It’s been six months since Dylan returned from the dead. Six months since Trent was reunited with his family. Six months since Wade and I had faced the High Council. Six months since Wade and I found a set of magical keys. Six months since Dad had banned us from looking for Atlantis. At least until we’d all graduated.
I couldn’t blame him really. It felt good to be graduating today. And Maya would never have ditched school or let us go without her.
“Today we get the keys back,” Maya said, as she smoothed down her skirt.
“Yes, we do,” I replied, trying to push the swell of excitement away. It’s all I’d been able to think about for the last six months. Dylan and I had argued with Dad constantly, but he’d remained steadfast in his decision, and wouldn’t even listen to Wade’s parents when they’d stormed over demanding the keys. Eventually, Dad had taken the three keyrings that had belonged to my mother and hidden them somewhere. Argument over.
Maya curled her hair around finger. “And we graduate…”
I stood in front of my full-length mirror, dressed in my maroon cap and gown for the graduation ceremony. The sleeves were cuffed in a wide, gold ribbon and I wore a golden sash around my neck.
“So…?” She raised an eyebrow, which looked huge behind her black-framed glasses.
“Maya,” I said slowly, coming to sit by her on my bed. “We can’t turn you into a mermaid.”
She dipped her chin. “It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted.”
“You heard what the High Council said. No turning best friends into mermaids and selachii.”
She lurched to her feet. “No, no I didn’t hear what they said. I wasn’t there, because I’m not a mermaid. And if I was there, I’m sure they would make an exception for me.”
I looked at her pleading expression and sighed. “What about your siblings? You foster parents? Don’t you think they’d miss you?”
“Nope.” She pushed her glasses up her nose. “Not in the slightest. I’m supposed to go to college at the end of the summer and I don’t plan on coming back. I’m eighteen now and officially an adult. They’ve stopped receiving financial support for me and they could care less where I go.”
“I don’t think that’s true,” I said gently.
“This is my life,” she snapped, tossing her hair over her shoulder. “Surely it’s up to me what I want to do with it? Why can’t you see that?”
“Maya.” I stood to face her. “It’s not an exact science. It’s too dangerous. No one wants to take the risk.”
“It is still my choice to make.”
“Besides the fact that I don’t actually know how to do the ritual and we’d have to find someone who did—”
“Dylan.” She said, her arms crossed and her face flushed. “He’s been shown how to perform the ritual.”
“And what if it didn’t work? What if you really died? Then how do you think Dylan and I would feel, knowing we were the ones who couldn’t save you?”
“And then,” I continued, “you seem to conveniently be forgetting about the fact that any new mermaids and selachii won’t be able to come out of the water. You won’t have your legs anymore. You’d be stuck in the ocean at night, on your own, while the rest of us sleep in nice, comfortable, warm beds.”
“I don’t care!” She threw her hands high.
“You need to be protected,” I said, trying a different track.
“I can protect myself!”
“That’s not what I mean.” I slumped into the armchair in my room.
“You told me my parents had been involved, my real parents, that my family had always been protectors of the mermaids. Holders of The Mermaid Chronicles. That I have a role to play. It makes sense for me to be a mermaid, Cordy. You know it.”
“The High Council insisted that you be protected,” I agreed. “But I don’t see how I can do that when you’re in the water and I’m on land! It’s not like you can keep the book in water, anyway.”
She gaped at me, started to speak, then clamped her mouth shut as she sank down on my bed again, facing me.
“I’m sorry,” I replied, getting to my feet and approaching her. “I think you need to be on land. Where you’re needed. And where you’re safe.”
“What about what I want?”
“Let’s find Atlantis. Then we’ll see.”
She sighed and looked out the window at the ocean beyond. “I am not happy.”
“I know,” I said, arranging her mortar board atop her head and fanning out her blonde curls around her shoulders. “But I think it’s the way it has to be, for now.”
“I still want to come with you,” she said.
