The Feral Sentence – Part One
By G. C. Julien
**]© Copyright 2015 G. C. Julien
Edited by Nikki Busch
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Were the handcuffs really necessary? I rubbed the inflamed skin on my wrist, trying to understand how a small woman such as myself could possibly pose a threat to two soldiers in a combat helicopter, four thousand feet above sea level.
They wore black masks to match their thick uniforms and swat-like goggles over their eyes. I could tell they were both men by their height and build, but I hadn’t seen their faces. I eyed their machine guns, but not for long, because I felt them watching me from behind their dark shades.
I peered through the helicopter’s fogged window, and the shape of an island surrounded by nothing but open blue came into view. I had so many questions—so many fears—but the overpowering sound of the rotating helicopter blades, coupled with the menacing looks I was receiving, encouraged me to keep my mouth shut.
The larger of the two soldiers suddenly stood up and reached for a lever. A burst of sunlight came into the helicopter, along with the loudening of the helicopter blades, and I inhaled fresh ocean air. I could see the entire island through the open helicopter door. From this distance, it appeared to be nothing more than a house floating on the ocean’s horizon. I hadn’t noticed how far we’d descended until I saw water splashing in all directions beneath us due to the helicopter’s force.
So this is my prison sentence, I thought, gazing across the open water at what I’d only read about in news articles—Kormace Island: the Island of Killers. How had I managed to get myself into so much trouble? I wanted to wake up. It wasn’t real. It couldn’t be.
The smaller of the two soldiers suddenly uncuffed me and led me to the edge of the helicopter. I didn’t bother struggling. I was too frail, and his thick hand around my wrist was so tight, I was losing blood circulation. Was he going to throw me out? They couldn’t do that! And why weren’t they flying any closer to the island? The water underneath us was dark blue…black, almost. It was too deep. I’d never make it to the island alive.
I could have sworn I saw shark fins circling below as if hungrily anticipating my fall. But I knew these were imagined—I was panicking. I didn’t have the time to visualize my death any further, because I was suddenly pushed out of the helicopter, with only two words echoing behind me, “Swim fast.”
It didn’t feel like water at all. It felt like I’d broken through a thick sheet of glass. My body temperature dropped instantly, and my fingers quickly numbed.
“Swim fast,” I remembered. I moved forward, motivated by the thought of a shark ripping off my leg with its razor-sharp teeth.
Almost there, I lied to myself. Who was I kidding? I could see the island, but only barely. It looked like it was made of Legos from this distance—like it wasn’t even real. Was the plan to have me die before successfully reaching Kormace Island? It was a good plan.
The helicopter regained its altitude before flying off in the opposite direction. Couldn’t they have dropped me off any closer? Bastards.
The taste of salt coated my tongue, and I coughed up several mouthfuls of ocean water. It was satisfying in a sense. It was the closest thing I’d tasted to food in the last few days. How would I feed myself, anyways? Did the government drop supplies every week? I hadn’t been informed of anything.
I was out of breath by the time the island doubled in size. I was getting closer, but it wasn’t fast enough. I kicked harder and threw my arms forward, wanting nothing more than to feel the warmth of the sun on my body as I lay in a soft bed of golden sand.
But as the island continued to expand in my line of site, it became clear to me that this fantasy of a remote, paradise-like island was precisely that—a fantasy. The sand, from what I could see, was dark brown with large rocks positioned sporadically across the shore alongside skeletal remains. I finally felt the ocean bed beneath the palms of my feet. Gooey seaweed slid in between my toes as I walked across a hard, uneven path. I couldn’t believe I’d actually made it. I felt something slimy wrap itself around my thigh, and I almost screamed before I realized it was just another ocean plant.
I crawled through the filthy sand, feeling both deathly and relieved. Water dripped from my hair and onto my hands, causing goose bumps to spread out evenly across my skin. I just wanted warmth. I hadn’t realized I was trembling until I heard my own teeth chatter. I hurried out of the ocean, kicking ocean junk away from my calves, and collapsed onto my stomach.
Although the sand was rough and dirty, it felt warm and dry. I caressed my face into it and closed my eyes. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d slept. I remembered the prison cells; I remembered the cold cement walls; I remembered feeling starved; and I remembered the shouts and wails emitted from the surrounding cells. The noise kept me up for days.
Surely, being a prisoner on an island would be much more comfortable than in a prison cell, I thought. I breathed in the scent of saltwater fish, feeling suddenly hungry. I mustered the bit of strength I had and crawled up onto my hands and knees. I tried to wipe sticky sand off my face, even though this only spread it more.
Branches broke in the distance, and my eyes followed the noise. My heart began to race. There must have been four or five of them just standing there, blending effortlessly with the trees. Their eyes were outlined in black and dark markings spread across their faces.
One of them stepped forward, and the others followed. I considered running, or at least trying to, but I was beyond exhausted—I wouldn’t make it.
The fiercest-looking one walked forward, as would the alpha of a wolf pack, and I knew this was their leader. Her dark skin glistened in the sunlight and her muscles bulged as she gripped and regripped what appeared to be a spear carved from wood and stone. She had rope, or vines, wrapped around the muscles of her arms, and I could only assume these were holsters of some type. There was a bow strapped to her back with feathered arrows protruding from a leather quiver. She made a hand gesture and cocked her chin up in my direction.
The other women moved in closer toward me.
“Grab her,” the leader ordered.
There was a heavy blow to the side of my head, and everything faded away.
“She ain’t no huntin’ material.”
“She isn’t island material.”
“And you are?”
“No one is until they’re forced to be.”
I cracked my eyes open. The skin on my face was warm, and a fire danced from side to side in the near distance. From what I could see, there were five of them sitting around the flames. They bickered back and forth, and I knew they were arguing about me. I closed my eyes when the one nearest to me swung back to look at me. She scoffed and said, “Murk can decide.”
Who, or what, was Murk?
I peered through the narrow crack of my eyelid when they began to argue again. They all looked the same at quick glance—dark skin, painted markings, and clothing made of skins and vegetation.
There were spears, ropes, and other sharp objects around their feet. And then I smelled it—the warm, mouth-watering smell of roasted meat. Atop the fire was a small animal dangling upside down. It looked like a bunny, but I couldn’t be sure. Its skin had darkened and crisped, and there was no fur left.
Had I been offered roasted rabbit a week prior, my stomach would have churned at the thought of munching down on a family pet. But I hadn’t eaten in days, and at this point, I was willing to eat just about anything.
Suddenly, cold, moist fingers gripped the skin of my upper arm, and I was forced to sit upright.
“She’s been awake for a while,” came a woman’s voice.
She was standing directly beside me, but I was afraid to look up. Where had she come from? The rest remained seated, just staring at me from behind partially shadowed faces.
“Who are you?” asked the woman sitting directly behind the fire. I remembered that face. She was their leader.
I couldn’t speak. I took several deep breaths, ordering my mind to wake from its heinous nightmare. But nothing happened. The more I hoped, the more I realized just how frightening my reality had become.
“Trim asked you a question.” I felt something cold and razor-sharp dig into the skin of my neck.
I swallowed hard. They were so barbaric—so wild looking, with their unevenly cut hair and dirty faces.
“Lydia,” I said.
“Last name?” the leader asked.
The leader—Trim—tilted her head back and smiled. She was ugly in every sense imaginable with disproportionate features: a long pointed nose, small black eyes, blemished skin, and thick, untrimmed eyebrows that matched her frizzy black hair. Her name suddenly made sense to me.
“Brone,” Trim repeated.
I stared at her. Had this been a question? I wasn’t sure what to answer.
“Do you like your name?” she asked.
What kind of a question was that? It was my name. I didn’t like it or dislike it.
“I’m Rocket,” said one of the women seated by the fire. She pressed her hand against her chest as a way of introducing herself. She was very petite and sweet looking despite her savage exterior, which was rough and filthy. She had a cute button nose and bright forest green eyes, but her beauty was masked by a thick crooked scar that ran across her left eyebrow and cheek. Her caramel-brown dreadlocks were pulled back into a knot at the base of her skull.
“’Cause I’m fast,” she added. “You pick your own identity here on the island. In prison, you’ll always be called by your last name. You can change that here. You know—if you want to be someone else.”
Did I want to be someone else? Yes. I wanted to be someone who hadn’t been convicted of first-degree murder and dropped on an island to rot. But my name wouldn’t change that.
“Brone’s fine,” I said.
“This here’s Flander,” Rocket said, pointing to the woman beside her. Flander cocked and eyebrow but didn’t smile. She looked much older than the rest of them, with her wrinkled skin and dull, colorless eyes. She had short grey hair and hundreds of freckles across her nose, cheeks, and shoulders. “That’s Biggie, that’s Eagle, and that right there,” she said, pointing at the woman standing at my side, “is Fisher.”
Biggie, as her name insinuated, was the biggest of them all. She had squared off shoulders, a rounded belly, and legs the size of my torso. Her hair was short and woolly, and she had small silver loop earrings running down both ears. She had glossy brown eyes, and wide nostrils the width of her lips. She tried to smile, but it had looked more like a twitch.
I quickly glanced at Eagle, who was eying me carefully from behind eyes that were neither green nor blue, but rather, dark turquoise. She nodded as way of acknowledging my presence, but she didn’t smile or speak. She had short greasy blonde hair that stood up in all directions. Her lips were thin and flat, and she had an unusual moon shaped birthmark on her forehead.
I finally looked up at Fisher. She grimaced, baring a set of crooked teeth, and said, “I don’t like fishing.”
I wasn’t sure whether or not this had been a joke. Her dark eyebrows were nearly touching at the center of her forehead, and her colorless lips were curved downward. I could tell she’d once been very pretty with her high cheek bones, her light brown eyes, and her defined jawline, but the island had damaged her. I smiled awkwardly and returned my attention to Trim.
“You hungry?” Trim asked.
She must have caught me eying the piece of dangling meat, because she stood up, pulled a dagger from her side, and moved in. She cut the animal loose and propped it up onto a flat rock beside Flander. She tore into it without a second thought and ripped off one of its legs. Although disgusted by the sound of bones cracking and muscle tendons tearing, I’d never been more excited to eat meat.
“Welcome to Kormace,” Trim said, tossing me a crispy leg.
I heard a throat-like growl and flinched at the thought of a wild beast lingering nearby. But the sound hadn’t come from an animal—at least not a four-legged one. Trim hovered above me with her arms crossed tightly over her chest.
I rubbed my crusted eyes and sat upright. The sun was still up, although for a moment I’d thought it to be night time because of Trim’s overly frizzy hair casting a shadow around me. I must have fallen asleep after eating. I was exhausted. I hadn’t slept in days due to the reality of my new life.
