Dead Water Zone: Excerpt
The small motorboat humped across the water. Paul felt every wave through the thin metal hull, as if they were riding over a corrugated ribcage. He wasn't used to boats, and he didn't feel particularly safe in this one. The oily pool quivering at his shoes had expanded since they'd started out. And once, when he'd looked back over his shoulder at the pilot, he'd seen him scooping up some water with an old coffee mug and flinging it hurriedly over the side. Paul grimaced. He'd been too eager; he'd just hopped into the first boat he'd seen for hire.
He could make out Watertown's low sprawl in the distance now, the vast shantytown suspended on a rickety webwork of pilings and piers. He'd seen pictures, but he'd never travelled down here before. He didn't know anyone who had. If his parents found out -- but they wouldn't. That part had been easy. He hadn't even lied, not really. He couldn't help feeling a sense of accomplishment. Everything so far had gone off smoothly: the commuter train from Governor's Hill through the Outer Neighbourhoods, then the stinking subway, which had slung him down into the City and dumped him at the docklands. From there, boat was the only way. He glanced at his watch. Still plenty of time.
There was a sudden tightness across his chest, and he felt short of breath. He told himself he'd been sitting too long, letting his muscles cramp; he told himself he was getting out of shape. But he knew it was nervousness. Push-ups. That always did the trick. Get the body working again. He flexed the powerful muscles in his thighs and upper arms and felt vaguely reassured.
He could see the outer reaches of Watertown clearly now. Boats dotted the water -- small blackened things, some no bigger than oversized bathtubs with motors. Decrepit houseboats were tied up along spidery jetties. Tar-paper shacks lined the higher wharfs, dark tendrils of smoke lifting from tin-can roofs. Paul felt a knot forming in his guts.
The motorboat swung in and bumped up against the tyres nailed to one of the jetties.
"How much do I owe you?" "Fifty."
He should have asked the price before they left. He was getting taken, but he didn't have it in him to haggle. He could already hear his voice trembling with uncertainty. He hated scenes. Forget it, he told himself. He yanked out the bills. It didn't leave a lot. He handed the money to the pilot, hefted the knapsack onto his shoulder, and stepped clumsily from the rocking boat, nearly losing his balance.
He took a few angry steps across the jetty before remembering to ask for directions. But when he turned, the boat was heading back to the docklands. "Thanks for everything," Paul muttered. It didn't matter, he told himself. He had plenty of time. He'd find the way on his own.
He wasn't prepared for the number of people. There must have been hundreds in plain view, men and women and kids scraping at overturned hulls, pumping fuel from ancient gas machines, pushing wheelbarrows filled with potatoes and withered lettuce. People sat idly on the edge of the dock, smoking, talking; others marched along erratically, arms churning, shouting to themselves.
Paul felt something approaching panic. You didn't get people on the streets like this in Governor's Hill. You stepped out the front door and into the car. If you had a garage, you didn't even need to go outside. The mall --- that was the only place you saw lots of people. But even then there was an orderliness to it, a purposefulness. There were rules.
What a stink! His nostrils wrinkled in revulsion. His world was odourless, anything offensive conjured away by jets of recirculating air. But here he felt instantly filthy, overwhelmed by rank body odour, unwashed clothing, the funk of rotting vegetables and fish.
All at once, he was painfully conscious of his own clothing: the new track shoes, the white T-shirt that gleamed amidst the drab, washed-out colours around him. Worst of all was his knapsack -- a bright, crayon red.
A flush of embarrassment was working its way up his back, into his armpits. There were so many eyes on him. He felt like a robot from a low-budget science fiction film, tottering, stiff legs jerking out, one-two, one-two. He wished he could just fade in. He caught another glimpse of his shiny sneakers. What a disaster. At least he could have scuffed them up a little, trudged through a puddle or something.
A man with blue spider tattoos across his face sidled past, almost nudging. Paul swallowed, his body tensed. He was glad he was big. He weighed in at over 175. And he looked older than sixteen, everyone said so. Most of the people here looked skinny, under-fed. Still, if a lot of them banded together...
Wharves and jetties shot off in all directions, creating an intricate web of canals, some so narrow that you could jump across, others wide enough for sleek boats to navigate.
He looked for sign posts. There were none. He realized he'd been carrying in his head a ridiculous image of neat, suburban streets, marked at every corner. A name -- that was all he had to go on, the name of a pier. But how many piers were there? Hundreds, thousands?
He'd have to ask directions. He saw a woman sitting in the doorway of a shack, her head bent over a book. She looked all right; she'd give him directions. He came closer. The book was a tattered department store catalogue. Her fingers turned spasmodically through the pages.
"Excuse me -- "
The woman lifted her face to him, and Paul saw her mad eyes.
"I should have gotten the position," she said fiercely. "They underestimated me. They didn't realize how good my qualifications were. They know nothing, nothing! I should have gotten that position..."
