Stranded. No prison guards. Kill or be killed.
After being wrongly convicted of murder, eighteen-year-old Leo Hart is sentenced to serve time in the worst place imaginable—Krimos Islands.
This cluster of penal islands is said to be reserved for the most heinous of convicts.
Murderers. Sociopaths. Wicked men capable of taking a life without a second thought.
And Leo is anything but wicked. He’s soft—too soft, according to his brother.
He’ll never survive.
But when Leo discovers that part of Krimos Islands is inhabited by a society of men searching to atone for past mistakes, he knows this is his only shot at survival.
The only problem is, getting there is nearly impossible. Leo will have to travel across gang territory just to reach the next island, which is said to be even more dangerous than the one he started on.
Whether he reaches his destination will depend on who he trusts, and how much of his humanity he’s willing to shed.
“This ain’t stinkin’ right,” the older man said.
He shivered in the cell next to me, bending his knees against his chest to keep warm.
Across from him sat a prisoner with a shaved head, a dark goatee, and hundreds of tattoos covering his light brown skin from head to toe. The kind of guy you didn’t want to cross unless you wanted to end up floating in a river. “The hell do you know, old cabron?”
He spoke with a Hispanic accent, his R’s rolling off the tip of his tongue.
He played with his pudgy fingers, opening and closing his fist as if vividly imagining smashing the old man in the mouth for voicing how he felt. Either that, or he used to wear rings and got into the habit of playing with them.
In the cell next to him sat a young guy who hadn’t said a word since we’d left prison. He kept his head down. In the dim light of the ship’s lower deck, his dark brown skin looked black. He looked around my age, and I couldn’t tell if he was staying silent because he was afraid, or if he was the type to snap without warning.
“I’d rather be free on an island than stuck in a cell twenty-three hours a day,” the tattooed man said.
Although part of me agreed with him, being banished to an island meant I’d never have the chance to fight my conviction, which wasn’t fair because I didn’t do the crime; I never murdered anyone.
The memory flashed vividly in my mind: a gun in my trembling hand, my enemy on his knees in front of me, blood dripping from his nose.
I’d wanted to pull that trigger, but I couldn’t.
I shook these thoughts away, not wanting to relive that horrible day.
The old man suddenly let out a high-pitched laugh and started pacing in his plexiglass cell. Pointing at the tattooed man, he said, “Then you’re crazy. You hear me? Crazy!”
His last word came out loud. He slapped his palms on the plexiglass—a loud smacking sound—and stared at the tattooed man with wild, gray eyes. He went on to giggle, before bashing his own head against his cell wall.
The other prisoner wasn’t having it. He stood up, his heavy chain clanking on the floor as he took a few heavy steps toward his clear cell wall. He puffed his chest through his orange jumpsuit and gave the old man a death stare that I knew was more than a stare. It was a threat—a look that promised to turn into physical action the second he had the chance.
“Sit down!” came a guard’s voice.
His voice was so authoritative that the man sat down reluctantly, all the while scowling at his gray-haired enemy.
Everyone remained quiet after that, aside from the angry inmate muttering things like, “cabron” and “stupid old man.”
The hours passed as the ship swayed gently. At one point, a guard brought us a meal that might have been confused for a pile of feces if I hadn’t spent two weeks in prison before this.
It was cold and smelled sour, but it was edible.
I swallowed the mush, reminding myself that food didn’t have to taste good to keep me alive. After my meal, I leaned my head against the back metal wall, feeling sick to my stomach.
None of this felt real.
This wasn’t my life, was it?
I stared at my veiny hands, their circulation partially cut off thanks to the metal cuffs around my wrists. I wiggled my fingers to see if maybe I could find a flaw in my reality: something off… like a missing finger or a freckle that didn’t belong.
But these were my hands. They were real and very much fastened to the leather belt around my waist.
I lay down on the cool metal bench at the back of my cell and closed my eyes, drifting in and out of consciousness. When the ship’s engine stopped rumbling—a faint sound I barely heard over the air circulation—I sat upright. Then came the sound of a loud, ominous horn. I searched the ceiling, trying to determine where the sound was coming from, when a guard snapped, “Up!”
