Gwyn found the dolphin struggling through shallows that morning, inching towards shore. The rising sun washed light over its back, staining it yellow. The dolphin stopped when Gwyn drew near, its wet eyes alert, watching her when she knelt beside it. Its body hummed, a searching that purred through her.
“Where are you going?” Gwyn touched its sand crusted skin, taking in the silver hue and old scars, the fresh hunk of flesh bitten out near its dorsal fin, and the small round bullet hole above its left pectoral. Gwyn jerked back when its flesh rippled under her hand. She stumbled to her feet and ran.
Her great aunt Camby stood in the driveway of the Big House, talking with Ernest Ray, whose truck idled as her aunt talked. Their faces were drawn with worry, at odds with the bright morning. Gwyn had the crazy notion as she ran across the yard that they already knew her bad news.
“Slow down and breathe,” said her aunt when Gwyn pounded up to the truck, gulping and stuttering about the beached dolphin. Color drained from her aunt’s face as Gwyn talked, leaving a chalky grimness almost as white as her hair.
“Hop in, Camby,” Ernest said. “My truck can handle the main beach path.” Gwyn followed her aunt around the truck. Her hand tingled where she’d touched the dolphin.
Aunt Camby stopped and pressed her fingers against her temple. “Get some towels out of the laundry room and a sheet too,” she said. Gwyn whirled and ran toward the kitchen. No one argued when Aunt Camby gave orders.
Her aunt met her at the back door with an opened sack in her hand. A green striped dress and hairbrush were inside; Gwyn saw them as she stuffed in the towels and sheet. “Not a word about this to anyone when they wake, or to Lida when she gets here.” Her aunt was brisk, all business, the way she was every morning at the store.
“You don’t want me to go? I can show you right where the dolphin is.” Gwyn followed her aunt outside, feeling a strange reluctance, almost fear, when she thought of touching the dolphin again. “Are you going to head it back out to sea?”
Gwyn looked down at her bare feet, feeling stupid and slow. She’d usually fight to be involved in a rescue like this, but something had sparked through her mind when she touched the dolphin, something that prickled under her skin and wasn’t leaving.
“Not this time.” Aunt Camby slammed the truck door and stuck her head out the window, the cords of her long neck popping. “Happy Birthday, Gwyn. We’ll take care of the dolphin. You enjoy your day.”
“It won’t spoil my day, even if it dies, I promise.” Gwyn jogged beside the truck as it backed out the drive, clenching her fists. This day would pass a lot faster if there were a dolphin rescue to talk about. If she pressed her hands on the dolphin again, made herself press and push it to safe water, surely the tingle and sting in her fingers would go away. Plus her aunt would tell her why rescuing a beached dolphin was such a big deal kind of secret.
“Cake and presents at noon.” Aunt Camby’s eyes grew black and fierce as she searched Gwyn’s face. “Not a word. I know I can count on you.”
Gwyn stopped and pressed her hand against her throat, feeling the damp scratch and stickiness of the dolphin, the stinging that sank into her skin. Ernest’s truck sped down the road, spraying sand when it veered onto the beach path. Maybe waves had lifted the dolphin back to deep water. Maybe it was swimming now, searching for its family. Maybe this birthday would pass more quickly, with less pain, than she thought.
Aunt Camby walked in the front door at noon, just in time to gather with them in the dining room and say the blessing. No one asked her where she’d been. Aunt Camby always headed to the store before most people were awake. She looked at Gwyn right after the blessing, a question in her eyes. Gwyn shook her head, a small tilt that no one else noticed. She knew how to keep secrets, even if they made no sense.
Gwyn blew out fourteen candles after lunch, looking away from the anxious smiles around her. No one mentioned Renny, but they all thought about him, she could feel the tension when the table fell silent for her birthday wish. They walked to the beach with her after lunch, this family she barely knew. She thought about the dolphin when she splashed into the water, how its dolphin family must be searching for it.
