David Herter creates a modern reimagining Gene Wolfe’s “Island of Doctor Death.” Young Ballou lives alone with his mother in an old house on the shore. When the mysterious Wilson arrives, Ballou’s reality tips into a world populated with characters from his pulp comic books as he struggles to understand the adults around him.
And if you’re a boy with a wide imagination who hikes the beach at Capitola for miles on winter days, hikes until the promontory marking home is a speck you can hide behind your outstretched hand, then you’ll continue hearing a voice in the green and white surf and in the hectoring cries of the gulls. You’ll hear it coming up behind you, miles behind, as you retrace your crumbling footsteps along the frost-packed sand, and you’ll hear it coming down from the eucalyptus as you tread the lane toward home, toward the Ol’ Barn Itself, where shaggy branches sway above the boulders and crushed shells in the ramshackle yards. It calls out Ho, Ballou when the wind is just right and the surf is distant and pounding on the beachhead—Ho, Ballou; Ho, Ballou—until the voice is lost in the wind whistling through the tie-down fence.
Home has a formal name, painted on the black iron post beside the drive, stamped in the many books left by a previous owner—The House of 31 Sparrow Lane—but with you and Mom it is always the Ol’ Barn Itself. Every time she drives you home from Beach Market, with you jostling with the jostling grocery bags in the back, she announces over her shoulder, “Back to the Ol’ Barn Itself, Ballou.” The name is your own invention, uttered when you first set eyes on the house.
Its style is eccentric, like many of the properties in your small beach town. The real estate lady had called it Georgian, but additions were made in varying styles, and the uneven profile of the house marks an owner’s changing whims, the best of which is your bedroom under the roof. It has a peaked ceiling and old dark wood like something from a Spanish galleon, and you reach it by climbing a brass spiral staircase from off the kitchen, a dizzying climb up and up with the smell of pine and the wood painted blue overhead, like a summer sky.
You’re ten years and two days old, tired from your walk, chill from the breeze that presages night. You’re hungry, but not hungry enough to bother Mom. You kneel in the crabgrass beside the porch, Windbreaker zipped to your chin, hunching over your motley armies of Centurions, Saracens, Knights, and plastic army soldiers, along with a few die-cast tanks and a red tyrannosaurus. Under your hectoring eye the thirty-some odd pieces become three thousand, and the yard the size of the coast. Sand flies buzz the battlefield. Under your hand a Saracen’s jutting black beard pronounces doom upon the Enemy, led by a Centurion with his bright red plume. You shift them, watching the epic cycle of clamor and bloodletting, green plastic soldiers falling under the sword, Saracens toppling in a spray of machine-gun fire. Your white knuckles dig trenches in the sand. Then the surf rises to a roar, wild in the eucalyptus, and a shadow swarms toward you with a great crunch and rattle.
You stand up, heart beating in your throat.
A towering truck glares up the drive, dragging a deep rumble beneath. It spreads its shadow over the gravel and the eucalyptus, and over you. The engine growls, drawing frazzled breaths through the grille, then cuts out.
Visitors are rare. For days on end it’s only the mailman with his bag over his shoulder and his ponytail. Sometimes it’s only the far neighbor’s tomcat, brown and white with a clipped ear where a gull got it. Sometimes it’s only birds. Sparrow Ln. reads the sign at the end of the road, though you’ve never seen a sparrow, only shearwaters and gulls. And once, a pelican had dropped startled out of low fog onto the crabgrass, flapping its wings and clacking open its pot-bellied beak. It had lingered, dazed a bit by the yard, giving you time to run into the kitchen for the Wonder Bread then advance in slow sliding steps toward it whispering, Hey there, hey, and toss wads of bread into its open gullet before it clapped shut and the pelican rustled its wings and sailed up and away.
Sometimes it’s only the ghosts of birds, rising out of the salty night air.
You advance cautiously.
WIN EBAGO proclaims the rusted letters on the truck’s grille. You wonder if someone really won it, and what type of vehicle an Ebago is, then let yourself recognize the name. You feel the heat from the grille and study the battered Oregon license plate. The windshield betrays nothing beyond its glare, nor does any further sound come from it, other than a tic-tic from the engine. You retreat to your armies near the porch, watching the door in the side of the vehicle, waiting.
Words were once painted there, you realize. YOU 10, it tells you, in faded blue.
“Bally?” Mom says through the open window above you, and you can picture her stretching on the couch. “What’ve you got your hands on?”
When you first saw the island outside of a comic book it was faint with fog that dampened the air and made the hard, glassy waves look like horses charging toward shore. In comic books the island is always jagged, and the Doctor’s laboratory rises from its center like a lighthouse made of steel. But this island is pale like the fog and the laboratory thin as glass. In the fog it comes and goes. From inside—the inside you first reached from the cubbyhole off your bedroom—the laboratory is white and full of tall windows. “Time is tide,” the Doctor told you, that first time, steepling his deathly white fingers beneath his beard. “Time is tide and the beating of a heart, Ballou. And if you were to wade into that tide and swim away, swim in any direction—since any direction would be away from my laboratory, and my island—then you’d be moving into your past, into your days before, when you were at other schools, when you had other playmates, and when you and your mother were happier.” You stood at the window, looking first at him then out across the shimmering water to the shore, hoping to catch sight of home. “And a tide pool . . . Well, Bally, time in a tide pool is time stopped.”
Saying this he reached into the mouth of the glass jar, lifting out a damp red bloom.
You 10. The words on the side of the mobile home, in faded blue.
You stand with your arms out, your Swabbies stiff at the bell-bottoms from salty spray, damp at the knees from kneeling in the crabgrass. You feel as you do when standing in the surf and it retreats back to sea, the land threatening to go with it.
Faint, through the window behind you: “Ballou?”
You picture Mom on the couch, a towel across her forehead, listening to The 20,000 Dollar Pyramid or Name That Tune. Since losing her job two weeks ago, she’s always listened to TV rather than watched it, with the image all snowy and sometimes rolling up like an eye into its head.
In front of you, the side door of the Winnebago pops open. Cowboy boots are the first thing you notice, then gangly denim trousers and a rumpled white shirt. The intruder hooks his thumbs onto his belt. His face is like the Marlboro Man’s, and his squint is somewhat like McCloud’s, though he’s younger and has a mangy beard. His shirt is red plaid, like one of the tablecloths at Doodles on the freeway, with buttons like the inside of an abalone shell. His gold belt buckle says W.
“Well, hey there. You might just be a kid named Ballou.”
You nod, uncertain.
“Don’t suppose you remember me.” He extends his hand. A large gold ring sits on the thumb.
You step back, once, twice.
“Lila in there?” He’s looking up at the house as he says this, then out at the eucalyptus and the garage and back, devouring the place. He reaches out with his other hand and, like a magician, conjures a cowboy hat. He sweeps it down toward your head but you sprint through the gravel, scattering the soldiers.
“Hey, Lila! He’s an itchy kid!”
You race up the porch stairs, into the hall, ready to slam shut the door. “Mom!”
In the living room, she’s throwing back the purple quilt, sitting up, raising her too-pale face to the shuddering light. “What are you doin’, Bally?” After rubbing the sleep from her eyes, she looks pretty once more.
You turn. He’s crossing the porch, hat in one hand, the other hooked on his belt. His boots resound like drums.
Mom blinks and mouths something that might be the answer to the question on the TV. Then: “Wilson, that you?”
Wilson. The name echoes strangely.
He’s in the doorway. “You get my letter, Lila?” When she says nothing he adds, “Was in your neck of the woods, thought I’d stop by, say hi.”
“Stop by in what?”
“A mobile palace, a bit beat-up.”
“You swindle somebody, Wilson? Or somebody swindle you?”
But he’s looking at you. “You heard of me, kid? Uncle Wilson?”
Uneasy, you shake your head. You see something, a shadow, like a huge spider, or a crab, scuttling across the gravel behind him.
“Bally? You okay?”
You know immediately, even without having seen it. Something had been hanging onto the bottom of the Winnebago and had dropped down.
“Bally, are you okay? Answer me.”
“You startled him. All that noise.”
Wilson sets his hat on the little table beside the door. “My apologies. It’s nice to see you, Lil’.”
“It’s just I’m not feeling too well today,” Mom says listlessly. “Wilson, you should’ve called.”
