Lo doesn't know who she is. Or who she was. Once a human, she is now almost entirely a creature of the sea -- a nymph, an ocean girl, a mermaid -- all terms too pretty for the soulless monster she knows she's becoming. Lo clings to shreds of her former self, fighting to remember her past, even as she's tempted to embrace her dark immortality.
When a handsome boy named Jude falls off a pier and into the ocean, Celia and Lo work together to rescue him from the waves. The two form a friendship, but soon they find themselves competing for Jude's affection. Lo wants more than that, though. According to the ocean girls, there's only one way for Lo to earn back her humanity. She must persuade a mortal to love her . . . and steal his soul.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
By Jackson Pearce
Little, Brown Books for Young ReadersCopyright © 2012 Jackson Pearce
All right reserved.
There are lights at the surface.
Lights so unlike the sun, that can’t reach down into the depths of the ocean. Lights we can see only when we look outside the water. She turned the thought over and over in her mind, imagining the lights as best she could until she had to ask her sisters for help again.
“What about the carnival? Are the lights on the rides? What are the rides?” she asked one of the oldest, who just turned away—that sister rarely spoke anymore. Lo sighed, turning back to one of the younger ones, whose first trip to the surface was more recent. “Tell me, Ry?”
“Lights. Lights everywhere, I think on the rides. I don’t know what the rides are called anymore,” Ry said, sounding irritated at the notion of lights. “And noise. Really, Lo, it’s nothing to be excited about. It’s not the way you remember it.”
That was what they kept telling her—it wouldn’t be the way she remembered it. Because the last time she saw the human world, she was human.
She walked on land and sat in the sun and sometimes went so far inland, she couldn’t even see the ocean. These were things she barely remembered, things that felt like dreams and grew fainter and fainter each day she spent underwater with her new sisters.
The girls here weren’t her real sisters, but sometimes she convinced herself they were. When they streaked through the water, laughing, minds linked by some sort of electric current that skipped through the ocean, when they’d been under so long that they forgot a human world existed… then they were her real sisters, her real family, and this was her real home.
But even as she forgot her old life—first the strongest memories, then the moments between, and then the smallest details of who she was—there was one thought, one memory that never left the recesses of her mind: She’d been happy as a human, happier than she was now underwater. And that tiny thought refused to let Lo fully embrace a lifetime under the waves. She had to at least look back to the human world.
Once every deep tide—every fifteen months—the sisters surfaced together. Some to remember, most to remember why they forgot. Why the ocean took the memories of their old lives one grain at a time, the same way the tide pulled the shore out to sea. Why the ocean took their souls. Turned them from humans into… this.
There are lights at the surface. I just need to see them, and I’ll never forget what they look like again, Lo told herself. She still felt it was better to remember, to know what she was missing. Most of her sisters had long decided that it was easier to forget.
“Ready?” one of the oldest sisters asked. Her voice was bell-like, musical. All the old ones were beautiful, from their voices to the palms of their hands. They would grow more so every day, until the day they’d float away with the low tide, or maybe in a storm, and never be seen again. They became angels, according to the stories. Most of her sisters believed the angel tale, that old ones went to the surface and were greeted by beautiful men, beautiful women who welcomed them into the sky. Lo had her doubts—most of the girls her age still did, but as they grew old, their doubts faded until they believed steadfastly. She wondered how many days, months, tides this sister had left.
“Is it time?” Lo asked.
“As soon as you feel the tide coming in. Any moment now…”
The old sister paused, waited for the tiniest shift in the ocean, in herself. Changes Lo hadn’t noticed when she first arrived, changes she suspected only creatures of the water could appreciate. Lo found the water more marvelous every day, found living in it to be more perfect, more wonderful….
But she still wanted to remember.
The ocean shifted; her sisters rose and slipped upward like a single creature. She followed, the old sister just behind her, waiting for them to call her back, to hold her down to the seafloor like they’d done when she first arrived and fought to break the water’s surface for weeks and weeks. But no, it was time. She was several months into her new life; she could be trusted to glimpse the old one. The weight of the water above them grew less and less until…
Lo gasped, dry air filling her lungs. It hurt, but she grinned and forced her eyes open despite the wind. Wind—she remembered wind. Standing in a field near a tiny house, people behind her, her family. When she first arrived at the ocean, she would pick out the most beautiful shells from the ocean floor, send them away in the waves, and hope her family would find them. She would imagine they’d see them, know they were from her, know she was alive… and now, she couldn’t remember their faces. She couldn’t even remember how many family members she had.
The lights. I need to see the lights, she thought firmly—maybe they’d remind her of her family. She looked up at the stars, the moon, and finally the shore. Two bright lights shone from a spot in the sand, moving along slowly, waving back and forth—
Hands—they were handheld lights, grasped in the palms of humans walking side by side. Walking. I used to walk, she thought, but she couldn’t stop herself from thinking how ungainly it looked compared with being in the water. She swam forward a little, silent, to get a better look.
A boy and a girl, laughing, talking, the sounds barely audible over the crashing waves. Brilliant-colored lights in pinks, reds, greens, yellows, from the carnival beyond the pier, bounced off their faces—all that light, and yet the two of them somehow looked brighter in comparison. They looked warm. They shone. They looked happy.
“Are you going to try?” one of the sisters asked.
“Him?” Lo answered. “How would I get to him?” The two crossed in front of several houses, then a white building with glowing porch lights, making the couple appear in perfect silhouette.
“You can sing. It works sometimes. And they think we’re beautiful. That helps.”
“But he has her. He’s already in love.”
“Maybe you can break it,” another sister suggested.
“Don’t you want to?” Lo answered, looking back at them. This boy’s soul, why weren’t they fighting over it? They were all older than her, more beautiful, more practiced. Make him love you, kiss him, drown him. Earn his soul, and you get your humanity back—the escape from the ocean that the older girls told her about on her very first day. Yet they were letting her have him, if she wanted.
“Go ahead, Lo,” Ry said.
