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Fic: 1461 Days

Title: 1461 Days
Word Count: 11,733
Characters/Pairings: Gen, Neal
Rating: Teen and up
Warnings: Non-explicit violence, brief references to sex.
Summary: AU: Instead of prisons, convicts are sentenced to serve their sentences in penal colonies. After being convicted of bond forgery, Neal is sent to a small island colony for four years.
Notes: This was written for whitecollar_bb. My artist was treonb, who made an awesome video. Please check it out!

Day 1461

The mirror was too small to get a good look at his face, and shaving with a knife, let alone one he used to gut fish, was less than ideal. But he'd held the blade over flame to sterilize it, and when the boat came to pick him up, he wanted to meet it with as much dignity as possible. He wanted them to see that even after four years, he could still be bothered to take care of himself.

It was difficult, delicate work. The knife was dull after years of use, but he managed to cut away the worst of the beard, leaving behind a layer of patchy stubble that he knew he'd never manage to shave away completely. At least he'd tried.

But if he was right, within twelve hours he'd be in a hotel room, in a real bathroom with real toiletries.

He looked to his right, at the small pile of dark gray rocks with lighter marks scratched into them. 1461 marks. He'd counted them again and again on long, quiet nights.

What if they didn't come for him today? He'd seen other guys get picked up earlier or later than they expected. If Mozzie were here, he could have told Neal if today was a federal holiday. But for Neal, even telling what day of the week it was had become a labor that he didn't care to bother with. Until now, it had made little difference. The only thing that mattered was measuring the passing of the days until he would be free.

Kneeling in the sand, he looked out at the ocean, straining his eyes against the mid-day sun in hopes of seeing an approaching boat. When his eyes started to water, he stood and went into his small hut to collect his things. He was leaving most of it behind for the others, but he had his drawings and journals. He had unsent letters to Kate. He almost wished he had some glass bottles, so that he could cast the letters out in them to enjoy a little romance in being a castaway. But any romance in his situation had evaporated long ago.

Sitting on his sleeping bag, he untied his boots and pulled them off, along with his socks. They were still in good shape, considering, and one of the other guys could use them. He had a pair of sandals he'd made out of palm leaves, and he slipped those on instead. They weren't stylish, but they'd be good enough until he could get some proper clothes. With the condition of the rest of his clothes, his shoes were the last thing anyone was going to notice.

He couldn't give away his things just yet. He would leave everything here, and if he didn't come back by evening, Hector would take responsibility for divvying up what was left behind. Neal couldn't know for sure if the boat was coming or not, or how much time he would have to get on it if it did. Would they wait for him? Would they come to look for him if he didn't show up? Or would they just figure he was dead?

Neal took a final look around the small home he'd made for himself. He gathered up his bag and stepped out into the bright mid-day sun. He'd already said his goodbyes, so he started the trek down the beach to the dock.

He felt like he should take his time. The island had been his home for four years, and he'd made his peace with it. But within twelve hours, he hoped to be soaking in a hot bath. He knew he wouldn't miss this place.

The dock was a good fifteen-minute walk from the settlement. There was no sign of a boat when he got there, but the day was still young.

Neal sat in the sand and peered at the horizon, watching for any sign of movement on shimmering blue water.

Day 1

There were a surprising number of supplies on the boat. Neal had thought they might drop him off on the island with nothing but the clothes on his back, but they actually seemed rather committed to giving him a chance at survival.

"Is that a machete?" Neal asked, nodding at the sheathed blade that sat on top of the pile.

The nearest guard glanced over at it. "You might need it for building a shelter, stuff like that."

"So, you just let a bunch of convicts handle deadly weapons?"

The guard laughed. "Once you're on the island, the only rules are that you stay there and you don't try to contact anyone. The rest is up to you guys to manage."

Great. So he was going to be abandoned in a colony of armed criminals.

The guard continued. "It's actually not that bad. I mean, I haven't seen much of the colonies. But they seem to self-regulate for the most part."

Neal wasn't very comforted by that, but seeing the supplies made him feel better. He wished he could look through them, but his hands were cuffed to a waist chain and he didn't get the sense that the guards wanted him to move from his seat.

There was one thing they'd given him early: a wilderness survival manual. He'd been allowed to read it for the past week. It was meant to prepare and reassure him, but instead it made him aware of everything he would face on the island. The book covered how to identify edible plants, and what to do if he got bitten by a snake. It went over how to stay warm on cold nights, and avoid heatstroke during hot days.

Neal ran his finger along the rough texture of his shirt. He was wearing sturdy khaki pants and a thick, long-sleeved green shirt. He had on a pair of boxers and an undershirt underneath, and his shoes were thick-soled leather boots. Even in the air-conditioned hold of the boat, he was warm. He couldn't imagine wearing this whole ensemble on a tropical island. But his manual warned that nights could be cool.

He wondered if they'd given him any spare clothes. He couldn't imagine that this set would hold up for his entire sentence.

On the surface, four years in a penal colony didn't sound like the worst sentence. It seemed preferable to jail, with the bars, overcrowding, and countless rules. But the reality, that he could die out here and no one would know for months or years, was harder to deal with.

And until his date of departure grew closer, he didn't realize just how far from home he'd end up. They'd set off from Hawaii, but they'd made sure he couldn't see the direction.

It took perhaps an hour for the boat to reach the island. It was a clear day, and the boat was going fast. Neal tried to calculate how far out they might be, and figured they might be twenty or twenty-five miles out in the Pacific Ocean.

They were in a cabin below deck, so Neal only knew they were approaching the island because the boat slowed. Finally, it stopped, and the only movement was the boat rocking in the tide. But he had to wait below deck with one of the guards while the other two hauled the supplies out.

Neal didn't have a watch, so it was hard to tell exactly how long it was taking. But he could tell that the minutes were stretching on longer than he'd expected. Neal didn't know if he should be pleased or not. It was a relief, in a way, to delay the inevitable.

After what seemed like at least thirty minutes, one of the missing guards came down the hatch and announced that it was time to disembark.

As Neal climbed above deck, he squinted in the sudden brightness. It took him a moment to take in his surroundings.

The boat was moored at an old wooden dock. The beachside end was surrounded on three sides by a chain-link fence. There was a gate leading to the rest of the beach; it stood open now, but an open padlock hung from a chain, showing that it was normally kept locked. It wasn't exactly secure—one could easily reach a boat by swimming around. But Neal supposed it did a decent enough job of keeping the guards separated from the inmates when they had to come ashore.

Beside the fence was a large, faded sign. It read FEDERAL PENAL COLONY – NO TRESPASSING. Under that, in smaller text, it read Interfering with the inmates is a federal crime.

Neal wondered what "interfering" meant. Were the authorities more concerned about them being harmed or aided?