Repositioning his black ballcap, he walked with broad shoulders as if trying to make himself look bigger than he was. He was also the kind of guard who deepened his voice to appear more macho.
It didn’t work. If anything, it made him look like a jackass.
How much time had passed, anyway? A day? Two?
“Up!” the guard repeated, his voice sounding like it belonged to someone else.
Blinking hard to rid the fuzz from my eyesight, I sat upright and stood.
“Hands,” the guard barked.
The old man was the first one to move to the slot of his plexiglass cage. He stuck his wrists out as far as he could despite the leather belt and chain around his waist. The guard stuck a key in the cuffs, unlocked them, and removed them.
“Turn around,” he ordered. “Wrists.”
The gray-haired man did as ordered while talking to himself. He spun around, then backed up with his wrists behind his back. This time, the guard didn’t use cuffs to restrain him. Instead, he wrapped the man’s wrists with a black zip tie.
“What’s that for?” I asked.
“Shut your mouth,” the guard snapped before moving to my cell.
Although I didn’t want to be zip-tied, I had no choice. This guard had zero patience for defiance, and I knew if I put up a fight, he’d do something worse, like tase me or get other guards to join in and force me flat onto the ground.
I’d seen guards use their weight to pin full-grown men to the ground, and they were never gentle about it. Arms sometimes broke, and if the guards were in a really bad mood, they broke noses.
Reluctantly, I let him remove my cuffs, then did as instructed by sticking my hands behind my back.
The guard fastened the zip tie extra tight, almost like he wanted me to suffer for having opened my mouth.
He went on to do the same to the last two inmates, then reminded us to keep our mouths shut.
The guard reached for a button on his uniform, and the door behind him flickered before disappearing entirely. From the opening came two additional guards. One held an F97 rifle—something I’d only ever read about online, and something that was slowly making its way into prisons across the United States.
The silver gun was long and heavy looking, and across its side was a bright blue light in the shape of a tube. But I knew this part wasn’t for decoration.
I’d seen it in action, and it was terrifying.
One blast from this rifle would send out electric-like energy capable of wrapping up an entire group of men and bringing them to their knees.
It almost acted like a taser, causing every muscle in the body to contract. The difference, however, was that the energy emitted from the F97 could be manipulated to lasso multiple bodies at once. And if that wasn’t terrifying enough, the shooter could change the voltage while in operation, which meant this guard could either subdue us all or kill us all, depending on his mood.
I stared at the shiny gun, wishing he’d put it away.
For all I knew, he’d shoot us in the back the second we set foot on this penal island I’d been sentenced to.
Leonardo Hart, I hereby sentence you to a lifelong sentence on Krimos Islands.
The judge’s words played over and over again in my head. He’d said it angrily, as if my very existence disgusted him. I hadn’t even heard about the penal islands until that moment. Apparently, prisoners with lifelong sentences were now being sent to some island in the middle of nowhere.
In the eyes of the government, I was a waste of skin.
So who was to say I wouldn’t be executed? It wasn’t like anyone would come looking for me.
The system didn’t care about us or whether we survived. All they wanted was to check off a box stating that murderers serving lifelong sentences had been placed on Krimos Islands.
The guard with the black ballcap unlocked our cells with the press of a button. The plexiglass wall disappeared as if by magic, and we were then ordered to line up and move toward the staircase.
The gunned man followed behind us, his F97 aimed threateningly at our backs. We were led up onto the main deck, where a helicopter pad made of cement took up a large chunk of the space. Behind it was a huge artillery gun capable of bringing down an aircraft.
The sky, gray and clumpy, was still bright enough to make my eyes water.
Someone suddenly shoved me.
“Move it,” the guard ordered.
I walked faster to keep up with the other three inmates.
“Climb on,” said the same voice.
He was referring to the bright orange boat hanging by a cable wire next to the ship. It had been pulled up to the ledge of the ship and fastened with straps. The old man was first to climb on, and the tattooed man went next.
I expected a fight to break out, but nothing happened.
