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Beast of the Red Sky
Author's note: My first short story, I want readers to take away the joy of mystery.
Seat 24A. Window. The plane was packed to a claustrophobic level. Everyone was rushing around to get their colorful vacation carry-ons stored in the overhead compartments, making sure their children and travel partners were all set, or just making themselves look busy. I simply made my way to my seat and sat there. I looked out the window with a thousand yard stare. Soon enough the plane rolled to position on the runway. Seconds later we were climbing through the air in hundred foot leaps. The guy next to me was leaning to get a look out the window. He was a handsome devil, but he was in my personal space. I looked at him as if to say an annoyed “Excuse me?”
He looked me straight in the eyes and said “May I help you?”
“You're in my space...” I said rudely, I did not feel in a friend-making mood.
“Oh! I'm so sorry!” he said, barely moving an inch away and putting out his hand “I'm Jason, nice to meet you, um...?”
“Lucy.” I said in an offhand manner.
“Well. Lucy, what a pretty name for such a pretty girl!” he sighed smiling, totally unaffected by my shortness. I didn't answer him and I turned back toward the window. He kept leaning over me to see out the window, so I shut it in an annoyed, fluid movement. He shrunk back into his seat and looked at me like I was just being silly. I raised one eyebrow at him and hurriedly shut my eyes in false sleep before he could crack another charming smirk.
We suddenly hit an unusually rough patch in the air. Three beeps signaled the captain's panicked voice on the intercom, “We are experiencing some turbulence, remain calm and in your seats with your seat belts fastened.”
I knew somehow that this was not just any turbulence. I've flown many times before to archery competitions around the world. So needless to say, I've experienced a fair amount of varying degrees of turbulence. I threw the window shade open and watched our elevation dive. I watched the land and water get closer and, unnervingly, closer until the front of the plane crashed and crumbled. The metal skeleton of the plane crunched with sickening sounds. Everything went black.
I woke up on a beach with forests to my left, water to my right, and blackened bits of plane and people all around. Some of the people lay wholly lifeless, others lay dead with their assorted body parts yards away. There were a handful of surviving people strewn about tending to the dead and searching for survivors. Jason was sitting on a flat tree stump brooding but living. I got up and walked over to him. I put my hand on his shoulder, shocking myself in doing so. I squeezed his muscular shoulder assuring him that everything was going to be okay.
“NO! Nothing is Okay!” he shouted at me, “People are dead, people are dying. These people probably all had families and friends who care about them and have no idea they are dead! No one knows what just happened! We are all alone!” I did not expect this previously cheery guy to be so flip.
“Calm down, Jason, we'll get out of here, we'll find everyone's families and tell them. Don't worry. You and I, we will do it, we'll get off this island together alright?” I said, the words flowing from my mouth which, at the moment, had a mind of its own. The words shocked me, and more so that they were coming from my mouth.
People were already taking action. They were casing the island for food and water, collecting berries and timber. Somewhere inside each of us, we knew that we weren't getting off this island tomorrow, probably not the next day either, nor the next. Before night befell the red skies, we tried to form makeshift order among us. I thought that I would end up being the hunter if I decided to join the group. I have never been a social butterfly though, so I avoided the discussion the best I could. We all felt in our guts that we were in it for a long haul. Somehow, these people would find a way, people always do.
The night was freezing. I woke quietly to a crimson shade of dawn. I looked out to the vast expanse of the ocean. The water barely glimmered in the sun peaking over the eastern horizon. From deep inside, I heard the angry roar of my empty stomach. I had refused to eat the berries the others had collected yesterday, something about their too-red color felt spooky to me. I moved silent as a fox to the edge of the trees. I began to walk, stepping over fallen logs and treading lightly on a blanket of foliage. I counted my steps until I'd walked a mile. Something shiny caught my eye and I reached down to pick up a large knife made of diamond. I figured it was thrown from the plane when we crashed. I didn't think anything else of it. Later, thought brought up the question of why there was such a beautiful but dangerous knife on a plane, with airport security what it is. However, for the time being, I slipped the sharp tool carefully into my belt and continued to walk. I came across a patch of long grass and pulled out a sufficient amount. I took off my jacket and fashioned a sack out of it. The island weather was growing hot and a sheen of sweat had collected on my forehead as I continued to collect materials I could make use of. My jacket sack quickly filled with raw materials, and my pockets were laden with crystals, rocks, and geodes that I found littering the area.