There was a newcomer on the boat, a disheveled man with long hair and worn clothes that Neal could barely recognize as the same khaki pants and green canvas shirt that he was wearing. It appeared the guards were collecting someone whose sentence was up.

The supplies were already piled on the beach. Neal's hands were still cuffed in front of him, so the guards helped him keep his balance as he climbed down the narrow ladder to the beach. Once he'd stepped through the gate, one of the guards took the cuffs off.

"Where do I go now?" Neal asked.

The guard shrugged. "Wherever you want. I think the other convicts have a settlement along the beach somewhere. The island isn't that big. You don't have to join them, though." He clapped Neal on the shoulder. "Good luck—we'll see you in four years."

Neal stood on the beach and watched as the guards prepared to sail back. He had dozens of questions he still wanted to ask—was there fresh water on the island? Was there edible fruit? Were there any wild animals he had to beware of?—but he knew that asking them now would make no difference.

After the boat left, Neal turned to his supplies. He looked through them quickly, and was relieved to find a canteen of water and some emergency rations. He left them both for now, knowing he would need them more later if he didn’t find food and water.

Before his departure, he'd been allowed to request choose fifteen personal items to take with him. He'd chosen some books, a picture of Kate, drawing materials, a cassette player, and cassette tapes. They weren't practical, perhaps, but they would hopefully keep him sane. He felt better about that choice now that he saw they'd provided him with the essentials by default.

Everything was in a large backpack like a mountain climber might wear. Neal hoisted it onto his back, and carried the machete in one hand and a solar-powered lantern in the other. Then, he set off.

He decided to make his way around the island in a spiral. He would walk around the perimeter first, and if he didn't find anyone, he would start working his way into the interior. He wasn't looking forward to venturing into the dense jungle.

His feet sank into the sand as he walked, the weight of the backpack making it hard to walk on the soft ground. It was getting to be low-tide, and the wet sand stuck to his boots.

After fifteen minutes, Neal's back ached. He didn't want to stop, but decided it was time for a break. He dropped his backpack to the ground and sat down in the sand.

It was hard to take in the island with the sun in his eyes, but he could tell that it was beautiful. It looked too idyllic to be a place of punishment. He could see himself on an island like his willingly, if it had a nice villa or resort to stay at and if he could go home after a week or so.

He wondered what it would take to escape. With enough time, he could build a raft. But sailing was not one of his many skills. He wasn't certain he could chart the right course, if he could even control a raft well enough to navigate the ocean.

He was ruminating on this when he saw movement in the corner of his eye. Turning his head, he saw a man a couple hundred feet away, walking in his direction. The newcomer was looking in his direction, but did not acknowledge him or pick up his pace.

Neal stood and, leaving his supplies on the beach, made his way toward the figure. As he got closer, he could confirm that it was indeed a man, who was wearing clothes like his.

"Hey," Neal called out once he was close enough, "I'm Neal."

The man was close to his age. He had a short, patchy beard and thick dreadlocks. He lifted his chin in Neal's direction. "They just drop you off?"

"About a half hour ago. Is there a...town or something?"

The man jerked his thumb over his shoulder. "Back there a ways. Don't know if I'd call it a town, though. How about I walk you over there? I can introduce you to the king."

Neal decided that right now wasn't the time to show his vulnerability and ignorance by asking who the "king" was. Instead, he smiled.

"Lead the way."

The other man nodded. "All right, go grab your stuff. I'm Quentin, by the way."

Neal collected his things and followed Quentin. It was a relief to have found someone, but Neal was careful not to let his guard down. He was reminded of his early days in New York, and he tried to get back into that mode of thinking. He'd spent so long feeling like he was invincible that it was hard to be cautious again.

“How long have you been here?” Neal asked.

“A little over a year. I’ve got about two left.”

“They gave me four years.”

It seemed like a long sentence, but Neal knew it could have been worse. If he’d been convicted on all of the charges he was tried on, he’d probably be spending the rest of his life on this island.

“Has anyone ever been transferred?” Neal asked. “To serve their sentence somewhere else?”

“Not that I’ve seen. They don’t come around much. They send boats to pick guys up when their sentences are done and drop off new guys, and they come around once a year or so to drop off supplies and check on shit, but they don’t really give a damn about us.”

This was disheartening to hear. For one thing, Neal had been holding out hope that he might be transferred to a different penal colony in time. He’d asked to be placed in the continental US, possibly on a farm in a secluded part of Kansas. It was more secure, with an electric fence to keep the inmates contained. But nonetheless, it would be easier to escape from, and easier for his friends to send aid.

On the surface, learning that there was so little interaction with the authorities out here was nice. But the implications were alarming. What if someone was injured or sick? What if they ran out of food or water? Perhaps he would spend the rest of his life here, after all.

He wouldn’t dwell on that. Until his arrest, he’d always managed to get himself out of tight spots. He would survive here, or he would escape.

Soon, Neal saw indications of life ahead of them. There was a hut that blended into the entrance to the jungle. It was built under the shade of a palm tree, and constructed of grass, leaves, and branches. Up ahead, he could see more men on the beach, and a few more huts.

As Quentin led Neal toward them, they stopped to apprise Neal. In turn, Neal studied them. Their uniforms were in various states of disrepair, and most of them were shirtless or in their undershirts. After spending the last half hour under the unforgiving sun, Neal could understand why.

The other men were all unshaven, and their overgrown hair hung limply. It was this sight that gave Neal an overwhelming sense of the reality he faced now. Starvation, broken bones, and venomous snakes were still distant concerns, things that Neal knew he might have to worry about but that were hypothetical for the moment. The realization that he would lose his dignity, that he would no longer be able to take pride in his appearance or keep himself clean, was a more crushing blow.

Quentin approached a tall, thin man with well-defined abs and a mess of blond hair on his head.

“Is the king available? I found this new guy on the beach.”

“Yeah, he’s in his hut.”

Quentin beckoned for Neal to follow. He led Neal to the largest structure that Neal had seen so far. It wasn’t half bad-looking for something that must have been built with Stone Age technology. It had proper walls made out of a wooden frame and thick woven grass, and there was a doorway covered with a curtain made out of a blanket. Quentin pushed the blanket aside and poked his head in. Neal couldn’t quite make out what was said, but a moment later, Quentin beckoned Neal to follow him inside. Neal set his supplies on the ground and stepped into the dark hut.

After the bright sunlight, Neal’s eyes had a hard time adjusting to the interior of the hut. He could just make out a seated, shirtless man with an eyepatch and tanned olive skin.

“This is Neal," Quentin said. "The boat that took Eli dropped him off. Says he’s got four years. Neal, this is Hector, our leader.”

Hector looked at Neal. His one eye was a dark brown, and it gazed at Neal intently.

"Thanks, Quentin. Neal, why don't you have a seat?"

There were some mats woven out of grass strewn around the hut. Neal chose one across from where Hector sat cross-legged. A deck of cards was laid out in a game of solitaire on the ground.

