Apparently, I’m about to ruin my life.
As Mum’s footsteps clomp down the stairs, my jaw clenches. I should’ve left before she came down – waited for Chloe in the street. But it’s too late now. Shoving the argument to the back of my mind, I spin as she enters the kitchen and knock my phone flying. By the time I’ve picked it up, she’s trapped me by the sink in a bloom of floral scent.
“Now please, Sophie, don’t forget your promise.”
I roll my eyes and sigh. “Mum, I get it. But we’re not planning a visit to the beach – it’s March. We’re just going to hang out round town.” I glance at the clock – they’ll be here any minute.
“That’s what you say, but—” Mum breaks off with a sharp intake of breath and gazes into my eyes. “Oh—" She swallows an out-of-character expletive.
“What?” I stare at her as she steps backwards, rubbing her hands on her jeans.
She leans against the table, face drained of colour. “It’s happening.”
Goosebumps leap up my arms at her tone. Not her paranoia, not again, not now, please. I swallow. “What’s happening? What are you talking about?”
Mum crosses the room to stare out of the window. The morning light glances off her copper curls and turns them to rose gold. “Sixteen,” she mutters. “I thought we’d got away with it yesterday, but it seems not.”
“Got away with what?” The kitchen clock ticks loudly in the silence. “Mum?”
“Have you looked in the mirror?”
A knot tightens in my stomach. I remember dragging a comb through the tangle of ripe corn that masquerades as my hair, too busy hunting for my lip gloss. And I used my phone screen to apply the colour while texting Chloe. Probably badly, but so what? Nobody expects me to be the belle of the ball. I struggle to keep my voice calm. “Why?”
“You should look.”
Bile rises in my throat. Is this yet another ploy to keep me safe at home? With a glance at the clock, I rush upstairs to the bathroom, flick on the light and check my reflection.
Shock smacks me in the chest.
For a second I can’t breathe, then my brain kicks in. It’s just the effect of the light filtering through the green blinds . . .
Knocking the bottles of shampoo and conditioner flying into the bath, I jerk up the blind and let in the natural light. That’s better. Heart fluttering like a trapped bird, I jam my face up close to the glass.
There isn’t enough oxygen in the air. Because the eyes staring back at me are bright green.
I mean, really bright.
I suck in a deep breath and exhale. The mirror fogs but can’t hide the vivid emerald that streams from my eyes.
I push away from the basin, stomach churning like a washing machine, and stare at myself. There’s something else different. I keep staring and it clicks. After the endless, hateful weeks working out at the school gym, I’ve suddenly got the figure to die for. Overnight.
The thought steals my breath away.
I shun the mirror and stumble back downstairs. I have to get out of the house. Now.
“You see?” Mum pounces, her silhouette slender as ever. “You’re changed. You need to stay home.”
My throat constricts and I squeak the words. “What? You can’t back out now. Just because my eyes look a bit—brighter—”
“They’re green.” Mum steps closer, her face drawn.
“So?” I ignore the banging in my chest.
“They prove my point.”
My eyes clash with hers, jaw jutting. “What point is that? That I’m going to drown in the sea just because Dad did?”
She opens her arms. “That turning sixteen has changed you, sweetheart. It’s not safe by the coast. Trust me on this – we don’t know what might happen.”
“Why should anything happen? Green eyes aren’t dangerous.”
“No. I’m sick of listening. You won’t ever let me be normal ’cos you’re scared. You spoil everything.”
Outside, a horn blares. “They’re here.” I push past her, snatch up my jacket and, in a genius move, grab my sunglasses from the windowsill. At the back door I turn, wavering. After sixteen years of protecting her, my gut tells me this is a betrayal. I soften my voice. “I’ll see you tonight, Mum, don’t worry. It’s going to be fine.”
The thumping in my chest telling me nothing is fine, I dash along the side passage and shove my sunglasses onto my nose before crossing the pavement to where Chloe’s battered people carrier idles by the curb, puffing diesel. I scramble inside, jerk the door shut and concentrate on calming my breathing. “Hi!”
In the front seat Chloe turns, corkscrew curls dancing. “Hiya. Happy birthday Soph! What’s it with the glasses – hoping for sun?”
“Yeah, sun, sea, sand. Happy birthday to you too. Love your earrings.”
Chloe fingers the enormous silver hoops which hang half-way down to her shoulders, silver beads swaying at the bottom. “Present from Nathan,” she says with a grin, referring to her little brother. “I just love that kid!”
