The Island was my first attempt at a short story about a man marooned on a strange island. It ballooned into a novella as I followed John’s story to its conclusion. Reading it now, almost a year after I completed it, I can see many ways I would improve and change it but the concept still excites me.
It’s about 16k words, which is approximately 1.5 hours worth of reading.
If you’d rather read this story on your Kindle or iPad, you can! I’ve created an ebook of the story. You can get it here.
The anonymous postcards had been arriving for months.
They weren’t strictly postcards; more short scribbled notes, hastily written in the shiny white frame around the back of a polaroid.
Today’s note said: “You’d rather be here.”
I turned the polaroid over, holding its white borders in two hands as I stared at the image. A waterfall plunged into a sapphire pool and lazy palm trees dotted on its grassy banks.
Whoever wrote it was right. I would rather be there.
This year had sucked the life out of me. My business had gone south after a dodgy employee — Barry fucking Dresden — defrauded my security equipment company for a few thousand dollars. The day I found out I fired him. I still remember him crying as we escorted him out. He’d told us his medical insurance had refused to cover his wife’s cancer treatments. That he’d only taken a couple grand. That he’d pay it all back.
I was too angry at the time to feel bad. I knew our insurance wasn’t the best, but you can’t just steal from others to solve your problems.
I started working long hours. Then drinking late to blow off some steam.
My wife had an affair. I didn’t get it. I’m not a slob; the opposite – I run Tough Mudder twice a year. I’ve got a six pack and I work hard to keep it. Women tell me I look like that dead Aussie that played the Joker. She told me there was more to it, that my temper was dangerous. That I drink too much. That her affair was a “cry for attention” — all self help bullshit.
Then one night I got shit-faced and we argued. The neighbours called the cops. The next day she took my four year old daughter and moved back to Maine.
And here I was in my shitty office in Tampa.
The fluorescent light above me flickered. I picked up a pin and arranged the polaroid next to some of the others I liked, then pushed the pin in. I stepped back from the cork board hanging above the desk next to my computer and looked at the polaroids – the white sand beaches, the hammock hanging between two palm trees, a blue sky stretching overhead.
Pinned underneath all these images, a short note on scrap of foolscap legal paper:
Seeking social media influencers. Join us on The Island for one week, 100% free, all expenses paid. Call 555-234-0982 and we’ll send a boat to Miami Beach Marina. All we need are your photos and endorsement; the rest is on us.
Polaroids and handwritten notes to find digital photographers. Cute.
They were completely unsigned. Google searches for the text found nothing of use. My two hundred or so Instagram followers didn’t exactly make me the kind of influencer they were looking for. But that wasn’t my problem.
After almost fifty polaroids, and an incredibly shitty day, I decided, fuck it. I’ll call them. See if this was for real.
The phone rang twice before the click of an answering machine cut in.
“Congratulations! You’re only one more step away from the FREE holiday of a lifetime! After the beep, simply leave your name, number and desired time of departure from Miami Beach Marina, J Dock, slip 18. That’s J-18. We’ll see you then. Come dressed for a week in paradise – you’ll only need a few clothes, your cell phone and a big ol’ smile. We’ll return you to Miami feeling better than ever.”
The machine beeped.
“This is John,” I said, “responding to your ads for instagram influencers. Eleven AM tomorrow works for me. I’ll see you then.”
I scribbled J-18 on a piece of paper and started thinking about what I should pack.
Early next morning I drove down to Miami and parked in a long term lot. Caught a cab to the marina and headed to the dock. The sky was the kind of photo you’d take and hashtag with #nofilter. The sun shimmered on the water. The heat was typical Miami in September, muggy and close.
I walked down the I shrugged my right shoulder, feeling the weight of my backpack. Inside: three button down short-sleeves, two pairs of shorts, swimming trunks, flip flops. A light hoodie. Some cologne, sunscreen and a twelve pack of Trojans.
Enough for a week of fun.
I’d shaved this morning — it was good to see that clean jawline again — and dressed in my vacation best: tan beach shorts and a white linen shirt, sleeves rolled up.
I felt good.
I scanned the berth numbers as I sauntered down J dock. Berth twelve opposite twenty five. Sixteen opposite twenty-one. Eighteen was right at the end.
An old fishing boat bobbed, side-tied to the dock. It was thirty-something feet long with a squarish pilot’s bay jutting upward out of the middle of the hull. The hull was off-white, with a long red racing stripe wrapping the stern to bow. Two large black motors hung off the back.
It looked a hell of a lot like the fishing boats I used borrow from my richer friends, taking a case of Bud and heading out on the water for fishing trips with my college buddies.
It looked nothing like a boat that would belong to a professional vacation outfit.
A scrawny man with a permanent sailor’s squint stood next to the boat. He was about five feet tall with twig-thin, tattooed arms, crossed tight on his chest. He watched me approaching and nodded his bald head. Beads of sweat clung to the tanned skin of his pate, glinting in the hot sun.
“You’re John, I take it,” he said in a surprisingly deep Bostonian growl. “Welcome aboard.” He lifted one tattooed arm and waved in the vague direction of the boat, then smiled, showing a row of discoloured teeth.
“So, did you send me the postcards?” I asked, looking down at him.
He peered up at me, widening one eye from his squint, half smiling like he was talking to a child. “Do I look like the sentimental type to you, kid?”
My jaw clenched. I wanted to push the little man over. Punch him in the stomach. I imagined him crumpling over, the condescending squint dissolving with pain.
We stared at each other.
He showed me more of his brown teeth and broke the silence. “Hey, I’m kidding. I’m with the folks that scouted you. We like to keep it low key. The egg heads call it ‘stealth mode’.” He shrugged and pointed his thumb at his face. “You can bet when they launch they’ll replace me with a few hot girls.”
He chuckled. It sounded like a kid jigging a bag of gravel.
Talk of stealth and launch made me think of those startup books I’d read before I founded my company. Sounded legit.
But this guy, Captain Twig Arms? He creeped me out.
I stood and looked at him and the boat, arms crossed, considering.
He waved at the boat. “Get in, son. I can’t stay all day. What you worried about? That I’ll give you trouble? A strong guy like you could take me out in five seconds flat. Shit man. This is free.”
He started toward the bow, bending to worry at the loose knots holding the boat at the jetty. As as he moved, I saw the slow, deliberate movements of age.
He was right. I could snap him like a twig.
As I stepped over a moulded rope and clambered into the boat, I told myself to stop worrying and go with it. I just needed a vacation.
We set off almost immediately. The boat moved faster expected, scudding over the waves. I tried to strike up a conversation but didn’t get far. I gave up, pulling out my iPhone to read the latest on stocks and politics until I was out of range. Then it was Chess until I was almost out of battery.
The sun past its zenith and I laid down on the padded white benches that lined the sides of the boat, looking up at translucent, ghostly clouds striating the vast blue above. The long early morning drive had caught up with me. Sea spray misted my sun glasses and the sun warmed my limbs.
I feel asleep to the hum of the engine.
I woke up to the captain’s face peering into mine as he shook my shoulder.
“We’re here,” he said.
I stood up and saw we’d tied up to a rickety wooden jetty that looked uneven and crooked, as if it were made by people who didn’t own a measuring tape and just eyeballed the whole thing.
I picked up my pack. And jumped out of boat and onto jetty.
“Good luck!” The Captain called.
I ignored his strange goodbye, too absorbed in drinking in the view. I shouldered my pack, walked down the jetty and onto a beach of fine golden sand.
This island was just like the polaroids.
I reached the beach and looked left and right, scanning the long expanse of sand glittering in the afternoon sun. I was alone ashore. Turquoise waves gently rolled into shore and whispered as they dissolved into burnished sea foam. Ahead, a forested mountain peak rose proud against a curtain of cloudless sky. Palm trees fringed the beach, grey trunks curving up from tufted grass, lime green coconuts nestled under dark green leaves. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, the salt of the sea mixing with the mineral warmth of the baking sand. Seagulls dipped and cawed in the air above. Behind me, the waves gathered then hushed on the shore, marking a slow, relaxed rhythm.
I wanted to explore, to find out who else was here, where I’d sleep. I wished I’d bought all the postcards with me so I could find them all, tick them off, take my own photos to make them truly real.
I set off, heading inland towards the forests edge, and quickly found a trail of packed dirt lined by scruffy tufts of grass. It led off the sand and into the trees, and I followed.
Before long, dark green foliage thickened and closed around me. A fine, gauzy haze of moisture hung in the air. It was hard to breathe. My shirt dampened and clung to my arms and chest. The clear air of the beach surrendered to the light musk of moss and the scent of loam and leaves and rotting undergrowth.
My excitement waned as the trail started to incline and the dirt underfoot turned to slippery clay and I briefly considered turning back. The images from the postcards spurred me on.
I would not be afraid of a little jungle. This was proof that this was a new venture, that I would not be one of a thousand tourists on a well-trodden path. I put one arm through the other loop of my backpack and started upward, watching my feet as I tried to secure decent footing.
Sweat streamed from my brow and my calves had started to burn when the trail suddenly levelled off. Ahead, through the thinning foliage, a green clearing bathed in sunlight emerged. I exhaled in relief. I hurried along the path, the leaves slapping my shoulders and face.
The blue sky re-appeared above a mountain peak rearing up ahead. Emerald green grass, wild and lush, replaced the slippery clay and expanded into a large lawn fringed by the forest. A modest, rough hewn log cabin squatted in the center.
I started towards the cabin.
Then I heard the whistling.
I knew the tune, mournful and slow, and my brain raced to place it’s sad notes.
Then I saw the whistler, lying in the darkness of the eaves of the cabin. “Hello?” I called across the clearing, walking still closer. “Are you the one who sent the postcards?”
He kept whistling, and it suddenly came to me. Auld Lang Syne.
I continued. “This place is a little overgrown, I’m glad to see someone else here — ”
“Me too!” He interrupted. “And you’re just in time!”
I knew that voice.
Smarmy and high pitched, pleading as I fired him.
He sat up and turned to me, a grin spreading on his thieving, lying face.
He smiled. “Hi John. I’m so glad you came.”
My stomach started churning.
He turned away and rolled himself out of the hammock and stepped towards the hut. He reached into the shadows, leaning over as he picked something up. He stepped forward, a black hand gun dangling loose in the grip of his right hand.
He stepped onto the grass, lifting the gun to point at my chest.
”This Island has rules. I don’t know who made them, but whoever it is, they… enforce them.”
He took a step toward me.
“The rules are: one in, one out. You’re in. I’m out.”
He took another step. The muzzle of the gun loomed. My chest tightened and I stood frozen, words tumbling uselessly in my mind as I failed to think of what to do or say. He closed in. I could smell the rank sweat, the unwashed beard and long greasy hair. His green eyes, always startling, held the hue of madness.
He pointing the gun at my crotch and giggled. “I would love to kill you. I’ve dreamed of killing you.”
Memories came unbidden. Me, shoulders back, shaking a pointed finger, accusing. Him, a mess of tears, lifting a picture of his wife from his cardboard box and holding it up, asking forgiveness. Security dragging him through the door. People in the office, still and silent, looking at coffee mugs or window sills, anything but me.
