Hugo Reyes crouched by the side of a stream which flowed down to a shining cave. You could watch the light play on that shimmering water for hours, and just to be near it made your heart soar, even if everything around you was falling to pieces.
Like the Island.
Jack Shephard and Desmond Hume had stopped the Island from sinking like a stone, and the monster who had worn John Locke's face was dead. Even so, the Island still shook as if about to rip itself apart. The earth buckled with tremors, and aftershocks rattled the pebbles on the river's edge.
Ominous clouds hung in the sky, and every few minutes the sky let loose buckets of rain. But Hugo was still here, which meant that whatever Jack had done had worked. So far, at least.
On the other side of the stream, Benjamin Linus tended the still-unconscious Desmond. There was never a doctor around when you needed one, was there? If Desmond had a concussion, Ben was on his own.
Try as he might, Ben couldn't get Desmond to respond. Even twisting his ear or pinching his arm didn't rouse him. He seemed to be under some kind of deep anesthesia.
Desmond's color was good, though, and his pulse strong. Ben pillowed Desmond's head with a backpack, then crossed the stream over to where Hugo sat. He stepped carefully over the golden water, not wanting to sully it with his feet.
It was hard for Ben not to feel sorry for himself. All those years of trying to be patient, of waiting for Jacob to recognize him. It wouldn't have taken much, either: just a few words. A look, even. Ben had come so close to the mystery, only to be pushed away. The inner door had opened a crack, given Ben a teasing glimpse inside, then slammed shut in his face.
If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. Which is exactly what Ben had done to Jacob, with a knife straight to the chest.
If Hugo decided to kill him outright, Ben wouldn't blame him. However, Hugo didn't look angry or vengeful, just sad. So Ben invoked the same voice he used when his daughter Alex was little and had scraped a knee. “I think Desmond's going to be OK.”
Hugo stared unmoving into the cave of light. “Jack's...gone...isn't he?”
Of course Jack was gone, a sacrifice which the Island had accepted. The waters of the Heart would always carry a few drops of Jack's blood, as well as Jacob's, and all the unknown Protectors who had come before.
Tears ran down Hugo's open, unashamed face, while Ben frantically searched for some comfort to offer. “He did his job, Hugo.”
“It's my job now... What the hell am I supposed to do?”
The question caught Ben by surprise. It wasn't exactly like Ben knew, but he had to say something. “Do what you do best. Take care of people. You can start by helping Desmond get home.”
“But how? People can't leave the Island.”
That hadn't been entirely true in the past, but Ben had no idea what this new Jacob could or couldn't do. Hugo could pick up his newly-won powers, walk away, and save himself. After all, that's what Ben would have done. What he had done, many a time.
But Ben very badly did not want that to happen. John Locke had once said that the Island was a place where miracles happened. Ben still drew breath, so it might even be true. “That's how Jacob ran things. Maybe there's another way. A better way.”
“Will you help me?”
Ben stared, incredulous. “I'm sorry?”
“I could really use someone with like, experience. For a little while. Will you help me, Ben?”
The locked door of Ben's heart opened a crack. Perhaps Jack Shephard had been wrong. Perhaps there were do-overs, second chances. Perhaps there was even one for him.
“I'd be honored,” Ben said.
* * * * * * * *
“I thought we were over this,” Ben said, a bit fretful.
Hugo shrugged. “You live in LA, you get used to it. Aftershocks.”
“Then I guess we should stay put until they're over.”
“They can go on a long time, man. Hey, you think he's still all right?”
Desmond's chest barely rose and fell with breathing. His face was almost ruddy, though, and his skin was warm. As Ben shook him gently, Desmond gave a faint smile. “Maybe he just has to sleep it off,” Ben said.
Suddenly the earth gave a hard shudder, and the sky opened in a rushing downpour. When the stream began to rise, Ben and Hugo pulled Desmond to his feet, where he lolled between them like a rag doll. They climbed up a rocky slope to a small papaya grove which shut out most of the rain. After they pulled together a lean-to of branches, they hauled Desmond inside.
Desmond muttered, “I'm not supposed to be here. This wasn't supposed to happen,” then sank back into a stupor.
“Ask him about Jack,” Hugo said. “Maybe he'll tell us what happened.”
Ben shook his head. “He's out again.”
The earth settled, and the relentless rain slowed to a trickle. Hugo said, “I'm gonna stretch my legs. Have a look around.”
“Good idea. Bring back some palm leaves. Maybe they'll keep us drier.”
After Hugo left, the jungle was quiet except for the occasional cheep of a frog, or the drip of rain off leaves. A few minutes passed, then more. When Hugo didn't return, Ben crawled out of the shelter, suppressing a small panic. If something had happened to Hugo, Ben didn't know what he'd do with Desmond, as Ben certainly couldn't move him by himself. Carrying him up here had been rough enough.
Maybe Hugo hadn't believed him, and had gone back to search for Jack on his own. For now, all Ben could do was wait. He reached for his shoulder bag and took a book with a dark red leather binding. Its large gold letters read, Thomas Traherne: Selected Poems.
