Ellen Wittlinger is one of the authors that inspired John Green to write YA novels. Wittlinger’s newest novel Local Girl Swept Away releases this June – and we’ve got an exclusive excerpt!
In Local Girl Swept Away, three friends struggle to come to terms after the leader of their group is carried out to sea during the storm. Jackie, Lucas and Finn must all figure out how to balance their relationship – and how to keep their secrets.
I pulled up the hood of my parka and tied it under my chin, but the rain blew sideways, right into my eyes. The four of us—Lorna out front, me bringing up the rear, the boys in between—ran down Commercial Street to the breakwater, where the road and the town and the Cape Cod peninsula were all stopped short by saltwater, Provincetown Harbor on one side, the Atlantic Ocean on the other.
Of course, it was Lorna’s idea for us to go down and watch the storm come in over the ocean, even though it was almost dinnertime and our parents expected us home soon. We weren’t dressed for the cold and rain, but we always did what Lorna wanted us to. We didn’t even think about it anymore—it was just automatic.
She reached the breakwater before the rest of us, and I yelled into the wind, “Lorna, slow down!”
Her answer floated back to me, the same tune she always sang:
“Come on, Jackie! Follow me!” I tried to hurry after the others even though the huge granite rocks were slick with rain and mud.
The breakwater, rising probably twenty feet high and half as wide, ran at least a mile out to the spit of land called Long Point and served as protection for the harbor in storms like this one. But now the waves were already crashing over it.
Lorna never walked anywhere—she raced, she galloped, she cartwheeled, she leaped. As the dark afternoon turned darker, I could just barely see her running ahead, barefoot on the slippery rocks, her blue sneakers dangling from her fingers, her white jacket blowing open in the wind. Even Finn couldn’t keep up with her.
He and Lucas followed behind more slowly, carefully negotiating the path, zipping their windbreakers and shoving their hands in their pockets. Thunder boomed in the distance and zigzags of lightning lit up the pillowy clouds.
It had been a cold, rainy May, and the waves that smacked into the breakwater felt like tiny razorblades when they splashed up against my legs. The roar of the wind was so loud I couldn’t tell if anyone up ahead of me was talking or not. I was cold and hungry and more than ready to go home, but I didn’t want to be the wimp who suggested we turn around. The sun had totally disappeared behind the clouds by then, and I couldn’t tell where anyone was.
Had they gone out farther? Had anybody headed back to shore? I was sure Finn wouldn’t go back without Lorna—it took more than bad weather to separate the two of them.
And then there was the oddest noise behind me, or maybe off to the side—I couldn’t tell exactly where it came from. A sigh or a gasp or maybe just a sharp intake of breath. But how could I hear something like that over the racket of the storm and the slapping waves? It was more like a disturbance of the air than an actual sound. I shivered, not just from the cold, and turned slowly, carefully, to look for my friends in the gloomy dark. There was Finn, just a little bit ahead of me. He was looking around too, peering into the black mist over the bay. And that was Lucas, a few rocks farther on, raising his arm to point at something. But where was Lorna?
I had to squint to see what Lucas was pointing at—something in the water, already far away. A white flash, like a pinpoint of light, was being pulled out by the tide into the blue-black harbor.
What? No. Impossible.
For long seconds I refused to understand what was happening, but finally I had no choice. I screamed and clutched Finn’s arm.
And then both Finn and Lucas were yelling, “Lorna! Lorna!” over and over, frantically, as if they could bring her back by demanding it.
And then Lucas jumped into the water. For a second hope rose in my chest, and I could almost breathe, but then the truth washed over me again. Lorna was, by far, the best swimmer of the four of us; if she couldn’t fight the waves, Lucas, with his klutzy, splashing stroke, didn’t stand a chance.
“Lucas, what are you doing?” I yelled. Could Finn see Lucas? I didn’t know. I didn’t know anything.
Instead of the tide pulling him out into the bay, an incoming wave knocked him back into the breakwater and he clung to the rocks, gasping. “I can’t,” he said. “I can’t.”
I pushed back my hood, trying to see better, hoping to look down and see Lorna hanging onto the rocks beside Lucas, Lorna helping him stay afloat. Maybe that white thing in the distance was only some piece of harbor trash bobbing in the cold ocean. I got down on my knees because I couldn’t stand up anymore.
Finn lay on his stomach and reached his arms down so Lucas could grab hold of them as he climbed slowly back up the rocks.
There was no one with him. When Lucas got near the top, he collapsed and I helped Finn haul him up, his teeth chattering, his body quaking. Then we just sat there, leaning into each other, soaked to the skin by ocean and rain and tears. The white jacket had disappeared.
I didn’t realize I was holding onto Lorna’s sneakers until later when the three of us sat on folding chairs in the police station, draped in blankets. A cop tried to pry them from my hands, but I yelled so loud I scared myself. I didn’t know it was me screaming.
“Okay! Okay!” he said, putting his hands up like stop signs.
“You can hold on to them. It’s okay.”
The Rosenbergs, Finn’s parents, showed up first, Rudolph all business, talking to the chief of police, while Elsie gathered us, wet as we were, into her arms. She asked no questions, just cried along with us.
Lucas’s dads, Simon and Billy, came next, talking so fast they weren’t making sense. Billy put his arms around Lucas’s soaked shoulders and wouldn’t let go.
Finally, my parents marched in, Dad looking tired, Mom apparently furious. She perched on the chair next to me and shook me as if she was trying desperately to wake me up.
“What’s the matter with you kids?” she howled, the pupils of her eyes vibrating with fear. “How could you do this to me, Jackie?
What if it was you who fell in? It would’ve been the end of me!”
Well, no, I thought, it would’ve been the end of me. But I didn’t say that. I knew what memory had been snagged and hauled to the surface of her brain. My mother had never recovered from the death of her younger brother whose fishing boat went down in a storm ten years before, and it was probably true she wouldn’t have survived the death of her only daughter too. But at the moment I didn’t care about her pain. I could barely cope with the emotional stew boiling through my own body.
As our parents, horrified but relieved, bundled us into our own cars, I couldn’t stop thinking about Lorna’s mother. Two policewomen had been dispatched to Carla Trovato’s house, the dilapidated cottage on Franklin Street, to tell her the awful news.
I imagined that Carla was watching TV with a glass of wine in her hand or something stronger, already wearing her ratty old bathrobe, her bare feet propped on the grimy coffee table, waiting for Lorna to get home and make her something to eat. She’d probably think the officers at the door were there for her, that she was in some kind of trouble again, some nosy neighbor complaining about her junky yard or her loud TV. But it was so much worse than that.
Her face, I thought, would turn first into that frighteningly angry scowl and then collapse into total wreckage.
Of course I didn’t sleep that night. I’m sure none of us did. I sat at my bedroom window and looked out toward the harbor, even though our house was too far away for me to see the water.
My father said that Coast Guard boats would troll the harbor all night, that they would find her. There was hope that she might not have been pulled out past the breakwater, might have been hurled onto the sandy spit of Long Point. But I knew what he meant. He meant there was hope her body would be found, not Lorna. Not my beautiful, intense, self-assured, cheeky best friend.
I stayed awake bargaining with God, even though I didn’t believe that kind of thing ever worked. If she lives, I begged, I won’t let her take chances anymore. If she lives, I’ll watch over her. I’ll make sure she’s more careful. I will make her follow me! But Lorna was not found, not even her body. A special edition of the Provincetown Banner came out the next day, its headline set in 72-point type: LOCAL GIRL SWEPT AWAY.