The Songstress Trilogy #1
by Maija Barnett
Copyright ©2011 by Maija Barnett
Table of Contents
1. An Unlucky Find
2. The Birthday Present
3. The Meeting
6. The Poseidon Stone
7. The Memory Swim
9. The Hunt Continues
10. The Talisman
11. Snake Bite
12. The Memory Thief
13. The Test
16. The Swim
17. The Shadowlands
19. The Ruse
21. The Immovable Weight
22. Siren Song
About the Author
1. An Unlucky Find
It was the night before Abby Carson’s sixteenth birthday. The midnight sky gleamed with stars and the tide cut into the frozen Clifton shoreline like a blade. Abby dunked her pinkie into the water before wading in. It was cold, too cold, right now at least. But the water off Cape Cod is notoriously cool, and soon she knew she wouldn’t care. Soon she wouldn’t feel the air, scarcely twenty degrees, or the water’s frigid bite. Abby adjusted her headlamp and gulped down a mouthful of air. Then, with a fleeting thought of her mother and brother, who lay sleeping in the family’s shore-side cottage, she forced herself into the sea.
Abby’s muscles spasmed. She forgot to breathe. Within seconds her feet were completely numb. Then it happened, like it always did. Her calves and thighs started to cramp, like something inside them had bent the wrong way. Then the cold was completely gone, and she was swimming, tail flicking through the darkness, the light from her headlamp showing the way.
“Be careful,” her mother always warned, wanting in her heart to stop Abby’s late night swims but knowing enough not to try. “And don’t forget about the sharks.”
Sharks, thought Abby. That’s all Matilda ever thinks about. That and what will happen if you ever got caught.
Abby understood her mother’s fears, but the pull of the sea was too strong to ignore. The few times she’d stayed away, a sickness had descended over her body, gnawing at her muscles, weakening her blood. She’d tried changing in the bathtub, and her tail had come, but it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t home. It’d gotten so bad she could barely stand, and so her father had carried her down to the beach and laid her in the frothy waves. She could still see the sadness in his eyes, and his hollow smile as he’d witnessed her change.
Abby hovered beneath the water’s surface. Her long hair, undone from its usual ponytail, floated out about her arms. She wished it were day so she could see, instead of relying on her measly headlamp. But this was the best she could do. She wasn’t stupid. She knew the risks. What might happen if anyone ever found out.
Where are they? she wondered, her ears straining through the darkness. Usually, she’d hear their squeaky calls reverberating through the water. Then there’d be a playful bump, a squeal. The dolphins loved sneaking up on her. They thought it was funny, and so did she. But tonight, nothing. The sea was silent, as if everyone had gone to sleep, or was hiding. She’d been out for nearly twenty minutes and had yet to see a single fish, turtle, or, god forbid, a shark. Something’s up. The dolphins know that I’m coming, thought Abby. Something isn’t right at all.
An engine’s hum cut through the stillness. Abby knew that sound. She knew all the motors and could identify each one before it got too close. She could tell the sporting boats from the fishing rigs, could read what was coming from over a mile away. Her hearing grew sharper once she entered the water, and she was glad for that. It kept her safe. For further protection, she’d memorized the shipping routes so she knew where to swim and when to be out. That’s why she usually came around midnight. There wasn’t much action, shouldn’t be any at all. So a sporting boat out at this time in the water. It was more than unusual. Something was wrong.
A low hiss hung above the motor. As the boat grew closer, the hissing intensified, as if it were feeding off of something, devouring it with its sound. What is that? thought Abby, her skin going cold, colder than it had when she’d first plunged into the icy Atlantic. Instinctively, she tried to hide. She flicked off her headlamp and ducked under the water. But she must have been listening for longer than she thought, because the boat was almost on top of her now, moving at an unnatural speed.
Then it came, a single splash. Something had fallen out of the boat and was sinking directly in front of her. Before Abby could stop herself, she reached out and grabbed it. She didn’t know why, she knew she should go. But something inside her was pulling her forward, forcing her toward the buzzing boat. She felt a bit like a marionette, with a total stranger pulling the strings. But here was the thing, she was holding it now, clutching its bony wrist in her hand. No, prayed Abby. This can't be true. But the light of the boat high above showed her what she needed to know.
The body pulsed beneath the water, its face a twisted, bloodless mask. Abby wanted to drop it and swim, but she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t let go. Because the thing she was holding, the bony wrist, it belonged to a girl about her age. The girl’s hair swirled in a golden halo; the boat’s yellow lights illuminated it from above. And there was something else too, something on the girl’s neck. What is that? thought Abby, craning to see.
Suddenly the girl’s eyes snapped open and her mouth formed a large, blackened O. But instead of a scream rolling through the water, strange bubbles flooded out of her throat, bursting in dark pockets of blood. No! thought Abby, about to push the girl away. But she stopped herself, knowing it would be wrong.
Then she felt it, that first exploratory nudge. They had come already, were already here, circling in the murky deep. Matilda warned her every night and for once Abby actually wished she’d stayed home. A pale blur slid through the water, another nudge. It was time to go.
“I’m sorry,” mouthed Abby, hating herself as she shoved the dying girl out as far as she could. She looked back only once as she sped away, her throat tightening at what she saw. The shark was nearly twelve feet long. Its pale body gleamed like moonshine as it shook the body, tearing it apart. Great White, thought Abby, her gut starting to churn. Get out of here before it comes after you.
Abby darted through the darkness, her tail waving so furiously she thought her chest would explode. She swore she could feel them following her, as shadow upon shadow slipped through the deep. Once, she thought something knocked against her tail, but when she clicked on her headlamp, nothing was there. It’s just your imagination, she promised herself, uncertain if that were really true. Then she flicked the lamp off and continued down. She wanted the light, craved the safety of its rays, the same way she’d needed her night light as a kid. But she couldn’t risk it, not after what had happened above. No one could know she was here. No one could realize that she’d seen.
