The first thing that wakes me is Mal’s fussing. It’s true. Mommy ears are a thing. No one thinks you get superpowers from being a mom, but you get heightened hearing. You can hear your toddler thinking about coloring the walls. You can hear your infant conjuring up a meltdown before it even happens. Maybe it’s like how animals sense an earthquake before it strikes and flee the area. It’s instinctual. Primitive.
It keeps us alive. It keeps our offspring alive.
“Okay, okay. I hear you, bud,” I tell my little man. The last thing I want is to have Seraphina wake up this early and have her schedule off. That’s a sure way to ruin the entire weekend.
Instead of taking Malak into bed with me to eat and fall back asleep, I decide to tiptoe through the house and sit outside on the Belcans’ back deck. If I wake up early enough, I can watch a beautiful sunrise. I’ve only gotten to see it here twice, but when the sun peeks over the cypress trees and the swamp hasn’t woken up yet, it’s a magical time of day.
A cool nip in the air makes me happy I brought a blanket to snuggle under with Mal, who is a great cuddle buddy, especially when he’s hungry. As he suckles, he loves to play with a blanket or my finger if I give it to him. His eyelids flutter, undecided if he wants to sit up with Mom or doze back to sleep.
In the distance, birds call out as the sun’s rays spread across the land. The second the light touches the area, a chorus of all the creatures erupts. Plops begin in the water as animals either jump in or out, or perhaps it was just a well-timed air bubble escaping the swamp’s murky depths, adding to the sunrise song of the swamp.
The frogs are always the loudest. For such a small animal, their songs can be heard in every direction and for at least a mile or two. Then there are the variety of birds calling out to their mates or future mates. Gnats buzz on the water’s surface, close to where the sundews wait for them to land on the sweet-smelling hairlike leaves so they can eat them. The wagon wheel bladderworts stick out of the water with their single long-stemmed yellow flower, capturing aquatic bugs in their wheels of death. Out of all the beautiful, alien carnivorous plants that grow in their backyard, of which there are a lot, I think the pitcher plants are my favorite. There are at least three different types and they all are enchanting in their own deadly ways.
This is why I love this home. It’s surrounded by nature. The sounds, smells, and sights revitalize me in a way that my bubbly home in the middle of Orlando will never do. That’s not to say my magical home isn’t special either; it’s just a different type.
“Have a nice early morning feeding?” Annabel asks. She’s got a coffee mug in hand.
“The sunrise made it extra nice. I’m glad you’re up. I wanted to talk to you. Yesterday, when I was meditating, I saw the thing living in my ocean of magic. I saw it clear as day. It didn’t seem threatening, but seemed… otherworldly is the only word that comes to mind. Do you know what it could be?”
“Hmm.” She passes me the mug and ducks into the house to grab a second steaming cup of coffee. “What did it look like?”
“Like ink made into a human swordfish form. It had arms, legs, and a torso, but it was curved in a C shape and the top of it was sharp looking. I think that’s why it reminded me of a swordfish, just without the fins.”
“And you saw this last night?”
“Yes. It jumped out of the magic twice. It was like it wanted me to, to…”
“To go for a swim with it?”
“I think so,” I say, then take a small sip of the hot coffee.
Annabel shrugs. “Then go for a swim. What’s the worst that can happen?”
“I think once I touch the ocean, it will become part of me in a way I’m not ready for.”
“Honey, it’s too late for that. It was part of you from the moment you breathed life. It’s up to you to control and master its power, because it is you. Don’t be afraid of it. Don’t be afraid of yourself.”
I take in a long breath and let it out slowly, nodding, knowing Annabel is right. “Can you take Mal back in? I think, I think I might want to try. I should.”
“That’s my girl,” she says, placing her mug inside the house on the table. “Take your time. You might want to head over to the platform. It’ll be peaceful, and I can’t promise I can keep Seraphina quiet first thing in the morning. That girl’s lips move faster than she can think.”
“Thank you. She loves spending time here. I think she likes this place better than home, to be honest.”
“She likes the dirty swamp more than living in a golf cart community with a major theme park in your backyard? You’re all strange. One strange, loving family,” she says as she gently plucks Mal from my arms. He lets out a little fuss, a warning to let him stay asleep. “Come on, love. Back to bed.”
Annabel disappears into the house, and I can’t help but miss my mother and feel guilty. The motherly relationship I have with Annabel is closer than I might ever be with my mother. It’s not my fault, and it’s not hers. She really tried to be the best mother she could be, but she was under a lot of stress. She and my father. When I think about how they raised me, all the cover stories, and how much they truly wanted to protect me, I can forgive them for all their mistakes. I just wish we were closer. I wish we’d have the same relationship that I have with Annabel.
