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By Barbara Delinsky
MIRACopyright © 2005 Barbara Delinsky
All right reserved.
The storm came from the south. It was predicted, but even if it hadn't been, Summer VanVorn would have sensed its approach. She didn't know why that was, whether a sudden drop in the barometric pressure affected her blood, but it had always been so. With the approach of a storm, she was inevitably out of sorts.
This one came up the Atlantic coast, her portable radio told her. It didn't touch land long enough to weaken, but created havoc on nearly every offshore island along the way.
The Isle of Pride was in its path, which was unusual enough to explain why Summer was taken off guard. Oh, she had felt it coming. She had experienced the faint vibrating inside, the ultrasensitivity to touch, the fever-like warmth of her skin, but she had been convinced that this hurricane, like so many before it, would veer off to sea and die well before it reached Maine.
Then again, perhaps she had convinced herself so because she had wanted it to be. August was when she sailed to VanVornland. Like Pride, VanVornland was an island, though an uninhabited one with not so much as the crudest dirt road or log cabin or stone wall. To Summer's knowledge, it wasn't on any map but was, rather, her family's secret. Particularly now that she was the last living VanVorn, the two weeks she spent there each year were a balm. Had it not been for mundane needs of the flesh, such as food, clothes and shelter when winter came, and the less mundane need to tend the meadow where the ponies of Pride grazed, she might have lived there year-round.
This time Summer should have left sooner. She knew it within an hour of setting sail for home. The sky grew progressively darker, and the vibrations inside her picked up along with the wind, such that before long her hands ached trying to hold in the sails. But she didn't allow for slack. Time was of the essence. Normally the trip from VanVornland to the Isle of Pride took eight hours. She was hoping to make it in six, which was about all she estimated she had before the storm hit in full.
Before another hour had passed, she realized that she had been overly optimistic. The storm was upon her, racing head-on beneath a swirl of angry clouds. She pulled a windbreaker over her jersey and shorts, plaited her long blond hair with elastic bands, tied down everything in sight and braced herself as the wind rose. In an attempt to protect herself from the spray of the sea, she sank lower in the boat. Still she was soaked to the skin before another hour had passed. She was also frightened. She had sailed in bad weather before, but never in weather like this. It was all she could do to hold the rudder steady and keep the sloop headed due west.
Sail home, Summer, sail home, she commanded. The ponies are alone. They may need you.
But no amount of determination and grit in a waif of a woman could counter the sheer force of the storm. When the rains came, colluding with the wind to churn the sea and whip the boat furiously about, she had no choice but to lower the sails. She huddled beneath them, intent on riding out the storm.
She didn't know how long she stayed there, wet and cold at the base of the mast while the boat rolled and heaved. When waves topped the gunwales and poured inside, she set one hand to bailing and held on for dear life with the other.
Then, with an ominous crack, the mast split in two, and her fear approached panic. The boat listed toward where the broken mast lay, drawing in water so quickly that bailing was absurd. Grabbing the cushion on which she'd been kneeling, she barely had time to thread her arms through its straps when a fierce wave knocked her to the floorboards. She felt a stab of pain, but it was forgotten in the next instant when, with a terrifying yawing sound, the boat reared up and arched over.
Summer was thrown clear. She sank in the chilly North Atlantic, emerging seconds later gasping and frantic. The hull of the boat lurched in the waves not far from her. She tried to reach it, but was beaten back, coughing, again and again until, as though taking pity on her, the sea gave her a backhanded toss toward the sloop.
She hit the wooden hull with a cruel thud. Ignoring a cutting pain, she hauled herself up on the keel. There she lay, with her head pressed to the wet wood, while the rain pelted her and the wind and the waves dared her to ease her hold for so much as a second. That was all it would take, she knew. One second, and she'd be lost.
Hold on, Summer. Hold on. She thought of the ponies in the meadow. She thought of the small cabin nearby, where her mother had raised her and where she still lived. She thought of the harpsichord and her flute and the small pipe she'd carved of reed, and she played the sweet music in her mind so that she wouldn't have to hear the roar of the wind and the waves.
Inevitably, she weakened. Her limbs grew numb from the cold and the strain of holding on, and the pain in her head and side worsened until breathing was an effort. Dizzy, she lost her grip. She clawed at the keel and regained it, but no sooner was she atop the boat when she felt herself slipping again. This time the world went white and silent. When she came to, the buoyant cushion was gone, she was flailing her way to the surface, then gasping for air, and her boat was nowhere in sight. She whirled around in the water but couldn't see it. She opened her mouth to cry out her anguish, only to have it filled with water before any sound emerged. She sank and surfaced choking, unable to get enough air.
