This is the final posting in the series which feature extracts from my book For Those In Peril On The Sea that will be available from Pictish Beast Publications in the UK from the 3rd of January 2013. You can find the first two postings by clicking here and here. It’s a tale of survival in a post-apocalyptic world where the land is no longer safe, leaving the few remaining people struggling to survive at sea. If you like what you read here, you can find out more about it by clicking here. If you wish to read this extract offline, you can download a PDF version of it from here.
We sat off Hole-in-the-Wall for the next few hours, watching the lighthouse flash its signal into the darkness as it had done for more than 150 years. I counted off in my head, one flash every ten seconds. Not many people realise that each lighthouse has its own signature; a unique pattern of flashes and pauses that allows seafarers to know where they are as soon as they see it. The system had been designed in the age of sail, before electronic navigation and the global positioning system. Now, with all our electrics out of action, I could see why it worked so well. The signal was reassuring, it told us exactly where we were, reminding us that there was other human life out there, that despite all we’d been through, everything back on shore was still as we’d left it: cold beers, strangers to talk to, hamburgers, cigarettes, newspapers, a toilet that stayed still while you sat on it … all the little trinkets of civilisation we never even thought about until we were deprived of them. And in a few days, I’d be enjoying them all.
As the sun rose behind us, we trimmed the sails and headed round the point at Hole-in-the-Wall, sailing past the arch and into the lee on the other side. The rain had cleared and we could see the octagonal houses of the lighthouse keepers squatting at the base of the massive red tower. My heart leapt at our first real sign of land and civilisation. Bill pulled the boat as close to the rocky shore as he dared and Jon blew on the hand-held foghorn. We waited. No one stirred in the buildings up on the hill. Jon blew the horn again, but still there was no response. This was unusual. There should always be someone at the lighthouse. Sure, it wasn’t as important since the lighthouse had been automated, the recently-added solar panels disrupting its once smooth, almost sleek, profile, but still, someone should be there.
‘D’you think it’s just a bit too early for them?’ Jon looked at Bill.
‘Possibly.’ Bill picked up the binoculars and examined the cluster of buildings. ‘There’s a truck there so it looks like somebody’s home.’
‘Should we wait or just carry on?’ I was keen to keep moving towards Miami and I didn’t want to spend too long waiting for people to get up.
‘We really need to get a message to the owners. We’re already a week overdue, and they will be worrying about what’s happened to us. We need to let them know we’re okay and when we’ll finally get into Miami.’ Bill scanned the buildings again, then turned to Jon and me. ‘You two up for a trip ashore?’
‘Yeah.’ Jon sounded as keen as I was to spend some time off the boat, even if it was just a walk up to the lighthouse and back.
We inflated the small rubber dinghy, fitted the little outboard and lowered it over the side. Jon and I clambered in and started the engine. The dinghy bumped over the choppy waves and within a few minutes, we were tying it to a heavy iron ring set into rocks below the lighthouse. Once the dinghy was secured, we climbed up steps carved directly into the rock. At the top we found a natural stone platform with a narrow concrete path snaking up the hill towards the lighthouse. We walked slowly and unsteadily, our bodies unused to being on solid ground after six weeks on an ever-moving surface. I inhaled deeply, enjoying the smell of earth after rain. It was the kind of smell you didn’t miss, that you didn’t even notice until it was no longer there. I drank in the calls of birds and the chirps of insects that flowed from the trees surrounding the path. Neither Jon or I spoke; we were too busy relishing these novel sounds after weeks of little more than the slap, slap, slap of waves against the side of the boat and the clinking and clanking of the rigging.
We were at the first building all too soon and I knocked on the solid wooden door. As we waited for a response, we surveyed the property.
‘This is quite some place.’ Jon shaded his eyes with his hand as he stared out at the land beyond the lighthouse, ’Imagine living all the way out here, you’d go mad with boredom. There’d be nothing to do.’
Being young, Jon didn’t yet appreciate how wonderful it could be to be alone, far from any other living person. He looked at the lighthouse and saw it as isolated and lonely. I looked at it and saw a sanctuary from the confusion of the modern world.
After a few minutes, we started to wander around, calling out a greeting to anyone who might be there, but no one replied. We tried the second house, but no one answered. The buildings themselves were weathered but well-kept, and they weren’t shuttered or boarded up, meaning someone must still be living there, despite the fact the lighthouse had been automated. The presence of the truck seemed to confirm this. It sat on the hill facing towards a road so old it was little more than a rutted track. I could see that it weaved a path through the bushes for about half a mile to where it disappeared round a corner.
