© S I Richards
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I’m trying to ignore my mum. Lying in bed, reading a book about pirates, I can hear her shouting for me at the top of her voice from downstairs. I carry on reading, annoyed because I can’t concentrate. I can’t concentrate because I’m too busy worrying about the start of the new term, or ‘semester’ as they call it at my school here in America - the school I’ve been trying to fit into for the past six months. Trying and failing.
‘Robert…Robert!’ Mum sounds almost hysterical as she thunders up the stairs and barges straight into my room.
‘What?’ I snap.
‘I’ve just had a phone call. We’ve got to go to Bermuda right away!’ She’s still shouting, despite being in the room with me.
‘Bermuda? What for?’
‘What about her?’
‘She’s been knocked down by a car!’
I shoot bolt upright in bed, my annoyance dissolving in a heartbeat. It’s replaced by a sickening lump in my chest. **‘No, no, no, not Sophie.’**
‘Is it serious?’
I want her to reassure me, to say, ‘No, don’t worry, she’s fine,’ but she doesn’t. Instead, she nods and wipes her eyes. Her hands are shaking.
She doesn’t reply. She takes a deep breath, trying to calm herself, trying not to panic me. But, by not answering the question, she panics me more.
‘How serious?’ I repeat, louder, almost shouting.
My older brother, Jamie, sticks his head into the room, ‘Stop asking questions, Rob, and get ready now!’
‘How serious?’ This time I do shout.
‘The hospital just called me. They said she’s in a critical condition.’ Mum’s voice shakes. ‘We need to leave straight away. I’ve rung Dad. He said something about using a company plane because it’ll get us there quicker. He’ll meet us at the airport. Come on, Robbie, get dressed now!’
So, here I am, less than half an hour later, on a tiny plane, trying to get my shocked brain to focus enough to fasten the seat belt. When it finally clicks into place, I look up. Unluckily, so does Doctor Baines, my Dad’s boss. I can’t understand for the life of me what she’s doing here with us or why she’s even letting us use the company plane. She doesn’t even know Sophie and from what I’ve heard, she never puts herself out for anybody, even in an emergency.
I’ve only met her twice before and that’s one time too many. The first time I saw her I thought, **‘Wow - she’s gorgeous!’** She’s slim with big blue eyes and long blonde hair. But, when I looked closer, I realised she’s just a bit too thin, like she’s got too many sharp corners.
That’s when I nicknamed her ‘Doctor Bones.’ She might seem attractive on the outside, but it doesn’t take long to suss out that it’s a very different story on the inside. She’s sitting opposite me now, flashing a perfect smile without a flicker of friendliness in it. She breaks eye contact first, rummages in her handbag and sprays herself all over with perfume. In this small cabin, the smell’s overpowering. It catches the back of my throat and makes me feel sick.
‘Do you like it?’ she asks, but she doesn’t wait for me to answer. Just as well really; I’m a fourteen-year-old boy, perfume is not really my thing.
She snaps the blue lid back onto the small silver bottle with the name of the perfume written down the side in blue letters. She leans over towards me and lowers her voice as if she’s telling me a secret, ‘These bottles are solid silver, so it’s extremely expensive. It’s called ‘Status’.’
And I think, **‘Why am I not surprised?’**
I don’t know what to say, so I just do a stupid half smile. As the pilot makes his way to the cockpit, he glances at Dr Baines, then turns towards me, raises his eyebrows and shakes his head slightly, as if to say, ‘Can you believe this woman?’
She inspects her makeup in a mirror and runs a tiny brush over her eyebrows. I close my eyes and pretend to sleep in case she starts talking to me again, thinking, **‘This is going to be a long flight.’**
I eventually fall asleep and into an endless, drawn-out, horrible dream; a dream about Sophie just lying there, broken, not breathing, heart stopped …
I wake up with a start and check the time on my mobile. I’ve been asleep for an hour; that means we’re not even half way there. Behind me I can hear Mum talking quietly to Jamie. I don’t move in case she stops; she treats Jamie and Sophie like adults, but she still treats me like a child.
‘She’s on a life-support machine, love.’