“I wouldn’t leave you behind,” I replied. “We’ll need you and your book. My father wants to come too. So, when we find out what it is we have to do, or where we have to go, if there is any way for you two to come with us, with your human legs, then I’ll make it happen.”
She gave me a curt nod. “I guess that will have to do.”
I hugged her. “The last six months haven’t been all bad, you know. Being Valedictorian is nothing to sniff at.”
She smiled. “It was my dream. For a long time. Then going to Harvard. But so much has changed. There’s so much more to the world than we thought. There’s so much out there to discover…I can’t just sit back with my nose in a book.”
“Unless it’s The Mermaid Chronicles,” I laughed.
She gave me a curtsey. “Naturally.”
“Knock, knock.” Dad popped his head around my door. “Look at the two of you. So grown up. Young adults embracing the world.” He shook his head and wiped a tear from his eye. “Your mother would be so proud, Cordy.”
“Thanks, Dad,” I said and gave him a quick hug.
“Okay, enough of your old man crying embarrassingly. It’s picture time. Wade and Trent are here.”
“Give us one more minute,” Maya said.
Dad left and Maya walked to the full-length mirror for one final look. She swept her brush through her hair once more and passed a shimmery lip balm over her lips.
“How is it without Wade being here?” she asked.
“Hard,” I replied. “I miss him.”
Wade had been living in my house for the last six months. His father had remained steadfast in his disapproval of Wade’s relationship with me, a mermaid, and it was only recently, after months of us trying to wear him down that he had finally relented to allowing Wade back in the family home, although we still had a very steep, uphill path to climb before he was ready to accept me as his son’s girlfriend. Wade had only been gone a week, and I really missed his midnight visits to my bedroom that my father pretended to know nothing about. But it was important for Wade to be with his family, he would make more progress in gaining approval for our rather Shakespearian relationship from inside the family home. “But he needs to try and make things right with his father. Family is important.”
“He’ll come around,” Maya said, squeezing my shoulder.
“I hope so.”
I doubted it.
There was something about Daniel Waters that was cold and unforgiving. His eyes did that flashy black selachii thing constantly and he spent much of his time in the water. With Zale’s exile, it had fallen to him, the rightful leader of the selachii, to restore order among his people, even though he didn’t really want it. He was a fisherman, he wanted to spend his days at sea, and now he had to split his time between managing his massive shipping vessel and keeping calm over his people. He was stressed and tense and not very warm or fuzzy around the edges.
He was about to leave on a three-month fishing journey and his son dating a mermaid was a complication he didn’t need or couldn’t be bothered with. But Wade had refused to toe the line and Daniel Waters had come to grudgingly accept his son’s rebellious attitude. But I wasn’t holding my breath for a scented invitation to the house. I was pretty sure that would never happen.
I mulled these thoughts over as we drove to our graduation ceremony at Point Loma High. Wade, Trent, Maya and I accepted our diplomas while Dylan watched with my father, both dressed smartly in suits, and cheered and whistled. Dylan hadn’t bothered going back to school, and much to my father’s annoyance, had done nothing to further his education. Instead, he’d gotten a job, then spent his evenings drinking beer. Too much beer.
The crowd applauded as Maya stood on stage in front of the podium, a huge smile on her face.
“We all know life is about challenges,” she began her valedictorian speech. “That’s nothing new. You only have to turn on the news to see how people are suffering. You only need to look at the homeless person on the street corner. You only need to see failed college applications, or the lost race, or the bruises under someone’s eye to know that life isn’t smooth sailing…”
I squeezed Wade’s hand. We’d been through so much, but I knew we hadn’t yet scratched the surface of everything we had to face.
Feeling eyes on me, I looked over my shoulder to see Wade’s father frowning at my back. I kept my face neutral and turned back around. Daniel Waters was just going to have to go screw himself. I squeezed Wade’s hand harder and didn’t let go.
