There’s heaps of buzz around the release of Mark Smith’s exciting debut, The Road to Winter.
Finn is living wild after a virus wiped out his small town. He hunts and fishes and surfs, his dog Rowdy his only companion. Until a girl staggers onto the beach and brings with her a whole world of trouble.
Enjoy this short extract—we guarantee you won’t want to put it down!
The wind’s picked up off the strait again, whistling hard and sharp through the coastal wattles. The bay has turned to white caps all the way out to the open ocean. The weather will force me and Rowdy indoors, laying low and huddling together for warmth. We can’t risk a fire for fear of the smoke being seen.
But at least now I’ve got time to take stock after the last few days of hunting and fishing.
I get the rabbit traps out of the shed and oil the springs and plates, then run the chains through a greasy rag to keep them from rusting up. My hands are soon black with grime. There are big calluses on the palms and half-circles of dirt under my nails.
After two winters on my own I’ve almost given up trying to stay clean. Sometimes when I walk past the mirror in the bathroom I hardly recognise myself. My hair’s long and matted, bleached by the sun, and my face is usually peeling—either from the wind or sunburn. I’ve tried hacking at my hair with scissors, but I think it made it worse. Once a month or so I heat water for a proper wash, but mostly I just rinse off in the ocean.
Angowrie is deserted now, all the shops cleaned out and most of the houses stripped of anything useful. Before the virus, when the town was still a town, we thought our isolation would save us. We were two hours drive from the city, a little town with a pub, a couple of churches and shops all lined up and looking out to sea. Early on, when we still believed it would all blow over, we followed the news reports and daily updates about quarantined areas. The health authorities tried to reassure everyone they had it under control, but when the hospitals were locked down and law and order fell away, people started panic-buying.
And there was the weather. I was only thirteen then, but even I could see it changing: the summers longer, the winters shorter, the ocean staying warmer right through the autumn. The storms came more regularly, the king tides pushing right up the river valley and flooding the houses that used to sit well clear of the water. Up until the internet went down for good and all the communications fell away—phones, radio, everything—there were theories flying around about how the warmer climate was making everyone sick.
The main road into town was barricaded and patrols were set up to stop people coming from the north. But they came anyway, finding their way down through the bush tracks to somewhere they thought would be safer.
That’s probably how the virus reached us.
At first, I didn’t really understand the seriousness of it. I was happy we didn’t have to go to school. All summer I’d been dreading moving to Wentworth High, not because I didn’t like school, but because it was so big and different and new.
And, of course, I’d always copped shit for my voice.
For years I had problems talking; I couldn’t seem to form the words properly. It was like trying to talk with a mouth full of sand, so mostly I just stayed quiet. Mum and Dad could understand me well enough, and Rowdy too.
I didn’t know it at the time, but everything I learned back then would help me survive. For as long as I could remember I’d hunted rabbits up on the edge of the farmland, dived off the point for abalone and caught crays in season. I knew every nook and cranny of the tea trees along the dunes and every trail and bike track through the bush. I understood the weather patterns like they were part of me. The big westerlies that pushed up the swell, the southerlies that brought the chill up from Antarctica and, in summer, the northerlies that blew heat down off the inland.
Outside, the wind has turned to rain, beating on the iron roof. Rowdy sits at my feet and rests his face on his paws.
He likes it when I lift my foot and scratch him on his belly. I got Rowdy as a pup when I was ten. He’s a bitser, but somewhere back in his line Dad reckoned there must have been some dingo. He’s lean and strong and always on the lookout for a rabbit to chase down. We’re a team, the two of us. Before the virus we did things together just for fun—now we do them to stay alive.
Later in the afternoon the rain eases and I decide to check out the beach. The wind’s backed off and the river mouth will be getting some protection. It sounds pretty stupid to say that I still surf whenever I can, but once I’d worked out how to survive, how to hunt, grow some veggies and forage in the forest, I knew I needed something more. Something that kept me in touch with my old life. It’s dangerous, not because of anything in the water but because of what’s on the land—who might arrive in town while I’m caught up enjoying myself. But it’s a risk that’s worth taking to stay sane.
