The topo map was a mess, a third or fourth generation photocopy with at least six different people’s annotations and markings scratched onto it. The more recent mapping by the USGS had skipped this spot, along with all the other Nevada Test Site areas, leaving a big blank on the maps that persists to today. But, before it was redacted from the landscape by the DOE or the AEC or the Illuminati, whoever, the Crowley Quadrangle had been mapped in 1938, and that’s what we were using to sneak over Elephant Peak, down into Levy Valley.
We weren’t the first. Like I said, our copy of the map had a lot of history to it. The test sites had always attracted explorers, borderlands types pushing the envelope of an atomic psychogeography. We were just the most recent and, if we succeeded, the most daring.
The sun was sharper at 6500 feet, and right overhead, washing out the little pass we were hiking through. I could feel it through my hat, slowly cooking Tim and I as we consulted the map.
“See,” Tim was saying, holding the map close to shield it from the hot wind whistling through the rocks. “We come down here, past this little wash, then we go over that boulder field – that’s they way Ricardo did it, at least.” He traced the purple marker that recorded this attempt in ’86 by the famous urban explorer Jimmy Ricardo. “In the write up he did, he said there was an old gravel track left behind from the construction days, leading to the assembly and observation area.” I nodded, and pointed at the salt flats.
“We hit that,” I said, “and then strike north across the playa here, hugging the toe of the fan, right?”
“Ricardo said he saw buildings across there with his binoculars,” Tim said, folding the map carefully and putting it back in his pocket. “And that can mean only one thing!”
“Doomtown, USA.” I said, wiping the sweat from the back of my neck.
In the 50s the Government sequestered a long track of southern Nevada, nearly a hundred miles of the basin-and-range, high desert and lonely mountains that they then proceeded to destroy in a variety of inventive nuclear apocalypses. You could see the mushroom clouds from the tallest hotels in downtown Vegas, and they became quite the tourist attraction apparently, atomic cocktails on the 50th floor bar, watching a preview of the end of the world. They dropped bombs continuously, 100 nuclear tests a decade, all the way into the test ban treaty (and beyond, if the strange seismicity recorded in the basement of UNLV meant anything). They lined up trucks and tanks, WWII vintage, and dropped nuclear bombs on to see how they’d take it; they dug trenches downwind and filled them with soldiers and, when that got to be a little questionable, sheep and goats and pigs.
And they built the doomtowns.
Little popup patches of Anytown, USA, knocked up special order in the dry Nevada desert to explore the effects of nuclear explosions and radioactivity on American towns. From the declassified reports, they put some thought into it. Downtowns complete with shops and theaters, libraries, police and fire departments, all circled round by the then new models of domesticity, the suburbs, tract upon tract of identical or near identical little houses. Schools and churches, and roads, complete with frozen traffic – trucks hauling fake produce to the empty markets where no one would buy it, buses and cars and bicycles. And these little burgs, all named Doomtown, were peopled with still, silent mannequins, mom and dad and little Billy and Sally, barbequing or reading the newspaper and doing homework, oblivious of their fates.
Because, as soon as everything in a particular Doomtown was just right, they were smashed by the biggest, most petulant kid you can think of: the United States Armed Forces.
Some were vaporized by an airburst right over head. Some annihilated from below by a subterranean explosion, or burned to poisonous dust by an adjacent fireball. There were high-speed cameras installed all over them, and you can find the videos online, watch the paint peel off a house before the shockwave crashed into it and turns that little starter home for a plastic GI and his young wife into matchsticks. They’re something, lemme tell ya.
When they destroyed one, they built another – there’s always new things to learn about death and destruction. And when the testing stopped, the last Doomtown was left behind, just like everything else, all the bunkers and the heaps of twisted metal and the craters full of radioactive glass, just sitting there, deadeyeing the Nevada sky.
And we were going to find it, going to visit Doomtown.
