Dead Water

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By C. A. Fletcher

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$23.99 CAD

In a chilling blend of folk horror and twisting suspense, this modern masterpiece depicts isolation and dread within a small island community.

And the water shall call them home.

On the edge of the North Atlantic lies a remote Scottish isle. The residents are a mix of those born and bred on the land and newcomers seeking a slower, quieter way of life, away from the modern world. But all have their own secrets, some much darker than others. And when a strange waterborne blight begins to infect them all, those secrets come to light.

Ferry service fails. Phone towers go down. And slowly, inconvenience transforms into nightmarish ordeal— and the outwardly harmonious fabric of the community is irreversibly torn apart.



They should have sent more.

And he was right not to have told them how fast his axe was. They also should have taken more note of the knife and the sword he carried with it.

He filled the waterskins before he threw their bodies in the well and headed north into the desert.

More would come. No need to leave them fresh water to drink. Let them pace themselves by what was left in their own waterskins.

At the time it had seemed like a good idea.

And more had come. Chasing them as they picked their way homewards from waterhole to oasis to well, and every time they came he met the pursuers with axe and sword and left the bodies bobbing in the water to confound the followers.

Lords of the Water they might be, but if he could slow them down by leaving that water undrinkable, they might get home.

Again, it had seemed like a good idea.

His master, the emissary, suffered a second knife wound the third time they were attacked. It was bad. It might have healed.

He told the older man it likely would, and because he had sworn a blood-oath to protect him with his own life, his master took comfort and believed him.

But just as the emissary had been charged with delivering a message, his guard had sworn another blood-oath to the emperor and was charged to return with the reply at all costs. And tending his master would slow him.

Faced with breaking one oath or both, he steeled himself to break the word given to the lesser authority, and did him the kindness.

He did it while the wounded man slept because he had liked him greatly and wanted him to go easy. But still, he left his body with the others in the well.

He meant no disrespect and told himself the emissary would have understood that he had had to break the lesser oath in order to be true to the greater. He also hoped he would have approved of the fact that in death he was doing a last service to his own master.

If his horse had not stumbled on a drift of shale and broken its leg as it threw him on to the ground, he might have made it.

He gave it the kindness as fast as he could, but though it swung sweetly his axe sang a jarringly wrong note as it hit the stones beneath and chipped the blade. He took that as more of an ill omen than the fallen horse.

He scowled, shouldered the last half-empty waterskin and limped his way north, trying not to think that his bad luck was punishment for a broken oath.

They found him two days later because the birds had started to wheel above where he lay. By this time, he was close to death and run so mad with thirst that his mind was already halfway out of his body and so close to the cold seas of his heart’s home that he kept mistaking the vultures wheeling overhead for the remembered ravens of his happier life. When he first saw the men who found him, he thought he recognised some of those he’d left in the wells, and he understood in a blurred moment of relative clarity that he was stuck between the worlds of the living and the dead. He even glimpsed the familiar face of his master at the back of the angry crowd before the light slipped through his fingers and he plummeted into the welcoming dark of unconsciousness.

The men who find him did not give him the kindness.

They gave him water.

Part 1


There is one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath.


Chapter 1


A pair of ravens ride the brightness on the thin morning breeze above the islands, wheeling high on the updraught as the wind makes first landfall since sweeping off the barren rocks of Labrador more than two thousand cold sea-miles to the west.

From this height, the main island makes a shape like a hogtied bullock lying on its side, neck stretched for the knife as its mouth gapes wide in a final bellow of protest. The rocky tangle of the skerries to the south looks like a flying gargoyle snapping at the rearmost hoof of the doomed animal.

The island is not big and lacks the mountainous majesty of its wilder Hebridean siblings to the north. The two low humps of land don’t quite amount to eight miles nose to tail and barely two miles at the widest point, and the tallest hill only squeaks above four hundred feet if measured to the top of the deep heather covering it. It is, however, both first and last land, a barrier island standing guard with its face set to the North Atlantic and its back to the Highlands of Argyll thirty-five ferry-linked miles away.

