University High School
Instructor: Jim Garrett
Just get to the water he told himself.
The night was black, the air, biting, the field, silent.
Reeds tore up from a slosh of mire, concealing Leo's figure as he trekked onward. His feet became stuck with each step and a harrowing squash and gurgle erupted from the earth. He was knee deep now. The work was slow, but he had to forge ahead. If not for his life, then for his family's. The water was only a mile away. Only a final push.
"Damn it," he breathed, he was stuck. Couldn't lift either leg up out of the sinking ground. He saw the reeds elongating, reaching up with a snarl. Or was it his imagination? He thought he heard shouts from afar. Perhaps in front of him? Behind him? There was no way to tell. Keep pushing. The only light was a small white streak escaping from a two-inch flashlight held by spindly fingers. It was all guesswork. Hard work. He wondered why he'd left. Why he had forsaken his home. He wanted to leave but couldn't. He was stuck. Was there even anything left for him? If he went back? No. No. No. Back to square one. That's what's there. More pain. Wasting away. Dissolving himself into nothing but mindless, hurtful matter. This was better. Sally out of the muck and head for the States. A better future. Rehabilitación. The word had a hopeful ring to it, contrary to most preconceived notions about his situation. Rehabilitación.
Suddenly, spotlights popped up like Chinese lanterns floating to the sky. Then they darted back to Earth and tore through the tall grass. Barking pierced the deafening silence. The hunt was on.
Not far off, Javier crept along the narrow break of moist soil between the reeds and thickened mangrove. Everything was prepared. Set. All the plan required of him now was to board the raft and he'd be off. At sea. Then he heard the dogs, saw the lights. Panic rippled through him like a shock of current. His judgment fogged. He stopped. Only for a moment, yet it was critical. Fatal.
Had he taken care of the body? Yes. He remembered. Toiled for hours, bloodied and weak. Put it in the polyethylene tub. Poured in the acid. Just like Boss said. The other guys would take care of it. No issues there. Check. He was certain they wouldn't miss him until morning. He supposed he was wrong.
Drawing close to his exit, he knelt into the ground and further saturated his sweat sodden jeans in the mud. He fingered the ground with leather cracked hands, strong and sure, for the empty cigarette pack he stuck a piece of gum to two days prior. This was the exit. He waved his arms out in the dark which fell into more space. The opening in the mangrove. He ducked through and ran. Ran as fast as he could. The strength in his legs was giving out, but he pushed the discomfort to the back of his mind, just as he pushed out the silken crab spider webs that grappled with him, and the mangled, twirling branches of the verdant mangrove that sent him staggering forth. The rustling of the leaves and snap, snap, crack of the branches, and slosh of the water was too great. The barking seemed nearer and he swore he heard footsteps. Water. He had reached water and was now wading about. The racing of his mind coaxed him to forget, thinking he was off course. It's the wrong way. No, he mouthed to himself. No. No. No. This is it. Just a little further. Then he remembered the Benzedrine tablets he had stuffed in the breast pocket of his work shirt. He took one. Then two. Lucky he remembered before he was fully submerged in the murk, the synovial fluid that ran through the domineering body of the island. It pervaded everything. Lubricated everything with a terrible smell, holding everything back. The States would be his golden opportunity.
If it was not the tablet, then it was the placebo effect, because Javier's dancing thoughts focused. He knew now. The water floated to his chin and the churning of the open sea was slowly sucking him out of the stagnant muck. The couple hundred feet of sand that collected in the alcove was close upon him. If only he could make it before the Boss found him.
Leo squished through the field for an hour before he made it to slightly firmer ground. The barking hadn't subsided, only grew louder, louder, louder. Until the amplifier broke and the sound jumped out of the distance into his ear. Then there were shouts. They were only several feet away. He sprawled out prone, letting his rail-like body go stiff as the branches that hung next to him, face in the mud. His heart quickened but his breathing stopped, trying to quiet himself, his thoughts. The blood coursed through him with a throb. Just stay put. Just stay put. Just stay put, he told himself. But he couldn't. Maybe crawl. If I can get through to the water I'll be safe. He knew the perfect spot. Somewhere he used to escape to when he wanted to retreat from the world. Upset and dejected. There, nothing stood between him and the rising and falling of the aquamarine sea, his feelings ebbing and flowing with the tide. He was certain no one knew of it.
