His hand slid under Callie’s shirt, branded skin, slipped into places she tried to keep hidden.
“No,” she said, shoving his fingers away. “No.”
Nate froze and made a disgusted sound. “Callie…”
She tugged her shirt down.
He sighed. “This has to stop. Do you expect me to wait forever?”
Callie climbed off the bed and curled her trembling hands into fists. She hated the wash of his breath on her neck, the smell of his skin, soap and cheap cologne. She’d never loved him, only hoped that if she tried hard enough, she’d miraculously transform into a puzzle that still had all its pieces. Fake it until you make it, she thought bitterly.
“Callie…” He stood now, came two steps closer as she shrank away. “We can work this out.”
Behind Nate, the bed lay disheveled and made a mockery of her inadequacy. She added to the list of things she hated—the ten by eight foot space of Nate’s room, the bed, the way he said her name, his refusal to give up.
“I said I can’t, Nate.” His name slid between clenched teeth. Callie backed up further, until the cold roundness of the doorknob pressed into her back. Her heartbeat thundered everywhere, chest, fingertips, and scalp.
Nate scraped his hands through unruly curls. He was attractive enough, she supposed, muscular from playing football. But he was right; she couldn’t expect him to wait forever, just as he couldn’t expect her to ever be ready.
The hard ball of the doorknob filled her hand. She bolted, leaving Nate standing dumbfounded, surrounded by the dirty clothes that lined his floor and the sparkling football trophies on his shelves.
She didn’t stop to see if he was chasing her. It didn’t matter if he was because every part of her body screamed to run faster. Out the front door, across the patchy lawn, past her foster home next door where the screen gaped open and the shutters hung crooked.
Callie pushed harder, wondering if she could run fast enough to dissipate like smoke, to un-become.
She couldn’t go home—if she could call it home—where the stench of her foster mother’s cancer seeped into the walls, where she was expected to play parent to the younger foster kids. She couldn’t return to Nate—not ever—not with the humiliation clawing at her chest. Callie knew she’d never be ready. Not in a week, a month…a year.
The thought of Nate’s skin on hers made Callie gag as she steered her legs toward the park. She gasped for air around the bile burning her throat. She knew she looked crazy but couldn’t bring herself to care. She blew past the old man walking his dog and the girl drawing a hopscotch board on broken concrete. It was as though seventeen years of needing to escape had finally caught up with her.
The sun shone bright, but to Callie, it was shadows.
Struggling trees surrounding a mucky pond came into view—the park. She registered the change from hard, unforgiving sidewalk to scratchy, dry grass, and didn’t slow. She ran around empty benches where bums slept at night, under the swing set, clattering the chains that dangled without seats. She ran with a singular vision—freedom.
Callie didn’t see the motorbike or hear the shouts that intruded upon the desolate wasteland of her life. She didn’t see the man as he fell from his bike or the look of horror on his face. She saw the sky, impossibly blue, as she flew into the air. Callie saw the dank, clouded surface of the reflection pond, too dirty to have ever served as a mirror, and she saw her life—a short, inconsequential blip on the grand map of existence.
And then, she broke the surface.
The blue sky smudged gray like a painting and the splash echoed in her ears, muffled by the suffocating sound of being underwater. The reflection pond felt wrong—warm, silky, like the lining of a winter coat—and it made her remember.
She opened her mouth to scream, tasting imaginary, pink bubbles, but nothing happened. No stagnant pond water rushed into her throat.
She didn’t drown. She didn’t even choke.
Callie fell through the water and hit a solid, freezing cold floor with the force of a two-story drop. Her lungs paralyzed from the impact and she rolled onto her back, eyes widening. Above her, floating as though suspended by magic, was the pond. She could make out the bottom, clogged with weeds. Sand swirled around the spot she’d fallen through, hitting an invisible barrier and bouncing back. Humid, floral scented air rushed into her lungs and she sat up, surprised to find her clothes and hair dry.
Heart hammering, she dragged herself to her feet and rubbed the sore spots on her elbows. The fear of suffocation faded, replaced with curiosity and the unmistakable relief of escaping Nate.
Pale light filtered through the pond and cast dancing beams onto the walls. The only other illumination came from small rocks that lined the floor. There was a word for that in the back of her mind—bioluminescent. Dark stone walls dripped with humidity. In the distance, water gurgled. Bright flowers in blues, purples, and pinks hung from vines, their heavy heads as large as dinner plates, bowed to the ground.