“Last time I saw you, you weren’t feeling well.”
“Come in, if you’re coming in.”
You want to shout, No! and hurtle yourself at the door. But you’re torn with looking out at the empty gravel as he swings it shut behind him.
You can’t remember Uncle Wilson because Uncle Wilson is dead. Or anyway, that’s what Mom said more than once. He was killed in Dem Bien Phu in ‘72 by Charlie, and there’s a singsong pleasure in the name of that faraway battlefield, one that you often re-enact with armies in the front yard. Dem Bien Phu is a palace with great huge walls in a jungle, and archers shooting through narrow slits in the stone, hailing death upon the green American army soldiers. Charlie, though, will always be Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator for you.
Mom doesn’t hug Wilson, and doesn’t offer him a drink, though more than once he pats a silver flask in his pocket. By this time of night, even when she had a job and wouldn’t return home ‘til six, she’d be listening to The Joker’s Wild and you’d fix ravioli and continue with your homeschool, and you’d sit with her until nine, when you were allowed to go to your bedroom in the attic. (You may retire to your chamber, Master Ballou, she’d say, and gently kiss your forehead.) There you’d watch Adam-12 on the little black-and-white television, or crawl into your fort under the eaves and read your books, Henry Treece and Eleanor Cameron, lately.
“Ballou, we got to take your ma out to eat. Where’s the best place to eat in this town?”
You would’ve said Herfys but you see the opportunity to get a real meal, maybe steak and eggs. “Faradays on Main Street.”
“Yeah? You mean that blue and white fancy palace? What about it, Lila? Faradays,” he says, and laughs.
She wipes the fog from her eyes, but it just comes back again. “Let’s go to Doodles by the exit. I don’t want to rip a hole in your wallet.”
You know she really wants to go to Doodles because Clarissa works there, and she wants Clarissa to see him.
Wilson drives Mom’s rusty green Dodge Dart.
She changed into her flowery blouse as well as a pink scarf. She smells of perfume, which only makes you realize how long it’s been since she smelled of perfume. Wilson tries to place his arm around her, simply by turning to talk to you in the back seat. She moves over, leans her head against the window.
You wanted to ride in the Winnebago, feel the thrum of it, see it nosing into Doodles’ small parking lot, until you remember the thing that had dropped down from under.
“Hey, Ballou.” His eyes find you in the rearview. “You miss Austin?”
“He misses his friends, and the school there, don’t you, Bally?” Mom looks back. “But he loves the beach. He can walk for miles.”
“Beachcomber,” says Wilson, and you sit back further in the seat so he can’t find you with his eyes.
You want to mention the islands but you don’t. You don’t want Wilson sticking around more than tonight, and if you mention the islands he might just decide to stay. Or he might roam up and down the coast following them, or trying to. After all, his house has wheels.
Doodles is an old Sambo’s redone with a different paint job and no paintings of the little black boy in the jungle. Mom sometimes calls it Dumbo’s. The waitress is Clarissa, Mom’s only friend. “Is this who I think it is?” Clarissa says when you sit down.
“Clarie, meet Wilson.”
Clarissa wrinkles her nose like she smells Mom’s perfume. “I’ve heard some.” She smiles the smile of a waitress at all of you, but she and Mom share a glance.
“I think I heard of you, too,” says Wilson.
“Hi, B. How are you, kiddo? You want your bacon cheeseburger?”
A bearded man at the counter catches your eye.
“Sure,” you say, and look again.
You excuse yourself and go to the bathroom, saying you have to wash your hands. On the way you try to look again, but the man at the counter turns away. At the sink you wash your hands and dry them three times to get the grit of sand from between your fingers then wash them again. When you fumble in your pocket you find one of your Centurions. You bring it out and set it on the edge of the sink, then crouch to see it straight-on. You shut one eye and move in closer, so that it becomes as big as Ragnar the Robot Slayer.
“You don’t think he haunts the hallways,” Mom is saying softly, when she thinks you’re still in the bathroom.
“Sixty-eight. Been quiet since then,” Wilson mutters before he sees you. Then his face lights up with a false smile. “What grade are you in, Ballou?”
“He’s in fifth. Or he will be, when we enroll him.”
As you sit down, they look at one another in a way you can’t figure out. “Were you shot?” you ask. “At Dem Bien Phu?”
Wilson smiles and pets his cowboy hat, which sits like a straw cat on the table between the two of you. He sets down his fork on his empty plate and leans low over the tablecloth. “I went under, Ballou.”
You look to Mom but she’s stirring her ice water with her straw.
“What do you mean?”
The moment stretches out, accompanied by the tinny muzak. Mom doesn’t need to look at Wilson to be looking at him.
“Like Valhalla,” he says, straightening. “You know about Valhalla, Ballou?”
You nod. “It’s in the clouds where Odin lives. And in the thirteenth eon Odin and Ragnarök had a big war and they built robots that got so powerful they escaped down to Earth. Odin made Ragnar the Robot Slayer and sent him down, only the Slayer has forgotten who he really is and thinks the Doctor’s the head of the evil army.” You set down your fork. You hadn’t meant to say so much.
Wilson’s smile crinkles the corner of his eyes. “Hey, Lila, we got ourselves a road scholar here.”
Mom pokes at her food, mouth down-turned.
When Clarissa arrives with Wilson’s juicy steak and a bottle of Heinz 57 ketchup, he says, “Now I’m mighty fixed on devouring some animals.” He winks at her.
“Some of those animals are my friends,” Clarissa mutters.
Since he’s busy eating, Wilson doesn’t talk anymore and you turn to your burger. Mom brings up the subject of how Wilson paid for the mobile home and where he’d gotten it. You’re gulping down the burger, juicy and delicious with thick bacon that crackles against the roof of your mouth, all smoky and salty. “And where are you going tomorrow?” she asks.
“Every day a different place.” He grins. “Maybe to the movies. What about it, Ballou? You want to go to the movies tomorrow?”
But Mom says, “We have one theater, Wilson. They’re showing The Betsy. You want to see The Betsy with Mr. Laurence Olivier?” Her tone says he wouldn’t want to.
“I was thinking of the drive-in along Pelican Bay. That still there?”
Recalling a scrap of newspaper on the beach and the ad on the page, you jump in and say to Mom, “Yeah! They’re showing The Island of Dr. Moreau!” You begin to add that it stars Logan from Logan’s Run and the Admiral from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, but Mom cuts you off.
“Bally! You’re spewing ketchup!”
You wipe your mouth and try to appear sedate, brimming with table manners. “I wanted to see it in Austin last year but we moved away.”
Clarissa drops the check onto the table. “Anything else, you two?” She looks Wilson up and down.
“Thank you, Clarissa, it sure was delicious.” Mom tries to pick up the slip but Wilson gets it.
He winks over his fork. “Hey, Scout, you want some chocolate ice cream? Three ice creams, what about, Lil’?”
Mom rubs between her eyes. “You going to make Clarissa rewrite this bill?”
“Chocolate with chocolate syrup drizzled on top, okay? Double dose for the kid.”
“None for me. Wilson, when did you get so well-to-do?”
Clarissa smiles and strolls to the counter.
“Here and there and everywhere. And tomorrow, we’ll drive up to Pelican Bay.”
“And Dr. Moreau. Right, Mom?”
She sighs. “If you’re polite to everyone and do your chores without complaining. Then it’s Dr. Moreau, Bally. If Wilson can get us there. Bally?”
You sit back, assured that the bearded man at the counter isn’t the Doctor.
On the way home Mom asks Wilson to stop at Beach Market for cigarettes and a bottle of Empirin. He offers to go in and declines her five dollar bill. “Want to come with me, champ?”
You feel older, somehow, walking into the buzzing bright store with Wilson towering beside you. You point out where the aspirin is, and the cigarettes, but Wilson says he wants to shop on his own and leaves you at the comic book rack, where you look for any Archies or Star Treks, then at the last minute you spy the new Ragnar the Robot Slayer. You snatch it up. The cover shows Ragnar in a rowboat fighting giant blood-red robots. The Doctor’s island looms in the background, smoke rising against a setting sun.
