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Underground - A Merfolk Secret / Ch. 7

M.N. Arzu


Here's the last exclusive chapter before you can dive into the full novel tomorrow!

You can start reading from Chapter 1 here.

What Lurks Inside

Alex was out of excuses. Every time he imagined walking towards the study, knocking on the wooden door, and facing Julian’s stern face, his gut did strange summersaults that wreaked havoc on his appetite.

   And then he remembered Gill’s lips on his, the way they had held their breaths together, and how her hair had slightly tickled his ear. And that memory kept going, expanding, as he wondered about holding her hand, or the back of her neck, and if she would allow him to play with her curls, those cute reddish springs that he wanted to pull down and—

   The door to his room suddenly opened, and Matt stood there, dripping water all over the floor with only a towel for clothing, staring at him with a mixed look of confusion and worry on his face. “What happened?” he asked, narrowing his eyes.

   “Haven’t you heard of knocking?” Alex asked, indignant.

   Still holding the doorknob, Matt knocked with his other hand. “There. Now, what the hell happened? Your emotions are all over the place. I went for a swim and all of a sudden I’m not in the water, but navigating these…these…waves of hot and cold, and since Chris and Julian haven’t come back yet from the hospital, and Scott’s still blind to my radar, that leaves you as the only suspect. So, spill already. What’s going on?”

   Matt was rattled. Matt was never rattled. Not ever, and certainly not in the last seven months, when their lives and identities had been threatened practically every day.

   “I—I—might…I mean, this thing kind of happened this morning…” he started, the words colliding in his mind as every single sentence sounded misguided or grossly oversimplified.

   “Is this about what you want to ask Julian?”

   “Yes,” Alex whispered, “and no.”

   Matt groaned, exasperated. “Just tell me!”

   “Gill-kissed-me-despite-knowing-I’m-a-merman,” Alex said in a rush, holding his breath as Matt separated the words in his head.

   “Wait, what? What?” All the color drained from Matt’s face as he slowly sat down on Alex’s bed. “She knows? Wait, she kissed you?”

   “Despite knowing I’m a merman, yeah,” Alex said, now feeling scared. He’d finally admitted it, and now the world was going to implode.

   “Since when?” Matt asked, now starting to sound angry. “When did you tell her? And my gosh, why would you tell her? Alex, this isn’t some—”

   “I didn’t tell her,” Alex interrupted, now getting angry himself. “She found out when Scott was shot and my scales shifted without my knowledge. And then she put two and two together and she helped me find Scott, with the traffic cameras. She asked other SWIMMERs for help.”

   “That was two months ago!”

   “And I’ve been trying to tell Julian every day! Except it’s never the right time, and there’s real value in having the SWIMMER network helping us out, and Gill only wants to help, I swear!”

   Matt passed his hands over his wet hair, muttering this is bad. “Julian needs to know,” Matt said after a full minute of silence went by. “Drake needs to know. The freaking Council needs to know.”

   Alex nodded. “I know. I just—”

   “—can’t find the right moment, you’ve told me,” Matt said, glaring at him.

   “She hasn’t said anything, okay? In two months, she’s kept her mouth shut. She doesn’t even want to know, Matt. She’s never asked me a single merfolk question because she doesn’t want to betray us.”

   “Save it for Julian, kid.”

   Alex opened his mouth, but nothing came. He suddenly felt small, and stupid, and so, so screwed. Beside him, Matt sighed. “You know you should have told him right away, don’t you?” he asked in a more conciliatory tone. Alex nodded. Matt nodded with him, and then sighed again. “She kissed you, huh?”

   Alex nodded once more, enthusiastically this time.

   “Squid, you’re so screwed,” Matt said with a chuckle, punching him lightly. “I hope it was worth it.”

   And to Alex’s surprise, he answered with an honest and heartfelt, “Yes!”

* * *

Matthew was looking at the ocean. The sun was high in the sky, and the water was drying off his skin, while he sat at the back of his yacht.

   No, that can’t be right, he thought, frowning. As he looked down, his vibrant red and orange scales were replaced by blue and light-blue ones, and the unexpected change of colors made him jump back, right out of Chris’s body and into his.

   It took him a long moment to realize that he was trapped in one of Chris’s dreams. Looking around, he felt slightly disoriented as he recognized his brother’s yacht, The Deep C, a boat Matt hadn’t seen for the past seven months. Julian wanted to sell it—get rid of it, really—but Christopher wouldn’t make up his mind about it. This had been the boat where he’d been attacked, and Chris himself had never come back.

