Chapter One

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Good Mourning

I sometimes wonder what it feels like to die.

Under the burning shower, with cascades of water cocooning my body, I think: could it really be such a bad thing? Everything in my life would be left behind. The pain, the memories, the mourning – everything.

Maybe I'd drink too much one night and walk into the wrong alleyway; or perhaps my car would slip off the road and into a tree. It could be simple. Quick, like the snap of a chord.

These thoughts run around in my mind more often than they should. It's clockwork. Each night without fail, a nothingness invades me like a cloud of mist, seeping underneath the gap in my door, reaching for me with its crooked fingers.

At first, its touch is numbing – but the pain is always unbearable. In the midst of this, as the pain reaches its height, I see her face.

And, when this happens, it feels like I'm already dead.

They say that loss gets better with time. In some cases, I'm sure this is true. After a while, you just forget. The memories that made your body wrack with tears are thrown into the layers of your subconscious, only to be touched again on anniversaries and birthdays.

You see, mourning isn't convenient anymore. I've learnt that. One's life may have stopped, but everyone else's has carried on, and it's not like you can press pause on life.

Every morning, I end up here. The shower hisses above me and droplets of burning water pierce into my skin. Here, in the small corner of my old bathroom, is where I feel the most alive.

With the heat turned up to max, I'm able to escape the clutch of darkness. But it only lasts a moment.

When I step out, I'll be ripped back into its claws.

***

Crystal Lake is exactly how I remember it. Hidden in the middle of a small valley, the water is a turquoise blue colour with a hint of green. It shimmers in the morning sunlight, and small ripples from fishes, who grab at their breakfast, extend from the centre to meet my feet dangling from the pier.

The temperature is cool between my toes and the only sounds come from birds in trees and the bumbling of bees. The lake has always been a solace to our family – especially in the midst of a Californian summer, when the heat is so unbearable the only thing that could possibly quench it is a swim in Crystal's cool water.

Until last year, I'd dive in with no second thought. I remember swimming to the very bottom, my fingertips grazing the bed and grabbing for hidden treasures. More often than not, I'd find nothing interesting, but it was the idea that I could that kept me going.

Now, though, things are different. I don't think I could go deeper than my ankles even if I tried. Not since the accident. I grip my hands against the edge of the new wooden pier, anchoring myself into the now. Taking a deep breath, my lungs expanding with fresh air, I look around.

It's true that some things have changed. The rope that we used to swing into the water is gone. Mum's gotten rid of our slide and in its place sits a hammock. But the essence of Crystal Lake remains the same.

I think it always will, no matter what happened here.

I sigh. There are four hundred and eighty-three steps separating me from the house. If Mum wakes up, I wonder if she'll know where I am. By the sound of a pair of feet falling heavily against the pier, I know Elliot has already figured it out.

'You're up early even for you,' he says, kneeling down and sitting next to me. He takes off his flip-flops and drops his feet into the water, making a small splash.

'Couldn't sleep,' I reply. 'You didn't have to come here, you know.'

Elliot smiles, but it isn't a happy one. In some ways, I understand how people think we look alike. We have the same streaks of blonde hair, our cheeks flush red in the same spot and we both have a brown birthmark on our shoulder. But, really, we couldn't be any more different if we tried.

Elliot was awkward and strange when we were young, but when puberty hit, everything changed. Now, whenever his blue eyes focus on you, they crash over your body like an unfurling wave, making you forget – just for a moment – everyone else around you.

And me? I stayed the same – but don't get me wrong, I don't think that's a bad thing. I like how I look; the colour my skin goes when the sun's at its highest, how freckles appear on my cheeks during May, the rise and fall of my hips. My problem isn't looks, but what's on the inside – because that's what counts, right?

'I wanted to be here,' Elliot says, bringing me back to the swell of water on my skin. 'It's the last time I'm going to see you for a while, so I wanted to say goodbye.'

I nod. That's fair enough.

'I'll be back Christmas,' I reply.

'That's four months from now.'

'It'll go quickly.'

'And I'll miss you every week.'

I look at him and laugh. 'Every week?'

His lips curve. 'I was going to say every day, but you're my sister so it's kinda my duty to hate you a little. So yeah, I'll miss you. Not every day, but at least once a week I'll remember you and think: hey, I kinda miss her.'

I shake my head, incredulous. 'Glad to hear. If it makes you feel any better, I think I'll miss home every day.'

A pause. 'Will you?'

He looks at me, and I avoid his eyes. The silence between us is heavy, weighing like a layered blanket. In the distance, I see a blackbird take flight from a tree. I sigh.

'I don't know.' My voice is quiet, barely above a whisper.

'That's fair enough,' he says, recovering quick. 'You've been through a lot here.'

'There's a part of me that wants to go,' I say, 'to leave it all behind and start new. But at the same time, the thought makes me feel sick. Like I'm doing her wrong.'

'You'd be doing her wrong if you didn't go.' He faces me, eyes so serious it unnerves me for a moment. 'This is a crazy opportunity, Hails. Hell, you're putting me to shame. Since you got the offer, I sometimes think Mum forgets she has a firstborn.'

I laugh. 'No, she doesn't. You're by far her favourite.'

'Well, clearly you're not as smart as everyone thinks.' His foot hits mine in the water.

'Oh yeah?' I grin and hit him back. 'Where's your scholarship to Woodcreek, then? Lost in the mail?'

He looks at me with a tight-lipped smile. 'Because you're leaving today, I'm going to let that one slide.'

We both laugh, but then his brows knit.

'Seriously, though,' he says. 'You're gonna be fine. I was nervous too when I went off for college. And Woodcreek is in the middle of mountains. You literally couldn't be safer.'

Yeah, I think. I'll be fine. I have to be. I look out into the lake as clouds cover the sun.

Maybe if I say it enough, it'll feel true.

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