KENNETH G. BENNETT

EMILY

 

 

I am not sure that I exist, actually.
Jorge Luis Borges

 

Far away and ages ago, in the middle of the wild and stormy Tourmaline Sea, there was a craggy, desolate little island called Ock, with one tiny house standing all alone at the top of a massive, jagged cliff.

The only thing lonelier than the little house at the top of the cliff was the little girl who lived in it. Ten-year-old Abigail Barrett.

 

Abigail was lonely because there were no other people around. Not one. Abigail was all by herself.

There was a second, smaller island right next to Abigail’s, called Wyn. Wyn and Ock were separated by a deep and treacherous channel full of rocks and crashing waves, and the only link between the two islands was a precarious rope bridge that creaked and groaned and shivered in the wind.

There was a small, solitary house on Wyn that looked just like the house on Ock. But it was empty. No one lived there. Abigail was the only human being for hundreds—perhaps thousands—of miles around.

Of course, there had been other people, years earlier. Abigail could remember. But they’d been separated by a Terrible Tempest.

You see, Ock and Wyn were floating islands. Two of the thirteen famous Floating Islands of Gurn.

Sometimes, a Terrible Tempest (a really, really big storm) would push the Floating Islands of Gurn together into a group, called an archipelago. When that happened, the islands might stay connected for generations. Sometimes for a thousand years.

But on other occasions, in other epochs, a Terrible Tempest would push the islands apart, and they would drift to the farthest reaches of the Tourmaline Sea.

Abigail didn’t have a boat and lacked the skills to build one. She didn’t have a telephone, or a radio, or a computer. She had no way of getting in touch with anyone.

She tried sending messages in bottles, which she sealed and tossed into the sea—but no bottles ever came back. She kept an eye out for ships and sometimes thought she saw sails on the far horizon, but no ships ever ventured close to Ock.

And so Abigail—being a positive and optimistic soul by nature—tried to make the best of her situation. She kept very busy, caring for her small house, tending her garden, and fishing and digging for clams. And she made friends with the animals and birds that lived all around her.

She talked to the dolphins and sea otters that swam close to shore, and to the seals that often climbed up onto the rocks below her house. She told stories to the tufted puffins and storm petrels and double-crested cormorants that nested among the cliffs. She sang to the pigeon guillemots and to the black oystercatchers as they prowled the beach for tiny crabs.

Abigail gave some of her animal companions names and considered a few of them true friends. Still—being a person herself—she longed for human companionship.

A sister, Abigail thought. That’s what I want. A sister. Younger or older or exactly the same age—I don’t care.

A sister to play with and talk to. To laugh and sing with. A friend to share meals and stories, sunrises and sunsets.

Just thinking about such a companion made Abigail happy, and she often found herself daydreaming.

Her name would be Emily. My sister. Emily.

Abigail’s memories of the people who had once lived with her, before the Terrible Tempest, were dim and vague. She had been very young then, barely aware of the world. Still, she remembered a few things—such as how good it had felt to have other special people close by.

She remembered kind voices and warm laughter, smiling faces, and eyes full of love and compassion. She remembered sitting with others on the beach, on calm nights, when moonlight reflected off the tranquil sea, and staring into a bonfire as voices rang in the darkness.

And she remembered the terrible storm. The tempest that had separated the islands and the people. She remembered the rain and the wind. The thunder and lightning and crashing waves.

Such memories swirled in Abigail’s mind as she went about her daily routine—sometimes comforting her, sometimes making her sad.

Occasionally, when Abigail had finished her chores and was feeling adventurous, she would hike to the top of the hill behind her house, past the stone-lined well and the pear trees, and cross the perilous channel between the two islands, clinging tightly to the ropes of the suspension bridge while trying hard not to look down.

Abigail was not fond of the bridge. It danced in the wind, shimmying and shuddering. And the rocks far below reminded Abigail of teeth. When the weather was calm, passage across the bridge went quickly. But when the wind was gusting, the way felt long. Endless. The bridge seemed to lengthen—though Abigail was sure that was all in her mind.

