Chapter One

Young Adult Urban Fantasy

Jen is looking forward to spending an entire summer studying abroad on a cruise ship and she knows the experience will change her life. Then she sees something she wasn’t supposed to see, something she can’t explain. Jen finds herself thrust into a world she never knew existed and her life will change more than she imagined. That is, if she can survive the dangers lurking on the ship…

Chapter 1

 A taxicab raced down the dock, came to a stop, and a girl laden with shopping bags flew out. Everyone at the rails of the ship yelled as she rushed toward the gangway. She was a ‘runner’, one of the students who pushed the all-aboard time to the limit. She vanished into the ship to a mix of boos and cheers.

“She’s going to be cleaning tables tomorrow,” my roommate, Laurie, snickered.

Most of us had taken the all-aboard time and subsequent punishments for being late seriously, and had been on the ship for over an hour. The majority of the people watching the runners were already changed into pajama bottoms or sweatshirts with Semester Aboard-Study Abroad written on them. We were students on a cruise ship that had been turned into a floating campus. Instead of studying abroad for a summer in one country, we were traveling down the western coast of Latin America. Our ship had classrooms, a dining hall, dorm rooms, even a workout room and a pool.

“Look, there’s another!” called Dani. He pointed to another cab speeding down the dock.

Even though it had been ten days since our voyage started, I still didn’t know half of the 307 students. I just met Dani earlier today. We ended up next to each other on a bus that took us on a tour of Acapulco. Every country had a bunch of trips to choose from, and you never knew who else on the ship would end up with you. It turned out that Dani and I were just four rooms apart and had never seen each other before today! I wasn’t entirely sure how I’d missed him. He was really tall with short hair and tan, olive skin. His hair looked black on the bus, but once I saw it in the sun, I was pretty sure that he dyed it midnight blue. And he was drop-dead gorgeous with a personality to match. He was incredibly friendly and outgoing. We spent the entire bus ride chatting, and when I mentioned that I didn’t recognize anybody else on the bus, he offered to stick around so I’d have somebody to talk to. We ended up spending the entire tour together.

“Dani!” someone called. We both turned to see a boy winding his way between people and tables toward us. He had wavy, red hair and looked like he’d gotten sunburned in Mexico. I was pretty sure he could pull off the natural redhead look, but I could see streaks where the red dye, which was a bit too bright to be natural, had faded to orange and blonde. It gave his head an almost flaming appearance, which I had a feeling applied to more than just his hair. He was in one of my classes, and I racked my brain for his name. He didn’t sit next to me, but we’d talked a bit before our class started.

“Hey, Charlie,” Dani said.

“How was the city?” he asked, joining us at the rail. I noticed that he wasn’t much taller than me. He was sort of stocky, but not overweight.

“It was fun.” Dani gestured to me. “Jen, here, was with me.”

“See anything good?”

“The fort was pretty splashy,” Dani said. “How was your mountain biking?”

“Toasty. I saw like a dozen Chupacabras.”

“No, you didn’t,” Dani laughed.

“Yes, I did!”

I laughed and turned my attention back to the runners while they argued. The last of the late students climbed aboard, and dockworkers started undoing the mooring lines. By now just about everyone, including faculty, was gathered on the deck. Mexico was our first port, and we were inside for orientation the first time the ship left a dock. We cheered as the ship started to pull away.

“Adios, Mexico!” someone yelled.

“Vaya con dios!”

We waved at the scattered people on the dock until we were too far away to see them in the dark. The wind started to pick up as the ship cruised along passed the lights of the buildings on the edges of the bay. People gradually started to disperse.

“Class in the morning,” Laurie reminded me with a groan.

“Ugh.” We had classes every day we were at sea, and the first one started bright and early at eight.

We wove our way through the crowd, back inside the ship, and joined the scattered people going down to their rooms. After we reached the fourth deck, we turned off the stairway and into a brightly lit, long corridor that spanned the entire length of the ship. Doors to our cabins lined both sides of it. Long railings ran along the walls, but so far, I hadn’t needed to use them. As Laurie and I walked down the hall, I spotted two familiar faces. Charlie was leaning against the outside wall, laughing, while Dani swiped his ID card over and over on a door.

“Would you stop laughing?” Dani grumbled.

“I told you not to put it in the same pocket as your phone,” Charlie said.

“Are you locked out again?” cried a voice behind me.

