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cloud of smoke

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Safe to say, whatever you thought the worst part of senior year was going to be, getting stuck on a deserted island with eight other girls and a mannequin was about the lowest possible thing on your list of terrible scenarios that you had dreamt up.

Every bad moment you had anxiously thought up during your middle of the night panics paled in comparison to the sheer horrors you had found yourself caught up in since the moment you stepped foot onto that plane. Tripping over your own feet or words in front of everybody while discovering the speech you had been recruited to give during assembly had nothing on getting delirious from lack of food and water, watching two other girls die, your skin peeling from constant sun exposure, or any other of the slew of tragedies and horrors you had endured since. When night fell and you were bundled up around camp, you longed for the days of not being able to make eye contact with your crush because one of your well-intentioned friends had let it slip to him that you were harboring feelings for him, just one of many awkward unfinished things you had left at home in order to take part in this retreat you had been recruited for.

Now, lying in your bed in the facility you were being kept in, you had a lot of time to think about things like that. It was so easy to imagine what you might’ve done differently had you not been on that godforsaken plane. Sometimes, it was the only thing you could imagine, a way to fill the significant gaps of time and quiet that pressed in on you from all corners of the dark brown room you sat in, closed off from the support system you had developed in the past fifty-or-so days.

Sure, the food was better, but you were no longer even sure that the helicopter having come in to rescue you was the greatest thing to ever happen anymore. At first, it had seemed like a godsend (perhaps your time with Shelby was rubbing off on you more than you’d care to admit), but between the grueling interview sessions you were ‘strongly encouraged’ to take part in and the fact that you were starting to miss the sound of Leah’s frantic theories, you were wondering if it hadn't been sort of nice to have been on the island in the first place. The promise that you would, eventually, be sent home was about the only thing that kept you going through the endless slog, but you weren’t sure that you were adjusting well to the ‘nothing ever happening’ thing that seemed so foreign to you since leaving the island but was now plaguing you as you did little more than sit on your bed and stare at the wall.

If there was one thing that you should’ve learned by now, it was to be careful of what you wished for.

When the power went out, your heart began thudding in a way that it hadn’t in days. All the survival instincts you had acquired from your time on the island (new traits and habits that were less carefully nourished so much as they were bashed into place roughly with rocks) flooded through your body once more as you sat, listening to the sheer silence. If the quiet had gotten to you before, it had nothing on the sheer silence of the place now, void of the generators that kept this purgatory going.

With careful feet and bated breath, you made your way to the door, pushing your ear against the crack, sucking in a gasp when you heard anxious footfall making its way towards you. You barely stepped back in time for the door to swing open, your eyes adjusting as a gentle flood of light filled the doorframe and illuminated a figure that you were so glad to see you could’ve fallen into a pool of tears in an instant.

“Leah?” Her name fell from your lips at the same time that yours fell from hers, the first smile you had shown in days painful as your healing skin cracked around it. Fatin stepped out from behind her, wrapping her long arms around the two of you as you all whispered bits of “it’s good to see you” and “I was so fucking worried about you.”

“I have no fucking clue what’s happening,” Fatin finally said, voice steady, “but I have a feeling you do.”

Another set of steps echoed through the hallway as you fell back, arms coming up to wipe the tears off your cheek. “Do you also maybe know who they are?”

“Holy shit.” It fell from your lips before you could think, squinting in the dim dark to take in the figure of two boys, looking equally as confused, disheveled, and, if the shorter one’s face was any indication, scared as you currently were.

“Kirin and Henry, if I had to guess.”

“How the fuck did you know that?” “How the fuck do you know our names?”

Your eyes met with the blond’s for a split second as your voices overlapped the other’s, both untrusting and skittish as wild animals.

“Doesn’t matter,” Leah’s voice broke the charged silence, “do you hear that?”

For all the times you had thought about prom, questioned whether you should bother going because it was your one chance to or if you should just skip town that night and go get ice cream with your friends an hour away, you never thought that you would end up in a fucked up ballroom in a facility, disco ball gleaming over head and streamers and balloons hanging off the raftered walls.

You watched as the ball spun, reflecting light onto your quivering body. The previously empty room began to fill as you watched both friends and strangers alike fill the room, sharing hugs and squeezed hands with the girls who you had missed so much and nervous glances and half smiles with the boys who, if you had to guess, had just been through an experience just as harrowing as yours.

