travel

Package Holiday | A Short Story

Damien’s tatty book blotted out the near-noon sun. He held the yellow block aloft with a pallid white arm, elbow locked. His stomach reflected heat skyward, and he held the pages between his face and the light to shade himself while he read. The page was in shadow, but enough light reverberated back up off the hot sand to illuminate things, the beach baking with such intensity he could hear it. The heat hissed and fizzed in his ear like television static, and the horizon wobbled to the thermal buzz.

Framing the page was the royal blue of sky, cloudless except for reedy threads of white cast by passing aircraft. With a sea breeze yet to fill in, the hot air hung dense and still for miles upwards. Heat blocked out all real noise. Only mildly aware of the other beachlife, the hawkers and their prey, Damien glanced at his two companions, slumped like belugas  on sun loungers. Both lay facing away from him on their left sides, turning pink, and glistened with the sweat of a deep hangover. He could wake them, he thought, but probably only for a moment. They would turn like sausages under a grill, and would at least cook evenly on all sides. He imagined the two-tone effect of sunburn on the right-hand sides of their body and decided to leave them. It would make for some fun that night. They had press-ganged him into this hellish holiday, so he was owed a few laughs.

What they had seen of the island of Gran Canaria was predictably shite.  Within it festered Puerto Rico – a noxious, sandy armpit of a town. It wasn’t a town, it was an ‘urbanizacion’ , a word which suggested it had imposed itself on the island forcibly. It’s concrete clung to the volcanic rock against the island’s will. Where there were rocks and shrubs, now there were shops and pubs.  Puerto Rico heaved with flourescent beachwear, junk food and cheap beer, day and night, in and out. It reeked of low-grade excess. Its heartbeat was hard house. Its eyes were lit with neon. For Damien, a self-possessed snob, this was his personal hell.

During the day, the slow-running river stank its way down the valley, a mass of fetid air above it building with the heat and crawling up the hills towards the hotels to be swept away into the mountains beyond by the sea breeze by noon. At night, the town howled and glowed neon. Everything screamed ‘get me drunk, fuck me carelessly and forget it all in the morning’.  The town had grown like fungus in a humid cranny, feeding on the abundant sludge of cheap tourism. Its bulging, sticky visitors wore tattoos and the scarlet badge of sunburn like war-wounds, pulling at short legs to compare scorch-marks. Pubs advertised football, pies, mushy peas and beers from home. Cheap, cheap, cheap. Nightclub touts offered free shots and the prospect of equally cheap sex. Kebab shops, pizza restaurants and pet-broiling Chinese takeaways clustered in a fear-inducing huddle within sight of McDonalds, Burger King and KFC.

The lads’ hotel was perched high on the northern headland, the balconies facing in toward the valley. At night the view of the action was spectacular. They had a birds-eye view of whatever spilled onto the streets – carnal, lager-fuelled lust and hate. They were close enough to town to hear most of the screams of anger but, thankfully, not the throaty moans of passion or the pebble-dash splatter of intermittent vomit.

Damien’s two room-mates grunted on their sunloungers. One farted. Neither moved. He rested his head back on the sand and, above his book, a plane cut a fluffy arc in the blue. Making its way down in an approach pattern, it banked to the left so that Damien could see its navy blue tailfin and shed some height, turning back toward the island, no doubt with a heavy cargo of fresh, pasty tourist.  It disappeared behind the page, drawing Damien’s attention back to the paperback stolen from the hotel games room that morning. It was dog-eared & mustard-paged. A macho title in giant gold letters promised explosions, vehicular carnage and vested heroism. There were pages missing and the spine and cover were held together with tape, so there was no guilt in taking it to the beach. He swapped arms, his left shoulder getting tired, and put on his sunglasses before replacing the book in line with the sun.

His movements that morning had woken the other two, and they insisted on following Damien to the beach to sleep off the night before, despite his sober protests. None of them were built to tan.  Hangover sweats meant the other two eagerly stripped off t-shirts before collapsing without bothering the sunscreen or bottled water. They would cook. Fast.

Already they had snored for 70 pages or so, while in Damien’s the book the scene was set. The flashy, murderous toys had just started to emerge. Handguns, helicopters and high-tech modes of transport. Grenades and RPGs. The bodycount promised to be off the chart. It was already close to 30 and the main character had only developed a taste for blood. The book was as far removed from the somatic silence of morningtime Puerto Rico as Damien could imagine – crucial meetings between ruthless spys, vehicles ending up as twisted metal hulks. Henchmen recklessly dispatched, bypassers bloodied and shaken.

