Gullybirds. Screeching gullybirds. And wet sand. The smell of seaweed. Pain in my chest. My lungs fighting for oxygen – oxygen! Breathe! I needed to breathe. Gasping, air raked into my lungs, battling with sand and brine. I choked as foul seawater filled my mouth and came spilling out onto the ground.
The sky was still dull, the sun imprisoned behind a fortress of clouds. Rain pattered down. My hands scrabbled in the sand as I tried to push myself up, arms tangled in a mass of seaweed and fabric straps. Coughing up more seawater, I crawled on all fours, heaving myself away from the waves lapping at my ankles.
I was on a beach somewhere. Bits of seaweed and driftwood littered the shore. There were trees a little way inland and sand stretching out as far as I could see to either side. I slumped back and concentrated on breathing and being alive, freeing myself from the tangle of my bag and the lifejacket.
Panic rose inside me as I remembered Jessie’s cries of pain and I scrambled to my hands and knees, eyes darting this way and that, scanning the whole beach.
“Jess? Sam?” My throat felt raw as I tried to scream their names. I couldn’t see them or the boat. I shouted again, but there was no one to hear me.
I clambered to my shaky feet and stumbled across the beach. The sand around me was flat and undisturbed. Perhaps they had washed up further along – after all, they were still on the boat when I went overboard. I had been sure that the little boat was going to capsize and sink, but maybe I had been wrong. Maybe they were still out there.
The sun shone between gaps in the clouds, the glare blinding as it reflected off the sand. Then it was gone, casting me into gloom and leaving my eyes to adjust. The rain was gone, but instead the wind was blowing twice as hard, intent on kicking up clouds of dust to throw in my face. The wet sand refused to budge, but if it dried out, I would be forced inland.
With the wind to my back, I walked, calling for Sam and Jessie as I stared across the sand and out to sea, looking for any sign of them or the boat; any sign of life at all. It wasn’t long before I began to wonder if I was walking in circles. The trees seemed more or less the same as they had when I’d first looked at them. Maybe I was on a really small island and I’d already walked several laps around it. I shook my head. I hadn’t seen any footprints and even if I was alone, the tide couldn’t have wiped mine out already, could it?
I didn’t know how far I had walked or how long it had taken me, but I started to notice subtle changes in the landscape. The trees began to rise up on a soft hill, cutting the chill of the wind and the scrubby bushes retreated further from the water’s edge. My watch reckoned it was only half ten. The sun said it was fast approaching evening. I suppose that’s what you get for buying cheap plastic crap.
I headed up the slope, hoping I would have a better view from there. Besides, it would make a good shelter if I was going to be stuck here overnight and the weather changed again. I could see the line of my own footprints across the sand, but no sign of Sam or Jessie. I sat down and watched the colours of the sunset reflected in the sea. Jessie would have loved it.
Just as the light was beginning to fade, my eye was caught by something a short distance away. Little specks of light, like fairy dust, gathered between the trees. Fireflies? I squinted, trying to make out some detail.
I heard a shout from near the swarm. Not fireflies. They were noisy, chattering. They were people, people with torches. I took a few steps forwards. They must have seen our boat. I laughed, feeling a sudden rush of relief as I realised I was not stranded alone. Someone had come to rescue me.
“Over here,” I called out. “Please help me.” I was closer to them now. A bright torch beam shone in my face and I put a hand up to shield my eyes. “Help me,” I gasped, stopping where I was.
The beam of light dropped and I saw a group of men standing not far from me. Their clothes were untidy and most of them were not shaven, their faces smeared with mud like war paint. Some of them had dogs, but they didn’t look like rescue dogs – not a spaniel or a retriever amongst them. They looked like attack dogs. And they growled like attack dogs.
I looked back to the men and found myself staring down three barrels of a Cerberus shotgun. And it wasn’t the only one. Light glinted off the polished metal of two more heavy gauge weapons. I turned and ran. I ran and I ran and I didn’t look back, scrambling up the hill towards the trees, hoping that they would give me a little cover, maybe slow the men down.
