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They sat around the fire, listening to the popping coals and the dull rushing of the river nearby. The shorter one, with long dark hair and a puffy jacket stared into the fire, ignoring his companions and the shadows around them. The taller one, wearing a thinner jacket, looked up at the smoke and the stars. The final person wore nothing, not even skin or muscle; just a skeleton leaning against one of the logs around the fire.
The taller one finally broke the semi-silence asking, “Do you know why this is called Skeleton Island?”
The shorter one said nothing for a while. In the trees an owl hooted, looking for something to eat in the forest around them. Eventually, the long-haired boy mumbled, “Prolly ‘cause there's a skeleton here.”
“No, there’s another reason, but you're half right. This is the story,” the tall one started talking in a quieter, deeper voice, lending the story a scarier quality.
A while back, way back when we were still in diapers, a man came out here to get away for a while. He was having trouble at home, you see. His brother had moved in with him, and was criticising everything he did, even how he made food. His wife wasn’t helping and wouldn't take a side. He came to this island for a break from his life, and to have some time to fish and hunt.
He brought his gun, his knife, a lighter and a tent. He packed this all into his canoe and paddled it up here, and set up camp. He pitched his tent and made a fire ring. He walked around the island to see if there was any game. He came back happy with what he had seen: the island was full of deer that had no fear of humans.
He grabbed his gun and set out to make a blind, and maybe bag a deer. As he made his perch, he watched the sun fall slowly behind the the branches of the tree next to his. He suddenly realized that he hadn’t secured his canoe.
He ran back to the gravel beach, through the deep shadows beneath the pines that grow there in the middle of the island. He ran back through the aspens that cover the banks, the shadows here not quite so dark now that the aspen had lost their leaves. He finally made it to the beach. As he crunched across the beach, he could make out the shadowy boat in the darkness. He pulled it completely onto the beach, and tied it to a stout branch sticking out of the beach.
This accomplished, he wandered back to camp and crawled into his tent. He crawled into his bag and fell asleep. That night he dreamed of skeletons dancing over his tent, tossing burning bones onto it.
In the morning, after a small meal of granola, he went down to the beach to watch the sunrise. When he got there, he took a deep breath of the crisp air, and saw the mountains reflected in the river. But when he looked at his boat, he saw that he had tied the boat, not to a stick, but to a large bone. In fact, when he looked at what he had taken for gravel, he realized that it was all just bone fragments, worn down by time.
He ran back to the tent and packed up, desperate to leave the island. But when he returned to the beach, he saw that his boat’s canvas hull had been shredded by the sharp gravel. He desperately searched through his pack for his PLB (personal locator beacon), but couldn’t find it. He searched more and more desperately. He never left home without it.
“The exception proves the rule, I guess,” said the shorter man.
“Sure. Just lemme finish my story.”
The man returned to his camp, and decided he could probably survive ‘till the rescue people got here. His wife would alert them. Of course she would. Even though they’d been fighting for a while, and she’d mentioned that his brother would make a better husband than he had. She still cared about him that much. Didn’t she?
He set up his tent again, and set off to hunt. He still had to eat, even if he was stuck here until he could build a workable raft that would get him the fifty-three miles downriver to the nearest town. It was more of a village really.
But as he looked around, he realized that his assumption that the island was full of deer had been wrong. There were hardly any deer, and they were skinny and weak, hardly worth eating. He had no idea how this had happened in the short time he’d been on the island.
He went back to his camp, and spent another hungry night shivering in his sleeping bag. He dreamt about skeletons again. When he woke up, he barely had the energy to dismantle his tent.
He lashed some sticks together and made a sturdy enough platform to carry him and his gear. He put his pack on the raft, and waded out into the current. But he hadn’t reckoned with how strong it would be, and it tore the raft out of his grip, and spun it away downriver. He waded dejectedly back to shore, and slumped back to camp, where he slumped down next to a log.
He’d never felt this hungry in his life. It seemed like he was getting hungry too fast. He could see his muscles shrinking and his skin drying out. He looked up into the gathering dark between the trees and saw the skeletons from his dreams dancing over him.
“That’s why it’s called Skeleton Island!” the tall one said triumphantly.
“So that’s who our friend here is, huh?”
They lapsed into a brooding silence for a while.
“What’s that in the trees over there?” The short one yelped suddenly.
“Prolly an owl. Why?”
“It looked like a person”
“There’s no one else on the island. Relax.”
Suddenly the fringes of the firelight was filled with skeletons. They slowly advanced on the two men. The short one grabbed a burning stick from the fire, and started waving it at the skeletons, but they didn’t faze them. He hit the closest one as hard as he could, but the stick just broke and sent coals crackling off into the shadows.
The skeleton grabbed the long haired boy by his arm, bones cold and dry. The boy screamed, flesh shriveling and rotting. He collapsed into the fire, screaming in agony. As his friend watched, the last of his body decayed and fell away, leaving only a skeleton behind.
The taller boy ran around the fire and vaulted over the log that the old hunter’s skeleton leaned against, only to be stopped mid-air by the hand of the skeleton they had thought was harmless. He shrieked as his ankle withered and fell to ash. The rest of the skeletons closed in, turning the rest of his body to dust.
In the forest nearby, the glowing coals from the fire that had disappeared into the trees smoldered and burned. They burned the leaves around them, creating more and more heat. Finally, the underbrush caught, and the fire grew faster and faster, consuming everything on the island except the stones and the bones.
Three young women sat around a small fire in the burned out husk of an island. “You people ever heard why this place was called Skeleton Island?” The one in the middle began.