Mary raised the knife again.
I raised the gun, aimed it at Mary and pulled the trigger.
The gun exploded in my hands, the flare shooting out in a storm of red light, smoke, sparks and the most heart–stopping bang that shook my ear canals loose.
The flare shot straight below the rope, missing it only by a foot, and hit Mary square in the stomach. She erupted in a sizzling firework of guts and fire and fell backward off the cliff, landing on the rocks below.
I didn’t have much time to think about what I just did. Dex and I exchanged a quick look. He was as surprised as I was.
“You are a good shot,” he said. Then noticing the ghouls were only a few feet away, he grabbed my arm and we made a made a mad dash up the cliff for the tree.
Once at the crest, I got up and inspected the rope. I touched it gingerly. It didn’t look good. It would probably snap under our weight. But it was our only way to live.
The lepers were now coming up beside the tree, their scabby arms reaching over the sides of the rocks and swiping at our ankles. Dex quickly whipped off his backpack and flung it over the rope, sliding it down to the very edge of the cliff. He squatted, facing the direction of the boat, holding on to the straps of the backpack and wrapping his hands around them a few times. He looked over his shoulder at me.
“Hold on to me as tight as you can. Don’t look down. Don’t let go.”
I was too afraid to move. This was going to be the world’s most terrifying zipline ever.
But I felt a random hand tug at the back of my cargo pants, and I knew it was zero hour. One more hesitation and I would be dead.
I wrapped my arms around one of the backpack straps, linked my hands across Dex’s chest and squeezed him for dear life.
A growl and moan from behind me, someone’s hot breath filled with death and decay, floated up the back of my neck. I pushed away with my legs and we were gone.
As we dropped away from the cliff, the backpack sliding forward with an abrasive, high–pitched sound, the rope caved down with our weight. We flew through the air at a startling speed. I couldn’t watch, I just concentrated on holding on to Dex as hard as I could, even though I knew I was slipping inch by inch.
Before I could process what the noise meant, the tension in the rope gave way and we were suspended in air. Then we were free falling.
I screamed as we both fell, not knowing where we would land.
I hit the water like a brick, the cold seizing my lungs and shaking me awake. I rose up and paddled furiously against the water, searching for Dex.
“Dex!” I screamed, the frigid saltwater splashing against my open mouth. I splashed frantically, trying to stay afloat, to see above the waves. I couldn’t see him anywhere. The rope was gone. The lepers watched from the top of the cliff. The boat was free and slowly floating away from me, maybe a couple of yards away.
“Dex!” I yelled again, panic rising, my arms treading water as rapidly as they could. There was no light here in the water, only the vague reflection of the moon through the fog vapors. The water was black, the swells obscuring my vision every other second, and Dex was nowhere to be seen.
I panicked. What could I do? What if he drowned? What would I do?
The thought was too painful to handle. I felt everything start to shut down, including the will to keep living, to make a swim for the boat as the current and riptides led it out to the open oceans.
I screamed one last time. It sounded dull, as if no one was around to hear it.
Then a splash from behind me. I twirled around to see Dex pop his head out of the water.
“Got it!” he cried out through chattering teeth and held up the rope in his hands.
It was the greatest sight I’d ever seen.
He swam over to me and handed me the rope. “Can you do this?” he asked between splashes of waves. “We need to haul ourselves in. Pretend the boat is one big fish. OK?”
I nodded and together we both started to pull at the rope. There was no way we could pull the entire thing towards us, so we moved our hands along it, one on top of the other, steadily going up the length of the rope like we were rock climbing. It was tiring and the water was starting to slow my limbs down to an unfeeling slog. But eventually, we were getting closer to the boat.
I just couldn’t go any further. My hands had lost all nerves and my heavy boots were weighing me down, too heavy to lift up and kick.
Dex scooped his arm around me. “Hold on to me, baby. We’ll make it.”
His face was alabaster, his lips a sick shade of blue. This reminded me of the end of Titanic. That was a fate I didn’t want for myself.
With what little energy I had left, I wrapped my arms around his shoulders and he continued to pull us both. Where he got the strength to pull us both in, I didn’t know.
I must have fallen asleep on his back. The next thing I knew, Dex was yelling at me, telling me to put my feet up on the ladder.
I looked up. I thought my head might roll off. It was that heavy.
We were at the back of the boat. I was face to face with the exhaust pipe. The ladder was down and right beside us in the water. Dex moved my legs over for me. I was supported, even though I couldn’t feel my feet.
He took my hand into his shaking one and pressed it against the ladder rung.
“Hold on tight. Hold on as tight as you can, OK? Don’t let go,” he pleaded loudly. I nodded feebly. He climbed up the ladder, leaving me clinging on to the rung. I was so close to be being saved, and yet closer to letting go.