The birds spot movement in the water and arc across the ridge of higher ground towards it in case it means food. As scavengers and klepto-parasites, the carrion birds aren’t fussy about where the next meal comes from.

Something red and white and splashy is disturbing the gunmetal deckle of the inshore waves in a westward bay to the head of the main island, where a long curve of shell-sand makes the back of the bullock’s neck. The beach is deserted.

The ravens dip a wing and swoop lower still.

The red is a buoy, one of two at either side of the bay, and the splash is a swimmer, a lone figure in a wetsuit who jackknifes into a slow and very controlled duck-dive. The ravens see the long black swim-fins break water and wave a brief farewell in the air, just like a whale sounding, and then the swimmer is gone.

Sig is unaware of the ravens above her as she kicks slowly but determinedly away from the light, head down as she matches the angle of the line tethering the buoy to the unseen lobster pot far below. The pot is beyond her reach on the one lungful of air that is all the life she carries with her, but that’s not why she does this.

She’s not swimming towards something. Freediving without oxygen tanks is a thing she does for its own sake. It’s the closest she gets to a small escape, one she can live with, a way she can find a place where the constant pain in her broken body goes away for a while. More than that, in freediving like this Sig finds – for a minute or two – not just the purity of the practice itself but the end of magical thinking, the death of extraneous thought and a place where the past is finally, mercifully silent. And of course the small escape carries with it the possibility of the larger one if she should lose focus. That’s what gives it the hard straight edge, like the bone-chilling cold in the water around her: in the freedive, nothing matters but the present and the exercise of the rigorous self-discipline needed not to drown in it.

She fins calmly downwards with slow, stiff-legged kicks for the first ten metres as the buoyancy of air-filled lungs pulls her body in the opposite direction, back up towards the surface. At the ten-metre mark, the all-round pressure of the water is twice what it was at the surface, and her lungs are now half the size they were. She has trained for this and can read the signals her body is sending her, which calms her enough to no longer feel the panic she once did when the physics change abruptly as she hits twelve metres, as the buoyancy that’s been pulling her upwards back to safety disappears and the sea begins to pull her in the opposite direction. She has come to think of this as the invisible trapdoor to the deep: she stops finning and puts her arms at her sides like a skydiver, letting gravity pull her downwards.

For the next ten metres, she glides deeper into the gloom, feeling a great calmness as she becomes one with the liquid world all around her. And although she is alone, she does not feel lonely, not in the way she has grown used to in what she thinks of as her land-mammal life. Here she feels more and more like a sea creature the further down into the comforting squeeze of the water column she goes. A solitary sea creature, alone, but – here, at least – comfortingly and correctly alone. It’s like meditation for her, this daily practice. And where some meditate to achieve an inner quiet, Sig does it to hear herself. It is here, away from the world, doing this one hidden thing with no one else to rely on, that the chatter disappears and she is able to remember the one voice she misses. Time has worn away the precise memories of other voices she’s lost – her sister’s, for example. Down here, alone in the dark, she’s fallen into the habit of giving herself the necessary calming reminders in that other lost but not forgotten voice.

At thirty metres, there is a red tag on the line and the pressure is triple that of the surface, and the only sound in what is now the last quiet place in the world is her heart beating about once every three seconds as it slows to half her normal resting rate.

Below the red tags are four more white tags spaced a metre apart, and then another red tag. They’re depth markers. Once there were more, all the way up to the ten-metre mark. She has slowly built her capacity over the months by snatching them off the rope one by one, going deeper and deeper as her resilience increased.

This is where she feels the urge to push on and see how much further she can go. To reach the next red tag, deeper than she’s ever been.


