Authors: Nichola Reilly
Coe is one of the few remaining teenagers on the island of Tides. Deformed and weak, she is constantly reminded that in a world where dry land dwindles at every high tide, she is not welcome. The only bright spot in her harsh and difficult life is the strong, capable Tiam—but love has long ago been forgotten by her society. The only priority is survival.
Until the day their King falls ill, leaving no male heir to take his place. Unrest grows, and for reasons Coe cannot comprehend, she is invited into the privileged circle of royal aides. She soon learns that the dying royal is keeping a secret that will change their world forever.
Is there an escape from the horrific nightmare that their island home has become? Coe must race to find the answers and save the people she cares about, before their world and everything they know is lost to the waters.
For my sister Jen
The Way the World Ends
write things on the sand so I won’t forget them. Things I like.
Things I want.
A warm dry place.
A long night of sound sleep.
I watch the waves come and erase the words from the shore. Erased from existence. From possibility. It’s almost as if the waves are taunting me.
For thousands of tides I am sure people thought about how and when the world would end. Maybe they wondered whether it would happen while they were alive, or if their children, grandchildren, or maybe even their great-great-great-great-grandchildren would be the unlucky ones to be there when the world crashed down around them.
But I don’t have to wonder.
I know it is going to happen soon, and maybe in my lifetime.
Every morning I wonder if I will see the sunset. Every breeze is like death breathing down my back.
The sun burns like fire among black smokelike clouds on the horizon, making my eyes squint and burn. High tide is approaching, the waves slowly coming closer. With every breath, every heartbeat, they rise a little more. Soon almost everything will be underwater.
I stand and shake the sand out of my mat, then roll it up and affix it to my knapsack. I’ve gotten pretty good at doing all these things one-handed. My clothes are wet, and my lips taste like salt. I’m not sure why I’m yawning because I had a pretty good spell of sleep. Nearly half a tide. Half a tide where, at least in my mind, I was somewhere warm and dry, somewhere that didn’t smell like crap or rotting fish.
I plod along with the others, away from the steadily rising waters. It’s chilly but at least my tunic is only slightly damp; it doesn’t stick to my skin. Nothing is ever dry here. It’s either sopping wet or damp, and damp is a blessing.
It’s time once again for formation. We all know the tides. We must, or we’d pay for our ignorance with our lives. It’s time for all of us, all 496 of us, to trudge to the platform that stands maybe sixty of my feet above the ground, at the center of the island. At least, at last total, there were 496 of us. I don’t like to count because our numbers are constantly falling. We all know this, which is probably why nobody looks at or speaks to anyone else. Better not to get too familiar.
When someone disappears, we all assume the worst. Because the worst is usual.
The only person who does look at me is Mutter. His face is dark and leathery, and his beard is scraggly and foul, greenish-gray, filled with old, dead things. He has his own scribbler scars, but at least he has all his limbs. He is useful. He sneers at me, disgusted. “Waste of space,” he hisses as I find my spot on the platform. “Scribbler Bait.” I wipe away the sand with my bare foot. The number two is scratched there.
Number two is my spot, for now. It’s near the dry center of the circular formation, where things are safer. There are 496 circles arranged around it, spiraling out from the center. The circles are small; there’s barely enough room to stand. There used to be thousands of circles, one for every person on the island. But the only thing constant about the island we call Tides is change.
Children get the central spots. When I reach my sixteenth Soft Season, when I am an adult, I will be given a new spot based on the importance of the job I am given. Mutter is right, though. I don’t have any special skills, and my deformity makes it difficult for me to pull in the nets or do the things fishermen do. I’d barely make a good scavenger, the lowest of the low. People call them Scribbler Bait.
“I saw a scribbler on the platform last night,” Xilia whispers to no one in particular. She is a scavenger, too, and quite mad. But many of those who occupy spaces on the outer edge of the formation are crazy, because they brush with death every time the tide comes in. And nobody can deny that the scribblers have been getting braver. That’s not the name we always had for them. When I was young they were called spearfish, because they’d often spear fishermen as they brought in the nets. But then they started coming onto the sand when the tides receded, sunning themselves. They’ll attack us on land, ripping through our flesh with their spear-shaped noses, then feasting on our blood. They’re getting smarter, too, because after a while they began burrowing under the sand, hiding from us, and springing out whenever a human came too close. They make long, winding paths in the sand with their sinewy black bodies—like scribbles, my father had said. My father started calling them scribblers, and everyone followed him, as they usually did.
I’ve never seen a scribbler on the platform before. The thought makes me shudder. The platform, however small and inadequate, is our safety. But I know our safety is eroding. It has always been so. A thousand tides ago, the platform was twice the size it is now at high tide. There was room for twice as many people. Now we are under five hundred. I know this because there are fewer than five hundred spaces. The largest number that’s still visible, though it is nearly half eaten by the tides, is 496. At least, that was the number the last time I had the energy to look.
I sigh and throw my things down on my spot. The spot is so comfortable and familiar to me that I feel as if the imprint on the stone conforms perfectly to my feet. Sweat drips from my chin. My eyes sting from the glare reflecting off the white concrete. Little Fern, who is seven, comes hopscotching up to space number one, scrawny as a sprig of seaweed, two white-blond braids framing her sweet smile. She has a little stick in her hand, something she’s never without. When she steps next to me, she touches the stick to my elbow. “Your wish is granted,” she says with great flourish.
If only. If only the stories I told her about fairies were true. There are so many things to wish for.
I was space number one until Fern turned five, when we all moved over a space to make room for her. Before then, she occupied the same spot as her mother, who was a fisherman before she died many tides ago. They used to give mothers spaces in the center of the formation when they had children, but then things became so dire that some women had babies just to get a better spot. I was told Tiam’s mother had, and my mother had, though I can’t remember ever squeezing next to her on her spot. Two babies in a season was a virtual baby boom. So they put an end to that practice after I was born. Now nobody has children. It just means more people. And there are already too many people.
After all, when a baby is born, it just means that when that child turns five, we’ll all have to move one space to the left. The person at the very end of the spiral is out of luck. Space is something people have been known to kill for.
I’m grateful for Fern, though. She is the only one who still smiles at me. As for the others, we are not friends. We do not trust or like anyone, even our own family members—if we have any of them left, and most of us don’t. We all know what is coming, and we’ve all lost enough to know that caring for another person doesn’t make things easier.
Which means I have a big problem.
Just like part of the formation washes away in every tide, part of me is lost every time I hear his voice.
“Hi, Tiam,” I say, staring at the sandy ground. Looking up at him, at those liquid sapphire eyes, will just make the pain worse. Besides, I already have every inch of his face memorized. Him? If I hadn’t been required to assume the space next to him for the past ten thousand tides, if there weren’t slightly under five hundred of us, I doubt he’d know my name.
Fern waves her wand some more, granting wishes to the air. I wonder how obvious it is that most of the wishes I have in my head involve Tiam. It’s not that I want to wish about him. It just happens.
Tiam drops his stuff in space number three. For as long as I can remember, he has been beside me. When I was young he used to hold my hand to keep me from being scared. He is never scared.
I move as far away from him as I possibly can, which isn’t far enough. The spaces are only maybe two of my feet in diameter, so now that we are older, we rub shoulders. Even though I try to wash up every day in a tide pool, I know he can smell me. I have the luck of having the job that makes me reek a hundred times worse than the normal, forgettable stench that most of us carry. Mine seems to bury itself deep under my skin. No matter how much I bathe, it never completely goes away.
If he does smell me, though, he never lets on. In twenty tides or so he will reach adulthood, and I’m sure he will have a good spot in the formation. A spot for the most valuable people. He is smart enough to be a medic, strong enough to be a builder, brave enough to be an explorer.
He is everything I am not.
Tiam always comes to the formation at the last moment. I think it’s his way of laughing at nature, while the rest of us cower before it. He says, to no one in particular, “So, what is the news?”
I know that isn’t directed at me. I spend most of my free time alone, so I don’t ever hear any news. But formation is the time to catch up on the latest gossip. Burbur, in space four, who is one of the most respected royal servants, says that she heard the king coughing in his sleep while making her normal rounds in the palace. Tiam raises an eyebrow, and everyone murmurs, “Ah, really?” Finn, a fisherman, whispers that the food brought in during this morning’s harvest was “pitiful,” and people shake their heads and say, “Is that so?” This goes on for a moment as I wonder whether or not to submit the only piece of information I have gleaned in the past hundred tides. Finally I clear my throat.
Tiam and the rest turn to me, clearly surprised that I’m contributing. “Xilia said she saw a scribbler on the platform last night,” I offer weakly.
Someone, Burbur I think, huffs. Another person snorts. Tiam says, “You mean the Xilia who sees scribblers in her soup? In the eyes of her enemies? Floating among the clouds?”
Laughter isn’t heard often on the island, but at this, people burst into fits of loud guffaws. I shrink into the center of my space. “Point taken,” I mumble.
He leans over so that his warm breath grazes my cheek, and immediately I stand spear-straight. “Sorry, Coe, I don’t mean to make light of it,” he whispers. “Xilia says things just to scare people. And the last thing we need is for people to be more afraid.”
Tiam the peacemaker. He is so like my father, it’s scary. And it’s hard to feel offended when he whispers in such a gentle way. I can’t feel anything other than my heart thudding against my chest, the heat rising in my cheeks. I nod. “I know. It’s okay.”
“We’ve lost another!” someone shouts. From here I can see a body being hoisted into the air and carried in the hands of the others, toward the edge. It will be tossed over. That is the law. We spend much of our lives on the platform, squeezed together so tightly that the air tastes rancid, and one can barely raise a hand to wipe the sweat from his brow; so it’s not uncommon for people to pass out while standing in the scorching heat. It’s a woman, but I can’t see who. I can only see the dirty bottoms of her feet as she is carried farther away from me. I look at Tiam, who is frowning. He doesn’t approve of this law.
I know the sea is close when the wind picks up and I can feel its mist in my face. The people on the outer edge begin to scramble and shout, and we collectively sway along with the waves, breathing in as each one comes, out as it recedes. The sea is not close. Not yet. The newly risen sun, still veiled in those smoky clouds, will have nearly begun to sink from its high point in the sky by the time we are done here. But Fern already has her hand in mine, and it’s sweaty and trembling. I do my best to calm her by stroking it lightly.
Tiam grins past me, at her. “Hey, Bug,” he says. “Try this.”
She turns to him, eyes wide. Tiam is balancing on one foot like a crazy man.
Fern and I stare at him.
“Try this,” he says, patting his stomach and rubbing his head. “Bet you can’t do that.”
“You’ll get in trouble,” I warn, but I know people make special allowances for Tiam. Fern giggles and squeals. Tiam always knows how to make everything better. He knows how to make those tense moments in the formation pass quickly. “You are
a crabeater,” I mutter, trying my best to sound gruff, as if I couldn’t care less about him.
The waves are close now. I can hear them crashing against the platform, smell them. My wet hair, and the hair from the woman behind me, whips my face. Skeletal limbs press against me. People hug themselves and moan. We all tremble as one. The scribblers at the edge are hissing, sensing the human flesh that is so near. During the worst of it, I always look up at the calming sky, at the seagulls gracefully arcing overhead. But today there are storm clouds above. A jagged edge of lightning slits those clouds, followed by the rumble of thunder. All of nature rages around us. We are powerless here.
But Tiam does not care. He spins in circles, touching the tip of his nose. While the rest of the formation huddles together, wishing their space were bigger, Tiam acts as though the space is a mile wide. His antics get riskier and riskier as the moments drag on, so that one can barely take notice of the waves crashing around us. He causes such a commotion that all the people at the center of the formation, the important people, stare at him. I try to nudge him to stop, but he doesn’t care.
“Hey, Bug,” he says. “Let’s race. Ready?”
I exhale, relieved. I know this game. They’ve played it every tide since Fern was three. Fern smiles and waits for him to count down from three. Then they both take huge gulps of air and hold it. I count slowly.
Their faces strain; Fern’s cheeks turn the color of the sunset. I’m up to seventy-five when Tiam opens his mouth and the air explodes out of him. Fern holds hers until 103. A new record. When she finally gives up, she grins, triumphant. She is always triumphant. And in that triumph, the ocean disappears, if only for a few moments.
The tide begins to go out, and the rest of us let out the collective breath we’d been holding. For most of us, it will
be a game, not while the unpredictable and merciless sea rages around us.