2016 Winner: WHEN THERE WERE FOUR OF US by Ella Osborn
So there I was, half-buried in a mound of something soft and gritty, a briny liquid soaking through my jeans. My head was pounding so hard it blurred my vision and I was swimming in a haze of darkness that I didn’t understand, a darkness that wasn’t just around me but inside of me. I slowly blinked my eyes open, expecting to feel light stab into my head like a white-hot knife.
I felt the pain but the light didn’t come. And then I realized that my vision wasn’t blurred before, it was nonexistent.
I couldn’t see.
I clenched my eyes shut again, willing them to simply be adjusting. Opened them.
I closed them again.
Keeping my eyes glued shut and trying to ignore the fact that my vision wasn’t working, I struggled to a sitting position. It felt like my head was being smashed into a rock repeatedly, and then the pain spread to the rest of my body. I dug my nails into my palm as the pain grew more and more intense until I collapsed once more.
“You alright, mate?” Someone asked. His voice was tick with an accent that I couldn’t quite place. Something nudged me on my left side, the direction his voice came from. His shoe. I tried to answer but it came out as a groan. “I guess not.” He muttered. Then, raising his voice, “Cedar! Paige! I’ve found another wash-up.”
I groaned again as footsteps hit the soft dunes around me. I realized then that I must be on a beach, and the stuff that I was half-buried in was sand. My jeans were sticking uncomfortably to my legs because of the ocean water.
A mere second after I comprehended all of this, I felt six hands grab my arms and pull, hauling me out of the range of the waves. I wished that I could lighten the load, or drag myself up, but movement felt impossible. So I let them drag me.
Finally, I was all the way in hot, dry sand. The others collapsed around me, breathless and panting. From the sound of their breathing I decided that the two others–Cedar and Page, the boy had called them–were both girls. When everyone had regained their breath, the boy introduced himself.
“I’m Scout.” He said, and I could feel that he was sticking out his hand. I fumbled around until I found it and shook. “I don’t remember my actual name, but I was the first one here so that’s what I call myself.”
“I’m Paige, because I came ashore in a boat filled with books.” One of the girls chimed in. I must have looked quizzical, because she added coolly, “I don’t know why so please don’t bother basking.”
“And I’m Cedar.” A girls with a lilting voice said before I could get too confused. Her accent was almost Irish. “Because of my hair, of course.”
“Um…I can’t see your hair.” I said awkwardly, shifting in the sand until I was upright.
“Wait, you’re blind?” Scout asked.
“I don’t know I was, but I guess so.” I answered, hating that I knew I was right. I decided to test again, though, I opened my eyes.
Nothing but pain.
And then I heard the others gasp.
“What?” I asked, closing my eyes, fast. “Come on, what?”
I could only hear the smile in Scout’s voice. “Well, newbie, I believe we’ve got you a name.”
“What is it?”
“I’ve been wanting another fellow around here,” He said. “And you’ve got jet black eyes, mate.” I felt him stick his hand out again. “So welcome to the island, Crow.”
I shook his hand again, just then realizing that I couldn’t remember anything aside from arriving on the island. Not even my real name.
“So none of you remember anything?” I asked, hating that my voice was shaking.
“Not much, no.” Scout answered. “There was nothing but a slip of paper on the island when we got here, with some cryptic old message on it.”
“What does it say?”
“Read it to him, Paige.” Scout said. I heard the girl fumbling through what must have been her satchel until she finally pulled out a crumpled paper. Cedar described the letters as loopy and dripping as if they were written with some kind of fountain pen.
Paige cleared her throat.
“You are the last four of your kind to survive. On this island is one route that leads to escape; freedom, and another that leads only to death. Choose wisely knowing this: one of you must die for the others to survive or you will all die. Decide quickly and be on your way. Good Luck.”
“So we need to find the two entrances.: I said nodding.
“No, mate.” Scout sounded uncomfortable. “We already did. We were just waiting for the fourth arrival…and you just got here. Now all we need to do is choose.”
I sat up so fast mt head spun. “well hurry up, then, take me to them.”
“Look, Crow,” Cedar began. “We decided to choose the one who was going to die right away. We voted, you see.”
I was pretty sure Paige was nodding. “And..and, well, we hadn’t found you yet, so we didn’t know how nice of a guy you’d be…”
I leaned back into the sand, the realization of what I had just learned hitting me harder than one of the icy breakers out in the ocean. “I’m the sacrifice.” I whispered, my voice almost cracking. I caught myself. I didn’t know why, but I wanted to live, even though I wasn’t sure what was waiting for me after the escape. I wasn’t ready to die yet.
The others shifted awkwardly. Silence.
“I’m bloody sorry, mate.” Scout said finally, helping me to my feel. He sounded earnest.
I sighed. Shook my head. Began to walk. “Whatever.” More silence. I cleared my throat and tried to crack a grin. “So, how are we going to do this? Sacrifice style? Do you have to burn me or something?”
They didn’t seem to find this funny. We kept walking for an eternity before Scout stopped.
“No. We’ve arrived at the escape routes. You’re to go down the one we think must be the dangerous one. Shoot.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “I’m so bloody sorry.”
“Which trail is it?” I asked, ignoring him.
Paige came up behind me. “The one on the left. It’s that tiny cave with all the thorns. Here, I’ll guide you to it.” She took me hand and pulled me through the sand dunes until I stood at the mouth of the cave. Swallowing. Hard.
“What does the other look like?” I asked weakly. I at least wanted to know.
“Cedar, you’re better at descriptions.” Paige said. Cedar and Scout joined us.
“It’s not too different,” Cedar began, but I could hear the smile in her voice. “Well, it’s a smidge bigger, with flowers instead of thorns. And a silver gate. With a big silver key so bright it makes you feel like the smallest, dullest thing in the world. But it alsmo makes you feel beautiful. I can’t really explain it.”
I nodded. “Okay, I’m ready now.”
They took turns clapping me on the back, wishing me luck. As if I would need it. I was going to my death, I began to walk.
The thorns clawed at me skin, stinging every part of me like minuscule whips. Blood dripped down from my arms, face, and legs. I bit my lip to keep from crying. I was going to die bravely if I had to die at all. And it was too late to go back.
The journey felt endless, and every step was pure agony. The path grew narrower and the thorns sharper and sharper. Glass lined the ground, stabbing at my feet. I don’t know why I kept going, but I did.
And then, suddenly, the pain stopped. Light cut through my impaired vision and I saw people, cheering. I turned around, looking at the island. I couldn’t see the others. But when I turned back I saw it all projected on an enormous screen. Paige was shouted, Cedar was crying, and Scout was swearing. I knew then that I had taken the path of escape. Someone else was going to die.
“I’ll do it! Let me!” Paige yelled, grabbing onto Scout’s arm. He pulled away, shaking his head.
“No, Paige, you can’t die here. It’s my job to do this. I know that now.”
Cedar, too, begged to be the sacrifice, sobbing even harder. Still, Scout shook his head, refusing.
Then the storm began and I couldn’t hear them anymore. Branches flew through the air. Rain lashed everything without mercy. I heard nothing but screams.
And then Scout threw himself into the other cave.
He screamed. Swore. Went silent.
The storm stopped as quickly as it came.
We stood there, frozen.
The people cheered louder.