I sit on the deck, smoking my cigarette, listening, knowing that it won’t be long now.
I wonder what it’s going to be like. It’s a sense of wonder that I have never felt before. I wish—only in passing—that I had lived more with this sense of wonder. There is a silence around me that I have never before experienced, not once in my thirty-two years. It is complete, and it is unnatural.
The order to evacuate the city came four days ago, and was quickly followed by an order to evacuate the island—the time lapse was due only to government paperwork, as the only thing on this island is this town. I looked at various websites, and read the various rantings of conspiracy theorists. At first, many of them claimed that the government just wanted the people of the island gone because it would be easier to cover up whatever mishap they had unleashed. Many of them claimed that they were going to take a trip here, see what happened. What happened was, no one would bring them here, but no one cared if they wanted to give it a try themselves. I watched from my third floor apartment as a few boats settled into the harbor, I watched as the visitors stepped onto the island, looked around, and got back onto their boats.
“Whatever it is, you can feel it,” they said on their websites when they returned home. “It’s not nuclear, but it’s something, and it’s bad.” Major media types have stayed away, for the most part. There were news helicopters at first, but there’s only so much footage the viewers need of a small island covered almost entirely by trees.
Maybe they’ll come back after whatever happens, happens, but I doubt it.
The island is called Sand Hill by anyone who wants to call it anything. Most outsiders don’t. Most of the residents—about two thousand, give or take—just call it the island. Non-residents—outsiders—barely even know about the island’s existence.
It’s just a little piece of ground—a sand hill, if you will—down in the Gulf of Mexico, just Southeast of Texas, and not on any map, really. It’s about three miles long and one mile wide, and not really good for anything. It hasn’t been around for long—about fifty years, or so. Nobody even knew about it for a while, and then some Texas oil man was flying around in his helicopter and saw it. He immediately went to work trying to figure out who to buy it from.
The United States Government was more than willing to sell the land to him, as long as he paid his taxes—since they barely even knew it existed, it was just like free money for them.
He imported some trees and other vegetation, and he imported some buildings and he suddenly had the perfect spot for a weekend retreat for business investors. The guy got caught cheating on his wife shortly after that, and he gave her the island as part of the settlement. She was from up north, and didn’t give a damn about some stupid patch of land down in the middle of the Gulf, so she broke up the land and sold out pieces of it for cheap, and pretty soon you had an actual community. It was a small community, but a community nonetheless, and the residents soon realized that it would be more beneficial to live in an actual government-sanctioned town rather than just having plots of tree-covered sand. All of the proper paperwork was filled out and approved, and that’s how Sand Hill came to be.
In the eighties, it was a community of wealthy, coke-snorting, oil-slinging, businessmen-on-the-rise. In the nineties, it was a community of ecstasy-gobbling, dot-com-creating, club-kids-slash-millionaires-in-the-making. And then the world crashed, and it was an island full of people who were so used to serving the wealthy that they barely knew what to do with the sections of land that they could now afford.
Believe it or not, the history of the island is what I think about as I smoke my cigarette. It’s a place that almost seems doomed from the start, I think. Anything with that much potential at the beginning, and anything recognized before it has a chance to form it’s own identity, it never has a chance. Granted, I never would have guessed that the little island of Sand Hill would end quite like this, but I knew it never had a chance. Like the fads that had formed it, it was too much, too fast, and destined for destruction.
I was born on this island, to a father that didn’t really know how to love and a mother who was too scared to try. They were both island people, imported by the original oil man to make the retreat more pleasurable.
My father was a maintenance man, for the most part, keeping the air conditioners running, the water flowing, the electricity functioning in a proper way. When visitors came, he would take them out to the Gulf, under the pretense of fishing for marlin, but mostly so that they could cut loose and get shit-faced drunk with their buddies. He started this job when there were wealthy oil investors flying out to the island by helicopter, and continued through the wealthy computer programmers. Sand Hill is still a good tourist spot, so he continued doing the things he knew: fixing generators, taking other men fishing, living an uneventful life.
