The car died outside Perdido Beach. It was a messy death, a wheeze of
oil and a clatter of cylinders, a dark tide spreading across the
sun-cracked pavement. When it was over, they sat there for a few minutes
saying nothing, just listening to the engine tick and steam, but then
the baby began to cry and it came to them that they had to get moving.
Kyle got the suitcase, Allie took the bag of groceries in one arm and
the baby in the other, Tommy laced up his sneakers and took the thermos
of water, and they left the old dead car on the roadside and started
walking south to the Gulf.
Kyle checked his watch again. It was almost three o'clock. The sun set
late, in midsummer. July heat crushed them, made the sweat ooze from
their pores and stick the clothes to their flesh. The road, bordered by
pine woods, was deserted. This season there would be no tourists. This
season there would be no lights or laughter on the Miracle Mile.
They kept walking, step after step, into the steamy haze of heat. Kyle
took the baby for a while, and they stopped for a sip of water and a
rest in the shade. Flies buzzed around their faces, drawn to the
moisture. Then Kyle said, “I guess we'd better go on,” and
his wife and son got up again, the baby cradled in Kyle's arm. Around
the next curve of the long road they saw a car off in a drainage ditch
on the left-hand side. The car's red paint had faded, the tires were
flat, and the driver's door was open. Of the car's occupants there was
no sign. Allie walked a little closer to Kyle as they passed the car;
their arms touched, wet flesh against wet flesh, and Kyle noted she
looked straight ahead with that thousand-yard stare he'd seen on his own
face as he'd shaved in the mirror this morning at dawn.
“When are we gonna get there?” Tommy asked. He was twelve
years old, his patience wearing thin. It occurred to Kyle that Tommy
asked that question every year, from his seat in the back of the car:
Hey, Dad, when are we gonna get there?
“Soon,” Kyle answered. “It's not far.” His
stock reply. They'd never walked the last few miles into Perdido Beach,
not once in all the many years they'd been coming here for summer
vacation. “We ought to see the water pretty soon.”
“Hot,” Allie said, and she wiped her forehead with the
back of her arm. “Hot out here.”
Over a hundred, Kyle figured. The sun reflecting off the pavement was
brutal. The road shimmered ahead, between the thin pines. A black snake
slid across in front of them, and up against the blue, cloudless sky,
hawks searched for currents. “Soon,” Kyle said, and he
licked his dry lips. “It's not far at all now.”
It was four o'clock when the pine woods fell away and they saw the first
wreckage from Hurricane Jolene. A motel with pink walls had most of its
roof ripped away. A twisted sign lay in the parking lot amid abandoned
cars. Curtains, cigarette butts, deck chairs, and other debris floated
in the swimming pool. “Can we get out of the sun for a few
minutes?” Allie asked him, and he nodded and led his family
toward the pink ruins.
Some of the doors remained, but most of them had been torn from their
hinges by the storm. The first unit, without a door, had a bed with a
bloodstained sheet and the flies spun above it in a dark, roiling cloud.
He opened the door of the next unit, number eight, and they went into a
room where the heat had been trapped but the sun and the flies turned
away. The room's bed had been stripped to the mattress and a lamp with
flamingoes on the shade had been overturned, but it looked safe. He
opened the blinds and the windows, and in his inhalation of air he
thought he could smell the Gulf's salt. Allie sat down on the bed with
the baby and took a squeeze tube of sun block from the grocery bag. She
began to paint the infant's face with it, as the baby's pink fingers
grasped at the air. Then she covered her own face and arms with the sun
block. “I'm already burning,” she said, as she worked the
stuff into her skin. “I didn't used to bum so fast. Want
“Yeah.” The back of Kyle's neck was stinging. He stood over
his wife and looked at the baby, as Tommy sprawled on the bed and stared
at the ceiling. “She needs a name,” Kyle said.
“Hope,” Allie answered, and she looked up at her husband
with heat-puffed eyes. “Hope would be a good name, don't you
It would be a cruel name, he decided. A name not suited for these times
or this world. But saying no would be just as cruel, wouldn't it? He saw
how badly Allie wanted it, so he said, “I think that's
fine,” and as soon as he said it he felt the rage surge in him
like a bitter flood tide, and he had to turn away before she saw it in
his face. The infant couldn't be more than six months old. Why had it
fallen to him, to do this thing?
He took the thermos and went into the bathroom, where there was a sink
and a shower stall and a tub with a sliding door of smoked plastic. He
pulled the blind up and opened the small window in there too, and then
he turned on the sink's tap and waited for the rusty water to clear
before he refilled the thermos.
Something moved, there in the bathroom. Something moved with a long,
slow, and agonized stretching sound.
Kyle looked at the smoked plastic door for a moment, a pulse beating in
his skull, and then he reached out and slid it open.