Nodding awkwardly, he backed away. She was shaking her head, spitting out words. He wanted to turn round and go home. It was a stinking madhouse! What could Sam be doing in a place like this?
A group of children had gathered round him, and a few moved in close, their small, curious hands brushing his clothing, then suddenly darted away, as if frightened.
Then he heard it, too. The dull thumping became a roar as an unmarked helicopter slewed through the air. It slowed, and rotated overhead, hovering like an insistent insect. Paul kept going. The helicopter floated lazily along to one side, as if keeping pace with him. For a few panicky seconds, he wondered if it might be police, sent by his parents. But he knew it couldn't be. Besides, it wasn't a police copter.
A rock struck soundlessly against the machine's underbelly. Moments later, the helicopter veered up and away and was gone.
It was few minutes before Paul felt confident enough to try for directions again. He saw a gaunt man perched on a crooked wooden pole, weaving a wire into a tangle of electrical cables. Stealing power. Paul could hear the ominous hum of the overloaded transformer.
"Jailer's Pier?" he asked hopefully. "Can you tell me how I get there?
The man's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Jailer's?" he asked belligerently.
"What d'you want over there for?"
"I'm looking for someone," Paul said nervously.
"Ain't no one there."
The man turned away as if their conversation had reached an end.
"Look, do you know the way?"
The man hawked disdainfully into the water.
"Suit yourself." He pointed.
* * *
Paul was lost.
The jetties were closed in on both sides by abandoned shacks, bolted sloppily together from splintered planks and rusted sheets of corrugated metal. Sometimes he lost sight of the water altogether. But all he had to do was stand still, and he could feel the lake's sway beneath his feet.
He'd told his parents he was going to stay with Sam. Of course, they'd assumed he meant at the university. They were probably only half-listening, anyway.
The alleys narrowed even further. He was lost, and now he was losing the light. Sam would snicker if he knew. Sam could have given him directions, sent a map, something! What was this, some ridiculous test? A game? Or maybe, thought Paul, he just doesn't want to see me.
Deep shadows seeped across the alley. He was desperate for directions now; he'd ask anyone. He'd fork out another fifty even. But he'd seen very few people in the last quarter of an hour. Ain't no one there, the gaunt man had said. He was supposed to be meeting Sam in ten minutes! How long would Sam wait? What if he left? How would he find him again in this place?
He started walking more quickly. There were no streetlamps; he hadn't known it could be this dark at night. His scalp prickled, felt he was being watched. He glanced over his shoulder and thought of the helicopter. But his mind was already conjuring up other dangers, horrifying encounters around this corner, then the next. Faces looming out at him from hidden doorways, sudden cackles of laughter in his ear. How had he let it get so late?
Creaks and groans rose up from the planking beneath his feet. He was turning the sounds into footfalls, heavy breathing. He broke into a jog, the knapsack slapping against his back. There was someone following him, someone just out of sight, someone right behind him!
He couldn't bear it any longer. He whirled on the balls of his feet. No one. You're freaking, he told himself angrily. You're doing this to yourself.
But he couldn't silence the alarm that played in his head. He swallowed, feeling the sweat cooling against his skin, then tilted his face up. Something had just moved back from the roof's edge. He ran.
Ahead of him a dark shape leapt across the breadth of the alley to the opposite rooftop, and was swallowed up in darkness. Paul slowed down. He didn't want to go too close. He didn't want anything jumping on his head. It could have been a bird, a large cat. It had seemed bigger, though, with more a human shape. That might have been his imagination, playing with the lines. Whatever it was, it was fast.
His eyes swept the rooflines, stopping at a long, angular shadow. He watched it for a long time, and then began to relax. It was only part of the building, a wooden strut or something. Then it moved, fleshing itself out into a human figure. He blinked hard. You could make yourself see anything in the dark.
He wasn't certain, but he couldn't ignore his instincts. "Sam?" He called out the name softly.
The shape jerked back from the roof's edge. Paul ran down the alley after it, pushing himself hard.
Why was he running away? Paul could see the dark figure, now far ahead of him, crisscrossing the alley, leaping from rooftop to rooftop in huge, weightless strides. It couldn't be Sam! At the end of the alley, he caught another glimpse of it. Waiting for me to catch up, Paul thought. Was that it? He jogged closer. Still the figure didn't move.
"Hey!" he panted. "Sam, that you?"
The figure kept slipping in and out of shadow. Then it took a few steps back, made a running start and jumped. The night swallowed it up.
Paul swore and charged ahead but the alley dead-ended at a broad canal, separating him from the buildings on the far side. He dumped his knapsack to the ground and bent over to catch his breath. Then he saw the slim figure crouched at the end of the pier, facing the water.
Paul's heart jumped.
"Sam," he said, walking closer, feeling such relief.
Sam turned round to face him, but it wasn't Sam.
Copyright 1992 Kenneth Oppel