Winter was the only season every Lake-Lander feared…
In a post-apocalyptic America, a community survives in a national park, surrounded by water that keeps the Dead at bay. But when winter comes, there’s nothing to stop them from crossing the ice.
Then homebody Peter puts the camp in danger by naively allowing a stranger to come ashore and he’s forced to leave the community of Wranglestone. Now he must help rancher Cooper, the boy he’s always watched from afar, herd the Dead from their shores before the lake freezes over.
But as love blossoms, a dark discovery reveals the sanctuary’s secret past. One that forces the pair to question everything they’ve ever known.
An action-packed and thought-provoking debut, for fans of Patrick Ness, Marcus Sedgwick, DREAD NATION and The Walking Dead.
For Shaun Contents Title Page Dedication Map Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28 Chapter 29 Chapter 30 Chapter 31 Chapter 32 Chapter 33 Chapter 34 Chapter 35 Chapter 36 Acknowledgements About the Author Copyright Peter was born into a world of unwelcome visitors. And winter on Lake Wranglestone sure as hell was one of them. Just when the bears had started to leave for higher ground, those damned dark clouds came down off the mountains, carrying something far worse inside. Peter drove his axe into the woodpile and looked out across the water. The lake, tucked in between the Great Glaciers to the north and the Shark Tooth mountains of the south, was among the most remote of all the refuges built for the nation’s National Park Escape Program. A dozen little islands, all peaked with pine, dotted the deep blue eye of the forest. His island, Skipping Mouse, on account of it being the smallest, was down one end. Eagle’s Rest, where Cooper lived, was all the way up at the top. On a clear day, you could watch him skimming stones in nothing but his undershorts, but not this morning. Fingers of icy cloud hung so low over the water that the islands disappeared inside them. Peter steadied himself on the grip of the axe. The lake took on a special eerie feel now that the year was dying, and the air was thick with log smoke and bull elks grunting. But there was something else. A loon bird wailed like a wolf in the night. A canoe broke through the mist. A moment later, it came. “No,” Peter whispered. “Not yet. Please go away. I’ll be real good, I promise.” A single snowflake bobbed over Peter’s head and settled on the blade of the axe. He chewed the skin around his fingernail and the snowflake dissolved to nothing. But it wasn’t nothing. It just wasn’t. Soon more snow would be on its way. More than just the snow too. Soon they would come. Peter swung round, furiously scanning the shoreline. Over on the mainland, yellow leaves shimmered down from silver branches like sunlight on water. The lake clapped the rocky shore. He sighed. At least there was no sign of the ice forming yet. Their clawing hands couldn’t get to the islands for now. But the big freeze was coming and it was coming fast, and no one was going to dig out their box of sleigh bells and Christmas stockings for First Fall. Not any more. Not ever. Peter turned back. Above him, candlelight twinkled from inside the island’s piney chamber. They were safe in their little timber tree house. The six wooden stilts that held it up there in among the pine cones and black squirrels were built to withstand a heavy knock, even a herd. That’s what his dad had always promised him anyways. Not that it made much difference. Nothing stopped those stilts from looking as flimsy as matchsticks at this time of year. But then winter was the one season every Lake Lander feared. Not because Montana was about to get colder than a bald eagle’s gaze, but because the Dead could make it across the lake’s frozen waters. “First Fall, huh?” came a gravel voice from behind. Peter swung round and watched the canoe approach the island. It was a stranger’s. An old man lifted up the wooden paddle and sliced it back down through the water. The flaps of his trapper hat swung about his face like the ears on Bud’s old bloodhound, Dolly. He looked just as harmless too. But he’d got a good pace going and hadn’t asked for permission to come ashore yet, so Peter made his way down to the water’s edge. “Who goes there?” “Permission to land?” said the old man, hoisting the paddle out of the water. “Yes, yes. Permission to land.” Peter glanced back up toward the tree house. He shouldn’t really be letting strangers anywhere near the island on his own. But his dad was nowhere to be seen. “Bah!” bellowed the old man. “You can make up your own mind, can’t ya? You’re a big boy.” “Yes,” said Peter, without convincing himself. “I’m nearly sixteen.” “And you’re real handy with an axe too.” “You think?” “Sure.” Peter shrugged. “I s’pose.” “No suppose about it.” “Well, I’m trying my best.” “Better than trying.” “I’m trying real hard.” “I can see that. Broad shoulders n’all.” Peter creased the corner of his mouth into a half-smile and looked down. Darlene had told him that if he wore extra-thick knit it’d fool the eye into thinking he had the same broad shoulders as Cooper in a T-shirt. But he was nothing like Cooper. Nobody was. Peter braced his hand across his bony collarbone and wondered if he’d be lucky enough to spot him out on the lake today. He hadn’t seen him for a few days now, three and a half to be exact. The old man rested his paddle across the width of the canoe, smiling broadly. The canoe glided into the shallows under its own momentum and grazed the shingle below. “No,” said Peter. “I’m skinnier than an aspen mauled by beavers. But I patch up all our socks, and I know how to make a quilt out of old shirts and sweaters big enough to cover a king-size bed and make sure all the colours match up and complement real nice too.” The old man pulled off his trapper hat in an I’ll be darned kind of way and used it to wipe the sweat off his bald head. “Well, fancy that,” he said. “And a good thing too. We all need a use, a trade in this world. But I gotta admit, it is kinda unusual for a boy. You must take after your ma.” “No,” said Peter quietly. “She’s dead.” “Too bad. Then who do you get it from?” Peter shrugged. He didn’t know what made him this way any more than anyone knew why the planet had become a walking graveyard all those years ago, just before he was born. A moment passed in awkward silence. The sun broke behind a passing cloud and dazzled across the water like starlight. “Anyhoo,” said the old man. “I take it I got permission to land?” Peter looked up, embarrassed that he’d forgotten his manners, and rushed down to yank the nose of the canoe on to the shore. “Oh sure! Sorry.” The old man wiped his hand across his thigh and thrust it forward. “Ben.” “Peter. “Nice to meet you.” The old man nodded as if to say likewise and whipped an old blanket off the front of the canoe to reveal a big pile of stuff. He was a trader. The lake was full of them in the summer months. Whether it was rare essentials like cooking pots and flare guns, or novel trinkets from the old world like CDs for shaving mirrors, there was nearly always something to find if you rummaged deep enough. And, just as long as Peter didn’t dwell on how traders had to raid dead people’s homes for these items, he always looked forward to their visits. “Anything take your fancy?” asked the old man. “We got pairs of boots in all sizes, a Swiss army knife complete with a corkscrew and some good old titty porn with all its pages intact.” Peter pushed the bundle of magazines aside and started to rifle through the rest. “Oh, they were so sure the internet had killed off print,” the old man went on. “But then the world blew its fuse and look who’s laughing now!” “I guess,” said Peter, none the wiser. “Do you have a needle and thread?” “You’re a right little homebody, ain’t ya?” “It doesn’t matter what colour it is.” “Well, I’m not too sure we do, Peter.” “I mean, it does matter. You don’t want to mend a pair of white socks with black cotton if you can really help it, but anything will do really.” The old man looked up into the pines toward their tree house. “And what have you got to trade anyhoo?” “We got a freshly hung deer,” said Peter, distracted by a neatly stitched gingham oven glove. “Uh-huh.” “And I made a dreamcatcher out of some twigs and eagle feathers.” “Right.” “I can show it to you if you like.” “Bet you got it looking real nice in that there tree house of yours.” “Yes,” said Peter. “Dad felled trees for a bunch of logging companies before the world went dark. The cabin’s made out of solid pine. Real good grain apparently. And he made the roll-up rope ladder too. The Restless Ones can’t climb up it, but the bears will have a good go.” “Is that so? Well, I bet it’s real cosy.” “Oh yes. It’s just the one room with an outhouse round the back. But we’ve got a log burner and some old deer hide in the middle of the floor to make it soft underfoot.” “Well, lucky ol’ you.” Peter continued to rummage through the pile. A few things caught his eye, but he’d made serious mistakes before by trading hard-hunted meat for things his dad decided were frivolous. He put the oven glove back on the pile because nobody had ovens any more and kept looking. After a while, his fingers came across something small and plastic, and he pulled out a toy animal. Peter turned the black and white striped horse over in his fingers and wondered how such a thing was ever possible out there in the world. “Aha!” said the old man. “Zebra.” Peter looked into his eyes and smiled. “Wow.” “Yeah. Zee used to be for zebra, on kids’ alphabet charts, I mean. But now zee just stands for—” “Yes.” Peter held eye contact with the old man for a moment and a silent understanding passed between them. Nobody knew what was worse: being too young to remember what life was like before the world was turned upside down or being old enough to have to live with the loss. But this wasn’t the first time Peter had felt someone look inside him and wish their memories were as short as his. Tears welled in the old man’s eyes. Peter noticed just how bloodshot and tired they were and wondered if he should invite him in to sit by the fire. Snow drifted over the canoe. Heavier now. “Suppose you’ll be battening down the hatches if the snow keeps up like this,” said the old man, clapping his hands together to warm them. Peter looked out toward the islands where the other thirty or so Lake Landers lived, and nodded. “Yes. Once the lake’s frozen over, we’re in for the long haul.” “How d’you even manage to defend yourselves? I know you’ve got a tree house n’all, but if a herd of Rotters came toward ya, I mean.” “The watchtower mainly,” said Peter, pointing at the middle of the lake where the vast wooden structure stood. “The military built it when everyone had to abandon the towns and cities, and they turned all the national parks into refuges.” “Yup, I remember. And you’re the lucky few who get to live here, huh? I heard Yosemite and Yellowstone damn near bust they were so full.” “I don’t know,” said Peter. “Why, which park have you come from?” “You must all be scientists and neurosurgeons the world can’t live without.” “I s’pose.” But the truth was Peter had never really given it much thought. The old man held eye contact. “Well, fancy that.” Peter smiled. An awkward silence passed between them so he quickly filled it. “We don’t even let the Restless Ones get this far. As soon as one of them breaks cover from the woods, we shoot on sight.” “Just like the old infomercials told us to do, before our television sets went dark.” “I heard,” said Peter. Except it was hard to imagine how TV even worked, or the internet, or planes or electricity or anything. “Yup. IF YOU SEE SOMEONE WHO DON’T LOOK RIGHT, CLOCK IT. KILL IT —” “RID THE WORLD OF IT! ” said Peter, nodding. “My dad taught me it was better to forget my pants in the morning than ever to forget that.” The old man’s eyes narrowed, but he wasn’t smiling any more. “Uh-huh. We all got told a lotta things back then.” “So people use the watchtower for fishing and diving in the summer months, but in the winter, we’re scanning the shoreline like hawks on the wind. They don’t stand a chance.” “I see. And what about others approaching the lake? Not the Dead, I mean, just good clean folks looking for sanctuary.” “There’s a strict vetting procedure. All newcomers have gotta report to Henry over on Cabins Creak.” The sun disappeared behind a cloud and the water dulled to a murky grey. Peter became aware of just how much cooler the air was when, all of a sudden, he felt a searing, stinging pain in his side. He looked down and watched the old man yank a bloody knife out from inside him. “I’m sorry, boy,” said