It had been Tim’s idea. He’d come into my dorm room one day last semester, high as a kite, his eyes wild and that big toothy grin all over his face.
“Derek,” he’d said, pounding his fist on the wall. “I’ve got an idea for spring break!”
We’d gotten pretty big into urban exploration, partly out of natural inclination, but also partly out of our academic careers. Tim was into urban design, all about radical architecture and the city as a machine for living in, and I was majoring in human geography, the symbiosis between people and their environments. We were both seniors at UNLV, had been inseparable since Freshman orientation, and had done a fair bit of urban exploration (or trespassing, as some called it) in and around Vegas, sneaking into old casinos before they were demolished, crawling through the guts of a hotel under construction, running around the big runoff tunnels under the city. We were always eager for more adventures, bigger and better, and had gotten into the habit of planning our Spring Breaks around them. Our last one was down in Waxahachie, Texas, sneaking into the half-finished and long-abandoned superconducting supercollider that they’d built down there, a big half-donut of a damp concrete tunnel sunk into the ground south of Dallas. That had been a good one – the pictures and the write up we did afterwards got a lot of hits on our psychogeography website. Now, with our last spring break coming up, and both of us looking at grad school on opposite coasts, we had been wracking our brains for something big, something special. And Tim had been inspired.
It was, in many ways, the ultimate psychogeographical site – an artificial town meant to be the ideal of the American dream, built out in the middle of nowhere specifically to be destroyed. I mean, come on; that’s gold. And the challenge of getting out there! I mean, we committed a felony just stepping over an imaginary line ten miles back! Then a hike through the unforgiving Nevada desert to get there, and at the end, a radioactive ghost town! Plus, all that excitement aside, it hadn’t ever even been done. Oh, sure, Ricardo found the bleachers in ’82 and wandered the test sites in ‘86, while the UCLA guys had found some of the trucks they’d melted in the 50s. The Twin Cities crew had done the south end pretty good in the mid-90s, but that was all well-known stuff, observation towers and labs and everything; I mean, you were at one point meant to be able to get to those. We were off the beaten track, physically, mentally, and spiritually.
The boulder field turned out to be a lot harder to get across than we’d expected. Elephant Peak had dropped a lot of rubble. Huge slices of the mountain had been rolling down the hill for millions of years. It was slow going, and we didn’t get to the edge of the playa until almost sundown. The salt pan was flat and mud grey, stretching out to the horizon before us, and we decided to camp there for the night.
“This is as far as Ricardo got, in ’86,” said Tim, staring out across the playa. “Apparently,” he turned and waved at the gravelled patch behind us, “this had been some kind of staging area, and he thought there were supposed to be some building here.” I turned and looked, but there was nothing but rock and wind and the pinpricks of stars in the darkening sky.
“Temporary stuff probably, if it was for observation,” I said, getting out the propane burner. “Take a look around, if you want; I’ll get supper going.”
When I called him back for soup he’d found some old nails, vintage 50s, and a few fragments of dried out planks, but that was it. It was interesting, being up here. You camp in the desert west, you almost always find old beer cans or tobacco tins, the signs of ranchers or hunters, no matter how far into the back country you go. But here, where the threat of atomic contamination still loomed in everyone’s mind, there was nothing but what the army had brought in.
We ate and smoked a joint, enjoying the dusk and the cooler temperatures. It’d probably be cold once night really fell in on us, that time of year and that elevation in the desert.
While I set up my tripod and the camera for a long moonlit exposure, Tim stood right at the edge of the playa and scanned the far side with his binoculars.
“Nah, too dark,” he said. “Ricardo said he saw buildings from here, though.”
“Atmospherics could play hell out here with the optics,” I said. “But maybe we’ll see something in the morning?”
I set the camera timer, and we climbed into our sleeping bags. Between the long hike and the weed, we were both out pretty quick.
While Tim fixed breakfast I checked my pictures.
“Hey, got some good ones,” I said, scrolling through the digital SLR’s view screen. The playa was silvery under the halfmoon and the stars bright and sharp as Christmas lights. “Real nice one of the moon here I think –” I stopped and squinted.
“What’s that?” asked Tim, stirring the powdered eggs.
“I don’t know, look at this?” I said, walking over. I scrolled back a few, and exchanged the camera for a cup of coffee.
“Looks great man,” he said, “what’s the deal?”
“Keep going forward.” He pressed the button – more moon, more playa, twenty minutes between each exposure, the moon hopping across the sky, the stars slowly drifting, the playa anchored and unchanged. “I don’t see anything – woah.”
“Yeah, what the fuck is that?” I leaned over his shoulder and looked at it again.
Across the playa in the picture, right on the horizon, was an eerie, glowing patch of light. I looked up and faced the direction that the camera had been pointed, and Tim did the same.
“It’s just right out there, right?” he nodded north, across the flat.
“Yeah, right on the horizon.” The glowing blob of light in the picture was bright enough to wash out many of the stars, and was a strange mix of green and blue and yellow, different colors in different patches, all grading into each other.
“Man that’s weird,” said Tim. “Some fuck up with the camera.”
“I mean, could be, but look,” I pressed forward on the display, and another long exposure shot, pristine and dark as all the rest, came up.
“So whatever it was lit up and faded in a single shot,” said Tim.
“Whole thing in the twenty minutes of that one picture.” Tim went back to the odd one, and zoomed in. We both gasped.
They were faint, just slightly darker than the glow that engulfed them, and we couldn’t get a very clear image of them, but they were there.
Buildings, some taller, some shorter, boxy structures standing tall in the desert night, engulfed in a bright ethereal light.
We both hurried to the edge of the playa. Tim scanned the horizon with his binoculars, while I shielded my eyes with my hand and squinted.
“Man,” said Tim. “Nothin’.” He handed them to me and I looked. Just the long dry lakebed, grey mud as far as the eye could see, pinched between the walls of the mountains on either side. No buildings at all.
“How far is it?”
“On the map the playa is twelve miles, north to south. Doomtown was built on the other side, but I don’t know how close. No more than a mile, I reckon.”
“And Ricardo said he saw it from here?”
“Yeah,” he took back the binoculars and looked again. “But he sure as shit didn’t say he saw them glowing.” He lowered them and looked at me. “Headlights do that?”
“Ah, man, no?” I said, shrugging. “I mean, I’ve caught ‘em before on long exposure shots, that’s not what they look like. Besides, there’s no roads, and this place is supposed to be abandoned. You don’t think there’s patrols or anything?”
“This deep in, nah,” he said, shaking his head. “Well, maybe it’s a good omen, the gods smiling on us – shit’s already weird, and we’re not even in Doomtown yet!” We packed up, caching some water in the north-facing shadow of a boulder, and started north, across the playa.
Crossing playa was like walking across the surface of a mirror – the sun overhead, the reflected heat up from below. We sweat it out, though, leaving two long lines of tracks across the flat featureless crust of the dry lakebed, hour after hour. It was one in the afternoon, the heat of the day, when we got clear of it and finally saw Doomtown, the city at the end of the world.
Even expecting it, there was a bit of a dreamlike quality to seeing it there, pretty little houses all in a row, cul-de-sacs and asphalt and front porch swings. We were entering through the suburb side of the simulation, and it was bleakly cute. I took a lot of pictures, and Tim sketched in his pad as we walked.
“Holy shit,” he was saying, grinning at everything. “Look at that!”
The houses had once been painted, and in the occasional sheltered corner you could see hints of color – pink and sea green and boxcake yellow, but most of them had been bleached white, probably more from time and the crystal winds off the playa than from any nuclear blast. There were doors with no knobs, and windows with no glass, giving the little white houses a look from afar like a row of bleached, blank skulls.
We walked up the porch of one of the houses, and knocked. It was a lonely sound, and it made me shiver.
“So,” said Tim opening the door and peeking into the house. “This doomtown was built for, I think, Project Augustus. It was part of the last round of above ground tests, if I recall. Relatively small bomb, and we’re pretty far from ground zero. They were interested in dispersal patterns of fallout, things like that, I think.”
“What do you think the background here is?”
“Well, it was seventy years ago. I wouldn’t eat anything you find on the ground here, but I imagine we’ll be okay. A couple dental X-rays worth, probably, nothing more. We’ll spend the night and head back before we hit twenty-four hours. Should be fine.”
The house we’d chosen to look around was a little boring, actually, and after the frisson of a small family home in the middle of nowhere wore off, we went out to find weirder scenes. A few blocks in we came across a car, really just the frame of one, the interior completely gone. It was an old Plymouth, the paint stripped by the desert. Tim was going on about Levittowns and the architectural history of post WWII America while we walked, and I was taking pictures, when we turned a corner and saw our first mannequin.
She was pushing a baby cart along one of the sidewalks towards us, frozen in mid step. The remains of her dress were just ragged, bleached strips, faded and hanging on only where they’d caught on some angle or seam in her plastic body. Her face was blank, but when we got close you could see the empty, lifeless features of her idealized patrician face, thin lips faintly smiling, a sharp but shapely nose, wide set eyes. Her baby cart was little more than a metal frame now, the plastic all worn away, and it was empty. We circled her a few times, and then took each other’s pictures with her, arms slung chummily over her shoulders.
We spent the next few hours searching the houses, finding more and more elaborate scenes the closer to the center we got. In one house there was a backyard picnic, dad at the grill, kids in the grass, arms raised in some approximation of play. Mom was inside, in the kitchen, hands in an empty sink in melancholic pantomime of a fifty’s housefrau, working while the family played. She’d probably have welcomed a bomb, anything to escape the monotony of it all.
In another house the father reclined in an easy chair, smiling dumbly at a blank wall while his tiny plastic offspring lay on the floor. The mother here was in the backyard, looking across the fenceline towards another mannequin, a man pushing a lawnmower. Domestic intrigue, we mused, salaciously.
I took a lot of pictures, kids gathered in a circle in a backyard, a mannequin starred forlornly from out of an upstairs window, a mailman in faded blue confronting a mailbox, forever. A mannequin couple out for a stroll, their plastic growing brittle and cracking in the elements; which one would crumble first, the man or the woman? It was all ridiculous and vaguely phantasmagoric, this silent town in the desert and its plastic citizens. A church stood on a corner, nondenominational of course; church of the bomb, reformed, I guess. It had a steeple and big double doors and inside, much to our delight, there was a service taking place, a plastic preacher at the lectern, a scattering of supplicants in the pews. We ran up and down the aisles. We gave sermons, thundering about the end of the world.
As the afternoon wore on, we left the suburbs and made for the center of town. There were three or four more blocks of houses, but we hurried by, stopping only to high-five any mannequins we saw. When we finally got there, we stopped and marveled at the scene.
Downtown Doomtown was picture perfect – brick storefronts and shops and a clock tower. There was a traffic cop in the town square to keep everything flowing neatly; they’d even put a whistle around his plastic neck.
“A hot night in Doomtown,” I said. It was busy, many more mannequins had been gathered here. The general store was packed; they’d need to call up more cashiers for sure, given the way the housewives prowled the aisles. There were more of the halfcars here, too, with mannequins stuck in them, a few families but mostly couples and, in a car pulled back into an alley, there was a risqué little scene: two mannequins sitting close together in the backseat.
