“I can’t believe him,” Fenimore fumes. Her fingers are light when they press the tape against Shirley’s cheeks, but Shirley’s whole face is a sunburst of pain; it doesn’t really help. “I cannot believe him.”
Shirley smiles, small and tight. This stretches her split lip and is probably a mistake, but for once the pain makes her feel tough. This feeling probably comes about 50% from adrenaline and another 25% from bravado, but she’ll take the 25% of self-empowerment with change. She has just about mastered the art of breathing with her broken nose without choking on blood and snot.
“It’s okay,” she says. It isn’t yet, but it will be, and she thinks that that is just about as good. “I’m okay,” she appends, and for once she means it.
Fenimore puts both arms around her, rests her chin on Shirley’s shoulder, and hugs.
“I don’t know,” says Fenimore. “I don’t know about all this. I’m not saying I agree with Walter or anything, god. It’s just that.” She sucks in her breath next to Shirley’s ear. She makes bubbles when she exhales. It tickles. Shirley thinks she’ll miss that. “The world up there isn’t—it’s not going to be kind to you. It wouldn’t be for any of us.”
“I know that,” Shirley says, and tilts her head back. The distant surface of the water is flickering with light. “But that’s why I think this is the right choice. I’m tired of things staying as they are, that’s all.”
The accident happened when Shirley was still in elementary school. Her memories of Stella lose more clarity every year, but her internal record of the funeral is still crisp in places: Her stiff, uncomfortable priestess clothes, the surface air biting her cheeks, the smell of incense and the stench of Stella’s body burning beneath the heavy cloth.
She remembers the angry murmurs, the way that so many men and a few of the women had bloody noses and bandaged faces. She remembers looking down the pontoon deck to Walter with a black eye and hate hardening his face so that he looked like a tiny adult. It was the first time she was ever afraid of him, she knows now.
The anger at the fisherfolk of the land was all framed around Shirley’s title—what if it had been the Merines who had decided to swim up above the town that day, what if it had been the Merines strangled in nets and dragged through the engine—but when she ran away and hid in the kelp, no one noticed that she was gone. It was the middle of the night before Grune found her, hungry and sullen.
Shirley doesn’t remember the whole conversation, but she does remember that it was one of Grune’s rare sober moments, and that Grune had told her fairytales until she was tired and willing to come back to the shrine to eat something.
Her first day of middle school above the water, older boys caught her and dragged her back behind the building, hard hands in her hair and around her arms and wrists.
Most of what she remembers of that afternoon is choking, held down in the freshwater pond, thrashing and flailing for air, for salt. It was like breathing mud, except that mud wouldn’t have made her feel bloated, wouldn’t have made her bleed from the corners of her eyes or made her fingernails start to come loose.
She still doesn’t know whether the boys were aiming their revenge on her elders at an easier target or if they thought of her and her Ena as some new small animal for them to experiment on.
What she does know—what matters—is that their hands stopped holding her down and she was able to sit up because of the arrival of one Senel Coolidge, fishermen’s son, who came running at the sound of her screaming and dispensed the boys with heavy punches and kicks.
Shirley remembers too that when she could sit up she had been sobbing, her hair an ugly tangle, bleeding from her eyes and nose and her nail beds. That her new uniform had been ripped up and her underwear had been riding up her behind, that her knees were scraped, and that she was drenched, her Ena unable to absorb all the freshwater.
And, most of all, that despite the mess she must have looked—Senel had knelt right down close to her, taking care to make himself smaller than her and thus unthreatening, to give her his jacket and help her get her hair out of her face.
It’s funny in retrospect because Thyra always used to tease her for not being able to handle talking to boys. But it was impossible to not be friends with Moses, and Mr. Raynard was the most unthreatening adult that Shirley had ever met, and, well. They were almost as good as Fenimore and Grune, to have to talk to.
She couldn’t talk to Senel for a long time. But that was a different kind of nervousness than what she felt around Walter or Maurits—a good, exciting kind.
“So what’s up with you wearing your old school’s uniform all the time?” Norma asked from two sinks down, her eyes half narrowed, her smile thin and sly. “You’ve got to realize by now that it’s just making you stick out worse.”
Shirley took a deep breath. Even without Norma’s intense stare, even without Chloe watching from the corner of her eye down at the tampon dispenser, she would have known that this moment was important.
“It isn’t that I don’t like the uniforms for this school,” Shirley said. “I think that they look nice and that they’re very cute. But it’s not as though I would fit in any better even if I had ordered one and wore it every day. Instead of people telling me that I’m putting on airs and think I’m special, I’d just be told that I shouldn’t pretend that I’m the same as you.
