Chapter 7 - The Island

My head hurt.

My surroundings were a blur, and I found it hard to stand. My ears were ringing. I felt like there was blood flowing out of them. I tried to lean sideways using my right arm, and I touched my head with my left to check any injuries.

It hurt.

I twisted my hip and noticed that something was lying on my

lower body. No, someone.

And it hurt.

I shook my head a little bit, and gradually, the environment became clearer. I first noticed that everything was blue.

The person dangling limply on my legs was my student—Finlay. His disheveled, smooth, black bangs were complementing the overall shape of his small face that consisted of wide eyelids, broad nose, well-shaped lips, and a firm jaw. I had never been this annoyed with such a handsome face before.

I remembered what happened. All my pure concern with this student turned to a feeling that I neglected for a long time, which I should have accepted all this time. I was enraged, and I badly wanted to shove this disrespectful and ungrateful child away, but then my anger diminished as soon as an automatic cognitive flash pieced the jigsaw pieces of my memory altogether in one bang, replaying in backward what happened.

Chevonne.

I moved Finlay aside and scanned the area. No signs of her. I tried to be on my feet but stumbled pitifully on my knees, and then suddenly tears ran down my cheeks, falling briskly on the sand.

I prayed for her to be safe. I kept on muttering for her to be well and sound: God, help me. If something bad happened to her, please just let it be me. Just let her be alive. Please, let my ability be useful again, even if it’s the last that I’ll be able to use it.

“Josh?”

A god-sent whisper went into my blood-filled ears. The familiarity of the voice made my heart skip a beat and for some reason, I wanted to hug her. Chevonne, standing limply, offered her hand. I grabbed it shyly and gave her a satisfied and full-of-relief smile with my eyes averted downward, poking the sand with my unblinking stare. I hoped she would get the message that I was thankful she was alive.

“Why are you crying?” she asked—her first official question to me ever since she got hired in Arullina. Well, honestly, it was the first time she had spoken to me directly. 

Crying? Why in the name of gods would I cry? I tapped my cheeks—almost freezing to touch—and found out they were damp. Damn, why now? I didn’t want her to see me vulnerable like this. I was supposed to be the one protecting her. I was supposed to be the man. I was supposed to be the one, on all occasions, not crying.

“No. No. It’s the wind. The wind is kind of strong, it makes me tear up. But not really cry. You know, those are two different things,” I awkwardly defended while trying to shove all the tears back in my eyes. I realized the petty attempt I was doing and hid my hands behind my back.

“Is Finlay okay?”

“Oh, yes, Finlay!” I replied. I went straight to the kid and nudged him to wake up. I was thankful to have an excuse in avoiding a conversation with Chevonne about why my stupid eyes were spouting tears of joy. I might have been wrongly doing my job of waking Finlay because she told me to stop and to just let her do it. I gave way and watched her gently cradle the kid in her arms like a mother would do to her baby.

“Are you okay?” she asked as soon as Finlay had slowly opened his eyes.

“Where are we?” Finlay asked, starting to play dumb. I hated admitting it, but there was a tingling sensation within me that I couldn’t just disregard—an urge to punch this kid’s face. I didn’t mean it, but I did mean it in a way. Call me confusing or whatever; all I wanted was just to return this kid home. If not for him, we should still have been on the barge—safe. Why was he even with us? They said to give him an opportunity to change. Excuse me, to what?

I was starting to hate this kid.

“I’m not really quite sure. Try to sit and clear your head first. We’ll try to figure it out a little later,” Chevonne replied truthfully as if reassuring him that he was in good hands. I’d like her to console me that way, too. Maybe I’d try playing the victim whenever I’d see the chance.

Finlay asserted where we were again and again to the point where I finally relented and just examined the surroundings. 

What a tiresome child.

It seemed like we were wasted on a horseshoe, white, sandy shore. The waves were friendly and welcoming, inviting us for a relaxing dip. The water was a marble glistening with reflective shots of sunrays, which gave enough heat—not too hot for sunburns. There was an eccentric feeling that we were like a family having a great time on our beach vacation if not only with our poverty-stricken situation right now; wearing ragged and soggy clothes with few bruises here and there. The weather was so fine that Chevonne and I could have a priceless picnic here while talking about anything under the sun. 

“Haaay,” I sighed as I woke myself from the daydream.

