It burned. Everywhere and nowhere. Slices in my skin that made it feel as if hot lava had been poured into my flesh. I couldn’t count them, had lost track after the tenth. I tried to move, to somehow escape. Only my fingers twitched.
Sounds. Voices. Hovering above me. They were everywhere and yet nowhere. Pinpricks of light, like glimmering stars on the darkest night.
“Miss? Can you hear me?”
I managed a low moan. I only wanted the pain to stop. The agony tearing through my body. I craved a blanket of nothingness. An endless sea where I would cease to exist altogether.
“I’m an EMT. You’re safe. We’ve got you.”
“Hurts.” It was the only message I cared about getting across. This woman might have the power to lessen the burn.
A hand slipped into mine, blood sliding down my arm to bind us together, the liquid already growing tacky with the passage of time.
“I know. Just hold on.”
I didn’t want to hold on. I wanted to float away to a world where none of this was real. Where pain didn’t exist—only light and peace and relief.
“Can you tell us who did this to you?”
My eyes fluttered. My cracked lips parted. I could only manage two words.
I stepped over a tree root and avoided the rock that was a recipe for a twisted ankle. After three years, my feet knew this path by heart. From the meadow, through the thick forest, to the sea encircling this piece of land. Some people would feel claustrophobic, knowing that they were surrounded by water. It made me feel nothing but safe.
The constant sound of the sea lapping against the shore, the hint of salt in the air. All of it was a balm that soothed the worst of my frayed edges. Assured me I was protected. When I jerked awake from a nightmare, I had only to lean towards my window to strain for the sound of water, inhale deeply for the scent to know I was okay. Only the comfort of my mother’s arms would’ve been better.
I followed the path as it dipped down towards the water, the beach, and the dock. The majesty of the view never got old. The deep blue-green of the water. The other islands in the distance, popping up like forest green sea turtles. I could get lost in it. And if I were lucky, an orca might crest as the beauty held me captive.
I jogged down the steps built into the small cliffside, heading for the boat shed. I flipped the combination on the lock and pulled the doors open. Kayaks lined the walls, along with life jackets, floats, and toys. I grinned at the inflatable unicorn propped up against the corner. Lucy loved the thing. Last summer, she’d spent half her time here, tooling around our little cove, lying on its back.
I was ready for the Dowds to return. It had been months since they’d visited the island. As the kids got more involved in extracurricular activities, it became harder and harder for them to steal away from Seattle for a weekend or week at their vacation home. And as the caretaker for the island, that meant I was alone.
I usually soaked up that peace. It meant I could relax. I didn’t have to guard my words or make sure I wore long-sleeved shirts. I didn’t have to worry about letting something slip that might give me away. I was free.
But as the days dragged into months, the loneliness sometimes caught hold. And the more years that passed with me on this thirty-acre plot of land in the middle of the sea, with only occasional visits from my employer, the loneliness grew fiercer. I gripped the door just a bit harder as I glanced at my exercise mat and weights in the corner of the shed. I usually reserved mornings for my workouts, but maybe today I needed town. The bustle of people, even if I never said a word to any of them.
I snatched up the keys to the boat and made a silent promise to myself that I’d pull the weights out this afternoon. Heading for the Boston Whaler, I checked the waters around our little island. Not too many vessels out and about on this Tuesday morning. I usually avoided the high-traffic times—my nautical prowess was still on the beginner side. But at least I’d become comfortable navigating the massive speedboat to Anchor Island.
Our small chain off the coast of Washington had a number of populated landmasses. Shelter had more shopping options, but I always opted for Anchor whenever possible. Shelter had too many tourists, even in the winter months. I always feared I would run into someone who recognized me. Someone from my old life, or a random stranger that would put two and two together because they’d watched some of the relentless news coverage of my life—the near end of it anyway.
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