   And dreaming a peaceful dream, for once, Matt thought with a relieved sigh. He couldn’t interact with Christopher without waking his brother up, so he contently sat beside his brother and enjoyed the view. The sky was cloudless, and his brother was happy. With all that had happened lately, Matt had honestly thought Chris was going to be having more nightmares than usual, so this was a welco—

   A shadow passed behind them. The skies above became stormy and the sea restless, even if the boat itself remained perfectly still amid the changing weather. A presence stood behind them, but Chris refused to turn around, afraid of what he was going to see. And if Chris didn’t want to look, neither did Matt.

   Wind blew, playing with Matt’s hair, the salty smell of the ocean bringing myriad memories spent with his adopted family. Laughter and banter and hugs. Happy memories. Memories Chris was holding on to with all his might, because once he turned—

   Once he turns, he’s going to be attacked, Matt realized with shock, and as he turned to look at his brother’s attacker, at the man who was responsible for everything, pain exploded in his mind, splitting Matt’s head in two million pieces.

   Matt screamed out of the dream, and down the corridor, he heard both Alex and Chris screaming as well. Julian’s presence came a second later, though it did little for the pain. It was nothing compared with the time when Chris had been wacked for real, but the headache was strong enough that Matt grabbed his head.

   Almost blindly, he went out of his room in search of Chris, only to see the light already on. Julian was already soothing his brother, whispering it’s okay as Chris buried his head in Julian’s shoulder.

   Alex joined them a moment later, holding his head against the doorframe.

   “It was so real,” Chris said miserably from his father’s side. “It dragged me, somehow, I couldn’t stop it, I just—”

   “It was a bad dream…” Julian said, but even in the middle of the night and with a raging migraine, Matt could see that Julian didn’t quite believe that.

   “It felt like more than a dream,” Matt said, getting everybody’s attention. “I’ve been getting into your dreams for a few weeks now—unintentionally!” he hastily added at the horrified look on his brother’s face. “You just…drag me into them. I usually don’t realize I’m there until I wake up.”

   “You should’ve told me,” Chris whispered.

   “There was nothing you could do about it. But you’re right, it felt different…different from your other dreams.”

   “Maybe it was a memory, then,” Scott said, scaring the hell out of Alex and Matt as he spoke between them. “What? I heard you all screaming,” he said, rubbing his eye. “I came to see what the problem was.”

   “It’s hard to get dragged into a dream,” Julian said, “but a strong memory might do the trick.”

   “Did you remember who attacked you?” Alex asked, suddenly alert.

   “I can’t remember past the pain,” Chris said, while Matt shook his head.

   “The dream ended before he could see it,” Matt explained. “But I think you saw something, Chris. You felt a presence, you saw a shadow. You were thinking about us—that’s probably why we all woke up with you right now.”

   Everyone turned to look at Chris, who looked completely lost. “I—I shouldn’t be here,” he said, getting away from Julian and standing up. “I should go to a hotel, get a place out—”

   “Chris,” Julian said, standing with him.

   “No, what if next time is worse? What if from now on you’ll go to bed just waiting for me—”

   “Chris, you’re being unreasonable,” Julian insisted.

   “—to hit you all in the head, basically. I can’t do that to you.”

   “Christopher,” Julian said, holding him by the shoulders. “You’re not going anywhere. Certainly not at 2:00 a.m., with a rampant headache. You need to rest.”


   “No buts. Go back to bed, all of you. We’ll talk about it in the morning, okay?”

   They all reluctantly left. As Matt got into his bed and punched his pillow into a comfortable shape, he thought Chris had it all wrong: Matt wanted to get back into that dream-memory thing. He was sure Chris had seen who’d attacked him, and Matt was dying to see that bastard’s face.

* * *

Being called into school was a rather unusual event in Julian’s life. As he walked the quiet halls of Saavan Academy, he remembered the first time he’d come, looking for a suitable establishment for Christopher’s schooling. Up to the moment he’d come to Julian, he’d been homeschooled, and although it had many advantages, Julian still wanted to see what private education could bring.

   That had been eighteen years ago.