But it was the movie theater they’d built was the crown jewel in terms of architectural verisimilitude. There was a line to get in, twenty or thirty mannequins long, and a man in a ticket booth. Inside, the mannequins were in remarkable shape, their clothes mostly intact and still vibrant, men in suits, women in dresses. There were wigs still on them, too, brittle with age but still there, and the paint was still on their faces, red lips, brown eyes, lashes even. They were, like all the mannequins, tall and willowy; it was a town of models, the women with waspish waists and long elegant legs, the men broad shouldered and narrow hipped. A pair of moviegoers looked over the menu at the concession stand, while a family sat in a heavy plush couch against the wall.
There were ushers in the theater, all in cute little uniforms complete with those pill-box hats, one for each door. For patrons there were ten or so mannequins scattered through the theater, waiting for the show to begin. They’d built a stage and even painted the back wall white, like a screen, and had put in an emergency exit too.
“Holy smokes,” said Tim, his arms on his hips, shaking his head. We had mounted the stage and were looking out over the theater seats. “They really went all out; I expected some brick boxes, a few people, but this? They did it! They made Anytown USA!”
“I wonder what is what like, building all this? And who set up the mannequins? Were there guidelines? How’d they decided who to put where, and why?”
“Must’ve been pretty nuts,” said Tim. “‘Join the Army, do set design!’”
The evening was getting deep by the time we finished with the theater, the first few stars peeking out over head. We crossed the street and I got another picture of the long line for the movie, then we strolled to the traffic circle, tipping out hats to the cop as we jaywalked boldy in front of him.
“Where should we hunker down for the night?” I asked.
“Some place quiet,” said Tim. “And without any mannequins. They’re all right in the daylight but I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep with them starring at me all night.”
“Should we head back to the edge of town?”
“Let’s look in there,” he said, pointing to the police department on the end of the main street. It was a good call. The small building was actually empty, both of cops and furniture. Other than the booking desk it was a wide open, empty box, perfect for camping.
After supper we set up the lamp and went over the day’s sights, Tim checking over his notes and adding some final touches while I went through my pictures. I’d taken hundreds, the first flush of excitement pushing me to try and document it all. I flipped through them quickly, squinting down at the little screen. The first sight of the town from the playa, the houses all in a row, the first street, that car, the first mannequin we saw and her baby cart, then me and her, then Tim and her, and –
I stopped and went back to the first shot of her, just her, and the baby cart. Then, slowly, I went forward, me and her, Tim and her. And I stopped.
“Hey, Tim,” I said. “Wanna see something spooky?”
“Oh man, alone in the wilderness in a town built for atomic tests full of mannequins? Do I ever?” he got up and walked over.
“Watch this,” I said. “Watch the house over her right shoulder, okay.” I pushed the buttons, first picture, second picture, third picture.
“Holy shit!” he gasped.
“I know! Fuckin’ freaky, yeah?”
“Lemme see,” he grabbed the camera and went through them again. “Where’d it go!?” he wailed.
What we’d seen was this: in the first two pictures, the one with just the mannequin and then the one with me, over the mannequin’s right shoulder there was a little two-story house, and in the window, there was a mannequin, starring out in our direction. In the third picture, when I’d switched places with Tim, that mannequin was gone.
“Crazy that we caught it, just after it fell over.”
“Man,” said Tim, shaking his head and going back to his notes. “That’s how internet shit gets started, weird pictures like that.”
I laughed and kept scrolling.
And then I had to stop again. I’d taken a picture of the mailman mannequin we’d seen when we first approached him. That picture was of his left side, and showed his left hand extended towards the mailbox, clearly visible. Then, when we’d gone down the block, I’d stopped to get a big shot of where we’d just been, including in the not too distant foreground, the mailman. I zoomed in on him.
His right arm was up, extended towards the mailbox.
I didn’t say anything, just kept scrolling.
The two men talking in the backyard, facing one another. Three pictures further down the roll, a shot of the same yard from the house behind it, on another block. The two mannequins were facing the camera now.
