Vespertine (The Sun Born Book 1)
~ Cry Wolf ~
~ Cold Water ~
There was a short, sharp knock on her bedroom door. Joe barked at her from the other side, before moving off in a muffled rush. She knew he’d be back shortly. Dim blue light filtered in lacy shadows through the large bedroom window on the far side of the room. It was still very dark outside, too early to be getting up—at least, too early for her old life.
But this was the new one.
Ana groaned as she rolled over in the dark, pulling the blankets closer. She lay in a motionless heap of cozy limbs and blankets for one last, desperate moment, then carefully opened one eye. Silhouetted in the feeble light outside her window was a huge old oak tree, its resident birds just waking up in flutters of wings and chirps.
This was torture, waking up before even the birds.
And there he was, back like clockwork. Her father made another warning sound as he passed outside her door again, and she could almost see him, tying his tie, fixing his shirt, rushing out the door to work.
The clock beside her read 6:09AM. In about an hour, she would be standing on the side of a deserted county highway a quarter of a mile away, waiting for a school bus. And an hour after that, she’d be at her new high school, North Cold Water Collegiate, known locally as “The North”.
Just a few weeks ago, Ana had been in London, England, exploring one of the coolest cities in the world. And just months before that, she’d been a high school sophomore in Toronto, completely unaware that her life was about to go up in smoke.
From all that, to this: trudging a quarter mile in the dark from her dad’s new lake house out to a rural highway, where the school bus picked up kids from God only knows what burrows all over the county and deposited them at the ancient brick monstrosity at the north edge of Cold Water, a tiny town of maybe twenty thousand people on a good day.
Well, it was twenty thousand and one now.
She was thrilled. To bits.
Ana snapped on the lamp beside the bed, and threw back the duvet with a low complaint. Blinking in the yellow light, she pulled on dark tights and the miniskirt her mother had given her from a trunk of her old clothes; she tossed a thin sweater over it all. A bangle or two, some beautifully impractical leather boots and she was ready for her morning hike through the wilderness.
She dragged herself to the kitchen, following the smell of fresh coffee. She was not a morning person, but she might consider it just for the thick black espresso her dad left for her each morning as a peace offering. Joe from Joe! the note had read on her first day of school, falsely cheerful but bearing his unspoken apology, not only for moving her away from everything she knew, but also for not being there to see her off each morning, in this strange new place.
He’d already left by the time Ana was on the road, and her stepmother, Marianne, wouldn’t be awake for hours, so there was no one to say goodbye to, even if she’d wanted to. She grabbed some toast on her way out the door—breadcrumbs for the journey, she thought wryly.
It was colder outside than she’d imagined, the late September sun not yet peeking over the horizon yet, and the gravel road was still cool and damp from the night before. Ana wrapped her scarf a little tighter and put her head down against the dew-chilled breeze.
She pulled out her cell phone to check for messages, completely forgetting two things—first, that there was no signal out on the old road, and second, that all her old friends had forgotten about her the second she’d left for London, nearly four months ago.
She stuffed the phone back into her pocket and marched on.
Ana’s new house was a two-story split-level, perched on the banks of a long, pretty lake in south-eastern Ontario, at the end of a curving, dead-end country road that the local school board had decided wasn’t important enough to send a bus down.
Past the dead-end was a patch of woods with a path that could cut this morning hike in half, but at this hour it was mired in total darkness, and Ana wasn’t sure enough yet which paths actually went through to the other side. But she’d vowed that, for an extra fifteen minutes of sleep, she’d eventually figure it out.
Taking the long way, toward the curve of the road then turning where it hair-pinned back, Ana crested the knobby, wooded spine that Oak Hill County was named for, and a vista opened out before her that almost made this morning walk worth it. Having always lived in the city, Ana had never seen any open space bigger than a dog park, but from the top of Oak Hill Drive you could see for miles and miles across the countryside.
