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Short Story: Westward Wind

Updated: Feb 21


Westward Wind was originally published in 2009 by Sex and Murder magazine.


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By now, they were all dead. When it first started, a doctor on television explained that it was a virus, a type that no one had ever seen before. The church said it was the End of Days—that the Lord was judging us for our sins. The tabloids claimed it was a plague started by alien invaders. I suppose any of them could have been right.


 ***


I looked out over the bow of the sailboat. Natalie lay on a towel baking in the sun. It was a warm and clear July day with a steady breeze coming from the east over the wide blue Atlantic. I sipped the margarita and wished for the thousandth time we still had some ice. The mix was syrupy sweet and had warmed in the sun, but the tequila was top shelf. I looked at the bottle and wondered at the Spanish words. I shrugged and took another sip as Natalie stood and stepped down to the bridge. She shuffled through papers, loudly moving around our baggage, searching for something. I pretended not to hear and returned my attention to the salty air and the sound of our boat cruising through the water.

“Have you seen that Grisham novel?” she asked.

“I thought it was by the coffee pot.”

“It’s not.”

“Well what about those two Stephen King books?”

“I’ve read those two already.”

I shook my head dubiously. “There’s a manual on knot tying under the captain’s chair.”

Natalie gave me a look that meant she was unimpressed. “Jesus, Tom, are you drinking?”

“Sure.”

“It’s eleven in the morning.”

“I’m on vacation,” I said. “I can have a noon cocktail.”





 ***


When it happened, no one knew what to do. No one was prepared. There were only a few isolated cases at first. It spread from infected avian population through mosquito bites. That was before they realized it had gotten into the water supply. And it was contagious as hell. The hospitals were flooded with the Infected. I saw it on the news, the night before the cable went out. The dead and dying lying on stretchers. The virus attacked the victim’s circulatory system they said, turning fatal after about a week of agonizing pain. It began on the East Coast, but reports of outbreaks came in from Los Angeles and Seattle as well. Just before broadcasting stopped, there were cases in Madrid and Hong Kong.

I couldn’t believe how quickly everything fell apart. After a week and a half, infrastructure became a thing of nostalgia. No one wanted to go to work. Television stopped. The radio followed along with cell phones, telephones, newspapers, and of course the power. If it didn’t run on batteries, it became a paper weight. The only news was from neighbors and people passing through. Natalie and I stayed at her father’s house, Doctor Travis Brohman.

The first incident happened two weeks after the initial outbreak, from what I could gather anyway. A mob at a closed grocery store turned violent. A woman was trampled to death after the door was smashed in. No, but three people were shot to death, one an old woman. It wasn’t three people; it was a dozen and the whole store was burned down in the riot. One man said the National Guard was deploying. Everyone’s story was different. It was frightening, but we felt removed from it in a way. We were safe in Doctor Brohman’s house. No one was sick in our neighborhood, and the riot at the grocery store, if it even happened, was far away from us.

One morning at the Doctor’s house, someone knocked. It was the middle-aged father that lived next door. “Mrs. McCarthy at the end of the street is sick,” he said. The man awkwardly stood there for a few moments. He shook his head and returned to his own house. He did not come by again.

At dinner that night, the three of us ate by candlelight. We had canned beans and purified water. We ate in silence until Doctor Brohman looked up from his bowl. Natalie’s father was intimidatingly tall. He had brown hair and a reddish beard that had streaks of gray. He always shirked typical Radiologist attire in favor cargo shorts and flip flops. Even now, at the end of the world, his flip flop smacked happily across the hallway’s wood floors every time the Doctor went to the kitchen for a cup of tea.

Doctor Brohman dabbed the corners of his mouth with a napkin and said very solemnly, “We ought to board up the house.” The next morning we did.

As I held a two by four in place, hammer in hand, I squinted through the window. Thick, black smoke was rising from somewhere down the street. Natalie’s father saw it as well and grimaced. “Come on,” he said. “There’s some more wood in the attic.”

