Bobby decided against the revolver and snatched the shotgun from between the seats.
“Ice it down,” I told him.
He gave me an odd look. Usually, he’s the one advising me to stay cool.
Seventeen years of friendship ensure that he takes me seriously, but he chambered a round in the shotgun nevertheless.
Spread the width of the street, the flock swept over us, no more than six feet above our heads. I had the sense that they were flying with astonishing precision, arranged in formations so orderly as to be uncanny. An aerial view of the entire swarm might reveal patterns intriguing because of their unnatural degree of complex order—but also disturbing because they would seem simultaneously meaningful and indecipherable.
Bobby ducked, but I gazed up into the dark churning cloud of wings and feathered breasts, trying to determine if there were species other than nighthawks in these multitudes. The poor light and the blur of movement made it difficult to conduct even a cursory census.
By the time the last of the enormous flock soared past, not a single bird had dived at us or shrieked. Their passing had such an otherworldly quality that I almost felt as though I had been hallucinating, but a sprinkling of feathers in the Jeep and along the blacktop confirmed the reality of the experience.
Even as the last small bits of fluffy down descended on the breeze, Bobby threw open the driver’s door and scrambled from the Jeep. He was still gripping the shotgun when he turned to stare after the departing flock, although he was holding the weapon in one hand now, muzzle pointed at the pavement, with no intention of using it.
I got out of the Jeep, too, and watched as the birds swooped up from the end of the street, arcing high across a sea of stars, disappearing into the blackness between those distant suns.
“Totally awesome,” Bobby said.
“Feels a little sharky, too.”
I knew what he meant. This time the birds radiated more than the sorrow that I had felt before. Although the flock’s choreography had been breathtaking, even exhilarating, and although their amazing conspiracy of silence seemed to express and to inspire an odd sort of reverence, something dangerous lay under their performance, the same way that a sun-spangled blue sea could look so totally sacred even while great whites churned in a feeding frenzy just under the surface. This felt a little sharky.
Although the nighthawks had climbed out of sight, Bobby and I stood staring at the constellation into which they had vanished, as if we were in full-on early Spielberg, waiting for the mother ship to appear and bathe us in white light only slightly less intense than God sheds.
“Saw it before,” I told him.
“On my way here,” I said. “Just the other side of the park. But the flock was smaller.”
“What’re they doing?”
“I don’t know. But here they come again.”
“I don’t hear them.”
“Me neither. Or see’em. But they’re coming.”
He hesitated, then slowly nodded and said, “Yeah,” when he felt it, too.
Stars over stars under stars. A larger light that might have been Venus. One, two, three closely grouped flares as small meteors hit the atmosphere and were incinerated. A small winking red dot moving east to west, perhaps an airliner sailing along the interface between our sea of air and the airless sea between worlds.
I was almost prepared to question my instinct, when, at last, the flock returned from the same part of the sky into which it had risen out of sight. Incredibly, the birds swept down into the street and past us in a helix, corkscrewing along Commissary Way, boring through the night in a whirr of wings.
This exhibition, this incredible stunt, was so thrilling that inevitably it inspired wonder, and in wonder is the seed of joy. I felt my heart lift at this amazing sight, but my exhilaration was constrained by the continuing perception of a wrongness in the birds’ behavior that was separate from the charming novelty of it.
Bobby must have felt the same way, because he couldn’t sustain the brief laugh of delight with which he first greeted the sight of the spiraling flock. His smile dried out as his laugh withered, and he turned to stare after the departing nighthawks with a cracking expression that was becoming less grin than grimace.
Two blocks away, the birds twisted up into the sky, like the withdrawing funnel of a fading tornado.
Their aerobatics had required strenuous effort; the beating of their wings had been so furious that even as the drum-like pounding diminished, I could feel the reverberations of it in my ears, in my heart, in my bones.
The birds soared out of sight once more, leaving us with just the whisper of the onshore breeze.
“It’s not over,” Bobby said.
Quicker than before, the birds returned. They didn’t reappear from the point at which they had vanished; instead, they came from high over the park. We heard them before we saw them, and the sound that heralded their approach was not the drumming of wings but an unearthly shrieking.
They had broken their vow of silence, exploded it. Screeching, churring, whistling, screaking, shrilling, cricking, they hurtled down out of the stars. Their tuneless skirling was sharp enough to make my ears sting as though lanced, and the note of misery was so piercing that my soul seemed to shrivel around the cold shank of this wounding sound.
Bobby didn’t even begin to raise the shotgun.
I didn’t reach for my pistol, either.
We both knew the birds weren’t attacking. No anger resonated in their cries, only a wretchedness, a desolation so deep and bleak that it was beyond despair.
Plummeting behind this blood-freezing wail, the birds appeared. They engaged in none of their previous aerobatics, forsaking even a simple formation, swarming gracelessly. Only speed mattered to them now, because speed alone served their purpose, and they dived, wings back, using gravity like a slingshot.
With a purpose that neither Bobby nor I foresaw, they shrieked across the park, across the street, and rocketed unchecked into the face of a two-story building three doors from the movie theater in front of which we stood. They hit the structure with such brutal force that the pock-pock-pock of their bodies smashing against the stucco sounded like relentless automatic-weapons fire; combined with their shrill cries, this barrage nearly drowned out the brittle ringing of the shattered window glass.
Horrified, sickened, I turned away from the carnage and leaned against the Jeep.
Considering the speed of the flock’s kamikaze descent, the hard rattle of death could not have continued for more than seconds, but minutes seemed to pass before the terrible noise ceased. The quiet that followed was heavy with catastrophic import, like the hush in the wake of a bomb blast.
I closed my eyes—but opened them again when a replay of the flocks’ suicidal plunge was projected vividly onto the backs of my eyelids.
All of nature was on the brink. I had known that much for the past month, since I’d learned what had happened in the hidden labs of Wyvern. Now the perilous ledge on which the future stood seemed narrower than I had thought, the height of the cliff far greater than it had seemed a moment ago, and the rocks below more jagged than my worst imaginings.
With my eyes open, into my mind came a photographic memory of my mother’s face. So wise. So kind.
The image of her blurred. Everything around me blurred for a moment, the street and the movie theater.
I took a shallow breath, which entered my chest with an ache, then a deeper breath that hurt less, and I wiped my eyes with the back of one jacket sleeve.
My heritage requires me to bear witness, and I can’t shirk that responsibility. The light of the sun is denied to me, but I must not avoid the light of truth, which also burns but anneals rather than destroys.
I turned to look at the silenced flock.
Hundreds of small birds littered the sidewalk. Only a few wings shuddered feebly with rapidly fading life. Most of them had hit so hard that their fragile skulls had shattered and their necks had broken on impact.
Because they appeared to be ordinary nighthawks, I wondered what internal change had swept through these birds. Although invisible to the unassisted eye, the difference was evidently so substantive that they believed continued existence to be intolerable.
Or perhaps their kamikaze flight had not been a conscious act. Perhaps it had resulted from a deterioration of their directional instincts or mass blindness, or dementia.
No. Remembering their elaborate aerobatics, I had to assume that the change was more profound, more mysterious, and more disturbing than mere physical dysfunction.
Beside me, the engine of the Jeep turned over, caught, roared, and then idled as Bobby let up on the accelerator.
I hadn’t been aware of him getting behind the steering wheel.
“Bro,” he said.
Although not directly related to the disappearance of Orson or to the kidnapping of Jimmy Wing, the flock’s self-destruction added urgency to the already pressing need to find the dog and the boy.
For once in his life, Bobby appeared to feel the solvent of time passing through him and swirling away, carrying with it some dissolved essence, like water into a drain.
He said, “Let’s cruise,” with a solemn expression in his eyes that belied the laid-back tone of his voice and the casualness of his language.
I climbed into the Jeep and yanked the door shut.
The shotgun was propped between the seats again.
Bobby switched on the headlights and pulled away from the curb.
As we approached the mounded birds, I saw that no wing fluttered any longer, except from the ruffling touch of the gentle breeze.
