Ice Massacre, page 6
Lysi pulled herself up on land again. “Should we try it?”
She slid closer and I suddenly felt nervous. I’d never kissed anyone before, unless I counted one time when Tanuu ran up and kissed me on the lips before I could push him away. I remembered finding him later and rubbing mud in his face in revenge.
I looked again at the frothing waves and tried to imagine what it must be like to live underneath them.
“Do you want to?” she said. I felt her studying the side of my face.
I took a breath. The thought came to me that it’d be much easier to find my brother if I was a mermaid.
She was right next to me now.
I faced her and tried to smooth my sopping wet hair. She leaned in, until our noses almost touched.
“Close your eyes,” she said.
I did. I pushed my lips out, not sure what to do but trying to copy the way older kids kissed.
It was over quickly. Her lips touched mine and then she pulled away. There wasn’t even a kissing sound like the older kids made.
I opened my eyes.
“How do I know it worked?”
Lysi frowned. “Do you feel different?”
I touched my lips. “My lips are tingly.”
I ran my hands over my arms and legs. They felt the same.
“Try putting your legs together, so it’s easier for them to turn into a tail.”
I did so.
Lysi shook her head. “I don’t think it worked. We’ll have to wait until we’re grown-ups. I bet turning someone into a mermaid has to do with my teeth growing in.”
I glowered at my stupid human legs, tears burning my eyes again. Dodging my punishment was not in the forecast for me that day.
Suddenly, something whistled past us behind Lysi. We both jumped and Lysi spun around, making an odd hissing noise. I grabbed her wrist and peered behind her. The top of a bolt protruded from the rocky sand.
We stared at each other, our eyes wide. Lysi’s mouth hung open. She had jumped between me and the water—and I was sure a second bolt would’ve followed if I wasn’t in the way. I looked behind us. A dark figure stood between the trees, aiming a crossbow.
I leapt to my feet, shrieking. “No!”
Lysi flattened herself into the rocks as another bolt shot wide of her, burying into the sloppy shoreline.
“Papa, stop!” I put a hand out. My fear was only heightened by the panic in my own voice.
His shout boomed across the beach as he aimed again. “Move aside, Metlaa Gaela!”
I turned back to Lysi, who was still flat against the rocks, her eyes wide and terrified. “Lysi, get away!”
My heart gave a painful jolt when she looked at me with such terror in her pretty blue eyes.
“Get away!” I said again, and I stepped in front of her so it’d be harder for Papa to aim.
He roared. “Meela, move!”
I glanced back to make sure Lysi made it into the falling tide.
Her eyes locked on mine, and they burst red. She opened her mouth—and I must have imagined the sudden sharpness of her teeth, the way the smooth ivory of her skin seemed to rot away. She screeched, and the sound rippled down my core like ice.
I screamed and stepped back. My foot caught on a rock and I fell. Papa had a careful aim, and he shot around me. The bolt whizzed over my head and splashed into the water.
I scrambled to my feet. “No—Lysi!”
Her tail flipped up, but then she was gone. Blood stained the water.
I ran into the waves, my feet clumsy, and soon found myself paddling helplessly in the shallow water.
My feet kicked against the pulling tide, and my pants clung heavily to my legs.
I screamed for her again, paddling outwards. What happened to her? Did she sink? Or was she swimming away? My foot cracked against a rock beneath the water, but the pain was nothing beneath the echo of her scream.
The waves crashed around me. Already, the blood-red water dispersed, leaving only black in its place.
“Meela, get out of there!” Papa’s voice was closer now, down on the beach.
I couldn’t control my sobs as I tried to find Lysi, to see if she was all right or if she was hurt and needed help.
A hand gripped my upper arm. I strained against it, but Papa was too strong. He pulled me from the water and dragged me to shore, and all the while I kicked against him. I screamed at the pain in my arm from his grip, and in my knees and feet from the rocks, and in my eyes from the stinging saltwater, and most of all in my heart as I remembered the paralyzed fear on Lysi’s face.
We stomped through the bush and onto the dirt road. Papa kept a firm grip on my arm that burned every time I stumbled. My cries of pain did nothing to make him ease up.
Before we got to the front door, he let me go and faced me, dark eyes bulging.
“Were you trying to get yourself chewed on like scrap meat?” he yelled. I instinctively stepped back from his booming voice. “I can’t even begin to imagine what you were doing down there!”
“We live on an island,” I yelled back. “You can’t expect me to stay away from the sea my whole life!”
He clenched and unclenched his fists like he was struggling to relieve tension. “Were you trying to make friends with that demon?”
I didn’t know what to say. Should I tell him the truth and make him angrier? Or should I lie and betray my friendship with Lysi? What would he think I was doing, if not making friends with her? Would he think Lysi was trying to kidnap me?
My silence stretched for too long, and Papa’s lined face turned purple.
The door opened and Mama’s jaw dropped. She looked from me to Papa, who faced each other on the front porch, Papa’s eyes bulging, tears on my cheeks, clothes soggy, hair dripping.
