What Jaden remembered of the wreck was screaming and water drops hanging in the air and the thin white mast at a diagonal and then breathing cold water deep into his chest, shrieky regret about too much stuff at once, and now he was here.
A desert island.
It was the kind people in single-panel cartoons are always living on. The only difference for Jaden was that there was no tall coconut tree drooping over him, casting a puddle of shadow for him to move with all day. The rest was the same, though: his vision failing before the flatness over the water did. In every direction.
Jaden sat back into the sand and chuckled. It wasn’t that he was amused to be alive. It was that he amused to be alive like this, with no cell, no watch, wearing the shorty-short jean shorts he’d packed as a joke, to swim in.
He rubbed his jaw, imagining the epic beard he was going to grow. Except he’d never been able to even get a goatee to come in full. His dad had always told him to wait until he was thirty-five, then he’d miss these babyface days, but, unless some tuna started beaching themselves for him every day or two, he was going to come in nine years short of that mountain man look, he guessed.
Not that this was going to go that long.
Maybe a century ago you could get marooned for months or year or ever, but not in the modern world, right? Not with satellites watching, not with ships crossing back and forth every hour. Not with there not being any more undiscovered islands. Not with Margo looking for him.
Surely she would be.
Jaden had felt guilty for going on the trip without her. Now having left her there to call in the Coast Guard was going to be what saved him.
“Hello?” Jaden called up into the sky.
It would have been cool if a gull had wheeled around overhead, screeched a response.
There were no birds at all, though.
It was just Jaden.
Jaden woke the same as he had the day before: all at once, gasping on the beach. There was gritty white sand clinging to the right side of his face, and all over his chest.
He was hungry.
He stood, wobbled to what he was calling the down-water side of the little island, and peed into the ocean.
This wasn’t so bad, he told himself. He had about the same floorspace as he’d had in his efficiency apartment, the year he’d crapped out of grad school. Nearly four hundred square feet? He walked it off. It was eighteen heel-to-toe steps across one way, seventeen and a half the other. And the plumbing worked about the same as it had in his efficiency. The air conditioner was maybe even better.
He could do this. Maybe some sunburn, sure. But he was going to look rugged when he got rescued, wasn’t he? All tan and windblown and scraggly.
Well, tan and windblown and scraggly if a ship pulled up in the next two or three days, he figured.
That was about how long he figured he could go without water. Probably he should have dug a pit or something to pee in. Maybe the sand would filter it into water. Jaden didn’t really know how nature worked—he’d never watched the survival shows—but he remembered that from somewhere.
So, in serious lieu of anything else at all to do, he sat at the exact center of the island. It was maybe six inches higher than the rest of the island. He scraped a trench around him, just doing nothing, and then decided this circle he’d trace was the outline of a target. So he dug the bullseye out—the exact center of the island. This was where the coconut tree was supposed to have been.
About half of every scoop of sand sifted back in, but it wasn’t like he didn’t have time.
What he pictured uncovering was either a coconut or a skull. The skull would be the island’s former resident, and would fill him with despair and all that, but the coconut would just mean he’d washed up too early. If in fact a coconut was actually a seed. Jaden wasn’t really sure about that.
It didn’t matter. He didn’t find a skull, and he didn’t find a coconut.
He found water.
It was such a surprise that he pushed back, fell away. Looked around.
Still three-hundred sixty degrees of unending ocean.
And, at the bottom of the little hole that was a little deeper than his forearm, a few handfuls of cold, mostly-clean water.
Jaden licked the side of his finger.
So he wasn’t going to have to drink his own urine.
Things were looking up.
Jaden was writing H-E-L-P not in the sand—there were no branches, no rocks—but on the sunburned skin of his thigh. Over and over. Each time he got to L, the H was fading away.
Passing the hours was turning out to be the hardest part.
His feet were in the water, hanging off into the sharp drop-off all round the edge of the island. His toes were wiggly bait for anything down there.
“Teach a man to fish,” he said, and then couldn’t find the end of it. It had been going to be funny, though. Killer funny. Something about a mermaid. But, had a mermaid beached herself right then, Jaden would have bitten into her tail, he knew, even eaten the fin.
All the hunger he’d felt before in his life, it had just been mild discomfort. An inconvenience.
What he was feeling now, it was real, and it hurt. He’d already pulled all the frayed strings off his shorts, chewed them to paste, swallowed them. Could you eat your own hair? It was some sort of protein, wasn’t it?
Then, like he’d been hoping for, something brushed his shin.
