Vigilance watched Prudence’s slender hands as she held the rod, her index finger caressing the line. Every time they fished he was amazed how she could tell the tremors caused by the gentle waves from those of a fish nibbling at her worm. Her hand twitched and she started reeling in the line.
“Seven,” she said with a laugh. “How many have you caught?”
“And one crayfish who let go. Pity, he would’ve made great bait.”
Vigilance nodded. His hair fell into his eyes again. He still hadn’t decided if he was going to grow it out long enough to braid, or if he should take the shears to it. He pulled in his line as Prudence’s rod bent nearly double. His worm was gone. Again. She hauled a rainbow trout the length of his forearm into the boat. It stopped flopping the second time she clubbed it.
“We should probably head back,” Prudence said, tucking an errant strand of long black hair behind her ear. “Father won’t be happy if we’re out after dark again.”
“Mine wasn’t too happy about it, either,” he said.
As she stowed the gear, he set to with the oars, falling into an easy rhythm after a few strokes. The blue waters of Lake Winnipesaukee were calm, but it was miles from their fishing spot near Moose Island to the dock at the southwestern tip of Rattlesnake Island.
Vigilance stopped rowing.
He held up a finger and cocked his head. For a moment, there was nothing more than the creak of the oarlocks and the slap of water against the aluminum hull. The breeze picked up and he heard it again. A faint, strange drone, like the buzzing of a hundred cicadas. Prudence twisted around, a hand shading her eyes. She pointed with her other hand.
Something flew high above the trees. It seemed to be following Route 11, between the western edge of Alton Bay and the eastern edge of the ridge. Squinting against the setting sun, Vigilance could make it out. A small airplane. It coughed, like tearing fabric, and smoke poured from its nose. It banked and wobbled before it dove into the trees below Mount Major’s bald summit.
“Was that what I think it was?” Prudence asked. Her green eyes were wide, and the blood had drained from her cheeks.
Vigilance nodded. “An airplane. I saw some on the ground while foraging with Dad in Laconia. Dad said his grandfather told him they used to build them big enough to carry a few hundred people at a time.” A thread of smoke rose from the trees where the plane had vanished. “I never thought I’d see one flying.”
“There would’ve been someone in it, right? Shouldn’t we go up and see if they’re still alive? They might be hurt.”
“No. We’d never make it up there before nightfall. Besides, we don’t have any guns. I’m not going to risk meeting a rotter in the dark with just a fish club.” He hauled on the oars, the muscles in his back and arms straining. “We’ll tell the others. Dad and I and Mr. Standish can go up.”
Vigilance kept an eye on the thin column of smoke. It had been a dry summer. The wind would bring a fire right down to the shoreline. They would be safe on the island, no sparks could cross so much water, but their corn and wheat and other crops between the shore and the old highway would be destroyed, and harvest was only days away. Prudence trailed her fingers in the water and stared back as well.
By the time they reached the dock, he was sore. Up on the mountain, the smoke was gone, leaving only the faintest hint of haze. The sun had sunk behind the ridge, but it wasn’t quite dark. Vigilance scrambled to secure the boat. He took the heavy bucket of fish then helped Prudence out. He held her hand as they hurried to find her father.
Most of the village lived in ancient cottages along the shoreline, or homes made from salvaged materials. Some land had been cleared a little ways inland for a communal meeting hall, a bare patch of ground as a town square, and a ways from everything else, a locked concrete and brick armory, where the older, machine-made firearms and ammunition was kept, and new black powder was made.
“An airplane, you say?” Prudence’s father said, smoothing his salt and pepper beard. They’d found him in the meeting hall, looking over some of the bales of wool the trading party had brought back from Moultonborough the day before.
“Yes, sir,” Vigilance said. “Don’t you think it would be a good idea to investigate?”
“You know harvest time means they will be migrating south again for the winter. Like as not, some are already on the move. I would not send men to look for a crashed relic when rotters are likely to be out there. Especially not at night.”
“But, Papa, if it was an airplane, then there had to have been a pilot.”
The old man pinched the bridge of his nose. “Enough, you two. If it crashed, the pilot is dead, or will be before we could reach him. I have enough to worry about in taking care of the people here. I don’t need to add anyone or anything else. Now, get going. I need to finish this before I’m late for dinner.”
Outside, Prudence slipped her hand into his again. “Can you come have supper with Dad and me?” Vigilance asked as their fingers twined.
“I’ll have to ask,” she said. “Mother will say ‘yes’. I think she’d rather take care of feeding little Charity by herself than worry about you burning down your house.”
“I still don’t think your Dad likes me too much.”
“Father likes you. He wouldn’t let you take me out to fish if he didn’t.”
Vigilance shook his head. “But he’s always watching me.”
“Of course he does.” Prudence bumped her hip against his thigh. “You won’t be old enough for us to get married until next spring. He’s worried you’ll drag me off into the bushes and have your way with me while nobody’s looking. He was fifteen once, too, you know.”
