Authors: Laura Burns
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Daddy pressed his finger to his lips, shushing Sarah quiet as he slid the door to the tunnel back on. She wrapped her arms tightly around her knees and pressed her cheek against her arm, trying to pretend she was back in her own room. But it didn't smell like her room. Even the spicy smell of Daddy's cologne had faded now that the tunnel was closed. And grayness was all around her. She was almost four, and that was too old to be scared of the dark. But it wasn't all dark. It was just gray dark.
She tried not to think of monsters crawling toward her. Daddy said there were no monsters. But monsters liked tunnels. They liked little girls.
Sometimes when she was scared she liked to sing the Maggie song. But that was against the rules. She had to be quiet. She had to be still. She had to wait until Daddy or Mommy opened the door and got her.
Thinking about the rules helped. She could almost hear Daddy saying them, as if he was hiding in the tunnel with her. Even though he was way too big. If something bad happens, wait until the room is safe. If you leave the tunnel, put the funny slitted door back on. Run fast. Find a lady with kids. Tell her your name is Sarah Merson. Merson. Merson. Merson.
. Ask for help.
Her nose started twitching, itching from the thick air. Making her want to sneeze. But she had to be quiet.
Then she heard Mommy screaming. Mommy never screamed. Were the monsters out there and not in the tunnel?
On hands and knees she started creeping toward the slits of light, heart pounding.
“Kt85L is our property,” a man said. “You had no right!”
Out there. Mommy on her knees facing the hotel room wall.
Someone's legs. A hand reaching down. A silver bird stared at Sarah from a ring on the finger. Stared with a horrible little black eye. The finger pulled the trigger of a gun.
A bang. Her ears filling with bees. Mommy collapsing on the floor. Red spilling out.
Sarah shoved her fingers into her mouth. Quiet. The rule was be quiet.
Shouting. Daddy's legs running by, out of the room. The bird man chasing. The door banging closed.
Something bad happening.
The room was safe. The bird man was gone. So she had to get out. Mommy was on the floor. Daddy was gone.
She shoved the door and it fell out onto the floor. Near Mommy. Near the red. But the rule was to put the funny door back on. She picked it up and shoved it over the tunnel like Daddy had shown her.
Sarah didn't want to look at Mommy. She looked out the window instead. The window was always open and there was never a screen. Daddy's voice came from the hallway, yelling. Screaming.
Sarah pressing her hands over her eyes. Not looking. Not looking. Something bad happening.
Daddy was quiet now. Something bad. She had to run fast.
Sarah climbed on the chair under the window. The chair always went under the window. She stuck her legs through the window and jumped down. Now run fast.
She ran fast, looking for a lady with a stroller or a kid her age. A mommy would help her. She would say she was Sarah Merson.
Sarah Merson, and something bad happened.
“First time on the water,” the captain said.
It wasn't a question, but Sarah nodded as she tightly gripped the rail, the chipped paint rough under her palms. The rolling motion of the ferry made her stomach churn. “First time anywhere,” she mumbled. Ever since she'd left her latest foster home behind in Toledo, that's all she'd had. First plane ride, first time out of Ohio since her parents died, first Greyhound ride, first boat.
An entire day of firsts thanks to what was probably a clerical error made by Sanctuary Bay Academy. The elite prep school had handed her a scholarship, even though she hadn't applied or been recommended, even though the records from her countless schools made it sound like community college was her best hopeâif she even got that lucky.
The chilly Maine wind blasted across her face, stinging her eyes and turning her kinky hair to a tangled mess. “Do you ever get used to how big it is?” she asked. “The ocean?”
The captain laughed, his red face crinkling. “Try being out in the middle, where you can't see the shore.” He swung himself onto the steep staircase and headed down to the enclosed bottom deck.
Now her only company was a big white dog tied up near a stubby, rusty metalÂ â¦ thingÂ â¦ with a thick rope coiled around the base. Her perfect memory would tell her what it was if she'd ever come across it in a book or heard someone talk about it before, but that hadn't happened. The dog's tongue hung out of his mouth happily as they bounced roughly over the water, the ferry leaving thick trails of white spray as it plowed toward Sanctuary Bay Academy. Clearly the dog had more travel experience than her.
She turned around, facing the shore to get a break from the out-to-infinity view. But now all she saw was the rest of the world slowly getting farther away. If her social worker was right, if the scholarship was the real deal, she wouldn't see that world again for almost two years. The academy had a strict policy of isolation.
Not isolation. Total immersion. Nothing but school.
But it still meant no contact with the outside world until she graduated.
“Which doesn't matter,” she told the dog. “Seeing as I have no friends or family to miss.”
Her last foster family, the Yoders, they'd been okay. Sure, they were extremely white. Big and blond and rosy cheeked and justÂ â¦ white. Sarah was sure when they looked at her they saw a black girl with kinky-curly dark hair and a wide nose. But it had been no different when she'd had black foster families. It wasn't as if they saw a white girl when they took in her green eyes and latte-hued skin. But they didn't see themselves, either. They didn't see black. If she'd been one thing or the other, instead of both, would she have found a placeâa familyâthat she really fit with?
She'd never fit at the Yoders. Besides the whiteness, they were just too normal. Three-square-meals-a-day-bowl-a-few-frames-this-Saturday normal. Creepy normal. But she'd liked it there. No one tried to slide into bed with her. There'd been no hitting or screamingâMr. and Mrs. Yoder actually seemed to like each other. Decent food. Some new clothes. From Target and Walmart, but new, and hers. Mrs. Yoder had even cried when she hugged Sarah good-bye this morning.
“Maybe she'll miss me,” Sarah said quietly. She faced the ocean again, and the dog gave her a wag.
“I'm not petting you,” she told it. She didn't have much experience with dogs. It was one of her gaps, or at least that's how she thought of them. She'd lived in so many different homes, with so many different people. She should have experienced more than the average sixteen-year-old, but she had a bunch of gaps. Friendsâyou couldn't make real friends when you switched schools that often. The oceanâthe Maumee River in Toledo didn't come close. Dogsânone, except the one the Weltons kept chained to the front door, and that one wasn't exactly a tail wagger. Partiesâshe'd never even been invited to one.
Never had a pony or a Lexus with a bow on top for my sweet sixteen, either,
she thought, mocking herself. “I just wish this part was over, the not knowing,” she said aloud to the dog. She could deal with anything as long as she knew what was going on. It was the not knowing that had her stomach roiling, no matter how many times she tried to tell herself it was only seasickness.
The dog stood up, so it could wag its whole butt and not just its tail. It moved closer, until its leash pulled taut, choking it. “Stupid mutt,” she muttered, but it kept on wagging. Okay, fine. Today was New Thing Day, so what the hell. Sarah slowly stretched her fingers out just far enough to brush its head. A second later, her hand was thoroughly slimed.
She smiled, wiping the drool on her jeans. “Thanks for not eating my hand,” she told the dog. “I'm weird enough already. I don't need to be known as Stumpy the Scholarship Girl.”
Would that be a thing? Would there be a big divide between scholarship kids and everybody else? At her public schools the rich kids had always stayed away from people like herâwell, at least at the schools she'd gone to that even had rich kids. But Sanctuary Bay was way beyond that. Her social worker had said students got their pick of colleges after graduation, that the best families in the country sent their kids here. That meant not just rich kids, but outrageously rich kids. Kennedys and Romneys and people like that. Sarah had tried to find information about the school online, a picture or something.
But she hadn't found anything. Maybe since Sanctuary Bay had such an amazing reputation they didn't need to be online. No need to advertise. If they wanted you, they'd let you know.
And they wanted her.
Or they wanted Sarah Merson at least. There had to be another one out there somewhere. A Sarah Merson with fantastic grades and a normal brain and parents who were still alive to help her get into a school like this. A girl who'd never been accused of being on drugs or cheating. A girl no one had ever considered might be “emotionally unstable,” to quote Sarah's seventh-grade teacher. That was the girl who was supposed to be on this ferry.