Island - FALL

"We're sticking together," shouted Sam. He addressed Paulie and Robby in the driveway.

The storm erased Robby's shoveling while they ate. The wind drove the snow sideways. The two men huddled together at Robby's level so he could hear. Paulie tapped Sam's shoulder and the two men stood up to confer alone.

Robby couldn't hear Paulie's question, but he heard his Dad's response.

"Because he sees more than most people, and he can figure stuff out better than either of us can," said Sam. "No offense. He'll be fine—he'll stay on my right hip the whole time."

Sam turned to include Robby—"Wontcha, Robby?"

Robby nodded. He moved to his dad's right side to punctuate the point.

Paulie nodded, but glanced back to the house.

Only the kitchen windows glowed with light. The power went out halfway through supper and they started up the lantern just to see their plates. Sarah interrupted her supper to draw buckets of water as soon as the power went out. They would only have a limited quantity of pressure from the island water supply. It probably wouldn't be a problem with so few people on the island, but Sarah didn't like to be without fresh water. She and the Norton boys were using some of the water to rinse the dishes while Sam's expedition went to look for other islanders.

"Grab ahold of my jacket," Sam told Robby.

Robby fell in behind his father as they got out to the sidewalk. The snow was too deep to walk side-by-side. Paulie fell in behind Robby.

They headed south on Cottage Lane. Paulie suggested they go check up on Irwin Dyer, a sixty-ish bachelor who lived a few doors down. He never traveled for Thanksgiving or any other reason if there was a football game on. Sam trudged through the thigh-deep snow to cross the street so they could follow the Sampson's picket fence. The snow and wind made it difficult to even walk in a straight line.

Paulie closed ranks from behind until Robby felt sandwiched between the two men. They moved in lockstep, leaning into the wind. Despite the cold, Robby started to heat up with the effort. When the fence ended, Sam cut across Irwin's yard. They saw a faint light coming from his living room window as they approached.

They huddled on Irwin Dyer's porch. Sam pounded on the door. When he didn't get a response, Sam unzipped his hood and pressed his ear against the door. Paulie took down his hood as well.

"Anything?" asked Paulie.

"What?" asked Sam.

"Did you hear anything?" Paulie yelled.

"Nope," said Sam, shaking his head, "nothing."

He pounded again. This time the door knocker bounced with each blow.

"See if you can see anything," said Sam. He pointed Paulie to the living room window. Paulie leaned out over the porch railing and cupped his hands up to the glass to peer inside.

"Nothing," said Paulie.

"He won't mind if we let ourselves in," said Sam.

Sam cracked open the door a bit and yelled inside—"Irwin? Ya home? It's Sam Pierce here." He looked back to Paulie, shrugged, and then pushed the door open.

Robby had never visited Mr. Dyer's living room, and never entered the house through the front door. They usually came in through his mud room when they visited Irwin, because they were usually returning one of his wandering dogs. Mr. Dyer didn't let the dogs in the living room either.

They knocked the snow off their boots the best they could, but they dragged a lot in with them. The folds of their clothing held secret caches of powder that fell to the carpet as they entered.

"Irwin?" yelled Sam.

Paulie closed the door behind them. A single lantern, much like the one they'd left hanging in the kitchen with Sarah, lit the living room.

"Mr. Dyer?" yelled Paulie. "You here?"

"Why didn't I think to bring a flashlight?" asked Sam.

"Here you go, dad," Robby said. He fished a flashlight out of his jacket pocket.

"And you didn't want him to come," Sam said to Paulie.

"You know what I meant," said Paulie. He smiled at Robby.

Sam crossed through to the dining room and clicked on the flashlight. "Well, where's old Irwin? He's probably just in the kitchen, getting his supper ready," said Sam. He pushed through the swinging door into the kitchen. He paused in the doorway and turned back to address Paulie and Robby—"You coming? I thought we were going to stick together."

"Hey," said Paulie, "do you think we should just go through his house like this? Seems strange just letting ourselves in to poke around."

"If Irwin turns up, I'll apologize for all of us, don't you worry. He went back a ways with my dad, your dad too. I think we owe it to him to make sure he's okay, in light of the circumstances. At the very least, we've got a real bad storm that's popped up and the power's out."

Paulie nodded and followed.

The kitchen was dark, cold, and empty. The door to the mudroom stood half open and a few inches of snow had drifted in. Sam walked through the room slowly, pointing his flashlight left and right, not wanting to miss any details. Robby found an battery-powered lantern on the table. It gave off a thin blue glow and a low buzz.

"Back door's open," said Sam. The kitchen featured a little mudroom off the back. The door to the outside stood wide open and the mudroom floor was covered with a fresh drift of snow.

Sam closed the outer door as far as it would go against the windrow.

"Looks like someone left and didn't intend to come back," said Paulie.

"Maybe they were just raised in a barn," said Sam, smiling. "It has to happen sometimes. Everyone talks about it. Seriously though, he's got to be around here somewhere. He wouldn't just abandon his house and go out fucking around in a blizzard."

"And his dogs," Robby said. "They must be around too."

"So where would he go, Robby?" Sam asked his son.

"I'm sorry?" Robby asked. He stared at the little drift of snow, which now had a big clean arc drawn through it from the travel of the door.

"If you're right about this local extinction, where would the people go?" asked Sam.

"I couldn't really say," Robby said.

"Now c'mon, Robby, this is no time to be coy," said his father. "I'm not asking for rock solid, I'm asking for your best guess. Fire up your thinker and give me a guess."

"Well... It's the why more than the where," Robby said. He sensed his father's frustration at his answer and quickly amended—"Most extinctions are gradual, and based on resources, environment, habitat, or predators. If this is really a local extinction, then it's more likely some pathogen, since we can rule out volcano or meteor strike."

"If it's a disease, then why haven't we got it?" asked Sam.

"We may yet," Robby said. "Or we may have a natural immunity. Maybe we haven't been exposed to the wrong combination of things yet."

"Or maybe we're just overreacting," said Paulie.

"That's always a possibility, Paulie," said Sam. "But I vote we treat everything as the worst case, just so it doesn't surprise us if it is." He turned back to his son—"So where do you figure the sick people are then?"

"It could be like brodifacoum," Robby said. His dad raised his eyebrows. "You know, that stuff you use for rats."

"Oh, d-Con," said Sam. "The rat poison. Draws them to water?"

"Yeah," Robby said. "It's an anticoagulant that's used as a rat poison. It makes the rats so thirsty that they..."

Sam finished the sentence for him, "Leave the house just before they die. So whatever's making people sick could also be making them disappear before they die."

"If it's a water thing, that would explain why all those people disappeared off the ferry today," said Paulie.

"It would also explain why we were almost mowed down by that herd of deer trying to get to the shore," said Sam. "So that's what's going on you think?" he asked Robby.