“On your feet, Brone,” she ordered.
I crawled onto my knees and then onto my feet. I didn’t have the time to appreciate the melodic chirping that came from the trees or the warmth of the sun penetrating the thousands of leaves overhead.
“Change,” Trim said.
Warm leather hit me in the face before landing on my lap. It appeared to be a shirt and a pair of poorly sewn pants.
“What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?” I asked.
This had obviously been a stupid question. Trim leaned in and cocked an eyebrow.
“You look new. You smell new. You’ll be treated like new.”
“Since when is new is bad?” I asked.
Rocket was suddenly standing beside Trim. “Since now,” she said. “Being new makes you more vulnerable to attacks.”
Rocket smiled, seemingly amused. “Yeah, that’s what I said.”
I stared at her, but she offered no consolation.
“Welcome to the wild, Brone.” She pointed at my new attire, raised both eyebrows, then walked away.
Trim simply waited, arms still crossed over her chest. So I slowly slid off my chalk-blue T-shirt, something I’d bought at a thrift shop a few months ago, and replaced it with the leather. It hung loosely over one shoulder, leaving the other shoulder completely bare. I couldn’t quite tell whether this was the actual design or poor craftsmanship.
“Appreciate that while you have it,” I heard.
I followed the voice. It had come from Eagle. She was slouched against a slanted birch tree, sharpening a blade.
“Sorry?” I said.
She smirked, her turquoise eyes gazing into me to the point of discomfort. “Your bra.”
I suddenly realized that everyone was looking at me. Had they all been watching me change? I became fully aware of my red bra straps, which were clearly visible at both my shoulders. Had they expected me to remove it? I noticed most of them weren’t even wearing bras; those who were had made them using tight leather, which offered no support, but rather, a flattening functionality.
“Just sayin’,” Eagle said, now striking harder with her rock, “that’s a luxury most us islanders don’t have.”
I couldn’t tell whether she’d simply stated a fact or had blatantly threatened me. Her eyes remained glued to me for a moment, and I couldn’t help but wonder what she was thinking. She struck harder, and I noticed a few sparks spit in all directions.
“Ignore the bird,” Rocket said, flicking her wrist out at Eagle. “Come on, put the pants on.”
So I slid off my jeans and replaced them with the rugged, uneven pants Trim had so graciously given me. I wiped a line of sweat off my forehead. It was so humid. Hadn’t they thought of sewing shorts instead?
Rocket must’ve read my mind, because she laughed and said, “Yeah, it’s hot. Can’t be wearin’ skanky shorts with all them poisonous snakes around here.”
My eyes widened. Snakes? Poisonous?
The others laughed. I didn’t understand how any of this was funny. Had I seriously been dropped on an island, surrounded by dangerous creatures and poorly civilized women? When would the government come back for me? How would I know when my three-year sentence was up? I didn’t have a calendar. I didn’t have my iPhone to keep track. I just wanted to go home. I wanted to slip into my favorite satin pajamas and spend the night lazing on my leather sofa watching reality television.
“Let’s have a look,” Rocket said, standing me up straight. She eyed me from top to bottom. “Ain’t Prada, but it’ll do.”
“All right, enough already. This ain’t no fashion show. Murk isn’t gonna wait around. You know the rules,” Biggie said. Her muscular dark brown arms were crossed over her chest and her lips formed a flat line. She was the darkest skinned of all the women, and she was built like an ox—her shoulders wide and her chest robust.
“What rules?” I asked.
I knew I was pushing my luck asking so many questions, but I wanted answers. How was I supposed to be calm in such a situation? I’d just been dropped on an island to rot for three years. How would I even know when my sentence was up?
“You ever read Harry Potter?” Eagle asked.
I nodded, not quite understanding the relevancy.
“Think of Murk as the island’s sorting h—”
“Shut up!” Fisher hissed. “We were all forced to face the island blindly. Brone isn’t any different.”
Eagle looked away, not daring to challenge Fisher. I didn’t blame her. Fisher was the toughest-looking woman I’d ever seen, aside from Trim. She was definitely a mixed race, with dark hair pulled back and round black eyes. She was short, with broad shoulders that gave her the appearance of a professional wrestler. I could tell she was Trim’s right hand by the way she hovered nearby, constantly glancing her way like a pit bull on guard, as if ready to pounce on anyone who posed a threat.
Trim glanced back at us, at Fisher, and then said, “Fisher’s right. Let’s go.”
She turned toward the sun and led us through an array of trees, plants, and flowers. I could hear birds chirping from above, followed by other sounds I was unfamiliar with. I flinched when I heard a monkey—or a chimp—scream ahead of us. The women didn’t seem bothered by this at all.
I watched my every step, careful not to step on any hard-shelled critters or giant spiders. I’d seen jungles in movies before, so I knew what I was up against—sort of.
Trim led us farther and farther away from shore, and I couldn’t help but feel that the deeper we ventured, the more we became vulnerable to Mother Nature.
It was just like I’d seen in the movies. Everything was green or brown, with the exclusion of colorful flowers routed at the base of overly large trees. Even the water flowing through a narrow stream nearby had a greenish tint, most likely due to reflection.
I breathed in the scent of wild flowers, which masked the subtle scent of moist dirt and widespread mildew. I wouldn’t get used to this. I’d always been disgusted by the smell of my cat’s litter box; I used to remedy the problem by spraying excessive amounts of air freshener throughout my apartment. And I wasn’t the outdoorsy type. I’d never survive.
Trim suddenly crouched, and the others followed. Rocket tugged on the back of my shirt to bring me down. What was going on? I parted my lips to speak, but Rocket nudged me in the ribs. I noticed Fisher’s nostrils flare and her muscles bulge. She wanted to fight. But who? Or what?
I heard the cracking of forest vegetation in the distance, and my heart began to race. I suddenly realized that aside from these women surrounding me, I was entirely unprotected. The others had blades and spears and even arrows, yet I had nothing. How was I supposed to defend myself in the event of an attack?
Eagle slowly slid a wooden arrow from its quiver on her back. She placed it against the bowstring and drew it back, her gaze fixed intently on her target up ahead. I held my breath, fearful to lure in the unseen predator.
Eagle’s eyes narrowed, and she suddenly released the arrow. Her bowstring made a snap-like sound, and her arrow whistled through dangling vines and past several tree trunks. There was a squeal in the distance followed by rapid footsteps and the stirring of leaves. Eagle bolted forward, and the others followed, leaving me at the back. I hurried to follow, but the moment I arrived at the site of her wounded target, I cringed.
Across the root of a tree lay a dying boar, its eyes wide and its head swaying desperately from side to side. Eagle pulled a rusted hatchet from her holster, grabbed the pig by one of its tusks, and raised the weapon over her head.
Rocket barely had time to warn me to look away when Eagle swung downward at the boar’s neck. The sound of impact nauseated me. There was a violent squeal, followed by another blow and another and another until the boar stopped moving entirely. Eagle stepped onto the boar’s body, and with a hand on each one of its tusks, pulled upward. I nearly threw up at the sound of flesh and soft tissue tearing.
“Nice shot,” Trim said, staring down at the arrow that protruded from the animal’s chest.
“Thanks.” Eagle raised the boar’s head to eye level, analyzing its face, tusks, and teeth. “Better than my last,” she said.
I threw my hand over my mouth at the sight of blood dripping from the wild pig’s severed head. Rocket laughed and squeezed my shoulder.
“You get used to it,” she said.
Eagle wiped her bloody blade against several vines to clean it, then quickly sliced through one of them before placing her blade back into its holster. The thick, green rope-like plant fell to the ground with a thump. Eagle wrapped the vine around the boar and secured it by tugging hard. She then bent over and tore her arrow out of the boar’s chest. She inspected it quickly, then wiped it and tossed it back into her quiver.
“Need help?” Fisher asked.
Eagle shook her head and began dragging her kill through the forest’s bed.
“That looks really heavy,” I whispered.
“That’s nothing,” Rocket said. “Maybe two hundred pounds, at most. A while back, Eagle killed one that was at least five hundred pounds. Had to cut it up to bring it back to the Village.”
“The Village?” I asked, suddenly enthused by the prospect of a civilized society.
“What were you expecting?” Flander said, her wrinkled face suddenly near mine. “You were dropped off on an island with over a thousand square miles of land, along with hundreds of criminals. You really think it’s a free-for-all? Humans are social creatures. We wouldn’t survive without each other.”
I noticed Rocket roll her eyes, as if to say, ‘Old woman. Here she goes again…’
“How do you know all of this?” I asked.
“I do my research,” Flander said.
“Let’s keep moving,” Trim interrupted.
She continued her lead through the jungle, hacking away at the overpopulation of tree branches and vines.
“Hundreds of criminals?” I whispered, leaning in toward Fisher.
She nodded all knowingly.
“Are they all in the Village?” I asked.
She smiled, as if this had been the dumbest question she’d ever heard.
“Like any society, Kormace has its outlaws and its rebels. And like any prison, women fight to hold a position of power,” Flander said. She wiped several beads of sweat away from her shiny forehead and gazed around, as if paranoid of being heard. “A few years ago, someone challenged Murk. Didn’t agree with the way she was running things. Long story short, she and her loyal followers were removed from the Village. Rumors say they moved to the north of the island and created their own society. They’re dangerous—merciless. They attacked a while back, killing a dozen women in their sleep.”
I swallowed hard. Flander paused, and I knew she was vividly reliving that terrible night. I couldn’t help but wonder if she’d lost anyone she truly cared about.
She cleared her throat. “The Northers all deserve to be killed.”
“Fucking right,” Rocket interjected.
Fisher joined in on the conversation, shaking a clenched fist in the air. “I’ll be the first to rip off Rainer’s fucking head!” Her muscles bulged out from underneath her tanned skin, and I could tell she’d been born to fight.
“Rainer?” I asked.
Trim stopped walking. She slowly turned around, as if insulted by the very name.
“Their leader,” she said scornfully.
“Whatever you do,” Rocket warned, “don’t mention that name in front of Murk.”
“And Murk is your leader?” I asked.
Trim was suddenly standing in front of me, her cold blade pressed against the base of my throat.
“Yours too,” she said, glaring. “Or would you rather go find the Northers?”
I swallowed hard.
“That’s not what Brone meant—” Rocket said.
“Shut up,” Trim ordered. I felt the sharp edge of her knife press harder into my skin. “Well?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “No. I just meant… I was just trying to understand the hierarchy. I don’t know how things are run here… I’m sorry if I…”
She suddenly pulled away and stored her weapon.
“Good,” she said. “Just making sure.”
I noticed a satisfied smile curve at the corners of her lips, but I failed to see the humor in her reaction. My heart was racing, and my mouth was completely dry. Why was I being treated like the enemy? I wasn’t here to harm anyone.
“Don’t take it personally,” Flander said, tapping me hard on the back. “She wouldn’t be a good leader if she didn’t instill fear every once in a while.”
I resentfully accepted this advice and decided it was best to continue following, despite my anger toward Trim. We continued through the jungle for a while, Fisher and Eagle alternating turns pulling the boar.
My legs were about to give out when I finally noticed light being cast through the trees. As we moved closer, the light expanded, and I realized we were exiting the forest—or at least, nearing an opening. Had we crossed the island? My feet were throbbing and my muscles burned. I wanted to collapse. As we moved closer to the light, I realized that the brightness was not being cast by the sun, but rather, by its reflection over a beautiful bed of green water. The water was surrounded by some of the tallest trees I’d ever seen—walls built of greenery that formed a natural enclosure.
A cool mist floated in the air. I parted my lips, allowing several droplets to land on the tip of my tongue. I swallowed hard, my throat sticking, and I wanted nothing more than to dive into the water and drink until my stomach blew. I’d never felt so thirsty in my life.
A consistent static echoed in the distance—the sound of water crashing against water. I knew we’d reached a waterfall. We stepped out into the opening; it was encircled by tall trees and a rocky surface, and I immediately realized we weren’t alone.
Surrounding the large circular shaped body of emerald green water were women with similar attributes to those who’d found me. They were wild looking with their tangled hair, their tattooed arms, and their suntanned skin. The ages varied—from adolescents to elderly who required assistance with their bodily movements.
There were women skinning animals and removing their bloody body parts for meat and other materials; women working with some type of contraption in the sand, which appeared to be a handmade water filtration system; women sewing leather to construct clothing and shelter; women chopping away at logs of wood; and women working the earth, cultivating and planting a multitude of fruits and vegetables—a society working together to ensure all basic needs were obtainable.
We moved in closer, and I felt several eyes turn my way. These women stood tall, their chests heaved and their shoulders drew back as if preparing to face a potential threat. I didn’t blame them—they didn’t know me, after all. I could have easily been a Norther or even one of the outcasts, as Fisher had explained.
A young girl, maybe in her early twenties, was the first to approach me. She had frizzy, dirty blonde hair that was tied back and a fresh cut across her lower lip. She smiled, and I knew it was genuine. She reached out her hand, as did I, but there was no time for introductions.
She was instantly propelled into the air by a woman twice her size, who I could tell ate enough food to feed an army. She had rolls on her arms, her belly, and her legs. I couldn’t help but wonder why she was so obese while everyone else was so muscular and lean.
“You don’t talk to da newcomers, stupid girl,” she said, her ugly face contorted as she eyed me with disgust from head to toe. She waddled away with such confidence that I couldn’t help but wonder if she was Murk.
Rocket chuckled. “Welcome to paradise.”
There was no Hogwart’s sorting hat.
In fact, there was nothing magical about it at all. She just sat there against the leather of her ruling chair, gazing into me so intently I felt as though I’d be billed for the psychiatric evaluation upon exit.
She smiled, and there was something genuine about it. She didn’t look menacing or mistrustful, yet there was something intimidating about her. She had crystal blue eyes and short silver hair that looked white in comparison to her suntanned face. There was red paint, or blood, smeared across her cheeks, and she wore a necklace made of sharp canine teeth. She leaned back in her chair, then crossed her legs and interlocked her fingers over her knees.
I had been led underneath the large waterfall, through a damp cave that smelled of mould, and into a room illuminated by wall-mounted torches. I’d been told to get on my knees and bow the moment I saw her, and I realized then that the bully I’d run into earlier had not been Murk. This woman was Murk.
“Welcome,” she said.
I was told to stand, and I did so—for what felt like hours—being scrutinized by the leader of the island. I realized the power she had over me. With a click of her fingers, she could have me dragged away from their society and fed to the sharks. It was best to remain silent until asked to speak.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“L—Lydia. Lydia Brone.”
“Why are you here?”
I swallowed hard. I wanted Trim, Rocket, Fisher, Eagle, Biggie, or Flander to speak on my behalf, but the only other person here was Trim who was standing silently at the cavern’s entry point, arms crossed over her chest and eyes focused away from us.
“Well, the government—” I started.
She waved a hand and shook her head.
“I know all about the government. What did you do? What crime?”
“M—murder,” I said.
I shook my head. “It was an accident.”
“I don’t need the details,” she said.
“What did you do?” she asked.
I wasn’t sure what she was referring to. I’d just explained to her what I’d been convicted of.
“Well… I… Um. It was a complicated situation. It all happened really fast.”
She cut me short again with a wave of her hand.
“What was your profession?”
“Oh. Cashier. Local flea market.”
She smirked. I immediately knew that I wouldn’t be of much use to her.
“Are you strong?” she asked.
I knew I wasn’t the toughest of girls, but I needed to sell myself.
“I’m not weak,” I said.
“Ever been in a fight?”
“Does fourth grade count?” I asked.
“Then no,” I said.
I wondered if I should have lied, but there was something about the way her eyes gazed into me that made me want to reveal only truths. If I lied, she would somehow know.
“What about your parents? What do they do?”
“Well, my mom doesn’t work, and my dad… Well, I’m not sure… I haven’t spoken to him in years.”
She nodded slowly.
“My dad worked in a warehouse—when he was around, that is,” I continued.
She shook her head. “That’s fine. What do you like to do for fun?” she asked. “Any hobbies?”
I felt like I was being interviewed for a salary-less job. How many more questions did she have up her sleeve? And how did my hobbies have anything to do with my life as a prisoner on Kormace Island? It wasn’t like I’d be given a flat-screen TV with a cable box that fed off some magical source of electricity. My hobbies really didn’t matter.
I shrugged. “I like to cook.”
“I like to read.”
She was still staring at me, and I knew she was unimpressed.
“I like beading and bracelet-making. I don’t earn money doing it, but they make nice gifts.”
“Look, I’m just the average person. I spend most of my time watching TV, which is obviously something I won’t be doing anytime soon. I have a cat at home, but you know how cats are… pretty independent. I don’t take him to the park. I don’t have many friends or a social life. I’m nothing special—I’m sorry. I know you’d rather have a doctor land on the island, but that’s not me. I don’t have any special talents, but I’m a quick learner, and I’ll try anything.”
I hadn’t meant to ramble for so long, but I couldn’t bare another minute of her analytical gaze. It made me feel not only judged but completely unworthy of living among the other women on this island. She had a way of making me feel comfortable while also completely helpless and in need of her guidance.
“Trim,” she said.
Trim turned her way.
“Have her join the Needlewomen.”
Needlewomen? Who were they? I’d wanted more information, but I knew I wouldn’t receive it. Murk simply smiled and nodded at me as a way of saying good-bye. I met Trim at the entryway, and she led me out through the cavern.
“What’re Needlewomen?” I finally asked her, but she ignored me.
The sound of the waterfall crashing into water grew louder as we approached the exit. I would have had to yell to communicate, so I remained quiet and allowed Trim to lead the way. We slid out through the side of the waterfall, and to my surprise, all eyes were on me—the women working in the open space and around the water stood still, eyes fixed toward the waterfall. What were they looking at?
Trim led me up a crooked path, away from the fall. I realized then that my paranoia was warranted. They were all staring at me—watching me. We finally reached the path’s peak—an elevated surface that sat on a rocky wall. A cliff, almost.
There was an unlit torch jabbed into the earth of the platform. Trim wrapped her fingers around it, almost ceremonially, and threw her fist into the air before shouting over the people, “Brone! Needlewoman!”
There were shouts of anger and resentment and then shouts of joy, but I couldn’t tell which were coming from where. I scanned the crowd in hopes of spotting one of the women I knew, but I couldn’t see them.
I was led back down the cliff, alongside the waterfall and through the crowd of wild women. I received several glares, most of which I could tell were attempts at intimidation.
“This way,” Trim said.
We approached a group of women situated farther away from the body of water in the forest’s cool shade.
“Savia, this is Brone, your new girl.”
There was a woman—Savia, I presumed—sitting against the root of a tree with her head tilted back against its coarse bark. Around her were several women who’d been sewing a variety of items, most of which I could tell were garments, but they all stopped to look at me.
Savia smiled at me. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. She seemed good-hearted, yet I knew no one on this island could be trusted. She had frizzy silver hair tied in a braid at the side of her head and emerald colored eyes. There was a pink, unsightly scar above her right eyebrow that took attention away from her crooked teeth.
“Grab a needle, m’girl,” she said.
I glanced at the woman nearest me. She must have sensed my discomfort, because she threw her head sideways, signaling me to sit beside her. Trim walked away, and I wondered how long it would be until I saw her again. Although Trim and her group of women had basically kidnapped me, I felt as though I’d made new friends only to have them immediately taken away.
“You ever sew before?” Savia asked.
I shook my head.
“Jeena ‘ere will show you,” she said, pointing a loose finger at the woman next to me.
“Hi, Jeena,” I said.
She tried to smile, the corner of her lip twitching, but she didn’t respond or look at me.
“You can talk to her all y’like, but she won’t talk back,” Savia said.
I glanced at Jeena, whose eyes were fixed on the ground. She seemed like a sweet girl—like someone who wouldn’t hurt a fly. She was very petite, light skinned, and frail looking, and all I wanted to do was protect her.
“Got a bad infection in her mouth ’while back,” Savia said. “Had to take out most of ’er teeth and part of ’er tongue.”
Jeena cringed at the sound of her own story.
“I—I’m sorry,” I said.
“That’s what happens when y’only got two medics for several hundred women and when the Northers kill one of ’em off.”
“You only have one doctor?” I asked.
“Medic,” she corrected. “Ain’t no prisoner here a doctor. But we’re lucky enough to have one woman who knows anything and everything about the plants on this island. Knows how to heal the injured and the sick. ’Er sister was our other medic, but she was killed not long ago.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It had never occurred to me that medical care among felons would be completely stripped. We were on our own with nothing more than bare necessities. What would happen if food were to run out? If the last medic were to be killed?
I watched the other women as they punctured holes through thick sheets of leather, cut numerous shapes out of the skin, and stitched pieces together by sewing through the holes they’d made. I’d get the hang of it.
There were several sheets of skin stretched out across what appeared to be giant slingshots. Pieces of wood held the skins at an angle, which I assumed was to allow the sun to dry them out.
“What do you guys make with all this leather?” I asked.
Savia smiled, and I noticed a few of the other women smirk as if I’d just asked the most idiotic of questions.