We took stock of our food and water. Before the utilities had stopped, Doctor Brohman had filled his bathtub with water. “Twenty minutes of boiling and any water can be safe to drink,” he assured us. His pantry was filled with canned food, enough for three months. None of us talked about what we would do after that.

One night, after Natalie had fallen asleep, the Doctor took me to his study. Bookshelves lined the walls with a lone cherry wood desk in the center. He opened a drawer in the desk. There was a revolver there wrapped in cloth and a box of cartridges beside it.

“What’s this for?” I asked.

“Just in case you need it,” he said. “Do you know how to use it?”

I shook my head and he showed me how to load it. He gave it to me to hold and taught me how to aim. I was surprised by how heavy it was.

“It’s a .357 Smith and Wesson,” he said.

I looked at its oiled gunmetal body with awe and reverence.

“If someone tries to break in here, I don’t care what they say; you don’t do any of that fancy bullshit you see on TV.”

My skin shivered as I looked at him, unable to look away. I had never heard her father curse before.

“You level this at them and give them two in the chest,” he said in a flat voice. “I’ve a rifle in my bedroom as well.”

I nodded. Doctor Brohman wrapped the weapon back up and closed the drawer. We did not speak of it again.


***


By late afternoon the sky began to turn gray. We dropped the anchor and fastened a tarp on the bow to collect rainwater. It didn’t taste good, but it was safe to drink. I looked over the starboard side. The shore was never very far away; we always kept it in sight while cruising because neither of us knew much about nautical navigation. A chart was laid out on the table on the deck. I stood over it and tried to decide where we were. Maryland? Maybe we were in Virginia already; the wind had been very good for the last week or so. I looked through the binoculars. There were rustic cottages spread over a green hillside with white sand beaches in front of them. I saw a large water tower in the distance and the hints of high-rises half obscured by clouds. The only motion at all was from a pair of smoke plumes. When the rain began, we went inside. 

Natalie turned on an electric lantern and read through a tired magazine. I looked out the porthole for a time, watching the rain and listening to the monotonous patter it made against the fiberglass hull. Eventually I went to the sailboat’s oversized kitchen and opened a cabinet. It contained a proud and boisterous collection of wine and spirits. “I think I’d like something tropical,” I said and picked a white Caribbean rum. I broke the seal and smelled it before pouring a few fingers. “Would you like any?”

Natalie looked up. “No, you usually drink enough for the both of us, dear.”

I took a good swallow and sighed. Perfection.

She did not stay up long. It was best to use natural lighting; batteries were a luxury and we tried not to overuse them. So many things we had to live without, but I think music was the hardest. We could, of course, turn on the generator and power the boat, but only for a short time. Tonight I thought about it, just for a little while, just to listen to music for a few minutes, but in the end, it would have been too wasteful. Natalie closed the door to the main bedroom, which she had taken for herself when we first boarded the boat.

I poured myself another good one and rolled out my sleeping bag on the small couch. Things with Natalie had begun to fall apart, even before all of this happened. Now we barely spoke to one another, usually only a few words each day. I finished the drink and fell asleep to the rocking tide.

The next day was overcast but dry. Natalie made coffee while I siphoned the pooled water from the tarp. I hoisted up the main anchor and readied the sailboat to leave when she called my name.

“Look, over there!”

I looked to where she was pointing.

“Someone’s coming.”

I saw a small rubber boat with someone inside paddling it closer. The person waved to us and cried, “Help!” It was a woman. Dark red spots where blood was pooling beneath the skin covered her. The worst of them were scabbed over, scaly, and weeping blood. “I saw you yesterday,” she cried.

“Don’t come any closer,” I called to her. “Natalie, raise the sail.”

“Please,” the woman said, and I saw that she was not alone. A young girl was sitting beside her. She had blond hair and wore a pink dress. She looked scared. “Please, take my daughter with you. She’s not sick!” When the rubber boat was nearly beside us, the woman picked up the girl and held her out to us. The girl in the pink dress began to cry.