He stabbed his hand down what he considered to be ninja-fast, and what he pulled up was . . . what? It was cold, and solid, and kind of square.
He crawled back from the water, in case he dropped it.
He’d been expecting debris from the wreck to wash up. That always happens in the movies. You get a rope, a trunk of goodies, and, if it was a plane you’d gone down in, maybe some flotation seats or mini-bottles of vodka.
What Jaden got was a double-stick popsicle.
He ceremoniously peeled the waxy wrapper and buried it under the sand near his water hole.
The popsicle was chocolate.
And . . . was it familiar? Had there been any of these on-board?
Probably there had been. Popsicles are great. Especially fudge ones.
Jaden applied his tongue to a top corner delicately, like he was worried the ice cream might have gone past its expiration date.
It was delicious. His first food in three days.
He made himself go slow, to savor it.
Who knew when the next one might come floating in.
Jaden’s tongue was sore. He was still licking the popsicle.
It wouldn’t go away. It was more rounded on the corners, but he was pretty sure the rounding was only because he’d moved some of the cold fudge over to the side, with all his licking.
Still? He was full.
He’d gone to sleep with the magic popsicle still in his hand, then woke frantic and panicked. It had been right there in the sand, though. No crabs stealing away with it, no sand bugs crawling all over it. The sun didn’t even seem to touch it.
The popsicle couldn’t be cold, either, but it was.
Jaden started to dip it into the ocean, but saw himself dropping it, or a shark surging up to steal it. So, even though it clouded up his drinking water, he swirled it around in there, holding each stick with a different hand, and pulled it back up, clean again.
He closed his eyes, applied tongue to chocolate.
Just as delicious as before. Just as good as the ones his aunt—
That was it! The summer he’d spent with Aunt Jolie, when his mom and dad were doing their figuring out their relationship thing, a Schwann’s truck or something had lumbered down her street every two weeks, and—“special for her favorite nephew”—she would buy a case of double-barreled Fudgsicles.
It didn’t make up for his parents acting like children, but they had been good popsicles.
When Jaden couldn’t possibly lick one lick more of this one, he dug up the paper, wishing pretty hard he’d unwrapped it more carefully, and rewrapped the popsicle, buried it under more sand than was strictly necessary. If you have a magic popsicle, though, you take good care of it, don’t you?
Jaden drank his cloudy chocolate water until his stomach hurt.
For the rest of the afternoon he tried to keep to what he called his fake-n-bake schedule, even though there was nothing fake about it: fifteen minutes lying on his left side, giving his right side up to the hot-hot sun, then fifteen minutes on his back, his front, his other side.
It made the hours go by.
Just before dark he renamed it, too. Not fake-n-bake, but rotisserie. He was the Rotisserie Man.
It was the best reality show ever. It had magic popsicles and everything.
Rotisserie Man was official dead. Well, “cooked,” Jaden corrected.
He woke with not just his frontside burned, like it had already been, but his whole body.
Nocturnal Man lumbered into being.
Jaden scooped out a sand-angel near shore and snuggled down into it as deep as he could, buried himself as best he could manage. It didn’t cover him completely—he’d imagined himself as a head propped up on the sand, which was going to freak somebody out when he smiled—but it was a lot better than nothing.
He’d wanted to dig up in the middle of the island, lie back into that cool fresh water, but he didn’t want to mess that situation up.
Near shore, it was white sand for as far down as he dug.
And, of course, as soon as he was dozing off, prepping for his long night of watching for passing ships’ lights or beacons or whatever, he had to pee again.
He could go right here in the sand, he figured, in his jean shorts, but just because there’s no civilization doesn’t mean you can’t be civilized. That was something Margo had said once, camping.
She would think this was funny.
Jaden smiled, and then he was crying, and then he was clambering up from the sand, throwing handfuls of it out into the water, kicking it even.
At which point he realized the sand was a limited resource too.
He was living at sea-level, wasn’t he? If he threw enough of his island out into the ocean, then the water would seep up over everything he had.
Not that he even halfway understood why or how there was sand in the first place.
Did the rinse-wash-repeat action of a thousand years of waves pulverize cooled lava into sand like this? But wouldn’t it be black, then?
But maybe this wasn’t volcanic, Jaden figured.
It was igneous. That was a word he remembered from junior high. And another: “Sedimentary!” he screamed out over the water, and then ran to what he considered the other three sides of the island, screamed it out from them as well.
Then, peeing off the down-water side of the island, there was a magazine bobbing on the surface.
It was a Playboy.