I held my br
He pointed the muzzle of the gun at my chest, his face twisted in a snarl as he jerked forward and spat in my face. Then he rounded me, sidestepping, gun still pointed at me. He started walking backwards towards the trail.
“I won’t kill you. I’ll let them do that, when no one responds to your invitations to take part in their games.” His eyes darted around and up and I wondered who they were.
He was at the head of the trail now, and he stepped backward into the shadows of the foliage. He paused then, looking at me from under the leaves, and he whispered. ”It’s lucky. I was right about you.”
He turned suddenly and ran. The foliage crashing as he dashed through the jungle.
I stepped back, feeling slightly dizzy. I didn’t fully understand. One in, one out. I looked at the cabin, then at the path back to the beach.
Then I remembered the old man with the boat.
I ran after him. I ran down the path, through the thick foliage and over the mud, fear giving me speed. I burst out of the trees and onto the open beach. Ahead, the old man was stepping onto the boat. Barry sat on the foredeck, his shotgun trained at the beach. I bolted down the sand, breath heaving. The engine roared to life and the boat started to move away from the jetty.
The sharp clap of a gunshot stopped me in my tracks.
“Stay there, fucker.” Barry called from his seat on the bow of the boat, shotgun in the air. He lowered the muzzle of the shotgun toward me. The boat floated thirty feet away, the engine idling. The captain was smiling behind the wheel.
“What the fuck is happening? What is this place?” I shouted.
Barry called over his shoulder. “Let’s go. Now.” He looked back at me, and still smiling, reached down with one hand and lifted a small black oblong in the air. “Thanks for the new phone, John. Much appreciated.”
I swore under my breath. I doubted there was signal here, but now I’d never find out.
The engines rumbled to life and the nose of the boat lifted in the ocean, then turned out to sea. The twig armed old man lifted an arm without turning around.
Good luck, he’d said.
The boat sped out of the bay and the sound of the engine receded. I looked over the edge of the dock and into the clear water, then sat down cross legged, trying to think straight, to piece together what had happened. Abandoned on an island with no phone and no obvious way to get off the island. I didn’t know where I was. I had about a weeks worth of clothes.
One in, one out.
And then: a thumping rumble, now soft and distant, now louder. Closer. Hope sparked like match. I squinted at the horizon, searching for the source of this noise, a dark spot that would herald my rescue. The rumble became a thrumming roar — behind me, certainly — and up.
I sprang to my feet, twisting as I looked skyward.
A helicopter. Small and shining black, sliding around the edge of the mountain. I waved my arms, jumping. The wooden dock shook under foot but I didn’t care as it cut through the air, closer and closer, then slowing. It was almost above me now, its rotors thumping heavily, and I thought it was going to land.
It stopped, hanging some fifty feet in the air. Then something bright and orange and rectangular fell from the opposite side of the chopper. It hit the sand near the dock with a slap, kicking up sand, bouncing once, then twice, then landing on a long side before toppling flat.
I waited to see what would happen, what else might fall, but nothing came. The chopper lifted its nose up and around, rotors thumping against gravity as it slanted away and around the mountain.
I walked slowly toward the orange package in the sand. It looked like a bright orange briefcase, about two-feet long, one high, maybe twelve inches deep. Two metallic, heavy duty latches recessed along one side. I reached the briefcase and knelt down, running my hand along the surface, dimpled and rubbery like a well used basketball. I planted one hand in the sand and placed one on the briefcase, and leaned over, half expecting to hear the ticking of a bomb.
I sat back on my knees and placed my thumbs on the metal latches and after a few attempts of pressing and prising, found that I could slide them outward, at the same time, away from the center. An industrial-strength click followed, and the case cracked opened.
I lifted the lid. Inside, a letter, typed on thick, white paper.
Welcome to the Island.
Supplies will arrive weekly at the dock for a maximum of 52 weeks.
Mail will be picked up by the supply boat and delivered as instructed.
One in, one out, strictly enforced.
You have 365 days to find your replacement.
Under the paper, some items were nestled in moulded foam. A pen, a sheaf of paper with some envelopes. A polaroid camera. A handgun.
I stood up and looked back to where the helicopter had disappeared around the mountain. The sun stood low on the horizon. I wanted to get to shelter.
I had three hundred and sixty-five days to find my replacement.
Barry’s words replayed in my mind.
It’s lucky. I was right about you.
I didn’t understand that one. But I knew that if Barry could get me, I could get someone else. I just needed a strategy. But I had no idea where to start. All I could think about was how much I wished I had my phone.
I reached over and closed the briefcase with a click, then crouched down to pick it up. It was surprisingly light. I fit it under one arm and started up the beach toward the trail.
I stepped off the beach walked deeper into the dark foliage, the damp swallowing the orange glow of the setting sun.
Four words echoed in my mind.
One in, one out.
I woke up to the sound of a strange, almost aggressive bird cawing above me, unlike any bird I’d hear back near my house in Tampa. I opened my eyes a sore back and an unfamiliar ceiling. Dark wooden beams slanted up under a yellowish thatched roof.
Yesterday’s memories unfurled. The boat, Barry, the captain, helicopters and orange cases. Last night I had wandered back to the hut in a daze, up the darkening path, and by the time I reached the hut the light had almost faded. I could faintly see the outlines of the room in silhouette.
I shut the doors and windows and took the gun out of the orange case and placed it under the stretcher, within reach. I put the orange case at the foot of the stretcher and laid on my back, looking at the ceiling. My limbs felt heavy and my eyes would not stay open, but my mind was racing. For a long time I could not sleep. But eventually, the darkness and the quiet and claimed me.
The aggressive bird somewhere nearby had woken me to a stinking room, already hot and muggy. Sharp lines of light traced the outlines of the shutters and the door frame, illuminating the room. The camp stretcher underneath me creaked as I flopped onto my side, giving off the sour, musky stink of accumulated sweat. The stink of a man who’d given up on hygiene and showers.
I resolved that I would not turn into Barry.
I had to get up.
I swung a leg over one side and pushed myself upright. The pillow and the blanket lay across the room where I’d thrown them, right under the window. They needed to be washed. Or burned.
The hut was plain, rectangular and simple, built from wood that looked like it was probably grown here on the island. The stretcher I’d slept on lay wedged into the corner diagonally opposite the door, straight across from a window, which had no glass in it, only ill-fitting wooden shutters.
I stood up and walked to the window across from the stretcher, kicking Barry’s soiled sheets and pillow into the corner. The shutters groaned as I opened them and the cool morning breeze flowed around my arms.
Outside, the hammock in which Barry had greeted me in hung still on the porch. The light chill of night had left beads of moisture on the grass and the sun still hung low on the horizon, obscured the uppermost branches of the trees on the eastern edge of the clearing. Past the clearing, a mist clung to the tree tops, away over the rambling jungle, diffusing the sunlight into a thin haze.
It was undeniably beautiful out there.
In here, it was a mess.
I turned and walked to the door, swinging it open to let in more fresh air, then turned again to walk past the silent kerosene fridge, the roughly made kitchen bench with its food scraps and parades of ants, and a basic wooden pantry. The hut’s other window stood in the wall above the kitchen bench. I pulled the shutters open and a fresh, tropical breeze flowed started flowing through the hut.
That definitely made an improvement on the smell.
I turned away from the window and took a few steps towards a crude wooden writing desk and chair standing flush against the wall at the foot of the stretcher
Above the desk, pinned to the wall: a heavily annotated map of the island.
The chair shuddered against the wooden floor as I pulled it away from the table and sat down to look. It was definitely a professionally printed topographical map, maybe 3 feet high and two wide, showing the rise and fall of terrain with dark then light splotches of colour. The key was printed on the right and a distance scale on the bottom left.
There was no name for the island printed on the map, no sea names, or port names, nothing to indicate where I was or could go.
I shook my head. A professionally printed map designed to professionally fuck with you.
Place names were hand-drawn onto the map: blue waterfall, rocky outcrop, lagoon, sunset point. They sounded like places I’d seen before, probably in Barry’s polaroids. The hut I was standing in was clearly marked with a creative label. “Hut.”
I leaned closer, forearms on the desk. The handwritten annotations were not uniform in size or style.
Many people had written on this map.
Then there was the long, thick red line that ran from peak to shore and back again, in a wide V, cutting a large wedge out of the back of the island like a pizza slice. Outside the wedge were all the landmarks and annotations, the hut, the beach, and so on.
Inside the wedge, in the thick lines of a dark black sharpie, someone had drawn a skull and crossbones.
I stood up, pushing the chair back with my legs.
I suddenly decided that my first step would be to go out and explore. I would take this map out with me, and I would understand the nature of my prison.
And then I would figure out how to escape.
As I pushed through dark leaves of mountain palms and tree ferns occasional splashes of the midday sun pierced the green canopy like hot golden coins. The air caught in my throat, thick with moisture and humidity. I breathed heavily. My legs were on fire from the long ascent up the barest streak of a path I’d found on my map, cutting through thick jungle. I stopped to take a breath, leaning on a gnarled stick I’d picked up hours ago. Under my backpack my shirt was sodden with sweat.
Moments later I looked up the mountain, away from the trail and up through the leaves ahead I saw something white and shining, almost glittering in the sun.
I took a few steps forward and peered through the leaves. This did not seem like a natural thing but it was not moving. I paced ahead, pushing the leaves aside, and slowly the white and shining thing grew and expanded horizontally and continually, a backdrop to all the foliage.
A large concrete wall.
Before the wall lay a strip of cleared land, with small stumps of cutdown trees and tufts of sad brown grass the only evidence that remained of previous vegetation.
I stepped into the clearing and looked up to the peak and down hill, scanning the length of the wall. This was an impressive structure.
The wall – actually light grey, not white – was smooth concrete. It stood at least ten feet high with razor wire coiled along the top. Whoever was managing this Island had cleared all vegetation from about twelve feet away from the wall. This strip ran next to the wall and down the mountain in a straight and continuous line until the wall seemed to run into a patch of black rocks and disappear from view. Uphill the cleared patch continued, uniformly spaced next to the wall which curved up and back in toward the jungle, disappearing some fifty foot up the mountain.
Out from under the shade of the foliage the heat of the sun stung. I stepped back into the shade and swung my backpack off, setting it at my feet. I gasped as the light island breeze hit the patch of sweat that had been gathering under my pack.
I sat on my heels and unzipped my pack to pull out the map. This wall must be the physical manifestation of the thick black line that ran up the side of the mountain, marking out the V-slice that held the skull and crossbones. That skull and crossbones spoke of a mystery that seemed key to my predicament, something I needed to understand.
I folded the map slowly, in half then quarters, considering.
I needed to see over the wall, to understand what was behind it. Maybe the Helicopters. A warehouse of orange rubberised cases. Men with guns and captains with twiggy arms. A super villians lair, straight out of a bond film. Something was there and it was important.
I slipped the map into my backpack and pulled out my water bottle then stood up, looking at the wall as I unscrewed the cap and took a long pull of the still-cool water.
Assuming the wall ran the whole length of the mountain, I had three choices.
One: go down to the shore. The upside here is, if there’s no gap in the wall, I can try swim around. Downside: I’d need a whole day. This one was half spent.
