My name is Christopher Snow. The following account is an installment in my personal journal. If you are reading it, I am probably dead. If I am not dead, then because of the reportage herein, I am now—or soon will be—one of the most famous people on the planet. If no one ever reads this, it will be because the world as we know it has ceased to exist and human civilization is gone forever. I am no more vain than the average person, and instead of universal recognition, I prefer the peace of anonymity. Nevertheless, if the choice is between Armageddon and fame, I’d prefer to be famous.
THE LOST BOYS
Elsewhere, night falls, but in Moonlight Bay it steals upon us with barely a whisper, like a gentle dark-sapphire surf licking a beach. At dawn, when the night retreats across the Pacific toward distant Asia, it is reluctant to go, leaving deep black pools in alleyways, under parked cars, in culverts, and beneath the leafy canopies of ancient oaks.
According to Tibetan folklore, a secret sanctuary in the sacred Himalayas is the home of all wind, from which every breeze and raging storm throughout the world is born. If the night, too, has a special home, our town is no doubt the place.
On the eleventh of April, as the night passed through Moonlight Bay on its way westward, it took with it a five-year-old boy named Jimmy Wing.
Near midnight, I was on my bicycle, cruising the residential streets in the lower hills not far from Ashdon College, where my murdered parents had once been professors. Earlier, I had been to the beach, but although there was no wind, the surf was mushy; the sloppy waves didn’t make it worthwhile to suit up and float a board. Orson, a black Labrador mix, trotted at my side.
Fur face and I were not looking for adventure, merely getting some fresh air and satisfying our mutual need to be on the move. A restlessness of the soul plagues both of us more nights than not.
Anyway, only a fool or a madman goes looking for adventure in picturesque Moonlight Bay, which is simultaneously one of the quietest and most dangerous communities on the planet. Here, if you stand in one place long enough, a lifetime’s worth of adventure will find you.
Lilly Wing lives on a street shaded and scented by stone pines. In the absence of lampposts, the trunks and twisted branches were as black as char, except where moonlight pierced the feathery boughs and silvered the rough bark.
I became aware of her when the beam of a flashlight swept back and forth between the pine trunks. A quick pendulum of light arced across the pavement ahead of me, and tree shadows jumped. She called her son’s name, trying to shout but defeated by breathlessness and by a quiver of panic that transformed Jimmy into a six-syllable word.
Because no traffic was in sight ahead of or behind us, Orson and I were traveling the center of the pavement: kings of the road. We swung to the curb.
As Lilly hurried between two pines and into the street, I said, “What’s wrong, Badger?”
For twelve years, since we were sixteen, “Badger” has been my affectionate nickname for her. In those days, her name was Lilly Travis, and we were in love and believed that a future together was our destiny. Among our long list of shared enthusiasms and passions was a special fondness for Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, in which the wise and courageous Badger was the stalwart defender of all the good animals in the Wild Wood. “Any friend of mine walks where he likes in this country,” Badger had promised Mole, “or I’ll know the reason why!” Likewise, those who shunned me because of my rare disability, those who called me vampire because of my inherited lack of tolerance for more than the dimmest light, those teenage psychopaths who plotted to torture me with fists and flashlights, those who spoke maliciously of me behind my back, as if I’d chosen to be born with xeroderma pigmentosum—all had found themselves answering to Lilly, whose face flushed and whose heart raced with righteous anger at any exhibition of intolerance. As a young boy, out of urgent necessity, I learned to fight, and by the time I met Lilly, I was confident of my ability to defend myself; nevertheless, she had insisted on coming to my aid as fiercely as the noble Badger ever fought with claw and cudgel for his friend Mole.
Although slender, she is mighty. Only five feet four, she appears to tower over any adversary. She is as formidable, fearless, and fierce as she is graceful and good-hearted.
This night, however, her usual grace had deserted her, and fright had tortured her bones into unnatural angles. When I spoke, she twitched around to face me, and in her jeans and untucked flannel shirt, she seemed to be a bristling scarecrow now magically animated, confused and terrified to find itself suddenly alive, jerking at its supporting cross.
The beam of her flashlight bathed my face, but she considerately directed it toward the ground the instant she realized who I was. “Chris. Oh, God.”
