So ... I've been holding out on posting this as I wait for Amazon to declare Love and Memory published, but it's late and it still hasn't happened. Hopefully, come tomorrow morning, but ... anywho.
I just realized that I've never shared the first chapter of the book to this blog. So I'm going to do it now. Because I don't have time to type about the PoV's, and I like having first chapters posted so I can link them on my website.
*wanders away for a moment to glare at Amazon again*
Now for the chapter (by the way, it does contain spoilers for the previous books, but not as badly as the second book, so there's that...):
“I can do this.”.
At least, that’s what Clara tried to tell herself as she climbed the ladder to the diving board.
“I can do this.”
There was no reason why she couldn’t, why she shouldn’t just march to the end of the board and execute a perfect backflip into the water below.
And yet she didn’t.
She just stood there, staring at the end of the board, her mind playing in loop the last dive she’d made into the pool below. A memory of but a month before … that was also twenty-five years old.
“Clara, the end of the diving board is just down there. Did you get lost? Again?”
Clara twisted around to see her best friends – former best friends? – standing on the ground below her. Rhoda was scowling, and Kath was trying to balance that with a grin too big for her face.
Neither was helping.
“I can do this.”
All she had to do was run down the board and plunge hands-first into the water below. She’d done this a thousand times.
Twenty-five years before.
A month ago.
She’d promised herself last night that she would get on this board. She’d succeeded. She could turn away now and be fully satisfied with herself.
“I can do this.”
She knew that she could. She would.
The promise had merely been for taking the first step. If Clara didn’t take the second one now, she never would.
That’s just what she did.
“I can do this.”
She didn’t let herself wait another moment. She ran, raising her hands over her head, sucking in a lung-full of oxygen. Then she was at the end of the board, her body taking over as she leaped into the air and curled downward into the water below. It was a perfect dive, if she could believe the cheers of her observers, just before she submerged.
She’d done it. Now all that was left was to swim upwards and…
Swim upwards and…
Her lungs burned, screaming for her to return to the world above.
The world she didn’t belong in anymore.
She balled her left hand into a fist, glaring at the sapphire ring that she wore on her third finger. A ring that she’d worn for the last month.
The last twenty-five years.
She was the Water Princess. She should have control of this situation.
But that had been Rizkaland. Here, it seemed, water had command of her.
Hands closed around her arms. Kath was on her one side, Rhoda on the other, both hauling her upwards. Clara didn’t fight them, even as they pulled her head into the air again. Her lungs were too grateful for the oxygen.
“Clara!” Rhoda was shouting. “Clara! What was that? Are you trying to drown yourself? Clara!”
“Hush, Rhoda,” Kath shoved Rhoda away, putting herself straight into Clara’s line of sight. “Clara, deep breaths. Are you okay? Clara, you did it!”
Neither was helping.
Clara pushed away from both of her friends, swimming to the side of the pool.
She’d not done it.
She’d taken the first step and the second, but she’d failed the third.
And the third had been the most important.
“That was good, Clara. I’m proud of you.”
She looked up to see Mrs. Gimmons, Rhoda’s mom, standing over her as she reached the side of the pool.
“What do you mean, ‘that was good,’ Mom?” Rhoda protested before Clara could answer herself. “That was the most basic dive ever, and then Kath and I had to go rescue her. We’re used to better than that from her. Clara, what has gotten into you?”
“Leave her alone, Rhodes!” Kath again sprang to Clara’s defense. “Don’t you remember how I was last year?”
“You were recovering from a head injury,” Rhoda returned. “And also not acting like this.”
“Hush, both of you, you’re not helping,” Mrs. Gimmons chided. She crouched down and held out a hand to Clara. “Would you like to come with me and talk about it?”
Clara accepted the offered hand but didn’t say anything. Did she want to talk about it? She didn’t even know.
“Come with me to my office,” Mrs. Gimmons instructed. “Rhoda, you’re in charge until I get back. Be helpful.”
Clara remained mute as she followed the woman into her office. Her gaze dropped to her ring again.
“Don’t let Rhoda get to you – she doesn’t understand,” Mrs. Gimmons stated, as she shut the door behind them. “And, frankly, I don’t think that Kath does, either. I’m proud of you.”
“I couldn’t come back up,” Clara finally stated, her voice barely above a whisper.
“But you got on the board and dove. That’s progress.”
“I couldn’t come back up,” Clara repeated. “I stared up at the surface of the water, and all I could think of was that the last time I did that, I … I left everything behind.”
“Of course.” There was no judgment in Mrs. Gimmons’ voice. “The last time you dove into that pool, you went to Rizkaland.”
“And I left through that pool,” Clara exclaimed. “I spent twenty-five years in Rizkaland, and then, one day, I was told that it was time for me to leave, so what did I do? I left. Walked right back through the waterfall. Leaving behind my own children! Staring up at the surface of the water, it was like I was leaving them all over again – and this time, I just couldn’t do it.”
Mrs. Gimmons put a hand on Clara’s shoulder. “I wish I could say that it gets easier…”
“I don’t want it to get easier!” Clara protested, turning away. “I want … I want to go back. But I can’t. And diving into that pool is just a slap-in-the-face to remind me of that fact.”
“Yet you did it,” Mrs. Gimmons pointed out.
Clara swung her head to meet the woman’s eyes – green eyes that filled her with another wave of longing. Her mouth fell open, but no sound emerged.
“I can’t say that it gets easier,” Mrs. Gimmons continued. “You’re going to go your whole life, longing for what you left behind in Rizkaland, just as you left so much here. That was why you were able to leave. Right now, your ties to Rizkaland feel stronger because they’re fresh…”
“I left my children,” Clara cut in.
Mrs. Gimmons glanced down, fingering the locket around her neck. “We all did – except Kath and Rich.”
Clara swallowed. “Timothea was only eight. No child should lose their mother that young – and I just left her standing on the edge of the Ri! I should’ve … why did I leave? Why couldn’t I have brought her back with me?”
“Clara…” Mrs. Gimmons took a deep breath. “I know that it’s hard. I can tell you, standing here, after twenty years, you still ask those questions every day. But what you did today was the first step. You confronted those questions.”
“I couldn’t make it to the surface. I would have drowned myself!”
“I was watching and didn’t let it happen.”
Clara hugged herself. “Thanks. I guess.”
“Clara, it doesn’t get easier, but as you find more reasons to anchor yourself here, it does get less hard.” The woman stood and retrieved Clara’s cell phone from her bag. “I’ve got to get back to class, but why don’t you reward yourself for your progress today?”
With that, she was gone.
“Would you look at this? Kevin, your cousin just got engaged!”
Andrew looked up from his laptop at Mrs. Eaglechaser’s remark.
“Really?” Kevin answered from his side of the room. “Petra’s finally caved and said yes?”
A grin curled the corner of his mother’s mouth. “Oh, no, they’re still in the air. Summer and Tyler are the happy couple.”
“Summer and…” Kevin repeated, taken aback. Andrew didn’t really blame him. “You’re kidding, right?”
But Mrs. Eaglechaser just shook her head. “It seems that he had meant to merely ask her out on a date, but it came out as a marriage proposal, and she just decided to go along with it.”
Andrew frowned, knowing that this could only be half of the story – if that. However, this wasn’t the time or place for the full story. He’d have to ask Mrs. Eaglechaser later, one-on-one.
“That does sound like just the sort of thing that Tyler would do,” Kevin admitted. “But … Summer playing along with it? I do hope she’s not doing it to break his heart. It’d be just like her, and he doesn’t deserve that.”
“Oh, hush,” inserted Tina, Kevin’s younger sister. “It’s romantic.”
“I’m going to call Summer,” Kevin declared, standing up. “I need to hear this from her.”
With that, he left the room in search of a telephone.
Andrew met Mrs. Eaglechaser’s eye. “They’re going to be just fine, aren’t they?”
Mrs. Eaglechaser nodded, turning back to the computer again. “Everyone has to sort themselves out in their own way, and if this is the step that they feel that they have to take, then I wish them all the best.”
Andrew frowned, a question dangling at the tip of his tongue, but he couldn’t ask it, thanks to their audience. Kevin might have gone, but Tina and Andrew’s own younger brothers were still in the room, and they…
They didn’t know about Rizkaland.
Andrew’s cell phone interrupted his trail of thoughts.
“Is that Clara?” Mrs. Eaglechaser asked. “You’d better answer.”
It was. Andrew flipped the phone open as he retreated to the hallway.
“Hey there,” he said. “Long time, no talk. How are you?”
He frowned as he considered what she’d told him last night of her plans for today.
“Oh, Andrew.” Her voice came out in a breathy rush. “I miss you so much.”
Andrew swallowed before answering, knowing from the pitch in her voice that if he didn’t keep himself calm, she might break entirely. It always amazed him how she could be so strong and yet so fragile all at the same time.
Like a diamond.
“Hey, at least we have phones to call each other with. We didn’t have that … before.” In Rizkaland.
“Our separations never felt pointless before,” she answered, her words a forced hiss.
“So, um, you said that you were doing a class with my Aunt Leah today,” he prompted, not quite sure that he wanted to poke the beast – so to speak – but suspecting that this was the reason for her call. There was no use beating around the bush, and he knew that she was trying to do just that.
She gave a heavy sigh, and Andrew could almost hear the shuffle of her feet as she tried to evade the question. He knew her too well.
“Yeah,” she finally admitted.
“And?” he prompted.
She hesitated again, no doubt with more foot-shuffling.
“Ah,” he said when it was clear that that was all she would offer. “So, how did it go?”
Her answer hesitated a third time, and he might have wondered why she’d called at all if he hadn’t known her so well.
“It’s not fair,” she finally blurted. “You went through to Rizkaland at a campsite that you won’t have to visit ever again. I went through that stupid pool that I have to look at every single horrid day!”
Andrew had to pull the phone a few inches away from his ear to keep her outburst from blowing out his eardrum. He still heard her clearly, despite the distance.
“I agree, it stinks,” he finally said, once he was confident that she’d finished. “But you faced it today. Didn’t you?”
“I tried.” Her voice dropped to a growl. “I dove into that horrid pool and nearly drowned myself because I couldn’t come back up. Kath and your cousin had to come rescue me.”
“You … nearly drowned?” Andrew’s heart constricted at the thought. Sure, he’d come close to losing her before, but in a pool that she used to swim in every day? When he was so far away?
“It was all in my head, psychological.” Her growl cut back into his thoughts. “I somehow thought that if … if I didn’t come up, I might go back. Completely bonkers. I know better, but it didn’t stop me from staring up at the surface of the pool and feeling that leaving would be leaving … all that, all over again.”
The last few words came out in a jumbled torrent that threatened tears. Tears that he heard her swallow down with shaky breaths as she tried to regain control of herself. He ached to be there at her side, to gather her into his arms, to tell her to let go, and then to kiss away the tears when she was done.
But there were miles and miles between them. Three days by car.
“You’re amazing, Alice,” he told her instead. It was all that he could do. But words felt hollow and empty when sent across that much distance. Why couldn’t he do more for her?
But, somehow, those words were enough, as her sniffles died, and her tone was brighter when she spoke again.
“Not half as amazing as you, Tom Canty,” she answered. “I’m just sitting here, wallowing in myself. You’ve gone back to taking care of your brothers and being useful.”
Andrew opened his mouth, glancing behind him to the room where his brothers were. “They’re easing me back into it.”
“I know, the big history project that Mrs. Eaglechaser is doing.” Her voice pitched again. “But at least you have something in this world. I just … I just feel so lost!”
“I wish…” Andrew trailed off, honestly not sure what he wished. “What about your goal of the Olympics? Aren’t you working towards that?”
There followed another silence and inaudible foot shuffle. “I … I’m struggling to get excited about it the way that I used to. Not when all I want is to be with you, helping shoulder your burdens.”
It was Andrew’s turn to fall silent as he carefully considered how to answer that. Finally, he took a deep breath. “Clara, I’d love to have you here with me, but we both know that it’s not going to happen right now. Right now, I need you to help me focus. I need you to be working towards your goal of the Olympics because then I’ll know that you’re doing something with your life.”
“Clara, please. It may seem silly to you now, but it once meant everything to you.”
She gave a heavy sigh. “I’m not that girl anymore, Andrew.”
“I know,” he said. “But I’ve been discovering that I’m no longer the boy whose world revolved around his younger brothers.”
Clara sucked in a sharp breath. “Oh, Andrew…”
Silence hung between them again. This was when she’d usually take his hand, cup her other hand to his cheek, and force him to look past all of his doubts and focus solely on her. But she wasn’t there. All he had to focus on was a family photograph of the Eaglechasers, hanging on the wall in front of him.
“Okay,” she finally said. “If me fitting myself back into my old life will help you that much, I’ll do it. Just … don’t hesitate to let me know if there’s anything else that I can possibly do. I know you, Tom Canty, the way that you can get it into your head that you’re all on your own and have to put the world onto your shoulders, but you don’t. I know there can’t be much that I can do, but … if there’s anything, let me know.”
“As long as you’re not afraid to ask me,” he returned, wanting nothing more than to gather her into his arms and just hold her. That was what he needed from her. He glanced down the hallway to see Kevin headed towards him. “Hey, I’ve got to get back to work now, so I’m going to let you go. Let you get back to whatever it was you were doing.”
“I was diving, but I think I’m going to pull out some schoolwork now. Maybe science.”
Andrew gave a small chuckle. Her science curriculum was his dad’s website – a site that he moderated. “Let me know if I can help you at all. I love you, Clara.”
“Love you, too. Bye.”
Her line clicked off with a hollow buzz. Woodenly, Andrew shut his own phone, lowering it from his ear and balling a fist around it.
Kevin’s question cut into his thoughts. Andrew nodded distantly.
“Must be difficult, a long-distance relationship like that.” Kevin shook his head. “I don’t envy you, Andrew.”
Andrew gave a grudging grin. Kevin didn’t know the half of it.
“We’re making it work,” he said, as much to convince himself as his best friend.
Kevin smiled encouragingly. “I’m just glad that you’ve found a girl. You’ve been so wrapped up in your brothers since you were twelve, but since meeting her, you’ve been focusing more on yourself. Whatever anyone else might say, she’s been good for you.”
Andrew nodded. “So, did you get ahold of your cousin?”
Kevin frowned. “I did.”
“And?” Andrew had a good idea of the conversation’s likely result, but he needed to hear it.
“I can’t talk her out of it.” Kevin threw up his hands. “She swears up one side and down the other that she’s serious. Tyler’s the last person whose heart she’d want to break. Apparently, she’s scared of his sisters.”
“Well, they’ve known each other their whole lives,” Andrew pointed out. “I think he knows what he’s getting into with her, and I think she could use a good influence.”
Kevin gave a bark of laughter. “I guess, but … Andrew, you’ve met Summer. You know what she’s like.”
Andrew rubbed the back of his neck at the memory. Summer had been most of the reason that Clara’s early attempts at flirting had terrified him so thoroughly.
“Tyler’s worse than you, when it comes to trying to fade into the background. At least you can get started on tangent about science. If I’ve heard him say more than three words together, I’d be surprised. The thought of them together feels all wrong, but,” Kevin paused to shrug, “talking to Summer just now, I’ve never heard her sound so mature. I can’t help the foreboding in the pit of my stomach, but if he’s had this influence on her already…”
“She’s got three older brothers who can keep her in line,” said Andrew. “And he has younger sisters who won’t let her get away with anything. I really don’t think that you need to worry about it.”
Clara lowered the phone from her ear and just stared at it, heart hammering in her chest. Everything in her screamed to redial his number and get him back. Did she have more that she wanted to say to him? No.
She just wanted to hear his breathing, close her eyes, and pretend that he was there beside her, physically.
Her backpack lay on the other side of the room, with the day’s assortment of homework inside. She’d told Andrew that she was going to do some science. She’d also promised him that she’d get her head back in the game and focus on her goals.
“Clara! What was that? You tried to drown yourself out there!”
Clara’s head snapped up to see Rhoda standing in the office doorway, Kath hovering behind her. But what was there to say that Andrew’s cousin would understand? Clara just shrugged.
“Is that your cell phone?” Rhoda continued, storming forward. “Did you seriously just ditch the rest of class just to talk to your boyfriend, Clara?”
Clara just shrugged again. There was no use denying it. “He just hung up.”
Rhoda gave a violent roll of her eyes. “This isn’t cute, Clara. What’s gotten into you? A month ago, a boyfriend was the last thing on your mind, but you meet Andrew and – bam! You can’t even breathe without needing to call him.”
She had a point.
“Oh, hush,” said Kath, stepping forward. “She’s in love, and love can change a person. You know that.”
Rhoda rolled her eyes to Kath and shook her head. “I don’t even know this new Clara.”
Kath’s gaze drifted to Clara, and then her eyes fell. Her answer was a mumble. “Then we need to take the time to get to know this new Clara.”
Rhoda stared at her a long moment before rolling her eyes again. “Honestly, though, what’s gotten into her? Falling in love shouldn’t produce a one-eighty personality change like this.”
No, but falling into another world and being married for twenty-five years would.
“It’s like…” Rhoda’s gaze drifted to Clara’s stomach. “Clara, please tell me you’re not…”
“No!” Clara took a sharp breath and hugged her arms over her stomach, defensively. “I – no. I don’t … know Andrew that well.”
The lie tasted awful on her tongue, but it was the should-be truth of this world. In Rizkaland, she’d known Andrew, mind, soul, and body. She’d borne six of his children. But here, they were supposed to be near-strangers. That was the act that they tried to put on, though they hadn’t waited to plunge into a romantic relationship again.
She wasn’t carrying his child now. Her mother had already made sure to check that.
“Oh, come now,” said Kath. “Do you really think that little of Clair? And your own cousin.”
“The Clara that we grew up with, never,” Rhoda declared. “But this new Clara who has possessed her body? I really don’t know. As for Andrew, I would think that he knows better, but…”
“Your cousin is a perfect gentleman,” Clara cut in. “We’ve never even kissed.” Not since coming back. That was the truth, at least.
“They have this distance between them,” Kath declared. “Really puts some hampers on their relationship.”
Rhoda rolled her eyes again – she was going to roll them right out of her head if she kept this up. “I guess that has to explain why she has to call him every five minutes.”
“I try to limit it to three times a day,” Clara inserted.
“Well, texting him every five minutes.” Rhoda waved a dismissive hand. “Clara, I don’t think you realize this, but Andrew has a lot of responsibilities in his day-to-day life. He…”
“He lost his mother at twelve, and he’s been the primary caretaker for his younger brothers ever since, yes, I’m quite aware of his struggles,” Clara cut in, leaping to her feet and flashing Rhoda a glare. “He’s been defined by his responsibilities since he was twelve. That’s not healthy for a kid. Do you want to know what half of our conversations are about? His brothers.” The other half were about how much they missed Rizkaland. “That guy was desperate for human connection. I’m just happy to provide that for him.” Clara shoved her phone into her backpack, shouldered it, and stormed out of the office, trembling as she tried to swallow down tears.
Life just wasn’t fair.