“I would never,” he stammered.
“I know,” she said. “But what would you do if I decided to have my way with you in the boat sometime?”
Vigilance felt heat as his blood rose. His jaw opened and closed, but nothing came out of his mouth. Prudence snickered, then kissed his cheek.
Although Vigilance was as large as most of the adult men, and half a head taller than his father, his father was nearly twice as broad in the shoulders. He could’ve been carved from granite. He excelled when it came to working in the heat of his forge, but when it came to cooking a meal, he was lost. Vigilance wasn’t any better. As the two of them made dinner under Prudence’s direction, he told his father about the plane. He tried not to be disappointed when his father sided with Mayor Eaton’s decision not to put anyone at risk.
“Have you spoken with Mr. Kerr learning some carpentry?” his father asked, forking a bite of trout into his mouth.
“Yes,” Vigilance said. He pushed a piece of fish around his plate, swimming it between islands of carrot and potato. He glanced across the table. Prudence winked at him.
“He’s going to start me on some small projects before the snow comes. The sort of things that will get me used to the tools I’d be using to make gun stocks.”
“Good. What about you, Pru? Any plans for the winter?”
“My mother wants me to start teaching Charity to read. And, I was hoping I might get started on a new dress.”
Vigilance coughed, choking on his trout. I looked to see both of them trying to hide grins as he snatched up his cup, an ancient ceramic mug with a faded drawing of a fat black and orange cat. He gulped down water.
Someone pounded on the door. His father dropped his napkin beside his plate and went to answer it. Vigilance couldn’t hear any of the short conversation, distracted by Prudence’s foot on his ankle. She speared the last bite of the fish on her plate and popped it in her mouth. She smiled as she chewed.
“Your father’s here to take you home, Prudence.”
She scooted back her chair and stood. “I hadn’t realized it was getting so late. See you tomorrow,” she said, and then headed for the door.
Vigilance’s father sat back down. “Seems the pilot survived the crash. Somebody fired a flare from the top of Mount Major a few minutes ago. Mayor Eaton has reconsidered his decision. He wants me and James Standish to take a look first thing in the morning.”
“I want to go with you.”
“Why not? If he needs to be carried, I’m almost as strong as you. I can shoot almost as well as Mr. Standish. I’m faster and quieter in the woods than either of you. I can track. I’m the best hunter here.”
“I know, Lance. It’s not a matter of not being up to it. It’s a matter of risk. It’s not feasible to risk both of us on this. God forbid, what if something happens? If we don’t come back, you know enough to run the forge by yourself. Nobody else here does. If you came along, where does that leave the village?” He leaned over the table. “Where would that leave Pru?”
“No ‘buts.’ I need you get the dishes and the kitchen cleaned up.”
Vigilance leaned back in his chair. He crossed his arms and stared at his plate, muttering under his breath.
“And don’t whine about it. Men don’t whine. I don’t have time to argue with you, Lance. I have to get my things together and get to bed. We’re heading out at first light.” His father stood and headed for his bedroom. Vigilance pouted for several minutes, listening to his father gathering his gear. The musket, powder and shot, some bandages, a water skin, and other items. When he thought he heard his father returning, he gathered the plates and carried them to the sink. As he scrubbed them in the cold water from the cistern, he looked out the window and saw a faint glow on top of the mountain. He couldn’t be sure if he imagined it or not.
When Vigilance woke, his father was gone. He rolled out of bed and dressed. He scrounged for something to eat, settling on a piece of bread and chunk of hard cheese as he headed out the door. He tried not to think about the mountain or the plane or the possibility of the pilot being alive as he worked with Mr. Kerr. They built and repaired several hot boxes, wooden crates with old windows for tops, where small plants could grow during the winter, kept warm enough by the sun.
Shortly after noon, he headed down to the shore. They’d made enough boxes for each household to have two, and Mr. Kerr had decided to call it a day early.
Vigilance sat on an old stump and watched the water. The ducks had started flying south for the winter already; leaving only the jays and other small birds. He took a deep breath. He could smell the clean scent of the lake, the greenness of the pine trees, and someone was baking bread. His stomach rumbled. He stood, thinking of lunch, when he spotted Mr. Standish’s boat sailing up from Alton Bay. He ran for Prudence’s house, to tell her father they were returning.
By the time they docked, everyone not on the mainland tending the crops or looking after livestock was waiting for them. There was a third man in the boat. He was young and handsome, with swarthy skin, a moustache and goatee. Many of the women whispered about him. Even Prudence leaned forward to peer more closely at the stranger.
The boat secure, the three of them retrieved their gear and marched up the dock, the stranger in the middle. The dock thudded and creaked with each step. The stranger carried an unfamiliar gun and his clothing, a random smattered of green, black, and brown splotches, was made of an unknown fabric. He walked with a limp and a clenched jaw.