“Anythin’ and everythin’,” she said. “Women on the island need to survive. We’ve gone back to the native times. We need clothing, water satchels, weapons, footwear, tents…”
Jeena handed me several long pieces of leather. She pointed at it and made a fist-like gesture, but I couldn’t make out what she was trying to tell me.
“Arrows,” Savia intervened.
I stared at her. Was I supposed to make arrows out of flimsy leather?
I felt a tap on my thigh, and I glanced back. The woman sitting beside me pointed at a pile of finely carved arrowheads, and then a pile of smooth pieces of wood with beautiful multicolored feathers attached at the tips. I watched Jeena as she tied the pieces together, her fingernails whitening as she repeatedly wrapped the leather band around both the arrowhead and the stem of wood. When she was finished, there was no telling these two pieces had ever been apart—what she held in her fist was a genuine hunting arrow.
I knew it would take practice. I felt humiliated by my twelfth attempt, still unable to solidly conjoin the two pieces.
“Why’d they give ’er Needlewoman?” I heard one of the women whisper to another.
I glanced up, but what I met was a pair of fearless black eyes beneath uncombed eyebrows. I could tell that confrontation was no alien matter among these savages.
“Got a problem?” she asked.
I shook my head and looked away. I wasn’t the type to talk back to anyone. I’d been raised to respect those around me, to avoid conflict at all costs, and to mind my own business. The woman scoffed, as did the other, and then she said, “Probably here for some stupid shit like drinkin’ and drivin’ and killin’ a family.”
“That’s enough,” Savia intervened.
I didn’t bother to look up. I felt my throat swell at the memory of it. He hadn’t deserved death. Prison—maybe, but not death. I cringed at the image of his lifeless body lying on my mother’s kitchen floor surrounded by a pool of thick blood, his empty eyes staring past me into nothingness. I’d only meant to knock him out. He’d had my mother pinned against the wall, his thick hands around her collapsing throat, and I’d swung the iron pan at the back of his head.
I hadn’t meant to kill him.
I was shaken from my past by a beautiful young woman standing by Savia’s side. She had thick, wavy brown hair tied to the side of her head and dark chocolate eyes shaped like almonds. Her build was strong, but her features were soft. She had a small butterfly tattoo on her right shoulder, and a necklace made of seaweed and seashells. I felt at ease.
“I’m Ellie,” she said, extending a hand. “I’ll be your new peer support worker.”
I rose to my feet and shook her hand.
“We try to maintain a prison’s standard societal structure, even though we’re in the wild.”
A peer worker? I had no objections. I was very welcoming to the idea of having someone show me the ropes.
“Come with me,” she said.
I felt several eyes on me as I walked away from my new post, but I didn’t mind—I was happy to get away from the hostility.
She led me through a narrow path in the trees, away from all of the commotion around the waterfall.
“That,” she said, eying the loud voices and noise behind us, “is the Working Grounds. You’ll be spending most of your time there, working with the leather. Murk sometimes gives us the opportunity to change posts, but don’t count on that. It’s happened twice since I’ve been here, and she only allowed a handful of people to change jobs. Disrupts the expertise otherwise, you know?”
I nodded, even though she was ahead of me and couldn’t see me.
“Hey, Tal,” Ellie said.
I glanced up just in time to step to the side and allow the woman to pass. Her head was shaved on both sides, and she had skull tattoos covering both arms. She eyed me from top to bottom and released a growl-like sound.
“That’s Tal,” Ellie said, smiling back at me.
Was I really supposed to remember all these names? I didn’t bother to look back at the woman. I feared she might attack me if I so much as looked at her.
“She can be a bit scary at first, but she means well,” Ellie said. “Come on.”
The sound of the waterfall had faded behind us, and the jungle’s orchestra returned. Birds chirped in the distance, rustling leaves shook above us, and vegetation crackled underneath us.
“Through here,” Ellie said, sliding her way through a thick curtain of vines.
When I entered the opening, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. An entire village. What caught my attention first and foremost was the seclusion of the Village. Trees and branches had been bent, vines intertwined, and stones compiled around the area to form an enclosure—a barrier around the Village, which appeared to be the size of an average football field.
There were several dozens of tents constructed of wood and leather positioned in an uncalculated fashion across the land. The color of the tents varied due to sun damage—some were beige, others light brown, and the tents closest to the trees were dark mocha. Many women roamed the area freely, some socializing, others keeping to themselves. There was a fire pit at the center, around which a group of women gnawed on cooked meat and pieces of bone.
“Welcome to the Village,” Ellie said, wrapping a warm arm around my shoulder.
I tried to smile to acknowledge her presence, but I was too intrigued by what I was seeing.
At the far back were three huts positioned side by side. These were constructed mostly of wood, with what appeared to be seaweed atop tree branches to form a roof. The one at the center was the largest and most beautiful of the three.
“That’s Murk’s,” Ellie said, watching me eye the hut at the back.
“Who is Murk, anyways?” I finally asked.
Ellie smiled at me, and I could tell she’d been in my shoes before.
“Murk’s what you call the top dog,” she said. “Like wolves in the wild, there’s always an alpha. Murk’s the alpha—the pack leader. And we’re the pack.”
“So she’s the boss,” I said.
Ellie smirked. “I’ll show you your tent.”
She led me to the farthest corner of the Village, past the largest of tents, and we headed for the smallest and shabbiest of them all. Mine was slanted toward the right, and several dozen cobwebs were gathered around the base and underneath the leather flaps.
“Think of this as initiation,” Ellie said. She punched me in the shoulder, but only hard enough to capture my attention. “I know it looks like shit,” she admitted, “but you’re the new kid on the block. Can’t expect luxury.”
I scoffed. “I’m assuming Murk’s hut is considered luxury?”
Ellie smiled, but her eyebrows quickly came together. “I get it, trust me, but no talking about Murk. Got it? She’s a good leader, and if you walk around here disrespecting her, you’ll disappear in no time.”
“I wasn’t disrespecting her—” I tried.
“Check it out,” Ellie said, extending an arm toward the tent.
“Can I clean it off first?”
Ellie tilted her head and cocked an eyebrow.
“You’re living in the jungle now. You’d better get used to bugs and creepy critters.”
“Creepy cr—” I started.
“I’ll lead the way, princess.” She winked back at me.
The moment she pulled on the large hanging front door, something hairy and black fell from above. She didn’t flinch or make a sound. Instead, she reached up and pulled the oversized spider out of her hair. I cringed. It had long stick legs and a round body, and I couldn’t tell whether it was a spider or a tarantula. She held it gently in the palm of her hand.
“Aw, it’s just a baby,” she said.
Just a baby? The thing was the size of a golf ball! I swallowed hard. I wanted to tap the heels of my muddy sneakers together and say aloud, “There’s no place like home,” over and over again.
The thought of cleaning my cat’s litter box suddenly became less repulsive to me, as did the idea of crushing little white spiders in between thick sheets of napkin to remove them from my apartment.
Ellie knelt on one knee and freed the baby monster. I could only pray it wouldn’t find its way back to me.
“It’s a good idea to keep your tent closed when you aren’t around,” she said. She pulled the door to the side and wrapped a piece of rope around it. She did the same thing to the other side, allowing sunlight to enter my new home.
The interior was bare and somewhat cool in comparison to the island’s sticky heat. I stared at the dirt beneath my feet. Where was I supposed to sleep?
“You’ll have to find your own bed and blanket,” Ellie said, eyeing the ground.
“Where am I supposed to find that in a jungle?” I asked.
Ellie ignored me, and I knew I’d just posed a silly question. I would have to make my own comfort with the items I could find. I cringed at the thought of gathering leaves or seaweed—I’d be left vulnerable to oversized bugs.
But the thought didn’t linger. My shoulders jerked forward at the sound of a deep, hollow horn that resonated across the Village. I glanced at Ellie, hoping to be eased and reassured that the sound was no more than an invitation of sorts, but I knew it wasn’t the case because Ellie’s eyes seemed to double in size, and she crouched like frightened prey.
Something was wrong.
She muttered something, but I didn’t understand her. She glanced back at me briefly and placed a finger over her lips, then quickly reached outside of the tent and loosened the door’s straps.
The curtains fell forward with a heavy swing, and we were left in the dark.
The sound of footsteps and voices drifted in from outside. The only thing I saw was Ellie’s silhouette as sunlight broke through several cracks in the tent. I could hear her breathing heavily, and all I wanted to do was ask her what was going on.
I’d been tempted to crawl to the front of the tent—just one glance, that was all I wanted. But that’s when I heard it—a scream like none other I’d heard before. It was the most horrific sound I could have imagined: the sound of excruciating torment…the sound of torture.
Ellie raised a hand over her mouth, almost as if to keep sound from involuntarily spilling out. There were more screams—some were pained, others vengeful. These sounds were the cries of battle.
I couldn’t think. I could only feel adrenaline flooding my body. Everything felt surreal, as if at any moment, I’d awaken from this gruesome nightmare to the sound of my cat purring beside my pillow. This couldn’t be happening.
There was a loud rip-like sound from above, and I immediately felt heat spread across my face and atop my shoulders. My sense of smell was quicker than my eyes, though. I’d smelled the smoke before I knew it was fire. Up above, through a hole in the leather, was an arrow lit on fire, sticking out from one of the tent’s wooden support beams.
“Shit,” Ellie muttered.
She reached for my hand and pulled me toward the front of the tent. She peered through the cracks, and then back at the dancing flames above us that had begun to spread. The heat became unbearable, and the smoke thickened to a dark gray. I couldn’t believe how quickly it was catching.
“We have to run,” she said.
My heart was pounding, and my ears were ringing. I wanted to object, but I couldn’t speak. Nothing came out. She pulled on my hand, tore through the front of the tent, and ran out toward the Village’s outer wall.
I heard an arrow whistle right by me and more voices shouted from afar. I glanced back—something I shouldn’t have done—only to witness a woman running in all directions, lit on fire with several arrows protruding from her body. Several others ran to her aid, attempting to fight the flames with torn pieces of clothing.
Many tents were engulfed with flames; others were punctured by arrows. I heard a few more arrows whistle through the air, followed by shouts of rage. Ellie pulled us against the Village’s barrier, through which I knew we couldn’t pass. It had been woven together so tightly, with little to no space in between the materials. I suddenly realized that the attack was coming from above…from the trees.
She brought us to a corner, where we knelt in an attempt to camouflage ourselves with the surrounding greens and browns. She was still holding onto my hand, squeezing so hard I wondered if my fingers were breaking, but I couldn’t feel anything.
