The beach was warm under my bare feet. I looked out at the shimmering water and listened to the waves crashing onto the shore. I should have been studying, but my soul had begged me for a break.
I took a step further into the water, the cold washing over my warm skin. It felt nice, until my foot hit something hard. I tripped, falling into the damp sand. I spit the grit out of my mouth and sat up, then brushed off my cutoff shorts and hands. I shook my hair out, and thought about cutting it. It was a nice color; brown, like my mother's, but it would be much easier to take care of if it was shorter. I looked down at my feet to see what I’d tripped on. It was a green bottle, half buried in the sand. I pulled it out and something clanked inside. The lip was broken so I'd have to pry the cork to get it out. My phone rang. I fumbled for it in my back pocket.
"Hey, Nikki, Mom and I are leaving. We’ll be back by ten. Make sure you finish your homework."
"I love you, kid."
"I love you too, Dad."
I hung up and turned my back on the ocean. It was a short walk up the beach, but it took longer than you might think just to avoid the little kids throwing sand at each other and walk around the angry mom's yelling at their daughters to cover up while their husbands pretended not to care. I smiled to myself. I liked the mess of humanity, and wondered if becoming a beach counselor would a viable career choice.
I made my way to the end of the sidewalk and up the stairs to our house. The cold air from the air conditioner hit me like a wave. I set the strange bottle I’d found on the kitchen counter and poured myself a glass of water. There was a note hanging on the fridge from mom. I pulled it free from the clutches of the robot magnet.
Frozen pizza for dinner. Caleb will be home from work soon to help. Love you.
I laughed, but it was more like a groan. Caleb was older than me, but that didn't mean the was going to be any help. I pulled the pizza from the freezer and started the oven. Something crashed in the basement. Celeb darted out of the basement door and ran past me, a pillow shield in one hand and the remote in the other. Guess he was home already. James and Peter tumbled after him clutching wooden swords, with scarves tied around their foreheads.
James stopped and looked around. "Did he get to the ship?"
They raised their swords frustratingly.
"Aye! You can’t hide forever, you dreaded pirate!" yelled Peter.
James spied a stuffed penguin on the corner of the table and grabbed it. "We have your first mate! Hand over the remote, or he gets it!"
They waited for a moment, listening.
Peter gave an exaggerated sigh. "I'm sorry, Mr. Flipper." He jabbed his sword into Mr. Flipper's stomach. "Uuhhhhh." He made the penguin’s dying breath then shook his head mournfully. "You gave us no choice!"
"Why don’t you build a trap downstairs and catch him?" I asked.
They left in a flurry of satin and wood. I didn’t care if they made a mess downstairs. That was Caleb’s chore. I walked over to the couch and shoved it against the wall.
"Hey!" Caleb protested. He crawled out from where he’d wedged himself between the side of the couch and the bookcase. "When did you get home?"
I held my hand out for the remote. "Just now."
"Hide it in the fridge. Or the toaster, they'd never look there."
Peter appeared at the top of the stairs. "Can we have a snack?" He caught sight of the remote in my hand and yelled, "Attack! She’s got the treasure!"
He ran toward me, his sword high above his head, ready to strike. I caught his sword quickly and pulled him into a squirming hug.
"Terror Twin! Terror Twin!” he screamed. “I’ve been captured by the kraken!"
Scuffling sounds came from the stairs and James appeared to the rescue.
Caleb wrestled him onto the couch. "No fair!" James cried. "You guys are older than us!"
I handed Peter the remote and he let out a pirate-ish, "Aargh! The treasure!" and they both escaped to the basement.
"Thanks a lot," Caleb said. "Nothing but the Neverland gang for the rest of the night."
"Jake and the Neverland Pirates," I corrected. "Put the pizza in the oven. I’ve got homework."
I didn't wait to hear his answer. I grabbed the bottle I’d found at the beach off the counter and hurried to my bedroom with the theme of the twin's favorite cartoon echoing behind me. I shut the door and set the bottle on my desk. I had tried to pick the cork out with my fingernails on my way home with no luck. I didn’t want to cut myself on the broken lip, so I had decided to wait. I pulled my pocket knife out of my desk drawer and opened the corkscrew. With a little struggle and a satisfying pop the cork came out. I carefully turned the bottle upside down. A small, pale rock attached to a dark chain fell unto my palm. I held it up. The stone fit easily into my palm and and had a metallic silver sheen. The chain was attached to it by a small hole drilled through a stone. There was no clasp on the chain at all, it was just one long continuous chain that I could easily fit over my head. I put it on and looked at myself in the mirror in my closet door. The stone made little flecks of light bounce on my shirt around it. It was kind of beautiful.