The moment she feels that urge, her discipline kicks in hard and she imagines the voice telling herself to turn head to tail. She begins finning again, this time steadily heading upwards towards the light, fighting the impulse to kick frantically as she moderates the oxygen burn to make the most of what’s still usable in her lungs. She has to get back through that trapdoor. The screaming ache in her lungs at this stage used to scare her, but now it’s an old friend, a way-station on her return to the surface and the waiting air. She knows that for one more day she has managed not to push it further than her own self-defined safety boundaries, and she smiles as she rises unhurriedly towards the waiting buoy overhead. This was the right decision for today. Maybe in a couple of days she’ll push it deeper. Today she has a promise to keep. Today isn’t the day to flirt with checking out.


Smiling is also something she has disciplined herself to do. It no longer comes as naturally as it once did. She believes the positive feedback of the physical act of smiling calms both the mind and the body and goes some way to muting the pulmonary alarm bells that are now jangling with an ever-growing insistence.

The ravens look down on Sig as she breaks water and clips herself on to the red ball bobbing in the light chop, regaining her breath: she’s too big for prey, too small to be a fishing boat with the chance of scraps tossed over the side that might drift in and land where the ravens might hop from rock to rock and pluck them from the salt water.

They’re about to move on when they see dark shapes in the depths below her, submarine shadows that lazily swim towards Sig on a converging angle. There are three of them and even the smallest is easily four times as long as the swimmer, who hangs there steadily getting her breath back, normalising her breathing as she floats by the buoy, unaware.

The ravens wait.

Maybe there will be breakfast to be picked off the water’s edge after all.

Below the birds, Sig rolls on to her back, her face a white flash in the black neoprene hood.

She sees the ravens hanging in the vault of air above her, a pair of ragged black crosses beneath a lead-lined sky, black feathers whiffling untidily in the wind like battle-torn pennants.

She watches them as she waits. Only when she is sure she is safely re-oxygenated and her pulse is respectable again does she trust herself to unclip and start to swim the home-stretch of her daily routine. She keeps her eyes fixed on them as she arches her spine and stretches out into a regular backstroke, arms reaching far into the wavelets ahead and then pulling deep scallops of water as her legs churn like a machine, powering her towards the other buoy at the north end of the bay.

Her heart’s pumping normally again, and the water is no colder than it was yesterday. That’s not why she shivers.

The familiar ravens look ominous and unchancy today. And because it’s early and she’s alone and over deep water, even Sig – who has spent a lifetime honing her mind to be as perfectly rational a tool as humanly possible – has to remind herself she isn’t superstitious, that she can’t afford to be, and concentrates on something she can control, like counting strokes and not getting cramp and above all not wondering what she looks like from the birds’ viewpoint or – worse – to anything watching her from the unknown depths below.

She doesn’t see the change in the water surface thirty yards to her right, the upward bulge in the sea travelling towards her. She doesn’t see anything until she finishes her set of one hundred backstrokes and rolls into position for the front-crawl.

Then she sees them.

The shock hits her with a sledgehammer of adrenaline, spiking her heart rate and stopping her breathing in the same moment.

She abruptly stops swimming and hangs there, unmoving.

Dead in the water.

Chapter 2

MacBrayne’s ferry

The MV Isle of Mull is built to carry seventy cars and up to nine hundred and sixty-eight passengers at full capacity, with a crew of twenty-eight. This deep into the off-season there are five vehicles in the car hold, and even though the crew is a couple of men light, it still outnumbers the passengers roughly three to one.

Within a year of being built, the Isle of Mull was found to have a significant deadweight problem which made her lumpy and querulous in challenging sea conditions. She was taken back into dry dock and sliced in half just in front of her funnel so that twenty feet of new hull could be welded in, which cured her weight issue and even sped her up a bit. Unfortunately, she then had a major collision with her sister vessel the Lord of the Isles, which resulted in extensive repairs to her bows. Somewhere between the teething troubles and the collision, she gained a slight and ongoing list to port, the maritime equivalent of a limp.

She isn’t a lucky ship.

