Author’s Note: This story was written live on stream with the audience bidding tokens (earned while watching) to determine the path of the story. The underlined phrases in the choice of three were the winning pathways. Stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade if you’d ever like to participate in our interactive fiction.
One Song Five Films Ten Books
One rarely wonders what exactly constitutes a deserted island. How deserted does it have to be? Free of people? Free of their buildings? Free of animals? Free of plants? Only a handful of them, true to the last grain in being deserted, have ever existed. This is the tale of the one off the coast of Nova Scotia. It was shaped like a femur and covered in white sand. For the longest time, there was nothing else. Not a feather. Not a sea shell.
One morning, as the sun broke the horizon and shot across the cloudless sky, a head joined in its rising. It emerged from the white sand, sputtering and spitting. A body soon followed, hopping to its feet and stumbling about in confusion. The island was no longer deserted. Its first inhabitant was named Demetri. He was a snowplow driver who’d never been anywhere near the sea in his entire life. He was a one-man business, and his jacket bore his name and logo across the front.
“Hello?” he coughed, but there was nobody to answer. Even I, your humble narrator, could not. I watched and listened through a telescope and recording devices fixed on the next island over. It was not my place to answer any of his questions, lest I disturb those who put me here. He was on his own.
Demetri didn’t even understand the importance of each step. His footprints wouldn’t be going anywhere for a long while. They were the first history his island had. Soon there would be an explosion of it, as soon as the man found his buried gift.
It didn’t take long, as he could walk from one end of the island to the other in under four minutes. He dragged his feet, kicking sand everywhere. Those careless steps would’ve found it, perhaps broken it, on their own if he hadn’t heard it. Yes, he was luckier than I. His island had sound separate from his voice. There was music emanating from somewhere. I watched him follow it, one hand cupped around his right ear.
He dropped to his knees and dug, shoveling the sand like a dog digging out a gopher. The sound grew loud enough for me to classify it: music. The genre was difficult to pin down, but I definitely recognized two separate piano tracks. The beat was slow and the mood tense. I apologize for the lack of a better description, but I hadn’t heard music aside from my own humming in two decades.
Demetri found the culprit. It was some sort of bulky tape player, its design unfixed in time. I could see the tape rolling on the front of it, and two speakers to the side, but it was cased in thick black plastic. The device was somewhere between a boombox and those tape recorders used by law enforcement. Demetri struggled to lift it, eventually dropping it right next to its hole.
Its song continued to play as he searched for buttons. I could tell from the way he scratched his head that there weren’t any. No fast-forward. No last or next track. No on or off. The only way to be rid of the song would be to smash it or toss it out to sea.
Bash it Toss it Ignore it
This was where my estimate of Demetri’s intelligence sharply dropped. I don’t have much sympathy for people who don’t try to make due with what they have. If I did have sympathy for him I would never tell you of his folly; I would simply let his story fade away on the wind to spare his ghost the embarrassment.
Demetri, once he gave up the search for the button, curled his lip in disgust and proceeded to try and destroy the music player. He kicked at it, aiming for its transparent front panel where the rolling tape was. He came away with nothing but a sore foot. Curses dribbled out of his mouth. Though his kick had no effect on its structural integrity, the player did respond. The music got louder.
He kicked it again. The volume rose once more. I had to adjust the levels on my own headphones to avoid blowing out my eardrums. Demetri threw his hands over his ears and walked circles around the thing. He gave up on the kicking strategy and decided to re-bury it. I already knew where that would get him.
Now is an excellent opportunity to tell you about myself, my island, and the single object I found buried within. It has been my only true companion in these decades of desertion. I woke up in much the same way Demetri did. I had no memory of how I reached the islands, and I saw no boats coming or going. No land. Just frigid water as far as the eye could see and just the mournful tug of the wind as far as the ear could hear.
My foot found the buried device, as it wasn’t so helpful as to announce its presence like Demetri’s. I was given a brass spyglass similarly unfixed in time. It had small dials all over it and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what each of them measured, not in those first few weeks anyway.
This is where the exact nature of a deserted island comes into play. You’ve all heard jokes on the subject, but I can tell you that every detail moving forward is of the utmost seriousness. The other things you’ve heard are more relevant than the punch lines. It’s an excellent way to start a conversation, to bridge the gap between all your petty figurative islands. If you were trapped on a desert island and you could only have one… something… what would it be?