I looked back at the bottle. The corner of a tattered cloth peeked out of the bottle. I picked up my knife again, closed the corkscrew attachment and pulled out the tweezers. I carefully pulled with them on the corner of the cloth. It came out rolled up and bound with a piece of twine. I pulled the tie off and unrolled it. There was writing on the cloth, the kind with tiny loops and large swirls like my grandma used.
The Makara are upon us. Activate the stone.
At the bottom of the note was an official looking mark of a trident with the handle wrapped in a circle around the tines, twisted with other decorative swirls, but smudged a little on the side like the person had been in a hurry to stamp it on there.
I was impressed. Cryptic message in a bottle with mysterious marine signature that nobody was likely to have ever seen. Somebody was seriously into their cosplay. It was pretty cool though, and the necklace was a nice touch.
A scream from downstairs startled me.
"Nikki!" Peter’s voice screeched up at me.
Something crashed and his screech turned into a howl. I dropped the note and ran out of the room. Even if I wanted to get my homework done, babysitting made it almost impossible. Unless that homework was first-aid. I got a lot of practice with that.
James pounded on the bathroom door.
"Nikki! Get out already, I have to pee!"
I spit toothpaste into the sink. "We have another bathroom!"
The pounding didn’t stop. "There's a spider in there!"
I tried to ignore him.
"Nikki! I'm gonna pee on your bed!"
"Don't you dare!"
The noise stopped. I quickly washed my mouth out and opened the door. James pushed past me and pulled the toilet seat up. I shut the door behind him. Boys are disgusting.
It was Saturday, and sunny outside. I went back to my room and pulled my hair up in a ponytail, then changed into shorts and my favorite t-shirt. I pulled the necklace out from the neckline of the shirt and admired it again, then realized I hadn’t even taken it off to sleep.
Dad yelled up the stairs. "Breakfast!"
I headed down, and grabbed the plate of pancakes from the kitchen counter and set it on the table.
"Your Mom and I have a meeting today at noon," Dad said. "Caleb's going to drive you guys down to the pier so you won't have to walk."
I sat down and forked several pancakes onto my plate. "It isn’t that far."
"Boys! Breakfast!" Dad yelled again and handed me the syrup. "It’s good practice for him. The State of California may believe he’s a competent driver, but I’m still not so sure."
I could hear the twins arguing in the basement and Dad reached into the cupboard above the stove and pulled out an airhorn. I covered my ears, but it barely muffled the blast.
"Let's go!" He yelled again.
The boys fought their way up the stairs from the basement and gobbled down the stack of pancakes, leaving sticky handprints in their wake as they disappeared out the door. I finished my breakfast and got a washcloth and helped clean up.
"I'm going in five minutes." Caleb said, carrying a handful of old socks and pens.
I helped the boys find their bathing suits before changing into mine. Caleb honked the horn outside and hurried to pull my shorts back on.
The twins beat me to the car, yelling, "Shotgun!"
I wasn’t worried. Caleb wouldn’t let them sit in the front seat. He said it was because he didn’t want them messing it up, but his car was a piece of junk. I think he just didn’t want anyone to see him carting around his little brothers.
I waited for Caleb to banish Peter to the back seat and climbed in. Caleb backed out of the driveway and I rolled down the window. I love living close to the beach. The air smelled like water and dirt and green things, unlike Caleb’s car, which smelled like pizza and sweat. The pier wasn’t far and Caleb parked close to the stairs. The beach wasn't as packed as I had expected, and we found a spot close to the water.
James and Peter started burying Caleb, but he barely noticed, tapping away on his phone. What was the beach compared to his "weirdos" chat group. I stared out at the ocean. It was easy to tune them out with the wind and the waves. A couple of kids ran by with water guns, and I ducked the crossfire. They got me anyway, but I didn’t mind. It was nice to be wet. I decided that a few drops wasn’t enough, and peeled off my shorts and shirt. It was time for a swim. I jogged over to the water and dipped my toes in. It was cool and wonderful. I walked in to my thighs and spread my fingers out on the surface of the water. There was some seaweed, but that never bothered me. A tendril brushed my leg and I gently pushed it away, another wrapped around my ankle. Without looking, I lifted my foot to shake it off. It held on firm, I looked down and gasped. A dark hand with a green metal cuff around the wrist clutched my foot beneath the water. The hand was attached to a girl with long red hair, half buried in the sand.
