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Authors: Merrie Destefano

Fathom

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Fathom

 

By Merrie Destefano

 

 

 

 

 

This book is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogue are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

 

FATHOM. Copyright © 2012 by Merrie Destefano. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the nonexclusive, nontransferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse-engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of the author.

 

Cover design by Merrie Destefano. Image © iStockPhoto/elenaVizerskaya.

 

 

 

 

DEDICATION:

 

To my father, who made

the world a magical place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part One

 

 

The sea pronounces something, over and over,

in a hoarse whisper; I cannot quite make it out. 

—Annie Dillard

 

Chapter 1

 

 

 

Kira:

I never believed in ghosts.

Until I saw one, face to face, when I was twelve.

It was the middle of the summer, one of those nights when the wind scratched tree branches against my window and the Pacific roared so loud I thought it was going to sweep me away. Something startled me awake, some shifting of our house, beam against beam, old wood crying out in the damp sea breeze.

Almost instantly a chill shiver ran down my arms.

I got out of bed, the wooden floor cool and welcome against my bare feet. I paused in the hallway, noticed the fragrance of freshly cut hawthorn in the air. I used to love that smell.

Not anymore.

Then I saw something in a pool of moonlight—spots of water on the floor.

Like tiny lakes. Each one perfectly formed and separate.

Watery footprints.

Leading toward my father’s door.

I couldn’t breathe or move. Part of me wanted to disappear. Another part of me hoped that maybe the past could be erased and rewritten.

That was when I saw her. My mother.

I have her photo on my nightstand—me, my sister and her—all in a huddle of green leaves. Her dark hair twined with Katie’s and my own like the three of us were one person. We were up in our tree house. My father must have taken that picture. And here she was right in front of me, tall and slender and silver in the pale moonlight, her long dark hair swirling in the muggy summer breeze, looking like a mermaid, her skin glistening as if she had just risen from her briny home.

Dark lips parted and a small gasp came out when she saw me.

It only lasted a moment, but in that amount of time I saw too much.

Her fingers stained with fresh blood, her eyes the color of the ocean, her skin so pale it looked as if she hadn’t been in the sun for years.

“Mom,” a whisper cry came from my lips.

She came nearer then, this wraith from the past, until she could press a slender finger against my lips. She shook her head. We both knew the rules. I grew up on the Celtic legends; they were all my family talked about during the long winter nights, when the fire crackled and spit and our bellies were full.

But for now, silence filled the hallway, just long enough for me to hear the air coming in and out of my mother’s mouth, as if she had run a great distance to get here. Perhaps the gates to the Underworld were farther away than I thought. Or perhaps she had climbed the great cliff our house sat upon, all the way up from the ocean floor, to get here. Finally—when neither of us could bear the quiet any longer and I’m sure both of us would have started weeping, when words would have gushed like streams from our mouths and we would have broken every rule that protected the living from the dead—at that point, she brushed past me down the narrow hallway, toward the back door.

I turned and watched her run, across the yard through the thicket of trees and overgrown thorny bushes, toward the cliff. The same path she took seven years ago.

The night she killed my sister and then threw her tiny body in the ocean.

The very same night that my mother killed herself.

 

 

I didn’t see the hawthorn branches until the next morning, arcing across every window and lintel that led to the outside. Tiny drops of blood spattered the woodwork, stained the Irish lace curtains. My grandmother cursed beneath her breath as she made breakfast—a sizzle of bacon, the fragrance of burned toast—the Gaelic wordsdraíochtaandmallachtdropping like hot stones. My father sat at the table, his eyes downcast and his face the color of a rainy day. But it wasn’t anger in his heart, not like Gram; no, I could tell that sorrow kept his eyes from meeting mine that morning.

I longed to tell him that I had seen her. She’s alive! I wanted to say, but that just wasn’t true. She was haunting us. She had almost spoken to me last night. Almost broke all the rules of heaven and hell and earth, and if we had talked to each other—

I glanced up at Gram, hoping that she couldn’t read my mind—I wondered about that at times.

If my mother and I had talked to each other, well, then I would be damned to a watery grave too. Just like her.

And so on that morning we all sat in the same heavy silence as the evening before. The only sounds, the bright song of the purple finch in the willow tree and Gram’s Gaelic curses.

One strange thing I will always remember about that day.

None of us took any of those hawthorn branches down. Nor did we wipe away any of the blood.

 

 

Every year after that, on Midsummer’s Eve, my father put the hawthorn branches up himself. He draped every window and door with rugged greenery, while Gram watched him with her hands on her hips, grumbling. She’d shake her head and tsk, saying he was going to wreck all the trees in the yard with his terrible pruning. And then, when he’d had enough of her complaining, he’d go off in a sulk and spend the evening at the local tavern.

While he was gone, Gram would get out her Irish whiskey.

She’d start by pouring a draft into her cup of coffee, but soon enough, it would be whiskey in her cup and she’d be adding a drop or two of coffee for flavor.

Songs would ring throughout the house, from floor to rafter. And then the stories would come. That was when I would slip out of my room, when the yard was full of green trees and dusky sky and the fairy light of a full moon. I would curl on the sofa with our cat and a book on my lap, pretending to read, but really I was just waiting for the stories to begin.

When my grandmother’s voice rose and fell, her tongue thick from liquor, I imagined that I saw my sister and my mother standing just outside the circle of light cast by our windows onto the lawn. They couldn’t come too close, I knew, not when the hawthorn boughs protected us. I imagined that they danced to Gram’s songs and that they wept at her stories.

Unfortunately, all the Irish legends end poorly. Someone falls in love with a vampiric Leanan Sidhe, or a banshee comes singing tales of woe, or a fairy steals your child, leaving a changeling in its place. Whichever way you looked at it, a human could never win the battle against the legendary creatures from my homeland.

Sometimes, when I curled beneath a blanket and stared out at a star-drenched sky, I wondered if that was why my ancestors left Ireland and came here, this small town on the California coast.

Maybe they all wanted to escape the danger. But it didn’t matter. Because, in the end, dark magic and twisted fate can catch up with you, no matter how far you move away.

 

 Chapter 2

 

 

 

Caleb:

The ocean surged around me as I swam, a clamor of voices and currents. The fisherman had tethered their boats and now the beaches of Thorne Bay stood empty, beckoning us nearer. Already the rest of my clan had left the water to huddle around an evening fire, their faces glowing from the flickering light. The Elders spoke in hushed tones about a possible treaty with our distant kin—the Na Fir Ghorm, their words coming out in puffs in the chill ocean air.

“They say they want peace,” said Bran, one of the Elders.

My father shook his head. The leader of our militia, he often doubted Bran’s judgment. “I don’t believe it—”

“What about the tithe they sent in the spring?” someone else asked.

I left the comfort of the sea to shiver beside my cousins, pretending that I didn’t notice what the Elders were saying. Instead, I sought out a different fire, surrounded by people my own age, hoping to hear about the latest adventure. A group of my friends had gone south during the Burning and had stepped right into the land of legends.

Ethan found me then and pulled me aside. In an eager voice he told me where he had gone and what he had seen. His words mingled with the rest of my clan, the Elders speaking of our enemies and our unprotected cities, those my age talking about the only thing that mattered to us—the fire that could burn inside your skin, the need to journey to distant lands to find a mate, despite the many dangers along the way.

His eyes glistened as he told me about his trip, four days of swimming through the territory of our most dangerous predator—the Hinquememen, a nightmarish beast that hunts and eats our kind—all of it to reach Crescent Moon Bay. There, Ethan had seen the girl from my favorite legend for himself. At first, I didn’t believe him. He was prone to pulling pranks and had tricked me often with his easy smile.

I lowered my brow.

“Are you telling me the truth?” I asked.

“Aye.”

“And she’s real? Just like the story claims?”

“Aye, she’s real. I told you. I saw her, myself,” he said and his grin widened with the remembering. “She stood atop a high cliff, her long black hair tossed like waves by a sea breeze. She’s more than a child now, but less than a woman.”

At that point, Lynn—my sister and Ethan’s betrothed—joined us. She plaited her blonde hair and listened, her eyes never leaving Ethan’s face. Even in the growing darkness I could see how they felt about each other. My sister had found her soul mate among her own tribe, something that almost never happened. The three of us crouched behind mossy rocks, away from the others.

“She still mourns the loss of her mother and sister,” he continued. “You can see it in her eyes—they’re the color of the ocean itself.”

“Do they truly love one another, just like we do?” I asked. I was never quite sure about our distant ancestors who lived on land. We had many reasons to doubt them.

“Aye, lad, they do,” Lynn said then, her eyes dancing in the firelight, her words spoken like someone who knew the real meaning of love. Ethan caught her hand and held it, both of them lost to me for a moment. Then he glanced back at me.

“We should go there,” he said. “Then you could see it for yourself.”

“It’s dangerous, Ethan,” Lynn said with a hesitancy in her eyes. “You’d be testing the gods if you made that journey more than once—”

Ethan laughed and pulled her closer. “Wouldn’t be dangerous with a beautiful warrior at my side.”

“Both of us would go again?” She paused, then grinned. “No one’s ever done that before.”

“That’s a good enough reason for me,” he answered. “Are you game, Caleb?”

I stared at him, part of me knowing and understanding the danger, part of me listening to my sister’s words—we’d be testing the gods if we chose to do this. But another part of me felt the Burning under my skin like fire, turning the word danger into adventure. Excitement coursed through me, electric, intoxicating.

I nodded. A heartbeat later the word, “Yes,” came out of my mouth.

Ethan set off immediately, looking for others to make the trip with us. Meanwhile, I could hear the voice of my grandmother in the background, carrying the lilt of our old language. She was telling a story about Droggal, our ancient underwater homeland, near the Great Island in the midst of the Atlantic. Ireland. That was where my people lived before the exodus, three hundred years ago. I knew from the countless tales that Droggal was nothing like our nearby underwater village of Duncarrig—the castle-city built from the remains of shipwrecks, with spires and masts that stretched toward the surface with wooden fingers.

Still, neither one of them was truly my home.

The myths were my home. Just like my ancestors, I hungered after tales of faraway lands and adventure. From that first moment, thousands of years ago—when my people heard humans talking on the shore—we’ve been enchanted by them. Hidden behind rocks, we learned their language, watching as their fishermen sat around a common fire in the evenings, telling stories. They told legends of the sea, of bravery and undying love. At first, we repeated their stories, telling them one to another. Then in time, we learned to tell our own stories and we too would leave the sea at night—just like they did—to gather around fires, creating our own legends.

And Kira Callahan lived inside one of these stories; she was a creature of legends, with a history still unfolding.

That very night I decided I had to see her for myself. I didn’t care about the treaty or our ever-warring enemies or the fact that my father was the leader of our militia. I needed to find out if Kira Callahan was real.

 

Chapter 3

 

 

 

Kira:

Gray skies gave way to blue, seagulls circled overhead, and almost everyone else in California was still asleep. But I was racing as if my life depended on it. The rest of the world faded away, from the seals that waited back on shore to the homework I hadn’t finished. Sand spun beneath my feet as I ran across the beach, waves curling and snapping as I approached. Hands over my head, I dove into the water.

He was just a step behind me, I could feel it.

I made my way past the breakers, entered the land of curving, undulating swells. At that point, I fell into a natural rhythm. One arm after another, I pummeled the water in freestyle until I couldn’t feel the motion anymore; I climbed up one blue hill and then slid down its back, my heartbeat and my breathing falling into a pattern with the sea and the sky. Everything was blue and gray and green, my lips tasted of salt, and a sense of adventure and exhilaration overwhelmed me.

I looked over my shoulder and laughed. My best friend, Sean, was catching up with me, just an arm’s length away. When we were both younger, he used to let me win. Not anymore. Now I had to fight hard to beat him during our weekly races.

There was no way he was winning today.

Today I was stronger than the ocean.

And I didn’t want to stop.

Both of us surrounded by water, Sean was matching me stroke for stroke. We were racing toward the horizon, flying across the top of the ocean, hearts beating in tandem. It was almost as if something out there was calling us—maybe an island or a sunken ship or a mythic undiscovered continent.

Or two skeletons, traveling around the world from one current to the next, their flesh long ago snipped away by scavengers. My mother and my sister. Calling us to join them on the bottom of the ocean.

Sometimes I worried that I had a silent death wish.

This was the hardest part—I wanted to keep swimming, but I knew I had to turn around soon. Sean was already slowing down, a silent signal that he thought we had gone far enough. What he didn’t know was that I swam twice this far when he wasn’t with me. On those days, I would keep going until a cold current tugged at me, pleading with me, and I could almost heartheirvoices, calling my name on the wind.

On those days, I barely had enough strength left to return to shore.

“We should turn around, Kira,” Sean said.

He was treading water and becoming more distant with every stroke I took.

“Kira!” He called out again, his voice a little more faint this time.

It took all of my willpower to stop swimming, to turn away from the wild call of the sea. I slowed, spun around and faced him, surprised at how far away he was, a flesh-and-blood life buoy that bobbed on the rising swells.

He waved and grinned, a challenge on his face.

“Race you back!” he yelled.

“Cheater! You’re already half-way to the beach.”

