Isolation, p.1
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           Michelle Birbeck
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Isolation
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  Michelle Birbeck

  Copyright 2012 Michelle Birbeck

  Discover other titles by Michelle Birbeck by visiting her website www.michellebirbeck.co.uk

  Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

  The quiet lapping of the sea against the rocks and sand was interrupted by a shout of joy. It was quickly followed by the loud thump of the start of a random song. Chris had finally gotten the music working.

  “Batteries,” Tom said, glancing over his shoulder towards the fire.

  “Well, I told him so, but he never listens. Has to work it out on his own.”

  We’d been at the beach for an hour, working our way around to this secluded place before the sea had chance to cut us off. It was in now, tight against rocks that were no longer passable by foot. Not that we planned on going anywhere. I looked at the three tents before me. Far enough away from the sea, and close enough to the sheer cliff to give us some shelter until morning. Tom and I had erected them, choosing the locale whilst the others set the fire and got the music going. Which had turned out to be more complicated than putting up tents in the dark with only one torch between us.

  “There, that’s about the best job we can do.”

  I nodded. “Think we should go help with the fire? I’d like to eat some time tonight.”

  Tom laughed, and I joined him. Vanessa and Julie weren’t used to the outdoors. They were girls, unlike myself who apparently was more boy than anything else, despite my being a blond. They were the kind of girls who thought hair straighteners were appropriate packing for camping, and that all tents were equipped with electrical outlets.

  “Yeah, come on, I’m not sure the pair of them are safe to be let loose with matches, let alone firewood and lighter fluid!”

  We laughed it up on the short trip back to the non-existent fire and pounding music. At least the latter was up and running. Though uncooked burgers and raw potatoes weren’t as appealing as they might sound.

  “How we doing?” I asked.

  Vanessa and Julie turned to look at me, and it took everything I had in me not to double over laughing. Their dark hair was framing even darker faces that were normally white. How they’ve gotten soot all over their faces was a mystery. Making a fire was easy! Get some kindling together, add something that burned easily, set a match, wait for it to light, and hey presto, fire.

  Apparently not.

  “Need a hand?” Tom’s voice came out jittery. He was trying to hold back a laugh, as well.

  Relief flooded their faces, and I half expected them to cry out with it. They didn’t. Instead they both held up their supplies, reaching out as though they’d been offered food after starving for months.

  Lighter fluid and matches were handed over, and the girls scooted back, out of the way.

  “Did you bring the wet wipes?” Vanessa asked.

  “In the tent.”

  Their comic value was one of the reasons we’d stayed friends for so long. It might have been mean for me to laugh at them as I did, but both were well aware of their bimbo status, and used it mercilessly on the opposite sex. They’d even gone so far as to try and convert me, but jeans were where I lived, and no amount of pretty shoes and sex was going to change my mind.

  Besides, I did well enough on my own. Never underestimate the power of being a tomboy. Plenty of men found my being able to be one of the boys a real turn on.

  Shaking my head, I turned away from Tom and his fire. Once the fire was up, we could start the party proper, but in the meantime, there were beers to be had. As well as shots for games later, mixers for the morning hangovers, and spirits for hard-core among us.

  “Gimmie all your money.”

  I closed my eyes. “Nice try, Chris. But in case you forgot, we’re alone here.”

  When I turned, I spotted the glint of a knife in his hands and raised my brow.

  “What? I needed it to get the batteries out.”

  “So it was them, then?”

  “Yeah.” He rubbed the back of his neck and looked down.

  “Told ya so.”

  Slowly, he folded the knife and put it back in his pocket. A smile played on his face in the moonlight. It was almost seductive. Almost. Because I knew he had his eye on one or both of the girls. No doubt they’d end up in the same tent, or sharing the same seat, or getting right down to it in front of everyone.

  His smile was lit once again in a flash that died down to a yellow glow. We both looked in the direction of Tom. The fire was going.

  “Great, now we can see about some food!” Ah, Chris’s second love. Food. His first being women, and his third being the gym.

