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 sore foot to the other. My replacement had been called to a riot, lengthening my shift to twice as long as usual. “Looks like she’s gonna hit the shore.”
“Anyone on board?” The question was standard procedure.
The battered deck was easily visible through the binoculars now: empty, except for a few broken planks of wood and a fallen sail, whipping ruthlessly in the wind. “Doesn’t look like it.”
A surge of static followed. “All right. The sea’s too choppy to deal with it now. Make sure no one goes near it till the demolition boys arrive.”
Sitting next to the kitbag, I wiped the sand from my eyes with the heel of my hand. It meant I’d be stuck on duty a few more hours, at least. Wrapping a blanket from my bag around my shoulders, I examined the remnants of my lunch. I’d eaten most of my rations already, except a small chunk 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 it back in my pocket.I could handle the hunger better than some. It made some people angry. Bitter.
The riots were getting worse by the day. Rumors were rampant, accusing Central of hoarding food. The truth was even if they were, they couldn’t have much. 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 to the mainland. That was the summer of 2016. 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 food onto his plate. The neighbor’s dog, barking in the distance.
That was when eating fish was safe, and food had been imported from countries all over the world. Pistachios. Rice. Tropical fruit: oranges and bananas. Now, all that almost seemed almost like a myth. A memory from 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 fell silent. Unmanned, waste systems along the coast failed, polluting the Atlantic and poisoning the fish.
My mother’s family was out on the prairies. She never gave up hope they were still out there somewhere, that they’d found a way to live through the plague. Dad never argued, but he never encouraged her either.
I pulled my attention back to the boat. The surging tide came in fast, drawing the vessel closer with each wave. Who’s boat had it been? What adventures had it been on before the Red Death killed its sailors? I myself had never been on one. 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 they began to show the signs: bloodshot eyes, bleeding ears. The boats never returned.
When islanders weren’t accusing Central of stealing food, they accused Central dignitaries of sabotaging those expeditions to maintain control. I never bought it. But then, my brothers often said that as the baby of the family, my trusting nature would get the best of me one day.
Instead of killing time thinking up half-cocked conspiracy theories, I often wondered how long the volunteers had survived. What they’d seen out there. Most of the bodies had likely rotted away, leaving only their bones behind. The buildings were probably overrun with vegetation. Ghost cities to match the ghost ship drifting ever closer to our shore, as my own thoughts wandered stupidly.
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 down her back. Holding onto the side, 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, she disappeared from view around a corner.
What would Central do with her when they found out?
This woman had managed to live outside our shores. Could my brothers have been right? Was Central sabotaging the expeditions?
My stomach tightened as I realized the answer didn’t matter. Not to the woman on the boat. Central wouldn’t want to deal with one more mouth to feed. They’d sent her away. Or worse.
I rolled up my pants and waded toward her, fighting the wind. The decline into the sea was gradual. The nearer to her 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. “Hello?”
“You should come down. People might see—”
I glanced at the beach. No one had come. Yet.
Finally near enough I grabbed for the ladder. The rails bucked back with the boat. When they surged forward 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 rungs before my feet slipped off the step. I clung to the ladder, coughing until I found the strength to hoist myself up. By the time I reached the top, I was breathless. Panting. I grabbed my knees, trying to steady myself.
The woman moved back warily, pressing herself against the guardrail on the other side of the deck. “I told you to go away!”
“I can’t just leave you here. It’s too dangerous.”
“You don’t understand.” Her eyes were large over hollow cheeks, her clothes frayed, and shoulders sharp.
I waited. “Where did you come from?”
She shook her head as if trying to collect herself. “I—I was in Newfoundland.” The boat lurched as the hull met the beach, and the woman fell hard on the deck. I rushed to pick her up.
“Stop!” She batted my hands away.
I took her by her thin wrists. “I’m not going to hurt you. And I’m not sick. You’re safe with me, just as long as we can get you out of here.”
She peered at my hands, a strange look crossing her face. Worried eyes, and a soft, cautious smile. “I—I’m sorry.” A tear trailed down her cheek. “I’m so sorry.” She swallowed. “You have to understand . . . I was beginning to think I was the last person on earth.”
Releasing her wrist, I wiped the tear with my thumb. She cupped my hand to her 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?”
