Estimated reading time — 52 minutes
The mountains rose high in the distance, the snowy, white caps breaking through the thick layer of clouds that blanketed the sky above. Below the line of snow, fir trees washed the mountain in a bright sea of green. The rolling hills that stretched out for miles at the base of the mountains were encompassed by a vast forest of evergreens, stretching as far as the horizon, lost to the curvature of the earth. Birds could be heard tittering away, taking to the skies. If one paid enough attention, squirrels and deer could be seen cautiously exploring the forest floor in search of food. Beginning near the mountain’s peak, a vast river meandered down the face of the crag, cutting a swath through trees and stone alike, widening as it neared the bottom. At the point where the river met with the highway, running parallel with it for several miles before abruptly changing course, it was nearly several hundred feet wide.
Hearing an approaching noise, the woodland creatures scattered, taking cover. That noise was one all too familiar to the dwellers of the forest. Though they knew not what it was called, the noise belonged to an automobile. Cars brought humans. In the experience of nature’s creatures, humans generally brought death, a travel mate that they rarely went without, an old friend of the species, welcomed with open arms by most. Humans tainted all that they came into contact with; they were an infection, a disease, a cancer spreading across the planet. They respected nothing. Not life, nor death, not even the planet that sustains their existence.
Almost as if to prove the point, a beer can, not quite empty, bounced from the highway, clanging loudly in the peaceful surroundings. Frothy suds poured onto the street, immediately beginning to dry on the steamy black asphalt.
“You asshole,” a female voice said from within the vehicle, an old Jeep that had seen its prime pass long ago. “That’s littering. Do you have any idea how long it takes for something like that to break down and decompose?”
“Chill out, Mallory,” the young man beside her said. He laughed and began blocking her feeble slaps at his arms. “It’s just one can. It won’t hurt anything.”
“Is that really how you see it, Worm?” she asked, her eyes narrowed at him, measuring him up. “What if everyone thought that way? What if we just all threw our trash anywhere we could? What do you think the world would be like then?”
“Don’t call me Worm,” he said through clenched teeth. “I hate that name.”
“Shut up, Worm,” Clinton said from the passenger seat, half-turned to look at him in the back. “You’re six two and a hundred and fifty pounds. Tall, long, and gangly: like a damn worm. Deal with it.”
“And don’t throw things out my window,” Sheila said from behind the wheel. She didn’t turn to look at him, but she sent a stern look to Worm through the rearview mirror. “I don’t want a ticket.”
Worm looked around dramatically, absolutely dumbfounded. “Who’s going to give you a ticket? Smokey the Bear? We haven’t even passed another car in over an hour. There’s no one around.”
“That’s the point, jackass,” Clinton chimed in. “We came for scenic views and peace and quiet before finals. The interstate and all the traffic would defeat the point; now wouldn’t it?”
Worm said nothing. Instead he slouched in his seat, crossed his arms with a sigh, and stared out his window. This was a scene that the other three passengers in the vehicle were well acquainted with. Worm was a notorious pouter. Whenever he felt that he was being outnumbered and maneuvered against, his reaction was always to go silent and sulk. He would remain in this posture for anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour, they knew. After that, he would be perfectly happy again. For a while, at least.
Mallory leaned forward. “So how much farther to your uncle’s cabin?”
Sheila considered the question for a moment. “Not too far. We’re about two hours from St. Louis. The cabin is about an hour beyond that.”
Mallory leaned back with a frustrated exhalation. They had been driving for hours, their last stop almost four hours previous. Her legs ached, her back as well. She shifted constantly in her seat, her body unable to get comfortable. And they had the same drive to look forward to on their way back to school? She could scarcely contain herself at the thought.
Sheila’s eyes flitted upwards, into the rearview mirror. She saw the weary exasperation on her best friend’s face. Mallory had never been one for extended drives. As children, she had complained incessantly whenever their families took long trips. But she noticed that Worm was also fidgeting, although he suffered silently, not wanting to interrupt his sulking prematurely. She looked at Clinton in the passenger seat to see him with the same behavior.
“We’re going to need gas soon,” she announced to her weary passengers, hoping to lighten their moods. “I say we take a break from the car then. Stretch our legs a bit. What do you guys think?”
“But aren’t we almost there?” This was Clinton, always her voice of reason. “Wouldn’t it be pointless, a waste of time that we could be spending at the cabin?”
“I need to get out for a bit,” Mallory said. “I need to stretch and walk around.”
Sheila looked to Clinton. “We won’t be long. I think fifteen to thirty minutes should be good.”
“What about that place?” Worm asked, leaning forward, pointing over her shoulder to a building just appearing on the horizon.
“I don’t care where we stop,” Mallory said, her voice beginning to tilt towards a whine, “so long as we do. And soon.”
“Fine by me,” Sheila responded. “We have more than enough gas to get us to the cabin.”
“I thought you just said that we needed to stop for gas?” Clinton, curious, puzzled.
“Not really. I just wanted to get everyone out of the car.”
They passed a giant billboard on the side of the road. Missouri Surf. Best In The World. Ahead on left.
“Did that say surf?” Clinton asked, craning his head back, watching the sign grow smaller as they drove on.
“I think so,” Mallory answered. “That can’t be right, can it?”
“This is a landlocked state,” Worm chimed in, completely past his need to pout. “There are no beaches to surf.”
“Well that’s what it said,” Mallory replied, her tone defensive.
“Maybe there’s a wave-pool or something,” Sheila offered, hoping to squash the squabble before it had a chance to start, dousing the ember before it could catch.
“I have to see this,” Clinton said giddily. The excitement was clear in his voice. He leaned forward in anticipation, as though, by doing so, he could reach the shop sooner. “I’ve always wanted to surf; it’s on my bucket-list.”
Sheila, ever the cautious one of the bunch, turned on her blinker, despite not having passed a car for almost an hour, and pulled into the parking lot. The loose gravel crunched audibly under the weight of the tires, the sound of thousands of tiny bones breaking.
“Doesn’t seem like much,” Mallory said as she climbed from the backseat. She shut the door and stretched, her back popping loudly. “I don’t see a wave-pool either.”
“Maybe it’s inside,” Clinton offered, still hopeful, always the optimist.
“Do you see the size of that building?” Worm asked, incredulous. “The four of us could barely fit in there. Much less a wave-pool.”
The four young travelers stood by the Jeep, staring at the unlikely surf shop on the western edge of a landlocked state, just a short distance from the mountains. Worm was indeed correct. The shop was scarcely larger than a shack. It was modeled after the bungalows found in the photographs of countless island paradises. The tall, sloping roof was made of dried palm fronds which hung down, tickling any passersby. A small porch lined the front of the store, decorated with bright paint of numerous shads: reds, yellows, oranges, greens. Large daisies were painted on the posts that supported the roof’s overhang. A rack of surfboards in varying colors and sizes sat in the corner. The front wall was comprised entirely of glass, adorned with bright decals shouting what they assumed to be brand names. On the glass, the words ‘always open’ were written in colored shoe polish, the same kind used by car salesmen the nation over.
“Is this some hippie convent?” Worm asked, obviously displeased with his newfound location. But when exactly wasn’t Worm displeased with one thing or another?
“I like it,” Clinton said, walking to the front of the Jeep. “It catches the eye. I find it quite aesthetically pleasing.”
“You would.” Worm had followed suit and was now standing beside Clinton in front of the vehicle. “You’ve always teetered on the brink of dirty-hippiness.”
“I like it too,” Sheila said, lacing her fingers through Clinton’s.
“Don’t stick up for him,” Worm said, almost spitting the words. “It does nothing but encourage him. If it weren’t for me, Clinty here would’ve been a dirty hippie long ago, some half-stoned beatnik snapping at some other dirty hippie’s terrible poetry, wearing a douchie turtleneck. Yeah, you’re welcome.”
Clinton shook his head in disbelief. Sometimes he couldn’t remember why he had remained friends with Worm for so long. He was an asshole, through and through. He never denied this about himself; rather, he embraced it, owned it, became it. But, when no one was around, Clinton knew that Worm had a huge heart. He was loyal to a fault, willing to go to bat for him at a moment’s notice. Thinking of this always reminded him of why they were friends, and why he loved him like a brother, albeit the asshole brother that you want to punch in the face most of the time.
As her three companions made their way towards the entrance, Mallory alone hung back, hesitant to proceed, unsure of why. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but something about this place gave her a funny feeling in the pit of her stomach. No, more. It was a deep-seeded sense of unease. She tried to tell herself that this was ridiculous, that, strange as it may be, it was nothing more than a surf shop. But the feeling persisted. Suddenly, she wanted to be back in the Jeep, on the road, headed to the cabin for the weekend. But most importantly, to be headed away from here.
“Are you coming?” Worm asked. “You don’t want to miss all the hippie shit, do you?”
The sudden noise brought her back to reality, back from a daze that she hadn’t realized had even begun. She shook her head from side to side slightly, clearing the last few remaining remnants of the miasma from her mind. And just like that, the feeling was gone. Poof! Like it had never existed in the first place.
