Note: This is the prologue of a new series with over 20 installments! Make sure to check back every week for new chapters.
THERE’S WATER EVERYWHERE. I take a deep breath, listen to the steady thump-thump-thump of my heart, feel the rumbling roar of the current. A forest of kelp trembles some distance ahead. I focus until its stalks are all that I see, all that I’m aware of. Then suddenly the kelp are close enough to touch and suddenly, I’m out.
I break surface, gasping in mouthfuls of air. The enormous waves keep coming. I count, one, two, three, and throw myself backwards to land on a shadowy swell, surging with it towards the shore. It pauses: The seas tug it back, moving against me, intending to pull all her waters out and away from the land. Not tonight, I whisper to the darkening sky. We’re celebrating the twins’ birthday tonight; take me home…
The ocean relents. It’s molten silver in this sunset glow, metallic and shimmering and gorgeous, but I still can’t wait for summer and for everything to be light and bright and yellow sunshine again.
As soon as I step out of the surf, the winter chill engulfs me and I scramble for the blankets I’d left on the rocks. Shivers rock my body as I shake water out of my hair. My phone is flashing with missed texts.
Don’t stay out for too long today! Rmbr to get back before ur brothers do!
She’s been planning their birthday feast for a whole week. Dad and I had to pull every trick we could think of to keep Jem and Dennis out of the loop, and, today, away from the house. Speaking of which…
Don’t think I can keep them for much longer tho.
Ok. Let me know when they leave?
My breaths make white puffy clouds in the air. The rocks on this beach crunch under my feet as I step over them, and then I’m walking on concrete and twigs and rocks, then more twigs, more rocks, and prickly vegetation missing their usual green foliage.
Where are u?? The cake is ready!
Just leaving the beach. Yum, I’m hungry.
Your brothers get first cut! And stay on the road!
Hi, this is Dad. So you are near the woods? Be careful. It is dark out.
Yeah. Don’t worry, I’ll be home in ten. TELL MOM NOT TO WORRY.
I think your mother is too busy with the cake to worry. Hurry home. 🙂
I’ve already put the phone away when it buzzes again.
J & D just left. Convinced them to take a detour so give it another 10, 15 mins.
AHHH! Kk, I’ll let Mom know. Thanks.
“Text?” Not at home?
Nah. On my way.
The “SEEN” message pops up, then my phone rings.
I fumble and almost drop my phone; Ash never calls, what…?
“Why are you out so late?”
“It’s already dark and it’s cold—it’s not safe,” he rambles on.
“Hey, calm down,” I say half-jokingly. “Calm down. You know I do this all the time.”
“But in the winter? And tonight, of all nights?”
“Huh? What do you mean?” I climb over a log and nearly slip when my foot catches on the rain-slick surface. “Oof. Ow.”
“It was just a log!” I protest, fully bemused now.
“A log?” Pause. “East, are you on the road right now?”
I hesitate. The ground is sloping upward as I turn with the well-worn trail; I can already see the light from our house, at the top of the small hill ahead.
But I’ve waited too long to answer. “You’re in the woods, aren’t you?” There’s exasperation in his sigh and my hackles rise immediately. “Come on, East. You’ve heard the reports recently. You shouldn’t go in there without me or Jem.”
His tone has grown patronizing. I really don’t like patronizing.
“I’m on the trail,” I say crossly. “I’ve been here by myself dozens of times. What on earth is going on with you?”
“There’s nothing going on with me.” Is it just my imagination or does he sound a tad defensive? No—anxious. “Just be careful.”
“I’m fine,” I tell him. “Look, I’m almost home. I’ll talk to you later.”
I hang up before he can say anything else.
I guess I can see where he’s coming from. A girl out alone, at night, in the woods? But this is Edgecliff, and I know these woods, these trees. Right now they’re dark blue and dark green and all shades of purple, thrumming with the chirping of crickets and whispers of wind—well, it’s actually a little quieter than usual tonight.
I jab at the “Decline” button with more heat than it deserves, but he calls back a few seconds later. I decline again and make a face at my phone.
“Ugh,” I mumble—but it’s Mom.
Ash told me the boys will be home in twenty! It’s been ten! Where are you?
Nearly at the hill.
A flash of red.
I spin on my heel to stare more directly at the woods to my right. What was that? I thought I saw… But it couldn’t have been—
There. Again. A flicker of yellow light, pulsing softly. Once, twice—turning orange, growing brighter and almost becoming red—and then it’s gone.
I take a slow, cautious step in that direction, craning my neck to get a better view. But all is still.
“EAST! Get up here!”
It’s Mom, yelling from the top of the hill. I turn my back on the woods—though not without one last curious glance—and sprint up, up, up until, finally, panting, I crash into the peeling blue paint of our front door. It was already open; I fall through, and Mom grabs my wrist and pulls me under the living room light to look at me.
“East, where have you—you went swimming again?—you’re going to catch a cold one of these days—just how many blankets did you bring? Your hair’s still wet! You need to go change—your brothers will be back in a second—you were out for far too long—”
“Dinner smells really good,” I say brightly. “Is that—wow! How much did you guys cook?”
“—and get out of these clothes before you get sick, I’ll take your bag—Lord, what do you keep in here? Get upstairs and—wait, is that seaweed in your—”
“Let the girl breathe, Thea.”
I’ve never been so thankful to see Dad in my entire life. I shoot him a grateful look and quickly pull the offending vegetation out of my hair while Mom’s back is turned.
“She’s not going to be breathing for much longer if she keeps this up!” Mom’s spinning back around, pulling the wet towels and blankets away and given me a push towards the stairs. “I’ll put these in the wash, go and change, hurry…”
She’s already in the laundry room, muttering about mashed potatoes and cake.
Dad and I grin at each other. “How’s the cake?” I ask.
“Not bad, last I stole—err, taste-tested it for your mom,” Dad says with a self-deprecating laugh. “Go change before you get sick, young lady,” he says.
“Yeah, yeah,” I say.
In my room I throw my bag down next to the bed then head straight for the shower. By the time the water’s warmed up I’m already finished, and wrap myself in a dry towel as I hunt for clothes.
I’m pulling on a pair of jeans when my phone buzzes again.
I’m sorry about earlier. I was just worried.
A grin sneaks over my face involuntarily.
No worries. But I can take care of myself. It’s just Edgecliff!
But I know you can. 🙂
My stomach does a flip. That’s two firsts in one day—a call, and then an emoticon. I’m almost tempted to ask him if he’s sick or something.
“East! Are you done yet?”
“Yeah, yeah,” I call back. “Just changing…”
Buzz. I pick up my phone with one hand and my hairbrush with the other.
Wish I could be there.
Not too late to change your mind!
I’ve worked through all the tangles and knots in my hair by the time he texts back.
It’s out of my hands.
I bite my lip. Aww.
That’s okay. But you better be here for my birthday 😛
An engine purrs somewhere outside; I pull back the curtain in time to see the headlights of a familiar pick-up truck coming to a stop at the bottom of the hill.
“Mom! Dad! They’re back!” I yell. A clamour of footsteps downstairs tells me they’ve heard. I glance back again; my brothers have gotten out but are now talking to each other intently.
I text Ash quickly. Gotta go, they’re here! See you tmrw
Quickly I tie my hair up into a ponytail, keeping an eye on my brothers the whole time. Then—suddenly, there’s another flash in the woods.
I frown, grasp the windowsill, and lean in to the glass as close as I can.
Another one. And another. They stay aglow and now there are two, side by side, flickering. Are those—are those fires? Who’d light fires in the woods at this time of night?
Suddenly, one of them explodes in a shower of sparks. My heart thumbs. The other throbs steadily, almost like a heartbeat, before it finally fades away.
The sound of a car door slamming grabs my attention. My brothers are coming up the hill.
“East, get down here!” Mom’s voice floats up the stairs. I throw the curtains over my window and grab the shirt I’d set aside earlier. I’ve never changed so fast in my entire life. When I’m done, I peek out one more time. Jem and Dennis have paused again, by the birdbath and… I squint a little. There’s that weird glow in the woods, still. Hmm.
Before leaving the room, I check my phone. It vibrates just as I pick it up.
“Yeah, coming!” I drop the phone on my bed, run out of the room and down the stairs and twist into the kitchen. “I saw them heading up!”
A covered plate is pushed into my hands as soon as I step into the kitchen. “Put this on the table, go, go,” she says and I rush out. Dad’s setting the cutlery and waves at me as I run back and forth. One last dish and we’re ready.
Mom surveys the table, biting her lip as she takes a last sip of the soup. “Too much salt…” She starts to mutter, but Dad wraps his arms around her waist.
“It’s fine, it’s great,” we both assure her. She smiles at us, then really focuses on me.
“East! There’s a stain on your blouse!”
I look down. Sure enough, the neckline still has remnants of blackberry jam from yesterday’s breakfast. “Oh,” I say faintly. “I, uh…”
Mom’s close to panic. She rushes to the window. “They’re taking their time coming up the hill… Oh, they’ve stopped to talk, that’s so sweet…” Again? What’s so important that they have to discuss it outside?
“So this shirt is okay?” I ask hopefully.
She fixes me with a flat look. Dad chuckles at my sheepish expression. “Go change, now,” she says, shooing me. “I left an outfit on your bed earlier, didn’t you see it?”
The porch steps creak. We all freeze.
“Wow, that smells good.”
“Is it roast ribs?”
“I think s…”
Dad snaps into action. He puts one hand on Mom’s shoulder and gestures to me with the other. “Go upstairs and change, quickly. Thea, I’ll get the presents. You stall…”
I’m already moving away from them, sprinting up the stairs three steps at a time.