It was lying in the tub. Like a fat cocoon, it was swaddled in bed
sheets and tacky beach towels covered with busty cartoon bathing
beauties and studs swigging beer. It was impossible to determine where
the head and feet were, the arms bound to its sides and the hands
hidden. The thing in its shroud of sheets and towels trembled, a hideous
involuntary reaction of nerves and muscles, and Kyle thought, It smells
He looked back at Allie, who stood in the doorway behind him with the
baby in her arms. Her face was emotionless, her eyes vacant as a
dreamer's. “Kill it, Kyle,” she said. “Please kill
“Tom?” he called. He heard his voice crack. “Take
your mother outside, will you?” The boy didn't respond, and when
Kyle peered out from the bathroom he saw his son sitting up on the bed.
Tommy was staring at him, with the same dead eyes as his mother. Tommy's
mouth was half-open, a silver thread of saliva hanging down.
“Tom? Listen up!” He said it sharply, and Tommy's gaze
cleared. “Go outside with your mother. Do you hear me?”
“Yes sir,” Tommy said, and he did as he was told. When he
was alone, Kyle opened his suitcase, reached beneath the socks and
underwear and found the .38 pistol hidden there. He loaded it from a box
of shells, cocked the gun, and walked back into the bathroom where the
wrapped-up thing at the bottom of the tub awaited.
Kyle tried to get a grip on the towels and pull them loose, but they
were held so tightly they wouldn't give. When he pulled with greater
determination, the shape began thrashing back and forth with terrible
strength, and Kyle let go and stepped back. The thing's thrashing
ceased, and it lay still again. Kyle had once seen one that had grown a
hard skin, like a roach. He had seen one with a flat, cobra-like head on
an elongated neck. Their forms were changing, a riot of evolution gone
insane. In these times, in this world, even the fabric of nature had
been ripped asunder.
He didn't have time to waste. He aimed the gun at the thing's midsection
and squeezed the trigger. The noise of the shots was thunderous in the
little bathroom. When he was through shooting, there were six holes in
the towels and sheets but no blood.
“Chew on those,” Kyle said.
There was a wet, splitting noise. Reddish black liquid soaked the towels
and began to stream toward the drain. Kyle thought of a leech that had
just burst open. He clenched his teeth, got out of the bathroom and
closed the door behind him, and then he put the pistol back into the
suitcase and snapped the suitcase shut.
His wife, son, and the baby called Hope were waiting for him, outside in
the hot yellow sunshine.
Kyle checked the cars in the motel's parking lot. One had keys in the
ignition, though its windshield was shattered. He got in and tried the
engine; the dead battery wouldn't even give out a gasp. They started
walking again, toward the south, as the sun moved into the west and the
afternoon shadows began to gather.
Tommy saw them first: sand dunes rising between the palmettos. He cried
out with joy and ran for the beach, where the Gulf's waves rolled up in
lathery foam and gulls skimmed the blue water. He took off his sneakers
and socks, threw them aside and rushed into the sea, and behind him came
his father and mother, footsore and drenched with sweat. Kyle and Allie
both took off their shoes and waded into the water, the baby in Allie's
arms, and as the waves rolled around them onto the sand Kyle inhaled a
chestful of salt air and cleansed his senses. Then he looked down the
beach, its crescent curving toward the east, and the motels that stood
at the edge of the Gulf.
They were alone.
Gulls darted in, screaming. Two of them fought over a crab that had been
flipped onto its back. Broken shells glittered where the sand turned
brown and hard. And all along the beach the motels—the blocky
violet, sea green, periwinkle, and cream-colored buildings that had
stood there since Kyle and Allie were teenagers—were without life,
like the structures of an ancient civilization. Hurricane Jolene had
done its damage; some of the motels—the Spindrift, the Sea Anchor,
the Coral Reef—had been reduced to hulks, their signs battered and
dangling, their windows broken out, whole walls washed away. A hundred
yards down the beach, a cabin cruiser lay on its side, its hull ripped
open like a fish's belly. Where Kyle recalled the sight of a hundred
sunbathers tanning on their towels, there was nothing but white
emptiness. The lifeguard's station was gone. There was no aroma of
coconut-scented tanning butter, no blare of radios, no volleyball games,
nobody tossing a Frisbee to a dog in the surf. The gulls strutted
around, fat and happy in the absence of humanity.
Kyle had expected this, but the reality gnawed at his heart. He loved
this place; he had been young here, had met and courted Allie here.
They'd come to Perdido Beach on their honeymoon, sixteen years ago. And
they'd come back, every year since. What was summer, without a vacation
at the beach? Without sand in your shoes, the sun on your shoulders, the
sound of young laughter, and the smell of the Gulf? What was life worth,
without such as that?
A hand slid into his.
“We're here,” Allie said. She was smiling, but when she
kissed him he tasted a tear.
