Here’s the set-up:
Halen knows the sparks igniting under her fingertips are dangerous. She has spent her entire life trying to quell the tingly feelings that make her destroy things, but now that she is back in Rockaway Beach, where she watched her father drown, the flames have become impossible to tame. Halen is trying to hold on, but when she is thrust into a mysterious new world, the underwater realm of Elosia, she unravels the secrets of her past and can’t help but ignite. As she explores Elosia, she realizes her life has been a lie. And when those who have deceived her come to her for help, Halen must choose—walk away or unleash the magick that could destroy them all.
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
Sketching his crooked smile had become a habit for Halen, not easily tamed. Flipping through her notebook the boy’s gray eyes stared back from the pages—almost one hundred drawings in three months. She turned to a blank page, not caring if the teacher noticed, and set the tip of the pencil on the paper. Closing her eyes, she knew the boy would be there. He never kept her waiting. His face flashed into view. His forehead was creased in the center and his usually full lips were pressed with a tight line. Her fingertips sparked, and when she opened her eyes, her hand was already penciling in the edges of his jawline. Halen sketched him quickly; she was familiar with the hollow of his cheeks which dimpled when he smiled, and how his nose hooked ever so slightly as if it had been broken at one time and not been set properly. His imperfections were perfection.
As she shaded the rims of his eyes with deep charcoal halos, she longed to climb into the page, and ask what was bothering him. She had a lot of questions. Finding a page filled with his broad smile, she smiled inside. As her fingertips brushed his lips, she bit back her own. If only—if only you were real.
Halen first drew the mystery boy the morning of the move. Coming back to Rockaway Beach was a nightmare, so when she had woken from a dream with the boy’s face etched inside her eyelids, and her fingertips igniting with sparks, she feared the worse. She knew the sparks were a warning; she had fought the flickering flames her whole life. There was more to this boy, more than she cared to admit. There was more to Rockaway Beach than she cared to face.
The boy smiled knowingly. Like you care. With a sweep of her hand she drew a long handlebar moustache under his nose. Then tearing the page from her book, she crumpled it in her fist. Instantly, her palm warmed as if she were holding a hot stone. Only she knew the heat was coming from inside her. She scanned the classroom. Most of her classmates were still filling in the test answers with penciled circles. A few were reading. Her fingertips flickered with heat and she dropped the paper, fearful it might combust in her hand. She hadn’t set anything on fire, not in a long time, and she wasn’t about to start. She shook her hands by her side, and as she did, a jolt of pain gripped her wrists.
Halen. A whispered voice brushed her ear.
She spun around. Toby Creston shot her an annoyed glare as he shielded his score sheet with his arm. As if she would copy his answers. She sucked at algebra, but she had studied; Toby would be lucky if he figured out how to fill the circles in.
A searing pain spread up her arms, and she inhaled a sharp breath. She whipped around to face the front of the class. Mr. Ajax sat with his long nose wedged between the pages of his book. He peered over the rim of his catlike glasses when she let out a gasp.
Beating like the thunderous wings of a thousand birds, the whispers swarmed her thoughts. Her fingertips pressed the squishy foam nestled in her ears. No way. She couldn’t take her earplugs out. Her earplugs were her salvation, the only things keeping her from blacking out. Besides the sparks, sound had become her enemy since moving back to Rockaway. Her mom’s diagnosis—stress. “You’re suppressing your grief,” she had said. “You have to let yourself have a good cry.” Her mom overestimated the power of tears. Halen’s father’s bones lay in a bed of sand—tears would never bring him back—tears would never drown the fire raging inside. Tears would not save her now.
The chants grew louder, now drilling into every crevice of her mind. She pounded the sides of her head. The blond girl beside her scooted her desk away from her, shooting her an evil glare.
Stop! Halen begged as the whispers hammered her brain. She didn’t have a choice, she had to…
She tore the earplugs from her ears. At once the chanting ceased, only now to be replaced with the chaotic clatter of the classroom. The blond girl now tapped her pencil on her desk. The metal eraser band hitting the desktop sounded like a jackhammer. She could hear the click clack of some other student’s gum and the strike of a pointed heel on the linoleum floor. Toby Creston’s heavy breath was a rush of howling wind. The sounds united with the next student, and then the next, until the whole classroom exploded with a deafening cry. Halen fought to hold on as the classroom blackened around her. She caught the word freak, someone calling for Mr. Ajax, and the blond girl shrieking. The last sound Halen heard was the thud of her skull as her forehead slammed against the desktop.
