Dex shook his head. His eyes were watering, from the shock and impact, not because of any emotion, and his nose was looking more swollen by the moment. The teeniest tinge of guilt tugged at my heart strings. OK, I was glad I hit him but maybe he didn’t quite deserve a broken nose.
We didn’t know what else to say to each other. Whatever intimacy we exchanged last night was gone and buried. This was the new us: A sucker punch and a broken nose.
Before I could feel bad, I turned on my heel and walked off in the direction of the bathroom. I needed to clear my head and be alone. I was sure Dex would be busy plotting his revenge against me.
* * *
I sat down on the rocks just north of the outhouse for at least an hour. Just stewing over what had happened, trying to make sense of everything. It was a futile exercise. Dex had left me alone, which I figured he would. I knew he was probably thinking of some way to “handle” me or calm me down. Some way to deal with me so I would learn like a good little girl, and do what he said. He always had me by the scruff of the neck, and I had always done everything he asked of me. He used me, frequently, like he did last night. All part of his sick little game. That’s probably why he picked me in the beginning. He knew I would be easy to twist under his thumb.
I was hoping that by distancing myself from Dex and the campsite that Mary would show up again. I wanted to talk to her. She seemed like she understood what I was going through. She felt like an ally, another woman to take my side against the men. But she never came.
Finally I decided it was time to go elsewhere. Maybe if I went to the dead heart of the island, she would show up there. She did say she always had to keep moving.
I got up and made my way to the center. Only problem was having to walk on the path for a bit, just past the outhouse. I hoped Dex wasn’t milling about. And if he was, I hoped he wasn’t too angry. Mary had said something about there being trouble when he was enraged.
I almost made it to the trail without being seen, but Dex came out of the tent at the last minute and spotted me. He yelled, “Where are you going!?”
I glared at him, and spat out, “Don’t you dare follow me.” I kept going. To his credit, he seemed to stay at the tent. I couldn’t feel or hear anything behind me.
The first ten minutes of the hike were fine. The trees were providing their shelter from the wind and cold and the rain only came in fat sporadic drops that fell from the canopy above. But the closer I got to the center, the darker it got. It was only early afternoon (I think, anyway; time seemed to be weird around here), but it was acting like it was near sunset.
I wondered how long I had been walking for when I felt a sharp pain at the back of my head and a cracking noise that filled the recesses of my brain and seemed to explode outward in stars and swirls.
I fell over and collapsed in a heap. The world went ink–black.
I came to with a throbbing, pounding head and in the most uncomfortable position. My legs were spread out in front of me, my back was propped up at an unnatural angle against a rugged, scratchy pine tree. My arms were pulled back behind the trunk and tied together. The rope went around my shoulders and waist a few times too. I couldn’t move if I wanted to.
I didn’t know where I was. There was nothing distinctive around me, just tall, overbearing trees with spindly limbs that swayed from the wind at the upper reaches of the canopy. The wind whistled around in here at an unrelenting pitch, the soundtrack of madness if I’ve ever heard one.
I couldn’t tell where north was, what end of the island I was at or what time it was. It was much darker than it had been earlier. Not quite dusk, but then again, it was hard to tell in a forest that did its best to block out what meager light there was from the dense clouds above them.
What had happened? My head ached at the thought. I was hit on the back of the head by someone. Or something. And then tied alone to a tree in the woods.
It was the same thing the Reverend had done to Mary whenever the supply ships would come in. Could it have been Reverend John who dragged me out here and left me for who knows how long? Or was it Dex?
No, I thought wildly. It couldn’t have been Dex. I know I thought he was plotting his revenge against me, but Dex’s revenge would always be more spiteful or ironic. Even humorous. He wouldn’t club me over the head and tie me to a tree. What would be the point of that?
Unless this was his way of “handling” me. I did bop him in the nose after all. And Mary did say he would be trouble for me. Maybe he thought this was the only way he could control me, to ensure I didn’t go running around the island causing trouble for both of us.
I just didn’t know. And sadly, I had all the time in the world to think about it. Part of me wanted to call out for him, for him to come running and save me. But then again, I didn’t know what side he was on.
I decided to call out for Mary. Maybe she could find me and untie me.
I called out her name. It sounded weird in the forest. The words sounded hopeless and dull like there was no echo at all. I also felt silly, calling out the name of a dead woman, hoping she would come by and help me. Is this what I’d become?
I called again and again. I tried not to show any worry or panic in my voice but that was hard to hide near the end. My throat was getting raw and I was really starting to lose it. What if it was John Barrett? What was he planning to do to me? How the hell was I going to get out of this one?
A strange sound rang out from behind a patch of tall ferns a few yards in front of me. The ferns shook lightly, back and forth. There was something in them. And I was powerless to do anything about it.
The sound came again. It was weirdly familiar. But not in a good way.
It almost sounded like…the coo of a baby. The wet gurgles and nonsensical noises that blabbering infants make.
