There's something unnatural about this island and it makes me nervous. I fight the kind of enemies you can see, the kind you can understand, and there's nothing about this place that makes much sense. But I'm never going back. What would I go back to? My own son probably doesn't even know my name.
David seemed nervous around her. Almost as if he was intimidated by the small frail-looking girl in front of him. But that was only a facade. In reality, she was smart, cunning, and quite strong for her age. There was only one thing that truly terrified her, that sent chills down her spine. Her parents. Even now, just thinking about it made her bruises seem even more painful, the cuts even deeper and longer. It was astonishing how much two humans could influence a child. Eloise wondered how she would have turned out if she had gotten parents like the other kids. Nice, supportive, kind…. Not even in her thoughts could she produce a likely scenario. It was just too unlikely, too far-fetched. Who could ever love a girl like her?
Eloise pushed those thoughts away and concentrated on what was happening in front of her. David was trying to seem more relaxed, more pleasant. But she knew better. Her mother did the exact same thing whenever she wanted something. She wasn’t about to trust him, at least not yet. “Well, I’ve only been here for an hour or two, so any time longer than that would suffice.” she said, the annoyingly bright sun shining in her eyes. She squinted and slightly and raised her hand to block it off.
That was when she noticed David was in pain. He was rubbing his temple slightly, wincing under his breath. Also, the position of his neck looked extremely uncomfortable. Eloise felt bad for standing, but what if she needed to run? Sitting would make that harder. But still, she couldn’t do nothing. She placed her backpack down in front of her and opened it up. Her eye immediately met the sharp blade, cushioned between the book and the side of the bag. She thought about grabbing it for a second before shaking her head slightly, moving onto the first aid kit. She pulled it out and opened it up, leafing through it. She took out a bottle of aspirin and looked inside. It was about halfway empty. Eloise grabbed one and tossed it to David. “Here, take it.” she said before quickly zipping up her bag again, slinging it back over her shoulder.
David nodded slightly at Eloise, watching as she placed a hand like a patio shade over her eyes, squinting at the blazing sunlight that scoured his retinas and left vague impressions of colorful spots dancing in his vision, turned away from it though he was. He wasn’t sure why it was so bright, but the island surely had a reason, what with its moody changeability. Maybe it was punishing somebody for sleeping in late or making it easier for someone to find something. Maybe it just wanted to fuel David’s headache. Surely the last, he thought. For some reason, painting himself as the victim to an island was appealing to him, though he’d likely feel disgusted with himself if he realized what he was doing.
Regardless, the light and Eloise’s subsequent reaction seemed to bring her attention to his pain. David watched as a vague shadow of guilt seemed to pass over her face, curiosity humming like a cicada in his mind. As Eloise lightly set down her bag, she began rummaging through it with both a look of rapt attention and tantalizingly bizarre look of internal conflict. What could possibly be in her bag that would elicit such a response? Curiosity piqued, David gave into one of his more childish impulses, straightening up his posture and leaning at such an angle that x-ray vision would surely be playing in his favor for spying on the item. As it was, though, the position proved only to throw him off-kilter.
When a small pill was thrown his way with a swift command to ‘take it,’ David startled, flailing quite unnecessarily at the sudden expectation for him to do something and the realization that he was being given something. Though David had played on the football team through the majority of high school and his time as an enlisted solider had proved only to improve his reflexes, they did not spare him from falling sideways and crashing his shoulder against the ground, even as his fist closed expertly over the small projectile. It wasn’t actually a fall, however, sitting as he was, but it was an embarrassment that had David’s ears burning a vibrant red. He quickly righted himself, feeling bashful— you God damned fool, what was that even— and occupied himself with a quick scrutiny of the pill in his hand.
It was a name brand medication, Aspirin etched in tiny letters along the face of the circular tablet. Though the sudden movement, what with the falling and the quickened pulse, had David’s headache pounding all the more urgently against his temple, he was filled with a habitual suspicion regardless of the minor reassurance against its medical tempering. There was no real reason to suspect Eloise of anything, least of all trying to hurt him, but like so many things it was a habit that he was not hard pressed to break.
“Thank you very much. I’d like to know, though, if it’s not too rude, where on earth you got this?”
