Something moved beneath my head. It came close to my submerged ear. Someone whispered into it.
The voice was distorted and muffled underwater. But it was unmistakable.
“Mother!” it cried out, cold, child lips brushing my earlobe.
I opened my mouth to scream again but only found water. I took it in instead of air and let the liquid saturate the life out of me.
“Mother” it said again and again until we were floating together and the world closed its eyes.
I felt my body losing consciousness. I had been captured just like Mary had, on my 23rd birthday, and set off to sea with the remains of Madeleine. I was going to drown with her. I was going to drown. Drown.
A flash of celestial light.
A brightness coming from inside my head.
“Breathe, baby, breathe.”
I was cold. The light began to retreat and everything was black again. Multicolored planets twirled in my head.
“Please, baby. Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me.”
A rush of air entered my lungs. It met at the bottom, creating a whirlpool in my chest. The water was rising.
It rushed out of me in one monstrous convulsion. I turned over and let the water flow out of my lungs and stomach and onto the space beside me. I gasped wildly for air. My eyes flew open to see black sky and waving tree tops.
I felt a hand at my face, gently resting on my cheek. After my lungs were clear enough and I felt icy air replacing them, I gingerly moved my head up and looked.
Dex was kneeling over me, soaking wet from head to toe, water dripping off of his hair. He was holding one of my hands very tightly, the other hand on my face. He was smiling painfully through tears, or maybe it was just salt water.
He stroked my head and brought my hand up to his chest, holding it there tightly.
“I thought I lost you,” he croaked. “I thought I lost you.”
It all came rushing back to me, the feelings of guilt flooding my head.
“I’m sorry,” I said weakly. The words pushed me into a coughing fit.
“No,” he said, cradling the back of my head with his hand and propping me up, helping me get it all out. “Don’t say anything. I’m sorry. I am so sorry. I should have believed you.”
I slowly eased myself up to a sitting position. We were on the beach, just a few feet from the waves that overturned the stones with each passing. We were both soaking wet. I knew the intense cold would set in at any minute but for now I was numb. It was pitch black outside, nighttime already.
“What happened?” I managed to say. I remembered John coming at me with the rope, the lepers and that was it.
He shook his head. “I was at the beach. Waiting for you. I was worried sick. I started heading back into the woods to get you when I heard this ripping sound. I saw…I saw a small woman. I thought she was a child at first. She had the hunting knife. She cut open the Zodiac.”
“Mary,” I whispered.
“Yes. It was her, all right. I knew it. And then suddenly…it all made sense. And I knew you were right. I didn’t say anything to her, I didn’t need to. The damage was done. I ran off into the woods to find you. I guess I tripped up on a log and knocked myself out. When I came to it was dark. I went to the campsite and saw…I saw the lepers. They were standing right here. Pushing the coffin out to sea. I don’t know how, but I knew you were in it.”
“What did you do?” Feeling was coming back into my hands and feet like pins and needles. Or maybe that was the fear.
“I just…ignored them. I ran out past them and into the water to get you. I almost couldn’t; the lid was too strong and the water too deep. But something gave. And I saw you in there, blue, floating. And I…I really thought you were dead.”
He closed his eyes and took in a deep breath.
“But I’m not dead. Dex, you saved my life,” I wished I was strong enough to properly express how I was feeling. Weak words were not enough. “After everything I said to you–”
He put his finger to my lips and pressed it gently. His eyes searched mine earnestly. “No. You had every right. The thought of losing you…I’ve been a terrible partner and a terrible friend.”
Now I wanted to shut him up. “You haven’t been. I don’t blame you for not believing me. Most people don’t.”
“But I, of all people in this world, should,” he finished. He squeezed my hand again.
A snap was heard amongst the trees behind us. Suddenly I was filled with panic.
I sat up straighter and looked around me wildly. “The lepers, where did they go?”
“I don’t know,” he said grimly, eyeing the forest. “They were gone when I came out of the water.”
“I don’t think we have much time left,” I sniffed. We were both soaking wet. If they didn’t get us, the hypothermia would.
“I know. Can you walk?” he asked, getting to his feet and gently pulling me up.
I nodded, feeling numb and useless. The shivers were starting to build up. I could see them running through Dex too.
“What do we do? You said she slashed the Zodiac,” I mumbled hopelessly.
He squeezed my hand again and said in the most confident voice he could muster, “There’s still one more way off this place. Come on.”
He led me away from the beach. It was painful to move but we kept going. We got to the turnoff to the trail across the island but he kept leading me towards the bog and other campsites.
“Where are we going?’ I whispered, all too aware that things could be watching us from among the trees. The shadows all seemed to move.