My mother was basically a maid. She cleaned the various apartments and condominiums in between visits, made sure the refrigerators were stocked with beer and cold cuts, made sure the pantries were stocked with canned goods and snacks. She met my father early in her life, about the same time she got her job, and continued through alongside him, until there was no more work, and there was entirely too much work.
He was a hard man, angry. It didn’t take much intelligence to realize that he hated having his ego raped by serving men that had better lives than his own. He made sure that their living conditions were optimal, he made sure that they had a nice time while they fished, he made sure that they experienced life in a way that he could only imagine—a week of carefree abandon each year before they went back to their office jobs and fancy city apartments (that’s how he always imagined their homes, was fancy city apartments). After a long day of watching other people enjoy themselves, he would come home, take a shower, and head out to one of the three local bars. He wasn’t an abusive man, but he was an angry man. He would come home from the bar, drunk, and stagger into the bedroom, ignoring whatever was going on in his own home, and fall asleep. He always snored very loud.
She was meek, always wanting everyone to be satisfied, if not happy. She would spend hours each day making sure that visiting guests would be absolutely fine, and then she would come home and try to simulate the effect. You can’t make someone happy if they don’t want to be, though. That’s something it took her a long time to figure out, and in the end, she left without saying a word. She left a note, though: “I tried and I tired. I’m no good to you any longer. I’ll always love you.”
She left the note on the kitchen table, addressed to neither of us. Or both of us, depending on how you looked at it.
I was too much like my father, I suppose: willing to stay in the rut that made up my life, never caring for the adventure of escape. I didn’t care to explore like the other kids I grew up with—I already knew what the island looked like, I didn’t need to go crashing through the woods, imagining some adventure or another. I stayed at home, I built model cars with working engines, I sold them to the tourists. I read encyclopedias, I enjoyed learning, but never cared for fiction.
After my mother left, my father and I lived our dull lives together, never really caring for each other, but enjoying each other’s company enough to live together without incident. He didn’t have to discipline me much because I never had the desire to explore the mystery of trouble, and I didn’t ever rebel against him because there wasn’t really much to rebel against. We were basically non-identities, I suppose, cogs in the machine without names, carrying out our functions in life without comment or complaint.
And that’s how I grew up.
I was twenty years old when he died. He did it the same way he did everything—practical, and without drama. He came home one night, went to bed, and never woke up. Nothing dramatic about it.
There isn’t a cemetery on the island, so I took the ferry to Matagorda, and buried him with a minimal amount of ceremony. He had no other living family, and the few friends he had made on the island were much like him, so the entire affair passed quickly and quietly, just like my father.
I saw my mother there, and we spoke briefly. She was living in Austin, had met a singer of some sort, and was living her life to the fullest, she said. I congratulated her, and we stood in awkward silence for several minutes. She was a stranger to me, even more than before, and I’m sure she had no idea how to relate to me, son or not.
“I’ll always love you,” she told me.
“Okay,” I said. And, because I couldn’t think of anything else to say, “I hope you have a good life.”
She shook her head, smiled a sad smile, and kissed me on the forehead. She wanted to say more, I could tell, but there’s really no way to express love to someone without imagination. How do you connect emotionally with someone who has the empathy of a two-by-four? You can’t. And if you try, you end up walking away feeling like a fool. She told me once that loving men like my father and I was like bragging about wild sex to a nun. I didn’t ever really know what it meant, but I suppose my guess is close enough.
I returned to the island.
I had no interest in fishing, or teaching other men how to fish, so I sold my father’s boat and bought a computer. Despite the dot com business from before, most of the island natives were completely naïve about the internet. They still took the ferry to the mainland every two weeks or so and brought back supplies that they couldn’t get on the island.
I suppose this would be as good of a time as any to list the businesses on Sand Hill. There was the Alley Theatre, the local movie house. The owner was an old roughneck that was basically living out his dream on the island: watching movies all the time. He lived in a studio apartment above the theater, and rented VHS and DVD movies out of the basement. I never saw him without a beer in his hand and a smile on his face. He kidded with me a lot about being the boy who never laughed. We got along fine, even though I never watched movies.
There was Sand Hill grocery, the local grocery store that sold everything with a markup of about two hundred percent.
Larry’s Pizza shack, the only place to get food that you didn’t have to cook yourself. The owner was a guy named Leslie Jenkins, but he always tried to get people to call him Larry. No one ever did.