A life-support machine? Just the sound of it sends a cold chill through me; that’s the thing they hook you up to, so your family has time to say ‘Goodbye’. Then, with one flick of a switch, the machine stops working and you die. How can that apply to Sophie? She’s the most alive person I know. Everybody loves Sophie. She’s always laughing, always enthusiastic about everything and everyone. Even me, her wimpy little brother.
I stare out of the window. While I’ve been asleep, the sky has turned steely grey and threatening. The vast expanse of sea below us, a stunning bright blue earlier, now looks dark and menacing. A string of jolts and shudders soon has me tightening my seat belt as we fly into a wild, multi-coloured electrical storm.
I feel Mum squeeze my arm from her seat behind mine. When I turn around, she looks terrified - her face is pale, almost grey. I follow her gaze out of the window. Blinding flashes of lightning shoot out one after another. In between each of the flashes, the sky turns blood red.
There’s a sudden noise, like a car backfiring, and the plane plunges so unexpectedly that Mum screams. The whole plane rocks from side to side and the door to the cockpit flies open. Inside, I see the pilot struggling with the joystick, his knuckles white as he fights to get the plane back under control. But it’s not working; we’re going down fast, plummeting in free-fall.
He shouts to Dad, ‘Grab those flight charts and strap yourself in!’ but Dad just sits there like he doesn’t understand.
‘Move yourself man! We need to work out where we are from those charts. Don’t lose them!’ He grabs the charts and thrusts them towards Dad. His hands are shaking so much it looks like he’s waving the papers at Dad rather than trying to hand them over. He knows something we don’t, and it’s not something good.
Dad frantically stuffs the maps down the front of his shirt and struggles back to his seat as the pilot shouts into the radio, ‘Mayday, Mayday, Mayday…’ And still the plane keeps dropping.
The first time the plane hits the sea, my seatbelt locks across my middle like a kick in the stomach. The second jolt is even more brutal. This one slams me back into my seat, so the breath explodes from my lungs. When I inhale again, they fill with thick, bitter smoke that scorches my throat.
‘Oh God, we’re going to die!’ Time becomes scrambled. Things happen so fast, yet at the same time everything is so vivid that it’s like watching it all in slow motion and I feel eerily calm. I can feel the plane bouncing off the surface of the water and I suddenly have a flashback to when I was six. Jamie was eleven, and he was teaching me to skim a flat stone on a pond: three, four, five times it skipped across the surface before it sank without a trace. We crash into the waves again and I’m jerked sideways - my face smashes against the window and I’m jolted back to the present.
‘Oh God, how many more until we go under?’
Jamie’s not strapped in and, as we hit the sea yet again, he’s thrown about the cabin like a plastic bag in a breeze. The impact forces him clear down the aisle and slams him into the wall with a sickening crunch. He lets out a harrowing scream, then falls silent.
I sit there, paralysed. I’m witnessing the chaos, hearing my family screaming, but it’s as if I’m not really there, as if it’s all happening to somebody else. Dad’s voice snaps me out of my daze, ‘Get out, Robbie! Get out!’
I go into automatic pilot, grappling desperately with my seat belt but I’m blinded as seawater pours in from all directions. It tastes of petrol and makes my face sting. The thick smell of burning plastic makes me gag.
I try to stand up but the water’s rising so fast I stagger like someone drunk. Arms and legs thrash all around me. A rucksack floats past, level with my chin... and still the water keeps rising!
‘Oh God, where’s the door?`
The plane’s still the right way up, skimming the surface on its belly, but the gap between the water and the ceiling is shrinking by the second. I press my face up as close as I can to it. I want my mum.
The desperation in my own scream scares me. I sound more like an animal than a person.
I look around but the smoke and stinging seawater in my eyes make it pointless.
‘Where’s the exit? Where’s the exit!’ I’m screaming it out, but I can’t hear myself. My voice is drowned out by the deafening screech of the engines as the propellers churn into the sea. The plane has stopped skimming along and I know what’s coming next.
Someone thrashes about under the water by my legs, then breaks through to the air pocket.
‘Dad!’ I roar.
He grabs me and bellows down my ear, ‘I’ve found the door, but it’s jammed!’ He fills his lungs with fume-filled air and dives back under.
‘Come back Dad!’ I plead in terror, ‘Dad! Dad!’
My screams are a waste of precious oxygen as the plane begins its final descent. I don’t want to die like this.