~ ~ ~
“That’s twice this week,” a muffled voice said. “I think she should take some time off from school.”
Halen’s fingertip poked the foam cushioning her ear. As she peeked between slit eyelids even the soft florescent lighting stung. She pinched her eyes shut. She didn’t need to see anyway. The school infirmary was a familiar place. Three months in a new school and already she would qualify for a frequent visitor card.
“Hey, when can she go?” Halen recognized this voice—Tage.
Great. She groaned. Tage was the last person she wanted to see right now. She was the only girl she knew at this school, but a complete stranger would be better than Tage. Halen might be able to persuade her not to tell her mom, but she would be the first to rat her out to Daspar. He was already on freak-out mode, since they moved back to Rockaway. Last week Halen had been late for a swim meet. She had been studying and fallen asleep in the library. Tage couldn’t find her and called Daspar. He had the entire school just short of issuing an Amber alert. If Tage had set foot in the library, they could have avoided the pandemonium. But no, you would think the library was holy ground and Tage the damned. Come to think of it…
Squinting, Halen caught sight of the row of silver rings lining Tage’s lower lip. Her hair was newly shaven close to her scalp, with a layer of black fuzz on one side. The other half lay long and silken down past her shoulder and along her arm, which even in the summer was covered with long black sleeves. Yes, sun and the library would probably burst Tage into flames.
“You’re awake.” Tage sat across from her and propped her boots on the edge of the cot. “What were you thinking—taking your earplugs out?” Despite Tage’s queen of the damned appearance, she looked genuinely concerned. She had definitely called Daspar.
“Does my mom know?” Halen sat up and the room spun.
“She’s on her way.” Tage nibbled the edges of her fraying nail polish.
Halen’s heart sank. Her mom was already worried enough about her as it was. The move had been her mom’s idea. She thought coming back to Rockaway Beach would be good for the both of them. A time to heal, she referred to the transition. More like a time to embrace insanity. The whispers were a whole new kind of crazy, though. Halen would postpone telling her mom about them—indefinitely.
“Did you really have to call her?”
Tage leaned forward, her caramel eyes simmering like hot coffee. “Hey, look. You think I like being yanked out of class every time you decide to drool on the floor?”
“You’re not my babysitter,” Halen snapped. But ever since she’d moved back to Rockaway, that was pretty much what Tage had been. She lived with Daspar who was Tage’s godfather and now her legal guardian, although Halen had never even heard of Tage until three months ago. The details about Tage’s parents were sketchy to say the least, but supposedly they had died in some kind of hunting accident. Halen wasn’t sure exactly, and no one was willing to fill in the details, especially Daspar. If Daspar could be complimented on one attribute it would be his ability to avoid answering a direct question. If Halen wanted to know how Tage’s parents died she would have to ask Tage, and that was so not going to happen in this century.
“Honey, you look horrible.” Halen’s mom brushed past Tage.
Rolling her heavily black lined eyes, Tage stood. “I’m outta here.”
Halen’s mom touched her arm. “Thank you.”
“Whatever.” Tage shrugged. She gave Halen a last look, and Halen was sure that if flames shot out of people’s eyes, she would be reduced to ash.
Halen gulped, sliding her eyes toward her mom. She was still in her white doctor’s coat, a stethoscope hung loosely around her neck underneath her dark braid. “You didn’t have to leave work,” Halen said.
“It’s fine. I assigned my patients to another doctor. I’m going to take the afternoon off.”
“Mom, you don’t have to come running…”
Her mom cut her off. “I wanted to get out of there.” Her lips spread with a mischievous grin. “I had some difficult patients this afternoon.”
“Difficult pregnant women? You love your job.”
“I love you more.” She wrapped her arm around Halen’s shoulder, and Halen inhaled the scent of gauze and lemon, a hint of rose, and the metallic scent of blood—the hospital. Halen held her breath to suppress gagging. If a nose plug wasn’t so obvious, she would wear one too. As if hearing everyone’s breath wasn’t enough, her sense of smell and taste were working overtime. Even eating a simple veggie burger had become an assault on her taste buds and her emotions. The flavors messed with her feelings. Like the euphoria psychologists suggest people get from eating chocolate. Only for her, every food now had a different sensation. Veggie burgers, with dill pickles, equalled melancholy—which was why she was trying to avoid them. She was confused enough.
