Rachel Starr Thomson is a writer, indie publisher, and editor. She’s the author of the Seventh World Trilogy, The Oneness Cycle, and other books published by Little Dozen Press.
Rachel is a homeschool graduate, a dweller in southern Canada, a lover of long walks, good books, and hot tea, and a counter-cultural revolutionary who thinks we’d all be much better off if we pitched our television sets out the nearest window.
When Tyler fishes the girl out of the bay, he thinks she’s dead.
She wishes she was.
For Reese, life ended when the supernatural entity called the Oneness threw her out. For Tyler, dredging Reese out of the water means life is nothing he thought.
In a world where the Oneness exists, nothing looks the same. Dead men walk. Demons prowl the air. Old friends peel back their mundane masks and prove as supernatural as angels.
The Oneness changes everything.
And getting Reese home, making her One again, will change Tyler–and his roommate, Chris, whose connections with the Oneness have been buried most of his life–forever.
“There’s someone in the net—Tyler, haul the net in!”
Dark clouds were billowing over a choppy sea, the boat charging up and down the waves, when the words sank in. Through the spray and the looming storm Tyler saw it too—an arm, a flash of shoe. He braced himself and hauled, every muscle in his arms and back straining, and Chris joined him, still shouting:
The wind gusted and pushed them like a thing alive.
They got the net over the rail and dumped it on the deck, silver fish flapping, detritus, and the person—a girl—a woman, young. Alive.
Tyler’s eyes darted to the cliffs a mile off. “Did you fall?” he screamed over the wind.
She shook her head, hugging herself, gathering her feet beneath her. Long hair, water-dark, clung to her face and neck.
“I jumped,” she said.
“Why the—” he started to swear, but one look at her hollow, tormented grey eyes shut his mouth.
* * *
The rain had just begun to fall from black clouds when they finished tying up the boat safe in the cove and began the trudge up the cliff path to the cottage—not that it mattered much to the boys, spray soaked as they were, and their guest seemed to feel nothing, see nothing.
An hour later she sat cross-legged on the ratty plaid couch in the side room, surrounded on three sides by big, screened windows that showed the sweeping cliffs, sky, and clouds. The bay seemed far off and far below, farther than it really was. Stacks of ragged paperbacks and a few board games in cardboard boxes sat beneath the low windowsills, wearing permanent impressions in the brown shag carpet.
She wore jeans and a button-up shirt that belonged to Tyler—he was the smaller of the two—and had a fuzzy flannel blanket, dull green, wrapped around her shoulders.
The electric heater in the corner of the room creaked and seemed to settle its feet. Tyler pressed a steaming mug of tea into her hands.
As her fingers tightened around it, her eyes met his. The same pain that had punched his anger away on the boat was still there, making him wince, but this time there was an openness there too—and a reaching, a plea. For a moment. Then it switched off, and she retreated again behind the pain.
Like a film over her eyes, Tyler thought.
He cleared his throat. “Hope that’ll warm you—get the rest of the chill out.”
She nodded. She had showered, and with a plastic comb of Chris’s had patiently worked all the tangles out of her long, straight hair, which was drying to a dark blonde. Despite the shower and the blanket and the heater radiating too-strong electric heat, she still looked cold.
“Thank you,” she said.
Rain beat against the windows in a sudden assault. Tyler settled awkwardly on the ottoman across from the couch, displacing a couple of fishing magazines. He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and clasped his hands in front of him.
You weren’t supposed to leave suicidal people alone, right? And Chris was doing the laundry.
“You’re, ah . . . you’re welcome.”
A click and more settling from the heater.
The question just jumped out. “You lose someone?”
Something flickered in her eyes. “I lost . . . yeah.”
“A husband?” Another flicker—deeper pain. He kicked himself inwardly. Idiot.
But she said, “No.”
Tyler took a deep breath and wished he’d made a second cup of tea. Not that she was drinking hers—she was just holding it while it steamed between her hands.
“Well, somebody must be looking out for you,” he charged in again. She shot him a look, but he just kept going. “To survive that fall in the first place . . . and then for us to pull you out like that, in the whole bay to be in just the right place, and with a storm comin’ in . . .”
He shook his shaggy head. “Somebody didn’t want you to die today.”
When he looked up from his speech, she had turned her head and was staring out the wall of windows toward the sea. One arm rested on the back of the couch, and she was covering her mouth with the heel of her hand. The tea sat nestled in her lap.
His heart did an awful sort of plunge, and he swallowed hard and stood up. His throat hurt. “I’ll come . . . check on you. Later.”
The room was an add-on. Tyler stepped through the old side door into what had once been a mudroom but now housed a washer and dryer, an old dog kennel, a pile of fishing nets, and lots of unclaimed clothing—coats, boots, old socks without partners. He concentrated, for a moment, on breathing.
Cripes. It wasn’t supposed to be this hard. Still.
Chris poked his head and big shoulders through the kitchen door. Unlike Tyler’s unruly head of long blond curls and ever-present scruff, Chris’s red hair was neat and short and his face clean shaven. At the moment he looked concerned.
“How’s the patient?”
“Warming up,” Tyler managed.
“You left her alone?”
“She needs space.”
“But what if she—”
“She’s not going to hurt herself. She just . . . it’s grief, Chris. She lost somebody. She needs space.”
Chris looked unconvinced. “I’m calling Mum.”
“Yeah, okay. Good idea.”
The kitchen door shut, and Tyler heard the sounds of Chris dialing from the other side. Trapped between worlds, suspended in the mudroom for a couple of minutes, Tyler waited.
Thunder rumbled, and the rain drummed on the roof.
* * *
With windows on three sides that covered nearly the whole wall from a foot above the floor to just below the low, sloping ceiling, Reese felt enveloped by the storm. Black, tumultuous clouds. Forked lightning; thunder that shook the walls. Pelting rain. It was a classic coastal storm, wind slamming the cliffs and churning the sea in a white frenzy she could just see from here, despite the darkness.
Bitter tears ran down her face, but she hardly noticed them. Her eyes were perpetually swollen and tender; light hurt them. Had ever since the . . . since the loss.
She stood by the window, placed a hand on the glass. Thunder cracked, and the glass strained against the wind howling up the cliff and battering the cottage.
Surrounded by the storm—except that she stood behind windows, in the warmth, smelling the faint burnt smell of an old heater, wrapped up and clean and dry except for her hair.
She was done with miracles. But perhaps they weren’t done with her.
She sighed and leaned her head against the window like it was too heavy to hold up on her own.
Something made her open her eyes.
She saw it coming and jumped back an instant before the huge, black thing shattered the window and went straight for her throat.
* * *
Diane Sawyer’s tea kettle was just starting to whistle, the high-pitched sound joining the thunder. She pinched the phone between her ear and shoulder, freeing both her hands to switch off the gas and lift the copper kettle off the burner.
“She what? I’m sorry, son, the thunder . . . yes. I heard you that time. Well, that’s a little hasty, don’t you think?” Steam wet her hand as she poured the water into the old ceramic pot, and she stuck her fingers sideways into her mouth to suck off the burn.
She frowned. “You don’t know that, Christopher.”
She switched the phone to her other ear, relieving the crick in her neck. “Mm-hmm. Yes, I’ll come. But you’d probably be best off just—”
A sound like mirrors smashing came from the other end of the line, Chris swore, and Diane said “Christopher? What’s going on?” just as an image loomed fully formed in her mind’s eye, blacking out all other vision and sound for an instant. When she came back to her kitchen, she realized Chris had hung up.
She grabbed her purse, tea forgotten. Storm or no storm, she had to get up to the cottage.
* * *
Reese stood in the midst of the shattered glass, breathing hard and staring at the object in her hand. Behind her, first Tyler and then Chris tumbled into the side room.
“What is that?” Tyler blurted, pointing at the corpse on the floor, at the same time that Chris demanded, “Why are you holding a sword?”
Why indeed? She’d not thought to hold one ever again.
“Didn’t think I . . . could,” she offered, aware that her trailing answer wouldn’t make sense to them. She nudged the thing on the floor with her toe and winced at the broken glass everywhere.
One more mess. The creature was only a renegade—thank God. But . . .
The sword disappeared, disintegrating into nothing, and she let her hand fall to her side. “I’m sorry about the mess.”
Tyler lurched forward and kicked at the body, turning it over. He blinked. “It’s a bat? But . . .”
Rain was blowing in through the broken window, spattering the piles of old books and quickly damping the carpet. Reese sprang into action, shuffling things aside and apologizing again. Night was falling, and it was dark. The wind through the window was cold.
Chris appeared at her side with a blue tarp, which he nailed over the windowsill with a few expert whacks of a hammer. With that little bit of a rain barrier in place, he stood back, regarded Reese with his arms folded over his chest, and said, “Who are you?”
She was still repositioning stacks of books, studiously avoiding looking at either of them. But she couldn’t just ignore the question. “My name is Reese,” she said.
“You have a last name?”
“No, we—I—we don’t use them,” she stammered. Why wouldn’t the words come out? His gaze was boring into her, and she dropped what she was doing and sat on the couch again, shoulders hunched, bone weary. Of course she needed a last name.
“Danby,” she let out in a whimper. “You can . . . Danby.”
She ventured a glance up. Chris was still staring at her, but although his gaze was stern, she could see now that it wasn’t angry. It was . . . protective, maybe.
The lump in her throat suddenly grew until all she wanted to do was curl up on the couch, cover herself with the flannel blanket, and give vent to all she felt until she had exhausted every tear and more, until every muscle ached and her skin burned with the emptiness inside.
His anger would have been hard to take. But protectiveness was a memory, too fresh and far, far too potent.
“A bat couldn’t have broken that window—and I could have sworn it was something else, something way bigger when I walked in here. So what was that?”
Tyler wasn’t paying attention to the exchange, and his question, to her relief, deflected the force of her grief. She considered lying, but she was too tired for that. She leaned back against the scratchy plaid upholstery.
“A renegade,” she said. “Just one . . . so you don’t need to worry that others will come.”
Outside, headlight beams came around a curve in the road just below the cottage, disappearing behind the tarp after only a brief flash.
“That’ll be Mum,” Chris said. He frowned. “I think I hung up on her.”
“A renegade?” Tyler pressed.
“Do you believe in demons?” Reese asked.
Chris shook his head. His forehead was creased with worry. “I’ll put tea on,” he said. “Wait this conversation. Until Mum’s in here.”
Tyler looked apologetically at Reese. “Diane is good for this kind of thing.”
Reese felt the slightest glimmer of humour. “For discerning crazy?”
Tyler gave her a wry smile. “For helping us know what to do.” He stood, leaving the bat he had been examining on the floor. “I don’t think it’s going to get any warmer and drier in here tonight. We’d better go to the living room.”
He escorted Reese through a cluttered laundry room and a small kitchen, equally cluttered but surprisingly clean, where Chris was putting another kettle on. On the other side of the kitchen counter was a tiny room almost entirely occupied by a couch and an easy chair. One wall was swallowed up by a fireplace, over which hung a massive sword—a claymore, Reese thought. A small fire was going, and the room was warm.
She closed her eyes for a second. That only two hours ago she had thrown herself off a cliff in a vain attempt to drown herself seemed about as far away and unreal as hope. Strange how life could hang on and continue even when she didn’t want it to—stranger that it could bring her somewhere like this, now.
And the sword. Why had the sword come to hand?
The rain nearly masked the sound of a car pulling up outside the cottage, and in a moment the front door pushed open and a woman stumbled in, wrapped in a sleek rain slicker and wearing a kerchief which she promptly pulled off and wrung out. She was short and comfortably built, and her pale hair was twisted in a French knot at the back of her head. Her sharp eyes fixed on Reese immediately.
“So you’re the girl,” she said. “I’m Diane. How are my boys treating you?”
Reese stammered something . . . even she wasn’t sure what words she was trying to say. Mercifully, Tyler and Chris both began to talk, telling this woman—Chris’s mother, Diane—what had happened, from the rescue right down to the demon that had turned into a bat and the sword that had appeared and then dematerialized in Reese’s hand. Getting out of her rain slicker and boots, Diane listened intently and nodded, without interrupting or appearing surprised at any point.
Finally she crossed the tiny room and took Reese’s arm. Her hands were weathered and heavy veined, older than the rest of her, and cold from the drive through the rain.
“Sit,” she said. “I think we should all sit.”
They did. Chris and Tyler looked uncomfortable, and after about half a second Chris stood up again and positioned himself in front of the fireplace. His mother didn’t chastise him.
“I saw it,” she said without any more preamble. “The demon. I see things sometimes—the boys know. That’s how I knew to get up here fast.”
She peered along her nose at Reese. Her eyes were blue. “And you,” she said. “You are a part of the Oneness.”
For an instant Reese thought she would not find her voice, or even the breath to say it. But she did—somehow she did.
“No,” she said. “No, I’m an exile.”