Suddenly, I’m aware of light; brilliant, blinding light. I’ve heard about this - how people see a bright tunnel of light just before they die. So, this is it. I’m dying, alone and terrified. The tunnel of light grows wider and I stop fighting. I’m mesmerised, calmly facing the inevitable.
I’m brutally jolted back to reality when hands grab at me and shove me upwards, towards a widening hole in the roof where the plane’s ripping itself apart above my head like a giant metal zip, letting the sunlight flood in. When my nose hits the edge of the jagged fuselage, it makes me gasp in agony.
Fresh air fills my lungs.
I know I’ve got to get as far away from the plane as I can, or I’ll be sucked down with it as it sinks. Massive waves push me back towards the wreckage, but I fight against them for all I’m worth.
**‘Don’t look back, don’t look back,’** I tell myself over and over.
I don’t want to see what’s behind me. If Mum and Dad are alive, they’ll shout my name. I battle on, praying to hear them.
After fifteen minutes I’m exhausted. My lungs hurt and there’s a stabbing pain deep in my chest. It’s no use; I can’t go any further. A wave lifts me high and I look up for the first time to see where I’m headed. There’s nothing there. Just miles of empty sea and sky.
Above me, the lightning storm rages on, spitting out bolt after bolt of electricity in every colour, including some I don’t think I’ve ever seen before.
I tread water… and listen. My wet clothes are a dead weight, slowly dragging me down. I’ve got to take them off. I start with my jumper but get tangled up in the sleeves and give up; I’ve got no strength left.
I feel the pain of every passing second. My arms and legs are heavy and numb. I’m moving them so slowly now that my face is barely above the water. Still no sound from my family.
I don’t want to acknowledge what this means. I think about being left alone with no Mum, Dad, Sophie or Jamie. The whole idea is unbearable, so I give in to the temptation of letting myself sink. I don’t want to live without them; I just want it to be over. As the water closes over my face, I feel light-headed and peaceful again.
But something hard hits me in the back of my head. I yelp in surprise as the shock brings me scrabbling back to the surface, coughing up seawater. I smile sadly when I see what’s hit me - my dad’s briefcase. Instinctively, I grab it and cling on tight, using it as a float. As I wipe the water from my eyes, a searing pain shoots up through the bridge of my nose from where I hit it on the way out of the plane. When I pull my hand away, my fingers are covered in blood.
Now I’m petrified by every ripple on the choppy water, as my imagination turns it into a pointed black shark’s fin. I know they are all around; I know they can smell the blood; I know they’ll be here soon and I know there’s no point trying to out-swim them.
I squeeze Dad’s briefcase to my chest and float on my back, my heart pounding. Every so often, I raise my head to check if I can spot anyone else, but I know it’ll take a miracle for that to happen. Eventually though, I do see something move. I wipe the salt water out of my eyes and focus. What I see then is a tall black shark fin slicing through the water straight towards me. I don’t want to keep looking but I can’t help it. I stop breathing. All I can do is hope the end will be quick, as terrified tears mix with the seawater on my face.
I won’t survive the attack so there’s no point in fighting but, when I feel something latch onto the neck of my jumper I scream and lash out automatically, as survival instincts take over. But I’m caught.
‘Robert! Robert! It’s me!’ It’s Mum’s voice!
My parents haul me in over the side of the plane’s inflatable dinghy. I kick and claw my way out of the water and land with a thud in the bottom, still clinging on to Dad’s stupid briefcase, as the shark brushes its unblinking face along the thin rubber sides and then circles back to look for me.
I lie face down, gasping. I can smell the rubber of the dinghy floor and I wonder helplessly if those few millimetres will be enough to keep us safe. The muscles in my arms and legs tremble and twitch with exhaustion as I pull myself up to hug Mum and Dad, sobbing like a toddler. Then I catch sight of a crumpled shape and my stomach lurches.
‘What’s wrong with Jamie?’
He’s unconscious; his leg’s sticking out at an odd angle, like a broken twig.
‘He needs help,’ is all she says.
The image of Jamie being tossed into the air and smashed against the wall of the cabin flashes through my mind as clear as a film-clip. I shake my head to erase it.