“Huh?” she said after a few moments. Her mind finally making sense of the question, she answered, “Yeah, I’m coming. Not sure what that was. Tired, I suppose.”
She trotted up the single wooden step to Worm’s side, looping her arm through his and leaning against him. Together, they opened the door and walked in to join Clinton and Sheila.
The first thing one noticed upon entering was the scent, strong and unavoidable. The shop smelled of sea water, that salty, cool scent of the ocean. Beneath the scent of the ocean, the smell of processed wood hung in the air, the scent of a lumber yard. Very faint, almost completely hidden beneath the powerful smells of both the ocean and the forest, was the chemical odor of wax, a greasy, oily scent that felt like it could cling to your nostrils with just one whiff.
The next sense to register in the shop was sound. A gentle lapping of waves striking the shore could be heard clearly. Fainter, as though from a greater distance, the sound of waves breaking, crashing down, imploding on themselves. Through it all, seagulls could be heard, their loud squawking complaints. These sounds, when taken in conjunction with the scents that hung in the air, gave the impression of standing in a real surf shop next to the ocean. Were they to close their eyes, they would be able to visualize the scene in breathtaking detail. Try as they might, none of the four were able to spot any speakers projecting the music of the sea.
A multitude of racks, filled with surfboards, covered the center of the floor. The range of colors and designs on the boards was staggering. A few racks sat behind the boards, men’s and women’s bathing suits hung neatly from hangers filling them. Shelves lined the walls, hung over myriads of posters of bands and surfers, pictures of the sea and tidal waves. Various items filled the shelves: waxes, cleaners, new straps, replacement fins.
Once the initial shock and awe of the place had passed, the four friends separated, each mingling amongst the items. Sheila and Mallory each perused through a rack of bathing suits. They slid the hangers aside quickly, removing any that caught their eye and holding up to their bodies, judging the appearance. Clinton walked amongst the boards, his eyes enraptured. He traced the sleek, waxed boards with his with his fingertips. Finding one he liked, he picked it up, marveling at how lightweight it was. All the while, Worm traced the outer walls of the shop. He had no interest in the items the shelves in front of him held. Instead, he took in the photos and posters on the wall. He smiled as he went from picture to picture: a surfer just beginning to shoot the tube, another with the surfer in the air, performing some sort of trick, in another he was actually able to see the silhouette of a shark in the wave, curiously following the surfer. This last was autographed. Kelly Slater; the name meant nothing to him.
The sound of a belt-sander could be heard coming from a room at the far end of the shop, a high-pitched grinding. From beneath the door, small puffs of dust and wood shavings flew out.
“Do you think we should knock?” Clinton asked, eager to see what this surfing business was all about.
When no one replied, he walked to the door. He raised his hand to knock, but before starting his downswing, the sander stopped. The sudden silence was eerie, freezing him in place. The sounds of the ocean played their soothing melody. The door opened suddenly, causing him to start.
The man, young, tanned, sun-bleached hair, jumped as well, startled to find someone so close upon opening his door. He pulled down the respirator mask he wore, allowing it to hang on his chest. He smiled widely, his bright white teeth flashing in the sunlight that filled the store.
“You scared the hell out of me, man,” he said. His voice was soft, mellow, and he spoke slowly, as though great thought and effort was taken to form the words. His tone was cheerful, despite the scare, good-natured, friendly even.
“Great,” Worm muttered. “A stoner. I knew this was some dirty hippie commune.”
Mallory was at his side in a moment, pinching the skin of his elbow. “Stop it,” she scolded, her voice a whisper. “Be nice.”
“Ow. Shit.” Worm rubbed at his elbow, a grimace on his face. The pain was already receding into nothingness, but he got the point. “Fine.” The word was short, curt, almost spat out.
“Sorry,” Clinton said, a bit embarrassed, backing away from the door. “I was about to knock. You know, in case you didn’t know we were here.”
The man smiled again, his bronzed cheeks rising up, turning his eyes into horizontal crescent moons. “It’s ok, man. No harm, no foul. Doctors say a good scare occasionally is good for the ticker.” He patted his chest, then held out his hand. “I’m Declan, and this,” he raised other arm in a grandiose sweeping gesture, “is my place.”
Worm fought to stifle a laugh, only a muffled snicker managing to escape. This was just too much. First the lecture in the car, then the shop, in all its day-glo glory, and now this guy; it was like he had woken up in some liberal nightmare. The thoughts dissipated, along with the urge to laugh, as Mallory poked him in the ribs, none too lightly. He heard her hiss at him through her clenched teeth. Jeez, you’d think she was his girlfriend, the way she constantly reprimanded him.
Sheila remained silent, watching thoughtfully.
“So what can I do for you?” Declan asked.
Clinton took the man’s hand in his own. “Well, the sign said best surfing in the world. We thought you might have a wave-pool and we wanted to try it. But we can see that you clearly don’t, so we’ll just be on our way.”
Declan stared at him, his eyes bright and watery, filled with the pure glee that he wore openly on the rest of his face. He appeared utterly blithe, as though nothing could ever upset him or cause his mood to falter.
After a few seconds, he replied, “No, man, no wave-pool. Sorry.”
“So how can you say best surfing in the world without a pool?” Sheila interrupted. She was clearly growing annoyed with the pretty boy and his sun-bleached, burnt out mind.
“I have something much better,” he said, the words almost seeming to take an effort he spoke them so slowly. He drifted off, his mind wandering, losing the follow-up details.
They waited a few moments for him to continue.
“Jesus Christ,” Worm exclaimed. “This guy’s wasted. Let’s get out of here.”
“Wait,” Clinton said without turning. His next question was directed to Declan. “What do you have?”
Declan’s eyes looked into Clinton’s, finally coming back into focus. “Huh? Oh! I have the sea, my man. Best waves you’ll find anywhere. Hawaii, Bali, Australia: all kiddie waves compared to these.”
The guy was obviously insane. Yet Clinton couldn’t help but be fascinated.
He continued the conversation anyway. “We’re in Missouri,” he said matter-of-factly, as though the detail were up for debate. “There’s no ocean for at least a thousand miles in every direction.”
“You just don’t know where to look, brah.” He spoke with such assurance that, for a split-second, Clinton almost believed him.
He looked out at the four strangers, the serene ecstasy written on his features never wavering for even a moment. Finally he said, “So you guys want to ride some waves or what?”
“We don’t understand,” Mallory spoke up. “How can we possibly surf?”
“You just leave that to me. Who’s interested?”
“Fuck it; I’m in,” Clinton said hastily.
“Me too,” Sheila said. “We can always just leave if it’s bullshit.”
“We’re just supposed to take your word on this?” Mallory asked. Her bad feeling from earlier had begun to creep back on her, ebbing away at her comfort level. “And I guess we pay first, right?”
Declan just looked at her, smiling. Finally, he said, “You don’t have to take my word on anything.” He looked at Clinton. “Go open that door right there, man.”
He pointed to his left. Four heads turned almost in unison, following his finger. Tucked in the corner of the building, carefully camouflaged, almost completely hidden by the posters, was a door. There was only the faintest hint of the edges of the door, outlined by the edges of the posters. A small, dull iron knob protruded through a hole cut in the poster. No one moved.
“Well, go ahead, brah,” he said. “It ain’t gonna hurt you to open the door.”
“Christ,” Worm said, exasperated, as he strode to the door. “I’ll do it, if only so we can see this nutbag’s game and be on our way.”
He grabbed the knob and turned, pulling the door open. He was instantly washed in a warm light, so bright he had to shield his eyes with his free hand. It was a clean, white light, that of the sun, not the yellow of a manmade bulb. His short hair fluttered as a breeze rolled through the door, carrying with it the scent of seaweed and kelp. Grains of sand were blown in with the wind, piling up against his feet, forming miniscule dunes on the wooden floor. With the door open, the sound of the waves and gulls intensified greatly.
“Aw, man,” Declan said, his tone barely above that of a whine. “Now I have to sweep again.” He said this as though it were the most natural thing in the world, as though everyone had a room like this in their house.
Worm’s eyes widened as he looked through the door, out at the paradise beyond. “Son of a bitch,” he said, more to himself than to anyone else.
“Oh my God,” Mallory said, walking up behind him.
They were quickly joined by Clinton and Sheila. Clinton said nothing; he was completely taken aback. He blinked his eyes rapidly, as though it were but an illusion and he could will himself to see the truth. Yet it remained as it had been. Sheila gasped, her mouth falling open, her hand raised to cover it.
Declan walked up behind them. He crossed his arms over his bare chest, his toned muscles flexing and rippling with each movement. A thin layer of wood dust covered his body, making his torso appear lighter than it truly was. He looked out, just as lost in the view as his four prospective customers. His eyes were full of longing; a longing, a need, a compulsion to be in the sea, floating amongst the waves atop his board. Ask any real surfer, whether pro or just weekend pleasure boarder, they’ll all give you the same answer; that was his true home, the place he felt happiest, serene and secure amid the waves.
He let a sigh so full of love for the water that even the four young adults knew the cause. “I know, right? It’s beautiful.”
“What… what is this?” Clinton asked, his mind still fighting acceptance.