It was only at the ocean’s bottom that she felt comfortable using the lamp again. She turned it on and found a craggily rock formation jutting up from the sand. The world down here seemed innocuous enough, though Abby knew that wasn’t true. She rarely hung out on the ocean floor. There were creatures down here that you had to watch out for, and she didn’t want to become anyone’s dinner. Or breakfast for that matter. It was early enough.
Come on, she thought as she swam past heads of dead coral, thick strips of rock and patches of sand. Come on, come on. Good, here we go. It wasn’t quite a cave, which was fine because with caves you never knew who was inside. It was really just a shallow impression at the base of a rock. But it had a slight overhang, enough of a protection. After making certain her hiding spot was empty, Abby flicked off her headlamp and tucked herself in, resigned to wait. She knew she couldn’t chance heading to the surface. Not now, not with that shark circling above--or the boat. Because whoever was up there might have seen her light, could be waiting for her to resurface again. She could still hear that horrible hissing sound, like needles scratching against her bones. When is that boat going to leave? she wondered. She had a feeling she’d be waiting for a very long time.
Six hours later, Abby emerged at the surface. She’d stayed down longer than she would have liked. The sky was turning a dusky blue, and she knew the trawlers were out already, cutting across the choppy water with a perfect view of the shore.
Her heart pounded as she swam toward the beach, gliding just below the surface so she could duck up for a peak whenever she felt the need. Each time she checked, no one was there. Just a scattering of gulls scratching patches of sand. Abby let the waves carry her in and gently deposit her on the shore. Come on feet, she thought as she hauled herself forward. This was always the tricky part, getting out of the water and drying off. She’d hidden her towel close today, a little too close because when she finally reached it, her tail flapping awkwardly in the waves, half of it was soaking wet. Damn it! she thought. Tide’s changed. You stayed under way too long. Still, it was dry enough to wipe off with. And, once that was done, her scales smoothed out and the odd little cramping feeling returned. Then she could walk.
Abby stood and wrapped herself in the now soaking towel. It was light, too light to be caught on the beach. That would make the news for sure. But no one was around, which was a relief. Abby found her clothes, only slightly damp, they’d somehow fared better than her towel, and yanked them on. The cold was brutal now that she’d gone through the change. In the sea her body adjusted to the chill, but on land she was like everybody else. Her hands and feet were already turning blue, and she could barely button and zip her jeans. The November breeze rushed past her skin, cold and unyielding as the metallic sky. She briefly wondered if it was going to snow. “Come on,” she grumbled under her breath. She grabbed her coat and crammed her feet into her boots. “You’ve got to warm up. You have to go.”
She knew this was a dangerous time. She was starting to get a little too cold. In just a few more minutes hypothermia would begin to set in. She had to get home, fast. Go, she thought, stumbling forward. Her house was only half a mile down the beach, but it felt like it was miles away. She pushed through the breath-stopping cold, allowing herself to turn back only once and glance at the place where the boat had been. And the girl. Abby told herself not think about it. She’d had to leave her. There was nothing she could have done. But was there? she wondered. She didn’t know. She chewed at her lip until blood pooled around her gums, then she pushed herself faster through the sand, aching to erase what she’d seen.
The boy crouched, hidden behind the dunes, his dark eyes wide in shock. He watched the girl stumble down the beach, her long hair frozen in a tangled mass. He knew her; she was in his trig class at school. Everybody knew her, though she didn’t have any friends. A couple of months ago she’d asked him for a pencil. She probably didn’t remember, but he certainly did. He could even remembered the exact words she’d used, though the thought of that day still made him break out in a sweat. She was so beautiful he'd barely been able to breathe, and he’d been so busy repressing the urge to gasp for air that he hadn’t had the nerve to say a single word. He’d just handed her the pencil and stared down at his desk, his face burning over his unwilling silence.
But what was she really? He just couldn’t believe. And whom, he wondered, could he tell? He watched her until she was a dark smudge on the beach, then he took a deep breath and turned to go.
2. The Birthday Present
When Abby stumbled through the front door, she found Matilda sobbing on the couch. “How could she do this?” Matilda moaned, her voice raw from too many tears. Jake hovered next to their mother, his thick lips set in a measured frown as he gently rubbed Matilda’s back, calming her as best he could. They both looked up when they heard the door, but it was Matilda who rushed to her daughter’s side, grabbing her roughly by the shoulders, as if she were afraid Abby might vanish again.
“Abby, what happened? Where have you been?”
Abby tried to speak, but she didn’t know what to say. Her mother’s nails dug into her skin; eyes unblinking as a shark’s. Can you trust her? thought Abby. She didn’t know. Matilda was terrible at staying calm, and Abby was certain her mother couldn’t handle the truth.
“I…” Abby stumbled, not sure what to say. Don’t tell, warned a voice inside her head. If you do, she’ll never let you out of her sight.
“I wanted to see the sun rise from the water.” Abby made her voice as even as she could, but even so, it still sounded like a lie.
“You wanted to what?” asked Matilda in disbelief. “Abby, I thought something happened to you. I thought… you know exactly what I thought!” Abby glanced over at Jake. He was shaking his head like he wasn’t buying a word.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, staring down at her feet so as to avoid looking into Matilda’s eyes. Don’t let her see or she’ll be able to tell, thought Abby. She always says you’re an open book.
Matilda flattened her lips into a line then walked deliberately back to the sofa. She sat down and glared at her hands, staring so intently at her tasteful peach nail polish that she looked like she was trying to change its color with her mind. When she finally managed to glance up at Abby, her eyes were as hard as two small stones.
