The lead skiff smashed into the back of Shawn’s modified boat, narrowly missing the big four cylinder 50 hp motor, weakening the corner end struts. Another heavy hit and he would be in the water with the sharks. If that didn’t happen, it wouldn’t be long before the skiffs caught up to him and had their way with him.
Shawn ducked his head low and angled his boat towards the old skyscrapers whose blown out faces made them look like tall, toothless, silver men. From behind, the lead skiff slammed into the back of the boat again.
He was nearly thrown overboard from the impact but held on with both hands. When he looked behind him the marshpunk’s face twisted up with rage. Shawn knew the kid wanted to jump his wake and smash him again, finishing him.
Shawn bent his head low to cut the wind drag and watched for sunken debris. An old marquis from Boston’s glory days lay half sunk in the sea. He had half a tank left, at least. It was enough to get him out of the reef towns if he could lose his tail.
The trick to winning a race in close quarters was to use the landscape against his opponents. Marshpunk skiffs were wide to accommodate salvage. His boat was narrow.
A crossbow bolt sunk into the bow. They had overshot him. That would not happen again. The marshpunks were too good. He’d have to fight them.
He zagged across an old intersection that was now a reef town market. Above him, in the windows, little boys and girls sold their wares and traded mussels for woven goods. He heard chatter and cries as the kids rushed to the windows to watch the chase. Ropes hung between windows like webs.
His pistol’s ammo was too precious to waste. Behind the lead punk, six and three skiffs followed in two packs, their pilots armed to the teeth with spears and junk machetes. He’d use his shotgun if he could get enough distance between them to turn and aim.
The avenues and streets provided narrow channels for Shawn to navigate, and there was little danger of a skiff getting ahead of him. What worried him was what they could throw down at him from above.
Shawn banked the boat and turned towards what had once been Faneuil Hall. Now, it was a wide shallow bay between the taller buildings, the perfect place to get enough space between him and his chase.
He heard a thump. A sunken lamppost or other debris had knocked against his hull. From behind came a scream, as one of the skiffs struck something under the water and the boat flipped, the motor growling louder as it overturned in the air before smashing down. The pilot vanished in a spray of green-grey water. The sharks would be on him if someone didn’t bail him out.
The city marsh had taken hold of the edges of the open space that had once been the area around the T entrance at Government Center. Thick reeds and mud brought in by the tidefall had packed up around the building. He’d need to throw his weight to shift the boat so he wouldn’t drag in the shallow water. The skiffs would have no trouble, so he better make it count.
Shawn leaned his body to the left and turned the throttle up and winced as he skimmed over; the wake he left behind was black and strangled with thin reeds. Clear, for now, he headed towards the gut which would lead him to the North End, where the streets narrowed and he might lose them, or at least even the odds.
It worked. The skiffs had strung themselves out as he piloted the boat across the brief open space and into the narrow street canals. The tops of homes and buildings stuck out of the water like little red hats. He navigated by memory.
The buildings cupped the sunlight, and he entered the shadow and eased the throttle. From behind someone shouted; one of them had a bullhorn.
Banking right he accelerated and made a quick left. The old church rose up before him and he turned to go behind it, then zipped into a side channel where the tops of the old brownstones leaned from where tides or storms had undermined their foundations.
Something whizzed by his head and on instinct he ducked. Peeking up as he steered the outboard motor he realized two things: he was exposed, and the marshpunks had spotted him from above. A little kid poked his head out of a window and fired a slingshot bullet towards him. It rocked the side of his outboard, and he heard the unmistakable crack of plastic as the rock bounced off into the side of a building.
He pulled his pistol. He didn’t want to use it, but if he didn’t he might not make it out alive. What was the point of a firearm if you aren’t ready to use it? His father had drilled life into him time and time again. You must live, even if it means wasting your ammo. Many men had died because they were too shy to use the bullets they had in their pockets, or worse, in the breech.
How he wished his father was with him now.
He accelerated, half wincing, half praying that he would not run aground on some North Side landmark. The kid fired again but missed wildly. He risked a longer look above. People followed along the rooftops, their shadows like dark birds.
Gonna trap you in the cityway narrows; gonna wait till your boat gets stuck. Skin you, they will, for what you and yours have done to them.
