Hello, there! Yes, come in, come in. Please forgive my haggard appearance, but I’m currently in the third day of my annual sleepless marathon. I find that I am much more productive when I’m wide awake than when I’m asleep. And so, several years ago, I started a tradition of staying up as long as possible in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. Then, on the Day of Thanks itself, I can list blessed sleep as one of the many things for which I am thankful. The first year I tried it, I only lasted about a day and a half before collapsing in the cereal aisle of the supermarket. The next year, I made it two and a half days, and I learned a valuable lesson about not driving when I’m performing my sleepless marathon. I’ve found that four days is my absolute upper limit, but I only infrequently reach that lofty mark. One benefit of going without sleep for so long is that my connection with the infinite seems to be much more firm. I find that many of my predictions during this period are more daring and unexpected than at other times during the year. These bold prophecies are, I think, my just reward, bestowed by the forces of the unknown for enduring such unique hardship. We shall soon see what prize awaits us from the great beyond when we discuss this week’s episode of Survivor. I ask of you only one favor. I know by now you are used to the sight of my eyes rolling up into my head, but today, if that action is accompanied by a wobbling of my skull on its neck and a sudden cessation of my speech, please slide the cracked crystal ball out of the way, for I’ll soon be plunging to the tabletop, and I don’t wish to fracture that priceless artifact again. It was so painful the first time. Oh, and should I in fact fall asleep, you may as well leave because I won’t be getting up for a while. My apologies in advance if I can’t make it, but I’m sure you understand the singular demands of my profession. And now, let us gaze together into the smoky depths of the cracked crystal ball. There. You see them? The crackling sparks of light that will soon give shape to the title of this week’s episode? And there it is. It’s
The Grate Fly
It’s a wild, tempestuous night in the Pearl Islands. The rain falls in diagonal sheets. Frequent lightning flashes are followed almost immediately by tremendous claps of thunder. On Balboa Beach, several hours after Tribal Council, three women in tattered rags stand around the guttering campfire, cackling with delight at the outcome of the night’s events.
“The King is gone!” Tijuana cheers excitedly. “Rupert has fallen! I can hardly believe it. Just a few days ago, all signs pointed to our leaving one after the other, Darrah. And now we’re power players!”
“Iss amaizin’, Tayee! Fayls lahk catchin’ wunna ‘em whaht waysels in a bawbcayat trayap!” She throws her arms out and tosses her head back, allowing the rain to wash over her in torrents.
“It’s wonderful!” Lill cries shrilly. “Just...wonderful! I feel so alive!” She loops her arms around Tijuana’s shoulders and plants a delirious kiss on her cheek. Tijuana pries Lill’s hands apart and shoves her roughly to the ground. Lill squeals with glee and rolls around in the sand.
A tall man strides through the rain toward the campfire. A smaller, ungainly man shuffles along beside him, thrusting his shoulders out in an alternating fashion and bobbing his head in synch with the motion of his upper body. When the two arrive at the campfire, Jon elects to sway in place, drawing V-shaped fingers across his eyes like a ghastly exotic dancer. He bares his teeth at Darrah and raises an eyebrow in invitation, but she doesn’t appear to notice.
“We’ve done it,” Burton announced proudly, his voice clear and commanding. “We have toppled King Rupert, and nothing will stop us now from taking this thing all the way to the end.” Lightning flashes, briefly illuminating the area as if it were noon. A roar of thunder drowns out the beginning of Burton’s next sentence. “ – can’t tell you how gratified I am that you all have placed your faith in me. I won’t disappoint you. I’m going to win one for the Outcasts.”
In the ensuing flash of lightning, Lill scrambles to her feet and launches herself at Burton. Her fingers dig into his shoulders, and she wraps her legs around his waist. “Go, Outcasts!” she screams over the din of the thunder. Burton’s been down this road before and skillfully dislodges her from his body with a flick of his wrist.
“Come on,” he says. “Let’s go get some rest. The weather’s getting worse.” He and the three women head back to the shelter, but Jon hesitates. He sees something. A glow of some sort in the bushes just outside the pale ring of light cast by the failing campfire.
