Mark noticed the faint scritchy-scratchy sound their first night on the island. Hoisting his head up off the blanket, he strained with both ears, but the sound faded. He shrugged and laid his head back down. After a moment it returned, louder—just beneath the sand. As he stirred again, it stopped.
“What the hell?” he said, sitting upright. He looked over at Laura, his girlfriend, fast asleep in the sand next to him. Pondered waking her to involve a second pair of ears. “No, man. Let the girl rest. She’s had a bad day.”
Standing up, he stretched and strolled down to the shore. The full moon coasting serenely overhead dominated a crystal clear night and. A warm, light breeze blew in from the ocean, nudging gentle swells onto the beach. He sighed. So close to paradise. A tropical island, a beautiful girl, except….
“Except we’re fucking marooned here!” he yelled.
Early that morning he’d slammed their thirty-four foot sailboat onto a reef two hundred yards out, breaching the hull. They raced to load the dinghy with survival essentials and rowed ashore. That afternoon the mocking tide lifted the sailboat free to drift another fifty yards out, where it now rested on the bottom. The mast and gently flapping sails were the only visible testament to an instant of inattention. He stared at his lost vessel, begging Time to give him that moment back. It did not, and for the hundredth time he wished he could whirl around fast enough to kick himself in the butt.
“Idiot! My god, you’re Gilligan! Totally worthless on a boat!”
Shaking his head at his stupidity, he managed to smile at himself. “You’re not the first captain to run aground. And you saved the entire crew!”
Quietly whistling the Gilligan’s Island theme song, he strolled back to their “sleeping dune.” Laura (the entire crew) lay undisturbed by his shout or his whistling. At bedtime, eschewing a blanket for a firm bed of warm sand, she’d wriggled until she had a form-fitting depression and dropped right off to sleep.
She looked comfy in the sand nest she’d made. “Wow,” he said, “You are really out.” He admired how she’d worked her way into it. She was buried at least two inches deeper than before.
“Down into the warm stuff! Nice bed, sleeping beauty.”
He knelt down to give her a kiss. As his lips touched her cheek, he heard the scritchy-scrabbly sounds again, a little louder this time. He put his ear to the ground and they immediately stopped.
He straightened up, frowning. Putting his hand on Laura’s shoulder, he shook her gently.
“Laura? Hey, Laura!”
She opened her eyes and gave him an unfocused stare, like a zombie girlfriend from a bad movie. She muttered, “Lee me lone.” Her eyes closed again.
Mark chewed his lip, wondering whether to try waking her again. Something felt wrong. This woman woke up whenever her cat yawned. After a moment, he chose to let her rest.
Awake now, Mark decided another exploratory stroll was in order. He grabbed the flashlight and smiled down at Laura. A shooting star streaked low and fast on the horizon, catching his attention. He watched it fade and ambled down to the beach. Had he looked at Laura a moment longer, he would have seen her eyes pop open—this time fully awake, her expression moving from surprise to shocked awareness to absolute terror.
“Oh God, Mark! Help me. Help me!” she screamed. Laura heard the screaming clearly in her mind, but her voice seemed disconnected. Her ears only heard a low, wheezy, “Heh me. HEH me.”
Mark, already several paces away, heard nothing.
He followed the path they’d taken earlier. He wasn’t really “exploring”—he could stand anyplace on the island and see the whole thing. Nothing but sand, scrubby bushes and some stunted palms. Seabirds were the only wildlife.
They’d come across a big group that morning, some sitting and sunning, some squabbling and occasionally pecking at the sand. As they approached, the birds took flight, squawking indignantly. All but one. Curious, they approached him. This one didn’t fly off. Settled into the sand, he raised and lowered his wings as if they were made of lead. After a long and uncertain “awwwkk” he tilted his head and eyed the humans.
“This bird is stoned!” giggled Laura.
“Or sick,” replied Mark. An outdoors guy who enjoyed wildlife, he wanted to help the bird. But knowing the best option is to leave the animal alone, he reluctantly moved on.
Now his chest tightened as he saw the bird still there. Or mostly there. Only the head and neck stuck up from the ground.
“What the hell, bird?” he muttered. At this, it slowly opened one eye.
Mark flicked on his flashlight. Around the bird the sand moved faintly, like something was burrowing there. The scritchy-scratchy sound filled his ears. “The fuh…” he breathed. Grabbing a piece of driftwood, he scraped sand away from the bird. Three scrapes down, he uncovered dozens of little spiders, a quarter inch in size, hurriedly scurrying around. They instantly vanished into the sand. Mark dug until the bird was entirely exposed then leaned down close for a good look. What he saw took his breath away. “No,” he murmured. “No, no, no, no!” Stunned and sickened by the grisly carnage starkly illuminated in the flashlight’s beam, he stumbled backward, his pulse pounding in his ears.
