That surrender must have been what my body was waiting for—the end of the struggle between what my mind wanted and what my body knew—because as soon as I gave up control, as soon as I stopped fighting, a strange force took me over.
My legs fused together in a bond that was both terrifying and primordially familiar—blending seamlessly into one as if they had been waiting my whole life to do just that—and with a few powerful kicks that were more instinct than design, propelled me straight to the surface and into Mark’s waiting arms.
“God, Tempest, are you all right?” His brown eyes were frantic as they searched my face, and the hands he ran over my body were just a little too rough, a little too shaky.
I started to tell him I was fine, but I wasn’t. No matter how hard I tried to breathe, my lungs simply wouldn’t work. The same salt water that had shocked my body into action had also filled my lungs. And it was drowning me still, though I was now above the surface.
“I’ve got her,” Mark yelled, waving wildly, before he wrapped one strong arm around me and started towing me in.
“It’s okay, babe, I’ve got you,” he repeated again and again while his powerful kicks torpedoed us closer to shore. “I’ve got you now.”
Trying to make things easier for him, I forced my body to limpness despite the terror still racing through me. Too bad I couldn’t just as easily force my water-filled lungs to accept the oxygen I so desperately needed.
I was going to drown—not in the depths of the ocean, but in my boyfriend’s arms on the way back to land.
It would have been ironic if it wasn’t so damn frightening.
About halfway to the beach, my messed-up body finally figured out where it was and I started to cough, my paralyzed lungs unfreezing in one giant spasm that shook me from the inside out.
I heard Mark curse under his breath, his arm tightening around my middle as I jerked against him. “Come on, Tempest, we’re almost there. Stay with me just another minute. Just another—”
Then we were in the shallows and someone was pulling me from Mark’s arms, wading through the waist- then knee-deep water. I struggled to open my eyes through the coughing spasms—to see who was carrying me—but trying to breathe through the pain was taking all my effort.
And then some.
A part of me was aware of being laid on the sand, of gentle hands rolling me onto my side. But deep coughs continued wrenching their way through me, the world once again going gray around the edges as I battled to pull air into my burning lungs.
A random series of inventive Australian curses split the air—it was my best bud, Logan, who had carried me the last few feet to shore. And it was his giant hand that hit me right below the center of my back.
I tried to protest, but nothing came out.
Tried to fight the bizarre and sudden attack, but I was too weak to do anything but moan.
His hand hit my back again and again, until—finally—I started to puke. Struggling to my knees, I attempted to hide my face—I guess I was still aware enough to be embarrassed—but Logan refused to let me turn away. At least he’d stopped trying to drill a hole in my back with his palm; now the only thing racking my body was the spasms that emptied my lungs of water.
I coughed and puked, puked and coughed, for what felt like forever—I swear I must have brought up at least a gallon of water, maybe more—before I could draw my first real breath.
When I finally managed to suck in a strong lungful of air, it burned like hell itself. I tried not to freak out, reminded myself that a good saltwater ravaging could do that.
The thought didn’t help much, especially as I started to remember everything that had happened when I was under.
Rolling off my knees onto my butt, I took inventory of my whacked-out body. Now that I was back on land, everything felt like it was working normally. Yet those minutes in the ocean were etched into my brain—as was the reality of what, just for a moment, I had become.
Panic set in all over again and I glanced down at my legs, hoping like hell I was back to normal. I was. My two legs were perfectly defined and separate, something I was incredibly happy about. When I tried to bend them they moved easily, following the commands of my brain as if the entire episode in the water had never happened.
Relief filled me at the comforting thought—at least until Mark’s voice penetrated my stupor, sounding dark and scared and more pissed off than I had ever heard it before.
“Tempest, are you all right? Tempest?”
When I didn’t immediately answer, Mark crouched down next to me, his hands biting into my arms until it was all I could do not to wince. Not that it was his fault—it wasn’t like he had a clue how sensitive my skin, and the flesh underneath it, was becoming. So sensitive that sometimes just the whip of the wind felt like a thousand leather straps flaying me and the soft cotton of my clothes chafed and burned with each shift of my body.
“Come on, Tempest, answer me.” He shook me a little, but still I didn’t answer.
What was I supposed to say—that with each day that passed I came closer to becoming what I hated?
That with each breath I took I could feel myself becoming less human and more other?
Or that I was afraid—deathly afraid—that in one week I would have webbed fingers, a scaly tail, and an overwhelming urge to plumb the depths of the ocean?
Since I could barely admit the fear to myself, I settled on an “I’m fine” that was about as convincing as it was truthful. But, hey, it was better than the alternative.
“Hey, man, back off. Give her a chance to breathe.” Gentle hands pried Mark’s frightened ones from around my upper arms, and looking up, I realized that I was almost totally surrounded. All the guys were there—Mark and Logan, Bach (who got his name because he rode the waves like Johann Sebastian composed music—beautifully), Scooter (don’t ask), and Tony.
It might seem strange that I hang out with a bunch of guys a lot of the time, but I do it because most of my girlfriends aren’t overly interested in getting up at five a.m. to catch waves for two hours before school. Brianne and Mickey (my best female friends) are much more interested in using the time to sleep—and do their hair—than they ever would be in surfing.
“I’m fine, Mark.” Somehow I found a shaky version of my voice. “At least I think I am.”
I sent him what I hoped was a reassuring smile, but he didn’t look convinced—his too-white face remained livid with a fear he didn’t even try to hide.
“So what happened out there, then?” This time it was Logan’s voice, rough and just a little bit sexy, that asked the question. “It’s not like you to take a tumble, Tempest, especially on a snapper like that.”
I still didn’t know what to say—didn’t know what I could say. How did I explain something I wasn’t even close to understanding myself?
What had happened out there was unlike anything that had ever happened to me before. Logan had said it himself: of all of us, I was the one least likely to grub like a beginner.
Least likely, hell. I’m pretty sure I’d been nine the last time I’d taken an unplanned header off my surfboard into the deep blue sea.
I knew I couldn’t tell them what had really happened to me, knew they’d all think I was nuts if I even tried. Not that I’d blame them. A part of me longed for just such insanity.