Excerpt for Echoes (Whispers of White, Book 1) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords




Echoes

By Miranda Marie







This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.


Copyright © 2017 by Miranda Marie


All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system—other than for review purposes—without written permission from the author.


Cover Design by Miranda Marie










For –


All the Kids Who Hear the Echoes



A Note


I wrote this book while I was learning to cope with my new disability and coming into acceptance that it is a part of who I am – and not something that somehow makes me less lovable or less of a person. Though people told me that often, it was still something that I had to come to terms with myself, and this was, in part, my way of doing that.

That being said, Emma’s story is very…honest of me. I’m the type of person that often hides my pain and tears behind a smile or a silver lining, not fully acknowledging the truth of the hurt or sorrow. Having my future as I had once seen it taken from me brought me through a journey of grief, and it was hard to acknowledge my sadness, even to myself. Because of that, I did what I always do – I wrote.

I’ve had the idea of this story in my head for a long time now, but never been quite brave enough to write it down, because of its sad nature. I’m just not good at writing sad things. I’m always worried someone will judge me for it, in some way. But I guess this journey has given me the courage to do so, and so here it is. That being said, this story isn’t about me or my disability in any way, it was just a good outlet during a sad time in my life.

This book is raw. It’s sad. It’s as real as I knew how to write it. You have been warned.








Part One

The Night Twins



One




Straw was like sunshine woven into sharp shafts of gold. It left red pricks on Emma’s hands, like the sun it used to be still wanted to burn. She turned her hands over in her lap to study the small red welts. Her skin had risen in dozens of places due to the straw burns, and she brushed her thumb cautiously over her palm.

She was used to these, the way some people were used to soggy cereal or the smell of cigarettes. It was a piece of her life as familiar as the faded flannel shirt she wore, as sunrise or sunset. As familiar as breathing.

Breathing didn’t pay, though, and straw burns did. Because straw burns meant work and work meant money and money meant...

Food.

There was a low, dull ache in her abdomen. It was like the constant hum of wind in Wyoming or the buzz of cars in Chicago. Like a sound so common that you hardly remember it exists until something reminds you – something like straw burns.

That’s always how it was for Emma. That dull ache and the part of her head that kept track so she wouldn’t wait too long. Too long – like the book no one finishes. Like the wait for something important. Like the last hour before sunrise when the world holds its breath and waits, waits, waits for the sun, so that every moment feels like a prayer.

“Too long” was when the dull ache left, signaling that she had left hunger behind and entered into starvation. But she would not reach that point today – no, not today, with the straw burns branded into her palms.

Today was good.

Emma peered over her shoulder at the straw that towered above her in the barn, creating a mountain of woven sunshine bricks. She had placed every bale herself in the last three days. She’d counted every truckload carefully as they came, storing the number securely in her mind like a precious keepsake. Like a gift from someone long gone.

The ranch’s owner had said he would pay her once she’d unloaded and stacked fifty truckloads in the barn.

This last had been the fiftieth.

The sun was going down now, lighting the world with liquid fire. Emma slipped from the barn and shut the door and set the latch. Her fingers slid over the warm, fire-soaked metal briefly, drawing warmth from it on the chilly fall day. To Emma, the warmth felt like a gift.

After a moment, she drew herself away from the metal’s present and turned. Her eyes flickered over the pasture’s occupants, one of whom whinnied a soft greeting to her, but she forced her steps to move away instead of drawing closer. She would not have the courage to approach the house come dark. She never did, never could. Experience drove her away from buildings come nightfall, taking her instead into the woods or out to the pasture.

Anywhere no one else would be. Anywhere as empty as a canteen after two days in the desert – as empty as the horizon in Nebraska.

Her steps made no sound as she walked up the long path to the farmhouse. It sat halfway up the hill, nestled between some trees as though it was hiding from the rest of the world. To Emma, it seemed as though the house was as nervous about the people around it as she was.

Her fingers brushed lightly against the rail as she made her way up the steps and across the porch. The boards played a soft, creaking melody beneath her worn sneakers until she paused beside the doorway. The white door and sliding screen were propped out of the way, leaving the path as open to Emma as the pastures beyond the barn, yet she didn’t move even a step inside. Her eyes darted cautiously around the parts of the house she could see, as if even that was an intrusion she wasn’t sure she should make.

Houses were private to her. They told stories too intimate for a stranger, too personal for a girl stacking straw in the barn. It was like a piece of someone’s life laid open to the world, telling her as much as a photo album of their most special moments. She could read a lot from a person’s home, and she wished often that she couldn’t. While she could keep her feet from intruding, her mind was harder to rein in.

Impossible, she thought. Impossible, like running faster than a train. Like jumping over an ocean. Like taming a raging river. Impossible like her.

Her gaze dropped a second later, as soon as the rancher’s wife appeared in the kitchen. It took a long while more, though, for the woman to notice her in return. That was also something to which Emma was accustomed. Her silence made her invisible. She was as see-through as glass, as unnoticed as shadows at noon.

Most of the time, that was best. It was always better to vanish into the shadows in an alley, to become lost to sight when the world was watching and waiting.

And the world was always waiting.

Today, however, Emma knew was the exception. She had to ask, before it was “too long” like a winter that never seemed to end.