Food, David had found, was not a problem. When the island got pushy enough about not letting him die out of neglect for his own body, it would present him with any manner of fruit or vegetables until it was easier to comply rather than ignore its advances. When it really counted, David knew how to kill an animal. One of his more zealous commanders, Joseph Dean, had been downright insistent that every soldier under him knew how to survive alone in the wild. While it had not been a “pleasant” excursion from regulated training, it had been a brief reprieve from its rigors, and so David remembered it both fondly and well. As for hunting on the island, it could have been easier if David accepted the gifts that appeared like godsends before him, but for all they were worth he still stubbornly refused them. Ease was something he desired emotionally, not physically, and even the frustration of failing was a better distraction than sitting around contentedly with an easy catch.
Having deigned the construction of small, temporary encampments more to his liking than what other islanders seemed to enjoy, there was little else for the soldier to do to acclimate himself to his new environment. All that remained was making himself feel comfortable, but how exactly could he manage that? Heartfelt chats on the beach with the island? No, certainly not. He spent enough time muttering to it angrily as it was and he didn’t need to make himself out to be any more of a fool.
Having exhausted all possible courses of action that dealt with himself, David admitted with a sigh that he might as well work to understand the terrain of the island better, as all others he had been forced to interact with seemed intent on doing. They’d even had their own little packs for the trip. Lying down lazily upon the sun-chapped earth, David gave a derisive snort at the thought. How cute of them.
As if on cue, a small rucksack appeared several feet away in a showy spectacle, descending from the grasp of several creepers and landing with a soft tap against the ground. David stared for several moments, wondering quietly if cutting down trees or starting a forest fire would hurt the island and, if it did, how excruciating that pain would be. The pack moved closer, as if set on a mobile track made entirely of earth that folded under itself (technically speaking, that was true of anything on Earth, but that thought sounded a lot like Kevin and so David ignored it), and stopped mere inches away from the young man’s face. He glared, unamused by the antics of the island, and briefly considered taking out the frustration that itched in his fingers on the canvas.
That would serve no purpose whatsoever, he thought. And so, with a sigh, David stood and brushed off his jeans, slipping the strap through his fingers and tossing the rucksack easily onto his shoulders. It was light. Accommodating. He considered filling it with rocks. Instead, he set out into the forest before him, unconcerned as it melted away into a new terrain. If he walked long enough he would surely meet someone, but for the first time in weeks that did not seem like such a terrible thing. If he stayed by himself any longer then he ran the risk of turning out like his mother, which was something he simply refused to allow.
When the man talked, his voice was cracked and strained as if he hadn’t used it in a long time. Maybe he hadn’t. Maybe he’s been here longer than one would think. Did that mean he hadn’t met anyone yet or that he hadn’t bothered talking to them? Or maybe he has and the others didn’t trust him. There were too many variables and not enough information. But she could tell from the way he spoke to her that he didn’t mean her any harm. At least not at the moment. His awkward grin and his rambling gave the impression that he was more nervous than she was.
“The island can be incredibly pushy.” she agreed remembering the whole food and water incident that happened not too long ago. “I’m Eloise.” she said, not seeing the harm in telling him her name. After all, it was better than calling David calling her ‘the girl’. Eloise had a feeling that he wasn’t entirely talking to her, but more to the people he met in the past. He seemed upset at the fact she was defensive and her wounds were out in the open. As if he knew exactly where they came from.
She stood up and dusted herself off, keeping an eye on David. He hadn’t made any move against her, but she’ll keep her knife close to her, just in case. She doesn’t know if she’d be able to do the deed if the time came, but it would be a good fake-out. Keep him distracted so she could run to safety. But for now she’ll talk, see where it gets her. After all, the island obviously wanted them to meet, and she doesn’t think it would let her walk away so easily. “So I take it you’ve been here a while?” Eloise asked, staring down at the potential friend or foe.
After a few moments of watching her, David began to reevaluate his mental conclusion that the girl was like a skittish animal. No, if anything, she would be something small and cunning, a fox maybe, sizing him up and taking a carefully calculated course of action. Her actions no longer seemed to speak familiar alarm and instead spoke necessary habit, which, while still incredible sad, belied a cardinal self-reliance.
