David Herter creates a modern reimagining Gene Wolfe's Island of Doctor Death. Young Ballou lives alone with his mother in an old house on the shore. When the mysterious Wilson arrives, Ballou's reality tips into a world populated with characters from his pulp comic books as he struggles to understand the adults around him.
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About the Author
David Herter is the author of Ceres Storm and Evening's Empire. He lives in Seattle, Washington.
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Islands Off the Coast of Capitola, 1978
By David Herter, Wesley Allsbrook
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2015 David Herter
All rights reserved.
And if you're a boy with a wide imagination who hikes the beach at Capitola for miles on winter days, hikes until the promontory marking home is a speck you can hide behind your outstretched hand, then you'll continue hearing a voice in the green and white surf and in the hectoring cries of the gulls. You'll hear it coming up behind you, miles behind, as you retrace your crumbling footsteps along the frost-packed sand, and you'll hear it coming down from the eucalyptus as you tread the lane toward home, toward the Ol' Barn Itself, where shaggy branches sway above the boulders and crushed shells in the ramshackle yards. It calls out Ho, Ballou when the wind is just right and the surf is distant and pounding on the beachhead — Ho, Ballou; Ho, Ballou — until the voice is lost in the wind whistling through the tie-down fence.
Home has a formal name, painted on the black iron post beside the drive, stamped in the many books left by a previous owner — The House of 31 Sparrow Lane — but with you and Mom it is always the Ol' Barn Itself. Every time she drives you home from Beach Market, with you jostling with the jostling grocery bags in the back, she announces over her shoulder, "Back to the Ol' Barn Itself, Ballou." The name is your own invention, uttered when you first set eyes on the house.
Its style is eccentric, like many of the properties in your small beach town. The real estate lady had called it Georgian, but additions were made in varying styles, and the uneven profile of the house marks an owner's changing whims, the best of which is your bedroom under the roof. It has a peaked ceiling and old dark wood like something from a Spanish galleon, and you reach it by climbing a brass spiral staircase from off the kitchen, a dizzying climb up and up with the smell of pine and the wood painted blue overhead, like a summer sky.
You're ten years and two days old, tired from your walk, chill from the breeze that presages night. You're hungry, but not hungry enough to bother Mom. You kneel in the crabgrass beside the porch, Windbreaker zipped to your chin, hunching over your motley armies of Centurions, Saracens, Knights, and plastic army soldiers, along with a few die-cast tanks and a red tyrannosaurus. Under your hectoring eye the thirty-some odd pieces become three thousand, and the yard the size of the coast. Sand flies buzz the battlefield. Under your hand a Saracen's jutting black beard pronounces doom upon the Enemy, led by a Centurion with his bright red plume. You shift them, watching the epic cycle of clamor and bloodletting, green plastic soldiers falling under the sword, Saracens toppling in a spray of machine-gun fire. Your white knuckles dig trenches in the sand. Then the surf rises to a roar, wild in the eucalyptus, and a shadow swarms toward you with a great crunch and rattle.
You stand up, heart beating in your throat.
A towering truck glares up the drive, dragging a deep rumble beneath. It spreads its shadow over the gravel and the eucalyptus, and over you. The engine growls, drawing frazzled breaths through the grille, then cuts out.
Visitors are rare. For days on end it's only the mailman with his bag over his shoulder and his ponytail. Sometimes it's only the far neighbor's tomcat, brown and white with a clipped ear where a gull got it. Sometimes it's only birds. Sparrow Ln. reads the sign at the end of the road, though you've never seen a sparrow, only shearwaters and gulls. And once, a pelican had dropped startled out of low fog onto the crabgrass, flapping its wings and clacking open its pot-bellied beak. It had lingered, dazed a bit by the yard, giving you time to run into the kitchen for the Wonder Bread then advance in slow sliding steps toward it whispering, Hey there, hey, and toss wads of bread into its open gullet before it clapped shut and the pelican rustled its wings and sailed up and away.
