Eleven years ago
“But Mommy, what if there’s sharks?”
I was six years old, squinting up at my mother as the two of us stood on the edge of the lake. Me in my awkward little blue one-piece and her looking as beautiful as ever in a pristine white two piece with black piping. Her short hair was already wet, slicked back over her head as she smiled down at me.
“Well, sweetie,” she replied in a casual voice, “I know you’ve had some bad luck with animals lately.”
I lifted my arm to show the band-aid on my bicep while intoning flatly. “Mr. Raphardy’s cat is mean.”
“Well, you know what they say.” Chuckling, my mother leaned in a little closer, her voice lowering to a confidential whisper, as if her words were a secret just between the two of us. “Like owner like pet.”
As I giggled, Mom’s hand brushed over my hair fondly. “There’s no sharks, baby. See?” She walked ahead of me, stepping into the cold lake water and moving until she was up to her waist before turning back around. Her arms stretched out to me. “C’mere, Lissy. You can see some fish from here.”
“Fish?” I started to take a step that way before catching myself with a gasp. “Oh! I almost forgot!” While my mother tilted her head curiously, I pivoted and ran back to the stack of supplies that we had brought out of the cabin that our family was staying in for the week. Digging down, I shoved a paperback novel and a massive bottle of suntan lotion out of the way before coming out with my prize: a ratty, worn little stuffed raccoon. My constant companion throughout my entire life. Literally, my mother had bought him before I was born, while she was pregnant. The raccoon was the first actual baby thing she’d bought after getting the news. He had always been my constant sleep companion.
“I promised Taddy he could watch,” I announced while dragging the smallest of the beach chairs closer to the water. Positioning it in full view of the lake, I set the stuffed raccoon in the seat, adjusted him so he wouldn’t fall over or get wet, and then backed away with a determined nod. “But he can’t swim.”
Turning back, I found my mother gazing at me with a fond little smile. Her hand was still raised toward me, and I walked back that way. As soon as my bare feet touched the water, I gave a little yelp, jumping. “It’s cold!” I announced. “How come the lake’s so cold, Mommy? Don’t the fishes get sick?”
Chuckling, my mother considered the question for a few seconds. “Well, maybe they wear coats.”
Six year old me scoffed at that. “Mom, fish can’t wear coats. They don’t have arms or legs!”
“Well, how would you know, miss smarty pants?” she asked, moving closer through the water. “You can’t even see the fish from all the way up there. For all you know, they’ve got mittens and scarves too.”
That time, I giggled. “They can’t have mittens either! Fishes don’t have any hands, Mommy.”
Rising up from the water, my mother reached out to pluck me off the rocky beach. She spun around with me while I squealed. “Is that right? Are you a professor of fishology now, my little Felicity?”
My head shook until she stopped spinning. “Nooo, but there’s no fishes with hands. Everybody knows that, Mommy. Everybody.” Even after saying that, I paused, a little frown of thought creasing my forehead before I amended myself. “Squiddies and octopussies have arms though. But no hands.”
“They don’t have hands, huh? No fingers?” Mom had that deliberately thoughtful tone as she spoke , the sneaky voice that told me she was up to something. Her eyes shone with mischief as she waited.
Still, I shook my head, watching mother with obvious suspicion. “Nuh uh. No hands, no fingers.”
“Oh.” Mom shrugged a bit too innocently, adjusting her grip on me while oh-so-casually continuing. “Well, in that case, I guess the poor little fish mommies can’t do… this!” Her fingers found my stomach and she started to tickle while I kicked and squirmed, squealing for her to stop in between my laughter.
“Mo-mo-mommy! No, no-aahhh! Ahhh, st-stop!” I called, squirming while my laughing uncontrollably. “I ca-can’t breathe, I can’t breathe—Mo-Mommy!” My protests became incoherent.
