Alone isn’t such a lonely place to be. Not when there’s acres of intriguing island to explore and worlds of possibility. I’ve seen at least three different ecosystems already, which is both unusual and great for business. A flat plain bridges the northwest cliffs (where my helicopter landed) and the verdant forest lining the south rim. The plain is grassy but not dry like some parts of Africa, and the forest doesn’t seem as dense as the Amazon jungle at first glance. Or as deadly.

Uncle says that this island is virtually untouched by civilization. He seems to know a lot about these hidden gems that “nobody wants to buy.” Well, why don’t they want to buy it? Honestly, I’d buy an island myself if I could. I just don’t have the money, being an intern and all. School was expensive, and I’m just trying to survive off my meager income at this point. But Uncle said if I pass this test, he’ll promote me to Level Three, which means I can keep the island and manage the animals, just like Dad did. All I have to do is survey the island, document everything interesting I see, and survive for another twenty-nine days.

We mostly accept the large game projects, but sometimes governments will give us extra incentives to take on their endangered species before other kinds. Dad never took bribes, though. That’s one thing (in a very long list of things) that I miss about the way Dad ran his business. The way he created personal bonds with the animals astounded me. Once, when I was a little girl, he brought me to one of the gorilla islands, and we spent the whole day together. I watched him greet a pregnant gorilla by touching his forehead to hers. It seemed so gentle, so fitting to treat her the way he did. He was an animal whisperer.

Nothing like the chains Uncle uses.

But it’s getting late, and I’ve only just started to explain what I’m doing here. I’ll have to gather some firewood and cook my fish before dark. ~R.C.

Day 2

It’s early . . . maybe 7:00 a.m., if I had to guess. Or I could look at my watch, but that seems like cheating, you know? I slept pretty well in my hammock. I think the edge of the cliffs meeting the tail of the forest helps block the ocean winds that chill to the bone. It feels like a mild summer here. But I’m curious about the quietness of it all. Last night I didn’t even hear a bird flap its wings or a squirrel chomp on walnuts (I ate some of those with my breakfast—a chocolate chip Clif bar). It was just the song of the water rolling through the branches, lulling the island to sleep—lulling me to sleep. Something about the sparsity of wildlife so far unnerves me. But this is also my first solo mission—it’s an honor to be chosen. After all, not everyone gets one of these.

I’ll have to write about the lack of wildlife for Uncle. While I enjoy writing, I don’t understand why he wouldn’t let me bring my phone to take pictures. That would be so much easier. I even adapted it to run off solar power.

“You have to get the feel of the land, experience it for yourself,” he had said. “You’re not a tourist, you’re working.”

I better be getting overtime for this, then.

The security guards even checked my bag for electronics before letting me off the helicopter.

It’s not like I need a phone to survive. I’ve been trained to do my job. I’m just annoyed at Uncle’s lack of efficiency. But I guess I should explain this family business of ours. Basically, we breed endangered animals on sheltered islands, then export them back into their original ecosystems to facilitate the rehabilitation of the species. Right now our biggest projects include Sumatran tigers, black rhinos, and, surprisingly, freshwater dolphins.

Unfortunately, this means I have to lug around a ton of equipment. I think I’ll set up a temporary camp here on the edge of the woods (even though it already feels like home) while searching for a place for base camp. I can set up some satellite camps across the island once I explore further too. The second unfortunate thing is that a lot of people in my division seem to be leaving the company. They’ll go out for their solo missions and just not come back to headquarters. Although maybe after living on a beautiful, secluded island, they desire a change of pace. Can’t blame them for that. Perhaps that’s what I’ll do when this is done.

I must say, I’m quite sore from all the walking and chopping firewood yesterday. I wanted to trek across the island today to explore and gather nature samples: soil samples, water samples, pieces of tree bark, lichens, grass, flowers, mushrooms, rocks—anything that can be sampled should be. Data collection helps ensure the complete safety of our animals in their prospective climates.

But now the forest seems to be calling. The ocean exhales all her sadness into the arms of the trees. She murmurs her woes to them, and they listen quietly, absorbing the pain. The gentle ones droop their boughs to show they care or mingle their roots with the roots of loved ones separated by distance. The soil is moist and fragrant, slightly warm. It smells like spiced honey.