Two: go up to the peak. Gain a high enough vantage to see all I can see. The upside, I’d get a good sense of the land, provided clouds didn’t rush in. The downside, I wasn’t sure how far it was up the hill.
Three: build a ladder and go over. This would take a while and I didn’t have the right equipment. I’d need to come back tomorrow.
“I should head upwards,” I said aloud to the concete wall. “Scout this out now, then come back tomorrow for round two with a whole day to work on whatever I need to work on.”
I nodded. Plan made. I put my canteen back in my bag and swung my backpack over my shoulder, stepped out of the shade, and set off up the mountain.
At first I followed the wall quickly, imbued with a feeling of purpose and direction. Sweat poured down my face under the searing sun and the grade of the hill gradually increased. I took short water breaks under the eaves of the dark jungle, which continued in the same fashion as I’d seen before: mountain ferns, green palms, and the occasional bromeliad. The wall continued beside me, relentlessly tall and smooth.
I wondered what kind of money went into this vague and mysterious prison. That wall can’t have been cheap. Dry scrub and leaves crunched under foot. Thick roots curled above ground exposing short spans of dirt-covered wood before thrusting back under ground. Thin stumps stuck out from the earth. Some looked recently cut.
I fell into a stead rhythm as the sun began descending, sailing past its zenith across my shoulders. The wall now cast a pleasant shadow, and my water breaks became more scenic as I could sit next to the wall and look out over the ocean and at the emerald of the forest as it swept down to the sea. Gulls wheeled on unseen columns of hot air, cries punctuating the constant rustle of the light sea breeze in the leaves.
It reminded me of one of our vacations, my wife, my daughter and me, before we’d split. We’d hiked up trails of Maui. Hallie was only four, so I carried her on my shoulders a lot of the way.
Daddy, I’m taller than Mommy now!
A block of ice formed and settled right under my ribs.
I missed my kid.
I could see her. Vividly. A memory from around the time of that vacation — was it, what, last year? — her face serious as she held out a cupcake, roughly iced, random swirls of pink confection cream, and a few of those silvered candy ball bearings clinging to the icing.
“Did you make that?” I’d asked.
“I put the pink squiggles on it. And the silver balls. Mommy baked the cupcake.” She said, nodding with her little lips pursed, eyes serious.
I looked up at the cloudless sky, past the grey lip of the concrete wall and the loops of razor wire, up into the endless blue. I wondered where Hallie was right now. If I’d see her again.
I had to see her again.
I took a deep breath as I clenched my right fist and smacked the wall with the heel-side of my fist. The wall stood fast, concrete warm and unyeilding.
Then the siren started.
First with a loud click and hiss, like an old radio turning on. Then a wailing klaxon, painfully loud, a rising tone repeating and urgent. After two cycles a commanding human voice boomed over the klaxon: “Step away from the barrier immediately. You have one minute to comply.”
I scrabbled to stand up and staggered away from the wall, looking around to find the source of the blaring klaxon and commanding voice.
It was coming from behind the wall. And from the jungle. Up the slope and down. Everywhere.
The klaxon cycled through its wailing pitches and the voice came again. “Step away from the barrier immediately. You have thirty seconds to comply.”
“I am away from the barrier!” I called out, spinning around, unsure who I was addressing.
Again, the voice. “Step away from the barrier immediately. You have 15 seconds to comply. ”
I didn’t know what would happen if I didn’t comply, but I didn’t want to find out. Not today. I threw my backpack over a shoulder and started running into the jungle, away from the wall. crashing through the fronds of a large ferns. There was no trail, just dense green jungle. Branches smacked my body as I pushed past, lifting my arms and hands to protect my face. My breath came in gasps. The greenery swallowed the bright afternoon sun, cutting the light into tiny stamps of sunlight hitting the leaves.
The klaxon kept chiming. The voice spoke again, all around me. “Step away from the barrier. You have 5 seconds to comply.”
I kept running, pushing through the foliage. A large spider web collapsed under my rush, its owner falling on my shoulder. I brushed it off, pushing deeper into the jungle, away from the wall.
The klaxon stopped, and then descending sequence of three, slow beeps and the voice spoke again. “Thank you for complying. This is your final warning. One in. One out. No exceptions.”
The three beeps came again, then a loud click and hiss, then silence.
I slowed, breath coming in gasps, my chest tight with adrenalin. I pushed past a palm frond and stumbled into a narrow path running up and down the mountain.
I turned away from the peak, following the path down hill.
I felt exhausted and frazzled.
For a long time I just walked downhill, taking deep breaths to slow my rampant heartbeat. The emerald leaves darkened as the sun began to set. Slowly, the rhythmic hush of the sea resolved into the more distinct crash of wave after wave. The path widened and turned sandy, revealing the ocean, dark blue beneath a sky of scattered clouds awash with the orange and pink hues of sunset. The sand glowed golden.
I stepped onto the sand and walked to the waterline, sinking onto my heels before leaning back and sitting on the sand, looking at the ocean as I thought.
Whoever was keeping this island wasn’t kidding about their rules. I knew they had guns, helicopters and boats at their disposal. But what I’d just encountered, that was serious security infrastructure. I’d sold that kind of equipment, at least the consumer variety of it, and worked with contractors to build fences and walls.
This was serious shit. And it was overkill. You could contain mobs, a population of hundreds, or maybe thousands, with what they had installed.
I knew two things were true.
One, escape was not an option.
Two, if I was going to get back to shore, I had to play the game.
The days ground by as my new reality sunk in. My prison was large but also breathtakingly beautiful. On that first day, I’d learned that I could not simply escape, but I when I’d arrived, I’d seen Barry allowed to leave. Or so it seemed. It appeared I also had time to on my side, provided that supplies came as promised.
A year is a long time.
I puzzled it over as I hiked the island. I found the turquoise waterfall from Barry’s polaroids. I swum in the ocean and watched the sunset. I created my own little daily exercise routine – I’d run to the beach and back, then do one hundred burpees. I did the burpees pyramid style: start with ten, then nine, then eight, all the way to one, and then do one, two, all the way back to ten. Then I’d run to the turquoise pool and sluice the sweat off with pristine tropical water.
Keeping my fitness up could only be a good thing.
Taking a break from the stress of work and the boozing, that was doing me good too. I was sleeping better, waking fresh with a clear minded.
And still, I felt like a boy with a Rubiks cube stuck in a dark room. I was constantly turning and twisting at the problem without having enough information.
First, like most people, I don’t remember things. I have technology for that. This is the age of the smartphone, of Google and iCloud and Facebook. I could remember only two people’s addresses by heart: my work and my home, and neither of those were helpful to me. I don’t even remember my wife’s phone number.
Second, I wasn’t sure if I needed to invite someone I actually knew. Could I just send to randoms, like some sort of nasty spam operation, and see who responded? For some reason, the idea of targeting random people felt better than targeting anyone I know. Or maybe I could try to convince some waste-of-space celebrity.
It all made me sick to the stomach. I did know that this wasn’t a game of prison escape. It wasn’t a phony game show set up to test my physical stamina. This was a game of chess, and I had 52 moves – one for each week in the year, one for each supply run.
Tomorrow was time for my first move. I’d been here one day short of a week and I was almost out of food. I assumed the supply boat would come tomorrow and pick up my mail.
I decided my first move would be to gather information.
This would be a long game.
I sat at the crude writing desk in the cabin, a pen in hand. The desk had a small wooden draw that had a few of them shitty plastic pens, clear cased with its dark blue ink stripe running straight down into a coppery tip. I pressed pen to paper and wrote.
Whoever is reading this,
I don’t think you’re dumb enough not to monitor what I write, so I’m just going to ask you a few questions.
1) I don’t have many addresses memorized. If I just put their name, city and how I know them, can you do the rest? Or can I have my phone?
2), do I have to invite people I know?
3), what happens after 365 days?
4) Fuck you for putting me here.
I folded the letter and put it in an envelope, addressed to some bogus guy in Tampa. I made him up. I didn’t want Captain Twig getting suspicious.
That night, I barely slept. I woke constantly to check my watch, not wanting to miss sunrise or the boat. I wanted to meet the boat to make sure my letters were delivered. An eternity passed before I noticed the steely light drifting past the shutters. I got up and dressed, then grabbed the flashlight from the kitchen bench and switched it on with a flick of my thumb. I swung the yellowy circle of light toward the fridge, then opened the door to inspect my dwindling supplies. I grabbed my last two bruised, blackening bananas and a plastic bag containing stale slices of bread. Then I took two boiled eggs that I’d cooked a few days back, worrying the eggs might start going off. I shut the fridge door, then filled my canteen for the day from the kettle I’d boiled the nigh before. Slipped my water canteen into the side pocket of my pack. Slipped my letter into the wide front pocket and zipped it up.
Ready to go.
I stepped out of the cabin door and into the grey twilight, flashlight in hand, sweeping its beam from side to side as I crashed through the scant jungle trail in the early dawn. I reached the dock, sat down on the edge of the wooden jetty. I ate my stale bread, boiled eggs and bruised bananas.
Waiting for Captain Twig. And some more goddamn eggs.
The sun was still low in the sky when I first heard Twig’s engine muttering in the far distance. I figured it must be him; if he left at dawn he’d arrive around now. I knew from my college fishing trips that early morning seas are usually the best bet for a smooth ride and easy waters.
I stood up, leaving my backpack sitting on the decking beside me. I lifted a palm to shield my eyes and scanned the horizon for the rust bucket fishing boat I remembered. The placid ocean rippled lightly at the occasional breath of wind, their tiny peaks shimmering the morning sun. There, on the horizon where the light blue sky met the dark line of the sea, I picked out the boat coming from the left side as I stood facing the sea on the pier.
The same familiar looking fishing boat that brought me here skimmed across the waves, and fast, its red racing stripe pointing upward as the engines propelled the boat forward. The mutter of the distant engine swelled into an indistinct gabble and then a roar as the outline of its stick-thin captain came into view. He was gunning it. The boat was moving much faster than seemed possible. Certainly faster than it did when I was a passenger.
He killed the engine as he came into the bay, letting momentum carry the craft across the smoothly dimpled water. The morning sun glinted on the lens of his sunglasses.
Then his body language changed; he stiffened slightly, shoulders back, then threw a palm up to cover his eyes.
He’d seen me. Maybe missed me at first with the sun in his eyes, but now he’d seen me.
He reached down somewhere beside him and pulled up a long, black automatic shotgun and rested it on his shoulder. He fired up the engines, bringing them to a low churning rumble, the other hand grabbed the wheel, and he maneuvered into a position maybe twelve feet off the pier. He reached down and seemed to press some buttons in his console, watching me the whole time, shotgun resting on one shoulder.
I held up two hands. “I don’t have a gun,” I called across the water. Maybe I’d made a mistake not bringing the handgun given me. I wasn’t in the habit of packing a piece with my lunchbox, but here, maybe I should be. Noted for next time.
He left the console, now holding his shotgun in both hands.
He pointed it in my direction and spoke. “I got no hard feelings for you, kid. But you ain’t supposed to be down here when I’m here. They told me you tried some shit the other day,” he lifted his chin and pointed the nose of the gun up toward the mountain, “and that you might try some shit again.”
