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SIREN
by Tricia Rayburn

Genre: Paranormal, Young Adult

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CHAPTER ONE

My sister Justine always believed that the best way to deal with your fear of the dark is to pretend it’s really light.

Years ago, she tried to put the theory into practice as we lay in our beds, surrounded by blackness. Protected by a fortress of pillows, I was convinced evil hid in the shadows, waiting for my breathing to slow before it pounced. And every night, Justine, a year older but decades wiser, would patiently try to distract me.

“Did you see that cute dress Erin Klein wore today?” she might ask, always starting with an easy question to gauge just how bad it was.

On rare occasions, usually when we went to bed late after a busy day, I’d be too tired to be terrified. On those nights, I’d say yes or no, and we’d have a normal conversation until falling asleep.

But on most nights, I’d whisper something along the lines of “Did you hear that?” or “When vampires bite, do you think it hurts?” or “Can monsters smell fear?” At which point Justine would proceed to question two.

“It’s so bright in here,” she’d declare. “I can see everything — my backpack, my blue glitter bracelet, our goldfi sh in his bowl. What can you see, Vanessa?”

And then, I’d force myself to picture our room exactly as it had appeared before Mom turned off the light and closed the door. Eventually, I’d manage to forget about the evil waiting in the wings and fall asleep. Every night I thought it would never work, and every night it did.

Justine’s method was useful in combating my many other fears. But several years later, standing on top of a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, I knew it didn’t stand a chance.

“Doesn’t Simon look different this summer?” she asked, coming up to me and wringing out her hair. “Older? Cuter?”

I agreed without answering. Simon’s physical transformation was the first thing I’d noticed when he and his younger brother, Caleb, had knocked on our door earlier. But that was a discussion for another time—like when we were warming up in front of the old stone fireplace at our lake house. First, we had to actually make it back to the house.

“Caleb, too,” she tried again. “The number of brokenhearted girls in Maine must have, like, quadrupled this year.”

I tried to nod, my eyes locked on the swirling water and frothy foam fifty feet below.

Justine wrapped a towel around her torso and took a sideways step toward me. She stood so close I could smell the salt in her hair and pores and feel the coolness of her damp skin as though it pressed directly against mine. Water droplets fell from the ends of her hair, plopped on the warm gray slate, and sent smaller drops bouncing onto the tops of my feet. A sudden gust of wind lifted the billowing spray up and around us, turning my shiver into a shudder. Somewhere below, Simon and Caleb laughed as they scrambled toward the steep path that would lead them through the woods and back to us.

“It’s just a swimming pool,” she said. “You’re standing on a diving board, two feet above it.”

I nodded. This was the moment I’d been thinking about during the entire six-hour drive up from Boston, the moment I’d pictured at least once a day since last summer. I knew it looked scarier than it was; in the two years since we’d discovered the old trail sign marking this secluded spot far from tourists and hikers, Justine, Simon, and Caleb had jumped dozens of times, never walking away with so much as a scratch. More important, I knew I’d always feel like a junior member of our little summer group if I never took the plunge.

“The pool’s heated,” Justine continued. “And once you’re in it, all you have to do is kick twice, and you’re at the steps leading to your comfy lounge chair.”

“Will a cute cabana boy bring me fruity drinks at this comfy lounge chair?”

She looked at me and smiled. We both knew that was it. If I was coherent enough to crack a joke, I’d already opted out.

“Sorry to say I forgot the pineapples at home,” Caleb said behind us, “but the cabana boy’s here and ready for service.”

Justine turned toward him. “It’s about time. I’m freezing!”

As she headed away from the cliff’s edge, I leaned forward. Whatever relief I felt now was temporary, and my disappointment in not being able to do what I’d vowed all year long would only grow once we left Chione Cliffs. Tonight, I would lie awake, unable to sleep because of the pain I’d feel for being such a chicken, such a baby, yet again.

“Your lips are turning blue,” Caleb said.

I turned to see him shake out his favorite beach towel—the only one I’d ever seen him use, with a cartoon lobster wearing sunglasses and swim trunks—and wrap it around Justine. He pulled her toward him and rubbed her arms and shoulders.

“Liar.” She smiled at him from under her terry-cloth hood.

“You’re right. They’re more lavender. Or lilac. Because lips like those are just too pretty to be boring old blue. Either way, I should probably warm them up.”

I rolled my eyes and headed for my shorts and T-shirt. Justine had made her own vow for this summer — not to hook up with Caleb again, the way she had last summer and the summer before that. “He’s just a kid,” she’d declared. “I’m done with high school, and he has an entire year to go. Plus, all he does is play that ratty guitar when he’s not playing video games. I can’t afford to waste another second on what will never amount to anything more than endless hours of making out ... no matter how good those hours are.”

When I asked why she didn’t hang out with Simon, who would be a sophomore at Bates College and was therefore more age- and intellect-appropriate, her face had scrunched up.

“Simon?” she’d repeated. “The walking, talking Weather Channel? The brainiac who’s using college as an excuse to study cloud formations? I don’t think so.”

It had taken Justine all of thirty minutes — just long enough for us to unpack the car, have a snack, and hop into Simon’s old Subaru wagon — to break her promise to herself. She hadn’t jumped on Caleb right away, though it was clear by the way her eyes lit up as soon as she saw him that she wanted to. She’d waited until we were in the car and down the road to throw her arms around his neck and squeeze so tight his face turned pink.

As she nuzzled against his chest now, I pulled on my clothes and grabbed a towel. Although the sun was out and I hadn’t even gotten wet, I still shook from the cold. This far north in Maine, temperatures in the middle of the summer didn’t get much higher than the low seventies, and the biting wind always made it feel at least ten degrees cooler.

“We should get going,” Simon said suddenly, emerging from the trail mouth.

Simon might’ve been the older, quieter, more studious Carmichael brother, characteristics previously complemented by a lanky frame and bad posture, but something had happened in the past year. His arms, legs, and chest had fi lled out, and with his shirt off, I could actually see small ridges on his abdomen. He even seemed to stand taller, straighter. He looked more like a man than a kid.

“The tide’s changing, and the clouds are rolling in.”

Justine caught my eye. I knew what she was thinking: Different channel, same forecast.

“But we just got here,” Caleb said.

“And what about the sunset?” Justine asked. “Every year we say we’re going to watch it up here, and every year we don’t.”

Simon grabbed a shirt from his backpack, throwing it on without bothering to towel off. “There will be lots of sunsets. Today’s is going to be blacked out by that massive storm system hurtling this way.”

I followed his nod toward the horizon. Either I’d been too focused on the water to notice the sky, or the blanket of dark clouds had come out of nowhere.

“I checked before we left—the weather station said that skies would be clear until later tonight. But by the looks of it, we’ve got only about twenty minutes to get back down the mountain before lightning strikes.” Simon shook his head. “I wish Professor Beakman could see this.”

Before I could ask why, Caleb and Justine started talking in hushed voices and Simon crouched next to where I sat, knees against my chest to try to warm up. “You doing okay?” he asked.

I nodded and tried to smile. Over the years, Simon had become a protective big brother not just to Caleb but to Justine and me, as well. “A little cold and now wishing the rubber soles of my sneakers were thicker, but fine other than that.”

He pulled a maroon fleece from his backpack and handed it to me. “It’s no big deal, you know. It’s just one day. We have all summer. And next summer, and the summer after that.”

“Thanks.” I looked away, embarrassed. He was sincere, but I didn’t need any reminders of my failure so soon after its occurrence.

“Seriously,” he said, his voice soft but fi rm. “Whenever you’re ready, or never at all is totally fi ne.”

I pulled on the fleece, happy for the distraction.

“New plan,” Justine announced.

I took Simon’s outstretched hand and jumped to my feet. Justine and Caleb had managed to tear themselves away from each other, but only long enough for Justine to drop her towels to the ground. They now stood at the edge of the cliff, holding hands and facing backward.

Justine grinned. “Just because we’re short on time doesn’t mean we can’t commemorate the fi rst official day of what will surely be the best summer ever.”

“By going back to the house and warming up with hot chocolate?” I suggested.

“Silly Nessa.” Justine blew me a kiss. “Caleb and I are going to do one more jump.”

“With a twist,” Caleb added.

As they exchanged looks, I glanced at Simon. His mouth was open, as though waiting for his brain to pick the words that would pack the greatest punch in the shortest amount of time. His new, broad back muscles tensed under the thin cotton of his T-shirt. His hands, which had hung at his sides after helping me up, clenched and froze.

“Backflips!” Justine exclaimed.

“No,” Simon said. “No way.”

I couldn’t help but smile. This was exactly what I loved — and envied — most about Justine. While I still slept with a night-light, couldn’t read Stephen King, and was physically incapable of making a perfectly safe cliff dive, Justine lived for the same blood-pumping rush I tried my hardest to avoid. Here we were, minutes away from being drenched and fried, and she wanted to guarantee her shot at electrocution by jumping into a whirl-pool — backward.

“It’ll take two minutes,” Caleb said. “You can head down as soon as we take off, and we’ll meet you on the path.”

