• Categories
  • The Latest Style
  • Archives

Fearing’s Fall

I’d been driving up the rutted track for what seemed like hours, fighting the wheel all the way. I’d always thought my little Rabbit would take dirt roads easily, but this road was like a corkscrew tunnel winding through dense second-growth redwoods and towering hedges of poison oak. In its deepest shadows, the foggy afternoon was murkier than most nights.

I was straining my eyes and craning my neck for a glimpse of Fearing’s place, so when I came to the steel gate, I barely hit the brakes in time. My tires grated to a halt with the camouflage-painted metal bar shimmering just inches from the headlights. It cast a horizontal shadow on the pale, shredded mists drifting over the road.

After my heart slowed back to normal, I climbed out to examine the barrier: a four-inch diameter pipe fastened at the end with a case-hardened padlock. Its vertical pivot was set in concrete anchored deep in the stony soil. To one side the terrain dropped off into brushy weeds, with a stream splashing invisibly somewhere beneath. The other side was a five-foot red earth embankment.

This is a hell of a note, I thought. Fearing knows I’m coming, but he hasn’t opened up the gate! I looked up the road where it wound out of sight behind dead leaning trunks. I wondered how far I’d have to walk to find the house, and whether it would rain again. It didn’t much matter; it seemed to drizzle perpetually under these redwoods. I resolved to try blowing the car horn a bit first, for maybe an hour or so. I turned back toward the Rabbit.

It was then, with rabbit-alertness of my own, that I heard the faintest padding of footfalls on the ground behind me. As I turned, a hard weight struck my shoulders and a hard hand clenched my mouth. Then the other smudged hand was braced rock-hard in front of my neck, its fingers clutching an eight-inch slab of blackened steel notched and beveled into a sadist’s dream of a high-tech survival blade.

I was dead, I knew, totally under the control of a superior force. There’d been no chance to resist, and my reaction took the form of a sick, cringing fear. But as my body started to spasm vainly, the iron grip faded back, leaving me free to stagger forward against the hood of the car. Sprawling on it, I twisted and looked around — into Ron Fearing’s grinning, black-smeared face.

“You’re getting slack, Holloway,” he told me matter-of-factly, shoving his pig-splitter into a plastic sheath strapped horizontally against his belt. His robust physique was decked out in camouflage-colored fatigues, slouch Ranger hat and combat boots. His bushy beard proved his manhood. “You should toughen up some.”

“Fearing, you bastard!” I sagged back onto the hood of my car, which sagged in turn under my excess weight. The anger was strangely fleeting, swamped by sick relief at being allowed to live, and at not having to fight this human killing machine, my longtime friend. But I was damned if I trusted him enough to shake his hand. “How long were you lying out there in the weeds waiting for me?”

He grinned again and checked his diver’s watch. “About three minutes.” His teeth and eyes flashed out at me from the shadowy lair of his lamp-blacked face. “When you drove onto the access road, you tripped a scramble-alarm at the house. From that point I can beat the fastest vehicle up here by five minutes And that’s without activating the road obstacles.” He shrugged. “If I thought you wanted to play rough, I’ve got plastique charges wired to blow down some redwood trunks a tank couldn’t plow through.”

“My God! You take this survival business seriously, don’t you? I thought it was just Doc Savage stuff you made up for your books.”

“I’m a realist, Tom.” Fearing gazed levelly at me, standing at ease in the road with a military firmness I hadn’t seen in him before. “Believe me; the books don’t even scratch the surface.”

I shivered and folded my arms against the damp chill, that seemed to be increasing with the lateness of the day. “Can we get into some shelter? I’m still sweating from your open-arms welcome. Unlock the gate, and I’ll give you a lift back.”

“No need for that. I’ve got my wheels—just follow close behind.” He unlocked the barrier and waved me through in my car, securing the gate after me.

Then he trotted into the bushes, where I soon heard the revving of a supercharged engine. A moment later he came trundling out of an invisible road spur in a hulking 4X4 Blazer decked with lights and antennae, on tires like hobnailed jackboots. Except for its mud-spattered green-and-brown camouflage, it resembled some bizarre moon vehicle. As I pulled in behind, his tail lights were bright enough to blind me and stain the whole foggy afternoon red.

Apparently we were still some distance from the house. I tried to relax as I drove, turning on the heater and switching off the hissing radio I’d left on. The only merciful thing about coming this far, I realized, was that the loom of the surrounding hills made the newscasters’ endless chronicle of world crises and war moves dwindle to a faint sizzle of static.

Needless to say, I was having second thoughts about the wisdom of this trip. I’d known Fearing since our college days—his wife, Ruth, too, from before they were married—and I’d seen enough of them and their kids, Jennifer and Nathan, to keep up our friendship over the past decade or so.

But those meetings had all been under fairly constrained and civilized circumstances—Fearing’s book signings, and my faculty literary luncheons. They’d grown scarce since my wife Lillian and I stopped being a couple. And there’d never been anything in them to warn me how strongly this side of Fearing’s personality, the propane-breathing neo-Neanderthal, possessed him on his own turf, in his own element.

As, apparently, it did. I couldn’t see Ruth taking it quietly, even in her role as a fairly long-suffering wife. Likely it accounted for the recent hints I’d had of their marital trouble.

Of course, if Fearing wanted to live his art, I had no right to complain. God knew, he’d worked this kind of apocalyptic paranoia into a profitable vein of literature with his best-selling series of novels about Mark Craven, Solo Survivor. We’d developed in radically different directions from the adolescent taste for fantasy literature we’d once shared. He prided himself on never having “gone academic” like me. And I didn’t denigrate his work, though it was far from the sublime craftings of Poe that now formed my specialty at the University. Fearing had created his own tight little literary world, one that bore an intense appeal for some readers.