“…choosing how to cope with it is what matters,” Maya continued, pushing her glasses up her nose. “Learning to ask for help. Taking the hard step. Showing support to someone you don’t like. Being brave will make you grow and help you to face future challenges…”
“She sounds like a fortune cookie,” Dylan chuckled.
“Oi.” Trent smacked his shoulder. “That’s my girlfriend you’re talking about there.”
Dylan raised his hands in mock surrender. “Next thing you know she’ll be saying ‘with great power comes great responsibility.’”
“…you don’t have to be free of fear to be brave. Being brave is being afraid, and doing it anyway,” Maya addressed the crowd, her gaze skimming the tops of our heads. “With great power comes great responsibility…”
Dylan burst out laughing, earning a few scornful looks. “Called it.”
“Okay, okay,” Trent said. “So I made her watch all the Spiderman movies. I guess it had an effect.”
“The sentiment remains the same,” I said, patting Trent’s shoulder. “With great power does come great responsibility.” I looked at Wade. There was so much we had yet to face. Reaching the High Council six months ago hadn’t been easy. I had a feeling finding Atlantis was going to be ten times harder.
“…on the brink of adulthood, our whole lives ahead of us, to accept the unexpected and embrace the difficult. Together. United. Only then will we triumph!” Maya tore her hat off and threw it in the air.
The audience got to their feet, offering her a thunderous applause.
“She’s talking about us,” Wade said in my ear. “United.”
“She is,” I replied, wiping a tear out of my eye.
After the ceremony, we gathered on the front lawn, flipped our tassels over and threw our mortar caps in the air. My father took pictures. Wade’s father approached and shook hands with his son and Trent, his selachii subjects. He ignored Dylan and Maya, and I felt lucky to receive a curt nod of acknowledgement.
“I’m sorry I can’t make the party,” Daniel said to his son. “We’re leaving in an hour.”
“I understand,” Wade replied. “It’s work. How long will you be gone?”
“Most of the summer,” Daniel replied. “Then I’d like to take you out. Now that you’ve graduated, it’s time you became part of the family business.”
“Yes, sir,” Wade replied. “After we find Atlantis—”
Daniel scoffed. “The island has been lost for centuries. You’ll never find it.”
“Still, I’d like to try.” Wade looked at me. “We’d like to try.”
Daniel didn’t spare me a glance, but shook his head at his son. “If you haven’t found it by the time I’m back, I’ll expect you on the boat.”
Wade dipped his chin, then met his father’s evaluating stare. “Yes, sir.”
Daniel Waters walked away, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
“Don’t mind him,” Wade’s sister took his arm. Marina was back from college and often softened the vibes between Wade and his father. “He’s a grouch by nature. He’ll come around. Especially when you find Atlantis.”
“If we find Atlantis,” I warned.
“We will,” she said.
“We?” Wade asked.
“Yes, I’m coming with you. This is a summer adventure right? Well, I’ve got the next three months to do nothing but help you.”
“Thanks, Marina,” Wade said.
“Okay.” My father slapped his hands together for attention. “Everyone back to my house for the party.”
Trent and his parents, Maya, Wade with his sister and mother, and Dylan and I followed my father back to our house on Del Monte. There we could talk freely and openly about who we were and what we were about to do. But before my father would consider relinquishing the keys to Atlantis back into our grasp, I knew he wanted a proper celebration. On the deck in the backyard, he had laid out a meal for an army; shrimp with Marie Rose sauce, crab and lobster bites, spring rolls with plum sauce and mini hamburgers and hot dogs. There was a couscous salad and a green salad and another salad with a number of beans that I couldn’t name. There were mimosas for everyone, and my father held his glass high as he raised a toast.
“Congratulations to you all,” Dad began. “I know these last few months have been hard on you. Not only have you had to pretend to concentrate on your studies and ignore the fact that I hid the keys, but also, you’ve had a very big secret to keep. You have had to keep part of yourselves a secret from the world. I know it’s been challenging, there have been rumors in the press, but at least here, you are in a safe place, and you can share who you really are with everyone here.”
