Water lapping, lazy waves.
The smell of salt on the wind.
Jack’s eyes open to palm trees stretching sideways into a wall of sky, and then all falls into the abyss of sleep.
The stubborn coconut caves, splitting like a skull. Jack’s greedy mouth sucks at the wound as his hands shake with gratitude for the fruit’s sour water. Somewhere over the trees, a bird screams and Jack’ hunger-lit eyes bulge as he drops the fruit and runs into the jungle dark.
Jack crashes through the undergrowth and spills onto the beach. Seagulls take to the sky from the back of the battered Cessna. He comes to his knees, spitting sand, in time to watch the gulls soar away. If he weren’t so thirsty, he would cry.
If he was able, Jack would make a fire, but he isn’t able. Even if his hands would stop shaking long enough, he can’t remember shit from his boy scout days and his survivalist buddy, Ralph, is dead in the back of the plane. Instead, Jack curls up in the cockpit, hugging his knees to his body, trying to keep himself warm. He watches the moon and tries to let the ocean sing him to sleep. He listens to it whisper on the beach:
Jack clamps both hands over his mouth to keep from screaming. He hears his own heart, the hushing ocean outside, and Ralph’s whisper behind him.
“You stepped in it this time, didn’t ya?”
He peers over the padded seat’s shoulder. Ralph’s body is slumped, head leaning against the broken window. He looks like he could be sleeping.
“Maybe I am just snoozing, Jackie. Wanna come back here and check?
Even his laugh sounds dead. Jack rubs his hands up and down his arms, trying to scrub off the goosebumps.
“Shut up, Ralph.”
The daylight doesn’t do Ralph any favors. He’s swelling up, lips purple, and the right side of his face is one giant bruise. Jack can’t bring himself to look at the eyes. He ties his T-shirt around his face to keep the smell out or else he knows he’ll vomit. Jack doesn’t know if his body can survive vomiting at this point.
He tries to ignore the flies, but when he grabs the dead man’s arm, they swarm in a buzzing, hostile cloud. Jack runs from the plane as fast as he can, plunging his hands into the sea foam, letting the caustic salt burn his raw skin, wash away the death.
Fuck it, he thinks. He can have the plane. Him and his fuckin’ flies.
Jack’s legs are going numb. He’s been crouched in the thickets for god only knows how long, waiting to see another rat. He needs food and he’s too weak to chase the birds. He might be too weak to catch these rats even if they do happen to run across his path, but he figures it’s worth a shot.
They joked about crashing. Jack’s never been sold on the whole idea of a big, bearded God watching the world from on-high but, given his latest misadventure, he’s feeling a little more agnostic than usual. Though he still can’t believe in god, he’s at least willing to consider karma.
That’s what you get, he thinks to himself. You get jinxed.
It was hilarious at the time, cracking jokes about Ralph getting fat on oysters while Jack chewed on palm fronds and drank his own urine.
“Shellfish allergy,” he says out loud, and then mentally kicks himself.
Keep it down, stupid. You’re scaring the dinner.
He drifts off at some point, waiting for the rats. He dreams he’s back in the plane. Ralph was in the back with the map trying to figure out why they hadn’t seen the island yet while Jack sweat bullets in the pilot’s seat. They’d flown over a few little patches of land, but there was a lot of ocean and they didn’t really know what the fuck they were doing. He couldn’t remember why he’d been so sure this would work, but he’d been confident as hell when they took off. He believed it was a foolproof plan. He said as much to Ralph.
It better be, Ralph said, considering the biggest fool I know is flying the plane.
“Put it down, Jack. The next island you see, just land. We don’t know where we are and this thing doesn’t have enough fuel to circle around looking for a fucking gas station.”
“Then what? Stick our thumbs out and try to hitch a ride?”
“Better than swimming with the sharks, Jackie.” Ralph said, strapping himself into the back seat.
“You’re not going to ride shotgun?”
“Hell no. I want to live.”
“Thanks a lot. Some friend you are.”
“Hey, I’m here, aren’t I? You wanted to go all D.B. Cooper, and I told you it was a stupid idea, but here we are. I’d say I’ve done my friend duty.”
Jack felt sick. He’d only landed the Cessna once and it wasn’t the smoothest landing, but he’d done alright. That had been on tarmac though, and he’d had Big Benny there to coach him through it. He adjusted his belt.
“Don’t act like you came along for moral support, Ralph.”
Ralph laughed; a short, impatient sound.
“Alright Jack. Don’t get bent out of shape. Just try to put us down, ok?”
“I’ll get us on dry land,” Jack said, “I just don’t know how we’re going to get off again.”
“I’ll tell you what’s going to happen,” Ralph said, “We’re going to hold out for a few days, maybe a few weeks, and we’ll either get picked up by some kind of Coast Guard patrol or whatever the fuck they have out here, or our good friends will come find us.”
“Maybe we should take our chances with the sharks,” Jack said.