I hadn’t expected to find him living it, though, or to experience it myself so up-close and intimate. Suddenly it all seemed deeply pathological, and I wasn’t looking forward to finding out more. Yet it dawned on me that it was no longer physically possible just to turn and drive away.

The house, to my surprise, was a classic building from the previous century, a rambling lodge built of heavy stones and massive redwood beams. It could have been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s great- uncle Grendel, with trellises and terraces climbing the hillside behind it under the giant trees. Its presence out here in the wilderness puzzled me — until I realized, of course, it was a winery! Stretching in front of it under the melting dark sky, I could dimly make out a cleared expanse of landscape, weedy knolls patterned with rows of vine stocks. After all, this was the northern fringe of Napa-Sonoma wine country.

The family’s northward move from San Francisco had been recent, and it threatened to stretch many of their social ties to the breaking point. Hence my sudden resolve to visit Fearing; also, perhaps it was an attempt to smooth over their troubled marital relations. Ruth had expressed enthusiasm to me about their new house, and I could see why. The place was picturesque, in an austere way, once you got past the dank sodden weather.

The moon-craft that I was following abruptly accelerated and disappeared into some kind of dugout at the far side of the house. I pulled my car up as close to the cavernous porch as I could, hopped out, and ducked under the dripping fringe of eaves. The place was silent with no lights burning, although I could smell wood smoke drifting down from the high stone chimney. In a moment, Fearing strode cross the gravel drive. The crunching noise his footsteps made could, I realized, be one more means of detecting unwanted visitors.

“This is quite a place,” I greeted him. “Restful and . . . quiet.” I peered through the picture window into the gloomy interior. “Are Ruth and the kids here? Or did they drive into town for the day?”

He came up the flagstone steps, hatless now, his bald-topped head pale in the darkness of the porch. He’d wiped the splotches of lampblack from his face, though traces of it still shaded the gray-blond whiskers of his jaw. “They’re gone, Tom. Ruth left me last week. She took the kids with her.”

There was no real emotion in his voice, only a sort of tenacious matter-of-factness. I probably registered more dismay myself, faced suddenly with the prospect of a whole weekend alone with Fearing. “I’m sorry to hear it,” I told him sincerely.

He said nothing. I stood there a while at a loss, then said, “She didn’t let me know before I came, or anything, in case you’re wondering. You both must have had a lot on your minds.” Still no answer. “Are they staying at your condo in the city?”

He shook his head with a minimal motion. “I don’t know yet where they are. Maybe with her relatives.”

I nodded understandingly, or so I hoped. Not like him to give up so easily. “It must’ve been pretty sudden. Was there much of a row?”

He shook his head more vigorously, the emotion finally creeping through. “It came as a surprise to me. I’ve been busy with other things lately, Tom.” He exhaled. “Just when I’m finally bringing it all together—this dream I’ve had, of making us a new, secure life—and for them, not just myself!” He narrowed his eyes in a baffled way. “I wonder, did she stop to think what this would do to me, this kind of—betrayal? You can’t begin to imagine….” His voice choked off.

After a few moments of burdened silence, I helped him out. “I’ve been going, through it too, remember, with Lillian. It’s hell at first.” I dared to place a hand on his shoulder, which felt hard and tense as a strung bow. “But then, it’s much too early for you to think of divorce. She’s bound to get back in touch. I’m sure you two can come to a meeting of the minds. I’ll do what I can to help,” I added. I regretted that immediately, not at all sure it would be wise. Ruth must’ve had a pretty good escape plan to get away from here with the kids. I wouldn’t want to expose them to danger.

Fearing nodded, smiled faintly, and clasped my upper arm in return. His rangy hand clutched a little too tightly, so it felt like I was having my blood pressure checked. “No, Tom, you’re right, I wouldn’t want a divorce, not in my position. You know what they say about that—she gets the gold mine, I get the shaft!”

He turned toward the mansion’s heavy wooden door, seeming to have shaken off his unwieldy emotions entirely. “But come on inside. You must be half-dead with cold, and it’s up to me to do the cooking these days.”

The first thing I saw inside the house was the large stone fireplace in the parlor—I could have crept inside it, except that Fearing quickly built it up to a roaring blaze with chunks of wood I recognized as split, blackened grape-stocks.

In a while, when I was warmed up enough to take a seat in one of the leather-backed chairs, I took in the room more fully. It was decorated in an antique, rustic style with bookshelves, old brass, and landscape paintings. Most of the ornaments were once functional things—guns, snowshoes, kerosene lamps. The place didn’t have what I would call a feminine touch.

The parlor opened into the dining room via a broad archway, and there I saw the only discordantly modern feature—one whole corner of the room was glassed-in on two sides. Inside the wire-reinforced glass were computers, printers, shelves of reference books, and other technical paraphernalia. One of the monitor screens was glowing green, tirelessly scrolling rows of figures, and I heard the muted clack of a teleprinter start up. I yelled a question about it to Fearing, who was already rattling pots in the kitchen beyond.

“Oh, that! Ruth calls it my War Room—or she used to. It’s the nerve center of the house, where all my alarms and gadgets are hooked up. I do my book research in there, too.” His voice shifted in resonance as his boots scraped around the stone-floored kitchen.

“We’re pretty isolated up here, but I have phone links to various computer services around the country, including some government sites that require top security clearances. Besides controlling the property defenses from here, I can monitor the world situation. So we’ll be sure to have some warning when it all blows.”

Fearing’s words gave me an odd sense of unreality, yet didn’t surprise me. I knew that he and his writings occasionally found friends in the current administration—mainly when his particular brand of paranoia tended to stampede the public mood in the right direction. Perhaps he was rewarded in turn with some access to inside information—or else he had hacking skills, or an expert team.

