CHAPTER ONE

Mia Wick lounged in her lifeguard's chair, looking out serenely at the ocean ahead of her. The beach was sparsely populated as the summer season had barely begun. What few people remained within her view consisted of retirees and couples with young children, who tended to remain on the shore, or else in the shallowest parts of the water.

Her shift passed by at an agonizing pace. She'd kill to be able to look at her phone, or at least read a book, but remaining alert was the whole purpose of her job. The most she could do was rub more sunscreen on her shoulders, already deeply tanned and freckled from exposure, every hour or so, and readjust her sleek, black ponytail. Thankfully, she only had thirty more minutes left before someone else would take over the white beacon of safety.

Out of nowhere, there was a distant shout. It was so faint, she wondered if she was imagining it just to ease her boredom. But looking out at the coastline, she saw a figure, out where the water went from aquamarine to navy blue. Anyone swimming out that far usually ended up in trouble. Though it was a calm enough day, the undertow was strong, and the scream spoke for itself. Leaping down from her chair, she dashed towards the ocean as soon as her feet hit the sand. It took a good bit of muscle to fight against the first few waves. But after she got to a deep enough point where she could swim, she powered on straight ahead in a front crawl formation. Every time she turned her head to take a breath, she listened for more screams, but couldn't hear any. That left her stomach in nervous knots. By the time she reached her target, the victim had gone still and was slipping under the surface. Taking another deep breath, Mia shot forward and grabbed the elderly woman around the torso, lifting her back up above the surface before heading back to the shore, muscles burning more with every second. Despite being in good shape, the speed and strength needed to pull an unconscious adult along such a distance was quickly taking a toll on her body.

Reaching the shore, several people moved forward to help pull the woman onto the sand. "She's not breathing!" someone shouted in a panic. After that, Mia quickly shooed them away and knelt beside her, beginning to perform chest compressions combined with mouth-to-mouth as the others looked on silently.

"Don't just stand there, someone call 911!" she snapped without looking up or stopping her movements. Mia couldn't help but be on edge as she now felt like someone's life was literally in her hands, for the first time ever. Before, the most she'd ever done was drag panicked, screaming swimmers back to shore. She'd never had to deal with a victim who wasn't even breathing. Her heart pounded as she silently prayed to anything that was listening that the woman would wake up.

After several, agonizing seconds of delivering CPR, there was a sputtering cough and a gasp, followed by relieved sighs from the onlookers. The woman's head rolled to the side, chest heaving as she continued spitting up seawater as well as vomit. Returning from the brink of death really wasn't as glorious as the media made it sound. Once Mia was sure the airway was cleared, she gently pushed the victim on her back again, as the woman clutched at her chest with a rattling gasp. The chest compressions likely fractured if not broke a few of her ribs.

Thankfully, the EMTs arrived soon, loading the victim onto a stretcher and carrying her back to the ambulance. It all happened so fast, Mia's mind was left reeling. She stared after the ambulance as it drove away for a long moment before finally collecting herself and returning to get her things. A few people gave her some quick words of praise, to which she simply smiled and said it was nothing.

Over the next couple of days, Mia obsessively checked every news outlet she could think of, trying to find anything about the woman that almost drowned. Was she alright? Did she recover? With how close to death she had been, and considering her age, Mia couldn't help but wonder if she had developed problems later in the ER.

"Look, if it's not in the news, she probably survived. You know they don't ever report on good things," Blaire, one of Mia's roommates, remarked as she closed the lifeguard's laptop.

"Hey, I was looking at that!"

"Stop obsessing over it. We just had enough stress as it was over finals…"

"Eh, speak for yourself," their other roommate, Noah, called from the living room. "Not all of us are in engineering…some of us like happiness."

"Oh yeah? Let's see how happy you are when I'm loaded and you're wandering around jobless."

As harsh as it sounded, this was a regular banter between the two. They had long stopped asking Mia to take sides, as she always just gave some neutral answer about passion and practicality both being important.

While they continued bickering, she decided now was as good a time as ever to get up from the couch to go take the dog, a German Shepherd mix, out for a walk. Thankfully, in a shared rental house like this, there was no pet fee. But Mia did end up being the only real caretaker of Thunder, despite how her roommates claimed to love the animal.

She slipped on some sneakers before whistling for Thunder. Claws clacked against hardwood before Mia saw her bounding down the hallway, tongue lolling as she knew what time it was. After clipping on the leash, Mia stepped outside the confines of the air conditioning and started their usual trek through the humid, salty air.

By the time the sky turned lavender with the setting sun, Mia was holed up in her room, wine glass in hand and hair twisted up in a towel as she lazily browsed various social media outlets. This was a typical routine for her, especially during the summer when she had little else to do. Nothing much seemed out of the ordinary until she filtered through the more interesting sites all the way down to Facebook and discovered a message.

You're beautiful.

That was all it said. It was sent from a blank profile, simply titled Facebook User. Mia stared at the screen for a long moment. It wasn't as if she'd never gotten a flirtatious message before, but those were usually from some desperate loser she vaguely recognized from high school—never a faceless stranger. Soon she wondered if the mysterious edge was some technique to reel her in. She didn't want to fall for it, but her curiosity was too much. For now, she played along, fingers lightly tapping against the keys.

Thanks, but who is this?

Figuring whoever it was might not be online at present, and needing to distract herself from the anxiety settling in her stomach, she returned to browsing through other websites. It was only a few minutes before her phone buzzed with a new Facebook notification. Then another. And another.

Facebook User likes your photo.

Facebook User likes your photo.

Facebook User likes your photo…

Her eyes widened before her message box also lit up with a fresh response.

My name wouldn't mean anything if I told you.

What the hell? Did that mean this was a total stranger, or just that the 'game' would be over if he just gave his name up? That is, assuming it was a he…Mia didn't like to make snap judgements, in case she had to eat her words later, but it was almost always men who did this sort of thing. Ignoring him for the moment, she went to her notifications to see which pictures exactly it was that he had liked. She half expected them to be nothing but her rare bathing suit photos, but it was a wide mix of things, from political posts to profile selfies to tagged pictures of her volunteering at the Humane Society.

Seriously, who are you? How do you know me?

They responded within seconds.

I saw you at the beach.

Instantly, her mind went to the last day she had been working. No doubt she would make an impression on someone when she had potentially saved a life. But though she went over every person that had talked to her that day, particularly any guys around her age, nothing stood out. No one came across as even slightly flirtatious.

I don't remember you.

Her eyes fixated on the typing indicator before she had her unsettling reply.

You wouldn't. You didn't see me. But I saw you.

Well that was…creepy. Her thumbs hovered over the screen, frozen as she tried to mentally formulate a response. Just as she thought she might have a way to express her disinterest without being so rude it would provoke a psychotic reaction, she started getting notifications from Instagram. Another blank profile, this one titled 111121519, was liking away at every single picture she posted. It wasn't much of a stretch to figure it was the same person. But how did he even find her Instagram? It wasn't connected to her Facebook in any way that she could imagine.

Her heart beat like a rabbit's as the notifications continued to pile up. Beyond likes, there were a few comments. On their own, none of them were threatening. In fact, they were totally innocuous or even sweet. "Nice dress", "Cute dog", etc.

The constant buzzing of her phone eventually became so overwhelming she switched it off and tossed it at the end of her bed with an exasperated cry. Thunder, who had been napping on the carpet, flinched at the sudden movement before jumping on the bed, nuzzling Mia as if asking her what was wrong.

"It's alright, girl. We've had worse before, haven't we?" she cooed with a weak smile, stroking the dog's soft head until they were both calm again.

It's just the Internet. He can't do anything to you, you aren't in danger…

There had to be some reason behind this. Whoever this person was, he could only have two motivations: either he had no social skills and just wanted to express a deluded crush, or he wanted to intimidate her. Well, she refused to be intimidated, not by some anonymous douchebag using social media to his advantage. How pathetic was that? That shouldn't scare anyone. That was nothing.

