ASH RUNS TO SHORE
The sand compressed beneath Ash’s shoes, one after the other, marring the perfect leather finish. He couldn’t care less about the blasted shoes. He stumbled wildly across the rocky seashore, heart about to explode out of his chest. His father couldn’t be dead. There wouldn’t be anyone left.
He spotted the dark, lifeless form crumpled along the rocks and hurled himself forward. Rigid breaths forced their way in and out of his chest.
“Father!” he called.
The body didn’t move.
Ash dropped to his knees, unaware of anything around him. His jaw trembled as he held his father’s pallid face between his hands. “Father, speak to me!” he demanded. “I said, answer me!”
He shook his father’s head between his palms. “No. You’re not going to do this to me. Do you hear me?”
Ash grabbed the flask of Healing Water from his pocket and flipped the top open, fingers trembling. He yanked on his father’s head, pulling his mouth open, and shook the vial to force the drops down his throat.
Ash’s voice came out strained. “You have the stone in your chest, remember? Nothing can beat you. You’re invincible.”
He shook the small flask frantically, but it took a lifetime for each drop to seep out one by one. Ash snatched a small knife from his pocket and ripped open his father’s shirt. He plunged the sharp tip of the blade into the rounded flask until a slit pierced through the side of the metal. The silvery liquid flowed out as he spilled every last drop over his father’s chest, allowing the Healing Water to absorb directly into his heart.
Ash stared at the lifeless body, desperately waiting for movement. Nothing changed. His own lungs hardly moved as he pushed his fingers to his father’s neck in search of a pulse. It was too late. His worst fears were confirmed. Not even the faintest beat moved beneath his father’s skin.
He plunged his palms desperately into his father’s chest, compressing up and down in quick movements. He pushed and pushed without control or sanity, but life did not return. His father was gone. Ash’s arms gave beneath him and he collapsed over the lifeless torso, losing all strength from within. He had lost everyone. The unwanted tears came in angry streams. Agony and despair tore through his body as the pain erupted from within. Both his parents were dead—and it was entirely his fault.
Ash buried his face in his father’s abdomen, leaving his cheek to press down on the cold skin without moving. There was no reason left to get up, no point to go on.
As he lay frozen in guilt and grief, a small movement pushed up on Ash’s cheekbone. He broke from his self-loathing and sat upright, stunned. Was it possible? Was his father breathing? A tinge of hope emerged and Ash’s fingers fumbled back to his father’s neck. It was faint, but there was definitely a heartbeat. Ash didn’t hesitate, filled with new life. He lifted his father in his arms and hurried over the rocks and sand to carry Voss’s healing body back to their house.
Ash walked down the bright hallway of his family’s beach home and stopped at the entrance of the master suite. After two weeks, Voss’s body still lay in the same exact place on the massive bed at the center of his parents’ bedroom. The only movement was the slight up and down of his chest as oxygen moved through his lungs. His father had a pulse...and he was alive. At least Ash had that much to hang on to.
Ash released a heavy sigh and crossed the plush carpet, the cheerful décor feeling out of place next to his father’s sallow appearance.
“No one has come looking for us here,” he said, as if his comatose father could somehow hear him. “They think you’re dead. The Council has probably announced their victory over every news station in Banya by now. I can just picture their ridiculous headlines, can’t you?” He scoffed and spoke in a mocking tone. “Public enemy, Voss Hastings, taken down by everyone’s favorite, perfect little Keeper, Rayne Stevens. A great success for the Ambassador’s surprising rags-to-riches protégé.”
Ash shook his head. “What a joke, right? I can’t believe I was even friends with that scumbag.” He paused at the side of his father’s bed, his tone changing from bitter to sullen. “That’s not the only thing they’re talking about on the news, Father. They all pity me. I’m just a misguided, directionless, son-of-a-criminal orphan. Even the Council has placed me on hiatus for an indefinite period of time. Who knows when I’ll be approved to resume work and go back into the field? Everyone’s just waiting to see if I’ve completely lost it for good this time.”
He moved closer, pulling up gently on his father’s eyelids one at a time, checking for any improvement in color. The black pupils and veins looked just as empty, just as bleak and dead as the day Ash carried him from the beach below the cliffs.
Ash collapsed on the stiff armchair at the side of the bed, shaking his head in frustration. What an idiot he was. His father couldn’t hear him. Voss was about as conscious as a clump of dirt.
Anger stirred inside him. “Maybe they’re all right about me,” he said aloud. “They’ve even gone so far as to re-air the old footage from my rebellious rampage after we lost Mom; after my own stupidity killed her.”
The terrible memory of that day seethed through Ash’s mind and body like oil boiling through his veins, eating away at his organs and flesh. His nose burned; his eyes clenched into slits, picturing her once angelic face, torn in agony as she took her last breath right before his eyes.
It was his first assignment after graduation, without the direct supervision of a mentor. It was supposed to be his opportunity to prove to everyone—his father, Rayne, the Council—prove to them what he was capable of achieving on his own. He had to show them he wasn’t the misfit everyone made him out to be.
He was angry with his mother that day. Why did she have to come? Why couldn’t she just stay home and cook and clean like she had done since the day he was born? Why did she have to insist on going back to the Academy to be recertified for field duty, just in time to tag along and humiliate him on his first mission?
“I don’t need a babysitter,” he had complained to her in a whisper, as they held their positions in the dark. “The guys at the Academy used to call me Smoky, did you know that? And I used to hate that nickname. I thought it was so stupid. But I’d do anything to go back to that. Do you know what they’ve started calling me now? Cupcake… Because it’s just so very sweet that my mother wants to ride along with me on my missions.”