"I wasn't really briefed on the colony," Neal said. "I wasn't told there was a leader."

"That's because outside this island, no one cares. We're on our own out here."

"Quentin said they come around once a year or so."

"They keep their interaction with us to a minimum. But we'll show you the ropes. I've been here eight years. I've lived here longer than I've lived anywhere else, and I've been here longer than most of the guys. That's why I'm in charge. Some men come here and think that because there're no guards, no rules, they can do whatever the fuck they want. But what happens when you eat all your food and can't find enough to eat? Tell me, Neal—you fish before?"

"No, I've never really been the outdoors type."

Hector nodded slowly. "Yeah, well, here you'll be hard-pressed to get enough protein unless you manage to catch some fish. But what we have here is a cooperative community. Everyone pitches in. Out here, there's no reason not to. Doesn't matter who you were back on the mainland. Your life will be easier if you join our settlement."

The "if" stood out to Neal. "And what does membership cost?"

Hector smiled. He looked good for having been on the island for so long. Even his teeth were intact. His head was bald, and while Neal thought it was mostly natural, he wondered if Hector shaved part of it with a razor. A razor—that would be nice to have.

"Everyone contributes food and supplies to the settlement. When you're new, you give us some of the food and medical supplies the feds gave you. Not all of it, just some. And you follow the laws. The laws are simple enough. You don't kill or fight each other except in self-defense. You don't steal from the other men. Things like that."

"And what are the penalties for breaking the laws?"

"We do what we have to."

That was too vague for Neal's liking.

"Thank you. I appreciate the offer, but can I take a little time to consider it?"

"Of course. Take all the time you need. But one of my laws is that men who aren't members don't get any assistance from my kingdom. If you don't join, you're on your own." He studied Neal. "You want to tell me what you're here for?"

"Bond forgery."

"Hm. Bookish type, then. You ask me, you'll need all the help you can get."

"This isn't the first time I've had to take care of myself. I'll give your offer some thought."

Day 3

It had been almost seventy hours since Neal had eaten. He was close to opening one of the emergency rations, but that would be a temporary solution. And if someone saw him, they would know he was getting desperate.

He had hoped that by delaying giving an answer to Hector, he would show the others that he was not easily taken in. Now he feared he hadn't thought it through. The men had seen his fruitless attempts at fishing. When he'd tried this morning, he'd seen one of the guys (Randy or Randall, Neal thought his name was) laughing at his poor technique.

They knew he was getting hungry. Accepting Hector's help now would just make it obvious how much he needed it.

He spent the afternoon seeking refuge under the shade of a copse of trees. He leaned back against one. He'd taken off his shirt and folded it between his head and the tree as a makeshift pillow so that he could relax, but it didn't help much. He tried to read his survival guide more, but found it hard to focus on it.

He waited until a quiet moment, when no one seemed to be around, and dug one of his ration packs out of his backpack. It was supposed to be a roast beef sandwich, but only vaguely tasted like one. He ate it quickly and crumpled the wrapper up in his backpack.

That night, he'd drifted into a light sleep when he was suddenly woken by a presence close by. It was one of the men, and Neal wasn't sure if that was better or worse than a wild animal.

"What are you doing?" Neal asked.

The man crouched beside him. "Shh. Don't want to wake Hector's men," he said quietly. "You must be running low on water by now. Bet you're getting hungry, too."

Neal sat up. "Who are you?"

"My name's Gareth. Relax, I wanna help you out. You want some water?"

"Are you offering some?"

"Sure, if you want to help me out."

"What—" Neal stopped talking as Gareth laid a hand on his leg. He ran it up the length until he cupped Neal's knee in his palm and squeezed.

"It gets pretty lonely around here," Gareth said. "You can't blame a man for wanting a little fun. Especially when you're still so clean and fresh."

Neal wanted to pull his leg away, but he stayed still.

"Tell me, is extorting sex for water against Hector's laws? Maybe we should ask him."

Gareth pulled away, his expression hardening.

"You'll wish you accepted my help in a day or two."

Neal doubted that. He watched until Gareth walked away, disappearing into one of the huts. Neal didn’t think he'd be going back to sleep, now.

Day 4

The only way Neal could go to Hector was if he had something to bring to the table. He wasn't going to enter into an alliance at a disadvantage. He had to make Hector feel like he was getting a good deal by having the new guy in his tribe.

It didn't matter if Neal wanted to join the tribe. It was clear enough that he had to. Hector's men had control of the desalination machine that they used to purify ocean water. Without it, Neal would have to either find a freshwater spring or rely on rain water. Hector's men knew how to fish. Neal, at best, could identify fruit that was safe to eat.

The problem was that this meant Neal didn't have much to offer. He'd never been an outdoorsman. The closest he'd gotten was back when he'd first come to New York, and he'd had to survive on his wits until he could get enough money for a place to live. That had been a different type of survival. There were no buildings to squat in or convenience stores to steal from now.

He could cook. Even here, he might be able to manage a decent meal. But cooking required food that he didn't have.

But he was good with his hands. He had that, at least. He watched the other men, what tools they used. He thought about what he could make, and what he could make better than they could.

He just had to make an effort before he got too hungry to concentrate.

Day 5

Someday, Neal would probably hate coconuts. When he was free, he’d probably never eat one again. Right now, he couldn’t get enough of them.

His perspective on hunger was starting to change. He understood the difference between discomfort and starvation. His diet of coconuts couldn’t eliminate the former, but it was keeping him alive and moderately strong. The water inside the coconuts helped him stay hydrated.

Eventually, it wouldn’t be enough. He needed to learn how to find more food. He needed to learn how to fish. He needed access to Hector’s water supply. But for now, he was surviving.

When he went to see Hector, Hector seemed neither surprised nor annoyed. If he was unhappy that Neal waited, he didn’t show it. If he was impressed by Neal’s fortitude, he didn’t show that, either.

Neal wondered what counted as fortitude here.

Instead, Hector looked at the item Neal held in his hands. He looked intrigued. “What’ve you got there?”

“A bowl,” Neal said. He sat it on the ground in front of Hector. “I carved it out of a coconut shell and smoothed out the edges. I’d like you to have it.”

Hector picked up the bowl and turned it over in his hands. “This is actually pretty good.”

“Listen, I know you’ve been watching me. You know I can’t hunt and that I haven’t been able to collect much water. But I can make things. I’m good with my hands."

"What kind of things?"

"More dishes. Furniture. Rope. I saw some of your guys trying to haul firewood on some sort of sled today. Their rope broke. I can make something stronger. And I can cook. If you give me some food to work with, I’ll make a meal for you and your friends tonight.”

Hector set the bowl down and regarded Neal curiously. “When I offered you a place in my little village, I didn’t ask you for anything.”

“No, but I’m sure you will eventually. And if I’m going to join, I want it to be clear that I’m pulling my weight.”

