And some of them did rot away. The leprosy not only caused huge bumpy lesions on their bodies and faces, they also disrupted their nerve endings. On the eyes it would cause them to go blind. On their feet it would cause them to walk around with glass and other sharp objects embedded in them. They couldn’t feel any pain, so they didn’t notice, even if the wounds had been worn down to the bone. And their hands would often curl up and get burnt to a crisp – it was easy to burn your hand in the fire if you couldn’t feel it. Not to mention the fact that rats would come in the middle of the night and nibble away at their fingers until they fell off. Imagine waking up in the morning to find your fingers on the floor, breakfast for vermin.
It was absolutely disgusting. Not just the disease but the way they were treated. I couldn’t imagine the lives they lived, knowing that no one cared, knowing that they were going to die there to a terrible disease. One of the books had mentioned that after awhile, people had taken pity on them and a reverend from San Francisco had lived on the island for a few years, taking care of them or at least observing them. But even with that comfort, too many men had already died.
“Perry!” I heard Dex bellow from the upper deck. I opened my eyes and gingerly raised my head, careful not to disturb the pukey feeling that was rustling around in my stomach. “Come up here! Whales!”
That got my attention. I walked unsteadily to the stairs and made my way up. Dex was at the wheel, trying to take a picture with his iPhone. He saw me and told me to get one of the video cameras from downstairs.
I did so, picking the smallest one, and brought it up. It was cold and bright up top, a change from the feeling below. I handed him the camera and followed his gaze. Off in the distance, a pod of killer whales were gliding through the water, their dorsal fins puncturing the waves like wet knives. I had never seen whales in the wild before. It was pretty amazing.
Dex brought the camera to his face and started to film them. “Can you take the wheel, skipper?” he asked.
I went behind it, feeling every bit like a pioneer.
“Just keep it on the same path. They have a law here that we can’t get too close.”
As much as I would have loved to see them closer, I had also heard horror stories about killer whales overturning boats. No thank you.
I kept the boat heading in the same direction while Dex filmed them. We didn’t say anything, just enjoyed watching them move through the water, the sunlight gleaming off their black heads, the misty spouts of air as they exhaled, the hazy green islands in the background. It erased the creepy, sick feeling I had below. I decided, even as the distance between us and the whales was steadily increasing, that I’d be staying on the upper deck for the rest of the journey. Cold air be damned.
When they were too far away to see clearly, Dex put the camera down and smiled at me. He looked genuinely happy and enthused, his eyes round and childlike. It suited him.
“How cool was that?” he exclaimed.
“Very cool,” I agreed, moving over so he could take over the wheel again.
“I’ve seen a lot of dolphins out here but never a pod of killer whales. I’m so glad I got that on film. That was amazing. What great fucking luck.”
“Hoping to make this episode part nature documentary?”
“Nah. Hoping to lull people in with something beautiful so they’ll be shocked when everything starts going horribly wrong later.”
I shivered again, this time from what he said. “I don’t think we should plan on things going horribly wrong.”
“They always do, don’t they?” he commented.
“I guess.” Though we always did make it out alive, so I guess it never really went that wrong. That said, there was no way I would ever want to experience what happened to me in the lighthouse when Old Roddy had his kelp hands around my throat, nor when I thought I was going to be raped by local rednecks slash human hawks while in Red Fox.
“I’m just kidding you know.” He was staring at me with a frown of concern. I must have looked worried.
I gave him a weak smile. “I didn’t know but that helps. I don’t want to push our luck out here. And not on the Island of Death.”
“You’ve been doing some reading?”
“Yes. I really wish you had told me more about what went on back then…”
“Why? Would you have changed your mind about it?”
It was a possibility. Had I known I was going to an isolated island where 40 forgotten, miserable, rotted souls had died, I might have said no.
“I don’t know. Guess it doesn’t matter, does it? Too late now.”
“You’re right about that. There she is.”
I looked up and followed his gaze. A rather flat looking island comprised of rocky shoreline and dense forest was fast approaching the bow of the ship.
This was it. I knew it. There seemed to be an invisible wall of angry fog washing over the boat. Dex and I both shivered simultaneously.
I turned and looked behind me. The landmass of Vancouver Island seemed so close yet oh so far.
Now that D’Arcy Island was close enough to make out the little details, the nausea I was feeling down below was starting to creep up my throat again.
It looked like any other island that you’d see in the Pacific Northwest. But the strange part was, you knew it wasn’t. Even if no one had told me what had gone on there, the feeling of dread that washed over me, the animosity that just reeked out of the island’s pores, was unmistakable.
“I’m getting a bad feeling about this place,” I said to Dex while pulling my coat in closer. “You?”