There were lots of strange-looking trees behind us going inland. The trunks of which resembled a coconut tree, but they had some never-seen-before, hairy-like needles. I led myself into one and carefully touched a needle only to find out, in disbelief, that it was as soft as a strand of hair. Other than this, not a peculiar thing could be spotted on the shore—well—except us. We were the peculiarity.

Seemed like we were on an island. We might have already been washed ashore to Bantayan or one of the neighboring islands for all I knew.

Chevonne stood and helped Finlay on his feet.

“I guess we are in some sort of an island,” she finally declared, as if she had just read what exactly was on my mind. Oh, how connected our thoughts were.

“Yes. We are on some sort of an island,” I intuitively restated, regretting it immediately. My lips were like the involuntary muscles you could find in a heart when it comes to English grammar—I couldn’t control it. I had not fully mastered the ropes of it, yet I somehow became judgmental in the process. Why were we so quick in judging things we believed we knew; where in fact, it could show how little we really knew? Lucky for me, she didn’t notice what I had just said. 

Or maybe she just didn’t care that much about me.

“What about the others?” Finlay asked. Just his voice alone had the potential to reignite my anger.

“Maybe they have been washed ashore on the other side of the island,” Chevonne guessed while trying to contact someone on her phone. “There’s no signal.”

“Same,” I confirmed, dangling my phone by the ring holder in front of them before pocketing it, not expecting it to be as useful as it was in the city.

“I guess we should start by asking some locals here.”

“You’re right. That’s the most logical way to do. Finlay, come here, I can give you a piggyback. I know you still find it hard to stand,” I offered despite all the things I felt about him, which surprised me. Maybe it was because I was his teacher and that I was expected to do this and I was responsible, or perhaps I just wanted Chevonne to at least notice how reliable I could be.

“I’m alright, cher. I’m sorry for what I’ve done—”

“Again,”

I finished it for him, making sure that he would get it.

“Ag’n,” Finlay mumbled.

“It’s alright. We understand what you’ve done there. Let bygones be bygones. But if I were you, I’d be more careful,” Chevonne added, noticing that he was about to cry.

Finlay’s face lit up and he nodded vigorously as if all his sins had already been forgiven. He hopped happily toward the thicket, humming a song that I had never heard before. I saw my reaction on Chevonne’s face based on how confused she looked; depicting a message that she also didn’t have an idea as to what he was humming. The kid continued his joyful hop, acting as if nothing happened.

“So, you’re that kind of teacher, huh?” I whispered in an anxious voice, trying my best to be familiar. My eyes couldn’t just focus on hers. My armpits started sweating.

“Well, I might have majored in Science, but we still had some professional education units that dealt with handling students, right? But truth be told, it’s more likely on how I got it from my parents,” she said, flashing her beautiful smile.

I was taken aback for a while, not knowing how to respond. Everything finally seemed okay and safe. I was okay and safe. She was okay and safeI tried my best to muster a reply but only stammered to “uh-huh”.

We followed Finlay in his tracks, not knowing the things that could happen to us on this overly inviting island to the point where it gave me chills and goosebumps.

† † †

I was hungry. And thirsty.

It might have been an hour already since we started walking inland. We came upon several trees and plants that were not familiar not just to me, but also to Chevonne. As she shared about herself during our blissful walk, I got the gist that she was born into a wealthy family. Her parents were both botanists—they even had their own various plant businesses. On top of being a Science teacher, she was also almost familiar with most of the plants found in Cebu. She talked more about plants: I was not familiar with some of them. Nevertheless, I continued listening to her opinions about the island, which I couldn’t afford to complain and argue about since it was almost impossible for me to have a decent conversation with her in the first place, so I just let her express herself and I occasionally gave common gestures as responses. She also mentioned how she would like to have a garden in her room! Imagine having roses and butterflies; now, that would be something interesting. She also kept on emphasizing how she liked to have a bonsai, which I noted. Once we were rescued, I’d surely gift her one. Not the plant, but something that had a romantic sense on it—a poem by Edith Tiempo.

As we went along our tedious search for locals, the forest in which we were currently exploring was undeniably dense, humongous, luminous, and ancient. After a few more minutes of walk, Chevonne finally noticed some familiar plants. In this part of the woods, however, the canopy was dominated with twinkling lights bursting through their crowns, allowing some to scatter on the shrubs to rule the thick layer of leaves below, which made us think it was either noon or past noon already. My cellphone’s time-display was showing ten p.m., which was odd since the sun was still up, giving a barrage of heatwaves, so I came up to a decision not to rely on it anymore. I thought it was because it had gotten wet underwater.

