Authors: Meaghan Rauscher
Inside the warm atmosphere of the steamy kitchen, I skittered around my aunts and cousins who hardly acknowledged my presence, and grabbed my check from the table near the empty coat rack. Trying to hurry out the back door, I bumped into Hannah with a grunt.
“Sorry!” I cried, as she scrambled to save the tray on her arm. I caught it quickly on both sides.
“Thanks,” she said and heaved the tray onto her shoulder and then looked up, “Oh, I didn’t realize it was you.”
“Yeah, just stopping by,” I said and waved my check. She turned to leave, but stalled.
“Oh, tomorrow night,” she began.
“The beach,” I nodded, “I just saw Jonathan and he told me. I’ll be there.” She smiled and left without a goodbye. Sometimes that was the most emotion you would get from Hannah.
Not wanting to cause another disturbance, I ducked out of the kitchen and into the warm night air. My measly check folded nicely into my coat pocket, and a surge of warmth spread through my limbs as I thought about tomorrow. For just a moment, it felt wonderful to pretend to be human again and to care about what I might say or do at the little beach gathering. Pulling my hair out of its tight bun, I let it cascade down my shoulders. It was getting long—the tips reaching just above my waist—the brightness of its golden tinge sometimes caught me by surprise, especially when it rippled slowly in the wind, as it did now.
With a surge of energy I hadn’t felt in days, I began to jog up the hill toward the house. The wind lifted my hair and sent a thrill of exhilaration into my body, even though the slight movement jostled my shoulder. I grimaced against the pain and tried to ignore it. My injuries had taken their toll on my body, simply running up the hill left me breathless, not unlike how I felt after working with my brothers on my siren voice.
Just as I was reaching the pavement of the driveway, something flickered in the corner of my eye and I came to a halt, looking in the direction of the ocean. Peering into the gray light of the twilight sky, I tried to make out some shape or form in the water. My feet took me to the other side of the hill. I remained at the top, not wanting to get closer to the waves on the shore.
Please be him,
I thought. My heart began to pound heavily in my chest as I scanned the horizon almost frantically, certain I had seen a shimmer of some sort in the water.
Just your eyes playing tricks on you
. I finally gave up and walked into the house. But all the way up the stairs to my bedroom I couldn’t shake the feeling, there had been something out there.
Shutting the door to my bedroom, I immediately went to the window. The gooseflesh on my arms spread down the rest of my body as I thought of what might be waiting. Two weeks ago, Morven had told me they would be watching, but just what that meant, I could only be half-certain. At the time, I knew it meant he was waiting for Zale to show, but maybe he had given up and was going to use me as bait instead. My birthday was nearing, always looming in the future, and just maybe the Hyven leader had lost his patience.
Turning toward my bed, a shiver ran down my spine.
So much for sleep
, I thought as I knew I wouldn’t be able to close my eyes all night for fear of what might be out there.
Most nights I was able to ignore it and not concentrate on what Morven had said, but one small flicker in the ocean had made all my former fears return with a crashing weight of reality.
The springs of the mattress creaked beneath my weight and I placed my hands in my lap, annoyed by their shaking. Feeling the need to touch something, I pulled my jacket off and tossed it on the floor. The dark sheath of my dagger stood out sharply against my skin, in the same way the recently healed scar made its presence known from beneath the sleeve of my shirt, as it ran down my arm.
Annoyed at my fear, I pulled the dagger off my arm and held the wooden handle to my chest, as I tried not to succumb to tears. This is what scared me more than anything, and I had been trying to hold it at bay ever since Morven had told me they would be watching. It was the desperate need to feel safe, and I only felt that way when I was in Zale’s arms.
Rubbing my thumb over the mertail-ridged wood of the dagger’s hilt, I bit my lip to hold back the worry and looked at my bed stand. With a gasp, I saw the folded piece of paper which so blatantly lay upon its dark surface. My heart leapt into my throat and I turned to gaze out my window, for fear of seeing Morven looking in.
How had I missed it?
Still clutching the dagger to my chest, I sidled up to the little table and grasped the paper with trembling fingers. It seemed as though another hand was opening the thin slip of paper and I peered in the dim light of my room at the hastily etched words.
A storm is coming. Hang on to what you know.
To what you told me when I left.
And farther down on the little slip, he had scribbled a last minute thought. I swallowed heavily at the words and felt my throat go dry.