   Since then, Julian had walked down this path to the principal’s office several times: The first four months Matt had been here, Julian had been called repeatedly after his son had picked random fights with random people. And a couple of years later, with Alex, when he’d started daring into cyberspace, and had been developing a dangerous addiction to being connected at all times. He still spent too much time on the computer, but at least he was sleeping eight hours and keeping his grades up in all his classes. That had been the compromise. Truth be told, he couldn’t deny his son had an extraordinary talent that had been extremely useful in getting Chris out of ORCAS and in tracking Scott down back in January.

   This was the first time he’d been called to the office for Scott, though. The principal, one Lesly Sherman, had requested the meeting last week regarding Scott, saying it was important. So far, the little rascal had been steadily catching up, and had surprised Julian with how organized he was about homework. Maybe organized bordering on OCD, Julian thought as he reached the office. He hadn’t gotten much in the way of sleep last night, but he was not going to change this meeting come hell or high water.

   “Mr. Brooks! How nice to see you,” the secretary said, almost tripping over the office plant to greet him. “Ms. Sherman is already waiting for you, please.”

   “Thank you,” he said politely, relieved he wasn’t picking up Scott after a fight or cyber escaping class.

   “Mr. Brooks,” Ms. Sherman said with a kind smile as she shook hands with him. The office was richly decorated with dark wood and several pictures of historic figures. Shelves with books on education, science, and psychology stood behind her, along with several university diplomas she’d acquired over the years. She was a warm, Afro-American woman who couldn’t have it easy dealing with rich parents and their rich brats every day of the week, all year around. “I’m so glad you came.”

   “You said it was important, Ms. Sherman,” Julian said as he took a seat. “There’s nothing more important than family.”

   “You would be surprised how many parents don’t want to come to these meetings. I end up talking with chauffeurs and nannies more times than actual moms and dads.”

   “Parenthood can be a scary enterprise,” Julian said, remembering all too well how much he’d dreaded the whole thing twenty years ago.

   “Indeed, and responsibility is not something you can buy,” she pointed out, a little too stern. He liked this woman: honest and to the point. Ms. Sherman had been a covert ally from the moment Christopher had come into his life, helping Julian navigate Matthew’s and Alexander’s first steps into the Academy as well as into their new family.

   “But let’s talk about the reason we’re here,” she said, clasping her hands on her desk. “I wanted to give you an update on how Scott’s been doing since he started coming five months ago.”

   “It hardly seems that long,” Julian said, as she gathered some papers and notes in front of her.

   “When you first brought Matthew, we talked about how hard adjustments were going to be for him after the unfortunate past he had with his parents. Adapting to new social norms and rules is never easy, and he was already uncomfortable with the whole arrangement, if I remember correctly.”

   “He fought a lot,” Julian said, nodding.

   “And we expected it—didn’t tolerate it, but certainly expected it. And eventually it got better.”

   “Scott has been fighting?”

   “Not at all. Your youngest son has an iron grip on his control. You said you didn’t know much about his experiences in foster homes, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he had military foster parents when he was younger.”

   “I see.”

   “Maybe not, Mr. Brooks. What Matthew did was wrong, but at least he had an outlet until he found the swimming team. Scott is the exact opposite: He’s not letting anything out, which is equally unhealthy. All his teachers have told me how fast he caught up with the rest of the class in the first three months. His improvement is stellar, and I have no doubt he has a bright future ahead of him—if he can work on his emotions.”

   “You want him to start punching people,” Julian said with a ghost of a smile. Ms. Sherman chuckled.

   “Figuratively speaking, yes. To be honest, he hasn’t made any significant friends, though your sons have always been reserved. But the real reason I called you today is because something’s been changing in your son’s behavior. Since he came back from that pneumonia infection he got a few weeks ago, he’s been more subdued. Less participative. He doesn’t seem to be engaged half of the time.”

   “Disconnected,” Julian said above a whisper. Scott might have had a sense of closure regarding Wallace, but he’d lost his brilliant telepathic skills. In a literal sense, his son had been disconnected from the merfolk world.

   “Disconnected, yes. We’re worried that he’s suddenly losing interest in school, because his grades are starting to slip. Or maybe something happened at home that you’ll wish to address. Mr. Brooks, in my experience, these are the first flags that something’s going on, and we’re right on time to catch them, understand them, and do something about them.”

   Of all the little puzzles in his life, Scott was certainly the toughest to put together. I should’ve sensed he isn’t coping as well as I thought. I have to stop relaying on senses he no longer shares with me.

   “Do you have any suggestions?” he asked.

   “Well, for starters, any kind of physical activity might get his mind off things and help him focus on less destructive paths.”