Finally, she stopped, smiling down at me while I caught my breath. Belatedly, my eyes looked around and I noticed that we were deeper out into the lake, far enough that mom was up to her stomach and I could feel the water on my feet. Mom whispered softly, “Do you want to see the fishes now, Lissy?”
Without breaking my mother’s gaze, I nodded. “Uh huh. You promise there’s no sharks though?”
Her head bowed sagely. “I promise. Besides,” she added while leaning down to kiss my forehead gently. “Even if there was, I wouldn’t let any mean old shark take my good luck charm away.”
“I’m your good luck charm?” I asked, feeling proud as a bright smile found its way to my face.
“Baby,” Mom whispered softly while holding me against herself. “You are my luck. All of it.”
She kissed my forehead again, brushing my hair away before speaking again. “Ready?” When I nodded, my mother turned me toward the water. “Don’t worry, baby, I’ve got you. Take a breath.”
I took a deep one, holding it while Mom did the same. The two of us looked at each other and smiled before she dropped with me in her arms. Together, we plunged toward the water. The cold took my breath away. But that was okay. I was in my mother’s arms. I was safe. I was loved. She would never let anything hurt me. Not today, not ever. As the water washed up around me, I knew one thing for sure, one thing that I could count on beyond all else.
My mother would always be there for me.
Water was all around me. As my legs kicked futilely, Shiori and I continued to sink even deeper. I was unwilling to let her go, no matter how much she struggled, and I didn’t have the experience I needed to actually get her fighting, scrambling, kicking form back to the surface. All around us, the already dark, cold and remorseless ocean seemed to grow even more tenebrous with each passing second.
Somehow, Shiori maneuvered herself in front of me. As we hit floated there deep under the water, I could barely see her face. It was hardly more than an outline through the heavy, murky shadows.
She wasn’t holding her breath, I realized. Ammon’s power wouldn’t let her. She was trying to drown, her form already starting to go limp against me. Even if we reached the surface, she hadn’t held her breath at all the whole time we’d been down here. She wouldn’t make it. She couldn’t go that long without oxygen, not when her body refused to fight. I was going to lose her. I was going to lose Shiori.
No. No, no, no. Not now. Not now. My own grasp against her was weak by that point. Which way was up? Which way were we facing? There was no light, there was nothing. No chance. Nothing.
She didn’t have any air. I did. Not much, but I had taken a breath before we went under. Without thinking, I moved my hands to find her head, putting one hand against her face and the other behind her neck. While Shiori made a noise through the water that sounded equal parts desperate and terrified, I leaned in. My mouth pressed against hers, and I breathed into her, pushing my own air into Shiori.
She made a noise of protest, but I didn’t care. She needed the oxygen more than I did. Even as the other girl tried to pull away, I took her back in my arms and kicked out. Please. Please find the surface. I had to try. I had to get there before it was too late. The cold ocean water was the same on all sides. I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t know what to do. Which way was the surface? Which way was safe?
I didn’t know. I couldn’t tell. My lungs were screaming at me even as I struggled to keep moving. That had to be the right way, didn’t it? I would know where the surface was. Just go up. Just… keep… going.
Something bumped up against me then, just as my vision started to fade. It came again, pushing up insistently against my back. A second later, even as I twisted to try to see what it was, something else came up from underneath. I felt rough, sandpaper-like skin push against me. Between the two unknown figures, Shiori and I were pushed rapidly toward the surface, far faster than I could have gone. The other girl wasn’t struggling anymore. She was mostly still, though I heard her weak whimpers.
Finally, both of our heads broke the surface of the water. I coughed, sucking in air frantically. Beside me, Shiori was doing the same. She wasn’t struggling any more. She was just lying there against whatever had pushed us up from the ocean depths. Her entire body was shaking, as was mine.
Air. Beautiful, glorious, wonderful air. I breathed it in, coughed several times, and then breathed again. Only then, after assuring myself that the magnificent oxygen wasn’t going to disappear again, did I look down to see what exactly had come to save us. I looked toward our silent saviors.