Slowly, he moves a protective “Fairplay” into position in front of his face. He advances toward the light. “Who’s there?” he calls tremulously. “Christa?” He arrives at the tall shrub behind which the glow is emanating. Cautiously, he cranes his neck around the edge of the plant. Another bolt of lightning crackles overhead, casting light upon an imposing figure standing behind the bush with arms crossed. “Rupert!” Jon gasps, collapsing forward onto hands and knees in fear. “Wh-what are you doing here?”
Rupert is surrounded by a light blue glowing aura. He seems to shimmer and fade into the darkness. The blowing trees behind him are visible through his translucent body. “Yoooou killllled meee,” he hisses, his voice empty and airy, like a gust of wind blowing through a grove of dead trees. “Yoou toook meee out of myyyyy gaaaame.”
“It wasn’t just me, Rupe!” Jon stammers, still looking up from an all-fours position at the intimidating skirted figure. “There were lots of us!”
“Iiit waaas yoooour iiiideeeaaa,” Rupert breathes, extending a glowing finger toward Jon.
For an instant, a wild smile flashes on Jon’s face. He sits back on his heels and waves his fingers in the air like Jonny Puppetmaster. Catching himself, he lowers his arms and stares at Rupert’s ghost silently and with apprehension.
“Juuusticccce wiilll bee ssserved,” Rupert sighs before turning and walking away.
When he is no longer visible, Jon stands up and makes an obscene gesture in the direction of Rupert’s departure. “Try to intimidate me?” he calls. “Never gonna happen! I’m the new King, and no bullying ghost is going to change that!” He yells in fear as lightning flashes nearby, then scampers off to the shelter.
Next morning, Jon is the last to get up, and he immediately heads off to his secret rendezvous point with his closest ally in the game. He travels deep into the forest, near a shattered tree that has long ago been struck by lightning. A shrouded figure sits among the tangled branches of the fallen tree. “You’re late,” the figure says.
Jon laughs nervously. “I don’t know how you can tell,” he says. “No wristwatches, no hourglasses. I might be early for all you know.”
“The position of the sun in the sky tells me more than all the words you’ve ever spoken. Now tell me: what is your perception of our status in the game?”
“I’m certain nobody knows about us,” Jon says. “So as far as that goes, I think the plan is working. But something happened last night that makes me think we should accelerate our plan to knock off Burton.”
“Why?” the female voice asks. “The plan is Lill, Burton, and then the rest. What’s changed?”
“I saw...” Jon swallows hard, then clears his throat. “I saw the ghost of Rupert last night.”
The other laughs sharply. “Indeed?” she says. “And what did this ghost say to you?”
Jon’s temper flares. “Hey, he did talk to me, all right? Said he knew I’d voted for him and that justice would be served. I know Rupert thought Burton was tight with him. What if the ghost appears to him and betrays all our plans? Burton could be a powerful enemy in the game. I think we should get rid of him.”
The shadowy figure is silent for some time. Finally, she speaks. “I can see you’re beginning to lose your nerve. It is important to maintain your resolve in these matters of strategy. However, based on the unusual fact that I cannot seem to cleanse my hands of the voting ink from the last Tribal Council, I think something may be going on here that we don’t understand. I’ll call in favors this week and see if we can knock off Burton. That is all.”
Jon inclines his head briefly in a miniature bow, then turns and walks back to camp through the dense forest. After a few moments, the obscured figure steps out from the tree branches. Sandra rubs her hands together forcefully, staring down at an apparent ink stain on her right hand. Then she heads back to camp.
Later that day, the tribe paddles over to Dark Shark Cutty Sark Snapping Lucky Duck Bay for the Reward Challenge. Jeff is waiting for them there with a colossal frown on his face. “All right, guys. Bring it in. Last one on the mat is eliminated and goes home immediately.” The Survivors break into a sprint, clawing at one another to prevent the others from reaching the mat first. Christa slips and falls, and the others gain the mat before she does. She begins to sob quietly. Jeff laughs. “Get on the mat, Christa. You’re not eliminated. I was just joking around. What do you think this is? The Amazing Race? Sheesh!” Christa gets up and joins the others on the mat, wiping her eyes rapidly.