Wilson chuckles. He juggles the six-pack of Coors and the box of True 100s into the crook of his elbow and takes it up. “You know what this is, Ballou?” He grins, and the crinkles at the corners of his eyes have never been deeper. “It’s junk for the mind.”
“Can I get it, Uncle Wilson?” You feel for a moment that you’ve sold something to him you can never get back, simply by calling him Uncle.
“Buy it later,” he says, and replaces it in the rack. You nod, disappointed, and walk to the checkout feeling the sting. Maybe Wilson senses this and that’s why he says, “Here.” He plucks up a stick of Bubs Daddy apple gum from the jar on the checkout counter and drops it down with the beer and cigarettes. It’ll do, you guess, and at the same time you’re wondering if he’ll really take you and Mom to see the movie the next day.
“Your mom say anything about me, Ballou? Other than I died in ‘Nam?”
You shake your head.
Just as you’re approaching the Dodge Dart from behind he pulls the Ragnar the Robot Slayer from under his jacket and shoves it into your hands.
“Hey, tough!” The pleasure of that cover, the promise of what waits inside, is enough to drive away any shame.
“Tuck it in your coat,” he says, removing the bottle of Empirin from his coat pocket and tossing it into the bag. “Don’t say anything to your ma.”
“When one has an adversary,” the Doctor told you on your third visit to his laboratory high above the sea, “one rarely gets the adversary that one deserves, or desires.” He stands against cloudy jars lined up on the counter. His white coat, crisp as though cut and assembled with paper and scissors, is no paler than his face and hands. “My robot minions are mindless. They roam the sea around my island with orders to destroy any intruders. For them the act is as simple, and as empty, as flipping a light switch.” Here he pauses to do just that, the lamplight revealing further jars in which float the shadows of shearwaters and birds ever smaller and darker.
You wear your C-3PO pajamas with booties, still warm from the blankets.
“With Ragnar I am almost deliriously well-matched. I loathe him, I admire him, I pity him, I will destroy him.” Here, a wistful sigh, as he uncaps one of the jars. An instant later the tang of chemicals tickles your nostrils. “Yet when I’m away from this laboratory and my island, when I’ve left my single-minded pursuits behind here, I always find myself asking, are there not others I hold in lesser esteem? Others I would wish my adversaries instead?” He crouches, so that his black beard with its fine strands contrasts vividly against the deathly white of his skin. “Tell me, Ballou. Your nosebleeds. Have they’ve stopped, now that the ghost is gone?”
When you get home Wilson strides to the Winnebago and unhooks the garden hose from the side.
While he coils it, you crouch, pretending that you see something on the gravel, but you’re really looking at the underside. Whatever dropped down isn’t there. You look around the porch and the rock garden.
Mom wearily ruffles your hair. “Why don’t you go play upstairs?”
“You got some good stuff to read, I bet.” Wilson winks.
You feel the comic book under your coat, against your stomach. You hold it tighter with your pocketed hands. But you’re remembering the thing dropping to the ground. “Can I stay outside?”
“It’s late for that, Bally.”
“Just in the yard.”
You zip the Windbreaker up to your chin. It makes her smile, and you’re happy to see her look so beautiful.
“Okay. In by nine.”
You avoid looking at Wilson and retreat to the yard; they shut the door behind them. As you take out the comic book you feel the breeze on your face and hands. Re-zipping the coat, you wonder if it was wise to stay out here rather than go to your room.
You gaze up at the house, which looks like a painting in the fog. With the comic book under your arm, you take out the long stick of Bubs Daddy, nudge the gum through the end, and bite off a good mouthful of the sweet-and-sour apple gum with its powdery dusting. The combination of sweetness and sourness makes your mouth water, and you’re chewing enthusiastically and swallowing. You bend the rest of the stick in half and shove it back in your pocket. The fog carries the salty tang of the sea, and just about is the sea, on nights like this, rolling like a tide up the cliffs and through the ramshackle yards.
Ho, Ballou, says the surf. Ho, Ballou.
You walk around the mobile home, pausing to look under, peering out at the yard. WIN EBAGO says the grille, and you feel that great rush of movement as it chased up the drive. Now it seems as solid as the house, and as permanent.
At the back a ladder goes to the roof. You can’t help but think of the Doctor’s tower and the ladder that Ragnar had once climbed. Up top you’d find the flat wide surface under moonlight with the sea all around.
It’s his home, you think, staring up. And it’ll roll off and away. You remember Mom and Wilson looking at one another and their look leaving you out. Crouching slowly, you look once more at shadows which are solid and unmoving.
Whatever it was, the thing dropped down and left for the grounds or the house.
You crinkle your nose at the scent of plasticky, stagnant water from the water tank. Straightening, you resume looking, listening.
Ho, Ballou. Ho, Ballou.
The side door to the garage is partway open. You walk toward it, certain it had been closed that afternoon. Sand dollars and seashells glued to the frame seem to float, faintly glowing in fog. When you pull the door open all the way, it creaks like something out of a Halloween sound effects LP.
Inside, the darkness is clotted and fuzzy, becoming varied tones of deep gray the longer you stare. Everything hesitating, as if you’ve walked in just after the sawhorses and stacks of wood and boxes were dancing like in a Disney film, and now they’ve stopped. For a moment, you cease chewing your gum. The cord for the bare light bulb is farther in, to the left. You take another step. Near your foot is a battered bucket full of sand dollars and mussel shells you brought back from the beach and haven’t cleaned up. Beyond the bucket is the big brass pot taller than you that Mom calls a samovar. Next to that are rattan chairs where mice had made a home the previous summer, until Mom and Clarissa set traps.
Everything stands still. And not at all like they were dancing, you decide. Rather that they’re all hunched up, like the tomcat that hissed at you when you ventured into the neighbor’s distant yard.
Then you hear a brittle scuffle, ahead of you, left to right against the wall.
As your chest goes cold you remember the shape somewhat like a spider’s, somewhat like a crab’s.
But this is something larger than either, brushing against the brick, accompanied by the slither of heavy chain on the concrete.
The hairs stand up on your arms
The previous summer, in the similar darkness of the crawl space, you had heard the same sound, and now here’s the snuffling that went with it, alive, behind the disused planking.
While searching for whatever had dropped from the Winnebago, you’ve found instead the old ghost, the one that was driven off. Wilson, by his arrival, somehow broke the barrier that kept it out.
You’re rooted to the spot, frozen in place, heart pounding against your jaw. And the ghost is moving now like it’s decided you’ve left, brushing against planks which slowly teeter as it trudges along the wall, and into the open.
The glow of embers are the ghost pig’s eyes, and the scent of burning flesh its aura.
A moment too late, you feel the warm blood coursing down your left nostril. You lift your hand to your nose and tip back your head. As you stagger the blood spreads across the webbing of your first finger and thumb. You taste copper in the back of your throat. You shove your way through the open door, unable to look down to see if something’s climbing your jeans. You swallow and feel the blood drying on your hand and upper lip.
Outside, you assure yourself nothing followed you and close the door, then retreat to the gravel. You crouch down, fingers pressed against your nose. You tell yourself to calm down, just like the counselor in Austin taught you. You press hard, fingers trembling, eyes fixed on the garage door, and wait until you’re sure the pressure has stopped the blood, and even then you wait a bit longer, letting up slightly with your tired hand and waiting for the blood to reappear as it so often did.
But apart from the coppery taste that infuses the gum in your mouth, the bleeding has stopped.
The door is still shut. You wait, and listen, and begin doubting what you saw. Or trying to.
You don’t want Mom or Wilson seeing you bloodied, so you find the spigot for the hose. You spit out the gum, turn the water on just barely, then lift the end from where Wilson coiled it, wait for the water to gurgle out and run it over your hand and rub your hand across the dried blood on your nose. Just as quietly, you return the hose and shut off the spigot.
You retrieve the comic book from where you dropped it.
Above, at the window, fingernails tap the glass. Not like they’re trying to summon you, more like they didn’t mean to. It’s Mom’s hand. Through the window and the box fan’s grille, you see her hand, then Wilson’s shaggy head. You boost yourself up on the foundation block, carefully, and peer in. Mom is on the couch, her head on the pillow, her arm crooked, and Wilson—Wilson kneels down on the carpet beside the couch, his back to you. You go cold, all the way down to your toes. He’s like a prince slipping a ring on the princess’s finger. You move a little to the right and see Mom’s eyes squeezed shut. Then Wilson moves away. He rises up tall as the Doctor or taller, and Mom brings her arm closer to her side.