They were going to cook, out in this sun. They needed to find a room.
Check in, stow the suitcase and the groceries. Think about the future.
Kyle watched the waves coming in. Tommy went underwater, clothes and
all, and rose up sputtering and yelling for the sake of it. Allie's hand
squeezed Kyle's, and Kyle thought, We're standing on the edge of what
used to be, and there's nowhere left to run.
“I love you,” Kyle told his wife, and he drew her tightly
against him. He could feel the heat of her skin. She was going to have a
bad sunburn. Hope's cheeks were red. Pick up some Solarcaine somewhere.
God knows they don't need it.
He walked out of the water. The wet sand sucked around his ankles,
trying to hold him, but he broke free and trudged up across the hard
sand, leaving footprints all the way to where he'd left his suitcase.
Allie was following him, with the red-cheeked Hope. “Tom?”
Kyle called. “Tommy, let's go!” The boy splashed and
romped for a moment more, gulls spinning around his head either in
curiosity or thinking he was a rather large fish, and then Tommy came
out of the water and picked up his socks and sneakers.
They began to walk eastward on the beach toward the Miracle Mile. A
skeleton lay half-buried in the sand just past the wrecked cabin
cruiser. A child's orange pail was caught by the surf, pulled out and
thrust onto shore again, the sea playing a game with the dead. The sun
was getting lower, the shadows growing. The suitcase was heavy, so Kyle
changed hands. The tires of a dune buggy jutted up from the waves, and
farther on a body with some flesh on it was drifting in the shallow
water. The gulls had been at work; it was not pretty.
Kyle watched his wife, her shadow going before her. The baby began to
cry, and Allie gently shushed her. Tommy threw shells into the water,
trying to get a skimmer. They had found the infant in a gas station
south of Montgomery, Alabama, near nine o'clock this morning. There had
been an abandoned station wagon outside at the pumps, and the child had
been on the floor in the women's room. On the driver's seat of the
station wagon was a great deal of dried blood. Tommy had thought the
blotch looked like the state of Texas. There had been dried blood on the
doorknob of the women's room too, but what had happened at that gas
station was unknown. Was the mother attacked? Had she planned to come
back for the baby? Had she crawled off into the woods and died? They'd
searched around the gas station, but found no corpses.
Well, life was a mystery, wasn't it? Kyle had agreed to take the baby
with them, on their vacation to the beach. But he cursed God for doing
this to him, because he'd finally got things right in his soul.
Hope. It had to be a cosmic joke. And if God and the devil were at war
over this spinning ball of black sorrows, it was terribly clear who had
control of the nuclear weapons.
That was the first of it. How the government tried to explain. A
biological incident, at some kind of secret—up until
then—testing center in North Dakota. That was six years ago. The
biological incident was worse than they'd let on. They had created
something from their stew of gene manipulation and bacteriological
tampering that had sent their ten test subjects out into the world with
a vengeance. The ten had multiplied into twenty, the twenty to forty,
the forty to eighty, and on and on. They had the wrath of Hell in their
blood, a contamination that made AIDS look like a common cold. The germ
boys had learned how to create— by accident, yes—weapons
that walked on two legs. What foreign power were we going to unleash
that taint upon? No matter; it had come home to live.
Kyle shifted the suitcase again. Call them what they are, he thought.
They craved blood like addicts used to crave heroin and crack. They
wrapped themselves up and hid in closets and basements and any hole they
could winnow into. Their skin burst and oozed and they split apart at
the seams like old suits in the sunlight. Call them what they are, damn
They were everywhere now. They had everything. The television networks,
the corporations, the advertising agencies, the publishing houses, the
banks, the law. Everything. Once in a while a pirate station broke in on
the cable, human beings pleading for others not to give up hope. Hope.
There it was again, the cosmic joke. Those bastards were as bad as
fundamentalist preachers; their role models were Jim Bakker and Jerry
Falwell, seen through a dark glass. They wanted to convert everybody on
earth, make them see the “truth,” and if you didn't choose
to join the fold they battered you in like a weak door and chewed the
faith into you.
It wasn't just America. It was everywhere: Canada, the Soviet Union,
Japan, Germany, Norway, Africa, England, South America, and Spain.
Everywhere. The contamination —the “faith”—knew no
racial nor national boundaries. It was another cosmic joke, with a
hideous twist: The world was moving toward a true brotherhood.
Kyle watched his shadow loom before him, its darkness merging with
Allie's. If a man couldn't take a vacation in the sun with his family,
he thought, then what the hell good was living?
“Hey, Dad!” Tommy said. “There it is!”
Kyle looked to where his son was pointing. The motel had stucco walls
painted pale blue, its roof of red slate. Some of the roof had
collapsed, the walls and windows broken. The motel's sign had survived
the hurricane, and said THE DRIFTWOOD.
