This is the first chapter of my first full-length novel, Oblivion. It is the first draft, so there will be mistakes and grammatical errors, trust me. Your constructive feedback is appreciated. Content warning for graphic violence and other adult themes.
Her eyes squeeze shut, desperately hoping the blackness will be impenetrable, but their fingers find gaps and force their way through. Muscle fibers tear as they grunt through bared teeth, spittle flecks on her bare breast after one of them bites her there. Teeth, hands, fingers, bodies. There are so many. She is breaking apart.
Her hands, bound at the wrists with rope, are tied to the gnarled roots of the mangroves that emerge from the grey, muddy sand beside her. She grabs at the ground, trying to find something solid; to hold on to, to use as a weapon, to help her escape – but all that she finds are broken seashells and cold, wet sand. As she struggles it sucks at her flesh, threatening to draw her down deeper into the earth. She screws her eyes tighter, trying to think of anything else or of nothing at all.
I am not here, I am somewhere else.
I am someone else. I am not here.
Nell had always dreamed about living on a tropical island. A life of sunshine and white linen dresses, hot stone massages before lunch and cocktails after. She’d learn how to stand up on those giant paddleboards in her bikini – cellulite didn’t exist in her dreams, of course – and when she’d fall into the turquoise ocean she’d laugh, and her big, beefy millionaire husband would sweep her into his arms and rescue her. Closing her eyes now, Nell could almost feel the sun warm her face, the ocean salt crystallising on her skin.
The flush of the toilet beside her interrupted her reviere, taking her by such a surprise that she had to steady herself on the rim of the bathtub so that she didn’t fall in.
‘Sorry darl, just popped a new bleach cube in the cistern – did I frighten you?’ Joan was a portly woman in her sixties, and over the past three years she had taught Nell everything she knew about being a room attendant at the Stirling Island Resort. Folding the guest towels into fluffy white swans was a trick Joan was particularly proud of, a skill perfected over the forty years she’d devoted to the job, the last thirty of which she’d spent working at Stirling Island. Nell thought it was kind of tacky and outdated but didn’t have the heart to tell Joan that.
‘It’s ok, I was off in fairy land again,’ sighed Nell. She peeled off her bright yellow rubber gloves and dropped them into the housekeeping bucket. Nell caught the flicker of impatience that crossed Joan’s face. Young ones these days, they just don’t have the stamina. Not like it was back in our day, she would complain in the lunch room, and the old ducks eating their corned beef sandwiches would nod and grunt in agreement. Nell would roll her eyes from her seat when she’d hear it, offended by the generalisation but not sure if she’d go as far as saying she disagreed with it.
‘Looks like the fumes might be getting to you,’ said Joan. She handed Nell a bundle of damp towels. ‘Here, pop these into the cart for me and take them down to reception. I’ll take care of the bathroom.’
It wasn’t the fumes at all, but Nell was grateful for the excuse to get out of there. She dumped the bundle of towels into the cart and manoeuvred it across the hallway into the elevator. As the doors closed and the elevator began to descend, Nell stuck her earphones in and cranked the volume on her phone. The booming, ultra-American voice of Tony Robbins started telling her how the power to change her life was within her. Nell snorted softly.
The only thing I’ve changed lately are bed sheets.
On the ground floor, Nell pushed the housekeeping cart up a narrow path through the gardens towards the resort’s pool area. This was her favourite part of the Stirling Island Resort, especially this early in the day when the guests were still in their rooms, sleeping off the overindulgences of the night before. It was peaceful here; the resort’s two saltwater lagoon pools curved around each other, palm trees and glossy, dark-leafed flora scattered around the border. Nell stopped the cart at the gate and looked around to make sure she was alone.
I’ll just dip my toes in, she thought.
She slipped off her flats, walked to the water’s edge at the deeper end of the lagoon, and knelt to check the water’s temperature.
From under the surface, a man looked up at her, his arms outstretched toward the surface as if crying out to God.
Nell fell back, landing hard on her butt, reeling in shock.
Slowly, she edged towards the water. She dared herself to look down.
The man was there, floating under the surface. He appeared to be tangled in thick rope netting, the kind Nell recognised from the resort bar’s nautical-themed decorations. His eyes bulged in their sockets, mouth opened in a frozen O shape. The skin on his outstretched hands puckered and pale. It reminded Nell of all those times she’d spent too long in the bath.
‘I thought I told you to take the towels to the – Oh!’
Joan’s hands flew to her face, instinctively trying to shield herself from the sight of the drowned man.
‘I’ll call triple zero Nell, you try to pull him out. Jesus Mary Joseph, oh my God!’ Joan crossed herself, then fumbled in her pocket for her mobile phone and started to dial. Nell felt frozen, unable to look away from the man. Unable to make sense of why he was there. Joan touched Nell’s shoulder, her hand shaking.
‘Nell, for God’s sake please!’
The touch shocked Nell back to the present and without thinking she plunged her hands into the icy water, grabbing the thick rope netting and pulling as hard as she could, hoping the man would come with it. He did, and she brought him to the surface, struggling with the weight as she tried to drag him onto land. Phone to her ear as she spoke to the emergency services, Joan waved madly at a passing groundsman, who rushed over to Nell and helped her pull the man free of the netting.
‘Do you know CPR?’ Nell asked the groundsman. He nodded slowly – all the resort staff received mandatory first aid training – but looked apprehensive at the prospect of touching the man any more than he already had. He was already looking queasy. Nell sighed, and moved over to the man. He was pale, blue-grey. Lifeless. She could see a delicate web of veins and capillaries through his skin in his cheek.
He’s dead, she thought, Nothing I’m going to do is going to bring him back.
‘Nell, love. The ambulance man says we need to start CPR now and do it until they arrive.’ Joan relayed the message. ‘The resort doctor is on her way too, so she’ll take over from us when she gets there.’ She wiped her brow with her free hand, looking slightly pale at the sight of the man.
Nell closed her eyes for a moment. White sand beaches. Cocktails at sunset with my hunky millionaire husband. This is what I meant when I dreamed of living on tropical islands, not this, she grumbled to herself. Not cleaning hotel rooms and trying to revive dickheads who get drunk, fall in the pool and drown.
With the groundsman’s help, Nell rolled the man onto his back. His unbuttoned shirt half-open, Nell could see red marks on his chest as she kneeled beside him. She moved closer, pulling the shirt away completely. The marks were letters, so large they covered the expanse of his chest and stomach. Angry, jagged-edged red letters, the blood washed away by the pool water but the flesh still raw.
Curious, Joan looked over Nell’s head and gasped when she saw the letters.
‘Mother Mary, is that what I think it is?’
‘It looks… fresh,’ Nell said, ‘and painful.’
Nell looked up at Joan. The older woman, ghost-pale, crossed herself for a second time. Nell could hear the triple zero operator on the phone, asking if anyone was still there, but Joan had let the phone drop to her waist. She was staring in horror at the words on the man’s chest.