The platform is on the border of their property, heading deeper into the swamp. It’s a permanent tree stand with a wooden base and a two-foot-tall railing overlooking the trails. People use it to hunt the small deer that come through the area. It’s not a large space and Seraphina isn’t allowed up here since she would immediately jump off, being a daredevil, but it’s just enough space to relax comfortably and meditate.
I unroll my lime green yoga mat, sit comfortably, focus on my breathing, and let the sounds of the swamp take me away to my memories. It feels instantaneous, even though I know it takes at least fifteen minutes. I look at my house of memories and contemplate checking in on Lucas to see if he’s asleep or meditating. Sometimes I can even pull him away from awake life, if I really want or need to speak to him, by calling his name out and knocking on the door connecting to his mind. He says that my pull is stronger than anything or anyone he’s ever felt.
And yet, the ocean of magic terrifies me. I wonder if Lucas can accompany me out of his room and down to the ocean, so I have someone with me. Is it possible for someone to wander around another’s mind?
I shake the thought out of my head and walk past my memory home and continue down the tree-covered path. Movement in the forest that I dare not enter catches my eye, encouraging me to power walk until I’m jogging. It stays behind the thick foliage, masking itself. Whatever is in the forest is following me, but keeping a distance. As the tree line breaks apart, revealing the massive body of magic, whatever is following me stops and stays hidden in the forest. They won’t dare let their feet touch the sandy beach or let me see who or what it is. It’s weird that my mind is a complete mystery to myself.
With my back turned to the thing that seems more afraid of the magic than of me, I continue until my big toe is an inch away from the swirling metallic colors. Not far off, I hear a splash and catch the bottom half of the ink creature. It leaps out of the magic like a dolphin, coming toward the shore. Coming straight toward me.
As it closes in, it slows down until it’s only a few feet away. The sharp point disappears and an inky head pokes out of the ocean like it fears me. Its black eyes stare at me, peeking out of the liquid magic.
I swallow a breath and step forward. As soon as my toe touches the liquid, a warm sensation travels up my legs, continuing up my stomach, through my torso, and out my arms and head. I fall in.
Magic rushes into my body, giving me a fiery, powerful sensation, one that I’ve never felt before. It fills every part of my being, burning me inside out. My back arches, my legs spasm as my body contorts unnaturally.
Submerged in the metallic swirls, I’m helpless against the absorption. Part of me is trying to stop the fire burning power into every cell in my body. The other part, a darker part, one that I’m not familiar with, wants more and feels unsated.
It’s as if I’m drowning in magic but it’s not my lungs that need air or help—it’s my individual cells being flooded with power, transforming me in a way I still can’t comprehend but know they’re drowning in raw power.
Someone yells, “Wake up! Clean up your mess! Open your eyes!” as some force tosses me out of the ocean and onto the beach. I land on my back, staring up at the pale gray sky. That never changes. There’s no sun. No moon. No night. No day. It’s always constantly dreary gray. I search for the person or thing that said wake up but can’t find the source.
I sit up and stare at my hands. They look the same but feel different. Stronger. From the way I was thrown out of the magic, I would expect to feel pain in my back and ass, but there’s nothing. No pain. I stare at what was once an ocean to see a lake with land surrounding it. It’s still a decent size, but I can see the shore all the way around.
That can’t be good. To absorb that much power, and have that much left over in, what should I call this, a reserve? I watch the liquid to see if the thing living in the water jumps out, but it stays hidden below the surface.
After a few more minutes, which might be an hour, I decide it’s time to wake up and find out what’s different about me. As I come back to my body, I can tell just by how strong the sunlight feels on my skin that it’s well past noon. It’s maybe two or three o’clock. While I was there, it only felt like ten minutes, maybe fifteen. It makes me wonder about those people in insane asylums who stare at blank walls all day and night. Are they stuck inside their heads or do they just not want to come out? Or do they even know how much time has passed since they went into their minds?
I feel a shiver down my spine. I hope that never happens to me. There must be a way to keep track of time while in my mind. I wonder if it’s possible to wake up those who are lost? If they want to. Perhaps they just want to live the rest of their lives in their memories.
Down the path, I hear two women talking. As they come around the bend, I recognize Agatha with her walking stick, tapping the ground before her feet touch it. I still don’t understand how she lives by herself at her age and is blind. I love her, but constantly question how has she not been eaten by an alligator or fallen into a bog she couldn’t get out of, but then I remember how powerful she is and how she uses her power like a bat to see. The way she describes it is almost like using sonar, but with magic. She sends out her power, and she feels it bounce off things. The way her power bounces off everything helps paint a mental picture she can understand.
The woman walking the trail next to her is about the same age, but doesn’t have a stick or anything to help her walk. Her wispy white hair is mostly contained in a braid like Agatha’s. Actually, now that I’m looking at them, they might be related. Even sisters.
“Hello, Agatha. Are you heading to the Belcans’?”
She stares at me and I swear sometimes she isn’t blind. The old woman cracks a toothy smile. “Hello, Eve. Why yes. Did you bring your children?”
“I can’t come here without Seraphina. She loves her aunts.” I turn my attention to the woman next to her. “Hello, my name is—”
“I know what your name is.” The woman cuts me off. Rude.
Agatha turns to the rude woman, shaking her head. “Eve, this is my younger sister, Willow.”
I cross my arms against my chest. Normally when someone cuts me off when I’m introducing myself, I don’t bother with them ever again.
My posture must tell them that.
“Sorry. My little sister has recently been through some trauma and is having trouble being polite.”
Willow’s cheeks redden and her lips become a straight line. “Politeness is a courtesy not many deserve. I’m sorry I was so harsh, but… after what I’ve just experienced, I’m not well versed for small talk. I apologize.”
The woman looks troubled. Her eyes dart everywhere as if looking for enemies in the trees. Her feet shift like she’s getting ready to run. There’s even sweat on her brow. It’s rather cool this early afternoon.
I nod, realizing how damaged the woman is. “It’s okay. Trauma morphs us into people we don’t recognize. People we didn’t want to become. May I ask what happened?”
Agatha bites her lip. “She’s been through what you and the Belcans experienced.”
My feet slam against each plank of wood as I race down the stairs. A thunder erupts in my chest. The thunder is my heart about to explode as I make my way to Willow and see the battered woman up close. I see the pain and fear in her eyes. The mistrust. The hurt. The need for vengeance.
For the last two and a half years, I’ve scoured the internet, searched everywhere I could, followed leads that led to nowhere, all in hopes of tracking down that bitch, the woman who haunts my nightmares, but I haven’t found her. Lucas used all of his connections, all the information he found while looking for me when I was captured. It all came to dead ends. Shade disappeared and for a moment I thought, hoped, it would be forever.
“Come, Eve,” Agatha says. “We have much to discuss with you and the Belcans. We’ve called a meeting with everyone. Everyone who lives in Moccasin Swamp. Things need to change now, before it’s too late. I can’t see a future for our people and community with Shade hunting us. All I see for our people, if we don’t do anything, is blackness. Nothing else.”
I trick Seraphina into thinking it is a little later than her normal bedtime, and she takes the bait—mostly. On a normal night, it’s hard getting her to go to bed, given how much energy she has. But tonight, although I tried to get her to bed half and hour earlier, by the time we read bedtime stories and kissed her boll and teddy bear goodnight, she only went to bed fifteen minutes early.
That’s not a lot of extra time for me.
Smoke greets me as I step out onto the back porch to see a fairly sizeable crowd of people keeping warm by the bonfire. The sky is clear and full of stars, besides a very large full moon. The Belcans often have a potluck dinner with all their neighbors. For some of their neighbors, who are so afraid of being hunted that they have retreated so deeply into the far depths of the swamp that they have no internet or access to electricity, these potlucks are the only way to hear news. Tonight, everyone has come out of the swamp to hear what Willow has to say.
“Mister Merrill, it’s a treat seeing you two days in a row,” I tell him.
His hand trembles slightly. “Won’t be a treat tonight, I’m afraid. We’ve been tricked and hunted for too long. We’re tired of it. Tonight, you’ll see some of us not in our best light.”
“Understandable.” I myself feel a heated rage building that I’m trying to contain.
He nods. “Children in bed?”
“Yeah. I’ll have to feed Mal in a few hours, but Seraphina should stay asleep all night.” I wish he would be more like his sister at this age and sleep through the night without a feeding. Hopefully he will soon.
I turn to see Maddie, in a yellow sundress, and Nick, wearing jeans and a flannel, stroll into the backyard, their arms looped around each other. Maddie smiles at me, flashing her fangs in a polite manner. Really, any time she smiles, you can see her fangs, but it doesn’t mean she wants to bite you. Nick is her food source, which is a weird way to have a relationship, but I think they love each other. Who am I to judge? No relationship is the same and if they’re happy, that’s all that matters. Though I wonder if she will eventually turn him. That way, they can spend eternity together. But who would they drink from?
I watch the more elusive race of creatures slowly melt out of the forest, as if they had been part of it. I don’t know what they are exactly. Bell says the locals call them swamp apes, but they would rather be called Sabe. The world calls them Sasquatches and Big Foot. My guess is that they’re part of a different species of humanoids and the different seven-foot-tall creatures that are spotted on hunters’ cameras all over the world are different races of Sabe. That’s my theory and I’m too nervous to ask questions. If you were to meet one of them, you’d be afraid to ask in case you accidentally offended them and they tore your limbs off.
A group of five young women takes seats by the fire. They aren’t really sisters, but they act like it since they each lost their parents to Shade attacks when they were young. The bond they have is strong. I can tell by just watching them interact with each other.
Annabel stands up. She’d been sitting in a chair carved from a tree stump and she clears her throat. “Good eve. We need to discuss something of great importance. Something that affects all of us, whether we like it or not. For years, the Moccasin Swamp has protected all of us, as long as we stay in it. For decades, we’ve raised our families here in safety, as long as we stay in our swamp, but I’ve been hearing chatter of darker days. We have a guest who’s come to speak to us about her most recent experience and will probably be staying in our community for a bit. Willow,” Annabel says, sitting back down.
Willow stands, her eyes showing her mistrust of everyone around her. Did I act that way after I was taken? How long did it take for me to feel safe again? The truth is, I don’t feel safe. Not really. The way I was taken in the grocery store parking lot has made me order groceries for delivery since. The fear Willow is living with will haunt her until she dies.
“I’ve tried to warn others of what Shade is doing, but few will listen,” Willow says in a shaky voice. “Shade captured me last year, on July thirty-first from my home in a swamp, not too different from this one, deep in the bayou of Mississippi. The community I had been living with took care of each other and worked hard protecting our land from outsiders. We thought our wards were strong. I thought we were ready for whatever Shade threw at us. I’m here to tell you it’s fool’s hope. Our pride blinded us to Shade’s power. They’ve become more powerful than any of us have feared.
“When they attacked my community, they didn’t do it with man made weapons. No. For years, they’ve been experimenting on us, draining us of our power and testing us. All of us.” She searches the crowd of witches, weres, vampires, and Sabe. “They came with our weapons. With knowledge of how to destroy our wards. They take down weres with silver bullets and turn vampires into dust with light bombs.”
Maddie, on the other side of the fire, flinches and Nick pulls her into a hug. Mister Merrill swallows down what I think is fear as everyone looks at each other for something. Maybe comfort, but that won’t be found here when everyone is terrified of Shade.
“That’s right. They came at us with our own powers. With the knowledge they’ve been gaining from their experiments, they can turn themselves into weres, use spells against us, and kill our community, our people, without care. Their director, the woman in charge, at least from what we can tell, is called Crystal.”
That name. That fucking name hits me in the chest. I can’t breathe. A charge floods through my body, filling me with a sensation that I’ve never felt before. Rage isn’t the right word to describe the passionate hate I have for that bitch. I promised I would kill her and I want to keep my promise. Lucas tried to convince me he killed her when he attacked the facility I was trapped in. But I didn’t believe him. I knew she was alive. I felt it deep inside that she still breathed, walked, slept, ate, and fucked her way around.
I walk away from the fire and storm off toward the platform, needing space before I have a psychotic meltdown in front of everyone. With every step, a burning sensation floods my chest, making it hard to think straight. All I want to do is kill her. I need to kill her. No one will be safe until she’s dead. My children won’t be safe until she’s dead. We’ll always look over our shoulders, waiting for them to strike.
I don’t want to wait anymore.
Green flames erupt from my shaking hands and fly through the night sky, hitting the tree platform. The whole thing bursts into flames as I stand with my mouth hanging open. That’s never happened before. Did I actually do that?
I turn around to see everyone around the fire staring at me, waiting for an explanation of why I’d just burn down a tree stand, but those who truly know me know that I’ve never been capable of that before.
Annabel stands up and walks casually over to me. She looks up at my destruction. “Guess we know now what power was hiding in your ocean.”
I look down at my hands, expecting to see them charred, but they’re soft and still feel moisturized. My chest no longer feels like it’s on fire. As if I needed to release that built-up rage. “How did I…”
“Well, looks like you have something new to practice. Something you need to figure out how to control,” Annabel says, not seeming to care that the tree is fully engulfed in flames.
Agatha comes up to us and waves her hands in the air, mumbling something I can’t understand. A cold gust of wind surrounds the tree, smothering the fire until it’s completely gone. After she’s finished, her face looks drained of energy, but she’s smiling. “Yes, I knew you had something in you. You just had to open the door and let it out. But this is the hard part, child. You need to control it,” she says, looking at the smoldering tree. “Or else it will burn you alive.”