Her fingers clench.
You force yourself to walk around the mobile home three times.
You think about the Robot Slayer and Dem Bien Phu then Wilson saying I went under.
You check the garage door once more. It’s still shut. Not that that ever stopped the ghost from moving from the crawl space to the kitchen to the backyard; the backyard most of all, where you’d glimpse it on a moonlit night turning over and over in the crabgrass.
When finally you step into the house—into blazing heat and a pall of cigarette smoke—Mom is nowhere to be seen. Wilson crouches next to the TV fiddling with the antenna, and Alice is yelling at Mel with the snow getting so bad you can barely see them. A green mug sits on the coffee table beside his flask. The mug says Stepping Out.
“Your mom’s asleep. Don’t wake her.” He jiggles the antenna. Finally he lurches up and goes to the kitchen while you survey the couch and drop the creased comic book onto the cushion. He returns with tinfoil. For the next five minutes, while you think about Mom and her clenching hand, and the ghost pig that had once been a living pig chained up in the backyard, Wilson applies tin foil experimentally around the antenna’s base and up the left antenna. The picture comes and goes, until finally Alice is back, and you can see Flo sneering at Mel and she says, “Kiss my grits.”
Wilson steps away, arms held out like he’s done a miracle. He looks at you but you say nothing.
“You tell Lila I did that,” he says quietly, ruffling your hair as he steps past. “Okay?” He fetches a beer from the fridge then sinks down onto the sofa, getting the blue-and-red macramé all messed up.
“It’s better now, isn’t it?” He cracks open the beer and tosses the pull tab toward the dusty mop bucket.
“You like living here, Ballou?”
You say nothing, hoping that everything can be caught up in the TV’s small, clear image. Wilson burps under his breath. With his free hand he reaches for something on the other side of his chair. He comes up lugging one of your and your mom’s favorite books, Mysteries of the Pacific Coast. When you had first found it in the cubbyhole off the kitchen, you’d both spent days paging through it after dinner, the book on her lap and you snug against her shoulder, peering at weird pen-and-ink drawings of the early coast, of the first dwellings in Capitola.
“That’s not yours.” You’re startled you’d said it.
So is Wilson, though the beer blunts his reaction. “I ain’t taking it, Ballou.” He grins, opening the cover. “Jeesh, man. You like the pictures, I bet.”
You want to leap up, grab the book, and hide with it.
“Funky town, Capitola.” He starts riffling through the pages. “You ever have any weird dreams, Ballou?”
Your shoulders stiffen.
“Ever see anything wild, huh? Scout?”
He won’t stop asking, you know. He’s not like the Doctor. But you don’t want to tell him the truth. “The ghost is gone,” you lie.
When Wilson looks over at you with that cowboy squint, you find yourself adding, “Mom got a woman who drove it off.”
“Lil’ mentioned something at dinner.”
You remember the fiery coals of the pig’s eyes and the reek of its charred flesh.
Wilson uncaps his flask and pours some whiskey into the green mug.
He returns to the book, turning the pages with one hand, head tilted like he’s listening to the pig, too. You both listen. Wilson drinks deeply from the mug.
You watch the end of Alice, the part where everything’s back to normal and they have a few more insults. When the music comes on, Wilson says, “Hey, you like that funny book?”
You barely nod.
“That was a Happy Birthday. I missed it, didn’t I? Two days late. You’re ten now, right?”
Wilson sets the book beside him. “And that gum. That was a Happy Birthday, too.”
After a pause he rises on creaking knees, approaches the TV and switches the channel, then walks into the kitchen. You consider racing over to the book, hiding it. Instead, Columbo starts up, already in progress. The picture is clearer than you’ve seen in a long time, though you resolve never to mention it to Wilson. He returns with most of a six-pack for him and a Pepsi for you. You watch the TV with the sound turned way down. Wilson tosses his pull tabs toward the mop bucket, missing all but the first one.
He chuckles quietly whenever Columbo scratches his head and says to the murderer he has one more question.
Troubled, you climb the spiral stairs, at first no faster than any night as you leave the kitchen behind, around and up, around and up; past the second floor salon with its upright piano and old-time pictures, pausing to flip the switch on the rail—lighting your room above—then continuing to climb around and up toward a blue ceiling bright as a blue sky. The green shag rug is level with your eyes, a forest for your soldiers, smelling of socks. Then you’re above it and the room smells more of the vanilla scent of paper and the wads of Bazooka Joe in the garbage can. The odd corners and the sloping roof that had so enchanted you your first time up here say hello; walls now decorated with your Six Million Dollar Man and Wonder Woman posters, your bed with its C-3PO covers and the wooden chest of drawers and the bookcase and the blue beanbag chair. From the bookcase, Centurions and Saracens hail you in their formations, in front of sand dollars and starfish. You feel your uneasiness lift, briefly, seeing them and your Matthew Looneys, Beetle Baileys ,and Knowledge Through Colors.
Beside the bookcase sit three big-mouthed jars as tall as your knee; jars Mom hadn’t let you touch until she’d washed them and washed them again. Now they’re filled with your beach rocks.
You remember what you clutch in your hand. Ragnar in his rowboat; the island looming in the background, on fire.
It’s never looked so much like itself before.
Bold yellow letters across the bottom of the page read, “The Death of the Island Doctor!” You should be thrilled, but you think once more of Mom, and of Wilson.
An old GE fan sits on your desk. You switch it on and it starts its radar sweep of the room.
Though you can’t hear him, you know Wilson is snoring on the couch, just as you left him. He’s here for the night and he brought something—somethings—with him. And he’s welcomed back the ghost of the pig you’d driven out last year.
When you first heard the story—Once upon a time, Ballou, a pig lived in the backyard chained like a pet—you thought the idea of its ghost was more funny than scary, dragging its chain after itself like a ghost out of A Christmas Carol, until you listened to Clarissa’s stories of the agonies that ended its life, and continued. When one night you heard its chain clinking on the gravel and you saw it for yourself beneath the eucalyptus—a dim black shape rolling from belly to spine—you began to fear it. Its eyes had flickered like embers, remote and unaware of you.
Again, you find your uneasiness lifting, this time by the comic book you hold in your hands and by Wilson’s promise to take you to The Island of Dr. Moreau in Pelican Bay. Your turn to the peculiar corner and the low door you had found that first day. Mom swears she still can’t see it till it’s opened. But you can never unsee it.
Laying the comic book on the bed, you approach the door, kicking some toys out of the way. You drop to your knees.
As you crawl through the gateway your curls brush the low wood, the confines reeking pleasantly of varnished wood and old paper.
You named it your fort the first time you saw it. That first day, Mom called it a hidey-hole and didn’t let you go in.
Instead, she and Clarissa had pondered it from the outside for at least ten minutes before Clarissa cautiously crawled in. Even after it was cleaned out Mom was hesitant to allow you in here alone, but you forget that now. It’s your favorite spot in the house, not scary at all. The entrance is just your size, and after the entrance the ceiling opens up and the space with its angled walls reminds you of a fun house mirror, with light from the small window and a bare lightbulb for when it’s night, like now.
The walls are solid, but one is of dark teak, in five planks that don’t match the rest. If you press your nose against it you can smell the wood and something else—acrid, sharp. If you press your ear against it the entire house becomes a sounding board, delivering up voices vague as baby birds, as well as gnomic footsteps, and the glassy whir of water running through the pipes.
The crates smell of pine. Mom found them for you at one of the swap meets on the beach. The top carton is mostly Mad and Cracked and Robot Slayers, but right now you’re interested in the crate below it, so you set the first aside then rummage through the second, through Star Treks and Dr. Spectres until you reach a vein of Classic Comics Illustrated and, eventually, The Island of Dr. Moreau.
You lie down on your side, propped on your elbow. You turn the pages until you reach a view of the island.
Time is tide. Time is tide.
You remember the eight windows of the laboratory and how the doctor had invited you to look out the glass.
Time is tide and the beating of a heart. And a tide pool . . . Well, Bally, time in a tide pool is time stopped.
