Prologue

2 weeks ago

"This is the last call for passengers. Last call," the announcer's dull voice announced over the crummy speaker attached to the intercom of the boat.

Anyone could tell it was cheap; the voice was fuzzy and difficult to understand. As I hurried down the dock, the sun beat down in the sun, and sweat beaded on my forehead, and I was grateful I had my beloved red bandana to keep my unruly chestnut hair out of my face.

I was on the boat just as the bored announcer was finished speaking. An attendant came by to check my ticket, and when he was sure I hadn't snuck on, he nodded at me and sauntered away. I grasped my knees for support as the boat started to drift away from the dock. It had been close, but I had made it.

I leaned against the railing for a minute to slow my breathing and allow my heart to return to its regular pace. I wiped the sweat from my forehead before turning to stare at the city, drifting farther and farther away with each passing second. It was a relief to get away from the hustle and bustle, if only for two days.

I didn't have nearly enough money saved up for a real vacation, so a short boat ride was all I could afford. This had depressed me at first; I wasn't going to Florida, Los Angeles or even Seattle anytime soon. Still, I had worked long and hard these past two years of my life, for which I was proud.

Not many kids leave their house at the age of eighteen, but I had done it. And somehow, I managed to survive by working long shifts as a waitress at the restaurant. My apartment was crummy, and I was a horrible cook, so for a while I lived off McDonald's dollar menu.

Thankfully before I left home I had a membership card at the gym, so I managed to stay slim and

fit between the long work hours. I wasn't going to be a waitress for the rest of my life, but getting a much better paying job would require going back to school, something I was not so eager to do.

I pushed the thoughts away, and stared at the sea, glittering in the sunlight. I had lived in the city all my life, with occasional trips to the country, and from my first visit on I knew it was where I belonged.

I loved the country, the wide open space; I felt boxed in with all these towering buildings here in the city. When I left home, my first plan was to head to the countryside, but somehow I ended up picking up the paper and looking at apartments for rent. I saw one I could afford that didn't sound very bad, so I went to look at it.

The next thing I knew, I was moving in. I regretted being so impulsive now, as I wasn't really happy, but as long as I was making enough to get by, why did that matter? My life was nothing but endless stress and anxiety, and to say I was sick of it would be an extreme understatement.

The work and unease was beginning to take its toll; dark purple shadows lingered under my eyes and I looked tired all the time, much older than my twenty years. If someone glanced at me for a second, they might guess I was thirty.

I shuddered and buried my hands in my pockets. This boat certainly wasn't very large, at least not when compared to others, but it contained a small dining area, an observation room that allowed you stare at the water from indoors, a couple bathrooms, a kitchen, and four miniature bedrooms; it was rickety and elderly-looking, and all this 'vacation' did was take you out into the sea, far out of sight of the city's bright lights, sailed around the water for two days, and then took you back.

But the boat was jammed with supplies to make the guests comfortable and relaxed. And I had promised myself that I would relax for these two days, and I was going to honor that promise. I recovered quickly from my run and placed my hands on both straps of the rucksack on my shoulders.

It didn't contain much; just a flashlight, my scruffy old wallet, a book, a couple hair-clips, underwear, pants and two shirts. I cursed myself for forgetting my extra bandana; this one was going to get dirty eventually; and I just didn't seem like myself if I wasn't wearing it.

Of my possessions, I was going to have to watch my wallet the most closely, of course; it contained $500, a large sum in my eyes. Of course, I might just paranoid; the kindest people in the world could be on this boat with me.

But then again, who knew? I stayed out on the dock for another fifteen minutes, admiring the water, but after the city disappeared from view entirely, I went below deck to see my fellow passengers. I had heard there were only four other people (aside from the staff) here with me, an alarmingly small amount of people.

Well, I thought wryly, only a couple of people would by a 'vacation' this crappy, I guess.