“Hear, hear,” Trent’s father exclaimed.
“I couldn’t have said it better, Chris,” Wade’s mother added.
As I went to Wade and slipped my arm around his waist, I noticed his shark tooth necklace dangling at his throat. It glinted in a ray of sun, seeming to emphasize my father’s words. His cell phone vibrated in his pocket. He read a message on the screen and frowned.
“We need to go inside,” he said to the small gathering. “The news channel.”
Inside, my father flicked on the TV with the remote. The screen came to life and a pretty, blonde reporter stared into the camera. A picture over her left shoulder showed a shot of sand and ocean, and the big bold letters after ‘breaking news’ read ‘Mermaids? Are they real?’
“…well, that’s the questions on everyone’s lips…” the camera panned to another female reporter standing on the beach, it was one I recognized, it was La Jolla. “…it seems as if here, behind me, a mermaid—and I can’t believe I’m actually using the word—was seen diving into the water and flicking a beautiful blue tail…and now we go to our eyewitnesses…”
The eyewitnesses were a couple in their twenties who had been taking a stroll along the beach early this morning. They had seen a young woman walk down the beach and into the water. Moments later a shimmering blue tail appeared and she disappeared under the waves. There was a video. It had been caught on camera.
“This is not good.” Marina frowned.
“They need to be more careful,” Dylan said.
“As do you all.” Dad grimaced. “Very careful. We can’t afford this kind of exposure.”
“Especially as we’re all about to take off in search of Atlantis,” Wade’s mother added.
“The journey to the sunken land will be filled with heartache and loss. The fire mermaid will need to be determined,” Maya quoted solemnly.
“I must say,” I considered aloud. “I never thought that the prophecy might be about exposure to the world. But that would cause heartache.”
“See?” Trent looked at Maya. The tone of his voice showed that he was making a point about something which they had clearly talked about before. “Now is not the time to contemplate becoming a mermaid. It’s even more dangerous.” Obviously, I wasn’t the only one that Maya had kept on at during the last six months. I looked at Dylan and noted the guilty expression creeping across his face. Had Maya been wearing him down too?
“Cordelia Blue, it’s going to be okay. We’ll be careful.” Wade circled his arm around my waist and brought me close. He planted a kiss on my lips and his eyes flashed black.
“You’ve gotta stop doing that,” I said. “Or you’ll be the next specimen in a net.”
“We need to go to Corona Del Mar, now,” he said. “I’m certain that’s where the keys are to be used, then we’ll know what to do.”
“Will you be back tonight?” Wade’s mother asked. “Stephanie and her mother are arriving this afternoon.”
“I don’t know,” Wade snapped. “We might be late. Maybe I should just stay here tonight?”
“No, don’t do that.” His mother flapped around him. “Come home, no matter how late. It’s so good to have you at home again. And Stephanie and her mother would love to see you.”
The party was cut short, everyone’s appetites muted, and now Wade and I had a mission to complete. Trent’s parents and Wade’s mother and sister left. Wade and I prepared ourselves for Corona Del Mar. My father handed me my mother’s key rings and a flash of blue light sparkled throughout the room. Everyone gasped.
“What’s it doing?” Maya asked.
“I don’t know,” I replied, rubbing a thumb over the three small jewels. “But they know it’s time too.”
Wade and I made our way to my cherry-red jeep. We would drive to Corona Del Mar, up the coast a couple hours, and not risk exposing ourselves until necessary.
“Wade,” I said as I climbed into the jeep. “Who is Stephanie?”
Wade’s gaze shifted to the floor. “A friend of my sister’s. An old family friend.” He looked out the window and waited for me to pull away from the drive. “She’s a selachii. Mom thought she might be able to help us find Atlantis.”