Admit it: You’ve thought about it. From your favorite horror/sci-fi movies to very real diseases that have devastated populations around the world, the threat of an overpowering widespread illness is ever-present.
In Michael Stark’s book, The Island, William Hill knows his chances of survival are slim. Instead of trying to outrun The Fever—an illness that is plaguing the world—he’s decided to pick the place in which he will die: an island that's provided him some of his best memories. But as he sets sail for what he assumes will be his final destination, he gets unexpected company in the form of an elderly woman and her great grandson. And what he certainly didn’t bank on was becoming humanity's last hope for survival.
Read on for an excerpt from The Island – Complete Collection, and then download the book.
The moment the bow cut through the water, I forgot about Dwight Little’s fury and Daniel’s odd, knowing eyes. Neither could wash away the sense of freedom that came with pulling away from the dock, of shedding the trappings of society and leaving them behind. The world would keep turning. The people on it would continue to squabble over everything from land to taxes, to what some ate and others smoked. The debates, the blame games, and the finger-pointing would still rage. Even a deadly infection threatening to wipe the earth slick couldn’t shelve humanity’s instinctive need to gripe, complain, and hate. Some would undoubtedly die. Some would probably live. The only certainty I carried with me devolved to a simple belief that as long as more than one survived, the infighting would continue.
Along with the freedom, came a heightened sense of responsibility. The same society that offered all the ill-will, also offered protections—people like Dwight Little when he was actually doing his job and preserving the peace, like doctors and EMTs only a phone call away. I knew even as the excitement swelled that the farther I went, the more responsibility I bore, not only for my life, but of the two hitchhikers aboard.
I kept the needle on the compass centered squarely between north and east. Navigating on water had little in common with driving a car, where the course taken was determined by roads laid out in connections that looked like a giant spider web. Travel on water tended to be much more fickle, with wind, water, and weather conditions not only playing huge roles in laying a course, but often determining whether or not you could go at all. Unlike cars that travel on surfaces graded out for them, boaters also have to take depth into account. Water too deep rarely presents a problem. On the flip side, shallow water often equated to jittery nerves and cautious maneuvers.
History had littered both books and coastlines with shipwrecks where the fatal blow didn’t come from giant waves, but rather running into the bottom, a fact driven home with a punctuation mark in personal terms on a trip with my father years before. We‘d been coasting along in a lake situated high in the mountains of North Carolina. Just ahead, off to the starboard side, a small buoy marked a sandbar near the surface. A speedboat coming up from behind had swung right instead of left where deeper water would have carried them past us. Instead the boat had struck bottom about a hundred yards ahead, the impact ripping the motor off its mount. The two men inside had been thrown forward with one suffering severe lacerations after running face first into the windshield.
Elsie had commented on Angel not being suitable for the open ocean. She wasn’t. That fact played in her favor in the waters of the sound. The boat carried a keel that could be raised or lowered from a hand crank located inside near the sink. Keel down, her draft ran almost four feet. Keel up however, and she could float in a foot of water. Taking her into the deep swells of the open ocean wouldn’t just be stupid, but borderline suicidal. She hadn’t been designed to ply the seas. She’d been built to run along the coast and gunk hole in bays and estuaries. That she did exceedingly well.
A mile or so ahead lay a channel carved out of the bottom by the Army Corps of Engineers that sliced deeper water across the sound. Elsie wanted to go to the north side of the island. The cut ran directly across to the southern end where the flow of currents in and out of the inlet had carved a natural groove along backside of the island. We could take that route to the old village if we could find it.
With the keel up, Angel might have been able to take a more direct northeast course. She could make headway in less than a foot of water, but the thought of trying to work my way across shifting sandbars with night closing in didn’t set well. Nor did I want to be put in a situation where changing tides left us either grounded or me in knee-deep waves trying to push her out after she hit bottom.
The more I thought about heading north, the less I liked my options. The only bright spot I could find in the messy water ahead related to distance. If disaster struck, at least we wouldn’t be bogged down miles from land.
Daniel stepped up into the cockpit and canted his head back toward the cabin, his life preserver firmly locked into place. Leaning out to look past him, I saw Elsie’s diminutive figure clad in day-glo orange moving about inside the boat.
I pointed to the tiller.
“Want to drive for a while? I need to get the GPS and depth finder mounted.”
As strange and mature as he seemed, I had no idea what type of response I’d get. I shouldn’t have worried. Daniel quickly proved he still had some boy in him.