I couldn’t tell if she was sick too. “I’m sorry lady, but we can’t help you. Natalie, raise the goddam sail!”

Natalie stood rigid and gray as a statue. She stared at the Infected woman and was consumed with inaction. “Tom,” she whimpered. She began to move toward the little girl on shaking, unsteady legs.

I hastily climbed around the side of the sailboat to the mast and raised the main sail, angled it so it filled with air, then hurried back to the wheel to direct the rudder. Natalie was on her knees, dangerously close to the woman in the raft, and I feared she would reach out to the little girl. The boat pulled away from her, and I heard the woman cry out after us. When the rubber boat was far enough away that I could no longer see the woman’s arms flailing in distress, I inhaled and tried to recall how long I had been holding my breath. Natalie was sitting now, leaning against the side rail and shaking.

I walked downstairs into the cabin and found a cup. I filled it half full with a fifteen year old single malt scotch. It was one of my favorites. I finished it in one sip and thought for a moment before pouring a second.

Natalie was still sitting when I came back up. She looked at me with red, accusing eyes. “We should have taken the little girl.”

“She was sick.”

“She didn’t have any marks.”

“Her mother was infected,” I said. “She was too. I couldn’t save her. They were dead already, no matter what I did. All I can do is protect the two of us.” I remembered an alleyway between two redbrick buildings and hoped that I had concealed the guilt from my voice.

“You’re a coward.”

“It’s kind of you to say so,” I said.

“You’re a coward,” she repeated with more conviction.

“Go to hell.”

“How old do you think that little girl in the boat was? Three? Maybe four?”

“Shut up.”

“And how about that woman in the alley?”

“Shut up, Natalie.”

“Do you think about her, Tom?” she asked. She began walking toward me, her voice growing louder. “I hope you do, Tom. I hope you dream about her every night for the rest of your life! You’re the most selfish man I’ve ever met. You don’t care about anyone except yourself!”

“Natalie, shut your fucking mouth!”

She slapped me hard across the face. Natalie shook her head. “How do you do it? How can you just stand and watch people die and do nothing?”

I did not move but stood, rubbing my face and tending the wheel, looking out over the southern horizon.

After a long silence I said, “We’ll need to stop soon, tomorrow probably. We’re running low on food.”

Natalie nodded. It had been two weeks since we had stepped on solid ground and restocked the pantry.


 ***


I will never forget the day Natalie’s father died. I was still in bed, dreaming of a cheeseburger, draft beer, and running water when she woke me. “What is it?”

“My father,” she said. “He’s sick.”

Doctor Brohman had locked himself in his bedroom. We stood outside his door, listening to him vomit noisily. Natalie knocked on the door. “Dad, let us in so we can take care of you.”

“Dear, there’s nothing you can do for me.”

“Don’t say that. You might not have the virus.”

“I do,” the Doctor said. “You’ve been a wonderful daughter.”

Natalie began to sob.

“There is something you can do for me.”

“What Dad? Anything you want.”

“You and Tom, take all the food you can carry and head down to the harbor.”

“No, Daddy.”

“Take everything. You get to the harbor and take the sailboat and you go south,” he said. “Wait out the virus, find an island somewhere, but you leave.”

“No,” she cried. “I can’t.”

“Do it for your mother and me. I want to know that you’re safe.”

“I love you, Dad.”

“I love you too, Natalie,” he said. “Tom, do you remember what I told you in the study?”

“Yes.”

“You keep my daughter safe.”

Natalie banged on the wooden door. “We won’t leave you, Dad. Come with us.”

“Goodbye, Dear.”

Natalie screamed for her father, trying to turn the locked doorknob and hitting the door. Suddenly there was an explosive sound from the locked room, like a car backfiring, and a moment later the sound of a sandbag hitting the ground. Then nothing. Natalie stopped knocking and stood silent. Neither of us breathed. I tried to think of something to say, anything at all, but they did not make words for such things.

At last, I turned to Natalie and all I could say was: “I don’t know how to sail.”