They pushed through the crowed without a word. Vigilance’s father and Mr. Standish kept their eyes forward, but the stranger’s head swivel back and forth. He tried to pass off his grimace as a smile. Vigilance noticed he paid most attention to the younger women. One or two people asked questions, but Mayor Eaton held up his hand.
“There will be a meeting later, after we’ve had a chance to talk with our new guest,” he said. He tugged Reverend White’s sleeve. “Would you join us, Moses?”
The crowd lingered for a few moments after they had gone. It fragmented as couples and families went off to finish chores and speculate amongst themselves.
“I wonder where he’s from,” Prudence said. “Maybe he’s from Durham. Or Boston. Or New York City.” Her eyes went wide and she grabbed Vigilance’s hand. “Maybe he’s from Washington D.C.! The government is reforming and he’s been sent by the President to make contact with whoever he can find.”
Vigilance shrugged. “Durham might have electricity and other old technology, but they don’t have an airport. Dad’s been there. He’d had said something about it. He’s got to be from somewhere, though. Guess we’ll find out tonight,” he said. He’d spent hours looking through atlases and reading volumes of the encyclopedia in the meeting hall. He knew the names and where they were on the maps. It was possible, but he doubted.
Shortly before sunset, the meeting bell rang. Vigilance found a seat in the front row, sitting on a bench with Prudence and her mother. Once everyone was settled and quiet, Mr. Standish related their trip up the mountain, and then turned it over to the stranger. He hobbled to Reverend White’s lectern and leaned against it. He smiled, revealing his teeth, bright white against his dark skin.
“Bonan nokton,” he said. “Mia nomo estas Esteban Aguilar.” He paused, sketching a bow. “Good evening. My name is Esteban Aguilar.” His English was accented, with odd vowels and vibrating r’s. “I am from the Azores Free Zone.” He picked up Mayor Eaton’s old globe and pointed to a tiny cluster of islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
“Many years ago, the islands were cleared of the nemortaj. There hasn’t been an instance of the dead walking in over fifteen years. We have plenty of land to grow many crops, raise much livestock, and plenty of room for people to live safe and sound. We have all the modern conveniences, hot and cold running water, electricity, schools, and computers, even a television and several radio stations.”
Most of them knew the words, and many had seen the devices, ruined relics, but only the handful who had travelled as far as Durham had seen any of them functioning. Prudence leaned forward, hanging on Esteban’s every word.
“We’re beginning to take back the world from the nemortaj. We have many bases in Europe, and a few in Africa. Now, we are looking to help free America. We have allies in the Caribbean, who are moving from island to island, making room for people to live there in safety.”
A woman at the back of the hall stood. “How did you get here?”
“Our ship, the Pizarro. We stopped at the islands off the coast. There are a few people living there. They call themselves ‘Pelicans’. They did not want to leave their homes, but told us many things about where we might find safety and other people on shore. We landed at the ruins of a shipyard, and made our base there. We cleared a road along a pier to make a narrow runway, just big enough for my plane to take off and land.” Esteban shook his head. “The only thing scarier than landing there was crashing into your mountain.
“Some of us visited the settlements the Pelicans told us about.”
“Did you visit Durham?” and older man asked.
“Yes. Most amazing. They have a generator which runs on gas piped in from an ancient trash dump, and it still works. I think the library there is bigger, and has more books than any library still standing, anywhere in the world.”
Vigilance felt a pang of jealousy shoot through him. One of these days, we would make the long trek southward, and just spend days and days reading.
“And Dover?” Mrs. White asked. He sister had gone there with a trading party and decided to stay.
Esteban knuckled his chin. “Yes, Dover. They’re in fortified brick buildings between the falls and a bend in the river.”
“What do you want from us?” someone else asked.
Esteban smiled. “We would like your aid. You know the area better than we do. You know how the nemortaj travel and where they gather. Our only other interests are trade and offering to take anyone who wants to go back with us. We come to free, not conquer.”
Vigilance snorted. He’d read several books about the world before the rotters took over. He’d lost track of how many times a liberation force had become an occupation force.
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live where we don’t have to worry about running into rotters?” Prudence whispered to him. She grabbed his hand. “Let’s go. We could live in a big house with electric lights and a bathtub you don’t have to heat with a fire.”
“Doesn’t sound like they’ve learned anything. None of that stuff stopped the outbreak, and for all we know, it might have been responsible somehow,” Vigilance said. “I’d rather stay here.” Prudence dropped his and turned back to Esteban, who was explaining his mission to find settlements, mark them on his map, and drop cans with written greetings from his commander.
“So, now what are you going to do?” one of the younger women asked.
“I must stay for a few days. I hurt my foot when I crashed. My radio was broken, so I will have to walk back. We only brought one airplane,” Esteban said. “Anyone who would like to come with me is welcome.”
“Idiot,” Vigilance muttered. Prudence elbowed him in the ribs.