Rowdy watches me put on my old raincoat, and straightaway he knows what’s up. He jumps to his feet and waits by the back door until I’ve pulled on my boots.
We scout through the stand of sheoaks at the back of the house, cross Parker Street and make our way into the thick tea trees at the back of the dunes, following the tracks and tunnels to the base of the lookout at the river mouth.
From the top I can see all the way back up to the bridge. I check for movement. For two winters there’s been nothing, but I know, one day, the Wilders will come looking for food or fuel or people.
I keep my board and wetsuit hidden up here under the platform. The sets are lining up and peeling off into the river mouth. The sky is clear to the west so I take a chance on getting a few waves before the next storm front hits.
It always feels good to be out in the water, looking back at the town and the ridge beyond it. Rowdy prowls up and down the beach, chasing seagulls and sniffing the wind for danger.
The river mouth is my favourite wave, breaking hard and fast on the bar and barrelling all the way to the shore break.
I get half-a-dozen good rides before the sky darkens again and I decide to make my way in.
Rowdy’s waiting in the shallows and he dances around my legs as we head back up to the platform. I change quickly, the cold wind biting at my skin, and stash my board and wetsuit.
With the last of the light fading behind the next big stormhead, we make our way back down into the tea trees, Rowdy running ahead now, eager for the warmth of his blanket in the corner of the kitchen.
Out of habit, I look at Sarah Watford’s place as I cross Parker Street, thinking that one day she’ll be there, standing on the front porch in her school dress and waving me over. But the screen door is still hanging by one hinge, the windows are still smashed and the path is still overgrown. Time to get home.
Even when the virus was spreading beyond the cities, everyone in town thought they’d find a drug to kill it off, that the government would sort things out and we’d all go back to the way we were before.
Right up until the day Jim Sackville’s supermarket was trashed, I thought everyone in Angowrie would be thinking the same way: that we were all in this together. Like when the seniors won the premiership in the District League and the whole town celebrated. Or Carols by Candlelight on the riverbank every Christmas, when you’d look around and see your mates with their families, their faces all lit by the glow of their small flames.
But that day outside the supermarket, everything changed.
It was a warm day in autumn, about three months after news of the first outbreak. Fresh food was getting scarce and people were starting to avoid going out in public. But that morning there was a crowd milling about and hassling Jim Sackville to open the supermarket and let people get the food they needed.
They weren’t talking about paying for it, though. It was a strange sight, everyone with their white masks on, trying not to breathe too close to anyone else but still forming a mob.
Jim panicked, pointed his shotgun to the sky and pulled the trigger. The blast ripped through the air and everyone fell quiet. Then I heard a voice I knew—Dad’s. He was standing next to Jim with his hands in the air. He pulled his mask down to speak.
‘All right, everyone,’ he said. ‘Let’s just keep calm. Jim’s got a right to guard his business. This is his livelihood.’
A bloke named Scully, who I recognised from the football club, stepped forward. He had a ratty sort of face with a long, thin nose and his voice sounded weaselly through his mask. As he spoke he kept looking over his shoulder for support from the crowd, but most of them were still making up their mind about what to do.
‘It’s gone past that stage, mate,’ he said to Dad. ‘We’re running out of food and none of us have got any money to buy it. We gotta help each other now.’
From the other side of the crowd I could see Dad talking quietly with Jim, who listened but then shook his head and raised the shotgun again, this time aiming it at Scully. The last thing I saw was Dad reaching over to grab the barrels.
It went off, maybe accidentally, I don’t know, but someone in the front of the crowd must have been hit because there was yelling and screaming and everyone pushed forward, trapping Jim and Dad against the locked doors of the supermarket. I heard the sound of breaking glass, and when I got a clear view again the doors had given way and the crowd had pushed through into the shop. They clawed and jumped over each other to get to the shelves. Some groups worked together, grabbing trolleys and running down the aisles, shovelling food off the shelves with long sweeps of their arms.
I elbowed my way through to find Dad. I saw him off to the side of the entrance near the check-out, kneeling over Jim and pushing up and down on his chest. There was blood all over the floor. Eventually Dad’s hands slowed and he slumped against the wall.
