“You on rounds tonight?”
“Oh you know it.”
Ever since the woods began to grow beyond their borders the residents of Redhook Castle decided it was best to post additional guards. Two along the main parapet. One in the watchtower that overlooked the ocean. Another pair at the gate. Shifts would be taken every four hours. Volunteers first.
They were a small community, packed into the once-abandoned colonial fortress. Teachers, construction workers, and plenty of office workers that had found themselves on the wrong side of an early morning commute. Only one soldier was in their band. A veteran, who would tell you he felt more at peace today than he had ever felt since coming home.
When the world seemed to go dark, and no one came to help, they banded together to create a haven amidst the chaos.
Historical societies had kept all but a few wings preserved. There was space to sleep. A courtyard surrounded by high stone walls. Supplies had been tight until they discovered a train collision a few miles away. They guessed that a freighter had tried to go north when it had run into a commuting metro line. Between the wreckage and bodies they found enough to make it well through the winter. Longer, if they kept going back for more.
As a group they voted to wait it out, almost unanimously. Given enough time order would be restored. America had been through worse. One way or another, with or without superhumans, they would all endure.
So they packed their belongings and began to make Redhook Castle their new home, renaming it Fort McCulloch to better own their new residency. Small groups would go and bring back amenities when they could. Furniture. Games. Liquor. Sometimes it came from a neighbors home, and they would leave a note. Borrowing the couch, hope you’re alright!
When looting a stranger’s home they agreed on a simple message. Sorry for the mess.
“Did they say what dinner is?”
“Pasta and fish? I think. Dale said with a bit more lumber we can get some lobster traps rolling out there.”
“Pfft. No shortage of that around here.”
It was during those expeditions that they first noticed something was wrong. Cracks in the pavement made everyone think there was some routine maintenance that was overdue. Potholes and breakage were familiar in any suburbia. But as the main roads began to crumble away, as homes slowly seemed to show signs of overgrowth indoors, it was decided that they would stop taking trips to old neighborhoods for resources they no longer needed. Only the essentials. Only when necessary.
The main town was a short ten minute drive away. Now it could only be travelled by foot. There were no more roads to Fort McCulloch.
It was a group effort to keep the woods at bay. Every morning they found it crept a little closer to their improvised home. Cutting it back went from being an act of desperation to a daily routine. They set markers where branches and bramble would go no further. Looking down window of the main gate it was impossible to see if any roots had made their way past.
Mitch Hemley knew better. By tomorrow morning there would be plenty of work to be done.
This was his least favorite of the guard postings. Not much to see except the dark, and the ever-growing woods. Mitch could swear that on a moonlit night, if you stared out there long enough you could actually see the plants creep a little closer. Kenzie had some of the best eyes in the group, so he got this spot often. The older man didn’t seem to mind.
“I told Liz to put some wood aside for me after the morning round. Thought I’d take up whittling.”
Mitch smiled, still peering out the window down below. “Oh yeah?”
“I always wanted to have one of those fancy chess sets with the big, detailed pieces. Seems like a good time to start.”
“Well just don’t let em catch you carving on duty.”
“Me? Nah. Hour a day in the afternoon. You’ll see, I’ll be done in no time.”
“Become an expert whittler and we’ll need to get you a banjo and one of those spitting jugs.”
Kenzie laughed, slapping his leg in a stroke of sudden thought.
“Get a few strings from the music store and we could cook one up! It’s just wood right? Sandpaper it down...”
“Alright I’m done here.”
“Oh and a hat!”
“Yeah, yeah. Overalls too!”
Mitch’s footsteps echoed loudly in the stone hall. He remembered when the sound first bothered him. An empty echo, where every step put emphasis on how unlike home this place was. It was a little more reassuring these days. A sign he was still here. A sign no one else was nearby.
It had been months since the last disappearance. They had learned the hard way, as a community, the price of not treating the woods with proper respect. At first they thought it was desertion. Two gone in a week. A couple. Mitch didn’t know them very well, but he still felt badly for not remembering their faces.
When the Maguire’s young boy disappeared they knew something was wrong. Three days of searching and all they could find was a single toy, broken under the root of a nearby tree. Everyone wanted to continue the search, if only to keep hope alive, but they simply couldn’t. The woods had grown too wild to explore any deeper. Too thick to trust. Too full of unknowns.
