Starcrossed (Extract)

How do you defy destiny?

Helen Hamilton has spent her entire sixteen years trying to hide how different she is—no easy task on an island as small and sheltered as Nantucket. And it's getting harder. Nightmares of a desperate desert journey have Helen waking parched, only to find her sheets damaged by dirt and dust. At school she's haunted by hallucinations of three women weeping tears of blood . . . and when Helen first crosses paths with Lucas Delos, she has no way of knowing they're destined to play the leading roles in a tragedy the Fates insist on repeating throughout history.

As Helen unlocks the secrets of her ancestry, she realizes that some myths are more than just legend. But even demigod powers might not be enough to defy the forces that are both drawing her and Lucas together—and trying to tear them apart.

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1. Chapter two

Still without her own car, Helen had to ride her bike to school the next morning. Normally at a quarter to eight, it would be cool out, even a little chilly with the wind blowing off the water, but as soon as she woke up Helen could feel the hot, humid air lying on her body like a wet fur coat. She had kicked her sheets off in the middle of the night, wriggled out of her T-shirt, drank the entire glass of water on her nightstand and still she woke up exhausted by the heat. It was very un-island weather, and Helen absolutely did not want to get up and go to school.

She pedalled slowly in an attempt to avoid spending the rest of the day smelling like phys. ed. She didn’t usually sweat much, but she’d woken up so lethargic that morning she couldn’t remember if she had put on deodorant. She flapped her elbows like chicken wings, trying to catch a whiff of herself as she rode, and was relieved to smell the fruity-powdery scent of some kind of protection. It was faint, so she must have put it on yesterday, but it only needed to hold on until track practice after school. Which would be a miracle, but oh well.

As she cruised down Surfside Road, she could feel the baby hairs around her face pulling loose in the wind and sticking to her cheeks and forehead. It was a short ride from her house to school, but in the humidity her carefully arranged first-day-of-school hairdo was a big old mess by the time she locked her crummy bike to the rack. She only locked it out of tourist-season habit and not because anyone at school would deign to steal it. Which was good because she also had a crummy lock.

She pulled her ruined hair out of its bonds, ran her fingers through the worst of the tangles, and retied it, this time settling for a boring low ponytail. With a resigned sigh she swung her book bag over one shoulder and her gym bag over the other. She bent her head and slouched her way towards the front door.

She got there just a second before Gretchen Clifford, and was obliged to hold the door open for her.

‘Thanks, freak. Try not to rip it off the hinges, will you?’ Gretchen said archly, breezing past Helen.

Helen stood stupidly at the top of the steps, holding the door open for other students, who walked past her as if she worked there. Nantucket was a small island, and everyone knew each other painfully well, but sometimes Helen wished Gretchen knew a little bit less about her. They’d been best friends up until fifth grade, when Helen, Gretchen and Claire were playing hide-and-seek at Gretchen’s house, and Helen accidentally knocked the bathroom door off its hinges while Gretchen was using it. Helen had tried to apologize, but the next day Gretchen started looking at her funny and calling her a freak. Ever since then it seemed as if she’d gone out of her way to make Helen’s life suck. It didn’t help matters that Gretchen now ran with the popular crowd, while Helen hid among the braniacs.

She wanted to snap back at Gretchen, say something clever like Claire would, but the words caught in her throat. Instead, she flipped the doorstop down with her toe to leave the door propped open for everyone else. Another year of fading into the background had officially begun.

Helen had Mr Hergeshimer for homeroom. He was the head of the English department, and had mad style for a guy in his fifties. He wore silk cravats in warm weather, flashy coloured cashmere scarves when it was cold and drove a vintage convertible Alfa Romeo. The guy had buckets of money and didn’t need to work, but he taught high school regardless. He said he did it because he didn’t want to be forced to deal with illiterate heathens everywhere he went. That was his story anyway. Personally, Helen believed he taught because he absolutely loved it. Some of the other students didn’t get him and said he was a wannabe British snob, but Helen thought he was one of the best teachers she’d probably ever have.

‘Miss Hamilton,’ he said broadly as Helen stepped through the door, the bell ringing at exactly the same time, ‘punctual as usual. I’m certain you will be taking the seat next to your cohort, but, first, a warning. Any exercise of that talent for which one of you earned the sobriquet Giggles and I shall separate you.’

‘Sure thing, Hergie,’ chirped Claire. Helen slid into the desk next to her. Hergie rolled his eyes at Claire’s mild disrespect, but he was pleased.

‘It is gratifying to know that at least one of my students knows that “sobriquet” is a synonym for “nickname”, no matter how impertinent her delivery. Now, students: another warning. As you are preparing for your SATs this year, I shall expect you all to be ready to give me the definition of a new and exciting word every morning.’

The class groaned. Only Mr Hergeshimer could be sadistic enough to give them homework for homeroom. It was against the natural order.

‘Can impertinent be the word we learn for tomorrow?’ asked Zach Brant anxiously.

Zach was usually anxious about something, and he had been since kindergarten. Sitting next to Zach was Matt Millis, who looked over at Zach and shook his head as if to say, ‘I wouldn’t try that if I were you.’

Matt, Zach, and Claire were the Advanced Placement kids. They were all friends, but as they got older they were starting to realize only one of them could be valedictorian and get into Harvard. Helen stayed out of the competition, especially because she had started liking Zach less and less the past few years. Ever since his father became the football coach and starting pushing Zach to be number one both on the field and in the classroom, Zach had become so competitive that Helen could barely stand to be around him any more.

A part of her felt bad for him. She would have pitied him more if he wasn’t so combative towards her. Zach had to be everything all the time – president of this club, captain of that team, the guy with all the gossip – but he never looked as if he was enjoying any of it. Claire insisted that Zach was secretly in love with Helen, but Helen didn’t believe it for a second; in fact, sometimes she felt like Zach hated her, and that bothered her. He used to share his animal crackers with her during recess in the first grade, and now he looked for any opportunity to pick a fight with her. When did everything get so complicated, and why couldn’t they all just be friends like they were in junior school?

‘Mr Brant,’ Mr Hergeshimer enunciated, ‘you may use “impertinent” as your word if you wish, but from someone of your mental faculties I shall also be expecting something more. Perhaps an essay on an example of impertinence in English literature?’ He nodded. ‘Yes, five pages on Salinger’s use of impertinence in his controversial Catcher in the Rye by Monday, please.’

Helen could practically smell the palms of Zach’s hands clam up from two seats away. Hergie’s powers for giving extra reading to smart-ass students were legendary, and he seemed determined to make an example out of Zach on the first day. Helen thanked her lucky stars Hergie hadn’t picked on her.

She’d rejoiced too soon. After Mr Hergeshimer handed out the schedules, he called Helen up to his desk. He told the other students to speak freely, and they immediately launched into excited first-day-of-school chatter. Hergie had Helen pull up a chair next to him instead of making her stand and talk across his desk. Apparently, he didn’t want any of the other students to hear what he was going to say. That put Helen a little more at ease, but not for long.

‘I see you decided not to enrol in any Advanced Placement classes this year,’ he said, looking at her over his half-moon reading glasses.

‘I didn’t think I’d be able to handle the extra workload,’ she mumbled, tucking her hands under her thighs and sitting on them to keep them still.

‘I think you’re capable of much more than you are willing to admit,’ Hergie said, frowning. ‘I know you aren’t lazy, Helen. I also know you are one of the brightest students in your class. So what’s keeping you from taking advantage of all that this educational system has to offer you?’

‘I have to work,’ she said with a helpless shrug. ‘I need to save up if I want to go to college.’

‘If you take AP classes and do well on your SATs, you will stand a better chance of getting enough money for school through a scholarship than by working for minimum wage at your father’s shop.’

‘My dad needs me. We aren’t rich like everyone else on this island, but we are there for each other,’ she said defensively.