“Let’s get out of here.” Halen rose to her feet, head swimming.
“Please sign out,” the nurse called over her shoulder. She was busy applying bandages to a boy’s forehead. Halen choked back the odor of copper and iron; the taste of blood coated her tongue. Clasping her sleeve to her nose, she scrawled her name on the line with her free hand. After headlining as the biggest psycho in algebra—correction, the school—her name would be on everyone’s lips. She couldn’t get out of there fast enough. She only wished she didn’t have to go back.
~ ~ ~
Halen cracked the kitchen window open, and the salt air rushed in. This house had way more room than their apartment in Chicago, but there was nothing homey about it. It was more like the hospital—sterile. The walls were constructed of bleak concrete, broken with panels of tinted glass. The floors were more bare concrete without carpets to warm your toes. This crypt of concrete would be their home for the next year.
A year seemed like an eternity. Halen had lived in Dallas, Minneapolis, and Manhattan in the last two years. Rockaway Beach had been a shocker. She had never lived in a place without towers of skyscrapers. Rockaway sat on the outskirts of a bigger city, with Portland still two hours away. There was one school and one grocery store. No bookstore. Her mom had given her a digital book reader to compensate. It was still in the box. She couldn’t quite get past not having real pages between her fingers and corners to turn over to mark her place. She was going through bookstore withdrawals and losing her sanity at the same time. She would have to try and persuade her mom to take her to Portland—soon. If she could just nestle between the aisles of books, get lost for few hours, she might be able to harness some of these crazy new feelings she had been experiencing.
Arranging her chopped fruit in a bowl, Halen plucked a strawberry out and ate it. She stared out to the white-tipped waves breaking along the shore. In the distance, two massive rocks jutted up from the ocean—Twin Rocks. They seemed misplaced against the long stretch of sand, as if God had forgotten to put away his building blocks. Halen followed the hollow of the rock, which formed the tail of a serpent, the other rock its head dipping under the waves. Darla, her dad had named the shape of the water beast the rocks formed. Or maybe it was Daphne, she couldn’t quite remember. Memories of him came and went like the tide, leaving fragments for her to pick up, each moment like a treasured piece of sea glass. Only she never could piece them all together in one solid memory.
With her earplugs in, Halen didn’t even hear Daspar and Tage enter the kitchen. She jumped when she saw him and aimed the knife in his direction. He held his hands up. Waving the knife, she cut the air. “You know it’s not nice to sneak up on a girl.”
Tage reached around from behind Daspar and helped herself to a strawberry from Halen’s bowl.
“What’s this I hear about you blacking out at school today?” Daspar asked.
“It was nothing.” Halen shot Tage an annoyed glare.
Tage shrugged and made her way into the living room, leaving Halen to fend for herself.
“I didn’t eat lunch,” Halen started to explain. This was a lie. She had two helpings of French fries just because they made her feel happy. Now that was normal, nothing connected to the weirdness she had been experiencing. Eating French fries made people happy—all people.
“My blood sugar must have been too low.”
“Two times in one week?” Daspar’s golden stare met hers. He was older than her mom by five or six years, but he looked ten years younger than her. His skin was without lines except for a little crescent moon scar by his left eye. His clothes were not for the over forty club but rather a night club. His jacket was tailor made from a slick material that appeared wet and his pencil thin denim jeans a custom-dyed dark wash. His sandy blond hair was always close shaven to his scalp and behind his ear was a small tattoo with four letters that spelled Tari. Halen had searched the name on the internet finding zero results. She knew better than to ask him.
“It won’t happen again. I promise to eat my lunch,” Halen said.
Still dressed for work, Halen’s mom entered the kitchen. She stood beside Daspar, and he spoke close to her ear. Halen cursed her earplugs. Her sensitive hearing allowed her to hear most conversations, but whispers were shielded by the neon green foam. Bowing her head, her mom nodded yes, though her mouth was tight as if she were fighting her response. She placed her hand over Halen’s and rubbed the three new dots that had appeared on her hand the same day she had first been compelled to draw the boy. Halen didn’t mind the dots so much; it was the rest of her birthmark she hated. The dark dots and swirls sprawled across her shoulder trailing her left arm down to her hand. It would be one thing if her mom allowed her to get laser removal, but she had told her they had to wait until the mark stopped spreading. The new dots didn’t help her case.
