Legendborn – Tracy Deonn

A CAROLINA FIRST-YEAR sprints through the darkness and launches himself oА the cliА into the moonlit night. His shout sends sleepy birds Мying overhead. The sound echoes against the rock face that borders the Eno Quarry. Flashlights track his Мailing body, all windmilling arms and kicking legs, until he hits the water with a cracking splash. At the cliА line above, thirty college students cheer and whoop, their joy weaving through the pine trees. Like a constellation in motion, cone-shaped beams of light roam the lake’s surface. Collective breath, held. All eyes, searching. Waiting. Then, the boy erupts from the water with a roar, and the crowd explodes. CliА jumping is the perfect formula for Southern-white-boy fun: rural recklessness, a pocket flashlight’s worth of precaution, and a dare. I can’t look away. Each run draws my own feetan inch closer to the edge. Each leap into nothingness, each hovering moment before the fall, calls to a spark of wild yearning inside my chest. I press that yearning down.

Seal it closed. Board it up. “Lucky he didn’t break his damn legs,” Alice mutters in her soft twang. She scoАs, peering over the edge to watch the grinning jumper grasp protruding rocks and exposed vines to climb the rock face. Her straight, coal-black hair lies plastered to her temple. The warm, sticky palm of late-August humidity presses down on our skin. My curls are already up in a puА, as far away from the back of my neck as possible, so I hand her the extra elastic band from my wrist. She takes it wordlessly and gathers her hair in a ponytail. “I read about this quarry on the way here. Every few years kids get hurt, fall on the rocks, drown.

We’re sure as hell not jumping, and it’s getting late. We should go.” } “Why? ’Cause you’re getting bit?” I swatata tiny flickering buzz near her arm. She Йxes me with a glare. “I’m insulted by your weak conversational deМection. That’s not best-friend behavior. You’re Йred.” Alice wants to major in sociology, then maybe go into law. She’s been interrogating me since we were ten. I roll my eyes.

“You’ve best-friend Йred me Йfty times since we were kids and yet you keep rehiring me. This job sucks. HR isa nightmare.” “And yet you keep coming back. Evidence, if circumstantial, that you enjoy the work.” I shrug. “Pay is good.” “You know why I don’t like this.” I do. It’s not like I’d planned to break the law our Йrst night on campus, but after dinner an opportunity had presented itself in the shape of Charlotte Simpson, a girl we knew from Bentonville High.

Charlotte popped her head into our dorm room before we’d even Йnished unpacking and demanded we join her for a night out. After two years of EC, Charlotte had oГcially enrolled as a Carolina undergraduate this year and, apparently, she’d turned party girl somewhere in the interim. During the day, the Eno River State Park is open for hiking, camping, and kayaking, but if you sneak in after the gates close like all the kids here have, it’s probably-to-deЙnitely trespassing. Not something I’d normally go for, but Charlotte explained that the night before the Йrst day of classes is special. It’s tradition for some juniors and seniors to host a party at the Quarry. Also tradition? First-year students jumping oА the edge of the cliАs into the mineral-rich lake at its center. The park straddles Orange and Durham Counties and sits north of I-85, about twenty-Йve minutes away from Carolina’s campus. Charlotte drove us here in her old silver Jeep, and the entire ride over I felt Alice beside me in the back seat, shrinking against the illegality of itall. The jumper’s unfettered laughter crests the cliА before his head does. I can’t remember the last time my laugh sounded like that.

“You don’t like this because it’s”—I drop my voice into a dramatic whisper—“against the rules?” Alice’s dark eyes burn behind her glasses. “Gettin’ caught oА campus at night is an automatic expulsion from EC.” “Hold up, Hermione. Charlotte said a bunch of students do itevery year.” Another jumper sprints through the woods. A deeper splash. Cheers. Alice juts her chin toward the other students. “That’s them. Tell me why you want to be here?” Because I can’t just sit in our room right now.

Because ever since my mother died, there’s a version of me inside that wants to break things and scream. I lifta shoulder. “Because what better way to begin our adventure than with a pinch of rebellion?” She does not look amused. “Did someone say rebellion?” Charlotte’s boots crunch through the leaves and pine needles. The sharp sound stands out from the droning background of crickets and the low bass thump pulsing our way from the party’s speakers. She comes to a stop next to me and brushes her auburn ponytail away from her shoulder. “Y’all jumpin’? It is tradition.” She smirks. “And it’s fun.” “No,” damn near leaps out of Alice’s mouth.

Something must have shown on my face, because Charlotte grinsand Alice says, “Bree…” “Aren’t you pre-med or something, Charlotte?” I ask. “How are you this smart and this bad an influence?” “It’s college,” Charlotte says with a shrug. “‘Smart but a bad inМuence’ describes like half the student body.” “Char?” A male voice calls out from behind a raggedy holly. Charlotte’s face breaks into a wide smile even before she turnsaround to see the tall red-haired boy walking toward us. He holdsa red Solo cup in one hand and a flashlight in the other. “Hey, babe,” Charlotte purrs, and greets him with a giggling kiss. “Char?” I mouth to a grimacing Alice. When they separate, Charlotte waves us over. “Babe, these are new EC kids from back home.

Bree and Alice.” She curlsaround the boy’sarm like a koala. “This is my boyfriend, y’all. Evan Cooper.” Evan’s perusal takes long enough that I wonder what he’s thinking about us. Alice is Taiwanese-American, short, and wiry, with observant eyes and a semipermanent smirk. Her whole MO is dressing to make a good impression “just in case,” and tonight she chose dark jeans and a polka-dotted blouse with a Peter Pan collar. Under Evan’s scrutiny, she pushes her round glasses up her nose and givesa shy wave. I’m Йve-eight—tall enough that I might pass for a college student—and Black. Blessed with my mother’s cheekbones and curves and my father’s full mouth.

I’d pulled on old jeans and a tee. Shy isn’t really my thing. Evan’seyes widen when they take me in. “You’re the girl whose mom died, right? Bree Matthews?” A trickle of pain inside, and my wall snaps into place. Death creates an alternate universe, but after three months, I have the tools to live in it. Charlotte jabs Evan in the ribs with her elbow, sending him daggers with her eyes. “What?” He puts his hands up. “That’s what you sai—” “Sorry.” She cuts him off, her gaze apologetic. My wall works two ways: it hides the things I need to hide and helps me show the things I need to show.

Particularly useful with the Sorry for Your Loss crowd. In my mind’s eye, the wall’s reinforced now. Stronger than wood, iron, steel. It has to be, because I know what comes next: Charlotte and Evan will unleash the predictable stream of words everyone says when they realize they’re talking to the Girl Whose Mom Died. It’s like Comforting Grieving People Bingo, except when all the squares get covered, everyone loses. Charlotte perks up. Here we go… “How are you holding up? Is there anything I can do for you?” Double whammy. The real answers to those two questions? The really real answers? Not well and No. Instead I say, “I’m fine.” No one wants to hear the real answers.

What the Sorry for Your Loss Crowd wants is to feel good aboutasking the questions. This game isawful. “I can’t imagine,” Charlotte murmurs, and that’s another square covered on the bingo board. They can imagine it; they just wouldn’t want to. Some truths only tragedy can teach. The Йrst one I learned is that when people acknowledge your pain, they want your pain to acknowledge them back. They need to witness it in real time, or else you’re not doing your part. Charlotte’s hungry blue eyes search for my tears, my quivering lower lip, but my wall is up, so she won’t get either. Evan’s eager gaze hunts for my grief and suАering, but when I jut my chin out in defiance, he averts hiseyes. Good.

“Sorry for your loss.” Damn. And with the words I most despise, Evan hits bingo. People lose things when they have a mental lapse. Then they Йnd that thing again from the lost place. But my mother isn’t lost. She’s gone. Before-Bree is gone, too, even though I pretend that she’s not. After-Bree came into being the day after my mom died. I went to sleep that night and when I woke up, she was there.

After-Bree was there during the funeral. After-Bree was there when our neighbors knocked on our door to oАer sorrow and broccoli casserole. After-Bree was with me when the visiting mourners Йnally went home. Even though I can only recall hazy snippets from the hospital—traumarelated memory loss, according to my father’s weird, preachy grief book—I have After-Bree. She’s the unwanted souvenir that death gave me. In my mind’s eye, After-Bree looks almost like me. Tall, athletic, warm brown skin, broader-than-Iwant shoulders. But where my dark, tight curls are usually pulled up on top of my head, After-Bree’s stretch wide and loose like a live oak tree. Where my eyesare brown, hersare the dark ochre, crimson, and obsidian of molten iron in a furnace, because After-Bree is in a constant state of near explosion. The worst isat night, when she pressesagainst my skin from the inside and the pain is unbearable.

We whisper together, I’m sorry, Mom. This is all my fault. She lives and breathes inside my chest, one heartbeat behind my own life and breath, like an angry echo. Containing her isa full-time job. Alice doesn’t know about After-Bree. Nobody does. Noteven my dad. Especially not my dad. Alice clears her throat, the sound breaking like a wave against my thoughts. How long did I zone out? A minute? Two? I focus on the three of them, face blank, wall up.

Evan gets antsy in the silence and blurts out, “By the way, your hair is totally badass!” I know without looking that the curls springing out of my puА are wide-awake, reaching toward the sky in the night’s humidity. I bristle, because his tone is the one that feels less like a complimentand more like he’s happened upon a fun oddity—and that fun oddity is Black me with my Black hair. Wonderful. Alice shoots me a sympathetic glance that Evan misses entirely, because of course he does. “I think we’re done here. Can we go?” Charlotte pouts. “Halfan hour more, I promise. I wanna check out the party.” “Yeah! Y’all come watch me shotgun a PBR!” Evan slingsan arm around his girlfriend’s shouldersand leads her away before we can protest. Alice grumbles under her breath and takes oА after them, stepping high over rangy weeds at the edge of the tree line.

Fall panicum and marestail, mostly. My mother had called the stuА “witchgrass” and “horseweed fleabane” back when she wasalive to call out plants to me. Alice isalmost to the trees before she realizes I’m not following. “You comin’?” “I’ll be there in a sec. I wanna watch some more jumps.” I jerk a thumb over my shoulder. She stomps back. “I’ll wait with you.” “No, that’s okay. You go ahead.

” She scrutinizes me, torn between taking me at my word or pushing further. “Watch, not jump?” “Watch, not jump.” “Matty.” Her childhood nickname for me—Matty, short for my last name—twists at something deep in my chest. Old memories have been doing that lately, even the ones that aren’t about her, and I sort of hate it. My vision goes fuzzy with the threat of tears, and I have to blink Alice’s features into focus—pale face, glasses perpetually sliding to the tip of her nose. “I… I know this isn’t how we thought it would be. Being at Carolina, I mean. But… I think your mom woulda come around to it. Eventually.

” I cast my gaze out as far as the moonlight allows. Across the lake, treetops are the shadowed fringe between the quarry and the murky sky. “We’ll never know.” “But—” “Alwaysa but.” Something hard slips into her voice. “But if she were here, I don’t think she’d want you to… to…” “To what?” “To become some other person.” I kick ata pebble. “I need to be alone for a minute. Enjoy the party. I’ll be there soon.

” She eyes me as if gauging my mood. “‘I hate tiny parties—they force one into constantexertion.’” I squint, searching my memories for the familiar words. “Did you—did you just Jane Austen me?” Her dark eyes twinkle. “Who’s the literary nerd? The quoter or the one who recognizes the quote?” “Wait.” I shake my head in amusement. “Did you just Star Wars me?” “Nah.” She grins. “I New Hope’d you.” “Y’all comin’?” Charlotte’s disembodied voice shoots back through the woods like an arrow.

Alice’s eyes still hold a pinch of worry, but she squeezes my hand before walking away. Once I can no longer hear the rustle of her shoes in the underbrush, I release a breath. Dig out my phone. Hey, kiddo, you and Alice get settled in okay? The second text had arrived fifteen minutes later. I know you’re our Brave Bree who was ready to escape Bentonville, but don’t forget us little people back home. Make your mom proud. Call when you can. Love, Dad. I shove my phone back into my pocket. I had been ready to escape Bentonville, but not because I was brave.

At Йrst I’d wanted to stay home. It seemed right, after everything. But months of living under the same roof alone with my dad made my shame intolerable. Our grief is for the same person, but our grief is not the same. It’s like those bar magnets in physics class; you can push the matching poles together, but they don’t want to touch. I can’t touch my dad’s grief. Don’t really want to. In the end, I left Bentonville because I was too scared to stay. I pace along the cliА, away from the crowd, and keep the quarry to my left. The scents of damp soil and pine rise up with every footstep.

