AFTER THE STORM CAME THE PIRATES. . . .
I’d been lying awake for half a strike when the door flew open and Dennis’s footsteps pounded against the stairs. “Thomas, we need you,” he shouted. “Something’s wrong.”
Alice was up in a flash, long legs flying across the shelter and onto the steps. I sprinted after her. Outside, I took a deep breath and followed their gazes across the sound to our colony on Hatteras Island.
“I can’t see anything through the cloud,” I said, rubbing my eyes.
Alice shook her head. “That’s not a cloud. It’s smoke.” She took a hesitant step forward. “Our island is on fire.”
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Thunder rattled the aging wooden cabins, but no one stopped to listen. There wasn’t time for that. The coming storm was written in every distant flash of lightning, and in the sick, heavy clouds hanging over the ocean. The pelicans flying by in tight formation groaned in warning. Even the air tasted strange and unnatural.
So how had Kyte, Guardian of the Wind, missed it completely?
Usually Kyte predicted storms a day in advance. He’d tell us how strong the wind would be. With a Guardian of the Water, he’d warn how high the ocean would rise. And though I found it hard to imagine the clear blue sky roiling with clouds, and the usually calm ocean turned inside out, I knew better than to doubt him. It was his element, after all.
“Swell rising,” yelled Kyte. He crouched beside a stick planted firmly in the sand. It marked the highest point he expected the ocean to reach. As everyone turned to look, the water washed right over it and dragged it out to sea.
He closed his eyes. Tension carved lines in his face. He was engaging his element, but it had never looked so difficult before.
“Wind speed increasing,” shouted another Guardian.
“I know. It’s my element,” exclaimed Kyte, as though he owned the wind itself, not just the ability to read it.
Meanwhile, my father stood side by side with my older brother, Ananias, at the colony’s rainwater harvester. They looked alike: same thick, dark hair and serious expression. They conjured sparks from their fingertips, tiny flames that grew and combined into a white-hot glow. Ananias directed the heat onto a bent nail while our father straightened it and drove it back into the oak paneling. However bad the storm might be, we couldn’t afford to lose our only water source.
All the Guardians were busy now, their elements in full effect. As the first and only child born without an element, I watched them enviously. I couldn’t summon fire, unearth food, predict storms, or catch fish barehanded. But I could toss sandbags against the stilts supporting our cabin, and so I did—one after another, as my arms burned and sweat poured down my forehead.
“Shouldn’t you be loading the evacuation canoes, Thomas?” Kyte’s voice was low and threatening.
“Alice is taking the last bags now,” I said, pointing to the girl sprinting across the beach—sure-footed and powerful—two bulky canvas bags slung across her shoulders.
He followed my eyes, and shouted: “Do you like having to do everything yourself, Alice?”
As she turned her head, the wind tousled her dark hair. She peered at Kyte from the corner of her eye, but she didn’t answer.
“I’m talking to you, Alice!”
She dropped the bags. “Does it matter what I like?” Her eyes drifted to me, and she cocked an eyebrow. “Anyway, you’ve spent years trying to keep Thom and me apart. Why do you want him to help me now?”
Kyte’s face reddened. “How dare you speak to a Guardian like that? You’re not an Apprentice yet, remember.”
“And I hope I never will be.” She smiled. “Are we done now?”
The other Guardians stopped what they were doing, and watched with interest. Kyte obviously knew it too. He’d have to take action—punish Alice yet again—just to save face. It was all so predictable.
Couldn’t we have just one afternoon without Alice battling the Guardians head-on, when she could be spared their pointless attempts to tame her? The storm would be upon us soon. There wasn’t time for this.
“Why do you think you missed this storm, Guardian Kyte?” I asked. The words came out quickly, a thinly veiled attempt to distract him. “Since your element is wind.”
Kyte’s mouth twisted into a mocking smile. “Why? Did you foresee it before me, Thomas? Did you just forget to mention it to us?”
I sensed the Guardians’ stares shifting to me. “I wasn’t meaning to criticize. It’s just strange. Almost like your element
didn’t . . .”
“What? Like my element didn’t what?” Kyte lifted a sandbag as though it weighed nothing and launched it several yards. “I’d think that you of all people would have more respect for the elements.”
Without a sound, my younger brother, Griffin, joined me. Being deaf, he’d learned to read the Guardians’ body language better than anyone. Having him beside me should have been a warning to say nothing. But I’d only spoken up to save Alice.
“I’m just trying to understand.”
“And you think now is the time for that?” Kyte raised his hands toward the darkening sky. “Some of us have work to do, and not enough time to do it. Can you at least respect that?”
My pulse raced. Anger coursed through me. “You wouldn’t be in such a hurry if you’d predicted the storm like you’re supposed to.”