“And it’s not something that I should have to hide. This is who I am. I come from the sea. If people find that so objectionable—” she shrugged, sizing up the other girls all the while—they were both a grade above her and Chloe was in the fencing club; she should have stayed in the stall until they left— “then it’s their attitudes that’s the problem here.”
Norma raised both eyebrows and looked at Chloe as if asking for a signal. Shirley balled her fists up and got her back to the wall. The others were already firmly blocking her way to the door, so if this was going to turn into a fight, her best remaining option was to make sure she couldn’t be surprised from behind.
Chloe crossed her arms and twisted her mouth to the side. She was taller than Shirley, wiry and strong from years spent learning to fight. It had to be obvious to her that Shirley was preparing for the eventuality of their trying to beat her up here in a private place where none of her friends or any male teachers could intervene.
Then Chloe looked at the floor and nodded. When she exhaled, it was tranquil. Her expression didn’t betray any emotion. Top to toe, she was as different from Shirley as night from day, land from sea. Shirley knew even as she wished she could be just like her that it was a wish made in vain. “I think that’s true,” Chloe said, and tucked her lower lip into her mouth for a moment. “It is their problem.”
Norma looked from Chloe to Shirley and back, long meaningful theatric stares like an old cartoon, and finally broke into a smile. She crossed the bathroom to where Shirley still stood, heart thudding in her throat and not sure whether she was allowed to relax, and patted Shirley’s shoulder solicitously.
“You’ve got moxie, I like you,” Norma proclaimed with a grin.
“Norma,” said Chloe, and swept in to pinch Norma by the ear and pull her gently but firmly away. “Look at her, can’t you tell she wants breathing room?”
“Ow ow ow!” Norma yelped, arms windmilling. “Don’t narc me, C! Wasn’t this your idea?”
Chloe turned red. From Norma’s squeal, Shirley judged that Chloe was pinching harder. “Yes, but,” she said, “this is making us look like the bullies here!”
It was at this point that Shirley began to giggle at the sheer absurdity of the situation. Chloe and Norma turned to her with identical owlish expressions. When they broke out into smiles it was within a second of each other.
(It is an entire year before Chloe admits to Shirley, red-faced, that she had only asked Norma along on Operation: Get The Measure Of The New Kid because she would have been too embarrassed on her own. Meanwhile, Norma steals half of Chloe’s French fries and passes Shirley a fistful.
“’Cos in case you haven’t noticed by now,” Norma says sagely, wagging a ketchup-covered fry in obvious imitation of Mr. Raynard’s lectures, “C is actually a delicate baby fawn and gets super shy. Ow,” she adds, laughing, when Chloe kicks her underneath the table.
Shirley laughs too, and gives Chloe a slice of her croquette in return for the fries.)
“You should meet them,” she says to Fenimore. “Walter doesn’t like that I’m going to their school at all, so he’d never accept my having friends on land, and I think Thyra would just wind up fighting with them, but I want you to meet them.”
The day after they first met—the day after the boys and the freshwater pond—Senel drove Shirley down to an old closed-down gym and introduced her to Jay in its parking lot.
“And this is who you want me to teach to fight?” Jay said to Senel as he sized her up. She sized him up back: He was definitely around her and Senel’s age, and shorter than her, but she’d never seen him around school. He wore oversized clothes and had long hair braided back, and stood as if aware of everyone and everything around them.
Senel dragged both hands through his hair. “Look, unless the kids who beat her up yesterday figure out some way to make excuses for what she did to them? They’re going to be hurt for a long time. But they could’ve killed her with what they did. She needs to learn how to fight her way out of a tough situation. It’s not like I’m going to be there every time. It’s not like every teacher’s gonna be sympathetic.”
Jay stuffed both hands into his sweater pockets. “You ask a great deal of me when we only have so much time. The girl’s Ena will dry out.”
Senel jogged back to the old pick-up truck. This left Shirley and Jay staring each other down awkwardly.
“You should just go back down to the sea,” Jay said, and he said it baldly, with no emotion. “That’s what would be better for you in the short and the long term.”
Shirley squinted at him, trying to decipher his intent, because he spoke with none of the hate and disgust she was used to hearing from the voices screaming for her to get out go home stop stinking up our air with sea salt. Jay had a sort of calculated wariness about him that was different even from the way that Walter acted during rituals, when he was officially serving as her bodyguard. What had been said to her over and over in prejudice sounded, from Jay, like practical advice.
She wondered how much Jay knew about the political situation between the sea village and the people of the land. She wondered if he was familiar with her sister’s death. She wondered if he knew her title and what it meant.