I sit and stare blankly ahead. I still can’t take in what’s just happened. We only moved from England to Florida six months ago. Dad’s a scientist and he was so thrilled when he got a job in Dr Baines’ brand new, multi-million-dollar laboratory. Jamie and I got places in a shiny new high school that looks like something out of an all-American teenage movie and Sophie wangled a place at a college in Bermuda. We’re supposed to be living the American Dream, but it’s not like that - it’s turned out to be a complete nightmare instead. Dad hates his new job and, no matter how much I try to fit in at school, I’m still the puny weird kid with the strange British accent. And now all this…
‘What happened to the pilot? Where’s Doctor Baines?’ I ask, but there’s no reply.
We sit in silence, dazed, staring at each other as the stormy red sky crackles overhead and throws an unnatural glow over everything in the boat.
Mum and Dad take it in turns to check Jamie’s pulse. I can tell from their expressions that he’s in a bad way. I study his lifeless face and feel sick.
Jamie drives me mad at times - he’s so perfect. He’s good looking, clever, sporty, but he’s exactly the kind of person you need in an emergency like this. He wants to be a marine biologist, and he knows everything there is to know about the great outdoors. He knows how to start a fire, build a waterproof shelter, set up a camp and hunt for food. I wrack my brains to think of what he would do now, so I can do it instead. But the very idea of me rescuing the family is ridiculous. I feel useless.
Dad moves over to check the automatic beacon. Its regular distress signals are supposed to tell the Air-Sea Rescue services exactly where to find us. He straightens up slowly and says, ‘It’s not working.’
‘How will anyone know where we are then?’ Mum asks uneasily.
At first Dad says nothing; he just looks for a long time at Jamie slumped unconscious in the bottom of the dinghy. ‘They won’t.’
The continuous sizzling explosions of lightning are so intense that it’s becoming physically painful. I put my head in my hands to give my eyes a few seconds’ rest from the glare. When I look up again, the colours have faded, leaving behind the blinding white of a normal lightning storm and I wonder if I might have imagined them.
I need to do something to stop these awful feelings of hopelessness gnawing away inside me. I force myself to move. I pull Dad’s briefcase onto my knees and click open the locks. My mobile phone’s ruined after being in seawater for so long. When I ask, Mum tells me that she and Jamie both left theirs on the plane. But Dad’s might be in his bag. When I think about it though, I’m not sure if you can even get a signal out at sea.
I pull out three new white lab coats, crisp and clean in their cellophane wrappers. At least we can wave them if a rescue plane flies over. I rummage further down through the mess of scientific papers, reports and notebooks. Garish, fluorescent laboratory stickers scream out:
The lightning flashes turn their colours off and on like cheap neon shop signs. Finally, at the bottom of the case, my fingers brush against something hard and rectangular. My heart leaps. Got it!
‘Dad, I’ve got your mobi…’
But as soon as I see the logo on the wrapper I know it isn’t the phone at all. It’s just a parcel from a stupid joke shop. Dad’s hobby is playing pranks; he’s well known for it and some of them are amazing - really clever and funny - but right now, this is more disappointment than I can stand.
I slam the lid shut and force myself to focus. I spot the emergency tool kit under one of the seats and wrench it open. Binoculars! I scan the horizon with them, turning full circle. The lenses magnify the movement of the boat and the swelling of the waves, which makes me feel seasick, but I keep going. But I see nothing; there’s nothing but sea and sky in all directions… for mile after mile.
I don’t want to believe my eyes, so I do it again, forcing myself to ignore the worsening seasickness. This time I catch a glimpse of something white floating on the surface of the water.
‘Dad, there’s something over there! It’s Doctor Baines!’
There’s no sign of the pilot.
We take almost ten minutes to row to her through the storm. None of us say it, but we all know that we’re racing to reach her before the sharks do. Although she’s clinging to a piece of floating wreckage, she’s still clutching her designer handbag and high-heeled shoes.
When we haul her into the dingy I smile at her, expecting her to thank us for saving her. But she doesn’t.
Instead, she screams at Dad, ‘I can’t believe you left me in the water all that time. I could have died out there! And you’ve crashed my father’s plane, you idiot! Where are we anyway?’
Before he can even reply, the awful truth dawns on me. Even though it terrifies me, it feels good to be the one to tell her the bad news... to tell her that we are in one of the most dangerous and mysterious places on Earth, to pay her back for speaking to my dad like that.
