A breeze waved the trees above my head. Warmth spread through the skin on my back when a hand touched me lightly. I smiled into my hands. Being touched by Saxon felt like the moment that the Idaho sky opened up, letting the sun shine down. There was nothing quite like it.
“I’m glad you’re here.” I didn’t lift my head.
Saxon didn’t say anything. Instead he pushed my chair down the trail far enough that we were out of view of my house. After bringing me to a stop under the veil of pine tree branches, he lifted me out of the chair, cradling me against his chest. He was wearing my father’s old shirt, but it smelled like him now. Grass, water, and fresh air filled my senses as I pressed my face against his neck. Fallen needles from the trees crunched underneath Saxon’s boots when he stepped carefully around trees, forging a path into the woods between our house and the Rogersons’. Once we were about twenty feet back, he settled down on the needle-covered grass and placed me reverently across from him.
Pressing a kiss to my forehead, Saxon released a long, drawn-out sigh. “I’m assuming you know who Isolde took.”
Nodding, I used my sleeve to dab at my eyes. “How’d you guess?”
“Just a hunch.” Saxon’s short laugh was humorless. “I’m sorry. I know you have a history with him.”
I looked away. “That’s not why I’m upset.”
He picked up a handful of brown needles and started to crunch them between his hands. “I understand.”
“No, you don’t.” I pulled my hair back from my face and quickly knotted it on the back of my head. My heart hurt, but I felt weighed down with guilt at the same time. It was hella weird to grieve for an ex-boyfriend while I was sitting with another. “I know that this is how your kind survives, but where I come from, drowning someone is murder…even if he’s being turned into a Mer.”
He connected his sorrowful eyes with mine and nodded. Just once. “And now you know why I refuse to do it.”
The realization punched me in the gut. “I can’t imagine what it would be like. To have people expect something so horrendous of you.”
Saxon looked off in the distance, flexing his jaw. When you see your kind dwindling because they are no longer able to multiply within their own clan, it becomes clear that utilizing humans this way is the only answer. It’s either this or face extinction.
My heart clenched, and I put a hand over his. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to insult Mer. I’m just having a really hard time processing all of this. I mean, why? Why Ian? Of all people, why him?”
I don’t know. Saxon turned his hand palm up and let me brush the broken pine needles off of his skin. I mean, I knew this was coming. She’s of the right age, and there’s been a lot of pressure from the Council to take a mate. But usually we venture further away from the towns to find one. Some even travel up the river into Canada to find someone. It’s less conspicuous to take a mate from farther away. But like I told you, Isolde has made a sport of toying with humans on the surface. Taking a mate so close to home, and acting so dangerously, will be a badge of honor for her.
“She’s mental.” My hoarse voice added to the gravity of my despair. Talking about this while Ian rotted at the bottom of the lake made me sick to my stomach. “But there have been so many missing people reported lately. Missing boaters, missing fishermen. There’s been at least four drownings since last fall.”
Saxon tickled the inside of my wrist with his fingers, making my skin tingle and bake pleasantly. Our situation has become dire. My people have acted without thinking. The Council is trying to control the situation, but the Mer coming of age now are stronger and more ruthless than ever.
“All of the people who’ve died? Are they Mer now?”
Not all of them. We have a new member of our clan, but there were two failures as well.
I scrunched up my face. “Failures?”
He hardened the corners of his mouth and knit his brows together tensely. The process of altering a human into a Mer is intricate and has to be completed fully, otherwise the human is lost.
Lost from the human world and the Mer world.
“What exactly happens when a human is altered?”
Saxon brushed a strand of my hair back behind my ear. You don’t want to know.
I groaned. “Listen this protective caveman thing might float the boats of lesser women, but I don’t like it. I want to know the truth.”
You’re so stubborn.
I raised an eyebrow at him. “You haven’t seen anything yet.”