There were three bars, but none of them really had names. Above each, there was a sign that said “BAR” in bright red neon. The locals always referred to the bars by the current owner, such as, “I’ll meet you over at Jimmy’s bar.” The outsiders always referred to them by street name, “I’ll meet you over at the bar on Third street.”
There were six mechanics that did work on generators, boat engines, and refrigerators. Nobody has a car here, so nobody needs a car mechanic. All six mechanics have their trailer houses set up right on the edge of the island, and they’re the ones that sell you fuel for your boats, generators, or whatever else you might need fuel for: lawnmowers, weed trimmers, that kind of thing.
Then there were the various little tourist attractions—mostly people selling goods and services off of their front porches to whatever sucker walked by.
And there was my general store. This is the little shop I bought after my father’s funeral. I sold all kinds of things to the tourists: swim suits, fishing gear, disposable cameras. Also, the home-made crap that you’re almost forced to buy when you go to an island: decorations made of shells, glass paperweights with little crabs inside, statues made of driftwood, stuff like that.
The other aspect of my business concerned the locals. Like I said, most of them took the ferry across to the mainland to buy supplies. I listened to them complain for years, so my decision to integrate the business of the locals was a simple one. I ordered things online, the locals came into my store and bought them. Anything I didn’t already have, I could order and have within three days. Mind-blowing in it’s simplicity.
And that’s what I did after I grew up.
Maybe it was a stale life, but it was life. I never thought of getting married, although I did bed the occasional tourist or unattached local. I just never had that spark, the one that is supposed to make you feel like you’re finished with your solitary life. I never even came close. No matter how intense the pleasure or the passion, I always wanted to return to my empty apartment, shower, and spend the day by myself, reading off the internet or watching the news.
I don’t have a problem with the world, but it is not for me. I watch it the same way a documentary diver watches a shark—through a cage, wherein I’m safely protected and taking no active part in the shark’s life.
This is why I loved the internet: I was able to study and understand, knowing that I was safe, knowing that there was nothing that could come through the monitor and involve me.
That was what I thought, anyway. Until the day that I saw the bright red tagline: Small TX Island To Be Evacuated, No Explanation Given. I read the article, put out by the fact that I saw the name of my own island mentioned several times. That was the match, I suppose. On the cartoons I watched as a child, there was always a match, and it always touched down on a giant fuse, a fuse that was attached to a massive cannon-ball looking bomb.
The day I read that first article, that was the day the match ignited. And I knew that my world was going to have to explode. I just didn’t know how.
“Whadaya think a tha news, Tanker?” Benny asked me two days later. Benny was a guy that I always thought of as old, but he never really seemed to age. He always talked about being in the war, but he never specified which one. Most of the islanders thought he was nuts, and maybe they were right, maybe he was a little nuts, but it’s hard to look around and see someone who isn’t. He lived in the apartment under mine, and he was a courteous neighbor, give or take a night or two. He drank pretty much all the time, and worked only when he felt like it. An all right guy, in my opinion, but not many islanders shared that opinion.
I stared out into the trees, sipped my beer. “I don’t really know, Benny.”
“Yeah, me either. It’s somethin’, though. I don’t know what, exactly, but it’s definitely somethin’.” He was staring out into the trees, too. He took a drink from his bottle of whiskey without looking away, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and reached into his shirt pocket for his pack of cigarettes. “I ain’t leavin’, though, are you?”
“No.” Benny was scared to leave because this was his home. He was afraid that if he left, he would never find a place where he felt right. He wasn’t loved on the island, but he was accepted. He was as much a part of it as the sand and the trees, the storms and the heat, and the islanders knew this and took the good with the bad, just like you do anywhere you live.
I was scared to leave because I felt this was my last chance to see life, up close and belligerent and real.
“You’re a good kid, Tanker. Always have been. You’d make it somewhere else, you know? You should go.”
Benny had called me Tanker for as long as I could remember, but I wasn’t sure why. I’m sure it was because of something I had done as a child, but I never cared to ask, and he always assumed I knew.
“I’m not going, Benny.”
