There are seven boats pulled up on the bank side of a river. I find numbers important. Their winter covers are still on. It’s now summer so that is six to nine months and nobody disturbs them except the tidal movement in the estuary. It’s raining heavily and night is falling; never a good time. So I do what anybody does if they have any sense. My senses tell me somebody’s following me, has been tracking me all day – just one of those hunches for there is nobody when I look back.
There is a town on the opposite bank and a bridge I could cross to reach it. Everything is still. Nobody is about, just the usual damage where moving vehicles have crashed. There are no remains inside. I could do with some supplies but will not risk crossing the bridge. I am satisfied with my decision.
The bank side is soft and my feet sink in the slime. I make for the nearest boat. The door to its single cabin is locked but that is not a problem. It is easy to open without smashing the door in, which would defeat the purpose of finding safe shelter for the night. There is fuel in the tank of the outboard; it slops as I move over the boat and search the small, neat cabin. Maybe still half a tank or more if I am lucky.
The tide is going out and I decide this is as good a place as any to stay the night. I am not planning to become a shadow any time soon. I plan instead to go downriver in the boat on the morning tide.
I decide the boat should keep its winter cover overnight with me tucked inside. Means nothing can look in, seep in and I can cover the door. The owners clearly did not have time to take the boats ashore to winter quarters before they were caught, or did not care to think as I did and still do.
A sound. Not the water, the boat, or me. I sit still on a bunk, hands clasped for comfort rather than prayer on the fixed table. Another sound. A sound like I made to open the cabin door. My tracker, unsure but staying close till morning. If they are wise they will not use light or cook, will sleep and not snore. People find out quick if they do. I eat some dried meat and fruit, drink some water and bed down for troubled sleep, some sixth sense on guard as I do so. Wonder how long I can continue to do this. It seems like it has been forever now. I count days as well as everything else that comes my way. I remember the number of days. It gives me some kind of sanity.
Morning comes. The shadows have still not managed to extinguish the sun. It is one aspect of life they have been unable to destroy. I am rested, though stiff and sore from the cramped bunk. I drink some water and wait until the light outside is brighter. Time of day by a clock is irrelevant now, this is the quotidian.
I make a tally of what I’ve found. Navigation equipment is a good find, some emergency food, a first aid box, even a store of fresh water. The owner has stashed a pump action shotgun with plenty of shells, unusable against shadows, but still useful. There is spare fuel in a jerry-can that may have gone past its use by date, though clouds of smoke from the outboard would not be an issue.
A sound again, then another, then discordant clattering. Somebody climbs aboard.
“I’d like to talk with you.” It is a female voice from the well of the boat outside. “I’m not dangerous.”
First rule: never believe what any other survivor tells you. I take the chance with the loaded shotgun pointing at the door as I open it. She is young, dressed for hard travel, slim, skin weathered like mine, a good pair of walking boots. Who knows where we find our preferred kit: it’s an unwritten rule never to ask. She is darkly attractive as I see her for the first time. She smiles.
“What’s your name?” she asks.
“I prefer not to say these days. I have no name.” One of my own rules gaining currency with the rare others I meet.
“OK. Want to ride a boat with me?” she asks with an enquiring look.
“Pool our resources?”
“That kind of idea.”
“We have the tide and dusk to worry about, especially what might be in the town over there.”
“Check. There is fuel and stores in the other boats here.”
The other six boats. I make the correction in my mind, privately celebrate my neatness of thought. I suggest coffee and some hot food before we get to work. It will give me a chance to suss her out, get to know her, who she is, what she is. I notice she eats and drinks very little.
“I’ve been following you for two days,” she says by way of probing conversation.
“I know,” I lie, as I thought one. Either way, we both know there is no past before that, only our present and near future.
“There are searchlights on a couple of the boats,” she says.
“They could be useful. Do you have a name?”
“My name is Hell,” she replies with a sudden lunge towards me and a snarl, too quickly for me to pick up the shotgun. Then she sits back and laughs. “Really got you going, didn’t I?”
“I wouldn’t do that kind of thing. It gets you killed.”
“Not if I kill you first. Yes, I know we have to be careful these days; people have changed since the shadows came. Sorry, I scared you.”
I notice a livid scar on her neck.
“What happened to you?” I ask.
“I had a bad time with another survivor.”
“What happened to the survivor?”
