Crying would do nothing for Sarah but to dehydrate her, so she vowed to herself that she would abstain until she got home.
Home, to her, seemed so far away. It felt like she had left Bertha weeks ago when Sarah knew she’d only been away for a few Days. Her heated conversation with Bertha had been filled with an eerie emotion. The mystery surrounding how she’d ever gotten through to Sarah ate at Sarah’s curiosity. Right when they needed most to speak to Birkwood, Bertha made herself a nuisance. Sarah later snickered to herself, realizing that she’d only done what she’d always dreamed of doing to Bertha – throwing her out of her life and into the digestive flames of an unforgiving Monster.
As if Sarah’s faculties hadn’t been scrambled enough from her hit to the head, now they were laced with images of MerMaids and Dragons. What was real, and what wasn’t? Was this all a long, terrible dream, a Nightmare?
From the first breath of air she had gasped on this new Land, Sarah had noticed something different. It was hard to lay a finger on, but Sarah gradually noticed little things about it as she walked. The colors were brighter. The Sky was bluer. The air smelled alluring but she wasn’t sure why. A strange energy danced on the Wind flying over the dunes. There was something irresistible about the atmosphere, something that made her feel like she couldn’t get enough of it. She looked around to see if it had the same draw on the others. They strode around looking like they normally did – bickering about menial matters and casting tense glances at her when they thought she wasn’t looking. Gerry did this more than anyone else. Sarah settled to understand that it was her mind, overtired and probably drugged with its own chemicals from adrenaline.
Still dazed with adrenaline, Raeden rounded on Sarah, who collapsed to a weak sit.
“Yeah, so let’s talk about your little chat with Birkwood,” Raeden spat, her breath like daggers in her lungs, “Do you realize you just, like, chucked our last hope of rescue down the gullet of a Godzilla?”
“I – I’m sorry, I couldn’t think. And it wasn’t Birkwood,” Sarah gasped. Gerry sat down next to her, putting a hand on her forehead worriedly. She pushed him off, looking slightly irritated. “I’m fine.”
“No, you’re not.” he argued. “I think you’re running a fever.” She didn’t answer him, because Raeden’s temper exploded.
“Well who were you talking to?”
Sarah blinked at her, not looking up to arguing with either her or Gerry.
“So my cell phone blows up, and YOURS still worked? How come you didn’t check it last Night?”
Raeden wasn’t about to let her off the hook. Gerry’s warning stare did not worry her in the least. Latisha, Keshawn and Mike were still catching their breath and listening with dismay.
Sarah’s next response was interrupted by a loud BOOM in the distance. Raeden turned her head with the others to see a great mushroom plume of smoke erupt from the direction they had been running. What looked like a flock of Birds flew up from the smoke into the air, flying closer and closer.
“Birds?” Latisha gasped.
“Debris!” Gerry choked, “Look out!”
Dragon guts rained down on them and Raeden screeched murderously upon finding a patch of scales and flesh on her shoulder. Sarah began gasping and crying in a panic, and Gerry took her in his arms. Raeden shook her head – he was comforting Sarah like she was a baby.
“Huh, looks like hers blew up too,” Mike pointed out, finding the nerve to laugh at the claw he pulled from his hair. “And hers made a bigger bang! Haha!”
“OH, NO? WELL THEN YOU’D BETTER FIND HER FAST, BIRKWOOD! OR I’LL BE CALLING MY LAWYER!”
“Ms. Blackhour, please. It’s likely just a fluke in the satellite signal. I can give you her cell phone number-”
Now he sounded desperate to appease her. Bertha would hardly have it. This conversation was getting very dangerous for Birkwood, and his demeanor betrayed any wall of courage he might have fronted.
“YOU GAVE HER A CELL PHONE?” Bertha roared, appalled. Great, now Sarah was going to turn her in!
“May I remind you that we do have guardianship-” Birkwood wheedled.
Admitting any level of defeat was challenging for Bertha. But she hadn’t exhausted all of her options for getting at Sarah.
“FINE. What is it?”
Birkwood droned on to give her the number somewhat hesitantly.
“Don’t expect to get an immediate response, if you even get one at all.”
Bertha considered her lack of response as she swiftly hung up on him. Too mean? A wide smile stretched on her face. Nope. Not for Bertha.
The next morning, she picked the phone up again and dialed the number impatiently with round fingers that threatened to push two buttons at once if she wasn’t careful. She put it to her ear and was surprised to hear ringing on the other end. One ring. Two rings.
