Before you read this and wonder "What have I gotten myself into?", understand that this story is about an ancient and eternal being that too many people have vilified, perverted, or dehumanized into an abstract force. This story is about the struggle of believing in an idea that often seems impossible. And this story is about God.
But it won't always be obvious.
“'Hey,' this guy whispered. 'I’m going ahead. Cover me.'
'What!?' I yelled, sort of panicking. I was a little scared because it looked like we were lost in some corn maze, and being lost in corn made me think of horror movies and evil scare crows, and horror movies made me think of dying.
'Shhhh!!!' he turned around with a wild look on his face, covering my mouth with his hand. He jutted an angry finger up to his lips, looking me straight in the face, hoping I’d understand the universal sign for shut-up, and took his hand away.
'I said I’m going ahead. Stay here and cover me.'
'Don’t do it. It feels…stupider,' I said, whispering this time, panic still present in my voice. I was also aware that my comments were sort of idiotic and not helping. I just really didn’t want to be by myself.
'Stupider than what?' he replied, turning to look at me again.
'I don’t know, just…stupider.'
'God you’re an idiot.'
My friend, if he was my friend, (why else would he ask me to cover him?) turned around to step through the corn. I hated that he was so determined to leave me in this bizarre part of my dream, but whatever, if the guy wanted to run into the death corn, who was I to stop him?
‘I gotcha man.’ I patted him on the back and gave him a big thumbs up. ‘You’re covered.’
Then my friend took two steps forward…
…and exploded in a red mist all over me.
'Gross,' I managed.
Then all of a sudden I was standing in my back yard, a whole crowd of people around me. I guess I was at a party, but I don’t remember throwing one. Anyway, we were all looking up because there was this brilliantly intense light in the sky overhead, like God had just pulled the Earth over and wanted its license and registration, outshining a setting sun. It pulsed to an irregular rhythm, alternating between shades of orange and violet. The way it flickered, it almost looked like the end of a butane torch right after it’s been ignited. At this point our entire neighborhood was outside watching it, as though it was the Fourth of July. Everyone at my house was holding red cups full of beer (at least I assumed it was beer), and my neighbors were grilling hot dogs. I also thought I smelled bratwurst. Anyway, that was my last thought before we all died.
The flickering grew massive until it stretched to the size of a…I dunno, something huge covering the sky. It was like sitting in the bottom row of the IMAX. The entire atmosphere struggled to hold the image together, when suddenly it all disappeared. For half a second my neighborhood had a huge window looking straight out into space, and then the heat from the supernova finally hit, and the entire earth was devoured in flames. Then I was talking into a bratwurst like it was a telephone, yelling at it because I was hungry and it was yelling back that it wasn’t ready to be eaten…but that had nothing to do with the supernova.
Then I woke up." I paused for dramatic effect, hoping it added to the mystery. I’d just spent the last twenty minutes recounting a dream I’d been having only a few hours ago. Somehow I’d remembered the whole thing, and for a reason totally foreign to me now, decided that I’d tell the girl in front of me allllll twenty minutes of it…and then hoped she’d share my enthusiasm. The look on her face said otherwise, though.
“Was that it?” She asked, her expression a cross between I think he just peed himself and I am way too hot for this. I don’t consider myself a body language expert, one reason I’d do everything in my power to avoid jail, but if my inner psychiatrist judged her face correctly, she seriously wanted those twenty minutes back.
Maybe I was blinded by her hotness. In fact, I’m not sure what I was thinking. What girl would sit there for more than twenty seconds as some idiot related his apocalyptic dream? I guess she deserved some props for not walking away sooner. She was nice, and that was my problem. I always assumed, to the detriment of my ego, that kindness was an extension of something deeper. I could have sworn we were connecting. Romeo, I am not.
I promised myself it wouldn’t happen again, but the damage was already done…well that and I knew it absolutely would happen again if I felt someone was interested, and I felt that way about everybody. I’m like a dog when it comes to people; readily your friend, but often too quick to hump the leg. When you have a dream like that you have to tell somebody though, and why not the sympathetic blonde girl who feigned interest?
“Well…should there be more?” Of course not, I tried to telepathically send to her mind.
“Yes,” she responded, my telepathy powers letting me down. “I mean, who dreams about the end of the world?”
I wondered if it was too late to act like this never happened.
“I…you’re right. So you have any cool dreams lately?”
She walked off.
Great. Maybe I should have said something about finding true love or some nonsense girls like. Where is that Notebook guy when you need him? Note to self: girls aren’t crazy about people exploding and the earth burning.
I strode forward through the jungle, whistling the tune to Kung-Fu Fighting. Yeah, I’m in a jungle. I got here because I don’t pay attention to fine print when filling out a survey for money. Welcome to my life.
Time for some background.
This morning I woke up in the middle of a tropical rain forest, or I think it was tropical anyway. This was my first experience. There were trees with Jurassic Park looking leaves and it was wet, like Noah’s Ark wet. Of course the waterfall probably helped, and to be honest I don’t know much about rainforests except what I’ve seen on Man vs. Wild. I guess we could’ve been anywhere on the earth close to the equator.
Anyway, although I couldn’t tell for sure, I assumed we were on the side of a small mountain, and we woke up in this little clearing, probably because it was somewhere a helicopter could land. And even though I don’t remember a helicopter ride at all, I couldn’t imagine getting up here any other way…unless they shot us out of a cannon or something. The top of the mountain looked like a caldera, but it was an old enough volcano that it was inactive. We were about half way up the side, and I could even see, coming down from all over the top, the little rivulets that coursed together to form our waterfall. Our clearing also overlooked a lagoon about two and half miles away (total guess by the way, since my job working as a clerk in a video game store doesn’t require me to eyeball distances on a regular basis.) I remember standing over a ledge looking down into the valley below us, marveling at how post-card-gorgeous everything was. I also remember that I never thought that again.
I wasn’t the only person to wake up in the middle of nowhere, either. There were nine other people, ten total; five guys, five girls, all about college age. None of us seemed to possess any sense of style either, because we were all wearing the same awesome gray t-shirts and sweatpants. If someone had taken a random selection of individuals from my college, without purposely trying to ensure each demographic was represented, then the ten people stuck on the side of this mountain made for a near perfect representation of the racial inequality at my school. There was one black guy and two Asian girls. Well actually now that I think about it one of the Asian girls could have been any number of ethnicities from anywhere but Europe, so I assumed she must have represented our graduate program. The rest of us were white, despite my school's efforts to come across as multicultural.
One of the girls had rolled down the waist of her sweatpants, and two of the guys had already tied their shirts around their heads, showing off P90X workout bodies. I noticed the two other guys were reluctant to take their shirts off. I was too, and I’ll be honest, it’s not because I was cold. All but one of the girls looked like they could have been sorority sisters, but I think I thought this because she was the only one not, like, totally freaking out OMG. In fact, she looked pretty calm for someone who had just been legally kidnapped by “them.” And by “them” I’m referring to the shady organization that volunteered us into this forced vacation in the first place. I probably should have seen it coming, but I was blinded by the money. Being a student is cool and all, but I’m in college…it’s pretty much a given that I donate blood every other week so I can buy food to replenish my blood.
One of the girls had rolled down the waist of her sweatpants, and two of the guys had already tied their shirts around their heads, showing off P90X workout bodies. I noticed the two other guys were reluctant to take their shirts off. I was too, and I’ll be honest, it’s not because I was cold. All but one of the girls looked like they could have been sorority sisters, but I think I thought this because she was the only one not, like, totally freaking out OMG. In fact, she looked pretty calm for someone who had just been legally kidnapped by “them.” And by “them” I’m referring to the shady organization that volunteered us into this forced vacation in the first place. I probably should have seen it coming, but I was blinded by the money. Being a student is cool and all, but I’m in college…it’s pretty much a given that I donate blood every other week so I can buy food to replenish my blood.
See, about a month ago, I read in our campus newspaper that there was a company looking for people to participate in a sociological survey (which was probably the loosest definition of the word in the history of surveys) where upon completion you would be paid. Two thousand dollars. For four days. Now by this point most people would have immediately been skeptical of any company willing to hand out a small fortune (I’m poor okay, two thousand bones is enough for a 46” TV and all the Ramen I can eat until I die, so it sounded like a deal) for a measly survey, but in my defense, I wanted to play Rock Band on a screen so large I couldn’t see all the way across it. I also figured that the worst that could happen would be the Stanford Prison Experiment, and I was prepared to deal with the crap of nine other people for the sake of social progress, especially at five hundred dollars a day and free air fare. So this is where it landed me, and at this point of the story, it wasn’t so bad.
The night before we woke up on the island was pretty much a blur. Like Thursday nights at our university, all I remember after stepping onto the two engine prop plane was being offered a drink and then somehow passing out, then waking up disoriented. Except instead of coming to half-naked on someone's roof, it was in new clothes on the side of a mountain. Also unlike Friday morning at school, I didn’t wake up with a headache. In fact I felt like I had just slept for twenty-four hours, which wouldn’t have surprised me had this occurred. So was it Saturday? I had no clue.
The other thing I haven’t mentioned yet is that, besides our gray uniforms, we had also been outfitted with these exceptionally stylish (and extremely uncomfortable) dark gray neck braces. They weren’t exactly light, either, and the material they were made out of was some sort of polycarbonate plastic, the kind you’d find at an army surplus store that is normally used to make butt stocks for guns. There was a small LED light on the front, directly next to hole that looked like it would fit a big Allen wrench. Yeah, that didn’t help to calm everyone when we woke up in Ohballstherearenovolcanoesnearmyhouse, Earth.
At the moment, our band of intrepid explorers was spread out over about half a football field (also known as fifty yards), with cliques that had formed without much thought or reason, but only because they needed more time. The girl I had been talking to for the past half hour was out of my league, and my monologuing was enough for her to speed walk in the direction of the front group, made up of fabulous gym physiques, tanned bods, and freshly washed laundry…which…I guess we all had since our involuntary wardrobe exchange the night before. The people at the front weren’t too far ahead; there was a guy/girl pair only a few jungle tree lengths behind, and a final pair of girls brought up the rear. Somewhere in between us there was a guy with dark hair and a kind of brooding expression that seemed to be keeping mainly to himself, as well as consistently walking off the main trail. More than once I heard the rear girls call out to him to come back, that he’d missed the turn again.
It hadn’t occurred to me until now, but I realized I had no clue who (or what) put this trail here in what seemed to me like the armpit of beautiful vacation spots. It is for no arbitrary reason I refer to this forest as an armpit either, as it feels like even the air is trying to sweat, and for some stupid reason, when the wind finally does decide to blow and relieve the oppressive humidity, it will occasionally give off the sweet/sharp aroma of decaying meat. The smell isn’t immediately unpleasant, but once you realize what it’s linked to, you try your best to cover your mouth. It also seemed to be getting stronger and grosser the closer we got to the beach.
I realized after I was a few steps behind the quickly escaping girl that she was escaping, so I speedwalked after her like a loyal dog—the kind that chases a laser on the floor until it into the wall.
“Hey, wait up!” I called.
She walked faster.
Rude, I thought, but strode on like a Salsa dancer in a marathon.
We made our way down the path until overcoming the two hosses I mentioned earlier. She whispered something to them, and then looked back and nodded my way. Uh oh.
I slowed, walking as nonchalantly as possible, careful to stare dumbly at the trees as though interested in the local banana leaves, but quickly growing more and more uncomfortable with every syllable that was secretly parlayed between the group of four in front of me. It went on like this for longer than I care to admit, with me staring intently at random objects like some deranged botanist, and them snickering and glancing back in my direction, until I finally worked up the nerve to overtake them and act like one of the guys. I hadn’t even muttered a word before “the guys” turned around with identical smirks on their big, dumb faces and walked on either side of me.
”Yo. ‘Sup?” I asked, jutting my jaw out and hoping to sound as guido as possible. Apparently they were West Coast, because they weren’t deceived by my urban, Italian-American impression.
“Hey man,” this big black guy said, passing a look of look at this idiot to his almost equally tanned friend. “We were hoping you’d make your way up here.” He said this in the most jovial way possible, and patted me on the back.
His friend added, “Yeah, Krystal here," (so that was her name) "has been telling us you’re quite the little MLK, Jr.”
What? For a moment I was completely thrown off.
Oh right, the “I have a dream” speech. So the guy’s a comedian.
“It sounded pretty intense. You willing to tell it again?” His wide eyes, pretty teeth, and mock-enthusiasm really endeared you to him.
Okay, now I knew, I knew they were baiting me into proving how crazy I was, but I didn’t know what else to do. So I started stammering through it. To their credit, they listened for almost five minutes before they realized I was actually going to give’m the whole thing, and that I wasn’t anywhere close to the end. About the time I got to the part where I was playing out my own version of Inception they interrupted me.
“Yeah wow, that was pretty awesome.”
He raised his eyebrows and nodded to the whole group to represent his interest. He also said this completely aware that I hadn’t reached a stopping point, but I was still a little relieved to no longer be the one talking. The way he walked and held himself, I imagined that if he had kept his shirt on, and if it had had a collar, he would have popped it. Then his friend spoke, like they had planned out how they were going to tell me off.
“Listen man, I hope you don’t mind, but I think we’re going to walk ahead a bit, alright?”
What had surely begun as an attempt to shame me into never sharing my dreams with people again had quickly devolved into a realization that my superpower was ignoring important social clues.
“Uh, sure man,” I responded.
“Cool. And cool dream man. Later.”
With those words of finality my two bodyguards let me go and walked on ahead…with me in tow, of course. I wasn’t about to let these cocky bastards ridicule me unless it was directly to my face. At the time, this made sense. We had only gone a few more steps before they looked back and giggled in unison.
This guy. There probably weren't enough mirrors in the world for him to admire himself in.
“Uh, what?” I asked, my voice noticeably sarcastic.
“I said we’re going ahead, but we’re going alone.”
He said “alone” slow, like he was talking to a retarded person.
“We’re all walking to the same place,” I responded. “Why don’t you walk behind me, then you can be alone all you want?”
He stopped and turned on me, a look of growing impatience in his eyes. He stood possibly three inches taller than me. This is important.
“Listen…bro. You’re story sucked. It’s five minutes of my life I can’t get back.” Ah the truth comes out. “Nobody wants you up here, and to be real honest, you’re starting to piss me off. So just G-T-F-O.”
Yeah, he actually said the letters like it was a text message.
“Listen, bro. I don’t really care. Keep walking and leave me alone. If you didn’t want to hear my story then you shouldn’t have asked.”
I shrugged as though I didn’t understand why he hadn’t thought of that, but he didn’t appreciate my advice, or my smarty-pants answer, and pushed me hard in the chest. Then pointed behind me.
“Get back there smartass. I’m not going to ask you again.” Now there’s trouble in River City.
Okay, I’m not stupid, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to take his patronizing sitting down...or...walking backwards or whatever, so I kept moving forward like I was the boss of my life. What happened next was one of the most emasculating things that can happen to a man. He reached up, grabbed my face, and planted a huge kiss right on my nose with those douchey lips of his. Better if he had punched me in the groin.
I wasn’t really sure what to do, never having been kissed as a means of assault before, so I swung wildly with my right arm at his square jawed face. He was waiting for it though, and pushed my head back, causing me to fall off balance like some drunk hobo chasing pigeons in the park. I managed to barely catch myself before I tipped all the way over and came up ready to lose a fight, but my opponents had already toppled over themselves in laughter. The guy smirked at me, knowing he’d won, and then shrugged like he’d warned me.
Frat brother: 1. Me: 0.
I was glad my friends hadn’t been there witnesses to my humiliation. I never would have heard the end of it. Hey guys, remember the time Chris tried to pick a fight with the Situation? How’d that go again? Wasn’t it a submission? He really put the moves on you, didn’t he? Whoa Chris, don’t start something. We wouldn’t want to have to make out with you. Yeah, my friends are really great.
I heard people making their way down the path behind me. I realized it was the guy and girl couple I’d only seen on the top of the mountain, before we all started making our way towards the beach. Apparently they’d caught up…just in time to witness me make a fool out of myself. The guy spoke.
“Hey man, you didn’t crap yourself or anything did you? That dude was pretty big.”
I think he was trying to be nice, but based on the question, he didn’t have much experience. This new guy had medium length, curly brown hair, and was a little overweight. His shirt stuck out like he was hiding a pillow under it.
“What? No. I’m fine.” I had some leaves on my pants and brushed them off.
“What happened?” It was the girl who asked a normal question.
“Oh, nothing. Just a…disagreement.”
“Really? Because I’ve never seen anyone—“
“Aaanyway, glad you’re alright. My name is Rachel. This is Stephen.”
“Yep. People call me Steve-O.”
The disbelief on my face must’ve registered, because he took it back.
“Okay, nobody actually calls me that, but you can if you want to.”
“Uh…sure. How’re you doing Steve-O?” We shook hands.
Rachel also held out her hand. “We thought we heard you guys talking about some dream. Is that what started your…” I could tell she wanted to say “fight,” but she said “…disagreement? What kind of dream did you have?”
Oh here it goes again.
I gave them the abridged version, having learned somewhat from my previous two experiences. They listened about as attentively as you might expect, with Steve-O whacking random shrubs, or basically anything with a wide, easily destructible surface, using a stick he had picked up somewhere along the trail. They walked along in silence for about five minutes until I reached the end, and this time I smoothed over the heavy stuff. I finished, not really concerned any more on whether anyone commented, but something came out of Rachel’s mouth that I wouldn’t have seen coming.
“I had a weird dream like that once, scared me to death.”
Well butter me up and call me a biscuit. I thought I heard Handel’s Messiah playing softly in the distance. Rachel wasn’t Hollywood gorgeous like Krystal, but I suddenly didn’t care.
She had auburn hair, which was currently stuck to her forehead like someone had used packing tape to keep it there, and she had vampire teeth. Not fake teeth, but Avril Lavigne shaped incisors. Not exactly a rousing endorsement of her looks, and I’m not really a fan of vampires, unless they’re like Blade or being exterminated, but her plain features had a different kind of beauty. Of course, I could have been talking to Ursula from the Little Mermaid, and I still would have been stoked.
“Really? What happened?” I asked excitedly.
“Hey, I dreamed about Resident Evil once,” Steve-O had taken a break from murdering the forest to enter the conversation.
We both looked at him.
He stammered for a second. “I…uh, actually never mind. I can’t remember how it went.”
Rachel and I exchanged glances and shrugged. He went back to swinging his stick.
“Well actually I don’t like to talk much about that dream…” her voice trailed off.
She said it was okay, but I got the feeling it wasn’t. Man, I am on fire today.
After that awkward moment, we all walked along in silence waiting for the trail to end. It was supposed to come out somewhere along the beach we saw earlier, but now that we had descended off the side of the mountain, which hadn’t taken long, I couldn’t tell how close or far we were. One of the reasons the frat squad was at the front was due to their possession of the only copy of instructions given to us for the weekend’s survey. I was pretty sure they had a topographical map also, but whether they knew what all the squiggly lines on it were for is questionable. I was willing to bet no. Of course, none of us really knew much more than to make our way toward the beach, where we would receive further instructions. So we trudged on, hoping there would be a barbecue and a tiki torch tunnel celebrating our arrival.
I had severely overestimated the time of day, as well. When I woke up, I thought it was closer to 9am, when in fact it was nearly 5 o’clock pm. The sun was quickly descending below the horizon. None of us had flashlights either, so we were all a little worried that our hike was going to become more of a blind let’s-wander-through-the-jungle adventure. I began wondering how any company could afford the type of litigation there would be if someone got lost or died. I then had a much more frightening thought. What if they had planned on that? Hmm, enough thinking.
“So what’s your major?” I asked to no one in particular.
“What?” the two said this in unison. Then they both pointed to each other, because obviously I had meant the other one.
“Either of you.” I said.
Steve-O spoke first, “I’m a Physics major.”
I looked at him, a little suspicious based on his past ability to tell the truth, but he didn’t even check to see if I cared.
He put the stick on his chin and started to balance it.
“Seriously,” he replied. It couldn’t have been easy to talk while balancing a stick on your face, so I didn’t press it. But it fell anyway, and he elaborated.
“I’m a junior. I can recite Maxwell’s equations if you want me to.”
He started to, but Rachel changed the subject.
“I’m a Cultural Studies major. And you?” She turned to me.
“I’m…a Physics major too.”
“No you’re not.” It was Steve-O. The speed at which he doubted me was impressive.
“How do you know?” I asked, feeling pretty confident that I could prove it. I knew one of Maxwell’s equations. The electric field times the divergence operator…equals the total charge density over the…or was it the free charge density? How is it that I can remember pointless information when no one cares, but when it comes down to an actual situation where it would be useful, my brain laughs at me from its lawn chair?
“You are a communications major.”
A tiny explosion went off somewhere in my head. Part anger, part “holy mother of God.” I’d never met a psychic before, and I definitely didn’t expect this stick swinging pathological liar to be one. He did say physics, right? Not psychic major?
