The Beckoning Shadow by Katharyn Blair is one you won’t want to miss, book nerds. It follows a girl named Vesper (which is a totally badass name?), who is an Oddity, a human possessing strange abilities. Specifically, she’s a Harbinger—she can summon your worst fear and turn it into a reality.
So, she’s more than a little powerful.
When we meet her, she’s on the run after destroying her family, trying to survive on the streets and hide from the Wardens, people intent on killing Oddities. Her story is heartbreaking and wrapped in mystery, and The Beckoning Shadow takes you along for the ride as you try to unravel exactly what’s been happening in this world.
We’re pretty obsessed with this one, y’all, and we couldn’t wait to share. Take a scroll and start reading the first five chapters of The Beckoning Shadow now!
If I think about it, it’s always been there. Something wrong, something I kept locked behind my ribs. I could feel it brushing up against my lungs when I took a deep breath to laugh with my older sister, Carmen, or when I was getting ready to shout at a game to be aggressive, be be aggressive.
I could feel it wrapping around my heart when I saw my weekly crush in the hallways and it would beat faster. It was a vine made of temptation, a vice made of terrible promises.
I knew, somehow, that there was something wrong with me.
That’s a nice way to start a story, right? It situates me exactly where I want to be—the person this happened to. The person who suffers. The person who fears.
But that’s not the whole truth.
I have fear inside me, but not the way you’d think.
My life used to be filled with the normal kind of fear. When dusk seeped out of the air and left night in its wake, my mom would reach down and grip my hand in the parking lot. There was something about the evening, the hum of the streetlights that raised something in my mother. The kind of fear that is learned—the kind that is taught.
But I abandoned that fear along with everything else the night I destroyed my family and ran away. I hid in the dingy bathroom at the bus station, cutting off my hair with the pocketknife my dad had given me when daylight savings ended and cheer practice started ending when it was dark. Shivering and covered in ash, I tried to shed who I was because I knew I could never go back. Everything my parents ever told me to fear was no longer useful. So I unlearned it.
After all the warnings, all the lessons, all the looks over their shoulders—the thing they should have feared the most was next to them, the whole time.
I was the scariest thing.
I’ve been on the run for nearly two years. I’ve slept under freeway overpasses and in abandoned churches. I have learned how to pee in empty alleyways and how to steal a ripe avocado without getting caught.
But I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to interstate bus rides. I’ve been in this seat for twelve hours, and I’ve been sitting in front of a seven-year-old who has also been on a bus for twelve hours. And he’s acting like a seven-year-old who has been on a bus for that long. I babysat a lot back in Los Altos. Kids like me, and I’m generally a good person.
But if he kicks the back of my seat one more time I’m going to unleash the full fury of hell on him, tear his sanity down to the studs, and make him rethink all the decisions he’s made in his tiny little life. I could move, but I get carsick if I don’t have a window seat.
I take a deep breath, lean against the window, and shut my eyes. I’m heading south. If I stay in my seat, I’d wind up back in Los Altos. Home.
I slip my tongue between my front teeth and bite the tip until I wince, hitting the rubber heel of my Chuck Taylors on the plastic bottom of the seat. I know it’s stupid, but I read an article about operant conditioning in the waiting room at the dentist office. I figure if I bite the crap out of my tongue every time I start missing the home I can never go back to, I’ll start associating homesickness with pain. The woman in the article stopped craving cigarettes by snapping a rubber band on her wrist, so, I mean, it’s the same principle.
No, it hasn’t worked yet. I just have welts on my tongue.
We stop, picking up another batch of people before we roll into our final destination.
I look out the window to keep my mind off everything else. It’s a pretty drive, at least. And we’re almost there. I just have to get through San Francisco to get to Paynes Creek—a little farming community. They have an opening at the almond-packing plant . . . the perfect place to throw my hair up under a baseball cap and blend in. I’m not stupid enough to think that the recent stories about weird things happening with Oddities—the rumors traveling on quickly deleted social media posts—haven’t reached small farming towns. I’m hoping they’ll be too busy to ask questions.
The fog has started to slip over the hills like curious tendrils of the ocean looking for a taste of the city. I pull a piece of Big Red gum out of the pocket of my hoodie and pop it into my mouth. If I close my eyes, I can almost pretend I’m in the back of the bus with Lindsay and Jenna, getting ready for Regionals, or something. Hannah would be stretching against the front seat. Coach Amira would be joking with Phoenix, our driver. But that life is gone. Every day away from it makes it easier to let it slide back into the part of me I keep locked behind a steel door.
