I'd dry-swallowed the last instant coffee days ago, but the thought “Oversleep and he'll eat your brain” gutkicks you awake. No matter how tired you are. Two or three nights with only a couple of hours sleep puts sand in your brain and smothers your joy in life. Six nights like that, and your brain glues shut and your energy dwindles into bovine endurance just this side of death.
I spasmed awake at the first flicker of dawn. When I saw that enough tide remained to leave a ribbon of saltwater between Wednesday and myself, I released my breath and massaged crud from my eyes. Nothing had changed. A hundred-foot rock in the middle of the South Pacific. The shattered plane I slept in. And the dead man, Wednesday.
Only paces behind Wednesday, the island's west end rose in a flattened dome of broken rock. Hundreds of seagulls wheeled overhead, and the rising sun flickered on the waves, but nothing else moved. The sky mirrored the ocean, diffusing the horizon. Traditionally a castaway gets a single coconut tree, but I'd been shorted even that. Robinson Crusoe even got a native to help him live like a civilized man. I'd called mine Man Wednesday, as he was obviously a couple days short of a Man Friday. It had seemed funny, the first day. Everything had seemed funny that first impossible day, but the endless days bludgeoned surrealism into blunt reality.
If I could survive long enough to be rescued, it would be on seagulls and plane wreckage alone.
I forced myself to relax, leaning against a spire of rock and cradling the strut I'd finally pried out of the wreckage. The strut had felt solid and invincible when I'd been pounding and prying and scraping at the bolts holding it to the wing over the past few days. Now it felt too frail to support the hope I had for it. I'd had a much better shaft the first day, solid steel an inch thick and two feet long. I'd tried to crack Wednesday's skull the rest of the way open. He'd raised an arm to block it, and the impact of the bar against his exposed bone was like hitting a light post. The shock had stunned my grip open and I let the shaft bounce deep into the churning water. That was when I realized that if Wednesday came close enough to grab me, I was dead.
The cuts and tears lining my palms and fingers weren't painful compared to how the rest of me felt.
The receding tide had almost erased the moat when a seagull landed on Wednesday's shoulder and tentatively pecked at a tangle of human jerky. Wednesday resisted as much as any other piece of garbage, so the bird sank his beak into a tricep and flapped to tear it free. Rattlesnake-quick, faster than I could follow, a skeletal hand lashed up and seized a wing. The bird screeched and thrashed, but in moments Wednesday had gnawed open its skull and scraped out the runny gray insides with his ragged tongue. I had thought brain-eating zombies were just in the movies, but once again he dropped the hollowheaded carcass at his feet.
When Wednesday finished eating, the tide had fallen enough that he could totter towards me without getting wet, the bones in his right leg skewing around each other with every step. I staggered a wide circle around him, skirting the north edge of the island, then slowed so he could trail only a few yards behind.
The island's west end jaggedly plateaued ten feet or so above the low-tide line, cracked by exposure into a three-dimensional jigsaw with countless handholds and ledges. Kids would love climbing that slope, but six nights of scattered sleep weakened my grip and scratched my vision. Each step was an act of will. The strut clenched in my armpit made me a little more clumsy, but I'd circled this rock every fifteen minutes, eighteen hours a day, for days now, and my hands and feet knew the best route without troubling my exhausted brain. I clambered a few yards across the rock until I hit the spot where two small stone shelves cradled my heels a foot above the crashing water and I could rest my buttocks on the slope.
Wednesday's sunken eyes studied me, then he stumbled into pursuit just as he had every other time. Stump leg flapping uselessly, he dragged himself across the slope with his hands and used the remaining leg as a brace. His fingernails, brown as gnawed tombstones, did not break no matter how fiercely he clawed the stone. He needed almost two minutes to haul himself to within five feet of me. The first day I'd learned that if I got more than twenty feet ahead he circled around the other way, which made his stumpy leg almost useful. If I let him come too close, he'd use those cadaverous teeth on my head.
