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Authors: Kim White

The White Oak

BOOK: The White Oak
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The White Oak
Imperfect Darkness, Book One
Kim White

For Mike, who gets me across the river.

Contents

1. The Descent

2.
Digging Father’s Grave

3. Crossing Asphodel

4. Making a Deal with Minotaur

5. Destroying My Book of Life

6. Writing My Own Destiny

7.
Minotaur Reports to Minos

8. Intercepting the Ship of the Dead

9. Getting Past the Ferryman

10.
Waiting for Cora

11. Crossing the River Tartarus

12. Trespassing at the Gates

13.
Taken Prisoner

14.
Minotaur Reports to Minos

15. The City of Glass

16. Running from the Keres

17.
Writing the Game

18. The Red Fruit

19. On Trial for My Life

20. The Verdict

21.
Rescuing Cora

Acknowledgments

About the Author

About the Series

Copyright

Sure as the stars return again after they merge in the light, death is great as life.

—Walt Whitman

The Descent

The last thing I see before the sinkhole buries me alive is the pattern the branches of the White Oak make against the cloudless Midwestern sky. A web, I would remember later and realize what it meant—but now I lie faceup in my father’s grave as soil rains down on me. My hands cover the seeds embroidered into my dress, although it doesn’t make much sense, trying to protect seeds from burial. They will live after I die, their shells cracking open as the stems and roots emerge.

As the dirt piles on top of me, I curse my grandmother for not stopping the funeral, for slapping me when I warned her to step back, and for pushing my twin brother, Lucas, forward to toss the first handful of dirt on our father’s coffin. “That’s the minister’s job,” I whispered, and she pinched my arm so hard a blood blister rose up. Lucas was standing near the edge when the ground imploded. I jumped toward him to pull him back, but I slipped and fell in, landing on top of the casket. I heard shouts as the hole widened and the rest of the funeral party was pulled in. I think Lucas slid in after me, but it all happened too fast for me to be sure.

Now I’m suffocating—buried alive—and as I die, all I can feel is rage. Lucas and I were about to graduate from high school. Just one more year and we could leave this place. We survived my father’s attacks only to be buried with him. Anger flows in my blood like cold water. Even after his death, Redd has found a way to get to us. My body tenses as I remember my father’s cruelty—inherited from a long line of rogue ancestors. My mind cycles through their crimes, going back to the first one, committed on the ground I am now sinking into.

According to family legend, one of my ancestors was the daughter of an Indian chief. Some say she fell in love with a French soldier. Others say the chief married her off to keep peace with the settlers, but it didn’t work. His son-in-law, under this very oak, murdered him, and that’s how our curse began. My relatives have been destroying each other ever since. On the day of my father’s funeral, it’s as though the earth has had enough of us. Rather than endure another generation, it’s putting an end to the Alexander family once and for all, swallowing us up in my father’s grave.

If I had control over myself now, I’d go along with it, because the world might indeed be better off without us. But my father’s anger and arrogance have taken over, and all I can do is fight. My mouth fills with dirt as I try to scream. My fists clench, muscles tighten, breath is extinguished. I’m pinned in place by the soil, and there’s no point in struggling, but I do anyway. It’s the way my father always was. As I squander my last moments, fighting against inevitable death, I hear a voice. It’s
the
voice. I hear it when I’m in the caves. “Relax,” it says. “This is what you were meant for.” Its amber tones fill my head, and a channel opens underneath the coffin. I sink rapidly, part of me still hoping that Lucas got out safely, another part of me knowing that he didn’t.

A network of caves lies under our family’s farm. Lucas discovered them when we were twelve. They converge on the abandoned well; that’s where we enter. We’ve been exploring them for years, climbing the slippery rocks, reaching one tunnel’s end, then chiseling for weeks to break through a wall and get to the next chamber. It was our way of staying out of the house and safe from our father. But it was more than just an escape. Lucas was obsessed with figuring out where the caves led, and I kept going back because of the voice.

It began speaking to me when we reached the first dead end. “Keep going,” it said. It was a handsome voice, strong and clear. I trusted it immediately, and over the years my feelings for it grew deeper and more complicated. All the while, I wondered if I was crazy. If I had fallen in love with something that only existed in my imagination. “Don’t stop until you find me,” it said. I didn’t stop looking, but I never found him. Lucas hadn’t heard it—I was sure of that. He’d been searching the walls for a crack that we could hammer to create an opening. At the time, I almost told him, but something stopped me. It wasn’t because I was worried that Lucas would think I was crazy. Even if I were stark raving mad, he would still love me. That’s how amazing my brother is. I kept the voice to myself because of the strange way it made me feel—safe, but also uncomfortable. To be honest, I wasn’t always sure how it made me feel. There was something familiar about it, but I couldn’t tell if it reminded me of someone from my past or someone from my future. I decided not to talk about it until I figured it out.