Lo swallowed. She loved her sisters, but she knew—they all knew—they weren’t originally meant for the sea. And she wanted to remember her former life completely, return to it, before she became old and beautiful and had forgotten her humanity entirely. It won’t be fair, what will happen to the boy, but it wasn’t fair what happened to me, either. That makes it all right, doesn’t it?
She couldn’t remember what happened to her, what turned her into an ocean girl. It was the strongest memory, the first to go. All Lo remembered was standing at the shore of the ocean with a man whose face she couldn’t remember. Her body ached, and there was a jagged wound over her heart. The man sent her into the ocean, told her the other girls would find her. He was one of the angels, Ry told her when she arrived.
Lo doubted that as well.
She touched the scar on her chest, almost faded entirely. There was a voice in her head telling her to stop, to turn back, but she ignored it and swam closer, closer to where the waves crashed against the shore.
Sing, a different voice said. A voice that longed to be human again, the voice of the girl she used to be.
The sisters sang all the time, songs that melded together to form one voice that made the ocean thick with music. Lo opened her lips, let the notes emerge.
The boy stopped first, then the girl. They looked at the ocean. Did they see her? The thought was exhilarating, dangerous. She sang louder; behind her, she heard her sisters join in, voices quiet, guiding her along in the song.
The boy stooped to set his light down in the sand, pointing at the ocean, talking with the girl. He waved at Lo, big arms over his head. He saw her. He sees me; he’s coming for me—yes, he took tentative steps into the water. Come, where it’s deeper, please….
The girl yelled, shouted, tried to pull him back, but he took another step, another, another. The song grew louder. Lo extended her hand in the moonlight. He had a handsome face, sharp features like a statue. His clothing, now soaked, clung to his body as he reached toward her.
She took his hand. Don’t be scared. When he touched her, more memories of her old life slammed into her mind. Being held by her father, the scent of his cologne. The smell of things baking, the way fire leaped up from kindling. She swallowed hard, held on to each memory as long as possible before looking back to the boy’s eyes.
“Hello,” the boy said. He sounded dazed and blinked furiously. Lo stopped singing, and her sisters’ song grew louder in response.
“Do you love me?” Lo whispered.
The boy looked surprised for a moment. Her sisters sang louder—he was having trouble fighting them. “I…” He looked back to the girl on the shore. “I love her. The girl by the church, I love her.”
Lo’s jaw stiffened; her fingers on the boy’s hand tightened. “No, no, you love me.”
The ocean shifted again, and some of her sisters stopped singing, started whispering. They were tired of the air touching their skin; they wanted to go back under—they wanted to leave. Lo bit her lip, ran her fingers along the boy’s shirtsleeves. Fabric hanging on a clothesline, laundry being folded, the way towels felt drying off her skin, more memories that proved even harder to hold on to. They skirted out of her mind like little fish, then darted back to the recesses they came from. Forgotten.
By the next deep tide, I’ll have forgotten everything, just like them, she thought, glancing back at her sisters. That’s why they didn’t want the boy for themselves. They don’t care about their souls anymore. I won’t care in another fifteen months.
Now. It has to be now. Be brave. It has to happen.
She pulled the boy closer to her, so that his breath warmed her skin. “Love me.”
There was no time. Maybe he loved her already, maybe that was good enough, maybe—the ocean changed again, and the oldest sisters ducked back underwater. Lo inhaled, grasped both edges of the boy’s shirt, pulled him against her lips, and kissed him, pleadingly, sorrowfully, desperately.
Then she pulled the boy under.
He hardly fought at first, still entranced with their song, confused, and she was so much more powerful than him in the water. It was easy to pull him into the deep, down to the ocean floor, so easy that for a minute, Lo was able to forget what she was doing to him. His eyes were growing wider; he began to fight for air, struggle against her. This is it. It’s happening. My soul, I’ll go back—
His eyes rolled back in his head. Lo realized her sisters were everywhere, watching, waiting. She leaned over the boy and kissed him again as the last precious bit of oxygen left his lips and floated to the surface.
And then he was dead.
And nothing else had changed.
Lo stared at her hands, at her feet, waiting for the pale blue color to turn back to shades of peach and pink. Waiting for the urge to surface, to gulp air happily, to swim to the shore and run on the sand.
It didn’t come.
“Everyone has to try it for herself,” Ry said gently, swimming closer. The boy’s body listed on the ocean floor like seaweed. Lo felt sick; she doubled over and hid her head. “We all did. But it never works. You can’t make them love you that fast.”
“I don’t think it’s even real, that you can get your soul back,” an older girl added. “It’s a fairy story. Oh, Lo, don’t cry. You have us. You don’t need their world now. You don’t have to worry about remembering anymore. You can just be happy here. And one day, the angels will come back for you, and it’ll be beautiful, Lo. It’ll be perfect.”
Lo turned and cried into her sisters’ arms, for her soul, for the boy, for the memories. Her sisters brushed out her hair and held her close. They pushed the boy’s body away so she couldn’t see it. They sang songs and began games to take her mind off what had happened.
But when the night ended and her sisters went to sleep, Lo stared at the sun from deep beneath the waves, at the tiny threads of blue light that made their way through the water, down to where she was.
Her soul was gone for good. The boy was dead, the girl left alone on the shore. And for nothing, nothing at all, other than a fairy tale and a few scattered memories of life on land. Let it go. Let it all go.
And she allowed herself to forget.
My sisters love this place.
It smells like sand and cigarettes and cotton candy, like sunscreen and salt. The scent builds up all summer, and now, at the height of tourist season, it’s so thick that I think I could wave an empty bottle around and it would fill with liquid perfume.
We cut through the Skee-Ball parlor and emerge on the main drag of the Pavilion, lights and sounds everywhere, crowds of people with terrible sunburns. My sisters giggle to each other, the two of them perfectly in step ahead of me. We are triplets, but they are the twins, a perfectly matched set with high eyebrows and pretty lips. To most people, we look identical; to one another, my features are a little different. A little off, a not-quite-right replica of Anne and Jane.
“Let’s go to the coaster,” Anne says, tossing her hair over her shoulders as she looks back at me. “The arcade is dead.” The arcade looks anything but dead, lights and alarms and children weaving between adults’ legs, but that’s not what she means—she means no guys are there.
