Shockingly, Ted actually shuts up.
I can only assume it's because he's genuinely scared for his life, or his afterlife, or whatever, but it's a small victory—Ted has been a teenager for the last thirty years, so I'll gladly take even the tiniest, most ambiguous hint of maturity. This is good.
Not the situation, obviously. The situation is not good. We're trapped on an island that may or may not exist, with at least one evil ghost, and our only bargaining chip just got taken away from us. Other than that, though, things are peachy. I'm enjoying the tropical weather.
"So what do we do?"
The question comes out of nowhere and breaks through the silence, which I'm just now realizing was impossibly protracted—no one's said anything for several minutes, which is a hint as to just how uncanny this island is. Gabe, who knows everything. Sunny, the impossibly-bubbly-even-in-death one. Jacinta, who just an hour or two ago was reminding me she outranks me on land. All of them silent. Sunny and Gabe are squeezing each other's hands till their knuckles have turned white, but I'm not sure either of them is even aware of it. Jacinta is clenching her teeth so hard I'm expecting her to break her own jaw any minute now. I don't think I've ever seen her scared—I've never seen her anything other than angry. I want to put a hand on her shoulder, or something, tell her things will be okay, but...
It was Sunny who asked the question—"So what do we do"—not that it matters. We're all wondering the same thing. Feels like we're all standing outside a motel that just burned down—one we didn't want to stop at in the first place, but we were all falling asleep at the wheel, so we spent our last dime on a cheap room, and then the whole thing burned to the ground (this metaphor makes tons of sense, shut up)—all sharing a single, scratchy blanket, thinking, So do we just go to sleep on the ground now, or what?
"We keep climbing," I say, almost without thinking.
"We do?" Gabe says.
"We do," I tell him. "We keep moving forward. We have no other choice. We can't let her be the only one who knows this island. I don't know if she's got anything else planned, but if she does, we have to be ready for it. We have to figure out the lay of the land."
"What about the people on the ship?" Jacinta says.
"They'll be fine. They were fine when I spent a week buried under soggy laundry. They can wait a few more hours."
"I'm sure. We keep moving."
Once we pass through the clearing, the upward slope of the terrain increases sharply. Loose soil gives way to gravel, which gives way to larger boulders struggling against vegetation for control of the mountainside. There's a faint sulfurous smell in the air, although that might just be Ted passing gas for the first time in thirty years. I glare at him, just in case.
Gabe and Sunny are bringing up the rear, I assume saying things to each other that they've wanted to say for weeks. I shouldn't listen. It'd be rude.
"Eavesdropping, eh, big brother?"
"What? No. Shut up."
"Don't you think it's a little creepy that you're more interested in a YA-caliber romance than in your own love life?"
"I'm married to the sea."
"And to my stupid baby brother. I've spent the last thirty years as a single dad to a ghost who refuses to grow up."
"Well," he says, "all I'm saying is—" he nods at Jacinta, who's currently bushwhacking her way ahead of the group with her purse, grunting angrily at every plant that dares to get in her way.
"What? No. No. She's my boss. That'd be—"
"At sea, you're her boss."
"We're not at sea right now. And anyway, how is that any less weird?"
Ted shrugs. "Just think about it, is all I'm saying. I've seen the way she looks at you, and—"
"She scowls at me. She scowls at everyone."
"No, I mean that way she looks at you when you're not looking back."
I roll my eyes, and—for the first time in thirty years—push Ted to the ground. It feels good.
"What do you think her game is, really?"
That was Sunny, who's suddenly, somehow right behind me. "What? Who?"
"Alice. Keeping us here on this island forever. How is that a win for her? Like, if this place is her private kingdom or whatever, why would she want us swarming it like a bunch of ants at her picnic?"
"For a kid who reads so much, your metaphors are surprisingly banal."
"Thanks to you and your stupid curse, I haven't been to pick up a book in weeks."
"Except Jane Eyre."
"Yeah, and it's—I dunno, Gabe spoiled it for me just before I died, so—"
"You seem to have forgiven him for that pretty fast."
"Anyway," she rolls her eyes, "does anything about this scenario make sense to you, or—?"
I sigh. "I think you're right, Sunflower. There has to be more going on here than just—oh. Oh my God."
We're above the timberline now and the layout of the island is all snapping into place for me all at once. Cliffs and capes and bays, but none of that matters right now, because I'm seeing the ship in the middle of the jungle from a distance, and for the first time I'm realizing what the limp, windless sails mean. "What happened to the—"
Sunny sees it too. "Oh my God, the ghosts."
"There were dozens of ghosts in the sails, and now—"
"Where'd they go?"
Then all at once, it's night—as if someone flipped a switch and swapped the sun for the moon—and the air is filled with chirping crickets and hooting owls. The temperature drops ten, twenty degrees, and the island disappears into sudden almost-blackness. There are a hundred eyes on us, peering out from the trees, and as I push Sunny behind me, two step out from the clearing.
They belong to a face that looks like mine.
Project CoNarrative is an ongoing multimedia experiment in collaborative storytelling from two award-winning authors. We're taking turns writing chapters and building on each other's work, improv-style. You can read them for free, here on the internet, as we write them.
If you're enjoying Project CoNarrative, please consider supporting us via Patreon. Supporters get early access to chapters, along with a monthly podcast, a quarterly newsletter, a print edition of the finished book, and more. Click here to support us for as little as $3 a month.