He edged himself forward, ever so slightly, then a little more, raking through the mud. The men and the dogs had dashed out of the reeds, flashlights blazing an unwelcome light. Leo rolled himself over into the mangrove and went still. "Split up!" he heard one of the men say with a terrible boom. The men dashed about in both directions and the lights zoomed and darted like uncontrolled orbs, possessing the men and the dogs. The dogs zig-zagged in and out of the mangrove, passing their snouts over every surface, their teeth thrashing, menacing their contorted faces. Leo was buried in the covering boughs, his eyes closed. The black shirt and pants that clung to him were covered in mud, his scent was gone.
Soon the racket faded, and the night was black, the air biting, the mangrove silent. Leo crawled out of the thicket and kept moving. He managed to get to a stunted crouched position, moving at a snail's pace, hoping not to disturb the night. Then he was up to a jog, the earth held. Then it was a sprint. His sight had adjusted to the dark, and it was only a moment or so before a small space in the mangrove caught his attention. He kept pushing for a few more minutes, and then stopped, out of breath and head bent. It was not far to his hiding place, but he began to hear the faint rumble of the barks and shouts. That opening could be a shortcut. He could cut down and through the water, and then swim a ways. But what if it isn't? Then it's back to square one. He hated that feeling. It was repulsive and he didn't have time to think about it. He could manage to hide if he kept going, the dogs had overlooked him already. But then what if he couldn't? That would be a fatal mistake. Too risky. If he was caught there would be no way out. He decided to go back. The opening was the safest option.
It was not long before Javier made it to the alcove, and doggedly trenched to his makeshift raft he had prepared. He had collected all the driftwood and bamboo shoots he could find and strung them together into a fifteen by thirty-foot rectangle. He had a center mast that had a sail secured to it so he could make haste, and a few oars he had bought for steering. Around the sides were sheets of corrugated aluminum that he took from abandoned shanties on the island. In whole it was a respectable job. He was satisfied with his work. He looked at it for a moment, as it rested on the edge of the beach, half of it in the water. It bobbed up and down like a buoy. All it needed was the slightest touch to have it slip into the water and onto its course. He peered over its side to assess his provisions. Everything was perfect. Enough fresh water too.
He spun around to cover his tracks and suddenly a man, emaciated and slouched stood in front of him, directly next to his tracks. He was panting and a slop of greasy, black hair hung in a mess on his head. Javier could not make anything else out, but he did not recognize him. Panicking, Javier ran at him and tackled him to the sand, a burst of rock crystals exploded into the sky.
"Uggghhh," was the only response, the only retaliation.
"Who are you? Tell me now. Where are the other men?" Javier delivered a jab to the man's stomach with each statement. He waited a moment.
"S-stop. I'm Leo. I have to go, those people. The dogs. I have to leave."
"You know them?"
"How did you find my spot? This is my spot," Air flew back into Leo's lungs as Javier rolled off of him and stood up.
"Those men," Javier pointed up past the collection of jagged rock and sand towards the mangrove behind them, "are after me. And if I don't get out of here now I'll be history. Gone. That's it."
"No. What? They're after me. I'm the one who left. I left my family. Me."
"You know who's chasing you? You know them?"
"I-I. I just thought that," Leo's eyes widened as he looked up into the sky, his eyes filling with more blackness. It was all a trick. A fabrication of his torn-up mind. Again. He wanted help, and instead he invited danger. Pointless danger.
"No. They're after me. Me and no one else," At this Javier jogged away, over to the raft.
"Wait. Wait. Where are you going?"
"Away. I have to go. And you should too. Go back home."
"I have no home."
Javier peered around and saw Leo leaning on his arm in the sand, dejected and worn out.
"Really. You should leave. You can't waste anymore—"
"I got him! Over there down on the sand!"
The lights flashed on and the dogs began to reel with malicious excitement, their barking unbearable. The flashlights veered downward to divulge two, wide-eyed faces, the mouths splitting back with terror. The men gathered in a group atop the rock, trapping Javier and Leo on the sand.
And night was bright, with the air, suffocating, and the island, screaming.