“I’ve seen you around campus. You’re building is only one down from our physics labs. We had a class together. Business Ethics.”
Huh. Didn’t see that coming.
“Still though, how’d you know my major?”
“You were trying to hit on the girl next to you and you said something about it. I was a few rows back, making paper airplanes and seeing if I could land one on the professor’s desk before class started.”
“Oh.” Suddenly I remembered. And it hadn’t been paper airplanes, but wadded up paper balls. And he hadn’t been trying to throw them at the teacher’s desk, but actually make them down the shirt of a heavyset girl three rows in front of him. She’d turn around to see who it was, and he’d act oblivious, then when she wasn’t looking he and his friend would quietly hi-five each other. Way to start ethics class guys. “That was you?”
More awkward silence as we all trudged forward. Finally, after what seemed like hours (and maybe it was,) we made it to the beach. The Fab Four were standing around arguing with each other, and as everyone caught up, they didn’t seem to notice that they now had an audience. I heard part of the conversation.
“…And I’m telling you that we should just signal now so we can leave. I’m tired and hungry and I want to go home.” One of the girls had her arms at her sides and had balled her fists, looking like a girl that hadn’t received the pink Ferrari for her birthday like she asked.
“Abbey, we can’t leave. If any of us bail now then none of us get paid. You know that.”
Abbey walked off in a huff and sat down on a nearby log with her arms crossed. I kind of felt sorry for her. Kind of.
“So what do we do then Marcus? Where are we supposed to go? We don’t have any food, and they said it’d be here.”
“I don’t know, but let’s look around. It’s gotta be nearby.”
“What’s going on?” Steve-O asked.
A sigh came from Marcus, the tall black guy. “Well, the instructions they gave us said there’d be some sort of camping equipment and food here, but—“
“It’s not.” The dark haired kid finished the obvious. He wasn’t happy.
“Yeah. We should probably split up and look for it.” Marcus looked tired. Welcome to the jungle, baby.
At first, we all stood with blank expressions on our profoundly exhausted and thirsty faces, zombies assembled on the beach, until finally Steve-O yelled “last one to find it owes me a full body massage!” and took off running down the beach, his pants desperately trying to keep from dipping below his butt crack, and his stick in the air like an Englishman charging into battle. We all tensed for a moment—then bolted in different directions, the girls looking more determined than the guys. The Asian girl and her friend started in the direction of the woods, and then thought better of it. I took off after Steve-O, and Rachel followed. The two girls, after tripping over some driftwood, chased after us. The dark haired kid, obviously a fan of symmetry, followed the Fab Four. It was a race.
Steve-O high stepped his way down the sand, throwing it in our faces with each step, before he finally stopped and grabbed his knees, panting vigorously.
“Go on!” He yelled with some effort. “I’ll catch up!”
We all cantered down the beach a bit until we turned a corner and stopped cold. Huge, dark shapes dotted the beach for about four hundred yards along what I figured was the lagoon I had seen at the top of the mountain.
“Ooh look! Whales…oh…”
The graduate girl trailed off when she realized these whales weren’t going anywhere.
“Well I guess that explains the rotting fish smell,” I stated matter-of-factly.
PETA would have screamed like Charlton Heston at the end of Planet of the Apes if it had been there (I’m assuming PETA is a collection of sentient programs using human bodies for shells, like the Borg.) Nearly twenty or thirty whales were spread out on the beach, all of them dead and eyes pecked out, some more recently than others. I had to cover my mouth and consciously think of something other than vomiting after we got a nostril full of the smell blown our way by a light breeze. This is why you waft in chemistry kids. Some things just aren’t worth a good, deep breath. It didn’t help that we were all panting from our jog, either. Graduate girl bent over and retched, but nothing came up except spit and the gag reflex. Her friend looked like she had just stuck her head in the garbage, and covered her nose with her arm.
“Back the other way?” Rachel managed.
We all nodded and retreated from the whale graveyard. We were looking for Steve-O when Rachel finally spotted him on a rock about thirty feet out in the surf, looking like Captain Morgan, leaning forward and saluting the ocean.
“Ahoy!” He hollered as we approached. He hopped off the rock, fell backwards into the salt water, came up sputtering, and waded his way back onto the beach, a huge grin on his face.
“I demand payment. One of you owes me a back massage.” He was talking in his best pirate accent (at least I think it was supposed to be pirate.) “So who it be?”
Rachel rolled her eyes. We all had disgusted looks on our faces, which seemed to take the wind out of his sails (no pun intended.)
“Fine. We’ll work that out later…what is wrong with you guys?”
“Sorry man,” I started. “We ran into Free Willy’s family, and they’re not looking too good.”
“Oh yeah, I could see them from the top of my rock.”
“Your rock?” Rachel mused.
“And guess what else I could see?” His eyes glinted gleefully.
“You found our supplies.” I answered.
“Yep. But it’s going to suck getting out there. There are some orange boxes floating in a little pool about sixty yards out, but it looked like it was going to be tough reeling them in, and I wasn’t looking forward to drowning by myself.”
“So you waited for us. Thanks man...”
We all followed him out to the same rock, and I clambered up. I had to shield my eyes, as I was looking almost directly west into the sunset, but sure enough, there were five large boxes floating around just waiting to be rescued…from what looked like the pool of Charybdis. Did somebody purposely put them in the most difficult to reach spot imaginable? Parachutes were connected to each box, and hung off what looked like Contusion Crag, engulfed in Davy Jones’ Locker, and almost certainly protected by a squad of exploding hammerhead sharks.
“So who’s got a hoverboard?” I asked.
Do you ever wish you had a camera, and not because you wanted to capture something brilliant, but because the next few seconds of someone’s life would be so stupid that you’d make a fortune selling it to television networks? That is what I would have wished for if we had gone through with Steve-O’s initial idea. I’m not sure what all goes on in that curly-haired head of his, but it probably wouldn’t be worth writing down unless you wanted to laugh at all the countless ways he almost died. By the time he was done explaining his ludicrously complex and suicidal plan, I wondered how he even knew what a Rube-Goldberg device was, let alone why he thought this situation was applicable.
The Asian girl saved us. “I think we better come up with something else. No offense.”
I didn’t think it was possible to offend him.
“Then what’s plan B?” Rachel asked. “I’m hungry.”
“Wait, what’s wrong with mine? Is it using pants for floaties? Because we can still make it work.”
“Actually man I think that was one of your better ideas,” I offered, trying to sound positive. “I think what she’s trying to say is that we need a plan with less…pizzazz.”
The group offered encouraging smiles.
“Less pizzazz…” he contemplated. “Well I’m down. What’s your idea?”
The next few minutes were a democratic nightmare. We all had ideas, and we voted on the ones that sounded less stupid, but the longer we sat there arguing the darker it got. Also, the wind was picking up, causing the enormous palm leaves to sway like huge, green hands waving goodbye, and thunder began echoing off the mountain. Looking around at the blackening sky and really not wanting to have to survive the night on dreams of ribs and potato salad (also I was afraid we might actually get frustrated enough to try plan A,) I made an executive decision and jumped in the water.
Holy monkey balls this water is cold! It had to be the Pacific.
What ensued was a thirty minute struggle against not dying (not something I’d recommend if you value your dignity.) I won, but just barely and not without looking like a fool in a spider web of huge, unhelpful parachutes. I’m not what you’d call a strong swimmer, having been taken out of swimming classes when I was six years old because my mom got a phone call from the instructor, after the first day, explaining that taking me to the hospital would be unnecessary, that he had pulled me out just in time. She didn’t send me back.
I tried not to think of that day though as I plugged slowly through the waves. Finally, after listening to the helpful advice from the box retrieval experts on the shore (in between coming up for breaths I’d think then feel free to try that when you swim out here!) and fighting the waves by slapping them into submission, I got the five crates close enough to the shoreline that we could pull them into a little pile. I collapsed as soon as I was on land, my chest heaving and feeling like I’d lost a battle against Poseidon and common sense, and my clothes looking like they’d been made into a huge sugar cookie.
“Dude, when we get back I’m buying you a drink! No two! Two drinks, ah ah.” Steve-O did his best impersonation of the Count off Sesame Street.
“Sounds like a deal,” I wheezed out. “But at the moment, I could really use some water that doesn’t taste like salt. Also, a steak sounds delicious. What’s in the box?”
Having conquered death, I was hungry. In fact, we all were (I figured it must’ve been due to their exhausting administrative efforts,) so we cracked open the first crate. I almost cried.
It was empty, except for briny water and a solitary crab, and the latch looked like it had broken open, no doubt from the beating it received from its rocky prison guards. On the plus side, we now had bright orange boxes that floated, in case we needed a paddle boat race in five comically sized canoes. We opened all of them, and to our gradual dismay only two contained anything. Each box held two backpacks, so in total we had four, full of camping and cooking gear. There were flashlights, matches, portable stoves, water purifiers, and all sorts of other survival equipment that would have been perfect for four people. Hooray, we’re saved.
“Dibs!” Steve-O yelled, and began sorting through one of the packs.
“Hold on!” Graduate girl yelled back. “We need to work through this strategically. Since there are only four backpacks, we need to lay out all the stuff and decide how best to split everything up.”
He shrugged and, when she wasn’t looking, began stuffing random objects down his pants. The rest of us spread the parachutes out and began collecting all the equipment so we could take a proper inventory. I let the girls sort that out though, because they seemed to be having fun arranging it all into little piles, and screamed at me if I moved anything.
“Can I at least have some matches? I’m going to make a fire.”
I wasn’t freezing, but I wasn’t exactly comfortable in drenched and salty sweatpants, and a bonfire sounded pretty fabulous. The wind was cool and fresh on the beach, but in the distance, the storm was building ominously. I didn’t know it yet, but we had about eight hours before it would reach us.
“Sure.” They gave me one match. “We have to ration everything, just in case.”
“Good idea. Just in case someone hordes all the matches, then there’d be anarchy.”
Detecting sarcasm, she gave me another one. Good enough. I started wandering around the woods looking for dry, fire starting tinder…which is laughably difficult in a rain forest. I picked along the coast though, found some, and made my way back, arms full of firewood, to what I figured would be a happy campsite. I was mistaken.
In my absence, the frat squad had arrived and were a little annoyed we hadn’t come looking for them after making our discovery. It was an even bigger barrel of monkeys when they learned that three boxes were completely empty.
“What the hell were you people doing while we were gone? And who found them? And where is the rest of this stuff!?”
