LINK

LINK (The Shadow of Light #1)

For seventeen-year-old Kira, there’s no better way to celebrate a birthday than being surrounded by friends and huddled beside a campfire deep in the woods. And with a birthday in the peak of summer, that includes late night swims under the stars.

Or at least, it used to.

Kira’s relaxing contemplation of the universe is interrupted when a piece of it falls, colliding with her and starting a chain of events that could unexpectedly lead to the one thing in her life that’s missing—her father.

Tossed into a pieced-together world of carnivals and gypsies, an old-fashioned farmhouse, and the alluring presence of a boy from another planet, Kira discovers she’s been transported to the center of a black hole, and there’s more to the story than science can explain. She’s now linked by starlight to the world inside the darkness. And her star is dying.

If she doesn’t return home before the star’s light disappears and her link breaks, she’ll be trapped forever. But she’s not the only one ensnared, and with time running out, she’ll have to find a way to save a part of her past and a part of her future, or risk losing everything she loves.

Dreamy, fluid, and beautiful, Link pairs the mystery of science fiction with the minor-key melody of a dark fantasy, creating a tale that is as human as it is out of this world.

EXCERPT

I threw the greeting card into the campfire. There was no point reading it; they were
always the same. Flames flared around its edges, reducing it to ash. Dusty cinders floated into the air and drifted over the lake.

“Kira.” Fingers snapped within inches of my face.

Startled, I said, “Sorry. What’d you say?”

“Another fake card from your mom’s stockpile?” Faye skewered her marshmallow and held it over the fire.

I grabbed a stick near my feet and poked the smoldering embers. “Yeah. I don’t know
why she pretends he keeps in touch, let alone remembers my birthday.”

“Why don’t you just tell her you know she writes them?”

“I don’t want to hurt her feelings. And maybe it helps her cope with being a single parent,” I said with a shrug.

“Or, I don’t know, maybe she’s doing it for you.” Faye waved her stick at me, narrowly missing my hair. “Maybe she wants you to feel like you have a father who cares.”

“Maybe.” I batted the stick away. “But I’m pretty sure it takes more than a few crappy birthday cards to make up for never knowing your daughter. No, she just doesn’t want to admit that he’s never coming back.”

“Don’t you ever wish he would?” she asked, winking. “Aren’t you even a little curious?”

“Nope.” I looked up at the moonlit sky. Freckles of light dotted the heavens. “Only the stars know where he is, and I hope it stays that way.”

“You and your stars.” Faye placed her marshmallow between two graham crackers and pressed them together until white fluff squished over the edges, smearing chocolate onto her fingers.

“Ugh. Can you hold this for a minute?” She handed me her treat, strings of sticky sugar clinging to her manicured nails. After fishing through her backpack with her non S’more­covered hand, she pulled out a pack of wipes and cleaned her fingers. “Look, forget about your dad. It’s not every day you turn seventeen. We’re here to have fun.”

Laughter and cheering erupted from the other side of the campfire. The guys were competing to see who could fit the most marshmallows into their mouth. Zane held the record with fifteen big ones. He looked at me and signaled his standing victory with two thumbs up and a marshmallow-­filled grin. Normally, he didn’t love being the center of attention, but this was serious. Defending his reign as Marshmallow King was a matter of pride. Zane tended to watch everything and keep it to himself. His quiet confidence had won him a lot of loud­mouthed football buddies, but he saved his real depth for the friends who knew his heart. For me. I couldn’t help but return his smile; he looked so silly.

“Kira . . . DUCK!” A small projectile flew past my head. The friendly contest had turned into a free­-for-­all.

“The night wouldn’t be complete without their childlike shenanigans,” Faye joked.

I handed her the S’more. “What do you expect? They’re guys.”

“Exactly.” She leaned over to pick up the dirt-­encrusted marshmallow that had landed at her feet. “You and I would never participate in something as juvenile as throwing food for sport.”

“Of course not,” I said, mustering up my best impression of high society ladies. “Unless, you know, it was to teach them a lesson.”

One side of her mouth lifted into a half-­smile as her eyes narrowed mischievously. “They’ll never see it coming.” She whipped around and launched it back into the war zone. She reached for a second wipe, ducking just in time to avoid another white, sugary puff whizzing by.

“Watch it!” called a voice from behind us. On the outskirts of our camp, Fischer was absorbed in calibrating his new telescope; I had almost forgotten he was there.