Ralph didn’t answer
Jack navigated toward the beach below, grasping onto the wild, illogical hope that this was Big Benny’s island. They would refuel, and Benny would take over and fly them to the mainland, just like they’d planned. They’d get drunk on local booze and wipe their asses with hundred-dollar bills and live happily ever after.
He went in too fast. He tried to pull up and the whole plane shook like crazy. He was out of beach, speeding toward the rocks at the water’s edge. He panicked and banked toward the trees. The wing hit the ground and, right before everything went black, the world flipped sideways.
When he woke up, he slid onto the floor of the plane. A loud, throbbing sound pounded through his head, and he was sure he was dying. He tasted blood and spat out a thick glob of red saliva and chunks of teeth.
He heard Ralph, but all Jack could think about was getting to the water and washing the hellish pain off his face. A bloody stream coursed into his eye, and his arms shook so violently he dropped to his elbows and army crawled out of the cabin.
He fell, screaming as he hit the ground. The sand was hot and rough, but that discomfort was drowned out by the thunder in his head and the soothing hiss of the waves.
Jack’s eyes opened to palm trees stretching sideways into a wall of sky, and then it all fell into the abyss of sleep.
Jack hisses when he wakes. His neck and back are one big cramp. It’s dark now, and he can’t see shit. He stands up and turns in a circle, trying to get some sense of direction, but there’s nothing. The moonlight can’t make it through the trees here.
He starts walking. He’ll either break through the trees, or realize he’s heading into jungle and then turn around. He moves slow, knowing it would be pretty in-character for him to survive a plane crash only to trip over a tree root and split his head on a fucking rock.
The ocean gets louder, the ground softer. He’s heading in the right direction. When he breaks through the trees, he collapses into the sand and stares up into the sea of stars.
That dead laugh. Jack bolts upright, his back spasming in protest. There’s someone crouched down in the trees. They’re rocking side to side. Jack crab-crawls backward, sand flying from his flailing feet, heart pounding in his chest. He can hear it whisper, but can’t make out its words.
“What do you want, huh?”
He throws a handful of sand at it. The salty grains scatter. It laughs at him again, that creaking, groaning laugh.
“Fuck off!” Jack yells.
Thunder booms. A few drops land on his face right before the rain falls in sheets. Already soaking wet, he backs away from the trees. The crouching shape crawls forward, following him onto the beach. It rises, unfurls, stands on bony legs. It straightens up until it towers over Jack. The rib cage heaves. The thing is darker than the jungle shadows. Its face opens, jaw stretching down to its chest. The yawning mouth is darker still, a black hole in the night.
Jack runs. His feet sink into the sand, slowing him down like in every nightmare he’s ever had. He fights wind and rain and soft earth all the way back to the Cessna. Water bounces off its metal shell in a bright, moonlit halo. Jack climbs into the cabin and presses his face against the window, looking back at the trees, looking for the monster. All he can see is rain.
Ralph’s stink is thick and warm. Jack covers his face with his hands. It’s still night, but the rain has passed. Beneath the sounds of the waves slapping beach, he hears voices. Jack stumbles from the plane.
“Hello!” he shouts.
“Well, hello there.”
Jack knows that voice. He turns, afraid of what he’ll see, afraid he’ll see nothing.
A beauty of a sailboat is parked behind him, hull half out of the water. Three suits are standing on the beach, smiling at him with too-perfect teeth. Ruben and Roman, the twins, laugh to each other. Their eyes gleam from sunken hollows. Cesar, their shaggy-bearded tag-along, stands behind them, adjusting his jacket sleeve cuff. Jack is used to seeing him in grimy work clothes and wonders if Cesar has ever worn a suit before.
“Where’s the party, boys?” Jack croaks.
Roman, the usual spokesman for the group, steps forward.
“You’ve got some balls, man, stealing from us.”
“I’m sorry,” Jack whispers. “Please, please take me back. I’m so sorry. Your money, it’s all there.”
He points to the Cessna. His arm feels like it weighs a hundred pounds.
“Take you back?” Roman looks at his brother and Cesar as though considering Jack’s proposition. He says, “We’ll take our money back for sure, for sure, but we don’t need you.”
“Please.” Jack feels dizzy, light enough to float away.
“We don’t need you but we’ll admit; we’re impressed. Takes some real balls, man, ripping us off. So, I’ll tell you what…”
Beside him, Ruben fumbles around in his breast pocket. He comes out with a knife.
“We’re gonna take those balls with us,” Roman finishes and gives Ruben a nod.
Jack looks past the advancing twin to Roman, the brains of the operation and, in this desperate situation, Jack’s new God.
“Please,” he rasps, “I don’t want to die.”
“If you don’t want to die, then you better love to run,” Roman yells.
Ruben sprints forward and Jack runs for the trees. He prays his legs make it, prays the ripped meathead behind him, dressed like a fucking Reservoir Dog, trips and falls and gives Jack enough time to make it into the jungle.
He drinks too fast and rolls away from the puddle to puke before plunging his face again into the shallow pool. He’s way past worrying about parasites, but the thought is still there, buried beneath the euphoric bliss of his quenched thirst.
