CHAPTER THREE: CRY
Bex shucked dozens of oysters. He poured hundreds of drinks. He smiled at customers, new and old, so much that his face hurt. Tides was busy that night as it was most nights during the high summer tourist season. He and his parents did this constant dance, as he thought of running the restaurant, with the rest of Tides’ staff.
His mother’s area of the dance floor was in the kitchen where she cooked sweet prawns in butter until their flesh turned white and their shells a delicate pink or plated Pacific rockfish, drizzling a red hot chili oil on top or even grilled dry-aged American wagyu steak for those who would rather have more turf than surf.
His father’s place was at the host’s stand. He greeted the old customers by name and learned even the many tourists. It wasn’t unheard of for tourists to come there for every meal, eschewing the other excellent restaurants. Right now, his father was guiding Mr. and Mrs. Robert and Susie Ainsley to their favorite table by the french folding doors nearest the ocean. It was their twentieth anniversary and Robert had ordered in advance a bottle of Krug champagne to be on ice when they got there.
Which brought things to Bex’s part in the dance. He handled the bar. He picked up the glass ice bucket that was already perspiring from all of the ice piled inside. The bottle of Krug was almost invisible except for the neck of the bottle. Bex put another smile on his face and whisked the bottle over to the table for two. The Ainsleys smiled up at him.
“Hello, Bex, how are you?” Susie asked, her blue eyes bright with happiness.
“Great,” Bex lied. He did not look at his father. And though their bond was shut down, he thought he felt a touch of dismay from the older man. “But not as great as the two of you. Twenty years of marriage?”
Susie and Robert reached across the table to link hands and gazed at each other as Bex expertly opened the bottle of Krug and poured it into the two tulip shaped champagne glasses. The champagne was pale gold in color with tiny bubbles. It made Bex thirsty just looking at it.
“It’s hard to believe. It’s gone so fast,” Robert said in his deep baritone. His deep grey eyes fixed on Bex’s father. “You and Iaria must be married what now? Thirty?”
His father nodded. “I know what you mean about time flying.”
“I can’t believe that you and Iaria are old enough to have a twenty-five year old son and married thirty years,” Susie exclaimed. She ran her fingers through her blonde bobbed hair, which though it didn’t show any silver was likely only because she dyed it.
Bex’s gaze slid towards his father. It was starting. The questions.
How do you look so young?
My God, you still look the same as when you came here! What’s your secret?
Are you vampires? Oh, wait, you spend too much time in the sun to be vampires. So… are you Mers?
That last one hadn’t been asked yet, but it was coming. Bex knew it was. And when it did then he and his parents would have to leave their home for no other reason than to keep a secret that didn’t need keeping.
But his father’s smile never wavered. There was nothing in his eyes to show any distress at Susie’s remark. He just smile broader and ducked his head as if embarrassed by his and Iaria’s good fortune to have such wonderful genes.
Yeah, Mer genes.
“You’re too kind. But don’t let Bex and I distract you from one another. Iaria has something very special planned for you tonight. Let’s get started, shall we?” his father said to the two guests.
Both the Ainsleys nodded eagerly. Bex and his father moved together away from them. Bex wanted to say something, except he knew it would come out cutting. He hated the fact that he was so angry all the time. He didn’t want to be this way. His parents were his world. As much as he had to keep secret from friends like Cathy and Ned, only with his parents could he be himself. Yet now, he felt as distant from them as if they inhabited another planet. His father patted his shoulder before breaking off. Bex went behind the massive driftwood bar that his father had polished himself until all the grays and blues and blacks of the wood just shone, while his father headed to the kitchen for the first course of Miyagi oysters with his mother’s famous vinaigrette along with fresh cut lemons.
The other bartender, Riley--a man in his mid-thirties with a goatee and curly dark hair on top of a reed thin body--gave him a grateful smile. “It’s crazy tonight! There are two couples down at the end trying to make eye contact and I can’t even get to them. Think you could?”
Bex flashed him a smile that was more genuine than the one he’d given the Ainleys. Riley was a cool guy. He was in a local band that his parents had hired to work at Tides during the winter. During the summer it was just too insane to have a band most nights. He hustled down the bar to the couple. The woman was in a light green sheath dress while the man had on a light linen suit without a tie. The man was turned towards the woman, one of his feet lightly resting on the bottom of her stool.