“Gwyn! What are you staring at? You’re missing some good rides.” Blake twisted to face her, keeping his surfboard pointed toward shore. He said something else, but a wave crashed between them, crushing his words. It was just as well. Conversations aren’t the easiest when you’re on autopilot, waiting for the day to pass.
“Okay, I’m watching.” Gwyn looked up, forcing a smile, but not for long. The water drew her today in a way she hadn’t felt before. Long shadows played beneath the surface. Shark size, dolphin size, they melted to nothing under the foamy surf. The tingle and sting in her fingers vanished in the cool wash, but Gwyn couldn’t stop thinking about the dolphin’s struggle that morning. How would dolphins look for a lost one? Did they mind the darkness? Water slipped over her skin in rushes that pulled her deeper, where the sand shelf she followed sloped into the ocean.
“Look up,” Blake called. “This one’s yours!” He whistled, pointing to a wave swelling in front of her, a monster wave she wasn’t expecting.
Gwyn whipped her surfboard around, but not fast enough. The wave crashed over her, pushing her board into a nosedive and flipping her under. Sand grated her arm as she hit bottom. She clamped her lips tight and thrashed forward, but the wave tumbled her, pulling and shoving with relentless force. She hit sand again, skidding and sinking under the awful weight of the ocean.
She rolled off the sand shelf, into a cold current that pressed her down and sucked her seaward. She needed air. She tried to swim, but her strength was nothing in the enormous rush of water that carried her. Gwyn narrowed her thoughts to keep from thrashing in panic. Facts, think of facts. Riptides can spit bodies out as quickly as they suck them under. Your lungs hold more air than you think. Lots more.
Something swirled beside her and stayed until she looked at it. Renny’s face wavered through dimness, eyes wide and searching. He stretched his thin arms out, unperturbed by the current, waiting, waiting for something. Her chest was almost exploding but the current pinned her, a waterfall of force.
A shadow passed in front of Renny and strange sounds grew: chirps and whistles that swelled into a chorus of voices that weren’t voices she’d ever heard. The water was different here, thick with the calls of shadowy creatures that blocked Renny from sight. Something rammed her back as a dark shape skimmed over her, clicking and roiling the water above until wavelets feathered over her chest and arms. She spiraled upward, kicking out of the current with frantic energy. She surfaced in a calm spot, beside a sun-flooded sandbar.
She was far down the beach from her aunts and cousins, who jumped up and down in the shallows yelling at Blake. He was riding the monster wave, milking it all the way to shore. The kids were screaming now, waking Aunt Camby, who sat up and stared in her direction, wisps of white hair blowing loose from her scarf.
Gwyn looked down, straining to see beyond the pale blur of her legs. A shadow, longer than she was tall, circled toward her. She lunged to the sandbar with a last, panic-driven rush, scrambling to the center of it where the water was calf-deep. Something surfaced beyond the breakers, a rolling crescent that sank from sight as soon as she glimpsed it.
She dropped to her knees, hunching over and gulping air; waiting for her body to quit shaking. Renny had followed her to the Outer Banks. She’d been sure he’d stay in Asheville, sure she was free of him, at least for the summer. She scooped sand and squeezed it in her fists, trying to block Renny’s face from her mind, but it was useless. Sand streamed between her fingers until her fists were empty. The pain that had blasted a hole through her this day last year, the pain she fled a week ago, wished away at noon, settled back in her body.
Renny was dead, no matter how many times she relived that day in her mind, altering what happened. A car backed into the street on this day last year, no big deal, except it was her birthday, and her brother Renny was flying downhill, stealing a ride on her new bike while she told Ferris Moony off for making fun of Renny’s stutter. The driver didn’t see him until Renny smashed into the car’s rear bumper, his body sliding over the trunk and beyond like he was skimming over ice. He slammed into a stone pillar that snapped his neck and dropped him to the ground.
