Chapter 1: Shell
"Never fall in love with a sailor,” the words echoed through my mind as I sat in the sand, sinking my toes into smooth grit and tiny shells still warm from the dying sun. Sage advice from my Nan. The women in my family had the worst luck with men in the military, especially branches related to water. I joked with my mother that we were cursed with the blood of sirens, the mythical creatures whose beautiful voices called sailors to their deaths at sea. She didn’t find that the least bit funny.
Just this morning, my cousin Claire became another victim of the family curse. Her husband announced that he was leaving for a younger, cuter blonde. Claire called in tears moments before I left for school. I handed the receiver over to mom, who was better equipped to deal with the heartbreak of a broken 7 year marriage. Me? I was only 17 and hadn’t had a boyfriend in ages. My last one had died, along with my best friend in a freak accident. All I’d figured out in my brief conversation with Claire this morning was that giving up personal dreams and bearing progeny did not break the family curse. Her soon to be ex-husband was in the Navy. Maybe she’d been lucky. Most of the so-called sailors didn’t make it beyond the engagement period and died before they could marry the women in my family.
I sighed, returning my senses to the present. I let my head fall back to soak in the remains of the sun’s warmth before it fell beneath the horizon. Dark clouds in the distance lit with intermittent firefly glow. I sank back onto my elbows and clawed my fingers through the sand as the scent of rain drifted through the trees and across the lake. A sense of electric anticipation rode the night air. The raised hairs along my body told me that it would be an incredible night.
My name is Shell, actually Michelle, but I hadn’t gone by that name since the accident. I told people it was Shell, as in seashell. I loved water. There was something about natural water sources that felt like magic to me. It was the same with rain and fog.
Not many people remained on the small beach. Most had packed up and left for the day. A small group of people I loosely called my friends, but were more accurately co-workers and acquaintances from school, stood around a bonfire that roared and danced in the growing breeze further down the beach. I heard a familiar voice calling my name and looked toward the fire to see my friend Julie, Jules, swerving toward me. Her short blonde hair whipped in the wind. I turned toward the waif of a pixie as she flopped bonelessly into the sand next to me. Cute as she was, coordinated she wasn’t, especially when she’d been drinking.
“Jay’s asking about you. Says he hasn’t seen you all night.” Julie belched hoppy brew into my face and I waved a hand in front of my face to get the noxious gas away from me.
“What’s he care? I’m enjoying myself over here.” I looked toward the bonfire where an unfamiliar, but gorgeous blond guy stared in our direction. My breath caught and heart fell heavily into my stomach. I forced myself to pull air into tight lungs as my heart pounded madly against iron ribs. As I struggled to drag air into my lungs, the tingle of ozone and warmth of smoke mingled in the atmosphere. “Who’s that?” I asked, trying not to point. I let my long black hair fall into my face so I could hide.
“Who’s who?” Julie slurred, sounding more like “whose shoe?”
“That blond guy standing next to Jay.”
“That’s why he’s looking for you. He wanted to introduce you to his friend.”
“Jules, I don’t need more friends. I think I’ll stay right here,” I mumbled as I sank further into the sand, enjoying the petrichor scent from the opposite shore.
“The guy’s been staring at you all night like a piece of rare steak,” she whispered in my ear.
“Uh, gross,” I said with a nudge to her shoulder. From the corner of my eye, I caught movement near the bonfire. Jay reached into the cooler for another beer and turned toward us. “Crap. I think your boyfriend’s coming this way.” The urge to spring up and run away tugged at my chest and I struggled to rein myself in. I’d had a mini crush on my friend’s football player boyfriend for some time. Nothing huge, just enough to make me uncomfortable and super awkward around him.
Marcus, a classmate and coworker raised his beer to us and smiled. I wasn’t sure if he was greeting both of us, or just Jules. I nodded in response, just in case. He offered to tutor me in Precalculus last week when he saw my quiz score. I cringed at the thought of so much red on white paper. It wasn’t that I wasn’t grateful for the offer, I just didn’t see when we’d have time to study together. Between work, school, and band practice, I didn’t have much down time. That was the problem. I could catch up on my own if I just found the time to review my notes, read the chapter, and actually do the homework.
Jay weaved his way across the empty beach. How much had he had to drink? They hadn’t been here that long, maybe 30 minutes. I’d been hanging out on the beach a good hour before they got here. Guess he’d been pregaming. I wondered who drove.
“Shell! Just who I was looking for!” He said in mock excitement. Yuck. It was almost like he could sense my discomfort.
“Huh? What?” I feigned ignorance as he smirked. He knew Jules passed along that he was looking for me. I remained on the sand, making him look down at my supine body as if I had not a care in the world.
“Come to the fire. Join us,” he said, chugging his beer and crumpling the can single handedly. Wow, what a neanderthal. How could I find that remotely attractive? I wasn’t sure, but I kind of did.
“You know I’m not much of a joiner. I’m a loner.”
“Shell, we don’t have much time. The rain won’t hold off forever,” he said.
“Afraid of a little rain?” I asked as I sat up and stretched. I took my time standing up, pulled my shirt over my head, revealing a low cut black swimsuit, and shimmied out of my shorts. I’d lost a lot of weight over the summer, and continued to do so. Although I saw these guys every day at work or school, the clothes I wore were ill-fitting, baggy. My stomach had never been this flat. I ran into the water. Screw Jay.
Thunder crashed and lightning brightened the sky as it hit the ground somewhere on the distant lakeshore. I grinned and waded further into the lake, enjoying the cold water against my legs. I heard someone wading behind me when I got about hip deep. I turned and saw blondie about 3 feet from me, bare chested in cutoff shorts. In the light of the distant bonfire and the occasional flash of lightning, he looked near perfect, symmetrical but for a few scars on the left side of his body. One in particular, ran in a long white line down his chest. Nothing to complain about. I had plenty of scars of my own. I clenched my hand to stop myself from running fingers down that intriguing scar.
“Daredevil!” He said.
“Hasn’t anyone ever told you it’s dangerous to be in the water when it’s lightning outside?” His voice rumbled as his lip curled in amusement.
“Oh. Yeah, my mom would have a heart attack.”
“Nice to meet you,” he said as he waded forward to stand by my side. Warmth radiated from his bare arms and chest. Damn, he was literally hot, a furnace in the winter. He stared off into the distance. “What do you do for fun around here? Besides stand in the water during a lightning storm?” He asked. I laughed before I could stop myself.
“Yeah, not the safest thing to do,” I admitted. I knew a thing or two about getting struck by lightning. “Hike, read. Not much to do out here, we’re kind of in the country, but with modern conveniences. Weird place.”
“We should hang out sometime.”
“You don’t want to do that.”
He turned toward me, brushing a strand of long dyed black hair behind my ear. A flash of lightning illuminated his bright blue eyes. “Why not?” He asked.
“I keep to myself. I’m a loser, a loner, not popular.”
“I’m sure that’s not true. Come on, give me your number.”
I laughed and shook my head. He’d never call anyway. Guys like him didn’t call girls like me. Rain began to fall in slow, heavy drops. “You’re a funny guy.”
Shouts from the shore made us turn around. Jay waved his arms wildly and yelled something unintelligible. He started to hop around. I wondered if he’d fall over in his drunken state and my lips turned up in a smile.
“Gotta go, he’s my ride. He'll leave without me,” Dylan said.
I nodded, though he couldn’t see it, and followed him back to the shore. As we stepped onto the wet sand, he looked back over a shoulder.
The security light brightened as I pulled up next to mom’s car. I climbed the deck stairs to the main floor entrance. I didn’t like going into the house through the basement at night. It was just creepy. I hadn’t minded when my bedroom had been in the basement, but since it was now unoccupied, the vibe held no welcome. Luckily, the security light stayed on long enough for me to make it up the stairs and through the front door where I let myself in. It was late and mom had gone to bed, but Andy was up watching TV.
“What’cha doing up Andy?”
“Wanted to make sure you made it back. The fog was getting thick when we came back from dinner.”
“You’re so sweet.”
“Nah, I’m not tired.” He turned his attention back to the TV, dismissing me. I looked at the clock on the wall and saw that it was nearly 11, but I hadn’t planned to be back before 2 AM.
“Goodnight.” Andy mumbled into the arm of the love seat.
I headed back to my room, floor creaking with each step. I reached into my room, flipped the light switch, and closed the door behind me. I sought my nightshirt, and grabbed it from my desk chair. I started to change, then realized I still wore my damp swimsuit and needed a shower before I went to sleep. I sighed and stumbled to the bathroom. I tossed my dirty clothes in the hamper before starting the shower.
I barely stopped a frightened squeal from escaping when I captured my reflection in the mirror. A cave dwelling savage stared back at me, hair tangled from the wind and dampness combined with running eye makeup. Great, she looked like someone who would go well with Jay’s neanderthal traits. They’d probably have a great time together.
I stripped out of the swimsuit and tossed it into the hamper, then stepped into the hot water. I stood under the cascading jets and rinsed off the fishy lake water and sand. I loved the lake, and the feel of the sand under my toes, but I didn’t like the dirty end result. I shampooed my hair and conditioned it twice, knowing it was knotted from the wind. I spun the dials and the water slowed to a light drip. It would stop after the shower head drained, but in the meantime, the sound would drive me nuts. I stepped out of the shower and dried off in the misty room squeezing the water from my hair carefully with the towel before pulling my nightshirt on. Then, I began the ridiculous task of detangling my hair.
I wiped some haze from the mirror and found a cleaner version of myself staring back. Her eyes were still lined with black liner, but at least she no longer wore a smudged raccoon’s mask. I braided my hair to prevent it from being unmanageable in the morning, brushed my teeth, and returned to my room. I felt a twinge in my shoulder as I closed the door behind me.