The trees surrounded me as I climbed the hill, fighting the frantic urge to glance over my shoulder. I could still hear the dogs. In my desperation to move, my foot hit a rock and I tumbled forwards. Bushes rushed towards me and I put my hands out to stop my face smashing into the ground, but the impact never came. Thorns scratched and clawed at me as I fell, but the ground disappeared behind me and the bushes were whipped away with it. I screamed out and was rewarded with a face full of dirt, the earth rushing past me faster than I had ever seen. Pain surged through me and I heard myself cry out again, the sound underpinned by barking.
Fear took hold as I fell, hitting every rock and sharp branch on the way down. It felt like it would never stop, but then the sheer face began to level out and a tree trunk shot up from the ground in front of me. My back bore the brunt of the impact and the breath was knocked from my lungs, muting my screams. The leaves rustled around me and then the forest fell silent, the dogs fading into the distance.
I lay still. Even if I had wanted to, I would probably never move again. I could have broken every bone in my body. A steep, cliff-like mound of earth towered above me, topped with a crown of thorny bushes, partly broken where I had fallen through. I would have needed specialist equipment if I had wanted to climb back up it.Dark spots clouded my vision. My head swam. Perhaps if I stayed still, any men looking down would think I was dead. I tried to focus on the branches above, but the darkness wouldn’t shift. A flutter of panic butterflied in my chest, flooding me with pain. Was it pain? It had spread to the tips of my fingers, every bone, every muscle. It was consuming me, like the darkness in my eyes, dragging me under, like the sea.
The gnarled, silver limbs of twisted trees raked at the black sky. The sun was gone. How long had I been out? My arms ached as I tried to pull myself up, but it was my legs that made me want to scream out in pain. I didn’t look down to assess the damage. There was pain, but as long as I didn’t see how bad it was, I could push on. I gritted my teeth and lunged for the nearest tree, my feet barely taking my weight. My fingernails dug into the bark and I clung on, waiting for my body to co-operate.
The sky had cleared, bringing a chill with the moonlight that streamed through the gaps in the leafy canopy. Huge tree trunks surrounded me in every direction, some so vast that they must have been there since the beginning of time. Leafy green ferns and delicate purple belldrops carpeted the earth. Ahead, there was a dark space – a clearing in the trees. If I could just reach it, maybe I could set up camp for the night. Then maybe by morning I would be able to walk again and search for my friends. Maybe my luck would change.
I breathed deeply and lurched forward again, grasping at the next tree. A fluttering noise above me drew my attention. Snagged in the high branches of one of the trees was a large sheet of fabric, torn and tangled. If I could have reached it, I would have pulled it from the tree and wrapped it around myself for warmth, but it was far too high.
A cool breeze nipped at me as I threw myself at the next trunk, clinging to it for only a second or two before I pushed myself on to the next. There was just one more tree ahead and then I would be in the clearing. I staggered forwards.
My heart almost stopped as my eyes fell upon the figure of a man in the clearing. The bark tore at my fingertips as I dropped to my knees behind the tree trunk. I forced myself not to cry out, even though I knew he must have already heard me if not seen me. My pulse thundered in my head as I searched around for anything I could use as a weapon.
Only the breeze in the branches broke the silence of the night as I wrapped my fingers around a fist sized rock hidden amongst the leaves. I was ready for him. I’d escaped from these men once already; I wasn’t going down without a fight. As soon as he stepped around that tree, I’d kneecap him. I waited. Only silence.
The pain was starting to bite now, my heart pulsing in my head. Could I have imagined – hallucinated him? I grasped the rock and peered around the trunk, ready to strike.
The man had not moved. He was sat on a boulder in the middle of the clearing, one hand across his lap and the other supporting his head, his elbow on his knee. Statue still with white marble skin. Nothing to fear. I cursed myself for being so skittish and pushed myself to my feet. One last moved and I could rest.
I threw myself forwards and grunted with the pain in my legs. My hands reached out for the statue, but it moved, twisting to fix his eyes on me. I yelped, fell back and tried to silence myself, ready to hurl the rock at him if he came any closer.
“I am no threat to you.” His voice was deep but quiet and he kept his eyes locked on mine. Ice blue, like a winter sea.