Anticipation choked her breathing. She had to be out there!
After the third ring, Bertha began to prepare a nasty little message in her head. She was yanked from her devilish scheme when a croaking voice suddenly picked up the other end.
“Hello? Hello? Dr. Birkwood?” gasped the voice, sounding drowsy and hassled.
Bertha began in an unruffled tone.
“Sarah? This is Bertha.”
Sarah cleared her throat, sounding startled and very confused.
“Oh … Hi.”
“Where in God’s name are you?” Bertha demanded.
Sarah’s speech was slow and moaning. She sounded like she’d been crying.
“I … um, well I don’t really know. None of us do. Some IsLand somewhere, I guess.”
“You GUESS? Stop lying and tell me where you are, Sarah, or so help me-”
“Listen, Bertha, I don’t know,” Sarah interrupted her, sounding frustrated. Well, that was a first. Bertha had never been interrupted by Sarah before. She made a mental note to punish her for her insolence when she returned.
“Well what about the treasure? Did you find it?”
“No. The sub crashed and I-”
“Alright, listen,” Bertha growled, “I don’t want to hear your pathetic sob story. When Birkwood finds you, you’re coming straight home. Got it?”
“Um, okay,” Sarah whispered finally, somehow sounding doubtful. “But I thought you-”
Bertha failed to hear the rest of Sarah’s sentence, because in the background, a male voice began to shriek,
“Ohhh, snap! Boss Man, Broiler Breath on Sarah’s six!”
Then Bertha heard a strange flapping noise. She didn’t care. She had to get her jabs in on Sarah so that she’d know just how much trouble she was in when she returned. She ignored Sarah’s muffled scream and the angry snuffling.
“Now you listen to me, Sarah Jane Summerfield! I ain’t gonna let your little diary trick fly! You knew better than to pull that over, and you’re gonna pay for it dearly when you get back! After you do all the housework, you’re going to clean out the garage and the basement, you hear? No computer, no TV, no nothing! I’ll teach you to pull a sneaky under my nose like that! I’ll – Sarah? Do you hear me? You’re GROUNDED!”
There was no reply. Bertha listened, horrorstruck, to a strange gulping sound, and then a building crackle like the onset of a large fire, and, after several moments more of Bertha screaming at the unresponsive end, a deafening BANG. The phone went dead after that.
Gerry’s eyes wandered to Sarah’s, full of worry. But there was something else in his glance that Sarah deciphered as genuine emotion. He wasn’t even that attached to her! Why should he care if she died? Sarah thought she knew the answer, but she bit her tongue and closed her eyes. The last thing she wanted right now was a stomach lurching at the hideous idea of romance. Instead, she pretended that his emotion was stemming from the prospect of his survival after her death, and sue-happy Bertha taking him to court.
“Don’t move,” he whispered to her with a half-petrified glance, and then he left her.
Sarah was alone in the dark and the cold contemplating on whether to cry or not when Keshawn sat Raeden next to her.
“Stay here,” puffed Keshawn.
Sarah could only vaguely make out the shadowed figures under the Cloud-muffled Moonlight. The rolling motion of the waves soon had her head spinning and her stomach churning, so she closed her eyes.
MerMaids were in that Ocean somewhere. Sarah didn’t want to imagine what may have been creeping up on her from behind at any moment. If there was something there, it wouldn’t get a fight out of her. She was dead meat now.
“Aw, man, we are in serious crap if she’s dead,” Keshawn moaned.
The submarine rocked as someone moved toward the back.
“Found her,” Gerry shouted, out of breath. “She’s back here. Oh man – not good. I think this is blood. Sarah! Sarah, wake up!”
Latisha finished elevating Raeden’s twisted ankle and crept along the wall to find her way back to Gerry and Sarah.
“I want to go home,” sobbed Raeden.
“I want to die,” choked Mike.
Latisha found where Sarah was lying. She stooped and found her face, placing two fingers above her lips.
A soft, weak breath blew over Latisha’s fingers.
“Not dead,” Latisha sighed in relief, and Gerry released the breath he must have been holding.
“Gracias a Dios!” he sighed.
“She’s unconscious. Don’t move her. We need to keep her warm.” Latisha said.
“No more thunder.” Mike noticed.
“No more electricity,” Keshawn whined, “Man, how are we supposed to surface with no electricity?”