Declan looked at him as though he didn’t understand the question, or the reason it had to be asked. “It’s the ocean, brah.” His tone was that of a parent explaining a fundamental truth to their child.
“How is this possible?” Shelia asked, her hand still covering her mouth.
“It isn’t,” Worm said, his words final, free of doubt. “It’s just an elaborate prank. The surfing stoner hippie got one over on us. Good for him, considering…” He trailed off.
“It is though, my man,” he said to Worm. “You don’t even believe what’s right in your face.”
“But… how?” Sheila.
“It just is. Don’t fight what is. Enjoy the ride; it’s what I do.”
He returned to staring through the doorway, that craving returning to his eyes. A few short moments passed before he asked, “So, anyone interested?”
“Hell yeah,” Clinton said eagerly. Not only was this his chance to surf, and in such a setting no less, but it wasn’t just that. He felt this was his chance to really do something, to be part of something truly spectacular.
“Why not,” Sheila added, not to be outdone. “It’ll make for a great story later.”
She turned to Mallory, who looked past her, staring at the scene with a hesitant eye. After a second she said, “Well?”
“I don’t know.” That feeling of unease had taken full hold once again. “This is just too weird.”
Sheila’s face dropped. “Come on,” she said, her voice pleading. “Don’t make me do this alone.”
Clinton began to take offense, but the feeling passed as quickly as it had arrived. In the end, it was more of the same; Sheila never wanted to do anything unless one of her friends, chiefly Mallory, was participating as well.
“Fine,” Mallory sighed, making no attempt to feign excitement.
Everyone turned to face Worm, awaiting his answer.
“I’m not surfing,” he said, matter-of-factly. “But I’ll go chill and sit on the beach.”
“Well, alright,” Declan said, clearly content with the decisions. “First, we need to get you suited up, and with the right equipment.”
He stepped through the loose group of customers and shut the door. The sounds of the beach were muffled once more, the smells muted until they were but faint remnants of themselves. The room darkened as the source of light was shut off, leaving only the sunlight that fell through the windows and the dim white light of the fluorescents overhead. The closing of the door left an absence in the room, but not only that. The door closing, temporarily sealing off the marvel behind, left an absence in the body, a void in the heart. They all felt the desire to open the door for just another moment, for just on more peek at what lay beyond. This was a feeling Declan knew well; he understood it, shared it even.
After the door clicked into place, he walked back to the center of the shop, his gait a leisurely stroll.
“Do any of you have suits?”
Mallory and Sheila, who had both planned on spending time on the deck of the cabin, overlooking the placid lake, taking in the sun and relaxing, both said that they did. Clinton, an avid swimmer, confessed that he had planned swimming the lake each morning, so he, too, had a swimsuit.
Worm picked a hanger from the rack, a pair of bright blue boardshorts. He checked the tag, ensuring he had the correct size. “I’ll take these.”
“And boards?” Declan asked.
“We’re in Missouri,” Worm said, speaking slowly, stressing each word. “Of course we don’t have boards.”
Declan seemed to mull this over, nodding to himself. He finally laughed. “Very true.”
Worm couldn’t be sure to which part of the statement he was agreeing to: the obvious fact that they would have no boards, or the even more obvious, blatant fact as to their whereabouts.
“Anyway,” Declan continued. “You don’t have to buy boards. I rent ‘em out; most of my business is walk-in like you guys. Although I do have regular clientele. Slater still comes by at least twice a year.”
“You know Kelly Slater?” Clinton asked, impressed.
“Yeah, dude. Most of the big surfers by. Laird Hamilton, Kelly Slater, Layne Beachley. Even Tom Blake came in before he died.”
His face once again took on that distant appearance, though one bore of nostalgia this time.
He came back to the present a few moments later, smiling, more to himself, to his memories that floated back to him like detritus on a wave, caught in the tide, than to any of the others.
“So the it works is I set you guys up,” he explained, “then you go have a blast. When you’re done, you come back and pay up. Price depends on how long you stay.”
“Like a pool table,” Clinton said.
“Or a parking garage,” Sheila murmured.
“The boards I rent are over here,” he said, pointing to several racks to the side. “If you want- and I have several that do this –you can buy a board and keep it here. I have a storage space in my shaping room.”
“Shaping room?” Mallory, confused and, were she to be honest, just a bit curious.
“I make all my boards,” he said proudly. “Look around; you won’t find any fiberglass garbage in my shop. I’m a purist, and old-school. I’ve made each and every board you see. You can see my mark on the fin.”
Clinton looked at the nearest board. Sure enough, on the tip of the fin was a scrawling signature in tiny letters, with a crudely-drawn logo beneath. The logo was in the shape of an eye; in the pupil, a wave was drawn, a small silhouette of a man on a board riding it eternally.
“We’ll just rent for now,” he said. “You have some impressive work here. You certainly have a gift.”
“Do you surf?”
“No, but I’ve always wanted to. I’ve always been fascinated.”
“Excellent. I’m glad your cherry is lost to me.”
After picking their boards, Declan helping to find each a board that would most suit their rider, they walked back to the car to fetch their suits. A feeling of anticipation had overcome them, of doing something truly special. Even Mallory forgot her earlier trepidation and unease, falling into the general excitement, swept up in the tide along with the others. Worm, whose somber moods were well known, freely wore a smile when they returned from the Jeep.
Declan stood between the door and them, staring out at their makeshift lineup. His eyes passed over each of them, appraising what he saw. He ran through the basics of surfing for them, apologizing for not accompanying them- someone had to mind the shop, after all –and assured them that should they need anything, he was right through the door.
With that said, he stepped aside, his arms extended to the doorway in a welcoming gesture.
“It’ll be an experience you’ll never forget,” he said as they shuffled past him. “I guarantee it.”
What an odd choice of wording, Mallory thought, readjusting the board under her arm, cumbersome thing that it was. Not ‘you’ll have a great time!’ or ‘you’ll never want to leave’. Instead, his words seemed to strike her as vaguely ominous.
None of that mattered as she stepped through the door…
…and into a vast tropical paradise. White sandy beaches ran away at both sides, disappearing over the horizon. The beaches were pristine, unspoiled, the surface a perfect flow of tiny dunes, constantly changing and shifting in the wind. Palm trees dotted the sand in small copses intermittently. She turned around, the door still open, and looked at Declan and the interior of the shop, like some mind-blowing magic trick. Behind the outline of the door frame, there was nothing. No building. Almost twenty-five yards back she could see a tree-line marking the interior of the land, a thick, gloomy jungle.
Clinton stared out at the sea ahead of him. It was the most beautiful scene he had ever been privileged to witness, and felt blessed for having had the opportunity. Small waves lapped at the shore, leaving dark shadows on the sand as they retreated, small bits of kelp floating lazily within. Further back, small waves crested, spilling over in foamy splashes. In the distance, large waves rose high in the air, pushing along the surface of the water until finally rolling in on itself, forming a perfect tube of water for but a few brief moments. Off to the right, seagulls gathered in the water, standing atop a coral reef nestled in the shallows, a shadow darkening the bright blue of the ocean.
The water reflected the flawless blue sky. Not a cloud was to be seen. The sun hung high overhead, embracing the world in its warmth. A cool breeze rolled in off the water.
Worm couldn’t believe his eyes. It was a beauty that he had never imagined possible, all laid out before him. It defied reality, scoffed in the face of logic. All the laws of science and nature spoke to the impossibility of such things. Yet, despite it all, here it was: a world within a world, within a closet really.
“This is the most amazing thing I have ever seen,” Sheila said, breaking the stunned silence.
Clinton stuck his board in the sand and walked to the water. Wet sand crumbled beneath his toes as he wriggled them around. The incoming tide splashed up around his ankles; the water was surprisingly warm. Foam slid past his feet, tickling lightly. He shouted loudly, laughing, and ran into the water. Waves splashed up around him, falling back to the sea like heavy drops of rain. He splashed playfully- a child could not have had a better time –watching the waves he created expand. Once the water was to his waste, he dove into the water, skimming the ocean floor as he swam.
Sticking her board beside Clinton’s, Sheila followed suit. She laughed merrily as the warm water splashed over her body. She turned, calling for Mallory to join her. Not paying attention to the oncoming waves, she was struck from behind and sent sprawling into the water. She jumped up quickly, gasping for air as though she had been submerged for several minutes, and spitting out a mouthful of water. She wiped the water from her eyes and looked around, a bit embarrassed, to see who noticed.
Everyone did. Including Clinton, who seemed to come out of his reverie just long enough to see her fall and laugh, then returned his focus to the sea.
Mallory dropped her board, not bothering to wedge it in the sand, and started towards the water as Sheila called her a second time. She stopped just shy of the tide line, her sense of unease making itself known once again. The dark line of sand that marked the limits of the water’s reach seemed foreboding, ominous. She spared a glance over her shoulder. Worm was watching her curiously, the tree-line behind him in the distance. Between the two stood the door, closed, that solitary soldier standing watch over the sea. Seeing the door alleviated her apprehension, and she walked into the water.