Beyond their heads was a cluster of islands.
There were four or five of them in total, all close to each other. One island was mountainous, while the others were covered with countless trees that looked to form widespread jungles.
Something cold and hard jabbed me between the shoulder blades.
I did as he told me and climbed into the lifeboat.
The three guards followed. The last one to climb turned around and unstrapped the boat from the ship.
When the boat dropped a few inches, my stomach clenched. The guards, however, didn’t look worried. It was as if they’d done this a thousand times.
Slowly, we descended next to the massive ship, all facing each other. The old man seemed interested in the islands, his cracked lips parted as he gazed in the distance with fascination.
The armed guard sat farthest away from us, pointing the barrel of his F97 at all of us, expressionless. I couldn’t tell if he had a good poker face, or if he’d done this so many times that he was simply going through the motions.
The moment we reached the water, the cable lines were released and the guard with the ballcap started the engine. A soft rumbling vibrated under us, and we moved across the dark ocean water toward an unknown future.
Behind us, the military ship shrank in size, while the islands up ahead seemed to grow bigger and bigger. The closer we got, the sicker I felt.
This was it—my new reality. My new home.
I turned to the older man sitting next to me, who smiled as we approached the island.
What the hell did he have to be so happy about?
Krimos couldn’t possibly be any sort of paradise.
Only the worst of the worst got sent here.
I turned to the quiet inmate, wondering what he was thinking. Although he didn’t say a word, it was obvious he was freaking out inside. He stared ahead with big balls for eyes, clenching his jaw over and over again. I looked away before he caught me staring.
For all I knew, any one of these guys might try to jump me the second we reached land.
My brother’s words floated in my head.
Head up, chin high, and shoulders back. Don’t let no one see your fear.
He’d told me this time and time again, always reminding me that if I wanted to make it in life, I had to be tough—I had to show people I wasn’t afraid of them or anyone. I had to be a man.
“If you show fear,” he said through the prison’s telephone, “then you’re dead meat, little brother. You hear me?”
He’d given me prison advice for a job interview, but I’d appreciated it nonetheless.
My throat swelled as I thought of Jerome, wishing he were with me in this lifeboat.
With him around, no one ever messed with us. He’d always had a way of getting people to back off without saying a word. He had this look about him that made people realize he wasn’t someone you wanted to cross and there were no limits to how far he’d take a fight.
Unfortunately, I was the opposite of my brother—quiet, reserved, and afraid of confrontation.
Be like Jerome, I told myself.
The lifeboat turned sharply, and the armed guard jerked his gun at us. “Get out.”
When no one moved, he jabbed his rifle in the air threateningly and we all started climbing out.
As I swung my leg over the ledge of the lifeboat, my foot caught something and I stumbled forward, landing face-first in the water. Thankfully, it was shallow and I hit pillowy sand. Water soaked me from head to toe, cooling my scalp.
When I realized my hands were still tied behind my back, however, a surge of panic flooded through me. I’d tried to push myself back out of the water, only to find myself armless.
I rolled onto my back, sat up, and somehow managed to get back onto my feet.
Next to me, the tattooed man laughed. “This fool got two left feet.”
The older man joined in on the laughter, while the dark-skinned man kept quiet.
I didn’t find it funny. And even if I had—I didn’t know these guys. I wasn’t about to let my guard down by joining in on the laughter.
Behind us, the guards turned the boat around and the engine revved. I stared at the bright F97, expecting a flash of blue light to come flying at us, but the guard didn’t shoot. Instead, he stared blankly, his gun warning us to move toward the island and away from them.
Slowly, I turned my back to him and started walking through the lukewarm, shallow water.
Although I didn’t want to face my new reality—to walk up onto this island and start a new life—I had no other choice.
There was no going back.
“The fuck, man?” said the tattooed man. He trudged through the wet sand on the beach. “Assholes could have removed these damned zip ties.”
He looked awkward, leaning forward and twirling in one spot as if the momentum alone would somehow help him remove his restraints.
Although part of me wanted to tell him how to break free, I kept hearing only one thing in my head:
Trust no one.