“Yeah. You always been a quiet guy, you know? Maybe that’s why I liked you when you was a kid—you weren’t runnin’ around yapin’, causin’ trouble. Just a quiet kid, respectful, even when you were around a bum like me.”
I looked over at him, I wanted him to stop talking. It sounded too much like a speech to tie up loose ends. As far as I knew, we were the last two people on the island, and as much as I wanted to see this adventure through to the end, I didn’t particularly want to be left alone on the island.
“We’ll both be around for a while, Benny.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I know. I just…I don’t know.” He looked at the bottle in his hand, and shook his head. “Ah, shit, kid. You know how I get when I’m drinkin’. A sentimental lush, that’s me.”
“What do you think is out there?” I asked him.
“I don’t know. Maybe nothin’.” But that was a lie. There was something out there, and we both knew it. We sat in silence after that, both of us staring out into the trees. I saw something move, a shadow enveloping a shadow, but there was no noise.
“It’s so quiet,” I said, but Benny was asleep. The night was silent except for his heavy breathing, and the occasional movement of branches blowing in the soft breeze. There were no bug sounds, no bird sounds, no animals creeping up into the light to examine the trash cans. The island had been abandoned. Except for me, Benny, and whatever was out there in the dark.
I wasn’t afraid. You have to teach yourself to be afraid, you have to learn from your imagination. I never did. There was something out there, but I didn’t know what it was, and couldn’t conjure an image in my mind of what it might be. It was just a moving shadow, and that didn’t frighten me.
I sat on Benny’s deck, sipping a beer, smoking a cigarette, and wondering what was going to happen next. An imagination is something you have to build, something you have to develop, like a muscle. You can’t live thirty years without exercising it and then expect it to be in tip-top shape. I thought about the moving shadows, and then stopped, because it gave me a headache, and I couldn’t come up with anything.
I leaned back and inhaled the air, sweet with orange scents from the orchard that grew a few miles away, and the honeysuckle that grew along the fence by the sidewalk. I listened to the wind rustling the trees, and the water on the beach.
“Benny?” I stood up, and shook his arm. “Benny.”
“I’m going home. You should go in.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I will.” He sat up, reached into his shirt pocket, and pulled out another cigarette. “I’m gonna smoke another cigarette, then I’ll head in for the night.”
“All right. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I walked through his apartment, out into the concrete hallway, up the stairs, and into my home. I locked the door, even though it wasn’t anything you really had to do on the island. I took a shower and went to bed.
The next morning was gray and rainy, and the thunder woke me up. I climbed out of bed and turned on my coffee pot, but nothing happened. The electricity was out, which happened pretty frequently on the island, especially during storm season. I opened the refrigerator, pulled out a can of Coke and drank it quickly, reading the side of the can in between gulps. I threw it into the cardboard box I use for a trash can and walked down to Benny’s to see how he was doing without his morning coffee. I was about to knock, but decided to try the door first. It was unlocked.
His apartment looked just as it had the night before. I found a cigarette out on the arm of the deck chair that he had been sitting in, and it was unlit. The bottle of whiskey was still beside the chair, without the lid on.
There should have been about fifty dead bugs floating in the whiskey bottle. But there shouldn’t have been. Benny never left his bottles uncovered overnight. He had told me time and again that if you left your liquor bottle uncapped overnight, it was just like throwing it away. He didn’t have many standards in life, but he never wasted his alcohol. No matter how drunk he got, he always remembered to put the cap on his bottle before he passed out.
“You don’t put the lid on, you’ll come out, there’ll be ‘bout a million dead bugs floating around in there,” he used to tell me.
It was odd for me to get a bad feeling from something as trivial as an open bottle of whiskey, but nonetheless, I was uneasy seeing the open bottle and the unlit cigarette, and a tiny part of my mind admitted that I wouldn’t see Benny again.
I tried to ignore it. I went into his kitchen and scribbled a note out on the pad of sticky notes that he always kept by the refrigerator, telling him that I had stopped by, and to come up and get me as soon as he got back.
I stuck the note on the refrigerator handle, where he would be sure to see it, and I went back to my apartment. I spent the day on my deck, waiting for Benny to return from wherever it was that he had gone. I didn’t want to leave, just in case he came by while I was gone, but I knew that he wouldn’t be coming back.