“OK,” Jeff says. “Today’s Reward Challenge is rooted in the ages-old pirate tradition of gambling while on long ocean journeys. Obviously, long trips were a given, considering how slow these pirate galleons are and how far away everything is from everything else, and this was especially true in the old days, or, as we like to call them, ‘The Pirate Times.’” He smiles condescendingly at the group. “So...back in The Pirate Times, these lawless semi-savages would play dice games on the deck of the boat while they waited for the next boat or small town to appear so they could pillage it. These games would sometimes get very hostile, and some pirates would even be killed in the course of trying to hide their cheating.” Jon flashes a nervous glance at Burton. “So here’s how it’s going to work. Each of you will receive one of these eight-sided dice.” He holds up an odd-looking die that resembles two perfect pyramids glued end to end. “You’ll also receive a Cheat Card, which you can use only once during the game. On my go, you’ll swim out to that pirate galleon moored in the bay. Climb aboard and select a random number, one through seven. I’m number eight.” He grins mysteriously. “Each round, we all roll our dice. The person whose number comes up the most must engage in a roll-off with me. If they can roll their number before I can, they stay in the game. Otherwise, they’re out. But if either of us rolls my number – number eight – we battle it out on the plank.” He points to a length of wood extending out over the water.
“What?!” Jon cries, suddenly very nervous.
Jeff’s grin broadens. “That’s right, Fairplay. I get a chance at you guys this time. If I knock you off the plank, you’re out of the game. If you knock me off, you stay. If we both fall off, no matter who falls first, you’re out, too. Now if there’s a tie in the initial die roll, all the tied Survivors roll off against me at the same time. Same rules apply. If I roll an eight during a multi-Survivor roll-off or if more than one tied Survivor rolls an eight at the same time, we’re all going on the plank, and whoever falls in is eliminated. Your Cheat Card can be used once in the game and only in one of two situations: if you’re in the game and your number just came up on the initial die roll, OR if you’re out of the game and you think you can win a plank battle against the Survivor whose die roll just came up. In the first situation, you don’t have to participate in the roll-off; you simply stay in the game. In the second situation, you can come back into the game in place of the other Survivor if you win the plank battle. The second scenario overrides the first, meaning a Survivor can try to stay in the game by playing their Cheat Card, only to be thwarted by another Survivor waiting in the wings who wants to challenge them on the plank. Everyone got it?” The group nods. “Wanna know what you’re playing for?”
Jon shudders. “No more boat rides,” he squeaks.
Jeff laughs. “No, none of that. Today you’re playing for nothing less than the pirate galleon itself.” The group gasps, collectively, in amazement. “Maybe you can dock it at the marina or park it in your driveway like that guy in Simon and Simon.” He shrugs. “Whatever. Do what you want with it ‘cause we don’t want it, and we’re not paying to send it back to the States.”
Sandra’s eyebrows crinkle in confusion. “Wait, you won’t be shipping it back for us?”
“Nope,” Jeff says. “Transportation back home is your problem. We’re just giving you the boat. What? Are you ungrateful now?” His voice rises in anger. “A few seconds ago, you guys were all, ‘Ooo, wow, a pirate boat!’ I throw a small curveball at you and you retreat like turtles into your shells!” He glares at the Survivors. “You sicken me.” He takes a deep breath. “All right. Dice and Cheat Cards are waiting for you on the boat. I’ll see you there. Survivors ready? Go!” Upon raising his opposite arm in the air, Jeff immediately dives into the water and leads the charge to the magnificent galleon anchored in the bay. He ascends the rope ladder and stands, dripping, next to a small table with seven uniquely-colored dice on it and seven Cheat Cards laid out in a fanned pattern. The other Survivors board the vessel and grab a die and a card. Once everyone has their equipment, Jeff tells them to retrieve their number from the back of the Cheat Card.
“OK, now that everyone knows their number, let’s roll for the first round.” He pulls his own die out of his pocket and joins the group on the first roll. With four threes, Lill is the “winner” of the first round.
“Oooohh!” she wails. “I don’t know what to do! Burton, help me!”
Burton compresses his lips and shakes his head in silent rage at being called out in front of the group, but he says nothing.
“I’ll....I’ll, uh, play my Cheat Card.” She hands the card to Jeff.
“OK, Lill is spared this time. Round two. Let’s roll.” Three fives is sufficient for Jon to be the next winner. “What do you want to do, Jon?” Jeff asks. He stares penetratingly at Jon.
“I’ll roll off,” he says. The others clear out of the way as Jeff and Jon begin rolling to see if Jon stays in the game. On the third round of the roll-off, Jon rolls an eight.
