With worry over Mark gnawing at me, I didn’t bother to answer. What was I supposed to say anyway—that I had started turning mermaid today and then nearly died because I couldn’t get my body to work right?
That would go over really well, especially with the men in the little white coats. I glared at Mark, tried to make him look at me, but he just pretended I wasn’t there. Again.
Suddenly, Bri gasped like her visual search had actually found something.
“Hey, what’s wrong with your throat? Did you cut yourself?”
She leaned forward to get a closer look, but I slapped my hands over my neck—right at the spots that had been burning since I’d gotten to chemistry an hour before.
As I ran my finger over them, I realized with some shock that the skin right below my ear was no longer smooth. It was bumpy and raised and had a small slash beneath the bumps that was much too precise to be random.
“Did you get hurt after all?” Mark leaned toward me, suddenly remembering I was there now that it looked like something might actually be wrong with me. “Let me see.”
I kept my hands where they were while my mind ran in a million different directions at once. With everything inside of me, I prayed for the cuts to be nothing more than collateral damage from my tumble in the ocean. But as I ducked my chin and fumbled in my purse for the mirror I always kept in one of the pockets, a bunch of other explanations went through my head. None of them was comforting.
I pulled out the mirror and held it up to my left ear, trying to look at the odd bumps without letting Mark or Brianne see. But as I got my first glimpse of the strange little slash in the mirror, my heart literally skipped a beat. Then two.
Trying (and failing) not to freak out, I frantically switched the mirror to my right side, only to see the same thing there. A short (no more than three-quarters of an inch), shallow cut ran directly beneath each of my ears. The cuts gaped a little on each side, despite the fact that they looked fully healed—there was none of the redness or dried blood that you would expect from a new injury.
My hands started to shake—so noticeably that I made myself dump the compact back in my purse. Mark and Bri were staring at me like I’d lost my mind, but I didn’t know what to say to them, didn’t even know if I could look at them.
I hadn’t cut myself in the ocean, hadn’t hurt myself and been unaware. No, nothing that simple would do for me. Instead, it was a million times worse.
No, make that a billion times worse.
Because one look at the slightly raised, slightly open slices and I knew exactly what they were. After all, I’d seen them before—every day of the first eleven years of my life—on my mother.
The short yet rocky journey between my life and complete and utter insanity had just been fast-tracked. Sometime between checking myself over in the mirror before leaving the house and right now, I had grown gills.
Gills? The horror of it reverberated in my head like a gong gone wild. I had gills?
I stroked the little slits with my fingers, told myself there had to be another explanation, but even in shock I was smart enough to know that self-delusion could only get me so far. Especially with my boyfriend and best friend staring at me as if I’d been hit in the head by my surfboard one time too many.
Not that I blamed them.
“What’s wrong?” Bri hissed as Mr. Keppler started taking attendance.
I pulled my shirt collar up to cover the evidence that I was something more—or less—than human. “Nothing.”
The look she shot me said she didn’t believe me any more than Mark had.
Ducking my head, I did my best to look normal—but how could I? So far that morning I’d sprouted a tail and then gills, not to mention the fact that once again I was so cold I had to lock my jaw to keep my teeth from chattering an entire symphony.
Yeah, I was perfectly normal. For a freak.
Mr. Keppler’s class, which usually passed so quickly, dragged by with the excruciatingly painful slowness of a root canal. As he droned on about The Great Gatsby and glasses and the Valley of Ashes, all I could think was that my life was over.
I was sixteen and everything I knew, everything I wanted out of life, was going up in flames around me—and there wasn’t anything I could do to stop it.
Any more than I could stop myself from stroking a finger across my new gills, hoping that—like the tail—they would disappear in a matter of minutes. So far all the wishing in the world wasn’t getting me anywhere.
Panic, disbelief, and horror warred for a place within me, and I steadfastly tried to ignore them all. But they were insidious, all-consuming, and soon it took every ounce of concentration I had to sit still and wait for the stupid bell to ring.
Worse, cutting through all the other screwed-up emotions was one more—one I would have sworn that by this time I was incapable of feeling.
My mother had left each of my brothers and me a letter when she took off for oceans unknown. Mine explained that one day I would have a choice as to what I would become. She’d said the changes wouldn’t start happening until I turned seventeen. That after my birthday I would have an overwhelming craving for the ocean, one that would be hard to resist. And that I would have three months to make a choice about how I wanted to live the rest of my life.
This didn’t feel like a choice—more like my body had been hijacked by fate and my brain was just along for the ride. Leave it to Mom to omit the most important, and most difficult, parts of the equation. I had read that letter so many times that I had it memorized even now, years later, and I know for a fact that she had never mentioned any uncontrollable physical changes in there. I definitely would have remembered if she’d told me about any of this.
Of course, she hadn’t exactly given me a bunch of clues for how to handle things either. I mean, seriously. If I now had gills—not to mention a tail that came and went at inopportune moments—who knew what else was going to happen to me in the next few weeks, and how the hell I was going to hide it? If the gills stuck around, did that mean that soon I would stop being able to breathe air?
A series of shudders that had nothing to do with the cold worked their way through me.
The second the bell rang I was out of my seat, my backpack dangling from numb fingertips as I hurried across the room. “Hey, Tempest, where’s the fire?” Bri asked.
“I don’t feel so good,” I told her, not completely untruthfully. “I think I’m going to hit the bathroom before next class.”
“You want me to come?”
“No! I mean, I’m fine. Just a little nauseous. It’s above and beyond to expect you to listen to me hurl.”
I hightailed it out of the room before she could say anything else—or worse, Mark could. But I wasn’t headed for the bathroom, or my next class. No, I was on my way to the parking lot like the hounds of hell were after me. Normally, I would never consider ditching third period—art was my favorite class, by far. But today wasn’t a normal day, and detention or no detention, it was turning out to be a great day to be anywhere but here.
Two hours later I was cruising the topsy-turvy highway that ran along the beach in Del Mar, despite the rain that was still coming down in torrents. I had the heat turned up and my heaviest jacket wrapped around me and still the chills racked me.