by

Caleb Stephens

DAY ONE: DESOLATION

My arm is a river of blisters as I cup a hand to my forehead and squint against the brilliant evening surf. It’s hard to make out through the heat waves dancing off the ocean, but it’s there in the distance: a fringe of green capping a pale, wave-battered coast. Palm trees and white sand; the thing I never thought I’d lay eyes on again. An island.

“I knew it,” I whisper.

“Oh…my god,” Alicia says next to me, her face a mess of peeling skin. “Eric, you were right.”

“Little good it does us here,” Patrick mutters, heaving the ruined life raft the last few yards before slapping it down on a pair of sun-bleached rocks. “Goddamn coral came out of nowhere.”

He tugs his aviators lower. His eyes bloodshot, cupped in two pasty-white circles of flesh. “It’s gotta be a couple miles to that island from here. Maybe more. I just hope we can get the raft fixed.”

“What is this, anyway?” Alicia asks, surveying the thin strip of land we’re beached on—an islet piled in rocks and sand and not much else, save a scatter of grass bunched along the tide in glistening pockets. “A sandbar or something?”

“No, an atoll.” Patrick points over her shoulder toward a low stone ridgeline disappearing beneath the waves in spots and rising above it in others, looking like the spine of some enormous creature slithering through the surf. “See how it circles the island? There, there, and there? You’re looking at an ancient volcano. And we’re stuck on the rim.”


We take shelter next to a low shelf of rock and watch the sun die a slow death on the horizon; an angry red eye drowned in a blaze of orange and yellow. Beneath it, the ocean is flat. A rippling, endless mirror, all of it one terrible display of beauty waiting to devour us like it did Hannah. Still, I can’t help but think how much she would have loved this view, even now, here at the end of things.

God, it’s so beautiful, Eric…isn’t it?

The thought stirs an ache in my chest—a deep, throbbing loss like my heart has been carved out with a dull spoon.

“One of nature’s cruelest jokes,” Patrick says, ripping me from the thought.

I glance up. “What’s that?”

“All this water, and not a drop to drink.”

“At least we don’t have to sleep on that awful raft again,” Alicia says.

That awful raft. I grit my teeth at the comment, at the vanity of it, here, now, in all this emptiness, like the ocean cares about her in the least, or any of us, for that matter. I glare at her, the jab out of my mouth before I can stop it.

“You mean the thing that’s kept us alive for the last two weeks?”

Her eyes harden, and she holds my gaze. She wants to tell me it’s my fault, what happened to Hannah. She’s wanted to since the boat went down. I can feel it every time she looks at me, hear it in her below-the-breath retorts. (You would say that, wouldn’t you?) She thinks I’m the one who killed Hannah, not the sea…that I’m the one who fed her best friend to the waves.

Patrick groans. “Don’t start, you two. Jesus. The last thing we need right now is more fighting. Here—” he digs in the raft and tosses me a water bottle, hands one to Alicia, “—go easy with it. Only a few left.”

I catch the bottle and take a drink, the water spilling down my throat like a miracle. Another drink and my thirst rises like gas on a fire and rages at me to down the entire bottle in one gulp. It’s all I can do to cap it and save some for later. The two cases of water we wrestled into the raft before the yacht capsized have dwindled to nine bottles. Six after tonight’s provision. A bottle a day per person, no more. It’s like I’m watching the countdown to my death in bottled water, two days left…

Patrick reclines against the rock. “We should get some sleep while we can.”

“Is it even safe to sleep here?” Alicia asks, eyeing the rising tide.

He waves at a pair of boulders near the break. “See that? We’re above the salt line. The tide won’t crest it. At least not tonight, anyway. Sea’s calm.”

Alicia relaxes and nuzzles in next to him looking sun-scorched, her hair matted to her face in greasy strands. Even her eyes are burned, the sclera a cloudy, salmon pink. Patrick isn’t much better off. His ribs are practically slicing through his shirt, his face hollow and gaunt. Still, I can’t help but feel a sudden shot of jealousy; at least they have each other. All I have is the fading memory of Hannah flapping her arms beneath a white-foam mountain, her mouth stretched wide in a silent scream. Me screaming back, screaming until my throat tore.