We approach the roller coaster, a giant wooden monster that creaks and sways a little every time a car zips along the track. A car at the top of the starter hill pauses. The riders point ahead—the first hill sits snugly against the rickety pier’s steps and allows for a spectacular view of the ocean. The riders are watching the waves so intently, so wondrously, that they aren’t prepared for the drop. They scream.
I know who my sisters are going to pick before they say it aloud. A group of guys, probably early college or so, leaning on the queue railings. They have tans and are wearing T-shirts that are new but distressed to look old. Jane goes first, brushes by them casually, just enough that her bare arm touches theirs. She smiles, apologizes, and looks to Anne, giving a hardly noticeable tilt of her head. That one.
“Hi,” Anne says, smiling. She sidles up to the railing, leans over. “Where are you guys from?”
“Raleigh,” the target answers, smiling back. “What about you?”
“Here,” Anne answers. “We go to Milton’s. The boarding school? You pass it when you come in.”
“Catholic schoolgirls?” one of the target’s friends jokes, making his voice sound fake-sexy, and the others laugh. The target is staring at Anne, though, then Jane, and even lets his eyes flit on me for a moment.
“Not Catholic. Just schoolgirls,” Jane says in a way that makes the boys shut up yet entices them at the same time.
“Do you want to get out of here?” Anne says to the target. She leans forward, drums his arm with her fingers. The boy glances at her manicured nails—he knows something is strange about this. But Anne knows exactly what to do. She leans forward, laughs in a way that’s less seductive and more girl-next-door.
“Come on. Only the tourists ride this thing,” she says to him, teasing the other boys. The target seems to open up a little—he likes the way her voice sounds, you can tell. The way she’s pretty and casual and the way she smiles. He thinks she seems fun, interesting.
He doesn’t realize they’re just using him. Not only for the money he’ll spend on us, the compliments he’ll throw our way—especially Anne’s way. He’s just, as Jane puts it, “practice.” How will we know what all we can do with these powers if we don’t practice?
“I can’t leave them,” the boy says, motioning to his friends.
“Sure you can,” Anne says, then, eyes glimmering, teasing, “And you will.”
She’s right—she’s always right. You can’t hide your future from Anne.
The powers are our greatest secret. The secret we never told anyone, not even our parents, not even our brothers.
Jane’s skill developed first. People called her a perceptive child, but there was much more to it. Then Anne, who knew when I’d fall out of the tree house our brother Lucas made. Mine took longer. I thought maybe I didn’t have one, even, when I’d turned seven and still nothing had developed. Anne and Jane pushed me, assured me that mine would be the most impressive of the three of them.
But then it wasn’t.
Jane can know a person’s present. Anne can know their future. And I can know their past.
Anyone can know a person’s past, though. All you have to do is ask them. Anne’s and Jane’s disappointment was almost palpable, but it was nothing compared with mine. I touch someone, I know what they ate for breakfast yesterday, or what their childhood pet was called—how long ago in the past it was doesn’t seem to matter. When I hugged my mother, I knew what she felt like right before her wedding, and that our youngest uncle was secretly her out-of-wedlock first son, yet sometimes I’d hold Anne’s hand and see the secret she told Jane twenty minutes before. If I could control what parts of their pasts I see, maybe my power would be useful, maybe I’d think playing with the minds of boys was fun, too—and honestly, I bet I could control it if I practiced the way Anne and Jane do. But I won’t risk seeing people’s darkest memories just to better play games with my power. It’s not worth it.
“Come on,” Anne says, laughing. The sound is somehow brighter than all the bells and whistles of the carnival games nearby. “Buy me an ice cream.”
“Um…” The boy looks at his friends, who snicker. “Okay.”
The boy ducks out of the roller-coaster line and follows us back through the crowd to a stand where a bored-looking girl is dishing out scoops of homemade ice cream. Anne orders, looks expectantly at Jane and me.
“You don’t mind, do you?” Anne asks the boy, reaching down to touch his arm—skin on skin, that’s all it takes for our powers to work. She flashes a smile, tilts her head, all the things that she knows the boy wants, if only because at that angle he can see down her shirt a little. He doesn’t mind. They rarely mind, even if it’s dinner or movie tickets or letting Jane drive their fancy sports cars. I think that’s Anne’s favorite part: She knows just what to do and say to make them not care.
The boy buys us ice cream, banana-pudding-flavored, and then pays for a few rounds at the arcade. Jane finally shakes her head, though—he’s starting to think less of us, to suspect we’re just using him. So we drop him like a broken toy, sending him back to his friends pissed off that the anticipated hookup isn’t happening. We don’t care. After all, he was just practice.
I don’t really know what we’re practicing for, nor do I know how scamming boys out of money helps us understand our powers. I don’t think Anne and Jane know, either—they just like playing the game and want to justify it. They like being in control. Their powers give them that.
All my power does is weigh me down with everyone’s sorrow, everyone’s tragedies, things that can’t be changed or altered or fixed. It makes me afraid to talk to people for too long, worried I’ll reveal things about them I know yet shouldn’t know. It’s easier just to keep everyone away. Never touch them. Never read them.
My sisters’ powers are gifts. My power is a curse.
The three of us crash onto a bench in front of the Haunted Hotel ride, where rickety cars squeal through a darkened building. The drunker the tourists get, the more they love it, even though it smells like a basement and the fake corpses have twenty years of dust on them.
“This is boring,” Jane sighs. “All the good ones were here earlier in the season.”
“We could go home and watch that movie,” I suggest.
“Ugh, no, it’s Friday night! What about him?” Jane says, pointing to a handsome guy who’s holding a girl’s hand, in line to ride the carousel.
“He’s with her,” Anne answers.
“Yeah…” Jane sighs. Their rule is, they don’t use their powers to trick boys who are in love. Maybe it’s too many romantic comedies and sappy novels, maybe it makes them feel like what they do is perfectly okay, but they’ve held their ground on that one, Anne more easily than Jane.
Anne begins to roll her eyes, but before she’s finished, Jane reaches over and grabs her hand. Anne yanks it away, irritated.
