The following is a new short story that I intend to turn into part of my project Pilgrim’s Progress novel this summer. Enjoy.
The sun baked our brown, supple bikinied bodies, and we reveled in it. Four of us—Marcie, Kimmy, Infinity and me, Ellie—were on permanent spring break. School was out, and we had no plans to ever return—ever.
The resort that Kimmy had found was just yummy. The pool boys brought us towels when we got too warm or too cold—which was like, never, but we loved the attention anyway. The bartender brought us champagne—champagne, mind you—and we nibbled on crab cakes, lobster bisque and sampled fruit cups that wandered our way on trays carried by the most handsome young college boys imaginable.
But the best part was the sun. We lay in it for hours and hours each day, and the amazing thing is that we never got sunburned. Marcie thought it was because of the special cocoa butter that the resort provided. Kimmy said it was that the sun was different here, wherever it was we were. I didn’t worry about it, but just enjoyed it.
At night we danced under the full moon with a long line of hot guys waiting for each of us. Marcie and Kimmy disappeared every once in a while, and I would hear them giggling in the bushes or up on the veranda or not hear them at all. But they always returned, a small smile on their lips.
Right now, the two of them were whispering and pointing at the buff hunk of man meat that was cleaning the pool and smiling at them. He was tall, dark and Hispanic, and I knew that was Marcie’s weakness. Me? I was more into the Nordic look.
I turned and looked at Infinity, who was staring off in the distance, and shook my head. We had been friends for a long time, and even though Infinity was always a part of our little escapades and adventures, I could tell her heart and mind wasn’t in it. She sat with her floppy hat pulled down over her gorgeous blonde head and stared off to the west. a slight frown on her lips.
“What is it, Finn?” I asked her.
She didn’t answer right away, but kept staring off into the distance. Then:
“Do you see that man standing over there?”
She didn’t point, but raised her chin slightly. “Across the ravine. Over on that rise of ground.”
I exhaled and pulled myself up to a sitting position, turning as I did so, and looked where she was indicating. It was quite a ways away, but I did see a figure standing on the rise.
She frowned again. “I think he’s trying to get my attention.”
I giggled. “You have half the resort after you, and you’re worried about one guy half a mile away? Must be some guy.”
Infinity didn’t respond to my joke. Instead, she turned to the other two.
“Anyone have a pair of binoculars?”
Marcie smiled and Kimmy laughed out loud.
“Sure,” Kimmy said. “Let me reach down into my bikini top and pull a pair out.”
“I’ve seen what you have in that bikini top, Kimmy,” said Marcie. “They’re not binoculars.” The two girls giggled, and Infinity shook her head.
“Maybe the bartender has a pair of binoculars,” I suggested. Infinity nodded, and got up from her chaise lounge and wandered over to the bar. I watched her ask the bartender, who nodded and reached down under the bar, producing a pair of small opera glasses. Infinity smiled and nodded to him, then brought them back. She stood next to me, adjusted the glasses and looked at the figure so far away.
“So? I asked finally. “What do you see?”
In response, she handed me the opera glasses. I raised them to my eyes—funny, I remembered a time when I had worn glasses constantly and was blind as a bat without them, but here I didn’t need or even have them. I looked through the eyepiece and waited for my eyes to adjust to the brightness.
There on the ridge stood an ordinary looking man—very plain looking in contrast to all the eye candy around the resort—standing in military fatigues and looking at us. He was obviously trying to get our attention. As I looked at him, I got the feeling that he could see me just as well as I was looking at him. He had a stubbly beard, a dirty face and soulful eyes. I looked at those eyes and found myself wanting to know him better.
“What’s he doing?” Marcie asked, suddenly interested.
“Nothing,” I said. “Just standing there. Wait….” I paused as I saw him turn and reach behind him. He lifted up a large white pad and held it up for me to see. Written on the page I could read: ITS NOT A RESORT.
“He has a sign that says ‘It’s not a resort,’” I told them.
“What’s not a resort?” Kimmy asked.
“What do you mean, ‘what’s not a resort.’ He’s talking about this place, stupid,” said Marcie.
“That’s ridiculous,” Kimmy said.
“Wait,” I said. “He’s writing something else. It says ‘Don’t drink the champagne.’”
The man held up the white pad across his chest so I could see it, and looked at his words, then back at me. The mournful eyes looked into my soul.
“Guys, I think he’s serious,” I said.
“This is stupid,” said Marcie. “He’s just some ugly guy trying to get a rise out of us.”
“Well, he got my attention,” said Infinity. “Ellie, let me see those glasses.” I gave her the binoculars and she started to lift them to her eyes. I saw her hesitate and watched as still another young gorgeous boy came to us with another tray of champagne. We each took a glass, and the boy smiled back at us.
“Salsa dancing tonight at 9, ladies,” he said, flashing very white teeth at each of us in turn.
We waited for him to leave, then Marcie raised her glass to take a drink, but Infinity pulled her arm down and stopped her.
“What?” Marcie asked.
