Anna crouches down in the low fog among the rocks and the weeds. A large skeletal monstrosity lumbers across her field of vision not fifty feet in front of her. Her stomach hasn't felt right for the last several weeks – even now it threatens to eject its contents right here on the shore of this mysterious island.
She glances back to the ramshackle canoe with its dead oarsman still slumped over the side. The waves of the lake lap against its beach mooring, trying to drag the craft back out into the waters. Let the elements have it if they want; it didn't matter anymore. Something on this island had been calling her, and she instinctively knew that her stay here was probably going to be permanent.
"Anna? Anna, are you alright? Are you awake?" Fred asked as he bangs on the young woman's door.
The door opens a crack and a bleary-eyed, pajama clad brunette is illuminated by the late afternoon sunlight. "What do you want?" she mumbles.
A frown crosses the older man's well weathered face. "Anna. There you are. You haven't been to work in a week now. You haven't called in or anything. You're going to get fired at this rate!"
Anna lets the door swing open a little more and slowly retreats back to her couch in the darkness of her condo without a word.
Fred steps in and makes a face as he smells the stale air. "Have you showered lately? It's really ripe in here."
"Tell work I quit," Anna mumbles again as she covers herself with blankets.
Concern paints itself over Fred's face as he stoops down beside her. "What is it, Anna? What's wrong? This isn't you," he asks quietly.
"Well it is now. You should leave."
Fred narrows his eyes a little and gives her blankets a yank. Anna curls up in a little ball with a loud whimper while trying to retain some of her fleeting body head. The bottom of her pajama top rides up and exposes the small of her back to the outdoor light. Small red and brown patches are clearly visible on her bare skin.
"Anna, your skin! What's going on with you?" Fred asks with alarm in his voice.
"I have a rash. So what?"
"So what? Anna…"
The younger woman takes a deep breath, stands, takes Fred by the arm and starts leading him back toward the door.
"I'm worried about you," the older man says softly and brushes the hair from her face.
Anna bats his hand away. "I don't care, Fred. I've told you before, I'm not interested in older men. You're a nice enough guy, but if you don't respect my wishes, I'm going to file a complaint."
Fred smiles. "Does that mean you'll be coming back to work?"
Anna blows an errant hair away from her face and gives him a tired look. "I'm not going to ask you again, Fred."
"Aw, come on, don't be like—". Fred is cut off as the door slams in his face.
Anna covers her ears as she retreats back into the gloom of her once bright and cheery home. She can still hear Fred calling her name and knocking on her door.
Stepping into her bathroom, she lifts her pajama top and studies her midriff in the mirror. The red and brown patches that mysteriously began appearing several weeks ago were getting worse. Yellow puss oozes from a particularly grievous patch.
"I knew the stupid doctor's topical cream wasn't going to do anything," she mumbles to herself. "I swear it's getting worse."
She studies the face in the mirror and sticks out her tongue. The deep, dark circles around her eyes belie the sleeplessness that had plagued her for the last little while. She shakes her head. "What happened to you, lady? You used to be so beautiful."
Making her way to the bedroom, her eyes fall on the mysterious package that had arrived for her several weeks ago. It wasn't like her to just leave things lying around, but for some reason, she was unable to bring herself to move it. She rifles through the packaging until her fingers touch something cold and metal. Removing her hand, she holds up a small key and studies it in the light.
"What are you all about?" she murmurs. "Why can't I leave you alone? Why can't I put you away somewhere?"
The small metallic object does not answer.
Anna begins turning the key over in her hands, just as she had done every day since the package had arrived. The only marking to be found, was the alphanumeric assignment stamped on the turn piece – F4.
"F4," she repeated. "F4 F4 F4 F4…"
A shadow moving across her kitchen window catches her attention. Fred starts banging on the kitchen door. "Anna! Come on. Let me in, Anna! I'm not going to go away!"
Anna's lips purse and something strange comes over her. The sides of her vision darken and she suddenly feels her heart beating in her ears. Her body is flooded with adrenaline as she crosses the room and forcibly opens the door outward.
Fred is caught unaware and stumbles backward off the kitchen porch. He grabs for the side railing, but his fingers aren't able to find purchase. Tumbling down the stairs, he strikes his head on the paved walkway below and is finally silent. A pool of blood begins forming around his face, his eyes staring blankly out into the yard.
Anna recoils in fear and panic grips her heart. Surely it had been an accident. Surely Fred had brought this on himself because he refused to accept her wishes and leave her alone. She couldn't be held responsible for this… could she?
Her body visibly shakes as she closes the kitchen curtains and locks the door. Her mind swims with guilt, but strangely, she does not call for assistance. No, rather, she makes her way to her room and closes the door. Surely everything would be fine in the morning. Yes, in the morning, Fred would be gone – probably back to work. Yes, Fred is fine. He's perfectly fine. It's possible that he's already dusted himself off and wandered back to wherever it is that he comes from. Delaware perhaps. Yes, he seems like he was from Delaware. In the morning, he'll probably be back in Delaware.