“I’m not here to babysit you,” Syreen insisted. She moved nimbly and without sound across the field to hide behind the next tree. Ash followed after her, his gun ready in hand.
His mother angled her head back at him. “I’m tired of being stuck at home. It was great being able to be there to raise you, but now that you’re out of the house, I’m bored out of my mind. I need some excitement in my life again.”
Ash spotted a guard and quickly raised his palm to quiet his mother. He signaled for her to hold her position then took a few silent steps toward his target. One of Ash’s greatest strengths in the field was his aim. He was a great shot and everybody knew it. Without hesitation, he raised his gun and fired, taking out the guard in one easy shot through the heart. Ash took out three more guards as they crossed the field covered with junk and debris.
With Syreen close by his side, Ash approached a large metal door installed in the ground. It was supposed to lead to an underground storage bunker owned by a powerful illegal arms dealer.
“Can’t you just take up skydiving or something?” Ash complained as they paced their way down a pitch black flight of stairs. “Or at least request reassignment to another team?”
There was a catch in Syreen’s throat as she spoke. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize that working with me was going to be such a punishment for you.”
“Well it is,” Ash snapped back.
His harsh tone left them in silence as they moved swiftly through a winding, underground corridor, guided by the focused beams of light coming from the mounts on their guns, which revealed nothing but dirt and concrete in all directions.
When they finally reached the end of the cryptic hallway, they found a metal wall with a small window at the center and a keypad along the right side. Syreen pulled out the decoder device secured inside her combat belt and connected it to the keypad.
As the device scanned for the code that would open the metal door, Ash turned to his mother. “I want to go in,” he said.
The device blinked and the metal door slid open. Syreen moved toward the entrance. “You can’t change the plan right in the middle of an operation,” she said sternly. “I’m retrieving the weapon. You stay here and watch my back. Those were our orders.”
It was one thing to be bossed around by your mother when she wanted you to make your bed or pick up your dirty socks, but to be treated like a child, on a mission in the middle of Nigeria, was more than Ash could take. His tone was cold. “What are you going to do, Mother? Ground me? Send me to my room? Maybe you don’t think I can handle it, but I know I’m ready to do this. I’m going in.”
But just as Ash grabbed Syreen’s arm to force her back to the hallway, a shot fired from nowhere and grazed Ash’s ear. They both ducked behind the door inside the storage room as more shots fired from across the hall. Ash popped out from the opening to send back a wave of bullets in retaliation. Two guards fell to the ground, but one of them managed one last gunshot before he hit the concrete. The bullet missed Ash by several inches, but it blew straight through the keypad that controlled the large metal door. Sparks flew from the malfunctioning panel, triggering a blaring alarm.
Everything happened in fast forward. The metal door closed in on them. Liquid sprayed from the ceiling. Ash felt the impact of his mother’s force on his back as she flew forward and shoved his body outside the door. He turned, but it was too late. The door was closed behind him and Syreen was trapped inside.
He stared at his mother’s glowing violet eyes through the window, her beauty marred by gagging and coughing. A pungent odor permeated the air and Ash recognized the smell right away…gasoline. His mother was swimming in it from all angles. She gasped and choked from the fumes.
He kicked the window with all his force, but the material was too strong. He scoured the room and found a brick and with everything he had, rammed it across the surface again and again. This was obviously no ordinary window. Ash raised the barrel of his gun and shot four rounds straight at the center. The bullets barely left a scratch.
His mother yelled at him, signaling through the window to leave her, to save himself before the building exploded. Ash couldn’t do it. He couldn’t just leave her there to die. He ran to the keypad which had gone dark and fumbled frantically with the wires. He had to save her. He wiped at his burning eyes, trying to see straight through the fumes and tears. But it was no use. The keypad was completely dead.
He looked back at the window. His mother’s face was somber, almost beaten. She shook her head in defeat. She coughed once and managed a small smile back at him, mouthing the words, I love you. Then her eyes rolled back and her body fell to the concrete.
“No!” Ash cried. There were no rational thoughts. His eyes burned red as he called out for his mom. He banged his fist against the window, ran his shoulder into the door. No, he couldn’t lose her. This couldn’t be the end.
Ash clenched his radio, calling for help, when the first boom shook the building. The whole place was going to blow. He had only one split-second choice left to make—live or die. He tore from the bunker in a blur, flames chasing his back. The force of the explosion threw him across the muddy field, knocking him out cold when he hit the ground.
Everyone said he was lucky to make it out alive.
But was he lucky to make it out? Was he? Ash sprang from the armchair beside his father’s bed. The rage from his memory pulsed through every limb in his body until it centered on the lamp next to him. At Ash’s command, the lamp flew across the bedroom and shattered down the wall. It should have been him who died that day, not her. It was his fault. If only he had been standing watch rather than arguing with his mother. He would have killed those guards before they could get a single shot off. Why did she have to be there that day? Why?
His father may as well have been dead now, too. He was basically just a living corpse. And Ash was the one who led Rayne to their house in the first place. He led Rayne right to them. He gave Rayne everything he needed to set the girl free. And how did Rayne repay him? By sending his father over a cliff and turning him into a sack of mush. He could never forgive Rayne for that. Never. And he could never forgive himself for it either.
Ash hovered over his father’s blank face, his lower jaw shaking. He reached down and placed his hands around the sides of Voss’s head. “Father,” he said through strained lips. “I don’t know if you can hear me, but I need you to listen. You can’t leave me here alone in my shame. You need to wake up. They ruined our lives, all of them…Rayne…Hamlin…the Council. Someone needs to make them pay for what they’ve done to us. Do you hear me? I need you to make them pay.” Ash grabbed his father’s collar and ripped open his shirt.
