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I can't wait. Months of crossed fingers, doubt-ridden smiles, and whispered worries have led to this day. This sunset. Now that it's almost here, I can't wait. Not any longer.
But I can't control the sun either. I may be immortal now, but I have no true power over time. All I can do is squeeze Clay's hand and feel his fingers interlace with mine.
"Almost," he murmurs in my ear, his breath like the warm California breeze that sweeps over us, rippling the blue water so it glints silver-white in the sunlight.
My family's saltwater swimming pool features a disappearing edge like a waterfall that looks as if it flows seamlessly into the Pacific Ocean below. My sisters and cousin all swim in listless circles, their jewel-toned tails swishing beneath them, their lovely faces creased with concern they try to hide. But I'm not in the pool. I'm sitting on a lounger in my bikini, my legs in place and ready to run down to the beach at a moment's notice. Next to me sits Clay, fully dressed and looking strangely out of place in his trademark ripped jeans, band t-shirt, and Doc Martens.
We both stare at the late-July sun as it starts its slow descent toward the waves. Up here, in the backyard of my family's Malibu estate, we're safe from prying eyes. The beach below may be private, but our neighbors can still see it from their windows, and not all of them are members of our Community of land-dwelling Mer. To stay hidden from our neighbors' view, nothing will rise from the waves until darkness cloaks the sandy shores.
I don't know if the thought of what will happen when something does rise fills me more with excitement or with dread.
My sisters attempt pleasant small talk as the sky shifts from blue to pale pink, then from pink to a brilliant, stabbing orange. The sun dips lower, painting the waves that same orange as seagulls fly by, their black silhouettes floating against the sweeping sky. I can't follow my sisters' conversation — not with my legs jiggling and my stomach jumping. After what feels like hours, the orange fades to deep indigo, and then the only light falling on the water comes from stars that dot the sky like firefish.
Now, no one speaks. Everyone's gaze is riveted to where the water laps at the beach.
My cousin Amethyst, who we all call Amy, is the first to see them. "There!" she shouts, pointing into the darkness.
My breath catches in my throat as four muscled figures emerge from the waves in a perfect line, followed by four more directly behind them. Staying in formation, eight of the largest Mermen I've ever seen march forward out of the water, swaths of wet fabric tied around their waists like sarongs now that muscular legs have replaced their tails. Each one carries a spear carved from walrus tusk.
My sisters make a mad dash out of the pool and into their legs, but I'm already running to the wooden stairs that lead from our yard down the steep hill to the beach. I race from one step to the next, Clay close behind me.
By the time I reach the sand, the lines of soldiers have split down the middle to reveal the two people they have guarded all the way up from the deep.
A huge smile splits across my face. My parents. Finally.
My mother's gaze lands on me, and warmth suffuses her normally reserved expression. I wrap my arms around her, then my father.
"Hey, angelfish," he says, voice as jovial as ever, and squeezes me into a wet hug. It's still strange not to feel the soft cushiness of his potbelly. Stepping back, I'm struck again by how much my parents have changed. In my head, I still picture them the way they were before their immortality was restored. Gone are my middle-aged parents with their crow's feet and worry lines. In their place stand two people who look the way my parents must have looked when they were first married. This is how it's supposed to be, I remind myself, but it's hard for me to believe. I grew up thinking all Mer would age and die like humans do because two hundred years ago, the Little Mermaid cursed us all.
Her real story isn't all songs and smiles. She fell in love with a human prince and made a deal with a Sea Sorceress — not to get legs (like humans think) but to permanently banish her tail so her prince would never find out what she was. As part of the bargain, she traded her voice and agreed that if the prince married anyone but her, she'd die at the first sunrise after his wedding day. It seemed like things would go her way, until the prince chose to marry a human princess instead of her. The Sea Sorceress offered the Little Mermaid a chance to restore her tail: She could take the sorceress's obsidian dagger and kill her beloved prince. When his blood dripped onto her legs, they'd transform into a tail and she could return to her family in the ocean, an immortal Mermaid once again. But the Little Mermaid couldn't do it. She loved the prince so much, she chose her own death instead. She dropped the powerful dagger into the sea, and the instant it touched the water, it unleashed a curse. Because the Little Mermaid had valued a human life above her own immortality, she cursed all Merkind with human lifespans.
But this past spring, in an effort to save each other's lives, Clay and I broke that curse and restored immortality to all the Mer. Including my parents. Centuries ago, before the curse, Mer stopped aging in their mid-twenties, which we call reaching stasis. When we broke the curse, my parents and all adult Mer reverted to their stasis ages. Now, after I've gone two months without seeing them, the changes in their appearance seem even more startling. Thank the tides their smiles are still the same, or I may not have recognized them.
