Prison has never been so feral.
Off the coast of North America lies a penal island known as the Island of Killers.
No electricity. No prison guards. No mercy.
And every woman who ends up on this island is a convicted murderer.
When eighteen-year-old Lydia Brone is sentenced to serve time on this island for accidentally killing her mom’s abusive boyfriend, it feels like a death sentence.
If Lydia hopes to ever return home, she’ll have to forget who she is and become someone else… someone capable of choosing survival over humanity.
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Were the handcuffs really necessary? I rubbed the inflamed skin on my wrist, trying to understand how an eighteen-year-old girl such as myself could possibly pose a threat to two soldiers in a combat helicopter, four thousand feet above sea level.
They wore black masks to match their thick uniforms and SWAT-like goggles over their eyes. I could tell they were both men by their height and build, but I hadn’t seen their faces. I eyed their machine guns, but not for long, because I felt them watching me from behind their dark shades.
I peered through the helicopter’s fogged window, and the shape of an island surrounded by nothing but open blue came into view. I had so many questions—so many fears—but the overpowering sound of the rotating helicopter blades, coupled with the menacing looks I was receiving, encouraged me to keep my mouth shut.
The larger of the two soldiers stood up and reached for a lever. A burst of sunlight came into the helicopter, along with the loudening of the helicopter blades, and I inhaled fresh ocean air. I could see the entire island through the open helicopter door. From this distance, it appeared to be nothing more than a house floating on the ocean’s horizon. I hadn’t noticed how far we’d descended until I saw water splashing in all directions beneath us due to the helicopter’s force.
So this is my prison sentence, I thought, gazing across the open water at what I’d only read about in news articles—Kormace Island: the Island of Killers. How had I managed to get myself into so much trouble? I wanted to wake up. It wasn’t real. It couldn’t be.
The smaller of the two soldiers uncuffed me and led me to the edge of the helicopter. I didn’t bother struggling. I was too frail, and his thick hand around my wrist was so tight, I was losing blood circulation. Was he going to throw me out? They couldn’t do that! And why weren’t they flying any closer to the island? The water underneath us was dark blue…black, almost. It was too deep. I’d never make it to the island alive.
I could have sworn I saw shark fins circling below as if hungrily anticipating my fall. But I knew these were imagined—I was panicking. I didn’t have the time to visualize my death any further, because I was instantly pushed out of the helicopter, with only two words echoing behind me, “Swim fast.”
It didn’t feel like water at all. It felt like I’d broken through a thick sheet of glass. My body temperature dropped instantly, and my fingers quickly numbed.
“Swim fast,” I remembered. I moved forward, motivated by the thought of a shark ripping off my leg with its razor-sharp teeth.
Almost there, I lied to myself. Who was I kidding? I could see the island, but only barely. It looked like it was made of Legos from this distance—like it wasn’t even real. Was the plan to have me die before successfully reaching Kormace Island? It was a good plan.
The helicopter regained its altitude before flying off in the opposite direction. Couldn’t they have dropped me off any closer? Bastards.
The taste of salt coated my tongue, and I coughed up several mouthfuls of ocean water. It was satisfying in a sense. It was the closest thing I’d tasted to food in the last few days. How would I feed myself, anyways? Did the government drop supplies every week? I hadn’t been informed of anything.
I was out of breath by the time the island doubled in size. I was getting closer, but it wasn’t fast enough. I kicked harder and threw my arms forward, wanting nothing more than to feel the warmth of the sun on my body as I lay in a soft bed of golden sand.
But as the island continued to expand in my line-of-sight, it became clear to me that this fantasy of a remote, paradise-like island was precisely that—a fantasy. The sand, from what I could see, was dark brown with large rocks positioned sporadically across the shore alongside skeletal remains. I finally felt the ocean bed beneath the pads of my feet. Gooey seaweed slid in between my toes as I walked across a hard, uneven path. I couldn’t believe I’d actually made it. I felt something slimy wrap itself around my thigh, and I almost screamed before I realized it was just another ocean plant.