He leaned to my ear and said roughly, “There is no way we are going down that path anymore. The mud has a mind of its own. There’s a weak trail up by the other campsites. I don’t know how far inland it goes, but at least there won’t be anyone waiting there for us.”
I nodded. An unmarked bush hike through the dark haunted island was just as disturbing as going through the middle, but he was right. Maybe they wouldn’t expect it.
We walked as quickly as we could up the path and through the campsites. The ground here was like a small lake of grass, and covered the tops of our shoes. For once, being wet didn’t matter. We were already soaked to the bone.
We were almost out of the grassy lawn, looking for a sign of a small trail out of there, when Dex cried out. I spun around and saw him fall to the ground with a splash. The earth was opening, the rocky grave markers were moving aside and graying, peeling arms were reaching out from the dark chasms below, holding onto Dex’s leg and trying to pull him down.
I screamed but luckily my reaction time wasn’t as numb as the rest of me. I grabbed Dex around the chest, not able to avoid his chest wound, and tried to yank him out. He was swearing, screaming, kicking out with his legs but unable to get free of them.
I let go, picked up one of the small boulders and bashed it against one of the ghostly arms, the sound of bones splintering reverberated through the air. Their grasp loosened for long enough for Dex to get to his feet.
He grabbed my arm and we scampered off into the forest, forgetting about the path; the only instinct was to run for our lives. I could hear the ground still being unearthed behind us, their maddening moans, the sloppy, thumping sound of their bodies flopping out of their graves and coming after us, wanting to exact their revenge, their justice for the horrible lives they were forced to live.
We ran in silence and as fast as we could while trying to avoid the tangles of bushes at our feet, darting in and out between the trees, ducking beneath the branches, our hands the only thing keeping us together in this blind marathon. Foot in front of foot, stride by stride, leap by leap, stumble by stumble, we kept going, ignoring the cramping in our legs, the tightness of the dark and the feeling that we were being chased by things too terrible to imagine.
Somehow, I don’t know how, we reached the other side of the island, our feet flying out of the brush and landing on the dirt coastal path. We hurried down to the left and galloped along it. The urgency never left us.
Finally the trees opened up and we could see the beach, the deflated, defiled lump of a Zodiac and the sailboat swinging out at sea.
We piled down through the brush until we hit the stones. Dex ran straight for the Zodiac, picking up his backpack he had left there and swinging it on his back. He ran back up to me and began pulling me along with him in the direction of the cliff.
“Where are we going?” I yelled, unable to catch my breath for even a second.
“The rope!” he yelled back. We leaped over a piece of driftwood in unison. We heard the sound of the beach stones scattering from behind us. It was the lepers, they were still on our trail. I knew better than to look. I couldn’t afford to lose it now.
We got to the start of the cliff and proceeded to climb up it as quickly as possible. My hands burned from the sharp edges and slicing barnacles but I pushed the pain out of my head and kept going. I eyed the rope at the top when I could, just to make sure it was still there, and understood what Dex’s plan was. We were going to slide down the rope and onto the boat. It was ridiculous but our only choice.
We were almost at the top, only a few more feet of scraggly ground and crusty boulders to go, when Dex stopped in his tracks. I pulled up beside him and followed his gaze.
Mary was standing at the arbutus tree, her dress blowing billowing out to the side of her like a black cape. She was as grotesque as the last time I saw her. The rat was gone from her face, but her eye was still missing and all her fingers were still gone except for the thumbs and ring fingers. In her disfigured hands she held the hunting knife in her hand, waving it front of the rope, taunting us with it.
“Mary,” I yelled at her, raising my hands in surrender. “Please don’t do this, Mary. You need to let us go. We don’t belong here.”
“I didn’t belong here either,” she said. Her voice sounded distant, robotic even, and buzzing with a metallic edge. “They want you to stay. Stay here or in the black and white world. You’ve seen it before. They’ll take you there.”
She nodded at the distance behind us. Dex and I turned and looked. The lepers were climbing up the cliff like reverse lemmings, with John marching behind them all, a mad herder.
We didn’t have much time before they were upon us. I looked back at Mary. She had taken a step closer to the rope and was wiping the blade up and down the yellow length of it with a scaling sound. “I want you to stay too. We are both the same, you and I. We have no one else but ourselves.”
“That’s not true,” Dex said angrily. “She has me. You’re the one who has nothing.”
“Not anymore!” she cried out and raised the knife. She brought it down with the first hack, the rope frayed, twirled, began to split.
Dex screamed. I had seconds to act. I remembered he had put the flare gun into his bag earlier. I could only hope it was still there, that she hadn’t taken it along with the knife.
I reached into his open backpack, reached around wildly until my fingers found the shape. I grabbed the flare gun from out of it.