ISLAND IN THE SAND
Short Story by James Strauss
Star floated over the top of the packed needle beds, her bobbed ponytail bouncing just beneath the lowest of the dense green branches. Her lope was long practiced, and her gait one of such easy flow she had to continually slow for the other children following in a trance. Running was like breathing to her. Growing up in the orphanage had been an exercise in brutal tolerance and crowded loneliness. The sand and the land were her real friends. She took to them like a tree leaf took to the sun. She felt the energy they radiated upward through her strong willowy legs propelling her smoothly around, or over, every obstacle in her path.
The band was headed West toward a place none of them had any good reason to believe existed. The State of Home. The more Star had learned, the more she had become skeptical of the place’s existence.
“What state would call itself home?” she said aloud, to herself. “Home to whom?”
She thought about the problem as she ran. They had nowhere else to go, however, and that fact had been forcefully burned into them when their teachers and caretakers had been casually tossed into the sea for attempting to defend them.
The place called Home was far to the South. A place where all newcomers were welcome if they could prove that they might be a benefit to the people already there. A State where there was sufficient food, a shelter for all, and most amazingly; books. Paper books. They’d been taught there had once been electronic books, but batteries and electricity had gone the way of automobiles and airplanes. There were still some of those things around, but their use was banned by religious edict in all known tribes. Rebels were rumored to occasionally use such devices, but the rebels themselves were nothing more than rumors, as far as the children’s teachers had been concerned.
With the children strung out in a long line behind her, Star made her way slowly up a relatively modest incline. The pines at the top grew on a huge sand dune with parts of it open and exposed. The sand was crusty and firm, not like along the shores near the beating surf. She stopped and waited at the top, settling down on a soft bed of old dead needles to watch her charges make it up the hill one by one. She gazed out over the clearing behind them. Her natural smile disappeared, as she took in the far tree line. Several boys stood in the distance, unmoving, but all intently watching the progress of the last children. The last two were the six-year-olds, Tal and Shine. The boy and girl were not brother and sister, and certainly not twins, although both had blond hair and looked uncannily alike.
One boy in the distance stood out from the others. Because of how far it was Star could not make out his identity, but she presumed it was Track, the only older boy she had befriended at the orphanage. He was the smartest of all the boys, and also the best humored. Everyone liked him. The boy waved. Star waved back, got to her feet, motioned for the children around her to fade back under the pines, and then ran down the side of the sandy slope to make her way across the clearing.
She was halfway there before she identified the other band’s leader.
“Solomon Chu,” she whispered, “Oh damn.”
She wasn’t sure why she was apprehensive. Chu had been a troublesome boy. Everyone knew that. His temper tantrums had gotten him severely punished more times than Star could remember. She wondered what he was doing at the head of the other band.
“Star Black,” Chu said, when she stopped, ten feet in front of him.
“Chu,” she responded, without emotion.
“It’s Sly, now.” he said, with a crooked smile, “and these are my men.”
He waved backward with one arm without looking.
Star almost laughed. The ‘man’ behind him, that his hand had pointed to, was one of the older girls. The girl and she nodded at one another.
“Are you following us, Sly?” she asked, more in humor than being serious.
“And where’s Track?” she went on when he didn’t immediately reply.
“Dead. Had an accident. A rock fell on his head while he was sleeping,” Sly answered.
Star went cold inside. The tone Sly had used had been so cruel that fear began to well from her chest. Sly was sick. She had always suspected, but never really understood how badly until then. Track was dead. She couldn’t believe it. That vitally alive boy was gone.
“What do you want?” she finally asked, beginning to wonder if she was going to get back to the other kids alive. There was something animal about all the kids she could see in front of her. It was as if they were appraising her for possible inclusion in their dinner stew pot. She almost shivered but was able to remain still with great effort.
“We want you and your band to join us. You can stay their leader, except I’ll be the overall leader. We’ll do much better, except for those two babies you’ve got. They can make it on their own.”
The thought of Tal and Shine making it on their own frightened Star even more, and the callous way Sly had mentioned it made it worse.
“We’ve planned on all of us making it on our own. We’ve made three spears and two bows and arrow sets so far. No food yet, but we thought we’d hunt tomorrow.” Star lied about the weapons.
They had nothing, but she sensed that the band in front of her would not respect weakness at all.
“We can use ‘em. Well, do you want to come with us?” Sly asked, directly.
“I’ll run back and talk to them. I think it’s a great idea, except for the two little ones, but we have to survive on our own now.” She stopped talking, afraid her nervousness would show in her voice if she went on.