If I breathe in deeply enough, the mineral smell of ground stone catchesat the back of my throat. A foot over, the earth fallsaway below my feet and the lake stretches out wide, reflecting the sky and the starsand the possibilities of night. From here, I can see what the jumpers were working with: whatever cleaved the dirtand rocks to form the quarry had dug at a thirty-degree angle. To clear the face entirely, one has to run fast and leap far. No hesitation allowed. I imagine myself running like the moon is my Йnish line. Running like I can leave the anger and the shame and gossip behind. I can almost feel the delicious burn in my muscles, the rush sweetand strong in my veins, as I sail over the cliА and into emptiness. Without warning, the roiling spark of After-Bree stretches up from my gut like a vine on Йre, but this time I don’t shove her away. She unfurls behind my ribs, and the hot pressure of her is so powerful it feels like I could explode.

Part of me wants to explode. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” A wry voice from behind startles me and sends a few birds, hidden in the canopy above, squawking into the sky. I hadn’t heard anyone approach through the underbrush, but a tall, dark-haired boy leans casually against a tree as if he’d been there the whole time; arms over his chest and black combat boots crossed at the ankles. The boy’s expression is lazy with disdain, like he can’t even be bothered to muster up a full dose of the stuff. “Forgive me for interrupting. It looked like you were about to jump oА a cliА. Alone. In the dark,” he drawls. He is unsettlingly beautiful.

His face is aristocratic and sharp, framed by high, pale cheekbones. The rest of his body is borne from shadows: black jacket, black pants, and ink-black hair that falls over his forehead and curls just below gauged ears bearing small black rubber plugs. He can’t be more than eighteen, but something about his features doesn’t belong to a teenager—the cut of his jaw, the line of his nose. His stillness. The boy who is both young and old lets me study him, but only for a moment. Then, he levels his tawny gaze in challenge. When our eyes meet, a stinging shock races through me, head to heels, leaving fear in its wake. I swallow, look away. “I could make that jump.” He snorts.

“Cliff jumping isasinine.” “No one asked you.” I have a stubborn streak aggravated by other stubborn people, and this boy clearly qualifies. I step to his right. Quick asa cat, he reaches for me, but I twistaway before he getsa grip. Hiseyebrows lift, and the corner of his mouth twitches. “I haven’t seen you around before. Are you new?” “I’m leaving.” I turn, but the boy is beside me in two steps. “Do you know who I am?” “No.

” “I’m Selwyn Kane.” His gaze sends tiny, invisible sparks ofelectricity dancing across my cheek. I Мinch and throw my hand up between us like a shield. Fingers, too hot, too strong, instantly close around my wrist. A tingling sensation shoots down to my elbow. “Why did you cover your face?” I don’t have an answer for him. Or myself. I try to yank away from him, but his hold is like iron. “Let go!” Selwyn’s eyes widen slightly, then narrow; he is not used to being shouted at. “Do you—do you feel something? When I look at you?” “What?” I pull, but he holds me tightly withouteffort.

“No.” “Don’t lie.” “I’m not—” “Quiet!” he orders. Bright indignation Мares in my chest, but his unusual eyes rake across my face. Snuff it right out. “Strange. I thought—” Suddenly, shouts break the night, but this time they’re not from the cliА jumpers. We both twist toward the forest and beyond it, to the party in the clearing. More yelling—and not the happy, drunk kind. A low growl close by my ear.

I jump when I realize the sound is coming from the demanding boy whose Йngersare still locked around my wrist. As he stares into the trees, his mouth curves into a satisЙed smile, exposing two canines that nearly touch his bottom lip. “Got you.” “Got who?” I demand. Selwyn startles, as if he’d completely forgotten I was there, then releases me with a frustrated grunt. He takes oА, speeding into the woods, a silent shadow between the trees. He’s out of sight before I can form a response. A jarring scream echoes from the party on my left. Raised voices ring out from the cliА jumpers on my right, who are now sprinting for the clearing too. Blood freezes in my veins.

Alice.

.

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