I settle to the sand and stare up at the stars popping out in glittering bunches, something off about the memory, a piece missing. Hannah’s hand in mine, me pulling, fighting to wrench her back into the raft. The terror flooding her eyes, her face. Something rippling behind her in the water…

God, why can’t I remember?

I bury the thought, and my mind drifts to Hannah when she was younger, her lips sticky with something sweet from the movies as she pointed up at the night sky from the hood of my busted Chevy Camaro. “Have you ever seen something so beautiful?” I would mutter a no, though I was never looking up, only at her, thinking, I don’t care as long as I have you…


A riptide, dark and black, pulls me under. Frigid water thrusts into my mouth, my lungs, something in the deep singing to me, calling me lower…


I lurch awake with the breath of a drowned man, a sharp inhalation followed by two more. A gibbous moon drenches the atoll in a pure white light that looks like it was mined from bone. Beneath it, the ocean shines like black gloss cut with ribbons of moonlight…and something else, a deep throbbing glow floating through the waves.

What the hell?

I stand for a better look, convinced I’m delirious, that hunger and dehydration have finally taken their toll, but it’s there all right, a soft, blue-green luminescence expanding and contracting through the water like a submerged heartbeat. Something about the motion sends flickers of static shooting through my vision and, before I know what I’m doing, I’m stumbling toward it, my feet bashing off half-buried rocks and cracking through dead spokes of coral. A voice hisses from the back of my skull to slow down, that I’m moving too fast, that I’ll fall, surely, I’ll fall, but it doesn’t matter. Nothing does. Only reaching the shimmering pool of light in the water, the pulse familiar somehow, calling me closer.

The smell of salt fills my nose. A black rope of foam laps at my feet, the sea hissing over the sand and drawing back again in perpetual rhythm as I lurch for the glimmer of light. It spreads through the water in rich skeins of color, runs over the ocean floor like a pad of butter rolling around a skillet. And all the while it thrums with a beat that mirrors the one thumping in my chest.

Bum…Ba-Bum…Bum.

The colors bleed around my feet. They’re electric, unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Breathtaking blues and greens that shimmer above the seafloor like a cloud of gems. They swirl faster, brighter, a shape forming, a hand blooming from the haze followed by a set of frost-colored fingers. Hair…

“Eric?” Patrick’s voice snaps me from the trance.

I turn, waves rolling over my thighs, my waist.

“What are you doing out there?”

I try to answer, but my tongue won’t peel from the roof of my mouth. Sparks of light crash through my vision. I glance behind me for the glow, that strange, throbbing pulse, but it’s gone…or was it really there? The thought ignites a sudden sense of loss. A deep need to see it again. To feel it. I blink hard and grow vaguely aware of Patrick working to his feet.

“Hey, you okay, man?”

I wave him off and slosh back to shore, the sea frothing behind me as I step onto the sand.

“I’m fine. Sorry to wake you”

He tilts his head. “You sure? You don’t look fine.”

“Yeah, I just needed to clear my head a bit. Couldn’t sleep.”

“Well, don’t waste any more energy,” he says, lying down again. “We need to get the raft fixed in the morning.”

“Yeah, sure,” I mutter, following suit. A headache clamps over the back of my neck as soon as my head hits the sand. Tendrils of pain creep behind my eyes, a storm gathering, and I’m left wondering if the glow was real, or just some waking dream.

 

DAY TWO: DELIRIUM

Steam bakes off the rocks in waves. I kneel next to Patrick with the patch material, the sun pinned to the sky above us in a white-hot ball of heat. Beads of sweat roll down my back as Patrick spreads a thin layer of adhesive over the nylon and glances at me.

“So, what was that last night?”

“What?”

“The midnight dip?”

“Oh.” Play dumb. “Like I said. Couldn’t sleep.”

He gestures at me for the patch, and I hand it to him. “Hannah again?”

“Yeah.”