I wandered into the dining room and squinted through the glass, which was hexed with embedded chicken wire. The line printer was still onanistically spilling its fanfolded output onto the floor; it looked like news service text. Between the two desktop stations stood various control boxes, blank closed-circuit monitors, and shelves of manuals and bound printouts. The only decoration was one wall poster, a day-glo-colored mushroom cloud standing tall over the Pacific.

“I suppose you’re getting a lot of data right now,” I called to him, “with the Mediterranean situation so tense.”

“Things are always tense, whether we hear about ‘em or not.” Fearing glanced out briefly through the open kitchen door. “And I’m always prepared.” He vanished again. “I’d unlock the booth and take you inside—but really, you can see all you need to from there.”

Indeed, I could. I could see, as well, why Ruth would feel the need to get the hell out of here. After all, wasn’t it just one big freaking nightmare?

Yet here I was, steeling myself to ride out the weekend. And maybe it wasn’t hopeless; maybe I could help, even now. All that anyone needs, even Fearing, I told myself for the thousandth time, is a willing ear to pour out his troubles to. And although I’d never yet in my life managed to be a good listener, I might not get another chance like this.

In a little while, Fearing wheeled a cart up to the broad dining table and unloaded an omelet straight from the pan, served with sautéed vegetables, toasted sourdough bread, and wine. I sat down to the meal gratefully. It had all been done quickly and efficiently, and the omelet was piping hot with a delectable filling.

“You’ll have to trust me on the mushrooms,” Fearing called out from the kitchen as I began eating. “An amazing variety of them grow around here, because of the dampness and the varied terrain. But don’t worry; I know them well enough to spot any poisonous kinds.”

When at length he came in and set his own full plate down on the table, opposite my nearly untouched one, he added, “Besides, if I’d thrown in any of the really lethal ones, they’d have taken effect already.”

My gusto had departed; I now sat waiting for the sudden stab of internal pain that might herald mushroom poisoning. But I watched politely while Fearing wolfed down his own omelet, as swiftly and efficiently as he’d cooked it. It came out of the same cast-iron pan, and it looked identical to mine as he forked it into his bearded face. So I gave up and enjoyed the meal.

After cleaning up the dishes, we took the wine into the parlor and sat beside the fire. He told me a little about the estate, how he’d chosen the region as being the one least menaced by nuclear fallout. “The prevailing winds are from the west. They blow across the widest ocean in the world before touching this coast. So if the air is clean anywhere after a strike, it’ll be here.”

In response to my observation about nuclear winter, he laughed. “If you believe all that, you’re licked before you start. But I can outlast a temporary climate change—say, a year or two.”

“You’ve built a shelter, then?”

“I didn’t have to build it,” he said with a smile. “The main advantage of this place is the wine cellars. They were dug over a century ago by Chinese laborers. I only had to modify them. Fill in some, reinforce others.” He set down his goblet to mold square structural shapes from the firelight with his big hands. “And I added in the security and shielding. But say, now’s as good a time as any to patrol them. It’s always night down there, anyway. Why don’t you come along?”

Arising, he ushered me back through the dining room into the spacious old kitchen. He opened a plank door a few steps away from the entry to his glassed-in security center. As he passed through, I felt a draft of cold air; Fearing sniffed at it and turned to me with a hint of annoyance. “I can’t seem to get rid of that musty, damp smell in the tunnels. But the occupancy area is force-ventilated with high-volume fresh air via filters. Only the best, you’ll see!”

When the row of fluorescent tubes along the apex of the descending passage flared yellow, I could see that the stone stairs had been surfaced with steel grids, and that handrails had been bolted to the masonry walls. I followed my host down, feeling a little uneasy at being plunged suddenly from twentieth-century technology into musty history. He stopped at the bottom of the stairway, in a narrow hall with a row of metal fire-resisting doors set in one wall. One of them was a double door, which he unlocked and threw wide to reveal his Blazer, waiting in a garage whose far end was a rolling overhead steel door. “The original wine cellars were stocked through this side entry,” he explained. “I’ve made it into a secure, unshielded garage. After all, the fallout radiation shouldn’t hurt the wagon.”

As he was checking the locks in the garage, I examined the construction of the interior passage. It was an amalgam, of discolored old timber and masonry with fresh new cinderblock and steel I-beams. “I can’t do any better for the floor surface than these original flagstones,” Fearing said when he rejoined me, pointing to the large slabs roughly fitted beneath our feet. “Some of them are six feet across and eight or ten inches thick.”

He led me to another door; it opened onto a half-flight of stairs leading down at a sharp angle. “We’re still under the house, but this right-angle bend puts us out of reach of gamma rays.” He paused in a lower, shorter corridor. Looking at the walls, I could see that the masonry columns and timbers were thicker here, made to sustain the weight at this greater depth, although the steel I-beams were the same gauge.

The musty smell was stronger at this level. The floor was damp, and there were white trickles of nitre on the walls, even on the newer blocks. Yet I saw no sign of flooding. At the end of the passage was a windowless, yellow-painted steel door. Set in the wall beside it was a stainless nine-button panel that looked equally impervious to damage.

Fearing walked forward to screen the panel from my vision with his body as he punched in a lengthy combination. “Take it from me, nobody could burn or grind their way through this. It’s impregnable. True, the areas we’ve seen so far aren’t totally secure, but they have special defenses I haven’t shown you. All the really vital systems are in here.”