the old man as if he genuinely meant it. “But who are you people? I brought my wife here on good faith we’d both be taken care of and you’re not even wearing the snowflake.” Peter’s legs gave way beneath him. He grabbed on to the nose of the canoe for support. It was only then that he realized the old man wasn’t alone. Another blanket stirred at the far end of the canoe. “It’s gonna be OK, Martha,” said the old man. “This nice boy was just being careful we were who we said we were. He’s gonna let us up now. I’m sure our ol’ knees can manage the rope ladder.” Peter fell forward on to the canoe all woozy. The air was suddenly so cold. He stared into the man’s eyes, but there was no menace or evil hiding inside them, just the most practised look this world knew: need. Peter tried to push himself free of the canoe, but the old man clapped his hands down on top of Peter’s to keep him there. “It’ll be over for you in seconds,” he said. “I promise.” He wiped the bloody blade across his leg. His eyes scanned Peter’s body, deciding where to stick it next. They glanced at his chest. Settled on his neck. But before the blade could find its way there, Peter heard a sudden swoosh and the knife fell from the man’s hand. An arrow jutted sharply from the old man’s face. Peter watched gore seep out of his punctured eyeball and ooze down toward the quill. His life left him in seconds. Peter felt his own consciousness leave him, but his dad’s footsteps pounded across the ground behind him and he fell backward into his arms. “He said I was good with an axe, Dad. I’m sorry.” “Damn it, Pete,” said his dad, helping him up. “You don’t need a stranger to tell you that.” He saw the blood and gasped. “Shit, Jesus. Darlene’s got our first-aid kit. We’ve gotta get you over to her place quick.” Peter felt his body being lifted up, then lowered down into the canoe. His dad tossed the old man’s body overboard, then scrambled in too. He was barefoot and hadn’t even changed out of his white long johns yet. For some stupid reason, it crossed Peter’s mind that his dad’s black stubble was too thick now, too thick for Darlene to take any interest in him anyhow. Before he had time to mention the old man’s wife, Peter felt the canoe push away from the shore. He drifted off to the sound of the paddle cutting sharply through open water. Peter woke behind his eyelids. He couldn’t have been unconscious for more than a moment or two, but it was so quiet he thought he’d come round at Darlene’s place. But he hadn’t. The canoe rocked gently from side to side, and he realized they were still on open water. He listened for the sound of the paddle cutting a quick course across the lake. But it didn’t come. They weren’t moving any more. Peter felt the cold kiss of snow on his face and slowly opened his eyes. Snowflakes tumbled out of the low-hanging clouds, luminous somehow against the dark grey behind them. Peter blinked to clear them from his eyelashes and listened to a loon wail somewhere further off across the lake. But something wasn’t right. He went to move and a searing pain bit into his side. Then he remembered the attack. “Dad?” he cried, clutching the bloody wound. “Dad! ” There was no answer. He hoisted himself up on to the heel of his hands, falling back against the nose of the canoe. His dad was nowhere to be seen, but Peter wasn’t alone. The old woman was leaning over the side down the other end of the canoe. The blanket that had hidden her before was now crumpled at her feet. A powder-blue nightgown patterned with maple leaves fell across her bony frame. Tresses of long grey hair spilled into the water obscuring her features so Peter couldn’t tell if she was alarmed or not. She didn’t appear to be. He clutched his side again and swung round to face the direction of travel in case his dad had gone ashore to fetch the first-aid kit from Darlene. But they were still some distance away from her island. He turned back round. The paddle had drifted away from the canoe, too far out to reach. However, the old woman was unconcerned by any of this. She ran her fingers dreamily through the still water, seemingly unaware of his presence or her missing husband even. Peter looked out toward the mainland, scanning the trees for movement. His dad was still nowhere to be seen. “Where’s my dad?” The old woman didn’t speak. “Martha, isn’t it? Please tell me.” The snow fell thickly now, forming fluffy clumps on top of the old woman’s grey hair. But her focus stayed on the water and she said nothing. “Martha,” he said. “Miss Martha, please.” Peter pressed one hand to his wound, ready to stand, then stopped. The skin on the woman’s legs was blotchy, like moss on stone. Her shins were black and mottled where the blood had stopped circulating and dropped with the weight of gravity. But this wasn’t because of old age. It was a result of her death. Peter froze. His unblinking eyes burned. The horror of what occupied the very same space as him forced them even wider and they glassed over with tears. He shuffled back into the nose of the canoe, quietly tucking his knees up under his chin so as not to alert the thing, suddenly aware of the surrounding water and just how much distance it placed between him and safety. He looked down at the thing’s black legs and felt the warmth of his own piss seep into his groin, helpless to do anything about it. Only that didn’t matter now. He was completely alone out here with one of them and he had to do something. He parted his lips to let his breath escape and looked up. But a pair of black eyes were already on him. He’d seen eyes like that up close once before. His earliest memory was of his dad showing him a weasel. He’d held the animal up by the scruff of its neck and asked Peter to say what he saw. When Peter said he saw a ‘fluffy wuffy’ and reached out to cuddle it, his dad dropped the weasel into the middle of the livestock pen and watched it tear a rabbit’s throat out. The life bled out of the animal in seconds. When his dad held the weasel up for the second time, with its bloodied torso twisting in his fist to break free, its black eyes bored right through Peter. There was no connection passing between one creature and another. Nature was cold and it was harsh and it didn’t give a damn about your being there. And so it was with the Dead. The creature at the other end of the canoe might have looked like an old woman – it carried her flesh, it wore her skin – but it was no such thing any more. It was a monster hiding in an old-lady costume. The Restless One watched Peter through strings of grey hair. The whites of its eyes were so dark both eyeballs appeared to be all pupil. Peter recoiled. “Clock it, ” he muttered. “Kill it. Rid the world of it. Clock it. Kill it. Rid the world of it. ” He fingered through the pile of stuff for a sharp object, something to stab it with. But before he could find anything, something slapped the surface of the water. The Restless One’s head turned back toward the lake. Peter scrambled to his knees and peered over the side. One of its hands was still absent-mindedly stirring the surface of the water. The other was holding a foot. Peter stared at the body floundering in the darkness beneath the surface of the lake and his dad’s pale face burst through, gasping and spluttering for life. “Pete!” His dad’s hands slapped the surface of the water. He tried to break free, but this only made the Restless One tighten its grip further. His dad gulped. Water flooded his mouth and his head disappeared back beneath the surface. The Restless One lunged forward, pulled down by the weight of the body dropping into the depths below. The canoe bucked. Water breached the side, swilling across the vessel’s wooden ribs at Peter’s feet. But the thing still didn’t let go. Peter swung round. He needed to find a weapon and he needed one fast. The paddle was still out of reach. He looked at the bundle of magazines sloshing at his feet. If only he could find something heavy enough, he could dash the thing over the head and push it overboard. If that’d work. Even then it might not let go and end up dragging his dad under with it. Peter dropped down to his hands and knees, frantically scrabbling through the sodden pile. There was nothing. Nothing at all and he couldn’t believe this was even happening and he didn’t have a clue what to do. He’d never set foot off the islands, let alone dealt with one of them before. But, before he was able to come up with anything, anything useful at all, another canoe rammed right into the side of theirs and flung Peter backward. Someone jumped aboard, their boots landing squarely inside the canoe. They didn’t even rock it. There was only one person who could do that. Peter couldn’t even balance on a beached log in a summer breeze, but this wasn’t the way with Cooper. They were roughly the same age, give or take a year or two, but while Peter’s dad still hadn’t let him anywhere near a rifle, Cooper could pop a row of tin cans into the air simply by smiling at them. Peter scrambled up on to his elbows. “I’m fine, Cooper,” he said. “I was just about to do something.” But Cooper had it covered. Ropes of matted blond hair swished forward, covering his face. His muddy fingers popped the knife sheath secured to his belt, but his eyes never left the Restless One once. His fist took the handle as easily as someone would grip a door handle and he drew his machete clean out. Cooper swung the blade above his head. It sliced through the air. The Dead One’s head toppled off its shoulders and plopped into the water. It was so much heavier than Peter had expected, more like a boulder than a ball. He scrambled backward, panting wildly, and his dad broke the surface of the water. There was a gasp and his white fingers clenched the lip of the canoe. But Peter never saw his head emerge. The world started spinning and he passed out. News of the incident would spread fast. Cooper’s dad, Bud, said as much when he stormed up the steps to Darlene’s place, cursing the boy who’d have his son digging two burial holes deep enough for the whole community to shit in so early of a morning. One unexpected witness with a hot tongue and the whole lake’ll be buzzing like flies round a rotting carcass. And he was right. Nothing scared folk more than a weak link in their system. Not even the big freeze. Peter drew a blanket tightly round himself and paced the length of Darlene’s porch while his dad and Bud argued inside. He leaned over the wooden railing and watched fat snowflakes tumble over the lake like feathers after a pillow fight. Darlene’s island, Boulder, was barely even an island at all. A single grey rock rose out of the water like the hump of a whale. A timber plinth to store firewood and canoes had been built on top. Perched on that, its four corners sticking out either side, was a tiny wooden chalet. With its porch, wind chimes and rocking chair, the chalet looked so impossible balancing there it was as if it had dropped clean out of the sky. But it was perfect. On those long summer nights, when the stench of dead flesh wasn’t carried across the lake by the wind, it was hard to imagine the world was anything other than bobbing fireflies and leaping salmon. Except, if the shouting inside was anything to go by, that was everyone’s problem with him. Peter was nearly sixteen and yet he was practically the only Lake Lander never to have set foot on the mainland. “He needs to wise up, Tom!” barked Bud. “He needs to get his hands dirty. He needs to get his hands real dirty real quick and wake up to the fact that no stranger’s ever dropping by for warm milk and cookies—” A chair scraped violently across the floorboards. “Bud, he knows that,” said his dad, cutting in. “Does he?” “Of course.” “Bah! He didn’t check the back of the canoe, let alone have the wherewithal to kill that thing. Hell, he didn’t even check for a trader’s permit. He’s too darn nice.” “He’s fifteen.” “Yeah. More or less the same as Cooper. He’s gotta learn.” “He’s fifteen, Bud.” “He’s a liability is what he is,” Bud growled. “He coulda got us all killed.” Peter slumped into the rocking chair and pushed it back and forth. Bud was right. As the truth of the matter bubbled up inside him, Peter pictured his dad’s pale face staring up at him from the black water below and tears ran down his cheeks. He leaned forward. His side was still hurting, but the wound wasn’t as deep as it could’ve been. Darlene was out hunting on the mainland when they finally got to her place, but Bud had done a good job stitching him up. The pain had now numbed to a kind of dull ache that was somehow less painful than all the feelings he had crashing around inside him. Peter pulled the cuff of his sweater