Eyes locking on that final boat, you notice every detail simultaneously and with perfect clarity.
The weight of the pack on your back. Filled to the brim with provisions that are familiar, the metal clasp strains against them, threatening to slip and unleash everything meant to sustain you—and more importantly, her—against the unknown, a future growing darker with each slipping second. The pack feels weightless compared to the pressure within you, pressing down against you, fueled by fear. Move faster, it tells you. Run harder. Don’t slip against the rocks, keep focusing on the boat, ignore the shots echoing behind you, much too close, now.
Ignore the screams, too.
Sweat covers you, sticking to your skin, making you crave the caress of the murky waters that slap the belly of the boat; a boat you need to reach to leave the shore. A risky plan, exposing yourself so openly. As soon as you enter that boat, you will have no other option. You can only flee. But isn’t that what you’re doing? Fleeing?
Her hand slips slightly, your soaked palm threatening to betray you.
Without taking your eyes away from the boat, you tighten your fist, resecuring your hold. She stumbles, but her panting confirms she still follows you. Her panting is a drumbeat, pushing you forward, competing against the pounding of your heart; a pounding that tells you to stop, to give up, to turn around and surrender. Where will you go? The ship that can only be reached by boat is only a rumor—a rumor everyone else has chased, the empty harbor tells you. All the boats that once littered the shore have vanished. But to safety or to nest in the seabed? You can’t know. You don’t want to know.
You swear you can feel something fly past you, corrupting the air unnaturally.
You cough against the sudden cloud of smoke, confirming your suspicions.
They are close, now.
They can’t have her.
You run harder.
Ignore the pain in your lungs. Stop attempting to calculate the distance between you and them. Don’t think about how they are closing in; how she is the slower runner, so she’ll be killed first. You can’t help that. You can only protect so much. You can only ignore the fear for so long before you’re unable to resist.
You match your footsteps to her labored breath.
She’s still with you.
She’s still with you.
Focus on the boat. It rocks against the soft current, the sunny sky a betrayal to the horrors going on around you. How can its heat warm you while also boiling fresh blood sprinkled with sand? How can it continue to exist when everything else has been broken? How can it shine since they arrived?
You swallow and taste bile. But at least you can taste something. Your stomach might grumble, but at the same time, you can’t be sure. It’s been acting weird since you haven’t been able to eat. You’ve lost count how many days you hid amongst the bodies, pretending to not breathe. How were you supposed to know they could go four days without sleep, guarding? You only know miracles. A narrow escape the night before they burned the pile you hid within, staring into the eyes of the wife you failed, the entire time praying your daughter hadn’t left her hiding spot; that she hadn’t been shy about eating the food and water you’d gathered before getting separated. Your eyes gloss over, blurring the image of the floating boat, remembering how tiny your daughter felt when you wrapped her frail body in your arms, silencing her cries with a stern hand over her lips. Undeserved sternness. You only wanted to collapse in joy, but they were still around you. You had to escape with the dawn. You had to make for the ship you didn’t think existed; the ship that over half the population left to seek days before, when they first arrived, after they first killed.
Why had it taken the murder of your wife and the risk of your daughter’s life for you to take a chance?
100 feet, now.
Another shot whizzes past, this time on your left. Your daughter’s surprised scream shakes you, but you can’t look back. Look back and you’ll see them. You’ll lose hope. You’ll give up. Keep pushing forward. You have to know. You have to make it.
Shouts intermix with the screams that you block out, somehow making them sound louder.
Your grip tightens once again, your hold on her hand constantly fighting your own sweat. A squeeze answers in return, her pants tightening to wheezing. To stop and carry her would cost too much time. She has to stay strong. She has to make it. She has to stay with you.
The tang of salted water washes out the putrid scent that has overrun the island. You don’t realize how much of a blessing this is. Decaying bodies are what you’ve become used to. The water, even dirtied and murky, suddenly becomes the most beautiful and pure thing in existence, in your mind. And you are close to reaching it. You are close to getting her to safety. Once in the boat, you can shield her with your back, even if it isn’t as broad as it once was. You can still protect her. You are still enough for that.
You lick your lips, your cotton mouth making it hard to swallow. You pick up the pace, knowing you increase the chance of slipping against the rocky beach and breaking a bone, cementing your deaths as easily as any bullet. But you’re so close. The boat is powered. A single push of a button and you will travel across the sea with the speed of flight. All you have to do is throw your daughter in the boat and have her press the button. You’ll be her shield, whether you make it into the boat or not. You just have to make it.
It’s not you that slips.
The pressure of her fingers digging into your wrist evaporates the same moment your head is left ringing from her strident cry. Your bag, the same level of salvation as the boat you can almost touch, flies off your shoulder as you turn. You never notice the smashed fruit that suddenly decorates the shoreline, only to be taken by the water seconds later. Finally, your locked gaze on the boat is broken and the boat flickers.
The hologram on the wall flickers in quick succession, blacking out multiple times before the solid, stationary image of a First Generation Flyer (Rowboat Edition), sitting atop a dark ocean, becomes clear again.
Clear and unmoving.
You glance around the room. The room. You’re not on the beach anymore. You’re safe. Your hands are dry. You swallow with ease, surrounded by silence and the faint aroma of lavender. Alone.
You scream as you throw yourself at the hologram on the wall, betrayal curling your toes as your fists pound the wall.
“I was promised!” you scream.
The hologram never breaks, only flickers, no matter how hard you pound. The boat remains pictured. The images it never reflected, but were triggered in your mind, remain at the forefront of your thoughts. You still can’t remember her face. Why can’t you remember her face? Why can’t you remember how she was killed? Why…
You are unaware of how long you pound against the wall. You are unaware how long it takes you to collapse onto the ground, your fists bloodied and your forearms bruised, panting like she did when you ran. The incomplete memory makes you spasm, your hand clutching against your shirt and pulling it, trying to physically rip the pain away. When you begin to cry, it is a mixture of sorrow and anger; sorrow at your daughter’s death and anger that you don’t know how she died; anger that you are unaware of everything that happened since she slipped.
You’d cry harder if you realized she was with them. Watching.
About Nicole Evans
Nicole Evans is a writer of fantasy and science fiction. She is currently unpublished and is working fervently to get the “un” removed from that statement. With eight completed drafts in various states of revision under her belt, she has no plans of stopping. And she really can’t wait for you to read these stories.
Considering she has run out of space for putting rejections letters up on her wall, Nicole now uses her spare time doing the typical things that nerds do: blogging, dying repeatedly during video games (which she believes is retribution for the characters’ she’s killed), wishing she was the character she is currently reading about and trying to fight off the real world by living in her own head, with varying degrees of success. Nicole has a degree in Creative Writing and a minor in Film and Media Studies, and works as an evening librarian assistant. You can find her personal blog here and her book review blog here. You can read all of her Muses stories here.