Rolling over, Hollis opened his eyes and winced into the sharp morning light overhead. Though it couldn't have been later than 9:00 in the morning, the air was already hot and wet and the breeze from the night before had stalled, leaving a stale vacuum of heat in its place.
Sitting up, he felt a jacket slip from around his shoulders and onto his lap. Confused, he picked it up and realized that he must have fallen asleep during his shift with Geller and had been allowed to sleep for the remainder of night.
Standing slowly to his feet, he wobbled slightly as a sudden head-rush sent braids of light through his vision. Willing it away, he stepped over the boardwalk’s railing and walked down the hill that led to their campsite.
Stumbling on a tree root half-way down, he braced himself against the side of a tree and placed his hand at the base of his throat when an episode of ventricular contractions began to throttle his chest cavity.
Light-headed from the depletion of oxygen, he leaned his forehead against the tree, closed his eyes, and worked to reorient his heart beat. "Don’t do this now," he thought, glancing to the side to make sure no one could see him.
When the PVC's had finally subsided enough to be manageable a few minutes later, he finally mustered enough strength to move forward on slightly-wobbling legs.
Up ahead, he could hear the sounds of light conversation around their extinguished campfire. From a distance, he could see that their things had been packed away neatly with a small pile of discarded materials left under a bush.
“Good morning, beautiful.” Geller called as Hollis approached the group.
“I’m so sorry, man.” Hollis said as he walked up to the older man. “You should’ve woken me up.”
“Nah, it’s all good. I enjoyed the time.”
“I won’t do that again.” Hollis promised as he gave his jacket back.
“Breakfast?” Sissy interrupted as she tossed him a foil-packaged granola bar from her backpack.
Splitting it open, he looked around to find Geller joining Atlas and Kenzey who were in deep conversation as they both pointed to the boardwalk ascending the hills in the distance.
A short distance away, Keelin was rigorously performing push-ups under the shade of a tree with his black tank top hung from one of its branches.
“How long has he been doing that?” Hollis asked, faintly annoyed as he sat down next to Sissy.
“Last twenty minutes—“ She replied, observing the wine-haired boy. “Can’t say I’ve necessarily ‘hated’ the view.”
“It’s way too early to be so aggressively you.” Hollis groaned as he sat down heavily and began to roll his socks onto his feet. His head was now throbbing with a burgeoning headache, but the light-headedness was finally beginning to fade.
“Honesty is the best policy.” She said, laughing.
“Can you at least wait until I’ve got my boots on so I can walk away?”
“It’s not good to walk away from the truth.” She teased.
"Then be a pathological liar so I don't have to." He said, grinning as she laughed out loud.
Momentarily, he observed her and noticed the heavy bags hanging under her eyes as well as the greasiness flattening her otherwise-curly hair.
His own hair, pulled into a loose ponytail, was still molded into the shape of his sleeping position from all of the caked in grease and dirt. His skin was in no better condition, having turned sticky and salty from all of the twice-dried sweat and dust mixing with the thick morning dew.
It was an unspoken realization between all of them that they were quickly becoming absolutely filthy.
“When did you get up?” He asked.
“About an hour ago.” She said, closing the book in her lap. “Kenzey and I took the second shift, then I went back to bed.”
“How’d that go?” He asked, running his hand over his sternum absently. The scar always seemed to hurt worse in the mornings or shortly before the rain.
“We’ve come to an understanding.”
“Damn, should we expect a happy announcement soon?”
“Give me Geller any day of the week.” She said, shooting him a wary look. "I'll trade you."
“Sorry, I’ve got dibs.” He said as he opened a bottle of sunscreen, squirted it on his hand, and began massing it onto his exposed neck.
“I’d even be happy with Sergeant Hard-Ass, but it looks like he and Keelin are tight.” She said, turning to him. “You still good with this whole thing? Yesterday seemed like it got a little...rocky.”
“Yeah, that was my bad." He said as he massaged the sunscreen into his arms. "I should’ve avoided a conversation.”
“I don’t know that you can anymore.” She replied, sincerity evident in her voice. “— not under these circumstances. It may cause problems down the road.”