“Until you have something to offer this colony,” he spat, “I suggest you keep your thoughts to yourself.”
“Exactly,” echoed my father. I hadn’t heard him approach. He placed a reassuring hand on my shoulder, but his voice was loud and fierce. He fixed his eyes on Kyte. “After all, those with elements should always be allowed to speak.”
“True. And if Thomas discovers an element, I’ll be sure to listen.”
“And how do you suggest he finds one?”
Kyte shrugged, but the mocking smile was back. “It’s difficult, for sure. Especially so late in childhood.”
My father’s grip tightened. Pain swept through me. “As things stand, he’s nothing.”
“As you say,” returned Kyte smoothly. “Nothing.”
I felt anger flash through my father’s claw-like fingers—sharp enough to make me wince—and then he pulled away. I waited for him to come to my defense again, to match Kyte word for word. He’d supported me for sixteen years. I expected nothing less now. But when I looked at him, it was as if he was done fighting. Or worse, as if he agreed with Kyte.
Nothing. The word hung in the air like a fork of lightning seen long after it has vanished. Of course it was difficult for Father to have a son with no element—it was even harder for me—but he’d always told me to be patient. Had he been lying all those years? Was this how he really felt?
There were only fifteen people in our colony, but every single one of them stood still and silent, eyes fixed uneasily on the ground.
My hands balled into fists by my sides. My heart beat wildly. I can throw insults too, I thought. I could’ve asked Kyte why his weather predictions were increasingly unreliable. I could’ve asked my father why his element was so much weaker than his oldest son’s.
But I didn’t say anything. Because in the end, they still had an element, and I didn’t. Something was better than nothing.
I kept my head up and began to walk—quick, uneven strides that couldn’t carry me away fast enough. My father called to me, but I didn’t turn back. As soon as I crossed the dunes, I broke into a run. Sand slipped beneath me. I couldn’t seem to get a grip on anything—the earth, my pulse, my life.
I didn’t stop running until I reached the narrow woods that ran like a spine down the center of Hatteras Island. I placed my left hand against a pine tree and punched the trunk with my right. Mosquitoes landed on me, and I didn’t flick them away. I closed my eyes and welcomed a different kind of pain.
“Are you all right?”
I spun around. Alice stood before me, bags still hanging from her shoulders. She must have run too, but she didn’t even seem out of breath.
“Liar.” Her blue eyes blazed. She was a year younger than me, but that was easy to forget when she was angry. “Ignore them, Thom. Ignore them all.”
“Easy for you to say.”
“Why? Because I have an element, and you don’t?” She snorted. “I can barely conjure a spark, let alone make a fire. It’s a pathetic excuse for an element, and you know it.”
“At least it’s something.”
She dropped the bags and folded her long tan arms. Sinewy muscles showed through the dull coat of white sand. “When are you going to start fighting back?”
“I just did, remember?”
“I don’t mean for me, or Griffin. I mean for you.”
“Who should I be fighting? Kyte?”
“Anyone. Everyone. Go ahead and hurt them. Do it so they’ll never look at you the same way again.”
“Is that how you got so popular?”
Alice just smiled. “See? So much anger inside you. You need to let it out.”
There was a rustle behind us. A girl stood beneath the canopy of a young tree. She fingered the ends of her long blond hair anxiously.
Alice huffed. “What a surprise. I didn’t expect Kyte to send you so soon, Rose. I figured he had more important things to do than worry about Thom and me.”
“My father didn’t send me.”
“Course not.” Alice retrieved her bags and walked away. She didn’t look back.
Once Alice was out of sight, Rose knelt down on a bed of pine needles. She tugged the ends of her white tunic toward her knees, but the material rode up again. Her skin was smooth and pale, unblemished by scars. “My father shouldn’t say those things to you,” she murmured, voice almost lost on the wind.
I sat down with my back against the trunk. “Have you told him that?”
She looked away. Suddenly I felt guilty instead of angry.
“Alice doesn’t think an element is important,” I said. “But she’s wrong. If I had yours—if I could read water the way you do—everything would be different.”
Unlike Alice, Rose didn’t disagree. I was grateful for that. “You’ll find your element,” she said, summoning a smile. “I’m sure of it.”
“Why do you keep saying that? You swam like a fish before you could walk. Elements reveal themselves early. Not when you’re sixteen.”
Her smile never faltered. “Look at your brother. Griffin’s right leg doesn’t work properly. He has ears, but he can’t hear. Maybe you have an element, and it just doesn’t work.”
I wanted to believe her, but I’d already passed the age of Apprenticeship. There would be no silver lining to the cloud that had followed me my entire life.
A gust of wind bent the trees and scattered the needles. The first drops of rain came with it.
“I believe in you, Thomas,” she said. “Always have. I want you to know that.”
