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By K. D. McEntire
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2013K. D. McEntire
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Whoosh-hisssshhhh. Whoosh-hisssshhhh. Whoosh-hissssshhh. The sea kissed Wendy's feet, curling the sand into miniature whirlpools around her toes as she picked her way along the tide line. She loved the way the sand gave under her soles; the crumbly, drier sand clinging to her left foot and the firm squelch of the still-wet sand releasing her right with each step. Wendy loved the salt smell and the foggy light, the way the beach stretched empty and quiet for forever in both directions; she even loved the slightly rank smell of rot and marsh that eddied around her now and again from the distant flats up ahead.
"Mom?" Wendy asked, stooping beside her mother as she bent to gather shells. Mary chose each shell carefully, lifting it to the cloud-hidden sunlight and peering for imperfections before rinsing it in the surf and adding it to the mesh bag dangling at her hip.
"Yes, sweets?" Mary's bag was almost full. The shells scraped against one another, a slight scratching that could only be heard in the lull between the whoosh of the waves lapping the shore and the hissshing as they drew back out to sea. The hem of Mary's long white cloak was impeccable; no sand clung to the underside, no saltwater speckled its length.
"I love you." Wendy reached for a shell to add to her mother's collection, but stopped when Mary shook her head. Her hair, glossy and dark red, glimmered in the light. Wendy had long since given up hope that her own carroty curls would darken to that lovely, burnished color. Her hair had a hard enough time just keeping the black dye she dosed it with on a regular basis. It always washed out far too soon.
"That one's not good enough," Mary explained, plucking the shell from Wendy's fingers and flinging it into the surf. "You must only use the best materials when constructing, Wendy. Materials made to last."
"Constructing what, Mom?" Wendy asked. Her mother dipped down again and plucked another shell from the sand. It was nearly identical to the one she'd just pitched into the sea.
"Whatever you need," Mary replied, standing and brushing her hands together. "It has to be your very best effort. Nothing else will suffice." The wind picked up, yanking tendrils of hair across her face. Brushing them aside, Mary sighed and pulled up the hood of her cloak.
"A storm's coming," she warned, jerking her chin at the black clouds gathering on the horizon. "Get ready to take cover."
Then, spying a clear spot in the sand up ahead, Mary moved on with purpose, leaving Wendy loitering behind.
"Okay, Mom," Wendy agreed to her mother's back. Mary was always saying stuff like this—a storm's coming, take cover, watch your back, do your best, you never listen ...
That was the White Lady, wasn't it? It was the White Lady who'd said that Wendy never listened, never asked the right questions. Mary had always drummed into Wendy the importance of watching her back, but she'd never accused Wendy of being ignorant or purposefully stupid.
But ... who was the White Lady? Wendy knew that she ought to know—the knowledge was there, itching, in the back of her mind, hovering on the tip of her tongue—but she couldn't quite touch it. There was a misty wall there, blocking her. Wendy frowned. She had an uneasy feeling that she was forgetting much more than who the White Lady was, right now.
"Hey, Mom?" Wendy asked, hurrying to catch up with Mary. Her mother had knelt down again, her cloak hanging low around her as a barrier against the rising wind. Only her hands and arms were visible as she plucked shells from her bag and arranged them in a long rectangle in the sand. The shells touched edges, the flat bottoms pointing inward, the curved edges pointing out, buried deeper in the sand. "Why aren't there any babies? In the Never, I mean."
"Babies are too pure to stay in the Never," Mary replied, her nimble fingers picking the shells without glancing at her hip to see which was next. "Like animals, babies are creatures of impulse and flesh."
Mary sat back on her heels, tilting her head as she examined the long rectangle in the sand before digging into the bag once more. "No self-knowledge. Hardly any self-awareness to speak of. Babies know hunger and suffering but not the reason or the reckoning of it." Mary outlined a number in the top center of the rectangle, using the smallest shells for the detail work and outlined edge. "You have to sense what you are missing for suffering to exist." She tilted her head at her creation. "You must suffer to grow. But you knew that already. Didn't you?"
Her fingers are so white, Wendy noticed, and slim. She squinted at her mother's hands as the storm front began to move in, cutting into the soft, misty quality of the light and darkening the sky above.
Wendy eyed the sky for lightning.
"You do know that you are beautiful to me, right?" Mary finished, pale hands darting across the sand, each nearly moving independently of the other, first the left dipping into the bag for a shell, then the right. "Even in your misery, you are the most exquisite creature. Stubborn, proud, touchy. I love you most of all for your flaws, even the pieces of me that I loathe, slapping me in the face with my failures. You are me, made bright."
The number, 3, was complete, sitting in the top center of the rectangle, formed of white cockle-shells and outlined with tiny dark sand dollars. Mary moved on to the center right of the rectangle and fished out her last shell, a slightly larger than hand-sized conch, that she set in the center right of the rectangle. Mary spent a moment fiddling with the edges until the outer curve of the conch was sunk into the sand and only the cup remained. In a way, it reminded Wendy of a handle; she could easily see slipping her fingers under the smooth curve and tugging.
"Um ... thank you?" Then, after a beat of nervous consideration, Wendy asked, "Mom ... who's the White Lady?" The wind was really beginning to pick up now, tugging at her windbreaker and making her plaid miniskirt snap in the breeze. Her mother's cloak hardly moved at all.
"There," Mary said, satisfied. She stood and brushed her cloak with her hands; no sand fell. She was spotless. "Finished."
"Mom? Did you hear me?" Wendy asked, nervous now. She didn't like the look of the sky, of those black clouds roiling like an overboiling pot in the near distance. The rest of the sky was shading purple-black now; the friendly, fuzzy white fog-light was nearly gone. It had to be her imagination, but Wendy fancied that she saw eyes—dark red eyes—glaring at her from the clouds.
"Mmm?" Mary asked, bone-white hands on her hips. She tilted her head and examined what Wendy now definitely recognized as a door shaped of shells in the sand. The whoosh-hissssh of the surf had faded; all was wind and silence.
Lightning flashed across the sky—soundless, blue-white and sharp—and Wendy instinctively counted, waiting for a clap of thunder that never came. She dropped off at fifty with a sinking in her gut. The sea could make distances tricky, Wendy knew, but the storm was much closer than that. It would be on them any minute.
"Mom?" she prodded, every inch of her tingling. "Mom, who is the White Lady?"
"Can't remember, dear? Why don't you try a little harder?" Pulling her hood aside, Mary looked at Wendy and Wendy cringed away.
Mary's beloved, familiar face was a ruin, crosshatched with old scars and bleeding from fresh wounds. Her eyes were milky, one blown out completely with white, and seeping blood and pus in thin rivulets down her cheeks. The tatt
Excerpted from Never by K. D. McEntire. Copyright © 2013 by K. D. McEntire. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
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