Something about her gaze and this sudden realization made David feel almost as if he should be the intimidated one. But that was silly, he quickly dismissed. She was just a little girl! Those bruises, those wounds, they meant she was a victim. At the same time, just how many victims had killed their aggressors? How many unwitting soldiers had died at the hands of victims? David felt a deep, churning miasma of pity and guilt roiling in his gut, but that by no means meant that this girl wasn’t to be taken seriously.
Just a little girl, just a little girl, but also a teenager, a victim with defiance written in the lines of her body. It all made David so conflicted, so confused, torn between how he, the arrogant, self-righteous man might see her and how he, the gunshot-haunted soldier might see her. Regardless of this mental conflict, however, the fact remained that he had to convince her of his benign nature. Her, not some dusty-eyed girls of the past.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Eloise.” David matched her direct gaze with his own, keeping eye contact as she stood and repositioned herself. For a moment he almost considered holding out a hand, but that was a ridiculous notion. He doubted she’d even accept it. His smile lessened a bit to something more pleasant, something less forced, and, though it was still awkward and obvious, it served its purpose. “I’ve not, actually. Well, it depends what you mean by a while. A few weeks? A little over a month? I’m not sure. Keeping time has been the least of my worries.”
Though David could feel his headache slowly abating, it still thrummed against his temple like an insistent hummingbird’s wingbeat— if, of course, the hummingbird were made of iron and weighed twenty thousand tons. David reached up with one hand and rubbing halfheartedly at his left temple, wincing slightly. The sun shined too bight. In their current position, David had his head at an angle to meet Eloise’s gaze, and he could already tell that in five minutes’ time he’d have a kink in his neck. If their conversation lasted that long, of course. “And you?”
Parker was once again tempted to leave, what was he supposed to do? Clearly, this guy was going through some things, and Parker didn’t mind it. I mean, most of the people who came to wanderlust for a need of escape, a lot of the time that was because they were having problems in their normal lives. Parker clearly had, but now he was here, and maybe starting to feel a bit better. But still, he wasn’t entirely emotionally capable to help deal with others problems.
Something made him stay, maybe it was because he recognized something in the way the guy went about things, wanting to be in that pain, to have that pain, yet to be surrounded by people. And when he spoke, Parker could see it all over again. How many times had he made that smile in the bathroom sink, trying to make it look convincing so that his family would think he was happy at his cousin’s 6th birthday? How many times had he spoken with people simply because it was what he was supposed to be doing instead of what he wanted to be doing? He almost felt wrong for being here, for making him do those things, because of all people, Parker should understand.
“You’re going to have to work on your fake smile. And this is coming from someone who’s made them almost daily for the past two years” Parker said, tilting his head slightly to the side. His hand went up to adjust the strap on his bag, a nervous gesture that he wasn’t quite sure why he was making. He guessed it could be that this was the first actual attempt he was making at contact with another person in lieu of people approaching him. “But yeah, I like the island” Parker answered, avoiding tugging at the strap again by simply shoving his hands into his pockets.
David felt struck by the silent scrutiny from the younger man. It wasn’t obvious or intimidating or even very pressing, but there was a look in his eyes that made David feel as if he were laid bare, not necessarily by his own actions but by the other’s recognition of them. It was neither a good nor bad feeling, but it tickled against his frayed nerves in a way that made him fidget slightly. The words out of the younger man’s mouth proved only to enhance his surprise.
David blinked owlishly for a moment, dropping the smile for a more perplexed expression. Such a short statement that implied so much and yet left very little said; it felt almost like talking to Kevin again, before they’d really become friends. It was such an outlandish thing to state as advice that David found himself emitting a sudden half-laugh of amusement, watching as the boy fiddled with his bag strap a bit before soundly stuffing his hands in his pockets. Fidgeting. Nervous. Not many people seemed to want to socialize— David certainly didn’t— and yet here they were, giving it their… well, not best shot, but a shot nonetheless.
“To tell you the truth,” David began, dropping his very obviously unconvincing pretenses, “I’ve never really had to bother with them before— not sure why I am now— but I guess I’m sorry to hear that you had to. Good to hear the island’s being kind to you, though. It seems downright bratty if you ask me, but I’m refusing to humor it.” He paused. “Except now. Fancy that.”