People were fighting each other for food, punching and kicking anyone out of their way. I saw my old football coach, George Wilson, barge his way down an aisle. He caught my eye and shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, What else is there to do? I realised I knew most of the looters—and that’s when I understood that there’d be no going back from here.
When I glanced at Dad his eyes were closed, and I saw that he was bleeding. He had a huge gash up high on his thigh and he’d put his hand there to stop it spurting.
I shook him by the shoulders and his eyes opened.
‘Come on, Dad. We’ve got to get out of here.’
He struggled to his feet and we stumbled out through the doors just as a ute backed up onto the footpath and crashed though the main display window of the bottle shop. Men inside started loading cartons of beer straight from the fridge.
I don’t know how we made it home, but Mum ran out to meet us as we came around the corner. Dad was really weak by this stage, hardly able to stand up and mumbling stuff I couldn’t understand. He fell into Mum’s arms and the three of us toppled to the ground.
Sometimes I go and visit the spot where Dad fell, back near our old house. I can still remember every detail of that day. How I was trapped under his weight and I couldn’t shift him. How Mum had taken her shirt off and wrapped it tight around his leg, but the blood just kept coming. She was crying and pushing her face up against his, telling him to hold on, telling him how much we needed him.
Everything seemed to go still then. Mum’s arm came around and held my shoulder. I looked up to see her lying next to him. She knew before I did what was going to happen. So we lay there on the side of the road, the three of us together, wound around each other and holding on like some great force was trying to tear us apart. The pounding in my ear, the big heart in his big chest, began to slow down and the spaces between beats grew longer. I held Dad tight and Mum took his face in her hands, kissing him on his lips. She held him like that until the cold of the evening dropped on us and I couldn’t hear his heart anymore.
With the light all but gone now, it’s safe to get the fire going in the lounge. The moon is hidden behind thick cloud, so even if the town is being watched from up on the ridge the smoke won’t be visible.
I’ve got two rabbits to boil up. We’ll eat one tonight and keep one for tomorrow.
When the next storm front hits, the house rattles and shakes. Rowdy is restless, whimpering and whining with the thunder and lightning, pushing himself against my legs and burying his nose in my jumper. I pull him in close and we both huddle under a blanket in front of the fire. This calms him down and before long he’s snoozing in my lap. Just the sound of him breathing is comforting.
After that day at the supermarket, the whole town began to fall apart. Locals started ransacking houses looking for food, fuel and medicine. In the weeks before he died, Dad had been stockpiling stuff from his hardware store in an old garage at the back of a property on a quiet street away from the middle of town. He only knew about it because he used to deliver gas bottles to the holiday house next door, but it meant we had our own supplies.
The virus was spreading faster. Angowrie was quarantined, with no one allowed in or out, but most people were too scared to stick around. They took off into the bush to find their way north, carrying whatever they could in handcarts and pushers. There was hardly any fuel left, either. A group of men had taken over the petrol station, guarding it night and day. When the electricity dropped out they set up hand pumps to bleed the tanks into forty-four-gallon drums that they traded for food.
In the end, I still don’t know how many people died and how many left, but pretty soon the town was close to deserted. Mum and I sat up into the night and tried to decide what would be best—to try our luck going north or to stick it out in Angowrie and hope that things got better? As much as we talked I reckon we both knew we wouldn’t leave. We had buried Dad in the backyard, and neither of us could bring ourselves to leave him.
Then Mum got sick.
Rowdy and me had come back from setting our traps one afternoon and heard the coughing from inside the house. Mum yelled at me through the window not to come in, to stay outside.
I opened the back door slowly and saw her sitting at the kitchen table, and it hit me then how tired she had been those past few days, going to bed early and getting up later each morning. She looked up at me and held up a hand.
‘No, Finn. Stop,’ she cried. ‘You can’t come in. Don’t come near me.’
I stood, frozen, in the doorway. Her hair and clothes were wet with perspiration, and her whole body was shaking.
‘Listen to me, darling, listen carefully. Go and sleep in the house next to the storage shed with all our supplies. I’ll be okay. Don’t worry about me. I love you, Finny. You know that, don’t you? I love you with all my heart and there’s nothing I want to do more right now than hug you. But you can’t come back here, baby. Never. You understand? Never.’
