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The island was beautiful.
Beautiful... and strange, for it was never the same two days running. Sometimes it seemed to Jim Ellison that he could easily see from one side of it to the other; at other times, there was no sign of the far shore. Sometimes the island seemed to be quite low, rising only a few feet above the level of the high tide; sometimes he could see the transparent shadows of hills rising high in the interior. He had no desire to explore inland, however; always he remained within a hundred yards or so of the sea. Sometimes he could walk round the island, returning inside an hour to this place where he had built a small shelter from driftwood; at other times he could walk for many hours, seeing places he could never remember seeing before, before his steps returned him to his hut.
And always, always, there was the smell of apples, although as yet he had found no apple trees.
The weather was perfect; warm without being too hot, and although it never seemed to rain, there was no indication that the ground suffered from drought. He wondered sometimes if the rain fell at night, so softly that even he didn't hear it; often in the early morning the grass looked damp, though that, of course, might have been dew. The wind never rose above a light breeze that carried with it the smell of honeysuckle and heather and always, always, apples.
Food was easily obtained; trees and shrubs heavy with fruit - apart from apples - were common; and somehow he did not think it strange that bananas grew beside pear trees and raspberries beside lychees, or that there was always fruit on the trees; he seemed to be living in a perpetual summer. Many of the other plants he saw he knew were edible, without knowing how he knew. Fishing was relatively easy; although he had once laughed at his guide for wanting to try a fishing spear, he had learned the rudiments of spear fishing when he was living with the Chopek, and it had been easy enough to make a simple spear, once he found some biggish pieces of flint and experiment gave him a few sharp-edged flint tools; and he had also discovered - or rediscovered, he wasn't sure which - the knack of tickling fish in the stream that ran into the sea near his hut and provided him with drinking water.
A couple of spreckled hens had found him a day or two after his arrival on the island and made their home with him; their eggs provided a further source of food. Wood - both drift and fallen from the trees - was plentiful for the small fires he needed to cook the fish and the eggs; big scallop shells picked up from the beach gave him cooking utensils and plates, a mussel shell gave him a perfectly serviceable spoon, a long sliver of flint provided him with a sharp knife and a conveniently-forked twig made an adequate fork; and if any of them broke, they were easily replaced.
After his arrival on the island.
He had no memory of how he had reached it. Strange how easily he accepted the fact; occasionally he wondered just where he was, how he had got there and why, but there was no urgency in the thought. It didn't seem to matter very much.
Often he seemed to be the only person on the island. Occasionally - very occasionally - he saw other people further along the shore and, like him, they were always alone. An attempt to join a man he saw one day not too far away from him proved abortive; no matter how fast and how far he walked - and he watched the man trying to walk towards him - they got no closer to each other, and eventually he gave up and turned back - and he regained his hut in just a few minutes, although he had thought he had been walking away from it for hours. When he looked back, he could see no sign of the other man, although the beach where he had been was in full sight.
Just as he did not know how he reached the island, he had no idea how long he had been there. One day merged into another, with little to set any one apart from the others. Sometimes it seemed as if he had been there for only a few days; other times, it seemed as if he had been there almost all his life. He could remember his days in Peru; he could remember his life in Cascade. He had, however, only vague memories of the men and women he had worked with, though he remembered some more vividly than others; the only person he could remember clearly was his guide.
He was surprised that he never felt bored; there was nothing for him to do except gather and prepare food, and walk, yet he never felt as if he was idle; and he would have been happy but for one thing; he had no idea where his guide was, and he missed Blair more than he would have thought possible.
He rarely bothered with the world beyond the island; but one day he felt the urge to gaze out to sea, pushing his vision to its limits in a futile attempt to see beyond the horizon.
Suddenly he realised there was a small canoe just coming into sight, so distant still that he could not see the man paddling it clearly; yet there seemed to be something familiar about him. It came closer more rapidly than Jim would have expected, and he drew his breath in sharply, afraid to believe what he was seeing.
It seemed to take only two or three minutes from the time he first saw the canoe miles out to sea before it reached the shore, and the man in it jumped out, abandoning the canoe as he splashed through the shallow water onto the island.
"Jim! Oh, Jim!" Blair threw himself at the bigger man and flung his arms round him. "At last!"
Jim returned the embrace hungrily. "Chief..."
After a moment, Blair pulled back a little. "You look good."
Jim shrugged. "I've had nothing to do here but rest. But it's been lonely."
Blair nodded. "It's been lonely for me, too. It's been a long time."
"Do you know where we are?"
"Yes, Jim." Blair looked round. "This is the shore of the Island of Apples."
"Apples? I can smell them, but I've never found any."
"That's because you weren't ready to leave here. You had to wait for me." He grinned. "We're linked. I'm your guide, after all."
"That makes sense..." He pulled Blair back into his arms, suddenly desperately hungry for human contact. "I've missed you so much... but it's odd; I don't think I've zoned once since I came here. What I don't understand though is where this is; how I got here."
"You could call this a waiting room. How you got here? You died."
"Nearly thirty-four years ago. An armed robbery that went wrong. A bullet ricocheted and... " His arms tightened, almost protectively. "You never regained consciousness."
"Thirty-four years?" He raised his head, staring at the smaller man. "I... Blair, I haven't been here that long! And you - you don't look a day older than I remember you..."
"You have, Jim. I should know. For you it's been sort of timeless, but it's been a long thirty-four years for me." He grinned, the happy, irrepressible grin that Jim remembered from the days when he had first met his guide, but that had become rarer, and therefore more valued, the more Blair was exposed to the grim realities of a cop's life. "It's nice to be young again; I was over seventy just yesterday. But it's better to be with you."
"Does this mean... you're dead too?"
"Yes. Heart attack yesterday afternoon. The doctors tried to revive me, and I don't say they couldn't have, but I didn't want to go on any longer. It was time for me to come here, to rejoin you."
"How do you know all that when I don't?"
"I'm the guide. The shaman. It's my job to know. Though I have to admit that I only realised it all, what I had to do when I got here, when I found myself in that canoe, paddling like crazy over a sea that went on for far too long."
"So what happens now?"
"Now? Now we move on."
"You'll see." He pulled back, but took Jim's hand. "You're the sentinel. Where is the nearest apple tree?"
Jim looked round, sniffing. "This way... "
There was a tree beside his hut that he had always thought was dead, its bare branches stark against the sky; with Blair beside him, he now saw that it was covered with leaves, that it was heavy with apples.
Blair looked up into the branches. "Please give me one of your apples," he said quietly, his free hand reaching forward. An apple dropped neatly into it. "Thank you."
He released Jim's hand and gripped the apple in both hands; twisted it sharply and broke it into two. He handed one piece to his friend. "Eat," he said, "then face inland, close your eyes, turn round three times, and throw the core as far as you can." As he spoke, he lifted his half of the apple to his mouth.
They ate, and first Jim, then Blair, threw his half core inland. Jim opened his eyes as soon as the core left his hand, and watched where first it, then Blair's half, fell; and he was aware of a strange sense of relief when he saw that although both men had thrown blind, the two half cores landed side by side.
Blair looked at him. "What do you see?"
"The two bits of core are lying together."
Blair nodded. "Good."
"Does it mean something?"
"Yes. It means we're destined to be together again in our next life. Not that I really expected anything else."
"Yes. We'll be here for a while, perhaps a long while, then one day we'll reincarnate, and meet again in the mortal world, and once again be sentinel and guide, protecting the tribe."
Jim looked at him. "Cascade wasn't the first time we've been together like that?"
"No." Blair thought for a moment. "Our link goes back several thousand years. I'm not sure how many incarnations we've gone through, though, or how we met for the first time. That's hidden from me." He took Jim's hand again. "Come."
They turned their backs to the sea and walked inland, past the half cores lying there - it seemed to Jim that Blair used them as a guide to the route he took. As they went, he could see the shadows of hills forming ahead of them, the shadows he had occasionally seen during his lonely days on the beach, but now they grew steadily more and more solid.
"It's all becoming... real," he said slowly.
"Yes. When we passed the apple core we passed through the doorway out of the waiting room and we're now properly on the Island."
"I still don't see anyone."
"Oh, there are plenty of people here." He concentrated for a moment, and a huge building took shape in front of them. "Any time we want company we just need to call up the Hall and visit there. If we want solitude... " The building faded again. "It's always there, but only when we want it to be."
"Was that why I sometimes saw people even though I couldn't speak to them? Because I was lonely and wanted company?"
"Probably. But you were waiting for me, just as they were waiting for their companions. It would have been wrong for you to interact with any of them. But now that we're together again, we're what you might call one entity, and we can speak to anyone else if we want to, except the ones on the shore who are still in waiting."
They walked on for a little longer, and finally paused, the decision to stop mutual, gazing at the view in front of them. They were on the top of a small rise that gave them an uninterrupted view towards the sea. "This is... magnificent," Jim whispered.
Blair nodded. "Want to stay here?"
"Make our home here."
Jim nodded. "I'd like to."
"So would I. We have to build our home, but if we look round, we'll find everything we need." As he spoke, he released Jim's hand.
He was right. Just as Jim had found suitable driftwood on the shore, here they found fallen logs that were just the right size and shape to be incorporated into a simple hut, and building it seemed to take no time at all. As they stood looking at it, Jim said slowly, "Water?"
"There should be some nearby."
Jim concentrated, listening for the sound of running water. "Over there."
Sure enough, only a few feet away and shaded by an apple tree was a small spring that Jim was sure hadn't been there five minutes earlier. He said so.
"What we need is provided," Blair said quietly. Even as he spoke, two spreckled hens wandered out of the wood towards them.
Jim looked at them. "You know... I could swear those are the hens that stayed with me on the shore. They've certainly got the same markings."
"Probably they are," Blair agreed.
Jim was silent for a moment. Then - "But hens don't live for thirty-four years!"
"Jim, this place is timeless, remember? It's the nearest thing to an eternal 'now' as our minds can grasp. When you came here, your age established at around thirty - the time you felt you were in your prime. I guess mine has established at around twenty-six, twenty-seven? The age I was when I thought everything was going right in my chosen field, I'd found my holy grail..."
"And that's the age we'll stay for as long as we're here."
They sat and gazed at the view for a while, Blair leaning against Jim's shoulder with Jim's arm round him.
"I wonder if there's anywhere near here we can fish," Jim said at last.
Blair grinned and pointed. "You only had to express the wish, man." Below them was a respectably sized river that had not been there a minute earlier.
"This," Jim muttered, "is going to take some getting used to."
Blair shook his head. "Not really. Just remember - everything we need is supplied. It won't take long before we have everything we need - it'll materialise as we think of it. Doesn't mean we can ask for furniture and it'll appear - but we'll find what we need to make it."
"Just as well we're both pretty good with our hands, then," Jim chuckled.
"Come on." Blair scrambled to his feet. "Let's get ourselves some furniture."
And, as always, Jim followed his Guide.