“Ahhhhhh,” Jeff murmurs softly. “Excellent. Step out on the plank with me, little man.” The two walk to the side of the boat and edge out on the narrow plank. Jeff lowers into a crouch. “OK, someone give us a count of three. We’ll start on three.”
Burton clears his throat. “One...two...three!”
Jeff feints a punch with his left hand, causing Jon to turn his head quickly in the direction of the movement. Jeff follows up his initial motion with a powerful open-handed slap to Jon’s left ear. Jon yelps and lunges sideways from the force of the blow to his ear. As he teeters precariously near the edge of the plank, Jeff drops to one foot and executes a perfect leg sweep, cutting Jon’s feet out from under him and dropping him head-first into the water. Jeff stands and walks back onto the boat. “Jon is out!” he cries, dusting his hands together. “Round three!”
The Survivors stare at him with fear in their eyes. With shaky hands, they roll the dice again. A tie between Christa and Burton necessitates a roll-off. Christa waves her Cheat Card first and stays in the game. Burton and Jeff roll dice for several rounds, but he is eliminated when Jeff rolls Burton’s number two first. He joins a drenched Jon on the sidelines and watches.
Over the next several rounds, Sandra and Darrah head to the sidelines after brief plank battles with Jeff, who simply pushes their shoulders at the key time to send them overboard. When Lill’s number comes up again, Burton quickly raises his Cheat Card, which results in a duel with Lill on the plank.
When they’re both in position, Jeff counts to three to start the match. Burton growls and waves his hand over his head, prompting Lill to leap into the water on her own. “Burton! Back in the game!” Jeff calls, then he raises an eyebrow. “Again.”
Tijuana’s number comes up twice in a row. She uses her Cheat Card first, then loses out to Jeff in a roll-off. Christa is next, but Darrah challenges her to a plank battle. With her superior leverage, Darrah is able to topple Christa, sending her out of the game permanently. At this point, only Burton and Darrah are technically in the game, but both Sandra and Jon hold Cheat Cards. When Darrah’s number comes up next, Jon waves his Card in the air, setting up a plank challenge.
The two move out onto the plank, and Jeff counts to three. On “three,” Jon smiles toothily and says, “Hi, sweetheart!” to his opponent. He quickly drops into a defensive “Fairplay,” arms crossed in front of him. With astonishing quickness and ferocity, Darrah lashes out with her foot, catching Jon directly under the chin with her heel. “Rroooff!” Jon grunts as his head snaps back. His body leaves the plank and soars backwards. He lands squarely in the middle as a rush of air leaves his body. “Whhuff!” He struggles into a sitting position, then draws a knee under him, leaving him kneeling on the plank, his head bowed, gasping for breath. Darrah approaches him slowly, warily. Then, with a small cry, she leaps straight into the air and delivers a sideways kick across her body which catches Jon on the side of the head. He slumps over the side of the plank but has the presence of mind to scrabble for a handhold. He hangs over the side of the plank, his sides heaving. After a few seconds, he attempts to pull himself up. Just as his head clears the side of the plank, Darrah steps on his fingers. Jon cries out and releases the plank, catching his face on the side of the plank as he falls. The force of the blow propels his upper body away from the plank, and he falls to the sea in a lazy windmilling arc, finally splashing down head-first.
“Darrah is still in the game!” Jeff cries admiringly. “It’s down to her, Burton, and Sandra, who still has a Cheat Card.”
“Don’t worry,” Sandra says. “I’m not going to use it.” She tears her card in half.
“Oh! Now that’s interesting. OK, you two. One of you is going to win this thing. Let’s see who it is.” Burton’s number comes up first. After a few rolls, an eight comes up. Jeff smiles in a sinister fashion and begins cracking his knuckles one at a time. Burton walks to the plank and leaps off. Jeff throws his head back and laughs. “Good decision, Burton!” he calls. “Reward to Darrah!”
Darrah’s lips widen slightly in what can only be termed a smile, but she still looks supremely angry, as usual. Jeff walks over to the cannon on the upper deck, and swivels it around to point at the lower deck. He pulls a lit torch from a holder on the wall and addresses the Survivors. “I’d recommend you all get off now and head back to the beach. It’s time to store this thing.”