Ten pictures after that, there was another mannequin that disappeared from a window, one picture they were standing in their living room, facing away, then in the next, the same living room, but they were gone.
A couple dozen pictures after that, a mannequin appeared in a window that had been empty, one shot before, starring down the lens of the camera.
I felt lightheaded and a little sick. I looked up. Tim was still in his notes. I looked back down, swallowed, and kept going.
For a long stretch, it seemed like I’d just imagined it. Lots of nice, normal pictures of buildings, streets, and single shots with mannequins in them, no duplicates to show anything unusual. It was cheating, but it made me feel better. When I got to the theater pictures I started to feel nervous again, but my luck held – late in the day and I must’ve been getting tired, because I only took single pictures of the scenes. The line outside, the ticket office, the lobby, the ushers, the stage from the back, the audience from the stage, Tim doing his impresario routine on the stage.
And then we had gone outside, crossed the street, and I’d taken another picture of the front of the theater, showing the long line again.
There were different mannequins in it this time. I stared hard at it, then went back a dozen pictures, then forward again. Actually, the line had moved up, by about six people – the sixth in line, a man in a ragged, windblasted suit, was buying his ticket in the latter picture, and two spots behind him there was a woman mannequin, bleached skirt and no top but missing an arm, who had been the eighth person in the first picture. The last person in the earlier picture was now in the middle of the line, and there were new mannequins, lining up to get into the theater.
Tim thought I was mistaken when I showed him the pictures, but after each one, pointing out the similarities and the differences, he accused me of playing a prank on him. We argued, and when I pointed out that we hadn’t been apart, except for once when I went to take a piss behind a house, he grew quiet. He tried to argue it into nothing, but I kept going back to the scene outside the theater.
“It doesn’t make sense Tim,” I said, my voice higher and louder than I wanted it to be.
“No, fine, it doesn’t.” He swallowed, and then shakily rolled another joint. He lit it, exhaled, and then nodded. “No, it doesn’t make any fucking sense does it.” He handed it to me, and I puffed.
“Fuck it, come on,” he said, standing up.
“What?” I asked.
“Let’s go, back to the theater,” he walked purposefully towards the door. “Bring that fucking haunted camera too,” he called as he disappeared. I scrambled after him. He was walking hard, and I followed him. We crossed the traffic circle and went up Main Street. The half moon overhead offered only faint light, and we’d left our headlamps back at our Police Station camp, but we walked down the middle of the road, not saying anything.
There was no line in front of the theater.
We went a little crazy then. Tim ran, first to one side of the theater then to the other. He looked up the dark alleys on either side, and yelled into them, his voice shattering the still dark of the night.
“Hey!” he shouted. “Who’s here!?” There was no answer. I just started taking more pictures, not really seeing what I was shooting, just flashing away convulsively, walking slowly in a circle.
“Hey, goddammit Derek,” he said, standing in front of the theater. “Enough with the fucking camera, you’re killing my eye sight.” He turned in circles too, and leaned towards the lone mannequin in the ticket office. “What the fuck is going on?” he hissed at it, then took a swing, knocking its head clean off.
“Tim, I think maybe we should go?”
“What, where? Back across the lake?” He was angrier than I’d seen him before.
“I don’t know,” I said, “but I don’t like it here anymore, Tim.”
“Someone’s fucking with us, is what’s happening,” he said. “Someone must live here.”
“Squatters,” he said. “Anarcho-primitivists, off the grid types.”
“What the fuck do they eat, Tim? Mannequins?”
“I don’t know,” he said, waving his hand around. “Preppers, probably brought a hundred years of dried food when they came in. And they’re trying to scare us away.” I laughed, a little to shrilly.
“This ain’t a fucking Scooby Doo cartoon, Tim,” I said, grabbing him by the arm. “Something weird is happening, and we should leave. I don’t give a fuck if its doomsday Mormons or fucking ghosts or the goddamn loch ness monster! We should go!” Tim kicked at the ground and walked in a few more circles, puffing on the joint.
“Okay,” he said quietly. “Okay! You’re right. This isn’t kosher, so let’s cut out. C’mon.” We started back down the street, leaving the theater behind, passing in front of the drug store, the grocery store, and crossing the wide sidestreet we’d come up earlier, leading from the suburbs to the downtown. I was looking back, at the theater, so I didn’t see that Tim had stopped, and I ran right into him.
“Fucking Christ,” I heard him hiss, and I looked down the street.
It was completely blocked with mannequins, three or four deep and all standing across the entire street, wall to wall, facing our direction. In the front, I recognized the mail man in his faded blue uniform.
We just ran, pure terror pushing us. We went by the traffic circle; the cop mannequin was gone. We ran up the steps and into the shadow of the bank. The tellers we’d seen earlier were also gone. I was gasping for breath, and Tim was looking side to side, like a hunted animal.
“What do we do,” I whispered.
“We go get our stuff,” he said, looking down the silent, empty street. “We’ll die out there if we try and cover thirty miles back to the road without any water. We get the water, and then we just go straight out.”
“Not the way we came,” I said, almost begging.
“No,” he shook his head and looked pale. “We sure as fuck aren’t going back through the town; I don’t even want to go across the playa. We’ll make for the front, hug the alluvial fans, and get to the pass in Elephant Peak from this side of the salient.” I nodded, thankful, and we moved, trying to stay in the shadows, out of the moonlight.
Once, I stopped him and pointed up at the apartment building on the far side of the street. The moon shone full on it, and the pale bodies of two mannequins in two different windows shown brightly, looking down on us. We shivered, broke cover, and ran for the Station.
The packs had been torn to shreds; sleeping bags, blankets, spare clothes, ripped apart, our food opened and scattered, and the bottles emptied, all our water splashed against the walls. We stood there, stunned. The wind whistled through the two big open windows that fronted the faux police station, and we shivered.
“We’ll go around the outside of the town,” said Tim, quietly. “Then straight across the playa, while it’s still dark. We left water on the far side, we’ll be okay. We get there, get the water, and go over the mountain in the morning.” I nodded dumbly. There wasn’t much else to do.
We stepped outside and turned to face east, towards the mountains and the far end of Doomtown, but then we quietly slinked back indoors. Like the previous street, that way was blocked by a silent line of mannequins.
We crouched behind the brick front of the police station. I felt a lethargy coming over me, a kind of resigned, deadening horror pressing downward, dulling my mind. Tim shook me.
“Derek, get it together,” he said. “We have to get out of here, and we have to do it now. They’re boxing us in, but we can get through one of the alleys.”
“That’ll take us into the suburbs,” I said, horrified.
“Sure,” he nodded. “But there it won’t be so easy to keep us pinned in. We can go through the yards, move more freely, and break out. If we get out of town and in the open, we’ll be fine, okay. We’ll be fine.” I nodded. “Now let’s go.”
We darted outside; I couldn’t tell if the line of mannequins had moved closer, or maybe I didn’t want to know and didn’t really look. Either way we ran back towards the central traffic circle, turning up the first alley and then, with a scream from both of us, scrambling back into the main street. In the dark we’d almost run into a line of mannequins at the far end of the alleyway, their pale plastic limbs reaching out for us. They were still, and utterly quiet, but they had been waiting there for us. We ran to the next alley – there the mob of mannequins was closer, having apparently gotten farther up the dark side street than their fellows in the previous alleyway. We looked back, and the line at the end of the street had almost advanced to the police station.
“The theater,” said Tim.
“What?” I rasped.
“The emergency exit,” he whispered in my ear. “It’s at the back, near the stage, right? The building goes all the way through the block, and that door would put us on the other side of the alleyway. They keep coming up these side streets, but if we can go through there, we’ll be behind them.”