But it didn’t matter, the race was on, the journey back to shore somehow faster than the journey out to sea. I pelted the water, stroke by stroke, pulling myself closer until I was almost a length behind him. Then a wave swelled and grew behind us. It curled, higher and higher, all the while lifting me above him and, at the same time, sucking him under. I managed to body surf the top of the wave, holding my torso and limbs straight, always right at the crest, until finally it subsided in a wall of gentle foam, depositing me in the shallows.

I ran across the sand, laughing.

A full minute passed before Sean was able to break free from the undertow. He stumbled onto the shore, coughing and shaking his head.

“You’rethe cheater,” he said when he caught his breath.

I tossed him a towel, my hair hanging in a thick tangle down the back of my wetsuit. Seaweed curled around our feet and a herd of seals sprawled on the nearby rocks, watching us with a lazy curiosity.

This was what got me through the day. Me trying to prove I was stronger than the ocean. And me trying to drown out the voices from the past.

“Come on,” Sean said as he led the way back toward the stairs carved in the cliff. “Your guests should be arriving soon and, I have to say, right now you look like crap.”

I made a face at him. This was my big day. The day I would no longer be a little girl. I bolted in front of him, racing toward the stairs.

“Loser,” I called back at him.

A heartbeat later, his feet were pounding the sand right behind me and we were both laughing and running again.

 

 

Sean went home. Meanwhile I scrambled through our living room, trying not to track sand on the rug. I stopped in the kitchen to kiss Gram on the cheek. She grinned and patted me on the shoulder, her attention focused on a cookbook, an array of bowls and measuring cups spread out on the table in front of her.

“Grab me some flour and sugar from the pantry, Kira,” she said.

An easy request. For most people.

I held my breath as I crossed the kitchen, forcing myself to pass the cellar door—closer than I ever came to it on a normal day. As quickly as I could, I scurried past the door, then fumbled my way through the pantry, pretending that I didn’t remember what lay on the other side of the wall.

The stairway. The darkness. The overwhelming smell of dirt.

I grabbed two bags, hoping that they truly were the flour and the sugar because I wasn’t staying in this room any longer than necessary. I set them next to Gram, then I dashed into the bathroom. Heart beating fast, I stripped out of my wetsuit and bathing suit and hopped in the shower. Hot water pelted me, washed away the sand and the salt, steam filling the room, mixing with the fragrance of lavender shampoo.

I thought about the beach, how it had felt when the ocean swell lifted me high in the air. Then I remembered the ghostly voices of my mother and sister, how they had called my name. I shivered despite the hot water that ran down my back.

“Hurry up,” Gram called from the hallway. “Your uncle’s on his way here.”

“I’m almost done,” I called back.

I stood in front of the mirror now, combing my wet hair, but I didn’t like what I saw. My knobby knees were gone and my arms were no longer covered with bruises from scampering up the trees in our yard. All this I could accept. I was sixteen now, some changes were natural.

But I never expected this.

My mother’s face stared back at me through the steam. Long dark hair and lashes, sea green eyes and lips almost too full. Skin that looked like I never went outdoors, no matter how many hours I spent in the sun.   

My mother’s face.

The face of a murderer.     

I got dressed, my movements wooden, and when I came back into the living room, I saw that my first guest had arrived—my uncle. He caught his breath I walked around the corner. He blinked and stared at me open-mouthed, until Gram shoved a cold bottle of Budweiser in his hand.

“What did you expect?” she said to him, a frown on her brow.

He shook his head and stammered, then tried to change the subject, although there hadn’t even been a subject yet. “Jim watching the Giants game this afternoon?” he asked, avoiding my eyes.

“That’s a question you should be asking him,” Gram answered.

My father was still at the store, picking up a cake and some balloons and orange Nehi soda. All the things that had been my favorite when I was seven. I could never tell him that I liked Coke now or that I didn’t really want balloons or that I wasn’t seven anymore—he’d already lost one little girl.

He walked in the door a few minutes later, his hands filled with noise makers and party hats. He ran a gaze across the room, nodded at his brother and Gram, then he jolted to a stop when he saw me, and the grin on his face faded away.

I must have changed overnight and missed it.

Suddenly everyone could see how much I looked like her—the one who had ripped our family apart with her madness. Maybe they were all wondering if that same mental illness was brewing somewhere deep inside me. At any minute I might grab one of the knives from the kitchen drawer and start brandishing it about, snipping anybody who got too close with the bright silver edge.

 

The cellar door closed with a slam.

I beat my fists against the door, fought against the wet moldy darkness.

Outside, my mother screamed and I could hear her breaking things. My sister’s voice joined in the cry until it reached a bloody crescendo pitch.

And then everything fell silent.

My mother began to weep and a long time passed, until finally the door to the cellar swung open. She wrapped her arms about me, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I love you,” she said again and again until those were the only words I knew. Over her shoulder I saw the kitchen, now dressed in twilight shadows. My sister was gone, but something glittered on the linoleum floor, like watery footprints that led out the door. “I’m sorry, Kira, please forgive me,” my mother pleaded.

Then she let me go and I was surrounded by cold air. She turned and sprinted away, out the door, across the yard. I ran after her, my feet slipping in the water on the floor, but it wasn’t water, it was blood. My arms were covered in it, sticky and thick and I felt cold as I ran, following my mother through the overgrown yard, brambles and cockleburs and trees with branches like long arms that tried to grab me and hold me back.

But I couldn’t let her run away from me.

“Mother! Wait!”

I ran as fast as my five-year-old legs would carry me, until the grass gave way to rock and the great Pacific Ocean yawned before us, a horizon of water.

She glanced over her shoulder. “You stay right there!” she warned. “Wait for your father, right there!” And then my mother, who had never learned how to swim, raced toward the cliff and the edge of my world; she dove in a sweet, clean arc that I will never forget, and she disappeared forever. Her slender body became an arrow shooting toward the wave-tossed water.

I scrambled over the fence that my father had put up to protect me and my sister from the dangerous precipice. I ran until I stood at the edge, staring down. Already she was gone, somewhere in the ocean deep.

Almost as if she never wanted to see the surface again.   

 

My father stood in front of me now, Barbie cake in one hand, and he could see it in my eyes. He knew about the tormented memories deep down inside me.

“I love you, Kira,” he said. Simple words. But exactly what I needed to hear. “I’ll always love you.”

I tried to smile even though I knew that part of me was still down in that cellar, listening to those screams, wishing that my mother would let me out and hold me.

Even if her arms were stained with my sister’s blood.

I nodded at him, words stuck in my throat.

Gram shepherded my uncle into the other room, while I helped Dad carry the party favors in the kitchen. Behind us the screen door opened, then slammed shut and the house began to fill with people: my cousins, a couple of Gram’s friends from Behind The Veil—the local paranormal society—and Sean, his hair still wet from a recent shower, just like mine.

I gave him a thin smile and I could see in his eyes that he understood. He always did.

“Wanna go outside?” he asked.

I nodded.

But first Gram handed us each a slice of cake. No birthday song, no waiting until after dinner. Around here we got our sugar rush as fast as possible.

Then, cake in hand, Sean and I headed out the back door.

Just like we had every year since I was six years old.

 

 

The paper plates almost folded in half beneath the weight of chocolate cake with thick pink frosting. Sean smiled, plastic fork digging in and a bite in his mouth before I even sat beside him on the swing set in the yard. Jasmine grew up around the rusty poles and its spicy perfume surrounded us. Inside the house, the grown-ups were either discussing politics or the latest Giants game. Their voices rose, then lowered, then rose again in laughter.

As long as it wasn’t quiet, I was okay.

If it grew quiet, they were talking about me.

“Barbie, huh?” Sean asked, his plate almost empty.

I grinned.

“What did he get on your cake last year?”

“My Little Pony.” My fingers fastened around the chains and I started twisting my swing to the left.

“Classic. Ask him for Transformers next year. I’m getting tired of pink frosting.”

“You ask him.” I was spinning around in a wild circle, my legs outstretched. My foot banged against his leg and sent his paper plate skittering across the yard.

“Hey!” The next time around, he grabbed my foot and held me still. I giggled. He gave me one of those I-dare-you-to-try-that-again looks that only a best friend can pull off. Then he stood up and grabbed my swing, twisted it as hard as it would go, and sent it spinning.

The world flew past, colors blurred, only occasionally did I see his face in the midst of it all. Brown hair, brown eyes, finally taller than me. Cuter than I’d ever admit to him or to myself.

I pushed my legs against the ground, slid to a stop.

Finally I asked the question I’d been wondering about for the past week.

“Did you get your journal back from Mrs. P yet?”

“You’re kidding, right?” he said. “I got it about two weeks ago.”

My final project, my final grade, everything depended on that stupid journal. So far everyone in our honors English class had gotten theirs back. I suddenly wished that I hadn’t eaten any cake. Or that I hadn’t been spinning around.

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