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It's late, past 3 am, but I can't fall asleep. I feel like there's this tugging inside me, like an invisible rope is attached to my gut and someone's pulling at it from the other end, urging me to stay awake.
I do my best to temper the feeling-I flip-flop a couple times in bed, rub patchouli and peppermint oils at the pulse points on my neck, and even haul my butt out of bed to make a dream sachet out of dried lavender and rosemary-normally surefire fixes for temporary insomnia. But it's just no use. The more I try to ignore it, the tighter the knot in my gut becomes. I just can't shake it-the gnawing, incessant feeling that something horrible is about to happen.
I crawl out of bed, once again, and step into a pair of fuzzy slippers, doing my best to keep quiet so I don't wake Drea and Amber, asleep in their beds only a few feet away. I throw a sweatshirt on over my cotton PJs, grab a few spell supplies, and head out to the beach behind our cottage.
The moon is in full view, smack dab in the middle of a blue-black sky, the two dark colors swirling together like a giant slab of marble. I find myself a spot just in front of the water where the outgoing tide meets the sand and sit back on my heels. The warm, salty breeze sweeps over my face and combs at my hair tangles, sending spicy tingles all over my skin.
I remove the necessary spell supplies from my bag-a jar of sea salt and a Thermos full of moon-bathed rainwater. My grandmother, who taught me most of what I know about spells, used to stress the importance of offering up gifts to nature. She used to say that what we offer up to the universe comes back to us threefold.
I sink down into the cool, powdery sand and stare up at the moon's fullness, imagining the light soaking into my skin, the energy awakening my soul. I pour the sea salt into the Thermos and hold it up to the moon's light. Then I say, "O fullest moon, on this night of dread, please accept this gift from the ocean's bed. And I ask thee, with a heart so pure, to help my body tell me more. Blessed be the way."
I dig a six-inch hole in the sand and pour the mixture inside, patting a layer of rocks over the top as a cover. Then I lie back and stare up at the moon, thinking how much I've changed these past couple years, how it wasn't so long ago that I used my spells to try and stop what my body and senses were trying to warn me. Now I'm using my spells to summon forth these same instincts. I close my eyes and concentrate on my body and what it can tell me, imagining the moon's energy drawing forth the answers from deep within my core.
But I don't feel anything. After several minutes spent meditating on the spell, I have no better idea of why I can't sleep than I did before coming out here. So what is it? What's this feeling inside me? Why can't I relax? Why do I feel like the seams of my world are about to rip wide open?
But unfortunately the answers don't come that easily. I know I need to get some sleep. I grab my Thermos and head back to my room, leaving the moon's gift on the beach.
I lie back against the coolness of my sheets, suddenly feeling a bit more centered, more relaxed. I imagine the moon's energy penetrating through the ceiling and my bed covers, casting right over me, easing me to sleep.
The next thing I know, I'm covered in it.
I wake up a couple hours later and find it everywhere-on my pillow, the bed sheet, matted to the tips of my hair. I sit up in bed and notice dark cherry-red stains on my forearms and wrists. A knot forms inside my chest. I do my best to unbind it, to inhale a calming breath.
"Stacey?" Drea asks, rolling over in bed. "Are you okay?"
But I can't answer. I go to wipe my face, noticing more stains. My hand trembles over my lips, trying to hold it all in, but then a trickle of blood rolls over my fingers.
The light clicks on in our room. "Oh my god!" Drea rushes out of bed. "Stacey, what happened?"
I pinch my nose closed to try and make the bleeding stop and look around the room for a box of tissues.
Amber sits up in bed and leans over her Superman blow-up doll to get a better look.
Still holding my nose, I end up swiping a sock from the floor and pressing it to my nose. "I'm fine," I tell them through a wad of cotton. "I dust hat a little dosebeed."
"A little nosebleed?" Drea questions.
"You look like Carrie freakin' White at the prom," Amber says.
"Who?" Drea asks.
"Carrie White. You know? Stephen King's Carrie."
I ignore their banter and press the sock into my nose to try and clot the bleeding, knowing that I should be grateful, that this is obviously the response I was praying for, that I did the spell for. I wanted my body to communicate to me, to give me insight-a clue, basically-into why I'm feeling so unhinged. And so this is it. I look down at the spattering of blood on my pillow, wondering what it could possibly mean.
"You're supposed to tilt your head back," Drea says.
"Not unless you want to drink it down," Amber corrects.
"So disgusting." Drea reaches into the mini-fridge for a pint of Ben & Jerry's. "Here," she says. "I think you're supposed to hold something cold at the back of your head to stop the bleeding."
I place the Chunky Monkey against my nose instead and glance at the clock; it's just after six-at least two hours of sleep, and yet I can't remember what I dreamt about.
I blot my nose to make sure the bleeding has stopped and move over to the dresser mirror to have a look for myself. It's even worse than I thought. It looks as though I've been beaten. There are patches of blood at the sides of my nose and over my lips. I grab a strand of my long, dark hair, the end now soiled with red. I wonder how long my nose was bleeding before I woke up, how I possibly could have slept through all this mess.
I sit down on the edge of my bed and silently count to ten. I wonder if I even dreamt anything at all. And, if I did, if it had anything to do with blood. I shake my head because I just don't know. Because the only thing that seems sure is that I can't break this feeling-this morguelike heaviness that sits on my heart and presses down into my gut.
"Um, Stace, no offense, but you're totally grossing me out here." Drea sweeps her hair up and secures it with an elastic; the loopy golden mass sits like a crown atop her head. "Don't you think you should clean yourself up?"
"Not to mention the crime scene you've got going on your pillow," Amber adds. She points to the bloody splotches on my bed.
I fish my bathrobe from the recyclable pile of laundry on the floor. "I'm gonna go take a shower."
"At least this'll teach you not to go digging for treasure." Amber clutches Superman extra tight, one of her numerous mini raspberry-red pigtails poking right into his eye.
I respond by closing the door behind me.
After a shower and a cleansing walk on the beach, I head back to the cottage. To my surprise, everyone is up. While PJ overnukes box after box of microwavable egg-and-cheese sandwiches in the kitchen, Amber butter-and-Nutellas the toast; Chad flips through the sports section of the Cape Cod Gazette in the adjoining living room; and Jacob watches TV.
Jacob pauses from channel surfing and comes to greet me with a kiss. "Hey, beautiful."
"Hey there," I say, pressing myself into his embrace, like a breath of fresh ocean air.
"Enough already," Amber says, dunking her finger into the Nutella jar and licking a giant fingerful. "If the cook's not getting any action for breakfast, then nobody else should either. It's a matter of respect."
"Say no more, butter biscuit." PJ says, licking his greasy finger. "I can cook for hours."
"I'm hardly in the mood for string beans."
I hear the blow dryer click on and off a couple times in the bedroom. Drea has this thing about blow-drying her hair upside down so that it goes all wild, and then she spends the next hour and a half putting each strand back in place, one by one.
Chad pauses from his newspaper to glance down at Jacob's grip on my hand, making me almost feel like I should pull away. But I don't. It's just so weird to be vacationing all together. I mean, it's one thing when you're in school, in classes, in the cafeteria, and pretending it isn't unbelievably awkward to see your ex with someone else. But it's a completely different thing when your ex is dating his ex and that ex just happens to be your best friend. Then, toss in the added awkwardness that comes with living together and, before you know it, your current significant other can feel completely ex-ed out. Translation: Chad and I are exes. Chad is dating Drea. I am dating Jacob. We're all vacationing under one roof.
Jacob is sensing our drama.
I squeeze Jacob's hand and lead him over to the table to set it up. Meanwhile, PJ has apparently aborted his microwave-egg-in-a-box idea, having pulled a carton of real eggs from the fridge. He's attempting to fry them in a spaghetti pot.
"So how's the snout?" Amber asks me. "Me and Drea were super scared for you. I mean, you looked like a freakin' chainsaw massacre."
PJ revs the blender a couple times for drama. "Amber told us all how you picked your nose to its bloody death."
I ignore him and look toward Jacob, sensing that he can tell something's wrong, something beyond just a normal nosebleed. He stares at me hard and bites the corner of his lip, almost as though he expects me to get right down to it. But I look away, trying to keep things light. For now at least.
"I'm fine," I say, plunking a couple plates down on the table.
"Well, that's a relief," Amber says. "Just let me know if I'll need to do anything drastic, like wear a raincoat to bed tonight."
"You could move in with PJ," I say.
Amber turns to look at him, at the egg yolk he's got dripping from his chin. "I'll take your primitive habits over his disgusting ones any day."
"They're hardly habits," I say.
"Whatever," she says. "Me, you, and Drea, bunking in together, just like old times-it's really the only surefire way to keep everybody from killing each other."
She definitely has a point, which is why we did end up with the parent-friendly sleeping arrangements.
"Or maybe, my little temptress, it's just your way of safeguarding yourself from taking advantage of me in the middle of the night." PJ snarls at Amber.
"Oh, please," Amber says. "If I had to room with you-"
Amber grabs an egg from the carton and cracks it into the spaghetti pot-turned-frying pan. "Any questions?"
"So you're okay?" Chad asks. "I mean, you don't need to see a doctor? My dad had to get his nose cauterized."
"He must have quite the picker," PJ says, faking a dig by scratching the side of his nose.
"I'm fine," I say, clearing my throat.
"Yeah," PJ repeats. "She's fine. I mean, it's not like she started whizzing the bed again."
"Or puking her guts up," Amber says, as if we need the reminder.
"Or anything else juicy." PJ dips his fingers into the bowl of eggs he's beating, pulling forth a handful of the slimy white part. It oozes through his fingers and drops back into the bowl in one gooey plop.
Sometimes I absolutely despise my friends. They're talking about last year when I was puking non-stop-a side effect of the nightmares I was having. And the year before that when my nightmares were causing me to wet the bed.
Jacob continues to stare at me. I know he wants to talk about my nosebleed. I want to talk about it, too. Just not right now-not in front of everyone like this. I mean, this was supposed to be a fun vacation, a stress-free summer.
A walk on the normal side.
"So why is everybody up so early?" I ask, in an effort to change the subject.
"It wasn't by choice," Amber says. "After you left, PJ thought it would be funny to act like he was eleven years old again. So he snuck into our room to dunk my hand into a bowl of water."
"So Miss Priss here goes all Fright Night on me and wakes the whole house up with her cowardly cries. I mean, seriously," PJ says, smearing a knifeful of tartar sauce on his egg and cheese sandwich, "does she need to pay a little visit to the great and powerful Oz for a smidgen of courage?"
"No," Amber says, "but maybe you should pay him a visit for a smidgen of maturity."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"If the pacifier fits." She stuffs a fingerful of Nutella into his mouth to shut him up.
"Don't go tempting me with your kinky ideas of seduction, my little vixen," he says, happily licking up the chocolate on his lips.
PJ puckers up to Amber, but she responds by messing up his hair, the short, gravity-defying spikes bleached a Ken-doll platinum color-to go with the whole beach vibe, I imagine.
"Did someone say vixen?" Drea enters the living room and takes a seat next to Chad. She drapes her legs over his lap and over the sports section. And suddenly I'm reminded of just why she spends so long doing her hair. I mean, it's perfect-shampoo-commercial perfect. Shiny, bouncy, gold-en waves with just the right amount of tousling.
I grab a strand of my own hair, noting that it feels a little drier than normal and that I could probably use a trim.
The doorbell rings and Amber jumps from the table, practically trampling over everything in her pathway to the door-me included. "Maybe it's one of the frat-boy yummies from next door. I thought I saw one of them scoping me out yesterday." She pulls at the wedge in her Superwoman swim shorts, finger-counts her pigtails-seven, her lucky number-and then whips the door open so hard that it crashes against the wall.
"Looks like someone's a little hard up," Drea says.
Amber ignores the comment, her patty cake smile falling splat to the ground.
There's a girl standing there, maybe a couple of years younger than us but undeniably cute. The kind of cute you see on one of the shows on the WB-long and straight henna-red hair, heart-shaped face with yellow-tinted sunglasses, super tight T-shirt with long bell sleeves, and one of those sarong things that looks like a skirt. I peek at Jacob to see if he's noticed, but he's completely zoned himself out, watching some talk show on TV, the audience barking in the background.
"Yeah?" Amber says.
"Hi. I'm Clara. I was just wondering if Marcy and Greg are staying at this-"
"Wait," Amber says, interrupting her. "Don't I know you from someplace?"
Clara cocks her head slightly, as though trying to place Amber as well. "Were you at the Clam Stripper yester-?"
"Forget it," Amber says. She takes a step forward to look past the girl, hoping, I think, that she's brought along some WB-looking male friends. "Are you staying next door?" She points to the cottage at the right, where the fraternity guys have hung up their banner, the giant Greek letters DP marking their frat-boy territory.
"Yeah," Clara chirps, pointing in the opposite direction. "I'm a few houses down."
"So Marcy and Greg aren't staying here?" Clara peeps at us over Amber's shoulder.
"Who?" Amber looks thoroughly annoyed now. She makes a big sigh and looks downward to assess the chippage to her pedicure-pink and yellow checkerboards on one foot, yellow and white swirls on the other.