“Oh God!” he shouted. “Oh my God!”
The bird’s body was a bloody hive of deep pits chewed directly into raw flesh. Each one was filled with tiny spiders. Some grazed on the host, enlarging their pit by injecting digestive enzymes into the flesh, then sucking the dissolved mash into their maws. Others stood guard on the fluffy white egg sac nestled deep in each pit.
At Mark’s shout, they all froze momentarily, then resumed their activity. Many took up positions at the edge of their pit and squatted, staring directly at Mark.
Nausea hit Mark like a hammer. He collapsed to his hands and knees and dry-heaved until he nearly passed out. As he lay gasping, his hands buried in the sand, he heard the scritchy-scratchy noise and felt a slight tickle on his arms.
“Gaahhh!” He jumped up shrieking and wildly brushed tiny spiders off his arms and legs. He whirled madly, ripping his fingers through his hair and slapping his face. Tearing off his shirt, he whipped his upper body with it. Finally, with a gasp of pure horror, he yanked both belt and zipper open and frantically explored his genitals and rectum.
Full realization struck home.
He sprinted back to their camp, sobbing, “Oh no, oh no, oh no!”
She was far worse off than he feared. Laura’s body was submerged. Her head was still above ground, mouth frozen in a soundless scream. She stared desperately at Mark. The sand covering her body undulated rapidly as tiny spiders burrowed into her flesh, feasted and laid sticky eggs. The scritchy-scratchy noise was now a low, dry rustling sound and a heavy copper stench of blood filled the air.
“Oh, sweet Jesus! No!”
He plunged his hands into the sand, found her ankles and began dragging her out. Dozens of spiders swarmed up his arms, spreading out onto his face and upper body. Screaming with fear and revulsion, he raced to the beach and flung himself into the ocean, brushing them off in the water.
Standing ankle-deep, dripping wet and shaking uncontrollably, he slowly collected himself. “The dinghy. Got to get away from here.”
As he stepped onto shore, the scritchy noise erupted to a full-scale insect buzz as deafening as a horde of locusts. Hundreds, then thousands of spiders sprang up from the sand and raced directly at him. Mark dashed back into the water.
Now knee-deep, he stared, aghast, as the mob of spiders grew in size and flowed toward him, stopping at the water’s edge. The dinghy was pulled up on shore twenty yards away. He started to wade that direction. The dark mass, now ten feet across, followed him. He stopped. It stopped. He took three more steps. The spiders kept pace.
“Shit,” he muttered.
His arms started to feel numb. “You bastards bit me!” he shouted. He wanted to strike back. Feeling around for a rock, he struck only sand. But as he groped around in the water, he had an idea.
“Hey! Do you little bastards like water?” he yelled. He got as close to shore as he dared and furiously scooped torrents of seawater at the thronged spiders, like the swimming pool water-fights of his youth. They scattered quickly, some spiders racing across the sand and others burrowing into it.
He howled with glee. “Yeah, saltwater stings, doesn’t it?”
He stood and waited. Gradually they grouped again, patiently waiting for him to come ashore.
“Okay man, you can distract them,” he said. “But you can’t know where they’ll come up when you’re back on land.” Taking a step backward, he caught his heel and fell with a splash. Sitting in the water, it hit him—he could disappear too.
Wading back to the silent horde he repeated the water-fight, more vigorously this time. Once all the spiders disappeared, he turned and waded furiously out to sea. At waist-deep, he took a long breath, dove under the surface and swam hard, parallel to the shore.
After ten yards, he angled towards land. When his belly touched sand, he scrambled to his feet and dashed for the dinghy. Grabbing it by the stern, he frantically dragged it off the beach and tumbled in. By the time he sat upright, the silent, staring mob had reemerged on shore, just a few feet away.
When their boat foundered on the reef, they loaded their survival gear into the dinghy. Mark had everything for a sojourn on the ocean. Tonight, he would row out and tie off to the mast jutting up from the wreckage. Tomorrow he’d make a plan.
But first he had to balance accounts. He dug out the three things he needed. The first two were a screwdriver and a tin of lamp fuel. Leaning out over the gunwale, he punctured the tin with the screwdriver until the fuel was draining freely. He stood and carefully lobbed it into the center of the spider horde. Dropping to his knees, he snatched up the third item—a flare gun.
The spiders swarmed the tin. He took careful aim, pulled the trigger and flung himself flat in the boat.
The explosion tore the night open with an overwhelming whump. It lit up the entire island and rocked the dinghy with a deafening boom. Flying sand peppered his boat with a thin, dry rattle.
Sitting up, he saw a scorched crater where the spider mass had been.
Mark sat looking towards their campsite, only thirty feet away, alert for any motion in the sand. After a few minutes, he slipped over the gunwale and carefully made his way to shore. He stepped gingerly onto the sand, ready to flee back to the water’s safety. Still no motion.
That bird’s still alive, he thought. Maybe the spiders only use enough venom to keep their host from moving, but not kill it.
“Screw it!” he yelled and dashed madly towards Laura, heart pounding in his chest and feet thudding on the sand.
Only her face was visible, still locked in an expression of horror. He reached down into the sand and fished around until he found her ankles. Grabbing them firmly, he leaned backwards and pulled her free from her sandy grave. This time only a few spiders emerged to challenge him. He bent over and grimly crushed each one with his hands.
When they stopped appearing, he took hold of Laura’s ankles again and carefully dragged her down the slight slope and into the ocean, leaving her head just out of the water. Several cavities were visible on her body, but none as deep or developed as he’d seen on the poor bird.
Grabbing the flashlight from the dinghy, he turned it on and stuck it into his mouth. Starting with her legs, he gently brushed his fingertips into each cavity, dislodging any spiders and nesting material. He carefully scooped each spider up out of the water, cupped it in his palm and ground his fist on it.
In spite of her locked muscles, Laura’s face contorted in pain as he worked the salt water into her raw flesh. Her mouth worked slowly, but no sound emerged.
“Darling I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” he kept saying. Holding his breath, Mark unbuttoned her shirt and then pulled down her shorts. Rolling her from side to side in the water, he was relieved—the spiders had only attacked her exposed flesh.
“Now for the hard part, sweetie.” Tossing the flashlight back into the boat, he gently tugged her farther out from the shore, taking care to keep her face out of the water. When he judged it was deep enough, he said, “Try to hold your breath.”
Holding his own, Mark squatted underneath Laura. In one move, he grabbed her by the hips, rolled her over and stood up, catching her upper body across his shoulders in a fireman’s carry. Wading back to the dinghy, he rolled her in as gently as he could.
Pulling himself in after her, he grabbed the flashlight and carefully examined the boat for unwanted boarders. Finding none, he made a nest of sleeping bags and blankets and eased Laura into it.
The setting moon illuminated everything with its bright silver light. Mark looked down into Laura’s eyes and stroked her hair. “We’re off the island, love,” he said. “We’re going to anchor at the sailboat tonight and head out into the shipping channels tomorrow. You’ll be alright when the spider bites wear off.” Laura stared up at him, not moving a muscle. Mark prayed he was right about her recovery.
He broke out the first aid kit and slathered her spider cavities with antibacterial salve. When that was done, he rowed out to the sailboat and tied off to the mast sticking out of the water. It took him five tries to guide his shaking hands. When done, he slumped gratefully down next to Laura, nestling close.
Moonset left him under a canopy of stars. Fatigued, he tried to keep his eyes on Laura. Her eyes remained open, unable to close. They looked so dry. Mark gently tried to work her lids down. No go—even her smallest muscles were too rigid to move.
Eventually exhaustion set in. He fought hard to watch over Laura, but the gentle rocking of the sea won out and he slipped into fitful slumber.
The tropical sun beating down on his eyelids was his first note of real wakening. As he came to his senses, he heard the second note. A whisper. “Mark? Mark, please. I’m thirsty. So thirsty.” He bolted upright and knelt down next to Laura. She smiled weakly up at him. “Hey fella, how ‘bout a drink? Okay?” Her voice trailed off, but she kept looking brightly up at him.
Joy and relief fought with urgency as he rooted out a water bottle and tore it open. Holding her head up, he slowly dribbled water between her lips. She choked and coughed at first, but drank some.
Mark slumped back against the thwarts and tried to take it in. They were alive, off the island and somewhere over the horizon was rescue. The sun was shining and the sea was calm. He closed his eyes and reveled in that for a moment.
Sitting up, he smiled down at Laura. “Time to head for home.” Casting off from the sailboat mast, Mark shipped the oars and rowed for the open sea.
James Dodds is a recovering technical writer. Earlier in life, he produced a small library of user manuals that, happily, went unread by everyone. More recently, he has gotten serious about writing fiction. His work has appeared in The Avenue, Enchanted Conversation, and Flame Tree Press, among other publications. He lives the quiet life out in the country west of Spokane, Washington.