“Never trust a survivor until you find out what they did to stay alive,” she says, approaching the boy steadily as he backs away, tripping over a pile of wet logs in the process and falling backwards into the snow.
Even as he whimpers – a cascading jumble of pathetic pleas and empty threats – she continues to inch toward him with the felling axe raised above her right shoulder. It’s not that she isn’t empathetic – he’s only a kid after all, her guess would be about 18 or 19, but the fact of the matter is, she’s always been a survivor and surviving means putting yourself first. Numero Uno.
“I’m sorry I asked! Please!”
He’s still wriggling around in the snow, yellow staining the otherwise untainted ice as he pisses his pants. She can’t help but find humour in the fact that it looks like the sun’s coming out of his ass.
“I honestly would’ve preferred the company,” she says as she reaches his feet “but this is the only way I see us getting out of here.” He lets out a final yelp as her axe comes down and suddenly yellow isn’t the only colour painting the snow.
It had been two weeks since the accident. Fourteen full and agonizing days since the Sundowner, a four person carrier, crashed into a small summit the pilot failed to see because of testing weather conditions. He died immediately, so naturally Regina left him there as the gas tank sparked and combusted.
His son, however, had been unconscious but otherwise unharmed except for a scratch or two so she pulled him out of the carrier and into the safety of a small alcove. There they remained for a week, hoping that someone would come when no radio contact could be established. It soon became obvious the weather wouldn’t allow that, even on the off chance that someone was actually aware they were out here.
It was winter and when the snow didn’t fall, the rain pounded down, turning the earth into a muddy slush. The temperatures plummeted further every day, erasing green from the landscape to create a blank canvas. Beautiful as it was, it eliminated the possibility of foraging and setting traps became an impossibility. Even if it wasn’t, there were no animals to hunt for – whatever wasn’t in hibernation, wouldn’t be able to make the treacherous hike up this way. Which meant only one thing, they had to go down.
Unfortunately, Jose – whose name she only learnt two days after the accident when he decided to speak again – had twisted his ankle and although it wasn’t a life-threatening injury, it meant keeping the pressure off. However, that wasn’t an option, so they just had to take things slow and soldier down, because she sure as hell wasn’t dying up here – especially not after what she’d been through six years before.
So on the eighth day, they set out. Jose with a makeshift crutch and Regina with an axe, a bag of clothes she’d found a few feet from the wreckage and a bottle of distilled piss. Classy gal, she thought. It was a timely process with Jose having to take regular breaks, but they made decent progress on the first day, especially given the dangerous route they were taking. It was slippery and narrow, but the quickest way down by Regina’s estimations.
They continued this way for the next three days; hiking during the day and stopping at dusk to kindle a fire from Jose’s dead father’s clothes, a couple of dry twigs Regina picked up in the alcove they left behind and her knowledge of survival skills from six years ago. Much easier, she thought as the fire sparked and she remembered being in a sodden cocktail dress, cold and shaking so much that it was impossible to rub the twigs together for long enough.
On the twelfth day, she was woken by an ache in her stomach that made her acutely aware of the one thing she’d been successfully avoiding thus far; she was hungry. Not eating is an interesting thing really. The first couple of days are sheer torture – your head’s spinning, your stomach’s screaming and food is the only thing you can think about, but as time continues and your body realises it’s not getting fed, it goes into survival mode and you can mostly move it to the back of your mind. They were, however, nearing the two-week mark and that wasn’t an easy thing.
As she lay face to face with Jose on the only sliver of dry land they could find, her stomach in a violent protest, she considered the only thing that would distract her and in the process save her from losing her mind. So she slid her hand in between his legs.
He was more than half her age sure, but she had always been complimented on her looks. A cared-for porcelain complexion complimented by her short, blonde crop and blue-green eyes. Her hair had been long her entire life, until six years ago when being stranded on an island during hurricane season meant that it was always dripping wet – she decided then to hack it off and had kept short ever since then.
Jose’s eyes flew open. Dark, chocolate eyes that seemed light in comparison to a head of dark hair that he wore in a middle-parting and down to his chin. He was handsome. Young, but handsome. Not that this was about attraction for her, she just welcomed a distraction.
