The Surprising Days of Isla Pembroke by Tamsin Keily

Four

By the time Isla gets home, Morgan has already retreated into her bedroom. She finds her father in the sitting room, staring resolutely into his cup as if he might find some sort of answer in there. She sees the way his fingers grip tightly enough to make his knuckles flare white. Then he looks up, sees her watching him. That’s something, at least. There’s been many times when she has sat opposite him and waited for him to acknowledge her, only for it to never happen.

‘Oh, hey, bud.’ He manages a smile, so small that it’s almost just a twitch. ‘She … she didn’t want to talk to me. Said she was too tired.’

‘Right,’ Isla says, the word hard as rock against her tongue. ‘I see.’

Jasper shifts in his chair. ‘Isla …’ It’s a gentle warning tone, but he’s not got much energy to put into it. So unsurprisingly it doesn’t do much to quell the frustration that is building within Isla. She hasn’t spent four years worrying about her sister for her to return and just not speak to them.

So, work bag gets dumped on the floor, shoulders get squared, and sister follows sister up the stairs. Isla wonders if Jasper will follow her but then she dismisses that idea immediately. Jasper hasn’t intervened in a very long time.

Isla doesn’t bother knocking. She rather forcibly smacks her sister’s door open, finds her slumped over her phone on her desk. ‘What is going on?’

Morgan stands up, drops her phone down. ‘What is going on what?’ she shoots back.

‘You disappear for four years and tell us nothing, you come back and tell us nothing. You go out all day and tell us nothing. You come back at last and, surprise, surprise, tell us nothing? What part of that do you think is okay?’

Morgan shifts, one foot tucking behind the other. Isla remembers that classic Morgan stance of defence. ‘I’m not a child any more, I don’t need to tell you where I am.’

‘You do if you’re living under this roof. You’re not on your bloody dreamy runaway adventure any more, Morgan.’

Isla sees her words sting against Morgan and she does feel a twinge of regret when she watches how her sister winces. But she’s not going to apologise for it, not when frustration wraps around her like a hurricane.

‘That’s not … That’s not what it was like.’ Her voice has become so soft that Isla can barely hear it over the rain smacking against Morgan’s window. The eyes become hollow once more and Isla can feel her instinct screaming at her to offer comfort.

But four years is a long time for anger to grow and it won’t just let go. ‘Well, I’ve got nothing else to go on because you won’t bloody tell me!’

The hollowness disappears in an instant. Isla can practically hear the crack in Morgan’s knuckles as she clenches her hands into fists. ‘Get out,’ she snaps, teeth gritted.

‘Tell me where you’ve been. Tell me something, Morgan!’

‘Get out, Isla!’

Isla is struck by how familiar this conversation feels. How many times has Morgan yelled at her to get out of her bedroom because she didn’t want to face the conversation heading her way? And how many times has Isla relented, when perhaps she should have stayed?

Maybe that’s why she stays rooted. ‘I won’t get out until you tell me what the hell is going on with you. I’m trying to help, Morgan—’ She’s interrupted by a furious snort that sends her remaining scraps of calm scurrying out of reach. ‘What?’

‘Trying to help, right. That’s what you’re always doing …’

The sarcasm drips off her words, unforgivingly thick and heavy. For once, Isla is stumped. Brought to a halt by the almost hatred radiating from her sister. Oh yes, she’d forgotten how much that stung.

Isla waits, hoping for some sort of regret to flicker across her sister’s face. But it never comes. Morgan looks at her, savagely unabashed.

‘What do you mean by that?’ Isla finally manages to ask the question that has been sitting uncomfortably on her tongue for the last few seconds.

Morgan stands up abruptly, eyes looking slightly wild. ‘I mean that you’re full of shit, Isla. You’re not trying to help, you’re just trying to feel better about the fact that you’re still here despite all your talk about getting out. When are you going to stop bloody fooling yourself, Isla?’

Isla doesn’t quite know how she ends up outside after that. She distantly remembers the slamming of Morgan’s door behind her, the thud of her own feet as she half trips down the stairs.

She remembers that her sister doesn’t come after her.

And suddenly she’s all alone outside in the rain and Isla feels it dripping down her neck but she can’t bring herself to go back. Stubborn Pembroke genes won’t let her. It’s not that bad out here, she tells herself. It would be convincing if she could hear her own thoughts over the growl of the wind.

But she storms on nonetheless, thoughts whirling around her and making it difficult to see. She almost trips over the exposed root, almost loses her balance on the algae-covered stone. The rain and her anger have transformed the familiar path into a treacherous jungle.