I scrambled away from him, backing into the large tree. “How do I know that?”
The man said nothing, but straightened his leg. Metal scraped on the rock. Leading from it was a long chain and around his ankle, a thick steel cuff. If I moved beyond the clearing, he could not follow me.
I glanced over him again. A dull white sheet around his waist concealed his modesty. The colour blended with his skin, which looked flawless and pale in the moonlight. His gold-blond hair and icy blue eyes seemed to luminesce in the gloom. The muscles of his chest rippled as he turned his body towards me. I would have though the strength of his thighs capable of breaking the restraints, but the darkened skin beneath the shackle told me otherwise.
“Did those men do this?” I asked, settling against the tree.
He cocked his head, his eyes fixed on my knees. “You are bleeding.”
I looked down. A long, dark stain spread across the leg of my trousers. The other knee was ripped and raw, red flesh and bloodied skin showed through the material. My hands and arms were covered by a latticework of scrapes and grazes. Every single bone and muscle ached. I needed food and water. I needed to rest. I needed a doctor.
“Yeah. I fell.”
The ridge was barely visible from the clearing, but the man turned towards it. He must have seen it before. “You are lucky to be alive.”
I snorted. “Barely.” I shrugged my bag off my shoulder and searched through it. The medikit was in there somewhere, but everything was damp from the sea and crushed from the fall. The fish sandwich Sam had made on the boat was now wafer thin, but at least it was food. I smiled. Looked like his over-enthusiasm paid off.
“How long have you been here?” I asked, finally retrieving the medikit. I began to dress the wound in my thigh, not bothering to roll up my trouser leg first.
“I am not certain.”
“Days? A week?” I pinned the bandage in place and dabbed at the other knee with a cleansing wipe. “What do you eat?”
“I will eat anything I can find.” He gestured at his surroundings.
Thorny fruit bushes grew between the trees on the other side of the clearing. Judging by the length of the chain, they were probably beyond his reach.
“Must have been less than two weeks.” I fixed my knee and packed away the kit. “Any longer and you’d be dead.”
The kit went back into my bag and I unpeeled the fish sandwich from the foil. Without looking up, I offered half of it to the man. It had only been a few hours since I had last eaten, but the taste of the doughy, squashed sandwich was enough to make me want to cry.
“I’m Kari,” I said. “Shipwrecked.”
The man chewed and swallowed his mouthful. “Luc. Captive.”
I passed my water pouch to him. “It’s all I’ve got, so make it last.”
The man took the tiniest sip of water and handed the pouch back. Perhaps he thought I was being tight. In hindsight, perhaps I should have offered him the whole sandwich.
“Aren’t you cold?” The sheet wrapped around his waist looked pitifully thin and I was beginning to see my breath clouding in front of me. The cloudless night held no warmth.
“It was colder yesterday. Besides, I cannot wish myself warmer.”
“You could start a fire?”
He shook his head. “I had given up on that a long time ago.”
“Let me have a go.” I searched my bag for the box of matches. I had kept them in the side pocket for easy access. Turns out that wasn’t such a great idea; they were drenched. “‘Fail proof matches’ the box says.” I groaned, tossing them down. “It’ll take a miracle for them to not fail now.”
“What is it?”
“Box of matches. But they’re wet.”
“Does it matter?”
I frowned. “Yeah. They won’t work if they’re wet.” I struck one of the matches. It gave a half-hearted spark and made the nice smell, but the little red bit shredded along the striking surface. There was smoke, but no fire. I guess that saying isn’t true after all.
“Perhaps they will dry overnight.”
“Fat lotta good that’ll do us. I’m getting cold now.” I snorted. “And you haven’t even got any clothes on.”
“I am fine. You should rest.”
“What about those men?” I asked. “What do they even want?”
“Do not worry about them; I will keep watch.”
“But who are they?”
“I wish I knew.”
“Won’t they come back for you?”
“It is unlikely. Now settle.”
I narrowed my eyes and pulled my coat tighter around myself. “Why should I trust you? How do I know you’re not bait?”
“In which sense would I be bait?”
“I stop to help you and they take me when my guard is down. Bait.”
“You have only my word.”