I found a fallen tree to sit on and spread my materials out on the ground before me. I took some pieces of grass about two feet long, braided them into a tight string that had a bit of elasticity to it, and tied the ends into small loops. I carefully chose one of the branches I collected, made a notch at either end, and attached a loop of the string around each, curving the flexible wood to keep the string taut. I tugged on the string to test my makeshift bow, and admired my handiwork. I then set to work on making arrow shafts out of the smaller, dryer sticks and using shorter pieces of grass to tie on the crystals and rocks which I shaped into arrowheads. With large leaves from one of the bushes I came across earlier, I crafted a sort of quiver to hold my arrows. Using one of the berries from yesterday, I drew an X on a nearby tree. I notched one of my arrows and stood about fifty feet away. I pulled back my arm and rested my thumb on the corner of my mouth for an anchor. I released the string and it whipped my forearm leaving a red welt. The arrow found a place in the tree just below my target. I folded another large leaf and strapped it to my arm to prevent another lash. This time I set my sights just above my target and fired. The fact that I'd been training my whole life to be in the Olympics for archery helped me hit the target dead center. A small bird flew overhead and landed in a tree. I whipped an arrow into position and fired with quick precision, bringing the bird to the ground. I built a tiny fire to heat the bird until it was a little burnt. Then I ate ravenously.
I returned to the camp at dusk with a catch of small birds hanging from my belt. Jason watched me with amusement as I approached the others. The weather was cooling down again. The others looked at me in shock. With deft fingers I untied my birds, and I tossed them nonchalantly into the food pit in the center. They all just gaped at me. I didn't bother to hide the condescension in my glare. I walked to the food pit and began to pluck the birds myself. They soon joined me all at once. Everyone went to bed with satisfied stomaches. I tried not to fill up too much though. It's best to remain slightly hungry to keep your senses sharp.
I prefer to keep to myself. I survive day-to-day always waking up at the break of dawn and going to bed long after dark. It's been raining a lot. Today I woke up late. The night before I had pursued a large beast. I have no idea what it was, but I chased it until I saw the red sky of morning and gave it up.
Instead of going out to hunt right away, I sat on the flat top of a tree stump with my knife and a chunk of wood. I regarded everyone else trying to busy themselves. I watched a group of them try without any luck to build a simple shelter. I knew how to build a shelter, but I couldn't bring myself to leave my stump. I caught Jason's eye a couple of times. He came over and sat on the huge stump with me.
“Hey.” he said limply.
“It's okay to cry if you want.” I said thinking that was what he needed.
“No. I'm fine. I just want someone to talk to, if you don't mind. It was either you or the German guy who smells like fish.” he said with an attempt at lightening the mood.
“Yeah, I can't understand a word he says.” I said lightly, and he gave me an empty laugh.
I let him tell me about his life. I knew he needed the comfort. He told me about his full ride scholarship to Harvard, about his amazing family with a million charities named after each member, all his friends who were all so smart. I couldn't help but be a bit jealous that he had so much to go back to. Then the thought reached me that we may never get home. Right then I felt so bad for him, my jealousy went away. In fact, having nothing to live for made the thought of never leaving here easier to bear. He had such an amazing life waiting for him, and he may never get back to it. That thought, the thought of all he stands to lose, made me feel so washed out and desolate I just wanted life to end. I had to carry on though.