Worm took a seat beside the abandoned boards, plopping down into the sand. He riffled through his pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. From where he sat, he smoked, tossing the pack of cigarettes in the sand beside him, and watched the girls playing in the water, splashing each other, throwing and dunking each other. He watched with longing as the water rolled down their bodies. He wondered, not for the first time, why he had never slept with Sheila. The desire had certainly always been there. And he had had opportunity. So why hadn’t he? He supposed that it came down to Clinton.
Both having the misfortune to be born in a practically nameless, shithole town, fate had seen fit to place them on the same street. In a town with too few residents, much less children, they had struck gold in each other. A friend, a playmate, co-conspirator, wingman, brother: they had been all of these and more to each other since they were seven. Despite their changing tastes and personalities, they remained close, loving even the perceived faults in the other.
And then Clinton had begun seeing Sheila. From that moment on she was considered sexual non-grata. Off limits. Worm may be many things, but he would never betray his best friend.
“Come in. It feels wonderful.” It was Mallory that tore him so violently from his thoughts. she stood before him, water running down her cream-colored body in sheets.
Worm looked up at her, peeling his eyes from Sheila’s body. He stared up at her saying nothing. He flicked his eyes out to Sheila once more, then back to Mallory. He still said nothing. Instead his mind conjured up images of the three of them, and all the depraved things he would do given the chance.
His train of thought was derailed as Mallory took him by the wrist and pulled him to his feet. He quickly moved his hand to conceal his hardening self. He felt relieved when she immediately turned around and began dragging him back to the water.
The four friends splashed and played, roughhoused and swam, for nearly an hour before ever considering the boards on the beach.
Time passed, as is its custom. Clinton finally trudged up out of the salty water. A chill immediately spread through his body as the cool breeze hit him as it rolled off the water. Goose-pimples rippled across his flesh. he paid no mind to the calls from his friends still in the water, inquiring as to where he was going. He had begun to grow distant, socializing with the others less as the minutes had fallen away. He found himself staring out at the endless expanse of water before him, listening to the waves as they crashed down. It was almost as if they were calling to him, beckoning for him to join them in the depths. Stranger still, at times he fancied that he understood them.
Come, they called to him. Your place is with us.
Without a word, he grabbed his board, still standing where it had been wedged in the sand, and returned to the water. He walked as far as he could. Once it was too deep to continue walking, he dropped his board in the water, clambered aboard, and began paddling farther from shore. He watched, fascinated, as the water shifted color, from the bright, crystal blue of the shallows to the dark navy of open water.
Just shy of a mile from the shore, arms burning from the rigorous paddling, Clinton stopped. He sat up, straddling his board, legs dangling in the cool water, and allowed himself to drift amongst the waves. His arms dangled at his sides idly, his fingers creating wakes as they trailed through the water. His mind was blank, his eyes vacant. He watched the waves, seeing them and not seeing them together, seeing through them, beyond, into the world hidden away, this world of gliding and unknowable monsters. He paid no mind to the calls from his friends, so lost was he within his near trance-like state.
“Are you deaf?” It was Sheila. She had grown tired of being ignored, and just a bit worried, and had paddled out to join him. She shoved him, causing the board to teeter in the water, almost knocking him in.
“Huh?” he asked. He turned and looked at her, stars in his eyes, blinking away the daze that he had been in. His board see-sawed in the water as he shook the cobwebs from his mind.
“We’ve been calling to you for like forever,” she said.
He shrugged. “I’m in my own little world I suppose.”
“I’ve noticed.” She stared at him affectionately. “What’s with you today? Ever since we got here you’ve been all spacey.”
“I think it’s this place. I’ve never seen the ocean before; it’s amazing.”
She put her hand on his chin, turning his wandering face back to her. When their eyes met, she said, “But you’re ok?”
“I’m fine,” he said, smiling at her. Seeing that she was still unsettled, the smile faded, replaced with a look of utter gravity. “I promise.”
Sheila continued staring at him for almost a full minute, studying his features closely. Finally she smiled. “Ok. I’m going to try and surf since I’m out here. Care to join me? Or at least watch me so I don’t drown if-and-when I fall?”
“I’m going to stay here for a bit, watch the water. It’s peaceful, serene.” He leaned over and kissed her cheek. “But I’ll keep an eye out for you, just in case, until I join you.”
“Have fun,” he called to her as she paddled away. Once she was out of speaking range, his eyes slid back to the water. He could feel it calling to him while his focus was directed at Sheila. It had pained him not to look while she was present, only stopping himself through sheer force of will.
“Maybe you should go talk to him,” Mallory said.
“If he doesn’t snap out of it, I will,” Worm replied, staring out over the water, watching his best friend float aimlessly.
“Good.” She kissed him lightly on the cheek. “Now I’m going to go try and learn to surf with Sheila. I won’t ask you to come, but watch out for me? Don’t let me drown.”
Worm gave her a half-hearted smile and adjusted his body, digging out a comfortable hole in the sand. “Sure.”
As she grabbed her board and waded into the water, Worm lay down on the sand and closed his eyes. The warm sun felt magnificent on his bare skin. He felt grains of sand bounce off his body, blown around by the cool breeze. In just a short few moments, he was asleep.
Sometime later, a scream pulled him from his doze. Worm sat up straight, squinting into the bright light. He looked around, confused, his sleep-addled brain unable to tell him where he was. How long had he been asleep? The sun was lowering in the sky, the bottom almost touching the horizon, the sky turning into a blanket of fiery color.
Another scream pulled him from his thoughts. Acting solely on instinct, he charged into the water, running towards the source of the screams. His mind was focused on the sound of screaming. He spared no thought as to the cause, only reacting.
This was bad; he could tell before he ever got close to the girls. Sheila was in the water, holding on to her board. On the board, Mallory appeared to be unconscious. Oh god. Please just let her be unconscious. But he could see a thick stream of red flowing over the board. Sheila paddled towards him, the board in tow. A thick cloud of blood muddied up the water in their wake. When he reached them, he took the board and began hauling it to shore, careful not to tip it, spilling Mallory into the water.
“What happened?” he asked as he drug the board onto the sand.
He winced as he looked at the wound on Mallory’s head. A large swath of flesh had been ripped away and hung loosely in a grotesque flap. He could see the white of her skull in the brief moments between spurts of blood. Small pieces of bright pink rock were caught in the soft flesh. Not rock, Worm noted as he picked it out, trying to clean the wound, coral. This was beyond bad; it was damn near tragic. If they didn’t get her to a hospital, fast, Mallory was going to die.
“She hit the reef,” Sheila said. “It happened so fast. If I hadn’t been looking at her at that exact moment, I think we would’ve lost her for good.” Her words were a frantic blur, spat out quickly in her panicked state.
“Get my shirt,” Worm said, pointing to the crumpled mass of fabric on the sand behind them. He put his hands on the wound and applied pressure. Blood flowed through his fingers, over and down his hands, dripping and staining the sand below.
He took the shirt from Sheila and wrapped it tightly around Mallory’s head in a shoddy turban. In just a matter of moments, flowers of blood began to bloom through the fabric.
“Shit,” Worm said, putting his hands back on her head, putting his weight on the injury. “This isn’t working. We have to go. Now.”
He looked around, noticing for the first time that the fourth member of their party was nowhere to be seen. “Where’s Clint?” he asked, his voice frantic, almost panicked.
Sheila pointed out to the water, where Clinton still remained, drifting in open water, lost in the miasma that had fallen over his mind. “He keeps ignoring me when I call. He doesn’t respond, doesn’t even turn to look. I could see him when I screamed; it was like he didn’t even hear me.”
“What the hell?” Worm asked, more to himself than Sheila. He turned and looked back at her. “Can you get her back? Drag the board to the door if you have to.”
She was confused, frightened. Her eyes were giant saucers, staring at him, looking for direction. “What about you?”
Worm pointed towards Clinton, jabbing furiously at the air. “I’m going to get him. I don’t care if I have to damn near drown him to do it. Don’t wait on us,” he instructed. “Get to the car and drive to the hospital. I’ll snag us a ride and meet you or you can come back for us after. But for now, just go.”
With that said, he was off, bolting into the water, blood still dripping from his hands. He dove into the water headfirst and began swimming to his best friend. His arms sliced through the water furiously, propelling him through the water like a torpedo.
Sheila wasted no time in trying to save her friend. She grabbed the tip of the board and lifted, a grunt of exertion escaping her lips. In small, shambling steps, she began back-pedaling to the door. Her legs burned and her back ached, yet she continued to drag the board. A line of blood in the sand marked her progress, making her nauseous. Several times the sand slipped beneath her feet, almost causing her to topple backwards, pulling the heavy board down atop her.
She spared no energy or time looking over her shoulder, instead merely acting on instinct.
After what seemed an eternity of hauling the board, loaded down with Mallory’s unconscious body, over the troublesome sand, a small pile of clothing appeared at her side. She felt pure elation at the sight. The clothes were theirs, tossed aside after they had arrived. Small divots in the sand marked where their boards had been, already being filled in by the wind. The door wasn’t much farther. She felt a renewed vigor and doubled her efforts.
“You hang on,” she said to Mallory. “Do you hear me? Don’t you fucking die on us!”
