“Hey, Peaches. Rise and shine.”
I’d been enjoying a pleasantly dreamless sleep, the kind I’d been seeking relentlessly since Lila’s death. And of course, once it was finally within my grasp Seb had to wake me up at five in the goddamn morning.
“What do you want?” I groaned, shielding my eyes from the light shining from the lamp on the nightstand beside me.
“Our flight leaves in two hours. Come on, get up. Out of bed, let’s go.”
I let out a whine that would put any cranky five-year-old to shame and heard Joel stir in response, swearing loudly as he realized that Seb was standing between our beds.
“What the fuck, dude?” he said, his yawn distorting the last half of the question.
“You can go back to sleep if you want,” Seb said dismissively.
I tossed my pillow down onto the floor and sat up in the bed, rubbing the sleep from my eyes as best I could without a shower. “What’s going on?”
Seb sighed. “Airport. Flight. Two hours. You. Me. Alaska.”
Joel shot upright. “You’re leaving today?”
“And so are you,” Seb told him. “Muri’s booking your flight back to Portland this afternoon.” When neither Joel nor I reacted to his words, Seb sighed again and clapped his hands loudly, making me jump. “Come on, let’s get going!”
Seb played the role of drill sergeant all the way to the lobby, where we quickly grabbed breakfast. Not feeling too hungry this early in the morning, I picked out a bagel and some yogurt from the overwhelming spread of food items, watching in disgust as both Seb and my brother wolfed down nearly everything they could get their hands on—animal products excluded in Seb’s case.
After that, it was time once more to say goodbye to my brother. I felt sick over the realization that I had no idea how long it would be before we saw each other again. There was no guarantee this whole mess would be wrapped up within a week, a month--a year? Letuch could hunt me down for the rest of my life and I’d be helpless to do anything about it.
“See ya,” I said pathetically, throwing my arms around his neck to give him a quick hug.
He gave a small smile in response, likely discomforted by the display of affection with Seb standing just a few feet away tapping his foot impatiently against the tile. “Later, kiddo.” He ruffled my hair fondly and waved as we walked out the front entrance of the hotel.
There was a car waiting for us out front. It wasn’t quite the same as the one we’d driven here, but it was the same style and color, with even darker tinted windows. A valet exited the driver’s seat as we approached and handed the keys to Seb, who didn’t even bother to thank the kid, let alone tip him, before getting in.
I quickly followed suit, not wanting Seb to lose it again. He’d been so cheerful the night before despite everything that had happened. Now he just looked wrecked, and I was willing to bet he’d gotten even less sleep than me. I wasn’t sure if that was the reason for his bad mood, or something else entirely, but I didn’t think it’d be a good idea to ask.
“Where’s Muri?” I said instead, feeling silly once the words were out of my mouth. I probably sounded like a schoolgirl with her first crush. Though that wasn’t too far from the truth.
Seb glanced at me with an exasperated expression as we finished the loop and turned into the traffic of the Strip. Even this early in the morning, the city was abuzz. “Why do you care?” he asked.
I shrugged, hoping he couldn’t guess the real reason. “Just curious.”
“She has some stuff to take care of back at HQ,” he said after a brief pause. I couldn’t tell if the silence was because he was choosing his words carefully, or because he was concentrating on getting us onto the freeway in one piece. “That’s why they’re not flying out until later.”
“Oh.” I stared out the window at the passing scenery, unsure of how to respond. When we stopped at the next light, there was a man wearing far too little clothing bent over next to the bust stop, vomiting into a storm drain. I wrinkled my nose and turned back to face Seb, who was still staring straight ahead. “We’re heading straight to the airport?”
“I didn’t really pack for Alaska when I left the apartment,” I pointed out.
“I bought you some warmer clothes,” Seb replied, taking one hand off the wheel to point back toward the brand new suitcase lying in the backseat. “They should be your size, but if they don’t fit, one of the girls should be able to loan you something.”
“One of the girls?” I was intrigued by the implication of familiarity. I guess it made sense that he would know the people working at whatever this place was if they were all part of the same organization, but Seb didn’t exactly come across as the most personable coworker.
It was weird to see how many close ties he really had with the people at NIMA. He and Muri seemed to be constantly at odds, but the undercurrent of closeness beneath their squabbling seemed to be a testament to the isolation they both shared.
I recalled one of the first conversations Seb and I had after our initial meeting, when he’d mentioned that Letuch had once been a friend because they worked together. It all seemed so…lonely now. Not that I had much room to talk. Outside of my brother and the few coworkers at the store I’d actually gotten along with, I didn’t have many relationships to speak of.
But it made the whole leaving thing a lot easier.
“Yeah,” Seb said, drumming his fingers against the steering wheel as he waited for the next light. “Eva and Cece have both been there forever, but I think there’s a new girl now. Haven’t met her though. You’ll probably be bunking with one of them. There’s not a lot of room to go around at the main compound.”
“Oh. Okay.” I wasn’t thrilled with the prospect of having to share a room with a total stranger. “How far away is the airport?” Instead of worrying about something that wouldn’t be an issue for hours at least, I might as well start stressing about flying for the first time in my life instead.
“Mm, like fifteen minutes?” he replied, apparently not catching the note of anxiety in my voice. “Depends on traffic. We’ll have plenty of time, though. Don’t worry about missing the flight.”
“Right.” Because that’s what I was freaking out about. “So who are these people? Like what do they do?”
“Well, Brother Barnes is the supervisor.” I raised an eyebrow at the title, but Seb didn’t elaborate. “He basically started the preserve program back in the seventies, trying to keep North American species from going extinct, and it caught on quick once NIMA realized they could make a pretty penny off of breeding endangered animals.” He made a face that communicated very clearly what he thought about that.
“But by animals, you mean….”
“Not the animals you’re used to, obviously,” he replied, making a rough lane change that had me bracing myself against the dash as the car suddenly zoomed to the left. “Like the mermaids, but those are restricted to the southern hemisphere. Up here, it’s mainly species that are still managing to thrive out west, like brownies or cactus cats. But Barnes is kind of famous for taking on creatures that tend to be more difficult to tame.”
My eyes widened. “So the animals up at the preserve are dangerous?”
Seb laughed. “Not if you stick to the rules. You’ll be fine.”
“I wasn’t fine when you told me to go for a swim with a rabid mermaid,” I pointed out. “And I thought you said they couldn’t be kept in captivity, and that’s why you had to kill them.”
Seb squirmed under my gaze. “It’s more complicated than that. Not every animal is the same. And not all of the mermaids were put down, by the way. Just the ones that couldn’t be rehabilitated, or those that were already pregnant. Conservation is important to NIMA, even if it is for the wrong reasons.”
I breathed out loudly, not feeling as relieved as I should by Seb’s reassurance. “It’s not really fair,” I said.
“Nothing. It’s just… What’s going to happen to that guy who was smuggling them?”
“I don’t know,” Seb replied, in a tone that told me he had a very good guess. “I don’t make those kinds of decisions.”
“But—” Seb shot me a warning look, and I quickly changed tack. “What about the others at the preserve, then? What do they do?”
“Eva and Tayo are handlers,” Seb replied. He looked relieved to be back on a safe topic of conversation. “They train most of the animals and socialize them. Eva’s been there the longest aside from Barnes, and she has the most experience in dealing with North American species since she’s from Nunavut. I think some of the newer animals are actually ones she captured near her hometown.
“Tayo’s been in Alaska for about two years now. Before that, he worked at a preserve in Niger. A bit of a change, but he’s done well. Cece’s the veterinarian, and she got there just after Eva. They’ve had a couple interns since then, but they usually move on after their stint’s up. No one wants to get stuck up north for the rest of their career. The newbie’s an exception, I think, but I don’t know too much about her.”
That was…more people than I was expecting, and I wasn’t exactly relishing the thought of having to deal with all of them, especially in such an unfamiliar environment.
Seb prattled on a bit longer about how he knew all of these people and the various work functions at which they’d first met, but I was only half listening, too focused on staring nervously at the signs for the upcoming airport connector to give him my utmost attention. I still wasn’t sure if I was hoping he’d miss the exit just so we’d be delayed a little longer, or if I’d rather get it over with as soon as possible, even though we’d undoubtedly be boarding the plane at the same time in either scenario.
I took my time getting out of the car when we finally reached the parking garage, watching nervously as Seb tapped out a quick message on his phone before opening up the trunk and backseat to start unloading our bags. I shouldered three of the smaller ones, pulling along the suitcase Seb had just purchased behind me.
“Should I bring a jacket onto the plane?” I asked, while Seb did his best to position the rest of the bags in such a way that his spine wouldn’t snap in half from the strain.
“No,” he huffed. “We’ll change when we land in Fairbanks. We have a connecting flight to Wiseman from there, and then Tayo should be picking us up from the airstrip.”
Seb groaned loudly and straightened, looking like he might collapse right there and then from the sheer weight of our bags. I wasn’t really sure why we needed to bring so much crap with us. I certainly didn’t have much to my name at the moment. Did they not have a washing machine at the preserve?
“Tayo’s not exactly the most punctual guy,” Seb admitted. “It’s kind of a toss-up if he’ll even show.”
“Oh, great,” I grumbled. So not only would we possibly have to stand around in the snow for hours, but we might not even get picked up at all. Did it snow in Alaska in September? I didn’t actually know what to expect from the weather in autumn. I didn’t have many experiences to measure my expectations against.
I nervously followed Seb into the bustling airport and waited behind him as he checked our bags and confirmed our flight. He handed me the tickets after we finished up at the counter, and picked up our two carry-ons himself, gesturing for me to follow the signs that pointed to security.
The line there wasn’t as long as I’d feared, but I still ended up fumbling my way through the checkpoint, at one point having to walk back in socked feet to stick my phone into the tray because I’d forgotten to take it out of my pocket before stepping into the body scanner.
Seb, for some reason, decided to opt out of going through the scanner, and I had to wait on the other side while a TSA officer conducted a pat down. Finally, he was allowed to pass through, but he didn’t mention anything about the hold-up. I was almost curious enough to ask, but his moodiness thus far made me think better of it. Instead, I just handed him the bags once again and followed him to our gate.
The walk there was long enough that I insisted on getting on the moving sidewalk, though Seb wouldn’t allow me to just stand there and wait, instead pulling me along behind him at a brisk pace. We made it to the gate with plenty of time to spare, so I wasn’t sure why he was in such a hurry.
Seb threw our bags down in the seats closest to the one available wall socket and plugged in some kind of elaborate charging adapter that looked like it probably cost more than both our plane tickets combined. He offered one of the cords to me as we sat down.
“You should make sure you have a full battery before we get on,” he explained. “Your phone’s going to be the only entertainment you’ve got until we reach the preserve.”
“How long is that gonna be?” I asked, already dreading the answer.
“Twelve hours, give or take.”
With a sad little sigh, I accepted the charger cord and plugged in my phone, already contemplating how best to ration the battery life. There’s no way it’d last the rest of the day if I was playing games or listening to audiobooks, even in airplane mode.
The first stretch of the flight was excruciating. I tried several times to engage Seb in any kind of conversation, but he refused to cooperate, merely grunting or nodding in response to anything I said. It only made me feel more anxious that his attitude toward me had shifted so drastically, and with no real cause that I could identify. I wondered if I’d done something, said something last night, and just hadn’t realized.
The next several hours were spent in abject misery. At least on my end. Seb fell asleep fairly soon after I gave up trying to make him talk to me and managed to doze through the entire flight. Then, once we reached the airport in Fairbanks and disembarked, it was time to catch yet another plane.
After hitting the baggage claim, we hurriedly rushed over to the bathrooms to change. I yanked on the clothes Seb had provided with my knees and elbows clanging into the sides of the stall, feeling like a human marshmallow once I’d bundled myself into the down jacket and puffy nylon pants. I felt infinitely more grateful when Seb led me outside and my nose and ears turned to ice. I half-jogged behind him as we made our way down the east ramp of the airport, looking for the private plane designated for the remainder of our trip.
When Seb finally located it, the pilot was standing next to the plane looking bored. “Hey!” Seb called out over the noise of the wind and the sound of planes taking off just behind us. “Hey! This is the charter reserved for Marschel, right?”
“Yup.” The pilot extended a hand for him to shake. He ignored me. “Name’s Jim. I’ll be flying y’all out to Coldfoot today.”
“Coldfoot? Our itinerary says Wiseman.”
