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Mandy Hubbard

Ripple

For Rachel, a best friend in every sense of the word.

Chapter One

The first boy I ever loved, Steven Goode, was really into cars. He received a junky ’72 Chevelle for his sixteenth birthday and spent six months rebuilding it. Everyone in school knew about it because Steven worked on it during shop class, and half the guys at Cedar Cove High helped him, wrenching and sanding and polishing until every piece was as good as new.

After it was complete, Steven cruised up and down the streets near the boardwalk, one arm hanging out the window, that adorable lopsided grin never leaving his face.

Then I killed him. I drowned him in the ocean just a few hundred yards from my own sweet-sixteen party.

I don’t swim in the ocean anymore. After Steven, I began driving up into the mountains. I found a small, isolated lake, all but hidden by the dense forest. It’s glacier-fed and cold as ice, but I swim in it every night anyway, emerging with blue lips and stiff joints.

It’s who I am. After that birthday . . . everything changed. I don’t sleep anymore; I simply swim, night after night after night. Up here, no one dies. For two years, I haven’t killed.

But tonight, I stand in the shadows behind a tree, watching as Cole Hitchings skips rocks across the surface of the lake. Of my lake.

I suppose it’s poetic justice that it would be Steven’s best friend to take this from me, to rob me of the one thing I want most, but I’m not amused. It took weeks to find this place, this perfect, secluded paradise, and Cole is standing over there as if it’s his.

My nails dig into the bark of the big cedar as I stare, my eyes narrowed in anger. Frustration boils through my veins, building, growing, coiling in my stomach, so intense I want to scream at him. He shouldn’t be here. He doesn’t know how much I need the water, how dangerous it is to be standing between me and the lake. Oblivious, he’s simply tossing rocks, watching them skip once, twice, three times along the glassy surface. The woods are silent, nothing but quiet shadows—except for the plink, plink, plunk sound of the rocks as they skip. The moon glows across the water, shimmery, yellow.

Miles of jagged foothills and evergreen forest separate the two of us from the rest of the world.

Cole has thick, unruly dark hair and even darker eyes—I can’t see them in the moonlight. He’s wearing chinos or slacks or something and a light button-down—pale yellow, as far as I can tell, but I’m not sure in the darkness. He’s always been the overdressed one at school. Like it’s the Ivy League and not a public high school in a tiny coastal town.

He throws rocks like a seasoned pro, though I know he’s not an athlete, at least not in the normal sense of the word. He was never enough of a team player to handle organized sports. Unless you count skirt-chasing, in which case he could be an Olympic medalist.

His muscles bunch and stretch beneath his shirt as he effortlessly flicks one rock after another into the water. When he runs out of rocks, he leans over and scoops up another handful, tossing them one at a time. He moves with a confident, graceful ease, a little like me under the water. Like a guy who is comfortable in his own skin.

My grip on the tree tightens and splinters dig in, wedging beneath my nails. I inhale sharply at the bite of pain, but I don’t take my eyes off Cole. My anger boils as seconds tick past. If I don’t swim tonight, I will pay for it tomorrow. My stomach will twist and turn until it feels as if it’s in a thousand knots, and I won’t be able to eat. My legs will cramp and threaten to buckle underneath me. My forehead will feel hot to the touch.

But if I swim . . . if I give in . . . Cole will join his once best friend, six feet under at Seaside Cemetery.

Why is he here? This lake is in the center of Tillamook State Forest, which spans over three hundred thousand acres. Surely, there is somewhere else in this place he could go.

I lean into the tree, resting my forehead against the rough bark, closing my eyes and inhaling the cedar scent as I will him to leave. Despite the cool September night, I feel feverish. Just being near the water makes me ache for it, makes my skin tingle with the desire to run until I am chest-deep and the water wraps around my skin like a satin ribbon, making the worries, the aches, the stress unwind. Sometimes, I wonder if this is how a recovering alcoholic would feel if someone put a beer in her hand. If her body would wage war against her mind as mine does.

With every second that passes, I am closer to giving in, and I hate myself for that. He’s only a couple dozen yards away, close enough that I could be right in front of him before he’d have a chance to react. I consider marching over to him, screaming at him, telling him that the lake belongs to me. Would he leave? Or would it make things worse? Maybe it would tick him off, and he’d come back every night just to get under my skin.

I purse my eyes tighter, my thick lashes brushing my cheeks. I know exactly how far I am from the water, exactly how many steps it would take for me to dip my toes in the cool, refreshing surface.

The only thing between me and relief is Cole.

I grit my teeth and turn away from the lake. I can make it one night. But if he’s here tomorrow, I don’t know if I’ll be able to resist.

I don’t know if he’ll live.

Chapter Two

As if the first day of senior year isn’t bad enough, I’m physically ill from not swimming, and it’s far worse than I remember. Each step I take feels as if shards of glass wedge further into my skin. It’s hard to keep up a mask of composure when all I want to do is wince, gasp out in pain, curl into a ball.

Someone rams into my right shoulder, and I careen into the wall, bouncing off the white-painted cinder block hard enough to knock the wind from my lungs. They scream for oxygen, and I nearly bend over and gasp for air, but instead I just blink back the stars and glance over at my tormenter.

It’s Nikki. A girl from my old clique. Her deep green eyes are cold and angry, so different from freshman year, when we were bio partners. When we joked around and worked straight through lunch, getting perfect grades on every lab report. Just like the others, she doesn’t understand why I shut her out. She never will, because I’ll never tell her the truth.

She looks beautiful, in a cream-colored sweater and a string of pink pearls. I feel a stab to the chest. We used to shop for our back-to-school clothes together.

Frigid.

I hear the word, whispered, but purposely loud and close enough for me to overhear. I spin around, but I’m not sure who said it. I tighten my grip on my backpack straps, raking in a deep breath to calm the burning in my lungs. I try to picture myself as I will be tonight, when I slip into the lake and serenity replaces the tension in my back. I must envision the lake thirty, forty times on a normal day, and something tells me today will be much worse.

I purse my lips and try to forget Nikki and the whispers and head down the hall again, past the bulletin board for the school-club signup sheets, past a poster advertising auditions for the fall play, past the trophy cases. Those things meant something to me once, but now I rush past them as if I’m wearing blinders, pretending I don’t ache for the things I force myself to forget.

I feel the stares as I pass a group of senior guys sitting near the windows. Their longing gazes eat at me as much as the looks of contempt I get from my former friends. One of them clearly has a girlfriend because she smacks him and then turns to glare at me.

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