“Me? Sure, I’ll drive.”
I climbed out of the pilot’s seat and motioned for him to take my place. Once he’d settled in, I passed over the tiller and pointed to the compass.
“See that red line? That’s our direction of travel. Keep it halfway between north and east, or halfway between the N and the E.”
I made my way over to the compass and put my finger on the dial. “Right here, that’s where we want this tall red line to be. I’ll watch for the buoys marking the channel. Once we get there, I’ll set Angel on a new course. You can steer some then too if you want.”
He settled back and grabbed the tiller with an air of importance. I should have warned him. Tiller-steering doesn’t take well to a heavy hand. The instant he pulled on it, Angel swung abruptly to the left.
“Easy,” I told him. “It doesn’t take much and remember, the tiller turns the boat the opposite way. Push it left, she turns to the right. Pull it toward you, she goes left. Just ease her back now, slow.”
I waited while he brought the boat back in line and nodded.
“There you go. See? It’s not hard. Just watch the compass and you’ll be fine.”
He nodded intently, staring at the little red marker as if afraid it would disappear. I fought back a grin. The last thing I had to worry about was venturing off course. Daniel would fret over a degree or two of variation—at least until he realized that manning the helm was actually a chore. I watched him for a moment and then figured I’d better get busy while his interest held.
The GPS and the depth finder both had permanent mounts on the bulkhead outside the cabin. I set them in place, hooked up the power to both units and plugged the transducer cable into the depth finder. Both flared to life with bright screens, the GPS in full color, the other in black and white. The depth meter instantly noted a water depth of six feet and began running a continuous scan of the bottom drawn in a thick dark line across the gray background. The blips floating by marked fish swimming underneath.
The initial reading indicated that Angel was making about five knots, surprising since the throttle was still stuck at about one-third.
With that done, I crawled back atop the cabin roof. The box containing Dad’s chopped-down dune buggy had two straps running across it, securing it on either side to cleats mounted specifically for the task. I checked to make sure they were tight, then went forward and wound up the dock line I’d tossed on the deck earlier. I double-checked the head stay while I was there, taking an extra turn on the turnbuckle.
Satisfied that nothing would slide off or come crashing down on my head, I moved up to the pulpit and gazed out over the sound. We’d left just before noon. The high angle of the midday sun kept most of the glare off the water, with only occasional flashes marking the passage of the short waves. No more than fifty yards ahead, a green buoy marked the edge of the channel.
I turned and headed back to the cockpit. Daniel still sat with his eyes glued to the compass.
“The channel is just ahead. Start bringing her around to starboard.”
He looked up confused. I pointed to the right side of the boat.
“That way, slow and easy.”
Angel swung around in a gentle arc, the compass needle sliding from north east to dead east as she turned. About halfway through the turn, the depth meter suddenly dropped to twelve feet. I climbed up on the cockpit seat and looked ahead. A heavy wooden post rose from the water about a quarter mile ahead. Above the high tide mark, a red triangle identified the next channel marker. I looked back at the green one we’d just passed and estimated the width of the channel to be a hundred, maybe a hundred and fifty yards wide.
“Keep the red line on the E,” I told Daniel, again using my finger on the compass dial to point out the new heading. He nodded and went back to staring at the dial. I sighed as I realized that I’d have to keep an eye out myself. The boy might keep the boat on course, but he would run over another vessel in the channel without ever seeing it.
“Aren’t you going to put on your life preserver?” he asked without taking his eyes from the compass. I looked back at the one he had laid on the cockpit seat for me and grimaced. I hated the things.
“Everyone on a boat should wear them,” the boy said solemnly.
Elsie stuck her head up from the companionway. “That’s right. Everyone should, even you, Hill William. Now, how about I turn on some music and fix us some lunch?”
She looked up at me.
“I’ll cut some slices off one of the FOUR hams I found down here. You need a better diet, boy. By my reckoning, fifty pounds of potatoes, six pounds of butter, and a sack of lemons make up most of your food.”
“There’s more than that down there,” I protested. “The forward berth is full of stuff and there’s a cooler full of meat under the starboard bunk.”
She crinkled her nose. “I said most of your food. Yes, there’s more, but half of what you’re gonna eat is right there in them three things I said.”
I spread my hands out wide. “Yeah, and those things go well with seafood. I wasn’t joking when I told the sheriff I was going fishing.”
