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Michael Marks slowly opened his eyes. His vision was blurred for several moments. All he could feel was a constant panging in his head, like a blacksmith was hammering it into a blade sharp enough to cut steel. He could not move his body without every part of him hurting, so he just lay there for a while. In the distance he could see the wreckage that was the explanation for the situation he was in—a huge jet plane, with towering flames and plumes of smoke that went up too far to see.
Michael felt the ground around him, but it wasn’t really ground at all, as he soon found out. He felt hot sand between his fingers, and the sensation oddly felt good. Finally he shifted himself to get a better view of the wreck. He wondered how he had survived—and more importantly, why. Now he was doomed to die in this godforsaken desert, of heat stroke or starvation or some unnamed horror.
Michael found himself wondering many things at once. How had this happened? And why did only he survive? Why didn’t he die with everybody else? Why was he forced to die a much slower death in the sun-bleached sand? There was certainly no way for him to escape the inevitable—the nearest civilization was probably miles away. He had no food and no water, and was hurting all over.
It’s not like anybody would really miss him. Everyone he’d cared about had been on that plane. His wife, his kids—all dead now. What remained of them was out there in the burning hereafter. He didn’t have any close friends, and his only extended family was an aging father, who probably didn’t remember who he was anyway.
Michael Marks was forty-seven, five foot six. He’d always been insecure about his height, but here, in the barren wasteland, that didn’t much matter. Besides, in tomorrow’s headline they wouldn’t say anything about him in particular, they’d just say “X Die in Plane Crash,” and he’d just be one of the X. That was fine by him.
But just when he started becoming settled to his fate, a voice ruined it—“Hey there!”
Michael looked up. A man climbed out of the smoldering wreck. He had light brown hair, looked to be in his forties, and was about Michael’s height. Michael just stared at him in astonishment. “I thought I was the only survivor,” the man said.
“So did I,” said Michael.
The man looked around him. “So here we are,” he said.
“Here we are.”
The man sighed. “I can’t believe this happened.”
“What did happen, exactly?”
“Are you telling me you don’t know how we crashed? Seriously?”
“I must have blacked out when it happened.”
“One of the engines failed. The pilot was preparing for an emergency landing here in this desert, but then all of a sudden the controls locked up. He couldn’t do anything about it, and we crashed. As far as I knew everybody had died—until I found you, that is.”
The man stepped over to him. He offered his hand. “Come on,” he said. “We should get moving.”
Michael looked at him, puzzled. “Why?”
“Well, we might survive this thing. There’s gotta be somebody around here.”
“Are you kidding? We’re in the middle of a desert. We’ve got no food and no water. There’s no way we’ll survive.”
The man looked out at the sands, not saying anything for a moment. “Alright, I guess we won’t survive.”
Michael was more confused than ever. “I don’t get you,” he said. “Just a minute ago you were convinced we could survive. Now all of a sudden you change your mind?”
The man sighed again. “Someone I respected a great deal once said something to me. He said, ‘Some people just don’t find living worth the trouble.’ When he told me, I said he was crazy. Now I’m not so sure.”
“Yeah,” Michael said, “I think I heard that somewhere too.”
Michael looked up at the mess again. It wasn’t blazing anymore—its flames had been reduced to much tamer embers. “I’m going back in,” said the man. “Maybe there is something in there after all.”
Michael merely offered a grunt in response. He watched the man cautiously step into the ruins, avoiding any still-burning parts. The sun’s rays seemed to be melting his brain—the sand seemed so soft beneath him, like a giant mattress. He quickly dozed off.
When Michael came to, the man was sitting a few feet away. He was fumbling with a first-aid kit that was still intact, though charred. Around him were some packets of food and cans of soda, the few that had miraculously survived the crash. Michael’s eyes gleamed; it was almost too good to be true. “I guess we’ll be able to survive a bit longer than you thought,” chided the man.
Michael smiled. There was no other reaction to give.
“Wanna pass me one of those?” he asked, pointing to a Coke.
The man handed him one of the shining red cans. Michael opened it, took a tentative sip, and then began to chug it down greedily.
“Don’t drink it too fast,” the man reminded him. “We need to ration them out. Maybe one can per day, how about that?”
