The sharp caw of a crow made me hit the ground like a soldier avoiding gunfire. If acting like an idiot wasn’t bad enough, the hose got loose and soaked me. I glanced up and released a sigh of relief. Only a normal crow. I climbed to my feet and tackled the errant hose before shutting it off. Yes, freaking out at the sound of a crow would be considered weird for any normal person, but when you’ve spent the last several months dodging a Celtic goddess in raven form, well, any large black bird would give you the heebie-jeebies.
The garden was watered, Mrs. Dollard’s five cats were sleeping off a food coma, and the afternoon sun dipped low in the sky. The giant wet spot on my t-shirt was making me cold, and it was time I headed home. Didn’t want to be caught out after sunset. That’s when the faelah are the most active.
A short bark greeted me as I made my way around the house. I smiled. A great white wolfhound with rusty colored ears sat patiently, panting and grinning.
“Hello Fergus. When’s your master coming back?”
I placed a hand on his head and gave him a good scratch. He didn’t answer my question, but I hadn’t expected him to.
Mrs. Dollard’s was only a few houses down from my own, but before I stepped inside, I kept on walking to the end of the street, bypassing the Dead End sign. I’d developed the habit of checking the knothole in the oak tree every day, hoping Cade had left me a new note.
I frowned in disappointment when the knothole proved empty, but it didn’t surprise me. Cade’s absence was understandable. A few months ago I crossed into the Otherworld, bent on saving him from some cruel fate. Turns out the Morrigan, one of the most powerful of all the Otherworldly deities, merely wanted me where she could conveniently kill me. Still being rather ignorant of my roots, I believed her when she told me Cade needed my help. Hey, she’d been pretty convincing, and well, I kind of had a huge crush on the guy, still do. As a matter of fact, I can admit that it’s turned into something far more severe than a simple crush.
Pushing the hair out of my face, I climbed back up the slope and headed towards my bedroom on the basement floor of our house. I didn’t like how much time I spent thinking about Cade; it couldn’t be healthy, but he had saved my life after all. And he’d been the one to tell me the truth about where I’d come from.
My room greeted me with its usual chaos: various items of clothing spread all over the floor and furniture, computer screen saver glowing blue and green, comforter and sheets wadded up into an unintelligible mess.
I jumped, then grumbled. “What Logan?”
My younger brother, oldest of the five, stuck his head through the trap door leading up into the main part of the house. His blond hair fell to the side. I grinned. He looked like some miniature version of a pro surfer.
Logan’s eyes found me and he piped, “Dinner! Oh, and we’re going to the beach for my birthday party tomorrow, remember?”
I cringed. Ah, yes. Forgot about that one. Logan had turned eleven a week ago, but he hadn’t had his party because most of his friends were still on their summer vacations.
“Alright,” I said, “be up in a minute.”
Logan disappeared and I shot a glance back through my sliding glass door. Fergus was gone, but I merely shrugged. He tended to vanish like that a lot. I had no idea if other people were able to see him or not (I didn’t know if he could be seen by mortals), but maybe he didn’t want to take the chance.
After quickly changing into a dry t-shirt and a pair of old sweat pants, I made my way up the spiral staircase and out into the circus that was the Elam family.
Mom darted about the kitchen, getting the last minute dinner items ready, Dad sat in his recliner, as usual, reading the paper, and all five of my brothers, Logan, Bradley, Aiden and even the twins, Jack and Joey, stared at the TV, thoroughly engrossed in some science special. I rolled my eyes. It was one of those ‘deadliest insects’ things and it included a detailed description of what sinister attribute made them so dangerous. My stomach churned when they started describing internal parasites.
“Boys, could you turn that off? We’re about to eat dinner!”
Thank goodness for Mom.
We all sat down and tried to commence as a normal family would at mealtime. Too bad we weren’t normal. One of us was a Faelorehn from the Otherworld. Of course, none of them were aware of my true identity. Like the adoption agency who found me those many years ago, they thought I was just another abandoned human child. I knew if I told my mom and dad what I’d learned over the past year, they wouldn’t be able to accept it. Or they would drag me off to a new psychologist who would only prescribe mind-numbing medication. No thanks. I’d like to have all my wits about me when the Morrigan decided to attack again, thank you very much.
“Meg, you are coming with us tomorrow, correct?”
Dad’s voice snapped me out of my train of thought. I grimaced. Honestly, I didn’t want to go. Not that I had anything against Logan or birthday parties or even the beach, it’s just that ever since my ordeal at the end of spring, I’d been extra wary about wandering too far from home. This is what made Mrs. Dollard’s offer so appealing. Only four houses down the road, piece of cake . . .
“Sure,” I shrugged and stabbed at some green beans.
“Sure?” Mom gave me one of her looks. “Meg, you’ve been practically cooped up in this house all summer. You only ever leave to take care of Matilda Dollard’s cats, take those walks down into the swamp, or to visit Tully.”
Okay, I had good reason not to wander far, reasons having nothing to do with my fear of the faelah creatures creeping out of the dolmarehn hidden deep in the woods. Up until a few weeks ago I had been in a leg cast, and that really limited my mobility. She couldn’t count visiting Tully, my best friend, as ‘never going out’. Tully lived all the way at the head of our street. A good fifteen or so houses down. And my walks in the swamp had the potential to be rather exciting. An Otherworldly creature might show up at any minute and cause quite a stir. And if that Otherworldly creature happened to be Cade . . .
I swallowed and put him as far out of my mind as possible. No need to get all dreamy-eyed at the dinner table. Regardless of what my parents thought, my walks were productive. If Mom knew I practiced with my longbow and arrows during my walks, maybe she would change her mind. Of course, I only went down there alone because Fergus always accompanied me. Should Cade’s spirit guide suddenly disappear, I’d gladly admit defeat and take on the guise of a recluse.
“You have to go Meg!” Logan whined.
I glanced over at him, his blue eyes shining with unshed tears. My heartstrings tightened. How could I deny my little brother anything?
I released a sigh. “What beach again?”
“Avila,” Dad said. “We’re going to have a bonfire and everything, so be sure to bring your warm clothes. It’ll get cold after dark.”
I gritted my teeth despite my smile. After dark . . . I had been lucky the past few months. I’d only seen a handful of faelah wandering around in the swamp; small, demented rodents that often met their end in the jaws of a certain white wolfhound. My own intuition assured me Fergus would not be accompanying me to the beach. Time to face the truth: it had been too long since anything of noticeable significance had happened. I was well overdue for a good haunting.
* * *
The sunny weather in Avila made me forget about my troubles for a while. I helped my parents drag our gear down to the sand and we propped the fold-out chairs, extra towels, bags of food and various water boards and toys against the picnic table closest to the creek fanning out across the shore. Almost immediately, my brothers went tearing off into the wide mouth of the stream, kicking up brackish surf as they screamed and splashed one another.
I looked at my parents and they nodded before they started setting up. We shared a silent agreement between the three of us. Since Aiden, my youngest brother besides the twins, had autism and had a tendency to pay less attention to his surroundings than the others, I made it a point to keep an extra eye on him. Jack and Joey, despite having turned three over winter break, were actually quite self-sufficient. Besides, my other two brothers stuck to them like glue.
Aiden, well, Aiden was different. We’re not sure what caused his autism, but Mom and Dad always suspected it had something to do with the stress he was under during his birth. It had been a difficult delivery, and they had been terrified he wouldn’t make it. He had to stay in the intensive care unit for a few months before we were allowed to bring him home. Perhaps he’d missed out on some vital element and was now trying to compensate. None of that mattered, though. I still loved him dearly; we all did.
I set my own bag down and headed after my brothers. They had all crossed over to the other side of the creek, climbing on the pylons of the road bridge stretching overhead. I chose to cross closer to the shore. I wasn’t a germ freak or anything, but semi-stagnant water just gave me the willies.
“Meg!” Bradley complained from the rock he perched upon. “I want to go check out the tide pools, but Logan’s being a turd!”
“Hey! I said I’d go, I just wanted to wait for Meg!”
A shoving contest ensued as I reached down and scooped Aiden up, grunting a little at his weight. I couldn’t believe how big he was getting. Soon I wouldn’t be able to pick him up at all.