What felt like hours may have lasted mere minutes. I watched as wounded women were dragged away from the center of the Village and into one of the larger wooden cabins at the south end. I could only presume that this was where the medic resided. The shouting had faded, only to be replaced by moans and cries of sorrow and agony. The fires had subsided, and now thick gray smoke hovered above us all. I felt sick to my stomach.
I turned away from Ellie just in time for acid to come pouring out of my mouth—burning my throat raw in the process—before I collapsed.
For a moment, I thought I was being attacked.
“Told you she wasn’t jungle material,” I heard.
I wiped the lukewarm water off my face and away from my eyes, then glanced up. Trim was standing directly in front of me, with a shell-shaped piece of bone I could only assume was meant to be used as a bowl. Behind her were Rocket and Fisher, whose arms were crossed over their chests.
“Well, she’s still alive, isn’t she?” Rocket said, eyeing Fisher.
“Luck,” Fisher said.
I could tell she wasn’t impressed by the way she gazed down at me as if I were nothing more than a rock in her way.
Trim raised a hand, silencing them both instantly, before kneeling down onto one knee in front of me. I suddenly realized that Ellie wasn’t anywhere near me. Trim must have sensed my panic, because she smiled, and said, “She’s at the cabin, helping the injured women.”
“You okay?” she asked.
I wasn’t sure whether to nod or cry. I wasn’t sure what to feel.
“The Northers attacked us,” she said, matter-of-factly.
“W—why?” I asked.
Trim looked away, then shook her head. “That’s just how things are here. We’re at war.”
“Yeah, but they’ve never attacked us in broad daylight!” Rocket shouted.
Trim grimaced and waved a hand behind her head.
“Is anyone hurt?” I asked.
I noticed both Fisher and Rocket’s eyes wander away from mine.
“Do you wear glasses?” Trim asked me, cutting right through the silence.
I shook my head, not quite understanding the relevancy of her question.
“Many women on this island do—did,” she said, “when they were living in the real world.”
“Like me,” Rocket said, attempting to smile. “Your face is a bit blurry from here.”
I didn’t understand why they were talking about glasses when we’d just been brutally attacked by wild women from the north. Why wasn’t anyone devising a battle plan? What if this attack had been a warning of sorts—a precursor of something much worse to come. I wanted to ask, “What’s your point?” but I’d always been taught that if I had nothing nice to say, it was best I keep my damn mouth shut. So, I did.
The stupefied look on my face may have given away my thoughts.
“Look,” Trim said, “Eagle’s been hit, and Murk’s already trying to gather potential archers. She’s the best we had—the best we have,” she corrected.
Rocket refused to make eye contact. I could tell she was hurting, which made me wonder how long she’d known Eagle.
“What are you asking me?” I asked.
“What’s your vision?” Fisher asked, stepping in closer.
“You got twenty-twenty?” Fisher asked.
I hadn’t been to an optometrist in several years. I’d never bothered to go because my vision had never posed any real problems. I’d always been one of the lucky kids in class who was able to sit at the back corner and still make out the many mathematical equations written on the chalkboard by Mr. Adams.
Rocket scoffed. “Lucky… Wish I hadn’t played so many video games growing up.”
Fisher elbowed her. “That ain’t what caused your shit vision,” she said.
“Yeah, it is!”
“Guys, shut up!” Trim hissed. She gazed at me from head to toe, cocked an eyebrow, and extended an open palm. “Come on, Murk wants you assessed.”
Some women were crying; others excitedly mimicked archers shooting at invisible targets across the Village. It was clear that being the object of analysis for the purpose of creating soldiers hadn’t been voluntary.
“There hasn’t been an Assessment like this in years,” I heard.
I glanced behind me to where the voice had come from. There were two women facing each other within the lineup, gabbing away about the history of Kormace Island and the changes brought forth by Murk over the last ten years.
I stood near the back of the line, behind dozens of other women, waiting to enter Murk’s cabin. The Assessment was being performed on an individual basis, which was not only intimidating but also terrifying. I wasn’t ready to be a fighter. I didn’t want to be a fighter. I was perfectly content sewing leather together for the next three years. The only fight I’d ever been in was in fourth grade, and it had been over a boy stealing my peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
I was so involved in my memory of young Steven Poulis, I failed to hear how silent the Village had grown. I peered over one of the women’s shoulders and toward Murk’s cabin which appeared to be attracting many eyes.
Murk had stepped outside, surrounded by Trim, Fisher, Flander, Biggie, and Rocket. There were two other women standing tall on either side of her, who I assumed were her personal guards. She walked forward, and the women around me began to kneel. I followed suit and placed the weight of my body onto one knee.
“Women of Kormace,” Murk shouted. Her chest heaved and her fingers wrapped around a spear. “Today came to us all as a surprise.” She paused for a moment, eyeing each person with such care and empathy that I realized she thought of her people as family. I understood how she’d earned everyone’s respect.
“A beautiful life was taken,” she said, raising her voice as she spoke, “but this was not in vain. Today has shown us how uncivilized and cruel the Northers have become.” She took another step forward and raised her spear. “We will not allow this to happen again!”
There were shouts of angst among the women, but all I felt was fear. Several other spears and weapons were thrown up toward the sky, and I suddenly felt surrounded by animals. Everyone wanted blood.
“We’ve spent years surviving with our divisions of Farmers, Needlewomen, Medics, and Hunters who have also been our Battle Women. But today, this changes.”
Another uproar shook throughout the Village.
“We need more Battle Women to protect our people—to fight for what’s ours and to defend what we’ve worked so hard for.”
I was knocked in the back by one of the islanders who was throwing her fists into the air, shouting nonsense with determination. I wanted to push her back but knew she’d tear me to shreds. All she wanted to do was fight.
“Let the Assessment begin!” Murk said.
I covered my ears to block out the surrounding screams and cries of motivation to murder. How had I managed to be dropped onto a remote island that was in the midst of war? Trim’s crew had been right when they first found me—I wasn’t island material.
I was shoved from side to side a few more times by overbearingly loud women practicing their fighting skills. They were tackling each other to the ground and pulling at limbs and joints, acting like young boys.
“Hey, stranger,” I heard.
It was Ellie. She stood directly behind me with her arms crossed over her chest, a grin stretching her face. Although still upset by the fact that she’d completely abandoned me the moment I lost consciousness, I was happy to see her.
“Sorry about earlier,” she said.
I frowned, but all it did was make her smile grow wider.
“For the record, I slapped you at least a dozen times before I left,” she said.
I rubbed my cheek; it was tender to the touch.
“Thanks for trying,” I said.
“You’re welcome.” She patted me on the arm. “Couldn’t sit by your side all day. I knew you’d wake up eventually.”
“Yeah, well—” I started, even though I had no clue what to say.
“So what’s the deal?” she interrupted. “You’re taking part in the Assessment?”
I cleared my throat. “Guess so.”
“Voluntold, not volunteered?” she asked.
She nodded, eying the competition around me.
“It’s a noble status to have, I guess,” she said, “being a Battle Woman and all.”
I shrugged. I didn’t care about statuses. All I wanted was to live a quiet life for the remainder of my sentence, and if that meant being the Omega of the pack, so be it.
“Is it hard?” I asked.
“Is what hard?” She tilted her head to the side, scrutinizing every inch of me.
“Being a Hunter—a Battle Woman,” I said.
“For you, probably,” she admitted. “No offense.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.
She laughed, even though I’d shown no sign of amusement.
“You aren’t exactly built for battle,” she said.
I couldn’t argue. I’d never been one for sports, let alone any type of physical activity. The only exercise I ever performed on a daily basis was bending over to scoop my cat’s litter box. I’d always been the scrawny kid in class, and in high school gym class, I’d once been used as a bench press weight by one of the guys.
“Don’t be so hard on yourself.” Ellie threw an arm around my shoulders and pulled me in. “Everyone has a purpose.”
I scoffed. I wasn’t buying it.
“Murk’s desperate for Battle Women,” she said, leaning in closer. “Her standards aren’t what they usually are.”
Was this supposed to make me feel better? It definitely didn’t. This was equivalent to offering someone a job not because of their qualifications, but due to an unexpected layoff and an immediate requirement to replace the former employee.
It sounded so official—the Assessment—like something so monumental it could only be experienced through a form of ceremony. But there was no ceremony. In fact, there was nothing special about it at all. I watched as women were brought into Murk’s cabin one at a time, led by two Amazonian-built women on either side. Some women were escorted from Murk’s cabin within mere minutes; others did not return.
Everyone stared as one woman came storming out, cursing and swinging her fists into the air. You could tell she was a fighter by nature. Why hadn’t Murk selected her? What was she really looking for?
“Brone,” I heard.
I swallowed hard. It was finally my turn. I glanced at Ellie, who was leaning against a tree not far from the cabin. The sun had begun to set, casting an orange hue across the Village, and I couldn’t tell whether she was smiling or grimacing at me.
“Your turn,” Trim said. She didn’t smile; nor did she make eye contact.
I walked into Murk’s cabin, holding onto the comforting image of my immediate release. I wasn’t cut out for this. Surely, Murk would come to realize this and demand to have me removed from her presence. But what I saw carried no comfort at all. Murk was sitting on a wooden bench of sorts, sucking on a wooden stick, and exhaling a cloud of gray from the corner of her mouth.
“What’s your vision?” she asked, staring into me as a mother would a disobedient child. She leaned in, placing both elbows onto her parted knees.
I glanced at Trim, but she offered no guidance.
“I’m sorry?” I asked.
“Your sight. What is it?”
For a moment, I was tempted to lie—to say that I was nearsighted and required glasses for clear vision. No one would have known. No one but Trim, that is. I couldn’t trust her to protect me.
“Good,” I admitted.
“Perfect?” Murk asked.
I nodded, even though all I wanted to do was shake my head. I suddenly visualized the woman on fire and the way she’d danced from side to side in an attempt to outrun the flames melting her skin.
She laid her cigar onto the floor, sat up straight, and stared into nothingness. I shot another glance toward Trim, but again, received no indication as to what I was supposed to do.
I watched as Murk’s eyes followed the smoke from her cigar, which curled several times, before drifting to the left. She nodded slowly, before reaching down and pulling the cigar back into her mouth.
“Archer,” she suddenly said, and I thought I might faint.
I felt as though I’d been involuntarily recruited into police foundations. The islanders around me spoke of training and of enhancing one’s survival skills. All I heard was death. We were just a bunch of women who’d been chosen to defend the Village without adequate time to develop the necessary combat skills to fight—we’d been assigned a suicide mission.