“What’s wrong?” I asked again as I got off my bike.
“No.” She turned from me and hurried toward the house. “This way, here, look.”
Lilly’s property is ringed by a white picket fence that she herself built. The entrance is flanked not by gateposts but by matched bougainvillea that she has pruned into trees and trained into a canopy. Her modest Cape Cod bungalow lies at the end of an intricately patterned brick walkway that she designed and laid after teaching herself masonry from books.
The front door stood open. Enticing rooms of deadly brightness lay beyond.
Instead of taking me and Orson inside, Lilly quickly led us off the bricks and across the lawn. In the still night, as I pushed my bike through the closely cropped grass, the tick of wheel bearings was the loudest sound. We went to the north side of the house.
A bedroom window had been raised. Inside, a single lamp glowed, and the walls were striped with amber light and faint honey-brown shadows from the folded cloth of the pleated shade. To the left of the bed, Star Wars action figures stood on a set of bookshelves. As the cool night air sucked warmth from the house, one panel of the curtains was drawn across the sill, pale and fluttering like a troubled spirit reluctant to leave this world for the next.
“I thought the window was locked, but it mustn’t have been,” Lilly said frantically. “Someone opened it, some sonofabitch, and he took Jimmy away.”
“Maybe it’s not that bad.”
“Some sick bastard,” she insisted.
The flashlight jiggled, and Lilly struggled to still her trembling hand as she directed the beam at the planting bed alongside the house.
“I don’t have any money,” she said.
“To pay ransom. I’m not rich. So no one would take Jimmy for ransom. It’s worse than that.”
False Solomon’s seal, laden with feathery sprays of white flowers that glittered like ice, had been trampled by the intruder. Footprints were impressed in trodden leaves and soft damp soil. They were not the prints of a runaway child but those of an adult in athletic shoes with bold tread, and judging by the depth of the impressions, the kidnapper was a large person, most likely male.
I saw that Lilly was barefoot.
“I couldn’t sleep, I was watching TV, some stupid show on the TV,” she said with a note of self-flagellation, as if she should have anticipated this abduction and been at Jimmy’s bedside, ever vigilant.
Orson pushed between us to sniff the imprinted earth.
“I didn’t hear anything,” Lilly said. “Jimmy never cried out, but I got this feeling….”
Her usual beauty, as clear and deep as a reflection of eternity, was now shattered by terror, crazed by sharp lines of an anguish that was close to grief. She was held together only by desperate hope. Even in the dim backwash of the flashlight, I could hardly bear the sight of her in such pain.
“It’ll be all right,” I said, ashamed of this facile lie.
“I called the police,” she said. “They should be here any second. Where are they?”
Personal experience had taught me to distrust the authorities in Moonlight Bay. They are corrupt. And the corruption is not merely moral, not simply a matter of bribe-taking and a taste for power; it has deeper and more disturbing origins.
No siren shrieked in the distance, and I didn’t expect to hear one. In our special town, the police answer calls with utmost discretion, without even the quiet fanfare of flashing emergency lights, because as often as not, their purpose is to conceal a crime and silence the complainant rather than to bring the perpetrator to justice.
“He’s only five, only five,” Lilly said miserably. “Chris, what if this is that guy on the news?”
“The serial killer. The one who…burns kids.”
“That’s not around here.”
“All over the country. Every few months. Groups of little kids burned alive. Why not here?”
“Because it isn’t,” I said. “It’s something else.”
She swung away from the window and raked the yard with the flashlight beam, as though she hoped to discover her tousle-haired, pajama-clad son among the fallen leaves and the curled strips of papery bark that littered the grass under a row of tall eucalyptus trees.
Catching a troubling scent, Orson issued a low growl and backed away from the planting bed. He peered up at the windowsill, sniffed the air, put his nose to the ground again, and headed tentatively toward the rear of the house.
“He’s got something,” I said.
Lilly turned. “Got what?”
When he reached the backyard, Orson broke into a trot.
“Badger,” I said, “don’t tell them Orson and I were here.”
A weight of fear pressed her voice thinner than a whisper: “Don’t tell who?”
“I’ll be back. I’ll explain. I swear I’ll find Jimmy. I swear I will.”