Papa pointed at me with a shaking fist. “Your daughter was at the beach, getting cozy with a sea demon.”
Mama’s face turned to horror and then to sadness. Tears sprung to my eyes. What kind of daughter was I, causing this look on her face?
Papa turned to me again. “This is the most foolish, selfish thing you have ever done. Think of what your mother and I would have to go through, losing our only remaining child.”
“You wouldn’t have lost me!”
“Do you understand what you were willingly sitting next to?”
“She’s my friend!”
I didn’t know which was worse: Papa’s stunned silence, which stretched for so long I thought it might never end, or the yell that followed, which must have been heard across the island.
“They feed on human flesh, Meela! You think that’s the mark of a friend?”
“They’re not all bad, Papa,” I shouted.
He took a breath and covered his eyes. When he looked at me again, he didn’t blink, like he really wanted me to understand. “All those sailors—every one of them that was supposed to come back yesterday—do you know what happened to them? Do you know what happened to your brother?”
“Kasai, dear,” said Mama softly, but her voice sounded like a warning.
“No,” said Papa, snapping. “She’s ten years old! I was already a man when I was ten—a hunter.”
I stared at Mama, unsettled by the way her eyes had widened.
“Meela,” said Mama, speaking before Papa could go on. “You remember what we told you when your brother didn’t come back from the Massacre? That his ship would still return one day?”
I didn’t respond, but she continued anyway.
“Honey, we didn’t want to scare you.”
Numbness grew in my fingers, working its way upwards.
“Your brother was murdered,” said Papa. “All of them were. The entire ship was murdered and fed upon by merm—”
“No!” I clapped my hands over my ears, not wanting to hear the rest. Mermai
The whole world seemed to stop. Why had Mama and Papa let me believe he could still be alive? Did they think I was too fragile to know?
My arms and legs and lips felt numb, like the blood rushed away from them. He wasn’t lost. He was dead. But somehow I knew that. Deep down, I always knew my brother was dead. The mermaids really had killed him.
I just never wanted to believe Lysi’s kind was responsible for my family’s pain.
Mama’s arms wrapped around me, pulling me into the house.
Lysi would never kill and eat a human. She was good. Mermaids had to be good.
But I remembered what she’d shown me this afternoon, the way her eyes became so inhuman.
Something must have changed on my face, because Mama said softly, “It’s only a matter of time until her instincts take over, honey. We’re looking out for you.”
My eyes burned. I couldn’t stop the tears from escaping. My voice came out high-pitched and unconvincing. “Our friendship is stronger than her instincts.”
Mama opened her mouth, but Papa spoke first. “A demon’s allure only mimics true feelings. Your friendship was a fake attraction, the same one that ends in the death of sailors everywhere.”
“It isn’t fake,” I yelled, but my heart thudded against my ribcage, hammering doubt into my bones. “She wanted to be my friend. If it was all phony we wouldn’t have been so . . . so . . .”
So what? Strongly connected? Loyal to each other? What could I possibly try to explain that couldn’t be faked?
“They sent her to trick you into false companionship. It was a test of her abilities.”
Mama put a hand out to Papa, but he continued.
“You were a game to her. It’s happened before, to—”
“Please, Kasai!” said Mama, and Papa stopped.
“Calm down,” she said to me. My breath escaped in quick sobs, and I sounded like Mama did when she was having an asthma attack.
She reached for my cheek with a soothing look on her face, but I turned and ran down the hallway, a lump in my throat so thick I thought I might choke on it.
I dove onto my bed and buried my face in the quilt, trying to calm my panicked breathing.
“It wasn’t fake,” I screamed into the blankets, but I didn’t know anymore if I was defending Lysi or trying to reassure myself that Mama and Papa were wrong.
Even if she was growing up and had instincts that made her eyes go red . . . even if she did have the urge to murder . . . she would never hurt me.
But even as I thought that, betrayal pulsed through my veins like ice, and I wondered what it meant to have a real friend. How did I know any of my friendships were real, if not Lysi’s?
I knew mermaids lured men, of course. Lysi and I had talked about it. But even if I was lured—whatever that really meant—who was to say our friendship wasn’t real?
I spent the afternoon curled under my blankets, watching the broken spider web in my window. I wished Charlotte would come back so I could look at something more interesting than the fluttering strings of silk.
Sometime after I’d listened to the low murmurings of conversation and clanking of dishes as Mama and Papa ate dinner, Mama knocked on my door and let herself in.
“Can we talk, honey?”
I said nothing, considering whether or not I should pretend to be asleep. But my eyes betrayed me and opened to look at her.
“Was that mermaid being nice to you?” said Mama. She tucked a lock of my frizzy, salt-crusted hair behind my ear. Her hand was warm and smelled like dish soap.
I hesitated, then nodded once.
“You know she was pretending to be nice so she could lure you into the water.”
“That’s not true.”
“How do you know?”