There; she set the board down carefully. She spun around, hand out to turn the knob, and froze. Her eyes widened, a gasp issuing from her throat.
“What the hell are you doing?” Worm asked through ragged gasps of air. He held onto Clinton’s board, keeping himself afloat. His arms and legs screamed at him, begging, pleading for a brief respite. “Do you not hear what’s going on?”
Clinton said nothing, merely staring out over the water, the constantly shifting, flowing surface gleaming in the setting sun. He gave no indication that he heard Worm or even recognized his presence, not even a quick flit of the eyes.
Worm felt anger welling up inside. He was exhausted and terrified. To be completely ignored was just too much. He brought one hand out of the water and curled it into a tight fist. Using the board to pull himself partway out of the water, he swung, solidly connecting with Clinton’s jaw, twisting his head violently to the side. It was the first time he had ever dealt a serious blow to his best friend, one with the strict intent of harming him, in all the years they had known each other. A lifetime of friendship with no physical altercations. It pained him to do so now.
When Clinton still refused to speak or acknowledge his presence, Worm swung again, harder. Clinton’s head snapped to the side and he almost toppled from his board.
“Can you hear it?” Clinton asked. He spoke in low tones, barely more than a whisper.
“I heard your damn girlfriend screaming is what I heard,” Worm replied, his voice brimming with anger. Then his voice changed, lower tones, almost pleading. “Do you not hear that? Mallory is hurt, badly. We have to go.”
Several moments passed in silence. “They speak in hushed whispers because they don’t want us to hear. But if you listen closely, you can hear it, and then you can start making sense of it.”
“Huh?” Worm was lost, completely dumbfounded by the sudden change in his friend. “They? Who the fuck are you talking about? You know what, it doesn’t matter; what matters is Mallory is dying. And you’re just sitting here when you should be heading to shore.”
“I think I’m going to stay,” Clinton said. “You guys go on. I like it here.”
“What? No! Come on!” He was no longer asking; he was demanding. When this elicited no response, he grabbed the edge of the board and began towing him to shore.
Clinton sat placidly, gently rocking in synch with the ocean. Realizing what was happening, he began prying Worm’s fingers from the board, pushing him away.
Worm fought against the attempts. As he struggled, he found it harder to stay afloat, his already-exhausted limbs threatening to give out entirely, allowing him to sink to the depths. A wave rushed over him, pushing him under the surface. As he fought to surface, another wave broke above him, driving him back under. Wave after wave crashed atop him. He fought for air in the brief moments he could before being pushed back under. It was as though the sea was murderous, wanting him dead. Worm began to panic, his lungs on fire.
A hand broke the surface of the water. He felt a burning pain shoot through his scalp as the hand grabbed a handful of hair and pulled him to the surface. Worm grabbed onto the board tightly. He coughed and sputtered, spitting out water between gasps of air.
“You should go,” Clinton said, his voice flat, devoid of all emotion. “They don’t want you here. It isn’t safe for you.”
“I don’t understand,” Worm said, almost imploring for answers. This was too much. He couldn’t deal with his best friend losing his mind on top of Mallory’s condition.
A wave rose up, breaking on top of his head, driving him back under the water. With lightning-fast reflexes, Clinton reached under, taking him by the wrist and pulling him back up.
“Go now,” Clinton urged. “They don’t want you here. I won’t be able to keep you up for long.”
“Come with me,” Worm insisted. He thought to ask whom Clint was referring to, but thought better of it. What did it matter? There was no one around.
Clinton pushed him away from the board as another wave began to swell a short distance away, growing in size, building momentum as it sped towards them. “Go!”
Worm tread water for a brief moment. He stared at Clinton, tears welling up in his eyes. He didn’t like this. Something was wrong, but there was nothing he could do about it.
“I’m coming back for you,” Worm said and began swimming for the shore.
“No,” Clinton said, his voice a hushed whisper. “You won’t.”
“What the hell are you still doing here?” Worm asked as he clambered out of the water.
Sheila ran up to greet him. “It’s gone!”
He was being given far too much to process in such a short time. Too much seemed to be going on. Everything that could go wrong, was. It was Murphy’s Law in action. And he wasn’t sure for how long he could keep up.
“The door,” Sheila screamed. “It’s gone. We’re stuck here.”
Worm looked over her shoulder, his eyes widening. The place where the door had been, where it should have been, was empty. Instead, all he saw was a bright band of sand, back-dropped by a dense forest. He ran to where the door had stood, looking around, trying to keep his panic at bay.
“What do we do?” she asked, her voice frantic, begging for direction.
Worm just stood there, slack-jawed, staring at the spot the door had been. He looked down at Mallory. Sheila had wrapped her head with fresh articles of clothing, but blood was already spreading across the wrinkled folds of fabric. The sand beneath her was a dark crimson. Yet he could see her chest rising and falling rhythmically, albeit shallowly. That was something, at least. He turned and looked back at the water, at Clinton, who was still adrift on his board, entranced, lethargic. Tears began to fill his wide eyes, blurring his vision, as he realized just how fucked they were. He was at a complete loss. Finally he looked back to Sheila, saying nothing; all he could do was shrug his shoulders.
Sheila watched, her heart hurting for Worm, as his eyes filled with tears. The sight nearly broke her heart. She had always known him to be strong, both physically and mentally, confident, bordering on cocky, and always so sure of himself. He had his flaws, she knew this; he was highly intolerant, with a quick temper, cynical as any person could be, and his harsh words were often prejudicial and, at times, racist. But now? To see this side of him, to see him at his weakest, vulnerable, she wanted to reach out to him, to comfort him. As the first tear spilled down his cheek, glistening in the sun, its wake shining brightly, her own quickly followed.
Seeing her cry, Worm pulled Sheila close, wrapping his arms around her, in a comforting embrace. Despite his feelings of hopelessness, he was acutely aware of the feel of her naked flesh pressed against his own, soft and warm. He felt oddly aroused, given the circumstances. He pulled away from her.
“What about him?” she asked, pointing over the water.
Worm stared blankly. He sighed, saying, “I don’t know. He’s out of it. He won’t come out of the water. I had to biff his ass twice just to get his attention.”
“You couldn’t tow the board in?”
“The water’s too rough out there. Much worse than it looks,” he explained. “I almost drowned. The waves just kept coming, pushing me under. He saved me actually.”
“So, what, we’re just going to leave him there?” Her voice was high and shrill, her tone accusatory, as though the blame rested solely of his shoulders. “That’s been your best friend for over fifteen years! Now you’re just abandoning him when he needs you the most?”
Worm ground his teeth, his jaw clenched. He was trying his best to keep his cool, to not flip out on Sheila. She was scared, just as he was. He took a deep breath through his nostrils, held it for a few seconds, and exhaled from his mouth. He opened his eyes and looked at Sheila.
“There’s nothing we can do about him for now,” he said, his voice surprisingly calm to even his own years. “There are more important things to worry about first,” –he gestured to Mallory- “when we figure that out, we’ll come back for him.”
Sheila nodded. He was right and she knew it.
“And don’t you ever tell me that I’m abandoning him again. You understand me? I’ve been with him for much longer than you, helped him through shit that you’ll never know, shit so bad that he refuses to talk about it. I was there then, and I’m here now.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, her eyes downcast apologetically. “I shouldn’t have said that. I’m just scared is all.”
“I’ll get him, I promise. I’ll either haul him in myself or die trying.”
No sooner had the words left his mouth than he regretted saying them. He wished he could take them back. But as the saying goes: there were three things that you could never take back: time wasted, moments missed, and words spoken. Oh how he wished it weren’t true. As soon as he uttered the sounds, he was overtaken with an ominous feeling, a looming dread, as though by saying so, he had seen a foreshadowing of events to some, as though he had predicted his own future.
He cast the feelings aside. They were useless to him right then. Such thoughts could only hinder, never help. If he allowed himself to dwell on a feeling such as that, he could frighten himself, possibly badly enough to prevent him from doing what needed to be done.
“We need to find a way back,” he finally said. He pointed down the beach. “You go that way. I’ll go the other. Maybe we just got turned around and the door is down the beach.”
She knew this was not the case, but she said nothing. She was certain that Worm knew this as well. But maybe walking the beach could still help. They didn’t know where they were. It was possible that they could walk up on a beach town. Or maybe just spot a boat. It offered more hope than standing idly by while their friend bled to death.
“Turn around when it’s dark and we meet back here,” Worm instructed. “Be careful.” He gave her a brief hug and started walking down the beach.
She had been walking for nearly an hour, but without result. On her quest for help, she had encountered nothing. There seemed to be no sign of human civilization here, wherever here was. She saw nothing but a seemingly endless expanse of sand ahead and behind, and a wall of dense foliage to her left. She had almost begun to give up hope when she saw it.
In the distance, she thought she could make out a figure on the beach. It was nothing but a dark silhouette against the unblemished white sand, especially in the fading light, but the figure looked distinctly human in shape. It was possible, she supposed, that it could be only a mirage, nothing more than her hopeful mind conjuring the sight, but she didn’t believe this to be the case. She quickened her stride, closing the gap between the stranger and herself.