   “He tried the swimming team on Matthew’s insistence, but he didn’t like it.”

   Ms. Sherman nodded. “The coach said he might have an authority problem, but he’s the only teacher who has mentioned that.”

   “So basically, find him a hobby.”

   Scott’s last “hobby” had involved tracking his parents’ murderer, and before that, it had included tracking the merman story all the way to Maine, where he’d been shot and taken prisoner by the government. And before that, he’d been living on the streets, escaping foster home after foster home, fearing his merman heritage would be discovered. In one moment of panic, Julian thought he was never going to survive being Scott’s father.

   “Don’t despair, Mr. Brooks,” the principal said with raised eyebrows, reading him like an open book. “Besides, that’s the easy part. You need to connect with your son. To show him you care about whatever it is he cares about. It might be videogames, or insects, or a reality TV show. Whatever inane or obscure theme your son loves, you’ll ask him about it, and actively listen when he talks your ear off, even if you’d rather be swimming with sharks. Once he realizes that what he’s saying matters to you, he’ll understand that he, as a whole, matters.”

   “He’s such a serious kid,” Julian said, exhaling. Christopher, Matthew, and Alexander had all been in their own world, but they had all shared it with him of their own accord. Scott wasn’t, and by the sounds of it, he probably never would without some serious intervention from Julian’s part.

   “He’s had a serious life, and this was his way of dealing with it. Unfortunately for all of us, he lost his childhood too early, and adulthood is becoming too heavy on his young shoulders. You have to ease that burden and give him back the carefreeness that he lost, Mr. Brooks. He’ll never get to be a child again, but he doesn’t have to miss his teenage years, either.”

* * *

 “She basically said I needed to figure out how to introduce Scott to a suitable hobby,” Julian said as Gwen brought him a cup of coffee. He’d come to talk about the hospital tests they’d run yesterday, and somehow the conversation had ended up about his morning meeting with the school’s principal.

   “So, what does he like to do?” she asked, sitting in front of him. It was such a normal parental concern that it was almost hilarious to think the man in front of her was anything but normal.

   “He likes people-watching—I think.”

   “No respectable thirteen-year-old boy likes people-watching,” she said. This was going to be harder than she’d thought.

   “He loved to brag about his superior skills, but now all that’s gone.”

   “Bragging, even justified, is not conducive to good social skills,” she said, sipping her coffee.

   “That’s not what I meant,” Julian said, frowning. “He was extremely good with his telepathic skills, but without them, he’s cut off from us. In a strange way, it’s like raising a human child. He was already a difficult challenge, but now I have no experience with this situation.”

   “Well, here’s a radical idea: why don’t you just ask him?”

   Julian smiled. “I asked Christopher for months how he was doing, and all I got was fine. If the one who loves to talk isn’t talking, I’m hopeless with the one who loves to stare you down.”

   “I guess you’ll need a hobby where staring you down is a thing, then,” she said, pondering Julian’s dilemma. They both laughed.

   “There’s something else I need to talk to you about,” Julian said, changing the subject. “How are things going for you? Are people still bothering you about ORCAS?”

   “Nothing I can’t handle. And now that I’m working again, I have more things to worry about than the next stupid question. Why? Have you heard anything?”

   “There’s…a deal we made with Major White.”

   “Sounds ominous.”

   “We think it will go smoothly for the most part. Drake will accompany Major White next week to run some tests on a new diving suit prototype we gave them.”

   “Well, if someone knows about diving, that would be you guys.”

   Julian smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “There are some risks involved, though. Things might not go as planned, or someone might get other ideas. There’s a slight chance the deal might fall through.”

   “You might leave in a hurry?”

   “We have our own contingency plans and responsibilities. But I’m worried you might be collateral damage of these games we’re playing.”

   “You want me to be ready to leave,” Gwen rephrased, not too pleased.

   “Our lawyers have instructions on what to do in the event we’re no longer here. Dr. Higgs and Nathan are well protected under the United Nations, but you won’t enjoy those perks. That’s why we’ve set up a trust fund for you and Andrew. I don’t think it would be as drastic as moving, but if you need to start over someplace else, you will have the means to do it.”

   “Nonsense. If something does happen, Julian, we’ll be here to help you. Let them try to stop us. There’s no way we’ll quietly go away. Hell, there’s no way we’ll loudly go away.”

   This time, the smile did reach Julian’s eyes. “Somehow, Gwen, I don’t doubt that.”


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