Twiggy had both hands on the gun, looking straight at me. The boat’s engines burbled as the craft seemed to maneuvered itself, automatically holding position.
I kept both hands in the air. “I just want to deliver some letters. Like you said I could.”
He grunted, then lowered the gun slightly. “I didn’t say you could or couldn’t do shit. I’m not the one making the rules. I’m in this like you.”
“Okay,” I said, “But that’s what I was told. Mail service weekly with supplies. I have some mail. Do you have supplies? Can you take my letters?”
The boats engines mumbled again. It stayed twelve feet away.
My arms had started to feel heavy in the air. “Can I lower my arms?” I asked.
“No, not until you’re off this dock,” He said, patting his shotgun. “Listen. You’re new so I’ll give you some advice. This is a big game they’re playing. They’re spending a truck load to make people play it how they want it played. I’ve seen young, fit, arrogant assholes like you try to escape. Or get smart with me and try to take this boat. They end up dead.”
I nodded, big movements of my head so he could see.
He continued. “Every move you make, they’re watching you. Don’t think you can get away with anything. And as far as I’m concerned, the only thing I care for is this: don’t come down here when I’m doing a delivery. I will shoot you.” He looked right in my eyes and pointed the gun at my chest.
I nodded. “I hear you, loud and clear.”
“Okay.” He said, then lowered his gun, pointing it toward the jetty in front of my feet. “Most guys leave their letters under a rock, or put em in an empty supply box. I’ll take what you leave like I’m s’posed to and pass them on for delivery.”
My arms started to feel “Can I get my letter out and leave it here now, then?” I tilted my head to my left and prodded my pack with a toe.
He lifted the muzzle of the shotgun. “Go ahead,” he said, raising the gun once more.
I lowered my arms and knelt down with defined, deliberate movements, unzipped the front pocket of my bag and reached in, feeling the paper under my fingers. I kept one eye on the boat as I slowly drew the letter out and placed it on the rough wood of the dock.
A light breeze tugged at my shirt. Looking up to the captain I said, “I’m going to get something to hold this letter down.”
He nodded, staring down the barrel of the gun. “Alright. Just don’t try anything, kid.”
Unzipping the main compartment, I looked into the bag: my water canteen, a banana. I wasn’t going to eat that banana anyway. I pulled out the banana and it up so he could see, then placed it on the letter.
I held up both hands. “Okay. Now I’m going to pick up my bag and walk off this dock.”
“That’s right. And I’m not going to see you down here again, am I?”
“Good. Fuck off.”
I leaned to pick up my bag and then backed my way off the dock, my brown banana holding down my mail.
When I reached the sand he still had his gun on me.
I turned and walked slowly until I was under the cover of the forest.
Then I ran.
Adrenalin coursed through me. This was the second time in seven days I’d had guns pointed in my face. I wasn’t afraid of Captain Twig chasing me. I just wanted to get as far away from him as I could.
As I ran I catalogued what I’d learned from our panicked exchange. I knew they were watching me and sharing information with Twig. I knew this was some sort of game for them, and I knew that he is not one of them. That he is in it like me.
I kept hauling ass up the path, letting the green leaves bat my shoulders like I do on my morning runs. It had a calming effect, and after a while I was mostly to burn off more adrenalin rather than fear. I repeated my new found facts like a mantra.
I trotted out of the foliage and onto the grass, quickly spanning the twenty feet or so of grass to reach the hut. I didn’t bother closing the door, spanning the width of the cabin in two strides and, reaching the writing desk, picked up a pen and slid a piece of paper across the desk. I printed the words out slowly, deliberately, three short sentences:
It’s a game.
Twig’s in it like me.
I tapped the end of the pen on the desk, looking up at the ceiling. There was something else my mind slowly began to grasp, and I wrote it down.
He’s scared of me.
He didn’t seem like a guy who was overly confident. He seemed kind of worried, unsure. Despite holding all the cards, the boat, the gun, he wanted me off that dock.
Governing all of this, the golden rule of the island. I wrote the four words in capital letters on top of the paper:
One in, one out.
This would be the list of things I know.
I pinned it to the wall above the desk. By this time next week, fingers crossed, this list would grow.
I slid another piece of paper across and turned it lengthwise, then picked up the thick sharpie for the polaroids and sketched out five rows and ten columns, thick black lines in a grid taking up most of the page. Tacked on two more squares at the bottom of the five rows. Then I pinned it up next to my new list.
I planted my left palm on the desk and leaned forward, drawing a big ‘X’ in the top left grid square.
I thought about the contents of my letter and briefly regretted the “fuck you.” They might not take kindly to that. In any case, one move had been played.
Fifty one left to go.
A week passed in my strange paradise prison and the next supply run came. I decided to skip sending anything out. I figured I could do more when I had more info; measure twice, cut once, Ma used to say.
I avoided the dock in the morning, careful to give Twig his space. So I walked down around ten am, late morning, peering out from behind green leaves before showing myself.
Sure enough, no Captain Twig. A large plastic storage tub, one of those semi-transparent plastic things with the clip on lids, sat there at the end of the Jetty.
I lugged it back to the hut and started unpacking the food.
Inside, it was the same simple stuff as last week, the kind of crap you’d buy at college; cheap and cheerful and just enough fruit and vegetables not to contract scurvy. On top of everything was the soft stuff. Bread, bananas, oranges. A bunch of wilted spinach and a handful of tomatoes that looked bruised. An onion. Twelve pack of Eggs, two broken already, three packs of instant noodles. A pack of processed cheese singles that were so processed they hadn’t melted in the morning heat. Under that, the canned and bottle items. Instant coffee, dairy creamer, a few cans of spam, cans of beans.
I pulled all these items out and there it was.
One fancy envelope.
I lifted it out of the container and held it up to the light streaming in the door. The paper was a sandy yellow color, lightly textured, with a raised insignia bubbled outward from the center of the rectangle, a stylised flame set inside a triangle. I ran my fingers over it, feeling the edges and flexing it lightly. It did not bend. My probing fingers traced a thin, rectangle shape inside, roughly three by five.
I picked at the yellow tongue of the envelope with my thumbnail. It opened easily, cleanly. Inside, a folded piece of paper nestled next to the photograph. I stepped over to my desk and pulled out both pieces with thumb and forefinger, then dropped the envelope on the desk and held up the picture.
In it, a house, standing behind a single tree, almost bare of leaves, rising out of mound of orange and red leaves in square lawn. A paved path led across the lawn to steps and a small porch. Two people on the porch in front of a big blue door with a round, brass knocker. An adult and child, both rugged up against the obvious autumn chill.. The adult might have been looking for her keys.
Ice settled in my gut. I looked closer.
The little girl smiled up at the woman. Strawberry blonde hair peeking out from under a red winter cap.
That blue door and brass knocker.
That was my child. And my wife.
My chest tightened as I placed the photo on my desk. The season seemed right; it was Fall. Up north, the trees would be looking like this.
So it was probably recent. And this photo was taken from the street, without my wife and daughter seeming to realize.
I opened the letter, hands shaking as I held the sandy yellow paper, lightly textured. At the top, the insignia of a flame inside a triangle.
Centered on the paper, written in neat, flowing handwriting:
You are an unusual man, to open the game abusing the umpire. We wonder if you are arrogant. Or unmotivated. Or both.
Nevertheless, we have decided to answer your questions, and that the answers will come at a cost.
First, we need only names. We know the rest.
Second, you must invite people you know.
Third. The consequences should have been clear; most players, if they fail to find a replacement, will be killed.
Fourth. You will now be playing for three lives instead of one.
This is the price.
We hope this sufficiently motivates you.
A man’s character is forged in the furnace of difficult decisions. You may be unused to such pressure, but it is time to make some choices.
Make them count.
The black ink on the paper seemed to absorb the light as I read it. I read it again and again.
My daughter and wife were now in danger.
I had tried to be smart, learn the rules before the play, but it had backfired. I thought back to my letter, the casual questioning. The fuck you. They reacted badly.
My stomach churned. I had made a series of grave errors, perhaps, as they had written, they were sins of arrogance or vanity. The events of the past year played in my mind. Before I got to the Island I had been prioritising myself over others. My behaviour at home had driven my wife away. My vanity had led me here. My arrogance had endangered two people I cared for.
I wasn’t sure how I was going to undo this, how to make it better, but I knew that I would do whatever was necessary.
I left the letter on the desk and started toward the door. I needed to get out of here, away. I needed to think.
Outside, the midday sun hid behind dark clouds that seemed to speak of a coming storm. The wind whispered in the leaves as I stepped into the jungle to walk aimlessly, to reflect and plan.
The sun set over a tumble of boulders at the far end of the beach. Earlier, a storm had swept over the island, raking the trees with fat drops of rain, before quickly passing. Ragged clouds, the last remnants of the storm clouds, stood in shades of orange and pink in the darkling sky. A light surf surged and receded, surged and receded again, without thought or reflection.
I had made the same mistakes thanks to the same overconfidence. Again and again. I thought I was smart, strong, capable. Maybe in some situations I was. But too often I’d fallen short, causing pain to my family and ultimately, myself.
Since I’d read the letter, I’d spent the afternoon on thoughts like this. Considering where I’d gone wrong. The whole situation seemed like a pattern. John does something without thinking deeply and gets himself into a situation where he hurts others. This is what I’d done with Barry – fired him for stealing, but ultimately that had cost Barry’s wife her life. Or at least her treatment. I’d never asked Barry how he was, or what was going on in his life. He stole from my company, true. That’s never okay. But now, as I considered the lengths I would go to to save my own wife and child, I saw him in a new light – a man who was doing desperate things for love.
My drinking and hot temper was another example. Drove my wife away. She’d been good for me. Always supportive and loving, always open minded and willing to forgive my mistakes. She deserves far better. My daughter lit up my life like a strawberry haired beacon, and I didn’t give her my best. She deserves a better father than I ever was.
And then, this Island. Why did I come here? Everything about the invitations were unverifiable. I got on a boat with a weird old man who evaded my questions. The letters bore no logos, nothing that looked even close to professional. But they told me they were looking for influencers. People like me. I believed that was me. I thought that whatever situation I was put into, however it might go, I could handle it. That my strength, my mind, my capabilities, could handle.
Behind me, birds called across the branches as the sun sank out of view. I stood up and brushed off the seat of my shorts, returning the fine golden sand back to the beach. It was time to head back to the hut and fix some food.
Even the proud must eat.
Then I’d have to figure out how to fix this mess.
Night had fallen and my desk was lit by a flashlight I’d jerry-rigged to the wall, a macguyver combo of thumbtacks and used plastic bags from my supplies.
It felt like the rules on the wall I’d stuck on the wall were staring at me, urging me on. Since last week’s letter I’d dedicated hours in the day writing down names, brainstorming the lives I could sacrifice to save my family.
I went backwards through my history with a fine comb. I dragged my mind through relationships, connecting dots between people. I drew mind maps, little circles representing people, looped lines connecting them to everyone else. I dredged through my college friends and adversaries, business contacts, competitors, friends I used to go clubbing with and the drug dealers that hooked us up. Ex girlfriends and their old abusive boyfriends, the ones they’d cry on my shoulder about.