Latisha had found one of the sleeping bags to cover Sarah with.
“We’re trapped!” Raeden cried.
“We’re going to die down here!” Mike wheezed.
“I’m going to kill you down here if you don’t be quiet,” Gerry warned them, growling in annoyance. “We’ve made it this far and we’re alive, don’t take it for granted!”
Suddenly, a piercing pitch met their ears. It sustained until another voice joined it, eerie and echoing. The sound was nostalgic and throaty, starting in the low range and soaring into a high conclusion. It was complimented by an occasional click.
“Whales?” Latisha guessed.
“Dolphins,” gasped Mike, “Too high.”
The singing of the dolphins was no solace to the crippled crew. It wasn’t until the deadened submarine gave a shudder that they realized how close the voices were. And how strangely Human they sounded.
“What’s happening?” Raeden said anxiously. “Why’s the sub moving?”
“Wait,” Mike regained his breath. “They’re not dolphins.”
The plaintive marine singing echoed in Latisha’s ears.
“What are they, then?” she demanded.
The pitch black was lifting into shades of gray and dark blue, and Latisha felt like she was in an elevator. She cast a glance around at the others’ horrified expressions. Sarah laid in a puddle of dark liquid on the floor. If Latisha hadn’t just checked that her pulse was still there, she would have thought Sarah was dead and fallen into hysteria.
“Whatever they are, they’re moving us to the surface,” Gerry said.
A lock of Human hair drifted onto the front window.
“Aww,” Keshawn moaned, his voice on the verge of panic, “this better be a joke.”
Latisha waited in stark anticipation until the submarine surfaced, and more Human hair drifted in front of the glass. A sliver of darkening dusk showed above the water line.
Gerry’s face was grim as he glared at the hair.
“Forget about the Constance. What is that?”
A small groan joined the ever-present singing – Sarah had awoken.
“I’m alive,” she whispered, and Latisha scooped down to hug her. “My head – I hit my head. What’s that sound?”
Latisha couldn’t answer her.
“Omigosh – omigosh – omigosh!” Raeden whimpered, curling up in her seat.
Then it was there, looking in at them. A distinctive Human-like face with large blue eyes and shimmering pale skin and what looked like gills on either side of its neck. The Creature stared in at them curiously, looking Childlike. Latisha swallowed a scream at the bizarre, beautiful appearance. It appeared to be female, having the torso of a Human WoMan with a midriff top sewn from SeaWeed and sparkling scales.
“Don’t move,” Gerry breathed tersely.
The MerMaid blinked at them and grinned ominously, flashing teeth as white as pearls. Her brown hair floated behind her like a curtain as she swam past the window with a long fishlike flipper for a tail, trailing what looked like scale glitter behind her in the Water.
“MerMaids.” Mike gasped, astonished.
“So, Sarah,” Latisha yawned, “what does the diary say about the treasure?”
“Um, not sure yet. Actually, I haven’t had time to read it.”
Sarah stood and pulled the diary out of her knapsack from the overhead hatch. She sat and opened the case.
“Wow,” Latisha said in awe. She touched the leather cover. “How old is it again?”
“Over 200 years,” Sarah replied, flushing in pride. She opened the diary carefully. “It belonged to my distant ancestor Teresa, who died on the ship. Dr. Birkwood said she knew about the treasure but didn’t tell anyone.”
“Then how do we know it’s real?” came Raeden’s voice from behind them.
Latisha rolled her eyes and Sarah smiled.
“Well, Dr. Birkwood said she wrote about it in her diary,” Sarah told her.
“Yeah, and you haven’t, like, read it?” snapped Raeden.
“Not yet. I just got it yesterday,” Sarah said, hoping she didn’t sound whiny. Where was Raeden going with this argument, anyway? Was she making Sarah out to be some inattentive and vacuous dolt? Sarah felt an edge of worry crawl onto her brow.
Latisha came to the rescue, her voice low and reproachful. She took the diary and waggled it over the seat.
“This is real, isn’t it, Raeden?”
Sarah couldn’t help sharing a victorious smirk with Latisha as Raeden released a petulant lip-smack and a loud sigh.
Then Gerry’s voice was heard behind them. He spoke soft and low, so as not to disturb the other sleeping passengers.
“Birkwood researched this for years, you know. He wouldn’t spend all this money to send us all out to look for it if he wasn’t sure it was real.”