“I called in a few favors,” Ash said, reaching into his jacket pocket. He pulled out a silver flask, four times larger than the typical vial of Healing Water, and unscrewed the lid. “It wasn’t easy to get this, so you better not waste my effort. This is your last chance.”
Ash tipped the flask over Voss’s bare chest and let the iridescent liquid seep across the skin. It swirled slowly, almost like a cloud rather than fluid, until it melded with his father’s body and disappeared into the surface. Ash took a step back and held his breath, waiting.
Only seconds passed before a wretched grin emerged on Ash’s face. The wild glare in his eye was no longer alone. It was matched by a pair of devilish, veiny eyes staring wide open back at him from the bed. Voss was awake.
(Five Months Later)
(Five Months Later)
The familiar chair cushion gave lightly beneath my weight. I scooted the legs with my hands and pulled myself up to the same spot at Rayne’s dining room table where I’d sat almost every afternoon for the last several months.
Rayne smiled. “So, what should we work on first?”
I sighed and rummaged through my bag, pulling out the heavy textbook I’d grown to hate this semester. “Definitely physics,” I said.
The only reason I was taking the dumb class was to please both Heather and my mom. Heather was taking the class to keep her schedule heavy enough to appeal to UCLA’s admissions department, and, of course, was convinced that I needed to do the same. Somehow she had already decided for the both of us that we were going to go to college there together. My mom tried to be more subtle about it, but she certainly wasn’t complaining about Heather’s plans. Especially since the school had an amazing nursing program she secretly was hoping I would apply to.
I let the book fall with a thump on the table. “Please tell me you’re an expert in kinetic energy. I’m completely lost.”
Rayne offered an apologetic grin. “Well...I’ve heard of it before.”
I groaned and let my forehead fall to the book on the table, mumbling as I spoke into the hard surface. “I’m seriously…going to fail this class.”
“You’re not going to fail,” he said, lightly placing his hand on my back. “Come on, we’ll figure it out together."
I had been worrying about this assignment ever since fourth period, when Mr. Reed decided to tie my head into crazy knots, but with Rayne, it actually seemed doable—or at least, less likely to send me to the loony bin.
My smile returned, and I lifted my head in his direction. “Well, I guess we should—” The words caught in my throat. I turned so quickly I didn’t realize how close he was. His face was only inches away. “We...uh,” I said, stumbling as his stare locked on mine.
I knew I should move, but I couldn’t look away. Heat spread through my body. This wasn’t the first time I’d caught myself staring into his amazing green eyes and wishing I could indulge myself with the touch of his lips. Even after five months of learning to suppress the bonding effect from the Healing Water, it still didn’t feel any easier.
It was hard to believe that after so many close calls, neither of us had given in to the desire. I saw it in his eyes. He wanted to kiss me. He was just as tempted to act on the urges as I was. But every time I caught myself staring into his eyes, longing for his touch, his lips…I just remembered one important thing—none of it was real.
I blinked and got a hold of myself, finally looking away and saying, “I guess we should get started, right?”
Rayne cleared his throat and straightened in his chair. “Yes. Right. Bring on the physics.”
Finally, after several hours of torture, I slammed the pages of my textbook shut and sighed with relief.
“I’m so glad that’s over,” I said.
He smirked. “I told you we’d figure it out.” He glanced at his watch which concealed the small green mark on his wrist, just as it did every day. “Hey, it’s already after six. You should get going if you’re going to make it to the hospital on time.”
I glanced at the grandfather clock in the corner of the room. “Oh yikes, I had no idea it was getting so late. I better go.”
I held up my palm in Rayne’s direction. Without needing to ask, he took the tiny silver flask from his pocket and let a drop of Healing Water fall into my hand. It had become a daily ritual. I needed the Healing Water to stay alive, and Rayne was the person sent to make sure I got it.
Rayne watched as I gathered my things. “Are you sure you don’t want me to come?” he asked. “I could wait in the lobby while you and your mother eat.”
“No, don’t worry about it. I can make it a few miles down the road on my own, you know. You don’t need to babysit me every minute of the day.”
He looked down, a strange look on his face. “No, I know. I just thought…” His voice trailed away as he stared at the floor, off in his own little world. It seemed like he’d been doing that a lot lately.
“Is something wrong?” I asked.
He looked up. “Oh…uh…no. It’s nothing. I’m fine.” He put on a wide smile. “Just go have fun with your mom and I’ll talk to you later.”
“Are you sure you’re okay?” I pressed.
His laugh seemed almost nervous. “What? Yes, of course. You know me. I’m just overprotective. And I…get bored sometimes. That’s all I was thinking.” He shrugged and pulled on my shoulders, directing me towards the door. “Really. It’s not a big deal.”
“Oh my gosh, I didn’t even think of that,” I said. “Totally…you should come.”
“Seriously. It’s not a big deal,” he repeated. “Go and have a nice dinner with your mom. You don’t need me hanging over your shoulder all night.”
He opened the door and nudged me through the opening.
“Okay,” I said, hesitating. “I guess I’ll talk to you later then.”
I walked a few steps down the sidewalk and glanced back for Rayne’s usual wave goodbye, but the door was already shut.
What was with him lately?
