Isabelle sat at the edge of the lake. The tall bank made her bare feet dangle, just reaching the top of the water. It was surprisingly cold for this time of year. She sighed. It had only been 3 years since they had played out on the lake: swimming, kayaking, canoeing.
There was a rope tied into a tree further down. She had spent hours swinging and jumping into the water, and longer still teaching the younger kids. A lot had changed since then.
The familiar voice pulled her from her sadness. She looked over her shoulder at the boy who had become a man in the few years she had known him.
Jack scrambled over to her, hoisting his trousers up as he went.
Isabelle shook her head at him. “We need to get you some new clothes.”
He laughed as he plonked himself down next to her. “You sound like my mother.”
His mother, Caroline, was a formidable woman. Isabelle had been afraid of her at first, when she had trained to be a leader at the camp. She had been so shy when she had first joined. Caroline was the reason they were still alive.
“What’s wrong?” He asked, lifting his hand up to wipe away a stray tear still clinging to her cheek.
“I was thinking about that last summer. The hours we spent on the water.”
Jack nodded somberly. “We used to have fun back then.”
She bumped her shoulder against his. “We have fun now!”
They both laughed and then fell into a companionable silence. She slipped on her shoes and they made their way back towards the camp. They wove between the timber cabins, various friends saying hello as they walked past. Isabelle could hear hammers and low shouts from the team building new cabins. They always needed new cabins.
They walked past the canteen, the biggest building on the site. She could smell dinner being made. Her stomach made a noise in hunger. She could only blame herself for not eating enough earlier in the day.
They walked towards the arena when they heard shouting. They glanced at each other then speed up to see what was going on.
In the centre of the arena on the stage was Caroline holding up her hands in an attempt to ebb the distress of the growing crowd. Isabelle looked closer and saw a man stood behind her, his eyes darted around at the people gathering around him. She had seen that look before. It was the look only people who had lived outside had.
She shivered at the site of him. His feet were bare and bloody, his clothes torn in places. His face and hands were dirty and his beard was stuck up at odd angles. He held on tightly to a backpack. His face scrunched in terror.
“A new kid.”
Isabelle gasped as she realised Jack was right, the man was only young, the beard had convinced her otherwise.
“He looks wild.”
They stepped closer to the crowd. Isabelle tried to listen to the conversations but they were all talking in hushed voices. She knew most of them but didn’t feel she could interrupt any of them.
“Can everyone please disperse? Have we not already agreed that a large group of strangers is terrifying. Thank you.”
Caroline shooed everyone away with her hands. Jack held back, wanting to get a closer look.
“Izzy! Perfect could you come up here please. Jack can you go and finish your chores.”
Jack glared at his mother before turning and walking away. Isabelle stepped up onto the stage feeling nervous, this wasn’t her first time initiating a new person, but she always doubted that she was the best candidate. The crowd had finally gone and the resources team had set to work distributing the things they had scavenged.
“Isabelle, this boy needs a chaperone and I think you would be great, take him to get cleaned up and get him something to eat, show him everything.” She gave a pointed look that said not everything. She turned to look at the boy again before leaving “You’re safe here.”
Isabelle calmed her nerves, she reminded herself she was an adult and not a child and that she had dealt with kids when she had been a camp leader.
“I’m Isabelle. What’s your name?”
The boy tightened his grip on his backpack his eyes still darting around.
His voice was hoarse. “Tylor”
“Hello Tylor. We have warm water and towels, and I can get you some clean clothes. How does that sound?”
He nodded his head slowly. His eyes hadn’t lost their height or rapid searching looks.
She lead him to a smaller cabin away from the centre of the camp. It had originally been made as a single unit for a leader, now it was used as an initiation room. It helped to make new people feel safe at the camp before joining properly.
She turned on the hot water for a bath and laid out a towel for him.
“I will go and get you some clothes. There is also a barber here who would love to get his hands on that beard, I can bring him here if you don’t want to go across camp.”