It was where Kyle and Allie had spent their honeymoon, and where they'd
stayed—cabana number five, overlooking the Gulf—every summer
vacation for sixteen years. “Yes,” Kyle answered.
“That's the place.” He turned his back to the sea and
walked toward the concrete steps that led up to the Driftwood, and Allie
followed with Hope and the grocery bag. Tommy paused to bend down and
examine a jellyfish that had washed up and been caught by the sun at low
tide, and then he came on too.
The row of ocean-view cabanas had been demolished. Number five was a
cavern of debris, its roof caved in. “Watch the glass,”
Kyle cautioned them, and he continued on around the brackish swimming
pool and the deck that caught the afternoon's sea breeze. He climbed
another set of stairs from the pool's deck to the major portion of the
Driftwood, his wife and son behind him, and he stood facing a warren of
collapsed rooms and wreckage.
Summer could be a heartless thing.
For a few seconds he almost lost it. Tears burned his eyes, and he
thought he was going to choke on a sob. It had been important, so
vitally important, that they come to Perdido Beach again, and see this
place where life had been fresh and good and all the days were ahead of
them. Now, more than anything, Kyle could see that it was over. But then
Allie said, in a terribly cheerful voice, “It's not so
bad,” and Kyle laughed instead of cried. His laughter spiralled
up, was taken by the Gulf breeze and broken like the walls of the
Driftwood. “We can stay right here,” Allie said, and she
walked past her husband into an opening where a door used to be.
The room's walls were cracked, the ceiling blotched with water stains.
The furniture—bed, chest of drawers, chairs, lamps, all
ticky-tacky when they were new—had been whirled around and smashed
to kindling. Pipes stuck up where the sink had been in the bathroom, but
the toilet remained and the shower stall—empty of
intruders—was all right. Kyle tried the tap and was amazed to hear
a rumbling down in the Driftwood's guts. A thin trickle of rusty water
flowed from the shower head. Kyle turned the tap off and the rumbling
“Clear this stuff away,” Allie told Tommy. “Let's
get this mattress out from underneath.”
“We can't stay here,” Kyle said.
“Why can't we?” Her eyes were vacant again. “We can
make do. We've been making do at home. We can make do on vacation
“No. We've got to find somewhere else,”
“We've always stayed at the Driftwood.” A childlike
petulance rose up in her voice, and she began to rock the baby.
“Always. We can stay right here, like we do every summer. Can't
“I guess so,” he said, and he nudged the shattered
television set with his foot.
Kyle and Allie stared at each other. The breeze came in around them
through the doorway and then left again.
“We can stay here,” Allie said.
She's out of it, he thought. Who could blame her? Her systems were
shutting down, a little tighter day after day. “All
right.” He touched her hair and smoothed it away from her face.
“The Driftwood it is.”
Tommy went to find a shovel and broom, because there was a lot of glass
on the linoleum-tiled floor. As Allie unpacked the groceries, the baby
laid to rest on a pillow, Kyle checked the rooms on either side. Nothing
sleeping in them, nothing folded up and waiting. He checked as many
rooms as he could get into. There was something bad— neither
skeleton nor fully fleshed, but bloated and dark as a slug—wearing
a flower-print shirt and red shorts in a room nearer the pool, but Kyle
could tell it was a dead human being and not one of them. A Gideon's
Bible lay close at hand, and also the broken beer bottle with which the
sunlover had slashed his wrists. On a countertop, next to the stub of a
burned-out candle, was a wallet, some change, and a set of car keys.
Kyle didn't look at the wallet, but he took the keys. Then he put the
shower curtain over the corpse and continued his search of the
Driftwood's rooms. He walked through a breezeway, past the Driftwood's
office and to the front of the motel, and there he found a half-dozen
cars in the parking lot. Across the street was Nick's Pancake House, its
windows blown in. Next to it, the Goofy Golf place and the Go-Kart
track, both deserted, their concession stands shuttered and storm
ravaged. Kyle began to check the cars, as gulls cried out overhead and
sailed in lazy circles.
The keys fit the ignition of a blue Toyota with a Tennessee license tag.
Its engine, cranky at first, finally spat black smoke and awakened. The
gas gauge's needle was almost to the E, but there were plenty of gas
stations on the Strip. Kyle shut the engine off and got out, and that
was when he looked toward the Miracle Mile.
It was a beautifully clear afternoon. He could see all the way to the
amusement park, where the Ferris wheel and the roller coaster rose up,
where the Sky Needle loomed over the Hang Out dance pavilion and the
Super Water Slide stood next to the Beach Arcade.
His eyes stung. He heard ghosts on the wind, calling in young voices
from the dead world. He had to look away from the Miracle Mile before
his heart cracked, and he walked back the way he'd come, the keys
gripped in his palm.
