ExtinctIsland - FALL

Channel Two said the storm wouldn’t hit until Sunday, but they were wrong, as usual. Winter hit like a hammer, right on Thanksgiving Day.

Nobody stuck around on the little island off the coast of Maine for the holiday. Thanksgiving had always been a quiet day with most of the residents traveling back to the mainland to visit family. Last Christmas, almost a thousand people inhabited the island. On the Fourth of July, with all the summer folks and people over for the day, you could have found more than thirty-five hundred. But on Thanksgiving the island was like a ghost town.

For Robby Pierce, this would be his first Thanksgiving ever on the island. He usually went with his mom over to Grandma’s house and stayed the weekend. Dad was always too busy with the ferry to take any time off to visit his mother-in-law’s. This year, Robby sat in the front room by the window with his book and watched the snow fall while his mom crashed about in the kitchen. This was her first year cooking the turkey alone and having to cram it into a small oven. Robby smiled. He missed his grandmother, but he was thrilled he would finally eat Thanksgiving dinner with his mom and dad as a family.

“Robby?” his mom called.

He jumped up and set his book down. He guessed what she would ask and he wanted to answer her face-to-face so he could gauge her response.

“Yeah?” he asked as he crossed the threshold to the kitchen.

His mom knelt before the small oven. She had been praying to the gods of turkey.

“How long did Grandma cook this thing?” she asked.

Robby had his answer prepared. He paused to make sure she heard him properly.

“You should leave it in for four an’ a quarter hours,” he said. This was not an accurate answer to the question she posed. His grandma always cooked the bird for three and a half hours, but that had been a smaller, unstuffed turkey. His mom purchased a “biggun’,” thawed it recklessly, and stuffed it tight with breadcrumbs. He would have padded his estimate up to five hours, but their oven always ran hot. At least the dark meat would cook, even if the breast would dry out. Mom’s awesome gravy would fix that. She became an expert at cooking the sides and sauces while Grandma did the main dish.

“You sure? That seems like a long time,” she said.

Robby nodded once.

“Okay,” she said and nodded back. That’s how he knew she would take his answer as gospel and Dad wouldn’t have to yell about salmonella.

If his dad saw even a hint of pink in bird meat he’d say, “Sarah, I do believe you’re trying to kill me,” and even though it sounded like a joke, nobody ever smiled.

✪ ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪

The wind picked up just after lunch and Robby had to move away from his window perch. His dad hadn’t installed the storm windows yet and the wood stove didn’t throw its heat all the way to the front hall. Robby moved to the living room where the aroma of the turkey seemed to warm the air.

The book sat in his lap. His mind kept wandering back to the storm. It looked like a nor’easter, the way the wind swirled in the crook between the shed and the peak of the garage roof. The storm itself didn’t bother him too much, but he didn’t like how surprised the weatherman appeared. Robby could see it just below the man’s subdued TV delivery. Panic fluttered beneath that demeanor; the same panic the island pharmacist showed when the pharmacist’s wife came down with cancer. Robby didn’t have much experience with panic—he was, after all, only thirteen years old—but he possessed a talent for recognizing patterns.

“Hey, how about you get off your butt and set the table?” his mom yelled.

Robby had been waiting for her to ask. She preferred to ask for help rather than accept volunteer assistance. He cleared the kitchen table and wiped down the plastic table cloth with a wet sponge before he folded it up. The felt backing caught on the peeling corners of formica. The new tablecloth had orange and red stripes and fall-colored leaves woven into the pattern. His mom ironed it once, but the fold-lines from its time in the package still popped up. Robby smoothed them down the best he could before he set the table.

The back door thumped.

“See who that is, Robby,” his mom said. He could tell her—it had to be Jim, from up the road—but then she would think he knew Jim was coming.

“Okay,” he said. He went to the door and saw Jim peeking through the glass.

“Hey,” he said to Jim as the door let in a gust of wind and snow. “It’s Jim,” he called to his mom.

“My mom wants to know if you still have power,” Jim said.

Robby’s mom, Sarah, approached, wiping her hands on a dish-towel. Jim stood on the rug just inside the door. Flakes of snow melted into his jeans as he stood there.

“What are you doing out in this mess, Jim?” she asked.

“My mom wants to know if you still have power,” Jim repeated.

“All day, not a flicker,” said Sarah.

“Oh,” said Jim, “okay. Our phones don’t work neither.”

“Tell your mom and brother to come over here. We’ll make due if the power goes out here too,” said Sarah.

“No, that’s okay,” said Jim. “She said she’d pack us up and go on the ferry. Dad’s still shore-side anyways.”