With a sigh, he leaned his head back and attempted to massage his brewing headache away.
"We’d be clocking in for work right now.” He remarked, changing the subject. “Giles is probably eating a low-fat yogurt, Lanier’s shaving in the office sink..."
“Dolette’s watching Louella's Morning Show.” She said fondly. “I bet I’ve broken their hearts.”
“You’ll get back to them.” He said. “And you’ll explain the situation and they’ll understand.”
“Would that work for him?" She asked, nodding toward Keelin in the distance.
Caught off guard, Hollis opened his mouth to respond when a shrill whistle was heard from Atlas followed by a wave of his hand motioning Keelin back to the group.
Standing, he and Sissy waited for further instructions as Keelin rejoined them with his chest heaving and his skin glistening from the sweat.
“We’re going to walk the boardwalk and see if we can find someone in the next few miles.” Atlas began. “It looks like the trail turns into switchbacks up ahead. With this kind of heat and humidity, it’ll get tough; so if anyone needs to slow down, you take your buddy with you. If you need to stop, we all stop. No exceptions.”
“I’ve taken the liberty of discarding duplicate items.” Geller said, replacing his usual charm with an uncharacteristic authoritativeness that spoke of his time as a Master Sergeant. “Because of the change in altitude, traveling with unnecessary items will get harder the higher we go. If you start feeling sick, let us know.”
“Last thing — after taking inventory, we know we can't go than a week with what we have now. I spoke with Geller and Trot and we’ve decided that we will not continue on indefinitely.” He said, leaving minimal room for protest. “I came here expecting to speak with someone at the entrance, so none of us packed for a long-term stay.”
“Atlas, Geller and I will not be wandering aimlessly through this place.” Kenzey said in solidarity. “If we haven’t found someone by Thursday, the three of us are turning around whether you guys come or not.”
“Any questions?" Atlas asked. When no one spoke, he turned around. “Pack your things. We leave in thirty.”
“Damn.” Sissy whispered, clutching her side to stall the pain which was quickly forming there.
They’d been walking for roughly three hours, but their good progress had slowed considerably as soon as they hit the switchbacks up the mountain half an hour before.
Though Sissy had stopped multiple times in the last few hours to rest, the sweat and labored breaths of the rest of the group members indicated that this was not an especially easy feat for any of them.
Squinting into the high noon sun, Hollis surveyed the island’s hills around them. They’d achieved enough elevation in the past day's journey that the island’s topography was now becoming more visible.
"Just out of curiosity,” Geller began, wiping the sweat from his forehead. “Is it possible that we hit this island on the wrong side? This boardwalk’s been covered in jungle the whole time — doesn’t seem like it gets a whole lotta’ traffic through here.”
“They wouldn’t leave any entrance unguarded.” Atlas said. “Not under a policy of isolation. I don't know what the deal is."
“I need a minute—“ Sissy huffed as she stopped and leaned back against the railing. “I’m so sorry.”
No comment was made from any member of the group, but it was obvious to her in that moment that her frequent stops were taking a toll on their patience.
Hollis himself had seemed uncharacteristically quiet.
Clearly irritated, Kenzey dropped his equipment again, ready to stay with her as her designated buddy.
“You guys go ahead.” Keelin said, stepping around him. “We’ll meet you up there.”
“You don’t have to—“ She began, protesting his offer.
“It’s fine.” Keelin said, turning back to Atlas and Kenzey. “We can see the rest of the trail up to the top. You’ll have a visual on us the whole time.”
“We‘ll wait for you up there.” Atlas replied skeptically. “Don’t be long.”
Turning, the rest of the group ducked under a few low-hanging branches and continued up the switchbacks leaving Keelin and Sissy behind.
“You want to talk to me.” She stated.
“I do.” He replied, unsurprised by her intuition. She’d always had a talent for discernment. “About Hollis.”
“What would you like to know?” She asked.
Releasing her hair from its tight band, she bent forward and attempted to gather the wild crop of hair into her hands.
“He’s really angry.”
“He is.” She confirmed.
“I had my reasons.”
“We all do.” She said, standing back up and fastening the cluster of hair into a high knot on her head. “ -- well, we think we do, anyway.”