It was like something from a painting, too beautiful to be real.
“We have stairs you know,” a male voice said.
Callie whirled to find two guys.
They were as alike as they were different, around her age or a little older. They held an identical posture as they stood staring at her, arms crossed over their chests, legs wide, feet bare and dirty. There was a lightness about them and Callie imagined they could move very fast if they wanted. The taller one had wavy, jet black hair that hung to his shoulders, and intense, light blue eyes. His lips twisted into a smirk. The second boy was shorter than the first, very pale, with green eyes and ginger hair that bordered on strawberry blond. His features were small and fine, pretty for a boy; and he smiled, amused.
“What message have you brought us?” the dark-haired boy asked, smirk turning into a grimace.
Callie stared, wondering if she’d hit her head and this was just a wacky, concussion-induced vision. The boy’s eyes narrowed. She looked up; the pond was still there, swirling with absolute benevolence. She searched for an exit. Stone walls. Stone floor. The pond. The three of them with no doors. A new fear fizzled in her stomach.
“I don’t—” she started, voice breathy and uncertain. Her gaze returned to the pond. “How?”
The dark haired boy snorted, drawing her gaze. “This is the antechamber; you know your charms are stripped here.”
“Don’t be rude,” the redhead spoke up. He took a step forward, holding his forearm out. “I’m Ash,” he nodded his head towards the other boy, “this is Rowan.”
“How—did I just…how did I get here?” Despite falling through the pond, Callie’s mouth was dry. She stared at his offered arm, confused. Where did he intend to escort her? “Did you fall through too? Are we trapped?”
The dark-haired one, Rowan, took a step closer, a curious expression on his face. “She doesn’t know,” he said, fascinated, glancing at Ash. “She has no idea.”
Ash looked between Rowan and Callie, his face a question mark. “That’s not possible.”
“It is,” Rowan insisted. He pushed the ends of Callie’s sweaty hair off of her chest, and she was too frozen with terror to stop him. “Look,” he pointed to her pale skin, “she doesn’t have an imprint.” Rowan glowered furiously at Callie, as though she had any idea what he meant.
She glanced down at the purple tank top she wore. Loose strands of hair clung to her skin. She backed away, gasping when her shoulders hit the warm foliage that covered the walls. “What is going on?” She gestured to the ceiling. “I just fell through…” Callie cleared her throat, voice hoarse and high with borderline hysteria. “I just fell through the pond.” She shook her arms. “I’m not even wet.” When Ash didn’t answer, she turned to Rowan. “Please. What’s going on?”
Ash glanced at Rowan, incredulous, ignoring Callie. “You don’t have an imprint yet.”
Rowan’s dark eyebrows lowered. “Like I could forget. So nice of you to remind me.” He shook his head and jabbed his finger at Callie again. “Look at her, Ash. She could be related to Sapphire’s line. Look at her eyes. They’re the same blue.” He took another step closer, which she reciprocated by pressing her spine into the wall.
“I think you’re freaking her out,” Ash said.
Callie lifted her chin in a last-ditch effort not to cry. She was trapped. Her hands curled into stubborn fists. “How did I fall through there?” Something moved in the pond now, something big and solid, wearing a red t-shirt—the guy who’d caused her to plunge into the water.
“Hey!” She waved her arms and followed him from one end of the pond to the other on shaky legs. “I’m right here. Hey!” Panic bubbled in Callie’s chest as she watched his head whip from side to side, looking for her.
“Hey!” Rowan said, raising his voice to match hers.
“I’m here.” She flailed her arms around some more. The guy kicked his feet, traveling from one end of the small pond to the other. Tears leaked onto Callie’s cheeks.
She wiped them away. “Why can’t you hear me?”
“Knock that off.” Rowan batted her arms down. “He’s not gonna answer. What’s your name, anyway?”
“Rowan!” Ash admonished.
They’d cornered her against a wall and stood before her, expressions perplexed. She’d have to get through both of them if she wanted to run. If she could evade them in a room with no doors. Think, she ordered herself.
“It’s Cal—” she started to answer, searching over their shoulders for a way out. The panic in her chest was rising, an ocean constricted to a jar. She would burst under the pressure.