"Marcy and Greg," Clara repeats. "They stayed in this cottage last summer."
"Negative," Amber says, taking another tug at her wedge.
"Oh, well, sorry to bother you," Clara says. "I just noticed that people had moved in and thought that maybe you were them."
"Not so fast, my little Avon lady." PJ steps in front of Amber, bumping her out of the way. He unfolds a napkin and throws it down over the threshold, red-carpet-like, to invite Clara in. "You couldn't possibly leave without experiencing my delectables."
"It's not that kind of door-to-door," Amber says.
"Don't mind her," PJ says, extending a runny, half-cooked egg sandwich out to Clara. "She's all thorns and bristles. But do indulge yourself in a bite of my delights. I hope you like tartar sauce."
"The only delight you have to offer is a trip down to Beach Blanket Bagel to get us some real breakfast," Amber says.
"Bristle bristle, spike spike." He hisses at Amber.
"Hi," I say, in an effort to save the girl from being preyed on by PJ. I introduce everyone, and Clara waves a hello.
"Where are you from?" Drea asks. She fumbles her way off Chad and his newspaper to come and greet her.
"Hartford," Clara says. "But my parents are both from here originally, so we rent a place up here every summer. I've already been here a week."
"Great," Chad says, doing that I-should-be-an-Abercrombie-&-Fitch-model thing with his hair. He threads his fingers through his sandy-brown locks, one strand conveniently landing just to the right of his eye-completely rehearsed. "So you'll be able to fill us in on all the good spots."
Drea pauses a moment to eye the inch of hula-girl tummy peeping out between Clara's T-shirt and sarong. She peeks back at Chad, totally catching him in a gawk.
"Definitely," Clara says, propping her sunglasses up on her head like a makeshift headband. "You guys will love vacationing here. Great clubs, cool stores. There's this amazing soda place downtown where they make the best ice- cream floats and frappes and stuff."
"Sounds fattening," Drea says, now scanning the slice of thigh peeping out from Clara's sarong.
"I guess it is," Clara says with a giggle. She pauses to adjust the ties on her sarong-to cover her leg maybe. "But lucky for me, I don't have to worry about that." She glances a moment at Drea's caboose.
"Is there a problem?" Drea asks, obviously noticing the butt check.
"Huh?" Clara cocks her head, feigning innocence.
"Don't mind her," Chad interrupts. "It sounds like a great place."
"Well, we'll have to go," Clara says, with more giggles.
Drea clears her throat. She rests her head on Chad's shoulder and bats her eyes at him. "Let's go for a walk."
"Okay," he says, not moving.
"Now," she says, pouting her strawberry lips at him. "I feel like some beachy air."
Chad obeys, and they leave.
"I think I need some air, too," Amber says. "That and a couple of frat boys to keep me busy. I wonder if they're hungry." She grabs a plateful of Nutella-smothered toast slices.
"They'd have to be starving," PJ says, taking a bite of his egg sandwich.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You figure it out." PJ collects a couple more sandwiches from the table and goes off into his room.
"He's just bitter that I won't go out with him again." Amber stuffs a couple tissues into her bikini top, right
between her boobs, inside the cleavage. "It gets sweaty down there," she explains. She flashes us a peace-sign goodbye and heads out.
"Wow," Clara says, "I guess I really know how to clear a room."
"Not at all," I say, noticing how Jacob has left as well. I hear the shower valve squeak on in the bathroom and assume that's where he is. "My friends are just a little eccentric."
"Well, I really would like to get together some time," Clara says. "I mean, it's hard to meet people up here my own age. It's usually just college kids and they don't normally want to hang out with a fifteen-year-old."
"Well, we kind of are college kids," I say. "We just graduated from high school and thought it would be fun to rent a place together for a couple weeks this summer-our reward for surviving the aches and pains of prep school."
"Totally," Clara giggles.
"But you don't look fifteen," I add, noticing how she smells like butterscotch pudding. "I mean, I would have said at least sixteen or seventeen."
"Thanks," Clara beams. "So can I give you my number? Maybe I can give you all a tour later."
"Sure." I hand Clara a napkin and a pen, and she scribbles her number across it-circles with smiley faces for the zeroes.
"So maybe I'll see you around later," she says.
I nod and extend my hand to hers for a shake. And that's when I know. When I feel it. It's like my skin has iced over inside her palm. Like a million tiny ice-needles have just splintered into my veins.
Clara is going to die.