His hearing immediately zeroed in on them. Mer hearing was much more acute than a human’s was, but also Bex found that it wasn’t so much his ears that heard them as his mind. Even without touching a human, he could hear the low murmur of their thoughts. They were not thinking of drinks.
… can’t wait to get her home…
… why did I ask to go out when we could have had so much more fun in?
Bex’s cheeks colored. He quickly closed down the unsaid conversation between the couple and asked them what they wanted to drink. Obviously, it was a night for love. There was just the faintest pang inside of him to find someone special.
But that can never be, because I’d have to lie to them, he thought.
Maybe if things were serious with someone, his parents would agree to let him tell the secret. But, at that point, he would have completely misled his partner for who knew how long. How could anyone accept all those lies and keep loving him?
For a moment, he imagined a face contorting with disgust as that special someone found out that he wasn’t even human. No, he absolutely couldn’t have a relationship with anyone that was anything other than surface. And even that was fraught because his body behaved in ways that he couldn’t quite explain.
Self-lubrication being one weird thing, Bex thought.
Bex swallowed down the bitterness that was suddenly flooding his mouth. It didn’t come from his stomach, but his heart. He shook the martini shaker extra hard and then smoothly poured it into a chilled glass before sliding it across the bar with a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. Before the House Silvyr Mer had come here, he had been perfectly content, but ever since he’d swam up to these shores everything in Bex’s life had gone to Hell.
Suddenly, arms were snaking around his waist and someone smelling of good food pressed a kiss to his cheek. He turned to look into the Bexys’ eyes of his mother, Iaria. She was a foot shorter than him. She was petite, but incredibly strong and anyone who had seen her wield a knife in the kitchen knew better than to mess with her. Not that anyone wanted to. His mother was beloved around town.
She always knew when someone was sick and they’d find warming soups and bread at their doors. She made it her business to know when someone was down on their luck and they’d find work at Tides or his father would suddenly need a deckhand. His mother and father had made themselves an integral part of the community. Yet they were willing to leave it all to keep a secret that made no sense to him.
He tried to smile back at her grinning, if sweaty face. She had a red bandana tied around her forehead and her dark hair in a ponytail but still sweat glistened on her cheeks and throat from the heat of the kitchen.
“Hey, how are you doing?” she kept her voice very low, but he could hear her though the crowd around the bar could not. She smiled and waved to someone that had just come in and called her name, but then her focus was back on him.
“Fine,” he lied. She wasn’t reading his mind so he could lie to her.
The way her forehead furrowed and her smile dimmed though told him that she knew he was lying the human way by guessing. “I heard about Ned and the House Silvyr Mer.”
“Then you heard that Ned could have drowned today,” he said flatly.
Cathy and Ned were supposed to come in that night. It was getting near the regular time that they stopped by. He was keeping two seats empty for them at the very end of the bar.
“I did.” Her expression became concerned. She bit her lower lip. “That’s not good.”
She didn’t try to excuse the House Silvyr Mer’s actions with lame explanations like his father had.
“He’s putting people in danger by being here,” Bex’s voice was low. “Which is ironic considering that he’s supposed to be here to help.”
“Is he?” his mother murmured. Her gaze was on the water, though it was impossible to see the ocean now with the lights on in the restaurant and night having fallen completely like a velvety blanket over the island.
“What do you mean?” Bex frowned.
“House Silvyr is a House full of warriors. They guard everyone against… well, they don’t do babysitting duty. So this Mer must either be incapable of fighting, which means he doesn’t likely have the common sense to help people,” she explained, which was more than she’d ever really spoken of other Houses, “or he’s being punished for some transgression and has no interest in humans or… he’s here for some other reason.”
The last she spoke seemingly without realizing it.
“None of those are good!” Bex’s alarm--and anger towards this other Mer--grew exponentially.
“No, they are not.” Her forehead cleared as she turned towards him. She ran her hands from the tops of his shoulders to his hands. She linked their fingers together and he waited to feel the buzz of her mind against his. But it didn’t come.
“Bex, I know… I know that you’re suffering,” she said.
“I’m--I’m fine,” he lied for yet a third time that night.
“No, you are not,” she said. She let out a breath and her head lowered for a moment. “Your father and I brought you to live among humans and deprived you of a life among your own kind.”