Someone plops down in the seat next to me, and I jump. He’s not bad looking, the guy. But he smiles at me in that way that always preludes speech, and I’m not here for talking. I look back out the window, hoping he’ll get the hint.
I don’t turn back to look at him. I shouldn’t have used my last stick of gum. The breath I’ve got all worked up from twelve hours of gas station Butterfinger coffee and buffalo bleu chips would surely be all I needed to shut down conversation.
I snatch a magazine from the pocket of the seat in front of me. It’s some Bay Area business periodical . . . not something I’d ever choose to read on my own. But it’s a distraction, and suddenly those glossy pages feel like my most valuable possession. There’s a guy on the cover standing in front of a massive structure covered with scaffolding. He’s older and beautiful, like he just stepped out of one of those ridiculous perfume ads. The ones where a salt-and-pepper male model lounging on a speedboat is seduced by a mermaid. You’re like, What’s the point of this commercial? Then they show you a bottle and you’re confused about what it has to do with mermaid boat sex, but you still kind of want to know what it smells like? That kind. My eyes rove down the page. The headline reads Ananias Ventra: Real-Estate Mogul, Breaking and Making His Own Rules.
I keep my eyes on the words, thinking that maybe if I don’t look up, he won’t—
“Where you headed?” the guy next to me asks.
“More south.” Two syllables. I think of them as stand-ins for the other two-syllable phrase I want to utter, but it’s like I just tossed toast at a hungry pigeon. Here he comes, looking for more.
“Got family down there?” he asks, scooting closer as two more people squeeze past him on the narrow walkway. One guy stops at the row behind us. A woman with a “Resist” sweatshirt heads toward the back of the bus. I run my eyes over them, almost like I’ll be able to tell. It’s a habit now. I read once that there’s a certain type of Oddity that has weird irises you can see in certain lights. Two years, and I’ve never seen it. Maybe it’s just an urban legend.
Though, in all fairness, up until two years ago, I thought a lot of stuff was urban legend.
I look out the window, hoping my seatmate will get the hint that I’m not really interested in talking. I stare hard at a sign near the road that reads San Francisco—18 miles. Fog
roils over it, and I see a familiar graffiti tag in the lower left-hand corner.
It still makes me freeze up no matter how many times I’ve seen it. It’s a purple flower engulfed in flames—a queen of poisons.
To people who aren’t like me, it’s nothing to stop and stare at. There’s nothing particularly interesting about it.
But it’s a calling card that’s been showing up more and more lately. On street signs. Bumpers. Bus stops. Public bathrooms. Baselines—regular humans—won’t know what it is.
They never lived in fear of waking to find a queen of poisons bud nailed to their door. That’s a fear reserved for Oddities. That fear is one of the many reasons I had to run from home. The graffiti is supposed to send a message: Things are changing. But I’m not willing to bet my life on believing it. I’d heard rumors that the dissidents are in San Francisco—which is exactly why I’m not stopping in San Francisco.
I shove the magazine in the pocket and sit back.
I don’t know much about the scary underbelly of the Oddity world. But I do know that the Wardens don’t just disappear. My chest tightens as I let the word bounce around in my thoughts: Wardens. Just the sound of it echoing in my mind brings bile to the back of my throat.
The bus lurches forward, and the sign with the graffiti rolls out of my view as I realize my seatmate is still talking; ohmygosh he is still talking. But there has been one positive
development. Mr. Seat Soccer has shifted seats behind us and is now this guy’s problem.
“. . . So I figured I’d come down to San Fran to help out, since, you know, he helped me out so much in my chem lab. Some people would say it’s not my problem, but I say it was the right thing to do. I’m Kolby, by the way.”
My seatmate stops and looks at me, smiling. The ball is in my court. The hungry pigeon is expecting more bread crumbs. I lower the hood of my sweatshirt—the one the whole squad got at State Championships right before I ran—and pray that he can’t read the name I blacked out with permanent marker on the pocket. “Vesper,” it says, in the most cheerful font imaginable. Greasy strands of my blond hair fall out of the topknot I’d finger-combed together, and I can feel at least three new zits blooming on my unwashed forehead.
Maybe there’s a silver lining to the fact that I ruined my life and took off running, never to look back. Because two years ago, polite me, the me who wore ribbons in her hair on game day, the one whose biggest concern was keeping her knees straight in her back walkover, would’ve felt like she had to talk to Kolby.
Nice. Polite. But that girl is gone. Long live greasy-hair-don’t-care Vesper.
“Look. I get that you’re excited. But I’m not into talking.”
I expect him to be a little taken aback. Maybe irritated. But the guy smiles. Smiles. Like what I said is cute.
And just like that, I feel it pulsing around in my fingers like flickering electricity wound around my bones. Like my hands are asleep, but that’s not it. This is a familiar feeling. This is a dangerous, hungry feeling—a feeling I have tethered back with as much yarn as I can muster. I ball my fists and look out the window.
“You don’t have to talk. I get it. But I’m here if you need to talk. I majored in women’s studies in college, so I get—”
Kolby lurches forward as the kid kicks the back of his seat. His forehead thuds against the seat in front of him. The smile comes off his face like it’s been wiped clean. I look over my shoulder at the kid who had, just an hour before, been the bane of my existence. In this moment, he’s the dearest thing I have in this world. He’d jostled my seat, but he’d never kicked like that. The kid smiles at me like he gets it. I can’t help it. I smile back.
Even though the buzzing in my palm still flits around under my skin like a trapped bee. Even though I’m reminded that if there ever is a war between Oddities and Baselines—humans with magic and humans without it—
I’m on the wrong side.
It’s dark when we pull into the bus station, and the fog is a curtain of breath so thick I can barely see a few feet past the glass of the window. Kolby tried to talk a couple more times during the ride, but he eventually got the hint. And by hint I mean I sneezed in his coffee. I’m excited for him to get off the bus, though. I’m going to stretch out and try to get some sleep.
“Last stop of the night!” the burly bus driver shouts as he stands.
No. That can’t be right.
“We were supposed to get to Stockton tonight!” I call out.
The bus driver gives me a weary look.
“Supposed to. Can’t. Major flooding on the roads. We’ll get going first thing tomorrow.”
I can’t stop here. I can’t be in San Francisco.
“You need a place to stay?” Kolby asks as I step out into the freezing night. I don’t answer him as I walk quickly to the station. Maybe I can get a ticket to a different town tonight.
CLOSED, the window reads in all caps, like it’s shout-laughing at my misfortune.
My heart sinks in my chest as my thoughts spin in my head. Calm down. Just think.
I lean against the building, watching as all the passengers gather their bags and head off to the street to wait for their rides. I step as far back into shadow as I can. I press the light on the cheap Marvel watch Jack gave me as a gag gift on my birthday. It tells me it’s almost ten. I sigh. Spending the night on the street is not what I wanted to do today, but it doesn’t look like I have a choice. I tighten the straps on my backpack and take off down the street. I’m looking for a church or train station—some place I can sit until sunrise.
I walk, my high-tops silent on the pavement as I pass a giant mural of the Virgin Mary painted in bright fuchsia and hot pink. I stop, captivated by the image and how the color seems to cut through the darkness of the night. I’ve always heard things about the vibrancy of San Francisco,
but I never expected this. I want to keep my head down and my feet moving, but the energy of this place begs for me to look, and I can’t help it. There are rows and rows of Victorian-style houses, all different shades of blue. I pass by a bodega with golden window boxes bursting with peonies and fresh cilantro. I walk under a lime-green fire exit and stop as an orange cat missing a chunk of its ear meows, putting its little paw through the grate toward me. I smile, stopping for just a moment to reach up and give it a high five. The wires of the streetcars hiss as electricity crackles down the lines. For just a few minutes, it’s like the reality of who I am and what I’ve done slide to the back of my mind, pushed there by the smell of sourdough and sea air so thick I can almost taste the bay on my tongue.
I hear a skitter that snaps me back to reality. I whip around. The streetlights are hazy halos through the earthbound clouds.
It’s a city. There are lots of sounds in a city.
I turn around and quicken my pace even more, hoping that no one saw me jump at what was probably just a cat. Then, I hear it again. Not so much a skitter as a set of footsteps
lightly skimming the concrete. Right behind me, and getting closer.
I turn around one more time, the fear filling my veins so fast that I hear my choked heartbeat in my ears.
“Someone there?” I call out. My voice wobbles, but I make my breathing steady.