Even when he was feeling so utterly on edge, even when he loathed to have any sort of conversation, he just kept talking. The way he moved while he spoke, all expression and subtle movements, almost made it seem like he wanted this, but it was most likely out of simple habit. Battling verbally with his mother, talking to charm his peers, chatting up Kevin until he snapped back, keeping Emily engaged, making sure his teammates weren’t so keyed up that they made a mistake— talking. It felt like the only thing he could do anymore, and yet he’d refused to do it for so long. Why?
“I’m David, by the way. If that matters at all.”
When Eloise was always a curious child. How could she not be? Always hiding, always running. She wanted to know about everything, so when she finally escaped that hell hole called her home, she would have some sort of knowledge to get her by. She was very bright for her age, which is probably why she lasted so long. At the age of six, she learned what drinks made her father angry, which ones made him sad, and which ones made him pass out before he could hurt her. She figured out which spots he couldn’t get into and what weapons caused the most damage. She was able to figure out her father and define him to a ‘T’. But her mother… well she was a mystery. There were times when she thought her mom cared, that she was just as abused as her daughter. But in the end, her mother hated her as much as her father did. Eloise found out that the her father used to beat her mom, but didn’t bother with her as much when Eloise was born. Her mother had even said, “I’m lucky such an ugly bitch was born. Now your father has something to keep him preoccupied.”
It hurt so much at first, knowing the two people who were supposed to love you more than anything in the world didn’t give a damn about your existence. But eventually, Eloise’s emotions hardened and she found herself just riding out the beatings, waiting for her life to end or for her to finally leave. Though there was always a piece of her that wondered why. Were they just bad people or was it her fault they beat her? Now she’d never know the answer.
Somehow, she felt like her father’s presence was still here, watching her every move, waiting for her to screw up so she could be punished. Or maybe the island just made her feel that way. She stopped walking, suddenly feeling incredibly uncomfortable. She really needs to find a weapon of some sort, then some food and water. But did she really dare to take anything the island offered her? Almost as if it sensed her doubt, a hunting knife appeared before her with a sharp glistening silver blade as well as a backpack to carry her stuff. Eloise hesitated before picking it up, examining it. Would she even be able to use it? No…. she’d be able to. All those years of pain and blood, it didn’t phase her anymore. She’d defend herself.
She tossed the first aid kit, the book, and the knife into the bag before slinging it over her shoulder. New clothes, new gear… what else was the island going to offer? And for what price? Eloise really doubts that this place is just giving her this stuff out of the kindness of it’s heart. That is, if it has a heart. She kept walking, not sure exactly where she was going or what she was going to find. All she knew was the dehydration and hunger was getting to her. She felt dizzy and sick, even though she had nothing in her stomach to throw up. Her legs shook slightly as she stopped near the end of a hill, trying to pull herself together. She looked down and saw a man drinking water from a small pond; probably a gift from the island. She was about to turn around and run away when the ground underneath her flattened into a slide and she fell all the way down the hill. She couldn’t stop the small shriek that escaped her mouth as she landed with a thud right next to the man. She tried to back up, but her back was already against the bottom of the hill. She wanted to reach into the backpack and grab the hunting knife, but how could she? The man would get to her way before she managed to grab it. She could only wait for the man to make his move.
The water was cool and fresh on his tongue, tasting of minerals and nature. There was a conspicuous absence of that smooth taste, however, the one that spoke of a lack of filters and chlorine that he was so used to, that made him inexplicably nervous. There was something almost false, here, and David was a moment away from speaking up about it— oh, look at him, he’d lost it, gone absolutely batty, all bugged out to be talking to an entire fucking island like it could listen— before a girlish shriek had him turned around and on high alert before he’d even registered the act.
There was a burst of frantic movement, characteristic of surprise on both parties’ parts, that flowed almost in slow motion for David. There was a girl— young, but not so much that he was wondering at the cruelty of the island— sliding down the narrow decline that had suddenly flattened out from the ledge above. It was a short fall, but the kind that surely was sudden enough to disorient, and it led the girl to flop gracelessly to his right. His brow furrowed as he watched, the girl acting quickly as she attempted and failed to scrambled away against the earth at her back. There was a frantic look in her eyes, all fight-or-flight, that made David feel haunted.