Hector was silent, and Neal wondered if perhaps he’d mis-stepped. He knew very little about this man, after all. And it was hard to study your mark in a place like this.

But Hector nodded and gave Neal a slow smile. “All right. We’ve got a deal.”

That night, Neal cooked a few fish that Hectors’ men had caught. Somehow, they’d gotten a small collection of metal cookware, including a cast iron skillet. Little things like this made Neal feel better. It made the island seem less desolate, and he felt less abandoned. He didn’t ask how they got the cookware because he wanted to believe that the guards had brought it. It was nice to think that the government cared about their survival.

He added some cut up coconut and a bit of tomato. Apparently, the men had a garden somewhere away from the beach, though Neal couldn’t imagine it was very reliable. How much could they grow on a tropical island? Neal was ashamed to realize that he knew very little about farming.

There were six of them at dinner: Neal, Hector, Quentin, an older guy named Ronny, the blond man who'd been outside Hector's hut (whose name was Stuart), and, surprisingly, Gareth. Neal could see a couple more fires spread out on the beach where the other men made their own dinners. After a few days of observation, Neal had come to the conclusion that there were eleven of them on the island. Or at least in Hector’s village.

Neal had to resist the urge to eat his share of the fish in a few quick bites. He may have been sitting in the sand and picking at his food with his fingers, but he could still maintain some dignity.

“I was wondering,” Neal said, “is this all of us? Are there any other settlements?”

“Nothing you’d call a settlement,” Hector said. “Over the years, a few guys have decided to set out on their own. It’s hard to say what happens to them.”

“We should warn him about Crazy Jake, though,” Quentin said.

Neal raised his eyebrows. “Crazy Jake?”

Hector shrugged. “It’s nothing. Some old guy who’s been here for ages. He lives in a cave in the interior. No one's seen him in a long time."

"He lays traps," Ronny said. "You've gotta be careful going into the jungle."

"And the authorities, they don't do anything about this?" Neal asked.

Hector laughed. "Do what? They don't care what we do. Besides, Crazy Jake's never getting off this island."

Neal poked at his food. He'd known there was a chance of danger from the other inmates. Abandoning a bunch of convicted felons on a deserted island could go in a lot of directions, most of them bad. Neal was just glad he seemed to have found a fairly reasonable bunch. He knew that part of the logic behind the penal colony setup was that inmates who were busy surviving and managing their own prison would get into less trouble. Neal wasn't sure he believed that. It seemed to him that this could just as easily go in the direction of Lord of the Flies. He wasn't prepared to trust anyone.

Day 15

"Mind if I ask you something?"

Hector looked up. He was teaching Neal how to fish, and stood poised with his spear. Upon reflection, perhaps it was not a great time to ask potentially sensitive questions.

"Sure, shoot."

"Your eye—did that happen here? Or before?"

Hector chuckled. He tapped his eye patch. "You mean this? Nah, I've had this a long time. I got shot."

Neal raised his eyebrows. "In your eye?"

"Yeah, man. Doctors said I was lucky to be alive. See, that's why I don't let this island get to me. It's not so much worse than anywhere else. At least here, most people have their priorities straight." He looked down at the water. "Hey, look here. See that fish? He's getting close because I'm not moving around like some idiot. You gotta stay still, wait for it to come close, and bring the spear down with one quick movement. One try is all you've got."

Suddenly, like a flash, he thrust the spear down. When he lifted it, the fish was speared to the end.

"See? Easy if you have the patience."

Neal shielded his eyes from the sun and looked out and the vast ocean in front of them. "Have you guys had any luck figuring out where we are, exactly?"

"Nah, man. The feds may not give a shit about us, but they care about keeping us hidden out here."

"Has anyone ever escaped?"

"One guy tried not long after I came here. I doubt he got to Hawaii, but his body never washed up back here, so who knows?" He looked at Neal. "But don't go getting ideas. Your chances of surviving here for four years are better than your chances of surviving out there."

That didn't mean Neal wasn't thinking about it, though. How could he not? When he'd first found out he was going to the island, he'd immediately thought about escaping. But now....It wasn't so simple. He realized that.

He was probably going to be here for four years.

Day 35

He tried to be nice to the other men, because he got the sense that being seen as a loner was dangerous. But he was careful not to open up, and to observe more than he interacted.

Hector didn't seem to be on particularly bad terms with anyone, but he certainly had an inner circle. Some of these men seemed like genuine friends; others seemed to have been chosen more strategically. Gareth was the best farmer of the bunch and had taken almost sole responsibility for their meager crops. Ronny was the best fisherman. Quentin always had good things to say about Hector's leadership, singing his praises for organizing better living spaces and more efficient distribution of labor. All of the men were given jobs to do, ranging from fishing to managing the rainwater collection to mending blankets and clothes.

Neal was settling in. He'd even built himself a sturdy hut that was big enough to stand up in.

That evening, he was walking back to his hut after collecting some fresh water in his canteen when he heard a faint rustling sound by the edge of the jungle. He strained his eyes and made out the figure of Hector leaning against a tree. Stuart, identifiable only by his mess of blond hair, was on his knees in front of him, his head bobbing up and down.

Neal didn't have to look any closer to understand what was happening, and he quickly turned toward his hut so that they wouldn't know he'd seen them.

He'd made himself a bed out of grass, covered in a spare blanket that he'd gotten in a trade. Sometimes the grass poked through the blanket and tickled him, but overall it wasn't any worse than the mattress he'd had in jail. He had a makeshift nightstand made out of an old metal box that used to hold a first aid kit. Opening it, he pulled out his cassette player. He had his photos of Kate inside the box, as well, but he wouldn't be able to see them in the dark. Instead, he put on his headphones and tried to picture her as he listened to her favorite songs.

Day 83

The boat came around midday. It was barely visible from their stretch of beach, but he could just make out the disturbance in the water. As it got closer, it was obscured by the bend of the beach.

When he went to tell Quentin, Quentin said, "Probably a supply boat. I don't think anyone's supposed to be released today."

A supply boat! For nearly three months, Neal had been afraid to ask about supplies. He'd found it promising that the other men seemed to have toothpaste and a limited amount of other toiletries, but hadn't wanted to reveal himself as naïve if it turned out that they were truly abandoned.

Word of the boat made its way through the tribe. Within fifteen minutes, Hector had assembled a small team to go meet the boat. A team Neal managed to get onto.

On the beach, they weren't allowed to get too close to the gate. They had to stand back while the guards unloaded the boxes from the boat and placed them on the beach.

Neal almost regretted joining the expedition. It was harder than he expected to see the boat in front of him and have no way of conning his way onto it.

The guards left all too soon. Neal had expected them to inspect the island, or at least ask for a progress report. Something. But if they had any concern for the fate of the colony, they didn't show it.