He never stopped following. Never. No matter how I begged, or screamed, or prayed. Without the twice-daily high tide to put six feet of uncrossable water between us for a couple precious hours of sleep twice a day, I would have been dead a week ago. I'd tried bashing in his head with a steel bar. I'd tried a lasso, and a tripline. I'd rigged the plane's battery and salvaged wire into an electrical trap that would have knocked me out. He couldn't be crushed, he couldn't be tied up, and electric shock hadn't even raised the few ghastly strands of hair left on his head. I was down to sticks and stones – and on this rock, I had to provide my own stick.
Halfway around the island, instead of resting, I threw the strut on top of the rock and pulled myself up after it. Usually I'd follow the easier route near the water, but this turgid chase would end today. It had to end today. I didn't have the strength to try anything else.
Fractures and crevices covered the summit, and I quickly wedged my strut into the crack I'd selected days ago. With Wednesday out of sight I only wanted to rest, but I leaned into the lever instead. Cadaverous hands clenched the edge as I felt the crevice groan, and a rock about my size might have shifted underfoot. I caught two deep desperate breaths before Wednesday's head appeared. Once he started hauling himself up, I dropped down the other side.
I veered from the loop to snatch the decapitated seagull. If I didn't have a zombie after me I could catch my own seagulls, but until then I'd live on Wednesday's leavings. For the last three days, I'd used these most of these precious minutes to pound and scrape at the bolts holding the strut in place; a few moments to simply breathe felt almost like a vacation. My hands plucked as I waited, spiny feathers inflaming my savaged hands.
When Wednesday shambled into view around the rock I took a deep breath, waiting for him to come close enough that I could trot around him and make him scuttle all the way back to the rock, treasuring every minute I could to try to rest.
First trip of the day, finished. Dozens more to go.
On the sixth circuit I finished plucking and used my pocketknife's last remaining blade to scrape out the bowels, then spread the carcass on the wreck's south wing for what cooking the sun provided. My mouth tightened at the thought of an evening spent perched on the wrecked plane devouring that juicy pink flesh, only faintly grilled by the sun-heated wing, watching Wednesday shuffle back and forth, frustrated by six feet of thigh-deep salt water. Seagull and a couple pints of collected rain water would hold me together for another day.
Then I went back to heaving at the rock. My head spun and my guts burned, but I pushed for a panicked few moments every time we circled the rock. My twelfth session, the rock creaked and left a finger-wide gap behind it. I left the remaining skin from my right knee behind in payment, stumbling and swearing until the sting stopped.
A brief rain shower interrupted me on my twenty-second trip around the rock. Wednesday kept after me, but with the slope too slippery to ascend I contented myself with following the easier path around the shoreline, soaking up water in my shirt and licking it from crevices in the rock. I lost track of how many times we went around before the rain stopped, the sun dried the rocks, and I could climb back up again.
During my twenty-ninth stint at the prybar, the rock shifted far enough that I could thrust a fist into the gap. Finally, on the thirty-first circuit, the boulder groaned and lurched free, shifting a vital few degrees towards the edge. I held my breath, afraid a scream of hope and frustration and would drive the rock over the edge and into the water. When the rock balanced and held still, my laugh sounded more like a harsh croak. For once, I felt like telling Wednesday to hurry up.
The next pass around I took the lower, easier path rather than climbing to the summit. That route had the best resting spot, a smooth patch some three feet wide with a gentle pitch towards the ocean. My boulder now loomed over it. I jammed my abused hands flat against my legs to force my fingers straight, grimacing, waiting.
Wednesday dragged along my trail, the stump of his right leg flailing uselessly over the water. His hip scraped with each lurch. Five feet away, the grind of dead flesh against rock drowned out the ocean's constant splash, and I smothered an urge to bolt. I'd never let Wednesday come this close before, but I needed his feet on the very spot I stood. A bright slice of blue ocean shone through his cracked skull and out his mouth.
One bony hand gripped an outcropping a foot from my head and I leaped, seizing a ledge beside the loosened boulder and blowing out air as I dragged myself up. I imagined those withered claws snatching my legs, and I kicked frantically as I clawed and jackknifed my weight, not even slowing as my fingernails ripped from their beds. Wednesday's hands scuttled below as I knelt beside my teetering rock, only a few feet above him. In less than a minute he'd find a way up, or decide to go around. I wedged the strut tightly against the rock and heaved.
