear the yesterday echo of each slamming crash.
"You are monsters." The Fire Chief raises his hand to Mr. S., ready to use his flashlight as a club. "To make us hear these noises again."
"They faced what no human should face." Mr. S. winces at a final, desperate impact. "They had to choose death to avoid death." He steps closer to the Fire Chief. "In an ordinary minute of an ordinary morning, while getting coffee or checking their messages." His voice goes low, so the others can not hear. "You would do me a favour to strike the noises from my head."
The Fire Chief has tears on his face, streaking the grime which has seeped through his mask.
"Are you here to make sense of it?" The Fire Chief remains frozen, arm still uplifted, full of emotions he will never be able to describe. "Are you here to spin some story?"
"Neither." Mr. S. removes his glasses to wipe off dust. "We go beyond those things."
"My crew was called away." The Fire Chief lowers his flashlight with a sigh. "The highest priority from the top of the chain of command." He keeps staring at Mr. S. "We are to give you an hour, unrestricted. We are to do whatever you say. We are to follow wherever you go." He pulls down his mask and spits out the crunch of dirt. "We should be looking for life."
"There's nobody left." Mr. S. lowers his own mask, and puts his glasses back on.
"You can't know that." The Fire Chief yells at him. "There are thousands in there." He points desperately.
"There's no life!" Bill shouts the words as he starts up the mound of rubble to get the twins. "By the gaping wounds of Jesus, even I know that." He stops on an outcrop of shattered masonry when he realizes Janus and Jerica don't need him. "But that's not the worst."
"What do you mean?" The Fire Chief shifts his position so he can stare at Bill.
"Ask him." Bill points at Mr. S. angrily. "Get him to tell you what we've found."
"What is it?"
The Fire Chief suddenly realizes there can be worse. As long as there is life, there can always be worse.
"The official forms left your occupation blank. But everyone whispers you and these children go beyond death." The Fire Chief steps closer to Mr. S. "My superiors say, with straight faces, that you hunt for Satan. So - what have we here?"
"Here?" Mr. S. speaks slowly in his weary voice. "Here there has been only Man. Satan is not present at all."
The National Park Rangers are more annoyed by the disruption to their routine, than by the added patrols. Most of them have had experience with visiting VIPs. They understand that sections of the historic area are sometimes closed to the general public, so dignitaries can spend an hour covering the sites of the Antietam battlefield.
This time, the whole area is posted with `Restricted Access' signs, and yellow `Do Not Cross' tape. These are not only placed where the cairns and plaques are situated, but along the complete length of the Antietam Creek itself. This confined area extends as far back on either side of the water, as was reached by the battles of that Civil War day. It is a large expanse of land.
The Park Superintendent sits in his Hummer, listening to the grumbles of his men over his headset. He nods in silent agreement, but picks up his microphone with annoyance.
"Quieten down, out there."
"What is it?"
The Superintendent turns to the man next to him, and puts the microphone back. He slips off his headset before he replies.
"Nothing, Mr. Secretary."
"`Nothing' seems to cause quite a chatter." The Secretary of the Interior rearranges his legs in the cramped space. "Orville. I don't like this one spec more than they do."
"You know yourself - something has to be done."
"You know that the complaints are getting worse."
"It's on the verge of becoming a media disaster."
"Orville." The Secretary of the Interior draws out his words. "Your enthusiasm has a parched quality."
"Sir." The Park Superintendent turns half way in his seat, but manages to control his voice. "They're a bunch of damned ghost hunters."
"I haven't heard any better ideas coming out of here over the past two years." The Secretary of the Interior raises his voice. "And, for God's sake, don't let them hear you call them spook hunters." He looks annoyed. "That guy with the glasses is spooky enough. I don't need him corncobbing me up the ass."
"And I don't want any of this talk to get anywhere near the damned Press."
The Secretary of the Interior undoes his seatbelt with exasperation, and gets out of the Hummer, prompting the Park Superintendent to do the same. They continue the conversation over the top of the vehicle.
"I can imagine the headlines. I can foresee the type of white, hazy photographs on the front of The National Enquirer."
"Sir. We're closing the whole park for two days. Someone's going to ask questions."
"Maintenance." The Secretary drums his fingers on the roof of the Hummer. "Restoration of grasslands." He thinks some more, then gives the Park Superintendent a genuine smile. "Eradication of vermin. That one's closer to the truth, isn't it?"
"I'll share that with the men."
"You go ahead and do that." The Secretary peers into the distance. "What the hell are they doing?"
"Walking?" The Secretary turns to the other man, and points to the binoculars around his neck. "Can I borrow those?"
"Sure." The Superintendent hands them over, and follows his gaze. "I understand they're taking a look."
"Like a reconnoitre?"
"I guess." The Superintendent glances around the park. "God knows they got enough to find."
"And they're bringing the rest here tomorrow?"
"Even the kids?"
"That's what I thought they were doing today." The Superintendent shrugs. "To see if it was safe for the kids."
“Safe for - “ The Secretary’s voice raises. “Don’t you know where they just were?”
“The kids, for Crissake.”
“The first I heard of any of them was this morning.”
“They were in Noo Yawk.” The Secretary of the Interior is incredulous. “They were at f-ucking Ground Zero. They were there the next day.”
“You’re shittin’ me.”
“I feel like shitting, Orville, but it ain’t on you.”
“How did they get there?”
“The Government is all its wisdom, is hunting after everything - even Satan himself.” The Secretary gives a hard smile. “So I guess we don’t have to concern ourselves too much with their safety.”
"Jesus H. Christ. What a mess." The Secretary of the Interior hands back the binoculars. "Children, and women, that guy with one eye. And Mr. Proper and Concise with the glasses." He shakes his head. "It's a cold day in hell before I'd go on any walk with them."
"Do you think it will work?"
"Can they put a stop to these things happening?" The Superintendent leans over the roof, lowering his voice.
"The soldiers and horses?" The Secretary of the Interior also lowers his voice. "The cannons?"
"Yes." The Park Superintendent has to look away. "And the rumours we can't even put into reports."
"You'll be telling me whether it works." The Secretary of the Interior slips back into his seat. "You'll be telling me if this disturbing crew does any good, as they go tramping through those places of evil."
"Yes, Sir." The Superintendent gets behind the wheel.
"Yes, Mr. Secretary?"
"Keep your fingers crossed, and your powder dry."