Scott coughed, hacking up frigid slush that was both salt water and half-digested coffee mixed with bile. Crawling on the beach, sand sticking to his soaking wet clothes, he made his way out of the tide with a woozy head and a blank mind. Looking up, he saw that the beach was dryer the further it got from the ocean, and was littered with large pieces of wood. Shivering in the cold wind and light drizzle still falling over him, Scott fought up to his feet. His arms felt like they were full of lead, numb and heavy. His legs weren’t any better, leaving him to stumble forward towards the closest bit of timber, a tree that had been knocked out and somehow ended up on the beach.
Reaching to his belt, Scott pulled his multi-tool, flipping out a knife so he could prune several small, thin roots from the base of the tree where it lay; taking the dozen or so gathered pieces of dried timber, he began erecting a small fire pit in the sand, with the kindling to serve as a supplemental fire to any larger pieces of wood he could gather from the beach. A general look around told Scott that he could easily gather the required wood. His frigid frame shivered with each gust of wind, pushing the storm away from the mystery island that he’d become stranded on.
Picking across the beach for half an hour, he let out a muted cry of relief when he dug out a sand encrusted piece of flint. Using the worn stone on the rough steel file of Scott’s multi tool, he was able to produce sparks that created a small flame from the wood gathered. Blowing on it and rearranging wooden pieces to better fuel the small flame, he smiled as it began to grow. He stood up and went looking for other pieces of wood.
For the next half-hour, he gathered larger pieces of wood for the growing fire, along with a long stick and several spiky blue-shelled crabs that he easily subdued with strikes from gathered logs. Carrying the stunned crabs by the claws tucked into his belt he dropped into the sand next to the crackling fire, holding his hands out for warmth.
Over the next five minutes the full reality of the situation crashed down upon him. His brother, father, and Marty were most likely dead with the boat submerged beneath the icy waves. Scott’s mother Patricia wouldn’t think to send search parties for a month or so, as Jim was prone to these outings. Likewise Marty had nobody who would report him missing. Would the Alaskan National Guard even be able to find him on this island? How far off course had the boat been blown? Scott didn’t recognize the island at all, and he’d hunted on at least six or seven of the smaller Aleutian Islands.
This island seemed different, the trees all capped with snow with no plumes of smoke coming from anywhere he could see. No signs of human life appeared to be on the island, an untouched paradise.
Scott snorted. “Paradise? This is a frozen Hell for all; no fresh water and no tools other than my knife and lighter, I gotta find a way to make it during fall in the North. Snow should begin falling soon and I don’t want to get caught unprepared.”
He fell silent, listening to the wind howl as it buffeted the tree he was sitting against, the fire protected by the large piece of timber that had somehow made itself out onto the beach. He stared at the downed tree, shivering against the cold wind, wondering what was going to happen. If his father were here he’d call Scott a pussy and tell him to man up! If Kelly were here he’d whine before doing something productive. If Marty were here… Scott tried not to think about what Marty would do as the Algonquin was unpredictable at the best of times. He believed the old stories of how men were warriors and that hunting was man against nature.
Marty would look at this as a challenge to his manhood and tackle the situation head-on. Running a hand over the rough bark of the downed Spruce, Scott noticed that beneath a layer of frost there were indentions in the tree, reaching forward and pulling a burning branch from the fire, he brought it closer to the log, to where the frost would begin to melt so that he could inspect it better.
The fire was growing large by this point, the warmth suffusing through Scott’s soaked clothes, drying them against his skin. He could still feel the grit of silt and sand in his shoes and under his clothes, but at least he wasn’t cold anymore. The branch in his hand cracked in half, the burning portion falling down and landing on the tree with a radiant shower of sparks and burning wood. Scott jumped back, wiping away smoldering embers from his clothes before they could singe, laughing at how ridiculous he must seem.
“Glad Dad wasn’t here to see that,” Scott said before frowning. “I hope he’s okay…”
The burning branch rolled off of the massive trunk and onto the sides, slowly being put out by the running water from the layers of frost that had accumulated on the log. Scott leaned down and brushed aside some built up salt, only to gasp when he realized what he was staring at.
Claw marks. And not like any Scott had ever seen either, these were vertical, with deeper indentions into the wood towards the end facing the ocean, as if it’d been drug from the forest out to the beach. Ignoring the drizzle, Scott stepped away from the fire and walked around the trunk, examining it. Bears would mark their territory by slashing the bark on trees when on their hind legs, stretching out as high as they could reach. That way when other bears came along the markings, they could measure up and see which of the two was bigger.