“So why should I trust you?”
He shook his head. “You should not trust me.” The chain clinked.
“Thanks.” That made me feel a whole lot safer…
“Do not thank me.”
I sighed. “It was sarcasm.”
I fought back a yawn. Even though I was exhausted, I tried hard to keep my eyes open. I just needed to rest. Once I had a little strength, I could keep moving. My eyelids were so heavy. The tree roots offered me a little support as I let my muscles relax. I still clutched the rock.I had to keep going because I had to find out what had happened to Jessie and Sam. Anything could have happened to them. What if he hadn’t gotten her off the boat? Would he have even thought of letting her die to save himself? And what if he had? All the questions swarmed in my head. They clouded my thoughts until it held my concentration. I couldn’t keep myself awake any longer.
“Wake up,” a voice hissed at me, the scraping of metal on metal puncturing my sleep. It was not a gentle awakening. A man was looming over me, his hand shaking my shoulder. I let out a strangled yelp and leapt up, on my feet, but crouched low. The rock was in my hand, ready to strike.
It took a second or two for my groggy brain to remember who the man was and realise that he was not the threat; his attention was not on me, but fixed on some point beyond the clearing. His hand remained on my shoulder as his eyes took on that strange focused look you see in police dogs when they’ve heard something, but aren’t sure what it is. He pointed at me, then raised the finger to his lips.
“There are voices,” he breathed.
I peered around, my eyes adjusting to the brightening morning sun. Whatever Luc had heard escaped me; I couldn’t hear growling or barking, footsteps or anything, but I felt my pulse quicken as I tried to silence my breathing. His head jerked suddenly, staring between the trees with such intensity that I couldn’t do anything but follow his gaze. There was nothing there, but I stared anyway, hoping that there would continue to be nothing there for as long as I looked. Then I heard it too. Rustling in the bushes. It was getting nearer.
A badger ambled out from between the low limbs of a shrub. The bush fell silent as the creature looked at me, pausing briefly. I found myself locked in a staring competition with a badger. Maybe I wasn’t going to die today after all. The creature looked away and continued moseying about, disappearing after a few minutes under another bush. Probably about time it went to bed.
I grinned and breathed a sigh of relief. I was about to make a joke about it when I noticed that Luc’s expression had not changed. He was still listening. The badger was not what had attracted his attention. There was something else out there. Luc turned slowly to face me, not even breathing.
“When I say ‘run’, do it. Do not look back and do not stop until you are safe, no matter what you see or hear. Just run.”
I nodded, feeling the blood drain from my face. A low growl sent a prickle over my skin. The bushes rustled and a huge black dog flew through the air, lunging at me over the bushes. Behind it, scruffy men in camouflage sprang up, one, two…
Luc jumped up, twisting to face me, roaring at me. “Run!”
The beast was flying, hanging in the air for far longer than it should. I wasn’t turning fast enough. Luc was going to take the weight of the dog on his shoulder.
And then I couldn’t see them anymore. Not Luc, the dog or the men. I was running, fleeing between the trees, faster than I could register. I heard the dog whine and a few seconds later, a man yelled out. Luc shouted again, but his words were lost in between howls and roars. I couldn’t tell if he was in pain or if it was a battle cry. And I couldn’t stop to find out.
I dashed in between the trees, heading for anywhere but the sounds of dogs and men. My heart thundered in my head, silencing all external sounds. Shouting, barking and screams of pain echoed inside my skull. I ran. I ran until I felt sick, until I felt like the sparse contents of my stomach might spill out. My own pounding footsteps began to infiltrate the cacophony of screams inside my brain. The drumming began to fade, replaced with the rustle of the leaves that waved me on as I passed by.
Luc. He had told me to run, but he wasn’t able to defend himself from those men and their dogs either. He could barely move three metres without being held back by the chain. I had left him to die. But nothing would be achieved by turning back now. If I had stayed, then I would be dead too; there was no way I could fend off the men.
The crunch of the leaves faded as the trees thinned and I burst out onto a beach. I felt like I was drowning again and the panic of the night before flooded back to me as I collapsed onto the wet sand. My lungs screamed for air. I had no idea how far I had gone or how long it had taken me, but it was by far the hardest I had ever pushed myself in my life. My hands shook as I rolled onto my back and breathed deeply.