If they weren't in the observation room or the dining area, they had to be in their rooms, and I wasn't going to bother meeting them today if that was the case. Though I was generally happy and very social, I was in a bit of a bad mood.

As I started below deck, I was kind of hoping no one was around, but it was a vain hope. There was no one in the dining area, which wasn't a surprise, considering it was three in the afternoon and there wasn't anything particularly interesting to see in here.

The dull white walls weren't exactly a funfest. The only thing remotely interesting to me was a large potted plant in the corner, but when I went to examine it, I found it was plastic.

Too lazy to take care of a real plant, I thought bitterly.

I loved gardening, and didn't believe in fake plants. I sighed. Before I actually went into the observation room, I decided it was best to peak in to see if anyone was there first. If there were people there, I would make sure I was my happy and bright self.

No sense in making a bad impression if I'm with these people for two days. I peaked around the corner. The window took up half the wall, offering a pretty view of the water and the sky above. In front of that sat two large sofas and two long coffee tables. I almost groaned. There were people in this room.

They were sitting on opposite couches, but they looked so similar they had to be brother and sister. They both appeared to be about my age, the girl maybe eighteen or nineteen, the boy probably twenty. The girl wore a plain long black skirt and a white t-shirt with black tennis shoes.

Her headband held her red hair back, and she had a bored expression on her face as she stared at the waves. The boy also had red hair, and sitting in the bridge of his nose were large glasses, in front of big brown eyes. He was slim and about my height, but he was kind of cute in a nerdish way.

His wardrobe could definitely use some correcting; he was wearing some kind of odd green apron. On the coffee table in front of him rested a large coffee cup, filled to the brim with some steaming liquid.

The boy reached out and grabbed the cup, but as he was pulling it up to his lips, his hand somehow slipped, and the coffee spilled out all over the dark carpet.

"Oops," he said in a voice that was somewhat high for a boy.

His sister glanced over at him with annoyance. "Jeez, Elliot. Can't you do anything without making a mistake?" she snapped.

The boy named Elliot cringed away from her as if she had slapped him. "You don't have to be so malicious, Natalie; it was just a mistake."

"You're awkward and clumsy," the redheaded girl named Natalie said, rolling her eyes. "Sometimes I could swear you were adopted. I refuse to believe I'm directly related to you."

Elliot didn't reply, but he stood up, presumably on his way to the little kitchen for something to clean up the mess. I stepped into the room before they noticed me peaking around the corner and spying on them.

"Hello," I said in a forced enthusiastic voice.

Natalie glanced at me, bored.

Her brother was much more welcoming. "Oh hello, you must be the extra passenger."

What was that supposed to mean? He must know everyone else on this boat. I sighed. Leave it to me to pick the boat where I would be the outsider.

"Yes, I am. My name is Chelsea; it's nice to meet you."

"I'm Elliot, and this is my sister, Natalie," Elliot said warmly.

When I smiled at him again, it was genuine. He seemed much nicer than his sister, even if he was a nerd. His glasses sat crookedly on his nose, and that weird apron was wrinkled, but I could appreciate his friendliness. I glanced at the stained carpet.

"Spill something?" I asked, though of course I knew the answer.

His cheeks reddened and he shrugged in embarrassment. Natalie rose to her feet; she was just a hair taller than me.

"You'll have to forgive my brother. He's very inept," she said matter-of-factly.

"That's enough now, Natalie," Elliot said, but his voice was small.

His sister shrugged and turned to me, her expression becoming happier. "The other two people on this boat are my mother and my grandfather, but they're in their rooms right now. You'll see them at dinner."

Great, I thought, Stuck on a boat with two oldies and their argumentative kids.

When did I become so bitter? I questioned my earlier judgment about this only being a bad mood. If I really thought about it, I had actually been like this for quite some time. What if I was starting to become this way permanently?

Elliot interrupted my thoughts. "Excuse me," he said politely, hurrying past me on his way to the kitchen.

Natalie watched him go and shook her head once. Then she looked at me again and smiled.

