Chloe dragged a brush through her hair, grimacing as it yanked at the snarls. Saltwater did horrible things it. Oh, no, not while she was swimming, but as soon as she'd gotten out and dried off and suddenly not all the conditioner in the world would get it to stop feeling stringy and gross. She'd use the country club pool, or the neighborhood pool, or the rec center pool, but they weren't the same. She couldn't describe it, but something about the ocean was so much more natural. And as much as Chloe had a name for herself among her peers, the natural seclusion of the beach at sunrise was wonderful. She was starting to crave it. Probably not good. But anyway, if salt was bad for her hair, chlorine would be even worse.
Still, Brooke deciding to throw a beach party was not comforting. Chloe had managed to avoid every pool outing and swim meet she'd been invited to since… since that. But Brooke had basically threatened her with the silent treatment if she didn't go, and Brooke’s silent treatment was never just Brooke. She somehow magically got everyone else on the planet to avoid her victim, and Chloe might just go crazy without people to talk to. Or text. Or anything. That probably wasn't good either. If her entire life was tied to other people, though, the party could mean much worse than a month or two of isolation. Nope. Best not to think of that.
The sun was bright, glaring on soft white sand. The air smelled like salt and sunscreen, and laughter and color rang across the coast. Chloe watched from a towel, sand warm and slippery around her. She was trying to sit on the beach and tan and ignore her friends wading and splashing and laughing. Christine was building sand castles and Jake was apologizing profusely to her sympathetic smile for stepping on the most recent one in his pursuit of Rich in some testosterone-fueled game of tag. Brooke was searching for shells in the shallows. Jenna trailed behind, half-engrossed in a book (turns out the only way to get her off her phone was to take her somewhere where the danger of it getting ruined by sand or seawater was greater than the danger of missing Twitter). Jeremy and Michael had been having a water fight, but seemed to have forgone it to make out in the waves, falling into a giggling heap every now and then as the tide pushed them over and they had to fish for Michael’s glasses in the surf. And Rich…
Where was Rich?
A shock of cold washed over Chloe. Rich had dumped a bucket of water on her head, pulling her out of her reverie with an involuntary, gasping shriek.
“C’mon, Chlo, you can't just sit there all day. Have some fun.” She glared at him and flipped him off. Damn if she wasn't going to do everything she could to play it cool, but her heart was racing. This was what she'd been worried about. She had maybe a minute, and then… No, she wasn't going to think about it. If he wanted her to get in the water, she would. Hell, she would just dive in and stay there. It was better than facing the embarrassment that was starting to tingle along her skin. She stood shakily, tossing her sopping hair out of her face as she strode towards the sea.
Until she tripped into the shallows. Her legs were numb. Her jaw had gone slack. A chill was traveling down her spine. Her friends were looking at her, laughing (not at her, she forced herself to remember), welcoming her to the party. Except Christine, who could see the pain on her face, the sour look she was trying to choke down, the hot, fearful tears that were starting to prick in her eyes.
“Chloe? Are you okay?” Christine was standing above her, blocking out the white-hot light of the sun and the too-blue sky. Everyone was gathering around. Everyone could see. Chloe shook her head violently, trying to clear it, trying to wake up from this nightmare. It was so much more vivid this time than it had been every other time she'd had it since that, which was more often than she cared to admit.
“Don't. Just. Don't. Please.” Chloe tried not to sob. She felt like she was made of water, buffeted by waves at her back and burning under the gazes of her friends. The only people who had ever accepted her for her personality rather than her looks or reputation, despite all the shitty things she'd done to them. The people who she didn't realize loved until they were all about to hate her. She couldn't choke out the right words to get them to go away, to stop looking at her, to never look at her ever again, or at least not until she woke up from this nightmare somehow so much worse than even the ones she had after doing ecstasy at the play (which had really fucked with her brain in a lot of ways, apparently). She screwed her eyes shut.
A chorus of gasps and the slow returning of feeling to her lower half made her scrunch up her face further. Her hair dropped into eat face, hopefully masking her tears, but doing absolutely nothing to hide the real problem.
“Holy shit,” Jeremy's voice murmured from above her, and the dam broke. They were all talking, but she didn't care. Okay, she did. A lot. And that was the problem. She cared so fucking much, and she couldn't do anything about it but clam up and pretend she wasn't a sniveling mess. She opened her eyes and glanced towards her legs and it only made her tears pour faster.
The silvery-purple scale were pretty when she was the only one who could see them. Now they looked like a monstrous thing. A disease that would get her thrown into a lab or something. Some vile creature that had decided to try to eat her alive. Her tail would be the end of her life.
“Chloe! Chloe, talk to me, please.” Brooke's voice rang over everyone else's, which had gone from various shouts—probably of terror, according to Chloe's fear-addled ears—to nervous, worried mumbles. Yeah, worried that she was going to eat them alive, probably.
“Leave me alone,” she hiccupped. “I don't need your, your pity. Just go and tell the whole fucking world I'm a fucking freak.”
“Um, Chloe, no offense, but freak is totally not the word I’d use.” She blinked up at Michael, who was grinning like a madman, a joyful, intrigued glimmer behind his glasses. That didn't make sense. Why wasn't he afraid of her?
“Are you kidding? You're a mermaid! That's like the coolest shit!”
“You, you aren't–? You don't hate me? You aren't cussing me out or running away or–?” Chloe's vision was misty and dripping. Her throat was coated with bile and snot. She was a sniveling mess, and that wasn't even the worst of it and yet they were all still here. They were all here and they were all… they were all… smiling?
“Darling, you look fucking magnificent. I need to know all the details,” Jenna said, and Chloe was beyond grateful that she didn't have her phone, or her tail would be all over the Internet by now. Or maybe not. Jenna had gotten a lot better. “When you're ready, of course, but I need to know how it happened.”
“Hell yeah! I want a tail, too!” Rich shouted, and then they were all laughing. Something lifted in Chloe’s chest. She felt lighter and brighter than she had in ages. It was like she had finally stopped swimming against a riptide and sad floating out to a wonderful, warm sea. She was laughing too, waves lapping at her back and in her heart. She was floating out to sea with her friends.
After an assembly line of hugs and reassurances and everyone asking super politely to touch her tail and marveling over the smooth latticed scales, Jake piped up. “Wait, does this mean you can breathe underwater, too?”
Chloe smirked, finally warm and at ease, worries put to sleep by the sound of the waves. “I bet I can stay underwater longer than you can.”
“Chloe, play fair!” Christine scolded, but Jake was never one to back down from a challenge.
“You're on!” he cried, running past her into the surf, and she dove after him, her friends’ laughter echoing behind her, their love and acceptance engulfing her like the salt water that she was not looking forward to having to brush out of her hair later.