This guy was several inches shorter than me, but he had a round face and large sausage-like fingers he’d likely used more than once to strangle the life out of someone. His shoulders, round and thick, bulged through his jumpsuit. If it weren’t for the attitude he’d shown the older man earlier, maybe I’d have considered trying to become allies, but I couldn’t trust him. It was obvious he had rage issues.
I moved away from him and the older man. Although the gray-haired guy didn’t look like much of a threat—short, balding, sticks for arms—that didn’t mean he wasn’t dangerous. Jerome had taught me that some of the most dangerous men he’d ever met were half his size.
“Hey, where you goin’?” the dark-skinned man asked.
I wasn’t sure where I was going—all I knew was that I didn’t want to be around the other two when they finally managed to break free from their restraints.
When I didn’t answer him, he said, “Yo, man, you outta your mind? We should be stickin’ together. We don’t know what kinda psychos live out here.”
Ignoring him, I did as my brother had taught me when I was only eight years old. He’d warned me that a few gangs in our neighborhood liked to do home invasions for new member initiations.
And the last thing he wanted was for me to get caught up on the wrong side of things.
I leaned forward, giving myself enough space to raise my arms and smack them against my lower back. It took a few tries, and every time I came down swinging, the zip tie cut into my skin. I considered dropping into the sand and bringing my arms to the front of my body, but even a few seconds on the ground put me in a vulnerable position.
I had to get out, fast.
Finally, on the fifth try, the zip tie snapped off.
“Hey!” shouted the man following me. “How’d you—” But rather than wait for me to show him, he replicated my actions.
In the distance, the other two inmates were already in each other’s faces. Despite their hands tied behind their backs, they came nose to nose, spewing insults and puffing their chests against each other.
I watched the quiet man swing his long arms behind his back.
He didn’t seem like a dangerous criminal, but I still couldn’t trust him.
I took a step back, prepared to run in the opposite direction while he was busy trying to escape his restraints. Yet something told me that was a bad move. The guy hadn’t been wrong. We would be stronger in numbers.
Right now, we all wanted the same thing: to live—to survive this place.
“Fine,” I grumbled, and made my way back over to him.
The tall man straightened himself, his brown eyes glued to me. I could sense he didn’t trust me, either.
I parted my lips, prepared to tell him that I wasn’t a murderer, when I realized that was the last thing I should be doing. If I wanted to survive this place, then I couldn’t come across as weak. If anyone found out the truth about me, I was done for.
“Why are you here?” I asked.
His upper lip curled. “What? What does that matter?”
“It matters to me,” I said. “If we’re going to stick together, I need to know what kind of person you are.”
My eyes shot toward the other two who were still bickering and now throwing themselves at each other.
“I could tell you anything,” he said. “So why you even askin’ me?”
“You could,” I said. “But I’m good at telling when people lie to me.”
He straightened and let out a long breath through his wide nose.
“Gang shit,” he said, staring at me coldly.
It was obvious he didn’t want to get into specifics, and I knew he wouldn’t. I’d learned from Jerome that gang members were extremely loyal to their family. I stared at his neck, looking for any identifying tattoos, but he didn’t have any.
At least none that were visible.
“You lookin’ for somethin’?” he said, watching me closely. “Even if I was your enemy back home, you really think that shit matters here anymore?”
He wasn’t wrong.
“We’re on the same side,” I said, waiting to see how he’d respond.
“Yeah, we are,” he said.
A loud thump echoed in the distance, and the old man found himself in the sand, rolling from side to side to dodge his attacker’s stomping.
“We’re sittin’ ducks out here,” the quiet man said. “After he’s done with the old guy, he might come after us. You gonna help me or not?”
I shot a glance toward the tattooed inmate, who was now delivering kicks despite his hands behind his back.
“Only if you promise we’re cool,” I said.
He sucked on his teeth and smiled, revealing a small gap between his two front teeth. “Man, I ain’t gonna jump you. There’s plenty of psychos on this island who would jump either one of us. Personally, I’d rather have someone watchin’ my back.”
“Hit here,” I said, tapping his lower back. “Hard.”