“Honey we need to talk,” her mom said.
Halen’s stomach instantly knotted. These were words no one ever wanted to hear. They usually preceded crappy news. Her mom pulled her hand, and they joined Tage in the living room. Tage got up to leave when Daspar nodded, and she threw herself back down.
“Let me give the girls their gifts first,” Daspar said, looking to Halen’s mom.
Something was definitely up. Halen was all too familiar with the side-glances her mom and Daspar shared.
“Gifts?” Tage slid her black socked feet off the coffee table and sat up.
“I have gifts for the two of you—for your birthdays,” he said. “I’m sorry yours is late.” He turned toward Tage and then back to Halen. “And yours is a bit early.”
Halen had tried to forget her birthday was in a few days. Her mom had wanted a party, but who would she invite: the shrieking blond girl, Toby, Tage, or even better—Josh the boy she just broke up with? A party was a horrible idea.
“Fifteen.” Her mom smiled, so the edges of her eyes crinkled like stars.
Tage rolled her eyes.
“I want to talk first,” Halen said. “I want to know what’s going on.”
Her mom sat with her back straight on the edge of her chair, her hands clasped in her lap. “Fine, I might as well tell you. Honey, we’re moving back to Chicago.”
“What? We just moved here. I thought we were on some healing journey.” Halen threw up air quotes with her fingers.
“I don’t want to stay here.” Her mom wrung her hands together. “I was wrong about coming back. The ghost of your father walks the beaches. Every time I look out the window, I see him. I thought I could handle being here—but I can’t.” Her eyes wouldn’t quite meet Halen’s, and Halen knew there was something more. Her mom was a horrible liar.
“I’m finally going to sell this house. You’ve been sick ever since we moved here, anyway. I know you don’t remember your dad, but obviously a part of you does. Maybe being back is too painful for you too?”
Halen let her have this one. Being back in Rockaway had tapped her energy. She had been sick, but she partly knew why. She had succumbed to the tingly energy not only for sketching the boy, but also for something much worse. She hadn’t told her mom the whole truth either. She hadn’t told her about how she had started dating Josh, and how she broke up with him two weeks later because he had pinned her to the side of his car in the school parking lot. Or how he had called her frigid when she slapped his hand for trying to pry his way under her shirt, and how Josh had pulled her wrists back like wishbones; and how the sparks had ignited under her fingertips turning to flames, and when she thought she might explode it was the windshield of the car that reacted, not her. The entire window burst from the frame and the glass shattered in a million little pieces like an exploding star.
When Josh let her go to shield his head, she slipped away. Halfway on the walk home, though, her body shut down. First her limbs grew numb, second her lungs wouldn’t hold air, and third a fever swept through her so she all but had to crawl through the front door. Her mom said she had the flu. Yeah, right. She knew it was something more—something to do with the sparks, but who was she to argue with a doctor. Her mom gave her a family remedy of syrupy amber liquid. Even Halen didn’t know what was in the stuff, but whatever was in the concoction usually made her feel better.
“I’m not sure leaving is going to help. Maybe we should give it a little more time,” she said, though not believing she was actually trying to stay, when she had a way out.
“This is not open for discussion,” Daspar said.
So it was his idea. Halen knew it. Daspar was always behind their moving. Things would be fine and then he would show up and within the month her mom would accept a posting at a new hospital, and they would be gone. What right did he have? Pumping her fist at her side, Halen shook away the twitchy sparks that rose with her frustration. “I’m going to the beach.”
“Wait.” Her mom caught her by the arm.
“I don’t get you, Mom.” Halen pulled away. “Are you going to let him make all our decisions? He’s like a watch dog. You’re the one who said—no pets.”
Tage snorted into her sleeve.
Halen glared at her.
“Halen!” Her mom’s cheeks flushed. “What is wrong with you? Apologize now.”
Daspar spoke. “Corinne, this has been stressful for everyone. Coming back to the place where Huron drowned.” He glanced toward the window, and his head turned down as if taking a moment to pay respect.
Okay, maybe she was being a little harsh—a lot harsh, but he really needed to back off. “I’m sorry,” Halen said. “I don’t know what’s happening to me. I really didn’t mean what I said. It’s been one of those days.”
“Hey, kiddo. No worries. We’ve all had bad days.” He smiled. His forgiveness made her feel even guiltier for what she had said.
“Still going to give her a gift?” Tage asked.
Halen wasn’t in the mood for birthday gifts.
“Of course.” Daspar pulled out two matching boxes from his jacket pockets. He set them side by side on the glass table. Each box was short and square like a compass or a pocket watch might fit inside. They were crafted from white stone. The lids were inlayed with two interconnected amethyst circles and secured with a leaf hinge cast in bronze.
“Come on,” her mom said, and Halen reluctantly sat back down.
Tage snatched the box closest to her from the table. “Having both our birthdays in January is lame enough, but you bought us matching gifts?”
For once Halen was thinking the same thing as Tage. They had both been born in January, Tage on the first of the month and Halen at the end. Her mom was quick to point out their births were both on full moons. Technically, Halen was born on a blue moon, but really who cared? As if being born on full moons would make them friends. And now this? What did Daspar think—just because they were the same age they liked the same things? As if.
“They are similar,” Daspar said. He handed the other box to Halen, and she took it from his grasp.
She traced the two circles.
“Well, open it,” her mom said.
Halen thought the box was the gift. Then she saw Tage holding a silver bracelet between her two fingers up to the window. The remaining daylight caught on the silver band, casting a soft glow along the concrete.
Halen opened hers, and when she did, a low hum resonated inside. She tilted her head, lifting the box to her ear. The hum tickled the back of her throat. Slipping one of her earplugs out, she shook the box. “Do you hear that?”
Her mom’s gaze shifted toward Daspar.
“Put your plug back in,” he said.
Not wanting a repeat of algebra class, she replaced her earplug, but still the hum resonated in the room. When Halen held the bracelet between her fingers, her hand began to tremble.
“Here.” Daspar steadied her hand. “Let me put it on for you.” Taking the bracelet, he twisted the clasp open and slid it on her wrist. The clasp sealed shut, and the hum died.
She ran her finger along the rim of the bracelet. Delicate engravings of swirls and star bursts lined the band. She had seen these patterns many times before when she stood in front of her bedroom mirror. They were identical to her birthmark. “Did you have this made?”
Daspar ignored her and instead stood with his palm pressed to the window. “A storm is coming,” he said.
Classic Daspar, Halen thought. There was no point in pressing further. She clasped the cool metal as she gazed past his shoulder. Darla now fought the ocean waves crashing against her rock tail.
“Do you like it?” her mom asked.
“What?” Halen asked.
Tage’s lip snarled up on one side as she spun her bracelet on her wrist. It didn’t suit her at all. Halen smiled. “I love it.”
Her mom’s pager buzzed at her hip. “Looks like Mrs. Vasquez was admitted to Seaside. She must be ready to pop. I’ve got to run.”
“I thought you were taking the night off?” Halen asked.
“Tage can stay with Halen,” Daspar said.
“What?” both Halen and Tage said in unison.
“Halen shouldn’t be alone right now. I’ll drive you to the hospital. I want to talk to you anyway.” He made his way to the door.
“You can drop Tage off on your way,” Halen said, her eyes pleading with her mom. “I’m just going to do some homework anyway.”
“Then you won’t even notice she’s here,” her mom said, while checking her pockets and then her purse before finally locating her cell phone on the side table. “And it’s getting late enough that she can stay the night.”
Halen didn’t even need to look at Tage to know she was fuming; she could feel her energy thick like smoke. But before either of them could argue, Daspar escorted her mom out the door.
When the door shut, Tage blurted out, “You stick to one side of the house, and I’ll take the other.”
She must have read Halen’s mind. “Deal.”
“You got any more of those strawberries?”
“Yeah, on the counter.”
Tage disappeared into the kitchen.
This was going to be one long excruciating night. “I’m going up and having a bath!” Halen yelled. She had one foot on the stairs when there was a knock on the door. Her mom must have left something behind; she was always doing that. “What did you forget?” She opened the door, and was surprised to find a boy staring back at her.
“I didn’t forget anything, but you did.” He held out an algebra textbook, stuffed with loose papers, and peeking from the corner, her test sheet.
This was just perfect; passing out in class, another move, a sleepover with Tage and now an incomplete for a grade. Could this day get any worse?
“Who are you?” Halen asked. “And how did you know where I live?”
“Word gets around. This house sticks out you know.”
She nodded in agreement. The architecture screamed city, not beach town. When her mom had it rebuilt after the fire she wanted no memories of the cottage, so she went with uber-industrial—fire and flood-proof too.
“My name is Ezra.” He held out his hand, but she did not take it. “I’m in your algebra and English class.” His eyebrows lifted over his dark eyes, and he shook his head like he had stated the obvious.
But she really hadn’t seen him before. He was Asian, maybe Japanese, and his hair was dyed red like rhubarb. A net of tattoos wound down his neck and under his T-shirt collar, only to reappear at his wrist where the sleeve of his leather jacket ended. He would be hard to miss.
When he took another step toward her, a million little pricks ignited along her flesh. She grabbed the textbook from his hand and when her fingers brushed his, an intense heat flushed her skin. She set the book down on the stairs.
“Well, thanks for bringing it to me.” She placed her hand on the doorknob. “I have a lot of homework tonight.”
He put his sneaker in the door frame so she couldn’t shut the door. “Nice place.” Peering around the corner, he asked, “Are you alone?”
“What?” Her response caught in her throat, sounding more like a croak.
“Alone.” He smiled, leaning forward ever so slightly, and as he did, she caught the glimmer of metal in his jacket pocket.
As she looked closer, she noticed the handle of a knife. Her stomach flipped. “I think you should leave.”
“I thought maybe we could talk.” Pulling the door knob from her grip, he stepped in, shut the door and locked it.
Halen’s arms and legs charged with static energy.
“I’ve seen you on the swim team,” he said, inching toward her. “You’re good in the water. Of course you would be.”
Halen’s focus was on the knife. What kind of guy carried a knife is his jacket? She didn’t want to find out. She backed toward the living room. “You really need to go now.”
“I just got here.” His lips pressed into a thin smile.
Her back butted against the mantel of the fireplace. Through the thin cotton of her shirt, the rough edges of the rock scraped her shoulder. She caught her frightened reflection in the wall of windows. She thought of the car windshield as the sparks in her fingers flickered to flames. She had to calm down. Shaking her hands by her side, she tried to tame the energy.
“That’s some bracelet.” He nodded toward her arm, and she tucked it behind her back.
“Mind if I see it?” He stepped forward and as he did, he bumped the armchair hard. He tripped, stumbling forward. The knife slipped from his pocket and as the handle hit the floor a button released the steel blade.
Together they stared at the knife and then together their eyes met. “Get out of here!” she shouted.
He lunged for the blade, but before he reached it, Halen kicked. Her foot squared him in the jaw.
Ezra cried out.
“What the hell is going on?” Tage emerged from the kitchen. When she saw Ezra, the bowl of strawberries slipped from her hands, shattering on the concrete. She picked up a shard. “Run!” Tage shouted.
As Halen bolted for the door, Ezra managed to grasp her arm, but Tage side-swept him, thrusting her weight against his side, and he collapsed. Halen unfastened the lock and shoved the door against the wind. A gust swept up from the beach slapping her in the face. The flames combusted under her skin and she couldn’t restrain them any longer. The concrete floor shook under her feet. She glanced back. Ezra was clutching the coffee table, his free hand clamped around the handle of the switchblade, when suddenly the floor cracked with a long fissure. Tage shoved Halen across the threshold. “We have to get out of here—run!”
Halen’s bare feet hit the compact sand with a jarring thud. Winter rain had pushed the powdery grit to a flat surface, perfect for running. She often trained on the beach, running the long stretch of sand. To her surprise, Tage was faster. She had never seen her in a pair of sneakers, or involved in any kind of sport, but Tage’s long stride made it hard for her to keep up.
Looking back over her shoulder Tage shouted, “He’s following us!”
Ezra called out to them, his words getting lost in the crashing waves.
Tage stopped suddenly. Placing her hands on her knees, she bent over. Her breath was ragged as she spoke. “We have to go in the water.”
Halen froze. Diving into her father’s grave was not an option. “No. No way.” A wave licked her ankles and she jumped back. “Let’s keep going.” Scanning the row of beach houses lining the shore, she noticed a porch light glowing. “We can make it to the neighbors’”
Tage grabbed her wrist, twisting her skin so it burned. Her determined stare locked with Halen’s. “Trust me. He won’t follow us in. There’s no way, but if we stay on the beach, he’ll catch up to us.”
“This is a bad idea,” Halen said, feeling the warning flames lace through her bones. “Can you even swim?”