At his touch, the door swung inward and the lights beyond flickered to life. I couldn’t repress a gasp of surprise, both at the size of the room and at its luxuriance. The plush furniture, the broad-curbed gas hearth, the waxed and polished flagstones softened here and there by woven rugs—it all made the house above look Spartan by comparison. The place had a vast profusion of furniture and goods, a separate kitchen area, toilet stalls, beds, all the appurtenances of daily living plus additional equipment stored in shelves at the sides and back: carpentry tools, an electronics workbench, books, more computers, storage tanks and bins, and control boxes similar to those in the glassed-in booth upstairs.

“It took a lot of coolies to dig this place out a hundred years ago, you can imagine,” Fearing said as he ushered me inside. “A few of them are probably still buried here. Labor conditions weren’t so soft in those days.” He left the door open behind us; it appeared to be the room’s only exit. “I can divide up this space with movable partitions if I want to—but now, during Readiness Phase, I like to see everything at a glance.”

As my sense of proportion returned, I calculated that the shelter was at least eighty feet across, roughly square. The ceiling arched twelve feet high at its peak, raftered by massive redwood beams, some of which Fearing had further braced with three-inch vertical steel pipe columns. He showed me where a few of the timbers were stained or shallowly eroded near the ends—by fungus rot, he said. “But then, these logs have held for a century; they’re good for another century or two at least. And you can bet the civilized world doesn’t have that much time left.” _

I was given a lengthy tour of the shelter, with a narration that told much about current theories of survival in the post-nuclear world; and more, if I cared to listen, about my host’s distinctive mindset. It all amounted to more than I could take in at one time.

Whether from boredom, or from my reluctance to share Fearing’s enthusiastic contemplation of planetary doom, I found my thoughts wandering away from his lecture. The strange antiquity of the place beneath its modern trappings gave rise to Poe-esque fancies, not necessarily of a cheery nature. I could easily imagine myself as Fearing’s prey, lured down to his dank cellar to sample a modern-day cask of Amontillado. I didn’t mention the notion to him, because I didn’t think it would react well on his burdened mind.

After all, my involvement with his beloved Ruth was before Fearing came on the scene, and had been casual, just that one time and no follow-up. Most likely she hadn’t ever confessed it to him, and I certainly wasn’t about to.

Instead I feigned an interest in his monolog, nodding or muttering assent when it seemed called for. By the time his enthusiasm began to run down, my weariness must have been apparent.

At length we headed back upstairs and, after a brief nightcap, up to bed on the second floor. Ron believed in rising and retiring early, and I was groggy from all his technical specifications.

Yet once in the guest room, as often happens, I found myself suddenly wide-awake and restless. After all, I was tuned to more cosmopolitan hours, and strange beds were never made for sleeping. So I sat up a long while and read. Or, more precisely, I browsed through the dry, dismal government pamphlets on food canning and urban warfare that Fearing kept by the guest bed, I glanced at the even more depressing paperback suspense novels with swastikas on their covers, but ended up brooding sightlessly over a soiled, dog-eared text on mycology that had obviously been used on field trips to identify exotic mushrooms.

It was hard, I mused, to see how Fearing had come to the place he had—how someone so like myself, or at least quite compatible, could end up so astoundingly different. He’d learned all the same lessons as I, yet apparently drawn all the opposite conclusions—going from peace freak to gun freak, from socialist to tax rebel, from libertarian to fire-breathing drill sergeant.

In his fiction and in fact, he’d made paranoia his creed. And yet, could I really condemn him? What if history should whimsically decide to prove him right, as the talk radio jocks all seemed to be heralding? Not being one to face Armageddon fearlessly myself, I couldn’t say.

Even where gentle Ruth and their kids were concerned, I felt unsure. But then, they could hardly be expected to live out their lives “on alert” in this glorified bunker. And even in Fearing’s best-possible scenario, if the world did blow itself up, could anyone really sit out the fallout with him and stay sane?

Of course he wanted them to share in his cherished afterlife—because after all, what’s a kingdom without subjects? The nuclear family: a peculiarly American social unit defined as the largest number of relatives capable of fitting into a fallout shelter—I shuddered to think of it! And so I sank into a shallow sleep, from which I was awakened not much after dawn by bustling in the War Room and kitchen.

That second day went much the same as the first, with deft meals, strategic briefings, and a more extensive tour of the grounds. I still waited in vain to hear some outpouring of concern from Fearing about his family, or some indication that his mental radar was homing in on a solution to his problems.

But if anything, he was cooler and more deliberate than the previous day—all too tightly in control of his emotions, it seemed to me.

The fog was higher that morning, obscuring only the tops of the forested hills. And as we walked outside, I could see the nearby landscape: weedy hillocks with rows of dead, blackened grape stocks. The climate had finally proven too damp for the vines, Fearing told me. Fungus had destroyed the roots.

The rotting vineyards fell away some distance down the valley, ending against low, brush-covered hills. It struck me that there should be an easier road into the estate from that direction. When asked, my host said there had indeed been at one time. He pointed out where he’d bulldozed and blocked it with debris in order to make the approach more difficult.

As we circled the house, we came back under the redwoods, passing into silent, towering, fern-carpeted galleries. “From here north, it’s rough terrain all the way to the Russian River,” Fearing said. He cautioned me to stay close to him and avoid touching anything. “Those wires are only carrying low voltage now, but if we shorted them out, I’d have to go back to the house and reset the alarms.”

Looking around more carefully, I spied various wire fences, relays, and raw red welts in the earth where cables had recently been laid. I hesitated to ask what other man-traps his defenses included, lest he try to demonstrate them. But Fearing showed me around peaceably, pointing out technological features and also natural ones—edible plant species and psychedelic shrooms, huge yellow banana slugs clinging to redwood trunks, and exotic toadstools probing up from the freshly disturbed earth. “Some of these local varieties are even poisonous to the touch,” he told me. “After checking them, mushroom gatherers wash their hands before handling any edible stock.”