“Don’t do that!” she snaps. We don’t use our powers on one another, and thus we try to avoid touching—but it’s a rule Jane has always found more flexible than Anne or me.
“Come on, it’s easier than wandering around all night. What did you see?” Jane asks.
Anne glares at her for a moment but finally reveals what she saw in Jane’s future. “There’s a tall guy somewhere, green shirt, I think. He’ll take us to that fondue place, if you want to go.”
“I hate that place,” I say, and the truth is, I think Anne and Jane do, too—they just like that it’s expensive. I’d be happier with a three-dollar hot dog from the street vendor.
“Everyone loves that place,” Anne argues. “Come on, let’s find him.”
“I’ll catch up later,” I say. Anne and Jane look at me, then each other, like I’m turning up my nose at an amazing adventure. When we were little, we were interlocked, like the three strands of a braid—pull one, and the others fall apart. But now, even though Anne is always reminding me that “we’re stronger together,” I can’t help but feel differently. They’re stronger without me. Sure, maybe I’m weak, maybe I’m nothing without them, but to be honest, I’m pretty sure I’m nothing with them, too.
“Fine,” Anne sighs. “We’ll see you at home, I guess.”
I’ll give it to my sisters—they want me to be one of them. The third piece to their matching set. But wanting is not enough, so while they wander off in search of a target in green, I weave through a row of food carts and toward the coaster, toward the pier.
The pier juts off a short cliff and is eerily dark compared with the Pavilion—its old lights can’t conquer the enormous blackness of both the sky and the nighttime ocean. A few lovers look out over the sea, a guitarist with an open case for tips sings a song I don’t recognize, and a handful of fishermen tend to their lines. I look down at the water. The tide is massive tonight, the perigean tide, if my memories from astronomy class are correct. As I go farther and farther toward the pier’s end, the sound of the Pavilion fades, replaced by the powerful noise of the ocean.
We’re from the middle of Georgia, a tiny landlocked town and a house full of siblings—all brothers, save me, Anne, and Jane. It doesn’t make sense that I feel most myself when I’m alone by the ocean. Maybe it’s because I think the ocean is like me. It knows the past. It’s seen yachts and ships and pirates and a time before people. It has secrets, secrets you don’t know just by watching the surface.
I look down the beach, which is illuminated only by moonlight and the glow of the Pavilion. This isn’t a swimming section—it’s too rocky. Most of the houses at the bottom of the little cliff, right on the sea, were abandoned a year or so ago when a hurricane battered them beyond repair. There’s an old church, a single-room building with faded graffiti—cheap spray paint doesn’t last long against the ocean’s spray, so it looks like the church has a pastel hue.
The guitar player wanders near me, still playing and singing under his breath. He’s wearing a shirt that’s real vintage—it has a few tiny holes, and the sleeves are stretched out. I can’t tell if he’s handsome or not, but I want to keep looking at his face, thin lips and deep-set eyes. I don’t have any money and hate to give him false hope for tips, so I turn away, back to the water. I wonder how deep it is. I wonder how deep it is everywhere.
The guitarist stops playing, I hear something like running or stomping. I turn around, eyebrows raised, just in time to see it happen.
He trips on an uneven plank. He tries to catch himself but throws his weight backward to keep from falling forward on the guitar. Everyone is watching, no one is moving. It happens so fast—he’s off balance, hits the railing of the pier at just the right angle. The right angle to fall into the blackness, into the ocean.
We don’t want to go to the surface.
We linger under the water, down deep, where it’s cold; it makes us feel the most alive. Only the new girl wants to go up. Her skin is still a little pink, like it remembers the sun, whereas most of ours are pale, with places tinted the light purples, blues, or greens of seashells.
It’s nice that we look the same, that we are the same. It means we are safe, because there are dozens and dozens of me. When they move, I move; when I move, they move. It has long stopped surprising me, the speed at which new girls forget their first names. You don’t need a name when everyone is you and you are everyone.
I’m still on my second name, Lo, the sound the water makes during a thunderstorm when you’re deep beneath the waves. But eventually, I’ll forget this one, too. I’ll move on to a third, maybe even a fourth, until I’ll give up on names altogether, like the oldest of us have.
The pull of the tide gets stronger; the full moon is rising. The new girl looks up through the softened wooden planks of the Glasgow’s deck, and the tiny bit of moonlight streaking to the depths illuminates her face. She looks sweet, kind, gentle. Human. She lifts, releases the rock she was holding on to, and starts toward the surface.
“I suppose it’s time,” Key says, lingering just outside the cracked ship’s hull. She and I came to the ocean just a few months apart. Her name used to be Julia. I don’t know why I can remember her old name but not my own. Key sighs and pushes off the ocean floor; sand blossoms around her bare feet as she swims upward. She never wants to surface. Whatever happened in her human life, she was more than happy to forget it long ago—I don’t think she even tried to remember, to be honest.
But nonetheless, she’ll still surface—we all will, because we are the same thing. My hair floats around my body like a cloak, then trails along behind me as I kick off the ground, dodge the caved-in bits of the ship. I follow Key, faster, faster; I can feel the others behind me as the Glasgow fades from sight. The water cradles us from every direction until we break the surface, and I feel so, so…
Exposed. Like I’m falling into the sky. The air hurts my skin, and I close my eyes to the pain. Around me, I hear the gentle splash of the others breaking the surface, winces or gasps as they remember what the shore looks like. I brace myself and open my eyes.
Light, so much light—from the moon, from the tiny pinprick stars, but mostly from the pier and the city beyond. It glows; it’s beautiful in a way that nothing beneath the water is. I inhale even though it burns, brush a few strands of dark hair from my face.
The new girl—Molly, her name is Molly, I think—has tears running down her cheeks—they’re somehow so different from the ocean water, so unusual that I notice them immediately.
“You won’t miss it as much, eventually,” Key reassures her. It’s true—I don’t miss my old life at all. I don’t remember it, of course, but even if I did, I’m happy here. I have my sisters, the ocean….
“I don’t want to stop missing it,” the girl says. The words were clearly supposed to be sharp, but they’re softened by her crying.
“Well,” someone else says, “find your mortal boy, then.”
