“I had to. It was too much. I couldn’t handle the responsibility. I had to look after the lepers. The real victims. I had to look after myself. And they loved her too much. I drowned her in the water, right over there.” She pointed in the direction of the cove north of the outhouse. She did it so casually, I wasn’t sure whether to believe her. But the strange menace behind her eyes…it said something else. Each time her left eye twitched, it was like the beep of a ticking time bomb.
“When San found out, he got the rest of them to come after me. I didn’t think they could. The poor souls were walking around on rotted limbs. But they hunted me down like hounds through the forest. John caught me first. They put me in the coffin with Maddy’s body and pushed me out to sea. That’s where we rotted together, with rats in the coffin.”
I was speechless. Paralyzed with fear, wrought with disbelief. How could she kill her own daughter? I felt a passing sense of guilt for my own misdoings in the past, but this wasn’t the same at all. This wasn’t an abortion, I told myself, this was a three–year–old helpless child. She drowned her own kid. She deserved the death she got.
Mary knew what I was thinking. The twitchy eye got worse. Her hands started to wring nervously against each other, the movements growing rougher and more vigorous with time. Her skin started to stretch underneath her fingers as they pressed and rubbed against each other until it was too much. Something had to give.
And it did. She pushed so hard her index finger came right off and fell to the ground like a discarded twig.
Not again, I thought absently, growing numb to the horror.
I had to get out of there.
I tried to move, to look away, but even without ropes holding me in place, it was hard to escape the sight. Her fingers all began to spring off their joints. The sound was like popping champagne bottles and they plopped to the ground in a small, bloody heap. Kindling made of body parts.
Her eyes watched me, blank and in another world. She was from another world. Her left eye began to pulse forward like something was hatching underneath the eyeball, pushing it out. With a wet, popping sound, her eyeball sprung out of the socket. It dangled by the slimy red cord. There was a movement in her skull. Almost like if she had fur lining her eye socket.
The head of a small rat poked out of her empty eye hole.
I screamed bloody murder and despite the extreme rigidness of terror, I somehow managed to move myself. I turned on a dime and made a mad, panicking dash back through the rose bushes.
I almost made it out. I was halfway through and the branches caught me. I screamed again and fell to the ground. I turned on my back and looked back at Mary. She was still sitting on the bench, motionless, the rat emerging from the eye socket and climbing up her face.
At my feet the rose branches made a move for me. They had come alive and were trying to wrap themselves around my legs and waist. Soon I couldn’t see Mary at all; they had blocked the way. I tried to turn around and get up but it was impossible. The branches were coming in closer, shooting out for my arms like some thorny assaulter. I was stuck, feeling the hundreds of thorns enter my body from head to toe.
One of the branches snaked around my left wrist and dug itself into the underside. Blood spilled. I followed the red streams as they ran down into my sleeve and dripped onto the wet grass below, spots of scarlet against the dull blades.
I reached into my pocket with my one free hand and brought out the lighter I took from Dex. It was the only defense I had. I tried lighting it but in my panic I couldn’t get a grip on the turn. I was going to die here. Death by a demonic rose bush. I couldn’t believe it if I tried.
Then my thumb caught and the flame flew up with a flash. I held my thumb down as hard as I could and aimed the flame at the branches. The nearest branch made a go for that hand, wrapping around my wrist the same way, digging and slicing away in the same spot until it was leaking blood from there too. The cut was above the silly band and it began to pool against the purple edge.
I took the deepest breath I could and yanked that hand over to the other. The motion slashed up my wrist even more and I quickly was enveloped in the purest agony possible, the kind that made you throw up and see stars. But the flame was closer now to the other branch, and I was able to hold it there until the leaves began to curl and the branch began to singe and smoke.
Then the branch abruptly let go and my bloody hand was free. I switched the lighter over and proceeded to do the same to the other branch until that was burnt as well and it let me go. I kicked and kicked with my legs, trying not to look beyond the roses at Mary who was shimmering, and amazingly they let go as well and retreated quickly into the depths of the bushes, like frightened dogs.
I scampered to my feet, slipping here and there on the grass and took off out of the bushes and away from the orchard. I don’t think I’ve ever run so fast. I didn’t look back once.
Dex was filming with the Super 8, spanning it across the empty campsite by the time I came staggering in. I was growing fainter with each step I took; the corners of my eyes were sprinkled by tiny spots, my legs were feeling like jelly and barely able to hold my body upright. I knew tears were streaming down my face in dirty streams and my communication was whittled down to animalistic sobs as I tried to link my hands to hold the profuse bleeding that spewed from my wrists.
Dex turned and brought the camera’s focus on me. Then it fell out of his hands and clanked to his feet. His mouth dropped in abhorrence at the sight of me.