Jaden was taking stock. Serious, serious stock: one cistern or aquifer or hand-well or something, one magic popsicle—Fudgsicle—one pair of jean shorts, and one gentleman’s magazine.
It made him shiver in the hundred-plus heat.
How does a magazine survive the open waters of the ocean long enough to end up way out here in the middle? And, had this one been lost eighteen years ago? Either that or the same storm that had wrecked Jaden had dumped somebody’s vintage collection overboard.
Porn. Exactly what he needed, yes.
The centerfold’s name was Peggy.
Jaden read the issue from cover to cover, twice. There was an interview with Tom Cruise about a Vietnam movie Jaden had never seen, there was an excerpt of a Vietnam novel he couldn’t imagine the rest of, there was a Vietnam short story about a river that was in Canada, there was another pictorial of an actress Jaden had never heard of. And there were all the columns. All the stupid, stupid columns.
“Thank you!” Jaden called out to the world anyway.
If you’re not grateful, you don’t get anymore.
This was from Jaden’s mom, before she left and got sick and died three states away, not telling Jaden or his father.
But don’t think about her.
Start thinking about sad things on a desert island, and there’s no one to pull you out of that spiral.
Jaden licked his popsicle until he was full and drank from his hole in the ground and peed in the ocean and buried himself in the sand again.
Soon his hair would grow long enough to shade his face. Until then, he would keep arranging his jean shorts over his head.
Survival was pretty stupid, really.
Well, night. And maybe it was kind of still day six, Jaden wasn’t super sure anymore.
If he was going to turn into a creature of the night in order to preserve his skin, though, then he had to start doing it like this: pinching himself awake all night, burrowing down into the sand during the day.
The sky was a big blue bowl turned over him, it felt like. And he’d been living here for ten thousand years, and had an endless supply of BBs for his rifle, had been pumping it up and taking aim up at that bowl forever, making stars.
“This one’s for you, Margo,” he said, and aimed his imaginary rifle up, poked another hole in the sky.
He was spelling her name, connecting the dots. He was drawing pictures. Squares and triangles at first, but then he’d leveled up, was on to Dr. Seuss versions of tall, spindly buildings. He couldn’t do animals yet, couldn’t imagine how the Greeks or Egyptians or Inca or whoever had done all that. Buildings, though, those he could do.
His plan was to get enough going to have a real city up there. Except the stars kept moving. All together, but on their own, too, some of them.
It was only because he’d poked so many holes in the night sky—because he’d let this much light into his upside-down bowl—that he saw the shimmer out in the water. It was different from the white that surged at the top of the waves.
“Don’t do it, don’t do it,” Jaden told himself, but he already was: running out to that shimmer, falling into the water, dog-paddling out to it.
It was flat and hard—another magazine?—but he couldn’t look, had to get back to the island.
Out in the ocean, he had the sudden certainty he wasn’t going to find shore again in the dark. That some current was going to grab him, swish him around the side of the island, push him out farther than he could swim back. That a whale was going to nibble at his feet, take his whole leg into his mouth to see if he was a big plankton. Even a vine of seaweed brushing him would probably stop his heart.
The island was still there.
Jaden clambered back up, panicking and scrambling when it was more like swinging up onto a roof than walking up a slope—what kind of beach was this?—then tried to angle whatever he’d found up to see it.
He had to wait until morning to be sure. Until sunup.
No trumpets played in glory when he could finally make out the picture: a man in a tasteful suit, leaning to his right.
An album, a record.
MC Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em.
Jaden was buried in the sand with his popsicle in his mouth.
Just staring. At nothing. He wasn’t super sure it was the ninth day, but he was pretty sure he’d skipped the eighth day. Hadn’t eaten, hadn’t drank. Had just laid there. With Peggy.
Her turn-ons were white roses and children and animals, and her turnoffs were cigarettes and traffic. To be honest, Jaden was confusing her with Margo, some.
His plan was, when he was rescued, to leave the Playboy buried in the sand, for the next tenant.
Without meaning to, his tongue worrying over that cold chocolate, he bit into the meat of the popsicle. Into the fudge. The cold hurt his teeth and the popsicle tumbled down into the sand on his chest, but he still had a big chunk of it in his mouth.
He chewed it, swallowed it.
He kind of wanted to look down, see what might or might not be happening with the popsicle, but he also kind of didn’t want to watch the goose do its golden egg thing.
But then he remembered: there’d been words on the popsicle sticks that summer with his aunt, hadn’t there?
He sat up, sand caking off him, covering the popsicle even more. He dug it up, shook the sand off, rolled over to wash it clean and then bit in again, deeper, faster, more and more, all on one side, enough to free up the stick on what he was calling the right.
