“I don’t know.” She wrinkled her nose. “It’s like … rotten fish, but different.”
She’d actually started smelling something faintly as soon as they’d entered the trees, but she hadn’t thought much of it. On a hot day like today, it wasn’t uncommon to get the scent of bad fish wafting from the docks.
But now the stench was almost overpowering.
Harper stopped walking, but Alex took a few steps ahead of her before he stopped and turned back to her. The flies were getting thicker, and they both swatted at them with their hands.
“This is obscene,” Harper said, ducking down to keep from inhaling a bug. “I think I’d much rather take being hot and sweaty over dealing with these insects. Let’s go back.”
“Okay, good idea.” He started walking back to meet her but stopped short.
“What?” she asked.
He stared down at the ground, seemingly frozen. The bugs flocking around him didn’t even seem to bother him. Harper was about to ask him what again, but he bent down and picked up something off the ground. It was small and green and on the edge of the path, smashed into the dirt so it had barely been visible.
“What’s that?” Harper asked and walked over to him.
Alex brushed the dirt off it, so Harper could see it. She still didn’t understand what it was exactly, except that it appeared to be some kind of ring, but Alex’s hands had begun to tremble.
“It’s a Green Lantern ring.” He turned it around in the light. “Luke had his parents get him this instead of a class ring. He never takes it off.”
“Maybe it fell off when he was going for a walk or something,” Harper offered, trying to ease his fears.
“He never takes it off,” Alex repeated and started looking around. “He was here. Something bad happened to him here.”
“We should get the police.” She swatted away another fly, but Alex was oblivious to them now.
His eyes were pinned on the cloud of flies a few feet off the trail. He turned and walked toward them, mindless of the poison ivy and brambles that covered the forest floor.
Despite her reservations—more likely because of them—Harper went after Alex. As soon as he’d found the ring, she’d felt it in the pit of her stomach. A sick tightness. Just like Alex, she’d immediately known that something was wrong, that Luke wasn’t okay.
Alex stopped when he saw it, but for reasons she didn’t understand, Harper took a few steps forward, as if she wanted a better look. In reality, she didn’t want to look at all. She wanted to forget it as soon as she saw it, but it was already etched in her memory, certain to haunt her nightmares for years to come.
Luke lay a few feet away, or at least Harper thought it was Luke based on the shock of red hair on his head. His clothes were stained a dark brown from blood. There’d been so much of it that it clumped in places, looking more like dried jam than blood.
His face and appendages appeared intact, other than the insects that covered him. A thick white grub crawled out of his mouth, and his closed eyelids moved with living creatures beneath them.
From his chest down to his groin, he’d been torn open. Her first thought was that it looked like a grenade had gone off inside him. Because of all the larvae, she couldn’t see well enough to be certain, but it looked as though all of his internal organs were missing.
There was another body almost right next to him, but that was in even worse shape, having apparently been there longer. The bugs and animals had really gotten to him, but from what Harper could see, he looked like he’d been left in the same state as Luke—his whole torso torn open down the middle.
A few feet away from that, Harper could only see a leg sticking out of the weeds. If it hadn’t been for the old Reebok sneaker on the foot, she actually wouldn’t have been sure it was a leg at all. She would’ve just thought it was a rotting stick.
The disturbing truth was that she might have stayed there all day, staring at the dead bodies, if Alex hadn’t turned and bolted back toward the path.
“Alex!” Harper called and ran after him.
As soon as he got to the trail, Alex hunched over and threw up. Her own stomach lurched, but Harper managed to keep her food down. She stood next to Alex and rubbed his back. Even after he’d stopped vomiting, he stayed bent over for a minute.
“Sorry.” He wiped his mouth with the back of his arm, then stood up. “I didn’t want to contaminate the crime scene.”
“That’s probably a good idea.” She nodded. “We should go get help.”
They started out walking on the trail, but before long it had turned into a full-on sprint. They raced all the way to the police station downtown, as if they could outrun death.
A Way Out
Gemma had gone to swim practice because she’d decided to try at this life. Spending the afternoon with Alex yesterday had cemented her belief that she couldn’t walk away from all this yet. She had to at least try to find a way to make it work.
Sleep had been difficult, though. She lay awake, tossing and turning all night. The ocean called to her, almost like a song. The waves beckoned her, and it took all her energy to ignore their pull.
In the morning, Coach Levi had been hard on her about missing practice this week, but her times were so amazing, he couldn’t fault her too much. Now, though, swimming in the pool wasn’t as much fun as it used to be.
The chlorine irritated her skin. Not that it gave her a rash, but she could almost feel it chafing her flesh, like itchy burlap rubbing against her. She couldn’t wait for practice to be over.
Thanks to her fantastic speed, she was actually able to convince the coach to let her go early. Since Harper had dropped her off in the morning, she probably planned on picking Gemma up, too. But Gemma didn’t want that. She needed to go see the sirens.
The problem was that she didn’t exactly know where the sirens hung out. Gemma imagined that the sea called to them the same way it did to her, so they probably weren’t that far from the bay.
Harper was off today, and Gemma had no idea what she might be up to, so she had to sneak around town. It was hard to be inconspicuous, but she tried to avoid Harper’s usual haunts, like the library and the docks.
On her way to the water, Gemma stumbled upon the sirens. She’d planned on going by the cypress trees to the rocky coast, where there weren’t very many people, so she could swim out to the cove. But she only made it as far as the beach.