We ran, and he was right. Glancing to the sides, each alleyway was populated by more mannequins, each group closer than the last until, next to the theater, they were practically out in the street. We gave them a wide berth, feeling their cold plastic eyes on us. We ran straight, then made a mad, sudden dash into the theater. The lobby was empty and the theater doors were closed. It was very dark, only the moonglow outside feebly seeping in through the glassless windows providing any light.
“It’ll be pitch dark in there,” I whispered.
“The flash,” he said, pointing at the camera.
“I’ll go first,” I said.
“I’ll be right behind you, don’t stop for anything.”
Our hands hovered over the handles. I felt my heartbeat. We swung them wide, I pressed the button on the camera, and we saw the theater, packed, each seat full. There was an usher near the door, and in the flash he seemed to lunge towards us. We screamed and ran down the aisle; I swore I felt hands grabbing out, grazing my shirt or pants, struggling to hold us. I hit the button again, another flash, bright and stark and full of light. This time the heads of the mannequins were turned towards us. I heard Tim shouting something. Another flash, the mannequins in the first row had risen from their seats. We were almost there. Another flash, I screamed and bowled into a mannequin that was suddenly standing in the aisle, felt its cold arms around me, shrieked with terror and swung the camera to smash against its plastic head. Another pair of hands lifting me, dragging me. I swung at them too, and Tim screamed in pain. The theater was filled with sounds, whispered shuffling and the noise of furtive movements. The door opened and moonlight, bright as day, poured in. I ran. Tim was already outside, holding a hand over his eye. He’d been the one to pick me, and I’d caught him with an elbow.
I looked and saw that Tim had been right. We were behind the mannequins in the alley now, and they were all turned away from us. We’d done it.
We didn’t say anything, just ran. Over my shoulder, as the door swung slowly shut, I saw a plastic arm stretch out to hold it open.
Lungs burning, legs shaking, sweating with terror and exertion in equal measure, we made the edge of town. They kept chasing us, but we’d broken through and they couldn’t catch up. They were in the yards though, or on the front porches of the houses. Some were at the windows, and if we looked back they were all out in the streets, following us. Once we had to dig deep and find some reserves to sprint through a thick group of them, hugging the back wall of a house before we got away onto an open street. And then we were beyond the edge of town. We were somewhere to the east of it, and we’d have another half-a-mile to get to the playa on the south end, but we’d gotten out of Doomtown.
We stopped and sucked air. I threw up. I was dizzy, and Tim looked like shit with his black eye. I had scratches, ragged deep ones on my arms and scalp, left behind from long plastic fingers. I wiped my mouth on my sleeve. Tim had his hands on his knees. We looked back towards the buildings. It was midnight.
The glow started softly, towards the middle of town, a lambent green light, faint and sickly. Then it grew, stretching out to engulf the downtown. We had to cover our eyes it was so bright, and it kept spreading, filling the streets, surging like the tide to lap against the suburbs. It was green and blue and purple, and it swam with patterns and currents, licking against the dark night overhead. We watching it through squinting eyes as it rose into the sky, a column of light, building up and then, silently, spreading outward in a roiling mushroom cloud. Then it faded, and everything was dark and still.
We didn’t see any more mannequins after that.
We walked all night, getting to our water cache a little after dawn. We drank deep, then passed out, waking towards the afternoon. We’d have to hike in the dark to get back, but it seemed like the best course of action. We crossed the boulder field, and then went up the pass at Elephant Peak. We picked our way slowly in the dark; it took more hours than it would have in the day light, but we eventually got down and saw the car where we’d left it on the side of the road, three days ago. Shakily, we got in, cranked it, and drove toward Pahrump.
My phone got reception an hour into the drive. I brought up the internet, patiently waiting for the slow connection to catch up. It finally did, and I looked up “Project Augustus.” There wasn’t much on it, but the thing that stood out was that when they detonated the bomb for it, they’d done so at midnight, on the dot.