Sometimes it's only the ghosts of birds, rising out of the salty night air.
You advance cautiously.
WIN EBAGO proclaims the rusted letters on the truck's grille. You wonder if someone really won it, and what type of vehicle an Ebago is, then let yourself recognize the name. You feel the heat from the grille and study the battered Oregon license plate. The windshield betrays nothing beyond its glare, nor does any further sound come from it, other than a tic-tic from the engine. You retreat to your armies near the porch, watching the door in the side of the vehicle, waiting.
Words were once painted there, you realize. YOU 10, it tells you, in faded blue.
"Bally?" Mom says through the open window above you, and you can picture her stretching on the couch. "What've you got your hands on?"
* * *
When you first saw the island outside of a comic book it was faint with fog that dampened the air and made the hard, glassy waves look like horses charging toward shore. In comic books the island is always jagged, and the Doctor's laboratory rises from its center like a lighthouse made of steel. But this island is pale like the fog and the laboratory thin as glass. In the fog it comes and goes. From inside — the inside you first reached from the cubbyhole off your bedroom — the laboratory is white and full of tall windows. "Time is tide," the Doctor told you, that first time, steepling his deathly white fingers beneath his beard. "Time is tide and the beating of a heart, Ballou. And if you were to wade into that tide and swim away, swim in any direction — since any direction would be away from my laboratory, and my island — then you'd be moving into your past, into your days before, when you were at other schools, when you had other playmates, and when you and your mother were happier." You stood at the window, looking first at him then out across the shimmering water to the shore, hoping to catch sight of home. "And a tide pool ... Well, Bally, time in a tide pool is time stopped."
Saying this he reached into the mouth of the glass jar, lifting out a damp red bloom.
* * *
You 10. The words on the side of the mobile home, in faded blue.
You stand with your arms out, your Swabbies stiff at the bell-bottoms from salty spray, damp at the knees from kneeling in the crabgrass. You feel as you do when standing in the surf and it retreats back to sea, the land threatening to go with it.
Faint, through the window behind you: "Ballou?"
You picture Mom on the couch, a towel across her forehead, listening to The 20,000 Dollar Pyramid or Name That Tune. Since losing her job two weeks ago, she's always listened to TV rather than watched it, with the image all snowy and sometimes rolling up like an eye into its head.
In front of you, the side door of the Winnebago pops open. Cowboy boots are the first thing you notice, then gangly denim trousers and a rumpled white shirt. The intruder hooks his thumbs onto his belt. His face is like the Marlboro Man's, and his squint is somewhat like McCloud's, though he's younger and has a mangy beard. His shirt is red plaid, like one of the tablecloths at Doodles on the freeway, with buttons like the inside of an abalone shell. His gold belt buckle says W.
"Well, hey there. You might just be a kid named Ballou."
You nod, uncertain.
"Don't suppose you remember me." He extends his hand. A large gold ring sits on the thumb.
You step back, once, twice.
"Lila in there?" He's looking up at the house as he says this, then out at the eucalyptus and the garage and back, devouring the place. He reaches out with his other hand and, like a magician, conjures a cowboy hat. He sweeps it down toward your head but you sprint through the gravel, scattering the soldiers.
"Hey, Lila! He's an itchy kid!"
You race up the porch stairs, into the hall, ready to slam shut the door. "Mom!"
In the living room, she's throwing back the purple quilt, sitting up, raising her too-pale face to the shuddering light. "What are you doin', Bally?" After rubbing the sleep from her eyes, she looks pretty once more.
You turn. He's crossing the porch, hat in one hand, the other hooked on his belt. His boots resound like drums.
Mom blinks and mouths something that might be the answer to the question on the TV. Then: "Wilson, that you?"
Wilson. The name echoes strangely.
He's in the doorway. "You get my letter, Lila?" When she says nothing he adds, "Was in your neck of the woods, thought I'd stop by, say hi."
"Stop by in what?"
"A mobile palace, a bit beat-up."
