As Whitnee Terradora stands on the cusp of her eighteenth birthday, all she can think about is getting through graduation without tripping, boarding that cruise ship, and finally, for crying out loud, snagging her first real kiss with Caleb. Forget that she still hasn’t decided where to go to college and that the future intimidates her more than she will admit.
It’s the eve of the Guardianship Festival, and all Gabriel can focus on is getting through the next five days of tribal blessing rituals across the Island, making an historically powerful speech at the opening ceremony, and successfully avoiding any more assassination threats. His determination remains intact even when he is unexpectedly separated from Eden, his personal advisor and confidante. Surely he can handle leadership of the festivities without her.
But the Island has a different plan. And neither Whitnee nor Gabriel is prepared for—or happy about—the moment their two worlds collide again. Prophecies unravel, friendships are challenged, and attraction ignites as the dark underbelly of the Island reveals itself in this long-awaited fifth installment of the Phantom Island series.
Chapter One: Traditions
Perspiration beaded my forehead as I bent over the ground. Studying. Scrutinizing my work. There wasn’t much time left, and it had to be perfect. My heart palpitated with adrenaline as I looked again over my shoulder to make sure I wasn’t about to get caught.
Not that it mattered. This was tradition. But still… I was not good at being bad even when it was socially acceptable.
Fumbling with a different color of chalk, I made a few sweeping curlicues around the words. There. That was it.
“Perfect.” Morgan nodded with approval, her two-toned hair bobbing on top of her head where she had piled it. She pulled out her phone and snapped some pictures. I gave a cheesy thumbs-up with my chalky hands. “Now let’s find the others and get out of here before the cops show up.”
“Cops are already here, Morgie,” I reminded her, nodding at Hal, the school security guard, who watched us from the parking lot.
“I know.” She grinned. “But it’s fun to pretend.”
We started to back away, skipping around the splashes of sidewalk art that ran up and down the front of the school. There was nothing but chalk stubs left in our guilty hands.
“Laura did a good job.” Morgan pointed at the bubbly cheerleader handwriting shoe-polished across the front office windows.
“All those years making pep rally banners had to be good for something,” I agreed, admiring her artistic flair. “Where did everyone go?”
The grounds seemed too deserted, when I knew there were about twenty seniors sneaking around our high school in the dark, including the valedictorian, salutatorian, a Rhodes Scholar, student council president (me), head cheerleader (Laura), captain of the state championship-winning basketball team (Caleb), modern medical miracle (Morgan), and a bunch of others who had worked hard to keep sparkly clean reps in our four years there.
It was the great unspoken rule that students in the graduating class pranked the school the night before graduation—and got away with it. Thus, Hal the security guard just sat back in his truck and watched, his presence there more to protect us than stop us.
Morgan and I tiptoed down the main breezeway of the school, now covered in blue and gold streamers with “SENIORS RULE” propaganda covering the walls. It felt good to leave our last marks on these hallways.
Because after tomorrow, everything would change. We would be graduates, and the halls that had borne witness to our lives for the last four years would only echo with our memories. Once the streamers and signs were cleaned up and the chalk easily washed away, there would be nothing left of us there. Our lockers had already been cleaned out, our academic and sports awards distributed, our yearbooks signed.
This was the last thing.
Bittersweet nostalgia filtered in as I followed Morgan through the darkened breezeway. I paused for a brief moment, turning a slow circle and taking in one sweeping glance. I wanted to remember this moment because my world would never be the same again.
“Whit,” Morgan called from around the corner. “They’re in the courtyard.”
A few whispers and giggles wafted my way, so I ditched my deep thoughts in the dark breezeway and joined my friends. Caleb and Dillon were on the roof, hanging the last banner down into the courtyard while a couple of others gave them directions to make sure it wasn’t crooked. The rest were sticking plastic forks in the ground.
“Forking the courtyard. Nice touch,” I smiled before setting to work chalking the concrete picnic tables with the stubs I had left. In loopy handwriting, I spelled out “SENIOR SKIP DAY.” Too bad we wouldn’t be there tomorrow to see the faces of our teachers and fellow student body when they discovered our handiwork. Everybody knew the seniors skipped school the day of the graduation ceremony, just like they knew to expect some kind of pranking gesture from us tomorrow.