Steve-O looked up from making holes in the sand, a confused look on his face. “Which question should we answer first?”
“I don’t fucking care!” The guy wasn’t in the mood for jokes.
“Well I found them,” Steve-O paused to emphasize that fact for the benefit of the girls, “but my friend here swam out and brought it all in.” He pointed at me and smiled victoriously. I stood there like an idiot with a bundle of sticks (also called a faggot which, incidentally, would become my new nickname.)
“Of course! You let this fag swim out there and fuck things up? I mean FUCK! Why didn’t you just dump it all in the ocean with his gay ass while you were at it?!”
Okay. That was unnecessary.
“Hey! I wasn’t the one trying to make out with other dudes!” I screamed in reply. Somehow the homosexual comment bothered me more than the accusation that I had possibly caused ten people to starve slowly. I’ve made more constructive uses of my time.
The underwear model, whose name I would later find out was Payne, started in my direction looking ready to kiss-fight me again. I tossed the actual faggot out of my way and walked as angrily as possible in his direction, the sand making it difficult to look intimidating. We got in each other’s faces, his spit going further because he was looking down, my head hanging back a little because he was taller and I wasn’t taking any chances, and the whole situation playing out favorably in my head. If this had been the Karate Kid movie, I was probably about to get my ass handed to me by Johnny from the Cobra Kai dojo, no doubt with someone screaming “get’em a body bag!” maniacally in the background. Hey, my skills mainly involve being good at Halo and making some killer quesadillas, not demonstrating restraint.
“You wanna get your ass kicked again faggot?!”
“What are you gonna do, kiss me to death?! I think you left your chap stick back with your boyfriend!” My mouth was determined to write checks my body couldn’t cash.
“What’d you say pussy! I’m going to beat your smart ass so hard you’ll wish you were gay!”
“You’d like that wouldn’t you?!”
He pushed me and I pushed back. I thought, hey I could do this, and waited for the fireworks to start. Everyone else watched on, a little too shocked to do anything. If they were yelling obscenities or warnings I wasn’t paying attention, as my entire focus was spent on thinking of good comebacks. Then Payne reached back to deliver his namesake, when suddenly all I heard was a high pitched squeal that should have ruptured an eardrum.
The whole group looked at the Asian girl, who had just released a banshee-esque scream at the top of her lungs. It sounded painful.
“Stoooooooop!” She howled again. “This isn’t helping!”
Suddenly, all the blood I’d diverted to keeping my ego convinced it was a chained animal rushed back into the logic and reason section, which admittedly is not as large as I would like it to be. The adrenaline faded, and I was left with a feeling of relief, yet somehow intense loss, the high collapsing and draining my body of all energy. Payne just stood in place fuming for a few seconds until he realized no one cared anymore. He went back to his corner and I wandered over to mine, where our respective friends asked if everything was alright. It turns out the only person interested in our face off was Steve-O, who had been taking bets on the winner. He even looked a little disappointed it was over. Everyone else began acting as busy as possible with no observable purpose. I sat down by my twigs.
Alright, I was feeling a little unjustly accused. But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if I really had accidentally dumped one or two boxes out whilst attempting to be a hero. That ate at me while I built a fire, the whole time expecting someone to rush in and accuse me of wasting our stick supplies.
The dark haired kid walked over and helped. He told me his name, Sam, and I told him mine, and that was the extent of our conversation. We were guys. It was enough. We made a little pile of tinder under a teepee of branches, and then I used one match and it lit, smoldering at first, then small tongues flicking out and catching on the larger branches. I realized that this would burn quickly, and Sam and I rushed off to find more wood.
Now, I’m going to take a few minutes to describe my religious views. Just wait. There’s a reason.
I live in America, and went to an American high school, so I never went five minutes without being approached by some hyper-religious teenager convinced that Jesus was coming in 2012, and that I needed to repent of all my transgressions or else I’d burn in hell or whatever. Or it’d be Mormons knocking on my door, but they’d leave after I asked them how accurate the Southpark episode was. And of course Islam was evil, because I live in America bitches; we use the Koran for target practice in our backyards. So I grew up pretty skeptical of any religion saying there was an imaginary superhero that flew around and blessed or cursed people based on their behavior, like some yin-yang fairy. I had already been disillusioned one time too many when my parents finally broke the news that Santa was a fraud. Many a Christmas before that were spent calculating the impossible trajectories someone of such notable mass was required to complete; like if he visited New York before he got to our house, then forget Christmas, because there was no way those reindeer could pull Santa’s fat, cookie-loving ass all the way to Texas after making the rounds on Long Island.
I grew up the skeptic. I remember asking this guy what proof he had that the world was only ten thousand years old, and boy did that light his zealous fire. After that I couldn’t walk into class without him bringing up yet more “evidence” that the world was young. That’s right, kid, God just buried the dinosaurs to mess with you.
I’m a man of science, okay? Sure, maybe there is a god out there somewhere, but who’s to say it isn’t Njord the sea god that blesses BP and its offshore drilling rigs. I’m not a full blown atheist, but let’s just say I don’t go running around with a camera and a PKE meter hoping to catch a glimpse of Casper. If you can’t prove it, then good luck convincing me it exists.
NOW. I bring this up for a reason. Because while I was wandering around in the forest (and by this point it was almost pitch black, except for a little starlight,) I encountered something I’ve never really felt in my life.
Fear of the dark.
I’m not counting my childhood experiences, as I assume all little kids have had traumatizing episodes of a shadow next to their closet moving, as though a ghost had nothing better to do than make a little kid wet his bed. But even then, I’d walk around my house with all the lights off because I liked the feeling of being a ninja. I wasn’t really scared of darkness.
But what happened while I was out there was a very real fear, and I couldn’t understand why. It was a simple one too. Me, the skeptic, was suddenly afraid of what he couldn’t see. I kept swiveling my head right and left, certain that there was something or somebody with fangs and beady eyes waiting to jump at me when the camera panned that way.
“Steve-O, is that you?” I whispered as calmly as I could, but nothing answered. In fact, I thought it bizarre that in this part of the forest there was little sound other than my stupid questions and shaky body movements.
And then, (and I swear to you that I was wide awake when this happened) I heard something whisper back.
All it said was my name, slowly and with the sort of recognition I could only attribute to something that knew me. Something was out here, in the middle of fucking nowhere, and it knew my name and who I was.
I tore out of the trees faster than I ever thought possible, (I mean seriously, if I had known that sort of speed existed in my body when I was in high school, I would have joined a freaking sport) sticks slapping me in the face every few feet and my blood vessels completely open and pumping to the instinct that screamed “RUN!”
I came out on the beach, tripped and fell into the sand, rolled, and came right back up to force my legs back in the direction of camp. At this point I would have kissed Payne if it meant seeing another human being. I kept looking over my shoulder to see if anything had followed, when I suddenly had this gnawing question at the back of my skull that I might be running in the wrong direction. I stopped, out of breath, looking up and down the beach, and realized I had no idea which way the camp was. It was just the waves rolling in, and the trees swaying silently with the wind.
Great. I’m going to be the first person to die in this horror movie. Where’d everybody go?
It was Rachel that saved me. I heard her yelling my name, and turned in that direction. As I stared, it became obvious that I had been running in the wrong direction, because I saw the blaze of a fire glow against the shoreline. I jogged that way, and when I finally found her and Sam talking to each other, walking away from the bonfire, I was completely exhausted. The swim, the fight, and the final pants-staining scare were too much, and I fell on my side into the sand.
“Dude. Are you alright?” Sam asked.
“Yeah man. I just need some food. Please tell me we got something to eat.”
Sam smiled. “I hope you like fish.”
So I learned two things that night. One: if you are of the persuasion that sanity is overrated, then wandering around in the jungle by yourself is a fantastic way to pull that good, sexy foundation of reality right out from under your feet. And two: fish tastes like Skittles on a rainbow made of Disney songs when you’re hungry. It was so delicious, even without anything but a little of the spice packet taken out of an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat, for those who don’t routinely study military acronyms,) that I almost sobbed real tears as it went down. Thankfully, I held those at bay, since this reaction probably would have drawn some curious stares from the group, and I didn’t need any extra attention. I was pretty sure that after I tore up the beach looking like a crazed castaway overjoyed to see other human beings, they were sure I was a little unstable.
I concluded that my experience had been a temporary lapse in brain function due to some crafty tropical breezes and a glucose deprived prefrontal cortex, which seemed determined to sabotage my unintentional vacation. I think by the time I was done rocking myself into believing that this was not a dream, and that these people were real, and that the level of sand filling my bodily crevices was a legitimate and chafing concern, everyone was certain that I had been the first to crack. Social experiment over. Your names will all be cited in the dissertation.
But despite my prior psychotic episode setting everyone off a bit, our spirits were lifting. Literally. One of the girls had found a bottle of vodka in a box full of life saving equipment, which I figured was ironically appropriate given what had happened so far, and it was being passed around with the type of confusing generosity that made you uncomfortable. I guess what everyone needed was some food and strong drink though, because jokes and embarrassing stories began pouring out even more freely than milk on a mountain made of udders. There are probably better analogies, but I made my point.
Rachel had sat down next to me while I ate, constantly offering me water that she and the two other girls had purified from a stream earlier. I noticed she didn’t drink any alcohol until Steve-O insisted that she let him do a Jell-O shot off her stomach. She finally agreed to take a drink if he left her alone. He probably had the most to drink, occasionally distracted by music only he could hear, and nothing seemed cripple his determination to “rock this bitch.” His words. After an hour, Steve-O had lost his shirt and tied it to his stick like a flag, shoving it in the sand and announcing “I claim this sand in the name of the king!” After which he preceded to point to everyone and list their new duties as his subjects. Given Sam’s skill with fishing, he was entitled the Master Baiter. That’s the only one I remember. I’d never known anyone to so thoroughly enjoy being stranded. It was like he’d prepared his entire life for the moment when doing nothing was actually the only thing to do.
Sam, who only occasionally joined the party, kept mostly to himself, staring out across the ocean. He waited until I had eaten, and then walked over and handed me a white pill. I looked up a little confused. Was he Morpheus? I didn’t think drugs were his thing.
“It’s ibuprofen.” He said. “It looked like you might need it. We haven’t been drinking enough water, and it might be causing nausea and headaches. Just thought you could use some.”
Nausea and headaches. Is that what we’re calling ethereal voices? Sounds good to me.
“Thanks man. Oh, and thanks for the catch of the day, too. It was great.”
“They were angel fish. And you’re welcome.” He saluted me with an amazingly well crafted, wooden spear. This guy is Bear Grylls.