She pointed out the soap bar and the towel.
She left feeling unnerved.
The clothes room was small and cramped, they were rarely allowed new clothes. She guessed at his size and pulled out a plain t-shirt and trousers. She found some socks and made a guess at the right size of boots.
The barber was outside with his friends. They were passing around a cigar, most likely scavenged by request from the resource team.
“Hey Mick. I need a favour.”
The group started jeering at her, she was used to their jibes about her being Mick’s favourite. She had always sworn they were just good friends, but he had stolen a kiss or two from her.
“Sure thing, what’s up?”
“You’ll need your knife. Meet me at cabin one in half an hour.”
The group went silent. They all knew cabin one meant a new person. Isabelle thought over the look Mick had given her as she headed to the canteen to get Tylor some food. The food team were curt with her as she asked for food before the allotted meal time.
Isabelle made sure to make plenty of noise as she reached the cabin door, she didn’t want to startle the kid by knocking without warning.
“Tylor it’s Isabelle. I have some clothes and some food for you.”
The door opened abruptly, he was still wearing his dirty clothes, but she could see his hair was wet and his face and hands were clean. She handed him the pile of clean clothes first.
“I had to guess your sizes, I hope everything fits.”
He raised his eyebrows at the boots handling them with curiosity. He looked at the tray in her hands.
“Get changed first.” She scolded.
He went back into the bathroom to change. She laid the tray onto the table. Her own stomach protesting at being so close to food while it remained empty.
He came out, his hair dangling into his face as he pulled at the new clothes. She smiled inwardly at the site, she knew what it felt like to be in someone else's clothes.
“Not too bad. I can take you to look at the clothes tomorrow, see if we can’t find something better. How are the boots?”
He looked at his feet, still bare.
She sighed. “How long have you been without shoes?”
She nodded and pointed at the tray in front of her. He collapsed in the chair opposite and devoured the food. She watched in fascination. He finished and leaned back in the chair licking each individual finger, the cutlery untouched.
A knock at the door made him jump in fright. He grabbed the arms of the chair and watched warily as Isabelle stood and opened the door.
Mick stood on the step with his trusty kit rolled up under his arm.
“Tylor this is Mick, he's the camp hair cutter.”
Tylor’s shoulders relaxed and his face softened. Mick was an unemposing man, he was a sleight build and had a baby face.
Isabelle sat and watched as Mick took control and set to work. He was good at his job, or he had been when it was a profession. He removed the entire beard revealing clear skin underneath and he trimmed his hair down to short black curls. The straggly mess gone in a matter of minutes.
Isabelle was surprised at how young he looked, younger than Jack. She knew looks and age weren’t always compatible, she knew she looked older than she felt.
Tylor stood and looked in the mirror. His hand traced the edge of his jaw, he tilted his head and ran a hand through his hair.
“Looking good my friend. If you ever fancy something different I’m usually around cabin twelve, just ask for Mick.”
He gathered up his kit and winked at Isabelle as he left.
“He your boyfriend?”
Isabelle raised her eyebrows in surprise. “He thinks so.” She sighed and looked at her hands. “It’s not safe for people to be in relationships. People die from the sickness all the time. And children can't survive at all. Pregnancies kill the mothers. It’s all discouraged.”
She realised she had rambled and revealed too much. She loaded up the tray and kept her eyes away from his prying gaze.
“You should get some sleep. I’ll be back for you in the morning.”
She stepped out of the cabin and released her breath. Tylor looked like someone from her past. Someone she thought she had forgotten. She walked away feeling wrecked, crying for the second time in one day.
The tray slid into the holder easily. Isabelle looked around the canteen for familiar faces. She could see Jack and their friends sat by the window. She joined the queue, collected her dinner and went over the group. She felt exhausted from the few hours she had spent with the silent boy.
She had barely sat down before Jack pounced on her with questions. Who is he? What’s his name? Where’s he from? What’s happened to him? What did you do?
Isabelle gave her friends a pointed look. She ate as they carried on their previous discussions. She struggled to keep up with them. Her thoughts were clouded. The food tasted bland in her mouth, her previous hunger forgotten.
The crowds in the canteen dispersed and the pots and trays were cleared away.
“Are you okay?”
Jack asked when they were the few left.
“No.” She moved her dishes. “I’m going to bed.”
She slept fitfully. She dreamt of her parents. She hadn’t seen them since before the summer she had started at the camp. Her mother had convinced her it would be a good experience for her, teaching kids how to swim. She had wanted to go to them when the virus first broke out, but she had managed to call her mum who had made her promise to stay where she was. She had always hoped that they would one day come for her, but there was always the nagging feeling that they were already dead.
She turned over in her bed, the sheets falling from her legs.
She was swimming in the lake, something was following her, she tried to swim faster but it became like quicksand. She wasn’t strong enough to keep her head above the surface.
The things in the water clawed at her legs, pulling her further under. The thing behind her was coming closer. She tried to fight but her legs tired and her movements slowed.
She heard a voice screaming her name. It was the child behind her, the zombie child.
“Izzy. Izzy. Wake up. That boy is screaming outside.”
Isabelle woke up, hands shaking her. Jack stood over her his eyes wide with panic. She looked around the room, hoping to have not disturbed anyone with her nightmare.
“You need to come now, no one can calm him down.”
“What?” She asked as she pulled on her boots, not bothering to get changed.
Jack lead her out of the cabin and towards the centre of the camp, there was a small group forming. All adults wearing sleeping clothes with jackets hastily pulled over. There was a loud screeching noise coming from the centre of the group.
Tylor stood surrounded from all sides brandishing a knife with a crazed look in his eye.
“What happened?” She asked no one in particular.
“He just started screaming. Colleen went to check on him but he pulled the knife, she’s in the infirmary. She’ll live.” The man added with the look of alarm on her face.
Jack put a hand on her back in an attempt to push her forward. She stepped through the gap. Everyone looked at her but she held firm taking slow steps towards him. He turned and recognised her. He still held the knife in his hand, it was slick with blood.
Isabelle steeled her nerves. She looked directly at him as she got closer. She held up her hand at the crowd, they quietened. She had seen Caroline calm people down before, it was like a trick, bringing them back to reality.
“Tylor. Look at me. What’s my name, Tylor?”
The boy looked confused at the question. “Isabelle.”
She nodded taking another step forward. “What did I do for you when you first got here?”
“You got me clothes and food.”
She nodded and took another step. She was just out of arm's reach from him, the knife still wavering in his hand. She held out her hand in front of her.
“Give me the knife Tylor.”
The boy looked younger than she had first thought as he looked at his own hand, covered in blood. He dropped it into her hand. She threw it blade down into the mud. The crowd started back up again but she tuned them out as she caught hold of Tylor, his body sagging into her arms. She held onto him tightly, his body shook from his dry sobs.
He wailed as she held on tighter.
“You’re safe now.”
There would be an investigation over what happened. Isabelle feared the worst. They could vote to have him exiled. She doubted he would survive much longer out there alone. She would fight for him, as she had fought for others. People listened to her, despite her feelings of being too young, an imposter.
She had lead him back to cabin one, washed him off and put him into the bed. She had stood on the doorstep since. Arms crossed and a glaring look on her face.
Jack had gone to run interference with his mother. He would find out everything he could and report back to Isabelle.
The dawn rose slowly. The birds chirped and the horizon lit up with the morning sun. Isabelle shivered, a chill had settled in her. She had been grateful for the timely disturbance breaking her sleep.
She had many disturbing dreams that resurfaced when she was feeling down. Many were based on real events. There was one she thought of now, she was playing a game with the children, they were holding hands and running in a circle. One by one they drop down dead each with different ailments. And one by one she takes a knife and plunges it into there hearts. It’s a kindness.
She had cried over every child she had nursed to death, and cried harder still when she had had to make sure they were dead.
Tylor’s screams broke her trance. She raced inside. He was tangled in the sheets on the floor. Everything was drenched in his sweat. He kicked out with his legs. Isabelle stood back watching him, she wondered if that was how she appeared in the midst of a nightmare.
She slammed her hand against the table. The sharp noise jolted Tylor awake, he stood quickly trying to find a weapon.
“Tylor.” She shouted his name. He looked up at her. Recognition sunk in and he calmed his rapid breathing.
He perched on the edge of the bed, watching her out of the corner of his eye. She took a seat in one of the chairs.
“Do you want to tell me what happened last night?”
He remained mute. She was getting frustrated with one sided conversations.
“Well how about I tell you about my night?” She leant back in the chair, resting her feet on the table. “I was having a difficult dream. It's one I've had before. Never gets easier to deal with though. I’m fairly certain I was either about to drown or get the sickness when I was woken up. ‘Come quick Izzy, it’s the new boy’ I thought you were ill or something. I suppose you were.” She sighed, her hands running over the arms on the chair.
“I thought you had hurt yourself, holding that knife. Someone told me you stabbed Colleen. She's a great person. I think she heard you screaming in the night and decided to come and help you, only you didn’t know that and you were scared so you grabbed your knife and…”
“You have two choices you can either wallow in misery and most likely be kicked out of the camp and die within the next few years. Or you can tough it out, go and apologise, explain what happened, and live here for the rest of your long life. Whatever you decide I’m not going anywhere. This place is my home and these people are my family, and if you decide to stay, they will become yours too.”
A light tap on the door made Tylor jump. She couldn't tell if he had taken on board what she had said. It was a variation on a speech she had heard Caroline use over the years, in the beginning people were grateful for being rescued, now they have to readjust to living among people. Isabelle had helped initiate a lot of new people.
She opened the door to reveal Jack, with Caroline in toe. She let them in and they took up places in the room, Jack leant against the bathroom door frame and Caroline stood by the mirror, surveying the room.
“Tylor my name is Caroline, I run this place. We are one of the few civilised colonies left. We have establish contact with many other colonies and are in the process of recreating civilisation as we once knew it. As you probably know the sickness wiped out a lot of people, a lot of the children, from there the reanimation killed more. We survived because we knew what was happening.”
She paused letting her words leave the room.
“I would like to know what happened last night.”
She didn't phrase it as a question, just a statement that hung in the air. Isabelle marveled at the confidence she had. Tylor looked at the occupants of the room, looking at Isabelle last.
“I stabbed that woman because I could. Because I wanted to.”
Isabelle stood up, readying herself to yell at him but she halted as Caroline held out a hand to her.
“Do you understand what you are saying?”
He maintained eye contact with her as he nodded.
Isabelle couldn’t keep quiet.
Jack watched with a hardened expression. His arms tightly crossed in front of him.
“You admit to savagely attacking a member of this community of your own free will, without cause.”
Tylor looked at Isabelle.
Jack stepped across the room and flung open the door calling for one of Caroline’s right hands.
Isabelle stepped back, her elbow hitting the wall. She felt cold, sick to her stomach.
“You’ll die among the dead.”
She left the cabin, not looking back. Her strides getting longer and faster until she was running. She stopped just shy of the lake’s edge. The conversation with Caroline had not gone the way she had expected. She knew he would not be kicked out, he was young and relatively fit, they would put him to work, convince him to make amends. But she couldn't clear the image of his face from her mind. He had been pleased to admit he had stabbed her on purpose.
She stripped off her clothes and waded into the lake. Images of her dream surfaced as she went deeper into the water. She started swimming, trying to clear the thoughts of the dead from her mind. She couldn't, there were too many. Too many children, too many friends and her parents. She plunged her head under the water. She shivered from the cold.
As she resurfaced she saw Jack standing by the shoreline. She swam home.
This is my entry to the @Calluna’s Tell Me a Story Contest #13.
Find out about it here.
Image from Pixabay