“She’s my friend. Her name is Lysithea. And if she was going to lure me into the water, she would have done it already.”
“How long has she been your friend?”
I lied a little. “A few weeks.”
Mama sighed. A familiar crease appeared on her forehead and her mouth tightened around the edges.
“Mermaids are not people, honey. You must understand that.”
“I do, but—”
“They’re closer to monsters than to humans.”
“You haven’t met one, so you don’t know.”
“I don’t have to meet one to know. How can a creature that feeds on human flesh be good?”
I didn’t answer, unable to believe Lysi could feed on humans.
“When the mermaid grows up, she’ll have an instinct to kill you.” She shook her head gravely. “I only hope your papa was able to get her before she swam away.”
“But Mama, she’s my best friend!”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You can’t be friends with something you can’t communicate with.”
“She speaks our language! I taught her.”
Mama froze, staring down at me, her eyes huge. I pulled my blanket up past my nose.
“You taught her to speak Eriana?”
I gave a nearly indistinguishable nod.
She put her head in her hands. “Oh, Meela. Do you know how dangerous this is? The mermaid could use our language to lure someone into the water by pretending she’s a human.”
“Lysi would never hurt—”
“Please understand me. That mermaid was never your friend. She was using you. Probably to learn to speak Eriana.”
I sat up. “You’re wrong.”
“If she taught it to other sea demons, they’ll all have a severely dangerous method of luring our sailors.”
“But other mermaids already know bits of our language. They pick up words from the ships.”
“Ships they’re invading and killing!”
I crossed my arms and looked out the window.
Some moments passed, during which I hoped Mama would just leave, before she said, “Did she pick up our language easily?”
I kept my eyes on the tree outside the window. “Yes.”
“What kinds of words did you teach her?”
I might have been mistaken, but I thought Mama sounded interested.
“Lots of words,” I said, my nose in the air. “We had lovely conversations.”
“What about her language? Did she teach you to speak it?”
“People can’t make the sounds. It’s like those clicking noises dolphins make.”
She was quiet again, and then said, “She gave you the shell necklace, didn’t she?”
This time, the silence stretched for so long that Mama stood to leave.
“You’re to stay in your room, Meela. I’ll bring you dinner, and once you’ve eaten I want you to brush your teeth and go straight to sleep.”
Her footsteps crossed my room. The door opened and closed. She left me to sit by myself in a hollow, pressing silence.
My suspension carried me to the end of the school year, and I spent only seconds thinking my summer vacation had started early. I missed Track and Field Day, which was always the best day of school. The last day of class was always fun, too, because after cleaning the classroom we spent the rest of the day playing.
Instead, I spent the entire time grounded. When Papa was home, I had to stay in my room. Mama at least let me out, even if it was to do chores.
Part of me wanted to sneak away for a short time when Mama ran errands. Whenever I thought about Lysi, I felt desperate, because I didn’t know if she’d tried to come back, or if she’d been hurt, or . . . I couldn’t think about it. Not knowing if she was all right was tormenting.
But another part of me didn’t want to go back to the beach. When I thought about our friendship, my stomach gave a strange twist.
On the last day of school, I was helping Mama pull weeds in the backyard when someone knocked on our door. I crossed thr
Annith held out a big orange bag. “Your stuff from your desk.”
“Thanks,” I whispered.
“Gosh, you look miserable.”
I pulled off my gardening gloves and wiped an arm across my clammy forehead, pushing strands of frizzy hair out of my eyes. “What’s happened at school?”
“Nothing really,” she whispered, pushing her sleeves up her bony arms. “Everyone heard about you being suspended, but nobody saw what happened. So Dani told everyone you went crazy and tried to sock some little kid for no reason, and Dani was like, the big hero who pulled you away, and you punched her in the middle of your rage.”
I gaped at her. “What? She said that?”
She flipped her long hair over her shoulder and scoffed. “She’s unbelievable. Now everyone’s saying you had to get sent to the mainland for two weeks to go to a correctional school or something.”
“I didn’t—you don’t believe—I wouldn’t—that horrible—”
“I know,” said Annith, reaching out to pat my arm. “Don’t worry, I don’t think you tried to beat up a little kid.”
“Everyone else does!” I said, my voice high.
“Not everyone. Most kids know Dani lies a lot, so they don’t really believe her.”
I didn’t know what to say. My guts twisted in anger. I wanted to push Dani into the mud all over again.
“Meela?” Mama’s voice rang through the open back door. “Who is it?”
“I want to know why you got in that fight though,” said Annith quickly. “What happened?”
I looked past her at the road, then back to her curious eyes. I spoke to one of the freckles on her right cheek. “It was the shell necklace. She tattled on me.”
Annith gasped, looking infuriated. “So you’re grounded for two weeks because of a necklace?”
I lifted one shoulder. Annith and I always shared secrets, but the fact that I’d been going to the beach to talk to Lysi was one secret I never shared with anybody except Charlotte.
“Meela?” Mama’s voice drew nearer. I could hear her footsteps.