Waves crashed against the shore, but aside from that and the squabbling gullybirds, the beach was silent. No men and no dogs here. I took in the clear skies for a few moments before the thought of Sam and Jessie forced me to my feet. I snatched the radio from my bag and spoke into it.
“Sam? Jessie?” I held down the little button. “Hello? Can anyone hear me?” I looked at the radio. It was switched on, but the power light wasn’t lit. Broken. Even if Sam and Jess were in range, I couldn’t talk to them.
I stared out to sea. Junk lined the coast: bits of rotting boats, rusting metal and washed up crates. None of the flotsam resembled our little boat and almost none of it could be salvaged. I was stranded and I didn’t know if my friends were alive or dead, if they’d even made it to the island.
Sniffing, I headed back up towards the trees. That’s what Sam would have done. Jessie and I might not have good survival instincts, but Sam was strong. He would still be alive and he would have dragged Jessie with him. If they were on this island, I just had to think like Sam and I’d find them.
Sam would have kept walking, staying close to the trees for cover. He would have found somewhere safe and dry to camp, made something to eat and started thinking about how he would get us home. Trouble was, there was a lot of island on which to set up camp.
Litter blew across the sand in front of me from between the trees. My eyes followed the path of an old sweet wrapper as it skimmed the beach and dived onto the sea, floating away like a gullybird. I narrowed my eyes and looked around. Someone else must have been here recently and dropped it. Tracing its path back between the trees, I noticed a piece of brown wool snagged on the thorns of a prickly bush and beneath it, a till receipt trodden into the dirt. Pink sandals, Ð2175. More money than I would spend on shoes. Jessie?
I searched the area again, moving deeper into the undergrowth. Sheltered from the wind behind a wall of tangled plants, I found a fire – or the remains of one anyway. Charred black flakes nestled in a ring of large stones. Sam had been here too. Where had they gone? I shook my head and looked around. Strewn over the ground were receipts and tickets, sweet wrappers and club fliers, all the crap that usually stuffed the bottom of Jessie’s bag. A few more steps and I found a bottle of sun cream, designer shades and her camera.
“What happened, Jess?” She would never have left her camera behind, even if it had been broken. “No,” I whispered, a horrid thought occurring to me. “Please don’t say they caught you.”
The first thing those men had done was chase me across the island. Before I had blacked out on the boat, Jessie had been screaming. What if she were injured? I hated to think what they’d do if they caught her.
I bent down, following the trail of stuff between the trees and bushes. It was the first time Jessie’s incessant shopping had been a blessing rather than a curse. I just hoped she wasn’t planning to return any of the goods; she’d only get store credit now.
The trees thickened, but I had not gone far when I found Jessie’s bag. The strap had snagged on a low hanging branch and snapped, leaving it suspended in mid-air. I pulled it down and stuffed it in my bag with her belongings.
With the bag caught in the trees, there was no trail to follow, the receipts scattered in all directions by the wind. Instead, I took the most obvious route that Jessie could have taken – or been taken. The thickening vegetation kept forcing me to turn back and search for another route. Then another. And another. The plant life was not on my side; each time I found a new path, the thorny bushes loomed up around me, growing too high to tackle.
Frustrated, I slammed my palm into a tree. The force split the skin again and I swore at myself under my breath. I really had to start being more careful. My supplies would not last long if I continued like this.
As if to add insult to self-inflicted injury, it began to rain. It wasn’t just that light, misty kind of rain either. Oh no, this was a proper bone-soaker of a storm. The fat raindrops pelted down on me like gravel thrown by a stroppy child. Little droplets gathered on the waterproof surface of my coat, forming puddles that ran across the fabric as I moved. Cold water found its way down the back of my neck, soaking into my t-shirt and plastering my hair to my skin. I had to find shelter.
Taking a deep breath and bracing myself for the pain, I forced my way through the lowest mesh of plants. Low branches scratched at my arms and the scrubby bushes kept snagging on my trousers and bootlaces. I heard the rumble of thunder. Strange, given how clear the sky had looked a few minutes ago.
