The anonymous postcards had been arriving for months.
They weren’t strictly postcards. Short scribbled notes, hastily written in the shiny white frame around the back of a polaroid.
Today’s note said: “You’d rather be here.”
I turned the polaroid over, holding its white borders in two hands as I stared at the image. A waterfall plunged into a sapphire pool, lazy palm trees dotted on its grassy banks.
Whoever wrote it was right. I would rather be there.
This year was my annus horribilus. My business had gone south after a dodgy employee — Barry Dresden, damn him — defrauded us for a few hundred thousand dollars. The day I found out I fired him. I still remember him crying as we escorted him out, how he told us his medical insurance had refused to cover his wife’s cancer. I was too angry at the time to feel bad. I knew our insurance wasn’t the best, but you can’t just steal from others to solve your problems.
I started working long hours. Then drinking late to blow off some steam.
My wife had an affair. I didn’t get it. I’m not a slob. I work out. Women tell me I look like that dead Aussie that played the Joker. She told me there was more to it, that I drink too much, that the affair was a “cry for attention” and some other self-help bullshit.
Then one night I got shit-faced and we argued. The neighbours called the cops. The next day she took my four year old daughter and moved back to Maine.
And here I am, still in Miami.
The fluorescent light above me flickered. I picked up a pin and arranged the polaroid next to some of the others I liked, then pushed the pin in. I stepped back from the cork board hanging above the desk next to my computer and looked at the polaroids – the white sand beaches, the hammock hanging between two palm trees, a blue sky stretching overhead.
Pinned underneath all these images, a short note on scrap of foolscap legal paper:
One week, 100% free, all expenses paid. Call 555-234-0982 and I’ll send a boat to Miami Beach Marina.
- Your friend.
I didn’t know who my “friend” was, but after two hundred something polaroids, I decided to call him. He either needed to quit the prank or come good with the offer.
The phone rang twice before the click of an answering machine cut in.
“Congratulations! You’re only one more step away from the holiday of a lifetime! After the beep, simply leave your name, number and desired time of departure from Miami Beach Marina, J Dock, slip 18. That’s J-18. We’ll see you then. Come dressed for a week in paradise – you’ll only need a few clothes and a big ol’ smile, and we’ll return you to Miami feeling better than ever.”
The machine beeped.
“This is John,” I said, “responding to your postcards. Eleven AM tomorrow works for me. I’ll see you then.”
I scribbled J-18 on a piece of paper and started thinking about what I should pack.
I shrugged my right shoulder, feeling the weight of my backpack. Inside: three button down short-sleeves, two pairs of shorts, swimming trunks, flip flops. A light hoodie. Some cologne, sunscreen and a twelve pack of Trojans.
Enough for a week of fun.
I’d shaved this morning — it was good to see that clean jawline again — and dressed in my vacation best: tan beach shorts and a white linen shirt, sleeves rolled up.
I felt good.
I scanned the berth numbers as I sauntered down J dock. Berth twelve opposite twenty five. Sixteen opposite twenty-one.
Eighteen was right at the end.
A old fishing boat bobbed, side-tied to the dock. It was thirty-something feet long with a squarish pilot’s bay jutting upward out of the middle of the hull. Two large black motors hung off the back. Bright orange rust streaks ribboned down from rivets in the bow.
A scrawny man with a permanent sailor’s squint stood next to the boat. He was about five feet tall with twig-thin, tattooed arms, crossed tight on his chest. He watched me approaching and nodded a bald head, sweat glinting in the hot sun.
“You’re John, I take it,” he said in a surprisingly deep Bostonian growl. “Welcome aboard.” He lifted one tattooed arm and waved in the vague direction of the boat, then smiled, showing a row of discoloured teeth.
“So did you send me the cards?” I asked, looking down at him.
He peered up at me, widening one eye from his squint, half smiling like he was talking to a small child. “Do I look like the sentimental type to you, kid?”
My jaw clenched. I wanted to push the little man over. Punch him in the stomach. I imagined him crumpling over, that condescending squint replaced with surprise.
I clenched my right fist. We stared at each other.
He showed me more of his brown teeth and broke the silence. “Get in the boat, son. You’ll meet ‘em soon enough.”
He started toward the bow, bending to worry at the loose knots holding the boat at the jetty. As as he moved, I saw the slow, deliberate movements of advanced age. Shame flooded in and I realised I’d been fantasizing about beating up an old man.