Tommy was at work clearing away debris. The mattress had been swept free
of glass. A chair had been salvaged, and a table on which a lamp had
sat. Allie had put on her swimsuit—the one with aquamarine fish on
it that she'd found in a Sears store last week—and she wore
sandals so her feet wouldn't be cut. The flesh of her arms and face were
blushed with Florida sun. It dawned on Kyle how much weight Allie had
lost. She was as skinny as she'd been their first night together, here
at the Driftwood a long, long time ago.
“I'm ready for the beach,” she told him. “How do I
look?” She turned around for him to appreciate the swimsuit.
“Nice. Really nice.”
“We shouldn't waste the sunshine, should we?”
She'd had enough sun for one day. But he smiled tightly and said,
Beneath one of the yellow beach umbrellas, Kyle sat beside his wife
while she fed Hope from a jar of Gerber's mixed fruit. The groceries had
come from a supermarket in the same area they'd found the baby, and
Allie had stocked up on items she hadn't even thought about since Tommy
was an infant. Out in the Gulf, Tommy splashed and swam as the sun
sparkled golden on the waves.
“Don't go too far!” Kyle cautioned, and Tommy waved his
don't worry wave and swam out a little farther. There was a boy for you,
Kyle thought. Always testing his limits. Like me, when I was his age.
Kyle laid down on the sand, his hands cupped behind his head. He had been
coming to Perdido Beach since he was five years old. One of his first
memories was of his father and mother dancing at the pavilion, to
“Stardust” or some other old tune. He recalled a day when
his father had taken him on every ride on the Miracle Mile: the Ferris
wheel, roller coaster, Mad Mouse, Tilt-a-Whirl, Scrambler, and Octopus. He
remembered his father's square brown face and white teeth, clenched in a
grin as the Mad Mouse shot them heavenward. They had feasted on popcorn,
cotton candy, candied apples, and corn dogs. They had thrown balls at
milk jugs and rings at spindles and come away empty-handed but wiser in
the ways of the Miracle Mile.
It had been one of the happiest days of his life.
After Kyle's mother had died of cancer eight years ago, his father had
moved out to Arizona to live near his younger brother and his wife. A
little over a week past, a midnight call had come from that town in
Arizona, and through the static-hissing phone line the voice of Kyle's
father had said, I'm coming to visit you, son. Coming real soon. Me and
your uncle Alan and aunt Patti Ann. I feel so much better now, son. My
joints don't ache anymore. Oh, it's a wonderful life, this is! I sure do
look forward to seeing my sweet grandboy....
They had left their house the next morning and found another house in a
town ten miles away. There were still some humans left, in the little
towns. But some of them were crazy with terror, and others had made
fortresses out of their homes. They put bars on the windows and slept in
the daylight, surrounded by guns and barbed wire.
Kyle sat up and watched his son throwing himself against the waves, the
glittering water splashing high. He saw himself out there; he hadn't
changed so much, but the world had. The rachet gears of God's machine
had slipped, and from here on out the territory was treacherous and
He had decided he couldn't live behind bars and barbed wire. He couldn't
live without the sun, or Perdido Beach in July, or without Tommy and
Allie. If those things got hold of him—if they got hold of any of
his family—then what would life be? A scuttling in the dark? A
moan from gore-wet lips? He couldn't think about this anymore, and he
blanked his mind: a trick he'd learned, out of necessity.
He watched his wife feeding the baby. The sight of Allie cradling the
child made him needful; the need was on him before he could think about
it. Allie was skinny, sure, but she looked good in her new swimsuit, and
her hair was light brown and pretty in the reflected sunlight and her
gray eyes had the shine of life in them again, for a little while. He
said, “Allie?” and when she looked at him she saw the need
in his face. He touched her shoulder, and she leaned over and kissed him
on the lips. The kiss lingered, grew soft and wet, and his tongue found
hers. She smiled at him, her eyes hazy, and she put the child down on a
Kyle didn't care if Tommy saw. They were beyond the need for privacy. A
precious moment could not be turned aside. Kyle and Allie lay together
under the yellow umbrella, their bodies damp and entwined, their hearts
beating hard, and out in the waves Tommy pretended not to see and went
diving for sand dollars. He found ten.
The sun was sinking. It made the Gulf of Mexico turn the color of fire,
and way out past the shallows, dolphins played.
“It'll be getting dark soon,” Kyle said at last. The moon
was coming out, a slice of silver against the east's darkening
blue. “I've got somebody's car keys. Want to ride up to the
Allie said that would be fine, and she held Hope against her breasts.
The wind had picked up. It blew stinging sand against their legs as they
walked across the beach. Tommy stopped to throw a shell. “I got a
skimmer, Dad!” he shouted.
In the room, Allie put on a pair of white shorts over her wet suit.
