In the distance, the dog barked again, ferociously this time.
I got a fix on the sound and ran toward it, from serviceway to serviceway, from shadow to shadow, among abandoned warehouses that loomed as massive and black and cold as temples to the cruel gods of lost religions, then into a broad paved area that might have been a parking lot or a staging area for trucks delivering freight.
I had run a considerable distance, leaving the pavement and plunging through knee-high grass lush from the recent rains, when the moon rolled over in its bed. By the light that came through the disarranged covers, I saw ranks of low structures less than half a mile away. These were the small houses once occupied by the married military personnel and their families who preferred on-base living.
Although the barking had stopped, I kept moving, certain that Orson—and perhaps Jimmy—could be found ahead. The grass ended at a cracked sidewalk. I leaped across a gutter choked with dead leaves, scraps of paper, and other debris, into a street lined on both sides with enormous old Indian laurels. Half the trees were flourishing, and the moonlit pavement under them was dappled with leaf shadows, but an equal number were dead, clawing at the sky with gnarled black branches.
The barking rose once more, closer but still not near enough to be precisely located. This time it was punctuated by yawps, yelps—and then a squeal of pain.
My heart knocked against my ribs harder than it had when I’d been dodging the two-by-four, and I was gasping for breath.
The avenue I followed led among the dreary rows of decaying, single-story houses. Branching from it was a large but orderly grid of other streets.
More barking, another squeal, then silence.
I stopped in the middle of the street, turning my head left and right, listening intently, trying to control my labored wheezing. I waited for more battle sounds.
The living trees were as still as those that were leafless and rotting.
The breath I’d outrun caught up with me quickly. But as I grew quiet, the night grew even quieter.
In its current condition, Fort Wyvern is most comprehensible to me if I think of it as a theme park, a twisted Disneyland created by Walt Disney’s evil twin. Here the guiding themes are not magic and wonder but weirdness and menace, a celebration not of life but of death.
As Disneyland is divided into territories—Main Street USA, Tomorrowland, Adventureland, Fantasyland—Wyvern is composed of many attractions. These three thousand small houses and associated buildings, among which I now stood, constitute the “land” that I call Dead Town. If ghosts walked in any neighborhood of Fort Wyvern, this would be the place where they would choose to do their haunting.
No sound was louder than the moon pulling the clouds around itself once more.
As though I had crossed into the land of the dead without having the good manners to die first, I slowly drifted spirit-silent along the starlit street, seeking some sign of Orson. So profoundly hushed and lonely was the night, so preternaturally still, I could easily believe that mine was the only heart beating within a thousand miles.
Washed by the faint radiance of far nebulae, Dead Town appears to be merely sleeping, an ordinary suburb dreaming its way toward breakfast. The single-story cottages, bungalows, and duplexes are revealed in no detail, and the bare geometry of walls and roofs presents a deceptive image of solidity, order, and purpose.
Nothing more than the pale light of a full moon, however, is required to expose the ghost-town reality. Indeed, on some streets, a half-moon is sufficient. Rain gutters droop from rusted fasteners. Clapboard walls, once pristine white and maintained with military discipline, are piebald and peeling. Many of the windows are broken, yawning like hungry mouths, and the lunar light licks the jagged edges of the glass teeth.
Because the landscape sprinkler systems no longer function, the only trees surviving are those with taproots that have found some deep store of water that sustains them through California’s long rainless summer and autumn. The shrubbery is withered beyond recovery, reduced to wicker webs and stubble. The grass grows green only during the wet winter, and by June it is as golden and crisp as wheat waiting for the thresher.
The Department of Defense doesn’t have sufficient funds either to raze these buildings or to keep them in good repair against the possibility of future need, and no buyers exist for Wyvern. Of the numerous military bases closed following the collapse of the Soviet Union, some were sold off to civilian interests, transformed into tracts of houses and shopping centers. But here along California’s central coast, vast reaches of open land, some farmed and some not, remain in the event that Los Angeles, like a creeping fungus, should eventually cast spoors this far north or the suburban circuitry of Silicon Valley should encroach on us from the opposite direction. Currently, Wyvern has more value to mice, lizards, and coyotes than to people.