The house on Wyn was lonelier even than Abigail’s own. Dusty, too, and eerily quiet—just the wind whistling through the cracks in the walls. Even on sunny days, the rooms and hallways felt dark and gloomy, and the air tasted old. Stale.

The house on Wyn did have one redeeming quality, though. It contained books. Lots and lots of books. Apparently, the previous inhabitants had been voracious readers. Abigail was a good reader, too—though she couldn’t remember how she had learned or who had taught her. She simply knew that she liked to read.

Sometimes, she would sit by the kitchen window in the quiet little house on Wyn and read for hours. On other occasions, she would select a book from one of the many dusty shelves and take it carefully back across the shaky bridge, holding it tightly, not daring to look down at the rocks and waves. Once at home, she would read the book by the fire, or—if the weather was nice—on the front steps.

When she had finished a book, she would always return it to Wyn. She didn’t feel right about keeping any of the borrowed books. She read them, treated them well, and took them back, in the belief that the owners would eventually come home.

***

 

One day, during an usually long rainy spell, Abigail discovered a book in the house on Wyn that would change everything—though she didn’t realize it at the time.

The book was hidden behind other books on the uppermost corner shelf. Abigail had to stand on her tiptoes on a chair, which she’d placed on top of a small table, to reach it. The book felt thick and heavy in Abigail’s hands, and she tottered as she hefted it, almost falling from her perch. She climbed carefully down and examined the book in the light.

 

The book had a dull gray cover and spine. It was nothing special. Or at least, that’s what Abigail thought at first. Then she blew the dust away and gasped. The cover—made of some ancient, dark wood, was set with jewels—rubies, emeralds, diamonds—and the title shimmered with gold. Real gold.

Abigail stared, wide-eyed. “The Illustrated Guide to the Art of Dream-Weaving,” she read out loud. “What on earth?”

Abigail sat on the floor at once, opened the book, read the first lines of the introduction, and was instantly transfixed. There she remained, lost in a trance, until it grew so dark outside that she could no longer see the pages.

At last, she got to her feet, heart thumping. Her legs felt wobbly, and her mouth was dry.

According to the book, if a person concentrated hard enough and practiced long enough, they could dream anything into existence.

 

Anything.

 

Could I dream a sister, Abigail wondered, and make her real?

 

She opened the book again—straining to see in the dying light—and found it. The title page of the book’s final chapter:

 

Advanced Dream-Weaving 

Dreaming a Friend or Sibling to Life

 

There was a warning below the title, in red ink: Caution. Expert level. Proceed with care.

 

Abigail tucked the book inside her coat and hurried out of the house. It was raining softly, but she barely noticed. She hardly even noticed the bridge—how it bobbed and shimmied in the half-light high above the jagged rocks as she dashed across. Her mind was on the book. She was thinking, making plans.

I’ll start small, she thought. Learn the basics first. Beginning dream-weaving. I’ll practice and practice and practice. And then, when I’ve learned enough, I’ll make a sister. A friend. Emily. I’ll dream her to life. And I won’t be lonely anymore.

 

***

 

By the time Abigail got back to her house on Ock, it was fully dark. She set the book carefully on the kitchen table, lit a candle, and stared at the jewel-embossed cover. She wanted to open it immediately and get right to work, but she was famished. And dizzy, from all the thinking and reading she’d already done.

 

She made a simple dinner of broiled whitefish, and peas from the garden, and ate quickly, her brain spinning with a million thoughts and questions and ideas. After the dishes were done, she lit more candles, sat back down, and opened the ancient book to the first chapter.

 

Chapter One

The Weaving of Inanimate Objects

 

The first chapter was all about dreaming—or dream-weaving—simple things. Rocks. Shells. Bones. Glass.

Abigail read and contemplated. Made notes.

The house fell silent, save for the muted, rhythmic roar of the sea—a sound so familiar to Abigail that she barely noticed it—and the whispering of the candles as they fluttered and sputtered in the draft.

 

Hours passed. The candles burned low. And Abigail grew tired. Sleepy. Though she was still very excited.

I’m going to dream-weave a stone tonight, she thought as she yawned and stretched her arms. A skipping stone. Perfectly round. Perfectly flat. With a perfectly blue crystal right in the middle.

 

From what she had discerned of the first chapter, it sounded simple enough.

 

All she had to do was say the proper words in the proper order as she drifted off to sleep, hold the image of the stone in her mind—imagining it as clearly and precisely as possible—and then shape and mold the stone when it appeared in her dream.

 

Simple enough, she thought. Easy.

 

But it wasn’t.

 

And it didn’t work.

 

She slept well and deeply, all through the night. And she did dream of a skipping stone, and of shaping and molding it in her hands. She even dreamed that she finished the stone and set it carefully in the middle of the path in front of her house—for her waking self to find in the morning.

 

But when, at sunrise, she threw open the front door and ran outside, there was nothing there. No stone. No artifact from the dream. Nothing.

 

Abigail was puzzled. Disappointed.

 

Why didn’t it work? she wondered. What did I do wrong?

 

She thought about it and decided that perhaps dream-weaving—even beginning dream-weaving—was harder than she’d imagined.

 

“I’ll try it again tonight,” she said resolutely. “I’ll repeat the whole process.”

 

And she did. Still, when the next morning came, nothing. No flat skipping stone. No blue crystal. The pathway in front of her door was empty.

She read the first chapter again (twice) and tried to dream-weave the stone again the next night.

And the next.

Nothing. No stone. Not even a part of a stone.

 

Nothing at all.

 

She tried again.

 

No luck.

 

On the morning of the sixth day after discovering the book, Abigail sat on her front steps, blinking away tears.

The book is just pretend, she thought. Just a story. Make-believe. I was foolish to think such a thing could ever work.

She wept harder then as she realized that Emily could never be real.

 

How stupid I’ve been, she thought.

 

The tears flowed freely, and she gave up trying to hold them back.

 

No sister.

 

No Emily.

 

Not even a silly skipping stone.

 

Abigail—blessed as she was with the ability to find the good and the positive in almost every situation—rarely got discouraged. But she was discouraged now.

 

She cried for a long time, until she couldn’t cry anymore. Then she got to her feet and decided, abruptly, angrily, that she was sick of the stupid book and wanted it out of her house. Immediately.

 

She glanced outside. Afternoon light streamed golden through her windows, and the sun—a blinding molten ball on the horizon—appeared to be sinking into the sea.

 

I’ll return the book in the morning, Abigail thought. She had no desire to cross the creaking, swaying bridge in the dark.

***

 

Night came.

 

And as she made her dinner, for the first time in a week Abigail thought about things other than the dream weaving book.

 

She thought about her garden, and her favorite walks, and her animal friends—which, she realized, she’d been neglecting. I’ll visit them tomorrow, she thought.

The idea of tending her garden and seeing her animal friends made her feel better.

 

She got ready for bed, still not thinking about the book. She brushed her teeth, filled a glass of water for her bedside table, fluffed her pillows, and climbed under the covers.

 

As she was drifting peacefully off to sleep Abigail decided—randomly and spontaneously—to give dream-weaving one last try.

 

She smiled to her half-conscious self, almost laughing at the silliness of it.

 

It won’t work.

 

It’s ridiculous.

 

It’s pretend.

 

Abigail’s breathing slowed, and her eyelids fluttered. She mumbled the words she’d memorized, and pictured the skipping stone—a lovely flat one with a blue crystal—holding the image in her mind.

 

Of course it will never work.

 

Never work.

 

Never . . .

 

She laughed. Rolled over. And fell into a deeper sleep.

 

***

 

Abigail awoke, refreshed, with no memory whatsoever of her dreams.

 

She dressed and stretched and shoved back the curtains, revealing a vast silvery sea and an endless blue sky.

It’s going to be a nice day, she thought.

 

She turned on the teakettle and opened the front door to let in the fresh sea air.

 

And froze.

 

There, in the middle of the path, lay the stone.

 

The skipping stone.

 

Bright and new in the morning sun. Like a gift.

 

The skipping stone with the blue crystal in the center.

 

Abigail stood very still, afraid to move.

 

It’s real, she thought. A dream creation, come to life.

 

She knelt, hands trembling, and picked up the stone. Stared at it. Felt its weight. Lifted it to the light. Marveled at its smoothness and flatness, at the sparkle of the crystal embedded precisely in the middle.

 

It’s exactly as I imagined. It’s just what I pictured.

She held the stone in her outstretched hand, expecting it to dissolve. Evaporate. Disappear. Back into the world of dreams.

 

But it did not dissolve. The stone was real.

 

As real as the island.

 

As real as the house.

As real as the cliffs. The sea. The sun.

 

As real as me, Abigail thought, still in shock.

 

Not pretend.

 

Dream-weaving actually works.

 

It works!

 

Then . . .

 

If I can make a stone . . . I can make other things.

 

A bush. A tree. A bird.

 

A sister.

 

Emily.

 

***

 

From that moment on, Abigail worked extra hard.

She studied patiently. Intently. Tenaciously.

 

She pored over the pages of The Illustrated Guide to the Art of Dream-Weaving, day after day, memorizing the poems and chants and songs, whispering the words as she went about her routine.

At night, Abigail dreamed. And her talent blossomed and burned, like the moon rising over a dark sea.

 

She made a bird—bright gold, with emerald top feathers. It could say a single word: Abigail.

 

She made a clam. A sunfish. A seal. A red fox.

 

She thought at first that the things she made might fade after a few days, but they did not. They seemed, if anything, to become more real with time.

 

The clam dug a hole and vanished into the beach sand, just like an ordinary clam. The bird built a nest on one of the cliffs, and sometimes Abigail caught sight of it flying over her house at sunset. The fox joined other foxes on the island—running and playing, hunting, and sunning itself in the tall grass.

 

The seal—a lovely gray harbor seal with long whiskers and a sweet, endearing face—swam close to Abigail when she sat on the rocks of the breakwater. It stared at her curiously, for a long time, as if trying to remember where it had seen her before. Then it swam away to join a large group of other pinnipeds hunting for salmon.

The encounter left Abigail feeling both happy and sad. Happy to see her creation flourishing. Sad to see it leave.

 

***

 

After months of careful, thoughtful, practice, Abigail believed she was ready to begin dream-weaving a sister. Emily.

 

She’d learned, through trial and error, that the more complex dream creations took many nights and many dreams, one after another, to complete.

The bird had taken her six nights. The fox, two weeks. The seal, a month.

 

It will take a year to dream Emily properly, Abigail thought. Maybe longer.

 

No matter. She vowed to spend whatever time was necessary. She would be patient. She would get everything exactly right. There would be no shortcuts.

 

She made notes as she read the chapters on advanced dream-weaving again. She pondered and contemplated.

This is it, she thought at last, on a day when the sky was dark and brooding and the sea blue-green and churning.

Tonight I can begin.

***

 

When she finally went to bed that evening, she slept deeply, and her sleeping brain thrummed and hummed.

She dreamed first that she was standing in a darkened meadow. The air smelled of grass and flowers gone to sleep. The silent, fathomless sky blazed with the white fire of innumerable stars.

 

Abigail stared into the blackness, seeing nothing, wondering why she was there.

 

“Who am I?” asked a faint, frightened voice somewhere in the void. Abigail jumped.

 

“You are Emily,” Abigail replied after a long moment. Though she could not see the speaker, she knew who was talking as surely as she knew her own reflection. “You are my sister.”

 

“Emily,” the voice said carefully, as if it were a newly invented word.

 

“Yes.”

 

The invisible speaker fell silent and did not talk again that night.

 

***

 

The dream encounter played in Abigail’s mind throughout the following day, and the second night’s dream unfolded in the same dark field as the first.

 

Abigail’s dream-self stood in the grass, as before, alert and aware, gazing at the sky, seeking familiar constellations.

Abigail knew the planets and stars, and loved looking at the heavens, especially on warm summer nights when the sea was calm and the breeze gentle. It unsettled her greatly that in this dream she could discern not a single recognizable constellation. These skies were strange. Incomprehensible.

 

There was something else disturbing about the dream. An absence, stark and terrifying. It hit Abigail suddenly, like a slap across the face.

 

The sound of the sea—Abigail’s faithful, constant lifelong companion—was missing. She shivered. Where’s the ocean. Where am I?

The grass around Abigail rustled in the darkness, and Emily’s voice startled her again, asking, “Why am I awake?”

Abigail took a deep breath. The question struck her as funny, considering that she herself was asleep and dreaming, but she did not laugh. “I thought of you,” she said gently, “because I was lonely. And now we’re talking. I hope you don’t mind being awake.”

 

“No,” said the voice. “I don’t mind.”

 

The voice fell silent and did not speak again, but the question stuck in Abigail’s head: Why am I awake?

Is that what’s happening here? Abigail wondered. Is this what dream-weaving really is? The waking of things that already exist? The nudging and cajoling of spirits asleep?

 

It was a riddle she could not solve.

 

***

 

The dreams continued this way for weeks, each encounter slightly longer than the last, each conversation building on topics she and Emily had discussed before. Steady progress, night after night.

Still, there was only a disembodied voice in the darkness—no person that Abigail could see. Nevertheless, it felt to her as if the encounters were becoming more vivid, more substantial, as if, with each interaction, Emily was becoming more real. More awake.

 

During each dream, Emily asked questions and Abigail told her what she could about the world. About Ock and Wyn and all the other Floating Islands of Gurn. About the animals and plants and the surging sea.

Abigail’s dream-self wanted to approach the voice and embrace the speaker, but something held her back. Something deep inside told her it wasn’t yet time. That making contact prematurely could ruin everything.

 

***

 

After weeks of patient, careful dream-weaving, it occurred to Abigail one morning that she had not visited the house on Wyn for a long time. The realization alarmed her—she considered herself the home’s caretaker, after all—and she resolved to go and check on things that very afternoon.

Afternoon came, and Abigail climbed the hill behind her house and approached the spindly bridge, which was trembling and shimmying above the chasm like a twig in the breeze.

 

The lonely house was there, on the far side. Same as ever.

 

Same as ever, Abigail told herself.

 

Except, not quite.

 

Abigail stared at the forlorn house, a thin wire of fear curling in her gut.

 

“She’s there,” Abigail gasped, knowing it was true. Emily is inside that house. Sleeping.

Becoming.

 

Abigail had no idea how she knew this was true, but knew it in the very marrow of her bones all the same.

 

Emily is there.

 

Forming. Growing. Taking shape. Deep in sleep and not yet ready to wake.

 

Abigail perceived also that to look upon her sister in this early, nascent stage was to risk everything.

She waited, paralyzed, trembling like the bridge itself, breathing in and out. She had an almost overwhelming desire to sprint across the chasm and enter the house, but a countervailing impulse kept her glued to the ground.

I can only see her in my dreams right now. Only in my dreams—until she wakes, when the time is right.

 

A fragment of a memory, vague and troubling, surfaced in Abigail’s mind.

 

Waking her now might cause . . .

 

Might cause . . .

 

“No,” Abigail said out loud, terminating the black thoughts, refusing to contemplate such an eventuality. She turned and walked home.

 

Emily’s there—inside the house on Wyn, she told herself. And the time is not yet right.

 

***

Patiently, steadily, faithfully, Abigail kept dreaming. And dream-weaving.

 

Months passed. Seasons. And Abigail’s loneliness grew.

 

I need to have faith, Abigail told herself. I need to be steadfast.

 

And she was.

 

And then one morning, very abruptly, Abigail sensed that things had changed. That the time had come.

This is it, she thought as she sat up in bed and swung her feet to the floor. This is the day.

 

Emily is ready to rise.

 

***

Bursting with anticipation and struggling to contain it, in case she was wrong, Abigail went about her morning routine. Then she climbed the hill behind her house and approached the spindly bridge—presently hanging motionless in the calm morning air—and sat down on a rock on her side of the chasm. An ideal spot to view the lonely house on Wyn without getting too close.

She waited and watched.

 

The sun climbed higher.

 

Swallows darted through the bright sky, under and over and around the bridge. An incoming tide flooded the gorge, covering the knife-edged rocks. Sea lions bellowed and waves pummeled the outer coast, rumbling rhythmically, like the heart of an immense living thing.

 

Abigail waited.

 

Maybe I was wrong, she thought. Maybe this isn’t the day. Maybe Emily’s not even there.

 

And then the light changed minutely, and the front door of the Wyn house swung inward. A girl stepped out, onto the porch, then into the tall grass. She stood in the sun, face uplifted.

 

Abigail’s heart leapt, and she got to her feet. “Emily!” she cried.

 

The girl squinted and smiled. “Abigail?”

 

She knows my name, thought Abigail.

 

They ran toward each other and met in the middle of the swaying bridge—Abigail so overcome with emotion that she forgot her fear of the chasm.

 

The girls embraced and held hands. Laughed and looked at each other and embraced again.

“Sister,” said Abigail, unable to contain her joy, “it’s good to see you.”

 

“It’s good to be awake,” said Emily with a slightly puzzled look. “I—I hope I haven’t kept you waiting, Abigail.”

Abigail dismissed the comment with a laugh and a wave. “You’re here now. That’s all that matters. Come. Let me show you around.”

 

Thus began the happiest, albeit brief, chapter of Abigail’s life.

 

***

 

The girls became immediate best friends. Emily moved into the house on Ock and they did everything together. Played and sang and talked. Worked and read and laughed—especially laughed. Emily and Abigail laughed a lot.

Which is not to say that everything was always wonderful or that Abigail and Emily never disagreed. In fact, they disagreed often. As Abigail soon learned, Emily had a will of her own, with strong opinions, likes, and dislikes.

 

Abigail was a morning person who preferred to go to bed early. Emily, a night owl, liked staying up late—sometimes very late—to read or to look at the stars. Abigail enjoyed bright, sunny days. Emily loved rain and storms. Abigail was afraid of the dark and the shimmying bridge between Ock and Wyn. Emily was fearless when it came to those things, but wary of the ocean and unnerved by worms and spiders.

 

Abigail found the differences between herself and her sibling immensely encouraging. Clearly, Emily was a unique individual with her own mind and identity—not merely a reflection of her weaver.

 

***

 

On the day they first met, it had dawned on Abigail that Emily didn’t know about her true nature or origin. She had expected her sister to ask questions: How did I get here? Why was I in the house on Wyn? Where was I before this?

 

But she didn’t.

 

Instead, it seemed to Abigail that her sister believed she had always been there—on the islands, with her sibling.

And indeed, from the first moments it was clear that Emily knew a lot about her surroundings. She knew the meandering island trails, and the layouts and quirks of the two houses. She knew what was growing in the garden, and the names of the birds and animals. She knew about the tides and the weather and the phases of the moon.

This familiarity with the world struck Abigail as odd, at first, but it made sense when she considered it.

Born of my dreams, she has my knowledge—or much of it, thought Abigail. I didn’t dream a baby, after all. I dreamed someone roughly my age, and we conversed inside the dreams, at length. So of course she can talk and think and find her way around.

 

Still, Abigail found Emily’s apparent obliviousness to her past—and her seeming lack of curiosity—a little unsettling.

Should I tell her I dreamed her into being? Abigail wondered. Should I explain how she got here?

 

Abigail pondered this long and hard.

Emily seems happy, she thought. And I certainly am. Why risk upsetting her? Why risk ruining things just as our relationship is starting? I can always tell her later. Someday. If I need to.

Nevertheless, doubt lingered in Abigail’s mind, and she referred to The Illustrated Guide to the Art of Dream-Weaving, which she’d been keeping under her bed, for advice. She found nothing useful in terms of how to tell someone they were dreamed into existence—or whether it was even necessary to do so—but she did discover a curious notation on the last page of the book. A bit of text she’d somehow missed in all her earlier readings:

 

A dream creation, properly woven, will be indistinguishable from others of its kind, save for one characteristic. Dream creations cannot be harmed by lightning.