The flat, dead-eyed stared of a massive shark returned my gaze. I let out a yelp of surprise and jerked backward in the water even as my hands came up reflexively. The panic was instinctive, coming before my brain fully caught up with what was going on. My thoughts instantly went toward Professor Tangle’s injury, while a panicked noise escaped me. Immediately, I began to sink again, before another rough body came up to push against my backside, hoisting me out of the water once more.
Another shark. It was another one. There were several all around Shiori and me, pushing up right underneath the two of us to keep us up on the surface of the water. They didn’t attack, they weren’t trying to bite us or anything. They were acting… well, almost like dolphins, really. Or at least, the dolphins I’d seen shows and movies about. The pack (or whatever a group was called) of enormous sharks was simply floating around us, helping to keep our heads out of the water so we could breathe.
“F… F… Flick…” Shiori’s weak, soft voice came then, and I snapped my attention that way to find the other girl shivering as she stared openly at me. The moonlight and stars were bright enough to let me see her expression of equal parts wonder and confusion. “Did… did you summon sharks to save us?”
Oh. Right. The power from the shark-man, the one I hadn’t actually figured out yet. It was… making friends with sharks? Summoning them for aid, somehow? Still breathing hard, panting for air, I made myself nod. “I… I think so.” Then I focused on her. “Are you… are you…” My voice was tentative.
“I’m okay.” The sound of her voice made it clear that she wasn’t really. And how could she be, after something like that? But she wasn’t trying to drown herself anymore. Breathing hard, she added, “I-umm, it went away. I… I think I p-passed out while they were bringing us up o-out of the water.”
Swallowing and shuddering, I looked toward the nearest shark. It continued to stare at me. At this angle though, its eyes didn’t look quite as soulless. In fact, I thought maybe the thing looked a little bit… sad?
“Um, thanks.” I managed a bit weakly, putting a hand out to touch the shark’s nose as gingerly as possible. My instincts were screaming for me to get the hell away from the thing. But I touched its nose, praying that whatever power this was wouldn’t disappear and let Toothy here bite my arm off.
“Thanks, guys,” I patted the shark gently on its rough, sandpaper-like skin, only to feel another one bump up against my arm. It was… it was like a dog, trying to get a pat for itself. All of them were. I leaned back, taking my weight off the shark that had been holding me up so that it could swim up and around to get its own pat of appreciation. “We need t-to go now though. Thanks, really. I’ll visit you later, okay? I need to go now. I need…” My gaze flicked toward Shiori, who had gone quiet in the meantime. Her eyes were focused off into the distance, and her face looked pale even in the moonlight.
The sharks had brought us to the shallows by that point, before they slowly withdrew. I watched briefly as their sleek forms cut through the water, fading rapidly into the darkness as soon as I dismissed them. Then they were gone, leaving as unbelievably silently as they had arrived. Four, five, six sharks, each at least as long as I was tall, disappearing into the ocean depths until it was like they’d never been there.
“Shiori,” I whispered under my breath, turning my attention back to the girl. Even as I did, I felt her pull away. But she wasn’t throwing herself back into the ocean or anything. She was simply falling to her knees right there on the very edge of the beach, her hands pressed into the ankle-deep water. She was panting for breath, head down as a noticeable, almost violent shudder ran through her body.
“I couldn’t,” the girl started, her voice rough with emotion. “I couldn’t stop it. I couldn’t stop it. He said to do it. He said to do it, and I couldn’t stop. He said to kill myself, and I was g-going to… going to..” Clearly unable to finish the sentence, she turned a little and threw up into the ocean. She was crying.