The boulder groaned against its parent rock, immobile. I suddenly thought that I'd been wrong, that this chunk of rock was actually the tip of a spire rooted deep below, it wasn't actually detached and I was trying to split raw stone with my puny lever. I pulled even harder. Wednesday shuffled back and forth underneath, almost ready to circle around to an easier slope.
The boulder shifted a foot, and the strut screeched into a curve. I threw my feet against the freshly-exposed stone, braced my back against another rock, and straightened my legs. The boulder lurched away from the plateau and balanced, wobbling, as if considering falling back towards me. With a wordless snarl I shoved harder. I tasted thick blood, pain fluorescing in my back and panic in my brain, then gravity snatched the boulder and yanked it down. The thunderous crash wasn't as harsh as its echo through the rock.
I lay motionless, trying to make my lungs stop heaving and my empty bowels unclench. Even the thought that I'd missed, that Wednesday was climbing after me, didn't give me strength to move for another dozen breaths. I finally dragged my legs under me and shuffled painfully to peer down.
The boulder had nailed Wednesday, pinning his legs and lower torso. He'd stopped sliding short of the tide line, but the way his arms flailed at the boulder proved he couldn't get enough leverage to move. My head drooped over the outcropping, eyes glazing, then I rolled onto my back and painfully sucked air for a few minutes before allowing myself a bloody-toothed smile. I idly wondered if I'd mention Wednesday to whomever found me.
I awoke in that spot at sunrise with fresh seagull shit on my chest, a new layer of sunburn, and my brain where I'd left it. Every joint felt full of ground glass, and my nose and mouth burned. I'd never been happier. Below me, Wednesday still flailed at the boulder, possibly just a little less quickly. Seagulls had soiled my dinner, so I chucked the carcass into the ocean and promised myself fresh poultry that evening.
Weakness had replaced hunger, so I worked slowly and cautiously. Favoring my sprained back and endless contusions I assembled scraps of twisted metal and fabric into a dark SOS against the shiny fuselage. By noon, a plastic bag became a funnel to guide more rainwater down the wings into a makeshift bucket, and I found nine salt-damp gumdrops between the seat cushions. My white shirt became a distress flag. A soapless saltwater bath in a still tidal pool deliciously scoured days of sweat and filth from my skin. When the rain came I lay on my back and laughed as fresh water burned my sunburn and gnawed lips.
Seagulls whirled overhead. I hurled a fist-sized rock at one.
Seagulls were harder to catch than I had thought. They dodged thrown rocks, not that I had many to throw. A sharp twist of fuselage became a spear, but they fluttered away before I came close enough to stab. If I stood still they approached, but never close enough to seize. The screaming rush with outstretched hands didn't work at all.
My checks on Wednesday assumed new intensity. If he grew resigned and stopped thrashing, gulls would approach him. Surely I could spear a decapitated seagull from beyond his reach! His movements slowed, but grew no less constant. Surrounded by blue water mirroring the sky, with no horizon between the two, I felt suspended in an endless waste. Weak swallows of precious rainwater couldn't drown the tastes of rancid gumdrop or seat padding. I began wondering if I could slice chunks off Wednesday, or was his flesh too pickled by age and salt to chew? Forget cannibalism; was “dead man walking” contagious?
I tried fishing, standing in the ocean two feet from the shore but up to my waist, sheltered from the ocean current by the rock itself. My line was thread from the seat, the hook a twist of wire. Fish don't bite on seat cushion. I managed to seize a few of the tiny minnows in the tidal pool, but the starfish I chewed up had me doubled around my gut in pain for an afternoon.
Days passed. Maybe a week. My body felt as if it belonged to someone else and I just sat behind the eyes occasionally pulling levers. Sweet, luscious gull meat filled my dreams. I heaved chunks of broken engine at the sky and fashioned baitless traps from wreckage. Succulent seagull taunted me from just out of reach. Soon, I would be just as sun-dried as Wednesday. Unable to escape or eat, Wednesday would eventually lie still in real death.
Too little sleep is better than the long sleep. I had spent an agonizing day trapping Wednesday, but pushing that rock off him and into the ocean only took three minutes.