I stepped over a moulded rope and into the boat and told myself I just needed a vacation.
The old man waved a twiggy arm as I jumped off the boat with my backpack in hand and onto a rickety, hand-made wooden dock. “Good luck!” He called, then turned to tie the boat.
I ignored his strange goodbye. I shouldered my pack, walked down the dock and onto a beach of fine golden sand, completely engrossed in the perfection in front of my eyes.
This island was just like the postcards.
I reached the beach and looked left and right, scanning the long expanse of sand glittering in the afternoon sun. I was alone ashore. Turquoise waves gently rolled into shore and whispered as they dissolved into burnished sea foam. Ahead, a forested mountain peak rose proud against a curtain of cloudless sky. Palm trees fringed the beach, grey trunks curving up from tufted grass, lime green coconuts nestled under dark green leaves. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, the salt of the sea mixing with the mineral warmth of the baking sand. Seagulls dipped and cawed in the air above. Behind me, the waves gathered then hushed on the shore, marking a slow, relaxed rhythm.
I wanted to explore, to find out who else was here, where I’d sleep. I wished I’d bought all the postcards with me so I could find them all, tick them off, take my own photos to make them truly real.
I set off, heading inland towards the forests edge, and quickly found a trail of packed dirt lined by scruffy tufts of grass. It led off the sand and into the trees, and I followed.
Before long, dark green foliage thickened and closed around me. A fine, gauzy haze of moisture hung in the air. It was hard to breathe. My shirt dampened and clung to my arms and chest. The clear air of the beach surrendered to the light musk of moss and the scent of loam and leaves and rotting undergrowth.
My excitement waned as the trail started to incline and the dirt underfoot turned to slippery clay, and I briefly considered turning back. The images from the postcards spurred me on.
I was not afraid of a little jungle, I told myself, and this was proof that I would not be one of thousands of tourists. I put one arm through the other loop of my backpack and started upward, watching my feet as I tried to secure decent footing.
Sweat streamed from my brow and my calves had started to burn when the trail suddenly levelled off. Ahead, through the thinning foliage, a green clearing bathed in sunlight emerged. I exhaled in relief. I hurried along the path, the leaves slapping my shoulders and face.
The blue sky re-appeared with the mountain peak rearing up ahead. Emerald green grass, evenly mowed, replaced the slippery clay and expanded into a large lawn fringed by the forest. A modest log cabin squatted in the center.
I started towards the cabin, and then I heard the whistling.
I knew the tune, mournful and slow, and my brain raced to place it’s sad notes.
Then I saw the whistler, lying in the darkness of the eaves of the cabin. “Hello?” I called across the clearing, walking still closer. “Are you the one who sent the postcards?”
He kept whistling, and it suddenly came to me. Auld Lang Syne.
I continued. “This place is a little overgrown, I’m glad to see someone else here — ”
“Me too!” He interrupted. “And you’re just in time!”
I knew that voice.
That smarmy California accent.
That high pitched, voice, pleading.
He sat up and turned to me, a grin spreading on his thieving, lying face.
He smiled. “Hi John. I’m so glad you came.”
He turned away and rolled himself out of the hammock and stepped towards the hut. He reached for a long, rigid object leaning against the wall, something long and darkly shining that made a dull metallic click as he lifted it. He cradled it with two hands as he walked around his hammock, keeping me in sight as he spoke. ”This Island has rules. I don’t know who made them, but whoever it is, they… enforce them.”
As he stepped out of the shadows and into the grass, he lifted his shotgun and pointed it at me.
“The rules are: one in, one out. You’re in. I’m out.”
He walked towards me. The muzzle of the gun loomed. My chest tightened and I stood frozen, words tumbling uselessly in my mind as I failed to think of what to do or say. He closed in. I could smell the rank sweat, the unwashed beard and long greasy hair. His green eyes, always startling, held the hue of madness.
He pointing the gun at my crotch and grinned. “I would love to kill you. I’ve dreamed of killing you.”
Memories came unbidden. Me, shoulders back, shaking a pointed finger, accusing. Him, a mess of tears, lifting a picture of his wife from his cardboard box and holding it up, asking forgiveness. Security dragging him through the door. People in the office, still and silent, looking at coffee mugs or window sills, anything but me.