The hours tick by and Anna tosses and turns. Sleep comes in small pockets, just as it had for the last week or so. Nightmares plague her fitful rest. Images of Fred, rising from the gore on her back porch, passing through the locked door and slowly lumbering toward her bedroom. "F4," he would wail. "F4."
Anna awoke yet again, this time in a sweat. Fumbling for her phone, she reads the time. "Three A.M."
Still shaking, she fumbles for a flashlight and makes her way down the hall toward the kitchen. Slowly, painfully, she unlocks the kitchen door and pushes it open. The warm summer night greets her with a terrible smell. Fred lies motionless on her back porch – his eyes now fogged over and being picked at by nocturnal bugs.
Anna feels as though she will vomit and turns back to her kitchen. Panic again grips her heart with its icy tendrils and she drops the flashlight. Striking the floor, its light flickers and expires. Anna screams like a banshee and hurries back to her room. In the dark, she hurriedly dresses and packs a small bag. Her world spins as she tucks the package and the key to her undoing into her pocket before running out the front door into the night.
"Run, Anna, run. Run, Anna, run." The words keep repeating in her head. "Run, Anna, run."
And run she does. How long and how far, she isn't sure. The world around her has become little more than a blur at this point. Collapsing from exhaustion, a neon sign off to the side of the road catches her attention. Squinting hard, she is able to recognize the local bus depo.
"A… bus. Yes… a bus. I will take a bus… to get away. Far away…" she wheezes.
Stumbling inside, she momentarily rests against a wall of metal lockers. Looking down at her hands, she notes with mild interest that her rash had now spread all the way to her fingers. Half delirious, she laughs out loud. Her breath comes in short gasps and she closes her eyes. The cold metal lockers feel good against her feverish head. Opening her eyes, the number of the locker next to her suddenly comes into sharp focus.
"F4," she whispers.
Fumbling in her pocket, she produces the small key. Her hands visibly shake as they attempt to grip and insert the small metal object into its corresponding lock. Finally, a soft click announces her triumph.
Peering in to the small locker, a small box is revealed.
Beads of sweat form and roll down Anna's cheeks as she struggles to focus and open the box before her. A small vial of dark liquid and an envelope stare up at her.
Instinctively, she opens the small bottle and presses it to her lips. A strong peppermint scent assails her senses as she chokes down the elixir. Almost immediately, Anna feels the world begin to slow down and settle. Her heart rate begins to slow and her breathing returns to normal.
Her fingers now find the envelope at the bottom of the box. Fanning the contents, several bus and plane tickets are revealed with a small sum of American and European currency.
The world starts to spin again.
Anna opens her eyes to see a stewardess standing over her. She wears a kind, yet concerned expression.
"Are you feeling any better, miss? You were almost incoherent when you boarded."
"Boarded?" Anna mumbles. Looking to her left, a sea of grey clouds float outside of the aircraft window. She looks back to the stewardess. "Where am I?"
The stewardess continues her concerned look and tone. "We're almost to Tasmania. You've been asleep for most of the journey. I can have medical staff standing by when we land if you like. You're very pale and sickly."
Anna shakes her head and waves the stewardess off. A bottle of water sits in the cup holder beside her. Using her teeth, she manages to open the bottle and drain its contents. Despite being somewhat dehydrated, she was actually feeling much better. The fog and confusion she had been experiencing was gone and so were the headaches. The rash on her skin had not abated however.
Flagging down the stewardess, Anna orders a meal and inhales it as soon as it is placed before her. Looking at her reflection in the metal meal tray before her, she can see the infection had now started up her neck.
After landing without incident, Anna uses the final ticket in from the box at the train station and is soon bumping along in an old, decrepit bus heading deep into the wild country of Tasmania. The rash continues to spread over her body, but her mind is sharp and focused.
How long she spent on the bus, she wasn't aware. Hours? Days? It didn't matter. Eventually the old, rusted doors opened with a scrape and a hiss.
"Final stop, miss," the feeble old bus driver declares as he approaches her seat. "Don't know why you've come to this old haunt. Folks in these parts give me the heebie-jeebies. They say the spirits of the dead walk around freely at night out there. If you're getting off, then off you go. I'm turning right around and getting the heck out of here!"
Anna gives the old man a nod, then exits with her small bag. True to his word, the old bus quickly turns and begins chugging back toward the coast.
Anna takes in her surroundings. The small jungle village is little more than a handful of buildings on the shore of a sizable lake. Large insects begin hovering around the small brunette woman, and she quickly makes her way into the closest building.
Several patrons look up as she enters what appears to be the village tavern. An old woman draws close and looks her up and down without uttering a word.
"Hello. I'm Anna. What's your name?"
The old woman ignores her question and instead takes her by the hand. She pushes up Anna's sleeve and inspects her deteriorating skin. The hag rubs her nose on Anna's arm and inhales deeply.
"Oh my, what are you—"
The old woman cuts her off with a scream. She begins shouting something in the local dialect and soon everyone in the small tavern is cowering under tables or leaving through the doors.
"What's going on? What's wrong with everyone?" Anna asks.
"Ye be cursed, lass."
Anna whirls around to see a filthy man dressed in a long coat standing in the shadows. His long greasy hair hides most of his features. A pipe hangs from his lips, gripped with his few remaining teeth. A foul odor fills the room as he approaches.
"It be da curse of da living dead. Ye life force be leaving ya."
"What? No, how can this be? I wasn't cursed. I had a life in Iowa until—"
"Until a week or three ago?" the filthy man interrupts.
"Well… yes, actually. How did you—"
"Once a year," he interrupts again. "Once a year, da spirits of da island of decay be claiming one living life for dar own. Every year, da poorest looking of souls be finding dar way to dis backwater."
"Once a year? Then I'm not the first? How long has this been going on for?"
"Since old Marshal be but a wee lad," he says and presents himself. "You be feeling da pull, don't ya? Da island be calling to ya."
Anna looks out the window of the tavern across the lake. Dusk was setting in, but there was still enough light for her to make out the form of a small island.
"Yes," she whispers, "yes, I must go to the island." She turns to Marshal. "Will you take me there right now?"
Marshal smiles with his remaining teeth. "Marshal has always taken da cursed to da island."
A few minutes later, Anna and Marshal shove off from a tiny pier. The filthy man stands at the head of the small canoe and paddles. A single lantern dangles from a tripod just above Anna's head.
Anna tries to ask him several more questions, but he remains silent.
A thick fog begins to settle on the lake as the sun disappears from sight. Soon, Anna is only able to see a few feet in front of her.
Something disturbs the water around the small craft.
"Marshal? There's something large in the water! Marshal, be careful! Are we almost there?"
A large snake-like skeletal body breaks water beside the craft and Anna screams. The skeletal serpent splashes all around them in the thick fog. Anna continues to scream.
Then all at once, the splashing stops and the lake is silent. A chill comes over Anna and she strains to see ahead of her. "Marshal? Marshal, are you alright? Marshal?"
As if in answer to her question, Marshal's body falls backward and lands in front of her – his head severed and missing. Anna screams and begins kicking at the dead man lying before her. She manages to partially slump his body over the side of the large canoe.
Anna shivers with a mixture of fear and cold as the waves push the small craft forward. After a half an hour, the sound of gravel scraping the bottom of the vessel signals her that she's arrived at her terrible destination.
Hopping out of the small craft, she drags it to shore as best she can. The fog has begun to clear, now only hanging in the air a few feet above the ground. Crouching down in the think mist, a feeling of utter dread washes over Anna. Something large and skeletal lumbers across her field of vision not fifty feet ahead of her.
She stifles herself from crying out as her body is suddenly wracked with pain. Looking down at her hands, she watches as the rash intensifies and her skin begins to crack and bleed.
Panic grips her once again and she begins scampering on all fours through the mist toward the center of the island. Dead looking creatures in various stages of decay come to life and move out of her way as she hurries as best she can. Her body continues to deteriorate the further she goes. A numbness comes over her as bits of flesh begin falling from her bones.
After several hellish minutes, her destination comes into sight. A small tomb stands atop a hill of bones. Sharp bits of broken bodies rip and tear into her remaining skin as she struggles toward her goal. The terror in her heart comes to a crescendo as she finally reaches the tomb and begins to force the door open.
A female figure lies on a stone tablet inside the terrible structure. The crazed shell that was once Anna stares down into the face of the motionless, perfect looking woman stretched before her. To her utter horror, she recognizes the woman in the mirror.
Gripped with an overwhelming feeling of disgust, Anna wraps her heavily deteriorated hands around the perfect throat of the woman lying before her and squeezes.
To her surprise, as she squeezes, the body lying before her begins to deteriorate and her own body starts to regenerate. She squeezes harder.
In a cruel twist, the mirror woman awakens and locks eyes with Anna. A moment later, Anna feels the other woman's hands around her throat as well. Anna stumbles backward to try and escape the other woman's counter attack. The mirror woman follows and soon both Annas struggle against each other on the stone floor.
No words are spoken as the contest of strength and wills rages between them. Each time one woman gets the upper hand, her body begins to regenerate – only to have the other woman redouble her efforts and bring them back to a state of balance again.
Finally, one of the women manages to strike the other woman's head against the stone table and she crumples to the floor. Life fills the remaining Anna as the other woman deteriorates to mere strands of flesh and bone. The winning woman raises a fist in the air and gives a victory roar.
With a look of disdain, she places the body of the loser back on the stone slab and closes the tomb doors.
Anna wipes the sweat from her brow as she finishes burying Fred's body in the woods. Although she had indeed lost her job, she already had a couple of promising interviews lined up for next week. The next day, Anna throws open her curtains and cleans her home from top to bottom. Fred would have approved.
That night, Anna settles into bed at an early hour. She had been careful to lock all the windows and doors since getting back from her trip to the island. Exhaustion soon overcomes her and she drifts off to sleep.
Slowly, a deteriorated hand slides her closet door open…