Chapter 20 - Isolde
My legs strain as I power up the steep hill. I have been running for half an hour, and I am in danger of collapsing from sheer exhaustion. Instead, I make myself move on, every millimetre of my body aching terribly. My breaths rasp in my dry throat and my sore feet pound against the unyielding earth underneath me.
I manage to continue for maybe five more long, painful minutes, and then I collapse. My knees hit the ground, my hands dig into the soil, and I gasp desperately for breath, feeling like I’ll never be able to get enough air. After a while, I attempt to stand, and almost keel over. I manage to right myself, and take small, stiff, slow steps, just walking a bit to get some feeling back into my legs.
It takes me a few minutes to realise where I am. By the stream, where I first saw my powers in action. My eyes drop to my black boots, which Isaac gave me that day. I feel several pangs to my heart, and turn to stumble away.
But then I stop. Turn around. Go closer to the water, and dip my hands in the stream.
Common sense screams at me to get away, but I remain, gently swishing my hands around. What am I doing? I shouldn’t be around water. This reads danger with a capital ‘D’.
You’re mad! A lunatic!
“I don’t care,” I whisper. I’m sick of having to do things. I want to be wild; I want to be free.
I raise myself up from my crouch, my hands lifting into the air. The water in the stream evaporates, turning into a huge, damp grey mist that lightly caresses my hot skin.
I haven’t tried to explore my powers yet; I have had no need and no desire. But now, I am reckless and furious.
The water suddenly condenses, showering me in water droplets. I stare intently at the swamped ground. The water, untainted by the soil, elevates. It twists into a knife, forms a tree, swirls, incredibly fast, around me, ascending and descending, parts turning into blocks of ice, and others into hot vapour. It is wild. It is crazy. It is utterly out of control.
I love it.
An involuntary cry comes out of my lips, and I throw my arms up. The water shoots into the sky, travelling incredibly far. I tilt my head back, trying to get an idea of the distance. I realise, with a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach, that it went much higher than I anticipated.
I bring the water back down, and it sloshes into the previously dry riverbed. Bathing in my power, I look around me, feeling thrill instead of fear. But that does not last long.
I hear voices, and make out the words: “I think I found one!”
Like a switch thrown, exhilaration is instantly swapped with terror. My heart thuds against my ribcage, so hard and fast and desperate that it shocks me. My ears pick up something – a zapping sound. It takes a few beats to understand what it is.
A stun beam.
My legs immediately start moving, before I even know what I’m doing. My fear stimulates me; I run fast, so fast, incredibly fast. My legs fly over the protruding tree trunks, my arms bat away the leaves and branches that obstruct me.
I nearly choke on my panic.
Why did I do that? Why?
I want to blame someone, but all I have is myself. Slipping just once, just for a few minutes, has resulted in this. I continue through the forest, berating my impossibly idiotic self. The AH. Here. For me. I try to cancel my thoughts; I need to concentrate on running, but that’s a lot easier said than done.
It doesn’t take long for me to feel tired, and this instils fresh fear. If I stop or slow, I’ll die, or be taken to Confinement.
The dread, the anxiety, the horror drives me forward, giving me that extra strength, extra speed. I unsuccessfully try to leap above a small bush; I fall into it, the thorns sharply pricking me. I drag a hand across my face and pick myself up again, feeling the plant piercing my skin as I stumble through its tangling ferns.
I reach one of the clearings. A good thing; I can run easier. A bad thing; approaching Hunters will see me and pick me out easily. If they catch me in an open place like this, I have no hope.
When I make it to the dense trees ahead, I feel slightly safer, but I don’t let my guard down – I duck and jump and sprint as fast as my body will allow. Though I am in flight mode, I am not invincible. The toil is taking effect – I can feel it in the aching of my limbs, the increasing sluggishness in my movements.
Just move! I instruct myself.
Gritting my teeth, I force my legs to increase their speed. They feel almost numb.
I eventually burst out of the forest, grateful that there is no-one around the cottage. I jump up the steps and bang on the door. Mum doesn’t take more than ten seconds, but each one brings a fresh wave of trepidation.
When she finally appears, I push past her, and slam the door shut, doing up the bolts before sliding to the ground and covering my face with my hands, hyperventilating. I’m trying to hold onto calm, but that proves an impossible task. I attempt to breathe evenly, but it doesn’t work – my body reacts the opposite way. I jerk and tremble and wheeze, frustrated that I can’t get a hold on myself.
Mum takes my hand, squeezing it tightly – more like a spasm of fear than a comforting gesture. “Isolde. What happened?” she says urgently, taking in the despair rolling off me.
Even breaths, I tell myself, but I still gasp like I’m having a seizure.
“Isolde. Isolde.” Mum repeats my name over and over again.
I ignore her, and try to push down the irritation. A coil inside my stomach gets tighter and tighter, and eventually it gets too much.
“MUM!” I explode, so loud that I feel the door vibrate behind me.
She stares at me, and I swallow.
“Give me . . . give me a minute,” I request, my voice calmer, and close my eyes. I want to storm up the stairs and hide under my bed, but I can’t find even a shred of energy left inside of me.
It takes at least five minutes before I can gather together enough strength to even get to my feet. Mum supports me as I stagger to the living room. I sink into the couch, and realise the window is open, onto the lane. I can see the forest to my left . . .
“Cover the window,” I say. “Please.”
Mum doesn’t ask why, but draws the blind before flicking on the light switch. She stares at me, her eyes huge. I can almost hear the question buzzing in her head: what happened?
“A drink,” I beg.
Pathetic, I berate myself.
Mum gets up, and returns with a cup of water. Without thinking, I flinch back from it. If I could, I would live without seeing water ever. I raise the glass to my lips with shaking hands, and drink thirstily despite myself.
“I was in the forest,” I begin, “and . . . I don’t know. I was stupid. I was mad. I did . . . stuff with the water in the stream.”
Mum intakes sharply, her expression tight.
“Then I heard people . . . and there was a shot from a stun gun . . . then I ran . . .”
She goes to peer outside, twitching the living room curtains, but I don’t miss the upset on her face. Guilt stabs at me.
“I see some people,” she murmurs.
I start to shake.
“It will be fine,” Mum assures me, the apprehensive look on her face disagreeing. “They won’t know it was you. They won’t suspect . . .”
“Doesn’t anyone know who my father is?”
Mum closes her eyes like I’ve just said something that distresses her. “That . . . that’s a long story,” she says faintly.
I want to know, but I am facing more pressing issues – the Hunters outside.
“Alibi?” Mum looks at me, her forehead creasing in thought. “Um . . .”
I shake my head, inhaling and exhaling steadily. My limbs still quake, but I stop stammering. “The best lie is the one closest to the truth. I’ll say that I was in the forest but then I saw the water doing strange things. I thought it was something dangerous – an Antithetical – so I quickly went back home.”
“Yes. That’s better,” she agrees. “They would have expected to know if someone else was there, I suppose, but nothing we can do about that.”
I nod, and twist my fingers together. “Are you –?”
Before I can even ask my question, the doorbell rings. I clamp my lips together and sit up straight, letting out a long breath.
Mum goes to answer to the door while I wait, tense.
I hear snatches of Mum’s words and the Hunters’. They are asking her questions, and she repeats the lie I made up.
I know they will want to question me, so I must be convincing.
You are not a child anymore. You can do this.
The dreaded people enter. Two are women, probably not yet thirty. The other is male, and looks like he’s pushing forty. Worry is evident on their agitated faces and drawn eyebrows.
“There has been an Antithetical,” the male says. “In this forest near your house.”
“The one there,” I say, pointing west. My voice is wobbling, just a bit. Not too noticeable, though. I suppose that many people are scared by the Antithetical, so it wouldn’t seem that notable.
His eyes look directly into mine. I resist the urge to look away, but I’m so nervous I feel sick.
I know it’s you, say his eyes. I try to keep my own from darting about like a cornered rabbit’s.
“Yes. You know of this?”
I nod. “I was out running. Then I saw some figure, and there was water. In the air. I knew it wasn’t natural and suspected an Antithetical, so I went home.” I don’t miss the slight trembles in my voice. In my mind, I curse, but maybe my fear will be misinterpreted.
The three exchange looks that I don’t understand, but I think they’ve bought it. “Right,” one of the females, the shorter one, says, looking down at a sheet of paper. I glimpse my face, and Mum’s. She looks back up, and I hastily do as well. “Well, I guess I don’t need to tell you to stay out of the forest. We’ll be scouring it until we find the Antithetical. Would you like to be re-located?”
I glance at Mum, who is standing in the doorway, trying to keep her face emotionless. And failing.
“I think we’ll be fine,” she says.
“Are you sure?” the male asks, sounding surprised. Would a lack of worry make us seem suspicious? Yes, but removing myself from this cottage would be like pulling out my teeth.
“Positive,” she tells him firmly.
The trio start to move out – I try not to give a sigh, or relax too much. “Alert us if you see anything suspicious,” the taller female instructs us.
“We will. Thank you.” Mum disappears out of view to close the door.
I sink deeper into the sofa, letting out my exhale of relief. It’s OK. They don’t know it’s me. I’m fine.
Mum comes back into the room, and frowns at me. “You’re dry,” she notes quietly.
I look down. Sure enough, there is no evidence that water has been poured upon me. “Being drenched would be . . . dubious.” My voice is low, too. The AH could be dithering outside.
She tightens her lips. “Don’t . . .”
“I had to do,” I say. “I wouldn’t unless necessary.”
How did this whole thing start, then? A sneaky voice whispers inside my head. I ignore it. “What now?”
Mum looks at me pleadingly. “Caution, Isolde.”
I nod, feeling a pang for causing my mother so much angst. “I know. I’m sorry.”
She suddenly sweeps me up in a hug. “I know it’s hard,” she says into my hair. I cling to her like a child, wanting some comfort.
“I’m sorry,” I repeat.
“It’s not your fault. Just the way it is.”
I hate the way it is.