Tage had already unfastened her studded belt and was sliding out of her black-washed jeans. “Try to keep up.” She tossed her jacket to the sand and peeled off her shirt. In the light of the moon her pale skin glowed. Halen could make out tattoos lining Tage’s skin, disappearing under the strap of her bra.
“Hurry,” Tage said. “Get your clothes off.”
“This is insane! We could drown.”
“We’ll wade out a just little way. Wait until he’s gone.”
“There’s a storm on top of us. We might not…”
Tage ran into the ocean before Halen could finish her sentence. A wave beat Tage’s legs, knocking her off balance, but she righted herself and kept moving forward.
Halen groaned. She couldn’t let Tage go in alone. She was the stronger swimmer. Against her better judgement, Halen slipped off her jeans and shirt, so they wouldn’t weigh her down. In nothing but her tank and boy shorts, she went after Tage.
Trying to distract her thoughts from her dad or the freezing water, Halen kept her focus on Darla. The rock serpent didn’t look that far away. Maybe they could swim there and hide in the curl of Darla’s tail until Ezra left.
Tage was up to her neck, floating, when Ezra caught up to the spot where they had entered the water. “Stop!” he yelled, waving his blade in the air. “Get back here!” He slipped off his sneakers while yanking off his jacket. He stripped off his pants and kicked them away.
“He’s coming in!” Halen shouted.
“No way!” Tage shouted back. “He’d be stupid to follow.”
“As stupid as us?” Halen said, swimming toward Tage. Salt water slipped down her throat, and she spewed it out. “We need to go back.”
Already Ezra was waist deep, with the waves beating against his bare chest.
“Dive,” Tage said.
“Are you nuts?”
“Dive under. He won’t follow.”
“You’re a fast swimmer. We can outswim him. He won’t be able to see us underwater. Go to the rocks.” Tage pointed to Darla. “If we get separated, meet me there. I’ll wait at the tail.” And she dove under.
Inhaling a deep breath, Halen dove under too. It was impossible to see anything, but she felt Tage by her side. Someone brushed against her other side, fingers sliding along her arm. Ezra? How in the world did he catch up to them? She kicked hard, but she could not lose him. Tage tugged her by the arm, and they surfaced, gasping for air. Tage’s eyeliner dripped down her cheeks like black tears.
Ezra popped up behind Tage, and she whipped around to face him. “You want go for it? You have to catch me first.” Grabbing him by the neck, she dove under, taking him with her.
“Tage!” Halen screamed, but they had vanished, leaving her to tread through her father’s watery grave—alone.
Halen kicked, working her way across the white crests. “Tage!” she called out as she searched the surface. The moon was now high in the sky, looming behind shifting clouds. How could Tage have done something so stupid? They should have stuck together. They never should have come in the ocean. When she glanced back at Darla, the rock formation was nowhere in sight. How far had she drifted? This was ridiculous. If she didn’t get back to shore, she would drown. She could still search for Tage from the beach. At least on land she could call for help. But swimming toward the faint lights lining the shore, she feared they may never find Tage. What if she had been swept out with the current? What if Ezra had cut her with his knife?
Why had he come to her house in the first place? It sure as heck had nothing to do with returning her textbook. She thought of his keen eyes focused on the gift Daspar had given her. He was definitely interested in the silver bracelet. She should have just thrown it at him. He might have left, but then his knife fell out of his pocket and the sparks came…
Oh geez, her mom was going to freak when she saw the fissure in the concrete. She would go ballistic when she found the house empty. Halen thrust through the water, picking up her pace, when suddenly her nerves ripped with a static charge. The sparks gripped her body, smoldering. She stopped swimming and floated for a moment. The flames skipped, catching fire within each of her cells, when she caught a glimpse of something in the water. She blinked the water from her eyes, and when the clouds drifted away, Halen saw her.
Tage’s arms floated beside her like broken wings. Her face was cast toward the moon, while her pale body bobbed amid the dark waves.
“Tage!” Halen called out.
Kicking harder, Halen’s legs worked like scissors cutting through the choppy water. “I’m coming!” A wave rolled over her head, shoving her away, but she dug through the next wave—fighting the ocean—ignoring the warning flames. She spread the water with her fingers, reaching toward Tage’s limp body. Halen clasped her shoulder, and when her fingertips gripped her skin, a blast of sharp pricks sprung along Halen’s arm, as if a nail gun had unloaded against her flesh. She screamed, letting go at once, when suddenly Tage spun around and grabbed her by the arm.