My father’s silver casket plummets through the ground, moving so quickly it feels as if I’m in free fall. I break through a cavern ceiling and splash down into an icy river. The water is so cold and unexpected I almost suck in my breath, but I remember the mouthful of dirt and manage to spit it out first. The current is strong, and the floating casket becomes my means of survival. My hands slide along the top and sides, finding the pallbearer’s handles. I climb on top and cling to the coffin as it bobs above the water. My first thought is for Lucas. Did he fall into the sinkhole? Did he make it through as I did, or is he buried and dying?

My second thought is that I’m still alive and my father hasn’t beaten me yet. What’s more, his coffin has become my life raft. I almost smile at the irony.

“Lucas!” I yell, but no one answers. The sound of rushing water echoes against the walls of the cavern. I try to see into the darkness, searching the water for Lucas. If he’s in the river, he’s going to need help. He won’t last in the cold water for long.

The coffin bobs and tilts in the current. I lie on my stomach, riding it like a surfer paddling toward the waves, shifting my weight to maneuver and keep it from overturning. “Cora,” the voice calls my name. I look out across the water, half hoping I’ll see him here, but of course I don’t—there’s nothing but darkness. “Cora, there is a sharp turn ahead,” it warns. I grip the coffin more firmly to prepare for the turn, but in spite of my efforts it capsizes, and I fall into the river. The shock of another immersion in the freezing water takes my breath away. When I resurface, the coffin is gone. It’s a struggle to keep my head above the water as the current pulls me forward. I try to keep swimming, but my limbs are stiffening and my fingers are going numb. As far as I can see, there is nothing but black water, no shore. My arms and legs are heavy from the cold. It’s an effort to move. My head goes under for a moment, and I come back up spitting cold water. I feel something hit my shoulder and push me all the way under. I realize too late that it’s the casket. As it passes I try to grab it, but I’m too slow. The current carries it away. My hopes of surviving go with it.

I try to get angry again, thinking it might give me the energy to keep swimming. But my emotions are shutting down along with my body and I can’t feel anything. Taking a deep breath, I wait for my heart to stop or my limbs to freeze. Then I see a glint of silver up ahead; the coffin is caught against a rock. I crash into it and make a grab for the handles as the force of my collision breaks it free. I hold on tight as we sail over a rapids. The possibility of survival gives me a jolt of adrenaline. I pull myself back on top of the casket.

As I scan the water for my brother, the cavern seems to get brighter. It’s so subtle that I can’t be sure it’s really happening. It could be that my eyes are becoming accustomed to the dark, or it could be a trick of the mind, but I think I see the shadowy outline of a riverbank on my left.

The current’s pull gets stronger and I hear the roar of a waterfall. I have to do something quickly, or I’ll go over the falls. I try to steer the coffin toward the shore, which I can see distinctly now. I can also see how low the cavern’s ceiling is. If I stood up on the coffin, I could touch it. The air is musty and stiflingly humid. It’s like being in a cold basement. I’m shivering as I nudge the coffin to the left. Just ahead, the rocky ceiling angles sharply downward. It almost looks like a wall. The river splashes against it and slides underneath it. The edge of the falls must be right there, where the rock meets the water. I can see the riverbank. It’s only twenty or thirty feet away, but there’s no way to reach it before I’ll collide with the rocky wall at the edge of the falls.

I anticipate the crash, balancing my body and moving my arm out of the way as the coffin slams against the rock. I hold one of the pallbearer’s handles and grab the wall with my other hand, attempting to drag the coffin toward the shoreline. But the current presses the casket against the rock with so much force that I can’t budge it. I have to abandon it and climb along the slippery wall to get to the shore.

On my caving adventures with Lucas, I learned how to rock climb, so I know what to do. I feel along the ledge, secure a handhold, then a foothold. As I push against the casket to pull myself up, the current sucks it under. I can see by the way the water curves that this is indeed the edge of the falls. As I watch the casket slip beneath the rock, my emotions are mixed. On the one hand, I’m relieved. My mean-spirited father, the worst part of my life, is finally gone. But as I imagine his body falling over the cascade in its silver barrel, I’m unexpectedly sad. At the funeral, before the sinkhole opened, I looked into my father’s grave and felt the heavy, bottomless sorrow that accompanies a profound, irreversible defeat—the failure to gain my father’s love.

I feel it coming back to me now as I cling to the wall, barefoot and shivering. A lump rises in my throat, but I swallow it back down. If I start to cry now, I will never stop, and this is hardly the place to have a breakdown.

As the river takes my father’s remains farther from me, I start to feel like myself again. Some of the anger and sorrow dissipates, but the extra energy goes too. I have to concentrate and muster all my strength to negotiate the slick wall. I move slowly and deliberately from crevice to handhold, clawing at the surface.

Within feet of safety, I make a fatal mistake. I don’t secure a deep enough foothold. One of my legs slips into the water and the current catches it. The pull twists me sideways and my other foot slips too. My whole lower body is in the water again. I hang on and try to pull myself back up, but the river is stronger than I am. I lose my grip. My head hits the rock and I’m knocked unconscious. I slide under the wall and over the falls.

BOOK: The White Oak
8.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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