The beach was quiet, as usual. Waves lapped softly at the shore, and the moonlight shone on the water, giving it the appearance of liquid black crystal. The thought made me smile softly. Very poetic. If I'd been even half a good writer as my uncle, I'd probably have been able to compose a few stanzas in a couple of minutes. Words had never really been my strong point, though. Bit hard to talk when your vocal cords had been sliced out of your throat. It'd been an operation last year, a last-ditch attempt to stop a tumour from attacking my windpipe and ultimately cutting off my means of breathing. I could breathe fine now, but talking? Nothing worked. Now I had to draw pictures in the air with my hands for anyone to understand me. Or write things down. Coping with being unable to talk had been hell to begin with. I'd gone through something of a dark valley - depression and thoughts of suicide, mostly - but come out more or less in one piece. All I really had to show for my trouble were the dozens of long, parallel scars that I'd carved into my back with my dad's old straight razor.
Not something that I was proud of.
Although it was probably the reason that I was still alive.
I grimaced to myself, and turned my attention back to my surroundings. I loved the beach. It was quiet, and the feel of the pure, fine sand between my toes was astonishingly comforting. The sound of the water splashing softly against the edge of the land late at night was one of the most relaxing things in the world. It helped me to think. Helped me to order my thoughts, so that I could function like a normal human being for the next day. Not that my uncle knew about my midnight walks. He probably would've handcuffed me to the bed if he knew that I took strolls over the beach by myself this late. He was a writer who'd moved to the quiet beach town of Flagstaff for some peace of mind and inspiration. My parents hadn't been married. I'd come from a stormy relationship that had ended in my mother killing herself and my father taking so much solace in drink that he wasn't deemed fit to be my official guardian. I barely saw him anymore - my uncle was my family. Having friends really wasn't my style - most teenagers wanted people who could talk to them - so school was a drag for me. Although it made oral presentations next to impossible. The thought made me smile slightly. Most of the people at school moaned about them. I guess being mute had its advantages.
"What the...?" a surprised female voice suddenly said.
I looked up, and saw a girl staring at me, backpedalling for balance on the soft sand. My own flash of surprise was matched only by the fascination of suddenly meeting someone at such a ridiculous time of night. I couldn't remember having seen her anywhere before - she was a new addition to Flagstaff. Dark brown hair flowed freely, framing a face of firm and yet undeniably feminine features. Soft green eyes studied me suspiciously, and her coral-red mouth was set in a hard, determined line. She was half a head shorter than me, and wore a loose, white, long-sleeved t-shirt, complemented by tattered jeans. Her feet were bared, like mine, and as she settled backwards into a defensive stance, I realised that I was probably dealing with a student of the martial arts.
"Who are you?" she asked, lowering her hands slightly as I stepped back.
I shrugged, smiling a little, completely unable to communicate. I slipped my hands into my pockets, and tilted my head as I watched her. She frowned at me, and stepped forwards, perfectly balanced, like some kind of hunting feline. I had no doubt that she could probably destroy me in a few hard hits.
"Are you deaf? Huh?" The girl looked at me, her frown darkening.
I shook my head, again raising my shoulders in a shrug.
Mute, I mouthed at her.
She didn't catch it, and I rolled my eyes, pulling my hands out of my pockets, and chopping at my throat, gesturing at my mouth and shrugging again.
The girl's eyes widened in understanding.
"You can't talk? At all?"
I nodded. Yep.
There was a pause...
"Well, that sucks."
I couldn't help grinning at that.
She studied me for a moment more, and then gestured at the ground in front of me. Getting the idea, I sat down on the sand, and she followed suit, crossing her legs under her and smiling at me. She was an interesting creature, this girl. The fact that she'd kill some of her time with a complete stranger who she knew nothing about was incredible enough. She was obvious confident enough in herself to be able to stop me, should I molest her in any way. I sat down opposite her, and she nodded at the sea.
"Do you come here often?"
I nodded. Yeah.
She tilted her head a little.
"What's your name?"
I smoothed a patch of sand out with my hand, and then wrote my name upside down in the sand so she could read it. My handwriting was pretty good - I'd had plenty of opportunity to develop it - and the girl raised an eyebrow at my cursive as I scrawled my name into the sand. Todd Fowler.
"Todd, huh? I'm Millie. Millie Higgins."
I smoothed the sand out and wrote another message.
Pleased to meet you.
"You're pretty polite for a guy who can't talk."
More writing. You're pretty talkative to said guy.
Millie grinned. "Touché. You been here long?"
I wiped my temporary slate clean again.
"I got here yesterday." She pulled her legs up to her chest, resting her chin on her knees. "From the city - I'm in from Nightfall. Family moved here..." Millie shrugged. "I like Flagstaff."
It's quiet. Not much happens here, I wrote.
"That's part of why I like it," Millie said.
Problems in Nightfall?
She nodded, but didn't say any more. I wasn't about to press her, so I smoothed the sand over again and then sat back, leaning on my elbow, watching her. Millie was restless - I could see as much just by looking at her - her fingers were always doing something, twisting a strand of hair, letting sand drain out of them, or just tapping a rhythm on her knee. She looked up at me with those brown eyes of hers and saw my keen gaze. Millie grinned at me, and then pulled her feet under her, standing up. I pulled myself easily to my own feet, and she titled her head as she looked at me.
"I smell a martial art," she told me.
I smiled knowingly.
Millie shook her head. "What do you do?"
I didn't expect her to be able to read my lips, but I tried anyway.
Brazilian jujitsu. MMA kinda stuff.
"MMA?" Millie caught on.
I shrugged. Close enough.
"I'll have to get you to show me some," Millie said, dazzling me with another smile. "See you around?"
I nodded. Definitely.
Millie turned, and her hand caught on the belt loop of her jeans for just a little too long as she turned to leave. I caught a sliver of tanned skin, and, tucked into the small of her back, was an ivory-handled semiautomatic pistol. I felt a chill cannon the entire way down my spine, but her shirt fell back over it in an instant, and I rapidly tore my eyes away from her back and caught her eyes as she glanced over my shoulder. I grinned, tipped her an informal salute, and then turned around, starting the walk back towards my uncle's seaside house. My thoughts were chasing something completely different from sleep, though. They revolved around one person.
As I reached my house, I slipped up the sand dunes and walked up onto the deck. It was a picturesque little place, battered weatherboard, with wood decking and screen doors. Glass windchimes hung from the roof of the porch, tinkling softly in the breeze from the sea, and I made sure to keep my footstep light as I crept up over the deck. The hinges of the door creaked slightly as I slipped through it, but I stopped it from slamming shut and quickly shook my feet free of sand before heading towards my bedroom. It was more of a cottage than a house - it had three bedrooms, tightly packed together, and a kitchen. My uncle had turned the spare bedroom into his study - his computer, library of books and writing tools all lived in it. He didn't often let me in there when he was working. He needed space to write, but he usually didn't mind if I looked through his impressive collection of books. I slipped into my bedroom, making sure to close the door quietly, and then dropped onto my bedspread, looking up at the ceiling, letting my mind race back to the beach again.
I hadn't seen her around Flagstaff before. So she was a new addition. And she was from the city. I was intimately familiar with weapons and fighting styles. My dad had been a bouncer for years, and he'd made sure that I was school in at least one martial art by the time I was fifteen. In between his bouts of drinking and bouncing, he'd trained me in hardball street-fighting tactics. It'd probably been one of my only good memories of him, but by the time he was done training me... I was as good as he'd ever been. My dad had always made sure that I knew what I was up against, too. Guns, knives... tell-tale signs that someone was carrying a pistol and they knew what they were doing.
If not for Millie's little slip-up, I wouldn't have known.
Dad's voice echoed through my mind.
"If you can't tell until you see the piece itself, then they know exactly what they're doing."
Despite what most people believed, concealing and carrying a gun wasn't as simple as slipping it into the back of your pants and flipping a shirt over it. You had to adapt your movement to the gun, keep it out of sight at all times... Millie had done it perfectly. Which meant that she knew exactly what she was doing. She probably did it so often that it was a reflex, a habit, by now. So, why would a girl her age, not even legally allowed to drink, carry a gun?
Was her father a cop?
Seemed unlikely - she would've taken something less lethal along, like mace. A gun seemed like overkill, particularly in a town like Flagstaff. Added to that, there weren't an awful lot of pistols kicking around with gold-laced ivory handles. It was custom-made. Exactly the right size and shape for Millie, probably. That kind of money? Mixed with the presence of the weapon itself? It reeked of criminal. What had she said...? "Family moved here..." Maybe her family weren't exactly model citizens.
I laughed soundlessly to myself.
Who the hell had I gotten myself mixed up with?
Maybe it was all paranoia. Maybe I was wrong.
But my gut told me that I was right.
I rolled over and pulled the covers over myself, trying to force myself into sleep, but my mind was too active to want to cooperate. I tried counting, thinking of a song, something that would trigger my mind into sleepiness, but it didn't come. I ended up pulling out a book and flicking on my desk lamp, swinging it over my bed so that I could see what I was reading.
That did the trick.
Morning came, and when I opened my eyes again...
I was lying on an open book, my desk lamp still on and sunlight beginning to stream through the window. Dawn. Jeez, one of these days I was going to treat myself to a sleep-in. I rolled out of bed, got changed and ready for school, and then strolled out into the kitchen, starting to make breakfast.