A few girls chuckle, but inside we all feel the same twinge of pity for her hope. It’s the cruelest thing, hope, the way it strings you along, the way it makes you believe. Only the old ones have ever seen a mortal’s soul stolen, and they can barely remember it to tell us the story. They say she walked, though—she walked right out of the sea; her skin was pink again, her lungs made for air instead of water.
It’s hard to believe sometimes, but hope never lets you truly stop believing. Our souls fade slowly, just like our human memories—I imagine mine is gone entirely now, though to be honest, I’m not sure. What does having a soul feel like, exactly? I still believe that drowning a human would get me a new soul, but it’s not something I care to pursue anymore, and I’m somewhat relieved to feel that way, especially when I look at the tortured, desperate look on Molly’s face. She must still feel her soul, feel it bleeding out of her. That’s the only explanation for the pain in her eyes.
Music, we hear music bouncing across the water and audible only in the seconds between waves lapping at our shoulders. A light and airy song, and then beyond that, the buzz of a crowd. How many people are there that we can hear them from this far away?
I look at Key, at the others. They stare, either at the moon, the pier, or the tiny little houses on the shore. Do people still live in them? They look different than when I saw them last, more chipped and faded, like the ocean has punished them. I wonder where the people who lived there went. Someplace far away from the water?
I don’t even know what that sort of place would look like, I think, shivering a little.
There’s a bang somewhere ahead, a shout. It’s coming from the pier—we stare as a dark form falls over its railing, into the water. There’s a horrible slapping sound when the thing hits, splashing, screams from those above.
We are silent. We don’t move, staring, like one creature with dozens of heads, dozens of eyes watching curiously. We see a thousand times better than we did as humans, but the waves block our line of sight. Then, in one motion, we dive forward, slipping through the water toward the pier.
It’s splashing—he’s splashing desperately. The waves are unusually harsh tonight, and his clothes weigh him down.
We watch. Oldest in the back, apathetic, here only because the rest of us are. Youngest closest to him, intrigued, wondering how long before he’ll slip under the water and die. Me, somewhere between the two groups. It’s so strange to watch the boy struggle, fight against something that’s so natural for us.
But the new girl is watching with a different sort of intensity than the rest of us. She inhales, draws closer to him. She’s shaking; he’s thrashing, trying to swim, but every time he gets his head up, a wave knocks him down again. There’s something strapped around his shoulders that’s pulling him beneath. The new girl turns back to look at us as the boy’s flails slow; he begins to go under more often….
“How do I make him love me?” the new girl asks.
“That’s the tricky part,” Key says, eyes flickering like this is a brilliant game—most things are to her. “It’s hard to make someone love you when they’re dying.”
Key’s words seem to both scare and embolden the new girl. She presses her lips together hard, sinks under the water, and emerges beside the boy. He grabs hold of her arm to try to keep his head up. It works; he stops fighting the waves, but when he breathes, I can hear the water in his lungs.
“My name is Molly,” the new girl says. He doesn’t hear her, but her voice is delicate, rainlike. The boy turns his shaky eyes toward her, but I don’t think he really sees her face—he looks unfocused, dazed.
“Yes, there, see,” Molly says, grinning so wide the moonlight glints off her teeth. His eyes begin to drift shut. She shakes him awake, says her name again, tries to talk to him. When it doesn’t work, she begins to sing. Her voice is pure, lovely, just enough humanity in it to remind me how she was a human girl less than a year ago. The song is one of ours, but it seems foreign on her tongue.
I look away from her, toward the pier the boy came from. People stare in our direction, but they can’t see us in the darkness. But then there’s a rustle from the shore, and something comes down the road by the beaten-looking buildings, bright flashing red lights that bounce across the water.
“They’re coming for him,” one of the girls says. Molly stops singing, looks up.
“Leave him,” another girl tells Molly. “There’s no time. And no point.”
“There’s time—there has to be time,” Molly says, voice rough and dangerous. She positions herself in front of the boy’s face, water dripping off her eyelashes. His eyes drift shut. “No, look at me. Look at me. Do you love me?”
“It’s too fast,” I tell her, grimacing as a breeze touches my shoulders. I lean back so they’re wet again.
“Was it like this for the other girl? Or did it take longer?” Key asks one of the oldest ones; she doesn’t answer. Key shrugs. “I remember human stories about love at first sight.”
“Those were stories,” I say. Lights, bright white and big like the moon, shine at the waves from the shore farther down the beach. They’re making their way toward us, rolling steadily along. We can’t stay. We don’t want them to see us. We don’t want to see humans, really; the oldest girls are finding it difficult to even look at the human boy, his head cradled against Molly’s shoulder.
There’s a quiet sound, like raindrops—we’re leaving. My sisters slip underneath the water delicately, more and more with every moment. When I look back to Molly, the boy’s eyes are open again. They aren’t trained on her, though—he’s looking at us—no, at me, I think. Not in the dizzy, confused way he was watching Molly earlier, but like he knows me, like we’re in the middle of a conversation. His eyes are light gray pools that remind me of the ice that forms by the ocean farther north. His gaze startles me, and I back up, my lips part.
“Go with them if you want. I’m not leaving till he says he loves me,” Molly sniffs. She’s crying, so humanlike that she and the boy actually seem a perfect match. She looks down at the boy’s face and follows his gaze to me. She frowns and turns him around, so he can’t see me. I swallow hard; it feels like his eyes are still boring into me. I realize that in the long moment of the boy’s gaze, my sisters have left. I’m alone with Molly.
“Leave him. He doesn’t need to die like this. He doesn’t love you.”
“No, Molly,” I say, and grimace as I remember the boy I killed. The way his body rocked with the currents, dead and lifeless on the floor. I don’t want to imagine the boy with the gray eyes like that. Hope forces me to believe getting his soul is possible—I don’t know how, exactly, but I believe it’s possible—but something deeper makes me believe it isn’t right. And it certainly isn’t right like this, when I know there’s no chance Molly will walk out of the ocean tonight.
Yet I know what Molly feels. I may not remember my human name like she does, but I remember being her. I remember needing to believe the fairy tale, in thinking of hope as a real thing instead of a pretty idea. I swim closer to her.