Jack sits up. Water drips from his chin. In front of him stands a weathered shack, cobbled together from rotting plywood and corrugated metal sheets. A light burns inside, glowing through the spaces between boards. Jack stands, shaky, looking around for signs of life, listening for the maniac gangster chasing him through the jungle. All is quiet. All is still.
He sticks his head into the shack. A little Coleman lantern sits on a tree stump turned make-shift table. Beside it lies an old-school metal lunch pail containing what looks like half of a sandwich wrapped in plastic.
“No fuckin’ way,” says Jack.
He crawls into the shelter and grabs the lunchbox, closing and opening the rusted lid again and again, expecting the sandwich inside to disappear. When it doesn’t, he rips away the plastic wrap, laughing hysterically. It’s plain bologna, unmarred by mold and insect-free.
“God bless Saran Wrap!” Jack howls around a mouthful of processed meat and white bread.
Kermit the Frog smiles up from the tin shell, one eye devoured by orange rust. Jack had one just like it as a teenager, but he’d used his to store weed and pages ripped from Hustler magazines. He’d kept it in the treehouse, where he and his friends would hide whenever they ditched class. They’d pass around a joint, singing “It’s Not Easy Being Green,” or discussing life’s big questions, like whether or not zombies could breathe under water.
Jack bites down on something hard. Pulling it out from between his teeth, he sees it’s a twig. He spits out a soggy wad of brown leaves and gritty sand.
He’s just hydrated enough to cry.
Tears blur his vision, but not enough to keep him from noticing the lunchbox has disappeared, and the Coleman lantern.
Jack spins around, no longer in the plywood shack, but inside a cave. It’s dark, too dark for him to see anything, but he can hear something, feel something, crawling toward him.
Jack scrambles out, arms up, shielding his face from the palm frond blades that bite into his skin. The cuts sting, but he runs into the night, panting, heart drumming, until he’s out in the open again, careening forward onto the beach.
There’s the Cessna, shining beneath the full moon. The suits are gone, and their sailboat.
If they were ever really there, Jack thinks. My old business associates sailing up to the island in designer suits makes as much sense as stumbling across a miracle bologna sandwich.
Jack’s emotions spiral, relief and hopelessness somersaulting around in his chest. The waves tumble onto the sand, but there’s a rhythmic splashing behind their whisper. Jack stands and looks out to sea.
Hunch-backed men emerge from the water. Jack knows, even before he hears the tell-tale, horror-movie moans, before the clouds part and the moon reveals their rot-consumed faces, what these men have come for. Like Roman and Ruben and their half-wit side-kick, they’ve come for him. For his flesh.
Not real, Jack thinks. Not real, not real, notreal, notrealnotrealnotreal.
From the trees behind him floats the creaking, groaning laugh.
Jack runs for the plane. The undead herd staggers onto land, cutting him off from the safety of the wreckage. Bare teeth shine from lipless faces. Fingers grab at his shirt, graze his skin. Threadbare fabric tears when Jack pulls away, leaving a slack-jawed zombie with a fistful of grimy ribbons. Jack reaches the Cessna and pulls himself inside, away from the horde.
A numbing absence of sound.
Outside there is nothing but the moon and the waves.
The plane wreaks of death. Jack curls up, trying to conserve whatever body heat he has left. His clothes stink like stagnant water, and his stomach rolls as the smell mingles with the wafts of wet rot from the back of the plane.
“You were so scared they’d find you, that they’d come hunting down their money and leave you in a shallow grave somewhere…
Jack’s hands cover his ears to block out that groaning, creaking laugh. Ralph’s whisper seeps through his fingers.
“I bet you wish they’d find you now. I bet you’d give all that money for the comfort of a shallow grave, huh Jackie?”
One dry sob lurches from Jack’s mouth but he can’t cry. His body can’t spare the tears.
“I know I would…”
Ralph’s face, white and waxy, laced with blue veins, floats into the cockpit. His swollen lips crack and split as they stretch into a hellish smile.
“I would if I could…” Ralph groans.
Jack screams, pushes Ralph aside, and leaps through the door. A line of undead stand in knee-deep ocean, facing the shore, a human barricade. In unison, the zombies step forward. Jack’s seen this before, a coordinated squeeze. It’s a hunting move; a beating line. Jack is being herded.
He runs back to the jungle. It’s what they want, but what else can he do? His pace slows to a jog. He knows now that he’s running toward something just as fast as he’s running away. When he finds himself outside the mouth of the cave, he’s not even surprised. Jack falls to his knees. He can’t make himself go forward. All around him, footsteps rustle in the dark. It’s the beating line, closing in.
The cave yawns. Water drips from its ceiling, pooling just outside the mouth. The walking dead emerge from the brush around him. Twin streams of black run out from the subterranean darkness. Jack lets out a thin moan. The streams form long-fingered hands and rise from the ground. Jack closes his eyes and the last thing he hears is the groaning laugh.
If you like this story, consider checking out it's flash fiction companion, "No Man's Island," in 99 Tiny Terrors