Dex knew that. Once he was on board, he leaned over and grabbed me by the elbow and began to pulled pull me up like a 130–pound marlin. I felt bad that I couldn’t do anything to help him.
But somehow he managed. I was pulled up on deck. I lay on my back, unable to move.
“Stay with me,” he said through the clank of his shivering teeth. “We’re almost out of the woods.”
I closed my eyes. I could hear him fiddling around. Then the roar of the engine, the boat shuddering under its surge. I heard Dex run across the deck and haul up the anchor from the front of the boat and then disappear below deck.
He came back up and I found myself being covered with a million blankets. He tapped me lightly on the cheek until I opened my eyes.
“Hey. You need to stay awake. I can’t put you downstairs yet. It’s warmer there but you might fall asleep and not wake up. OK? Stay with me.”
I nodded slowly. He tucked the blankets around me. He was wet too, shivering uncontrollably. I wanted to tell him to cover himself up but I couldn’t form the words.
He got behind the wheel, put the boat in the highest gear and motored it away. The more we picked up speed, the colder I got. The wind was brutal.
Occasionally Dex would check on me, shake my leg, to make sure I was still conscious.
Finally I felt him slow the boat down, heard him flick a switch and come out from behind the wheel. He picked me up, the blankets falling away, and took me downstairs.
The heat was going full blast and the lights were all on. In a dream–like state I noticed my iPhone lying on the table as he took me into the front bedroom. He had shut the door so the room was the warmest.
He lay me down on the bed, brought out another pile of linen and sleeping bags from the closet as well as a bunch of towels.
“I don’t care if you think this is inappropriate,” I heard him say through shivers. I turned my head and saw him stripping down to his boxer-briefs. His body was shiny and translucent from the cold, every inch covered in automatic convulsions. He came on top of the bed and started to pull my jacket and top off.
“What?” I mustered.
“Trust me,” he said. He took off my boots and pants as quickly as he could until I was also just in my underwear. Then he lay down beside me and pulled all the blankets and towels over us. He pulled me right up to him and wrapped his arms and legs around me and held me tight. I was too sluggish to protest and I knew I wouldn’t have anyway.
He held me until I started to feel again. At first it was the shivering, then the terrible never–ending cold. Then we both began to calm down. The heat between us was warming us over, trapped beneath the blankets in the warm room.
I was able to think more clearly. I was able to feel my body parts again. I was very aware of his bare skin on mine. I looked up at his face. He looked relaxed, relieved, but didn’t loosen his grip around me. Our mouths were close. His breath smelt like saltwater.
“Who is driving the boat?” I whispered carefully.
“Autopilot,” he said, looking into my eyes. “I’ll go up and check on it in five minutes.”
I closed my eyes and brought my face into his neck, burrowing it. He cupped his hand behind my head and held it there.
“We made it,” he murmured.
I started to cry. It was all too much for me to take. It always would be. I didn’t know how much I could keep going.
“I’m scared, Dex,” I mumbled between sobs.
“I don’t…I can’t live like this. Why do I have to see these things? Why do they come after me? What is it about me?”
“We are putting ourselves at risk by doing this…”
“No. It’s always been like this. I know it has been. I feel like I can’t tell what’s a dream. What’s real. I’m going crazy. I have to be. What if all the world is inside of my head?”
“It’s not, Perry. It’s not.” He held me tighter.
“What if I really am alone?”
“Baby, you aren’t alone. I’m here.”
“I’m so scared. I don’t want to see these things anymore. It makes me want to tear my brain out. I don’t know what’s real. How can I tell what’s real anymore? What’s real, Dex? Tell me what’s real.”
He put his hand on my face and looked at me with the most magnetic, impassioned spark in his dark eyes. “I’m real. This is real.”
I closed my eyes in gratitude, my heart filling up, the warmth radiating out from there and soaking up my nerves. He kissed my forehead and pulled me back into him.
“Is your phone charged yet?” Dex asked me.
We were sitting in a late–night diner in the outskirts of Victoria. It was 2 a.m. and the place was empty except for an old man who nursed a cup of coffee at the counter.
We must have looked like quite the sight. We were both dressed in Zach’s leftover sailing gear; the blue and red vinyl Helly Hansen suits were the only things left on the boat that were dry. It looked like we had come in from an epic, wild sailing race and in some ways, it was kind of true. Luckily, the jackets were so long on me that they covered up the crappy bandaging job we did on my wrists from Dex’s car’s first aid kit.
After our body temperatures returned to normal, Dex went back up top and steered the boat back into the marina. It didn’t take long at all. It was amazing how close the island really was to civilization, yet when we were there, it was like another world altogether. A world made up of humanity’s darkest misdoings and the most shameful nightmares of our souls.
As soon as we docked, I ran to the shore and literally kissed the ground. I was so overcome with so many different emotions, but the strongest one was just transcendent relief. We really had made it. We were back in amongst the living and we were alive ourselves.