Tom Goodge knows all this because he’s reading it off the internet via his smartphone as he waits for the handful of passengers ahead of him to get their food from the ferry’s cafeteria. It’s a distraction both from the noise of the crying baby and the dagger-like looks his exhausted stepmum keeps throwing his way as she argues with his dad about something he or Tom – or possibly both of them – have done wrong again. Reading about the boat’s as good a way of keeping his head down and not getting pulled into their drama as anything else Tom can manage right now, but he’s doing it in the sure and certain knowledge that she’s going to lash out and hook him in if she can.

The line shuffles forward. Tom, who has grown four inches since he turned thirteen less than a year ago, is always hungry these days. The hot breakfast choices behind the Perspex sneeze-guard take his attention away from his phone, and he begins to plan his selection, hoping his dad and stepmother don’t take the final rashers of bacon.

They go for eggs on toast and slide their tray towards the till. Tom steps up to the rail. The girl in the paper cap behind the heat lamps has a nametag that reads Agnieszka. She smiles at him and gives him the last of the bacon.

Behind Tom, Kevo Byres catches sight of himself in the glass covering the menu sheet. He doesn’t read it. He’s not interested in things like that. Writing and shit. He studies himself instead. He guesses he looks okay. He smiles, then closes his mouth. Fuck it. If he doesn’t smile too much when they meet, Shanna probably won’t notice the missing tooth anyway. Apart from that, he reckons he’s looking pretty good. Better than before he went away, really. He’s muscled up a little and doesn’t blink so much.

He didn’t know he blinked a lot until she told him. He certainly didn’t think his eyes fluttered when he was angry. Fluttering your eyes sounds like something a fucking doll does. Something weak. And he’s not weak. If he was weak, she’d not have waited to tell him about the blinking and the fluttering until there was armoured glass between them, that’s for sure. Anyway, forgive and forget. That’s done. New days now. He’s worked on it. Long hours after lock-in with nothing else to do anyway, practising not blinking till his eyes burned, feeling the pain and doing it anyway, a head game, still point of the turning world, eye of the tiger, the thousand-yard stare – pure dead fucking zen, man. He’d like to check out his hair, but he’s planned this trip carefully, and the plan involves not taking his hoodie down in case it goes bad when he gets to the island.

It won’t go bad, but just in case.

He’s keeping it simple. Things don’t go wrong when he keeps things simple. Things go wrong for Kevo when they get complicated. He’s not going to let things get complicated any more, and so everything will get better. That’s what he’s learned. It’s all broken down into steps. Not easy ones, but simple ones. Keep it stupid, simple. Or whatever. He kens fine what he means. He’s made a promise. He’s not going to do what he did any more.

He turns the Stanley knife in his pocket, enjoying the rough criss-cross of the chequered grip against his fingertips. It calms him.

The smell of boiled vegetables, stewed coffee and fried food isn’t great, especially since the whole bouquet is finished off with a piney chemical top-note from the spray used to wipe down the tables between sailings, but he hasn’t eaten since dinner twelve hours ago and the truth is he’s spent so much time eating in a locked-down unit that despite his better judgement his subconscious recognises the bouquet of institutional cooking and is barking like Pavlov’s dog.

The kid ahead moves forward to the till to pay with his parents. Dad’s a sad-looking bloke with a nervy-looking wife who clearly wears the pants. Kevo’s dad wouldn’t have let himself be talked to like that in public. Mind, Kevo’s dad wouldn’t have paid for Kevo’s breakfast, so the moody-looking kid should get a fucking smile on, he reckons.

The doll behind the food troughs asks Kevo what he wants. Sounds German, maybe Polish.

“All day breakfast,” he grunts.

“No more bacon,” she says. “Sorry.”

She smiles at him and says he can have extra square sausage instead. Kevo doesn’t know what she’s being so cheerful about. It’s a fucking canteen. He’s not going to tip the fuckin’ Heidi for pretending to be nice.

He looks down at the industrial bangers and the dried-out rectangles of pink processed meat.

“Aye,” he says, remembering not to smile. “Whatever.”

Chapter 3

Cetorhinus Maximus

Sig sees the shark fins break water on the seaward side of her. On reflex, she kills the music in her headphones, wanting to have all her senses alert and on point. The fight-or-flight reflex hardwired into the oldest, reptilian part of her brain kicks in and tells her to start moving again, thrashing her way to the shore as fast as she can. But she hears a flap and splash behind her and turns to see another huge fin between her and the safety of dry land. The fin juts a metre and a half out of the water, sharply angled backwards, the narrow point of an obtuse triangle. It appears to be following the blunter fin of a smaller shark, cutting a lazy circle around her.

She calms her breathing, using the same discipline she has learned to rely on whilst freediving, and makes the rational part of her brain override the reptilian: the two fins are actually one large fish, a dorsal and a tail fin. She’s swimming with basking sharks, Cetorhinus Maximus, emphasis on the Maximus. These supersized creatures are not here to bite a chunk out of her or anything else: they’re giant gill feeders, sieving the water for plankton as they swim through the sea with their mouths wide open. Sig is several orders of magnitude larger than a micro-organism, and thus way off their menu. Fish aren’t noted for their facial expressiveness, but Sig has always thought of them, with their cavernous gape, pokey bottle-noses and small perma-stunned eyes, as the mouth-breathers of the ocean: large, slow and a bit challenged by complexity. But they are still unquestionably huge, and she doesn’t want to get hit by a tail swipe, so she just floats and lets them complete a lazy circuit of the bay. She’s never seen them this far in and is surprised that they weren’t put off by the sound of her energetic crawl, but then she has seen them close enough to touch from the safety of a boat with a heavy diesel chuntering away, so maybe they’re so big they just don’t care. The days are gone when they were hunted in these waters for their disproportionately large livers and the oil they provided, and there’s nothing else large or dangerous enough to predate on them here.

By now, Sig has stilled the hissing danger signals from the old back-brain and lets herself be in the moment. This is her sea as much as theirs. She’s a strong swimmer, graceful and powerful as she cuts a straight line across the water – it’s only on dry land that she’s awkward and shoogle-footed.

She’s well aware that solo freediving is a dangerously bad habit, but she’s addicted to it. It calms her mind and for a paradoxical moment takes her out of herself by having nothing to concentrate on but being calm enough not to breathe. There’s nothing else that does that for her these days, and she’s tried all the alternatives, some to excess. But these basking sharks offer a different kind of calm. Swimming this close to such extraordinary creatures is a privilege, and she’d be a fool not to be in this, of all moments, and just enjoy it.

The ravens are not the only witnesses to this encounter. Lying in the heather on the slope above the beach there is a third pair of watching eyes. Walter John Stroyan – birdwatcher, widower, holder of guilty secrets – has also forgotten to breathe. He thought about standing and shouting a warning to the swimming girl the moment he saw the first fin break surface, but he knew it would do no good, that he was too far away and that she wouldn’t hear him anyway. She swims with earphones in, he knows that. He knows the red Zippo-sized lump clipped to the backstrap of her swimming goggles is a waterproof iPod. Walter John knows all about Sig and her habits. He is as regular as she, every morning taking up his position on the hill, unseen, just before she bumps down the track in her old pale blue Land Rover Defender and locks her dog in as she takes the metal brace off her leg and limps down to the water. Her movements are lopsided and awkward until she starts to swim, when she is lithe and powerful and – to Walter John – irresistibly addictive.

From the very start, he realised her dog knew he was there. Maybe it sensed him, maybe it smelled Milly. Milly was calm for a spaniel, getting too old to be frisky but robust enough for a morning walk each day. And well-trained. His wife had seen to that. Milly sat patiently beside him in the heather, not straining at the lead in the way a more excitable dog might.

