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Texas was the hottest state I had ever encountered. At least when we visited Arizona, my parents had splurged on a good hotel with prime air conditioning, an indoor and outdoor pool, and a group of people dedicated to keeping you cool the whole month we stayed.
Here, in Texas, there was no pool. Even our air conditioning was acting up.
I hated it.
With a box of books balanced in my arms and sweat streaking my face, I cursed under my breath and walked through the front door of our new house.
And I say new with a lot of sarcasm.
Since my dad lost his job at his law firm, things had gone south. We had to sell our condo, withdraw me from Prim Prep School, and relocate somewhere far away. My dad never said why, and my mom was equally close-lipped about it, but I knew one thing.
Whatever had gone down with my dad and his law firm had been messy.
“Kasia, I can’t find my glasses,” my dad, equally sweaty and miserable-looking, came down the hall towards me, studying an air conditioning user’s manual. “Everything is so squiggly looking.”
I sighed and looked at his head pointedly; his glasses were tangled in his graying hair. My dad was so frazzled lately that he was beginning to get scatterbrained.
He blinked at my stare and then seemed to slump, “They’re on my head, aren’t they?”
I shrugged and pushed past him, headed into the kitchen, which was missing a stove, a fact that our realtor neglected to share, and into our new library. It was four walls closed in tightly together. Once we put the shelves in, it would be even smaller, I was sure.
“Hey, sweetie! Isn’t this just great? I’m in the kitchen but can still see your gorgeous little face!”
I pursed my lips and turned my head to see my mom. There was a gap in the wall, like a tiny window, between the kitchen and the library, and she was grinning at me through it. She was young, only twenty-nine, and people always commented on how much we looked like sisters. Sometimes, it bothered me. It was nice to have a young mom, but sometimes it was also weird.
When dabbing was cool, she dabbed, when dope was fun to say, she said it all the time.
Not to mention she almost looked younger than me thanks to her dewy skin and perky expressions. Dad certainly robbed the cradle, since he was pushing fifty.
“Yep, it’s great.”
My mom’s grin faltered when she noticed my hair, “I thought you said you were going to die it, hon.”
I calmly set the box on the floor and touched my roots, “I did. It keeps fading. Maybe it’s the sun.”
She swallowed and walked around so she was standing in the library’s doorway, “Maybe it’s popular here. I saw a girl with rainbow hair a few weeks ago!”
I laughed for her sake, “Yeah, but white is a bit much, right?”
She smiled sadly.
When I was born, my hair was golden, just like hers, but one day, it turned silvery white after a near-fatal drowning when I was seven. Doctors said it was the stress of the near-death experience I had endured when they saw the lightening roots. Premature graying, they said.
But that didn’t explain why every dye rinsed out after only one day.
“You’ll make it a trend, I’m sure,” she shrugged one shoulder, looking way cooler than a mom should look. She was wearing a knighted crop top, bucket hat, and wide-legged jeans.
“Are you almost done out there? We’re drowning in boxes at this point.”
I rubbed at my neck; it ached to high heaven, “I don’t know. The movers cleared out after they unloaded everything from the van, said we didn’t pay for them to load it inside?”
My mom huffed and returned to the kitchen, “Maybe you should take a break. The pond looks great out there.”
I curled my nose. Yep. The pond. It was about eight feet deep, fifteen feet wide, and stank of germs and death. Not to mention I was deathly afraid of water after my accident.
“You don’t have to swim, of course,” she continued, sorting through a box of silverware, “just dip your toes in the water. It’ll be fun! And when your dad gets the conditioner working, we can take care of the boxes.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. I didn’t want to go out there in the heat that felt more oppressive than my prep school but I also didn’t want to snap my neck trying to carry in the box full of my dad’s dumbbells and weights.
Wouldn’t that be a fun death?
“Fine, but if I die of Cholera after touching that disgusting water, you’re to blame.”
Her laughter followed me out the kitchen side door where our lukewarm pond waited. I stared at it for a while, debating, and then sighed and walked around it toward the gate in the back. The ocean was scarier than some questionable pond, but it would be cooler and less germy.
Or so I hoped.
I left our yard through the gate across the pond, emerging out onto the sidewalk behind our house. It was overgrown with poison ivy, and I had to jump over sneaking clumps of the stuff until I hit clean sidewalk.
I knew the ocean was at least a seven-minute walk from our new house. Would it be torture in this heat? Yes. But my mom had told me about this cave nearby that no one knew about; she and my aunt had come exploring before we moved here and found the cave. Hopefully, the place would be cleaner than some pond.
And have some cooling capabilities.
As I walked, I took in the sights; there weren’t many. Just a few seafood restaurants, small stores, and a couple of vendors who looked about ready to pack up because of the heat. There were hardly any kids my own age out. Not surprising, honestly. They were probably inside.
Where sane people were.
When the scent of salt hit me, I craned my neck, searching for the telltale blue that marked the ocean. All I saw was a nearby car lot.
I reached for my back pocket and then remembered I had left my phone at home.
I cursed under my breath and rubbed at the sticky sweat on my forehead.
I spun around to see an old man watching me. His hair was silvery white, just like mine.
“Oh,” I looked around, searching for witnesses in case the man decided he wanted to kill me. Besides the woman smoking outside the car lot, the streets were empty. “No. I’m just waiting for my… someone. Yeah.”
I winced inwardly; I sounded as convincing as a piece of bread, saying it was a baked bean.
As if on cue, my stomach growled loudly.
The old man, who, by the way, was wearing a heavy wool cardigan, smiled toothily, “You sure? I could help you out.”
Trust or not to trust. My mom was one of those who used to hitchhike and get stinkingly drunk at parties where drugs were rumored to end up in drinks. She would shrug at the man if she was in my position and tell him to point her to the closest bar.
On the other hand, my dad was holding down a neverending job in New York when my mom was going nuts in California. He would tell me to run in the other direction and use my “stranger danger whistle.” Which was a Christmas gift he gave me.
When I was eight.
“Uh… Well, I’m on my way to the ocean,” the man snorted a little wheezily, “and, I know this sounds stupid, but I don’t know where that is. But I’m not lost,” that last part was added quickly so the man wouldn’t get any ideas.
But I figured he was safe; he looked harmless.
“Oh, well, that’s not too far. You’re about two blocks from it,” he looked around, lips pursed. “Go down Feathering Avenue, turn left down Mrytle, and keep going. You’ll reach it eventually.”
“Right,” I repeated the streets in my mind. “Thanks.”
He shrugged, and before he had the chance to turn all crazy grandpa on me, I started across the deserted road.
The old man was right; all I had to do was follow his directions, and I finally saw it. The ocean was much bigger than our measly pond.
But it was deserted. No swimsuit-clad teens swam through the choppy waves, and there was no cave in sight.
I slipped off my sandals and headed toward the surf, grimacing at the fiery feel of the sand beneath my toes. The cool waves were worth it, though.
I sighed in relief, staring out at the horizon. As long as I didn’t go too deep, I would be fine, but even only having my toes in the water made me a bit nervous.
After all, swimming in Lake Michigan had started as wading. And then, before I knew it, I had been flailing, my lungs filling with oppressive water.
I shut my eyes, recalling the sensation of all my air being cut off. And then, just like that, I had been back on land, having blacked out in the lake.
“Yeah?” I opened my eyes, expecting to see my mom or dad had followed me, but no one was around.
I blinked, turning in a small circle. Still no one, but then I caught sight of a cropping of rocks a few feet away.
A cave mouth.
That definitely hadn’t been there before.
With my sandals hooked around my thumb, I started towards it, still hearing that strange voice on the wind.
It sounded almost… otherworldly.
When I reached the cave mouth, I peered inside, cool air teasing my skin. This must have been the cave my aunt and mom had found; it was dark inside, but I saw clearly the marking my mom had told me she left. It was nothing but a misshapen star scraped in with a rock.
“Mom?” I called, peering further inside the cave.
Okay, that voice was starting to creep me out. But I knew it had to be my mom. That was another downside to having a “hip mother”; she could be so childish. She was prone to silly pranks that usually ended with me covered in glitter, fake blood, or another substance. I wouldn’t be surprised if she had followed me just to prank me.
“All right, Mom. If this is your idea of another one of your “pranks,” we’re going to have words in a moment,” I said as I stepped into the cave, following it down until I had to stop before a vast pool.
The voice was definitely closer, but there was nowhere my mom could possibly be hiding. I kneeled by the pool, peering into the murky depths. There was a slight glow to the water that entranced me.
It reminded me of that day at Lake Michigan. All around me had been dark, save for this slight glow in the water. That’s all I remember before everything went black.
“Kasia, one of my Saved.”
“Um, Mom?” I looked around, but I was all alone.
The waves reached for me from the edge of the pool, enticing. And, again, familiar.
“I saved you, Kasia.”
I scooted back, watching the waves; was I hallucinating? Maybe I had tried to carry in Dad’s dumbells, and they had fallen and cracked my skull.
“I saved you from drowning. Nothing could touch you. My Saved.”
Yeah. I had to be hallucinating. Or dead.
Both were very undesirable.
“I saved you from death, marking you with white.”
White? Was this freakish voice from outer space or something talking about my hair? My stress-induced graying?
“Who are you?” I asked, watching as the glow in the water seemed to pulse.
“It is time, my Saved. I have given you years. Your debt shall be paid.”
I stood slowly, backing up towards the entrance, but my back suddenly hit stone. I wheeled around to see…
A wall where the entrance had been.
“Oh… Wasn’t there a cave mouth here?” I asked, voice trembling as I turned back, searching the walls.
They seemed to have closed in tighter; the pool, which I had put feet between me and it, was now at my feet.
And two sets of eyes peered at me from the depths.
I scrambled back, but the stone was there, its coldness now freezing to my skin.
“Your debt shall be paid,” the voice repeated, its trill falling to a demonic depth as four hands reached out of the water, reaching towards my feet.
“No,” I breathed, turning back to the wall and beginning to beat it with my fists, “help! Help! I’m stuck down here! You have to𑁋!”
The hands grabbed my ankles, dragging me down into the water, my lips forming a scream of pure terror. They latched onto my elbows, something sharp and wet slapping my torso as the water crowded my lungs. Tails.
I opened my eyes, scrabbling at the surface and screaming my head off. But all that left my mouth was a stream of bubbles.
And all I could see was a mermaid staring back at me, reaching for my neck with webbed fingers. That began to squeeze until every ounce of air left my lungs. Until my vision began to tunnel. My heart to slow. And the last thing I saw before I died was endless purple eyes.