Isaac’s clock read quarter past three. He’d managed two hours this time. Once again he had woken drenched in sweat, the covers in a tangled, lumpy mess up around his ear holes, knowing there was no point trying to find sleep again. It had been the same old nightmare, blood flying through the air, the sight of her flesh tearing like the skin on an apple. He rubbed his eyes in a vain attempt to clear the images. But it was useless because they were always with him now. He had accepted that they would never go away.
Sighing and groaning with defeat he made his way downstairs where he would drink tea until he could bear no more, when the sun would come up and he would continue to fill his days with inane tasks of distraction and carry on waiting some more.
That day was a particularly awful one as it marked a year to the day since everything had come to a crashing finale, the day in the prison. Everything about it all was still so sharp. The details were raw and bristled at him all the time. He could not help himself but endlessly examine what had happened, turning it over and over in his hands. It stung and burned at his touch and yet he could not leave it alone. The pain was the only thing that felt real anymore.
It was the time of year when the winter was just starting to find its feet; the days were becoming shorter, allowing more time for bad dreams. It would be hours until the sun would rise again. Although the summer had bought different nightmares with it, there was something about seeing a fine day that made it all so much worse; he was constantly expecting to see Jane come flying past him, dragging Lilia along behind her, assuring him they were not going down to the river.
He set about making the tea, not worrying about the noise he made for he lived alone these days, in the old cottage that used to belong to Wendy and Vern, halfway up the track that led to her house.
When they had returned to village, Isaac had stayed with his stoical father and siblings, who had miraculously all survived their incarceration, for two days. They had driven him wild. His sisters were bent on comforting him whilst his father and brother were determined to act as though nothing had happened at all. Neither of which was a solution for Isaac so he had made the empty cottage his own. It had been abandoned for many months when he got to it; there was damp, broken windows and vermin. It was perfect, he didn’t change a thing. Plus it was closer to where she would be, if she were to return. Because secretly, he was tricking himself into believing she was still alive. He would never have breathed a word to anyone about his hopes but he nurtured the thought like a new sprouting bud. He just had this feeling, a curious sensation of unease. He could still feel her. And it wasn’t out of the realms of possibility. Maybe she had survived.
Once she had called out her command, the thing that had ended the war, each and every last Crooked had stepped away from her bleeding body like they had been electrocuted. They looked to each other hopelessly, knowing there were no loop holes to jump through. She had been quick and clever with her command. They had unlocked the cells and delivered The Hopefuls from the prison before any one of them had time to come to their senses. They were forced down the corridors and told to take the icy, underground Protector’s passage back to their village.
Isaac was stumbling along in the darkness before he even thought to wonder if Jane had survived the attack. Coming to his senses, he had run back along the passage to find the trapdoor locked and impenetrable.
“Please! Give me her body! Please!” he had screamed himself hoarse but he was greeted only with silence. The Crookeds had already abandoned the prison and fled to some other unturned stone in their battery. Somewhere to live out the rest of their miserable days in exclusion until the day that they all murdered each other and combusted from the outside in.
As every day went by her survival grew more and more unlikely. But there was still that feeling, a feeling that refused to be ignored.
Those months in the prison stretched out before him like a wide expanse of rolling desert. They had made it so very hard for him, him having been the one to save her in the short run. They were clever; they had been all too aware of what she meant to him and him to her. So they leaned on him for information. They bullied him, torturing him at first with words, telling him over and over how sweet she would taste, what they were planning for her when they finally got to her, which they assured him-they would do in the end. When he sat immobile and cold, whilst wailing and bleeding on the inside, they started to hurt him. He got the works. Beatings, whippings, burning, drugging. They tried it all. But not a single word escaped his lips about Jane. He had given her that much.
When they had found him immovable, they shifted on to the others. Lilia had been a firm favourite of theirs because she was young and beautiful and utterly terrified. They only had to rape her once to get her to talk. None of them blamed her for passing on information but they sobbed along with her as she cried throughout the night.
Lilia was living in the Shepherd house now. Her parents had both died early on in the prison. They had proved themselves to be expendable. And since she was soon to be married to Oliver, it made sense that she moved in. The pair made a good match, Isaac noted. She was ruined whilst he was still, despite everything, light hearted and good humored. Their love had begun in a simple fashion. His cell had been next to hers in the prison and whilst she wept, they were able to reach out and touch their fingertips together.
The day of the wedding was to take place several months from now, as soon as winter decided to give way to spring. Isaac had received the invitation but had not decided whether he would be present or not. Lilia had been to visit a few days before. They had sat at the dirty kitchen table, sipping the lemonade that she had brought over and pretending there was not a ghost with them in the room.
“I'd really like it if you were there,” she said.
“I'm thinking about it,” he had replied, honestly.
“I know that it's going to be hard for everyone. But I think it’ll be so much harder if we aren’t all there together. It just won’t feel right if you don’t come,” she said, looking down into the glass and seeing a face she often conjured up nowadays.
“It'll be the anniversary soon won't it?” she asked, knowing the answer full well. He nodded bleakly in reply.
“It's not the same anymore,” she had whispered.
Some self important person somewhere or other had decided that on the day of the anniversary, the final day of The Age of Atrocity, all the remaining Hopefuls across The Kingdom should celebrate how clever they had been to survive the war. Survivors were indeed few, not many of the villages had been left habitable and anyone left standing were people who had run away to the sanctuary of the wild. This included a few hundred Undecided’s that now, once the danger had passed had converted back to Hopefuls. Much to everyone’s disgust.
Isaac and the rest of the Shepherd family had argued until they were black and blue in the face that no celebration of any kind was to take place on that day. It was pivotal that the day be used for remembering Jane. However, with all the nomads and displaced people that the war had left behind, the village was bursting to the seams with people who all thought they deserved a good celebration. The village, being The Village, and one of the only ones left standing had proved a rather desirable place to live. They were inundated with refugees and as a result, they overruled the original villagers.
The newcomers treated the place like they were on a permanent holiday. As a reward for the suffering they had gone through they would wile away their hours in the sun, playing games in the green and not giving a single thought towards the people who were grieving. They ate picnics in the town square, stole apples from orchards that they had not struggled to nurture, they lounged in the shadow of Evelyn’s statue, and they kissed on the benches. Isaac would storm by them, growling under his breath, earning himself the title of ‘the twenty one year old mad man.’ They said he was driven crazy with his loss and loneliness, which wasn’t too far from the truth.
At any rate, the newcomers had demanded that the party take place so the motion had passed. They did not care that it was the anniversary of her death, she had died to give them life so it would do no good at all to stop living, they had argued.
His tea finished, ordinarily he would sit at the kitchen table and try to fall asleep until the rising sun would call him back to wakefulness again. But that unbearable day in particular called for something different. He stood and decided to start the short journey into the village. He could see, glinting through the slow dawn light, that someone had put up fairy lights and bunting and stalls in the village, in honour of the festival. He angrily kicked a stone along the track with him, it bounced a few feet before him then he caught up with it and then kicked it again.
There was a wooden dance floor in place over the village green. Whoever had put it together hadn't done it right. There were gaps between the slotted pieces of wood. A lady would get her heel stuck in that and fall. Nevertheless, he did not fix it.
Isaac took some pleasure in the thought that it was very chilly, the people planning the event hadn’t fully considered that the party would take place in October and by then foul weather would have been ushered in. He prayed for rain just to spite them.
Someone had put a straw hat and scarf on Evelyn. He promptly removed them and threw them into a neighboring hedge, stifling a sob as he did so. He was reminded of her every time he looked at the statue. He could still see her sitting there on the plinth, tiny and ferocious.
Someone had suggested a statue of Jane. But he had flat out refused that one. A statue of her would mean accepting once and for all that she was gone. It would mean that the only version of her he would ever see again would be made of stone. A statue would never have been able to do her justice. For whatever reason, nobody felt like taking the issue any further once Isaac had expressed his thoughts on the matter.
He was not surprised that they listened to him where she was concerned. Had their lives followed the natural course that they should have done, maybe it would be them getting married soon instead of Lilia and Oliver. But maybe had become the biggest word in any sentence any of them uttered nowadays.
“There is no question, you have to be there. As Protector, it is your duty,” Frank said that afternoon. Isaac was standing just inside the doorway, in the shadows where he couldn’t be seen properly, blocking their entrance to the house. Frank, Nora, Oliver, Peter and Lilia had all turned out and were standing amongst the unattended weeds in the garden. Isaac did not have the energy to feel ashamed.
“You cannot honestly expect me to go. Am I supposed to turn up smiling and pretend that I’m alright? I’m not alright, Frank,” Isaac said calmly, his voice wavering only at the last moment.
“Do you think any one of us wants to go? Trust us, we know. It’s awful and I don’t know when it will ever start to feel any better. But she wouldn’t want this. You know she wouldn’t. We are so much stronger together,” Peter said, firm and controlled. “Plus, what if there’s any trouble today? We need you.”
“There won’t be any trouble and you know it,” Isaac grimaced.
It had been insisted upon that Peter and Isaac take back their titles as Protectors when they had returned. Both had refused persistently, claiming that they had been the ones in charge when The Kingdom had collapsed. Neither felt worthy anymore. And also the rules stipulated that Protectors could not be changed more than once in a year and since both Isaac and Peter had handed their titles over, there was no way they could reclaim them anyway.
“Since you would not be new Protectors as you’ve both possessed the titles previously, the rule really doesn’t count. I imagine none of the rules count anymore anyway,” Frank had said.
Isaac could not bear the thought that he was replacing Jane as Protector. But Frank had bullied the pair back into it, saying they were the only ones fit for the job and the newcomers could not be trusted. Which was true and so they had finally accepted. Their reluctant arms were twisted. Although they were all sure that Jane had solved the problem of The Crookeds once and for all, they decided she would still like the idea of Protectors keeping watch over everybody. It was for her that they accepted.
“Please Isaac,” Nora sighed. Isaac nodded grudgingly, doing something once more because he was sure Jane would have liked the idea of it.
Not so very long later he was sat on the old bench outside his father’s house, arms folded and on his own. He was perfectly able to watch from there, he had reasoned with himself. And he was utterly convinced the only thing a single one of them might be needing protection from would be a large vat of home brewed beer.
The village was alive with the sound of merriment. Jansen, who always had his guitar slung nonchalantly over his shoulder ready for any occasion, was playing for the masses and loving every second of the attention he received from the women. Isaac was bewildered by the whole proceedings.
The Shepherds were sat on the other side of the square by the bell tower with a few other survivors, his father, Brian and Martin. None of them mixed with the newcomers. Peter was talking to his sister, Anna; Isaac took a moment to notice. It would only make sense if they married one day too. He hoped for their sake that they would.
People had plates full of food, most of it stolen from fields and farmyards that had nothing to do with any of the people who had organized the buffet. Everyone was walking around saying things like, “Glad the weather has stayed nice for us,” and “Isn't this potato salad the best you've ever had?” and “I've been looking forward to this day all year!”
Suddenly, Isaac felt the wood of the bench shift and creak and there was a girl he didn’t know sitting next to him. She had bright blonde hair and a small smattering of freckles. She smelled pungently of flowers and fruit but there was the tell tale scent of alcohol mixed in there too. He knew the stench all too well.
“Audrey,” she smiled, breathlessly.
“Isaac,” he grumbled in response.
“Oh, we all know who you are,” she smiled, flipping her golden tresses back. “Would you like a drink?”
“No. Thank you.”
“Well, if you won’t dance with me or drink with me will you talk to me at least?” she said, not quite sure how to handle the knock backs.
“I don't think so. I'm on duty,” he said, very glad after all that he had it as an excuse. She shut up for a bit then, clearly embarrassed and not used to being denied. She would have been pretty, her symmetrical face and soft features suggested so. But she wasn't Jane. So she could not compare.
“People talk about you quite a lot,” she stated quietly, wringing her hands together.
“Really?” Isaac said, not snapping at the bait as she had hoped.
“Yes,” she said, but still he remained taciturn so she continued without prompt.
“People talk about how involved you were in the war. And how you’re very lonely now and how you aren’t trying to forget at all. Don’t you think it time you tried to move on?” she asked. At her words he felt that tingling run down his hands that usually meant he was about to punch something. Images of Tim with blood running down his face, dripping down onto his sodden clothes flashed into his mind and he banished the feeling.
“I can't,” he snapped, standing up.
“I don't think you've even tried,” she whispered in answer.
“Of course, I haven't tried,” he growled.
“And why not?”
“She is everywhere. How can I forget?” he spat.
“Oh, we thought there was something about a girl,” she smiled, her suspicions being confirmed. She stored the piece of information to use as gossip with her friends later that evening.
“A girl?” he repeated menacingly. The smirk fell from her face immediately.
“That girl is the sole reason I am alive. She is the reason that you are alive, the reason that all these stupid, arrogant, bastards are dancing and eating and breathing!” he spat in her face.
He bolted away from the girl and darted over to where Jansen was strumming a merry tune. The guitar was snatched from his hands, two strings breaking in the process. People turned to stare, dancers stopped mid step, others stopped mid mouthful, mid kiss, mid laugh. Perfect silence descended on the square in the middle of nowhere.
“One year ago today Jane Shepherd died. She died in order to save us all. Her last act in this world was to make sure she left it a better place than the one she was born into.”
“Isaac, stop it,” Lilia had crept forward to him, was extending her hand to him, trying to lead him away. He continued, ignoring her quite completely.
“And you act as though it never happened! As though no one has told you what happened on that day!” he cried.
“Please,” Lilia said, fresh tears budding in her eyes.
“You repay her memory by celebrating! You mock her life as though she had deserved the fate that she met! She was stronger and braver than anyone of us can ever hope to be and I miss her every single moment,” he wept, the pain breaching the barriers he had put up. His words failed him as Lilia managed to take his hand and lead him away.
“Damn us all!” he managed to cry before he was ushered into his old house on the square, where he greeted his friend, Grief, with both hands.