Once the boat took off, they carried the boxes back to the village. The box Neal carried was heavy, and his arms were tired by the time he was able to set it down. He hoped that was promising.

Everyone gathered to check out the supplies and collect whatever share Hector was willing to give them. One box had first aid supplies. Another had more emergency rations. Another, more toothpaste and sunblock. Most of it was distributed more or less evenly among the men, with Hector's closest friends seeming to get a little more. The best items, like the blankets and a cooking pot, were declared community property, which in practice meant that they belonged to Hector and would be given out however he saw fit. A few of the men looked unhappy about this, but no one said anything.

Any concerns Neal might have had about the distribution were eclipsed by his relief at having new supplies, and his grief at seeing a boat and not being able to leave on it.

Day 365

The beach got cool and windy this time of year, and Neal had his long-sleeved shirt on. He sat with his knees pulled up in front of his chest.

Hector set his cup down and got up. “Almost forgot,” he said. “I have something for you.”

He stumbled over to his hut and emerged with a half-crumpled toothpaste tube.

“It's not what it looks like,” he said as he handed it to Neal. “It's paint, sorta. I mixed it with berries.”

Neal smiled. He had to admire the effort, even if the "paint" was unlikely to do him much good. The toothpaste tube was ingenious.

“Congrats, Hector said. “I've always said, you make it a year, and you'll probably make it for the long haul.”

Day 403

None of the men liked going into the jungle on the east side of the island. There were stories about a man who lived somewhere in there. They called him Crazy Jake, because the story went that he’d been on his own in the jungle for the past seven years and that he’d turned to cannibalism. He’d become a legend on the island, like Bigfoot, and like Bigfoot no one seemed to ever get a good look at him.

Hector warned everyone to be careful, because Jake was known to set traps. The men had come to believe that the traps were set for them. Neal would have questioned the traps' existence, but Ronny said he'd almost stepped on a spiked one once, and barely escaped with his foot intact. Still, Neal found a lot of logical flaws in the Crazy Jake legend. For one thing, while Hector blamed Jake for the death of an inmate in the jungle a few years back, there was no indication that Jake had killed anyone since then, lending doubt to the cannibalism rumors. And Neal suspected that if the traps existed, they were meant to catch animals, not humans.

Hector insisted that they go into the jungle periodically to collect fruit, grass, and other raw materials. They were supposed to alternate, but Neal had endeared himself to the colony by agreeing to take over some of the other men’s turns.

By his sixth or seventh trip out with no incident, Neal was feeling fairly confident. He never liked the jungle. He would never get used to having to look out for snakes. But he wasn’t frightened like some of the men were. Sometimes he suspected that Hector had cooked up most of the Crazy Jake story. Why, he couldn’t imagine. A means of control maybe.

It was mid-day, but it was cloudy. Even less sunlight than usual penetrated the thick blanket of trees. It made him uneasy. He couldn’t see well. He hadn’t had much luck finding fruit, though, and he knew Hector would expect a better yield. He kept going.

When the ground gave way under his foot, time seemed to move slowly. But there wasn’t enough time to grab something, or break his fall. He landed hard on his ankle, and pain shot up his leg.

It took him a second to figure out what had happened. He was in a round pit that was maybe five feet in diameter. It wasn’t natural—someone had dug it, and covered it with foliage to disguise it.

Crazy Jake.

Neal took a second to recover. He turned over and sat on the cool dirt. He felt his ankle, and pulled his sock down to look at it. It hurt, but it didn’t look or feel broken.

Next, he took stoke of his situation. The pit was perhaps six feet deep, but it was small in width. He could probably brace himself on two sides to climb out. He grabbed the edge with both hands and planted his good foot against one side of the pit. He tentatively placed his injured foot against the opposite side. He winced, and he almost collapsed, his body unwilling to put weight on his ankle. But he forced himself, pushing himself up with his legs. He could rest his ankle when he got back to the village.

He fought and clawed his way up. Fortunately, the pit seemed to have been designed for smaller animals—another crack in the cannibal theory. Finally, he managed to get a knee up on solid ground, and soon he was on all fours, eyes closed in relief.

The leaves rustled beside him. As he turned to look, pain exploded across the back of his head and he collapsed onto his front. He rolled over, looking for his attacker.

The man standing over him was someone he hadn’t seen before. He was filthy, and his hair and beard had grown wild until it was impossible to see where the beard ended and the hair began. He was holding a wooden club that had been crudely but deliberately carved into a weapon.

Neal sat up and scrambled backward, trying to put distance between himself and the other man.

“You think you can come into my home?” the man said. His voice was hoarse, as though he didn’t use it often.

Neal held up a hand. “I didn’t mean any harm, okay? Let me guess—you’re Jake?”

“Who told you that? He sent you, didn’t he? What’s-his-name with his band of thieves. This is my home. These are my trees. You think you can steal from me? You think I don’t see you assholes coming onto my land?”

Slowly, Neal pushed himself to his feet. It was difficult on his injured ankle, and he tried to keep his hands in front of him to avoid threatening Jake. “Fair enough. Why don’t you tell me where your land begins so we can avoid it, okay?”

“So you can go back to your leader and tell him where I live?”

Jake lifted the club. Neal reacted immediately, but not quickly enough. The club struck the side of his head. Already off-balance, he fell. Before he could try to get up again, Jake was on him, pushing him to his back and straddling his chest. He’d dropped his club, but he pulled out a rusty knife from a sheaf on his belt. He pressed the tip to Neal’s throat.

“Did they tell you I’m crazy? That the island drove me insane?”

Neal was afraid to speak, not wanting his throat to press against the knife. “I get it,” he managed to say.

“Save your pity. I’m not crazy. Crazy is pretending there’s anything civilized about this goddamn island. Pretending this is Gilligan’s Island. How long’s your sentence?” When Neal didn’t respond, Jake pressed the knife closer to his throat.

“Four years,” Neal croaked out.

“I’ve got forty. Been here ten. You think I care anything about killing you?"

Normally, Neal's instinct would be to try to reason with him. That was how he always got himself out of scrapes. But it was hard to use his words with a knife pressed against his Adam's apple, and there was no hope of a rescue out here. He didn't have Mozzie to back him up. So instead, the fear started to envelope him, and all he could think was that he didn't want to die here. He didn't want to die in the jungle and have no one know about it until the guards came to collect him and he wasn't there to get on the boat.

He didn't think about it much as he pulled out his knife and opened it up one-handed. He didn't like violence, but that didn't mean he couldn't defend himself. He lashed out with the blade quickly and forcefully, and used the resulting confusion to push Jake off of him and roll out of the way. He pushed himself to his feet and forced himself into a stumbling, hopping run, putting as much weight on his injured ankle has he could in the interest of getting away. He had blood on his hand. He didn't hear Jake behind him, but he didn't stop to make sure. The thought of going back crossed his mind. He didn't like the idea of leaving someone to die. But he didn't know if he'd wounded Jake that severely, and couldn't risk going back if he hadn't. He could tell that it would be dark within an hour, and if he waited too long, he might not be able to find his way back to the beach.