Cautiously, her hand raised and tapped a soft rhythm on the doorframe, pulling the lady’s gaze from her oven. Emma’s aching stomach twisted at the sweet smell of baking cornbread drifting from the open oven door. She brushed it away, however, burying it beneath the dozens of other thoughts that swirled, swirled, swirled through her mind endlessly, like a hurricane she couldn’t tame.

“Hello. Can I help you?” the woman asked. Her voice drawled a bit, sounding the same as everyone here did – like Texas. To Emma, the state’s very essence was trapped within that familiar accented tone. States were people, and people were their words, and their words were their accents.

Emma’s weight shifted slightly to her other foot, the board beneath her adding a single, belated note to the melody her feet had played across the porch. Her head came up just fractionally, her lips parting, but no words would come for another four breaths as Emma’s hurricane-mind sought for the right words to say. Words were hard things for her. Harder than fifty sunshine bricks in a barn. Harder than walking fifty miles in the snow. Harder than anything else Emma had ever done.

Because words were precious. More so than anything else she’d encountered, and she was afraid if she said too many, the result would be catastrophic. Disastrous. The way a hurricane ripped cities to shreds, she was afraid her hurricane thoughts would seep out and rip apart the world. And she knew what hurricanes could do. She had the rough dent in her skull to prove it. She’d seen it, felt it, been ripped apart by it with the rest of the city.

It had torn away her past self from her present self and left the two of them forever separate. It had stolen from her every memory from before the hurricane and left her empty of all knowledge of her past. The hurricane had stolen more than just her memory – it had stolen her. It had stolen everything that made Emma her own. She was like a computer wiped and set back at factory settings. Like she was just a shell, an unused model, an empty body with nothing to call hers.

And that was what Emma would do if she let too many thoughts out into the world. She’d lose control of them, lose control of the ‘her’ that was left, and then it would end. Then it would all end.

Those were the thoughts in her racing, hurricane-mind in the quarter minute before the right words emerged and slipped past her lips into the silence. They cut away the silence like a pair of scissors cutting a ribbon that stretched between her and the rancher’s wife. “…I finished.”

The lady smiled like those words were pleasant to her. The way people smiled after receiving a gift or going to a fair. The way people smiled when something warmed them inside and out, like sunshine on the first pleasant day of spring.

Emma ducked her head again a bit, looking away and down at the floor instead. It felt too much like a gift to Emma, that springtime smile. A gift she couldn’t take and didn’t deserve. Her hands twisted around her shirt sleeves as her eyes remained down at her faded jeans and the dusty floorboards of the porch.

“Alright, then, I’ll go get my husband. You wait right there, sweetheart.”

The woman’s footsteps were drowned out by the cascade of memories the endearment brought to the front of Emma’s mind. Images flashed by of several alleys and a half-dozen encounters, but she blinked quickly to dislodge them. They tumbled back from the front of her mind again, rejoining the hurricane of thoughts and memories churning just beyond her conscious control.

It took twenty-two breaths for the woman to return with her husband, and Emma kept her gaze down for all of them. She studied the wisps of dust dancing around the floorboards at every small provocation by the breeze. It wasn’t until their steps stopped just across the doorway from her that she lifted her dark brown eyes to theirs reluctantly.

“My wife tells me you finished with the straw,” he said, his tone attempting to embody the very essence of cheerful, like Easter bells heralding the holiday.

Emma gave a small nod in answer, fingers twisting her shirt sleeves a bit. He smiled at her in a way that she knew was an attempt at reassurance, but she felt none of the intended effect. Behind her, she could feel the air becoming colder with every inch the sun vanished behind the hills, like even the sun was ready to hide from prying eyes. It would be dark soon, and she wanted to be as far from the buildings as possible by then.

“Well, let’s go have a look, then, shall we?” he asked, grabbing his jacket from by the door and stepping out onto the porch with her. The boards beneath their feet whispered another few notes under his weight. Keeping her head down, Emma added to the melody as her feet softly crossed the porch, their notes gathering in her head like a tune she knew by heart.

Her feet carried her down the steps and onto the ground, trailing behind him down the long hill to the barn. He unlatched the door and the creaking of the hinges added itself to the melody her head was filing away. The rancher stepped inside and glanced up at the massive mountain of golden sun-bricks. They’d use it for bedding for the horses and other livestock for the coming winter. Since the ranch had a total of three barns and five lean-tos, the amount of straw she’d stacked was necessary for that purpose only. To the other side, that amount and more was stacked of the hay they’d feed the animals. In here, it would remain out of the snow and wouldn’t become damp and moldy.

The rancher looked it all over, then nodded his satisfaction. Turning to Emma, he smiled his Easter-morning pleasure at her and reached into his pocket for his wallet.

“I suppose you’d like to be paid then?”

Two




Black satin and lace filled the air, turning the world from day to night. The lace blanketed the ground in an uneven, shadowed pattern and the satin settled over the blue sky. Tiny pinpricks appeared along it as it darkened, darkened, darkened, creating patterns above Emma like a million glittering jewels. Night was always the most stunning time of day. It was as though Time put on its best evening gown, adorned its finest diamonds, and appeared to wander the sky while the world slept on, never aware of what it was missing.

She was not the only one out tonight, though. She felt their presence long before she saw the two people waiting for her out in the far pasture. She felt it in the way her chest tightened briefly and her skin prickled with warning. She heard it in the way the horses’ soft whinnies warned her of something unfamiliar to them. And, finally, drawing close to where they waited, she smelled it on the air in the misplaced scent of roses and lilac.

Her steps hesitated, slowed, and then stopped near the tree line where she knew them to be waiting. Experience warned her that whoever was waiting for her beyond the trees would be anything but friendly. Though the night may have been the most stunning time of day, it held no warmth or friendliness for those who wandered out into it. It was a cold mistress, beautiful but unkind. Stunning but unloving. And Emma knew she was no exception to that coldness, no matter how often she and the Night walked in each other’s company. The night formed friendships with no one.

She waited then, knowing whoever was there would show themselves in their own time. It took only fifteen breaths before they stepped out from the folds of the night-lace, and as they did, for a moment Emma thought it was the night herself emerging. Her dress was black like the nighttime’s, speckled with tiny white gems around the scalloped neckline and dotting the flowing, slit sleeves. Her smile was every bit as stunning and cold as the night itself – perfect but unwelcoming. Cold ice-blue eyes swept over Emma from a face as gorgeous as the stars themselves. The only thing differing the beautiful teenage girl from the nighttime was her sunshine-colored hair.

Emma’s eyes slowly moved from the girl to her companion. The two of them could have been a matching set, like two bookends that were nearly identical – from his sunshine hair to his ice-blue eyes to that cold-but-stunning smile.

“Hello, Emma,” the girl said, drawing Emma’s attention back to her. Her voice was soft and airy, every bit as captivating as the rest of her. Little pricks covered Emma’s arms as warnings went off in her head. Experience told Emma that captivating meant dangerous. Her fingers sought her sleeves to pull them down over her hands.

“Hi,” she replied, her own voice too soft and too husky from misuse to fit with the girl’s perfect one. Hers was sandpaper, while the Night’s was silk.

The girl’s hand extended toward Emma, causing her to draw back just a touch. Her head exploded into a rush of noise, as hundreds of memories of hands reaching for her played in her mind. For a moment, Emma lost sight of reality and was caught in the echoes from her past, until she fought them back again. It was a war she waged against her own mind day after endless day. Sometimes the echoes were so loud that they took over all her senses and she was swallowed alive.

Blinking a few times, Emma caught sight of the Night-Girl’s hand, hovering just in front of her, at the same moment she became aware of the boy’s laughter. It was as bright as noon and as mocking as a cruel joke. “You shake it,” he told her, tone patronizing.

The girl smiled her perfect, cold smile as though amused, but Emma made no move to take her hand. Her own remained buried in her shirt sleeves, hidden away from sight. Emma’s greatest tell was the trembling in her hands, she knew.

After another few seconds, the girl dropped her hand with a mockingly sympathetic look. “No reason to be so frightened, Emma darling. We’re everything you’ve been waiting for.”

The words felt like cold sleet against Emma’s skin, raising goosebumps under her sleeves. Each of the words could have been ice, and there was no reassurance in them. Deceit fell from the girl’s tongue as easy as poison flowed from a snake’s bite. Emma’s foot stepped back through the frost-coated grass, away from her. “Am not…waiting,” Emma replied, the last word too long after the others, her mind scrambling to place the one she wanted in the chaos raised by the girl’s words.

“Nonsense,” she replied, her silk-voice as smooth as the movement she made towards Emma. She might have been floating rather than walking, her steps were so fluid. “Everyone is waiting for something.”

Emma’s gaze flickered briefly to the boy as he circled around, moving behind her and cutting off her retreat. She was as used to being trapped as a tiger in the zoo or the horses in the corral. It was as common to Emma as picnics in summer or coffee in the morning. It was a reality as ordinary as frostbite to people like her – people who lived on the streets and wandered in the most dangerous places of life.

“Trapped” was a way of life, and Emma had learned how to live it as expertly as someone twice her age. She didn’t turn, despite losing track of the boy with her gaze. She could tell where he was behind her by the sound of his steps against the frosted ground. They each made a soft crunch as he moved, as though the frost was whispering soft warnings to her with every step.

Her eyes, instead, remained trained on the Night-Girl. It was more than obvious to Emma that she was the danger, the one in charge, the threat of which Emma needed to keep track. The boy would do nothing the girl didn’t tell him to do. He was a foot soldier, while she was the Queen. If Emma had to choose one to watch, it would be the latter.

“What do…you want?” she asked slowly, her sandpaper voice grating across the silk the girl’s had left in the air.

“I want you to realize that this...” the girl hesitated, her perfect nose wrinkling as though the word she was about to say was as sour to her as a fresh-cut lemon, “life you’ve chosen is worthless. You were meant for greater things than stacking straw in barns and cleaning out stalls.”

Emma’s foot inched to the side, so fractionally it was almost as if she hadn’t moved at all. As though the place where her foot had been was the same as the place her foot was now. “Like…what?” her words asked, as slow as her cautious, inching steps. Inwardly, her hurricane-thoughts scrambled to tell her how far she’d have to go before she could break free and run without them being able to stop her.

She needed to be a foot out of the boy’s reach. A foot would give her enough room to leap away before his cold fingers could catch around her arms and stop her. Just enough room that she could take off and never look back. She knew she could outrun them. She could outrun anyone if she had the chance.

Yet she wouldn’t go until she knew why they’d come for her. The question hanging in the air pounded itself behind her ribs in time with her heart. It was like a steady drum, counting the half seconds between every breath. No one had ever come for Emma for any other reason than to take something from her. They’d never come with words before – never with a knowledge of her name, as though they knew her, as though she ought to know them.

