A Sinister Charm
A Sinister Charm
By Gary R. Beard
© 2017 by the author
In some ways, Zach’s uncle was to blame. He had bequeathed the house on Smith Island to Zach. Uncle Jay wasn’t a true islander. He had only lived there during the summer, when no risk of getting ice-locked existed, like in ’78, when the bay froze solid around the island for three long months. The story was that many of the younger folks, the children, had died of hunger, but Zach doubted that the story was completely true. He only wished, when it was too late, that he had learned more about the island before impetuously moving to it.
Zach and Meg fell in love with the island instantly. It wasn’t anything special. In fact, it was the absence of panache that made it appealing. It was real, not social media real, but real. A latte was out of the question. Maxwell House coffee was as good as one could get, with real cream and sugar. The simplicity of the island was what did it for them. There was no rush hour because there was no rush. The small island in the Chesapeake didn’t even have cars. Most folks used modified golf carts, mopeds or walked.
Church services were held daily, and church socials were the only form of entertainment besides satellite TV, when it worked, but that was a blessing, too. No binge watching to suck away free time while draining any desire to create, like some kind of muse vampire. Unplugging was a kind of paradise. They would become creators of art and entertainment, instead of consumers. He and his wife would rediscover each other. Meg would have more time for her pottery and Zach’s writing seemed to be taking off at last.
After only a month of living on the island, though, the novelty had begun to wear off. Instead of continuing to believe that the place was charming, they began to think it was odd. Everyone on the island was old. The youngest person they had met was in his sixties. Many were pushing ninety. After a while they tired of trying to understand where the young folks were. When they asked, the answers were eerily the same. First a blank stare, as if the question wasn’t understood, then a look of anger as if the person was reminded of some past trauma better forgotten. Then, they would always look away, as if trying to think of an appropriate lie. “Oh the children all moved away. Life as a waterman is hard. They had to leave to find work. They won’t ever come back.” Sadness was there, but something else as well, something darker.
“But surely they visit,” Meg asked optimistically of a particularly robust older man with few teeth left in his sunken face. But the answer was no.
“Oh, but we can’t wait to have you!” A statement that was too loud and over-zealous. It even looked like he licked his lips, or maybe his tongue just fell out of his mouth because no teeth were holding it back. They walked away smiling amicably, believing the man was slightly demented and was mixing up his words.
Another bizarre incident happened when Zach had gone out to the market alone. Usually, he and Meg shopped together since coming to the island. He walked the mile to the market, breathing in the salt air. A storm was brewing to the south and the wind was picking up, but he felt safe and happy. He considered himself lucky and was thankful to his uncle despite the eccentricity of many of the island residents. Still, while bent over reading a label on a can of soup, he felt someone watching him. He looked over his left shoulder and saw an old woman leering at him. He smiled, unable to believe this old lady was checking out his butt.
“Now that’s a cougar,” he muttered softly, but the feeling of being watched intensified. He turned his head to the right and saw two old guys staring at him just as oddly. He thought one might be drooling. Throwing the can in his basket, he turned to leave the freaky folks and saw four people walking towards him. They had him hemmed in pretty well. He turned and pushed past the two men. Zach turned into the next aisle and hurried his pace. He needed to get out, suddenly feeling claustrophobic. He looked behind and saw three men were coming up the aisle. The other end of the aisle darkened, with more townsfolk blocking his exit. It unnerved him, the look of longing.
“Excuse me,” he yelled and then pushed sideways through them. Afraid of hurting them, he squirmed through, but on his way, he thought he felt at least one person lick his arm.
That night, Zach asked Meg, while climbing into bed, “Do you think we made a mistake? Were we a bit rash in picking up stakes and moving to a place we knew so little about?”
“Not at all,” Meg replied. “I think it’s going to be fine. Look at the work you’ve been able to do. And, I have been loving this house. It has so much old charm. I can’t wait to show my family when they visit.”
“Yeah, when is that? I am really feeling like an outsider here.”
“That will pass. Eventually, they’ll accept us. We probably should start going to church, though. You know, join the community.”
Zach raised his eyebrows. “I hear you, but that doesn’t sound like you. What happened to finding God in nature and in people and the hypocrisy of organized religions? Sound familiar?”
“I know what I said.” Meg closed her book and looked at Zach. But Zach was still back in that grocery store. He couldn’t let go of it. He got up and walked to the window to draw the curtains.