“I can hardly stand to look at you! I stayed up late baking a cake. Chocolate raspberry-- your favorite. We wrapped your presents; it was supposed to be a surprise. But you… you weren’t even here. And then I thought…you know exactly what I thought! Just go away! Go to your room.”
Abby’s throat hitched and she turned to her brother, his eyes wide and blue just like their dad’s. She hated the feeling churning in her stomach, hated the guilt seething there.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, trying hard not to cry. Then she turned and hurried up the stairs to her room. She closed her door as softly as she could, and once it was shut, she closed her eyes too.
But what she saw behind them made her body go numb. It was her face, the face of the girl in the water. The corpse, with her golden halo of hair swirling high above her head. And that mark on her neck. What had it been?
There was a knock at the door, “Abby, can I come in?” Jake’s voice made her want to hide, but she found herself calling out that he could. What good would it do to stop the inevitable? She’d have to face them sooner or later. Might as well do it now.
Jake was closer to Matilda than Abby was. Much closer. Though it hadn’t always been that way. Abby could remember lying on the beach, listening to her mother’s voice slide through a song while she braided Abby’s hair. But that was before the change. Before her mother had dropped the name “mom” and insisted on being referred to as Matilda instead. Now it was like they were virtual strangers who just happened to live under the same roof. Not true, thought Abby, crunching down on her lip. A terrible habit, but one she couldn’t seem to break. This time it hurt; she’d forgotten about this morning. Ease up, she thought, or you’ll bleed again.
Oh please, prayed Abby as Jake opened the door. Just this once, let him be on my side. She held her breath as her brother walked in. Again Abby was struck by how much he looked like their father-- same round face, same heavy frame. Like Dad before he’d gotten sick, before the cancer had eaten him away.
“You okay kid?” Jake always called her that, even though they were only two years apart. “You really gave us a scare, you know.” He sat down on her bed, and stared at her, waiting for her to respond.
“Is she okay?” Abby asked, sitting next to her brother. Her still damp hair swung over her shoulder and gently grazed the back of his arm.
“She will be,” he said. “But she was really scared. She was convinced you’d been eaten by a shark. Jesus Ab, what were you thinking? You know she can’t take that kind of stress.”
“I know,” Abby whispered, shame flooding her chest. Her vision blurred, but she managed to hold in her tears. It’s not like she wanted it to be like this. She was sixteen for Christ’s sake. Almost an adult. And here she was playing the baby all over again. Crying over everything that’d gone wrong.
“Jake,” said Abby, wishing she could curl up in a ball, or maybe just turn into somebody else. “Why does it have to be this way?”
“It just is,” he said, and he ruffled her hair. It was exactly the same gesture Dad used to do when she was a little girl. She closed her eyes and remembered his face. His gentle eyes, easy smile.
“He said he’d always be here. He promised,” she croaked, her throat suddenly closing up.
“I know,” said Jake, turning away.
“I miss him,” said Abby, putting her face in her hands. I need him, is what she meant to say. Because Matilda can’t handle what I am. The only one who accepted was Dad.
“Listen,” said Jake, his voice suddenly firm. He lifted her chin, so her eyes met his. “You can’t do this to her anymore. This constant fear of something happening to you. It’s beating her down, tearing her apart. She loves you. She just wants you to be safe.”
“Does she?” said Abby. Only once it came out, she immediately wished she could take it back.
“Oh don’t give me that!” Jake leaped off the bed. “Where were you anyway? What really happened?” He was standing above her, glowering now, his large, meaty body commanding and strong. Abby knew how the opposing football team felt when they faced this angry, immovable wall. She had no idea what to say.
“The truth,” said Jake.
There was a knock at the door and Matilda peeked in. Even with bloodshot eyes and matted hair, she was still beautiful. Her body was tall and willow thin, her skin luminescent as the moon. Like me, thought Abby, eyeing her mother’s dark brows, her cascading jet of chestnut hair. But how, wondered Abby, not for the first time, could two people who look so much alike be so incapable of understanding each other?
“Abby,” said Matilda, stepping into the room. For a moment Abby thought Matilda might reach out and touch her, but she just stood there, arms pressed to her sides. There was a sadness that surrounded Matilda, inhabited the very air she breathed. Abby wished she could take that sadness away, throw it into the salty waters, drown it beneath the rising waves.
“I’m sorry,” said Abby. Matilda didn’t respond. She just pulled something out of her apron pocket and held it out for Abby to see. It was a small box wrapped in shiny gold paper, about the size of the sort that holds a ring.
“What is it?” asked Abby. Matilda shrugged. Then she dropped the box onto Abby’s bed. Abby reached for the thing and held it in her hands. It was heavier than she expected it to be, and there was something else strange about it too. With the box resting in her open palm, she could feel the ocean’s pulse on her skin, the roar of the waves in her ears.
Abby blinked hard and put the box on her bed. Had the others heard? She didn’t think so. There was a note attached to the golden wrapping. It was really just a folded piece of paper clumsily stuck to the box with tape. Careful not to pick up the box again, Abby leaned over and ripped off the note. But when she saw who it was from, she froze. It was a message from her dad.
Matilda stiffened when she saw the writing. Then she cleared her throat and took a step back. “Your father left this for you,” she said, her voice the temperature of arctic ice. “He asked me to give it to you on the morning of your sixteenth birthday. No sooner, no later. It was my final promise, so I’m honoring it. For him. I don’t know what’s inside.”
“Oh,” said Abby keeping her eyes on the box. This wasn’t about forgiveness, that was clear. And if it was about love, well, it didn’t include her.
The box looked even heavier now, like it had somehow gained weight while it sat on her quilt. It was as if it had inhaled a dark cloud of secrets, promises of things to come.
