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I can almost pretend I'm at home. Even though the curtains are drawn, I've left the window open a crack, and the sea air breezes in off the Pacific Ocean. If I breathe deep and focus on my laptop screen, I can almost trick myself into believing I'm back in my room at home, working on some homework assignment. But I'm not. I'm hiding out. This isn't my room — it's the den at the back of an abandoned mansion, which is the only place secret enough for me to visit the love of my life. And the document on my laptop screen isn't just some homework assignment — it's my college application.
Well, one of them.
I stare at the glowing screen.
Philosopher and humanitarian Hubert Hill once said, "Uniqueness is the salt of life, for without it, human interaction would be without flavor." Please explain how you feel your upbringing has made you someone who stands out from other applicants, and tell us what "flavor" you believe you would add to the campus community of our university. In short, what makes you unique?
Seriously, who comes up with this stuff? And what could I possibly say?
I grew up as a Mermaid who had never lived in the ocean. Being a part of Malibu's hidden Community of land-dwelling Mer means that, for years, I had to keep a huge part of myself a secret from the kids at my human high school. Hiding all the time made it hard to get close to my human classmates, but it was worth it to live in safety on land while the Mer world in the ocean was embroiled in war. This unique upbringing has given me an acute understanding of, and appreciation for, the interplay between cultures as well as the importance of adaptability and self-discipline, both of which I'll apply to my academics in college. On campus, I'll share the "flavor" of my heritage with the student body by hosting Mermaid-style galas, teaching my fellow classmates to make necklaces out of traditional nassa shells, and hosting Mermese sing-a-longs at alumni events.
Yeah, that'll work. I roll my eyes, rein in my wandering thoughts, and stare at the blinking curser on the still-blank page. If I can't be honest, how am I supposed to get these finished in the next ... I glance at my computer's clock ... three hours?
"Why don't you write about your family for that one?" Clay asks, reading the question over my shoulder, the worn toe of one of his Doc Martens pushing against the wheel of my chair. "Something about how being the middle child with a lot of sisters means you've, um ... 'grown adept at understanding the perspectives of others and learning from their strengths'?" He rests his chin right in the spot where my shoulder meets my neck, and the light stubble on his jaw grazes my skin.
My fingers fly across the keyboard, taking notes on what he's said before the words disappear out the window on the salty ocean breeze.
"Pretty good, right?" he says, tone cocky.
I know he's smirking before I even turn around.
When I do, I try to suppress my own smile. "You think you're pretty smart, huh?"
"I don't think — I know."
"You're ridiculous." I keep my tone teasing, but now that I've turned to face him, he's so close I have to hide the catch in my breath. He must hear it anyway, because his smirk widens to a full grin that lights his hazel eyes.
My gaze darts to the door. It's closed. And locked. No one knows we're here, but we're being extra careful, just in case. We can't get caught together.
Clay places a hand on either armrest of my swivel chair, and suddenly his strong frame surrounds me on all sides, enclosing the two of us together in our own private world. A world bordered by tan, muscular forearms. My gaze moves from the thin cotton of the vintage band T-shirt covering his broad chest up to the expression on his face — one filled with want. For me, I realize with a rush of excitement. The same rush I get every time he's this close to me. Within seconds, he's leaning in, his mouth taking mine in a kiss that makes my college apps a distant memory. His denim-clad legs press against my bare ones as his lips press firmly against mine. I wrap my arms around his neck as our kiss deepens.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
"Lunch time," I murmur against his lips, then lean in for just one ... two ... three more kisses before I rise from my chair.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
"I hear you, I hear you," I say to the microwave before popping open its door and taking out the steaming bag. I pull the corners away from each other, and a whoosh of warm, buttery goodness hits my nose for the first time since I started living beneath the waves three months ago. Tides, I've missed popcorn.
Clay has settled onto the floor, so I join him there on the pile of blankets and couch cushions we've built in front of the fireplace. It's more comfortable than making ourselves at home on some stranger's furniture. I barely knew the family that used to lease this house from the Foundation. All I do know is they moved back Below as soon as the wars ended. Since then, most of the other families on this street have done the same. But every time we sneak here — me from the newly renovated palace under the ocean, Clay from his mom's house in another neighborhood of Malibu — I worry someone will see us. If anyone from the Community catches me within sixty yards of Clay, I'll be thrown in prison for fifty years. Longer if they find out I've restored his memories of me — his memories that I'm a Mermaid. Still, not sneaking here, not seeing Clay as often as I possibly can, that would be worse. When we're in this little den, with its pine-paneled walls and thick-woven rugs, I want time to freeze.
I hold the open bag out to Clay, but he gestures for me to go first. I grab a kernel and pop it into my mouth. Yum. Definitely better than college apps. Once I've grabbed a few more, Clay reaches in for a handful.
"Want some water?" he asks as he munches. I nod, and without getting up, he leans back, his T-shirt riding up his toned stomach as he swings open the door of the mini-fridge and grabs a water bottle. A couple weeks ago, I found the fridge up in the attic and brought it in here. We knew if we kept wandering around the house, we'd up the odds of someone seeing us; camping out here is safer.
A yellow kernel arches toward my face, and I dodge away from it without thinking.
"Hey!" Clay says, scandalized. "Don't waste it." Luckily, it landed in my hair, so it's not a total loss.
After popping it in my mouth, I grab another and launch it at Clay. Of course, he manages to catch it in his mouth. "And that's how it's done," he says, looking very satisfied with himself. I throw the next one and he swerves to the right to catch it. Three more slam dunks, then he finally misses one. It bounces off his chin and into my lap.
"Looks like this one's all mine," I say, holding it up and dancing it around in front of his face before tossing it into my mouth.
"Not fair," Clay says. He lunges toward the bag of popcorn, but I hold it back, out of his reach, a laugh escaping my lips at his mock-ferocious expression. He leans across my body as he makes another grab for it, and this time he falls (maybe not so accidentally?) against me, catching himself with his arms so that he hovers over me.
The air between us thickens with electricity. I tuck a strand of my long hair behind my ear right before Clay dips his head down and catches my lips in a kiss. Our mouths fused together, he shifts his weight so his hands are free again — free to skim up and down my arms, to my cheeks to my neck to my waist, where they hold me, firm and solid, fingers spread wide. One of my own hands runs along Clay's back, across his shoulder blade. My other still holds the popcorn bag, which a small part of my brain finds ridiculous, but the rest can't focus on popcorn because ... Clay. So close. Hands and lips and —
"You should get back to work," he whispers, pulling his mouth just far away enough to form words but no farther.
"Can't. Busy," I say, tilting my head up and kissing him again. Several minutes later, he pulls back for a second time.
"I am not going to be the reason you miss your deadline, Nautilus," he says. This time when I tilt my head up, he covers his mouth with his hand, palm out. I try to pout but laughter spills out instead.
"Mean," I tease. He untangles his body from mine and stands up, helping me to my feet.
"Yes, I'm a terrible, terrible person who wants you to get into college." He puts his hands on my shoulders and steers me back to my chair.
I sit, staring again at the intimidating screen. "Am I even going to get to go to college?"
"Not if you don't send in your applications." Clay stands behind me, his hands still resting on my shoulders.
"I'm serious." I've always pictured myself going to college. Carrying a stack of books toward some beautiful brick building. College-Lia is supposed to wear one of those cool college sweatshirts and be smarter and more mature than High School-Lia. Up until eight months ago, my post-high school plan was all set: like my three older sisters, I'd be attending Pepperdine University and making the ten-minute commute from home, so I could still relax in my tail in the evenings and on weekends. But now ... "After tomorrow morning, everything will change — again — and who knows what my life will even be like by the time college acceptance letters come in spring?"
The hands on my shoulders begin a reassuring massage. "If you want to go to college next year, I'm sure your parents will support that."
"I'm not. I didn't want to move Below, and they made me do that." Sure, they did it to garner public support for our family so they could ascend to the throne and ensure Merkind didn't fall into anarchy. But the result's the same.
"Yeah, but after tomorrow they'll be queen and king, officially, and they won't have to worry so much about winning the public's favor," Clay says, still kneading my tense shoulders.
Tomorrow is the coronation. An image rises in my mind of me riding alongside my sisters down the glittering streets in New Meris, toward the gleaming white coral and ice palace where my parents will be crowned in a spectacular ceremony in front of thousands of assembled Mer. My shoulders creep up toward my ears even as the pads of Clay's thumbs and fingertips skillfully try to press them back down.
"Or maybe it'll get worse and the orstitii" — that's Mermese for the council or parliament — "will insist I continue my education Below, and my parents will agree because they won't understand why it's such a big deal that I study on land next year." It's not like they know I want to share my college experience with Clay; they don't even know that he remembers who I am. "After all, in their minds, I could go to a human college anytime." Now that all Mer have our immortality back, I could go a hundred times. But Clay can't.
His thoughts must drift to the same place mine do — what it means that he's human and I'm not — because his hands stop moving on my shoulders as his gaze grows unfocused. I don't know what to say to comfort him, so I tilt my head against his hand.
"Well," he says, and I can practically hear him muster his optimism, "that's why we have to find a way to make Project Mud work."
I came up with the name. 'Cause what happens when you put clay in water? It turns into mud, get it? Okay, so it's not the sexiest code name ever, but it makes me laugh.
With my head still tilted, I look up at him, at the hopeful smile on his face, and I don't have the heart to remind him that I've been researching every day for over a month — since the very first day he asked me — and I'm no closer to finding a spell that will make him Mer. My stomach churns. I haven't even found so much as a mention of it being possible to turn a human into a Merperson.
But the hope shining on Clay's face ... "We'll find a way," I say, conjuring up a small smile for him. We will. We will.
As I rally my hope, his seems to fade, his expression turning pensive. "Better finish your apps," he says, voice distant and distracted. He drops a kiss on the top of my head, then retreats to the pile of blankets on the floor. He submitted the last of his applications a week ago, so now he picks up a book on film composer Hans Zimmer, but a few minutes later he's staring at nothing instead of turning pages, lost in thought again. When he catches me watching him, he nods toward my laptop screen. "You got this, Nautilus."
I face forward in my chair. Time to focus. I'm the kind of kid who's always turned her homework in on time, so it's hard for me to believe I missed the deadline for the UCs and for some merit scholarships. I was too busy studying advanced magic at a Mermaid boarding school on a remote island out in the Pacific, getting Clay his memories back, and stopping a group of sirens intent on brainwashing countless humans with evil magic. That has merit too, so I refuse to feel bad. But it does mean I can cross UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, UC Long Beach, and all the rest off my list. I won't miss out on any more schools.
Now that I finally have some quality time with my laptop, I go to the box marked "Major" and scroll down to select "Undeclared." Unlike my sisters, who have always known what they wanted to study, I still don't. I threw around the idea of studying marine bio because I thought if I learned more about the ocean I might figure out more about myself and how I connect to it. But if I majored in bio, it would be more because it's the expected choice than because it's what I'm passionate about. To be honest, I don't know what I'm passionate about yet. Noooo idea.
The supplemental questions may be kicking my butt, but at least I finished my main essay last week. I reach into the kelp net bag I brought from Below and pull out the rolled-up scroll of waxed red algae leaves I wrote my essay on. See? I'm not a slacker. The essay is covered in corrections and edits that my best friend Caspian added in blue squid ink ("Blue is kinder than red," he told me as he slashed through another of my unnecessary sentences with his fishbone quill in the palace library). I pull my brain back to the present as I type up my main essay. Once that's finished, I have no choice but to work on the supplemental questions.
What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment?
Seven-and-a-half months ago, I saved my entire species from death. That's not some poetic metaphor. The Little Mermaid (yep, that one) accidentally unleashed a curse two hundred years ago that stripped all Merfolk of our immortality. Ever since then, we've been cursed with human lifespans. The Mer blamed her father the king for her mistake, dethroned him, and executed him. Each subsequent ruler who tried to take his place promised to find a way to restore immortality, but none could, and with each failure, anger rose, until the next power-hungry wannabe king or queen would raise an army to seize power, starting the cycle all over again and keeping the ocean in a near-constant state of warfare for two centuries. That's why my parents and a few brave others did the unimaginable: They moved on land. They built a Community where their children could grow up in safety, but they couldn't break the curse. We all knew that, eventually, we would die.
What we didn't know was that another power-hungry Merman and his daughter Melusine planned to use an evil, ancient ritual to give themselves control over the curse, so Mer would have no choice but to accept their rule if they wanted to live. That ritual involved killing a human boy I love more than anything — and killing me, too, once I tried to interfere. In our efforts to save each other, that human boy and I risked our lives for one another. Only later did we learn our true love broke the curse, restoring immortality to all Merkind. Most days, I still can't believe what we did. The strength of that love and all the good it's done for my people is my greatest accomplishment.
Now that would get me into the Ivy League. Too bad it would also get me taken into government custody and locked in some laboratory tank to be studied and experimented on. I shudder. Maybe I'll write about the time I turned my grade around in my self-defense class.
By the time I've tackled the last supplemental question, I have just enough time to click submit and do a little victory dance with Clay in the middle of the den before I have to kiss him goodbye — long and lingering.
"I wish I could come with. I wish I could be there tomorrow," he whispers against my hair.
"I know." I swing my backpack over my shoulder and sneak out the door, heading toward the home I haven't been allowed to live in for months and toward my family waiting there.
Time to go become a princess.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Immerse"
Copyright © 2019 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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