“Mm. Me, too.” He smooths the patch over the six-inch gash and steps back with his arms akimbo, the pits of his shirt stained a dirty yellow. “There. That should do it.”

“So now what?” I ask.

“Now we let it dry. Then we test it.”

I rock back on my heels and stare across the lagoon at the island through a wet layer of haze. It reminds me of a painting. All earth tones with green oil brushstrokes smudged together in the shape of trees. They look dense and inviting. Lush. There’s sure to be food there, and shade. God, what I’d give for some shade right about now. Here, on this sun-blasted strip of rock, there’s none, save a small stretch of it running beneath the stone shelf where Alicia and Patrick slept last night. Where Alicia is still dozing with an elbow cocked across her eyes and one leg slung across the sand looking lobster-red.

Patrick notices me looking at her and settles into a low crouch. “Maybe take it a little easier on her, huh?”

I wipe a pair of sweat prints on my shorts. “She thinks it’s my fault.”

“What?”

“Hannah.”

“No, she doesn’t. It’s just…you know how close they were. Give her some time, she’ll come around.”

A bolt of anger cuts through me. He says it like she’s the only one who’s carrying the weight of her loss, like she’s the only one who’s lost something.

“Christ, Patrick, she was my wife. Don’t you think I’m hurting here, too?”

He claps a hand on my shoulder, his eyes creasing. “And she was my sister. Look, I know you’re hurting. We all are. All I’m trying to say is—”

“—what? That I should have held on longer? Pulled harder?” The words threaten to unleash the sudden dam of tears welling behind my eyes. Tears I can’t afford to shed with what little moisture is left in my body. I force my gaze to my hands and tell myself to hold it together, to breathe.

“I did everything I could.”

“Eric…”

I let my name hang there, heavy and awkward, my throat too tight to speak. Patrick leans back and wraps his arms around his knees, both of us sinking into the sudden silence. After a moment, he shakes his head.

“You know that’s not what I mean, man. If I lost Alicia…” He sighs. “All I’m trying to say is we need to stick together if we’re going to survive this.”

I get it. Play nice. “Okay,” I mutter. “I’ll try.”

He squeezes my shoulder and stands. “Hang in there.”

It’s all I can do to nod.


We test the raft around noon. Patrick uses the foot pump to inflate the torn ballast tubes and then loops a length of rope around the handline and hands it to me.

“Here, in case I hit a current. I’ll just do a quick test run, and then we’ll head for the island. Sound good?”

I take it, and Alicia shoves the raft into the break. “Try to avoid the coral this time,”

He flashes her a half-grin. “Very funny.”

I unspool the rope as Patrick rows, making sure there’s plenty of slack as he floats further into the lagoon. Alicia taps her foot next to me, her eyes wide and unblinking as she watches the raft glide over the waves. She knows it as well as I do: If this doesn’t work, if the raft fails again, we’re screwed.

“He’ll be fine,” I say. An attempt at reconciliation.

She offers me a weak smile. “I know. He always is.”

“He’s one hell of a seaman, that’s for sure.”

“The best.”

And it’s true, without Patrick, we wouldn’t have made it off the yacht, much less survived fifteen days in the open ocean with the sharks nipping at the raft like a floating appetizer—the same as me and Alicia. We would have killed each other two days in without him there to calm us down.

She wraps her arms around her torso and rubs them as if she’s standing in the middle of a snowstorm. I let out the rest of the rope, suddenly sorry for attacking her last night. She’s scared like the rest of us, and Patrick is right, we need to stick together if we’re going to make it through this.

“Listen, Alicia,” I start. “About last night… I’m sorry. It’s just been hard with—”

She raises a hand, her mouth in a knot.

“What is it?” I ask.

“Something’s wrong, look.”

I follow her gaze to Patrick waving at us, gesturing wildly with his arms.

“What’s he doing?”

“I think he wants us to pull him in.”

Patrick cups his hands to his mouth in a shout. I should be able to hear him, but the only sound I can make out is the wind in my ears and the low, easy slosh of the ocean.

“Eric,” Alicia prods. “Please. Let’s bring him in.”

“Right. Okay. Let’s do it.”

