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Lost Voices

"Lucette? Did you even hear the question?"

Luce had been gazing out the window at the darkened sky sinking over the harbor still dotted with rough floating ice, the mountain walls of shadow-colored spruce and rusty boulders under the greenish, glassy dusk of a coming storm. Mr. Carroll's voice jolted her back into the drab classroom with its tan desks and low scarred ceiling, and she noticed with dismay that half a dozen faces were already turning to stare into the back corner where she sat under a tattered map of the world. None of her other teachers ever called on her. Only Mr. Carroll insisted on trying to make her talk. If only he would leave her alone, Luce knew, the other kids would forget her existence completely.

She tightened her body and stared as blankly as she could at the board as the first giggles started up around her. Her stomach began to twist and her hands turned horribly cold. She squeezed them together under the desk to stop the trembling.

"Lucette? You should be on page one twelve of your textbook. The third problem?"

She was on page one hundred and twelve. She gaped down automatically at the third problem, and she was sure she knew the right answer. It was obvious.

The laughter got louder and faster. It buzzed around her like angry wasps. Mr. Carroll waved a hand to quiet everyone, but it didn't have much effect. She hated the concern growing in his droopy gray eyes. Luce knew that the quickest way to make them all ignore her again would be just to answer the question. Parabolic. She opened her mouth to say the word.

Nothing came out except a kind of faint croak. Everyone could see her now, and almost all of them were giggling. Her hands were shaking so much that she had to sit on them.

Desperately Luce tried to force her voice to shape the word. Just one word and she would be free again.

Her croaking got a little louder. Most of the time she could talk as well as anyone, even if she almost always chose to keep quiet. Lately, though, her voice had developed a habit of abandoning her whenever she needed it most. Someone squealed and threw a wad of paper at her, clipping her on the side of her head.

That was enough to knock Mr. Carroll out of his trance. His wobbly eyes spun away from Luce. His huge round cheeks blushed scarlet, though there was no reason why he should feel embarrassed.

"Amber?" Mr. Carroll yelped, too loudly, to a girl sitting all the way at the front. It was almost a shout. It was as if he thought he could cancel out the ugliness of what he'd done, drawing all those eyes down on the skinny dark-haired girl who huddled in the back of his class, struggling with the loss of her voice.

"I have no idea what the answer is to this stupid problem, Mr. Carroll," Amber twittered in her happy voice. "Nobody does except you." The shrieks of laughter that followed were strangely excited, and Mr. Carroll took advantage of the shifting mood, clowning as he worked out the problem on the blackboard. Even now he couldn't leave it alone, though. He kept shooting Luce guilty looks, pinching his lips together, and of course everyone noticed. Every time he glanced her way, a few more pairs of eyes flocked after his. Luce kept her face down, drawing a thicket of black hatched lines in her book until the ink became so dense that hardly any white shone through.

When the bell finally rang Luce felt sicker than ever. The other students grabbed up their backpacks and raced out, eager to get to the cafeteria for lunch. Lunch. Where in that bright blocky room would she ever be able to hide? Mr. Carroll tried to catch her attention as she slipped past him, but Luce pretended not to notice.

"This is, like, eighth grade already," a boy hissed in her ear. "You act like some freaked-out ten-year-old." Luce kept her face blank and unresponsive, even when he prodded her arm.

She slunk after the other students, staying close to the walls. A crack of thunder smacked against her thoughts. It was terrifically loud. The lightning must have struck very close to the school.

Not today, Luce thought, and all at once she remembered the date again. Her stomach seethed, and she knew that the storm wouldn't just blow over. She'd have to spend the afternoon watching the rain lash down outside and listening to the windowpanes clashing like cymbals in the wind. It would be exactly the way everything was a year ago today: the day her father's boat hadn't come home.

There was one good thing about the storm, anyway. It was a distraction. Kids huddled in the cafeteria, pretending to be terrified of the booming thunder, screaming and grabbing each other. The windows near the ceiling of the tall room looked almost black, and the rain rattled rock sharp against the panes. It was a small space compared to cafeterias Luce had seen before, but even with students bused in from every village within thirty miles it was always half empty. Lightning ripped through the darkness and the windows flashed blinding white and then went dark again. Everyone was too busy chattering about the violent weather to think of her. She slipped off to her usual spot at the side and sat alone with her back to everyone, and closed her eyes.

* * *

It wasn't a storm at all, then. Hot sunlight glared through the van's open window and burned her cheeks. A bright golden blob of sun curled on her palm like a kitten. A sign flashing by outside welcomed them to Missouri. Her father laughed and gunned the motor.

"You know they just don't make cops smart enough to catch up with me, don't you, baby doll? Look at that. Over the state line already, and they still don't know what hit them!" She smiled back at him, shy as always, and he beamed at her and twisted a lock of her long hair around one finger. Then he squinched his lips and shot her a look. "I mean, I guess I have to admit that maybe they could have caught me, once or twice"—he drawled it out playfully, and Luce knew he was faking his reluctance—"if I didn't have you to help me with strategy. You're my secret weapon, honey. You've got the mind of a great general. And not a one of them ever suspects it." Luce was already giggling when her father launched into the sluggish, moronic voice he always used to mimic policemen and judges. "You don't mean to say that that sweet little wisp of a thing could be the diabolical mastermind behind this incredible theft, do you? No, I'll never believe it!"

Luce knew he was only kidding. About the most she ever did to help was to stand lookout while her father loaded stolen chemicals or electronics into the back of their van. Even so, she loved hearing him say it. "You and me, we've got them all fooled, don't we? Now, as soon as we hit St. Louis I'll take you to the best bookstore in town, and you can pick out a whole damn stack. And for a hot fudge sundae. You've most certainly earned your share of the spoils."

Luce's bare feet were already propped high on piles of books and the duffle bag holding her clothes. Her gawky knees poked up in front of the dashboard. She could feel her right leg starting to get sunburned, but she didn't bother moving it. The rest of the van was stuffed with the weird-looking lumps of equipment her father had swiped from his last temporary job, this one doing maintenance work in a huge dry cleaning plant. Even the wind swirling across the front seat couldn't completely get rid of the sharp chemical stink. Sometimes her father wrinkled his nose into a ridiculous doglike snout and then gave her a sideways grin to let her know the smell bothered him, too.

The smell changed in Luce's nose. Now it was the greasy stench of Tater Tots and gluey fried chicken. That moment in the van had happened almost three years before, and the memory suddenly seemed stale and cold, as if she had used it to comfort herself one too many times. Her eyes were still shut tight, but she knew that if she opened them she wouldn't see the bright sunshine on the highway anymore.

"Come back come back come back," Luce called silently to her father. She tried to make the words powerful and wild, so that he would hear them wherever he was. "It's been a whole year!" There was no answer. Just the giddy shouting of the kids roughhousing at the tables behind her and the piercing soprano of a teacher who was screaming at them. Luce kept arguing with her father anyway. "It's my birthday tomorrow. You can't miss it twice in a row!"

It didn't work. She couldn't see anything but the dark red insides of her eyelids. She was all alone in this horrible school, with no place to go but back to her uncle's tiny brown clapboard house two miles outside of town. She could disappear into the woods on days when it wasn't raining too hard, but that carried its own risks. Her uncle tended to get irritable if he didn't find her at home, and after a few drinks he might express his irritation by slamming her into a wall.

When the bell rang again, she realized that she hadn't touched her food.

* * *

After lunch the storm turned so violent that the kids stopped joking about it. It was just like last year. Some of them had fathers out on the sea, and with the weather this ferocious there was always a chance that not all the boats would make it back home. Even the teachers seemed nervous. The thunder boomed, and the fluorescent lights looked dim and sick. No one was all that surprised when, halfway through seventh period, there was a shattering burst of lightning and the power went out completely. Kids shrieked and banged into desks in the darkness. Mrs. Dougherty yelled for quiet, but she sounded so hysterical herself that no one paid any attention to her. Luce sat tight at the back of the room, and in the faint greenish light coming in through the windows she could see the tumult of kids fighting to get to the door. A girl named Crystal got knocked down, hither head on the wastebasket, and started sobbing.

Luce stayed where she was, listening to something she could hear under Crystal's sobs; there was a new kind of silence, prickly with expectation. But what did she think was going to happen?

Then the door swung open, and the beam of a flashlight streaked across the room. Mr. Carroll, again. "Everyone, please, form a line. We don't need to make things any worse. One line, that's right. We have emergency lighting working in the cafeteria. Once everyone's quiet I'll lead you there. The buses will be coming in a few minutes to take you home." His voice was steady, and the students finally started calming down. Luce wanted to stay where she was, but she knew it would only attract attention if she didn't move. Reluctantly she stood and gathered her books while Mr. Carroll helped Crystal off the floor. "Are you all right, Crystal? Do you need to see the nurse?" Suddenly Luce knew that Crystal wasn't crying because of her head.

"What about the boats?" Crystal was barely whispering, but somehow Luce heard her anyway. The flashlight was pointing toward the windows, and Mr. Carroll's face was too dark to see. But when he spoke his voice was very soft.

"Well, the last news we had was half an hour ago. But the word then was that all the boats were just fine. Don't worry. They're all heading home."

Luce knew the idea that came to her then was childish, but she couldn't completely suppress it and her heart started pounding. She pictured the boats sliding into the harbor, and following behind them was an extra, unaccountable boat, so battered and patched that it looked almost ghostly behind the gray veils of the rain. Everyone would scream in amazement when they recognized the High and Mighty returning after a whole year lost, maybe having been trapped in the ice somewhere, where the men had survived by hunting seals and fishing . . .

"You should know better than to fret when I'm late, honey," her father said in her thoughts. "Life has a way of turning crazy on me sometimes. But you know I come back just as soon as I can."

Luce nodded in her mind, trying to drown out the suspicion that this was just a cowardly way of avoiding the truth. After all, he'd come back before. When she was eight he'd been sent to jail for a while—something to do with writing checks that didn't belong to him—and she'd gone into foster care. But then on her ninth birthday the faded red van was waiting outside her school, and she'd looked up to see him grinning at her through the open door. They couldn't go back to Texas after that because the police thought her father had kidnapped her. That hadn't made any sense to Luce; how could you kidnap your own daughter? After a while he'd stopped trying to explain. "Just put it down as one of those things that don't make good sense, doll," he'd told her.

"Lord knows there are plenty more where that came from."

It seemed like a very long time before the students were finally lined up and sent out to the waiting buses. Too long and too quiet, without any of the fights and shrieks there'd been during lunch. The storm boomed louder than ever. Outside, the raindrops popped all over the sidewalk in tiny bright explosions. Even in the heavy rain she preferred to walk home; anything to keep away from those stares. Below her was the harbor, the high trembling sea, while on either side rags of mountains dense with rain-blackened spruce jarred steeply upward, their darkness giving way to spills of cold, white ice halfway up. Cinnamon-colored rock outlined each base. It was early April, and the brutal darkness of the winter had yielded to days almost as long as the nights, but even so, the days were white or deep gray, rain-slashed and somber. Luce had lived in Alaska for only the past fifteen months, and she still wasn't used to any of it: the pale summer nights, winter days where the air seemed to be permeated with coal dust, the endless cold, the antlered shadows of huge elk suddenly appearing in the middle of the roads. Everyone said it had been an unusually warm winter, and Luce could barely imagine how that could be true. She stopped for a while at the edge of the cliffs, feeling the icy rivulets coiling around the side of her neck and inside her jacket while she gazed at the seethe and dip of the waves far below. Ice floes still jostled each other in places. To Luce they looked like greenish sheep nosing through the water.

By the time she got home every power line in the village seemed to have been knocked out. She sat in the small pea green kitchen, her feet on the patch of raw wood where the linoleum had peeled away. There was a good chance her uncle Peter would stay away until early morning, she knew; the anniversary of his brother's disappearance was a perfect excuse to go out drinking, and her uncle wouldn't want to pass it up. She ate crackers with peanut butter and read by candlelight until she fell asleep with her head on her arms.

* * *

hat woke her wasn't a knock. It was more of a flapping noise at the kitchen door, wet and sloppy. Luce jerked awake and listened. The candle had gone out. All around her the house was dead quiet, apart from the thrashing of the waves outside. Even the rain had stopped now, and the windows were dark gray with early dawn. She knew at once that her uncle hadn't come home. And she knew that she'd better keep out of his way when he did. Anytime he stayed out this late it meant he'd be coming home roaring drunk.

The flapping noise came again, and now Luce was awake enough to recognize the sound. "Gum!" Luce called in relief. She ran to let him in. He was squeezed up under the door frame, his shapeless little face bright and anxious. Cold wind rushed through the open door. "You know it's my birthday, Gum? I'm fourteen." He cooed in a way that made her think he understood her, and she smiled at him. It was as close as she was going to get to hearing "happy birthday" from anyone.

Luce didn't know if it made sense to call Gum her friend, exactly, when he was more than three years younger than she was and what they called mentally disabled. He could barely talk. At least he couldn't seem to say anything that made sense. He spoke in a mixture of gibberish and seagullish moans. But she felt safe with him, and she knew he was always happy to see her, too. His pale silky hair swirled in the wind as he clung to the door frame. Gum's mother was still alive, unlike Luce's, but his father was long gone. His mother struck Luce as coarse and venomous, but then in her opinion most adults were. She couldn't understand why all the kids she knew were in such a hurry to turn into them. People whispered horrible things about how Gum's mother treated him, and it wasn't too unusual for him to turn up at strange hours like this.

He bounced on the balls of his feet and hopped back from the door, flapping his hand ather. She hesitated for only a second. It would probably be better if her uncle Peter came home to an empty house. He'd be angry, of course, if he checked her room and she wasn't there. But then he'd fall asleep, and by the time he woke up he'd definitely have forgotten all about it. Luce looked into Gum's shining eyes and sighed.

"Hold on while I get my jacket, okay?" Gum bobbled and trilled on the grass. Behind him she could see the slow roll of the meadow breaking off suddenly where the cliffs plunged down into the crashing waves. The sea was still wild from the storm, and even from here she could see how the waves arched high into the bitter air before they fell like toppling buildings. Luce shivered.

Gum couldn't stop squeaking as she tied her sneakers and squeezed into her old silvery down jacket. She'd grown so much in the past year that the sleeves ended halfway up her forearms, but she could still get it to zip as long as she didn't wear a sweater. She took Gum's clammy hand in hers so he wouldn't fall, and they walked down the path that traveled along the top of the cliff. On their other side white wooden staircases zigzagged steeply upward through the darkness of the spruce, heading to tiny-windowed board houses tucked among the trees. Cold and dark as the morning was, Luce felt her heart leap with happiness as she felt the sweet, free wind rush across her face. If she hadn't had to worry about Gum tumbling off the edge she would have started to run.

A hundred yards from her uncle's house there was an incline where, by half clambering and half sliding, they could get down to a broad pebble beach at the bottom of the rocks. Tiny avalanches skittered away under their feet, and when Gum almost lost his footing Luce made him sit down and slide with her until they reached the spot where a tangle of dead roots gave them a handhold. Luce jumped the last two feet onto the pebbles, then turned and caught Gum in her arms to help him down. The tide was about as low as it could go, which was a good thing, because the waves were enormous. Luce couldn't help feeling anxious as she looked at those iron gray walls of water and the strange lace patterns of the foam where they crashed and slid back. Any one of those waves could easily pick her up and sweep her far away. Then no one would ever see her again. The idea was frightening, but what scared her even more was that, if she was honest with herself, she was horribly attracted by the idea of drifting away with the sea.

"Gum!" He was eager to run off to the tide pools, and she had to catch him back and grab his head to make him look at her. The morning was a little brighter now. Gum's face was glossy with mist and it shone in the silver light. "Gum, you need to stay way back from the water today, okay? You understand me?" Adults never got tired of warning them how dangerous the sea was here, how fast and unpredictable the currents could be. It wasn't even safe to wade. Just last fall a fifth grade boy had been grabbed right off the rocks by a rogue wave. He'd vanished while his friends watched helplessly, and two weeks later some fishermen had found his body in their net.

Gum squeaked and ran a few steps, then turned and hopped in place, obviously daring her to chase him. He spun around and leaped along, pounding deep hollows in the pebble beach. Luce ran after him, but she went at a deliberately lazy pace, giving him the thrill of outrunning her. She'd put on more speed later, catch him suddenly and swing him through the air. But then he veered down the steep slope of the beach: not all that close to the water, really, but close enough to make Luce nervous.

"You promised to stay back!" Luce called after him. He showed he understood her by shooting a sheepish look over his shoulder and thumping clumsily back up the grade, flopping onto one knee before he scrambled up again.

The wind cried in her ears, its whistle curling wildly up the scale. There was something disturbing in the sound of it, Luce thought: a very subtle undertone, like a voice drifting from the far side of the earth. It was too alluring, too sweet, as if that vast oblivious expanse was calling her to join it. Vaguely Luce felt the percussion in her own legs as she stepped closer to the sea. A tongue of water drenched her sneakers, so icy it stung, and Luce started.

What had she been thinking? It was terribly irresponsible to let herself space out like that while Gum raced on alone. The wind was just wind. That was obvious now. There was nothing unusual about it.

She went after him, calling his name, but he had a good start on her. He was already almost to the cliffs that closed off the far end of the beach. There were tall spiky rocks sticking out of the beach down there, forming a kind of maze, and as Luce ran, Gum dashed behind a rock and disappeared. The pebbles rattled under Luce's pounding feet and the cold wind slapped at her face.

"Gum?" she called. She'd finally reached the place where she'd seen him duck behind the rocks, but he was nowhere in sight. "Where are you?" There were round dents in the smooth beach that showed the way he'd run, and she followed them, weaving between huge crags. The waves crashed in a little closer now. The tide was coming in. If she didn't find him soon they'd both be in danger.

"Gum, it's time to stop playing like this! You need to get back here." Then she heard a soft sobbing sound, and turned a corner. Gum was curled in a tight ball, bobbing on his toes and crying. She couldn't see his face. A huge clump of wet brown seaweed spread out in front of him.

Luce crouched beside him and gently put her arm around his shoulders. The waves were getting much too close, and she had to soothe him enough that he would be ready to come with her. "Gum, it's okay. I'm sorry I didn't keep up with you, but it's all okay. Let's go home now." He finally looked up at her. His eyes were red and his face was slick with tears and snot.

"Fish girl!" Gum moaned. Then he started sobbing harder than ever. Luce couldn't believe it. It was the first time she'd ever heard him say anything that made any sense at all.

"Do you mean me, Gum? Am I the fish girl?" Gum squealed and rubbed his wet cheek against her jacket. With one shaking hand he reached out and pointed across the heaps of rubbery seaweed, to the place where a pale something lay half covered in brown tangles. Luce stood up to see it better. Then she gasped and grabbed Gum, pulling him up and wrapping her arms around him protectively.

A little girl was lying completely naked in the seaweed. Her eyes were closed, her skin was a milky greenish color, and her mouth hung open. She couldn't have been any older than two. Her bare chest didn't move at all, and Luce knew at once, with absolute certainty, that the girl was dead.

Excerpted from LOST VOICES © Copyright 2011 by Sarah Porter. Reprinted with permission by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

. All rights reserved.

Lost Voices
by by Sarah Porter

  • Genres: Urban Fantasy
  • paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Graphia
  • ISBN-10: 0547482531
  • ISBN-13: 9780547482538