I crawled through the filthy sand, feeling both deathly and relieved. Water dripped from my hair and onto my hands, causing goose bumps to spread out evenly across my skin. I just wanted warmth. I hadn’t realized I was trembling until I heard my own teeth chatter. I hurried out of the ocean, kicking ocean junk away from my calves, and collapsed onto my stomach.
Although the sand was rough and dirty, it felt warm and dry. I caressed my face into it and closed my eyes. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d slept. I remembered the prison cells; I remembered the cold cement walls; I remembered feeling starved; and I remembered the shouts and wails emitted from the surrounding cells. The noise kept me up for days.
Surely, being a prisoner on an island would be much more comfortable than in a prison cell, I thought. I breathed in the scent of saltwater fish, feeling suddenly hungry. I mustered the bit of strength I had and crawled up onto my hands and knees. I tried to wipe sticky sand off my face, even though this only spread it more.
Branches broke in the distance, and my eyes followed the noise. My heart began to race. There must have been four or five of them just standing there, blending effortlessly with the trees. Their eyes were outlined in black and dark markings spread across their faces.
One of them stepped forward, and the others followed. I considered running, or at least trying to, but I was beyond exhausted—I wouldn’t make it.
The fiercest-looking one walked forward, as would the alpha of a wolf pack, and I knew this was their leader. Her dark skin glistened in the sunlight and her muscles bulged as she gripped and regripped what appeared to be a spear carved from wood and stone. She had rope, or vines, wrapped around the muscles of her arms, and I could only assume these were holsters of some type. There was a bow strapped to her back with feathered arrows protruding from a leather quiver. She made a hand gesture and cocked her chin up in my direction.
The other women moved in closer toward me.
“Grab her,” the leader ordered.
There was a heavy blow to the side of my head, and everything faded away.
“She ain’t no huntin’ material.”
“She isn’t island material.”
“And you are?”
“No one is until they’re forced to be.”
I cracked my eyes open. The skin on my face was warm, and a fire danced from side to side in the near distance. From what I could see, there were five of them sitting around the flames. They bickered back and forth, and I knew they were arguing about me. I closed my eyes when the one nearest to me swung back to look at me. She scoffed and said, “Murk can decide.”
Who, or what, was Murk?
I peered through the narrow crack of my eyelid when they began to argue again. They all looked the same at quick glance—dark skin, painted markings, and clothing made of skins and vegetation.
There were spears, ropes, and other sharp objects around their feet. And then I smelled it—the warm, mouth-watering smell of roasted meat. Atop the fire was a small animal dangling upside down. It looked like a bunny, but I couldn’t be sure. Its skin had darkened and crisped, and there was no fur left.
Had I been offered roasted rabbit a week prior, my stomach would have churned at the thought of munching down on a family pet. But I hadn’t eaten in days, and at this point, I was willing to eat just about anything.
Suddenly, cold, moist fingers gripped the skin of my upper arm, and I was forced to sit upright.
“She’s been awake for a while,” came a woman’s voice.
She was standing directly beside me, but I was afraid to look up. Where had she come from? The rest remained seated, just staring at me from behind partially shadowed faces.
“Who are you?” asked the woman sitting behind the fire. I remembered that face. She was their leader.
I couldn’t speak. I took several deep breaths, ordering my mind to wake from its heinous nightmare. But nothing happened. The more I hoped, the more I realized just how frightening my reality had become.
“Trim asked you a question.” I felt something cold and razor-sharp dig into the skin of my neck.
I swallowed hard. They were so barbaric—so wild looking, with their unevenly cut hair and dirty faces.
“Lydia,” I said.
“Last name?” the leader asked.
The leader—Trim—tilted her head back and smiled. She was ugly in every sense imaginable with disproportionate features: a long pointed nose, small black eyes, blemished skin, and thick, untrimmed eyebrows that matched her frizzy black hair. Her name now made sense to me.
“Brone,” Trim repeated.
I stared at her. Had this been a question? I wasn’t sure what to answer.
“Do you like your name?” she asked.
What kind of a question was that? It was my name. I didn’t like it or dislike it.
“I’m Rocket,” said one of the women seated by the fire.