The fungi seemed especially prone to grow along the routes of the electric wires, perhaps because of the recent excavation. In one place, upthrusting spaghetti-like masses had buckled and destroyed an asphalt path he’d laid through the forest to shield a coaxial cable. “I swear the ground voltage stimulates the damned things,” Fearing said, stamping out a particularly venomous-looking pink cluster with his high-laced boots.

“Of course, the mushroom that we see growing above ground is only the reproductive organ. The main network of the fungus colony goes on living all the time, deep in the soil and the decaying wood. That’s why they’re so hard to kill.” He went on to explain that the largest living thing on planet Earth was a huge fungus, spreading its underground tendrils over several miles, somewhere in Oregon.

As the day advanced, my host began the maintenance rounds that seemed to take up a good part of his time, and I tagged along with him. A nervous part of my mind considered broaching the idea of an early departure; but against this weighed my sanctimonious resolve to comfort Fearing in some way. This was based on our past if not present friendship, and as well on the subtle prod of my curiosity. It might somehow behoove me to understand this living paradox of a man better, if only for the sake of his wife and children. So I stayed, yet took care not to turn my back on him, lest his commando tendencies of the previous day should reawaken.

The main work on the shelter had been finished. Nevertheless Fearing found plenty to do, such as sealing walls and windows against leaks and retouching rusted metal. He took a lot of pains spraying the wood and masonry with liquid fungicide from a thirty-gallon utility drum he wheeled around with him. Later, he set to work lubricating the large electric generator that practically filled one of the rooms near the garage. When I remarked on its size, he debated silently a moment before answering.

“It’s big because it’s from a passenger cruise ship, Holloway. You know all the electric wiring and fencing I showed you around the grounds? Well, it was designed to keep out intruders, and it will. But it’s really a dual-purpose system.” He set down his oil can and hunkered around to face me.

“You’ve heard of EMP—the electromagnetic pulse that will theoretically be generated by detonations of high-megatonnage weapons? The one that they say will screw up electric circuits all over the world? Well, I rely a lot on electronics here, and something like that would really wipe us out—computers, radios, video security, everything! But a research scientist I know told me how to defend against it—still absolutely top-secret, of course.

“If I set up my own electromagnetic field, generated from inside the shelter and strong enough, at the time of the strike, to soak off most of the EMP’s electrical force, it’ll keep my circuits from being depolarized.” Kneeling in front of the hulking engine, Fearing once again made shapes in the air with his powerful hands. “The fence perimeter will serve that purpose, if I can just boost the power high enough during the missile exchange.” He patted the dynamo, which was driven by a large, slumbering diesel engine. “So you can see why I need a machine powerful enough to light up a battleship!”

I accepted this bit of super-science from Fearing without argument, as I’d accepted all his explanations, even though I suspected that their value to him was more psychological than practical. My understanding of physics was insufficient to refute him, in any case.

So it went with his further rationalizations all afternoon, and over dinner, as he set forth his predatory, pseudo-Darwinist view of world affairs. He sketched his mental defenses in the air before him just as coolly and logically as he would have explained his fallout shelter design. It dawned on me that his crackpot realism was wholly appropriate, even fashionable, in a society obsessed with building muscles and missiles.

Yet I was on my guard, as always since our welcoming grapple. My detachment from his views, and from his curious mental state, was great enough to keep me from really feeling or reacting to anything he said. Or so I thought, until the evening grew late and we were sitting before the fire with our bellies warmed by roasted game fowl, and by rum.

Fearing was saying, “You can see why I could never go through a divorce from Ruth. Everything I have is tied up in this place. A property split would force a court-ordered sale. Then the whole shelter project would be lost, and we’d both be at risk.”

Unthinkingly, or perhaps overdrinkingly, I heard myself come to his fugitive wife’s defense. “But Ron, can you really expect Ruth and the kids to live their lives on red alert the way you do? Not everyone believes there’ll actually be a war—“

“You don’t, maybe, or the rest of those ignorant happyfaces out there. But she knows!” Fearing shook his head in baffled fury. “She has followed my logic every step of the way, all the years we’ve been together. Don’t you see, this project has been my whole life!” A spasm of anger drew him upright in the leather chair. “Damn it, Holloway, a wife is supposed to understand these things.”

I tried again. “Most people can’t even stand to think about it, Ron, much less eat, sleep, and breathe it. . . .”

“For Christ’s sake! You listen to the radio, don’t you?” His vehemence, strangely, had progressed almost to the point of laughter. “If the idiots somehow manage to muddle through this crisis, the next one’ll get ’em! The Russkies will go for a first strike if we give them half a chance. Anyway, their weapons are more hair-trigger and unreliable than ours. And all our new systems are destabilizing ones—look at the MX, and the Pershing, and look at frickin’ Star Wars!” His hands deftly framed defensive shields in air. “Every year the response time gets shorter. Soon it’ll just be automatic retaliation, machines zapping machines—one huge nuclear booby trap!”

My voice cut in hoarsely over his. “Are you sorry about that, Fearing? Or are you gloating over it?” I was surprised to find myself almost out of my own chair, gripping the arms in restrained anger.

He looked at the floor and shook his head, shaking off as well the emotional import of my question. “It doesn’t matter,” he said after a moment. “It’s inevitable, and she knew it. The kids, too!” He propped his forehead on the knuckles of one fist, his arm braced in turn on his knee. “I offered them the way to survive, and they refused it. They chose death over living with me!”

“You can’t put it in those terms, Ron.” Emotionally jarred, I was back to reasonableness. “To see it like that is just plain . . . crazy. They only want to live ordinary lives.”