My heart raced. How long had she been stuck? She looked alert, so she hadn’t been without oxygen for long. It wasn’t too late. I grabbed her hand and pulled. She struggled, pulling back. She had to be in shock. I pulled harder but she resisted. She was surprisingly strong. Suddenly her other hand lashed out and swept my feet from beneath me, dropping me down into the shallow water. I hit the bottom and pushed up for the surface. I hit the air and opened my mouth to scream, but she surfaced beside me and clamped her hand over my mouth. I panicked. Was she some kind of psycho, just waiting for someone to come near and try to rescue her so she could drown them? I clawed at her arm but she flipped behind me and wrapped her arms around me, trapping my arms at my side. My mouth was free, so opened it to scream again.
"Do you have everything you need?" she said loudly in my ear.
She let me go and pushed me around to face her again. She looked up and down the beach. "We don’t have time, they will be on us soon. It isn't safe here in the shallows."
She tried to pull me again but I pushed away. I noticed the bottom half of her. While her chest was covered with some kind of leathery fabric, from the navel down she was covered in shiny green scales. I instantly relaxed. I’d seen people like her at the beach before. Cosplayers who got a little too much into their roles. I took a second to admire her tail. It was by far the most realistic tail I’d ever seen on a mermaid character. I couldn’t even tell where it ended and her skin began. That was some serious waterproof makeup chops.
"Great costume," I said, "but I’m not really into that."
She looked confused. I turned back to the beach. Caleb was trying to get out of his sandy coffin and the little boys started running towards us. They must have heard me. I turned to say goodbye to the girl. She glanced from the boys to the ocean behind her with a calculating look that made me uneasy. I took a step back and noticed dark shadows in the water behind her, slowly swimming towards us.
She pursed her lips. "Get out of the water. I’ll be back for you. Be ready."
She turned with a flick of her tail and dived into the water, disappearing in a flash. I looked after her, impressed, she swam faster in her fins than anyone I’d ever seen, and she had a weird trick of making her tail go back and forth rather than up and down. It didn’t seem physically possible to bend that way, but maybe it was a trick of the light. She was gone too fast to check.
I looked where the other shapes had been, and they followed her away. Cameramen?
I made my way out of the water and onto the beach.
"Are you okay?" James asked. "I knew we should have brought our weapons."
Peter nodded his head and looked up at me with big eyes. "We would have rescued you from Medusa."
Caleb handed me a towel. "Did you see any cosplayers on the beach?" I asked.
He gave me a weird look and shook his head. "I don’t think so. There's some kind of comic-con in town though, why?"
I looked back at the water, searching the beach for the red hair. "Nothing." That girl could really hold her breath.
I laid in my bed, trying to find a comfortable position. Everyone else had already fallen asleep, but my mind refused to quiet down. Something hit my window. It was windy so I ignored it. The sound came again.
"Kanaka," whispered a harsh voice.
My eyes flew open and I cautiously moved to the window. The girl was sitting on the roof near the glass. I opened it as quietly as I could.
"Are you crazy? What are you doing here?"
She waved away my question with a frustrated look. "It's time to leave."
"This isn't cool," I said. "You need to leave right now."
I pushed the window down. Before it could hit the bottom she caught it and pushed back. The window crashed open, shattering the glass. I jumped back and ran to my desk, searching for my pocket knife.
"Dad!" I shouted. "Caleb!" I pulled out the longer blade on the knife and watched her.
She swung her legs over the windowsill. She’d traded her fins for a pair of shorts made of the same leathery stuff as her top. Metal plates linked together covered her thighs, and were secured at her belt and by straps behind her knees.
"Enough is enough," I said. "Who are you? You're trespassing now, and you've damaged private property. You’d better get out before my dad gets up here."
"Wae 'Ekhia, I am Coral Re. I am here to bring you back."
I backed into the wall. "Back where?"
The girl looked genuinely confused. "Back home, of course. You are the Wae 'Ekhia, the one who will end the war between my people and the Divided Colonies."
I looked down at the bottle still laying on my desk. Had she written the note?
"I’m not going anywhere with you. Dad!" I shouted again.
I knew he could hear me. Why was he taking so long?
The woman sighed and shook her head. "Your family has been neutralized. You really don't have a choice."
I swallowed hard. "Neutralized?"
What had she done to my family?
The girl shook her quickly. "They are unharmed, just very deeply sleeping. If all goes well, you will be back before this time tomorrow. They won’t even know you've gone."
She stepped toward me. I held my pocket knife out. It looked pathetically small, so I grabbed another weapon; a textbook from the desk. "Stay back."
She was just as fast on land as she was in the water. Something flashed in her hand and everything went dark.