A mosquito the size of a bat roared out of the jungle, aimed towards what was left of the wharf, and slammed its syringe-line probiscus into the nearest patch of succulent human flesh. The man with the shoulder-length hair swatted at it, smearing blood across his leathery, heavily-tattooed neck. He barely noticed the bugs these days, and so went on with untying his dilapidated raft from a rotting chunk of wood.
It was hot as hell and humid and much more humid, but that was how the man liked it, even as sweat poured down his beaten face. The weather seemed to put even more distance between where he was and where he’d been. This tiny, damn-near-deserted island off the wild west coast of Panama was the closest thing his nomad soul had ever found to home. Something about the bird calls and cheers of the monkeys soothed him, but mainly he just liked that there were no people to bother him.
His fingers were clumsy on the ropes, and he told himself to settle down. Everything would be alright, and he’d make it through this trip if he could just keep his shit together. It wouldn’t be like last time, or the time before that. He was better now.
The raft was in an even worse condition than the man, but he managed to navigate it through the clawing mangroves and out of the murky bay that lay beneath his shack. He maneuvered the scrap of wood around a rocky headland and across the wide channel that separated his home and the ramshackle village on the mainland. He didn’t visit it often, and had little reason to; he grew enough mangoes and bananas to live on, and he had no use for the two rundown bars now that he didn’t drink. On top of that, the villagers scared him more each time he visited. But he needed medicine, so he left the safety of his shack and crossed the water.
The man’s shack disappeared right around the time the village wharf became visible, but the man didn’t look that way. He knew someone would be standing there, and he wanted to put off seeing them for as long as he could. So he stared down at his arms, which were strong and sinewy despite his advancing years, and tried to remember the stories behind the tattoos. Some he recalled, some had been lost to time, but the game helped pass the time until he pulled up at the landing.
She was there, of course, just as she always was, and the man’s heart raced as he turned towards her. One side of her face was still beautiful and young and innocent, ringed by curly blonde hair, the other caved in and corrupted. The left eyeball was bright purple and bulged grotesquely out of its shattered socket. The skin on her nose has been peeled away to reveal angry nerves, and her jaw hung loosely, with ribbons of tongue dripping out the left corner. For all the torture written across that girl’s face, it was oddly emotionless. But the most unsettling part of the figure’s appearance was below that gruesome face; it sat above the body of a shirtless middle-aged man.
The man from the other side of the canal didn’t want to look at the pitiful beast, but he couldn’t turn his head away. As his raft pulled in, the creature scurried over and grabbed its rope, tying it to the wharf. The thing greeted him in Spanish, with an accent that was halfway between a girl and a man’s yet nothing like either. The odour it emitted was repulsive, like roadkill at the end of a summer day, and the man gagged as he handed it a roll of tattered notes and hurried away.
The wharf gave way to a dirt road that raced uphill to the dozen or so concrete shanties that passed for a village, and thankfully it was even quieter than usual today. The man passed the fishermen’s sheds with their pungent aromas, swept past a few seemingly deserted houses, coming out next to the overgrown playground with its rusting swings and slide. Two small girls were on a see-saw, so the man dropped his head and begged himself not to look. He held out for a few seconds, then opened his eyes and peeked at them through his tears. They were identical twins, at least to him. Both had perfect, innocent right sides of their faces, with bulging left eyes and billowing, shredded tongues. The man’s stomach churned, and he threw himself behind a bush, where he emptied out that morning’s bananas and mangoes in a series of shuddering convulsions. Laughter came from the girls’ direction, but their faces didn’t move.
“I can do this,” he told himself, wiping rancid fruit from his beard before slowly climbing to his feet. There were more of them now; four stood in the street, watching him with those horrific half-faces. Their shattered jaws flapped and mismatched words came out. They pointed broken and bleeding fingers. Another demolished girl, this one with the body of an ancient women, hobbled across the dusty road, and in her arms was a baby with one bulging eye and a tongue made of madness. The child stared at the man with what was left of its face. Something in the man’s mind finally snapped, and he let out a scream that sent a flock of gulls crashing into the sky. He fell to his knees, not feeling pain as she scraped them on the rocks, and threw his head back so he could shriek at the sun. More broken girls wandered over to marvel at the spectacle of the tattooed lunatic.
It was a freak show none in attendance would ever forget. The villagers would think of it every time they passed the park, and see it in their dreams for the rest of their lives. The man clawed at his eyes, at first merely scratching the lids, before scraping the fat white globes out. His fingernails snapped as the lunged at his face, and a torrent of indecipherable words spewed out of his gaping maw. Gore poured down his face as his screams turned into cackles, and he threw himself back on the dirt, his mind completely gone and his face a disaster. When one of the locals, a middle-aged woman with flowing brown hair and a set of kind eyes, checked on him, she found a pulse. It was barely there, but she found it, and a few of the other villagers carried what was left of the man off to the doctor’s office. They knew it was too late to save him, but what else could they do?
Later that night, over cups of beer, a clutch of the local men agreed that, whilst what had happened was horrendous, it wasn’t unexpected. They’d been waiting for the gringo to do something like that since he moved to the island three years earlier. The way he scurried around town as though he was hiding from someone or something. The deranged tattoos that covered his entire body. The terrified wailing that sailed across the in the middle of every night. He was a dead man long before he ever came to Panama. For a while the villagers speculated about the strange foreign words the gringo had yelled, then their beer and their card game took hold of their attention, and peace was brought back to that remote corner of the world.