But Dr. Moreau doesn’t look like the Doctor much, even though his laboratory now and then looks like the Doctor’s, and his island, too, at least in the first few pages. You care less about Moreau than the beast men, who might be ghosts if they were in Capitola. Pigs and boars especially. Flipping the pages you find them laid out on tables and caged behind glass walls, and you think of the pig chained in the backyard; the pig which Clarissa once told you had been called Doc Trips.
You remember the slither of its chain and its snuffling against the brick wall. And now it’s back. Your stomach goes cold. It’s back because Wilson somehow broke the barrier and brought something with him. Dropping down from under his Winnebago.
You hear something behind you and drop the comic book. You glance over your shoulder at the entrance, toward the crooked door; toward your bedroom and the wash of lamplight on dark wood; stare even when you want to blink, and the light wavers with tears, and you continue staring at the doorway and the wavering light, willing yourself not to blink.
Them the light from the bedroom blinks, just once.
And comes that familiar smell: a firecracker held to the nose.
This while the whir of the GE fan goes flat just for a moment, as something passes in front of the blades. And the floorboards creak.
You crawl back to the door and the edge of your bedroom, squinting against the lamplight.
The Robot Slayer looms at the window in his red-and-blue Velcro suit. “Those aren’t California plates, Ballou.” He rubs his jaw with a hand no smaller than the honey-glazed ham in the fridge.
“When did he show up?” Ragnar’s voice, deep and dark, resonates against the glass.
“That vehicle once had writing on the side. True You 100s. But it’s not much different than the armored transport from Sea City One.”
Your soldiers, sand dollars, and starfish seem brighter, and the room incrementally smaller, and you, larger. “Mom said he died in Dem Bien Phu.”
The Robot Slayer rubs his jaw; the sound is that of sandpaper on coarse wood. “I was at Dem Bien Phu. I spent thirty-five issues fighting in ‘Nam, Ballou, and I didn’t see your Uncle Wilson there.”
“He gave Mom a shot.”
Ragnar turns to you. His eyes are gray, almost luminescent. “Good, Ballou. That’s good you realize it.” A moment later, he turns back to the window. “It’s possible the truck is stolen. From what I’ve heard of this fellow Wilson’s M.O., that wouldn’t be too far-fetched. I’d imagine he has a rap sheet as long as my arm.”
“The ghost,” you say, “the pig’s ghost. It’s back.”
Again, the sound of sandpaper on coarse wood. “Remember when I drove it out, I said it might return?”
“Mom says Madame Coutzie drove it out.” You remember the old lady’s wild hair stringed with beads and the pounding of her drums. “She promised it wouldn’t come back.”
“My method was the stronger one, Ballou, derived from an East Indian shaman whose life and soul I had the pleasure of saving. But even that method was not infallible.”
“He brought something with him. I saw it drop down to the gravel.” You shut your eyes, squeeze them tight. “I didn’t run.”
When you open them, the room is empty.
You lie in bed for a long time before sleep, listening to the house.
And when you look again, the room has changed. Your posters are gone and the shape of the room itself is somehow different. Or the moonlight has changed it. When you sit up you find no Centurions and Saracens, no sand dollars or starfish, no bookcase or big-mouthed jars containing your beach rocks. Everything is gone, except for the fan.
You throw back the covers and sit up, swinging out your legs.
No, no, no, says the fan, shaking its head as you rise and walk past, feeling like your chest is full of helium.
Before leaving the room, you look back at the boy sleeping in the bed.
Descending, you wonder if he’s dreaming you.
You tiptoe down the hall, past the living room. The television is a window upon a glowing snowstorm. The front door is not locked. Stepping through, you feel the chill of night. It howls, the night; faintly howls in a wandering way that says it thinks everyone in Capitola is asleep and not listening. And the surf at this hour speaks anything but your name, ignorant of you, with a largeness that you find suddenly terrifying, and at your shoulders. It speaks the secret name of the night.
Under your feet, the gravel is cold but not sharp. You approach the vehicle and the side door, but end up walking past, walking with your reflection around the front where the windshield stares blind at the palm tree; around the dead side where the low smell of eucalyptus tickles your nostrils and the scent of plasticky water recalls the sea.
As you walk past the ladder there comes faint the crying of gulls and the more nervous whine and chitter of the shearwaters.
Back at the door, you climb the steps, pull open the door, and enter.
The interior is larger than expected, the walls angled like those of your bedroom.
On the nearest table, in a bolt of moonlight, glittering gems are piled, giant diamonds and rubies. Beyond is a huge kitchen with a stove and fridge, and a bright green cupboard that reminds you of Wilson’s mug.
You drift to it the way you do in dreams. You see your hand reaching for the knob, then you’re sliding open the long door, revealing nine large-mouthed jars in a bolt of moonlight, each containing a dead bird, wings spread, beak pointing upward, as though it drowned while trying to struggle out.
The cry of the gulls is louder. Their wings brush the ceiling. And behind you, someone begins breathing.
You’re about to speak Ragnar’s name when Wilson rises into another bolt of moonlight. His Marlboro Man face is oddly waxy, though the eyes sparkle. “Good morning, young Ballou.” He nods to the silver flask and green mug. Steppin’ Out. “Do you wish a drink?”
His left sleeve is rolled up. At the crook of his elbow sits a tarantula the size of a child’s hand.
“I would recommend vodka over the toxins in those jars.” The tarantula twitches. It climbs slowly to his shoulder. “They are the end line of my experiments, and quite lethal.” He lifts his right hand as though it’s anesthetized, gesturing slackly to the green book sitting beside the mound of treasure, and at the same time seeming to draw the cries of the shearwaters from the air. “Mysteries of the Pacific Coast. Mysteries being another name for ineluctable strangeness, the emanations of a land that meets the ocean with an aura of madness, here at the end of the great continent of America.” He moves out of the moonlight. “There’s quite a tale in those pages, though your mother removed the best one. Excised it, with a razor blade. In Nineteen—”
“You’re not Wilson.” You search the dark for his face.
“But you’re quite aware that we’re dreaming, both of us. Tomorrow I’ll be Uncle Wilson once more, Ballou, and we’ll pretend we don’t remember it. How does that sound?”
You sense his smile.
“Nineteen fifty-nine. Some nine years before you were born. I began to throw the fetes here at the House of 31 Sparrow Lane. And they were amazing, vast affairs.” He’s talking again like the Doctor, and even steeples his hands below his chin; the tarantula is lost in the shadows. “Twenty, thirty youngsters. More? Head parties, let’s call them, before people knew what head parties were. So many flocked here. I use that term with a knowing smile, Ballou.” His voice becomes wistful. “She liked to wander of a night.”
“Stop being the Doctor!”
Wilson vanishes, and you have the book in your hands, Mysteries of the Pacific Coast. You open it like you’ve done so many times before, only this time to a page you’ve never seen. A black-and-white photo of your house takes up half of it. In wintry light, the Doctor stands in his white suit holding an umbrella, surrounded by dour children in old-time clothes.
The girl at his side is your mother.
From the shadows, the Doctor’s voice intones, Your mother is a memory who swallowed a bird, Ballou.
When you wake, early sunlight streams through your bedroom window. Tossing back the blanket, you feel no astonishment at the gravel strewn across the sheets.
Downstairs, you wonder at your dream. You sweep up the grit at the base of the staircase, but before you can look for more the telephone rings in the living room. On tiptoe you run in, seeing the couch and Wilson’s body under a blanket. As you lift the heavy handset—silencing the phone but for the echo of its jangle in the yellow plastic—Wilson stirs.
His hair is ragged, like he’s slept a month in Diem Bien Phu.
“Lila, hon? You there?” Clarissa.
Through the hair you see the glint of Wilson’s eye.
You strive to whisper. “It’s Ballou.”
“Hey, kiddo. Your mom awake?”
Without saying a word, Wilson tells you he remembers everything about your dream, about being the Doctor, and showing you the missing page from Mysteries of the Pacific Coast, only he’s not going to say anything out loud about it.
“She’s still asleep.”
“How is she? Tell me, B.” And to your silence: “That uncle of yours still there?”
He’s not my uncle. You force it out: “Yes.”
Wilson yawns and sits up, throws back the blanket, shaggy like a bearman in T-shirt and boxers. His hairy legs are like something from the Doctor’s laboratory.