He fumbled for his glasses, but they weren't there. Panicked, Ben scrabbled through his bag and trouser pockets. Nothing.
Where in the hell had he lost them? Probably when Hugo had dragged him from beneath that log. If so, they'd long since washed away.
Despair seized Ben. He had been so careful. Even as he drove the knife into Jacob's chest, as it hit bone and then passed through to the soft organs beneath, Ben took care that the glasses in his breast pocket didn't fall to the hard earthen floor.
He gave a laugh, small and bitter, thinking, What a fitting punishment.
Ben stroked the page as if touch would recall the well-loved verses, yet strangely the words appeared on the page sharp and clear:
You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars...
It wasn't possible. He should not have been able to read this at all. The page should have been an incomprehensible blur.
He held before him the hand which had caressed and loved and murdered, and saw in crisp detail the cuts, the scratches, the overgrown cuticles of his nails, all clear as the prose.
He felt like weeping. While it wasn't as impressive as rising from a wheelchair and walking, sometimes the small gestures touched you more deeply than the grand ones. Very well. He would take what was offered, and not complain.
A rumble like a freight train shook the ground. Along the western horizon, a plume of black smoke rose from a tall mountain, while red ribbons threaded their way down its sides.
Vision would be the least of Ben's worries if the top blew off that volcano. The Locke-monster might still get his wish to take down the Island with him.
Jack had failed. They all had.
This wasn't supposed to happen. Whatever Jack had done down there, whatever Jack had died for, it was apparently for nothing. Resigned to his fate, Ben crawled back into the shelter with the still-sleeping Desmond. If lava rained down on them all, Ben was helpless to do anything about it. But at least he wouldn't be alone.
* * * * * * * *
Jack had passed one hell of a ball to him, and what he was supposed to do with it, he had no idea. He couldn't carry it, couldn't dribble it, and no long free throw would get rid of it for him. Hugo hadn't given up on Jack for good, but if Jack was gone, he was screwed. Because then there would be no passing this burden back to Jack. It would be his for good.
Earlier, when he and Ben had hauled Desmond out of the Island's Heart, Hugo had howled with sorrow when Desmond emerged instead of Jack. Life was life, though, wasn't it? Had he been forced to choose, would he have picked Jack over Desmond?
Yes, Hugo had to admit, he would have. And oh Jack, stupid Jack, why had he done it? Jack had to have known it would be suicide. Hadn't Jack said that he was already dead?
Too late now.
Breathing heavily, Hugo reached the summit, where a stunning vista spread out before him. The setting sun looked as if it might sink directly into the bubbling, erupting volcano. Wherever the thick lava hit the sea, huge clouds of steam churned up as the waves boiled away.
It was one of the most beautiful things Hugo had ever seen.
To the east, the calm sea hugged the green cliffs in a close embrace. Luminous streaks of shadow cast a purple radiance over the land. A tiny metal bird moved across the sky, glittering as it went.
The plane circled around the Island in a few long arcs before heading on its final eastward course.
Suddenly, with a heart-stopping motion, the plane lost altitude and plummeted towards the waves. Panicked, Hugo said, “Mother of God, help them.” The plane banked up sharply, as if some unseen hand had pulled it out of its stall. Its birdlike silhouette shrank to a dark spot against the distant blue haze, then vanished.
“Dude,” he whispered.
They were really gone now: Kate, Sawyer, and maybe even Claire. Poor Claire. He hoped she wasn't still trapped on Hydra Island, and that she'd managed to get on board the plane after all. He'd last seen her taking cover behind some barrels on the Hydra Island dock as she fired carefully-aimed shots at Widmore's men. As Hugo struggled down the submarine ladder, he wondered where she had learned to shoot like that.
Maybe Sawyer hadn't let Claire get on the plane. Kate wouldn't have stood for that, though, because she had moved heaven and earth to return to the Island to find Claire. Hugo had faith in Kate, because she'd already stood up to Sawyer once, when Claire had slipped out of the jungle like a ninja and pointed a gun at everybody. If Kate could get her way with Sawyer then, she could probably do it again.
He was going to miss Miles too, as sarcastic as Miles could be sometimes. He barely knew the scruffy pilot Frank Lapidus, but he seemed cool.
Hugo waved at the space of sky where the silver plane had been. “Bye, guys. Go with God.”
If they made it back to Los Angeles, hopefully they'd tell his parents that he was alive. Someone would think of it. Kate would, for sure. They had to make it back, right? Why else would they have gotten as far as they had?
Don't jinx it, man, Hugo told himself as he stared into the east, almost expecting the plane to turn around and come back. So many people had thought they were going to leave the Island, but didn't. So many people thought they were going to stay away, and then they came back.
What it boiled down to was this. When the Island said you could leave, you could. And if it wanted you to return, then it would reach across oceans and even time itself to bring you back.
Or was it really just up to the Island? If Ben was right, Jacob's rules didn't have to be Hugo's. How was he going to set rules, though? What did you do, just walk up to the Island and announce that there were new ones? What made Ben think the Island would even listen?