‘Don’t you know? We’re in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle.’
She glowers at me.
‘Oh, for goodness’ sake, if you can’t say anything sensible, just be quiet! Bermuda Triangle my ass! Everyone knows that’s only a myth.’
She snatches the chart from Dad and peers at the page, as if willing land to appear on the map where there’s only a vast expanse of sea.
‘Oh God, we’re miles from anywhere.’
I ignore her and scan the horizon again. I know that sighting land is our only real hope of survival... I also know that there’s no land to see. Despite this, we spend the next few hours taking turns with the binoculars. The air is still and silent now; the quiet came suddenly, as if the storm was flicked off at a switch. The blistering sun melts the horizon into a shimmering blue heat haze.
‘I’m thirsty, Mum.’
I hate myself for sounding like a baby, but I’ve read enough about pirates running out of drinking water to know that dying of thirst is one of the most painful ways to go.
We’re hundreds of miles from land and nobody knows where to look for us. It could be weeks before we’re found… if we ever are.
Mum and Dad tend to Jamie, I use the binoculars to look out for sharks, Doctor Baines puts on more lipstick.
‘Oh, my God! I can see land!’
‘That’s impossible. There isn’t any land around here for hundreds of miles,’ says Dad.
But it must be possible because suddenly we can all see it, a huge tropical island right in front of us.
We sit in shocked silence, confused for a moment before we start to paddle towards it like mad. When I clamber out onto the warm, soft sand, I’m baffled, disorientated, exhausted.
‘Where did this island come from?’ I gasp.
‘It wasn’t there five minutes ago,’ I insist. ‘I scanned in all directions the minute before it appeared. Believe me, it wasn’t there!’
‘It must have been,’ Mum says shakily. ‘We’re probably all just in shock from the plane crash.’
I glance over at Dad. He looks just as mystified as me. He and Mum lift Jamie out of the dinghy, then collapse on their backs on the sand. I do the same, closing my eyes to bask in the feeling of safe, solid ground beneath me.
I eventually look up to see Doctor Baines hopping about as she puts her shoes back on. She staggers towards Dad, her high heels sinking into the fine golden sand with each step. She waves the map under his nose.
‘That stupid pilot took us completely off course; I can’t even find this island on the map.’
She stabs one of her long red talons at it, ‘Wait a minute,’ she says; ‘it must be that one.’
‘We’re nowhere near there,’ Dad replies. ‘I know exactly where we are now. But there’s no land around here for hundreds of miles so where did this island come from?’ He scratches his head. ‘And where did that storm come from? There were no storms due anywhere near our flight path. Besides, it wasn’t like any storm I’ve ever seen; it blocked all the controls at once. We just stopped flying and fell out of the sky!’
‘I told you before Dad,’ I explain patiently. ‘It’s the Bermuda Triangle. Planes and boats have been disappearing around here forever.’
Jamie moans faintly. He’s still unconscious, which is probably just as well - he’ll be in so much pain when he comes around.
‘We need to get him somewhere comfortable,’ Dad says and heads off into the palm trees.
When he comes back a while later, he points up the hill through the tropical forest, ‘There’s a small cave just up there. Help me carry him. We mustn’t put any weight on his broken leg.’
The three of us struggle to carry Jamie’s limp body through the lush vegetation to the cave. Doctor Baines drags behind complaining about the heat.
‘I’m hungry,’ she whines.
When we ignore her, she sighs loudly, ‘I must eat something soon.’
The sound of her whinging voice makes me feel like punching something.
‘I wish she’d shut up,’ I snap.
‘Robert, leave her alone, she’s been through a lot,’ says Dad.
‘She’s been through a lot?’ Mum hisses, stopping in her tracks. ‘What about us? What about Sophie and Jamie? Why are you sticking up for her? She’s done nothing but make your life a misery since you started working for her. Everyone from the lab says the same thing; she steals their ideas and takes the credit! But they’re too scared to say anything because she’ll have them sacked.’
Her voice is high pitched with rage. ‘If her dad didn’t own the lab, she’d never have got a job there in the first place.’
My mum is usually lovely. She’s tiny, with long dark hair, soft brown eyes and a very pretty face. She’s the calmest person I know. She teaches yoga and meditation so it’s her job to be calm, but Doctor Baines presses all Mum’s buttons.
‘Calm down, Emma,’ Dad says. ‘This isn’t helping anyone.’
‘No, I won’t calm down!’ Mum turns around and glares at Doctor Baines, lagging far behind us. ‘She shouldn’t even be here. She only lent us her dad’s plane, so she could wangle a weekend shopping spree in Bermuda. I’ve never known anyone so heartless in my life; we’re going to see our dying daughter and she comes along to buy a new spring wardrobe!’
The word ‘dying’ hits me like a punch in the face. Now Mum’s outburst makes sense. ‘So that’s what she’s doing here… shopping.’
‘This isn’t the time, Emma.’ Dad soothes. ‘She’s scared.’
‘Scared or not, she’s still a nasty piece of work.’
None of us can argue with that.
The cave is small, clean and wonderfully cool. We make Jamie as comfortable as we can on the floor. Doctor Baines follows us in a few minutes later and slumps down against the cave wall. Dad and I tell her we’re going back out to look for branches to make a splint for Jamie’s leg, but she doesn’t offer to help.
He’s still not fully conscious but, as we strap the splint in place with our belts, he whimpers like a wounded animal. We’ve got no medicine to stop his pain.
When we’ve done as much as we can with the splint, Dad announces, ‘I’ll see if I can get some help.’ His face is lined with worry.
‘There’ll be a hotel on the island,’ Mum says; ‘It’ll have a telephone.’ She says this in an oddly cheerful way, as if she’s trying to convince herself.
Dad nods and smiles at her, but I can tell he’s just doing it to be encouraging. This island’s miles from anywhere and it isn’t even on the map. No-one will live here.
‘Stay hidden and keep quiet,’ Dad instructs as he turns to leave.
‘What?’ Mum asks, ‘Why?’
‘Darling, listen to me. This is an uncharted island, so it probably has no one living on it. But you’ve read the newspapers. You know what’s going on with the gangs around here.’
‘What are you talking about?’ Doctor Baines demands.
Dad ignores her and carries on talking to Mum, ‘The papers call them ‘Modern-Day-Pirates’ which makes it all sound very glamorous, but what they do is attack boats out at sea and rob them at gunpoint. But it’s not just that; these are serious, organised criminal gangs. They use the islands near Florida to smuggle drugs and all kinds of weapons into America. I don’t want to frighten you but, if one of these drug gangs has taken over this island, then we’re in even bigger trouble than we thought.’
‘But surely even they won’t refuse to help someone in pain?’ Mum gasps.
‘Emma, we’re talking about gangland killers. Think about it; with the plane going down, people probably already think we’re dead, so they’d have nothing to lose by getting rid of us. They’re not going to call in the rescue services for us - witnesses are the last thing these people want.’
‘What will you do if it is a gang?’ she asks.
‘Criminals or not, they’ll need a radio to communicate with the outside world. All I can do is try to get to it and radio the police without them knowing. But, first, we need to find out if there actually is anyone else on the island.’
The smell of wood smoke drifts in through the cave entrance.
‘Well, that answers that question,’ Doctor Baines says.
Jamie’s eyes flutter open and then close again. Half-awake now, he’s in pain and groans with every breath out. When he tries to adjust his position, he yelps in agony.
‘Can’t you do something with him?’ she complains.
‘He’s got a broken leg and no painkillers. What do you suggest we do?’ Mum replies icily.
Her eyes land on Doctor Baines’ designer handbag. ‘Have you got any medicines in that bag?’
Doctor Baines pulls the bag towards her and sits in sulky silence, holding it tightly by her side.
The faint but unmistakable smell of roasting meat begins to mingle with the smoke. This is too much for Doctor Baines to resist.
‘This is ludicrous!’ she says. ‘They’re having a barbeque down there and we’re stuck in here, starving. Killers my ass! They’re probably just tourists off a cruise ship.’
She jumps up abruptly and marches towards the mouth of the cave. ‘You losers can stay here if you want to but I’m going down.’
‘Don’t!’ cries Mum. ‘Just wait until we can be sure who these people are.’
‘You’re being ridiculous,’ snaps Doctor Baines.
‘If you go now, you might put everyone in danger, so stay right where you are!’ Mum’s voice is steely, but Doctor Baines ignores her.
