* Please note that you should NOT read the first chapter of Liberty Bound (Lacuna Valley, #2) without reading PROPHECY GIRL (Lacuna Valley #1) first. This is your only spoiler warning.
Here it is, folks! Chapter one of LIBERTY BOUND, the second book in Lacuna Valley. Happy reading!
LIBERTY BOUND: CHAPTER ONE
Nick squeezed Sam’s hand tight, as he had since the day her mother left. He was waiting for her to make a move to leave. Her voice wasn’t quite ready to master words without shaking, so she forced a broad smile and nodded. She was pretty sure he knew it was fake, but that was okay, it wasn’t for him anymore. When she’d started keeping a happy face it had been to make the people around her feel better. It wasn’t long before she realized how much better it made herself feel.
He gave her hand an even tighter squeeze. She cleared her throat and turned in her seat.
“Remember guys, don’t get out of the truck. We can’t promise how long we’ll be.”
Zach nodded, or maybe he was just bobbing his head to music only he could hear. Depending on Nick’s hyper little brother to stay in the truck for an extended period of time didn’t seem like the safest of bets.
Seated next to him, snuggled in the piles of junk Nick kept in the small space, Violet made no acknowledgement of Sam’s words; not that she’d expected her to. Violet had been the walking dead since coming back from the hospital. There were so many reasons Violet could be shutting down that Sam could only make lists of guesses. It didn’t matter, though—Violet wasn’t telling anyone anything. Even if they offered to play Littlest Pet Shop with her however many times she wanted. The kid wouldn’t crack, and Sam had run out of ideas for what to do about it. At least she’d stay quiet in her seat until they got back.
Sam gave Nick’s hand a squeeze, though she doubted it felt like much in his tight grip, and pulled her hand free. She wiped her sweaty palms against her jeans. It wasn’t that she was scared, it was that she was so desperately hopeful on such a long shot. This was becoming a part of her general state lately: following long shots and betting all she had on them.
“Don’t forget,” Nick whispered, walking next to her through the deep field of snow.
“I know. They’re listening,” Sam replied just as carefully.
“Not necessarily, but yeah, I assume. We’ll be okay,” he assured her. He definitely hadn’t bought her fake smile.
“I know,” she said, though she was sure they both knew they couldn’t be confident about that. There was no reason to believe the seasonals would do anything violent, but there was also no reason to believe they wouldn’t. The orb was gone, and that meant Nick and Sam had broken their side of the deal to control the climate and people of Lacuna Valley. There was little motivation for the seasonals to keep up their end. Charles had made it quite clear he had no problem clearing out all the humans. It made sense to Sam that if they were going to kill everyone they’d want to start with the people responsible, and there they were, walking right onto their doorstep.
But Sam didn’t have a lot of time to worry about that, or even that they would probably further aggravate Nick’s father by being there. As had become typical, her plate was a little too full to handle. Tommy, and the rest of Nick’s family, was just going to have to get over it. She was embracing her destiny. If her destiny was to become the wife of the boy who guards the orb and deals with seasonals, then it was her right to talk to them, to try and make deals, to do what she could to fix things.
As much as she tried to convince herself it didn’t matter, she worried more about the Saylor family resentment than she did the seasonals staining the snow with her blood. Monsters were scary, but families were her bigger fear.
Nick pulled off his sunglasses, a pair of pixelated wayfarers he’d been particularly excited about, and switched them for a regular black set.
“Don’t want them to see those? Embarrassed?” That didn’t seem like him, and it made her laugh a little.
“Hardly,” he scoffed. “This pair just has darker lenses.” Sam understood what he meant right away—there was etiquette to be followed when meeting a seasonal’s gaze. She touched her own glasses, the same lip shaped pair she always wore, and wondered how dark the lenses were. “You should be fine,” he assured her.
“You know, sometimes I still wonder…”
“Wonder what?” he asked.
“If you can read my mind.”
He laughed. “Well, I guess that should answer your question.”
“I don’t know, I still think that’s exactly what a mind reader would do.”
“Well, when you figure out how to prove I’m not, you let me know.” Despite his light words, she felt the mood change as they approached the edge of the trees. He partially opened the door to the old wooden shack, peering inside to check for intruders before swinging the creaking doors open the rest of the way. His paranoia made her jittery. Was he really that worried about Charles and Isobel killing them? He’d been around them his whole life. Isobel was like a playful older sister to him. And yet, she knew he was. Maybe it hadn’t been the best idea to convince him to go out there with her.
“You don’t have to do this, you know,” she offered, wanting to give him a way out.
“Did you want to go home?”
“No,” she corrected. “But you can. You’re a Saylor, after all. A Saylor guardian. I’m just me. If they have issues, I’m probably safer. I’ll be fine. You don’t have to come.”
“Ha! We can deal with how offended I am later. Let’s go. Places to be, people… well, somebody, to see.” He motioned for her to climb onto the snowmobile, and when she put her arms around his back, he turned to her and tapped his ear. “And remember,” he whispered, reminding her again that others were listening.
As they glided and bumped through the trees Sam looked up and around, trying to catch someone watching them. She never did, but that didn’t mean much. She didn’t know all she would have liked about the seasonals, but she knew that if they didn’t want you to see them, you didn’t.
The trees grew closer together. The snowmobile slowed and eventually came to a stop. It was unclear how he knew where to park—it looked like any other part of the forest. Familiar with how this went from her previous encounters, Sam climbed off the snowmobile, adjusted her sunglasses, and stood still. She kept her eyes on the ground to keep from jumping when they appeared out of the air. Nick positioned himself at her side, but just barely in front of her. It was something Sam did when danger came at her little sister, and the gesture warmed her heart. Feeling braver, she took his hand and straightened her back. She was there with a purpose. She was there to protect the people she cared about. It really didn’t matter if she was afraid.
“Charlie,” Nick said, with a slight nod of greeting.
“Nicholas,” Charles replied.
Sam looked up at the seasonals before her, and reminded her racing heart that it didn’t matter. “Charles, Isobel,” Sam repeated their greetings.
She used to believe they could pass for humans if they covered the gills on their arms and wore dark enough glasses to cover how quickly their eyes roamed. Standing before her now, it was impossible to mistake that they were something other. It was unclear how much of that was what she saw before her and what she projected. It seemed Charles had grown half a foot taller.
“Samantha,” Charles said. His voice sounded deeper, too.
“Isobel?” Sam asked, after a long pause. She was standing next to her brother, perfectly straight and still, with her back turned to them. Her long hair, white as the snow, made a stark line against her lavender shirt.
“She is not speaking to you,” said Charles, giving no hint that he was at all joking. Of course, there wasn’t a hint of any other emotion she recognized either.
“Really Isobel?” Sam asked. “The silent treatment?” Isobel was at least a hundred years old, and she was giving them the silent treatment. Sam really should have expected it. The silent treatment was something she was getting used to. The list of people not talking to her grew longer by the day: Violet, Nick’s family, and now Isobel. Who next?
Nick cleared his throat. “It’s more than the silent treatment. This is the ultimate slap. It’s a sign of distrust, the ultimate dishonor. To prove yourself trustworthy you hold someone’s eyes. She refuses to allow us to even glimpse them. We are unworthy of her trust, and of any proof we should trust her.”
A very grown-up, supernatural, silent treatment, but the silent treatment none the less. “I’m sorry you feel that way, Isobel. I’m glad you’re still talking to us, Charles.”
“He’s in charge,” Nick clarified. “He has obligations. I can’t be sure, but I’d guess that Charles feels the same way as Isobel. Not that I don’t deserve it. I can take it.”
It was strange that Nick talked about them as if they weren’t there, but it didn’t seem to bother Charles. Not that she’d know if anything bothered him. He was a statue, except for his eyes, which wandered just a bit too quickly to seem real. Short white hair melted into his pale skin, blending him in with the snow covered forest. He was a ghost of the land. She shivered, and not from the cold.
“We’ve come to ask you a few questions about the orb that might help us find it,” Nick said.
It was Sam’s turn to talk. He’d told her not to apologize or discuss what was happening in any way. Anything she might say could make things worse, which she believed easily enough. Now that she was there, though, it felt rude not to address the elephant in the forest. Her cheeks burned with shame, but she did as they’d discussed. “Do you know if the orb’s magic is traceable?” she asked.
Nick whispered in her ear, “I already said a few questions. You have to ask them all at once.” “Do you know if we’ll need to rework its magic once it is back?” She hoped that question would tell them she fully believed the orb would be recovered. “Do you know if there is anything else that may help in returning the orb? Also, please let me know if there is anything else we can do to help the seasonals during this difficult period.”
“No. No. No,” Charles answered.
“You didn’t answer the last one,” she pointed out. He didn’t respond, and she realized it hadn’t been phrased as a direct question. “Is there anything else we can do to help the seasonals through this?”
“No,” he said.
Sam bit her lip. Though Tommy had assured everyone there was no point in asking the seasonals for help, Sam had still held out hope. What would she do next? Every route she took wound up hitting a dead end.
“Is this all you’ve come to say?” Charles asked.
“Um, yes?” She meant to sound more confident than that.
“In the future, please refrain from visiting unless you have updates on the orb. All other contact is outside of our interests.”
“I will fix this, Charles,” Nick said. His voice was deep and forceful. “I will make the deal right again.”
Nick jumped, startled by the roar of the snowmobile’s engine behind them. Slowly, they both turned their heads. The sound died as soon as it had begun and nothing was there to explain the noise. When they turned back, the space where Isobel had been standing was empty with no trace of where she’d gone. Charles stood still as ever, as though nothing had transpired. As Sam realized that Isobel must have messed with the snowmobile, it occurred to her how easily she could have snapped their necks instead, without even a second of warning.
“Success requires more than will,” Charles said. And then he was an inch away from Nick’s nose. She blinked, adjusting to the light. He’d snatched the sunglasses off their faces. Her gasp of surprise was so late it was comical. “And trust requires more than words.”
Nick’s mouth dropped open, and Charles was gone. She searched for signs of where he’d went, her eyes darting so fast they felt like they belonged to a seasonal, but the only change was the pieces of their broken sunglasses on the seat of the snowmobile. Nick picked them up and promptly went to start the engine, but nothing happened.
“Oh, no,” he groaned. “Isobel broke it.”
“Can we fix it?”
“I don’t have any idea what she did.” He held up the broken pieces of sunglasses. “I should have known they would offend him.”
“I thought you always wore them to seasonal meetings?”
“Right, I used to, when they used to trust me.” Nick didn’t need to explain more than that. The seasonals held your eyes when they wanted to know if you were telling the truth. They believed a dishonest person would avert their gaze. Staring into the seasonals’ eyes was uncomfortable to say the least, so except in extreme circumstances, Charles let Nick wear sunglasses as a sort of free pass. It was a sign of trust that Charles let Nick get away with it. Of course, Charles didn’t trust Nick anymore.
“We walk?” she asked, trying to break him free of his thoughts.
He looked out at the trees helplessly. The seemingly short ride there had to be several miles. He nodded, though his reluctance kept him from moving.
“It won’t be so bad,” she said. “It could have been worse.” Walking, even in the snow, didn’t compare to any of her recent nightmares. At least, in theory.
They trudged through the snow, the woods darkening with the setting sun. After what felt like days of walking, Sam’s fear had reached record breaking levels. She wanted to tell herself that they’d left with their lives, but every shadow, every sound in the breeze, reminded her that she had no idea how many eyes were watching, or if she’d be given warning if they decided to kill them after all. It was the longest two hours of her life.
* * *
Zach hadn’t stayed in the truck, but he hadn’t gone far, so Sam deemed it a win. Violet hadn’t budged from her seat, slouched against the window. After the long hike with neither of them speaking she’d expected there to be a long and chaotic discussion, but even Zach was quiet in the backseat.
They turned onto the highway and twisted down the road. Their headlights flashed past different views so quickly that Sam couldn’t catch them all, but they were all the same really—trees covered in snow, fields covered in snow, and an icy road with dirt covered ruts where the cars always drove. She closed her eyes, leaned her head back, and pretended they were driving anywhere else. Somewhere without seasonals, somewhere her dreams didn’t happen and Violet was just a cute kid again, where she didn’t have a murderous mother to worry about, or an orb to track down. If she concentrated enough she could almost feel the sun on her face. But then, before she could get too lost in her mind, her head snapped back into the seat.
Zach was screaming. She flicked her eyes open and looked at Nick. His eyes were wide, his hands were clasped around the wheel, and his jaw was clenched tight. She lost sight of him when her head was flung forward. Red hair draped around her like a veil. The sudden stillness was jarring. She gulped in the air and pulled her head back up. Nothing quite made sense.
“Okay? Is everyone okay?” Nick asked, panic cracking his voice. He flung himself around in his seat without undoing his belt. He touched his hand to both Violet and Zach’s faces, and grabbed Sam’s with the other. “Are you all okay?”
Sam gave a slight nod and looked around the truck. “Are we backwards?”
“Yeah. And sideways. And some other things. But we’re okay. Right?”
She nodded again.
“The deer!” Violet shrieked. “Did you hit it?”
Sam was confused, but knew enough to tell Violet no, of course not, no matter what the real answer was—except she looked out the windshield and saw drops of blood. It was harder to lie with red dribbling down the glass.
“Why didn’t you drive around it? Why did you just hit it?” Violet’s voice was strangled.
“Because I didn’t want us to die!” Nick yelled, and then calmed himself with a deep breath. “If I swerved around it on the ice we’d drive off the road and maybe die. I did my best to stop. I swear I didn’t want to hit it either, Violet. As is, I jerked at the end when I panicked and almost got us all killed.”
“You don’t care at all,” Violet cried. She kicked against his seat. “Let me out! We have to check on it!”
Nick looked to Sam, unsure of what to do, but she was still lost in shock. “Why don’t you stay here, Violet?” he suggested. “I can go out and look at it. You don’t want to see this.”
“LET ME OUT!” she demanded. Nick’s eyes went glossy and unfocused. He turned and hopped out of the truck, holding the door open for her. Sam, snapping out of her post-crash daze, unbuckled her seat belt and tried to run ahead to stop her, but her stupid shoes slipped on the ice and she fell hard on her butt. Under normal circumstances she probably would have cried from the hard fall, but the adrenaline from the crash kept her moving. She scampered after Violet, who was kneeling on the red ice. By the time Sam got there Violet was already muttering under her breath with her head tipped down and hands clasped together in front of her.
“NO! VIOLET! NO!” Sam screamed, but it was too late.
When the deer stood up, it left a lot of itself on the ice. Fur and muscle and chunks of things that Sam couldn’t bring herself to look at too closely. She focused on the deer instead, but that wasn’t much easier. Fur hung off its side. There was a clear dent, the width of a tire, going across the upper body, which was squished so tight that Sam worried the poor animal would break in two. The left shoulder was a shock of white bone against red muscle. Big, black, unfocused eyes took nothing in. It took a wobbly step forward, sliding on the ice. Walking was difficult with its back left leg poking out to the side, never reaching the ground.
Zach’s screaming intensified behind them, and she heard Nick telling his brother not to look.
Violet stood up, blood stains on the knees of her jeans, and stretched a hand out to pet the deer. Sam reached out to grab her hand, but then stopped, afraid that Violet might wish her away. Afraid. She was afraid of her sister. She couldn’t find the strength to swallow the fear out of her throat and the lack of air left her dizzy.
The deer shuddered at Violet’s touch. It took a faltering step and something wet fell from its belly and slapped down on the ground below.
Sam heard Nick vomit behind her. She clenched her stomach muscles tight so she wouldn’t do the same.
Violet’s lip quivered as she cooed to the deer, “It’s going to be okay, it’s going to be okay…”
“Violet?” Sam took a nervous step toward her little sister. She gulped back her fear the best she could and bent down on her knees, fighting the urge to grab Violet and throw her into the back of the truck.
“I can fix it!” she snarled.
“Okay, okay. Let’s talk about this before we make a decision though, okay? Can we talk about this?” Violet looked down, and Sam hoped that was a sign of submission. “I know you want to help the deer. I want to help her, too. But I don’t think we can. I don’t think we’re supposed to. I don’t think the deer wants to live like this.”
“She doesn’t want to die!” Violet sobbed, petting the deer on an unscathed portion of her side. It must have hurt her other injuries, because the deer shook and bleated out a horrible gurgle. Blood frothed from her mouth and hit the ground with a sick splat.
Nick moaned, “This couldn’t possibly get any worse,” and Sam cringed at the jinx.
“Violet, I don’t think anyone wants to die, but I don’t think anyone wants to live like this. I think she’s already dead. I don’t think you can bring her back. She’s not all back.”
“What am I supposed to do? Kill her?” She locked her hands together and pushed them against her chest. “I can fix this!” she screamed, pleading.
The deer’s ears perked up at the sound and she took off, galloping forward on her crooked legs. Sam threw her arm in front of her sister and yanked Violet away from the deer. The left front hoof slipped out from under her and she fell flat on her left side—the back broken leg snapped off loud and fast on her way down. She lay there with unfocused eyes, kicking her two right legs helplessly in the air.
“Oh, my god. Oh fuck,” Nick groaned.
Sam waved her arm behind her to try and shut him up.
“Violet, you can’t kill something that’s already dead. She is dead. It’s not your fault.” Sam pulled Violet into a hug and tried to turn her away from the deer, but Violet fought to keep her face pointed at her. Sam doubted she could see anything through her tears. “Violet, what did you wish for when she got back up? What did you say exactly?”
“I wanted her not to die. I wanted her to wake up.”
“Okay. Maybe you could wish for her to go back to sleep,” Sam suggested.
“No, no, wait,” Nick said. He stepped forward, but then turned to the side so he didn’t have to see. The deer’s legs were still kicking and the sound of bone scraping against the ice made all of them shiver in horror. “We have to be careful. If you just wish for her to sleep, I don’t know if she’d actually be the way she’s supposed to. She might just be unable to move, but full of pain. I don’t know what would happen. You really have to wish her dead.”
“I think she already is dead…” Sam argued.
“I think so, too,” Nick agreed. “Violet, I know the deer’s body is moving and it can hear and feel things, but whatever made a deer be alive and conscious isn’t here anymore.”
“She is fine!” Violet insisted. She glowered at Nick with a rage that made Sam loosen her hold. The deer whined, and Violet’s face fell. “I just need to wish to heal her, right? Like a deer doctor or something.”
“No, Violet,” Sam said. “I don’t know what it is the deer lost when she died, maybe it was her soul, but whatever made it a deer is gone. This is just a moving body, and I think it’s in pain.”
“I can wish her pain away!”
“Even if she wasn’t in pain, even if you healed up her body, I still don’t think that would be enough.” Sam struggled to think of how to make her sister understand. “We don’t know if the deer would still eat, she might starve away to just bones. We don’t know if she’d know how to drink water, or run around, or play, or ever be happy again. I don’t think we can leave her like this.”
“I can wish all those things better!”
“And while you keep making wishes, trying to fix her, she’s going to feel it all. She’s going to be in pain. I don’t think this is the way it’s supposed to be, kid. I don’t think you want to do this to her.”
“What do I do?”
Sam gulped, hating herself. “We have to make sure she’s really dead.”
“There is no we.” Violet rested her head on Sam’s chest and sobbed. “I have to kill her. Not you. Me. And I won’t do it.” Violet shook her head. “I can’t.” She raised her face up to look at Nick. “Tell me how to save her! Tell me how to make her like she was!”
“Violet,” Sam said. “She was dead. She died. You’re not killing her. She’s gone.”
“It’s not fair,” Violet cried. “It’s just not fair.”
“I know it’s not. But you can’t leave her like this. She has to be in pain. You have to make it stop, Violet. I’m so sorry.”
Violet pulled away from Sam, sniffed back her tears, and walked around the kicking deer until she was kneeling by her head. She ran her hand gently down the spots of clean fur on her neck. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. Facing the night sky, Violet wished for the deer to peacefully die, and her kicking legs finally stilled.
The world was too quiet.
Violet walked back to the truck and climbed in. With her arms crossed, she resumed her calm glare.
– – – –
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