“Wut?!” Darrah cries. “Mah bayowt!”
“It’ll be right here when you’re done,” Jeff says, smiling. “We really have nowhere else to store it. Come on. You didn’t think there would be no twist involved in getting a great boat like this, did you? All you won was a game of dice.” He touches the torch to the fuse on the cannon. The Survivors cry out and pile over the sides, even Darrah, after scowling furiously at Jeff for several seconds.
With a loud roar, the cannon fires a ball directly through the lower deck and out the hull of the galleon. Almost immediately, the boat tilts in the direction of the hole. Jeff dives off the upper deck into the water and swims to shore, where he joins the other Survivors in watching the beautiful vessel settle into the shallow waters. It touches bottom before the mast can completely disappear, then it gently rolls sideways until the mast stops at about a 45-degree angle from the water.
“There you go,” Jeff says. “That’s where it’ll be when you come back to take it home. Congratulations, D!” He claps enthusiastically and signals the others to join him, but they don’t. “All righty then. See you at the Immunity Challenge tomorrow.”
With astonishing speed, tomorrow arrives, and the Survivors head off to Shark Squat Double Spot Duck Tooth Beach Bay. Jeff is reading the newspaper when they arrive. He does a quick double-take as they approach, then glances at a pocket watch he has in his shirt pocket. “Didn’t I just see you guys?” he asks. “Man, the days really run together around here. Just a minute.” He quickly skims the article he was reading, then crumples the paper and puts it aside. “OK, thanks. Just wanted to get caught up on my soaps. Turns out Rex is a Brady. In fact, Roman is his dad! Boy, I didn’t see that coming. You could knock me over with a feather. Well, anyway. Let’s get this Immunity Challenge underway, huh?” He raises his eyebrows and nods once to gain approval.
“Today’s Challenge celebrates the fact that pirates were always in the brig or in jail trying to figure out ways to escape. Most of the time, these jailbreaks were unsuccessful, and as a result, many pirates back in The Pirate Times wound up being executed unnecessarily. Just think about how different things would have been if they had helmets and an explosive springboard to propel them through the bars for their getaway. Who’s to say we wouldn’t still be a pirate society if that had happened?” He shrugs and offers a quick frown to indicate to the others that he thinks such an outcome is at least possible, maybe even plausible. “Well, today, we’ll be re-writing history. One by one, you’ll be climbing into the simulated brig tank we’ve constructed over there.” He points at a large wooden structure that looks like a cross-section of a ship. “You’ll put on your helmet, then stand on the springboard. When you’re ready, press the release button on the springboard. It will shoot you straight to the ceiling of the brig. Your helmet will then catch the grate above the brig and carry it into the air. It’s your responsibility, at this point, to grab the grate off the top of your head and give it as prodigious a heave as you can manage in the direction of the measuring markers.” He gestures at several posts rising out of the ground. “Whoever racks up the most distance on their throws wins The Grate Fly.” He looks into the camera, grins, and flashes a thumbs-up. “You’ll have to act quickly because gravity will be opposing you, as will your bruised skull. Just, you know, do the best you can. Any questions? All right, Sandra, you’re up first. Uh...Sandra ready? Go!”
Sandra heads over to the fake brig and climbs inside. After a few seconds pass while she dons the helmet, a loud hissing “Whoosh!” sound can be heard from within the structure. Almost simultaneously, Sandra shoots out the top. She has no chance at all to grab the grate, which instead leaps away from her helmet and just barely clears the roof of the brig structure. It lands only a couple of feet away.
“Should be easy to beat,” Jeff remarks. “Jon, you’re up. And, here, you can use my helmet. We’re roughly the same head size, right?” Jon looks at the proffered helmet suspiciously. “No, seriously, take it. I was upset with myself for working you over so badly in the Reward Challenge and I wanted to make amends. Take it.”
Jon accepts the helmet. “OK. Thanks, man,” he says as he heads off to the brig.
Jeff snickers to himself once Jon is inside. “Watch this,” he whispers to the others. In a few seconds, the hissing sound is heard from within the brig structure, and Jon is launched toward the grate at an incredible speed. With a loud, splintering crack, his helmet disintegrates into twenty or thirty component pieces. The grate itself merely slides across the deck a few inches. Jon himself, his helmet strap dangling useless from one ear, lands loudly on his back on top of the brig.