"It's just a working theory," Robby said. "We don't have enough evidence to support or refute it, but it's something we can test against."

"Maybe we'll find some tracks outside then, give us an idea of where he went. Let's go check upstairs first, just to be sure," said Sam. He led the way back into the dining room. First they looked in the little privy, off the back hall, and in the den. Upstairs, they found two bedrooms and a bathroom. They were all empty. After making a quick check of the rooms, Sam led them back into each one so they could poke around in the closets, just to be sure.

Sam stood at the top of the stairs, shining his light at the access panel to the attic.

"He couldn't be up there," said Paulie. "There'd have to be a ladder here somewhere. Irwin wasn't exactly a gymnast."

"I'm just thinking," said Sam. "There's a panel like this under the rug in the privy. I saw it when I helped Irwin snake out his shitter."

"Can't be much more than a crawlspace under here," said Paulie. "This place is right on ledge."

"We might as well be thorough," said Sam. "No sense in turning out the whole house just to stop now."

They found the living room as they had left it, but the lantern started to sputter. Sam gave it a couple of pumps and adjusted the valve until it burned silently again. The two men and the boy collected in the back hallway and opened the door to the small bathroom. It contained only enough room for a toilet and a vanity.

Sam reached for the thick throw rug which sat between the toilet and the sink.

He paused just before his hand touched the rug. "Corner is turned under," Sam said. He grabbed the corner of the rug and pulled. The thick rug hid a panel set in flush with the floor. Sam pulled a metal ring and lifted the panel open. Cold air seeped up from the hole. Sam propped the panel against the vanity.

Sam shone his light down into a shallow cellar. It had a rough ladder built in to the left side, but the dirt floor was only four or five feet down. A light switch was mounted on the right side of the opening. Forgetting the power was out, Sam flipped the switch on and off, expecting lights to come on below.

Paulie leaned over Sam's shoulder, trying to see down into the cellar.

"Irwin?" Sam called down the hole. Sam swept his flashlight around, trying to see as much of the cellar as he could without committing to going down into the shaft.

He suddenly straightened up, kept his eyes locked on the access hole, but addressed his son—"Robby, I want you to go stand by the front door. You hear me give the word and you dash home, okay?"

"Yes sir," Robby said. He turned and walked back down the hallway to the living room. He didn't obey completely, he stayed near the door to the hall so he could listen to his dad talk to Paulie.

"You think that's blood?" asked Paulie. "Could just be motor oil or something. Hard to tell on a dirt floor."

His dad replied to Paulie, but Robby couldn't make out the words.

"Oh, no shit," whispered Paulie. Robby heard that part, loud and clear.

Sam yelled out to his son—"By the door, Robby."

Robby moved to the front door, wondering how his dad knew. Robby's eyes danced from the swinging door to the kitchen, then to the hallway, the staircase, and back again to the kitchen door. The living room was bright enough, with the lantern throwing off sharp shadows, but the doorways were gaping black holes. Anything could come out of those doorways. Robby backed up until his elbows pressed back again the front door. He took off his glove and rested his hand on the doorknob behind him.

It felt like forever, waiting for his dad and Paulie. As soon as he took his post at the front door, he decided he had to pee. With every second he stood with his back to the door, his need to urinate grew exponentially until he could think of nothing but peeing and monsters coming out of the kitchen doorway, or zombies lumbering down the gloomy staircase.

The lantern on the coffee table began to sputter again. With each pop it flared a little brighter, but then dimmed even more when it fizzed. Robby knew what to expect—they kept nearly the same lantern at home. It took liquid fuel, white gas, and required pumping it up to keep it going. But his dad pumped it earlier, so it would need a refill to stay lit. He knew he only had a few more minutes of light before it would sputter out.

At least the failing light gave him something other than his bladder to worry about. Robby almost welcomed the distraction. The shadows throbbed with each sputter of the lamp; they became deeper, like they were gaining strength. The ebb and flow of the shadows made the door to the kitchen look like it was swinging slightly.

Pop-hissssss-POP-hiss-pop-hisss, Robby felt himself swaying with the rhythm of the lantern. He couldn't pull his eyes away from the kitchen door. It looked like the swinging gained momentum. Robby imagined that soon it would swing open all the way, and Irwin would be standing there.

Robby shook his head and tried to look away from the door. It had to be an optical illusion making it look like the door was swinging; just a trick of the wavering shadows cast by the failing lantern. When he first heard the squeak, he almost ignored it. It made perfect sense—it sounded like the squeak of a rusted hinge, in perfect time with the apparent movement of the door. But that would mean the door was moving. Robby tried to remember if the door squeaked when they entered the kitchen earlier. He couldn't recall.

The lantern would fail at any second, and he would be alone in the dark with the squeaking door and whatever was making the door swing in and out. Robby straightened up and stood tall. He didn't especially want to know what was behind the door, if anything was, but if he had to, he wanted to find out while there was still enough light to see. He took a step towards the kitchen door and then stopped.

"The wind," he whispered to himself. That was the answer—the wind must be blowing through the back door enough to swing the kitchen door. That would also explain the throbbing of the lantern. It would react to the breeze in the same way. Robby relaxed for a tiny fraction of a second before he remembered his dad closing the back door tight. There shouldn't be any wind.

"Robby?" his dad called from the hall.

He was afraid to respond. He was afraid that as soon as the thing on the other side of the door heard his voice, it would come for him.

"ROBBY?" his dad called.

He kept his eyes glued to the kitchen door and started to move sideways towards the hall. From his new angle it looked less like the door was moving. He shuffled a little faster.

The lantern went out.

Robby felt a hand clamp down on his shoulder. Robby gasped and struggled to not piss himself.

"Come on, Robby, your dad wants to talk to you," said Paulie from the darkness.

"Okay," Robby said. It came out as a whisper.

Paulie led Robby down the dark hall. His eyes adjusted quickly, and Robby could see the outline of the doorway to the privy and his dad's feet sticking out into the hall. He expected his dad would yell at him for not answering. Instead, he found his dad sitting on the floor with his legs straddling the hole to the cellar. He pointed the light down into the hole.

"I want you to see something, Robby," said his dad. "I would just take a picture, but we didn't bring a camera. I figure your memory is just as good as any camera."

"Okay," Robby said.

"But there's some other stuff down there I don't want you to look at," said Sam. "I'll go down first, and then you're going to look in this direction," he waved towards the back of the house.

"Okay," Robby said. "Hey Dad, there might be something in the kitchen."

"Paulie, can you go check out the kitchen?" Sam asked. Paulie nodded and headed off.

Sam swung his legs through the hole and dropped down into the cellar. He held his arms up for Robby like when Robby was a little kid. Robby sat down on the edge of the hole and slid towards his dad's arms. Sam set Robby down on the dirt floor and turned him towards the back wall.