 

Abigail read the passage again and felt her worries subside. Cannot be harmed by lightning? So . . . the only way Emily can discover her true nature—unless of course I tell her—is if she gets struck by lightning and doesn’t die?

Abigail laughed at the silliness of it. The odds of being hit by lightning seemed so absurdly remote. Ridiculous, she told herself.

She thought about returning the book to the Wyn house, where it belonged, then decided to wait. Having the book nearby seemed like a good idea, and she slid it back under her bed. There’s no rush. I have plenty of time.

She was wrong.

 

Time was running out very quickly indeed.

 

***

The days grew shorter and the weather cooler with the coming of autumn. Rain poured from the sky in an endless, drumming drizzle, turning familiar trails into muddy streamlets. Peering out at the granite-gray horizon, it was impossible to know where the sky ended and the sea began.

 

Far from feeling sad about the weather, though, Abigail was as happy as she’d ever been. With Emily to talk to and play with, the dreary rains of autumn and the raging storms of winter seemed like an adventure. On long nights, during the approach of the solstice, they played games by the fire or read passages from favorite books. They talked of what they would grow in the garden, come spring, and told stories about the myriad creatures that shared their island home. In the mornings—even on cold, blustery days—they fished and dug clams and roamed the beaches in search of treasures, and messages from the wider world.

Winter passed, the land awoke from its sleep, and Abigail’s contentment swelled.

 

Trees budded. Flowers bloomed. Baby river otters tumbled from cozy dens above the beach. And birds—yellow warblers, violet-green swallows, bluebirds, spotted towhees, and more—returned from far away, filling the air with song.

 

Abigail and Emily readied the gardens and repaired the washed-out paths. They cleaned the house on Ock from top to bottom—even the roof and fireplace. And on a bright, sunny May morning, they trekked together to the house on Wyn and flung open the windows and doors, releasing the stale, stagnant air.

 

Crossing the bridge back to Ock, they ran laughing through the upper meadow, dancing and twirling and chasing butterflies in the warm spring sunshine.

The girls paused below the crest of the ridge overlooking the eastern shore to observe a family of foxes. It was a group they knew and loved and encountered regularly.

 

Standing alongside her sister, Abigail watched the foxes and felt her ebullience give way to concern. The foxes were working—frantically, furiously—on strengthening and fortifying their den. Not a typical activity for a bright spring day.

 

Abigail took her sister’s hand and walked to the top of the ridge, where they stood staring, awestruck.

 

The sun was still shining, but the sky to the east had become a wall of billowing clouds—blue-black, and darkening as they watched, like a terrible bruise spreading fast. The sea below the clouds—pale green shot with bolts of deep violet—seemed oddly, disquietingly serene.

 

The hush before the fury, Abigail thought, recalling something from earliest childhood.

The girls watched, saying nothing. More clouds drifted in to join the metastasizing mass, like patrols returning to the main host.

 

“We need to get ready,” Abigail whispered. “Prepare the house.”

 

Emily looked at her sister. “You scared, Abi?”

 

Abigail shrugged. “A little,” she said, doing her best to sound calm and in control. “I’ve never seen a sky quite like this one. I mean, not since I was little.”

 

***

 

The storm came swiftly, blotting out the sun and raking the islands with increasingly fierce gusts of wind. Enormous waves smashed the coastline, and the temperature dropped twenty degrees.

 

Abigail and Emily hurried downslope to the Ock house and secured as much as they could. They covered the fragile new garden plants and closed and latched the shutters. They brought in chairs and tables and reattached a gutter that had come loose.

 

Rain spattered the roof tiles as they worked—big random drops at first, which hissed like grease in a frying pan.

By the time they finished, the rain had become a drenching downpour, and the girls’ hair and clothing were soaked.

 

“We’ll build a fire,” said Abigail as they pushed through the front door and stood dripping on the smooth stone entry. “Dry out these wet—”

 

She stopped.