“What are you-”
She cut him off by pushing her lips into his. At first he didn’t resist, but then he pulled away, rolling onto the icy ground beyond and coming to his feet clumsily. With his breath racing and his hand held out in front of him, he cast bewildered eyes on her. She met his gaze, completely unashamed. “Well, I tried,” she said before rolling onto her back and staring up at the blackening clouds.
“What the hell was that about?”
She doesn’t reply, so the boy continued. “Listen, you’re a nice looking lady and all, but I have a girlfriend back home.”
She closed her eyes, trying to meditate or somehow still her mind. She didn’t know how it worked, she’d never tried it before, only seen people zenning out on movies. Trying to focus proved harder than she thought and it only made on recurring thought more prominent; I need to eat.
So instead she sat up on the cold ground, looking at Jose who was still standing there explaining himself.
“- And anyway,” he said, “wouldn’t that just tire us out even more?”
She smiled, pushing herself off the ground and gathering what little they had before putting out the small fire that was still crackling softly. “Don’t overthink it, kid” she said, patting him on the shoulder, “it was just something to do. Ready to go?”
The slightest touch of pink graced his cheeks before he nodded and she handed him the branch that now dutifully served as his crutch.
As they started their walk, Regina’s thoughts wandered. The unwanted memories about her time on the island sprouted from her deteriorating mind. Glimpses of the small plane plummeting down flashed before her. She still believed that they weren’t meant to survive and not many of them did, but her and Jack did and he rejected her in a similar way. The only difference was, he made her fall in love with him first.
Glancing back at Jose, she wondered if he was up to something similar? She squeezed her eyes shut, realising how crazy that was – he was just a boy.
Jack. He had been a bastard, but he had survival skills and luckily too, especially considering that she was nothing more than a socialite with her daddy’s credit card and a nice rack. She definitely wouldn’t have survived without him and yet, quite ironically, he tried to kill her on more than one occasion. Remembering how that chapter finally ended made her flinch, so she pushed it back down to where it belonged; locked away.
When they finally stopped for the evening – earlier than planned because of Jose’s complaints – Regina tried unsuccessfully to kindle the fire, despite being able to do it every night before. She could feel the irritation building and not without reason, she was hungry, tired, scared and she had spent the entire day thinking about what she had to do to get herself out of a similar bind before. Her skin crawled and when she finally boiled over, she flung the twigs away with a primal scream before falling to the snow and breaking into a pathetic sob.
“Whoa,” Jose said softly, making his way over by scuttling on his knees “are you okay?”
“No,” she said honestly, truly vulnerable for the first time.
“I-” Jose started, but trailed off. He abandoned speech and simply put his arms around her as she sobbed.
“I can’t do this again,” she cried.
Jose pulled away. “Again? This happened to you before?”
“Something similar, yes.”
The boy settled down in the snow beside her, staring at her with expectant eyes.
“I was on a plane,” she started “with my father and some of his work associates. I really didn’t have any business being there, but daddy thought it would do me good to see how things worked in his world. The plane crashed and when I woke up, my dad was already bleeding out while everyone else had died on impact – well, everyone except for me and Jack Brazer.
I didn’t have any skills to begin with, let alone knowing how to survive, but Jack did. He showed me how to weave baskets from reeds and leaves and set them just behind the tide to trap fish.
He taught me how to kindle a fire, which berries to avoid, how to distil water. Everything I’ve been able to do here has been thanks to Jack Brazer and I-”
She sobbed as her heart ached at the memory of a man she loved and then had to kill. Jose pulled her closer again and as she felt the warmth of his flesh against her, she couldn’t help but wonder if it would still her hunger.
After a while, Jose let her be, moving instead to try his hand at kindling. She looked at him as he rubbed the twigs together unsuccessfully, suspecting the twigs were now too wet to catch. They had run out of kindling the day before and they hadn’t passed any dry patches or alcoves to stock up on, in the last couple of days. That worried her, as there was no way of knowing how long their trek would take and a lack of fire meant a lack of heat and no way to distil urine for drinking water. So no water, no food, no heat and a boy in an increasing amount of pain. May as well call it quits.
