The Marsh Keeper

by E. L. Werbitsky

Sixteen-year-old Calvin Hughes can see human energy and in that revealing light learns the best and worst of the people around him.

He tells no one what he sees, until a young girl vanishes beneath the marsh and the truth behind her tragedy is too disturbing to hide.

But when enchantments lure Cal toward the haunted waters and his sole confidante betrays him, Cal discovers the danger of knowing too much and the price for sharing secrets—especially one that could change the world.






Amazon Kindle
Google Play




Chapter One

Cal felt the shove first. Then his shoulder joint crumpling against a locker as the door vents sliced into his cheek. He ducked out of the headlock, just as a fist whaled into the locker, inches from his head. Even as the taste of blood and dirty metal filled his mouth, Cal recognized the flabby arm and cloud of BO descending over the hallway.

“Get—off me, Jardo,” he grunted, wiping back the strands that’d slipped from his hair band. “What the hell?”

But his protest only widened the grin and darkened the Franken-brow leaning over him. “You’re a...a cretin, Hughes. A loser.”

Jardo’s older cousin leaned in, stinking of sweat and stale tobacco. “Next time you try and torch the school, make sure you g-get the right building, jerk-off.” His finger jabbed into Cal’s chest. “N-not the restaurant across the street.”

For a second, Cal didn’t look at the greasy-haired goons. He just stood there staring down at his trembling hand, numb by the raging rumors, the stuff people were saying about him. Then he let his gaze drift up and lock onto them.

The ogre-sized cousin startled back. “C-come on, Jardo, let’s get out of here before the f-freak blows.”

Taking a deep breath, Cal smoothed his tee shirt, shoved back the tails of his plaid shirt and combed his fingers through his hair—too long if you lived within Jardo’s reach. Dabbing his bloody cheek with the back of his hand, he headed to class and sidled into the last row just as the bell rang.

Breathe, he reminded himself. It was Friday afternoon. Every kid in school sat ready to dash off and start the weekend. Except here, in Mr. Schlenz’s class. Cal looked around. Not a single eye fidgeted toward the clock or down to a hidden cell phone. With his usual theatrics, the teacher staged the lecture like a one-man Broadway show, his voice thick with a German accent, his shaved head covered by a wig of wild silver hair.

Cal tuned it out. History? Come on. It’d all been said before. Sure, you could drum up dates and places, but who could say why stuff happened, why people did what they did. No one knew. Well, almost no one.

Behind a tumble of bangs, he fixed his eyes two rows over. Second desk. In spite of bright pink highlights streaking her hair, new ink coiled around her upper arm and more chains than he could count, Star McClellan bore a crazy close resemblance to her younger sister. Yet she refused to talk about her, about what happened.

Cal shifted his gaze through the open windows, beyond the idling busses to the marsh simmering in a haze of mosquito-filled humidity. Maybe it was too painful for her. Or maybe Star sensed what he already knew: the story of what happened out beneath the muddy waters was a lie.

Minutes later, the sound of the final bell rattled through the building but not before Schlenz assigned an essay on Albert Einstein. “Tree hoondret fifty words. No more. No less. Dizmissed!” He pulled the wiry wig from his head and with it, the theatrical gravity of his voice fell away. It made his next words sound flat, almost ominous. “And Calvin, see me before you leave.”

As his classmates shuffled out, Cal averted his eyes. He didn’t want to see their energy, the maelstrom of color that came at the sound of his name. He’d seen it all before. He knew what they thought of him.

Star glanced over her shoulder; her copper-colored eyes too careful to linger more than a moment on him. You’re—in—trou—ble, she mouthed, her tongue lifting on the last syllable. Then she sauntered away, the swing of her tiny skull-shaped earrings keeping the beat, a toss of red hair swaying over her back. People talked about how resilient she was. But the dark makeup and tough-chick attitude didn’t fool Cal. To him, her pain was as plain as the wave of bruised-blue energy shivering around her.

With his classmates gone, Cal approached the podium, not bothering to brush back the stubborn strands of hair that had again drifted over his cheek.

“Calvin, I didn’t see your term paper on my desk. It was due today. Worth a third of your final grade. Problem?”

Cal shoved his hands in his pockets. For a moment he listened to the rev of the buses, inhaled the diesel-fueled exhaust pouring through the open windows. But he said nothing. He didn’t have excuses to give.

“I know it’s been a rough couple of weeks, so I’ll give you a break.” The teacher winked, still looking a little crazed holding his Einstein get-up. “You have the weekend to finish the paper but make it an oral report so you can share it with the class. Got it?”

Always a catch. The last thing he needed was more work—more attention. But as Cal filtered into the hallway, crowded with stares and whispers, he didn’t care. All he could think about was diving into the pool and letting the pump of adrenaline obliterate the boundary between his body and the water. It offered the ultimate rush, the perfect release. Shoving open the locker room door, he knew he’d never needed that feeling—or lack of it—more than now.

“Yo, Cal. Over here.”

He found Bill Emerling preening in front of a mirror, his body outlined by a slick silver suit.

“Cool, huh? The guys who used these at the Olympics blew away the competition. Glides better than human skin, they say.”

“Looks expensive.”

“Shit, yeah. But, hey, it’s the latest gear. So, you guys better watch out!” He turned to his teammates who roundly ignored him, then started up on Cal. “Man, where’d you dig up that piece of crap? I didn’t know the thrift store sold swim trunks. And who’s that French guy on your tee shirt—Les Paul?”

Cal shrugged off Bill’s bravado as easily as he pulled off his vintage guitar shirt. It was white noise coming from a guy who scraped through try-outs, whose lane time lagged behind the rookies. Some of the other guys, though, weren’t up for Bill’s bullshit.

“Look out. Emerling’s got a new suit.”

“Guess we’ll have to sprout gills to catch him.”

“Or fins!”

Bill spun and flexed his middle finger. “Assholes.”

As the banter kicked up, a teammate peered around the corner. “Cal? Coach wants you.”

Instantly, the laughter dried up. Cal re-zipped his jeans and splashed bare-foot across the tile floor, aware of conversations drizzling away like water down a drain. By the time he got to the coach’s doorway, he wished he could drizzle away, too.

“Mr. Thornley?”

“Yes, Cal. Come in, come in.” He indicated a chair near his desk, then glanced over to the case of trophies lining one wall. He pointed with his chin toward the largest one. “You remember that meet, don’t you? You’re the reason we won it. Broke the school record for butterfly and shattered the regional time for backstroke.” His smile faltered. “Exceptional swimmers are the reason I enjoy coaching—”

Thornley went on and Cal tuned out, ignoring the explanation moving through the pasty lips, the eyes that wouldn’t look into his own. After all, people could say stuff they didn’t mean, but they couldn’t hide what they were feeling—at least not from him. Right now, all he saw was selfish energy radiating around the coach in an arc of tarnished yellow.

“—so, you see, I’ve done what I can for you, but there are forces out there not to be messed with—namely the Board of Education.”

“Can I still practice with the team, you know, stay in shape for the next meet?”

The coach’s mouth gaped. “Perhaps I haven’t made myself clear. The Board wants you benched until this matter is resolved. Off the team.” He straightened a manila folder on his desk with a stern tap. “Doesn’t look good. One of our swimmers entangled in this arson thing.”

“But I had nothing to do with... Look, just because I was there... I mean, the cops are saying a lot of stuff but it’s not—”

“Ut, Ut,” the coach said, extending his arm, motioning illegal procedure. “The Board president was insistent. After all, Zoe McClellan is a generous benefactor of our sports program here.”

Star’s aunt. Why wasn’t he surprised?

“It’s out of my hands. And believe me, this is hurting me as much as you—maybe more. Our division is tough. We need every win.” The coach’s voice trailed off as he stepped from the office and into the locker room. “And I thought we were going to go all the way this year...”

Cal sat there, disappointment sickening him like a lethal poison. He waited until the slap of wet feet disappeared from the locker room, then headed back to collect his clothes. Some of the JV swimmers started filing in, careful to give Cal space, skirting around him like he was a leaky container ship oozing nuclear waste. He pulled on his shirt, grabbed his sneakers, then tossed the contents of his locker into a gym bag, ready to bolt.

“Hey, Cal. Hang on a minute.”

Cal’s head snapped up, hoping for news of a reprieve. But it was just that new kid, Orrin Parker.

“Tough break, man. Team needs you.” His pale hands fingered a swim cap onto his head. “Coach caved.”

Cal nodded, then looked harder, concentrating on the outline of the muscular body for so long, he might’ve left with a punch to the gut. But Cal couldn’t help himself. It was amazing. This guy, who with his goggles and swim cap looked like a jacked white frog, had no visible sign of energy—at least none Cal could detect. He just looked—normal.

So, this was how everyone else swam through life. Listening, watching, then simply guessing whether someone meant what they said. It was cool. Uncomplicated. You could believe the best in a person without second-guessing the cloud of colors around them. How simple. How normal. How human.

↑ Return to Top ↑