“You should wait, Mr. Aguilar.” Mayor Eaton said. “The coast is a good fifty miles or so, as the crow flies. This time of year is bad, with the rotters migrating south for the winter. It would be better if you waited until the lake freezes over and the snow piles up. Go on skis.”
“We didn’t bring enough supplies for a long stay. The ship will be returning to the Free Zone in three weeks. I could be stuck here.”
As the meeting wore on, many people asked more questions about the Azores and other places Esteban had been. After a chorus of offers for a place to stay, Mayor Eaton announced the stranger would be staying in his guest room. Vigilance bristled. When the questions started to be of a more personal nature, he walked out.
Outside, Vigilance took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. A ghostly mist hung in the moonlight for several seconds. He walked home, where he pulled a faded book, Goode’s World Atlas, from the bookshelf. He set it on the kitchen table and studied the map of the Azores as the tallow candle burned low.
Over the next few days, Vigilance saw little of either Prudence or Esteban. Most of his time was spent helping his father prepare tools for the harvest. There were several blades to be sharpened or straightened, and handles to be replaced. When not working in the forge, he was helping Mr. Kerr build storage bins.
When the harvest began, Vigilance took a post on one of the short wooden towers, where he could watch for rotters and shoot them before they could threaten the men and women working in the fields. Late in the morning of the third day, he felt the tower tremble as someone climbed up the ladder. Esteban stepped onto the platform, wearing more normal clothes, but carrying his weapon.
“Saluton,” he said. “Sinjor, ah, Mr. Standish told me I could watch here with you today. I don’t know how to farm, but I can do this to help.”
Vigilance shrugged. “Suit yourself.” He scanned the slope up to the old paved road. Maybe the rotters had taken a different route this year.
“Do you farm?”
Esteban scratched his head. “Mr. Eaton made it sound like everyone here did.”
“Tried as a kid. I’m no good at it. No green thumb.”
“What is a ‘green thumb’?”
Vigilance rolled his eyes. “If someone is good at farming or gardening, they’re said to have a green thumb. I don’t know why.” He ignored Esteban, who looked over the lake as often as anywhere else. Several long minutes passed.
Esteban started to speak, but Vigilance hissed at him and pressed a finger to his lips. He pointed. A pair of rotters, a man and a woman, shambled towards them. They stopped at the edge of the slope, looking down at the people in the fields. Both of them were in rough shape. Most of their clothing had decomposed, leaving little more than scraps and rags hanging off them. Here and there old wounds gaped. Vigilance could see some of the woman’s ribs and the blackened tangle of her intestines. He raised his musket.
“Would you like to try mine?” Esteban asked. The gun he held out was all metal and plastic, with a collapsible stock. “It’s an MP5 9mm submachine gun.” He pointed to a switch on the side. “You set it here for semi-auto, or flip it all the way to rock and roll.”
Vigilance shrugged and they exchanged firearms. He pulled the stock out, flipped and the switch to the red “E”, and shouldered the weapon. The sights were different than he was used to, but they lined up easily. He centered the post on the woman’s head and squeezed the trigger. The gun made a small pop. There was little recoil and no smoke. He could hear the small bass casing tinkling and skittering on the floor. The rags, once a shirt, over the dead woman’s breasts fluttered. She reached up and touched the new hole at the base of her throat. He aimed a hand’s breadth over her matted brown hair and fired again. Her head snapped back and she dropped.
Vigilance shrugged. “It’s quiet and light, but not practical for hunting. The bullet’s too small for deer.”
“May I try yours?”
“Be my guest.”
Esteban looked down at the gun for a second, then pulled back the hammer. When Vigilance nodded, he raised it to his shoulder. He aimed for several seconds, then pulled the trigger. There was a flash and puff of smoke as the hammer snapped down, then an instant later, the gun roared, belching smoke and flame. A clean miss.
Esteban rattled of several strange words and rubbed his shoulder. “Ow,” he said. “What happened? What went wrong?”
Vigilance waved at the harvesters, who looked up at them. He waved and shook his head. “You missed. You need to keep the stock tight against your body, or it will kick. Now, I’ll show you how to reload, and you can try again.” He walked Esteban through the process, from measuring the powder and seating the ball to priming the pan. By the time they were done, he could have done it twice on his own. The rotter had reached the bottom of the slope. He was only a few yards from the low stone wall marking the edge of the field.
Esteban aimed again. This time he didn’t miss. The rotter’s head cracked in half. Pieces of skull and brain sprayed out behind. The body took one more step then fell on its side.
Esteban shook his head. “Why do you such guns?”
Vigilance traded with him again. “You have machines to make those, right?”
“We don’t. I made it. The steel was savaged, melted down, and reforged. I hand carved the stock.” He picked up one of the spent shell casings. He held it up and tapped the end. “Do you have the means to produce smokeless powder and more primers?”
“We don’t, but we can make black powder.” Vigilance dropped the brass shell. “We have factory guns and ammunition, but we save them for emergencies.”