For a moment, she held my gaze, and I knew that she was telling the truth. I might be nothing to the colony, but I mattered to Rose. Her fingers drifted to the wooden bangle on her left wrist. She twisted it around and around. It was what she always did when she was nervous.
She had carved the bangle herself. Just as she’d sewn the band of white cloth that held her hair back from her face, and the pretty linen tunic that fit her so differently than the ones stitched together by the Guardians.
My pulse quickened again, but this time there was no hint of anger. Instead I felt something even more powerful. Something I’d been feeling more and more over the past two years. Something that left me as empty as having no element.
“We should go,” I said quickly, before my face gave me away.
I pulled myself up and offered my hand to Rose. She didn’t take it, though. Then again, no one but my father touched me, or held me. It was as if having no element was contagious. And who could risk losing their greatest power?
Rose stood now. She was much shorter than me, but looking at her was like watching myself: same unsure expression, same way of shuffling her feet like she wasn’t sure what to do with them. Was she thinking the same thing as me too? Deep down, did she want to touch me as much as I wanted to touch her?
“You’re right,” she said, breaking the connection. “We should go.”
No. An element wasn’t the only thing I’d never have.
Three canoes sat on the creek, filled with bags of supplies and fresh water in canisters—enough for an overnight stay in the hurricane shelter. Usually I’d have been dreading a trip to the smelly, sweaty shelter on Roanoke Island, two miles to the west. Not this time, though. For once I could only think of getting away—from the Guardians’ stares, and my father’s lies, and the colony that felt smaller every day.
With a lingering gaze at me, Rose climbed into the front of the canoe on the left. Her brother, Dennis, the youngest member of the colony at nine years old, joined her. He pressed his hands against his head as if it hurt. Rose rubbed his back gently.
Alice already sat at the helm of the middle canoe. She rolled up the sleeves of her dirty, misshapen blue tunic, and grasped the paddle tightly, eager to get moving. As her older sister, Eleanor, shared yet another embrace with their father, Alice rolled her eyes. Or perhaps that gesture was intended for her grandmother, Guardian Lora, who sat in the middle of the sisters’ canoe and complained to nobody in particular that the rain was increasing. The other Guardians claimed that Lora was coming along to look after us, but we all knew it was because she was too old and frail to ride out the storm in the colony.
I followed Lora’s eyes to the clouds. We’d never set off so late before. I wondered if we’d make it across before lightning hit. If I’d had the element of wind, I’d have known the answer. If I’d had the element of water, I’d have been attuned to the swell, the tempo of the incoming tide.
I had nothing.
I took my usual place at the rear of our oak canoe. It tilted from side to side, but I barely noticed. We spent so much of our lives on water that the constant movements felt as familiar as the gentle give of sand on the beach. Griffin sat in the middle and faced me so that he could communicate with his hands during the crossing.
Meanwhile, in the bow seat up front, Ananias conferred with our father. He spoke with the confidence of a boy who’d been treated as an adult for years—though he was only eighteen. When they were done, Father waded toward Griffin and me. He paused beside Griffin, but when he leaned forward, it was me he hugged. He gripped my hair between his fingers and held me tight.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered fiercely. “You have no idea how sorry I am. None of this is your fault. I need you to remember that. Always.”
I felt tense in his arms. I wanted to scream that it didn’t matter whose fault it was. Was it any consolation for Griffin to know that his limp wasn’t his fault? Or his deafness? Or those sinister visions that kept everyone at arm’s length? No. Griffin and I were more than brothers. We were the colony’s outcasts, the constant reminders that not everything is created perfect. Knowing it wasn’t my fault didn’t change that at all.
“I’m sorry,” he said again, breaths ragged in my ear. He was squeezing me so hard I could barely breathe. Something rushed through me then, like a message direct from his heart, begging for forgiveness. Against my will, it calmed me. I hugged him back.
“It’s all right,” I said, even though we both knew it wasn’t. “I’m all right.”
As soon as he let go, I knew I’d done the right thing. He looked so grateful.
Finally, he turned to Griffin. Father never held him the way he held Ananias and me, but this time was different. Still smiling, he took a deep breath and rested his hands on Griffin’s bony shoulders.
Griffin’s eyes grew wide in astonishment, and his face opened like a sun breaking through clouds. For a precious moment, everything seemed right.
But then the smile disappeared. His expression shifted. He looked frightened—horrified, even.
That’s when the noise began.
At first it was a low sound, like waves breaking in the distance, but it had a knife-like edge that made Ananias spin around instantly. We dropped our paddles and crawled toward Griffin. He’d already grasped Father’s hands and locked on. Father tried to pull away, muscles bulging beneath his dirty cloth shirt, but it was futile.