I turned to see a girl striding down the hall toward us. I’d seen her around the ship before; she looked like a supermodel. She was tall with thick, wavy, blonde hair that looked like it had green streaks in it. She had a figure that women paid thousands for and eyes so blue they probably made mine look gray. I noticed that she wore a t-shirt that said Marlins Swim Team, which explained her green hair. She was probably a great swimmer; she definitely had the body for it.

“How else am I going to carry it? It’s not like I have a purse!” Dani said.

“Get your ID punched and put it on that lanyard they gave us,” the blonde sighed. She shoved Dani out of the way, swiped her ID, and opened the door. Halfway in, she turned back to Dani with a condescending look. “If you get locked out one more time, I’m not letting you back in.”

Dani had to lunge forward to catch the door as it closed. Charlie laughed and followed them in. Wait … the blonde girl and Dani were roommates? With the exception of some of the professors and staff who brought their families, all of the rooms on the ship were single-sex. I knew for a fact Dani was a student.

“Are they roommates?” I asked Laurie.

“Yeah, that’s Mariana and Dani. They’re married.”

“What? Seriously?” It actually wasn’t that hard to believe. Dani was probably the hottest guy on the ship, and Mariana could easily be the most beautiful girl. If anyone on the ship would be married to one of them, it would clearly be the other.

Laurie nodded. “I heard Mariana telling somebody that this is like their honeymoon or something. She said they had to fax their marriage certificate the second they got it so that they’d be allowed to share a room.”

“Wow.” It sounded pretty cool, but I wasn’t sure I’d want to take classes on my honeymoon.

We continued down the hall to our room. Even though I had only slept there for a few nights before we arrived in Mexico, it already felt like home, and it was nice to be back. It wasn’t a very big room, but it was cozy. A narrow alcove separated our room from the door. Just by standing in one spot and turning, I could close our door, open the bathroom door, open the closet, and reach my hand into the bedroom. Our beds were so close together that our nightstands were sandwiched between them, without enough room for even a pencil to roll off. I could have reached out and touched Laurie’s bed from mine. We each had a chair and a little desk at the foot of our beds. Aside from some drawers built into the wall and a small TV, there was nothing else in our room.

After brushing my teeth, I climbed happily into bed. It didn’t take long for the motion of the ship and hum of the engines to lull me to sleep.

All too soon, my alarm rang for my morning class. By the time I got out of the shower, Laurie had returned from her daily trip up to the gym. I stepped out of the bathroom and was dressed before I heard the shower turn on. I smiled at how easily we got back into routine after five days in port. I went up to breakfast and chose a random table. A couple of girls I hadn’t met yet, and a professor and her two little boys sat there. We exchanged introductions and ate.

I found Laurie after breakfast, and we made our way to the huge room that served as the Latin American History classroom. It was the first class of the day and was mandatory for everyone, even the faculty. Across the room, I spotted Charlie’s bright hair and noticed that he was sitting with Dani and Mariana. After class, I joined the shuffle of students heading to other classrooms. My next class, Plant Use in Latin American Culture, was the one that Charlie was in too.

“Hey, Jen!” Carrie greeted me as we entered the classroom. “The in-port project isn’t due today right?”

“No, it’s due tomorrow,” Charlie answered. He was sitting at the desk closest to the door.

“What a relief!” Carrie said. “I did that algae the Aztecs grew. What about you guys?”

“I wrote mine on tomatoes,” I said.

“Chilies,” Charlie said.

“Ugh!” Carrie wrinkled her nose. “I can’t stand spicy stuff.”

“You won’t like me, then,” Charlie said and winked at her.

We laughed and took our seats across the room.

“He’s cute, but he sets off my gaydar like whoa,” she whispered to me.

“Mine too,” I giggled.

After class ended, I had half an hour to kill. I swung by the dining room on Deck Five and grabbed a quick lunch. Like my Plant Use class, my next class was uneventful. When it was over, I passed Dani in the hall on the way to Spanish for Travelers.

“Hola,” Dani called as he passed me. “Doin’ alright?”

“I’m bueno,” I giggled to him. He laughed and headed for the stairs.

After Spanish, I joined the throng of people gathered on Deck Seven. I found a lounge chair and pulled it over to the rails so I could watch the water while I studied.

The next day was pretty much the same, but it started raining early in the afternoon and turned into a bad storm by the time I went to bed. I woke up in the middle of the night and stumbled over to our bathroom, feeling awful. A bit of quality time bent over the toilet didn’t help at all, and I decided to try for some fresh air. I pulled a sweater on over my pajamas, hung my ID card strap around my neck, and slipped out of the room. I made my way down the corridor to the door that led outside. For the first time since getting on the ship, I needed to keep one hand on the railing. The halls were well lit, even though it was the middle of the night, and it was almost disconcerting to step outside into the darkness. But the moment the cool, damp wind hit my face, I felt better. I hadn’t been seasick since our first night, but sometimes I felt nauseous if I stayed in our room too long; being out on the deck always helped.

I assumed that I’d be the only one crazy enough to go out in the rain in the middle of the night, but to my surprise I wasn’t. There were people on the other side of the deck. It was too dark to see them well, but the lights from the deck above us illuminated them a little. One of them was Charlie. He was standing under the overhang where Deck Five extended out above Deck Four. He was just wearing a t-shirt and jeans, and I shivered in sympathy. A guy I recognized, not surprising since we all lived on a ship, was sitting on the bottom steps of the outdoor stairway that led to Deck Five. He was probably a football player back home or something. He had shaggy, dark brown hair and a fairly large nose. I’d heard a few girls giggling about him, but I didn’t think he was that good-looking. I wasn’t sure what his name was. Another guy sat in a chair, probably pilfered from Deck Five, with his back to me and his feet up on the rails. Mariana was near him, wearing only a bikini top and a short skirt. I couldn’t believe she wasn’t cold.

“I didn’t scream!” she said.

“You totally did! You freaked out!” Dani laughed.

It was too dark to notice Dani until he spoke. My jaw dropped in shock. Dani was sitting on the railing of the ship. Messing around on the rails was one of the first things they’d told us not to do when we got on board. Even sitting on them in the middle of a calm day was suicidal, at best. But to sit there in the middle of a stormy night was nothing short of a death wish.

“I was not!” Mariana cried.

“You were all like, ‘Oh, Danio, save me Danio!'”

“Well, I… I… Don’t be such a jerk!”

As Mariana spoke, she spun to face Dani and shoved him hard. Dani’s laugh turned into a yell of surprise, and he tumbled backward off of the railing! I gasped in horror. Every second was critical. If someone went overboard, we were supposed to immediately throw them a life preserver and run to tell a crew member. But not a single one of them did anything! The one in the chair uncrossed his legs and re-crossed them with a different one on top. The guy on the stairs threw back his head and laughed! Charlie quickly stuck his head over the railing, pulled back, and shivered. It was as if Dani hadn’t gone overboard at all.

“Oh my God!” I gasped. They must have been in shock, and that was the only reason they weren’t rushing to save Dani. I ran across the deck. At the very least, I could throw the life preserver in and hope he was still alive to use it.

They all jerked around to look at me. They acted more surprised to see me than they were about Dani falling overboard. Mariana gasped and backed against the rail. Charlie stepped to the edge of the overhang, and Football Guy jumped off of the stairs and to his feet. The guy in the chair was on his feet in an instant. I hardly even saw him move; one second he was sitting and the next he was up. He stepped in front of the others, almost protectively.

“That’s Jennifer,” Charlie spoke softly, like he didn’t want me to hear, but the wind carried his words right to me. “She’s in one of my classes.”

The guy in front smiled. “You’re up late.”

They were acting like nothing had happened! This was insane!

“What’s the matter with you?” I cried. “We have to do something!”

“Do something?” He almost looked genuinely confused. “About what?”

“She just…” I gestured to Mariana. “She just pushed Dani overboard!”

He had the audacity to laugh. “It’s raining, you know. And dark. You’re mistaken.”

“Jeez, Mariana, if you wanted a divorce you should’ve just-” My jaw dropped as Dani reappeared at the rail. He caught sight of me and froze.

My mind reeled. He was soaking wet, it was obvious it wasn’t just from the rain. He fell into water that had to be well over fifty feet below us, and we were really moving, too. Even an Olympic swimmer couldn’t have kept up with us. Dani had fallen all the way down into the ocean and, not only had he not drowned, he’d gotten back on the ship.

This was impossible.

Dani vaulted easily over the railing and landed on the deck. He crossed it swiftly and stopped right behind the guy I’d been talking with. Dani was quite a bit taller than him and leaned down to put his mouth near the guy’s ear. “I think it would be better if I went in. You got this?” he whispered.

