By Anna Banks
Feiwel and Friends Copyright © 2013 Anna Banks
All rights reserved.
MY EYES won't open. It's like my lashes are coated with iron instead of mascara, pulling down my lids with a heaviness I can't fight. A medicated kind of heaviness.
I'm disoriented. Part of me feels awake, as if I'm swimming from the bottom of the ocean to the surface, but my body feels floaty, like I'm already there rolling with the lull of the waves.
I run a groggy diagnostics on my other senses.
Hearing. The hushed roar of tires negotiating a road beneath. The repetition of a cheesy chorus on an eighties radio station. The wheeze of an air conditioner that has long needed attention.
Smell. The wispy scent of Mom's perfume. The pine-tree air freshener forever dangling from the rearview. The conditioned leather of her car.
Touch. The seat belt cutting into my neck at an angle I'll pay for later. The sweat on the back of my legs, pasting me to the leather.
I used to love this about my parents. I'd come home from school and the car would already be packed. We'd take off without a destination, me and Mom and Dad and sometimes my best friend, Chloe. Just driving and seeing and stopping when we wanted to see more. Museums and national parks and little specialty stores that sold things like plaster castings of Sasquatch footprints. We fell victim to Dad's hobby as an amateur photographer, forced to hold touristy poses for the camera and the sake of memories. To this day, our house is practically wallpapered with past road trips — pictures of us giving one another bunny ears or crossing our eyes and sticking out our tongues like asylum patients.
The car jolts, sending my thoughts chasing after each other in a hazy race. Memories churn in a kind of mental whirlwind, and a few clear images pause and magnify themselves, like still-life photos of a normal day. Mom, doing dishes. Chloe, smiling at me. Dad, sitting at the kitchen table. Galen, leaving through the back door.
Wait. Galen ...
All the images line up, filing themselves in order, speeding up, animating the still shots into a movie of my life. A movie that shows how I came to be buckled in Mom's car, groggy and confused. That's when I realize that this is not a McIntosh family road trip. It couldn't be.
Two and a half years have passed since my dad died of cancer.
Three months have passed since the shark killed Chloe in the waters of Destin. Which means that three months have passed since I met Galen on that beach.
And I'm not sure how much time has passed since Galen and his best friend, Toraf, left my house to retrieve Grom. Grom, the Triton king, Galen's older brother. Grom, who was supposed to mate with my mother. Grom, who is a Syrena, a man-fish. A man-fish who was supposed to mate with my mother. My mother, who is also Nalia, the long-lost supposed-to-be-dead Poseidon princess who's been living on land all these years because _________.
Speaking of Her Esteemed Majesty Mom ... she's lost her freaking mind.
And I've been kidnapped.
GALEN STEALS glances at Grom as they approach the Jersey Shore. He looks for emotion on Grom's face, maybe a glint of happiness or gratitude or excitement. Some hint of reassurance that he made the right decision in bringing his brother here. Some sign of encouragement that he didn't completely unravel the cord of his life by telling Grom where he's been. Who he's been with. And why.
But as usual, Grom is like a stingy oyster, all rigid exterior and sealed shut, protecting everything inside. And as usual, Galen has no idea how to shuck him. Even now, as they reach the shallow water, Grom floats like an emotionless piece of driftwood making its inevitable journey toward shore.
Galen retrieves a pair of swimming trunks bunched up under a familiar rock — one of the many hiding places he has around Emma's house — and hands them to Grom. He leaves his brother to stare at the Hawaiian-style fabric while he and Toraf find their own pairs of shorts and slide them on. Before Galen switches to human form, he takes the time to stretch his fin, kneading his fists into the length of it. Ever since they left Triton territory, his fin has ached nonstop because of all the tension leading up to this, up to Grom reuniting with Nalia.
Up to the answers they've all been waiting for.
Finally, Grom changes to human form and eases the trunks up as if the leg holes were lined with shark teeth. Galen wants to tell him that putting on a pair of shorts is the easy part. Instead, Galen says, "The house is just a short walk up the beach."
Grom nods, tight-lipped, and plucks a piece of seaweed off his nose as his head emerges from the water. Toraf is already on shore, shaking off the excess water like a polar bear. Galen wouldn't be surprised if Toraf broke into a run to get to the house; Galen had insisted on leaving Rayna behind. Given their current standing as outcasts to both kingdoms, Grom was more likely to believe Toraf than either of his own siblings at the moment. Luckily, Yudor had reached him first, and had already informed the Triton king that he himself had sensed Nalia's pulse. Yudor is the trainer of all Trackers, and Toraf's mentor. There is no arguing with Yudor.
Still, it would have been a lot easier if Nalia would have just accompanied Galen and Toraf to Triton territory. Convincing Grom she was alive was almost as difficult as convincing him to come ashore. But just like Grom, Nalia had closed herself off, unwilling to offer even the slightest explanation for what happened all those years ago. The only words they could finally extract from her were a strangled "Bring Grom to me, then."