“You know the tides get weird in weather like this,” Simon said. “The water’s already much shallower than it was for our last jump.”

Justine looked down behind her. “It can’t be that bad already. We’ll be fi ne.”

I watched her, my beautiful, older sister, her brown hair now dry enough to fly in long wisps around her head. There was nothing I could say — once Justine’s mind was made up there was no room for negotiation. As she smiled at me, her eyes shone against the dark clouds that seemed to swallow what remained of the sky.

A jagged shard of neon-white lightning tore suddenly through the air, striking near enough to make the ground rumble. The wind picked up, snatching leaves from branches and dirt from the ground. A long stick flew at me like an arrow from a bow, and I covered my head with both hands and dropped to the ground. The rain started, falling softly at first and then harder, until Simon’s fleece clung to my back and cold water streamed down my face. I held still, hoping the attack would retreat as quickly as it’d struck, but the air only grew colder, the wind stronger, the thunder louder.

 

CHAPTER TWO

When I heard the first siren, I was standing in the sand, watching the water reach for my bare feet. A biting wind whipped my skirt around my calves and carried the sounds of Mom, Dad, and Justine laughing down the beach. The soft wail began as soon as the froth wound around my ankles, just as it had nearly every night for two years. Only this time, it didn’t fade when I was pulled out and dragged under. It grew louder. Closer. And it was joined by another siren, and another, until I could hear them and see red, white, and blue lights flashing like the police cars had driven right into the ocean.

“You should really eat something.”

I blinked. The flashing lights were gone, replaced by green coffee mugs. Next to me, a man in a gray suit leaned against the counter and shoved a cannoli into his mouth.

“Good food can be the best medicine,” he said.

Medicine. Like I was just sick. Like this was a hallucination that would fade to normal once my fever dropped.

“Thanks.” Trying to erase the lingering image of the accident, the one I’d been reliving in my sleep since the cops pulled up to tell us they’d found Justine, I grabbed a mug and turned toward the coffeemaker.
It  wasn’t his fault. He was one of Mom’s colleagues. He didn’t know me and he hadn’t known Justine, but he was obligated to say something as he enjoyed Italian pastries with other coworkers. What else was there? It’s such a tragedy? She had her whole life before her? What do you make of the Red Sox so far this season? 

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness,” I said when I turned around and he was still there. Not knowing what to say was one thing. Hanging around for another shot was a bit much.

“Excuse me?” he said.

I held up my mug. “Vox clamantis in deserto. Dartmouth’s slogan. Kind of appropriate, don’t you think?”

“Vanessa, dear, will you please help me with these muffi ns?” Mom took me by the elbow and led me across the kitchen. “Sweetie, I know this is difficult, but we have guests. I would appreciate it if you could be a pleasant hostess.”

“I’m sorry,” I said when we stopped at a counter lined with trays of pastries. “I just don’t know what to say. Part of me wants to lock myself in the bathroom for the rest of the day, and another part wants —”

“Did you eat?” she asked, poking at a scone. “Here, have a maple walnut.”

I took the scone, not sure what to say. Mom had cried for five days straight — from the moment the police officers had knocked on the lake-house door to the moment we’d pulled up to our brownstone — and had been in dry-eyed, party-planning mode ever since. She hadn’t even cried at the funeral, when the collective weeping of Justine’s friends and classmates had made birds fly from the trees and the priest shout his prayers. I hadn’t cried at the funeral either — or any time before or since — but my reasons were very different.

“Can you check on your father?” Mom lifted a tray from the counter. “I haven’t seen him in an hour, and the guests are starting to wonder.”

I wanted to say that if our “guests” didn’t understand Big Poppa’s need for a little downtime, then perhaps they should find another party, but she spun on one heel and disappeared through the kitchen door before I could.

I dropped the scone in the trash and headed back to the coffee-cup cabinet, keeping my eyes lowered to avoid any more helpful healing tips from Mom’s coworkers. The Dartmouth mugs still lined the first shelf, where Mom had displayed them as soon as she’d received the shipment of college paraphernalia two weeks before.

“Vox clamantis in deserto,” Justine had read aloud then. “I love how these places try to impress with their love of dead languages. I mean, why bother? Why not just say, ‘Thanks for shelling out another fifteen dollars for functional proof of the fact that you’re important enough to drop two hundred thousand dollars on a chance for your rich kid to get drunk with other rich kids in the middle of nowhere?’”

“Well,” I’d said, “probably because that wouldn’t fit on a key chain.” Of which Mom had ordered two dozen to distribute around the office.

I grabbed the center Dartmouth mug and filled it with coffee. Still keeping my eyes lowered, I took both cups and hurried across the kitchen toward the back stairwell door.

The back stairwell had always been Justine’s and my escape route — from cocktail parties, dinners, and even parental arguments. As I climbed I thought about the last time we’d sought stairwell refuge, during Mom’s annual Christmas party. While two hundred guests downed champagne, Justine and I sat on the steps, her down comforter draped across our shoulders, sucking on candy canes and getting tipsy on eggnog. That night we’d tried to pretend that we weren’t hiding from Mom’s drunken coworkers in our brownstone in the middle of Boston, but rather hiding from Mom and Dad in our lake house in Maine, breathless with excitement as we waited to see Santa fall down the old stone chimney.

I climbed the steps slowly now, comforted by the dim light and dark paneling. I blocked the thought as soon as it entered my head, but for a fleeting moment, I was aware of just how strange it was to be there ... alone. I hadn’t been anywhere alone all week, and certainly nowhere I’d only ever been with Justine.

Reaching the landing, I stopped and waited. After a few seconds, I blinked, and waited again. Nothing. Even revisiting one of Justine’s and my favorite places couldn’t bring on the waterworks.

I continued down the hallway, my heartbeat quickening. I hadn’t been inside Justine’s room since preparing to leave for Maine the week before, when I’d watched her try on her entire wardrobe as she searched for the perfect thing to wear on the drive north. By the time we’d left, skirts, sundresses, and tank tops had blanketed her floor like seaweed on the shore after a receding tide. Now I wasn’t sure what I was more afraid of: that the clothes would still be there, exactly as she’d left them ... or that they wouldn’t be.

Closing my eyes, I turned toward the door. I reached one arm forward until my hand found the knob. The brass was cool beneath my fingers, and I waited for my skin to adjust to the temperature before tightening my grip.

It’s only Justine. It’s just her stuff. Everything will look just as she left it, because she’s coming back. Soon, we’ll return to the lake house and everything will go back to the way it’s supposed to be. 

I opened the door. A small sound escaped through my parted lips.

It wasn’t my deeply anchored fears floating to the surface. And it wasn’t the fact that, compared to the hallway, Justine’s room was as hot as an oven.

It was the salt water. The smell was so strong, the air so thick with moisture, if I didn’t open my eyes, I’d think I stood at the ocean’s edge.

“You get used to it.”

I opened my eyes. Big Poppa sat on the floor in the middle of the room.

“There must be a problem with the pipes. I’ll call the plumber tomorrow.” He sounded exhausted and looked it, too. The corners of his mouth drooped toward his chin. His blue eyes were dull, and his shoulders slumped forward. Our strapping yeti had lost his strength.

“Big Poppa,” I said, stepping into the room, “I know this is difficult, but we have guests. I would really appreciate it if you could be a pleasant host.”

One corner of his mouth lifted as he took the Dartmouth mug. He knew the words weren’t mine. “Your mother’s coping, Vanessa. We all are.”

I didn’t say anything as I sat down next to him. Until now, the only thing my mother and I had in common was our adoration for Justine. I didn’t understand why Mom worked so much, or shopped so often, or tried so hard to impress strangers. I didn’t understand why of the hundred people downstairs, only a dozen or so would be able to tell Justine and me apart in the annual Sands family Christmas card. Most of what Mom did didn’t make sense to me. But Dad thought she was the sun and the moon and the stars all in one, and for that reason, I kept quiet.

“She’s beautiful,” Dad said after a few minutes.

I followed his gaze to the photo-covered bulletin board hanging over Justine’s desk and willed my eyes to water. Because there she was. White-water rafting in the Berkshires. Horseback riding on the Cape. Hanging out in the quad at Hawthorne Prep. Hiking Mount Washington in New Hampshire. And in my favorite picture, the one she’d had blown up to a 5x7 that was at the center of the collage, fishing in our old red rowboat on the lake in Maine — with me.

“I remember taking that,” Dad said. “I wondered what she’d said to make you giggle.”

He’d taken the picture from the dock behind the house when our backs were to the camera. Justine’s head was turned slightly toward me, and mine was tilted toward the sky. My shoulders were pulled up near my ears, a physical reflex that occurred whenever something made me laugh until tears cascaded down my cheeks.

I blinked. Nothing.

“I figured it was girl talk,” he continued. “Makeup. Boys. Top secret stuff I was better off not knowing.”

“Probably,” I said. “Considering her romantic revolving door, the girl talk about boys usually lasted a while.”

“I still don’t understand why she needed all that attention,” he said thoughtfully. “She was so bright, so beautiful and talented. But it was like she didn’t believe it unless a different boy was telling her every week.”

I didn’t say anything. Justine didn’t need the attention — she just got it.

We sipped our coffee in silence. After a moment, he released a long sigh. “I should go play host for a while,” he said, climbing to his feet. “You’ll be okay?”

I nodded. He rested one hand lightly on my head before leaving the room and closing the door. 

I blinked and waited again. When the tears still didn’t come, I turned back to the center photo and thought about what Big Poppa had just said. It didn’t make sense. But then, nothing made much sense now.

The police claimed that it had been an accident, that Justine had simply jumped off the cliff at the wrong time. It was dark. The tides were high. Chief Green said the water was so deep and the currents so strong that Triton himself, the Greek god of the sea who could turn the waves up and down with one blow into his conch shell, wouldn’t have been able to hold his own. The medical examiner had agreed.

I didn’t.

Yes, Justine was a thrill seeker. And that night, she might’ve wanted to prove a point. But she was too smart to do something so careless.

As my eyes traveled across the bulletin board, I noticed dark thin lines between the photos. It looked as though someone had taken a Magic Marker to the bulletin board padding ... except the line wasn’t drawn on the ivory satin that covered the rest of the board. The background behind the photos was white.

I stood up and went to the desk for a better look, and saw that the lines were actually words. 

Name. E-mail. Phone Number. Caucasian. Parent 1 and Parent 2. Early Decision. Financial Aid. Campus. Degree. Secondary School. ACT. SAT. Extracurricular. Awards/Honors.

I was about to pull out the first purple pushpin when I felt uncomfortable. Guilty, even. Like I’d been snooping through Justine’s desk in search of her diary and was now going to read about secret kisses and private conversations she wanted to keep to herself.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered, before pulling out the fi rst pushpin.

Seconds later, the fifty or so versions of Justine’s smile were gone. I stepped back to take in the entire bulletin board.

There were bumper stickers. Seven of them, collected by Mom on her trips with Justine to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Stanford, Cornell, and Dartmouth. They formed a wide collegiate circle around a spreadsheet and a printout of the common application.

The spreadsheet listed colleges and had three columns for corresponding deadlines, submission dates, and response dates. The deadline column was filled with numbers written in Mom’s neat handwriting; the others were empty. The application was blank except for Mom’s notes and response suggestions. My eyes quickly fixed on the center page: the personal essay. A green Post-it was attached to the top, on which Mom had suggested Justine write about the person she was and the person she wanted to become.

Justine’s response was brief.

I’m sorry, I don’t know.

But neither do you.

I stared at the words. It might’ve taken me longer than it should’ve to find them, but I knew instantly what they meant: Justine wouldn’t have gone to Dartmouth in the fall. She wouldn’t have gone to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Stanford, or Cornell either. Because before you attended your future alma mater, you had to apply. And apparently Justine hadn’t applied anywhere.

Downstairs people were gathered to celebrate Justine’s life, to reflect on her lost potential and all the things she would never do, the places she would never go. I was right about one thing: not one of the unfamiliar guests pigging out on pastries had any idea who she really was. But I was alarmingly wrong about another.

Neither did I.

A door slammed down the hallway, jolting me back to the present. I took the essay off the board and the photo of Justine and me in the rowboat from the desk, rehung the other photos, and hurried across the room.

I was about to bolt into the hallway when my hands fl ew toward my face, covering my nose and mouth.

Salt water. I’d grown used to the smell while in the room, but it was stronger by the door — overpowering, like a tidal wave had already swallowed the rest of the house and waited outside Justine’s door for an invitation to come inside. It was so strong, I looked down to keep my head from spinning.

“Oh, no.” I lowered my hands from my face. “Oh, Justine ...”

A crumpled beach towel was pushed up against the closet door. It was thick, and white ... with a grinning cartoon lobster covered in bits of green and black seaweed.

Caleb’s beach towel — the one he’d wrapped Justine in before pulling her to him on top of the cliffs last week. It was here, dry and stiff with salt, in Boston.

I sank to my knees and picked up the towel. She’d been home. Sometime between storming out during dinner on the lake-house deck and late the following morning, when her body was found, Justine had returned to Boston.

It’s okay, I told myself, trying not to imagine the white terry cloth draped across Justine’s shoulders.

Everything’s okay.

Except that it wasn’t. It was so far from it, I couldn’t even pretend that the beach towel was anything other than what it was: more evidence that, as well as I had thought I knew my sister, someone else had known her better. And that, for whatever reason, she’d wanted it that way.

 

"Text copyright (C) Tricia Rayburn, 2010.  Available from Egmont USA July 13, 2010, wherever books are sold."