The room naturally divided into two as friends drifted towards friends, everyone turning to watch the disembodied voice of a woman talking about revolutionizing the world and otherwise making your skin crawl.

“Look around,” it was saying, “at your partners. You were the promise of a new world, and now, we begin.”

“Jesus,” you broke the silence, hands nervously running over your arms.

Leah was right all along. You were the product of some fucked up experiment, a bunch of kids being used with the same perverted hubris as lab rats stuck in a maze. Stuck in the worst experience of your life for a group of people with too much money at their disposal to prove some fucked up point, and for what? The podium was empty, the ringleader couldn’t even be bothered to show up.

“We have to find her,” Leah was saying, barely audible over the ringing in your ears as blood rushed to your head, “now, right fucking now!”

The next second, you were running, following Leah blindly into the dark of the facility. What more was there to do at this point? You were already fucked beyond the point of no return. Maybe you could’ve come back from having been a survivor of a plane crash, a sort of real-life Lost success story, but to know that you were nothing more than a science experiment? Your life would never be lived normally again, that was for sure. In the first scenario, you could've gotten a tell-all book out of it at the least, but now, you were convinced you were looking at witness protection and a long slew of FBI interviews.

You were fucked, and you weren’t even the survivor of a desert island, because as Leah pushed open the door, it was becoming painfully clear that you hadn’t even left the island that you were on in the first place. The same green expanse stretched out in front of you in all directions, and when Leah started screaming, soundtracked by a song you once loved, you couldn’t help the laugh that fell from your lips.

It was hysterical, nothing more. You had finally realized that the trials you thought were almost over were barely just beginning and there was nothing you could do but laugh and laugh until it turned into a nervous hiccup and then, right on cue, the tears that had brimmed with your cackles turned into legitimate sobs. You were only aware enough to clue into the fact that there were hands grasping at your shoulders, your friends attempting to comfort you and solicit some comfort for themselves as you placed hand on top of hand and squeezed gently, unable to stop the shaking.

It felt like an eternity that you stood up there, unmoving, unable to escape the never-ending waking nightmare you had found yourself in because your family had decided to sign you up for that fucking retreat so that you could have an experience and learn things about yourself, things like how to gain confidence and social skills and how to form trauma-bonds with eight other girls (and now eight other guys) and how to eat nothing but fish and other wildlife without feeling like you were about to die.

If there was a chance that you saw your family again, you would be sure to have a stern talking to with them about sending their daughter off to be in the care of some people they clearly didn’t even take thirty minutes to do an internet deep-dive on.

The wind changed and the group headed back inside, defeated, heads hung. Even Leah seemed to need to take a break from fighting, if just for a little bit.

That was how you all ended up stumbling into the facility’s cafeteria, raiding it for any comfort food you could find (something that wasn’t exactly in short supply around there, as it was one more of their manipulation tactics to ply you with anything you had mentioned longing for on the island, be it your favorite fast food or the cookies you used to eat when you were a kid). You were busying yourself with trying to open an ice cream bar, shaking hands failing to grip onto the slippery blue plastic, forcing you to resort to tearing into it with your teeth.

Just a fucking animal in the jungle, you mused, nibbling at the corner and staring out with unfocused eyes.

When a presence made itself known at your side, you blinked rapidly, taking in the sight of the blond boy you had seen earlier, pointing at the freezer you were leaning against.

“Any more of those in there?”

“Uh, yeah, I think,” you murmured, stepping to the side and watching as he rifled through the stash with a determined look on his face. When he finally pulled out another bar, he made a small whooping noise, tossing the plastic to the side.

“Haven’t had one of these things in forever,” he said between bites, interrupting the doomed silence that you were trying to exist in, “back home it’s like, cheat days weren’t really worth it, you know? Like yeah, you do some extra reps or fuckin’ whatever, but it’s like… you gotta treat your body like a temple, you know?”

You snorted halfheartedly, watching as Leah and the curly-haired boy leaned over the table towards each other and spoke in furtive whispers. “I dunno, man. I just spent fifty days on an island where I ate like a caveman and did manual labor all day, and if I lose whatever ab definition I’ve gained, I think it’ll be for the best. But hey, if keeping a rocking bod helps you feel sane, suit yourself.”

