Here is a posting of my final round story for the nycmidnight.com short story challenge, written in 24 hours.

Subject: Neighbors
Genre: Science Fiction

A short story

Synopsis: The moving island he lives on is barely big enough to hold twelve houses, but when a young man investigates the inner-workings of his neighbors, he realizes that there is a darker mechanism at work behind their methodical lives.

The Island
It is nine hundred and six yards by six hundred and fifty-seven yards. The soil goes as deep as Pedro’s forearm before it hits impenetrable rock. The tallest tree is almost five feet, which grows almost in the exact center of the island. As a sign of respect, the local government lets the oldest man on the island, Dr. Abdul, enjoy its limited shade. Dr. Abdul sits facing east in the morning and west in the afternoon. At midday, he goes for a swim—one oval lap, counterclockwise—the white line on his spine from the tree trunk flanked by his bronzed and weathered shoulder blades.

The People and Its History
Pedro is in love with Maybell, but he will be forever two houses away from her. There are thirteen people total and it has been stated, through the history books that are kept under Mr. Underhill’s seaweed mattress, that the island can only support this many. When Dr. Abdul dies, Tomas and Maybell will get married and have one child, and Madame Devereaux will get to enjoy the shade under the tree. After Madame Devereaux dies, Pedro will marry Ula, a short unpleasant girl whose parents are professors in charge of research and development in Houses Eight and Nine.
When Pedro asks Mr. Underhill to see the history books, Mr. Underhill tells him that when eight more people die, it will be his turn to see them, and then he will understand why it has to go in that order.

Their Houses
Twelve in all, they are built out of driftwood and layered kelp. When it rains, the island’s residents take down their roofs and suck at the fresh water fibers until they are dry again and ready to be re-hung like paper maché shingles. Pedro lives in House Three, moving in four months ago after Madame Burress died, her head slumped, her back raw from tree bark and bitten by ants.
There is a piece of paper on Pedro’s wall, framed by glass. In so many words, it tells him that he is now the provider for the island, that they now depend on him for kelp, the water in the spinal cords of sharks, the protein from red snapper filets. He has a thinning rope, coiled expertly next to the doorway, and fish bone hooks, mounted next to the glass frame in descending order.
For five years, he served as Tomas’ apprentice in House Two, the glass plaque on its wall promising respect and admiration when he mastered his understudy. He learned how to weave sturdy nets and how to bait a shark to chase him, leading the unsuspecting animal toward Tomas’ unyielding spear. It was a thrill as a twelve-year-old, to race against death, to be stung by jellyfish and laugh when he tried to urinate on himself to ease the pain, but now Ula is in his old house, and Tomas is Captain Expeditionist, one death away from marrying Maybell, getting to spend nine months in her house, in hibernation.
He is free to visit Ula in his old house, which he is not interested in, and the new infant in House One, a girl, who he feeds caviar from the wombs of Beluga Sturgeon while Madame Devereaux holds her, smiling and toothless.
Pedro is not allowed to visit anyone else, but they visit him, asking him about rations, debating when the next storm will come, the next cold spell. He asks about Tomas and Maybell, but the local government is mum on their activities. In the quiet of the night air he has heard whispers that Tomas is preparing to attack a whale, which Maybell has been tracking. The constant tick from the grandfather clock in House Five keeps time moving, helping Maybell chart their path.
Right before he falls asleep, his hands chafed, Pedro wishes Tomas will die in his hunt so that he can be Maybell’s neighbor and slay the killer whale, and then he can be a hero in the history books.

At Night, When the Moon Gives No Shadow
Pedro often sits under the tree, while Dr. Adbul sleeps next to him, in a ditch worn in the sand like a question mark. It is here that he realizes the reason why he loves Maybell: because she is disconnected from the rest of them and their consoling touches that do not mean a thing. She shrinks away from them and they laugh at her skittishness.

The Speed of Travel
Pedro has been increasing his lung capacity, diving down and picking mussels from the crevices in the hard black rock. He can feel the saltwater surge past his face as the island picks up speed or slows down. As he dives deeper, he can feel the rock narrow, like a cone, as the water gets colder, but he cannot see where it ends, not yet.
Some days, the island moves so fast that Dr. Abdul is left behind and Pedro has to fling out his rope, which the old man manages to always catch in his sinewy hands. Sometimes, Dr. Abdul likes to be dragged along, the water breaking around his thin body, smiling like a sea turtle.