I realised I was holding my breath.
He lifted the barrel up to my chest, and his face twisted in a snarl as he jerked forward and spat in my face. Then he rounded me, sidestepping, gun still pointed at me. He started walking backwards towards the trail.
“I won’t kill you. I’ll let them do that, when no one answers your pleas or postcards.” His eyes darted around and up and I wondered who they were.
He was at the head of the trail now, and he stepped backward into the shadows of the foliage. He paused then, looking at me from under the leaves. “I’m glad you were the one who came.”
Then he turned suddenly and ran, the foliage crashing as he dashed through the jungle.
I stood in shock. I didn’t fully understand. One in, one out. I looked at the cabin, then at the path back to the beach.
Then I remembered the old man with the boat.
I ran after him. I ran down the path, through the thick foliage and over the mud, fear giving me speed. I burst out of the trees and onto the open beach. Ahead, the old man was stepping onto the boat. Barry sat on the foredeck, his shotgun trained at the beach. I bolted down the sand, breath heaving. The engine roared to life and the boat started to move away from the deck.
The boom of a gunshot stopped me in my tracks.
“Stay there, fucker.” Barry called from his seat on the bow of the boat. He lowered the muzzle of the shotgun toward me. The boat floated thirty feet away, the engine idling. The old man was smiling behind the wheel.
“What the fuck is happening? What is this place?” I shouted.
Barry called over his shoulder. “Let’s go. Now.” He looked back at me, still smiling, and the engine fired. The nose of the boat lifted in the ocean, then turned out to sea. The old man lifted an arm without turning around.
The sound of the engine receded. I looked over the edge of the dock and into the clear water, then sat down cross legged, trying to think straight.
One in, one out.
And then: a beating rumble, soft at first, now louder. Hope sparked like match. I squinted at the horizon, searching for a dark spot that would herald my rescue. The rumble became a thrumming roar — behind me, certainly — and up.
I sprang to my feet, twisting as I looked skyward.
A helicopter. Small and shining black, sliding around the edge of the mountain. I waved my arms, jumping. The wooden dock shook alarmingly but I didn’t care as it cut through the air, closer and closer, then slowing. It was almost above me now, its rotors thumping heavily, and I thought it was going to land.
It stopped, hanging some hundred feet in the air. Then something bright and orange and rectangular fell from the opposite side of the chopper. It hit the sand near the dock with a slap, kicking up sand, bouncing once, then twice, then landing on a long side before toppling flat.
I waited to see what would happen, what else might fall, but nothing came. The chopper lifted its nose up and around, rotors thumping against gravity as it slanted away and around the mountain.
I walked slowly toward the orange package in the sand. It looked like a bright orange briefcase, about two-feet long, one high, maybe twelve inches deep. Two metallic, heavy duty latches recessed along one side. I reached the briefcase and knelt down, running my hand along the surface, dimpled and rubbery like a well used basketball. I planted one hand in the sand and placed one on the briefcase, and leaned over, half expecting to hear the ticking of a bomb.
I sat back on my knees and placed my thumbs on the metal latches and after a few attempts of pressing and prising, found that I could slide them outward, at the same time, away from the center. An industrial-strength click followed, and the case cracked opened.
I lifted the lid. Inside, a letter, typed on thick, white paper.
Welcome to the Island.
Supplies will arrive weekly at the dock for a maximum of 52 weeks.
Mail will be picked up by the supply boat and delivered as instructed.
Remember: one in, one out, strictly enforced.
You have 365 days to find your replacement.
Under the paper, some items were nestled in moulded foam. A pen, a sheaf of paper with some envelopes. A polaroid camera. A handgun.
I stood up and looked back to where the helicopter had disappeared around the mountain. The sun now stood low on the horizon. I wanted to get to shelter.
Barry’s words replayed slowly.
I’m glad you’re the one who came.
Names drifted in. Names of those who’ve wronged me. Ignored me. Left me when I needed them most.
I reached over and closed the briefcase with a click, then crouched down to pick it up. It was surprisingly light. I fit it under one arm and started up the beach toward the trail.
I was smarter than Barry. I could do this.
I needed a strategy.
Then my mind spun through more names. Better names.
People who love me. Owe me. Trust me.
I walked deeper into the dark foliage, the damp swallowing the orange glow of the setting sun.
One in, one out.