I knew that my behavior was irrational, and I sort of enjoyed it. It felt like a human kind of thing to do. When I was a child, my classmates used to tease me about the way I acted. They called me a robot. I never understood why, not until I waited on my deck for Benny to come staggering up the sidewalk with a bottle of stolen whiskey in his hand, not until I finally realized what it was to feel human. Being logical had always seemed like the right way, because I had never been in a position where instincts and intuitions were more helpful. Emotions had always seemed silly.
Around three in the afternoon, the clouds broke, and air became sticky and wet, the bright sun doing nothing to drive away the humidity. I made myself a ham sandwich and ate it out on the deck, along with a small bag of generic potato chips and a pickle. Sweat dripped into my eyes, and I wiped it away with a paper towel. I saw something move in the trees, and stood up to get a better look.
I hoped it was Benny, but it moved too fast—just a quick blur through the shadows, and I wasn’t sure at first if it was something I had really seen or if it had just been my eyes playing tricks with me. The frequency of the movements convinced me that I was really seeing something, but I still couldn’t tell what I was seeing. Just a dark smudge against the trees.
I went inside and made sure my door was locked.
I sat outside on my porch that night, no longer looking for Benny, but looking for whatever had taken him. The night seemed dead—not only because of the lack of animal sounds, but also the lack of leaves rustling and water lapping on the shore. There was only silence. I cleared my throat, and it sounded like wrong, like screaming in a library or having an orgasm in church.
I folded up my deck chair and went inside.
I woke up knowing that something was wrong. I listened, but heard nothing. I was debating whether I should go back to sleep or investigate when I heard a noise. I knew that this was the sound that had pulled me from sleep. It was at my front door, a slow, soft sound, the “slith” sound that your hand makes if you slide it along a smooth wooden surface. Something was rubbing against my front door. I climbed out of bed, lit a candle, and walked out into the front room as quietly as possible.
I had lived in the same apartment for as long as I could remember; I knew every inch of it. I could tell if a door was opened or closed by feel alone, I could tell if I was going to have to jiggle the toilet handle to get it to stop running as soon as I flushed. I knew every loose board, every creaky hinge, every rattling window. I didn’t make a sound as I walked through the front room to the door. The noise stopped.
I sat down on the floor, and listened. I heard a soft thud out in the parking lot, and then nothing. I sat there for hours, and eventually dozed. When I woke up, the sun was shining in through kitchen window.
I opened the door and looked for clues as to what I had heard the night before, but found nothing.
I showered as quickly as possible, scrubbing fast and hard, my skin aching from the cold water, and then I walked to the hardware store. Not many people on the island had vehicles other than boats, and I was not one of the few that did. I had been behind the wheel of a car once, but it was on a sales floor over in Matagorda, just to see what it felt like. I had never learned to drive.
I threw a large rock through the window of the hardware store, unlocked the door by reaching through, and picked out several boards, a box of screws, and a box of nails. I threw everything into a wheelbarrow, and then pushed it up to the grocery store.
The store smelled like rotten meat, and I got in and out as fast as possible, grabbing mostly canned spaghetti and crackers. I threw it into the wheelbarrow and began my journey back home.
The apartment complex in which I live is tucked away in a nook, surrounded on all sides by a thin layer of trees, so it’s almost like living in the middle of a tiny forest, but within walking distance to the beach. There are a few well-worn walking trails leading from the street to the apartments, and also a dirt road. The road was on the other side of the complex, though, so I rarely used it.
As I walked through the trees, I suddenly became tense. I stopped for a second to listen, but realized that that was a stupid thing to do. If whatever was out there didn’t want to be heard, it wouldn’t be, and I was a sitting duck, standing around. I pushed the wheel barrow faster, careful not to tip it over. And then I felt something brush against the back of my neck.
