‘Salt Skin’ – novel by Bay of Islands author Michelle Rhodes

“Deep inside the ocean it is very still. After I drown there is a moment of nothingness. It lasts until I feel the broken shells beneath me and remember who I am. My name is Sunlight. My heart is beating. I’m alive.”

***

After a series of strange yet beautiful dreams, NorthTec student Michelle Rhodes asked herself two questions: What if a pale, water-breathing girl really did exist? And how was she going to bring her to life?Salt Skin by Michelle Rhodes cover

Salt Skin is the compelling tale of Sunlight West, a misfit teenager with an intense fear of the ocean. As Sunny learns more about her cursed bloodline, she begins to question everything she thought she knew about herself.

Rhodes drew inspiration for the paranormal novel from the Bay of Islands where she lives. While writing, she constantly reminded herself of her intention—to make an impossible concept feel believable.

When Sunny moves to the forgotten town of Procellae Bay, she doesn’t expect much. Plagued by devastating storms and shrouded in myth, it is a disturbing place. Amongst the shadowy residents, whispers flourish – of an ocean curse and ancient sacrifice – and the locals who trust in the old stories watch her, their chilling eyes laced with accusation.

Being back near the water is her ultimate fear. Haunted by the memory of nearly drowning as a child, she’s convinced the sea is calling her again. At night it breathes against her windows, luring her down to the moon-drenched tide and into the deep.

Mesmerising and unforgettable, Salt Skin will stay with you long after you finish reading.

Available on Amazon as both a paperback and e-book.

Website and blog: https://editkitten.wordpress.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/michellerhodesauthor/

For more information mich.cumber@gmail.com

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REVIEWS FROM AMAZON.COM:

“Thoroughly Enjoyable”

Compelling, well-paced plot that made the book hard to put down. Exceptionally vivid descriptions bring Procellae Bay to life.

 

“A Story with a Difference”

An enjoyable read, where a superstitious society goes to great lengths to hunt out the girl, a child of an angry sea god. Years of innocent deaths, of young girls with dark eyes and milky skin have plagued this seaside society and still, a curse has not been lifted.
A girl, Sunny West, is forced to move to this odd community. She hates the sea and moving to a seaside village could never be a place she would desire to live in. But upon moving to this place she meets Jake, the only reason she would be willing to stay. Although Jake, is not the true reason why she has come.
She finds dark secrets, not only about this community, but also about herself.
She learns that, in fact she is the girl they have been hunting for all these years. Will she survive here, once her secret is out, or will she be the next dead girl, with dark eyes and milky skin?

 

“Unexpected Twists”

This book draws you in from page one, completely unexpected twists in the plot. I am excited to read more from this talented writer.

 

“Stunning Read”

Absolutely LOVE this book and how original it is! I couldn’t put it down and know it would make a great movie. Beautifully descriptive. The drowning scenes especially have stuck with me. Characters are all unique and easy to relate to. Anyone reading this book will connect with them, I think. This author is definitely one to watch!

 

***

Sample of Salt Skin – Chapter One

Prologue

 

When I was four I drowned.

For years I didn’t think about the events that had taken place on the lonely stretch of beach. I’d pushed them into the quietest part of my mind, where they stayed undisturbed for over a decade. But it seemed such things could never truly be forgotten, however much I wanted them to be.

I started having flashbacks that left me breathless, fearful. They were so real to me I could almost feel the sting of salt on my lips. Without warning I’d be pulled beneath the surface, struggling, helpless, watching bubbles burst like millions of diamonds around me.

I couldn’t understand why after all those years the shattered memory had begun putting itself back together.

As if something inside me needed to remember.

 

 

Chapter One

 

Despite the moonlight, when I looked across the field our house was lost to darkness. The pine forest behind it swayed in the wind and pushed shadows up over the roof. Inside, my mother and sisters slept.

I crossed the silver lawn, thinking it almost looked lovely. During the day it was merely a dying stretch of grass. I slunk around the side of the house, climbed a giant pine, and clambered through my open window. Nothing ever happened on my night-time missions. Sometimes my friend Miriam and I would jump the fence that separated us from the abandoned factories and drink cheap wine. Usually I just went walking.