Short of dragging her to the water kicking and screaming — and destroying Emma's trust in him — Galen made the snap decision to leave them both in Rayna's care. And the word "care" can be very subjective where his sister is concerned.
But they couldn't waste any more time; with Yudor's head start on them, a search party might have already been dispatched, and if not, then Galen knew it was coming. And he couldn't — wouldn't — risk them finding Emma. Beautiful, stubborn Half-Breed Emma.
And he's a little perturbed that Nalia would.
The three of them plod holes in the sand reaching up to Emma's back porch, alongside a recent trail of someone else's — probably Emma's — footsteps leading from the beach. Galen knows this moment will always be burned into his memory. The moment when his brother, the Triton king, put on human clothes and walked up to a house built by humans, squinting in the broad daylight with eyes unaccustomed to the sun.
What will he say to Nalia? What will he do?
The steps creak under their bare feet. Toraf slides open the glass door and ushers Galen and Grom in. And Galen's heart plummets to his stomach.
Whoever tied Rayna to the bar stool — the same bar stool occupied by Nalia last time he'd seen it — made sure it would be a painful fall if she tried to move too much. Both of her hands are bound behind her with an electrical cord, and each of her ankles are cinched to the stool with a belt. A broad piece of silver tape over her mouth muzzles all the fury bulging in her eyes.
Toraf runs to his mate. "My poor princess, who did this to you?" he says, tugging gently at a corner of the tape. She snatches her face away from him and chastises him in muffled outrage.
Galen strides to them and promptly rips the tape from Rayna's mouth. She yelps, raking him over with a scalding look. "You did that on purpose!" Galen wads the tape into a sticky ball then drops it to the floor. "What happened?" Rayna squares her shoulders. "I'm going to kill Nalia for good this time."
"Okay. But what happened?"
"She poisoned me. Or something."
"Triton's trident, Rayna. Just tell me what hap —"
"Nalia kept saying she needed to go to the restroom, so I let her use the downstairs bathroom. I figured it would be okay because she seemed to have calmed down since you left, so I untied her. Anyway, she was taking a long time in there." Rayna points to the bathroom below the stairwell. "So I checked on her. I knocked and knocked but she didn't answer. I opened the door — I should've known something was off since it wasn't locked — and the bathroom was dark. Then she grabs me from behind and puts something over my face. The last thing I remember is Emma standing in the doorway screaming at Nalia. Next thing I know, I wake up in this chair, tied up like some common human."
Toraf finally frees her. She examines the red lines embedded into her wrists. Rubbing them, she winces. "I'm going to do something bad to her. I can be creative, you know." Rayna clutches her stomach. "Uh-oh. I think ... I think I'm gonna —"
To her credit, she does try to turn away from Toraf, who's now squatting on his haunches to unstrap her feet. But it's as if he were the target all along, as if Rayna's upchuck were attracted to him somehow. "Oh!" she says, vomit dripping down her chin. "I'm sorry." Then she growls, baring her teeth like a piranha. "I hate her."
Toraf wipes the wet chunks from his shoulder and gently lifts Rayna. "Come on, princess," he murmurs. "Let's get you cleaned up." Shifting her in his arms, he turns to Galen in askance.
"Are you serious?" Galen says, incredulous. "We don't have time for that. Did you not hear what she just said? Emma and Nalia are gone."
Toraf scowls. "I know." He turns to Grom. "Just so you know, Highness, I'm upset with Princess Nalia for tying Rayna up like that."
Galen runs a hand through his hair. He knows how this works. Toraf will be useless until Rayna is sufficiently calmed down and happy again. Trying to convince his best friend of doing anything otherwise is a waste of time they don't have. Unbelievable. "There's a shower on the third floor," Galen says, nodding toward the stairs. "In Emma's room."
Galen and Grom watch as Toraf disappears up the stairwell with their sister. "Don't worry, princess," they hear him coo. "Emma has all those nice-smelling soaps, remember? And all those pretty dresses you like to wear ..."
Grom cocks his head at Galen.
Galen knows this looks bad. He brings his brother to land to reunite him with his long-lost love and the long-lost love has tied up his sister and run away.
Not to mention how else this looks: illegal. Rayna wearing human dresses and taking showers with human soaps and upchucking human food. All evidence that Rayna is much more familiar with the human way of life than she should be.
But Galen can't worry about how anything looks. Emma is missing.
It feels like every nerve in his body is braided around his heart, squeezing until it aches incessantly. He stalks to the kitchen and flings open the garage door. Nalia's car is gone. He grabs the house phone on the wall and dials Emma's cell. It vibrates on the counter — right next to her mother's cell phone. Dread knots in his stomach as he dials Rachel, his human assistant. Loyal, devoted, resourceful Rachel. At the beep he says, "Emma and her mother are gone and I need you to find them." He hangs up and leans against the refrigerator, waiting with the patience of a tsunami. When the phone rings, he snatches at it, almost dropping it. "Hello?"
"Hiya, sweet pea. When you say Emma and her mother are 'gone,' do you mean —"
"I mean we found Rayna tied up in their house and her mother's car is gone."
Rachel sighs. "You should have let me put a GPS tracker on it when I wanted to."
"That's not important right now. Can you find them?"
"I'll be there in ten minutes. Don't do anything stupid."
"Like what?" he says, but she's already hung up.
He turns to Grom, who is holding a picture frame in his hands. His brother traces the outline of Nalia's face with his finger. "How is this possible?" he says softly.
"It's called a photograph," Galen says. "Humans can capture any moment of time in this thing they call a —"
Grom shakes his head. "No. That's not what I mean."
"Oh. What do you mean?"
Grom holds up the picture. It's an up-close black-and-white photo of Nalia's face, probably taken by a professional photographer. "This is Nalia." He runs a hand through his hair, a trait he and Galen inherited from their father. "How is it possible that she's still alive and I'm just now learning of it?" Galen lets out a breath. He doesn't have an answer. Even if he did, it's not his
place to tell his brother. It's Nalia's place. Nalia's responsibility. And good luck getting it out of her. "I'm sorry, Grom. But she wouldn't tell us anything."
THE MORE I stare at it, the more the popcorn ceiling above me resembles an exquisite mosaic. Yellow rings from a leaky roof add pizazz to the imperfect white mounds; the reflection of a parked car outside the hotel room highlights the design in a brilliant, abstract pattern. I try to find a name for this provocative image and decide on "Cottage Cheese, Glorified."
And that's when it becomes obvious that I'm distracting myself from thinking about the U-turn my life just took. I wonder if Galen is back yet. I wonder what he's thinking. I wonder if Rayna is okay, if she has a killer headache like I do, if chloroform affects a full-blooded Syrena the way it affects humans. I bet that now she really will try to shoot my mom with her harpoon, which reminds me again of the past twenty-four hours of craziness.
The scenes from the previous night replay in my head, a collection of snapshots my memory took between heartbeats:
Galen reaching his hands in the dishwater. "You've got a lot of explaining to do, Nalia."
A flash of Galen grabbing Mom's sudsy wrist.
An image of Mom growling as Galen turns her around in his arms.
A still life of Mom flinging her head back, making contact with Galen's forehead.
A shot of Galen slamming into the fridge, scattering a lifetime's motley collection of magnets onto the floor.
Beat, beat, beat.
The still shots become live action.
Mom attaches to him like static cling, the knife poised midair, ready to fillet him like a cod. I scream. Something big and important sounding shatters behind me. The sound of raining glass drowns me out.
And it's that one second that Galen needs. Distracted, Mom turns her head, giving Galen a breadth of space to dodge the blade. Instead of his flesh, she stabs the blade into the fridge. The knife slips from her soapy hands and clinks to the floor.
Beat ... Beat.
We all watch it spin, as if what happens next depends on which direction it stops. As if the blade will choose who will make the next move. It feels like an intermission from delirium, a chance for sanity to sneak in and take hold. Ha.
Toraf passes me in a blur, bits of what used to be our bay window sparkling in his hair like sequins. And just like that, sanity retreats like a spooked bird. Toraf tackles my mother and they sprawl onto the linoleum in a sickening melody of wet squeaking and soft grunting. Galen kicks the knife into the hallway then belly flops onto them. The tornadic bundle of legs and arms and feet and hands push farther into the kitchen until only the occasional flailing limb is visible from the living room, where I can't believe I'm still standing.
A spectator in my own life, I watch the supernova of my two worlds colliding: Mom and Galen. Human and Syrena. Poseidon and Triton. But what can I do? Who should I help? Mom, who lied to me for eighteen years, then tried to shank my boyfriend? Galen, who forgot this little thing called "tact" when he accused my mom of being a runaway fish-princess? Toraf, who ... what the heck is Toraf doing, anyway? And did he really just sack my mom like an opposing quarterback?
The urgency level for a quick decision elevates to right-freaking-now. I decide that screaming is still best for everyone — it's nonviolent, distracting, and one of the things I'm very, very good at.
I open my mouth, but Rayna beats me to it — only, her scream is much more valuable than mine would have been, because she includes words with it. "Stop it right now, or I'll kill you all!" She pushes past me with a decrepit, rusty harpoon from God-knows-what century, probably pillaged from one of her shipwreck excursions. She waves it at the three of them like a crazed fisherman in a Jaws movie. I hope they don't notice she's got it pointed backward and that if she fires it, she'll skewer our couch and Grandma's first attempt at quilting. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Of Triton by Anna Banks. Copyright © 2013 Anna Banks. Excerpted by permission of Feiwel and Friends.
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