Ash covered her mouth with his hand. “Shh!”
She tried to bite his palm. His hand tasted sweet, floral.
Ash pulled away and grinned. “You don’t need to tell us your name,” he said, wiping his hand on his pants. “You can’t just ask people that, Row. You know better.”
“She’s not really one of us,” Rowan said.
“She came through the ward. She is.”
“I am what?” Callie asked, realizing the only way out was to be the way she came in—the pond. But how was she supposed to get herself back up through it? Even if she jumped, her fingertips would be several feet away from the water. It would have to work. Maybe she could climb on one of their shoulders. She eyed the taller one.
“Maybe we should take her to Hazel. She’ll know what to do,” Rowan said.
“That’s probably a good idea,” Ash hesitated, “but…”
“But what?” Irritation tinged Rowan’s words. “You want to keep her trapped here as a plaything?”
“No. You’re right.” Ash held out his arm again. “Come along then.”
Callie didn’t move. Did he think she would go with them without a fight? Above her, the guy had climbed out of the pond. He’d probably already given up on finding her. What would they tell her foster family? She fell into the pond and just disappeared. I swear.
“Clearly there’s been some kind of misunderstanding,” Callie said, forcing her voice to remain reasonable. “I just need to get back up there, and we can forget this ever happened.” She nodded. She’d read somewhere that nodding helped convince people to agree with you.
Rowan sighed. “You can come on your own, or we can force you. I’m trained in torture techniques that make ax murderers cringe.”
“You don’t have to be dramatic,” Ash said. He pushed his arm closer to Callie, insistent, it nearly touched her nose. “Once Hazel sees you, we can figure out what you’re doing here and get you on your way.” He waited. “Come on. Don’t be rude.”
Callie didn’t get it and she didn’t like it—she’d somehow fallen through water and remained dry. These two guys were weird. She especially didn’t like that the guy had left her for dead in the pond.
She lifted her arms to shove the guys away and make a run for it—to where, she didn’t know—but Rowan caught her wrists.
“Don’t bother. Ash—get the rope.”
Callie couldn’t tell if he was joking. Fear stabbed at her throat.
“For the love—. Row, shut up.” Ash tried to pry Rowan’s hands off, but he held tight.
“Let me go.” Callie jabbed her elbow at his face and missed by a lot. Being a foster for most of her life had given her street smarts, but Callie didn’t know the first thing about fighting, unless she counted evading Nate’s advances, which she didn’t. Callie didn’t count on Nate for much. Rowan’s fingers tightened on the soft inside of her wrist and she flinched, not because it hurt, but because it tingled, as if it’d fallen asleep.
“Be nice,” Ash said, knocking Rowan’s hand away. “It’s okay.” He smiled and presented his arm again like a father waiting to accompany his daughter down the aisle.
The gesture made Callie slightly nauseous. She rubbed her wrist. Her fear gave way to annoyance. Maybe this Hazel person could get her back…up? She had to get out of this room. If there was one thing Callie couldn’t stand, it was being trapped, caged in like an animal, held down. She needed doors. She needed windows. She needed a sky above her.
“And I can’t leave until I meet Hazel?” she asked. Her instincts said to humor them until she could escape.
“You can’t leave,” Rowan said. “Ever.” A slow, irritating smile spread across his mouth.
“If you don’t shut up, I’m going to set you on fire,” Ash said, but he was smiling at the other boy. Maybe here, under the pond, setting people on fire was a normal thing to do.
“Hazel will help you,” Ash said to Callie. “Besides, it’s not like we can just throw you up through the pond.” He made a dismissive gesture as if it was a ridiculous notion.
“You can leave if you die,” Rowan said thoughtfully.
“Fire,” Ash reminded.
Rowan made a gesture that said lead the way.
“Fine,” Callie conceded, looping her arm through Ash’s, cringing once again at the strange sensation she got when they touched her. “Take me to Hazel.” Get me out of this room.
Ash beamed and pulled her toward the wall. Rowan trailed behind, muttering something about the “idiocy of mere mortals.”
“Wait,” she said as Ash tried to drag her into the stone, “that’s a rock wall.” The room had no exits, no doors, not even a hole large enough to crawl through.
Rowan snickered. “Well, of course it is.” He gave her a hard shove and she shut her eyes as her face careened toward the stone, knowing that she’d made a terrible mistake.