It would be hard to get an angle on the runners, and he holstered his pistol, grabbing the shotgun instead.
He banked left, cut to a cross-channel, and accelerated hoping to turn himself around and work backward towards Faneuil Hall. Shawn might go towards the financial districts or to Commons Bay, taking him to the deeper water of Back Bay by the colony safe house. When he turned the boat again to reverse his direction, he narrowly missed a small boy on stilts water jigging towards him, spear in hand. The boy did not have time to throw. If he had he would be dead, for the stiltwalker had a clean shot. The punk’s spear glinted from where he had sharpened it with a stone.
Two more stiltwalkers stepped into the street canal, which he now saw was a junction of streets and alleys. Probably where one of the more fashionable Boston shops had once been, now serving as a crossway for the marshpunks.
“Ayah!” One of the walkers chucked a spear at him that hit the midsection of his boat, and stuck. Another fired an arrow that struck his wrappings, pinning them to the floor underneath him.
Shawn cursed, aiming the shotgun while he steered, which proved to be more difficult as he accelerated to escape the trap he’d fallen into. His first blast blew the midsection out of the bowman’s rig. His ten-foot tall stilt had leg braces and locks. The bow attached to the left stilt, his quiver to the right. The kid screamed as he wavered, and fell face forward into the dark water of the North Side channels. If he came up for air, he did not see it. The spear-thrower yanked the chain attached to the spear handle, and the weapon pulled away and sank.
Ahead was a dark narrow street, and he accelerated into it, praying it did not narrow enough to stick his boat.
He decelerated to a crawl, and his wake vanished; it made him feel a bit more invisible. It was how he liked to be, out of sight, out of mind.
Please let there be a way out.
He pumped a fresh round into the shotgun and came to where the alley canal banked left and right, forming a T.
Shouts echoed across the rooftops above him.
They were close.
The bow came to rest at the edge of the brick wall on a flooded building, at the head of the T. Through the mossy green glass, he could see where the seawater had taken the lower floors. Something white, and pale flashed against the scummy glass.
The T junction was too narrow to turn the boat around. He would have to abandon it, or back up, right into the knot of marshpunks and stiltwalkers.
He had little time to form a plan, grabbing the arrow that pinned him to the boat and yanking hard. There was a hole in his wrap, which he cursed. He grabbed the stern line in his hand and his duffel bag full of scavenged items. Above, two feet or less the fire escape waited like a black web. He jumped, scrambled up, and tied the boat off knowing full well it would be stolen. Still, if he were lucky, it might be overlooked as they hurried to find him among the buildings.
The climb left him exposed and he felt the sun on him, wondering if an arrow or spear or bullet would find him too. But, nothing came. He angled the shotgun so he could get a quick bead on anyone on the roof who might be waiting for him.
But there was no one, and he sprinted to the other side of the broad building where the rusting air compressors were housed and hunkered down to wait.
Shawn took in the surrounding buildings. No one was roof crawling ahead of him. He would likely find them behind him, tracking his motions. He peeked, and sure enough like spiders three punks carrying short stilts and spears leaped over the short breaks in the buildings about a block away. They moved quickly, carelessly, their spears on their backs, their stilts like pole vaults.
Children. Once again he was dealing with children.
It didn’t surprise him, only made him weary. He had five minutes, maybe less before they found him.
Inside of his duffel bag, he pulled out the fishing net he nicked from the old trawler he found on top of the TV station in Southie. The trawler had been washed up sometime in the winter, he guessed. How it perched on the old station roof had made it unappealing for the mosspeople, pirates, and punks. Their loss, his gain. He had found three boxes of rifle ammo, a nice ax, three bottles of penicillin, and a net. It had no food in the hold, nor bodies, which suggested that somewhere along the line the boat had been abandoned by the crew before the storm that wrecked it hit them full on. He would never know.
The net was weighted on the ends with lead, and though he had never used it on people before, figured the concept was the same. Hard cast and hope for the best. At least he could surprise them.
He heard them long before he popped out behind the compressors, his eyes shaded by his hat, his wrap catching the wind and whipping behind him. They had spied his boat and were arguing over which one should go get it.
“But I want to get him, not his fucking boat. Poppa has enough of them.”
“It’s not the boat you twit, it’s the motor, it’s always the motor.”
Shawn leaped up and threw the net, his shoulder going back as if he were throwing a spear. One of the weights struck one of the boys in the temple, and he fell off the top of the building. His splash was drowned out by the other boys’ yells. The net had tangled up the tallest, his spear, and his stilts, but the smallest of the three nimbly escaped underneath.
If he could have spoken, he would have warned the boy to stop, but his throat had been cut so long ago he did not remember the sound of his own voice. When the boy did not see or heed his palm going up, Shawn threw his dirk into the boy’s chest, stopping him cold.
The tangled up boy cursed, but his cries came out gargled with fear, anger, and tears.
Shawn dashed across the roof to reach the boy and make sure he would not get up again. Suddenly he was falling, his feet expecting to push off the rooftop, but there was nothing but a curious gleeful feeling in his stomach. Shawn fell onto the floor below, the air went out of him at once, and he turned over on his side, his vision turning into black spots of light.
When he came to he heard voices above him chattering. But he could not see them, and he did not know why. It was dark around him, and it smelled of mildew and rot. Above him, a circle of white and blue went in and out of focus.
Toes flex your toes.
He did not move right away and instead reached for his gun. He could not find it. His duffel lay behind him, the strap still wrapped around his arm. The pain in his back alarmed him. It was his belt; the skinning knife he kept was like a small rock in the middle of his back.
Fuck. How hurt am I?
He was able to move. First, his feet and legs, then his torso, slowly rolling over to his side. He had no idea how long he had been out, but he could hear an older voice speaking to a younger voice. They were discussing how they were going to kill him.
He wasted no time and stretched his limbs, seeking his shotgun. It had fallen a few feet to his left, and as he grabbed it he noticed the source of the rank mildew.
The shotgun had landed on a pile of bones, the old uniform black with gunk, the army insignia stained with blood, rotted flesh, mildew, and mold. Lots of mold. The smell of the stagnant water thickened the air. He guessed he’d fallen ten feet, no more, into the upper floor of the building. Shawn plucked his gun off the dead man’s chest and stood to fire.
“Get the chief! Run!”
He almost fired at them, but did not, ducked out of their sight line, and reached into his duffel for his flashlight. He turned the darkness into an owl eye and dashed towards what appeared to be a foyer of some kind. There were doors, and maybe a stairway. The water’s rank smell hung in the air.
How the mossfolk lived here he could not understand. The ocean had its own energy, and it scared him.
He peeked out a window. Two small girls sat in his boat and were pulling on the motor cord to start it up. He doubted they had the strength, but in this new world who could tell.
There was not much to salvage in the building, and if there were he wouldn’t have the time. Still, Shawn could not help but catalog the obsolete electronics, the copiers, the computers, and the phones. If he made it out alive, he could come back for wires, parts, coils, anything that would be of use in the colony. There might even be a fire extinguisher or antiseptic, but getting out alive was first and foremost.
The first door he opened was a storage closet, and the door came off the hinges in his hand. Inside, the must of the last ten years rolled out to greet him. He threw the door aside and chose the one behind him.
A staircase landing. Something wet, black, and dead lay on the top step, half covered in the still water. Shawn could descend and swim for it, but he hated swimming in the city. Dangerous work. In shallow places, pockets of bacteria waited for him, and the sharks and rays were thick. Visibility was limited, and he was too weighed down with his clothes and gear to swim far without exhausting himself.
His shoulders slumped, and defeat rose in his mouth like a copper penny. He was going to die.
Going up would not be the smartest, for by now his attackers would be looking to see if they could get in through the roof. Perhaps they could not attack him and the upper entrance was locked or barred, after all, they had not come to Shawn when he fell. But they would be coming, regardless.
He couldn’t go up, but there was a window below. On this side of the building, he could monkey out and leap to the next building.
He jumped down to the landing below him, the water only coming up to his heels. As he stirred up the filth, the stench of it gagged him. The window was large, but the wet air had rusted the screws so when he pushed, the frame came out in his hand.
He held the window with the tips of his fingers, fearing he’s make a sound. Shawn pulled it towards him, angling the frame up and to the side. Rust flaked off on his gloves, the powder covering everything. He lay the window down against the brick wall, and he pushed up. He pulled his knees up, duffel over one shoulder, shotgun over the other. He saw no one in the alley between his building and the next. The channel alley was three feet wide, and across the way was another fire escape—another brownstone.
Somewhere above people gathered.
He leaped, but missed the landing, bounced off, but held on. His legs splashed in the water, and his mind jumped, fearful of what might lurk underneath. He’d seen enough men be bitten by sharks in city canals. Up over the landing, he crawled and pushed against the first window he saw. Locked. He had no choice but to kick it hard and hope it gave.
He placed both feet in the corners of the window and pushed out hard.
The window came out in a square and fell against the floor. He scrambled inside as fast as he could. His feet hit solid ground, and he wiggled through and turned around to put the window back into place to hide his tracks.
But the smell hit him first, a mossy earth stench that he knew all too well. He spun around and found himself in a room with a dozen beds and in them, drowsy with sleep, old men and women, mouths open, struggling to breathe.
Shit. He’d ended up in a fucking reef town hospice.
They continued to snore as he gingerly placed the window back into the frame. It probably would not hold.
Time to jam.
The hospice beds had been rigged with bicycle gears, fishing lines, reels, a few proper bedside assemblages, and lots of care. He did not wish to wake or alarm them and sidestepped to the door. The door squealed when he turned the handle to peek. Heads moved, turned, and for a second, as he moved his hand to his pistol, Shawn feared he’d have to murder old men and women to live through the afternoon. He was glad he didn’t have to when he found the hallway was clear. The dying mosspeople did not awake.
He slipped out, put his back against the wall, and made his body small. Sweat sheeting off his back, and forehead.
I have to ditch the wrappings.
The building smelled more or less clean, but it was too low to be a place of healing. This was where they put people to die. During a hard storm, this floor would take on water.
Deep mildew and rot under everything. Death too.
Between the rooms were nurses’ stations, shelves of drugs, bandages, canned goods, bottles of alcohol, and disinfectant. He pocketed some rubbing alcohol, and a bottle of Tylenol. The good stuff would be locked away. He left his wrappings in the trash and moved down the hall in his dingy gray wool shirt, the collar black with his grime and sweat. A quick glance at him revealed his secrets: a long bowie knife angled on the right hip, his pistol on the right thigh, a machete on the left, bandolier box of cartridges on his side, and an adjustable wrench clipped to his belt. He’d miss the wrappings come nightfall, but it would slow him down.
He angled the shotgun before him and dashed on his toes, careful to avoid full heels on the floor. The building had once been a home to someone, or the office of a small family business, for pictures of the previous inhabitants still hung on the walls. He moved across the floor, working his way to either the stairwell or a back room on the other side of the building. He kept glimpsing the family pictures, and their happiness
distracted him enough that he was caught full in the face by an orderly who swung hard at his nose, but hit his cheek instead.
The orderly had come from nowhere, probably from a back storage room. He was smaller but quick. Shawn’s face rocked back, and he took a punch in the mouth. Blood blossomed on his lips before he recovered, but he swung the barrel of his shotgun into the orderly’s upper thigh.
The orderly cried out and grabbed the shotgun barrel, and the two of them wrestled with it, falling to the ground, turning like a corkscrew on the floor. The orderly was under him, and Shawn slammed his forehead into the man’s eyebrow. They grappled, and suddenly he was under the orderly. The man was trying to push the gun back on his upper chest, or maybe his throat. He countered with a push-up and knocked the smaller man back. The orderly, surprised, wavered for a second, enough time to take a fist to the ear. Shawn finished the man with a knife to the gut.
He pushed the corpse to the side. Footsteps vibrated through the floor towards him.
Someone was coming.
TO BE CONTINUED…
(Part 2 Coming Soon)
BIO: Stephen Scott Whitaker is a member of National Book Critics Circle, and the literary review editor for The Broadkill Review. All My Rowdy Friends was published in 2016 by Punks Write Poems Press, LLC; his previous chapbooks include the steampunk inspired The Black Narrows, the award winning Field Recordings, and The Barleyhouse Letters. His writing has won numerous awards, including the Pushcart Prize, and the National Press Award.