The keepers certainly succeeded in motivating me. I now had a whole spiderweb of names, real people I might be willing to sacrifice to their game.
I tried not to think about that part too much. The sacrifice part.
I had gotten ready for sleep and now laid in the darkness, waiting for sleep to take me. I wondered who might actually deserve this kind of punishment. What kind of person bad enough to be sentenced to do what I was doing? The act of going through everyone you’d ever known and marking them for death.
Even the people in my life I wasn’t fond of – my business competitors, the “abusive” ex boyfriends of my ex girlfriends, the drug dealers – they were just people doing their thing. They weren’t saints for sure, but I’ve always been a live-and-let-live kind of guy; don’t fuck with my life and I won’t fuck with yours, and if you do fuck with me, I’ll return the favor in the appropriate proportions. I was never one to bring a gun to a knife fight.
I started replaying memories of my daughter, running her short life behind my eyelids like a movie. The brief silence before a desperate gasp and cry when she was born. Her mother’s tears. And mine. Her first tiny smile, like someone had switched on a light. Grabbing my fat finger in her miniature hands, squeezing tighter than you’d think was possible. Crawling across the room, then walking, then calling me Da-da. Then the first “I love you”.
Then as I fell l asleep, I understood that I would do whatever I needed to do.
I set off to the beach when the sun began to slide towards dusk, pushing through the foliage with my right hand. Left hand holding a plastic bin the supplies arrive in slung over one shoulder. In my pack I had four letters zipped into the front pocket, neatly folded and tucked into cream envelopes.
Tomorrow, Twig would arrive and take my letters off to their recipients, who may read them and laugh, or may never read them at all, or, if I was lucky, they’d call that same number I did, and end up here.
I finished writing my first collection of letters earlier in the day after spending most of the week writing down names and mind mapping my life, distilling down into a naughty and nice list like a psychopathic Santa Claus; the naughty kids get lured, trapped and killed.
The nice kids get the same. Nothing but fair. Every child loses.
By the time I got down to writing letters I had a hard time writing letters to anyone on the “nice” list. It came down to how I would frame the letter for maximum effect, and if I knew them and they like me, I really needed to get duplicitous, to lie and betray.
I tried to write one of these letters, start with Dear Dan — a close friend from Tampa — and after that, the pen would just hover over the yellow legal pad. His bearded face came to mind, smiling as he offered me a beer, or pumping his arm in the air on the rare occasion he’d beat me at pool. I couldn’t tell this guy to come to this fantastic paradise. Even Psycho Claus couldn’t go that far.
So I wrote to people on my Naughty list. I chose four that I hated the most, that I thought were the most stupid, or vain, or some combination of all three, such that the Instagram Influencer scam might work. Barry’s approach worked, so I figured — if it aint broke et cetera.
I did made a few crucial improvements.
Leo had led an IRS audit that had cost my company forty-five large. He had the power to reduce that by two thirds, but wanted to make an example. He leaked it to the local newspaper just to embarrass me.
Leo gets a letter.
We are a new eco-resort in the Bahamas seeking to create organic social media buzz from well connected, influential people — just like you.
Playing the vanity card here. A little less ham-fisted than Barry.
Come any length of time: one night to one week. 100% free, all expenses covered.
Making it even easier for them to say yes. A weekend! Why not?
Call 555-234-0982 and we’ll send a boat to Miami Beach Marina.
This offer is only valid for one person; we have limited space and are inviting single men and women from all over Florida.
Note the potential to get laid.
We’re certain this will be the experience of a lifetime. Free. Call us today.
— Barry Dunbar
Head of marketing and social media, Dresden Resort Concepts
Fancy signature. More legit sounding. I chuckled at the Dresden thing.
I wrote out this same letter four times and addressed it to my first marks. Then I’d headed out the cabin and down the dense trail that led to the beach.
It was a relief to finally clear the oppressive jungle path, with its thick wet air that clung close, Out here the air felt dry and cool, a strong breeze flowing up off the crystalline waves. In the late afternoon sun the sand had cooled, so I kicked off my sneakers and went barefoot, walking towards the jetty and scanning the ground for a likely rock that could weight down my mail.
I found a good sized stone near the jetty and picked it up with my right hand, hefting it’s weight. Perfect. I swung the plastic supply tub over my left shoulder, down to the sand and opened the lid, put the stone in, and lifted the tub with both hands, carrying it almost all the way to the end of the wooden jetty.
I didn’t want Twig to miss my delivery, or feel lazy, so the closer I put it to where he was parked, the better.
I put the tub down and unclipped its lid. This tub wasn’t going anywhere. I fished the letters out of my pack, counting all four, then placed them into the tub. Each one had the recipients name on it with a short description of who they were to me.
The first letter addressed to Leo, the IRS auditor.
The second, Tommy, my old drug dealer who’d sold me some bunk crap and put me and my then-girlfriend in an ambulance.
Third to Wilson, my wife’s abusive stalker ex-boyfriend.
Then finally, Carl. Carl the Spam Man.
I hesitated a little as I held Carl’s letter. Carl was the odd one out; a tall, aging man doing the usually teenage duty of cramming my mail box fill with junk mail every day. Unlike teenagers doing this work, he wasn’t paying himself through college. He was just being a nuisance. And so maybe he didn’t deserve to die.
But then again, a spam mailer getting conned by a certain type of spam did have a certain poetic justice to it. Maybe Carl didn’t deserve to die, but neither did my family. Carl was a deadbeat.
Carl gets a letter.
I dropped the letter into the plastic tub and looked inside. The dark brown stone sat inside the tub, the letters strewn around it, ready to go out into the world and meet their marks. I clipped the lid on and stood up, dusting my hands off. It didn’t feel good, but it did feel done.
I turned to leave, then, almost as an after thought, turned back to nudge the box with my foot. It barely moved, the weight of the stone doing its job.
Twig would pick up this mail tomorrow. Then I’d just have to wait and see if anyone showed up.
A small evil voice inside me hoped that it would be Carl.
I turned from the jetty and the setting sun and headed back to the hut, lost in thoughts about who I’d write to next.
From that week on, I sent letters every week, to every name on my Naughty list.
And no one came.
Each week my stack of letters grew and grew. I had 36 names on my list, and after three weeks had passed, every week I sent 36 letters. Twig’s boxes started including reams of paper and envelopes and polaroids. I became a production house, pumping out letters and polaroids, figuring someone had to bite. On my wall, the grid I’d drawn charting out the weeks I had left had begun filling up with crosses.
I had eight weeks left.
I kept up my exercise regime. In the morning I’d run to the beach and back, and then do burpees. After almost a year of training, I could smash out five hundred burpees when I was in the mood. My body’s in peak physical condition. Corded muscles and wiry strength. Being sober for so long yielded astounding mental clarity.
I knew I had a duty to do anything I had to do to get off this island and make sure my family was safe. So far, I had limited myself to the Naughty list, deciding to go hard on them first.
Some weeks ago, I’d decided that Plan B would be to write to my parents.
I had hesitated to send them anything, avoiding taking that decision. I knew they’d do anything for me and their granddaughter, even if they wouldn’t understand it initially. I could explain when they arrived. Maybe they’d forgive me, eventually.
Twelve weeks left. It had started to feel like I was running out of time.
Two days before mail day I got up and decided to hike to the summit. My Dad told me that the ancients in China used to believe that mountains were sacred, closer to god, and that up there you could make decisions. I think he might have watched too many episodes of Kung Fu with David Cassidy, but the idea seemed cool.
Plus, my Dad was on my mind, given he was my first potential sacrifice.
I needed wisdom, and I’d try anything at this point.
At dawn, I got up and smashed out my morning run and burpees. An early start seemed smart; I’d learned that the humidity under the trees quickly became unbearable from eleven AM onwards. So I needed to leave the cabin by seven or eight at the latest.
I ate a quick breakfast, packing my bag in between mouthfuls of boiled eggs crushed on some toast. Washed it all down with some hot instant coffee while I packed enough food and water to take the through the day: my canteen, three bananas, half a loaf of sliced bread, two boiled eggs still in their shells, and a couple slices of processed cheese. A standard Island picnic.
Threw in the Map, and headed out the door. First stop would be the waterfall to rinse off the sweat, then up the mountain to sweat some more.
I reached the highest accessible point of the mountain by 10:30am. The smooth grey concrete wall blocking any further ascent. From here the wall curved away and down the slope of the mountain on either side of me, running, as I had found out over time, all the way to the sea.
I stopped a good thirty feet before the wall and found a flat rock, unslinging my pack and sitting down to stare at the blue xpanse spanning in every direction until it merged into the sky, making a light blue dividing line that seemed to curve down at the edges. In the sky closer to the island, birds took turns diving into the ocean for fish.
The wind gusted suddenly, pushing my sweat drenched shirt against my skin, hot from the ascent. The breeze raked past the ferns and scrub dotted between the large rocks and boulders, smaller shrubs rustling as it passed, almost sighing, like it did in our old front garden in Maryland, before the divorce.
I was a teenager when we lived there, my Mom was kind of useless and my Dad was never home, always working.
One late spring evening in that house in Maryland, Dad told me he wasn’t staying home for the weekend. He was going to miss my baseball game even though we’d made the finals for the first time.
I was pissed. I threw my mitt at the wall and ran outside with a tight feeling in my chest and that heaviness around the eyes that presaged tears.
I remembered the air was warm and full of that scent of new flowers and the light breeze raked through the leaves on the yard, and I sat on the steps to the porch and hated the world.
Dad came and sat down next to me. He’d been away all week, on the road, trucking between distribution centers. Always driving. Because the family needed the money.
“Son,” he said as he laid a thick, gnarled hand on my shoulder. He exhaled, and his plaid shirted belly deflated like an untied balloon.
He shook his head. “I’m sorry, champ. I know you have your big game tomorrow. But it is my responsibility to make sure you and your Mom are looked after. It’s my duty.”
I said nothing, looking out at the ragged tufts of grass that dotted the yellow dirt of our front yard.
Dad took his hand off my shoulder and put it on his knee. He looked at me and tried again. “You know I don’t like being away from home, right? That truck cabin is a lonely place. And I hate my boss. He used to date your Mom before me, did you know that?”
My eyebrows climbed as I looked at my Dad. “Jose? Mom dated Jose?”
Dad chuckled. My friends liked to call my mom a MILF. I’d met Jose at the crew’s July 4 picnics and he was the fattest guy I’d ever seen.
“Yeah, that lard-ass and your Mom. Can you imagine?”
“I don’t want to,” I said, and we both smiled.
“Me neither, but Jose likes to remind me.” Dad said as he shook his head. He looked down at the grass and lowered his voice, almost growling “And he likes to send me on jobs when I’ve been away all week. He’s a goddamn jerk, Jonno. Treats us all like crap. But this family need the stability. Your Mom’s not well. I didn’t finish school. So I do what I gotta do. Even if I gotta work for an asshole. It’s my duty.”
I nodded slowly, putting both hands on my knees and rocking slightly.
Dad stood up and ruffled my hair. I pulled away.