"How has he been?”
Baffled, she stopped tying her hair and looked up at him in sheer astonishment.
"...he's behaved as if the last person he trusted on earth left him in the worst way possible."
"I'm asking a serious question." He said, evidently audacious enough to be annoyed.
"I'm giving you a serious answer."
"Okay, that's fine -- nevermind." Keelin said, moving past her.
“I mean, damn, Keelin -- I don’t really know what to tell you." She said, turning toward him. “He's licking his wounds right now. We’re giving him the best we can, but we’re not his family."
Nodding in understanding, he spoke again. “Has he talked to my dad?”
“They see each other now and again. He visited at Christmas." She said. “But Serge is busy with Saylor."
“Why didn’t he stay with Maise?” Keelin asked, not bothering to acknowledge the mention of his half-sister.
“You’ll have to ask him that. I don’t know much about it.” She lied.
“You’re angry, too.”
“I am — yeah. But I don’t know where you’ve been or why you left. I guess I’m just trying to give more benefits than doubts these days.” She said. When Keelin didn't take the bait, she sighed and observed the lost boy (who was physically no longer a boy) in front of her. "Where have you been, Keelin?"
Stunned by that particular answer, she nearly balked in response.
“Why the hell would you go there?” She asked, genuine anger now replacing her previous indifference. “You could’ve been killed for real and then you really would’ve destroyed him.”
“There was nowhere else to go.” He argued. “Dad was in the City and I couldn’t afford the Greater North."
“Did you get it out of your system, then?Find everything you were looking for, there?"
“No.” He snapped, shutting her down. Closing his eyes, he tried again. “I didn’t.”
"That's what I thought." She said, irritated. "Is that where you met those guys?"
"They took me in. They're good guys."
A moment of silence passed between them before Sissy spoke again.
“You should’ve made contact with Hollis.” She replied, attempting to meet him half-way. “You had your reasons, I get that. Someday, he might even get it, too -- but you shouldn’t have let him believe you were dead. There’s just no excuse for it.”
“I saw the girls’ home.” He replied, pointedly changing the subject. “ -- the one you grew up in.”
“The 'Children’s Home of Delphine. Isn’t that where you lived?”
“I applied to be a janitor there.”
Softening unexpectedly at that revelation, she finally spoke up again:
“How have you been?” When Keelin only laughed bitterly in response, she looked up at the rest of the group still ascending the hill. “He’s missed you. So have I.”
Caught off guard, Keelin attempted to respond before Atlas’s signature whistle could be heard ripping across the air.
Looking up, confused, Sissy saw what appeared to be the group stopped in the middle of the boardwalk with Hollis lying on his back, Geller and Atlas kneeling around him.
“Shit—“ She gasped, breaking into a run.
Moving as quickly as she could up the last switchback, she found that she was no match for Keelin who hurdled past her effortlessly, maroon hair whipping wildly behind him.
A few short seconds had passed when they finally reached the group.
“He passed out.” Geller said calmly as she dropped to her knees next to Hollis.
“I know, he does this.” She said, heart beating wildly. Carefully, she shook one of his shoulders and brushed a lock of white hair out of his eyes. “Hollis—“
“What do you mean he 'does’ this?” Keelin asked, glancing up at her.
Grabbing Hollis’s legs by the ankles, she lifted them and placed them onto her lap so that they were positioned above his heart level.
To his side, Geller was carefully removing Hollis’s backpack from his shoulders to relieve him from any and all constraints.
Atlas, ever collected, was pulling a water bottle methodically from his back pack. To her own side, Kenzey had pressed two of his fingers into the soft junction of Hollis's carotid and jaw to check for a pulse.
“He’s breathing.” Kenzey remarked after a few seconds of guaging the steady beat. "He'll be alright. Just give him a minute."
“There he is.” Geller said as Hollis groggily opened his eyes, clearly disoriented. “-- hey, hey, don’t sit up. Let's take it easy.”
When Hollis, in his confusion, made to sit up anyway, Keelin placed his hand on his chest and pushed him lightly back onto the boards.
"What happened?” Hollis asked, voice cracking as he was pushed back down.