Neither Bobby nor I had spoken of what we’d witnessed. No words seemed adequate.
Passing the site of the carnage, he kept his eyes on the street ahead, not glancing even once at the dead flock.
I, on the other hand, couldn’t look away—and turned to stare back after we had passed.
In my mind’s ear, the music came from a piano with only black keys, jangling and discordant.
Finally I turned to face forward. We drove into the fearsome brightness of the Jeep headlamps, but regardless of our speed, we remained always in the dark, hopelessly chasing the light.
Dead Town could have passed for a neighborhood in Hell, where the condemned were subjected not to fire and boiling oil but to the more significant punishment of solitude and an eternity of quiet in which to contemplate what might have been. As if we were engaged in a supernatural rescue mission to extract two wrongfully damned souls from Hades, Bobby and I searched the streets for any sign of my furry brother or Lilly’s son.
With a powerful handheld spotlight that Bobby plugged into the cigarette lighter, I probed between houses lined up like tombstones. Through cracked or partially broken-out windows, where the reflection of the light glowed like a spirit face. Along bristling brown hedgerows. Among dead shrubs from which leaped bony shadows.
Though the light was directed away from me, the backwash was great enough to be troublesome. My eyes quickly grew tired; they felt strained, grainy. I would have put on my sunglasses, which on some occasions I wear even at night, but a pair of Ray-Bans sure as hell wouldn’t facilitate the search.
Cruising slowly, surveying the night, Bobby said, “What’s wrong with your face?”
“Sasha says nothing.”
“She needs an emergency transfusion of good taste. What’re you picking?”
“I’m not picking.”
“Didn’t your mom ever teach you not to pick at yourself?”
While with my right hand I held the pistol-grip spotlight, with my left I’d been unconsciously fingering the sore spot on my face, which I had first discovered a little earlier in the night.
“You see a bruise here?” I asked, indicating the penny-size tenderness on my left cheek.
“Not in this light.”
“Well, you’ve been knocking around.”
“This is the way it’ll start.”
“Probably a pimple.”
“First a soreness, then a lesion, and then, because my skin has no defense against it…rapid metastasis.”
“You’re a one-man party,” Bobby said.
“Just being realistic.”
Turning right into a new street, Bobby said, “What good did being realistic ever do anyone?”
More shabby bungalows. More dead hedgerows.
“Got a headache, too,” I said.
“You’re giving me a full-on skull-splitter.”
“One day maybe I’ll get a headache that never goes away, from neurological damage caused by XP.”
“Dude, you’ve got more psychosomatic symptoms than Scrooge McDuck has money.”
“Thanks for the analysis, Doctor Bob. You know, you’ve never cut me any slack in seventeen years.”
“You never need any.”
“Sometimes,” I said.
He drove in silence for half a block and then said, “You never bring me flowers anymore.”
“You never tell me I’m pretty.”
I laughed in spite of myself. “Asshole.”
“See? You’re way cruel.”
Bobby stopped the Jeep in the middle of the street.
I looked around alertly. “Something?”
“If I was wrapped in neoprene, man, I wouldn’t have to stop,” he said, neoprene meaning the wet suit that a surfer wears when the water temp is too nipple for him to hit the waves in only a pair of swimming trunks.
During a long session in cold water, while sitting in the line waiting for a set of glassy, pumping monoliths, surfers from time to time relieve themselves right in their wet suits. The word for it is urinophoria, that lovely warm sensation that lasts until the constant but gradual flush of seawater rinses it away.
If surfing isn’t the most romantic, glamorous sport ever, then I don’t know what is. Certainly not golf.
Bobby got out of the Jeep and stepped to the curb, with his back to me. “I hope this bladder pressure doesn’t mean I’ve got cancer.”
“You already made your point,” I said.
“This bizarre urge to relieve myself. Man, it’s…it’s mondo malignant.”
“Just hurry up.”
“I probably held it too insanely long, and now I’ve got uric-acid poisoning.”
I had switched off the spotlight. I put it down and picked up the shotgun.