I stopped at the mailbox in front of my house and pulled out a pile of envelopes and junk mail before getting in the Honda. Just as I tossed the pile on the passenger seat, I noticed the slight, icy blue glow from my eyes in the rearview mirror. Usually that was a good sign. Even though Rayne gave me Healing Water every single day, my body’s reaction to it was never consistent. Some days, like today, it would take effect immediately. Other days it would barely change the color of the Watermark on my wrist. But it didn’t seem to matter either way. I hadn’t experienced a single emotional outburst or fainting episode since the day of the Sadie Hawkins dance several months ago.
As much as I hated being dependent on the Healing Water to survive, it was nice to know that all the crazy spells and depression I had suffered at the beginning of the year, were nothing more than my body’s physical reaction to my malfunctioning Watermark, and was in no way an indication that I was, in fact, crazy or mentally disturbed in any way.
Without a second thought, I turned on my car radio, which Rayne had recently fixed for me, and headed across town to Big Belly Deli. Normally, we’d do something a little more exciting than sandwiches for dinner, but my mom had been talking about a craving for their pastrami reuben for weeks now.
When I placed the sandwich down on the small table in the break room at the hospital, my mom’s face lit up. “Honey, you remembered,” she said.
I laughed. “You’ve only mentioned it, like, fifty times in the last week. How could I forget?”
She shrugged happily and took a bite, then added, “Sorry I cancelled our regular girls’ night to plan dinner with Mark.”
“No problem,” I said. “I’m just as happy to spend our alone time here as I would be anywhere else. And it was about time that you guys finally invited me to come with you for once.” My mom and Dr. Jensen had been dating for months now, and they were pretty much inseparable these days.
“Oh that reminds me,” Mom said. “Mark arranged to take the entire day off, so we were thinking about moving the time a little earlier on Wednesday. Would six thirty still work okay?”
“Sure. That should be fine.” A grin grew on my face. “So, are we all going in Dr. J’s Jaguar?”
She rolled her eyes and laughed at my enthusiasm. “Yes, honey. Mark is going to drive.” Only people who have driven a car as old as mine would understand why this was so exciting to me.
After Mom went back to work, I walked over to the door which led to the stairwell. I took the stairs every time I came to the hospital now, pretty much ever since the night Rayne brought me up to the hospital roof after my car accident. It felt like such a long time ago, but the stairs still sort of felt like part of our secret little place. Even though Rayne was only pretending to be my boyfriend and our relationship was basically just a front, I liked remembering the mysterious, giddy feeling I had the night he took me alone with him to the roof.
With romanticized memories still floating through my head, my sandals pattered lightly down a flight of concrete stairs until just before I reached the landing between floors. I held onto the railing, ready to swing myself cheerfully around the corner, when I heard male voices coming from below. That seemed odd. I’d never come across a single person in the stairwell before.
I stopped with curiosity. I couldn’t make out what they were saying. The voices sounded like hushed echoes. Moving forward slowly, I placed my feet down a few steps and lowered my body onto one of the stairs to see if I could get a better look. I wasn’t sure why I felt the need to spy, but something about the situation seemed out of place.
When I poked my head down by the railing, I could see the back of a man’s head on the platform one floor below me.
One of the men spoke again. It was still a little muffled, but this time I could understand his words. “What did you think of the results from your free trial?” he asked.
The other man shifted, swaying into view for a brief moment. I squinted and repositioned myself. It almost looked like Dr. Jensen. Why would he be having a meeting in the stairwell? He had an office with a window and a great view. Maybe it wasn’t him. He moved too quickly for me to be sure.
“The results were exceptional,” the man answered. “I’ve never worked with anything like it.” He placed his hand on the railing, moving back into sight. Yes. It was Dr. Jensen. I was sure of it. It sounded like he was sampling some kind of medication. But, a meeting in the stairwell? That didn’t make sense.
“So, are you ready to work with us?” the man with his back to me asked. “Or do you need a little more convincing?” There was something about his voice that sent an eerie chill up my back. The whole thing didn’t feel right, like an illegal drug deal or something.
“No, I’m ready,” said Dr. Jensen. “I just need a refill on my supply. How soon can you deliver more product?”
The turkey sandwich began to toss around in my stomach. The whole situation felt like trouble. I wanted to get out of there, but I definitely didn’t want them to hear me go. I inched my hand up to the rail as carefully as possible, and just as I was about to pull my body up from the floor, a loud chime rang through the air.
In an instant, the phone in my pocket gave away my position. I froze for a split second in fear, glancing at the men just long enough to see two glaring, vivid blue eyes turn and stare back at me. I gasped and jumped to my feet, scrambling up the steps and rushing out the first door I could find.
I glanced back at the door, half running, half speed walking down the hospital corridor, not sure what I had just witnessed. The flash of those glaring blue eyes haunted my thoughts as I banged my fingers repeatedly over the elevator button. The door opened and I rushed forward, holding my breath until it closed safely behind me. I shot my hand to the metal wall, bracing myself as I tried to breathe.
All I could think about was the blue-eyed boy I’d once talked to while being held prisoner last November. Ash, the person who had helped kidnap me. Ash, the son of a terrible criminal. Ash, the guy who was supposed to be Rayne’s best friend, but who had disappeared and wouldn’t return any of Rayne’s calls.
Could it really be him that was talking to my mother’s boyfriend in the stairwell? Why would someone like that be pushing questionable meds in a dark corner of a hospital? Rayne said that the guy was wealthy beyond belief. Why would he care about making a quick buck? It really wouldn’t make sense that it was him.
The elevator dinged, and I stepped forward with caution. I looked up and down the halls, but there wasn’t anyone shady in sight. Once I caught my breath, and walked all the way out to my car without any obstacles, I started to wonder if I was blowing the whole thing out of proportion. Everything happened so fast. How could I be sure? What did I know about hospital policies on doctors ordering experimental drugs?
Maybe the fact that I panicked was enough to have caused the release of past traumatic memories I’d been suppressing. It could have triggered something deep in my subconscious to make me think I was seeing Ash, when in reality it was just some random guy.
I started the car engine and closed my eyes for a moment, letting the music from the radio calm my nerves. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I was just being silly and paranoid. So, I spent the entire drive home convincing myself that I’d blown the entire situation out of proportion and decided to forget the whole thing ever happened.
When I pulled into my driveway, I finally remembered that someone had tried to call me earlier. I removed my phone from my pocket and read the screen. There was a missed call from Heather, as well as a text from her that said, 911. In Heather’s mind, pretty much everything was some kind of an emergency, so I wasn’t too worried, but she didn’t use the code 911 all that often, so I thought I’d better call her back just in case.
Heather picked up on the first ring. “Oh. My. Gosh, Sadie. Did you get your mail today?”
Her question took me by surprise. “My mail? What are you talking about?”
“You have to go get it right now,” she squealed. “But don’t hang up on me. I’ll wait.”
“I have it right here,” I said, confused. “I just haven’t looked through it yet.”
Her tone was impatient. “Well, look through it then. Like, right now.”
“Okay, okay. Hold on.” I started to rummage through the envelopes.
“What’s taking so long?” she complained in my ear.
“Sorry, there’s like a whole week’s worth of mail here. What am I looking for anyway?”
“Just…look for a big manila envelope,” she spouted. “You can’t miss it.”
I found the large envelope at the bottom of the pile and pulled it to the top of the stack. Then I stopped. It all made sense now. I stared at the words UCLA Undergraduate Admissions in the top corner of the envelope.
Heather broke the silence. “Did you find it yet?”
“Uh, yeah. I found it. So, did you open yours already?”
“Yes…” Heather said, her tone so excited it practically answered my question all on its own. She definitely had been accepted to the school. “Open it!” she urged. “Oh my gosh, I’m like, so nervous for you.”
I slid my finger under the top edge of the paper, unsure what I was hoping to find. I scanned over the headings and began to read aloud.“Dear Sadie, It is our great pleasure to offer you admission—”
“I knew it!” Heather said, cutting me off. “We both got in. I knew we would. This is so perfect. Aren’t you excited? We’re going to be roommates, and live in L.A. and meet tons of hot guys…It’s going to be the most fun we’ve ever had in our entire lives.”
I didn’t answer right away. In my mind, the whole college, future, decision-making stuff was still supposed to be way in the future. I wasn’t sure I was ready for it.
“Hello,” she said impatiently. “You should be, like, doing cartwheels and jumping up and down right now.”
“Totally, I know. It’s just…well, UCLA is so expensive. I’m still not sure I can afford it.”
“But isn’t that why you and Nicole have been working all those hours at her dad’s yogurt shop? You know, so you can afford it.”
“It is,” I said. “But even if I work there full-time all summer long, I still won’t have enough to even put a dent in the costs.”
Heather’s tone weakened. “But, you told me that your mom said she was going to help you pay for the rest. Did she change her mind or something?”
For some reason, I wanted to say yes, my mom did change her mind. I wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t true. My mom was practically begging me to let her pay for everything. I was just avoiding making the commitment to go.
“Sadie, come on,” Heather said, sounding both annoyed and heartbroken. “I know you feel worried about having your mom spend her savings on you, but she totally wants to. She told me herself. And this is like, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. If you pass it up now, you’ll just be setting yourself up for regret. What else would you do anyway? Work in a frozen yogurt shop the rest of your life?”
“No,” I protested. “I mean, I could go to a cheaper school somewhere around here and still find a decent career and everything.”
Heather went quiet, voice serious. “Wait a minute. I know what this is. This is about Rayne, isn’t it? You don’t want to go to L.A. because he can’t come with you.”
“What?” I said, caught by surprise. “No, of course not. That has nothing to do with it.” But did it have anything to do with it? It wasn’t supposed to. Even if I did go to UCLA, Rayne would just follow me there and watch after me like he always did. Wouldn’t he?
Suddenly, I realized what my problem was. I didn’t want to commit to UCLA because I was afraid of the future. And the reason I was afraid of the future was because I didn’t want my relationship with Rayne to end. I wanted to stay in my pretend, secure little world that wasn’t reality.
But deep down I knew I couldn’t stay there forever. Not only was it becoming torture just to hold back the feelings that were all a fake, Rayne could be reassigned at a moment’s notice. He might suddenly disappear one day. Just like my father. Then where would I be? Heartbroken and alone, just like my mom had been for the first seventeen years of my life.
“You know,” I said. “I didn’t say I was for sure not coming. I’m still thinking about it. And to be honest, I don’t even know if I would want Rayne to come with me anyway.”
Heather didn’t sound convinced. “Oh really?”
“I’m serious. I guess I just keep thinking, things seem great for now, but there’s no way it’s going to last forever with Rayne.”
“I don’t know about that,” Heather said. “I think if he had it his way, you’d elope the day after graduation.”
I laughed in disbelief. “Where would you get such a ridiculous idea?”
“Have you seen the necklace he gave you?” she said.
“So? What does that have to do with it?”
“Sadie, please. No guy gives a girl a diamond necklace unless he’s seriously in love.”
“He’s not in love with me,” I said. “It’s not even a diamond.”
“Okay, fine. No guy gives a girl a beautiful, rare, crystal necklace unless he’s in love.”
I didn’t know what to say. I was pretty sure the reason Rayne gave me the Water Briolette was to help keep me strong physically, because I needed all the Healing Water I could get. But obviously I couldn’t explain that to Heather.
Before I could answer, Heather continued to add to her argument. “And he doesn’t send her two dozen red roses for Valentine’s Day, or surprise her with a candlelit romantic dinner for their two-month anniversary, or—”
“Okay, okay. I get it,” I said. “Rayne’s like the picture-perfect definition of the ideal boyfriend. I know. But you’re just going to have to trust me on this one, Heather. There’s no future for us.”
The more the hours passed by, the more my stomach folded over itself with anxiety. Just thinking about what I knew I had to do, physically hurt all over. By ten o’clock I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to get it over with. I clutched the purple diary sitting in my lap, hesitating, knowing that if I went through with this, it would change everything. But I couldn’t see any other way for things to work out. I pressed my pen to the page of my diary with unsure fingers and wrote:
Hey. You around? Can we talk?
Even though Rayne had loosened his strict, no-phone-call policy, we still used the diary to talk to each other on a regular basis. I sat and stared at the purple light at the center of the butterfly on the cover, waiting for his reply with dread. It didn’t take long for his answer to appear:
YEP, I’M HERE. ARE YOU OKAY? WHAT’S ON YOUR MIND?
I paused. If I wanted to change my mind, this was my last chance. I glanced up for a moment, staring out across my bedroom, wondering if I could really go through with this, when something on top of the dresser caught my eye. It was the orange daisy Rayne had given me at the hospital after my car accident. It had only been a week or two since I last stopped to smell its magical petals. The flower had lived for months off just a single drop of Healing Water.
But something about the flower suddenly caught my attention. It looked different. I jumped from the bed and ran over to the dresser. My feet stopped as I pressed my lips together, holding back a sudden surge of emotion. The flower was dead. The petals were withered and falling off, the stem a sickly hue of greenish-brown. It felt like a sign. My eyes glistened with moisture as it became more and more clear. Even with the aid of the Healing Water, nothing could last forever.
I nodded my head knowingly and moved back to my place on the bed. As much as it would hurt, I knew it had to be done. I opened the diary, took a deep breath, and wrote:
I’m fine. But can I come over? I want to talk to you in person.
My feet dragged across the pavement as I made the long, awful journey to Rayne’s house. At least, that was how it felt tonight. I’d had talks like this with other boys before, and even though our relationship and the feelings with Rayne weren’t real, this felt harder to face than any other break-up type conversation I’d ever had the unfortunate need to initiate.
This isn’t even a real break-up, I tried to tell myself. You’ll still see him all the time and he’ll still be assigned to you for who knows how long. Then when he does have to leave, you’ll have a life outside of him to fall back on.
The more I thought about it, the easier it seemed. For all I knew, he would even agree with me that it was the best way. He was mostly just humoring me all this time anyway. He had stayed involved in my life against his better judgment in order to appease my own insecurities.
The black metal gate swung open as I approached, and Rayne appeared in the doorway. When I saw him, a smile broke through the pain etched on my face. He looked so happy to see me. He held out his arms to give me a hug. Maybe I should have talked to him through the diary after all. Feeling his warm chest against my face, I wasn’t sure I could make myself go through with it.
“I’m glad you’re here,” he said softly in my ear. Right then, I knew I would miss his hugs more than anything else. I let his arms hold me a little longer than usual, not knowing how soon I would have the chance to feel them again.
I finally let go and stepped back from his embrace. “Are you having a good night?” I asked.
“I am now,” he said.
He took my hand and led me into the living room. Why? Why did he have to be so wonderful all the time? This was already going to be hard enough without him reminding me just how much I loved to be around him.
He stopped in front of the couch. “I was kind of worried about you tonight. I was probably just making things up in my head. I mean, I knew you got home safe from the hospital and all, but…all night I had this feeling like something was wrong.”
It was amazing the way he always seemed to sense what I was feeling. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t deny the bond between us created by the Healing Water. But his words reminded me of why I was there in the first place, and my muscles tensed. “Um, yeah, I’m fine,” I said. “Sorry to make you worry.” I sat down abruptly and tried to look away. Staring at his wonderful face made everything harder.
“I guess I was just being paranoid,” he said. He grinned and placed his hand over mine. “So, what did you want to talk to me about?”
I finally had to turn and face him. I opened my lips to speak, but as soon as my gaze met his crystal eyes, my expression wrinkled. “Um,” I said. I looked away again, trying to control the urge to cry. “I just was thinking…we should…”
I couldn’t mask my emotions well enough. Rayne placed his hand on my cheek and turned it towards him. “Okay, now you’re starting to worry me,” he said. “Did something happen to you tonight? What’s going on?”
I forced a smile. “No, really. I promise I’m okay. I’m not sure why I’m acting like such a baby about this. It shouldn’t be that big a deal.”
“It’s okay, Sadie. Whatever it is, you can talk to me.”
“I know,” I said.
I took a moment to regroup, then tried again. “These last few months have been really amazing. I mean… really, really amazing. You know what I mean?”
He smiled. “I think I might have an idea what you mean…”
I was so nervous, I barely let him finish. “Seeing you every day has been…the best,” I continued. “Seriously. But…as much as I want to, I haven’t forgotten what our real situation is here. I mean, I know you just agreed to spend time with me to help me handle my feelings created by the Healing Water and the bonding effect. And I think it’s incredibly sweet that you would do that for me.”