As I had anticipated, it would be useless.

We stomped through damp, thick, knee-length lemon grasses, which gave a warm tingling sensation on my ankles. Coconut-like, stout tree limbs with hairy needles (the ones we saw near the shore) dangled from a rocky wall cliff we had come across, and an array of flowers, which I believed were unique to this region, added more life in the otherwise sorry state of the damp, grassy soil. The aromatic smell of seemed like honey and squashed, green mangoes invaded our noses that relived the hunger we should have been feeling all this time. We came upon a tumult of unfamiliar noises, probably belonging to some prowling animals, which added some tension in the atmosphere of the forest, and were backed by the occasional roar of an unknown animal trying to scare away predators.

It was becoming more unusual as we continued.

I couldn’t keep track of the time, and the walk was not anymore blissful. I knew that my other two companions would get scared the most, and I was the only man here to defend them should an ugly situation arise, which I thought I was not ready yet. We sped up our pace and finally found a small meadow. We collapsed on the warm grass and allowed a few seconds of silence to catch our breath.

This was not the kind of travel or vacation that I wanted.

When Finlay excused himself for a while, we got what he was going to do. He was already far through the thick shrubs when a minute of realization hit me. 

Chevonne and I were alone together. 

It took for another couple of minutes before I finally mustered all my remaining courage to talk to her; hopefully, there was enough. This time, I’d make sure to establish the friendship that was left unaddressed.

Without me knowing, the flow of our conversation became natural in the process. I became more comfortable with her and ignored everything else around me that rendered me to lower my guard down and shared something that I should not have in all circumstances.

My secret.

The conversation ceased after I realized what I had done. I brought my gaze down the now-ugly-looking grass. At first, I thought she would laugh her head off and tell me how absurd I was for thinking such things and for expecting anyone to believe something so. I was even prepared and ready for her to burst into fits of laughter should it come to that, but to my surprise, she just stayed still on her place—maybe trying to assess seriously if what I had said was true. She didn’t say a thing for the following seconds and I was rooted in my place, not daring to move just as you should not when you stepped on a landmine. Then, she finally blurted out something that I least expected out of all responses she could give: “Wow, that’s great.”

Whut?

I had lots of questions in my mind, but first things first—she believed me? Did she just totally believe that I  had the power to think out my thoughts? Yes, I was supposed to be relieved that someone finally believed me, but for so long that no one ever did, it just made me flabbergasted.

I was supposed to say “thank you”, but the words got stuck and couldn’t escape my throat. I had discovered that I shouldn’t say anything if I wanted to save myself from the shame of stammering.

Thankfully, Finlay was done, and he joined us once again.

We walked about another fifty meters, my rough approximation, when we noticed something new in the environment. The trees here were now thicker compared to the trees near the shore. Their color was of a muddy one and the leaves were as big as our faces. Insects were gradually swarming over us, which took us long enough to notice—we thought they were just falling leaves. Finlay casually killed one with both of his hands as if he had done it many times before. We put our heads together and examined the squashed corpse. It was like a mosquito, but not completely. Some features had been added: lots of eyes—fifteen in total; an odd number of legs (six on the right and five on the left); and a pair of antennae that were twice as long as its body. But most shocking of all was the size of it. It was as big as a butterfly. I was surprised that Finlay was not intimidated nor scared by it. Just as we were about to catch a few more insects for comparison, an unusual screech of some sort of an unfamiliar creature caught our attention. Or was it really a creature?

“Wait. Chers, did you hear that?” Finlay started.

“Can’t. Maybe it’s your stomach. Don’t worry, we’ll get some fruits nearby. I’m starting to get hungry, too,” I irritatingly replied. Of course, I heard it. And Chevonne might have heard it, too. I just didn’t like this kind of situation. I didn’t want us to give in our fright to such noises. But the creepiness of it would always get to me.

“No, cher, I heard a cry!”

“Are you sure of it? I bet Josh didn’t hear a thing as well. Right, Josh?” Chevonne lied, sensing that I was a little-bitty-itty-mitty scared. Not really scared, but just a little—like minuscule scared. It was always best to identify the difference.

“Yes, cher! Oh... wait... that one! Heard that? Oh, no, there it is again!”

“Finlay, I’m warning you. We’ll leave you here if you’ll keep doing that,” I reprimanded.

“But, cher! I really heard something!”