The gore couldn’t hold his attention, though, and he would skim entire pages without retaining anything, having to start from scratch again.  With the heat building, he put the book down and sat up, looking at the others and then the sea, as blue as the sky above.

Hiding his keys and sunglasses beneath his roommates, Damien walked down to the water’s edge and slowly waded in.

The sand was a bleachy white, typically tropical, but fake. The island’s own dirty-black, volcanic sand had been replaced by coarse, imported coral grain to give the imported visitors an ‘authentic’ beach experience. No-one booked a holiday on the basis of black sand, so the beach got bleached for the sake of the brochures, to match the expectations of the holidaymaker.

The water, bathlike in temperature, crept up Damien’s legs and when he reached waist-deep, he flopped over onto his back with his arms stretched out along the surface of the water. He stared up at the cliffs, at his hotel, before putting his head back and closing his eyes to float away. The scrubby, once-beautiful cliffs were crammed with the rough white cubes of apartments, so it was better not to look.

Damien drifted and listened. Beneath him the sea crackled with invisible life and above him was blue nothing. If he kept his head back, his ears in the water, and his eyes closed, Puerto Rico wasn’t there at all. Bizarrely, in the new silence, he could now recall in stunning detail the plot of the book, and the immense carnage within, and realised it had been made into a Nicholas Cage film, which he had already seen. Cage played the typical stoic hero, quipping from one life-threatening situation to the next with grimy calm, leaving mounds of nameless corpses in his wake.

Chaos reigned all around him, yet Cage remained a calm ball of homicidal zen; rather like himself, Damien thought, amid the carnage of his friends’ ideal holiday. He could yet emerge the victor. There was still time for him to grab this package holiday by the balls and stand proud (perhaps even with the girl) as Puerto Rico smouldered in submission around him. He began plotting out a strategy to ruthlessly ‘deal’ with Puerto Rico.

As he daydreamed,  a droning reached his ears, the sound of an engine muffled by the water. It throbbed slowly, like the memory of the night before. The night had begun with prodigious amounts of alcohol, moving on to one empty night club after the next until all at once the centre of town was crammed with elbow-to-elbow twentysomethings, swaying and jumping and tonguing and laughing and puking, with tits bursting from tops and the scent of cheap deodorant thick in the air.  Sean had wobbled off in the wee hours holding the hand of a tottering slapper in iridescent pink, while the rest settled for kebabs.

The underwater droning continued, louder, as Damien drifted back and forth from the pornographic violence of his book to the lewd carnage of nocturnal Puerto Rico. He wished the two together in some sort of cleansing, riotous disaster that would bring this holiday to a premature end and afford him an honourable retreat. This town should be subjected to cruel horrors, and then some. Flames, rubble, the lot. Nicholas Cage seeks revenge on Puerto Rico. Plenty of collatoral damage. Best to raze it to the ground and start from scratch.

The underwater drone became a loud roar, indicating the engine was getting closer. Fearing a speedboat or jetski, Damien opened his eyes. He stared first straight up into the sky, where the trail of the descending plane had spun a downwards loop and disappeared out of view out towards the sea behind him. He raised his head to eyeball the boat was that was causing the underwater din, but as his ears broke the surface the roar became a mechanical scream and it was clear that the noise wasn’t coming from the sea.

Damien pressed his chin to his chest, and looked between his floating feet, back towards the shore, in time to see Sean and Phil leaping from their sunloungers and staring out at him, then, turning to run in the opposite direction – a full-blown sprint. The beach was a scene of mass panic and confusion. Others were staring out at him in the sea, beyond him, above him. Yet more were turning to run, then looking back his way, then deciding to run again. Two police cars stopped, the police got out, pointed flailing arms out to sea while shouting into walkie-talkies before getting back in the cars before speeding off.

The whirring, screaming sound grew louder and louder now, and Damien, still floating, dropped his feet to the sea bed and stood up, still up to his crotch in the water.

The peal of grinding metal was right behind him and fast becoming deafening. He spun in time to see a large passenger jet scream towards him and over his head towards town, flames coming from its right wing. Its tailfin was navy blue, the one Damien had watched bank and turn high above the island before he waded into the water. In the brief second before it passed over him, he could see right into the cockpit, he could ACTUALLY SEE the pilots’ wide-eyed expressions of horror and locked, straining arms.