"You swindle somebody, Wilson? Or somebody swindle you?"
But he's looking at you. "You heard of me, kid? Uncle Wilson?"
Uneasy, you shake your head. You see something, a shadow, like a huge spider, or a crab, scuttling across the gravel behind him.
"Bally? You okay?"
You know immediately, even without having seen it. Something had been hanging onto the bottom of the Winnebago and had dropped down.
"Bally, are you okay? Answer me."
"You startled him. All that noise."
Wilson sets his hat on the little table beside the door. "My apologies. It's nice to see you, Lil'."
"It's just I'm not feeling too well today," Mom says listlessly. "Wilson, you should've called."
"Last time I saw you, you weren't feeling well."
"Come in, if you're coming in."
You want to shout, No! and hurtle yourself at the door. But you're torn with looking out at the empty gravel as he swings it shut behind him.
* * *
You can't remember Uncle Wilson because Uncle Wilson is dead. Or anyway, that's what Mom said more than once. He was killed in Dem Bien Phu in '72 by Charlie, and there's a singsong pleasure in the name of that faraway battlefield, one that you often re-enact with armies in the front yard. Dem Bien Phu is a palace with great huge walls in a jungle, and archers shooting through narrow slits in the stone, hailing death upon the green American army soldiers. Charlie, though, will always be Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator for you.
Mom doesn't hug Wilson, and doesn't offer him a drink, though more than once he pats a silver flask in his pocket. By this time of night, even when she had a job and wouldn't return home 'til six, she'd be listening to The Joker's Wild and you'd fix ravioli and continue with your homeschool, and you'd sit with her until nine, when you were allowed to go to your bedroom in the attic. (You may retire to your chamber, Master Ballou, she'd say, and gently kiss your forehead.) There you'd watch Adam-12 on the little black-and-white television, or crawl into your fort under the eaves and read your books, Henry Treece and Eleanor Cameron, lately.
"Ballou, we got to take your ma out to eat. Where's the best place to eat in this town?"
You would've said Herfys but you see the opportunity to get a real meal, maybe steak and eggs. "Faradays on Main Street."
"Yeah? You mean that blue and white fancy palace? What about it, Lila? Faradays," he says, and laughs.
She wipes the fog from her eyes, but it just comes back again. "Let's go to Doodles by the exit. I don't want to rip a hole in your wallet."
You know she really wants to go to Doodles because Clarissa works there, and she wants Clarissa to see him.
* * *
Wilson drives Mom's rusty green Dodge Dart.
She changed into her flowery blouse as well as a pink scarf. She smells of perfume, which only makes you realize how long it's been since she smelled of perfume. Wilson tries to place his arm around her, simply by turning to talk to you in the back seat. She moves over, leans her head against the window.
You wanted to ride in the Winnebago, feel the thrum of it, see it nosing into Doodles' small parking lot, until you remember the thing that had dropped down from under.
"Hey, Ballou." His eyes find you in the rearview. "You miss Austin?"
"He misses his friends, and the school there, don't you, Bally?" Mom looks back. "But he loves the beach. He can walk for miles."
"Beachcomber," says Wilson, and you sit back further in the seat so he can't find you with his eyes.
You want to mention the islands but you don't. You don't want Wilson sticking around more than tonight, and if you mention the islands he might just decide to stay. Or he might roam up and down the coast following them, or trying to. After all, his house has wheels.
Doodles is an old Sambo's redone with a different paint job and no paintings of the little black boy in the jungle. Mom sometimes calls it Dumbo's. The waitress is Clarissa, Mom's only friend. "Is this who I think it is?" Clarissa says when you sit down.
"Clarie, meet Wilson."
Clarissa wrinkles her nose like she smells Mom's perfume. "I've heard some." She smiles the smile of a waitress at all of you, but she and Mom share a glance.
"I think I heard of you, too," says Wilson.
"Hi, B. How are you, kiddo? You want your bacon cheeseburger?"
A bearded man at the counter catches your eye.
"Sure," you say, and look again.
You excuse yourself and go to the bathroom, saying you have to wash your hands. On the way you try to look again, but the man at the counter turns away. At the sink you wash your hands and dry them three times to get the grit of sand from between your fingers then wash them again. When you fumble in your pocket you find one of your Centurions. You bring it out and set it on the edge of the sink, then crouch to see it straight-on. You shut one eye and move in closer, so that it becomes as big as Ragnar the Robot Slayer.
"You don't think he haunts the hallways," Mom is saying softly, when she thinks you're still in the bathroom.
"Sixty-eight. Been quiet since then," Wilson mutters before he sees you. Then his face lights up with a false smile. "What grade are you in, Ballou?"
"He's in fifth. Or he will be, when we enroll him."
As you sit down, they look at one another in a way you can't figure out. "Were you shot?" you ask. "At Dem Bien Phu?"
Wilson smiles and pets his cowboy hat, which sits like a straw cat on the table between the two of you. He sets down his fork on his empty plate and leans low over the tablecloth. "I went under, Ballou."
You look to Mom but she's stirring her ice water with her straw.
"What do you mean?"
The moment stretches out, accompanied by the tinny muzak. Mom doesn't need to look at Wilson to be looking at him.
"Like Valhalla," he says, straightening. "You know about Valhalla, Ballou?"
You nod. "It's in the clouds where Odin lives. And in the thirteenth eon Odin and Ragnarök had a big war and they built robots that got so powerful they escaped down to Earth. Odin made Ragnar the Robot Slayer and sent him down, only the Slayer has forgotten who he really is and thinks the Doctor's the head of the evil army." You set down your fork. You hadn't meant to say so much.
Wilson's smile crinkles the corner of his eyes. "Hey, Lila, we got ourselves a road scholar here."
Mom pokes at her food, mouth down-turned.
When Clarissa arrives with Wilson's juicy steak and a bottle of Heinz 57 ketchup, he says, "Now I'm mighty fixed on devouring some animals." He winks at her.
"Some of those animals are my friends," Clarissa mutters.
Since he's busy eating, Wilson doesn't talk anymore and you turn to your burger. Mom brings up the subject of how Wilson paid for the mobile home and where he'd gotten it. You're gulping down the burger, juicy and delicious with thick bacon that crackles against the roof of your mouth, all smoky and salty. "And where are you going tomorrow?" she asks.
"Every day a different place." He grins. "Maybe to the movies. What about it, Ballou? You want to go to the movies tomorrow?"
But Mom says, "We have one theater, Wilson. They're showing The Betsy. You want to see The Betsy with Mr. Laurence Olivier?" Her tone says he wouldn't want to.
"I was thinking of the drive-in along Pelican Bay. That still there?"
Recalling a scrap of newspaper on the beach and the ad on the page, you jump in and say to Mom, "Yeah! They're showing The Island of Dr. Moreau!" You begin to add that it stars Logan from Logan's Run and the Admiral from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, but Mom cuts you off.
"Bally! You're spewing ketchup!"
You wipe your mouth and try to appear sedate, brimming with table manners. "I wanted to see it in Austin last year but we moved away."
Clarissa drops the check onto the table. "Anything else, you two?" She looks Wilson up and down.
"Thank you, Clarissa, it sure was delicious." Mom tries to pick up the slip but Wilson gets it.
He winks over his fork. "Hey, Scout, you want some chocolate ice cream? Three ice creams, what about, Lil'?"
Mom rubs between her eyes. "You going to make Clarissa rewrite this bill?"
"Chocolate with chocolate syrup drizzled on top, okay? Double dose for the kid."
"None for me. Wilson, when did you get so well-to-do?"
Clarissa smiles and strolls to the counter.
"Here and there and everywhere. And tomorrow, we'll drive up to Pelican Bay."
Excerpted from Islands Off the Coast of Capitola, 1978 by David Herter, Wesley Allsbrook. Copyright © 2015 David Herter. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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