Arianna’s voice voice rang down the flight of stairs. “Hey, Mitch! You hear what’s up with dinner?”
“Fish and pasta, I think.”
“Ugh. You gotta fix that boot, man.”
“I’m just a heavy walker. Wears em down.”
“More like you’ve got a fat foot.”
Mitch looked up the stairway to see Arianna grinning from her seat just at the top. A determined young woman. She was one of the few who refused to give up the search back then. Stayed up day and night with a spyglass she said she found at a local mariners museum. Long brown hair hid her eyepatch at this angle.
Once he asked how she lost her eye. She said God thought it wasn’t fair to other women that she had such a good looking pair, so he plucked one out. That was the end of that.
Her window view from the eastern wall was one of the best. Miles of untamed forest that stretched into the distance. Their beautiful, natural prison.
“Everything doing alright here?” he called up at her.
“Looks good so far. Quiet as always.”
“Well, you’re up in about an hour. See you at dinner?”
“Yup. Hey, could you save me that rocker? My back’s been killing me. I just wanna lean with my plate or something.”
“It’s because you’re always hunched over when you peek through that thing.”
Arianna snapped the spyglass open with the flick if her wrist, peering through it with her good eye to look down at him. Curving one hand into a hook, she shook it in his direction menacingly.
“That’s how pirates do it. You gotta get in the zone if you’re gonna spot danger.”
“Alright cap’n, well if you see anything sailing out there you just ring the bell.”
He had just started to step away with he heard her start to speak again. Craning his neck back up the stone stairway Mitch couldn’t help but notice a look of concern across her expression.
“Have you seen Sam at all?”
“He’s last on the rounds. What’s up?”
“I don’t know. He’s been a little weird. I mean, everything’s weird. But given circumstances..”
“Could be just worn out.” Mitch shrugged. “I’ll see if maybe someone can give him a break.”
“Yeah.” Arianna sounded unconvinced.
Mitch paused, waiting for her to say something more. Instead she gave a tight smile then turned her good eye back toward the window. Patting his hand on the cold stone Mitch walked away.
She wasn’t the kind to show concern. Or maybe she was. How long had they really known each other. In passing, a few months. As friends, maybe a few weeks. Even in the apocalypse making friends as an adult was hard.
Sam had duty at the overlook, a tower connected to the keep that was designed to give its defenders a clear vantage over the ocean. It was Mitch’s favorite spot. He preferred the ocean of blue to the tide of green that threatened to strangle their community. Sometimes he would come up here just for a change of view. He brought a few chairs up a while back just so he could read on breaks.
It was a long climb up a spiral stair to reach the overlook. Mitch’s footsteps rang loudly in the narrow hall until he began to approach the peak. Then the cold wind and smell of salt made it hard to focus on anything but reaching the top.
“One coming up!”
Mitch stepped up onto the overlook to find Sam staring out over the ocean, leaning casually on a guard railing. The metal rails looked out of place with the medieval motif but they had likely been installed long ago for the safety of tourists.
“Almost time huh?” Sam looked over his shoulder in acknowledgement.
“Excited for dinner?”
“Fish? I saw they had a good haul.”
“Yeah.” Mitch chuckled. “I bet Lin is feeling like a real chef right now. Freshest ingredients!”
Sam smirked, shaking his head. “Hah, I bet. I was just thinking I’d maybe pull a double. Spend dinner up here, watching the waves.”
“Yeah, I don’t blame ya. Weather’s nice today too.”
“When are you back on regular guard?”
“Another week.” sighed Mitch, stepping over to stand beside him. “Maybe a bit more if Kenzie’s leg keeps acting up.”
“He still having a hard time with that?”
“Yup. Whatever. It’s not like we’re going anywhere.”
Together they sat in silence. It was night, but the moon and stars shone brightly above. Pale light reflected uneven waves that crashed into the beach below. You could even watch the flow of the ocean into uneven sand if you peered over the guard railing, but Mitch never went that far. The last thing he wanted was to suffer vertigo and go tumbling over the edge.
“Hey, uh, I don’t know if it’s my place to ask, but is everything ok?”