She settles in behind me, and we heave on the rope. It snaps taut, the raft floating in place like it’s made of concrete.

“What the fuck?” I mutter.

“Pull harder,” Alicia says, her voice rising a notch.

I nod, and we heave again to the same effect, the rope snapping into place like a steel cable, the raft inexorable, sitting there as though Patrick somehow anchored it to the seafloor. He spreads his arms like Alicia and I have no clue what we’re doing before shouting again.

“What’s that?” I call back.

“Why won’t it move?” Alicia says, jerking again.

“I don’t know, here—” I brace my legs and my feet, loop the rope through my hands for a better grip “—let’s give it another shot. On three. One. Two…” Before I can count it off, the rope rips forward, out of my hands, and I smack off the water. A mouthful of brine pummels the back of my throat, and I come up to Alicia squealing and staring at a nasty pair of friction burns on her palms. Buttons of blood bubble up through the cuts. Her eyes find mine and rim with tears.

“Shit,” I say, moving for her. “Here, let me have a look.”

“What the hell are you two doing?”

Patrick’s voice spins me around, and I nearly topple at the sight of the raft floating a few feet back, Patrick glaring down and swaying in place like an angry drunk. “You pulled so hard, you tore the patch!”

Tore the patch? I open my mouth to respond, but no words spill out. It’s impossible. There’s no way we could have pulled that hard. And Patrick shouldn’t be here. Not this close this fast.

“Why didn’t you let go of the rope?” he asks.

My jaw clicks into place. “You waved at us to pull you in.”

His eyes narrow. “No, I didn’t. I was screaming for you to let go. You two started yanking me back before I even made it ten feet. Shit, that last tug nearly tossed me in the water.”

“Patrick, there wasn’t any rope left. We let it all out.”

A deep crease forms over the bridge of his nose. Somewhere behind me, Alicia moans, and the crease melts. “Oh, God.” He leaps from the raft and splashes by me, takes her hands in his. “What happened?”

“W-we were trying to bring you in, and the rope…it—it just ripped us forward.” She looks up at him. “Patrick, Eric’s right, we let it all out. We weren’t pulling you back. You were out past the reef…and you pulled us.”


We take the sun canopy from the raft and stretch it from the stone shelf to the sand then anchor it with a pair of weed-strewn rocks. Storm clouds billow dark and formless on the horizon, cracks of lightning sparking in great white columns toward the sea. A gust of wind whips bits of sand into my face and scatters tracks of it along my arms, my legs, tracks like those blistered across my skin by the sun. The temperature has dropped ten degrees, and I’m close to shivering, but not from the weather, from what I saw: Patrick paddling out past the break, the raft drifting out into the lagoon. Beyond him the island as it loomed in a blurry smear. That first, wild wave of his arms. Alicia and I pulling, heaving on the rope. The mad yank back, my face slapping off the water. Alicia’s cry. The raft somehow behind me, right fucking behind me, Patrick fuming…

I’m losing my mind.

But I’m not, because Alicia saw it, too.

I grind the pads of my thumb and forefinger over my eyes. “What the hell are we going to do?”

Patrick stares dimly from his sun-leathered face, his usual easy confidence gone. He doesn’t answer, and when I repeat the question, he runs a hand over his chin and looks at me like he’s waking from a deep slumber.

“I… don’t know. I need to think on it some. For now, we stay put. Conserve energy and get some sleep.”

He hasn’t said much since we pulled him in, something off in his clipped answers, like maybe he still thinks we…I, sabotaged him. That I wanted to keep us here, starving on this empty, sun-blasted patch of rock.

I lie back and close my eyes as the rain begins to fall in a soft, steady patter, the sound hypnotic against the canopy, the air cool and comfortable on my ruined skin, a salve.

Sleep takes me before I know I’m gone.


I dream of Hannah, of her face. The shape of it, oval, her chin smooth beneath a pale set of lips. Her eyes are luminous as they sink beneath the waves and fade to two pale-blue coins staring up at me from the depths. And then those are gone, too.


My eyelids snap open.