Tommy wore a T-shirt with the computer image of a rock band on the
front, and baggy orange cutoffs. Kyle dry-shaved with his razor, then
dressed in a pair of khaki trousers and a dark blue pullover shirt. As
he was lacing up his sneakers, he gave Tommy the car keys. “It's
a blue Toyota. Tennessee tag. Why don't you go start her up?”
“You mean it? Really?”
“Wait a minute!” Kyle cautioned before Tommy could leave.
“Allie, why don't you go with him? I'll be up in a few
She frowned, reading his mood. “What's wrong?”
“Nothing. I just want to sit here and think. I'll be there by the
time you get the car ready.”
Allie took the baby, and she and Tommy went around to the parking lot.
In the gathering dark, Kyle sat on the mattress and stared at the cracks
in the wall. This was their honeymoon motel. It had once seemed like the
grandest place on earth. Maybe it still was.
When Kyle opened the Toyota's door and Tommy slid onto the back seat, he
was wearing his poplin windbreaker, zipped up to his chest. He got
behind the wheel, and he said, “Let's go see it.”
Theirs was the only car that moved on the long, straight road called the
Strip. Kyle turned on the headlights, but it wasn't too dark to see the
destruction on either side of them.
“We ate there last summer,” Tommy said, and pointed at a
heap of rubble that used to be a Pizza Hut. They drove past T-Shirt
City, the Shell Shack, and the Dixie Hot Shoppe, where a cook named Pee
Wee used to make the best grouper sandwiches Kyle had ever eaten. All
those places were dark hulks now. He kept going at a slow, steady speed.
“Cruising the Strip,” he and his buddies used to call it,
when they came looking for girls and good times on spring break. His
first roaring drunk was in a motel called the Surf's Inn. His first
poker game had been played at Perdido Beach. He'd lost his first real
fight behind a bar here, and ended up with a busted nose. He'd met the
first girl he'd ... well, there had been a lot of firsts at Perdido
God, there were ghosts here.
“Sun's almost gone,” Tommy said.
Kyle turned the car to a place where they could watch the sunset over a
motel's ruins. It was going down fast, the Gulf streaked with dark gold,
orange, and purple. Allie's hand found her husband's; it was the hand
with her wedding ring on it. The baby cried a little, and Kyle knew how
she felt. The sun went away in a last scarlet flash, and then it was
gone toward the other side of the world and the night was closing in.
“It was pretty, wasn't it?” Allie asked. “Sunsets
are always so pretty at the beach.”
Kyle started driving again, taking them to the Miracle Mile. His heart
was beating hard, his palms damp on the wheel. Because there it was, the
paradise of his memories. He pulled the car to the side of the road and
The last of the light glinted on the rails of the roller coaster. The
Ferris wheel's cars were losing their paint, and rocked in the
strengthening wind. Another casualty of Jolene was the Mad Mouse's maze
of tracks. The long red roof of the Hang Out dance pavilion, the
underside of which was painted with Day-Glo stars and comets, had been
stripped to the boards, but the open-air building still stood. Within
the smashed windows of the Beach Arcade, the pinball machines had been
overturned. Metal rods dangled down from the Sky Needle, its foundation
cracked. The concession stand that used to sell foot-long hot dogs and
flavored snow cones had been flattened. The water slide had survived,
though, and so had a few of the other mechanical rides. The
merry-go-round—a beauty of carved, leaping lions and proud
horses—remained almost unscathed. Fit for the junkyard were the
haunted house and hall of mirrors, but the fun house with its entrance
through a huge red grin was still there.
“We met here,” Allie said. She was talking to Tommy.
“Right over there.” She pointed toward the roller coaster.
“Your father was in line behind me. I was with Carol Akins and
Denise McCarthy. When it came time for us to get on, I had to sit with
him. I didn't know him. I was sixteen, and he was eighteen. He was
staying at the Surf's Inn. That's where all the hoods stayed.”
“I wasn't a hood,” Kyle said.
“You were what a hood was then. You drank and smoked and you were
looking for trouble.” She stared at the roller coaster, and Kyle
watched her face. “We went around four times.”
“Five,” she recalled, and nodded. “The fifth time
we rode in the front car. I was so scared I almost wet my pants.”
“Aw, Mom!” Tommy said.
“He wrote me a letter. It came a week after I got home. There was
sand in the envelope.” She smiled, a faint smile, and Kyle had to
look somewhere else. “He said he hoped we could see each other
again. Do you remember that, Kyle?”
“Like yesterday,” he answered.
“I dreamed about the Miracle Mile, for a long time after that. I
dreamed we would be together. I was a silly thing when I was
“You're still that way,” Tommy said.
“Amen,” Kyle added.
They sat there for a few more minutes, staring down the darkening length
of the Miracle Mile. Many lives had crossed here, many had come and
gone, but this place belonged to them. They knew it, in their hearts. It
was theirs, forever. Their linked initials cut into a wooden railing of
the Hang Out said so. It didn't matter that there might be ten thousand
more initials carved in the pavilion; they had returned here, and where
were the others?
