If I was going to do this thing, which was for both of us, everything depended on our getting off the island quickly, without anybody seeing us. While Christopher finished his breakfast, I put the remaining chard and the last of the apples from the fall in the basket. I went to get a cloth to clean his face with. But then I heard Jeanine's voice outside the front door, and realized Christopher was already there.
I sighed. Jeanine. And therefore Lamar.
"A picnic, how wonderful!" she was saying. "Happy birthday, Christopher. I'm glad you and your Dad got a beautiful day for it. I made these just for you. Sugar cookies, six of them. Do you remember cookies?"
I limped through the dim of the house and out onto the stoop in time to see her hand him up a worn box made of metal, printed in red plaid on the outside. Christopher held out his big hands, his mouth open in a gasp of happiness, his dark hair flopping over his face as he nodded at the tin.
"Oh, Tom. That's the last of it," Jeanine said. She was smiling. A little sadly, I thought. I remembered the same smile on Martha's face, at the end, when she watched Christopher.
Areas of red had rubbed away from the outside of the box over years of reuse. New, it had probably held shortbread cookies, the kind the island's grocery store had once carried in its little gourmet section. As good as any down in Seattle, Martha always maintained.
"The last of what?" I said. I took Christopher's chin and turned it toward me. I wiped his mouth, avoiding his eyes.
"The flour and the sugar. I had a little left oh, a half a cup or so of each? and I've been saving it all this time. Do you believe that? It's a wonder it was still good. Arlene and I made a little butter yesterday up at her place. But the sugar and the flour . . . " She pulled herself together. "You know, they had to go sometime, and I decided this was it. Made 'em in the fireplace."
"Thanks, Jeanine," I said. What else could I say?
She stepped up the stoop and hugged Christopher. He loomed over her, patting her hair as she let him go and stepped back down. Christopher liked patting things.
"I think it's wonderful the two of you are finally doing something nice," Jeanine said. "I'll have to tell Lamar, he'll be so glad. Where are you going?"
"We're " I said.
"Stuart Island," said Christopher. "My Daddy and me." After forty-seven years, he still pronounced it "Stoot." He took out one of the cookies and began eating it. I could smell the butter, but didn't want to let Jeanine know how it make me feel.
Jeanine looked up at me, her arms folded. I knew what this meant.
"Is that a good idea?" she said. "Surely not. What about your hip? What if the engine dies? Or you blow out a sail? You could drift up to Canada, to the Gulf Islands. And what if "
"It's been years," I said. "Nothing's come. We don't know that it ever will."
"I'm taking the gun, Jeanine."
"What good will that do?"
We studied each other. Her lips compressed.
"Is Lamar coming?" Christopher asked me.
"Thanks for the cookies, Jeanine," I said.
"You're welcome," she said, glaring, and turned around and headed back across the road.
"Come on, Christopher. The picnic's ready," I said. I threw the cloth against the house.
Christopher followed me out to the porch in the rear, where I had left the basket. The AR-15 was propped beside it, and I slung it on my back. There were two clips for it, one in my pocket and one already snapped in. I'd had the gun ever since Jim Rianni had blown his brains out in downtown Friday Harbor three years before. Larry Nelson, who was the sheriff back then, when the San Juans still had a sheriff, had invited me and Lamar to take something from Jim's cache of weapons so we could help keep outsiders away. Given what Jim had done, I think he also wanted to reassure himself about who had the guns and what they might be used for. You never knew anymore.
"I'll take the basket," I said.
We crossed the backyard heading toward the beach, and Christopher stopped beside the rectangle where moss had plumped up the soil.
"Bye, Mommy," he said. "I love you." He took out a cookie from Jeanine's tin and placed it on top of the grave, using his thumb and forefinger. Then he looked at the path and hesitated, years of training in his pause.
"You go on ahead," I said. "Be careful on the way down. I'll be behind you."
I glanced at the grave as I passed, but didn't stop. Everything ends, I told myself. Then I followed Christopher as he descended toward False Bay, the gun flopping around on my back with a soft clatter and almost falling off when I hiked my hip around a protruding root.
The holes in the back of Christopher's T-shirt had gotten bigger over the winter. I couldn't help but wonder, as I wondered every day, what it must be like to be him in the midst of everything that had happened. Whether things were harder for him because he understood so much less or easier, for the same reason. God knew it was hard enough to be his father. I watched his back carefully as he picked his way down from the house the way Martha had taught him, slowly, concentrating hard like the six-year-old he had always been, his head bent and the uncut hair hiding his face, one hand clutching the red tin, the other out in front of him as if to steady himself or grope for something. Lamar will try to stop me, I thought. Damn Jeanine.
What if he slipped on his way down? I thought. That's all it would take. That's all it ever took. We were all so close to the edge. And we had to explain everything to each other, now that we were alone.
I sucked in my breath and said "Son of a bitch" as my right foot met the path awkwardly and the pain in my hip flared again. The moment passed, though, and I gritted my teeth, gripped the picnic basket harder and followed Christopher down.
The path leveled off now as we reached the shore. Christopher headed for the dinghy, outpacing me easily. The little bay lay quiet. Nobody was out. Only shells and driftwood littered the beach when I examined it. Nothing moved in the water, not even seaweed. It was still cool, but the early mist had nearly burned off already. Reaching the dinghy, I looked up at the madronas and the Douglas firs that ringed the beach. A mid-morning breeze pushed at their crowns, and mare's-tail clouds sailed high above them. We would have wind, and it would be from the southwest the direction of our prevailing winds, at least, hadn't changed so it would be behind us most of the way.
"Ha-ha-ha!" Christopher cried, pointing and dancing from one foot to the other. I turned around and saw Lamar stomping toward us over the beach from the far end, the sun shining off his dark bald head, a day pack on his back, his own semi-automatic slung over his shoulder.
"Morning," he called out. "Happy birthday, Christopher!"
Christopher smiled and held out the tin.
"Cookies," he said.
"Thank you!" said Lamar. He took a cookie and bit into it. "Good," he said, exaggerating his appreciation. Christopher laughed, and I held out my hand for the tin. His smile faltered. He gave me the tin and began walking away, up toward the tide line, where a few tree trunks had been thrown up as driftwood. He started picking up stones and looking at them.
"So," said Lamar. "Jeanine tells me "
"This is just me and Christopher," I broke in.
"Oh, come on," he said. "This is insane. It's insane! Really."
"Go home," I said.
"Tom, please. Give me a break, okay? You can't be even thinking about this."
"I don't need anybody telling me where to take my son," I said.
I set the picnic basket down on the sand. Rearranging the contents, I made room to put the cookie tin in between the apples.
"Well, in that case," said Lamar, "I'm coming with you."
"No, you're not."
"Yes, I am," he said. He and Jeanine were well matched, I thought. They both liked to make decisions for me. "You'll need some help with the boat, and you know it."
It had rained overnight, and the outside of the dinghy was still damp. Ignoring Lamar, I tried turning the boat right side up, but it was too much for me. He started helping me. What little paint was left on the gunwales ended up on our palms in flakes where we had grabbed the boat, and smudges of tar, from the improvised bottom paint, stained our fingertips. We wiped our hands on our shirts and shorts.
"You can't come," I said.
"I have to," he said.
I slung the basket into the dinghy.
"Why not at least someplace closer? We could go around to Friday Harbor so we're on the same island."
"Because," I said. "Because Stuart is where we used to go when he was a kid, okay? Because that's where I told him we're going, and he'll remember. Christopher!"
Christopher came lumbering back toward the dinghy, looking from one of us to the other.
"Is Lamar coming?" he said. Then he saw my expression. He didn't need a normal IQ to read it. "Okay," he said. "Sorry, Daddy."
I sighed and dropped the gun in the dinghy.
"You can help us get out to the boat," I said.
"Great," said Lamar. "Excellent. We'll talk about the rest of it when we get on board."
"Oh, for Christ's sake," I said. But Lamar had already checked the water and thrown his day pack into the boat, and was pushing it off the sand. I started helping as best I could. When the dinghy was afloat, its flat stern toward the shore, Lamar stood knee-deep in the water, holding the gunwales and looking around us, and I helped Christopher in, also keeping an eye on the water. Lamar held on until I could get in. Finally he pushed off and jumped in himself. He untied the oars and started rowing out to the mooring, where Safe Haven lay with her nose to the southwest, her transom still bearing her hailing port: Friday Harbor, Washington.
Getting aboard was another hassle. Lamar and I hadn't sailed since the previous fall, and the ladder was more awkward than I remembered. But somehow I got myself into the cockpit, took the food and guns from Lamar, and taught Christopher all over again how to climb aboard. Lamar started climbing aboard, too, but I stopped him.
"You're not coming," I said.
He looked up at me, one foot on the ladder and the other still in the dinghy, his leg bobbing up and down with the motion of the smaller boat.
"If you insist on doing something this crazy, you're not doing it alone," he said.
"I don't need help. Go home."
Christopher began climbing out of the cockpit onto the deck to explore the starboard side, away from me. I had to go after him and bring him back, and by the time I had him settled in the cockpit again, Lamar was aboard and had tied the dinghy to the stern. Seeing the look on my face, he pushed past me in order to go below with the food. I was still standing in the cockpit, trying to decide what to do about him, when he came back up. He went forward and began ratcheting the windlass to raise the anchor.
I couldn't do a thing, and he knew it. Not with my hip the way it was. And the truth was that I wasn't likely to do any better than having one person tag along I was lucky Jeanine hadn't volunteered herself. Lamar wouldn't be able to interfere with anything, not really. And Christopher's birthday was today, not tomorrow or some other day.
So I limped the few steps to the wheelpost, untied the line that kept the wheel from wandering, then turned the engine key and pressed the start button, praying it would work. It was an old late-twentieth-century Yanmar diesel that I hadn't been able to tune since the autumn, but after several coughs she turned over, and when I leaned over the stern, the water was burbling out of the exhaust line as it should. I checked the fuel gauge. There was enough.
Christopher sat quietly in the cockpit now, watching, his hands on his thighs, while I took the companionway doors off and turned the instruments on, grateful for the solar panels that were keeping these last batteries going; there wouldn't be any more of either when these gave out. Doing things helped keep my mind off the way Lamar was working at the windlass. I'd been able to do that myself until not so long ago.
Taking the mainsail cover off was especially difficult because it required so many changes of position, but finally I wrestled it down below. When Lamar signaled that the anchor was up, I put the engine in gear and turned us out of the bay.
"Nice day," he said, coming aft and getting the winch handles out of the cockpit lazarette.
"Yeah," I said, not looking at him. "Christopher, are you happy?"
He looked up and smiled. He always forgave me.
"Beautiful. My birthday," he said.
"Yes, it is," I said.
Lamar settled himself in the cockpit and started watching the water the way I was. We hadn't seen much in the past nine years, but you never knew.
Once we were out of the bay, I turned us into the wind, and Lamar went forward and raised the main, then came back and eased it to starboard as I bore off to a reach.
When I turned off the engine, Lamar unfurled the jib. In the sudden silence, the water sighed past, and the boat heeled in the old way. For a moment, it was ten years before. I was still captaining in the Pacific for three-month stints at a time, but I was between trips, and we were summering up here. Martha and Sherece were still alive. Jeanine was still the old-maid busybody across the road, and Lamar and I were taking Christopher for a Saturday sail with ham sandwiches that Martha had made.
Then I thought of the limp greens in the basket below. Chard. Broccoli. The difficulty of capturing rainwater for irrigation. It had been nine years, and I was still hungry. And tired. So tired.
"I wonder if Johanson ever came back to Stuart," Lamar said.
"Why? Owning it didn't make him stupid, just rich. He's in Iowa, or South Dakota."
"That won't do him any good in the long run," Lamar said.
Looking glumly at the water, I nodded.
At least Christopher was enjoying himself. He gasped with delight when we heeled harder, and clutched the gunwale behind him to keep from sliding to leeward.
As the mound of San Juan Island slipped past us to starboard, I looked to the west. In the distance, two sailboats flying the new Canadian colors were inching in front of Vancouver Island and the lesser Canadian islands. The way things were now, those places might as well have been ten thousand miles away. Lamar and I hadn't sailed there for six years, not since what now passed for governments had closed all national borders. Besides, at least here in the San Juans people knew my boat and wouldn't shoot at us.
The wind rose as we came farther out into Haro Strait and turned northwest, and for the next hour and a half it held steady. The cockpit's white fiberglass surfaces grew hot in the sunshine. Lamar and I watched the water off the sides, he looking to starboard and me looking to port by unspoken agreement, while Christopher, sitting on the port side, kept his face to the wind like a dog riding in a car, his eyes squinting shut with pleasure. Once we were past the small blob that was Henry Island, we headed due north for Stuart Island, and Lamar eased out both sails so we could run.
It was easy sailing, but not easy going.
A feeling of dread had come over me.
Lamar and I kept looking at the water, as if
we were capable of checking every inch of it.
As if our looking made a difference.
As if it would keep us from talking about anything important.
"According to Jeanine, you weren't too pleased about
the cookies," Lamar said eventually.
"I didn't say that," I said.
"She worked hard on them.
She only had one try to get them right."
"It was thoughtful of her," I said.
"Then why "
"Why what, Lamar?
Why does she irritate me? For the
same reasons she irritated me before you married her.
Because she's the same person she was.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
I busied myself with watching the water and checking the
sails. Christopher was stirring on his
cockpit bench, unhappy at the harsh words.
"I said, what's that supposed to mean?" Lamar
said. "This is about
Sherece, isn't it?
And Martha. Look, I'm sorry I
found somebody new. I'm sorry I
recovered. Was that wrong?
know it's not because Jeanine's white.
You'd never think that. So why?
You might have found somebody new, too.
You still could.
But I was no longer pretending not to listen.
I was pointing to port, just outside the leech
of the jib, where a dark shape rode the waves.
Turning to look where my finger led, Lamar saw the shape, looked back at
me, then out to the water again. He
"Jesus," he said.
"Jesus and Mary and Joseph and all the fucking saints.
Is it " he said.
"I don't know."
My hands were suddenly trembling so much I had to tighten them on the
wheel until my knuckles turned translucent and pale.
"We'll have to make a run for it, try to get back in
time to warn them," Lamar said.
"It won't do any good," I said.
The dark shape got larger.
"Steer close enough that we can tell," said
Lamar. His voice had risen.
I couldn't answer. My
face felt numb, and I was having trouble breathing.
I glanced down at Christopher.
Lamar's fear was affecting him.
If it came to it, I'd shoot Lamar and
Christopher both, but I didn't want Christopher to die being afraid.
"It's okay," I told him.
"We're just looking at something funny
in the water. Stay where you are."
He was still frozen on the cockpit bench, looking from me to
With our course as it was, the shape would be about fifty
yards to port as we passed. As best I
could see, it seemed flat and round, a dark brown.
I couldn't tell if what we were seeing was
the movement of the water, or something alive.
"Steer closer," Lamar said again.
Fine, I thought, and turned the boat to port.
"Too close! To
starboard!" Lamar yelled, and I swung the wheel to the right.
We almost jibed, and I swung back to port
just fast enough to make the boom snap back out instead of crashing to the
The shape bobbed by us.
I uncramped my hands from the wheel.
Lamar sat back down on the starboard bench
with a thump, and put his head in his hands.
A log, a huge one, still miraculously semi-floating from the
old days, when trees were still being cut down and occasionally fell into a
river and washed out to sea. This one
was almost completely under the surface.
If it had been a true deadhead, barely underwater and invisible from
above, it would have smashed the boat to pieces.
Christopher's mouth was in a round O of anxiety.
"Jesus," said Lamar.
"It's okay, Christopher," I said.
Christopher nodded several times, then leaned over and
patted the tops of Lamar's knees with both his hands.
Lamar gave him a weak smile and patted his
hands in return. I stayed at the wheel.
"I know you don't like to talk about it, but I've
always wanted to ask you about the end down there," Lamar said.
He meant Seattle.
Seattle, silent and abandoned. I
"I mean, you were there, and you saw the whole
thing," he went on. "The
panic. But I retired early, so I was up
here the whole time. And I never saw for
myself, because just about the time I was going to head down and say goodbye to
whatever friends were still there, we voted to make the ferries stay away and
everything just stopped, except for people like you bringing their own boats
back. To me, sometimes it seems like
none of it ever happened."
"It happened," I said.
"What was it that did it, though?" he said.
"Did they ever find out?"
Seattle. And someday
Stuart Island had appeared, a dark green line to
starboard. We needed to round the
northwest tip in order to reach along the lee of the far shore to the island's
small bay, so I steered five degrees farther north.
Lamar eased the main a smidge more, and
sheeted in the jib a little.
"No," I said.
"They never found out."
I remembered standing in City Hall as the Port of Seattle
managers gave their final press conference, watching as they let everyone
know. The fear on their faces.
We sailed on.
"Not that it matters," Lamar said.
I didn't answer. I
was thinking. The island loomed in front
of us now, a narrow strip of beach topped with a wall of huge rocks and
driftwood tree trunks, and above them the green of grass and
thinking, I headed up into the wind, had Lamar furl the jib, then bore off
again using the main only. We
hobby-horsed around the tip of the island, curving to starboard, the mainsail
moving forward to reveal the flat headland, above the piled rocks where the
harbor seals had sunned themselves until their fur turned silver, once upon a
time, before the world ended.
"Lamar," I said.
"Go below and get the lifejackets.
I want Christopher to have one on."
"Sure," he said.
The sun was in Christopher's eyes; he was squinting and
shading them as he peered up at me from his bench.
I took the little piece of line that I had
removed earlier and tied off the wheel so our course wouldn't change, and stepped
out from behind the steering post, looking down at Christopher.
In the shadows belowdecks,
Lamar's face was just beginning to turn toward me.
The sun was in his eyes, too.
But I was distracted; I had never tried to do anything like
this. While I'd been setting the wheel
so we would continue sailing around the headland, the wind was moving behind
us. With a sudden sharp report, as if a
giant hand had cracked us across the face, the boom swung to port and ripped
the main cleat out of the traveler track.
The line holding the wheel on course snapped.
I heard Lamar exclaim from down below.
The force yanked the starboard boom-brake line
out of its cleat, and the gooseneck fitting at the mast started to give way.
Swinging forward far beyond its normal range, the boom hit
the port masthead shroud. The steel
cable gave a sproinging sound, parting as if it had
been cut with a knife. The boom crashed
to the deck as the gooseneck gave way completely, and the mast uttered a groan
and began sagging to starboard.
Christopher's wondering, frightened face was just inches
below the boom when it swung forward. He
began to cry.
I tried to steer us away from the island, but we were caught
now in the eddies caused by the headland, and the boat was drifting toward the
"Lamar! Get up
here!" I yelled. I turned the key
to try to start the engine, but it wouldn't catch.
I tried again still nothing.
Lamar had found the life vests.
He threw them up into the cockpit, then the
picnic basket, then the two guns. Once
he was above-deck again, he manhandled Christopher into one vest, threw the
second one to me, and put the third one on.
The water was catching the hull broadside now and sweeping
us closer to the rocks, so it was a struggle to keep the boat from broaching,
especially because I was putting my life vest on while still trying to start
the engine. She surged with the waves,
closer each time. While I wrestled with
the wheel, Lamar climbed around me and pulled the dinghy in close.
He dropped the guns in.
"I'm going to get Christopher into the dinghy!" he
cried. The waves were very loud now.
One more surge, and then the rudder and the keel caught on
the rocks simultaneously. The boat
teetered upright for one moment as the water pulled away from the island.
Then, with a push that was almost gentle, the
next wave toppled the boat. I saw the
right side of the hull crack against the rocks.
I was still holding the wheel, and Christopher, who was to my left, fell
against me, breaking my hold. We both
fell against the starboard lifelines, which cut into my side.
My hip was screaming.
Lamar hung out of the cockpit from the wheel.
The boat was pulled partly off the rocks by the next outward
surge, then thrown against them again.
"Out! Get out of
the boat!" I yelled to Christopher, climbing out and half-lifting,
half-pulling him from the cockpit as the boat moved under us.
I barely knew what I was doing.
He cooperated as best he could, making little
protesting noises and clutching me. He
was still crying.
"Help me!" he said, and fell onto me.
Somehow we both got upright, but I could
hardly stand because of my hip.
Above us the mast and rigging were scraping against the
rocks, tangling themselves. A shroud
snagged on a mass of enormous driftwood tree trunks above us and pulled on
it. The tree trunks shifted, only ten or
fifteen feet over our heads. If we're
here twenty seconds from now, we'll be dead, I thought, and didn't move.
"Oh, God," Lamar said.
I had never heard his voice sound like that,
and it did something to me.
"Untie the dinghy," I said.
"We'll drag it up under the shrouds and
get it forward of them. Then we can put
it in the water again and float it over to that beach."
I pointed ahead to a small, scooped-out place
past the rocks, where there was less driftwood and the waves had beaten the
He retrieved the picnic basket and put it with the guns, but
couldn't get the dinghy up onto the rocks alone, so I had to help him even
though my hip was seizing up.
Christopher stopped crying and helped us pull the little boat under the
shrouds. As we got it free and bumped it
over the boulders back toward the water, the guns clattering in the bottom and
the picnic basket creaking, a larger wave took hold of Haven and smashed her
onto the rocks again.
The right side of the hull fractured and split.
The rigging collapsed.
We stopped what we were doing and stood
watching as seaweedy strands of shrouds and lines swayed
in the water around the pieces of the hull.
We could hear water gushing in and out of the hull like blood surging
through a broken heart valve.
"We'd better get over there where it's safe," I
finally said. Lamar nodded, and we
staggered with Christopher between us over to the little beach, Lamar towing
the dinghy behind him, the picnic basket lying askew inside, half-opened.
We hauled the boat up on the sand just above
the waterline. Then I sat down on a rock
and put my head on my knees, nauseous and cold stunned, the way I imagined
fish used to feel when they were hit on the head and taken out of the
water. Lamar sat down heavily beside me.
Christopher said, "I have to go to the
bathroom." He sounded tentative.
"Go ahead," I said automatically, raising my
head. "You remember how I showed
He nodded, and I said, knowing he was shy, "You can go
by yourself, but don't go far. Stay near
here, so you can see us."
"Okay," he said.
He gave me his life vest and climbed through a cluster of boulders that
lay between us and the wreck, along a dirt path leading up and away from the
Lamar sighed. His
knuckles bleeding, he rubbed his face.
"Jeanine will be going crazy," he said.
"What were you thinking?"
"We jibed," I said.
"Obviously," he said.
"What I'm talking about is why we
"It was a bad break," I said.
"No, it wasn't.
I saw you leave the wheel."
"I thought I saw something in the water."
I stood up.
"Now my wife is going to think I'm dead," he said,
"and we won't even be able to start back until tomorrow."
"I didn't ask you to come," I said.
"I've had it with you!" he shouted.
He stood up and ripped off his life vest and
used it to shove me in the chest. I
staggered back. "You and your
grief! I don't have a death wish, do you
I laughed, as if he had said something funny, and he slugged
me in the face. My legs collapsed under
me, sending me down on my hip.
"The tide's at slackwater
now," he said, breathing through his nose.
"I'm going to haul the dinghy up higher so it doesn't get taken
when the tide comes in. And then I'm
going to go see where your son is, not that you give a fuck."
I sat up.
"Fuck you," I said back, but he paid no attention
to me. He hauled the dinghy up to where
the sand was dry. He wrapped the painter
around a vertical boulder and tied it off.
Then he disappeared up the path Christopher had taken, through a
scree of rocks and up toward the top of the island.
I threw all three vests in the dinghy, took my gun out, and
struggled after him, limping badly. By
the time I reached the lip of the path, I was on my hands and knees.
But there was a grassy place where the path
ended, sloping upward to the headland, and I was able to stand up again there.
In the last century, there had been white deer living on
these islands, but they'd been removed decades before, and the grass was long
now. It rippled away from me to the
right, waterlike, and I heard Lamar's voice, carried
out to sea by the wind direction, calling Christopher's name from somewhere
below the far lip of the plateau. But
everything was open to view in that direction and Christopher needed
privacy. I turned left, the other way,
hobbling down the slope to where a fringe of madrona
trees stood blowing up and down in the wind.
He had finished peeing and was on his knees in front of a
boulder, his back to me. Even from
behind I could tell he was laughing.
"What do you have there?" I said.
He started and half-stood up, then crouched again, pointing
to the boulder.
"A funny thing," he said.
I moved closer. A
lizard lay there, gazing up at him. The
boulder was at the top of another slope, this one running down to the water in
a single continuous rush. Someone
standing here would have seen our boat approach the island.
Christopher put out his finger to the lizard.
His mouth was open.
The lizard didn't move.
Finally Christopher picked it up and held it
in his hand, making the gasping sound that meant he was so happy he couldn't
This is a good moment, I thought.
One of the best moments he's ever had.
Gripping the stock of the gun to hold it
steady on my back, I moved closer, carefully, trying not to startle him or the
lizard, and then paused, the wind gusts rocking me backward and forward.
The sun was losing itself in the dark of
Christopher's hair. I took another step.
But now there was a sound, something lower than the wind,
and I stopped. What was it?
Feeling my tension, Christopher glanced back
up at me, then beyond me. I turned around.
Lamar was standing there upslope from us,
watching. Watching me.
I heard the sound again, and hobbled over toward where I
thought it was coming from, through to where one of the madronas
butted up against two boulders.
There was a space between the boulders, and over the space
lay sticks, heaped thick to make a shelter.
It wasn't very large, no bigger than a one- or two-person tent.
The opening faced sideways to the wind.
Lamar had followed me, and so had Christopher.
He had left the lizard at the rocks.
"Stay back," I said.
But Christopher was already squatting in front of the
"Hello?" he whispered, as if echoing into a cave.
Lamar pulled Christopher away and crouched down.
"Oh, Jesus," he said.
He looked sick.
"Stay here," I said to Christopher, putting my
hand on his chest. Then I eased myself
down to the opening.
The man inside might have been forty, but he was too thin
for me to tell for sure. He lay in
tattered jeans and a filthy sweatshirt in a fetal half-curve, looking up at us,
his eyes blazing out of the shade, clutching what looked like a small hunting
knife. Empty paper wrappers surrounded
him. They might have contained food.
"Where are you from?"
"Is there anybody else with you?"
He blinked rapidly, then fixed his eyes on me again.
"Caneel," he said.
"Caneel is where you're
from?" I asked.
I'd never heard of it.
He shook his head no, but not very hard.
This was someone who was conserving
effort. He turned his head slightly to
the right and gestured with it.
I got up.
"Wait here," I said to Lamar, then limped back up
the grassy slope, where the man had gestured, back in the direction I had come
from, but close to the edge of the plateau instead of across the top.
A few hundred yards along, I saw a path that
wandered through a clutch of rocks to another outcropping.
I limped along the path, then where it met the boulders I
got down on my knees, which made my hip hurt even more, and crawled to the
outcropping, holding my breath. I could
hear the surf soaking the driftwood below.
The salt smell was strong. And
there was another smell, too.
They probably hadn't been dead all that long:
two men, one a little older than Lamar and
one about twenty. They lay facing up
side by side as if arranged there at the edge of the cliff, dressed almost
alike in jeans and plaid shirts rolled up at the sleeves.
The older man had scratches on his face.
There was a hole blown through the side of
his head and a bigger one out through his forehead.
Bugs were enlarging the openings.
The younger one had strangulation marks
around his neck, like a dark blue choke collar.
Their eyes were closed.
I stepped over them and looked over the edge, down at the
water. I was above the island's bay,
where we had been heading. Lying at
anchor was a boat a crude Clorox bottle of a sailboat, sloop rigged.
It was nothing as beautiful as Safe Haven,
but it looked intact. It was on the lee
side of the island, so it was both sheltered from the wind and hidden from our
view as we approached from the southwest, but if Lamar and I could have
continued walking along the shore something the rocks made impossible we
would have come across it.
I went back to the shelter.
"What?" Lamar asked.
"Christopher, why don't you take Lamar for a walk?"
I said, and jerked my head away from the direction of the bodies.
Christopher had been looking into the shelter as if the man
were a hurt kitten that he wanted to pat.
Now he smiled.
"Okay," he said, and took Lamar's hand.
Looking back at me, Lamar allowed himself to
be led away. I crouched down beside the
"Caneel," I said.
"Is that your father over there?
The one you shot?"
The man made a convulsive movement, and shook his head.
he said. "Caneel is my son.
Gip killed him."
"Gip is your father?"
"My brother. Older."
"Your older brother strangled your son, so you shot
"Where's the gun?" I asked.
"Threw it down in the water," he said.
"How'd it happen?"
He sighed, and shook his head.
"Gip went crazy," he
I know how he felt, I thought.
"Where'd you come from?" I asked.
He closed his eyes.
"No more water there."
This was the wrong place to come, I thought.
San Juan was the only island that had any
water anymore, and there wasn't much there.
"How long is it since you had anything to drink?"
He thought about it,
but finally shook his head.
"Don't remember," he said.
We sat together for a moment in silence, while I thought
about what had happened to him. What he
had done. I also thought about what San
Juan Island would do to me and Lamar if we brought anybody back with us.
"Three days," he said, breaking the quiet.
Three. I think."
"Three days you've been here?"
"Why didn't you leave after what happened, and sail over to the San
Juans? Or back
to the Gulf Islands? Your boat's still
He shook his head.
"Don't want to leave Caneel,"
he said, and looked away. He closed his
eyes and went to sleep.
I went after Lamar and Christopher.
They were at the high northern edge of the
island, walking together along the edge of the bluff, where the plateau widened
out and then began sloping down to the water more gradually.
Christopher wandered off by himself, looking
at things in the grass and making exclamations.
Lamar came over to me, but I saw no warmth in his eyes.
"They were from Galiano,"
I said. "They came for water.
His brother flipped out and killed this guy's
son, so he killed the brother."
"Really," said Lamar.
"You self-righteous son of a bitch," I said.
"I love him.
I love Christopher.
He's my son, you asshole.
You haven't had to take care of him all these
years. With this hip."
"I know I haven't walked in your shoes "
"Thank God for that, you'd be even more sure of
yourself," I said.
" but I'm not going to let you harm that boy."
We stared at each other.
I took the gun off my shoulder and aimed it at him.
"How dare you presume to tell me "
"Oh, I forgot the heaviness of your burden," he
said. "The depth of your
"Martha had "
"I know what she had.
Have I ever told you how much blood Sherece
vomited while she was dying? Every
night. I would take out buckets of it
when the sun came up and go pour it in the woods.
I felt like I was burying a body every time I
did it. I don't even know how she lasted
into the fall."
"You didn't wait long once she was gone, did you?"
"I didn't know how much time I had."
"Not much," I said.
"How did you get into this spiral?
We would have helped with Christopher
whenever you wanted, but you cut us off.
Are you going to shoot me?"
"Go ahead," he said, putting his hands up.
"Remember, Christopher is watching."
"Just so you know: everything that happened was because
of me. I'm not doing this because of no
damned reason at all," I said, and took the safety off the way Larry
Nelson had taught us.
"Everything that happened was because of the industrial
revolution and all that that implies," said Lamar.
"My ship "
"We tried," I said.
"We kept inspecting and scrubbing."
"Stop delaying," said Lamar.
Out of the corner of my eye I could see Christopher, bent
over poking at something in the grass.
"I thought we were clean.
I thought we'd gotten everything.
But I was doing a final look-over and we
found a nest of well, they were closest to jellyfish, except not.
They had gotten inside the drive shaft, don't
ask me how. They shot out of there and
it took us six hours to track them down and catch them.
Two of the crew got bitten and died.
When we finally got them all we notified the
port and turned them in, but we knew it was too late.
They couldn't have been the only ones."
Lamar lowered his hands.
"Everything we didn't have when Sherece
was sick, everything Martha needed, all of it.
It's because I brought them to Seattle.
And Oregon. The whole coast.
And everyplace east of here."
"Tom," said Lamar.
"Tom. That's not true."
"Shut up," I said, moving closer.
I pressed the end of the barrel against his
forehead. "Shut up with your
fucking optimism. It makes no
He touched the barrel, then put his hand out toward me.
"Tom. For all
you know, you didn't bring them from anyplace.
They were already there. If it
wasn't you, it would have been somebody else.
They would have climbed up the anchor chain on some other ship.
Or something else would have.
A container ship, anything.
It was inevitable.
How could it have been avoided?"
I turned the gun around and started to put the barrel in my
mouth, but Christopher came up just then and moved in and put his arms around
me. His cheek, pressing on mine, had
been warmed by the sun. His hair got in
my eyes and I couldn't see anything.
I sighed, and sighed again.
I didn't want to let the gun go, but Lamar pried my fingers from the
barrel, one after another, so he could take it away.
I put my hands on Christopher's back, the back
I had rubbed when he was two and we were still hoping he was normal.
I realized I was rubbing it again now.
"Don't cry, Daddy," he said.
Everything ends, I thought.
But please, not yet.
We stood there for a few minutes.
Then he finally let me go, and we patted each
other a little.
"Would you like to have your picnic now?" I said,
wiping my face dry.
"Cookies!" he said.
"Can the man have some, too?"
So the three of us went down to where the dinghy still lay
tilted on the beach, and pulled the basket out.
Lamar and I carried it together because it was starting to fall apart,
and Christopher carried Jeanine's tin.
The cookies had broken into pieces, but you could still eat them.
When we reached the shelter, the man was still asleep.
I woke him up, and his eyes snapped open.
"We brought you something to eat," I said.
He didn't seem to understand, so Lamar and I had to take the
knife away from him and pull him half out of the shelter and prop him up
against the edge of it, like an exhausted hockey goalie after a lost game.
Christopher wanted to feed him, so we handed Christopher
torn-off pieces of chard and he helped the man put them in his mouth.
He fed him the better part of a cookie,
too. The man cooperated for the most
part, but after a few minutes he shook his head and wouldn't take any
more. Christopher continued to sit on
the ground next to him, patting the man's leg.
"What's your name?" Lamar asked him.
The man seemed to go into a fog.
"Caneel," he said.
"No, that's your son's name," I said. "What's your name?"
"Peter," he finally said.
We all sat there for awhile in the still sunlight.
We finished Jeanine's cookies.
I could hear Christopher chewing.
Lamar fell asleep.
Then Christopher curled up on the ground next
to Peter and started snoring. Peter
watched me, and I watched him, but we said nothing.
Finally I got up and walked to the west.
I knew we needed to get going; the day was
still bright, but the sun was past its zenith now and beginning to drop.
The wind had dropped, too.
I looked out over the water, the water that had so changed,
that no longer held fish for Peter to eat after losing his son and killing his
brother. Not that he cared.
I thought about what he had gone through in
the last few days, alone here.
A dark line lay on the water, far away.
It looked like the tide line, the languid
froth that marks the edge of the water's surge.
The tide line is broken, though, with water between one patch of light
debris and another. This was a solid
mass, like a black snake rippling across sand, much bigger than what we had
seen on the way here. Much bigger.
I stood there alone for a moment.
Then my body seemed to change and separate as
the blood left my head, and I fell to my knees.
I put my head down and tried to remember to breathe.
hey. What's going on?"
It was Lamar.
I was breathing hard.
He helped me sit up, and I pointed.
He looked for awhile, and I could hear the little weepy sounds that he
tried to conceal. Then he cleared his
"Do you want to talk to Peter," he said, "or
"I'll do it," I said.
Lamar and Sherece
had never had children.
We woke up Christopher and packed up the picnic basket, and
Lamar left the gun with me and got Christopher to help him take the basket down
to the dinghy.
"Is Peter coming?" Christopher said as they left.
"I don't know yet," I said.
"I'll be right there."
Once they had gone, I sat down next to Peter.
"It's coming, Peter," I said.
He turned his head to me.
"It doesn't matter," he said.
"I'll be gone soon."
"I wish you hadn't fed me," he said.
"I was almost there."
"I'm sorry," I answered.
"My son was with us, there wasn't
anything I could do."
I let a few seconds go by, to see if he would say it, but he
didn't seem to have the energy.
"Listen," I said.
"I could leave you here like this, or I could end it now.
But you know we can't take you with us.
We barely have enough water on the island as
He nodded. I wondered
if he would tell me. I hoped he didn't
want me to shoot him. After everything
that had happened, I didn't think I could do it.
Finally he gave a kind of groan, and said, "Take me
He was light in my arms, but my hip made it difficult to
carry him. But somehow I took him over
to where the two bodies were and laid him down between them.
I put his son's hand in his.
He looked up at me, and seemed as peaceful as
the two dead men.
"Goodbye," I said.
I backed away, then hobbled down the path as fast as I
could. Lamar had the dinghy loaded and
in the water, and stood waiting with the painter in his hand.
Christopher was in the stern already.
I climbed in and sat in the bow.
"Where's Peter?" asked Christopher.
"He's not coming with us this time, Chris," I
said, while Lamar was climbing in.
"Maybe we'll come back and see him on another visit."
Lamar rowed us around the point, and there was the sailboat,
plain and somewhat dirty: Peter's Folly.
She had no engine. We tied up to
her and stowed the remaining food and the guns below, and then Lamar hauled up
the anchor by hand. Because of the
wind-sheltered location, we had to use a line to swing her bow eastward, away
from the shore, then work the jib back and forth in order to get going a
complicated maneuver that had Lamar rowing back to shore, pulling the boat
around by walking along the shore, then running back to the dinghy and
returning to the boat as Christopher laughed and clapped his hands.
It felt like forever before we developed some
way, so that we could let the jib out. A
few minutes after that, we raised the main, but I wasn't sure there was any
point, since there was no wind to speak of.
As on Haven, Lamar handled the sails and I steered, while Christopher
sat in the cockpit.
We sailed slowly for an hour, and thought hoped we
might outrun the tide. We wanted at
least to be the ones to bring the news to the island.
But it was a small boat, we had lost time,
and the wind still hadn't come back up.
And so it was that we looked behind us finally and saw the darkness
approaching on the water's surface.
"Look!" he said.
"What is it?"
"A funny kind of fish," I said.
"Can we see?"
"Not yet," I said.
"They'll catch up to us."
Lamar went below and got both of the guns, then got the long
boathook from the cabintop.
We both sat there in the slow sunshine,
watching Christopher and trying not to let him realize we were watching
him. And watching the water.
As the dark line got closer, I picked up my gun and took the
safety off, the way I had done on the island.
I had feared some supersnake, a
monster riding the tide. But no.
Instead, a catalogue of the destruction that
lay in the seas outside: heavy ropes of seaweed, a dark ugly blue, like flayed
bruises; bones darkened by slime; long pieces of wood, so rotted they waved
back and forth in the water; patches of flesh slimed to a coating that lay on
the debris; crablike shells; things that had been alive but that I couldn't
recognize. In one place a vast dark
hulk, the body of something nearly as big as a whale, supported enough debris
to fill a house. It was all familiar,
yet not identifiable.
And it had reached the rudder, a river of debris.
It began surrounding the boat.
Shells and wood clacked against the hull.
"Where's the fish?" Christopher asked.
"They're all dead," said Lamar.
But they weren't. Not
the faceless things that I suddenly saw moving up the rudder, all claws and
snap, a foot and a half across. Not many
of them, four or five, but they were so fast a scuttle and a leap, and they
Christopher, taken aback, mewed like a kitten and pulled
away from them.
no, no!" I said. I dropped the gun
and grabbed the boathook to pin one of them to the bottom of the cockpit.
It made a growling sound up at me, and tried to snap at my foot, then
its carapace cracked sharply. I drove
the boathook through it and finally it stopped moving.
I heard the
gun chatter, louder than I'd ever expected.
Lamar had shot one on the foredeck, scoring the fiberglass with furrowed
Another leaped onto Lamar's back, and I swept it off with
the boathook and then pounded, pounded, pounded as it snarled and writhed,
until it was nothing but a mess on the deck.
suddenly screamed, a high-pitched sound I hadn't heard since his mother's
death, his arms rigid and held away from his body.
Terror had twisted his face.
One of these awful creatures had fastened itself to his chest.
Blood was dripping down onto his shirt.
Lamar and I both grabbed the thing and ripped it away.
Some of his shirt and a piece of his flesh
came away with it, leaving a wound three inches long.
We tried to fling the creature to the deck,
but it had grabbed Lamar's hand. I heard
something crunch and he gasped.
"Oh, God, get it off me, get it off, get it off,"
he said, piercingly.
I pulled Lamar's hand down to the cockpit bench and then
stamped the thing. Lamar screamed, and I
stamped again, then harder. Finally the
shell cracked and I smashed it to mush and splinters.
I had to pry the claw off Lamar's hand.
He collapsed to the bench and clutched his
I stood up and looked around wildly, the boathook in my hand
But they were gone.
The mass passed us by, leaving a ring of slime as if the boat were an
I dropped the boathook and pulled Christopher into my
arms. He was crying, clutching his
chest. I took my shirt off and wound it
around him to stop the bleeding, while Lamar rocked back and forth with his
hand around his wrist.
"Tell me they were just outliers," he said.
"Tell me we got this batch."
"Maybe," I said.
"I think so. Seems like . .
. an inkling. Not the real thing."
We looked after the line, wavering and shifting on the
water's surface as it moved ahead of us.
Christopher continued to sniffle.
"I wonder how much time we'll have," Lamar finally
I stroked Christopher's hair.
"A few months, maybe?" I said.
"Something like that."
"We should go back and get Peter."
I shook my head.
"He wanted to stay.
I would have, too."
And so we sailed home, home to tell the island the story of
what had happened that day . . . most of it, anyway.
And to make as much as we could of the time
that was left, before the rest of it came before I would have to do what I
had set out to do, to save Christopher from something worse than me.
Christopher still talks about Peter sometimes, when I read
him a story in the afternoon or when we tend the rhododendron that we planted
on Martha's grave planted it even though we won't be here next spring, and
maybe the rhododendron won't be, either.
I tell Christopher that Peter went to be with his son.
That's something Christopher
understands. And so, now, do I.
For as much time as we have.
It won't be too long now.
It's summer already.
Karen Fishler made her debut with "Miko," which appeared in the Autumn, 2003 issue of The Third Alternative. "Safe Haven" is her second published story, and she has several scheduled to appear over the next few months: look for "Country Life" in Realms of Fantasy in the summer of 2004, and "Mission Memory" in an upcoming issue of The Third Alternative. She is a 1998 graduate of Clarion West, and lives in West Seattle, which is not named for the workshop.
Tamara Vining, who contributed the art for "Safe Haven", is a video producer, artist, musician, poet, living legend, and much, much more. Ask her about computer viruses. Find her in Seattle.