Michael didn’t hear him, or if he did, his words didn’t have any meaning in that moment—he was too busy drowning himself in relief. “Why don’t we just stay here?” he asked him. “We’ve got food and drink to last a few weeks. I’m sure somebody will find us in that time.”
“That won’t work. We’ll just burn up. Look, you’re already sunburned.”
Michael stopped gorging himself and looked at his arms. They were red raw.
“Come on, you’ve had enough,” the man said. “Let’s go see what we can find.”
Michael tested his legs, but they couldn’t support his weight for very long standing. “Here, I’ll help you,” the man said, grunting as he took him under his arm, supporting him as they walked together.
The sand was never ending. It was all they saw for miles and miles. It was the dunes that towered over them like waves, and it was the flat valleys whose endlessness drove them insane. Sweat dripped down Michael’s brow, leaving small wet imprints in the sand beneath his feet. Before the pain had kept him from feeling the heat, but now he felt it in full force. The man, meanwhile, seemed to be perfectly fine. He wasn’t even burned. How does he do it? Michael thought.
It had been late when they began their trek, and now it was really getting dark. The chill was setting in. “We should travel at night, when it’s cool,” the man said. Michael grunted in agreement. The sun was setting in the distant horizon, leaving a pink and purple sky, with little white sparks in its wake.
All Michael could think about now was how tired he was. His head hurt, his legs ached, his skin burned. He just wanted to stop moving, lie down and die. But the man wouldn’t let him. “We’ll never get out of here with that attitude. Let’s keep moving.” Reluctantly, Michael followed him.
When the sun crept over the horizon like a child peeking through a door crack, Michael could move no longer. His legs buckled under him and he collapsed in the sand. He felt immediate relief. The sand swallowed him up, and he soon was lost in his subconscious.
His wife stood facing him. “Do you remember?” she asked him. Michael said nothing. He murmured her name. “Emily…”
She was as gorgeous as when he had first met her. Her auburn hair waved in the invisible wind, her eyes as green as the sea. She held out her hand. Michael looked closer. There was something white in her palm. It was a seashell. Michael took it from her, examining it closely.
Emily suddenly yelled, “You didn’t even say goodbye.”
Michael looked up again, but she was gone. In her place was a bonfire. Soon his entire world was burning, burning, burning into the netherworld and beyond. He cowered in fear, clutching the shell and curling up into a ball. And the words kept ringing in his ears: “You didn’t even say goodbye.”
He woke up with a start. Looking around, he noticed that the survivor was nowhere to be seen. But something caught his eye: the shell he’d seen in his dream. It was also part of his waking world. He grabbed it and put it to his ear. The sounds of waves crashing on a distant shore filled his ears with comfort. It was like the remnants of something that once was and had been drained away.
Michael had no idea which direction to go, or if he should go anywhere at all. He noticed that the man had left all the food and drinks a few yards away. Michael ambled over to them and began to eat and drink hungrily. His strength began to return again.
He shuffled through the sand, not knowing where he was going and if he wasn’t going in the direction he’d already come from. The sun was directly overhead, its rays beating down upon him. And still he kept going. He didn’t know why, or if it was right, but he kept going.
And finally, after hours and hours of this, what seemed like an eternity, he heard something miraculous. A loud humming sound, growing louder and louder, beating with regularity. It was a helicopter. Seeing it, Michael stopped moving and waited. He noticed he was still clutching the shell Emily had given him. He put it up to his ear again. The sounds of the waves were still there. Sand blew everywhere, and Michael shielded his eyes as the helicopter got lower and lower.
When it landed, he was helped into the helicopter by several men in uniforms. A journalist was aboard. “You’re a survivor of that plane crash, right?” he asked eagerly. Michael nodded his head. “It’s truly a miracle that you survived. You must be the luckiest man on earth.”
Michael turned and looked out the window. The helicopter was lifting high into the air now. He saw a figure in the sand, staring up at him. It was the man. “Wait!” Michael yelled. “He’s another survivor! We’ve got to help him.”
The other men looked in the direction he indicated. They looked at each other. “He must be delirious,” one said. “The desert’ll do that to ya. Come on, let’s go.”
Michael stared at them in shock. “How can you say that? We have to save him!” He looked out the window again. But he could not find the mysterious man. He had vanished completely.
Michael stared out over the sand. “He didn’t even say goodbye.”