Robert R. McCammon's "The Miracle Mile"

The Miracle Mile

by Robert R. McCammon

Originally published in
Under the Fang
1991
Under the Fang HC

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 some?”

“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 think?”

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 me.

“Kill it.”

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 it.”

“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.

Nowhere.

“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.

Nowhere.

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.

Biological incident.

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.

Biological incident.

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 it.

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 died.

“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 too.”

“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 we, Tommy?”

“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, “No.”

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 uncharted.

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 beach towel.

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 Miracle Mile?”

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?”

“Why not?”

“Alll right!

“Wait a minute!” Kyle cautioned before Tommy could leave. “Allie, why don't you go with him? I'll be up in a few minutes.”

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 Beach.

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 stopped.

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.”

“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 sixteen.”

“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.

Silence.

Finally, she spoke. “Come right back. Okay?”

“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 Allie.

“Dad, how're we going to find anything in here? It's so dark.”

“Hold it. See that? There beside your right foot? Is that a can?”

“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 it?”

“Where?”

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 eardrums ringing.

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.

“Yes.”

“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 shoulder.

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 nodded.

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?”

“Yes.”

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 work.

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 sea.

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 Strip.

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 smell you.

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.


Copyright © 1991 by Robert R. McCammon. All rights reserved. This story originally appeared in the anthology Under the Fang, first published in 1991. Reprinted with permission of the author.
© 2017 Robert McCammon Last updated 12-FEB-2017 14:36:36.54 Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha