Nothing. Bits of black exploding behind the eyes does not qualify as a message from beyond. Just an expensive necklace after all. Really expensive. The quartz does look like something off Gandolf’s wand, a five-inch quartz point with beautiful natural facets and ridges of frost on four of its six faces but still, maybe she should have gone for a new backpack or the green-striped sneakers down at Toni’s Surf. The pendant plus getting it wrapped had taken a serious chunk of her paycheck and Gram wouldn’t be paying again for two weeks.
How many more beds would she have to make before scoring enough for new sneakers? Just counting the guests she’d have to serve nonfat instead of whole, soy instead of dairy, decaf instead of regular gave her a pounder of a headache. The stupid list was endless, and the pay sort of sucked…though she’d never say that to Gram.
Starling knew to wait on guests at The Pink Petal with that big sugary smile Gram taught her brought people back season after season but, truthfully, she really didn’t care if they came back or not. Bed and breakfast? More like bored and bogus. With a zillion places to hang out at the Jersey shore, some with actual boardwalks and stuff to do, she ended up stuck in Cape May where tourists invaded like ants, clogging the streets with bikes and taking painfully slow carriage rides past the old Victorians, sunburned arms pointing at this and that.
At least the tourists could go somewhere else if they felt like it, to Ocean City with its loud, blaring boards, or Sea Isle with its endless stretch of restaurants. Not Starling. After Starling’s dad died, money disappeared faster than it arrived, and when her mom took the job in Connecticut with impossible hours, Starling knew the deal before Mom even said it. Shipped off to the B&B. Gram would never leave Cape May which meant Starling was stuck here too.
Seven-twenty already. Gram would pitch a fit if Starling didn’t hustle and start the coffee. She’d need to start on the rooms during breakfast and get tea set up a little earlier today for guests who would stay on the porch and out of the rain. Starling used to love rainy days when she and her family lived in the little brownstone walkup in New York, but down the shore, wet days only meant dirty towels and extra baking.
Shivering from the unusual morning chill, she shuffles into the kitchen wearing her favorite ripped shorts and a huge Drexel sweatshirt, a gift from Danny. Her brother had gotten away just in time. Only two more years and she could head out and get a life too.
“Good morning, Sunshine.” Gram steps from the pantry holding an impossibly large basket that Starling knows she will shortly fill with homemade muffins.
“Hey, Gram. I’ll get coffee going and stuff.”
“Thank you, honey.” Starling sees Gram peek at her over her wire rims. “Your favorite kind of day out there. Lots of grey and tons of rain.”
“Yeah.” Starling shrugs as she fills the coffee maker with water and beans for a fresh batch of Viennese roast. Today feels weird, kind of flat and dull. Probably because school is starting in, what, three weeks? Normally the delicious smell of the dark brew filling the cavernous kitchen helps to lift her crummy spirits, but today, nothing.
“I think those two ladies from The Bleeding Heart Room are already in the dining room. You’re not dressed to serve but go and see if they’d like some coffee anyway.”
Starling moves through the heavy oak door into the rose-colored dining room, putting on her best smile, crazy mane of wavy brown poking from its ponytail holder. Two older ladies sit by the French doors, looking out into the lush rectangle of backyard, talking quietly. They’re both wearing jeans and t-shirts, a crazy mix of crystal jewelry, and have funky hair for women their age. One lady has short white spikes so pale they’re almost blue and the other, a long red braid too zingy to be real. Probably bizarros from Lily Dale again, looking for Victorian ghosts.
“Um, excuse me. Would you ladies like coffee?”
The women turn and smile. “Oh, honey, we know we’re too early for breakfast. Don’t mind us.” The woman with the spikes gives Starling such a kind smile, she feels herself relax.
“No trouble, really. I just started the coffee and everything.”
“Well, ok,” the woman with the braid says, “but we certainly don’t need special treatment. Oh look!” Starling follows the woman’s glance to a watery rainbow splashed against the delicate pink rose pattern of Gram’s Royal Osbourne cups and saucers on a far shelf. After shifting, the rainbow winks and disappears. The woman with the white spikes laughs.
“It’s your crystal, honey, throwing prisms.” She points at Starling’s quartz wrap, hanging like a weight against her sweatshirt. She really should take it off before she knocks it against something and breaks off one of the stupidly expensive gems. “That’s just gorgeous. Might I see it?”
Starling pulls the cord over her head and hands it to the woman, feeling an odd sense of relief. The woman turns the stone over and over, rubbing the frosted faces, fingering the points and, finally, inhaling. Hello, weird.
“You can smell the tide!” she exclaims in a funny, high voice, handing it back to Starling who drops it around her neck and heads for the kitchen.
“I’ll be right back with coffee,” Starling throws over her shoulder. The tide? Ok, whatever. Damn again, she think as she pours grounds. She forgot to put a filter in the basket. Should be another stunner of a day.
The following morning, as Starling clears the breakfast plates and gets the couple with the fussy toddler more hot water for tea, the older woman with the red braid, Alma she now knows is her name, gives her a nudge.
“When you have a moment, my sister Stella and I would like to talk with you. We’re checking out this morning.”
Nodding, Starling takes a load of empty platters to the kitchen and then heads to the sunroom. Lavish with plants of all sorts, the sunroom resembles a traditional Victorian conservatory full of jasmine, maidenhair ferns, and abutilon. One damp corner even features a mermaid spitting water into an arc. Starling finds the two sisters sitting by the heliotropes.
“Hi,” she says distractedly, thinking of the two million things she needs to prep for the bridal shower tea in a few hours.
“Can you sit, Starling?” The sisters scoot and make room for her on the settee.
“We wanted to talk to you,” Stella says, fingering her own heavy crystal pendant around her neck, “about that lovely Record Keeper you wear.” Starling reaches down for her quartz and remembers she has left it in her drawer.
“Where did you get it?” Alma leans forward so closely that Starling can see the tiny lines around her eyes.
“I found it in that antique store down on Lafayette Street, The Tin Attic.”
“Yes?” The sisters both lean forward, waiting.
“I just thought it would make a cool wrap.” Starling blinks, wondering if Gram remembered to get more decaf. That older couple staying in The Rose Garden Room had been requesting decaf and they were pretty much out.
“The Tin Attic…yes, Stella and I have been there.” The sisters look like they’re waiting for something, but Starling has no clue what.
“It was up front, in a case near the register with a bunch of Victorian pins and stuff.” The sisters exchange a look and Starling starts to get up. She’s got to get those tiny quiches out of the freezer. Gram makes them from scratch and freezes them, and if Starling doesn’t thaw them just right, they’ll scorch in the old oven. God, that’s all she needs, burned quiche for the bride-to-be.
“But what about all the lovely little gems wrapped around it. Did you choose those? Do you make jewelry?”
“Oh, no, I didn’t do that. A lady in Wildwood does all that stuff, wraps crystals, reads tarot, you know.” She shrugs. “She added the gems, said they would enhance the message.” Starling catches herself. Ack, she hadn’t meant to repeat that part. How embarrassing. No wonder she has no friends. How many pre-Calc honor students talk to rocks?
Stella and Alma lean so far forward they nearly pitch right off the settee.
“A message? This lady told you there was a message?” Stella’s eyes tell her this isn’t really a question.
“Yeah. When Juniper, the lady in Wildwood, wrapped it, she was all, ‘This Record Keeper is holding information for you.’ She told me that before some ancient city sank they imprinted stuff on crystals, kind of like a DVD. So I did what she said, meditated, asked for a sign, that kind of thing. You know, silly stuff…” Starling trails off. This is too much. It’s not like she ever really believed Juniper anyway.
Stella startles her when she puts a cold, dry hand on Starling’s arm.
“We have something for you,” she says, pulling an old lace hanky from the pocket of her bright pink capris. The hanky has a weight to it and when Starling unwraps it, she finds a rough green stone studded with bright purple crystals. Her stomach flutters.
“We think you’ll find this useful…in your future pursuits.” Stella and Alma both nod. Really nice older ladies but, as Starling has suspected all week, weird. And what could her “future pursuits” be anyway, other than Mr. Cannon’s weekly vocabulary quizzes and maybe another year on Mathletes?
“Um, thank you. This is really, you know, pretty.” Starling looks towards the kitchen. “I’ve got to get the quiche ready…” she waves her arms towards the dining room like a demented conductor guiding an invisible symphony. Alma and Stella both smile.
“Starling,” Alma begins, flipping her braid around to the other shoulder, “this is Atlantisite. When Stella and I saw your Record Keeper, we believed you would enjoy adding this to your collection.”
“Oh, I don’t really…” she begins, and then stops when she sees the anxiety on the women’s faces. “Um, it’s beautiful. I’ll keep it in my room.” The ladies nod and smile. She has said the right thing. Finally.
“Starling?” calls Gram from the kitchen. “The quiches, honey…”
“Coming, Gram.” Starling backs towards the kitchen. “Thank you so much. And have a safe trip.” With a quick wave, she slips the rock into her pocket, heads for the kitchen, and loses her thoughts in three dozen mini-quiche, frozen solid.
“Hey, loser.” Betsy Harner pulls her shiny red Mustang way too close to Starling’s bike on purpose.
“What do you want, Betsy?” God, leave me alone alrerady.
“Who names their kid after a bird everybody hates? Did you know starlings kill bluebirds? Nasty things.” Betsy turns to Madison Koates, her most recent worshipper, now basking in the passenger seat, and makes a sound that’s probably a laugh but reminds Starling of breaking glass. The most evil rising Junior in all of Mid-Atlantic High, Betsy had zeroed in on Starling the second week of Sophomore year, mocking the new girl, scribbling on her locker, making her life hell. In a week Starling would be passing Betsy and her crew in the halls every day again. Oh, joy.
“Hey, what’s that thing around your neck? It looks like an icicle!” Madison the Minion points with a French-manicured finger and snorts. Starling has a hard time taking Madison seriously, especially after she announced in Biology last year that she couldn’t get the Rhinovirus because she had never petted a rhinosaurus.
“It is an icicle. One that never melts. It’s enchanted!” Starling flutters her hands. Poor Madison, she actually looks confused.
“O.M.G., Maddy, just stop talking.” Betsy rolls her eyes as she puts the car into drive. The convertible jumps forward, showering Starling with gravel and dusty sand. Sighing, she turns down Beach Avenue, and bikes for home.
Once in her room, she flops on the bed in disgust, nearly gouging her leg on something sharp. Digging under the sheets, she comes up with the green and purple rock from those weird ladies, a guitar pick, two unmatched dirty socks, and her pink earbuds. Starling needs to accept the fact: school is going to suck. She’s going to suffer; Betsy will make sure of it.
She flips the rock into the air, watching it land on a pile of dirty t-shirts. Anything would be better than this, even living with Mom and hardly ever seeing her. But Mom would never go for it. Peeling off her sweaty shirt, Starling heads for the shower, grabbing her robe from its hook. This day couldn’t get worse.
Stepping into the cool shower, Starling feels the rub of the waxy wet cord at her neck and remembers she’s forgotten to take off her crystal. As she rinses conditioner from heavy fistfuls of hair, she suddenly gags. The pain—fierce, sharp, and swift—snatches her breath, causing her to lean against the pale green and yellow tiles and inhale slowly. As her chest begins to numb, her panic starts to rise.
Is she having a heart attack? A seizure? A…a…she doesn’t know what. Should she call for Gram? She stops short, shoving soapy hands into her mouth to stifle a scream. Her crystal, the Record Keeper Juniper had promised held some deep secret was—this can’t be right—stuck. Stuck. Her brain tries to compute what she sees.
Anchored like a spider to its web, the crystal has imbedded itself right into her chest.
Running to her room and slamming the door, Starling curls into herself on the bed, soaked hair leaving long, wet streaks across the pillow.
“Starling,” she hears Gram say from the kitchen, “no slamming, please!”
Sick with fear, she sits up and unpeels her robe to look. The monstrous thing has slipped right into the flesh just below her neck, leaving its length peeking out of her skin like some alien. Starling claws at its edges, first with fingers, then tweezers. Tears mix with blood as she graduates to manicure scissors, digging and cutting.
The gory mess of her upper chest gloats from the mirror, a beautiful crystal with bits of gemstone winking around raw and torn flesh. She has gone insane. That’s the easiest explanation.
If she can’t cut it out she’ll…she’ll shatter it. Yes. Starling grabs the empty juice glass from her nightstand then, frowning, puts it down and looks around. Ok, not glass, that’s dumb. What else might work? Something harder…another rock? Shoving aside dirty clothes, she grabs the purple and green rock, the Atlantisite, from the floor. She’ll shatter it and be fine. Sure. Fine.
Bracing herself against the ancient peeling headboard, wondering vaguely if the shrinks will let her keep Mr. Snuffles, her stuffed dragon, when Gram commits her, Starling strikes the Record Keeper with the Atlantisite.
For a girl who doesn’t know much about astronomy, she’s surprised to see so many stars.
The pain explodes into timelessness. The sensation reminds her of the day Betsy made sure a dodge ball caught her right in the stomach—no breath, complete stun. Then a bright, bloody red morphing into sunny orange, hot yellow, watery green, sky blue, shimmery indigo, and finally a velvety purple that leaves a dark smudge against her eyes. Reaching down to her chest, Starling feels nothing. Well, not nothing exactly, but ripples, like thick soup.
Starling picks her way around the jagged jetty, stepping lightly with bare feet on the huge, rounded stones and shiny pebbles that make up the banks of Sunset Beach. She sinks into the soft sand and stares at the orange sunset slowly sinking behind the remnants of Atlantus, the old concrete ship stuck at a cocky angle beneath the soft waves of the Delaware Bay for almost 80 years.
Two figures walk towards her, appearing like mist from the darkening bay. As they get closer, Starling recognizes the white spikes and long red braid of Stella and Alma. They’ve exchanged their capris and tees for long grey robes that shimmer like rain in the deepening twilight. Starling rises, walks to the edge of the water, waits.
Alma and Stella hold out their hands but when Starling grabs at them, she touches air, water, and maybe even time. Stella’s watery touch removes the quartz crystal swinging from its black cord around Starling’s neck. Holding it between them, the sisters sing a high-pitched song that reminds Starling of cold nights wrapped in thick quilts, bright blue birds flitting past on warm Spring days, and soft, warm waves lapping at her feet.
“That was stuck to me.” The words sound silly out loud, as though she is talking to herself. The sisters smile silently. How stupidly infuriating.
“Do you hear me? It. Was. Stuck. Right. Here.” Starling pokes at her chest, her voice a screech against the cool night breeze. So this is what it feels like to be hysterical. Alma fits a piece of shiny clear quartz she has pulled from the folds of her robe against the crystal’s faces until it attaches with a small snick. Blue light pulses from the wand as numbers, symbols, and unfamiliar letters from languages Starling does not know scroll across, up, and around the points.
Mixed in with the foreign symbols come other, different visions…Gram’s fine china, smashed to bits, an oven full of smoking and sputtering quiche, her dad kissing her goodbye for the very last time. The final vision makes Starling gasp, her heart knocking woodenly in her chest. She begins to cry.
“What’s happening? What is that thing?” Starling feels both revulsion and love for the beautiful crystal. As Alma silently places it back over Starling’s head, it knocks against her heart and sends a jolt through her. The air becomes charged and ozone-heavy. And Starling suddenly knows…
Her dad was one of them. A descendant. And so is she.
The memories bubble up, gently at first, and then stronger and faster…her father’s stories, the watery legends shared in whispers as they held hands and watched the rain pour from the brownstone’s rickety gutters. The seven sacred Holy Ones, each frantically creating records of their world inside precious quartz on the last hour of their last day. Starling’s Record Keeper one of them, one of the original seven crystals stuffed with knowledge of a world sinking into its own ego, sinking into the sea. They did this to themselves, little Starflight. Atlantis turned itself inside out, grasped at life, danced and sang, but without understanding or tolerance or peace.
The stories, locked tightly against her ribs and under her heart for so long, finally claim her…Daddy’s symbols, the ones he’d doodle on napkins and scrap paper, the way he’d rush into the rain just to feel the drops, laughing as he danced with Starling under the drench, paying honor to water wherever he happened upon it—oversized puddles, rushing waves—always honoring, protecting, teaching Startling how to love the precious element for herself. And the Atlantisite, small purple-green chips shining on Daddy’s cuffs.
The remembering hurts. But, she realizes with a start, it hurt so much more to forget.
“Hey, Starfish, nice kicks. Not.” Betsy points at Starling’s new green-striped skate sneakers—a gift from Gram for working her butt off all summer—and sneers loudly enough to make Kobe James, Mid-Atlantic High’s surf god, watch her swing into a desk behind Maddy.
“I kind of like them,” Maddy says in a stage whisper before Betsy makes a face at her then carefully crosses her legs so her already-tiny skirt hikes up for Kobe’s benefit. As Starling turns away from the freak show, Jess Cosmo, a quiet girl from the Honor Society, leans in.
“Hey, Starling. I love your pendant.” Starling fingers the Record Keeper’s waxy cord, feels the crystal’s weight swing against her hand, and smiles. The Record Keeper. Starling knows its secrets, knows it holds knowledge that can change nothing…or everything. “Ginny and me are going to Hot Dog Tommy’s for lunch if you want to come. No way we’re touching caf food until we absolutely have to.” Jess smiles and Starling nods.
“Sure, Jess. That’d be cool.”
The room falls into an uneasy hush as an older woman enters. Must be a sub since it’s definitely not crabby Mrs. Cavaletti with jelly stains on her cardigan. This woman wears a fitted grey silk suit that throws a shimmer, even under the sickly yellow lights, expensive-looking heels, and a stunning crystal brooch. Mid-Atlantic High’s History III-Section 3A sits dumbfounded, both by the super-chic outfit and this lady’s crazy-cool hair—pale white spikes so light they almost shine blue under the humming fluorescents.
Starling catches her breath.
“You can spit out that gum now, Betsy. And if you’d like to stay enrolled in my class, you won’t show up chewing it again.”
“But, I…” Betsy puts on her best wounded face but for once, no one cares. The class remains riveted.
“Ok, everyone, desks in a circle, please. My name is Stella Atlantean and we’re doing history a little, ah, differently this year.” Starling covers her surprised snort with a cough. The Record Keeper rests snugly against her heart, which feels surprisingly light. Knowledge. It can change nothing…or everything.
Welcome home, Starflight.