“Oh, Perry,” he cried out softly, bringing his hands up to his face. I stumbled up to him and crashed against his chest. He grabbed me and held me up. I was shaking like a leaf and now he was too. I sobbed into him for a few minutes, knowing I was getting blood all over his front, unable to express a single thought or feeling except the seemingly limitless surge of dread that pushed through my every crevice.
He pushed me back a bit and eyed my wrists strangely. “What did you do?”
I shook my head. It wasn’t me. I didn’t do anything. But everything came out in sobs.
He quickly sat me down on the picnic table and disappeared into the tent. He came out with a t–shirt of his and began ripping it in half and then into long strips of cloth.
I continued to cry but managed to slow my heart rate and breathing down enough so that the dots in my vision started to fade, and the possibility of fainting grew less and less.
“Why did you do this?” he asked. His voice was soft but the accusation was menacing. How could he think I did this to myself? Couldn’t he see what was happening?
“No,” I managed to mumble out through spit. “It wasn’t me. It was the bushes. The rose bushes.”
He shook his head angrily. I sounded like a loon.
“Really!” I cried. “It was the bushes. It was Mary–”
“There is no Mary!” he screamed at me, a vein sticking out on his wrought forehead. His ferocity sucked the tears back into my face.
“Dex,” I began, feeling the shakes coming over me again. Tremors of frustration, shivers of fear.
“You’re crazy, you know that? You’ve lost it,” he said, taking one of my forearms in his hand and wrapping the cloth around my wrist as tightly as possible.
Indignation sparked inside of my chest, threatening to come up in a furious pile of word vomit.
“I’m not crazy,” I said as steadily as I could, looking him in the eye, begging for him to see the truth. “Mary is real. She was up by her rose garden, she–”
He raised his hand briefly. “I don’t want to hear it anymore. What you’re doing now, Perry, is you’re hurting me as well as yourself. You’re 23-years old now. You’re too old to do this kind of shit anymore. You need to…you need to just stop. And think. I don’t know if this is a cry for help or what the fuck, but whatever it is, you need to stop it right now and think about me. This isn’t fair.”
Now it was my time for my jaw to drop. “I swear. I didn’t do this to myself,” my voice choked with disbelief at what I was hearing.
He tightened the cloth around my wrist and fastened it with a bunch of tiny knots. “You need help, Perry. More help than I can give right now. You aren’t well.”
That did it. Word vomit was coming up.
“You,” I sneered, “you’re the one who needs help. You were in a fucking mental institution! When the fuck were you going to fill me in on that, huh?”
He looked like I had just struck him across the face with a plank of wood. His face lost all color, his eyes sank into his head like frightened shadows. I had hit his soft spot. Mary was right after all.
“How did you know that?” he breathed in a heavy spasm.
“I’d tell you but you’d just call me crazy. Funny how all this time you’re the one I should be worried about. Acting all high and mighty while you’re the fucking nutcase.” I spat the words out at him, hoping they’d inflict the same damage that the roses had done to me.
His jaw clenched but he didn’t say anything. I think he was speechless. Good. Because I wasn’t done.
“Oh, poor Perry, let’s look out for her; oh she must have been such a pain to her parents with all these shrinks and panic attacks and teenage hi–jinks. Poor little Perry, with her mental problems and her seeing things. Let’s ignore Dex, the real problem here. Yeah, he makes light about having some fucking bipolar thing, but that’s it, he takes pills here and there, it’s no big deal. Sure he might be a bit of asshole and a fucking weirdo but it’s not like he was ever institutionalized. Oh wait, yes he was. And no, of course he wasn’t going to tell poor little Perry about it; how dare his partner think for one minute she might be his equal or even better than him!”
I was yelling now, on my feet and in his stony face, venom flying everywhere.
“What did it, huh? What made them put you away, huh? Oh, your ex–girlfriend dies in a drunk driving accident. Was that it? Was that enough, you felt like wallowing in your pain and feeling sorry for yourself, Declan Foray, so adept at being a martyr, a composer of nothing but self–pity. Or was it something else? Daddy issues maybe? Your daddy leaves you when you’re young and you think the event is so special, so tragic and unique to you, never mind the fact that everyone has fucking family problem problems. And now, 32-years later you can’t get over the lack of daddy love. Or maybe it’s that your mom died. Is that what did it? Fuck, now that you have a baby on the way, they better start making room for you in your padded cell again!”
I had gone too far. I knew it. I was panting from the viciousness of my words, watching his face sink, his breath sucked in one sharp inhale.
First hurt appeared in his brow, like I had slapped him with it, but he nursed it for a split second before his eyes turned into the most vile orbs of pure hatred I had ever seen. He loathed me. He was pure viper. And so was I.
“Fuck. You,” he said through clenched teeth.
He took the remaining cloth, rolled it up into an angry ball and threw it far into the forest. “You can look after your fucking self. I’m done.”