The forest holds a mystery, it seems. I wonder if I can discover its secret before nightfall. ~R.C.

Day 3

I’ve been sick all night. I was so tired I think I forgot to boil my water before I drank it.

Day 4

One of the forest’s secrets lies in the deceptively clear water. The water I gulped down came dancing down a small eddy in the central creek. It laughed; it sang with me. I lost my wits and drank it, then paid the price. I harbor no ill will toward it, just an ill stomach.

It’s early afternoon, and I’ve been resting, listening to the island breathe. I caught a glimpse of a ruby-throated hummingbird flitting around the tops of the trees. I also classified the nearest trees by sight and leaf shape, discovering oak, pine, maple, rosewood, and hickory.

Late last night I thought I heard a single twig snap about fifty feet from my partially constructed tent. It was a sharp snap, like a large animal took a wrong step. I waited, regulated my breathing, and strained to hear any other sounds. I quietly grabbed my machete just in case. After about thirty minutes I closed my eyes and drifted into an uneasy sleep. Something about the way my arm hair stood on end gives me the chills. I can’t describe it, but I sensed something dangerous was there. I’ll need to make a sturdier place to live and keep a low profile for a few days. ~R.C.

Day 7

It’s pouring, and I literally can’t go outside. I only have four changes of clothes, and if the rain soaks me, I’ll have a hard time drying my clothes out with this little fire in my cabin. Today’s the perfect day to catch up on my writing, though.

I built a square cabin in the heart of these woods out of some of the smaller oak trees I cut down. I can comfortably stand up in it, sleep however I want, and cook. It’s about the size of a small living room. I used my tarp tent for the roof to keep me dry and keep my fire going in a tiny firepit made of stones I found by the shore.

I wonder when the helicopter will bring more supplies. Uncle said I didn’t need to pack much, but he wasn’t clear what I should and shouldn’t bring. Here’s what’s left:

  • 6 Clif bars
  • A handful of beef jerky (teriyaki, of course)
  • A bar of dark chocolate
  • 75 feet of fishing line
  • 250 feet of paracord
  • 4 hooks
  • A machete
  • 2 hunting knives
  • A firestarter
  • An axe
  • A handsaw
  • A headlamp
  • 50 feet of rope
  • A cooking pot
  • Bear spray
  • 4 changes of clothes
  • A -50°C sleeping bag
  • A hammock
  • A tarp tent (aka my roof)
  • A pair of boots
  • A rain jacket
  • A water bottle
  • A backpack
  • A tin can (I found this yesterday)

I wasn’t allowed to bring a gun or a bow and arrow, but no matter. There’s hardly anything to hunt, and my main meals come from fishing and foraging, anyway.

Here's the thing, though. Last night I heard the twig-break thing again, except this time the break wasn’t as clean. It was more of a soft break, which means something lighter might be around. Unfortunately, I don’t have any cameras to survey the area at night. I don’t necessarily feel threatened yet. It’s not like the thing has growled or attacked my cabin . . . or made any other sounds, for that matter. It just makes me uneasy.

I’ll just have to sit tight for a bit until the rain stops, though. I’m thinking about setting up some satellite camps in the next few days and exploring the island more. Maybe my absence in the forest will ward the thing off. ~R.C.

Day 11

There’s a swamp? And it has quicksand!

I discovered the massive pit in the east corner of the island. While the edge is a marsh with buzzing insects and sticky plants, inner portions will suck you down to your death in no time. Thankfully, I didn’t get caught in it. After slipping down a small ravine, I caught a low-hanging branch that saved my life. Unfortunately, the rocks that tumbled down met a different fate. This island—it’s honestly not like anything else I’ve ever seen. And I haven’t even seen all of it yet. The diversity of life it sustains is mind-boggling.

I’m making my camp close to the cypress trees on the edge. Hopefully they’ll offer protection from whatever else might come my way. I did notice large prints on the moist ground around the swamp, but they weren’t clear enough to reveal what left them. I think I’ll try slinging my hammock between two branches, so I’m not close to the ground. Best to remove all evidence of my existence for now. ~R.C.

Day 12

The thing came around again last night. It circled a few trees, lifted its nose in the air and grunted, then left. I’m almost positive it came back a few hours later, but I was too scared to peek out of my hammock. From here I can see the imprints again.

