I lay staring at the ceiling, unable to drift off to sleep. I shift onto my side, chew my lip. Within moments, I'm twisting onto the other side, effectively knotting the sheets up into a hopeless tangle. With a sigh, I rip them away and sit up. Swinging my feet over the edge, I rise from my bed. Having given up on attempting to silence restless thoughts or fall asleep, I instead make my way down the hall. I pause to peek into Katie's room, wincing at the slow creek of the hinges. The hallway light casts a dim, shadowy light over the violet walled room. I poke my head around the door to check in on the young Mer. Luna's hair is still sopping wet, splayed out across the spare pillow I'd pulled from the closet for her. Her blankets have been pulled away, bunched up at the end of the bed, hanging over the edge in a rolled up mess. Her tail is pulled up close to her chest, her chin brushing the scales in her hunched up position, curled into a tight, tiny ball. Pursing my lips, I sigh softly at the sight of her. I can't help but feel that this protective stance, the hard lines on her face that haven't faded even in slumber, the look in her eyes when awake; it all seems like a desperate cry for help, one I've no way of answering.
With a soft sigh, I ease the door shut once more. For now, she's safe and there's nothing more I can do at the moment for her. I linger in front of the closed door for a long moment, wondering when my life suddenly turned on an axis like this. I've never felt so grateful and relieved, but terrified and helpless all at the same time. Katie's home, alive and well, but with a confusing new form and dangers I may be unable to keep her from. This little girl needs me too, and I'm just as powerless to help her. And then of course, there's the wild and willful third Mer to the little cluster I'm privy of knowing. I can't help but worry about involving her as well, and whether or not it would be the downfall of three innocents, instead of two, if they're found here.
Scratching absentmindedly at my arm, I make my way out into the common room. Katie is sitting in the dark, I can just barely make out her silhouette as she stares off into space, her gaze focused on the wall. I lift a finger to click on the light. The sudden brightening of the room clearly spooks my daughter, because she nearly falls off the couch as she jumps.
"Sophie," she gasps, her wide eyes fixating on me as she catches her balance and shifts on the couch. Her tail lashes out into empty air before curling underneath her, the fin spreading over her back. "You startled me."
"I just wanted to check on you," I murmur, moving towards her and claiming a seat beside her. Instinctively, I pull her closer and gather her in my arms. She relaxes instantly. "It's getting late. You should get some sleep."
Katie shakes her head. "I can't…All these thoughts and worries keep rolling around in my head. I can't get my brain to shut off. I thought some alone time might help, but it only seems to be making things worse. I won't be able to sleep."
"That makes two of us, I guess," I sigh. I run a hand through my hair. "Coco?"
A soft smile tugs at the corner of Katie's mouth and she nods. "That would be nice."
I need no further prompting to rise from my seat. I give her shoulder a squeeze before I make my way into the kitchenette to put the kettle on. "Want to talk about it? Whatever is bothering you?"
I receive a shake of the head and a sigh. "No. At least, not yet. I need to work some things out first, I think."
I pull down two mugs, adding chocolate powder to both and leaning against the wall to meet her gaze while I wait for the telltale whistle of the boiling water. She picks absently at a loose scale on her tail. I watch her lips twist into a grimace as she tugs too hard and it pulls loose. Fixating on it, she rubs her thumb over it, turning it over and over in her hands. "Sometimes I look at it and think it's wonderful. I've always loved the water, and now I feel like part of it. But then I look at it again, and see a curse. One that's wrenched me away from the life I knew and loved…mostly I just can't comprehend how it's real. Even after all this time, part of me is expecting to wake and find it all a dream…or a nightmare." Her gaze meets mine again, and this time, there's tears brimming in the irises. "I'm not even sure how to feel about it. What's wrong with me, Sophie? Shouldn't I know that at least?"
I choose not to reply immediately, instead focusing on pouring hot water into the mugs. I stir in a bit of honey and then carry both mugs back to the living room. Katie cradles hers like a lifeline, still staring at me and waiting for answers. "There is nothing wrong with you, Katie. In many ways, your tail is both. It complicates things, yes, but also magnifies the possibilities of dreams you've always had. And regardless, we can't change it right now, so there's no point in tearing yourself apart worrying about it, okay?" I pause to take a sip of my own hot drink, needing it. "I don't have any answers for you, sweetheart. At least, not to the questions you want answered. None of this is going to be easy. But we'll find a way to pull through, okay?" I place a hand on her arm, meet her gaze firmly. "It will be alright."
That's when the screaming starts.
The sound rips through the apartment, a piercing wail that causes my heart to stall. I jerk from the noise, nearly dump scalding hot chocolate in my lap. "What was that?"