I don’t remember if I’d ever actually answered that question in my life, but if I had I would’ve said something like a spyglass or a telescope. I wanted to be an astronomer when I was younger. What I actually wanted to be was an astronomer-adventure, the kind of man who could chase a swimming star across the sea in order to discover it, but I eventually learned no such occupation existed. I gave up on it until I found that spyglass on my own private island.
There was a reason that one song got louder every time Demetri kicked it. A truly deserted island, with no more than two elements at play, is actually a medium, like a canvas or a Petri dish. It can be the foundation for anything, but it will start building immediately. Every action of the island’s lord and master has a series of consequences.
Demetri started with a kick, but I started with observations. I put that spyglass to my eye, made some experimental adjustments, and looked out to sea.
Giant Wave Albatross Tugboat
I saw something through it that definitely was not there a moment before: a small ship headed in my direction. It approached with strange exactness. Its path was the same trajectory, down to the degree, that I held the spyglass with. When I lowered the glass it was no longer on the horizon.
I looked again. The boat had returned and was much closer this time. The details were clear. It was a tugboat, though it had nothing to tug. Its hull and windows were abnormal, seemingly made of the glass and metals that made up my island’s gift. When I looked the third time, the tugboat had pulled itself up onto the beach.
It was utterly invisible when viewed normally, even when I was inches from it and when I strode across its deck. This is why I think Demetri such a fool. A person, alone on a truly deserted island, is the source of everything that could ever be there. This tugboat appeared because I wanted to be rescued, but it could only exist through the lens of the one object I had with me. It could only exist in its very materials.
The tugboat appeared because I wanted to be rescued, but rescue was one of the few things the island couldn’t give me. With simple experimentation, and by staying calm, I was able to puzzle out exactly what it could give me. I had to watch the boat for it to be able to leave, which meant it had to leave me behind. I watched it go, even as hunger clawed at my stomach. I lowered the spyglass and brought it back up to see the vessel gone. That meant it was on a different shore, gathering the supplies I needed.
When I looked again it was on its way back. I requested food, but it wasn’t that simple. It returned with plenty of boxes labeled as if they contained food, but with nothing inside. The boxes themselves were brass crates of the same finish as the spyglass. Food was too far of an extrapolation. If I was going to build a home of my own, I had to understand every last possibility of the gift.
This was how I went about getting my first meal. Every thought was slow and deliberate, like tying turtles together and turning their shells into a bridge across a pond. The spyglass had a glass lens. Glass could be made from sugar. Sugar could be used as food. It was with these thoughts, and the gift once again pressed to my eye, that I sent the tugboat away.
When it returned next it tugged a large bucket behind it, bobbing in the waves and occasionally losing a piece of its contents. Those pieces dissolved immediately, as they were glass-like sculptures of colored sugar.
I laughed and hooted wildly, dancing about the beach and checking every few minutes to see if my boat was on the shore yet. When it was I dove right in. It was like the purest candy you’d ever eaten: fruit distilled down to just its sugars, a little water, and a pinch of air. It only took a hundred licks to melt through a crystallized banana bunch. I ate the cherries after that. The sugar rewarded me with an awful stomach cramp, but it couldn’t sour my mood. Not even the glassy lemons in the bunch could do that. It was all extrapolation and I knew the secret.
A City Friends A Laboratory
From the glass I could make sugar and from the metal casing I could craft minerals. These two things could be combined into all sorts of foods, more than enough to sustain me. The metals could be the sides of buildings and the wires and vents within. The glass could be the streets and the windows.
I could have my own city, spun from nothing but a spyglass. That’s what I did. Towers topped with my image. Giant telescopes built into their eyes so I could observe my surroundings. My island was covered, in no time at all, in everything I could imagine out of my limited materials. That’s what a man can do with a deserted island.
With that said let us go back to Demetri, whom I watched through the tallest eye in my mightiest tower. He tried to undo his mistake by burying the music player. Once it was gone, thoroughly covered, I could see his dissatisfaction. The music was getting louder. The dials next on the left armrest of my telescope assured me of this.
All the sand on his island began to vibrate. His feet sank in if he stood still for more than a few seconds. He had to dance, almost looking like he enjoyed the music, to keep from being buried himself. Here was a simple man of simple labor and desires. He didn’t want to be the god of his own little world, and it showed in his brutish rejection of his island’s gift.