She pressed her hand against her chest as a way of introducing herself. She was very petite and sweet looking despite her savage exterior, which was rough and filthy. She had a cute button nose and bright forest green eyes, but her beauty was masked by a thick crooked scar that ran across her left eyebrow and cheek. Her caramel-brown dreadlocks were pulled back into a knot at the base of her skull.
“’Cause I’m fast,” she added. “You pick your own identity here on the island. In prison, you’ll always be called by your last name. You can change that here. You know—if you want to be someone else.”
Did I want to be someone else? Yes. I wanted to be someone who hadn’t been convicted of first-degree murder and dropped on an island to rot. But my name wouldn’t change that.
“Brone’s fine,” I said.
“This here’s Flander,” Rocket said, pointing to the woman beside her. Flander cocked an eyebrow but didn’t smile. She looked much older than the rest of them, with her wrinkled skin and dull, colorless eyes. She had short grey hair and hundreds of freckles across her nose, cheeks, and shoulders. “That’s Biggie, that’s Eagle, and that right there,” she said, pointing at the woman standing at my side, “is Fisher.”
Biggie, as her name insinuated, was the biggest of them all. She had squared off shoulders, a rounded belly, and legs the size of my torso. Her hair was short and woolly, and she had small silver loop earrings running down both ears. She had glossy brown eyes, and wide nostrils the width of her lips. She tried to smile, but it had looked more like a twitch.
I quickly glanced at Eagle, who was eyeing me carefully from behind eyes that were neither green nor blue, but rather, dark turquoise. She nodded as way of acknowledging my presence, but she didn’t smile or speak. She had short greasy blonde hair that stood up in all directions. Her lips were thin and flat, and she had an unusual moon shaped birthmark on her forehead.
I finally looked up at Fisher. She grimaced, baring a set of crooked teeth, and said, “I don’t like fishing.”
I wasn’t sure whether or not this had been a joke. Her dark eyebrows were nearly touching at the center of her forehead, and her colorless lips were curved downward. I could tell she’d once been very pretty with her high cheek bones, her dark brown eyes, and her defined jawline, but the island had damaged her. I smiled awkwardly and returned my attention to Trim.
“You hungry?” Trim asked.
She must have caught me eyeing the piece of dangling meat, because she stood up, pulled a dagger from her side, and moved in. She cut the animal loose and propped it up onto a flat rock beside Flander. She tore into it without a second thought and ripped off one of its legs. Although disgusted by the sound of bones cracking and muscle tendons tearing, I’d never been more excited to eat meat.
“Welcome to Kormace,” Trim said, tossing me a crispy leg.
I heard a throat-like growl and flinched at the thought of a wild beast lingering nearby. But the sound hadn’t come from an animal—at least not a four-legged one. Trim hovered above me with her arms crossed tightly over her chest.
I rubbed my crusted eyes and sat upright. The sun was still up, although for a moment I’d thought it to be night time because of Trim’s overly frizzy hair casting a shadow around me. I must have fallen asleep after eating. I was exhausted. I hadn’t slept in days due to the reality of my new life.
“On your feet, Brone,” she ordered.
I crawled onto my knees and then onto my feet. I didn’t have the time to appreciate the melodic chirping that came from the trees or the warmth of the sun penetrating the thousands of leaves overhead.
“Change,” Trim said.
Warm suede hit me in the face before landing on my lap. It appeared to be a shirt and a pair of poorly sewn pants.
“What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?” I asked.
This had obviously been a stupid question. Trim leaned in and cocked an eyebrow.
“You look new. You smell new. You’ll be treated like new.”
“Since when is new bad?” I asked.
Rocket was suddenly standing beside Trim. “Since now,” she said. “Being new makes you more vulnerable to attacks.”
Rocket smiled, seemingly amused. “Yeah, that’s what I said.”
I stared at her, but she offered no consolation.
“Welcome to the wild, Brone.” She pointed at my new attire, raised both eyebrows, then walked away.
Trim simply waited, arms still crossed over her chest. So I slowly slid off my chalk-blue T-shirt, something I’d bought at a thrift shop a few months ago, and replaced it with the leather. It hung loosely over one shoulder, leaving the other shoulder completely bare. I couldn’t quite tell whether this was the actual design or poor craftsmanship.