“I think you got too hot. Here—“ Atlas said as he placed the bottle to Hollis’s mouth and cupped his hand under his chin to catch any spilled water. “Drink it slow.”
Feebly, Hollis took a few sips of water before laying his head back down and bringing his trembling hand to the bridge of his nose.
“Headache?” Atlas asked as he fed a few more sips of water into Hollis’s mouth.
Too ill to answer, Hollis simply nodded his head in response, prompting Sissy to fumble through his bag and pull the bottle of migraine medication from the first aid kit.
“Alright, I think you’re good,” Atlas began cautiously, “But I want you to lay here for a few minutes before you try to get up. We need to get some of that blood back in your brain.”
“I’m going to look ahead.” Kenzey said as he stood back up and proceeded up the boardwalk.
Shaking, Hollis placed the pill in his mouth and chased it with the water bottle. To his side, Keelin had taken to fanning his face which offered a slight respite from the sun.
“Sorry.” Hollis said, now feeling a little more oriented.
“Don’t be." Atlas said. “We got a little ambitious this last hour. We’ll cut back.”
“We need to get him out of the sun.” Keelin said, looking around.
“Think you can take a few steps over there?”Atlas asked as he gestured to a spot twenty feet ahead which was covered with shade.
“Yeah.” Hollis said weakly as he sat forward. Feebly, he stood to his feet.
At his sides, Atlas and Geller propped him up using their shoulders and walked him slowly to the shade. Carefully, they placed him in a sitting position on the ground and leaned him back against the railing.
“Nothing like an adrenaline rush in 90-degree heat and a hundred percent humidity.” Geller teased as Hollis managed one shallow laugh through the discomfort. “It was getting a little too comfortable here for my tastes.”
Fortunately, the equipment he’d been carrying on his back had absorbed most of the impact of the fall, but the nausea and residual light-headedness that always followed was almost worse than any physical injury he could have sustained.
At this point, passing out was becoming old hat to him, though. He largely knew what to expect these days.
“You scared the shit out of me.” Sissy said as she leaned back against the railing next to him.
“I’m really fine — I’m just not used to hiking in heat like this.” He lied.
He’d hiked in heat like this his whole life.
“Here,” Atlas said, tearing open a granola bar and handing it to him, “I know this may taste like shit right now, but try to take at least one bite. We may need to get your sugar up.”
Though the thought of eating anything seemed absolutely repulsive, Hollis took the granola bar and attempted one measly bite while massaging absentmindedly at the scar on his chest.
“Has this been happening a lot?” Keelin asked, leveling Hollis with an odd scrutiny.
“No.” Hollis said, quickly shutting him down.
“Snow Child can’t hang with the spicy islanders.” Geller said.
“He’s lived here his whole life.” Keelin said with an odd trace of defensiveness.
Despite the light-heartedness of the atmosphere once the previous panic had subsided, Keelin had sudddnly seemed to plummet into a foul mood.
Glancing down, Hollis noted that Keelin’s hand was slightly trembling where it rested in his lap.
“Hey guys,” Kenzey called from up ahead. Turning, they saw him step out from the bushes. “I found something. It’ll help us.”
"What is it?" Atlas yelled back.
"A freshwater source. We can take baths and restock on water."
Turning to Hollis, Atlas spoke up: “You good to walk now? We’ll go slow.”
Nodding, Hollis grabbed hold of Atlas’s strong hand and was pulled effortlessly to his feet.
Walking forward slowly, they travelled a short distance ahead and stopped when the boardwalk turned into a bridge over a small, rippling river which was hardly visible under the plant coverage.
“Up here.” Kenzey said, stepping over the railing of the boardwalk and ascending up the bank.
Cautiously, they all broke through the dense wall of foliage into which Kenzey had disappeared.
Walking a few paces into the jungle, they stopped, completely stunned, when they were met with what appeared to be a moss-covered flight of stairs ascending upward.
Flanking the stairwell on both of its sides was a neat army of bamboo trees which shot high into the sky. The steps themselves were made of stone and were carved with beautiful, arcane geometries which spoke of old religions and ancient philosophies.
The most disconcerting thing about the stairs, however, was the sheer size of each step.
