How We Became Wicked
CHAPTER 1 The Lighthouse
ASTRID AWOKE TO FIND THAT her bedroom was filled with a strange, warm light. It faded in an instant, leaving her blinking in the darkness.
What had just happened?
The clock said that it was four thirty in the morning. The whole sanctuary was on an electricity curfew, so the light couldn’t have come from any of her neighbors. And it certainly wasn’t a dream—Astrid didn’t have those.
Then it came again.
Her whole bedroom pulsed, brimming with white light. It was dull on her wallpaper and bright on the glass of her picture frames. Then once more it faded, plunging her back into darkness. Silently, Astrid counted the seconds as they ticked by. Exactly a minute later, there was another flash.
A minute of darkness—a second of light. It could mean only one thing.
“Oh, hell yes,” Astrid whispered to the walls of her bedroom.
She jumped out of bed and went over to the window. It was a clear night, and in the starlight Astrid could just make out the glittering crescent of Goldsport—the seaside sanctuary where she’d spent her entire life. The harbor was socked in with a low-lying fog that stretched out into the bay, all the way to Puffin Island. There was a lighthouse on that island. It had been dead for years. And just now, for whatever reason, it had come back to life. The beam arced out over the water and across the sleeping village. Each time it passed across Astrid’s bedroom there was a flash, like a very slow knock-knock.
Astrid turned to the window on the far side of her room, the one that looked out onto the Bushkirk house. She pulled up the glass. Cool air surged through the fine metal screen. “Hank,” she hissed as loud as she dared. “Wake up.”
Hank’s bedroom window sat exactly opposite her own. The Bushkirks had lived next door to Astrid’s family since forever, and Hank Bushkirk had been her best friend for as long as either of them could remember. As it so happened, Hank was also Astrid’s ex-boyfriend. But that was a much newer development.
“Hank,” she called again.
Still no answer. Astrid considered leaving Hank to his sleep. But no—the light on Puffin Island was too important to let him miss. It might not have been a ship on the
horizon, or a plane blinking across the stars, but it was the closest thing to a sign of life out there that either of them had seen in years. And besides, it was also a good excuse to talk to him. They’d barely spoken since breaking up.
We didn’t break up. You dumped me. That was, in point of fact, the last thing Hank had said to her, nearly a month ago now.
Astrid pressed her ear to the window screen, listening for the high-pitched hum of flying singers. When she heard nothing, she carefully worked her fingernails into the frame and pulled the screen back. It creaked, shedding little skins of rust. Astrid braced the screen open and plucked an old coin from the collection on her nightstand. The coin had a picture of a bearded man on one side and a picture of a house with columns on the other. It was called a penny. It used to be worth very little, and today it was worth even less. She had loads of them.
Astrid took aim and flicked the penny against the screen of Hank’s bedroom window, where it made a loud, brassy ping. Astrid waited. She thought she could hear Hank rustling in there, kicking at his sheets. She flicked a second penny, and this one struck the wooden frame of Hank’s window, making a loud clack. Finally, Hank’s groggy voice rang out from his bedroom.
“Leave me alone, please,” he called.
“Hank, get up,” Astrid said.
“You’re going to wake Henry and Klara,” he said. He meant his father and stepmom, snoring away in their grand
master bedroom. “Just because you can’t sleep, that doesn’t mean you have to bother us.”
“Just get out of bed for a second,” Astrid said. “Take a look outside.”
A moment later she heard the sucking sound of his window sliding open. Hank appeared behind the metal screen, knuckling his eyes in the darkness. Then his gaze focused on Astrid, and he blinked. It dawned on both of them at the exact same moment that she was wearing only an oversize shirt and that Hank wasn’t wearing a shirt at all. He quickly averted his eyes, and Astrid scooted back from the window and into the shadows of her bedroom.
It was going to take some practice, this whole just-friends thing.
“What is it?” Hank said, making his voice gruffer and deeper than normal.
“The lighthouse,” Astrid said. “It’s on.”