“Appreciate that while you have it,” I heard.
I followed the voice. It had come from Eagle. She was slouched against a slanted birch tree, sharpening a blade.
“Sorry?” I said.
She smirked, her turquoise eyes gazing into me to the point of discomfort. “Your bra.”
I then realized that everyone was looking at me. Had they all been watching me change? I became fully aware of my red bra straps, which were clearly visible at both my shoulders. Had they expected me to remove it? I noticed most of them weren’t even wearing bras; those who were had made them using tight leather, which offered no support, but rather, a flattening functionality.
“Just sayin’,” Eagle said, now striking harder with her rock, “that’s a luxury most of us islanders don’t have.”
I couldn’t tell whether she’d simply stated a fact or had blatantly threatened me. Her eyes remained glued to me for a moment, and I wondered what she was thinking. She struck harder, and a few sparks spat in all directions.
“Ignore the bird,” Rocket said, flicking her wrist out at Eagle. “Come on, put the pants on.”
So I slid off my jeans and replaced them with the rugged, uneven pants Trim had so graciously given me. I wiped a line of sweat off my forehead. It was so humid. Hadn’t they thought of sewing shorts instead?
Rocket must’ve read my mind, because she laughed and said, “Yeah, it’s hot. Can’t be wearin’ skanky shorts with all them poisonous snakes around here.”
My eyes widened. Snakes? Poisonous?
The others laughed. I didn’t understand how any of this was funny. Had I seriously been dropped on an island, surrounded by dangerous creatures and poorly civilized women? When would the government come back for me? How would I know when my three-year sentence was up? I didn’t have a calendar. I didn’t have my iPhone to keep track. I just wanted to go home. I wanted to slip into my favorite satin pajamas and spend the night lazing on my leather sofa watching reality television.
“Let’s have a look,” Rocket said, standing me up straight. She eyed me from top to bottom. “Ain’t Prada, but it’ll do.”
“All right, enough already. This ain’t no fashion show. Murk isn’t gonna wait around. You know the rules,” Biggie said. Her muscular dark brown arms were crossed over her chest and her lips formed a flat line. She was the darkest skinned of all the women, and she was built like an ox—her shoulders wide and her chest robust.
“What rules?” I asked.
I knew I was pushing my luck asking so many questions, but I wanted answers. How was I supposed to be calm in such a situation? I’d just been dropped on an island to rot for three years.
“You ever read Harry Potter?” Eagle asked.
I nodded, not quite understanding the relevancy.
“Think of Murk as the island’s sorting h—”
“Shut up!” Fisher hissed. “We were all forced to face the island blindly. Brone isn’t any different.”
Eagle looked away, not daring to challenge Fisher. I didn’t blame her. Fisher was the toughest-looking woman I’d ever seen, aside from Trim. She was definitely a mixed race, with dark hair pulled back and round black eyes. She was short, with broad shoulders that gave her the appearance of a professional wrestler. I knew she was Trim’s right hand by the way she hovered nearby, constantly glancing her way like a pit bull on guard, as if ready to pounce on anyone who posed a threat.
Trim glanced back at us, at Fisher, and then said, “Fisher’s right. Let’s go.”
She turned toward the sun and led us through an array of trees, plants, and flowers. I could hear birds chirping from above, followed by other sounds I was unfamiliar with. I flinched when a monkey—or a chimp—screamed ahead of us. The women didn’t seem bothered by this at all.
I watched my every step, careful not to step on any hard-shelled critters or giant spiders. I’d seen jungles in movies before, so I knew what I was up against—sort of.
Trim led us farther and farther away from shore, and I couldn’t help but feel that the deeper we ventured, the more we became vulnerable to Mother Nature.
It was just like I’d seen in the movies. Everything was green or brown, with the exclusion of colorful flowers routed at the base of overly large trees. Even the water flowing through a narrow stream nearby had a greenish tint, most likely due to reflection.
I breathed in the scent of wild flowers, which masked the subtle scent of moist dirt and widespread mildew. I wouldn’t get used to this. I’d always been disgusted by the smell of my cat’s litter box; I used to remedy the problem by spraying excessive amounts of air freshener throughout my apartment. And I wasn’t the outdoorsy type. I’d never survive.