He said, “when you have a family, you’ll understand.”
Then he stood up and walked back inside, his boot heel thumping on the wooden deckboards.
After that day, Dad didn’t talk to me much about his thoughts on fatherhood, or why he was doing what he was doing. Shortly after that, he found out Mom and Jose were having an affair, and then the divorce happened, and the custody battle, which mom won, somehow. Dad always sent child support, always saw me when he and Hallie could, but kept working like a demon.
He’d retired now, but he’d still do anything for his family.
I nodded slowly, hands on my knees, rocking slightly. Fat clouds draped across large swathes of the sky and threw vast shadows on the dappled ocean.
Dad would come if I asked.
But was suddenly crystal clear: this was my duty, not his.
I knew what I needed to do.
I stood up and started down to the cabin to start writing some new letters. Different letters.
Beyond the shelter of the jetty, the gentle morning rains feathered the turquoise water of the bay. It was early and the sun stood just above the horizon, casting a path across the waters of the bay. The rain didn’t reach me under here. About a foot above my head, bright threads of light played across the wooden slats of the jetty, like a dancing thunderstorm.
I half floated, half stood on the rocks in the water below. The ocean lapped against my neck, as if it could slow my pulse, calm my nerves for what was about to come.
After almost a year of solitude, today I would win free.
In the distance, right on time: the murmur of an engine. At first blending with the hush of the rain drops, then growing louder and overpowering the sounds of the sea.
I scanned around me, double checking my plan. I was far enough back, close to the beach. In the shadow of one of the wooden piles. Ahead, close to the end of the jetty, five small wooden pegs I had nailed into the inside curve of the pile using materials scavenged from the hut. A ladder.
The engine grew louder. The boat scudded in at full throttle from the right side of the bay. He could probably see me if was paying close attention, or had binoculars. Or if the keepers had tipped him off to my alterations of the pier.
This plan was always going to be a gamble.
Captain Twig killed the engine and the coasted in. When the boat was roughly thirty feet away, the drivers cab slipped above the edge of the wooden jetty.
The old hide-and-seek adage came to mind: if I can’t see him, he can’t see me.
I started moving. I stood up on the rocks and pitched forward, pulling through the water with a slow, quiet breast-stroke. The water curled around my chin. The weight of my sodden sneakers dragged on my feet as they kicked under the water. Around the jetty, the light rain fell, consistent. I couldn’t have asked for better conditions.
About half way to my makeshift ladder, I paused. The boat continued coasting in, now maybe fifteen feet away from the end of the jetty. Captain Twig fired the engines to maneuver the craft.
I started swimming again, faster now that the engines once again provided some cover. The boat came parallel to the jetty, pulling up on the opposite side to my makeshift ladder. Less than ten feet away. I angled away from the side the boat was on to stay out of view.
I reached the ladder. Light puffs of grey smoke rolled off the engines and under the jetty, carrying the smell of gasoline.
I breathed it in, savoring the taste of it. I loved that smell. It smelled like the city, like the fruit of my civilization. Like gas stations with cool tiles, colorful fridges and infinite supplies of gum. Like my old drop-top jeep from college. Like early evening quad bike rides in the Texas desert. Like being alone in heavy traffic, pretending I could hit the high notes to Don’t Stop Believin’.
I was tired of jungles and birds and beaches. I was ready to call the climate change king and tell him to sink this fucking place. I wanted concrete under my shoes, air-conditioning, neon lights and hamburger joints, bottles of booze in neat rows behind a smiling barkeep. Give me a hot shower and a goddamn hot dog and I’d be the happiest man in the world.
I sucked in a breath.
Let’s do this.
I grabbed the first slat, giving it a tug to test it would hold. Good. Reached to grab the second, lifting my torso out of the ocean. Water dripped off my body into the ocean below and once more I thanked the rain for the cover. Cool morning air hit my chest, giving me goosebumps.
I shimmied around the pole, rotating to face the to shore, one hand holding the ladder slat, the other arm wrapping around the pile of the jetty. I lifted a knee up and place the instep of my shoe against my lowest rung. I looked up. With one solid push, I could reach the jetty and pull myself up. When the time was right.
Presently Captain Twig completed maneuvering and the engines dropped into a low idling growl. The slap of a loose rope on the wooden jetty, followed by the slow ticking sound of a rope pulled taut.
Twiggy spoke. “Jesus kid, getting lazy aint ya?”
I almost fell.
Then I heard the thump of heavy object — probably the new supply bin — hitting the wood above my head, followed by footsteps, heavy for such a slight man, retreating down the dock.
Going to retrieve my letters from my supply bin. Which I had deliberately left a little closer to the beach than usual. More than halfway along the fifty feet of the jetty.
I sprung up, thrusting with one foot and grabbing the top of the jetty with one hand, using the momentum to get another foot on a ladder rung and push up again, now I had both hands gripping the jetty. I pulled myself up as fast as I could, feet hanging in the air for a moment before I hooked both elbows over the jetty, scrabbling against the supporting pile with my soaked sneakers as I levered my torso upward.
Water rushed off my body and splashed into the ocean.
From down the jetty, a roar: “you piece of shit, I will kill you!”
Twig dropped the storage bin in a clatter as he flung my white envelopes over the side of the jetty, immediately started moving toward me.
I pitched forward and swung a leg up onto the deck. I had to be on my feet before he reached me. I pushed up started rolling onto my back, catching a glimpse of metal in the morning sun that I prayed wasn’t a gun, then I rolled again, the rain, heavier now, spraying my upturned face.
The staccato beat of Twig’s limping gait ground closer, beating like a panicked heart as I pushed up onto my feet, and then there was suddenly a second of quiet as I looked up and saw Twig mid air, leaping into his boat.
Reeling forward I took three big steps and jumped out into the boat. I landed almost behind Twig, the boat pitching wildly, first away from the jetty and then grating back into it, throwing me into the seating opposite the jetty. I stumbled and twisted left towards the cockpit and threw my right arm thrown out to catch the top of the plastic seats bolted to the cockpit.
In the cockpit, Twig had been knocked into the captains seat, his wiry legs and elbows askew, the long barrel of his shotgun across his chest.
I pushed off, stepping fast, stumbling as the boat rocked beneath us, eyes locked on the gun. Twig sprang onto his feet, the shotgun swinging in a broad metallic arc, twisting toward the jetty.
If he’d spun the other direction, he’d have had me.
I held my hands up to meet the barrel as it swung up and over and down toward my chest, my palms opened as I prepared to crash into him —
— then there was an immense boom and flash and it was if a heavy blanket had abruptly fallen on my ears and drowned all the sounds around; the patter of the rain, the idling boat engine, the water against the boat hull, the physical clattering of our movements; and they were all replaced with dull, faint versions of themselves, overlaid by a high pitched whine.
I smelt the sharp acridity of gunpowder and the hard metal under my hands.
But I couldn’t see. The world around me blurred into bright light and swathes of indistinct color.
All I knew was that I had to hold on to the gun. If I let go, I was dead.
Frantic, I blinked rapidly, trying to clear my sight, shaking my head, all while clinging the barrel of the gun with everything I’d had. Twig tugged and twisted the gun, trying to prise it out of my grip. I set one foot back to hold my ground and held on tight.
Shapes and colors began to resolve just as Twig attempted to knee me in the nuts and narrowly missed, smashing into my left leg, right above the knee.
I roared in pain and suddenly saw his face clearly, inches away from my own. His brow was deeply furrowed, lips pulled back against clenched teeth, eyes wide, and he was breathing hard.
I pushed the gun forward, feeling for his resistance before suddenly pulling back on the gun, gripping tightly and throwing my whole body backwards and twisting hard to the left as I fell. Twig let out a startled gasp but managed to hold on, crashing down with me.
I landed hard and awkward, crying out in pain as my hip bashed into the edge of the passenger seats and my shoulder hit the backrests and I lost my grip of the gun. An instant later, Twig thudded into the center of the boat, right in the footwell of the passengers.
He’d lost grip on the gun too.
I pushed off the seats with my left hand to stand up. The gun had fallen back, near the engines. Twig lay still, his mouth opening and closing like a fish, winded.
Good. I needed him alive.
I staggered forward and dropped to one knee next to Twig, pushing the other on his torso to hold him down. I grabbed his left wrist and pinned it to his chest, trying to catch his flailing right hand. I noticed the flash of silver in the sun too late.
The knife punched into my side, somewhere between my shoulder blade and arm-pit. He got me twice more before I managed to grab his other arm and pin it to his chest. Holding him there wasn’t as easy as it should have been; he was wiry, hard. Stronger than he looked. A hot, stinging sensation radiated from my right side.
I spoke slowly through gritted teeth. “This is it, Captain. My boat now. Drop the knife.”
He dropped the knife. It clattered to the floor of the boat near his head. Then he stopped struggling and smiled. “That’s a nasty cut you’ve got there. You’ll need to get that seen to.”
“Thanks for the concern, shit-head. I’ll survive.”
“I’m not so sure you will,” he replied. Then he looked away, up to the sky. “Can you hear that?”
I cocked an ear, hearing the idling of the boat engines, the lapping of the water, the hush of the waves against the shore.
A rapid, thumping sound approached.
The smile slid off Twig’s face, his lips curling in a sneer. “They’re coming. You’re going to die for what you’ve done here.”
“Maybe,” I said, “I was going to die anyway.”
He shrugged, pressing his lips together. “They usually do. Sometimes they can’t or won’t think of anyone to convince to come. Other times they lure loved ones. Those ones usually kill themselves later. The last one, Barry, he was an exception. Got lucky.”
The thumping grew to a roar as the chopper approached. I felt exposed here, pinning Twig to the deck of the boat. If I was going to face the keepers, I was going to do it standing up.
“We’re going to get off the boat. Get up.” I held his wrists tightly as I made him sit up, then moved behind him and tugged his arms behind him, pushing his wrists up towards his shoulders, just like I’d seen them do on TV. I kicked the knife away. It skidded toward the gun, over near the engines.
I shouted over the thunderous helicopter almost above us. “Stand up. We’re getting off the boat.“
Twig stood up, bending forward against the discomfort I was putting him under. He stepped onto the passenger seat, and I stepped up beside him, bringing him sideways. We crab-stepped onto the wooden pier. The chopper roared in our ears as it passed over our heads and the downdraft beat past my wet skin and clothes, giving me goose bumps.
I glanced up. The same black chopper from my first day here. It hovered some ten feet above the ground towards the beach-end of the jetty. The rotors beat the ocean into circular waves and kicked up the sand, spitting it into the jungle. It’s side doors were open. I thought I’d see a man with a large, long-barrelled gun waiting for a clear shot.
Instead, from the shadow of the chopper’s cabin, someone threw a rope ladder. It was black with dark metallic rungs. A man in black descended with the neat, rapid movements of practice and immediately turned and started walking briskly towards us.
He didn’t seem to be armed.
He wore all black, head to toe: black combat boots laced up and over black tactical trousers. A utility belt circled his waist and a loose-fitting, long sleeve black shirt and combat vest covered his torso. A lightweight balaclava revealed a small small oval: light skin, two eyes and the bridge of a nose.