 

“What is it?” Emily asked. “Abi, what’s wrong?”

 

“The Wyn house,” said Abigail. “We left everything open. All the windows and doors.”

 

Emily nodded but said nothing. She looked frightened.

 

“It will flood,” said Abigail. “The books will be ruined. How stupid of me.”

 

“It’s my fault, too. I helped open the place up.”

 

Abigail smiled, buoyed by her sister’s words. “I’ll go,” she said. “Over and back. There’s still time.”

 

“I’ll come with you.”

 

“No,” said Abigail, “You mustn’t. This house needs watching, too, and you’re in charge while I’m away.”

 

“But—”

 

“Get a fire going, and I’ll be right back.”

 

Abigail hugged her sister and ducked out the door into the raging storm.

 

***

 

Abigail struggled up the hill to the bridge, marveling at how the world had changed since morning.

The wind was now so strong that she could barely stand. Rain cascaded down, hurled this way and that in great whipping waves, as if the sea itself had moved inland. Peering out from under her hood, Abigail found it impossible to see more than a few feet ahead. But she knew the way well and plodded on, determined to protect the house on Wyn.

 

Water ran in myriad rivulets across the slope and beneath Abigail’s feet. Between the roaring gusts of wind, she heard gurgling, as if the entire hill had become a spring. She hoped all of her animal friends were okay.

She climbed on, bent almost double against the wind. The trail leveled out, and she followed it toward the chasm, where the cacophony increased. The wind was driving enormous amounts of seawater through the narrow gorge, pounding the rocks and sending up great geysers of salty spray. Abigail raised her eyes and stopped, terror in her heart.

 

The bridge was before her, whipping and bucking like a snake tossed into a fire. The Wyn house was a dim box on the far side. Barely discernible. She watched the bridge, wondering if the structure’s undulations might subside between gusts, wondering if she could time it right, wondering if it was even possible to make the passage.

She thought about turning for home. Giving up. She heard a bang and realized it was coming from the Wyn house. The front door—which they’d left standing open not two hours earlier—was flapping in the wind. The shutters were flapping, too. Bang, bang, bang.

 

The house will be destroyed, Abigail thought. And without further reflection, she made a dash for it, sprinting forward with all her strength and will.

 

***

 

Near the middle of the bridge, Abigail experienced a terrifying revelation. Wyn—the entire island—was moving away, pulling on the bridge, stretching it to the breaking point. Even over the rain and screaming wind, she could hear the separation, like immense bones cracking.

 

The stretching was making the bridge flatter and easier to cross. But what if it breaks, thought Abigail. Or what if this is another separation and the islands drift apart—far apart—like the others did long ago?

 

Feet sliding on the rain-drenched slats of the bridge, she stopped running and was about to turn around when a stupendously bright flash lit up the sky. Thunder boomed directly overhead.

 

Lightning on my heels, thought Abigail. No choice but to keep going.

 

Abigail dove into the wet grass on the Wyn side of the chasm just as the bridge cables snapped and the structure—stretched to breaking—whipped away and down, into the geysers of spray.

“No!” cried Abigail, as the sky exploded again-- the lightning so close this time that she could smell it. Thunder rumbled, and the ground beneath the channel shook.

 

She staggered on, toward the Wyn house.

 

Boom!

 

Lightning struck a tree a few paces to her right and the uppermost branches exploded in a brilliant flash. Sparks hissed and shards of flaming wood whickered through the air.

 

Crack! 

Lightning again—searing, blinding, so that for several seconds Abigail could see nothing but whiteness.

She stumbled forward. Two more steps. Three. The door of the Wyn house was indeed open, but the interior of the place—from what she could see—looked okay. Not destroyed. Not yet.

 

One more step and then the lightning struck Abigail, full force. Full strength. A staggeringly powerful bolt that cut the sky and charred the earth as it passed through her body.

She kept moving, utterly unscathed, onto the steps of the Wyn house. I’m alive, she thought, absently.

 

The lightning hadn’t harmed her.

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