“Landing strip in Wiseman’s down due to weather,” Jim explained matter-of-factly. “Coldfoot’s as close as I can get ya. I already talked to someone on the phone about it—some fellow named Odekoya, I think. Know him?”
“Yeah,” Seb replied, still frowning. “He’s our ride.”
I continued to just stand there awkwardly while the two of them sorted out our luggage. After ten minutes or so, it was finally time to get into the plane. It was bigger than I’d thought it would be after seeing small personal aircraft in pictures, but certainly not large enough to give me any confidence that we wouldn’t be blown off course the second we got any air. All three of us would be lucky if I managed to not puke.
We were only in the air about an hour or so, but I spent the entirety of that time with my head tucked securely between my knees. After I spent nearly ten whole minutes hyperventilating, Seb huffed out an exasperated sigh and squeezed the back of my neck with a grip that felt somewhere between painful and relaxing. A pressure point, I thought, as my head started to feel floaty and weird.
Still, it wasn’t enough to quell my nerves when we came in for a bumpy landing in Coldfoot. I dug my fingernails into my thighs as the wheels underneath us scraped against the gravel runway. When we slowed to a stop and I finally unclenched my hands, I could barely breathe around the pressure that had been building in my chest.
“You okay?” Seb asked skeptically as he helped me out of the cabin.
I nodded feebly, not feeling confident that I could so much as open my mouth without risking the possibility that I might still vomit. Leaving me swaying in the wind next to our luggage with an uneasy glance, Seb walked away to speak with Jim before heading back over to pick up the majority of the bags.
“Come on,” he said, “we should wait over by the road. I’ll try to get a hold of Tayo so he knows we landed.”
I’d expected once we reached Coldfoot to be greeted with a quaint little Alaskan village, but one glance at the flat expanse surrounding the airport indicated that civilization was nowhere to be found. I wasn’t even sure there were any people here at all, aside from myself and Seb and our pilot.
Bone-deep exhaustion having already set in some hours back on the first flight we’d taken, I had to drag the rest of our luggage over to the empty lot next to the runway. I took a seat on top of one of the larger suitcases and sighed.
Seb remained standing with his phone pressed stubbornly to his ear as he tried to connect through what little cell service made it to this area. We waited for what seemed like forever before a pair of headlights finally cut through the darkness a ways down the road. I watched with bated breath as the car approached, exhaling in relief when it finally made the turn into the lot. Seb muttered something under his breath and started to pick up the bags again as the car pulled right up to us before braking.
I couldn’t tell what the make or model of the car was in the limited light from the setting sun, but it was obvious that it was some kind of off-road vehicle. Feeling suddenly nervous all over again, I waited as Seb walked over to the driver’s side window and tapped on the glass. The trunk popped open in response. I hastily grabbed the remaining bits of luggage and followed him to the back of the car where Seb was already loading up our things.
I could see the driver now over the backseat, a good-looking guy around Joel’s age maybe, with long dreadlocks twisted up on top of his head. He waggled a hand at me in greeting and I managed a feeble smile in response.
Seb took shotgun, which meant I was sitting alone in the backseat when we finally took off. The only saving grace was that our chauffeur had to turn around fully in his seat to look at me, which became significantly more difficult once we reached the main road.
“Long time no see, brother,” he said with a wide grin, extending a hand for Seb to brush his own against. “And a newbie, huh? You’re human, right?”
“Yeah,” I replied, caught off-guard by the question. “Are you?”
Seb gave me a sharp look that made me regret asking, but the other man just laughed.
“Yeah, girl, everyone up here’s human,” he replied. “My name’s Tayo. And you are?”
“Pemberly,” I answered quickly, before Seb had a chance to introduce me with that damn nickname to someone else.
“Kind of a mouthful,” Tayo replied, reaching his hand back for me to shake this time, “but nice to meet you. You guys have a good trip so far?”
“Could have been better,” Seb replied. “Can’t you drive any faster? It’s not like there’s any cops.”
“Sure thing,” Tayo replied with another laugh. He slammed his foot down on the gas, throwing me back into the headrest as we raced down the long road that led into the distant mountain range ahead.
I must have been more tired than I’d thought, because once I adjusted to the speed and realized that we probably weren’t going to get into an accident when we were the only car out on the road, I was out in just minutes. Seb shook me awake once we got close enough to our destination and I looked out the window, disoriented by the bright lights shining down on us as we drove up a winding dirt path.
There was a large sign hanging from two tall wooden poles a few meters ahead. I had to squint to read it properly before we drove under it.
“Zara Preserve?” I questioned, not sure if I’d managed to get all of it.
“Think Brother Barnes named it after his wife or something,” Tayo informed me. “I can’t remember her whole name; Eva made him shorten it because she got tired of typing out the whole thing on quarterlies.”
I nodded, not comprehending a single word of what he’d just said.
A few minutes later we pulled into a large clearing just outside a big wooden structure that looked like an old ski resort more than anything else. When I stumbled out of the car, there was a fine layer of frost on the ground, and the wind was even harsher out here than it’d been in either Fairbanks or Coldfoot. Looking around me, I could see the massive snowcapped mountains in the distance, still no larger than they’d looked when we’d left the landing strip. There was a full moon just cresting the peaks from behind. It looked like something out of an old creature feature.
“How big is the preserve?” I wondered. I marveled at how much of the landscape I could see stretching between us and the mountain range.
“In terms of land?” Tayo asked. “Only a few miles in each direction. NIMA can’t carve out too much space or people might start poking around where they shouldn’t.”
A few square smiles seemed massive to me, but I didn’t really know how much land was actually necessary to keep a bunch of supernatural creatures hidden from the general public.
“Come on,” Seb said irritably. “You can chat when we’re inside.”
I had to walk quickly to keep up with the two of them, passing through a wide gated entrance into a courtyard of sorts that was surrounded on all sides by doors marked with different colored strings of lights around the frames. It was like they’d started decorating for Christmas before Labor Day.
“So Pemberly is gonna bunk with Genevieve,” Tayo explained as we approached a door lit up in green. He dropped the majority of the bags to the ground and pulled out a key to unlock the door, revealing a cozy little bedroom complete with an actual bunk bed standing against one wall. “Throw your stuff in here for now,” he told me. “You can get settled in after dinner.”
I accepted the bags Seb handed to me and placed them next to the desk, taking care not to disturb the laptop or the stack of books sitting neatly next to the lamp. After that, we crossed over to the opposite side of the courtyard to a door decorated entirely with pink lights.
“And as always,” Tayo said with a smirk, “the royal bedchamber.” Seb rolled his eyes and carelessly tossed his bags inside as soon as the door opened.
From where I was standing, I could see just a single bed, with not much room for anything else. The room almost resembled a closet, in fact. But at least Seb didn’t have to share. I wasn’t exactly excited about having a roommate for however long we ended up staying.
“Dinner still going?” Seb asked as he shut the door himself.
“Should be,” Tayo replied, leading us to the double doors opposite the main entrance, the door frame outlined by a string of multicolored lights that blinked intermittently. “We got a late start today because of the thing with Bro Barnes.”
Seb squinted in confusion as Tayo threw open both doors, nearly drowning out his inquiry of “What thing?” as the sound of pop music echoed loudly throughout the large room within.
There were long tables with benches filling up the entire space, with room to seat at least fifty people. However, there were only three occupants inside, all clustered around the middle portion of the table just to our left. The trio turned to look at the door as we walked in and I darted behind Seb.
Tayo apparently hadn’t heard Seb’s question and proceeded with introductions as we approached the table. “Eva,” he said, pointing to a woman with straight black hair and olive skin, “Cece,” a dark-skinned black girl with multi-colored braids hanging down her back, “and Genevieve,” a starkly pale brunette whose bulbous eyes made her look more like a doll or a cartoon character than an actual person. “This is Pem,” he added. “She’ll be rooming with you, Gen.”
“Fantastic,” she said bitterly, in a heavy accent I couldn’t identify. Her eyes darted from me to Seb and widened just a bit more. “I don’t believe we’ve met,” she said forwardly.
“Oh yeah,” Tayo said. “Seb, Gen; Gen, Seb. Now that’s all out of the way, let’s eat, ‘kay? I’m starving.”
“Dig in,” Eva said mildly. “Hope you like salad.”
Tayo made a face and Cece laughed. “You’ll live,” she told him.
Feeling more than just a little out of place, I stuck close to Seb and took a seat next to him at the table, Tayo on his other side and Eva directly across from me. She gave me a friendly smile and passed a bowl of mixed greens in my direction.
“I hope you’re not opposed to vegetables,” she said, watching me as I carefully dished out some of the salad into the nearest empty bowl.
“Salad’s good,” I managed. Glancing further down the table, I could see Cece and Tayo fighting over a bottle of dressing.
“So you don’t actually work for NIMA at all, right?” Eva continued. I reluctantly pulled my eyes back to meet hers. They were perfectly round, a dark brown surrounded by thick black lashes. They reminded me of Lila even though nothing else about the two was even remotely similar. “Naomi mentioned you’re only here so Seb can babysit you. She didn’t really explain anything, actually.”
“Um…” I didn’t really know how much information I should give her. I looked briefly at Seb for a cue, but he wasn’t paying the slightest bit of attention to our conversation, engaged in one of his own with Tayo and the other two women. “Yeah, I don’t really know much about…this kind of stuff, I guess. I just go where they tell me.”
“Well, I’m sure we can still find something for you to do around here,” Eva replied earnestly. “I don’t imagine you’d enjoy being stuck in Genevieve’s room all day. The internet’s pretty spotty up here.”
I shrugged and teased my fork around, trying to get a good ratio of lettuce to everything else before I took a bite. “I don’t know how much help I’ll be,” I admitted. “I mean, you guys take care of monsters, right?”
The conversation stopped. Eva’s expression was the only thing that didn’t change as the others looked over at me with various looks of surprise or, in Genevieve’s case, annoyance.
Seb cut in before Eva had a chance to reply. “Peaches has already had her fair share of danger,” he said. “It’d be best if she took a break for a while.”
“We do lots of maintenance that isn’t remotely dangerous, Seb,” Eva said shortly. “She’ll be fine.”
“Yes,” Seb replied, “she will. Staying in the lodge and not getting into trouble.”
I gave him a look, which he patently ignored. Eva shrugged with a small frown, and I said nothing, not wanting to embarrass myself in front of a group of strangers by getting into a shouting match with Seb within the first five minutes of meeting them.
“So where’s Brother Barnes?” Seb asked through a mouthful of salad.
If anything, that brought the mood down even more, as everyone but Eva suddenly looked down at their forks. She set hers down with a loud clack on the wooden surface of the table and narrowed her eyes at Seb. “Naomi didn’t tell you?”
“No…?” Seb replied, looking a little irritated.
“He went missing last night,” Tayo contributed. “We haven’t been able to get in touch with him for more than twenty-four hours now.”
“And he was looking for the thunderbird?” Seb asked.
Now they’d really lost me.
“We all were,” Eva informed him. “That’s why we didn’t realize something had gone wrong until he missed our check-in time.”
Seb frowned, and the momentary glance cast in my direction didn’t escape my notice. “You can fill me in later, then. We should eat, catch up. It’s been years since I’ve seen Tayo or Cece.” He was looking at Eva, but it didn’t feel like he was speaking to her at all.
It was pretty obvious now that Seb didn’t want me involved whatsoever in this case, and I couldn’t figure out why he was being so cagey all of a sudden, especially since he’d seemed so enthusiastic about partnering up during the whole mermaid situation.
Suddenly feeling sick to my stomach, I put my fork down carefully, sitting in subdued silence as the others finished their meal and said their goodnights. Genevieve didn’t so much as pretend to tolerate me as she led me through the interior hall that wrapped around all the rooms we’d accessed previously from the courtyard.
“You can have top bunk,” she said curtly, eyeing my bags with undisguised irritation, despite the fact that I’d done my best to make sure they were out of the way. “Try not to move around too much; the bed creaks, and I’ve got an early morning tomorrow.”
I nodded dismally, and resigned myself to an uncomfortable sleepless night. Not even bothering to change into pajamas, I stripped off my outer jacket and climbed up the ladder to the top of the bunk bed, getting under the covers as carefully as possible. The bed squeaked and swayed with every minute movement.
Genevieve turned off the lights a few minutes later, and I stared in the darkness at the patterns in the wood grain paneling, waiting unsuccessfully for sleep to come.