“Aren’t you going to open it?” Matilda asked. Abby knew she should, knew her mother ached to know what was inside. But for some reason, she wanted to keep it to herself, to hold this final piece of her father close. She wanted some privacy, but she couldn’t say so. Kicking her mother out of her room right now didn’t seem like the best way to go.
Luckily, Jake read Abby's mind. And this time, he was on her side. “Matilda lets go. Let’s give Abby some time. We should fix breakfast, like we planned.” He took Matilda’s hand and led her toward the door. In an unusual moment, she did as he asked.
Matilda’s eyes stayed on Abby as she walked out of the room. Abby wished she could say something to let her mother in, but the old scars held her back. Abby let her leave without a word.
Once the door had closed, Abby reread the note, while wishing there was something more. All it said was:
Grandmother Annabelle wanted you to have this on the morning you turned sixteen. She didn’t tell me much about it, just said she knew you’d figure it out.
P.S. Don’t show it to your mother! You know how she is about this sort of stuff.
That was it. Nothing deep or profound. Abby didn’t even remember her paternal grandmother; the woman had died when Abby was six months old. It seemed strange that she would leave a gift.
Four freaking sentences, thought Abby, running her fingers over the lines. Couldn’t he have written a little more? And why did he say not to show it to Matilda? He’s the one who’d asked her to deliver the thing. What was this, some sort of game? No, she thought, glancing at the box. This was just business as usual.
There had always been this strange tug-of-war between her parents, with Abby invariably stuck in the middle. Sometimes Abby wondered that if there weren’t so many secrets, maybe her mother could grow to accept.
Tears pricked the backs of Abby’s eyes, but she blinked them away. “Nothing to cry about,” she whispered. “He’s gone. You’re not in the middle anymore.” Then she turned her gaze to the golden box. The final connection. Her father’s last gift.
The box was wrapped perfectly, its paper so bright that it seemed to glow. Abby knew her father couldn’t have wrapped the thing. You’d think a doctor would be good at that sort of stuff, but her father had always joked about missing the surgeon’s gene. It was Matilda who was the neat-nick in the family. She was the one who wrapped all the gifts. But if Matilda didn’t wrap it, reasoned Abby, then Grandmother Annabelle must have done it before she gave it to Dad. So her father really hadn’t known what was inside, just that it was something Matilda wouldn’t like. Something about me, thought Abby ruefully. Or mermaids.
Just open it, she thought. Do it now. She took a deep breath and ripped open the paper. It scattered in pieces across the floor. For a moment the scent of the sea rushed through her, sharp and briny and smelling like home.
Then, at last, she saw what it was. And it wasn’t quite as exciting as she thought it would be. It was a wooden box, a child’s toy really. On each side was carved, in rudimentary lines, different sections of a mermaid’s body. The box was made up of four sections of wood, each one stacked upon the next. You assembled the mermaid, as well as the moon above her, simply by rotating the pieces and lining them up. Abby did it quickly, wondering at the point of it all. It was only when she’d finished that she noticed the serpent, sliding along the base of the box. The serpent was carved in lighter strokes, and its skin blended in with the wood’s dusky grain. On its back Abby could make out some sort of engraving, symbols she’d never seen before. Since she knew only English and a smattering of French, it could be almost anything.
Gently, Abby shook the box, wondering if there was anything inside. It was heavy, too heavy for such small pieces of wood. But when she tapped on it with the tip of her nail, she could tell by the sound that it was hollow inside. And yet it was impossible to open the thing; there were no latches or hinges of any kind.
Abby flipped the box over so the mermaid swam on her head. The bottom was just a blank slab of wood. But when she picked the box up and held it in the light, something on it caught her eye. The mermaid, thought Abby, there’s something strange about her. Abby peered into the mermaid’s face, and that’s when she realized what it was. The mermaid’s eyes were glowing; their pinpricks were a shiny sea-glass green. As Abby continued to stare, the eyes began to grow infinitesimally brighter until they became so bright they were like two tiny sparklers, sizzling in their coffin of wood. Something hitched in Abby’s chest and the hair on the nape of her neck stood up. She dropped the box and leaped off the bed. The eyes, she thought, they were looking at me!
“Just cool it,” she whispered. “It’s just a trick of the light. You’re being weird. Nothing was there.” Still, whether she was being irrational or not, she couldn’t bring herself to touch the box again. Instead she turned to her father’s note, which lay open on the bed.
“But what exactly am I supposed to figure out?” said Abby, a note of frustration filling her voice. And suddenly, she hated this present, hated the mermaid’s frozen face. And those eyes-- she could still feel them on her skin. Gingerly, using the corner of her pillow, she shoved the box over so the mermaid side was face down. “That’s better,” she whispered, once again wishing that her father were here. He would have known what to do. And if not, he would have made her feel better about not having a clue.
There was a knock at the door. “Abby,” called Matilda, “can I come in?” Abby wrapped her hands in the bottom of her shirt and snatched the box off her bed. The scent of the sea flooded through her again as she shoved the thing under her pillow, promising herself she’d find a better hiding spot later. Then she stood up and opened the door.
Matilda’s eyes were dry and her face was perfect. If Abby hadn’t known better, she would never have believed that her mother had spent the first part of the morning in tears. “Food’s ready,” said Matilda, who looked like she wanted to say more. But she spun on her heel and sped toward the stairs before Abby had a chance to respond.
They sat down to breakfast in total silence, all too aware of the empty chair at the table’s head. Dad's been gone for six months already, thought Abby, making a mental note to ask Jake about moving the thing. It was just too hard to sit there staring at the chair, like they somehow expected him to walk in.
