Soul Fire Excerpt

Another death is coming, I can feel it.

Maybe I gained a sixth sense when I decided I would be the last person to hold Meggie Forster. The last person to touch her skin. The last to brush her hair   It wasn’t murder. I was protecting her from the others, the ones who wanted to exploit her face, her name, her soul.

Yet the news headlines talked of slaughter. No! She left the world so gently, under that feather pillow. I made sure of that.

Those unjust stories make me burn with rage, though I try to stay calm. Alice calms me. She is every bit as radiant as her elder sister, but unlike Meggie, Alice doesn’t see how special she is. Which, of course, makes her even more precious.

But her obsession with truth endangers us both. An innocent like Alice doesn’t realise that in this ugly world, there are a billion versions of the truth. If she cannot accept my version, then another death is inevitable.

***

Chapter One

Happiness is simple. All you need are the people you love.

After Meggie died, I thought I’d never be happy again. Yet here I am on the Beach, where life is absolute heaven. I can hear my sister humming softly as she draws patterns in the sand. I feel the warmth of the sun on my skin, and the touch of Danny’s body against mine, and the sway of the hammock as the sea breeze rocks us.

How many people get a second chance like this?

‘Are you daydreaming again, Alice?’

I hesitate before I open my eyes, because there’s always the fear that one day this could all disappear.

But Danny’s still there, his face so close to mine that I can’t decide whether to touch him or just admire him: eyes as green as a tropical lagoon, blond hair that’s curly after swimming (he hates that, I love it), lips that fit mine so well it’d be a crime not to kiss them again . . .

‘Why would I need to daydream?’ I whisper. ‘Everything I want is within reach.’ And to prove it, I reach out to take his hand.

‘Right answer.’ He leans in to kiss me.

‘Come on! Guys! Can you not leave each other alone for a minute? I will have to throw a bucket of water over you, like they do with dogs!

Javier is the grit in the pearl of paradise: sarcastic, occasionally cruel. But I can’t imagine Soul Beach without him. Every group needs a comedian. Some of his jokes are on the dark side, but he is dead. That could give anyone a strange sense of humour.

Danny and I smile at each other. Maybe we should make an effort to be more sociable.

We whisper, ‘Three, two, one . . .’ then tumble out of the hammock onto the soft bed of pillows below. However hard we try to do it gracefully, it never works. Maybe it’s because we can’t resist hanging onto each other till the last possible moment.

‘Such elegance!’ Javier scoffs, and my sister giggles. Beach life seems to suit her more and more. Her hair is blonder, her million-dollar smile now worth at least a billion. When she was alive, the TV production people kept telling her to lose weight – ‘the camera adds five kilos and the audience only votes for thin girls’ – but now she’s happy in herself and has the perfect figure again.

Danny and I check out Meggie’s drawing. It’s a bird-of-paradise flower, with spiky petals sprouting like wings. ‘You’ve got hidden talents, big sis.’

She laughs. ‘I’m inspired by how beautiful the Beach is now, thanks to a certain Very Important Person.’

I blush. When I first arrived here, it was beautiful but barren. There were no exotic flowers springing up from the sand, no jewelled birds swooping across the blue sky, or diving towards the ocean where metallic fish ripple through the warm water.

Then I helped a desperate girl called Triti to escape, and the Beach became more bewitching for those left behind – almost like I’d unlocked a new level of experiences by doing the right thing.

And since then . . . I can’t get used to the hushed tones the Guests on Soul Beach use when they talk about me. Especially not the way Meggie talks about me. When she was alive, she was the star: the prettier, smarter, more talented sister.

But now I’m the one who stands out. Everyone wants a Visitor, but I’m the only one anyone can remember. In my real life, I’m just sixteen. I can’t even drive.

Here, I can change lives – and afterlives, too. Sure, the Beach seems like paradise, but there’s no way out. Unless I can solve the mystery of a Guest’s death, as I did with Triti. Then they can find peace. Or at least, disappear. No one knows where they go.

It’s my sister’s death that brought me here, of course. Her killer’s still out there, and finding who murdered Meggie is my top priority. Even though if I do that, I’m terrified I might lose her for good, and the Beach too.

‘You’re the best, Alice Florence Forster. You know that?’ Meggie says. ‘Don’t you dare leave me, right? Not ever?’

I smile at her, but I don’t say anything, because I can’t promise her that, and she knows I can’t. Anything could happen.

Out in the bay, some Guests are wading out to neck height, catching fish. There’s talk of barbecuing the catch later, when the sun’s gone down. I’ll probably leave, then, because the one thing I can’t do here is taste. Sometimes I forget, and reach out for a slice of mango, or an ice-cold beer, and as I raise it to my lips, it tastes of ashes . . .

Or worse, of nothing. And that breaks the spell of the Beach, and brings me back to earth in my dingy bedroom, where I’m hunched over my laptop. And that starts the doubts off again: is soulbeach.org a hoax, or even some kind of mirage I’ve invented because I can’t bear the thought of Meggie being dead?

But her hugs and Danny’s kisses and even Javier’s insults seem so much more real than homework, chores and bitter April gales.

‘You daydreaming again?’

I blink. ‘I told you, I’m not day—’

But then I realise I must have been, because something’s changed. Meggie and Javier have disappeared, and the Guests are rushing towards the water’s edge and in the far distance there’s a single figure, the head only just above the waves.

The swimmer seems to be struggling, even though it’s impossible to drown off Soul Beach. You can’t die twice.

‘It’s someone new,’ Danny says.

I turn towards him. ‘A new Guest?’

He tries to smile. ‘Must be. Poor bastard. This is how we all arrive, as a castaway. I still remember washing up here, coughing, blinking. None of it made sense. Where was I? Was I alive? Who were all these people?’ He shivers, then stands up. ‘Come on. You want to understand the Beach? Then you’d better see how it all begins.’