Good day! Welcome back to my parlor. Yes, the lockdown emergency from last week has passed. In its place, however, a new situation has arisen. Seems this location received the greatest concentration of psychic blasts during the storm last week. As a result, the Fortune Telling Commission has decided to conduct an audit here. No big deal, right? Well, not exactly. These FTC agents are a pain in the neck. They’re supposed to be the best of the best, and I’ll grant you they have incredible command of The Infinite. But, honestly, do they have to go around answering your questions before you ask them all the time? Yesterday, one of them came up to me with an excited look on his face and said, “Yes, that would be wonderful! I’ll take two.” So then I spent the next twenty minutes trying to guess what I was going to say at some point in the future. And if you get it wrong, you have to go back and keep trying until you determine what you are destined to say but haven’t said yet. In this case, it turns out I offered the guy donuts, which, by the way, we didn’t have on-hand so I had to drive fifteen minutes out of my way to buy some. Another woman says, “Thank you. It’s so nice of you to remember.” After a little bit of research, I discover I’m supposed to wish her a happy birthday two or three days later! It’s just impossible to keep up with these people. It’s like being forced to play Jeopardy! all day every day, only without the urbane, witty host. The weird thing is they get all flustered and can’t respond if you ask them a question before they answer it. Sometimes, I almost think the only questions they can answer are ones from the future. I don’t know where they find those people, but they sure make us normal seers feel inadequate. Anyway, while they’re conducting their investigations into the mystic structural anomalies associated with this building, we’ll sit here and explore this week’s episode of Survivor. Much nicer to be indoors this week, isn’t it? Especially with the wind howling out there and the freak swarm of locusts massing outside the main doors. Yeah, maybe there is something strange about this place. Ah, there we go. Look inside my cracked crystal ball. See the words of this week’s title taking shape? Sounds interesting! It’s
Prowl Back To Sea Guard
It’s a warm and sunny morning in the Islands of Fire. At Yasur Beach, the merry sounds of aimless industry fill the air. Twila is hard at work, but the purpose of her effort is unclear. Although the shelter is already as constructed as it’s going to be, she continues to hack away at bamboo with the tribal machete. While the other members of the tribe sit drowsily by the fire or try to wring a few more moments of rest from the morning back in the shelter, the urgent ping-clacking of the machete striking the bamboo wears away on their psyches like the tide attacking a sand castle. The only person who appears to be unaware or at least unaffected by the torturous noise is Eliza, who is loudly telling the story of the last time she’d been in a situation in which another person was smashing away at bamboo with a machete really early in the morning, a story which takes place the previous day.
Finally, Ami, who has been hunched over with her head by her knees and her hands over her ears, stands up and claps her hands once. “OK, Twila, stop. Stop. You, too, Eliza.”
Eliza frowns. “But I’m just getting to the good part.”
Ami shakes her head. “Nope, you’re done. It’s time to do Twila’s hair. We need to all have a tribal moment here and get her hair done up right. It’s been a rough couple of days, and we need to reconnect as a group.”
“And touching Twila’s hair will help us reconnect?” Julie asks in disbelief.
“I ain’t sure I want you all touchin’ my hair, anyways,” Twila says. “I got it just the way I like it right now.”
Ami smiles reassuringly at her. “Umm, no, you don’t. See, what you are is three things: you’re terrified, you’re in denial, and you’re conflicted. Part of you wants to see what we can do, but you’re afraid of being made a fool of so you deny your interest to hide your fear and avoid the risk of rejection.”
Twila says nothing, but a single tear snakes down her determinedly stoic face as she slowly sits down near the group.
“Wow,” says Eliza. “They sure give you good training in those coffee houses.”
“I’d like to help!” Lisa says brightly.