Almost everyone in the colony had seen Griffin like this before, overcome by a blind panic that gave him superhuman strength. For years I’d tried to block out the memory of those moments—or what followed—but as Griffin’s voice twisted into a keening wail, I couldn’t think of anything else.
I lunged at Griffin and sent him tumbling onto the hard bottom of the canoe. Father stumbled back and collapsed into the waist-deep water. With the wind knocked out of him, Griffin struggled to breathe, let alone make a sound, but I could tell he’d snapped out of the trance now. There wouldn’t be any more moaning, just a faint whimpering as he curled up in a ball.
I didn’t need to look around to know that we were being watched. I could literally feel the silence. Everyone in the colony remembered hearing that sound, and what had followed.
“We don’t need to go,” Dennis cried, his voice high-pitched and desperate. “It’s a storm, nothing more.”
Kyte shook his head. “We’ll not take that chance, son.”
“Then come with us. It’s not a really bad storm, I promise. That’s why you didn’t foresee it—”
“Enough!” Kyte was clearly embarrassed at having his weather prediction challenged by his own son. “It’s time you left. Paddle evenly. Conserve your water.”
Paddle evenly. Conserve your water. This is what the Guardians said every time we set off for another stay in the hurricane shelter. Following these words, we’d dig our paddles into the murky green water and watch them create eddies as the canoes slid forward. We’d laugh at our own strength and Alice’s determined attempts to get to Roanoke Island first, like this was a race, not an evacuation. And we’d secretly revel in the knowledge that the only person of authority would be Guardian Lora, who was too weak to walk unaided, let alone control seven of us.
Now there was no laughing. No reveling. No one moved.
“He said go!” My father’s voice lashed at us, fueled by fear and anger.
As I scanned everyone’s faces, they looked away. They pitied my brothers and me, I was certain. The first time Griffin behaved this way had been nine years before, while he’d been sitting on the beach with Rose’s grandparents. One moment, they’d held him fast; the next, his little hands had gotten such a grip on them they couldn’t pull away. When they’d launched a sailboat that afternoon, it had taken three Guardians to hold Griffin back, even though he was only four years old. We hadn’t even recovered from the shock when the meaning became clear: Rose’s grandparents’ boat capsized in a sudden squall. Their bodies were never recovered.
Three years later, Griffin had latched on to a boy named John as we played on a rope swing. We’d pulled Griffin away then too, and John had climbed the tree, laughing. But he hadn’t gripped the rope properly, and fell. He’d been so still that we were sure he was just pretending to be injured. Then we saw the stream of blood.
After the grieving period, the Guardians had made me explain to Griffin that he wasn’t to blame. I’d done as they asked, though I wasn’t sure whether they were trying to convince him or themselves. It was the last day anyone had willingly touched my brother. No one wanted to be his next victim.
I knew that Griffin hadn’t caused the deaths, of course; it was more like he somehow knew a bad thing was going to happen to someone before it actually did. He wasn’t the first person in my family to have the ability either. I’d grown up hearing rumors about my mother’s “talent” for foreseeing future catastrophes—even heard people wonder aloud if she was somehow the cause of them.
I’d always told myself that it was wrong for the Guardians to say such things when she wasn’t around to defend herself. Then one night, as Griffin slept peacefully in a cot beside us, my father told Ananias and me that our mother had indeed been a seer, just like her mother before her. But all she had been able to foresee was death, and since no one had wanted to spend their final moments in fear of a fate they couldn’t avoid, they were wary of her.
Like mother, like son.
Now I stared at my father, saturated and shaking. I wanted to ask him if he was as frightened as I was, but I couldn’t. We had an audience, and he was determined to appear strong. Instead I knelt beside Griffin, still curled up in the bottom of the canoe. Making sure I had his attention, I placed a finger against my chest and pulled my mouth into a frown. Finally, I pointed to him: I. Sorry. You.
He watched each gesture with a glazed expression, and when I finished he didn’t sign back. I needed to see him touch his heart, to show that he forgave me. After all, we weren’t just brothers—we were confidants, fellow outcasts. Strangers in our own colony. But I knew he wouldn’t—or couldn’t—do it. The last time he’d had a seizure, he hadn’t communicated for a full day afterward. No words or laughter, just emptiness.
I glanced at Ananias, and wished I hadn’t. Gone was the Apprentice, the boy with the confidence of a Guardian. Now he looked as panicked as I felt. Neither of us was ready to go, but the Guardians wouldn’t allow us to stay. Silence weighed heavily, and somehow I knew that only we could break it.
I picked up the paddle and nodded to Ananias that it was time to go. He followed me in a daze. Neither of us said good-bye to our father—it was as though the word had changed meaning, become too final. Instead, we drove our paddles into the water and propelled ourselves away. For a dozen strokes I closed my eyes and focused on the splashing sound, and the monotony helped me to forget.
But then I glanced down at Griffin, and realized he was staring at the receding figure of our father. He didn’t even blink. It was like he wanted to take in as much of the man as possible before he disappeared forever.
Halfway across the sound—the waterway separating our colony on Hatteras Island from Roanoke Island—the rain became torrential. Heavy drops collected in pools around Griffin’s legs, but he didn’t seem to notice. He was as silent now as he had been loud before.
We fought our way through choppy water around tiny Pond Island and followed the hulking bridge to the eastern shore of Roanoke Island. The bridge was old and decrepit—remnant of a long-ago civilization—and a small section was missing from the middle, making it difficult to cross. The Guardians had left strong wooden planks on either side of the gap, which could be lowered in case of emergency; but walking on a long, narrow board eighty feet above the water was something only Alice wanted to try. Besides, the canoes were faster, and could carry more provisions.
We paddled hard along one of the channels that cut into Roanoke Island. At the end, we tethered the canoes to a pontoon. Alice and Eleanor unloaded their supplies as Lora muttered curses.
“Let me rest,” the old woman groaned. She was standing knee-deep in the water, fragile arms clinging to the pontoon. “I believe you would have me die out here, Alice.”
Alice caught my eye. As gusts of wind whipped at her tunic, I’d swear she smiled a little. “I hadn’t thought of that, Lora,” she said. “Not until now, anyway.”
Eleanor cast her sister a warning glance, but it was pointless. Despite their physical similarities—they were both tall and
willowy—their temperaments were as strikingly different as their hair: long, curling brown locks for Eleanor, and unkempt raven-black hair for Alice. Where Eleanor glided with gentle grace, Alice carried the energy of an all-consuming storm. Where Eleanor seemed to look through people to the weather beyond, Alice stared at them with a blazing intensity that dared them to look away. Everyone adored Eleanor. Alice counted me as her only friend. Then again, she frustrated the Guardians even more than I did. How could I not have liked her?
Lora picked up on Alice’s defiant tone, and cocked her head. “What was that? What did you say, child?” She emphasized the word child, as if she weren’t completely at Alice’s mercy.
Alice just smiled. She would be turning sixteen in a few months. Her element was unusually weak, but she’d still be honored with the title Apprentice of the Fire. There would be a celebration. A feast. She certainly wouldn’t suffer through a halfhearted meal passed in cold silence, as I had done. She wouldn’t have to press her hands against her ears to block out her father’s tirade. She wouldn’t be granted an additional year to discover her element—simply putting off the moment when the Guardians would acknowledge she had no element at all.
“Thomas. . . . Thomas!” Ananias stood over me. Rain ran down his face. “Can you help Griffin?”
It wasn’t really a question, but I nodded anyway. “Are you all right?” I asked.
Ananias secured our canoe to the pontoon with deliberate slowness. He knew what I really meant. “Griffin could be wrong.”
“He’s never been wrong before.”
“But Father knows there’s danger now. He’ll be on his guard. So will everyone else.” He spoke earnestly, like he really wanted to believe what he was saying. But behind the stubble and the serious brows, he looked concerned.
I turned to Griffin. He hadn’t moved at all. One side of his body was submerged in rainwater. We go, I signed.
Griffin blinked, but he didn’t reply.
We go, I repeated. I waved my arm in a wide arc above my head to signify the weather. Storm.
He sat up, shivering.
I pulled off his saturated cloth shirt and gave him the spare from my canvas bag. I knew he’d be drenched again before we reached the shelter, but I just wanted him to stop shaking for a moment. He pulled on the shirt without looking at me.
Ananias took my bag so I could stay with Griffin. But Griffin either didn’t need my help, or didn’t want it. Without even a glance in my direction he crawled out of the canoe and onto the pontoon. Then he followed the others along the cracked road, fighting wind and rain, his weak right leg sliding through dirty puddles.
Finally only Alice and Lora remained. “Come on,” grumbled Lora as I approached. She didn’t look up. “Alice has me propped up against this pontoon like a ship’s figurehead.”
“Or a lightning rod,” offered Alice cheerily.
When I drew close, Lora’s expression shifted. “Oh, it’s you,” she said, startled. “Where’s Ananias?”
“Carrying our bags.”
She opened her mouth as if to speak, but sighed instead. “Well, you can carry my bag, then.”
“Don’t you need support?”
“Alice’s help will be enough.” She fixed me with her withering gaze. “I’m not an invalid yet.”
I stared right back. For once, it was Lora who looked away first.
We trudged along the half-mile stretch of road that led to the hurricane shelter. To either side, marsh gave way to scrub grass, and then the ground was littered with rubble, the remains of a bigger settlement. No one knew precisely when the area had been abandoned, or why, but it was impossible not to marvel at what the colonists had accomplished: buildings of smooth stone, and bridges that soared for a mile or more across the waterways. And a hurricane shelter that was still miraculously intact after who knew how many years?