I wish I knew what to do. Dad would know. He seemed to understand everything. He always had faith in his brother, even though I thought Uncle took advantage of Dad. The night before Dad went out on his final island trip, he kissed my head and told me how proud he was of me. I remember the warmth of his breath on my hair. “One day, you’ll run the family business, my little mystery,” he had said. I smiled at the smile in his voice and wrapped my child arms around his thick neck. That was the last time I saw him. A helicopter crash took his life, and Uncle got the business. I guess that’s how life works sometimes. One day—one day it’ll be mine. ~R.C.

Day 13

At dawn I thought I saw a trail of smoke coming from the north point of the island. I plan to follow that signal today. Who knows what I’ll find?

Last night was worse. I moved my hammock to the other edge of the swamp, just in case. Probably about midnight I heard the thing circling below my tree. The mud sucked with every step it took. Oddly enough, it seemed to slow down the closer to came to me. A small growl, like a rumbling, emitted from its throat. I peeked over the edge of my hammock and glimpsed red eyes. It’s time for me to move.

During midday I checked the ground for prints. Surely enough the prints circled my tree and stopped about twenty feet away. There, a long body print sank deeper into the mud. Whatever it was waited for me. ~R.C.

Day 15

I’m being hunted.

Day 19

Too much has happened. My mind is reeling. What can I say? What should I say? Right now, I’m safe, so I’ll write as quickly as possible.

As I traveled to where I saw the smoke trail, I heard a low growl a ways behind me. I had taken the plains path to avoid being surprised by anything. I felt the grasses moving behind me and, without looking, ran as fast as I could in a slant toward the forest on the other side of the swamp. It must not have been chasing that hard because I could never outrun something with pawprints that size. Even more to make me afraid. Am I being toyed with? I feel like a mouse in a losing game of cat and mouse. The mouse never wins.

I climbed a tree with the help of my hunting knives and sawed off the smaller branches so nothing could follow me up. I created a type of noose with my rope and lowered it down next to the trunk of the tree, knotting it tightly on my end to a sturdy branch. If the thing stepped in it, I could yank it tight and catch it. Not five minutes later a massive beast of a black tiger stalked the edge of the forest. The king of the hunters strolled close to my tree. What would’ve been gorgeous white stripes were matted dark gray from its filth. Its saber teeth gleamed in the sun. My heart wouldn’t be still.

Man hunters. That’s what they were. That’s what Uncle created them to be. Not just a genetic mutation, but worse, more cunning, almost . . .

It yawned as it circled my tree and stopped before stepping into the rope noose. It growled loudly, then looked up at me. My blood froze. I couldn’t blink. I couldn’t move. Then it yawned again and trotted deeper into the forest.

It was after me. It was playing with me, waiting to kill me. I felt helpless, afraid. I ran headlong to the north side of the island, not pausing for rest or water or food. It was a fear run.

When I got to the north side, the terrain suddenly changed, and I stopped in my tracks. The ground gave way to the whitest, finest sand I’d ever seen. Turquoise water drifted lazily out into the lagoon. Colored fish happily swam in and out of rocks around the shore. And there toward the left sat a smoldering campfire in the middle of a small camp. I scanned the horizon for the owner. Surely someone else was here. Maybe they would help.

Or maybe they wouldn’t.

My joy quickly turned to fear when I thought about that possibility. I carefully backed into a rocky cave adjacent the lagoon. It had a clear view of the camp. I’d wait until the owner came back and see if it was safe. I backed further in absentmindedly, my head spinning with thoughts. Suddenly my body stopped, and I screamed. A hand covered my mouth and dragged me back into the cave.

“Shhh,” a muffed voice said. “You don’t want him to find us, do you?”

I shook my head. I couldn’t see anything because it was so dark. The figure sounded young but had a strong grip. We crouched against the rocks to hide.

“Good. Shh,” it said. We waited for a few minutes, stone-still to make sure we weren’t discovered. We didn’t hear the all-too-familiar roar of the beast that hunted us. The figure took his hand away and motioned toward the lightened mouth of the cave. He seemed . . . familiar. The straight brown hair and the slender form tugged at forgotten memories. Then, he turned around. I would know those misty blue eyes anywhere.