Trim quickly crouched, and the others followed. Rocket tugged on the back of my shirt to bring me down. What was going on? I parted my lips to speak, but Rocket nudged me in the ribs. Fisher’s nostrils flared and her muscles bulged. She wanted to fight. But who? Or what?
I heard the cracking of forest vegetation in the distance, and my heart began to race. I realized that aside from these women surrounding me, I was entirely unprotected. The others had blades and spears and even arrows, yet I had nothing. How was I supposed to defend myself in the event of an attack?
Eagle slowly slid a wooden arrow from its quiver on her back. She placed it against the bowstring and drew it back, her gaze fixed intently on her target up ahead. I held my breath, fearful to lure in the unseen predator.
Eagle’s eyes narrowed, and she released the arrow. Her bowstring made a snap-like sound, and her arrow whistled through dangling vines and past several tree trunks. There was a squeal in the distance followed by rapid footsteps and the stirring of leaves. Eagle bolted forward, and the others followed, leaving me at the back. I hurried to keep up, but the moment I arrived at the site of her wounded target, I cringed.
Across the root of a tree lay a dying boar, its eyes wide and its head swaying desperately from side to side. Eagle pulled a grimy hatchet from her holster, grabbed the pig by one of its tusks, and raised the weapon over her head.
Rocket barely had time to warn me to look away when Eagle swung downward at the boar’s neck. The sound of impact nauseated me. There was a violent squeal, followed by another blow and another and another until the boar stopped moving entirely. Eagle stepped onto the boar’s body, and with a hand on each one of its tusks, pulled upward. I nearly threw up at the sound of flesh and soft tissue tearing.
“Nice shot,” Trim said, staring down at the arrow protruding from the animal’s chest.
“Thanks.” Eagle raised the boar’s head to eye level, analyzing its face, tusks, and teeth. “Better than my last,” she said.
I threw my hand over my mouth at the sight of blood dripping from the wild pig’s severed head. Rocket laughed and squeezed my shoulder.
“You get used to it,” she said.
Eagle wiped her bloody blade against several vines to clean it, then quickly sliced through one of them before placing her blade back into its holster. The thick, green rope-like plant fell to the ground with a thump. Eagle wrapped the vine around the boar and secured it by tugging hard. She then bent over and tore her arrow out of the boar’s chest. She inspected it quickly, then wiped it and tossed it back into her quiver.
“Need help?” Fisher asked.
Eagle shook her head and began dragging her kill through the forest’s bed.
“That looks really heavy,” I whispered.
“That’s nothing,” Rocket said. “Maybe two hundred pounds, at most. A while back, Eagle killed one that was at least five hundred pounds. Had to cut it up to bring it back to the Village.”
“The Village?” I asked, enthused by the prospect of a civilized society.
“What were you expecting?” Flander said, her wrinkled face suddenly near mine. “You were dropped off on an island with over a thousand square miles of land, along with hundreds o’ criminals. You really think it’s a free-for-all? Humans are social creatures. We wouldn’t survive without each other.”
Rocket rolled her eyes as if to say, ‘Old woman. Here she goes again…’
“How do you know all of this?” I asked.
“I do my research,” Flander said.
“Let’s keep moving,” Trim interrupted.
She continued her lead through the jungle, hacking away at the overpopulation of tree branches and vines.
“Hundreds of criminals?” I whispered, leaning in toward Flander.
She nodded all knowingly.
“Are they all in the Village?” I asked.
She smiled, as if this had been the dumbest question she’d ever heard.
“Like any society, Kormace has its outlaws and its rebels. And like any prison, women fight to hold a position of power,” Flander said. She wiped several beads of sweat away from her shiny forehead and gazed around, as if paranoid of being heard. “A few years ago, someone challenged Murk. Didn’t agree with the way she was runnin’ things. Long story short, she and her loyal followers were removed from the Village. Rumors say they moved to the north of the island and created their own society. They’re dangerous—merciless. They attacked a while back, killin’ a dozen women in their sleep.”