He tried a few times until finally, the zip tie snapped off.
He rubbed at his inflamed wrists and winced. “That easy, huh?”
The old man suddenly cried out in pain.
“We should go,” I said.
“Niles,” he said, sticking out a large, dry hand.
The moment I grabbed it, his grip tightened. But it wasn’t a threatening grasp—it was a solid, firm shake that somehow made me feel bonded to him. We stared at each other for a moment, and though neither of us said a word, I knew that going forward, we’d have to trust each other if we wanted to survive another day.
“Leo,” I said back.
He patted my shoulder. “Let’s get the hell outta here.”
The old man rolled in the sand, groaning in pain. The other prisoner seemed to have tired himself out and was now attempting to break free by scratching his zip tie against a large boulder.
“They’re gonna get themselves killed if they stay out here,” I said.
Niles looked back at them but didn’t say anything. Even though I didn’t know the guy, I got the sense he was thinking the same thing as me—not our problem.
We crossed the beach and moved more inland, toward a collection of giant rocks sitting next to a large grove of trees.
What was that? A forest? Or a jungle? The thought of stepping inside made my mouth go dry.
The giant rocks were sand-colored, some the size of dining room tables, others larger than several houses combined.
A firm hand suddenly smacked me in the chest and I flinched.
Niles stood with big golf balls for eyes, staring straight ahead. When he realized he’d placed a protective hand across my chest, he pulled away and cleared his throat awkwardly. “Could be someone livin’ there.”
“Could be,” I said. “But it’s also a great hiding spot if no one’s claimed it.”
“We ain’t got no weapons,” he said.
Behind us, the old man started getting back up, wriggling from side to side to escape his zip tie.
Niles’s nostrils widened at the sight of him. “We need to get away from that guy. I don’t trust him.”
By that guy, he meant the tattooed convict. I didn’t trust him either, but it felt wrong leaving the other prisoner behind.
“What’d you wanna do?” I asked. “Ditch them both?”
Niles and I stared at each other for what felt like too long. I didn’t want to be heartless, but at the same time, going back to get the older prisoner meant getting in the way of the angry one. And right now, the last thing I wanted was to get into a fight.
Sighing, I picked up a sharp stone the size of a basic kitchen knife.
Niles’s brows met above his nose. “What’re you doin’?”
For a moment, I realized exactly what had run through Niles’s mind—he’d thought I was preparing to kill the tattooed convict. It made me sick to think that someone would be capable of such a thing, but I had to remember where I was—Krimos Islands.
Here, all kinds of monsters roamed freely.
And although I didn’t want to be a monster, I’d have to pretend to be if it meant staying alive.
“Getting a weapon,” I answered.
His jaw tensed, and he watched me carefully, his gaze shifting from my face to my new rock.
Watch the eyes, my brother Jerome had taught me. Along with the jaw and the shoulders. Tension always shows here.
Although I didn’t like the idea of a murderer standing next to me with a weapon, I couldn’t be the only one carrying one. He had to think I trusted him, even though I didn’t.
“You should get one too if we want to check this place out,” I said.
I knew that everything I did over the next few hours was going to stick in Niles’s head.
Same for him.
When he wasn’t looking, I watched his eyes… where they went, how long they stayed there. I needed to know exactly what kind of man I was dealing with. And while I hoped we could be allies and help each other survive this place, I had to be prepared to fight back if things went south.
Niles reached for a branch on the ground and snapped off the end. He inspected it and poked the tip as if trying to assess if it was sharp enough to go through someone’s skin.
Did he have experience with this?
When he caught me staring, he raised his brows and pointed his chin toward the giant rocks, a gesture I figured translated to Go ahead, lead the way.
But I wasn’t about to turn my back to a convicted felon. Especially not with his new weapon in hand.
“Together,” I said.
Gripping his new, poorly shaped spear, he nodded and walked alongside me.
Behind us, the old man let out a roar as he managed to snap off his zip tie. But his voice caught the attention of the other prisoner, and the two charged straight for each other, throwing fists.
Niles and I exchanged a look.
“Maybe we should stop them,” I said.
Niles sighed and squinted at them. Although I couldn’t be sure, it looked like he also felt bad for the older man. Either of us could have ended up in his position, fighting for our life against the violent prisoner.
He stepped out from behind the rocks and waved his spear at the fighting men. “Yo, would you two stop—” but before he could finish yelling at them, he went completely quiet and stumbled backward.
He’d seen something… something scary enough to get him to change his mind about stepping out onto the beach.
Kicking sand in the air, he bolted back toward me with a gaping hole for a mouth. He mouthed something, but I couldn’t make it out.
I squinted, trying to understand his wordless warning as he came running my way.
Mouthing it again, he jabbed a finger aggressively at the rocks behind me.
That’s when I realized what he was saying—run.
I didn’t have to see what he was running from to know it was a serious threat.
His body language said it all.
Niles was in flight mode, and for someone his size, that meant the threat was big.
He ran right past me, and I followed as fast as I could, looking behind me every few seconds to see what was going on. But I couldn’t see anything.
Suddenly, Niles grabbed my arm and pulled me hard behind one of the boulders. My shoulder blades smashed into the hard surface, and I tightened my fist around my rock, prepared to take a swing at him.
“Easy,” he hissed into my ear. “Did you see them?”
Them? What was he talking about?
Planting a finger over his lips, he pointed beyond the boulders and toward shore.
Slowly, I leaned forward.
This time, I saw them.
Out from the jungle came a pack of shirtless men covered in tattoos. The one leading the pack walked slowly with what looked like a long, serrated knife in his right fist. It didn’t shine or glimmer, which told me it was either carved wood or something stronger, like bone.
Across his chest, neck, and cheeks were numerous tattoos that covered most of his pale skin.
He walked with his head held high and didn’t look back at his followers.
Over his head was a bandanna made of some type of animal skin. No one else wore it—only him.
Behind him, six or seven men carried stone-head spears, aiming their tips at the two prisoners who were fighting only seconds ago.
As the gang walked farther out on shore, several of the members turned their heads from side to side like a bunch of wild animals on the lookout for danger.
The leader of the pack shouted something. The old man dropped to his knees, while the tattooed prisoner kept his chest puffed out.
What an idiot.
Ego before survival.
There was an exchange between the men, and I couldn’t tell if they were talking or arguing. At one point, it looked like everyone was laughing.
“What’re they sayin’?” Niles hissed.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Can’t make it out.”
Without warning, the gang swarmed around the tattooed prisoner. He tried to fight, but he was outnumbered. They pulled his arms behind his back and tied him up with something.
I swallowed hard, my heart pounding against the giant rock.
The leader then turned to the old man. But from here, it looked like the man had completely forgotten about the gang. He leaned forward, his nose nearly touching sand, and began digging with the tips of his fingers. It was like he was looking for something. Drugs? Cigarette butts?
The leader’s voice loudened, and he aimed his knife at the old man as he shouted.
Behind him, several of his men moved closer, their tattooed chests puffed out unnaturally.
My heart raced as I watched the old man sitting there, digging away as if nothing around him existed.
Couldn’t they see he wasn’t in his right mind? He must have gotten his hands on something in prison before being extracted and dropped off here. He’d either taken it on purpose to ease his anxiety, or he’d swallowed a pouch of drugs, only to have the bag tear in his stomach. Jerome had told me about two occasions of this happening, and both times, the prisoners had died of an overdose.
When he still didn’t get up, the leader grabbed him by his head of curly gray hair and yanked him to his feet. The old man instinctively swung at his attacker but missed when the gang leader pulled his face away.
The leader laughed—a deep rumble that spread across the beach. His men joined in on the laughter, some pointing at the old man as if he were a source of entertainment for them. Still gripping the man by his hair, the leader leaned in. From here, it looked like he was asking questions.
But he wasn’t getting any answers.
The old man kept shrugging or pointing up at the sky every time a bird let out a squawk.
Without warning, the old man stomped twice on the ground as if pumping up his anger, then swung a solid fist at the leader’s face.