In the dark murk of the forest air and the shadowy gulfs between the rampant ferns and nearby trees, a baby’s gurgle was probably one of the most disturbing things to hear. I hoped that whatever was shaking the ferns back and forth was a wayward bird or curious squirrel. Squirrels were smart, right? Maybe they’d be like a dolphin and save me.
I kept my eyes locked on the ferns. My body was poised and ready to run. If only I could.
The ferns shook again. The gurgle.
A baby appeared among the long green fronds, poking its head out like tiger cub and looking at me. I was right and for once I hated it. There was an actual fucking baby in front of me. I had to blink a few times to make sure I was seeing what I was seeing.
It crawled out of the ferns, slowly but with an unnatural sense of self–assurance. I didn’t know kids enough to know how old it was however it was too young to walk but old enough to crawl with agility. Just not with that much agility.
It stopped a few feet away and cocked its head at me. I couldn’t breathe. This wasn’t about a lack of maternal instinct. This was the most terrifying thing I had ever seen in my life.
The baby was completely naked. Not even a diaper on her bottom. It had a schlock of ashy hair and wide blue eyes. The eyes looked at me with the curious intensity of a stranger. All my senses were wound up. I couldn’t look away.
Under any other circumstances, I probably would have felt motherly towards it. Where was the mother? The poor thing, all alone. A neglected, helpless, defenseless child. But I knew this wasn’t the case. In this place, nothing was innocent and the only thing helpless was me.
The baby sat back on its butt with an almost comical thunk and put its hands to its mouth. It seemed to smile at the dirt it was eating. It kept staring at me with those unnerving eyes, the eyes of someone older, knowing more than a baby ever should, thinking thoughts that I wouldn’t dare touch.
It let out a laugh of some sort and patted the ground like it was the top of a bongo. It seemed to enjoy itself. It was almost playing. A happy baby. That’s what every mother wants, right? Maybe it would just stay there. Maybe the mother would come by soon. Perhaps it was Madeleine at a younger age, and Mary was looking for her.
“Are you Maddy?” I managed to say ask, my voice sounding hollow.
The baby giggled a bit and smacked her knee with her hand. Maybe it really was Maddy. That thought brought a bit of calm to my nerves, helped settle the ill feeling I had at the pit of my stomach.
The baby cooed and smiled again, a big toothless, awestruck grin directed at me. She reached up to her face and wiped the area beside her eye.
A rectangular piece of her skin came away in her hands, a solid chunk that fell to the pine–needled floor, leaving a patch of a red, veiny wound on her face.
I was dumbfounded. Repulsed.
I wanted to vomit.
The baby picked up the piece of skin, oblivious to the gaping hole on her cheek, and threw the piece into the forest. Then she touched her forehead with the other hand.
Without much prodding by her tiny, chubby fingers, half of her forehead came loose like a dead, sticky shell and slid to her lap with a loud, messy splat. I could see fresh white bone beneath the bloody mess of her head.
I promptly threw up on myself. I heaved and heaved. The vomit lay on my chest and steamed up in the air. I couldn’t help it. The terror and unbelievable disgust was overpowering me to the point of no control.
The baby laughed at the piece of her forehead and started playing with it like it was a Tonka truck. Without prompting from her, the rest of her face began to peel like layers in an onion. First it was the other half of the forehead. Then it was the area beneath the nose. That part just hung above her lip like a red, pulsating moustache. Finally the lips and jaw went, leaving behind a miniature skeletal jaw that gaped and jostled with her wet gurgles.
I closed my eyes tight, trying to keep the sickness down, trying to keep the sight out of my head. I didn’t need to see any more. But for as long as my eyes were shut, my body tensed in my unrelenting prayer for this to be over with, the baby still cooed and laughed. I couldn’t unhear that.
And it was just as scary with my eyes closed than with them open. I peeked and saw the baby back on all fours, crawling towards me. Her face was still half on, the other half was on the ground behind her. The skin on her arms and legs began to slide off of her with each jerky movement, coming off like raw, sliced butcher meat.
This can’t be happening, I chanted to myself. This can’t be real. This can’t be happening. This can’t be real.
I shut my eyes again and hoped that it was a dream. Maybe it was a dream. Maybe I was crazy. If I opened my eyes again, maybe it would be gone. The cooing and noises had stopped.
I counted up to ten.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight.
I opened my eyes. The baby was right there, paused at my leg. Smiling at me. It gingerly touched my calf with its hand and then proceeded to climb up me like I was a jungle gym. Its rotting, putrid, oozing body coming up my leg, half skeleton face grinning, those wide, socket–rimmed eyes peering into mine with an indescribable intensity.
I screamed. I screamed and screamed and screamed until my scream was all I was, coming up through my throat and shooting to the trees. It hurt my own ears, it made my lungs burn, it made my body shake with an otherworldly terror, it made my throat bleed from the inside. I screamed and screamed and screamed inhuman sounds as this inhuman infant placed its bloody, dead baby hands on my arm, trying to ease itself up.