“It might be better for me,” Shirley said. She could hear Senel’s footsteps in the distance. “But I don’t think it would be better for everyone else.”
She did notice that Jay’s gaze kept flickering to her day-old bruises, her cuts and scrapes, her missing nail.
“Here,” said Senel, making Shirley startle where she stood. He lowered two big plastic bags to the ground. Both were filled with plastic water bottles. “I went to the city to get these last night. They have accommodations for people with Ena there, so salt water’s free. There may not be enough, but maybe it’ll still be able to tide you over.”
Shirley knew she was turning red, but she still smiled at Senel. “Thank you,” she said. “I’ll be all right with this.”
Jay sighed. “If you intend to be this stubborn about it,” he said, “then suit yourselves. You had best pay close attention, because I dislike repeating myself.”
Halfway into her first year as a student on land, right at the beginning of fall term, Shirley went straight from school to the Sea God’s shrine and sat down on the steps.
Grune was drunk and thus amiable and airy. Her demeanor didn’t matter to Shirley, but at least this way she might not remember it by tomorrow.
(It’s never a hundred percent certain: Grune is a god, or at least the scale of a god, and so sometimes liquor affects her like a human and sometimes it doesn’t.)
Drunk or sober, though, if there is anyone to talk to about your problems in the whole sea village, it is always Grune: And so.
“Is it all right for me to feel this way?” Shirley asked, leaning back against the shrine wall to gaze up at the flickering surface. Schools of fish passed high above the ceiling. “Am I betraying my sister by caring about the people and place that are responsible for her dying?”
Grune sat down next to her, swirling the ceramic wine bottle in one hand.
“I think that we’re all allowed to love whoever we want,” Grune said. “But it’s okay to be conflicted too. Feelings change. You can’t hold them in place any more than you can hold back the tide.”
“I guess so,” said Shirley.
“I know so,” said Grune. “You’d never dream of the number of people who’ve sat here just like you, for hundreds of years, worried about the same kind of thing. Just keep thinking about it. Turn it over and over like a pretty shell or a piece of beach glass, and you’ll figure things out in the end. Everything always comes out in the wash.”
And then she hiccupped just a little, which rather ruined the effect. Shirley giggled, but thought that she would keep the advice in mind all the same.
“Your first lesson is that everyone is your enemy,” Jay tells her. Her shins smart from his sweeping his foot across them, trying to knock her down. All she knows in this moment is the cold echo of his voice, the pain and the dizziness of the fall, and the smell of hot asphalt.
“I’m sorry. I can’t do this.”
Shirley is turning seventeen in a week and Senel has just pulled away from what was almost their first kiss, in the lobby of the very charming restaurant where they have just enjoyed their seventh such date.
“Why, what’s wrong?” she asks, and her mind is filling up with a dozen worst case scenarios, the screaming worry that even Senel finally couldn’t stomach the idea of romance with some amphibious proto-human, as some people in school still like to call her.
What she doesn’t expect: “Because I’ve been lying to you this whole time. Shirley, I don’t—you deserve better than me. I’m not good enough to even look you in the face. I’ve just been using you to get over my own guilt.”
“Tell me what you mean,” she says, and Senel turns around to look at her, and he’s doing the thing he does when he’s stressed out, yanking his wild hair back with both hands.
“I was on the boat,” he says.
“What boat,” she says.
“With my uncle and my old man,” he says. “We’re the ones that did it. My family killed your sister.”
Shirley is in elementary school and Stella is in middle school, with a fresh new uniform. Stella has just discovered three things: Boys, orgasms, and Romeo & Juliet.
(Shirley, who suffers through classmates yanking her braids every day, is still firmly of the opinion that boys are all jerks. This is an opinion that will not change for years, until she meets the handful who are not.)
“I am going to fall in love with a boy from the surface,” Stella says, twirling. “Everyone will try to tear us apart, but our love will triumph over them. It will be beautiful and tragic, and we will have a happily ever after and a house full of adorable babies.”
“Whatever,” says Shirley. She does not like this new moony version of Stella any more than she liked the old Stella, who made fun of her clothes and broke or stole her toys.
“You know,” says Stella, and there is quite a bit of Old Stella in her smile—“This is the first time I’ve been able to be really glad I’m not you. They’d never let the Merines fall in love with someone from the land.”
“Stop it,” Shirley says.
“I’m serious,” Senel tells her, and his face is creased around the forehead and the eyes in a way that makes him look ten years older. “You can’t do this with a murderer.”
“Senel, stop it,” Shirley says, louder.
