Isobel looked at herself in the cracked mirror. Black eyes stared back at her, hollow and empty, like twin voids drilled into her face.
Not again, she thought, her body trembling in fear. Please God, not again! Not this soon!
Her reflection stared back, silently begging for mercy.
If they’re the windows to the soul, then God help me... Isobel shivered, despite the heat.
She’d just watched the world burn again, her eyes turning pitch black, dark as the falling night outside. It was the third consecutive day the dreams had plagued her and Isobel was scared. She was barely sleeping and was losing the ability to function. Hell, coherent thought was becoming an issue, she was so exhausted. If she didn’t get a decent night’s sleep soon, Isobel knew she’d go mad, driven insane by sleep deprivation and unrelenting horror. There was only so much she could take! The nightmares intensified daily, her eyes changing for longer… a full mental collapse couldn’t be far off. Shaking, she stared mournfully at her weird reflection, wondering why she still got so upset by this.
You’d think I’d be used to it by now. A stark smile twitched her features. With her black eyes the expression made her look…
Evil. Isn’t that what she called you last time? Evil? Maybe I really am a Devil child… Or maybe I just caught something.
An unhinged, deranged sound fell from her lips and Isobel was frightened by the shrill, lunatic noise. She bit the disturbing sound off, before it could become full blown hysteria.
Talk about living on the edge.
Another shrill giggle escaped her lips and she bit down, forcing her mouth closed. She wasn’t going to the asylum if she could help it. Not that there was anyone around to commit her. Part of her prayed this was all in her head, a trick of her fractured mind… but Isobel knew better.
Shaking, she reached an unsteady hand out to the stained mirror over the sink. Her fingers touched those belonging to her dark reflection in the cold, scratched glass and she knew beyond any doubt that this was real.
It was like staring into the depths of space... without the stars.
Her lip trembled and she bit down on it to keep from crying, terrified that her tears would fall in streams of shadow.
“What the hell are you?” she asked, setting her jaw in a quivering line of defiance, drawing on what little remained of her strength. “Why are you doing this to me?”
There was no answer, even when she shouted her question at the mirror.
It started ten years before, when Isobel was fifteen. She woke screaming, from apocalyptic visions of fire and melting flesh, scaring her boyfriend, Matt, half to death. When she looked in the mirror her eyes had been pure jet black.
By the time her mother came crashing in a minute later the blackness had left her, her eyes returned to their normal sea green colour. Gasping for breath, she told her mother, a hard unforgiving woman, what she had seen.
“Stop being such a stupid girl!” her mother snapped. “Honestly, I don’t know where you get these ideas from, him maybe!” She indicated the Marilyn Manson poster on the far wall of Isobel’s bedroom. “It’s a good thing your father left,” she looked Isobel up and down with disapproval, her lip curling in distaste. “He’d have beaten you half to death for making such a fucking racket.” With one final look and a derisive “hmph!” her mother left, slamming Isobel’s door behind her. Thankfully Matt had had the good sense to hide, otherwise her punishment would have been a lot worse.
She’d thought, the following morning, that her blackened eyes were a one off, perhaps a hallucination brought on by the drama and pleasure of the night. She wrote it off as simply, one of those things. She wondered if she had in fact imagined it, as her mother suggested.
Until a year later when it happened again.
Isobel had tried repeatedly to confide in her mother during the following years. Each time Isobel was greeted by derision, anger or simply ignored. Her mother was hitting the bottle pretty hard then, not so much that she couldn’t function but enough to bring out the worst in her.
There was a lot of worst in Myra Felton.
At first Isobel thought of her condition as Black Eye Syndrome then simply the Taint. She figured that was a good name since she already felt cursed. When she spoke to her mother about it, trying to find some support, she was slapped hard across the face and told vehemently that she was insane.
“Girl you’re a bloody nutcase! Mad as a box of crackers!” Myra had yelled. “I should call the asylum myself and have you bloody well put away! Black eyes indeed! I’ll give you a black eye!” Myra spat, glaring at Isobel with disdain.