I gasped. “Tuesday?”


I heard the disbelief in both our voices. Before I knew it we were hugging and crying (softly, of course). “I thought you were dead!” I whispered.

“Everyone did,” he said, shaking his head.

“Have you seen that thing?”

“Yeah, it’s a killer. I never would’ve thought your uncle would do that.” He ran a sun-weathered hand over the unkempt beard on his face. “He’s a weird guy, but still.”

“My uncle? What do you mean?” I asked.

He explained that his solo mission led him to this island where the black tiger tracked every member of the scouting division that stepped foot on the island. Tuesday faked a death of natural causes (which is a long story), and members of the security guard came to recover his remains. After overhearing them chat about Uncle’s diabolical plans on Island Zero (this island—the only killing island), Tuesday was able to figure out what was going on. With the help of a hidden camera attached to its neck and the ability to reason, the tiger hunted its prey, Uncle’s enemies, with extreme accuracy.

We have a lot to do if we want to escape with our lives. ~R.C.

Day 20

With ten days left on my mission (a killing mission, apparently), Tuesday and I had to beat the system. Who knew what would happen if proof of my death wasn’t produced in the allotted thirty days? Somehow, Tuesday had managed to escape the tiger for some time because of its aversion to water. The beautiful lagoon was a serene place for plotting. He’d already tried a Malay mancatcher, which the black tiger had been quick to spot. He’d also tried various means of poisoning it unsuccessfully. Big cats still have good noses.

I have an idea we’ll try tomorrow. We heard the tiger roaring for us this morning. It knows we’re here. But at least having the company is nice. We eat delicious fish roasted on the fire and munch on seaweed, remembering old times. Although Tuesday is younger than me by a few years, he was my only friend in the scouting division. I’m glad he’s here with me. ~R.C.

Day 23

I don’t have much time, but we’re working on a Burmese tiger pit in the edge of the forest closest to the lagoon. Basically, it’s a deep pit with spikes at the bottom to impale prey that fall into it. It’s usually covered with a false top that’s indistinguishable from the surrounding terrain. Except ours doesn’t have spikes.

I may be afraid of the tiger, but I’m not stooping to killing it. It’s not his fault he’s in this situation because he’s been weaponized. He doesn’t know any better. I want to be an animal whisperer, just like

Maybe Uncle will come for a talk once he sees his prized hunter is stuck. ~R.C.

Day 25

Today’s the day. Tuesday and I wove grass and moss together to create a faux forest floor. With a ten-foot-deep hole (thanks partially to my machete and a stone shovel we constructed from the caves, as well as a ton of sweat) covered by a convincing layer of twigs, branches, and leaves, I think we’re going to trap that tiger.

The hardest part was keeping it distracted long enough to build it. Since it only hunts us early in the morning and at night, we basically had most of the day to work together. Closer to dusk, I peeled off, making a beeline back to my original cabin as a decoy. I made a burning torch, which would help ward off the tiger for a bit, then stayed as close to the shore as possible. Fortunately, it took the bait and followed me.

Once I got to the original forest, I doused the torch in the water and climbed the nearest tree with my rope. I jumped from tree branch to tree branch (most were almost touching) until I arrived at my campsite. I turned on my headlamp to assemble my hammock high above the cabin, then went a few branches down to inspect it.

I felt both sadness and anger at the sight. Claw marks wrapped around the cabin, and the inside looked like it was trashed in a fury. My craftmanship wasn’t the best, but it was good enough. If I ever made it out, maybe I’d come back and build another cabin with fancy woodwork. Tuesday knew how to carve. We’d make a great team.

But now it’s time for the reckoning. As I’m sitting here in this peaceful lagoon, I can’t help but wonder what’s next. I need to get back control of this company. We could do so much good instead of some good and a lot of evil. I’m determined to win this ugly game. ~R.C.

Day 26

It worked!!! I can’t believe it! The story is so wild you literally won’t believe what happened. But wait, I think I hear the whirring of a helicopter. I need to get Tues—

If I survive, you’ll be reading this. Or, well, perhaps someone might find this journal later and discover that I haven’t survived. Or maybe I’ll remain a mystery.  ~Robin Cruce

The End.