It’s not them. It’s not them. It’s not them.
The Wardens are gone. Everything is different. You don’t have to be scared.
I need to calm down, but I can’t shake the fact that right now I’m the quintessential first victim in a horror movie. The camera is coming up fast behind me just so that I can spin around and see a small animal coming out of the shadow. I’ll breathe a sigh of relief only to turn back around and see some murderer in a mask and a battery-powered drill, and someone will find my half-eaten corpse washed up under the Golden Gate Bridge. And that’s the best-case scenario. Because if it’s the Wardens, no one will ever find my body.
No one has seen the Wardens in almost two years, I remind myself.
A sound makes me jump and spin. A gray cat scuttles out from behind a dumpster. I jump, biting back a scream. Okay, so it was a cat. Now, I just need to turn—
I turn back around. No mask. No power drill.
There’s a very distinct chance that I might have been overreacting.
I’m in a new place. Everything is strange. It’s natural to feel weird in a new place, right?
But then I hear it again. I look up, and that’s when I see it—a silhouette barely visible, caught on the edge of the streetlight’s glow. I could swear I see something. Someone. I can’t tell if it’s my imagination or not, and I don’t give myself time to figure it out. I book it as fast as I can, scrambling blindly down the sidewalk.
I can hardly see anything through this thick fog, but I make out the lights of a small lavender building across the street. Aloa’s Café. It looks like the only place still open.
I rip open the door, the little tinkle of the bell feeling horribly out of place against the background of my terror.
I stand here, breathing hard as the warm, deep-fried air envelops me. Two hipsters sit at a table near the back, with what looks like seven different electronics plugged into a wall painted the color of eggplant, and a guy in a sweatshirt is reading a book near the opposite window. I step inside, my Converse squeaking on the scuffed wood floor. The bell tinkles once more as I let the door shut and shuffle over to a table near the front window. It’s tucked close to the corner, under a theatrical poster of The Fellowship of the Ring. From here, I can keep a look out into the street without being out in the open. I peer through the glass, but there’s nothing out there but swirls of fog on the black street. The guy across the café looks up from his book. He wears a dark beanie and a gray hoodie. He’s got a butterfly bandage over his eyebrow. Even from this far away, I can see the purple bruise seeping out from under it. He’s got a barely healed scab on his lower lip. He brings up his paper cup and takes a sip. It looks ridiculously small in his huge hands, which are also covered in bandages.
Oh, good. This is fine. He doesn’t look like a serial killer at all.
I look back out the window, half expecting to see the silhouette standing in the mist. There’s nothing, but the sight of the empty street feels more like a threat than reassurance.
I know someone was watching me. Someone who can scale buildings.
I startle again as a man’s voice cuts through my thoughts.
“Coffee?” he asks, holding up his free hand as he reads the panicked look on my face. He’s older—bald with fading tattoos on the sides of his head. Each ear has at least three piercings, and a thick red beard covers the lower half of his face. His name tag reads “Gabe.”
I swallow hard as I shake my head. I have some money saved up, but I need to be smart with it. “I’m sorry. I’ll be out of here in a minute, if that’s okay?”
He regards me for a moment before filling the chipped mug at the edge of my table. He sets it in front of me.
“Oh, I—” I start, but he shakes his head.
“We close in two hours, and this coffee is going to get thrown out. You’re doing me a favor.”
I look up at him, meeting his eyes for a moment. Kindness is rarely free, especially when you’re a woman. I’ve learned not to take favors, not like that’s ever spared me from unwanted attention. But he isn’t winking with subtlety he obviously learned from a porno. In fact, he’s looking out the window, almost like he can tell I’m scared of something that lurks behind the swaths of shadow.
“Thank you,” I whisper.
He nods once and heads over to the hipsters. I wrap my freezing fingers around the cup, gasping slightly as the heat bites my skin through the ceramic. For a moment, I remember slipping into Ashtyn’s hot tub at the end-of-the-year slumber party.
I bite my tongue. Not now.
I haven’t cried about this for months. I don’t think I could even if I tried. The pain is buried so deep in my chest that I’d have to dive to reach it—and I don’t think I could find it with one held breath. It’s lost to me until I really go looking for it. I’m fine with that.
I pull my backpack off my shoulder and open it gingerly, like there’s something dangerous inside that’s going to lunge once it has the room.
I eye the envelope I paid almost three months’ wages for when I was living up in Seattle. The one I haven’t had the guts to open. I take one breath—just long enough to remind me that I’m a coward and I can’t do what I’d been planning when I bought it. It’s been fifteen months since I was home. I thought I’d get braver as time wore on, but the opposite is true.
It’s been twelve months since I saw the last “Missing” poster with my face on it. It’s been nine since I saw my face on the news. “Local Girl Disappears After Massive Fire,” the caption said, accompanied by the picture my mom took at Manhattan Beach, the one where I’m wearing a tube top, so it looks like I’m naked. I rolled my eyes when I first saw it, because my mom probably didn’t even realize it when she grabbed it and handed it to the police officers. For a
moment, I imagine teasing her about it with Carmen. And then reality sinks over me, heavy enough to dent the floor under my feet.
I can’t laugh with them ever again. Not after what I did.
The memory of the screams brings with it the stench of burning wood that makes my fear of the Wardens feel almost laughable by comparison.
I knew what I’d done warranted a death sentence from the Wardens. Honestly, I’d been expecting it. I found myself waiting for the telltale queen of poisons flower nailed to our front door. For months before I ran away I’d been waking up early and checking, just so my mom wouldn’t find it first on her way to work.
It was only a matter of time before I screwed everything up and lost control. I just never imagined—not in a thousand nightmares—how devastating losing control could be.
I bite my tongue so hard I taste blood.
I don’t know how long I sit, sipping the coffee and staring at the writhing mist brushing up against the glass. It must be a while, though, because the hipsters pack up and leave. Gabe comes over and pours more coffee into my mug. I mutter a soft thank you, and he nods before heading back to the counter.
I watch Bloody Knuckles as he reads. He runs his thumb over his bottom lip, and I find myself staring. Despite his bruises, he’s actually kind of . . .
Something long-forgotten churns in my gut. I was not going to say that he’s cute, because the last thing someone on the run needs is a useless crush.
I had a boyfriend back home for a couple of months. Nathan Perez. Football player, totally gorgeous, terrible kisser. We broke up sophomore year. He cried. I didn’t. I’ve kissed a few boys since then, but not since I left home. My eyes lock on Bloody Knuckles’s lips, again.
Okay, now I’m staring.
Don’t look up. Don’t look up, don’t—
Oops. He looked up.
We lock eyes again. I bristle, going from I literally ran away from fog about an hour ago to I can and will shank you if you get too close to me in ten seconds flat. Another little trick I’ve learned over the year I’ve spent traveling alone.
He cocks a scarred eyebrow at me and then smirks. Like he thinks my carefully cultivated look of menace is intriguing, or something.
“What?” I ask, because the best defense is a good offense, right?
He looks up again, surprise on his features. He makes a show of looking behind him and then back to me, amusement creeping up his features.
“Nothing,” he says.
My hands go back to my coffee cup, and I spill some over the edge as I lift it to my lips. Crap.
I look back up, hoping he didn’t see that. But of course he did. I swear I see him smile as he looks down at a Moleskine notebook on the table in front of him. I wonder what he’s writing. Dear diary. Update—women still spill things in my presence.
“Ouch,” I whisper, because the coffee was still hot. This is just not my night. Or my year. Or my life. I’m about to get up and chance the creepy-ass fog outside when someone sets a napkin on the table. I look up at Bloody Knuckles.
“You okay?” he asks.
“Fine,” I say, scooting back out of instinct as he sits in the chair across from me.
“I told Gabe not to serve it so hot,” he says, reaching his hand out. I don’t move. He doesn’t expect me to ask for his help, right?
“I’m fine,” I repeat, and the intonation says, Eff off, please.
Another trick I’ve picked up on the run.
Bloody Knuckles rolls his eyes. “I’m not trying to be creepy. I was an EMT for a year. I just want to make sure you’re okay.”
“And I’ve been the owner of this hand for seventeen, so I know it’s fine.”
Bloody Knuckles stands. “Okay then. I can take a hint. If you change your mind, there are ice packs in the freezer in the back.”
“I don’t need your help. I didn’t need the free coffee, either. I’m not a helpless stray, okay? I can take care of myself.”
Bloody Knuckles holds his hands up in surrender. “No one said you couldn’t.” His eyes search mine, and I see a question rising in them as he looks me over. It makes me want to squirm in my seat, like he can see things I’ve tried to keep hidden. Up close, he looks less like a murderer. He looks wholesome, like Captain America or something. But I make myself sit still. I’m about to open my mouth when we hear it. It’s a thud, followed by the clatter of metal rattling from the kitchen, like utensils spilling across the tile floor.
Bloody Knuckles freezes, listening hard. I do, too. There was something wrong about that sound. Then—
I know it’s not as loud as I hear it in my head. It can’t possibly be loud enough to echo in my skull from that far away, but maybe that’s just how the cocking of a gun always sounds—like the snapping of teeth, hungry to decide things no human should be deciding. A noise like that can’t possibly be quiet, no matter how hard it tries.
“Don’t move,” someone snaps from the kitchen. I see through the cook’s window—a man with gray-and-black gloves. He has a small pistol in his right hand. He hasn’t seen us . . . yet.
Just like that, Bloody Knuckles is across the room. He didn’t make a sound. I move, too, but he puts a finger to his lips.
Get down, he mouths. I stop for a moment, then drop down to a crouch near the table.
He moves closer to the kitchen, and I inch toward him. He spins, looking over his shoulder.
“Stay there,” he says. His voice is a deep, ragged whisper. He crouch-runs to the counter, then scoots as close as he can get to the kitchen.
I know I should chance the sound of the bell that hangs over the entrance and run as fast as I can away from here. At best, this is going to bring cops—I can’t afford to be seen by cops. I don’t think news of my disappearance went this far north, not with so many kids my age disappearing—but I don’t want to risk it.
But the sound of the thud plays over again in my head. Someone hit Gabe, and he’s hurt. And if Bloody Knuckles is going to attempt some heroics, he’s going to get himself killed. I’ve seen too many people get hurt. I can’t just walk away, even though I know I should.
I inch forward.
Bloody Knuckles whips around, the concern melting off his face, replaced by naked irritation.
He waves wildly at me. Run, he mouths.
Okay, now I’m annoyed. Sure, he’s the size of a small redwood, but this close I can see that he can’t be more than nineteen, at most. I don’t take orders from anyone anymore.
I don’t know when I moved closer to Bloody Knuckles, but I’m right behind him, flush with the counter. The man with the gun in the kitchen is muttering, but I can’t see a second figure. He’s either talking to Gabe or cussing into a cell phone.
Bloody Knuckles realizes I’m behind him and jumps.
“You,” he says, his tone incredulous. “I said get out.”
“Do you have a phone?” I whisper back. He shakes his head and narrows his eyes at me. I stare back, not even trying to bristle, now—it’s just coming naturally. Bloody Knuckles opens his mouth to say something, but I put a finger to my lips as the guy in the kitchen stops talking.
I ball my hands into fists at my sides. A low hum in my head rolls along the bottom of my skull, and my palms pulse.
“Last warning. Get out. I don’t want to be responsible for you,” Bloody Knuckles says, but I barely hear him as I stare down at my hands, feeling the power build under the skin.
Bloody Knuckles moves to the kitchen door. I look up just as he sneaks inside. I’m frozen to the spot.
Get up. Do something, I tell myself.
Do something. Do something.
Another voice answers back, like blood ringing through my ears. You can’t control it. You could make it worse.
Who says I need it? I can help without my curse. People help all the time without freaky powers.
I make myself stand. I make myself move, despite the fear in my muscles fighting to make me stand still.
I lurch toward the door, not really even registering that my feet are moving until I’m standing at the kitchen door. Gabe is on the ground, dazed, holding a hand to his bleeding head. Bloody Knuckles has the intruder against the wall, an arm pinned behind his back.
I slide across the floor, grabbing a dishcloth to put on Gabe’s bleeding forehead.
“You’re going to be okay,” I whisper, though he’s as white as a ghost. I pull the towel back. The gash is deep, but he’ll be fine if he gets to a hospital. His shaking hand takes mine and squeezes once. His eyes are distracted and wide, but they focus on something just over my shoulder, like a warning.
“Sam,” Gabe breathes, and then blacks out, going limp against the freezer door. I turn to look at Bloody Knuckles. Sam. His name is Sam.
The intruder throws his head back, hitting Sam in the face and knocking him off-balance. The intruder spins, snatching his gun and pointing it square at Sam’s chest.