I swallowed hard. Flander paused, and I knew she was vividly reliving that terrible night. I couldn’t help but wonder if she’d lost anyone she truly cared about.
She cleared her throat. “The Northers all deserve to be killed.”
“Fucking right,” Rocket interjected.
Fisher joined in on the conversation, shaking a clenched fist in the air. “I’ll be the first to rip off Rainer’s fucking head!” Her muscles bulged out from underneath her tanned skin, and I could tell she’d been born to fight.
“Rainer?” I asked.
Trim stopped walking. She slowly turned around, as if insulted by the very name.
“Their leader,” she said scornfully.
“Whatever you do,” Rocket warned, “don’t mention that name in front of Murk.”
“And Murk is your leader?” I asked.
In an instant, Trim was standing in front of me, her cold blade pressed against the base of my throat.
“Yours too,” she said, glaring. “Or would you rather go find the Northers?”
I swallowed hard.
“That’s not what Brone meant—” Rocket said.
“Shut up,” Trim ordered. I felt the sharp edge of her knife press harder into my skin. “Well?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “No. I just meant… I was just trying to understand the hierarchy. I don’t know how things are run here… I’m sorry if I…”
She quickly pulled away and stored her weapon.
“Good,” she said. “Just making sure.”
I noticed a satisfied smile curve at the corners of her lips, but I failed to see the humor in her reaction. My heart was racing, and my mouth was completely dry. Why was I being treated like the enemy? I wasn’t here to harm anyone.
“Don’t take it personally,” Flander said, tapping me hard on the back. “She wouldn’t be a good leader if she didn’t instill fear every once in a while.”
I resentfully accepted this advice and decided it was best to continue following, despite my anger toward Trim. We continued through the jungle for a while, Fisher and Eagle alternating turns pulling the boar.
My legs were about to give out when I finally noticed light being cast through the trees. As we moved closer, the light expanded, and I realized we were exiting the forest—or at least, nearing an opening. Had we crossed the island? My feet were throbbing and my muscles burned. I wanted to collapse. As we moved closer to the light, I realized that the brightness was not being cast by the sun, but rather, by its reflection over a beautiful bed of green water. The water was surrounded by some of the tallest trees I’d ever seen—walls built of greenery that formed a natural enclosure.
A cool mist floated in the air. I parted my lips, allowing several droplets to land on the tip of my tongue. I swallowed hard, my throat sticking, and I wanted nothing more than to dive into the water and drink until my stomach blew. I’d never felt so thirsty in my life.
A consistent static echoed in the distance—the sound of water crashing against water. I knew we’d reached a waterfall. We stepped out into the opening; it was encircled by tall trees and a rocky surface, and I immediately realized we weren’t alone.
Surrounding the large circular shaped body of emerald green water were women with similar attributes to those who’d found me. They were wild looking with their tangled hair, their tattooed arms, and their suntanned skin. The ages varied—from adolescents to elderly who required assistance with their bodily movements.
There were women skinning animals and removing their bloody body parts for meat and other materials; women working with some type of contraption in the sand, which appeared to be a handmade water filtration system; women sewing animal hide to construct clothing and shelter; women chopping away at logs of wood; and women working the earth, cultivating and planting a multitude of fruits and vegetables—a society working together to ensure all basic needs were being met.
We moved in closer, and I felt several eyes turn my way. These women stood tall, their chests heaved and their shoulders drawn back as if preparing to face a potential threat. I didn’t blame them—they didn’t know me, after all. I could have easily been a Norther or even one of the outlaws, as Flander had explained.
A young girl, maybe in her early twenties, was the first to approach me. She had frizzy, dirty blonde hair that was tied back and a fresh cut across her lower lip. She smiled, and I knew it was genuine. She reached out her hand, as did I, but there was no time for introductions.
She was instantly propelled into the air by a woman twice her size, who I could tell ate enough food to feed an army. She had rolls on her arms, her belly, and her legs. How was she so obese while everyone else was so muscular and lean?
“You don’t talk to da newcomers, stupid girl,” she said, her ugly face contorted as she eyed me with disgust from head to toe. She waddled away with such confidence that it made me wonder if she was Murk.
Rocket chuckled. “Welcome to paradise.”
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