“What?” Sam’s face scrunched in confusion. ”Like am I sick?”
“I mean, anything. You just look a little tired.”
“Tired? No.” Sam shook his head. “Arianna put you up to this?”
Mitch smiled, turning to look away while giving a guilty nod. “Just a little concerned, you know? We want to make sure everyone is ok.”
Sam gave a tilt of his head in reply, but kept his eyes locked on the horizon. Mitch felt his mouth dry up. What was there to say? He felt embarrassed for the both of them. It wasn’t his right to say anything. He should have never let Arianna guilt him into this.
What he needed was an out. Something that would let him gracefully exit the conversation. Patient and respectable.
“Well, you know if you ever need to talk I’m here for ya.”
He could hear a grunt of acknowledgement from Sam. Rapping his knuckle against the guard rail Mitch had just prepared to head back down into the castle when Sam gave another low cough, lifting a fist to his chest as he cleared his throat. When Sam spoke his voice sounded strained.
“You ever just feel tired?”
Mitch settled back against the pole, nodding. “Yeah. Of course. Like, you mean sleepy? Exhausted?”
“No, not like that. Like it’s past your bones.”
“No. It’s not sad. Not a sadness, anyway. It’s hard to explain. But. Yeah.”
“I get it. It’s alright, you know. With everything happening in the world right now, I get it. I had a sister that struggled with depression. And a friend too.”
“I don’t think it’s depression.”
“There’s no time for that anymore.”
“We always have to make time for ourselves.”
Mitch could feel Sam give him a look, and he felt himself flush with embarrassment. Was he supposed to say something encouraging? Positive? Before he could come up with something Sam spoke again. Slowly. As though he was discovering each word he needed the moment before it left him.
“Back when I was a kid my mom called it ‘feeling blue’, but she didn’t really get it either.” he pursed his lips. Swallowed. “Most days you’re ok. But you know when it’s coming. You can’t talk about it because no one gets it. It’s not a panic attack. It’s not depression or sadness. I’m not an anxious person. I like living. I love being alive. Feeling.”
He put a hand to his chest. “And it’s right here. That’s where I feel it the most. It’s just this heaviness. It gets worse and worse. It drags you down slowly, bit by bit, until you start to make excuses to get through the day. You want to watch that one video of a dog online. Hear a joke. Read a book. You’ve got a job to do. You tell yourself whatever you have to just to get through it, but all the while it’s like a growing hole. And it gets to the point where you have to tell yourself ‘this is gonna pass’ because you know that if you don’t...If you try to face it, maybe that’s depression. Maybe that’s when you feel like getting up isn’t worth it.”
“And you know it’s going to pass, right? You know it won’t last forever. It can’t last forever. You know there’s so much to love in this world because you can still feel those things. I’m not...it’s not like being hollow. You hear music you love and it makes you just, you swell up. It fills you. You can really feel again. You don’t know how deep you can breathe until you notice how big the hole in your heart is. Then you exhale and it’s just...worse.”
They sat in silence. Mitch didn’t want to press further. Maybe just sitting there was enough. Neither made eye contact. They couldn’t risk it. It was embarrassing to cry. Neither could prove it happened if they never looked toward each other. He heard Sam cough again. Regained his composure. Then he spoke.
“It passes though. You know? It doesn’t happen often but it passes. Like a tide or something. This isn’t the first time. It won’t be the last. Just so you know, I’m ok. I’m not always alright, but I’ll be ok.”
Mitch smoothed his thumb across the rifle in his lap. He cleared his throat, looking down at the worn metal. “I can finish my shift with you for the night. Only an hour left right?”
“Yeah. That’s cool.” Sam nodded with a sigh. “Just an hour.”
“Done. It’s a cool night anyway. Good to be outside.”
Sam looked up. The sky was full of stars. “It’s nice to admit it. Even though I’m not ok right now, I will be.”
“And if you’re not, you know I’m here to talk.”
There was a sound of agreeance, just loud enough that the wind couldn’t steal it away. Or perhaps Sam was just clearing his throat. They spent the final hour of his shift in silence, but neither seemed to mind. Just above the distant crash of ocean waves was the strained crack of twisting wood.
The forest would spread its roots further throughout the night. In the morning they would cut it back again.