As the sun oozed towards the top of the mountains, the harvesters set aside their tools and piled into the waiting boats. No more rotters appeared, but more would come. Prudence was waiting at the dock.
“I missed you,” she said, taking Vigilance’s hand.
“I missed you, too. Sorry I hadn’t come to see you, between Dad and Mr. Kerr, I’ve been hopping.” Vigilance glanced at Esteban, who ignored them as he stalked away. “Besides, I thought you might be mad at me.”
“I wasn’t mad at you,” she said. “A little annoyed, maybe, but not mad.” She twined her fingers with his. “I was thinking we might take a walk.”
Vigilance dropped off his gun and shooting bag at home, before they followed the old dirt road away from the village. They walked without a word. Although the threat of winter loomed, the evening was still warm. A slight breeze off the water rustled the leaves, which were turning more red and gold by the day. Vigilance could smell a hint of the dried flowers Prudence had put in her bath water, but he couldn’t think of anything to say. He was content.
They followed the road, now mostly reclaimed and narrowed to a path by trees, around the large cove, to a smaller one halfway to the island southeastern tip. A favorite haunt, they sat on a large rock by the shore, heated by the afternoon sun, where they could watch the lake and the mainland. Summer cottages once stood nearby, but they had long ago been torn apart. Their materials either put to use in new buildings, furniture, or burnt for firewood.
Prudence pressed close to his side and Vigilance slipped his arm around her. She rested her head on his shoulder.
“I’m sorry I made you think I was mad,” she said. “I’ve been pretty busy as well. Mama and I have been discussing dress patterns.”
Vigilance kissed the top of her head. “I guess I should ask your father. I don’t think he’ll say ‘yes’ until after my birthday.”
“I know. Mama and I have been keeping it a secret.” She pulled away and smiled at him, mischief in her green eyes. “Want to go for a swim?”
“Now? Water’s pretty cold.”
She stood up and began unbuttoning her shirt. “Yeah, but it’ll be fun warming up.”
Vigilance’s heart pounded. His ears burned. They’d been skinny dipping several times, years ago, when they were little. He shook his head. “No,” he said, hating himself for it. “It wouldn’t be right. We should wait until we’re married. I’ll talk to your father, maybe he’ll agree to let us do it early. Maybe make it part of the midwinter celebration.”
“Damn it, Lance. I wish you’d stop being so worried about what’s right or proper.” She crossed her arms. “It’s not like either one of us would get into trouble, or anything. I’m an adult. Besides, it’s not like anybody is going to know.” She leaned towards him. “Can you give me a good reason why not?”
“I can’t. I don’t know why. It just doesn’t feel right, doing it out here. Sneaking around like this.” He wished he’d shut up.
“Fine.” Prudence started back towards the path, buttoning her shirt as she went.
“Pru, wait.” Vigilance jumped to his feet and followed her.
“Leave me alone.”
Once on the path, she ran. He might’ve been able to sprint faster, but once Prudence found her stride, there was no way he could keep up. He swore loudly at himself and started the long walk back. Once home, he ignored his father and the dinner kept warm on the stove, and collapsed on his bed.
Vigilance woke at dawn. Prudence would be going out to fish before the sun climbed too high. If he could catch her at the dock, he might smooth things over. He changed his shirt before slipping out into the cool morning.
People were already swarming over the dock, getting into the boats to continue the harvest. Tribulation Howland, a year younger and his frequent hunting partner, waved.
“She’s gone already,” he said.
“She and Mr. Aguilar rowed out about twenty minutes ago.” He pointed to the small boat sitting between the southern tip of Sleepers Island and a small cluster of tree-covered rocks. “They were chatting like they’ve known each other for ages.”
Vigilance swore under his breath and stomped back up the dirt road. He went plowed into the brush and undergrowth, heading towards the rocky ledges at the island’s highest point. He stopped every few dozen paces to pitch stones at random trees. Before he reached the summit, decided it was a waste of time. He turned around and went to find Mr. Kerr. Perhaps driving some nails would help him work it. The carpenter didn’t need anything pounded, but he had firewood what needed to be chopped.
As he finished piling the split logs, they had returned. Esteban tied up the boat with a sloppy knot, as Prudence stepped up onto the dock. She didn’t have any fish.
They had almost made it through lunch when Vigilance’s father spoke. “Something wrong? You haven’t been yourself today.”
“Pru and I had a fight.” He shrugged. “I think she’s starting be interested in Esteban.”
“Have you tried talking to her?”
“No, not really.”
“You should. I’ll take care of washing up.”
Vigilance considered it for a few moments, then pushed his chair back and stood. He put his plate by the sink and headed out. He had no more idea what to say when he reached the Eaton home than he had when he stepped outside. Heart in his throat, he knocked.
Mrs. Eaton opened the door. He frowned.
“May I speak with Prudence, please?”
“Wait here. I’ll see if she wants to talk to you.” She closed the door. A moment later, it reopened. Prudence leaned against the doorframe.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“For what? It’s not like you did anything wrong.”
Vigilance ran his fingers through his hair. “Yeah, well, I wish I had.”
Prudence snorted. “I’m going with Esteban when he leaves. Why should I stay when I could have a life like everyone here only reads about? I want to be able to store food in a refrigerator instead of hoping we have enough ice to keep an icebox cold all summer. I want to listen to music on a radio. Music we don’t have the instruments to play. I want to watch television and movies. I want to walk outside at night and not worry about rotters or bears or coy-dogs. I want more than I can have on this little island.
“What about you? What do you want, Lance?”
He met her gaze and held it. “Everything I want is right here.”
She shook her head. “I’m sorry, but I have to go.” She slammed the door. A curtain moved in an upstairs window. Vigilance glimpsed Esteban smirking down at him. Prudence’s bedroom window.
“Come on, Pru,” he shouted. “Come out and talk to me.”
The door opened and Mrs. Eaton leaned out. “Run along now. My daughter has said all she has to say to you for the moment.”
Seething, Vigilance ran to the farthest, northernmost point of the island. He wore himself out heaving rocks into the water. Blame for all of this could be laid at the stranger’s feet. She’d been happy enough before he showed up.
“Fine, go with him,” he said, skipping a stone across the waves. “See if I care.”
For the next few days, he threw himself into his work. He helped haul baskets of grain and potatoes and pumpkins from the fields to the boats. He took his turns in the watch tower, hoping for more than a trickle of rotters to wander into his sights.
Esteban pitched in as well. He carried his fair share of loads, but if he took his gun into one of the towers, Vigilance never saw it. On the island, he often saw the stranger with Prudence, who still refused to speak with him. They’d started holding hands.
Two weeks after Esteban’s arrival, the last of the harvest had been collected and the livestock transferred from the mainland barn to winter quarters on Sleepers Island. The rotters would soon be coming in a steady stream. It would be unsafe to leave the islands again until the snow started falling.
Vigilance woke to voices in the kitchen. It was still dark. He could hear his father and Mayor Eaton, but he couldn’t’ make out what they were saying. He slipped out of bed and snuck down the hall.
“She’s gone, Hiram,” Mayor Eaton said. “That boy left, taking her, Tribulation Howland, and Felicity Turner with him. They broke into the armory before they left; took some boxes of ammunition and maybe a few guns. They’ve taken one of the smaller boats, and I have no idea where they’ve gone.”
Vigilance sucked in a breath and froze. His father glanced over Mayor Eaton’s shoulder, into the hallway’s gloom. “What do you want to do, Jonathan? I can get James and a couple others and go after them. We can bring our kids home.”
Mayor Eaton shook his head. “No.” His shoulders slumped. “Let them go. They know the risks. I can’t, in good conscience, send anyone after them. Not now.”
“Alright,” Hiram said. “You go home and look after Mrs. Eaton.”
“Will you tell your son I’m sorry?”
“I will,” Hiram said, showing Mayor Eaton to the door. Once the older man was gone, he turned to the hallway. “You heard everything, I take it.”
“Yes,” Vigilance said, stepping in the kitchen. He leaned against a chair.
“It would be best to let them go.”
“It wouldn’t have stopped me from going after your mother.”
“I’ll have some food packed for you by the time you’re dressed.”
Vigilance hugged his father. “Thank you.”
Ten minutes later, Vigilance ran towards the dock. The eastern sky was already brightening. People would be up and moving soon. He wore warm layers of wool and leather, and toted a backpack filled with extra clothing, blankets, dried fish, smoked venison, a pair of small apples and a few other supplies, as well as his musket and a hatchet. Mayor Eaton was waiting for him, holding a rifle.
“I’m going to get Prudence,” Vigilance said. “Please don’t try to stop me.”
“Give me your gun, Mr. Brewster.”
“I can’t let her go like, this. Please.”
James Standish stepped out from behind a tree. “Powder and shot, too, Lance.”
Vigilance hung his head and held out the musket. Mr. Standish took it. He shrugged the powder horn from his shoulder as well as the bag with his shooting kit and handed them over.
“This should serve you better,” Mayor Eaton said. He pushed the rifle into Vigilance’s hands. It was old and heavy. Made of sturdy wood and steel, with a box magazine and bolt action, it had been built for fighting in the First World War, a hundred years before the first rotters. “I trust you know how to use it. It’s loaded. Ten rounds.” He held out a spare magazine.
Vigilance looked at the bullets. Smooth, gleaming brass cases. Shiny copper jackets. He had no idea what to say.
“Factory rounds, not hand-loads,” Mayor Eaton said.
“I thought you were going to stop me,” Vigilance said.
“We should, but she’s my daughter.” Mayor Eaton held out yet another gift. A large, thin book with a faded red cover. It was one of his favorites to flip through with Prudence. A New Hampshire atlas. “I hope this will help.”
“My guess is they’re taking the most direct route,” Mr. Standish said, ushering Vigilance down the dock. “They took a sailboat. They’re probably just going to the end of Alton Bay and walking from there, following Route 11.”
“Be careful,” Mayor Eaton said.
They helped him into another small sailboat and gave him a shove. The wind was out of the north, bringing with it the promise of snow. Another boat sat at the tip of the bay, beached near a handful of sun-bleached pilings jutting up from the water like fingers.
Vigilance landed his craft. He guessed they had a few hours head start. Esteban was in for a surprise. He might know how to fly an airplane and shoot a fancy gun, but the islanders had been working hard all their lives. He’d probably be one dragging by the end of the day.
He slipped through Alton’s remains. Carefully dodging from building to collapsed building, he avoided the shambling population of transient rotters. He skirted the edge of the town square, keeping a careful eye on the handful of dead men loitering in front of the old brick clock tower. The minute hand had fallen off long again, but the hour hand still pointed to the top of the three. Vigilance hurried on. He cut through the overgrown cemetery. At least the dead here were at rest. Near a worn marble headstone, he spotted the print of a hard-soled boot.
Every time he spotted a rotter, Vigilance would pause to study them. Most had some scraps of clothing, but it wasn’t unusual to see one naked. Pale, bluish skin streaked with dirt and dried gore. If they wore anything, it seemed to be shoes. It made sense. A hundred years of shambling from one place to another was sure to wear out soles, be they rubber or flesh.
They weren’t intelligent, but had instinct and cunning. They understood they couldn’t heal. They avoided rough terrain, and other hazards which might do harm or hasten decomposition, such as freezing and thawing, or becoming waterlogged. He’d seen some seek shelter from the rain.
As darkness fell, Vigilance found himself outside of Farmington, across the road from a collapsed drug store. He was still seeing signs of Esteban’s passage, and hints of other feet clad in less distinctive footwear. He was gaining on them, he was sure.
He found two sturdy trees in which to camp for the night. He hung his pack with the food he wasn’t having for dinner in one tree. The food might not interest a rotter, but a bear, preparing for hibernation, would come a long way for dried fish and smoked venison. With a piece of rope, he secured himself in the comfortable crotch of another tree, high enough from the ground to be safe from a bear or worse.
Vigilance woke at sunrise. He retrieved his bag and consulted the atlas. He tried to guess the route Esteban would lead them along. There were back roads he could follow, smaller lanes not as likely to be traveled by rotters. He might be able to catch them near the south side of Rochester. With his pack cinched tight to his back and rifle in hand, Vigilance loped through the trees and down overgrown roads.
Shadowing the highway, he came to a shallow river. There were footprints in the mud. The tracks had been made since sun-up. Boots with heavy tread and three pairs of smaller, plainer soles.
Though the river meandered like a blind rotter, it flowed more or less parallel to the busy road. Several times, the trail left the edge of the water to cut across narrow spits between bends. It forded where another river joined in, bringing deeper water downstream. Vigilance followed. At times, he could imagine hearing Prudence and Felicity.
After the river passed under a crumbling concrete bridge, Vigilance began to see more signs of former civilization, toppled ruins of homes and businesses. After several more bridges, he was surrounded by the carcass of a city. Skeletal buildings loomed on either side of the river. Ahead, he could see a collapsed bridge, and beyond it, a massive brick building spanning the river. Between the two, roared an unseen waterfall. Dover.
A line of laundry swayed in the breeze, hung between two poles on the roof. Small trees stood in large pots nearby. Vigilance followed scuffed footprints, abandoning the riverside, and ventured into the unnatural remains of city streets.
He stopped to when he noticed a small, filthy, bloodied child. A boy or a girl, he couldn’t tell. It reeked of sickness and sweat, and had soiled itself. Seeing him, it opened its mouth and toddled toward him at top speed.
The child lunged at him, its jaw snapping. He kicked in the chest, knocking it away. It sprang to its feet and came at him again. Long hair shifted, revealing the ragged, oozing wound where the child’s ear had been ripped away. Vigilance knocked it down again, pining it to the ground with his foot. He brought up his rifle and slammed the butt down against its skull. There was a wet crunch and the child’s head lay misshapen. Dark blood pooled, trickling along the cracks in the pavement. Vigilance sagged against the rusted hulk of a large truck and vomited.
Wiping his bitter mouth, he slunk towards the corner, where the street ran into a nexus of other streets. Brick and stone buildings towered over him. High windows looked down like empty eye sockets, while lower ones yawned like mouths with jagged, crystalline teeth. A clock face, stopped at four-thirty, peered down from a building like a pale moon. Across the square was a weed-choked amphitheater. To one side was a once-blue sculpture of a crab. It was ringed with pots of dead flowers and burnt out candles. Offerings to a scuttling god.
A scream echoed through the concrete canyons. Vigilance looked around. It was hard to tell where it came from. He saw Prudence sprint from between two brick buildings, heading towards the crab, Esteban hot on her heels. Panting, Felicity lagged behind. Bloodied men and women ran after her, hands reaching, fingers hooked into claws. Tribulation, half his face missing, led the pack.
Vigilance’s breath caught in his throat. Runners. Live people who’d been bitten by a rotter, but escaped. They were like rabid animals, vicious until they were dealt a mortal wound or succumbed to starvation, only to rise within hours as a fresh rotter.
“Run!” Esteban screamed. He slowed and raised his weapon, taking quick aim.
Vigilance didn’t hear the shot, and no smoke belched from the barrel. He saw the spurt of blood and heard a shriek as the bullet punched through Felicity’s thigh. The snarling runners were on her before she hit the ground. Tribulation bit into her arm as the others tried to tear her apart. The sound rising from Felicity’s throat was inhuman.
Shaking, Vigilance shouldered his rifle. He hovered the front sight’s post on her head and jerked the trigger. The factory round was louder than his gun had ever been, and the recoil jolted his shoulder. The bullet, copper jacketed and sleek, punched through Felicity’s chest. Blood sprayed. The screaming stopped. Her body, whatever was left of it, might rise again, but her pain was ended. Vigilance fumbled the bolt, loading a fresh round. His second shot tore away the top of Tribulation’s head.
He dashed around the amphitheater. He spotted Prudence and Esteban along the edge of the river, in what had been a park. Across the water was another section of fortifications. A hundred yards in front of them a row boat sat on the bank.
Vigilance shouted, “Prudence!” She stumbled and fell to one knee when she looked back. Esteban nearly ran her over. He skidded to a stop, swinging his weapon around.
“He shot Felicity!”
Esteban fired. The bullet whizzed past and struck the wall. Hearing footsteps, Vigilance glanced back to see runners bearing down on him. The closest was only a few steps away. He stopped, planting his foot, and thrust the rifle butt backward. It caved in the runner’s face and it fell, dead. He fired. A runner dropped. He worked the bolt and did it again. And again. And again. The last one tumbled at his feet.
“Get to the boat, Pru,” Esteban said. “The noise will bring more.” He pointed his weapon at Vigilance’s chest. “You shouldn’t have followed us.”
“What are you doing?” Prudence shouted as he squeezed the trigger.
Vigilance raised his rifle and pulled the trigger. There was a sharp click. He snapped open the bolt. Empty. He dropped the gun and fumbled at his belt as Esteban rushed towards him, a knife in his hand.
He managed to catch the blade with the rifle. The knife whispered across the back of his hand. The gun fell from pain splayed fingers as he scrambled to his feet. As Esteban came at him again, Vigilance yanked the hatchet from his belt.
He swung, hoping to plant the blade in the stranger’s head. Esteban caught his wrist with one hand, and drove the knife into his belly with the other. They fell one on top of the other. Vigilance had no breath to scream. Lightning and fire shot through his guts.
“She might have come back, eventually,” Esteban whispered, twisting the knife. He jerked the knife free and held up the blade, blood dripping from its point.
There were three loud pops and a line of little white holes appeared in Esteban’s forehead. A heartbeat later, blood poured forth in streams, coursing down his face, and spattering on Vigilance’s chest. It sounded like rain. He pushed the dead man away and looked up to see Prudence holding a small, silver revolver.
“They’re coming, Lance,” she said. “I can’t carry you.”
Vigilance found his feet and half ran with Prudence, his arm over her shoulders, and hers around his waist. They reached the boat and he pitched forward, collapsing into it. She emptied her gun at the runners, then shoved the boat into the water. It stopped with a jerk. She screamed in frustration, wordless, primal.
“It’s tied,” she said. Vigilance dug out his pocketknife and handed it to her. The sharp blade made short work of the old rope. She dropped it in the bottom of the boat and pushed them into the sluggish current. He could hear the snarls and splashes of pursuit as Prudence put out the oars and pulled with all her strength. They passed under a sagging covered bridge, scraping on the bottom, then reached deeper, swifter waters.
“Stay with me Lance,” Prudence said. “Portsmouth is just downstream a little ways. The Azores ship’s there. They’ve got a doctor. You’ll be all right. Just don’t leave me.”
Vigilance smiled. He stared up, past the trees with their leaves beginning to turn red and gold. The sky was bright blue, with soft, puffy, white clouds. “I’m not going anywhere without you, Pru,” he said. He closed his eyes and let the rowing and the waves rock him. “I love you.”
Jason Allard is a graduate of the University of New Hampshire and the Odyssey Writers’ Workshop. He currently lives in the New Hampshire seacoast area with his wife and a small mischief of rats. His days are spent asleep as he works a vampire’s hours at UNH’s Dimond Library.