He licked it clean, squinted to read the scrolly red font.
And now he just had half a popsicle.
Jaden didn’t quite have a city in the night sky yet, but he had picked out three kind-of columns of stars he could build three different-height buildings from, and those stars all stayed together, mostly.
Now he was making up a story for why this light on the seventeenth floor was off, why that one was migrating sideways, or to a lower floor. The stories mostly had to do with candles and a blackout. He called the wandering stars elevators.
Jaden wondered what if he bit off a piece of his calf and ate it.
The popsicle stick he’d denuded had never got its fudge iciness back. Jaden wore the naked popsicle stick behind his ear now. His first impulse had been to chew it, but that was the kind of indulgence you allowed yourself when there was more than two popsicle sticks in the whole entire world. Or, the world Jaden had access too.
The MC Hammer record was useless. The sleeve was just a sleeve, the record just a record, the tiny print on the label just what Jaden would have expected, had he ever got that record.
And, related: why that record? More to the point, why that Playboy? He’d never even owned a single issue, had only ever sneak-looked at his uncle’s, that one summer.
He threaded the popsicle stick from behind his ear and set it under his nose like a mustache and pooched his lips up to keep it there.
It was the current contest: how long until his lips cramped, and the coach—it was either a coach or a drill sergeant, Jaden wasn’t completely committed yet—how long until that coach or drill sergeant would pull him from the game or the battle, and Jaden would say no, no, he could do it, just give him time.
One of the lights of his buildings in the sky winked out and Jaden blew it a kiss, letting the popsicle stick tumble down his chest.
Bright, bright sun. The only kind anymore.
But there were a lot of kinds of island, evidently.
Until the other night, getting the MC Hammer record, when he’d had to lunge up onto the island instead of just walk, he’d assumed all islands were the crowns of vast majestic never-seen underwater mountains. But mountains have slopes, don’t they? Even unmajestic ones? They don’t have walls or cliffs leading straight up to the tip-top.
Jaden was no geology major or island-ologist, but this island wasn’t quite tracking.
He’d been pondering it all morning, like figuring out the nature of the island might give him the clue he needed to escape. Finally he planted the popsicle stick straight up and down by the water hole, made sure the Playboy and the record were buried together, checked the wrapper on the half a popsicle he had left, and, like a flag he was leaving behind to tell somebody he’d been here, he stripped out of his shorts, laid them out by the upright popsicle stick.
They wouldn’t blow away. No clouds, no wind.
And then he walked to the non-urinal side of the island, sat on the edge, and slipped into the . . . not exactly the cold, more like the great empty lukewarm.
Still touching—holding on—he treaded water with his legs, he heavybreathed, getting his lungs to capacity, and then he ducked under, keeping his hand in constant contact, but going down, and down.
As deep down as he went, and all the way around, the rocky underwater part of the island was the same width as the overwater part of the island, as near as he could tell. Like it was a column thrusting up from the ocean floor, thousands of feet below. Not some conglomeration or stack of rocks, but . . . a lava tube? Craggy but not cracked.
It was stupid. This wasn’t a mountain. It was a post. It was a column.
And there was a hand-sized, irregular piece of thin plastic bobbing against the underwater cliff.
Jaden started to put it down the front of his pants, but he wasn’t wearing any, so he clamped it in his teeth, let himself float up.
The plastic he’d found on his brave and useless dive was a blister pack. The cardboard still attached showed what had been in the blister pack: a werewolf action figure.
Jaden had all his items laid out by the water hole: popsicle, popsicle stick, album, magazine, action figure. Well, action figure case.
Counting the popsicle and the popsicle stick as one, that was four things. Four things from what Jaden knew was a list of ten. What Ten Things Would You Have on Your Desert Island?
It had been a contest in a magazine, that summer he spent with Aunt Jolie.
Up in the treehouse his older cousins had built years ago, before they grew up and moved out, Jaden had carefully written down what ten things he would have on his desert island.
He would need food, so why not have the best food ever?
He would definitely want his uncle’s magazine.
MC Hammer was amazing.
And he’d always wanted to see a werewolf.
Only, he must have been sleeping when the werewolf bobbed up against shore. So the glue keeping the blister pack to the cardboard had given way, and the action figure had tumbled down to the ocean floor.
Jaden stood, walked over to the edge.
“What about the record player!” he screamed out over the water.
It had been the next item on his list. Followed, he was pretty sure, by a power outlet, with power. He’d underlined “with power” three or four times, to be sure.
