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Chapter Fifteen

“COLT.” Someone called to him several times. It might have been his mother, but he no longer knew what her voice sounded like. It might have been Bibi, but he had heard her whisper only a couple of words. It might have been Tyler, trapped in his crushed car on Malibu Canyon.

The rumble of a truck on Pacific Coast Highway interrupted his dream, leaving a residue of sadness. It was after two in the morning. Out of habit, Colt reached for his old girlfriend, Ginny. For a split second, he expected her to be there next to him, but he was alone. Colt rolled over onto his back and stared at the ceiling in the dark apartment. He thought about the failed rescue in Malibu Canyon and retraced every step, wondering what would have happened if they had arrived minutes earlier, or if they had been able to get down the side of the mountain sooner or if Moose could have done the extrication faster.

Colt got out of bed. Barefoot and wearing only shorts and a T-shirt, he went outside and down the stairs to the street. Roy lay curled up asleep on the piece of cardboard that served as his mattress, surrounded by his bags of junk. The restaurants, the gay bar and Doreen’s parlor were all dark. Pacific Coast Highway was empty. Colt walked to the underpass. The sand Roy had painstakingly swept away during the day had blown back in from the beach, along with newspapers and discarded plastic bags.

As he descended into the passageway, Colt smelled a strong odor of piss. The tunnel was lined with white tile, but the shifting earth and the passage of time had left the walls cracked. In many places, whole patches of bare cement showed. Graffiti was everywhere. Most of the overhead fluorescent lights, built into the ceiling, were burnt out or missing. Colt saw a pile of feathers, blood and the scattered bones of a pigeon. The homeless people who went into the tunnel to pee and smoke crack often killed the birds.

Once out on the beach, it was cool and Colt felt a chill pass through him. He took a deep breath and tasted the salt air. He felt the fine sand under his bare feet. During the day, he sometimes sat at the base of the lifeguard tower painted in psychedelic colors, surrounded by seagulls and pigeons clustered together in tight groups on the sand. He watched the waves and the water, a changing mixture of blue, silver, gray and green. On a clear day, he could see the coastline stretching a dozen miles north past 88’s station in Malibu, where the Santa Monica Mountains sloped down to the beach.

At this hour, Colt couldn’t see any birds and he could only hear the waves. He wandered through the thick fog, shivering and feeling like the only person on the planet. Clouds of luminous mist surrounded him. It was so thick he thought he could grasp some in his hand, but when he reached out, it seeped through his fingers. He remembered a late afternoon in Big Horn, when he was returning home after riding his horse to the Sheridan Airport to look at the planes on display for the annual Flying Cowboys Show. He had stayed late and had to make his way back through frozen rain and snow. Colt could barely see a thing, but Flash knew the way and was anxious to get home for his supper. Tonight, Wyoming was a million miles away.

Pinpoints of water touched Colt’s face. Moisture seeped through the thin fabric of his T-shirt. The orange streetlights along PCH cast an eerie glow. Maybe, he thought, death was neither a tunnel of light nor a circle of darkness. Maybe it was like this colorless vapor—it just surrounds you, blurs your vision and clouds your mind before it carries you away. He listened to the waves and thought he could hear the ocean sigh, its currents pushing one way, then another. He shouted once, but the mist swallowed the sound of his voice. He wandered on, blind, and thought he heard women’s voices singing or crying out. Bibi called to him from the depths of the fog, pleading with him to find her foot, telling him that she must have it, that she could not move on without it. Yes, he assured her, he would recover it. Colt remembered his first day at the fire academy when Chief Bresnahan asked each man why he wanted to become a firefighter. The responses were divided roughly between those who were adrenaline junkies and those who wanted to help people. Colt counted himself in the second group; he wanted to help people. He was committed to helping Bibi, and there would be no closure until her foot was located. That was part of his job.

For a moment, Colt became disoriented and walked into the surf. When he felt the cold water on his bare feet, he realized he was headed in the wrong direction and turned around.

An hour later, he lay in bed, still wide-awake, still thinking about Bibi. He tried to imagine her life and decided she worked in one of the fancy boutiques in Malibu. She sold expensive clothes to wealthy women who had summer homes at the beach. She was the favored sales person because she was charming and friendly and she selected only the most beautiful clothes for her customers. Bibi had a boyfriend who was an F-35 fighter pilot. She planned to marry him next year when he finished his stint in the Air Force. While she waited for him, she lived with her parents in one of the big houses with glass walls looking out onto the Pacific Ocean from the bluffs of Malibu. Her father was an executive at a Hollywood studio who attended meetings with film stars. Her mother, who was also beautiful and had the same ocean blue eyes, painted watercolor pictures. Colt tried to imagine what this happy family talked about at the dinner table. He wondered whether Bibi had a brother, but couldn’t decide. Colt fell into a dreamless sleep. He had four days off. His next duty was on Sunday.

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