“What, you think my bod’s rocking?”

You rolled your eyes, catching his shit-eating grin in your peripheral vision.

“Are you Henry or Kirin?”


“Leah called you and the kid with glasses Henry and Kirin. Are you Henry or are you Kirin?”

“Kirin,” he stuck his hand out, which you shook with another small snort. “Feeling like you’re avoiding the question.”

“Not even asking me to introduce myself,” you hummed, chewing thoughtfully on the wooden popsicle stick, “seems like chivalry really is dead.”

“Oh, please forgive me, miss…”

You offered your name up with a grin, finally properly turning to face him. His skin was peeling in the same way yours was, reddened and dehydrated by the pulsing sun, and you noticed a cut on his cheek and the same sadness in his eyes that you were sure was in yours. Everybody around you looked so haunted, so visibly beaten down. It made you sad to know you would never get to know who any of these people were before, sad to understand that this was the “after” part that their lives would now be broken up into. Sad to know that people would see the same thing in your eyes when looking at you.

Still, he was grinning, popsicle stick hanging lazily out of his mouth and blond hair flopping forward, and it made you feel like you were halfway to normal. At that moment, it was enough.

“Alright Kirin,” you pushed your body up onto the counter, kicking your legs against the cabinets under, “tell me, how was being stuck on a deserted island with a bunch of strangers for you?”

“Fucking shit, what do you think?”

“Yeah, fair enough.”

An awkward hush fell over the two of you, both looking uncomfortably on as the different groups attempted to mingle with each other. You couldn’t yet put names to the faces of the boys you had found yourself trapped in this hell with, but it was nice to watch people start to open up with one another, watch as they hesitantly shared their snacks and got used to hearing voices other than those that had constantly been inundating them for the past few weeks.

“I just want to be able to go home, you know?” The sound startled you once more, brow creasing as you looked towards where Kirin was standing, arms folded as he surveyed the cafeteria. “Which is so fucked, since everything’s a fucking mess for me back there, but like, shit. I don’t know. I don’t fucking know anymore. You think you’re going back one moment and start getting excited to sleep in your own bed and then you realize you’ve never left the fucking island.”

“I feel that. I mean,” you paused, trying to unscramble the words that felt heavy on your tongue, “all year, all I’ve been wanting is to get the hell out of dodge, to pack all my shit into a car and never look back and call my mom once a week but forget about everything else. Like, I spent so long feeling like… All the bad that’s happened has happened in my hometown, you know? But now I know that wasn’t even half as bad as things actually could be because in the past month-and-a-half I was in a place crash and watched a girl die and wished I was dead half the time and that actually, the prospect of spending the rest of my life in the four walls of my childhood bedroom isn’t nearly as scary as it once seemed.”

Back home, you weren’t interested in being confessional. You kept your cards close to your chest, tried not to reveal more than you had to, but something about relying so fully on the people around you in a way that you never had to before had clearly opened you up enough to say things that you would’ve never admitted out loud to a virtual stranger. Half of your time since the crash felt like you were leaving your jugular bare and begging for people to not bite it, and if there was any room for regret, if there was any moment where you might’ve turned to Kirin and double-guessed anything you were saying, it was quickly quashed as Leah beckoned you over with waving hands.

“Back to the grind, I guess,” you pushed yourself off the counter, tossing your trash into the wastebasket that was set next to the sink. “But hey, always nice to meet a fellow deserted island survivor,” you hoped your smile read as sardonic, but you weren’t sure you had sold it.

Kirin still hadn’t really learned the being vulnerable thing despite his time on the island, so he certainly wasn’t going to delve into his own hometown traumas or, God forbid, his strained relationship with his mother, how he would do anything to hear her on the phone and have her undivided attention but how he wasn’t even sure that getting caught on a deserted island was enough to get that from her. He certainly wasn’t going to tell you, some random girl he had just met, that he wanted to push the conspiracy theories and the escape plans to the side for a little bit so that you could go back to joking around and acting like you weren’t complete strangers who were only standing in the same room because something awful had happened to the both of you. After all, he probably just wanted to talk to you because you were the first girl he had properly talked to since leaving for the retreat, but he couldn’t help the pang that he felt when you walked away and took your seat with Leah.