All so he could sit on his island and listen to MC Hammer. Maybe practice some dance moves.
Slurping water up from the hole like a sunburned caveman, it hit Jaden that the record player had probably been there, but, like the werewolf’s blister pack, it had sunk. The popsicle and magazine had floated, because they were wood and paper. The record had floated because it was still in its cellophane, or because it was grooved plastic and cardboard.
But the record player had just gulp-gulped straight down.
Along with the power outlet.
That made seven, then. Seven down.
And, he was pretty sure, in the same order he’d filled them in on the magazine’s form, to mail in.
Whoever’s list was chosen was supposed to win a year’s subscription, plus publication. Not this, having to subsist on the actual list you’d written down.
Had that been in the fine print?
Jaden couldn’t even remember what the magazine had been. It was just one he’d stole from the convenience store.
What was next on the list, though? That was the real question.
Hopefully not any more records. The one he had was already melted and warped. And, he hadn’t asked for a werewolf action figure, he was pretty sure. He’d said what he’d want would be a werewolf, the actual monster. Because werewolves are cool.
“Oh yeah,” he said then, when he saw the scum of notebook pages floating in on the surface of the water, the blurry words made of large looping letters in purple ink.
That was next.
Sandra Peterman from homeroom’s secret journal.
No sleep the night before, or the night before that, or the day between. Just remembering. Trying to remember.
That trip to the convenience store had to be where this all started, didn’t it? When he’d got that stupid magazine? Though “trip” wasn’t really the word. More like the power was out for the whole block, and his aunt had hustled him out into the sunshine she said would be good for him.
Walking past the convenience store, Jaden had seen its lights were off as well. He’d wandered in, the door not dinging like usual. No clerk behind the counter. The store was murky gray, like a ghost of itself, and it was cool inside, like the cooler door had been left open to fog the place up.
Jaden hadn’t taken the magazine because he wanted it. He’d taken it because he was mad at his aunt, and his mom, and his dad, and the world. He’d taken it because no one was watching. He’d taken it because it was the closest one to the door. Only, somebody’d spilled a coke behind the magazine: when he pulled it, it stuck to the shelf with coke syrup, just, more the color of mucous or saliva. Like the world had heard that he hated it, so was trying to keep him there long enough for the power to come back on, or for the clerk to be walking back from her cigarette. He pulled harder, got away with the torn-out insides, not the cover, then kept the rolled-up magazine pages in the treehouse so he wouldn’t have to explain where they’d come from.
Doing the magazine’s desert island contest had just been a way to kill another afternoon.
Sneaking that torn-out form into the mail, Jaden had pretended he was rolling up a secret message in a bottle, throwing it out into the water.
Only, it had come back, hadn’t it?
Jaden, sitting in the sand of his island with his action-figure blister pack and his Playboy and his popsicle that wouldn’t melt and his record that would, cringed.
It had come back, hadn’t it? Years later, when someone moved their desk, when they cleaned up the mailroom, when that messy postal jeep was retired—when whatever happened that got Jaden’s contest entry back into the mail, years too late.
Jaden stood, paced the perimeter of the island, looking for a coffin bobbing in the water.
Jaden was still walking around and around the island. No coffin yet. The sand of his path was compacted. He couldn’t see it in the dark, but he could feel it under the soles of his bare feet.
He was thinking what if a wave came, pushed too hard on the stalk of rock he was sitting on, crumbled it down into the depths.
He was thinking what about scurvy. He was thinking about chocolate poisoning. He was thinking there was a code hidden in Peggy’s turn-ons and turnoffs in the Playboy, that maybe each turn-on was a 1, each turnoff a 0, for some binary message.
He’d broken the record into shards to use as a weapon. He’d tried wearing the record sleeve as a folded-open paper hat but it kept popping off, so he’d used the bare-wood popsicle stick to carve out two eyes.
The ocean looked the same through his mask.
Jaden screamed, whipped the album sleeve out into the darkness then immediately ran to the edge of the island after it.
Maybe it would come back, he told himself.
Please let it come back.
Like the desert island list he’d mailed off.
Running on automatic all those years ago, he’d put his return address down not as his aunt’s, where he was mailing from, but his actual home, his usual address.
Three years later, the letter had come back.
It was waiting in the mailbox when Jaden and his dad came back from . . . not his mom’s funeral, they hadn’t been in time for that. But her grave, anyway. Their own service of standing there with their heads down.
Jaden had loosened his tie and opened the letter, left it on the kitchen table like a joke he wasn’t in the mood for.