She’d rethought that day, changing it a million times. Except for the way Renny’s fingers twitched when she held them, the way the ambulance wailed until her mind split open and someone pried her fingers loose.
A wave rushed over Gwyn’s hips, reminding her how fast the tide rolled in. A wide stretch of water ran between her sandbar and shore. She needed to swim across it before the current grew too strong. She estimated the distance, comparing it to a swimming pool. Two laps, maybe a little more. The panic trembling through her eased. It was a good trick to know, thinking about facts, concrete things that pushed fear, or Renny, or both, from her thoughts.
“Hey, Gwyn, are you okay?”
Blake swam toward her sandbar, frog-legging the last few yards as he stared at her scrunched-up figure.
“I didn’t see you fall. Did you lose your balance or bail out of that wave? It was a rough one.”
Gwyn stopped hugging her chest, hoping she hadn’t been rocking the way she sometimes did when she thought about Renny too much.
“I thought everyone was yelling about my great ride,” said Blake, “but they were really yelling that you’d taken a tumble and disappeared.” He paused, treading water and watching her. “Are you hurt?”
She lurched to her knees.
“The wave caught me wrong, no big deal,” she said. “Tide’s coming in fast.”
As if Blake, Mr. Outer Banks himself, wouldn’t know exactly what the tide was doing.
She stood, took a ragged few steps, and dove off the sandbar. Did Blake think he was rescuing her?
She swam fast, trying to out-swim the sounds that pressed against her every time her head dipped under, calls and clicking that made her gasp for breath. Blake caught up with her when she touched bottom. The calls faded into pounding surf. Blake pointed to the side of her face.
“You really did get creamed by that wave. Does it hurt?”
Gwyn touched her cheek and chin, aware of the stinging as she touched it. A hand-sized streak on her shoulder was scraped raw. Her hip ached.
“So how much can I bleed before sharks notice?” She forced a laugh, trying to joke about it. She walked faster, holding her breath until the water was knee deep and underwater shadows shrank to minnow size. A shark had bitten the chunk of flesh out of the dolphin she’d found. Ernest Ray had told her that fact when she described the beached dolphin to them that morning.
If her face looked anything like her shoulder, she needed to put a bag over her head. She turned her scraped side away from Blake. Waves winked around them, splaying dots of light over their bare skin. Blake was the most beach-colored person she’d ever seen, with his sun-dark skin and sandy hair. His eyes changed a lot, but they were always some shade between sky and ocean, depending on his mood. A gold hoop pierced one of his ears.
Aunt Camby hadn’t said anything about working with him at the store when she asked Gwyn to spend the summer on Nags Way Island, but he’d been there her first day at The Sir Walter Raleigh store, looking as surprised as she was, and just as suspicious.
“Show Gwyn the ropes,” her aunt had told him. He’d veered from jokes to intense instructions all week, until his thick Banks accent, the vowels that puckered his lips into a circle, actually sounded normal.
“It’s ugly.” Blake peered at her shoulder, squinting with mock concentration. “But not shark bait.”
Blake was different at the beach, a lot more relaxed without inventory sheets and Gwyn’s nervous questions. He’d slipped on and off his surfboard like a seal all afternoon, showing her tricks she couldn’t do, even when he gave her a boost with his knee in shallow water.
Gwyn’s skin crawled with confusion, stinging where she was scraped, tingling when her arm brushed Blake’s. She was almost glad to see her cousin Allie, who met them on the beach. Allie was sixteen, the same as Blake. She talked about high school with him a lot, opening a gulf between Gwyn’s life and theirs that felt wider than two years.
“You missed the dolphins,” Allie said. “They surfaced over there but I haven’t seen them since.” She pointed beyond the sandbar.
“Eweww, Gwyn.” Allie stared at Gwyn’s shoulder. “That’s disgusting. You should put something on it.”
“I feel fine, if you’re wondering,” Gwyn said. “It looks worse than it really is.”
“I think she’s fine too.” Blake stepped back and looked Gwyn over. “Except for salt water up her nose, scrapes, a limp, and a pulverized shoulder.”
Gwyn straightened her gait, wincing at the pain that shot through her hip.
“You were swimming fast across that dip,” Blake said. “A shark would have given up if he’d seen you.”
Gwyn glanced at him, looking for sarcasm. If he made fun of her, she’d make him sorry he ever tried it. Anger might stop the tremors coursing through her. Taking deep breaths wasn’t helping.
Blake’s eyes narrowed with the same hooded curiosity he’d shown all week at the store. “I mean it. I was barely keeping up with you.”
“You’re a regular fish in the water,” Gwyn said. “I could never out-swim you.”
“None of us could.” Allie danced a few steps ahead, turning to face them. “You could be a lifeguard, Blake, when you get tired of the store.”
“Nags Way doesn’t have lifeguards.” Blake looked up and down the shell- and driftwood-littered beach. “There aren’t enough people here to need one.”
They were still at the far end of the beach, near an overgrown path that wound through the dunes in the direction of Aunt Camby’s house.
“I’m going inside.” Gwyn veered toward the weedy path. “To tend these scrapes. Don’t worry about my shoulder, Allie. I’ll find a bandage so you don’t have to look at it.”
“I’ll go with you,” Blake said. “I think there’s a first-aid kit in the kitchen.”
Gwyn hesitated, shifting from one foot to the other as she scowled at the hot sand. She needed to be alone for a while, to stop the panic fluttering through her gut. Renny’s face still swam through her mind with painful clarity.
“Sorry, Gwyn, I didn’t know you were upset,” said Allie. “I’ll help Blake look for Band-Aids while you clean yourself up. I bet you need to check some private places, if you know what I mean, for scrapes. You don’t want company for that, do you?”
“Right.” Heat pulsed over Gwyn’s face. Sometimes Allie made her feel twelve instead of fourteen. Private places.
Gwyn led Blake and Allie through sea oats and dunes to the first line of twisted oaks. The trees were short and dense, holding welcome shade and cooler sand beneath them for the long walk to Aunt Camby’s house. The steep roof poked through thick oak crowns. No wonder everyone here called it the Big House. It was visible from every direction. It was the only house at this end of Nags Way Island, unless you counted Fenner’s tiny house by the store.
The Big House was old, built with a wide center hall that connected the front door with the back. When they reached the back door, they heard Lida haggling with someone on the front porch. Lida worked at the Big House, using the large kitchen for her bakery business during the day and cooking dinner for everyone at night.
“I’m watching all day,” Lida said, “but don’t expect me to see what isn’t here.”
Lida was talking to two men, her short bulk blurred by the screen door and shadows in the wide front hall. Lida talked with anyone who passed by the Big House, fishing for gossip about Northenders, the islanders who lived in Trotsby, Nags Way’s only town.
Allie grabbed Blake’s arm and barred Gwyn with the other. “Don’t let them see us.” Allie’s eyes gleamed. “I love it when Lida gets worked up over something. If it’s juicy gossip, I can spill it at dinner before she does and drive her crazy.”
Gwyn might have joined in; Lida could blow the smallest event into a soap opera, telling every detail in a broad dialect that made Blake’s accent sound mild, but Gwyn was still rattled by the current that had caught her, still shaky from seeing Renny. She ached beyond the scrapes on her face and arms. The air around her felt too clear, so focused it hurt her eyes.
“You listen,” Gwyn said. She slipped inside, easing the screen door shut so Lida wouldn’t hear her. She sidled along the wall and ducked into a back hallway, toward the small bathroom there.
Her face was scratched, but it wasn’t bleeding. A bruise darkened her hip. Gwyn splashed water on her face and arms, wincing when it hit her scraped shoulder. She touched her back where something had thumped her, knocking her free of the rip current. A spasm of fear shot up her back when she touched it.
Allie stood in the kitchen doorway with a fistful of Band-Aids when Gwyn came out. She put her finger to her lips. Gwyn darted across the hall and edged toward the kitchen door, staying in shadows. Lida and the two men were visible through the front screen door.
“We need some solid proof, some good evidence,” one of the men said. “Queenbee covers her tracks, but there has to be something here we can use.”
Lida set her hands on her hips the way she did when she grew agitated. She had a temper that could flare at any irritation.
“Don’t get on a high horse about this, Lida,” said the older of the two men. He looked nice, the kind of dad who’d remember you and say hi on the street. “You said you’d help if any wrong-doing was involved. You know what’s at stake for my family, and you know better than most what a tyrant Queenbee can be.”
Lida nodded but she moved in front of the screen door, blocking the door handle. The man eyed her firm stance.
“Tip Peterson shot a dolphin yesterday,” he said. “Several of them charged his nets, starving or crazy, he didn’t know which, but he had to protect his catch. Queenbee was waiting for him when he docked, wanting to know if he’d netted a dolphin. How she gets her information nobody knows, but she’s meddled in other people’s business for too long. Lives have been ruined because of it.”
Lida was quiet for so long that Gwyn slipped deeper in the shadows, afraid Lida might turn and see her. Gwyn held her breath, willing them to keep talking about the dolphin.
“Did he tell her he’d shot one?” Lida’s voice was strained.
“Of course not. That’s what I’m telling you. She had no right to snoop after him, acting like his catch was her business. Besides, the dolphin got away. Tip’s a terrible shot.”
Lida snorted. “Whose business is whose? Tip knows he shouldn’t be shooting at dolphins. I don’t like snoops either, not one bit. Tell me plain out what you’re after and I’ll tell you if it’s here. This talk of evidence this and business that is wearing on my nerves. I’ve got five chocolate cakes to finish today.”
Allie faked a disappointed pout and leaned close to Gwyn’s ear. “Lida’s getting worked up, but no good gossip. Let’s get out of here before she sees us. You can put your Band-Aids on at the beach.”
Gwyn hesitated, torn between listening and getting out of Lida’s sight. Gwyn had been on the island a week, but Lida still watched her with small suspicious eyes, giving Gwyn the same treatment she doled out to anyone who wasn’t a Banker. Creeping up the hall with her back pressed to the wall was more than Gwyn wanted to explain right now.
Blake stood in the kitchen, waving a large square of gauze at her. He made Gwyn sit down while he fixed her shoulder. Allie stayed by the door, fidgeting between them and the conversation outside. Blake was efficient, rubbing Gwyn’s lower arm to confuse her nerve endings, then applying antibiotic and gauze to her oozy scrape. He taped the edges with adhesive he’d already cut into strips. Jolts of warmth shot through Gwyn’s arm when he touched her.
“That’s as good as a doctor would do,” she said, eyeing the bandage.
“Boy Scout training fools them every time,” he said. “I got asked to work in the emergency room last week.” She rolled her eyes at the grin on his face. He had a goofy sense of humor sometimes, but she felt more relaxed than she had all day. Blake repacked the first aid kit and slid it in a cabinet.
Gwyn’s counselor in Asheville had told her this day would be hard. Post-traumatic stress, she’d called it, pain that would ease as time passed, but Gwyn never told her about seeing Renny after he died. It was okay to get help with the fury that shook her days after Renny died, the despair that left her unable to talk with friends, but no one could tell her what was real and what wasn’t. Renny was still around, whether she wanted him to be or not.
“Quick, they’re talking about coming inside,” Allie said. “Lida will call us snoops forever if we don’t get out of here.”
They ran across the yard to the main beach path. Gwyn glanced down at a trickle of blood rolling from a knee scrape. “Where are those Band-Aids, Allie? I need one.”
“Oh no,” Allie said. “I must have dropped them in the kitchen.”
Blake turned back to the house.
“Hold on.” Gwyn grabbed the back of his shirt. “I’ll go back. I’m the only one with a good excuse for Band-Aids.”
“Good idea,” Allie said. “We’ll see you at the beach.” She eyed Gwyn’s hand until Gwyn let go of Blake’s shirt.
Lida and the two men were in Aunt Camby’s study, an odd place to look for anything. There wasn’t much there except a few chairs, an old post office desk, and a fireplace. Gwyn crept as close to the study as she dared, but they weren’t talking about the dolphin anymore.
“I don’t understand this sudden interest in something you’ve known about for years, Luther.” Lida scolded with familiar irritation. It was the same tone Gwyn used to take with Renny when his buzzing curiosity drove her crazy.
Lida’s next words knifed through Gwyn. “Digging up the past is no better than digging up graves. You’ll find something rotten that maybe wasn’t rotten before.”
Band-Aids littered the floor just inside the kitchen doorway. Gwyn slunk into the kitchen and raked them up. Leaving the past behind was her whole reason for coming to Nags Way Island this summer. Seeing Renny underwater was probably some weird oxygen deprivation thing, something that wouldn’t happen again. Renny was in Asheville, drifting through pools of grief that would swamp her house forever. She peeled a Band-Aid and stuck it on her knee.
A desk drawer slammed and one of the men grunted. “We’ve found gold.” His voice was quiet, but there was no mistaking the excitement in it.
A movement flickered on the back porch, so fast she almost missed it. Renny hovered at the screen door, his small shadow barely more than a shiver in the sunlight. He beckoned her, dancing back and forth on the top step. Frustration welled in his dark eyes when she shook her head. She crunched her body as small as she could, fighting the panic that shook her. A thin mewling rose, a damaged kitten sound that she didn’t know was hers until one of the men spoke.
“I thought you said everyone was down at the beach this afternoon.”
“It’s the cat, as tired of your suspicions as I am,” said Lida. “It’s a good thing no one else is home to hear you, or they’d think I was talking to lunatics. Stop pawing through those letters and put them back.”
“Suspicious is right,” Luther said. “If there’s proof here, you’re standing between us and justice.”
Renny’s shadow disappeared.
Gwyn rolled to her feet and edged along the wall to the back door, whispering to herself that Renny was gone, gone, gone. He never appeared where others could see him. She needed to get out before Lida caught her listening to a conversation that was obviously some secret.
“Someone’s at the back door, Lida.”
Footsteps slammed down the hall as Gwyn fled across the yard. Renny stood by a hedge, motioning her between two hydrangeas before he melted from sight.
Gwyn darted after him, terrified but certain that he’d help her hide. She didn’t know what Lida would do if she saw her. Gwyn balled her shaking fingers into a fist. If anyone suspected she’d seen Renny they’d question her sanity. She’d never get past her grief if that happened.
She crawled under a holly, gasping as leaf needles jabbed through her bandage. She crept behind the hydrangeas in the direction Renny had run. Footsteps crunched behind her. She ran toward the vegetable garden that flanked a wall separating the yard from the trees and dunes beyond. Something scrambled over the wall as a man burst through the shrubs. Gwyn crouched between Lida’s yellowing sugar pea tents.
“I told you, it’s the cat,” called Lida from the porch. “He hates strangers.”
The man stood a few moments by the hedge. He was a lot younger than Luther, but the hunter’s concentration in his eyes sent a chill through Gwyn. She watched his brown shoes through the leaves, gathering herself to bolt.
“Come back inside,” said Lida, her voice resigned. “if you’re so sure you’ve found something. I’ll be shocked if it amounts to more than a hill of beans.”
Their voices faded and the back door slammed. Renny peered over the wall, straight at Gwyn. His face wasn’t as tortured here as it had been in Asheville. He was small, insubstantial under the trees. The longer Gwyn stared at him, the less frightened she felt. His eyes were enormous; two caves that had petrified her in Asheville, but they weren’t so despairing here.
