Leaning both my elbows against the table, I cradled my head in my hands. My matted, onyx hair fell over my face in curves, hiding my hollow expression behind it like a grubby veil. I felt sick, physically sick. I had washed my hands over and over again about a hundred times in a feeble attempt to remove the stains of red, but flecks of dry crimson still lingered cruelly under my fingernails. Alexander and I were tucked away in a corner booth, making it obvious to anyone who looked our way that we wanted to go by unnoticed.
The bar wasn’t, what you would call, busy. There were only about twenty people inside. Some sat in solitude, immersed in their thoughts. Others sat in groups; girls were talking about shoes, fashion and boys whilst some guys were watching a regular season game from the AFC and sinking a couple of beers to boot. It was a karaoke night and a group of drunken women on a hen party, dressed in cowboy attire, were slurring the words to a song on stage. I wish my life were so simple.
Alexander swirled the last few mouthfuls of his tap water round the bottom of his glass, watching intently as the liquid created a miniature whirlpool in the cup. Phoenix was still sleeping in the rear of the van. Somehow, she had slept right through all the screaming, the shouting and the crying. Through the death of an innocent child.
“What are we doing?” I asked miserably, “If we can’t protect others from them, then how can we protect ourselves?”
“You shouldn’t let yourself get upset, we moved away from home because people were getting hurt. You can’t expect that element to just disappear. Wherever we are, people are going to die.” He said firmly.
“You’re right,” I smoothed my greasy fringe away from my face, “I always knew this was going to be difficult.”
Alexander draped his arm over my shoulder, giving it a squeeze of reassurance, “At least we still have each other, imagine if it had been ’Nix, or you, or me.”
“I know, I know,” I shook my head sternly, “I wouldn’t let that happen, I couldn’t. We let our guard down; we can’t do that again... Not even for a second.” My jaw became set, “We can’t let anything like this happen again.”
He ran his index finger slowly down the side of my cheek, brushing the stray lengths of my hair behind my ear as I looked back at him with mournful eyes, “I know.”
I felt so stupid. I can’t believe I had let this happen, I can’t believe I had been so foolish. Alexander had buried Ryan’s body where he lay, carrying or transporting it anywhere else would have left a path for anybody trying to look for us.
“He was so young Alex,” I whined, “He was just a boy. He hadn’t done anything wrong.”
He laid his lips on my forehead, pressing them close so I could feel their subtle warmth “I know Ivy,” He murmured, “He didn’t deserve it, none of us do.”
This had made me realize The Shadows wouldn’t hesitate. They would kill indiscriminately just to get what they wanted, what they needed. They killed a young child like Ryan in cold blood, like it meant nothing to them, and they would just as easily kill me. I was one of their victims. A girl cheating death. I didn’t comprehend the seriousness of my situation fully until today. If they caught me, it would be the end. No second chances, no salvation nor redemption, this wasn’t a game; it was my life, my friends and so much more on the line and I was the key to it all. If they caught me, we’d all be dead.
“I wonder if he has a mother,” I mused, “I wonder if she knows he’s missing.”
“Hush now,” Alexander purred gently, his hazel eyes lingering on mine for a second longer than they needed to, electricity ran over my skin, “Don’t think about it.”
“It’s hard not to,” I shot back at him sourly, “He was a child.” Several heads turned to stare at me and my outburst.
“You know that they don’t care who they kill, a soul is a soul.” He shrugged, not like it meant nothing to him – I knew it hurt him as much as me – but like he didn’t have anything else to say. I saw the way his blonde hair caressed his forehead and how it landed elegantly upon his ears, which led my gaze to the skin of his muscular throat and down to the soft cling of his t-shirt.
On that note I turned to him and suggested, “Let’s talk about something else. Finish up your drink,” I changed the subject, “We need to hit the road.”
I didn’t feel uncomfortable with Alexander; in fact he was the only person I could act myself around.
“Whoa,” He raised one eyebrow, “You’re getting up to sing before we go anywhere.”
I glanced at the stage, it was currently empty. I hadn’t sung for a while, it had been too difficult. I only sang because of Benjamin and his encouragement. And he was no longer around.
“No,” I shook my head, “I can’t.”
Alexander squeezed my hand in an attempt to calm me, “You can do it. I’ve missed hearing you sing.” He kissed my fingertips, I couldn’t help but lean in towards him, and glory in the scent coming from him, breathing it in slowly and holding it there – almost unable to let it go. “It will remind me of home.”
“That’s all behind us now, it’s never coming back.” I whispered, barely audible, “I’m sorry.” It pained me too much to think of home, let alone remind myself and the people surrounding me. We had left to protect them, to protect all of them. We weren’t safe to be around.
I couldn’t physically do it, I refused to sing. It would completely wreck me emotionally. I tried not to think about all the memories singing would bring back. Memories I’d spent months trying to remove from my mind, memories I vowed I would never think of again.
Alexander chewed on the inside of his mouth; he was blatantly uncomfortable and wanting to get something off his chest. I had never seen him like this, even in the current circumstances he was never edgy or tense.
“What’s wrong?” I lay my hand on-top of his and, as I did, I could feel the tendons in his hand rippling under the strain of the words that were locked in his throat.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” He chuckled, looming towards me, “It doesn’t matter.”
He pulled away gradually, the look in his eyes making me melt inside. A loving feeling rose in my chest, warm and full. His irises twinkled like light amber stars when the sunlight hit them and the chocolate brown flecks within them shone. They were always filled with kindness, always full of emotion. They never clouded over, or became blank. There was always a sparkle within them. I loved their ability to speak without Alexander having to say a single word.
I gave him a look, “I don’t believe you. Come on Alex, tell me.”
He just looked at me, shaking his head slightly. He surveyed his glass closely. He then brought his broad fingers up towards my hairline. As the warm tissues of his flesh ran along and through my hair I closed my eyes but opened them immediately afterwards – just in case he vanished. It could easily happen. The Shadows would sometimes snatch people unannounced. I fixed my eyes onto his face, enclosing him and me in our own world inside my head, locking us in there and throwing away the key.
“You can trust me,” I squeezed his hand in encouragement, “I worry about you.”
Alexander took a deep breath, closed his eyes and spoke carefully, hesitantly, “I love you Ivy. I always have. Since, the moment I laid eyes on you.” I opened my mouth to ask questions, but he silenced me with a sharp hand gesture, “I love you now more than ever, with all of this happening. I want to be that one person,” He gulped – this was obviously difficult for him, “That one person you can rely on Ivy. Even if it’s just me and you, I’ll always be there no matter what. I’ll fight for you Ivy.”
“I don’t –” I stammered. I just wanted to calm down, to make sense of what was happening between us.
Alexander interrupted me, “No Ivy, I’ll always be the one there for you, to save you.” He stared deep into my eyes, his gaze unwavering. I knew he meant it, every word that spilled from his mouth was said with feeling.
He waited for me to answer. I met his smoldering eyes with mine, he blinked patiently. For the first time in a long time I looked at him, really looked at him, taking in every tiny detail. The strong, masculine line of his jaw in comparison to his supple skin; the way his hair resembled gold, glinting gently under the lamp light; the rugged stubble he had recently acquired; the gracefulness of his straight nose; the way his eyelashes were flecked with honey pigments; the way his charming smile caught me like a disease, causing me to smile too.
Any version of words failed me; so many things were rushing through my head I didn’t understand what was happening. My eyes over-flowed and I blinked, sending salty droplets rolling down my cheeks. I knew he was still staring at me so I said, “Alex, I don’t know what to say.”
“You don’t have to say anything,” He hushed.
I sat there, chewing my lip awkwardly. “I, I don’t understand.”
He stifled a snicker; he clasped my chin in his hand, forcing me to look into his eyes. “You don’t have to understand anything Ivy. I’ll wait for you.”
My heart fluttered manically. Not in fear, but in affection and excitement. “How long have you felt like this?”
He threw back his head, expressing amusement, “Let’s just say… a long, long time.”
Then I said something I didn’t expect to come out of my mouth, but I knew it wasn’t rushed or false, “I love you Alex.” The words clawed their way out of my blushing lips, like I had been hiding my true feelings for a long time. This was an unexpected fairy tale in an Apocalypse.
Alexander beamed lovingly, he let out a satisfied sigh and took my hand in his, “You don’t know how long I’ve waited for you to say that.” His eyes were luring me in towards him, closer and closer.
Without knowing it, my hand rose to the back of his neck, pulling his head towards mine, while my own neck arched up instinctively, this wasn’t just a gesture, it was a demand. A demand for him to satisfy my thirst for his lips, his tongue, his breath and his very essence.
His lips brushed mine effortlessly. His warm fingers wrapped around my waist he pulled me towards him, “Oh Ivy...” He breathed huskily. One of his hands entwined into my hair, massaging my head. I loved it when Alexander touched me; I loved the tingle it gave me on my skin, not a creepy hair-standing-on-end tingle, it felt like magic, like fairy dust sprinkling itself onto me.
All of a sudden the bar went eerily silent.
No one moved. No one spoke.
I heard a ringing in my ears; someone once told me that this noise was my brain creating a sound to explain a silent room. That someone lied. I knew what it really was. I couldn’t put it into words, but whatever is was, I didn’t want to meet it. It was trying to break through and force itself into my plane of existence. It was not from this world. I was glad I could still hear the ringing because if I didn’t, it had finally managed to come through, to cross worlds. Deep down, I knew that when that happened, no amount of running would save me.
I shivered, ripping myself away from Alexander, sensing the danger. I opened my eyes and they were greeted with nothing. The bar had been plummeted into darkness.
There was no sound, no screaming, which was unusual for a room full of loud, drunken girls. My ears prickled with alarm, sensitive and searching for any sudden change in weight anywhere in the room.
Then the lights slammed back on. I swept the area with my gaze. The cowgirls were gone. Nobody else had seemed to notice; they hadn’t even flinched or question the power-cut. Had they felt the lights go off? Had anyone even seen it? They were just carrying on with their normal life, like nothing had happened.
I glanced at Alexander, his eyes were darting backwards and forwards. Sweat sitting over his creased forehead. I knew he sensed them close to us. His hand was clutching his weapon firmly, ready to leap into action in less than an instant.
A gust of arctic wind washed over me and goosebumps sprang up on my skin, I shivered again.
Alexander caught my eye and mouthed, ‘They’re here’.
I nodded grimly. I knew, they were always close behind us. We could never escape from them. They were after one thing, and refused to stop until they had it. My fingertips brushed the cool metal of the handle on my flashlight.
The lights shut off again. I sat and I listened, I didn’t dare move.
Once more the lights turned on.
The man at the end of the bar was gone. The last thing I saw him do was neck back a shot of whiskey and shout at the barmaid for another. It was like he had evaporated into thin air.
He had been taken.
The bulbs cut-out again.
“What the hell is going on?!” Alexander hissed sharply through the total blackness surrounding us.
I didn’t answer, more like, I couldn’t answer. My heart was in my mouth. My mind was trying to put together what was happening.
Light flooded into the room all at once.
The guys watching football were a lost cause now - they had also disappeared.
It happened again. The lights continued to flick off and then on again. Off and then on. Off and on. Each time, someone else was missing from the bar.
Flashbacks swamped my thoughts, the horrific memories of me sitting on my bed watching the landing light. I swallowed, my mouth was as dry as a bone and sticky, it was as if my glands had ceased to produce any saliva.
Every time the bulbs turned themselves back on, another group or person sat alone was gone. Taken by them and soon, there was only Alexander and I sat in the room. The air was ice-cold and shivers inched up my spine.
The well-lit room became dark again.
A shuffle came from the left. Alexander embedded the beacon of white, which came from his torch, into the floor of the direction the noise came from.
It landed on nothing.
I saw a flicker of movement in the back corner but I didn’t catch it in time. I was too late.
My breath remained calm despite the situation. It always did now.
There it was.
It sped stupidly into my torch light, trapped, locked in mid-run. I watched in awe as the Shadow set ablaze. It was over.
The lights came back on.
“That was easy,” Alexander shrugged.
I was still on-edge, “There’s something wrong.” The tingle in the back of my neck was burning harshly, “That was too easy.”
His lips pursed, “I don’t know… maybe they’re losing their touch.”
“Alex, they never send one alone now, they aren’t that stupid!” I tried to explain, “I just… It ran into the light, on purpose.” I stressed. “What is happening?”
That was when a blood-curdling, shrill screech came from outside the door. I knew immediately what it was. It couldn’t have been anything else. I froze with pure terror, turning my muscles into lead. I couldn’t move. My heart hammered, echoing in my head. I would know that dreaded sound anywhere.
They had Phoenix.