“Oo, back off, traitor!” Eliza snaps. “You sunk a knife in our back last night. I’m not having anything to do with you. I just don’t respect people that go all commando on their alliances. In fact, I’m reminded of the time when this other person I know stabbed someone in the back. It was a long time back, like two days ago or something. This one other person was all talking about how she didn’t know who she was going to vote for, and so this person I know - ”
Scout plugs her ears and yells at Eliza to be quiet. “For heaven’s sake, girl, don’t you realize we were all here for that story? Don’t you think we recognize you as the ‘other person?’”
Eliza’s voice trails off, and her jaw hangs open for a few moments. “Oh, you’re right,” she says. “That was me!” She brings a hand up and cups her chin with it as she stares at the ground. “Now what do I do? I don’t respect myself!”
“Don’t mind that,” Ami says excitedly. “Let’s get to work on Twila’s hair. Anyone bring a comb as a luxury item?” The chirpy, busy sounds of the jungle are her only answer. “OK,” she says. “Anyone know of any splintered sticks we could use?”
“Nope!” Twila says, standing abruptly and retrieving her machete. “No, ma’am. I will not have you fancypantses shovin’ sticks in my hair. See, I knew it was all just a big trick to get me to look stupid. That’s why I don’t trust women. I bet you’d have enjoyed seeing me prancing around with a set of elk antlers on my head, wouldn’t you? All of you? Yeah, I see how ya are.” She whacks the bamboo branch at double-speed with the machete.
Ami stares at her with wide, sad eyes. “Well, I think you’d have enjoyed it, honestly,” she says, her voice heavy with regret, as if she’d just been forced to report that the latte machine was broken.
“Don’t worry,” a voice says from inches away. “We wouldn’t have had time, anyway.”
Ami screams and plunges to the ground in fear and surprise, then peers up at the source of the unexpected commentary. “Oh, geez, Leann. You scared me! Were you there that whole time?”
“Actually, no,” Leann says, seeming to shimmer in and out of sight as the bright sunlight plays over her through the tree cover overhead. “I’d taken a walk to retrieve our Tree Mail.” She hands a scroll to Scout. “We’re almost late for the Reward Challenge.”
With a collective shriek of alarm at the thought of Jeff’s reaction to their being late, the rest of the tribe thunders off into the trees en route to Challenge Beach.
“Hey,” Leann says. “Wait. It’s not there this time. It’s just over here.” She points a few feet down the beach. Jeff waves back. She shrugs and heads over to her tribe’s mat. Lopevi hasn’t arrived yet, either. Leann and Jeff look at each other in embarrassed, awkward silence.
“Beautiful weather today,” Jeff says after a lengthy pause.
“Oh, geez, yeah. Just gorgeous! The best,” Leann says enthusiastically. Another painful silence ensues. The two make brief eye contact, then look away quickly. “So, Jeff, why did you pick this location this time?” Leann asks after a while.
“Well, you know, that’s an interesting question,” Jeff says, nodding in excitement. “Back in the Pearl Islands, we kept visiting new beaches every time we dragged the tribes out of camp for a Challenge. Haven’t done that so much this time. I guess we just got bored today. Wanted to mix it up.” The cameras whirr loudly as the two stare quietly at each other again. Finally, Jeff claps his hands once and rubs them together. “Ah, here they come!” he exclaims. “Excellent!” He strains out a smile and glances at his wristwatch.
In a little while, both tribes are assembled on their mats, and Jeff breathes a visible sigh of relief. “Hey!” Scout says in surprise. “Leann’s here! Wow, we completely forgot about you just now. We regrouped in the trees and had a quick roll call, and you just slipped our minds. We’re very lucky you knew where you were going. You shouldn’t just wander off like that again, young lady.” She holds up one hand and wiggles her index finger side to side.
“OK,” Jeff says. “Let’s focus, people. It’s time to get this thing started. Now, as you’re aware, we’re located in the beautiful Islands of FIRE!”
Perhaps it’s the inflection of Jeff’s voice as he shouts the final word or the wild gleam in his eye before he throws his head back. Maybe it’s the faint sound of a safety clicking off. Whatever the reason, Sarge, Brady, and Scout dive to the ground before Jeff finishes speaking. On impulse, most of the other Survivors follow suit just as the harsh chatter of machine gun fire erupts from the nearby forest. The remaining stragglers scream out and join the others on the ground with their arms covering their heads.