Too many questions. Anyway, he had to get back to Ben and Desmond, to make sure they were still all right after “the great earth-shake.” He put it that way with the half-hysterical laughter you make instead of crying.
Also, hope beyond hope, Jack could still be down there in that mysterious hole full of light. Or maybe there were other escape routes, and Jack had found one by now.
“Now you're like me,” Jack had said. Whatever it was Jack had done to him, Hugo didn't feel any different. He was supposed to protect the Island, but from what, it wasn't clear. Take care of people, as Ben said, but that went without saying.
Maybe the Island still needed protecting from Locke, the fake one. Hugo had seen that pathetic, broken body at the base of the cliff, but Hugo knew better than to assume that dead things always stayed dead. For all he knew, the monster could have hissed out of Locke's body like steam from a frying pan and flown into the air, looking for another host.
Hugo shuddered. If it came after him, he was done for. Funny thing, though, the smoke monster had never had bothered him, even all those times he'd been in the jungle alone.
On the other hand, maybe Jack really had fixed things. Another tremor shuddered underfoot, but Hugo managed to stay upright.
Deep down, a strong sense told him that this aftershock would be the Island's last. The Island didn't feel like it was going to break apart anymore. The winds, which just moments ago had smelled like eggs left too long in the refrigerator, once more smelled as if the air itself was alive and always fresh. As if it was breathing life into you, with every little breeze.
A sweet wind, which could wash away even the smell of death.
Not that the Island's sweetness had done anything to help Sun and Jin, drowned before they got to spend even a single day together. Sayid was gone, too, giving his life to keep everyone on board the submarine from sharing Sun and Jin's fate.
A pang of loneliness and fear stabbed through Hugo. What if he were left alone here? That would be the worst ever. For a second Hugo wished he'd gone back with Kate, Sawyer and the others on Ajira 316.
To be alone here, truly alone, that was too much. Hugo broke into a near-run as he careened downhill, away from the sea, back into the jungle, not paying attention to the way which he'd originally come.
All he could think of was finding Ben and Desmond and anyone who was left alive. Maybe even Jack. Oh, please, let that happen.
A large bird flew up from a stand of trees, its loud caw echoing from all directions, its long emerald tail-feathers spread out behind it. When the bird circled a few times, calling out, “Hurrr-leee! Hurrr-leee!” Hugo came to a full stop.
He'd had seen that kind of bird a couple of times before, had even wondered if it spoke his name. Now he was sure of it, even if it didn't crap gold. Others of its kind cried out in answer, “Hurrr-leee! Hurrr-leee! Hurrr-leee!”
The path downhill had vanished, though. Wasn't that just like him to get distracted, get lost in the jungle? Before you knew it, people would start dying. He forced himself to calm down with a few deep breaths. If worst came to worst, he could keep heading downhill until he hit the stream, and then back-track his way up to the papaya grove where Ben and Desmond waited.
The jungle hung all around him, hovering, expectant. The canopy here seemed thicker, the undergrowth darker and more dense. Although the late-afternoon sun shone orange in the sky, little of it pierced the interlaced trees. The eerie song of the wind whistled through the highest branches, sounding almost like voices. Above him the big green birds still circled, cawing in harmony with smaller birds which had joined them.
When the birds stopped, the silence was so abrupt that it almost hurt Hugo's ears. He pushed through a screen of hanging vines into a little clearing, then stopped in surprise. Before him stood a tree whose every branch was weighted down with birds. None of them made a peep. Only their feathers faintly rustled as they ruffled their wings.
The largest of the green ones spoke, and he could have sworn it sounded like a question. “Hurrr-leee?”
When he approached close, it didn't fly away, but just sat preening its gold-dusted emerald feathers. Then it cocked its head and fixed its eye on him, as if it had something very important to tell him.
Hugo wished he had a piece of fruit to offer it. He stretched out his arm, curious to see if it would perch there, when a loud bark rang out from the forest. At once the tree exploded into a flurry of rustling feathers and chirps, caws, and whistles. In a rainbow swirl the birds all rose up to the canopy: small brown ones, bright red ones that looked like parakeets, a few fuzzy gray ones, and ten or so of the great green birds.
More barks, and away the cloud of birds flew. A thick-bodied Labrador retriever bounded through the brush, his yellowish fur almost grey in the shadows.
Hugo squatted to greet the dog, ruffling his fur. Vincent licked his face, then darted back towards the jungle and barked again.
“You got something to show me? At least you're not carrying somebody's arm this time.” At once Hugo felt sorry that he'd said that, because after all, it had been Ben's dad's arm which Vincent had brought them from the jungle so many years ago. Even if Roger Linus had been a massive douche, you still had to respect the dead. “Hey, boy, you know where Ben is? Can you take me to Ben?”
Vincent barked once more, darted back into the undergrowth, and was gone. “Here we go again,” Hugo said to no one in particular, as he waded through the bushes in Vincent's direction.