Milan is just a random person who lives on the other side of the country, who’s being raised in a completely different social class and who I never would have met if not for crashing on this island. And yet it hurts that he rejected me as a person. Why do I feel this immense pain when I look at him? Is this what people mean when they say teenagers blow everything up? I’m sure most adults would laugh at my stupid sadness. Feeling heartbroken while struggling to survive on an unknown island, hah, pathetic. Even I know I would laugh at this irrational feeling of sadness, if not for having all my rationality taken away by the pain.
Even worse, I know Oliver is about to announce something really bad, just by looking at him, and still the sadness I feel for Milan is overpowering my fear. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel fear, don’t get me wrong, a pearl of sweat escapes my pores every time our eyes meet.
When everyone is gathered around the fire and received their food from Casey, mister Grumpy gets up, like he did yesterday. “Listen up everyone. We all had some time to think about the water problem. Matthew and I talked about it… and we’re not changing the plan. Chris, Jason and Henry will have to go.”
With crossed arms, Jason just shakes his head.
“If you don’t want to go, you get half your portion of water. Right now we have four bottles per person, so you’d get two bottles.”
“Why half?” Chris asks.
Oliver smiles. “I thought you’d ask that. You’re getting half because the other half is the reward for being a part of this team. If you decide not to help us, you’re not a part of the team.”
“That makes no sense,” Jason’s girlfriend says.
“We’re being generous, I bet other people in this situation wouldn’t give anything.”
I realise Henry never protested. He said nothing when he was being volunteered to go. Of course, he and his wife had already survived for over a week in the forest, but still that doesn’t have to mean you want to go back.
“How far is this water source?” Jason asks.
It looked like Oliver smiled for a second, probably celebrating his victory, but then his face immediately turns into stone again. “It’s reachable within a day, according to Henry. So you’d have to spend one night in the forest, and then you can come back. Or you have to walk throughout the night, your choice.”
The girlfriend of Jason grabs his hand. “You’re not going, are you?”
“Two bottles of water will last us two days,” he says defeated. “It’s not fair, but I have to.”
Across Chris’ face, there is fear. He knows he has to go as well now.
“You’ll be leaving tomorrow when the sun rises. And now, onto other pressing matters. Food.” Oliver says, and locks his eyes with mine. “You made a fishing rod, didn’t you?”
I feel Kai grabbing my hand tightly as I nod slowly.
“So I want you to fish.”
I frown and for a split second, I look over at Milan. This is the first time when I look over, he doesn’t immediately look away. Instead, he keeps looking at me, his face showing not even recognition. It’s like he doesn’t want to know who I am. “As far as I know, I’ve already been fishing? We ate my fish a few times.”
“But you’re also distracted. I saw you playing with a stick.”
“Oliver,” mom says. “He’s a child. Let him do whatever he wants.”
The man sighs. “Do you not get it, lady? We’re trying to survive! He can be as childish as he wants when we’re back, but now I need all hands on deck.”
“I was carving a cross for grandpa John’s grave.” My voice is suddenly small and squeaky.
“How many rods do you have?” Oliver asks, completely ignoring what I said.
I swallow. “Two.”
“Good. Then Matthew’s kid will fish with you.”
Milan looks up as surprised as do I.
“Start fishing early in the morning, so you can catch as much as possible. If you, for whatever reason, want to continue your stupid cross, make sure someone else takes over your duty. I want that rod in the water all day long, all right?”
Kai’s hand was already squeezing mine, but with the comment about the cross being stupid, he squeezes even harder. I nod again and wait for Oliver to direct his attention to someone else. Then I put my arm around the little boy and pull him towards me.
Milan is looking at me, his face still as emotionless as before. For fuck’s sake, show me something! Show me sadness, anger, disgust, or whatever. Please, anything but this empty face. That dude is too arrogant to even waste emotions on me. I can feel tears well up in my eyes, so I avert my gaze.
Mister Grumpy continues commanding people while we’re trying to swallow the tough food, everyone hoping his attention won’t turn to them. When dinner is over and we all head to our huts, I think we're all happy it’s over with. I liked these get-togethers before, but that was before the creepy man decided he could be our leader. And no one is doing anything about it! Why? I know most people disagree with him. Then why can’t we stand up to him together?
When the three of us are in our hut, mom and I make our bed for the night. “Yo, little bro, let’s go wash our hands,” I say as I straighten the pile of clothes I use as a pillow. I don’t get a response, so I look up, only to see Kai with trembling lips and watery eyes. “Hey, what’s wrong?”
Mom immediately turns around.
“Hey, Kai,” I say and crouch in front of him, my hands on his shoulders. “Why are you crying.” I think I shouldn’t have said that, because immediately the boy really starts crying.
Mom sits down next to me, but she doesn’t say anything, she just takes hold of his hand and rubs it. It’s exactly like she used to do when I or my sister were crying; not talking, but showing us that she’s there for us.
“I… I’m scared,” Kai sobs. “I want mama.”
I can feel myself tearing up as well.
“Oliver is scary, he said mean stuff. I want to go home.” Tears are streaming down his face.
“Hey little brother, listen to me,” I say, my voice cracking. “It’s completely normal to be scared now. I think we all are. But being scared won’t help us, you know?” I feel my mother walking away, which is honestly one of the kindest things she’s ever done to me. And that means a lot, with my mom being the best person in the world. By walking away, she practically tells me she trusts me to help Kai. She trusts me to handle the emotions of another human being. Isn’t that the deepest kind of trust possible?
“It probably sounds silly, but staying strong really is the best thing we can do. We’ve got each other, right?”
The boy nods.
“One day we’ll leave this island, and your parents will be waiting for you.”
He lights up a little. “Really? I’ll see mom again? And dad?”
I smile. “I promise. And after we’re back home again, we’re going to see each other a lot! Our families will become friends and we can have sleepovers whenever we want!”
“Really?!” He’s smiling again, although his eyes are still sad.
He hugs me. “I love you, Ryan.”
Can hearts melt? “I love you too, Kai.”
The next morning everyone gathers around the meeting place to say our goodbyes to the three heroes who will search for water. It’s a loaded moment, especially because Chris’ wife and Jason’s girlfriend are crying. I realise Karen doesn’t look sad, maybe even relieved, despite her husband being one of the people on the verge of heading into the scary darkness.
We’ve been here before. We waved the first expedition goodbye, but that was different. Back then we expected everything to work out, we thought they’d come back, but now we’re fearing for their lives. And our own.
If these three guys don’t make it back, we’ll have serious problems. It’s weird, but I can’t even properly wrap my mind around the gravity of the situation. My thoughts keep wandering off to seemingly stupid things, like the stuff with Milan, or Kai’s well-being; but I’m not stressing out about the possibility of dying here. I think maybe the human brain isn’t capable of grasping it; the not-being.
When they’re gone, I catch Oliver’s stern look shot my way and I immediately know what he’s thinking. I’ve got to start fishing.
The sun has just risen to its highest point in the sky, when I hear footsteps behind me. It’s Milan.
“Do you have my rod?” he asks.
I nod. “It’s over there.”
“Good, Oliver wanted me to fish as well. We need the food.”
I shrug, but I feel a wave of sadness reverberate through my entire body. How can he be so indifferent?
“This one?” He points at the rod.
“Sure.” It’s exhausting to act as non-caring as he does.
Milan nods, takes the rod and hesitates. “So, I’m going to sit here next to you. If you don’t mind?”
Really? “I’m not the one minding anything. It’s you.”
He just nods and sits down. He helps himself to one of the worms I had gathered earlier this morning, which annoys me. I want to point out, I did all the work here, the least he should do is ask before just taking. But I know I'd look like I was making something out of nothing. I bite my tongue and let it slide.
It feels awkward having him here. He’s making me feel as if I’m supposed to hate him, even when I don’t want to. I feel powerless.
After an hour of discomfort, once again there are footsteps. This time it’s Trenton.
“I see you guys are back together again!” he exclaims.
Milan looks up, the expression on his face apparently saying all. Trenton immediately apologizes. “My bad. I thought… never mind.”
I smirk. “Yeah, anyway, you’re off babysitting duty?”
He sits down between us, something he usually was never able to, with Milan and I always sitting so close to each other. “Yep, my sister was freaking out after the stuff that happened yesterday, so mom wanted to stay with her.”
“That sucks. But cool that you have some freedom now. I already miss having a day off now I know I’m forced to fish.”
Trenton laughs. “It’s not like you’d do anything differently, anyway.”
“It’s not that. It’s the feeling of being ordered around. As if I wouldn’t be helping the camp otherwise.”
“You were carving a cross,” Milan mumbles.
Confused as to whether this really is happening, I look up. “Excuse me?”
“You weren’t fishing all day, also working on that cross.”
I’m about to reply, but Trenton stops me. “I think it’s also really important that Kai finds some closure. So working on his grandfather’s grave is a good thing.”
My breathing became a little heavier and the sadness I felt just a second ago gave way to anger. Disgust, even. How dare he suddenly go all Bachmeier on me?
“I never said it wasn’t good,” is Milan’s defence. “I just said it’s not the same as fishing all day. And we need fish for survival.”
“You’re absolutely right,” I say, trying my best to hide the pain in my voice. I want to go away, I don’t ever want to be close to this guy again. What error in my head got me to like him in the first place?
“Guys, let’s keep it nice.”
“We need fish for survival,” I repeat. “But we don't need a bigot to survive.”
“You heard me.”
Trenton puts his hand in the air. “Come on, guys. Ryan, Milan didn’t deserve that.”
I snort. “Sure he didn’t.”
“I’m not… a bigot.” Milan says, this time his voice not so defensive. Instead, for the first time in two days, it sounds vulnerable. I expected this reply and I honestly wanted to use it to get into a fight, but I never expected that vulnerability.
“Then what are you?”
I frown. “You’re still confused? About what? I told you I’m gay, it’s really straightforward.”
“Straightforward,” Trenton echoes, exaggerating ‘straight’; a painful attempt to lift the mood.
“Do you want me to explain what homosexuality is?” Okay, maybe there is some anger interfering with this conversation. But can you blame me?
“Stop it, please, Ryan.” He reels in the line to put another worm on it.
“Stop what? Being gay?”
“Ryan,” Trenton says.
I let a sigh exit my lips. “You hurt me.”
Milan nods. “I know.”
“That’s the worst part. You know it. You knew it.” I forcefully put the rod in Trenton’s hand, get up and walk away, whilst tasting the saltiness of tears running past my mouth. “I hate you!” I say when I know he can still hear me, and run away, not wanting to hear his reply. “This is only teenage stuff,” I whisper when I finally sit down next to the big stone on the beach, near where Milan and I first entered the forest while looking for wood. “It’s stupid.” I watch my tears fall down on the sand, leaving a small muddy pool between my legs.
I know what you’re thinking, Tom. Why would I ever want to go back to someone who hurt my feelings this badly? You can look at it that way, and I think I did at first, but in the end I think the connection you make with someone by having to survive together, is stronger than any grudge can destroy. And honestly, in a way, Milan’s reaction was completely natural, seeing where he’s coming from.
This drama isn’t the only reason I remember this day like it happened yesterday, because after crying another ten minutes with my tear reserve dried up completely, I noticed a movement in the far left corner of my eye. It’s people, walking across the beach in the direction of our camp.
I immediately dry my eyes and crouch behind the big stone, so I can observe them quietly. Yes, it’s really people. Should I go back to tell the others?
They’re pushing something in front of them. Wait… is that? It’s our people! Jan, William, Paul, Elisah and the bachelors. They’re back… with water!