 ***


We filled two duffel bags with all the canned food, clothes, and batteries we could fit and threw them in her father’s black sedan. I took the revolver and cartridges from the cherry oak desk, and we left. As the automatic garage door opened, I realized I could not remember how long it had been since I had been outside. Natalie cried in the seat beside me as I started the engine.

Abandoned cars filled the road. We had to weave between them slowly and, at some places, had to drive on lawns to get around. And the dead. There were bodies in a couple of the cars, some lying on lawns or in rocking chairs on porches. Trash was everywhere. Windows were broken, and some houses were burnt down entirely. It looked more like a bombed-out war zone than a quaint New England suburb.


When we got to the commercial district near the harbor, we saw the living, and they were more frightening than the dead. Fires burned everywhere. People looted anything they could from shops. They threw rocks, shattering large store windows. Two men were in the middle of the street fighting over a television. I wondered if they knew the power was out. We sped around them as they began throwing rocks at us. One cracked the passenger side window, and Natalie shrieked. One of the men chased us but soon lost interest. A mile further, a school bus lay on its side and blocked the rest of the way. The harbor was just around it.

“We have to go,” I said. “Can you walk?”

Natalie nodded. We stopped and grabbed the duffel bags from the trunk. I brushed my hand against my pocket and felt the revolver.

“Come on,” I said. We walked around the bus and down the small street, diligently looking over our shoulders. Up ahead I saw the marina where the Doctor’s sailboat was kept. Before it, on the left, was a pair of red brick buildings with a narrow alley between them.

I heard voices coming from there. I held up my hand, and Natalie stopped. I peered into the alley. There were three men and one woman. The men had her surrounded, were shoving her, laughing, and taunting her. She slapped one, and he hit her. Another grabbed at her blouse, and I heard it rip. She screamed. One of them grabbed at her and forced a kiss on her. She shoved him back, flailing her arms at the men like a wild animal.

“Tom,” Natalie pleaded quietly beside me. “Do something.”

I watched in horror as they pushed the woman to the ground. One of the men was infected, the others I couldn’t be sure. They tore her skirt, the soiled fabric ripping away from her body. Natalie turned away, unable to watch.

One of the men kicked at her on the ground while another climbed on top of her. The third turned around and saw me. He did not appear to be infected. He looked at me and I back at him, and I shivered. He was not alarmed. The man did not look threatening but rather curious at our being there and made no motion to alarm the others or threaten us.

I felt the weight of the revolver. It was too heavy.  “We have to go,” I said.

“No,” Natalie whimpered, but I pulled her arm and she followed me. We half-ran down to the marina. It was a mess. One of the docks had collapsed and only a few wooden planks remained. Many of the slips were empty, and most of the boats left were broken into. Natalie led the way down one of the wooden docks where we were relieved to find a large sailboat tied up and untouched. It was at least forty feet long with a light blue hull. We carried the bags on and untied the boat. The name on the back of the ship was stylized in curvy gold letters: Westward Wind.


 ***


The skies were still overcast and there was a cool breeze. I lowered the sail as Natalie started the underpowered inboard motor and eased us into an empty slip. I grabbed the empty duffle bags, headed up the stairs to the deck, and thought I ought to bring the revolver.

We tied up her father’s boat and walked along the dock. It was a small island – only a few miles wide – but had several houses on it. I decided it must have a grocery store on it. Less than a mile down the road, we saw a small country store. One of the windows was smashed, but it looked otherwise intact. There was no one in sight. A bell jingled as we opened the door, and I winced. It was very dark inside and, once the bell stopped, was eerily quiet. A tower of sunglasses was knocked over, glasses spilled everywhere. We each took a shopping cart and went separate ways. I filled the cart with cans of baked beans, soup, canned vegetables, tuna, boxes of pasta, and bags of potato chips. All of the produce was rotten, and hordes of flies infested that side of the store. I took some soda and spent a few minutes browsing the liquor aisle. The aisles were stocked for the most part, and I wondered where everyone on the island was. Maybe they were just vacation homes.