Up ahead, there was a little shack that looked like it had been cobbled together with bits of corrugated iron and chipboard. The raindrops masked the sound of my approach as I crept up to it. The sound was like a horde of steel pan players who had each forgotten which tune they were supposed to be playing: cacophonous. A slight gap between the two sheets of metal at the corner gave me space to peer inside. To my delight, the shack was empty.
I moved around the outside, looking for signs that it had been recently inhabited. The words ‘AwAKEn HEr’ were scrawled on a wooden board above a makeshift door on one side – obviously not written by the smartest cookie in the jar, judging by the bad use of capitals. Each letter had been marked into the wood with thick lines of chalk. It did not look like it had been written recently. Streaky trails ran from the bottom of the letters and down the wood, leaving patchy lines in the chalk and exposing flecks of bare chipboard. Years of heavy rain would have to fall before those words were washed away.
Rain lashed down, splashing in through the gaps in the shell of the hut as I squeezed inside. A rickety table constructed from bits of old shipping crates stood in one corner. Raindrops settled on the surface, but the floor beneath it was dry. Perhaps that’s why there were so many spider webs under there. I joined them.
With nothing else to do but wait out the storm, I took stock of the contents of my bag. Even with all of Sam’s careful preparation, there seemed to be nothing that was going to help us now. My radio was broken and I had left my matches in Luc’s clearing.
Jessie’s bag was much better than mine; nothing inside was wet. I pulled out the radio and pressed down the button. Nothing happened; it didn’t even squeal in protest. What else should I have expected? I would be stuck here until I died, either starved to death or killed by those mad bastards that kept chasing me.
Tucking my knees into my chest, I sat down and closed my eyes. This was more than a terrible holiday. This was hell. Sam had said the trip was about the three of us, but I was alone, crying, unable to stop myself until my legs cramped up and I had to move. I pushed myself off the floor, putting my hand down hard onto a sharp metal object as I did. Snarling at the pain, more tears flowed down my face and I kicked out at the object in anger, sending it clanging into the side of the hut.
I dumped Jessie’s bag down on the table and raked through it. The medikit was gone and I wasn’t sure how long I could survive on boiled sweets. The only thing left was the camera. I pushed the power button down. The device beeped loudly and the screen flashed, surprising me with its brightness. It flickered every few seconds, but remained on, showing an image of Jessie’s foot, wrapped in a neat bandage; obviously Sam’s work.
“When was that taken?” I pushed the button to view the previous picture. A small campfire burned in a stone circle – the campfire I had found. As I pushed the button again, the device began to crackle and buzz. This was a video. There was Sam, stacking sticks in the stone circle. His voice issued from the fuzzy speaker, like a man trapped in a box.
“Jessie, if you’re not going to help, can you at least get that camera out of my face?” His hand came closer and filled the screen, followed by a close up shot of Jessie’s knee. The video ended. I laughed and brushed the tears away from my eyes. They hadn’t drowned! And even when her life was in danger, Jessie could not resist taking a few holiday snaps. I was glad she had. It meant that up until the point that she turned the camera off, both she and Sam had been alive.
I pushed the shutter button to activate the camera. If Jessie were here, she would be doing exactly this. Just because she had lost her camera didn’t mean she had to lose her photos. I pointed at the roof of the shack near the corner with the hole and clicked. The bulb flashed, the shutter snapped and the photograph flickered onto the broken screen. My time in the ramshackle hut was recorded.Replacing the camera in the bag, I inched towards the door. My boot struck the metal object again as I crossed the hut. A long, black bar was hidden amongst the dead leaves. I picked it up. It was about a foot and a half long. One end narrowed into a flat point whilst the other curled around into wide hook, V-shaped notched cut into each tip, perfect for yanking nails from wood and ripping doors from their hinges. A crowbar. I could use this. I wasn’t sure what for, but it could be useful. I hooked it over my belt and smiled. Perhaps I could use it to clobber them mad bastards before they killed me.
Are you enjoying my ongoing story? Please let me know what you think by leaving a review! Thanks, Jo OramWrite a Review