The little cellar was carved out of the rock ledge that ran up their street. They stood on a dirt floor and hunched beneath the low ceiling. Sam pointed the flashlight at the stone foundation. On top of the ledge, to even out the dips and sways of the rock, a stone wall held up the back wall of the house. Below the stacked rocks, on a big flat slab of ledge, dark red shapes had been painted on the stone. Robby studied language. Letters and numbers from different cultures fascinated him, but these were nothing he recognized. They looked like a cross between Chinese characters and hieroglyphics. The symbols weren't in lines, or divided up into words, they were just spread out across the bottom of the wall in random groupings and sizes.

"What do you make of that?" asked Sam.

"I don't know," Robby said.

"They go from here, all the way to over here," said Sam. He swept his flashlight across about twenty feet of rock. In places, the symbols were so densely packed, they almost looked like a picture.

"Is it words?" asked Sam.

"I don't know," Robby said. "Could be, I guess. But I don't recognize any of it. Except this one here. This one that looks like a guy with his knees up. There's an Egyptian symbol that either means a god or a young woman, depending on the context. It looks like that."

"Huh," said Sam. "Does it just look like it, or do you think that's what it is?"

"And these two here," Robby said. "These look like Japanese kanji. Slightly different than the Chinese versions of the characters that mean supernatural power."

"Is it a code, or a message?" asked Sam.

"Could be," Robby said. "But I think it would take a while to figure out if it is."

"Can you remember it?" asked Sam.

"There's too much. I can memorize parts of it, but I don't think I could memorize the whole thing. At least not quickly."

"Well, get what you can and let's get out of here," said Sam.

"Dad? What was it you didn't want me to see? Is this blood?" Robby asked.

Sam put his hand on Robby's shoulder and squeezed gently. "Don't worry, Robby. Nothing important. Just see what you can figure from these pictures. Take a few minutes."

"Okay," Robby said. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and let his shoulders drop. He cleared his mind. It was easy to do with his dad right behind him—he felt safe. It would have been easier to do with an empty bladder, but he managed to relax. When he opened his eyes again he tried to take in the whole picture; he tried to see the whole foundation as one big image. He couldn't make out the far edges, they weren't well lit enough, but the center of the wall burned a picture on the backs of his eyes. He opened his eyes wider and let it all sink in.

Robby forgot about the storm, and the house, and the kitchen door, and Thanksgiving, and just saw the wall. His heartbeat slowed and his eyelids dropped slightly. The next thing he knew, his dad was shaking him gently by the shoulder.

"Robby? You got it?" asked his father.

"I think so," Robby said.

"Good. Let's go," said Sam.

Sam backed up and led Robby over to the ladder. He shone the flashlight at the bottom rung, so Robby could place his foot. When he lifted his head to look up, Robby caught something out of the corner of his eye. It looked like a big pile of rope and a bunch of sticks. He didn't see any colors. The dim light and his peripheral vision turned the objects black and white, but they looked shiny and wet. He climbed up into the dim bathroom and saw Paulie standing in the doorway. His dad followed right behind him up the ladder.

Sam brushed off his pants and then replaced the floor panel and the throw rug.

"Can I use the bathroom first?" Robby asked.

"Will it be quick?" asked his dad.

"Yes."

"Make sure it is," said Sam.

He set the light on the counter and stepped into the hall with Paulie. Sam left the door open and waited for Robby to start urinating before he conferred with Paulie. Robby couldn't hear a word they said.

"You done? Let's go," Sam said to Robby.

"Okay," Robby said. He didn't flush or wash his hands—standard operating procedure when the power was out. Sam went first down the hall, followed by Robby and Paulie. "So there was nothing in the kitchen, Mr. Carver?" Robby asked Paulie.

"Nothing but the wind," said Paulie. "I think it blew the back door open."

Sam stopped. "You didn't say that before," he whispered to Paulie.

"Yeah I did," said Paulie.

"Was the outside door open, or just the one to the mudroom?" asked Sam.

"Both," said Paulie. "But the outside one was just open a crack, like you left it. And there were no tracks in the new snow that blew in."

"Good enough then," said Sam. "Let's get out of here."

Sam swept the flashlight around the living room one more time before turning it off. He opened the front door. Outside, the sky had grown darker but the snow wasn't falling as heavily so they could see a bit better. The wind worked at filling in their tracks from earlier; the trudging was difficult.

Robby grabbed the back of his father's jacket, and Paulie grabbed a handful of Robby's. They formed a train and slogged up the hill towards the house. Their feet fell in rhythm. Robby pushed back his hood and looked to the side as they marched. He could make out the outline of their neighbors' house.

They followed the picket fence of Mrs. Lane's yard. Only the tops of pickets still poked through the snow drifts. Robby watched this house closely when he passed. He hated this house. It expanded through the years, long before Robby's time. It started out as a just a summer cottage, and you could still its humble roots in the structure. A big belt of a beam wrapped around the middle where the first floor roof had been raised to two stories, and then two-and-a-half. On each side of the roof, dormers poked out, looking like angry devil horns.

The cottage belonged to the Lanes and had since settlers moved to the island. In fact, Robby's road used to be called the "Lane Cottage Road," but constant postal errors shortened to "Cottage Lane." The Lanes never appeared on the island after Labor Day, but Robby watched the house carefully anyway. Its big black front door, surrounded by windows, looked hungry.

The roofline of Lane Cottage cut a black shape out of the gray sky. As Robby watched, a giant black form rose from one of dormers and floated across the peak of the roof and settled on the other dormer. Robby stumbled and fell into his dad's legs. Paulie, still gripping Robby's coat, came down on top of the boy.

"Straighten up back there," said Sam. He turned and hauled on Robby's arm, pulling him to his feet. Paulie pushed himself up and brushed the snow from his jacket.

"Dad, look," Robby said. He pointed to the dormer of the cottage. He looked as he pointed and saw what his father saw—nothing but the dormer.

"What was it?" asked Sam. Paulie leaned in close to hear too.

"I saw a big black thing up there," Robby said. "But it's so dark, I guess it could have been nothing."

"Move fast," said Sam. He took Robby's right hand and moved with determination. Paulie grabbed onto Robby's hood and they trudged double-time. Robby's only choice was to keep up. He felt like if he lagged, his father would pull his arm out of its socket. Sam drove his legs up and down, pumping at a furious pace.

Paulie tugged on Robby's hood, pulling the zipper into the boy's throat. Robby reached up with his free hand and tried to pull the jacket forward to release the pressure, but Paulie was pulling too hard. He tried to look around to see what was wrong, but suddenly the zipper was being pulled up into the underside of his chin, making Robby gag.

He sucked in a ragged breath through his compressed windpipe. He squeezed his dad's hand, afraid to let go, and flailed with his free hand at his dad's back.

