“Your turn, Christie. Truth or dare?” Emma asked, quickly glancing at Jess as they shared an eager, mischievous grin.
“Dare,” I blurted out, immediately regretting my choice as the wind on the cold, pebble beach whipped my hair around my face.
The blue dye inside audibly slushed around as Emma shook the magic 8 ball.
“Should Christie…swim all the way over to Helena Island?” Emma asked slowly before turning the black ball over in her hands to reveal that the bobbing, floating die concealed inside answered: A definite yes.
My icy cheeks flushed bright red and my chest tightened.
“Oh I-I can’t. I don’t have, eh, a swimsuit with me,” I stammered, searching desperately for an excuse.
“Ah don’t worry about that,” Jess said as she materialised a blue sports bag from behind her back. “We packed a bag for you! There’s a swimsuit in there that you can change into in that toilet,” she pointed to a public toilet across the street from the entrance to the beach.
“And we put a towel in there too. The bag is waterproof so your clothes won’t get wet while you’re swimming over. Now remember, you have to bring back something scary as proof that you were on the island.”
Jess and Emma flashed dark, cruel smiles in my direction as Jess threw the bag at me. I often wondered why I was friends with these girls.
“You’re not scared of Ethel, are you?” Emma smirked.
I didn’t pay much attention to the island’s legendary ghost stories but I did remember something I had read in a library book as a child: Situated on the east coast of Northern Ireland, the Island of Helena is apparently home to the phantom of Ethel Victoria, also referred to as ‘The White Lady’. The island was populated by around 100 people in the 18th century until a pandemic of the Black Death broke out in Northern Ireland. By order of the Mayor of Belfast, the sick from Northern Ireland were shipped over, abandoned and left to die on Helena in an attempt to eradicate the mainland of the disease. One of Helena’s natives, Ethel, had a young daughter, said to be around two years old, who died from pneumonic plague only a week after the first group of ill people were brought to the island. Folk lore states that Ethel was so heartbroken that she drowned herself in the lagoon near her home and continues to haunt and roam the island searching for her daughter.
I stood on the edge of the beach in the white swimsuit and hoped for Emma and Jess to tell me not to jump in but they just watched with their arms folded and with spiteful smiles. The bitterly cold sea air was already seeping to my bones. I dipped my toes in the water to test the temperature and icy pangs shot up my legs.
“The sooner you’re in, the sooner you’re out,” Jess sneered.
Wanting to get it over with as soon as possible, I ran into the sea and as soon as it was deep enough, I dived under.
As the chilly water swallowed me whole, every fibre of my body felt instantly stiff and frozen. The arctic water pricked and nipped my body like pins and needles. My hands were already blue and wrinkled like prunes and a cloud of steam escaped my mouth with every exhale. I threw my arms forward and kicked my legs hard towards the lump of land isolated by deep blue water. The sea thrashed me around effortlessly and flooded my mouth and eyes with stinging salt as I battled against the current. My muscles soon began to fatigue as I struggled against the booming waves.
After what seemed like hours, I finally reached Helena.
Murky sunlight split through the thick canopy and illuminated the lagoon. The pool was surrounded by a wild jungle of plants and waist high grass. The lagoon felt like a den, almost completely sheathed in plant life that held the creek securely inside like a shrubby giant pair of clasped hands.
I waded through the marshy land to have a closer look at the tranquil lagoon.
In the centre of the emerald water, small bubbles arose, then a mass of white hair immerged from the water. Slowly, a woman slid up from underneath the lagoon and began to wash her long, snowy hair. My pulse thudded hard through my veins as I thought about running back into the sea.
The skinny woman stopped and spun round on her axis to face me. Her features fell and she soared up into the air and out from the water with terrifying speed, casting waves with her, and flew towards me with an outstretched hand and came to a grinding standstill a centimetre from my face.
“Bella?” She cried.
“No! No, I’m not Bella. My name’s Christie- I’m so sorry,” I blubbered.
I turned to run but Ethel smashed through my body and came out on the other side. I immediately felt like I’d been hit by a car and my insides were drowning in debris. I coughed ferociously and brushed the thick powdery dust and cobwebs off my skin. Ethel was facing me again.
The dank stench of decomposing seaweed radiated from Ethel’s colossal, bony frame and clung in the back of my throat.
“I’m not Bella! I am not your daughter,” I said through spluttering coughs.
Ethel had porcelain, china, yet papery, skin that was cracking around the edges of her face like old paint and barnacles were encrusted onto her whole body, as if she was the figurehead of an old shipwreck. Her empty veins were visible through her thin translucent skin and her eyes were bruised purple. Milky hair flowed down to her knees, her cheekbones protruded and she wore a long, bleached gown. Her eyes were too far apart and her glassy eyeballs were completely white as if they were rolled back inside her head.
“Help me find my daughter! I’ve lost her!” Ethel whined as her blind eyes flickered around.
“Your- your daughter died, Ethel… She died a long time ago,” I said gently, petrified I would make her angry.
Ethel was silent for a moment and then let out a huge, banshee wail that shook the trees. Her gaping mouth stretched down to her chest and I threw my hands to my ears to cover the deafening sound as Ethel continued to cry with impossible volume. Thunder began to roar and lightning struck several trees around us, torrential rain hurtled down like bullets and gale force wind circled around the epicentre of the island – Ethel. The tempest and Ethel bawled in perfect unison as the island itself came alive with its own presence and I realised Ethel’s enormous power; she was brewing this storm.
After a few minutes, the weather eased and Ethel finally calmed.
“I know! I’ve always known she was dead. I just couldn’t accept it. I tried to convince myself it wasn’t true,” Ethel whimpered as she wiped her chalky cheeks.
“You- you have to move on, Ethel,” I said through steadying breaths. “You can’t bring her back.”
Ethel’s hollow eyes gazed in my direction. She nodded as she bit her quivering lip.
“I just needed someone to tell me. So I knew for certain that it was true… Now I can pass,” Ethel thought aloud.
She gave me a grateful, childlike smile and gradually from the top of her head down to her toes, Ethel’s phantom crumbled into ashes that blew in the mild wind past my body and into the ocean.
I clambered out of the sea and flopped onto the stony beach, letting my chest rise and sink as I could finally breath properly again.
“So? Where’s the scary object we told you to get from the haunted island?” I heard Jess snigger from behind me.
My legs trembled like jelly as I struggled to my feet to see Emma and Jess holding their hands out expectantly. Before I could say anything, a small yellow skull appeared in each of their hands, with mushy flesh and sticky blood dripping from them. They both squealed, threw the skulls to the ground and wiped their soiled hands vigorously on their clothes. The skulls lay on the seashells for a moment before evaporating into the salty sea air.
“What the hell was that?!” They shouted at me with curled up, repulsed expressions.
I couldn’t help but laugh. A little parting gift from Ethel.