Trim led the twelve of us who’d been chosen to the Working Grounds to commence training. I was already so exhausted from the long day I’d had—from being assigned the task of Needlewoman, to the Village falling under attack—that I wasn’t prepared for any of this. My legs burned, and my head throbbed. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d eaten, let alone had anything to drink.
I side-glanced at the woman standing beside me, not wanting to make full eye contact.
“I don’t bite.”
I turned to face her. Her smile revealed a set of brown, rotting teeth and large nostrils which were flared beyond normality. She had the strangest eyes I’d ever seen: dandelion yellow and charcoal gray. They stood out even more in contrast to her dark brown skin. Her hair was cut close to the skin of her head, not quite shaved but not quite long enough to be considered a haircut. She was built thin, with protruding muscles that I knew were not the result of strength, but rather, lack of fat.
“Yeah, I got Archer,” I said.
“Me too.” She smirked as if this title was something to be proud of. “Sunny.”
I glanced up at the sky, which was covered in a thin layer of gray, but when she extended a calloused hand, I realized she hadn’t been talking about the sky.
“I’m Ly—Brone,” I said.
“Pleasure to meet you, Librone,” she said, shaking my hand vigorously.
“Just Brone,” I said.
“You’re new,” she said. It was a statement more than a question. “You’ll get used to it around here.”
I nearly said, ‘I doubt that,’ but she patted me on the arm as a father would his son, then added, “Took me about six months to adjust.”
Six months? It had only been two days, and I was already craving the feeling of warm soap being lathered against my skin; the taste of cold Pepsi against the tip of my tongue on a hot summer day; the sound of club music blasting through my car speakers while I sped on the highway with my windows rolled down. I’d taken so much for granted, not ever realizing how luxurious a life I’d truly had.
“How long have you been here?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Can’t say for sure. Stopped counting after two years.”
“Why two?” I asked.
She shook her head and laughed, but I knew she wasn’t amused.
“I didn’t believe them,” she said. She bit her lip, then scratched her cracked fingernails against the skin of her head. “Thought they were lying.”
“Who? What’re you talking about?” I asked.
Her eyes narrowed on me and then shot from side to side at the other women nearby.
“My sentence,” she whispered, “was s’pposed to be two years.”
I turned away at the smell of her rancid breath.
“What happened?” I asked.
She curled her lips upward, resembling a Rottweiler guarding a junkyard. I could tell the island had made this woman feral. There was an emptiness in her eyes—a lack of morality, of self-awareness, and of empathy. This island had taken from her what had once made her human, and I feared it would do the same to me.
“I’m still here, ain’t I?” she said.
I wasn’t entirely sure what she’d meant by this. Had she committed a second crime? Had she been reconvicted to serve a life sentence? I’d been given three years of isolation on Kormace Island as punishment for my crime, which was rather short in comparison to standard sentences imposed on criminals convicted of murder. My lawyer had fought for manslaughter, but he hadn’t won.
“Fuck sakes, Janet, how many times I gotta tell you to wash my clothes at the end of the week?” Gary said.
He’d found his work clothes sitting at the bottom of a hamper, only to realize it reeked of sweat and old water. Gary, my mother’s boyfriend, was always verbally abusing her. He was a big guy, weighing at least two hundred pounds, with large hands and a thick neck the size of one of my legs. My mother had always told me he’d had a hard life—that he had demons but that deep down, he only meant well. I didn’t believe her. I just wanted her to leave him
I watched as my mother hurriedly gathered his dirty socks and stained shirt, nearly falling over in the process.
“This too,” he said, throwing a pair of booze-stained boxers at her feet.
He walked right past me into the kitchen and opened the fridge door. He reached inside and pulled out a cheap brand of beer. Piece of shit, I thought.
“You know how Gary is,” my mom said, flicking her wrist as if to insinuate that his ways were no worse than that of a child throwing a tantrum. She sipped her red wine, then gazed out through the trees and toward a row of parked cars down below our balcony.
“Mom,” I said, “he’s too much.” But I knew she wouldn’t listen. She was too soft—too capable of looking past one’s worst qualities, only to see the good in them.
She went on and on about how most days, he treated her like a queen. I had a hard time believing this. If only I’d known how terrible things were about to become, I would have tried harder to convince her of the danger he posed.
By the time we went back inside, he’d gotten piss drunk, and he began accusing my mother of all sorts of nonsense. It was difficult to make out what he was saying. She tried to calm him, but it only angered him further.
Everything had happened so fast… He’d suddenly swung an open hand at the side of her face, and I remember thinking she hadn’t survived the blow. She fell to the carpet by the living room’s coffee table, and a thin line of red slid around the curves of her lips.
I hadn’t meant to kill him.
He’d been about to grab her again when I came at him with a cast iron frying pan. I’d only intended to knock him out long enough for the police to show. I raised the pan above my head with both hands, and with all my might, swung directly at the back of his head. I hit him so hard, he collapsed instantly.
“Archers, let’s go.”
I glanced up. It was Trim. She stood directly in front of me with three wooden bows in one hand and a fistful of arrows in the other. The carving work on the bows and arrows was meticulously done—smooth, with barely any unevenness. The bows were shaped like half-moons, and the wood was fresh white.
She led us away from the water and toward the trees, where handmade wooden targets stained in blood hung unevenly. I wasn’t ready for this.
“Is Eagle gonna be okay?” I asked, wanting nothing more than to be dismissed.
She glanced sideways at me, but she didn’t respond. I couldn’t help but wonder how long she’d been on the island. She was so cold—so emotionally impenetrable. I supposed this made her a strong leader.
By my fourth arrow—which flopped down into the sand—it became clear to me that Murk’s expectations were to have women trained into Battle Women overnight.
“Keep your elbow up,” Trim ordered.
Sunny caught on. Her form was good, as was her aim, but she lacked patience and obedience. She’d release the arrow before being ordered to do so, which only enraged Trim.
I turned around to spot two women battling with wooden sticks across the shore of the Working Grounds. One was black and the other white. The black woman had managed to climb atop the other, and she was pressing a wooden spear against her victim’s throat. Her muscles were hard; her back was round. She’d lost control.
“Enough!” Fisher shouted, moving in closer.
The black woman didn’t listen. She pushed down harder, causing the other woman’s face to turn a deep shade of purple.
“I said enough!” Fisher grabbed the black woman by the back of her hair and pulled up hard, but the woman swung backward and punched Fisher in the face, rendering her dazed.
I hadn’t realized how tightly I was holding my bow until Trim pulled it out of my hands. She took one step forward, slid an arrow into the bow, and then raised it to eye level. Her movements had been so quick—so swift.
There was a scream.
Suddenly, the black woman was lying in the sand, crawling backward like a crab on her heels and elbows in an attempt to get away from Trim who was now marching her way. I noticed a trail of red sand grains underneath her as she moved.
Trim stepped down on her chest, causing the woman to collapse instantly. She reached down and tore the protruding arrow out of the woman’s shoulder. I turned away at the sound of her tormented bellowing.
“You know the rules,” Trim said, hunched over the woman who appeared to be begging for her life.
“Trim, please, I didn’t mean it,” the woman pleaded.
Trim pressed her foot down harder, and the woman gasped for air.
“You turn on your own, and you’re no longer one of us.”
“Trim, I won’t survive. I’m begging you!”
Trim turned around to meet the eyes of her audience. There were other women surrounding us; many of them had not been part of the combat training, but their curiosity had lured them to the scene.
Trim stepped toward the observing women with my bow in one hand, her features hardened.
“Let it be known, from this day forward, that this woman has committed treason and is no longer one of us.”
Conversation erupted all around us, and large eyes were glued to the injured woman in the sand. Trim turned her face toward the black woman, and without making direct eye contact, said, “Leave.”
Fisher moved in with several other Battle Women who were prepared to drag her out of the Working Grounds by any means necessary. I caught sight of Flander among these women, her silver hair bright in comparison to the skin tones around her. Although older than most islanders, I could tell she possessed the strength of a dozen women.
I heard the name “Marlin” several times and realized this name belonged to the woman who’d just been banished. I watched as Marlin ran past us toward the jungle’s verdure. She disappeared within moments, leaving nothing but a trail of messy footprints and a pool of dark blood in the sand.
“Let me remind all of you,” Trim said, “of the rules you must obey if you wish to remain one of us.”
Everyone went silent. I stared at the water behind Trim, wondering how such a paradise came to be so intoxicated by the women’s egotistical desires to prove themselves within the island’s hierarchy system.
“This isn’t a prison,” she said. “You aren’t prisoners. There are no walls around you—no cells. The women around you aren’t your cellmates.”
The women exchanged discerning glances.
“If you want to leave—leave. No one’s stopping you. Whether you’ll survive out there is beyond me, but at least the option is yours. Murk has worked for years building our colony to create a civilized space for us to live among each other. If you’re going to act like a prisoner—like an animal—who attempts to prove herself better than others by use of force, then you have no place among our people.”
She tossed the bow into the sand.
“We need each other to survive. If you turn on your own, you’re turning on all of us. Anyone who kills or attempts to kill another fellow convict will be banished to the outside.”
I suddenly felt a nudge, followed by, “What’d I miss?”
It was Rocket. She was standing beside me with her hands on her waist and her eyebrows drawn close together, trying to make sense of what she’d just heard.
“Marlin,” I said, glancing sideways at her. “Trim banished her.”
“Shit,” Rocket said, her piercing green eyes fixed on Trim. “She must’ve done something pretty bad to be sentenced to death.”
The Village was quiet and gloomy. The sky had turned a translucent gray, and a cool breeze ruffled the tree leaves overhead. The name Marlin was brought up again and again throughout the Village, mostly in a sympathetic tone, but also in a fearful one. I watched as people visited the medic’s cabin, entering solemnly and exiting just the same.
I could sense everyone was on edge—terrified that the next attack might be the one to kill them. We were weak and vulnerable, but I’d overheard Trim say that Eagle had injured the attacking archers before being shot, so maybe time was on our side.
I wondered if Marlin stood a better chance than us in the Village. I couldn’t get her face out of my mind. Within days, she’d probably be dead.
And although I didn’t agree with banishing a woman to the outside world—away from civilization and closer to the Northers and wild animals—I understood why Trim had done it. She was a leader among wild women: felons. These women were dangerous, and they possessed the capability to kill one another if order was not established. They needed to fear Murk—to fear the head of their hierarchy system. I’d come to realize that Trim was Murk’s right hand and she enforced Murk’s beliefs and laws.
I was brought to my tent by Rocket after Trim’s speech and told to rest as much as possible. She explained to me that supper was served when the sun descended to the level of the trees or when I heard a brief drumming sound, which was the method used for announcing mealtime on cloudy days.
“We’re lucky,” she said. “Battle Women and Hunters don’t have a portion limit.”
I could only assume this was to allow adequate caloric intake to promote strength and endurance for the purpose of battle and hunting.
“Hey, Rocket?” I asked as she was leaving through the tent’s front curtain.
“What’s the difference between a Battle Woman and a Hunter? Which one am I?”
“A Battle Woman is a soldier, and a Hunter is just that, a hunter—someone who gets food for the Village. Don’t worry about your title—just do what Trim tells you. I’ve always been a Hunter alongside Trim. But things are getting pretty bad now…” she sighed. “So I get to do both.”
“So you’ll fight?” I asked.
“To the death.”
She stared into nothingness, and I could tell part of her was afraid.
“Let me put it this way,” she added, “all Hunters are Battle Women, but not all Battle Women are Hunters.”
“So, what am I?”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“Because you’re being trained as an Archer. Most women are being trained as Battle Women, which doesn’t make them useful during a hunt.”
I nodded. I didn’t want her to leave. I didn’t want to be alone.
“Hey, Brone,” she said, before sliding out of the tent, “if you decide to build yourself a bed, just remember to always have the Village or the Working Grounds in sight. Any further, and you’re no longer on our territory. I’ll see you at mealtime.”
And I was left alone in the dark, the skin of my feet illuminated by a ray of light coming from the hole in the roof of the tent that had been punctured and burned during the attack.
Although I wanted to construct a comfortable sleeping area for myself, I was unable to muster the strength. I slowly leaned to my side, until finally, I lay flat in the damp soil beneath me. I closed my eyes, wanting nothing more than a few minutes of rest after such an oppressively long day. My muscles ached, and my back felt as though I’d spent all day building an ancient pyramid among thousands of slaves.
I breathed in the scent of earth, the freshness of the island beneath me. I could hear women talking and moving about around my tent and throughout the Village, but their voices became faded and indistinct.
“Lydia Brone, I hereby sentence you to three years on Kormace Island,” the judge said. He smacked his gavel hard and made a gesture at the guards.
“Korma—what?” I tried, but the guards moved in quickly.
They looked more like military staff than correctional officers due to their padded black uniforms, their oversized bulletproof vests, and their shaved heads.
“But I didn’t…it was an acc—”
I heard my lawyer shout out the term manslaughter in an attempt to argue with the judge, but it accomplished nothing. Two guards moved in on me, and the most menacing-looking of them snatched me up underneath my arms. I didn’t stand a chance. How was this even happening? I’d heard of the government’s implementation of new criminal punishment, but I’d never actually given it much thought because I never imagined I’d be convicted as a felon. Me? Lydia Brone? Sentenced to three years on a remote island for murder?
For a moment, I thought I’d fallen asleep on my mother’s living room sofa. Everything was dark, and I wondered if perhaps my mother had forgotten to lower the air conditioner as she often did on the nights of hot summer days.
But the smell of earthworms and sea water suddenly brought forth the reality that I was nowhere near home—nowhere near my mother. I hadn’t spent much time thinking about her, having been too distracted by my need to survive among wild women and my unwavering belief that my circumstance was nothing more than a dream.
As I remembered the many nights spent by my mother’s side, watching reality TV and ordering takeout, I began to feel grief. I felt as though I’d lost her forever—the only person who meant anything in my life. Sure, I had some acquaintances, but none of them would have ever taken the time of day to visit me had I been incarcerated behind bars. My mother had attended every court date and meeting with my lawyer.
I remembered the sound of her sobbing at the sight of her only child being dragged away by heavily armed militants after my sentence. She’d sat in the back, tugging at her white pearl necklace as she always did when she was anxious. Not only had I abandoned her, but I’d taken Gary from her, who I knew would be mourned regardless of his abusive tendencies.
What had I done?
I shivered and wrapped my arms around myself. I could hear faint sounds in the distance—waves crashing against the shore and animals lurking nearby, but overall, the entire Village was silent. My stomach growled, and I feared I might wake someone up. Although I was tempted to peek out through the curtain of my tent, I was still too exhausted.
So I closed my eyes and allowed my mind to venture into the depths of my imagination—to a place where I’d never been convicted of murder and where I was free to do as I pleased. I woke up with drool on my face and a stiff body. I wasn’t sure whether my aches were the consequence of an uncomfortable sleeping area or of the stressful events I’d endured the day prior.
I jumped when my tent curtains flew open and Ellie popped inside, seemingly frantic.
“Where’ve you been?” she asked.
I wiped the gooeyness off my face. I must have looked like a complete dirtbag—literally.
“Here,” I said, matter-of-factly.
“What’d you mean, here? I didn’t see you anywhere last night. Didn’t you hear the supper drums? The breakfast drums?”
I shook my head.
“Well you’d better get up,” she urged. “Eat something, because after breakfast, everyone gets to work.”
She cocked an eyebrow at me.
“You didn’t think your sentence would be a getaway, did you?”
“No, not at—” I tried.
“Just get up. I’ll lend you some pearls.”
But she was gone. I looked around my new home, not quite certain what to make of it. It was basically a house made of leather walls and dirt flooring, without any furniture or decorations. At least I had some sunlight, I thought, gazing up at the tear in the tent. The arrow was lying on the ground, its sharp point dug into the dirt.
Welcome to paradise, I thought.
I threw my greasy hair up into a messy bun, suddenly realizing how valuable my hair elastic had become. I’d only had the one tied around my wrist. What would I do if it broke? If it was stolen? Perhaps I’d do as most women did and cut off all my hair.
Another thought crept into my mind. How would I wash my hair? My body? I smelled of sour sweat and rotting water. I slid my tongue across the front of my teeth. My toothbrush, I thought dreamily. God, I missed my life.
I stepped out into the Village, completely devastated by my inability to maintain proper hygiene. Ellie was standing there, waiting for me, with both arms crossed over her chest. Her dark hair was braided to one side, and at the end of the braid was a thin rope tying it all together. That works too, I thought.
“Here,” she said, handing me four small pearls.
I could tell these were natural and not the type you’d find attached to an expensive necklace. They were all mismatched—one was small and metallic blue in color, two were purple and unevenly shaped, and the other three were a gold-like color, all perfectly round, but different sizes.
“What’re these for?” I asked.
She smirked as if she’d just handed me a Christmas gift.
“Consider these Kormace currency.”
Her eyebrows fell flat.
“Moola, Benjamins, cheddar.”
“I get it,” I said, “but what do I need this for?”
She sighed, then turned toward the Village and glared through the morning sun.
“We have a pretty good thing going on,” she said. “You work and you get paid, just like in the real world. You can use your pearls for just about anything—rope, clothing, hygiene products, food.”
“That would be tent number four,” she said, pointing several tents down.
I noticed there were five of them, lined up evenly in front of the Village wall. There were planks of wood jabbed into the earth, with numbers carved into them.
“One is food, two is clothing, three is tools, four is health and hygiene, and five is miscellaneous.”
I knew I wouldn’t remember this, but I’d be able to walk by to peek inside later.
“Everyone here does something,” she said. “What’s the point if you can’t contribute to the community? You’ll meet Joland in tent number four. She’s what you call our pharmacist. She can make anything and everything with natural ingredients.”
“Like soap?” I asked.
“Like soap,” she said, amused.
I stepped forward, prepared to purchase any type of soap available. I’d lather myself in squid guts if it guaranteed my cleanliness.
“You might want to eat first,” Ellie said.
I glanced back.
“Meals are free, but once it’s over, it’s over, so you have to be punctual. Breakfast is at sunrise, and supper’s at sunset.”
“What’s about lunch?”
She scoffed. “This isn’t the Marriott hotel.”
I shifted my attention to the center of the Village, where women were gathered by the dozens, some sitting, others standing while enjoying what appeared to be meat and eggs.
“By the way,” she added, “you’ll get over it.”
“Get over what?”
“That need to be clean all the time.”
I smiled. I’d always been a priss when it came to cleanliness—borderline OCD, even. If my fruit wasn’t washed with soap, I wouldn’t eat it. But I was starving, and at that point, I was prepared to eat an apple covered in a layer of filthy wax. I would have to be less picky when it came to food.
I approached the many women who were gathered around a small fire that danced in a shallow pit. There were large spotted eggshells piled beside it and cookware that appeared to have been constructed from bone.
“What is that?” I asked, eying the oversized bowl of cooked eggs and pieces of meat.
I received several glares, but no one responded. My stomach growled. Several women were hunched over their own bowls, scooping gooey pieces of egg into their mouths with their hands. I analyzed the area. There were no bowls or plates for me to use: no utensils…nothing. How was I supposed to eat?
“Brone!” I heard.
It was Sunny. Although I’d hoped I wouldn’t run into her again, I was happy to see her.
“Sunny,” I said.
“Guys, this is Brone. She’s cool shit.”
Several dark eyes glanced my way. There were a few nods, some hand gestures, but overall, there was still hostility and mistrust.
“You gotta bowl?” she asked.
“Girl, if you wanna eat, you gotta have your own bowl. You can buy one in the Tools tent. You can use mine for now, though.” She handed me what appeared to be a broken piece of skull.
It was of average size with a slight curve all around to form a bowl. It had egg and meat residue inside, and although disgusted by the thought of using someone else’s dirty dish, I was too hungry to refuse. I grabbed it with both hands.
I could feel the hatred around me as Sunny scooped an oversized spoonful of cold eggs and meat bits.
“S’all you get,” I heard.
There was a young Asian girl sitting on the ground with her legs crossed in front of her. She raised an eyebrow when I glanced at her, so I quickly looked away. The other women around her laughed.
“Brone, meet Sumi. Sumi, meet Brone,” Sunny said nonchalantly.
“Pleasure,” Sumi said, although she sounded more disgusted than anything.
“Sumi’s the cook,” Sunny said. “And the portion size she tells us is the portion size we eat.”
“I thought Battle Women—” I tried.
“Trim’s rules,” Sumi said. “You gonna snitch on me?”
I looked at Sumi once more, and she smirked up at me. I could tell that integration into the Village wouldn’t come easily.
I ate my food, forgetting entirely that I was shoveling bacteria from Sunny’s mouth into mine.
“Thank you,” I said, handing the piece of skull back to Sunny. I turned my attention to Sumi, and although I disliked her already, I thanked her for the food. She simply scoffed, and the others followed suit.
I couldn’t believe I’d be spending the next three years of my life with ignorant women like this. I made my way to the tents Ellie had told me about, fuming.
My name had been followed by rapid footsteps behind me.
“Sorry ‘bout that,” Sunny said.
“Here,” she said, placing three pearls into the palm of my hand. I was already holding onto four of them which had been given to me by Ellie.
“Start by getting yourself a pouch—you know, for your pearls.” She tapped the side of her belt, from which hung a leather pouch filled to the point of hardness. “And a belt,” she quickly added, eying my waist.
I stared at the fist-sized pouch dangling at her side. “Aren’t you scared of theft?”
“It’s always a possibility. That’s why you don’t carry it all with you. I bury mine.” She grinned and showed me her fingernails, which were filthy brown in every crevice. I couldn’t believe we’d shared a dish.
I nodded slowly.
She pinched one of the pearls in my hand and stared down at me from behind her bright yellow eyes.
She then pinched the other pearl she’d given me and said, “Bowl.”
She finally grabbed the last pearl, but this time, she smiled.
“Anything you’d like.”
I smiled back, feeling completely awkward and wanting nothing more than for her to remove her germ-encrusted hand from mine.
I thanked her again and continued my path inside the Tools tent. It wasn’t like any store you’d find in the real world—everything was dim, and there was no welcome bell, no “Hello, how are you?” from a tired cashier, no bright florescent lights shining down from above; I was still in the wild.
I received a glance from a butchy woman with thick arms and a protruding belly who sat at the back of the tent atop a wooden box. She was carving something—a knife, maybe. She didn’t speak; she just watched me. A table at the center of the store displayed various handmade items: carved tools, bones, bowls, arrowheads, rope, blocks of wood, elastic-like bands, and boxes constructed of solid wood.
I noticed several small leather pouches in a pile with strings long enough to tie them closed and around one’s waist or belt. I picked one up and rubbed my thumbs against the grainy leather.
“Lookin’ for something?” the woman asked.
“Um, yeah,” I said. “Just a pouch. Oh—and maybe a belt.” I raised the leather to eye level. “How much?”
“How much you got?” she asked.
I hesitated. Did the price really depend on how many pearls I was carrying? What kind of a store was this?
I opened my palm.
“That pouch is six pearls,” she said nonchalantly before turning to her chiseling.
I couldn’t help but feel as though I was being conned, but who was I to argue? I needed the pouch.
I held on to the item and approached the merchant. I’d been about to hand over my pearls when I heard someone walk in.
“Hey, sup, Hammer?” Ellie asked.
The woman grunted.
“You buying something, Brone?”
“Whatcha got there?” she asked me.
I extended the leather pouch, and she pulled it out of my hand.
“Nice,” she said. “How much you charging this time, Ham?”
“Four,” the woman growled.
“You said six,” I said.
Ellie laughed, although I knew she hadn’t found this funny.
“Six pearls? For a flimsy little sack of leather?” she wiggled the pouch in front of Hammer’s face who immediately lost her nonchalant attitude.
“I said four,” she said.
“But you originally asked for six. Is this how you treat newcomers? By ripping them off?”
Hammer didn’t speak, and I suddenly felt very uneasy. I didn’t want to be hated by someone else.
“It’s okay,” I said, “I’ll pay the four.”
“No, you won’t,” Ellie said. “Hammer knows better.”
I could see the fury building behind Hammer’s eyes, but it was evident that Ellie had some kind of leverage over her.
“You need anything else?” Ellie asked me.
I shook my head, even though I’d hoped to get myself a belt. I couldn’t risk being completely despised.
“In that case, you get one pearl,” Ellie said, “and even that’s generous.”
She pulled a pearl out of my palm, dropped it onto Hammer’s lap, then poured my remaining pearls into my new pouch before leading me out of the tent. I hoped I wouldn’t have to return to the Tools tent anytime soon, but that was wishful thinking.
“That was close,” Ellie said, as we walked out into the open.
I wasn’t sure whether to thank her or scold her. I could have handled myself.
“Oh don’t look at me like that,” she said. “You almost got gypped.”
“And now Hammer hates me,” I said.
“What do you care? You’ll always have enemies here on the island, Brone. But if you let them push you around, you’ll become a victim.”
I parted my lips to thank her, suddenly realizing that she was right, but the sound of rapid footsteps caught my attention. They were walking right toward me—Trim and her usual crew. There were about six other women behind them, and the only face I recognized was Sunny’s.
“There’s a drop coming,” Trim said.
She threw a bow into my hands, and I nearly dropped it. Was this a joke? I hadn’t received proper training. I didn’t know how to hit a target. What good would I be with a bow?
And what was a drop, anyways?
If I hadn’t known any better, I’d have assumed we were running from a wild panther. I’d fallen to the back of the line, with Trim and her crew at the front and Sunny and the other women following closely behind.
They hopped and lunged forward over fallen trees, masses of muddy water, and even animal carcasses. It was already hard enough keeping pace; it was even harder with an oversized wooden bow in one hand and a loose pouch filled with pearls. Trim had tied a quiver around my shoulders, and I could feel the arrows bouncing up and down as I ran forward. I feared they might go flying out, but they did no such thing.
I glanced back several times as we ran, praying no one, or nothing, was following us. I could see an opening up ahead, and I realized we’d reached the end of the jungle. Trim stood still, hiding behind several overlapping branches and rotting greenery.
She signaled us to remain quiet, which was hard to do being that I was entirely out of breath. What were we looking for, anyways? I stretched my neck in an attempt to peer over the many shoulders in front of me, but it was useless. The only thing I saw was the ocean: sand, water, and sky.
Trim raised a finger, signaling us once more to remain as still as possible. That’s when I heard it—the blades of a helicopter. But they weren’t getting louder. Rather, the sound was becoming fainter, until finally, I could no longer hear it.
“They’re gone,” Fisher said.
“Where’s the drop, then?” Biggie asked, towering above all of us.
Trim muttered something in anger, but I couldn’t make it out. Were they receiving supplies?
“She must have found her own way,” Flander said.
“Yeah, right,” Rocket said. “Northers probably got to her before us.”
It all made sense to me now. A new felon had been dropped onto Kormace Island, and their hope was to recruit her, as they’d done with me. I couldn’t believe anyone would have found their own way through a wild jungle after such a long swim. I remembered dragging myself onto shore and how utterly exhausted I’d become, almost to the point of absolute incapacity.
“Why don’t we just track her footsteps?” asked one of the other women. She stepped forward, but Trim threw her arm against her chest.
“I give orders, and you obey,” she growled. “This could be a trap.”
The woman stepped back indignantly.
“Let’s go,” Trim ordered.
She walked past us and moved into position to lead. Fisher was by her side as always, with Rocket, Biggie, and Flander close behind. I couldn’t help but wonder how Eagle was doing. No one had spoken her name since she’d been injured. I couldn’t imagine anyone surviving grave injuries on this island. There was no proper medical care.
“Well, that was pointless,” Sunny said.
She smirked at me, clearly attempting to force a smile on my face. But I was too exhausted to feign interest in her comedic ways. How was anyone built for this type of physical exertion? We’d spent the last hour running east to the shoreline of Kormace Island, and now we were expected to simply return to the Village?
I suddenly remembered gym class in ninth grade. Our teacher, who’d also been nicknamed Little John for his unusually large size and his borderline obsessive fascination with Robin Hood, had always been keen on making us do beep tests—a test consisting of continuous running from one point to another, quickening in pace by the sound of a beep being emitted from an old cassette player. I’d hated him for this. I’d never reached past the fourth beep, being the only person left sitting out of the race, alongside Gail, the fattest kid in class.
Trim was basically my gym teacher, only much harsher and more barbaric. If I’d disobeyed Little John, he’d have sent me to the principal’s office. Trim, however, might have my head, or worse, ban me from ever returning to the Village. The latter of the two possibilities was bound to lead to a painful, tortuous death caused by starvation, or more likely, an attack.
I’d simply have to obey.
I hopped over sharp-edged rocks being cleaned by a narrow stream of water. My sneakers had turned a shade of brown, but I was grateful to have them nonetheless. The last thing I wanted to run in were shoes constructed of wood and leather, which appeared to be what everyone else was wearing. Rocket had advised me to remove any real-world pieces of clothing and accessories, explaining to me that the newer I looked, the harder time I’d have integrating within the Village’s society. I’d tossed everything but my sneakers, my bra, and my hair elastic, even though I knew their lifespan was limited.
I suddenly heard a soft whistle followed by a gentle pat on my back. It was Sunny. She’d slowed her pace, and she was moving away from the group and toward a slanted tree in the distance. She held her bow in one hand, and from her quiver, slowly drew an arrow. I knew she’d spotted an animal.
But what was she doing? She’d never hunted before. Trim hadn’t given the order to hunt, either. I couldn’t determine what she was aiming for. All I saw was darkness, surrounded by drooping greenery and shattered rocks.
The string of her bow made a squeaky sound as she pulled hard, preparing to kill her target. But I didn’t see the arrow leave her bow or hear a cry in the distance…
I was suddenly lying flat on my back, my head aching and my vision blurred. I was alone.
I blinked several times to gain clarity, but all I could see was a shape being dragged into the thick of the jungle. I blinked several times again. It was Sunny. I could tell by the frizz atop her head and by the way her scrawny arms dangled on either side of her body. She was being taken away by someone or something. The creature stood as a human but had the face of a black panther with skin hanging all around its edges. A mask?
I tried to cry for help, but nothing came out. I couldn’t move. For a moment, I wondered if perhaps I’d been killed by this half-beast.
“Brone,” I heard, over and over again.
Warmth slowly returned to my extremities, and my sight began to clear.
“Brone, what happened?”
“She’s in shock.”
“Don’t touch her.”
“There’s blood,” I heard. I wasn’t sure whether they were talking about mine or Sunny’s. I had droplets sprinkled across my chest, and the mud around us was stained a deep red.
“What happened?” Trim asked.
She knelt in front of me, her eyes fierce and her breath heavy.
I shook my head. I wanted to vomit.
“Brone, what did you see?” she pressed.
“Someone—something…” I tried.
She rested a hand on my shoulder.
“I think it was a Norther… I think. They took Sunny. I don’t know,” I said, causing an eruption of fear among the new Battle Women.
Her brows came together, and she quickly stood up.
“Did anyone else see anything?” she asked, pacing around everyone.
“I did,” Rocket said, her face hardening, and her eyes meeting mine.
Everyone fell silent.
“That wasn’t a Norther.”
Part 2 coming soon…
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The year is 2087, and the federal government has implemented a new sentence for criminal convictions—banishment to a remote island. When Lydia Brone is wrongly convicted of murder, she is sentenced to three years on Kormace Island. She must forget all she’s ever heard about life in prison and develop the necessary skills to survive in the wild and defend herself against savage enemies—other felons who will fight for their rightful place within the island's hierarchy system by means of violence and sheer brutality.