“All right then. You tell her the offer is open,” said Sarah. She flipped the towel over her shoulder and returned to the kitchen.

Robby thought for a second—why would Jim’s mother send him down to find out about their power if she already planned to pack up and head for the mainland?

Sarah reappeared in the kitchen doorway. “Do you need someone to look after your house while you’re gone, Jim? Make sure the pipes don’t freeze until the power comes back?” Sarah asked. Apparently she had also been puzzling about the reason for Jim’s visit.

“Nope,” said Jim. “Dad’s coming back tomorrow. The house will be okay until then.”

Robby joined the guessing-game, “Do you need to know how late the ferry is running?”

“Yeah,” said Jim.

All the islanders knew the regular ferry schedule, but the holiday schedule seemed to mystify them.

“Two forty-five,” said Sarah. “Don’t be late. Earl Ray’s running the last boat.” Earl Ray had a reputation for closing the gates even if he saw his best friend coming down the hill. Everyone called him “Early Ray.” Sarah left them with this information and returned to the stove.

“Do you want to ask your mom if you can stay with us?” Robby asked Jim. Robby liked Jim. In fact, Robby would have called Jim his best friend, if asked. But he wasn’t inviting Jim to stay because he liked him, he was inviting him to stay because he thought Jim might need his help. Something—about the holiday, or the storm, or the way the island seemed so empty—bothered Robby. When things went wrong, Robby tried to help Jim. Even though he really looked forward to spending Thanksgiving alone with just his parents, Robby wanted to look after Jim.

“Nah,” said Jim. “I want to go on the ferry and see the waves. My brother said they have twenty-foot swells. I bet it’s like a roller coaster.”

“I’ll see you on Friday then,” Robby said.

“Yup,” said Jim. “Take it easy.”

Jim let himself out and Robby closed the door tight behind him. He stood there, watching through the glass, until Jim trudged down the path and out of sight. Robby smiled and tried to guess the first thing his dad would say when he got home. He pushed his hair behind his ears. He’d probably make a comment about his lovely daughter Roberta—a light-hearted jab at the length of Robby’s hair. Lately, Robby’s long hair drew a lot of attention from his dad, but Robby didn’t want to wear it short anymore. He thought it made his forehead look too big.

An hour later, when Samuel Pierce burst through the door from the garage, his son’s hair was the last thing on his mind.

“Jesus Fucking Christ,” Sam said before the door could bang against the stop.

Robby, sitting at the table, looked up from his book. Sarah sat the pot of boiling onions back down on the burner instead of dumping them out in the colander.

“What’s wrong?” Sarah asked.

Sam cursed under his breath, kicked his boots into the tray next to the door, and waved-in a smaller, clean-shaven man.

“Hey, Paulie,” Sarah said. Paulie Carver waved and nodded. “What’s wrong, honey?” she asked again.

“Nothing a permanent move a thousand miles south wouldn’t fix,” said Sam.

Sarah leaned back against the counter and waited for Sam to get around to explaining his frustration.

Sam turned to Paulie—“The landline is in the front room.” Sam pointed Paulie down the hall.

“Cells are out,” Sam said to Sarah. To demonstrate his disgust, he tossed his cell phone to the table. “Power’s out to the port, and more than half the town is dark. Paulie’s supposed to Mate over to shore, but Early disappeared.”

“Disappeared?” asked Sarah.

“Poof,” said Sam. “He came aboard with Paulie. I saw him. Then we couldn’t find him.”

“Overboard?”

Sam shrugged.

“Is Master Johnson taking her back across?” asked Sarah.

“We were going to ask him that very same question, but it turns out we couldn’t find him either. Can’t even find the Harbor Master,” said Sam.

“Jesus,” said Sarah.

Sam looked down at his feet, shaking his head. When he tilted his head back up, his face softened. Robby admired the way his dad could always tuck away his worries and find his way back to his normal mellow state.

“Hey, smells delicious,” he said. Sam cross the room and put his hands on Sarah’s shoulders. He pulled her in for a quick kiss. Sam leaned down to reach her—he stood at least a foot taller than his wife. Sarah held on to fear much more tenaciously. After the kiss she chewed the inside of her cheek as she processed all the information Sam brought home with him.

Paulie appeared in the doorway. “Your phone is out too,” he said. “I get a dial tone, but I can’t connect to anything. I guess I’ll head back to the docks and wait for Early or Johnson to show back up.”

“I’ll go with you,” said Sam.

“You don’t have to do that,” said Paulie. “Smells like your supper is almost ready and all.”