Once the banner was secured, Dillon and Caleb started dancing victoriously on the roof. A few of the girls whistled and cat-called at their antics.
“Guys, that’s scary,” I called out, pausing to watch them.
“We’re not gonna fall,” Dillon replied as he moonwalked past Caleb.
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Yeah,” Morgan added, launching a fork at them. “We’re still recovering from your scary dance moves at prom!”
That got a laugh from everyone. My eyes met Caleb’s and my mind flashed back to how stunning he had looked in a tux as my date. Like a teenage James Bond who had oozed charm and more than a little mischief.
But then I gave him a real warning look. Seriously, the last thing we needed was for someone to get hurt. He blew a kiss at me in response, and my heart thumped a little harder. I reached in my back pocket to check the time on my phone and realized my phone wasn’t there. I had left it in the car.
“Morgie, what time is it?”
She checked. “Almost midnight. Oops, we need to get out of here soon.”
I had a midnight curfew, and Dad was not going to be happy when I missed it. He had been on edge all day and almost didn’t let me go out for the Senior Skip Day pranks. Thankfully, Mom had been the one to step in on my behalf—but only if I was home by midnight.
“Pictures first!” Laura cheered. I brushed my hands together and tossed the chalk pieces in the trash, all the while carefully monitoring Caleb as he lowered himself from the roof. I breathed a small sigh of relief when he was safely back on the ground. He jogged over to me, his eyes dancing with exhilaration.
With a shake of my head, I said, “I thought you hated heights.”
“It wasn’t that high.”
“You sure you’re not just trying to impress a certain cheerleader?” I quipped, because joking about his mythical feelings for Laura helped me keep the boundaries in place between us.
“Nah. I don’t have to work that hard with her,” he threw back lightly. “She likes me the way I am.”
I just rolled my eyes to mask what I really felt, which was… what? Guilt? Jealousy? Frustration? I wasn’t sure anymore. All I knew was that I wished I didn’t have to joke about Laura anymore. I wished Caleb held the title of Boyfriend and not just Best-Friend-Crush-Who-Won’t-Commit.
Our exchange was interrupted when our friends grabbed us and squeezed us into a group photo. Laura had set up her camera with a timer. We smiled in the first one, then posed silly-faced in the second one because some traditions didn’t die in elementary school. In the third one, I felt Caleb’s arm slide across my waist and pull me closer. I wrapped my arms around his neck so that we posed cheek to cheek. I could smell his gum and the summery saltiness of his skin pressed against mine. For the last picture, we all did the best pop group album pose we could come up with. It involved a lot of smirk and sass.
We admired our hard work one last time, high-fived and hugged each other, and then exited the courtyard. Once in the breezeway, Caleb tugged lightly at my hand, beckoning me to stay behind.
“What’s up?” I asked when it was just the two of us. His face was barely illuminated as he stared intensely at his cell phone in one hand.
“Hold on,” he replied, and I glanced impatiently back at our friends waving bye to Hal in the parking lot and promising to find each other before the ceremony. Morgan pretended not to notice we were hanging back. She always did that… always tried to look the other way when we wanted moments of privacy. “And there it is. Midnight!” Caleb said triumphantly. “Happy eighteenth birthday, Whitnee.”
“Oh.” I smiled, just as a warm current of air blew through the breezeway, taking us both by surprise. My hair whipped around, and I held my breath for a moment, almost expecting… I don’t know what. Random gusts of wind once meant something. But when it died down and nothing else happened, we both kind of laughed nervously. It was a breezeway by definition. No cause to freak out.
“That was weird,” I chuckled, brushing my hair out of my face. Caleb must have been holding his breath too, because he released it with a low whistle. I turned a soft smile back on him. “Thanks for remembering at midnight.”
His hands tentatively found my waist again. “Just wanted to be the first to say it.” I went willingly into his arms and snuggled against his chest. Forget the fact that I was now officially breaking my curfew. All I wanted was to prolong that moment in Caleb’s arms—even if it was in the middle of the high school hallway. I didn’t know how many of these moments I had left. College was coming in a few months and I still hadn’t made my final decision about where to go. The unknown future loomed over me like a shadow, a threat to everything I had built up in my life since last summer.
I pulled back a little and tilted my face up toward his. He had The Look again.
The one where his lips parted ever so slightly and the green of his eyes deepened with desire and his scarred eyebrow lifted in contemplation. I knew what that look meant.
I had seen it so many times over the last year, when too many perfect moments for a first kiss had passed us by. And why? What was our problem? I was getting tired of putting it off.
But he just stared at me, his conflict revealed in that eyebrow that couldn’t settle on a position. Like he was waiting for something. Was he waiting for me to do it first? Was I just waiting for him? Ugh.
“Whitnee—” He took a breath, dropped his forehead to mine, and closed his eyes in frustration.
“You know you can just do it, Caleb. You’ve had my permission for a while now.”
“Yeah,” he sighed. “I know.”
There was no sense in pretending anymore that I didn’t want this. I wanted to be Caleb’s girlfriend officially, and one itty bitty kiss seemed like a good first step.
Or one swoony, kiss-me-until-I-can’t-breathe would work too. I wasn’t picky.
“What exactly are you waiting for?”
That was when he pulled back and removed his arms from around me. I thought I saw his eyes flick to my necklace once as he said, “I don’t know.”
He did know. He just didn’t want to admit it. At that moment, his phone started ringing.
“Ignore it,” I told him. “Tell me what’s wrong.”
But he took a step away from me anyway and checked it.
“It’s your dad.” Caleb held the ringing phone out to me as “NATHAN TERRADORA” flashed insistently across the screen. “Did you not tell him you were running late?”
Oh, I was in trouble.
Sleep would not find me on this Island. The flames of doubt kept creeping to the surface every time I closed my eyes. I finally threw the blankets off and donned suitable clothing for a nighttime walk. Perhaps I could put my mind to rest if I went over the speech one more time. If I could only make myself feel as confident as I appeared…
Lightning lit the darkened corridors as I made my way up the narrow stairs. I hoped the storm relented by morning. We needed perfect weather for the coming events. It was extremely irritating to know I had control over every detail of the festivities except for the bloody weather.
When I pulled open the door, I could immediately feel the Dome’s effects. My rampant emotions subdued slightly as I moved to stare out into the night sky. The rain pelted against the window, and angry tufts of cloud were visible when the lightning flashed behind them.
There was something about this kind of weather that vexed me. Or, if I was being honest, brought back memories better left in the past. Either way, I was not going to sleep any time soon. With a frustrated sigh, I turned toward the long meeting table in the room, prepared to review my speech.
But someone sat there at the table, watching me silently.
Instead of revealing how startled I was, I lowered myself into a chair across from her. “Why are you still awake?”
“Probably for the same reasons you are, Gabriel.” She sighed and dropped her writing instrument on the table. Then she cupped her chin in her hands and rested her elbows on the table. When the lightning flashed, I did not miss how exhausted her green eyes were. “I keep worrying we are missing something or forgetting someone or failing at something—”
“Eden.” I stopped her. “You have done a fine job. There are no holes in your careful planning.”
She cocked one eyebrow wearily. “Yet you are also up here instead of sleeping peacefully.”
“Ah, but that has nothing to do with you or your flawless job as my Advisor,” I corrected her. “I just need more personal preparation.”
“You say that, but you are quite good in front of a crowd. A trait that must come from your mother.”
“That would mean it is possible to inherit something good from her. And we both know that cannot be true.” I waved my hand dismissively. “Where is my speech?”
She shuffled some papers and then slid a few across the table. After she switched on a small light, we spent a few minutes in silence while I looked over the words I would speak at the opening ceremony tomorrow night. The storm pounded the Dome windows as I thought about the overall purpose of this speech and everything I had stood for in this last year. Justice. Unity. Change.
We had made many changes in a year. And even the opening ceremony itself would be unlike any before it; we had made certain of that. What we had planned was either madness or brilliance. I had not decided yet.
Finally I spoke. “There is something in this part of the speech that still does not feel right—” I stopped talking when I glanced up at Eden. She was waiting for me to finish my thoughts, but now that there was light cast on her face, I could see that her eyes were red-rimmed and puffy. “You have been crying,” I blurted.
“Gabriel, please.” She looked away, always loathing the moments when I could see her emotions so clearly. Sometimes I think she preferred me to believe she had no feelings at all. But I knew that was not true. Over the last year, I had seen a different side of her, a part that was softer and deeper than she ever let on when we were children. It was bound to happen when we worked so closely together.
“What has upset you?” I asked, knowing what it was but wanting to give her the opportunity to admit it.
“Nothing. I just came up here to work. There are thousands of people to coordinate on this Island over the next several days, which is not exactly an easy job. I do not wish to be distracted with anything else.”
I studied her for a moment. She started writing again, purposefully keeping her face turned away from me. Perhaps I was asking too much of her. Perhaps it was unhealthy for her to live at the Palladium with me—away from her family.
“Have you talked to her this week?” I tried to make my voice as gentle as possible.
“Did you not hear everything I just said—”
“All I heard was your excuse for not visiting your sister. And it is not a good one.”
I watched the pen fall from her hand, saw the tiny splash of one teardrop on the papers, and the urge to touch her—to give her some kind of Pyradorian comfort—was very strong. I knew her stubborn Geodorian self would not appreciate it coming from me, so I resisted. She covered her eyes with her hands, and her shoulders jerked.
“Eden.” This was not right. She should be with her dying sister, not with me. “I think you should go.”
“Go?” she repeated, pulling her hands from her face and staring at me incredulously.
“Yes. I think you should go and be with your family in Geodora immediately. I can do without you—”
“No, you cannot!”
I did not appreciate her tone. I most certainly could handle things without her.
If I had to.
“You are about to officially become our Guardian, and I am the one who has planned all of the events. There is no way I can miss the opening ceremony at the Watch Tower. No, I will go and see Elon when all of these traditions and ceremonies are over. I am certain nothing will happen to her before then—” Her voice caught. Everyone knew little Elon was at the end. It was surprising she had made it to this point. But, no, there was no certainty that she would survive to next week, not even to tomorrow.
And I knew Eden would never forgive herself if she did not get to see her again.
“Very well. I will take you to Geodora myself. Gather all of the paperwork.” I stood to my feet as those wide, tearstained green eyes peered up at me in confusion.
“You cannot be serious. It is storming and we have to be at the Watch Tower tomorrow—”
“We will start our journey early with a short stop to see your family,” I said calmly but firmly. “You know neither of us is going to sleep tonight. We are already packed. Everyone knows what to do. I say we leave now. Just the two of us. No guards, no advisors—no complications.”
“I am sure your betrothed would not appreciate us sneaking off in the night together,” Eden reminded me.
“Jezebel will just have to meet us at the ceremony.” It would be better that way. Jezebel and Eden did not get along. In fact, Jezebel had become bent on getting along with no one lately. I was certain it had to do with my hesitance to make our betrothal public. I had put it off as long as I possibly could, despite pressure from Jezebel and her father. I just could not manage a marriage yet, not with every other political issue we had going on. And that was all marriage to Jezebel was—one more political issue.
“You do not need to add this to your worries, Gabriel. I do not wish for you to complicate matters on my behalf.”
“Perhaps you have not considered the fact that I would like to see Elon for myself. I am her favorite Pyra, after all.”
“You are the only Pyra she knows,” Eden pointed out, but her tears had slowed and her face had lightened considerably.
It was true that I cared for Eden’s little sister. Perhaps a visit with her would help me put this speech into its proper perspective. After all, how could I inspire an entire people if I could not take the time to hear its smallest voice?
“Come, I will have the wagon prepared. We leave within the hour.”
I held up a hand. “Ah, you just said I am about to become your Guardian. I think it is written somewhere in our agreement that you are not allowed to argue with me ever again. If I say we are leaving, then we are leaving.” I grinned at her to show I was teasing. We both knew she would never give me total compliance in all matters, and it would only bore me if she did. But when a boom of thunder hit the Dome so fiercely that the whole room rattled, I lost my smile. The light on the table flickered with the impact and went out.
Eden whispered, “Maybe we should not go out in that storm.”
I glanced out again, feeling that familiar indignation. A particular pair of gray eyes flashed across my mind as the lightning and wind hammered the other side of the window. So unpredictable was the wind, so uncontrollable. So utterly frustrating.
“No,” I told her with confidence. “The storm will not stop us.”
©2019 Krissi Dallas
Cover design by Kristen McGregor at Astrea Creative.
Firetrap will release in 2020 – stay tuned for updates and don’t forget to comment below!