This time, he hit him.
The gang leader immediately let him go. He touched his face where he’d been hit, then stretched his jaw muscles as if it would eradicate the pain. He remained calm the entire time, which told me this wasn’t the first time he’d been clocked in the face.
In an instant, the gang leader grabbed the old man by the throat, nearly lifting him off the ground. He spoke with a scowl on his face and pointed his serrated knife at the old man’s left eye.
I tensed, but Niles touched my forearm—a warning that told me getting involved was suicide. There was no saving this guy.
I wasn’t sure what was trembling—my hand or the man at the end of my barrel.
Regripping my sweaty palm around the gun's grip, I slid my index finger over the trigger.
𝐶𝑜𝑚𝑒 𝑜𝑛, 𝐿𝑒𝑜. 𝑇ℎ𝑖𝑠 𝑖𝑠 𝑦𝑜𝑢𝑟 𝑐ℎ𝑎𝑛𝑐𝑒. 𝑇𝑎𝑘𝑒 𝑖𝑡.
Blood dripped from the man’s broken nose, and he stared at me with an elevated chin, exuding nothing but pride and arrogance. He wasn’t about to beg for his life, and he wanted me to know it.
This also told me was that he didn’t regret what he’d done.
There was no remorse.
Behind me, Carlos breathed out impatiently. “Come on, man. Take the shot.”
I tightened my grip again, urging my index finger to squeeze the trigger.
But I couldn’t do it.
I shot a quick glance around the abandoned warehouse. What was I even doing here? This wasn’t me. I wasn’t a murderer. As much as I wanted revenge for what this man had done—as much as I felt he deserved to die—I couldn’t bring myself to kill him.
“Leo,” Carlos hissed, like we were running out of time.
Without warning, shots went off, and warm blood splattered across my face.
Although I didn’t know it yet, my life was over.
The gang behind the leader began letting out howling sounds while repeatedly smacking their chests. What was that? A call?
The old man suddenly did the unthinkable—he spat in the leader’s face.
That was the last straw.
In a split second, the leader plunged his knife through the old man’s stomach.
But he didn’t stop there.
He tore the blade out, then stabbed the man again and again, forcing his victim to remain upright as he continued tearing through the old guy’s abdomen.
I turned away, feeling like I might throw up.
Niles stood with his back flat against the boulder behind him, his chest heaving with fast breaths.
I squeezed my eyes shut, willing the sight away.
Everything around me spun. I wanted to run, hide, and never emerge. I wouldn’t survive a place like this. I couldn’t be here. Panic surged through me as the violent image continued to play on repeat in my head.
I was terrified.
But what scared me more than what I’d just witnessed was knowing this was only the beginning of my new life here.
Niles peeled away from the boulder, blinking hard as if trying to wrap his head around what had happened.
“We… we should keep moving,” he said.
It was clear he was struggling with this as badly as I was.
He took several steps in the sand, prepared to venture deeper into the rocky area, when I spotted something wet on his shoulder.
Was that… blood?
Rather than say anything aloud, I tapped his shoulder.
He turned around with a fist up, but immediately lowered his arm. “S-sorry.”
I pointed at his shoulder.
“You okay?” I whispered. “You have blood on your suit.”
He reached for it, then frowned when his fingers made contact with the blood. It was obvious he wasn’t sure where it had come from. Neither of us had been injured. At least, not that we knew about.
“Let me see.” I searched his back, but his jumpsuit was intact; there was no puncture wound or scrape of any kind.
So, whose blood was it?
I patted my neck, my wrists… nothing.
Niles went on to search his wrists, too, because the only plausible explanation was our zip ties. But after a thorough inspection, he stopped abruptly and his jaw went slack, revealing a narrow gap between his front teeth.
“What?” I mouthed.
With big eyes, he stared beyond me and my heart almost stopped.
I didn’t want to turn around. All I imagined was the gang standing behind us, their wild leader breathing heavily, his bloody knife bouncing with every breath.
Slowly, I turned around, preparing myself for the worst.
But when I realized no one was standing behind me, I breathed again.