“I don’t use guns. I’m faster than a bullet.” She does that smile again and makes a quick movement of her head from side to side with a whooshing sound. I’m not sure I want her on the boat.
We finish the coffee; at least I finish my coffee while she looks back at me as if to eat and drink is an abnormal act. I keep watch for possible others as she could be a decoy, a honey trap. At best she is a dangerous contradiction.
We collect what we consider useful. I decline the searchlights. We won’t be going out at night. We both know the boats have been a good find. The haul is good, includes yellow storm proof clothing that fits us both. Its owners had never had time to clear all this. We take rope, as much fuel for the outboard as we dare for weight, food and water, flares, another pump action and a long muzzled Colt .45 with a box of shells. People knew there was something coming and prepared the wrong kind of defence; not to say they are not useful now, as much as the charts we find.
“You are a funny man,” she ventures as we assemble stuff.
“Not funny ha ha. No, not that. You seem sad. Life is not worth living for you.”
“It’s always worth living, depends on your point of view.”
“Having fun, that kind of thing. Not taking life as serious as you take it.” She wriggles around as she says this. It puts me on another kind of alert. I ask her:
“What do you want from me?”
“A little company for a while; maybe some conversation. You don’t get these things much in a solitary life.” She looks a little wistful and makes me feel guilty about not being too friendly.
“The shadows have done this to us survivors. I saw their first arrival from behind glass and hid for two days in a cupboard. I saw them devour people whole and still feel traumatised. I wised up when it appeared they weren’t around during the day. Do you know why this is happening?”
“Shadows are less in direct sunlight. They have done things to survivors too.”
“I know. I’ve met some of the variations. I try to sleep safe at night.”
“Like a boat on an open sea?”
“They won’t cross open water, that’s maybe why there are pockets of humans here and there.”
“Where do you want to go in the boat?” she asks me. She is steering the conversation away from our talk about shadows and this makes me a little edgy, wondering why.
“I don’t know at present. We can’t stay here.”
“Good to know you include me in the equation.” She says this with a little smile that emphasises her attractiveness. It makes me soften to her again, although I remain wary of her as a companion.
The tide comes up the estuary and washes over the mudflats well before noon. It floats the boat, even with its extra weight. We loosen the moorings. As we float out into midstream I start the outboard with a little persuasion and the expected smoke from the exhaust outlet. The motor makes a rough purr that tells me it has settled and we can speed up to make some way. The woman is still, looks at me and does not speak. I refuse to call her Hell, though she complains and says we can do what the hell we want in this crazy world, and laughs at her wit. I’m glad I don’t have to look at her and can steer from the wheel beside the cabin door.
We take the deepest channel under the irregular arches of the bridge that lead to the dead town that continues to be still and silent. Stone and build tell me the bridge is old. Few will ever cross it now. Later it will fall and not be rebuilt until humanity revives after the shadows move on when there is nothing left for them. They are assumed to be aliens of some sort. Nobody seems to have lived to make contact and find out. As we pass under the arch I can see the tendrils of shadow shapes hidden there trying to reach down. They cannot fall on us in the morning light.
Sonar and charts make our journey through the intricacies of shallows made by the estuary’s shifting sands uneventful. Then the boat makes good way except for bumps over oncoming waves when I let out the throttle as the estuary widens and deepens towards the open sea.
The woman stays silent in her waterproofs, huddles outside in the boat well as the chill from open sea surrounds us. I am not sure which way to go, haven’t thought that far ahead. There is an island way out off the wide bay that may offer respite and so begin to steer a course towards it.
I turn to tell the woman what I intend and see the unexpected. She stands crouched, arms arched at her sides as if to pounce. Her nails have become long claws, mouth set in a wide rictus with fangs that protrude from its sides and her eyes blaze with red blood lust. A Day Fang on open water is the unexpected; her yellow waterproofs a bizarre incongruity. I reach into my own waterproof and quickly draw out the Colt. I cannot miss and do not. The boom is more a pop in the open sea as the Day Fang’s head shatters in the high wind and the body falls overboard. I watch the yellow bundle streaked with red become small then disappear.
Well out of range of shadows and finished with this distraction now, I turn my attention to the island growing larger beyond the bow wave as certain death disappears in the boat’s wake. First rule: never believe anything a survivor tells you, never believe anything except what comes out of the barrel of a gun. Another first rule: stay out of the shadows.