“Oh . . .” Hank turned so that he could look out into the bay. The lighthouse beam swung dizzily toward them, racing across their windows. The sight of it seemed, for an instant, to bring him a smile. But he blew it away with a big, bored yawn.
“Yeah,” he said, taking his eyes off of Puffin Island. “I could ask: Who cares? But the answer to that is obvious. You do. You’re the only one.”
“Come on,” Astrid said. “You can’t tell me you’re not the slightest bit curious.” She paused, giving Hank a chance to argue the point. He didn’t.
“I was thinking I’d go up to the wall,” she went on. “Want to come?”
“To get a better look.”
Hank only shrugged. “It’ll look the same from up at the wall as it does from down here,” he finally said.
“Maybe . . .” Astrid was trying her best, but she wasn’t about to beg. It wasn’t a pride thing—she was scared that begging would give Hank the wrong idea. “I’m going to go anyway,” she said. “You can come if you want.”
With that she closed the screen, carefully fitting it back into place.
“I wish you’d be more careful with that,” Hank said.
“There aren’t any singers out. I checked.”
“Just because you can’t hear any doesn’t mean they aren’t there,” Hank persisted. “Besides, if you keep bending that screen all over the place, you’re going to break it. All it takes is one crack.”
All it takes is one crack. Where Astrid and Hank were from, this was the informal town motto. Actually, it was more than that. In Goldsport, it was something akin to a single-sentence religion.
All it takes is one crack.
“If the singers get into your house,” Hank continued, “they’ll get into mine. They’ll get into the greenway and the plaza and everywhere.”
“You’re right,” Astrid said. “Sorry. Next time I’ll just message you.”
“Ha ha,” Hank said.
Astrid slid the glass back down and drew the curtain. She was disappointed, both with Hank for being such a slug and with herself for being unable to pull him out of it. But there was no use dwelling—she’d tried. And she and Hank had the rest of their lives to figure out how to once again act like normal humans around each other. Astrid dressed, then grabbed her binoculars. The Bushkirk house was silent. Hank must have gone back to bed. But then, just as she was about to slip downstairs, he called out to her.
“Just wait for me at the junction, all right? I’ve gotta get my suit on.”
In the darkness of her bedroom, Astrid smiled wide.
• • •
Astrid snuck past her father’s room, down the plush staircase, and out the front door. But she didn’t go outside. In the sanctuary of Goldsport, there was no such thing as outside. Her front door opened directly onto the greenway, a vaulted glass tunnel that crisscrossed the entire village, stitching it together. The tunnel connected directly to her front door, where the glass was sealed tight around the frame with molded rubber. It looked like something between a greenhouse and a hallway. Hence the name—greenway.
Every house in Goldsport was like Astrid’s. Everyone had screens on their windows and glass around their doors. It was the only way they knew to keep the singers out. Astrid’s own grandfather had thought it up. He was the famous Ronnie Gold—hotel owner, real-estate developer,
and founding investor of the sanctuary that now bore his name. Grandpa Gold had been dead for twenty years, but the greenway had outlived him. It was a commonly accepted fact that without it there could be no Goldsport.
Astrid’s footsteps echoed down the greenway as she made for the junction. Above her head the glass sparkled in time with the spinning of the lighthouse. Hank arrived just moments after her, the elastic cuffs of his puffy white pants pulled tight over the tops of his rubber boots. The upper half of his bee suit was unzipped, hanging loose around his hips. Under that he’d put on a shirt that read: WORLD’S 2ND BEST DAD. It had a picture of a rather shabby silver cup on it.
“I just want to point out,” Hank said, “that going up to the wall is a bigger pain in the ass for me than it is for you.”
“Noted,” Astrid said. This was, after all, undeniably true.
Together they continued down the greenway, bypassing junctions that led to their neighbors’ homes. They cut through the dairy garden, where the milk goats were all dozing in their stalls, and stepped out into the plaza—an open expanse of sandy ground under a glass dome. It was the largest safe space in the sanctuary, and if you closed your eyes and squeezed your toes through the sand, you could almost imagine that you were outdoors. Which was exactly the point.
“You want to go out the western hatch or the harbor hatch?” Astrid asked.
Hank paused to think this over. “I saw my father working
on the roster yesterday,” he said. “I think Mr. Collins is posted to the western hatch.”
Astrid snorted. If old Mr. Collins had pulled overnight guard duty, there was about a 5 percent chance that he would still be awake to hassle them about leaving the greenway in the near dead of night. “The western hatch it is,” she said.
Sure enough, a few minutes later they came upon Mr. Collins in the last junction at the edge of town, at his post but dead to the world. The old man had dragged a beach lounger down the greenway and was curled up on it in a deep sleep. His little gold-framed eyeglasses had slipped off, snagged in the thick coils of his beard. Beneath the lounger lay his village-issued rifle, a paperback spy novel, and a mostly empty bottle of wine. It was the only stuff Mr. Collins ever drank, and rumor had it that it used to be one of the most expensive wines in the world. Mr. Collins had a whole cellar full of it. Apparently, he was once something called a “venture capitalist,” though no one had ever successfully explained to Astrid exactly what that was.
“My father needs to take him off the roster,” Hank whispered, looking down at Mr. Collins’s peaceful, sleeping face. He gingerly removed the glasses from Mr. Collins’s beard and tucked them into his shirt pocket so they wouldn’t break. “He’s just too old for this.”
“Other than the two of us, who isn’t?” Astrid asked.
Mr. Collins was a hair over seventy, but that still made him one of the younger investors in Goldsport. Meanwhile, Astrid and Hank represented 100 percent of the
under-eighteen set, and the next youngest people they knew were their own parents. She’d never gone through the trouble of calculating it, but Astrid guessed the average age in town was somewhere around eighty.
“What do you mean ‘us’?” Hank asked. “I’ve got two months on you. If anyone should be getting extra chores, it’s a baby like you.”
Astrid looked at him. “Was that a joke?”
“Could be,” Hank said. He ran a hand through his hair, which was sticking out every which way. “Pretty amazing, huh? That I can crack a joke? After you smashed my heart and all?”
Astrid grinned. That, right there, was progress.
They stepped around Mr. Collins and continued down to the western hatch. Here a series of heavy woolen sheets, cut into slits and doused with insecticide, hung before an exit chamber. The insecticide was called “quiet,” so everybody in town called this exit chamber—and the others like it—the “quiet room.” It looked like a glass box affixed to the side of the greenway.
Hank could go no farther without putting on the rest of his bee suit. He pulled the top half over his shoulders, arms tunneling through the oversize sleeves, fingers sliding neatly into leather gloves pinned at the cuffs. His bonnet looked something like a birdcage, with a wire frame supporting a fine mesh veil. Hank fit it over his head, zipped up the front of the suit, and buttoned the fastener.
“Can you check my straps?” He held his arms up and
rotated in a slow circle. There were no gaps, but Astrid tightened a buckle here and there.
“All good,” she said.
“Thanks.” Hank completed his turn, and the two were suddenly very close, face-to-face. He fell silent. Astrid knew that in this darkness he must be able to see the purple in her eyes—jagged flecks of color that glowed like fox fire. If Hank looked really close, he’d be able to see those little shards of light wriggle and pulse. Even when the two of them had been more than friends, the sight of her glittering irises had freaked Hank out. There was a reason why he used to always close his eyes when they kissed, and it had nothing to do with romance.
Hank dropped his gaze from Astrid’s face. Then he turned and pushed his way through the layered wool and into the quiet room. Astrid followed. There was no need for her to go through all that sweaty business of strapping into a bee suit. All she’d had to do before leaving home was pull on a faded pair of jeans and a hoodie. That was because Astrid was immune to the singers and the terrible disease that they carried. Her purple eyes, her dreamless sleep—these were just side effects of her condition. Astrid was the only person in Goldsport who could dare go outside with even an inch of skin exposed. The only person in the whole world, as far as she knew.
Not that that was saying much.
The world was a pretty empty place.