by Jace Daniel (b. 1969)
The man wakes up, face down on the beach, conscious. The foamy surf creeps up the length of his body to the persistent rhythm of a dying grandfather clock’s pendulum. Struggling to push himself up to his knees, the first thing he feels is thirst.
He stands, taking inventory of his facilities. No broken bones. Good. Sand in his teeth, his lips feel like they’ve been burned off with a blow torch. He looks at his bare feet. Still there. He looks around, squinting. Parking meters line a paved street flowing with lazy traffic. Sunglassed natives on bicycles and skateboards go about their recreational business. Families eat picnic lunches. Groups of young people play games in the sand.
The man walks for a while, parallel to the shore. Finds a public water fountain. Drinks his fill. Continues walking. Before very long, he comes to a pier, towering over the meeting place of sand and sea.
The man finds a dark corner in the shade of the corroded underbelly of the pier. He sits in the sand, contemplating his next move, leveling the sand in front of him with two swipes of his palm. With his index finger, he draws a single vertical line. Day One.
Dusk turns black. Hunger growls. The man ventures out from his makeshift cave into the open night air. Traffic has died down. He searches the trash cans. Finds half a sandwich and four half-eaten spareribs. Good enough. He fills an empty Gatorade bottle with water from the fountain and goes back to the pier. He sleeps.
Not much changes for a few days. The water fountain never runs dry. The trash cans never go empty. The sun rises and sets systematically, unbored with its monotonous routine. Within a week, the man finds an afternoon job at a nearby beach shack that rents surfboards, sailboats, and rafts. Each day he helps the owner clean the vessels. He makes enough money to buy a square lunch once in a while, but buries most of the cash at his spot under the pier.
One morning he wakes up. Several dozen finger-drawn lines lie in the sand before him. He begins counting, stopping at twenty-four. He’s had enough.
With his hands, he digs up the stash of loot he’s hidden. Almost one hundred dollars. Should be plenty. Erasing the lines in the sand with two sweeping kicks, he picks up what’s left of his trash, and leaves his cave. He heads to the snack bar and purchases three sandwiches, wrapping them tightly in napkins. He fills his Gatorade bottle, buys six more, throws everything into a big brown paper bag, and heads over to the rental shack.
Wrapping up a quick conversation with his boss in front of the rental shack, the man hands him a roll of bills. He points to the red raft on the end of the rack. They shake hands. The boss hands him two oars. And a pen.
The man grabs the red raft and drags it to the edge of the water. He puts his belongings in, wading out knee-deep before jumping in and rowing out into the surf. Salt water waves offer resistance. It doesn’t matter. He keeps going, determined. Soon he and his raft are beyond the surf, into deep water. With his back to the sea, he rows, and rows, and rows, all the while watching his pier fade into the distance. Before night falls, the pier is nowhere to be seen. He takes a few gulps of water. Enough for now. He pens a single vertical line on the edge of the raft. Day One.
The world turns. The sun rises and sets, unbored with its monotonous routine. Within a week, the man’s water supply has become dangerously low. Blisters cover his face and hands. And while he’s only had two bites twice a day, he’s now down to half a sandwich.
The raft with eight penned lines drifts as the sun rises for the ninth time. The man wakes up. Gulls circle overhead. A good sign. The man looks west with the sun. And finally, he sees what he’s been looking for. Within striking distance. He picks up an oar and begins to paddle with all that’s left of his might. But to Hell with it. He throws the oar overboard. To Hell with the raft too. He’ll never need it again anyway. The man stands and dives into the sea, abandoning his vessel, and swims the rest of the way to his destination.
To the desert island he’d been cast from.
My brother Luke, who I’ve elected my new unofficial personal editor, proofreader, and concept filter, made a couple comments regarding the last paragraph of this short story. His two cents concerned the tense of the narrative and the sun’s relative orientation to the paddling/rowing activity of our hero.
I spent a few seconds rewording things to clarify all these issues, and quickly decided to just rewrite the whole paragraph and say fuck it. Jump in, the water’s fine.
If you read the old version this weekend, then you hold in your memory a collector’s item. Enjoy it. The new version of the story is tighter as a result of this constructive criticism.