Robby's feet lifted off the ground as Paulie's tug on his hood lifted him off the ground. He tried to yell, but he couldn't get enough breath to make a sound. Robby's eyes bugged out, and the world started to fade out as the pressure built up in his head. He was now pulling his dad's arm upward, but his dad still trudged forward, intent on getting home.

Robby's grip on his dad's hand started to fail. He felt his glove starting to pull from his hand. Robby now dangled almost a foot off the ground, pulled up by the zipper and under his armpits. With the last of his grip on his fathers hand, he yanked upward.

Sam turned and immediately leapt for Robby. He nearly climbed his son, pulling the boy's arm, and then pushing down on Robby's shoulder to get to Paulie's hand. He managed to grab Paulie's glove, but it came off in Sam's hand and he collapsed to the ground next to Robby.

Sam didn't waste any time to figure out Robby's condition. He looped his arm under Robby's shoulder and jumped to his feet. He drove his feet through the snow, sprinting across the street towards their house. At first Robby just flopped alongside his dad, still struggling for breath. He pawed at the zipper with the hand that still had a glove hanging half-off. When it gave way it tore a chunk of skin from Robby's neck. It burned, but the relief of a deep breath more than made up for cut. He got his feet to the ground and ran alongside his dad as they found the driveway. Sam ducked and ran the last twenty yards in a low crouch. Robby ducked too, but couldn't see what they were ducking from.

✪ ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪

The only finished room in their basement was the laundry room. Haddie Norton put her boys down there on an inflatable bed. Robby stayed upstairs in the kitchen with the adults. Sam closed all the blinds and even moved the rocking chair so they could close the door to the living room. The lantern burned so low that a candle would have given off more light.

When Sam and Robby had burst through the back door, Sam immediately called out orders. Sarah and Haddie didn't raise any questions—they heard the urgency in his voice. After securing the house the best they could, they wanted to know the details. Sam insisted Robby join the conversation, even though Sarah pushed for him to go downstairs with the other boys.

They sat at the small kitchen table.

Sam took a deep breath and lowered his shoulders. "Paulie's gone," he said.

"Where?" asked Sarah.

Sam raised his eyebrows. A look of surprise dawned on her face, but Sam repeated anyway—"He's gone."

"Oh no," said Haddie. Everyone knew Haddie loved tragedies, and especially seemed to enjoy the misfortune of others, but she made a good show of looking shocked and saddened.

"What happened, Sam?" asked Sarah. She touched her husband's hand.

"I can't say for sure," said Sam. "It's beyond my understanding or experience. That's the best way I can put it."

Robby rubbed the cut on his throat. His mom slapped a bandage on it before he had his coat all the way off.

"By the time I turned around," said Sam, "the only thing I could see of him was his hand holding on to Robby's hood. I tried to grab his hand, but I only got the glove."

"He didn't make a sound," Robby said.

"What about the rest of him?" asked Sarah.

"I couldn't see him," said Sam. "Just his hand. It wasn't even very dark, or snowing very hard, I can't explain it. It's beyond my understanding."

"I didn't hear anything either," Robby said. "Except the wind."

"That's true. It was completely silent," said Sam.

"Should we go look for him?" asked Sarah.

"It's not safe," said Sam. "I think something was stalking us. You could feel it on the back of your neck, and Robby saw something on top of the cottage."

"We can't go out there," said Haddie. "It's not safe."

Sarah didn't acknowledge Haddie's comment with even a glance. Instead, she addressed her husband again—"So what do you figure we do?"

"I think we pack up the Jeep, wait until morning, and then head for the docks," said Sam.

"Wouldn't it be safer to hole up here?" asked Sarah. She glanced around their kitchen, as if she'd misplaced something important.

"I don't think so," said Sam. "For one, if there's something here taking people, I don't think we could hole up good enough to stave it off. Second, if this is a local problem, our best chance is to try to get away from it. Irwin Dyer's place was empty—it's like he just decided to wander off. I don't know what got him, but I don't think being inside helped protect him at all."

"I'd just as soon get to my husband," said Haddie. "He'll know what to do."

"What boat will we take?" asked Sarah.

"We'll take Carl's old boat," said Sam. "He's always said I can use it any time, and I think he'll understand. It will take a few of us to handle that thing properly. She's a beast. Brandon's got some experience, doesn't he?" Sam asked Haddie. "He can help get us launched and landed?"

"Certainly," said Haddie.

Robby kept his face still, but inside he flinched because his father immediately thought of Brandon. Boating terrified Robby—not because he thought he would drown, but because he got so sick every time they went on the water. They'd tried every remedy, from drugs to ginseng root, but nothing could stop Robby from vomiting if he even set foot on a boat smaller than the ferry.

Sarah took charge—"You guys pack some rations and plenty of water. I'll get all the first aid stuff together. Who knows what we'll need once we're underway."

✪ ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪

Robby went downstairs to the laundry room after his parents gathered everything together for the trip. His only contribution was to suggest they take along a few household chemicals—bleach, baking soda, rubbing alcohol. He didn't have anything specific in mind, but he wanted to have some basic supplies along in case of a crisis. Robby also liked that he'd been consulted, and was happy to have an answer.

He found the Norton brothers—his friend Jim, and Jim's jerky brother Brandon—sitting on the air mattress with a flashlight between them. Brandon was playing a game on his phone, and Jim was playing with an iPod.

"Nice job letting go of Paulie Carver," said Brandon.

"I didn't let go," Robby said. He realized too late he should have just let the comment roll past him.

"Remind me not to trust my life to you," said Brandon. "Your friend is going to get us all killed," he said to his brother.

"Shut up," said Jim, under his breath.

Brandon hauled back and punched Jim in the shoulder. The action bounced a blanket on top of the flashlight and the room was lit only by the game screens.

"Move over," Robby said to Jim. "We gotta get up early." He slid past Jim to claim the edge of the air mattress closest to the dryer. He kept on all his clothes but kicked off his shoes. Brandon bunched all the pillows on his side of the mattress. Robby's mom had also put out a few blankets for the boys, so Robby bunched one up to use as a pillow. He couldn't sleep. He could barely keep his eyes shut. Upstairs, the adults were still talking. Robby knew there must be more to the story—stuff his dad didn't want to say with him around. It probably regarded Mr. Dyer's cellar.

Robby thought about the cellar. His father had insisted he not look behind him. Robby wondered what his father had been protecting him from. It must be something violent, he figured. That would be the only thing his dad would want to protect him from seeing—he wouldn't want Robby to be disturbed by seeing some gruesome result of violence. Robby had already seen a dead person. He'd seen his own dead grandmother at her wake. So this would have to be a gory death.

Robby closed his eyes and thought of the strange symbols on the foundation wall in Mr. Dyer's cellar. He remembered as many as he could and made sure to recall them in their exact sequence. He'd already written them down twice.

