As the sun descended behind the abandoned city, flares of dying light illuminated the rusted wreckage of a Freightliner that was partially submerged beneath the surface of the lake.
On the deck of her boat, Katy glanced up at the fluttering sail before staring into the ruins that stood guard over an empty shore. When her gaze returned to the spot where the dock had once been, a lone woman stood in ankle-deep water, slowly waving her right hand.
Katy pushed dirty-blond hair out of her eyes, the locks straight with the first flecks of gray near her temples. The sun and wind had weathered her skin to a deep bronze.
She had developed a feel for when the survivors would appear. Much like the other wild animals that had reclaimed most of the planet, humans reproduced in predictable and regular cycles. An early spring thaw often led to a late autumn birth.
“I see one. I think it’s Bella,” Katy said. “Stay below deck and don’t chew on my boots. You know the pregnant women don’t like a stinking dog around when they’re being examined.”
Decker gave Katy a short bark in protest but stayed below deck.
She angled the sailboat toward the shore, her thin, muscular arms pulling on the lines. Katy subconsciously touched the silver charm hanging around her neck, scanning for a possible vagabond ambush and hoping, as always, for a glimpse of her long-lost daughter. The former often appeared, but the latter had not.
The boat, named Lake Haven, glided into the makeshift harbor. Katy felt the bottom of the lake tugging at the keel. She threw a line out and over a crooked pillar from what had once been a dock. As she tied the knots, the pregnant woman stepped closer.
Katy stepped over the railing and helped the woman onto the deck of the boat.
“How are you feeling, Bella?”
The woman ran a hand beneath her belly, smiling. “Tired.”
“Yes,” Katy said. “That’s to be expected at eight months. When you get pregnant the next time, you’ll know when it’s time to rest.”
“No. This is it. My husband, he said no more. He’s already afraid this one won’t make it. Our corn crop this year, it just...”
Bella struggled to find the word in English, but Katy didn’t need a Spanish-to-English phrasebook to figure it out.
Katy thought Bella looked gaunt, tired. Most of that was to be expected so late in the pregnancy. She remembered how all of her patients she used to see at her practice looked this way, too. Bella had been coming to the shore for her services since spring.
Katy nodded and placed a hand on the woman’s shoulder. She checked Bella’s heartbeat and scribbled it in a notebook. Katy snapped it shut and smiled.
“This is my last run until spring. I’m expecting the winds to drop south and the lake to freeze soon. Are you sure you can remember everything I taught you? Do you have a midwife?”
The woman nodded, her eyes turned down.
“You’ll be fine. I promise. I’ve been taking care of you since you first flagged me down. Right over there. Remember?”
“In the spring, I’ll be looking for you and your new baby in the same spot. Okay?”
The woman turned to step over the low railing and off the boat.
“Bella,” Katy said. “I have something for you.”
She stepped down into the cabin and came back up with a bundle of color in her hand. Katy thrust it at Bella whose eyes went wide.
“It is beautiful,” Bella said.
“I found a few of these in an old shop on one of the islands. I’ve been giving them to my ladies and this is the last one. It looks like a scarf, but you can use it to wrap your newborn.”
The woman turned the fabric over in her hands, the deep reds and swirling pattern a stark contrast to the gray ruins around them. Bella shook her head and handed it back to Katy.
“No, I cannot take this.”
“You can,” Katy said. “It’s for you. For your baby.”
“Gracias,” Bella said, taking the fabric as she stepped completely off the boat. She walked out of the surf and toward the ruins before turning around to wave at Katy.
“You take care of that baby for me.”
“I will, doctora,” Bella said. “Lo prometo.”
“Wait,” Katy said, almost forgetting her ritual. “Have you seen either of these people?”
Katy held her arm out over the railing so Bella could see the picture without climbing back onto the boat. The photograph had yellowed over the years and splotches were on the corners where the lake had splashed away the old ink. The woman was Katy’s sister, Janie. She stood with an arm around her niece, Tara, who was Katy’s daughter. Katy glanced at the picture taken fifteen years prior and turned back to Bella.
“No. Lo siento.”
“It’s okay,” Katy said, as she had hundreds of times before. “You let me know if you ever see anyone like them.”
* * *
Katy put an hour between her and the last patient of the season. The further west she traveled, the closer to the horizon the ruins crept, but they never disappeared entirely. Being so close to the shore sent a shiver up her spine, as if she were tiptoeing beneath a beehive. It had been years since she’d last witnessed the riots spilling out from the ruins, but that didn’t mean the mainland was now safe.
She heard a whimper come from the front of the boat. The dog had come back up after they’d pushed out onto the water. Decker looked back at Katy through his shaggy hair. She had trimmed the retriever many times—a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, according to a survivor years ago.
“What?” she said.
The dog stood up and pointed his snout toward the western horizon.
Katy put a hand over her forehead and looked out over Lake Erie. Autumn had blown through the remains of Northeast Ohio, igniting the trees in a full spectrum of reds and oranges. Tonight, a mild but chilled breeze pushed against the boat’s sail and it seemed to Katy that the glowing band of the Milky Way would slide up from the eastern horizon and crawl across the sky as it always had.
Decker barked and began pacing across the bow.
Katy felt the wind shift and her mainsail made a popping sound like a cork from an old bottle of wine.
What I wouldn’t give for a nice bottle of red. Something from Napa.
A thin line appeared above the water and the sky seemed to shimmer like a mass of heated air. The boat pitched and Katy looked down at the new waves now lapping against the side of the boat.
“Microstorm,” she said. “Kind of late in the season for one, don’t ya think, boy?”
Decker whined, pacing the deck. Katy looked at the old leash that tethered her dog to the mast. The clasp had long since disappeared, but a few pieces of rope kept him from leaping into the water. Once the Toller jumped in, it would be almost impossible to get him out. Katy thought the dog was more amphibian than mammal.
“Let’s go. I gotta drop the sail before we get nailed. Time for you to get below.”
Katy bent down and Decker licked the side of her face as she untied the leash.
“Get in the hold. Go.”
Decker took one last look at the storm clouds now clearly visible on the western end of the lake. He barked, spun and then climbed down the steps into the berth.
Katy grimaced at the chemical odor wafting off the water, usually the first sign of a storm kicking up the toxic water at the shallow western edge of Lake Erie. She grabbed the wheel and turned away from the shore.
Katy had made this run dozens of times in the fifteen years since it had all ended. At first, the southern shores had been teeming with survivors and she’d lost sleep wondering if her daughter had been one of those wretched souls trying to eke out an existence in the ruins. She’d sailed from the eastern edge near the ruins of Erie, Pennsylvania, all the way to Toledo. In the early years, Katy had seen dozens of patients. Unwilling and unable to break through her anxiety and return to the mainland, she’d even delivered several children on the deck of her boat.
She remembered most everything about caring for pregnant women, despite the lack of technology and tools she had once had as an OB/GYN. But the surviving clans had thinned and with them, the number of pregnant women waiting for her on the shore. Katy had made the runs with Decker, beginning with the lake thaw in late spring right up until the first snow in late autumn. The two always savored the last run of the season, knowing they’d be marooned on Kelleys Island through the brutal Northeast Ohio winter.
A bolt of lightning lit up the sky as storm clouds now blotted out what was left of the sun. Thunder rolled across the surface of the water. Decker barked from below deck. Katy turned her face upward as the rain fell from the sky, cold daggers that drenched her and flattened her hair. The boat rocked on the water as the microburst storm cell immediately churned the water. The powerful storms had sunk much larger boats than Lake Haven. The waves crested at five feet with the potential to double in the next few minutes if this microburst was like the others she had survived.
The boat tilted and for a moment, Katy thought it might capsize. Her thoughts went to all of the supplies she’d packed in the hold, all seemingly random things that would keep her alive. Katy didn’t worry about Decker. That dog could swim his way through the eye of a hurricane.
More lightning came and Katy realized she wouldn’t have time to drop the sail. The microstorm was upon her and she’d have to ride it out. She aimed the craft away from the crumbling remains of the Edgewater Yacht Club where crooked steel, hunks of concrete and other submerged threats would easily rip a hole in her boat.
The storm exploded upon the craft. Katy didn’t have time to get to the hold. She grabbed the wheel as the winds bit at her, water cascading over the edge and across the deck. The winds intensified and the howling drowned out the thunder.
The harsh, brittle sound of ripping cloth made her look up. The wind had torn a gaping wound in her sail; pieces of the cloth, now fluttering, ripped away into the wind. A gust pushed the boom around and it struck Katy in the side of the head, knocking her to the deck. She winced, gasping for breath as her body slid toward the water. She reached out and grabbed for a thin line as her legs reached the edge, her feet touching the surface of the angry lake. Katy blinked twice and shook her hair out of her eyes, blood mixing with water running down the side of her face. She used both hands to pull herself back onto the boat.
A sudden feeling of weightlessness ended with a harsh jolt as the storm lifted the craft and then dropped it back into the surging froth. Katy heard all sorts of cracking and snapping. The 33-foot sailboat twisted and spun. Katy clenched her jaw and kept her grip on the line. Pushing against the wind, she was able to sit on the deck and wedge her legs between the railings, holding on as the microstorm pummeled the lake with cold rain and wind.
Katy looked around in a split second of clarity. Her eyes focused on a looming shape not more than twenty yards away—the old boathouse at the yacht club.
“Dammit,” she said.
The storm pushed Lake Haven closer to the shore.
If we get caught in the debris, this boat is done.
Katy held on, flexing her numbing fingers between violent bursts of wind and rain. She blinked the blood from her eyes and looked around, scanning the water for potential threats with no power to do anything about them.
A sudden jolt snapped her attention away from the impending collision with the shore. The wind had shifted again and spun the boat around so the bow faced the lake and the unseen shore of southern Canada. Katy hung on, waiting for the violent meeting between her fiberglass sailboat and the rusting, rotting docks of the yacht club.
Her left hand went numb and she wondered how much longer she would be able to hold on. For a moment, she considered letting go and sinking beneath the waves, embracing the silence, leaving behind the pain and fear and loneliness that had become her life in this world. But the survivors needed her. The pregnant women who preserved this damaged world’s future needed her. Her daughter...
A long, piercing noise shook Katy from her thoughts. Water cascaded over the deck with each violent wave and yet, the boat itself felt stuck. Katy looked over her shoulder and saw the silhouette of the old boathouse not more than twenty feet away. She turned, scurried to the edge and looked over. The boat had been snagged by two rotting posts that had once supported a dock.
She scurried up to the hold and thrust her head below deck.
“Decker,” she shouted.
The dog didn’t answer and the only thing in the hold was six inches of water. She turned to scan the water near the shore. An object the size of a basketball popped up, breaking the choppy surface of the water.
She watched the dog swim around floating debris. He climbed up the bank and over a pile of timber and turned to face her, barking soundlessly into the howl of the storm.
“Stay. You stay.”
The dog hopped up and faced the ruins, his tail wagging. She gripped the mast until her knuckles went white, a pit forming in her stomach as Decker ran off into the lifeless city.
“No, not there, Deck,” she said, sobbing. “Please stay. Don’t go in there, boy. Please don’t.”