“Not that I could find.” Her mouth became a thin line. “And before Newfoundland, I was in Europe. I’ve been searching for survivors for years.” 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. 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.”
She blinked. “No. Lack of food. We could have come faster if we had taken a boat with a motor, but there’s something wrong—”
“With the gas.” I waved back at the shore. “All the gas here went bad, too.”
She nodded. “The sail snapped off in a storm three days ago. I’ve been drifting ever since.” 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?”
Taking the meat, she tore off a piece with her teeth. “Cassie.”
“There’s more food on the island. Not a lot, but some. The others—”
“Who’s that?” Her gaze became sharp. Glancing over my shoulder, she pointed toward the beach. “How many of you are there?”
I followed the direction of her finger to the shore. Someone was coming over the dune. “Two hundred thousand, at last census. And not all of us friendly.” My heart skipped a beat. “We need to get out of here. Now.”
The relief patrolman walked across the sand, eyes on us. He’d spotted her. But, the radio remained fastened to his belt. He hadn’t notified Central, yet. That was something. “Please, come down. I’ll tell you everything once we get back to the shore.”
She glanced over her shoulder at the deck, seemingly uncertain. “Two hundred thousand?”
“My parents used to have a house nearby. We can go there. But we have to leave before that patrolman decides to call this in.”
She acquiesced, finally, following me down the gyrating ladder as the ship bobbed with the waves. We gave up halfway and jumped into the surf, wading to the shore together.
The patrolman backed off as we approached, hand raised. It was Oliver. His eyes were wide. “What have you done, Jackson? You can’t bring her on shore! Central protocol—”
I made my voice as stern as I could. “Central’s lying. About everything. She was with survivors. There are people alive out there! I’m taking her to my parent’s place.”
“You can’t!” 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 survived out there. She’s living proof that we could survive out there, too. The rumors were true. Central’s been lying to us.”
He blinked. “Why would they do that?”
“Who knows? Probably so they could stay on top of the food chain.”
His eyes trailed over Cassie, softening. “How did you survive out there?”
She shrugged nervously, her eyes flitting between us. “I just did.”
Oliver bit his lip, looking off at her boat in the water. “I must be crazy.” He reached out for my hand, and shook firmly. Cassie stiffened, watching.
“You two get back to that house as fast as you can. I’ll go to town for some food.” His eyes lingered on Cassie’s thin frame, but he spoke to me. “I think I remember where your parents used to live. 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, except 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 the operation wordlessly.
I took a step toward her. “Are you okay?”
She turned away, gazing out the window at the darkening horizon. “I’ve been on my own for years. Looking for survivors. I never imagined finding as many as this.” Her shoulders slumped. “Not in my wildest dreams.”
I wanted to reach out and touch her again. Comfort her. Having been away from people for so long, I wondered whether the meeting had simply been too much, too soon. Maybe she just needed space.
After moving the chair from the door I left in search of firewood. A long forgotten pile sat behind the shed. Old rainwater clung to the logs along the top. Pulling my father’s rusty axe from a nearby stump, I used it as a lever to dislodge the dry pieces beneath. The smell of the woods was nice. 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. I smiled. Even her silhouette was beautiful. In a few weeks, with a little more flesh on her bones, she’d be dazzling.
And then I felt it.
Draining from my ear.
I dropped the wood. My hand trailed up, touching the side of my face. My fingers were tipped with red.
Cassie ran out, slamming the door against the frame. She tried to grab my shoulders, but I pushed her back. “Cassie! You . . . you’re a carrier?”
She sobbed, hitting my chest. “I said I was sorry.”
“For . . . this? You knew you would infect me?
“I—couldn’t be alone anymore.” She grabbed my shirt, pulling me to face her. “I thought maybe it would be safe, after all these years. It was so long since the others died on the boat.”
My skin felt numb. “The others . . . didn’t starve did they?”
She shook her head, not meeting my eye. “I did it.” The words were soft. Barley audible.
“Please . . . I–I didn’t know there were so many of you.”
I raked a hand through my hair and thought 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. “I needed to feel real.”
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 all, Cassie.”
“I’m . . . sorry.”
I refused to answer.
The end. It was hard to spot at first.