Updated: Aug 26
Chasing through the jungle after the dead girl with the glowing golden hair, all I can think about is the moment we met, an eternity ago, back in Massachusetts.
I'm here for an adventure, she said. That snorty laugh, that irrepressible smile. I tried to repress it; I couldn't. I told her about the seasickness, the exhaustion, the smell. Nothing fazed her.
And now here she is, not seasick, but dead. Dead, but not exhausted. Still charging face-first into the unknown, and here I am, tripping over roots, tearing vines out of my face, still struggling to keep up.
Maybe that's just the way it's always going to be. She can do this, she's got nothing to lose. I've got a mortgage, a ship, a couple dozen lives all riding on me. Maybe I have nothing to learn from her. Maybe she has nothing to learn from me.
And yet, I'm still following. Still running after the golden hair that's somehow shining like the sun as it charges through the midnight jungle.
"Doug? Is that you? Is everything all right?"
That was Jenny, on the ship. Somehow, our trajectory is taking us past the ship that's beached in the jungle again. I can't slow down, can't talk. I yell, "Yep, things are good, let you know if we need help!" and hope they hear.
They probably didn't hear. Oh well.
I keep running, and for a moment I get it. For a moment, I remember what it's like to have the weight off my shoulders, and I understand how the gold can run through the jungle so fast. It's only for a moment, but I see it. Then I hit the ground and I'm tripping over a root and I'm struggling to keep up again, but for a moment, I saw it.
Well done, Sunny. You had your adventure after all.
What I'm seeing stampeding ahead of me isn't just the wide-eyed girl I met a few months ago. It's not the body that fell in the water or the ghost screaming at me in my office. It's just a patch of golden hair burning brighter than the sun, leading us all like a pied piper to where (I guess) this has all been heading from the beginning.
We break through the tree line. The jungle went by faster the time around, but I guess I shouldn't think too hard about that. We're standing at the mouth of the volcano, staring down into an open pit of solar flares that set fire to the air around us, while the golden Sunflower sneers at her last gasps of the sulfur-scented air. Ted and Manny catch up momentarily, their sneakers already starting to melt.
"Anyone having second thoughts?" says the Sunflower. It's not really a question—she intones it flatly, daring the cowards among their ranks to identify themselves. Manny and Ted look at each other, look at their leader, shrug, shake their heads. "All right, then—"
"Jump. Go ahead."
We wheel around to see the source of that voice, but we all knew who it was the moment we heard it. That whiskey-soaked gravel belonged, of course, to my own delinquent ancestor, who's now standing between us and the jungle, smirking and absentmindedly plucking bits of lint off of his rumpled jacket.
"Go ahead," he repeats. "This should be interesting."
I look at Sunny. Sunny looks at Ted. Ted looks at Manny, and Sunny looks back at me. "Wait—" she says—"he wants us to—?"
It's arguably a stupid question, but fortunately for Sunny, she doesn't have time to be embarrassed for voicing it, because now an uncharacteristically terrified Black Alice is bursting out of the tree line, pursued by a mob of non-ghosts who still inexplicably look identical to me and my crew, all of them yelling "Give us the centaur!"
"I can't, it's got my soul!" she yells, teetering on the edge of the roiling glow. As I'm sure you've guessed, this does not discourage them.
So now the seven of us—me and Gabe and Jacinta and Manny and Sunny and Ted and Alice—are all pressed against the mouth of the volcano, with the mob of conspicuously anonymous ghosts to our right and a cravenly boozy sea captain to our left, glancing nervously at each other, waiting for an answer that doesn't come. Alice is desperately clutching the centaur to her chest, looking at me with panic in her eyes, as if I'm supposed to solve her problem now.
"Just—" I shrug—"just do what they say."
"What?" she demands.
"I—what? What's the big deal?"
"Are you kidding?"
"Uh—I don't think so? Should I be kidding?"
"My soul is inside this centaur!"
"I mean—sure, I get that. But, like, you were fine without it for—what, centuries? And, I mean, the soul of a pirate? That can't be worth much. Like Walter here—he doesn't seem to have a soul at all, and he's doing fine, right?"
"Eh?" Theseus tries, in vain, to shake the booze from his head.
"Look, Alice, it's either the centaur or the volcano. Do you really want to get pushed into—"
"Whose side are you on?" hisses Sunny.
"I have no idea anymore! I don't even know what the sides are, or why anyone's doing anything—I just don't want to die in a volcano!"
For some reason, when I shouted that, the crowd went silent and my voice ended up carrying across the whole island, and now everyone is looking at me like I'm the crazy person. Like I'm the first person in history who hasn't felt like dying from lava burns.
So here I am, trapped between a mob of ghosts and a hole to the center of the earth. To my right is a murderous pirate, who should be dead but might be alive, and to my left is the most infuriating girl I've ever met, who should be alive but might be dead. And, even more infuriatingly, her face is calm.
It's the calm that's new. The determination—I've seen it before. It was there when she got into my car, a million years ago, and it burst into flames that night after she died. But the calm—I haven't seen it before. And yet— —I think I understand it.
At least a little.
She shrugs at me. She shrugs at the dead boys standing next to her. I shrug back.
"Well—" I say—"maybe I've played by this island's rules long enough."
"Maybe you've played by the rules long enough," says the Sunflower.
"I guess that's fair," I tell her. "I'll jump if you will."
And we all link hands and all seven of us—even Alice the pirate—jump into the roiling abyss.
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