‘That’s very admirable of you both, Helen,’ Hergie replied in a serious tone. ‘But you are reaching the end of your high-school years and it’s time to start thinking about your own future.’

‘I know,’ Helen said, nodding. She could see from the worry puckering his face that he cared, and that he was just trying to help. ‘I think I should get a pretty good athletic scholarship for track. I got much faster over the summer. Really.’

Mr Hergeshimer stared at her earnest face begging him to let it go, and finally conceded. ‘All right. But if you feel like you need more of an academic challenge, you are welcome to join my AP English class at any point this semester.’

‘Thank you, Mr Hergeshimer. If I feel like I can handle AP, I’ll come to you,’ Helen said, grateful to be let off the hook.

As she went back to her desk, it occurred to her that she had to keep Hergie and her father away from each other at all cost. She didn’t want them comparing notes and deciding that she needed to be in special classes and go out for special awards. Even the thought gave her a bellyache. Why couldn’t they all just ignore her? Secretly, Helen had always felt she was different, but she thought she had done a pretty good job of hiding it her whole life. Apparently, without realizing it, she’d been sending out hints of that buried freak inside her. She had to try to keep her head down, but she wondered how she was going to do that when she kept getting taller and taller every damn day.

‘What’s up?’ Claire asked as soon as Helen returned to her seat.

‘Just another motivational moment from Hergie. He doesn’t think I’m applying myself,’ Helen said as breezily as she could.

‘You don’t apply yourself. You never do your work,’ Zach replied, more offended than he should have been.

‘Shut it, Zach,’ Claire said, crossing her arms belligerently. She turned and faced Helen. ‘It’s true, though, Lennie,’ she told her apologetically. ‘You never do your work.’

‘Yeah, yeah. You can both shut it,’ Helen said, chuckling. The bell rang and she gathered her things. Matt Millis gave her a smile but hurried away as they left the room. Feeling guilty, Helen realized that she hadn’t spoken to him yet. She hadn’t meant to ignore him, especially not on the first day of school.

According to Claire, ‘everyone’ knew that Matt and Helen were ‘supposed’ to be together. Matt was intelligent, good looking and captain of the golf team. He was still sort of a geek, but because Helen was practically a pariah ever since Gretchen had started spreading rumours about her it was a compliment that everyone thought she was good enough for someone like Matt.

Unfortunately, Helen never felt anything special for him. Zero tingles. The one time they had been shoved into a closet together at a party to make out, it had been disastrous. Helen felt like she was kissing her brother, and Matt felt like he was being rejected. Afterwards, he was sweet about it, but no matter how many times he cracked jokes there was a weird tension between them. She really missed him but she worried that if she told him he would take it the wrong way. It feels like everything I do lately is being taken the wrong way, Helen thought.

The rest of the morning Helen wandered on autopilot from class to class. She couldn’t concentrate on much of anything, and every time she tried to make herself focus she felt nothing but irritation.

Something about the day was off. Everyone – from her favourite teachers to the few acquaintances she should have been happy to see – was annoying her, and every now and again while she was walking down the hall she would suddenly feel as if she was inside an aeroplane at ten thousand feet. Her inner ear would block up, all the sounds around her would become muffled and her head would get hot. Then, as suddenly as it had come on, the discomfort would go away. But, even so, there was a pressure, a pre-thunderstorm energy all around her, even though the skies were lovely and blue.

It got worse at lunch. She tore into her sandwich thinking that her headache was the result of low blood sugar, but she was wrong. Jerry had packed her favourite – smoked turkey, green apple and brie on a baguette – but she couldn’t force herself to take more than a bite. She spat it out.

‘Your dad make another dud?’ Claire asked. When Jerry had first partnered up with Kate he’d started experimenting with creative lunches. The Vegemite and Cucumber Disaster of Freshman Year was legendary at their table.

‘No, it’s good old number three. I just can’t eat it,’ Helen said, shoving it away. Claire gleefully picked up the remainder and started eating it.

‘Mmm, is really good,’ she mumbled around a full mouth. ‘Us a ’atter?’

‘I just don’t feel right,’ Helen said.
Claire stopped chewing and gave her a worried look. ‘I’m not sick. You can go ahead and swallow,’ Helen assured her quickly. She saw Matt approaching and chirped, ‘Hey!’ trying to make up for that morning.

He was deep in conversation with Gretchen and Zach, and didn’t respond, but still came to his habitual spot at the geek table. Both Gretchen and Zach were so engrossed in what they were saying that they didn’t notice that they had wandered into geek territory.

‘I heard they were movie stars in Europe,’ Zach was saying.

 ‘Where did you hear that?’ Matt asked, incredulous. ‘That’s ridiculous.’

‘I heard from at least two other people that Ariadne was a model. She’s certainly pretty enough,’ Zach argued passionately, hating to be wrong about anything, even gossip.

Please. She’s nowhere near thin enough to be a model,’ Gretchen hissed bitterly, before catching herself and adding, ‘Of course I think she’s pretty, if you go for that exotic, voluptuous look. But she’s nothing compared to her twin, Jason – or her cousin! Lucas is just unreal,’ she gushed.

The boys shared a knowing look, but silently agreed that they were outnumbered by girls and should probably let it go.

‘Jason is almost too pretty,’ Claire decided solemnly, after giving it a moment’s thought. ‘Lucas, however, is an über-babe. Quite possibly the most beautiful boy I’ve ever seen. And Ariadne is a stone-cold fox, Gretchen. You’re just jealous.’

Gretchen gave an exasperated huff and rested a fist on her hip. ‘Like you’re not,’ was all she had for a comeback.

‘Of course I am. I’m almost as jealous of her as I am of Lennie. But not quite.’ Helen felt Claire turn to her to see her response, but she had her elbows on the table and her head cradled in her hands, rubbing her temples.

‘Lennie?’ Matt said, sitting down next to her. ‘Does your head hurt?’ He reached out to touch her shoulder. She stood up abruptly, muttering an excuse, and hurried away.

By the time she got to the girls’ room she felt better, but she splashed a little cold water on her face for good measure. Then she remembered that she had put mascara on that morning in an attempt to make an effort. She looked at her raccoon eyes in the mirror and burst out laughing. This was the worst first day of school ever.

Somehow she made it through the last three periods, and when the bell finally rang she gratefully made her way to the girls’ locker room to change for track practice.

Coach Tar was all fired up. She gave an embarrassingly optimistic speech about their chances of winning races that year and told them how much she believed in them, both as athletes and as young women. Then she turned to Helen.

‘Hamilton. You’ll be running with the boys this year,’ Coach said bluntly. She told everyone to hit the trail.

Helen sat on the bench for a moment, debating her options while everyone else filed out of the door. She didn’t want to make a fuss, but she was mortified by the thought of having to cross the gender line. The muscles in her lower abdomen started to spasm.

‘Go talk to her! Don’t let her push you around,’ Claire said indignantly as she left.

Confused and afraid she was going to get a bellyache, Helen nodded and stood up.

‘Coach Tar? Can’t we just do it the way we always do?’ she called out. Coach Tar stopped and turned round to listen, but she didn’t look happy about it. ‘I mean, why can’t I just train with the rest of the girls? Because I am a girl,’ Helen finished lamely.

‘We’ve decided that you need to start pushing yourself more,’ Coach Tar responded in a cold voice. Helen had always had the feeling that Coach didn’t like her much, and now she was sure of it.

‘But I’m not a boy. It’s not fair to make me run cross- country with them,’ Helen tried to argue. She jabbed two fingers into the spot between her belly button and her pubic bone.

‘Cramps?’ Coach Tar asked, a touch of sympathy creeping into her voice. Helen nodded and Coach continued. ‘Coach Brant and I have noticed something interesting about your times, Helen. No matter who you’re running against, no matter how fast or slow your opponents are, you always come in either second or third. How can that be? Do you have an answer?’

‘No. I don’t know. I just run, OK? I try my best.’

‘No, you don’t,’ Coach said harshly. ‘And if you want a scholarship you’re going to have to start winning races. I talked to Mr Hergeshimer . . .’ Helen groaned out loud, but Coach Tar continued, undeterred. ‘It’s a small school, Hamilton – get used to it. Mr Hergeshimer told me that you were hoping for an athletic scholarship, but if you want one you’re going to have to earn it. Maybe forcing you to match the boys will teach you to take your talent seriously.’

The thought of displaying her speed for the world to see had a physical effect on Helen. She was so afraid that she was going to get some kind of cramp or bellyache that she started to have a mini panic attack. She began to babble. ‘I’ll do it, I’ll win races, just please don’t single me out like that,’ she pleaded, the words tumbling out in a rush as she held her breath to hold back the pain.

Coach Tar was a hard-ass, but she wasn’t cruel. ‘Are you OK?’ she asked anxiously, rubbing Helen between her shoulder blades. ‘Put your head between your legs.’

‘I’m OK, it’s just nerves,’ Helen explained through gritted teeth. After catching her breath she continued, ‘If I swear to win more races, will you let me run with the girls?’

Coach Tar studied Helen’s desperate face and nodded, a bit shaken from witnessing such an intense panic attack. She let Helen go to the girls’ trailhead, but warned her that she still expected wins. And more than just a few.

As she ran the trail, Helen looked at the ground. An academic scholarship would be great but that would mean competing with Claire for grades, and that was out of the question.

‘Hey, Giggles,’ Helen said, easily catching up. Claire was panting and sweating away already.

‘What happened? God, it’s so hot!’ she exclaimed, her breath strained.

‘I think the entire faculty is trying to see if they can climb up on to my back at the same time.’

‘Welcome to my life,’ Claire wheezed. ‘Japanese kids grow up . . . with at least two . . . people up there . . . you get used to it.’ After a few more laboured moments of trying to keep up with Helen, Claire added, ‘Can we . . . slow down? Not all of us are from . . . planet Krypton.’

Helen adjusted her pace, knowing that she could pull ahead in the last half mile. She rarely exerted herself in practice but she knew that even without trying hard she could easily finish first. That fact scared her, so she did what she usually did when the subject of her freaky speed came up in her head. She ignored it and chatted with Claire.

As the two girls ran down Surfside and out across the moors to Miacomet Pond, Claire couldn’t stop talking about the Delos boys. She told Helen at least three times that Lucas had held the door for her at the end of class. That act proved he was not only a gentleman, but already in love with her as well. Jason, Claire decided, was either gay or a snob because he had only glanced at her once before quickly looking away. She also took offence at how nice a dresser he was, as if he was European or something.

‘He’s been living in Spain for, like, three years, Gig. He kinda is European. Can we please stop talking about them? It’s giving me a headache.’

‘Why are you the only person in school that isn’t interested in the Delos family? Aren’t you even curious to get a look?’

‘No! And I think it’s pathetic that this entire town is standing around gawking at them like a bunch of hicks!’ Helen shouted.

Claire stopped short and stared at her. It wasn’t like Helen to argue, let alone start yelling, but she couldn’t seem to stop herself.

‘I’m bored to death of the Delos family!’ Helen continued, even when she saw Claire’s surprise. ‘I’m sick of this town’s fixation with them, and I hope I never have to meet, see or share breathing space with any of them!’

Helen took off running, leaving Claire standing by herself on the trail. She finished first, just like she’d promised, but she did it a little too quickly; Coach Tar gave her a shocked look when she recorded the run time. Helen blew by her and stormed into the locker room. She grabbed her stuff and bolted out of school, not bothering to change or say goodbye to any of her teammates.

On the way home, Helen started crying. She pedalled past the neat rows of grey shingle-sided houses with their black or white painted storm shutters and tried to calm down. The sky seemed to sit particularly low on the scoured land, as if it was pressing down on the gables of the old whalers and trying to finally flatten them after a few centuries of stubborn defiance. Helen had no idea why she’d got so angry, or why she’d abandoned her best friend like that. She needed a little peace and quiet.

There was a car accident on Surfside; some gigantic SUV had tried to turn on to a narrow, sandbanked side street and rolled over. The drivers were OK, but their beached whale of a car blocked off traffic from end to end. Annoyed as she was, Helen knew she couldn’t even pedal past the boneheaded off islanders without losing her marbles. She decided to take the long way home. She turned round and headed back towards the centre of town, passing the movie theatre, the ferry and the library, which, with its Greek temple architecture, stuck out like a sore thumb in a town that otherwise was an ode to four-hundred-year-old Puritan architecture. And maybe that’s why Helen loved it. The Atheneum was a gleaming white beacon of strange smack-dab in the middle of forget-me-now drab, and somehow Helen identified with both those things. Half of her was no- nonsense Nantucket through and through, and the other half was marble columns and grand stairs that just didn’t belong where they had been built. Biking past, Helen looked up at the Atheneum and smiled. It was consoling for her to know that she might stick out, but at least she didn’t stick out that much.

When she got home, she tried to pull herself together, taking a freezing-cold shower before calling Claire to apologize. Claire didn’t pick up. Helen left her a long apology blaming hormones, the heat, stress, anything and everything she could think of, though she knew in her heart that none of those things was the real reason she had flipped out. She’d been so irritable all day.

The air outside was heavy and still. Helen opened all the windows in the two-storey Shaker-style house, but no breeze blew through them. What was with the weird weather? Still air was practically unheard of in Nantucket – living so close to the ocean there was always wind. Helen pulled on a thin tank top and a pair of her shortest shorts. Since she was too modest to go anywhere dressed so scantily, she decided to cook dinner. It was still her father’s week as kitchen slave and technically he was responsible for all the shopping, meals and dishes for a few days yet, but she needed something to do with her hands or she’d use them to climb the walls.

Pasta in general was Helen’s comfort food, and lasagne was the queen of pasta. If she made the sheets from scratch, she’d be occupied for hours, just like she wanted, so she pulled out the flour and eggs and got to work.

When Jerry came home, the second thing he noticed, after the amazing smell, was that the house was swelter- ingly hot. He found Helen sitting at the kitchen table, flour stuck to her sweaty face and arms, worrying the heart-shaped necklace, which her mother had given her as a baby, between her thumb and forefinger. He looked around with tense shoulders and wide eyes.

‘Made dinner,’ Helen told him in a flat voice. ‘Did I do something wrong?’ he asked tentatively.

‘Of course not. Why would you ask that when I just cooked you dinner?’

‘Because usually when a woman spends hours cooking a complicated meal and then just sits at the table with a pissed-off look on her face that means some guy somewhere did something really stupid,’ he said, still on edge. ‘I have had other women in my life besides you, you know.’

‘Are you hungry or not?’ Helen asked with a smile, trying to shake off her ugly mood.

Hunger won out. Jerry shut his mouth and went to wash his hands. Helen hadn’t eaten since breakfast and should have been starved. When she tasted the first forkful she realized she wouldn’t be able to eat. She listened as best as she could while she pushed bits of her favourite food around her plate and Jerry devoured two pieces. He asked her questions about her day while he tried to sneak a little more salt on to his food. Helen blocked his attempts like she always did, but she didn’t have the energy to give him more than monosyllabic answers.

Even though she went to bed at nine, leaving her dad watching the Red Sox on TV, she was still lying awake at midnight when she heard the game finally end and her father come upstairs. She was tired enough to sleep, but every time she started to drift off she would hear whispering.

At first she thought that it had to be real, that someone was outside playing a trick on her. She went up to the widow’s walk on the roof above her bedroom and tried to see as far as she could into the dark. Everything was still – not even a puff of air to stir the rose bushes around the house. She sat down for a spell, staring out at the fat, black slick of the ocean beyond the neighbours’ lights.

She hadn’t been up there in a while, but it still gave her a romantic thrill to think about how women in the olden days would pine away on their widow’s walks as they searched for the masts of their husbands’ ships. When she was really young, Helen used to pretend that her mother would be on one of those ships, coming back to her after being taken captive by pirates or Captain Ahab or something just as all-powerful. Helen had spent hours on the widow’s walk, scanning the horizon for a ship she later realized would never sail into Nantucket Harbor.

Helen shifted uncomfortably on the wooden floor and then remembered that she still had her stash up there. For years, her dad had insisted she was going to fall to her death and had forbidden her from going up to the widow’s walk alone, but no matter how many times he punished her she would eventually sneak back there to eat granola bars and daydream. After a few months of dealing with Helen’s uncharacteristic disobedience, Jerry finally caved and gave her permission, as long as she didn’t lean out over the railing. He’d even built her a waterproof chest in which to store things.

She opened the chest and dug out the sleeping bag she kept in there, spreading it out along the wooden planks of the walk. There were boats far out on the water, boats she shouldn’t be able to hear or see from such a distance, but she could. Helen closed her eyes and allowed herself the pleasure of hearing one little skiff as its canvas sails flapped and its teak planks creaked, way out on the gently lapping swells. Alone and unwatched, she could be herself for a moment and truly let go. When her head finally started to nod, she went down to bed to give sleep another shot.

She was standing on rocky, hilly terrain, blasted so hard by the sun that the bone-dry air wriggled and shook in streaks, as if parts of the sky were melting. The rocks were pale yellow and sharp, and here and there were angry little bushes, low to the ground and full of thorns. A single twisted tree grew out of the next slope.

Helen was alone. And then she wasn’t.

Under the stunted tree’s crippled limbs three figures appeared. They were so slender and small Helen thought at first they must be little girls, but there was something about the way the muscles in their gaunt forearms wove around their bones like rope that made Helen realize that they were also very old. All three of them had their heads bent, and their faces were completely covered by sheets of long, matted black hair. They wore tattered white slips, and they were covered in grey-white dust down to their lower legs. From the knees down, their skin grew dark with streaks of dirt and blackening blood from feet worn raw with wandering in this barren wilderness.

Helen felt clear, bright fear. She backed away from them compulsively, cutting her bare feet on the rocks and scratching her legs on the thorns. The three abominations took a step towards her, and their shoulders began to shake with silent sobs. Drops of blood fell from under the skeins of rank hair and ran down the fronts of their dresses. They whispered names while they cried their gory tears.

Helen woke up to a slap. There was a prickly numbness in her cheek and the steady note of a dial tone whining in her left ear. Jerry’s face was inches away from hers, wild with worry, and starting to show signs of guilt. He had never hit her before. He had to take a few shaky breaths before he could speak. The bedside clock read 3.16.

‘Y-y-ou were screaming. I had to wake you,’ he stammered.

Helen swallowed painfully, trying to moisten her swollen tongue and closed-off throat. ‘‘S OK. Nightmare,’ she whispered as she sat up.

Her cheeks were wet with either sweat or tears, she didn’t know which. Helen wiped the moisture away and smiled at her dad, trying to calm him down. It didn’t work.

‘What the hell, Lennie? That was not normal,’ he said in a strange, high-pitched voice. ‘You were saying things. Really awful things.’

‘Like what?’ she croaked. She was so thirsty.
‘Mostly names, lists of names. And then you started repeating “blood for blood”, and “murderers”. What the hell were you dreaming?’

Helen thought about the three women, three sisters she thought, and she knew she couldn’t tell her father about them. She shrugged her shoulders and lied. She managed to convince Jerry that murder was a pretty normal thing to have nightmares about, and swore that she would never watch scary movies by herself again. Finally, she got him to go back to bed.

The glass on her nightstand was empty and her mouth was so dry it felt tender and sore. She swung her legs out of bed to get water from the bathroom and gasped when her feet touched the hardwood floor. She switched on her lamp to get a better look, but she already knew what she was going to see.

The soles of her feet were cut deep and peppered with dirt and dust, and her shins were scratched with the hatch-mark pattern of thorns.

 

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