Rayne cut in. “Sadie, I like spending time with you. You make it sound like some horrible burden for me to be around you. It’s not like that.”
“No, I know,” I agreed. “But I also know that I’ve been making you break a bunch of rules you’re supposed to be following as a Water Keeper, and I know how much you hate doing that. I feel bad knowing I’m the reason you feel you have to do it in the first place.”
He laughed once under his breath. “I’m…okay with it, if you are. Yes, I’ve experienced some guilt over the issue, but I’m more concerned about your happiness than a few rules.”
Rayne Stevens doesn’t care about the rules? I thought. Since when? His duty always came first. Always.
“Thanks,” I said. “That means a lot, especially coming from you. But it’s not just that. I think…that I should try not to be so attached to you all the time. I don’t know. I feel like I need to make sure I’m still making time for other people. Once I go to college, I won’t see my mom much anymore, and you’re only a high school senior once in your life. I just don’t want to miss out on anything before it’s all over.”
I could feel myself babbling, avoiding the real issue. Heat filled my cheeks when I felt the words come out of my mouth. “I guess, what I’m trying to say is, maybe we shouldn’t spend so much time together right now…”
He looked from my eyes down to the floor. “Oh. Well, I can’t argue with that.” The words came out nice enough, but something about his posture seemed upset.
“Unless you think it will make things too hard for you,” I added quickly. “I know this whole thing hasn’t exactly been easy for you, either.”
His head shot up in surprise. “Me?” he said. “What would make you think it would be a problem for me?”
His strange tone caught me off guard. “Uh, I just thought… I don’t know, you would have to go back to hiding in the shadows and following me around and stuff. I don’t want to make your job any harder than it already is.”
“Of course. Right.” His worried expression turned to a confident smile. “You don’t have to worry about me. I’m trained for this, remember?”
“Yeah, that’s true,” I said, attempting to mimic his confidence. “Plus, we’ll still see each other all the time. I still have to come over for my daily dose of Healing Water, right?”
“You better,” he said.
“And you can still come to all the parties and stuff with my friends, if you want to. If that will make it easier for you. They all love you just as much as I...” My voice trailed off nervously. I froze for a moment, Rayne’s gaze intent on mine. I wanted to say the words. I was supposed to be there to sever ties, and yet all I wanted to do was say, I love you, right then and there. The words burned at the back of my throat, just waiting to be released.
I pushed the impulse deep inside. This was exactly why I had to stop this whole thing while I had the chance, before it was too late. My breaths quickened. I closed my eyes and leaned my forehead on my fingertips.
“Um, actually,” I said, beginning to babble. “Maybe it would make things easier if you kept your distance for a while, just until I’ve had a chance to readjust to things. Holding back all these feelings is going to be hard. And knowing that they’re not real, that I can’t act on them; it’s like torture every day. You know what I mean?” My hands were turning clammy. I couldn’t stop thinking about what I’d almost said to him. What I still wanted to say to him.
“I know exactly what you mean,” he said.
I nodded as he spoke, pretending to listen, but my thoughts were dizzy in my head.
“Sadie, I…I feel like there’s something I should tell you; about the whole issue with the bonding effect and the Healing Water…”
I barely heard his words. I’d become so shaken with nerves that I just kept talking. “I mean, who knows how long you’ll be assigned to me, right? I just want to make sure that I’ll be okay when they move you on to something new, when they change your assignment. Wait, you were just saying something, weren’t you? Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry. I’m just babbling now. What were you saying?”
He looked at me blankly. “I…was just going to tell you that…never mind.”
“No, tell me,” I said. “It’s my fault, I wasn’t listening. Please tell me.”
He paused, examining my face. His lips pressed together, turned up, but not quite a smile. “I was just going to say that…I agree with you.”
“You do?” I said, partially relieved.
“Uh, yeah,” he said. “You’re probably right.”
“I am?” I asked, feeling strangely sad. I almost wished he would tell me the whole idea was stupid and we should forget I ever said anything.
“Well, you said it yourself. I can’t promise I won’t be reassigned someday.” He looked at the wall for a minute then turned back to me thoughtfully. “As long as it’s in my control, I will always be here for you, no matter what. But I understand that you have to do what’s right for you. If you’re feeling strong enough to go out on your own, if you have the bonding effect under control and you feel ready, then I think you should do it.”
“Are you sure?”
He smiled softly. “Of course. My duty is to protect you, not to take over your life and parade around like your fake boyfriend, just to make my job easier.”
I nodded quietly. “Okay. Thanks.”
A strange melancholy made my insides feel hollow. So that was it. It was done.
Rayne walked me across the street to my front door, holding my hand the entire way. I would really miss his hand. Without letting go, he turned toward me and said, “Remember, I’m still right across the street if you ever need me. And I just want you to promise me one thing…”
I didn’t like the way his tone felt like goodbye.
“What?” I asked.
“Promise me you’ll drop by at least once every day for your Healing Water.”
He probably could have made arrangements for me to give myself the water, like leave the bottle for me in the mailbox after school or something. And even though the whole point of the conversation was to break ties—and seeing him every single day would really make that harder—I was incredibly glad I had an excuse to see him again tomorrow.
A grin spread wide across my face as I answered, “I promise.”
RAYNE FIGHTS FOR CONTROL
Rayne shut Sadie’s door gently as he watched her disappear through the entryway. Then, with discipline, he turned back across the street, closing his eyes as he drew in a long breath. He had to act like everything was fine. She could be watching. He managed to walk calmly all the way to his front door, where he carefully turned the knob and let the door swing closed behind him.