“Mom, I wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t left so--”
“True.” She nodded. “But we have asked a lot of you. And we’ve asked so much more of you since the House Silvyr Mer came.”
He said nothing. His throat was tight.
“I don’t think it will last much longer. House Silvyr… well, every one of them is needed and rescuing humans from themselves is not what they are made for,” she said.
“You know that this is more than you’ve said about the Mer in… years?” he pointed out.
She rolled her lips together. “Because that’s the past and we need to look at the future.”
“Mom, the Mer are here. They aren’t going away. King Cetus just met with the President of the United States this week,” he told her. “Mers are here to stay. Why can’t we--”
“Shhhh,” she shushed him gently even as her eyes skittered around the place. But their voices were no louder now than easier. She squeezed his hands and her eyes were troubled and wouldn’t quite meet his.
“Mom, do you honestly think the Mer would be wasting their time looking for you and Dad because you ran off to get married to each other?” It was what he had wanted to say for so long.
Her eyes met his and skittered away. “House Silvyr and House Bexys had a long association. If they were to find us, they might think… well, just trust me, Bex, please trust me that this Mer must never know about us.”
Someone called her name at that moment, and she squeezed his hands one last time before going back to the kitchen. He stared after her. His parents were lying to him. He knew it. But why? What could they have possibly done that they were so afraid of being found out? He couldn’t imagine either of them doing anything that would justify this fear.
“Bex!” Cathy called.
He turned and saw that she and Ned were standing in the doorway. He smiled genuinely at them and gestured to the two seats he’d saved. Cathy had on a flowy summer dress in blue and white with a short sleeved blue cardigan to keep off some of the night’s chill. Ned had on a pair of cargo pants and a neat short-sleeved button-down white shirt.
“You don’t look like a man who almost drowned,” Bex said as he opened two IPA beers for them that were cold and refreshing. Those and a plate of oysters he put in front of them.
“Weirdly, a shower put me right.” Ned gestured to his still damp hair.
“Water is the cause of and solution to all of our problems,” Cathy said before downing an oyster drowning in the tart and tangy vinaigrette. She let out a moan and added, “Oysters are just a vehicle for your mom’s vinaigrette, Bex.”
He grinned at her. “I actually drink it plain when I’m alone.”
“Oh, I don’t have to be alone. I have no shame.” Ned went to grab the metal cup in the center of the ice-filled platter.
Cathy slapped Ned’s hand. “No! Don’t drink it all!”
“I’ll get you some more, Cathy.” Bex laughed. He laughed harder at poor Ned’s faux hurt.
“Good. But, until then, I’m guarding the vinagrette I have,” she said giving Ned the side-eye.
Ned gave her puppy eyes and made a whimpering sound. “Can’t I have just a little?”
“Hmmmm, I’m not sure.” Cathy regarded the vinaigrette then Ned then the vinaigrette again. Finally, she poured some on an oyster for him.
“Yay!” Ned slurped it down and pounded the bar with his other hand. “So good!”
“It’s hoppin’ tonight,” Cathy said.
Her gaze went around the room. The tables were all full. They’d taken the last seats at the bar. The noise in the room was like a living thing. It swelled and broke and then built all over again. Bex normally loved being in the thick of things. He loved being around people. Being among people made up for the fact that he couldn’t be close to them. But now, it just made him feel more alone than ever.
“Hey, what’s with the look?” Ned asked as he tapped the edge of the oyster against the bar’s surface.
He snapped back to them and pasted on a smile. “I have a headache.”
“Need aspirin?” Cathy went to paw through her purse for the medicine.
“No, no, I’m good. I took some earlier. It just hasn’t kicked in,” he lied.
God, tonight my name should be Pinnochio.
“I am going to take some myself,” Cathy said as she pulled out the aspirin. Her mouth compressed a little. “We saw the Baileys on our way here.”
Bex immediately straightened up and became far more alert. “The Baileys?”
“Our favorite people,” Cathy said and downed two aspirin with her beer.
“They had their boat. They said they were going out hunting,” Ned added before eating another oyster but more glumly than before.
