It's probably time to consider the possibility that I don't have a goddamn clue what I'm doing.
I let a sixteen-year-old girl—no, not just a sixteen-year-old girl, a dead sixteen-year-old girl—talk me into going on a wild goose chase across the Atlantic in the vain hope of undoing magic she didn't understand with even more magic she didn't understand. And now about ten things that are impossible have all happened at once, and I'm in the middle of organizing an expedition onto an uncharted island that may or may not exist.
Is it too late to mutiny? Like, against myself?
The sun is up. Very much up. As far as I can tell, it's high noon, which is weird, since it's been high noon ever since I regained consciousness. I don't think the sun is moving at all. That would seem to reinforce the idea that this whole thing is all an illusion, which if it is...I guess I'll just try not to think too hard about it.
Half the crew and students are still asleep below, but the rest are up on deck, wondering why the sun is up, trying to stare at it without staring at it, and waiting for me to tell them what to do.
"All right," I say.
In the distance, I hear a monkey screaming. Or a bird or whatever.
"All right," I say again.
"All right?" says the dead sixteen-year-old girl standing next to me.
"All right?" says Ted.
I haven't really used my Big, Scary Captain voice much since we left Cape Cod, so when I finally pull it out, everyone on the deck jumps visibly. That seems to effectively distract from the fact that I'm seemingly yelling at empty air, and it has the added bonus of giving me a second or two to think in silence.
"So—we have to—we need to go ashore and scope out the island. I mean, we technically are ashore, but you know what I mean. So I'll—"
"I'm in," says Gabe.
"I—what? When was the last time you slept?"
"Uh—hmm. Doesn't matter. I'm in."
I should argue. If his parents were here, I would. But they're not, so whatever.
"I'm coming," says Ted, brushing his greasy, diaphanous hair out of his face.
"Aren't you tied to the ship?"
"Who are you talking to?" says Jenny, looking up from her sunbathing.
"You'd think that," Ted says, "but look." He sticks his hand over the railing of the deck, directly through the invisible barrier that used to be there. "Sun on my skin, for the first time in thirty years," he mumbles.
"This is too weird," Sunny says, but then she shrugs, backs up three paces, and takes a running leap over the railing, landing comfortably in the sand. She isn't making footprints, but she's definitely down there, walking around on the island, looking warm for the first time in weeks.
"All right, fine, this could work," I say. "Gabe, Sunny, Ted, we'll all—"
"I'm coming too," says a voice coming up from below. Jacinta steps onto the deck, wearing a tank top and shorts and carrying a shoulder bag, all of which were obviously borrowed, whether with or without permission.
"Look, Doug," she says. "I haven't felt dry ground under my feet in two weeks, and we both know you're going to screw this up, so another adult needs to come along."
"When we're at sea, my word is law—"
"Well, we're not at sea, are we?"
"When we're on land, I can fire you."
"Should fire you."
"Yeah, that's fair."
I check to make sure the centaur is in my pants, and then throw a rope ladder over the side of the ship and climb down.
"Well," Ted says, "I guess we didn't actually run aground?"
"Or else we did a very thorough job of it," I say. The ship is surrounded by sand, and while I can hear and smell the ocean, it's nowhere to be seen. We're in a sandy clearing in the middle of a palm forest, thus lending credence to the theory that this whole thing is an illusion. The hull looks basically undamaged. Over the treetops I can see a mountain in the distance.
"Gabe," I say, "you know more about this Walter/Alice thing than the rest of us. Any thoughts?"
"Well," he says, "like I said, this is probably an illusion. If it is, we've got maybe three options."
"Care to elaborate?"
"The first option is to do nothing and just wait for it to end."
"Not great. Next?"
"The second would be to mess with the centaur and see if we can figure anything out."
"I've got the centaur here—" I pull it out of my pants—"but I'm drawing a blank. What's the third option?"
"Uh...start walking and see what we find?"
"I was afraid you'd say that."
"No, I think he's right," Sunny says. "About all three. We take the centaur, we start walking. If we find something, we find something, and if not...at least we're killing time."
"Who's talking?" says Gabe. "What are they saying?"
"Sunny. She says you're right."
Gabe looks way too pleased.
"Let me carry the centaur," Jacinta says. "I'm the only one with a bag, and you don't want to get testicular cancer."
"Fine." I hand her the centaur, which is reflecting way too much sunlight. "Okay—" I say—"which way?"
"You're asking for input?" Jacinta says. "I thought your word was law."
"I thought we weren't at sea."
She shrugs. "Debatable."
"Well—" I scratch at the sunburn beneath my beard—"I guess we could head toward the mountain and try to get a bird's-eye view of things, or we could head away from the mountain and try to find the shore."
"Couldn't we head to the right or the left, just to be different?"
"Shut up, Ted."
"We could split up," says Sunny. "Team Living and Team Dead?"
"Nah. No, bad idea."
"Up. We're going up."
"Authoritative," Jacinta says. "I like it."
An hour later, the sun still hasn't moved, and the jungle is getting thicker, despite the constant upward slope of the volcanic soil underfoot. The screaming of—birds? monkeys? Lovcraftian whatevers?—is getting louder, and the humid air is getting ever more stifling.
"Are we at the mountain yet?" Ted whines. "I can't walk anymore. I'm so tired."
"Ghosts get tired?"
"Can't you just float? You do that, right? You float?"
"Not here. And I think—I think I'm getting less translucent."
"But didn't you want to be...y'know...not-dead?"
"I wanted to be alive. That's not what this is. This is more like...un-dead."
"Would it help if I told you you're still not leaving footprints?"
He shrugs. "A little."
Sunny interrupts. "Wait, what's that?"
There's something moving in the trees. I thought it was just birds until now, but it's something large. Something tall, and hairy, and--
The jungle comes to an abrupt end, and we're once again standing in a clearing covered in patches of sand and grass. The noon sun is as harsh as it's been all day, and directly ahead of us, munching the leaves off the trees, is a white giraffe. Riding on its back is a woman in a tricorne and eyepatch with thirteen braids, each one supporting a lit candle.
She smiles. Her one visible eye gleams with the fires of hell.
"Ah," she says. "You're here. Welcome to your nightmare."
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