Behind Robby, Jim and Brandon fought over a pillow. They both seemed younger to Robby since the crisis started. Brandon was fourteen-almost-fifteen, and normally didn't even bother to talk to his little brother. But that day he was acting like a ten-year-old. Robby thought back to his own behavior. He recognized moments of immaturity. Being scared of the dark and not being able to control your bladder were certainly not appropriate for a teenager. Robby took a deep breath and let it out slowly, letting his body sink into the mattress as he exhaled.

The basement was cooler than the rest of the house, but Robby still wore his pants and sweatshirt, so he was comfortable enough. He tried to forget about everything from that day. His hand moved up to his throat and held the spot where his zipper had drawn blood. He drifted off to sleep while Jim and Brandon were still fighting about their sleeping arrangements.

In the night he heard someone climbing the stairs. He looked up to see Jim going upstairs, using his iPod as a flashlight. On the far side of the mattress, Brandon snored into his own armpit.

✪ ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪

"Robby, Brandon, wake up," Robby said's dad. He was holding the lantern above the mattress. Sam stomped on the edge to shake them awake. "Get up."

Robby pushed himself up and then climbed to his feet. Brandon moved slower, blinking hard against the lantern light.

"What time did Jim leave?" asked Sam.

"I don't know," Robby said. "Where is he?"

"Did he say anything? Did you see him?" asked Sam.

Brandon didn't respond. He slid to the end of the mattress and started pulling on his shoes.

"Dad, what's going on?" Robby asked.

"We don't know where Mrs. Norton and Jim are," said Sam. "The door to the garage is open."

"I don't know what time," Robby said. "I don't have a clock or anything down here. Did you notice?" he asked Brandon.

"I didn't even know he left," said Brandon. He got up and headed for the stairs. "Why didn't you wake me up?" he yelled back to Robby as he started up.

"I didn't..." Robby started. "I just thought he was going to use the bathroom or something. I didn't think anything of it."

"It's okay," said Sam. "Get your shoes on, we've got to figure out what we're doing."

"How long have they been gone?" Robby asked.

"We don't know," said Sam.

"Mom's still here, right?" Robby asked.

"Yeah, she's upstairs."

Robby grabbed his shoes and ran for the stairs without putting them on. When Robby got to the kitchen he found his mother trying to calm Brandon down. The two were lit only by a set of candles set on the microwave.

Brandon yelled into Sarah's face, "Where is she? Where did she go?"

Sam came into the room holding two jackets. He stepped between Brandon and his wife and shoved one of the jackets at the boy. "Put this on," said Sam. "You and me are gonna do some scouting."

"Sam?" asked Sarah.

"We'll stay right near the house," he said, "and we'll have this." Sam held up a length of rope. He knelt down and fed it through Brandon's belt loops and then tied a sturdy knot. He repeated the process, tying himself to the other end of the rope.

"We'll finish getting the Jeep ready," said Sarah. She moved back towards the sink, and leaned back against it, folding her arms.

Sam took a couple of steps and closed the distance to his wife. He nearly pulled Brandon off his feet when the rope pulled him by the waist. Sam kissed Sarah on the cheek and said, "We'll be right back."

"You better," Sarah said. She smiled.

Sam led Brandon out through the back door, leaving Sarah and Robby in the kitchen.

"What time is it?" Robby asked.

"About five," said his mom.

"Can I get something to eat?" Robby asked.

"Oh, yeah, of course," she said. "I made you a turkey sandwich."

"For breakfast?" Robby asked.

"It won't kill you," said Sarah. "Jeez, you think I'd just offered you rat poison or something."

Robby smiled. He sat down at his place at the table and his mom got his sandwich out of the refrigerator. He took a big bite. "So we're going on Mr. Deemer's boat?" he asked through a mouthful of food.

"Well, depends on..." Sarah started.

"On whether we find the hands at the school? We're going to check the school first, right?" Robby asked. He was referring to the deckhands for the ferry. The ferry usually ran with a captain, mate, and three hands.

"Yes," said Sarah. Robby only finished her sentences when he was preoccupied or stressed. He knew she hated it when he did that. She'd only needed to tell him a couple of times—it made her feel transparent.

When Robby was smaller, Sarah thought he was psychic. He always knew what she and Sam were thinking. Eventually, they came to believe Robby was just good at deduction, and Robby learned when he finished too many sentences he made people uncomfortable.

This time, Robby guessed Sarah and Sam had discussed going to the school to see if they could find any other people. It would be a tough trip to get over the hill without a plow, and it was in the opposite direction from the docks, but it was a common gathering place during emergencies and power outages. The three deckhands might have made their way up to the school. Even though the main entrance would be locked, all the islanders knew you could get in through the attached Lion's Club banquet hall, as long as none of the Lion's were there to question you.

"Do you think we'll find anyone there?" Sarah asked Robby.

Robby turned his sandwich around, so he could take a bite out of the side that was starting to bust apart. "No," he said.

"Why not?" she asked.

"We've lost half our people, and we were pretty sure something bad was going on, so we were pretty careful. They probably never guessed anything was happening, so I bet they're all gone," he said. "Some of the people would have panicked and tried to run, too."

Sarah wondered if Robby was right. When he didn't have enough information to form an opinion, Robby always kept his mouth shut. A thorough answer from him usually meant a correct answer.

"So you don't think we should bother going over there?" she asked.

"No, I understand why we have to," he said. "Like you said—some things you do just because they're the right thing to do."

Sarah couldn't remember when or why she'd said that, but she was pleased Robby remembered. Robby finished off his sandwich and Sarah gathered the last supplies. They switched on their flashlights and blew out the candles.

"Put your plate in the dishwasher," she said.

"Why?"

"Because I'm not coming back to find a house full of mice," she said.

"Oh," Robby said. He put his plate in the empty dishwasher and closed the door until it clicked.

"Do you want anything from upstairs before we go? Any of your things? If you do, I'll go with you," Sarah said.

Robby thought for a second. He knew his mom packed some of his clothes, and all his winter gear was in the mudroom. He could fill his pockets with his things, but that was almost like admitting he didn't think they'd ever come back to this house.

"No, I'm okay," Robby said. He wanted to be like his mom. He wanted to believe they would all return some day to their normal island life, with all their possessions intact. All they would need to do is run the dishwasher, and everything would be back to normal.

His mom took the driver's seat and Robby got in the back of the Jeep. She started it up to get it warm, but they sat in the dim garage—lit only by the running lights of the Jeep. Their house had been in Sam's family for three generations, and was one of few with an attached garage. Most of the islanders barely needed a vehicle, let alone a taxed addition to store it in. Sam was proud of his garage, and he kept it neat. Looking through his window, Robby studied the rows of orderly tools hung up on the wall. Sarah scanned through the dial—the radio wouldn't lock on any stations. When she manually tuned into some of the local stations, they only heard static.