When they see Clay next to me, my father claps him on the shoulder.
My mother surprises me by smiling at him. "It was good of you to come."
I guess risking his life to save mine and breaking a centuries-old curse on our entire species have steered Clay into warmer waters with my parents.
Clay clears his throat. "Willkime haun!" He's been bugging me to teach him Mermese expressions, but I'm not the best (or most patient) teacher and, through no fault of his own, Clay's pronunciation is terrible. My parents exchange a confused glance as he reddens, but tries again. "Wilcom home?" He pronounces the words more clearly this time, but not by much. Lapis and Lazuli, my twin sisters who have just run up behind us, hear his words and hide identical grins behind their hands. My parents catch on.
"Thank you," my mother says in impeccable Mermese, the lilting words dancing across the night air the way they would through the deep ocean if we were Below. With its combination of melodic sounds that glide along the water and high-pitched notes that pierce through it, Mermese is the only language not muffled under the waves.
"We're glad to be back," my father says, switching the conversation back to English. Clay flashes a relieved smile.
"And we're soooo glad you're back," Amy says, her strawberry blond hair flying behind her as she races toward them next to my oldest sister Emeraldine and demands hugs of her own. I let out a breath as I step back, glad to let the others pull my parents' focus. Once their eyes are off me, I roll my neck to relieve some tension.
While Em pecks both my parents on the cheek and fills them in about what they've missed at the Foundation, Clay whispers, "How was I?" in my ear.
"They really appreciated the effort. I could tell," I say.
"That bad, huh?" He knocks his shoulder into mine and smirks. I knock right back.
"So ... you doin' okay?" Concern colors his voice now. He sees past the welcome-back smile I wear for my parents. I don't trust myself to answer him without my façade crumbling like a sandcastle in the surf, so I just nod. I'm happy to have my parents home — I really am. But Clay and I both know what their return means. Now that they're here, there's no putting it off any longer.
"Shall we?" my mother asks, nodding toward our house, with its clean, white lines and huge windows that overlook the ocean.
"What about the stud patrol?" Lapis asks, her blue eyes straying to the eight guards, not for the first time.
"They'll be staying with us, at least for the next few weeks," my mother answers, leveling Lapis and Lazuli with a firm, no-funny-business stare.
"Just until things calm down and we can ensure we all don't need extra protection." My dad directs this at Amy, who's the youngest at fourteen.
"Or until we know we do," Em mutters. She usually has such a knack for keeping her inner cool, but today even Em is as nervous as the rest of us.
Lazuli cracks a smile. "Hey, I, for one, am not complaining." She winks at the handsome young guard with a cleft in his chin. He stares straight past her, scanning the surrounding area, his composure and his spear unwavering. Amy laughs, and the tension dissipates, at least for the moment.
As we head toward the house, Clay says he should get home, that his mom's expecting him. Really, he just wants to give our family some space to be together for the first time in months — and maybe the last time for even longer. Everyone says goodbye to Clay, and I walk him out.
"Be back sometime this week, Lia," Amy calls after us, even though it's only been seconds.
I roll my eyes at her before Clay and I leave my family on the back porch and slip through the sliding glass doors into the living room. Our goodbyes have been getting longer lately. It seems like every night, it's harder to watch him leave. I want to spend every minute with him.
I can feel my family's eyes on us through the floor-to-ceiling windows as we walk from the living room through the entrance hall to the front door. Only once the door closes behind us and we stand outside the front entrance are we truly alone. I'm glad my family — and the entire Community — knows we're together. Finally having my feelings for Clay out in the open means the ocean to me, but sometimes a girl just wants some privacy with her boyfriend. Boyfriend. I love that word.
I turn to face the boy in question, and he looks oh-so-handsome standing there, with the lights that illuminate the burbling fountain in our house's circular front driveway playing off the planes of his face. I have no words, so I go with the first one that pops out. "Hi."
"Hi, yourself." He gives me that little half smile and my insides warm. The night settles over us in quiet stillness.
We make our way down the long, winding gravel path toward the iron gate that marks the end of my parents' estate. Our clasped hands swing between us, palm-to-palm, and the closer we get to the end of the path, the tighter I want to hold his hand. Saying goodbye to Clay is never easy, but tonight is different. Because as soon as I say goodbye, the night's really over. That's one more night gone before ...
"Thinking about Friday?" he asks as if reading my mind. Friday. The day after tomorrow.
"Trying not to." I bite my lip. "I don't know if I'll be able to handle it."
"It's going to be especially hard on you," he says. "I mean, I'll be shirtless all day. I don't know how you're going to focus." His self-confident smirk suffuses his smooth voice. "We both know how much you love ogling my chest, Nautilus."