Near the shelter the crumbling road intersected with another, equally battered one. The buildings still stood here, in various states of disrepair. I’d named the place Skeleton Town after them; they reminded me of the rotting fish that sometimes washed ashore on the beach. The name had stuck ever since.
I wondered how Lora felt, returning here now. Her husband had died in one of the buildings—fell through a rotten floorboard and slid deep into a hidden shaft. The walls had collapsed on top of him. The Guardians had attempted to pull him out with ropes, but it was no use. He was completely trapped. Lora had passed him food and water and talked to him until, finally, he’d stopped answering.
Every one of us had been hurt here at some point: mostly from the broken glass littered around the buildings. The safest place was the center of the road. No one deviated far from it.
I glanced at the buildings to either side. Where had the strange materials come from? What had destroyed the place? Why did the colonists leave? Skeleton Town was one gigantic mystery, and every time we returned I found it more fascinating.
Suddenly, there was a flash of movement in the building to my left—a person, I thought, although that was impossible. I stared through the remains of a window. Broken furniture littered the floor. Shelves dangled from the walls at awkward angles. But there was no movement. It must have been the wind and rain playing tricks on me.
When we reached the intersection, Alice whistled. “Just look at these buildings,” she said. “I reckon there were hundreds of people living here once. Why do you think they left, Guardian Lora?”
“I don’t know. It was uninhabited when we discovered it many years ago.” It was Lora’s usual reply.
“But you must’ve thought about it.”
“Well, it was probably the Plague. Like on the mainland.”
“But there was no sign of the Plague when you settled here, right?”
“No. I suppose not.”
“Hmm.” Alice paused. “Mother says Skeleton Town may have been destroyed in the storm that grounded your ship on Hatteras Island.”
“I don’t think so. There’s no way everyone on board would’ve survived a storm that was powerful enough to destroy a town.” She clicked her tongue. “Which reminds me: Why didn’t Kyte predict that storm?”
“For the same reason he missed today’s. Nobody’s perfect, Alice. You of all people should be aware of that.”
Lora no doubt sensed that Alice’s questions were far from over—she clamped her mouth shut and stared straight ahead. None of the Guardians liked to discuss the hazardous voyage that had brought them to Hatteras Island years before we were born. All we knew for certain was that they had taken to the ocean in a desperate attempt to escape the Plague.
They weren’t alone, either. Every now and then we’d glimpse clan ships on the horizon. The crews never disembarked, but sometimes they anchored offshore and the Guardians would row out to trade with them. When they departed, the fifty or so people on board—young and old—would stand against the rail and wave to us. Those were the only times we could be sure we weren’t alone in the world.
We shuffled on in a slow-moving line as clouds raced by and rain pummeled us.
“Why don’t the clan folk ever stay?” I asked. “They could tell us about the ocean, and what’s beyond it, right?”
“No. They’ll not risk bringing Plague aboard their ship,” replied Lora, clearly more at ease with my questions than Alice’s.
“But there are no rats on Hatteras.”
“They don’t know that for certain. And we don’t know there aren’t rats on their ship. Have you forgotten what happened after John died?”
No, I hadn’t forgotten. His parents had been distraught, unable to cope. So had his older sister, Elizabeth; she’d loved her brother, and when he was gone, she’d felt alone and neglected. Everyone had known it, but no one had intervened. We’d simply given the family room to grieve.
Elizabeth hadn’t grieved. She’d escaped.
She’d taken a sailboat and headed for the mainland. Her parents had chased after her in a canoe, but didn’t reach her until the next day. By the time they’d brought her home, she was showing early signs of Plague: chills, fever, seizures, and swelling around her groin. So they’d carried her to an abandoned cabin several hundred yards from the rest of the colony.
I remembered my father imploring them to cover their mouths and bodies, but they hadn’t listened. By the following day, they had the Plague too.
I never saw them after that. My father said they had asked him to divvy up their belongings. Then they’d taken a package of food and water, and paddled over to Roanoke Island, the three of them together. Ten days later, Father had crossed the bridge. We’d stood on the shore and watched him go, saw smoke from the fire he’d started to burn their decomposing remains. He’d rowed their canoe back, alone, and hadn’t spoken for a week.
I hadn’t forgotten that at all.
“If the people on the clan ships won’t come ashore,” pressed Alice, “how do they survive? How do they have anything to trade?”
“There are other colonies besides ours.”
“What other colonies?” I asked. For a moment I shared Alice’s frustration at Lora’s dead-end answers. To me, she seemed entirely full of secrets—important ones. “Where are they? Why haven’t we met people from them?”
“Everyone has a place in the world,” replied Lora, “and this is ours.”