She snorted and disappeared inside the cabin. A few seconds later, the Beach Boys boomed from the interior, all of them wanting to go to Aruba, Jamaica, and desperately pleading with a pretty girl to go along with them.
I don’t know where she found the radio station, but the tunes rolling out of the cabin could have been advertised as solid gold from the seventies and eighties. By the time Elsie stepped up into the cockpit, Bob Marley had extolled the virtues of simple life with “Three Little Birds,” and Creedence Clearwater Revival had everyone tapping their feet to “Down on the Corner.”
The music washed away the somber atmosphere that had permeated the boat ever since we’d pulled away from the dock. I’m no singer, but the songs proved too catchy to stay silent. Even Daniel, who spent most of his time at the tiller looking like a figure from a wax museum, started swaying and bobbing.
Elsie passed up a plate full of ham and cheese sandwiches and a bag of chips. Once I’d taken them, she followed the food with a jug of iced tea I picked up in Morehead City earlier that morning. She cranked the volume down a few notches and then joined me and the boy in the cockpit.
The next twenty minutes or so is seared into my memory as one of the last best moments before the fall. The day could not have been better. Small cotton-ball clouds dotted an otherwise clear, Carolina-blue sky. Angel gleamed in the bright sunlight. The tiny waves on the sound glittered like diamonds, tossing shards of light from their shoulders as they passed. The temperature couldn’t have been much over eighty, with enough wind to keep the heat down and the bugs away. Behind us, the mainland hovered on the horizon like a strip of gold with fall colors glowing in the late autumn sun.
I kept watch for the buoys while we ate and talked, nudging the tiller right or left as needed in order to cling to the narrow strip of deep water. Elsie had finally brought Daniel to life, regaling him with stories of her early years growing up on Portsmouth Island.
I could have taken a year of such days, even better, a lifetime of them. The same radio that crafted such a feel-good atmosphere, however, also took it away.
Just as I picked up the last bit of my sandwich, the music faded. The announcer, who’d been cranking out hits in a voice that sounded like he’d rolled a joint the size of Texas on the way to work disappeared, replaced by a woman whose crisp, clear tones sliced away the laid-back atmosphere. Where the DJ had blended feel-good music in a smooth voice free of worries, the woman had us all straightening up in our seats:
This is Christine Arapaloe. We have a news bulletin to pass on. Stand by please.
This just in from the AP: Overnight reports across the nation have been bleak, with estimates as high as 2000 people succumbing to The Fever in the past twenty-four hours. As many as 20,000 more reported to hospitals last night with symptoms consistent with the disease. California and Arizona still lead the nation in both infection rates and mortality rates. New figures show that the virus is gaining a foothold. New York, Georgia, Illinois, Ohio, and North Carolina have all reported sharp increases in the number of patients arriving in Emergency Rooms with the flu-like symptoms. Mortality figures from those five states represent a third of all deaths reported yesterday.
Officials believe the scattered nature of the Fever is related to airport hubs located in the affected areas. As of nine a.m. this morning, The Fever has been identified in 40 of the 48 states in the continental U.S. No official estimate of the potential impact has been released as yet.
Just minutes ago, CDC spokesperson, Ann Trankin, released a statement indicating that the disease may be evolving. Recent cases in California have shown a troubling increase in aggressive behavior occurring in the later stages of the infection. Hospitals in Los Angeles and San Diego issued guidelines yesterday advising that patients be restrained in their beds as the disease progresses.
Authorities are asking residents to stay home and to eliminate all travel that is not absolutely necessary.
A press release from the White House this morning indicated that the president will hold a news conference this afternoon at four p.m. to address the issue with the nation.
We will broadcast it live. Stay tuned here for the most up-to-date news.
Silence reigned for a long moment, both on the radio and the boat. Then the doper came back and introduced the Three Dog Night. I’d lost my taste for the music though. Elsie apparently had too. She rose and headed below. The radio clicked off moments later.
The Fever had been like a monster storm, clinging to the horizon for some time. The day Elsie and her grandson rode across Core Sound with me marked the day that the clouds opened. What rained down out of them wasn’t water, but a version of hell on earth straight out of a horror writer’s nightmares.
That day marked the beginning of the end. What no one knew in that moment was that within an unbelievably short period of time, at least half of the people standing next to them would be gone.
None of us knew we’d be more afraid of the dark than the disease either.
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