Sarah was grateful to be allowed to go anywhere without Bertha. But with the prospect of big cash being considered, Sarah also felt used. She allowed herself to smile at the thought of big Bertha squeezing into a scuba suit. No, Bertha certainly wasn’t going to work for the money she raked in. She never had.
But Sarah wasn’t entirely sure she was up for it, either. She was a solitary home body. She’d never flown or even been on a boat, much less a submarine. Sarah was worried that she wouldn’t like it and that she would get scared and embarrass herself in front of the other team members. Embarrassment that hadn’t happened yet burned her cheeks. Oh, the myriad of ways she could make a fool of herself! It haunted her worse than any threat Bertha had ever made. It would only be a matter of time before the judgment had been passed by the other team members that Sarah was a useless wall flower.
Yes, the other team members. Social interaction. If socializing were a subject, Sarah just knew she would flunk it. She feared the worst embarrassment with the men, since Sarah had never grown up with a man in her life and she didn’t know how to talk to them. And the prospect of any kind of romance was pitifully dull for Sarah. The very idea made her stomach lurch. She was never getting married.
“Sarah, our institution is going to send out a discovery team to explore the coordinates for where the Constance sank. Teresa’s diary – excuse me, – your diary is a crucial key in finding the sunken treasure. Bertha has expressed an interest in receiving a percentage of the wealth from the discovery. Unfortunately, the only way for us to guarantee that to her is if she or someone in her guardianship helps with finding the treasure.”
Sarah sat rigid in her chair. Her mouth dropped open slightly.
“You don’t mean,” she said awkwardly.
“You,” Birkwood confirmed, looking at her like he would look at his own teenage daughter. His glance showed concern.
“This was found in a clay jug that washed ashore in Florida this past April. Since then, it has been preserved and inspected. Apparently it belonged to a girl named Teresa Summerfield.”
Sarah’s eyes lit up, shining as blue as any Cloudless Sky.
“Your ancestor, yes, Sarah. We found you by following her genealogical line, as I explained to you earlier, Bertha.”
The fat Woman nodded dismissively. Birkwood addressed Sarah.
“Apparently you’re related to an uncle of hers, who came to America before her family did. You’re her only descendant left.”
“Wow,” Sarah said, smiling. “That’s really … wow.”
Her sense of self-worth glittered all over her pretty face.
“It’s quite extraordinary, I’ll admit,” Birkwood declared proudly. “During our inspection, we did have someone read the diary. We learned quite a few things. Teresa wished for the closest of her relatives to have the diary. But we also discovered something else.
“The ship Teresa traveled on sank before it reached America. That explains why her uncle’s travel papers were found at Ellis IsLand, but hers weren’t. It was a terrible tragedy. But it was rumored that Teresa’s very ordinary passenger ship, called the Constance, was carrying a very precious cargo.”
Dr. Birkwood closed the diary and patted it gently.
“Treasure. Gold and silver and jewels, believed to be a dowry for a noble woman traveling in disguise to the Americas to her husband. Our Teresa seemed to have found a movable slat in the floorboards of the second deck and discovered it on accident. She never told anyone – but she wrote about it in here.”
“How much is it worth?” Bertha demanded.
Now he had her attention.
It wasn’t until the beast was practically breathing in her face that Sarah landed back in the real world and screamed. She tripped over her blankets and crawled clumsily away from her hot-headed guardian.
But it was no use. The gargantuan fat lady had her sausage fingers around Sarah’s pencil-thin arms.
“Don’t run from me, stupid, you know that doesn’t work,” Bertha bellowed in an aggravated tone.
“You – you scared me,” Sarah gasped, wondering how on Earth she could have missed the sound of the squeaking stairwell under Bertha’s massive bulk. The pull of independence was so strong to Sarah that it deadened her other senses just at the idea of it.
Bertha heaved her up and kicked at the magazine, looking at her with disgust.
“And what’s this?”
Sarah said nothing, keeping her face expressionless so her guilt wouldn’t be readable. Bertha could probably smell the fear on her, anyway. She was like a shark sniffing blood. She could smell Sarah’s anxiety from miles away and charge in to feed on it. Sarah watched Bertha’s cat, Beauty, lumber in and sit her thick feline tail right on the magazine.
“It’s – it’s nothing,” Sarah choked, finally.
Why had she been so inattentive? Now, she was going to pay for it.