He’d seen that look, seen it when he’d gone away to war and everything had gone to hell, as it was oft to do, when the very people he was supposed to be protecting had ended up fearing his group more than the enemy. It was the look of someone who was used to being hunted, who was only so far away from fighting back, of someone who would readily kill him if they weren’t at such a gross disadvantage. This girl was marked. She was young, but she was marked, and David could see it in her eyes and on her skin and in the way her muscles tensed against the wall of earth at her back, the way her eyebrows arched down and her fingers twitched towards the bag at her back. She expected him to hurt her, he realized, like things he knew nothing about had surely done in the past, and the reality of it only proved to make David incredibly sad.
He rocked back from his kneeling, defensive position and landed squarely on his butt, crossing his legs and attempting to make himself look as unassuming as possible. He held up both hands, giving a nervous grin. His voice was quiet but gravelly, having been used only occasionally to talk spitefully to nothingness. He hoped it was not intimidating. He hoped that the anger that had been driving his actions for what felt like forever but in reality was only week did not show through. It shouldn’t have, given that all he felt was an indistinct blur of pity and misplaced guilt.
“I— sorry, sorry, you startled me. I’m not going to hurt you, I swear. I was just, ah, lettin’ the island be all pushy with its offerings, y’know? Has it done that to you yet? Doesn’t really give you much choice to accept, even if it seems kinda shady. Can an island seem shady? I haven’t the faintest clue, but this one sure manages. Ah—” David cleared his throat, lowering his hands into his lap and looking mildly bashful. “Sorry, I’m rambling. I just don’t want you to think I’ll go off on you or something. I’m David, by the way. You don’t have to give me your name. You can leave, if you want.”
Since when had David begun to talk to timidly? ‘Timid’ had never been a word to describe him, and yet here he was, acting at once as if the girl before him were a skittish animal and as if she were a grown woman, prepared to scold him for being an idiot. He didn’t even know what he was apologizing for, since it surely hadn’t been him who’d barged in on somebody’s quiet drinking time. Maybe he wasn’t even apologizing to her. No, he surely wasn’t. He was apologizing to different girls in different times who had looked just like this one, but, at the same time, he was apologizing for abuses that were not his fault. The pity and guilt in his gut made him almost nauseous, but his main concern was getting that hunted look out of her eyes. He wouldn’t hurt her, wouldn’t dare, not when he’d already caused so much pain for those he’d never intended to lay even a finger on.
This girl had stirred up years’ worth of turmoil inside David, and she hadn’t even spoken a word yet.
Parker was fascinated by the wonder and mysticism that was Wanderlust. Sure, at times it annoyed him by sending people his way, perhaps trying to get him to actually talk to someone. But it also gave him much of the solitude he wanted, even if sometimes interupted. It interpreted his thoughts in a way that he found amazing, and the dark cloud somewhat lifted when he was able to wander through the forest and be in almost twenty places in under a minute. It could get annoying when you actually had a purpose in mind, but usually the island was considerate to listen to what you wanted.
That was what Parker had dedicated today to doing, wandering. It seemed only fitting given the entitlement of the island. But it also filled Parker with an odd rush of something, maybe an emotion (excitement?), when he would jump from place to place on the island. At the end of the day he would always end up wherever he was currently living, even if that place had been transported into a new environment. True, during these small journeys he sometimes ran into people, but often he could get away with a wave or even the person not even noticing he was there.
He had slung his mesh bag over his shoulder this morning, dressed in the new t-shirt and shorts the island had helpfully provided. Climbing down from his cave home, Parker had let his mind wander, nearly falling when the rock he’d had his fingers on turned into the bark of a tree. From then on he wandered, letting his mind stay open and free as he found himself in forests, mountains, and walking along the sand. Every now and then he’d stop to place something in his bag, but other than that he was perfectly content. Well, until he saw someone.
The first instinct Parker had was to just keep walking, but something made him stop. Sure, the area around him was picturesque, but it was more the juxtapostion of this calming area with the man who looked to be in such agony. It intrigued him, because he’d remembered himself in that position, quite ready to pull his hair out. Parker should probably keep moving, but still the thought pulled at him. Why would an attractive young man in a paradise like this be so unhappy? True, Parker himself couldn’t define happiness, but all the other people in his life had seemed to be able to.
“Hello?” He called, before he lost his will to do something.
