Thunder rumbled ominously in the distance, and the rain pelted steadily against the ancient stained glass window. The pale moonlight outside caused the surreal scenes upon the glass to glow eerily blue, casting ghostly images across the steel grey carpet. The tall, slim young man pushed open the window abruptly, allowing the hot, wet rain to soak the carpet and the beautiful, sapphire blue drapes that rippled in the sudden gust of wind.
He hated that glass, hated the contented, tranquil faces of the sleeping children and the fantastic scenes swirling above their heads: magical creatures, places and people. Innocence: perfect, simple, uncorrupted. He wanted to smash the window to tiny pieces, as if doing so would tear the sweet, blissful images from the sleeping children's dreams. Turn all of them as dark and twisted and damaged as he.
Not yet. It wasn't time yet. The children would dream their magical dreams, and he would wait for his moment. Just a bit longer. And then there would be monsters and devils and fear and suffering, so very much suffering.
How long could they last, the children? How much could their fragile, innocent minds endure? The adults didn't seem to last long at all. The children...they were much stronger. Their pliable, moldable little minds seemed so much readier to accept his manipulations, to warp and twist and change.
Adults: well, they just broke. No sport in that.
Behind him, the library door creaked open, and a shorter, younger man poked his head reluctantly into the library. "What are you doing in here?" he asked the taller man.
"The storm bringers are particularly enthusiastic tonight."
The smaller man moved into the room, frowning disapprovingly out at the raging storm. "They'll see it from the mainland."
"The mainlanders don't see anything."
They were silent a long moment, and the tall young man turned his face to the rain, closing his eyes as the drops streaked like tears down his cheeks. He took a long, deep breath as if he could scent his moment in the salty sea air. Beside him, his companion watched the lightning slash through the darkening sky, miserable and scared and full of doubt. But he had chosen, and there was no going back now. No one can run from their dreams.
The taller man spoke again, and his companion started guiltily from his seditious fugue. "It is nearly time. So very nearly time." His voice was low and fervent but there was no excitement in it, no glee. It was cold and passionless and possessed. It was that voice that terrified his companion, the voice no one else had ever heard, that no one else could possibly guess was beneath the charming, good-natured face the taller man showed the world. "What have you discovered, my friend?"
My friend. Meaningless words to such a man. "They leave tomorrow."
"Excellent. In their absence--" He paused, abruptly, like an animal scenting his prey on the air. "Someone's here."
"What? No, I--no, I came in alone. No one followed."
"Someone is here. Oh, yes. Someone who doesn't belong here. In my province." He didn't sound angry. No, instead he sounded coldly, deadly amused. He turned away from the window, spinning in a slow circle, his eyes distant, as if he were seeing into the air around them. "There you are, dreamer. This is no place for you. Let's show you something else, shall we?"
The sea was uncharacteristically still and glassy under a pale moon just beginning to glow in the clear, starless sky. The late summer air was warm and heady, and a light salt breeze cast tiny, silent ripples across the surface of the glittering, tranquil waters. Autumn would soon fall upon New England, and the weather would bring rain and thunder and turbulent waters. The ships, now bobbing slowly and serenely in the Davenport Marina, would soon be menaced by the capricious Sound on their daily rounds.
Tonight, however, sultry summer had yet to cool and turn to dreary Autumn.
The sky in the east shifted and shimmered and changed. Ominous, chalky grey clouds swirled like a shadow rolling in over Whisper Rock. A jagged bolt of angry lightning split the clouds, and they flashed a startling, blood red, as if mortally wounded, slashed open in the peaceful night. As quickly as they had appeared, however, the smoky, blood red mist dissolved as if it had never been there at all.
Mia Burke blinked, slowly shaking her head to clear it.
She half-turned her head to the merry voice. "Lorien, have you ever noticed that the sky over Whisper Rock is really weird at night?"
Behind her, Lorien Montalvo stamped her foot on the wooden planks in dramatic indignation. "Mia!"
Mia snapped out of her daze, spinning to face her best friend with a smile. Lorien stood with her hands on her hips in a pose of perfect incredulity. Even in the descending darkness, her skin glowed a deep bronze. Her metallic pink, scarcely there bikini emphasized a graceful, willowy figure, and a sheer, chiffon wrap did nothing to cover her long legs. Bangles glittered at her wrists, earlobes and neck, and her large, dark, almond-shaped eyes shimmered with the same frosty pink she'd painted her full, sensual lips. She appeared a few inches taller, and Mia groaned inwardly; her friend was already several inches taller than her. She had not, however, grown over the summer. Instead she was wearing platform wedge sandals, which Mia was sure would look ridiculous on anyone else.
Lorien, of course, would probably glide across the sand like a dancer upon a stage.
Mia rolled her eyes fondly and embraced her friend. "Hello, Lorien. I missed you."
"Much better," Lorien said reprovingly. "You're away six weeks, and all you can talk about is the sky? The only weird thing around here, Mia Burke, is you. What are you doing on the pier, anyway? The party's on the beach."
Mia looped her arm through Lorien's, starting down the stairs towards the shore. "I was just admiring the sea."
"Honestly, Mia. You really are weird sometimes."
Mia laughed. "Me? What about you? What are you wearing?"
"What do you mean? I look smashing." Lorien paused, holding out her arms as if to display her loveliness to her friend.
"Do you actually swim in that teeny bikini?"
"Swim? Of course not. Swim. Mia, really," she said as if Mia had just declared that her greatest desire was to run away with a traveling circus and marry the guy they shot out of the cannon.
Mia snorted. "Surely your father didn't let you out of the house like that."
"Of course he didn't." Lorien grinned, catching Mia's arm to drag her towards the faint cacophony of voices and the glow of a raging bonfire on the beach below. "You know Dad. If he had his way, I'd be wearing one of those horrible bathing dresses they wore in the fifties. I had to change in the bathroom when I got here."
"I don't blame him. You do use your sexy powers for evil more often than good."
"Powers this sexy can only be used for evil. I have yet to find a way to bring about world peace and cure cancer with my boobs. I'm sure if there is a way, though, you'll find it."
"It is my greatest aspiration and deepest disappointment in life so far."
"So, tell me about California. Did you see Jared?"
Mia's dark blue eyes slid away, and a faint blush spread across her pale, freckled cheeks. "Yes, I saw him."
"Mia!" Lorien scolded. "Don't be coy. What happened? Did you two-you know?"
Mia laughed. "Lorien Montalvo, unlike you, I do not kiss and tell."
Lorien scoffed. "Only because you have nothing to tell."
"I'll have you know, Jared and I spent six beautiful weeks together. I have plenty to tell."
"Let me guess. You walked on the beach, held hands, shared a malt at Pop's diner and then went to the sock hop together."
"Ha ha. You're very cute. Very witty. Mostly we hung out at the beach and sat around coffee shops with his friends talking about how much better everything will be once we're in college and out from under the thumb of our repressive middle-class parents. Doing touristy things is conforming to the herd."
"Sounds very boring."
"Well, it turns out it wasn't exactly what I would have hoped for my first impetuous teenage romance, but it made work at my aunt's café a little more tolerable. We did go to Disneyland. Even anti-establishment middle-class insurgents love the Haunted Mansion."
Lorien eyed her friend skeptically, and even in the darkness of the night, she could see the faint flush still burning on her cheeks. "Come on, Mia, get to the good stuff. Did you...you know?"
Mia looked innocent. "I don't know what you mean. Did I what?"
"Mia! Did you give him your...precious gift?"
Mia laughed. "My precious gift? Where did you get that?"
Lorien rolled her eyes. "My dad. He's always going on about saving my precious gift until marriage." She nudged Mia's shoulder. "Come on, Mia. I need my vicarious gift giving."
"There was no gift giving! We just made out. A lot."
"What was it like? Any groping?"
Mia groaned. "Lorien!"
"Well, I tell you everything."
"Yes, and so it seems to me you have enough illicit excitement without having to hear about mine."
"If I'd known you were going to be so uninteresting, I would not have been so eagerly awaiting your return."
"Oh, that's nice."
Lorien scoffed. "I am your best friend. In such a position, I am entitled to even the most intimate confidences. I demand gratification."
"You get all the gratification you need. Your list of cast-offs is beginning to resemble Taylor Swift's. There will be a scandalous video of you on the internet soon if you don't change your wanton ways."
Lorien lifted her chin with magnificent dignity. "You know perfectly well I am looking for true love. I'm saving myself for someone special."
"You've never met anyone special?"
Lorien scoffed again. "In Davenport? Not likely. Besides, my mom says you have to kiss a lot of toads before you meet Prince Charming."
"Well, you've kissed a lot of toads."
"And had a smashing time doing it. Speaking of Prince Charming..." Her voice was sly, and Mia cut her a sidelong gaze. "I heard Luke's going to be at the party."
Mia perked up immediately. "I thought he was out of town until tomorrow."
"Got home a day early."
Mia's spirits soared, and her stomach flipped in excitement. Suddenly, the beach seemed like a wonderful, magical place and so, so far away. Luke Brennan had been Mia's secret crush since the 8th grade--well, as secret as anything could be in the small shoreline town of Davenport, Connecticut, where everyone knew everyone else's business and there wasn't much more to do than sail, swim, dig for interesting treasures in the sand, and gossip. Which is to say, not very secret at all. If he was aware of her infatuation, though, he'd never let on.
"Why's he back early? I thought he had that camp sing along thing tonight with the other counselors. He stays every year."
"He had some family thing. I think his aunt's sick or something. His family picked him up from New Hampshire this morning. I ran into Kaitlin and Adam in the Square, and Adam was meeting him tonight before the party." Lorien nudged her. "Maybe this year you'll stop blushing and stuttering whenever he talks to you."
"I do not stutter and blush!" Mia exclaimed, horrified. "I don't, do I?"
"No. You're cool as a cucumber on ice."
"I sense sarcasm in your tone."
"Me? I am perfectly sincere." Lorien paused, grinning at her deviously. "If I'm not mistaken, I think a lot of boys are going to be talking to you this year. Probably even Lofty Luke."
"What are you talking about?"
"In case it's escaped your all seeing eye, Miss Investigative Reporter, you've grown a lot over the summer."
"I haven't grown at all! I'm still practically a dwarf."
"I don't mean your height."
"What?" Mia looked down at herself and blushed crimson, crossing her arms across her chest. "Oh."
"You're looking very buoyant this evening."
"I should have gotten a new swimsuit."
"Oh, no, my dear Mia, I think you're perfect the way you are. Let's see Luke keep his cool with those bad girls staring him in the face."
"Face it, Mia, you're becoming a woman. One day you'll even know what to do with them. In the meantime, I am sure they will get the job done all on their own."
"Shut up," Mia said sulkily, tilting her head down to hide her blush behind her dark, chin-length hair.
Lorien laughed, hugging her friend. "Come on. We can't let the party go on without us, can we?"
"Whatever will they do without the fascinating Lorien Montalvo, life of the party?"
"They will be very sad, I am thinking. They will be sitting around the fire discussing their short-comings and reciting melancholy haikus. Also, I think there will be drinking and probably some tears."
"Yes, I am sure that is exactly what they're doing. There might even be some improvisational dance."
"Comparing the struggles they face as upper class teenagers with luxury cars and over two hundred Facebook friends with the carefree, uncomplicated lives of the teenagers before iPhones and online social networking. We'd better hurry. It would be selfish and cruel to allow this to go on."
"A less indulgent friend might mention here that you, in fact, have a luxury car and over two hundred Facebook friends. I, of course, would never point out something so obviously insensitive."
"This is what I like best about you, Mia. You're always so gracious and nonjudgmental. You would never point out the shortcomings of others for your own amusement."
"I have noticed that they often point them out all on their own without any assistance from me."
"With your cheerful outlook on the world, it truly amazes me you are able to go on at all," Lorien said wryly.
Mia laughed, but her reply was lost in the frenzy of their arrival on the beach. The party was already in full swing, and a chorus of voices called out to them as they stepped into the light of the blazing bonfire. Mia was overwhelmed by the high spirits of their classmates, who greeted them like long lost friends reunited after years of painful separation. Lorien, of course, took in the attention like a debutante at her coming out ball. She giggled and flirted and tossed her long, dark hair, returning their exclamations with equal enthusiasm.
Their classmates gathered in small groups, talking loudly together around the fire, walking along the shore in the last of summer's warm nights, or moving through the crowd, chattering cheerfully about their holidays. The last Saturday of summer bonfire party had been a tradition for Davenport High School's juniors and seniors since before their parents' high school days. Though their parents were generally tolerant towards the whole affair, they had, as they often mentioned, been kids once themselves, so the perpetuation of the annual tradition was wholly dependent upon this uncompromising condition: No drugs, no alcohol and no hanky panky.
Despite this strict and frequently repeated edict, Mia noticed a few kids sipping surreptitiously on suspicious-looking cans or publicly displaying their mutual affection. She shook her head, but tonight was not the night for whistle blowing or righteous lectures. No, tonight Luke Brennan was somewhere in that crowd. She was no longer a naive, innocent sophomore. She had turned sixteen at the end of last school year, and she had had a boyfriend over the summer. This year, she was more than ready to finally ensnare the attention of the lofty Luke Brennan.
Her eyes scanned the crowd casually, searching for the sandy-blonde head of her clandestine crush or either of his best friends, Roman Genovese or Adam Murphy, with whom he could usually be found, lounging against a wall or a car or just appearing to lounge where he stood with an expression of unflappable confidence. Instead of Luke's neatly combed blonde head or Roman's fashionably disheveled black curls, a tall, coltish boy with thick, overlong brown hair and square-framed glasses appeared abruptly in her path with a wide smile. It was a very nice smile, she noticed absently, though his metal braces glinted ostentatiously in the light of the fire.
"Hello, Lorien," Kellan Klein said in his low, mellow voice, and his large, ice blue eyes flicked away from Lorien almost dismissively, settling on Mia with a bright, steady intensity that made her glance away, embarrassed. "Hey, Mia."
Lorien smiled, glancing sidelong at her best friend. "Hi, Kellan," she replied in a sing-song sort of voice, and she slipped away blithely. "See you in a bit, Mia. I see Kaitlin over by the water."
"Hey, Kellan," Mia said. She was happy to see her old chemistry lab partner, and she forced her impatience away to smile up at him. He'd grown several inches over the summer. Mia, having reached her growth spurt in the eighth grade and settling into an unsatisfying 5'2", was used to looking up at her companions, but she had never had to crane her neck to look into Kellan's face before.
When they had been sophomores, he had been an awkward, scrawny boy with large hands and clumsy feet, the class nerd and generally tiresome to look at. His presence was still as easy-going and good-natured as when they had accidentally mixed sodium with water and caused an entire classroom to be evacuated, but it wasn't so comfortable to meet his gaze anymore. He was not so very tiresome to look at now.
He was dressed in his usual style: jeans and a red tee shirt that read 'Expendable' in large, black letters. Mia wasn't sure exactly what that meant, and she didn't ask. Kellan loved tee shirts with incomprehensible slogans, and she knew he enjoyed the perplexed looks they received. "You got taller," she told him lamely.
He smiled crookedly, unconsciously ruffling the back of his shaggy hair. Despite the abrupt change in his looks, Mia suddenly felt as if she were back on more comfortable ground; she had seen him make that precise gesture about a hundred times last year when he was feeling insecure. "Yeah. It sort of just happened overnight. You, um, you look really nice tonight, Mia."
He glanced down reflexively, and Mia followed his gaze, blushing crimson and crossing her arms over her chest when she caught the direction of his eyes. "Thanks," she muttered.
Kellan's face flushed. "So, did you have a nice summer?" he asked quickly, attempting to soldier through their mutual mortification.
Why did becoming a woman have to be so embarrassing? "It was okay. I spent the last six weeks in LA working at my aunt's café. Wasting my youth and good looks, as they say, in the food service industry. I slaved day and night, serving sandwiches to the slack-jawed, idle rich of the 90210 and not a single Luke Perry sighting."
"That sounds mighty unfair."
"Yes, I complained daily about the injustice of it all, but it only got me bathroom duty. Overall, not what I would have envisioned for my perfect Southern California holiday. But the beach was great."
Kellan raised his eyebrows. "We have a beach here, you know."
"Do we?" Mia spun around in a circle in a display of mock surprise. "Oh, so we do." She sighed longingly. "It's not the same, I assure you."
"I'll take your word for it. Me, I spent the last couple months in the University's summer Computer Science program. Just me and fifteen other smelly basement dwellers doing some code voodoo and trying to out-geek each other."
Mia laughed. "It sounds fun."
"So, are you planning to do the Voice again this year?"
Mia latched onto the topic, nodding eagerly. "Oh, yeah. I talked to Mr. Quillen this summer. Ashley Semple, the old editor, graduated last year, and he offered me the position."
"That's great, Mia. Congratulations."
"Yeah, thanks. I can't wait. I've never gotten to be in charge before."
"You practically ran the paper last year. If not for you, it would still be just a bunch of exaggerated reports on how cute this year's cheerleading uniforms look. Ashley just wanted it on her college resume. You deserve this."
Mia grinned. "Thanks, Kellan. I hope you'll still be interested in contributing more of your fascinating counter-culture human interest pieces."
"You bet. I've already got some ideas. What do you think? 'If Dr. Spock taught Ethics' or..."
He trailed off when he realized Mia wasn't paying attention. Her gaze had wandered past him to a small group of freshmen who were standing together by the fire, looking defiant and strangely small in the crowd of older kids. Among them was a skinny, delicate-featured boy with dark, chin-length hair dressed all in black with his arm around a petite girl with red-streaked pigtails and an indecently short skirt over her red and black striped bikini.
Mia sighed dramatically. "Sorry, Kellan, we'll have to talk about this another time."
"Oh. Yeah. Cool. Talk to you later, then, Mia. Maybe we'll catch up some more by the fire."
"Yeah. Sure, Kellan." She pushed past him, pausing in front of the freshmen with her hands on her hips. "What are you doing here, Noah?" she demanded. "Do Mom and Dad know you're crashing a big kid party?"
The dark-haired boy grinned, looking mightily smug. "I told them I'm staying at Josh's house."
Mia shook her head disapprovingly. "You better watch out; Mom knows all the tricks in the book. You'll get caught."
Noah Burke scoffed. "Amber's covering for us. Mom isn't going to find out."
"How do you know I won't rat you out?" Mia asked archly.
A slow, wicked grin spread over Noah's finely-featured face. "You won't. Otherwise I'll tell Dad what I caught you doing with that busboy in Aunt Melissa's supply closet."
Mia blushed scarlet. "You wouldn't."
"Not unless you make me."
Mia laughed. "Fine. Have your little taste of the big leagues." Her eyes slid to the pig-tailed girl who hovered anxiously at Noah's shoulder. Her wide, green eyes were rimmed with dark, thick eyeliner, and her lips were painted a brilliant red to match her hair. Despite her brazen appearance and the brave look on her small, round face, she was wringing her hands nervously. "Who's your friend, little brother?"
Noah smiled and caught the girl's hand, pulling her towards Mia. "Mia, this is Reina Meyers." He puffed out his slender chest proudly. "My girlfriend."
Mia suppressed a smile. "Girlfriend? Aren't you too young for a girlfriend?"
"Come on, Mia," Noah said sullenly, and his ears turned pink.
"Okay, okay, I won't embarrass my little brother at his first big high school party." She shook a warning finger at him. "But if you get caught, don't expect me to cover for you. I am claiming no responsibility for your rebellious gate-crashing ways."
Noah rolled his eyes. "Yeah, yeah. Come on, Rei. Let's leave my nagging big sister alone with her mature and sophisticated friends. We'll just be at the kiddy table with our coloring books and crayons."
"And no drinking, Noah!" she called to his back. "I'll be in it for sure if Mom catches you drinking."
Noah waved a dismissive hand over his shoulder and met back up with his small group of friends. By now, Mia was not the only one who had noticed them. Roman Genovese was like a shark sensing blood in the water, and Mia's little brother and his friends must have looked appetizing. The tall, black-haired junior was striding towards the small cluster of younger kids with malicious determination in his step.
Mia groaned loudly. "You asked for it, Noah," she muttered under her breath, but she moved closer, watching carefully in case Roman was in one of his mean moods.
Roman's father, Franco, practically ran the town. He owned the Davenport Yacht Club and Marina and was widely known to hold shares in nearly half the local businesses. This, apparently, caused his only son to believe he was entitled to act like a complete jerk whenever he felt like it. Unfortunately, this was usually true. Roman had inherited his father's good looks and thick, curly black hair, but sometimes it seemed he'd inherited little of his charm. Other times, however, he could be as sweet and charismatic as his father ever was.
Tonight, sadly, was not one of those times. His dark, almond shaped eyes were bright, and Mia suspected he had been disregarding the One Rule. "Look at the little freshmen crashing the party," he drawled in a low, ominous sort of voice that made Mia very, very wary. "You kids don't belong here."
Noah squared his shoulders and faced Roman head-on. He was several inches shorter and absurdly slight compared to the taller, more muscular junior. Noah was either very brave or very foolish, and Mia sighed in exasperation. Well, nothing for it. Her little brother would have to face Roman eventually. Noah may as well start his year off right. "We have as much right to be here as you, Genovese," Mia's little brother replied in an admirably level voice.
Mia had no idea her brother had become so courageous over the summer. Surely last year he would have shrunk away from Roman Genovese like a wilting flower. Good for him. She hoped it wouldn't all end in a bloody nose.
"See, that's where you're wrong," Roman replied, still in that quiet, dangerous voice. All around them, the party had hushed, watching the confrontation with amusement, interest or concern. No one could be sure what Roman would do; he was as likely to laugh and offer Noah and his friends a drink as wrestle him to the ground and bury his face in the sand. He was as capricious as a tempest and worse when he'd been drinking. "This is a party for juniors and seniors. All I see here are a bunch of kids trying to play like the grownups. You're in over your heads. Maybe you should try the mini golf course. All kids under 12 are free on Saturdays."
"I appreciate your concern," Noah replied blithely, and Mia cringed. "It really is touching. But I think we'll take our chances."
"Come on, Noah, let's just go," Josh Evans, Noah's best friend since grade school put in, stepping up behind Noah.
"We're not leaving," Noah replied, barely glancing over his shoulder, his dark blue eyes still on Roman. There was steel in them, but Mia sensed the display was mostly bravado; her little brother would be damned if he quelled to the class bully this early in his high school career. Mia sensed that, come blood or bruising, he would stand up for himself and accept the consequences. "This is a public beach, not one of your dad's country clubs. You can't make us do anything."
This challenge seemed to be exactly what Roman had been waiting for. He balled his fist, raising it to his shoulder with an excited glint in his eyes. Noah braced himself, but the blow did not come. Instead, a tall, well-built boy with neat, sandy-blonde hair caught Roman's arm, looking as calm and collected as ever, despite the intense atmosphere around him. "Come on, Roman, give the kid a break," Luke Brennan said in an unconcerned voice. "You remember how many parties we crashed when we were his age."
"Please, Roman," Jade Genovese purred disapprovingly, sliding up to her brother as if walking down a runway. "Leave the freshmen alone. I think they're sweet." She gave them a condescending glance, tossing her long, thick black hair. Like her brother, her skin was ivory pale, and in the dancing flames of the fire, she looked like a porcelain doll: carved and perfect and untouchable.
Roman hesitated, glaring menacingly at Noah, but his shoulders relaxed, and he relented. "Yeah. Whatever. Sweet." He spun away from the younger kids, then seemed to reconsider, shooting Noah a cold, deadly look. "This isn't over, kid. You're in for it now."
"Whatever," Noah muttered irreverently, but he was wise enough to speak under his breath to Roman's back.
Mia strode over to him, slapping him soundly on the arm and giving him a stern look. "You idiot."
The confrontation had apparently lost its glamour to the onlookers, and the noise around them began again as if a sound barrier had been lifted. Noah slumped his shoulders, blowing out his breath. "Well, I think that went well," he said in an unhappy voice.