The minutes ticked away. No, the stranger was definitely not a mirage. He or she definitely seemed to be getting closer. Without thinking, her stride quickly turned into a run then into a sprint. The ground was treacherous under her feet. The sand slid and shifted, threatening to send her sprawling face-first into the coarse grains. Yet she pushed on. It was odd, she thought, that the stranger seemed to be running as well.
The jubilation she felt at the thought of rescue soon turned to dismay. Her pace slowed to a trot, a jog, until she was finally walking again. Her breath came in harsh gasps. Her lungs burned. She walked up to the person, hands on her hips, fighting to catch her wind.
“What the hell is going on?” Worm asked, his breath labored from his sprint towards her. He had likewise entertained the thought of rescue, seeing a person in the distance, a wavy form, shimmering in the rising heat, that he had originally mistaken for a mirage.
“How small is this island?” she asked in response once she had managed to control her breathing.
“The sun’s almost set. We may as well head back. Tomorrow we can search the interior of the island.”
“Why?” Sheila shouted. A flock of seagulls rose in the air, squawking angrily at the disturbance, just a short ways up the beach. “What’s the point? There’s nothing here. We’re trapped here and we’re all going to die here!”
“Stop,” Worm yelled at her. She was frantic, at her wit’s end. “Don’t start that shit. It won’t do anything but cause trouble.”
He took her by the arm and started guiding her down the beach, back to Mallory, back to Clinton. They walked in silence, each lost to their own train of thought. Sheila’s mind was a scattered array of thoughts. one moment she was fretting about Mallory’s well-being, the next she was worrying about Clinton, about whether or not his mind had truly broken, wondering if his sanity was even salvageable. She longed for home, the safety and security of her dorm room, where everything made since, where logic and rationality ruled. As he walked, Worm evaluated their situation, tried his best to form some sort of plan for the morning. Searching the interior of the island was a necessity, no matter how small it may be. They would need food and water if they were going to survive. In his mind he had accepted that there was no going back. Not through the door from whence they had come at any rate. Worm silently cursed Declan, that damn dirty hippie, and his little magic door. He swore to himself, to the island, the endless expanse of water, to all of creation, that if he got home, he was going to find that son-of-a-bitch, and when he did, he was going to kill him. Kill him and throw his body through his little magic door so it would never be found.
The sun had all but vanished beneath the horizon when they reached what Worm was already considering their camp. The sunlight glinted from the surface of the water, turning it shades of fiery silver and gold. The sky was a deep crimson that bled to violet and finally to black. The brightest of stars had begun to show, pinpricks in the blanket of darkness.
Sheila shivered, wrapping her arms around herself. The breeze had picked up and was now a strong wind, pulling the cool air over the water and distributing it over the land. Her hair whipped around her face, trailing out behind her. With the sun gone, taking its steady flow of warmth with it on its arduous march west, the night had quickly turned brisk. She cursed herself for not having the forethought to bring extra clothing. But, then again, she hadn’t intended to be stuck here.
Worm knelt over Mallory, his ear by her mouth, trying to listen to her breathing, no easy task in such a driving wind. He checked for a pulse, switching from neck to wrist and back again, panicking momentarily when he didn’t immediately find it. After repeated attempts he was able to find it, the beating of her heart. It was faint, slow, and weak. She needed help, soon. Her lips had turned blue and she shivered uncontrollably under the barrage of wind. He stood and looked to Sheila.
“I’m going to get some wood,” he told her. “We need to build a fire or we’ll freeze tonight.”
Sheila nodded and sat beside Mallory, watching silently as Worm walked away. She put her arms around her friend and laid her head on Mallory’s chest. She could hear the weakened heartbeat echoing hollowly beneath her head. Even if she was unconscious, she wanted Mallory to know that she wasn’t alone, that they hadn’t abandoned her. She had read that it was possible that people in comas could sense when they had visitors, could hear the words that were spoken to them, even if they didn’t remember it upon waking. She desperately hoped that this was the case.
“We’re here for you,” she said softly. “We’re trying to get home. We haven’t given up on you. Don’t give up on yourself. Do you hear me? Fight, fight with all you have to survive.”
Worm returned almost fifteen minutes later, arms loaded with branches, leaves trailing behind him, blowing away in the wind. Dropping the load, he walked wordlessly to the edge of the water and fished out the surfboard that had been abandoned, now washed ashore, and dragged it to the pile of branches. He jammed the board into the sand on its side and pushed piles of sand up to either side, parallel to the water. With his makeshift wall erected, he set to build a fire. He meticulously place limbs in a loose pile, forming a cone of sorts, a teepee of twigs. Using leaves and palm fronds, he stuffed the heap with kindling. He crawled to where he had been seated before catastrophe had struck and grabbed his pack of cigarettes. He fished his lighter from within and closed the pack. Using his body to shield the prevailing wind, he stooped over the pyre and lit it. He blew the flames into life softly.
After pulling Mallory closer to the warmth of the flames, he sat down beside her and lit a cigarette. He inhaled deeply, relishing the smooth warmth of the smoke filling his lungs, the calming effect of the nicotine. He exhaled, a contented smile beginning to turn the corners of his mouth, the first in what felt like a lifetime.
“Can I have one of those?” Sheila asked, pointing to the cigarette in Worm’s hand.
He offered her the open pack. “Since when do you smoke?” he asked as she pulled one of the tobacco-filled cylinders from the pack.
Sheila leaned close, her hands shielding the wind, while Worm lit the end. She inhaled deeply, the cherry glowing a fierce orange in the dim surroundings. She immediately burst into a series of violent coughs. Once she had control of herself, she took another drag, smaller this time.
“Now seems like as good a time as any to start,” she said, exhaling puffs of smoke with each word. She was already lightheaded, the nicotine already going straight to her unaccustomed brain.
Worm shrugged his indifference. He finished his cigarette in silence, flicked the smoldering butt into the flames, and stood.
“I’m going to get more wood,” he said, noticing the curious, anxious look on Sheila’s face. “This needs to be going at all times, nonstop. Hopefully a boat or plane will pass and see it.”
He had been gone for quite some time, and Sheila was growing worried when she saw his form come swimming out of darkness, a hazy silhouette set against the backdrop of utter blackness. He appeared to be dragging something but she couldn’t make out what it was.
Worm grunted as he hauled the giant limb towards the fire. Atop the branch, he had piled high a mound of smaller limbs and leaves. He fought against the unkind terrain, his feet sliding, the sand building up in front of the wood, impeding his progress. Despite the cool night air, sweat beaded on his forehead.
He dropped the limb and plopped down on the sand. He laid back, arms beneath his head, and stared up at the stars. He was exhausted. Between the physical exertion: running, walking, swimming, dragging; and the mental and emotional stress wearing him down, he was completely tapped out, spent, all his reserves of energy depleted. His stomach rumbled loudly and he rubbed it absentmindedly. It would have to wait until morning. He didn’t want to move. He watched the stars twinkle from their homes so high above, hypnotic and entrancing in their rhythmic, erratic patterns, always changing, never repeating, and soon his eyes began to grow heavy. In just a few moments, he was sleeping soundly.
The sun woke them both the next morning as it peeked its face over the tops of the trees. Worm looked down at Sheila, who had curled up next to him in the night to fight the cold, or maybe just for the comfort of human contact in such a strange place, who knew. And did it even matter? He smiled at her as she looked up at him.
“God, I thought this had all been some twisted nightmare.” She sat up, removing her head from his chest, and grabbed a handful of sand. “I guess not,” she muttered, watching the white grains slipping through her fingers, carried away in the wind.
She scooted away from Worm, who was now sitting up beside her. “Sorry,” she said sheepishly. “I guess I got cold during the night.”
Worm shrugged and began adding limbs to the fire, which was now barely more than a smoldering pile of ash and embers, the faintest glow of red and orange within them. He piled the tinder high, using all that he had retrieved the night before. During the day, the fire would have to be much bigger to attract attention. He made a note to grab plenty of fresh leaves and limbs, still alive. Green foliage tended to create much more smoke, vital for gaining some attention.
“I’m going to get more wood,” he said. “Then I’m going to explore a bit, see if I can find anything to help. I should find some food, if nothing else. As I bring the wood back, make sure to keep the fire up, but also try to make a sign in the sand. Something that could be seen from high up. Write help or SOS or something.”
“Ok,” she replied. She moved herself next to Mallory and checked her pulse and breathing. “I think she’s getting worse.”
“I know, but there’s nothing we can do for her except try and find a way home.”
Worm’s eyes rose, scanning the water in search of Clinton. After several seconds, he managed to find him. He had drifted farther from shore, now only a speck on the horizon, a faint blob of darkness against the endless blue sea that seamlessly melded with the sky above. Squinting, Worm thought he could make out his form, still sitting astride the board, his back to the shore, staring out at the water. What the hell was going on with him? He looked away as tears began to sting his eyes. That was his best friend out there, his brother. To see him in such a state pained him.
Knowing that there was nothing to be accomplished standing around, he started up the beach, towards the tree-line.