The wind made the Ferris wheel's cars creak, but otherwise silence
reigned. Kyle broke it. “We ought to go to the pier. That's what
we ought to do.”
The long fishing pier just past the Miracle Mile, where the bait used to
be cut and reeled out every hour of the day and night. He and his father
used to go fishing there, while his mother stretched out on a folding
chair and read the forms from the dog track up the highway.
“I'm going to need some Solarcaine,” Allie said as they
drove past the Miracle Mile. “My arms are stinging.”
“And I'm thirsty,” Tommy said. “Can we get
something to drink?”
“Sure. We'll find something.”
The pier—LONGEST PIER ON THE PANHANDLE, the battered metal sign
said—was a half mile past the amusement park. Kyle parked in front
of it, in a deserted lot. A soft drink machine stood inside the pier's
admission gate, but without electricity it was useless. Tommy got his
arm up inside it and grasped a can but he couldn't pull it out. Kyle
turned the machine over and tried to break it open. Its lock held, a
last grip on civilization.
“Damn,” Tommy said, and kicked the machine.
Next door to the pier, across the lot, was the rubble of what had been a
seafood restaurant. The sign remained, a swordfish riding a surfboard.
“Why don't we try over there?” Kyle asked, placing his
hand on his son's shoulder.
“Maybe we can find some cans. Allie, we'll be right back.”
“I'll go with you.”
“No,” he said. “You wait on the pier.”
Allie stood very still. In the deepening gloom, Kyle could only see the
outline of her face. “I want to talk to Tommy,” Kyle told
her. She didn't move; it seemed to him she was holding her breath.
“Man talk,” he said.
Finally, she spoke. “Come right back. Okay?”
“And don't step on a nail. Be careful. Okay?”
“We will be. Watch where you walk too.” He guided Tommy
toward the ruins, and the wind shrilled around them.
They were almost there when Tommy asked what he wanted to talk about.
“Just some stuff,” Kyle answered. He glanced back. Allie
was on the pier, facing away from them. Maybe she was looking at the
sea, or maybe at the Miracle Mile. It was hard to tell.
“I got too much sun. My neck's burning.”
“Oh.” Kyle said, “you'll be all right.”
The stars were coming out. It was going to be a beautiful night. He kept
his hand on Tommy's shoulder, and together they walked into the wreckage
beneath the surfing swordfish. They kept going, over glass and planks,
until Kyle had the remnant of a cinder block wall between them and
“Dad, how're we going to find anything in here? It's so
“Hold it. See that? There beside your right foot? Is that a
“I can't see it.” Kyle unzipped his windbreaker. “I
think it is.” A lump
had lodged in his throat, and he could hardly speak. “Can you see
Kyle placed one hand against the top of his son's head. It was perhaps
the most difficult movement of flesh and bone he had ever made in his
life. “Right there,” he said, as he drew the .38 from his
waistband with his other hand. Click.
“What was that, Dad?”
“You're my good boy,” Kyle croaked, and he put the barrel
against Tommy's skull.
No. This was the most difficult movement of flesh and bone.
A spasm of his finger on the trigger. A terrible crack that left his
It was done.
Tommy slid down, and Kyle wiped his hand on the leg of his trousers.
Oh Jesus, he thought. A sense of panic swelled inside him. Oh
Jesus, I should've found him something to drink before I did it.
He staggered, tripped over a pile of boards and cinder blocks and went
down on his knees in the dark, the after sound of the shot still
echoing. My God, he died thirsty. Oh my God, I just killed my son. He
shivered and moaned, sickness burning in his stomach. It came to him
that he might have only wounded the boy, and Tommy might be lying there
in agony. “Tommy?” he said. “Can you hear
me?” No, no; he'd shot the boy right in the back of the head,
just as he'd planned. If Tommy wasn't dead, he was dying and he knew
nothing. It had been fast and unexpected and Tommy hadn't had a chance
to even think about death.
“Forgive me,” Kyle whispered, tears streaking down his
face. “Please forgive me.”
It took him a while to find the strength to stand. He put the pistol
away and zipped his windbreaker up again, and then he wiped his face and
left the ruins where his son's body lay. Kyle walked toward the pier,
where Allie stood with the baby in the deep purple dark.
“Kyle?” she called before he reached her.
“I heard a noise.“
“Some glass broke. It's all right.”
“Where's Tommy, Kyle?”
“He'll be here in a few minutes,” Kyle said, and he
stopped in front of her. He could feel the sea moving below him, amid the
pier's concrete pilings. “Why don't we walk to the end?”
Allie didn't speak. Hope was sleeping, her head against Allie's
Kyle looked up at the sky full of stars and the silver slice of moon.