His feet stopped just as he made it inside. Rayne didn’t sink dolefully to the floor as he had all too often these days, whenever his feelings for Sadie overwhelmed him with sorrow, knowing he couldn’t act upon them. Something worse than sorrow stirred inside him now. This time, he felt more than sad or frustrated; he felt powerless.
Sadie wanted to leave him, to push him away. Rayne clenched his hands into fists, angry at himself more than anything else. Her decision should not affect him. She was right. This was better for her. She needed to be able to move forward with her life the way it was always meant to be. It was what he wanted for her all along.
But it did affect him, and for whatever reason, there was no turning it off this time.
A half-empty glass stood on the shelf beside him in the doorway where he’d left it when Sadie first arrived. Rayne picked it up, taking a careful gulp of water, hand shaking. Then, as if it were a programmed reaction, his body froze in place, trying to hold everything in. He knew that if he moved, every thought and frustration building up inside him over the last several months would explode from him in every direction. If his training at the Academy taught him anything, it was control; control of his actions, his decisions, and most importantly…his emotions.
But he wasn’t in control of his emotions anymore. Why couldn’t he just turn them off like he was supposed to?
Rayne lifted the glass of water in his hand and stared at the liquid through the crystal pattern in the glass. Everything about it reminded him of the Healing Water. The Healing Water was supposed to be a blessing, not a curse.
His lip quivered as the scowl deepened through the lines of his face, pure rage surging through him. The sound of frustration bellowed from his throat as his arm shot forward, chucking the glass across the room. Shards of glass burst from the far wall, releasing a spray of water through the air. With quick breaths, he stared at the sharp mess as it shattered to the floor. It was just like the mess of his own life he’d created.
Finally, he stepped forward, another low growl slipping from his mouth as he hit the wall with his palm. This wasn’t him. He had to collect himself.
He let his weight fall back against the doorjamb of the nearest room and folded his arms to his chest. It was just a momentary lapse of restraint. If he was even considering the idea that he could be an important, every day part of Sadie’s life, he was completely delusional. When he took this assignment, he knew there would be challenges beyond that of a typical Keeper. He knew it from the very beginning. This was the life he had chosen for himself, and now he had to accept it.
Rayne rolled his back against the doorjamb where he stood, turning toward the entrance of the sitting room, and pondered over his collection of surf boards. The longboard he took out for a leisurely ride the day before was leaning up against the wall next to him.
He walked over to the board and lifted it up to position it on the rack along the wall, pausing to picture the ocean break rolling under his feet. Right now, that was where he wanted to be. But he wasn’t in the mood for a relaxing stroll over the waves today. He wanted to use every ounce of energy he had left inside him until he was too exhausted to think.
He didn’t care that it was almost midnight; he pulled up the surf report on his computer, praying the waves would be big. A crazed smile crossed his face. Not only were the conditions close to perfect, the waves were larger than he’d seen in months. With furious anticipation, he grabbed a shortboard from the corner of the room, and then he tore out to his car.
His Range Rover moved swiftly and aggressively through the late night traffic until he reached Fifty-Fourth Street, where he parked in the first spot he could see. He grabbed his board and ran through the heavy sand, without pause, to the edge of the shore. The moon was full and bright over the swirl of crashing waves, perfect for night surfing, and perfect for letting his mind slip into a state of welcomed oblivion.
Without even waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dark, Rayne dove into the water, welcoming the cold, wet sting on his face, adrenalin fueling his exhilaration.
He paddled furiously. There were no thoughts, no worries, no restraints—just pure, physical drive.
Again and again, he hurled his body over the crests of roaring waves, pouncing to his feet and carving back and forth through tunnels of rushing water. He moved without thinking, not stopping for caution or careful maneuvers. He bled out every ounce of force from within himself, twisting into three-sixties, launching his board into the air at every chance he could get.
Normally, he would land over the peaks of the waves without problem, but tonight, amid the thunderous surf, his eyes were wild with energy. He flung himself around through dark, not caring if the ocean water crashed over him, not caring if he lived or died. He almost welcomed it, like the punishment he knew he deserved. If anything, he needed a good thrashing, something to wake up his senses and remind him to get his priorities straight.
There was no thought for his own safety when his legs rushed forward over the biggest wave he’d seen all night. He catapulted the board up in the air, suspending it over the water long enough to feel the spray on his face. Then, out of nowhere, he flipped his feet over his head, a move he’d never attempted before. He was about to land the trick of a lifetime, until his board flew out from under his feet. The board soared high through the sky, then quickly dove back down, plummeting toward the sea.
As if falling in slow motion, Rayne saw the ocean move closer and closer to his face, his feet floating in a free-fall over his head until his body smacked against the water. Black wetness swallowed him up, shoving and pulling him in opposite directions. But he didn’t fight it. Why should he bother? He could let the ocean take him right then and there. He could give up. Maybe this world, and even his own, would be better off without him. Sadie…would be happier without him.
Just as the hurt compressed around his lungs, Rayne felt the roll of the break carry him to shallow water without his consent. He coughed as oxygen forced its way into his chest. As much as he would have welcomed it, he did not lose himself forever amid the black ocean waves. There was no escape. He would have to go on.
He dragged his exhausted limbs along the shore, dragging half a surfboard behind him from his ankle across the sand. When he removed the leash from his leg, he tossed it to the ground, not bothering to reclaim what was left of his surfboard now broken into pieces. There was no question in his mind…his board wasn’t the only thing that was broken. He fell to the sand and rolled onto his back, lying there without motivation to stand, all confidence abandoned in the ocean behind him.