Just as quickly as it began, the sound of gunfire ends and is replaced by Jeff’s raucous laughter. “Oh, man!” he says, mopping his face with his shirt sleeve. “That was priceless! You can all stand up. I was just testing you. You really do have to stay on your toes here in the Islands of FIRE!” Everyone dives again, but no shots are fired. Jeff whoops loudly. “Excellent! You crazy fools are trainable. I would never have guessed. You really had nothing to worry about. They were all firing blanks. But it’s always best to be safe.” He pauses and rubs his lips with two fingers on his left hand. “Tell me something, Scout. Why did you dive so rapidly?”
She smiles mysteriously. “I’ve done a lot of things in my life, Jeff,” she says. “I recognize that familiar sense of impending gunplay. What I’m curious about is why Brady took a dive.” She looks over at him and raises an eyebrow.
Sarge laughs. “What, you’ve never seen a milkman before?” he asks. “They’re all taught to save the merchandise when they’re delivering to the ‘hood.”
Eliza’s eyes widen, if that’s possible. “He’s a milkman?!”
“That’s right,” Brady says smoothly. “I deliver delicious milk and other wholesome dairy products to underprivileged inner city families in L.A.”
“Awwww!” the women coo in unison.
“Trumped me!” Chad exclaims in despair.
“Oh, please, people!” Sarge exclaims. “He’s so obviously not a milkman! He’s hiding something. He’s expertly trained. He’s lethal, for pete’s sake! This guy is the most dangerous thing on this entire island. With the exception of our host, of course.” Jeff closes his eyes and nods once in appreciative acknowledgement.
“Have you ever had a milk bottle shot out of your hand?” Julie asks shyly. “What’s that like?”
“All right, folks!” Jeff says firmly. “That’s enough chit-chat. Let’s get on with it. Today’s Challenge once again pays tribute to the mysterious culture of the Vanuatu. As you know, magic is a big part of their daily lives, and one thing they love to do is brew potions. In addition, a particular mystic icon of the Vanuatu people is an indigenous island life form that the women have already made the acquaintance of a couple days ago. Ladies, do you know what I’m talking about?”
“Those little bugs that bite you all the time?” Eliza asks, scratching her right arm.
“Uh, no,” Jeff says. “I’m speaking, of course, of the wild Vanuatu chicken, revered above all other island denizens as the bearer of dark magical powers. Consider the chicken you women discovered the other day. Twila had it cornered and was preparing to kill it, right?”
“You guys have seen chickens?” Chris gasps, his jaw slack with hungry desire.
“I don’t know how that little feller got away,” Twila says. “I had him dead to rights.”
“You see?” Jeff says. “Mysterious. Today’s Challenge is called ‘A Chicken in Every Pot.’ Each tribe will receive a large black cauldron in which to prepare your potion. On my go, you’ll split up your tribe and find the necessary ingredients to create a traditional chicken-raising potion. Some of you will carry the heavy cauldron to the sea and fill it halfway with water, then bring it back and place it over the fire that others of you will have started. The remainder of your tribe will be gathering supplies. You’ll start by putting together the jigsaw puzzle contained in the cloth sack inside your pot. Once solved, this puzzle will provide a list of ingredients, all of which are easy to find in the jungle itself. Once your potion is brewing, one tribe member will climb one of these knotted ropes and retrieve a rubber chicken from the branch it’s tied to. Throw the chicken in the pot. First tribe to have their rubber chicken come to life and fly away wins Reward. Want to know what you’re playing for?”
“It has to fly away?” Bubba asks in disbelief. “Who cares what we’re playing for? Nobody’s ever gonna win it.”
