Where God so loved the world, Heather (or as few have dared to dub her “the goddess of condemnation”) holds a much crueler hand over her inhabitants. Every seventeen years, under her ever-watchful eye, an eclipse renders her land dark, taking the soul of everyone over the age of seventeen to the land of the unknown nothing. In its wake, Heather bestows the gift of a child upon the land. Some believe this child has special powers; others believe she inhabits the souls taken by the eclipse. But no matter the belief, one thing is certain—without the child, the land would crumble.
Most accept the eclipse and live every breath with a love unmatched by any other. This is especially true of Zoe, whose seventeenth year of breath nears ever so close. Born under the eclipse, Zoe understands her life is a gift and that she will return that gift in kind—whenever that day may be (that is until she falls in love and discovers the dark secrets hidden in the heart of Heather).
Still others yearn for a longer life and curse Heather’s name. One such person was branded the name Kayla on her day of breath eighteen years ago. Unable to comprehend the meaning of such viciousness, Kayla believes such a sacrifice is unnecessary, even for the worst of mankind. Little does she know that a mysterious traveler may hold the key to ending the eclipse forever.
Zoe and Kayla are best friends.
This is their story.
CHAPTER 1 — ZOE AND KAYLA
Zoe met Kayla by accident on the bridge overlooking Lover’s Pond. It was a brisk, slightly foggy morning and Zoe was out on her usual jog around the lake (something she did to keep herself busy between waking in the morning and heading off for schooling, more so than staying fit or healthy). As she crossed the bridge at just past six fifteen (she remembered the time well because it was ten minutes earlier than when she would normally cross the pond; her feet felt so much lighter that day), Zoe stopped to take in the sounds and smells of the morning, which on a day like this—as the dew dripped off the flowers and the soft hint of moisture caressed her face—was just delightful. She leaned up against the rail to let the rays of the sun breaking through the thinning fog warm her face and noticed something peculiar in the water. It wasn’t a duck or a fish as one might expect to see in the early morning, but a family of pearls dancing just above the water. Zoe slid her head between the lowest rails to get a better look and the pearls disappeared under the water. She strained to see where they might have gone, but it was still too dark to get a real good look into the normally crystal clear water. Maybe she had imagined it.
Then Kayla was there. The splash of her hair pushed Zoe back in surprise. She hit the bridge tremendously hard, splintering not just the rail but her head just the same. She slipped down to lay on the boards, halfway between complete awareness and passing out. For the briefest of moments, Zoe swore she saw a pair of fins splash up from under the water, but that was just silly—mermaids (along with dozens of other such supernatural creatures like ghosts, witches, demons and angels) only existed in fairytale stories, like the fairest of them all, Little Snow-White, read to her every night before bed when she was just a babe learning to walk. It turns out that what Zoe thought was a fin was simply the eccentric cut of the sea-green towel that Kayla now wrapped around her brilliantly tan, flawless skin (though these attributes could simply have been figments of the blur in Zoe’s eyes).
“Are you okay?” Kayla asked. Her voice was kind and sweet—maybe a little too sweet—as was her touch. The towel felt comfortably familiar against her skin, soft and pleasant, as if she was back home playing with her family’s sheep. It felt good to know that the fleece she sheared didn’t actually go to waste, though she knew it was most likely mixed with Gail and Timber’s cotton to make it ever so softer.
Zoe pressed her hand to the back of her head where warm blood trickled down her neck. “I think so,” she said, her voice gruff and a little groggy, though it was completely understandable why.
“I’m sorry for scaring you,” Kayla said as she helped sit Zoe up against the rails. “I thought you were a caretaker.”
“I thought you were a mermaid.”
Kayla laughed. “I wish to Heather I was. That would be awesome. I love swimming.”
“Me, too. But not enough to break the rules.” A standing rule of Quorum Circle nobles was that no one shall ever go swimming without a noble present, to be both lifeguard and watch tower. Zoe and Kayla were both still much too young to understand exactly why.
“You aren’t going to tell anyone, are you?” Kayla was fraught with anxiety, which made Zoe wonder if Kayla had been caught before. Was the punishment for such an act that bad? Perhaps it was for a second (or third, or maybe even fourth) offense.
“I won’t say anything,” Zoe said.
“It’ll be our secret?”
Kayla wrapped her arms around Zoe with delightful fervor. “Thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you.”
Zoe hissed as Kayla’s appreciation bit at her wound.
“Sorry,” Kayla said.
“It’s okay. Just promise you won’t do it anymore.”
Kayla stood and held her pinkie high in the air. “I swear on the heart of Heather, I will never again swim alone.” It was a promise Zoe accepted as truth, but one that wasn’t about to be honored. Kayla would return to the pond at the crack of sunrise at least once a week, and though Zoe suspected as such, she never confronted Kayla about it, or ever told anyone. She wouldn’t have been much of a friend if she did.
Zoe smiled and slipped back to the boards, quite dizzy and sick.
“We better get you back home,” Kayla said. She helped Zoe to her feet, resting the patient’s arm around her neck for balance the way she saw her caretaker, Daniel, do for Thomas after celebrating the start of his seventeenth year of breath, though that was for other reasons altogether—reasons Kayla wasn’t allowed to find out about for another few years. “Where do you live?”
“Pasture Ranch,” Zoe said. “Near the back winds.”
“Feather my tail,” Kayla chirped. “How’d you get so lucky?”
“Lucky? Why? Where do you live?”
“Just outside the hub in industry squalors.”
Zoe laughed, not because Kayla lived there (though the only time she was ever allowed to spend there was when she helped Francis drop off the newest crop of fleece for production), but because of what she called it. Kayla still seemed to take offense. “I’m sorry,” Zoe said to rectify the misunderstanding. “I’ve never heard it called that before.”
Zoe wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but she let it go. For all she knew, she’d never again see Kayla. They may have been a part of the same community, but they were from two very different worlds. Where Pasture Ranch, with its peaceful ambiance and extravagant views, was believed by most to be an Eden, Industry Quarters (even with its complete lack of crime, decent standard of living and the decadent aroma of bread and other fine, delicious scents that filled the air) was considered a slum—what with the absurd amounts of lumber art and the near-constant holler of machines. In the scheme of it all, Industry Quarters was a far better place to live than even the best place in the rest of the world—or so the students were taught—but it was still a small, overly crowded burg compared to the vastness of farms that stretched for miles along the eastern edge of the Horizon Desert (which itself stretched west as far as the eye could see and then some). Only a dozen cultivators were allowed to raise animals and till the land. Everyone else was otherwise banned from stepping foot upon it (unless it was your turn to study and learn pertinent farming methods)—not because of any old quorum rule, mind you, but because the caretakers believed the farms were sacred and had to be treated as such. So it was with Kayla, a free spirit unafraid to break the rules set by man, but unwilling to break the unwritten rules set by her god.
“What’s wrong?” Zoe said, knowing full well of her reticence.
“Can you make it back from here?” Kayla asked.
“Come on, scaredy-cat. It doesn’t hurt.” Zoe pulled Kayla across the imaginary line separating the exceptional from the ordinary. Within that first step, Kayla cried out and jumped back, shaking. It wasn’t long at all before Kayla was running back down the path toward the Grand Hub, obviously heading home to Industry Quarters. Zoe lowered her head with a little bit of shame and a little bit offended. She wondered if there was anything she could do or say that would change this ridiculous mindset that residents of Pasture Ranch were somehow better—more revered—than everyone else. It wasn’t true; in fact, if anything, Zoe was more like Kayla than any of her fellow cultivators.
When she got back home, Frances and Maisy, Zoe’s caretakers and a lively pair of hoodwinks, stood on the porch watching her walk from the edge of the cornfield to the warping steps. To her surprise, instead of being angry and upset about being late for her morning studies, Maisy hugged and kissed her.
“Thank Heather,” Maisy said. “I’ve been worried sick. Where have you been?”
“I was on my run and I fell and hit my head.” Zoe revealed her bloody palm.
“Frances, hurry. Get the physician.”
“I’m okay,” Zoe assured her.
But Maisy was her caretaker, thus obligated to care for her. She pulled at Zoe’s hair, searching for the wound to see how bad it actually was. “What were you doing?”
“I was playing with my friend,” Zoe said, careful not to reveal Kayla’s indiscretion. She may have insulted her by running off the way she did but she still wouldn’t tattle on her.
Zoe opened her mouth to say and then realized she didn’t even know her name. How odd and rude was that?
“Why is everyone scared of us?” Zoe asked instead.
Maisy smiled and hugged her. “Come on,” she said, shuffling Zoe into the house. “Let’s clean you up.”
The physician, Nestor, arrived about an hour later. By then, the wound had all but congealed. He cut it back open anyway, not only to make sure that it hadn’t gotten infected, but to allow his ward, JD, to learn the fine art of sutures. JD’s hands were shaky and he apologized each time he poked Zoe with the needle (which was a lot). Zoe giggled every time he did, hoping it would make JD more comfortable. When he finally finished (taking much longer than it should have, especially with Zoe only receiving three stitches), Zoe smiled and shook his hand.
“Thank you,” she said and kissed him on the cheek. He blushed; it was so cute.
None of it, though, healed the real wound Zoe obtained that day. In fact, there wasn’t any medicine or cure in the world, much less inside Nestor’s bag of tricks, that could. Zoe knew of only one way to do that, an opportunity that presented itself the very next morning. Frances was to go into Industry Quarters to collect orders for the fresh crop of corn that was about ready to harvest, and Zoe, with her fluttering eyes and cherub smile, talked him into skipping her morning studies to go with him.
The day started with a stop at the Milk Wagon, home to the most superb French toast she had ever eaten. They took a seat near the back—the booth in the corner that allowed her the perfect view of the mountains, and at the same time, sight of anyone and everyone who came in to eat. When Greta, the owner of the Milk Wagon (and a delight in any conversation) served their breakfast, she pinched Zoe’s cheek with the affection of a caretaker, a habit that lasted for many years, and one Zoe would never tire of. She even joined them at one point to discuss the merits of a book Zoe was tasked to read—and one she didn’t understand in the least (unlike many others, which she understood with great aplomb). It was hard to leave, and not just because her stomach was so weighted down by the sugary and syrupy and buttery sweetness of her breakfast. Greta was very insightful, genuine and caring—qualities that weren’t always present in everyone she met (and had yet the pleasure of meeting). But Zoe was on a mission; finding Kayla had to remain her top priority. She pulled at Frances’ arm and begged for his cooperation, ending his conversation prematurely. His apologies weren’t necessary as Zoe all but dragged him out the door.
Once in Industry Quarters, Zoe snuck away to find Kayla. Little did she know that Kayla had training in the Palisade Mines and wouldn’t return until sunset. To stall, Zoe asked Frances to show her how to take orders; something she would eventually have to learn anyway. Problem was, it ended up making the work go faster. Once she proved she could do it without any help, Frances had them split up—cover more ground in a shorter amount of time. Zoe thought about “losing” her order sheets so that they would have to retake them, but that would be ethically wrong; she couldn’t do that. With an hour before sunset, and all orders taken, Frances collected them up and they headed for the Grand Hub. Lucky for Zoe, Frances ran into Victor, a shopkeeper in the Quarters to gather the next week’s worth of stock. The two fell into a long discussion, yammering on about fishing at Fallen Island and how good the crop was this year. Zoe couldn’t believe they could talk so long and so much about the same boring topics, but it did keep them there long enough for Kayla and her study group to return. Zoe immediately apologized for trying to force her to do something she didn’t want to do.
“Can we be friends?” Zoe asked.
“Yeah,” Kayla said, hugging Zoe with a bear hug so tight it popped her shoulders.
“Who’s your friend, Zoe?” Frances said, resting his hand on Zoe’s shoulder.
“Kayla,” Kayla said, stretching her hand out for Frances to shake.
“Nice to meet you Kayla,” Frances said. “Where’d you two meet?”
“I told you yesterday,” Zoe said. “She helped me when I hit my head, remember?”
“Of course. How soon I forget. Thank you for your help, Kayla. Now, we better be getting back.”
“Can I stay here tonight?”
“Not tonight, Zoe.”
“Please,” Kayla said. “I’d really like her to stay.”
“Please,” Zoe added.
Both of their faces were cuter than a newborn bunny, as their little baby teeth (Kayla’s front teeth, having already been replaced by fully grown adult teeth, actually made her look a little bit like a rabbit) sparkled bright in the setting sun under their constant pleas, their folded hands and adorable eyes. How could he not give in to that?
“Thank you,” Zoe said and hugged Kayla again. They jumped up and down together.
“This is going to be the best,” Kayla said.
The two of them ran off hand in hand, leaving Frances with nothing but a smile and the satisfaction of having made the right choice.
From that day on—and for the next eight years—Zoe and Kayla were nearly inseparable. They spent all of their free time together running, swimming, homework, chores, rock climbing, cooking and even sometimes sleep (though whenever they had a midnight sleepover, it was always at Kayla’s, as there was no way Zoe was ever going to talk her into staying the night in Pasture Ranch). Whatever it was, they loved each other’s company, possibly because the secret they shared bound them in a trust that only came around once every eclipse.
It really was something special.
* * *
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