I shuddered, forced myself not to jerk away as I reminded myself that the poison in its tentacles wouldn’t hurt me—not like that of the small, blue-ringed octopuses that my dad and I had run into a few years before when we’d visited Australia.
Still, it creeped me out. The thing wasn’t huge, but it was at least half my size and as I looked beyond it I realized there were more of them. A lot more. I must have swum into a garden of the ugly things.
Kicking harder and faster, I propelled myself through the water, determined not to pay too much attention to what was around me. It was weird enough that I was swimming under the water without having to come up for air. Focusing on all the sea life, most of which I had only ever seen before in aquariums, would totally trip me out.
I had no idea how far or how long I had been swimming—I was completely thrown off by the speed and agility I suddenly had. My fingers had grown the same slight webbing as my toes had, just at the base where each finger met my palm. Combined with the gills and the semiwebbed toes and the huge increase in strength, it made me feel like I was flying, especially since the water felt as light as air.
The silver line was growing stronger, heavier, easier to see, and I wondered if I was getting closer. To Kona, I hoped. Or to those strange creatures who had grabbed him? I couldn’t help worrying that I was on the trail of something else entirely.
No. I shoved the thought away. I refused to think that I had done all this for nothing. That I was on a wild-goose chase and Kona was halfway across the ocean in another direction.
More time passed—maybe half an hour, maybe an hour. It was hard to tell down here, where everything was so foreign and ambiguous and reality seemed just beyond the reach of my fingertips.
I curved up and around, made a sharp right, and then stopped abruptly as I realized the trail had suddenly plunged straight down. Already I was deep under the ocean, deeper, I knew, than I had ever been, despite the numerous times my father had taken me scuba diving this past summer. I had enjoyed diving at the time, but even then I remember looking up at the surface of the water and wondering what would happen if I suddenly ran out of air. The boat had been a long way up.
I didn’t have to worry about the air thing anymore, but the surface was already too far up for me to see. Going deeper, now, was sheer lunacy.
An old movie flashed through my head, one where a submarine had to dive down deeper than usual to avoid an enemy’s radar and the water started pressing in on it. Leaks sprang in every compartment and the ship creaked and shuddered as the weight of the water slowly smashed it from every side.
I didn’t want to be that ship, my body imploding as the water literally crushed my organs and liquefied my brain.
Of course, in the movie everything had turned out fine. The enemy ship had finally moved on and the crew had been able to lift back up to a safe depth before the ship was compressed into a thin sheet of metal. Still, their submarine had been severely crippled, and that was with them staying down for only a few minutes.
But this wasn’t the movies. A happily ever after wasn’t guaranteed, and if I followed the trail, who knew how deep I’d have to go—and for how long.
In that moment of indecision, I was more aware of the role fate played in my life than I had ever been before. As far as I could tell, I had two choices. I could turn around, try to retrace my path back home, and hope that everything would be all right. Or I could continue down after Kona, and hope that everything would be all right.
It was a fifty-fifty shot either way.
Through it all, there was a tug in my stomach. A pressure in my spine. A nearly irresistible urge to go deep, no matter what the consequences were.
I closed my eyes, counted to ten. And then dove straight down, telling myself as I did that I had finally and completely lost my mind.
It felt like what I figured falling off a skyscraper would feel like.
And in some small part of my brain whose existence I didn’t like to acknowledge, completely exhilarating.
I’m not sure if it was gravity or terror or a combination of both that had me moving so quickly, but I was spiraling down like a runaway locomotive. Deep, deep, deeper, until the water pushed in on me from every side. It no longer felt light, but so heavy that I could barely think. So heavy I could barely feel past the pressure in my head and chest and limbs.
I started to freak out, to put on the brakes, but some inner compulsion kept me moving. Some feeling that this was what I needed to do. Where I needed to go. For a split second I feared that this had all been a trap, that she had used the promise of Kona to get me to her.
But then even that thought was gone as the ocean floor appeared a few feet in front of me, glowing with an odd phosphorescence. I tried to stop, tried to slow my incredible momentum, but it was too late. I hit hard, skidded across the sand, then tumbled, head over heels, for what felt like a mile.
When I finally came to a stop I was bruised and scraped and dizzy as hell, but at least I was alive. And relatively unhurt. I sat there for a minute, flat on my butt, and tried to get my bearings while the watery world whirled around me.
Colors were so much brighter down here—electric pinks and greens and purples spun around me in kaleidoscopic images I couldn’t quite bring into focus.
When my head finally quit spinning, however, I realized that I was in the middle of what I supposed passed for an underground city. There were caves everywhere and huge structures made of stones and coral and shells. Strange black creatures that looked like long, slim sea lions swam from one structure to another. And swimming with them were people who looked just like I did. Or more accurately, just like Kona with his long black hair and strange, silvery eyes.
Mermaids, I thought dazedly as a few swam by. Or rather, mermen, as they were male. But they didn’t have tails, which made what I was seeing nearly impossible. People couldn’t breathe under the ocean.
Of course, I didn’t have a tail either. My brain, which was finally starting to work, struggled to put the pieces together.
Was the whole tail thing a myth?
Did mermaids not have tails after all?
But how could that be possible? I remembered seeing my mother’s tail a few times when I was young and we were in the water, far from land. It was a deep, vibrant emerald green. Surely I hadn’t imagined it.
Kona had told me that there were a lot more half-human creatures under the sea than just mermaids. Were these people what he’d been talking about?
One of them swam up to me, smiled. I smiled back, unsure of what she wanted. When she didn’t move away, I started to go around her, but she shifted so she was once again directly in my path.
She obviously had something she wanted to say to me, but I didn’t have a clue what it was. It was just as obvious that she wouldn’t let me move on until I figured it out.
For the longest time, we simply stared at each other. Her eyes were wide and expressive and followed my every movement, almost as if she expected me to have some idea as to what she wanted. But I didn’t and the longer we stood there, the more uncomfortable I became.
To begin with, her eyes were too direct, the look in them saying that she saw way too much of me. I’d spent such a large part of my life trying to hide who I was that her ability to look inside me was freakish in the extreme.
Add to that the fact that she was gorgeous—as everyone down here seemed to be—and dressed like some underwater queen in a scarlet robe made of a light, diaphanous material. Standing on the ocean floor next to her in my simple white underwear, I’d never been more acutely aware of how plain I looked—it wasn’t a good feeling.