Manuscript Found in a Bottle by Michael Washburn

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Manuscript Found in a Bottle by Michael Washburn
Illustration by Sue Babcock

June 6, 2018

We’d spent weeks cleaning out the island, and no one doubted our friends would come to rescue us any minute now. In the meantime, people were playing volleyball on the beach. I watched them, the women nude except for maybe a pair of sunglasses, the streaming golden hair of the surfer guys radiant in the tropical sun. No one seemed alarmed, right now, at the impossibility of communicating with our friends on the mainland or even really knowing whether they knew we were here, alive, with dwindling fresh water and food. West of the beach, in an elongated shack, were people with gunshot wounds and a man with his face blown off, still clinging to life. Yet I stared at the breasts and the rich pubic hair of the women in their early 20s and felt as if my days on the beaches of La Jolla and Del Mar, in the company of a wealthy uncle, had never ended.

Sometimes when pondering our situation, I thought of American soldiers in World War II, battling the Japanese in the depths of the jungle on islands all over the Pacific. No one had gotten too concerned over the fate of a few hundred jarheads wasting away on rocks somewhere between hell and Tokyo. I thought of the beady eyes of those long-ago enemy snipers whenever we went hunting for the antifederals who had once belonged to a movement called Occupy Wall Street. Of course, this was no hellhole like Tarawa or Peleliu. This was Santa Catalina, an island beloved of tourists, where a talent scout spotted Ronald Reagan when he was a kid on assignment from a radio station back in Iowa. It was where Marilyn Monroe and her first husband had some rocky moments. In its heyday, the island had drawn over a million visitors a year.

Day after day, I lay in a stupor watching the women on the beach, enticing the men with the curves and turns of their flesh as the ball sailed over a net appropriated from one of the trawlers languishing further down the beach. To my scrutiny the girls were indifferent. I suppose I was rude, but they seemed content within the universe of their game on the long shining beach, so far from the skulls and severed limbs. One afternoon, I nodded off, came to with the game still going on, dozed once more, and when next I woke, someone was shaking my arm with vigor.

“Rawls. Rawls, wake up!” urged the young guy with a carbine strapped to his shoulder. “You have to come with me now!”

I rubbed my eyes as I followed him through the balmy air to a tent a hundred yards inland from the net. There were gathered an array of junior officers and a stern lieutenant standing beside a map of the island, clearly not a recent one for it was all in Spanish, but it would do for the purpose at hand. He pointed with a ruler at a spot in the jungle where stragglers, remnants of a once powerful antifederal force, had ambushed one of our patrols, spearing federals through the torso and driving one terrified survivor through the jungle screaming, soiled by his own feces, until he reached the outskirts of Avalon Bay and raised the alarm. At once, three men volunteered to go to the site of the ambush, including Peter Jenkins, the 47-year-old who had rallied us against the antifederals after they’d cut us off by destroying the flotilla between here and San Diego and pushing our friends far from the West Coast, all the way to Bakersfield by some accounts. Feeling kind of ashamed over all my drinking and lethargy, I volunteered to go as well. Additional volunteers made a party of ten. As the light would soon wane, we slipped flashlights into our belts before picking up weapons and filing out of the tent.

So much for our knowledge of the interior, I thought while scanning the hills that held out the promise of terror and death. I followed Peter through the air which was still brutally clear and bright at 4:30 p.m., a setting I’d come to associate with the languor of so many afternoons with my booze and my weed, a fine federal soldier I was, and now we shifted into single file with healthy spaces between us in case of ambush. Peter didn’t seem afraid, I think in his soul there was quite an urge to do battle, although he always had the air of a didact about him. We pressed on in the heat, swatting flies on our backs and necks as we scanned the green canopy all around us.

“If they had any sense, they’d come out with their undershirts on sticks,” said one of the men, by the name of Dawson.

“Shut up,” snapped Peter.

Another man was pissing standing up, as he walked. I wondered how we could be any more fortunate than the patrol that got cut to pieces. There was no question as to who held the advantage here. Still we forged ahead into the interior where missionaries had brought the holy word to natives, and it didn’t seem to occur to the others that we might have waited until we had a full day’s light ahead of us. Once again, I thought of jarheads on some remote rock no one ever heard of, being picked off by snipers, with no certainty of anyone in the world beyond making a nod to their existence. Perhaps I’d grow delirious and begin seeing the eyes of those Japanese snipers peering out at me in the depths of the jungle in the dusk.