Squatting, Geller ran his thumb over the etched symbols in the stone.
"Somebody did this." Keelin commented in wonder as he looked upward.
Kneeling, Hollis squinted and brushed a few stray leaves from one of the steps to get a better view of the ancient alphabet underneath.
"Should we trust this?" Sissy asked.
"No one's been here in a long time," Atlas said as he surveyed the stretching bamboo walls.
The stairs were thick with a layer of moss in places and branches were jutting into the path, indicating that this location had not seen much foot-traffic in a while.
"But I'll be dammed if they weren't here at one time." Geller said, mystified as he looked upward. "This island really did have some strange shit creepin' around."
"Or still does." Hollis remarked.
"How big would a person have to be to need steps this size?" Sissy asked as she kicked a clump of moss to observe the symbols underneath.
"Eight feet -- maybe nine." Atlas said.
"People?'" Geller said. "Nah, this place is on some Ancient Aliens type of shit."
The leaves of the bamboo canopy were thick overhead and the jungle was packed around them, so minimal light was breaching the deep greens of the space. Unlike the boardwalk's scorching daylight, this place was dark and isolated by stone and bamboo. The light which had managed to break through the canopy overhead sent soft orbs of dappled light over the stairs.
All around, invisible birds squawked noisily in the trees, and it occurred to them, in that moment, that this was the first intentional path they’d seen outside of the boardwalk.
It was, by their estimations, the first sign of native human activity they’d encountered thus far.
“Incredible.” Sissy said as she traced her fingers lightly down a bamboo shoot and glanced upward to the very top of its chartreuse veil overhead.
For the most part, they were utterly speechless at the mystery of the place. It was both terribly frightening and wondrously mystifying — as if they’d stumbled upon a single page of foreign prose ripped from the middle of an ancient novel.
There was a story here that was being told in a language they could not understand.
“Up here.” Kenzey called from the top of the stairwell, breaking them from their wonder.
Walking up the large steps, they found themselves breathless, once again, at the sight that greeted them at the top.
Tucked into the hollow of this dense pocket of jungle was a cascading waterfall which stood nearly thirty feet high and fifteen feet across.
The clean, white spray of its falling waters tumbled over large boulders before emptying into a pool whose waters were indulgent shades of jewel-toned teals and cornflower blues. Halo'd around the waterfall were tangles of viney purple flowers which spilled from the green, foliage-covered boulders.
The pool itself looked as if it could be no deeper than nine or so feet, for the flat mesas of standing rock on the bottom of the pool were still visible under the crystalline waters.
The soft roar of the running water was a much-welcomed lull from the stifling silence of the main trail.
“We can stop here if we need to.” Kenzey said to Atlas, lowering his voice so the others couldn't hear him. “We probably shouldn’t push him any more today. Sissy's not making it, either."
Nodding discretely, Atlas spoke as he observed the fall of the water. "I agree. I think we're going to have to cut our speed in half. They're not handling this well."
“Unreal.” Keelin said, astonished, as he stepped forward to the edge of the boulders surrounding the pool.
Lowering himself to his belly, he reached down into the syrupy pool and cradled a single handful of the cool water in his hand.
“It's beautiful.” Geller commented in wonder as he came up behind him.
“This would be a good time to get a bath since you probably won’t get another chance.” Atlas called to the group as he dropped his equipment on a flat spanse of rock. “— and some of you could definitely use it.”
“This is the kind of place you bring a girl when you want to have some bomb-ass sex and sangria." Geller said as he squatted and dipped his hand into the water as well.
“For fuck’s sake,” Kenzey said, rolling his eyes. “Is there nothing sacred? Can you spare us a single thought that doesn’t start and end with pussy?”
“Hey, chill out with that.” Atlas barked, turning to them with a glare as he began unpacking. “We have a woman with us, you animals.”
“You could use a little wetness in your life,” Geller retorted. “Here, have some.”
Turning, Kenzey visibly flinched as Geller flicked the droplets of water from his fingers straight into his face.
“Oh, hell no—“ Kenzey replied as he used his boot to launch a full spade of the pool’s water right back into Geller’s unsuspecting face.
Before Kenzey could even think of setting his boot back on the rock, however, Geller had suddenly sprung from his squat, rushed him, and shoved him straight into the pool with a near-maniacal smile on his face.
Breaching the surface of the pool, Kenzey flipped the wet hair out of his eyes and coughed gracelessly with the unexpected inhale of water.
Running his hand down his wet face, Kenzey sent the older man a positively murderous look. His thick eyelashes held drops of water on their tips and his dark hair ran black down his neck.
“Nothing to say?” Geller laughed, hands braced on his knees as he squatted and looked down at the drenched boy in the water. “Pussy got your tongue? Try it sometime. You might like it—“
Before he could finish his retort, however, Kenzey snatched the older man’s ankle and, with one lightning move, jerked him off of the rock and into the water along with him.
To his side, Keelin stripped off his shirt, tossed it to the ground, and jumped in right next to them with a graceful dive. He’d been a water child his entire life and had rarely passed on an opportunity to swim.
Breaking the surface, Keelin shook the water out of his hair once before Geller tackled him from behind and submerged his head fully under the water with both of his hands.
Within a few seconds, all three of them had tossed their soaking boots onto the rocks and were grappling wildly with each other in the hope that they might successfully drown the other.
"Hey, Sissy! Holli-Pop!” Geller yelled as he man-handled a struggling Kenzey. “Get out here!”
“You should go.” Sissy said, turning to Hollis. “I bet you’ll feel better.”
"You don’t want to?” He asked.
“I will later.” She said, laughing nervously. “No one wants to see this in a wet t-shirt.”
“She can go during her shift tonight.” Atlas said, interrupting Hollis’s protest as he busied himself with setting up his tent. “Kenzey’ll stand guard.”
“Okay.” Hollis replied, clearly a little skeptical about the weird atmosphere surrounding her reply.
Wading into the water slowly, Hollis submerged himself into the cool waters, pointedly leaving his shirt in place to keep the scar hidden from view.
“Thank you.” Sissy said humbly as Atlas drove the stakes of his tent into the soft ground.
“No worries,” He replied with a smile. “I have three sisters. I understand."
A few minutes passed as Atlas silently erected the rest of his tent.
Sissy, who had taken to sitting quietly on a boulder, simply listened to the chatter of the boys in the water as she read from the book.
“Yes?” She asked, head darting up from the book to look at him.
“Do you know how to use a gun?”
“I shot once when I was a kid." She replied. “But I couldn’t do it now.”
“Then let’s have us a little lesson.” Atlas said as he pulled his gun from its holster. Systematically, he began to take the gun apart piece-by-piece until its individual parts were laid bare on the rock in front of her. “Every one should know how to use one, and there may come a time when you’ll have no choice.”
Closing the book, she sat forward and observed the gun's parts sitting in a row in front of her.
"This is the magazine,” He began as he showed her a small, rectangular box with a series of gold bullets inside. “This holds your rounds. It’s important that you put your rounds in correctly or it won’t fit back into the gun. Watch.”
Carefully, she watched him place the bullets into the magazine before slapping the bottom of it back into the gun where it locked with a click.
“Be careful when you put this thing back in or it’ll pinch the hell out of you.” He warned. “Alright, this is the chamber..."
A few minutes passed as he walked her through the various names of the gun’s parts as well as their proper assemblage back into the whole.
He emphasized, more than anything else, the critical safety techniques involved with owning a gun.
After explaining it to her step-by-step, he disassembled the gun once more, placed the parts in front of her, and asked her to piece it back together without violating any safety protocols. Several times she had to ask for help; but for the most part, she remembered the technique relatively well.
“And what do we say about the trigger?” Atlas asked.
“Never touch it unless you’re ready and willing to take a life.”
“Right,” He said as he pulled an extra magazine from his bag and stood up. “Let’s head to the field.”
“Sorry?” She asked, confused.
"You need to get a feel for the actual discharge. Theory won’t do you any good in a bad situation. Hey guys—“ Atlas called toward the four guys in the water. Stopping, they turned and looked up at him. “We’re heading out to practice. Don’t come down range.”
"Got it.” Kenzey called back.