He laughed, but it wasn’t a happy sound. “Do I look like a merman to you?”
I was glad it was dark, so he couldn’t see me blush. “I don’t know what mermen look like.”
“They don’t look like me.” He paused. “You know, mermaids aren’t the only half-human creatures under the sea, Tempest. There are all kinds of other beings down there. I’m one of those.”
“I think I’ve spilled enough secrets tonight, seeing as how I’m forbidden to talk to you about most of this anyway—at least until you make a decision one way or the other.”
“That’s not fair!”
“Wow, that’s original,” he teased, though his levity quickly faded into seriousness. “You need to stay away from the ocean at night, Tempest. I mean it. It isn’t safe—not for you.”
He leaned over and brushed his lips across my cheek in a kiss that was somehow sweeter and a million times more powerful than what had happened between us on the beach.
And then he was standing, bounding down the steps two at a time. “I’ll see you around,” he called over his shoulder as he headed down the driveway.
“Kona!” I clambered to my feet, everything he’d said—and hadn’t said—whirling around in my brain. It combined with the strange, new emotions for him that were unfolding within me. Emotions that went a lot deeper than I had originally wanted to give them credit for.
He stopped, but didn’t turn around. “What?”
“My dad’s throwing me a birthday party tomorrow night. You want to come?” I issued the invitation impulsively, knowing only that I wanted to see him again.
He paused, seemed to consider the invite. “Yeah. I do.”
“Eight o’clock. Here.”
I almost let him leave, but there was one more thing I needed to say. It had been burning inside of me since he’d told me about his mother’s stories.
“Warriors aren’t the only ones who can kick a little ass, you know. Some maidens can more than hold their own.”
“That’s what I’m counting on, Tempest. That’s what we’re all counting on.” And then he was gone, blending into the night beyond my driveway no matter how hard I strained to keep him in view. But he had disappeared again, like he had twice before, leaving nothing behind save the tingling of my cheek where his rough fingers had tenderly stroked me.
I sat on the porch for a long time, Kona’s words playing and replaying in my mind like a track from my favorite playlist. Eventually night lifted and fingers of pink and purple began streaking their way across the sky.
It was officially my birthday—I was seventeen.
I didn’t feel any different than I had before, and as I bounded into the house to check my reflection in the entryway mirror, I was excited to realize I didn’t look any different either. I hadn’t grown a long tail overnight or anything else that would make me stand out in a crowd.
Feeling suddenly optimistic, I stroked a finger over the delicate skin behind my ears. Maybe, since I’d obviously made my choice, they would have disappeared. No, the gills were still there. Though I tried to keep myself from obsessing, I couldn’t help wondering if they were permanent. A reminder of just what I’d turned my back on.
I heard a couple of pots clang together in the kitchen and with a last reassuring glance in the mirror, headed that way to see what my brothers were up to.
But it wasn’t the boys making an early-morning raid on the fridge. It was my father. Dressed in yet another pair of board shorts and a surfing T-shirt, his blond hair flopping over his eyes, he looked more like one of my friends than he did a man who was pushing middle age. Unless, of course, you looked past the camouflage and got a good look in those eyes, at the sadness he couldn’t hide.
I had just opened my mouth to ask what he was doing when he glanced up and saw me. “Sorry,” he muttered sheepishly as he started cracking eggs in a bowl. “I wanted to make you breakfast for your birthday. I didn’t mean to wake …” His voice trailed off as he got a good look at my wet hair and sand-encrusted clothes.
“Early morning swim?” he asked dryly. “Or late night?”
“I couldn’t sleep.” I circled the center island, grabbed a loaf of bread out of the pantry, and fed four slices into the toaster.
“Me neither. I’m surprised I didn’t hear you go out.”
“I was quiet.” I watched as he flicked a pat of butter into the hot pan, listened to the familiar sizzle as my stomach growled. What do mermaids eat? I wondered absently. It wasn’t like they could fire up the stove at a hundred feet below sea level.
“Next time, come get me.” He expertly beat the eggs, then slid them into the frying pan. “We’ll go out together.”
I couldn’t stop my quick jerk of surprise. “You would have gone out with me? But you don’t like to sur—” I bit my lip to keep from blurting out anything else.
He turned from where he was scrambling the eggs to look at me with a frown. “Is that what you think? That I don’t like to surf anymore? If so, you couldn’t be more wrong.”
I didn’t answer, my head ringing with the conviction behind those words. In the silence that stretched between us, the toaster sounded like a shot as it expelled the bread. Because I couldn’t think of what to say—or do—I pulled out the toast and started buttering it, concentrating on the task like it was life or death.
“Tempest? Answer me.”
I shrugged, uncomfortable. Navigating the murky waters of my parents’ relationship always made me feel like a boat with a slow leak. “You don’t go out much anymore.”
“You’re right, I don’t.” He glanced at the Pacific. “I should probably fix that.”
“I didn’t mean—”
“I know.” He remembered the eggs just in time and gave them a final stir before dividing them onto two plates. He carried them to the table, then gestured for me to sit.
“You’re right. For a while, I didn’t like the water.”
“Because it took Mom. I know, I get it.”
His eyes were bottomless as they met mine across the breakfast table. “No, Tempest. Not because it took your mom from me—how could it? The ocean, as powerful and beautiful as it is, is still just an inanimate object. It couldn’t take her even if it wanted to. It was her choice. She left—it didn’t take her.”
The toast was sawdust in my mouth and I struggled to swallow past the lump in my throat. We were finally going to do it, finally going to talk about my mother. I couldn’t get enough moisture in my mouth to choke down the bread and had to rush to the fridge for a glass of water.
When I could finally speak, I asked, “Then why? Why did you stop surfing? Why did you change so much when she left? It was like one day you were this super-cool dad who showed me a new trick every week and then suddenly you were just gone. I mean, you were here, but you weren’t the same.”
It hurt to say the words, hurt more to see them rain down on my father like blows. But now that I’d started, I couldn’t stop. It was like a giant floodgate had opened and everything inside of me was just rushing out.