He turned toward the woods, looked back at her once, and wavered out of sight. Gwyn crept to the wall, staying low. The wall was so old that its plaster was pale yellow. Shells and sea glass were embedded along the length of it, glowing in the afternoon sun. Gwyn inched a wooden gate open enough to squeeze through. She closed the gate and wedged a stick in the latch to jam it. It wouldn’t stop the men if they came back outside, but at least it would slow them down. The beach path everyone used ran alongside the wall, leading east toward the ocean, and west toward the Trotsby road and sound beyond.
There was no sign of Renny on the path. Gwyn ran toward the beach, toward the crowd of relatives where Renny would never show his shadowy face. She stooped below the wall until a dune rose on her right, blocking any view from the Big House. Dunes rose everywhere on Nags Way, great shaggy humps covered with grasses near the beach, crowned with trees further inland that rose in height until they towered over Roanoke Sound.
A bird swooped over her head, a tropical flash of yellow and green that disappeared into the trees behind her. She crouched down, spooked by its sudden flight. She’d flushed birds before when she trotted down the path, but none like this one. It dropped a melody into the air around her, a mix of whistle and song that made her sure she’d forgotten something important. She glanced over her shoulder. The path behind her was empty. She retraced her steps, listening for another whistle. She’d heard the bird before, but she couldn’t remember where. She stopped when she reached the gate again. Renny stood by a broken cedar, watching her. Amber sap, thick as blood, oozed from a split branch beside him. She backed away, jumping when a dry twig snapped under her foot.
A second whistle broke through the air with a thumping rhythm that no bird would make. It was Fenner; she knew it before she saw his short stocky form through the underbrush. Renny wavered into nothing but shimmery heat waves. Gwyn rushed past the broken cedar, calling Fenner’s name.
Fenner waved to her as he tucked a white shirt into the baggy pants he always wore. His brown shoes scuffed the sandy path. He might have been as old as Aunt Camby or he might not have been; it was hard to tell. He had the same wrinkles and weathered skin, but his hair was silvery brown and wavy, thick and twiggy as a nest. He was the night watchman for the store, but he spent all night drinking wine instead of watching anything. Her aunt never seemed to notice the sweet, fruity smell that clung to Fenner in the evening. He ate dinner with them at the Big House most nights, oblivious to Lida’s clucking disapproval every time he topped his wine glass off.
“Whoa there, Gwyn, I thought the birthday party was on the beach.”
“Are you headed that way? May I walk with you?” Gwyn swallowed, struggling to hold her voice steady.
“Of course, of course. I’m honored to escort the birthday girl.” Fenner rubbed his eyes, a brisk twist with each fist, but he couldn’t hide the sadness that rose as his gaze lingered over the wall by the wooden gate. The plaster there was pocked with holes where shells and glass had been torn out. Gwyn hadn’t noticed it before.
“Strange, but I thought I heard you calling me,” he said. “What brings you up to the Big House on such a momentous day? I was sure you’d be frolicking in the sea most of the day. Very healthful activity, especially on birthdays.” Fenner took her elbow, gentle and courtly and as outdated as he always was.
“A wave tumbled me.” She pointed to her bandaged shoulder. “I needed some first aid stuff.”
“Yes indeed, the waves here can carry quite a punch. Don’t swim much myself.” Fenner touched his neck, clucking over her scraped shoulder. He frowned at the broken cedar, holding his fingers at his throat.
Hoof beats sounded in the open stretch of dunes and a horse trotted into view. Gwyn thought at first it was one of the wild Outer Banks ponies that roamed the island but this horse was taller, moving with heavy-muscled speed up the path.
“Gwyn, my dear, step behind the shrubbery a moment while I examine this curious equine. We don’t want to startle the poor creature.”
Fenner’s face tightened as he steered Gwyn behind a thick stand of cedar. The horse headed toward them, disappearing for a moment behind the slope of a tree-covered dune. Gwyn heard a faint scraping and screeking, the sound trees make rubbing against each other on a windy night.
Fenner cocked his head, listening and muttering at the same time. “What mischief is this on an already difficult day?”
He glanced at Gwyn and flung a handful of sand over the cedar she stood behind, only it wasn’t quite sand. It flashed and settled over her face, cool and light as sea mist. Gwyn blinked in the brightness of it, gripping a branch to steady herself. She popped her eyes wide to see better.
Fenner jumped toward the gate, really jumped, faster than an old man could move. He pushed the gate latch, but the stick Gwyn had shoved in it held firm. The horse rounded the curve of dune, snuffling the path Gwyn had walked over. Every part of the horse moved in silver and duskiness; hints of all the colors in the world in shadow form. Its creaking filled the air. The horse was made of driftwood, dozens of pieces smoothed and flowing together into sinew and muscle. The wood looked like living skin from a distance, except for the horse’s forehead. Thick splinters rose from a gouge there, spiking outward into wicked points.
The horse paused and sniffed the cedar. Gwyn was sure the horse knew she was there, all animals knew things like that, but it passed the cedar and danced toward Fenner, pointing its spiked forehead at Fenner’s chest. It tossed its head as if the gouge there was hurting.
Gwyn stared at Fenner, clamping her lips tight and inching backward. One second he was normal, the next his clothes curled into dried leaves, then nothing. His body, from his waist down, was covered in thick curling fur. What she’d assumed were his brown shoes were leathery hooves, broad and almost as flat as feet. He was a faun. She’d seen pictures enough to know it, but this was no fairytale. Fenner’s legs were as solid and real as hers and strangely normal in the tangy breeze blowing up from the beach.
Fenner looked over the wall at the Big House, more wistful than panicked. “Stay where you are, Gwyn,” he said. “You’re well hidden.”
He trotted away, down the seaward path. The horse wheeled and followed him, passing Gwyn in a rush of cedar-tinged air. It lowered its head when it got near Fenner, keeping its spiked forehead pointed at Fenner’s back.
Fenner passed under a spreading live oak whose branches stretched over the path and garden wall. Two legs swung down from the upper branches, then a face, shadowy and intent, but unmistakably Renny’s.
Fenner glanced at Renny’s legs and turned back to Gwyn, concern flickering over his face. She thrashed out of the brush when she saw Renny, slowed by confusion. Renny didn’t let anyone but her see him. At least that’s what she’d thought.
The horse stopped, looking from Fenner to Gwyn with troubled eyes. It turned, pointing its splinters at Gwyn. Fenner sighed, a sad, resigned breath. He vaulted onto the horse’s back and turned it away from Gwyn. He reached up and pulled Renny down when the horse passed under the tree. Renny tumbled onto the horse’s rump behind him. The horse broke into a gallop, outpacing Gwyn’s desperate run.
Gwyn’s breath tore her lungs, starved for air as she ran through hot sand. The riders crossed an open stretch between dunes, the horse slowing to a shambling trot, looking like nothing more than a shaggy island pony. Fenner could have been anyone, riding toward the beach in rumpled pants with a boy bouncing behind.
They disappeared into the dunes. She almost caught them at the edge of the beach. The horse paused, raking sand with its front hooves and dancing to the side, fighting the way Fenner pulled its neck away from the water.
Allie and Blake were in the water, their backs to the dunes. Allie held a conch, playing keep-away from Blake. She laughed and fell against him when he grabbed it. She snatched it and flung it into deeper water. Blake dove after it just as the horse galloped into the surf, straight toward Allie. She turned, her mouth opening in silent shock. Fenner turned the horse before it trampled her, but it knocked her over, sending a wedge of spray in the air. A wave crashed through the spray, swallowing Allie and foaming over the horse’s chest as it plunged out of sight. Blake surfaced, holding the conch shell high.
“Allie went under!” Gwyn smashed into the water, pointing where Allie had fallen. Blake dove again and surfaced a few seconds later, hauling Allie’s limp body from the water.