At length, we came to a waterfall, knowing we were just yards from where the patrol had gotten it. We broke up, five men heading north, Peter and I and three others pursuing the stream as it coursed south toward the old salt mines. It was Peter who detected blood on the grass in a pattern stretching off into the bush. We doubted that this was a trap. But Peter told the three others to stand guard and look out for a flanking attack or an ambush while he and I pursued the blood into the bush, not at all anticipating what we came, in half a minute, to discover. The antifederal lay at the mouth of a pit filled with spikes. He’d crawled this far, seen what lay before him, and turned onto his back to loll there gazing at the sky, blood caking around his neck and mouth, wishing he’d avoided the damned federal patrol with its trigger-happy men bearing carbines.

Peter Jenkins set down his weapon, studying the prone man, who if circumstances were different might have worked for the construction firm Peter used to run. He considered the pit, gestured to me, and then with nearly a whisper from Peter – “There, there. There, there” – we began to push the man inch by inch toward the mouth of the pit. Within less than a minute, we had accomplished our task.

We summoned the men posted as guards, then began to press further into the bush in the direction indicated by the trail of blood. After crossing a tributary of the stream gushing from the waterfall, we arrived at a cluster of gnarled branches, not quite too late to spot a trio of figures as they split in three directions in panic. Two of the federals in our party pursued the man fleeing back toward the waterfall, Peter and another dashed off after the second, and I took off behind the third man who seemed desperate to get to the cluster of caves lining Avalon Bay. The sunlight mottled the green and violet of the leaves, and the mud where my feet beat a tattoo as my heart lurched like a stallion, as I caught a glimpse of the kid fleeing me, lost it, caught it again, lost it again, struggling to run faster without impaling myself on one of the branches that curved and turned back on themselves and thrust out at lunatic angles. At moments, when my prey turned to gauge the distance between us, I caught the expression on his face, pasty, like a mound of clay that an art student had infused with a look of helpless terror. He was tall, with straight blond hair, and I sensed he was kind of a mixed up kid like John Walker Lindh, the dude from California who’d defected to the Taliban. We advanced onto a downward slope. I stood still, steadying my AR-15, then I sprayed the slope with fire, raking the weapon back and forth like a garden hose, before taking off again.

At a lower point on the slope, the spaces between the trees mocked me until I guessed I’d overshot the location of my quarry. With trepidation I turned, staring up the slope, then my eyes alighted on a glen where the brook must have coursed, so faintly came its rustling on the breeze. I spun around as if to catch an evil spirit in the act of mocking me, then I approached the glen with the weapon raised. He was there. The grin was that of a shoplifter who’s been caught on camera, or a cuckold when his lover’s husband strolls into the bedroom. His stringy hair was like a dirty mop lolling on the curves of his shoulders, and his eyes were fierce. I aimed the weapon at his torso, paused, lowered it, gazed at him in the green silence. His eyes wouldn’t leave mine.

“What do you think? Are you on something better than I’m on?” I heard him say.

“I’d say it looks that way.”

I saw that if he tried to get up, he’d slip in his blood.

“This isn’t like Lincoln and Davis. You really don’t know what you’re on,” he breathed.

He was incoherent, all right. I heard gunfire in the distance.

“You really don’t know what you’ve pledged allegiance to,” he added, as his eyes turned up in their sockets toward the tops of the trees, the narrow snatches of darkening blue in the canopy overhead.

“Fuck you.”

There came more gunfire in the distance, spaced, deliberate, putting prey out of its misery. Minutes later, my comrades caught up with me, and we began to drag the guy out of the glen, back toward the civilization carved so abruptly out of the bush. We deposited him in the field hospital where, contrary to all expectations, he did not die. He lay there moaning, gibbering, gazing at the wall. When his condition had stabilized a bit, he kept up an air of having and knowing things we didn’t have or know. It bothered the other patients. Once when I was there, tending to one of the wounded federal men – fortunately not the chap with his face blown off – the blond captive broke into a monologue directed at no one in particular, jeering at the civilization in ruins on the mainland, mocking it for getting what was coming to it. His harangue put me in mind of a piece I’d read many years before, written by Gore Vidal and published in The Nation, offering sarcastic praise for the pioneers who had blazed a trail through the American wilderness, reducing its once awesome beauty to “a cement desert bright with golden arches.” Of course, I hadn’t wanted to agree with a word written by Gore Vidal, but the piece stung me just a bit, as I recalled driving through the countryside of Pennsylvania and seeing those great McDonalds signs looming over the hills blanketed with snow, a landscape that had held me in thrall to its silent majesty until the golden arches ruined everything. . . . I tried to shut out this nut’s rantings, to tend to my comrade John Garrett, who had taken a bullet in the gut while pursuing the guerrillas through the bush west of here, in the heat of the struggle, far behind us now. Still he breathed with difficulty, though he could answer simple questions. Maybe those were the only kind he’d ever been asked anyway. Two beds down lay the man with no face.