This led to less bear-on-bear confrontations in the wild and more trails for ambitious hunters to follow. The marks that Scott had seen before were slashed parallel to the ground when the tree was upright, and the trunks were never moved by the bears.
But these marks were more like deep gouges, each groove sinking an inch into the tree, spaced apart perhaps a half inch each. There were some smaller marks near the top of the tree, which had broken apart at one point, maybe used by someone for firewood.
“No,” Scott said to himself, running his hands along the upper portion of the tree. “No clean marks. Whatever happened to this tree caused it to crack in half before something pulled it down to the beach. What it was… maybe Dad would know?”
Feeling lost once more, Scott walked over and slumped down next to the fire, folding his arms over his knees as he soaked in the heat from the flames. The darkness of the night seemed to be pressing in from all directions, pushing against the flickering campfire as best it could with the aid of the freezing drizzle. After an hour, maybe an hour and a half, the drizzle let up as the storm moved further south. Sighing contentedly as he savored the warmth, Scott jumped in surprise when he heard a low howl on the echoing from somewhere on the island.
It wasn’t a wolf’s howl either, that he could tell just by pitch and length. This had more bass to it and was longer, ending in coughing barks that seemed to shake the very needles on the trees. Scott looked up at the moon the half-full orb hanging high in the sky. Taking a moment to locate the North Star, Scott figured that traveling deeper into the forest would be going north or northwest.
“I can’t just sit by a campfire all night,” he groused as he held his boot-clad feet out to dry.
“Whatever that thing was, it sounded hungry, and this doesn’t appear to be a big island.”
Waiting fifteen minutes for his feet to be warm and dry, he stood up and took a log from the fire, holding it as a makeshift torch for him to move about the island and explore a little. Walking along the beach, he chose to stick to the shoreline in hopes of finding some wreckage from the boat or, hopefully, his family.
Between the light of the moon and his flaming log, Scott was able to walk perhaps a mile when he came across a sight that chilled him to the bone.
Nailed to a crooked tree overlooking a small wharf that had seen better days, a sign bearing bold letters written in a thick brushstroke shook rattled in the wind. “No Witchcraft,” Scott read aloud, spinning in place to look around him as if a Witch was going to appear right behind him. “Wonder why that was put up?”
Scott walked over to the wharf, a collection of rotting boards some twenty feet long with long sections of thick, old rope wrapped around one of the posts. A barrel, rotted both inside and out from exposure to the elements, supplied Scott with an oil lantern and four mason jars of oil. Filling the chamber within the glass box, Scott took out his multi-tool and flicked it against a stone a number of times, resting the lantern on the wide post, until he sparked the lantern to life.
And in that moment where the light bloomed out like a cloud roiling across a meadow, Scott saw a face staring back at him from the darkness that made him nearly drop the lantern. And just like that, when he opened his eyes, the face was gone.
“What the fuck was that?” Scott demanded of the darkness, which of course gave no reply.
Stepping off the warped wood of the wharf, Scott held the lantern high up near his head, scanning the area for any sign of life. The only thing that stood out, other than the old wharf, was yet another tree trunk pulled out from the woods like the one he’d sat near when he built his fire. Walking over to it and running his gloved hand into the frost confirmed it: there were deep gouge marks on this trunk as well.
“What the fuck is wrong with this island?” Scott asked aloud, scanning the tree line for any sign of animal life. A small rabbit path split between the trees, leading deeper into the forest. Did Scott really want to wander into the woods at night, alone?
“No,” he said. “I’m going to continue looking for my family. If I survived some of them must have made it as well, and could probably use a bit of warmth right now.”
Walking past the wharf, Scott scanned the beach for any sign of his boat. After some time wandering beneath the stars he nearly tripped over a few pieces of driftwood that matched the color of the deck. Emboldened, Scott held the lantern high and cupped his mouth.
“Hey!” He shouted, hoping that anyone alive would hear his voice. “Dad! Marty! Kelly! Are you there?”
The wind answered him with the tide crashing on the sands as a rebuttal. Listening to the sounds of the ocean off to the side made his blood boil; this stupid trip had cost him his family, maybe even his life! And all for what? Just for a chance at a fleeting opportunity to “prove his manhood” to three other men? To shoot a bear, or some Caribou? What was the point?
Heaving a sigh, Scott let his arms fall to his sides and turned to walk back towards his campfire, his face chilly from the wind. Walking across the long stretch of beach (with no signs of his family anywhere) Scott very nearly missed the log he’d set up near. He only recognized it by the burnt out branch cracked over the log, Waling forward, he looked at his campfire to try and determine what had happened. Squatting down next to the campfire, he poked his fingers into the ashes.
They were wet, as if someone had poured a bucket of water over them.