“Let him go,” I say, trying to sound gentle, comforting. “His people will find him. We need to leave. We don’t belong here.” I feel unsettled without the others on the surface, like I’ve lost a part of myself.
Molly’s fingers are wrapped so tightly around him that I can see his skin starting to bruise. The lights on the beach are moving, growing closer, little by little. A puttering noise bounces toward us—a boat coming from somewhere, probably more searchers. The thing weighing the boy down brushes against my legs, the strings sharp like sea urchin spines, some sort of instrument, I think.
I reach forward and take Molly’s arm, try to pull her away. She struggles, hugs the boy against her chest like she suspects I’m trying to steal him from her. I find myself wishing he’d look at me again, fighting Molly harder and harder, trying to get her away from him.
Still holding the boy.
Let her go. We all have to try this for ourselves once. It’s the only way Molly will stop fighting and embrace the ocean, embrace our sisters. She needs to kill the boy to love the ocean the way we do.
But the boy’s eyes, I keep thinking about the boy’s eyes. He doesn’t need to die like this.
I sink into the water and swim after her. She’s swimming fast, pulling him to the bottom with such force that the instrument comes loose and drifts to the ocean floor on its own.
“Molly!” I call out. “Let him go! There’s no point! You’ll just kill him!”
“That’s what I’m supposed to do—that’s how I’ll get my soul back!” she snarls. We’re getting deeper, to the part where it’s cold. The boy’s limbs flail back uselessly. His eyes are closed; he’s not even fighting. I think he’s already dead.
Molly slams his head against the sea bottom, frustrated; a little blood curls like smoke in the water. His clothes and hair float around his body as she bows her head and presses her lips against his. Nothing happens, nothing changes, and so she tries again, again, until it looks less like a kiss and more like she’s trying to pull his soul up and out through his lips.
She screams, a curdling, agonizing sound that ripples through the ocean. Molly tightens her fingers on the boy’s clothes—
Enough. I dart forward and grab his arm, yank him away from her. Molly hisses at me, grabs at his sleeve. His shirt rips, but I’m older and stronger than she is. I jettison him to the surface, hold his head up as the air tastes my skin. There has to be a boat nearby now. They’ll find him; they’ll take him back to his own kind, and I can go back to mine. That’s the way of things; it’s what should happen. He’s so limp that he feels fake, like he’s a clump of seaweed instead of a boy.
Molly breaks out of the water beside me. I release him just long enough to shove her away. Her teeth flicker, sharp like an animal’s. Where’s the boat?
They’ve passed us. They’re searching farther from the pier now; I can’t get him there with Molly like this. The shore, it’s the only way. Get him close enough, and the waves will wash him up, someone will find him, he might survive. Molly tries to pull me back; I dodge her and kick her in the back. She spirals off in the water. I’ll have just a moment before she slows herself and returns. I clutch the boy under the arms and drag him toward the dry sand.
The waves help, pushing us over the sandbar—closer to land than I’ve been since I joined my sisters. But there’s someone on the shore; he’ll be found. I hiss in Molly’s direction and grab the boy’s wrist, diving forward, letting the waves throw me closer and closer to the shore with each step. The person on the beach sees me. A girl, running. Take him. Take him and keep him away from us.
Shallow water. I turn back to look for Molly—she’s stopped, waiting for me right where the water becomes deep again, where the waves begin. The girl runs into the water, awkward and clumsy as it splashes around her calves. There’s not enough force behind the waves to pull him forward here. My feet find the sandy bottom, and I rise—
Something stings, something hurts. We haven’t walked on land in so long; did it always feel like this? One step forward, another, another, it feels like something is sticking into the center of my foot. Never mind, the salt water will heal it fast enough. Just get him to her; then I can leave….
She’s near me now, breathing heavily, hair stuck to her cheeks and chest. She smells strange, but I’m not sure what the scent is, exactly—the scent of land? She grabs one of the boy’s arms, and I release him, move to dive back into the ocean. I want to be submerged. I want to go back down deep where it’s cold.
The girl slows. She moves clumsily in the water; without help, she can barely even drag the boy. A small wave rocks her balance, and she’s forced to drop a knee into the sand to keep from falling.
“Help me!” she says, sounding irritated. Her voice is biting and loud—this whole world is biting and loud. I grimace and take his other arm, rise again, wincing as something stabs at my sole.
Together, we drag the boy through the last of the waves. As the water grows shallower, the pain gets worse. Something is stabbing me, slicing at my feet, at the softest parts of my toes and the center of my arch. I have to stop, I have to stop walking. I’m not meant for this anymore, but we’re almost out, almost out, almost…
We reach the edge of the water. As the wave pulls back, my foot strikes damp sand.
The pain is incredible. I fall to my knees, then my hands, dropping the boy’s arms so I can grab my foot. There’s blood, blood everywhere, like the entire bottom of my foot has been scraped away. I try to find the wound, but it’s dark.
“Do you know CPR?” the girl asks.
I stare at her. She looks frustrated but then pauses for a moment. Her eyes drop to my chest.
She’s right. My sisters and I, we’re all naked, aren’t we? It’s never bothered us. Maybe I should cover myself, but between the searing pain in my feet and the dying boy at my side, it doesn’t seem to matter very much.
“Right, CPR,” the girl says, shaking her head. Her hair is blond and thick like sea grass. She tips the boy onto his back, puts her palms on his chest, then begins pressing it. Quick, tiny pushes, over and over. She leans down near his lips and listens, puts her lips over his for an instant, repeats. The girl jumps back, puts a hand to her lips as though he’s shocked her, but nothing changes with the boy. She looks at me desperately, like she wants me to step in, but I don’t understand what she’s doing.
“I… I can’t do it, I—Help! He’s down here!” she shouts to the people farther down the beach, to the flashing red lights. I don’t think they hear her. I listen to the water, wait for it to tell me that a long wave is washing up—that’s all I’ll need to pull myself back in without standing, without the pain. I don’t care if the human girl sees me. I want to go home. Blood from my feet has stained the sand. It hurts, it hurts so badly.