over his fist to wipe his face and looked at the bundle of old bones and saggy brown skin splayed out at his feet. Bud’s bloodhound, Dolly, was so old that when she lifted her chin up off the floor at the sound of her master’s voice, her skin struggled to follow. But she must have heard him ranting a hundred times before. The tips of her droopy ears didn’t even make it off the floor before she let out a deep huff and slumped back down to sleep again. “That’s it, old girl,” said Peter, patting her gently. “You’re better off dreaming about your good old hunting days.” Dolly sighed a deep sigh and the arguing went on. Peter pushed his foot down, rocking the chair to and fro, to and fro, and looked out over the lake while his dad and Bud decided what to do about him. The wind chimes tinkled gently from the wooden beam. The snow kept tumbling. On the mainland, snow had started to settle across the rocky shore and pines, making the boughs droop. A squirrel scampered from one branch to another, causing a shelf of snow to catapult on to the rocks below. Peter leaned forward in his chair. He looked beneath the row of pines lining the shore and stared deep into the shadows to places in the woods where the world grew dark. Up in the forest canopy, the animals were free to come and go as they’d always done. A network of branches for miles around gave them passage through the wilderness and kept their homes safe. The forest floor was an entirely different story, however. Sure, the Lake Landers had made paths through the woods lined with hanging tin cans and cutlery that clinked like an alarm bell whenever anything went by. But the dense undergrowth of pine needles and dead branches always crackled to the sound of a hundred shuffling feet. The forest belonged to them. Peter looked away and not for the first time tried to picture his mom’s face where there wasn’t any memory of one. He hated them for that. He hated them so much. The Lake Landers came from all walks of life and they didn’t always have much in common with each other, least of all with him. But if the end of the old world had done one bit of good, it was that it had brought peace, uniting everyone against the monsters that had driven them here. Peter drew his blanket tighter round his body and the unfamiliar sound of clacking heels hit the steps up to the porch. Darlene flopped a rabbit carcass over the railing and stood there, adjusting her red hair back over her shoulders. “Darlin’,” she said. “What are you doing lurking around my porch like a racoon in winter?” “Hey, Darlene.” “Now I’m not saying that hearing a bunch of men arguing about me doesn’t bring back a lot of fond memories, but what the hell’s going on in there?” Peter looked down at Darlene’s heels. “Tell me you didn’t go hunting in those.” “No,” she said, kicking them halfway across the deck. “Found them on some dead thing back in the woods and for a moment there it took me right back to Saturday nights at Randy’s Rusty Spur. Now you might think that was just the name of some no-good bar, but you’d be wrong. God, that boy got around.” Darlene leaned back against the railing, gazing at the shoes wistfully. But the thought didn’t linger. She drew a knife from her belt, stabbing the wall next to a set of deer antlers she kept above the front door, and proceeded to hang the shoes heel up criss-crossing each other. “But that girl’s long gone.” Peter placed the blanket over the back of the rocking chair and held out the bottom of his sweater so Darlene could see the bloodstains. “Jesus,” she said. “What happened?” “Me and dad just had an accident.” “Looks like more than an accident. You both OK?” “Not really. Dad and Bud are inside arguing about it now.” “Arguing about what?” “An old man pretended to be a river trader.” “OK,” said Darlene. “But he asked for your permission to land, right?” “Course.” “And you made him keep his hands up in the air while you checked for his permit?” Peter glanced sideways and said nothing. He’d gone over this with Bud enough times already. “Dang it, darlin’,” said Darlene, putting her hands on her hips. “You can’t be too trusting.” “I get it.” “In the winter, we watch the Restless Ones. The rest of the year—” “We watch our own,” said Peter. “Yes, I know.” “I dunno, maybe serving greasy grills and whatnot in some low-rent diner stood me in good stead for this life, but I ain’t never had cause to trust a single soul unless they gave me a reason to. The only difference now is we’ve got the ones without a soul to watch out for too. Either way you look at it, people are people, Peter, and here we are still fightin’ each other.” Peter looked down. He didn’t have it in him to tell Darlene about the Restless One. Besides, she’d find out soon enough anyway. The chalet’s screen door swung open, breaking the silence, and Bud stormed out, his thick silver moustache twitchier than a squirrel’s tail. “You’re real lucky Cooper takes after his ol’ man and takes an early morning piss in the lake,” he said, twanging his braces back over shoulder. “Or you’d both be dead.” “And good morning to you too, Bud!” said Darlene. Bud dismissed her comment away with the swipe of his hand and slowly made his way down the steps leading off the porch. “The boy needs to get out there,” he said, whistling once for Dolly to follow. “Needs to kill some of the Dead stuff. Needs to see the desperados we’re dealing with too.” Dolly huffed, wearily picked her face up off the floor and trundled after her master. “I’m sorry,” Peter called. “Sorry won’t stop you gettin’ killed.” Darlene squeezed Peter’s arm and was about to say something else when his dad came out. “Reckon I’ll leave you two boys to sort it,” she said, making her way inside. “Let me know if you need anything.” His dad’s long johns were still completely sodden and dripping water all over the porch. He looked worryingly pale too. Peter picked the blanket up off the back of the rocking chair and draped it over his shoulders. His dad wiped more water from his stubble and leaned out over the railing. Peter tried to think of something to say other than sorry. But before he had a chance to come up with anything, his dad turned to him. “Pete,” he said softly. “Why did you need that old man to compliment you? Why did you need him to say you were good with an axe?” Peter watched Bud’s canoe set off across the lake and shrugged. “Haven’t I told you that myself?” “I guess.” His dad slumped down into the rocking chair, rubbing his temple. “Does your head hurt?” Peter asked. “Just a little.” Peter pushed away from the railing. Headaches always came before or after one of his dad’s fits, and he’d been through enough already this morning to trigger one. “Did you fit this morning?” “No, Pete, I’m fine.” “And what about now?” “Pete, I’m good. Stop fussing.” Peter looked away. Dad didn’t like being reminded of the one thing that could mark him out as being weak to the others, especially when they were in company. His dad yanked his right leg up across his knee and started to massage his toes back to life. “Look,” he went on. “Haven’t I told you that some people are better at some things than others, but it takes all sorts to make up a world?” “Yes,” said Peter. “Well, I can’t sew my own socks.” “I know.” “I can’t do half the things you can.” “But—” “But what?” “But you’re my dad. You’re supposed to say nice things.” “What, so I’m humouring you now?” Peter gazed out over the grey water. “You don’t need anyone’s approval,” said his dad, blowing hot air on to his feet. “Believe me. If I had an idiot son, you’d know about it, OK?” Peter still said nothing. His dad looked up. “OK?” “Yes, OK,” said Peter. “OK.” “But I want you to be safe. I dunno, maybe keeping you on the lake has been the best way to manage that up until now, but you’re getting older and it’s not entirely up to me any more. You know the rules. If we can’t help keep everybody safe, we can’t be here.” Peter nodded. “So what does that mean?” “So the lake committee are gonna make a decision about you tonight at the watchtower during the First Fall festival.” Peter turned away and watched Bud’s canoe disappear inside the snow. Over by the shore, something disturbed the pines. Snow tumbled from a bough and a pale hand withdrew round the back of a tree trunk. Peter opened his mouth to reassure his dad that he could take whatever the committee decided, but the words weren’t there any more than the feeling was. When he looked back across the water at the tree, a woman-shaped thing was standing there. Long black hair flanked a hollow face, all grey like driftwood now the skin had been bleached of blood. The denim dress hanging from its frame was just as faded too. But it showed no signs of coming undone at the seams any more than the figure’s skin did. Neither had been spoiled by weather or time. This woman’s body was only newly restless. His dad didn’t even acknowledge the thing, their presence on the lake was so commonplace. He carried on rubbing life back into his toes, but Peter kept staring. Her kind were the most unsettling of all – the ones that quietly appeared from nowhere. More like ghosts than monsters, they often found their way down to the lake and stood there, gazing out toward the islands’ tiny homes as if to recall memories of such things. Or worse, if their eyes fixed on you, memories of having been human once too. The Restless One stared at Darlene’s chalet. Peter looked away. They had a habit of sticking around once they’d spotted you. He’d held eye contact with one of them once before while chopping wood at the foot of the island and when he came back outside the following morning, the darned thing was still standing there, waiting for him. The screen door swung open. Darlene held up her arm in a motionless wave. “Hey, girl!” “Don’t,” said Peter. “What?” “You know what.” Darlene leaned over the railing and repeated the action. “Wait for it,” she said. “Just you wait for it.” The thing’s head turned to gaze in Darlene’s direction. Its dark eyes were lifeless but something inside it was able to process the new stimulus Darlene’s wave had provided. Peter stepped away from the railing and the thing waved back. “Jesus,” said Peter’s dad, slumping back into the rocking chair. “No matter how many times I see…” Peter looked away. “I hate it when they do that.” “What?” said Darlene. “Look human?” “Yeah.” “I know,” she said, lowering her hand. “I’m sorry. That was in poor taste. I hate that more than anything too.” She took the rifle she kept propped up against the chalet wall. “Too bad,” she said, aiming the barrel at the Restless One’s head and pulling the trigger. “I coulda had me a nice new outfit for tonight. Oh well. Call me if any eligible men turn up, won’t you?” The Restless One dropped face first into the water. “But I’ve got you a nice man here,” said Peter. “Keep lookin’, darlin’! Keep lookin’.” Darlene took the rabbit carcass from the railing and strung it from the porch ready for gutting. “Dad,” said Peter after a little while. “Yup.” “Does the word snowflake mean anything to you at all?” His dad stopped massaging the cold from his toes and looked up. “Huh?” “The river trader hurt me because I wasn’t wearing the snowflake. What did he even mean by that?” “You sure that’s what he said?” Peter nodded. His dad leaned forward in the rocking chair, staring at his son’s bloody sweater with his brow all heavy like the wound was everything about this damned world he couldn’t put right. But after a while he just shook his head. “I dunno, Pete. Crazy times, crazy people.” “Except he knew what he was saying.” “Then I don’t know. I’m sorry. Try and forget about it now, eh?” “He wasn’t a bad man.” His dad winced. “But he wasn’t.” His dad clenched his fists, locking eyes with Peter. But it was Darlene who spoke next. “No such thing as good or bad people no more, darlin’,” she said. “Just people surviving the best they can.” Peter didn’t know if he believed in that at all, but before he could say anything, Darlene changed the subject. “Anyways, why don’t you go down and thank Cooper?” Peter’s heart punched his chest. “What?” Darlene nodded toward the far end of the porch, then disappeared back indoors. “He’s been waiting there in his canoe for you this whole time!” Peter ducked back from the railing so he couldn’t be seen. “What does he want?” “Probably just to see if you’re OK,” said his dad. “He knows that already. By the end of tonight, everybody will know I’m only OK because of him.” “I thought you’d want to see him.” “No,” said Peter. “Why would you think that?” His dad cleared his throat. “You only chop wood so early in the morning because you know his canoe passes by around that time.” Peter narrowed his eyes. It was true