Gritting her teeth, she downed the rest of her wine before getting up for a refill, hoping for some distraction. Maybe if she didn't respond for a few hours, he would get bored and leave her alone.

Her boycott only lasted through about three episodes of St. Dympha's Academy before she was out of wine and reaching for her phone. Her favorite whodunnit drama couldn't hook her like it usually did, not when she had a real mystery to solve. When her screen lit up again, she nearly dropped her phone, horrified to see it flooded with new notifications.

First, there were a couple of new messages left by "Facebook User".

Are you still there?

Mia?

From that point, it seemed he had moved onto other outlets to get her attention.

111121519 liked your post

111121519 liked your post

111121519 reblogged your post and said: You're even more real than I thought.

Her heart jolted in her chest as she realized these were from Tumblr. His finding her Facebook and Instagram had been creepy enough, but her blog was especially private. Not even her friends knew her URL. The site was less for perfectly filtered selfies and showing the best side of oneself, and more for big blocks of personal text, complicated political disputes, and fans obsessing over their idols, popular and obscure alike. If Facebook and Instagram were like resumes, Tumblr was like a diary—and she'd much rather have a stranger dig up her resume than her diary.

Looking at what he was reblogging, Mia noticed it was all her own, original posts—nothing she took from anyone else. The last one had been her lame attempt at poetry, written over three months ago.

Endless wandering, searching for identity,

Scattered memories lost at sea.

Who am I? The question's so cliché.

Yet the mere thought drains my brain,

Kills its colors,

Until all that's left is grey.

It wasn't even finished. Skimming over it now made her cringe, and she clicked to delete it before reaching the end of the post.

Aside from what looked like his compilation of her own work, his page was blank, as usual. No picture, no info page, nothing. And no matter how long she stared at the numbers in his URL, she couldn't form any sense out of them. It didn't look like a date or anything like that, so she couldn't even figure out how old this guy might be.

Now was time for a decision. Her curiosity hadn't gone away—she still wanted to know who this was, why they were doing this. Though from her brief conversation with him earlier, she could tell she probably wasn't going to get that from him, and she wasn't nearly tech-savvy enough to get answers any other way.

Without further hesitation, she proceeded to block every single account of his that she saw. Part of her was afraid he'd just create even more accounts afterwards, like some cyber-hydra that grew seven more heads each time she tried to slice one off, but there wasn't much more she could do.

It'll all be better in the morning…it always is.


Sunlight filtered in through translucent curtains as Mia's hand slipped out of the pale pink covers of her bed. She felt around for her phone, wanting to check the time before hesitating. Her groggy brain now associated the device with danger. Or had she dreamt all that...? No, wait, it definitely was not a dream. She remembered now. Was it safe to look? Rubbing her eyes, she worked up the courage to unlock her phone, only to find…nothing.

A sigh of relief escaped her lips as she was free to begin her day.

"Morning, loser," Noah greeted her from the kitchen, where the strong smell of coffee permeated the air.

"Morning, dork. You came home late last night...Did you meet a cute boy?"

"Maybe. Did you?" His question was clearly sarcastic, since she almost always spent her nights alone, but his eyes widened as he noticed her shoulders tense. "Wait...you did?"

"No." She shook her head quickly, setting up the teapot on the stove to make herself a cup of chamomile. "Just some weirdo harassed me all night. Online stuff, nothing serious."

"Did you block him?"

"Obviously."

"Good." He still looked concerned. "Harassing you how though? Like political trolling or…"

"No, I mean making blank accounts, finding all of my accounts, and liking or commenting on basically everything I've ever posted." She sighed, fingers tapping on the countertop with agitation. "He sent me a few Facebook messages first that said I was beautiful and that he saw me on the beach, then he somehow found a lot of my information. Private stuff."

"That's….creepy." Noah looked off as she fixed her tea, brows furrowed in deep thought before he gasped. "Oh! What if it's Daniel?"