The dog in the Defender barked at them through the slit of window she left open for ventilation. After the first few days it stopped, but any time he drags his eyes from the slender figure of the girl and checks the vehicle, he can always see the silhouette of the dog standing with its paws on the dashboard, staring in his direction, one ear up, one ear down, which is its permanent state. It’s a fell terrier, long legged, black and tan like an Airedale, with the same broken coat but without the overly blocky nose. He knows it’s called Rex because he’s heard her call to it. He also knows he’s safe from the dog as she locks it in because there’s a protected family of otters that breed here, and the dog will fight them – or anything else, for that matter – given half a chance. It’s the same reason he keeps his sweet Milly on a lead. Just in case.

The otters also protect Walter John and his covert watching habit. The high-powered binoculars which go everywhere with him are for them. Not the girl. Not Sig. He’s not pervy, a word he heard on the TV. He’s not even very lonely. After all, he has Milly. She’s the sweetest-natured thing, docile, obedient and always looking at him with a panting smile. So he’s not friendless at all, really. He just likes watching. Watching the island and the things on it. And of all the things on it, Sig just happens to be the one by which he’s most fascinated. He came for the otters and found her by mistake. She’s the stand-out, the anomaly – the black swan. And like a swan, he senses that her poise is achieved only because beneath the surface things are churning away. Her muscular legs, her long arms, the glistening wetsuit… maybe he is getting a little pervy, he thinks. Maybe he should just talk to her. Maybe this is how old men go pervy, telling themselves they aren’t. Maybe he needs to take the lid off this and let some normal air in.

Now Rex is barking again.

The terrier has seen the sharks and is going berserk, scratching and scrabbling at the door and bouncing off the windows in a furious attempt to get free and out there.


  • "Fletcher's suspenseful, atmospheric tale imagines a near future in which our world is in ruins... An adventure saga punctured by a gut-punch twist."—Entertainment Weekly on A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World
  • "[A] heart-and gut-wrenching tale of a post-apocalyptic world....A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World takes a memorable journey of loyalty and love and transforms it into an unraveling mystery of self-discovery and exploration....This is the story of trust and loyalty within a family, and finding your own pack-even if they're different from the pack you were born into."—Bookpage on A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World
  • "The hunt for Jess propels this story forward like a rocket, and Fletcher does a masterful job keeping the stakes high and the suspense crackling while still creating plenty of space for readers to get to know Griz and explore this fascinating not-quite-empty world. This unputdownable story has everything-a well-imagined post-apocalyptic world, great characters, incredible suspense, and, of course, the fierce love of some very good dogs."—Kirkus (starred review) on A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World
  • "Fletcher writes with an elegantly descriptive style, one that brings this melancholic world to bittersweet life....Whether it's the rusting remains of an amusement park, or the dusty floors of a tucked away sanctuary, Fletcher makes the reader feel like they're standing there, right beside Griz, desperate to find out where to go next."—Lightspeed on A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World
  • "A sharp, meditative exploration of family, loyalty, and humanity amid the lonely but beautiful wilderness of the end of the world-but with a gut punch you'll never see coming. You'll remember A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World long after you finish reading."—Peng Shepherd on A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World
  • "If you read one book this year, I beg you that this be the one. A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World will break your heart in all the right ways."—Nerd Daily on A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World
  • "Epic in scope, enthralling, and full of human warmth."—M.R. Carey on A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World
  • "This novel has everything I love about a story: fully realized characters, beautiful writing, and utterly believable, even frightening, world-building. I promise you're going to love it."—Louisa Morgan on A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World
  • "Fletcher's narrative...has a propulsive and engaging rhythm and should please fans of postapocalyptic dystopias, young adult and adult alike."—Booklist on A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World

On Sale
Jun 13, 2023
Page Count
528 pages

C. A. Fletcher

About the Author

C. A. Fletcher has children and dogs. He lives in Scotland and writes for a living.

Learn more about this author