Harper would be the one to invent the games, explaining to Gemma in vivid detail what the hideous ogre might look like, and that the ogre wanted two young girls to grind up to make his bread.
But Gemma would always be the one who defeated the ogre, either with a stick that was really a magic sword or by throwing stones at it. She would only run for so long before she would stop and fight back.
As Harper passed through the trees, a breeze picked up, mixing the scent of the ocean with the pines. It also blew up a feather that had been hidden among the trees. When it drifted by Harper, she bent over and picked it up.
The feather was astonishingly large—several inches in width and well over two feet in length. It was a deep black color straight through, even the rachis running down the center.
“Ah, you found a feather!” Bernie said from behind her, and she turned back to look at him.
“You know what this is from?” Harper asked, holding it up so he could better see the peculiar feather.
“From a bloody big bird.” Bernie carefully made his way through his garden over to her. “But I don’t know what kind of bird it is. It’s nothing like I’ve ever seen.”
“What does it look like?” Harper asked.
“I haven’t been able to get a real good look at it, but I can assure you, it’s huge.” He held his arms out as wide as he could to demonstrate. “The wingspan is twice as wide when I’ve seen it make a pass over the cabin. The sun was setting, and at first I thought it was plane, but the wings were flapping, and a feather came off.”
“I didn’t know we had birds that big out here,” Brian said, watching Bernie as he explained what he’d seen. “That sounds like a condor, maybe.”
“My eyesight’s not what it once was, I’ll admit that, but even the noises they make don’t sound right,” Bernie said. “I’ve heard them around the island, making all kinds of weird cackling sounds. At first I thought the seagulls had learned how to laugh, but then I realized that didn’t make much sense.”
“Maybe you’ve discovered some new species of bird,” Brian said with a smile. “They could name it Bernie’s Bird after you.”
“I dare to dream.” Bernie laughed.
He went back to picking vegetables in the garden, the feather forgotten, and Harper went over to help him. By the time they’d finished, Bernie’d had her fill a wheelbarrow full of produce he could take to the farmers’ market.
Brian and Harper stayed on a bit longer, sitting in the backyard and reminiscing about the past. Eventually, though, Bernie seemed to tire, so they excused themselves. Bernie walked them as far as the dock, and when they got on the boat, he stood waving at them for a long time after.
As soon as Alex had told her that Luke was dead, Gemma had known the sirens had something to do with it. The first hour she’d spent with Alex after he’d told her, it had been hard for her to keep from vomiting. It had to have been Luke’s blood that she’d drunk, the blood of a mortal that Penn had used in the potion to turn Gemma into a siren.
When Alex explained to her where they’d found the body, it only confirmed her fears. That was why Thea had insisted they get out of there when the police started searching the woods by the bay.
Alex didn’t have the same suspicions as Gemma, of course. He tried to speculate on what had happened to Luke and the other boys, but he couldn’t even fathom it. Over and over, he’d stare, mystified, and ask, “Why would anyone want to do that to another human being?”
Gemma would just shake her head, because she truly didn’t know the answer. Her only hunch was that it hadn’t been another human that had done it—it had been a monster. She still didn’t understand completely what a siren was, but without a doubt, they were evil.
The one good thing about comforting Alex was that it didn’t give her much time to think about herself or worry whether or not she was evil. All her energy went into making sure Alex felt better and making him as happy as she could.
Other than when he’d initially told her about Luke’s death, Alex didn’t cry. Most of the time he just sat there, his jaw tense, his eyes faraway. Gemma stayed with him until very late on Friday and all day Saturday.
Late Saturday afternoon, his head was in her lap, and she was rubbing his back when he whispered, “I can’t stop seeing it. Every time I close my eyes, I see it.”
“What?” Gemma asked. “What do you see?”
Other than telling her that he’d found the bodies, Alex actually hadn’t said much about it. He refused to tell her any details, instead simply shaking his head whenever she pressed him for more information. Gemma didn’t even know how Luke had died or what had happened to him.
“I can’t.” His voice was tight. “I can’t even put it into words. It was most horrific thing I’ve ever seen.”
Alex looked up at her then, his eyes searching her face. Brushing the hair back from her face, he forced a thin smile.
“You don’t need to know,” he told her. “You don’t need to have that image burned in your mind. You are far too sweet to have to deal with something that awful.”
“You are,” he insisted. “And that’s part of the reason why I…” He licked his lips and stared into her eyes. “It’s why I’m falling for you.”
Gemma leaned over and kissed him then, partially to keep herself from crying. It was what she’d wanted, what she’d been hoping for, but … she couldn’t have it now. She didn’t deserve it.
The evil that had traumatized Alex like this—Gemma was a part of that. Maybe not completely yet, but she was becoming a monster.
A few times, she had thought of telling Harper or Alex about the sirens. Before she’d found out that was what she was, Gemma had been on the brink of telling Harper about the strange things going on with her.
Now, with the murders and knowing that she was somehow connected to them, Gemma could never tell Harper or Alex or her father.
But there was one person she might be able to talk to, one person whose grasp on reality had become so tenuous, she would never doubt Gemma’s story—her mother.
* * *
“How are things going with Alex?” Harper asked as she drove them both to see their mother on Sunday morning.
“Do you mean in our relationship, or how he’s holding up in general?” Gemma asked. She was slouched low in the passenger seat, staring through her dark sunglasses out the window.