A girl with wide eyes black as a corpse’s nails peered back at her. Thin, dark veins marred her alabaster skin. Her inky slick hair glistened like a web along the water. Her full black lips spread over needle-pointed teeth, as a silvery scaled tail rose out of the water, and curled over the girl’s head.
What the…? This wasn’t Tage. This wasn’t human. Her gaze fixed on the tail. Fish?
“Mermaid,” the girl whispered as if reading Halen’s questioning thoughts.
No way. No freaking way. Halen wrenched her arm away and churned the water as she kicked toward the shore. You’re hallucinating. Hypothermia is setting in. Mermaids are not real, she told herself, though the raging fire under her skin said otherwise.
The mermaid slapped her tail against the water, and Halen flew back. She caught sight of a second tail and dodged the fin before it made contact. “Leave me alone!” Halen screamed. She didn’t see the tail underwater, but she felt the pressure as the slick scales curled around her waist. The mermaid’s fierce gaze fixed on Halen. Halen clawed the air, and as she did, the mermaid dragged her hooked talon along Halen’s birthmark, only stopping when her talon caught on the silver bracelet. The mermaid pulled at her wrist, bringing the bracelet under her nose. Her glistening eyes narrowed, and she shook Halen’s arm so forcefully, she thought her bones might snap. Halen twisted out of the mermaid’s reach, when two others blocked her path. She was outnumbered.
The howling wind swept the waves around Halen, and the mermaid who had caught her by the wrist rose up from the water, so her scaled chest gleamed in the moonlight. She spread her webbed arms, commanding the waves so they formed a tall wall of rippling water. The other mermaids surrounded Halen, and three more liquid barriers sprouted from the ocean.
“Let me go!” Halen shouted as she shoved against the water wall, but she could not penetrate the rippling force. Beneath her, another translucent barrier slid into place, so she was no longer floating but standing. She reached toward the sky as the last liquid barrier sealed her inside.
“No!” Halen cried. She was terrified of tight spaces. She couldn’t even ride in an elevator without fear of suffocating.
A mermaid pressed her face against the barrier, her black lips rounded as if blowing a kiss and the walls crackled to ice.
Halen pounded the walls. Her toes began to prick from the cold, and she discovered the fire under her skin had quelled. Even if she wanted to unleash the flames, they had been snuffed by the chill. Suddenly, the cage of ice started to submerge. Ice doesn’t sink, Halen assured her racing thoughts. But mermaids didn’t exist either! Her panicked breath escaped her chattering lips in white wisps.
“Let me out!” Halen cried. She pressed her hand to her ribs, now coated in a wash of blood. She had been cut. No longer able to stand the biting frost on her feet, she crumpled to her knees.
Just then the entire cage plunged into the ocean. The mermaids followed holding glowing orbs to light the descent. With her head pressed to the ice floor, Halen screamed. Her tears froze in her eyelashes, and an aching numbness spread under her skin. Would she drown? Would she freeze? Would she bleed out first? Death had options.
The soft glow of the mermaids’ orbs flickered through the translucent walls. Halen wished for the sparks to ignite under her skin. All the times she had tried to suppress them, and now she needed them. The ice creaked and moaned with the sinking pressure. Above, a crack worked its way along the sheet of ice, followed by another. The two cracks joined with a loud burst, puncturing a bullet-size hole in the cube. The ocean gushed in like a geyser. Halen kicked the walls with her numb toes, hoping to expand the fissure before the cube filled. She wondered if Tage and Ezra were trapped in cubes beneath the ocean or alive at all. Her body floated to the top of the cube, and with her lips pressed to the ice, she sucked in the remaining air.
With her last breath in her lungs, Halen kicked as hard as she could and the cage of ice cracked. She kicked again and this time the walls shattered. The mermaids’ orbs dimmed to darkness. With nothing to bar her in, Halen swam as fast as she could. But it wasn’t fast enough. A fin swiped her side, and she drifted back down.
Halen closed her eyes, and the boy from her sketchbook flashed before her. His eyes were narrowed, his pupils inflamed with rage. His lips parted wide as if shouting. He had never appeared to her this way.
No more drawings, she said to the boy. This is goodbye.
Maybe it was her mind playing tricks on her, not wanting to be alone with death, but for the first time the boy answered her back.