“Of course I do. I’m not a moron. Humans don’t come back from the dead.” And neither did mermaids, no matter how badly you wished that they could.
Bile burned in my throat, made swallowing a nightmare as I waded deeper, preparing to dive under the ocean. Preparing to lose myself in the clear, blue waves.
At the last minute I turned around, wanting one final look at Kona. And there he was, his strong, muscular body silhouetted against the darkness of the night sky. But he was blurry and I had a moment’s panic that my mermaid’s vision was deteriorating, that I was already turning human despite the long journey in front of me. Then I blinked and he came into focus—it wasn’t my humanity, after all, that had made him so fuzzy.
Or maybe it was. I wiped the tears off my cheek. Maybe it was exactly that.
Taking a deep breath, I waved good-bye and could have sworn I felt his fingers brush against my cheek, though he was yards away. And then I dove, straight under the water and into oblivion.
The ocean welcomed me with open arms.
I came up to the surface nearly forty hours later, weak, starving, exhausted by the swim. I’d tried to follow the map Kona’s butler had drawn for me, but I’d gotten lost too many times to count and it had made for an even longer swim than I’d had when I’d plunged into the ocean after Kona.
It was dark here, the middle of the night judging by the emptiness of the beach and the stars twinkling in the sky, and I wondered how long I’d been gone. In Kona’s world it had been a week—did that mean it had been two here? Three?
What had my father told my brothers about my absence? What had he told my friends? Then I decided it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered, not anymore.
Though my gills were still functioning and I was about a mile out, I struck out for home above the water—using the freestyle stroke and breathing I had learned so many years before. My tail, which had emerged minutes after leaving Kona and had torn my swimsuit in half, was more hindrance than help as I kept wanting to kick my feet individually, and for a moment I thought about diving back under the sea and zipping this last, short distance to shore.
In the end, I didn’t, though. Because it felt right to be doing it this way, to be slowly regaining my humanity with each turn of my head. With each breath I pulled into my lungs.
It took a lot longer that way, but now that I was so close to home I was in no hurry. Going home meant facing my father, explaining where I’d been. Explaining how I’d watched my mother get ripped apart in front of me and done nothing to stop it. It was a conversation I wasn’t relishing, but one I knew I had to have.
By the time I got to shore, I was completely human again. My gills had stopped working, my tail had disappeared, and I was so tired I could barely make it up the sand. I forced myself to do it, though, ignoring the pain—physical and emotional—that grew with each step I took out of the ocean.
Finally, I made it far enough to avoid the water’s pull, and I reached into the bag of clothes Kona had given me. I yanked out the first thing I touched, a tropical sarong in every shade of purple imaginable. I had never seen it before, and as I wrapped it around my waist like a skirt, I wondered absently if it was a gift from Kona. I decided it didn’t matter as I started the short but endless journey across the narrow street to the house I had grown up in.
As I walked, I looked around this beach I knew more intimately than I did my own face. A little ways down the sand, on my left, was a rock formation the guys liked to climb and jump off of, despite the fact that it was over six feet off the ground. On the right there was only crisp, clean beach, little hills and valleys that made a stroll on the sand almost as interesting as catching waves. Almost.
My house was the same too. I stopped in front of it, wondered how it could be that nothing had changed here when I felt so incredibly different inside. When the way I felt about this place, my home, seemed so incredibly different.
That’s when I saw it, the small lamp burning in the living room window. It was the same light my father had kept lit for years after my mother had left, his way of telling her she always had a place here, with us. Now it burned for me.
I was trembling when I retrieved the spare key from the flowerpot where my dad hid it.
Trembling when I let myself into the house.
Trembling as I crept across the floor to the stairs.
I was starving from the long hours of swimming, knew I should eat something before I went to bed. But I had no appetite, no energy for food. I felt like I could sleep, like Rip Van Winkle, for twenty years.
I was halfway up the stairs when the light clicked on, its sudden brilliance blinding me for a few long seconds. And then I saw him—my father standing at the top of the stairs in nothing but a pair of old sweats. His hair was tousled, his face drawn and tired looking. But the smile on his face was as familiar—and welcoming—as ever.
“Daddy.” It was a cry from deep inside myself and then I was hurtling up the stairs at him. Throwing myself into his arms and absorbing the love he’d always given me unconditionally. It wasn’t until his arms tightened around me that I realized I was crying. And it was just like I feared.
Now that I had started, I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to stop.
I woke sometime the next day to bright sunlight pouring into my room and my youngest brother’s arms around me. “Tempest, you’re home!” He planted a wet, sloppy kiss on my cheek. “I missed you.”
“Oh, Moku, I missed you too.” I wrapped my arms around him, pulled him onto the bed with me, and tickled him until he shrieked with laughter.
“Dad told us to check on you, to see if you were ready to get up or if you wanted to sleep more.” This came from Rio, who was slouched against my wall, hands in his pockets. He seemed as irritable and unfriendly as ever, except for the look in his eyes. It was a tentative kind of joy, a disbelief, like that of a kid on Christmas morning when he’s confronted with the toy he wants more than any other.
“Well? Are you going to stand there all day trying to look cool or are you going to get over here?” I demanded.
At first, he didn’t answer and I wondered if I’d misjudged him, wondered if he was as angry at me for leaving as I was at myself. Then he let out a whoop and ran, full powered, at my bed. He launched himself on top of me and the three of us wrestled and tickled each other until my father appeared in the doorway.
“Okay, okay, break it up, guys. Tempest needs to eat something.” He was carrying a tray and on it was a huge In-N-Out Double-Double burger, an order of fries, and a large cup that I knew contained a chocolate milk shake.
My stomach growled and for the first time in days, I thought I might actually be able to keep something down. I reached for it, spent a minute inhaling the scent of the greatest hamburger on earth, before I dug in.
After a couple of bites, I looked at my father with a smile. “How did you know this was exactly what I wanted?”
“Because whenever I’m gone for a while, it’s exactly what I crave too.”
We sat like that for a long time, my brothers on my bed sneaking fries and my father sitting in the comfortable armchair a few feet away. The boys filled me in on what they’d been doing in the two and a half weeks I’d been gone, talking about classes and the new nanny my father had hired, though Rio was convinced he was too old for a babysitter.