“What if he’s right?” Infinity said.
“Right about what?”
“What if there’s something wrong with the champagne? What if this place really isn’t a resort?”
Kimmy laughed out loud. “Now you’re really trippin’. That guy is just some crazy man up there on the hill. And you’re going to believe him?”
“I don’t know. Maybe,” Infinity said, the frown returning to her face. “Tell me, Kim. You paid for our rooms, right?”
“How much did you pay? And did you pay cash or credit card?”
“I…I don’t remember.”
“Marcie, how long have we been here?”
Now Marcie frowned. “Weeks?”
“Isn’t a spring break only supposed to last a week?” She turned to me.
“Ellie, do you remember how we got here? Did we take the train? Fly? Drive?”
I couldn’t answer her.
“Something is definitely wrong here,” she continued. “It’s all exactly right. I’ve been worried about it for several days now. Nothing is this perfect. Nothing.”
I turned and saw that Kimmy was already drinking the champagne, and as I watched I saw Marcie raise her glass as if to drink too.
“Sweetie, you worry too much,” said Marcie, the drink poised an inch from her mouth. “The boys are gorgeous, the sun is wonderful, the pool is clean…and the champagne is the most tasty I have ever had. Even if something is wrong, I don’t want to know about it.” And then she joined Kimmy in drinking the rest of her champagne.
Kimmy and Marcie wandered off in search of escorts for the evening, but I stayed with Infinity, who continued looking off into the distance at the stranger. I watched her for a long time, the two champagne glasses still held in my hands. Finally she handed the opera glasses back to me. I looked at the man on the hill and read his message:
I CAN HELP YOU ESCAPE.
That evening we went to the dance, but Infinity and I were not in the mood to participate. I had a lot of respect for Infinity, and even though I was confused by what she said versus what I saw around me, I trusted her. We sat on the edge of the crowd, watching others dance and say no to boy after gorgeous boy who wanted to salsa with us. Marcie and Kimmy were having their usual fun, flirting and dancing with guy after guy, and occasionally disappearing with a particularly sexy one. Kimmy spent most of the night with the bronzed Hispanic pool boy she had been ogling all day. After a while, we both grew bored in watching the others having fun, and we went back to our bungalow.
I had restless dreams that night. Nightmares, in fact. There wasn’t any particular theme to them. Just jumbled images of grotesque people, brutal men and scary places. But they were nothing compared to the nightmare that confronted me when I woke up.
I had gone to sleep in a white bungalow overlooking a pool and decorated in white rattan and bamboo furniture. My bed was covered by silk sheets and a delicate lace-edged comforter. I had thought the room dreamy over the time we had spent there, with each of the four of us having our own rooms.
When I woke up, I lay on a stained mattress with a brown Army blanket with holes in it. I looked around me and didn’t recognize the room. I gasped as a rat scurried across the edge of the room. Sunlight filtered in from a hole in the roof. Bare, rough boards made up our floor, and the door to my room was simply a heavy sheet of plywood.
And my vision was blurred. Startled, I found a dusty set of eyeglasses beside my bed and put them on. They seemed oddly familiar.
I heard noises from the other rooms. In one direction, from Kimmy’s room, I heard snoring. I had never heard her snore before. I tiptoed to the door and peeked in the partly opened door. She lay in bed with a heavy Hispanic man who I realized vaguely resembled the pool boy. But this man was at least 40, with a week’s growth of beard, a pot belly and scars on one side of his face. I cringed and stepped back in the hallway.
Then I heard crying coming from Infinity’s room. I pushed her door open and almost didn’t recognize the girl sitting on the cot. Her hair was matted, her skin was gray, and she was underweight by at least 30 pounds.
“Finn?” I asked weakly. The girl took her tear-stained face out of her hands and looked up at me. It was her, but Infinity was no longer the healthy, gorgeous college girl that I had always envied. She was a skeleton.
I watched the look on her face as she looked at me, then I realized that she was not the only one who had changed. I looked down at my stick-like arms, my bony legs, and felt the ribs that stuck out from my sides. I quickly wished for a mirror, then just as quickly was glad I didn’t have one.
Infinity stood up and together we walked to the front door of what we had called a bungalow. Now we realized that it was merely a shack. We looked out at what we had thought was a pool and the area where we had spent our days sunning.
Instead we saw a pool of stinky green water covered with scum, surrounded by dirt. What we had seen as handsome college boys we now saw as plain, and often ugly, soldiers in uniform. They walked across a dirt area that we had seen as tile covered, and above us in the distance I could see both a guard tower and a barbed wire fence surrounding the compound.
“It must have been the champagne,” Infinity muttered, and as she said it, I saw one of the uniformed men passing out Dixie cups of something to other women who looked just as emaciated as we were.
I stared up at the sun. A day ago it has seemed warm and inviting. Now it was hot and scorching. My eyes traveled from the sun down to the tower and then to the distant rise beyond the ravine. The stranger stood there, waiting for us.
“I’m ready,” I said. “Let’s get out of here.”