It wasn’t hard to sneak away from school. No one thought to have anyone watch the exits during evening assembly time.
If nothing else, she needed to be alone and decide how to feel.
Golden sunlight worked its way through the trees along the riverbank, making the rocks sparkle. Isabella peeled off her clothes and tucked them under a rock, then grabbed the soap and jumped in.
It took a few moments to adjust to the coolness of the water, but it certainly felt better than being inside the stuffy school. Isabella sighed, and the tension it released made her do it again and again, until she felt light-headed. For a moment she floated on the water, letting the gentle current carry her around the bend before swimming back and starting the arduous process of washing the day away.
She realized she was humming as she watched the rays of sunlight get sucked up by the evening. After a moment she placed the tune: Hollow Breath, by Modern Musical. She realized the enormity of the silence that enveloped her, and began to sing: “I can feel time fading, I can hear the world turning, in empty space with me.” She kept singing as she climbed out of the water, quickly wrapping her body and her hair in towels to fend off the dusky chill.
“Isabella? Is that you?” called a voice from the trees to her right. William stepped into sight, two empty buckets in hand. “Whoa! Sorry!” When he saw her toweled state, he quickly whirled around. “I – uh, I was sent to…uh…”
For the first time in what felt like forever, Isabella laughed. “William,” she interrupted. “Will, look at me,” she insisted when he peeked over his shoulder and quickly away. Reluctantly, he turned, and for a moment Isabella saw the wistfulness that always showed when he looked at her. The rawness of the expression made her stomach kick. He was the only one in the group who didn’t boss her around or look at her as though she were a tarantula when she accidently said something that went against the group code. He didn’t quite display Harvey’s brand of exasperated kindness. As a matter of fact, William always seemed to genuinely like her no matter what she said or did. Even when he was playing along with everyone and heckling her. It was certainly refreshing.
“I was just finishing up, but I’m not really ready to go back yet. Do you want to sit here for a little bit?” She motioned to the soft grass lining the river bank, making a carpet around the broad tree trunks. Wordlessly, William nodded and sat beside her. Not too close, though.
“I can’t believe we’re stuck here,” Isabella said after a few minutes of silently staring at the drifting water. “It’s been days. I wonder how long this lockdown is going to last.”
“I don’t know, I don’t mind it that much,” William replied, stretching out his legs. “Except for the sickness. I hope we don’t catch it.”
It had been all over the news the past couple of days. Biological warfare, they called it. They – whoever they were, WHO, most likely – couldn’t find the cause of the sickness, and had started calling it the “phantom virus”. Like cholera that doesn’t respond to cholera treatment at all. “I saw Timothy throwing up today. He’s never sick. Do you think he’s got…whatever it is?”
A muscle twitched in William’s cheek when she said Timothy’s name. “You never know, I guess. I’m sure it’s nothing. Big Tim is pretty invincible.” He said it lightly enough, but Isabella couldn’t help but feel a current of tension running under the words. Before she could ask, he motioned to her arm. “Does it still hurt?” he asked, and now she could definitely sense some distaste.
She got a little angry and panicked herself, however, when she recalled how Timothy had screamed at her the other day. But every time she looked at the ring the feeling would dissipate, if only a little. It was an accident. He really did care for her, under all his jerkiness. Lightly, she touched the fading bruises, and her class ring caught the dying sunlight. “No, it doesn’t. He didn’t mean to do this, you know. Timothy would never hurt me.” She knew it was true. He wouldn’t try to hurt her, anyway. For the most part, Timothy seemed to live in a world free from awareness of other inhabitants.
William didn’t say anything, and when Isabella looked over, she was shocked at the clench of his jaw, the murderous expression in his eyes. He looked just like Timothy that day on the steps.
“Will, what’s wrong?” she asked cautiously, edging away. He caught the tremor in her voice, and immediately smoothed his features.
“There are many ways to be hurt, Isabella,” he told her quietly, keeping his eyes on the river.
She still inched away from him. “What do you mean?”
He turned himself to face her squarely, shoulders drawn as though he were ready to receive a blow. “I used to really admire you, you know,” he said. “Back before you started dating Timothy. Even after then for a little bit, I guess. I would never admit it. I acted like I hated you, because no matter what we did to you or your friends, you always had something wise to say about it. It pissed me off. But when you started dating him, I – you changed. The girls treat you like a magazine, and you take it. I know you’re not into pranking, but you do it anyway, because Tim expects you to. You – you went soft. He – we – broke you.”
Isabella considered this. She tried to stand up for Cassandra, she was soft. She tried to fit in with the group, she was soft. She had to admit it was true, though. She felt like she was putty for everyone else to shape.
“Gee, thanks,” she said, leaning back against the tree, glaring at him. She was surprised when he smiled, and looked a little relieved.
“See? That’s what I’m talking about.” He grinned at her, and her heart jumped. “You’re so – ”
When he cut himself off, and she scowled deeper. “I’m so what, William?”
He waved his hand. “Never mind. It’s out of line.” He seemed embarrassed again.
Uncrossing her arms, she sat up. “No, go ahead. I’m so what?” she asked coldly.
He stared at his shoes. She could barely hear him when he spoke. “You’re so beautiful. I don’t understand it. I’m sorry.”
Desperately, her heart tried to pound its way out of her chest. Never had a guy told her that before without staring at her like an animal. Certainly they had never apologized for it. Whenever Timothy said this it was always because he wanted her to sleep with him. “You don’t understand what?” she asked, trying to think of a way to get him to say again that she was beautiful. She was shocked at the new, pure meaning the word had. He wasn’t talking about just her body, she could tell.
“I don’t understand how Timothy – or anyone – would ever want you to change. To not be…you.”
Keeping one hand on her towel, she carefully reached out and touched his wrist. He jerked away, glancing up at her with startled eyes. She knew she should just let it go, but she was suddenly filled with something she couldn’t explain – only that she wanted to make him see her. She wanted to be honest for once. It was like his words were a key that had turned a lock on her heart.
“William. Thank you,” she said quietly, firmly taking his hand. “You’re a good friend. Even if you get on my nerves.” She couldn’t laugh flippantly as she intended to, and the words came out not quite right.
Finally he looked at her, and his hand moved. Trembling ever so slightly he reached for her, and stopped midway. His eyes searched hers cautiously. For permission? His hesitancy made her throat close up with emotion. She leaned into him a little, opening up her expression as much as she could. Carefully he placed his hand on the side of her face. Filled with warmth, she rested her other hand over his.
The towel slipped from around her chest, and she shrieked a little as she yanked it back into place. William’s embarrassed expression of horror made her laugh out loud.
“Did you see anything?” she demanded, still laughing.
He looked everywhere but at her. “N-no! Of course not…I’m – I’m sorry.” But she could see that he was lying, and how much he fought to keep from letting his true thoughts show. She felt empowered, as opposed to the usual resignation she felt when Timothy wanted her.
Violently, she pushed the thought away by pulling William back to her. She fell against the tree with him half on top of her, trying not to crush her. The towel around her head dislodged, and she ripped it off and tossed it aside. “Isabella! What –”
“Don’t be sorry, Will.” she pleaded, using both her hands to force him to look at her. She wished she could bottle up his expression of uncertain longing somehow, and sprinkle it on Timothy. See, she would say, see how much more I like you when you don’t treat me like your personal toy?
“I am though. I don’t want you to think that I…” he trailed off, and she laughed again, exploring his hair with her fingers.
“Come on, finish a sentence,” she suggested, allowing him to pull her fingers away, but then keeping hold of his hands. She didn’t know where her boldness came from, but she felt as though she had been holding her breath for a very long time and could finally…breathe. “You don’t want me to think what?”
He took a breath, trying to pull away from her. “I don’t want you to think that I want you – I mean, that I came to find you…just for that. For, um – for sex.” He made a face as he forced himself to say the word. Her smile faded, and she stilled her playful resistance. They stared at each other.
Cold trickled into her core. His awkwardness started to make awful sense to her now. Was she so starved of gentle attention that she read signs that weren’t there? Was she willing to force anyone into the role she wished Timothy would play? Looking at William, she knew she had let his wonderful words go to her head.
“Oh.” She suddenly felt exposed. “I’m the one who should be sorry then. I wasn’t trying to force anything, I just thought that maybe…” Was she crying now? she wondered incredulously. “Just never mind, William.” Now she was the one who couldn’t finish sentences or meet his eye.
But he still leaned on her. And though his hands were still, he hadn’t pulled them out of hers. “No, Isabella, that’s not what I meant at all. I just don’t know what to say!” She looked up to see the frustration in his eyes.
“Talking is awkward,” she agreed slowly, deciding on one more risk, one more experiment. Wrestling her nerve, she coaxed him down until his lips brushed hers.
For a moment, his shock froze him. Insistently, Isabella pressed her lips a little harder, until he kissed her back. She felt him sigh, his breath brushing over her like a gentle breeze. Willing him to kiss away all the caution she had wrapped herself in over the years, she arched into him, trying to make him go deeper. Carefully – always so carefully – he cradled her head and trailed his mouth over her cheek, down her neck, over her shoulder. A strange, surprised hiccup escaped her when his lips pressed under her collarbone, just above the boundary of the white towel.
He inhaled the scent of her skin for a moment, and then brought his lips to hers again, watching her reaction as he ran a hand over her hip, her bare leg. She couldn’t stop blinking, and her hands curled around his arms like claws. He trembled slightly, and she could feel his heart beating in his tensed biceps. It was getting dark, but she could still see that spark in his eyes. Her breath came in quick, tight gasps.
“So beautiful,” he murmured, his eyes like rays of the sun warming her face, and she thought his smile was rueful.
“So are you,” she whispered back. She caught the hem of his shirt as she ran her fingers up his back. In one smooth motion she pulled it off. Taking in his naked chest. She had seen it a million times at the beach, and had admired him from afar in a distant sort of way. Timothy’s constant need for attention made it hard to appreciate anything around her.
It was getting harder and harder to see, but she traced the familiar shape of him with her hand, and then her lips. Taking her mouth once more, he drew an arm around her back and pulled her upright. This time she made no move to stop the towel when it slipped from her body.