CHAPTER TWO - OF TWO MINDS
Maeral “Bex” Bexys watched the Mer from House Silvyr gracefully run back into the ocean. Bex’s light gray eyes tracked the muscular yet lithe figure that gracefully dove beneath the waves. The other Mer was gone. Bex had not been discovered by him. All was safe.
And yet Bex was not grateful for that safety. If the other Mer had seen him, had recognized him for what he was, had revealed that Bex, too, was a Mer then this foolish hiding would be over and done with. This hiding that had almost caused Ned to drown while Bex had stood there, a palette of Miyagi Oysters in his hands, frozen and uncertain, instead of rushing into the waves to save his friend.
Bex had been just about to take the oysters his father had harvested that morning into their restaurant, Tides, when he’d felt Ned’s distress. The frantic splashing, and the garbled cries for help. Every muscle in Bex’s body tensed. His head snapped towards the water. Ned was well beyond the rest of the swimmers. His head made barely an impression above the waves.
Bex scanned the beach to see if the lifeguards noticed. They did not. And it wasn’t as if Bex could jog over to one to tell them that Ned was drowning. There would be questions. How could he see that far out? How could he know? And if he ran into the water himself, even with his shirt on to obscure his gills, there would still be the evidence of his webbed fingers and the almost gossamer silk webbing that flowed from his toes when he came back onto the beach with Ned’s heaving body in his arms. The water revealed all.
Where is that goddamned other Mer?! Why isn’t he helping Ned?
Bex’s mind was locked down so that his thoughts didn’t accidentally reach the other Mer, but he sensed the other Mer was out there. He could feel him hovering in the deep water. Even though he was too far out in Bex’s estimation from the beach, the other Mer was well within sensing distance of Ned yet he did not move. But Bex started to.
Ned’s going to die! I have to help him!
Just as Bex was about to drop the crate of oysters and run into the water himself--discovery be damned--the other Mer finally shot like a rocket towards Ned and brought him to the surface, sputtering and coughing, but breathing and alive. In the time that the other Mer took to bring Ned to the shore, Bex’s heart slowly left his throat.
But it had been close. Too close.
Suddenly, his father’s hand was on his right shoulder. Bex nearly jumped three feet in the air. The oysters clattered together, but he managed to keep them all in the palette.
“Where’s your head, Bex? We’ve got to get these inside to your mother. Hungry customers today,” his father chided gently.
Their restaurant, Tides, sat right on the edge of the beach in Huntingbelle’s biggest city, Three Streams, which got its name from the three streams that cut through the city and flowed into the ocean. His mother was inside, getting ready to open for the cocktail hour and then dinner. His father had joined her while Bex was supposed to be unloading oysters.
“Ned nearly drowned!” Bex cried, his anguish and frustration causing his voice to rise higher than it should.
Bex spun towards his handsome father. Taron Bexys stood three inches taller than him. Bex was only six-feet, trim and muscular, while his father was six-foot-three-inches and much broader. Both of them shared the thick dark brown hair with copper highlights brought out by the sun. Bex’s hair was slightly longer than his father’s and he brushed it back from a sensitive forehead in brown-gold waves. After seeing the Mer from House Silvyr, Bex tried to imagine his father with long, flowing hair, but he couldn’t do it. Taron Bexys had always had short hair since he and Taron’s mother had fled Mer society. He never let it get longer than the top of his collar.
“Ned?” His father drew up to his full frame and scanned the beach.
“He’s okay,” Bex assured him though he was vibrating with tension. He pointed to where Ned was sitting up on a beach towel with Cathy by his side. They were both friends of his. Though he had to keep them at a distance, as he had to keep everyone.
“Thank the great old one,” his father murmured, forgetting himself and making a plea to Cthulhu.
Bex stiffened as anger flooded him. They wouldn’t have to be thanking anyone if his parents allowed them to reveal who and what they were. Bex would have been able to act and save Ned himself. But no, his parents told him that they could never reveal themselves to the world. Not because of humans finding out they were Mers, but so that other Mers didn’t find them.
“He took his damn sweet time to get to Ned,” Bex said as he turned back out to face the sea.
He could sense the other Mer, bobbing just underneath the surface at where the drop off began to deeper water. At least, he was keeping further in towards the swimmers. He was there to save humans after all.
His father sighed softly. “It was likely hard for him to determine whether Ned was truly in distress or simply playing. Humans’ movements in the water often look like they are… wounded.”
“I knew Ned was in trouble. It was obvious.” Bex’s jaw was set.
His father’s hand was back on his shoulder. “You almost went in to save him, didn’t you?” His tone was sad and almost resigned.
