My lameness didn’t seem to bother him, as he walked a couple of steps back toward me. “It would be raining whether I had a car or not.” He glanced at the still-pouring sky. “But you be careful. The roads are slick.”
“Do you need—” I bit the words off, horrified at the fact that I had almost offered some guy I didn’t know a ride. Where was my sense of self-preservation?
He just waved and started back down the road.
“Kona!” I called after him again. This time he didn’t turn around, didn’t even pause in his trek up the sleek, treacherous road.
I watched him for a minute, two, until the rain made it harder and harder to see. Blinking rapidly, I rubbed the water out of my eyes, wanting one more clear picture of him for my mental scrapbook. But when I looked again, he was gone. I narrowed my eyes, looked for that telltale flash of red. There was nothing—he had disappeared as if he had never been.
It wasn’t until I was in my car, fumbling with the controls for my heater, that I realized the whole time he’d been touching me, I hadn’t felt the cold.
That night, and every other night for the rest of the week, I had strange dreams. Each one started out the same way. I was surfing a really wicked barrel and doing a hella good job of it. I was right in the center of the glass house and there was water all around me—above my head, below my board, on either side of me. Only the path in front of and behind me was clear.
I rode the tube all the way in and was having a really great time doing it, but instead of ducking out like my dad had taught me, I got caught inside as it crashed around me. I tried to find my way out, tried to get back to shore, but the water kept pulling me down—deeper and deeper below the surface.
I didn’t need a degree—or three—in psychology to know that if I told anyone about the dream, they would say it was a by-product of my near-drowning experience. And they’d probably be right. Except, and this was the kicker, even if the dream was partially because I’d almost drowned, it was also about a lot more.
Just how much more was what had me staring at the ceiling in the middle of every night, willing myself not to sleep. Of course, every night I eventually lost the battle and was sucked, not just below the surface, but into a world I had never let myself imagine.
My mother was there, as were any number of other mermaids—and Kona. They darted in between wreckages of old planes and ships on the ocean floor, played with colorful schools of fish and with each other, built towering castles of coral and sand.
In general, it should have been a reassuring dream, a promise of happiness to come if the worst happened and I lost my battle for humanity. But underlying all the bright colors and laughter was a darkness that terrified me. One that seemed to creep over the ocean floor, enveloping everyone and everything in its path.
I’d felt that darkness twice before: That long-ago night when I was ten and had come face-to-face with a creature I couldn’t hope to comprehend. And last week, when I’d fallen off my surfboard and nearly drowned.
That I was feeling it again now, when so much was on the line, made me wary—even in my sleep. The fact that Kona was somehow wrapped up in it—even in my subconscious—only made me more nervous.
I woke up at the same point in the dream every time, with my heart pounding too fast and inexplicable tears sliding down my cheeks. It was frightening as hell. Before this week started, I could count on one hand the number of times I’d cried since my mother left us, but these days it was like I had sprung a leak.
I hadn’t had any more freaky incidences—while I was still freezing all the time, my tail hadn’t come back. And nothing new had occurred. If it weren’t for the gills that refused to go away, I could almost convince myself that everything that had happened recently was just part and parcel of my recurring nightmare.
But the gills were there, and anticipating something else happening—something worse—was like waiting for the other shoe to drop at any time. Was there any wonder, then, that I wasn’t sleeping much? Or that I was walking around jumping at shadows?
“Hey, Tempest,” my dad called. “Mark’s here. He wants to know if you’re going out with them today.”
A week ago, Mark wouldn’t even have had to ask—I would have been waiting outside for him, board in hand. But the tension between us still hadn’t played out—neither of us had been willing to back down—and we hadn’t spent much time together the last few days. Still, he’d stopped by every morning for the last five days, even though I’d turned him away each time.
My body longed for the ocean, but for once my brain was firmly in control. And there was no way I was going back in that water and risking becoming a mermaid once and for all.
“Tempest?” my dad called again.
“Tell him I’m sick.”
The door opened. “Are you sick?” My dad’s face was concerned as he looked me over.
“Oh.” There was a long pause, followed by an even longer throat clearing. “Did you two have a fight?”
“No.” Seeing as how Mark and I had avoided each other altogether for the last few days, fighting with him again hadn’t really been an option.
“Did something else happen, then?”
My eyes shot to his. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. You’ve been acting kind of strange lately and you look exhausted. I thought maybe …”
“I know we haven’t talked about this. That’s my fault. But your birthday’s in a few days and your mom’s letter—”
“I don’t want to think about that stupid letter.” I climbed out of bed and smoothed the sheet and comforter back into place.
I didn’t usually make my bed, so the fact that I was doing it today probably wasn’t lost on my dad. But then, he’d never been as easy to fool as most of my friends’ parents were. It probably came from all those years hanging out on the pro-surfing circuit, partying and chasing girls.
He always told me he’d never really been into the life, but I’d seen the old surfer magazines and looked through the scrapbooks my mom had kept from before I was born. In each of them, he was always right in the thick of things—usually with my mom. The weird thing, though, was how happy he looked in the pictures. How happy they both looked.
“I know you don’t want to think about it, sweetheart. But we don’t have a choice. Things are going to change soon. You can’t hide forever.”
“Nothing’s going to change,” I answered. I already mentioned that I was the queen of denial, didn’t I?
He watched me for a minute, then crossed the room and pulled me in close for a hug. It was one of those strong, all-powerful hugs I remembered from my early childhood—the kind that smelled of salt water and Tommy cologne and made me feel incredibly safe.
Like a child, I clung to him for a second, trying to hang on to everything that I had right now. Trying to remind myself once and for all why I was going to resist the lure of the sea. Here on land I had my family and Mark and Brianne and Mickey and Logan. I had school and surfing, parties and painting. Art school and studying abroad.
What exactly did I have waiting for me out there anyway? A mother who hadn’t cared enough to stick around—or to come back and help me through a transition I so totally didn’t want to make?