I took handfuls of batteries and piled some magazines on top. There was a swivel rack near the cash register filled with maps, brochures for camp sites, and information on attractions in South Carolina. I filled up the empty spaces in my cart with candy bars and packs of gum. As I sorted through them, I heard a jingle.

“Can I help you find something?” The man had a thick southern accent and a shaved head. He wore gray pants and a dark shirt with the sleeves torn off. One eye was black while cuts and bruises covered the rest of his body. He held a baseball bat.

“I was just getting some food,” I said. “I’m running low.”

The man with the bat stepped forward and two more men came in behind him. None of them seemed to be infected. I wondered how they had survived so long. “That’s our food you’s taking.”

“I’ll give you something for it.”

“What would you have that I’d want?”

“What’s going on?” Natalie was startled to see the three men.

One of them gave a slow whistle. “Pretty lady. She with you?”

“Yes.”

“Tell you what,” the man with the shaved head said, taking a step forward, “you keep the food, and we’ll keep the girl.”

“You’re not taking her,” I said.

“I wasn’t asking.” He took another step toward Natalie, and I put up a hand to stop him. He cracked his bat across my head. I reeled forward and collapsed onto the linoleum floor. My vision narrowed, and I struggled to stay conscious. Natalie lunged to help me, and they grabbed her. She screamed, but just as I was beginning to come to, something hard hit me in the back and then the stomach. I gasped for air.

“We’re gonna have fun with her.”

As I lay struggling to recover on the ground, I remembered the revolver. Amid the flurry of my beating, I pulled it from my pants pocket and remembered nothing except how to pull the hammer back and four words; two in the chest. It only took one. I pulled the trigger at the man with the bat as he stood over me, poised to swing again. It sounded like a cannon. The bullet caught him just below his sternum and he lurched backward, skidding across the floor. His two friends watched his shirt soak [1] with blood as a single wisp of smoke rose from his chest and vanished. They stood and looked in awe, unable to move.

“Let her go,” I said.

The one who held Natalie released her, and she ran back to my side whimpering. The two men looked at me with fear. I pointed the revolver at the nearest one. “Go,” was all I could say. They sprinted out of the store and down the street.

  Natalie put her arms around me and cried. I had not held her in a long time. “Come on,” I said. “We’ve got to go.”

  We ran down the road back to the dock with the shopping carts bumping in front of us. I looked back, but no one was following us. We loaded the boat with all of our loot and left. The afternoon skies began to clear up and some blue showed through the clouds as we untied and set sail.

“It’s the end of the world,” Natalie whispered.

“We’re still here.”

“It’s not enough,” she said. “What if we’re it, Tom? What if we’re the only two?”

“The men at the grocery store weren’t infected. There must be others like us.”

Natalie had a far away look. “What are we going to do, Tom? Where are we going to go?”

I shook my head. I tried to think of something reassuring to say, but I could not get the image of the man I killed out of my mind. I thought of the shirt and the way the blood slowly soaked it, the thin wisp of smoke rising from the wound and how it evaporated in an instant, the sound he made as he exhaled for the last time, his body going slack and the silence that followed. I did not feel anger or concern or guilt. I did not feel anything except my bruised ribs and my split lip and throbbing head. At last, I looked back at Natalie and said, “We’ll keep going south, like your father wanted.”

She nodded and smiled. The look she gave me was no longer accusing. She went downstairs and brought back a small first aid kit. Natalie carefully rubbed some ointment over the gash in my forehead after wiping away the dried blood.

“Are you alright?” I asked, looking at the bruises on her arm where one of the men had held her. She nodded.

I stood at the wheel, making small adjustments in our course from time to time. Natalie looked out over the side of the boat toward land. “Why do you think we haven’t gotten sick when everyone else has?” she asked.

We hadn’t caught the virus. We had been careful. We were lucky. I realized that none of these seemed right. Perhaps we were immune, but in the end, it always returned to the same question: why us?

