The late afternoon was calm and warm. The summer sun was softened by a cloud bank, and the waves were gentle on the rocky shore. Nix sat leaning against a driftwood log. He had half his attention on a weathered book, the other half was on glancing at a particular spot on the horizon. He'd read a page, flick his brown eyes up to the ocean, turn the page, and repeat. The clouds drifted slowly away from the sun, right as a dark spot appeared against the water.
He placed a ragged strip of cloth into the book to mark his page, and placed the hardback into a leather bag by his side. He stood, shielding his eyes from the sudden glare of sunlight on water, and watched as the dark spot approached. Within moments it had grown and taken shape into what was unmistakably a small, wooden boat. He held up a ram's horn trumpet that hung from his belt and forced the rough-made instrument to give a single, loud blast.
The little wooden dinghy puttered its way to shore, maneuvering carefully around treacherous shallows and sharp rocks hidden by high tide. As the horn blast echoed through the air, the sole occupant of the boat awoke with a start. Almond shaped eyes flew open, only to cringe shut as a spray of salt water pelted his face. He let out a low shout of surprise and rubbed his stinging eyes. He waited for his brain to kick in fully and remind him where he was, but it didn't happen. He had no idea what he was doing in the boat. There were no oars; instead a small motor was attached to the back end of the dinghy. The front face of the motor was covered in tiny flashing lights that controlled the propeller and navigation.
The boy in the boat looked ahead at the shore. It was less than fifty feet away and steadily getting nearer. On the shore, Nix was scrambling over an outcrop of rock toward the boat's apparent destination. Nix waved at the boy in the boat, who chuckled.
"What the hell," He muttered, allowing a bemused smile to slide across his face. The humming of the motor cut short just as the boat bumped and skidded against the shallows.
"Hey!" Nix came rushing over in a whir of excitement. Mud and water went flying in the wake of his skinny legs as he ran right into the knee-deep water to the boat itself.
"Hey there," The boy in the boat replied, "This is by far the weirdest dream I've ever had," He grinned at the kid, only to realize he didn't know if the statement was true. His smile slipped into a frown. He didn't remember any dreams he'd had. He didn't remember anything else either. He chewed the inside of his cheek, searching his brain with growing desperation. He couldn't recall a single thing before waking up in the boat.
"My name's Nix," The young teen spoke with a strong accent, "Hop out or get scorched, man," He tapped the side of the boat, his chipper smile turning anxious, "Like, right now," He added, holding out a hand to help pull the stranger from the dinghy.
"This thing's about to blow up, so you need to get out. Now."
"There's a bomb in the boat. Get out!" Nix's smile disappeared, and he started backing away quickly, "Now, man! Vaya!"
The boy in the boat panicked and scrambled over the side and into the water. The stony bottom was slicker than he'd anticipated, and his feet flew right out from under him. He went completely under just as a loud explosion coursed through the air. Splintered wood crashed against his side and the shallow water churned angrily as he struggled to pull himself into a sitting position. After what felt impossibly too long his head broke the surface and he spluttered out a lungful of brine.
"You good?" Nix shouted from the shore.
"What the hell!" The half-drowned boy jumped to his feet and trudged as quickly as he could to the shore. Once out of the water he collapsed, breathing hard. He glanced at what was left of the boat. Broken planks, some on fire, floated slowly away.
"I told you to get out of the boat," Nix let out a relieved snort of laughter, "You got lucky. Even Glitch can't unflip that switch."
The boy quirked an eyebrow in confusion, but he had bigger issues than Nix's unfamiliar words, "What just happened?" He choked on the question and fell into a coughing fit, his insides burning with seawater.
"Motors on those things always go boom after they hit the shore. Putas that send them rig it that way," He shrugged and walked over, offering a hand to help the other boy up, "Got a name?"
"Andrew," He responded without even having to think about it. Apparently there was at least something he did remember. His name was Andrew.
"Huh," Nix eyed him up and down, looking almost disappointed, "Figures... you're bleeding, by the way."
"Shit," Andrew stared at his left leg, where a large splinter of wood stuck deep into his flesh. Watery blood trickled down to his soggy sneaker. Without thinking he yanked the splinter out. He yelped with pain, then angrily threw the offending debris as far as he could, "I'm not dreaming, am I?"
"Sorry, Andy. This is reality in all its stinking glory," Nix gave a wry smile. Andrew looked at the kid. He couldn't be older than fifteen, with a narrow build and curly black hair that stuck out at odd angles. His face still had remnants of the roundness of childhood, but his skinny arms were covered in wiry muscles. His oversize shirt and patched shorts looked handmade and dingy.
"Where are we?" Andrew slowly turned in place, taking in the water, the beach, and the dense woods that led right up to the shore.
"We call it Dragonfly Island cause, well, those," Nix pointed to a dragonfly as it buzzed between them, "They're everywhere. Come on, the welcome wagon's waiting for you back home."
"Home?" Andrew felt a sinking pit open up in his stomach. He didn't remember his home. He must have one, he was sure of it. He felt the warmth of the word, sensed the feeling of safety and comfort, but he couldn't bring a single image to his mind, "What happened to me?"
"Wish I knew, man. It happened to me too."