“Bradley, you do know it’s Logan’s birthday party, right? Shouldn’t he choose what to do? His friends will start showing up at any minute, so we should get back to the picnic table and wait for them.”
Through some miracle of older-sisterhood, I managed to round them all up and bring them back. Logan’s friends arrived ten minutes later and soon we were all roasting hotdogs and eating cake.
About an hour before sunset, Logan insisted on going back to the tide pools on the other side of the creek. I shaded my eyes and squinted up at the sky.
“I’m not sure, Logan. By the time we get there we won’t be able to do much exploring.”
Well, if we left before the sun set. The walk didn’t take long, but I wanted to be close to the fire once darkness started settling in. I had encountered the faelah in daylight before, but they preferred the darkness, and the worst attack I ever suffered on this side of Eilé had come right after sunset.
“Go on Meg, you have plenty of time before the sun goes down,” Mom insisted.
I think she wanted the kids to play somewhere else so she and Dad could relax before we started roasting marshmallows.
I squirmed, torn between pleasing my brother and my own, semi-paranoid fear. Eventually I caved. I mean, what were the chances of faelah showing up at the beach anyway? Cade had never mentioned any dolmarehn around the Avila area, and I’m sure he would have if there had been any.
“Alright, but you and Bradley have to help me with Aiden and the twins.”
The small herd of pre-teen boys all cheered in obnoxious unison. Oh boy, this was going to be so fun . . .
The rocky shelf that featured the tidal pools teemed with other beach-goers. I held Aiden’s hand the entire time, pointing out star fish and sea anemones as we carefully walked across the slippery rocks, the deep sloshing sound of the ocean drowning out most of our words. Logan, Bradley, the twins and all of Logan’s friends started hunting for crabs and after a handful of minutes, I allowed myself to relax a little. This was actually pretty nice. Spending quality time with my brothers like a normal, human teenager. Of course, the delusion didn’t last.
“Seal,” Aiden said, pointing towards the water rushing into the giant fissure between the rocks.
I twisted around and looked down, almost slipping on some seaweed in shock. It was a seal, sort-of. A dark head turned to gaze at me, but instead of seeing the cute, whiskered face and big brown eyes of a spotted seal, I caught a glimpse of the deep ocean-blue eyes of a young woman. I blinked several times, but the vision didn’t fade. It was as if someone had skinned a harbor seal and now floated around beneath the tide pools, wearing the skin as some sort of gruesome robe.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one to be surprised. The seal woman’s dark eyes grew wide and she pulled the seal skin over her face. I had to blink again. No human likeness remained, but in her place floated an actual seal. Wait, what had just happened?
“Perty,” Aiden whispered.
I looked at him. He liked animals, and I’m sure he only noticed a seal. Cade had once told me about Otherworldly glamour and from past experience, I knew not all the faelah made their presence known.
“Yes Aiden, very pretty,” I murmured.
The sun fell beyond the horizon and no more Otherworldly beasts surprised us. On our walk back, I contemplated what I’d seen. I mentally went through the various Irish myths I had read in one of my books. I knew the seal had seemed familiar, but why? A faded memory suddenly came back to me. The Silkies; Irish seal-people. Had the creature been a Silkie?
Now that I’d decided what she was, I wracked my brain for more details. When Silkies removed their seal skin, they became human, and if another human being got a hold of the seal skin, they could control the Silkie. I shivered, hoping my obvious recognition would encourage the Silkie to find a much less populated beach to visit. Glamour or not, that was too high a price to pay if someone managed to steal her skin.
“Ah, there you are!” my dad crooned as we came traipsing back to the picnic table.
Delight coursed through me when I caught sight of the fire, for we were all soaked from the waist down.
“Who’s ready for some marshmallows?”
I pulled up a lawn chair and jabbed a marshmallow on the end of my stick as I let the warmth of the fire pour over me. The boys started sharing ghost stories, but I blocked them out and instead focused on the sound of the waves crashing against the shore. I remembered Cade telling me once how the ocean soothed him. On a normal day, I would have been of the same opinion. The only problem was, he wasn’t here at the moment, and that fact alone dashed away any hopes of feeling truly content.