A Miracle
Maybell sits under the tree, her shoulder blades touching his around the tree trunk. The only sounds on the island are Dr. Abdul’s rasping breaths and the sharks snorting next to the beach. She feels larger than Pedro imagined, a woman, perhaps thirty. He holds his breath for forty-five, fifty seconds, and then she sighs.
“The depths of the ocean are changing. The current is unpredictable,” she says. “Can you remember that?”
Pedro imagines what he could say, how his hands hurt, about how he dived down to a passing reef and saw an anemone and it reminded him of her, a dream he had, floating with her in the buoyant sea, on their way to another island…
He feels Maybell stand up and scratch a calf against the bark and then she pads off. He turns to see her entering her house, the freckles on her back descending like a tree branch, falling leaves on her rolling hips…

The Family Tree
Pedro is an orphan. How he came to be, he does not know, but he thinks it is noted in the history books. Deputy Mayor and Mayor de la Cruz begat the new baby and the Professors Vizquel and Mr. and Mrs. Underhill are Ula and Tomas’ proud parents, respectfully.
Maybell is also a mystery. While they were de-veining shrimp, Tomas told him that she was found in an innertube with a tin of sardines and a faded postcard that Dr. Abdul, then in charge of history, pasted in volume four of the history books. The story has some merit as a deflated innertube patches one of the Mayor’s walls, and a red Cresta Blanca tin adorns the entryway to Mrs. Underhill’s home, pounded flat so that it glints when the sun rises.

A Strange Encounter
Inside his house, Pedro meticulously manufactures a barbed hook out of a shark rib. It is a tedious process, but one that he enjoys, letting his mind wander toward Maybell, imagining that she would appreciate his diligence and skill, praising him with a secret touch on the wrist at a chance encounter on his way out to dive for food. A shadow interrupts his rhythm, and he looks up and sees Mrs. Underhill in the doorway, her chest badly sunburned, the underside of her breasts comically white.
“I seem to have fallen asleep on the beach,” she says, wringing her gray hair. “The breeze was so soothing, but now look at me.”
Pedro gives her a cask of fish oil, which she rubs into her skin. “Mr. Underhill is so preoccupied these days,” she says. “With his books.” She hands him the cask, which he corks. “There are ways to pass the time, Pedro, much more rewarding than making fishhooks. It’s not frowned upon.”
Pedro looks down at his feet, the hairs on his arches standing on end.
“It’s in the guidelines, it’s my right to do as I please.”
When he looks back up though, she’s gone.

The History Books
There are four volumes in all, of varying sizes. At town hall meetings Mr. Underhill sometimes references them, careful to lean over the pages, so no one can steal a glance. Out of respect, he offers them to Madame Devereaux, but she shakes her head sadly each time, her eyes rheumy and clouded, unable to see anything but the sun and doorways to the houses.

A Revelation
It has been raining for some time. His kelp roof is saturated, so Pedro crawls into the tunnel he has reinforced with fish paste and compost. The island rock next to his body is warm and soothing, like it’s heated from a distant molten core. He finds himself drifting off to sleep when Maybell crawls inside next to him. The first thing that happens is that he gets an erection, immediately. The second thing that happens is that he smells her breath, and it is like salty air moving over hot sand.
“I’m pregnant,” she says. “And there is no more room on this island.”

The Guidelines
Mr. Underhill has made sure to outline the rules clearly. If a person does his job well, he gets to move into a new house, and be rewarded for his hard work. There is always something to look forward to: fornication, increased responsibility, power, rest. These promises made Pedro hone his skills as Tomas’ apprentice, and Tomas will take the risk in a whale hunt in order to someday be Deputy Mayor and then Mayor of the island. Mr. Underhill will make sure these guidelines are followed so that he may someday relax under the tree and swim laps at midday.