Jeff smiles coldly. “Want to know what you’re playing for?” he repeats, a hard edge in his voice. The Survivors hastily mumble their assent. Jeff walks over to a small table covered with a canvas tarpaulin. He pulls aside the tarp as he speaks. “Set of wild chicken decoys,” he says. “And some slingshots. You can even have the tarp so you can set up a chicken blind and do some chicken hunting one of these mornings.”
“Wow, what a Reward,” John says sarcastically.
“Hey!” Jeff snaps. “These things really work. The Vanuatu swear by ‘em. You want to eat chicken for dinner, don’t you?” The Survivors nod. “One of these decoys is even an egg-laying chicken.”
“Oh, now THAT would be useful,” Scout says eagerly. “Show us!”
“All right,” Jeff says. He selects a decoy with wild-looking black and white stripes and grips its head firmly. When he pulls down on the head, a plastic egg drops out of the rear of the decoy and rolls to a stop on the edge of the table.
“What’s inside?” Scout asks breathlessly.
“Nothing,” Jeff says, squashing the egg loudly under his fist. “And you only have a few of these to play with so don’t lose ‘em. You reload them by raising the chicken’s back like so.” He reveals a concealed lid in the chicken’s back and points inside. “OK,” he says. “Enough intro. I think half our viewing audience has changed channels by now after all this monotonous blabbing.” He raises one arm. “Survivors ready? Go!”
The Survivors shout in surprise and quickly huddle together in tribes to divvy up responsibilities. The men choose Sarge and Bubba to drag the heavy black cauldron to the water’s edge. Before they go, they heave and grunt and push it on its side. A cloth sack inside slides out onto the beach. Brady and Chad grab the puzzle pieces inside and get to work. There are several matches, as well, which they hand off to John and Chris, who run off to get a fire going. Rory shoves his hands in his pockets and whistles as he watches a bird fly by.
The women are having more difficulty with their cauldron, but Eliza is able to climb up and over the side to retrieve the sack. She and Scout begin making the fire while Leann and Julie get to work on the puzzle. The remaining three women wrestle the giant black pot down to the ocean.
With water in it, of course, the pot is even heavier so Sarge and Bubba yell for Rory to help them. He is crouching near a flower and examining its petals when the call for help arrives. He stands dreamily and smiles at the two men by the water, waving at them in acknowledgement of their cries. “Get down here NOW!” Sarge roars, rippling Rory’s clothing with the force of his command, even at a distance of fifty yards.
By now, the women have their fire going, and Eliza and Scout run down the beach to help the others bring the pot back. “It’s neck and neck!” Jeff cries. “We should have thrown a balance beam activity in there somehow, too. That would have made it even more exciting!”
Both tribes get their pots bubbling just as the puzzle-solvers start hollering out ingredients to find. For several frenzied minutes, the Survivors swarm the beach and the forest, gathering such ordinary items as bamboo sticks and limes. Finally, it’s time to climb the knotted rope. The men tab Brady, of course, after his success with the greased pole. The women select Twila, who does an outstanding job, but it’s really no contest. Brady looks like he’s riding an elevator, he ascends so quickly. He yanks the rubber chicken off the top of the branch and simply lets go, dropping gracefully to the beach. He tucks and rolls, then leaps to his feet and throws the rubber chicken in the roiling pot. Instantly, the chicken convulses and squawks, then propels itself out of the hot water, flapping frantically over the side of the pot and down to the ground. It looks at the Survivors curiously, and they stare in amazement at the confused and featherless rubber chicken. It blinks nervously a couple times, then flaps its rubber wings and flies off into the trees.
Jeff, his jaw totally slack, finally raises his arms and yells, “Lopevi wins Reward!” As he hands off the chicken decoys and slingshots, he says, “I saw a lot of strange things in the Amazon with that Matt character, but this really takes the cake. Here’s your tarp. Have fun.”
The next day, the Survivors are in readiness all day for the Immunity Challenge, but no Tree Mail is ever delivered. Finally, at the end of the day, when both tribes have bedded down for the evening, they are visited by the rubber chicken. It carries a rolled-up scroll in its beak, inviting the tribes down to Challenge Beach for a nighttime Challenge. Yawning and grumbling, they don their Challenge outfits and stumble through the dark to the site of the next contest. Jeff is waiting for them amidst a throng of Vanuatu tribesmen.
When the tribes have settled on their mats, Jeff says, “Welcome, everyone, to your next Immunity Challenge. I trust you’re all sufficiently rested.” He laughs at his own joke, but nobody joins him. “I’m sure you all remember my friends here.” He makes a quick gesture with his hand, and the Vanuatu warriors advance rapidly on the Survivors, waving their spears and making a big racket like they did on the first day. “This is the Vanuatu army,” Jeff explains over the din. “Otherwise known as the Land Guard. Now if you’ll follow me to the water’s edge...” He heads down to the ocean, and the Survivors squeeze through the rowdy members of the Land Guard to follow him. When they arrive at his side, a loud roar erupts from the water, and several Vanuatu canoes race to shore, their occupants yelling wildly and paddling with great enthusiasm. “And this is the elite Vanuatu navy,” Jeff continues. “The Sea Guard. In today’s Challenge, you will be pitted against these two formidable military forces. On my go, you’ll be given a ten-minute head start to run into the forest and hide. At the end of that time, the Land Guard will come in after you. You must evade their search and make your way back through the woods to the beach. Prowl back to Sea Guard.” He pauses and grins into the camera. “Once you arrive back at the beach, you must swim quietly past the Sea Guard and climb into one of the canoes moored behind them. The first tribe to successfully get just one member into the canoes behind Sea Guard wins Immunity and can’t be voted off. The losing tribe will follow me directly to Tribal Council and vote off a member a day early. Understood?”
The Survivors murmur excitedly to one another at the new and exciting twist to the game. Finally, Chad raises a hand. “Say, are they allowed to attack us with those spears?” The other Survivors nod nervously and watch Jeff intently.
He chuckles. “Of course. How else do you think Chief More-More could have persuaded them to participate when it’s so far past their bedtime? But don’t worry. They’ve been advised to just prick you with the tips. It won’t really hurt that much. And I’ve been assured they replaced the poison tips with plain razor-sharp ones. You’ll be fine. OK. Survivors ready? Go!”
For the second time in two days, the Survivors are caught flat-footed by the sudden start to the Challenge. With the clock ticking on their head start, they don’t even pause to devise a master plan. They simply scream and dash into the trees. As soon as they leave, the members of the Land and Sea Guard grow quiet. The beach is totally silent, except for the washing of the waves on the shore and the occasional shriek of terror drifting out of the jungle.
Jeff monitors his watch closely, squeezing the side button to make the face glow in the dark. With one minute to go, he looks up and addresses the Vanuatu warriors. “Be careful with them,” he says quietly. “But don’t be afraid to give them a little taste of terror.” He smiles evilly, the unnatural glow from his wristwatch casting eerie shadows on his face and elongating his dimples. He takes a quick glance down at the watch face and releases the light switch. “That’s ten minutes,” he says softly. “Go.”
The Land Guard pads off into the jungle, slipping like shadows into the dense tree cover. Almost immediately, loud yells and awkward thumping sounds begin echoing out of the jungle. Jeff puts a foot up on the bow of a beached Sea Guard canoe and folds his arms across his chest. “What we haven’t considered,” he says to nobody in particular, “is what happens if nobody escapes the forest.” He raises one hand to stroke his chin. “If anyone gets really hurt doing this, that might affect us, too. Hadn’t thought of that. Well, we’ll just have to see.”
At that moment, Bubba marches out of the forest, his hands raised and a Land Guard warrior behind him with his spear raised. His Bob Barker shirt is torn and discolored. “Tell you what,” he says as he takes his place on the Lopevi mat. “Those spears hurt!”
