At The End Of The World – Snippet 24
Captain Haskins ended by getting their assurance that their story was complete and honest, pointing out that the penalties for lying were extremely severe in our group. The pirates swore to their truthfulness on bibles they had never read, and on the souls of mothers that they had probably abandoned to squalor and disease by the time they were fifteen.
The only really useful information we got was about the plague itself. We learned more details about the various stages of the disease, about how contagious it was, and which were the most likely ways to catch it. But ultimately, what none of them knew was how long you had to wait before going back into an area where all the infected had died. In fact, it was that uncertainty which had led them to grab the ship about two months ago: a conglomeration of semi-allied gangs that had one leader smart enough to realize that the only way they were going to live was by getting away from all possible sites of infection. But during their weeks at sea, most of them had turned anyhow and ultimately became the survivors’ zombie shock troops.
The captain motioned them to get up; it was time to unload their ship. Alvaro stared at Captain Haskins, who only stared back and used a boat hook to pull out the camp stove once the four unwounded pirates had exited.
The captain had us tow the Argentinians back to their ship in a separate dinghy, then shocked us by being the first to board, even though he clearly had difficulty ascending the rope ladder that Johnnie had left hanging from the stern. He disappeared into the aft hatch, was gone for a few minutes. When he returned, he confirmed that he had found no traps and motioned the first two Argentinians to come aboard. Once they were, he had them hold the ladder steady while the last two clambered up.
When the second pair was just a few feet away from the taffrail, the captain quietly drew the revolver that Alvaro had used earlier and put a bullet into the back of first one raider’s head and then the other. As they fell, he yanked the knots holding the rope ladder: the last two raiders plunged down into the water, screaming as soon as they surfaced.
I don’t think anyone spoke or moved for a full second. Then, reflex took over and we went into rescue mode. We started grabbing for boat hooks and life preservers.
“No,” shouted the captain. “Leave them.”
“Leave them?” I shouted back. “They’ll die!”
“As they should. Care to guess what I found on their ship?”
I shook my head.
“The gnawed remains of Larry Keywood and Diane Paley.”
It took us a second to realize the full significance of that: the raiders had used the station team as fodder for their zombies.
So we watched the two dog-paddling Argentines plead and pray and shiver and sputter, growing more pale, growing more listless. Finally, unable to even tread water, they sank beneath the grey swells without so much as a ripple.
The captain had watched from the ship’s taffrail. “They were warned about the penalty for lying. They’ve paid the price. Wait there.”
He made five trips into the ship’s interior, emerging with large, bulging plastic trash bags. He also ran a fuel hose over the side, told us that it was for tapping one of the fuel tanks. Then he lowered the bags into the dinghy in which we’d brought along the Argentinians and climbed down into it himself. At that point, he was as pale as the men who’d drowned a half hour before. He mumbled for a line. We tossed him one and then towed him to shore.
Once there, he snarled at us if we came close. He dragged the bags out of the dinghy, upended them all on the scree beach, careful not to touch anything that fell out, and spun on his heel toward the radio house, wobbling as he went.
“What are you doing?” Giselle shouted after him. Her voice was angry, frightened, hurt.
“Putting myself in quarantine,” he said. “No one comes in. We speak through the door. Burn their dinghy. Burn the bags. Filter masks on when you handle what I salvaged. Even though I never touched it directly, everything goes in boiling water. Even the ammunition. Can’t take a chance. And Johnnie?”
“You’re going to stay in the end room of the manager’s house. You went on the ship, so no contact with the others. Not safe.”
He turned and locked himself in the radio house after giving us strict orders to stay away from the wounded pirates in the gunpowder house. Earlier in the day, we would have argued against just leaving them to freeze overnight, which they would certainly do. Now, death by slipping from semi-consciousness into sleep and on into hypothermia seemed like a fairly mild form of justice. Besides, no one was willing to expose themselves to whatever virus the prisoners had been living next to for weeks or months.
Alvaro limped away someplace, trailing blood in the snow. Chloe made to go after him, but Giselle put a hand on her arm and shook her head. When Alvaro came back, he looked okay, but his eyes were red. He insisted, almost violently, that he was going to take the captain’s dinner out to him. No one argued.
By the time Alvaro came back, he was too tired to do anything except tell me that the captain wanted to speak to me.
I went out to the radio house, knocked on the door. It opened a crack. “Stay back.” The captain sounded terrible.
“Captain, what is it? What can I –?”
“Two things. First, I left a manila envelope under my bed. In it, you’ll find everything I ever learned about this bloody virus. It’s not complete, but it has some additional details about what to avoid and how long it takes to become symptomatic under different conditions. Second: write down what happened today. Not just the action against the raiders: everything. Everything we learned from them, everything you observed. You — we’ll need it.” But his correction to “we’ll” sounded like an after-thought, the kind of thing people say when they are trying to pretend that they’ll live as long as their kids or are trying to act confident about surviving a dangerous surgery.
So I just said, “Yes, captain,” and went back to the manager’s house.
I have done as he has asked. I have written everything down. And now I want to sleep and not think about tomorrow. Or anything that comes after.
Now that Willow went and recorded her report in my journal, it doesn’t really feel like my journal anymore. But maybe that’s okay. I started it for myself, but now, I have to wonder: is this journal just about me, anymore? Or is it the story of us? And if so, maybe I have to rethink who gets to write in, and read, it.
We wanted to bury Blake, but with the ground frozen, there just wasn’t any way to do it. So we put him to rest in the whaling station’s graveyard and piled stones on top of him. When it came time to say a few words, everyone looked at me. Don’t know why, except maybe I reek of Recovering Catholic. Anyhow, I was the only one who’d spent any time in a church.
We tried checking in on the captain on the way to the graveyard, but when we opened the door a crack, we heard snoring. So we backed off. When we tried on the way back, he answered our first knock. He had to be talked into some food, which I brought back out with Willow.
He sounded very weak. Told us to leave the food on the step, that he’d pick it up. Willow asked him if she could come in just a step or two, to see how he was doing. He refused. She threatened to push on in anyhow.
The captain replied in his ice-cold authority voice. “If you do, I will not be able to allow you to leave. You’ll have to stay in here with me. For weeks, maybe months. So don’t come through that door.” By the end, his voice had faded to a pleading whisper.
Willow tried to say something, choked back the words along with a sob, turned on her heel and walked back to the manager’s house. Really quickly.
I didn’t know what to do or say, but about a minute after she left, the captain spoke. His voice was low. “Alvaro, things are going to get more difficult.”
“More difficult than a ship full of raiders?”