“Whoa!” He looked out the window and saw a crowd of islanders below. Zach dropped to his knees but was sure they could still see him. They just stood there, about twelve of them, looking up at the windows — at him.
“What,” Meg asked as she crept up to the window. When she saw them, and they her, she gasped and they began to disperse.
Watching them go, Zach tried to regain control of his breathing. He turned around to face Meg, who sat on the edge of the bed. “I don’t want to be here anymore.”
“I agree it’s creepy, but we finally have a house. It will take a while to unload this place and we wouldn’t get near enough to buy a house in Baltimore. These people are just bored. They don’t even have TV.”
“I don’t like it. People staring in my window? Why? It’s sick.”
“Come to bed.”
The next morning, despite Meg’s reluctance, they called a real-estate agent on the mainland. The agent said there was no reason for him to come to the island and post a sign since everyone on the island already had a place. Instead, he would just use pictures they would send and post them online.
Meg tried to get Zach to loosen up and enjoy their remaining time on Smith Island. He agreed to try swimming. Jumping off the dock into the cool bay, they felt like kids again. Some of their worries began to wash away. Relaxing at last, Meg laid down on the pier to get warm in the sun. It was late in the season to be swimming, but the water was perfect. Zach pressed his hands on the dock and lifted himself out of the water. That was when he saw them, two of them watching from behind the boat house, two more from the road and probably more from the windows of their houses. Wait, some were coming down the road using walkers. A small collection of the elderly, gathering to...what? Watch young people have fun? Hoping to get a look at them in their bathing suits? Or something else? Zach nudged Meg and motioned for her to look. At first she gave a neighborly smile, until she saw the looks on their faces. The islanders smiled, or at least tried to, but there was something lurking beneath the surface, something raw and primal. She had seen that look before, but in this out of place context she had trouble recognizing it. She turned to Zach. Their eyes locked. “What is it?” And then, in unison, as they both stood up and started walking off the dock, they realized they knew that look. It was hunger.
Inside their house they began pacing, wondering what on earth it could mean. Is someone starving them? After a while, they decided to shower and get dressed. It was Wednesday, so there would be church services that night. Maybe the congregation could help those in need. Zach and Meg decided they too would do their part to help.
Walking the twenty minutes to town on the other side of the island was disquieting. The streets were deserted. It was mostly dark and folks were either at church or getting ready for bed. The once peaceful looking town now seemed sinister, given the experiences they had had over the past month. Zach couldn’t calm down. He was so anxious that his heart was racing and he felt sick to his stomach. He looked at his wife, knowing, as a man, he had to be the protector. Always being the brave one, the one that killed spiders or looked for intruders in the middle of the night, it wasn’t fun...and now this.
Without any discussion between them, they hung back when they got to the church. They stayed outside, suddenly hesitant to enter. The windows of the church were open and they could hear the congregation singing a hymn, but the words were unfamiliar. Creeping closer to a window to hear better, they quickly determined it was a communion song, but the words seemed all wrong. They watched from the seeming obscurity of a dark, moonless night. A realization so terrifying began growing inside them, threatening to suffocate them. The words were wrong. They weren’t singing about the body and blood of a savior, they were singing about eating the flesh of a friend. “No better gift than to lay down your life for a friend, to feed your brethren. To give of your flesh, to drink of your blood, we are all truly blessed.” Most horrible was the bowl of communion wafers, since they weren’t wafers at all. They were bones, small and delicate, probably fingers and toes long since denuded of muscle and tendons. The parishioners sucked at the marrow, probably long gone, and placed each back in as they continued to pass them around.
It finally all made chilling sense. Everything that had happened, every sign led to this moment. This explained why there were no young people. My God, they had eaten their own. Slowly the island was depopulated, leaving only the middle-aged, who grew old and who probably wouldn’t taste very good as their bodies dried out with age. It explained why the real estate agent wouldn’t visit the island and the boatman that brought them never set foot on shore. The money that Zach had earlier seen the harbor master give the boatman wasn’t for a routine delivery, it was for the delivery of Zach and Meg.
They stepped backwards, afraid to turn their backs to the crowd, but ran into the pastor, standing right behind them. A man in his seventies, he smiled broadly at the couple. “Won’t you come in and participate in our communion?”
“Rather not,” Zach muttered. But it was all too late. The church goers had heard the pastor, went silent, and were now standing and staring out the windows, into the darkness, directly at them. Their slack faces with sunken eyes, seemed to suddenly alight with passion. As Zach and Meg tried to push past the pastor, Zach caught a glint of silver in the reverend’s hand and felt a punch to his side. He screamed out in pain and pushed the pastor to the ground. “He stabbed me!” Hysterical with fear, they ran.