When they saw lights dancing through the windows on the garage door, Sarah hit the button to make the door go up. Nothing moved.

"Shit," she said. "Power's out. We have to raise it up manually. You stay here."

Sarah left her door open and went around back. She stood on the bumper to reach the orange pull-cord. Robby pressed his face against the glass to watch her. The door wouldn't open—the snow pressing against it on the outside stuck it in its tracks.

"You need help?" Robby yelled.

"Nope," said Sarah. She climbed into the driver's seat and shut her door. "Your dad can open it when he gets back."

Robby slid over to the other side, the rear passenger's seat, and opened the door. He flipped the little switch to turn on the child safety lock. With that switch turned on and the doors locked, the door couldn't be opened from the inside.

"What are you doing?" asked Sarah.

"Nothing," Robby said, "just checking on something." He slid back to his own seat, behind his mother.

Sarah jumped when the door from the house swung open. They caught a glimpse of Brandon coming through the door and then he pointed his flashlight right at the Jeep and Sarah and Robby couldn't see anything but the bright light. When the second flashlight appeared, Sarah let out her breath.

Sam and Brandon came around the front of the Jeep. Sam untied his knot by the time he reached the passenger's door. Brandon piled in the back with Robby.

"I couldn't get the door open," said Sarah.

Sam just nodded and turned around. He kicked the door first, delivering a good blow to the bottom panel, and then flung it upwards. When he closed his car door, he immediately hit the button to lock all the doors.

Robby wanted to ask about his friend Jim and Mrs. Norton, but he held his tongue. No news was bad news, he figured.

"To the school?" asked Sarah.

"Got to," said Sam.

Sarah gunned the engine to hit the snow bank with as much speed as possible. The Jeep wobbled a bit in the fresh powder, but Sarah backed it out with confidence. Her hands fluttered over the wheel to correct any loss of traction before it led them astray. She used the wide part of the driveway to whip the front end of the Jeep around and put in drive.

The Jeep's big wheels pointed up the hill, and Sarah counter-steered the slight skid. A light snow fell now. Sarah put the windshield wipers on low.

Robby looked over—Brandon was staring out the window into the dark. The snow looked blue in the soft pre-dawn light, almost like it gave off its own glow. Down at the library they displayed black and white photos of the island; that's what it looked like to Robby. Everything looked still and dead. None of the houses had any lights on, or their walks shoveled. No smoke rose from the chimneys.

Sarah took a right on Church street.

"Easy now," said Sam.

A rusty old Toyota blocked the right side of the street.

"I see it," said said Sarah.

"Not that," Sam pointed to the car, "that!"

To the left of the Toyota a snow-covered lump sat in the road. Sarah pulled the wheel to the left and skipped the left wheels onto the soft shoulder, but their right wheels still bounced over the lump. Robby and Sarah just bounced a couple of inches. Sam and Brandon, on the passenger's side, flew up out of their seats. Sam bounced the top of his head off the Jeep's roof. He reached around and pulled on his seat belt.

"Sorry," said Sarah.

"So's Tom, I bet," Sam mumbled.

Robby twisted in his seat. The Toyota belonged to Tom Willard, any islander would have recognized it. The tired old vehicle only had one seat, and could only be registered for island use. Tom used it to carry supplies from the dock up to his restaurant. There wasn't enough light out to be sure—Robby guessed the lump might have been Tom. Robby wondered if his father knew for sure the lump was Tom.

"Dad, do you think it was him?" Robby asked.

"Not now, Robby," said Sam. "We've got bigger fish to fry."

"It's just that... Wouldn't he be the first we've seen?" Robby asked.

Sarah took a left on Pepper Lane.

"No, Robby," said his father. "Hold tight."

Brandon put his palm against the window and pressed his forehead to the glass. Robby ducked and bobbed, trying to see what Brandon was looking at. Against the charcoal sky, black shapes moved across the rooflines, keeping time with the Jeep.

"Mom," Brandon whispered. He reached down and unhooked his seat belt.

"Brandon?" Robby asked. "Brandon?" He touched the older boy's arm.

Brandon spun and glared at Robby—"What?"

"Did you say something?" Robby asked. "You took your seat belt off."

Sam watched the exchange from between the front seats.

Robby glanced to his dad and then back to Brandon—"It sounded like you said something."

"I didn't," said Brandon.

"Put your seat belt back on, Brandon," said Sam.

"No need," said Sarah. She pulled the Jeep to a stop in the side parking lot of the schoolhouse. A few spaces down, two other cars sat covered in snow.

Sam leaned forward and looked over the building. There wasn't much to see on this side—just a long wall dotted with a few windows. Everyone dropped off their kids on this side.

"I'll go in, you guys stay here," said Sam. "Keep it running."

"In and out," said Sarah.

"In and out," Sam replied.

Sam's door swept a flat surface through the snow. He plunged his foot into the powder. After closing his door he pointed down and mouthed, "Lock it." The snow drifted deep here, against the southern edge of the building, and Sam waded through it to get to the door. He expected the school door to be closed, but the door to the Lion's club was around the other side, so he thought it worth checking.

The handle turned. He pushed his way inside. The hall to his left housed all the cubbyholes where the kids kept their gloves and boots. With all the boots at home, the cubbies currently held their Japanese house slippers. Sam pulled a flashlight from his pocket and pushed through the curtain to the main schoolroom. He didn't need the light. The skylights and windows provided enough ambient glow for Sam to navigate. He turned off his flashlight and crossed the room.

On the opposite side, the curtain that led to the other outside door was fluttering. He pulled it aside and found snow drifting in through the door to the playground. The door stood open about a foot. He looked through the window out to the playground. He didn't any tracks or signs of life, just a snow-covered jungle gym, swing set, and benches. He pushed the outer door shut and headed back for the main room.

Past the wood stove, Sam used his light to see down the hall. He shined his light in the teacher's office, and then into Robby's study room. Robby had his own study room away from the rest of the kids. His teachers discovered years before that Robby needed several hours a day to study independently. Without his alone-time to read, research, write, and figure problems, Robby tended to zone out and not interact with anyone at all.

Sam found nothing out of the ordinary in either of the rooms, so he continued down the hall to the utility room. The far end of the schoolhouse shared a wall with the Lion's club, and the only door between them connected a dressing room with the school's utility room. Flashing lights lit up one corner of the utility room. An emergency power supply for the furnace flashed to announce it was out of juice. Sam read the LCD display. It read, "Batt. Fail - 2:37:12." The twelve counted to thirteen and fourteen as he watched.

"Yeah, how much battery does it take to tell me you're out of battery?" Sam whispered.

A clank made sam whirl around. He circled his flashlight around the room to the two doors, and to the racks of janitorial supplies.

"Hello?" he called.

He crossed to the Lion's club door and swung it open. Sam made quick loop through the Lion's club. It didn't have many rooms—just a big auditorium, some backstage area, and the bathrooms. He stopped behind the bar at the back of the auditorium. The booze should have been all locked up, but on the floor behind the bar he found a spilled bottle of rum. He set it upright. He touched the floor around the puddle of rum. The floor felt sticky for about an inch surrounding the puddle.

Glass shattered at the other end of the room. Sam stood up and flicked off his flashlight in one motion. His eyes adjusted quickly, but he didn't see anything but the empty meeting hall. One of the curtains fluttered and snow blew in through a broken pane. Sam quickly moved towards the outside door to look for footprints. The door was shut, and he didn't see any footprints outside when he opened it.

"This is Sam Pierce," he shouted. "Come on out if you need help."

He heard no response. Sam turned his flashlight back on and moved fast backstage and then through the schoolhouse. He suddenly wished he hadn't left his wife and son in the car. He threw open the door, expecting to see the Jeep gone, or worse—the Jeep still there but empty.

The Jeep still sat there with just a dusting of snow accumulated on the roof. The wipers swished and he saw his wife, turned around and talking to the boys. Sam waded back through the snow. Sarah unlocked the doors as he came up to the side of the Jeep.

"Anyone?" she asked as he slammed his door.

"I couldn't find anyone," said Sam. "Let's head for the shore."

"I want to go back to my house," said Brandon.

"Brandon, I thought we agreed you should go to the mainland so we can look for your dad," said Sam.

"My mom is still here," he said.

"And she can take care of herself, right?" said Sam. "Drive, honey," he said to Sarah.

Sarah backed up the Jeep, following their tracks.

"No!" screamed Brandon. "I have to go home." He grabbed for his door handle and yanked. Robby had set the door so it couldn't be opened from the inside.

"Brandon, calm down," said Sam. "Your mom knows we're leaving this morning. If she wants to come with us, she'll be at the dock. Otherwise we can just assume she's staying here with Jim."

"If she's staying then I am too," he said. Brandon pushed the button to lower his window. He started climbing out as soon as the window opened. The rear window in the Jeep couldn't descend all the way, so Brandon struggled against the top of the glass.

"Brandon," Sam yelled. "Sit down."

Brandon still had the length of rope tied around his waist. It dangled behind him. Robby grabbed it and held as Brandon's torso disappeared out the window.

"Stop for a sec," Sam said to Sarah. She had already started to slow down.

Sam jumped out of the Jeep and grabbed Brandon by the shoulders.

"You're my responsibility right now, Brandon, and I'm going to see you stay safe. You're under eighteen, and until we find one of your parents, or you turn eighteen, you're going to do what I say. We're getting off this island, and then we're going to find your dad."

Robby removed his seat belt and slid closer across the seat to hear what his dad was saying.

"But my mom," Brandon protested.

Sam lowered his voice, "Your mom might already be gone, okay? We didn't see any footprints, remember? She's not in the house, and there were no footprints. There's no sense in us continuing to look—we have no clues where she or anyone else went."

Some of the tension seemed to slip from Brandon.

"Let's get back in the car and go find your dad, okay?" asked Sam.

Brandon didn't reply, but he started to shimmy back through the window. Robby moved back to get out of his way. The window caught Brandon's jacket and it bunched up around this shoulders. Sam got about halfway into his seat when Brandon stopped him.

"Mr. Pierce?" asked Brandon.

"Call me Sam," said Sam.

"I'm stuck," said Brandon.

"Well, come on, you'll have to go out to come in," said Sam. He jumped back to the snowy street and grabbed the teenager under his armpits. "Try not to break the window," said Sam.

Sam pulled and Brandon wriggled to get through the window. His kneecap banged against the window glass and Robby helped him turn his boot so he could get his feet through. Sam set him down in the snow. He pulled the boy in close and whispered in his ear.

"Thanks," said Brandon.

Sarah hit the unlock button so Robby could push open the rear door before sliding back to his own seat. Sam patted Brandon on the back twice. His third pat passed right through the space where Brandon had stood. Robby, even with a better view, didn't really see much of the disappearance. One second, Brandon turned and started to lift a foot so he could climb back in the Jeep. The next moment, Brandon jerked and flew upwards and out of sight.

Only a couple of details registered to Robby. He noticed that Brandon's head and limbs seemed to go slack just before he vanished, like a marionette with its strings cut. Next, he saw the space around Brandon darken, as if the light were being absorbed. Finally, he saw the rope, still tied to Brandon's waist, whisper upwards like a snake's tail.

Sam's mouth dropped open and he tilted his head back, looking up. His hand swiped at the air, as if he could grab the rope that flew by seconds before.

"Get in!" Sarah screamed.

Sam's face hardened instantly. He dove towards the open door.

Robby felt a low moan starting within his chest. He didn't mean to yell, but it started coming out anyway. His dad was still mid-leap when the space around his legs started to dim. Robby's moan built into a scream as his father's legs started to rise upwards faster than Sam moved forward.

Sam's legs flipped up and over his shoulders as he rose up and forward. His head flipped around and he tried to grab the doorframe of the Jeep as he rose. His forward momentum took his head into pillar between the front and back doors. Robby saw his father's skull deform with the impact. Blood squirted from his dad's nose and spattered on the car seat. The Jeep rocked with the hit.

Sarah and Robby heard Sam's arms flail against the roof of the Jeep. Robby threw himself back against the door, trying to get away from the blood. Motion to his left drew his eye, and he saw more blood drip down the outside of his window.

Robby formed his rising scream into words—"Go! Go! Drive!" He pounded the back of his mom's seat.

"Sam?" Sarah called.

"Drive, mom, drive! Just go!" yelled Robby.

Sarah gunned the engine and looked forward. She shook her head several times. The engine raced, but the Jeep didn't move.

"The clutch," Robby said.

"Oh," said Sarah. The Jeep lurched and bucked when she let out the clutch too quickly. The passengers' doors flopped.

"Take a right," Robby said. He buckled his seat belt. The doors slammed shut as Sarah skidded to the right onto Kirker Street. They sped down the steep hill towards the harbor.

✪ ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪

Sarah pulled Jeep as close as she could to the pier where Carl Deemer moored his boat. She turned in her seat and looked up the hill, back towards the schoolhouse.

"Mom?" Robby asked.

She didn't reply, she just looked up the hill—where they last saw Sam.

"Mom?" Robby asked again.

"What?" she finally responded.

"We have to assume he's gone," Robby said. "He'd want us to get to a safe place, and that's not here."

"I know, for Chrissakes, I know," she said. Sarah looked into Robby's eyes. She blinked hard and composed herself. "Carl's got his boat at the pier, so at least we don't have to punt all this shit out to it. Grab what you can, stay low, and run for the boat."