He forced himself to continue on until he could see the welcoming glow of a campfire through the thick trees.

Day 405

Most of the men said it was well enough to leave the matter alone. Either Jake survived or he didn’t. But Hector insisted on finding out. He rounded up a team of himself and a few of the braver men and set out into the jungle, armed with knives and spears.

Neal stayed behind. His ankle had swollen up overnight, and now that the adrenaline was wearing off, he could barely put weight on it. He spent the afternoon under the shade of a lean-to on the beach.

He didn’t like that he’d left Jake behind. It didn’t feel right, even if he could justify it. Secretly, he was glad he wouldn’t be there to find out what had happened.

It was several hours before Hector and his men returned. Hector announced, unceremoniously, that Jake was dead.

“We found his body near a cave he’d been living out of. Got himself that far, but he’d lost a lot of blood. There was a trail of it. Looks like he went fast. We buried the body.” He paused for a second, giving Jake the briefest moment of silence, before continuing. “We’ll go back out tomorrow to salvage what we can from the cave.”

“Seriously?” Neal said. “That’s your main concern?”

Hector shrugged. “What do you expect? I’m here to survive. I’m not going to let good food and supplies go to waste. Don’t worry—I know it’s your bounty. You’ll get a good share.”

Neal felt sick. “I didn’t kill him to get his supplies.”

“Doesn’t matter. Life goes on.”

Hector started off in the direction of his hut, which caused the other men to disperse. As he passed Neal’s lean-to, Hector stopped and crouched down.

“Listen, I get it—you have a good heart, you’re not a killer. You just did what you had to. You’ll probably leave this island alive. That guy? He was never going to. Don’t beat yourself up.”

“I’m not. It was self-defense. I know that.”

“Yeah. And if it gives you some cred around here, what’s the harm in that?”

That wasn’t the type of reputation Neal wanted to earn. He could put on a tough persona if he needed to, but to actually kill someone? Even justified, it was hard to wrap his head around.

The worst part was, Hector was right—this wasn’t the time to show weakness.

Day 423

It took almost three weeks for Neal’s ankle to start feeling normal again. He still couldn’t stand on it for long periods of time, and he was still removed from the scavenging rotation. There were compressive bandages in the first aid supplies, and Neal had kept his ankle wrapped to support it.

It was hard, not being able to take walks or scavenge for food. He hadn’t realized how vital that was for keeping him sane. To have time to think but not feel trapped in his own head. He hated feeling reliant on the others.

He didn’t want to risk hurting his ankle worse, though. He couldn’t exactly go to a doctor. He was just thankful he hadn’t broken it. He didn’t want to imagine the many ways that could have gone badly for him.

Day 600

Quentin's best contribution to the tribe was alcohol. He had a surprisingly good recipe for hooch that he could make with the fruit that grew on the island, and he almost always had a batch fermenting.

It wasn't up to Neal's usual standards, but then, Neal hadn't always had exacting tastes. There'd been a time, years ago, when boxed wine and cheap gin were all the same to him as the good stuff. And being on the island gave him a different perspective. Quentin's hooch was just fine.

Drinking it made him sad, though. It made him think of Mozzie. If Mozzie were here, he'd probably have a whole distillery set up.

Neal had given up hope of a rescue from Mozzie, but that didn't stop him from thinking about his friend occasionally. Had Mozzie looked for him? Was he still looking for him? He hoped Mozzie trusted in him enough to believe he was still alive.

Day 633

Stuart left in the morning. They'd had a going away party for him the night before, for which Neal had managed a halfway decent meal. But now Hector was in a somber mood, and after Stuart set off, he went into his hut and stayed there for the rest of the morning.

Neal saw the boat approach and leave. No one new came to take Stuart's place.

Day 743

The boat came for Quentin. Neal felt the usual desperation knowing that the boat had come and gone without him yet again. That feeling never got better. But he didn’t miss Quentin, even if they’d almost been friends. Seeing other men go home was the only thing that gave him hope. Besides, he’d been helping Quentin with the hooch production for months, and he was ready to take it over. He was good at it, maybe even better than Quentin was, and he liked the idea of having a niche.

An hour or so after Quentin left, a new man showed up. It was strange seeing him—his hair was still well-groomed and his clothes were new. Neal hadn’t realized how much his own clothes had faded. His shirt was puckered in several spots where he’d had to repair rips with the small sewing kit he had.

The new man’s name was Jeremy. He looked to be in his forties, and he joined Hector’s tribe quickly enough. He wouldn’t say what his crimes were, but he told them that he had a two-year sentence.

Two years felt doable to Neal, because he’d already done it.

Day 827

He didn’t know what made him sick. He was normally so careful. He had a good eye. He could identify the poisonous berries and fish.

But he must have slipped up. Or maybe it was as simple as eating some fish that hadn’t been cooked properly.

He woke in the early hours of the morning, his stomach cramping like it was seized in a vice. He barely made it out of his hut before he threw up in the sand, heaving until there was nothing left but bile. Even when he couldn't throw up anymore, the spasms continued. His ribs ached like they were going to break.

When it finally stopped, he tried to rinse out his mouth and drink some water. But ten minutes later, he was throwing up what little fluid he'd managed to get down.

It continued well into the day. He stayed motionless on his sleeping mat, never wishing more that he had a proper bed.

It had been a long time since he'd seriously thought about the possibility of dying on the island. Now he remembered how vulnerable his life was. What if he still couldn't keep water down tomorrow? What if he got sicker? He could feel his heart pounding from the stress on his body. If he'd been home, he might have gone to the ER. Instead, he tried to reassure himself. He had access to clean water. Hector cared enough about maintaining order that he wouldn't let the tribe neglect him.

He wouldn't die. Not after he'd done so much to survive.

Day 828

Neal's recovery was slow. He still couldn't eat, but at least he could drink some water if he did it slowly.

"Try to eat something," Hector told him at dinner time. "You've got to keep your strength up."

"By puking my guts out some more? I already feel like I bruised a rib or two." He looked at the fish Hector was cooking over the fire and swallowed down bile. The smell of food nauseated him, but sitting by the warmth of the fire made him feel better.

"You should try to eat some coconuts, at least. Anything."

"I'll be fine. I'm doing better." He pulled his blanket around him. It was winter. He knew that much even if he had trouble keeping track of the months sometimes. It probably didn't mean anything. Out here, the seasons didn't change the same as they did in New York. It never got particularly cold compared to what he was used to. Maybe he just wanted familiarity. He took a slow, careful sip of water. "Do you think you'll spend the rest of your life here?"

Hector poked at the fish and shifted his weight in the sand. "Probably."

"Does that bother you?"