though. He’d chopped enough wood to last them the next twenty winters. Not that it made much difference. Cooper didn’t even know he existed. Peter tugged the bottom of his sweater down to straighten it and made his way to the far end of the porch. He’d got to the top step when a canoe broke out over the water and Cooper set off back across the lake. “See? ” he said. Peter leaned into one of the porch’s posts. He didn’t know what the lake committee would have in store for him tonight, but the day was getting on and they should get back to their tree house to freshen up. He started to make his way down the steps to the water’s edge. “You coming, Dad?” “Pete!” “What?” “I don’t want you to worry that you’ll never meet someone.” “OK. Well, I don’t.” “Oh.” “Why, do you? Worry about me, I mean.” His dad scratched his stubble and shrugged. “A little.” “Why? Because there are more moose than men out here?” “Yeah, something like that.” “Well, don’t,” said Peter. “Besides, you’re not doing too well yourself.” His dad glanced over at Darlene’s front door and smiled. But his smile faded from his face like sunlight behind a cloud. He turned toward the lake as people who were old enough to remember sometimes did, and looked to those places beyond its shores. Places in his head he’d never get to share with Peter. “I just wish I could’ve shown you another world,” he whispered. Peter hung back on the steps. “It’s OK.” “But it’s not.” “But it’s OK that it’s not. It’s not your fault.” His dad gripped the railing, quietly making his way toward Peter, and the snow drifted out over the lake. It was good to get back to the tree house. The sun had come out too. Bundles of waxy pine needles at the windows, glistened in the thawing snow. Screeching blue jays took to the deck. And by late afternoon on these short October days, when the sun was just a ball of fire hanging low over the mountains, golden light streamed in broken beams through the front door, making the timber walls glow. But it always made everything look dustier than it really was. Peter scooped his dad’s patchwork quilt up off the floor. He stood at the open door to shake it and a thousand tiny dust particles exploded into the sunlight. He glared at the boxer shorts his dad had hurled over the deer antlers they should only use to hang their mugs from and sighed. Sure, this morning his dad might’ve had an excuse for making their home look like a bear had ransacked it, but the truth was Peter found tin cups, socks and other debris lying around the place like this every day. His dad liked to make out his son was ‘particular’ just because Peter made a point of sweeping the dust and pine needles out each morning and insisted on having all of the labels on their reused bottles facing forward for easy reference. But as far as Peter could make out, this was exactly the kind of thing messy people said to put the blame on someone else. Peter wafted the quilt down over his dad’s bed. He smoothed it out with the palm of his hand, pulling the corners down nice and tight on all four sides until the quilt was as taught as tarp stretched over a rack. “There,” he said, taking in both beds, happier now that the pair matched up. “That’s real nice.” But his satisfaction didn’t last long. A moment later, the dust fell. First it settled over the two beds, then the log burner in the corner of the cabin, the deer-hide rug and the rocking chair, until the whole cabin was buried in the stuff. “Pointless,” he said. “Thanks a bunch.” His dad came in off the deck with a towel wrapped round his waist, dripping water all over the place. He leaned against the door frame, scratching his armpit. “What’s up?” “The place is a mess.” His dad raised an eyebrow. “Sorry, am I missing something?” “Just look at it.” “Look at what?” “All the dust.” “Doesn’t look bad.” Peter huffed. “It looks like Pompeii.” “We don’t live in a show home, Pete.” “You know I don’t know what that is.” “Sure you do,” said his dad, folding his arms. “You get me to tell you about them enough times.” “Yeah,” said Peter. “Sounds like heaven.” His dad stretched out a big yawn and fell face down on to his bed making a mess of it again. “Anyways,” he said, “the water’s still warm down there if you want to use the tub.” The water was probably filthy, but Peter made his way out all the same. The timber roof jutted away from the front of the tree house enough for them to have a small bench with a plaid throw and some cushions by the door. One of the cushions toppled forward on to the deck and a racoon popped up its head. “Yeah,” said Peter. “I see you.” But the damned thing looked him square in the face with its button eyes and didn’t budge. Typical. You’d come home to find one in front of the log burner with a book and a nice hot drink, given half the chance. Peter huffed. “Trash panda!” The racoon turned away, completely unfazed, and jumped down off the bench. A narrow rope bridge flanked with wooden planks linked the tree house to a shallow platform with a rope ladder. Peter followed the racoon all the way across the bridge until it scurried off into the overhanging boughs and clambered down to the ground. His dad had done well to lug the rusty old pig trough in off the mainland and he’d recently completed the new wooden deck it stood on. It got chilly in its spot under the shadow of the tree house. But that kept the rain and pine cones out most of the time, and the tree house’s wooden stilts made a handy place to nail the CD mirror and tuna tin he’d fashioned into a toiletries shelf. Peter stripped off and folded his sweater and jeans into a neat pile on the deck. “Catch!” his dad called down. Peter caught the towel and hung it from one of the stilt’s nails. He dipped his toe into the water. It was only lukewarm now, but he clambered into the tub, kneeling so that the bandage Bud had wrapped round his waist didn’t get too wet. A wedge of snow slipped from the roof, landing in a slushy pile beside the tub. The afternoon had been warmer, but they were in for a clear night. It wasn’t long before the sun dipped behind the mountains, leaving a haze of dying light across the darkening sky behind them, and Peter felt the chill. He cupped his hands to pour water over his shoulders and looked out. In the distance, past Darlene’s island, at the heart of the lake stood the watchtower. In the spring and summer months, dozens of canoes could be seen on the water together, moored round its four vast timber stilts. A dizzying wooden staircase zigzagged all the way up the middle to the Sky Deck above. Swimmers dashed to the top and dive-bombed off it. Swishing fishing lines lassoed out from under the shadow of the overhanging roof to catch salmon. But after the First Fall supper tonight, all that would change. After tonight, the sound of sizzling barbecues and chatter would no longer waft up into the starry night. The fiddles and guitars went back inside their cases. The crossbows and arrows came out of theirs. The wind chimes came down off their hooks. The brass toll bell went up. Then the rota was drawn up. Next came the watching and the waiting, first for the ice to form and then for the Restless Ones to come. A shiver bristled down Peter’s back. He pushed himself out of the water, quickly wrapping the towel beneath his armpits. He’d started to shiver violently now so he perched himself on the end of the tub and rubbed his legs. He couldn’t understand why the old man hadn’t destroyed his wife before she tried to kill him. How could he bear to see her that way? A wolf cried out across the mountains somewhere and the word snowflake broke into his thoughts. But he didn’t want it there so he shimmied the towel in between each toe and watched something bobbing toward the island, carried in by the current. Maybe it was a piece of driftwood or an item of clothing perhaps – the lake washed all sorts of flotsam and jetsam over to their place. In the summer, hardly a week went by when Peter hadn’t returned somebody’s lost bathing suit or towel that’d blown off the Sky Deck while hanging out to dry. But whatever it was had got wedged in between a couple of rocks near his dad’s canoe. The light was too dim to make it out from this distance so Peter picked his underpants up off the pile and yanked his jeans and sweater back on. He hopped down off the decking and made his way to the shoreline. He’d got as far as the canoe when he stopped. Peter lifted the paddle out with both hands and angled it down in between the rocks. The flat end of the paddle dipped under the water and Peter felt the weight of whatever it was on top. He heaved, stumbling backward, and a piece of cloth plopped in a sodden heap on to the nearest rock. He prodded the bundle with the paddle and flipped it over. It was the denim dress the Restless One had been wearing. Peter’s stomach lurched. Someone should’ve fished the body out of the water by now. His eyes darted to the rocks. The thing might be standing there. But there was no one – no one he could see at any rate. He dropped the paddle inside the canoe, ready to make his way back to the tree house, when he felt the weight of someone watching him and swung round. A canoe hung on the dark water as silently as a wolf in the woods. Peter stumbled back. “Dad!” “Aw hell,” came a voice. “I didn’t mean to startle ya.” A forest of tangled blond hair swished forward followed by a bloodied face. Peter let out a deep sigh. “Cooper?” Cooper tucked a strand of hair back behind his ears and shrugged. “I was just checking you was doin’ OK is all.” “Were, ” said Peter. Cooper cocked his head to one side like a confused dog. “Huh?” “Were OK. Was is the wrong grammatical construction.” Cooper looked away and seemed to rummage around in his head for the right thing to say. And it should’ve felt good watching him struggle for a change. After all, it wasn’t often that a chipmunk could outsmart a bobcat. Except it didn’t feel good at all. It would’ve been easier to live with the fact that the only other boy around Peter’s age happened to be the best Zee-wrangler the lake had ever seen if he was as mean as a westerly wind. But he wasn’t. From the little Peter knew from watching Cooper out on the lake all these years, patrolling it or ferrying people back home late at night when they’d had too much to drink over at one of the neighbour’s, he was more than useful. He was well liked. It also didn’t help that he had the bluest eyes either. Even now, with his face half caked in dried blood and dirt, like he’d just crawled out of some stinking geyser, they still blazed like the blue of a flame. Peter pulled down on his sweater and looked away. All he had were his dumb words. Cooper had everything. “I should’ve come and found you to say thank you,” said Peter at last. “Sorry.” Cooper scratched under his armpit and shrugged. “I din’t come to chase you for no thank yous.” “Well, I should’ve.” There was another awkward silence so Peter filled it. “Did you bury the old man and that thing?” “Yeah. Good and proper, out in the woods.” Peter turned to leave. “Well, that must’ve been hard work, so thank you.” “You going to First Fall soon?” “I s’pose.” Cooper leaned forward and for some reason looked hopeful. “Me too.” “OK. Well, maybe see you there.” “Wanna lift?” “What? No. I’m going with my dad.” “Oh, I know. But if you wanted to hitch a ride or somethin’?” “No, it’s OK.” Cooper dipped his paddle in the water and brought the canoe a little closer to the shore. “It’s just that I sluiced out a bunch a deer guts from earlier and laid down a new hide on the seats and everything, so she’s good to go if you wanted. If you wanted to travel with me, I mean.” Peter looked at Cooper’s shirt. It was so bloodied you couldn’t even make out the black and red plaid beneath it any more. Cooper must’ve noticed his hesitation and quickly glanced down to check himself. “Oh,” he said, wiping his muddy palms across his thighs. “I honk. Do I honk? I’ve not washed the guts off yet, but I got a clean tee back home. Well, kinda clean.” Peter narrowed his eyes. “I can make it across the lake without being killed most of the time, you know.” “Course. I din’t mean that. I just wondered if you wanted to come with me is all. But it don’t matter.” Doesn’t matter, thought Peter. “Besides, I don’t even know if I’m going to go yet.” Cooper furrowed his brow. “How come?” “Well, your dad’s gonna make sure Henry gets me out on the mainland for one thing.” Cooper looked out toward those dark places where only the pine trees dared stand still. “They’ll get off your back just as soon as you’ve killed one of the Dead,” he said. “I can show you how things work. If you wanted, I mean. Besides, it ain’t so bad out there.” “I don’t see how it can