Sam glanced at Sarah before answering—“Plenty of time to eat later. We’ll both go down,” he explained to both Sarah and Paulie. “And if nobody shows up in an hour, then we’ll shut her down and both come back here for turkey, and you can stay on the couch tonight.”

“I appreciate that,” said Paulie, “but I can hole up in the lounge. I’ve done it before.”

“Nonsense,” said Sarah. “It’ll be as cold as a cave in there tonight.”

Robby watched the conversation and noted that all the adults seemed resigned the ferry wouldn’t be running back to shore that day. The boat wouldn’t run without a captain, but Robby had never heard of the ferry staying overnight at the island. Sam caught a ride to the mainland before each shift, so he could maintain his residence—the only thing his parents left to him—on the island. Any one of these things happening—the ferry staying overnight, the captain disappearing, the Harbor Master missing—would have been extraordinary. Together, the events of the day seemed almost incomprehensible.

Sam pulled his boots on and Paulie fished his gloves out of his pockets. They exited back through the door to the garage and Robby stood up. He would have to shovel under the garage door as soon as they left. Otherwise the snow tracked in by the Jeep would stop the door from shutting all the way.

“Don’t forget your hat,” his mom said.

✪ ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪

The shoveling took forever. First, the snow drifted into the garage as fast as Robbie could shovel it out. Then Robby stayed outside and started shoveling down the driveway. It wouldn’t really help. His dad would use the snowblower in the morning and the extra shoveling wouldn’t give him much of an advantage, but it kept Robby out of the house and away from his mom, who would be trying to hum away all her worries. Robby could picture her in there, standing at the stove, nervously mashing potatoes, and humming a tuneless song.

His dad would be back in an hour. Robby wondered if he could stay outside that long. He had his good jacket on, but he wasn’t dressed for the wind. A black shape up the street caught his eye. The falling snow made it hard to see past the end of the driveway, but that big black mass hadn’t been there before, he was sure of that. Robby kept shoveling, but kept his eyes trained on the shape. When he flicked the shovel to throw the snow, his hood pulled to the right, blocking his vision. When his hood came back to center, the shape moved closer.

Robby backed towards the garage door. He had closed the big door, so more snow wouldn’t drift into the garage. The path to the back porch sat under a foot of powder. The black shape shifted, right before his eyes. It moved to the end of the driveway. It stood tall in front and trailed off towards the back, like a centaur. Robby backed onto the path to the back porch, slogging through the drift. The black shape—the centaur-thing—approached faster, closing the gap to Robby.

Robby dropped the shovel he had been dragging. He turned to run for the door. His feet couldn’t keep up with his momentum and he pitched forward into a drift. He flailed on hands and knees in the snow. When he stole a glance over his shoulder, the centaur-thing reached all the way to the shoveled part of the driveway. Robby flipped over on his butt, so at least he would be able to defend himself when the beast came for him.

Just before his eyes made sense of the shape before him, Robby’s brain put together the clues. His centaur-thing had to be Ms. Norton, trailing her two sons—Brandon and Jim. On that deduction, Robby pushed himself to his knees and got back to his feet. He picked up the shovel just as Ms. Norton approached.

“You’ll move a lot more snow with the shovel than with your hands, Robby,” she said.

“Yes, Ms. Norton,” Robby said.

She turned to her youngest son and said, “Jim, you help Robby clear this walk and then you both get inside.” She held a big white bakery box from the island’s grocer out in front of her, the cardboard nearly soaked through from the snow.

Ms. Norton waited for Robby to step off to the side and then she led Brandon towards the house. When Brandon passed Robby, he pushed Robby in the chest, sending him backwards into the snow. Jim grabbed the end of the shovel and hauled Robby back to his feet.

“My brother’s a dick,” said Jim.

“Yeah,” Robby said.

Jim took the shovel and started clearing the path out to the driveway while Robby brushed himself off.

“So you guys aren’t taking the ferry?” Robby asked.

“No,” said Jim. The rest of his response was carried away by a gust of wind. He repeated himself, “Early’s not there.”

“Master Johnson?” Robby asked. Technically, Early was a Master too but everyone just called him Early.

“He’s gone too,” said Jim. “Not enough people to crew the ferry. Your dad said he’s coming home presently.”

The boys finished their shoveling and then headed back inside.

✪ ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪

The boys pushed the coffee table out of the way and sat on the floor in the front room. They had a deck of cards and three stacks of Monopoly money. The game was Texas Hold ’Em.

In the kitchen, the adults crowded around the little kitchen table. As soon as Robby’s dad and Paulie came back, they shooed the kids away so they could talk. Even Ms. Norton, Haddie, kept her voice down as they talked. You could usually hear her three floors away. Unable to hear the conversation, Robby focused on the card game.

