Taylor Brooke © 2018
All Rights Reserved
Flames chewed on a pile of logs in the middle of a large fire pit. Five people sat around it, huddled together for warmth. Brooklyn always sat closest, palms outstretched and glowing against the flames. Somehow, the smell of burning wood made things feel more temporary. Even if every night it reminded her of making s’mores on the beach back home—of brine and hot cement and San Diego.
Home seemed distant now.
The grounds had an array of fire pits scattered between the housing cabins that coaxed the fifteen inhabitants of ISO Recovery Camp Eleven to spread out among themselves and unwind.
“Hey, is your hand okay?” Gabriel asked.
Brooklyn turned her gaze to the girl lying in her lap. Gabriel. Her eyes reminded Brooklyn of a comic book character. They were green like jungle canopies, sharp and defined by dark lashes and thick brows. The day the tall blonde was dropped off at the camp was the first day Brooklyn didn’t feel alone. That day, two years ago, bravery became easier.
“It’s fine.” Brooklyn shrugged. “I just tweaked it when we were training.”
Gabriel’s bottom lip was shadowed by a small scar on the right side of her smile. It was hardly noticeable, a tiny defect on a fine-boned, fiercely beautiful face. She pushed her cheek into Brooklyn’s thigh and nodded, fingertips playing with the frayed ends of Brooklyn’s jeans, absently touching the exposed skin on her ankle.
Black combat boots shifted on the other side of the circle. Dawson, a boy with a hard jawline and wild eyes, tilted his head to the side. He wore bitterness like a badge and lifted his chin to peer over the fire at Gabriel. “You’re too strong for your own good.”
Gabriel grinned. “Wouldn’t you know? I had you tapped out in under a minute yesterday, didn’t I?”
His lips twitched. Smiling suited him.
“You did…” He held his hands against his chest in mock surrender. “Maybe you should take it easy on us.”
Two others sat beside them; one was a boy with black tunnels set snugly in the stretched lobes of his ears and a stud buried in the middle of his tongue. His smile was wide and contagious, set neatly on a narrow face with high cheekbones. Julian had been the first to introduce himself to Brooklyn when she arrived. He’d had the sun in his eyes, and the first thing he’d said to her was, “I don’t know where the hell we are, but apparently we’re not gonna die.” He’d laughed, showed her around, and he hadn’t pretended to have any answers. His uncertainty had been refreshing.
Brooklyn swayed when the last of their small pack nudged his head against her shoulder.
“You should let me wrap it up for you in case it’s sprained,” Porter said.
“I’m fine,” Brooklyn said.
Porter leered at her over a pair of black-rimmed glasses resting on the tip of his nose. “Suit yourself,” he mumbled, and reached under his beanie to scratch the back of his head.
Brooklyn didn’t bother answering. She inhaled the smell of campfire and Porter’s cologne, memorized the gentle sweep of Gabriel’s fingertip on her foot, and tilted her head back to look at the sky. The stars glowed, shining bright and commanding attention, against a vast and constant black sheet. Night was alive here. More alive than back home. She rolled her lips together. Constellations rested low behind the trees that lined the outskirts of the camp and curved over the peak of a distant mountain.
At least it’s a beautiful cage we’re stuck in, she thought.
The shrill squeal of a whistle cut through the air. Dawson rolled his eyes. Gabriel groaned and stood. Another day gone, another night stuck in a cabin without answers, without her family, barely holding on to the last thread of hope that she might make it back to southern California someday. She followed the others into their dorm, a dusty cabin that reminded her of grade school and pre-teen summers. Three sets of bunks made up their living quarters. To the right through a doorway was an adjoined bathroom with shower stalls and toilets. To the left was a closet filled with boots and coats. Cheap, scratchy sheets and a heavy comforter kept the cold at bay.
Brooklyn watched Dawson move around the familiar space. She listened to Julian’s mattress squeak and Porter unlace his boots. She didn’t want to be used to this—to Camp Eleven and what she’d learned there. To the handsome boys who slept in the same room as her. To Gabriel Serisky, who was dangerous and lovely, and out of reach.
She wanted crashing waves and a too-bright sun. She wanted to be soft again. To be the Brooklyn she was before the outbreak again.
“You all right, Brooklyn?” Porter set his glasses on the nightstand between their bunks.
“Yeah,” she said quickly, and then again, slower, “yeah, I’m fine.”
Brooklyn fell asleep to the sound of the bed above her squeaking under the weight of Gabriel’s hips, and the hum of Julian’s soft snores from across the room.
When she closed her eyes, she hoped for peacefulness. For nothing.
But the same memories came for her. Old memories. Distorted, cruel memories. And they made her afraid.
It happened on the day of Winter Formal. Senior year.
“Honey, I really think you should go with the black shoes.” Her mother, a woman with dark chestnut hair and loving eyes, pushed a bobby pin into the tight bun on the top of Brooklyn’s head.
“Aw, Mom, you don’t like the red?” Brooklyn whined and kicked her foot up over her leg to show the sequined red pumps wrapped around her ankles.
Her mother brushed her hands down the sides of Brooklyn’s neck and rested them on her shoulders. “They’re a little flashy, that’s all, but…” She paused, adjusting the dainty silver chain around Brooklyn’s neck. “Let’s get a good look at you.”
Brooklyn gazed in the mirror and felt the rush of that evening pass by. Her mother telling her how beautiful she was echoed—something long forgotten washed ashore on an unfamiliar beach. Her father’s smile when he had pleaded for one last photograph was a stain.
The dream ratcheted. It sped forward and came back, looped and tilted.
One hand on the window, she looked over her shoulder after climbing into the car with her friends. Her parents standing in the driveway shrank in the distance.
Brooklyn’s hands swayed above her head as she sang along to a song on the radio. Someone laughed. Someone kissed her cheek.
An earsplitting scream shattered the music and the laughter. It was louder than the rest of the dream—it always was—a terrifying, shrill, broken sound that rattled the nerve endings on the back of her neck and made goose bumps rise over her forearms.
Someone said, “What was that?” and no one answered.
The girl sitting next to Brooklyn told them to keep driving. They should’ve.
Another horrible wail. A scream for help. The sound of something heavy hitting the ground.
“Pull over,” Brooklyn said, sitting up to look at the driver. Her hands shook. “Pull over!” The tires screeched when they stopped along the sidewalk.
What happened after that was blurry. Jagged. Sounds melted into a soundtrack. Her friends, their voices overlapping the click of her heels against concrete, her lungs expanding around a gasp.
A woman screamed for help, and in the dream, the scream went on and on, cut into different octaves. Loud then soft. Whispered then choked. What stood over her was something Brooklyn still didn’t understand. It was long and lean with dark hair that hung in a matted mess to its elbows, wearing all black with no shoes. It was a woman, she thought, whose hands visibly shook, eyes bulging from its skull.
There is an acute form of dread that only a dream can recreate. Brooklyn wanted desperately to wake up.
“Are you okay?” Brooklyn asked.
The creature twitched, jaw snapping shut, teeth chattering. Long fingers stretched out, knuckles clenching and popping.
Liquid ran from its nose, dark and thick. Brooklyn thought it was blood. It wasn’t. It was. It wasn’t. She still didn’t know.
It hunched over and opened its mouth. The sound didn’t come at first.
Brooklyn tried to stop it. Wake up. Wake up. She didn’t.
A guttural howl rang in her ears. It was desperate and primal. Inhuman. Impossible.
Brooklyn ran. She ran as fast as she could into the neighborhood at the opposite end of the street. Footsteps behind her beat the asphalt.
A house with a dark copper door had its garage open. She ran inside.
It was hard to make decisions, to think clearly. Everything she’d been taught, every emergency drill in school, every self-defense class she’d taken, hurled toward her like an oncoming train. One moment she was reaching for her phone to call for help, the next she was dialing her mom’s cell. She tripped, skidded on the tile, found herself in a stranger’s kitchen, and sank down behind the marble island in front of the sink. She shuffled through the drawers to her left and right. Found something sharp and cold: a serrated knife.
The sound of her heartbeat was the only thing she could focus on. She held a trembling hand over her mouth to muffle her breathing. Inhale. Exhale.
She heard the press of feet on the other side of the breakfast bar, and labored breathing—gurgled, soupy, and drowned. She heard teeth gnash. She could hear it hum. She could hear it laugh.
“Babbling brook, babbling brook, babbling brook,” it stuttered.
Brooklyn wanted to cover her ears. She wanted to close her eyes.
The creature turned quickly. A pot clattered against the floor. Brooklyn yelped a nervous hiccup and panicked. Sweat-slicked hands around her ankles. Black fingernails scraping her skin.
Brooklyn tried not to look, but it was no use. Pale skin. Flared nostrils. A wide mouth, rows of blunt human teeth. Something oozed out of the corner of its eye, black like tar, and it stained the sunken space between its cheek and jaw. It dripped from its nose, painted the inside of cracked lips, and bled from its gums. Charcoal veins snaked under its skin.
Its teeth snapped together, jaw clenching and unclenching. It reached forward with one hand, gangly arm flailing and prominent bones cracking as it twisted around.
Brooklyn didn’t comprehend her reaction, but something inside her was convinced it was her only option. Fight or flight. Live or die. Kill or be killed. She gripped the handle of the knife and shoved the blade through the creature’s mandible into the roof of its mouth. Bile filled the back of Brooklyn’s throat.
She would never forget the smell or sound or feeling.
Black blood stained the low neck of her strapless cream dress. Her phone was smashed, the glass front shattered on the tile floor.
Brooklyn tried to stand, but her knees buckled. She crawled away; kicking back against the limp body slumped in the corner of the kitchen.
It hurt. Her chest tightened. Hands shook. She wanted to run, to carry herself back home.
It repeated itself, the same memories from start to finish.
Someone shouted from the doorway of the garage. Brooklyn could still hear the song that was playing in her friend’s car, her mother’s voice as she fiddled with the necklace that was now in shambles on the kitchen floor, and her father’s gentle “be careful” as he slid the lily corsage onto her wrist.
Hands wrapped in blue rubber gripped her shoulders. Brooklyn’s legs bucked and kicked.
Don’t touch me. Don’t touch me. Don’t touch me.
The words never left her lips, but they kept going, on and on.
“Have you been hurt? What’s your name? There has been an emergency isolation operation set in place. We are taking you somewhere safe. What is your name?”
“Don’t touch me!” Brooklyn gasped.
Wide eyes stared down at her. Calloused palms held her shoulders against the bed.
“It’s me.” Porter swallowed uncomfortably. His hands drifted away as he craned his neck, shying from the small blade pressed against the middle of his throat. “You were dreaming. It’s all right, it’s me.”
Brooklyn’s heart raced. Her fingers trembled around the handle of a pocket knife.
Porter’s eyes were gentle in the darkness. He carefully touched the inside of her wrist. “Come on, put that down. You’re okay.”
The nightmares came and went. They’d happened every night for the first few months. Now they happened once a week at least. Sometimes twice.
“I’m sorry,” Brooklyn croaked. She allowed Porter to take the knife and set it on the nightstand. “I didn’t mean to…”
“Don’t apologize,” he said, voice just above a whisper. “Just go back to sleep. I’m right here.” He pointed to the lower bunk a few feet away. “Open your eyes if you’re scared and throw something at me, I’ll come right over.”
She swatted him when he grinned.
Porter moved back to his own bed. Brooklyn inhaled a long-drawn-out breath, easing her heart into a regular rhythm.
A slender arm hung over the edge of the bed above her. Gabriel snapped her fingers, lavender nail polish shining in a strip of moonlight that beamed through the window.
Brooklyn reached out and took her hand.
“You okay, Brookie?” Gabriel’s voice was raw with sleep.
Brooklyn squeezed her hand and didn’t answer.