be anything but.” “Well, I ain’t saying it’s not crazier than a dog chasing its own tail, but you can’t see nothin’ all cooped up on these islands.” “I can see plenty.” “No,” said Cooper, “you can’t. The view from where you’re standing ain’t wilderness, it’s scenery.” Peter followed Cooper’s line of sight, but he could only make out the black tips of the pines against the starry night. “Why, what can you see?” Cooper struck the paddle down in the water like a post and rested his chin on the tip. “Oh, everythin’. The mountains, meadows, rivers roarin’. The way the stars aren’t like a flat ceiling overhead at all, but a universe that wraps all the way around us deep beneath the planet.” Peter gazed up at the flat roof of stars you could see above the trees around the lake. He didn’t even know what Cooper was talking about. “There’s something about open places that makes a man consider himself,” said Cooper, as if his soul somehow belonged out there. Peter watched Cooper’s Adam’s apple rise and fall in his throat when he couldn’t even see his own in the mirror and marvelled at the ease he had in considering himself a man. “Open places make you consider yourself?” “Yeah,” said Cooper. “Like the plains.” “And the stars?” “Uh-huh. And the sea and the desert too, Pa says. But I dunno why that is.” Peter shrugged. “Perhaps it’s because they make us feel small.” “No. They make me feel bigger, Peter.” Cooper sliced the paddle through the water and turned the canoe to leave. “Well,” he sighed, “as long as you’s doing OK. I guess I’ll see you around.” Peter felt a sudden tug in his stomach he didn’t recognize. He took a step forward and went to delay him. But he stopped himself and a moment later the canoe slipped inside the darkness and Cooper was gone. Peter ran his fingers across his throat to feel for his Adam’s apple and gazed up at the starry night. The tree house door creaked open behind him and light struck the shore. “He carried you all the way up the steps to Darlene’s from the canoe,” called his dad. “Wouldn’t a hurt you to say yes.” Peter felt the sharp tug in his tummy again. “Say yes to what?” “Come on, Pete. Come inside, it’s getting cold.” Peter held back, scanning the darkness for the canoe. But after a moment or two, the sound of the paddle cutting through the water had all but gone so he headed back toward the tree house. He’d clambered halfway up the rope ladder when the distant sound of music and laughter caught the air and he looked round. Across the lake, golden oil lamps glowed from the watchtower like fireflies round a tree. They circled the base where the canoes were already mooring and lined the staircase all the way up to the Sky Deck. The First Fall party had begun. Peter sighed. They were good people. The Lake Landers had worked hard to build a community out here with what the military had given them when those who chose to stay behind in the towns and cities barricaded themselves into homes the Dead later turned into coffins. His mom and dad had done well to leave town, where everything was so much worse, and trek the southern ranges when Peter was barely a toddler. His dad had done even better to stumble across this place when the region’s largest refuge at Yellowstone was still several days north of here. He’d persuaded Henry and the others to welcome them on to the lake because of his valuable lumbering skills too. All Peter did was show up. By the time he was old enough to lie on the island of Skipping Mouse watching the clouds roll by, a new life had already been achieved out here that made that kind of thing possible again. Now it was his turn to make sure he helped keep it that way. That’s all. And about time too, he reminded himself, when a short while later, his dad dipped the paddle into the water and they set off toward the watchtower. They crossed the lake in silence. The canoe cut a trail through a carpet of stars, making them quiver then re-form as the black water stilled behind them. The comfort of home slipped inside the darkness and Peter faced forward. His dad had agreed to paddle so Peter could sit up back, sulking over the Hawaiian shorts with the pink blossoms Darlene had found for him. It was tradition to wear summer clothes to First Fall as a way of sticking the finger to the coming winter. Last year he’d made a garland out of plastic flowers for his dad to go with the grass hula skirt he’d decided to wear. But Dad had opted for a simple pair of board shorts and white vest tonight as if he knew the event was weighted by seriousness other years had been free from. The nose of the canoe aligned with the watchtower like a compass finding due north, and they approached the great wooden structure. His dad drove the paddle through the water and turned. “You OK back there?” Peter looked up and watched a tiny spot of light darting across the stars – a satellite. It was still questing through space, none the wiser that there was no one left down below to even care what it was doing up there. “Pete?” Peter stayed with the satellite and felt sorry that its vigil over the planet was in vain. Poor thing, poor little thing. The satellite passed over the lake and disappeared further off into space. “Pete!” Just a little longer and he’d stop asking. “Damn it, Pete, talk to me. I can practically hear you thinking back there.” Peter looked down, running his fingers through the icy water. He saw his dad’s white face staring up at him from below the surface again and retracted his hand. “Why did the old man stay with his wife?” he asked. “When he knew she was dead, I mean.” “Because he loved her,” said his dad as a matter of fact. “Yes. But why would he stay with her if she’d turned?” “Because he loved her, Pete. Love makes you do stupid things. You’ll see.” Peter looked up at him. Mom was still with them when they’d escaped town. Dad had never explained why she didn’t make it out on to the shores of Lake Wranglestone. Only now it was as if he’d left a door ajar on the subject for the very first time and Peter didn’t know whether to let himself in. “Did love make you do stupid things, Dad?” Peter stared at the back of his dad’s head and waited. “When she was alive, yeah, all the damned time. I stationed my wagon outside her office to watch her leave work. I was out there so early most afternoons, her boss knocked on my window with a cup of coffee for me once and told me that—” “You were killing Mom’s feminism, but she’d see you at five. Yeah, Dad, I know. But after that?” His dad lifted the paddle out of the water and let the canoe drift. “No, Pete.” “You don’t sound so sure.” His dad slapped the paddle down across the width of the canoe and, with an impatience he hadn’t given in to before, swung round. “Well, I shoulda been. Because the thing that pulled you upside down by the ankle to take you into its mouth wasn’t your mom any more. It was a monster.” His dad’s eyes widened, locking on to Peter’s. He held eye contact for longer than was comfortable, and the horror of the word monster danced in the air between them like wildfire. Peter’s heart pounded. He never knew his mom would’ve hurt him if his dad hadn’t stopped her. He never knew that. The madness left his dad’s face. His thoughts slowly shifted behind his eyes and eventually a strange calm fell between the two of them. “Why didn’t you do something in the canoe, Pete?” Peter winced. His dad never let on when he was disappointed in him, never, even though he probably felt it half the time. “I tried to,” said Peter. “I tried real hard, but—” “But what?” “I hesitated.” “Damn it. Bud was right. I’ve done wrong keeping you cooped up so long.” His dad’s brow fell all heavy with difficult thoughts and Peter knew it was one of those moments when he wished Mom was still around just so he could share the burden. He was more comfortable doing stuff to show he cared than he was making big statements, and tended to come out in hives whenever the need for a father-son talk presented itself. As far as Peter could see from life on the lake, this was the way of men more often than not. But he’d learned to accept it just as much as his dad had learned to accept him for being the other way round. “You know this already,” said his dad after a while. “In the second it takes for you to mistake them for one of us, in the moment you think you see something in their eyes that reminds you of yourself, of being connected to another soul, of being human, they’ll have taken you inside their mouth and devoured everything you ever were. They might look like someone you once knew, your neighbour, Darlene, your own wife even, but they’re not, Pete. They’re nothing. They’re not even animals. They’re as cold and lifeless as a Halloween pumpkin with its candle snuffed out. And they’ll take everything you got inside you because they got nothing left inside them, nothing. They’re not right, none of them. Learn that and you’ll learn how to stay alive.” Peter looked down. It sounded like his dad was saying that for his own benefit more than Peter’s, but he nodded all the same. The canoe drifted under the watchtower and knocked into the other canoes moored there, making them clang into each other like wooden wind chimes. His dad stood, grabbing the mooring rope, and started to tie the canoe to the one next to them. “I didn’t mistake the monster for a woman,” said Peter. “I didn’t.” “I know, Pete.” “But I can see how the old man could’ve done. Because he loved her, I mean. I still don’t know why he was angry I wasn’t wearing a snowflake though.” His dad’s fist clenched the rope. But the talk was over. He slapped his hand down across his thigh as if to put an end to the matter. “Come on. They’ll have cracked open the First Fall whisky and I’m not missing out.” Peter creased the corners of his mouth into a half-smile and stood. He straddled the width of the canoe to stop it from rocking and clambered across all the others moored there, to the base of the stairs. The bottom step hovered about five feet above the line of the water to stop wolves and lynx from getting up the watchtower when the lake was frozen. But an extra wooden step had been fitted to the bottom one by a hinge that could be pulled down over the lake for easy access. Peter stepped up and turned back. “Go on,” said his dad, shooing him along. “I’ll just finish tying this up.” Peter made the steep climb up through the middle of the watchtower. He’d gone a little way, where the cooler mountain air struck his face, when he paused to look out over the tops of the trees. To the south, far beyond the forest borders of Wranglestone, the Shark Tooth mountains sliced into the black sky. They’d beckoned many a wanderer’s heart. Peter had never felt that call – he could see more than enough from here. But, for the first time, his sights were drawn toward their snowy peaks and he wondered why. A canoe passed beneath the tower carried by the sad song of an old harmonica. Peter leaned into the handrail. Darlene said its music always spoke of lonesome nights and long-lost loves, but the revellers up top were in no mood for the sound of their sorry-assed lives. Not tonight. Not all the while the lake was still moving. Someone lobbed a bottle over the top of the watchtower. It plopped into the water, narrowly missing the canoe. This was followed by heavy booing and jeering. A fast country fiddle kicked in, drowning out the harmonica. Soon the whole watchtower boomed with feet thumping and hands clapping, and Peter pulled his own heavy feet further up the stairs. He turned the corner and hung back just short of the Sky Deck. The lakes weren’t the only area to offer protection from the Dead. Some people took to the mountains in the wake of the new world. But others had gone a step further. Half a mile east of the lake, a granite cliff face jutted up out of the forest. On a dark and moonless night like tonight, the only way you could tell where the Ridge ended and the sky began was the outline the stars made behind it. The Restless Ones roamed the higher ground in herds. But the sheer rock face belonged to trekkers and mountain climbers in their hanging tents, and the rock twinkled now with dozens of tiny lights as if the stars themselves had slipped from the sky. “I saw Cooper save your sorry ass this morning,” came a familiar voice from behind him. Becky was perched on the handrail. Her legs swung to and fro so her flip-flops dangled from her toes. A bandana kept her tawny mane off her face. She was pretty much the same age as Peter, but her mom had passed away so she lived with the last of the old Morgan sisters, Essie, in her tree house over on Moose’s Reach. Becky liked to make out she was better off alone, but old Essie could simultaneously