She picks up her bag and walks towards the exit, her nose in the air. As she passes by, Mum’s leg shoots out and Doctor Baines trips over it. She falls heavily onto the hard floor, dropping her bag. Its contents scatter in all directions: lipstick, nail varnish, contact lens holder, even her silver bottle of perfume with ‘Status’ picked out in blue letters.
‘You did that on purpose! How dare you!’ she squeals, greedily sweeping up her possessions.
Mum opens her mouth to explain exactly how she dares when she notices something by her feet. She picks it up; it’s a plastic container of painkillers!
‘These were in your bag all the time!’ Mum gasps. ‘I can’t believe this! You’d actually let a child suffer, rather than give away a few tablets?’
‘I forgot I had them. You don’t really think I’d be selfish enough to keep them back on purpose, do you?’ Doctor Baines asks sneeringly.
‘You’re here to go shopping when you know my daughter’s dying… believe me, you really don’t want to know what I think about you. Sit over there and don’t move!’
Mum points to the spot the furthest away from the entrance. Doctor Baines slinks off to do as she’s told while Jamie gratefully swallows the tablets.
‘That’s stealing, you know,’ says Doctor Baines frostily. ‘And don’t think I’ve forgotten how you left me in the water for so long with the sharks. I could have died!’ Her lower lip trembles with self-pity.
‘We all could have died,’ replies Mum, ‘but I think you were safer than the rest of us.’
‘What are you talking about?’
Mum looks her straight in the eye, ‘Some things are too unpleasant even for sharks to eat.’
Dad looks at Mum proudly and then turns to me, ‘Robert, stay here and look after Mum and Jamie. I won’t be long.’
‘But I want to come with you. Please, Dad!’
I’m terrified of what we might find outside the cave, but the idea of just sitting here waiting for a gang of potential killers to find us is even worse.
‘No! It might be dangerous,’ Dad replies.
‘But if it is dangerous, and you get into trouble, I can come back and warn the others.’
Dad hesitates, trying to weigh up what to do for the best.
‘OK. You might be right. But be very quiet. We need to find out if these guys are a threat.’
When I say goodbye, Mum hugs me so hard it hurts. ‘Stay close to Dad and do exactly as he tells you!’
Outside, Dad gives me instructions, ‘Whatever you do, keep low. Don’t stand up; you’ll be too obvious.’
After all that talk of gangsters with guns, I don’t need telling twice. I bend double, keeping close to his heels. As we edge our way hesitantly through the thickening darkness, I’m startled by every cracking twig or rustling leaf.
Eventually, from inside the tree-line, I make out shapes and movement on the beach just in front of us. Anything away from the campfires is in complete darkness.
I can dimly make out three poles, as thick as tree trunks, sticking up from behind a sand dune and disappearing up into the black sky. I crane my neck to see the top but can’t.
‘They look like totem poles,’ Dad whispers.
At least twenty long wooden tables are dotted along the beach, spread with enormous amounts of food and drink. People pass busily between them, handing out platters of steaming roast meat, fresh from the fires. It seems to be some kind of celebration.
Seated around each table, are men, women and children of all ages with tanned, coffee-coloured skin. They all wear breeches, tied below the knee, with baggy white shirts on the top, although some of the men are bare-chested. All go barefoot.
Men and women alike wear hooped earrings and have extremely long, black hair, their plaits extravagantly decorated with shells, beads and colourful feathers.
‘They look like Native Americans.’ Dad breathes a sigh of relief. ‘If they are, they’ll be able to radio for help for us.’
A man in his forties sits at the head of a table which is raised higher than all the rest. He’s tall, handsome and muscular with a neatly cut black beard. When he laughs, he throws his head back and roars a booming laugh deep from his belly and everyone else laughs too.
‘That must be the chief,’ whispers Dad. ‘I’ll go and talk to him.’
But I’m not so sure that’s a good idea. Something isn’t quite right but I don’t know what. Their clothes strike me as odd; they remind me of something very familiar that I can’t quite put my finger on. Dad must feel it too because he hesitates and stays in our hiding place behind a palm tree.