Keep your dagger close.
A shaky breath passed through my lips. This note had to be from Zale, this time there was no doubt about it. In all my meetings with Morven, I had never once shown him the dagger I carried. As far as I knew, he didn’t know of its existence. The dagger had been Zale’s gift and his way of telling me he was the one who had penned the note.
Trying to still my trembling at the sudden appearance of the note, I lay my dagger down on the bed and reread the words over and over again. After so many weeks of not knowing, and only hoping he was out there, I finally had an answer. He was waiting for me, as much as I was for him.
But what storm?
I swallowed and tried to push the thought from my mind.
Zale needed me to be strong and remember what I had told him the night he left me on the island. It had been the first time I had told him I loved him. Of course, it had been a long time coming. For a while, I had thought my love was for who he used to be, but that night I realized I loved him for him, exactly as he was. Warrior and all.
My body continued to tremble as I kicked off my shoes and slid under the covers of my bed. It was too early for sleep, but with the rolling of my stomach I knew I couldn’t eat dinner and curled up under the blankets with the note in my hand.
He had been here in my very room. Something terrible must have happened for him to risk coming so close to me. If he had been caught, then I would have been taken too. Morven had threatened the only reason I was still free to do as I pleased was to catch Zale, so he must have gotten away since I was still standing here of my own accord.
But a storm is coming
, the recollection ran through my mind and I bit my lip uncertain of what it could possibly mean.
For the rest of the night I tossed and turned, one hand on the hilt of my dagger and one hand on his note, as though they were lifelines to keep me alive in the world I belonged.
Hours later after my mind slowly drifted away from the fears, and just when my muscles began to relax, sleep finally took me.
Each second passed by like dust suspended in streams of golden sunlight. Individual moments standing out on their own, as though trying to attract my attention. I was at once distracted and focused. My senses heightened to everything around me, while trying desperately to suppress them into a façade which could pass for normal.
I was far from fooling anyone, and my edginess seemed to bother them as well. For once, the house was quiet and calm, everyone keeping to themselves.
I was in the upstairs bathroom running water over my hands, as I held onto some strange hope of Zale coming for me. But logic told me to expect danger. Even though it was almost two months since Bolrock had attacked me, I wasn’t likely to forget the complete desperation which had encompassed me in the moment. I had been helpless and I felt the same way now. In a sense, sitting here waiting left me open and exposed for whatever storm Zale said was headed my way. Shifting my shoulders, I felt the usual stab of pain ripple down my left arm and grimaced.
Downstairs the younger children were playing while the older ones had their homework littered across the table. I had tried to remain with them and help with dinner, but after I dropped a glass bowl onto the kitchen floor and sliced my finger on one of the shattered pieces, Jillian had sent me upstairs to tend to the cut. I had remained in the bathroom sitting on the edge of the tub, playing with the droplets of water whispering over my skin only to fall off my fingertips unceremoniously. I tried to hold the water in my hands, to control it, but it slipped through the cracks of my fingers so easily and without regard for my effort.
Heaving a sigh, I shut the faucet off and stood to grab a bandage from below the sink. When I straightened, I caught my reflection and stared, my lips parting slightly. The girl in the mirror was strained, her face a stranger to me, the seriousness of her mouth and the deep shadows beneath her eyes. Like a candle that had lost its spark, she appeared pale and dull, though her bright hair cascaded down her shoulders and over her chest. She flipped the hair behind her back and I watched as it floated into place in a tantalizing ripple.
A tremor ran through my body when my eyes met their reflection. Maybe it was the darkness in the little bathroom, or the fractured sliver of light from the setting sun catching their color, but my eyes stood out sharply. It was hard to look away from the bright blue-green orbs seeming to float in the face of an otherwise plain girl. She stared at me. I stared back.
I left the room and hurried to change into a fresh pair of jeans and a clean shirt. Throwing my jacket on over the simple outfit, I resisted the temptation to check the mirror again.
“Jillian,” I called walking down the stairs. I fumbled with the zipper on the jacket. “I’m headed out, I’ll be back later.”
“Okay,” she said, not even turning around from her spot along the kitchen counter. “Are you sure you don’t need to take anything with you?”
“No, Jonathan said they’ve got it covered.”
“All right then,” she glanced my way. “Have fun.”
“I will.” I tried to ignore the relief in her voice, my apparent worry was making her nervous as well. Maybe it was a good thing Jonathan had asked me to join my friends at the bonfire. I had debated about whether or not it would be a good idea, but there really didn’t seem to be a reason for not going.
Shoving the side door open with my shoulder, a warm breeze lifted strands of my hair in a dance around my face. I knew I would have to put it up once I got to the beach, but for the time being I liked to feel its pull in the wind.
The night air was pleasantly cool, a blessed relief after the many warm days we had recently experienced. Trudging down the hill toward the beach, I squished my toes in the sand with a reassuring acceptance. My feet had too long been sequestered in tight shoes.
Waves surged toward me, sea foam leaving a temporary arch in a delicate mismatched pattern along the packed sand, only to be washed away moments later. Every now and again spray from an over-zealous wave splashed forward, decorating my pants with little dots.
Passing the rock wall where I had spent many a time throwing my dagger, the pier came into view along with the rest of the town. The lights from yellow glowing orbs revealed an oddly uncrowded street and as I got closer, I hastened to pull my hair into a sloppy bun at the nape of my neck. It would at least hold the majority of my hair out of suspicion.
Crossing beneath the pier, the rest of the shore came into view and I followed its curve until I spotted the large pile of driftwood resting in the distance. A silhouetted body was kneeling beside it, the sparks were beginning to turn into flames, tongues licking toward the sky. With another poke and the addition of a stick, the flames exploded to life and the boy gave a loud whoop of excitement. I smiled to myself, ready to congratulate Jonathan on his latest feat.
“Lissie!” Hannah called when she spotted me, stopping on her trail from the back of an overloaded Volkswagen, a cooler in her hands. I couldn’t help but notice the hint of surprise in her voice.
“Hey guys,” I waved and hurried to help her with the cooler. “Woah, what’s in here?” I asked, trying not to put too much of the weight in my left hand.
“Ice,” she heaved, “Lots and lots of ice. This should be a good enough spot.”
“You sure?” It seemed a little close to the fire.
“If it isn’t, someone else can move it.” She exhaled and though I knew she wasn’t trying to be funny, I had to suppress a laugh. Hannah was always the same, straightforward and unrelenting.
“True,” I said and hurried to follow her up the hill to the car. We passed five teens, their arms loaded with towels, chairs, coolers, and other assortments of supposedly necessary items. I was only now beginning to realize this gathering might be a little bigger than I had suspected.
“No—no I’ve got—it!” A boy called from the back of the car, half of his body hidden in the trunk. He gave a great groan on the last word as he pulled heavily on something inside. A cooler came into view, and with it, a bunch of hotdog buns came colliding down on top of his arms.
“Here,” Hannah said, jumping to the rescue. As she helped him extricate his arms, I hustled to pull on the cooler’s handle. It nearly tugged my arms out of my sockets. What were they filling these coolers with?
“Thanks, Hannah.” the boy sighed, straightening his Hawaiian print shirt, and when he glanced up from his half-hunched position beneath the trunk door, he finally noticed my presence. “Oh hey,” he said with a thick Southern accent and stuck out his hand. “I don’t think I’ve met you before.”
I shook his hand, “You haven’t.”
“I’m Daron Johnson, junior the third.”
Stunned for a moment, I blinked. “Wait, what?” I asked, feeling ridiculous.
“He’s insane,” Jonathon suddenly appeared behind me and we stepped out from under the trunk.
“Okay,” I paused, “is there something less-formal you go by?”
“Daron,” the boy grinned.
“Daron it is,” I nodded.
“He’s new here,” Jonathan explained. “Where was it you’re from again? Somewhere in Florida?”
“Yep, born and bred,” he rocked on his feet and I finally understood the outfit, although the shirt seemed to be a bit much, even for a Florida native.
“This is Lissie,” Jonathan clapped me on the left shoulder and when I cringed, he pulled back. “I’m so sorry! I totally forgot.”
“It’s fine,” I hastily put him at ease, turning back to Daron.
“Oh nothing,” I waved a hand, “I recently injured my shoulder is all, but it’s pretty much healed.”
“Aw man,” Daron said and I expected him to say more but he remained silent.
“Do you need a hand with that?” I gestured to the cooler and he shifted back as though only just now remembering its existence. “Oh yeah, but it’s kind of heavy.” He glanced at my shoulder again.