Robby gave away a couple of small pots to Brandon’s aggressive play. He wanted to see how Brandon would bet when he had a good hand.

Jim showed no backbone; he could be chased out of almost any hand with one good raise, and his face instantly revealed the strength of his cards.

Jim dealt the next hand and Robby saw what he wanted. Brandon came in with the minimum raise. Robby called him. He gave up a quarter of his money to see Brandon’s cards, but it was worth it. Now he knew what Brandon would do with a really good hand. On the next hand, Jim came away the winner. Robby frowned. It should have been his pot, but Jim misread the cards. Jim played as if he held a pair of jacks, but he unknowingly had a straight. That beat Robby’s three kings.

He would have to adjust his approach to compensate for Jim’s mistakes.

“This is stupid,” said Brandon. “Let’s watch TV.”

“Cable’s out,” Robby said. “All you can get is channels Two and Five.”

“You don’t have satellite?” asked Brandon. He tossed the deck of cards into Jim’s pile of money.

“With your power out, neither do you,” Robby said.

“If my dad were home, he’d start up the generator, and then we would,” said Brandon.

“Isn’t the generator still broke?” asked Jim.

“Shut up,” said Brandon. He turned back to Robby and said, “If your dad was smart enough, he could start up the ferry and take us back to the mainland. Then we wouldn’t even be stuck here. I’m turning on the TV.”

Robby thought about stopping Brandon. His parents didn’t like him to watch TV—they all tried to keep their viewing to a minimum; they usually read books or magazines. But stopping Brandon would be tough. The boy stood several inches taller than Robby and had a mean temper. Perhaps Robby and Jim could stop him together, but it would take a while to convince Jim to oppose his brother. From Robby’s experiences in school, he always assumed family would stick together. Robby got lucky—his father came in before Brandon found the remote control.

Sam stepped over the coffee table and pressed the power button on the side of the TV.

“We’re gonna fire up the boob tube and see what’s shaking,” he said.

Paulie, Sarah, and Haddie Norton followed him into the room. They all stood in the center of the front room, looking at the television. The boys gravitated to the couch to get out of the way. Sam punched another button on the TV to switch it over to the antenna and then tried to navigate down to channel Two.

“I got it, Dad,” said Robbie. He hit the button on the remote control to tune in the station.

A commercial for toilet paper filled the screen.

“There’s no crawl or anything about the storm,” said Paulie. “Usually they have text across the bottom of the picture when there’s an emergency or a storm warning or whatever.”

“Try channel Five, Robby,” said Sam.

Robby hit the button for channel Five. They found a rerun of a daytime talk show.

“Nothing there either,” said Paulie.

“Well, maybe this storm’s not a big deal for the rest of the state,” said Sam. “Wouldn’t be the first time our island problems didn’t make the local news. You boys keep your eyes glued to that TV and let us know if something happens.”

“I’ll stay here with the boys,” said Haddie. She sat next to her son Jim on the couch.

Robby jumped up and caught his dad before he could go back to the kitchen.

“Hey, Dad,” Robby said, “I think those stations are fed down from the network via satellite.”

“Yeah?” asked Sam. “What are you trying to say?”

“Who knows for sure,” Robby said, “but they might not even have anyone there. Maybe we’re just seeing the network feed because everyone disappeared, like Early or Master Johnson.”

“Do you have any reason for that speculation?” asked Sam.

“No,” Robby said. “But I was just thinking—if we assume this is a local problem, we might decide to wait it out. If we assume it’s a larger disaster, the worst-case scenario, then that might suggest another course of action.”

“Sometimes you think too much, son,” said Sam. He put his hand on Robby’s shoulder. “And you talk like a textbook. Sometimes we just get a freak storm on Thanksgiving and the phones go out. But if you get any more information, you let me know.”

“Okay,” Robby said. He smiled and tried to imitate his dad’s easy way of letting go. But he couldn’t let go, and as he sat down in the big brown chair his mind kept spinning. His dad was right—he had no solid evidence. Robby liked to be cautious; he liked to prepare for the worst case. With no way to get information from the outside world, how could he set his mind at ease? Robby slipped from his chair and headed for the steps. In his room, he turned down the volume on his clock radio before turning it on. Static came from the speaker. Robby wasn’t surprised—he never used the radio. Who knew when it had been last tuned in to an actual station. He rolled the dial all the way down and then slowly scanned through the frequencies. He didn’t hear anything except the constant fuzzy white noise.