Three large wine barrels stand just in front of us on the sand. Someone’s left a jacket on top of the one closest to us. Dad creeps out and grabs it. Perhaps we’ll find a wallet, some papers, anything that can tell us whether or not these people are dangerous. But there are no pockets, no labels. The jacket’s handmade. Instead of buttons, it’s got the pearly insides of seashells.
‘They’re definitely Native Americans,’ Dad says decisively, and he starts to walk out from the shelter of the trees.
I’m still holding the jacket. I peer at it. It looks just like… what?
I wrack my brains.
Suddenly the answer comes to me. Now I know why I recognise this style of jacket! The material may be different, but I’ve seen jackets exactly like them hundreds of times in my books at home.
‘Wait Dad!’ My voice comes out as a trembling squeak, ‘They’re not Native Americans, they’re…’
But he’s gone.
The full moon appears from behind the clouds and beams like a spotlight onto one of the poles. As a gust of wind blows, it unfurls the banner at the top to reveal two crossed swords and a fearsome grinning skull,
‘… pirates!’ I say, too late.
With the moonlight at its brightest, it’s all plain to see; there are no totem poles, just three tall masts. A deafening roar rises up from the tables and all eyes turn upwards to the flag.
Dad freezes in his tracks: he’s totally exposed. He looks around at me in panic, not daring to move.
‘Dad! Come back!’ I whisper as loud as I dare. It snaps him out of his daze, and he darts back to me. We move along under the cover of the trees until we have a better view of what lies beyond the sand dune. What we see is breath-taking. The masts belong to an enormous, majestic galleon. The low trees and huts between us and the ship mean we can only see its top half, so I have no idea if it’s in the sea or if it’s been run aground on the sand.
People appear on deck as if from nowhere and begin to climb the rigging, racing effortlessly to the top.
Both the ship and the style of clothes look like they belong to pirates from the 1700s and I wonder whether we’ve stumbled onto a film set, but I can’t see any cameras or a film crew. A fancy dress party then? But I can’t think of a single reason why anyone would want a pirate fancy dress party on a desert island in the middle of nowhere.
Dad’s clearly just as baffled as I am. He shrugs at me and whispers, ‘Well, I can’t see any weapons and they look harmless enough.’
He’s right. Everyone’s relaxed, laughing, enjoying the festivities.
But then a fight breaks out. There’s yelling and confusion as two young men spring to their feet, upturning chairs in their fury. At first, they just exchange insults, but it escalates quickly.
They grapple with each other on one of the tables. Rolling over and over in a tangle of limbs, they smash dishes and overturn candles. When they break apart, they face each other, breathless and cursing and I make out a metallic glint in the flickering torchlight as one of them draws a blade. In seconds, the crowd is in uproar.
The leader at the top table climbs up on his chair and angrily barks out an order. In an instant, the young man with the weapon finds himself surrounded. One of the men grabs his arm and twists it, forcing him to drop the knife. Another kicks it out of his reach.
Still up on his chair the leader motions for silence which falls almost instantly. He gives his order so quietly that I can barely hear him. One by one the others repeat his words until they’re all whispering the same thing over and over like a chant:
‘Walk the plank. Walk the plank.’
Slowly, steadily, the chanting gets louder:
‘Walk the plank! Walk the plank! WALK THE PLANK!!!
The young man struggles and shouts as he’s marched up the gangplank and onto the ship, but they ignore his protests. He’s herded across to the far side of the deck where a thick plank juts out into the blackness below. Two of the pirates lift him up onto it. Once up there, he seems to understand that there’s no way out and stops his struggling.
When he walks unsteadily along its length and disappears into the void, the crowd erupts into wild applause and whoops of delight.
Only one of two things can have happened to him - both of them are bad. If the ship’s on the sea, he’ll be at the mercy of the sharks in the deep black water. If the ship’s on land, he’ll hit the ground, a bone-breaking forty feet below.
There’s nothing we can do for him without putting us all in danger. Terrified, we duck down and retreat back into the jungle.
‘Robert,’ Dad pants, ‘They mustn’t know we’re here! We’ve got to bury the dinghy NOW!’
So we have no choice; we leave that poor young man to his fate. As we sneak away, two emotions battle inside me. The first is horror; horror that the rabble actually found that brutal punishment funny. The second is relief: that they’re still laughing so loud that we don’t hear the splash... or the young man’s agonised screams.