Mia shrugged, smiling bracingly. "That's just the way Roman is sometimes. He'll have forgotten all about it by Monday morning. That was pretty brave of you, standing up to him, little bro. I didn't know you had it in you."
Noah's mouth turned up in a half smile. "Well, it was either take a beating or commit social suicide before I ever even get to high school. It seemed the lesser of two evils."
Lorien rushed over to them, shoving Noah gently with a grin. "I saw the whole thing," she said proudly. "Noah, you were awesome. You're the first freshman to stand up to Roman and get out without a single bruise. They'll be talking about it for years."
"I don't think it was dramatic as all that," Mia muttered, rolling her eyes, but Noah seemed pleased enough at the praise.
"Yeah, I was pretty amazing. I'm pretty sure they'll be erecting a statue in my name before school starts Monday morning," Noah told Lorien. "Well, I'm going to enjoy the rest of my hard earned night. You two girls don't do anything unscrupulous."
Mia snorted, spinning back to Lorien, but her mouth snapped shut as she saw Luke Brennan strolling towards them. "Hey, Lorien," he greeted, pausing in front of them. "Hey, Mia."
"Hi, Luke," Mia said brightly. She felt Lorien nudge her discreetly, but she ignored her.
"That your little brother?" Luke asked, nodding towards Noah, who had re-joined his chattering, excited friends.
"Yeah. He's a brave little soldier."
"Don't worry about Roman. He's just having a rough time. I'll make sure he leaves him alone."
Mia sighed in relief. "Thanks, Luke. Roman seems to be in one of his moods tonight."
"Yeah, well." Luke shrugged, as if this was enough to be said for his volatile friend. His gaze moved to Lorien, who was watching their conversation with a look of great expectation. "You have a nice summer, Lorien?"
Lorien seemed startled by the question and glanced at Mia. "It was okay," she replied, smiling uncertainly. "My dad took my mom and me to France." She shrugged. "It was France." Mia rolled her eyes; only Lorien could say 'It was France' in a such a dismissive, careless way. Mia would have loved to go to France, but Lorien had spent her entire life being chauffeured and jetted all around the world; France was just another moderately interesting stop along her way. "Mia spent the summer in Hollywood," she added, nudging Mia again, as if to urge her to join the conversation.
"Yeah?" Luke said, glancing at Mia again.
"Oh, yes. I was discovered on the street by the casting director of the next big Brad Pitt movie who begged me to be his leading lady but, alas, I am a slave to my studies. Despite their desperate pleas, I had to turn the role down."
Luke chuckled dutifully. He glanced at Lorien again, opening his mouth to speak, but her attention had wavered. Richard Ellis, a tall, angular senior who played halfback for the Davenport High football team had approached, and she was busy laying on the charm. Luke turned abruptly back to Mia. "Sounds like you had a nice summer," he said casually.
Mia wasn't going to lose this opportunity without a fight. "So, how was your summer, Luke?" she asked lamely, cringing inwardly at the falsely bright note in her voice.
He shrugged. "The usual. I was a counselor at Camp Pokanoket in New Hampshire."
Mia nodded interestedly. "Oh, yeah. I heard you were in New Hampshire," she said nonchalantly, as if she hadn't been aware of his annual summer tradition. "How was that?"
His eyes slid away, and he smiled. "It was fun. I was the water sports instructor this year. They have a nice lake, and the kids are great." He sighed deeply. "I missed the ocean, though. A lake just...doesn't feel right."
Mia was quiet a moment, casting about desperately for a witty response. Before she found one, however, Adam Murphy raced up to them, panting slightly. "Hey, Mia," he said absently, as if unable to ignore his good manners, then turned an exasperated look on Luke. "Roman's in the water. I think he's having a...well, you know."
Mia wasn't sure what he meant by this, but Luke seemed to understand, and his usually lofty attitude changed into one of uncharacteristic concern. "I better get back," Luke told Mia. He glanced at Lorien as if to say something, but she was thoroughly engaged with the football player. "I'll see you, Mia."
"Yeah," she replied, proud of the even, casual tone of her voice. "See you around."
When he'd gone, as if she'd been there the entire time, Lorien was beside her, grinning hugely. "So? How did it go?"
Mia shrugged. "I'd say it was a wash."
"A wash? I didn't flirt with that cardboard cutout for nothing. Tell me something good happened."
"Well, he didn't spit in my eye," Mia said in optimistically. "That was good."
Lorien shook her head. "Well, it was your first time."
"It wasn't my first time," Mia protested. "We've known Luke since kindergarten. I've talked to him loads of times."
"Not this year you haven't. This year is the year everything is going to change."
Mia looked at her dubiously. "I don't know, Lorien. Isn't the status quo working just fine for everyone?"
Lorien scoffed. "No, it isn't! We cannot continue like this. The suspense is killing me. Besides, what's the worst that can happen?"
"He could laugh in my face, embarrass me in front of the whole school and destroy three years of hope?"
"Oh, come on, Mia. This is Luke we're talking about. The worst he can do is tell you he doesn't think of you that way."
"Ugh. I think that's even worse. I would rather hear he thought of me that way and found me lacking than never thought at all." Mia sighed deeply. "How come it was easy to talk to him before? Why do I feel like a complete idiot whenever I talk to him now?"
Lorien laughed. "Because you like him. All those hormones twist your tongue and make you silly. It is the way of things."
"How come it doesn't do that to you?" Mia asked sourly. "You don't have any trouble talking to boys you like."
"That's because I have had lots and lots of practice."
Mia scowled. "Yeah, that, and you could probably tell a boy you have a deformed congenital twin living on your back and he would still ask you out."
Lorien laughed and tossed her hair. "Well, that's true." She grabbed Mia's arm. "Come on, you've only just got here. You need to have a little fun. You have all year to make your move on Luke."
Mia rolled her eyes. "Does everything have to be about boys all the time?"
"That doesn't even deserve an answer. When did you become so pessimistic and jaded?"
Mia grunted unhappily. "Around seventh grade when you became a magnet for every boy in the county and I can't even get Luke Brennan to acknowledge I'm a girl."
Lorien laughed and hugged her. "Oh, Mia."
"Mia! Lorien!" Kaitlin Delaney waved at them from her place by the fire, beckoning them to join her. Her boyfriend, Adam Murphy, was standing with Luke, calling exasperatedly to Roman from the shore. Roman, still holding a can of beer, threw off his shirt and waded into the water, his dark head disappearing under the waves as they crashed over him. He was laughing, but there was a mean, reckless edge to his voice that worried Mia; she hadn't heard Roman laugh like that before, like he was challenging them all to come in after him or simply to let the waves claim him.
"What's going on?" Mia asked, nodding towards the boys. "What is Roman's problem tonight? He's being a total jerk."
Kaitlin rolled her eyes. "What else is new? He's been like this practically all summer."
Lorien sighed, plopping in a camp chair beside her two friends. "Pretty much."
"Adam's spent the last few weeks like this," Kaitlin complained. "He's just trying to keep Roman from falling off the deep end."
"Roman, you get out of the water right now," Jade ordered in an imperious voice. She stood beside Luke, her hands on her hips in a posture of absolute disapproval. "You are acting like a child."
Roman shot his older sister an extremely rude hand gesture, wading further into the surf. Child, indeed. "He is going to drown," Mia said. Roman had always been a very good swimmer, but the Sound was dangerous at night when the tide rose. Even a good swimmer could get dragged into the undertow, and a drunk swimmer...well. She hoped Luke, Jade and Adam could talk him back to shore.
Kaitlin sighed. "Adam's half afraid that's what he wants."
Mia looked at her in shock. "Why would he want that?"
"He's losing it," Lorien put in. She shook her head. "It's just drama."
Mia frowned, watching the scene perplexedly, certain she was missing something. "Why doesn't Luke just go in and get him? He's a lifeguard, isn't he?"
"Last time Roman was like this, he gave Adam a bloody nose," Kaitlin explained miserably. "He's just--"
"Losing it," Lorien said again. The drama had apparently failed to hold her attention, and she was peering out over the beach, searching for something more entertaining to look at. She nudged Mia, pointing out past the flames. "Oh, my god. I didn't expect him to show up here."
Mia swiveled her head in the direction Lorien was pointing, seeing a tall, lean young man sitting alone on the edge of the party, watching Roman with a look of such hatred, his deep blue eyes practically crackled with electricity. "Micah Hathaway? Why wouldn't he be here? He's a junior, too."
Kaitlin and Lorien looked at her for a moment as if she'd suddenly grown a second head that was reciting dirty limericks. Then Lorien's face changed into an expression of dawning comprehension. "Oh, my god, Mia, you don't know."
"What? Don't know what?" Mia asked, completely bemused. "What is going on?"
"It's totally been the talk all over town the last four weeks," Kaitlin said.
Lorien took a deep breath, as if preparing to impart a great truth. "Tegan Hathaway went missing a month ago."
"Tegan's missing?" Mia repeated, shocked. Micah's older sister, Tegan, was one of the most popular girls in Davenport High, and Mia, along with just about everyone else in town, had liked her very much. "Missing how?"
"No one knows," Kaitlin replied. "Not really."
"Well, everyone suspects she ran away," Lorien explained.
"Ran away? Tegan run away? Why?"
Kaitlin looked around, as if to be sure no one was listening. "Well, supposedly she was seeing some boy at the University."
"I thought she was going out with Roman," Mia said, her voice rising in her surprise.
"Shh," Lorien ordered. "Not anymore. See, they broke up at the beginning of the summer. I heard he was cheating on her and she found out and dumped him. But some people are saying now the real reason they broke up is she's been secretly seeing a boy from New Haven all year."
"Tegan? Come on, Lorien. Tegan wouldn't cheat on Roman with some guy from the University," Mia said. "Roman--I mean, yeah. Not so much of a shock there."
"You are so naïve," Kaitlin told her loftily. "People are hardly ever as nice as they seem. Especially girls like Tegan."
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"Come on, you've seen the movies," Lorien added. "Girls like Tegan always have some deep dark secret they're keeping from everyone. You know, like Laura Palmer. Drugs, prostitution, all that."
"Who is Laura Palmer? Anyway, this is Davenport, not the movies. Tegan wasn't a prostitute. God, Lorien," Mia scolded.
"Well, something was going on because she took off. Her car was just gone one morning and no one's heard from her," Kaitlin said. "Roman's been a wreck ever since."
"But they broke up before she took off."
"Well, yeah, but Adam says, in his weird way, Roman really did love Tegan. He was pretty broken up when she dumped him."
"I cannot believe I missed all this."
"You were busy making out with busboys in Hollywood. Meanwhile, we were caught up in the middle of a real life drama," Lorien told her proudly.
"Sounds like you're making more drama out of it than there is," Mia replied sulkily. "Do you think she'll be back before school starts? I mean, she was pretty determined to go to Harvard next year."
"Who knows?" Kaitlin said.
"Wow." Mia shook her head. "I hope she's okay."
"Me, too," Lorien said. She sighed, glancing back at the scene by the water. Jade had finally talked her brother back to the shore, but his mood hadn't improved. He slunk into a chair by the fire, staring sullenly into the flames. Luke tried to wrestle a fresh beer out of his hand, but Roman shoved him off forcefully.
"Roman, you don't need any more to drink," Luke told him in his low, calm voice.
"You don't tell me what I need," Roman growled defiantly, but he tossed the bottle into the fire with sudden, unexpected vehemence. The glass shattered, spitting beer at the group of senior girls beside him.
They squealed angrily, but their abuse hardly phased him. "God, he is such a jerk," Mia said again, glaring over at him. "Why does Luke put up with him?"
Lorien rolled her eyes. "Oh, yeah, because Luke is just so perfect."
"What?" Mia laughed. "He is. Kind of. Well, I mean, he isn't a jerk."
"Luke can be a jerk. You're just wearing love goggles."
"Oh, that's--Love goggles? What the hell are love goggles?'
"You know," Kaitlin said. "You see what you want to see because you're all in love with him."
"That is not true. Luke is really great. He helps all those kids over the summer, and he takes care of Roman. God knows why. Roman's had about ten nannies running around after him since he could crawl," Mia protested, but she abruptly cut herself off as Adam collapsed into the seat next to Kaitlin, sighing heavily.
"Is Roman okay?" Kaitlin asked, suddenly a picture of concern. Lorien glanced at Mia and made a disgusted face. Mia suppressed a giggle, turning to Adam.
"Yeah, I guess. Not really," Adam replied morosely. "He's just having a hard time, you know? His girlfriend running off with another guy..."
Mia considered this, her eyes straying to the boy sitting alone, staring out at the water. No one seemed to be worried about how he was coping with Tegan's disappearance, she noticed, but Micah Hathaway had always been sort of a loner. He seemed to prefer the company of old, rusty cars and comic books to his classmates. Mia didn't know him well, despite having been in school with him since kindergarten, but he'd drawn a comic strip for the Davenport High School Voice for the last two years, and he'd always seemed--well, interesting. As if there were deep and meaningful things going on in his mind he didn't share with anyone around him. She wondered what was going on in his head now.
Lorien seemed to be wondering the same thing. "I don't know why he came here," she murmured. "He's been a total drag all summer."
"Lorien, his sister is missing!" Mia scolded.
Lorien sighed. "I know. I shouldn't have said that; it was terrible. I just--I feel so bad for him, but--well, you know Micah."
"No, not really." Mia admitted. She had never really thought at length about Micah Hathaway before. He'd only really ever briefly crossed her mind...he just wasn't really part of their group. Was she really so shallow that she just didn't notice people outside their social circle?
The same couldn't be said for Lorien. She smiled crookedly, a sly glint in her eyes. "He's always had that dark, broody loner thing going on. I always thought it was sort of sexy."
"Micah Hathaway?" Mia exclaimed, completely derailed.
"Shh," Lorien ordered, grinning. "Sure. I mean, that long hair and those big blue eyes and the angsty bad boy thing..."
"Oh, Lorien, leave Micah Hathaway alone. The last thing he needs right now is to be another one of your romantic casualties."
Lorien scoffed. "Oh, come on, I'm not going to do anything. He's not the sort of guy you chase, anyway." Her dark eyes sparkled wickedly. "He's the kind of guy you want to chase you."
"I had no idea you were harboring these bad boy fantasies about Micah," Mia said with a laugh.
"Well, I harbor lots of fantasies. A girl's gotta have some variety."
Mia giggled, but she peered back at the boy in black by the shore. She sobered up, sighing deeply. "I just hope his sister comes back soon. I don't think he needs more reason to be dark and broody."