The fire drew us in, six foot tall flames lighting our faces, making our little excursion that much more like a scene from Lord of the Flies. If that statement seems foreboding, it’s because it is. No one had exhibited tribal behavior yet, but I was guessing it wasn’t too long before someone painted their face and ran off with a girl over their shoulder while grunting profanities. I also have an overactive imagination, so take from that what you will.
To make the situation more ominous, our jolly bonfire was contrasted by huge thunderclouds sitting just off shore, glimpsed only in the occasional flash of red lightning zipping angrily around the base of a black void on the horizon. The wind was dying also, which you’d initially assume to be a sign of tranquility but is actually the “calm before the storm.” Apparently that’s a real thing. But the gentle roll of the waves didn’t seem to be changing much, and the light show was just another reason to drink more and enjoy an otherwise stupidly intense situation. Most of us figured that the storm had passed us, and didn’t really give much more thought to silly things like being caught in the open, on a beach, in the middle of a gale without shelter. This would prove to be a small oversight.
As the night slowed down, it gave me a little time to think about everything that had happened so far. I was at a crossroads. Did I tell everyone that some nefarious demon was out there whispering people’s names like an elementary school girl at recess, risking even more ridicule and disbelief at my incompetence, or did I—oh who am I kidding? There were no crossroads. I’m not the crazy one here, they are. All of them…and I must kill all of them.
“What?” The Asian girl walked by.
Uh oh. Was that out loud? When you’re telling a psychotic joke in your head, you keep that shit to yourself.
“Oh…alright.” She giggled and walked off.
Okay, so I’m a little crazy. Sue me.
Apparently the ghost only messes with people when they’re alone. Another reason to keep my imaginary monsters to myself. I ate and drank in relative silence, hoping that my temporary insanity was coming to a close.
“Hey.” It was Rachel.
“I’m good with the water, thanks. I think I’ve taken about four trips into the trees in the last half hour.” Which wasn’t entirely true. Since my last little escapade into the bush was so emotionally scarring, I now just walked down the beach to do my business, always ensuring the fire was in my peripherals. You know, just in case the island decided to play the world’s worst game of hide and go seek again. Not this time, island—I’m on to you. I keep calling it an island. I don’t know if it is. I also realize I’m beginning to refer to it like it’s awake. Hello insanity. Meet subconscious.
She laughed. “I’m not going to make you drink more water. I just wanted to see if you were okay.”
“Oh…uh, yeah I guess.”
We sat in awkward silence for a few minutes, until I finally decided it was safe to open up a little. I wasn’t exactly ready to cry into her shoulder or anything, but I needed to vent. I mean, sharing my personal life with people had worked out great so far.
“Alright. Everything is not exactly fine.” I paused and took a deep breath. She was still listening, so her question wasn’t completely out of simple courtesy. Still though, I wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice. I’d open the bag slowly. “I’m tired, for one. When I signed up for this, I seriously thought I could handle myself. I mean everyone has issues, including me, but I’ve dealt with stuff like this before. Most of the people at my high school liked me, or at least tolerated me.”
“I think we were all just a little tired and hungry.” She gave me the psychologist pat on the arm. “It’s not your fault.”
“Yeah…” Another few moments of silence passed as I thought real hard about what to say next, and stared intently into fire, hoping it would give me some sort of feral courage. I started drawing circles in the sand with a stick. “Rachel…could I ask you something—“
“Of course you—” she nodded, looking concerned, but I cut her off.
“—without you thinking I’m too crazy?”
She grinned mischievously and raised an eyebrow, “we already think you’re crazy,” then scooped a mouthful of MRE brownie out of a bag and chewed happily. “Want some?”
She held it out so I could take a piece…or a blob. It seriously looked like crap.
“Umm…no.” I was having second thoughts after such a blow to the ego. “Wait, you think I’m crazy?”
She laughed with her mouth full of poop-colored brownie, almost spitting it out. “Not too crazy,” she winked, “but Thana and Emily think I’m a little crazy for talking to you.”
“Oh…” I wasn’t completely sure what to make of that. “Wait, why?”
She suddenly leaned over to whisper in my ear. “They secretly like you.”
I realized, at that moment, that Graduate Girl and her friend were both staring in our direction, picking up on whatever inaudible sign language girls inherently possess to confuse me. When I looked that way, both Thana and Emily rolled their eyes and crossed their arms before returning to a very heated debate about something.
“They hate me, don’t they?” I said out of the corner of my mouth.
“Ha!” She had to use her hand to keep brownie from piling out again. “Maybe a little.”
“Well thanks for talking to me anyway…I guess?”
“I like talking to you. You don’t make me as uncomfortable as Stephen. And don’t worry about—” She motioned toward Graduate Girl and her friend. “I think they’re just mad that I’m talking to you instead of them.” Then she turned to look at me with these two brilliant, green eyes. “So what were you going to say?”
I was thrown off my game for a second.
“Just that...uh, well…uh…do you believe in demons?” Brilliant, Casanova. Why don’t you just start chewing on the collar of your shirt and throw your crap at her?
She might eat it, I chuckled to myself.
“That…is definitely an interesting question,” she mused. “What brings this up?”
Of course she’d go there, but I wasn’t spilling the crazy beans just yet. I was saved from inventing some bogus reason for bringing it up because Sam walked over and joined us.
“Hey you guys,” he said, taking a seat on our driftwood log and tearing into an energy bar he probably hijacked illegally from the supply pile.
“Hey,” we both answered.
“So have either of you been watching the sky?”
“Yeah,” I answered. “Who hasn’t?”
“Well I figured no one was…because we’re all just sitting here.” He spread his hands out across our little bonfire circle.
“Why? What’s wrong? This is where we set up camp, right?” Rachel didn’t seem to understand where he was going with this.
“True. But I think we better move inland a bit. The storm we’re watching is actually part of a larger system, all moving southeast.”
How he knew which direction we were facing is still a bit of a mystery to me, but I didn’t question it, especially since I don’t even know which direction my house faces, and I’ve seen it on Google Earth. He pointed in what I figured was “southeast” (or “northwest?” because it’s moving in the opposite direction?) and, sure enough, there were bolts of lightning flashing through the clouds. We were in the middle of something big.
“So…are you saying the storm is going to hit us?” Rachel asked.
“Yeah.” Sam seemed incredulous that he had to explain this.
Without warning, he jumped up and took off into the woods.
“Well ok. I don’t feel as crazy anymore.”
Rachel and I talked a little more about the storm, and decided we’d find some palm branches and build a shelter if we could. Once the difficult planning portion of our imaginary palm tree house was complete, we went back to talking about other life issues—like how we each found baby wild animals and tried to raise them as pets when we were kids, only to have our dog eat them or come home from vacation to watch our parents bury their starved little corpses. Hey, we both felt really bad about it, okay? There were funeral services and everything.
She had apparently forgotten our previous conversation after Sam’s interruption, and I was totally fine with that. After about thirty minutes Marcus stood up shakily, likely thanks to his BAC, and addressed everyone. Well all of us except Sam anyway, who I hadn’t seen since he disappeared into the forest. I should probably have been more concerned, given my prior woodland experience, but the guy can make compass out of a leaf. Seriously. I figured he could form some type of rudimentary assault rifle out of bamboo and monkey juice if he met some harassing phantasms.
“Alright,” he paused to collect himself, “I think we have a few things to talk about. We’ve all eaten pretty well and rested, so I think it’s time we talked about what we need to do next. So…let’s talk about stuff.”
Abbey stood up, but too fast because she had to extend her arms like a tightrope walker about to fall. She giggled like it was the funniest thing in the world, and continued with a more sober expression. “I think we should vote to go home. I mean, nobody told us we’d be in the middle of some freaking ocean without buildings or other people or showers, and I think we should get our money anyway for sending us without safety. And also—”
At this point Krystal was trying to pull Abbey down next to her, probably because the alcohol was obviously having an effect on her speech, but Abbey kept swatting away her arm and laughing until Krystal pulled too hard and she just fell back into the sand in a fit of hysterics. Marcus had this vacant expression as though he hadn’t really been paying attention, and when Abbey fell, he got knocked out of it.
“Umm, okay. Does anyone else have something to say? And I guess this is a concern, but do you guys actually want to stop after tonight? Because you realize no one gets paid if even one person gives up. I guess that’s part of the experiment.” He stopped to belch.
Marcus wasn’t too bad, I realized, and this wasn’t the alcohol talking. I never drank any since they told me I was dehydrated, and I’d read enough about survival to know that avoiding beer was good advice in my situation.
He could be egotistical and condescending, but he was in this to see everyone through, and took responsibility where no one really wanted it. He could also read a map, and without landmarks like, say, roads or signs or anything else to tell you where you are, is fairly impressive. Or he at least had the confidence to act like it, and since we all ended up in the right place, I couldn’t hold that against him. So when he stood up like he was in charge, I guess you could say he was.
To be honest, if this was Hollywood, Marcus would have been the main character. Steve-O would have been given a spin-off series, and Krystal could have posed for the cover of FHM. In comparison, I would have considered myself lucky if I landed a commercial for the Swiffer. Everyone would have come out a winner. At least at this point. Not to sound too ominous again, but things don’t necessarily go well for our group. Not even me.
“Yeah!” Steve-O. This ought to be interesting. “Has anybody seen my pants?”
Someone pointed at the stick he was holding…where he had replaced his shirt with them. Thankfully, Abbey and Krystal told him he had to wear one or the other, so he chose the shirt.
“Oh…thanks.” He smiled and didn’t even make a move to put them on.
Marcus sighed and rubbed his temples. He looked ready to quit, so I decided someone had to stand up and say something.
“I don’t know about you guys, but I could really use the cash from this thing. Am I the only one?” Abbey threw me a look with enough acid to burn a hole through the Nostromo.
Hey you stuck up skank, not everyone has their parents’ money to bail them out of maxed credit cards and mediocre grades. Some people think a little discomfort is worth the dough.
“I’m with him. Anyone else?” Marcus seemed to have a renewed determination.
Gradually everyone raised their hand except Abbey. As the decision looked more and more unanimous she reluctantly, but finally, put hers up also.
“Then it’s settled. We keep going. Good. I wanted to know that before I brought up this next piece of information. Payne and I found this note in one of the empty boxes.” He started reading.
“Dear ladies and gentlemen,
Thank you for agreeing to embark on this adventure (exclamation mark.) I’m sure many of you are concerned about the nature of such an experiment, and we apologize for the lack of details provided in your application. We understand your concern, and we have taken measures to ensure your safety. The uncomfortable neck braces you have been fitted with are tracking devices, and although ankle braces or wristbands may have seemed more appropriate, we assure you that these are special, and have more uses than simply transmitting your location to us remotely. Please do not remove them. If, for some reason, they become life threatening however, we have provided a tool among your equipment items that can be used for this purpose.