Though afraid of lapsing back into my patterns of living of recent weeks, I found myself lulled by the siren song of those girls on the beach. I lay there in my hammock gazing at times in the other direction, at the swaying branches and the reaches of palm trees and shrub, the lushness pulling hard at my eyes as I meditated on the island’s past, its discovery by missionaries and its eventual incorporation into the great commercial enterprise flourishing on the mainland, the days when fat tourists from Middle America first set their giddy toes on the beaches where I now lay stoned. How they must have reeled in delight at the sight of this sand so pristine it could sting your eyes, at the trees swaying as if at the approach of an Aztec deity, at the miles of bush where you’d never spy a parking lot or the golden arches, here was release, escape, the ideal to which so many hours at a desk or an assembly line had entitled them.

Now I thought of the film scout decades ago, going through the motions with one half-baked candidate after another before turning to the tall, handsome kid from Illinois to see what he could do. That kid became a 42-year-old man standing on the porch of a jail in a dusty frontier town, turning to the would-be lynchers gathered before it, proclaiming: “You wanted law and order in this town. Well, you’ve got it. And you’re going to have it as long as I’m marshal.” He applied the cool logic of his principles to the point of endangering his relatives and, when matters came to it, taking a round in the chest from his fugitive brother. The logic of the society he was sworn to protect impelled him to arrest his own brother and, in another role opposite Barbara Stanwyck, to mow down hordes of Blackfoot Indians when they dared to encroach on a cattle queen’s dreams in the wilds of Montana.

I thought of Reagan and knew I’d never been anyone’s idea of a good federal. Oh God, no. After college in Pennsylvania, I wore a number of hats, trying most disastrously to be a business journalist. Hah! The boss at the new media startup where I was briefly employed was, herself, an accomplished financial news editor, and her boyfriend was a hotshot journalist over at Investors Business Daily. Don’t ask me how I briefly held a job as a writer contributing to the startup’s website and magazine, but I did. The office environment demonstrated how the logic of business did not have to exist independently of or in conflict with personal passions. The woman loved her boyfriend for being so damn good at everything he did. When she wasn’t screaming at me, she sat there shooting off e-mail to her boyfriend, and several times a day, she called him, inevitably telling him “I love you!”, shouting it into the phone. This went on for more than a month before I received written notice that my work was unsatisfactory and my employment represented “an unnecessary drain on our company’s resources.” I guess it didn’t make sense to retain someone with so unsophisticated a grasp of the equities, securities, derivatives, and structured finance markets.

That was all in another life. Again I found myself in the hospital on Santa Catalina, tending to the wounded federal named John Garrett, when the lanky blond captive opened up again with his views on the society from which he and his comrades had broken away in the spring of 2015.

“You ever work in a coal mine?” he asked at one point.

“Shut the fuck up.”

“It’s like being at the bottom of the ocean, and the cliché is true, man, it’s so fucking dark you can’t see your hand in front of your face. There might be critters swimming around, but you wouldn’t see one until it swam up and bit your nose off. You might have the best lungs in the world, you’ll still get black lung disease in no time.”

I repeated my request from my position by Garrett’s bed.

“Then the ceiling of the mine falls in while you’re trying to clean a drainage pipe, and there’s yet another widow with three kids to feed,” the lanky blond guy continued. He glanced over at us.

“Your friend there looks kind of bored a lot of the time. Maybe you should give him something to read.”

I gazed back at him, menacingly I hoped, while the wounded man beside me murmured and shifted uncomfortably.

“Of course, there aren’t too many Waldenbooks and there isn’t too much internet shopping around here. In any event, when I browse online, I see a ton of stuff like Danny Boy, which is supposed to be about an old Irish ballad but it’s subliterate crap, written by someone who couldn’t find Ireland on a map, and then there are the five-minute recipe books, and stuff with titles like Erotic Fantasies.”

My eyes implored him to shut up.

“You ever think of how many forests died to publish Danny Boy and Erotic Fantasies? How many beautiful, ancient forests?”

I rose promising my comrade I’d soon be back, perhaps with some weed if it might do him good. I strode out of the hospital in the direction of the beach where the titters of young people mingled with the chords of a guitar. Those kids on the beach whose jibes and titters rose around me didn’t seem to care, but I did not know whether they’d sunk into blind hedonism by default or whether this was a studied philosophical posture in the face of what they all expected. I sank into the hammock and poured myself a glass of tequila, relishing the fumes rising to my nostrils as the laughter faded into a hum that was almost pleasant. As I sipped the liquor, I thought that I’d never be a business journalist, but that held true for others too and they didn’t fret. They knew that the antifederals were contemptuous of the society that had given them the freedom to voice such contempt, that people the rebels did not like went before firing squads.

It’s possible that three hours passed before I felt a mighty hand shaking me awake, not a kid this time, but none other than Peter Jenkins.

“Come with me.”

I rose rubbing my eyes, following him down the beach where the naked women had recently frolicked. As I followed Peter, more figures gradually came into relief against the flames of a lamp burning far off at the north end of Avalon Bay. The roaring of the surf against the shore was like the heaving within the breast of a lioness one dared not provoke. As we marched across the sand in the darkness, I was reminded of how such a nonsolid surface deadens your pace, how a day at the beach can be as wrecking as climbing a mountain. Now I came to see what had drawn Peter’s notice as he stalked around with his .45 at his side. Three figures were piling objects into what looked like a raft, trying to be furtive, whispering to one another and glancing often at the approaches to the beach. I saw Peter reach into the pocket of his beige trousers and withdraw a device, pressing a button that instantly made light on poles rising from the crest of the beach west of here come on, to the amazement of the three men, whom I recognized to my horror: here were John Garrett, Nick Sutter, and Steve Turnbull, the man with no face.

Stop! What are you doing there?” demanded the former construction magnate, brandishing his .45. If the three men had had tails, you know exactly where they’d have been.

“We. . . . We want out. They ain’t never gonna come for us,” exclaimed Sutter, shrinking from the light and the barrel of the .45.

“It’s hopeless, anyone can see that,” added Garrett.

The third would-be escapee loomed silent like a wax giant.

“Nonsense! You’re trying to rip us off! That’s two weeks worth of food for the entire island,” retorted Peter, gesturing at the boxes in and beside the raft.

“There’s no point in prolonging this, you know it as well as we do,” Sutter said.

Garrett took a step forward and Peter squeezed the .45’s trigger and blew his guts out behind him on the sand. Sutter shrieked and moaned, and I thought I was going to throw up. But in fairness, Peter had explained it all calmly and patiently in his addresses to the island: The only areas within reasonable sailing distance were believed to be in antifederal hands, and all the provisions on the island were not enough to sustain even a handful of people on a voyage of indeterminate length.

“Nonsense! You’ve got five minutes to return that stuff and then I want you handcuffed to your fucking hospital beds!” thundered Peter Jenkins as the surf pounded the shore and the wind moaned in the trees to our west. Sutter and Turnbull hastily complied, and I don’t have many more memories of them. Later Peter decreed that any further attempts to rip us off and flee would be punishable by death.

Then I was back in my hammock. In my dreams, this island was somehow the birthplace of the order that had abandoned it, by virtue of the talent scout discovering Ronald Reagan all those decades ago.

Help, Mr. Marshal! resounded a voice in the recesses of my mind. An innocent, quintessentially American voice of the frontier, the vast open spaces of the unspoiled West.

Help, help, they’re organizing a lynch mob outside the jail house! We need law and order here, help Mr. Marshal!

Help, the Blackfeet are coming! The Injuns! The Redskins! Help us kill them, Mr. Marshal! A gal with a six-shooter can’t do it all herself!

Help, Mr. Marshal! High-graders are smuggling gold out of the mine again! Help, Mr. Marshal, where are you?

I lay in the blaze of the sun at only a short remove from the Equator as the neurotoxins went to work on my brain, scanning the painful whiteness before me where the girls had laughed and pranced in their nudity, not caring if they were among this island’s few remaining exemplars of an order, a civilization. Later when I’d sobered up, I dragged myself to my feet and sauntered back up the slope of the beach in the direction of the hospital where the men lay moaning, craving assurances that forces would soon be here from the bulk of the federal army seeping like molasses through the southwestern part of North America. How the wounded men’s eyes appealed to me, from the depths of their torment, but I said nothing. Then I noticed that the blond young antifederal we’d brought in was not breathing. In death he’d achieved a sort of triumph, judging from his look like that of a guy on the beach whose girlfriend pretends to be coating him with sunscreen but is actually doing a bit more. I racked my brain for an apposite phrase, about dying on your feet versus living on your knees or whatever, but I ended up just staring at that blissful unblinking face in the dry heat and the angry flies of a day on Santa Catalina indistinguishable from any other.

That evening, I found myself walking on the beach yet again, feeling absurdly like a self-obsessed kid in the hours after making love for the first time. Oh boy. I strolled with my hands in my pockets, realizing that such an event might not have much significance these days when erotica was available with the click of a mouse. I was vaguely troubled by rumors that Peter Jenkins had suffocated a badly wounded patient in the interest of conserving morphine and food, and that was not all.