Sheila watched him walk away. Once he had disappeared into the thicket of trees, she kissed Mallory’s hand gently, told her to be strong, and rose from the sand. She set out down the beach in search of something with which to make a sign. The beach was spotless, the pickings scarce. Beneath a small copse of palm trees she found a pile of stones. Exerting herself, tapping reserves of strength that she hadn’t known she had, she set to work moving the stones out into the open. Sweat poured from her face, falling and plopping into the sand softly, creating small, darkened spots. Her back ached terribly, her arms on fire. Yet she continued, pushing the pain aside.
Once her supply of stones had been depleted, she stared down at her progress thus far, hands on her hips, breathing labored. While she was far from completion, she admired her handiwork. She all but collapsed down on the sand, hoping to take a brief respite before setting out to find more material for her sign. Knees drawn to her chest, she laid her forehead on them and closed her eyes.
Sheila. Sheila. Hushed whispers.
She raised her head and looked around. Mallory’s status had not changed. In the distance, she could see Worm emerging from the trees, a fallen tree trunk dragging the sand behind him. She turned her eyes to the ocean. As expected, Clinton was still lost in the waves. Puzzled, she looked around again. She could’ve sworn that her name had been called, twice. It was faint, barely registering in her mind, but it had been there just the same; she knew what she had heard.
She managed to convince herself that it had been a trick of the mind, nothing but her stressed, exhausted brain forming words from the almost hypnotic music of the ocean, and put her head back down.
Come. Come, Sheila.
She jerked her head up quickly, positive that it had not been her imagination that time. Her head whipped side to side, her hair swinging out widely. She was alone. Worm was still making his way towards her, struggling with the log, but he was too far to whisper. In fact, he didn’t even seem to notice her.
She was suddenly overcome with a deep sense of unease, an unsettling feeling that cut to the core of her. She stood and began jogging to Worm, sparing a single glance at Mallory, still unconscious, unmoving, as she ran past. She suddenly didn’t want to be alone any longer. She trotted to the other end of the tree trunk.
“You look like you could use a hand,” she said. She bent and grabbed the trunk, lifting it with a loud grunt. The weight of the wood threatened to drag her to her knees, but she held firm.
“Thanks.” It was all he could afford to say, his arms aching from the weight, shards of shattered wood jabbing the palms of his hands. Small beads of blood dropped from his skin, tiny crimson teardrops.
Together they shuffled across the sand, back to the beginnings of the message. Once in the correct place, they dropped the trunk. Sand puffed up in the air, only to be whipped away by the wind, deposited some unknown distance down the beach. Worm riffled through the cargo pocket on the side of his swim trunks and pulled out a leaf curled tightly around some hidden item. He held out the leaf to Sheila.
She unwrapped the leaf to find a small bundle of berries, mostly squished into paste. They were strange berries, like none she had ever seen. They were bright orange, with tiny hairs protruding from the soft skin. She eyed them speculatively. “What are they?”
Worm shrugged. “No idea. Found a whole thicket of them back there, in a small clearing.”
“What if they’re poisonous?”
“I ate a few handfuls. I’m fine.”
Sheila stared down at the berries. Juice began to run over the edge of the leaf, spilling onto her hand. Juice ran over the edge of the unrolled leaf, spilling on to her hand, staining her skin. She sniffed at the berries. She would be remiss to eat such a strange berry. Her stomach rumbled, almost as if on cue, and she felt a sharp hunger pang, immediately erasing her trepidation. She raised the leaf to her lips and dumped the contents into her mouth. Her mouth burst with flavor as the juice covered her parched taste-buds. They were perhaps the most delicious fruit she had ever eaten. Juice dribbled down her chin. She wiped it off with her finger, licked it clean, then proceeded to lick the juice from her palm, and finally from the leaf itself.
Her stomach rumbled. She wanted more. Still anxious for company, she offered to accompany him on his return trip, citing the productivity of two sets of hands at work as opposed to only one as her reasoning. She also explained that there was nothing she could do for Mallory if something were to happen, that the best way to help her would be to get help sooner. There was also water to consider. Millions of gallons surrounded them, but they had yet to find any drinkable water. Worm was hesitant at first, but, after seeing the logic in her argument, relented. Together they started for the trees once more. But first, the berries.
After eating their fill, the pair set out to search for some source of drinkable water. The island was small, no more than a few square-miles at most, but the inland area was thick and treacherous. Trees were closely packed, their knobby roots protruding from the ground, making the footing perilous and a fall outright deadly. Making matters worse, the ground was piled high with a thick blanket of fallen leaves, dead and decaying, and while providing comfort for their bare feet, rendering the roots and knots almost invisible. Thick vines hung from the branches overhead in giant, lazy hoops. The thick canopy was so tightly woven that the sunlight was barely able to penetrate it, casting the world in a dismal gloom. Spider webs clung to branches and vines, hosting spiders as big as a fist. The trees acted as a buffer, canceling out the constant rush of waves, casting an eerie silence over the landscape, save for the chittering and rapid clicks from scores of insects unseen. With the exception of the insects and seagulls, there seemed to be no sign of animal life on the island.
And no water.
They searched for hours with no luck. Not even so much as a rain puddle. With downtrodden hearts, they set out back to finish gathering wood and check on their friends. As they expected, Mallory’s condition had not changed, and Clinton was still adrift. After almost an hour, they had gathered a sizeable heap of branches and leaves and their SOS had been completed. Exhausted, drenched in sweat, they nearly collapsed on the sand.
“We need to drag Mallory under those trees,” Worm said, pointing to the small thicket that Sheila had taken the stones from. “She shouldn’t be in the sun like this. Especially when we have no water for her.”
“There’s always that.”
Worm followed her finger. To the east, foreboding black clouds had begun to roll in, blotting out the sky. In just a matter of minutes, sunlight was a thing of the past, the clouds enveloping the world in a grey haze. The temperature seemed to drop drastically. The wind kicked up, turning into a full gale. The surface of the water was choppy, restless, and the waves grew larger as the wind pushed them along. They crashed on the shore loudly, almost roaring. A fine mist filled the air as the waves broke, immediately whisked away in the wind. Thunder boomed loudly in the clouds, so fierce that the grains of sand beneath their bare feet rattled and vibrated wildly. The black clouds lit up in portions as bolts of lightning streaked across the sky, turning them shades of grey and purple the shade of a bruise.
“Start dragging her to the trees,” Worm said. “I’ll be right back.” With that, he started trotting to the tree-line above the beach with no further explanation.
He came back almost ten minutes later. Arms loaded with branches. Pieces of vine hung down, bouncing off his legs as he ran back, threatening to tangle and trip him. He dropped his load beneath the copse of palm trees and grabbed the vines. Tying them securely around the trees, he strung them up. He began picking up the branches and palm fronds, carefully laying them across the suspended vines, forming a makeshift shelter. It wasn’t great, but it would help. He looked around for Sheila.
Sheila sat beside Mallory, face in her palms. Worm could see her body trembling, lightly convulsing as she sobbed and he made his way to her. He didn’t need to be told what had happened, but he asked just the same.
“Why aren’t you moving her?” he asked impatiently, praying she wouldn’t give the answer that he so feared.
Sheila looked up at him. Her eyes were glassy and bloodshot, puffy. She had been crying, just as he had suspected. She stared at him, her face filled with pain and grief and despair. She didn’t speak, instead only shook her head in response.
Worm refused to accept this. He bent and grabbed the tip of the board. Before he could lift, he was halted by Sheila’s hand on his forearm. He looked at her, then down at Mallory. Tears stung his eyes, blurred his vision. He tried in vain to blink them away.
“Don’t,” Sheila said, her liquid whisper barely audible over the roaring wind. “She’s gone, Worm.”
The words unleashed the flood that he had been fighting so dearly to keep at bay. The tears poured down his cheeks in thick rivers, cutting a swath through the caked-on grime that had accumulated in the forest. He dropped to his knees above Mallory’s head. He bent over her, their foreheads touching, and wept openly. Almost as if on cue, the heavens opened up, as though they mourned the passing of this woman, so young, still in the prime of her life, her future still open before her, waiting to be written. Worm kissed his friend on the forehead gently and rose.
Digging Mallory’s grave was no easy task in such a torrential downpour. Using their hands, they scooped out sand as quickly as they were able, only to lose the battle when the rain collapsed the sides of the hole. Water filled the grave quickly, turning it into a large, murky puddle. When they were finally finished, they lowered her body into the grave gingerly, board and all. After covering the remains, they walked to their shelter, silent, morose.
The pair sat in silence, each mourning the passing of a dear friend. After a few minutes had passed, Sheila stood and left the shelter. Worm thought to ask where she was going, but the answer became readily apparent. Sheila crouched over the sand and began to dig. She continued to dig until she had a hole sizeable enough to suit her liking and walked back under the shelter.
“Drinking water,” she grunted, then slipped into silence once more.
The storm seemed as though it would never relent. Rain fell in thick sheets, obscuring vision of anything beyond the scope of their shelter. The signal fire had long since been drowned. Lightning crashed, thunder boomed. Wind whipped the water around in beautiful eddies. The sand was an ever-changing pattern of dots and spatters as raindrops relentlessly assaulted it. Occasionally, when a bolt of lightning would tear the across the sky, casting its glorious white light across the chaotic scene for the briefest of moments, the wind would part the deluge of water just enough for them to make out the dark shapes of limbs tossed through the air on the gusts of wind like so many twigs. Waves crashed loudly behind them, many more than twenty feet high before they finally broke. It was a monsoon of note, of record, rivaled only by that of the Great Flood in the bible.