The volume swelled. Blood dribbled out of Demetri’s ears, even with both hands over them. The music sprouted from the ground as undulating auroras shaped like kelp. The pink, yellow, and green stalks angered him further. He tore into them and tried to shove them back in the sand. They burst back out, all the more aggressive for his efforts.
The world he was building was one of suppression, of trying to stop advancement. He wanted the island to be deserted. Over my time here, looking in all directions across the globe, I’ve seen a few others in our situation. Each got something different. Music for Demetri and a spyglass for me. There’s a woman two continents away who had nothing but a pair of shoes. Another one near the Southern coast of Africa who had only a single banana leaf.
They managed to build wonders much like mine. The shoes were spun off into clothing and a city of vibrant fabric with carpets that automatically took you wherever you wanted to go. I saw her in her streets, wearing a thousand different outfits without ever changing. Her deserted island was a world of fashion.
The banana leaf was turned into an overgrown jungle of produce with melons the size of cattle and herbs as tall as redwoods. Hers was a world of food. I succeeded in making a place of observation: a sterile environment from which to gather information from a safe distance.
It allowed me to deduce that the purpose of Demetri was to build a miniature world of music, but he was too dim to figure that out. Or perhaps… He just didn’t like the song chosen for him. I have a hard time believing it was simply the wrong artist or genre that did him in. Everything so far had been purposeful. Science. Fashion. Cuisine. Music. Somewhere there was undoubtedly a deserted island of industry, one of family, and one of love. These were pieces of a world being assembled from the seeds of a different one.
Deafened Enraged Enlightened
That was my best guess anyway, and all my guesses are educated. These deserted islands, each perfected strains of their starting content, would eventually be lifted out of the sea by whatever entity had placed us there. They would be combined in order to create some kind of utopia. Can you imagine a world made up of only pieces that started in perfection? Every meal delivered to your door, grown in the soil of perfect food, shipped by the carts of perfect industry, and enjoyed around a perfectly crafted table with your perfectly polite family.
This would only occur once all the miniature worlds were built. The attempt at perfecting music was proving somewhat discordant. The music Demetri suppressed rather than nurtured had him flailing thirty feet off the ground. He was in its pink clutches like a sardine snatched by an octopus. He just screamed rather than try to sing along, try to guide the music in a more productive direction.
It grew louder. The needle on one of my dials broke its casing and sprang off in a random direction. No human could survive that for long… I pulled away from the telescope and paced around my study. I could not intervene. That much was clear. I would risk everything by bringing another human mind into my realm. I would’ve lost my chance to be a part of that ultimate world.
I did force myself to watch. I didn’t want to see the man die but observation, as a concept, never involved shying away from life’s nastier sights. I put my eye back to the lens. Demetri wasn’t even struggling anymore. He hung there like a rat in the mouth of a cat. Blood crossed both his cheeks and met in his open mouth. I could see him mumbling. He was undoubtedly completely deaf at that point.
If he was chosen to make a perfect world of music, that meant it must have been part of his life before. Yet, I knew from the ID and documentation in the wallet I would eventually find that he was a snowplow driver. Where did this passion for music come in? I imagined him sitting long hours in the dark cabin of his vehicle. The radio was on; his fingers danced around the dial, finding the spots where the grass of the static was quite low.
He found comfort and warmth in his radio. Learned the rules of music from it. The blood wasn’t dripping anymore. The tendrils of wild music lost interest and tossed Demetri’s corpse out into the sea. They receded into the sand, deserting the island once more. I watched him float. It had been years since I’d heard a radio, but I remembered their worst quality, the sort of thing that could taint the perfection of desertion.
Radios always played the same songs over and over again. Maybe poor Demetri had been snowed-in once, trapped with his music. Maybe there was that one popular song repeating. Maybe it turned into a carnivorous earworm and attacked him where he sat. He grew to hate the song. Imagine being him, waking up on a tiny island with a mouthful of sand, and the only item is playing that one song that you just can’t stand anymore.
That cost him his life. Once he was dead I showed him a little respect. I looked with my original spyglass and sent the tugboat out to fetch him. I didn’t think it a risk any longer, because I was a station of science and he was now just a specimen. In truth, when I had him on the dissection table, I looked for clues to my own future.
I spared no thoughts for the contamination of my home, but then I caught myself humming. The tune of Demetri’s island.