Now, when I think about that day, I struggle to picture her face. It’s strange the things that stay with me, standing there and looking at my mum for the last time. I remember the light, the way the sun slanted through the kitchen window and caught the wall. I remember the smell of the rabbit I was holding and the feel of the rough pads on the bottom of its feet. And I remember the way Rowdy hung back from the door like he could sense the disease.
I went out to our shed and lay down on an old mattress on the floor. I slept on and off, hugging Rowdy to keep warm. In the morning the house was quiet, but the back door was open and I could see right through the kitchen and down the hallway. Even though I knew it was dangerous, I walked down to Mum’s bedroom.
Her bed was empty and the sheets cold. She was gone.
I spent most of that day searching for her. I tried to get Rowdy to track her, but he backed away when I held a shirt of Mum’s under his nose.
I took my bike and ventured further out onto the tracks that led north. She wouldn’t have been able to walk far.
By the time the sun had set and the light dropped away I was up the top of the valley near the fences. I’d stopped crying; I don’t think I had any more tears in me.
I found myself in my favourite spot, on top of the ridge overlooking the whole town. With no lights, no movement, no humans, it was just the shell of a town really—maybe not a town at all, just burned-out shops and ransacked houses.
A few months after I lost Mum, I discovered Ray. I had been hunting out in the Addiscot Valley, about two hours east of town. As I was setting traps along a fence line, I looked up to see this old bloke pointing a shotgun at me from about twenty metres away.
‘Oi,’ he said. ‘Bugger off.’
I was so shocked to hear another voice I just stood there staring at him.
‘Go on,’ he said, ‘I told you to bugger off my land.’ He jerked the shotgun at the bush behind me.
‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘Just trying to catch some food.’
He lowered the gun and turned his head to the side like he was hard of hearing.
‘I know you, don’t I?’ he said.
I couldn’t place him. His hair was long and wild and grey, and most of his face was hidden behind a beard.
‘You’re Tom Morrison’s boy, aren’t you? From the hardware?’
‘You always spoke funny,’ he said, scratching his chin. ‘I recognise your dog, too.’
‘Yeah, well,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry, son, but I only got enough food for myself. How you faring?’
‘Getting by. Mostly rabbits and fish.’
‘Your mum and dad?’
‘How long you been on your own?’
I shrugged. ‘Maybe six months.’
He was nodding and looking past me into bush, as though he was expecting someone else to be with me.
‘Seen any Wilders about?’
This was the first time I’d heard about the gangs of men roaming the country to the north.
‘Nope,’ I said.
‘Many people left in town?’
‘None. Just Rowdy and me.’
Through that first winter me and Ray traded food every month or so. I’d catch rabbits for him and he’d give me honey from his hives or veggies grown in his garden. It was tempting to move out there and live with him—I reckon he would have liked that—but I had my stores to protect and his farm was too far from the surf.
This storm is taking its time to clear. I don’t sleep well, worrying about how the house will stand up to the rain and wind.
The next day, when I check the river mouth in the afternoon, the sets are lining up like corduroy. Dad used to say that; meant they were one after the other. So I grab my board and paddle out again, duck diving under the sets as they crash over the bar. They’re bigger today and I need to be careful not to drift too far inside the peak.
But I’ve only had a couple of waves when I hear Rowdy going apeshit. When I look back to the beach I can hardly believe what I see. He’s got someone bailed up, leaping up and down and barking at them, then dropping to the ground like he’s ready to go at them. I’m whistling for him to back off, but the waves are making too much noise for him to hear me. There’s nothing for it, I end up thinking. I’ll have to head in.
I undo my leg-rope in the shallows and hold the board in front of me in case I need protection. But this bloke’s just standing there, putting his hand out, trying to soothe Rowdy.
When I get closer I see he’s as small as me, thin as a whippet. Rangy. Hair long and ropey right down his back and falling across his face. He’s wearing an old pair of shorts and a way too big jumper.
Then he starts talking and it hits me. It’s a girl. Voice real high and panicky.
‘You gotta help me,’ she says. ‘Wilders. They’re coming. They’re tracking me.’