Kitty, long blonde hair loose for once, leans forwards to tap the swinging balls. “I bet he only bought them because he’s hoping you’ll let him beat you at kick-boxing.”
“Not a chance!” Chloe laughs. This contest is far too important to give it away. I’m in it to win it!”
I half-listen to their campaign tactics through the pounding of my pulse, feeling even more tongue-tied than usual, and sneak a look at Ben, who’s sitting beside me in the back, sleeves rolled up as he taps at his phone. Although he flicks me a glance, a tiny tremor of his lips telling me he’s registered my wacky glasses, he returns his attention to his screen.
Right, well that’s fine – clearly our shared workouts are still a secret. I stifle a sigh. Whatever, I’m not in the mood for banter. I push my bag between my knees and rest my head against the window, trying to ignore the way it jerks with my pulse.
Outside, a light drizzle bleaches the view to dismal. As the grey trees and fields roll past, my mind churns. What did Mum mean by ‘it’s happening’? Why have my eyes turned green? My stomach threatens to reject its non-existent breakfast as I remember her words. It’s not safe by the coast.
I’m picking at my fingers when, without warning, the car slows to a halt, hauling me to the present. Startled, I stare out the window and for the first time in my life I glimpse the sea. My heart skips a beat.
“I’ll meet you back here at six, prompt,” Chloe’s mum tells us as we get out. I barely hear. Stumbling over my feet, I stand by the car, clutching my bag as it drives away. The sea stretches in front of me, grey, flat and uniform, not like I expected at all. It looks cold, especially through dark lenses. And yet—for a second, I close my eyes, breathing in the scent of salt. Delicious. I step towards the water.
A horn blares. I leap sideways, pulse hammering.
“Look where you’re going!” The irate driver of a red BMW glares at me before pulling past, still muttering.
“What’re you doing?” Chloe appears by my side, coffee-coloured fingers plucking my arm. “Come on, we’re ready to hit the amusements.”
I can’t speak. Instead, I nod mutely, eyes lingering on the shifting grey water, immobile. Behind me, Kitty and Grace snigger and I wish I could sink into the pavement, but Chloe’s mouth opens in an ‘O’.
“I forgot, you’ve never been to the sea before, have you.” Her cheeks dimple. “Tell you what, you have a quick walk on the beach and meet us in the arcade afterwards. We’re gonna be there for a while – I’m after that monster teddy!”
“No, it’s fine,” I manage. “You go in, I’ll be right with you.”
“You sure?” She links her arm though Mark’s, then winks at Ben. “I’m sure Ben won’t mind staying with you, will you, Ben?”
That’s it, I want to die. If he doesn’t want to admit we’ve been spending time together at the gym, he’s not going to appreciate Chloe’s match-making. I avoid his eye, my cheeks hot.
“Come on guys!” Chloe bounces towards the entrance, calling over her shoulder. “See you in a few minutes, you two!”
I still can’t move.
Ben lingers. “I don’t mind hitting the beach first if you want to,” he says as the others disappear.
I shake my head, find my voice. “It’s fine, I’ve never been to an amusement arcade either.”
“Let’s go then.” He takes a step, waits for what feels like an hour while I dither. Finally, he lifts his arms in defeat and strides off, dark hair flopping over one eye, tanned arms looking like he’s been somewhere hot. I know I should follow him, but the pulsing darkness of the shop repels me and I can’t.
Instead, I carefully check the traffic and cross the road, my eyes on the sea. The iron railings which line the prom strike cold and wet through my jeans as I lean against them, but I don’t care. For some reason my entire body is trembling. After a moment, I climb through the gap and jump down onto the sand, feet sinking into the soft surface.
A seagull watches me intently from a post, head cocked on one side. I get the impression it’s laughing at me – nothing new there – then I stare closer, mouth falling open. Because I swear it winked.
At me. Before I can do more than blink back, it opens its wings, beak still tilted towards me, and takes off. Come on.
I’m not thinking clearly. Seagulls don’t wink or talk. It’s a stupid idea . . .
The distant sea roars in approval as I slip my shoes off and scrunch my toes into the cold grittiness, feeling it scrape the skin. My heart races and the trail of footprints makes me suddenly grin like a maniac. At last, I’m on a beach. Suppressing a bubble of laughter, I head towards the sea, one thought in my mind: I have to paddle.
My steps grow faster till I’m running headlong. I shrug off my jacket, drop my shoes and bag and teeter to a stop near the water’s edge, panting.
I edge closer till the ripples leave foamy patterns round my toes, like lacy skirts on a dancer’s dress. Unable to resist, I step forwards to let the water surround my ankles. My pulse leaps as a bigger wave rushes towards me.
The thrill of cold skitters up my skin. Bubbles pop like the fizz of soda; shifting sand scrapes and settles. I can hear every bubble, every grain, and like a bass line below it, is a low murmuring from deep within the ocean. Come on.
A sharp pain in my toe. I look down and see a crab, pincers nipping, others closing in. I shake it off, take another couple of steps to avoid them. Water creeps up my calves, darkening my jeans to indigo. Another step and it’s up to my knees, wavelets chuckling higher round my thighs, but I still can’t stop. I walk further and further, up to my waist, the water silky and welcoming, now as deep as my chest . . . I have to know what it’s like below the surface.
Stretching out my arms, I bend my knees.
The water slides up my neck, deliciously icy. It tickles my jaw and ears as it rises and falls with the bobbing waves; my body lifts with the motion. Nearly under – I’m going to do it, any moment now. I psyche myself up, shallow breaths coming fast. One . . . two . . . three . . . I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and sink.
It’s cold on my scalp. Water filters through my hair, tingles race up and down my spine. This is what it feels like to be in the sea: weightless, rocked by ceaseless motion, alive.
The urge to look is so strong I open my eyes. For a second, salt stings in blurry pain, then everything sharpens into focus. My gaze darts in every direction, laser-quick – crabs, tiny fish, weed, microscopic particles dancing past. The more I see, the more I’m filled with longing.
Jarring rough hands grab me from behind, jerking me backwards.
“Sophie, what are you doing? Sophie?”
The words are discordant, infuriating. Who’s calling? I thrash at the hands, batting them away, but as my feet scrabble for the floor, I take a gulp of brine that pours into my throat, raw and sharp.
The hands yank upwards again. “Sophie!”
I’m off-balance. The currents steal the sand from beneath my feet and I slip beneath the surface, hair streaming up across my face. As I spit it from my mouth, bubbles pour out, panic blooms.
The dark shape of a body looms over me, pulls me upwards. I clutch at it, my fingers digging into wet skin. Daggers of light lance my eyes; air burns my lungs. There’s sand beneath my feet but now everything is too bright, too loud. I twist away from the hands and manage to stand. The water is only thigh deep, but the rise and fall of the waves sucks at my legs. I rock against them, disorientated.
Next to me, a boy urges me to move. I blink at him. “Ben?”
He gazes back, face pale. “What are you doing?” There’s a tell-tale catch in his voice.
I frown, look round and gasp. What am I doing? I shudder as a chilly wind whips my sodden clothing, shove a lock of hair out of my eyes and stare at Ben. Rivulets stream down his bare chest and his jeans are plastered to his legs.
Damn, why does it have to be him? I start shaking. “I, er, I don’t—”
He grabs my arm and pulls me towards the beach. As we stagger through the waves, I can feel the tension in his hands. His back is rigid, and when he reaches the sand, he turns to face me, eyes blazing.
“Are you mad? You could’ve drowned!”
Drowned. The word strikes cold inside and my mind shies away from it. “D-d-don’t be stupid. I just went for a paddle.”
“A paddle? You were up to your neck – you went under. For ages.”
“No, I didn’t—” My teeth begin to chatter.
“Yes, you did, you’re soaking! But—swimming? In your clothes? It’s the middle of March.” He pauses for breath, chest heaving. “I didn’t think I was going to get to you in time.”
My mouth opens but no words come. How can I explain the way I felt pulled into the water? The voices? I think of Mum’s face and my promise to stay away from the sea. Fingers of fear clutch my heart. What made me do it?
Ben drags me further up the beach. “Seriously, Sophie, what on earth were you thinking?”
I can’t give him an answer. I can’t tell him about the voices, the irresistible urge to swim. I want to clamp my hands over my ears and shut my eyes because everything is wrong: I can smell every restaurant meal on the prom, see the individual shapes and colours of every grain of sand by my feet.
“Would you like some candy floss?” The woman’s voice makes me jump.
“Yes, please, I love candy floss!”
I spin wildly, but there’s no one there. I scan the promenade, right, left, and way down the beach a child tugs at its mother’s arm. I shudder. All at once, other voices pound my ears, like entering an over-excited classroom. It’s sensation overload.
The sun has vanished, leaving heavy clouds rolling in from the east. You must stay away from the water. Mum’s warning barrels around my head like the black clouds. You don’t understand – we don’t know what could happen.
Why didn’t I listen?