The southern tip of the lake lay to her right beyond the trees, reflecting the twinkling villages in the mauve dawn. As Oak Hill fell away below her, thick forest obscured her father’s house, and to the south, rolling as far as the eye could see, were farmers’ fields lush with the flat, thick leaves of tobacco plants and pale yellow feed corn.
It was exceedingly pretty when the sun was up.
But at this hour, while most of the county was just creaking awake, in homes that looked like dollhouses from here, it had an eerie, lonely atmosphere. Wild things lurked in the woods, and all the little lights on in bedrooms across the lake were much too far away for anyone to hear her, even if she screamed at the top her lungs.
Not that she was planning on screaming.
This view was actually her favourite part of the whole walk, maybe even of her whole day. Standing completely alone at the top of this vast expanse of sleeping land, she was filled with the gently thrilling sensation that she was floating silently above the whole countryside, like an owl on outstretched wings.
She stopped walking and stood at the side of the gravel road, opening her eyes wide just to see how far she could see. The fields were purple and shadowed, the woods a tangled dark green mass, but the air was fresh and sharp, dew lifting into a carpet of ghostly mist that hung just about knee high throughout the valley below her. Her eyes filled to the brim with this view and she still couldn’t get it all in. It was just so much space.
And as she stood there, the sun finally raised itself over the treetops behind her and spilled its brilliant rays over the entire world, down to the tiniest dewy spider web, and the brightest red berry. Though her city-self would never admit it, this part of Ana’s day always took her breath away, and she smiled just a little.
A scrabbling of rustled leaves behind her threw her heart up in her chest, and Ana leapt back as a tawny-coloured rabbit darted from the shadows. It skittered across the gravel a few feet from her, and disappeared into the underbrush on the downhill side of the ridge.
Ana stared after it for a second, then let her breath whistle out between pursed lips. As her whole body relaxed from the surprise, a huge grey coyote leaped silently into the long shadows of the deserted country road.
He stopped dead when he saw her, and so did her heart.
Yellow eyes fixed her to the spot like glittering pins. He ducked his long, narrow head, stretching his neck toward her, and as he sniffed the air between them, his hackles bristled up.
He was the biggest, wildest thing she’d ever seen outside of a zoo. His thick, reddish-grey fur was tipped in charcoal, his narrow snout fringed in white whiskers, lips painted black, and ears pointed into dark, tufted tips of buff fur. They twitched toward her curiously, and the hairs on her neck zapped, electric.
He was terrifying and mesmerizing and absolutely silent. His yellow-flecked eyes held her gaze impassively for an agonizing eternity while she stood fast, too scared to feel anything at all.
He seemed to be taking in every detail—her smell, size and species—gauging whether she was friend or foe. Or food, she thought, and an unstoppable wave of terror crashed over her at the exact same moment she remembered someone once telling her that dogs could sense fear.
At last, he blinked. It was a lazy gesture, as though he’d suddenly lost all interest in her. He looked away across the road, sniffing again. Then he ducked his head, and slipped soundlessly into the woods after the rabbit.
A burst of air blew through her lips. She glanced around, alone again on the empty road. Nervous, breathless laughter fluttered like wings behind her heart. “Holy crap!” she muttered shakily.
Finally, every ounce of adrenalin she had crashed through her veins, and all that had been frozen under the predator’s yellow gaze thawed in an instant. Remembering the school bus, she bolted.
“Hey there.” A girl’s voice floated across the pavement to where Ana sat, eating lunch alone by a side door of the school. “You’re Ana, right?”
Ana turned toward the voice. A petite girl with short, glossy-dark hair was coming up the path to Ana’s perch. She wore a vintage-looking black sweater, frayed at the collar and cuffs, layered over a pleated black skirt and wildly printed black-and-white leggings. On her feet was a pair of floral-patterned Doc Martens tied with thick fuchsia laces. Ana remembered her from art class.
“Uh huh, and you’re…” Ana thought for a moment. “Holly?”
“That’s me. Mind if I join you?” the girl asked, but she was already plunking down beside Ana on the concrete step.
She pulled a sandwich out of the beat-up army green backpack she’d slung off her shoulder and began unwrapping it. “So,” she said, taking a bite and talking through the mouthful, “you’re new, huh?”
Ana regarded her for a moment.
It had been painfully obvious since week one that Ana was an outsider at the North. And while she had done her best to disappear into the crowd, it proved a near impossible feat. Everything from the clothes she wore to the way she talked was different from Cold Water kids. She had never felt like more of an alien in her life.
At school in the city, she’d blended in. All the girls wore what she wore, talked like she talked, and no one had ever watched her in the halls like some kind of rare, exotic animal, falling into whispers as soon as she’d passed.
Ana couldn’t help but wonder if the Holly’s friendliness was some kind of trick. She certainly didn’t look like those other girls, the whispering hallway ones.
Holly’s clothes seemed carefully destroyed and had a dark edginess to them. Her hair was cut in a 60s-style bob with a short fringe framing her big, dark brown eyes. She wore layers of thick black mascara and liner, which made her look a little like an Egyptian cat. Her skin was pale olive, and as she smiled at Ana, waiting for an answer, two perfect dimples appeared in her cheeks.
“Yes, we just moved here from the city,” Ana replied slowly. “Well, not here. I live out off county road nine, on the lake by Oak Hill.”
Holly shrugged. “That’s cool,” she said, and took another bite of her sandwich.
Ana relaxed a little. For nearly six weeks now, Ana had felt like more of an outsider than she ever had in her life—which was saying something. But Holly seemed sincere and nonchalant, asking normal, polite questions out of plain old curiosity.
“I’m from here,” Holly continued in the same casual tone. “Born and raised. We live down off Hope Street, on King. I work at the Olympia Café. You should stop by after school one day.”
Ana smiled. “That would be really nice,” she said, feeling so chuffed she almost squeaked. Staying in town after school would mean skipping the bus and asking Marianne to pick her up, but if it meant making a friend in her new home, neither of her parents could begrudge her that, right?
The girls spent the rest of the lunch break getting to know each other, and Ana found herself laughing for the first time in what felt like months. Holly was wry and funny, and had her own opinion of the whispering locals. Her shrugging confidence dissolved Ana’s shyness, and the girls fell into an easy rapport.
When she promised to take Ana to her favourite vintage store, Holly sighed hopelessly. “Lord knows there’s nothing worth wearing at the mall.” Then, eyeing Ana’s outfit, she nodded approvingly. “I bet you’ve shopped in some really cool places.”
The truth of Holly’s statement made Ana self-conscious. Most of her outfit was from ultra-cool shops in Shoreditch and Brick Lane, but she didn’t want to sound stuck-up about it. Instead, she ran her hands down the nubby wool skirt, smoothing out the nubs. “Oh, this is just a hand-me-down from my mom. She said it’s a relic from her Riot Grrrl phase, whatever that is.”
“It’s really cool.” Holly nodded as though ticking a list in her head. “You’ll definitely like Nine Lives. It’s premium vintage, not like the other second-hand stores around here.”
Then Holly pulled out her cell phone, and looked at Ana expectantly. Ana dug hers from her purse and the girls exchanged numbers. As the first bell attacked the brick building, Holly got up to leave, but before she did she gave Ana another dimpled grin.
“You’ll like Cold Water, Ana. I know it doesn’t seem like much at first, but there’s a lot you don’t know yet.” She tossed her backpack over her shoulder. “See ya in class!” She turned on her brightly-booted heel, and yanked open the side door with a metal clatter, disappearing into the school.
Ana was thrilled—a new girlfriend, and they already had a shopping date! In the weeks since arriving in this tiny town, and in the dreadful months leading up to moving, she’d never imagined she’d meet anyone here as interesting or cool as Holly seemed to be. In fact, she’d been pretty sure she’d never make another friend again.
But maybe this town wasn’t so backwater after all?