"Not anymore, no."

"It's good the men have you."

Neal wasn't like Hector. This place would never be home for him. The only thing that kept him going was the promise of leaving.

He'd abandoned any thoughts of escaping long ago. But it was a matter of perspective. He thought that if his sentence was longer, trying to escape would be worth it to him. But maybe it wouldn't. Maybe if he were here for twenty years, he would keep acclimating little by little. Maybe life, no matter how vulnerable, would always win out over the uncertainty of the vast, dangerous Pacific.

Day 1461

He'd been on the beach for a few hours, and the midday sun beat down on him. He was starting to think the boat wouldn't come, and the extent of his growing panic startled him. Four years of making this island his home, but when it came down to it, he was terrified to be here another hour.

Then he saw the tiny shape on the horizon, and the disruption of the water around it. It was a boat.

He had maybe five minutes to compose himself. Ten if the currents were strong. But it seemed to take much longer than that for the boat to reach the dock. The island had messed with his perception of time.

Neal stood beside the metal gate and waited. There were a couple guards on the deck of the boat, and one of them climbed down to the beach. He studied a folder for a minute before unlocking the gate. Then, he pulled a small scanner out of his pocket.

"Place your thumb here," he said.

Neal had heard about this routine. They had fingerprint scanners to ensure they picked up the right inmate. Neal supposed they couldn't guarantee that the inmate would resemble his official picture. Neal hoped he was still recognizable, though. He had tried so hard.

After a moment, the device beeped. The guard took a look and said, "All right. Go ahead and board the boat.

Neal climbed the ladder to the deck. It was strange to touch metal and fiberglass. He was so used to rocks, wood, and sand.

The deck of the boat was the first hard, even surface he'd stood on in years. Another guard called down below deck, and a moment later, a third guard came up with two inmates in tow. Their uniforms were so clean and new that Neal couldn't tell if they were the same design as his.

Neal fought an irrational instinct to feel guilty that he was going home when these men were just beginning their sentences. But the guilt faded quickly.

He was not handcuffed as he had been upon his arrival. One of the guards started to lead him below deck, but he paused.

"Is it okay if I stay up here?"

The guard hesitated. "Sorry, it's protocol."

Neal supposed it was to keep the location of the island a secret. Neal didn't complain, and sitting below deck actually proved to be nice. He looked at the electric lights embedded in the walls of the cabin and smiled. He would have light at night again.

The guard opened a refrigerator and asked him if he'd like a juice box.

As Neal drank the sweet, cold grape juice, the guard sat across from him. He was a young man. At least a few years younger than Neal. His uniform shirt had a patch that said "McKinney."

"You look good," McKinney said. "You took good care of yourself."

"Thanks," Neal said. What else was there to say?

He would need to think about seeing a doctor, and a dentist. His teeth seemed to be in decent enough shape thanks to the toothpaste and brushes that got dropped off with the fresh supplies once a year or so, but he'd had a dull toothache for a few months now that he suspected was from one of his wisdom teeth. He needed to gain weight. He would need to remedy whatever vitamin deficiencies he had. Or, more likely, he would forego the doctor and take care of himself. A few months relaxing with Kate would get him back to a hundred percent. He thought about where he would go. Not the Mediterranean. Not an island. Nowhere near the sea. Maybe Paris. Or better yet, someplace cool, like the mountains. A Swiss chalet and a long holiday skiing in the Alps would be as much the opposite of the island as he could get.

After he was done with the juice box, McKinney offered him another one and a bag of pretzels. Then, McKinny picked up a paper bag that was on the floor by the refrigerator.

"We've got some clothes for you here. There's a lavatory back there." He pointed toward the back of the cabin. "We don't have great facilities, but we recommend you take a few minutes to wash up and get dressed."

Neal began to wonder what would face him when he returned to the mainland. Nobody on the island had known anything about that. Had anyone been notified of his release?

"What happens when we dock? It's a long way to New York."

"Since your home state is more than five-hundred miles from where we're docking, we'll put you on a flight."

At least he wasn't going to be abandoned in Hawaii.

Neal ate the pretzels and then got up to get dressed. He would have loved a proper shower--or better yet, a long, hot bath. It would have to wait until he got back to New York. In the meantime, he made do with the small shower stall and detachable showerhead in the tiny bathroom, and the bar of plain, astringent soap that was wrapped in thin paper. It was good enough, considering.

The clothes they'd given him consisted of a pair of briefs and some jeans that hung off his hips. Had they gotten his size wrong, or had he really lost this much weight? There was a plain white t-shirt, socks, and a pair of cheap sneakers. Even after four years, Neal’s pride bristled.

He hoped Mozzie and Kate had managed to save his clothes.

A short while later, the boat docked in Hawaii. Ordinarily, Neal wouldn't have minded staying a while. But he was tired of a tropical climate. Two other guards with an SUV met them at the docks to take Neal to the airport.

Neal rode in the back of the SUV, separated from the guards by a metal grill. He felt like he was under arrest again, and by the time they reached the airport, Neal was more than ready to get out of the car. These guards gave him a large manila envelope that contained his ID, a boarding pass, some sort of voucher stating that the government was arranging for his travel, and small amount of money.

At least his ID hadn't expired. He supposed the voucher was partly to anticipate issues like that.

They'd given him some quarters. As soon as he found a payphone, he decided to call Mozzie. He wasn't optimistic. Mozzie changed phones almost as frequently as he changed his socks. But Neal had to try.

The first two numbers he tried resulted in automated messages that the numbers were no longer in service. The third was answered by a man with a Chinese accent that sounded too realistic to be Mozzie in disguise. Neal wasn't optimistic, but he decided to try one more number that he remembered. When he heard Mozzie's voice say "Hello" on the other end, it took him a second to register what he'd heard.

"Moz? It's me, Neal."

It was strange to say it, after four years. There was a pause on the other end, like Mozzie was also caught unprepared.

"Neal? Where are you?"

"In the Honolulu airport. Listen, I've got a ticket for a flight that leaves in a couple hours, but I have a connecting flight in Houston. I don't know when I'll get back to New York?"

"What are you doing at the airport? How did you get a ticket so quickly?"

"They gave it to me. I guess when they ship you out to a deserted island, they accept the responsibility of shipping you back home."

"But you don't need to get on a flight now. I'm here. I mean, I'm there, in Honolulu."

"Wait, you're here? What are you doing in Honolulu?"

"What do you think? Trying to find you. Listen, hang tight. I'll meet you at the airport. Whatever you do, don't get on any planes. Don't trust any tickets they gave you."

"I just rode on a small boat with three armed guards. I think I'd be safe on a commercial airliner. But yeah, I'll wait."

Neal didn't even know how tense he was until he hung up the phone. Talking to Mozzie, more than anything else, made him feel that he was home.

They'd arranged to meet near the entrance since Neal didn't have a cell phone. Mozzie showed up a half hour later.

Neal couldn't tell if Mozzie was disguised as a tourist or if this was his idea of normal clothing for the setting. He wore a garish yellow Hawaiian shirt, cargo shorts, and sandals with white socks.

"You look ridiculous," Neal said with a smile.

"Speak for yourself. I'm not taking you back to New York until we get you some decent clothes."

"You don't have to worry about me turning you down."

They stood in silence for a moment, studying each other. Neal could feel Mozzie's eyes appraising him.

"Just to get this out of the way now," Mozzie said, "I understand and accept it if you can't forgive me. And I promise that I'll never forgive myself?"

"For what? What are you talking about?"

"Not rescuing you, of course. I tried to figure out what island you were on, but there are hundreds of little islands in the Pacific. But it's no excuse. I should have done something. I should have—"

"Moz, hey. I never asked to be rescued. I didn't expect it, okay? There's nothing to be forgiven. The fact that you're here, that you came to came all the way out here to pick me up...that means a lot."

"Well," Mozzie said, smiling sheepishly, "I know you'd do the same thing if it were me."

"How's Kate? Is she here?"

Mozzie's smile vanished. "Kate couldn't make it. Come on—we can talk on our way to get you some food and new clothes. Airports give me the creeps—too many cameras and rent-a-cops."

Neal knew Mozzie was stalling for time. As they walked out of the airport, Neal said, "Where's Kate, Moz?"

"She hasn't been around much lately, okay? I've tried to keep an eye on her, but you know Kate; when she wants to disappear, she's good at it."

"Do you think she's in trouble?"

"Not that I can tell. I haven't heard anything. But this is not what you should be worrying about right now. Have you seen yourself in a mirror lately? They starved you!"

"I'm not starved. I'm thin."

"You say to-may-to, I say to-mah-to. Speaking of which, we need to get some food in you now."

Neal didn't want to break it to him, but he didn't think he'd be able to eat much on his first day of freedom. He'd spent the past four years with a very limited diet. He wasn't going to be able to eat a feast today, even if he sorely wanted to indulge.

Mozzie, however, had another priority even higher than food. Before lunch, he took Neal to a high-end men's store for what he called "emergency clothes."

Neal didn't think Mozzie was in any position to suggest fashion remedies. But it was Mozzie's credit card (or at least a card Mozzie was currently in possession of), and Neal wasn't about to turn down a new gray suit and a couple crisp cotton dress shirts.

It was while trying it on that Neal got his first good look at himself in a mirror. Mozzie was right—he did look thin. Despite his best efforts, his hair was long and disheveled. His beard had been poorly-shaved. But in the suit, he could pass himself off as some sort of stylish artistic type instead of a man who'd just gotten off a deserted island.

He picked out a couple dress shirts, ties, and socks to go with it. Then they went to a shoe store, where Neal selected a pair of fine leather dress shoes.

Now that Mozzie deemed him suitably dressed, they went to lunch. Neal vetoed a seafood place. He'd eaten enough fish, even if his usual fare wasn't quite at the same level as fresh mussels, lobster, and orange roughy.

Instead, they went to a small Polynesian restaurant for a bit of local flavor.

He'd forgotten how good food could taste with something as simple as seasoning, oil, and diversity of ingredients. He'd gotten so used to his simple one or two ingredient "meals" on the island that it seemed normal.

He wondered, absently, if the government would notice that he hadn't used the ticket they gave him. Would they worry about him at all? Try to find out where he went? It was too late to get on that flight now, and in any case, he wouldn't leave without Mozzie. Especially since Mozzie might be able to get them first-class seats.

"Tell me you can get us a flight home as soon as possible," Neal said in between bites.

"I already have the tickets, mon frere. We leave tomorrow at eleven-thirty."

"And where are we staying until then, if you don't mind me asking?"

"I think you'll find the accommodations up to par."

When they were finished with lunch, Mozzie took him to the hotel where he’d reserved a couple rooms. As Neal walked with Mozzie down the hallway, the carpet felt strange under his feet.

He wasted no time—as soon as Mozzie left him, Neal got in the shower. He stood under the shower head for several minutes, letting the hot, clean water wash over him. Hanging his head, he watched the last remnants of dirt and sand wash down the drain. He could have stayed there until the water ran cold, but he decided he wanted a bath, too.

It felt wasteful, using so much water. It was a luxury he’d been denied for a long time. But it felt good to wash the island off. He hoped that bathing would make him feel purged, and that he could step back into his old life after this.

He stayed in the tub until the water turned tepid. When he got out, he realized he didn’t have many clothes. Mozzie had brought him a small bag, and there was the suit and shoes from earlier, but there wasn’t much. Still, at least he didn’t have to wear his entire wardrobe. He pulled on a pair of boxers and climbed onto the king-size bed.

It was amazing how easily he slipped back into these little routines. It almost felt natural, but there was something a little wrong. He was wrong. The calluses and scars didn’t mix with the soft cotton sheets and silk boxers.

He had changed, and the world had changed around him. For four years, he'd imagined embracing Kate and giving her the letters he'd written to her over the years. But maybe that Kate didn't even exist anymore. Perhaps the life he'd dreamed of going back to was gone.

But he had Mozzie. Tomorrow, they would be sitting in first-class en route to New York. And for now, he had a real mattress and a real pillow. He had the pleasant chill of the air conditioning after so many days of sweating in oppressive heat. Tomorrow, there would be good food to eat if he had the appetite for it. He knew better than to take any of that for granted.

He didn’t feel tired, but he fell asleep somehow, anyway.

This entry was originally posted at http://citrinesunset.dreamwidth.org/138969.html. Please comment there using OpenID.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 30th, 2016 01:30 am (UTC)
I love this story - so rich and cerebral. I love how much of it is introspective, lonely but not hopeless. the passing of time felt sad but matter of fact - really well done.

great video also!
Dec. 7th, 2016 06:28 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I decided to make it somewhat introspective because that seemed like it would work best for the scope of the story and would help avoid too much minutiae about island life (only so many times you can describe people fishing). I'm glad it worked for you, and that you liked it.
Dec. 6th, 2016 03:17 pm (UTC)
I love how Neal realizes that he's not going to survive on the island by being his usual flashy self, but though he may not be an outdoors type, he has the survival skills of the conman (as far as that gets him).

Also, how Neal misses Kate and dreams about her, but in the end realizes she might have always been a fantasy.

He had changed, and the world had changed around him.

The ending is so bittersweet - he's been dreaming about it for so long, and it's quite a realization that even if everything would have stayed exactly the same (which it hadn't), he himself had changed. It's perfect.
Dec. 7th, 2016 06:38 pm (UTC)
Thank you! The good thing about Neal is that he is adaptable and determined. But he's very motivated by dreams, which don't always come true.

I'm glad you liked it, and thank you again for the great vid!
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )