By Michael B. Tager
Welcome to Spec Script, where author Michael B. Tager delves into the unexplored from your (or his) favorite television shows.
It rained for days. Not the gentle intermittent rain of Malcolm’s childhood that dampened quiet beaches and give way to the glorious sun, but an angry torrent of neglected Gods. Malcolm had always worshipped the sun, reveled in its kiss. Now, he wondered if perhaps he should have paid attention elsewhere.
Malcolm hunted, ducking beneath sodden palm fronds and slipping between barbed bushes that slapped his callused, tree-bark flesh. He wore too-large jeans cinched with rope and cracked canvas sneakers, patched and taped and patched again. He was cold, yes, but by now he was inured to that. He had no choice.
The jungle grew dense in the south of the island. The north, sparser, easier to fish, but overrun with the New Boston tribe, run by Rob and the remaining cameramen. Here, at least, room to maneuver, hunting and of course possible new allies. Malcolm needed allies—tribemates—more than anything else.
Over there, a copse of palms that might yet birth coconuts. Farther still, a glade of grass surrounded by thick ivy. There, a ruined trailer that had once contained a juice bar and sun bed, and now, he saw held only two corpses and a thick skim of beetles. Cochran. Cameraman #2. He prayed for forgiveness, though they were not amongst his triumphs. He slouched in the doorway, regarding the shriveled, feasted-upon bodies until something cracked behind him and he whirled, spear at the ready. Nothing there. Just trees and endless shroud.
He shrugged, wished he had found them first. He’d liked Cochran and he needed a new tribe. He inspected them one last time. Maybe he’d see something worthwhile. Nothing in the trailer, but in one outstretched hand, a small idol of clay. No immunity now, he thought.
At one of the nameless hills, he saw an imprint of a foot in the grass and felt a double surge of venom and hope riding shotgun in his veins. He ascended in rapidly-falling darkness. He made little noise, avoided the trip-wire and the concealed pit, felt himself a ninja, an Inca warrior, a Viking raider swooping in. And as he heard quiet conversation and the hint of a crackling fire, his breath caught in his throat, a butterfly in a net. Near the crest, he slid behind a dominating palm.
“Is someone there?” A girl’s voice. Malcolm’s heart rattled its cage and he thought, yes, a new tribe member. Please.
“No one’s there. We got those traps.” A man. Venom surged anew.
“I think you’re wrong.”
“Don’t be paranoid.”
“Don’t be an asshole.”
He laughed and then she laughed and their voices took a different timbre. Malcolm’s eyes bulged. How could anyone think about that at a time like this. But regardless, he had an opportunity. His chest expanded to a barrel, contracted to a spider. He raised his spear and apologized to his pilgrim ancestors, pleaded absolution from tribal forebears and with a roar, stepped around the tree.
But Parvati (wasn’t she already dead in the hotel fire?) and Ozzy (OZZY!) loomed before a stone fire pit, the sounds of their lovemaking a feint. Ozzy, small and lithe, had his own spear, short and thick with a hooked point, and Parvati, all angles and knotted hair had one of the old machetes, sharpened and gleaming, and Malcolm knew he was in trouble. His spear snaked out to Ozzy, who parried and when Parvati rushed in, the haft of Malcolm’s spear rushed to meet her in the temple. She fell, stunned and Malcolm head-faked like he was going to stab her and Ozzy jumped in front and jabbed. For a moment, they traded blows and Malcolm hoped he could overpower the faster, more athletic man and take Parvati prisoner, but when Parvati rose and slashed, Malcolm knew overmatched when he saw it. He sprinted, snagging a trio of deboned fish on his way (might as well get something). He rushed down the hill in the now-darkness, losing his spear, setting off traps, but he hurtled in the opposite direction so he felt only scratches and as he hurdled a pit he couldn’t stick the landing in the wet blackness and he pitched forward and hoped that his unconscious body would stay hidden from the vengeance of others.
After the bombs, they’d taken refuge in the 4-star hotel that was always off-camera. All 20 contestants and Jeff and the innumerable camera crew, caterers, support staff and interns, all together, sleeping in beds with 1000-count sheets, feasting on the larder in the kitchens while the world burned. Before the televisions died, they saw rescue operations forming for cities, territories. They knew they’d be rescued soon. They were famous.