Color bleeds from Katie's face, her eyes widened. "Luna," she whispers. "She has nightmares. They're bad." In the next minute, Katie is struggling to get back into her wheelchair. Another screech echoes from down the hall. I rise from the couch, setting my mug aside, and hurry down the hall and into Katie's room. Luna is still screaming when I throw the door open, the banging noise of it hitting the wall only adding to the chaos of the room. The young Mer is still curled in a ball. Her hands are gripping her head, nails curling into her skull. Her eyes are closed, her face crumbled with pain and stress, and her whole form is shaking. I move to her side, pull her upright and gather her into my arms. I stroke her hair. "Luna, wake up," I murmur. "Wake up, sweetheart; it's just a dream. You're safe."
She begins to thrash in my grasp, whimpering and tugging at her hair. Her head jerks up, catches me in the chin, and I recoil with a wince. Recovering quickly, I squeeze her closer. "Sweetheart, you need to wake up. It's only a bad dream."
After a brief moment of hyperventilating and whimpering, Luna's eyes snap open and she jerks against me, another scream bubbling on her lips.
My grip tightens once more. "It is okay, Luna. It's just me, you're safe," I assure her.
"Sophie?" she croaks. Her fingers curl into my pajama shirt and she buries her head in the fabric. Sobs begin to wrack her body, the thin frame heaving.
I rub her back. "It's okay," I tell her once more. "It was only a dream, a nightmare." Smoothing down her hair, I shift slightly, leaning back against the headboard and pulling her with me. My heart warms as she actually relaxes against me and even snuggles a little closer. I wrap my arm around her shoulders.
"It was bad this time," she mumbles around sobs. One hand comes up to rub furiously at her tears.
I smooth her hair down, even going so far as to press a kiss to the crown of her head. "You have been through so much lately. But you're safe, Luna. I promise that your nightmares can't hurt you. Not anymore," I assure her.
"Sophie?" I glance up to see Katie peek her head into the room, her brown-blonde hair askew and falling in her eyes; likely from struggling into the wheelchair. "Luna?" she calls softly. "Luna, are you okay?"
The child in my arms twists to glance at my daughter, fresh tears welling in her crystal gaze. I smile grimly and beckon Katie with a finger. A frown twitches on her face, but she pushes her chair forward with no further prompting. It takes her a moment to get up onto the bed, with a process that basically involves bracing her arms on the blanket and throwing her tail out of the chair so she can roll all the way onto the mattress.
When she sits up, her hair is more frazzled than it was before, sticking out in all directions like she'd just stuck her finger in an electrical socket. Blowing a lock out of her face, she swipes one hand through the follicles to force them back out of the way. I open my free arm to her and after she crawls closer, wrap her in the three-way hug. Luna's tears have all but faded into the occasional shudder or sniffle. "You two have been through so much," I begin, pulling them both closer to me in what officially becomes a rather crushing embrace. Neither of them seem to mind, however. "I wish, more than anything, that I could fix it, change things so that you never have to worry about anything again. If I could, I would do it in a heartbeat, no matter the price."
I trail off, but don't get a response from either of them. Katie's form remains rigid in my grasp, Luna's grip on my shirt still desperate. Her knuckles have turned white from squeezing so hard, so I gently pry her fingers free and take the hand in my own. I find my gaze wandering the room. It slides over the various sea shells, sand dollars, and bits of coral that Katie has collected from various dives. The books and camera pieces lining her shelves. But the main target of my attention is the wide bulletin board opposite the bed. Every single inch of it is covered with tacked up pictures. A collage of scenes that merge and overlap so that one would never know the color of the cork beneath. Navy blue, if memory serves. Even a good chunk of the remaining wall has pictures taped and hung. Even if the pictures were low quality, it would still be a work of art. As it is, I still find in enticing to stare at for long periods of time. I study them now, the digital log of Katie's life. Any pictures she's actually in show off her radiant smile and joyous energy. Even behind the camera, her happiness is well known, reflected in the angle of the picture, or the way others in the shot become infected with her enthusiasm. A smile tugs at my lips even now. The Katie I knew could have tackled any challenge, and even if there were tears and stresses involved, she'd always eventually pull through with a smile on her face. I still believe that now. She may think everything is different, but I know that same strength still lurks within her; it just needs a little time and coaxing to surface again. And Luna, despite her youth, if possibly even stronger. She's falling apart, traumatized and afraid, but despite everything they did to her, they could never fully break her.
All at once, I feel a lot of the tension leave my body. They need a little help, a little guidance, but they'll be okay. A smile breaks my lips, wide and gaping and uncontrollable. "Don't let the past affect the present," I state. "You two have been through a lot, but it ends now. We'll figure out what needs figuring out, and tackle challenges as they arise. I don't have all the answers, but I know one thing for certain; if world hasn't broken us by now, nothing ever will. So let what will come, come. We'll be okay. Everything will be fine." I find myself meaning every word. I'm reunited with my daughter, have a second young teen depending on me too, seeming to accept me in her life. It warms my heart and reassures me that come hell or high water, nothing is ever going to keep them down ever again. "You're both free now. Worry about nothing else."
That marks the end of the first book. The sequel is already posted here as well, and will be updated every Monday. Thanks for reading.