“We used to come out here together. Remember?”
She didn't answer.
“We used to come out and watch the fishermen at night. I asked
you to marry me at the end of the pier. Do you remember?”
“Yes.” A quiet voice.
“Then when you said yes I jumped off. Remember that?”
“I thought you were crazy,” Allie said.
“I was. I am. Always will be.”
He saw her tremble, violently. “Tommy?” she called into
the night. “Tommy, come on now!”
“Walk with me. All right?”
“I can't... I can't ... think, Kyle. I can't....”
Kyle took her hand. Her fingers were cold. “There's nothing to
think about. Everything's under control. Do you understand?”
“We can ... stay right here,” she said. “Right
here. It's safe here.”
“There's only one place that's safe,” Kyle said.
“It's not here.”
“Tommy?” she called, and her voice broke.
“Walk with me. Please.” He gripped her hand tighter. She
went with him.
Jolene had bitten off the last forty feet of the pier. It ended on a
jagged edge, and below them the Gulf surged against the pilings. Kyle
put his arm around his wife and kissed her cheek. Her skin was hot and
damp. She leaned her head against his shoulder, as Hope's head was
against her own.
Kyle unzipped his windbreaker.
“It was a good day, wasn't it?” he asked her, and she
The wind was in their faces, coming in hard off the sea. “I love
you,” Kyle said.
“I love you,” she answered.
“Are you cold?”
He gave her his windbreaker, and zipped it up around her shoulders and
the baby. “Look at those stars!” he said. “You
can't see so many stars anywhere else but the beach, can you?”
She shook her head.
Kyle kissed her temple and put a bullet into it.
Then he let her go.
Allie and the baby fell off the pier. Kyle watched her body go down and
splash into the Gulf. The waves picked her up, closed over her, turned
her on her stomach and made her hair float like an opening fan. Kyle
looked up at the sky. He took a deep breath, cocked the pistol again and
put the barrel into his mouth, pointed upward toward his brain.
God forgive me there is no Hell there is no—
He heard a low humming sound. The noise, he realized, of machinery at
Lights came on, a bright shock in the sky. The stars faded. Multicolored
reflections scrawled across the moving waves.
Music. The sound of a distant pipe organ.
Kyle turned around, his bones freezing.
The Miracle Mile.
The Miracle Mile was coming to life.
Lights rimmed the Ferris wheel and the roller coaster's rails. Floods
glared over the Super Water Slide. The merry-go-round was lit up like a
birthday cake. A spotlight had been pointed upward, and combed the night
above the Miracle Mile like a call to celebration.
Kyle's finger was on the trigger. He was ready.
The Ferris wheel began to turn: a slow, groaning process. He could see
figures in the gondolas. The center track of the roller coaster started
moving with a clanking of gears, and then the roller coaster cars were
cranked up to the top of the first incline. There were people in the
cars. No, not people. Not human beings. Them.
They had taken over the Miracle Mile.
Kyle heard them scream with delight as the roller coaster's cars went
over the incline like a long, writhing snake.
The merry-go-round was turning. The pipe organ music, a scratchy
recording, was being played from speakers at the carousel's center. Kyle
watched the riders going around, and he pulled the pistol's barrel from
his mouth. Light bulbs had blinked on in the Hang Out, and now the sound
of rock music spilled out from a jukebox. Kyle could see them in the
pavilion, a mass of them pressed together and dancing at the edge of the
They had taken everything. The night, the cities, the towns, freedom,
the law, the world.
And now the Miracle Mile.
Kyle grinned savagely, as tears ran down his cheeks.
The roller coaster rocketed around. The Ferris wheel was turning faster.
They had hooked up generators, of course, there in the amusement park.
They'd gotten gasoline to run the generators from a gas station on the
You could make bombs out of gasoline and bottles.
Find those generators. Pull the plug on the Miracle Mile.
He had four bullets in the gun. The extras had been in case he screwed
up and wounded instead of killed. Four bullets. The car keys had been in
the windbreaker. Sleep well, my darling, he thought.
I will be joining you.
But not yet. Not yet.
Maybe he could find a way to make the roller coaster's cars jump the
tracks. Maybe he could blow up the Hang Out, with all of them mashed up
together inside. They would make a lovely bonfire, on this starry summer
night. He gritted his teeth, his guts full of rage. They might take the
world, but they would not take his family. And they would pay for taking
the Miracle Mile, if he could do anything about it.
He was insane now. He knew it. But the instant of knowing was pulled
away from him like Allie's body in the waves, and he gripped the pistol
hard and took the first step back along the pier toward shore.
Careful. Keep to the darkness. Don't let them see you. Don't let them
Screams and laughter soared over the Miracle Mile, as a solitary figure
walked back with a gun in his hand and flames in his mind.
It came to Kyle that his vacation was over.