But they realized, what did fame matter? At best, they were D-listers and besides, they were thousands of miles away from their country and in the middle of an ocean.
Food dwindled and tumult began. Alliances formed; the 20 contestants formed a coalition with Jeff and the producers. They exiled the interns to conserve food, then the grips to save medical supplies. The editors tried to usurp them, but failed and were sent out into the jungle as well.
When the fire roared in the night, set by who-knows-who, none had forseen it in their crystal balls of game play. But they’d forgotten of course, that it was no longer a game.
The cessation of rain woke Malcolm just before dawn and despite his obvious concussion, he jumped to his feet and ran. He sensed someone, searching for him. He didn’t know if Ozzy or Parvati still hunted, or some other survivor, but he let his animal brain take over. It wasn’t the first time he had lost. Not by a long shot.
By the time he arrived at his camp tucked in a small cave in a cove, accessible only by water, the sun had arrived finally, licked his soul clean. He felt recharged, jubilant. He slipped into the ocean, took a breath and slipped underneath, swimming beneath the earth, until he emerged in his home
The cave was furnished with a lean-to, a slightly-singed mattress, masses of blankets and pillows salvaged from a trailer, piles and piles of bamboo. A tarp draped over the roof, angled to deposit water from whence it came. Some medical supplies, a cistern. Two magazines. A pile of spears and fishing equipment against the far wall, leaning next to three rock piles.
Malcolm patted the three. Russell. Jeff Probst. Boom Operator #7. “Sorry my friends,” he said before lighting a fire, the smoke to be funneled into the crack in the ceiling. “No new tribe today.” He threw the stolen fish onto the coals. Soon, his belly full, he rested the screaming drums in his head.
Despite its size, it was a decidedly small island once they were released into the wild. Many had died in the fire and another score had perished when the boat none of them knew how to sail sank just off the coast. But the ones that remained were as a plague.
Nature’s bounty had sustained twenty men-and-women who played a game, but certainly could not feed scores of desperate souls. The coconuts and the birds and the crabs and the monkeys and the rats all disappeared into ravenous bellies within the first week. The alliances ebbed and flowed as the food disappeared. The grips disbanded and were absorbed by the remaining tribes. The contestants and the producers broke up and then fractured further and drew others. By now the interns were desperate for any scrap and allied themselves with whomever had the power of the moment. And then it changed and changed and changed again and again.
Malcolm didn’t remember who drew first blood. It very well may have been him, or maybe it had been that one caterer, hallucinating after swallowing poisonous berries. Not that it mattered who broke the unwritten truce; it would have parted like the sea before long anyway. Scarcity, after all, is the cause of all wars.
Malcolm remembered his first kill. A pretty young personal assistant. Her back to him, a pile of coconuts at her feet. She died in the middle of a clearing, her blood leaking into the soil, soon to be mixed with his vomit and tears. A piece of him died when he realized how easily he became savage. But when he returned with her clothes and the coconuts and a pile of meat, his tribe praised him. Is this how a soul darkens?
Footsteps woke him. All was darkness. His fire had burnt out, and the little sunlight that penetrated the cave long gone. He sat. More footsteps, the tinkling of dirt, prodding of ground with a heavy object. A fishing pole? Yet another spear?
Did they know he was here? Had Parvati and Ozzy followed him? Was it the remnants of his tribe who had betrayed him and slaughtered Russell in his sleep and absconded with most of their supplies? He thought them all dead, but perhaps one had slipped away.
Malcolm grabbed another sharpened spear from the stack, drank clean water from his cupped hands and tied back his still-lustrous hair. Was he still handsome? He didn’t know how he would speak to a woman again, not after what he’d done, unless she were as compromised as he. Could he, if he found Parvati again, perhaps talk to her? He’d have to capture her first, make her listen. She’d kill him otherwise, of course. But if he tied her up, worked on her, maybe knocked her around until she understood she had no choice, well maybe then she’d understand where safety resided. The tribe.
He blinked. Had he really been thinking that? Who even was he anymore?
His spear strapped to his back, Malcolm lowered himself into the water and let the sea devour him. He swam by memory through jet blackness, then breached, the jagged half-moon greeting him alongside a billion stars. He drank the night, glorious air filling him, feeling rebirthed and for a moment, pure.
