With that sole desire pulsing through me, I walked toward the rail. It would be a pleasure to drink myself full until every last piece of me was sated. I was barely aware of hoisting myself over the side, barely aware of anything, until the hard smack of water on my face brought me back to my senses.
I was going to die.
No! I thought as I fought to get back to the surface. I’m not ready! I want to live! Nineteen years was not enough. There were still so many foods to taste and places to visit. A husband, I hoped, and a family. All of it, everything, gone in an instant.
I didn’t have time to doubt the reality of the voice I was hearing. Yes!
What would you give to stay alive?
In an instant, I was dragged out of the fray. It was as if an arm was looped around my waist, pulling with precision as I shot past body after body until I was free of them. I soon found myself lying on a hard surface and staring up at three inhumanly lovely girls.
For a moment, all the horror and confusion disappeared. There was no storm, no family, no fear. All that ever had been or ever would be were these beautiful, perfect faces. I squinted, studying them.
“Are you angels?” I asked. “Am I dead?”
The closest girl, who had eyes greener than anything I’d seen before and brilliant red hair billowing around her face, bent down. “No. You’re very much alive,” she promised.
I gaped at her. If I was still alive, wouldn’t I be feeling the scratch of salt down my throat? Wouldn’t my eyes be burning from the water? Wouldn’t I still be feeling the sting on my face from where I fell? Yet I felt perfect, complete.
In the distance, I could hear screams. I lifted my head, and just over the waves I spotted the tail of our ship as it bobbed surreally out of the water.
I took several ragged breaths, too confused to grasp how I was still breathing, all the while listening to others drown around me.
“What do you remember?” she asked.
I shook my head. “The carpet.” I searched my memories, already feeling them becoming distant and blurry. “And my mother’s hair,” I said, my voice cracking. “Then I was in the water.”
“Did you ask to live?”
“I did,” I sputtered, wondering if she could read my mind or if everyone else had thought it, too. “Who are you?”
“I’m Marilyn,” she replied sweetly. “This is Aisling.” She pointed to a blond girl who gave me a small, warm smile. “And that is Nombeko.” Nombeko was as dark as the night sky and appeared to have nearly no hair at all.
“We’re singers. Sirens. Servants to the Ocean,” Marilyn explained. “We help Her. We . . . feed Her.”
I squinted. “What would the ocean eat?”
Marilyn glanced in the direction of the sinking ship, and I followed her gaze. Almost all the voices were quiet now.
“It is our duty, and soon it could be yours as well. If you give your time to Her, She will give you life. From this day forward, for the next hundred years, you won’t get sick or hurt, and you won’t grow a day older. When your time is up, you’ll get your voice and your freedom back. You’ll get to live.”
“I—I’m sorry,” I stammered. “I don’t understand.”
The others smiled, but their eyes looked sad. “It would be impossible to understand now,” Marilyn said. She ran her hand over my hair, already treating me as if I was one of her own. “I assure you, none of us did. But you will.”
Carefully, I got to my feet, shocked to see that I was standing on water. There were still a few people afloat in the distance, flapping at the current like they might be able to save themselves.
“My mother is there,” I pleaded. Nombeko sighed, her eyes wistful.
Marilyn wrapped her arm around me, looking toward the wreckage. She whispered in my ear. “You have two choices: you may remain with us or you may join your mother. Join her. Not save her.”
I stayed silent. Could there be truth to her words? Could I choose to die? If this was real, could I do what she was suggesting?
“You said you’d give anything to live,” she reminded me. “Please mean it.”
I saw the hope in her eyes. She didn’t want me to go. Perhaps she’d seen enough death for one day.
I nodded. I’d stay.
She pulled me close and breathed into my ear. “Welcome to the sisterhood of sirens.”
I was whipped underwater, something cold forced into my veins. And, though it frightened me, it hardly hurt at all.
EIGHTY YEARS LATER
“WHY?” SHE ASKED, HER FACE bloated from drowning.
I held up my hands, warning her not to come any closer. But it was clear she wasn’t afraid of me. She was looking for revenge. And she would get it any way she could.
“Why?” she demanded again. Seaweed was wrapped around her leg and made a flat, wet sound as it dragged across the floor behind her.
The words were out of my mouth before I could stop myself. “I had to.”
She didn’t wince at my voice, just kept advancing. This was it. I would finally have to pay for what I had done.
“I had three children.”
I backed away, looking for an escape. “I didn’t know! I swear, I didn’t know anything!”
Finally, she stopped, just inches from me. I waited for her to beat me or strangle me, to find a way to avenge the life taken from her far too soon. But she merely stood there, her head cocked, as she took me in, eyes bulging and skin tinted blue.
Then she lunged.
I awoke with a gasp, swinging my arm at the empty air in front of me before I understood.
A dream. It was only a dream. I placed a hand on my chest, hoping to slow my heart. Instead of finding skin, I pressed my fingers into the back of my scrapbook. I pulled it off, looking at the carefully constructed pages filled with clipped news articles. Served me right for working on it before sleeping.
I had just finished my page on Kerry Straus before falling asleep. She was one of the last people I had needed to find from our most recent sinking. Two more to go, then I’d have information on every one of those lost souls. The Arcatia might be my first complete ship. Looking down at Kerry’s page, I took in the bright eyes from the photo on her memorial website, a shabby thing no doubt created by her widower husband between trying to serve up something more creative than spaghetti for his three motherless children and the endless routine of his day job.
“At least you had someone,” I told her photo. “At least there was someone to cry for you when you were gone.” I wished I could explain how a full life cut short was better than an empty life that dragged on. I closed the book and set it in my trunk with the others, one for each shipwreck. There were only a handful of people who could possibly understand how I felt, and I wasn’t always sure that they did.
With a heavy sigh, I made my way to the living room, where Elizabeth’s and Miaka’s voices were louder than I was comfortable with.
“Kahlen!” Elizabeth greeted. I tried to be inconspicuous as I checked to make sure all the windows were closed. They knew how important it was that no one could hear us, but they were never as cautious as I would have wanted. “Miaka’s just come up with another idea for her future.”
I shifted my focus to Miaka. Tiny and dark in every way except for her spirit, she’d won me over in the first minutes I knew her.
“Do tell,” I replied as I settled into the corner chair.
Miaka grinned widely at me. “I was thinking about buying a gallery.”
“Really?” My eyebrows raised in surprise. “So, owning instead of creating, huh?”
“I don’t think you could ever actually stop painting,” Elizabeth said thoughtfully.
I nodded. “You’re too talented.”
Miaka had been selling her art online for years. Even now, mid-conversation, she was tapping away on her phone, and I felt certain another big sale was in the works. The fact th
at any of us owned a phone was almost ridiculous—as if we had anyone to call—but she liked staying plugged into the world.
“Being in charge of something seems like fun, you know?”