Day 1, 4:45 p.m.
They had survived forty-foot waves, an explosion and fire at sea, and a week adrift on a tiny raft. But now Luke Haggerty, Charla Swann, and Ian Sikorsky faced their greatest challenge so far:
It had fallen off a tall palm, missing Luke's ear by inches. To three people who had put nothing but rainwater in their stomachs for seven long days, it represented what they needed most: food.
Charla, the city kid, turned it over in her hands. "Where's the opener on this thing?"
"What do you expect?" Luke shot back. "A pull tab?"
It was a joke, but it underscored the tension and fear in the group. Will Greenfield, the fourth survivor, lay unconscious and unmoving on a beach not far away. He needed medical attention. Probably they all did. But they were far from any doctor or hospital, stranded on a — on a what? It had to be an island. But how big an island? And where? It was anybody's guess.
Be grateful, Luke reminded himself. You're alive.
But he was not grateful. Captain Cascadden wasn't alive. Lyssa Greenfield and J.J. Lane weren't alive. Luke felt their absence in his every breath, an overwhelming sadness that weighed on him as heavily as exhaustion and dehydration.
What was so special about Luke that he deserved to live when others had perished? Why was he still here?
Or maybe the luck wasn't so good after all. The hunger felt more powerful than death. Forget hunger pangs. Luke hadn't felt those in days. Instead, there was a grinding hollow emptiness where his stomach should have been. The sensation was so intense that it seemed to go outside the limits of his skin. With it came a nervous trembling weakness that was only going to get worse.
And here was this coconut . . .
"You have to break it," explained Luke, banging it on the damp ground. "You have to get through that tough skin." He snatched up a rock and began bashing it against the greenish shell. "It takes patience!" He picked it up and hurled it at a tree. "Open, you miserable, rotten —"
It bounced off with a thwack and hit the ground, unbroken.
Ian spoke up. "I once saw a documentary about native tribes who could crack coconuts with their bare hands."
"Did you bother to find out how they did it?" Luke asked irritably.
Ian shook his head. "That was in Part Two. They showed it the night I left for this trip."
The three exchanged a stricken look. It was hard to believe that, barely two weeks ago, they had been safe at home, packing for Charting a New Course, a monthlong boat excursion meant to help troubled youth.
Charla sounded slightly hysterical. "It's like starving to death at Thanksgiving dinner!" she cried. She picked up the fallen coconut, spun around, and hurled it like a discus into the jungle.
"It broke!" exclaimed Ian. "I heard it!"
They rushed into the dense trees, but their coconut was nowhere to be seen. Vines and underbrush snatched at their legs.
Luke grabbed a branch and began hacking away at the tangle. The coconut! The food! It had to be down here somewhere! He began to flail wildly, like a crazed golfer in knee-deep rough. He roared in anger; it was stupid, he knew — a waste of valuable energy when there was so little left. But his frustration mixed with his hunger, and he didn't care, couldn't help himself. . . .
"Luke!" Charla grabbed him from behind. "Stop it! It's only a coconut."
"Guys!" came Ian's excited voice. "Over here!"
They followed his call to a small grove of leafy tropical trees and shrubs. There the younger boy was gathering an armload of strange green fruits that had fallen to the ground.
Charla wrinkled her nose. "What stinks?"
"These are durians," Ian explained breathlessly. "They have a strong odor, but they're food." He broke one open against a tree trunk and handed half to Luke. The powerful smell tripled.
Luke stared at it. "You're kidding, right?" The thick skin was covered in spikes. It looked more like a deadly weapon than a fruit.
Charla accepted a piece, handling it as if it might explode. "But — how do we know it isn't poison?"
Ian plucked out a gigantic seed and began to eat the grayish mush around it. "There was this documentary on TV," he began, mouth full.
Luke and Charla locked eyes. They had learned from experience that Ian was never wrong about something he'd seen on television. His stockpile of knowledge had saved their lives more than once on the raft.
They fell on the offering like starving sharks. It wasn't good, Luke reflected. It wasn't even acceptable. But in his voracious hunger, he barely noticed, gorging himself on fruit the consistency of gritty pudding, but with an odd garlicky flavor. Back home, he wouldn't have given this stuff table room. But here he ate greedily, even crunching the rock-hard seeds because Ian said they needed the protein.
The feast soon turned into a frenzy. After no food for so long, once they started eating, they couldn't stop themselves. The three stumbled around the grove in a fever of appetite, tripping and falling over the dozens of discarded rinds even as they rushed to break open new fruit. The rough spikes scratched their knees and shins, yet none of them felt the sting. Nothing mattered, nothing but the breathless race to get on the outside of as much nourishment as humanly possible.
As he stuffed himself, at long last Luke could feel his stomach again, back where it belonged and comfortably full. The sensation came along with something unexpected — sudden, overpowering sleepiness. All at once, his eyelids were so heavy that he couldn't keep them from closing.
Drowsy panic. Had they poisoned themselves?
The others must have experienced it too. Just before he lost consciousness, he heard Charla say, "God, what did we eat? I can't stay awake!"
Seconds later, the three of them lay motionless, the remnants of their feast still scattered around them.