She scoffed and shook her head. "It's not Daniel."

"Why not? That boy was weird as hell."

"This guy said his name wouldn't mean anything if he told me. He heavily implied that we'd never met before."

"And it couldn't be possible that he's lying?"

Her eyes lowered and she gave a shrug. "I just think if it was an ex, he'd want me to know it was him."


It was the Fourth of July. The worst day of the year, in Mia (and Thunder's) humble opinion. She'd covered her ears with noise-cancelling headphones, blasting pop music in an attempt to keep her mood light. One arm was wrapped around Thunder, trying to calm the whimpering creature, as her other hand held her book open. Still, even through all her attempts of distraction, she could hear the muted sounds of the celebratory explosions outside.

They're just fireworks….just fireworks….not…

Gunshots. Mia had been in a position much like this last time she'd heard them, clutching to her dog for comfort.

"If I can't get that useless mutt to defend my shop, at least this will…" Gibbs, her poor excuse for a foster parent, muttered to himself as he twirled his new toy—a .44 Magnum. He'd already fired off a few rounds, aiming for various bottles he'd set up just outside the auto parts shop. Every time he hit one, glass would shatter and he let out a throaty laugh, taking another swig of beer.

When Thunder—barely more than a puppy at the time—went from whimpering to barking in protest at the loud noises, Gibbs swung around, flashing Mia a dirty smile. The terror on her face was evident as she stared at the gun rather than at him.

"Wha'? You afraid?" he taunted her, slowly raising his arm. "You think I'm gonna shoot you?"

She wouldn't doubt it after all of her experiences with this man. As the barrel of the gun faced her dead on, she swore her heart stopped beating. Her thoughts raced to a million different places, how she was far too young to die, how she hadn't accomplished anything, how she hadn't even found her family yet. Her family…before that moment, she'd just tried not to think about them. They'd abandoned her. What was the point in giving them a second thought? But when faced with the possibility of dying without even knowing who gave her life…

Bang.

For a moment, she thought she was dead, that he'd finally killed her. She no longer felt the warmth of Thunder at her side. But sparks flew in the corner of her eye as the bullet ricocheted off the steel door of the shop instead. Gibb's screams echoed across the flat desert plain as he flailed like a madman, kicking up orange dust as he tried to throw a large mass off of him. It took a second for Mia to realize that Thunder had her jaws locked firmly on Gibb's arm—the one that had been holding the gun. After accidentally firing it once, he dropped it, leaving it to clatter uselessly against the ground.

She was only snapped out of her memories when Thunder turned her head sharply, just before the bedroom suddenly creaked open. Mia pulled her headphones down around her neck as Blaire poked her head in.

"Noah wants us to go to this lame theatre party. He promises red, white and blue Jell-O shots. You in?"

Raising a brow, Mia chuckled and shrugged. "Well, how can I say no to that?"

At least the loud party music (and the effects of a few drinks) might cancel out the constant crashes and bangs outside.

The party was just down the street, and she was acquainted with most of the people there. The best parts were when she would get caught up in small talk with Noah's friends about the upcoming productions, or movies that had come out recently, and time would fly by as she wore a bright, semi-intoxicated, semi-genuine smile on her face. Sometimes, it almost felt real.

Other times, she'd end up alone on the couch, red solo cup in one hand with her phone in the other, trying to look busy while wondering where the hell her friends went. It wasn't painful enough to make her want to go home, but it did leave her stomach in uncomfortable knots. In the end, someone she recognized would always come around, and things would pick back up again.

The ups and downs of socializing continued this way until a "joke" hit her in the gut. The guy who told it was Trevor, one of Noah's many casual friends. Mia had spoken to him once or twice in passing, but would hardly consider him a friend herself. What he said concerned a chemistry professor who'd been arrested for selling roofies across campus last semester. At least three female students had been raped, and those were only the ones who reported it. But Trevor, who had been boasting about being an "egalitarian" at the last party and caring about the rights of "all people", apparently thought sexual trauma was goddamn hilarious.