skin a squirrel while brushing some sense into Becky’s hair without the need to put her pipe down, and truth was Becky quite liked it that way. She took a slug of beer from the bottle she was holding and held it out for Peter. “No,” he said. “I’m good.” Becky rolled her eyes and took another swig. “Loser,” said Peter. “Peter,” said Becky. “Peter’s my name already.” “Yeah, but it sounds just like loser.” Peter sighed. “Such a loser.” “Such a Peter.” Peter slumped over the handrail. “So you think they’ll all be waiting for me up there then?” “Waiting?” said Becky, half spitting her beer back out. “They’ll have the pitchforks out.” “S’pose I’d better go on up.” Becky shrugged. “Hang back here with me for a while if you want.” Another canoe passed beneath the watchtower. More laughter came from above. “How do you know if someone likes you?” asked Peter after a while. “Oh, I dunno, Pete,” said Becky. “Maybe they pretend to chop wood really badly down by the water’s edge while fluffy pink hearts pop out of their undershorts.” Peter swiped the beer bottle from Becky’s hand and took a swig. “No, not me. Cooper.” “Remind me what’s wrong with you again?” “I think he asked me out to First Fall earlier.” “Think? I watched his canoe circle your place about fifty times before he mustered up the courage to approach you. You’re an idiot if you can’t tell how much he likes you.” “You think?” “What, that you’re an idiot?” “No, that he likes me!” “Yes,” said Becky. “You’re an idiot and he likes you, so what you’re doing sitting here, talking to this waste of space, I’ve no idea.” Peter’s heart pounded in his chest. “Why? Is he here already? On the Sky Deck, I mean?” “Dunno.” Peter tugged his T-shirt neatly over his shorts. Why he’d agreed to wear these ridiculous things he had no idea. He huffed into his hand to check his breath and caught Becky looking at him. “Jesus. You’ve made a wedding list already, haven’t you?” “No.” “You’re so gonna choose curtains together.” “Don’t poke fun at me. Besides, I don’t even know why I’m thinking about that right now. Bud will have made sure Henry’s come up with a plan for me over on the mainland.” “Well, you’re screwed if they make you a wrangler.” “Wrangler? No. I couldn’t possibly—” Becky nodded. “Nope. You really couldn’t. But on the plus side you’ll be dead within the hour so you won’t need to worry about it.” “You’re a good friend,” said Peter, passing back the bottle. Becky nodded gravely and held the bottle aloft. “You too.” Peter smiled, but he simply didn’t have the kind of mettle someone like Cooper had. And Becky must’ve known she’d said too much. She broke eye contact and looked past Peter to where his dad was now standing. “Er, hey, Mr Nordstrum,” said Becky, jumping down off the handrail. “I didn’t mean to worry Peter. I was just—” “Becky,” said his dad as if to draw a line under this conversation. Peter felt his dad’s hand against his back. But before he had a chance to ask if the committee could really see him working as a wrangler when they already had the best one in Cooper, someone clinked a glass to call for everybody’s attention and the three of them made their way up. The Sky Deck was fenced in on all sides and capped with an apex roof. Apart from the odd fishing rod left propped against the four timber support columns, it was usually free of any furniture or decoration throughout the summer and fall months until tonight, the biggest event in the lake’s calendar. Moths fluttered round the rafters where golden oil lamps were hanging. A host of wooden wind chimes cling-clanged in the cold night air. Here and there, piñata snowflakes made out of papier mâché dangled from the wooden beams. And over in the corner, tucked up inside an empty beer barrel, was the poor soul who’d volunteered to play the spirit of First Fall this year, One Who Follows. As ever, the barrel sat on its end. A single hole was cut in the top with soil sprinkled all around. Suspended from a piece of string above the barrel was a papier-mâché snowflake dripping berry juice for blood. Arnold Schmidt approached the barrel with his five-year-old daughter Emily hiding in between his legs. “Now,” he said, hoisting her up on to his shoulders. “Reach inside the hole and you might get a treat. Isn’t that right, Peter?” Peter scanned the crowd for Cooper. Mr Schmidt cleared his throat. “Isn’t that right, Peter?” “Er, yes,” said Peter. “Yeah, that’s right.” Mr Schmidt lifted Emily up and leaned over so she could reach inside the barrel. She pulled down on her pigtails and suddenly came over all nervous. He gently squeezed her waist for her to go on and she gingerly hovered her hand over the hole. She waited. But she didn’t have to reach inside. A set of bony fingers, caked in white paint by the looks of it, wriggled through the hole like worms hungry for the light. Clenched between the forefinger and thumb was a wrapped sweet. Emily squealed. She snatched the sweet before she lost her nerve and turned back to show her dad, beaming with delight. A round of applause rippled round the deck, but the sound of a glass clinking called for attention again and everyone turned to the far end of the deck. With his old fishing hat and eyebrows so bushy behind his reading spectacles that they looked like caterpillars trapped behind glass, Henry was the oldest member of the lake committee and the one responsible for organizing the winter watch rota. Overall, no one cared much about who you used to be in the old world any more than they cared about what the Restless Ones used to be before they weren’t human any more. All that mattered was what this life had made you into and whether or not you were someone who could help or hinder the survival of others. Henry was unusual in that what he used to be mattered a great deal. Newcomers to the lake looking to find a home there liked to think that their hunting and killing prowess was valuable enough to bag them a spot on the islands. The truth was that the new world had made hunter-gatherers of everyone. But Henry was a dying breed and that most prized of all vanishing treasures, a retired doctor. And as a former committee member of the prestigious Hamiltons golf club, he was a natural chairman, a position in all of the Lake Landers’ lives that he humbly accepted. Henry tapped his wedding ring against the side of his glass once more and the chattering died down. “And so, dear friends,” he began, “another winter is upon us.” A murmur of resignation rippled across the Sky Deck. Darlene looked back through the crowd and caught Peter’s eye. She pointed at her chest and winked to highlight how camp it was of her to turn up in a polkadot bikini. You OK, darlin’ ? she mouthed. Peter nodded even though it wasn’t true and glanced round to see if Cooper had arrived yet. “We’ve enjoyed a good summer,” Henry went on. “And a safe one too. But it wouldn’t be proper if we didn’t start proceedings by saying goodbye to those we lost.” There was a collective murmur followed by silence. Peter clasped his hands together, bowing his head. He hadn’t known Meredith Mathews too well, but she’d told him not to doubt himself once when he’d got into an argument with his dad for felling a tree right on top of her cabin and he’d never forgotten it. As always, Henry judged the obituary well and gave just enough time for people to say their goodbyes in private, then moved things along again before he killed the party mood completely. A minute or two had passed when Henry looked up into the crowd for Mr Schmidt, as was the custom, in order to thank him for his continued efforts guiding infected Lake Landers off the islands to the extraction point in the woods by Wranglestone Falls. “Our thanks as ever go to Arnold for his tireless efforts escorting our loved ones off the lake and, of course, to the military for continuing to take them, despite the fact we only have one officer in place inside the park now.” “That’s right, Arnold,” came a voice. “Hear, hear.” “Now,” said Henry, clapping his hands together once to mark the end of the serious stuff. “Moving on to gladder news, we only had one bear incident this year. I’d like to thank all you folks for continuing to keep your personal effects locked up in the bear boxes and remind you to keep any deodorants, toothpaste and other perfumed items you may have acquired locked away, and that colognes and scent are strictly forbidden. I’m sure Betsy and Don won’t mind me saying that bears are attracted to any smell and will swim across the lake if they think something good’s at the other end of it for them.” Everyone looked over toward the Carmichaels. Henry gazed over the bridge of his glasses. “I think it’s safe to say that you had a narrow escape, Don.” Don Carmichael wiped the back of his hand across his balding head and raised his tin cup as if to say, Amen to that. When the committee had met to discuss the bear incident, he’d blamed himself for leaving his deodorant out in the sun, but everyone knew that Mrs Carmichael had bought a bottle of cheap perfume from one of the river traders and sprayed their island with it to get rid of the stench of dead flesh wafting in from the mainland. “Now, lucky for us,” Henry went on, “the bears will all be taking to their caves long before the big freeze. But the lake is still going to be susceptible to wolves and we, of course, have other visitors to contend with. So once again, after tonight, can I please remind you to take down your wind chimes and keep any outdoor noise to a minimum? I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that animals are mostly attracted to smell, but the Restless Ones will always be drawn to our quarters by noise. So if I could kindly ask all you nice people with young ones to make sure that they play indoors just as soon as the ice begins to freeze, and remind anyone who’s doing a run over to the mainland to make their way with quiet feet.” Becky nudged Peter. “Is he talking about us?” Peter smiled. “Remember to take your toys inside, OK?” “And when will the ice form?” came a voice from the crowd. “Yes, Henry,” came another. “When? We babysit Emily when Arnold’s out. You try keeping a five-year-old cooped up indoors.” “The lake will always start to freeze,” said Henry, raising his voice a little now, “like a scab around a wound, on the edges near the shore where the water’s shallowest. So just as soon as that starts, I suppose.” “But when exactly?” said Drew Matthews. “Well,” said Henry, “we had the first snowfall this morning, so soon.” “But how soon?” “Yeah. How soon, Henry?” Henry took off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. He said something else after that, but Peter couldn’t make out what it was. Old Essie Morgan sidled up to Becky, her smoking pipe rooted to the corner of her mouth, and leaned in. “I hear some of the hangin’ bottles have come down from their strings in the westerly forest trail. I ain’t doing no run until I know that’s been seen to.” Then Becky chipped in. “I spoke to a couple of trackers up in the mountains, Henry, who said that they’d seen a herd of deadbeats out by Moose Creek. What if they find their way here?” And so it went on. Soon the Sky Deck was brimming with the same nerves and anxiety the community experienced every year. Darlene looked back through the crowd, rolling her eyes. Peter smiled, but he didn’t feel any different to the others. As the whole lake was about to go to sleep for the winter, the one thing that never slept was about to grow in strength and number. Henry raised both palms to shush everyone and scanned the crowd for an ally. “All right, folks,” he pleaded. “There’s no need to panic. All of your questions will be answered and all of your concerns addressed in good time.” But no one was listening any more. “If a new herd is on the move,” Henry went on, “then we’ll need volunteers for a tracking party to see if they’re coming this way and take action accordingly. Young Cooper can always herd them away if need be – we know that.” Henry fumbled to put his glasses back on and the din increased. Peter glanced round for Cooper in case he’d arrived, then turned to his dad. “Help him out.” His dad put his two front fingers in his mouth ready to whistle. But before he got the chance, a single gunshot cracked over the watchtower and everyone was silenced. Peter ducked. The sound of the bullet ricocheted round the lake like a clap in a cave. By the time he finally stood upright, everyone had turned to the back of the Sky Deck where Bud was standing. Bud doffed his Stetson and leaned back against the railing at the top of the staircase. “Busted-up fences and hungry bears are the least of you people’s problems,” he said, planting the rifle on the floor. “We got a weak link in our company.” Heads turned back in toward the gathering. Wicked whispers rippled round the Sky Deck as everyone tried to weed out the weak one hiding in plain sight. But one person wasn’t scanning the crowd. Peter felt Henry’s eyes on him from across the deck. He’d been told. Of course he’d been told. Henry furrowed his brow as if to say the whole thing was out of his control and quickly looked away to spare Peter the shame. But it was futile. A moment later, Bud did it for him. “Why, oh why,” said Bud, “are we not talking about the boy?” “Yes, thank you, Bud,” said Henry, cutting in. “I was coming to that, but I have a few other announcements to make first. So all in good time, my friend, all in good time.” Bud was having none of it. He brought the old tin can he was holding up to his lips, lugged on whatever it was he had inside and cocked his head. “Now we can all listen to old On Golden Pond over there until we’re blue in the face, and I’m sure it’s real nice to find out who won the fly fishing contest and which one of you nice people gave out the most hugs. But the truth is we had a breach in our security this morning and that trust was given away as freely as apple pie on the fourth of July.” Essie Morgan chewed on her pipe. “Is that true, Henry?” “Who?” several voices asked all at once. “Who, Henry? Who?” “Now, that’s enough,” said Peter’s dad, stepping forward. “That’s right, Tom,” said Bud, crunching the can in his fist. “And I reckon you of all people should’ve had enough more than most. I mean, you must be so exhausted stepping in and covering his weaknesses, it probably woulda been easier to shove a dress over him and make out you had a daughter.” Darlene folded her arms. “Aw, Bud baby, you’re so right. Cos all us girls do all day is stay in waiting for our menfolk to come home.” Bud cleared his throat and looked Essie Morgan’s way for moral support. But it was too late. Peter’s dad was already elbowing his way through the crowd. “I restored your goddamn house for you, you no-good son of a bitch,” he said, seizing Bud by the collar. “My son made the pillows you rest your thick head on every goddamn night.” Darlene wove her way through the crowd and Becky followed. The two of them grabbed Tom by the shoulders and yanked him back. “He’s not worth it, darlin’,” said Darlene. “Easy, fellas,” said Becky, placing her hand on Bud’s chest to pacify him. “Easy does it, boys.” But Bud was unmoved. “Give your boy some of that there anger,” he said, pulling down his Stetson to shield his face, “and we might survive the winter.” Peter’s dad lunged forward in temper before Darlene could pacify him. But eventually his breathing steadied. He shrugged her hands off his shoulders and looked up. “Come on, Pete,” he said, wiping saliva off his chin with the back of his hand. “We’re going home.” But Peter didn’t move. “No, Dad,” he said. “It’s all right.” “No. It’s not.” Peter stood firm. “All said and done, it doesn’t really matter how he put it, does it?” His dad shook his head and all eyes fell on Peter. Bud looked up from under the brim of his Stetson and sized Peter and his dad up like one man does another when its undecided who’s gonna back down first. But after a moment or two, he cleared his throat and spoke. “Thank you for making my pillows, Peter,” he said under some duress. “I sure do appreciate it.” “You’re very welcome,” said Peter. “I’m grateful to you and Cooper for saving my life. Perhaps I can return the favour one day, if you’ll show me the ropes that is.” Bud squinted. “Perhaps.” Peter let out a sigh and nodded. The crowd started to talk among themselves, even if it was just to spare Peter any further embarrassment, and Peter leaned in. “Is Cooper here?” Bud’s silver moustache twitched. He was as surprised by the question as Peter was. It came out without him even thinking about it. But when Bud told him that Cooper wasn’t coming, Peter’s stomach ached and he realized he was disappointed. “Why not?” “Dunno,” said Bud without much interest. “Said he weren’t in no mood for it.” “But—” “I reckon he’s ’bout beat digging goddamn holes all afternoon, don’t you?” Peter glanced toward the top of the staircase when Henry clinked his glass to call for attention again and Peter turned to face him. “So what happens now?” he asked. “Well,” said Henry, removing his fishing hat, “if it’s all settled, tradition dictates that a first-footer on to the mainland must shake hands with One Who Follows. ” Peter nodded. “Then it’s settled.” He looked round at the barrel and the pale fingers emerged through the hole once more like worms hungering for the light. The oil lamps flickered. The wind chimes stilled. But before Peter had a chance to make his way over, there was a commotion at the back of the Sky Deck behind the stairwell and everyone turned. “The stars are falling!” It was Emily. She’d wandered off without her dad noticing, as was often the way, and was standing on tiptoes, leaning over the edge of the deck. The crowd parted to let Mr Schmidt through. He squeezed by everyone with his palms held aloft, saying sorry and sorry as he passed. He crouched down behind Emily and went to pick her up, but she yanked her shoulder away and pointed. “Look!” she said. “The stars are falling from the sky.” Henry looked at Peter as if to say, Sorry, this won’t take a moment, but Emily was insistent. Before he knew it, everyone was bundling down to the foot of the deck to see what all the fuss was about. Peter worked his way through the crowd and looked out into the darkness toward the Ridge. “I don’t see nothin’,” said Bud, barging to the front. “It’s too darned bright, Henry,” a voice called. “Yeah,” came another. “Turn the goddamn lamps down.” Hands reached up into the roof’s beams and dimmed the oil lamps. Darkness fell over the Sky Deck. An eerie silence followed. Peter took a moment to let his eyes adjust. It was mostly just a black mass out there. But a moment later the silhouette of the forest emerged against the lighter grey rock of the Ridge behind it and he saw the climbers’ tiny little lights in the distance, twinkling across the rock face. Peter narrowed his eyes to stop them smarting in the cool mountain air. There was a cluster of lights right up near the top of the rock where the largest group of climbers were camped. Peter had started to count them when two of the lights broke free from the others and dropped clean out of the sky. There was a collective gasp. The lights bounced off a lower ledge and kept falling. Peter heard distant screams. They all did. But it was over in seconds. The lights disappeared behind the line of trees below and there was silence. “Oh, sweet Jesus,” said Darlene, turning away. “Did you see that?” came another voice. More followed. More tumbling lights followed by more screams. “What’s happening?” said Mrs Carmichael, leaning into her husband. “Why are they falling?” There could be only one reason. Peter looked up toward the top of the cliff. A grey mass moved like sludge across the top of the Ridge and spilled right over the edge. “Zees!” said Bud. “A goddamn herd of Rotters.” And the Dead just kept coming. There were hundreds of pale bodies tipping over the edge. One by one, each row of lumbering limbs tumbled forward and the next row followed. The bodies that didn’t just plummet to the ground clipped the hanging tents as they fell, bringing the climbers crashing down with them. One oil lamp must’ve smashed into its tent before it fell, causing it to erupt into flames. It broke away from the rock face and a screaming fireball plummeted into the forest below. Peter’s dad took his shoulder and stood behind him. “Something must’ve chased them over the edge,” he said. Bud shook his head. “Nope.” “Then what made them want to come this way?” “Us.” Goosebumps bristled across the hairs on Peter’s forearms. “I knew we was making too much darned noise,” said Bud. “And now they’re coming for us.” Peter’s dad turned. “Yeah. You’re the damn idiot who fired the shot.” Activity broke out across the Sky Deck. Shoulders bumped into shoulders. Nervous whispers quickly changed into calls to action. Orders were barked to get home for safety or ammunition. Peter couldn’t remember seeing so many Restless Ones in one go, but preparation for such an attack was well drilled for. Bud pulled the brim of his Stetson down over his eyes and barged through the crowd. “A few of ’em will snap in two on their way down, but the rest will be on us within the hour,” he said, marching toward the top of the staircase with his trench coat swishing behind him. “We won’t get rid of ’em once they’re here. They’ll just loiter on the shore until the ice forms. So get those goddamn wind chimes down and somebody snuff those lamps on the staircase out. Now!” Bud stopped at the top of the steps. He drew himself up to his full height. The tails of his trench coat billowed in the wind and fell still. “Boy,” he said, without turning round. “It’s time.” Peter’s heart bucked like a rabbit in a trap and his dad’s hand left his shoulder. He knew there was no way round it. “But I don’t know how to wrangle the Dead,” he said. “No,” said Bud, turning his head into profile. “You’re the bait.” There was no time for farewells. No time for Peter to change out of his First Fall outfit. Within five minutes, Bud had loaded the canoe with a crossbow and arrows and cut a quick course across the lake. The paddle sliced through the water. Left and right and left again. Peter gripped on to the side of the canoe. His eyes smarted in the rushing air. He swung round to catch a glimpse of his dad, but the last of the oil lamps went out across the watchtower, plunging the lake into darkness. He folded his arms across his chest. He didn’t care about the mess his dad made in the tree house any more. He didn’t care that Dad rinsed a tin cup out with nothing other than a sock and spit. Towering pines lining the mainland rushed in and none of that seemed to matter. Bud hoisted the paddle out of the water. He raised his hand to make sure they observed silence as they made their approach, and the canoe drifted toward the old wooden boathouse. Peter had seen the boathouse from the islands. It sat directly on the water with a single arch cut out of the front like the mouth of a cave. Most of the red paint had peeled off it now leaving the wood grey. The roof sagged as heavily as an old nag’s back. And yet it was the only safe way to come and go from the mainland. Not just because you could close the woods off behind you, but because the Dead didn’t know how to use doors. Peter gazed up at a human skull nailed to the top of the arch and they slipped inside. The nose of the canoe struck something solid. Peter lurched forward and with a jolt they stopped. Bud tossed the crossbow overboard and leaped out on to the deck. Peter waited for further instruction while his heartbeat steadied and listened to the old boathouse creaking in the darkness. Scythes and machetes clinked on their metal hooks. A bird bolted from the beams and, screeching, took off over the lake. There was another sound too. And as Bud strode back down to the canoe, his eyes ablaze behind the oil lamp he was now holding, Peter saw the horses. He smiled. According to Becky, most people took the brown one out on runs into the woods, but the white one with the freckles and tubby belly eating most of the straw right now was Cooper’s. “Is that Snowball?” Peter asked. Bud squinted. “No time to play with the ponies,” he said, beckoning him to his feet. “Up you get. The herd won’t be far away and if they breach the boathouse because of you then I’ll make damn sure this really is the worst day of your sorry-ass life.” Peter jumped off the nose of the canoe before it drifted backward and pulled down the bottom of his T-shirt. “Now, grab yourself one of them there pelts over by the back door,” said Bud. He swung the oil lamp round. The shadows shifted sharply, making the machetes and scythes lurch round the boathouse as if someone was cutting the air with them. “Quickly does it. Any one will do. Now take a seat and get some food in your belly real quick. You’re gonna need it before we go in.” Peter sat on the bench by the back door where Bud had tossed a small parcel. He pulled on the thin piece of string wrapped round the bundle and the cloth parted to reveal some slices of cured meat. Bud whipped the cloth from his lap and shoved a stone inside. He tied it off with a knot and tossed the rag into the water. “Bears,” he said, narrowing his eyes for maximum effect. “One a them gets the slightest sniff and I’ll have more trouble on my hands than babysitting you for the night.” Peter took a deep breath and went to say