“You can do compressions,” the girl says suddenly. I look at her blankly. “Compressions! You can do them. Come on, at least try.”
She reaches over the boy and grabs my arm, starts to pull it to the boy’s chest—
She freezes. So do I.
When was the last time a human touched me? I stare at her fingers wrapped around my skin, bright on the gray-blue hue of my forearm. Her palm is so hot—or am I just that cold? The girl gasps, yanks her hand away. She looks me in the eye like I’ve betrayed her, like I’ve done or said something unforgivable, something shocking.
Her words are whispered, hardly audible over the sound of waves.
I know that name.
Naida. I turn it over in my mind. I know that name. How did she know it?
That’s my name. Not Lo, I’m Naida. Or I was.
I remember. I remember having a flesh-and-blood sister, not ocean sisters. I remember a house, I remember warm meals, I remember the sound of crickets and what the world looks like miles and miles from the shore.
My name on her lips echoes through my head, spins around me, and deafens me to the rest of the world, dulls the pain in my feet. My name is Naida, and I was once a human girl.
I remember everything. I remember my house, my real sister, my father, our dog, bedtime stories, running in the grass. I remember riding in cars and dancing and the way rainstorms sounded when they passed through the forest we lived in.
I remember being Naida. I remember being human. But only for a moment, and then the memories begin to fade, fall apart. The harder I try to hold on, the more they slip through my fingers like grains of sand.
The boy coughs, sputters. Water bubbles up from his throat. The girl turns his head to the side. His eyes open; he tries to focus as he looks at me—it makes my chest stir, makes me forget the pain, to see his gray eyes open again. His gaze turns to the girl. He’s confused. But he’s alive. He’s alive—that’s all I wanted. I can go. My sisters are in the water; they’re my world now. I can’t be Naida, not anymore. I killed my boy; I embraced the ocean long ago.
“You saved him,” the girl says breathlessly, like she can’t believe it. She looks back up at me, but I’m already on my feet.
I cry out in pain as I run back into the water, every step like knives twisting into my skin, pain that doesn’t stop until I dive deep. But as I do so, I chant the name over and over in my head, so I won’t ever forget it again.
She’s in the water. I don’t know what to do—it’s so dark out there, I wouldn’t be able to see myself, much less find her. I look down at the footprints she left in the sand as she ran back toward the water, lit up by the moon. They’re darker than they should be. I kneel down and touch the center of a print. Blood. It’s blood.
A wave sweeps high across the shore, dragging the footprint into long, misshapen lines, and then another that washes away all traces of the blood. I squeeze my eyes shut—I feel dizzy. I saw the girl’s past, and just before that, the boy’s. My head feels crowded, like my own thoughts can’t breathe under the weight of their memories—especially hers. Her memories were wrong; they were darkened, like someone painted black over them. My head aches….
The boy coughs. I turn around, drop back to the sand beside him. His eyes are closed, but he’s breathing, a broken noise, like there’s wet cloth lodged in his throat. The ambulance is rumbling down the tiny road by the pier, the same way I came down. The headlights blind me as it draws close.
“Hang on,” I tell the boy. “You’re fine. They’re here to help you.”
He whispers something, something quiet. I lean closer, drop my face near his lips. “Sing again.”
He’s confused. Of course, I just saw a naked girl with bloody feet run into the ocean, so perhaps I’m not one to talk. The ambulance reaches us, slides to a stop on the sand. I sit back as the paramedics leap out. They run to us, drop down by my side, start talking in codes I don’t understand. I’m jostled out of the way as they lift his body, then rest it down on a board. One paramedic, a younger woman with thin eyes, spots me as two men lift the board and hurry the boy to the ambulance.
“Was he breathing when you found him?”
“Yes. I mean no, no. He started, though.”
“Any idea how long he was in the water?”
“I… four minutes? Five? I don’t know. It all happened so fast. When I ran down here, she was already pulling him up….” I glance back at the pier. A crowd has gathered, pointing at us, gaping.
“She? Is there someone else here?” the woman asks, looking around.
I swallow, look out over the water. The red lights from the ambulance bounce off the waves, like thousands of glistening rubies are hiding under them. “No. There’s no one else here.” It’s not entirely a lie—she’s gone. I can’t explain who she is or where she went to myself, much less to someone else.
“Is she coming?” another paramedic yells.
“Can we take you to the hospital, miss? You might need to get checked out, too,” the woman says, taking a few steps backward, toward the ambulance. “Come on, it won’t take long. Just in case.”
“Yes. Yes, right,” I say hurriedly. I’m fine; I know I’m fine, but I want to know the boy will be okay—and I don’t want to be left out here in the dark, not with the crowd staring, not with a mysterious girl who might come back. I jog with the woman to the ambulance. A male paramedic stretches out a large hand to help me in. I’m quickly moved toward the back, near the boy’s head. There’s a mask over his nose and mouth, bags of fluids are on hooks, things are beeping, moving. It feels like I’m a giant in a city of machines. I bang my elbow on something behind me, grimace, and try to catch my breath.
“Do you know who he is?” an EMT asks me.
“Jude,” I say quickly. I look up. “His name is Jude Wallace. He’s from Lake City.”
“Oh, so you actually know him. I’m sorry—I thought you were just a good Samaritan,” the EMT says, smiling at me. I don’t know what to do, so I just nod. Truth is, I do know him, and rather well. When I put my lips against his to save his life, I saw deeper into his past than I’ve ever seen into anyone’s before. I saw his childhood home, his father leaving, his first job, second job, third job, and the bank account he opened to save up and leave town when he graduated from high school. I saw his first love and his favorite color, thousands of bits and pieces, a kaleidoscope of his life.
It’s the first time my lips have been on someone else’s. Does that count as my first kiss? I’d avoided it for so long, both because most boys want Anne and Jane, but also because of this. Anne and Jane have always said kissing makes their powers strong, that the more intimate the touch, the closer you are, the more you can see. They were telling the truth, it seems.