Mia fumed in silence. Her jaw clenched as she desperately wanted to say something, but what would she say? Something lame like 'that's not funny', only for him to say 'yes it is, don't be so sensitive' and then walk away? What if everyone else agreed with him? What if they all ganged up on her? What would be the point?

No one cares what you think, Mia. No one cares.

She was frozen in place by her own disbelief and despair until suddenly, Blaire was doing all the talking for her.

"The fuck is wrong with you?" she spat, getting right up in his face. "It's the twenty-first century and you think rape jokes are still funny? Are you serious right now? Go back to middle school and get a real sense of humor, pencil dick."

Mia's jaw dropped and soon, she was the one laughing. The only way it could've been better was if Blaire had smacked Trevor's PBR onto his hideous, argyle sweater. Naturally, the blonde's words alone were enough to start a verbal war, and anyone could see it was highly unlikely she'd get an apology out of Trevor—but at least she had said something. Mia's thoughts were caught somewhere between awe and gut-wrenching guilt, all heightened by the alcohol still swimming through her brain. Blaire might as well have been the next voice of a generation whereas she…well. She was just another gutless bystander.

"Hey."

Flinching, she turned to face a guy about her age. The place was crowded, but he'd gotten close enough for her to smell his cheap cologne when he approached, which seemed to be out of thin air.

"Do I know you?" she asked before she could stop herself. Watery blue eyes widened as he seemed taken aback.

"Uh. I don't think so. But I think you know some of my friends. And I think we had English Lit together, last semester." A strange, nervous smile appeared on his thin lips before he took a sip from his drink.

"So…how's it going?"

She stared at him for a moment, an insane thought wandering through her head before she composed herself.

"I'm doing okay…and you?"

"Good, good." He hesitated, seeming to give her almost a full-body scan before speaking again. "That's um…a nice dress you've got on."

Nice dress, commented Instagram user 111121519.

Her nails gripped the edge of the couch more tightly. "Thanks."

"So…I know you can't be a theatre major, I never see you in the department."

Her shoulders raised as her eyes scanned the room, trying to find any sign of her friends.

"You guessed correctly…"

"It's nice to see a fresh face at one of these things. Especially a girl—"

"I've been to several of these parties before." And she had never seen him before in her life. His expression fell.

"Oh. Well. I'm sure I would've noticed you."

She gave a grim smile. "I don't know, I sort of blend in. I'm um…I'm going to get another drink." With that, she grabbed the cup on the table beside her and got up from the couch, disappearing into the crowd before he could follow her.

It was only after she took a huge gulp of her drink that she realized it tasted different. Not unpleasant, but more of a lemon-lime flavor. Peering down into the cup, she saw a cobalt colored liquid—definitely not the hunch punch she had earlier. Had she accidentally grabbed someone else's cup? Despite the intoxicating taste, she chucked it in the nearest trash can, knowing better than to keep drinking something when she didn't know where it had been or who had touched it.

The house was spacious, but felt as claustrophobic as a cave crumbling in around her as bodies bumped and ground against her, her head pounding from dehydration and the thumping music. She tried to mingle for a little while longer, but was starting to get sick of it. Nothing people said made any sense to her. She just wanted to go home. Stumbling against a girl she kind of knew, she muttered an apology before asking where Blaire or Noah were. Her voice slurred a lot more than she expected it to.

"I think Blaire's upstairs," the other answered curtly. Mia nodded and staggered towards the staircase, even as someone called after her. "I wouldn't interrupt her, she's with a girl—"

But at this rate, Mia didn't care if she was interrupting something. In fact, she didn't care about much of anything, even that she was feeling a lot more drunk than she should be after only one drink. Suddenly, the world seemed to spin out of control and her body lost all connection with her brain, collapsing on the hard edges of the steps. She didn't even feel the pain of the impact as her half-shut eyes looked up towards the second floor. The last thing she remembered was the blurry, fading image of a man in the shadows, staring down at her.