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Legendborn
Author: Tracy Deonn

PROLOGUE


THE POLICE OFFICER’S body goes blurry, then sharpens again.

I don’t stare at him directly. I can’t really focus on one thing in this room, but when I do look, his face shimmers.

His badge, the rectangular nameplate, his tie clip? All the little metal details on his chest ripple and shine like loose silver change at the bottom of a fountain. Nothing about him appears solid. Nothing about him feels real.

I don’t think about that, though. I can’t.

Besides, everything looks otherworldly when you’ve been crying for three hours straight.

The police officer and nurse brought me and my father into a tiny mint-green room. Now they sit on the other side of the table. They say they are “explaining the situation” to us. These people don’t feel real, but neither does “the situation” they keep explaining.

I don’t cry for my mother’s death. Or for myself. I cry because these strangers in the hospital—the nurse, the doctor, the police officer—don’t know my mother, and yet they were closest to her when she died. And when your people die, you have to listen to strangers speak your nightmare into existence.

“We found her on Route 70 around eight,” the police officer says. The air conditioner kicks on. The sharp scents of hospital-grade hand soap and floor cleaner blow across our faces.

I listen to these people I don’t know use the past tense about my mother, the person who brought me into this world and created my present. They are past-tensing my heart—my whole beating, bleeding, torn heart—right in front of me.

It is a violation.

These uniformed strangers carve me open with their words, but they are just doing their jobs. I can’t scream at people who are just doing their jobs, can I?

I want to.

My father sits in a vinyl padded chair. It creaks when he leans forward to read paragraphs of fine print on pieces of paper. Where did this paperwork come from? Who has paperwork on hand for my mother’s death? Why are they ready when I am not ready?

My father asks questions, signs his name, blinks, breathes, nods. I wonder how he is functioning. My mother’s life has stopped. Shouldn’t everything and everyone stop living too?

She was crushed inside our family sedan, body half-crumpled under the dashboard after a hit-and-run. She was alone until some nice, probably frightened Good Samaritan saw her overturned car on the side of the road.

Bloodred twine connects the final words I said to my mother—last night, in anger—to another night in February. A night when my best friend, Alice, and I, sitting together in the basement of her parents’ split-level home, decided UNC-Chapel Hill’s Early College Program was our dream. Bright high school students can earn college credit at Carolina over the course of two years, experience life in the dorms, and become independent. At least, that’s what the brochure said. For Alice and me, Early College was two minority girls’ ticket out of a small town in rural North Carolina. For us, Early College meant bigger ideas and classrooms—and adventure. We’d filled out our applications together. Marched right into the Bentonville post office after school together. Dropped the envelopes in the chute together. If we could get into EC, we could leave Bentonville High and move to a university dorm four hours away from home—and away from parents who held us so tight that sometimes we couldn’t breathe.

A decade before I was born, my mother was an undergraduate at Carolina. A burgeoning scientist. I’d heard the stories for years. Seen the framed photos of elaborate chemistry experiments: beakers and glass pipettes; protective goggles resting across her high cheekbones. It was her fault, really, for planting the idea in my mind. That’s what I’d told myself, anyway.

Our letters came yesterday. Alice’s parents knew she was applying. They’d beamed like they were the ones who’d been accepted.

I knew it wouldn’t go that way for me; I’d applied behind my mother’s back, certain that once I got in, once I had that letter, she’d let go of her need to keep me close. I’d handed her the letter on blue-and-white Carolina stationery, grinned like it was a trophy.

I’d never seen her so angry.

My brain doesn’t accept where my body is sitting. It catalogs the last thirty-six hours in an attempt to find the how of this hospital room.

Last night: she’d roared about trust and safety and not rushing to grow up. I’d screamed about unfairness, about what I’d earned, and how I needed to get away from dirt roads.

This morning: I was still fuming when I woke up. In bed, I made a silent declaration to not speak to her all day. That declaration had felt good.

Today: a nothing, normal Tuesday, except that, for me, it carried the stubborn undercurrent of We’ll talk later.

Tonight: she drove away from work at the end of the day.

Then: a car.

Now: this pale green room and a disinfectant smell that burns when I inhale.

Forever: We’ll talk later is not the same as We’ll never talk again.

The twine from February closes tight around me like I will never take another breath, but somehow the police officer is still talking, shimmering and shining.

The air around him looks alive. Like he is drenched in magic.

But when your entire world is shattering, a little bit of magic is… nothing.

 

 

THREE MONTHS LATER

 

 

PART ONE ORDER

 

 

1


A CAROLINA FIRST-YEAR sprints through the darkness and launches himself off the cliff into the moonlit night.

His shout sends sleepy birds flying overhead. The sound echoes against the rock face that borders the Eno Quarry. Flashlights track his flailing body, all windmilling arms and kicking legs, until he hits the water with a cracking splash. At the cliff line above, thirty college students cheer and whoop, their joy weaving through the pine trees. Like a constellation in motion, cone-shaped beams of light roam the lake’s surface. Collective breath, held. All eyes, searching. Waiting. Then, the boy erupts from the water with a roar, and the crowd explodes.

Cliff jumping is the perfect formula for Southern-white-boy fun: rural recklessness, a pocket flashlight’s worth of precaution, and a dare. I can’t look away. Each run draws my own feet an inch closer to the edge. Each leap into nothingness, each hovering moment before the fall, calls to a spark of wild yearning inside my chest.

I press that yearning down. Seal it closed. Board it up.

“Lucky he didn’t break his damn legs,” Alice mutters in her soft twang. She scoffs, peering over the edge to watch the grinning jumper grasp protruding rocks and exposed vines to climb the rock face. Her straight, coal-black hair lies plastered to her temple. The warm, sticky palm of late-August humidity presses down on our skin. My curls are already up in a puff, as far away from the back of my neck as possible, so I hand her the extra elastic band from my wrist. She takes it wordlessly and gathers her hair in a ponytail. “I read about this quarry on the way here. Every few years kids get hurt, fall on the rocks, drown. We’re sure as hell not jumping, and it’s getting late. We should go.”

}“Why? ’Cause you’re getting bit?” I swat at a tiny flickering buzz near her arm.

She fixes me with a glare. “I’m insulted by your weak conversational deflection. That’s not best-friend behavior. You’re fired.” Alice wants to major in sociology, then maybe go into law. She’s been interrogating me since we were ten.

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