My relief was short-lived, however, when I spotted what Niles had been looking at.
Blood. Lots of it.
It had been painted across the rock we’d been leaning on and read:
Stay Out or Die.
My head spun.
We weren’t alone here, which meant we couldn’t stay here.
Niles and I stared at each other, frozen. What to do? We couldn’t go back out there—those guys would either kill, abuse, or enslave us, and I wasn’t sure which was worse.
I widened my eyes at Niles and shrugged as if to say, What choice do we have? I’d rather risk my chances here than out there.
As if reading my mind, he nodded and regripped his makeshift spear with his large hands.
Niles was a big guy—basketball player kind of big—and I wasn’t much shorter. Our stature, combined with the fact we were wearing neon-orange jumpsuits, made me uneasy.
We moved quietly, venturing deeper inside the strange collection of rocks.
Suddenly, a seagull landed on a rock overhead and let out a loud ha-ha-ha.
I flinched and almost dropped my rock.
At that moment, it felt like it was shouting, “Here! They’re over here!”
Niles swung his stick at the bird, trying to scare it off.
After a few more ha-ha-ha’s, the seagull took off.
Niles kept moving, his large back rounded as if it would somehow make his steps quieter.
I walked one PVC shoe at a time, wishing my steps didn’t sound so loud.
Out here, without the constant chaos of inmates yelling, guards stomping through corridors, and metal gates slamming shut, even my breath seemed too loud.
Every step I took with my bright orange shoes released an annoying crunching sound. It reminded me of someone munching on a bowl of cereal.
Could the gang members on the beach hear our steps? And if so, would they be brave enough to come out this way, where someone had written a threat in blood?
Maybe if we managed to get around the cluster of rocks, we could find safer territory.
Although, I wasn’t convinced anywhere on this island was safe.
I slipped past two tall palm trees and stepped over a long, flat rock. In front of me, Niles led the way, though I couldn’t tell if he was leading because he was a natural leader, or if he wanted to get away from the gang as fast as possible. Now and then, he looked to make sure I was still there.
I walked with my rock held near my face, prepared to swing at any new threat.
But the threat that came next couldn’t be attacked.
As if by magic, Niles suddenly disappeared. He let out a terrified shout, though it sounded distant and echoey.
I squeezed my fingers around my rock and stiffened, my wide eyes searching for him. It took several blinks for me to realize that he’d fallen downward.
It was almost like he’d fallen into some magical portal.
But that didn’t make sense.
Where had he gone?
Then, I saw it—several feet away from me was a large, dark hole. Infinite grains of sand poured into the hole like water spilling from a waterfall.
“Niles!” I hissed.
I wasn’t even sure why I’d called out his name. The last thing I wanted to do was draw any attention my way. But I couldn’t see him anymore. And I was too afraid to step anywhere near the mysterious hole.
My heart pounded against my ribs as I craned my neck, trying to make sense of the whole thing.
Was he okay? Or had the fall killed him?
Cautiously, I tapped my foot on the ground in front of me.
It felt solid.
So I inched closer and closer, feeling the ground beneath me.
Had he stepped over some weak structure?
“The fuck, man!” Niles’s voice sounded distant. “Let me out!”
I dropped onto my hands and knees. “Niles!” I hissed into the hole.
Sand continued to spill into the dark tunnel, and I leaned back a bit, afraid the ground underneath me might give out.
How deep had he fallen?
“Niles!” I whispered again.
“I’m okay!” he shouted back.
His voice echoed a few times.
“Landed in water,” he added.
“Any way out?” I asked.
I couldn’t hear the gang members laughing anymore and hoped they’d gone back to wherever they came from and weren’t on their way here. What if this place belonged to them? Maybe this whole thing was a setup.
“You hurt?” I asked.
“Nah, man. Help me out of here.”
I chewed on my lip, trying to figure out how I could pull him back up.
“How far down?” I asked.
“Um, far,” he admitted after a pause.
Sighing, I rubbed my face.
Think, Leo, think.
But there was no time to think.
Suddenly, something hard kicked me in the back, and I flew face-first into the dark hole.