something, but Bud held up his hand to silence him. “Save it,” he said, hanging the lamp on a hook. “You’ll need all that hate you got bubbling away in your guts for later. Don’t waste it on my account.” Peter ripped off a bit of meat between his back teeth. But he wasn’t really hungry so he reached up for one of the silver wolf pelts with the animal’s head attached for a hood and shoved the leftovers into one of the pockets. “I’ve got a gilet back home I could wear,” said Peter. “It’s real toasty.” Bud raised an eyebrow. “Put it on. Jesus, boy, where do you even get a name like that from?” Bud made his way back over to the water and took a leak while Peter struggled into the wolfskin coat. He poked the bear-tooth toggles through the hoops to fasten it. “Were you always a trapper?” said Peter to drown out the splashing sound as much as anything. “Nope,” said Bud, shaking himself off. “I pumped gasoline and pointed tourists in the wrong direction for thirty goddamn years.” Peter looked away. “Why did you do that? Give people the wrong directions, I mean. Was it because you couldn’t read?” Bud’s moustache twitched. “No. Because I found it kinda funny.” Peter offered a smile and turned back round. “Those goddamn Rotters did everyone a favour,” said Bud, walking back over. “Folks like me and Coop anyhow. The day one of them stumbled across the highway and into my station forecourt with its flesh all on fire like a ton of rib steaks all burned up on the rack was the day I got my life back. No dumb job. No bills or rent to keep me in that dumb job. Clean slate. Fresh start. Never looked back.” Bud slapped his hand firmly across the doorpost and patted it as if the boathouse was somehow everything his service station never was. His eyes glinted deeply beneath the brow of his Stetson. “I can’t read no words on no goddamn piece of paper,” he said, “but I sure as hell can read the woods. Now, we must act quickly. They won’t be far away. So follow my word and you might, just might, last the night.” Bud braced his hand across Peter’s shoulder. He ran his other hand over his silver moustache and looked him in the eye, searching for his mettle. But the time had come. He turned away, twiddled the valve on the oil lamp to dim the light and quietly pushed open the door. Snow fell silently over the doorway all bluish in the night. Bud leaned into the door frame, holding his hand out flat. “The silence of snow,” he sighed. “Not much else left quiet in this goddamn screaming hellhole of a world.” Peter watched snowflakes land then dissolve into the cracks of Bud’s leathered palm and looked up. There was a clearing directly outside the door, lightly dusted with snow, illuminating the entrance to the forest. But a single footstep inside the trees was another matter. Beneath the draping pine was darkness. Spindly branches, too low to catch the light and grow, were withered arms jutting out at broken angles to scratch at anything passing by. Peter peered into the darkness and others looked back. But it wasn’t the Dead. The forest was watching. It was as if the blackened pillars of pine had stopped talking about him the second the door opened. His eyes darted from one tree to the next. He followed the forest back, further and further, but eventually the web of trees and branching limbs knitted together so closely they dissolved into the darkness within. A twig cracked. A lone owl hooted. Peter clenched his fists and watched his white breath plume across the doorway. “You think it’s quiet now?” said Bud. “Just you wait. The forest will go completely still just before they come. Always does. It’ll make you wish you’d never been born.” Peter took a step forward. His foot had just crossed the doorpost when Bud gripped him by the shoulder. “Bah!” Peter flinched, retracting his foot. “Don’t be brave,” Bud tutted. “Be smart.” Peter looked down at the ground just beyond the door. He noticed that a mesh of criss-crossing twigs and branches had been deliberately placed there one on top of the other. He looked between two of the branches and saw the black hole beneath. “A deadfall,” said Bud. “A six-foot-deep pit to jump across if the Restless Ones should ever tail you, or a bear for that matter.” Peter ran his hand through his hair. “Sorry.” “Pah!” said Bud. “Sorry don’t get you nowhere. Don’t be sorry. Be safe. Now we’re a little further south of the Ridge here so you won’t be coming at the herd head-on, which is good news for you. I’ll take as many of ’em down as I can. But this means you’ll need to draw the others toward you so they don’t make it as far as the lake.” Peter’s lips parted to let his quickening breath escape. “But how?” “You see them there tin cans hanging from that tree?” Peter looked past the clearing to the pines and saw a pair of cans dangling from pieces of string. “I see them.” “Well, that’s your way in. There are plenty more behind. Pairs of tin cans, bottles, knives and all sorts stretching back into the woods just wide enough for you to walk through without making a noise. They make a hanging path so you don’t lose your way, but they’ll also ring the dinner bell if any unwanted visitors take up the path with you.” Peter fixed his sights on the two tin cans, but he still didn’t see how he was supposed to draw the Restless Ones toward him. “But…” Bud pulled his Stetson down over his eyes and took a running jump. “And remember,” he said, clearing the deadfall, “when one of those things locks eyes with you and decides you’re the one, you’ll think of the bitch that held your daddy underwater and run. You’ll be good at that. Running is what scared people do.” Pine needles crackled this way and that, but soon Bud’s footfall disappeared inside the forest and he was gone. Peter drew back inside the boathouse and stared at the dangling tin cans. “Clock it. Kill it. Rid the world of it.” The trail was only twenty feet or so away from where he was standing, but the thought of running up to it was impossible. One of the horses whinnied. “I know,” he said, turning round. “I’m scared too. I guess Cooper makes you go out there when you don’t really want to either, huh?” Snowball looked up with his big brown eyes all wide as if to say, Yep, that’s exactly what he makes me do. But a moment later there was a scream from out in the woods somewhere and Snowball buried his face back in the straw bag and left him to it. Peter swung round. The scream was faint, but it was constant. It was more than one person too. Perhaps climbers who’d survived the fall had to deal with what met them at the bottom. He didn’t know. Another scream ripped through the woods. Closer now. Violent. There was so much horror in the vocal cords, it sounded like someone had grabbed a fistful of fiddle strings and ripped them clean out. The sound was so disturbing, but before Peter had even decided what to do, his feet took a running jump and he leaped through the door. Peter threw his back against a tree. He patted his hands across his chest to be sure of himself and took a moment. He’d gone some way inside the forest chamber now. He peered round to check that the boathouse was still there. The hanging trail of tin cans and bottles marked the way back, but it was as if the trees had played a trick and moved in to close the space behind him. The boathouse was nowhere to be seen. Sound was different in the woods too. Peter wasn’t even aware he could hear the lake lapping against the shore until it was gone. But the woods snuffed it out as quickly as fingertips over a flame. Ahead, the trail twisted on deeper inside the woods. Snowflakes started to settle on Peter’s eyelashes so he drew the wolfskin’s snout over his head and buried his back into a crook of the tree. But he was stalling. He needed to do something. He needed to make a noise, create a scene, anything. Bud had said he was going to be used as bait, and Peter hadn’t doubted it. He started to wonder what would happen if he failed to do anything at all. Then he found out. The alarm bell ripped through the forest quicker than a scream at night. Peter recoiled in horror. His eyes darted from one tree to another. But the sound was coming from him. He clawed at his pelt, patting it down furiously like he was putting out a fire. He pulled the alarm clock out of his pocket. The little metal hammer was pinging in between the two golden domes crazier than a woodpecker at a tree. He closed his fist round it and lobbed it into the woods. He fell back, relieved, and started to map his route through the hanging trail, ready to run back to the boathouse, when he froze. The clock kept ringing. It started to tremor across the ground now. Peter shoved the head of the wolf back over his shoulders and cursed Bud for slipping it in his pocket. But he had no choice. He had to run further into the woods to stop it. He ducked in between two swinging wine bottles, broke cover from the hanging path and ran over to the clock. He drove the heel of his boot down on top of the damned thing. The clock cracked and fell silent. Peter clapped both hands across his lap and bent double, catching his breath. He stared at the bits of busted-up metal and broken glass at his feet, glad the thing was broken. It was only now he noticed how quiet it was. He wiped drool off his mouth and slowly turned round. The silence was so thick it almost became an absent noise pressing against his face. He wiped a snowflake from his cheek and looked through the dense web of spindle branches deeper into the darkness. A gap between two giant pines created a break in the forest canopy. Snow drifted freely here to form a veil. Peter edged forward and became aware of a black mass in between the two trees. He waited. He kept watching and the snow in front of the black mass spiralled as if caught by a sudden wind. Peter took a step back and the black mass broke out from behind the veil of snow and made its way toward him. Then he heard them. The crows. A ball of black wings hurtled through the woods followed by their appalling din. Peter ducked down, throwing his hands over his head, and the cawing ripped right through him like a thousand screams. The crows took flight over the lake and were gone. But they weren’t the only ones abandoning this place. Peter staggered to his feet. A deer bolted out from the trees behind him, its eyes wide in terror. It leaped this way and that and in a bucking flash disappeared off into the woods. Peter fell back against the tree and the snow bobbed gently over the woods once more. The world had never been so silent. He watched. He waited. He pushed away from the tree and went to make his way back toward the hanging trail when a twig cracked. He froze. The weight of a foot landed down heavily on the ground behind him, followed by the scraping sound of another being dragged to join it. The corpse with the sunken face like a rotting peach was the first to arrive. Its naked body broke cover from the trees. It was a male. The area around its pelvis had rotted to the bone and its arms swung aimlessly by its side. The thing’s milky eyeballs bulged in their dried-out sockets, rotating wildly like two boiled eggs swivelling in a bowl. Peter stepped away and his heel broke across a twig. The Restless One’s head quested for the stimulus the new sound gave it. It thrust its shoulder forward to swing its body back on course and made toward Peter. Peter ran back in between the trail, tugged a wine bottle from its string and pinned his back to the tree. The thing used the sound to refocus its direction once more. Its jaws gnashed. Its fingers twitched at the prospect of flesh. A surge in strength entered the corpse’s body, driving its arms upwards. It thrust its shoulder forward once more, swung its body round and stumbled relentlessly on. Peter held the bottle by the neck like a club and hid behind the tree. He realized his mistake at once. The deer that had bolted past him just moments ago was lying on the ground. Its legs were twitching in spasms like a dog dreaming. The whites of its eyes peeled back wide in terror. But it was powerless to move. The ashen figure bending over it withdrew its blackened hand from inside the animal’s guts and moved directly over the deer’s head to feed. Strings of black hair flanked the animal’s face like rotting vines. There was a baying scream followed by a wet crunching sound. When the Restless One came up for air, blood erupted freely and the deer’s face was gone. Peter clapped his hand over his mouth, drawing back against the tree. The slightest sound and the thing would be on him. He turned his head toward the lake. His eyes darted from one tree to another, but he still couldn’t see the boathouse. He waited. The snow shifted and the dim glow of