“Of course!” Bex nearly shouted but drew his voice down lower as he turned back to his father. “These people are our friends, Dad. Ned almost died! It would never have gotten that far if we were the ones helping people here.”
His father’s face was set in an unreadable expression. He had the same light grey eyes as Bex. His mother had them, too. They were House Bexys’ eyes, his mother had once explained.
“There was too much intermarrying in House Bexys, but bringing people into our House was difficult. So it was said you knew someone was a Bexys just by one look into their eyes,” she had said, but would not tell him why it was difficult. ”
It was just one more thing his parents would not discuss about their past, House Bexys or the Mer at all. He knew barely more of the Mer than most humans did now though he was a pure blooded Mer, not a hybrid or descendant of one. While he had been born in House Bexys’ underwater city of Invale, his parents had fled to Huntingbelle with him just after he was born. Their love and his existence was forbidden, they said. Each of them had been promised to another, but they loved each other.
“Your father and I are first cousins,” his mother had explained.
He’d frowned. “What’s wrong with that?
“Too much intermarrying, remember? The elders of our House made a decree that ones such as your father and I should not be together,” she answered gently. “But the heart wants what it wants.”
His parents’ gazes met and they shared a look that was tinged with sadness and great love. He supposed he understood the mixed emotions here because they’d had to leave all they had known for their love. Yet his parents adored humans and their life on Huntingbelle. It didn’t seem like they missed much of anything about the Mers.
But while their staying hidden had made sense when Mers were considered myth, Bex couldn’t see why they still had to hide. So what that his parents had fled arranged marriages and loved each other? Would anyone care now? It had been twenty-five years since they’d come here. Mers lived forever so maybe twenty-five years was nothing to them.
His father put his hands again on his shoulders. His opaque expression was now sharp with the full weight of his personality behind it. It was in moments like these that Bex thought he saw a glimpse of who his father was before he became a fisherman.
“Bex, your heart is in the right place. You are brave and generous, but we cannot be exposed,” his father said in a low tone.
“What will happen if they know about us?” Bex pressed. “I’ve heard nothing about Mers punishing their own kind for marrying first cousins online or anywhere! Not even on the conspiracy websites! And--”
“Do you think that the Mers tell the humans anything that’s meaningful or true about themselves? At least, not if it will offend or worry the humans in any way?” His father’s hands tightened on his shoulders.
Bex’s mouth open and shut. “Okay, when you say it that way, no, I’m sure the Mers hide things that they fear humans will misunderstand. But that’s to our benefit! Our friends here--”
“You’ll find we have less friends that you think if we reveal ourselves,” his father’s voice was intense. “I know that Ned has been your friend since kindergarten, but--”
“Yeah, and I just stood here while he was drowning!” A wave of shame went through Bex.
His father’s head lowered for a moment. “He is fine, Bex. He is safe. But we will not be if the other Mer find out about us. They will never forgive your mother and I. You must understand--”
“Just because you married? That’s--”
“Yes, just because we married,” his father said and yet… it sounded like a lie. It had been sounding more and more like a lie since the Mers had revealed themselves.
There’s something more! I know it! I can feel it!
For a moment, Bex could sense his father’s mind--vast and beautiful and unknowable--and he longed to connect to it as was natural to Mers. Maybe if he did, he would understand why his parents’ marriage was so threatening to the rest of the Mer. Maybe he would stop feeling his parents were lying to him if he could just confirm the truth of it. And he missed his mind touching another’s. While they had always made sure to speak out loud in front of humans, when they were alone, their minds were linked up and the joy of being together would fill them. Only once the Mer came, his parents had forbidden even those few treasured moments of togetherness. But despite this new rule, despite the other Mer being nearby, Bex reached for his father’s mind.
Tell me why, Father. Tell me why we can’t be ourselves.
But before there was even the chance for him to find that answer, his father’s defenses slammed down and cut him off just like it did the other Mer. Bex’s face must have reflected his hurt. He stepped back.
“Bex… I’m sorry, but with the other Mer out there we mustn’t even--”
“Yeah, I know. I know!” Bex suddenly shoved the palette of oysters into his father’s hands. “We have to pretend to be human.”
Bex though turned and jogged towards the beach, ignoring his father’s calls. Soon they were drowned out by human voices and laughter. If his father had called with his mind, it wouldn’t have mattered how far apart they were on the island, Bex would always hear him. But since his father wanted them to pretend to be human, then Bex could simply run away and not turn back.
Cathy saw Bex loping towards them first. Her brown eyes brightened. Bex put a smile on his face that he didn’t feel. His heart ached. He knew that his father didn’t want to shut him out. It was only from fear that his father was acting his way. It was the only thing his father had seemingly been afraid of in Bex’s memory. It disturbed him on so many levels. Bex dropped down onto his haunches beside Ned.
“Hey, dude, party too hard out in the water?” Bex asked his friend.
Ned’s dark skin actually looked slightly gray. His eyes were red-rimmed. His voice was still thick with saltwater. “I should take your lead and not go in the water at all.”
Bex smiled more broadly even as his heart hurt harder. He loved the water as all Mer do. He swam incessantly. But it was always alone and often at night. And, of course, he had told his friends that he didn’t like the blue sea that surrounded Huntingbelle Island like a pair of welcoming arms, because once he was wet, there was no denying what he was.
He’d even had to turn down rooming with the two of them in town for fear they’d see him exiting the shower or going out for one of his midnight swims. He’d told them that things were tight for his parent monetarily and he needed to put all of his money back into the restaurant. That wasn’t true and he feared the Ned and Cathy knew it. He sometimes thought they had cooled towards him since that offer had been turned down. But there was none of that coolness today.
“You wouldn’t have gotten to meet the local celebrity if you stayed on shore like Bex,” Cathy pointed out, gesturing vaguely to the sea.
Bex immediately focused in on the other Mer when she made that simple movement. He swallowed. If this other Mer were not there, perhaps his parents could have been convinced to come out. After all, it didn’t seem like the other Mer really liked to talk to humans much, not unless they were hybrids and none had tested positive on Huntingbelle. So it wasn’t like the other Mer would find out from the residents of the island about the family of three Mer staying there. If only the other Mer had not come…
“What was he like?” Bex found himself asking.
“No idea. He didn’t say anything,” Ned got out and then hawked some mucus out of his mouth.
Cathy’s broad nose wrinkled, but then she said, “That’s because they’re used to speaking telepathically.” Her reminder caused Bex to wince at the memory of his father shutting him out. Neither Ned or Cathy noticed thankfully. She continued on, “Speaking out loud is unnatural for them. And with everyone acting like idiots around him--taking photos and videos--I wouldn’t like to speak either.”
“Well, he did pose,” Ned said with a cough that was half a laugh.
“Did he?” Bex sneered. Of course, the other Mer--who had took too damned long to save Ned--had stayed to pose for pictures! Playing the hero without really being the hero. Not really.
“He looked like he wanted to crawl out of his own skin while it was happening,” Cathy said with an exasperated eyeroll, evidently intent on seeing the good in this other Mer. “He wouldn’t even look at anyone in the eye. He seemed like he was simply enduring something he’d been told to expect.”
“He did save my life so I guess if he wanted some pictures taken--”
“He didn’t want them taken, Ned,” Cathy objected. “Everyone else wanted them. He was… well, beautiful and… and stuff.”
“You took his hand in yours!” Ned pointed out teasingly, “And looked up into his eyes meaningfully.”
Cathy flushed then swatted Ned’s arm. He held it in mock hurt.
“You’re so ungrateful,” she told Ned. “He saved your life!”
Ned hung his head a bit then ran a hand over his high-low fade of a haircut. “Okay, okay, you’re right. I just feel like a damned fool for getting caught in the riptide. I’m way grateful to him.”
“The riptide is powerful and dangerous. No shame in being caught in it,” Bex said automatically.
Cathy’s almond-shaped eyes crinkled with amusement as she said, “I suppose it shouldn’t amaze me that the son of a fisherman knows all about riptides, but your aversion to water would make it seem odd you’re so familiar with them.”
“Got to know your enemy,” Bex told her even as his heart clenched again. He hated lying to them.
He felt the other Mer began to swim back and forth along the length of the beach. His mind wanted to reach out, but he stopped it. What was wrong with him? He might disagree violently with his parents about staying hidden, but he wouldn’t reveal them without their consent. Was he so hungry to simply connect to another mind that he would reach out to strange Mer?
With a sheepish look, Ned added, “I guess I really don’t have any Mer blood in me. If the test didn’t already tell me, nearly dying in the water did. No gills appeared!”
Bex blinked. “You took the DNA test?”
Just like the DNA tests put out by Ancestry.com and 23andme.com, a new spit-in-a-tube and find out if you have Mer genes had come to the market. While it was all the craze everywhere, Bex hadn’t really considered people around him taking it.
“Uhm, hell yeah?” Ned made that sound like a question, but then he grinned. His white teeth seeming to glow against his dark skin. “Immortality. The ability to breathe underwater. And some of them have magic or some shit.”
“So you think it would be… cool to be a Mer?” Bex asked carefully.