Besides, if a would-be developer had placed an offer for these 134,456 acres, he would most likely have been rebuffed. There is reason to believe that Wyvern was never entirely vacated, that secret facilities, far beneath its increasingly weathered surface, continue to be manned and to carry out clandestine projects worthy of such fictional lunatics as Doctors Moreau and Jekyll. No press release was ever issued expressing compassionate concern for the unemployed mad scientists of Wyvern or announcing a retraining program, and since many of them resided on-base and had little community involvement, no locals wondered where they had gone. Abandonment, here, is but a refinement of the sophisticated camouflage under which this work has long been performed.
I reached an intersection, where I stopped to listen. When the restless moon rolled out of its covers yet again, I turned in a full circle, studying the ranks of houses, the lunar-resistant darkness between them, and the compartmentalized gloom beyond their windows.
Sometimes, prowling Wyvern, I become convinced that I am being watched—not necessarily stalked in a predatory way, but shadowed by someone with a keen interest in my every move. I’ve learned to trust my intuition. This time I felt that I was alone, unobserved.
I returned the Glock to my holster. The pattern of the grip was impressed into my damp palm.
I consulted my wristwatch. Nine minutes past one o’clock.
Moving out of the street to a leafy Indian laurel, I unclipped the phone from my belt and switched it on. I squatted with my back against the tree.
Bobby Halloway, my best friend for more than seventeen years, has several phone numbers. He has given the most private of these to no more than five friends, and he answers that line at any hour. I keyed in the number and pressed send.
Bobby picked up on the third ring: “This better be important.”
Although I believed that I was alone in this part of Dead Town, I spoke softly: “Were you sleeping?”
Kibby is Mediterranean cuisine: ground beef, onion, pine nuts, and herbs wrapped in a moist ball of bulgur and quickly deep-fried.
“Eating it with what?”
“Cucumbers, tomatoes, some pickled turnip.”
“At least I didn’t call when you were having sex.”
“This is worse.”
“You’re way serious about your kibby.”
“So entirely serious.”
“I’ve just been radically clamshelled,” I said, which is surfer lingo for being enfolded by a large collapsing wave and wiped off your board.
Bobby said, “You at the beach?”
“I’m speaking figuratively.”
“Don’t do that.”
“Sometimes it’s best,” I said, meaning that someone might be tapping his phone.
“I hate this crap.”
“Get used to it, bro.”
“I’m looking for a missing weed.”
A weed is a small person, and the term is usually but not always used as a synonym for grommet, which means a preadolescent surfer. Jimmy Wing was too young to be a surfer, but he was indeed a small person.
“Weed?” Bobby asked.
“A totally small weed.”
“You playing at being Nancy Drew again?”
“In Nancy work up to my neck,” I confirmed.
“Kak,” he said, which along this stretch of coast is not a nice thing for one surfer to call another, though I believed I detected a note of affection in his voice that was almost equal to the disgust.
A sudden flapping caused me to leap to my feet before I realized that the source of the sound was just a night bird settling into the branches overhead. A nighthawk or an oilbird, a lone nightingale or chimney swift out of its element, nothing as large as an owl.
“This is stone-dead serious, Bobby. I need your help.”
“You see what you get for ever going inland?”
Bobby lives far out on the southern horn of the bay, and surfing is his vocation and avocation, his life’s purpose, the foundation of his philosophy, not merely his favorite sport but a true spiritual enterprise. The ocean is his cathedral, and he hears the voice of God only in the rumble of the waves. As far as Bobby is concerned, little of real consequence ever occurs farther than half a mile from the beach.
Peering into the branches overhead, I was unable to spot the now quiet bird, even though the moonlight was bright and though the struggling laurel was not richly clothed in leaves. To Bobby, I said again, “I need your help.”
“You can do it yourself. Just stand on a chair, tie a noose around your neck, and jump.”
“Don’t have a chair.”
“Pull the shotgun trigger with your toe.”
In any circumstance, he can make me laugh, and laughter keeps me sane.