The anger and hatred that I felt toward Ammon had never been greater than it was in that moment. Seeing that, hearing it, was practically a physical blow. I cringed backward a little before touching her shoulder. “Shiori,” I spoke quietly, my voice cracking a little. “I’m sorry. I am so, so sorry. If I’d caught up to him, if I’d stopped him before he got there, you wouldn’t have… you wouldn’t have almost…”
Trailing off, I started to correct myself toward saying something else. Anything else. But the sound of running, trampling feet caught our attention. The two of us both looked up in time to see Sean, accompanied by Vulcan, come running down the hill onto the beach. He skidded to a stop, staring at us.
“Shiori?” the boy blinked in confusion. “What’re you—are you guys… what happened?” Belatedly, he added, “He’s gone, right? Vulcan made it seem like the little shit was gone, so I tracked your blood this way.”
“Ammon got away?” I groaned in spite of myself. Of course he did. He’d fled into the… wait…
“The lighthouse,” I spoke quickly. “He went into the lighthouse. You mean he left it?”
Sean shrugged. “Vulcan isn’t exactly much of a conversationalist.” The mechanical dog whined a little, and the boy gave him a quick rub. “Sorry, boy. He couldn’t really explain much. But from what I understand, yeah. He was in the lighthouse, then he just… wasn’t anymore. He wasn’t anywhere. He was gone.”
The Edge had something to do with the way Mom had come and gone from the school grounds so easily, I realized. That was obviously it. But how? And why was it something that she had found out, but no one else, not even Gaia or any of the Committee members knew about?
Sean had gone down to one knee by that point. “Hey, LaBeouf. You okay?” he asked Shiori gently while Vulcan added his own concern by nosing up against her cheek.
Blinking up at that, the other girl managed a weak, somewhat shaky, “Don’t call me that.” Her arms moved, however, to wrap around Vulcan’s neck. She hugged the robot dog tightly while taking in a deep, shuddering breath. “I’m okay. I’m okay.” The girl was clearly trying to convince herself.
The cold air after the freezing water was getting to me by that point, and I shivered while shaking my head. “W-we need to get back under the t-t-temperature sh-shield.”
Sean reached out to help Shiori up before reaching down to tug me to my feet. “Where’re all the security people?” he demanded. “Or the other staff, or… anyone?”
“Sent away.” The answer came from Gaia, who was descending the hill. “That boy took control of our head of security, and forced her to send her people to the far side of the island to look for a supposed intrusion. He sent them in three different groups, each to different locations at different times, so that none realized they were leaving the school with no security.”
She took a single glance at us, then made a gesture with both hands as if showing just how big an enormous fish was. A second later, space twisted around us, and we were sitting on the grass near the main building, back under the magical temperature shield that instantly made me feel warm again. At least physically. Inside, I couldn’t stop shivering.
“Avalon,” I managed, lifting my head. “Is she… and the other girls… they’re…”
“Fine,” the woman answered softly. “Well enough, anyway. A brief nap seems to be enough to escape the boy’s control, so I ensured that they all took one.”
“Wh-what do we do now?” Shiori asked hesitantly. “H-he’s gone now, but he’ll be back. A-and you still don’t know how he got in. H-h-he can go right past your fancy shield, and yo-you can’t stop him. He took over the head of security. H-he almost made me… a-almost… “ she gave a weak whimper.
My hand caught the other girl’s and squeezed as I felt my stomach twist itself into knots. “You have to do something,” I demanded, my eyes focusing on the headmistress. “Shiori’s right, he can come back. And…” Something else occurred to me, and I blurted. “And now he knows that Koren’s immune to him. You have to warn her family. You have to move them, you have to get them away before he… before they…”
“I will,” Gaia promised quietly. “The issue will be dealt with immediately.” Her head turned a little then, as she added toward the pitch black area near the edge of the main building that lay completely out of her line of sight. “Your parents will be protected, Koren.”
“Protected from what?” The girl’s voice demanded. Koren emerged from the darkness, her face set in a scowl. “Who was that? What does it have to do with my family? What the hell is going on?
“Tell me the truth, and maybe I’ll tell you what I saw when that little brat went into the lighthouse.”