It’s black out, and for a moment I think I’m back in Connecticut in the safety of my room with Hannah nuzzled warm beneath my chin. A cold drizzle brings me back, and I sit up in a rush, eyes wide and staring through the pitch. The ocean froths along the islet, stirred by the storm. I can’t see much of it, but enough to make out the faint glimmer of frozen light rising and falling within the waves. There’s something different about it tonight, though, a section obscured in the shape of a man. A shape I recognize: a broad set of shoulders and a pair of stiff arms. A head angled down toward the water. Staring…

Patrick. I pat the sand next to me, feel the empty cup of earth where he should be. Next to it, Alicia snores softly with her ruined hands cupped to her chest. I glance through the rain again toward Patrick, who hasn’t moved, hasn’t looked up once, his shoulders heaving with each breath, his head bowed. I stand to shout, but something about his stance and the way he’s gazing into the water, fists balled…is off.

I ease back onto the sand instead, and lie there, nervous, pretending to sleep, until I hear him near the tarp. He crouches just beyond my feet, a heavy presence I can feel, with his head cocked to the side like maybe he’s thinking about doing something. What it is, I have no clue, but his posture, the way he’s coiled there like a snake ready to strike, tells me it isn’t good.

After a time, he slides in next to Alicia, and I watch him until his breathing evens out, then close my eyes and hope for sleep to take me. It’s a futile pursuit. I lie there, awake and unsettled until the sun crests the horizon and stains the clouds a deep, blood orange.

DAY THREE: ISLA DE LA MUERTE

I doze off some time after dawn. When I wake, my eyes are grainy and dried out, my throat burning with thirst. I claw at a water bottle, one of three left, and down the entire thing before working my way out from under the canopy. It’s a gray day, the ocean unsettled and choppy, churning up white caps along the tips of waist-high waves. Beyond them, the island hangs shrouded in mist, looking like the shell of some massive ancient tortoise.

A sudden stench fills my nose and pulls my gaze to the water where the tide is churning along the bank in dirty pockets of foam, bobbing off the break and rolling back again. Hundreds of bodies lie glittering across the sand. I narrow my eyes and struggle to believe what I’m seeing: Fish. Rows and rows of dead or dying fish. They flop along the shore with puckered mouths, their movement all wrong, oily gray-pink patches trying to escape the water, flailing higher up the beach.

Further down, near a black jetty of rock, I spot Patrick and Alicia talking in low, hushed tones. Patrick jabs a finger in Alicia’s face and points over the water, his teeth cutting a white line as he speaks. Alicia reaches for him. He slaps her bandaged hand away and glances over her shoulder at me. The weight of his gaze renders me motionless, his eyes glowing like two burning coals.

He shoves past Alicia and marches my way, his finger out and pointing, mouthing a word clear even from a distance: “You.” Alicia chases after him and grabs at his shoulder. He shakes her off, hard, and she falls, then regains her feet, yelling at him to stop.

Still, he comes, his attention squared on me, muscling forward in long, stern strides. I take a step back, confused, something in his face telling me I should run. I raise a hand instead and curl my lips into what I hope is a disarming smile.

“Patrick, you okay? What’s the—”

I don’t see the blow coming, only barely register the explosion of light behind my eyes as his fist connects with my temple. He hits me again and my knees buckle, a wicked uppercut that snaps my head back and sends me toppling to the ground. I look up through a shower of stars in time to see his fist arcing forward once more, and then I see nothing at all.


Moving.

I am moving. Sliding. No, that’s wrong. Someone is dragging me, my body grinding over a bed of rocks. Sharp things chip at my feet and slice my ankles. There’s a firm pressure, hands under my armpits, and I’m slumped against something hard. A looping tension slides around my chest. I struggle to open my eyes and fail, try again, everything in a blur. Voices cut through the haze. A woman and a man’s, the woman pleading with the man, telling him, no, no, please, God, noooo. A hard thud, flesh-on-flesh. Another. A choking cry. I have to wake up. I need to—


Reality comes back in snatches.

A roiling, black sea.

The smell of salt and rotting fish.

Pressure around my waist, my wrists.