  We ambled towards the fire, the heat form it making a pleasant bubble around the growing flames.

  “Jackets can go on now,” Tom told us as we approached. “I’d get the girls to get them, but they’re busy cleaning up.”

  “Just how did they get soot all over their faces?”

  “Same way they got their eyebrows singed off last time. They’re talented.”

  That was one way of putting it. On the last of our semi-annual get togethers, the girls had singed their eyebrows, and Julie had burned her right hand. They’d been in charge of setting up the tents. Which apparently included fancy new lamps they’d found.

  “They’ve got battery operated lights this year, right?”

  Chris nodded.

  “Good. ‘Cause there’s no getting out now until first light.”

  “I’ll go get the spuds.”

  As Tom headed off for the potatoes, Chris and I settled in next to the cooler. Best seats in the house. Or on the beach as the case was.

  Celebrating the start of summer with the ceremonial fire starting, drinking, and camping was the way we’d done things since we all met about four years ago at the end of college. How we’d gone through three years at the same school and missed each other was another mystery, but there we were at the end, celebrating the summer and our graduation. None of us knew each other, but we’d sat up around the fire until the first light of dawn drowned out the burning of college books and papers. Every six months since, we’d done the same. It had been an end to a part of our lives, and a start to the rest of them.

  The scream that shattered the darkness had me dropping the bottle in my hands. Both Chris and I turned towards the sound, expecting it to be a prank or Tom chasing one of the girls, but he was half way back to the fire, laden down with potatoes.

  And running out after him was Vanessa, still screaming.

  What the hell?

  Sat, frozen to the spot, it wasn’t until she got close to the light of the fire that I saw the darkness spread on her hands. She was holding them in front of her, looking from one to the other as she ran, not looking where she was going.

  Tom dropped the spuds, and raced towards her, tackling her to the ground before she hit the fire. Both Chris and I were too stunned to do anything.

  She stumbled by the fire, jolting up from our stupor.

  “Vanessa!” The name was on all of our lips. Quickly followed by “What happened?” “Is that blood?” and “Where’s Julie?”

  When Vanessa finally opened her mouth and started to speak, it came out jilted and quiet. “She went down to the water. We didn’t bring the wet wipes, so I gave her a towel. She didn’t come back, so I went after her. She… She was on the floor. I thought she was joking. B-but when I t-turned her over there was… Oh, God! The blood! It was everywhere!”

  Her voice was shrill in the end, the words merging together as she curled in on herself. Her hands were as far away as possible. They were shaking, fingers spread apart as though she didn’t want to feel the blood of her friend between them.

  I rose to my feet and started tow
ards the waterline.

  “Where are you going?” Tom asked, placing a restraining hand on my arm.

  I shrugged him off. “Someone’s got to go see what happened.”

  “Then I’m coming with you!”

  “Fine.” I didn’t want to be on my own, anyway.

  Tom grabbed a torch, and we left Chris looking after Vanessa. Together we eased our way down to the water, shining the light far ahead of us. Neither of us wanted to trip over the body of our friend.

  “You’re shaking,” Tom said.

  I looked down at my hands, and yes, they were trembling. It wasn’t cold out, and the fine tremor had nothing to do with the mild sea breeze that accompanied our plans. It had everything to do with the sound of that scream running through my mind again and again. I’d never heard anything like it, and just the memory of it turned my insides cold.

  When I closed my eyes, I hoped the shaking would stop, the darkness of my lids covering everything we were about to see and had already heard. But all it did was root me to the spot. Fear froze me, taking hold of me as sure as if I was held in a tight vice.

  Why had I been the one to say we needed to go see what had happened?

  An arm around my waist made me gasp.

  “Hey, it’s just me,” Tom whispered. “You okay?”

  I nodded, not trusting my voice.

  “You want me to go alone?”

  “No, no, we should stick together.” My words may have been full of bravado, but the shake in my voice gave me away.

  We set off again, Tom’s arm still wrapped around my waist. We’d never been attracted to each other, but it was nice to have him there, to know that no matter what we saw, there was something good and solid and so very real right next to me.

  And that was the only thing that stopped me stumbling and falling face first into the rocks. Ones covered in blood.

  It was shiny and red in the light of the torch, the LED bulbs giving it a bluish tinge that reminded me of a Magpie.

  Oh, shit!

  Julie hadn’t just slipped and fallen, only to die. She’d crawled first, leaving a trail of red along the rocks in her wake.

  “Where is she?” I whispered, unable to stand the sound of my voice even then.

  Tom swung the light wildly, tracing the blood with shaky hands. “There.”

  The beam landed on her feet. She wasn’t moving, and neither were we. Too shocked to do much more than stand, we stayed where we were, eyes following the light of the torch, minds unable to comprehend what we were seeing.

  Silence filled the void our footsteps had occupied. Not even the close swelling and receding of the ocean reached my ears as I stared along the beam of light.

  “Stay here.” Tom’s voice made me jump.

  I didn’t protest as he pulled out his phone and clicked on its light. He handed me the torch and started in the direction of Julie. Keeping the light trained on her feet as steadily as possible, I tried not to see him turning her over, tried not to let the moonlight fill in the details that would surely haunt me. But it was all for nothing. His phone cast a glow on Julie that my eyes couldn’t fail to register.

  Sticking out of the middle of her chest was a tent peg. The gleaming silver a bright contrast against her blood soaked shirt.

  How… Even in my mind I couldn’t finish the sentence.

  “She’s dead.” Tom’s whispered voice floated across the rocks, but as it landed on my ears, I couldn’t fully understand the meaning behind his words.

  Sure, I knew what he’d said. But this was Julie! I’d laughed at her so often as she and Vanessa tottered around on heels, flirting with anything that had three legs. We’d laughed together when I’d tried it and fallen flat on my face after just one step.

  She couldn’t be gone!

  Vanessa would be devastated.

  “Hey, hey, come here!”

  Tom engulfed me in his arms, turning me away from the sight. Not that it mattered. The sight of that tent peg would forever haunt me.

  My sobs were silent, muffled by Tom’s jacket. They came fast and hard, and all the while he held me, rocking me slightly, murmuring words of comfort.

  It was a while before I gathered myself enough to speak. “We should get back.”

  Tom just nodded and offered me a hand up off the floor.

  When had I ended up on the floor?

  Everything was a bit of a blur as we walked back to the fire, me snuggled against Tom’s chest, him leading the way. I was trying to find the words to say to Vanessa, but everything that I came up with sounded stupid.

  How could I tell her that her best friend was lying dead on the rocks? And that we couldn’t do anything until morning because there was no way out and no phone signal without climbing a sheer cliff face. Even then, what would happen? The coastguard would send the helicopter, they’d take us all out of here… but we’d still be left missing a friend.

  Turned out, I didn’t need to say anything. She was still lying by the fire, arms outstretched. Chris was sat next to her, watching her closely, but eyes scanning the darkness every few seconds.

  He whispered something to Vanessa then stood as we approached. Jogging down the beach, his face was solemn, and he kept glancing back.

  “Well?”

  Tom kept his answer low and to the point. “She’s dead. Looks like she fell on one of the tent pegs.”

  “How?”

  “No idea.” Tom shook his head.

  I just stood there in silence.

  But as they continued to discuss what had happened and the how and the whys, I shrugged out of the conversation and walked up the beach to Vanessa. She didn’t glance at me as I sat down next to her, placing my hand on her shoulder.

  Her fingers were clean. The sight confused me for a moment. There’d been blood on them when we left, but now they were clean. Chris must have wiped the blood off. It didn’t appear as though she knew, not with the way her fingers were still spread wide.

  “Vanessa?” I whispered, shaking her just a little. “Hey, sweetie, you still with us?”

  Her eyes shifted slowly to look at me, then went right back to staring at her fingers.

  Had she tried to save her friend’s life? Was that how the blood had gotten under her nails and on her face? Or had she stumbled and fell in the dark?

  I didn’t want to know. What I wanted was for it to be dawn so we could get to the path and get high enough for our phones to work. What I wanted was to wake up and find that this was all just a drunken nightmare and I’d really partied the night away and passed out in my tent.

  But Julie wasn’t just Vanessa’s friend. She was my friend, too. And when the light of day finally freed us, we would all be leaving with the heavy loss on our shoulders.

  Tom and Chris came back, taking seats around the fire. No one spoke for a while. We sat there staring at the fire, trying to ignore the reality bearing down on us.

  It wasn’t long before the silence turned oppressive and the crackling fire sounded as loud as gunshots.

  “We going to sit like this all night?” I asked.

  Sure, we weren’t likely to start making small talk and drinking up a storm as we’d planned, but sitting around in silence was going to drive me insane. I only liked silence when I was on my own.

  “There’s no way of getting out?” Chris asked, his voice quiet and distant.

  “Not unless you want to climb that cliff in the dark,” Tom replied.

  “Look, we’re best waiting until morning, then we can send someone up, call the coast guard, and get us out of here. Even if we can climb that cliff, it’ll be easier for them to find us in the morning. Which is, what? Four hours from now?” My arguments sounded reasonable to my ears, but in the back of my mind I was thinking what if she gets cold?

  Vanessa sat up, startling me away from my thoughts.

  She stayed upright for a moment, staring into the fire. Then her eyes shifted to me, but there was noth
ing in them. They were vacant, like a house that had been boarded up and shut down. No one home, at least not anyone the world wanted to know about.

  “Vanessa?” I wanted to reach out to her, wrap her in a hug, comfort her in some way, but that empty stare made me pause.

  “Will you come with me?” she asked. “I don’t want to go alone.”

  “Go where?”

  “I need to pee.”

  I offered her a sad smile as I rose to my feet, holding out my hand for her. She clung to me once she was upright, and I let her.

  “We’ll just be a minute.”

  Tom nodded. “Be careful.”

  We turned away and started down the beach. The crunching of our footsteps was our only company in the dark. My torch bobbed along in front of us, bouncing off rocks and half-dead plants clinging to life. It all brought about too many memories. The light on the rocks as Tom searched for Julie. The blood she’d left in her attempt to get to someone, anyone.

  “Here?” Vanessa whispered.

  “Wherever you want.”

  She stepped away from me slightly and looked over her shoulder. “I’ll just be a second.”

  I watched as she wandered off down the beach a little, looking for somewhere to go. It didn’t really matter where; I’d seen such things before on previous trips. Where one or more of us were too drunk to stray far from the light and warmth of the fire.

  For the second time that night, a scream tore through the air. It brought my head up and made my blood run cold. Suddenly my feet were moving, eating up the ground beneath them. Others joined me, running alongside me until we were close enough that the screams drowned out our footfalls.

  Coming to a stop, I turned to the side, fell to my knees, and promptly threw up everything in my stomach.

  Vanessa lay on her side, screaming in what must have been agony. Something that looked a lot like a bear trap was biting through her arm and leg. Even against her dark jeans the blood was obvious. But more obvious were the traps still set around her. Three of them still splayed wide, like hungry Venus fly traps waiting for bait.

  “Stay still,” someone said.

  “We need out of here.”

  “How do you expect to get her anywhere? It’s not like she can swim or climb like this!”

  My voice came through calmer than I’d have expected. “Can we free her?”

  Whether we could get out before dawn didn’t matter. If Vanessa stayed in the traps all night she’d be dead before we had chance to save her.

  Time must have passed me by as I thought of how we were going to get through this night, because the next thing I heard was another almighty scream. I looked up just in time to see Chris and Tom working together to free her from the traps. They each had one in their hands, using brute strength to pry the things apart.

  Where did they even come from?

  It wasn’t as though someone could pop on down to the corner shop and pick up a
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