“Thanks mum,” Isobel sniffed, raising her chin in defiance even as tears streaked her face. “Thanks for caring.”
“You don’t need care,” her mother sneered, jabbing Isobel hard to emphasise her point. “You need a fucking straight jacket.” She punctuated the point by knocking back her glass. Turning, she began refilling it with the cheap spirits she continually drank.
“Yeah,” Isobel rubbed the painful spot where she’d been prodded. “Have another drink mum.”
The second slap was so hard the impact almost burst her eardrum. Colours exploded behind her eyelids and she had to blink to clear her eyes. When she probed her mouth with her tongue Isobel tasted blood where her teeth had gashed her cheek. She wiped her lip, a thin red smear appearing across the back of her hand.
“Get out of my house!” her mother shouted, breathing her rank odour of vodka and cigarettes in Isobel’s face. “You crazy whore! Go! Get the fuck out! Go!” Isobel was already heading for the door. Something struck Isobel hard in the back, urging her out the door faster.
* * *
She had been twenty and it was the last time Isobel had visited her mother. She was grateful she’d had the sense to move out beforehand. Isobel had sometimes regretted moving out, feeling she had somehow abandoned her lonely mother. This incident, though far from the worst, had cemented in Isobel’s mind that she’d done the best thing by leaving. There was no way in Hell she could have lived with her mother after that night. Somehow a line had been crossed. Isobel hadn’t seen or heard from Myra since and felt no inclination to reach out. The hatred she’d seen in her mother’s face that day was seared into her mind, an ugly reminder that she was loathed not loved. Despite asking several times Isobel had never discovered why her mother hated her so. Did she blame Isobel for her father’s hasty departure? For ruining the woman’s life?
Well that goes both ways.
Or was it just that Isobel was younger and prettier than her foul tempered parent? Did the woman simply want to break someone as she’d been broken? Isobel sighed. Ultimately she’d probably never know Myra’s reasons for despising her only child. That was fine with Isobel as long as the woman left her alone. So far that hadn’t been a problem.
Isobel lived by herself in her tiny flat and that suited her just fine.
Until the Taint consumed her sleep and her sanity, until she looked in the mirror and saw her eyes. On nights like these Isobel really wished she had someone around to share the horror with, someone to hug her and tell her it would be okay.
As if she’d ever believe that comforting lie.
Blowing out a shaky breath she turned from the mirror and walked up the short, narrow hallway into her living room. She settled cross legged onto the sofa beneath the open window, only peripherally aware that she was rocking back and forth. Her nails went to her mouth, teeth worrying at them.
God, how am I gonna work tonight if I look like this?
She thought she could sell the idea that she was trying out some novelty contact lenses, but her eyes would probably be normal long before her shift began. Probably. One day, though, she knew the Taint would stay. She was certain of it.
Hopefully not today.
Her eyes fell on the half empty bottle of red wine sitting on the battered old coffee table. She’d only just got up, surely it was too early to start drinking? Having said that, Isobel had just had another horrific nightmare; she could use a drink. She looked at the bottle, weighing the decision in her mind.
“Fuck it.” She snatched the bottle from the table, ripping the stopper out and took a deep swallow of the dark ruby elixir. Then another. Still shaking, albeit slightly less, she sat, cradling the bottle. Eventually she felt some measure of calm return to her and she took another, smaller draw on the bottle, the oaky spice of the wine comforting her like a lover’s arms.
The sun was low in the sky, casting its final light over the horizon in the west. The east was already dark, stars twinkling in its navy gloom, reflected in the ocean’s waves. It would be a beautiful sight, if it didn’t remind Isobel so strongly of the darkness corrupting her. It was dark enough now that, with the lights out Isobel could see her frightened reflection in the windowpane. She stood, crossing the three steps to the window and examined herself.
The Taint was gone. Her eyes had returned to their natural blue flecked green, she could see her pupils, irises and whites again.
The only blackness were the long dark waves of her hair, set in contrast to her pale skin. Her cheeks looked hollow though, gaunt, as if she were losing weight.
Probably the stress.
She let out a big sigh of relief and gazing down, watching the last few streets before the ocean, took a final drag on her wine. She sighed again, put the stopper back in the neck and turned to gather her things. She had the late shift to do.
* * *
The Black Swallow was already heaving when Isobel walked in. She inwardly groaned at the prospect of a hard nights graft, she had not slept well and had hoped for a quiet night. Instead she would be frantically busy serving drinks, changing beer barrels and carrying food. At least she wouldn’t have time to fixate on her disturbing nightmares and the Taint.
Besides, Isobel smiled to herself, I always get into the rhythm of it when it’s busy. And there are some pretty hot guys here tonight. She admired a well toned guy in a snug black t-shirt as she passed, noticing the snake tattoo that wound its way down his arm. She smiled at him as he noticed her and she made a mental note to serve him later.
As if he’d want me after I wake up with black eyes. An amused smile crossed her face as she imagined snake boy’s response to the Taint. The look on his face would almost make her affliction worthwhile. Almost.
Dave, busy pulling a pint, lifted his chin at her and smiled in acknowledgment as she walked past. “Isobel,” he said in his usual deep rumble. Broad and muscular, even with his growing beer belly, Dave looked every bit as much of a mountain as he sounded.
“Hey,” she replied, ducking behind the bar and back into the staff area.
She glanced at the clock as she stuffed her bag into her locker, she still had a few minutes until her shift began. She slapped the rusty padlock closed and headed to the ladies. After quickly checking her make-up she took a deep breath and gave herself a stern look.
“You will not think about the Taint tonight,” she told her reflection. “You’ll pull pints, knock back a few cheeky shots, maybe flirt a bit, but you will not, will not, think about your nightmares or their freakish side effects.”
Pep talk over, she straightened up and gave herself a quick but thorough inspection. Her long, dark wavy hair shone, clean and healthy in the overhead lights, her faded grey-black jeans and black low necked t-shirt showed her figure without being too revealing. I’ll do, she thought and headed for the bar.
Thrash metal was blasting from the wall mounted speakers as she slipped behind the bar. A half drunk group in the corner were roaring tunelessly along with the loud, ferocious music, slamming their hands over and over on the table, in a vigorous, mistimed approximation of the song’s furious rhythm.
“Hell of a drumkit they’ve got,” she observed, sliding up beside Dave.
“They break the table, I’ll break them,” Dave rumbled, topping the head on the ale he was pulling. “Them be the rules.” He looked sidelong at her, “What’s the matter with you? You look gloomier than normal.”
Isobel shrugged. “Didn’t sleep well.”
“Again?” Dave’s grey eyebrows furrowed in concern. “You ought to see someone about that.”
“Maybe.” Isobel doubted a professional would be able to help with her particular symptoms.
“Or drink more,” Dave grinned.
Isobel gave him a tired smile in return. Even in her darkest frame of mind Dave could somehow always make her smile. “I don’t know if my liver could cope with that.”
“Liver be damned.” Dave wiped beer soaked fingers on his jeans.
Isobel shook her head and laughed.
“That’s better,” Dave smiled gently and nodded at the queue forming before the bar. “Come on, let’s get to work.”
The Black Swallow was a seafront rock bar, rough around the edges but in a good way. The tables were old and worn and the décor consisted of an ever growing collage of band posters and concert flyers.
It was exactly Isobel’s kind of place.
A few years ago, when Isobel was still a school girl, the Rose & Crown had been a dive filled with undesirables. When it closed down, most thought the place would be boarded up for a long, long time. Instead, it was bought out of the blue and reopened as The Black Swallow, named after one of Dave’s many tattoos. Ideas of it being another generic pub were blown out of the water on the opening night when local thrash band, Defiled Corpse, had played. The Black Swallow scared off some of the Rose & Crown’s old patrons, but became a favourite haunt of the local rock scene. The bikers who had used the Rose & Crown as a meeting place for many years were generally pleased with the changes and continued gathering there. High summer looked like a biker convention, with Harley’s, Kawasakis and Suzuki’s lining the road.
Dave, a grizzled aging biker with long greying hair, was thrilled. He had managed to do exactly what he’d set out to do; created a bar he could call home. Isobel had laughed when he explained this, as had he, but she could also see the sincerity in his eyes. After a while the place began to feel like home to Isobel too. So much so, she sometimes teared up when Somewhere I Belong came on the jukebox.
“I was at the first Monsters of Rock…” she could hear Dave intoning. Looking up she saw him talking to a young guy wearing a festival t-shirt. Dave did this; he got talking music and past gigs with customers and completely forgot he was supposed to be tending bar. It could be an endearing habit and it undoubtedly kept customers coming back, but on busy nights like this it was infuriating.
“Dave!” she called. He looked round sharply, startled out of his conversation, “You gonna pull this gentleman a pint or is he gonna die of thirst?” She nodded at the ever increasing queue. “Or shall I just sprout a few more arms? Hell, why not another head while I’m at it?”
“I’m on it Vishnu,” Dave retorted good naturedly, returning to his post with a smile. “Just remember who the boss is.”
“Yeah, me apparently.” Isobel handed a dripping pint glass over the bar. “Thank Christ we don’t do cocktails!” Dave just laughed, a deep hearty sound, warm and rich like old whiskey. Isobel sighed, it was impossible to stay angry at him for any length of time.
* * *
The hectic evening whizzed by in a flurry of drinks, cracking pool balls and loud guitar music. Isobel kept pace all night and found herself still energized when the crowd began to taper off around midnight. Taking advantage of the lull, she had a quick break and ventured out to collect glasses. Most of the tables were still occupied and Isobel bantered with the clientele as she worked, turning down a phone number and a slurred offer of a good time from one particularly drunk punter. It was only as she headed back to the bar, carrying a towering stack of empties that she noticed the guy sat alone down the far end. A blue and black checked shirt stretched across his slender back, dark hair hung past his shoulders, accompanied by a stubble that implied a phobia of razors.
Jake was a regular customer who usually kept to himself. It only now occurred to Isobel that he’d been here most of the night. She hadn’t served him once. They had talked on previous occasions and Isobel found him nice enough, although somewhat taciturn. In fact during their last conversation she thought Jake had said about five words. He always drank alone, which Isobel found odd and seemed like his attention was somewhere else, distracted. Off in his own world. Sometimes, when she watched him, Isobel wondered what he was thinking about. He was attractive in a grungy sort of way and Isobel often wondered what his dark stubble would feel like against her lips.
He looked up now as she strode by with her tower of glasses.
“How you doing there Jake?” She said, smiling as she walked past behind the bar.
“Isobel” he said, inclining his head towards her.
She set her stack of glasses down and began deconstructing the tower as she appraised him. He wasn’t looking at her so she had time to appreciate his defined jawline and dark brown eyes, the lean physique… He might be strange, but God, he was hot!
“You going all Lemmy on us?” she teased, indicating the double whiskey he was sipping.
“Lemmy?” Jake rubbed his eyes and looked at her in irritated confusion.
“Yeah, you know, he supposedly drinks a litre of whiskey a day.”
“Not tonight Isobel,” Jake sighed wearily. “Not tonight.”
“Why not?” She sauntered over to him, putting a little sway into her walk just for kicks. “What’s up?”
He shrugged and looked away, taking another sip of his whiskey.
Isobel tried another tack: “What you drinking?”
“Cool.” Isobel grabbed the bottle and a fresh glass, “Refill?”
He shrugged and knocked back his drink, “Why not.”
She walked back over, refilled his glass with a double measure and poured the same in her own. “On the house,” she smiled lifting her glass. “Cheers.”
They clinked glasses and drank.
He smiled warmly at her, “Doesn’t Dave mind you stealing his liquor?”
“Nah,” Isobel shrugged. “He said I can help myself as long as I don’t take the piss.”
“Fair enough.” Jake knocked his drink back and banged the empty glass on the counter. “Line `em up barkeep.”
Isobel laughed and poured him another, refreshing her own glass in the process.
“So why do you all think I’m so weird?”
Isobel shrugged. “You always come in here and drink alone,” she replied frankly. “Hell, Jake, every night I’ve seen you here you just sit at the end of the bar drinking by yourself. I’ve never seen you with anyone. You’ve got to admit it is a little weird.”
“Yeah, well,” Isobel noticed the tic in his cheek as he glanced away. “I’m not much for company. Never was really and now…” He shook his head, wafted the air with his hand and smiled. “Now I’m going home.” He downed the remainder of his drink and slapped the bar. “Night Izzy.”
“Don’t call me that,” she said, narrowing her eyes at him.
He laughed. “Night Dave,” he called to the owner.
Dave raised a hand in farewell.
Isobel finished her glass, watching Jake as he left, imagining the fine muscles under his shirt. He glanced back once, giving her a slight smile; the guilty look in his eye suggested to Isobel that he hadn’t expected her to be looking at him. Her returning smile was equally sheepish, betraying her own straying thoughts.
Is he is checking me out? she thought and laughed at herself, a short snort of derision. Like hell. More likely he was reading the labels on the damn bottles. Jake’s interested in the alcohol not you.
Isobel sighed, resigned to her fate. Besides the drunk who had offered her a good time, it had been months since any customers had hit on her. Maybe they could sense it; that something was wrong with her. The thought chilled her, made her almost pour herself another whiskey, but Dave was back behind the bar and she didn’t want to push her luck. It probably wouldn’t hold.
She needn’t have worried; Dave walked purposefully up to her, grabbed the bottle and poured a generous measure into a tumbler and without asking poured the same for her. “Cheers,” he announced, leaning back against the counter and taking a hearty swig, followed by an “ah” of satisfaction and relief. “I really need that after tonight,” he remarked and took another, smaller sip. He turned to her appraisingly. “You and Jake seemed to be having a good ol’ chinwag.”
“It was quiet,” Isobel replied.
“Any luck getting to know him?”
“Not yet.” Isobel sipped. “He doesn’t say much. It’ll take more whiskey than we have to make him talk.”
Dave laughed. “Maybe it’s a front. Women like mysterious men don’t they?”
“Mysterious yes. Uncommunicative, no.” Isobel shook her head. She deliberately didn’t look at Dave for a moment, afraid he would see through her charade. She felt sure her attraction to Jake was obvious. “I’ll shorten the interrogation next time.”
“Don’t bother me,” he shrugged. “You have to take a breather when you can, night like this. Fucking relentless weren’t it?”
“Yeah,” she agreed, sipping her whiskey. “Pretty mental. What was with those guys in the corner, rockin’ out on the table?”
“That’s why I buy quality furniture, it can take a beating,” Dave smiled.
Isobel laughed at the joke.
“Nice to see you smile,” Dave said. “You were off even for you earlier. Everything okay?”
“Yeah.” Isobel had been ‘off’ as Dave put it, but didn’t want to discuss why. “Yeah, I’m good. Just not sleeping well is all. Something tells me I’ll be out like a light tonight though.” The idea made her shiver, but she disguised her fear with a thin smile. “You’re always so concerned about me.”
“Paternal instinct,” Dave replied, nodding sagely. “Besides,” he shrugged, “a good general always looks after his troops and you, Isobel, are my best soldier in the war to keep the public drunk.” He raised his glass to punctuate the point, sloshing amber whiskey around the bottom.
“Are you sure that’s your first?” she laughed.
“It most certainly is not and nor shall it be my last. How ‘bout you?”
“About the same,” she smiled.
“Thought so,” he nodded. “You slip Jake a freebie?”
“Ah, don’t be,” Dave waved the apology away. “He’s a regular, I can let it slide. Just don’t make a habit of it okay.”
“Okay.” He finished his glass. “Let’s get the last of these guys out of here and go home. What d’ya say?”
“Sounds good to me.” Isobel downed the rest of her whiskey and returned to the front of house. She paused mid-step and turned back to Dave. “How well do you know Jake?”
“Jake?” Dave was surprised by the question. “About as well as you do, why?”
Isobel shrugged casually. “No reason, really. Just curious.” She turned back to her work.