What had Gore Vidal once written?

“. . . turn the American wilderness into a cement desert bright with golden

arches . . .”

They hadn’t done it to this island, not totally, they hadn’t encroached that far, but they would. I gazed out to the sea, the inexorable anger of the waves. The breeze caressing me now said Know this moment, possess it. I was aware of a conflict deep inside myself. I was in love with a setting to which my own friends posed a grave threat. But would the federals ever break though to this point on the map? Did they care about our survival at all?

I turned and began to make my way up the beach in the direction of the colonial mansion, cursing myself for the muddled state of my thoughts about just about everything. Within minutes, I reached the door of the mansion with its walls the color of honey beneath a masterwork of dusty ochre shingles, passed through the door into a chamber where all the federals of the island had gathered to celebrate a technological breakthrough on the part of Peter Jenkins, who had managed to rig substitute parts for the damaged components of the old water purification plant on the southernmost point of the island. People cheered and applauded the former construction magnate, waiters carried around bottles of red wine, and everyone seemed in high spirits for once in I didn’t know how long. The sparkling glasses of the guests on either side of the four banquet tables were filled with fresh desalinated water. Embarrassment over my tardiness quickly faded as I sat down at the middle table to join the guests in a series of toasts to Peter Jenkins, the man who’d come through for us in the face of all the pessimists in our midst. After several glasses of wine, I downed some of the water, which shot through me like a streak of heaven-blue Marin County sky, then reclined in my chair waiting patiently for the waiters to come around with more wine. It was not long before I lost track of the happy talk and found my mind wandering as it so often did when I lay stoned in my hammock, and for a moment the room started to spin around and the guests were a bunch of conquistadors waxing poetic over their victory over the natives of Santa Catalina, and the inevitability of a Roman Catholic order prevailing in the spaces they’d carved out of the gorgeous jungle, and I noticed Peter Jenkins gazing at me from way down at the far end of the table. I raised my glass and drank the red wine and again felt the neurotoxins going to work, but he did not return the gesture. Something in his eyes was peremptory. Know this moment, possess it, came the wind to me again, but I could not shake that gaze. I turned away, drank more wine, turned back again to see him staring at me and craning his neck, and I realized he wanted me to follow him outside.

When I reached the barren lot out behind the mansion, where skunks liked to crawl through the trash, I saw that two of Peter’s men had intercepted yet another attempt to part company with the federal contingent on this island forever. The two men held a pair of kids at gunpoint, a blond guy with large biceps and a petite brunette with a blue bandanna who was shrinking from the barrel of the gun pressed against her head. Both the kids had excused themselves on one pretext or another, but Peter had posted his men at the door of the restroom, as well as outside the mansion, to help him keep track of who was up to what.

The kids’ eyes pleaded. The girl in particular seemed to be searching my face for an acknowledgment of something. She was the kind of girl who keeps a cat, argues with her roommate about socks, and wears a pin on her backpack reading Mean people suck.

“Ah, look,” I said to Peter’s hard unforgiving face. “You don’t have to do this, Peter. You don’t. Please. If there’s a shred of decency in you, you’re not going to do it.”

“Rawls, all I can say is that you’re very young and you’ve got an awful lot to learn.”

“Mercy, Peter.”


You don’t have to do it!

Shut up!

The girl looked as if she’d just swallowed a rat. I longed to stroke her hair and tell her she was a pretty girl and not to worry. Nice girl, pretty girl.

Peter Jenkins wasn’t fooling around. No guns here. He musn’t upset the guests dutifully paying homage to his technical genius. He wanted me to slit the kids’ throats. He wanted me to think logically, for the first time in my sorry life. I believe the girl with the bandanna and the humble manner found what she’d sought in my features, for all it was worth. Peter had infinitely more power than I would or could ever have.

I did the girl first. When she ceased trembling, it was almost too easy to focus on the boy.

Minutes later, Peter addressed his men: “Now all of you, go back inside, and sit down. I have intelligence that the federals will soon be here. I’m certain it’s just a matter of time. Don’t doubt the logic of our society and our civilization. They will come. Be patient a bit longer. Oh, they will come, all right. They will come for us!


BIO: Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer. He studied literature, history, and philosophy at Grinnell College and the University of Wisconsin. His fiction has appeared recently in Green Hills Literary Lantern, Rosebud, the Weird Fiction Review, the New Orphic Review, and Meat for Tea: The Valley Review. He has published a collection of short fiction, Scenes from the Catastrophe (2016).