“Yeah. Take Mariana with you.” The wind was still in my favor, and I could just make out what they were saying.

Dani grabbed Mariana by the arm. “Come on.”

“Dani, I’m so sorry.”

“It happens. Let’s go.”

Dani glanced at me as he and Mariana went inside.

Football Guy edged toward the stairway he’d been sitting on. “Right, I’ll call Jon.”

The other one nodded. “Wait,” he said when Football Guy was halfway up the stairs. “It’s late, email him. We can handle this until he gets it.” Football Guy nodded and ran up the rest of the stairs to Deck Five and, probably, the computer lab. Then, the not-so-forthcoming one turned back to me. “Jennifer, right? I’m Thomas. What brings you out on deck?”

I glared. “Dani just fell overboard, and you’re going to stand there like nothing happened?”

“Nothing did happen.”

“Dani fell off the ship, into the ocean, and climbed back up again! I saw it with my own eyes!” He looked uncomfortable, and I realized that he was trying to cover up what I had just witnessed. “So don’t lie to me! What just happened?”

“Nothing,” Thomas said firmly. “Forget about it.”

“If nothing happened, then what is that guy going to email Jon about?”

Thomas looked surprised for a second, and then sighed. “Alright, tell you what. I’ll explain things after I hear back from Jon.”

No way. He was just stalling. “Explain now,” I insisted. He glared in response. I got the feeling that if they were going through this much effort to cover things up, they clearly wouldn’t want me going around talking about it. “Explain now, or I’m going to start asking around until I find someone who will.”

“Go ahead,” Charlie snarled. “Dani’s safe and dry by now. You’ve got no proof, and none of us are going to back up your story.” As he spoke, something weird happened. His eyes, which were a very reddish-brown, seemed to change. It must have been the rain or the lights or something, but bright reds and oranges flared in his eyes, almost like flames.

“Char!” Thomas snapped.

Charlie closed his mouth and took a step back. He looked pissed, but Thomas had shut him up.

“You’re just going to let him boss you around?” I asked incredulously. Charlie stuck up his chin defiantly, but stayed quiet.

Thomas stepped closer and more into the light, allowing me to finally get a good look at him. He was a few inches taller than me and pretty thin. The rain had plastered his bangs across his forehead and over one eye. It struck me as a sort of emo haircut. He looked fairly pale, and I could see circles under his eyes, like he didn’t sleep enough. His cheeks were slightly hollow, and he looked like he might have been a bit seasick. He wore a retro-looking band t-shirt, and I stifled a groan; he probably was one of those emo kids.

“If you want an explanation at all, you’ll wait until I hear back from Jon. And in the meantime, you’ll keep quiet.”

“Is that a threat?” I laughed.

Thomas leaned forward and actually curled back his upper lip. “Don’t. Tell. Anyone,” he snarled. This time I didn’t feel like laughing. For an instant, my entire body froze, and I almost couldn’t move. This was absurd. He was just some emo college guy acting tough. What did I have to be afraid of?

I sucked in a deep breath, squared my shoulders, and glared at Thomas. “Fine! If you promise that you’ll explain everything after this Jon guy talks to you, then I won’t say anything.”

He looked surprised. More than surprised, he looked shocked.

“Man, she’s got some spice,” Charlie said softly. “I felt that from here.”

“Deal,” Thomas said. “We’ll talk tomorrow, then. Goodnight.” With that, he turned and swept across the deck, heading up the stairs in the direction Football Guy had gone.

“Don’t say anything, Jennifer,” Charlie said. “Please.” He opened the door to go back inside and started in. I followed. Halfway down the corridor, he turned and glared at me. “Are you following me or something?” he snapped. I saw the strange red flare in his eyes again.

“My room is this way!”

“Oh…” Charlie turned back and kept walking.

He paused outside of Dani and Mariana’s room and knocked. I knew that I’d make things worse if I stopped, so I kept going. But I slowed down. By the time I got to my room, Dani’s door had opened. I quickly opened mine and waited in the doorway. I peered out around the doorjamb and yanked my head back as Dani’s appeared in his.

“You better have good news,” I heard Dani whisper to Charlie. “Mariana is beside herself.”

I heard the door close, closed my own, and leaned against it. What on earth had I just witnessed? I lay down and played it over and over again in my mind. I was convinced that I had seen something very, very strange. The fact they were all trying to cover up made it even more confusing. When I finally fell asleep, I still couldn’t for the life of me figure out what had happened.

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