The world around me melts and blurs, shifting and changing before my eyes. Tamir removes his hands from my head, his green eyes filled with something I can’t exactly read.
‘Trust me now?’ Tamir asks, a sad smile tugging at one corner of his mouth. I look up at him, uncertain of everything now. What else had the Tribe Leaders controlled in my head? How many things have I forgotten?
I shake my head and stand up. ‘That’s how you…’ My head throbs with this information, the questions swirling around inside my brain. Only one is clear: we had known each other and that’s why he looked so familiar to me when I fist saw him; it’s why he said he knew my face.
‘Hey,’ Tamir says softly, and I feel his hands on my shoulders. I look at him and he moves my hands from my face and looks deep into my eyes. ‘Hey, it’s okay. The memories return eventually, especially if you’re away from your tribe long enough.’
I nod. ‘How did you… turn into…?’ I’m not sure what to call what he is.
‘A merman?’ he chuckles, finishing my question for me as he begins to glow a bit brighter. ‘Long story short, I didn’t get the girl, Damian did. On top of that, he pushed me off the cliff on the other side of the island. Everyone thought I was dead.’
‘How’d you get over there?’ I ask. ‘The Revli tribe is nowhere close to there. And how did you live?’
Tamir shrugs and we begin to swim towards the city. ‘He wanted to talk to me. About his wedding with her. He wanted ideas and he wanted to know what she liked. And the cliff was always my favorite place to be when I wanted to be alone.’
‘Long walk,’ I smile slightly.
‘It was, but it was always worth it.’ He shakes his head. ‘He came out of the trees, and by then the full moon was high in the sky. This was only a few days after I had met you that first time. My memory wasn’t wiped like yours was, because of the bond you had with your tribe. I was from a different tribe.’
‘So it works differently with each tribe?’
He nods again. ‘It all starts with the Naming Process. It’s a sort of magic no one understands. Anyway, he startled me. And then he asked for my help. Said he wanted me to be there, to be the one that tied the knot for them, to say that they were wed. I told him I wasn’t going to, and he got mad. We argued and he pushed me right off. I hit the water, just between two rocks, and I started glowing this bright blue. The seaweed wrapped around me and I was trapped. I blacked out. And then the next thing I knew, I was covered in scales and I could breathe. That’s when Rave found me. Scared her half to death, but she kind of took me under her wing. Swear she thinks she’s the one for me. But we don’t match.’
‘Match?’ I ask, as he glows a bit brighter.
He shakes his head and continues on swimming, ignoring my prying question.
‘What do you mean, you don’t match?’
‘It’s complicated,’ he says, squinting at me apologetically for a moment. ‘Okay. We’re almost to the city. When we get in there, you have to try your hardest to at least hide your legs. I know a hiding place. There, I can teach you what I know about the gifts we have and I can help you control it.’
I nod, my brain pulsing with information.
‘Oh, and, one more thing,’ he says, stopping. ‘You can’t glow.’
‘What? I can’t control it.’
‘Just try not to feel anything. It’s easy if you keep your mind clear and pay attention to the little things that you pass by. You kind of have to be an airhead to be able to do it, but it’s not so hard.’
‘But—but I can’t help—guh.’ I look at him for help.
He chuckles. ‘Look, when you feel like a strong feeling is washing over you, find something and stare at it. Study it if you have to. It might just save your life.’
My breath—water?—catches in my throat and I nod. He gives my arm a squeeze and nods, taking my hand. Pulling me past the first few houses, stopping ever so often.
‘Come here,’ he whispers as I focus on a reddish door sitting slightly to its side in the sand right beside us. Someone passes by, and Tamir hides me behind him. They nod at him as I awkwardly stare past them at the red door. They pass by and Tamir yanks me into the open.
‘Hey!’ We hear. Our heads snap in the direction, and Tamir whispers something unintelligible before dragging me at a fast pace. The merman holding something very weapon-like falls behind as he chases us, shouting things to someone else.
We turn a corner. I can’t breathe. I begin to glow.
‘Focus!’ Tamir says loud enough for me to hear.
Focus on what? I scream in my head. So I look down at my hand, the free one. I begin to focus on it, but I don’t calm down very much.
We turn twice more, and then Tamir throws me into the darkness, shutting the door behind us. Our rapid breathing takes up all the space of the room, it seems. I begin to glow again.
Tamir’s eyes open wide. ‘Not yet,’ he says, thrusting forward. He wraps himself around me, making it worse. I close my eyes and try to find something to focus on. Lily-flor. I think of her and everything we’d been through together. Her first tooth falling out, her first cooked meal that she did all by herself. And now she’s alone. I wonder how she is, if she’s okay. I wonder if she’s forgotten all about me.
‘Okay, we’re good,’ Tamir says, letting go.
I begin to glow, but not because of him.
I sink down to the sandy floor and bury my face in my hands.
‘What’s wrong?’ Tamir asks, getting close to me.
I shake my head. ‘You wouldn’t understand.’
He scoffs playfully. ‘You’d be amazed at what I understand.’
I look up at him, a goofy smile playing on his face as his chest heaves, trying to breathe.
‘There’s this little girl. Lily-flor. I’m supposed to take care of her—to a certain extent. But for the most part, it’s like I’m her older sister…’ I bite my lip, my voice trembling as my heart forbids me to believe the words coming next. I take a breath. ‘What if she’s forgotten about me?’
I sniffle, aware I’m unable to cry underwater. Tamir puts his arm around me, glowing a bit as well. ‘I have no doubt in the world she already has.’
His words hurt. It’s not what I wanted to hear. I pull away.
‘But—’ he says, moving to where he can touch my hands and look me in the eyes. ‘But if she loves you, she’ll never truly forget.’
‘How do you know that?’ I spit, not wanting to hear any more from him.
‘Because love can conquer anything.’
I shake my head at the cliché. ‘Yeah, okay.’
‘I’m serious. I’ve seen it.’
‘Yes. And I’ll tell you all about it after I teach you some things.’
He stands up, holding his hands out for me to take. I sigh, letting the misery sink into my heart and stay there, unable to think about it anymore at the moment.
And then I take his hands.
‘So if I—if I do it like this—whoa!’
I’m thrown back against the wall as a ball of light energy explodes from my hands.
‘Exactly like that,’ Tamir smiles, the light above falling on his face in a way that makes me look away. ‘You’re getting the hang of it.’
He has taught me how to make energy balls with my hands and shoot them like weapons, along with controlling my emotions better. That one took most of the time, but I think it’s really helping. I’m not glowing as much when I get upset or when Tamir gets really close to me.
I’ve also learned about the connection between the humans and the mermaids. The Tribe Leaders of each tribe have specific mermaid clans they talk to that give them information and news on what’s happening. Not necessarily everything that’s going on below the water, but just things like uprisings, just in case these rebellious mermaids decide to take their fight to land.
He also told me about the Naming Process. The parent mermaids name their child, and when they hand the human baby off to another human, that human adds on to that name. It’s like having two names: a mermaid name and a human name.
The mermaids are hidden from the human population because the mermaids don’t want humans invading their world. They did it before, one hundred, twenty-two thousand, three hundred and seventy-two years ago, before the flood happened. That’s why they’re kept a secret from us.
It’s amazing, learning all of this. If only I could tell Lily-flor…
I sigh as I walk back to the room, thinking of her. Tamir knows even before I start to glow. I see it radiating from my skin and immediately suppress it. It’s been a week since I was up there.
‘Cress,’ he says, and I snap my head up, ready for a surprise attack from him. They never hurt, but they always scare the living daylights out of me.
But he doesn’t attack. Instead, he swims up to me and takes my hands. I control my thoughts and don’t let my emotions show. He smiles at that.
‘You know, you don’t have to hide your glowing from me.’
‘How do you know I was about to glow?’ I ask.
‘Your jaw twitches,’ he laughs. ‘Do you want to go see her?’
My heart jumps, the glowing appearing and shifting around my skin like a bright fog. ‘What—you mean—you mean go on land?’
He shakes his head sadly. ’No. But I can take you near the shore. We just have to be quick.’ He pushes aside one of the curtains against a window. ‘The Flatfins should be switching shifts. We have maybe thirty minutes. And with my speed, we’d be back just in time.’
I don’t know what to say. Joy overwhelms me, and I glow. I let myself glow.
And then I hug him, unable to contain the happiness bursting inside my chest and pressing against my ribcage. Maybe, if she’s close enough to the water, or even at the edge of the village, just maybe I can see her. And that burrows an ember of hope deep inside me.
It’s so much easier rushing through the water now. I can almost move as if the water was air.
He wraps his arms around me in response and chuckles under his breath.
And then he takes me upward.
We break the surface, and I’m looking up at the rock my village sits upon. A small figure dances along the edge, looking out over the water. My eyes doubt it’s her, but my heart longs for it to be. I can imagine her looking over the water, not sure what she’s looking for. I tear up.
“Okay, it’s time to go.”
His voice startles me. It sounds so different than it does below the water. Not in a bad way, but… it’s somewhat strange.
I don’t know how long I’d been floating there, staring up at what I used to know, reminding myself that I once knew nothing compared what I know now, just like Lily-flor, the little girl I’d helped raised.
Tamir repeats himself once more and I nod, swallowing the hard ball that formed in my throat. My body turns to leave.
But then my heart pulls me back.
I look up at her, Tamir holding onto my arm gently as a tear streams down my face.
“Lily-flor!” I shout. The figure stills. “Don’t forget about me!”
Tamir says something through a sad laugh, and we duck under the water, leaving Lily-flor behind. My heart shudders at the thought and sadness settles into it. But I know I’ll see her again someday; I’ll make sure of it.
‘Probably shouldn’t have done that,’ Tamir says, shaking his head as we get closer to the city. ‘Little girls like her are curious and will ask questions.’
‘And then she’ll forget about the answers,’ I spit bitterly. ‘Besides. You said love conquers everything.’
‘You’re right, I did.’
‘Stop right there,’ a voice to our right echoes.
It’s a Flatfin—law enforcement.
‘Swim!’ Tamir says, and I kick my legs as hard as I can.
And then there’s something touching my back.
It feels like a lightning bolt.
A surge just like it bursts through my body and blue flashes across my vision. I’m suddenly filled with anger and rage.
And then the world is dark.