The pinprick pains at his scalp did little to clear David’s mind. Pain rarely did. Rather, it simply made him more agitated, trapped with emotions he had never been trained to deal with, teetering at the edge of his capacity for suffering. Which was downright pathetic, if you asked him. What was this, a breakup and he’d lost himself? But Emily and Kevin really had been his whole world— Matthew would have been, too, if he’d ever gotten the chance to just meet him. David wanted so badly to downplay his pains to try and make them go away, but he knew it was impossible to do either.
How on earth was he supposed to move on? He’d always been the effector, the one who left an imprint— or so he’d thought. He’d always been the healer, the one who others relied on— or so he’d thought. He’d never imagined that so much of himself was made up of the two others he thought he’d be able to let go of in an instant. He hadn’t wanted to, but thought he could. If he was wrong about that, what else was such a blatant lie to himself?
It took a moment before the sound of another so much as registered in David’s brain. When it did, however, he sat up in a flash, staring with wide eyes at the intruder on his private anguish. It was a boy, a year or two his junior, sporting a small bag— mesh, something someone athletic might carry— and looking for all the world as if he’d just spent his day adventuring. He had, probably. Most everyone did, but David just tried his hardest to shake off the tricks from the island, well-meaning though they seemed. Was this another? Surely. It had taken advantage of his idleness and forced another interaction upon him. If it had been any other time— not time, any other period in his life— he would have been delighted. He’d always been social, always charismatic. That was one good thing that had come from his posh upbringing. But he only felt vulnerable now, and that was a feeling he’d quickly learned meant nothing good. What could he do? Shoo the boy away? No. He couldn’t very well run, either. He wasn’t a coward, and he wasn’t a skittish dog. Damn it all.
David let out a long breath before fabricating a strained smile, sitting more upright and crossing his legs. God, what should he even say? Pathetic, pathetic. “Hello,” he answered back. “Is the island treating you well?” What kind of question was that? Well, no, dammit, it was a perfectly fine one. Surely not everyone felt so antagonized as him.
In the time that David had been in Wanderlust, he’d done very little to care for his physical health. He knew how to survive in the wild, of course— no man or woman was deployed without being taught how— but he’d never been in a situation like this, out in the wild. He’d never gone camping. How could he, secluded in his mother’s mansion like a parrot in a cage, taught to mirror manipulations and cold detachments? Not even the nannies, who had tried their very hardest to raise him like a “normal” boy, would dare go so far as to take him on an excursion out of town. His mother would have killed them. They’d stretched the limits of their employment, surely, but never that far.
Every day and night on the island felt more like a challenge than an escape. He was glad to be away from his life, from what he’d hidden so childishly from in the moldy bathroom of a shady motel, but this place, this island with an unsettling mind of its own, felt somehow wrong. Despite what David could read as friendly intentions and care, he felt as if the island were some unseen enemy, a sniper hiding in the hills. He was already haunted by his wartime exploits— he didn’t want to be reminded of them at every turn. They were too fresh, his mind too raw.
His body craved physical necessities, however disinclined he was to getting them. A pounding headache throbbed behind his eyes, dehydration making him tremble. He needed water, but he refused it every time the island offered him a pool. Water made him, simply put, sad. He’d spent years palling around with Kevin in the aquarium that Kevin’s father had been appointed the director of. He’d watch his friend suit up and play with any manner of creature, seen him make a show of feeding the otters or the penguins. Kevin adored the ocean, had gone on to major in marine biology, and David could see nothing but bittersweet memories in the reflection of any body of water.
As he shoved the heel of his palm against his eye, hoping beyond hope that it would help to ease the pain, the island took advantage of his inability to evade its efforts. He found himself waist-deep in a pool of water, fish knocking against his legs and making him jump in surprise. David yelped, flailing as he fell face-first into the water. Before he could find himself submerged, however, it became suddenly shallow, and he caught himself on hands and knees.
He took a few moments to steady his breaths. “Jesus. If I wanted water I’d fucking get it, you pushy piece of… land.” David sighed and acquiesced, cupping his hands and bringing water to his lips. He could admit that he was acting childish, but since when had he ever not? He was basically an aggressive man-child parading around like an arrogant prick.
Well, at least he wasn’t dead. Yet.