Kelila and Isaac retraced their steps, then she led him back toward the beach. Curiosity getting the best of her, she said, “Do you do this often, find a girl and go for a walk in the dark with her?”
He shook his head. “First time. I mean, I’ve met women in a lot of places before, but never really got involved. Usually it’s just me and the ocean.”
She heard the wistful tone and was intrigued. “Why?”
“It’s just that I’m rarely home. I mean it. Sometimes I think I should tell people I live on the ocean, rather than in Vancouver. I spend a lot of time out there, because that’s where my work is. I’m a marine biologist, and I prefer to study things where they belong. It’s never quite the same in the lab, and a lot of the more fascinating creatures don’t survive well there anyway. I want to know about them, not kill them, so I go where they are as much as possible.”
She was surprised by his attitude and something else she sensed from his words. “You love it. The sea, I mean.”
“Yeah, always have. I guess it’s in my blood. My father and his father were the same . My father told me once it goes back a long way, that my family’s always worked the ocean in some fashion. A lot of sailors and fisherman in our history, I guess.”
“Which was he, your father, I mean?”
“Neither, actually. He designed sailboats. Wasn’t even from here. Mom met him when she went on vacation to France. She was young, but they fell in love and he followed her here.” Isaac laughed. “He says it’s the best of both worlds, having a beautiful woman at home and the ocean on his doorstep.”
So that was why, she thought, remembering her father’s confusion when Isaac’s father had suddenly turned up in what the humans called North America. “And you didn’t want to do that, the designing?”
He shrugged. “Dad wanted me to, but I wasn’t any good at it. Besides, I’m more interested in diving and the things that live in the ocean. I’m happiest when the sun’s a faint, watery glimmer above me. You have no idea how beautiful it is down there, Kelila, the amazing variety of life that’s evolved deep under the surface. In a way, I’m lucky. I don’t know why, but I can dive deeper than anyone else. When I go out with new team members, I always have to warn them not to try to go all the way down with me. People having gotten sick at some of the depths I hit, but not me, not ever. Maybe it’s because I’ve been diving since I was a kid. All I know is that it lets me observe some of the most fantastic creatures in their natural habitat. I wish you could see it.”
She had, though she couldn’t tell him without giving everything away before it was time. The enthusiasm in his voice made her smile. She’d never expected to find anyone on land who truly loved the sea. Humans were too busy polluting and destroying it, killing everything they could get their greedy hands on. Yet here he was, the opposite of everything she’d expected. She wondered if it was just because he was a merman, then realized it didn’t matter. She took his hand and froze. So did he, but when he tried to take his hand back, she tightened her grip. They both stopped on the sidewalk, though he seemed reluctant. She turned his hand over and inspected it. The webbing between his fingers extended further up his fingers than she’d expected, halfway to the first joint. She ran a finger over one of them and he tried again to pull out of her grip. This time, she let him. When she looked up, she found he wouldn’t meet her gaze.
“That’s the other reason I don’t date much. I’m a bit of a-”
He didn’t finish, but she could imagine many of the words he was thinking, the ones he would have heard as a child, maybe even more recently. She knew enough of humans to know how hurtful they could be to those who were different. She tried to imagine how hard it must have been for him, growing up with that, and never knowing why he wasn’t like everyone else. She reached out and touched his cheek with her fingertips. “I like them, Isaac. I’ll bet it makes swimming easier.”
He finally looked at her and his smile had a defenseless quality to it. “You could say that. I won every swim competition I was in as a kid, and later, in high school. It was almost always by a good margin too.”
She giggled. Yes, being a merman would give him an entirely unfair advantage. It was fortunate for him that humans refused to admit such creatures existed. No one would have guessed his secret. The one he didn’t yet know himself. For the first time, she thought about what would happen to him in the ritual, his role as a sacrifice, and wondered if she was doing the right thing. Disquieted by her doubts, she started walking again. He was at her side and she couldn’t quite convince herself to let go of his hand. She didn’t bother telling herself it was so he’d do as she wanted.
She asked him another question about the sea, wanting him to talk, to be at ease, but she was only half listening. She had to do this. She had to take him to Stonehenge, or she’d never be allowed home. It didn’t matter that he seemed as much a part of the sea as she was. He was a merman, and they were her enemy. Yet every time she tried to think of the horrible things the Mers had done to her people, those she knew who had been hurt by them, she thought instead of how sweet Isaac was. He had no more love of what humans did to the sea than she did, she was sure of it. She stole a glance at him, at his handsome profile. He was smiling again, and their eyes met briefly before she looked away.
“Are we going for a walk in Stanley Park?” he asked.
She looked up and saw the large forest that she’d noticed from the beach. An idea struck her then and she nodded. “Yes, please. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“You’ve never been to Stanley Park?”
She shook her head. “I’m not from here, remember?”
He looked like he wanted to say something, but shrugged instead. They walked into the woods, and she led him deeper in among the trees, counting on the scent of the sea to help her find her way back to it.
Kelila forced herself to let go of his hand and was startled by how strong the urge to take it up again was. When she saw a tree in the path ahead, she knew it was her best chance. He went around on one side and she started to walk around the other. The moment he was out of sight, she started running back the way they’d come. She expected to hear him shout behind her. She listened for the sound of him following her as she pushed herself to run faster. She needed to get to the beach before he could catch her. She had to talk to her father before she did anything else.
Smelling the sea close by, she veered off the path and wove through the trees, no longer caring about how much noise she was making or the trail she was leaving for Isaac to follow. She wanted him to find her, but only after she tried to convince her father he was wrong. She had to make him change his mind.
(To be continued…)