“Shh. Let’s try to get closer to that opening there,” Chevonne said and pointed straight ahead. The opening was through a small and thick foliage, enough for two persons to pass through.

We slowed down and tiptoed through the damp grass, now littered with dry twigs and surrounded by much taller coconut-looking trees. Some insects were buzzing off our sides, which overlapped the cry Finlay had heard, making it hard for us to hear. Well, that he and I had heard. Chevonne led the way through the shrubs. Some thorns were prickling our skin, but they were not enough to stop us with our curiosity. I didn’t realize that Finlay had fallen behind me, so I lazily scooped him up and switched our places, which he didn’t complain about. He might have hinted I’d do such a thing.

A rustle above the trees got my attention. I looked up and noticed a slight shadow approaching at a fast rate.

Without a minute of hesitation, I pushed the two of them out of the way, and a large object fell on the place where Chevonne was once standing. She turned around and gawked at the object lying between us.

It was a large coconut fruit. As tall as Finlay.

We examined it by touching its prickly surface, sliding our fingers around. Yes, without a doubt, it was a real coconut fruit. But what was with the size? Where did it come from? And why was it hairy?

I looked up and noticed a lot of these up the crown of the coconut-looking trees. Flickering, puny shadows were blocking more sunlight now, and a sudden gust of wind blew hard. Without the benefit of a doubt, I cried out loud, “Out of the way!”

One by one, fruits started falling that was followed by a succession of thuds on the damp ground. We tried our best to avoid each of them, keeping in sight the terrain that we were trekking. When the last fruit torridly kissed the ground, we congregated around it.

We checked on ourselves first. We were fine and safe.

“Oh, my god, are those real coconut fruits? They’re huge!” Finlay asked while catching his breath. He looked around the newly altered woods.

“Yes. But they’re way too huge. And too hairy,” Chevonne confirmed.

“So, should we—” Finlay turned to her and started doing some funny things with his arms. He gave up and approached me and did the same gestures.

“No, we can’t do that. The shell is too hard, and I don’t have any tools with me to crack those shells open. And... I don’t have that thing you were trying to gesture out which I couldn’t figure. It’s not like we’re having charades here, Finlay.”

He stifled a laugh. “Why not? We won’t know how hard it is to crack open until we, you know, actually try to open it. Besides, we’re all hungry here. And, we’ll be hitting two birds with one stone! We can eat the meat inside and drink the juice as well!” He licked his lips and rubbed his stomach.

“If it’s not that hard, Finlay, it should have already cracked open the moment it fell to the ground. Can’t you see how tall the trees it came from up there? Look, there.” I cupped Finlay’s chin and forced him to look up where I was pointing at. “Imagine if you fell from up there, what do you think would happen to your skull the moment you reached this ground?”

“Josh!” Chevonne scolded. “Don’t talk to him like that, he’s still a child.”

“I’m not a child, cher. I’m big enough for this,” Finlay defended. “Of course, it will crack my head open.”

Wow. Did he just answer that? And crap. I made her mad.

“Wait, cher. Here it is again!” Finlay jumped in excitement and stared at the opening wherein the sound was originating.

“Yeah, right. We can hear it now,” I roughly said, finally admitting it. The sound was not from an animal or any abominable creature at all. It was common but strange in our situation or in the place where we were right now. 

We’d come back here to examine the fruits later once we were done with our current task, which was finding out what the ominous cry was and where it was coming from. But before proceeding, I asked them if they could still hold their hunger. They obviously lied that they could. As much as I wanted to stay and try if the fruits were edible, I couldn’t just easily crack them open without the proper tools, so getting a move on was a better solution.

I was starting to get tired of this. It was driving me nuts. Usually, I wouldn’t think this much because I’d find it draining. It could sap my energy. But because Chevonne was with me, I couldn’t just slack off. I didn’t want to look like a loser in front of her.

When we turned and strode our way through the foliage, Chevonne sprinted to the opening. I caught a glimpse of her expression. She was worried. She was worried for some reason that I badly wanted to know to help her in a way or two. This was my first time seeing her worried. Finlay and I caught up with her in a matter of seconds where she stood shocked, gawking at something. Some branches were obstructing the view, so we needed to move a bit closer to her for us to have a clear vantage point of what she was looking at. My jaw dropped as I processed what I was seeing right now. Surely, Finlay couldn’t also believe it.

“Chers, is this for real?” he asked, dumbfounded.

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