I can’t move, can’t reach up to extinguish the itch burning over my scalp or the one cutting down my leg. A low moan parts my lips.

“You had to answer them. Why did you have to answer them?”

The voice worms its way into my brain from some faraway place. I crane my head toward the sound, one eye swollen shut, and find Patrick perched nearby on a piece of driftwood, staring at me with all the compassion of a trout.

I’m tied to a long strand of rock, coils of rope strung around my chest, my hands. My legs are splayed toward the water, which is a good five feet below, though I know it won’t stay that way forever, certainly not through high tide. A splash of fear washes over me and my tongue sparks to life.

“Patrick…wh-what…the fuck, man?”

He doesn’t answer, only stares back with his beard hanging in wild strings. His eyes have lost their anger, replaced with something decidedly colder: a decision made.

I test the weight of the rope and try to free my hands. It’s impossible, he’s bound them in surgeon knots.

“Untie me.”

He blinks. “You’ve damned us, Eric.”

“What?”

“The night the boat went down, you heard them cry out, didn’t you? For Hannah.”

“I didn’t hear anything… Jesus, Patrick, what the hell are you talking about?”

“They told me you would lie.”

“They?” I say. “You mean Alicia?”

He shakes his head. “You heard them cry out, you opened your ears and you fed them my sister.”

My jaw throbs, and I work it open and shut in clicks. I need to figure out what he wants, why he’s done this. A blue slice of fabric further down the beach kills the thought. A racerback tank top. Beneath it, a familiar pair of legs lie crumpled to the side. I look back at him with a hard swallow.

“Patrick… where’s Alicia?”

He cracks a knuckle, says nothing.

I repeat the question.

“Resting.” He cracks another knuckle. And another.

“Oh God, Patrick, what have you done?”

He shoots to his feet, lines carving through his forehead, his mouth in a snarl. “What have I done? Me? No, Eric! No. Ask yourself. What have you done? What, exactly, have you done?” His lips are flecked with spit, his fists clenched and trembling, and I know if I answer wrong, he’ll kill me this time.

Tread carefully. “Honestly, I have no clue what you’re—”

“Hannah! I’m talking about Hannah, goddammit. They sang for her, and you answered!”

The missing memory clicks into place like a thunderbolt. The ocean crashing and booming against the yacht, Hannah’s mouth open, screaming at me to pull her into the raft. “Eric, don’t let me go! Please, don’t let go!” Her hand in mine, slipping, her eyes turning slick with fear. Then the light rising behind her, that faint, blue-green glow rippling through the waves. A voice in my head…no, voices…a legion of them urging me to let her go, to feed her to the waves.

And I let her go…

I buckle against the rock, suddenly limp.

Patrick’s eyebrows arch. “Ahh, now you remember.”

I feel myself nod, the weight of what I’ve done pinning me to the stone.

I killed my wife.


I sit reeling for hours, unable to speak, to move.

I killed my wife. I let her go.

The sun bathes me in its radiation, burns over my skin as if focused through a giant magnifying glass. Strings of sweat turn to steam and rise off my shoulders to mingle with the stench of spoiled fish. It’s grown unbearable, a sour odor trapped at the back of my throat. None of it matters.

I killed Hannah…

Patrick sits next to me on the log, staring dead-eyed at the island, unmoving and silent, because he’s killed his, too.

Near evening, I become aware of the water creeping closer to my feet, the color no longer green, now a pale gray, the consistency murky and dense. Fish wash from the current and over the beach, one a swordfish with its brilliant scales blackened by something moss-like, its gills whooshing in and out in useless gasps. I stare at it and wonder if that’s how Hannah felt when she took in that last cold lungful of water. Frightened and alone. Betrayed. My eyes burn at the thought, and I would cry if I had any tears left, but I don’t, so I just sit there, cold and shivering, and wait for the tide to take me.


“Not long now,” Patrick says. It’s the first time he’s spoken in hours, the sun cutting a pink sliver over his shoulder. “They’ll come for us soon.”

“Who?”

“The dead.”

“Patrick, don’t do this. Untie me.”

