Songbird Trilogy Book 1: The Maze Girl (complete)
Author: Julia R. West

Chapter 22
An Aura of Calmness

I'm in awe when he dives in. I feel the word 'no' threatening to burst off my lips, but what good would that do? He can't hear me.

But he doesn't seem to be drowning. He's not going fast either, but he'll get there at this rate. Before Soren does.

I've almost forgotten about Soren and look to the other side of the screen to see that he's made his way to the island. I realize now that I like Soren. He was willing to sacrifice a life for a life, and maybe I don't trust him, but he still has that aura of calmness about him. And with that calmness comes a lack of humor, but an immense amount of wit.

I have to avert my eyes from the sight of Rory swimming, because I know that with every stroke he takes, he knows I am watching him, and I know that he is struggling. Soren is catching up to him by now, but I'm sure Rory can hold him off. It's not that long!

I turn around to face straight upwards, waiting for the speakers to announce that Rory has won. But when I think about it, I realize that I don't want Rory to win. I want Soren to win. Because if Rory wins, he and I will be forced to perform in a tie-breaker challenge. I'd be totally unprepared, terrified, and have plenty of time to contemplate it, since I'll be in bed for almost this whole week, the nurse said.

The ceiling is blank white and I think to myself, it's not very kind to leave the ceiling blank in a hospital room, because I'd bet that patients are often so distraught that they might want to stare into a ceiling, but it should be an interesting one. At least a color other than white. What about scarlet? That was Teryn's color.

Finally, the announcement comes. Rory's won. I wish he'd realized the same thing I did a few minutes ago: That he could have just let me win and spare us both the terror of the tie-breaker. But what if he wanted to win? What if he genuinely wants to outshow me in this whole thing?

Then I'll let him, because this doesn't make me feel honored to win. It makes me feel...lost. I'll be famous for no good reason. By fate, by destiny. But maybe that's reason enough.

I switch off the screen. That's over, but the real challenge has just begun: Finding myself in this maze of tangled lies I've come to believe.




I wake up to the sound of pacing and whistling beside me. I open my eyes to find Soren, whistling a repetitive tune. "Hi, Soren."

He turns to me. "Oh! I didn't notice you were awake."

"What were you whistling?"

"It's...and old song my mother used to sing. I'll teach it to you." He shows me the notes. B...E...C...C...A. I repeat it. a few times to make sure I know it.

"Sing it in the maze for me, will you?" he asks.

"The maze?"

"They use the same tie-breaker challenge every time. It's a maze."

"I will." He's just told me something so important! How can I thank him? "How do you know?"

"My sister was in one a few years ago." I can almost sense a plan forming in his brain, but I can't tell what on earth it could be about.

"Didn't she...disappear?" I ask.

He sighs. "I'll tell you the whole story. Then...I have a favor to ask of you. My sister is three years older than me. She was a contestant in The Challenges four years ago. She was in a tir-breaker, and tried to cut through the maze. And that was when...she just disappeared."

"My mom went insane after that. My dad left her, and became...I guess...a sort of criminal. I hated my dad. But he won custody of me, and I've been forced to live with him. That one day, you turned him in for stealing, I was watching. Your honesty...I was jealous, because my whole life my dad told me honesty was stupid and that you had to lie to make it through life."

"That was when I knew I needed to get my sister back so I could live with my mom again. That's why I entered this year, now that I'm old enough. I entered more times than I can count, hoping I'd get picked. But I realized I'd never be good enough to win enough challenges to go to the tie-breaker and free her from whatever prison is hidden in that maze."

"So I had to find a different name to enter that many times. Then..." He looks guiltily at me and I know what he's going to say. "I remembered you, with your honesty, your skills, your calmness. And I knew you'd be the one to get her back for me."

"So I entered your name at least as many times as mine. And we both got picked. I need you, Ellery, to go into the maze and find her, okay?"

I'm appalled that he would enter my name, intrigued in his terrible childhood story, and flattered that he chose me to help him. I'm too shocked for words, really, but I nod.

"Search the maze, Ellery! Please! Let her free to come back to me and my mom. I wouldn't be able to repay you fairly, but I'd do anything."

I see the sincere guilt and longing in his eyes. "I'll try," I say. I can tell he's not sure what to do or say, until he leans in and...kisses me.

I'm completely speechless. With this new turn of events, I'm so shaken I can barely breath. This is wrong, but I love it. I can't wait for the tie-breaker challenge. I'll get the chance to put a family back together--as much as possible, now.

But there's still a hint of doubt. He didn't tell me his sister's name. He gave me a mysterious tune to whistle. And worst of all he kissed me, and I hate him for it.

The door closes as he leaves. I'm alone, tired, injured, and sleepless. For the first time, I reach down and rub my hands over my burns. They're rough and red, and hurt with every touch. I wince and draw my hands back.

I'm afraid to go to sleep, for fear that my dreams will be visited by Soren's sister, trapped in her labrynth prison. I can't bear it, so I don't go to sleep. I dream my own dreams while I am still awake. I consciously dream of Lexi and Mother, of Rory, of our tree that burned down.

The morning comes too fast; I was enjoying my chosen dream subjects. The shutters, I see, when I wake up are opened a bit, and a fresh ice pack and cream are sitting over my burns. The icy pain is so calming compared to the burning one.

Right now, I wish I was lying in the snow back home, making snow angels with Lexi when we were little, not caring about the pains that now come with everyday life.


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