Then something touched her. Too defined to be a whale or a dolphin, it flattened itself to her back, grasped her waist and hauled her to the surface. "Breathe," it yelled.
She fought, first against the arm that restrained her, then, when she realized the arm wouldn't drag her under again, for air.
The yelling went on, the voice male and strong. "That's it. A little at a time. You'll be all right now. You're safe." His legs worked behind hers, holding their heads above the waves.
"My boat!" she sputtered.
"Gone," he yelled. Shifting her to his back, he fastened her arms around his neck. "You'll have to hold on. Can you do that?"
She nodded against his head, suspecting that it was less a case of holding on as being unable to let go now that her arms were in place. More numb than ever, she lay limply while he began to swim.
Thoughts came in spurts. How could he keep them afloat? How could he make progress against the sea? How did he know where to go? Where was his boat?
She faded in and out, aware one minute, unaware the next. She knew she was trembling, but the sensation was distant. In fact, everything felt distant, even, now, the danger. She didn't know how he did it, but her rescuer was moving them steadily through the waves. He kept swimming without tiring, his body exuding equal amounts of purpose and strength. Totally depleted of the latter, Summer had no choice but to put her fate in his hands.
She was only semiconscious when she felt a change in the rhythm of his stroke. Forcing herself awake, she looked through the wind and rain to see massive dark boulders looming ahead. At nearly the same instant, her swimmer drew her around, lifted her in his arms and strode out of the water. "I'm home!" she managed in astonishment. She didn't understand. She was sure that the Isle of Pride had been hours away from where the boat had overturned.
"How did you ?"
"We weren't as far away as you thought," he said in a voice that was deep and hoarse. He carried her across the ribbon-thin beach and set her down on the wet sand beneath the shelter of a granite overhang. The rain blew in, but his broad back and shoulders deflected it. He bent his head toward hers. "How do you feel?"
"Numb," she answered, but she was shaking in earnest. He slid a wet hand under the dripping plait of her hair, curving it supportively to her neck. "You're in shock. You need to be warm and dry. Where do you live?"
Her teeth were chattering, though she wasn't aware of being cold. What she was aware of was that this man was a stranger and that she didn't have men, strange or otherwise, in her home. Ever. She didn't trust them.
But this one had saved her life. He couldn't be wholly evil. Besides, she wasn't sure she could make it home on her own.
In apprehensive bursts, she said, "I live up island. Fifteen minutes' walk. There's a path down the beach. It leads to a road."
The words were barely out when he lifted her in his arms again and set off. She knew he had to be dead tired and wondered where he found his strength. Without missing a step, he found the path and, holding her even closer to his chest to shield her from the storm, climbed it.At the road at the top, he leaned into the wind and headed home.
For the first time in her life, Summer wished one of the islanders would drive by. But the chances of that were next to nil. After battening down the hatches, they would be staying put until the storm passed. They had no reason to budge. After all, they didn't fear for the trees in the meadow where the ponies grazed. As far as they were concerned, the trees were simple beeches, easily come by, easily lost. Summer knew better. Those broad leaves contained critical nutrients. If the beeches went, the ponies were doomed.
Unable to even consider that possibility, she closed her eyes and focused on the man who carried her. His arms were strong, his hold oddly comforting. Knowing Pride's landscape like the back of her hand, she tracked his progress in her mind's eye. "There's a road ahead," she managed at one point, though it was an effort to make herself heard above the wind. "Go to the end. Then turn left."
The storm raged unabated. With unflagging stamina, he shouldered his way through it. Summer knew she should tell him to put her down, thank him, leave him and go on alone, but she didn't think she could walk. Pain was breaking through her numbness, most of it involving her knee. She had to tend to it, and for that she had to get home.
The instant he turned off the road and onto her path, she forced herself to full awareness. "Stop here. I have to check the meadow."
"But there may be damage."
"Until the storm stops, you can't do a thing. Besides, you're hurt."
She tried to deny it. "I'm all right. Really I am." Ignoring her, he carried her up the cabin steps and inside. With the closing of the door on the storm, its cacophony was abruptly muted. Carefully, he set her down on the cushiony sofa. "First a fire," he said and turned to the large stone hearth.
Summer pushed herself up. Fighting a wave of dizziness and a harsh twinge in her middle, she tried to stand. Her knee screamed in pain, the sound echoing up through her throat. In an instant, the man was beside her, pressing her back. His voice was as gentle as his hands were firm.
"Please. Don't move until I've had a chance to see what's wrong." He took the wool afghan that had been folded over the sofa back and started to cover her but she pushed it quickly away.
Excerpted from The Outsider by Barbara Delinsky Copyright © 2005 by Barbara Delinsky. Excerpted by permission.
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