As my mouth opens to scream I feel something spring from my palms. Before I can stop it, it snakes across the room and locks on to the intruder’s chest. My mind is filled with a deep
thrumming—a low rumble of thoughts running together. I hear voices, see glimpses of faces. I see underwater—a tumble of ocean—the roar of the waves. Then, the thing I released pulls back, like a muscle twitch. My eyes spring open as the tug from my magic causes the intruder to lurch forward, like he’s been shoved from behind.
My stomach plummets as I realize what I’ve done. I’m still tethered to the intruder’s chest, my magic still linking us as the sound of waves grows louder in the back of my head.
“What the fuck was that?” the intruder shrieks, lowering the gun to look behind him, as though he’s going to find someone there. There’s a look of pure terror on his face. I shove myself to my unsteady feet. His red-rimmed eyes lock on mine, like he’s noticing I’m here for the first time. His bleached hair falls in his face, a faint line of stubble lining his quivering upper lip. If I was fully present, I might feel bad for him.
“What are you afraid of?” I ask the intruder. His eyes settle on me for a moment before darting around the room again. He isn’t listening to me.
“Run,” I whisper, looking at Sam.
“What? Why?” he presses, and I know he sees the look of terror in my eyes, because he takes a step toward me.
“Take Gabe and go,” I beg. I try to break the connection between me and the intruder, but it’s useless.
The guy raises his gun at my chest. “No one is going anywhere,” he spits.
Okay, maybe I wouldn’t feel bad for him.
That underwater feeling is getting stronger, pulling me deeper as my hands shake and I feel the connection between us tighten. Sweat drips down the back of my neck as I see the intruder’s angry expression slipping—I know he’s feeling the same thing I am. He’s hearing the waves . . . the screams. I hear the roar of the ocean in my ears. He cocks the gun and points it at Sam’s head.
“Back off, or I blow your boyfriend away,” he says, but something else has his attention. He looks down at the sound of trickling water. It’s gathering around his feet, swirling in a torrent around his ankles like a whirlpool conjured out of thin air.
“What is this?” he asks breathlessly.
I stare at the water, a strange thrill coming over me. I feel the current in my hands—every move it makes, I feel under my skin. He tries to move, but I bring my hands up and the whirlpool around him rises to his waist. I raise my hands higher, focusing on the water. The water rises, covering his shoulders, pinning his hands to his sides as he shouts.
I stretch my fingers, and the water spins around him faster. A slight hope sparks deep in my chest—I’ve never before been able to control what I bring out. This is completely new.
Energy spins in my palms as I bring my hands higher.
The thick, unforgiving water churns around him. This is what I found inside of him—the fear born of a memory deep inside this guy from ten summers ago, when a riptide yanked his legs out from under him and sent him spinning into darkness. The moments when he thought he was going to die—the roar of the ocean heave in his ears, filling him until he didn’t know what was the ocean and what was his own scream. The salt burning his throat, stinging his eyes. Somewhere in the darkness of his fear, I hear a woman screaming his name. Mitch! Mitch! My son! He’s caught! Mitch—
Mitch. That’s his name.
I come back to the kitchen as I open my eyes. I chance a look at Sam—who is looking back at me, a curious expression on his face. I don’t have time to try to place it. I turn back to Mitch.
Drowning. He’s afraid of drowning.
“It’s not fun having someone play with your life, is it, Mitch?” I ask, and his eyes widen.
The power thrums through me, my muscles stretching and pulling with the weight I haven’t used since I ran away, but my body remembers this.
“How do you know my name?” he sputters as I let the water rise to his neck. I take a step, and the water moves with me, inching backward. My shoes squeak on the wet tile. I’m going to push him and the water outside, let the fear snap back to its place in his chest, and then I’m going to take his gun and let Sam hold him until the police arrive.
I never thought the day would come when I’d be able to do something good with it. That I’d be anything but a danger. I’m almost giddy at the thought, almost triumphant. I close my eyes, focusing on the water.
The sandy water, icy and angry. The water, filling my nose and leaking into my lungs and wrapping them tight—
I feel it, the moment when something goes wrong. It’s like I feel the hold I have creaking, and then it snaps, and I tumble, the deafening roar of the ocean ripping through my mind. In a moment, I am back in his memory. Back under the water, tumbling. My fingers dig into the sand, trying to gain purchase, to set myself right. But I can’t set myself right. I can’t fix this. I might never be able to set myself right again.