“Hm,” Jeff muses aloud. “That’s probably not going to have the distance. Come on, Jon! Get off of there. Lill’s up next!” Jon groans and slips over the edge of the brig structure, where he lands face-down in the sand and is still for a while.
Tijuana and Christa both score high marks with their grate fly, but in the end, it’s Burton who winds up winning. He manages to send the grate twelve feet for his third Immunity Challenge victory in four tries. Jeff didn’t even ask for the Immunity Saber when the Challenge started; Burton wore it the entire time. “You know what?” Jeff asks. “I think I’m just going to have this thing engraved with your name on it. Then we could dispense with these Challenges. I’ll look into it.” He claps his hand on Burton’s shoulder before grabbing his newspaper and heading off into the forest. “See you at Tribal Council tomorrow,” he calls over his shoulder as almost an afterthought. The others pluck Jon out of the sand and head back to Balboa Beach.
At Tribal Council the following evening, there’s an air of dread. Sandra is rubbing her hands compulsively, even though the ink from the last vote appears to be long gone. Jon is jumpy and keeps looking into the shadows on the periphery of the Tribal Council. The three wild women (T, D, and Lill) are chattering to one another. The wind is picking up, and thunder is rumbling in the distance. “We’ll now bring in part of our jury,” Jeff says when everyone’s settled. Ryan walks in and takes his seat.
“Where’s Rupert?” Jon asks sharply.
“Maybe you can tell me,” Jeff counters. “What’d you do with him?”
“Me?!” Jon exclaims.
“That’s right, smart guy. I’ve had my suspicions about you from the beginning, and I put a team of investigators on your tail last week when Rupert was voted off...just in case. Come on in, guys.” A group of four young people – two men and two women – walk onto the Tribal Council set, accompanied by their gangly Great Dane. “Why don’t you tell them what you found?” Jeff suggests.
The group’s leader, a tall and handsome blond man with a white sweater and a brightly-colored scarf, steps forward. “Well, our first clue was this tuft of blond, curly hair. We found it near a bush on Balboa Beach, and there was some glow-in-the-dark paint nearby, as well.” He holds up a paint can. “We figure you and Rupert have been in cahoots, dressing him up as The Ghost of the Pearl Islands so you can frighten tourists out of their money.”
“What?!” Jon yells. “No way, man. He came to me as a ghost! He haunted me! Said I was the reason he was gone and that my time was coming.”
“Uh-huh,” the blond man says impatiently. “Come on, gang, let’s see who this joker really is.” He races over to Jon and begins tugging on his hair.
“Ow! Ooowwww!!! Ow!” Jon cries, slapping and scratching at the scarved man. “Leave me alone!”
“Hm,” the man says. “He may be telling the truth. Sorry, Jeff. I guess we don’t know where Rupert is.”
“That’s all right, guys,” Jeff says, reassuringly. “Thanks for trying.” As the group departs, Jeff flips a dog biscuit at the Great Dane, who snatches it out of the air and gobbles it down appreciately. “Well, guys, with that, I guess it’s time to vote.”
Sandra stands up from her chair, rubbing her hands furiously. “I think he killed Rupert!” she cries, stabbing a finger dramatically at Jon.
“Did not!” Jon yells, knocking over his stump as he stands.
The three wild women gasp in unison and then respond in chorus, “He killed Rupert?!”
“No!” Jon says, his voice rising into a whine.
“It is...time to vote,” Jeff says anxiously.
When all the votes are tallied, Jon is booted 6-1. He is disconsolate as Jeff snuffs his torch. “I don’t understand what happened,” he mumbles. “I had everything under control.”
Suddenly, Rupert steps up behind Jeff. He’s glowing like before, but this time he’s grinning uncontrollably. “Not quite everything, Fairplay!” he rumbles. “I’m still in control of this game.” His smile turns cold. “Welcome to the jury box, my friend.” He sets a can of glow-in-the-dark paint on the floor and throws an arm over Jon’s shoulder. “Let me show you the ropes, little buddy. We’re going to have a goooood time.”
And the cracked crystal ball has gone dark. I’m amazed I was able to stay awake the entire time. I think I’d better...um...you have a happy Thanksgzzzzzzzzz.......
Your comments are welcome. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.