Sea breeze cools my face. Water is lapping at my ankles and soaking my shoes. It feels nice. The air is warm and smells of salt, smoke and rust. I stare blankly at the horizon far ahead of me as the sun sinks slowly towards the surface of the ocean. The sky is orange and pink.
A boat engine rumbles to life, and I turn. Keith and Oliver are standing on the beach beside the boat, talking. Daisy is crouched in front of the smoking engine, probably checking for leaks in the fuel tank for the tenth time. Riley and Liza are leaning on the railing near the wheel, watching the setting sun as I was.
This is it. They're ready to go.
I helped them clear the exit of the flooded cave of rubble so they could get the boat out into the sea. None of them would really look at or talk to me while we worked. Except for Riley. He doesn't know yet. I wonder if he'll be angry. I wonder if he's actually thought of all the things I've done here on this island. I tortured him, for fuck's sake! My own little brother. How could I do that? I know I was acting for Hoyt and his camera, but it shouldn't have been that easy.
Jason Brody is dead. He died along with Grant on the outskirts of that slave encampment. All that's left of him is the survivor. The animal. The cold-blooded killer.
"Hey, Jason!" Riley waves at me from the beach. Everyone's gathered there. "We're all set to go!"
I sigh and trudge across the soggy surf towards them. I frown slightly at the wispy smoke coming from the running boat engine. I sure hope it doesn't die on them. I scrounged more than enough fuel to take them south to Australia, but the machinery isn't exactly in top condition.
I stop a few feet away from the group. It's odd. My best friends and family are standing before me, and I feel like an outsider, like I don't belong. Liza won't look at me. She stands stiffly nearest the boat, staring at her boots with her arms crossed. Daisy seems regretful. I'm amazed how well she held up after hearing about what happened to Grant. Keith just looks confused. He still doesn't get it? And Ollie… he's wearing his worst poker face, which means he appears as if he's about to cry. Riley is the only one smiling. It's the first time I've seen him smile since I told him about Grant.
"Come on, J, let's get the hell off this island," he says cheerfully and claps me on the shoulder. He turns toward the boat and I grab his right arm, carefully avoiding his left so as not to jostle the half healed bullet wound that I remember all too clearly digging my finger into.
"Riley," I say, trying to swallow the lump that just appeared in my throat. "I'm not coming."
His smile falters. "What? What are you talking about?"
"I can't go home with you," I say monotonously, attempting to keep my composure. There is a smothering silence. Even the whistling and splashing sounds of the wind and the ocean seem to wither and die in my ears.
"Why the hell not?" He looks so bewildered; it would have been funny in any other situation. The others have all averted their eyes, fingers rubbing faces or scratching heads.
"I'm sorry, I can't. I can't do it," I mumble. Unbidden images flash through my mind, disorienting me. Knives, bullets, screams, dead bodies and blood. So much fucking blood. I cover my eyes and groan.
"Jason, what's the matter?" I hear someone say, and I feel something on my arm. Instinctively, I lash out and shy away.
"Don't touch me!" I yell, pushing my brother back. "Don't come near me right now." My breathing is erratic and my pulse is rising. Shit. I need to calm down. Stop thinking. Don't think. Don't feel. Don't see. Just stop. Breathe. These people are not my enemies. They won't hurt me. They won't.
I try to block out the disturbing sounds and pictures spinning in my head. I listen to the foaming seawater brushing against the shore. I feel the air rushing through my hair. A bird sings somewhere behind me. My face relaxes. My breath steadies. I feel calmer. After a while I drop my hands to look at Riley. His face is pained and very confused.
"Don't you understand?" I say to all of them, my eyes jumping from face to freaked out face. "Look at me, guys, I'm a fucking mess! In the last week, I… Do you have any idea how many lives I've taken? I should have died a thousand times over, and in a way, I did. I'm not the Jason you knew anymore. After all this shit, I can't function in a normal society. I'm… I'm unstable." The realization hits me just when I utter the words. I'm mentally unstable. Then I laugh. A nervous sort of giggle. I don't know why, and the fact that I get the urge to laugh at a time like this scares me. I stop quickly and my gaze falls back on Riley. Then it flits from Liza to Keith, Ollie and over to Daisy. They're all wearing the same kind of expression; a muddled mixture of grief and fear. I'm scaring them.