She watched him move as she pulled her fingers through her cropped hair – an action that had always soothed her. Not much meat on the bone, she thought, but I wouldn’t need much. As if waking from a lucid dream, she shook her head to get rid of the thoughts. Disgusting thoughts, she chided herself and yet her hunger seemed to disagree with her.
She darted up and past Jose, the icy wind carrying his questions to her. Naturally, he was unsure of where she was going, if she’d be coming back, if she was about to leave him there. All valid questions, but ones she couldn’t take the time to answer, in fear of what she’d end up doing to him. She had to clear her mind first and thought it wouldn’t be a bad time to do a bit of recon anyway.
So she walked for a while and when she felt herself stopping short of tumbling from the edge of a small summit, she was shocked to find she didn’t remember the way there. How far had she walked and in which direction? How could she possibly find Jose again?
She sank down, her knees ploughing into the thick layer of powdery white snow that had covered the landscape that very morning. Was it darker now than when she left Jose? Perhaps, she thought but suddenly found herself uncertain of what the sky looked like before.
Catching a glimpse of something in the corner of her eye, she tiredly pushed herself back up. It was a man. No, two men. Two men in red jackets were heading in her direction from the east and she found her heartbeat racing despite herself.
They were getting closer and she knew she couldn’t let them by without getting them to help her and Jose. “Hey” she shouted as loudly as her parched throat would allow her to, not surprised by how croaky her voice sounded. It worked, the men looked in her direction, pointing as she waved her arms and quickening their pace toward her.
“Ma’am,” the one said, “are you okay?”
He was an older man with a bearded face and two burly eyebrows shading his eyes. The red hood of the windbreaker jacket he wore was pulled tightly around a wind-beaten face.
“I- we’ve been trapped up here. We crashed. We- we didn’t know how to find our way.”
As she studied the younger boy’s face, she felt vaguely aware that her brain was struggling to make connections. Sentences felt harder to utter, despite knowing what she wanted to say. The younger one spoke then. “There’s someone else up here?”
He was young, probably around Jose’s age with sky blue eyes and otherwise light features.
“Yes. A boy.”
“Take us there, we can help and then get you to safety.”
“You know how?”
The men nodded in unison and she felt her soul soar at the prospect of their rescue. She would get to eat and drink and it’ll be warm and she wouldn’t have to think about Jack and that damn island anymore.
“Come,” she said leading them in the direction she thought best. Along the way, they questioned her about how long she’d been here, how they ended up here in the first place, why she had wandered out on her own. She tried to answer them as best she could while conserving as much of the energy she had left in reserve. She didn’t ask them anything. Maybe she should’ve, but she was just too tired.
Miraculously, they found Jose and even more wonderful, was that he had managed to get a fire started against all hopes. He lay curled up and she signalled for the new arrivals to be quiet. They sat down on a sodden log away from Jose, but still close enough to feel the heat of the flames.
“Do you have any food?” The older man asked and looked disappointed when she shook her head. For a moment she wondered why they didn’t have anything to eat. If they were heading up the mountain, wouldn’t they bring provisions? The thought vanished as quickly as it had occurred to her and she looked toward Jose instead.
The boy was stirring in his sleep, groaning every now and again and she could see his face sheen with sweat in the firefight. Is he feverish, she wondered, knowing that his ankle had gotten increasingly worse and acknowledging that their lack of food and water wasn’t helping. Anyway, they’ve been saved. They just needed to make it down the remainder of the way.
“How many days walk?”
“Two,” the older man said.
Two. That’s good, they could make two.
“My friend,” Regina said pointing at Jose, “he’d need help getting down.”
The men looked at each other, nodding before the younger one came up with an idea for a pulley system. For now, they’d rest.
Sleep came surprisingly easy and when Regina awoke the following morning, she was disappointed to find that her mind didn’t feel quite as clear as she expected it would. Groggily, she went over to Jose to check on him. He was shivering, despite beads of sweat playing a sort of Candy Crush on his forehead – popping up, amalgamating into one and then rolling down and off of his head to make way for the next line. He was ill and she’d need to get him to a hospital soon.
