Isobel deliberately took the twittens and alleys of the old part of town to work, in order to lose Jake, who she hoped cared enough to follow her. Even if she didn’t want him to catch her. She wanted to be alone and the circuitous, maze like route she was taking, she knew from experience would allow that. She had used these side streets and back alleys many times to escape lovers she’d argued with or spats with her mother. The latter not so much recently. Nor the former, really. She smiled at that, a bleak, tired smile. Why couldn’t this shit just stop already? As if her childhood and the Taint weren’t traumatic enough, she now had to fight against another, probably crazy, woman for Jake’s heart? It wasn’t a battle she felt able to win. Especially as she’d just left Jake drinking in the pub with her. What if she fancied Jake back? The depth of her feeling surprised Isobel, making her wonder if it was more than just the connection of their shared nightmares. Was she already beginning to love him?
Bit late now, she thought bleakly.
Tears kept forming in her eyes, threatening to fall even though she kept relentlessly pushing them back, wiping at her eyes with shaking hands. Was she going to cry black tears next? She felt one slip down her right cheek and defiantly wiped at the offending eye. She always cried after she blew up like that, some kind of secondary pressure valve, but this was worse than normal. She wasn’t sure exactly why she was crying. Was it for Jake? For herself? Simply the emotional and gruelling day she’d had?
And I still have the late shift to get through.
Work, though, would be a comfort after this dark and miserable afternoon.
Her route took her across a balcony overlooking a small square where a giant chess board had been etched into the stonework. Two towering figures on stilts were playing a game in costume.
They were dressed as God and the Devil. Isobel paused and watched as the Devil used a red pitchfork to move a pawn forward. It was promptly taken by God’s knight.
She really hoped that wasn’t a premonition too. Or maybe she should hope it was? God, this thing made her head hurt. How the hell was she supposed to deal with this?
A beer maybe?
Eventually she reached The Black Swallow. A neat line of motorbikes leaned on the pavement outside, one of the many biker groups that frequented the bar had clearly arrived. Good, she thought, the extra custom should keep her busy, take her mind off things. Isobel pushed from the heat outside into the cool air of the bar. Dave clearly had the air conditioning on high and all the windows were open. Isobel thought of the hot morning she had woken to and wasn’t at all surprised that she’d initially been disorientated; it was hard to distinguish between nightmare and reality in this oppressive heat.
Dave himself was sitting at a table near one of the open windows, playing a game of poker with a group of large men in dark t-shirts and leather trousers. Isobel immediately identified them as bikers, probably the proud owners of the assorted motorcycles lined up outside.
“Hey Isobel,” he called jovially, gesturing her over.
She crossed the room, arms still folded around herself like a protective barrier, hopefully it looked like her usual sassy, defiant stance and didn’t belie the turmoil that was eating her inside. She’d never been able to fool Dave though and today was no different. She could see concern growing in his eyes as she drew closer to him. He said nothing though, merely grinned and said “check out this hand, huh?” He turned his cards so she could see them. He held a five, an eight, a jack and a pair of sevens, most from different suits.
She smiled at the mischievous twinkle in his eyes and said, “You’re so screwed.”
Dave merely laughed, called his bet and tossed a multi-coloured stack of chips into the middle of the table. Isobel wondered if he even knew how much he was betting.
Probably a few bottles of whiskey she mused, You can get away with anything if you give people free booze.
“You’re early” he said as the next player raised the bet.
“Yeah,” Isobel shrugged, looking down at her scuffed trainers. “Nothing better to do.”
“Fancy some overtime?”
Isobel looked around the near empty bar, “Doing what?”
“You could clean the tables,” he shrugged. “Refill the fridges… do my tax returns.” She smiled at that. “I don’t know, there’s always something, just make yourself useful.”
“Another beer?” She nodded at his near empty bottle.
He laughed, “That’s a good start and have one yourself while you’re at it.”
“Thanks,” she said. “God knows I could use it.” She stayed to watch Dave play his hand before disappearing behind the bar. Two of the other four players folded. Isobel figured they were either following some obscure poker strategy or had really bad cards and Dave somehow won the round. Shaking her head at the dumb luck she had just witnessed, Isobel went to fetch two bottles of beer from the fridge. The fridges in question were packed, almost full. The only gaps being a couple of missing alco-pops and the beers she had just removed. Robbie had done a thorough job re-stocking today. Isobel told him this as he lounged against the back of the bar sipping a cup of coffee.
“Not like there’s been a lot happening here today,” he shrugged. “I’ve had about two orders in the kitchen all day. Had to find some way to kill the time.”
“It does seem pretty dead.” Isobel observed opening both bottles and taking a long pull on hers. The mention of death made her flash on the girl from her dream. She shuddered at the memory and drank again.
“You doin’ okay?” Robbie asked peering down at her from his six foot plus height.
Robbie shrugged, “I just heard some of what you and Dave were talking about before. It’s a bitch when you can’t sleep,” he was gazing off in to the distance now, “Messes with your head.”
“Yeah.” she took a sip of her beer.
“If you wanna talk about it…”
“I don’t.” She smiled up at Robbie to soften her harsh words. She knew how sensitive he was and didn’t want to offend one of the few friends she had. He just smiled fondly down at her. It wasn’t a sexual thing, she knew. Robbie was at least ten years older than her and often treated her like his little sister. He’d never spoken of it to her, but Isobel knew Robbie had lost his siblings years before and was still traumatised by the memory. Adopting her as a surrogate sister seemed to help him and God knew Robbie’s intimidating size had kept a few unwanted drunks from molesting her in the past. Isobel could handle herself, but Robbie was always good back up.
“Okay,” he nodded, his cheeks pinching slightly before he smiled back down at her. “But you look after yourself, alright?”
“Remember I’m here for you. You know… if you want to talk about it… or anything.”
She laughed lightly. “You worry too much about us all.” Robbie still looked worried and she laughed, perhaps more than warranted. “Really, I’m fine.”
“Okay,” Robbie commented dubiously as Isobel walked away.
After taking Dave his beer Isobel got busy wiping tables. They weren’t especially dirty, but she polished each one thoroughly, working out the tension she felt by sheer graft. All the while she tried not to pay attention to the wild tumult of thoughts and feelings flooding her mind. Trying to ignore it all and let the dust settle.
There was no denying Jake was attracted to Ramona. Isobel didn’t think it was reciprocated but that didn’t make it any less annoying. And what if she was wrong? Was that the end of her and Jake, killed off before they’d even really begun? Was that enough reason to distrust and dislike her?
There was also the fact that everything the woman said was patently absurd.
But what if it wasn’t? Her explanation at least offered some kind of answers and she knew things she had next to no way of knowing unless she was what she claimed to be.
But it was so ridiculous. Angels? Demons? Apocalypse nightmares were one thing, even the black eyes and veins, but this explanation… It was too frightening to be true. The implications were terrible. Maybe that was why she was resisting it so hard. Isobel liked certainty and whatever she did with this information she had no way of knowing it was right. Either way it was a leap of faith.
Why couldn’t you just leave us the fuck alone?
She sighed and polished away, trying to listen to the constant stream of 70’s rock pumping from the speakers rather than her convoluted, confusing thoughts.
She had little luck. Hopefully business would pick up later and take her mind off things. Fat chance. It was Tuesday. No one was out on Tuesday night.
* * *
It was late when Jake wandered in and took his usual seat at the end of the bar. Isobel, deeply involved in conversation with a couple of patrons, only saw Jake when she turned away for a moment. Her face fell when she saw him, a flurry of conflicting emotions flitting across her face and through her mind. She looked down, hiding behind her hair. Excusing herself she made her way slowly over to Jake, turning over what she was going to say in her mind. She only looked up when she reached him.
“Hey.” She said quietly.
“Hey” He replied. An awkward silence fell between them. Finally they both started at the same time and stopped to let the other speak. Both laughed, a little warmth returning to the exchange.
“Sorry I stormed off earlier,” Isobel began. “I saw red, she was just winding me up so much, Jake. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” he said, reaching over the bar and taking her hand. She stroked her finger against his, enjoying the warmth of his skin on hers. Goosebumps of excitement ran up her arms and she smiled, her insides flooding with warmth at his touch. “After what we’ve seen and heard today…” he sighed heavily and shook his head.
“You need a drink?” she asked. He smiled. She fixed them both a tumbler of whiskey and glanced down the length of the bar. It was empty, no customers waiting. The few there were, were sat at their tables drinking or playing pool.
“I’m glad you’re here.” She said, toying with her glass.
“Yeah” she smiled, looked at him darkly, fear mixed with a hint of seduction in her eyes. She needed comfort after today, comfort and reassurance that Jake was still hers, that despite being knocked down by Ramona’s beauty he still wanted her. “I don’t want to be alone tonight, Jake, I can’t be, not after today. I can’t be alone with my thoughts. I’ll go mad.”
“Yeah, what Ramona said was…”
“Oh, fuck Ramona!” She took a gulp of whiskey, “What about that murder scene? Jesus!”
“Yeah. That was pretty grim.” He drank. “You seemed to know what you were talking about though, with the runes and all.”
She smiled shyly, “Thanks.” She looked down at where their hands were entwined, enjoying the sight and sensation of Jake’s skin on hers. She found herself gazing absently as his finger caressed her own.
“It was like some kind of occult CSI thing you had going on.” Her gaze was still fixed on their joined hands, “Izzy?”
She didn’t smile, “Don’t call me that.”
She went back to staring at their hands. She wanted to ask him the obvious question, to get it out in the open before it became an issue between them… but it was taking her a while to pluck up the courage. Isobel wasn’t entirely sure she was going to like the answer. Finally she asked; “Do you fancy her?”
“What?” Jake was surprised by the directness of her question. “Who?”
“Ramona.” Isobel’s eyes met his, “Do you fancy her?”
“Why would I?”
She shrugged, “You just seemed a little fixated on her earlier.”
He smiled and despite his protestations she knew she was right, Ramona had caught his attention.
“Well she’s kinda magnetic isn’t she? Plus she knows all this stuff about the dreams and things,” he shrugged. “That’s gonna get your attention. We want to figure out what’s going on with us don’t we?”
“Yeah,” she sighed. “Yeah, we do.” She fixed his gaze and squeezed his hand, reminding him firmly of her presence before he got distracted daydreaming about Ramona. “So you believe her then?” she asked, trying to keep the inflection out of her voice. By the look on Jake’s face, she failed.
“Yeah.” He smiled with one side of his mouth. “You still think she’s bullshitting us don’t you?”
“It’s a bit much isn’t it? Just materialising like that and telling us this insane story about… demons and angels?” She laughed hollowly and looked away. When she looked back she said: “Sorry Jake, I need more convincing than just a flash of leg and bra. But then I don’t have a weakness for strange brunettes.”
He just laughed.
* * *
That night they went back to Isobel’s and after a couple of drinks retired to bed, Isobel desperately kissing Jake as she drew him into the bedroom. She wanted to reassert that he was hers and reassure herself that Jake still wanted her. But although she threw herself into the sex with her usual abandon, Isobel had difficulty really enjoying herself. Her thoughts kept returning to the day’s events and one specifically; Ramona. Ramona and Jake’s infatuation with her. Isobel kept worrying that Jake would rather be with Ramona than with her. Every time he thrust into her was he imagining Ramona underneath him, the feel of her body against his rather than her own? She tried to push it down and couldn’t. Jake was the only other person she could share her affliction with, she didn’t want to lose that, she couldn’t. The thought terrified her, especially with the nightmares gaining momentum. A particularly vigorous thrust drew her back to the moment and despite her distractions made her moan. She may be preoccupied but it still felt good. Above her Jake had closed his eyes. Was he thinking of her?
“Look at me,” Isobel gasped as their rhythm quickened. She grabbed his face with both hands, “Look at me.” She wanted him with her, not with Ramona - with her! He looked into her eyes right before pleasure carried them both over the edge.