“Good thinking,” Sly answered. “We’re gonna build a fire for the night, to keep any big animals away. I think we can catch some stuff to eat. We have wire for snares.”
“Okay,” Star said, smiling an overly bright smile.
Without saying another word, she turned and ran back across the clearing, making sure to move at a medium speed so it did not look like she was fleeing. Upon reaching the top of the dune she rushed under the trees and joined the other children. She looked back, then had them all move further until she could still see Sly standing on the other side of the clearing, but was pretty certain he could not see them under the shade provided by huge overhanging branches.
“We’re going to run. Those boys, led by Chu, are bad. I think they killed Track.” The children around her all drew in breaths.
The two six-year-olds started to cry.
“This is no time for that. They want us to join them. No way are we doing that. We have to get as much distance between them and us as we can before dark. They’re faster runners, so it’ll be hard. Can you do it?” Star stared at Tal and Shine.
Their success would be directly tied to speed. Could the little ones move fast enough?
Nobody said anything. Star wanted to reach up and massage her forehead but that would be a sign of weakness. She couldn’t let that show. They had nothing and they were too slow to get away from what was likely a band of murderous children who’d already killed and might have little difficulty doing it again. All of them knew one another, but life had been hard at the orphanage. The only children, other than Track she’d been close to at all, were with her now. The others were in Sly’s band for reasons Star didn’t want to know, but they weren’t good. She sighed, finally. They had no choice. They had to try to get away.
“Let’s go. Wren,” she pointed at the next oldest member of their small group.
A boy who was thin, but leathery, tough, and not dumb.
“You lead and I’ll take the back. Go as fast as you think you can. We’ll run under the trees for quite a way and then figure out where we are.” It was not much of a plan, Star knew, but it was all they had.
None of them had ever been more than a few miles from the orphanage in their lives.
They ran. They ran for hours. Star herded the youngsters, trying to re-assure when fatigue began to overcome them. She didn’t know how she knew but she felt the pursuers behind them. If they were caught she would lose Tal and Shine at the very least, but the kids couldn’t go much farther regardless. If they went north, along the ridge, it would only be a matter of time until they were cut off and caught.
The kids in front of her were stopping. Star left Tal and Shine and ran forward. Wren stood at the edge of a huge open space. She stood next to him and stared out over a long shallow canyon. The clear open space ran all the way from the black line of the sea in the distance to somewhere unknown in the other direction. But it was miles across, with only a very few individual stands of trees for cover. Star focused on the largest stand, a good three miles distant. A plan formed in her mind, as her gaze shifted to take in the sun above the horizon. She shielded her eyes and considered. When she returned to Tal and Shine it was to take them both by the hand and stroll under the pines. After a few minutes, she came to a huge specimen with its lower branches waist-high above the needle covered sand.
“Up. Everyone up as high as you can go. And don’t leave any marks. They won’t be able to see inside the tree unless they stand at the trunk and look straight up. And you have to keep quiet. If they hear anything…” but she didn’t finish the sentence because she didn’t know what to finish it with.
She helped each child up which was not very difficult. They were all natural climbers. When they were secure, she smoothed the needles on the ground as best she could.
Her only hope was that the others would arrive at the edge of the great gentle canyon and stare across. The same bunch of trees would come into their sight, way out across the expanse. If it drew them then they’d be stuck out there for the night. If they decided to stay where they were, then it would be an almost hopelessly long night. It was not likely that Tal and Shine would be able to spend the entire night draped over a pine branch high off the ground.
Once again, they had run out of choices. And the night would be hard enough no matter what the other band did. Without any water or food at all, they would weaken quickly to the point where they couldn’t survive.
It was nearly an hour before they heard the pursuit. The other band made no attempt at silence, hooting and calling to one another as they moved under the pines. They congregated in one spot, but Star couldn’t understand anything of what they said. Then there was silence. When darkness fell fully, Star, braced into the trunk on a branch lower than all of the other kids, released herself and moved to the ground. She padded to the edge of the clearing. Relief swept over her. Far in the distance, at the very spot she imagined the stand of trees to be across the shallow canyon, a fire glowed. Their trick had worked.
Star got everyone down. They moved north, staying close to the edge of the canyon, which was dimly lit by half a moon. They walked all night, attempting to be as quiet as possible. By dawn, Star knew that they had gone as far as they could go. When they stopped, Tal and Shine fell asleep instantly, collapsing flat on a welcoming mat of old brown pine needles.
Star looked up into the sky. Antares shone brightly halfway up in the black sky. Wren joined her, craning his own head upward.
“When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are,” he sang very, very quietly.