‘I’m going to take a look at the truck.’
I didn’t know what it would tell us but I followed Jon as he walked over to it. The truck was an ancient pickup, the red paint faded and speckled with rust. There was a large dent in its tailgate and one of the rear lights was broken. Apart from that, it looked in reasonable condition for its age. As we neared, I saw that the driver’s door lay open, the glass from its broken window scattered amongst the stones on the ground. There was something that looked very much like blood smeared across the vinyl seats, as if someone had been dragged out by force, and the keys were still in the ignition.
Jon’s eyes widened as his eyes shifted from the truck to me and back again. ‘What d’you think happened here?’
‘I don’t know.’ As I spoke I felt a sense of unease rising within me.
‘What now?’ Jon was staring down the road as if expecting someone to appear suddenly.
‘I guess we find somewhere to leave a note.’
I headed back to the first house with Jon following behind. Once there, we ambled along the veranda that surrounded it, searching for any clues that would tell us where the lighthouse keepers were. On the far side of the building there was another door. I knocked, but again there was no response. I leant on the wooden balustrade that surrounded the veranda and looked out across the landscape, wondering what to do next. The land dropped away immediately below the building and a set of concrete steps led down to an outhouse. Along its roof, little brown lizards scuttled as they displayed to each other. Beyond that, the land disappeared off towards the horizon in a series of low, rolling hills covered with scrubby bushes. The green expanse of land made a pleasant change after weeks of nothing but featureless sea.
I heard the door creak open behind me and turned to see Jon with his hand on the latch.
‘You can’t just go wandering into someone’s home, especially when they’re not there.’
‘It wasn’t like it was locked.’ Jon was about to step inside when he hesitated, ‘What the hell?’
I looked past him into a kitchen that had been turned upside down. Pots and pans were scattered across the floor, interspersed with fragments of broken crockery. A door to a store cupboard lay open, revealing that its contents had been pulled hurriedly from the shelves. A table and chairs were stacked against a second door on the far side of the room and the cooker was pushed up against them as if someone had tried to make a barricade. The walls were covered with red smears, while several pools of what looked like congealing blood lay on the floor. Whatever the people had been trying to keep out must have found another way in.
‘Rob, is that what I think it is?’ Jon was nervous.
‘Yeah, I think so.’
‘Where d’you think it came from?’
‘I have no idea.’
‘Should we check the rest of the house? See if anyone’s injured?’
‘I guess so.’
Despite this, we remained in the doorway, neither of us wanting to be the first to step inside. Rather than enter, I decided to walk round the outside, pausing at each window to cup my hands against the glass and peer inside. I found no one but I could see the contents of each room were strewn across the floor, and furniture piled up near the doors. The only difference was that in these rooms the makeshift barriers had been pushed away as if someone, or something, had forced its way in. In all of them, there was red spattered on whitewashed walls, and dark pools on the floor. Once back at the kitchen door, I stopped and scanned the surrounding landscape again. Other than the lighthouse buildings, there wasn’t a single trace of human habitation in sight. The solitude that had seemed so appealing when we first arrived now felt oppressive.
‘Jesus, Rob, that’s a lot of blood.’
‘Yeah.’ I didn’t know what else to say.
‘Do you think it’s … you know, human?’
‘I don’t know. Even if it’s from an animal, it’s creepy.’
‘Fucking creepy. Did you see the way the doors had been barricaded?’
‘Yeah.’ I was only half-listening to him. Instead, my brain was racing, trying to find some sort of explanation for what we’d discovered.
‘So what do we do now?’
‘Huh?’ This question brought me back to reality. I thought about it for a few second, ‘I guess we should check the other buildings. You know, just in case.’
‘D’you think it’s safe?’
‘I don’t know, but we should do it anyway. It’s the right thing to do.’
‘Yeah, I suppose.’
I looked over at Jon and saw he was biting his lower lip nervously. ‘You can stay here if you want, but I’m going to check them out.’
‘No way. I’m coming with you. This place is really starting to scare the shit out of me. You’re not leaving me on my own.’
Jon followed as I walked slowly over to the other house. As I did so, I cast my eyes around, alert to possible signs of danger, but I saw nothing that seemed out of place. I crept around its veranda, peering in the windows. This one looked unoccupied and there were no signs of life … or of death. Next, I checked the outbuildings, but they were locked. I banged on the doors and called, but no one answered. Finally, I turned my attention to the lighthouse. From where we stood, I could see the door was slightly ajar.
I was half-way there when Jon suddenly stopped. ‘I thought I saw something move.’
‘In the lighthouse.’ Jon grabbed my shoulder as he spoke.
Irritated, I shook him off. ‘What was it?’
‘I don’t know. I just thought I saw a movement.’
I searched the shadows. ‘I don’t see anything now.’
We moved forward again. Once at the lighthouse, I slowly pushed the door open. Jon jumped as it creaked loudly, the sound echoing around the stone tower. I stepped inside.
‘Hello?’ My voice sounded odd as it reverberated off the curved stone walls, ‘Anyone there?’
There was no reply. I looked round the room. It was dark but enough light came through the door for me to see a set of stairs spiralling upwards. There was nothing else; no sign of anyone; no sign of anything that might be alive.
‘Should we go up?’
I looked over a Jon. ‘Do you want to?’
Suddenly, there was a shriek outside. We ran through the door just in time to see a small flock of parrots burst into the air.
‘I think we should go back to the boat.’ Jon’s voice wavered as he spoke and I could tell he was starting to get jittery.
I didn’t blame him. The place was really starting to get to me too. ‘Yeah, let’s go.’
Jon looked relieved and headed back down the path. I followed after him, noticing he was moving much faster than he had on the way up. As I walked, I looked back over my shoulder and wondered about what we’d found. Other than the blood all over the house and the broken window in the truck, nothing seemed out of place. Something had happened here, but I couldn’t think what. I couldn’t help but be reminded of an old poem about another lighthouse, one back home on Flannan Isle. It had been found unmanned in 1900, the table still laid for dinner with food untouched on the plates. All three lighthouse keepers had vanished, and no one had ever found out what had happened to them.
We were about three-quarters of the way down the narrow path when a silhouette appeared on the skyline behind the lighthouse, a large machete clutched in its right hand. Instantly, we were both running, moving as fast as we could over the cracked and uneven surface. Glancing back, I saw the figure pursuing us, screaming indecipherably at the top of its voice.
We reached the stone steps and scrambled down to the dinghy. I fumbled with the rope that held it to the rock, trying desperately to undo it.
‘Come on, Rob.’ There was a sense of urgency in Jon’s voice I’d never heard before, not even at the height of the storm.
‘I can’t. The knot’s pulled too tight.’
‘Here, try this,’ Jon held out his Leatherman, the small knife already open. I grabbed it and started sawing frantically at the rope.
‘Come on! Whoever that is will be here any second.’ Jon eyes were darting nervously between where I was struggling with the rope and the top of steps.
‘I’m going as fast as I can. Just get the engine started so we’re ready to go as soon as I’m done.’
I was about half-way through the rope already and I redoubled my efforts. I heard Jon yank on the starter chord. The engine shuddered, but that was all. He adjusted the throttle and tried again. Again it turned over, but it still didn’t catch.
‘Careful, you’ll flood it.’
‘I know what I’m doing, Rob.’ Jon never liked it when I gave him advice, but there was a hint of panic in his voice.
I felt the rope separate and I pushed us away from the rocks. Jon was pulling repeatedly on the chord but the engine still refused to start. My eyes flicked upwards. While I couldn’t see the path, I knew the figure could appear at any moment and we were still within range of a machete. As Jon continued to fiddle with the engine, I grabbed an oar and started paddling, making short, sharp strokes on alternating sides of the bow.
We were twenty yards out when the engine finally spluttered into life and a look of relief spread cross Jon’s face. Back on the shore, I could see the figure standing on the rocks just above the steps. He was a tall, black man, his white t-shirt soaked in blood. As we motored towards to the waiting boat, he waved the machete and screamed something I couldn’t quite make out. Without warning, he stopped and sank to his knees, his shoulders heaving as he sobbed. Jon shifted the engine into neutral; the man no longer seemed insane and dangerous, just broken and desperate.
‘Should we go back?’ Jon asked hesitantly.
‘I don’t know. I don’t think we should risk it. What if it’s a trap? I mean, he’s covered in blood.’ While he no longer looked threatening, the man still frightened me.
All of a sudden, with a speed that was unsettling, the man leapt to his feet and sprang round to face the path. A new shape was outlined on the crest of the hill. I couldn’t tell if it was human or animal, or even if there was more than one, and almost as soon as I’d seen it, it was gone. The man looked desperately left and right, as if trying to decide which way he should run but, before he made his choice, two shapes shot out of the bushes. He flailed the machete wildly as they flew towards him but it made little difference. When they reached him, they attacked and, within seconds, the man was on the ground. Even from that distance, we could hear his screams of pain and the guttural growls of the creatures. He struggled frantically, trying to throw them off, but despite his size they were too much for him. His movements slowed and eventually ceased as the life drained out of him, but the creatures kept up their assault, tearing at his body, ripping him limb from limb.
‘What the fuck are those things?’ There was a look of abject horror on Jon’s face.
‘I don’t know. Let’s just get the hell out of here. Now!’
Jon slammed the engine into gear and we skimmed over the water at full speed, trying to resist the urge to look back. We tied off the dinghy and scrambled onto the catamaran. Bill was standing in the cockpit staring towards the shore with the binoculars,
‘For a minute there I thought you were going to go back. Just as well you didn’t.’
‘Could you see what those animals were; the ones that attacked him?’ I wanted to know. I wanted to understand how close we’d come to being attacked ourselves.
Bill looked at me and said nothing as he handed me the binoculars. I aimed them towards the shore and could see two huddled shapes crouching over what was left of the man. As I watched, one of them stood up and I could see what it was. It was a young boy, no more than thirteen. Blood dripped from his face as he stared straight at me. His eyes bored into mine, unblinking, so wild, so animalistic, and yet so human. He knelt back down and started tearing at the carcass again. I watched as he clawed at the man’s stomach, opening up his abdomen and pulling out his intestines. He plunged his head into the man’s body, reappearing a second later with a large piece of liver in his mouth. I lowered the binoculars and stared at Bill, not believing what I’d just seen. As I did so, CJ came out onto the deck.
‘What’s going on?’
‘Don’t know,’ Jon shot back at her as his eyes shifted from Bill to me and back again. ‘Can I get the binoculars?’
I passed them to him and watched as he raised them to his eyes.
‘They’re eating him.’ Jon was appalled.
‘What d’you mean they’re eating him? Who’s eating who? Give me the binoculars,’ CJ held out her hand but Jon didn’t give them to her.
‘Trust me. You don’t want to see.’
CJ scowled at him but there was something in Jon’s voice that suggested he was right and she didn’t push it.
As we pulled the dinghy out of the water and hauled up the anchor, Jon told Bill and CJ what we’d found up at the lighthouse. He sounded almost excited but it was probably just the after-effects of the adrenaline from his body’s fight or flight reaction. I was certainly feeling a little shaky for the same reason.
Jon was just finishing. ‘Jesus, there was blood everywhere … I mean, a lot of it.’
I felt the need to say something. CJ had a terrified look on her face and Jon needed calming down.
‘There wasn’t that much really. I mean maybe it was all from one person …’ Even as I said it, I knew in my heart it wasn’t true.
Once we were underway and had put some distance between ourselves and the lighthouse, we gathered in the cockpit. We were all been badly shaken by what we’d witnessed and for a while none of us spoke, each lost in our own thoughts. It was CJ who eventually broke the silence.
‘Very good question.’ Bill sat there thinking for a few seconds before continuing. ‘No matter what happened back there, there’s nothing we can do about it. In fact, I think you guys were very lucky to get back to the dinghy when you did, otherwise … ’ I didn’t want to think what the otherwise might have been.
After a moment Bill carried on. ‘We’ll need to report it, The only question is where. As far as I can see, we’ve got four choices.’ He counted each of them off on his fingers as he spoke, ‘There’s a small village marked on the chart just up the coast, but there’s no guarantee it’ll have a police station. Even if it does, it’s going to be a small one and I’m not too sure they’d be able to deal with this sort of thing on their own.’
Given what we’d just seen, I was amazed at how calm Bill was, at how clearly he was thinking. My own mind had frozen, able to do little more than replay the same shocking sights over and over again, yet Bill was able to think logically about what we needed to do next, just as he’d done in the storm. These were the times I was so glad it was Bill who was in charge and not me.
‘Two, we can sail south and report it in Nassau. Or three, we can continue west and report it in Freeport on Grand Bahama. They’re both pretty big cities, at least as far as the Bahamas are concerned, and both will have sizeable police forces. But it’ll take time for them to get themselves together and get over to Hole-in-the-Wall.
‘Four, we can carry on to Miami, and report it from there. The important thing to remember is that, no matter where we report it, it’s going to raise a lot of questions.’
Bill was silent for a second or two. ’Frankly, I’m not too sure people will believe us. We could get tied up in the investigation for days, even weeks. There’s nothing we can do for that poor sod back there, so if the rest of you agree, I’d rather report it in Miami than in the Bahamas. That way we won’t be stuck in a foreign country while this thing is looked into.’
‘It mightn’t be a foreign country to you …’ I was a concerned Bill had forgotten we weren’t all Americans.
‘Good point. But I think you and CJ would still be better off in the US than in the Bahamas. Whatever went on back there, it’s going to cause a big stir when it comes out. At least in the US you’ll have less of a chance of getting dragged into it. We all will. What do you think?’
Bill looked around at the rest of us.
Jon nodded his agreement, as did I, but with more hesitation. My mind was finally starting to work again and while I could see Bill’s point, I still didn’t like the fact I might get stuck in an unfamiliar country, far from my boat, while any investigation took place.
‘Oh come on, Cammy, make a decision for once; not that it really matters what you think.’ Jon sounded irritated.
‘Shut up, Jon, that’s not helpful.’ I couldn’t stop myself snapping at him. It annoyed me that, despite what we’d just witnessed, Jon still couldn’t resist needling CJ. It incensed me just as much that CJ made it so easy for him. Glancing over at her, I saw the resentment and anger that had been building up within her towards Jon throughout the voyage start to bubble to the surface.
Bill must have seen this too because he sat down and put a reassuring arm around her.
‘CJ, it’s important that we all agree on what we’re going to do.’ Bill’s voice was calm and comforting, ‘What do you think? Are you happy with us carrying on to Miami?’
‘I guess Miami would be okay.’
Jon opened his mouth to speak, but Bill held up his hand and Jon thought better of it.
Bill looked round at each of us again, ‘Right, Miami it is then.’
‘What d’you think happened back there?’ I was keen to hear Bill’s thoughts. Night had fallen and we were over the shallow waters of Great Bahama Bank, passing between the islands of Great Isaacs and the Bimimis. We’d covered half the distance to Miami and we would be there by daybreak at the very latest. Bill and I were alone in the cockpit and we’d soon be crossing the Gulf Stream, an unpredictable stretch of water that could be whipped up into rough pyramids of water at a moment’s notice, if the wind started pushing against the northward-flowing current. We were lucky, the wind had been strong enough to keep us moving along at a decent pace, while gentle enough not to stir the waters up too much. It would be an easy passage, the skies were clear and the stars were laid out above us, the silver ribbon of the Milky Way shining brightly in the heavens. This was the type of crossing I usually relished, but I couldn’t enjoy it because the events from that morning were still replaying themselves in my head.
It took Bill a while to reply. ‘I really don’t know.’
I tried again, ‘Why would they do that to another person?’ I wanted an answer, any kind of answer, something that might explain what we’d seen.
‘I don’t know. Why do people do any of the cruel things that they do to each other?’ Bill stared out into the darkness.
‘But this is different. Even in comparison to most human atrocities, what happened back there was vicious. I’ve never seen anything like it. They were like wild animals.’ I stopped and thought for a second, ‘No, they were worse than that. They didn’t just kill him, they ripped him apart.’ Just thinking about it made me feel sick.
‘I know.’ Bill turned and look at me, there was a pained expression on his face. ‘I know. I’ve seen a lot in my life, but I’ve never seen anything like that.’
Even if I’d wanted to I don’t think I could have slept that night. I couldn’t get the image of the young boy with his wild, staring eyes, out of my head, or the terrified screaming of the man as he was torn apart. I felt there was something deeply wrong with a world where such things could happen. I couldn’t wait to get back to civilisation and get so drunk that those images would be erased from my mind, at least for a few hours.
Sometime in the night the wind shifted around to the west, and with it came a strange smell. It was barely discernible at first, but it grew stronger the closer we got to the Florida coast. Mostly, it smelt of smoke; not wood smoke but something thicker, more acrid, with an undertone of singed flesh. Bill had gone down to his bunk a couple of hours before, and Jon had replaced him on watch. As we discussed what the smell might be, CJ brought out a coffee for Jon and a tea for me.
CJ looked towards the front of the boat, standing on tiptoes to get a better view over the cabin.
‘Hey, is that the sun coming up?’
‘Don’t be daft, Cammy.’ Jon took a sip of his coffee, ‘We’re heading west. The sun rises in the east, doesn’t it?’
‘Well, there’s something going on over there,’ CJ retorted. ‘It definitely looks like a sunrise.’
She sounded so certain that Jon and I stood up to see what she was talking about. Sure enough there was an orange glow on the horizon.
‘Must be some kind of brush fire.’ Jon didn’t sound convinced, but it seemed logical.
We watched for the next hour. By then, we could make out flames leaping high into the darkness. The fire explained the strange smell, or at least it seemed to, but the smoke didn’t smell like a brush fire, it smelt more industrial. I scanned the horizon. The flames were strung out in loose clusters along a stretch of coast about half a mile long, and directly ahead of us. On either side there was …
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.