A minute ago he was adrift on an ocean of calm, and now he was staring down two men about to hit the ground at over 170 miles an hour, with the weight of a passenger jet behind them. He momentarily made eye contact with the pilots before they hurtled over him out of view, a bizarre split second of bemusement on both parts. He, staring right into the cockpit of a crashing airplane at two neatly dressed men in pressed white shirts with navy epaulettes. All around them were warnings of complexity gone wrong, beeping buzzers and flashing buttons. They were looking down at a ghostly pale 22-year-old in boardshorts, standing up to his balls in barely rippling seawater and staring, baffled, skywards back at them.

Damien spun to follow the plane as it passed overhead, ducking and covering his ears as the noise reached a crescendo and time slowed down. The beach was alive with people now, scattering in all directions, and others struck dumb and rooted to the spot by what they were seeing. There must have been screaming but he couldn’t hear it above the engine noise. The plane dropped from around 250 feet as it crossed over Damien’s head to 150 feet by the time it had crossed the boundary between the beach and the road. it was heading right into the valley, right up along the stinking creek.  Damien quickly recalled the birds-eye view of town from his balcony. Between the seafront road and the main Puerto Rico shopping plaza was a large swimming pool, a green area and, Oh, God, the hospital. It could hit the hospital. It would hit the hospital.

Beyond the hospital was the beating heart of Puerto Rico, the shopping plaza which housed a good 50 souvenir shops and restaurants which became bars which, at night, then became nightclubs, which in turn spewed most of their drunken occupants into the street, with some of them then trickling on across the street into the hospital. It could miss the hospital and hit the shopping centre, thought Damien. That, he could just about handle. He could live without the shopping centre.

It was across the swimming pool now and crossing over the green, slowing all the time.

For a moment it looked as if it might miss the hospital entirely, or at least just barely clip the roof with its underbelly. Damien couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Smoke stretched out like a heavy grey rope from the flaming aircraft to directly over where he stood. Running people had split left and right either side of that line for their escape. Those that the plane overtook just stopped running, feeling relatively safe, to watch what was about to happen.

Just before it reached the hospital the plane wavered and wobbled, dropping its right wing before BAM! the wingtip clipped the hospital heavily, ripping off the wing and sending an arc of flame up into the sky, with desk-sized chunks of mortar hewn off and spraying onto the road. The impact started the fuselage into a cartwheel motion, and Damien, still standing balls-deep and immobilised, imagined the whirling mayhem inside the cabin as gravity became a memory. The navy tail of the plane wheeled, stopping and spinning upwards. The nose slammed into the ground on the far side of the hospital. As the plane arced to stand on its nose, the other wing sheared off.  What life was left in the engine wrenched it clear of the wing, sending the turbines straight into a small four-storey hotel block, which shuddered and quickly folded on itself. The wing became part of a ball of dust and smoke. And, straight down the middle, the aircraft fuselage whirled, tripping tail over head before slamming straight into the shopping centre, drawing the action to a stop with a startling impact.

As the noise died down, a silence descended momentarily before the screams started. Then sirens.

Damien still stood in the sea in disbelief, unmoving, his hands by his side. All eyes were looking away from him now, a great surge of humanity rushing back into the centre of town in the direction of the flames and smoke, or off into the side streets to check on and reassure family. Sean and Phil were nowhere to be seen.

Damien stood there, guiltily remembering his last thought before seeing the plane: the imagined disaster he had taken such pleasure in conjuring up for Puerto Rico from the pages of his book.

Wouldn’t it be nice, he had thought, if this place, and most of the people in it, were suddenly written off by a nameless disaster, just like the one in the book. Bang, and the dirt is gone.

Damien walked ashore slowly, unsure of what to do, half wondering if he had somehow wished this to occur, if his malicious daydreams had conjured the disaster.

He strolled up the deserted beach, damp shorts clinging to his thighs, and slowly collected his book, sunglasses and towel from under the sun lounger, along with everything his friends had left as they fled. He made for the hotel, wondering if his two friends were okay, wondering if that’s where they’d be. It was the only thing he could do in the circumstances, he told himself. He knew no first aid. He had no shoes to go search in the rubble. The only two people he felt responsible for were unlikely to be there, and the place would be swarming with emergency services. And besides: from up on the hill, the view of the action would be spectacular.

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