“I don’t know,” I said.

“It doesn’t seem fair,” she said. “That everyone else dies and that we should live on.”

I nodded.

That night I did not sleep on the couch. Natalie asked if I would sleep in her bed. It was good to lie on a mattress under blankets and out of the sleeping bag, to sleep beside her again and to wake in the night and hear her breathing, to feel her beside me, to be wanted and needed and—for the first time in a long time—not hated, and to not feel alone. Sleeping beside her, it did not feel as though we were the only two normal people alive, and it did not matter if we were. She kissed me goodnight and we forgot.

The next morning, Natalie was sick. I heard her vomit in the bedroom while I was making coffee. I ran. I tried to open the door, but she had locked it. “Let me in.”

“I can’t, Tom. I’m sick.”

“Open the door, Natalie,” I said and violently rattled the door handle. I heard her throw up again. “Let me in and I’ll take care of you.”

“I’m sick, you can’t take care of me.”

“Goddamit, Natalie!”

“Take the food and the gun and the rubber boat. You can find another sailboat and keep going. You have to leave me though, Tom. Someone has to make it. Someone has to live.”

“Unlock the door or I’m going to break off the fucking lock.” I waited, but she did not unlock it. I heard something that might have been a groan and returned to the kitchen. I took a fire extinguisher from under one of the cabinets, held it above the door handle, and smashed the handle off in one downward motion. Natalie cried out, and I walked in.

She looked like hell. Her skin was covered with perspiration, her eyes were watery, and she was very weak.

I walked to her and said, “Come and lie down.”

“Don’t touch me,” she cried, but she was too weak to resist. I helped her into the bed and under the covers. I grabbed the waste basket as she began to dry heave. I touched her forehead.

“You have a fever,” I said. I got a ginger ale from the kitchen.

She sipped at it, but it was difficult for her to keep any down.

“How did this happen?”

Natalie shook her head.

“Maybe it’s just a stomach bug,” I said.

“I’m sick,” she said. “Like the others.”

Natalie stayed in bed all day. She dazed in and out of consciousness, and I held her hand.

It’s not fair. How could she die now, after all that we had survived? I had thought we were immune, but no one is immune. No one’s ever immune. It was never fair. She could not die, not now. Don’t leave me, God don’t let her leave me. I could not go on without her—the last man alive. Oh God, don’t let her leave me. Who was Adam without Eve? Please, God let her live. And the worst, I know, is that no one will be there to hold my hand at my end.

I laid my head down on her chest and cried, feeling reassured by her persistently beating heart.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

It startled me. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”

“I shouldn’t have said those things, darling.”

I stayed with her all that day, sitting beside her, checking her fever. By that night it had not gone down. I fell asleep in the chair with my head down on the bed. I had trouble sleeping, waking up from awful dreams but always relieved to wake up and hear her breath.

I woke up the next morning when Natalie touched my head. “What is it, Natalie? What’s wrong?”

She smiled at me. “I think my fever is gone.” I touched her forehead and it felt normal. “I feel better. Maybe it really was just a stomach bug.”

I sighed and hugged her. “I thought you were going to leave me.” I could feel that she was weak. But she was alive.

“I haven’t gone anywhere, darling.”

 

I climbed up to the deck. It was the first time I had gone outside since she became sick. I pulled up the anchor and raised the sail. We were going south again. A pair of seagulls flew over us and landed on a large buoy up ahead. The sun felt good on my skin. Perhaps it was the end of the world, but I did not believe it. It could not be the end of the world on this day with a strong wind blowing west, the sun bright and the skies blue with the smell of salt, and Natalie in the cabin heating up a bowl of soup. I wondered where we would go now and if it even mattered. We had followed the eastern coast, but maybe we could venture away from land into the Caribbean. I smelled the air, smiling, and guided the ship around the buoy with the seagulls. It was a fine day.

 

It is a dark shirt, so it probably wouldn’t be red… but you could see it soak with blood…just not red.




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