"So, Chelsea, what brought you onto this thing?" She asked, slapping the white wall once.

I shrugged. My bandana was starting to fall over my eyes, so I pushed it back.

"Just needed to get away from the city and my life for a while, I guess." I answered honestly.

She laughed. "Understandable."

"Um." I shifted uncomfortably. "I want to see my room."

She nodded. "Just an FYI, they isn't much to look at. See you at dinner."

I sighed. "I wasn't expecting them to be," I said sardonically. "See you, Natalie."

I wanted to ask her to be nicer to her brother, but of course it was none of my business. I walked down the narrow hallway and entered my pint sized room, complete with an old bed, a small nightstand with two drawers, a lamp, and a rug.

The bathroom was at the very end of the hall; all four of us had to share it. The other bathroom was located in the last bedroom, the one where the staff slept. Natalie was right; the room wasn't much.

But there was a window, so I did get to see the water. I always slept soundly when there was rain pounding against my window, so I figured it wouldn't be much different with waves crashing together. I hadn't been a boat in a while; the constant rocking was making me a little uncomfortable, but I was confident I wouldn't be sick.

I had three hours to kill before dinner, so I watched the water and relaxed on the twin bed for a long time, thinking about absolutely nothing, just feeling the boat rock and listening to the waves.

When I had been lying there for about fifteen minutes, however, I noticed a sound that hadn't been there before. When I opened my eyes, there was a light rain splattering against my window, which I thought was odd, for the weather channel had predicted no such outcome. I shrugged it off, assuming it would stop soon, and listened to the pattering.

After a while, though, I started to get bored, because I was the type of person who liked having something to do all the time. So I pulled out my book and read for a couple hours. Finally, my watch told me it was nearly six o' clock, so I set my book on the bed and left the rucksack in my room. I took the wallet out and hid it behind the nightstand.

One couldn't be too careful with money. I passed one of the three staff on the boat with us, and he was on his way to the kitchen.

"Going to the dining room I presume, Miss?" he asked me, his voice thick with some accent I didn't recognize.

"Yes," I replied.

He nodded once and hurried away. When I entered the dining area, everyone was already there. There was one seat that was empty in between Elliot and Natalie. When he saw me, Elliot patted the seat next to him and grinned broadly. I hoped he didn't think I was interesting in him romantically.

He was a little cute, but definitely not my type. Natalie smiled and me, too. The table was small and round. I found myself sitting across from a very short old man with a white mustache and very thick eyebrows. His beady eyes zoned in on me and he smiled at me, showing yellow-tinted teeth.

"Hello, Missy, you must be the other passenger," he said in a hoarse, elderly voice.

He didn't seem unfriendly, but I felt a little uncomfortable under his gaze.

"Yes," I managed to say, "I'm Chelsea."

"How lovely to meet you, dear," a woman's voice said.

To the left of the elderly man sat a middle aged woman with the same red hair as Elliot and Natalie; this had to be their mother. She was pretty for her age, and her smile was so warm it was easy to see where Elliot had gotten his friendly personality.

I nodded and couldn't help smiling back.

"My name is Felicia; Elliot told me that he and Natalie already met you earlier this afternoon. This is my father Taro. Natalie and Elliot are my children, if you haven't already guessed."

"Natalie told me that her mother was here," I said sociably, ordering myself to be more like my normal self.

Felicia nodded just as the staff member I had bumped into in the hall came out of the kitchen.

"Everyone here?" he asked in his accented voice.

Taro blinked. "What was that, sonny?" he asked.

"Turn on your hearing aid, grandpa," Natalie suggested.

Taro took her advice.

We received menus, and there were surprisingly a lot of options. I ordered a garden salad and spaghetti with steamed vegetables. Elliot winced when I ordered milk as a beverage.

"What? You don't like milk?" I asked curiously.

He shuddered. "No. I hate milk," he almost spit.

I blinked at him. He made it sound like I had just ordered poison and announced I was going to drink it here on this boat.

I shrugged and looked over at Natalie, who said promptly, "He's a weirdo, I know."

I refrained from giggling, since Elliot looked dejected for a few minutes. I got him out of his flunk by asking him what he did like, and he started to list things out for me. We conversed all through dinner, and it came to my attention that Taro was a very knowledgeable man; he seemed to know the answer to every question I asked him, especially ones about farming.

"Were you a farmer previously?" I asked inquiringly.

He nodded. "Used to be a rancher myself, back in the good old days, yes siree. Made good money from my work, until I had to retire years ago."

I nodded respectfully. Though he knew a lot of things, occasionally someone who ask a question he didn't know the answer to, and he would quickly change the subject.

Natalie giggled softly and whispered to me, "Grandpa knows a lot of things, but he hates it when people start going on about things he doesn't know. He'll either change the subject or make something up."

She laughed softly again before digging into vegetable soup. I chuckled softly to myself too; Natalie might be mean to her brother, but other than that, she seemed like the type of person I could easily be friends with.

At some point in the conversation, Taro announced that his eyebrows were telling him there would be a storm tonight. I pondered asking him how his eyebrows could tell him anything – mine were certainly quiet. But Taro, although he was wise, was also turning out to be a rather strange old man, and for a minute I wondered if his eyebrows actually did tell him things.

I wanted to laugh at myself afterwards. Natalie rolled her eyes again.

"Not tonight there isn't, gramps. It's just a little rain; it'll clear up."

I nodded, but Taro's worried glances at the windows made me assume he wasn't convinced. I had to admit, the rain had become a lot heavier since I'd left my room. I didn't think about it for long; the idea frightened me. This boat certainly was little, no match for the powerful waves of the ocean, and we were far from the city . . .

I shuddered and focused on other things. The little group turned out to be quite interesting, and I was ashamed for assuming the worst of them in the beginning. We talked until nine thirty, and then Taro declared it was well past his bedtime.

Natalie walked by my side as we headed back to our rooms. "He usually goes to bed at, like, seven thirty," she snickered.

I smiled at her and rolled my eyes. She was sharing a room with her mother; it was right next to mine. Across from hers was the room Elliot and Taro were sharing. Farther down the hall was the room for the staff; I assumed they were still cleaning up in the kitchen.

Taro disappeared into the room before anyone else; Elliot paused to smile wryly and say "You're lucky you don't have to sleep in the same room as someone who snores" before closing the door behind him.

"Goodnight, dear," Felicia said softly before she and Natalie went into their shared room.

I said a quiet goodnight after them and the door clicked behind me. I stood by the door for a minute, debating whether or not to lock it, but my fellow passengers had all been so kind. Natalie certainly had a tough exterior, but she was nice enough to me, funny even.

I tried to picture Elliot or Felicia stealing something and found I was unable to do so. And Taro . . . well, I didn't think he would take anything of mine, either. Though I had felt uncomfortable around him at first, the feeling had quickly melted away, with intrigue and curiosity taking its place.

That left the staff. I wasn't sure about them, but I finally sighed and went to stand next to my bed without locking the door, sick of my paranoia. The rain was pounding furiously against the glass of my window now, and by the rough way the boat was rocking I could tell Taro was going to be right about the storm.

A knot of fear rose up inside me again, but I had always been good at repressing horrible thoughts, in the past, present or future. So I went to bed without another thought about the storm. Instead, I thought of the little family I had met tonight and how likable they all were.

I wondered briefly what it would be like to have a family of my own, with a husband and kids and grandkids much farther in the future. I didn't dwell on this for long; I was only twenty years old, and there were a lot of things in my life I wanted to do before I even thought about marrying someone.

So to get away from that venue of thought, I started daydreaming about the country, grassy hills and rich farmlands. I wanted to have something like that someday. But with the money I possessed that particular dream was very far in the future. I sighed in frustration.

I had no idea what I was going to do with my life.