“I’ll get it,” Jonathan jumped forward and heaved the cooler out of the trunk before either of us could protest. “Give her something else to carry,” he called over his shoulder; his face already red from straining.
Daron turned back to the trunk and perused its contents for a moment longer before grabbing a stack of towels. “Here you go,” he said and tossed them into my arms.
I grimaced in annoyance.
“If I were you, I’d tell Jonathan the towels are too heavy. Then you can get out of helping,” he winked and the freckles on his nose seemed to sparkle in the growing orange-cast light of the roaring flames.
“I just might do that,” I smiled back and proceeded to slide-step my way down the dune to where Hannah called me over to help set up chairs around the dancing flames. There were roughly fifteen chairs set in a broken semi-circle around the fire. At first, we had placed the chairs within ten feet of the flames, but with the continuing arrival of more and more teens, we soon realized a need for more space. Hannah was meticulous in making sure each chair was moved back five paces, no more, no less. More than once did she correct my work.
Voices clambered all around us, some shouting in greeting while others began to gossip and talk about the latest events. I recognized many of the teens, but there were quite a few I didn’t know. It had been over a year since I had been in school with any of these students, and many of them had changed more than I could imagine.
The thrum of our joined voices rose and fell as people grabbed hotdogs and speared them onto skewers to be roasted over the fire. More than one hotdog caught fire, and each time it happened the failed chef was ridiculed with taunts from across the crackling flames. I found myself smiling at the many faces and the laughter they shared with one another. The whole affair was rather quiet, until Laura and Chelsea showed up, a group of boys in their wake. Someone turned on speakers and the pulsing beat of the music ran over the swaying bodies and shifting feet. Everyone sang loudly, their voices crying into the night and I mouthed along with the words to an old song I had long since forgotten. There were numerous times when a particular melody would ring out and everyone would cheer, leaving me to wonder what was so special about the music. In my year of absence from everyday culture, I had lost track of anything popular—somehow, I didn’t feel as though I had missed anything.
I was snacking on a s’more—the warm stickiness of the marshmallow and chocolate covering my fingers—when Daron came over to stand beside me. “Hey,” I said in greeting, trying to wipe the graham crackers from my mouth.
“What are you doing all the way over here?” he asked, his Southern drawl almost making me laugh. It sounded so out of place.
“Enjoying myself,” I held up the s’more.
“Cool,” was all he said and when he turned to look back toward the group of teens, I wondered what he saw. To me it was a gathering of people I used to know, a life I used to expect, but now I knew I would no longer be a part of this world. My world belonged to the ocean, tied to the currents and shifts of the crashing waves and sea salt air.
“So,” I said feeling awkward for not talking, “how do you like it here?”
“It works,” he nodded and I got the feeling he wasn’t going to elaborate.
“How did you meet Jonathan?”
“His mom met my mom in a store, they got to talking, same old story.” He winked my way again and I had the feeling he did that a lot.
“Cool,” I said, repeating his word back to him.
“Yeah man,” he said drawing out the first word as though it had twelve letters. He was certainly cut from a different breed. “So, who all do you know?”
“Oh, not everyone that’s for sure. But those are my cousins,” I pointed to Laura and Chelsea who were dancing with their newest infatuations. “Then I know Jonathan and Brittany, Trey,” he nodded so I presumed he had already met him. “And then Hannah.”
“Yeah man,” he said again. “I guess I know almost as many people as you do then.”
“Guess so,” I nodded and turned back to the group. “Well, I know the others too, but I haven’t really talked to them in a long time.”
“You work at Darrow’s Catch right?”
“Yep, my Dad is the owner,” I nodded and I had the feeling Daron already knew this. He was just trying to make polite conversation and I was about to say more when I noticed his eyes were focused toward the horizon.
“What in—” he broke off and I spun around to gaze over the cresting waters.
The ocean rolled in midnight waves of shimmering pitch; the toss and turn a constant motion of unpredictability. But in the middle of the rolling black canvas was a shimmering streak of pale orange. At first I thought it was a reflection of the flames on the water, but as it remained unmoving in the churning ocean, an icy grip pulled on the pit of my stomach.
“What is that?” Others were beginning to notice the shape as well, and Laura bumped into my shoulder to get a better view. A group gathered behind us, pushing and shoving to get closer to the ocean and the odd form it withheld.
“It’s probably a reflection of something.” Jonathan said logically.