“It won’t help. We belong to them now.”

“What does it matter, then? C’mon, man. This isn’t you.”

“Did you give Hannah a choice?”

“Did you give Alicia one?”

His eyes turn to dark slits. “Don’t.”

“Why? Who made you judge and jury? Untie me.”

His jaw hardens, and he stands and points at the island. “You did, Eric. You did. The second you gave them Hannah. They won’t let us leave now. What I did for Ali, I did out of love.” His mouth bunches and he wipes at his eyes. “They can’t have her now. They won’t have her.”

“And you made sure of that, didn’t you? You didn’t give her a choice. You’re a murderer, Patrick. A wife-killer just like me. Now untie me, you bastard!” I spit the words at him like a mouthful of acid.

He whirls on me, tendons ripping across his neck, his fist up and cocked.

“You sonofa—”

The rock comes down hard across the back of his skull. His eyes widen and a string of drool leaks off his lip. He blinks hard and then crumples to the side, his head cracking off a buried spur of stone. Alicia stands perched behind him with tears streaking her face, her skin the color of chalk.

“Alicia!” I say, straining to reach her, bucking against the rope. “Alicia, thank God. You have to untie me before—”

She lurches sideways with a groan. Her forehead is a crust of dried blood, fresh streams of it spilling from beneath her hairline and over her brow. Her pupils are dilated, shivering in place as her lips part to say something. All that comes out is a low, keening gurgle before she collapses to the sand.


The water reaches my ankles first and slides cold toward my knees. Alicia lies motionless beside Patrick, both of them staring up at me with dead eyes. Across the slate-colored water, the island looms dark and thick, the trees circling it in a dense green skirt.

A sudden sob works its way up my throat. All I want is to rewind time back to the day Hannah came bounding into the kitchen with that daybreak smile splashed over her face—“Guess what? We’re going sailing!”—and tell her, no, no way in Hell. We’re staying right here, in this house where it’s safe, because I know what happens if we do.

Grief engulfs me, and I sit there spinning in its depths as the water creeps ever higher—at my waist now—a memory ripping through my mind. The day I met Hannah at that stupid coffee shop downtown, her hair shining like sunlight as she bumped into me. “Oh, I’m sorry…” Me scooping up her cup and offering to buy her another one, knowing even then there was something special about her.

The thought sets me to bucking against the ropes, straining and ripping, desperate to wriggle from the knots. It’s useless, even slick with my blood as they are now. Patrick tied them too well, too precise.

One hell of a seaman, I think dully.

When the moon breaks above the horizon, I’m close to freezing, so cold, I can barely breathe. Strands of seaweed lick at my calves. Slick things dart around my thighs and into my shorts before squirming out again. Flies ravage my neck and bite my eyelids as the water rises. It curls beneath Patrick first, then Alicia. They float face down with their arms outstretched, their fingertips brushing. I watch them with dread clogging my throat because I know I’ll soon join them. I don’t want to die like this, not like this. Alone and roped to a rock in the middle of the ocean, soon to drown beneath it.

Like Hannah.

Something ripples across the lagoon; a deep, unearthly blue-green throb that bleeds through the water like a cloud of smoke. Terror spills down my spine, and I think of the hand and those frost-colored fingers. That dark cloud of hair. I screw my eyes shut and pray for whatever god is listening to save me. It’s a messy, frantic prayer—the words frothing over my lips like water through a broken dam.

Please, God, please if you’re up there, save me. Or kill me quick.

As if in answer, a deafening crack splits the air. An earth-rending sheer unlike anything I’ve ever heard. My eyes rip open to the whoosh and rumble of water pulling back, thinning. A mountain of sea spray pounds my face, my arms. There’s a vast sucking sensation, a distortion of space as if I’m being wrenched forward over some great distance. And then I’m looking at the impossible.

The island.

The island that lies right in front of me, separated by ten yards of water.

A belt of gleaming black sand.

Palm trees scraping off one another, the leaves whooshing in time with the wind. Creepers, knotted and thick, wrap around their trunks and climb toward branches draped in long beards of moss.

