All around me, the island prepared to die. August was ending, so summer had come, bloomed, and waned. The tall, dry grass on the trail through the hills cracked under my mare’s hooves as we wound our way up toward the island’s heart.
Summer sun had bleached the grass the same blond as my hair, which was pulled into a rough ponytail at the nape of my neck. The straw cowboy hat I always wore when I rode was worn out too, beginning to split and fray along the seams.
The economy had done its part over the past few years to choke the life out of the small island I called home—Catalina, a little over twenty miles off the coast of Los Angeles. This summer, the island had felt remarkably more comfortable, as the mainland’s tourists had largely stayed away. But even though it was nice to have some breathing room for a change, it came at a price. Our main town, Avalon, had seen the closure of two restaurants and a hotel, and my parents’ bed-and-breakfast had gone whole weeks without any guests.
It was selfish that I enjoyed the solitude. Selfish and wrong, but undeniably true—solitude was a luxury, a rare commodity on a twenty-two-mile-long island that I shared with three-thousand-plus people, all of whom seemed to look at me differently lately, now that my brother was dead.
Yes, death was all around. The dry, hot air of August pressed down on me, my brother would not be coming home, and Avalon seemed to be folding in on itself under the weight of the recession, like a butterfly that’s dried up, its papery wings faded.
As if she could sense my mood, my mare, Delilah, tossed her pretty head and pulled at her bit, yearning to run. Delilah was also a luxury, one my parents had been in the habit of reminding me we really couldn’t afford—until Ronny died. Then, suddenly, they didn’t say much to me at all.
I get it, your kids are supposed to outlive you, it’s the natural order of things, but since Ronny had died, it was like I was dead too.
That was how I measured time now. There were the things that happened Before Ronny Died, and then there was Since Ronny Died. It was as sure a division of Before and After to our family as the birth of Jesus is to Christians.
Before Ronny Died, Mom smiled. Before Ronny Died, Daddy made plans for expanding our family B&B. Before Ronny Died, I was popular . . . as popular as you can be in a class of sixty-four students.
That was all different now. Since Ronny Died, my mother didn’t seem to notice that a film of dust coated all the knickknacks in the front room. My dad didn’t weed the flower beds. More than a tanking economy was sinking our family business. We were bringing it down just as surely, our gloomy faces unable to animate into real smiles. We probably scared off the guests.
Ronny died last May in the middle of a soccer game. Cause of death: grade 6 cerebral aneurysm. He was just finishing up his freshman year at UCLA. We weren’t with him. The distance between Catalina Island and the mainland seems a lot farther than twenty miles when your brother’s body is waiting for you on the other side.
I blinked hard to clear these thoughts. They would stay with me anyway, I knew, but I let Delilah have her head, knowing from experience that while we were galloping, at least, my mind would feel empty.
My mare didn’t let me down. Twitching her tail with excitement, Delilah broke into a gallop, her short Arabian’s stride lengthening as she gathered speed, her head pushed out as if to smell the wind, her wide nostrils flaring. Her coat gleamed red in the afternoon sun.
Ronny used to joke that Delilah should have been named Scarlett, not me. Ronny was a literal kind of guy. And he liked to say that I should be called Delilah, because of my long hair. That was stupid, of course; in the Bible, Delilah wasn’t the one with the long hair. It was her lover, Samson, who she betrayed by chopping off his hair—the source of his strength—while he slept, damning him to death at the hands of the Philistines.
Ronny just shrugged when I explained all this to him. Sometimes he could be awfully dumb, for such a smart guy.
I wanted to cut off my hair after Ronny died. I stood in the kitchen the afternoon of the funeral, dressed in one of my mother’s suits left over from her days as a lawyer, back before she and Daddy decided to move to the island to open a B&B. In my hands, I held a long serrated knife. There was a perfectly good reason for this: I couldn’t find the scissors.
But when my mother came into the kitchen, fresh from burying her only son, and saw me standing in the kitchen with a knife in my hand, she freaked out. She started screaming, loud, piercing screams, as if I were an intruder, as if I planned to use that knife against her. Or maybe she thought I was planning to use it against myself, pressing the blade into flesh instead of hair. Then Daddy ran in and saw me there, and his eyes filled with tears, something I’d seen more times that week than I’d seen in the sixteen years of my life up till that point. Dad took the knife gently from my hand before leading my mother to bed.
Afterward, I couldn’t seem to gather the strength to cut my hair. I had wanted to cut it because Ronny had loved it, though he’d never have admitted as much. He used to braid it while we watched TV. I wanted to cut it off and then burn it.
But my mother’s expression had taken all the momentum out of my plans. So as I rode Delilah through the open meadow at the heart of the island, I felt the heavy slap of my ponytail against my back, hanging like a body from a noose in the elastic band that ensnared it.
Excerpted from Sacred by Elana K. Arnold Copyright © 2012 by Elana K. Arnold. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.