With a little prodding from a friend, I entered my first writing competition a few weeks ago. PEI Writers’ Guild hosted the “Battle Tales,” and announced the winner at a social in a micro-brewery near downtown Charlottetown on Saturday. I didn’t win the contest, but the social was still a great way to get out and network with local writers.
IF I could have forced myself to speak to anyone . . . which I couldn’t.
Although I threw back a few pints of liquid courage, my mouth managed to seal itself shut. The room filled with flourishing, successful authors remained entirely un-networked. By me, anyway.
So, now that I’m safely back behind my computer screen, I am going to do what every other writerly introvert does and follow those guild writers’ tweets, blogs, and stalk them on Goodreads. Boom. So there, sealed mouth.
The contest rules stipulated that the short story could be no longer than 2500 words. It had to feature a dog barking in the distance, a door that wouldn’t close, and a pair of shoes dangling on a power line. While my story didn’t win, it still took me a while to write. I don’t want to waste it. So here, with no further ado: my contest entry for the PEI Writers’ Guild Battle Tales.
It was hard to spot at first.
I closed my mouth against the sand whipping at my face and squinted at the horizon. There was a boat at the end of the world, its mast leaning heavily to the side in the wind. A ghost ship, probably. Nestled deep in the Gulf of St. Laurence, it’d been years since our island had seen one. Years since we made any contact at all with the world outside our shores.
I shimmied off my kitbag to retrieve the radio. Stealing another glance at the vessel through my binoculars, I pushed the button. “Checking in from the Second Station, North Shore.”
The reply from Central was quick. “Go ahead, Jackson.”
“There’s a boat up here.” I transferred my weight from one foot to the other. My replacement had been called to a riot, lengthening my shift to twice as long as usual. “Looks like it’s gonna hit the shore.”
“Anyone on board?” The question was standard procedure. No one ever was.
The battered deck was easily visible through the binoculars now: empty beneath a torn sail whipping ruthlessly in the wind. “Doesn’t look like it.”
A surge of static followed. “We’ll send a demolition crew out. Make sure no one goes near it till they arrive.”
Wiping the sand from my eyes with the heel of my hand, I sat next to my kitbag and examined the remnants of my lunch. I’d eaten most of my rations already, except a hunk of dried ham I’d saved for the walk home. Holding the meat in my hand, I debated whether or not to finish it. There was never enough to eat anymore. My stomach let out an argumentative growl as shoved the ham in my pocket. I could handle the hunger better than others. It made some people angry. Bitter. The riots grew worse every month. Rumors were rampant. Many believed Central was hoarding food. They couldn’t have much, even if they were. The farmers had a hard year, without much rain. We had some meat, but less potatoes than usual. Hardly any corn.
Twenty years had passed since they blew up the bridge. My older brothers used to talk about the sound of it. Said the whole house shook with the explosion. I don’t remember that. What I remember is the way the color drained from my mother’s face at the table. The hard line of my dad’s mouth as he scooped another helping of salmon onto his plate. The neighbor’s dog, barking in the distance.
The bridge had been the only trucking route from the mainland. Even before authorities destroyed it, automobiles, planes, and boats had already stopped coming in. Quarantine boundaries were enforced by the military, putting an abrupt halt to the deliveries of food that had been imported from locations all over the world. The taste of foods like pistachios, rice, and tropical fruit now seemed like a memory from a life on another planet.
For about a month after isolation began, communication with the mainland was easy. Then the internet went down, then the phones. The outside world eventually fell silent. Waste systems along the coast failed, polluting the Atlantic and poisoning the fish. We had been limited to whatever sustenance we could harvest from the island ever since.
I pulled my attention back to the drifting boat. The surging tide came in fast, drawing the vessel closer to the beach with each wave. Whose boat had it been? What adventures had its sailors navigated before succumbing to the Red Death? I myself had never been on a boat. The only islanders who had since the plague began were volunteers. Every spring a few of them left the island, hoping to find that life on the mainland was safe. Their orders were to keep away if anyone of the crew showed the signs: bloodshot eyes, bleeding ears. The boats never returned.
When conspiracy theorists weren’t accusing Central of stealing food they were accusing Central dignitaries of sabotaging those expeditions. It was said the dignitaries were doing everything they could to maintain a healthy degree of fear in rest of us; making us easier to control. I never bought into that. I enjoyed the sense of order Central infused in our day-to-day lives. I trusted them. But then, my brothers often said that as the baby of the family, my trusting nature would one day get the best of me.