“Is he there with you right now?”
A pause. “Uh-huh.”
“I get it. So you don’t want to talk. Are things okay, B? Things okay with your mom and you?”
“Yeah,” you say flatly, while Wilson stretches and yawns. You can see down his gullet.
He let the ghost back in. And brought something with him.
“If they aren’t, just say, Mom’s asleep.”
“She hasn’t seen him for seven years, and he wasn’t that nice to her when he left.” A pause on the other end. “I have to work, otherwise I’d come over and check up on you, kiddo. You and your mom. You tell her to call me when she gets up.”
You set the handset in its cradle.
You fix yourself a bowl of Cap’n Crunch, devour it, slurping the sweet milk afterward, all the while listening to the silence from Mom’s bedroom and the sound of Wilson prowling the first floor.
When you dare to approach him he’s in the Celestial Room, where the drawers of the old desks now gape like tongues. “Morning, Scout.” He’s on hands and knees in the closet, feeling the boards. “You know what this room was called way back when?”
You tell him, knuckles white on the jamb.
“Yeah, had a couple other names, too. And all of them came from seeing stars. I suppose your ma and that friend of hers been through here with a fine-tooth comb.”
You don’t want to say that they haven’t, that you’re not sure; that they spent most of their time in the upper floor that would become your bedroom, and in the barn. You remember the scent of bleach and the grit of dust in your eyes.
“You want to help? Become a junior explorer?” His smile tells you he wants to pretend that nothing happened in the dead of night.
You shake your head and retreat. With each step you’re more anxious. You hurry to Mom’s room and lay your hand on the knob, turn it, pushing open the door into a room all canary yellow from sunlight. But for some strands of auburn hair she’s lost in the blankets.
When you touch the slope of her shoulder, you’re relieved to feel warmth through the fabric. “Mom?”
It’s partly her voice and partly not, when she groans.
“It’s nine-fifteen, Mom.”
At this she pushes back the blankets far enough to show her gummy eyes. “Gotta sleep some more, Bally.” She squints against the sunlight. “You can make your breakfast.” Then she’s retreating into the sheets.
You remember the dream: Your mother is a memory who swallowed a bird.
You run upstairs to your fort. You need to know what Wilson’s up to without him seeing you, and you can do it best from here. In these strange and comforting confines, you press your ear to the wall and shut your eyes, and the teak planks invite your ear inside. As always it’s dizzying, this entry into the vast sounding board of the House of 31 Sparrow Lane, every surface poised like a drum waiting for the drummer to strike it. You hear a faint peck-peck, of a gull or shearwater striding the shingles over your head, then a hoah that’s the sound of air touring the crawl spaces, then a sense of stillness in room after room that’s like a rung bell forever, then—you startle at the sound—a thud. You recoil, heart pounding, return, pressing your ear to the cool wood, at first lightly, then with firmness. Another thud, then something sliding across hardwood, hitting carpet and still going. You shut your eyes. You trace it to the first floor where the hallway ends, perhaps near the grandfather clock, but this isn’t the clock. Something smaller. Though you want to pull back you clamp your eyes tighter. You imagine you can hear his grunt, can almost hear—if you press even closer to the teak, press so that your ear and the teak are one—his breathing. And you’re suddenly sure that in the next instant, too close and too intimate to bear, you’ll hear his whisper from the other side of the wood, his clever eyes having noticed your attention, and his Marlboro Man face slithering through the wood floor by floor to your side. Hey, Scout, he’ll say, I know you’re there. I know you’re spying. And . . . I can’t have that, can I?
Your pulse pounds in your ear. The air tingles on your skin, and you know that if you were to open your eyes and look over your shoulder, you’d find the fort gone and the Doctor behind his desk.
Sometime later you hear the decisive bang of the front door. Your eyes snap open.
Heart in your throat, you scramble out into the blue of your bedroom. At the window you’re in time to see Wilson climbing down from his mobile home, hat on his head, nothing in his hands.
Whatever he’s taken is stowed now.
Mom gets up before noon. She has rings under her eyes and her hair is mussed. But she smiles in the old way when she sees you, and kisses you on the cheek, and everything is almost okay.
“I was tidying up the place, Lil’.” Wilson affects a bow, like Alfred on Batman. “Some gopher or such tracked gravel through the house.” He winks at you.
Only now do you notice the boxes Wilson has stacked by the couch. Old books and magazines, several straw-covered wine bottles, a table lamp with a bamboo shade. “You shouldn’t touch that stuff,” you say, and to Mom, “He shouldn’t.”
She rubs her eyes, but that doesn’t do much for rings the color of bruises. “I don’t quite feel the greatest.”
Wilson strides to the nook beside the fireplace. It has a hidden door just like your fort. You’re upset that he found it so easily.
Mom murmurs, “Tea, maybe.”
“Lapsang souchong.” You take her hand and lead her into the kitchen.
While she seats herself at the table, you bring down the tin of Oriental tea and the metal canister to catch the leaves. “Clarissa called, Mom. She wants you to call her.”
Clunk, clunk—glass on glass sounding two odd notes in the hall behind. Wilson pokes into the kitchen clutching a string of dusty blue glass globes threaded with twine. “Hey, Lil’. Why’s this not in a museum?”
“That what you’re going to do today, Wilson?”
“How could I not?” He grins.
You feel suddenly angry then light-headed at the thought of Wilson prowling through the house, room by room, floor by floor. “No, Mom!”
“Bally, what’s got into you?”
He hovers by the door. This time he doesn’t wink.
“The movie, remember?! We’re going to see the movie!”
You turn to Wilson. “You promised! We’re going to the drive-in by Pelican Bay!”
Mom sighs. “I don’t know, Bally, I have a terrible headache.”
“Take some Empirin! The tea’ll help, too.” Rounding on Wilson: “You promised.”
“Yeah, yeah.” He holds his palms up. “Okay. He’s like the tax man, Lila.”
“I do recall you saying something, Wilson.”
“A promise made,” he replies, offering a vast smile, “is a promise kept.”
You find last Tuesday’s Santa Cruz Sentinel. The movie doesn’t start ‘til 9:30, the first half of a double bill with The Other Side of Midnight. Wilson estimates an hour is required for a “leisurely” drive. That leaves the long afternoon and early evening for him to prowl.
Careful that he doesn’t hear, you tell Mom that he’s ransacking the house, but she surprises you with a shrug.
“He’s carrying off junk, Bally.” She lifts the mug of tea like it weighs ten pounds. “We’ve already found your favorite things, and they’re safe on the shelves in your room.”
“You should call Clarissa.”
“I’m almost certain she works today, honey. I’ll call her later.”
You’re divided between staying with Mom—fixing her a bologna sandwich she pretends to find delectable—and monitoring Wilson’s progress through the first floor. After the Celestial Room comes the Sea Room with its old charts on the wall. These he has no eye for, but he somehow knows to pull up the carpet and find the trapdoor to the crawl space. But here, too, no treasure is found. He stacks up “interesting things to peruse” near the hall: copies of Look and a rusted boat anchor that you’d already summed up and dismissed. But he also finds something you’d never found in your explorations—a framed drawing of a human body all sliced up, tinted by age to the color of old wine, which he holds up at arm’s length and judges, “Worthy of a freak show, Scout.”
You wonder what else you missed.
After lunch—another round of bologna sandwiches—he starts on the second floor, beginning with the piano parlor. You’ve been through these rooms before. You know every nook and cranny, you’re certain. Watching Wilson go through it is like watching a rerun on television. You’re pleased that he finds nothing. But it’s when he nears the spiral staircase and glances up instead of down that you feel your stomach sink.
You grasp the rail, barring the way.
“So, as I recall,” he says, not seeming to notice, “up there was the ol’ Doc’s salon.” He says the word as if it was nothing like a salon at all. “I can see why you’d like it, all those secret spaces.” He pauses, waiting for you to contradict him—that no such secret spaces have been found, or only one such secret space, so you say nothing.
“Suppose you’ve looked through everything there is to look through?”
You say nothing.
He scratches his mangy beard, giving a measured glance. “Know for a fact that your mom did a pretty thorough and professional job in cleaning out any remnants. Not to say I haven’t found some things they overlooked.”
He reaches for the switch on the rail, flips it. High overhead your bedroom lights up.