Bex understood why though he had more experience with the Baileys and their hunting then Ned did. The Baileys were two brothers, Dirk and Denny, who took pleasure in torturing animals or anyone smaller and defenseless than them. Dirk was the younger one at 23-years-old while Denny was 28-years-old but had gone to school with them, because he had been held back a few times. Dirk was the brains, if being able to think of terrible things to do to innocent animals was smart while Denny just went along with his younger brother, happy to be included. Bex had stopped them plenty of times from hurting birds, mice, cats and dogs.
“What did they say they were hunting in their boat?” Bex asked.
“They claimed to have seen something interesting out there the past couple nights. Claimed it glowed and they were going to track it,” Cathy said with a roll of her eyes.
“What if they’re hunting the Mer?” Ned asked, his brow furrowing as he worried about his rescuer.
“Do Mers glow?” Cathy turned to Ned curiously.
“No,” Bex said quickly. “Where did they head off to?”
“Off the pier on First Street,” Ned said around an oyster.
Bex looked out past the Ainsleys. The First Street pier was just beyond them though he couldn’t see it, let alone the Bailey’s boat.
Could they be planning to attack the House Silvyr Mer?
That would be insane, even for the Baileys. The other Mer was hardly a defenseless animal. His mind instantly opened and searched for the other Mer’s presence. To his relief, the other Mer was nowhere near the First Street pier. In fact, he was practically on the other side of the island. Now, the Baileys could have rowed around the island, but as much as they were evil bastards, they were also lazy. So no, whatever they were hunting for was on this side of the island. It was not the other Mer.
Though I want him to leave, no one and nothing deserves to be hurt by the Baileys.
Cathy, who had been studying his face, narrowed her eyes and said, “There’s nothing we can do about the Baileys and their hunt, Bex. Unless we row out there after them.”
No, rowing out there would be too slow. I could easily swim to them. They’d never see me and I’d ruin their fun.
But there was no chance of him being able to do that. The restaurant was packed. His friends were here. His parents were counting on him to stay hidden. He had no change of clothes either so… No, he couldn’t go out after them. Whatever they were hunting in the ocean, he would just have to hope it was smart enough to stay hidden from the Baileys.
There probably isn’t anything glowing in the water that they can hurt. Everything will be fine.
“You’re right, Cathy. I just really don’t want the Baileys to have any of their particular fun,” Bex told her.
She nodded, draining her beer. “Totally. But, luckily, the ocean is big and sea creatures are fast. They won’t find what they’re looking for.”
Bex nodded, glad that she agreed to them. “Let me get you--”
There was a cry. It was soft at first. Almost plaintive. Like a kitten’s cry. Bex’s head jerked up and he searched the crowd for some soft, furry creature. He imagined it hunkered under one of the tables, terrified by all of the people’s feet and the noise and--another cry. The sound spiraled up his spine. The hair on his arms rose and he had goosebumps. Cathy and Ned were talking together, seemingly completely oblivious to the cry. Bex’s gaze flowed over the customers. No one else seemed to notice it either.
That was until he saw his father. His father had stopped dead in his tracks and was staring out at the water just being the First Street pier. Unlike Bex, who was worried about this kitten or whatever it was, his father’s face was pale as milk and he dropped a glass that shattered on the floor. That startled his father and he was immediately dropping down to pick up the pieces while Riley was grabbing a broom.
He heard it.
Bex’s gaze shot to the window into the kitchen and saw his mother’s face framed there. She, too, looked like she’d seen a ghost. All the color had bled from her face.
Why? Why does that sound scare them? It’s so… gentle. Plaintive. Scared. It needs help.
The sound came again. This time more insistent. Terrified. And then he heard through its ears the chortling of the Baileys.
“... we got it, Dirk! We got it! It’s in the net!” Daren laughed.
“Get the oar, Darren! We got to subdue it to get it into the boat!” Dirk hissed.
“We’ll be rich, Dirk! No one has ever seen anything like this before,” Darren continued.
Then the cry sounded again, and Bex realized when no one but him and his family heard it, that the cry was telepathic. It was calling for help. Bex reached out to see if the other Mer was moving. He wasn’t.
He doesn’t hear it. Or he doesn’t care. Only we hear it. Only we can save it.
His parents though were not moving towards the door, out onto the pier and into the water. Though his dad’s hands were shaking and his mother was trembling, they were trying to act normal. They were going to let the Baileys beat this poor creature to death.
Bex was moving before he consciously realized what he was doing. He was not going to let the Baileys do this. No matter what the cost.