There is so much that nobody knows, and nobody ever will know about me. I do feel things, I feel anger and sadness, and once upon a time, a taste of happiness. No one here knows what I lost, or why I came on this trip. Not even Jason. I will not let anyone know what I am escaping from. The violence. I fell in love with a man once. Then he abused me again and again and I kept hiding the bruises of his drunken nights until it almost killed me. I guess I met the wrong person, in the wrong place, and the wrong time. I looked death in the eye and fled.
I ran to the airport, jumped on a plane, and took a seat by myself. I brought nothing with me, I had nothing to bring. I wasn't planing on coming back. The plane crashed on this desolate island, and here I am, among strangers, sitting on a stupid stump, whittling away with a mysterious knife I found in the woods, listening to the story of some one destined for so much more greatness than I could imagine. I probably wouldn't have even made it to the olympics, and I'd put everything on that card. I looked down at what my knife created. I saw the beast I was tracking last night. It was some kind of large cat. It had short fur, but a long mane running from the top of its head to the base of its long tail. It had powerful legs built for running and a large snout with dagger-like fangs that stuck out of its mouth like the saber tooth I once read about. It was like no other animal I've ever seen alive. I tossed it into the fire, and fear flashed across my face. I looked up and saw Jason staring. He trusts me so much. I felt a strange obligation to help him and keep him alive. I got up hastily and brushed his shoulder gently as I did. I grabbed my bow and floated towards the woods. I planned to find the beast.
The group is falling apart, the ramshackle attempt at forming a civilization fell apart at the seams. I thought that people were stronger than that. I guess it's a good thing I avoided getting involved. The other survivors are turning against each other. None of it really matters to me now. I left some time ago to devote myself to the pursuit of the beast. I hardly sleep anymore. I usually climb a tree close enough to see the camp but still far enough into the woods to watch for the beast. I have become mostly nocturnal. Jason has looked into the woods a lot lately like he is wondering about the possibilities hidden within, that I have already discovered. I go back to camp only to deliver food to him and to talk to him and comfort him. He is a people person, so when I offered for him to join me in the woods, he wanted to stay in the camp. I guess it is easier for me that way.
I was up in my tree when I heard the twigs snapping beneath me. I looked down hoping for a glimpse of dark reddish-brown fur but found Jason's blond head of hair. I whispered down to him to be quiet. He looked up startled. I showed myself, all painted in camouflage. He asked what I was doing in the tree. I couldn't leave him down there to make noise. I let him climb up and he carefully positioned himself on a fat branch. He was afraid of heights, it was in his eyes. The tree was, after all, precariously high.
“How can you handle this, it has to be at least 200 feet high!” he whispered fearfully.
“Only 100” I replied amused. He looked at me in awe. I pointed to some branches another 25 feet up. There I had placed a huge woven basket filled with stores of food and supplies. Hanging on a tiny appendage of the tree right next to my head was my bow. In another basket was an assortment of carvings I made of the beast. I took one out and showed it to Jason. I told him all about the beast, how I'd been hunting it, and how I've been getting closer and closer to catching it.
“It looks like a saber tooth tiger!” he whispered sharply.
“I know, but I thought those were extinct.” I pondered the idea in my head when I heard the soft hush of padded paws on foliage. Unlike people, the beast moved silent as the wind. When Jason had walked, there was an audible snap of a stick. The beast would not make a noise that loud. I had become practiced in listening for the its quiet movements, so I was sure it was there.
“Quiet!” I snapped in hushed whispers, putting my hand up to silence him. I looked down and saw the big cat slinking underneath the tree. I reached up for my bow, notched an arrow, and stretched the string to the corner of my concentrated frown without a sound. I aimed, focusing harder than ever before and soundlessly released the string. The arrow whistled through the air, a beautiful crystal bullet. The beast let out a scream. I did not see the beast go down. I watched it dart away. I saw my arrow protruding from the ground. I missed.
“What the – ?” Jason began.
“It looked like it went right through, how did that thing not...”
We slowly climbed down from the tree. I grabbed the arrow and snapped it angrily in half.