A week later, he was in the mood.
Waiting for his cereal to get less crunchy before school, he’d scratched out what had been the tenth item, wrote in instead, Mom.
Which was why he couldn’t sleep.
The ninth item from his list was a six-pack of toilet paper.
It bobbed up in its plastic, knocked on the side of the island.
Jaden waited half the day before he finally fished it up. What he was waiting to see was if the water would deliver it around the side, let it go on past.
“You’re for guests,” Jaden said to the toilet paper, and nestled it upright into the sand, but it was a lie. He didn’t need the toilet paper for what he’d figured he’d need it for—there was the down-water side of the island just a dunk away, and, as it turned out, subsisting on popsicles and water was pretty light on the bowels—but he did need a pillow, as it turned out.
He slept better than he had in two weeks.
Jaden woke this time to the sand being gently cleared from the side of his face. He didn’t know how long he’d been asleep exactly, but he’d peeked out twice in daylight and peed once in the night, he thought.
He opened his eyes to a figure above him.
“Mom,” he said.
He closed his eyes and the delicate scraping of her palm on his cheek continued. He was crying now. His throat was full.
She’d woke on the beach, she told him after all the hugging and the rest of the crying.
“Beach?” Jaden said, looking all around.
“I’m glad you’re here,” he told her.
“This was poking me in the hip,” she said. It was a silver straw, sharp on one end. Still in a plastic sleeve.
“Number ten,” Jaden said, in wonder, because he thought he’d crossed that one out, to write Mom in.
“A straw?” she asked.
“It’s for the coconuts,” he told her.
His mom looked around for the coconut tree.
“I should have wished better,” Jaden explained.
“This is my wish,” she said. “Being here with you.”
“I only have popsicles,” Jaden said.
“I like popsicles,” his mom said.
It would have been nice to have a fire to sit by, but there were no matches, and only one popsicle stick for firewood, and one record sleeve, and one straw that was more of telescope, now. Jaden talked his mom through the city he was building in the sky, and, like moms do, she looked where he was pointing, and nodded that she saw it, yes. Right there, and there.
Jaden gave her the pillow, then waited until she was asleep, crept over to where the Playboy was buried.
Still crawling—he didn’t want to be a menacing silhouette with a handful of porn should she wake—he dropped the magazine over the down-water side of the island.
The glue at the spine, which had already been crackly-dry, gave up altogether, and the pages spread out over the water, bobbed cheerfully right by the island.
Frantic, Jaden scooped precious handfuls of sand onto each of them, until they sunk.
The next day they spent digging.
Jaden’s reasoning was two-fold: in one place he’d dug, there’d been water, right? Other holes might have even better treasure. It was videogame thinking, but that didn’t mean it was wrong.
And then there was the issue of the coconut straw that his mom had washed up on. It had been there all along, hadn’t it? Or, in the right order, anyway. Other items might be buried as well.
The outlet for the record player turned up after an hour or two. The cord snaking down from it plunged down into the island’s rock stalk, which he now guessed had to be hollow—even more fragile than he’d thought. More impossible.
It had power, too, just like he’d said with his underlining. Jaden scooped a handful of salty water over to it, dribbled enough in that the twin slits spit sparks back up.
The record player showed up in pieces. An arm under the sand here, a piece of wood laminate there, from the cabinet. The needle, who knew.
It didn’t matter.
The record was in shards anyway.
Jaden explained about the down-water side of the island—their selfcleaning latrine—and the water hole, and about burying yourself for the sunlight hours.
His mom didn’t care about any of that.
She wanted to know what he’d been doing all those years she’d been gone.
They passed the popsicle back and forth—one rule: no bites—and, with all the buildings in the sky leaning over them, Jaden told her about the girlfriends and the jobs he’d had, about Dad and his hilarious dating life, and when he didn’t say anything about Margo, it felt like he was doing that because he would explain her by saying she liked white roses and children, and wasn’t into cigarettes. And she deserved better than that.
The coconut straw turned out to be perfect for the water hole.
“Technology,” Jaden said to his mom. He was out of breath from drinking.
She was still cupping her water in her hands to drink.
“And look,” he said, blowing into the straw different depths: it would whistle, too.
“How are we going to cut our hair, do you think?” Jaden’s mom asked, threading some out of her face.
“Why did you leave?” Jaden said back, watching her from under his bangs.
The ocean murmured its watery murmur.
“You know,” she said, averting her eyes. “I got sick.”
“I didn’t want to get you sick too.”
“And then you died from it.”