“Looks great,” said Abby, the first to speak, eyeing the cake Matilda had made. Matilda, a culinary teacher at the community college down in Barnstable, was, to put it mildly, an excellent chef. Abby admired the cake’s scalloped frosting and the stylish glow of the raspberries on top. It seemed a shame to cut into the thing. It was that beautiful: a work of art.
Not that Abby was hungry anyway. She wanted to leave, retreat to her room where she could try and figure out what all of this meant. She couldn’t fathom how she was going to consume any food. A terrible dread was churning inside her, made worse by the presence of the TV, buzzing away in the dining room's corner. Ever since Dad had died, Matilda had insisted on TV with meals. Their father, a consummate talker, would never have allowed it. But with his death, came silence. So now here they were, the three remaining Carsons, gulping down eggs and wedges of cake, while devoutly watching the morning news.
Not that it was a festive occasion. Matilda had neglected to sing happy birthday and no one had bothered to remind her. Besides the box, there were no other presents. Abby guessed that, in her fury, her mother had hidden them away.
Abby tried shoveling in a few forkfuls of cake, but everything tasted like cardboard to her. She kept waiting for something to pop up on the news-- an Amber Alert or at least something about the girl in the water. But nothing happened; there was no story at all. Bob Newland, the weather guy, talked on about the storm that was coming. Then they switched over to sports.
Jake leaned in close while the sports guy went on about the Pats. Matilda listened, or at least Abby thought she was listening, until she stared pointedly in Abby’s direction.
“You’re not going to tell us, are you,” she said, and for a moment Abby thought her mother knew about last night, could sense what Abby had seen in the water. Abby panicked. Was she really that easy? Could her mother see inside her head?
“What?” said Abby, stuffing her mouth full of cake while trying to repress the urge to gag.
“That box,” said Matilda. “Your father’s present. Aren’t you going to tell us what was inside?”
“I...um...,” mumbled Abby. Then, suddenly, it was on. Her mother’s eyes bore into her skull, while in the distance she heard the name. Breaking news, it had just come in. Jim Welch, one of the anchors, was staring in Abby’s direction.
“Seventeen-year-old Lauren Liney of Hyannis went missing last night.” His familiar voice was calm and clear. “If anyone has seen her or knows of her whereabouts, please contact the authorities right away.”
“Well, what was it?” asked Matilda, obviously annoyed.
“Just a box,” said Abby, eyes still on the TV. “A mermaid box.” She hated saying that word. It always made Matilda flinch, as if some unsightly creature had squelched into the room, a monster that should be hidden away.
“Abby, look at me when I’m talking to you.”
But Abby couldn’t look because her face was there. Lauren Liney, with her long, blonde hair. Perfect teeth, mouth cracked in a smile.
“Liney was last seen Saturday night at a bonfire on the beach.” Welch’s voice sounded too far away. “She was wearing blue jeans and a hooded pink parka.” Abby’s world began to crumble at the edges, and a sharp heat scorched her from the inside out.
“Abby,” said Matilda, her voice tinny and small, as if she were speaking from miles away. “Abby, are you okay?”
“I don’t think so,” said Abby, leaping up from the table and rushing away from the dead girl’s smile. The cake, which now seemed way too rich, was starting to curdle inside her. I can’t, she thought, stumbling toward the bathroom. She made it to the toilet just in time.
But Lauren’s Liney’s face stayed in her mind like a terrible stain she couldn’t scrub clean. The twisting hair, ruby bubbles. The ghostly blur of the waiting shark.
Jake knocked on the bathroom door. “Everything all right in there?”
“I’m fine,” said Abby, trying hard to sound normal.
“Abby, are you sick?” yelled Matilda from somewhere down the hall.
“Oh god,” thought Abby, kneeling on the bathroom floor, the freezing tile burning into her shins. How am I going to explain all this? What on earth am I going to do?
3. The Meeting
It was Monday again, so only a little more than twenty-four hours had passed since Abby had watched the great white devour Lauren Liney. It had been a lonely Sunday. After the vomiting incident, Matilda had sent Abby to bed. And the truth was, Abby had been relieved. She’d spent the latter part of the day staring out her bedroom window, watching the waves slash at the shore below, while trying to forget what she’d seen.
Now Abby stood alone, waiting for the bus, her raincoat wrapped tightly around her, its heavy plastic the only shield between her deepest secret and the rest of the world. It was a blue coat, a little large in the shoulders, and it fell to the middle of her shins. And though she didn’t particularly like the style, she looked like she was heading off to Africa during the rainy season, she’d needed one that covered the tops of her boots so that there could be no chance, none what so ever, of her bottom half becoming wet.
Abby sighed and tried to clear her mind while scanning the road nervously, searching for the yellow gleam of the bus. Jake had offered to drive her in his truck, but seniors could opt to have first period free, so he didn't have to be at school until nine. Abby'd told him he might as well sleep in. Besides, she didn't feel like talking to him anyway.
That morning, during breakfast, the Amber Alert had flashed on again. Abby had tried to look away, but she couldn’t pull herself from Lauren Liney’s face, from that picture of her with her open smile, blonde hair smoothed back in a high ponytail. She looked nothing like she had that night-- those staring eyes, bloody bubbles. How am I ever going to forget? wondered Abby, wishing she could delete what she’d seen.
By now, two girls and a boy had wandered over to the bus stop. Abby knew them, but she didn’t say hello. Instead, she trained her eyes on the street, one of the town’s very busiest. Not that there were any truly busy streets in Clifton, except, of course, during tourist season. In the summer, downtown was a mad house. You could never find parking, and all eight restaurants were booked.
Clifton was the smallest town on the Cape. For a fishing town, it didn’t have many crew. It didn’t even have its own high school, so everyone had to be bussed over to Chatham. The townsfolk hated the deal on that one, a percentage of their taxes was sent over there too. And there was talk every year of becoming part of Chatham, though nothing ever seemed to come of that. “It’s just politics,” was what Abby’s dad used to say. “People need something to argue about.”
On this rainy November morning, the street was almost completely empty. Abby reveled in the stillness of it all because soon she knew she’d be surrounded by faces. Every kid from her town would be on this bus. And these were kids she knew, or at least used to know, not that she hung out with any of them now. Well, if she was honest with herself, she didn’t hang out with anyone anymore. Not since the change had happened, and she’d transformed into a freak.
Abby waited, covertly watching the girls: Avery Monahan, thin and blonde, was whispering something into Bridget Cowry’s ear. The two looked like tipping bowling pins, each keeping the other from falling down. Both girls were plain. Avery wore thick glasses and Bridget’s face was purple with zits. Abby could feel Michael Sullivan, whom she’d known since kindergarten, quietly gawking like he always did.
Any other girl would be proud of her looks. (Who doesn’t want to be beautiful?) But not Abby. Beauty had cost her everything. It’d cost her acceptance with her peers. (She knew Avery and Bridget were talking about her. She could tell by the way they kept glancing over, then looking away when they thought she saw.) It’d cost her Gretchen, her ex-best friend, and friends at all for that matter. She’d just suddenly looked a little too good. A lot too good, though she had a hard time admitting it. It made the girls uncomfortable and the boys stare. Girls would walk down the halls of Chatham High and instinctively grab their boyfriends' hands whenever Abby passed. As if she would even try to steal anyone away. Though she sometimes wondered if maybe she should. No one liked her anyway, so what did she really have to lose?
Oh come on, thought Abby, impatient for the bus, hating the way Michael’s stare burned her skin. She was starting to blush, like she always did. Quit it! she thought. You have to control yourself. You are as easy to read as an open book!
She remembered when it had happened. Jake could hardly believe it; his little sister a beauty? Abby knew he didn’t like it, though it was the tail that freaked him out most of all.
A hollow loneliness filled Abby’s chest and she suddenly wished Gretchen were here, that they were still talking, still best friends. Then she wouldn’t have to walk down the halls alone or sit by herself during lunch.
Come on bus, thought Abby. Hurry up! Then there it was, veering down Main Street and coming to a creaky stop. Abby climbed on, grabbed a seat in front, and tried to ignore the other kids’ stares as she peered across town at the choppy ocean, and waited to arrive at school.
The day started out typically enough. Abby scurried to her locker, pretending not to mind being alone. She sat quietly through English and bio. In P.E. she was the last one picked for volleyball. If a guy was choosing, she’d get called on first. She had great instincts and almost always got the ball. But the girls were a different species altogether. Their animosity toward her never thawed.
At lunch period, she decided not to eat. Lauren Liney’s face still stung the backs of her eyes, and not the happy one either, but the one she’d seen that night in the water. Abby didn’t have an appetite. Besides, she told herself carefully, do you really need to face all those stares?
Again she wished hungrily for Gretchen. But Gretchen had a new best friend-- some sophomore named Sarah Gleason. Abby didn’t know Sarah that well. She’d moved to Chatham when Abby was thirteen, right around the time she’d started to change. But the girl had certainly figured out what Abby’s social status was. Not that it mattered anyway. Abby’s friendship with Gretchen had faded a few months before, but it’d hurt to see her place taken like that. Still, she liked to watch the two girls from afar, usually in the cafeteria, whispering the secrets that belong to best friends. Sometimes, she saw them in the library during study. Most kids were stuck in study hall, but since they were good girls, they almost always got out. Early on, when the change was still fresh, she’d actually decided to approach them. After all, it wasn’t, she’d reasoned, like she and Gretchen had gotten in some terrible fight. It was just that her best friend since first grade had suddenly decided to stop speaking to her.
The whole thing had been completely humiliating. Gretchen and Sarah had been in the library studying when she’d walked up to their table, her pulse pounding in her ears. “Hi Gretch,” she’d said, but Gretchen hadn’t even looked up. She’d just kept going over her math homework while pretending that Abby wasn’t even there.
Abby’d felt like a ghost shrieking through the mist, with no one caring whether they heard her or not. She’d stood for a beat, the blood rushing to her face, then took the hint and walked away. That was the first and last time she’d tried talking to Gretchen. After that she knew she was on her own.
Just get over it, thought Abby. Its been almost three years. She bit down on her lower lip, and a jolt of pain shot into her chin. “Right,” she whispered, blinking back tears. Then she stared hard at the tops of her sneakers and walked quietly down the hall.
The library was deserted when Abby got there. Even the librarians were eating now, crowded inside their tiny office, no doubt gossiping. Abby sat down at a computer terminal so she would a least look like she was working, and tried to make her mind go blank. Come on, she thought. Let it go. There isn’t anything you could have done. But she couldn’t wipe Lauren Liney's face from her mind.
Might as well check my email, she thought. It’s a whole lot safer than checking the news. She didn’t want to stumble across the story-- missing teenager, all that stuff. After checking her Yahoo account, there was nothing there, she decided to look at her school email. Chatham High automatically gave every student an account. You were supposed to check it for announcements, which Abby never did. And some of the teachers used it for class, though none of Abby’s. But she needed something to do, so she logged on.
Abby’s account was almost completely full; it said it was running at ninety-eight percent. She scanned her eyes down her inbox, searching for something interesting to read. There’d been a pep rally two Wednesday’s ago. She saw several reminders about the winter formal, not that she was planning on going. There was an announcement for a bake sale that was over two months old. But then she saw it, right at the top. She had no idea how she’d missed it before. Somehow her eyes had glazed right by. But there it was, all in caps. Though to be fair, a lot of her emails were. What it said was: ABBY I SAW. THIS IS FOR REAL.
Abby clicked on the message, but she couldn’t read. The words swam by like a thousand fish, blurry in their push through the sea. She closed her eyes and swallowed hard, ignoring the heat seeping into her face, the hammering beat of her own heart. Then she opened them and began to read.
I saw you last weekend on the beach. Meet me at Emmett’s after school. Be there.
B.B. thought Abby, panic shooting through her veins. Who’s B.B.? Who sent this to me? Quickly, she scanned the e-mail’s sender address. BBaker@chathamhsc.edu. B. Baker, the name sounded familiar. Abby wracked her brain for any B. Baker’s she knew. Which class, she wondered. Is this person in any of them? Wait, wasn’t there a Baker in eighth period math? Mr. Hinley, who taught trig, always called roll with last names first. It was Brian Baker. Abby was sure. He was the quiet kid who always sat in the back. The one with the shock of jet black hair. There was a story there, she remembered now. He’d moved up to Chatham a few years ago when his stepdad had become the new chief of police. It had all happened around the time she’d made the change. (That’s probably why she didn’t know much about him. She’d been too busy focusing on herself to care.) A few weeks ago, she’d asked him for a pencil. She remembered the way his eyes seared her skin. Just like all the other boys.
Abby closed her eyes and thought back to that morning on the beach-- jamming her clothes on, scanning the sand. No one had been there, she was almost sure. Almost…oh my God. Matilda’s face flashed through her mind. Her mother’s worst fears were coming true.
The rest of the day moved by in slow motion. Social studies dragged. Ms. Mires was droning on about the Revolutionary War, which Abby was certain they’d studied back in fifth grade. But wasn’t that the thing about history? Didn’t it always repeat itself? It didn’t matter anyway, since she was only pretending to listen. A plan, a plan, you need a plan. The mantra stuck in her head as the seconds ticked by. She had to meet him; there was no other way. She needed to convince him that he’d made a mistake.
Finally, it was time for trig. Abby took a deep breath and entered the class, her eyes scanning the room for Brian Baker. He was there, sitting alone at a table in the back. There were two empty seats next to him. Abby paused at her usual spot in the front, not quiet sure where to go. Confront him, commanded a voice in her head. You know what you have to do.
Abby felt the other kids’ eyes on her as she made her way to the back of the room. But she didn’t sit down right next to Brian. Instead, she took the spot at the left side of his table, leaving an empty seat in between. And she didn’t acknowledge him, not in the least. She just pulled out her binder, opened her book, and tried to focus on last night’s assignment, while pretending not to see him at all.
It took him less than a minute to lean over and whisper, “You got my message.” His dark eyes were hot on her skin.
Suddenly, Abby was so mad she could scream. Rage sped through her like a rogue wave, unexpected and terrifying. She repressed the urge to reach out and smack him. Come on, she thought, get a hold of yourself. Don’t let him see that you’re upset.
With all the self-control she could muster, Abby leaned toward Brian and hissed in his face: “Who the hell do you think you are? Were you spying on me? Is that what you were doing?”
Brian jerked back as if he’d been slapped, while Abby shaped her lips into a frigid smile. Good, she thought. Don’t make it all on his terms. Don’t let him think he has the control.
Class started. Mr. Hinely took roll. Brian waited until his name was called. Then he leaned over and whispered, “I wasn’t spying, I just happened to be on the beach, that’s all.”
“Right,” spat Abby. “That early in the morning? Please. How long have you been following me?”
“I haven’t,” he said. “And this isn’t about me.”
“Mr. Baker,” Mr. Hinely broke in. “If you have something to say to Ms. Carson then why not tell the entire class? I’m sure we’d all like to hear.”
Oh God, thought Abby, her face starting to burn. She wished she could hide her scalding blush. Oh why couldn’t you have been a good girl and sat in the front? What in the world are you trying to do?
Brian said nothing, he just stared at his desk. But she could see his ears were on fire too. “All right Mr. Baker,” said Mr. Hinely, turning to write something on the board. “Then I assume you two can finish your discussion after class.” Then he started to go on about Negative Angle Identities, something else Abby didn’t understand.
The clock didn’t seem to be moving at all. For all Abby knew, time was standing still. She couldn’t shake the feeling of Brian next to her, his body exuding in awful heat. Abby peeked over at him, but he was ignoring her, his eyes set straight ahead.
Brian was excellent at trig. He always got every answer, while Abby dreaded being called on at all. She was only in this class because Matilda had pushed it. Matilda, who wanted her to go to college, who wanted her to be normal somehow.
Finally it was over. Abby snatched up her book and stuffed it into her bag. She was about to race out of the classroom, when Brian’s voice cut over to her. “So are you coming?” he asked. He was still staring at the board, not even daring to look at her. He obviously didn’t want to make a scene. In fact, to Abby’s amazement, he didn’t seem to want anyone to know that they were speaking. Why not? she wondered. What’s so wrong with me? But there were so many ways she could answer that question, she suddenly wished she’d never asked it at all.
“I’ll be there,” she grumbled, charging toward the door, relieved that trig was the last class of the day. Now she could meet him and get it all out in the open. Find out what he saw, do damage control. But while she attempted to take a pragmatic approach, her stomach tightened with a terrible dread. Because she really had no idea what he knew. The e-mail didn’t specify. Please, she thought, begging now. Praying to someone, she had know idea who. Please don’t let him know what I am. Please let me be able to fix this somehow.
Encased in her raincoat's protective shell, Abby walked the six blocks from the bus stop to Emmett’s. Her stomach was busy churning again. If she hadn’t known better, she would have thought it was food poisoning. Even if he saw everything, her mind raced in circles as she trudged through the rain, what can you really do? Beg him not to tell anyone? She didn’t know Brian very well, but she was pretty sure that wouldn’t work. He’d confronted her. He’d sent her an email. That meant he wanted answers, that he might not back down.
The rain was growing heavier now, coming down in thick, gray slabs. Abby hated this kind of weather with its the constant paranoia of where the water would hit.
The downtown streets were virtually empty even though it was only a little after three. This was, in part, because of the rain, but mostly because it wasn’t tourist season. She passed the town’s two art galleries, still open for business-- she had no idea why, glad the bus had let her off so close. That was one of the nice things about Clifton. The place was practically microscopic, so it was relatively easy to get around.
Abby cursed Brian under her breath as she stomped through a sea of puddles. He hadn’t even given her a time, just “after school.” Well, she thought, squinting into the rain, if he’d been stalking her like he seemed to be, than he would know she didn’t have a car. She scurried down the sopping street, part of her praying that by the time she reached Emmett’s, Brian would already be gone. But when she finally ducked into the coffee shop, she found that that wasn't the case.
She spotted him at the very back table, as far from the other patrons as he could get. He sat hunched over a coffee mug, glancing up as he slurped his drink, his dark hair tumbling into his eyes. If he weren’t so nerdy, Abby mused, he might actually be kind of cute. A blush flashed across her cheeks, but she ignored it and made her way over to him.
A coat rack stood at the shop’s rear, only a few steps from Brian’s chair. Abby carefully removed her raincoat, shook it out as far from her body as possible, and hung it on the rack. During the whole time she did this, she refused to say hello. She made herself pretend Brian wasn’t even there. Don’t give him the upper hand, she thought. Don’t let him see how scared you are.
“Hi,” said Brian, shooting her a nervous smile once Abby was seated across the table from him. “I’m really glad you could make it.”
Why is he being so nice? Abby wondered. She glared at him, not sure what to say.
“Can I get you something?” asked Brian. “I’m buying, okay?”
“No thanks,” said Abby, anger tightening her throat. What did he think this was, a date?
“You don’t want anything? You look kind of cold.”
“I’m fine,” growled Abby. “Look, what do you want? You didn’t drag me all the way down here for social visit did you?”
“No,” he stammered, looking away, a blush creeping up the back of his neck.
“Listen,” said Abby. “You asked me here. What do you really want to say?” And please don’t let it be what I think it is.
“I saw you,” he whispered, leaning in close, then glancing around to make sure no one had heard.
“Saw what?” said Abby, holding her breath.
“You know” he said. “You’re a….”
She was going to make him say it. He had to say it. She had to be sure. “I’m a what?” she asked, a little too sweetly.
“A mermaid,” he whispered, staring into her eyes, all traces of the blush gone from his skin. “I know. I saw everything.”
Silence filled the little table. For a long, painful moment Abby didn’t know what to do. Then she looked at Brian and began to smile. But it wasn’t a kind or friendly smile. It was as harsh and cruel as she meant it to be. Please she pleaded, please don’t be a book. Make sure he thinks that you’re telling the truth.
“I don’t know who you think you are, but if I were you, I’d stay away from me.”
“You’re not even going to deny it?” he asked, his pale face full of shock.
“I don’t have to,” she said. “It’s totally lame. I mean, who believes in mermaids anyway? Everyone thinks you’re a total nerd. No one’s going to care what you have to say.” Abby knew it was cruel, but that was just too bad. She had to stop him from telling the world.
Brian glared back, his eyes going cold. “You know,” he said, leaning in close, all hint of friendliness gone from his voice. “Everyone thinks you’re a little odd too. I mean, the way you look-- you don’t have any friends. And do you know what? Now I think I know why.”
“Well you don’t,” snapped Abby, jumping up from her chair. “And you better stay away from me Brian Baker. At least if you know what’s good for you. Mermaids have special powers, you know.” Abby leaning in towards him while praying no one could hear. It wasn’t that crowded, but you never knew. “Maybe I’ll kill you with my song.” And with that Abby grabbed her raincoat, wishing it didn’t take such an eternity to button the thing up to her neck and check to make sure her legs weren't exposed. When she was finally done, she stormed out of Emmet’s, slamming the door as hard as she could then stepping out into the rain.
She was halfway down the block when someone grabbed her arm.
“What?” she screamed, wheeling around. It was Brian and he was totally drenched. It’d obviously taken him several minutes to get up the nerve to go after her. By that time, he’d had to dash into the rain. He’d been in such a rush that he’d forgotten his coat.
“Abby,” he said, “I didn’t mean-- none of it came out like I wanted it to.”
Abby stared at the sopping boy, his hand clenched around her plastic, blue elbow. She wanted to tell him to take his hands off her, but something made her hold her tongue.
“I’m not threatening you,” pleaded Brian, his voice almost lost in the rain. “I just wanted to understand, that’s all.”
“Well you can’t,” said Abby, finally getting a hold of her brain. Then she jerked her arm away and ran down the street, leaving him alone in the pouring rain.
Brian stood for a moment, water seeping into his clothes, running in rivulets down his back. He couldn’t believe she was denying it. He knew what he’d seen. He knew what she was. Yet, suddenly he was starting to doubt himself. “No,” he whispered under his breath. “You did see. You know you did.” And besides, he thought, she met you, didn’t she? And what was that talk about killer songs? Is she some sort of sea witch or something? He wouldn’t put it past her. She had the beauty. She was so damn beautiful, she was hard to look at. He knew the other boys saw it, and the girls too.
“Jesus,” said Brian running a hand through his hair. Then he turned and headed back to Emmett’s, shivering in the freezing rain.
Abby’s face stayed behind Brian’s eyes, like a photo he couldn’t put away. He didn’t care what she wanted; he wasn’t giving up. He’d see her tomorrow during math. He promised himself to try and talk to her then. No,
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