I could keep the first two promises. The third, however, was something less meaningful than wishful thinking and was intended only to provide a little hope with which she might keep herself glued together.
In fact, as I hurried after my strange dog, pushing the bicycle at my side, I already believed that Jimmy Wing was lost forever. The most I expected to find at the end of the trail was the boy’s dead body and, with luck, the man who had murdered him.
When I reached the rear of Lilly’s house, I couldn’t see Orson. He was so coaly black that even the light of a full moon was not sufficient to reveal him.
From off to the right came a soft woof, then another, and I followed his call.
At the end of the backyard was a freestanding garage that could be entered by car only from the alley beyond. A brick walkway led alongside the garage to a wooden gate, where Orson stood on his hind legs, pawing at the latch.
For a fact, this dog is radically smarter than ordinary mutts. Sometimes I suspect that he is also considerably smarter than I am.
If I didn’t have the advantage of hands, no doubt I would be the one eating from a dish on the floor. He would have control of the most comfortable easy chair and the remote control for the television.
Demonstrating my single claim to superiority, I disengaged the bolt latch with a flourish and pushed open the creaking gate.
A series of garages, storage sheds, and backyard fences lay along this flank of the alley. On the farther side, the cracked and runneled blacktop gave way to a narrow dirt shoulder, which in turn led to a line of massive eucalyptuses and a weedy verge that sloped into a canyon.
Lilly’s house is on the edge of town, and no one lives in the canyon behind her place. The wild grass and scattered scrub oaks on the descending slopes provide homes for hawks, coyotes, rabbits, squirrels, field mice, and snakes.
Following his formidable nose, Orson urgently investigated the weeds along the edge of the canyon, padding north and then south, softly whining and grumbling to himself.
I stood at the brink, between two trees, peering down into a darkness that not even the fat moon could dispel. No flashlight moved in those depths. If Jimmy had been carried into that gloom, the kidnapper must have uncanny night vision.
With a yelp, Orson abruptly abandoned his search along the canyon rim and returned to the center of the alleyway. He moved in a circle, as though he might start chasing his tail, but his head was raised and he was excitedly sniffing spoor.
To him, the air is a rich stew of scents. Every dog has a sense of smell thousands of times more powerful than yours or mine.
The medicinal pungency of the eucalyptus trees was the only aroma that I could detect. Drawn by another and more suspicious scent, as if he were but a bit of iron pulled inexorably toward a powerful magnet, Orson raced north along the alley.
Maybe Jimmy Wing was still alive.
It’s my nature to believe in miracles. So why not believe in this one?
I climbed on my bike and pedaled after the dog. He was swift and certain, and to match his pace, I really had to make the drive chain hum.
In block after block, only a few widely spaced security lamps glowed at the back of the residential properties that we passed. By habit I steered away from those radiant pools, along the darker side of the alleyway, even though I could have sailed through each patch of lamplight in less than a second or two, without significant risk to my health.
Xeroderma pigmentosum—XP for those who aren’t able to tie their tongues in knots—is an inherited genetic disorder that I share with an exclusive club of only one thousand other Americans. One of us per 250,000 citizens. XP renders me highly vulnerable to skin and eye cancers caused by exposure to any ultraviolet radiation. Sunshine. Incandescent or fluorescent bulbs. The shining, idiot face of a television screen.
If I dared to spend just half an hour in summer sun, I would burn severely, though a single searing wouldn’t kill me. The true horror of XP, however, is that even minor exposure to ultraviolet radiation shortens my life, because the effect is cumulative. Years of imperceptible injuries accrete until they manifest as visible lesions, malignancies. Six hundred minutes of exposure, spread one by one over an entire year, will have the same ultimate effect as ten continuous hours on a beach in brightest July. The luminosity of a streetlamp is less dangerous to me than the full ferocity of the sun, but it’s not entirely safe.
You, with your properly functioning genes, are able routinely to repair the injury to your skin and eyes that you unknowingly suffer every day. Your body, unlike mine, continuously produces enzymes that strip out the damaged segments of nucleotide strands in your cells, replacing them with undamaged DNA.
I must exist in shadows, while you live under exquisitely blue skies, and yet I don’t hate you. I don’t resent you for the freedom that you take for granted—although I do envy you.