“I couldn’t call at the end. I wanted to. I’m sorry. But it’s best you didn’t see me. I didn’t want you to have to remember me like that.”
Jaden stared out at the unbroken blue.
“I stole a magazine,” he said. “I think it was a genie magazine, a magic magazine.”
She was just watching him.
“I wrote your name on a list,” he said. “It was . . . I had to cross the straw out to do it. It was a stupid contest. But I shouldn’t have stolen it, I know.” Jaden looked out to the open water, called out, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry!”
“You crossed the straw out?” his mom asked, looking at it stuck in the sand by the water hole.
“I didn’t cross it out enough, I guess,” Jaden said. “But you came anyway. I got eleven, not ten.”
“Thank you,” his mom said. “This has—it’s been a gift.”
“You’re well now, right?” Jaden said.
“I think am, yes.”
“And you’re here.”
They didn’t push it any farther.
“Why that album?” his mom asked, after the appropriate length of time.
“Because I was a stupid kid,” Jaden said.
Jaden was playing his game of one of his fingers burying itself and the others going into a minor panic from it when there was a flurry of motion and a hard, fast cough from the other side of the island.
He let his ring finger stay buried and looked over slow and indirectly. In the tight confines of the island, it was polite to give each other privacy on the down-water side, where privacy would be most appreciated.
But this wasn’t that.
His mom was lying sideways on the sand. Her back was arched like from being electrocuted, and her fingers were stretched back the wrong way. The tendons in her neck were steel cables, and chocolate foam was coming from her mouth, since she’d had the popsicle last.
“Run,” she said, her voice deeper. Dangerous.
Jaden ran to her.
“What can I do?” he said, feeling in the sand under her, in case she was somehow on the outlet and getting electrocuted. “What do you need?”
The popsicle stick, he thought. He could depress her tongue, keep her from choking. Or—or he could do a field tracheotomy with the coconut straw. He’d seen that on television at least twice, and knew roughly where to stab.
But then his mom’s mouth elongated into a canine muzzle, the muscle under the skin bubbling and tearing and creaking.
He’d asked for a werewolf.
Or maybe it was still day twenty-two. Was it midnight yet? Jaden couldn’t tell.
All his buildings had toppled over.
He was treading water five yards out from the island. It was far enough that his mom couldn’t slash out, reach him with her claws, and close enough he didn’t panic that he wasn’t going to get back.
Evidently werewolves are afraid of the ocean.
His mom’s transformation had been brutal. He’d watched her turn inside out, and, inside her had been a snarly wolf-thing.
No, she hadn’t been able to call him at the end of her sickness fifteen years ago.
She couldn’t physically hold a phone.
She’d barked and screamed and growled at him all night—she could smell him—but she’d stayed on the island.
In frustration, she turned on the toilet paper, shredded it into confetti. For a minute or two the island had been a unicorn daydream, all fluff and whiteness.
She didn’t eat the popsicle, though. Dogs aren’t supposed to have chocolate, Jaden knew. Maybe that went for wolves too?
Jaden wasn’t crying anymore. He didn’t have the energy.
“Mom,” he said for the ten-thousandth time.
His mom’s large ears rotated to catch his words. Her whole body stilled, stiffened.
“Mom,” he said again, and let himself go under again, told himself this was the last time, that he wasn’t coming back up.
Jaden was hanging onto the island with one hand and throwing up into the water.
It was dawn.
He had stayed in the water for two nights, and the day between. Every part of him was shaking and spent. For a few hours he’d been certain he was being punished for sneaking eleven items from a ten-item list, but then, if his mom was a werewolf—and she was—he figured he’d really only gotten his original ten.
His whole time out in the ocean, no sharks had come. No gulls had drifted down for a closer look. No werewolves had come running across the surface of the ocean, from all his mom’s plaintive howling.
She was starving. She was crying with her mouth, with her voice.
She’d finally found the fresh water, slurped and slurped at it, then splashed her pee down onto the sand. An hour or two or three after that, she padded around in a circle, made enough of a bed to curl up in, her tail curling up over her nose. Behind that tail, she shifted back to the mom Jaden knew.
Jaden had waited what felt like an hour after that, being sure, then pulled himself onto the island. He crawled gingerly to the water hole, drank until he threw up again. He threw up as quietly as he could manage.
He sat down in the sand then, staring at his mom. She was lightly snoring.
He flicked grains of sand at her face. Her lips, her eyelids. Nothing.
“Mom,” he said, not really that loud. She didn’t twitch.
He extended a foot, pushed on her thigh. She rolled with it, stayed there.