Instead of wasting time on patrol pondering everyone else’s half-cocked theories, I usually dwelled on the expeditions themselves. I planned to volunteer next spring, and wondered how long the others had survived out there. What sights they’d encountered beyond our shores. I imagined most of the corpses had rotted away by now, leaving a wasteland of bones behind. The buildings would likely be overrun with vegetation. Ghost cities to match the ghost ship drifting ever closer to our shore.
And then I saw it.
Movement on the deck.
Grabbing my binoculars, I rose. A woman stared back at me from just behind the rail. Her hair was long, tied in a braid hanging over her shoulder. Holding onto the guardrail, she struggled to keep her balance as waves bombarded the hull.
Raising my arm tentatively, I waved. The white fabric of her clothing whipping with the wind, the woman disappeared from view behind the cabin.
My thoughts raced. Somehow, this person had managed to live outside our shores. Could the rumors be true? Was Central sabotaging the expeditions? If they were, maybe the Red Death hadn’t been the catastrophe we’d all been led to believe. I froze. What lengths would the dignitaries go to in the hope of covering their tracks? They certainly wouldn’t want to deal with one more mouth to feed, whether they’d been sabotaging the expeditions or not. This woman would be sent away before she was even allowed to tell her story. Or worse.
I rolled up my pant legs and waded into the water, fighting the wind. The decline into the sea was gradual. The nearer to the boat I came, the more the rolling water tried to knock me down and pull me under.
When I was within earshot I stopped, yelling over the roar of the white capped waves.
“You should come down. People might see—”
I glanced at the beach. No one had come. Yet. Peering back up at the boat I inspected the sail. It was badly ripped, possibly a result of the storm three nights before. If the boat had been drifting that long and the occupant had been infected, she would be dead by now. No one was immune to the Red Death. It killed everyone it touched.
The ladder bucked back with the boat when I grabbed for the rungs. They rocked forward again I caught hold of the sides. Seawater rushed up my nose and into my lungs as the boat rolled me under the water. I held on, managing to climb a few steps before my feet slipped off the metal. Clinging to the ladder, I hoisted myself to the deck. Breathless and panting, I doubled over with my hands on my knees, trying to steady myself.
The woman moved back warily, pressing herself against the guardrail on the other side of the deck.
“Why didn’t you answer me?” I asked. “I was calling you.”
“I told you to go away!” She said, her accent distinctively British.
“I can’t just leave you here.”
Arms crossed, she refused to answer, examining the shore wordlessly.
“Where did you come from?”
She paused. “Newfoundland.”
We had been moving steadily. The boat lurched as the hull met the ocean floor, and the woman fell hard on the deck. I rushed to pick her up.
“Stop!” she hissed, batting my hands away. “Don’t.”
“I’m not sick.” I took her by her thin wrists. “We broke contact with the mainland when the Red Death moved in. It never made it here. You’re safe with me, just as long as we can get you out Central’s sight.”
She peered at my hands on her wrists, a strange look crossing her face. Worried eyes, and a soft, sad smile. “I—I’m sorry.” A tear trailed down her cheek. “I just—” She swallowed. “I was so lonely.”
Releasing her wrist, I wiped the tear with my thumb. She cupped my hand to her gaunt face. Her skin felt warm, despite the wind. She dropped my hand suddenly, as if surprised by her own bold gesture.
“Are there more survivors? In Newfoundland?”
“I don’t think so.” Her mouth became a thin line. “Before Newfoundland I was in Europe.” She softened. “You’re the first person I’ve seen—alive—in a very long time.”
Europe had been among the first to fall victim to the Red Death. She’d been alone even longer than I’d thought. Had she lived all that time on her own, only to be killed by us? I rubbed the hair standing tall on my arms.
“You crossed the Atlantic . . . by yourself?”
“There were others. They died on the journey.”
“No.” She blinked quickly. “We ran out of food. We were on another ship. We would have been faster if we could have used the motor, but something was wrong—”
“With the gas.” I waved back at the shore. “It all went bad here, too.”
She nodded back at the torn sail flapping uselessly in the wind. “The sail was fine till the last storm. I’ve been drifting for the last three days.” Loose strands of hair blew across her face, and she tucked them behind her ear.
“I’m Jackson.” I held out the waterlogged ham from my pocket. “You hungry?”
“Thanks.” Accepting the meat like an uncertain stray, she tore off a piece with her teeth.
“There’s more food on the island. Not a lot, but some. The others—”
“How many of you are there?” Her gaze became sharp. Glancing over my shoulder, she pointed toward the beach. Someone was coming over the dune. “Who’s that?”
“Two hundred thousand islanders, at last census. And not all of us friendly.” My heart skipped a beat as I thought of Central. “We need to get out of here. Now.”
