Chapter 14

Nathan sat quietly in the stern of the canoe, rhythmically slicing the water with his lacquered spruce paddle. Its bent shaft offered an improved angle and increased leverage over ordinary straight shaft paddles. The canoe cut through the water gracefully, leaving only a gently curling wake. Trees surrounded the lake on every side, the reflections of their jagged green peaks clinging to the shallow waters along the shoreline.

A wispy, high-pitched bird call cut through the air. Nathan looked up — above John’s head, a bald eagle soared high in the sky. It swooped downward, vigorously flapping its thick, dark brown wings. As it neared the surface of the water, it spread its wings wide and kicked its feet forward. The eagle swung its talons downward into the lake and snatched a fish, splashing the water with the tips of its wings as it carried its catch upward, eventually disappearing into the trees.

“Makes me wish I could fly,” Nathan said.

“Switch,” John called out, ignoring the comment. He shifted his paddle from the boat’s left side to the right; Nathan did the opposite.

The island approached on their left. Once they passed it, their canoe would be visible to anyone standing in the northwestern bay. They guided the canoe along its shore, gliding to a rest at the easternmost edge of the south side.

“Let’s make this quick,” John said.

With swift strokes, they paddled from the island to the shore, careful to minimize any chance of being seen from the north. John lifted his paddle from the water and rocks grated at the bottom of the canoe as they ran aground to let him out. Nathan watched as John hopped out onto the rocky shore. The bearded man gently placed his paddle back in the canoe and checked that his revolver was in its holster.

“See you on the other side, kid,” he said, winking at Nathan before darting off into the woods. Nathan looked on as John’s blue flannel shirt became harder and harder to pick out, until finally the bearded man disappeared behind the cover of the tree trunks.

And now to wait. Nathan looked up toward the sky and let the gentle rippling of the waves soothe his ears. Realizing there was no reason to wait in the canoe, he crawled to the front and stepped out, eventually finding a comfortable resting spot in the grass along the shore.

How had it all come to this — paddling across a lake to rescue his sister from kidnappers, in the middle of nowhere, armed with only a shotgun? A scant ten years ago, the police would’ve handled any hostage situation. Post-Desolation, the problem was his alone.

Nathan closed his eyes and let his mind wander, allowing it to return to that time, nearly nine years ago.

The drought … fighting all over the country … martial law in Minneapolis … nuclear strikes …

At the time, he hadn’t understood what was happening, and even now his understanding of those chaotic days was largely abstract, pieced together from vague youthful memories and the stories he’d heard from Pierre and his father.

His memories of the events that followed, however, were far more vivid.

Viral outbreak … every last one friends getting sick … his family locking themselves inside … his mother vomiting uncontrollably as she withered away … the palpable aura of decay that hung over Minneapolis in the aftermath …

That was the Desolation, and Nathan, as well as his sister and father, were incredibly lucky to have survived its effects, thanks to a rare genetic immunity.

He remembered the months that followed and how fortunate he had been to have had his father watching over him and Emiko as they drifted around Minneapolis, gathering every last bit of food they could find. And he thought back to the following spring, when his family had moved north and settled in the area which he now knew as Frontier View.

Nathan’s life before the Desolation hardly seemed real any more. Minneapolis was merely a distant memory; Frontier View was his home now. His father had helped him and Emiko get started in this newly desolate world, but Ryota couldn’t help now. It was Nathan’s time to step up.

Turning his thoughts back to the present, Nathan opened his eyes as he sat up to stretch. As he gazed out across the shimmering blue water, he noticed that his canoe was no longer resting on the shore.

It was drifting in the middle of the lake, with all of his supplies inside of it.