He turned away from her and licked the popsicle in what he considered a mournful way.
It tasted the same.
Jaden hadn’t meant to sleep, but he guessed he had.
His mom hadn’t eaten him in the night.
Did all werewolves sleep this long when they came back to human?
She’d said it was best he didn’t see her at the end, and she’d been right. He couldn’t that image out of his head, now. That pacing, that growling. That hunger.
“I can’t do it again, Mom,” he said.
No way could he spend another thirty-six hours treading water.
He considered his options. He didn’t have any.
The only thing he could do was scratch her name off the list. Either hers, or his own.
And, if she was a good mom, if she really loved him, if she was really her, she wouldn’t want it to be him, would she? He wasn’t the monster. He wasn’t the one who had left. He wasn’t the one who was, technically, already dead.
What he’d considered the worst hell before—living with a broken record and a never-ending popsicle—it was his dream, now. It was what he had to fight his way back to.
No more werewolves. No more mothers. Nobody eating anybody.
Jaden should have asked for a boat in that contest. A raft. A raft and a compass. No, a shark cage up here on dry land, to keep his mom in.
But there was no shark cage. There was no going back. There was just him, and what he had to do.
He sat down behind his sleeping mom, told her he was sorry, and, pushing hard with both legs, launched her out into the water.
She woke instantly, and fought to get back, but Jaden repelled her, apologizing the whole time, and then he repelled her some more.
She didn’t fight so hard, once she understood.
“I’m sorry,” she said, treading barely enough water to keep her mouth above the surface.
“I wrote your name,” Jaden said.
They were both crying.
“You grew up perfect,” she said, butterflying backward into the open sea, and Jaden closed his eyes.
Night. No city in the sky. Not quite midnight yet, Jaden guessed.
It was quieter now than it had been.
Jaden had been holding his tongue to the popsicle for long enough that it had kind of dried to the chocolate.
The splash to his left turned him around, the popsicle hanging from his mouth.
It was his mom.
She was half her, half not.
Jaden screamed, ran for her, butted her back into the water before she could get steady on the island.
She fought back to the ledge, the shore, and she was panicked—she knew what was water, what wasn’t water, and she wasn’t going to stay in the water anymore.
Jaden kicked her back, kicked her back again, but he wasn’t winning.
She was wolfing out more and more. Because she wanted to say alive.
Jaden shook his head no, yelled to her to stop, and, when she didn’t, he drove the sharp end of the straw down into the hand she’d clawed into the sand.
The straw went through. They both looked down to it. The skin of her hand and the light werewolf fuzz coming in sent tendrils of smoke up.
That’s what he’d written on the list, right? Silver straw, for coconuts. He’d asked for silver because it was antimicrobial, a thing he knew from his aunt explaining her earrings to him when she hadn’t been able to answer any questions about where his parents were.
His mom jerked her hand back from the island, from the straw. Her hand—her paw—split down the middle, left the straw standing there in the sand, the werewolf blood on it sizzling away.
“Stop, stop!” Jaden said to her.
She couldn’t, though. She couldn’t help it.
And, the silver, it was making her go back from wolf.
It was his mom again.
“Jaden, please, just let me come up for a—”
Jaden drove the straw into her right eye, and, when the blunt, hollow end was sticking out, was just blinding her not killing her, when it was just pumping blood and eye juice, he thumped it once, hard, with the heel of his hand, pushing it deep enough that a slow plug of grayish pink came out the straw, drooped down into the water.
His mom stopped fighting.
Jaden leaned forward, held her forearm in his hand, then her hand in his, then her fingers. Then nothing.
Jaden should have kept the record sleeve. The one with the eyeholes.
And the action figure blisterpack.
He could have fashioned the blisterpack’s plastic into lenses for the eyeholes of the record sleeve, improvised . . . not sunglasses exactly—there was no tint—but something to wear when he was buried in the sand, anyway.
It would feel like wearing a mask. Like he was somebody else.
But he was just him.
As of last night and this morning, he’d taken to talking out loud to Peggy.
He was telling her how tonight he was going to have to rebuild a city, window by window. Maybe if he did it right, those stacks of windows would resolve into the portholes of a monster of a cruise ship, right?
It didn’t hurt to dream.
Well, it sort of did, but he couldn’t help it.
His beard wasn’t full yet, he knew. He could tell by rubbing his jawline. His beard was wispy, thin, a joke. But give it a few years. Give it a few years, and he’d be living in his own personal comic strip.
It was going to be hilarious.
Spread the word!