It’s not easy being the youngest. Izzy was always being left out or left behind. It wasn’t fair.
She so wanted to be in. Especially with them. So when Jake and Joss had laughingly challenged everyone to the “hugest dare ever,” Izzy had been the first in the gang to leap up and accept. Now she was sorry. Sorry seven times over. Joss had nearly choked on her chewing gum. Jake had smirked behind his usual fag.
“OK Titch,” he’d said. “You’re on.”
He had bent down and whispered into Izzy’s ear. Her bones had melted and she’d had to hold onto her bladder. “Bastards!” which was about the worst word she could think of.
Two nights later she crept out of her family’s pokey terraced house, with its clutchy curtains and was hiking out of town on its main road.
“We’ll know if you bottle it Titch,” Jake had said. She saw him watching her from his bedroom window when she went past his mum’s house. She waved gaily. Keeping up her end.
The old Adelphi was dilapidated, falling down in stages. Didn’t stop kids, druggies and the homeless getting inside its decaying walls. The roof was mainly intact, so it was a dry spot to kip. Looking up, Izzy felt dwarfed. It was a grand old behemoth with massive door frames; the huge windows eyeing you.
‘Bollocks,’ she thought. Another of her Dad’s favourite words.
“Don’t forget Titch, you gotta go right inside, all the way down to the basement, take a pic and send it me,” Jake had instructed, smiling all the time. As if he was her mate.
Izzy knew how to get in. Where to lift the broken hoardings and slide through. Leaving only a little bit of skin behind. The ballroom was a vast space, rubble strewn, filthy, echoey. Izzy hummed to herself. She headed towards the huge staircase then cut sharply to the right, past what had once been a reception desk of aged oak, into the stair well. The carpet felt mushy with mould.
Her phone bleeped. It was Joss, “You there yet girl?”
Izzy frowned but texted back, “Am on stairs, heading down. Stinks in here.”
The smell of something rotting was getting stronger, probably just a dead bird. Izzy comforted herself. She wouldn’t let herself think it was anything else.
The bubbly glass windows in front of her told her she’d reached her objective. Pushing open the swing doors, she smelt the faded whiffs of chlorine and soggy towels. She switched her iPhone light on. It bounced off the white floor tiles, some showing crazy cracks, others intact. Izzy edged a little further inside. Sensing something above her she looked up and saw the shadowy dive boards hovering in the dark.
One of them creaked loudly then vibrated. Then she heard a shuffling noise. It was coming from the far side of the pool area. Swish, swish, sniff, sniff. The snuffling got louder, as if whoever was there had a bad cold. The sounds stopped for a moment, but Izzy knew for sure she was not alone. She could feel a tiny droplet of sweat begin its journey from her shoulder blades downwards.
The dark shadows in the guts of the empty pool moved. A match flared. A tiny light, held steady, bloomed. The pile of rubbish in the centre of the tiles came ablaze. It burned, lazily at first then with more energy. Izzy just stood there and watched. Mesmerized.
“I am not alone. I am not alone.” She could hear her pulse thumping out the words. Keeping time.
Her phone bleeped, the sound loud, intrusive. Alerting the other one, to her presence.
“Damn and blast,” she muttered trying to silence it. Too late.
“Have you paid girl?” The voice, slurring but still clear enough. “Come here where I can see you.”
On the edges of the fire a shape stood up, unsteadily, outlined by the flames. Wearing a long, dark coat, he had shoulder length hair and a beard. The cap pulled down low, so you couldn’t see his face.
“Come here girl. Let me see you.” His steps were shuffling. Against the fire’s light he looked like a deformed scarecrow. Izzy felt her heart drum harder, the sweat break out on her upper lip.
She remembered what she had come to do, she lifted up her iPhone and took the shot. The flash consumed the darkness, blotting out the firelight. The figure wailed and doubled over, as if under attack. Izzy felt sick. What had she done?
“Bitch!” the man screamed at her. “What you’d do that for? Come here!”
He lurched, tripped on some rubbish and then he fell. Into his fire. Face first. The tiny flames embraced him, his hair, his flesh and his clothing. As if grateful for the fuel. The fire doubled, tripled in size. Became a hearty blaze. Consuming eagerly.
Izzy felt the sound come up from deep inside her. She let her scream escape. Released it was unruly. It echoed off the tiles and drained away. The figure draped over the fire, its flailing limbs, grew still and the flames quietened. As if satisfied.
How long? Izzy wasn’t sure. It felt like an age. Grasping her iPhone, she clocked the messages from Jake and Joss. Bullying. Nasty. She ignored them. They had no power over her now. She had seen things they had never seen. She felt herself grow cold and hard, somewhere deep inside her.
She pressed the 3 digits and listened to the operator’s calm voice. The smell of old chlorine blended with roasting flesh. It left Izzy feeling sick and faint. She pressed her forehead against the tiles, as if in prayer. The scarecrow man’s image burnt onto her retina. She dimly heard the wail of the sirens outside and the louder thump of feet coming towards her.
Tomorrow, she would be headlines along with the pool man. Tomorrow, she would stay home.