I have had my share of encounters with creatures during my life: spiders, snakes, vermin—all the creepy things that tend to scare people. I have handled these encounters the same way I handled everything else: with calm logic. The minute I felt the thing touch me, though, I panicked. I screamed, and ran. The only reason I held onto the wheelbarrow was because I was too terrified to release it. If you’ve ever had a bee or wasp or any kind of bug land on you, you know that your first instinct is to brush it away. Whatever it was that touched me, I didn’t even try to brush it away—I didn’t want to touch it at all. I ran, screaming, through the trees, and only released the wheelbarrow when it smashed into the steps and flipped over. I sprinted up the steps, pulling out my keys, unlocked the door, and fell into my apartment. I slammed the door shut and double locked it, then fell to the floor, shivering. I realized that I had vomited down the front of my shirt, and wet my pants.
I wanted to be rational. I wanted to shower, throw my soiled cloths into the trashcan, and continue my self-appointed task, but I couldn’t move. I remained curled in fetal position, crying, wishing that I had left the island.
It was mid-afternoon by the time I got control of myself, and it was almost dusk before I summoned the courage to step outside my apartment again. To be honest, I don’t think it was even courage. The night before, it had seemed like a good idea to cover my windows, to reinforce doors, to secure my apartment against intruders. After being touched by the thing in the forest, building a blockade no longer seemed a precaution, but a necessity.
I ran down the steps, gathered everything I could, carried it back to my apartment. I locked the door as soon as I was inside, and sat on the floor until my hands stopped shaking. Then I did it again.
It took me three trips to get everything into my apartment, and then I started screwing boards across windows. When the battery on my cordless drill died, I began nailing. I decided to secure the front door, too, but before I did, I went down to Benny’s apartment and took the three grenades that he kept on the shelf over his TV.
“A gun’s too easy, you know?” Benny used to say when he was way down the bottle. “You keep a gun around, it gets too tempting. But if you have something like these babies, you can’t off yourself without taking out a bunch of people that didn’t have anything to do with making your life the shit splatter that it is. You have no idea how many times you’ve saved my life, Tanker, just because I don’t want to kill you.”
Liking someone is entirely different than having faith in them, though, so I had to perform a test to make sure the grenades weren’t just decoration, purchased at the ARMY surplus store over in Matagorda for a dollar a piece.
After nailing my front door closed, I went out onto the deck, folded out a chair, and waited. I didn’t have to wait long. I saw the blur out in the shadows, pulled the pin on one of the grenades, and threw it out into the trees.
Although my dad wasn’t much for watching TV, he used to really like the old war movies they showed on TV when there wasn’t anything better to air. In those movies, the hero always had time to make a really long speech of some sort after pulling the pin on the grenade. The one I threw exploded just as it reached the trees, and the noise of the explosion left my ears ringing and gave me an ache in my head, like someone shoving a needle into my brain. But I still heard the squeal. It was high-pitched and it didn’t last long, but I heard it. And it made me grin.
I went to bed that night smelling like smoke and vomit—I had changed my clothes, but I couldn’t bring myself to step into the shower stall and render myself completely vulnerable to whatever was outside—and with the other two grenades right beside me.
I didn’t sleep well. I heard noises all night long, and if I didn’t hear them, I imagined I did. The slith-ing sound started up again around three in the morning, and when I walked out into the front room with my candle, it didn’t stop.
I turned on my laptop and began typing: The island is called Sand Hill by anyone who wants to call it anything.
The sounds stopped around six this morning, and I went out onto the deck. Around eight, I heard a sharp crack, horrible loud, and horrible. When I went in to check it out, I saw that the four-by-fours that I nailed all across my front door had been splintered and cracked. It’s only a matter of time, now.
The blurs are everywhere, and I still can’t make out any definite shapes. Just blurs. Moving. Coming for me.
My internet connection is still working, and I’ve hooked up a “dead-man’s switch” to both the grenades and the SEND button. So basically, if anything happens to me, this message gets sent and this apartment complex gets blown up.
And this is where we came in, I believe.
A bit of “cut, copy, paste” and I’m right back where I started. Only my cigarette is gone, and I just heard my front door crack.
I’m not letting that thing touch me again, I know that. I hear it in the front room, looking for me, and I think it’s time to let go. The pins from the grenades shoot out over the edge of the deck, and I watch them fall in slow motion. They look beautiful, and I wish that I had been a poet. The glass of the patio door breaks behind me, and I hea