Fine. He tugged my hand, making me slide closer to him. Warmth spread from his hand to mine, then up my arm. I was pretty sure I’d never get tired of his portable generator effect Saxon had. When a Mer takes a human to mate, he or she must be brought to the lowermost point of the lake, where they are weighed down and covered in pondweed.
I shuddered. “Gross.”
Once the human is secured, an ordination takes place. This is what alters the human into Mer form. The human remains at the bottom for one week. Usually the Mer who chose the human must remain close to protect them and make sure that the body doesn’t float to the surface. That’s what happened to those boaters. If the Mer leaves the human’s side and the body reaches the surface and is hit with oxygen, all of the progress disintegrates, leaving just a partially decomposed body.”
My stomach turned. “So humans that are altered are never allowed to come to the surface again?”
No, they’re able. But not until the body has adjusted to its Mer form. Their gills don’t seal up completely, and they aren’t able to shift into human form for more than thirty seconds or so, maybe a minute. This period can last for several years, which is why we often lose many newly altered humans in the first few years. They try to see their families on land and often suffocate in the woods.
“Then how come we don’t hear stories on the news about half-human fish-bodies being found all over the place?” I glanced over my shoulder. There was nothing but ferns and pine needles staring back at me.
Because once they die, the Mer DNA in their body dies as well, and all that is left is deceased human remains. There’s no second chance for humans once they have been drowned. But if they’ve been altered by a Mer, they have a chance at existing as one of us. The rules must be followed, and the new Mer must remain below the surface until their bodies can adjust to shifting properly.”
I let Saxon’s warm fuzzy feeling fill my body and leaned against his chest. “And after that?”
After that they must agree to keep the existence of Mer a secret. They cannot go see their friends and family, because according to them, Ian has died. Seeing him would upset humans and tip off our existence. This has only happened to Mer a few times, but the results were catastrophic.
“Like what? What happened?”
Saxon pushed his brown waves back from his face and looked at me intensely. I’ve never seen a war, but I’ve heard of them. My grandfather used to tell me stories about battles between humans and Mer when I was a kid. There have been situations where the existence of Mer was exposed. Humans have tried to capture us and occasionally succeeded. Often times, the captive Mer have died once removed from the water, which leads to a dead body without a fin. Thus, no proof.
“Have humans ever gotten proof of a Mer’s existence? Like, on tape or something?”
Saxon’s frown looked almost permanent, the way the lines on either side of his mouth hardened. Several decades ago, a human snapped a picture of a Mer coming out of a lake farther southwest, in Oregon. It was more of a reservoir. It’d been there for hundreds of years, carved out by glaciers in the ice age and then filled high every spring with runoff from the snow in the mountains. My kind had lived there for a thousand years without being discovered.
Explorers and reporters flocked to the lake where the picture was taken, and my kind was driven out. Forced to flee to remain alive. Dozens of young Mer who weren’t old enough to come to the surface suffocated as their parents tried to escape to the nearest creek or river deep enough to submerge them. And there were also Mer that were too old to shift anymore who died while being transported.
The Council had no choice but to take action. Boats were overturned, human swimmers were drowned or poisoned, and marine life was killed. The lake was eventually deemed worthless years later. It was filled in and made into a golf course by the humans.
I covered my mouth, bile creeping up in the back of my throat. My mind was filled with images of people running through the woods, carrying their elderly and cradling their children in their arms, falling to the ground and crying out in agony.
Horrific doesn’t begin to cover it. Saxon pulled me close and pressed a kiss to my hair. That’s why the Council is so strict. They do it for our own good. They’re protecting us.
“Why did you tell me?”
Because I trust you. He traced circles up and down my side with his fingers, making the flesh underneath squeeze with excitement. Saxon’s nearness made me cross-eyed. I loved it, but the images of Ian being dragged down still weighed on my heart. How could I sit here in the woods, cuddling with my boyfriend, when my ex was being altered against his will at the bottom of the lake?
“Is he OK?” I sat back a bit and looked at Saxon. “Ian? Is he…in pain?”Saxon pressed his lips together. I’ve been told that when a human is altered, it is unpleasant.
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