Was that laughter? Malcolm remembered himself. His eyes adjusted and yes, there someone walked with a stout staff, light reflecting off jutting metal at the tip. There were at least two dozen that Malcolm suspected were still out there. There might be others.
He crept closer, sliding the spear free beneath the water. The lapping waves concealed him. Any sounds he made were concealed by lapping waves, the sigh of tree tops, footsteps, the ratcheting of souls’ remorse. In darkness, Malcolm could pretend he wasn’t himself and take the steps that day exposed. He felt more vicious at night, more sure of himself. He could push taint to that cage in his chest that held his soul and the remnants of civilization. This was about survival. He had to outwit and outlast.
Of course, he’d outplay. Life after all, was nothing but a game. Nothing was more true anymore. And he’d always been good at games.
A step closer to the beach, he breathed. His hunter drew nearer. Malcolm ducked deep into the water, only his eyes exposed. Partial moonlight draped deep shadows, worse than total darkness, an illusion of vision. Step closer, he thought, and Malcolm felt fury build. It was kill or be killed. Step step step. Malcolm tensed; he would win. Rustle rustle. Malcolm tightened his grasp. Lap lap. Malcolm’s lips curled. Howl howl. Malcolm howled.
Malcolm leapt from the water, his spear lunging. But whoever it was laughed and twirled and Malcolm’s spear thunked into the beach harmlessly and Maria the producer (one of the last he expected) turned three hundred and sixty degrees, her hooked staff crunching into his ribs.
“Been following you ever since you took out my intern,” she said as he slid to his knees.”
The world swam in his vision. “I needed his jeans.”
She leaned forward. “We all need things.” And with that, she bunched her fists and brought them together on his temples and he fell into darkness for the third time in such a short span that he knew if he lived he might never be the same.
Malcolm would never admit this, not when awake, and neither would the others, but they enjoyed this life because every moment counted and every lick of food tasted better than any other meal in their life because every moment counted and every decision literal life and death and every time they fucked or fought or killed they knew that they were a part of the great game called Purpose.
There was a benefit to being hunted and being the hunter in that everything was clearer than when one slaved in an office or an airport or in a restaurant bringing plates of food, it was what drew them all to the game show anyway, this taking your future in your own greasy, mean palms and forcing your own way with feats of strength and mind-bending puzzles and alliances great and small, that the game wasn’t real wasn’t the point, because nothing was real and if a game of facsimile was unreal, it felt real in the moment and really what was realer than this epic game of actual survival?
Malcolm, in quiet moments, thanked the end of the world for making him actualized.
The hiss of fire woke him. He groaned, the pain in his side overwhelming. He tried to roll but found himself unable. He opened his eyes and looked at the ropes, the bandage.
Maria the producer stoked the fire. They were in his cave. She sat on his mattress, wore Russell’s fedora that he’d kept beside Russell’s cairn. “You’re my prisoner, aren’t you? I needed a new camp after Phil’s alliance of two booms, my old production partner and the last caterer took us down. I got one but they got everything else. I saw you hunting and followed.”
He didn’t know what to say, so he let his head loll as he dealt with the agony consuming him. This was unplanned. Was death coming? Would she do to him what he’d done to Jeff and what they’d all done to that assistant and what he’d done to others?
Maria must have read his terror because she said, “I’m not going to kill you, not unless you don’t listen to reason and you’re too pretty to eat. But we’re going to have a long few days to become acquainted. You’ll learn that I’m all there is, sweetheart. You’ll know where your bread is buttered. It’s not with New Boston, nor is it with Stephanie and Amanda.”
Maria reached and pinched his cheeks and held the fire-sharpened spear, the tip black and charred. “Fire is life, you know. And you’re about to go to Tribal Council again. And I’ll ask you, are you in or do I have to vote you out?” With that, Maria stared into the fire, its reflection dancing in her eyes.. He knew what the pain that smelled like spearmint that she had in store. He knew he’d break at some point. Maria had sharpened, though she’d always been boardroom-tough, but if she’d devolved like he had, well, there was no hope.
Suddenly, he sobbed, tears dripping fire through his beard. He gasped, smiled. He could still cry? He thought only humans wept. He let the agony fill him, seep out in shudders and convulsions. In this world, maybe that would help him survive.
Michael B. Tager is a Baltimore-based writer and editor. More of his work can be found at michaelbtager.com. Likes include garden gnomes, cats, tacos and Prince.