Somehow, the beach arrives. It’s not the calm plain of sand, stone and sea that she saw yesterday. The wind has created furious, foaming waves that crash angrily against anything they can reach. The clouds sit heavy and low, crushing oppressively down on the world beneath. Isla knows this is no time to be on this beach. But desperate anger can work marvels at dulling rationality.

So with her better judgement scattered across the wind, Isla keeps moving. Tries to make sense of the words her sister has thrown at her feet. The anger’s not new; she knows that. Morgan has been angry at her for a very long time and while Isla can’t always understand it, she has learnt to get used to it. But there’s something different now. A deep, bitter frustration that doesn’t match up with the little sister she has spent a sizeable chunk of her life caring for. Does Morgan really see her like that? Does she really think she’s cross with Morgan simply because she left while Isla didn’t? No, she’s cross because her sister has let her spend four years constantly worrying about her well-being.

A rumble of thunder pulls Isla from her despairing thoughts and drops her back into reality. The reality of being on a darkening beach in the middle of a thunderstorm that seems to be growing more furious by the second.

Isla pauses, briefly considers going back. But there’s a flash of lightning a few seconds later, only a few hundred yards out to sea. She doesn’t want to be out on this exposed beach for a second longer. She curses herself for allowing that impulsive streak of hers to fly free, then runs for cover.

There’s a large cave set into the cliffs just a few metres away and Isla ducks inside it. Her curls weigh heavily against her shoulders, some flopping against her forehead until she pushes them back. She is becoming distinctly aware of how utterly soaked she is. Stupid. She’s twenty-eight; she’s a damn adult. And yet here she is, trapped on a beach in the middle of one of Karrekoth’s infamous storms.

Stupid.

She sits down, winces as thunder booms again, echoing eerily through the cave. Waits, counts. Hopes for a pause before the lightning, for a sign that the storm is moving away. But no such luck. Almost instantly, the cave is bathed in hot white light as the sky flashes for a moment. No forked lightning yet; that’s something.

Of course the moment she thinks that, it happens. The previous thunder has barely faded before there’s another crash. And this time it’s accompanied by a spindly line of lightning that wriggles right down to strike the sea. Isla feels herself wince; she should be used to this weather in this storm-battered village, but it’s still a little unnerving for it to be so close.

The lightning seems to linger, or perhaps its bright light is just permanently seared against her eyeballs. Silence returns for a moment, even the rain seems to die down a little.

But then the whole ground seems to shake, as lightning cracks through the air once more. This time, though, it hits solid land, close enough for her to feel the heat from it. From her spot in the cave, Isla can see it clearly. She knows the connection between land and sky must only be there for a split second but it seems to last forever. She sees it all in minute detail, the way the lightning’s jagged edges seem to cut through the air itself. It feels as if she has hours to study the angular, angry corners.

She certainly has time to notice where it strikes.

For a moment, Karrekoth’s rock is lit up so brightly that Isla is sure she can see every clump of barnacles, every nook and cranny. Strangely, despite her own somewhat precarious position, she finds herself filled with worry about the rock exploding and crumbling. That would be a great deal of history getting washed out to sea.

Miraculously, it stays intact. The lightning releases its hold on its craggy peak and disappears.

And just like that, almost as if its purpose has been fulfilled, the storm calms.

Isla waits for a moment, eyes fixed on the sky. She knows that storms are tricksters and she’s not stepping back onto the exposed beach until she’s absolutely sure it’s finished.

It’s while she’s staring up that she hears it; a heavy, wet-sounding crack. It reverberates across the beach, in an entirely different way to the thunder. This isn’t from the sky, this is from the ground below her, or rather the rocks around her.

Legs shaky from being curled up in the cave, Isla stumbles up onto her feet. The cracking sound is bouncing eerily around her, but she doesn’t really notice it. Her eyes are fixed on Karrekoth’s rock.

A scorched scar now runs all the way down one side of the rock and, as Isla stares, a warm light begins to glow through it. Almost as though the lightning has opened up the rock and revealed a secret den of fireflies within. Isla finds herself moving closer, stepping out from the safety of the cave. She can’t help but be entranced.

The closer she gets, the wider the scar seems to grow. Until suddenly she’s right in front of it and she knows that she could squeeze through it if she wanted. She doesn’t want to at first, of course she doesn’t. Isla’s somewhat irrepressible logic argues that there’s no sensible reason to go inside a lightning-scorched rock. But now she’s right next to the rock, she can hear sounds coming through the gap. She hears the crash of waves, the joyful screech of seagulls. Then a whooping, carefree laugh in the distance.

It’s easy to step through the gap then. Isla’s not heard that sound for a very long time but she would recognise it anywhere. So Isla follows the impossible sound of her sister’s joyful laugh. And steps into the stone.