The ambulance screeches through town, the siren blending in seamlessly with the fanfare of the beach at summer. They’ve stopped working on Jude, and his breathing doesn’t sound painful anymore. The hospital is just outside town, where there are no tourists, no neons, no bathing suits—just sea grass and trailer parks. I watch them fly by, look out the window hoping to see the glow of the hospital’s fluorescent lights ahead….
“You can hold his hand if you want,” the thin-eyed woman says when she sees me staring at him.
“No,” I answer. “It’s fine.” I want to take his hand, to be honest—I don’t want him to be scared. I want him to know someone is there with him, someone is thinking of him, someone wants him to survive. But I’ve already seen so far into his mind, and I don’t want to pry any further.
We arrive, and the boy is rushed off the ambulance and down a hall. They send me to a separate room, but it doesn’t take more than a half hour for them to realize I’m fine. A woman in cat-print scrubs gives me a package of Nutter Butters, then leads me toward a waiting room. She talks the entire time, assuring me that everything will be all right with Jude, that they’ll update me soon, that they will let me know the minute he wakes up. All well-rehearsed lines, delivered with sincerity, but not enough to distract me from the onslaught of Jude’s memories and the strangeness of Naida’s.
I load sugar into a cup of weak tea from a machine and rest in one of the many uncomfortable chairs, trying to tune out the noise from the televisions, the people talking in the hallways. Tune them all out and remember…
I ran down to the shore, past the church. I could see someone in the water. I thought it was the boy, but no… it was her. She was swimming toward me, toward the shore. I remember her face, try to imagine what it would look like in the day instead of illuminated by blue moonlight. I picture the way she slipped into the ocean like the waves were sheets on a bed when she left, and the way she rose from the water when she arrived, pulling Jude like the waves worked with her, not against her. The memories I read when I touched her arm. So strange… Even once I got past the blackness, the memories I saw were like memories of a past lifetime instead of the current one. Bits and pieces, buried so deep that all I got from touching her was her name and the memory of a girl screaming.
Screaming like she was dying.
I play the memory over and over, think about the bloody footprints, the way she vanished. Should I have told them about her? Is it too late now? Should I go back?
An hour later, I still have no idea what happened on the beach.
“He’s going to wake up soon. You can wait, if you want. Is he your boyfriend?” the doctor asks.
I blush before I can stop myself. “No,” I say, shaking my head. “I don’t know him.”
“Oh? They said—”
“They misunderstood. I just know his name; he told me before he passed out on the beach,” I explain swiftly. Now that I’m a little calmer, I can lie better.
“Ah. So you went into the ocean to pull a complete stranger out of the water? What a hero,” the doctor says genuinely, putting a hand on my shoulder.
“Thank you,” I answer, and force a smile. No, I didn’t go into the water. I stayed on the shore while Naida pulled him out. She’s the one who really saved him.
“Well, feel free to stay if you want. I’m sure he’d like to meet you,” the doctor says. He tucks his clipboard under his arm and walks away, leaving me alone in the waiting room. The television goes to a commercial, something about a magically absorbent towel. Outside, a pack of nurses laugh loudly. I would like to meet him, too—the real way, not the way I already have.
But I’m afraid he’ll ask about Naida. I’m afraid he’ll know I’m lying, that I didn’t really save him, not alone, anyway. I’m afraid of how much I know about him—even worse, how I liked so many of the things I saw, like his middle school talent-show performance or the way he worried about asking his first girlfriend to prom. And I’m afraid I won’t be able to hide the sheer quantity of memories I read. It’d be easier to walk away, to keep him at arm’s length. He’s just a boy, just like any of the boys Anne and Jane pick up. Just leave him here.
It’d be better for everyone if I just went home.
“You stole him!” Molly screams at me. Bubbles slip from her lips; her eyes are red, her hands clenched in fists. “He was mine!” Her voice is like lightning caught in the walls of the Glasgow. Fish dart away as she grabs onto a decaying stair rail so hard that it rips away from the spiral banister. She drops it and screams again. I’ve never seen one of us so angry before. The other girls try to comfort her, save the old ones, who regard her with mild curiosity from just outside the ship’s body, like she’s nothing more than an interesting bit of coral or a strange tide.
“He didn’t love you. There was no need to kill him.” I try to sound calm, even-keeled, like Molly is nothing more than an insolent child. But I’m shaken; I feel like I could dissolve into the water around me.
The girl. The girl on the shore knew my name. Naida.
While Molly curses at me, I turn the name over in my mind. The memories it sparked when I first heard it are dull, faded now, and I’m having trouble bringing them up. But the name, the name I can remember if I just keep repeating it. I don’t know why I care. Naida is long gone. And yet over and over, I keep saying it, don’t let go—
“Do you, Lo?” Key asks.
“I…” I look at Key, who draws closer to me. We look so different than humans, don’t we? I’d forgotten till I saw the girl, but now, compared with Key… you would never know we were once like them. What did my hair look like when I was Naida? What color was my skin? I look down at my arm, at the milky-blue color. Key’s is milky-green. But when we were humans, we must have been bronze or golden or some sun-kissed color. I haven’t thought about these things in ages, yet now I stare at my forearm in wonder, in sorrow that I can’t remember what it once looked like. Who can’t remember her own body?
“I was telling her that you didn’t want the boy’s soul anyhow? You sound like one of the old ones, Lo. Should I hold on to you if a hurricane passes through?” Her words are teasing, but the humor doesn’t reach her eyes. I do sound like one of the old ones—they don’t listen. They don’t care. They’re as quiet as the sand, letting the water push them around like branches of seaweed. Getting their attention is hard.
But I don’t feel old. I feel like I did when I was new, when I was younger than Molly, even. Naida. Naida. I can’t forget it again. Naida.
They’re staring at me, waiting for me to answer. “No. No, I didn’t want his soul. I just see no point in needless death,” I say, waving my hand in Molly’s direction. It’s not a lie. I don’t care about the boy—I liked his eyes, the way he looked at me, but right now I care about my name. I care about how a human girl knew my name…. Did I know her when I was like them? Please, Molly, let it go. I just want to focus on my name—
Excerpted from Fathomless by Jackson Pearce Copyright © 2012 by Jackson Pearce. Excerpted by permission.
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