"Lucy," Jason said quizzically, "Are you okay?"
“I just don't understand. That was my best arrow. My bow is crafted well enough. My aim was flawless. I don't get it, how did I miss?” I was floundering now. I have never missed a target from the first time I picked up a bow.
"Lucy, what are you talking about?" he asked, "Why did you just shoot an arrow at the ground?"
"What?" I said, "I was shooting at the beast!"
"Lucy, there is no beast. Have you been drinking enough? Do you even eat or sleep anymore?" he put a worried hand on my forehead.
"Huh? It was right there, how did you not see it?"
"Oh God! Lucy, you're acting crazy! Stop it, you're scaring me."
"Jason, I'm not crazy, I don't know why you didn't see it, but it was right there." I said pointing to where i saw the beast.
Jason rushed to change the subject “I built a boat” he said randomly “We can get out of here...together... like you said. It's big, everyone can fit.”
I just looked at him with so much pain behind my stare. I knew I couldn't really go through with my promise. There were so many reasons to stay. I had nothing to go back to, and I couldn't face the idea of home. I felt so guilty, but guilt wasn't going to change my mind. Plus, I couldn't go anywhere until i found the beast.
“Well,” he inferred, “Get your supplies and let's go.”
“No.” I said calmly.
“What?” he asked, shocked.
“I can't go back” I said, “Don't ask me why.”
“But... you promised” he said obviously confused "Leave the beast, it's not even real. Come with me, please."
“I can't. I know I promised, but I can't.” I said, unable to keep the water from my eyes.
“Then I wont go either.” he said with steadfast decision.
“No, you have to go without me. You have a life to live, you are a Harvard scholar, you have money, friends, family, a future!” I shouted not very subtly.
“What? What was that!?” he said, shocked by my outburst and suddenly very angry.
“Nothing” I said, “it's just, I'm not like you, I don't have anything left in the real world.”
“You have me” he said with an offer in the undercurrent. “I know I don't know you very well, but there is something about you that keeps me from turning away when I look at you. I love you!”
“No,” I said, “You don't know me at all Jason, and there are things about me that you can never understand. I can never love you back. Don't throw your life away trying to fix a toy that is irreparably broken, it will destroy you... like it destroyed me.”
He looked at me through sad bright blue-green eyes and kissed me. “Does that change your mind?” he asked, pain clear on his face.
“No, Jason, I can't. I'm sorry. I wish I wish I could love you, but I can't go with you no matter how much I want to. Don't make this any harder than it already is.” I pleaded as tears stung my dark brown eyes.
“But you promised me Lucy, that we'd get home together.” his eyes sparkled with freshly welling tears. With dejection written in his red-rimmed eyes, he stared into mine. With feather light lips he tenderly kissed my forehead.
"Go, Jason. Go, and don't you ever look back now! Go... Please." I collapsed to the ground at his feet and sobbed into my mud-caked hands. Peeking through my fingers, I watched him wipe away a cascade of tears from his cheeks, then turn on his heel and walk away.
He never looked back.
I never saw Jason again. I spent the rest of my short life hunting the elusive beast until the day of the flood. On that day, the water rose up from the sea and stood tall over the forested island. The wall of salt water seemed to linger above me for a while as my 23 years of life flashed dully before my eyes like watching a cliché movie montage.
I saw flashes of my worthless life. A drunk man swaggering towards me. A fist coming down. The sharp edges of a broken beer bottle covered in blood. I saw clothes piled on the ground, and rope-burn on my ankles and wrists. Then my montage lightened and Jason's face filled my head. A dream-hazed vision of his smile, and a warm hand on my cheek. The last image before the end was his back as he walked away from me and into his waiting life.
The wave came crashing down on me. In seconds the water filled my lungs, the force threw me against the now underwater trees. I was dead before my montage came to a complete close.
My footsteps have been washed clean from the soil of this world, but the ghostly prints of the beast preserve my trails underneath the crimson sky.