The relief patrolman walked across the sand, eyes on us. He’d spotted Cassie. The radio remained fastened to his belt. He hadn’t notified dignitaries, yet. That was something.
“Please, come down,” I asked Cassie. “I’ll tell you everything once we get back to the shore.”
She glanced over her shoulder at the deck warily. “Two hundred thousand?”
“My parents built a house nearby. It’s where I stay when I patrol up here. It’s secluded. But we have to go before that patrolman decides to call this in.”
She acquiesced, finally, following me down the ladder as the ship rocked with the waves. We gave up halfway and jumped into the surf.
The patrolman backed off as we approached, hand raised. It was Oliver. His eyes were wide. “You can’t bring her on shore, Jackson! Central protocol—”
I made my voice as stern as I could. “She was with other survivors, Oliver. They died of starvation, but it means there has to be others out there! Maybe the Red Death has run its course.”
Oliver’s hand tightened around his radio. “We need to call this in.”
“You know what Central will do. It’s why you haven’t called it in already.” Angry, I shook the cold water from my hair. “Look at her! She made it out there. She’s living proof that we could survive out there, too. I’m taking her to my parent’s place to recover, and then I’m going to find a boat to see what’s happening on the mainland for myself.”
“You’ll die if you do, Jackson. Everyone does.”
“All we know for sure is that no one comes back. They could be alive.”
Oliver’s eyes trailed over Cassie, softening. “How did you survive?”
She shrugged nervously, her eyes flitting between us. “I just did.”
Oliver bit his lip, looking past us to her boat in the water. “I must be crazy,” he said. Accepting my outstretched hand, he shook firmly.
“You two get to that house as fast as you can. I’ll go to town for some food.” His eyes lingered on Cassie’s thin frame as he spoke to me. “I think I remember where your parents used to live. Best not to contact me on your radio. Central might get suspicious. Leave a pair of shoes hanging from the power line in front, and I’ll come find you.”
“I can’t ask you to give up your rations,” I said. “It’s too much.”
“I’m not giving up my rations.” He smiled. “But I’ll bring you yours.”
The house was just like my parents had left it. The old wooden door wouldn’t close against the wind. I propped a chair up against the handle, jimmying it shut as best I could. Cassie watched wordlessly.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
She turned away, gazing out the window at the darkening horizon. “I never imagined finding as many people as this.” Her shoulders slumped. “Two hundred thousand.”
I wanted to reach out and touch her again. Comfort her. Having been away from others so long, I wondered whether the meeting had simply been too much, too soon. Maybe she just needed space.
I moved the chair from the door and left in search of firewood. A long-forgotten pile sat behind the shed. Old rainwater clung to the logs along the top: remnants of the same storm that ripped through Cassie’s sail. Pulling my father’s rusty axe from a nearby stump, I used it as a lever to dislodge the dry pieces tucked beneath. There was an echo of a stray dog barking somewhere further in the woods. I breathed in deeply, inhaling the green smell of spruces and rain soaked dirt. For the first time since the volunteers had set sail last spring, I felt hopeful. Carrying a small load of wood, I made my way back to the door. Cassie was watching me through a window, her silhouette just barely visible as the sunset reflected from the pane in bright pinks and dull purples. She didn’t return my smile, but even so she looked beautiful. In a few weeks, with a little more flesh on her bones, she’d be dazzling.
And then I felt it.
Dripping out my ear.
I dropped the wood. My hand flew up to touch the side of my face. Examining my fingers I found them to be tipped with blood.
Cassie ran out, slamming the door against the frame. She tried to grab my shoulders, but
I pushed her back.
“Cassie! You . . . are you carrying it?”
She stared at me saying nothing, horror widening her already large eyes.
“How are you alive?” I demanded.
“I’m immune. I wish to God I wasn’t.” She came to grab my shirt, pulling me close. “I couldn’t be alone anymore. I thought it might be safe after all these years. It was so long since the others died.”
My skin felt numb. “When you sailed across the Atlantic, the people on the boat with you didn’t starve, did they?”
She shook her head, gaze faltering. “I gave it to them.” The words were soft. Barely audible. “Please . . . I didn’t know there were so many of you when I came.”
I raked a hand through my hair, thinking of the first time I’d touched her on board the boat. The tear I’d wiped from her cheek.
My handshake with Oliver.
Cassie wiped her face with the back of her arm. “I just needed to be around people again.” She grabbed my hand. “We aren’t meant to live alone.”
I sat down on the ground and looked up at the shoes dangling from the power line at the end of the driveway. “You killed us, Cassie.”
“I’m . . . sorry.”
“You killed us all.”
The end. It was hard to spot at first.