By Teagan Williams (Sun Valley High School, Aston, PA)
Emme was just born when her brother disappeared. She couldn’t comprehend the anxiety her parents developed when they almost lost her to the mess of saltwater and riptides.
“Hey, wait! Get back here!” Her ears were oblivious, and her mind was set on a bucket full of water. The edge of the water wasn’t deep enough, so she inched out farther. The bucket still came up half empty, so out she went. Her knees were cold first, then her hips. Every step out felt more dangerous, yet it was liberating. Her adrenaline rocketed, and she bolted towards the break of the waves.
The bucket flew from her hand, saltwater overcame her taste buds, a whistle blew three times, and then, there was silence except for her own heartbeat.
The tranquility settled like concrete but didn’t last quite as long. Everything was slow, and Emme’s eyes defied opening. Unexpectedly, her body began descending deeper and faster every moment. Her back led the way, and if she had opened her eyes she would have seen her limbs stretching above her, but she kept them pinched shut.
Before her breath could be completely taken away, Emme plummeted onto a hammock of seaweed. One eye at a time, she noticed her surroundings. She laid facing up at something that was impossible to exist.
Above her was the ocean she had just come from, full of fish and salt. There was no bottom, however, only a floating layer of water. She took it in for a moment before fear struck. The trap of seaweed released her, then reshaped itself. When she landed on the ground, her sight was captured by a boy who looked to be a couple of years younger. She noticed his hair, golden like her own, that fell to his shoulders in curls, and his messy, pirate-like outfit.
Her lip quivered, and she refused to look away from the boy, who was watching the seaweed reconstruct. Finally, he turned to her.
She opened her lips slightly, but he interrupted, “Follow me.” The boy began crouching, but he moved quickly. Emme sat still for a moment, then chased after him.
“Where are we going?” she called out but was interrupted by a finger to the boy’s lips.
“Just follow me,” he repeated, then continued on. He brought her through some unfamiliar bushes until they sat at the top of a hill. In sight stood a sand castle larger than one Emme could ever imagine sculpting on her own. A faded, wooden door was mounted in the castle, barely matching the grainy walls. Nevertheless, the door caught Emme’s eye.
Emme drew her attention away from the castle and asked, “Who are you? Where am I?”
“Oh, you just fell into this world. I did once, and I was scared too. I’m happy now…I really do love it here.” His sight remained set on his home while he asked, “Hey, wanna go inside?”
Fixing her vision back on the castle, she said nothing. Her cheeks grew and her head lifted: the fantasy overruled the fright.
“I’ll take that as a yes. I’m Kayden, by the way!”
“Kayden?” she repeated. He nodded, and she followed with, “Oh, I’m Emme.”
“Cool. Now, c’mon!” He took off again, and she trailed after him. They approached the door and let it creak open slowly.
“Wait here.” Kayden snuck inside for a moment, then reached his hand out and waved Emme in.
“Mama, I found a girl! Emme, come, come on!” he beckoned.
“Kay, what are you talking about?” Mama had a gentle voice, yet she looked like she could throw a boulder if she had to.
Emme hesitated again at the sound of Kayden’s name, this time recognizing the nickname.
“This girl! I just found her at the bottom of the portal, Mama.”
Mama shook her head at the boy, kneeling down to face the girl. Emme’s shoulders hunched, and her palms grew moist as the woman confronted her.
“You poor thing,” her tone expressed. She drew Emme into a cradling hug. “Are you okay? You didn’t injure yourself, did you?”
“I want to go home,” she whispered. She wasn’t crying, but her chest heaved as if she was. Her words became stuttered, and everything that had just occurred became sickening.
“It’s alright, dear, it’s okay. Come with me, you need to eat. You like fish? Come, let’s eat and get some rest.” Emme wondered how it was already so late in the day, but she didn’t mention it. Anyways, it was relieving to get to lay in a bed and close her eyes.
She woke in a cold sweat while the sky above the ocean still appeared dark. Her stomach turned with the absence of her parents, and she knew she had to find a way back to them. She escaped from the castle, leaving the heavy, creaking door ajar. Despite what she thought she remembered, Emme couldn’t find the way back to the place she had come from. Everything around her was different, more threatening at night. The magical world had changed into a dangerous and cold nightmare.
She came across a large field and heard gallops in the distance. They frightened her, but by the time they were close, she couldn’t run away. She fell to the ground and began soaking her cheeks and lips. Unprepared, the girl was swept to the side in time to watch the stampede happen. At first glance, they were wild horses found on large beach dunes. But these were no ordinary horses, though they were wild. Their heads lacked luscious manes but rather consisted of men’s chests and heads. The centaurs rushed past, giving no notice to the girl curled in Mama’s arms.
“I’m sorry,” she whimpered, “I wanted to go home.”
“Well, that surely wasn’t the way home,” Mama chuckled to herself, then continued, “Poor Emme, getting home isn’t so easy. The portal only opens at the first high tide after the next full moon. Then, you’ll have the opportunity to return to your family, though it is dangerous, and you only get one chance. Sweetie, I’m sure you might learn to love it here. Kay did, so maybe you should stay.”
This news didn’t fascinate Emme, but she understood. After all, the idea of spending some more time with Kayden wasn’t such a bad thing.
Nearly a month passed, faster than time was allowed to pass, and Mama was right. Emme loved it there. She could go anywhere, be anyone, and do anything. She and Kayden became best friends, though she still didn’t know why she felt as if she knew him. Maybe it was because their personalities were just so similar.
Returning home seemed less desirable every day. She was enjoying this life so much, but the time was coming soon. On the day the portal opened, Mama and Kayden went with Emme to the entrance.
“It’s now or never, sweetheart. You can stay here; it’s safer here,” Mama begged her.
She paused and peered at Kayden. Her head tilted to him, then she ran to his arms and collapsed in them.
“I don’t wanna leave you, Kayden.”
“You miss your family, and I know you can make it. I love you. You’re like a sister to me,” he spoke dimly, so Mama couldn’t make out his contrary to her own opinion or the tremble in his tone. His fingers dug into her back, and he buried his face in her shoulder.
“Bye, Emme. Come back to me one day.”
Emme held his shoulders and pushed him away, crying, “I can’t leave, I won’t leave. Mama can take care of us, and it’ll be okay. Right?”
Kayden only shook his head then looked up. She dried her face and followed his gaze at the gallons of water above them. They seemed like they could collapse on them at any moment, ruining the sand castle and freeing every person who was trapped there. Emme saw the sun gleaming upon ripples of salt water.
“Okay.” She climbed onto that seaweed hammock and closed her eyes, “Goodbye, Mama.” She only nodded in Kayden’s direction. This wasn’t goodbye for them; she knew that.
The water hit her skin harshly, but she didn’t jerk. Mama had told her she had to stay as still as possible and keep her eyes shut. Her chest lifted higher through the riptide. Never open your eyes, remember. Don’t open them until you’re safe, the voice of Mama repeated itself. She thought these words over again until she went unconscious.
“Emme! Emme! Wake up, Emme please, baby.”
Her eyes fluttered open, and she grinned. Above her was her family, looking the same way they had the day she had left them. “Mommy, I missed you!” She fell into a bear hug, surrounded by both parents.
“Oh, Emme, we thought we’d lost you like we did Kay. Oh, you’re okay, we’re okay.”
A revelation hit her, and she bawled, “Mommy, Kay’s okay, you know. He’s okay, too!”
“What? Oh, I know, he’s in a better place now.” She assured her of this, but Emme knew she didn’t understand. She didn’t understand about Kayden, though she was right. He was in a good place now, and so was she.