City of Thirst, p.1Carrie Ryan
Table of Contents
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For Esmé and Audrey
No walls are too high.
The Message on the Stop Sign
Karnelius J. Mousington was not, as a rule, a cat that appreciated being ignored. He tugged on his leash, drawing it tighter around Marrill’s arm and breaking her concentration. She flapped a hand at him to be still. Her eyes, meanwhile, stayed fixed on the three little boys standing before her, the youngest of whom casually held an object that didn’t exist.
At least, not in her world it didn’t.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Tim said. His cheeks flushed as he passed it to her.
Marrill tried to keep her fingers from shaking as she turned it over in her hands. It was a net, sort of; or more like a spiderweb made out of soap film; attached by a single thread to a thin glass rod. It looked so delicate that she was afraid it might vanish if she gripped it too hard. And yet, from what Fin had once told her, it would hold up against the force of a hurricane.
The Hatch brothers looked up at her, waiting expectantly. This was the third time today they’d called her out to the empty lot at the far edge of their neighborhood, promising to have found the lost treasures of Atlantis, unearthed by the recent flash flood. Up until now, those “treasures” had been half an old tire, two glass bottles, and a shinier-than-normal-but-not-really-that-shiny rock.
Normally, she would make up stories for them, like how an old cow’s bone was really the remains of a baby dragon, or how a rusted coffee tin was the power core of a crashed alien spaceship.
But this time, she didn’t need to make it up.
“It’s a cloud-catching net,” she explained.
She chewed her lip. Back on the Pirate Stream, it wouldn’t have been unusual to come across a cloud-catcher. She’d seen a whole stack of them in the Naysayer’s frozen tower of junk, in the CrystalShadow Wastes.
But the Pirate Stream was an endless river of pure magic, full of marvelous magical things and crazy, magical places. This was Arizona—it was about as unmagical as places got. Cloud-catching nets weren’t exactly common here.
Marrill stared at the gossamer net, excitement and fear and confusion all mixing together into one explosive ball inside her. “Where exactly did you find this?” she asked.
“Down in the ravine. There’s tons of good stuff there. Come on, we’ll show you!” The middle Hatch took off across the empty lot, his brothers close behind. It had rained just a few hours before, a good-sized storm for the desert, and puddles still spotted the ground. Marrill snatched Karnelius up and chased after them across the damp earth.
The “ravine” in question was really more like a big, steep ditch running down the back of the lot and ending in a narrow culvert under the road. It was usually bone dry, but after the morning’s rain, a thin trail of water now meandered its way down the middle—the last gasp of the flash flood.
The Hatch brothers led her to a snaggle of metal piled up against the entrance to the culvert. “We found it there,” Ted said, pointing. “Check out all the treasure!”
“Hmmmm…” Marrill set Karny down, ignoring his protests as she poked cautiously at the debris. The more she uncovered, the more confused she became: a cracked nightmare shield, still snarling to keep the bad dreams away. A broken fishing pole with a prollycrab carved onto it. And something that looked suspiciously like a used hope crystal. Things that existed only on the Pirate Stream.
Marrill’s pulse quickened as she dug deeper. A hunk of what looked like jellyfish jelly shifted to one side and fell, revealing the bottom of an old, dented stop sign wedged against the side of the big pipe. And scrawled across it, in thick black letters, were the words:
“What in the world…” she mumbled, clearing away a tangled mesquite branch to yank the sign free. She read it again, then flipped the sign over. On the back, an image had been sketched in the same dark writing: a series of jagged triangles, inscribed in a circle, all resting on the back of a dragon.
A fist of uneasiness curled in her stomach. Someone, somehow, had sent her a message: She was needed on the Stream!
But there was no going back to the Stream; Ardent had made that clear when they’d parted. Her world followed rules, while the Stream’s magic knew none. Too much contact between the two and her world could be ripped apart.
Marrill swallowed, her throat tightening. The Stream will touch your world again, Ardent’s final words sounded in her head. She could still remember the deathly seriousness in the wizard’s voice. But if it’s close enough for you to stumble upon, something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.
“What’s the Pirate Stream?” Tim asked, peering over her shoulder. “Do you know pirates? Have you been holding out on us?”
Marrill shook her head slowly. “Oh, no… uh… this is just a note from Remy,” she said, pulling out the first name that popped into her head.
“Your babysitter sent you a message on a stop sign?” Tom asked.
Marrill let out a strained laugh. “I know, right? She’s so weird! Anyway, this is just her crazy way of reminding me to do my homework. On pirates.”
She struggled to grip the cumbersome sign in one hand and tugged on Karny’s leash with the other. Unattended, her cat had poked his way into the tunnel-like culvert to investigate. “Come on, you fuzzy beast,” she mumbled into the darkness, pulling on the leash again.
A low growl was the only response. She sighed and set the sign aside so she could crawl into the dim tunnel to retrieve her cat.
The sudden darkness surprised her. It was so dark, in fact, that she could barely make out her cat’s outline up ahead, his tail bristle-brush straight and his fur in full-on puff. He let out a low, angry hiss.
Goosebumps ran across her skin. Something was wrong.
“Karny?” she whispered softly. Carefully, she laid one hand on his back. “You okay?”
A woman’s voice spoke, loud and fast and so close it made Marrill jump. “The Iron Tide is coming. You must stop it! Stop the Iron Ti—MREAEEEK!”
Karny bolted forward and pounced. There was a brief scuffle with something she couldn’t see. Then silence.
“Hello?” Marrill whispered.
She was greeted with a mrrrp and the brush of fur against her wrist. Fur and something cold. She snatched her cat up by the ruff of his neck and dragged him back into the light.
Karny hung limply in her arms, glaring with his one eye. A bloated, white-and-brown thing dangled just as limply from his mouth.
“Eww, it’s a frog!” one of the Hatches cried.
It was, indeed, a frog. Its big white belly glistened up at her, marked in the middle with a weird pattern of dark lines. “Oh, Karny,” she sighed. She pried the poor thing from her cat’s jaws, hoping against hope it wasn’t too injured for her to help.
“Who was in there?” another Hatch asked. Marrill shivered, remembering the voice. She glanced back into the culvert. If anyone was in there, she couldn’t see them.
But there was something familiar in the air. It was the smell of salt, and the ozone scent of energy, and the feeling that anything could happen all rolled into one. A rush of nostalgia flowed through her. It was the smell of the Pirate Stream—the scent of magic.
“No one,” s
Marrill snatched the stop sign and Karny’s leash with one hand, still hanging on to the frog with the other. “Better get this guy some medical attention.”
The youngest Hatch jumped up onto his toes, eyes bright. “Ooh, can we come help?”
“Um… didn’t I just hear your mom calling?” she countered. She didn’t think the Hatches were quite ready to handle whatever the Stream might have in store.
As one, their eyes went wide. “Awww, but things were just getting good!” the oldest protested. Marrill shrugged in fake sympathy. Shoulders stooped, they trudged up the bank toward their house.
As Marrill made her own way home, the frog twitched in her palm. She wasn’t an expert in amphibians, but she’d spent enough time rescuing and rehabilitating various animals to recognize a broken leg. “You poor thing,” she cooed. “We’ll get you fixed up soon.” He opened his mouth to croak but no sound came out.
It wasn’t easy to balance an angry cat, an injured frog, and a stop sign, but eventually she reached the house and slipped through the front door as noiselessly as possible.
But Remy, it seemed, had the ears of a bat. “Marrill, that you?” she called over the sound of the TV blaring from the kitchen.
Marrill winced. “Yep, I’m home!” She crept toward the hallway, trying to stay out of her babysitter’s line of sight.
“Your dad called.”
Marrill froze, her heart squeezing tight. “Um, yeah?” The tips of her fingers began to go numb and she gripped the sign against her hip to keep from dropping it. The frog opened his mouth again. This time, Marrill was grateful he hadn’t found his voice.
The sound on the TV dropped a few notches. “He said visiting hours end at seven, if you want to call your mom before surgery tomorrow.”
Marrill glanced toward the clock on the far wall. It was 4:50. Plenty of time to take care of the frog and—
“That’s Boston time!” Remy added.
Marrill kicked herself. If it was 4:50 here, it would be 6:50 in Boston. Only ten minutes left! She scrambled toward her room. For all the traveling she’d done with her parents, she never had gotten used to the time changes. It just seemed so weird that something as basic as the time could be different from one place to another.
“Pizza’ll be here in half an hour!” Remy shouted just as Marrill slammed her door. She dropped the sign on her bed and unhooked Karny’s harness. Grabbing a pillow, she raced to her desk and flipped open her laptop. With one hand, she logged into her video chat. With the other, she gently nestled the frog onto the pillow, then pushed it out of sight.
Her dad answered almost immediately, his image filling the screen. He sat on the edge of a bed, the computer balanced in his lap. In the background, she could see the telltale signs of a hospital room: tubes and cords and the glow of various monitors. Her heart squeezed at the sight of her mother in the middle of it all.
“Hi!” Marrill waved, forcing a smile. It felt like something heavy was sitting on her chest. “How are things going out there?”
Her father clasped her mom’s hand tightly before responding. Immediately, Marrill knew something was wrong. The weight grew heavier; it became impossible to breathe.
Karnelius jumped up onto her desk, strolling toward her and bonking her chin. She nudged him out of the way.
“Everything’s fine, Petal. I promise.” But then her mom’s smile wavered, and Marrill felt something inside begin to crack. Her mom glanced at her dad.
And just like that, it came. “The surgery tomorrow is going to be a little more extensive than we expected,” her father said. “It’s not uncommon, apparently, and the doctors say there’s nothing to worry about. They’ll just… want to keep her here a little longer than we anticipated.”
“What?” Panic edged into Marrill’s voice. “How long? Why?” Her eyes began to burn, and she wiped at them furiously.
Karnelius, no longer held back, strutted across her keyboard and positioned himself directly between her and the screen.
“It’s nothing you should worry about, honey,” her father said as she pushed her cat aside. “It’s just precautionary. But they said to expect a week at least.”
A week?! Her throat closed in, suddenly choking her with fear. “Can I…” Marrill had to swallow so her voice wouldn’t crack. “Can I come out there?”
Her parents glanced at each other and Marrill already knew the answer. “We don’t want you worrying, sweetie,” her mom said.
“And we don’t want you missing classes and falling behind,” her dad added.
“But I wouldn’t really miss that much school,” Marrill protested. “It’s a long weekend.”
“And you should spend it there, making friends,” her father added gently.
Marrill knew what they really meant. They had to keep her mom’s stress level low. And Marrill being scared and upset would only make things worse.
Which meant she had to stay here, in boring Arizona. Away from her mom. She bit her cheek.
Karny crouched on the edge of her desk, staring at the injured frog. His tail thrashed from side to side and she shoved him away from the poor creature. He let out an angry MROW and jumped to her bed.
“I’ve already spoken with Remy and her parents,” her father continued. “Everything’s set for her to keep looking after you.”
Her mom leaned forward, her smiling face filling the screen. “I promise we’ll be jumping off cliffs again before you know it.”
Marrill tried to search her mom’s eyes to see if it was true. Something rustled nearby, distracting her. She cut her eyes toward her bed. Karnelius sat there glaring, angry at being deprived of what he clearly considered to be his rightful prey. Scornfully, he stalked to her bedside table and batted a loose pen to the floor.
“Karny!” she hissed. Ignoring him, she turned back to the computer. Up in the corner of the screen, the clock flashed. It was almost five—seven Boston time. Visiting hours were nearly over. This was the last time she’d talk to her mom before the surgery.
“Mom…” Her throat felt painfully tight as she tried to search for the right words. If she were there in the hospital room, she could rest her head in her mother’s lap and let her mom stroke her hair. Just that touch would be enough to reassure her. Just to be able to close her eyes and feel the solidness of her mom’s presence.
Just to be able to pretend that everything was going to be okay.
But now there was too much distance between them. There was nothing for Marrill to hold on to. She gripped the edges of her chair, wishing there was something she could do to make her mom better. Wishing she really was back on the Pirate Stream, where she wasn’t so useless and unimportant.
“Mom, I’m scared,” she whispered. As hard as she tried, she couldn’t keep tears from escaping down her cheeks.
Her mom leaned forward, expression serious. “So am I, baby,” she admitted softly. “But it’s okay to be a little afraid. You just can’t let it control you. And you have to believe everything will be all right.” She smiled. “Now, before I have to go, is there anything else exciting going on?”
Marrill’s eyes darted to the sign on her bed, then to the skysailing jacket Fin had given her, hanging on the hook behind her door. A smile twitched at her lips. Well, she thought, a river of pure magic may be touching our world again.…
“Nothing big,” she said instead. Before she could add anything more, a large crash interrupted her.
She spun in her seat, ready to swat Karny away from the frog again. But he wasn’t on the bedside table. Because the bedside table wasn’t beside the bed. Instead, it was in the corner. Cowering. Its drawer rattled as it trembled in fear.
That isn’t right, Marrill thought. She blinked. Then she froze.
On the floor in front of the table, next to an uncorked and almost empty crystal vial, lay a wet, tattered piece of parchment, swirling with inky images.
“Um… yeah…” Her heart began to pound. The crystal vial filled with magical water from the Pirate Stream had been Fin’s last gift to her. The bedside table, which up until today had shown no signs of life whatsoever, looked ready to bolt for the door. And that parchment, which had been blank for nearly six months, was the legendary Bintheyr Map to Everywhere.
Marrill quickly turned her laptop so her parents wouldn’t see the animate table tiptoeing its way across the room. She pasted on a smile. “Karny knocked over some water, better clean it before it stains! LoveyoubothgetbettersoonMombye!”
“Water doesn’t stain,” her mom called.
Marrill was about to close the computer, but she cringed. Her mother’s voice raked at her heart. “You know I love you, Mom, right?”
Her mother laughed. It might have been the most perfect sound in the world. “Never as much as I love you. Good night, dear heart!”
And the connection was cut. Marrill dove for the Map. Ever since her return from the Pirate Stream, it had been nothing but a useless scrap of blank parchment, no matter how often she’d wished for it to be more.
But now… now dark lines seemed to reach up for the surface of it, like the tentacles of a sea monster rising from the deep ocean. She tilted her head, searching for some sort of pattern. And then her eyes widened in recognition. It was a map of her neighborhood, with a bright red X a few miles up the road. In the abandoned parking lot where she’d first stumbled across the Enterprising Kraken.
Marrill scarcely even wanted to think of the possibility. But her hopes were already flying as high as a kid with skysails soaring on the winds of Khaznot Quay.
Because it could only mean one thing. She could go back. She looked at the sign leaning against the end of her bed.
Her heart thundered with excitement. In fact, she had to go back. What other choice was there? The woman’s warning from the culvert echoed in her head:
The Iron Tide is coming. You must stop it!
Unfortunately, doubt crept in, too. The last time she’d been on the Stream, she almost hadn’t made it home. If she went back, she might never return.
City of Thirst by Carrie Ryan / Fantasy / Actions & Adventure / Young Adult have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes