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By Tobie Easton
Month9BooksCopyright © 2016 Tobie Easton
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I can't swim. No matter how sparkly and tempting that water is. No matter how it glistens in the sunlight, ripples in the California breeze, or reflects the swaying palm trees. One quick dip and my legs will go poof.
Besides, I'm late for P.E. Again.
I run past the swimming pool and heave open the glass doors to the auditorium. I can't keep relying on the twins to get me to school on time. I've got to learn to drive, but I need better control of my legs first. What dope thought giving a car foot controls was a good idea?
All my classmates turn to stare, already in gym clothes. We finished volleyball last week — thank the tides! — so today we're starting a new unit. About half the class wears P.E. shorts and t-shirts and stands near the entrance to the yoga studio. The other half mill around in bathing suits. So lucky.
I scan the room for the coach. If she's not here yet, I can pop into the locker room and be in yoga before she knows I'm tardy. I rush toward the changing rooms, salvation in sight, when out marches a woman whose long blond hair is at odds with her bulging muscles. Coach Crane. She was a professional wrestler on one of those gladiator shows in the eighties, and her biceps are bigger than my head. She stops in front of me, her massive frame towering over mine.
"So nice of you to show up." A drop of her spittle lands on my cheek, and I scrunch my nose, unable to wipe it off without her noticing.
"I'm super sorry. My sisters —"
"Hurry up and change," she says, stalking past me. Phew! Maybe this day won't be a total shipwreck after all. Then she adds, "Put on your bathing suit. You'll be in swim class today."
I spin around.
"What? I'm signed up for y-yoga, not swimming," I say. Stay calm.
"Yoga's full up. You have a swimsuit, don't you? It's on your list of required materials."
I have a swimsuit in my locker, but it's for show. No Matter what happens, I can't get into that pool. Sure, I can maintain my legs all day on land, but as soon as I hit the water, my natural instincts will take over. My tail will emerge, scales and all, and I'll expose my whole family. I'll put the entire Community of land-dwelling Mer refugees at risk. My breath comes in quick, shallow pants.
"My mom filed a note in the office," I say, clinging to the story my parents concocted for such an emergency. "I'm taking private swimming lessons with this coach my parents hired and I'm not supposed to have any outside instruction."
Rather than help me, this story makes Coach Crane's nostrils flare. "I haven't seen any note, so today you're swimming. Now go change. I'm not going to tell you again."
"No." Did I just say that? Hands cup over mouths as the room erupts in whispers. No one gets why I'm making a fuss. I wish Caspian were here. What I wouldn't give for one other Mer who'd understand. "I'm not swimming."
I've never disobeyed a teacher before. But as much as Coach Crane scares me, that water scares me more. If I swim in the pool, the next place I'll be swimming is a government laboratory tank, being poked and prodded and then chopped into sushi-sized pieces. "Please. My parents'll kill me. And I just got over the flu," I lie, floundering for a good excuse.
"Listen up ..." the coach sticks one meaty finger in my face. Panic seizes me, and my legs tremble. My control over them is slipping. At this rate, I won't even need to get in the water to reveal myself. If I lose my focus, I'll be flat on my fins.
"Coach Crane?" One of the guys steps forward from the group of yoga students. Clay. His dark hair shines under the fluorescent lights as he shoots me a reassuring smile. "She can take my spot in yoga. I have swim trunks."
"Clay, that's not necessary. She needs to —"
"I'd rather go swimming." He cuts the coach off, determination in his hazel eyes.
Twenty pairs of restless feet tap against the rubber floor. I'm holding everyone up. Then a sweet, chirpy voice pipes up from the throng by the doors. "At this rate, none of us will get to do anything. Can't Lia and Clay just switch already?" It's Kelsey, my closest human friend. She twists one of her corkscrew curls around her finger and stares blatantly at the clock.
Coach Crane looks from the clock ticking away on the wall to me to Clay and back to me. "Fine. Ericson," she motions to Clay, "go get into your trunks. And you," she pins me with a fierce glare, "go change into your gym uniform. You'd better be in that studio doing downward dog in less than five minutes."
I nod. The coach storms off, and Kelsey winks at me before she goes out to the pool with the others. I draw in a shaky breath. Am I really off the fishhook? I look around for Clay to say thank you, but he's already disappeared into the boys' locker room. That's better, anyway. I promised myself I'd stop talking to him unless it was one hundred percent necessary.
I change and step out of the girls' side of the locker room, adjusting my shorts for the gazillionth time. Exposing my legs still makes me self-conscious. I should head straight to the yoga studio, but instead I find myself walking to the door of the boys' locker room. It would be rude not to thank Clay, wouldn't it? Of course it would! I wasn't raised by wolf eels. He stood up for me today when everyone else just whispered. So, I really don't have a choice. I have to stay right here and thank him. Yep. But maybe that'll give him the wrong idea. If he comes out in the next thirty seconds, I'll —
The door swings open, and Clay appears. In his swim trunks ... and nothing else.
It's like my brain is full of flotsam. I can't focus on anything except the expanse of smooth skin over defined muscles. But it's a momentary weakness. I wrench my eyes away from his chest and up to his face.
He gives me a casual, self-satisfied smirk, but excitement sparks in his eyes. "What? No shirtless guys at your old school?"
I've been here almost a year, but everyone still treats me like the new kid. At least last year I transferred after swim season.
"Tons," I answer. "Shirtless, nearly naked, all the time." It isn't a lie. Mermen never cover their torsos unless they're venturing into the human world, and my old school — the one I attended before I hit puberty and got my legs — was all Mer. "I'm just checking to make sure Malibu Hills Prep is up to par." Did that sound witty? I hope so, but I'm never sure. Something about seeing Clay shirtless is different. And not just because his lean body bears the type of taut muscles I'd want to sculpt if I were even remotely artistic. No! Bad thoughts. He's human, I scold myself. Off-limits.
"Feel free to check me out all you want," he says, "but you're going to be late for yoga."
The wall clock tells me he's right. The last thing I need is more trouble from Coach Crane.
"Don't worry about Coach Crane," he says, as if reading my mind. His tone changes from cocky to kind. "She just doesn't like anyone questioning her authority." He infuses the word with sarcasm and rolls his eyes. Like it's our own private joke.
"Thanks. For stepping in back there, I mean. You didn't have to do that." I have no clue what I would have done if he hadn't.
He gives me one more genuine smile. I tug on my shorts again.
"The shorts look good on you," he says.
I'm not so sure. No matter how many humans I see walking around in micro-minis or bathing suits, bare legs still strike me as daring. "They're not too short?" I ask.
"That's why they look good on you." With that, he flips his towel over his shoulder and walks off toward the pool.
Was he teasing me? Flirting with me? Both? It doesn't matter. I never should have talked myself into thanking him. I have to keep my distance. He doesn't have a tail. End of discussion.
That's why I've made sure we're not friends. Not anymore.
And I have to keep reminding myself of that for the rest of the day. Three hours later, I'm chatting with Kelsey by my locker — and I'm not thinking about Clay. I'm not thinking about how brave he was to stand up for me or how he smiled that little half-smile at me from across the gym or how flattered he looked when he caught me staring. Nope. I'm not thinking about Clay at all. But can I help it if he happens to be smack-dab in my line of sight?
The fact that he's talking to another girl at the other end of the hall shouldn't bother me. Clay can talk to other girls. He should talk to other girls. But why does he have to talk to a girl who looks like that? Who is that?
"Who is that?" I ask Kelsey, nodding toward the girl. Whoever she is, she's gorgeous. High cheekbones, sapphire eyes, and sleek black hair. Not to mention a lithe body that boasts more merchandise in the chest department than I'll ever have.
"Don't know. Never seen her before," Kelsey says. "I guess you're not the new kid anymore. Good deal, right?"
New Girl giggles at something Clay just said. The feminine sound tinkles down the hallway, and Clay laughs in response. She rests a perfectly manicured hand on his arm.
I hate her.
* * *
I bet she can walk in heels, I think to myself as I try to balance with four-inch spikes strapped to the bottoms of my feet. I've got to stop comparing myself to her. Any issue of Seventeen would tell me what I'm doing is unhealthy, but it's been three weeks since she started at Malibu Hills Prep and I hate her more than ever. Every time I see her, she's clinging to Clay like a slimy, black mussel clinging to the pier. Not that he seems to mind ...
I take a few wobbly, unnatural steps and clutch a nearby shoe rack for support. "Maybe I should stick with flats."
"No way!" Kelsey whines as she struts forward in a pair of impossibly high blue stilettos. She grabs my hand and pulls me in front of the full-length mirror. "Legs look so much better in heels."
She's right. The shoes lift my calves, making my legs look longer, making me look taller. I've been dying for a pair of heels for as long as I can remember.
"I don't get why this is so hard for you, Lia."
Of course Kelsey doesn't get it. But let me ask you this: Would you let a toddler wear heels? Of course not! They've only been walking around for three years. How could they be expected to balance? Well, I'm in the same boat. I only got my legs three years ago, and it took me a good six months to learn to control them — and another year and a half before I could hold them in place all day without breaks. That's why my parents waited until last year to decide I was finally ready to start a human school. So while all my human friends probably got platforms by age thirteen and have been wearing heels for years, I've always settled for a comfy ballet flat. Judging by the way I'm stumbling around the store, maybe I had the right idea.
"Try balancing more of your weight on your toes," Kelsey instructs.
A low voice interrupts her. "You know, I almost bought that same pair last week, but I couldn't walk in them either."
With slow, tiny steps, I turn away from a display of sling backs to face Clay. "What are you doing here?" I toss a few stray strands of my long hair over my shoulder and try to look cool as I scramble for something non-embarrassing to say. "This doesn't seem like your type of place."
Like many of the upscale boutiques in Malibu, this one has that studied elegance carefully contrived to help shoppers justify spending way too much. Kelsey dragged me in here when she saw the blue stilettos in the window. I have to admit, their stuff is gorgeous, but they only have a few pairs of shoes for men, and all of them are super trendy. They don't look anything like Clay's well-worn Doc Martens. A lot of the guys at school look like they're trying to mimic Abercrombie ads and falling painfully short. Not Clay. He tends to do his own thing.
"Baby, I found a pair." The sing-song voice from across the store makes my stomach plummet. It's her. Mel Havelock. I don't know if it's short for Melissa or Melanie or something equally generic, and I don't care. She stands by the designer athletic shoes, holding up a pair and humming some inane tune as she beckons Clay over.
"I'm not exactly here of my own free will," he confides with a conspiratorial smile. He starts to head over to her, as if drawn like a magnet. Then, as he passes a rack of discount boots, he turns and looks at the heels still gleaming on my feet. "Gold suits you," he says, before walking the rest of the way.
"See you Monday!" I call out lamely. Mel gives me a curious look before wrapping her arms around Clay's neck and kissing him right there in the middle of the store, her hands tangling in his hair.
I want to leave. Now.
But Kelsey's trying on some baby pink t-straps. "They should at least get a dressing room if they're going to do that," she says. She knows it bothers me to see the two of them like they are now, with their heads close together, smiling and laughing.
"No, it's fine. I'm ... happy for them."
"So, which pair are you getting?" I ask, hoping to hurry things along. I should be home already, helping prepare for the gala.
Kelsey accepts the change of topic. "I'm thinking both." She shoots me an impish grin that brings to mind a small child who takes two cookies before dinner when she's only allowed one.
"How about you?" she asks. "Don't tell me you're going to part with those. You look so beautiful in them ... as long as you stay upright."
I shouldn't buy them. It's probably a waste considering I can only make it a few steps. Still, the deep golden color is the exact same shade as my tail when the sun shines on it. Wearing these would be like getting to show off the part of myself I always have to keep hidden.
"I'll take them."
Her smile broadens.
On the way home, I try to focus on Kelsey's excitement over the self-defense class we're about to start in P.E. now that yoga and swimming are over. "I'm going to be like, pow,pow! Take that! Pow!" She throws practice punches against the steering wheel. But all I can think about is how Mel has managed to completely enthrall Clay over the past three weeks. I know I have no claim on him, but it was much easier ignoring my feelings when I didn't have to watch him so fixated on someone else. I've barely spoken two words to her. But every time she touches him or whispers something flirty into his ear, I want to kick her in that toned butt of hers.
I sigh and stare out the window as we get closer to my house. At least I'll have the gala tonight to keep me occupied. Nobody parties quite like the Mer.CHAPTER 2
Kelsey and I pull up to the front gate of my house, and I thank her for the ride.
"No prob, Bob," Kelsey says. "Want me to drive you to the door?"
I tell her it's fine and jump out of the car. I don't want her to see the catering trucks in the driveway and realize there's a party she hasn't been invited to. Waving goodbye, I type in the entrance code and wait for the large iron gate to open just enough so I can slip through. I make my way down the winding, gravel driveway, swinging the bag that contains my shiny new shoes. When I turn the final bend, two catering trucks do indeed wait there. They're parked on either side of the circular stone fountain centered in front of the door.
Okay, so my house is kind of massive. With its clean white lines and imposing entrance, most people find it impressive. To me, it's home. I'm so lucky to live in a place this beautiful. At least centuries' worth of sunken pirate treasure hasn't gone to waste; my parents and the other board members have used it to ensure our entire Community can flourish here in Malibu.
As soon as I walk in, my eyes are drawn to my favorite feature of our house. Across the entrance hall and the step-down living room beyond it, floor to ceiling windows look out onto a breathtaking view of the Pacific Ocean. As soon as I lay eyes on the sparkling sea, the waves whisper to me. Call to me.
"Aurelia, there you are!"
Emeraldine, my oldest sister, stands at the top of the stairs, her hands on her slim hips. "I thought you'd be home an hour ago. If you want me to do your hair, you'll have to hurry. The caterers are already here to drop off the food, and I promised Dad I'd help him bring it all downstairs and finish setting up after they leave." Emeraldine's voice is measured and even as usual, but a few tendrils of stress uncoil beneath it.
"Hi to you, too," I say as I make my way up the stairs. "Where's Mom?"
"At the Foundation. She should be home in half an hour at the latest."
I have to hurry. My mom made it clear she's counting on my sisters and me to make a good impression tonight. She and my dad have enough to worry about and I don't want to disappoint them. My father is the public face of the Foundation for the Preservation and Protection of Marine Life; he's the one in charge of securing government support, presenting scientific research to universities, and working with marine animals at zoos across the country. My mother, on the other hand, is responsible for the Foundation's less conspicuous workings — basically keeping the entire Community of land-dwelling Mer afloat. Tonight, every member of that community will be here, in our house, so I have to be perfect.
Once we're settled in my bathroom, Em brushes my hair. In the mirror, I examine the intricacies of her hairstyle. Half of her rich, chestnut-colored hair is pulled up into three tiers of buns in progressively diminishing sizes that top her head like a wedding cake. The rest hangs in flowing, perfectly shaped curls down her back, and the whole coif is studded with pearls.
"How was your day at school?" Em asks, her voice adopting a familiar mothering quality.
Excerpted from Emerge by Tobie Easton. Copyright © 2016 Tobie Easton. Excerpted by permission of Month9Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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