The men, she realised with a start. Where are they?
As if hailed by her thoughts, the younger of the two came rushing from the tree line. “He’s gone”, he cried, “he lost his footing and he’s gone.”
His eyes were brimming with tears and despite their short encounter, she felt his pain. She also felt disparaged. Would they still make it to safety now?
Day thirteen was spent in a sombre mood. Regina was concerned about Jose’s condition and the young man, who she now knew as Jack, was mourning the death of the other – was it his father? His friend? Just a travelling companion? She couldn’t remember exactly, but she mourned with him.
“Jack”, she said again, rolling the name around on her tongue and in her thoughts. It’s familiar, she thought but was distracted by Jose as the young man’s actions seemed to become increasingly erratic. She was dying to move, to get down, but she needed the pulley system completed and she couldn’t do it without Jack. Looking over at him, without appearing insensitive, she asked as kindly as she could when they would be able to get on with the pulley.
They spent the rest of the day building it from clothing Jack had available and logs they found lying around. Satisfied, Regina went to sleep knowing they would set off the following day. Home. We’re going home.
The storm woke her. That and the screams of Jose. She could only assume he was in the grips of the demons occupying his feverish dreams. She was shocked at how much worse he looked, the colour had left him, except for two deep and dark rings under his eyes.
The wind was strong, too strong to walk against and she wondered how she would possibly muster the strength to not only make the hike down herself, but to get Jose down too. She looked over at Jack, who was just rising himself and for a moment, he became a flickering image – there the one minute and gone the next.
Her vision was failing her.
“We need to move.”
“We need to eat.”
She agreed with the young man, but in the time she’d been travelling with Jose, they found nothing. Why would that be different now?
“We still have a fire going,” he continued, “we could eat the kid.”
She looked from Jack to Jose. Guilt flooding her as she recalled more than one occasion where she had actually considered that very thing. Now – now she couldn’t imagine it. With safety so close, she could push on.
“I’m joking,” Jack said as she looked back at him. “Look, we’ll warm ourselves for an hour or two and then set off.”
She nodded in agreement. “Is it easy? Getting down, I mean.”
“Yeah, you just follow the trail.” Jack pointed in the direction they come from and she could see the way down, more clearly than anything before. Had they really been that close all this time?
Jose groaned again and she realised how pressing it was to get down. Quickly. How though, she wondered as she realised again how little she had left in her tank. If only I could eat.
“So how did you make it off the island in the end?”
She looked at Jack – now familiar beyond just the name. There was something in his eyes. Who was he? “The island?”
“Yeah, you told me about the island you were stranded on. Remember?”
Did she? She couldn’t remember it, but she’d been forgetting things. She struggled to keep it all straight in her head.
“You said,” Jack continued “that you trust me and I should I trust you.”
She knew him. She – she killed him, didn’t she? She couldn’t keep it straight. She- oh god, she was so hungry. Jose, Jose was dying. She needed to eat. Needed energy. She needed to get him to safety.
She looked at Jack, rising with her axe in hand. “Never trust a survivor until you find out what they did to stay alive.”
She used what little fire she had to cook with and when she had consumed her fill, her mind felt clearer. With renewed energy, she could easily get herself and Jose down – she would even hike through the night.
Despite knowing she did what she had to, she was desperate to get away from her current surroundings. She slushed through blood stained snow and back toward Jose – except Jose wasn’t there. She spun around, looking in every direction. Had he woken up and stumbled off?
She turned ice cold as her mind became crystal clear, recalling the events of the day. Jack Brazer. How had she not recognized him? A ghost from her past.
The realisation hit her like a wall of bricks. A ghost was exactly what he was and if he hadn’t really been there…
What have I –
She walked towards the beheaded corpse, pausing to pay her respects to the boy she so desperately wanted to save. As she stood there, in a pool of Jose’s blood, she knew she could never return from this. She continued on, taking the quickest way down by stepping off the edge of the summit.