There was light fluttering in my gut which told me we were nearing the sea long before the grassy river banks turned to mud and the air became saturated with the salty smell of the ocean.
The estuary was wide and flat; shallow, marshy waters clogged with reeds and moss, mud banks with shanty-like fishing huts and scrawny birds using long, thin beaks to peck between the shrubs, looking for slimy prey.
We walked around the waters past the huts, some clearly abandoned years earlier, some deadbolted, others now occupied by druggies and bored youths looking for trouble.
Mud turned to sand as we got nearer the sea and we followed the curve of the land to the coastline proper: a pebble-and-sand beach backed by sandy dunes. It must have been late afternoon: the sun was low in the sky and we cast long shadows as we strolled onto the beach.
The tide was on its way out and Faith, still barefoot, almost skipped into the gently lapping waves. She didn’t bother rolling up her trousers as she waded deeper and rubbed the caked-on mud and sand from her feet.
“Get in!” she called, beckoning me with a wave and a child-like grin.
I hastily pulled off my shoes and jacket and rolled up my skinny jeans as much as I could, which wasn’t far. I didn’t care, though.
My inhibitions had floated away, like paper ships on the low, rolling waves. Cast away by the crazy, joyful girl now paddling in them.
If this was all a dream, or a crazy adventure with a total stranger – well, I was here now. What did I have to lose except an incredible story?
The water was cold and small pebbles dug into the soles of my feet. I hopped and hissed through my teeth when a particularly pointy one stabbed me. Faith laughed and grabbed my arms to steady me.
“Are you ready?” she breathed. I smiled and nodded.
It felt like being pulled through a tub of Vaseline: greasy and slippery, sliding over my skin. The sky behind Faith blurred so much it looked like a watercolour painting but her face remained crystal clear. Her eyes were closed, brow furrowed in concentration.
Then we were out: it felt like being pulled out of a giant rubber glove. The world refocused. It looked the same yet… different. The colours were brighter, the sounds were clearer, the smells were sharper. It was like the world had been thrown into HD.
And Faith… she looked like a warrior queen. Her odd, nineties-disco attire had gone, replaced by light, scale-like armour adorned with copper discs that jangled quietly when she moved. Seaweed was banded around her wrists and ankles and an orange-pink coral crown nestled in her golden-copper hair.
I looked down, expecting to see myself in similar attire but I was still in my jeans and an old t-shirt.
“We’ll get you a proper outfit, don’t worry,” Faith winked.
I didn’t know what to say so I said nothing.
She took my hand and led me further out into the ocean until we were both up to our necks.
“I’m going to try the shell one last time,” she said.
But before she could pull it out her head was whipped violently under the water.
“Faith!” I screamed, suddenly alone. My heart pounded, my breaths short. Was she grabbed by something? Caught in a riptide? How had I been so stupid. I was vulnerable out here… Should I swim back to shore? Go after her?
I bit back my instinct to flee and ducked my head under the water. I opened my eyes and found that the salt didn’t sting. In fact, my vision was razor sharp, as if my eyes were made to see underwater. And there –
“Faith!” I screamed again, surprised to hear a clear voice erupt and not a horrible gargling sound.
She was suspended under the water gripped by thick, blue-black tentacles. They coiled around her body, keeping her legs locked together and her arms firmly planted by her sides. One clamped her mouth shut.
She widened her eyes, pleading at me to help.
I don’t know what came over me but I started to swim towards her and whatever Hell-squid had her in its clutches.
She made a muffled scream, thrashing against the binding tentacles and shaking her head.
Don’t come near.
I was panicking, blood pounding in my ears. We’d both drown! And what would my parents get? A runaway daughter who disappeared in the dead of night just to go to the beach with her friend and get herself killed.
They might not even find my body, I thought morbidly.
A muffled screech escaped Faith. The tentacles were squeezing her harder. She clawed at them where they bound her hands to her hips, blue light flickering at her fingertips.
She couldn’t summon anything, she was going to die. And I’d have to stand and watch, unable to do anything to help.
The tentacle over her mouth flinched back and Faith spat out a hunk of bitten-off flesh. Before the creature could slap its limb back over her mouth she managed to yell: “Use your voice!”
An image flashed through my head. Me, sat by the river with Faith, watching the sunrise.
The most powerful weapon we have.
I hesitated. How do you use your voice as a weapon? Faith made an agonised choking sound that felt like a knife in my gut.
“Stop it,” I said to the creature, “stop it, put her down.”
It did no such thing. My chest tightened. More images flashed before my eyes.
‘Why are you so quiet?’ the school bullies taunted.
“Stop it!” I pleaded with the tentacles. I couldn’t even see the creature they belonged to.
Speak up! My teachers frustrated with me as I made a presentation in my little mouse voice.
“Please,” I whimpered. Faith’s movements were growing weaker, her struggling less violent.
You’re nothing, my own voice told me. Useless. Worthless.
My eyes met Faith’s. I couldn’t even bring myself to say sorry. She stared at me, her eyes gleaming with fury, sadness and… fury and sadness, just like…
You will never say those things about yourself ever again.
I remembered her words and that connection – that tether – I’d felt to her. I conjured up strength from deeper within me than I thought possible and I forced myself to believe it all.
Believe that I had seen a woman conjure water and light from thin air.
Believe that we had passed through to an alternate dimension.
Believe that somehow we were breathing underwater.
Believe that I was a Siren.
“Put. Her. Down.”
The voice that came from me was not human. The words were not any language I’d ever heard. They were ancient and powerful, crackling with electricity, and the tentacled creature flinched away from them, dropping Faith to the seafloor.
She slumped to her knees, panting. The creature retreated and slithered away as fast as it had appeared. I rushed to Faith’s side and put my arms around her shoulders. We were both shaking.
She pulled away and looked up at me.
“You did it,” her smile was warm, her eyes filled with pride.
“What was that thing?” I asked.
“Something that shouldn’t be here… and that has obviously been waiting for us,” she answered darkly. “I think I might know why my shell wasn’t working.”
“It was a trap?”
She nodded gravely. “We’re at war, Serenity. It’s why we needed you so urgently. It’s why I had to rip you from your family in the dead of night. I’m truly sorry for that.”
I squeezed her fingers and offered my hand to help her stand. She didn’t let go.
“If you’re ready, let’s go introduce you to your new family.”
I nodded. The shell dangled from a cord at her waist. She held it to her ear. That now-familiar mischievous smirk lit up her face.
“Look what’s working again. Dad wants to know if we need a ride home?”
I bit my lip. My last chance to reject it all, my last chance to hold myself back…
“Tell him we do,” I smiled.
I’m so glad this is finally out in the world! It definitely feels like my baby, I’ve tried to write more, turn it into something longer but it doesn’t feel right and I think I should let it be.
Thank you for coming on this journey with me and with Faith and Serenity. I hope you enjoyed the ride.