Still wide awake, I plugged in my speakers and climbed onto the roof. My coffee intake that day had been excessive. I should have been finishing my English essay, but I pushed that thought aside. Lying back against the lichen-covered tiles, I watched the moon rise high above the trees and flood everything with light. It clung to my clothes and to the branches that pressed against my windows.

I stared out across the lawn, then behind me to the dark forest, and the familiar sense of urgency that I should have been elsewhere clawed at me. It was a strange sensation, a pulling of sorts, only I didn’t know how to follow it. More than anything I wanted to, but it was much more complicated than getting in my car and driving towards the horizon. My heart began beating recklessly because I was aware of missing something vitally important. The moon always did this to me.

 

 

“Sunny?” Brie’s whisper jolted me awake.

I was momentarily blinded by the morning light, and the room tipped as I tried to untangle myself from a particularly disturbing dream. What time was it?

When I realised it was still early I took a steadying breath and flopped back onto the pillows.

My younger sister eased the door open, which made it creak even louder than usual. I tried to ignore her. She inched into the room, tripped over a half-finished cup of coffee and landed in a heap on the ground.

“Morning,” I sighed.

“Sorry if I woke you,” and because she genuinely meant it I couldn’t be angry.

She threw open the wardrobe, and I watched her methodically sift through my clothes, looking for an outfit. The hangers clinked against each other as she chattered, and her conversation moved so quickly I found it hard to keep up. When she mentioned a boy’s name I groaned inwardly. Had Mum’s countless failed relationships had no impact on her at all?

“Perfect!” She yanked a top from my wardrobe.

I sat up, pressed my fingers to my temples and peered in the mirror. Sleep had evaded me until the moon was low in the western sky. It showed in dark circles beneath my eyes, making my skin appear paler and my irises even blacker.

Tonight would be no different.

 

 

Outside it had started raining. I heaped an extra spoonful of coffee into the filter, slumped at the counter and tried not to remember my dream. But it followed me all morning, coming back in fleeting, disjointed fragments. I’d dreamed of an ocean that was dangerous and rough. It shouldn’t have unsettled me as much as it did.

Rain splattered against the kitchen windows and flooded the shallow drains in our driveway. Maybe tonight there would be enough cloud to hide the moon. Mum had already gone to work and she’d left a letter that had come for me where I’d see it—tucked under the corner of the coffee machine. I didn’t need to open it to know who it was from. I had a stack of others, all in the same careful writing, put away in a drawer upstairs. They were from a grandmother I’d never meet, and I knew this one would contain the same question as all the others—would I please visit? I’d responded once, years and years ago, explaining it was difficult because we lived so far apart. But she’d ignored my excuse and kept writing. I ran my fingers over my name. Sunlight West; not ideal for someone who wanted to blend in. I stuffed the envelope in my bag before Brie could ask questions and looked towards the mess she was creating in the lounge.

“Where are those boots with all the buckles?” she called, and I looked down at my feet.

“You mean my boots that I wear every day?” They were heavy and scuffed and gave the impression I might sing in a punk rock band. Brie looked so gloomy amongst the mountain of flats and stilettos that I sighed and switched them for an even older pair of Converses. We ran through torrential rain to my car.

I drive an old Mustang with cracked leather bench seats and a big soft top that folds back. Even though I had nowhere to go, it was freeing to think I could fill the boot with clothes and leave if I wanted to. It made me feel less claustrophobic.

Brie slid in beside me and shook out her caramel-coloured hair. Usually she would have pushed back the roof to let the wind stream in, but not today. I backed out of the driveway and pulled onto the main road while Brie went through my minimal collection of makeup. She was piling on loads of mascara and too much lip gloss when we approached the busy bus stop.

Our sister Emily, who’s a year older than me, deliberately looked away from us, the smoke from her cigarette a halo above her. I rolled down the windows and turned the volume on the stereo right up so she’d hear it. Brie stuffed her fingers in her ears as I blasted the Rolling Stones.

I saw Emily glaring at us in the rear-view mirror as we passed. She was so bitter. Even though she didn’t have a licence, the fact that Mum had given me the car had been at the heart of countless arguments since, and Emily refused to let me drive her to school—or anywhere. At the time I sat my licence, I hadn’t given the possibility of owning a car any thought—the Mustang had been parked and covered in the garage my whole life. Sometimes if something is in one place long enough you stop noticing it. When Mum pressed the key into my palm, smiling, it had taken me a moment to understand the gesture.