"What? What is this place? Why are we here? Why can't I remember anyth-"
"Chill," Nix cut him off, "I can't answer anything if you don't stop to breathe. Even if you do, there's a lot nobody here can answer," He turned and started walking, and Andrew unhappily followed, "What we do know is that someone sends people here. Sometimes we get a few newbies in a week, other times it's months between arrivals, but when they get here it's always the same. They can't remember anything. The boat explodes. I guess whoever sends us doesn't like giving away information," Nix spoke in the well-worn cadence of someone repeating a speech for the hundredth time.
"So... lots of people show up in an exploding boat with all their memories gone?" Andrew would have laughed at the absurdity had he not just barely escaped from a bomb.
"Not lots, but like I said we never know when it'll happen. That's why my job's so important."
"Your job?" Andrew raised an eyebrow. The more Nix spoke, the less anything made sense to Andrew.
"Yeah. I keep lookout. Make sure newbies get out of the boat before they go all-" Nix made a guttural noise and pantomimed a blast, "And I blow the horn to let everybody know to expect company," He pulled the ram's horn from his belt and swung it around proudly, "Best job in town, usually. Though sometimes the new kids cry," He gave Andrew a long look, "If you feel like you need to, by the way, it's fine. I won't judge."
"I don't feel like crying," Andrew furrowed his brows at the charred debris in the water, "I just want answers."
"Well, follow me and I'll tell you what I know. As long as you don't ask why we're here, where we're from, or how we got here I can answer pretty much anything else," He slung an arm around Andrew's shoulder and steered the taller boy toward the treeline.
"Those are exactly the questions I wanted to ask," Andrew shook his head, "Where are we going, then?" He gestured at the narrow dirt path they were headed down as they passed through the trees.
"Little settlement where we all live. About eighty of us at the moment. Mostly teenagers. Some kids. It's not far."
"And you all just... live here? Hasn't anyone come looking? Have you tried building a boat? A signal fire?"
"Again with the rapid-fire questions. Yes. No. Yes. Yes. Okay? There're rocks and crap in the water all around so anything we've tried to build crashes. The little boats we turn up in have some kind of navigation built into the motor. They pull some tricky maneuvers to avoid sinking. By the time I got here the older kids had given up on signal fires, and in the two years since I washed up I haven't seen any planes or ships for us to flag down. No one's gonna swoop in and save the day."
"You've been here two years?" Andrew's heart sank.
"That's nothing, man. The first kids got here almost five years ago."
"Holy shit," Andrew's voice came out in a shocked whisper.
"I know, but don't look so glum. You're actually one of the lucky ones. You remember your name," Nix smiled, "I don't."
"You said your name was Nix."
"I had to think of something, yeah? Can't just be 'hey you'. Nah, man, maybe one out of five don't have real names here. There's a map in the meeting hall, though. We pick a city. Phoenix, Arizona was mine. Like the bird, you know?"
"Yeah, they're mythical, right?" Andrew shook his head in surprise. He knew about mythical birds but not how old he was.
"Hell yeah. Those suckers are fireproof and they reincarnate."
Andrew laughed at Nix's enthusiasm. He had to admit he liked the kid. Nix had mischief in his eyes and there was something pleasant about the fast, heavily accented way he spoke.
As they walked deeper through the woods, the sunlight began to struggle to get through the thick canopy of leaves. If it weren't for the salty tang in the air, it'd be impossible to believe they were still so close to the beach.
"It's just over this hill," Nix turned to Andrew and gave him an appraising look. Andrew was a little over average height with a lean, muscular frame. He was of East Asian descent, and his short black hair had seaweed stuck in it. His clothes and skin were soggy and covered in sand and dirt. Nix narrowed his eyes. It simply wouldn't do. He started smacking damp sand off the amnesiac's arms, "Clean yourself up a bit. Wanna make a good impression, don't you?" He chuckled.
Andrew tried his best to shake sand and seaweed from his hair. He cleaned off as much of the clinging sediment as possible then gave up, "This is as good as it's gonna get, kid."
"Who you calling 'kid'? You're what, seventeen?"
"Seventeen?" Andrew yelped. He didn't feel that young. He felt very grown.
"At most," Nix gave a snorting laugh at Andrew's freaked out look, "Come on, man. We take any longer and they're gonna send a search party for us. It's been ages since I blew the signal horn."
As they topped the hill the trees thinned out enough to see ahead. There was a large valley below them with five very old-looking wooden structures around a central, grassy square. The two buildings along either side were long and low. The one on the far end was wide and sprawling, with many entrances and a huge chimney at the back end. The closest building was much smaller, but had a second story with an ominous lack of windows. Next to it was a tiny shack, completely dwarfed by the others, and the only one whose door was made of heavy steel instead of wood.
The grass around the buildings was worn through in places with well-trodden dirt paths, and chairs and picnic tables could be seen dotting the place. On the far side of it all were fields of crops, what was obviously a stable, and a grove of fruit trees. Just as Nix had said, teenagers and children could be seen milling about in the grassy open space at the center of the buildings. Eighty seemed a fair estimate.
"I thought you said people have only been here a few years?" Andrew felt his jaw go slack with shock, "How'd a bunch of teenagers build all this?"
"The buildings were already here. Had tools and supplies and blankets, stuff for survival. Don't ask me how, 'cause I don't know. Even Etta doesn't know, and she was here first."
"This is some really sick shit, Nix. Like a really elaborate joke. How'd I get here? Why? Why don't I remember? Why did someone send a crapload of teenagers to an island?"
Nix just shook his head, "Come on; they're waiting."