A Suggestion
He watches Maybell stretch her toes out, the bottoms of her feet like leather moccasins.
“Who’s the father?” Pedro asks, his tongue thick in his mouth.
“I don’t know.”
She slides out of the trench and stands in Pedro’s house, hunched over, water dripping over her moist curly hair and down her eyebrows and over her full lips. “There’s something on the horizon, but I don’t know if there’s time. If you can, Pedro, remember your lessons.”
She leaves and Pedro lies still, paralyzed, wondering what she means. He can hear Tomas sharpening his tools next door.

When It Stops Raining
Pedro emerges from his house and takes down his roof. He sees the others on the island: Professor Vizquel cracking his back inside Maybell’s house, revealed when Mayor de la Cruz helps her remove the thatches; Mrs. Underhill wringing the water from her roof into a cistern, sunburn peeling; Dr. Abdul examining his pruned fingertips; Tomas laying out his tools, stealing a secret glance at Ula, her arms bruised and cut; the baby cries in Madame Devereaux’s arms, her gummy smile no cure for the bite marks on the infant’s cheeks.
Pedro feels uneasy when the island lurches forward, catching a current, and he spends the day being sick, holding his head inches above the rushing water.

Weak and shaky, Pedro stands outside of Maybell’s house. “I’ll save you,” he whispers, the constant ticking coming from inside her walls.
With the island sleeping, he digs a shallow tunnel under Mr. Underhill’s house, finding the cubby under his mattress that contains the books. Pedro hooks the books, one by one and drags them out into the open. The first volume is a manual on how to tell time, with pictures of clock faces and the difference between a minute hand and an hour hand. The manual soon diverges into different forms of timekeeping, and Pedro quickly gets lost in the jargon, as if the author was dreaming while writing it. The second and third volumes are full of handwritten rules, the first one being, “You are entitled to add one additional rule when these volumes are in your possession.” Pedro scans the lines, some taking entire pages, others a single word.
“This is an expedition.”
“This is work and we will be diligent and true to our goals.
“This is a way to pass the time.”
“This is a game and there is no longer a need to keep records of our actions.”
“You are entitled to visit each house you have inhabited and do as you please to each inhabitant.”
“Haley’s comet can be seen every seventy- five to seventy-six years and its orbit is highly elliptical.”
“This is life.”
“Pedro shall never know how we found him.”
“Until he reads this book.”
“And he will write another guideline, as we have all done.”
“If the guidelines are broken, the consequences are fatal.”
In the fourth volume, there is only a photograph of a small boy, carrying a tin of sardines, floating in an innertube. The caption reads: “He came from somewhere, and so there is hope that someday, we will return there.”

The Guidelines Are Broken
Pedro quietly lets himself into Maybell’s house, where she sleeps on cattails.
“I remember learning about this now,” he says, not waking her.
He examines the grandfather clock’s face. It appears to be approaching midnight, but then Pedro looks closer and sees that the minute hand isn’t a minute hand and that the hour hand isn’t an hour hand.
The glass plaque on Maybell’s wall instructs her that she is the timekeeper and cartographer, that it is her responsibility to make sure the clock continues to run, and that the importance of this matter is grave, and that she will appreciate the significance of the endeavor in due time.
“They didn’t know how long the orbit took so they did this.”
Maybell sits up, rubbing her eyes.
“Before I was shipwrecked, I remember learning in school. An expedition was formed. Volunteers. Do you know how to read the clock?”
Maybell nods. “Somewhat.”
“How long?”
“Close to nine hundred years.”
“And how long have the men come to your house—?”
“Since I can remember.”
She nods.
“Is leaving them here punishment enough?
“Take away their rules and make them start over without justification.”

The Current
Maybell and Pedro sit at the water’s edge. He takes the picture out of volume four and sets the book adrift in the current and it travels off, volume three, two and one follow the same path.
“We’re out of time,” she says. “When the sun comes up.”
“There’s a chance we’re close.”
“Or we could be one hundred years away.”
“Or more.”
“How do you know that there is anything out there?”
“I could have made it up in a dream.”
“You could have.”
“Is that worse than this?”
Just as the sky turns morning gray, they slide into the water, their bellies bobbing in the air, hands held tight, fingers interlocking, their shoulder blades like rudders guiding them along the current.