Zane walked over to where we sat, but then passed silently behind us. He tucked his arms behind him, hiding additional ammunition, and crept toward Fischer. I breathed in deep, without even meaning to, as the soft musk of his cologne drifted by. I exhaled slowly, pushing away any thoughts of acting on the emotions burning in my chest. No matter how much I ached to be near him, it was easier to keep Zane at arm’s length than risk putting my heart on the line. Again.

He pelted Fischer in the leg with a marshmallow. “Quit messing with that thing and come join the fun. We’re trying to celebrate a birthday, and you’re looking for space rocks.”

“One more setting.” Fischer knelt down, peering through the scope. “There. It’s ready.”

“Does he really think he’s going to see anything?” Faye asked under her breath.

“Are you kidding?” Fischer interjected. “From up here, I’ll have the best view for miles around. It’s a once-­in­-a­-lifetime chance to catch a rare meteor shower. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Fischer carefully rubbed the telescope lens with a cloth. “Plus, I get extra credit if I capture images. Hope you don’t mind, Kira.”

“Mind? Not at all. You know I love that stuff. It’s fascinating,” I said. “And I’d love to take a look when the event starts.”

“Deal.” Fischer shot Zane a victorious look.

Zane bowed dramatically. “Touché, my friend.”

“So, did Kira tell you she’s decided on a program?” Faye blurted suddenly, clearly past the point of waiting for me to bring it up. I knew I would regret telling her before the others.

“Yeah?” Fischer said.

As Zane straightened out of his bow, his eyes fixed on mine. His face fought between hopeful anticipation and dreaded disappointment. While he, Fischer, and Faye had already locked in their majors, I’d gone back and forth between joining them or attending another university halfway across the territory. I’d just barely made up my mind and had planned to tell them tonight. Of course, Faye couldn’t wait that long to be in the know and had pulled it out of me several days earlier.

I nodded and stared at them for a long minute, dragging the moment out, hoping my excitement didn’t already reveal my choice. “I’ve accepted the offer to join the Astroarcheology program at the Academy.”

If my announcement wasn’t enough to make my heart jump into my throat, the satisfied, relieved grin on Zane’s face was.

“Isn’t it fabulous?” Faye squealed, rapidly stomping her feet in front of her. “We get to be roommates!”

“As long as I don’t fail my senior capstone course,” I said. “I hear Mr. Keenan’s Human Origins and Evolution class is brutal.”

Fischer waved off my concern and flashed an ornery grin. “Oh, you’ll do fine. It’s Zane we have to worry about.”

“Funny,” Zane said, play-­punching Fischer in the arm. “You just stick to your space rocks and planet theories. I’ll be busy acing flight school.”

“Just you wait, I’m going to discover something amazing on one of those ‘space rocks,’” Fischer replied as he retreated to his telescope.

“I know you will, man.” Zane’s eyes fell on me in a look that made me feel like I was more amazing than anything he’d see in space. Heat rushed over my cheeks, and I turned my gaze to the fire. The weight of his stare bored into me as he made his way to my side.

Faye popped her lips as she finished applying lip­plumping gloss. “The only rocks I find fascinating are dust diamonds. So, if you see any of those falling from the sky, be sure to let me know.”

I looked at her, then back at Fischer. “How are you two even related? For twins, you guys are night and day.”

Faye rolled her eyes in an exaggerated motion. “Thank goodness!”

“Maybe we could catch a glimpse of extraterrestrials or alien spaceships.” Zane stuck his tongue out and tipped his head to the side as he widened his normally serene green eyes until they looked unnaturally bug-­like.

I pressed my lips together, holding back an amused grin. “Maybe we’re the aliens. You certainly look like one when you do that.”

“Speak for yourselves,” Faye said, wrinkling her nose at Zane. “I’m too pretty to be an alien.” Fischer stifled a laugh, prompting Faye to glare at him before continuing.

Laughing lightly, I stood and peeled off my t­shirt. “Well, that’s enough of that. Who’s ready to swim?”

The sweltering heat of the day had lifted, but it was still warm enough for a dip. Whooping and hollering accompanied the mad scramble for towels as shirts flew through the air and we stripped down to our suits. Faye and the others grabbed inner tubes out of the back of Zane’s truck, roping them together to create one massive floating device. I preferred to swim.

I ran into the water and dove as it deepened. Swimming through the cool, crisp waves put distance between me and the shallow banks. When I came up for air, I rolled onto my back. Nothing was as peaceful and relaxing as floating in a mountain lake in the middle of the night. Eyes closed, I hid in the dark, visible only to our moons, floating like two paper lanterns in the starlit sky.

In moments like this, all of my troubles melted away. I forgave my mom a little, for pretending my father cared enough to remember my special day. That’s what dads were supposed to do, right? A little part of me did wish I could meet him. But maybe he didn’t want anything to do with me. If he did, he’d have at least made an effort to meet his daughter. Not leave me to make up his story based on pictures in old photo albums.

But no matter how many times I’d had this conversation with myself, my solution was always the same: forget him. Now, if only my mother would let me. Rippling waves pressed softly against my eardrums, lulling me into the stillness of night, and I pushed thoughts of my dad into the furthest corners of my mind.

A water-­muffled shriek shot through the air.

I sat up, flailing, and looked around. My friends were still on the shore. A couple guys were cramming gear into the trunk of their car. Faye and Zane had abandoned the party float and were frantically waving their arms.

“Look out!” Faye jumped up and down.

“Kira, come back,” Zane screamed, hands cupped around his mouth. “Get out of there!”

Was this a joke? Some sort of prank? I turned to look behind me. Shadows lurked on the banks opposite our campsite, but the water was still. Only small ripples lingered as I swam in place.

Then I saw it—a moon-­like reflection dancing on the water.

A glowing, white object raced toward the lake. It had appeared so quickly, out of nowhere. My heart sank. Sickness pounded my stomach.

I had to get out of the water.

I swam toward dry land. Each stroke seemed slower and heavier than the last. The thundering roar of the falling object echoed in my ears. Kicking harder, I prayed my effort would be enough to propel me to safety.

It wasn’t.

The force of the collision shoved me violently down into the water, pummeling my body and knocking the air from my chest. Under the weight of an unknown object, I sank into the murky depths, slamming into the bed of the lake, the grit of sand filling my mouth. I flailed my arms and legs, hoping to free myself. But, to my surprise, there was nothing holding me down.

With one final surge of energy, I kicked upwards. My lungs burned. I was light­headed, unable to focus. The muddy hum of discordant music rushed all around me. I floated to the top, my arms and legs numb. Out of the corner of my eye, a fading white light flickered.

Then everything went black. ­­­­­

Pressure weighed on me, as if the surrounding darkness was a lead blanket. One by one, lights twinkled on and faded away, their rhythm like a silent song. Kira. A familiar voice called to me, pulling me toward a ceiling of stars. The tone’s vibration flickered in time to the lights, as though it controlled their power with its soothing wavelengths.

Kira.

“Kira. Can you hear me? Wake up.” Zane’s voice.

A pair of hands gripped under my arms and lifted me out of the lake. I struggled for air, coughing up water, choking on sand. Gasping, I inhaled deeply. Breathing had never rendered such relief. My head throbbed, each pulsing heartbeat echoing in my ears. My eyelids were impossibly heavy.

Cradling me, Zane hurried toward dry land. My head bobbed back and forth as he struggled through the knee­-deep water. In his haste, we toppled over more than once. The warm, balmy liquid was now unbearably frigid. I tried to hold on, but each time we splashed into the icy bath, my arms became more and more useless.

“Z­Zane,” I stuttered through chattering teeth.

The moisture from his breath seeped into the frosty air when he spoke. “It’s going to be all right. You’re going to be all right.”

“Kira?” It was Faye’s voice. “Is she—”

“She’s breathing. She’s alive,” Zane said.

“What was that thing? It fell out of the sky, and then nothing,” Faye said, dazed. “No rock, no meteor, not even a UFO. Did you see how it lingered on the lake? Dancing like . . . I don’t know, liquid fire melting into the water.”

“We can’t worry about that right now,” Zane said. “We need to dry Kira off, warm her up.”

I forced my eyes to open into slits. Faye stood, frozen, looking like she might burst into tears at any moment as we stumbled past.

“Hurry! Get towels or a sleeping bag, whatever you can grab.” Zane lowered me to my feet and opened the rear door of his truck. My legs gave out beneath me, but before I slumped to the ground, he had me in his arms again. “Stay with me, Kira. I’m here. I won’t let anything happen to you.”

I tried to speak, but nothing came out. A weak smile was all I could manage in response.

Faye returned with some beach towels and spread them over the rough, tweed-­like upholstery.

Zane helped me into the truck and tossed a folded towel at Faye. “Use this to hold her head. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”

Her eyes widened. “But . . . but . . . there’s bloo—”

“Kira needs you, Faye,” he said, as he spread the last towel over me. “You can do this.”

As we traveled down the rough gravel road, the truck jerked violently on a series of potholes. My whole body ached, but the warm, dry towels had restored some of the feeling to my arms and legs. I was relieved that I could move my fingers and toes.

Faye smiled when she saw me wiggling them. “You’re going to be okay.”

Warm liquid oozed over my temple and trickled down my cheek. I reached to touch it, but she stopped me. “Am I bleeding?”

“Only a little,” Faye said. Her normally warm, glowing skin looked a sickly green. She wiped my face with the corner of a towel. “Looks like you bumped your head.”

Zane reached over the seat, handing his cell phone to Faye. “Call Kira’s mom. Tell her to meet us at the hospital. We should have reception now.”

I peered out Faye’s window and into the night sky. The passing stars were dim compared to the searing brilliance of the object at the lake. Watching them made me dizzy. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, trying to overcome a surge of motion sickness as I tried to recall details about what had forced me under the water.

Blinding light. Unshakable cold. A faint, high-­pitched vibration. I’d heard it before, many times, its familiar whistle drifting from some faraway place. Tonight, it was different. Close. All around me. Even now, shrill melodies resonated inside my head, pulsing through my temples.

“She’ll meet us there,” Faye said, handing the phone back to Zane. I was so focused on trying not to be sick that I had completely zoned out of their conversation.

Cell phone reception meant we were almost to the main road, only minutes from town and the hospital. I just wanted to go home, snuggle up in my bed, and sleep. Under the weight of the towels, my body seemed to melt into the seat.

Jumbled images flashed through my mind. A prick of déjà vu flooded me, the memories familiar, reminiscent of a dream, but not my own. Vivid colors painted scenes of flourishing landscapes from unfamiliar places. People abandoned ancient cities; fear-­stricken voices cried out. Some fought. Most fled. Darkness engulfed them all.

A single burst of light escaped.

2

The soft scent of cedar pulled me through layers of unconsciousness. Shadows collapsed
and expanded as my surroundings came into focus. My limbs rejected movement, their response delayed, weighed down as if gravity fought against me until a sweet breath of air revived my senses and finally awakened my body.

I gasped and jolted upright.

The memory of nearly drowning flooded over me, and my hand flew to where my head had been bleeding. I moved my fingers along my hairline, but found no trace of injury. As I thought about how it could have healed so quickly, I realized I wasn’t wearing my bathing suit; I was dressed in faded jeans and a black ribbed tank top instead. My mind flipped through the possibilities as fast as my heart pounded against my chest. I settled on the only logical explanation: I must have dozed off while waiting for Faye to swing by and grab me for our lake trip.

Rhythmic panting startled me, and the friendly brown eyes of a Golden Retriever popped
over the armrest of the couch I sat on. I scrunched my nose at him, his soft yellow fur a stark contrast to what should have been a jet black coat—probably another one of Faye’s dye jobs gone bad. Poor dog. He nuzzled into my lap, begging to be petted. I rubbed his ears, and my hand brushed against his tags. I read the inscription aloud, “Ruger.”

My head spun again, painting my focus with an unsteady blur, and my eyes landed on a massive, stone-­covered fireplace that sat at the far end of the room. It seemed larger than I remembered and farther away than it was supposed to be, but the soft light of the flickering flames brought back comforting memories of late­-night reading sessions at the hearth.

Still a little groggy, I decided to head outside for some fresh air. I wandered toward the kitchen, pausing at an ornate mirror in the hall. Through a layer of dust, I could just make out my reflection. My hair was a mess, looking more like tangled, dry seaweed than wavy tresses. The little bit of mascara I wore was smudged under my eyes, making shadows above my cheekbones. Why did I look like such a train­-wreck? I must have napped hard.

Out of habit, I dug into my pockets, searching for something to hold my hair and producing a bobby pin, a rubber band, and a silver dollar. Returning all but the rubber band, I pulled the layers of my snarled hair into a ponytail as I continued toward the exit.

At the door, I peeked through a small window before stepping outside. A gentle breeze tickled my face. I leaned over the slated railing of a wrap­around porch, soaking in the sound of leaves rustling through the surrounding trees. Wind chimes hanging from the awning jingled in the wake of cool air. To the right of the house, a faded red barn and small corral framed off the farmyard. Beyond that, grassy green fields disappeared into the horizon.

I descended three steps, and then followed a sidewalk through the gate of a white picket
fence. A familiar tune broke the stillness of the empty farmyard, and I strained to distinguish the music from the sound of the wind chimes behind me. The rich, upbeat melody of a pipe organ sounded foreign and out-­of­-place among such a remote, country setting, but reminded me of the games at Fischer’s favorite arcade.

BANG.

Adrenaline surged through my veins, forcing me to spin around. But the fearful reaction was unwarranted. Ruger had let himself out, and the screen door had slammed behind him. I breathed a sigh of relief as he sauntered down the steps and crossed the yard.

“Crazy dog,” I muttered under my breath.

The music still echoed in the distance. Ruger paused and tilted his head, listening. He barked a couple of times, beckoning me to follow, and then started down the gravel driveway. I wasn’t sure if I should go with him without telling my mom I was stepping out for a walk. And if I didn’t have Ruger on a leash, Mom would surely hear about it from the neighbors.

The neighbors.

My eyes darted from the barn to the farmhouse and back to the treeline, expecting to see a row of landscaped yards and modest homes through their trunks. But there were none. There were no mailboxes, no streetlights, nothing that indicated there were ever neighbors at all. How weird.

Ruger barked again, and I decided to skip the leash. Tension melted from my shoulders, and my heartbeats slowed to a healthy pace as a reassuring calm washed over me. We walked down a dirt road lined with trees. They gradually stretched taller and leaned farther over the road, some so far I wondered what kept them from falling. As we continued, branches extended like little arms stretching for fingertips just beyond reach. Shadows replaced light as the trees grew closer together and the foliage joined overhead to create a tunnel.

Anxiety bubbled within me as I passed into the tunnel’s shade, the cause unknown, yet completely terrifying all the same. I forced measured breaths and counted to ten, the way Faye always instructed me to when she made me join her for yoga.

Ruger hurried down a steep, descending trail and disappeared. Under the thick canopy of leaves, it would have been completely dark if not for a faint, flickering light escaping from where he’d vanished.

“Ruger?” My voice cracked as I called after him.

The leafy flora blended into a gray, stone passageway as I followed. Fused, as if they’d
melted together, I could hardly tell where the tree line ended and the pebbled walls began. I ran my hand over half-­exposed, fossilized branches snaking through the ancient, cement­like structure. I had never seen anything like it near home, though the composition reminded me of something I might study in my Astroarcheology classes.

Ahead, a torch­-lit corridor opened into an enormous cave. With each step, the music grew
louder, the notes bouncing off the rocky walls. Our destination was now in sight. Thousands of lights illuminated an eerie fun land. A Ferris wheel towered at the carnival’s rear, and a roller coaster snaked along the scanty chain­-link fence surrounding the grounds. The music blared from a carousel at the center.

The front gate was open, but the ticket booth was abandoned. I cautiously walked
through, searching for an attendant. Ruger ran to the left, in the direction of the Ferris wheel. I followed, confident that he had at least some idea of where he was going.

Just beyond the entrance, snack carts and game booths lined the walkway. The music I’d
previously heard was now indistinguishable from the blaring game noises and muffled chatter. Groups of people scattered between the various stands. Some faces were nondescript—blurry and blending into the shadows. Others displayed sharp, warped features that sent chills up my spine.

Under the unavoidable scrutiny of creepy booth attendants, I followed after Ruger, making my way down the alley of flashing lights and loud noises. A dart game near the end of the path caught my eye. Of all the games, this was by far my favorite.

“Pop three balloons to win a prize,” called a snarly old man. With missing teeth and patches of hair, he was the epitome of creepy booth guys.

As I backed away from the booth, I smelled the sweet scent of baked cinnamon. I wasn’t hungry, but it made my mouth water. Closing my eyes, I took another deep breath.

“It’s funnel cake. Mags makes the best in town.”

Stopping short, I spun around and looked in the direction of the voice. A lean figure, slightly taller than me, leaned on the outside of the booth across from me.

“Have you tried it?” the boy asked as he stepped into the light.

He ran his fingers through his jet black hair as he moved closer. It was medium length,
and a little messy, like he’d slept on it and hadn’t bothered to brush it. Pale skin hugged bony cheekbones and dipped into subtle dimples. His gaze was friendly, but intense, as if the weight of the world dimmed the windows of his soul. Simply dressed—in faded jeans and a t-shirt that hugged his chest—he contrasted Zane’s athletic, country boy style in nearly every way.

Warning bells rang through every part of my body. I pushed the thought from my head. I
didn’t know why I was comparing them. Sure, he was attractive, but more in a way that Faye would appreciate, if she was trying to shock her parents by bringing home a deadbeat boyfriend.

“If you haven’t tried it, you should.” He rolled his lips together, as if he was imagining
the taste of cinnamon. “Her stand is by the Ferris wheel. I’ll take you to it, if you’d like.”

A warm feeling knotted in my stomach and spread to my chest. The look playing on his
face screamed danger, and promised fun in such a tempting way—a way that had never really appealed to me, until now. I realized I was counting again in an effort to control my breathing.

“I love funnel cake,” I said, a little too enthusiastically.

“I thought you might.” A sly grin tugged at the corner of his mouth. “By the way, I’m Evan.”

I cleared my throat and swallowed as I told myself to get a grip. “I’m Kira.”

“Well, Kira, this way.”

He led me down the main path, through another alley of games and various attractions.
We stopped to watch a woman having her portrait sketched. The artist was surprisingly quick and very detailed. Beside them, an organ grinder’s monkey held out a rusty tin cup while his master played a tune.

Evan held out a coin, and the monkey snatched it from his hand. “This your first time here?”

“Yes, it is.” He had to know it was by the way he watched me as I observed each and every item along the path. But it was more than that, I should have known the fair had come to
town, especially being so close to the house, but I couldn’t recall it being there before.

As we continued, my gaze drifted inside an open tent. An old woman and a middle-­aged man sat at a round table in the center of the small room. A crystal ball rested on a red silk table cloth that flowed to the floor. I guessed she was a fortune teller—or a super cheesy imitation of one—but the way the man leaned over the table, whispering inaudible words, told me he wasn’t there to have his palm read.

My curiosity piqued at the pair. The woman looked considerably older than the man. Though stunning, her dark, leathery skin added an immeasurable amount of years to her
complexion. I ruled out the possibility that their relationship was of a romantic nature, which added even more intrigue to their meeting. Most of the man’s features hid behind a coarse beard, but his eyes were alive in the soft accent of crow’s feet. As I studied him, it occurred to me that he looked out of place amid the rest of the fair­-goers. His clothes were dirty and worn, but appeared to be tailored and machine made, unlike the hand­-stitched garb of the others. My footsteps shortened and slowed as I strained to catch their words.

My mind blurred in and out of focus, as if it were shifting to another time and place. The
sound of sirens smeared into panicked voices and far-­off noise. Screens of white blinked behind my still­-closed eyes, like an old-­time slideshow rotating between the present scene and an empty slot.

And then it stopped.

When I regained focus, I was locked in the man’s gaze, his eyes so warm, so familiar, and yet as foreign as the uncharted stars of our galaxy. He stopped speaking mid­-sentence, as
though I might overhear his secrets. The old woman turned toward me, the dark of her eyes as endless as the unknown universe beyond our isolated planet.

Kira.

My name echoed through my head like the sound of rushing water combining with an avalanche of wind. I looked in all directions for the origin of the voice, for neither the man nor the woman had spoken. The air around me thickened, an unseen fog threatening to swallow everything.

A pair of hands steadied my shoulders. “Kira, are you okay?” Evan stood in front of me, his face less mischievous and more worried now.

“I—I’m sorry.” I exhaled a long, heavy breath. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

His forehead creased. “You don’t look so good. Maybe you should lie down.”

“No, really. I think I’m just hungry, that’s all.” I rubbed my temples in an effort to subdue the dull throb that had suddenly bloomed. “Funnel cake isn’t far, right?”

“Not far at all.”

As we continued down the walkway, I stole a glance over my shoulder. The old woman and her guest were huddled in deep conversation, with no evidence that they’d even noticed me lurking outside. Had I imagined the voice? Had I imagined all of it?

I pushed the thought aside and looked for a funnel cake sign. “By the way, who is Mags?” I tried not to seem overly interested.

“Aunt Maggie. She goes by Mags. She’s not really my aunt, though, or anyone else’s that I know of. That’s just what everyone calls her.”

Barking preceded Ruger as he bounded toward us. I knelt down to greet him and rubbed his soft, fluffy fur.

“I see you’ve met Ruger,” Evan said, crouching beside me. “He belongs to Mags.”

“That is so bizarre . . .” I wasn’t sure I should go into how I met Ruger, or why the dog
and farmhouse felt so familiar if they belonged to Maggie.

“What is?”

“Oh, nothing.” I didn’t know what to tell him and didn’t want him thinking I was crazy.

His eyebrow cocked as he eyed me curiously. Thankfully, though, he didn’t push the
subject.

“Well, funnel cake is just ahead, but we could ride the Ferris wheel first. We wouldn’t have to wait.” He pointed at the empty gate. The attendant was helping a few people into baskets, but there was no one else in line.

“I’ve actually never been on a Ferris wheel before. And I’m kind of afraid of heights.” Kind of was an understatement. Ever since I’d climbed the tallest tree in my neighborhood to save a stupid cat, I’d sworn off perches higher than I could reach from the safety of solid ground. Adding to my phobia was my opinion that carnival rides were rickety death traps. Even entertaining the thought made me a little sick to my stomach.

“Come on. I’d really like someone to ride with.” Evan took my hand and pulled me along, practically dragging me through the gate.

We waited for our basket to rest in loading position. He stepped in first and offered his hand. I took it, and he tried to steady me with his other as I stepped forward. The basket rocked as I entered, knocking me off balance. I started to fall and let out a small shriek. Evan caught me, and we both toppled over into the seat.

He chuckled. “Easy now. The ride hasn’t even started yet.”

The basket continued to sway as it rose into the air. I froze in his arms, afraid that any movement would cause us to tip. Evan’s breath tickled the back of my neck, sending goose
bumps over my skin. It was the touch Zane used to crush my resolve when I was being ornery. We paused at the top while another basket was filled beneath us. As our basket steadied, I carefully slid into the seat next to him.

“Sorry about that,” I said, laughing nervously.

“No need for apologies. Must be first time jitters.”

“Must be.” I sensed playfulness in his voice, a game I wasn’t going to encourage. Instead, I turned away from him, aimlessly looking for something on which to focus my attention.

From our perch, I could see everything. The view was amazing. Lights illuminated the ground, and shadows danced far above us on the cave’s darkened ceiling. The corridor from which I had entered the fairground aligned with a similar opening in the opposite wall, a worn dirt path connecting the two. Not far from the exit, a group of beige tents formed a large oval around a small bonfire and other objects I couldn’t identify from this distance.

“Who lives there?” I asked, pointing to the camp.

“The carnival workers, and anyone they take in.”

With a slight jerk, the wheel began to spin again. I settled into my seat, hunkered down, and gripped the side of the basket. I held my breath as the first fall forced my stomach into my throat, but as we rose again, my lungs filled with sweet excitement. After a couple of rounds, I was swept into the circular motion and let go of the side.

“What do you think?” Evan asked. He hadn’t said much during the ride, but I felt his eyes on me.

“It’s not bad. The basket doesn’t move as fast as I thought it would, and I like the breeze on my face.” I inhaled deeply as air swept over my skin. “I might even love it with a few more rides under my belt. And you?”

“Best ride I’ve had in a long time.” His eyes sparkled when he looked at me, the previous storm in them momentarily lifted. “Somehow, the view looks better tonight.”

His meaning apparent, I tucked my head, blushing. We finished the ride in silence, watching the lights approach as we descended, were swept along the bottom, and then climbed into the sky again. A voice blared over the loudspeaker, announcing the gates would close in fifteen minutes.

When our ride slowed, the basket parked on the platform. I jumped out, happy to have solid ground under my feet. My head swayed, still under the spell of the spinning wheel, but a couple deep breaths returned my bearings.

Evan stepped down from the Ferris wheel platform and looked at the empty food stand, disappointment woven into the crease in his forehead. “Hmm. Mags must have closed up already.” His gaze lingered on my reflection in the blacked out windows, revealing a subtle longing for something more than food. “Maybe next time,” he said, turning to me.

The baked scent had faded, but hints of spices still lingered in the air. “That’s too bad. I was really looking forward to funnel cake.”

“If there’s a next time, I’ll make sure you get some,” Evan replied, his voice shaky and distant, as if a sudden emptiness had overcome him.

I shot him a confused look. “What do you mean, ‘if there’s a next time’?”

An aura of sadness washed over him, and his shoulders slumped. He avoided my gaze as he searched for words. “Never mind. Come on, there’s something I need to show you.”

We walked around the back of the fairgrounds. An old pickup truck was abandoned in an overgrown field. Coarse weeds grew tall around its wheels, as if it hadn’t moved in years. Evan opened the passenger door, pulled out a small flashlight from under the seat, and tucked it into his back pocket.

“This way.” He motioned to the cave’s border.

I followed him the short distance to the wall, an easy walk over the dry, dusty earth. Hollow capillaries cracked its surface, as if it had never tasted rain. I wondered how the plants on the truck had managed to grow, and why this terrain was so different from the lush fields of the old farmhouse.

When we reached the edge of the cave, we stopped. I hung back as Evan ran his hand along the clay-­colored stone. “I don’t understand. What are we doing?”

“You’ll find things aren’t always as they seem here.” Evan stepped toward the wall, turned to the right, and vanished.

My eyes grew wide. Walking through walls? Was it possible I was dreaming?

I cautiously eased forward. When I was close enough to touch the rock in front of me, I found that a hidden corridor opened to the right. Dim lighting and an abundance of shadows had masked the unevenness of the stone partition. Evan stood a few yards in, at the base of a steep staircase carved into the passage. Though not entirely dark, he pulled the flashlight from his pocket to light our ascent.

“See what I mean?”

I nodded, shaking off the silly notion that he’d walked through the wall, but also covering the prick of unease that crept over me as I stared into the tunnel.

“I’m not sure I should,” I said, taking a step backward.

“You can’t leave now. This is nothing compared to what’s ahead.” In the same eager motion as he’d dragged me onto the Ferris wheel, Evan took my hand and pulled me up a flight of tight spiral steps. When we reached the top, soft silver light poured through an opening on the landing in front of us. Evan stopped and turned to face me.

“Close your eyes. It’s a surprise.”

I cocked an eyebrow. For a second time, I considered retreating down the darkened staircase. Returning to the farmhouse was starting to sound like a good idea.

He huffed. “Come on, close your eyes. We’re almost there.” The twinkle in his eyes held a fascinating pull, like looking down the scope of Fischer’s telescope and watching some unknown star on its journey through space—an object of mystery with secrets waiting to be discovered.

In that moment, I was aware of a force pulling at every fiber of my being. It started gently, like a nudge from a breeze, but with each step the power intensified. My desire to know what was ahead trumped my hesitation. I closed my eyes and stepped across the landing. Shrill whistling pierced my ears with chords reminiscent of the sounds at the lake. My hands flew to my head in an effort to muffle the noise, a feeling of déjà vu suddenly overwhelming me.

Evan steadied me and nudged me forward. Leaving the shelter of the tunnel, I caught my breath as the chaotic tones melted into a steady purr and an invigorating energy pulsed through my body.

“Open your eyes.”

We stood on a small terrace, a solitary platform on the side of a mountain, its range stretching to either side of us as far as the eye could see. In front of me, just beyond reach, bright beams of gleaming light tunneled up from the ground and disappeared into the sky. Ribbons of silver, white, and the faintest shade of purple swam throughout the breathtaking phenomenon.

“What is it?”

“It’s your star,” he replied.

“I can feel it,” I said, stepping closer to the otherworldly veil. I closed my eyes again as the exquisite hum resonated in my head. “I can hear it.”

“I know.”

“You hear it, too?”

“Not like you do,” he whispered with subtle but unmistakable envy.

I was drawn to it, a sensation so overwhelming that I began to feel lightheaded. It seemed to separate my body from my soul. Images from the lake mixed with reflections from deep within, as if I was watching myself from afar. My legs gave out beneath me, and I reached out to brace myself against the terrace railing. My fingers met nothing but air, and, before I could grab hold, I tumbled over the edge.

***

LINK is the first book in THE SHADOW OF LIGHT series.

Check out THE SHADOW OF LIGHT Pinterest Board!

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