I felt Twig shaking under my grip, his chest and shoulders shuddering. He was laughing. Then twisted his head around and yelled over his shoulder: “This is it for you, kiddo. Meet the boss.”
The man in black strode towards us and stopped a few feet away and spoke.
“John. Let the captain go. Now.” His voice was high and clear amidst the whirlwind of the helicopter behind him.
I held Twigs wrists tightly. “And release my only bargaining chip? No.”
He threw a black-gloved thumb over his shoulder. “There’s a sniper in the helicopter waiting for my signal. You must do as I say. This will be especially true if you want us to honor your proposed deal.”
Captain Twig started struggling under my grip. “What deal?”
The man in black spoke again. “John. Let him go.”
I let go of Twig’s wrists and shoved him away. He staggered forward and fell on the floor. The man dropped into a crouch, then struck. His left hand snaked out over his head and pulled under neck toward him and pushing down, then a kneeling to pin his shoulder. In his right hand was a silver glint of a tiny needle as he plunged into Twig’s neck, his body jerking then falling limp.
The man stood up and waved his black injection gun towards the captain. “He’ll wake in a few hours.”
I nodded, mute.
He holstered his gun somewhere behind his belt, and continued. “We were impressed with your offer. Highly unusual. Your letters demonstrated a level of intelligence we admire, and your youth, physicality and determination that you demonstrated in carrying out this little… ” He gestured to the boat, ”…hijacking. All the kind of attributes we prize in our employees.”
I swallowed. “Okay. So how does this work then?”
“Very much like you proposed in your letter. The Captain will replace you on The Island. You will become the Captain.”
He reached inside a hip pocket on his tactical vest, pulling out a bulky envelope “In here, you’ll find a basic cell phone. We’ll contact you on it when someone needs to be picked up. Keep it charged and with you at all times.”
He looked at his watch, then over his shoulder at the chopper, its rotors beating down at the waves and the sand, holding position.
“There is a number saved in the phone for you call in case you need to contact us. This should be used sparingly. Inside, you’ll also find directions to a private berth for this craft as well as credentials for that facility. You may have deduced that this boat is more advanced than it seems; a relevant example being that the boat has automatic guidance systems to take you to its berth. There is a user manual in the locked compartment next to the wheel. Teach yourself how to use it well. Inside the envelope is a key. Got it?”
I realized my mouth was hanging open. This was happening very quickly, but then, I wasn’t sure what I was expecting when I wrote those letters.
He looked at his watch again. My jaw worked as I tried to figure out what to say. “I have thousands of questions,” I said, shouting to be heard over the chopper.
“I’ll give you one,” he replied, “you’ll have to figure the rest out from there.”
I thought for a moment, then asked, “Why are you doing this?”
He looked up into the sky, then back over his shoulder at the chopper hovering so close, waiting. The noise drowned out the sound of the rain, the sea, everything. “We play a game here that attracts a lot of interest. More than the GDP of some nations was bet on your successful exit from the island. My clientele — our clientele — are the kind of people who can erase islands from every map.”
He stepped closer and held out the envelope. I reached out to take it, but he held it tight between a finger and thumb.
“I’m sure you are excited to see your wife and daughter. Don’t put them in danger by doing anything stupid. You’re with us now, and you cannot leave.”
He let go of the letter and I staggered back.
“Don’t step out of line and don’t ask more questions. You don’t want to have to see me again.”
He turned and walked toward the helicopter. I stood mute, holding the envelope, watching him climb up the ladder in neat, practiced movements. He climbed in, disappearing in the shadow of the cabin.
A rubberized orange case sailed out of the chopper, thumping as it hit the deck. I knew what was in that. I was glad it wasn’t for me.
The chopper rose in the air, rotors beating hard against gravity. I watched it rise and the slide away, back to the other side of the island.
I looked down at the envelope, realizing it was not spotted with rain. The rain had stopped.
I walked over to the boat with its engines still idling. It was loosely tied to the pier, the rope looped around one of the piles that thrust above the walking surface. I lifted the rope and held the end as I stepped into the boat. Dropped it and then walked up to the cockpit and sat down, looking at the controls: steering wheel, throttle, and various digital buttons with acronyms next to them.
First I wanted to get away from shore. Maybe Twig would sleep for hours, but I didn’t want him to sneak up on me.
I pushed the throttle forward half an inch and steered away from the dock, turning in a circle to face out to the ocean. The boat responded nimbly, tilting back as the engines engaged, shifting from a mumbling idle into a stronger roar. Once I was a good hundred yards out from the dock, I stopped to figure out how to get back to Florida.
To the left of the wheel I spied the there was a locked compartment. I wasn’t sure I’d need that to get home. To the right was the GPS unit. A touchscreen unit, fairly intuitive. Within minutes I’d found the pre-programmed “home” setting and tapped to navigate. The map zoomed out; I was somewhere in the Bahamas, but where the boat was marked by a blue arrow there was no green landmass. Just blue ocean.
These guys really could hide an island.
I followed the GPS all the way back to Miami. The seas were calm and the sky a deep, clear blue interspersed with large white fluffy clouds. At first I was euphoric. I felt the clouds sang to me, speaking of freedom. I sang back to the sky, shouting the words to Bon Jovi’s Living on a Prayer. I imagined what I’d say to my wife and daughter. I thought about the first burger I’d eat, which diner I was going to first. Would I sink a Bud or a Coors, or some bougie cocktail like an Old Fashioned. I dreamed about getting a proper wet shave. I wondered who won the World Series.
Then I wondered how to explain my absence without telling the truth.
How I’d explain my new found love of boating.
I’d have to deliver supplies once a week.
I’d be complicit in imprisonment and torture.
I may be physically free, and I am not dead, but I am still trapped.
The waves scud under the boat and the engines roar and I try to let it all flow under me, let it pass.
Revision notes (14/3/2019)
- made the polaroids say they’re seeking insta influencers. This gives a template for him to copy and needs less explaining.
- change to a shitty town.
- added note about temper.
- added note about working at security company
- added six pack
- fixed transition to the dock.
- Fixed transition on the boat.
- Added info about losing iPhone
- added info about knowing how to drive a boat.
- removed the dark ruminations about luring people who love him. Will add back later when he’s starting to go a little crazy. Give the character a chance to grow.
Revision notes (16/3/2019)
- Part 2 starts the next morning.
Meet John. We meet Twiggy. He goes to the Island. We meet the Keepers and he’s trapped there.
We wake up with Jon on the Island. He finds a map wihich shows him the boundaries. He reminisces about his daughter, and this activates an alarm.
He writes some letters as a test. He wants to deliver them, and has a run in with Twig. Twig tells him that he is not “one of them” and that they are watching his every move.
He receives a reply to his letters, which scares the shit out of him and forces him to take action.
He’s been sending letters for months and has had no takers. He is getting crazy. Finally he comes to a crazy compromise: he will become the boatman.
He takes the boat and becomes the boatman.
Different POV characters
- Twig. Twig’s daily life is living to take people to the Island. One specific man seems to spell trouble. During this man’s stay, he seems to want to attack him. He scares him off. The rest of the time goes on uneventfully, until the end of his stay. The man fights him and wins, but when backup arrives, they aren’t on Twig’s side. He ends up imprisoned, and is pretty sure he’s going to die there. He’s going to relax and enjoy it.
- Ending is more about just desserts. He’s going to be free of his duty and enjoy his final year in peace.
- This is interesting.
- Barry. Barry had a sad life. His wife has died, now he’s been caught for fraud by his employer. He gets shanghaied to the Island, convinced to join a boat ride while wandering the pier. He now has to choose who to lure to the island. He stews, but eventually starts sending letters. He sends them to the same person, again and again. After almost a year, the man who fired him arrives, all bluster and bravado. He is so happy about this and escapes back to life. He doesn’t feel remotely bad, feeling he’s got the bad guy. He returns to life.
- Gamemaster He works for a shadowy society that plays an expensive and deadly game. Ex-military and amoral, he is well paid and borders on psychopathic. He lives in a beautiful house on the back side of the island, well protected, with rooms filled with security cameras and crazy stuff that shows him everything that happens in the game. He is not in charge. He is drug addled and addicted. His boss holds him hostage through addiction and threats. The letter from John reminds him of himself, once some time ago, and he decides to go into bat for John. John then succeeds in hijacking twig, proving his superiority, and Gamemaster gains a new, strong hire, but he feels a slight pang of regret that he has corrupted yet another man through the impossible trap the island presents.
1) Alternate Scenario A, alternating POV and vignette scenes.
- Barry. Barry is being fired by John. It’s scary and desperate. Choices have consequences.
- John. John goes to the island. Finds Barry and is trapped there.
- The Captain. The captain comes back to the island. John wrests control. He expects help to come and the helicopters are coming.
- The Game-master. He’s in the helicopter, thinking about the deal he’s made with John, and how this would be a win in the eyes of his bosses. He sees himself in John, and feels sad that John will lose a normal life as he has. But, choices have consequences.
2) Scenario B, John POV, close first person, present tense.
- John gets anonymous postcards and decides to go.
- He sees a homeless man who reminds him of Barry. Flashback to when John fires Barry, lecturing him on choices having consequences. We learn why is here. He gets into an argument with the homeless man when he realizes it isn’t Barry.
- Boat is nice but small. Twig is weird but he mostly ignores him.
- Trapped by Barry. Choices have consequences. Barry leaves.
- John doesn’t know how to respond;
Details that are difficult
- How does the game work — he’s writing letters, sending polaroids. He has the freedom to write whatever he wants. It could be more templated; but this then makes it difficult – why didn’t they put the names on there? Why are they anonymous?
- Getting John to a decision about what to do. He feels responsible and wants to be assertive. How can we work around that.
Revision Scenario (Aug 2019)
- John receives tantalizing but anonymous “postcards” encouraging him to visit a beautiful tropical island. After a terrible year of stressful events, he gives in and decides to throw caution to the wind.
- John arrives at the dock. a twiggy old man who is the captain and will take him to the island. He doesn’t look the part, nor does the boat, but he goes anyway, falling asleep on the way.
- He arrives at the island and is blown away by its beauty. He ventures ahead and finds an old employee Barry Dresden, who tells him the rules: one in, one out.
- John chases Barry and sees him escape on the boat. A helicopter arrives and drops of a package of kit, including a gun. John takes package home.
- John wakes and we see the cabin.
- Flashback to returning to the cabin.
- The next day John finds a map. He makes a plan and sets out to explore. He finds a wall and decides to follow it upward.
- flashback, we learn he misses his child. He hits the wall and triggers an alarm threatening death, and he realizes this is very serious and has to play the game.
- John realizes he doesn’t know the rules and decides to ask directly. He writes a letter and tries to deliver it.
- Twig shows up aggressive, we find out he’s not a boss, tells John a little about the game. Takes the letter.
- John runs back and writes down what just happened, what he knows.
- a week later John gets a letter back, answering his questions and threatening his family if he doesn’t succeed.
- shellshocked and doesnt know what to
- feels guilty and blames himself. Doesn’t know how to deal.
- finally decides to do what he needs to do.
- taking letters to beach.
- flashback to writing the letters
- places letters in a bucket, we learn who he is sending them to.