"I do not ogle," I say, my mock-offense threatening to transform into a peel of laughter.
"Oh, you ogle."
"Anyone ever tell you you're ridiculously arrogant?" I ask.
"You know you love it," he says. I smile, but even as we joke, unwanted thoughts of all that Friday will hold cloud my mind. If even thoughts of Clay's abs aren't enough to distract me, I must be worried. Yes, Clay will be shirtless all day, but only because he'll be at a formal Mer gathering and, out of respect, he'll need to follow the expected dress code for Mermen, no matter how obvious it will be that he's not one. The day after tomorrow, Clay will spend the whole afternoon among every Merman and Mermaid in the Community, along with all those who have come to visit from Below. We both will. And so much could go wrong.
When we reach the gate, Clay spins me around to face him before leaning in close. "It's going to be fine," he says in a soothing whisper as he runs his hands up and down my bare arms. Standing here with Clay whispering in my ear makes a memory rush over me. A memory of me whispering in Clay's ear by this same gate. A memory of the night I found out I had the power to protect him from another Mermaid — an evil Mermaid who had enchanted him to love her so she could kill him in an ancient ritual to alter the curse. I stopped her, but only by brainwashing him to love me instead. Clay and I had stood by this gate when he placed my hand on his heart through the bars as he tried to profess his love for me. I wanted to weep then because what the magic made him feel for me wasn't real. Now, as I stare up into his clear, hazel eyes — eyes unclouded by the haze of magic — I know every word he speaks is his own.
That's why I melt when he says, "No matter what happens on Friday, we're in it together." He tucks a strand of my long, brown hair behind my ear, and I lean into his touch. "Lia, I love you."
Clay doesn't say the words often. I think they still scare him, just a bit. But he says them now with a certainty that soothes and strengthens me. "I love you, too," I whisper. I've loved him for so long.
"You're not alone in this, okay?"
I nod, but it shouldn't be his job to be the strong one. Sure, he says he's fine. That he doesn't want to talk about all that time he was brainwashed. That we should move on. But with everything he's been through ... "You're not alone, either, y'know. How are you feeling about ..." Should I say it? "... Friday?" Coward. I swallow, try again. "Are you going to be okay seeing ... her?" This Friday, the day after tomorrow, Clay will see that same Mermaid who brainwashed him — who played with his heart and mind — for the first time since she and her father tried to kill us both. There's a reason my parents have returned, a reason Mer from Below are flooding into our Community in droves. They're here for the most important and scandalous event in modern Mer history. They're here for the trial.
At the mention of seeing someone who hurt him so much and who he'll now need to testify against in a court filled with Merpeople, a flicker of something shines in Clay's eyes, something raw. But he blinks, looks away, and whatever it was shutters off. A halfhearted chuckle escapes his lips and his smirk slides back into place. "Didn't anyone tell you, I'm pretty tough?"
"We'll get through it. We'll get through all of it. And then it'll just be a memory that we can put behind us."
He's right, I suppose. No matter what happens Friday or in the weeks ahead, I'll have Clay and he'll have me. Nothing can change that. I breathe in the jasmine-scented night air and let the thought comfort me.
"You should get back," he says, nodding up the winding path toward my house. I punch in the security code, and he pushes open the gate. It scrapes through the gravel until the opening is just wide enough for him to step through. But he doesn't. He stands there, waiting under the white, bell-shaped blossoms of one of our brugmansia trees. I place my hand over his on the iron gate as I step in close. Clay brings his other hand up to my cheek, stroking it with fingers calloused from his guitar strings, drawing me closer still. His handsome features — so familiar and so astonishing — gleam in the moonlight, then grow so near they're indiscernible. I let my eyes flutter shut. Let myself taste Clay's lips against mine. Get lost in the richness of every touch, every press of his tongue and graze of his cheek.
A suspiciously familiar, syrupy voice lurking in some hidden crevice of my mind asks me if I really think I'm doing this right. If maybe he's comparing me to her. Surely she must have been a better kisser. But I push that voice back into its dark cave as I wrap my arm around Clay and he brings his hand back to cup my head, tangling his fingers in my hair as my chest presses against his.
Finally, in a flurry of breathless, whispered goodbyes, our mouths come together and apart, together and apart, until he slowly pulls himself away and down the street. With one final flash of hazel and a promise to see me in the morning, he disappears around the corner.
Later, after several hours of carefully smiling while catching up with my parents, I lie in my sea sponge bed in the hidden grottos beneath our house and try to sleep. As a layer of satiny salt water covers me like a blanket, I force myself to replay tonight's kiss instead of imagining what risks the next few days will bring.
Excerpted from "Submerge"
Copyright © 2017 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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