Secondly, please adhere to the strict diet and schedule outlined in the provided black book. This is also for your safety. You will later need this book to take notes in, so keep it in your possession at all times.”
I wasn’t even under the impression this book was possessed. Not a play on words…I think.
“Your second set of instructions is simply this: arrive at the next destination within the time allotted. If you adhere to the schedule, this shouldn’t be a problem.
Thank you and have a wonderful evening, Todd Gramer.”
When Marcus was done he folded it up and put it in a pouch attached via a string around his neck.
“That’s it.” He concluded. “I guess we should all get some sleep before we have to wake up tomorrow. I saw the schedule, and it’s going to be a long day.”
With that, he walked over and curled up inside a space blanket, making all kinds of noise in the process.
With the fire still snapping and smoking, we all stared at each other, waiting to see if there was still more to be said. But Marcus’ retreat into the land of the nocturnal seemed to trigger an equal and unanimous decision to call it a night…for everyone except Steve-O, who started to sing “Yo-ho, yo-ho, a pirate’s life for me,” over and over again. Despite his repetitive ballad though, people managed to drop off one by one, sometimes to significant and uncomfortable sounding snoring. One of the snorers was definitely a girl, but I couldn’t tell which one. I liked to think it was Krystal.
Rachel went to sleep with the girls, who somehow managed to monopolize all the sleeping bags, and I was left poring through the supplies as quietly as I could to find another space blanket. When I got back, I realized I hadn’t built my leaf house, so I grabbed some palm branches and positioned them in a teepee shape so that I could barely fit underneath. I dug a small moat where the leaves touched the sand so rain would go somewhere other than inside my tent, and stepped back to admire my work. I turned to look at the fire one more time to see if anyone was awake to applaud my ingenious design, but only saw Steve-O; he had passed out on his back with his feet hanging over the top of the driftwood log. Comfortably alone, I crawled into what could barely pass as a pile of leaves, let alone a shelter, and fell asleep.
And I have to tell you, this one was a doozy.
Dreams are funny. One minute you’re the captain of a Lego army, trying to withstand the legions of tiny Lego men from besieging your plastic castle, and the next you’re strolling naked from the waist down through your sister’s wedding. You have the jacket and collared shirt and tie, but for whatever reason you decided pants weren’t to be bothered with. It’s like your mind just finds the most ludicrous late night TV from the “Do Not Touch” vault, and when the boss isn’t looking plays it over and over again for a good laugh. You know, before the sane conscious part of your mind starts turning on the lights and throws a fit when it finds out that all your subconscious did all night was watch reruns of “America’s Most Socially Unacceptable Streaker.” Your subconscious is a bunch of douche bags.
Anyway, whatever happened after I fell asleep…was nothing like that.
Your initial reaction might be relief, or would be if you were in my position, but you’d be jumping the gun. I wouldn’t even call it a dream, per se. Maybe a vision? That’s probably too ascetic, and if there is one thing I’m incapable of, it’s denying material satisfaction. It might have been a nightmare, but I can’t say I was ever afraid during the whole ordeal. Just really, reeeally calm. Eerily calm. It was like I’d never known pain or fear, but I’d also never know love or friendship. Dear god, I sound like the Terminator.
The point is I was simply an observer, and my little observational self was terminating around without caring one way or the other about the events which transpired. Time didn’t have the same meaning as it did when I was awake, so I really felt like eons could have passed, and unless I had some sort of reference, I never would have known.
Anyway, I think it was right after I fell asleep, but hey…I was sleeping, how would I know? I started floating around. I realize that isn’t very descriptive, but that’s what happened. You know that feeling you get in your gut when the plane suddenly loses altitude in a pocket of low pressure air? It wasn’t like that. I was floating, but I didn’t feel weightless, as you would assume astronauts feel when they float through space. I was just…there. It’s hard to explain.
It started out with me looking down on Earth from about satellite distance, not really pondering anything too deep (which wouldn’t have surprised anyone,) when it started to fall away, as though someone dropped it into some astronomically huge pipe. It felt like space moved around me, instead of the other way around—the way you’d expect. I realize this perspective is extremely relative, but that's what it felt like. Space moved. I didn't. I watched as the moon fell down the same cosmic drain, spinning around the Earth’s axis with almost comical speed before the entire solar system was swallowed with it. Mars, Jupiter, the Sun. Nothing was spared. Yet it was far from dark.
I was still weightless and immobile when space violently shifted back and forth, the stars changing and rotating faster than I can fully comprehend. Sometimes the lights would get closer, and sometimes they would fade out, altering their color and intensity from red to blue and back to red again. Sometimes it was simply darkness. And suddenly I’m out. On the far rim of our galaxy, I’m looking back as it takes its time spinning like someone poured light into a toilet and flushed. Truly breathtaking, for non-heartless observer types. And then it was gone.
I thought I heard popping noises, but on the scale of stars exploding. If my observational self had ears, they would have bled…or completely disintegrated. I’m guessing the latter. When the space around me stopped moving, there were no stars. Just an emptiness stretching out for infinity. If anyone could ever get out here on a regular basis, it would make an excellent place to dump garbage and small yippy dogs, because no one would ever see them again. I’d finally arrived, or at least space had arrived around me. I still felt like I’d never left.
And silence. It was so unnaturally quiet and lonely, that if I was capable of feeling fear and regret, I would have collapsed into such despair and depression that no doctor on earth would have been able to diagnose the crazy out of me. I could almost feel every hope I’d ever had, every creative determination, or every single sustaining belief escaping into the black void, my imaginations and deliberations gently…slipping…into…ah...puh…thee. Indifference ruled here.
Life, in all its abundance and diversity, was absent. I actually hate remembering because it was so foreign from everything I knew on Earth. My chest is tightening just from describing it. There were no animals in this enigmatic abyss, no space ships, not even a glimpse of light somewhere in the distance assuring you that escape was only a few hundred million light years away. It was emptiness. Wherever I was—it was nothing. I was nowhere.
So you can imagine my surprise and utter horror when I felt something…some massive and previously comatose being, raise itself and turn to face me. I didn’t see anything, but I felt it. Like an ebony mask rolling over in a vat of oil, the Face rolled over to look at me…and spoke.
I awoke to screaming. I mean the blood curdling, chick-in-a-slasher movie kind. I got up so fast that I hit my head on branches I completely forgot were there.
“Gah!” I was suddenly waving my hands wildly trying to swat away the imaginary bats attacking my face…and caused my palm fort to collapse around me. It had been reduced to only a few leaves anyway, as the storm Sam-the-meteorologist predicted had finally arrived and was blowing debris and detritus all over our beach.
But about the bats. That had something to do with the end of my dream. And portents. I remembered something about portents.
The entire camp was up now, looking like surprised sheep, stiff and completely disoriented. It was secretly hilarious to watch everyone trying to get over their booze induced stupor. Steve-O was especially mad, raging around in his underwear and struggling with his eyelids, ready to punch someone in the balls (total speculation on my part.)
“What the FUCK!” He waddled around, fists clenched at his side, while his brain slowly turned on basic operating functions. He tried pointlessly to rub the hangover off his face with both hands. The rest of his mutterings were nonsensical.
I looked over to where I heard someone get murdered, or at least concluded as much, based on the assumption that no rational person would scream like a teenage girl at a haunted house, and at three in the morning unless there was a damn good reason. I heard soft sobs coming from the girls’ sleeping bags. I’m pretty sure it was Emily. Something about spiders crawling all over her.
For some reason, Payne had gone over to console Krystal, even though she looked fine. In fact, she looked completely unfazed, as though she was used to hearing murders late at night. Though I’ll admit, her dead eyes were a little unsettling.
I decided to wander off into the forest again, all the water I had been storing while asleep now fighting to get out, my body a little annoyed I waited so long. Probably should have cooled it on the whole dehydrated act. I crashed through some of the underbrush, only moving far enough away to be out of eyesight, but not earshot. Fool me once, you know? I found a huge tree, whose roots at the base reminded me of a woodland elf jail, and relieved myself.
And that’s when the sky decided to let loose.
Raindrops the size of marbles started laying waste to the forest, my tiny alcove suddenly inundated with the noise of falling water. It was loud enough that I could no longer hear my campanions (that pun represents the extent of my creative writing.) Nice one island. You’ve caught me with my trousers down. The canopy above my head made for a nice temporary umbrella, but within seconds I couldn’t tell which puddle was mine, and which was the rain god’s. It was a little disturbing knowing that I could be standing in my own urine, but on the plus side, it made it peeing a lot easier.
I finished as quick as I could and wandered back to camp, the only evidence I’d built a hut the small rain trap I’d dug, which was now a mini moat. Well at least it worked, I thought satisfactorily.
My moment was short lived. I heard angry cursing being thrown in my general direction, and as I turned to kindly address this uncouth individual, my very fleshy, very chokeable throat was squeezed down a size by an iron hand. I felt the ground leave my feet for a brief moment before it all came back up to meet the rest of my body. I’d never been body slammed before, and it’s actually semi-enjoyable until the whole “hitting the ground” part.
I think I had time to say “ahh…” very pitifully, as the air exited my lungs on impact, and my jaw lit up with pain. OW! Was that a fist? That was a fist, wasn’t it? Yeah I’m pretty sure that was a fist. My mind was still trying to decide if this was a survival situation. Who cares?! I yelled back at myself. Get us out of here!
I had grabbed onto the arm of my attacker as he body slammed me, causing us both to land roughly in the sand. I barely deflected another blow aimed at my temple. Sand doesn’t give very much when it’s wet, and my head definitely doesn’t give much, as I discovered by the sharp sting of brass knuckles smashing the top of my ear (What? You say? How did he get brass knuckles? How about you let me do the storytelling.)
Initiate counter maneuvers! All hands to station! I kneed my assailant in the groin with impunity. I remembered seeing this as a defensive technique in an anti-rape video, and although I think it was meant primarily for women, I wasn’t really concerned at the time with gender stereotypes. It worked like a charm, my government mandated health course not letting me down. The attacker’s grip loosened enough for me to roll over and crawl away, my fingers creating deep furrows in the sand. Oh now suddenly the sand is soft. Said attacker wasn’t going to let a mere cheap shot to the nuts slow him down though, and struggled to stay on top while pulling me back in for another round by grappling with my pants, reminding me how dire the situation was.