- summary of sending letters each week but getting no reply
- decides to hike up the mountain to think.
- flashback to his dad doing what he needs to do, amidst the shame of his wife cheating on him
- resolved what to do, hints at a different approach
- John hides under the wharf, waiting for twig. he has set up a ladder to climb up to the deck.
- twig arrives and John surprises him, they struggle but John overpowers him.
- the game masters arrive and tell John they like his deal; if he wants to be the new captain,twig can take his place.
- they give him brief instructions and dismiss him
- as he leaves, elation fades as he realizes what he has signed up for and the price of his freedom.
John is lured by the postcards, then finds himself in a strange and scary situation. He at first attacks the problem like he pushes at most problems — with arrogance and confidence. This is then knocked away. He reacts well; trying to make it work. Ultimately he considers sacrificing his dad or mum. But then he decides he will take action to save his family’s life. The action he takes dooms him to a life of servitude and guilt; this is a big deal, what he’s taken on, and he doesn’t quite realize the consequences until later.
Choices and consequences. Choices have consequences.
Hard choices have hard consequences.
What makes a hard choice? It’s the consequences. Choices with people’s lives are the hardest.
Folks like to talk about hard decisions. But decisions ain’t hard. It’s the consequences that’ll bite you.
Plot notes (22/3/2019)
- He gets there.
- Explores, finds the wall.
- Confrontation with Twig.
- Gets letter back. He must take action.
- Angry. Decides he wants to find them. Goes off to find the wall and gets shot.
What are the stages of grief
denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance
The island: stakes
- Internal discussion about how to approach the situation; who to throw under the bus. He refuses to play, sending no letters.
- They raise the stakes. No food. He figures out his own food.
- Threaten his wife & daughter. If he doesn’t play, his whole family dies.
- Then he starts writing letters. No answers.
- Then he makes the offer
- Exercising and training
Part 1: what is published
Part 2: explore the island, see his character more, hitting the wall, ends with confrontation with twig and sending of letters.
Part 3: receives responses, resolves not to send letters. We see him enjoying the island, having a holiday, basically. Then the letters arrive about his kids.
Part 4: he starts writing letters but there are no answers. He gets crazy with the pressure, starts stalking the wall, swimming and training. Sees skeleton. He sends a letter to the keepers.
Part 5: finale. What is written.
- Protag tries to send his wife and friends a message. Do you think we’re stupid? comes the reply.
- He finds the waterfall and swims in it. It’s beautiful. Next day photos of him swimming are under his door. He starts to get crazy.
- He watches the supplies arrive, watches his movements.
- He tries to swim around the wall. Netting under water. The helicopter thumps around and shoots at him.
- The next day a map guides him to a place in the jungle. There is a pile of human looking bodies, rotting skeletons.
- Dear Keeper. I have a proposal.
- He waits for the supplies under the dock and overwhelms the sailor, throwing him on the sand and threatening him with the revolver. He tries to shoot him but the gun has blanks.
- The keeper arrives and the sailor starts laughing at him. Keeper tranqs the sailor. They talk and agree to a deal. He knows his kids and friends addresses. We’ll kill everyone. Otherwise you don’t need to do anything but show up when you get a message.
- He tells him the Island is a gambling thing, where oligarchs bet on people. Doesn’t know who they are, just that they’re rich and connected and have hidden this island from all world maps.
The Island: 8
Weeks passed on the island. Tropical sunsets blended from one night to the next. I hiked all over, swimming in waterfalls, swimming on the beach. I saw Dolphins playing not far off shore.
I sent letters every week. Always from the naughty list. The kids that should have gotten a lump of coal at Christmas. Instead they’d get an invitation from me. “Join me in paradise!” I wrote under pseudonyms of marketing managers. I stuck with my new resort pitch to instagrammers. I couldn’t think of anything better. I sent letter after letter. Soon, each week it was a stack of 15 letters loosely addressed with details: Brandon Whishaw from University. Lived in Kansas, parents from Kansas City. He’d picked fights with me in freshman year. He was a dick, at least back then. Christian, from Miami, drug dealer known on the street as Fastboy. Once sold me some bad shit that put me and my girlfriend in hospital. Never saw him again.
I didn’t get any letters back.
No one arrived, either. Just more supplies. The same food every time: bread, bananas, oranges, instant coffee, dairy creamer. Cans of spam, cans of beans, processed cheese singles. Spinach. Tomatoes and onions. Eggs. Instant noodles.
It was the kind of crap you’d buy at college. Just enough fruit and vegetables not to contract scurvy, and the rest. The coffee and creamer was welcome though. A nice touch. They came in a large plastic storage tub, one of those semi-transparent plastic things with the clip on lids. The night before deliveries I’d take the empty tub down and put it out out on the jetty with my letters and a stone inside. Just in case of wind.
I started counting the weeks on the wall.
The Island: 7
Three days later I found myself sitting at the same desk, staring at my scribbled notes. I’d pinned them onto the wall instead of the map. The map was in my bag constantly; I used the map to find my way around to beaches and waterfalls. The sentences on my wall were my puzzle.
I had a naughty list and a nice list like a demented and trapped Santa Claus.
The naughty list were people I’d like to subject to punishment. Unfortunately most of them were famous people who’d done something worthy of this kind of prison. Politicians. Celebrities that I thought sucked. Then a few more personal names came out of me: that IRS agent that audited my taxes and gave me a $20k bill. I’d like to see him get out of here. That kid in my freshman year of college who copied my assignment and claimed it was his. One of my ex-girlfriends. I’d been madly in love and she cheated on me with this fat fifty year old guy. That stung. Then I found out he had tons of money. They broke up shortly after because he’d given her the clap he’d caught from some hooker in Reno.
Then I put that guy on the list too.
My nice list were people who’d come to help if I asked them. My brother, mother and father. My wife. I put an asterisk next to her name as a maybe. I wasn’t sure if she’d take me seriously. A couple of my close friends. The nice list were easy targets. They’d come. They might enjoy it. I drafted a letter to see how it would feel.
I wrote. Casual. Just how I write.
I’m working on a new business, building an island resort in the bahamas with some investors out of Miami.
I’d always been fairly entrepreneurial. They’d probably believe this.
There’s no internet out here but if you want to come see it, just call this number.
I wrote the number.
I’ve attached some pictures. As you can see, it’s stunning. Would love to see you any time.
I sat back and read the letter again and again. This would work. So easily.
But I wasn’t ready to play that card.
Not until I saw how my three little experiments turned out.
In just a few more days I’d find out.
I started having nightmares that week. Each dream featured people on my lists. First came images of my wife and daughter tied to palm tree. The sun beat down on them and they were sweating and struggling and crying. Bamboo switches flashed in the midday sun, wielded by men in black and grey army fatigues.
I walked over to them and stood and watched. I wanted to call out to them, ask them why they had come, but I could not speak and my hands seemed glued to my sides.
They looked at me with bloodshot eyes, without recognition, only hate.
The flesh on their arms split open and blood streaked down, dripping onto the sand. Still I couldn’t speak or move. I wanted desperately to help them, untie them.
Then a man in black would turn to me.
“They are here because of you, John.”
Then I’d wake up, sit bolt upright, and scream.
The dream would repeat, many times. Some days it would feature my father and mother, other times my friends, anyone from my lists.
Weeks passed, and I began to dread to sleep. Then my dreams began to feature the people I’d sent letters to. I saw the the drug dealer screaming. Barry Dresden, screaming.
I always woke up with a sweat.
There are worse things than death, they say. I used to wonder what could be worse? There is no coming back from death. How could anything be worse than completely disappearing?
I lay in the hammock, swinging under the eaves of the cabin. I held the picture of my wife and child in front of me, the threat against them echoing.
I could see that it would be worse to live knowing I caused something to happen to these two. It would also be worse to die, in the moment that life left my body, knowing they they too, might die.
I must do something.
I realised that my inaction so far had been indistinctly motivated. I didn’t particularly want to entrap people on this island, but I didn’t want to die. In between these two emotions lay inaction.
The wind breathed softly around the hammock, over the rustling leaves and up from the sea. The hammock rocked gently.
Perhaps another, more simple explanation: I had avoided making decisions. Writing a letter to invite someone – a real, living, breathing someone – to their new prison felt too real. It crossed the line into evil. I had been misguided in the past. Overly concerned with my looks, with how people saw me. My success meant so much, not just because of my own satisfaction but because I wanted people to see that I was winning at life.
But this is merely a sin of vanity.
Luring someone here felt different.
Then again, dying for someone else wasn’t my style. My kid dying for my inaction wasn’t my style either.
I stood up from the hammock and walked inside. I put the photos back on the desk and grabbed my sneakers.
Back home, when I needed to figure out something, I’d go for a run. Do some exercises. 100 burpees, pyramid style – 10, then 9, then 8, all they way down to 1. Then back up to 10. You’d feel the burn after that. Somehow things got clearer.
I laced my shoes and stepped out the door and started running down the trail to the beach. I figured I’d do laps until I had an idea.
(Deleted scene: walking back and sitting in the porch, then outside the hut at dawn)
I made my way back to the hut and sat outside in the rocking chair until it the jungle faded to pitch black around me. All that was left was the sounds of the night: the leaves stirring in the wind, the croak of crickets, the creak of the rocking chair as I oscillated through plans and ideas. And lists of names.
I felt my way back inside and clicked on the torch. The place still stank of Barry. But my muscles ached and my brain felt like it had run an emotional marathon. I felt my way into bed and lay staring at the ceiling, eventually falling asleep.
The next morning I woke shortly after sunrise, got up and walked outside and looked at the blush lightening the sky. I rubbed my eyes and yawned, letting the cool of dawn washed away my tiredness.
The sunrise looked like the cover of a book I’d read a long time ago, not too long after we were married. My wife given it to me – a book on how to manage anger and negative emotions so you could live a happier life. As a new husband, I’d took the hint and read it dutifully. The book was crammed with bullshit, but the cover was pretty. The only thing I remembered that was mildly useful was that when you’re angry, upset, or sad, take some deep breaths and think about something you’re grateful for.
I figured I had plenty to be grateful for. I am not dead, or injured, or sick. My family is somewhere out there, probably safe. My prison was a gorgeous one, and large. I had learned I could not simply escape, but I was given a path to get out of it, and seen Barry achieve that with success.
And had a lot of time to puzzle it all out.
So today, first I was going to clean up and get this cabin clean and comfortable. Then I’d hit the beach. I smiled and set to work.
The sun was sliding over the ragged line of tree tops, the light slanting onto my makeshift porch as I sat in my rocking chair. One hand hooked behind my neck, the other arm draped over the side of the chair. When the sun dipped under the eaves of my balcony, I closed my eyes. My face felt warm and behind my eyelids I could see the bright orange of the lights.
After that golden dawn when I’d decided to enjoy what I had, I’d spent the last week relaxing. Having a damn vacation. I found the turquoise waterfall in the polaroids and swam in it. I spend days on the beach. I’d brought my kindle, some sunscreen and all the things I needed for a vacation. So I had one.
I sat there until the sun dropped below the tree-line, then got up and went inside to make some dinner.