You tighten your grip, stiffen your arm, knowing all the while that it would do nothing to prevent Wilson from going up should he want. In that moment you feel a truth descend. Wilson may not have been in Diem Bien Phu, may not have died there, may not have gone under, but he’s an adult, and has the brute power and cunning of that breed. Even Ragnar, were he here, would likely fail against the absolute will of this adult.
You feel a pang in the back of your throat and tighten your grip nonetheless.
Everything depends on what Wilson does once he stops scratching his beard; once he decides.
You’ve never felt so helpless.
And it’s now, while you’re deep in thought, that you realize he’s looking straight down at you and has been for some time. He waits a moment then flips off the switch on the rail, and ruffles your hair.
You resist shrinking back, but he’s already turning away. “You ever been to a drive-in, Ballou?”
You 10, says the mobile home, in the dusky gloom.
The eucalyptus lean over the yard, shadows against the further shadow of the house. The air smells first of the sea then of the eucalyptus then gasoline. You hesitate before the lighted door and the metal stairs, remembering the dream. Wilson is inside, pretending this is your first time here.
“Climb aboard and witness the wonderland.”
You glance at the garage. The door with its seashells stands open, no doubt from Wilson prowling. Ghosts don’t bother to open doors. But you can’t help thinking that Wilson has somehow drawn the ghost into the open, and maybe aboard his home.
“I’m right behind you, Bally.” She’s searching her purse for a Kleenex.
You haven’t seen Ragnar today, other than in the panels of the comic book, and now you can’t see much of anything other than the lighted interior of the mobile home.
“Climb up, champ.”
You do, and in that instant you’re in your dream once more, only this time the ceiling isn’t impossibly high, and there aren’t any bolts of moonlight or heaps of jewels. Just the console chairs before the tall windshield and the tan carpet underfoot. Ahead of you, a linoleum table with small chairs. To the left, a kitchenette where Wilson stands, setting his flask and mug in the sink. Beyond him a sofa and the door to the bathroom.
The stove and fridge are much like your dream, if smaller, and the cupboard above the sink is green.
As you stare, Wilson takes off his cowboy hat and throws it on the sofa. He moves toward the console chairs. “Lila, please be my co-pilot.”
“Bally, sit there.” She points to one of the little chairs at the table. “I thought God was your co-pilot, Wilson.” You look at the cupboard again, then sit down, removing the handful of Centurions and army men and the tyrannosaurus from your pockets.
There comes a click as the key is turned, a growl and hum, and the whole home wakes and every surface has its own rattle and says its own things, none of which you can understand.
You face the side window, hands folded on the linoleum.
At first you’re distracted by the novelty of the neighborhood made unfamiliar as it parades past your window, ghostly in pools of sodium light. There’s a pleasure to be found in a rolling home, sitting in a chair at a table and finding the far neighbor’s property slip past in the dark, the lonely driftwood and the boulders, here then gone. Eucalyptus branches shrug toward you, then the canted sign for Sparrow Ln. and—without you having to move an inch—the world revolves forty-five degrees as Wilson cranks the steering wheel. A new vista unfolds in shadow and sodium lamps, in swaths of headlights, glimpses of headland and black ocean.
Allowing your eyes to adjust to the table and the wood-paneled wall, you find a switch just like the ones at home. It lights a frosted lamp overhead, enough to leave a pool of light on the table. Inside it, you arrange your soldiers and dinosaur around a coffee stain which becomes the crater of a volcano.
Mom settles into the console chair like it was one from home. From time to time she murmurs something to Wilson, who says something back, but it’s lost in the noise of the tires. You line up the green army soldiers against the Centurions, then have three of the soldiers defect and use their guns against the others. Then all of them against the tyrannosaurus. At first you think the smell of firecrackers is their guns, firing uselessly.
Ragnar’s shadow fills the space beyond the kitchenette. The cold gray of his eyes is the only thing that gives him away until he lifts his arm and points, emphatically.
You rise from the chair, find your footing. You move slowly, as though you were touring the mobile home, or fetching a glass of water or maybe one of the bologna sandwiches that Wilson said he stowed in his little fridge. Walking is tricky, like standing in the surf when its hisses back to sea. Ragnar’s eyes tell you he doesn’t want to speak. He nods to the green cupboard behind the sink. He too knows of its existence both here and in your dream.
You stop before it. In the dream you slid it open to find the nine large-mouthed jars, in shadow.
Now you watch your hand move once more toward the knob.
You hope the cupboard is locked but you slowly and easily slide it open. Your hand is shaking. Even before you can properly see—before another of those passing streetlamps lights the contents—you know that a single jar sits on the shelf; a jar of similar proportions to those in which you store your beach rocks, if not the same proportions as the jar in the dream. Yet like in the dream this one is full of murky liquid and a hint of a delicate shape, now a languid wing, now the petal of a sea flower, and now nothing but shadows. Something dead, fermented.
Your mother is a memory who swallowed a bird, Ballou.
You remember the Doctor reaching into the jar, lifting out a damp red bloom.
On another shelf are coils of rubber tubing, little vials, and funnels. Cotton balls float like nightmare clouds.
The jar, you note, is stoppered. The dusty label reads 18 August 1961 followed by some scientific names that you don’t let yourself see except for Doc Genius beneath the skull and crossbones. And you know that Wilson has found the essence of the House of 31 Sparrow Lane, the distillation of all the other jars, as shadows rustle around you.
In the sink, the tarantula pluck-walks over Wilson’s flask. Or maybe it’s the tarantula’s ghost, for it moves effortlessly through the side of Wilson’s mug.
How long do you stare?
You feel sick with the smell.
When you finally return to the table, Wilson is finishing the end of a sentence to Mom, even though Mom appears asleep. “. . . and the Doctor, por favor.”
His face doesn’t quite look like itself. You step closer. “Who’s the Doctor?”
He seems surprised to find you there. Grinning, he looks ever more like an animal wearing clothes. “Why, that’s who we’re going to meet, Scout. A rendezvous with ol’ Doc Moreau.”
* * *
Squinting over your knuckles you see the Doctor’s laboratory rising thin as glass in the darkness, the tower seeming to float on the jagged island that is all but invisible, racing along like the moon. And you see your face in the glass, too, almost without realizing it until you fix on your piercing eyes, and both of you flinch.
You turn off the lamp. Squinting over your knuckles, you try to find the island again. The click-clock of the turn signal precedes the engine’s growl, and Wilson manhandles the steering wheel to take you off the freeway, down a ramp. A headland rises up to block the ocean.
When it ends, there float up one then two islands.
“Right on time,” Wilson says over the hum and rattle.
If Mom’s awake, she doesn’t answer.
Beyond, you see three islands now.
The islands are identical, and you know it’s the water that’s doing it; refracting the image, like when you put your hand into the aquarium and your fingers displace an inch or so, as if they’ve been severed.
A fourth island appears.
You’re standing at the sink, not knowing how you got there, with the scent of chemicals tickling your nostrils, You feel like you did when you stepped into the garage and everything stopped, like they’d been caught in the midst of dancing.
Mom stirs. She turns in her seat. “Bally, where are you?”
If she hears the slithering of the chain, she says nothing.
You dare to level your head, finding in the darkness first the ocean then the five islands and their pale towers, two of them nearer to shore, the others staying back.
The mobile home jumps and rolls like a boat. Wilson swears and slows down. It’s not quite a road anymore.
Mom grips the arms of her chair. “Where are we?”
“You remember, don’t you, Lila?” With a sidelong glance, he mutters, “Maybe you don’t.”
“He’s been looking forward to the drive-in, Wilson.”
In the headlights the wild grass is brown and startled before being run over. The ground comes at you then says it’s ending up ahead, and that’s when Wilson applies the brakes. “Can’t fit this thing onto the lot. So . . . abra . . . cadabra.” Taking both hands from the wheel he gestures to the panorama now revealed, as though conjuring the swell of silvery light and the field of toy cars all facing the hanging oblong sail that is the drive-in’s screen. “Just like when we were kids.” He rattles the gear stick into park. When he shuts off the engine you’re worried that the ghosts will make noise. But everything around you stays quiet, tensed up, holding its breath.
“You planned this all along, huh?”