And deeper, hidden somewhere in the pitch, are pockets of emerald light shining out.

Growing brighter.

Pulsing.

Ethereal shapes glide from the bracken and onto the sand, their movements stuttered and halting. It takes a moment for my brain to piece them together, what exactly it is I’m looking at. A sight that doesn’t make sense.

Corpses. Dozens and dozens of corpses.

They slide from the trees in groups of twos and threes, then more, their numbers growing until all I can make out is a glowing wall of shredded skin. Their mouths are slung open, black caves uttering words I can’t understand. They’re singing, I realize, as a harsh, biting melody carries over the wind and digs into my ears. The words grow louder and scrape across my eardrums, fizz hot in my blood.

They reach the tide and sway there with distended jaws and eyes so black, I wonder if they’re sockets. They sing louder, and a sudden rage swirls through my chest, a primal need to consume something. Anything. I watch, transfixed as one of the things sets upon Patrick’s corpse with teeth like diamonds. The resulting crunch sends a fountain of bile racing up my throat. The others join in, swarming over Alicia and Patrick like ants over a carcass. Ripping. Tearing.

Their howls rise and pitch into a terrible cacophony that reverberates through my head as waves of brine wash into my mouth. I spit it out with a cough, and one of the things lifts its head in response. It’s a woman, if one could call her that, with strands of hair sprouting from a cracked skull. She stands and lumbers toward the water followed by a pair of children, a boy in a tattered pair of doublets, and a girl wearing a moth-eaten gown.

The woman stops at the water and cocks her head in my direction, the children sniffing at the air behind her like a pair of dogs, their faces pocked with holes through which I can see cords of rotten muscle and decayed tendon.

“No,” I hear myself whisper. “No, no, no.”

The woman spots me and bounds forward with a hiss. The children follow, all of them surging through the water in awkward, heaving leaps, their mouths packed with those awful diamond teeth.

They are no more than a foot away when a high, wailing lament brings them to a halt. A figure emerges from the trees, a woman with a black cloak of hair obscuring her face. She screams again, and the things turn and scatter back to the beach. She passes them and slips into the waves in a smooth fashion unlike the others…something closer to human in the movement.

As she nears, I make out a set of slender shoulders and ivory skin glittering with phosphorescent flecks of blue and green. My heart crashes like a caged bird as her hands rise to part the dark wall of hair dripping over her face.

I stifle a cry.

“Hannah?”

“Hello, my love.”

Her voice is like the wind. Something cracks within me, a feeling beyond grief; a heavy yearning to slip my binds and pull her into my arms and never let go. Never, so long as I live. But something holds me in place. The woman I loved was blonde with green eyes, and this thing in front of me, this version of Hannah, is staring back at me through ice-colored eyes set deep within a face of pearl.

“How?” I whisper.

Her lips curl into a soft, pale smile. “They needed me.” She gestures at the remains of Patrick and Alicia scattered over the beach. “They needed all of us.”

“Hannah, I’m…so sorry. I—I…” My voice cracks. “I’ve missed you.”

She leans in and cups my chin. Her hands are like ice, her fingers cold and lifeless.

“And I you.”

Salt washes into my mouth. “I don’t understand. What is this? Where are we?”

She places a finger to my lips. “We’re home. They,” she says with a wave toward the things watching us from the sand, “are our family now.”

The water ebbs higher, over my mouth, and I fight to pull in air through my nose. Hannah stays level with me, running a frigid hand through my hair.

“Breathe,” she says. “All you have to do is breathe.”

I shake my head, panic leeching into my bloodstream as the waves rise and swallow me whole. I jerk against the knots and scream, the ropes slicing against my wrists and legs. Bubbles cloud my vision, my brain screaming for oxygen, for air. I grind my eyes shut. Hannah reaches out and cups my face, and I open them.

She’s there, floating with me, her hair hanging in the water like strands of spider silk. With a smile, she presses her lips to mine and holds them there until the last few bubbles of oxygen work from my lungs and up my throat.

Breathe, she mouths, pulling back again. Breathe.

And with a final, deep inhalation, I do.

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