As the night wore on, the two castaways finally laid down. worm couldn’t help but wonder how Clinton was faring in such weather. Surely there was no way he could survive such a storm sitting on the water with nothing but his board to keep him afloat. He wished now that he had tried harder to pull him in. He would try again when the storm abated, provided that Clinton was even still out there, alive. His logical mind suggested that he was most likely to find the board or Clinton, possibly both, washed ashore in the morning, the latter as lifeless as the former.
A chill sliced through the night air. Dressed only in swimwear, drenched by their time in the rain, the mist blown on them, and with no fire to provide warmth, the two quickly found themselves on the verge of hypothermia. Their teeth chattered loudly, resonating in their skulls. Their skin had taken on sickly shades of blue.
Sheila scooted her body beside Worm’s, hoping to both receive and provide body heat. She curled up beside him, her head on his chest, his arms wrapped around her. Worm began idly rubbing her back, causing her to snuggle up against him. She looked up at him, saying nothing. Without thought, she leaned forward and kissed his cheek.
Worm looked at her, puzzled. He craned his neck to return the kiss on her cheek, but was instead met with her open mouth. They kissed passionately, the warmth finally returning to their bodies. Sheila broke away and rolled onto her back in the sand. She reached across her body, grabbing Worm, and pulled him on top of her. Their lips met as they resumed kissing. Their clothing was slowly removed, piece by piece, and cast aside. The storm raged on around them as their bodies came together, mindless of everything except the other.
Once they were finished, Worm rolled over, panting heavily. Sheila resumed her former position on his chest. Together they fell asleep in post-coital bliss to the sounds of the driving rain and billowing wind.
Worm awoke sometime later, alone. He looked around for Sheila but she had left the shelter. Her bikini still lay in a crumpled heap on the sand. He rose and pulled his shorts on, then left the shelter in search of Sheila.
The rain had slackened, now barely more than a steady rain. He called out to her, but his voice was lost even to himself beneath the sounds of the wind and waves. Lightning tore across the sky in a brilliant arc, illuminating the beach for a brief moment in a dazzling white. Another bolt of lightning crashed down, just mere feet in front of him. The air crackled from the energy charging it. The hairs on his arms and neck stood on end, charged by the electricity in the air. He looked down at the charred patch of sand at his feet. In the center of the patch, outlined by the scorched beach, a beautiful white substance glowed softly, glass formed by the superheated sand, still gooey; water sizzled as it landed on the substance, hardening it.
He turned around as another bolt of lightning lit up his surroundings. There she was, standing by the water, staring out over the endless expanse of the restless sea. Her naked skin almost glowed in the darkness. He walked up to her, curious.
“You’re going to get sick out here,” he said as he walked up.
Silence. Maybe she just hadn’t heard him. The wind and waves, not to mention the rumbling peals of thunder, still caused quite a disturbance.
He touched her shoulder softly, trying to gain her attention. Her skin was gelid, almost freezing, to the touch. She stood motionless, not even so much as a shiver running through her body, completely comfortable in her nakedness, or oblivious to it.
“I can hear it,” she finally said, her voice a muted whisper. “They woke me up.”
Oh god, no. her words sent a chill down his spine. He knew those words, that empty tone. He had heard those same words, in that same tone, from Clinton when he had tried to pull him ashore. It couldn’t happen to Sheila as well. He couldn’t lose all of his friends in a single weekend; he couldn’t take it. He couldn’t go through this alone; he just couldn’t. He had to snap her out of it. He thought back to his encounter with Clinton at sea, to what had seemed to bring him clarity, if only for a moment. Worm shook his head, raising his hand as he did so. Reluctantly, he brought his open hand across her face, using a good deal of force. There was a loud smack and her head flew to the side, but it seemed to have no effect.
“They want me to come out,” she said, her eyes instantly returning to the water. “For me to join them. To join Clinton.”
“Who?” His voice was almost pleading. He was terrified, confused, and beginning to fear for his own life.
“The waves,” she said, as though the answer should have been obvious.
He was taken aback by this answer. “What the hell are you talking about?” He pointed out over the water. “It’s just waves. Water moved by wind and shifts in the planet’s crust. Nothing more. They aren’t alive. They can’t talk, or want you to do a damn thing!”
“Oh but they are,” she replied, speaking as a teacher to a young child. “They are alive, and are conscious. They want us all, in time. There’s nothing we can do about it.”
“We wait for help.” He was almost screaming in his desperation. “When the rain stops, I’ll light the fire again. I’ll burn this whole fucking island if I have to, but eventually someone will pass by.”
“No one is coming.” Her voice was cold, indifferent. “We aren’t home. Or are you too stupid to realize that? No one will ever come. Eventually the waves will have us all.”
That was enough. He wouldn’t fault her for her words- clearly she was not in her right mind- but he wanted to hear no more. He grabbed her by the arm, his grip tight, and began to pull her away from the water. She screamed in protest, a shrill, piercing wail, and began fighting him. She kicked and punched, but his grip held steady. It wasn’t until she raked her fingernails down his face that his grasp finally faltered.
Not wasting a second, Sheila jerked her arm free and began running. She charged into the waves. Water splashed up wildly around her. Her presence seemed to calm the sea, almost as if it were parting to allow her access.
Worm ran after her, ignoring the pain in his face. The scratches stung as the salt-water mist hit the wounds. He cast the pain aside and continued after her. He was of a single-track mind, thinking of nothing but saving his friend. He stared at Sheila’s back, determined not to lose her in the all-encompassing darkness. So intent was he on Sheila that he never noticed the wall of water rushing towards him.
He almost had her. Just a few more steps and she would be within reach. Suddenly, he was thrown from his feet, blown backwards as a giant wave, over thirty feet high, crashed down between Sheila and himself, separating the two of them forever. The concussion forced the wind from his lungs. He tumbled through the water, his body bouncing violently from the bottom of the shallows. He was rolled wildly, until he lost all sense of direction in the black water.
He woke up on the shore, water lapping against the lower half of his body. The cloud cover had broken while he was unconscious and he had to squint against the blinding sunlight. He sat up, his bedraggled body aching as it protested, and looked around frantically. He knew it was pointless, but he had to try. As he had expected, Sheila was nowhere to be seen. She was gone. Taken to the sea with the current.
His eyes focused on a speck on the horizon. He squinted, shielding his eyes with his hand, trying to make out the anomaly on the pristine surface of the water. Could it be a boat? Could he really be that fortunate?
“Son of a bitch,” he said, quite incredulously, as he realized what he was looking at.
It was Clinton, still alive. Against all odds, and much to Worm’s amazement, he had somehow survived the night. He was farther out, and Worm didn’t know if he could make that distance, but he knew he had to try. Clinton was the only friend he had left, and he’d be damned if he’d just wait around while he died too.
Worm charged into the water. The cold liquid shocked him into full alertness, vanquishing whatever sleep had remained clouding his mind. Once he was deep enough, he dove into the water and began swimming furiously to the speck in the distance, that blob of darkness set against the clear blue sky. Arm over arm, stroke after stroke, he closed the distance. It wasn’t until it was too late that he realized his mistake.
A wave rose high above him, appearing from thin air. He took a large breath of air and dove beneath the surface, allowing the wave roll past by overhead. He continued underwater until his lungs begged for oxygen. He broke the surface, gasping for air. That was when the next wave struck.
It crashed down on his head, driving him beneath the water. He was whipped around like a doll, caught in the current. He fought for purchase in the water, stroking and kicking madly, but there was none to be had. He was carried along at high speeds, his body tossed around like so much detritus caught in the current. Seaweed caught of his face and body as it slid by him in the water, leaving a slimy residue in its wake.
His body was turned in the water, almost maneuvered intentionally. His eyes widened, his hands instinctively shielding him from the blow. It was of no use. The last thing he saw was the coral reef speeding towards him before he was slammed into it. Clouds of blood filled the water as his body was torn to shreds on the coral. The waves continued to carry his body, dragging him down the length of the reef, pieces of flesh torn away like cheese on a grater. The pieces of coral broke away, lodged in his body. Bones snapped. His lungs were punctured. Fingers were torn back, and finally off. The current died, allowing his body to slip into the eternal darkness of the bottom of the ocean.
“That’s all of them,” Clinton said, weeping openly at the loss of his friends. “What now?”
All around him, waves crashed and broke. They seemed to whisper, a voice heard only by those who listen intently. Clinton listened, nodding thoughtfully.
He swung his leg over the board and dropped into the water. He made no attempt to stay afloat. Instead, he held his arms above him, streamlining his body so he could descend rapidly. He watched as the light slowly diminished, until it was nothing more than a speck in the distance so high above. With the last bit of fading light still reflected in his eyes, Clinton opened his mouth and inhaled deeply, feeling the cold rush of water as it filled his lungs.
Credit: William Davis