“Not breezy,” he says. “Calm night, it is. Hey, Scout, you won’t believe how trippy it is to sit up top. The beach spread out below, and the screen like it’s floating in space.”
Mom and Wilson exchange a look.
Only now do you see the tarantula in the crook of his neck, almost lost in his hair.
“Wilson . . .”
“I want to go, Mom.”
“Bally, you’ll get cold.”
“No I won’t.”
She should say, No, you can’t, and a part of you implores her to do so. But she gives up to Wilson with a nod, sagging back in her seat.
Wilson rises, and this time you don’t step back. You make him go around you and you hear the surprised little sound he makes between his teeth. But maybe that’s for the ghosts now gathered in the shadows. Does he see the pig, who can hide most of its body beneath the table but not its glowing eyes? Or the tarantula on the counter? It’s in plain view, and you think you see Wilson shivering as he walks to the back, to where the first door leads into the bathroom and the second into a narrow closet. He opens this and rummages around, and if he sees Ragnar pressed into the back he says nothing.
“Best seat in the house,” he says, coming back with a folding chair. “Out and up, Champ.”
You pop open the door, and the ocean is there in full, wide and dark except for a band of silver which are the clouds on the horizon. As you climb down, the grass waves and engulfs your shoes and bell-bottoms, and you hear the faint sound of music behind you. Wilson clambers down, having to move sideways to bring the chair with him. You lead him to the back of the Winnebago, and the ladder, and it’s the ladder on the Doctor’s tower, lonely in the breeze against the ocean, with the top as tall as the tower when you crane your neck.
A shearwater wheels against the dim clouds, catching the faint pulsing light of the drive-in screen.
“You ready, champ?”
But you’ve already gripped the edges of the ladder before he says it; it’s your idea to climb, your idea the whole way, now; the demented cries of the shearwaters rasping at the air, urging you to climb up.
You find the bumper with your shoe, then the first rung.
When you’re up, the breeze runs through your curls. You squint at the flat stage before you, the top of the tower elongated to lead your eyes to the very edge, where the faint flickering light is paired with music, distant, like something heard underwater.
“Here you go!”
Wilson’s now no taller than you, offering up the chair, which the wind threatens to take. For an instant he stands there with his mouth open. You know he’s feeling how tall you are; startled as you’d been startled at the spiral staircase at home, when it seemed he was going to climb up. He’s feeling his place in the rushing grass and even seems to cringe as another shearwater darts past, making its nervous sound. “Can you grab it?!”
You lean down, strong as Ragnar. The chair is effortless to lift, awkward only because it threatens to flip and tear away from your hand, but you wrangle it onto the roof.
Below, you hear Wilson say something about stomping if you need anything.
You stand up, taller than you’ve ever been, tall as the Doctor’s tower over the ocean. Your bell-bottoms riffle like sails. Slowly, you walk, your Keds set firm on the deck, two paces, three, your eyes on the far end and that flickering light, and the small glowing screen now revealed. It’s no larger than your television at home, but it glows, and the toy cars are set before it like you’ve just lined them up to play, and at this instant the screen fills with the wide bright sea and a lone raft that you know is the sailor’s, bound for Moreau’s island.
Beneath you comes the bang of the door; Wilson, inside once more.
You walk to a handsbreadth of the end and unfold the chair, fighting with it against the breeze and watching, dizzily, as another shearwater makes a W in the sky, out and out over the screen, where the raft is now lost in the immensity of the sea.
You set down the chair and, feeling both chill and hot, you sit.
You try to ignore the islands.
“I rather prefer the older version. Island of Lost Souls.” The Doctor stands beside your chair, tall as a tower. His white coat rustles in the breeze. “Laughton makes you believe the madness. His ‘Doctor’ slyly harbors both grandiosity and pity.”
You look to the screen, where Logan, running through the island forest, falls into a pit, watched over by a mysterious man on a barrier wall—Moreau.
When you look back, the Doctor is removing an elegant cigarette case from his coat, along with a silver lighter.
“That bygone year I came to the coast, the town was not far removed from its frontier days. Camp Capitola, named for the heroine of a popular novel.” He pauses to remove a cigarette from the case and return the case to his pocket. “It was a sullen place, those years. I found a haven in which to conduct my experiments, and a willing populace among the sea birds.” He draws on the cigarette, now lit, and, exhaling, ponders the ember at its tip. “When the times changed, and the spirit of the town changed, I found another willing populace. I offer no apology, just as I offered none then, the night they found me in the salon among my treasures. And hanged me from the stairwell.”
You look past him to the islands.
“It’s not often that Ragnar and I agree.” His voice becomes gentle. “But in this case, Ballou, he is right. The label didn’t read Doc Genius, alas. Domoic acid genus, however, comes from the hand of a doctor, and its composition is due to genius, that’s certain. A neurotoxin from the algae bloom, tweaked by me from the diatom Pseudo-nitzschia lupus,” His smile is gentle, too. “We must change Wilson into a beast who walks on all fours.”
A shearwater circles, its chittering thrum more like an insect’s than a bird’s.
The Doctor’s cold hand rests on your shoulder. “You won’t be going back to the House of 31 Sparrow Lane, Ballou. You realize that, don’t you?”
Beneath your feet, you feel a thud. A roar, as of the ghost-pig writhing in its chains.
When you stand up, the Doctor’s hand dissolves into a rush of wings: a third shearwater, and a fourth.
Below, on the luminous screen, inhuman faces peer out of jungle fronds, against which the shearwaters sketch their shadows by the dozens. To your right, one of the islands is closer than ever before, called forth by the shrieking birds.
You stumble, chased along the deck. On all sides is the sea, until you collapse at the edge and look over.
Something rustles the tall grass. The ghost pig disappears in the rush of shearwaters, and Wilson crawls after. Its tracks become his own. On hands and knees, he shakes all over like some four-legged animal, arms buckling, and collapses on his side.
The grass shivers across the beast man but it’s just a mound of pelt and clothes and it doesn’t budge.
Your comic book lies on the carpet, along with the Centurions and Wilson’s coffee cup, over a dark stain.
Until it walks into the mouth of the cup, the tarantula is almost too dark to notice.
Mom lies sprawled in the console chair, her sleeve tugged up above her elbow, her arm dangling like she’s waiting for someone to lift her hand and kiss it. Approaching, you almost step on the syringe.
You can’t find her face for her hair. The smell of her perfume is wrong.
You squint against the silver light, where shadows flitting past are the shearwaters and the air is silent.
Everything is wrong.
Spittle clings to her parted lips. When you move the hair with a shaking hand, you pull back, gasping.
The bird fixes you with a single, gummy eye.
Wings fluttering in an attempt to fly free.
And if you’re a boy with a wide imagination who hikes the beach at Capitola for miles on winter days, hikes until the promontory marking home is a speck you can hide behind your outstretched hand, then you’ll find the beach at Pelican Bay too narrow, too constricted by headlands and the high tide, and wild with birds, facing the dark ocean and the towers.
You sense the pig at your side, the fire of its eyes swinging left and right and left, lighting the sand and the wings of silent shearwaters and gulls—ghosts of birds darting past and around, and past once more.
Ho, Ballou. Ho, Ballou. The tide is black and mounted with white froth, out to the islands that crowd offshore. Your shoes strike the water. Waves rush cold up your calves, seek to pull you in.
Ho, Ballou. Ho, Ballou.
The Doctor is out there. Ragnar, too. They’re together. They’ll always be together because they always come back. The thought is strangely hopeful. I can swim there, you think, while the tide froths cold and hard, sweeping past, seeking to start you on your way. I can reach it.
Time is tide and the beating of . . .
You taste iron.
. . . of a heart, Ballou. And if you were to wade into that tide and swim away, swim in any direction . . .
Hot warmth courses down your nostril.
You fall to your knees, the water breaking across your lap.
I can swim there.
Water slack and silver with a diffuse light. The green-and-silver surface becoming clear, like a mirror, dotted now with one, with two, red blooms. Red blooms like those the Doctor had lifted from the jar with his deathly-white hand.
Joined by a third, as the blood strikes the water before being swept away.
He sits in the sand for many hours before they find him.
To Gene Wolfe
“Islands Off the Coast of Capitola, 1978” copyright © 2015 by David Herter
Art copyright © 2015 by Wesley Allsbrook