“Again, what’s not to like?” Ned asked with another toothy grin.
“What about you, Cathy? You take the test, too?” Bex tried to keep his voice light.
She shook her head.
“She was too chicken to!” Ned laughed but not unkindly.
“Afraid?” Bex’s chest felt tight. “Afraid to find out you’re not--not wholly human?”
“No, no, nothing like that.” Cathy waved the idea away that she was averse to being a hybrid. She bit her lower lip. “It’s just what it would mean in other ways.”
“What ways?” Bex asked, studying her face.
She raked a hand through her long black hair. “Leaving family. Leaving what you know.”
“You’d be finding new family,” Bex pointed out. “The Mers are eager to welcome hybrids into their Houses.”
“Yes, too eager,” she said and then after glancing around to make sure that no one was listening to them, she continued, “They don’t want to share anything with humanity, not even the people who are half human.”
“They’re patrolling the beaches, saving swimmers from drowning. They’re definitely doing more than their fair share,” Ned said, frowning slightly.
“Yes, they do and that’s very good. Especially today that’s very good.” She squeezed Ned’s shoulder. “But I can’t help but think they’re doing this only--”
“Because it would look bad if they didn’t?” Bex’s voice was equally low.
She nodded slowly. “People are throwing themselves into the sea to become one of them. When I visited my parents in Japan last month, there were police everywhere by the water, monitoring every beach, every cove. You know how impossible that is in a group of islands? To keep people out of the water?”
Bex’s expression grew grim. “I can imagine.”
“We’re lucky here that there haven’t been people here doing that. Not yet, anyway,” she said.
“That’s not the Mers’ fault,” Ned said almost loyally. “People act like idiots all the time. It’s nothing new since the Mers came out.”
“No, it isn’t.” She shook her head. “I’m not sure of my point here. But I guess, I feel they’re only interested in us to the extent that we are like them. If you’re found to be a hybrid they just whisk you away. Who you were before, the human side of you, doesn’t matter. They don’t want their society and ours to touch as much as people think they do.”
“Can you blame them?” Ned asked. “Humans live, for what? Like 100 years if we’re lucky. They live forever and they look at the long term. Most of us don’t see past our noses. That’s why they’re here. To stop us from destroying the damned planet any more than we have already.” Ned shrugged. “Why should they trust us or think us equals? We’re not.”
“Humans are just as good as Mer,” Bex said quietly.
“I don’t know. Sometimes I wonder.” Ned looked critically at Cathy. “You were just protecting fish boy out there not that long ago and now you’re all suspicious of Mer?”
“I think they’re amazing, but I’m also a little leery of their motives,” she admitted.
“I still think you should take the test, Cathy. Your family were fishermen back in the day. Prime candidates for hybrids!” Ned teased her.
“I’m happy being human,” she told him.
“I’m not.” Ned made a face. “I wish I were Mer.”
“To be immortal?” Bex guessed.
Ned shook his head. “No, you’re forgetting the best part.”
“Which is?” Cathy looked dubious.
“Hot mermaids.” Ned winked at her.
Cathy again rolled her eyes heavenward. “It seems like mermaids are out of your reach, Ned. We’ve just got the one merman.”
“And you have your eyes set on him despite your suspicions!” Ned created a gun with his fingers and pointed it at Cathy.
“You’re impossible! Why I was grateful for you to be rescued from certain death is beyond me.” She stood up. “Come on, we should get back to our own towels. The owner of this one has been eyeing us for several minutes.”
“Oh, yeah,” Ned said sheepishly and struggled to stand up.
Bex reached down and gave him a hand. At the last moment, he curbed his strength so not to simply lift Ned to his feet all by himself. His friend though was not completely steady even when he was standing.
“I think you should go home, Ned. You need to rest,” Bex said, after observing him critically.
“Maybe you’re right. I admit, I feel like I was hit by a Mack truck.” Ned touched the center of his chest. “My lungs hurt. I suppose my near death experience has convinced you that you’re right to stay out of the water, eh, Bex?”
Bex smiled automatically again. “Oh, most definitely. There be monsters in those deeps.”
“Yeah. Yeah.” Ned waved over his shoulder as he and Cathy began to walk towards their things farther down the beach.
Cathy called back, “Are you bartending at Tides tonight?”
Bex nodded. He should get back to the Tides. But even as he walked back to his parents’ restaurant, he felt the other Mer swimming, swimming, swimming. Bex idly wondered what it would be like to feel another Mer’s mind other than his parents. To swim beside someone new. To see fabulous underwater cities…
He snapped himself out of these thoughts. They would never be. And he should wish the other Mer to leave, to return to the deep from where he’d come.