I breathe deeply in an attempt to steady my voice. "I think it would be for the best if I just stayed here. I don't really know what I might do or how I might react to a perfectly normal, everyday situation anymore, and I don't… I don't want to hurt anyone who doesn't deserve it."
Riley is speechless. The others won't meet my eyes at first. Then Daisy passes my brother, walks calmly up to me and hugs me. I freeze, sucking in a mouthful of air in surprise, but I don't shove her away. There was no trace of hesitation in her. She's not scared of me despite what just happened. Daisy is a lot tougher than I ever gave her credit for. I exhale and return the hug, if a bit awkwardly.
"I'm sorry, Jason," she whispers and lets go of me. I watch her wade hurriedly into the sea and climb aboard the boat.
Keith is next. He steps forward and, after a moment of hesitation, smacks a hand on my shoulder. "You pulled me out of hell, man. I won't forget that," he says. I nod, and he nods back before following Daisy.
Oliver blunders forward and wraps me in a big, clumsy hug. "Shit, I'm gonna miss you, dude. Maybe you can come visit us sometime, huh?"
I snort. "Maybe someday." Ever the optimist, that Ollie. He gives me one last sorry look before clambering onto the boat.
Riley steps forward reluctantly. I can see the disbelief in his eyes.
"Is this for real?" he asks, incredulous. "I thought I could get over it if it was just Grant, but you too? Fuck, Jason, what am I gonna do without you guys? What am I gonna tell mom?"
"You're gonna go home, Riley, and you're gonna get a good job with that pilot's license of yours, and then you're gonna find a nice girl, for starters," I say, half-joking and half-serious. "As for mom, I suppose you can tell her the truth. I'm sure she'll be fine."
He lifts his arms for a second before letting them drop to his sides. "That's it? I'm just supposed to leave you here, go home and be happy?"
"I don't see why not," I say and shrug. Then a fist collides with my face and I stumble backwards, ending up crouched in the sand. The pain of the actual punch is nothing compared to my relief that I don't have the urge to hit back. Someone on the boat gives a startled gasp. I taste blood and squint up at Riley. He stands between me and the setting sun, and he appears to loom over me like a great shadow. Once my eyes adjust to the light, I wish I had looked away sooner. My brother glares at me, outraged, and his posture is stiff and threatening. His fists are clenched hard. I stare at him in shock when I notice he's got tears in his eyes. I've never seen him so angry. Did he ever care that much about me?
After a few seconds of tense quiet, Riley lets out a little snort and shakes his head. His tightened muscles relax, his face softens and he offers me his hand. I give him a wary glance before taking it, and he drags me to my feet. Then he pulls me into a rough embrace, and I'm reminded of the time when we were kids. When he got scared, he'd cling to me like I was his lifeline, and now he clung to me in the same way.
"Don't you dare die," I hear him mumble with his face buried in my shirt. Then he pulls back a bit to look at me. "And don't you lose that phone, because I'm gonna call you every once in a while and if you don't pick up eventually, I'm flying straight back here, okay?"
I blink. "You're not serious, are you?"
"Do I look like I'm joking?" He gives me a hard sort of glare, as if daring me to protest.
I feel both disgruntled and sort of happy. I don't want my brother to see it if these islands take what is left of my mind, but the fact that he cares about me after all I've done is comforting. Still, I doubt he'll be able to reach my phone from Los Angeles, even if he finds the right prefix for it. Someday, he'll probably return here to search for me.
"Alright, fine, just promise me something," I say firmly, holding his gaze. "If you ever come back here, don't be reckless. Don't land or dock before you've secured the area, don't charge in here looking for me and whatever you do, do not die. Bring backup, bring weapons, wear a vest, wear space armor, I don't care, just don't get yourself killed. If you do, all the shit I've done here will have been for nothing."
Riley straightens up and his face is stony. "I won't die. I promise."
"I'll hold you to that," I say with a nod.
"Yeah. See you around." My kid brother steps back and walks towards the water, dragging his feet. He stops by the rusty old marine vessel, seawater up to his thighs, and gives me a prize-winning look of misery before pulling himself aboard.
At first I thought she'd left without saying goodbye. Then I see Liza approach me from behind a couple of half-buried boulders. Her expression is blank, like she's trying to hide her feelings behind a mask. She stops a couple of feet away. I almost slit her throat a while ago, yet there isn't a trace of fear in her eyes.
I can't speak. I open and close my mouth a couple of times, but I have no idea what to say.
She ends up taking the lead. "So what are you going to do now?"
Of all the things I thought she wanted to say, I wasn't expecting this to be the first.
"I don't know yet," I reply. "I could settle in a village here, help out with stuff, farming, hunting. I could build my own house in the woods or in the mountains, go hiking and exploring. I'll figure it out." I don't mention the grisly things I'll be doing, but Liza's not stupid. Survival of the fittest rules these islands. It's kill or be killed, and there are plenty of pirates, slave traders, drug dealers and bored mercenaries to go around.
As if my face is an open book, Liza says, "I'd advise you to avoid those crazy murderers who live here if I thought you'd listen to me."
I sigh. "Look, I'm sorry for how things turned out, I really am."
"Are you?" Her voice is accusing. Even though I've loved her pretty much since the first time I saw her, we've never really got along, always arguing over something.
"Yeah," I say earnestly. The anger in her face recedes and is replaced by regret, as if she read my mind again.
"Yeah, well so am I," she says, her voice quavering. "Are you sure this is what you want, Jason?"
I chuckle. "Liza, what I want is for things to be the way they were, but that's not gonna happen."
"I know, but… You could come with us, and back home we could get you some help, you know, to sort things out…" She trails off, and I give her a look.
"I'm sorry, but I don't think even the world's best shrink can fix this," I say and my eyes drop to my hands. I was half expecting them to be covered in blood. I scratch a bit at the stained bandage covering the stub that's left of my ring finger. At least this is my own blood.
"Oh." Liza's face falls and she almost appears to shrink a little.
"You know, I thought you were the last person who'd try to convince me to come with you after what I did to you," I whisper, staring at my soaked, muddy shoes.
I can't see her face, but her voice is soft and surprisingly gentle. "For a moment, I thought you were going to do it. You didn't walk straight and your eyes were unfocused when you put that knife to my throat. But then you seemed to realize what you were about to do, and I could tell you were horrified. That woman, she drugged you, didn't she?"
I nod. "Not much of an excuse, but yeah."
We fall silent. The sky darkens as the sun is swallowed by the ocean.
"You should go," I say and point to the rest of our friends, who are watching us quietly from the boat.
"Yeah, I just, um… take care of yourself, okay?" she says. I meet her eyes. "Don't lose yourself in the jungle."
Something in my chest throbs painfully. "Do I even have anything left of myself to lose?"
"Yes, you do." Liza puts a hand on either side of my face and kisses me. It's a tentative yet slightly urgent kiss, so much like our first one. I return it for a moment before wrapping my arms around her, hugging her tightly to me. Then, long before I want to, I release her and step back. Her eyes are wet.
"Go," I whisper. She strokes my cheek for a bit, nods and turns away from me with a sniffle. I watch her climb aboard with stinging eyes.
The engine roars and propels them away from the shore. Five hands wave at me, and I raise mine in farewell.
I've killed so many people, I've lost count. I can't come back from this. I'm a monster. I can feel the anger inside me… But I am still, somewhere inside me, more than that. Better than that. I just hope that's good enough. The last thing the old Jason Brody would want is to become the next Vaas of the Rook Islands.