Rape! I wanted to shout. Not on my watch, my mind answered, popping its metaphorical knuckles. I felt a blow to my kidney, which hurt, by the way, and turned over to look directly into the eyes of the rapey person who desperately needed some therapy sessions. The crazed visage that stared back was none other than Payne himself. I wasn’t exactly shocked.
Or at least I thought it was Payne. To be honest, it was pretty dark, but in the brief flash of a bolt of lightning, which seriously made him look like a supervillain, I noticed the tell tale curl of surfer hair, and could just make out a bizarre Cheshire cat grin on his face. I was hoping the smile was a trick of the light. He reached back for one final, and likely hospitalizing blow, when Marcus was there pulling him off me. A look of surprise flushed Payne’s face, as he futilely struggled to remain within striking distance.
“WHERE IS SHE?!!” Payne, whose apparent philosophy on interrogating was punch first and ask questions while subject is unconscious, was now in the talking mood.
“Where is WHO?!” I yelled back, rubbing my earlobe. I couldn’t be sure, but I think it was bleeding.
“YOU KNOW WHO YOU SON OF A BITCH!”
I had to slap back a hand that got dangerously close to my eyeball.
“I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about!”
Marcus had to intercede. “Payne, calm down! He doesn’t even know! Look at him!”
Payne stopped wrestling with Marcus to study my sorely confused face. It must’ve been fairly obvious, because his next question was posed more to an imaginary bad guy rather than directly at me.
“Well what was he doing out in the woods, huh?!” he asked, as though this was incriminating evidence.
“I had to take a leak, you psycho.”
Marcus took up the case for me. “There. You see? Nothing. Calm down, man. It must’ve been something else.”
Payne started looking around at the five other huddled, shivering people to see if he had any support. He did not. They were more concerned about taking refuge under some huge coconut trees than his crusade to beat the ever loving shit out of me. Reality must’ve really gripped him hard after that too, because he suddenly just broke down and started crying, right there on the beach, out in the rain and everything. He sat down, pulled his knees up to his chin, and covered heavy sobs by crying into his arms.
“You have some serious issues, you know that?!” Yeah, that got him. I was still seething from the whole “it must be his fault because he’s awkward” thing, but watching Payne unravel like a small child seemed to invalidate my own desire for retribution. I even felt sorry for him.
I walked over to Marcus, who was holding his arms behind his head.
“Marcus…what’s going on?”
I looked around at our miserable, sleep deprived little group. Something was wrong. At this point I always had a sneaking suspicion that there was something wrong, but this was specific, and obvious. Five. Five other people. That’s what was going on. It meant that Sam was still missing…and someone else.
“Abigail’s gone.” He answered. “She just upped and left sometime tonight, and nobody knows where she went.”
“Nobody? Did you ask Krystal?”
Marcus was silent for a second.
“Yeah…” He seemed reluctant to tell me.
“And she said she thought she saw you and Abigail walk off together.”
“What?! That doesn’t even make any sense! Why would I—“
“Yeah I know.” He turned to look at me. “That’s what I said.”
Our exposed campsite, although perfect earlier with the cool breezes and good intentions, was now a depressing hell hole. The campfire coals had become useless, not even sizzling anymore every time a raindrop fell on it. It was a gray and black mush circle against a drab beach, only visible in the occasional flash of lightning. The wind had died now, leaving room for the deluge to drop straight out of the clouds. Tiny streams were running up and down the beach, including one right next to the supply tarp. Wait a second…
I ran up to Rachel and Emily, my words falling out too quickly. “Wheredidoofindthewater?!”
“Huh?” Both girls cocked their heads slightly, their minds not receiving the jumpstart mine had earlier courtesy of Payne.
“The water you purified. Where did you get it from?”
“Oh. From a stream over there.” Emily pointed towards the tarp.
“Why—“ Rachel started to ask.
“Shh! Do you hear that?” I cupped my ear with a free hand, listening in the direction of the forest.
I turned around and yelled at Marcus to help me. “Quick! We have to move the supplies!”
I pointed into the forest as I struggled with a corner. “That! Do you hear it?”
Just barely audible over the droning of the rain was a faint roar, like a distant train. I’d once lived in the Northwest, only a few hundred yards from a creek. We were up on a hill, but every once in a while, during a heavy storm, the water in the creek would rise. It was called a flash flood, and more than one fisherman a year was killed because they disregarded the noise that meant certain death was bearing down on them in the form of a wall of water. I knew we had about thirty seconds.
It should be said that I tried. That ought to count for something. There was plenty of yelling and finger pointing afterward, but no finger pointed at me.
I grappled with the corners of the parachutes we had used as tarps while everyone looked on, waiting. They were watching me, most likely because they thought I had lost it again. That’s right, look at the crazy man with his crazy tarp wrestling.
And wrestle, I did. I pulled until my body was almost horizontal to the ground, heels dug into the turf like some kid determined not to let his mom drag him to school. My clothes weighed twice as much waterlogged which was, surprisingly, unhelpful. It was pitch black, and the lightning was becoming more of an afterthought with the storm, only cracking the night every few minutes. Otherwise it was so dark, wet, and difficult to hear, you would have thought we were under water already. It was actually right there, struggling with those stupid, nylon pieces of cloth that I realized how absolutely alone we really were.
In the twenty seconds I had before I was forced to sprint backwards to avoid the freight train of water which vomited out of the trees, I was able to finally, and perhaps fully, comprehend the extent of our isolation. There were no lights. For my entire life, I’d lived in a first world civilization. There were always lights somewhere. If it was cloudy, light would reflect off the clouds. If it was clear, the stars shone through…only to be thinned out by the 24-hour Walmart barely a mile from my house.
But here? Black. Ink fell out of an ink sky and onto my ink face. I felt alone. Like my dream.
But I pulled. I pulled in that black rain whilst pondering some of the greater existential questions; like why was I here, was I alone, was man alone in the universe, did it matter, and WHAT IN THE FLYING FUCKSICLES was making this tarp so goddam HEAVY!?
About the time I figured it out, the flood was on me. The completely worthless empty boxes I’d towed in earlier had filled with water, creating an extra couple hundred pounds (give or take a hundred), and anchoring the tarp in place. I felt water rushing around my ankles and knew my time was up. I let go and turned to run into the blinding rain, back to camp, colliding with Marcus in the process.
“Oomf!” We both hit the ground just in time to hear the roar of water tear out of the jungle. I think one of the girls screamed. Full trees came bounding along with the new river, cutting a path through the forest and sounding like Paul Bunyan romping his way down the hill with them. And although I couldn’t see it, I knew that our ability to survive was now being washed out into the ocean. I was actually glad I hadn’t been there to help organize everything, because I probably would have been puking in despair at the realization that our life sustaining supplies were now being prodded at by curious fish. In fact, this was Thana’s identical reaction upon finding out what happened.
“I think I’m going to be sick,” she said while doubling over. I could barely hear her over the storm.
I sat there in the sand next to Marcus, surrounded by water, and waited. We sat for what could have been thirty minutes or three hours, before he finally spoke. He talked into the night, into the flood.
“Did you get the stuff?” He knew I hadn’t.
Silence slipped between us as we considered the full breadth of our current impasse. The gross implications of our situation slowly being digested…before Boba Fett blasted his way out of the giant sand anus.
A screeching noise. Static, mechanical, and just barely audible over the rain—coming from Marcus’ bed. It beeped twice, paused, and then beeped a third time. Finally, clear as an ice sculpture, a voice broke the gloomy darkness.
“Channel check. Base to group. Come in, over. Base to group. This is base. Anyone there? Over.”
I looked to where I thought Marcus was, and heard the “group” jump towards the sound. I then heard shuffling through the sand, a group of bodies moving as one organism, moths towards the light.
“Again this is a channel check. Base to group. Come in. Over.”
Shuffling again. This time it was Marcus rummaging through his space blanket trying to find the radio I didn’t know he had until now.
“Does anyone know how to use this thing?” I heard a beleaguered Marcus ask in the darkness.
“Yeah. Let me see it.” Has this guy never seen a cop movie?
After some awkward fumbling and confusing instructions on both sides, he handed me the walkie-talkie. I pressed the button on the side and said “This is…umm, group. Over.”
“Group. This is base. Who am I speaking to?”
“Chris?” I shrugged into the night hoping that was the answer he had been looking for.
There was a significant amount of nothing in those intervening seconds as I waited for the person on the other end to respond. Great. I must’ve been asleep when we were learning the passwords and secret handshakes.
“Where’d he go?” Emily asked.
Finally, a new voice came in over the radio.
“Chris? This is Todd Gramer. Is everyone there with you?”
“Well, almost everybody. We might be missing someone.”
“Abbey. She wandered off sometime between now and after we all went to sleep.”
Another pause. Now I’m not sure if this was me or the rain, but I could have sworn I heard someone in the background say “It’s happening already,” before they realized they were still transmitting. There goes that healthy imagination again.
“Yeah. Chris. Sorry. We’re working on finding Abbey. I’m going to send a team to track her down.”
Thana grabbed my arm. “Tell him about our supplies.”
“I’m getting to it.” Calm down, woman. I tried to shake my arm loose.
“Todd? Hey man. There’s something else. We kind of lost all of the supplies you sent us in the storm.”
“I said we lost our supplies. Our food and stuff? Yeah, it’s gone.”
You know, the little stuff. Just a person and all our food and water.
“Okay. I’ll make sure there is another air drop at your next rendezvous point.”
What? How about “Don’t worry Chris, we’re sending the full strength of the Coast Guard to rescue you, and then ordering the Navy to make a crater out of that island?” Did he actually expect us to keep going?
“You mean you want us to keep going?” I asked. I could feel the huddled group’s collective anticipation as we waited for the answer, but that was it. No other sound came out of that little black radio, despite me smashing the “call” button enough times to cause the person on the opposite end to drown himself with the radio. After five minutes of fishing for a response I gave up and handed the thing to Thana, who had been relentlessly hounding me to let her try. I did so gladly. She was still going when I fell asleep. I walked over and stood next to where I barely saw the dark profile of Marcus.
“I’m tired,” I sighed.
I looked up at the rain, letting it wash down my face, feeling it suck the warmth off my cheeks.
“Me too.” He said.
Both of us walked over to where we had been sleeping earlier, slumped down, and fell immediately into a deep sleep, rain and everything. I have no idea what everyone else did for those intervening hours between the storm and dawn. Sometimes I wish I did.
What if The Matrix was right, and we’re all in a simulation run by machines? How would you prove you weren’t? Maybe a glitch, right? But how would you know a glitch from just a weird coincidence? Quantum theory says that, although extremely improbable, there’s always a slight possibility that your car could just “tunnel” right outside your garage and magically appear on the other side. I mean, the odds are incredibly small, as in close to infinitely small…but there is still that infinitely small chance. If it did, would you think you were insane? What explanation would you invent for such an impossible event?
Why am I here? Was it impossible, or inevitable? Could my life ever look like the car? Or am I insane?
I slept, exhausted, through the rest of the storm. Dreams eluded me for the rest of the night, since I think my brain was attempting to make up for lost time. Almost precisely at dawn, I woke up to a bright morning; the sun silhouetting the edge of the dormant volcano behind us. The warmth and light brought a short-lived end to the abject isolation of the night. Thunderheads could be seen in the distance, still happily emptying their contents into the ocean. The position we’d camped in looked like an old World War II battle had been fought there, branches and leaves and even some dead, drowned animals scattered over the sand. A crab was crawling over my shirt.
“Ahhh!!! Get it off! Get it off! Get it off!”
I jumped up, sending sand everywhere and startling a couple of birds waddling their way down the beach. Brushing off my shirt a few extra times, and scrutinizing every portion of my body, I shook my legs like a cat drying off, in case a few of the critter’s friends had made it to the red zone. I was suddenly wide awake, so I walked over to where my fellow experimentees were asleep. Our group looked like what I imagine people mean when they say “drowned rats,” everyone partially soaked and piled over each other.
I stopped at Marcus and shook him. All I got was a grunt in reply.
Shuffling over to our sad excuse for a campfire, I poked at the pitiful ring with a stick and chuckled to myself. It was wet. I was wet. Ocean salt and sand combined to make the unholiest of alliances in every crevice of my body. My neck was stiff because I slept on a log, mistakenly believing it could substitute for a pillow, and generally felt like someone had sounded an air horn every hour on the hour while I slept last night.
But I was alive, dammit.
The island hadn’t taken that from me. So…
For some reason, despite getting dumped on for eight hours, being the object of a camper’s frustration, losing our food, and coming to terms with my inner idiot for agreeing to this farce of a social experiment, I still felt like I had beaten the odds. I was alive and ready to take on the day. Screw you nature! Carpe deeznuts.
I breathed in a nice helping of fresh air. It felt good to be alive.
And then everyone woke up.
“Ughhhh. What time is it?” Emily asked.
“I need a cigarette,” said Thana.
“What did you bitches do with my pants?!” Grumbled Steve-O.
“You’re sleeping on them you retard.”
“What smells like fart?”
Ah, the sounds of civilization. For the next fifteen minutes everyone stirred awake, only to complain about our lack of food and how hungry they were. Krystal looked a little more alert than she had last night, but made up for it by asking a million stupid questions. You know what? We probably could make an omelet by stealing some bird’s eggs, but how about you go kill us a bird first Annie Oakley.
When everyone reached a point where they were simply repeating the same complaints, Marcus zombie walked his way over with a map in his hand, and it was at this moment that Sam decided to waltz his way out of the forest. If Abbey hadn’t been the subject of such drama last night, I don’t think I would have even seen his ninja form materialize out of the woods.
“Where have you been?” shot Marcus.
“In the woods.” He shrugged like this was obvious…which I suppose it was.
“Why?” Marcus said without missing a beat. Suddenly all attention was focused on Sam’s answer.
Sam looked totally baffled as to why he was suddenly the subject of such scrutiny, but he responded calmly. “Sleeping. I saw the storm coming in last night and slept under a rock overhang. Why? What’s wrong?”
Marcus grunted, not looking completely satisfied, and quietly said, “Abbey disappeared last night.”
Sam’s eyes grew wide, and he looked Marcus straight in the face. “Look man…I don’t know anything about that. I only woke up once during the storm, and that was to pee. I swear.”
Everyone seemed to be eagerly enjoying the tension, but after studying his face for a moment Marcus just shrugged. “Yeah, ok.” The air petered out of our stress balloons.
“Anyway, I guess you are all wondering what we’re going to do now.”
Our small semicircle nodded in unison. Yep. Lead us on, oh fearless…
“Well I have no idea. I’ll take suggestions.”
There was a bit of hilarious head turning as we all looked at each other, waiting for one of us to reveal the brilliant scheme they had been developing during their down time. Mine was currently scattered all over the beach. There was barely any evidence I had made a shelter. Actually “shelter,” even when it was completely assembled, is stretching it. I scratched my buttocks.
“I’m hungry.” Steve-O announced.
“We all are,” an exasperated Emily responded.
“Yeah, but I mean…there’s no food here.”
“OH MY GOD—“ The group collectively groaned.
“BUT!” He pointed a finger in the air. “But there is food somewhere in this forest.” He raised both hands in defense. “They said they were going to air drop it or something. Am I right Marcus?”
Marcus looked momentarily annoyed that he had to agree.
“Yeah…that’s true. But I guess I was asking everyone what they wanted to do about getting out of here.”
“Well can’t we talk about that after breakfast?” Steve-O pleaded.
“I, uh…” Marcus looked like he didn’t care to have that decision riding on him.
Rachel spoke up. “Actually, we might as well. Where is it?”
A little begrudgingly, Marcus handed her the map he was holding and pointed to a red dot. “There,” he said.
“Where is ‘there?’” Rachel asked.
Marcus shrugged. “I’m not really sure. I’m not even sure we ended up in the right place on this beach.”
People started to roll their eyes and grumble in frustration. I felt the sudden urge to yell out “I knew it!” but resisted. For the greater good.
“Look. I know where we are in a general area. See?” He pointed to where the lines bunched together tightly. “I’m pretty sure that’s that steep ridge over there, and we are somewhere along this beach—“ He gestured with two fingers along the line representing the coast. “—but…I mean, seriously. You try reading this shit.”
Rachel held it up as eight people cocked their heads at awkward angles, trying to make sense of the lines. I felt a tinge of guilt for possibly judging Marcus too quickly. She rotated it 90 degrees clockwise.
“Oh! That’s…” began Emily, pointing to her left, “the…uh.” And the rest of her words weren’t even words.
“Oh for crying out loud,” sighed Sam. “Let me see that.”
Rachel gladly handed it over. Within seconds, he started walking. “This way,” he said with enough confidence to make us all feel stupid.
We all followed. Hungry, thirsty, and without anything better to do, we hiked into the forest with all the grace and poise of a bunch of grunting hogs. Another romp through the jungle. Hooray. Perhaps feeling the need to reestablish his authority, Marcus gave everyone a talk about sticking together.
“Hey, nobody split up. No matter what. We don’t know if Mr. Gramer can hunt down everyone that runs off. Okay?”
“Fo sho.” Steve-O said, back in his element, destroying vegetation with a stick. He was a master at finding the perfect stick to whack stuff with.
This hike was far more clique-absent than the previous one. I think the idea that someone had gotten lost was weighing heavy on our consciences. I mean, we were essentially leaving someone out in this forest without knowing for certain that she would be found. Who does that? Selfish people, that’s who. We wanted to make it, and we were simply hoping for the best. But in the back of everyone’s mind, we knew Abbey hadn’t simply walked off. It was more sinister than that.
So imagine walking through an unknown jungle, on a desolate and possibly uninhabited island, knowing that there is a very real danger of becoming lost, with the added bonus of an invisible monster taking people at night.
Yeah we stayed together.
And I don’t mean we were together walking single file in a military line. I mean we were so close that you had to keep from tripping over the idiot in front of you every five seconds. There was mud everywhere, which is both exhausting to walk through, and also really gross. Pictures don’t do jungles justice. Sam had to stop constantly and point out a potentially life threatening insect or plant that had the ability to cause a horrible and likely blood vomiting death. Oh, and mosquitoes. How is it that every damn place on earth has mosquitoes?
Anyway, while we were doing our best not to step on snakes and mutant plants, I suddenly noticed that Payne was walking right beside me. Since the fight last night, we hadn’t said a word. I tried walking faster, but he just matched my pace. I could tell he was debating something in his head. Dear Lord please don’t let it be retribution.
“Hey,” I offered. What do you say to someone who has tried to beat you three times in the past twenty-four hours? New experience for me. Wasn’t sure how to handle it.
“Hey.” He said, staring at the ground.
We stumbled along together for a while. Well this is awkward.
“Hey man,” he started, and I waited while he fumbled with words for the first time since we’d met. “I just wanted to say sorry…you know, for last night and stuff.”
Huh. I wanted to laugh. What was happening? In one night, our relationship had reversed. What was next?
“I talked to Krystal this morning and she doesn’t remember saying anything about you two walking off together. I guess she was just dreaming or something. Anyway…I owe you an apology.”
He looked me in the eyes, and I could tell this was genuine. Something had broken in Payne, and it was actually kind of hard to not to forgive him in that moment. He gave a half-hearted smile. Something was still troubling him.
“Yeah…okay, man. It’s alright.” I lied. I actually didn’t think punching someone in the face for no reason was “okay,” but I wasn’t going to sabotage this truce by bringing it up.
“Are you alright, man?” I asked.
He looked at me and, with a sad nod said, “Not really.”
“Just tired, I guess.”
I could tell he wanted to say more, but I didn’t press it. I heard the whine of mosquito wings and slapped the back of my neck. Dark red and black pulp coated my palm. Damn. Too late.
“Chris.” Payne again.
“We’re in trouble, man.”
Thanks Captain Obvious. Glad you were here to point that out.
He paused. Afraid to tell me.
He whispered this next part. “Last night, when Krystal told me what happened between you and…you know.” Was he scared to say her name? “She was wide awake, dude.”
“Maybe she just seemed wide awake,” I suggested, almost tripping over a tree root.
He caught my arm and tried to lock gazes for a moment. His voice was so low I could barely hear it. “It was like something…something made her say that. Understand?” At the end of this sentence you could tell he was scared that we weren’t alone, no matter how quietly he spoke. He looked up at the trees neurotically. “She was awake, dude. Wide fucking awake. But it wasn’t her talking.”
Okay. Time to take your pills and stop freaking me the hell out.
“I get it, Payne, geeze.” I said in a hushed tone.
He let go of my arm and glanced back at Krystal, who seemed completely oblivious to our conversation. She looked up and smiled at Payne. He waved back, but there wasn’t a person in the group that couldn’t tell he was shaken.
Then I noticed something. Something that up to this point I’d been completely oblivious to. But now, after my joy filled conversation with Payne, suddenly seemed world alteringly important. Everyone was wearing these dark, heavy, uncomfortable neck braces…except Krystal.