Rory suddenly walks out of the trees, unescorted. “I found bananas!” he calls to Bubba, holding a double-fistful of fruit in the air. “Amazing, considering how dark it is. What are we doing here, anyway? It’s late!” He yawns and saunters down to the water’s edge, where a member of Sea Guard leaps out of his boat and blocks his passage with a spear.
“Rory! You’re out of the game. Come join Bubba on the mat.”
Rory looks from the Sea Guard tribesman and back to Jeff, his eyebrows pinched together in a frown. “Oh, wow,” he says. “I forget we were having an Immunity Challenge. How awkward!” He joins Bubba on the mat. “I’m sorry, my friend,” he says. “But at least I found bananas.”
“Can’t keep ‘em,” Jeff growls. “Not part of the Challenge.” He gruffly confiscates the contraband bananas. “Next time, play the game, huh?”
Rory nods absently while watching a firefly buzz by, flashing its light. He gently captures the insect in his hand and watches it in grinning fascination.
By now, Survivors are streaming out of the jungle with regularity, each under the close escort of a Land Guard member. After a while, only a handful of Survivors are still missing: Chad, Eliza, Brady, and Leann. Eliza is the first to appear, pouting unhappily as she trudges back to her mat. “They tricked me!” she complains. “They were whispering to each other, and it reminded me of this time I was whispering so I started telling that story before I could even stop myself. They found me instantly.” She rubs behind her shoulder and winces.
Brady and Chad are herded out next, both looking grumpy and spent. When they step on the mat, Jeff says, “Wow, nobody made a play for the canoes? You all got caught by the Land Guard?”
“Not me,” Rory says, still peering at the lightning bug in his hands.
“Oh, I’m not counting you,” Jeff says. “You didn’t even know where you were. OK, so I guess that’s it, huh? Both tribes failed? I guess we need to give Immunity to the tribe that lasted the longest, which is Lo - ”
“Hey, wait!” Julie says. “What about that one girl? What’s her name? Leann?”
“Oh, yeah!” Jeff says, nodding his head swiftly. “Where is she, I wonder?”
“Ahoy!” a voice calls from far out on the water. The group peers out into the pitch blackness of the Vanuatu night. “I’m in the boat. Do I win?” It’s Leann. As their eyes adjust to the dark, everyone can see her waving from within one of the designated canoes. The Sea Guard members scream as one and begin pointing and yelling at one another angrily. They are shamed by having anyone sneak past them, let alone a woman.
“Wow!” Jeff says in sincere amazement. “She’s good!”
“Spooky, really,” Ami says, nodding.
“Yasur wins Immunity!” Jeff says, raising his hands. As the women cheer and jump up and down, Jeff turns to the men. “Come on, Lopevi. We’re going straight to Tribal Council. One of you is going home tonight.”
Much negotiation takes place in the darkness as the tribe picks their way to Tribal Council. In the end, the group decides that Brady’s strength in Challenges outweighs his lack of alliances. They instead vote to send Rory packing. After the final vote is read, nobody moves. “Uh, Rory,” Jeff says. “It’s time for you to go.”
Rory looks up placidly. He smiles at Jeff. “Go where? Did I win?”
“Yyyeah, you won,” Jeff says slowly. “Bring me your torch, and I’ll give you the customary torch-snuffing reserved for the winner of the entire game.”
“Woohoo!” Rory says. “See, it pays to wander off by yourself and find stuff for your tribemates. They always respect that. Nice guys DO finish first.” He slips his torch into the holder as Jeff claps the snuffer over the flame.
“Right down that walkway,” Jeff says, pointing the way into the darkness. “That’s where your prize is waiting.”
“I knew I could do it!” Rory exclaims. “Sorry, guys,” he says as he waves at the rest of the tribe. “But there can be only one.”
As he disappears into the darkness, Sarge chuckles softly. “May we all be so content if we don’t win,” he says. “His world must be a very happy place.”
And the visions are gone. I guess I’d better go try to figure out what this auditor wants. I have a bad, bad feeling I offer him money in the next few hours.
Your comments are welcome. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.