“I will if you can’t keep your mouth shut for the next few minutes,” he answered, peering off the bow with intensity. I opened my mouth to say something back but decided not to. Dex was only that rude when he really had something to be worried about and I could see this was one of those times. So I shut my mouth, stepped away from the wheel by a few inches and followed his gaze.
From what I could see it didn’t look like much was out there. We were close to the island but not close enough to be hitting any rocks. But the water was rippling like a few opposing currents were working the surface.
“Hand me the maps,” he said, pointing at a bench where the charts that were flapping in the breeze were anchored under a couple of sailing books.
I leaned over and pulled them out, asking, “Want me to look at them?”
“Would you know what you were looking at?” he scoffed, eyes still on the water.
I brushed his attitude off my shoulders and picked up the first book, which was Cruising Guide. I flipped to the index and quickly looked up D’Arcy Island before Dex had the chance to bark at me to do so.
I found the passage on it and looked over at him. He put the boat into the lowest gear and we slowed down considerably. He squinted at the spread–out maps, which glared white in the sunshine, then examined the water between us and the island.
“What does the book say?” he asked.
“It says there are no good anchorages, only acceptable ones in the right weather. It recommends the cove south of the light, on the west side, and that we should use a stern anchor or something to restrict swing. It also says to be on the lookout for the kelp reefs and submerged rocks.”
“Yeah, got that right here,” he said, jabbing at the sonar. It looked like a bunch of dark spots on the screen but I trusted that Dex was reading it properly.
“So what, we can’t get to the island?” I asked. Maybe a bit too hopefully.
He eyed me carefully before saying, “Oh, we can get there. Just a few things to be mindful of, that’s all. Don’t get your panties all in a bunch.”
I glared at him and looked back at the book. It showed a happy photo of bright kayaks on a beach. It couldn’t be that bad, could it?
I looked up at the island again as we started heading further west and rounding a point. The lighthouse slowly but surely came into view.
Thankfully it wasn’t a lighthouse like the one me and Dex had met in, the one with Old Roddy on my uncle’s farm. It was just a tall white post with a light at the top. Below it, the cliffs sloped to the churning waters. Bill was certainly right about the riptides. Aside from the currents I could see squirming in the water around us, the ocean’s swell seemed to build around the island, creating frothy breaks and sprays as they met against rocks and pebbly beaches.
“Well, I’m just going to sit over here,” I said, gesturing to the bench. “If you need help, you know where to find me.”
I sat down and tried not to watch the progress of the boat with an eagle eye. I was freaked that we were going to run into some hidden reefs or get tangled in a kelp forest. I looked behind me at the Zodiac we were towing and thought if anything was going to get stuck, it was going to be that thing.
Dex was absorbed into complete concentration and rightfully so. As he watched for rocks on the radar and spied telltale currents up ahead, I looked over at the island. We were pretty much in the slight cove and the shore wasn’t too far away. I could make out the individual branches of the fir trees, the glowing green of the ferns nestled at the bottom sparkling in golden rays of sunlight, the smooth shapes of the rocks that made up the shoreline. Seagulls darted to and fro and with the sound of the motor at a minimum, I could hear the waves rolling the rocks in a rhythmic manner. It seemed so peaceful, so idyllic but…
Someone was watching us.
A face hidden in the leafy foliage. The grotesque rotting face of a leper, with rough, lesioned skin that matched the bark of the pine next to it. The eyes were narrow and black, the mouth open and fathomless. It was an expression frozen in terror.
I gasped, afraid to blink in case I lost sight of the monstrosity. I wanted to look away from the creepy, mask–like face but I couldn’t for fear of losing it.
“Dex,” I slowly squeaked out, not taking my eyes away.
He grunted, not wanting to be bothered. “Kinda busy right now.”
“There’s a creepy face in the woods, staring at us.”
He looked at me and then looked in the direction of my gaze. For the amount of time he stared at it, I was sure he could pick it out.
But he eventually turned back to me and said, “I don’t see anything.”
That was impossible. I could still see it.
“No, there’s someone there. Right in the ferns, where the trees start to come down further to the beach. Straight ahead, then to the right a bit.”
He looked again and I could see him shaking his head out of the corner of my eye. Annoyed and scared at the idea that it was only something I could see, I narrowed my eyes and tried to make sure that I was really seeing what I thought I was. It was a face wasn’t it? I looked below it and saw the outline of dark shoulders fading into the forest shade. It had to be a person. But it wasn’t moving either.
Dex put his hand on my shoulder and I jumped in my seat, eyeing him wildly.
“Hey, kiddo, there’s nothing there,” he said calmly, looking down at me. He removed his hand and went back to navigating. My eyes flitted over to the forest and now I couldn’t see it anymore. The face was gone and only the trees remained.