“Now, yes,” agreed Alice as we arrived at the shelter. “But what about before the shipwreck? Why won’t you tell us where you came from?”
Lora stopped in her tracks, and despite her frailty, it was Alice who almost toppled over. Lora kept hold of her granddaughter, and clasped my arm too. I felt the pressure of her touch, heat that grew from her grip like a dull ache.
Lora stared at her hand, then at me. The muscles in her cheeks seemed to spasm. “You have so much to be thankful for. Don’t you realize that?”
My pulse raced, but for once I refused to answer.
She pushed my arm away, but looked even more flustered now than before. “And you,” she spat, turning her attention to Alice, “you ask too many questions.”
Alice met her gaze and didn’t blink. “And get too few honest answers.”
The hurricane shelter looked the same as it had the previous year—same heavy door, same thick walls. So did the grassy square beside it; and the water tower behind, which leaned precariously, defying gravity.
We pushed inside, and followed the staircase down. The shelter was a squat building, built mostly underground. Compared to low-lying Hatteras Island, where the waves almost kissed the cabin stilts at high tide, it felt extremely safe. Even the storm raging outside the narrow band of windows near the ceiling sounded distant. We were insulated from danger here.
I wished my father had come with us. In the heat of the moment I’d been confused, but now I realized that we could have made room for him in one of the canoes. Or would Griffin have already foreseen that? Perhaps there was no way to escape fate.
In the half-darkness we gathered in a circle and ate scraps of cured fish along with freshly harvested yucca flowers and sea rocket stems. I washed it down with small sips from my water canister. Despite the humidity I was thirsty, but I rationed my water. Unless the storm was devastating, the Guardians would arrive the next morning and tell us it was safe to return to the colony, and then I’d gulp down every last drop.
Griffin’s portion sat untouched beside him. I tried to get him to eat, but he didn’t seem to notice me. With his back pressed against the wall of the shelter, eyes blank and face drawn, he looked catatonic.
He wasn’t the only one not eating. “Are you all right, Dennis?” I asked.
The young boy shook his head.
“It’s the storm,” explained Rose. She ran her hand up and down his back. “He feels it.”
“Well, it is a bad one,” said Lora.
I listened to rain drumming against the shelter. All I could think about was my father, and whether he’d be alive by morning.
Lora watched me. “Everything will be fine. You must have faith in the Guardians.”
“Even when they’re wrong?” muttered Dennis.
All eyes turned to him. I’d heard Alice cross the Guardians, but never Dennis. He was usually so wary of speaking out of turn.
“It’s a storm, not a hurricane,” he continued. “It’s bad, but we could’ve stayed on Hatteras. We should’ve stayed.”
“Now, now, Dennis,” said Eleanor, no doubt trying to spare him Lora’s wrath. “There’s more to our element than predicting weather, remember. We need to consider the effects of the storm. How the wind might change the height of the ocean. How rain can erode the beach. How—”
“I’ve done all of that already.”
“Nonsense,” snapped Lora. “Your father has shown you basic skills, that’s all. You’ll learn to harness your full element once you’re an Apprentice, not a moment sooner.”
Dennis shook his head. “Too late. Eleanor’s already taught me everything.”
“How could she? Eleanor doesn’t even know everything—”
“She does! And so do I.” Dennis’s small dark eyes were wild. “I know the wind is thirty-three knots. We’ve already had an inch of rain, but we’ll only get two. The ocean will swell by eighteen inches, but it won’t rise above the cabin stilts. I know all of it. I’ve felt it all already.”
Now that his outburst was over, the focus shifted to Eleanor. As an Apprentice of the Wind, she needed to tell Dennis he was mistaken. She needed to restore order. But she turned away instead. Even in the half-light, she looked flushed.
I wondered if Lora would punish both of them. An Apprentice training a young one was unthinkable; surely his element was too raw. He should have been taught by his father, Kyte, just as Eleanor had been taught by her mother.
“You should enjoy being young, Dennis,” Lora said with eerie calm. “You have people who care for you. Food to eat. All we ask is that you listen and learn. There’s time enough for you to become an Apprentice, to take on that responsibility.” She summoned an unconvincing smile. “Or are you afraid there’ll be no storms left by the time you turn sixteen?”
Dennis folded his arms and jutted out his lower lip. “What’s the use of having an element if I’m not allowed to use it? Right now I’m no different than Thomas.”
Rose grasped his arm and shook it. “That’s a horrible thing to say. Tell him you’re sorry.”
“Why? It’s true. He doesn’t have an element.”
“Maybe there are more elements than we know,” said Ananias quickly. “After all, Griffin has the skill of foresight.”
Lora turned the full force of her glare onto Ananias. “That’s no skill. Predicting others’ misfortune is a curse.”