The girl like Night stepped forward toward Emma, increasing the distance she’d have to go, before she smiled that perfect, cold smile. Frost grew inside Emma’s chest, simultaneously making her ache for the answer and dread it. Her mind tumbled out of control as it tried to gauge the words’ truthfulness before they even left the other girl’s lips.

“A life like a princess’s, Emma White,” Night replied. “A life with servants and money. A life where you don’t have to wonder when you’ll eat next. A life where you give the orders, not take them from these worthless backroad dwellers. Come with me and I’ll show you the kind of life you were born for.”

Emma breathed in the words and filed them away, tucking them into the corner of her mind to sort through later, but even as she did, they rang false. Like a piano note that wasn’t quite right. Like a bell that was rung with a hand around its base, making the noise hollow and empty. The words held nothing in them, nothing but an empty attempt at distraction, while Emma could feel the boy behind her inching closer, increasing the distance for her to go even more. Every second that ticked by in her head like an old clock in a silent house told her that the Night-Girl meant nothing she said.

Emma was not a princess. She did not give the orders, she did not have the money. She was nothing in this girl’s eyes, other than a pawn in whatever scheme had brought her here – something to play with and then discard later. And whatever the game was the girl was playing, Emma wanted no piece of it. Like the dozens of others that had come before her, her dazzling smiles and beautiful words meant nothing, absolutely nothing.

Nothing, that was, except that she had to get away before their cold fingers closed around her and pulled her under. She shook her head briefly, her inching steps carrying her, finally, until she was far enough away. Her answer was a single, quiet, “No,” before she turned. Her foot pressed against the frost-coated grass for a fraction of a second before she pushed herself out of their reach and ran.

Ran from the lies and the smiles and the emptiness in their words.

Behind her, she could hear the boy’s startled grunt and felt for a moment his fingertips brush against her arm before she darted away. There were four pounding steps, falling into time with her own, before the Night-Girl’s voice cut through the dark behind Emma.

“Let her go. She’ll learn soon enough that she can’t run from herself.”

Three




Time was the second most difficult thing for Emma, right after words. Though her mind counted seconds to days perfectly, weeks and months merged together into a confusing tangle as knotted as the discarded yarn at the bottom of a knitting basket. This confusing jumble had begun almost instantly after she’d woken up in the crisp, white hospital room.

The nurses and doctors, with no knowledge of who she was or what family she had belonged to, had named her like the dozens of others brought in from the devastation the hurricane had caused – Jane Doe. She’d received a severe head trauma and the only memory she had was…

The water. She remembered it with such shocking detail that sometimes she woke from the nightmares believing she was still in it. She could recall every crashing wave as it ripped at her limbs like angry hands. It was as though the water itself sought to punish her for some crime she could not remember. She recalled the sensation of those icy water-hands wrapping themselves around her and dragging her down, down, down. They spun her so fast and so hard that she soon lost track of which way was up. Not that it mattered. It wasn’t long before she was thrown by the waves into the base of a streetlight. In the dreams, Emma’s mind counted five times she’d hit into it before the blow that, mercifully, knocked her consciousness from her mind.

Why she remembered the accident itself and nothing before was not something Emma could explain, but then, she couldn’t explain much of what had happened to her, before or since.

Her difficulty with understanding time was only strengthened by the confusion over her age. While others might measure time based around their own experience of it, Emma had nearly none to go on. The doctors and nurses hadn’t known how old she was, and any estimation they might have made, they kept to themselves. No one knew anything about her, including herself, until Ethan had appeared.

Ethan was what the doctors had called her “Legal Guardian”. With no knowledge of even her own name, the two words that had labeled the scatterbrained, energetic man meant nothing to Emma. She’d dared not ask him after he’d signed the papers and taken her out to his shining, brand new convertible, and he seemed interested in anything other than her. Even Emma, with her lack of all tangible knowledge, had understood that. The only piece of information he had imparted to her were the two words that she now clung to as her own – Emma White. Her name.

After that, time continued to be as elusive to Emma as a shy and reserved cat. The next day had whizzed past in a blur of car rides and Ethan’s loud, frightening musical taste. No matter where they were driving or what they were doing, the sound of it banged in time with Emma’s headache.

And that was all that Emma had, had of the man. He’d driven her out into the middle of nowhere, to a ranch in a place Emma had never heard of and didn’t know, and left her there. The woman who had greeted her had explained in clipped, unfriendly words that her “legal guardian” had signed her onto their summer program – where “delinquents” worked at the ranch for room and board. It gave the ranch the workhands they needed, and kept the rowdy, uncooperative teenagers out of trouble for the summer.

It was then her mind had begun to file away the words into the corner of her mind labeled as her own. The first had been her name – Emma White. The second had been Delinquent.

The summer ended and they were loaded onto the bus and taken to be dropped off at the edge of a small town. Waiting in the parking lot of a fast food restaurant, Emma had received her third word. One by one, the other kids were picked up by their parents or their guardians or their foster parents. One by one, the parking lot emptied, until it was just Emma sitting at the outside picnic tables, watching as the sun set and disappeared.

The third word was Unwanted. No one ever came for her.


))))((((


That had been two summers ago now, and time was still a tangled mess of yarn at the bottom of Emma’s mind. The closest she came to counting time was counting the seasons as they passed, though even that was complicated. There was no clear start and end to them, the way there was a start and end to every day. Not that it mattered much in Emma’s world. Her world was dictated by dawn and sunset, the way every ranch hand’s was. Up with the sun to begin work and finish when the sun goes down.

Even between ranches and work, she found it mattered little what the rest of the world called the days and seasons. Sometimes it was hot like spicy chicken and sometimes it was cold like popsicles. Other times it was sunny like laughter or cloudy like teardrops – and that was the only one she minded much. The big drops against her skin brought images of thrashing, icy waves back to the front of her mind, and her head would throb with the reminder of that night. On those days, she stayed away from the open roads and pastures, hiding with the animals under the trees or in the barns.

She was as good at hiding as she was at running; as experienced with the two as some girls her age were at braiding their hair or doing their makeup.

With the money from the sun bricks, she had no reason to stay on the ranch where Night and her brother had found her. So, like every other time she’d had no reason to stay and every reason to go, Emma’s feet took her away from the ranch. She left no goodbye, no parting words or explanation for her disappearance – she never did. Trying to explain to strangers why she left was an unnecessary difficulty, when Emma had no reason to believe they cared either way. She was a means to an end to them, as they were to her.

The gravel road under her feet was nearly the only noise that night, as she walked. The soft sighs from the loose rocks marked her progress as the moon slowly worked its way across the sky towards the horizon. Watching it pull ahead of her, Emma thought that the moon was the only person that had ever outrun her.

Then again, the moon had been running a lot longer than she had. Briefly, her hurricane thoughts wondered what it was the moon was running from, but there was no answer in the satin air around her. There was just the sighing of the rocks and the occasional giggle of the breeze dancing through the grasses.

By the time the moon had vanished over the horizon, Emma’s legs ached dully, mirroring her stomach. Even her thoughts were quieter now, exhaustion weighing them down like pebbles trying to float on a lake’s surface. Still, her nervous fingers tapped out the rhythm of her heartbeat on her faded jeans and her ears questioned the air around her for any unfamiliar sounds.

Then, slowly, eventually, the sounds began to drift to her. An occasional squeal of brakes, the dull hum of traffic, and as the sun rose behind her, the soft flutter of voices like butterfly wings against Emma’s skin. It was so subtle she almost wondered for a time if it was there at all, before her eyes confirmed what her senses were claiming, adding validity and truth to the assumption.

As dawn faded to early morning, Emma’s steps found themselves on the paved streets that marked the outskirts of the city. She passed well-kept houses in a part of town that didn’t belong to her any more than the life Night had tried to say was her birthright. People’s gazes lifted from placing briefcases and purses in cars to watch her pass. In their eyes was the kind of mild curiosity used when observing a migrating bird. Emma was nothing more than a brief oddity that would soon vanish, leaving them with no memory of her. If she were to penetrate deeper into the thoughts of those here, it would be as a suspicion and a threat – an obviously low-income child wandering the streets of a high-income neighborhood was nearly always labeled as seeking mischief.

Delinquent, the word whispered through her mind.

Emma’s steps slowly took her to a small diner just past the residential area. It was a pretty place that reminded Emma of a cherry. The outside was blood-red and the front was rounded rather than square, giving it the look of a perfectly-shaped piece of fruit. Above the door, a pretty green and white awning shielded the door from the sun’s glaring heat. Her hand settled on the cool metal of the door handle and eased it open.

Doorbells were one of the few things in this world that Emma disliked. Their sound was pleasant enough – cheerful like laughter and bright like spring – and their purpose seemed practical in every other manner. But with every doorbell that sounded as she pushed the glass inward, eyes were drawn to her. Eyes that, more often than not, looked back at her with disgust or disdain. Eyes that reminded Emma that she was the Unwanted, the Delinquent, the one that didn’t belong.

Her head ducked, dropping her gaze away from those that stared at her blatantly, and slipped silently through the building to pick a booth in the center. Though instinct would have pressed her to seek one in a corner, away from eyes and ears and that better-than-you expression tainting the expressions near her, she knew better than to give in to it. To retreat to the corner would only draw further attention to herself, causing her to stand out as self-conscious and uncertain – weak. To be viewed as weak anywhere was to be preyed upon like a fawn in a den of lions.

The only way to rise above was to raise yourself. That was one lesson Emma had learned long ago. The lower you allowed the gazes and the voices and the whispers in the wind to press you, the lower you sank, until you were caught forever in the quicksand. Sinking, sinking, sinking like an anchor, you’d find no hand to draw you out and bring you up. None, that was, but your own.

So, she sat in the center of the restaurants.

So, she traced the lines of the napkins to distract herself.

So, she didn’t listen, didn’t see, didn’t feel their words and their voices.

They meant nothing, aside from what she gave them the power to mean. She was the dictionary – she created their definitions in her own mind. She was not listening or seeing their disgust and their disdain. She was listening and seeing their misunderstanding, as though the words they spoke and the looks they gave her were nothing more than a paper filled with misused words. And that was alright. It was not their fault that they didn’t understand what the words of her language meant – because she didn’t understand the words of theirs, either.

No one truly ever understood someone else’s language entirely. It was like trying to draw every snowflake that had ever been or ever would be. People were their voices, but their voices were mostly hidden in their minds. The way Emma’s words were only a fraction of her hurricane thoughts, she thought that everyone else must be the same. Their languages were buried inside their minds, taking the form of a hundred million snowflakes, creating unique patterns and symbols. And to her, their languages felt distrustful and disgusted, but to them, they must feel entirely different.

Thus, she did not blame them for the staring, and the frowning, and the words that whispered around her like bees seeking out skin to sting. She didn’t blame their blatant disregard for the life they were criticizing with no recollection of who this girl was or what she’d been through. She didn’t even blame them when those words turned to fisted hands or when bruises appeared across her skin, on those occasions when their misunderstanding pressed them to violence. She didn’t blame them for anything, really.

She never did.

The waitress came eventually. Eventually, the way the tide couldn’t stay out to sea forever. The way summer always has to fade to autumn and autumn to winter. The way people knew they couldn’t avoid Emma forever, when her patience was as thickly applied as some girls’ mascara.

The waitress frowned as she approached with the slowness of a reluctant caterpillar. “What’ll you have?” she asked, in the clipped tones of those who wish they didn’t have to give their precious words away to someone they deemed unworthy. Emma understood the hesitation – after all, words were gifts, and anyone wise would be cautious to whom they gave that gift.

Emma hesitated on her reply, her mind scrambling to find the words she wanted, her lips parting but no sound coming out for several breaths more.

This was, of course, the perfect opportunity for the two teenage boys sitting in the next booth over. Their laughs swirled through the air like a sharp wind seeking out something to knock over, interrupting Emma’s concentration so that she lost the words she’d just located. “What’s wrong, Princess, cat got your tongue?”

“Wouldn’t surprise me, since she’s gaping like a fish,” the other remarked. The comparison of Emma to a fish held captive by a cat was apparently close enough to wit that it caught the other boy’s undivided pleasure. His laughter rang through the restaurant, drawing every eye to them.

Emma blinked back at the two of them with the same, neutral expression she always wore. She forgave them their poorly executed insults. She didn’t mind their jabs or their laughter. She didn’t mind the eyes that bore into her like pickaxes, trying to dig out some reaction from her. The only thing that Emma really minded was that the interruption had chased away the words she’d been trying to locate for the waitress.

After giggling with no attempt to hide it, the young woman’s gaze turned back to Emma, her eyebrows arching in an exaggerated version of impatience. Emma knew that the act was not meant for her alone. The waitress had transformed in that moment like a caterpillar into a butterfly, taking on the new role of ‘actress’ as flawlessly as that caterpillar learned to fly. The entire diner was her captive audience, and she was playing to the back of the crowd. “I don’t have all day, sweetheart. Let’s not keep the cooks waiting. What’s your order?”

The waitress’s voice had molded to a perfect, deep-Southern accent that sent giggles rippling all throughout the building. She was flying, lifting from the ground on her brand-new wings and soaring. Emma could see her soaking in the attention like she had been born with a spotlight on her, as if she’d been waiting for this moment her entire life. She took to the sky and didn’t look back, unaware or uncaring that her transformation was at the expense of someone else. The waitress was elated, her moment of glory like the wind under her colorful wings, lifting her above the ground that had been, until this moment, her existence in life.

Emma’s hands fell into her lap, tapping a jittering rhythm on her knees as she tried, unsuccessfully, to relocate the words she needed. Her mind, instead, ticked by the seconds, one by one. Emma’s lips parted again, preparing to ask for the options. She would seize on whatever first came out of the butterfly-actress’s mouth, as she had no preference on what it was she was served to eat.

She had no chance to pose the question, as again the two boys causing the commotion spoke up. “Maybe she can’t speak,” the one remarked loudly.

“Look at her hands twitch. Maybe she only knows sign language. Anyone here an interpreter for the stupid?”

Emma’s hands fell still almost instantly, her gaze dropping to the napkin she had been tracing before. The waitress giggled again, the sound bright and cheerful, though Emma felt none of its sunshine. Instead, she waited it out the way she had waited for the waitress’s attention in the start, her sea of patience as untouched as the center of the ocean on a clear, windless day.

In their laughter, she heard only misunderstand-ing.

In their words, she felt only their confusion.

She was not deaf. She was not stupid. She was only cautious of the words she let out, for fear they would rip those around her apart. She was careful for them, because they were more important than their laughter or their confusion. Because they were more important than Emma’s aching stomach or her aching heart.

But they could not understand. They could not, because Emma could not tell them. So she let them laugh, waiting as she always waited, for the moment to pass and their brief attention to be taken elsewhere. She knew if she remained still and silent, if she did not feed their amusement, it would be short-lived. She was, after all, nothing of significance. So this, too, would pass with a few more breaths and a few more beats of her aching heart.

She imagined herself a statue in that moment – the kind of statue in a park that everyone passes by but no one stops and looks at. One that was crafted by someone who thought it beautiful once, but that no one else even glances at a second time. She was made of bronze, unable to move or hear or see. She was frozen in time, untouched by the changing elements and people. She imagined herself to be disinteresting in every way.

The boys made a few more remarks, but soon the others in the room lost interest in the silent, unmoving girl. The butterfly-actress faded again into the caterpillar-waitress, and with the silence of the room, Emma’s words returned to her once again. Her lips managed to form them, one by one, for the waitress’s waiting pencil and paper. “Eggs… and orange… juice, please.”


))))((((


Emma had long ago given up on “should have been”s. Life was not something that bowed to the predictable. It was not something you could press into a mold or a fence. If you dared to pretend you could see where it would go, it would turn the other way, if only out of defiance. Life was not a player that you could get into its mind and predict its next move. It was as random as the pattern raindrops created on the dry earth. It fell how it would, unmastered by all but the Almighty.