“Is that so?” He raised his head and fixed his firelit eyes on me in a way he hadn’t done before. “If I’m so crazy, then why are you here?”

“What do you mean?” I felt sweat tickling my brow, perhaps from the blazing heat of the hearth.

“Am I supposed to think it’s a coincidence, you coming to visit during the biggest national crisis since 9/11?” As he regarded me, his face wore a cynical look that wasn’t even close to a smile. “You know perfectly well this is the best place to be when the balloon goes up, the only place!” He laughed bitterly. “What makes you so sure that, just because we’re old buddies, I’ll let you weasel your way into my shelter?”

“Fearing, for God’s sake!” I eased back into my seat, away from the pit of delusion that had just opened at my feet. “That thought never occurred to me! I only wanted to visit your new place, see Ruth and the kids—you know we’ve always been good friends.”

“Oh, yes, you and Ruth! That would be cozy, wouldn’t it? The three of us riding out the apocalypse together, with me doing all the dirty work and you scribbling rhymes, so she’d see how much finer life can be with a truly sensitive male! You think I don’t know you’ve had it on for Ruth all along?”

“Ron, now calm down! You’re way out of line.” I kept my eyes on his clenched, sweat-filmed face, forcing my gaze not to slip down to the huge knife sheathed at his belt. ‘That was never the way it was!”

He sat on the edge of his chair, in a crouch that could easily become a spring; I felt like the white hunter out of ammo, facing down a wounded lion. “But if you really feel that way, I can get the hell out of here,” I added half-hopefully.

He kept his gaze on me, turning his face only slightly in the fire glow.

“Maybe that would be a smart idea.”

I nodded cautiously, but felt the alcohol fumes swirling in my head at the motion. I glanced to the window, and the pitch darkness outside, thinking about booby traps.

“Would tomorrow morning be soon enough?”

“Yes. Get some sleep.” He eased back into his chair, and I stood up out of mine with a clumsy haste that probably showed my fear as well as my intoxication. I left him drinking alone by the fire and found my way upstairs to the guest room.

The door had a bolt on it, a small mercy. But I didn’t doubt that Ron Fearing could get through it bare-handed if he wanted to. Still, I was probably safer here than I would be out on the midnight road, escorted to the gate by my unstable host.

Was I really in danger? Maybe, with him drinking heavily. He was mentally on the brink of something—and not just because of Ruth’s leaving. That seemed more an effect than a cause, a mere snag in his grandiose plans.

The potential for violence had always been there, certainly. In recent years—and recent books—it had been implicit in all his views, combative, reactionary, and agonizingly individualistic as they were. Nevertheless I felt slightly stunned to see him slip from modern-day rationality into a madness as profound and passionate as any of Poe’s tormented characters.

What was eating him up inside, anyway? He professed to hate Russians, yet it seemed clear that he hated most Americans more—and most of all Americans like himself, who might move in on his survivalist domain. By some strange feat of mental agility, he managed to hate himself and simultaneously project his hatred on “them,” convincing himself that “they” were conspiring to destroy him.

And his belief made it so—not just in his family, but in the whole doomed realm of international affairs. In the end he accepted it, embraced it, staked his life on it—the nuclear dawn! Let a thousand mushrooms bloom! If the world survived, he would be the big loser.

Well, to hell with him! For me, no more playing doomsday games. I resolved not to intercede with Ruth on his behalf when I saw her again—if anyone ever did catch up with her, in her flight from his domination!

For that matter, Fearing’s ideas about me weren’t so far off base—Ruth was an attractive, sensitive woman. Maybe I should get back with her, and try to heal the gaping vacancy that had opened up in my own life. I’d have to think about it, once I got a safe distance away from here.

I must have dozed off. When I next opened my eyes, my radium watch said it was past midnight. There was a cold blot of moisture where my slack mouth had touched the bedspread. I couldn’t say just what had awakened me, but my ears echoed with a shrill, harsh sound like a klaxon or siren. Now that I lay listening in the dark, all I could hear was the loud, repeated impact of some piece of machinery, possibly a line printer.

I arose and cautiously opened the door. After a moment’s listening I went out into the dark hall. I approached the faintly lit stairs, moving more confidently as it became evident that Fearing was occupied downstairs. Over the clacking teleprinter and the level murmur of a radio newscast, I could hear him moving around, slamming cabinets.

I crept downstairs, stopping at the bottom to peer around the corner. The fire had burnt down to sparks and embers. The only light was in the War Room, and most of that was from the video monitors. Fearing’s face was bathed intermittently in the green radiance as he turned from one column of marching characters to another. Under his arm he held a thick sheaf of fanfold computer output. The printer had stopped, and now the radio voice, sharp and tense, was audible from where I stood.

“…no further word from the White House at this hour as the Mediterranean situation continues to worsen. Soviet and American fleets have reportedly exchanged missile salvos, although our best sources indicate that these were not nuclear-tipped. Meanwhile, NATO forces worldwide have been placed on highest alert….”

My heart stumbled in my chest, and my brain staggered. This was it! Everything was changed, and the night was suddenly charged with a new and all-encompassing desperation. I braced myself to walk out and hail Fearing, yet I hesitated a moment. Mightn’t that be more dangerous than facing a flight of Russian missiles?

His motions seemed calm, if brisk. As I watched, he went to a bank of controls and stabbed at various buttons and switches. Then he turned on his heel and left the glass room, slamming the door behind him so it audibly locked. As he threw open the kitchen door; I could see beyond it that the fluorescents in the cellar passage were lit.

“Fearing, wait!” Whether he heard my shout, I couldn’t say for sure as he passed straight into the stairwell. I hurried out of my concealment after him, only to see the door to the cellars slam shut, cutting off most of the light. I heard latches engage on the other side.

“Fearing, it’s me!” I reached the door and pounded its oaken planks with the heels of my hands. “Ron, open up! I need the key!”

After a moment I paused. There was no crack under the door, so I couldn’t see whether he was lingering on the other side. No sound of his footsteps could have gotten through it either—but from remoter parts of the house issued other sounds. There was a stubborn throbbing noise that must have been the diesel generator starting itself up. And, in a moment, a rattling of chain drives and sheet metal that I recognized.

“The garage!” I cast about the dark kitchen a moment and ran for the back door. It was dead-bolted, the key nowhere in sight. I unlatched the window beside it and wrenched open the sash. A burglar-proof screen separated me from the night outside, which was dark and sodden, awaiting more rain.

I set to work kicking out the edges of the frame.

I didn’t really want to face Fearing. I’d have been happy to jump into my car and drive away, even at risk of becoming a live pinball on his electronic battlefield. I didn’t want his shelter. Moments ago, as I stood there listening to the radio news report with its culmination of my lifelong fears, my priorities had suddenly fallen into place. I wanted to be with my family—with Lillian and the girls. It was the obvious thing, the only thing, even in a city that might soon become a flaring sunspot. To see them once more… all the differences that caused our separation were so slight, so laughable!

I knew I had to drive back to Berkeley right away. If this was just another false alarm—I prayed that it was, knowing my feelings would remain the same.

And yet I couldn’t make it on my own. I needed the key to Fearing’s tank-proof gate, and the promise of a safe passage through his other defenses. In his zeal to look out for Number One, my existence seemed to have slipped his mind. Or maybe my desperation only added spice to his survival bid.

For that matter, didn’t my host feel a similar urge to be with his loved ones? Wouldn’t it be ironic if, having perfected his elaborate shelter, he left it all behind in the moment of crisis and placed himself at risk to find them?

Somehow I couldn’t picture it. With a splintering noise, the screen finally tore loose—the metal was strong, but the wooden sill that held it was riddled with dry rot. I eased through and dropped to the ground, stumbled once, and headed for the dugout garage entry.

Fearing had left his Blazer parked outside while he did his maintenance, I remembered; now he’d moved it inside and was now closing the heavy roller door, the only other entry to the shelter. The electric motor drive clanked smoothly, and I could see the rectangular patch of light on the concrete ramp narrowing as the door descended.

It was just a few dozen paces away, and my focus was on it as I ran. Even so, I remember other brief impressions: blue foxfires playing in the woods behind the house, probably caused by Fearing’s electric wiring; the diesel generator’s sound shifting to a quick subterranean throb, like a frightened heart, or a telltale one, now putting out its full urgent current.

Also, I sensed movement and shifting amidst the redwoods. In the ozone-blue flicker, I glimpsed hulking motion under the fern fronds out there. Could the energy field be the cause? It must be pumping out a lot of juice. The hairs on the back of my neck tingled, and the air itself was charged with electricity.

I dropped down the embankment onto the drive as the garage door rolled to knee-height. By throwing myself flat and wallowing underneath, I barely got through. With a spryness primed by my adrenaline rush, I scrambled to my feet, half-expecting to see Ron drawing a bead on me with one of his Magnums. But he wasn’t in sight; the garage light had been switched off, and the inner double door was swinging shut on the pale yellow fluorescence beyond.

Throwing myself forward, I caught one of the door halves before it latched. I pushed through it into the passage, where the chug of the diesel was deafeningly loud. Still no glimpse of Fearing. I ran toward the angle leading to the cellars and stumbled down the steep flight of steps.

I expected to see him at his lock panel, but I didn’t. The door must’ve been left open when he arrived, and now was swinging ponderously shut. I dashed toward it.

“Fearing, wait!” I screamed. “You don’t have to let me inside! Just give me the key to your driveway, and I’ll leave!” As I came up against the door, it closed and latched with pneumatic tightness.

“Wait, damn you!” I kicked vainly at the metal door, then jabbed and poked the button panel beside it. “I don’t want to steal your shelter, I just want out of here!”

A scratchy metallic voice sounded from somewhere overhead. “Getting out would be a good idea, Holloway. Do it now, or I’ll divert carbon monoxide from the generator into that corridor. Nothing is going to make me open this door, so you may as well give up.”

“That’s fine. All I want is the gate key! Just tell me where you keep a spare; l’ll get it and go!”

“There are no spares outside this shelter. Don’t try poking around for one, either. You might run into a booby trap.”

“Christ, Fearing!” I stood before the blank door, unsure what direction to plead in. “How am I supposed to get away from here? On foot?”

“You work it out, Holloway,” The voice through the intercom sounded less than human. “It’s survival time. The old rules don’t apply.”

“You son of a bitch! You get a thrill out of this, don’t you?”

Silence, except for the cardiac throb of the motor up the hall.

“Fearing, for the love of God!”

Still no answer. I stood there shaking, all my fear and rage at Earth’s doomsday now focused on him. Feverishly I thought of drums of gasoline, cases of dynamite, other ways of prying him out of his lair. Nothing workable came to mind.

But suddenly, as if in answer to my mental gropings, there came a trembling, prolonged concussion. The lights flickered once, twice, and I saw dust sifting down from the masonry above me.

The shock wave of a nuclear strike—maybe San Francisco! I staggered, more from the sick futility in my gut than from the faint vibrations. Then I braced myself against the wall as a second impact shook the passage.

I heard a rattle of plaster and a groaning of I-beams. These didn’t diminish, but carried over into the grinding of yet another, stronger shock that smote my shoulder and sent me staggering away from the wall. The whole passageway was shifting now, deforming visibly amid a howling chorus of tortured stone and timber.

What could it be? A direct nuclear hit, here in the middle of the Sonoma woods? What were the chances of that? Was the whole planet crumpling and imploding at once in a vast nuclear paroxysm? I reached for the bottom end of the stair rail and recoiled, my hand smarting from the static electric charge that leaped off the metal. The very walls must be alive with the energy of Fearing’s EMP defense field.

Staggering in the reeling corridor, I heard a grating noise and looked around to see the pneumatic door of the shelter straining in its jamb. l shrank back against the stairs and watched it slowly buckle and topple forward, the masonry around it crumbling. Its fall laid open the interior of the shelter, and an even greater chaos.

There stood Fearing, as stunned as myself, clinging to one of the vertical beams of the vast room. Around him his rich furnishings bucked and heaved across the cellar floor, which contorted even more violently than the ceiling overhead. On all sides the earth lurched and thrust up in strange mounds, undermining the support pillars and threatening to collapse the whole structure.

“Ron! Get out of there! Come on, this corridor is still sound!”

I couldn’t tell whether he heard me over the din of cracking timbers and grating stones. He just stood staring, stunned by the destruction of his dream, and by the sheer magnitude of what was happening.

I could sympathize with him. In the urgency of the moment, my recent hatred was forgotten. I wouldn’t have thought I had it in me, but I found myself leaving the relative safety of the corridor and moving toward him across the heaving rubble, intent on dragging him out of there. I went slowly, creeping by the light of the few flickering electric lamps that still rattled and dangled from the ceiling.

Then, as I saw the nature of the underground cataclysm close-up, I experienced some of Fearing’s paralytic astonishment. The strange, thrusting mounds, I realized, were the broad flagstones of the cellar floor, driven relentlessly upward from beneath. And the pressure that drove them, incredibly, was the intense, relentless force of living things growing in the earth.

They were toadstools, pushing up as they do in the forest—massively stimulated here, I suddenly understood, by Fearing’s defensive electric force field. The hated life forms that so permeated the soil, and the very stones and timbers of his house, were suddenly bursting forth to destroy it.

I laughed half-madly at the realization as I worked my way between the mounds and the streams of rubble filtering down from the ceiling. Under the gradually uplifting flagstones, I could now see the pulpy swelling shapes, and even a pale phosphorescence from their pallid skin. The stuff grew swiftly, amazingly, like yeast dough in a huge, clammy oven, stimulated by the tremendous energy of the generator that still throbbed in the background.

It was too impossible, too insane to believe—and so I ignored it, concentrating instead on Fearing’s anguished presence in front of me. He still clung to the steel beam, which now tilted well out of the vertical. I yelled at him wildly, extending my arm across a half-collapsed table, even as I shrank to avoid a pulpy mass that swelled up hugely out of a gap in the floor at my side. .

I think he saw me. His dilated, steadily blinking eyes turned from the terror around him toward my face for a moment. But they swung away again, widening impossibly at some new horror, and he finally uttered a sound—a low, rasping scream.

I turned then and saw what Fearing saw—the sight that must have driven him utterly, irrevocably mad. For a long moment, close as I was, I thought it must be some eldritch fungoid hallucination.

There, amid the mottled bulges and snaky tangles of the growing fungus, were pale, swollen human forms. Bloated faces and protruding limbs, pushed up out of the ground by the fungus in an awful parody of life, as if reaching and groping for him. They were real, I knew finally. They were the bodies of Ruth and the kids—Fearing’s wife and children whom he’d poisoned, I assumed, and buried underneath the floor of his survival shelter.

Crouching there and gaping at them, he was beyond rescue, physically and mentally. And from that moment I was driven back from him by more upheavals and cascading rubble. The structure of the place was doomed, the rafters weakened by greatly accelerated internal rot, the upright members buckled and driven aside by pressure from beneath. Now they were shaken by new shuddering impacts that told of the collapse of the great house overhead. Glancing up, I gaped to see the very roof timbers splitting open and sprouting tentative pastel probes, living fingers of fungus.

Losing what resolve I had left, I hurled myself back across the broken ground. Barely in time I sprawled out into the corridor. Behind me the ceiling of the gallery fell down thunderously on Fearing, his possessions and his obsessions, emitting a blast of debris and of mushroom-reeking air that blew me halfway upstairs with its force.

The lights failed then, as did the chugging of the generator. I had to dig and grope my way out of the ruin in darkness.

By the time I managed to pry up a corner of the garage door, it was light outside. The sky was sodden and leaden as ever, the rain already melting the remains of the huge, abnormal fungal blooms huddled around the redwood trunks in the nearby forest. They seemed to have died as impossibly fast as they grew, once the unnatural electrical source of their vitality was removed.

I found that the damage extended only a few dozen yards from the wreckage of the house, and from Fearing’s underground cables. My car had been crushed by a falling chimney, so I made my way out to the road on foot, thence to civilization.

Civilization there was, I soon learned, as near as Calistoga. There’d been no nuclear strikes; the war threat was narrowly averted once again, and international relations soon cooled back to their usual cold simmer.

So went the fall of Fearing’s house. And so I told it to all those who, in subsequent days, questioned me. It was a harrowing lesson. I plan to remember it always, and to make good on the resolutions it brought; I think Lillian agrees with me.

Whether the sheriffs and federal officers will ever really believe it, and what they’ll find when they exhume the cellar, are no longer important. Even the most skeptical of them don’t hold me responsible for the doom that overtook Fearing and his family. They attribute my “hallucinations” to mushroom poisoning.

– end –

  • Show Comments (0)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

comment *

  • name *

  • email *

  • website *

Ads

You May Also Like

The Stravinsky Code

GOOD/BAD NEWS: My story THE STRAVINSKY CODE has been taken offline but will be ...