"Okay," Robby said.

"I'll go around and open up the back. You come over the seat. I want you inside as long as possible," said Sarah.

"Okay, mom," Robby said.

Sarah did what she said—she ducked out of the Jeep, stayed low, and ran to the back of the Jeep. The wind coming off the water swept most of the snow away from the pavement. Only an inch or two collected, crunching like cotton as she ran through it. They'd packed all their supplies into a backpack, a couple of bags, and two boxes. Sarah lifted the rear door of the Jeep and grabbed the bags. She slung the straps over her head to opposite shoulders, so the straps hung like bandoliers across her chest. She pulled one of the boxes out of the way and Robby climbed over the seat. He grabbed the backpack and the big box.

"It's this first one on the left?" Sarah asked.

"Yeah," Robby said. "You got the keys?"

"Yes," she said. "Not that we'll need them again."

"Yeah we will," Robby said. "We're coming back, remember? Besides, Carl's keys are on that ring."

"Thank goodness for your memory," said Sarah. "You start running, I'm right behind you."

Robby hunched as low as he could, carrying the heavy box, and shuffling towards the pier. Sarah closed up the Jeep and followed close. The bags banged into her hips and nearly knocked her off her feet as she and Robby ran.

Carl's boat bobbed and banged against its fenders. Robby started feeling nauseous just looking at the swaying motion. He skidded to a stop near the stern. The snow on the pier was slushy from the damp air and Robby almost lost his footing. He set his box down on the pier and jumped onto the deck of Carl's boat. Robby had only seen this boat from a distance—Carl usually kept it moored out in the harbor.

After the fishing tourism ended for the fall, Carl finagled a spot at the pier so he could replace the engine of his Cape Islander boat. Fortunately for Robby and Sarah, he'd just completed the job. He'd bought the boat for hauling lobster, but switched to hauling tourists instead. The boat looked huge and yet unsteady to Robby. His stomach flopped as the boat lurched from the swells pushed in by the storm.

Robby leaned back towards the dock and tried to grab his box. He stopped and steadied himself on the rail, not sure if he would be sick. Sarah set down her box and tossed the duffel bags into the boat.

"Get in the cabin," she said. "I'll get the boxes."

"You'll need help shoving off," Robby said.

"Get us untied then," she said. Sarah grew up around boats. Being raised on the island you almost had to become familiar with them. But she hated the nervous tasks associated with launching or landing a boat. In her experience, when the mobile, free-wheeling boats came in contact with the immovable piers, trouble ensued.

Robby secured the bow line and looped the stern rope around the mooring while his mom moved the boxes and made her way to the cabin. Robby leaned over the edge, not knowing when his turkey sandwich would make a return visit. He fixed his gaze on the farthest thing he could see—the buildings up past the Jeep. He unlocked his knees and tried to float over the deck's surface to keep his head steady.

His mom was taking too long, he figured. She must be having trouble figuring out the...

The big diesel engine turned over and black smoke puffed from the exhaust pipe at the back of the cabin. Robby got ready. His job would be to release the bow line and then pull in the fenders as his mom backed the boat from the pier. Sarah guided the boat back, making sure to clear some space between the boat and the pier as quickly as possible. The wind battled her steering, trying to push the boat back towards the pier.

When he'd pulled in the last fender, Robby started collecting their supplies. He dragged them towards the small cabin. When he opened the door, his mom surprised him.

"Take the helm," she said.

"Pardon?" Robby asked.

"Take the helm. Head for just to the right of that marker. I'll stow everything below. Steering will help you deal with your seasickness," she said.

"What if I have to throw up?" Robby asked. He knew it would only only be a matter of time before his nausea kicked into overdrive. The swells in the harbor were tiny compared to what they would find once they cleared some distance from the island.

"Here's a barf-bag," she said, rooting through the backpack, "and I packed you some soda crackers. Keep chewing on these."

Robby's stomach felt like a tight knot. Tart saliva started to water in the back of his mouth. A tiny headache formed at the top of his skull. These were all signs of imminent upchuck. He took the wheel and gripped his fingers at ten and two. He understood the logic immediately—he was focused on the horizon, steadied by the wheel, and concentrating. All these activities should settle his stomach.

The wind picked up. A sudden squall of snowflakes decreased visibility and the wind made Robby correct the wheel to get back on course. Robby squinted through the wall of snow.

Sarah stowed the last of their supplies in the space below the bow deck and then closed the cabin door.

"Is there heat in this thing?" she asked.

"Huh?" Robby asked. He turned to look at his mom and instantly regretted it. The quick swing of his head disturbed the delicate truce he'd negotiated with the turkey sandwich. He doubled over with a big retch and coughed up the contents of his stomach into the barf-bag. Sarah reached over and held the wheel while he puked.

"Here," she said, handing Robby a towel.

"Thanks," he said. He put his hands back on the wheel and fixed his eyes back on the horizon.

"I'm going to figure out how to get the heat on," she said.

"Can you wait?" Robby asked. "The cold is actually helping a little."

"You're the Cap'n," she said. Sarah propped her feet up on the console and sat on a storage locker. She massaged her temples and sighed, looking out the back window towards the island. "We're going to be okay," she said.

"I know, mom," Robby said.

"At some point you're going to have to figure out this GPS," she said. "It's like the space shuttle in here."

"Okay," Robby said. "Maybe you can describe what you see and then I can keep my eyes forward?"

"Aye aye, Cap'n," Sarah said.

Sarah talked through the buttons and displays while Robby guided the boat. He pieced together a mental picture of the controls until she got lazy with the narrative and he stole glances down at the panel. His churning stomach reminded him not to look away from the horizon for too long. With her son's guidance, Sarah got the instruments powered up and gave Robby a heading to follow.

The crossing by ferry usually took between seventy-five and ninety minutes. Sarah expected their trip in Carl's boat to last a bit longer.

"Your dad insisted on bringing enough supplies for days," Sarah told Robby.

"Makes sense," Robby said.

"He wouldn't say why," said Sarah.

"I think he wanted to take us south, but didn't want to say anything in front of the Nortons," Robby said.

"How far south?" asked Sarah.

"Until we found people," Robby said. "From the TV and the radio, dad would have guessed that the same thing that happened on the island was also happening on the mainland. The best bet would be to head south."

"Until we find people," said Sarah. She shook her head and bit her lip. "I wish we'd just stayed put."

"We weren't safe there," Robby said.

"What the hell is happening?" asked Sarah.

Robby didn't have an answer. "Do you want to head south?" Robby asked.

"On a boat? No. It would be easy for your dad, but not with just us," said Sarah.

"Good," Robby said. "I hate boats."

"I know you do, honey," said Sarah.

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