Dim street lights illuminated their escape route, but Zach knew that, without a boat, they didn’t stand much of a chance since the island was miles from any other land. Even a strong swimmer would have trouble with the rough Chesapeake currents. He pulled his hand away from his side and held it up to the light. He was bleeding worse than he expected. Apparently the minister knew where to inflict the most damage. How stupid of me, he thought, to live on an island and not own a boat! But he knew where boats were. He led Meg to the small cove that acted as a harbor, but to his dismay, all the boats were gone. Then he saw the lights bobbing on the water, the boats waiting, at least a quarter mile from shore.
“What do we do,” Meg whimpered. Zach was having trouble keeping up and didn’t answer. His blood loss was beginning to make him woozy. Frightened for Zach and desperate for a way off the island, Meg suddenly remembered the old small rowboat used as a headstone in the cemetery behind their house. “I know where a boat is. They’ve probably forgotten about it.”
“What boat,” his tongue felt thick with dehydration.
To their left, as they raced along the shore, they could see other residents leaving their homes in a slow, awful pursuit. Without turning around, he knew that the congregation was coming up behind them, slowly but steadily, an unrelenting tide of hungry, murderous, elderly townspeople. He remembered reading about cannibals in National Geographic when he was a kid, but they were in Borneo and central Africa, not Maryland. He had mistakenly thought that the modernization of food production and ready access to a variety of foods made cannibalism irrelevant. Yet, it might have been necessary during that winter in 1978, when the island was cut off from the mainland and fresh food for three months. But this hunt wasn’t out of necessity. Now, it was by choice. The islanders had developed a taste for young, tender, human flesh, an insatiable hunger for it, and they wanted more.
The cemetery was up ahead and Meg had already entered the cloying darkness. Zach was far behind now. He knew he wouldn’t be able to row. At this point, he just needed to help Meg. He was not a doctor, but was pretty sure the knife had severed a vital artery. He wouldn’t make it to the mainland without medical intervention. “Help, Zach. It’s really heavy.” He finally made it to where she was. She had dragged the boat to the cemetery gate, but couldn’t get it through. Even as Zach helped her, he knew it was futile. The boats were out to sea so they couldn’t be used in an escape and also to catch the couple if they tried to leave the island. Anxiously, Zach looked at the old houses lining the road and thought how menacing they looked in the dim light, so different from the picturesque scene that drew them to the island.
They continued dragging the boat, but Zach stumbled. He was chilled all over and felt nauseous. The hungry island hoard was coming to greet them from all directions. They carried flashlights and torches, as if Zach and Meg were the real monsters. They hobbled and swayed with their four-pronged canes and walkers. Even the more agile were slow in moving. A swelling throng of cannibals as they collected more ravenous mouths along the way.
“You need to go Meg. Just go. I’ll keep them busy. Otherwise they’ll swamp the boat. They don’t care about harm to themselves as long as they get a taste.”
Meg cried quietly as she begged Zach to come with her, dragging the boat the last few feet to the water. There wasn’t much of a beach, so the boat dipped sharply into the water and half-filled before bobbing to the surface. Meg climbed into the boat making it sink to where the water was just a few inches below the gunwale. Now it was certain. He couldn’t get in the boat without it sinking, and while it was doubtful, maybe Meg could make it past the other boats. At least she wouldn’t hear his screams as they tore into him. He would be saved that shame. Zach pushed the boat away and fell into the water. The saltwater of the bay stung in his open wound. He turned to climb back up the shore. His plan was to hole-up in the house as long as he could, probably until his end. He thought bleeding to death might be a more peaceful end than being devoured by a hungry mob, but he saw it was too late. They were here and in his feeble condition he would not be able to make it past them. Part of him wanted to cry, but the tears didn’t come, and he was just too tired. As the crowd pressed in on him, into the water, he felt himself being pushed down. He wondered absently which would be more horrible: bleeding to death, drowning, or being eaten alive. But as the sharp pain of a multitude of teeth pierced the flesh of his arms and legs, and as his head was pushed below the surface of the water by the crushing feeding frenzy, he realized that he would get to experience all three at once. Gulping frantically for air, feeling faint from loss of blood and the excruciating pain of flesh being ripped from his body, he discovered all were equally horrific.