Robby stopped next at the hall closet. His mom kept a portable radio there, next to the sewing machine. He dragged it out and took it to the bathroom to plug it in. He found the same result on that radio—nothing but static. The radio went back into the closet. Robby flushed the toilet, so nobody would ask where he had been, and walked back downstairs. He had just taken his seat again when his mom entered.

“All right, everyone, let’s eat before it turns to mush. We don’t have enough room at the table, so you kids can take your plates to the coffee table,” said Sarah.

Aside from a few mumbled compliments to the chef, the procession remained silent as each person made their plate. The turkey turned out great—just a tiny bit dry. They had plenty of food; Sarah cooked for maximum leftovers.

Sam waited for everyone else before fixing his plate. He had the old camping lantern at the head of the table. Sam wrapped the old lantern mantle in a sandwich bag before slipping his small scissors in to cut the string. The old mantle dissolved as he pulled it from the lantern. Robby watched him fit the new one on and knew the next step—his dad would burn the mantle to prepare it for lighting.

Sam stood up and said, “I’m going to the garage to burn this in.”

“I’ll go with you, Dad,” Robby said. He set down his plate and followed his dad.

“No, you get your food,” said Sam.

“But I want to get the box of candles and the spare flashlights, anyway,” Robby said.

Sam nodded.

In the garage, Sam set the lantern on his bench and turned to Robby.

“Okay, let’s hear it. What has your big brain cooked up now?” asked Sam.

“Can I ask a couple of questions?” Robby asked.

“Shoot,” Sam said. He trusted his son, and respected his son’s intellect, but he sometimes lost patience with Robby’s tendency to analyze every situation.

“Were there less people on the ferry when you landed than when you set off?” Robby asked.

Sam had a great poker face. He didn’t show the slightest reaction to the question. He just considered how to answer—should he try to gloss over the facts and comfort his son, or tell the truth? “Perhaps,” said Sam.

“Did you see anyone downtown?” Robby asked.

“Yes,” said Sam.

“Anyone aside from Paulie, Ms. Norton, Jim, and Brandon?” Robby asked.

“No,” said Sam.

“Any lights on in any of the houses as you came home?” Robby asked.

“No, just ours,” said Sam. “But the power is out to who knows how many houses.”

“But it’s pretty dark out with the storm, shouldn’t you have seen flashlights, or candles, or firelight?” Robby asked.

“It’s pretty much a whiteout,” said Sam. “You couldn’t see the hand in front of your face.”

“Okay,” Robby said. “Any tire tracks? Footprints? Signs of life?”

“With that blizzard? Any sign would be wiped out in minutes,” said Sam. “Perhaps you’re getting to a point?”

“Yeah. Just one more thing: did you see any wildlife?” Robby asked.

Sam managed to keep his face neutral again—“Some deer,” he began, “maybe a couple of raccoon.” In fact, he and Paulie had nearly been stampeded by a herd of deer as the men walked to the ferry parking lot. The island had a healthy deer population, but Sam never saw so many together at once.

Robby nodded.

“Okay,” said Sam. He struck a match and lit the lantern mantle. “What’s it all mean, Mr. Holmes?”

“Too early to know for sure,” Robby said, “but it could be a local extinction.”

“Of?” asked Sam.

“Of people,” Robby said.

“Huh,” said Sam. “Why would you assume it’s just local?”

“I don’t, but I think it’s the only possibility that gives us clear direction. If it’s a global extinction, then we either have to figure out the cause—which could be impossible—or we just got lucky. Nothing to do, either way. If it’s a local extinction, then we have to try to get out of the affected area. It’s the only scenario where we could take action that might save our lives.”

“And what if it’s just a bad storm which freaked out the animals, and everyone else is just holed up?” asked Sam.

“We could go door-to-door to people who should be home. That could be risky though, if it’s a contagious thing,” Robby said. His dad considered this option. Robby had never had such a long, frank conversation with his dad before. A few years earlier, when his parents planned to refinance the house with an interest-only mortgage, Robby drummed up the nerve to talk his dad out of it. That had been a quick exchange though. He presented his information—a couple of articles and some charts showing the financial impact—and then left his dad to make the decision. It must have been hard to hear from an eleven-year-old, but his parents took his advice in the end. Now, at thirteen, Robby felt like his dad was starting to take him seriously.

“If it’s contagious, then I’ve already got it,” said Sam. “I’ve been exposed to people all day. We’ll check on the neighbors after supper, just to be sure. Then we’ll make a decision.”

“Okay,” Robby said. “Thanks, Dad.”

“Thanks, nuthin’, I haven’t done anything yet,” said Sam.

He grabbed the lantern and Robby got the extra flashlights and candles.

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