A fine mist slowly trailed past my throbbing face as I tried to catch my breath. It was lighter here and the mist meant I was somewhere near the coast. I followed the direction of the airy fingers and saw that I was by a smaller eastern cove that Dex and I had passed by earlier.
I knew all I had to do was walk up and I’d be back at the campsite. If I could get there, maybe everything would be OK.
I was about to head in the direction when something inside made me look back at the cove.
On the tiny beach, there was someone sitting on a log. It was the girl, sitting like a statue, staring at the roaring waves, the wind ruffling her hair. I blinked a few times, trying to make sure she really was there. By the last blink she was looking up at me, or at least in my direction, but she made no effort to move nor made any indication that I was someone to run from.
I didn’t feel like yelling at her. The only thing to do was find out what the fuck was going on. I held my knife up as much as I could, steadied my flaming, fiery nerves and made my way down the steep and crumbling cliffside until I was on the beach with her.
She still didn’t move. She went back to looking at the ocean.
I approached her slowly, carefully, trying to make sure I was at least in her peripheral vision the whole time, kind of like how you would approach a horse. I kept walking, painfully aware of how loud the pebbles were beneath my shoes.
I stopped five feet off of her left and stood there. My knife was ready but I tried to look non–threatening. There was something so mousy and downtrodden about this person that any threat I had previously felt was gone. This was all just curiosity. Who was she? Where had she come from?
It felt like I stood there for a really long time before she finally turned her head towards me.
She had wire–rim glasses on, something I hadn’t noticed earlier. One of the lenses had a giant crack in it. It was the really old kind, the type that modern hipsters would wear out of irony. Her eyes were dusty blue and seemed to pulse in a twitchy way. Her skin was dry, pale and ruddy, her lips chapped and peeling, her hair black. The dress she wore was as plain looking as she was and looked like something out of the turn of the century. That realization alone brought a fling of apprehension across my chest. She was non–threatening if she was alive. Dead, that was always a different story.
“Who are you?” I asked. I tried to sound authoritative and confident but given we were about the same age and she was taller, I didn’t know if I had a lot of clout.
“Mary,” she said simply. “He switched the markers on you.”
“What’s your name?” she asked. Her voice was clipped, reminded me of the way high society types talked in classic films.
“Perry,” I said.
“I knew that,” she said. “It’s a funny name for a girl. I prefer Madeleine.”
“What are you doing here? Are you visiting?”
“I live here,” she said looking back at the ocean. I looked down at her hands. They looked like they were caked in blood. The rain was falling steadily on us but they weren’t diluting the red mess on her hands.
I took a step backward. She didn’t notice. I tried to keep focused, keep calm. Act like all of this wasn’t a big deal at all.
“Who switched the markers?” I asked again.
“Who is he?”
“He’s my…friend. He was my friend.”
“Do you both live on the island?”
She looked at me and smiled. Her teeth were yellow, and a few bottom teeth were gone.
“We both live here. We are here to help people. Do the work of the Lord.”
And then it clicked. She couldn’t have been Mary Stewart, the missionary?
“John, is that the Reverend John Barrett?”
“You’ve heard of him?”
How did I answer that? Yes, I’ve heard of both of you. In a book. A book that was written a hundred years after your death.
I swallowed hard. The fear was pricking at my skin and at the back of my head. Maybe I was crazy. It didn’t matter how many times I had seen the impossible; the impossible still wasn’t acceptable.
As redundant as it was to say, I couldn’t help but squeak out, “You’re dead.”
Mary locked her eye on mine through that one good lens. To have her look at me so poignantly, so real, it made what I said seem stupid and crazy.
But she casually said, “I died on my 23rd birthday.”
My hands started shaking, the knife was coming loose in my fingers. She eyed it warily.
“Were you hunting something out there? Deer?”
“Uh,” I tried to say, my voice thick and trapped. “It’s for protection.”
“You’re a wise woman,” she said. She patted the space beside her on the log. “Come sit down. You look tired.”
I hesitated. It was the most absurd invitation.
“I won’t harm you, if that is what you are pondering,” she said.
I gave her a quick smile and gingerly took my seat on the log, careful not to sit too close to her. Now that I was sitting right beside her, I could get a better look at her. She was a good couple of inches taller than me, maybe 5’8”, and looked like she’d be quite frail under her dirty, billowing dress. She smelled, too, which I found remarkable. It was the stench of body odor and mold and made my eyes water slightly.
“You must forgive my appearance. I haven’t had a bath for awhile. Sometimes the bog seems more dirty than clean.”
Being beside her, being able to see the dirty pores on her face, the rusted frames of her glasses and the wide, large white forehead with a smattering of freckles, there was no way I was talking to a dead person. It just didn’t make any sense. I know what I had seen in the lighthouse, what happened with Ol’ Roddy, but I still questioned things. Maybe my mind made up some of it. How could a ghost, someone dead, be as solid and physical as she was?
Before I knew what I was doing I was pointing at her shoulder, ready to jab her.
“What are you doing?” she asked, eyeing my finger suspiciously.
I paused. How did I explain that I wanted to make sure she was real and not a figment of my imagination?
“Just wanted to make sure you were real,” I said uneasily. I slowly pressed my finger into her shoulder. The material of the dress was scratchy and wet. Her shoulder underneath was bony. I hoped she wasn’t an actual rotting skeleton. But she was as solid as the log we were sitting on.
I withdrew my hand. She followed it with her eyes.
“That’s peculiar. Why wouldn’t I be real?” she asked, looking worried.
“You said you were dead. And sometimes I think I see things.”
A strange look came over her face. “What kind of things do you see?”
I wasn’t sure where to start with that one. Plus it was still entirely possible that I was talking to myself here.
“I guess.” I didn’t mean to come across so blasé about it.
“John would tell me I saw things too. He said I was mentally unstable. Does your friend tell you that?”
“The man you are with. He’s the reason why John switched the markers on you. He’s jealous. He was jealous of San and he’ll be jealous of your friend.”
Whoa. My head started to spin. I leaned forward on my elbows and held my head in my hands trying to regain equilibrium. I focused on the ground. Focused on Mary’s feet beside me. She was barefoot. Her feet were cut open, oozing blood and white fluid. I quickly shut my eyes at the sight.
She put her hand on my shoulder and I jumped.
“Are you feeling ill? It’s the pneumonia. It killed most of them in the end. I’m sure it got San too.”
I slowly straightened up and blinked at the mist that was flying into my face. It was getting darker out and the wind was picking up again, moving parts of the offshore fog around. I could occasionally see the round grey lumps of the Unit Rocks in the distance. It was much easier for me to sit here and think about the weather.
Finally I had to say to her, “You died of pneumonia eight months after you arrived here.”
She laughed, a sharp little giggle not unlike the ones I had heard earlier. “I did not. That’s what John told everyone. I was alive. Maybe not well, but alive. He kept me hidden for years. He would tie me to a tree in the woods whenever the boats would come in. Tie me and leave me there for hours, with the baby right beside me.”
“He didn’t want anyone to know about Madeleine. Can you imagine the scandal if the church had found out that their dear Reverend, the holy selfless soul, was intimate with his missionary? Out of wedlock?”
“That…wasn’t in the book,” I said stupidly.
I waved my hand at her dismissively. “So you had a baby? All alone here?”
“John was here but he wasn’t much help. San was more of a father than John was. They both loved Madeleine though. More than they loved me.”
“Who is San?”
“San was my lover. He was a leper. He was the healthiest, youngest, smartest Chinese you’d ever meet. If it wasn’t for San at the beginning, I probably would have died. I took care of him, then he took care of me. Then he took care of Madeleine.”
It was too much for me to comprehend. I stood up and took in a deep breath.
“You saw her the other day,” Mary said plainly. “Madeleine. She was playing with you. She told me about you. I admit I was almost jealous. I thought Maddy had found a new mother.”
“She ran into the ocean. I thought she drowned. I tried to save her.”
“I tried to save her too.”
“Your daughter drowned?”
“They killed both of us.”
“Who are they?” I asked, feeling the horror slink through my veins.
She looked at me as if I was stupid. “John. San. And the rest of the lepers.”
She got off of the log and took a few steps towards the waves. I couldn’t help but watch her broken, bloody feet as they stood on the rocks.
“You better go back to your friend,” she said looking at the ocean. She raised her arms above her head and stretched. “He’s coming, and he’s looking for you.”
She gave me a sharp look. “You better watch out for him. And watch out for John and San. They know you’re here and they’ll do what they can to keep you here.”
“Why should I watch out for Dex?” I asked in a panic.
She chuckled, this one cut with dark tones. “Because he’s a man. He’s starting to think you’re sick. Sick in the head. It’s not your fault. It’s this island. It’s too isolated. There is too much death here. It makes you think. It makes you think too much. You do not want to end up like me.”
She bent over and picked up a stone and threw it far into the churn of the waves. “I have to go now. He’s here.”
“Who is here?” I asked, taking a step toward her, wanting to grab her and keep her from leaving me. I needed to know more, so much more.