“Do you not understand?” Senel demands. “Do you want me to tell you what her body looked like, after she got raked through the engine? Do you want me to tell you about how long it took for her to die? Because—”
She interrupts him by kicking him in the shin, right under his knee. The head of steam he’d been building up explodes with a yelp of pain.
“Do not do this,” she says. Her voice is raised and sounds tinny in her ears. “Do not turn our relationship into a story about how you used to be a sad little boy or about my sister being dead. There’s more between you and me than that. Or were you lying when you said you liked me too?”
“No, of course not,” he says. “I just—”
When he gestures about as if trying to pluck the right words from the air, she grabs his hands and holds them with all her power. She thinks she sees him wince a little.
“Then look at me,” she says. “I’m standing right in front of you and I love you. You’re pissing me off and I love you. She was my sister. And she has nothing to do with the way I feel about you.”
When Senel can finally look at her, she leans in to within an inch of his nose. She waits for him to pull away, watches his pupils dilate and feels his breathing quicken instead, and then kisses him angrily. Bites his mouth, bloodies his lip to match hers, feels her stomach wrench with one wet pang of longing when he makes a soft sexy noise up against her.
(She waits until she gets back home to the sea to find a private place and scream until her voice dies. She throws up everything—what a waste of a good dinner—until her nose runs. She dreams of Stella’s bloody corpse all night.)
“You could come with me,” she said to Fenimore, the day before it happened. “I know you already get along with everyone. I know they like you. You could come with me.”
Fenimore shook her head. “I know I’ll always be able to go visit you,” she said, “but—I can’t leave Thyra. She wouldn’t understand.”
Shirley nodded and didn’t argue. It wouldn’t really be fair of her to try to pull Fenimore along with her own story. She hoped that the day would come when Fenimore’s story became really and truly her own, not Shirley’s and not Thyra’s. She wanted to meet and come to love a Fenimore who was just Fenimore: the Fenimore underneath the descriptors of being someone’s best friend, or someone’s twin.
(On the night of her seventeenth birthday, Shirley brings Senel down to the wooden boat that’s going to be used in this year’s Boat-Drifting Ceremony. They set down a tarp and blankets on the deck, cast off gently, and set anchor not quite half a mile away from the shore.
Lying on her back, Shirley’s ears are filled with the rock and echo of the waves against the wood. The night is clear, and over Senel’s shoulder all she sees is an endless panorama of stars. Her breath starts to steam after the first time she comes; she wraps herself around Senel arms and legs.
They’re only a few feet above the water’s surface. She thinks that’s fitting. It’s not about belonging to the land or the water, but about finding a space between that works for them both.
They stay out for most of the night. He comes inside her every time.)
“Your second lesson,” Jay says grimly, “is that everyone is your enemy. Everyone. Even the people you think you know. Even the people that you trust.”
“You’re the Merines,” Walter says. Shirley has never heard him raise his voice, even when he was venting the full of his spleen against land-dwellers. The effect is terrifying, and she remembers to be afraid of him for the first time since she was very young. “This dalliance—this stupidity—it can’t be allowed. Remember what you are! All this stupid dreaming isn’t for you! Remember what they’ve done to us—to Stella—even to you!”
Shirley can’t see him. Her blood clouds the water between them. Her nose is probably broken. Her eyes are too blurry with tears.
But it’s too late for her to turn her head down and play the obedient little girl, the proper priestess. She’s learned too much. She’s come to love too many people for that.
“My name is Shirley,” she says, and spits out bloody mucus. “I’m not just a figurehead for you and for Maurits and all the others. I am a person. You don’t get to make choices like this for me.”
Walter swings at her. It’s too late for Jay’s second lesson to come in any handy, but this time Shirley ducks.
It’s dawn when Shirley makes it through the storm to the surface. Miraculously, her backpack with all her most important belongings has survived. Her clothes are ripped to pieces and her nose is bleeding again, but she’s alive. Grune, a god, is more merciful than many of the mortals in the village. Because they left the trials up to Grune as they did for any child of the sea who desired to leave, Shirley is alive.
She has nothing. She has everything.
She sits down in the sand with the waves tickling her feet, the water saying goodbye. She watches the sun rise for another hour, and digs her cell phone out of the backpack.
She dials Chloe’s number.
“Shirley?” On the other end, Chloe’s voice is scratchy with sleep. “What time do you think it is?”
Maybe she shouldn’t have called without clearing her throat or at least finding something to blow her nose with, but oh well. Everyone would know soon enough. Shirley takes a deep breath and puts on her bravest smile.
“There’s been kind of a thing,” she says. “I need someplace to stay.”