Five Years Later
“There is a reason we aren't supposed to come down here and the last time I checked it was a really good reason,” Lilia complained, as she was frog marched out of the safety of the village and down towards the river.
“If it’s such a wonderful reason then why are you still following me?” Jane asked, smiling knowingly over her shoulder.
“You'd only drag me down here if I didn't walk of my own free will. And that was simply embarrassing last time,” she sulked.
They were moving quickly, in the shadows of the trees where they could. If they were seen to be leaving the village unaccompanied there would be hell to pay. But there was something about that day, the particular blue of the sky, the heat haze that hung like a great tent over the village that warranted a trip to the river.
Jane picked up the path through the dense covering of trees, well worn by their own feet over the years, which led to their river. She hummed to herself happily, letting her fingertips stroke the feathery ferns that reached towards the sunlight. Behind her, Lilia was muttering apprehensively, “...thought we'd grown out of this. If my dad finds out I'm done for. I don't know why I still let you talk me into this.”
“Because you love it,” Jane whipped around to face her. “And because you love me and you know I love it too. And because you know as well as I do that we can't spend all our lives hiding away. If we did we wouldn't be alive at all.”
Lilia's cherub like face bore the shame badly, she knew Jane was right. Since the whispers about the war had turned into shouted cries of terror a few years previously, everybody was constantly on their highest alert. Little trips like this one were nigh on impossible to arrange because they were absolutely forbidden.
“Fine, but if we get caught I’m telling everyone that you kidnapped me,” Lilia moaned.
“Don’t worry, everyone would absolutely believe that,” Jane laughed.
“Do you not worry about what your parents would say? Your father terrifies me,” Lilia shuddered.
“He has already given up any hope of having a ‘lady’ for a daughter. That went out of the window a while ago,” Jane chuckled.
“I think walking home without your knickers on after we’d been swimming and then accidently dropping them in the village square was the final nail in that coffin,” Lilia scoffed.
“Not my finest moment,” Jane agreed as she triumphantly led the rest of the way to the river with Lilia following obediently.
When they were young they had selected this particular stretch of river for several very sensible reasons and the reasons were as follows- One: It had a small waterfall perfect for jumping off and standing underneath to discuss secret issues. Two: It did not flow particularly fast there due to its shape and the gradient of the land. Three: It was surrounded by trees and was thus, more protected from prying eyes. Four: The section of woods it was hidden by were not considered locally to be part of The Dark Woods and so they could not get in trouble for frequenting perilous areas and Five: Jane had grown tired of walking on the day of searching and demanded that this bit of river was to be theirs forever more.
They had visited often when they were younger, spending hours resting their damp bodies on rocks or investigating the crawly creatures they found beneath the waterfall. There was less of an incentive to visit during winter months of course, yet they went every so often out of loyalty, scared to admit to themselves they were just fair weather swimmers.
One memorable December, when Jane was twelve, she and Lilia had been sat by the river, paying their dues. Lilia had said, “It’s a shame we have to wait for the summer to swim. But I suppose if we were really desperate we’d get in right now!” she laughed, her frozen red nose crinkling. With that, Jane stood. She didn’t say a word as she bent down and removed her boots. She didn’t wince as her bare feet hit the snowy ground. Lilia watched in awe as Jane’s hat, scarf, gloves and jacket landed beside her boots.
“Stop it, Jane. Stop it,” she had whispered. Jane’s face had taken on a worrying stone like quality. Before Lilia could convince herself that Jane was being serious and make an attempt to stop her, Jane had removed her clothes and was standing atop a rock.
“Stop!” Lilia cried just as Jane threw herself into the dark, icy water. Lilia, in a state of absolute panic dunked her arms into the river and grappled around helplessly in the top two feet of water and produced nothing but handfuls of stunted weeds. She could hold her arms there for no longer than a few seconds before needles of pain took over, like icicles had already begun to form in her blood.
“Jane!” she bellowed, but her friend did not emerge. She searched the surrounding trees in desperate hope that someone had followed them to their secret place, something they usually thought about with fear and disgust. No secret hunter revealed themselves. She was alone and she was going to be the reason why her best friend died.
“Please!” she begged with her own reflection on the water. She had been under for far too long. She was surely dead. Poor Lilia, she would have to work out what to tell Jane’s parents.
“I did all I could...” she could hear herself saying, feeling sick because she hadn’t done anything at all really and she would have to live with the knowledge of that for the rest of her life.
A moment later, a rattling breath sounded just along the bank. Jane was pulling herself onto the frosty grass, gasping and coughing. Her body was white like the snow beneath her, decorated with the occasional smattering of green as the weeds had clung to her pale form. Panting with tears and effort, Lilia helped pull her body from the water, stared down at Jane’s porcelain face and said, “Well, you scared me to death! Are you happy now? What on earth did you do that for?”
Terrible little Jane replied simply, “I’m not a fair weather swimmer.”
In an effort to prove a point, Jane nearly died that winter. She grappled with herself for three months, in and out of life. One day she would appear to have recovered, she would sit up and laugh about how silly she had been. Then the next day she would be coughing up blood and the family would be keeping vigil at her bedside. They all waited like people condemned, this would end one way or another and Jane was growing weaker by the day.
The thing that pulled her from this coma like state was simple enough. A boy, a person who had become a friend of hers since he had moved into the village. He was granted passage into her bedroom one day during a particularly bleak patch. Her parents had started to give people who wanted to say goodbye the opportunity to do so and this boy had turned up, ashen faced one afternoon.
He had sat beside her and said, “This isn’t the girl I met that day in the woods. That girl was ferocious. She wouldn’t let a stupid thing like this kill her. It would take a whole army to fell that girl. Where is she? Where has she gone, Jane?”
Of course, Jane could not reply, speech had been one of the first things to leave her. Even on her good days now she couldn’t string a sentence together.
“Find her. And this will all go away. She’s stronger than this,” he said, full of the fight that she had lost somewhere along the way. He took her hand. It surprised her that she could feel it at all, let alone feel the warmth that was radiating from it, straight into hers.
“Are you always this quiet, or is this especially for me?” Isaac asked her softly, quoting some words she had used nearly a year ago when they had first met.
An angry voice in the back of her mind was telling him to stop being so bloody cheeky and to leave her alone. She knew that she was dying and she wanted to get on with it peacefully.
“Well?” he probed, his face getting closer to hers. Shut up, the voice in her head said. Get away from me, it added with venom.
“Pathetic,” Isaac said simply. And that had done it.
“Shut up,” Jane hissed. They were the first words to issue from her lips in months and they tasted beautiful.
“That’s more like it,” Isaac smiled, delighted with himself. “You can still do better though.”
“I can’t. Now get out,” she shuddered with the effort.
“So close,” Isaac pushed. Jane shut her eyes, losing her words again, feeling woozy with effort.
Even before she could open her eyes again she felt his lips, soft but firm and insistent on hers. The blood boiled in her stomach and the strength that had long been forgotten returned to her. With the power of a knight she pushed him away from her until he stumbled back and hit a cupboard on the other side of the room.
“What the hell do you think you are doing?” she yelled.
“Kissing you,” Isaac said, laughing.
“How dare you?”
“It got you out of bed didn’t it?”
Until he said it she hadn’t realised where she was. Standing, first and foremost. Feet planted firmly on the floor, not shaking beneath her weight as they had done every other time she attempted to walk recently. Maybe this was because there was so little left of her to support. But mostly it was out of fury and the determination to fight her corner.
“You can thank me later,” Isaac said jubilantly as he turned to leave the room. Jane’s mother came hurtling into her bedroom at the sound of her daughter’s voice. Nora took one look at Jane, standing, frail and starved to death but still alive and now ready to fight for herself. “Thank you,” she turned to Isaac, breathless with relief. He shook his head, knowing he had done little but that little had been enough to save Jane. You just needed to know how to push her buttons. And that was the end of that.
That was four years ago now. Lilia had been frightened to return to the river for a while, scared of the ghosts that still lingered there. But Jane had never been afraid. She was the one at fault, not the river. It wasn’t to be blamed for her stupidity.
It was difficult to make the trip up there now due to the ‘sensitive social balance’ or in other words the imminent threat of blood thirsty murderers that could appear at any moment. They took their chances when they could. Since the war had started up again things were becoming worse and worse day by day. Jane didn’t like to think about that very often though; after all there was nothing she could do about it. But this small piece of rebellion on their part felt like it helped just a little bit.
At the bank of the river Jane placed the basket and blanket she had carried on the ground and promptly pulled her cotton dress over her head and kicked her shoes off at the same time. She was in the river before Lilia had even put down the towels.
The water was cold but in the heat of the afternoon it was like someone had lifted an invisible veil from her eyes and she was seeing properly again.
She lay back and floated gracefully on the surface of the water, feeling Lilia’s presence now beside her. They had long passed the time of feeling uncomfortable if neither of them had anything to say to each other. They were almost the same person. Jane reached for Lilia’s hand in the water and, without looking; it was there in the place where Jane had known it would be.
They bobbed around for perhaps an hour until Lilia complained that her skin was turning to tissue paper and though Jane would never admit it, she too could no longer feel her toes. At which point they scrambled onto the mossy bank and wrapped themselves in towels and sat in a sun dappled patch of grass where they ate hunks of cake which they dipped in a jar of honey. Like angel food, stolen from Nora’s store cupboard. Lilia read to Jane from a book she had bought with her. A book about romance that Jane hated but Lilia absorbed like oxygen. Her ebony hair hung heavily along her graceful face. She furrowed her brow with concentration when she came across words she didn’t know. Her voice was comforting, mixing harmoniously with the hum of the bees lurking around the jar of honey. It was an intoxicating afternoon.
But then something shifted in the air around them and immediately dragged Jane back to the earth.
“Shh,” she whispered, sitting bolt upright. Lilia stopped abruptly, knowing better than to question Jane. She couldn’t put a finger on what had changed but she knew instantly that something was wrong.
“Don’t move,” Jane ordered. How stupid could she be? How often had they been warned not to venture down here alone? Jane had even sworn to her parents that she hadn’t visited the river for years, with her fingers crossed in her pockets. Not since the accident. They hadn’t believed her, of course, but that was beside the point. Yet here they were, alone, indefensible, wrapped in towels and completely vulnerable. They might as well have been asking for it.
A twig snapped amongst the trees, something rustled in the bushes. It wouldn’t be long now. They would make themselves known and it would be over. People didn’t survive this kind of attack. She had heard all the stories, if they turned and ran they would be punished further for turning their backs on them. So they must sit and wait for them to pounce. Jane had always known that they were out there and that they could come at any time but she had never truly believed that she would die by their hands. She had considered herself immune for some silly, youthful reason.
Lilia started to sob gently beside her. Jane never cried, but she could understand why Lilia was. They would never see their family again, never leave school and they would never know what it was like to live in a world not governed by fear. It was all coming to an end far too quickly.
Then they heard the laughter. That was odd. The Crookeds weren’t known for beating about the bush.
“Who’s there?” Jane found her voice, suspicious and furious.
Suddenly, Billy Owens came rolling into the clearing, followed directly by his ringleader, Isaac Forrester. The pair were laughing jovially, giving each other gentle shoves as they made their way over to the girls. Lilia screamed at the sight of them and pulled her towel tight around her body but her lack of attire was not what most concerned Jane.
“Afternoon girls,” Isaac called through his laughter, straightening his clothes and giving himself a brief preen.
“This is a new kind of low, Isaac. You've done some stupid things before but this takes the cake, it really does,” she marched right up to him, fists clenched for a fight. He was nearly crying with mirth.
“And you, Billy! Do you have to do everything he tells you? What part of you thought that following us here was a good idea?”
They could not reply though as they were both breathless with laughter, tears rolling down their faces.
“You make me sick. I'm going to go straight to Rupert to tell him what you've done. Perverts don't make good Protectors you know, Isaac,” she turned sharply, ready to storm away when he grabbed her arm firmly between his hands, the joke gone from his face.
“You wouldn't dare mention this to Rupert because then you'd have to tell him that you were down here in the first place. I’d been led to believe that you promised your parents you’d stopped coming here a long time ago. I’d hate to have to tell them that was a lie. You’re putting yourselves in danger and the rest of the village to boot. Do you know how selfish this is of you? Given that you nearly killed yourself here once, I didn’t think you’d bother with it anymore. I thought you were smarter than this,” he said.
“You won't make me feel bad about this. We've been doing it for years haven't we Lilia?”
Jane turned to her friend for support who was blushing down to the tips of her toes. Billy had also stopped laughing now but not from anger or in preparation for a fight like Isaac. He was bewitched, unable to shift his gaze from Lilia's rose tinted face. Jane clocked that Billy probably didn’t need much convincing from Isaac to follow them down there.
“Um, yes I suppose we have but I said all along it was a bad idea. She made me,” Lilia stuttered.
“Well, the point is we've been doing it for years and never been hurt.”
“Apart from the time you nearly died,” Isaac butted in.
“That was my own stupid fault.”
“Too right it was your own stupid fault,” he cut in again.
“We've never been hurt by anybody else. We've never even seen anybody else down here, apart from today.”
“We followed you to protect you; we were doing you a favour!”
“I would have been able to handle it! Do you think I would ever let anything happen to anyone in that village? I always keep an ear out for the birds!”
“You have no idea. You are absolutely bloody clueless. The birds will not be enough to save you if an attack happens! If The Crookeds got hold of you down here, far from the town, without any clothes on might I add, you wouldn't have time to blink before you were flat on your back. You wouldn't even catch breath to scream,” he said matter of factly.
“You can't scare me. We’ve all heard the stories.”
“Clearly you haven't heard the right stories because if you had, you'd never leave the house again. Or maybe you don’t believe that it’s actually happening? That just because you haven’t seen the war with your own eyes yet, means that it’s just a bit of a scrap that’s gotten blown out of proportion?” he said, knowing Jane better than she liked to admit.
“I don’t want to have to do this, but I'm going to have to have a word with your father. He needs to know what you've been doing. If something happened to you, they would never forgive themselves and now that I know, I can hardly hide it from them.”
“I’m not a child! This is not your decision to make. If you dare tell him, I swear-,”
“What? What can you threaten me with?” he asked.
“What do you care if I get hurt? This is the most we’ve spoken in months!” she shouted at him, her face inches from his now.
“Whose fault is that?” he asked sarcastically.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Whose fault is it that we don’t talk anymore?” he asked quietly.
“It’s yours Isaac! It’s all yours!” Jane shouted. She had heard enough. She had bashed these issues through in her mind so many times that they were raw and she no longer wanted to confront them. She yanked her arm free from his firm grip and ran from the forest, off down an unfamiliar path, towel flapping about in the wind. As it has been discussed before, Jane did not cry. But if she did this would have been a perfect opportunity.
Jane and Isaac had spent several happy years as thick as thieves. But by this time in the story they were sworn enemies. The severance had happened two years previously when she was fourteen. In their hay days when Isaac was still new to the village the pair were never seen out of each other’s company. He had arrived at her house one day, not long after they had made acquaintance in The Dark Woods, looking lost and in need of care and attention. Jane had provided him with it in bucket loads. After that he came by every day, appearing to have just wandered up the hill to their house by accident but the truth was she drew him to her with her loud, abrasive manner.
Jane learned that his home was a difficult place to be, something to do with why they had moved there in the first place, a hardship in their own village that had pushed them out. Isaac didn’t fully explain the troubles to her. He didn’t like to talk about it. His sisters were taciturn, his brother was disinterested and his father was a cold man. It was clear that Isaac never wanted to be caged up in that house with his family who had suffered so much and were unable to overcome the wounds. And so Jane had come up with a solution. Together, they had built the tree house that she had been hankering after for a while. It was erected far from the village and his home.
“So when things get really dreadful, you can run away somewhere safe. A sanctuary,” Jane had said to him.
The spot they picked was perfect, in the fields behind Jane's house, sheltered but not directly out of sunlight, hidden but not impossible to find and with branches low enough to climb. In the summer months they would spend hours in that tree house because that was somewhere they could be anyone and problems could not get a foothold. The day would begin as pirates, next they were explorers in the jungle and then the day would end as valiant Protectors when they would discuss at great length how they would be the ones to overthrow The Crookeds once and for all.
Isaac fulfilled the boyish nature in Jane that came from living with three older brothers which Lilia couldn't hope to satisfy with her doe like tendencies. And Jane was so carefree and hopeful that she was able to help him forget what he had run away from. They balanced each other out perfectly. Together, they allowed each other to sit in the middle of themselves. They were contented.
Then one day it had all changed. Isaac turned sixteen and did something dreadful. He grew up. He disappeared from Jane’s side; he may as well have emigrated to the moon. He had grown elegant, tall, muscular, his hair thick and tousled. He had become a man somehow. His new found beauty did not gone unnoticed by Jane. Or indeed, every other girl in the village which meant Jane discovered she possessed a new feeling she had never felt before. Jealousy. It brewed and grew poisonous inside her, burning whenever she saw them looking at him, when she spotted him talking to them and on one occasion when she witnessed an innocent kiss between him and one of them, sat on Evelyn’s statue.
He was suddenly too good for little Jane who still wanted to play in the tree house and battle with bamboo swords in the woods. He no longer needed to be fixed for she had done that job and had out lived her purpose. The distance he put between them was irreparable, they were different people now. She would never forgive him for abandoning her.
Sometimes when she was particularly mourning her loss of Isaac, she would drift over to the old tree house, still there even though their friendship was lost, and remember him and the summers they spent there. Together, beneath patches of blue.