She was not surprised, then, by the fact that the encounter in the diner did not end when she slipped from its cherry-colored walls and out into the street. The doorbell rang behind her almost immediately, signaling that someone else had come out too. She knew who it was by the way their steps fell against the pavement – both sets too heavy for a woman’s but too light for a man’s.

The boys slipped onto either side of her, the one to her left flashing her a smile that would have been better suited for a predatory animal. “So where are you going, sugar?” the one asked.

The pet name made the small tremors return to the tips of Emma’s fingers, and her hands sought to draw the material back down over her fingers. One of the boys noticed, however, and reached out to snag her hand as though it was his for the taking – his as much as the breakfast he had bought inside.

Little bolts of electricity raced beneath her skin where he touched her, as though her very atoms protested the contact. Her skin crackled and burned, the way it always did. It was like her skin screamed the things that Emma’s hurricane mind could not force past her lips. As if her body was trying to make up for the fact that Emma refused to protest for fear of what it would cost those who dared. The pain only made the tremors in her fingertips stronger, though, and that made the boy smile.

“What’s the matter, sweetpea?” he asked cheerfully. “You aren’t scared, are you?”

She blinked at him with the same neutral expression with which she’d returned their poor insults back in the diner. Her lips parted, waited a moment, and replied emotionlessly, “…isn’t that the common… emotion to being… followed by… strangers?”

The words grew further and further apart with each, as Emma’s mind tried to force them out more quickly, and she struggled to staunch their flow. It was like opening a pressure valve that was close to the breaking point already. The flood of words pressed hard against her lips, begging to be let out, trying to force their way through her fragile control. With each one she released, it was as if a million desperate thoughts churned against her lips, frantically wanting to be the next released.

The boys, however, were unaware of her struggle. The only thing they heard was the stuttering hesitation each battle of Emma’s caused, and it amused them. Their laughter matched that of the scene from the diner and they imitated her with great relish. “I-I can’t s-speak properly. Oh d-dear, how d-dreadful!”

Emma just blinked at them, unwilling or unable to answer, though which she wasn’t for certain. Her hand tugged lightly at where it was caught within the boy’s grip, like a fly that already knew it didn’t have the strength to break the web entangling it. In Emma’s mind, she knew the exact pressure it would take to force him to release her, and in her mind, she knew that using the force on him would leave its mark – perhaps only in a bruise, but if his bones weren’t of optimal health, it might also break his wrist. And if it did…

Flashes of blood and bruises and the sounds of sirens filled Emma’s mind, the echoes from the past blinding her briefly to the present once again. She reeled at the smell of blood that she knew wasn’t really there. It was just a trick of her mind, seizing upon the electricity under her skin to make it more real, forcing her mind back to a time that was already over.

She blinked quickly, brushing the pictures and the smells and the sounds away from her senses. Reality seeped back in, in the form of a new voice saying calmly, “Obviously you’re too stupid to understand the difference between a speech hesitation and a stutter. You do realize that the two are entirely different things, don’t you, Romeo?”

Emma’s eyes captured the phenomenon of blood rushing to the boy’s cheeks a moment before her gaze flickered to the newcomer. He was older than them – that much Emma was certain of, as if he resided on the border of time itself. He was too old to be a boy anymore, but too young for her to comfortably define him as a man. His hair was dark, but not dark enough to be black. When it caught the morning sunshine, the tips of it turned caramel brown, like it was trying to change colors, aching to be something it wasn’t.

Yet it was the eyes that caused Emma to physically draw away, unaware of her own feet taking her back a pace. She retreated as though, for the first time, she viewed a person as a threat, aside from herself. His eyes were light brown with flecks of orange around the center, and something about them seemed as similar to Emma as her own trembling fingers and hurricane thoughts. It was as if she’d been missing a piece of her own existence, and she’d just found it again. Her mind scrambled, tearing open every memory she still possessed as it searched for where she had seen these eyes before, but she could not place him. He’d not been from any of the ranches or the diners or the truck stops that stretched between every city, connecting the world like glue.

But… she knew him. She knew him the way she’d known how to tie her shoelaces after waking up at the hospital. She knew him the way she’d known the difference between an apple and a T-shirt. The way she’d known how to brush her hair. He was like knowing that the sun shone and the moon came out after it went down. He was as simple as recognizing the wind and remembering the water.

Then the world was spinning out of control, like someone had grabbed the globe and sent it flying, flying away. Her vision was blurring and the electricity in her mind was crackling like a thousand lightning bolts all at once, and they were hitting her and were inside of her and her skin was breaking under the force of all the electricity.

The last thing she remembered before the darkness stole her vision and her hearing and everything that belonged to her was her own lips moving in a name. A name she couldn’t remember having ever heard before, yet somehow knew belonged to this boy that was as familiar as the wind.

“Daniel?”

Four




With the dark always came the echoes. The whispering, vibrating, chilling sound of something that Emma couldn’t quite place. A sound too soft to hear, and yet as deafening as an explosion. And whenever she closed her eyes as the dark arrived, stealing the sun from the sky and the light from the world, it throbbed all the louder.

The echoes.

Banging in her head, behind her eyes, reverberating through what seemed to be her entire being until she thought for sure she’d break open from the inside out. And yet….she’d squeeze her eyes tighter, clench her hands a little harder, and reach out for those echoes. She’d grasp at them, trying to pull them just a little closer, a little nearer, fighting desperately to hear the words that they held. Because those words were the keys to the locked doors behind which her memories lay.

But no matter how loud they became, she could never quite grasp them. The words always throbbed just out of her range of hearing, and then slowly faded as the sky once again brightened and the sun came to scatter the night shadows from the world.

The echoes scattered with them.

And like the shadows that stay behind no matter how brightly the sun shines, there were always a few that remained. They reverberated through her whole being as the day crept from morning, to afternoon, to evening… Until again the night came. It was almost like a rhythm. Nearly like a song. The constant cycle like a haunting, eerie melody that played in her very core.

The echoes.

The echoes of her past.


))))((((


Something was wrong. Wrong like when you turn the wrong direction at a crossroads and nothing is familiar. Like throwing an uneaten breakfast away when you’re half-starved. Wrong like the sun traveling the opposite direction across the sky.

At first, as Emma began to drag herself out of the darkness that was her closed-down mind, she thought the wrongness was just the echoes being louder than usual. They were just outside her range of hearing, even as she woke up – whispering and fluttering around in a way that they usually only did when she was sleeping. It was her unique form of dreaming, without images or scenes or people playing them out. It was always just her and the echoes.

They always left as the morning light came, but today, they remained just as loud as in sleep. It was as though even her locked-away memories were restless, aware that something was wrong.

Because, no, that wasn’t the wrong that Emma sensed as her mind reopened and turned back on. It was something else. Something nearby, but not nearby. Something that was everywhere, like it was existing in the very air itself.

No, not existing in the air. The wrong was the air.

Emma’s eyes snapped open as her mind finally seized on it, dragging her out of the state of unconsciousness, away from the dark in which she’d been living. As soon as her eyes were open, she tasted it in the air, heavy as a rain-soaked blanket left outside during a downpour. Stale. Stale like bread uncovered on a kitchen counter in Kentucky. Like three day old donuts in a dumpster in New York. Stale like air that hadn’t danced with the wind in longer than anyone could remember.

Stale the way air was when all life was drained from it and it was left, untouched, unwanted and unmoving for decades.

Every breath Emma took made her believe that the air was desperate to get inside of her chest and be pushed out through her nose. It was as though it wanted nothing more than to be used again, to be wanted again. It hadn’t asked to be left here, to grow stale and dusty. It hadn’t been asked to be trapped in this…

This…

Emma’s eyes searched the dim almost-light for any sign of where she and the dusty air were being held. Everything was shadowed and shrouded, distorting the edges of the small room. Shifting, she lifted herself onto her knees and one palm and reached the other out to touch the wall. It felt gritty and dry, like it, too, was coated with the dust that hung in the air. As if the air had spent all of its lifeless time trapped here pressing against the walls in search of an escape, leaving behind it layer upon layer of dirt-fingerprints.

Emma’s hand brushed across the remains of the air’s battle until her fingers found the source of the almost-light. It was filtering through the two-finger-width crack that ran three-quarters of the way around the old, decaying door. It wasn’t light like sunshine. It held no warmth as it filtered through the edges of the door and landed on Emma’s dust-coated skin. Sunshine always held warmth, even on the coldest day in January.

It wasn’t firelight, either. It didn’t flicker and sway at the command of the flames, reacting to its every whim and fancy. This light was too steady, too sure of itself, as if it was its own master. As if it was the only one in this cell that was truly here of its own accord. It seemed to taunt Emma’s echoes, making them buzz louder in her ears as if they were agitated by the light’s freedom. They hummed loudest at the base of her skull, where a dull ache had begun to form.

Then she heard it, as she studied the free-light against her skin. The echoes weren’t the only voices nearby that her ears hadn’t picked up in the moments following her reawakening. There were others – ones that didn’t just reside in Emma’s missing memories. Ones that were as real as the dust making patterns on her skin. Her mind stretched out to it, as if it could disentangle itself from Emma and fly through the crack to eavesdrop for her. As if her own senses were as free as the light that was taunting her echoes.

Which, after a moment, it almost seemed as if they were. Her ears adjusted to the soft volume of the others’ voices and attuned themselves until she could pick out the words themselves. It was like plucking apples from a tree, gathering them one at a time and putting them in a basket until it was full.

“…was that so hard?” Daniel was asking. His voice sounded frustrated, the way people got when they lost signal during a very important phone call. The kind of frustrated that usually brought with it curse words and punches. Emma knew that tone as well as she knew stacking sunshine bricks and cleaning stalls.

The chuckle that followed was velvety and smooth, like running your fingers over the downy feathers on a day-old duckling. Emma’s mind opened up the corner which she had created for the Night-Girl, carefully adding the chuckle she had plucked from the air in with the other information she had gathered from their previous encounter. “Yes, very hard. I told you, she didn’t feel like coming with me yet. She’d have come around eventually. You have no patience, darling.”

“I didn’t pay you to have patience, Adrae. I paid you to go get her and take her with you. That was the agreement, and you failed. Now she’s seen me and remembered my name. What other things do you think will now start reawakening?” His tone had risen now, the way tones always rose when the frustration was reaching the breaking point. Emma’s shaking fingertips counted down the seconds against her knees, mentally bracing herself for the sound of his fist hitting whatever was closest to him – a wall, perhaps, or a table.


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