Stroke of Fear

Alla Kar

To anyone searching for their perfect match.

Chapter One


   I wasn’t always this way. Scared. Frightened. Timid. I used to live. In every way imaginable. Now, I’m a shell of that person. I’m empty. The chill that’s overtaking me is the chill that used to thrive in me.

   The breeze from the water below smashes into me like a brick. The familiar smell registers within me and my knees weaken. The endless bottom is staring up at me, its rushing rapids hitting hard against the cliff I’m standing on. I clench my fist as I take a step toward the edge. I can’t seem to make myself look the other way. It seems too close, like every step back I’ve taken the cliff inches closer, wanting to pull me down to the black abyss of water that’s waiting to swallow me whole.

   “Aubrey, just jump already.”

   A lump forms in my throat. I can’t respond. They don’t know any better. They don’t know anything. I didn’t dare tell anyone what happened four years ago. It’s like swallowing acid to talk about it.

  A warm arm stretches around my stomach and pulls me back against a hard chest. I stiffen in his arms. Not having control around water frightens me more than anything in my entire life. “Aubrey, you said you were going to jump. We only have thirty minutes before we have to get back to camp.”

   All the more reason not to go back. Camp Awesome is a summer camp for teenagers. Most of them too busy fondling each other behind the cabins to care what activity we’re doing that day. When Cassie, my roommate, suggested we take the job as camp counselors, I couldn’t wait to start. I need the money for my books for classes in August, since I lost my scholarship my second year of school. Maintaining straight A’s is harder than it looks—especially when you spend most of your nights hiding from your nightmares.

   “I’m not going to jump. Just looking,” I whisper.

   Jake laughs in my ear, nibbling on my earlobe. “Come on, babe.” He shakes his wet head back and forth, slinging water all over me. “We’ve all been. It’s your turn.”

   Shaking, I grab his forearm and untangle his arm around me. “No,” I say, taking two steps away from him.

   Jake screws his mouth up and runs his hands through his dark blond hair. “Baby…come on. It’s so much fun. I’ll even jump with you.”

   I set my jaw.

“She says she doesn’t want to jump. Leave her alone, Asshat,” Cassie yells. She comes to a stop beside me, her hands on her small hips. Her long wet hair is matted up in a bun on top of her head.

   Jake rolls his eyes and crosses his arms over his large chest. Cassie and Jake don’t get along well. She thinks he is an asshole and he thinks she is easy. Both are true. Jake and I have been off and on since freshman year. I’m not even sure what we are anymore. He tells everyone I’m his girlfriend, but it doesn’t feel like it sometimes. He’s the quarterback on the college’s football team. He’s good, but he won’t go pro. His body is always nice to look at, though. The connection we once shared vanished. It just left without saying goodbye, leaving us to figure it out ourselves.

   “No one asked you, Cassie,” he spits out.

   She flips him off and turns her back to him. “So, you excited about the first day of camp? It’s going to be the best summer of our lives!” she yells. “Did you see that guy in the cafeteria checking me out earlier? He wants me.”

   I hold back a smile. “You mean the one with the tattoos?”

   “You know it. I think he’s name is Jace? Pace? Something like that. I can’t wait to find out. The guys’ cabins are right across from ours. We could sneak out and see them whenever we want.”

Sometimes I feel like Cassie never really grew up. She still wants to sneak off and make-out with guys like she doesn’t have an apartment to go back to—or a cabin in this case. It’s the thrill that excites her.

Like it used to excite me.

   “Fifteen minutes before our meeting, guys. Let’s wrap it up,” another one of the counselors yells.

   Cassie motions for me to follow her. I take two steps when I hear Jake’s laugh from behind me. “Where do you think you’re going?” Before I know what’s happening, I’m over Jake’s shoulder. All my blood is pounding in my head. He is walking toward the small cliff. A scream rips through my throat as soon as he tosses me over. It’s so familiar. The same scream as before. The same situation as before.

   I’m flying to my death. My limbs are limp in the air, the wind pushing my hair up beside my head. I know I’m nearing the bottom. The air is colder down here. I slice through the stillness and crash into water.

   It takes a few moments before I realize the lake is consuming me. I open my mouth to breathe and my mouth fills with water. I sputter until I’m gasping for air. A shallow memory is surfacing, and I try to push it away. I try to live in this moment, try not to drown.

   It’s there. Surfacing. Consuming me. Laughing at me. The water was overtaking me. My wrists and ankles bound together in surrender and the cement blocks dragging me down into nothingness. I was dragged down to the depths of the river and no one would ever find me.

   When I surface, my eyes are burning and my lips trembling. There is nothing calm or rational in my brain. I’m back. I’m back to that night. The night my life was ruined.

Flapping my arms, I try to remember how to swim. It’s been four years since I’ve been in the water. Please, remember. Think. Focus. Just calm down. The water engulfs me, plunging me under its depth, as I beg to be lifted back up.

“Hang on!” I hear in the distance. To what?

   The world is starting to spin, the trees, rocks and water swirling around in my vision. Something hard hits my left side, and I frantically reach out, my fingers slipping over the smooth rocks. My side is throbbing so badly I feel like I’m going to vomit. The water pulls me down, and I struggle to keep my grip.

   I feel his hot breath on my neck first. That warmth could never be mimicked “Hold onto me.” A deep, southern voice travels into my ear like poison. Am I hallucinating? Is this what Heaven feels like? I think I love it.

   I glance over my shoulder with blurry eyes. A boy—a man—is offering me his outstretched hand. His dark gray eyes have blue specks splattered in them. They fit perfectly with his dark black hair that is hanging over his left eye. The scruff on his jaw makes him look rugged. Hard. Cold. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life.

   I don’t ask any questions. I grab onto his shoulder, wrapping my arms tightly around his thick neck. The next thing I know we’re moving. I’m too exhausted to help. I hold onto him and fight the urge to let my eyes drift shut.

    The water doesn’t seem to bother him like it did me. His muscles sure look like they are playing their part. I notice the hard muscular lines of his upper body against me, the way they move with each thrust of his arm.

   My knees scrape against the rocks as he pulls me out of the lake. Water pours from my mouth as I crawl onto all fours. A soft graze touches my lower back, and I glance up at him. The warmth is back and it’s taking over. His black-as-midnight hair is slicked back, and his gray T-shirt is stuck to every crevice of his upper body. Christ.

   “Can you breathe?” His rough, deep voice is the most soothing sound that’s ever crashed against my ear drums.

     “Barely,” I choke out. I cough more water onto the ground, before rolling to my back. The clouds are so white… the sky blue. You’d never guess someone was drowning in the lake on a day like this.

   “Put your arms above your head.” When I don’t move, he taps my elbow, then slides his hands down to my wrists. Pulling with gentle ease, he stretches my arms over my head. The feeling sends warmth throughout my arm. Christ. Get it together, Aubrey.

“What’s your name?” he asks.

   “Aubrey. What’s yours?”

   A small smile lifts from the corner of his full mouth. Obviously he was asking to see if I was truly okay. Heat rushes toward my cheeks, and I pray he can’t tell. “Tanner.”

   Tanner. His name even sounds southern. Judging by the smooth tanned skin, I’d bet he was born and raised in the south. I wonder what has him in Cali.

   “Aubrey? Jesus Christ!” Jake yells.

   I clench my muscles and screw my eyes shut. Anger is not even the word to express how I’m feeling. I could rear back and punch the jerk’s lights out. If I had the strength I would. “Baby, you okay?”

   “Get the fuck away from me.”

Jake freezes, his arms outstretched toward me. His eyebrows are pulled down in the middle and a worry line is creasing his forehead.

   “What’s wrong…? I mean are you okay? I’m so—”

      “You fucking asshat!” Cassie shouts. She comes to a stop in front of me. Her bright blue eyes glassy. “Look what the hell you did, Jake. She can’t swim.”

   “She can swim,” Tanner says.

   What? A pain burns through my chest. How does he know? Cassie is helping me to my feet when I glance around and look at Tanner.

   “Who the fuck are you?” Jake asks.

   “I can’t swim,” I say, taking deep breath. “Obviously.”

   Tanner’s face doesn’t change. His strong jaw moves when he swallows. His chest rises and falls in quick jabs. His T-shirt drips puddles on the ground by his feet. If he wasn’t calling me out, I’d ogle that amazing body. “You can. I saw it in your face. You can, but you’re scared.”