“You think we don’t know that?” I snapped. “Look at him. He can’t eat or sleep because of what he saw.”
“If he saw anything at all. Being right twice doesn’t make him a seer. Have you asked him what he saw today?”
“No. I’m not going to make him relive it, no matter what it was. And I won’t let anyone else, either.”
Dennis shivered. “Griffin frightens me. He hasn’t moved since we got here. What’s wrong with him?”
“Nothing’s wrong with him,” I said.
“How would you know? Our father says you’re strange. Says we should be careful around you. Anyway, why don’t you have an element?”
“Enough!” shouted Ananias.
Maybe I should have been offended, but I wasn’t. I’d asked the same question a hundred times, and never once had a satisfactory answer. I turned to Lora, wondering how she’d reply.
The old woman licked her dry lips. Her breaths were unusually quick. “I think you should go sit by yourself, young Dennis. You’ve said quite enough for one night.”
With a defiant glare, Dennis shuffled over to the far wall. I wasn’t angry with him, though.
“You can hardly expect him to learn if you won’t answer his questions,” I said.
“His question was impertinent. As is your tone.”
“My tone? My father may be dead, but you’re worried about my tone?”
Lora’s expression didn’t change. “I think maybe you should leave us too.”
“Nothing would make me happier.”
As Eleanor told a story to clear the air, I joined Dennis and Griffin in exile against the far wall. When I touched Griffin’s shoulder he flinched, but still didn’t open his eyes. His dark, curly hair was lank from sweat and his face was gaunt. We probably looked alike.
I opened my bag and pulled out one of the battered books my father had found in the remains of Skeleton Town. Pages were missing, but Griffin didn’t usually care—it was a chance to lose himself in a different world. This time, he wouldn’t take it.
I could think of only one other thing to try: a piece of driftwood and a burnt twig. Griffin was an extraordinary artist, the best in the colony. I placed the driftwood in his lap, the twig in his fingers, and waited.
Something seemed to stir in him, and Griffin brushed the twig across the wood, leaving shadowy black lines. Although I wasn’t sure what he was drawing, I could see him relaxing, his breathing slow. As Eleanor murmured her story, Griffin’s picture began to take shape: Guardian Lora asleep, an expression of peacefulness softening her sharp features. It was one of his finest—far more than Lora deserved. I wished he’d saved his talent for someone else.
When she was done telling her story, Eleanor came over and knelt beside Dennis. She glanced over her shoulder like she was making sure no one was listening. But then her eyes locked on me momentarily. I got the feeling she wanted me to hear.
“Are you sure about eighteen inches of swell?” she asked Dennis.
“Hmm. I thought twenty, but you’re probably right. You usually are. Your element is so much further along than mine was at your age. But try not to be in too much of a hurry, all right?”
She stroked his spiky hair and lowered her voice to a whisper. “Remember the first time you sensed a storm coming? You were only three, but you knew what was happening. I could tell just by looking at your face you had the element, same as me. And it’s only gotten stronger.” She swallowed. “But I know what you’re going through, remember? I know how it feels—the echo. All that fear and uncertainty.”
“How come no one else’s element has an echo?”
“They do. No one talks about it, but if you watch their faces, you’ll see—everybody suffers somehow.”
“Sometimes I can’t sleep. It’s like something’s pressing against my head.”
“I’m so sorry.” Eleanor took his hand and held it. “My father wouldn’t let me focus on my element until I was your age. I thought if I started things earlier, you’d hone your element quicker—maybe get control of the echo quicker too. But it’s worse now, isn’t it?”
He nodded again.
“Oh, Dennis. This is all my fault.” She sighed. “How long have you been feeling this storm?”
“Since last night. It’s so much worse over here, though.”
“I know. That’s why I hate coming to Roanoke Island. But it makes sense, I guess. We only come here when there’s a storm, and that’s when the echo is worst.” She stared at her fingers, splayed out across the hard stone floor. “Listen, you have to believe me—eventually the echo gets better. It did for me . . . like a weight being lifted, little by little. You’ll feel it too. And when you do, you won’t care about a title. Or even whether people listen to you. You’ll just love being able to relax again.”
She held him then, and let him cry into her hair, while we all pretended not to notice.
Soon it was too dark to do anything. Ananias took one of the slow-burning candles the Guardians had discovered when they first explored Skeleton Town and lit it with a single spark from his fingertip. We placed blankets on the floor and settled down to sleep.
As the murmur of deep breathing filled the room, I wondered if I was the only one still awake. Then I heard Lora moaning beside me, the noise punctuated by occasional sharp breaths. I was still furious at her, so I blocked it out as long as I could. But there was something very uncomfortable about that sound.
“Are you all right?” I whispered.
Lora opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Her tongue clicked, as though stuck to the roof of her mouth.
“Do you need water?”