At school I was restless yet tired; a frustrating combination. I stumbled through the corridors and fell asleep in history. The teachers frowned as I carved my name into the leather surface of my diary. West—the only thing my father had given me. That’s if you weren’t counting yet another reason why I don’t trust men.

I can’t remember him because he left when I was very small. I arrived when Mum was living in a caravan and growing sunflowers for a living. She had a mane of blonde hair and wore rings on every finger—I’ve seen photos. Emily’s dad had disappeared a year before that, and I often wondered how Mum dealt with all the abandonment.

She got rid of her incense and tie-dyed skirts as if she could shed those days like a cicada does its skin. Perhaps if she’d realised her hippy days wouldn’t last she would have named me something simple the way she had my sisters. Ironically, anyone in my blonde-haired, blue-eyed family would suit the name Sunlight better than me.

 

 

It was the next day, after another night of outlandish dreaming, that Mum told us we were moving. I had yawned my way through school, despite all the caffeine I’d consumed, and made plans to hang thick blankets at my windows the minute I got home. Maybe it would help, maybe it wouldn’t. I swear the moon can affect people; I’ve believed that ever since I googled lunacy.

In the rear-view mirror my face was washed out and tired-looking, my eyes the colour of Coca-Cola. The moon was already rising—huge and pale against the afternoon sky—and somehow I just knew I was in the wrong place.

As we sat waiting for the lights to change, I stared at my reflection until I didn’t recognise myself. Panic swelled in my chest. How long had I felt this way? The traffic light glowed green and I floored it to the front of a long line of cars.

If I’d known what was awaiting me at home, I wouldn’t have been in such a hurry.

 

 

I sensed something had changed the instant my fingers touched the cool handle of our front door. Inside, the atmosphere was stretched tight as if the house knew something I didn’t. I paused before entering the kitchen, listening. I couldn’t hear any heated conversations or the shuddering of door frames but for the first time in years, Mum was home before us. She was perched awkwardly on the couch, her mismatched socks distracting me for a second.

“Hey.” I slung my bag over the back of a chair and glanced around the room. Emily lay, oblivious to everything, on a threadbare rug that adorned the cold floor. Brie bounded past me to the fridge.

“So, guess what?” Mum said as she brushed her fringe out of her eyes.

I braced myself, hoping she didn’t have yet another man she wanted us to meet—and perhaps Emily was thinking the same thing because she finally looked up from her magazine, eyes full of suspicion. I knew, to some extent, she resented Mum for her bad choices. We’d witnessed her heart break more times than we could count, and it was because of her I’d learnt to guard my own so closely.

“You’ve got another date?” my sister muttered tactlessly, but Mum’s next words weren’t what any of us were expecting.

“I’ve been transferred. We’re moving.”

“What?” Emily spat, but Mum ignored her and instead flicked me an anxious glance.

My heart missed a beat when I saw the uncertainty on her face. There was only one place in the world that could be worse than here, and I looked at her in horror. “No!” But I already knew the answer was yes.

Emily found her argument before I did. “What about my friends?” she demanded. “I just made the cheer team, or did you forget that? If you paid even a fraction of attention—”

“Where are we going?” I interrupted, and suddenly all our eyes were on Mum.

“Way up north to a place called Procellae Bay. We have a house waiting for us right on the beach.”

My chest tightened and I drew in a sharp breath of air. “As in beside the ocean?” I asked stupidly. When she nodded, the room closed in on me.

“That sounds so romantic!” Brie gushed, twirling excitedly towards the stairs, her head no doubt full of sunshine and shirtless boys. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she was going in search of her suitcase.

“Romantic?” Emily didn’t try to hide the hysteria in her voice. “It sounds like something out of a bad Shakespeare play!”

“This is the position I’ve been waiting for! I’ll be practically running the radiology department up there.” Mum came to stand behind me so she could gather my dark hair into her hands. “I’m sorry, Sunny. I know how you feel about the ocean.”

But she couldn’t have. Not if she was suggesting this.

An almighty crash from upstairs distracted us, and I knew the contents of Brie’s wardrobe had just avalanched into the hallway.

“I need a new bikini!” she called seconds later. I sighed, turning back to Mum who still stared at me guiltily.

“It’s fine, really.” I forced a smile and cleared the table so she couldn’t see my face. I’m a terrible liar.

 

 

Later, in the sanctuary of my bedroom, I paced mindlessly, stopping every now and then to gaze out at the wet pines. Drops of rain clung to the needles like tiny fairy lights, and I was bewildered to realise I’d rather stay in this mind-numbing field than move anywhere near the ocean.

Just twice I’d seen it, a glorious expanse of blues and purples that seemed to go on forever. Mum said I was mesmerised by it that first time, my four-year-old self completely enraptured. We’d gotten up before it was light to drive the long, winding road out to the coast. I remember how hot the sand had been and hearing the gulls screaming through the sky. Emily and I had been making castles out of sea foam and then … what exactly?

I shuddered. If the memory alone troubled me, how was I going to live a normal life with the ocean breathing on my windows? I picked up my car keys, called out to whoever was listening that I was going to work on an art project, and stepped into the night.

 

 

I didn’t even take art but I don’t think Mum knew that. Brie had given me a calculating look from the couch but stayed quiet. She’s great like that. I always wondered how she had so much compassion when Emily often had none.

I drove aimlessly. As the landscape darkened and disappeared, my thoughts took over. Under different circumstances I would have been excited to leave this place.

If only they’d transferred her anywhere else. But Mum wasn’t to know just how frequently I revisited that day from my childhood, or the dread that accompanied me when I did. Sometimes I felt detached, unsure how to fill my days when I’d been so close to not having a future at all. But I couldn’t tell her that—I hardly understood it myself and didn’t want her to worry.

A house on the beach …

As a fresh wave of panic crept up on me, I fumbled around for a CD and slipped it into the player. The Cure came darkly back at me through the speakers, and I turned it up loud to try to block out my mind and the growing sense of unease that had taken over my body. Above the music, I imagined I could hear the haunting call of seabirds and a sighing ocean. Paramedics had called my time of death at eleven minutes past eleven on that desolate beach thirteen years ago. They say I’m a seventeen-year-old miracle child, but really I’m still drifting.

 

 

When I got home I flicked off the porch light Mum had left on for me and pushed the door open. The house was warm and smelled like herbal tea. I brushed my teeth quietly and made my way upstairs. Brie was settled on my duvet, yawning sleepily. “How’s your art going?” she asked with a lopsided grin.

“I just needed to go for a drive,” I said wearily, dropping my keys onto the dressing table and peeling off my jeans.

Brie hugged a pillow to her chest. “Emily told Mum she’s not coming.”

“Oh, okay.” This didn’t surprise me.

“Are you all right?” she asked, her pretty features all serious now.

“Yes.” I pulled on my pyjamas, hoping she’d take the hint and go to bed, but she was still staring at me.

I cupped my hands on either side of her worried face, wishing she wasn’t so hard to lie to. “Brie, I’m fine.”

“Are you scared about moving?” For fourteen she sure seemed to have everything worked out.

“No.”

 

 

That night the ocean came for me in a starless dream. I walked beneath a giant moon, my feet sinking into wet sand with every slow step. The water tied ancient ropes around my ankles, and even though I knew I shouldn’t, I went deeper. It was so pretty, so persuasive. If I listened closely enough it whispered my name.

I tripped and the waves rose up to catch me. Fear pulsed through me; the kind that should only accompany something truly terrible, not just a regular nightmare. I was swept out, pulled under; saltwater poured into my lungs. I tried to claw my way to the surface and woke up screaming, a foreign word on the tip of my tongue.

“Pytheus,” I whispered, and was afraid because I didn’t know what it was or where it came from. Rain was beating relentlessly against my windows, and I could just make out the dark shapes of the pine trees being pummelled by the wind. I unravelled my twisted sheets and took a ragged breath, thankful that tomorrow was the weekend.

I was getting used to these dreams, as terrifying as they were.

 

 

On Monday I woke with a headache and only got up because I needed to drive Brie to school and empty out my locker. We weren’t leaving for a few days but I’d decided my time there was over. I’d been getting straight As up until recently, but at some point my concentration had floated far off into the universe where it had dispersed and become unreachable. I repeatedly told myself that change was good; however, during a painfully dull history lesson my fears escalated. The ocean swirled across the classroom floor and filled the building with strange noises. I tried to shake the memory but I was no longer sitting at school in a room full of others. I was four again, wading into the water in my little white dress …

Storm clouds floated dark and ghost-like across the sky. The way Mum told it, the beautiful morning turned bad within a matter of minutes. Before the waves had reached up to pull me under, an unnatural stillness came over the bay. Then the wind started to blow, and rain lashed from the sky. Everything after that is a vague distortion of sirens and havoc and … pain. The pain in my chest had been unbearable.

I sucked in a deep breath as the classroom came back into focus. Mum’s recollection of what happened next plays like a movie in my head. The lifeguards pulled me, limp and white, from the ocean twenty minutes later. I imagined my small body laid out on the sand as they tried to bring me back. My pulse was deathly slow until eventually they couldn’t find it. They’d already pronounced me dead when I came to. The doctors said I would never recover, that the brain damage would be too severe—yet I was back to normal the following week. Mum said people called me her little mermaid. I shuddered as the bell rang, and headed for the lockers.

Brie was there swapping books. Her locker was a collage of photos and colourful stickers, and I knew she wouldn’t empty it until the last minute. I punched in my combination and waited for the door to open, but it didn’t. I looked around for any teachers and then started pounding on it with my fist. They hated me doing that. There was a dent just below the keypad from where I had done it so many times, and the person before me too. It swung open and I was greeted with the usual dull grey space. The only decorating my locker had ever undergone was when Miriam had tagged our names across the back of it with a purple marker.

She was the one person I’d miss when we left. Even though we had nothing in common she was like a sister to me—not that I needed another one. When I’d told her I was leaving she’d offered to give me a tattoo so I wouldn’t forget her, but I had gently refused.

I emptied my locker of rubbish, swept my stack of books into my open bag and let the door bang loudly shut.

“Do you think Em really will stay?” Brie asked, and from the window I could see her on the field. She was jumping around in a tiny skirt, clutching red and white pompoms as if they were her lifeline.

This was Emily’s second attempt at her final year. Mum had begged her to try again, and I think the only reason she’d agreed was because some of her friends had also been held back. It wasn’t about grades for Emily, but a social life.

Brie was looking at me, wanting an answer, and I shrugged. Emily was still adamant she’d be staying in the city with her boyfriend. She and Mum had argued about it all weekend.

“I feel sorry for her in a way,” Brie said, and I knew what she meant. I’d once heard a teacher say to Mum she’d never met three sisters who were so completely different.

I blame it on our fathers.

 

 

In the days leading up to our move, I got up early, chucked an empty schoolbag on the back seat of my car and drove Brie to school. Then I snuck home. I knew Mum wouldn’t approve of me missing even a single class. She was big on things like that. Her education had been disorderly, her twenties much the same, and she wanted better for us.

I parked the Mustang, peered through the garage window to double-check that Mum had actually left, then stretched in the early morning sun. My moment of peace didn’t last long. The kitchen window was thrown open and the smell of cigarettes burnt the air; beyond it, Emily shouted incoherently.

I stomped inside and slammed the door, expecting her to head for the stairs when she realised I’d come home. Instead she stayed put, sobbing, the tear-streaked phone clutched in her hand. I slipped past her, hoping she’d ignore me, but she started up when I was heaping spoonfuls of delicious, crushed beans into the coffee filter. “He’s cheating on me!”

When I reluctantly turned to face her she looked awful. Dark shadows sat beneath her eyes and only now did I notice how thin she’d gotten.

“Hayden?” I asked, and even though I’d thought him half decent, I wasn’t surprised. What surprised me was that she’d thought it could ever end well.

“With Chloe, my best friend! How could they do this to me?” Tears were streaming down her face, and I crossed the small space over to her and sat down.

“Probably quite easily,” I replied, vaguely recalling an exotic, skinny girl with legs that belonged on the runway. All she had talked about was her recent nose job and trip to Paris.

Emily looked up at me and for a moment I thought she was going to defend her, but instead she just nodded glumly.

“So where are you going once we’ve gone?” I asked, pouring her a coffee.

She looked at me like I’d asked the dumbest question. “I’m coming with you!”

Unbelievable.

“What about cheerleading?” I couldn’t make sense of her rash decisions and sudden mood changes.

“Trust me, when I’m finished with Chloe I won’t have a place on that team and I’ll want to be as far away from here as possible.”

I didn’t ask questions. “Well, Mum will be pleased.” It was all I could think to say.

 

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