An awareness that life is a cosmic joke is close to the core of the philosophy by which Bobby, Sasha, and I live. Our guiding principles are simple: Do as little harm to others as you can; make any sacrifice for your true friends; be responsible for yourself and ask nothing of others; and grab all the fun you can. Don’t give much thought to yesterday, don’t worry about tomorrow, live in the moment, and trust that your existence has meaning even when the world seems to be all blind chance and chaos. When life lands a hammer blow in your face, do your best to respond to the hammer as if it had been a cream pie. Sometimes black humor is the only kind we can summon, but even dark laughter can sustain.
I said, “Bobby, if you knew the name of the weed, you’d already be here.”
He sighed. “Bro, how am I ever going to be a fully realized, super-maximum, jerk-off slacker if you keep insisting I have a conscience?”
“You’re doomed to be responsible.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
“The furry dude is missing, too,” I said, meaning Orson.
Orson was named after Orson Welles, the director of Citizen Kane, for whose films he has a strange fascination.
I made an admission that I found difficult to voice: “I’m scared for him.”
“I’ll be there,” Bobby said at once.
Wings thrummed, and another bird or possibly two joined the one already roosting in the laurel.
“Dead Town,” I told him.
“Oh, man. You never listen.”
“I’m a bad boy. Come in by the river.”
“There’s a Suburban parked there. Belongs to a mondo psycho, so be careful. The fence is cut.”
“Do I have to creep or can I strut?”
“Sneaky doesn’t matter anymore. Just watch your ass.”
“Dead Town,” he said disgustedly. “What am I going to do with you, young man?”
“No TV for a month?”
“Kak,” he called me again. “Where in D Town?”
“Meet me at the movies.”
He didn’t know Wyvern a fraction as well as I did, but he would be able to find the movie theater in the commercial area adjacent to the abandoned houses. As a teenager, not yet so religiously devoted to the seashore that it had become his monastery, he had for a while dated a military brat who lived on-base with her parents.
Bobby said, “We’ll find them, bro.”
I was on a perilous emotional ledge. The threat of my own death troubles me far less than you might expect, because from the earliest days of childhood, I’ve lived with an awareness of my mortality that is both more acute and more chronic than what most people experience; but I’m crushed flat by the loss of someone I love. Grief is sharper than the tools of any torturer, and even the prospect of such a loss now seemed to have severed my vocal cords.
“Hang loose,” Bobby said.
“I’m just about untied,” I said thinly.
“That’s too loose.”
He hung up and so did I.
More wings beat a tattoo through the dark air, and feathers rattled leaves as another bird settled with the growing flock in the upper branches of the laurel.
None of them had yet raised a voice. The cry of the nighthawk, as it jinks through the air, snapping insects in its sharp beak, is a distinctive peent-peent-peent. The nightingale sings in lengthy performances, weaving harsh and sweet piping notes into enchanting phrases. Even an owl, mostly taciturn lest it alarm the rodents on which it feeds, hoots now and then to please itself or to assert its continued citizenship in the community of owls.
The quiet of these birds was eerie and disturbing, not because I believed they were gathering to peck me to pieces in an homage to the Hitchcock film, but because this sounded too much like the brief but deep stillness that often settles upon the natural world in the wake of sudden violence. When a coyote catches a rabbit and snaps its spine or when a fox bites into a mouse and shakes it to death, the dying cry of the prey, even if nearly inaudible, brings a hush to the immediate area. Though Mother Nature is beautiful, generous, and comforting, she is also bloodthirsty. The never-ending holocaust over which she presides is one aspect of her that isn’t photographed for wall calendars or dwelt upon at loving length in Sierra Club publications. Every field in her domain is a killing field, so in the immediate wake of violence, her multitudinous children often fall silent, either because they have an instinctive reverence for the natural law under which they exist—or because they’re reminded of the old girl’s murderous personality and hope to avoid becoming the next object of her attention. Consequently, the mute birds worried me. I wondered if their silence was in witness to slaughter—and if the shed blood had been that of a small boy and a dog.
Not a peep.
I left the night shade of the Indian laurel and sought a less disturbing place, from which to make another telephone call. Except for the birds, I continued to feel that I was unobserved, yet I was suddenly uneasy about remaining in the open.
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