I fall to my knees, and the pain yanks me back to the present just in time for me to see the water cyclone collapse in front of me, sending Mitch sprawling onto the floor. There’s a beat, a moment, when I think that’s the end of it. But then a roar rushes in my ears, and I turn.
A wave of water bursts through the door leading to the dining room, knocking Sam off his feet and tipping the metal table, throwing it against the back wall, blocking the back door. Water pours in, flooding the kitchen in seconds. It’s like we’re in a sinking ship, the ocean ripping our pathetic vessel to shreds as it claims us.
I hear myself scream, but it sounds far away. I squeeze my eyes shut, trying to get control back, but it’s pointless. The terror ripping through my chest isn’t letting me get a hold of anything. I’m choking on Mitch’s borrowed fear.
The water rises—shit, it’s freezing. Sam’s in front of me, then, Gabe limp over his shoulder. He’s shouting something that I can’t hear. He moves closer.
“We have to get the table away from the door!”
I nod dumbly, and we wade over to the flipped table. It’s huge.
“Hey! You have to help us!” Sam yells at Mitch, but he’s not listening. He’s frozen, shivering as he looks at the water barreling through the door like it’s a monster from his nightmare. It is.
I shove my own terror as far back as I can, focusing on how to get the hell out of here alive.
“Pull on three!” he shouts. “One, two, three!”
Sam and I yank on the table, but it’s wedged between two shelves that sit on either side of the door. The water is to my collarbone now, and it pulls me off my feet and knocks the air out of my lungs.
Sam adjusts Gabe over his shoulder to make sure he stays above the waterline.
“Let me try from below,” I rasp, taking a deep breath and plunging beneath the surface. I open my eyes, but sand swirls through the current and I can barely see anything. Salt water invades my mouth and nose. Of course—he was afraid of the ocean, so that’s what I conjured up. I pull on the table’s leg, but it’s no use. Stuck.
I break the surface again. We’ve only got inches left. The fluorescent lights sputter and die above us, and everything is thrown into darkness.
“We’ll have to try through the other door—maybe the water will let us through once it’s full in here,” Sam sputters.
But I know it won’t work. I know it because I still feel the fear raging in the base of my chest, a mirror current of the water ripping through the door. It won’t stop until I do, and I can’t get it to stop.
We’re going to die because I’m scared. Because I was dumb enough to think for one second that this was anything other than a curse.
The water rises over my mouth. I take one more deep breath, my lips brushing against the foam lining of the ceiling, and I go under.
I sink, letting myself drift to the bottom. It’s so cold that I’m not even shivering anymore. The floor is against my back, the water whipping my hair around my head.
I pull once more against the table, but it’s not budging.
The sound of the water pummeling, rushing against itself fills my head, and it’s almost soothing. Terror is rippling through me, and I hear the faint screams of Mitch’s mom echoing through my head—the remnants of his fear that still link us.
It wasn’t supposed to end like this. I’m not ready for it to end like this. My lungs burn, and I scream out, bubbles slipping through my lips. I yank on the edge of the table as hard as I can. Nothing.
I stop. The water doesn’t even feel cold anymore. That’s a bad sign, right?
I wonder if my family will ever know what happened. If they’ll have to come identify my body. I’m such a shit daughter for making them do a trip on top of breaking their hearts. Of course, I’m a shit daughter for other reasons, too. I picture my mom and her smile from the stands at games. I see my dad across the fire pit at the beach. I hear Carmen’s laughing shriek as Jack puts his arms through the legs of his boxers and chases her around the kitchen.
My heart slows. Everything slows.
And then, the fire in my gut fades. I’m still scared, but the panic loosens its grip on my spine. It’s just for a moment, but it’s enough of a gap in my panic to get a hold of the fear.
Just for a second, I have a grip on it, and not the other way around.
I reach over and pull on the table leg, and it yanks free. If the fear has lost its grip on me, then it’s lost its foothold in this world, too. I pull the table free and shove myself to the door. I throw the bolt and pull as hard as I can. I get it open a couple of inches, but it’s not enough. Terror flares up again. Then, Sam is next to me. The feel of someone fighting alongside me silences the fear still swirling deep in my chest, just for a moment. And a moment is all we need.
He wedges his fingers in the gap and pulls.
We’re sucked out into the night as the water spills into the parking lot.
I hit the asphalt, and everything goes black.
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