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Authors: MaryJanice Davidson

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BOOK: Swimming Without a Net
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Six

Jonas was densely built (“Deliciously so,” Dr. Barb
might have said over the sound of Fred’s retching), but no match for Fred’s hybrid strength, and the air velocity he achieved was really quite something.

Fred ignored his wail (“My sundaeeee!”), which became easier to do the fainter it got. “See that, Ellie? Like Sam said, my friend would never hurt you. But if he did, if he contracted rabies and went crazy and actually tried to put his hands on you in a way you didn’t like, I’d kick his balls up so high, he’d choke on them. ’Kay?”

Ellie edged around Sam and peered up at Fred. “Do you work out?”

“No, I hate gyms. And I hate tracks. I never work out if I can help it. Well, I swim.” She thought, something so fun and necessary wasn’t really
working out
, was it? “A lot.”

Fred, of course, had known about the foster children her mother and Sam had been taking in. Some only stayed a week or two while various paperwork plodded through the system. Some only stayed a few hours. And some, like Ellie, had been around for months, because Sam was the only adult male she would tolerate. Ellie had been known to set fires around males who frightened her. Burning to death, she had explained to an ER attending (as well as several social workers), was preferable to Being Touched Like That Again.

The girl, as terrifying as she was vulnerable, was looking up at her. “I like your hair,” she almost whispered.

“Thanks.” Fred self-consciously fingered her greenish strands. “Can Jonas come back in?”

“It’s your house,” Ellie pointed out, holding out her hands in a gesture of helplessness which showed Fred the severe scars crawling up and down the girl’s forearms.

“Actually, it’s Sam’s house,” Fred corrected her mildly, gnawing on the inside of her lower lip so she wouldn’t shake the biological father’s address out of the kid. “And my mom’s. But if you don’t want him to come back in, he can have his ice cream on the lawn.”

“I hate youuuuuu,” Jonas’s voice floated in.

To Fred’s amazement, the solemn, damaged child smiled. “He can come in. As long as you’re here.”

“As you wish, Ellie.” Sam knelt and gently pulled the little girl around until she was standing in front of him. “But even if Fred wasn’t here, I would protect you. You know that, don’t you?”

“Yes, Sam. I have to go. Commercial’s over.” She walked out of the kitchen without another word.

“What the hell?” Jonas bitched, walking back in while brushing leaves out of his not-so-perfectly coiffed hair. “Do you ever ask yourself why you don’t have a large social circle, Fred? Do you?”

“Sorry.” She wasn’t. “Had to make a point for the foster kid du jour.”

“Oh, right. I forgot. But jeez! A little warning next time! Thanks for aiming me at the big pile of leaves.”

“Welcome,” she said, pretending she had done so on purpose. “Finish your sundae, you slob.”

“Hey, I’m crawling with leaves and dead bugs and I
still
look better than you do.”

This was true, so Fred dismissed the argument and turned to Sam, seeing him with new eyes. Oh, he
looked
the same. Myopic brown peepers blinking almost constantly, slim build, small potbelly, the perpetual ponytail.

He’d been there from her earliest memory, and she’d always known he hadn’t been her
real
father, even though her mother hadn’t told her so until Fred was nearly thirty. For heaven’s sake, Sam panicked in a tide pool, whereas Fred had been breaststroking alongside wild dolphins since she was seven.

No, Sam was Sam, and for once she was grateful, for she realized how much this gentle man had to offer a child, any child. Certainly he treated her mother like a queen. And not out of fear of what Fred would do to him, either.

In fact, she was forced to admit to herself, it couldn’t be easy having a mermaid for a stepdaughter, especially one as, uh, passionate as she was.

“What kind of marks are on her arm?” she asked abruptly, because the last thing she was going to do was go all mushy on
Sam
of all people. “Kitchen knife?”

“You should see her back,” Sam said quietly, taking off his glasses and wiping them furiously on his faded Rolling Stones T-shirt. “Box cutter. Her dad works in a liquor warehouse. Likes to keep one on him for emergencies.”

“File.”

He blinked at her with watery brown eyes and put the glasses back on. “Sorry?”

“Her file. Gimme.”

Sam actually smiled. “I was hoping you’d drop by, Fred, and her file is in my office, in your drawer.”

Your
drawer. A Sam-ism for a large file cabinet in the west corner of his office. Three feet deep, four drawers high. Never locked. Meticulously organized. Every drawing, every clay pot, every useless ashtray, every book report, every term paper Fred had come up with, from kindergarten to her doctoral thesis, was in that file cabinet. Sam had always left notes, books for her to read, information he wanted her to have, in the top drawer in the file marked “Fredly Fire.” That’s where Ellie’s file would be. No doubt along with a copy of
Seven Highly Effective Habits for Undersea Folk
.

Sam usually put up a bit more of a fuss when it came to violence, or proposed violence, so Fred narrowed her eyes at him and asked, “Isn’t this the part where you preach peace and love?”

“I’ll leave that, in this case, to your mother. Who is watching cartoons in the living room with Ellie. I’ll go get her.”

“Hey, Sam.”

He turned and arched his graying brows.

“Thanks.” And not just for Ellie. But she wouldn’t—well, couldn’t—get into that now.

Her stepfather nodded and padded out of the kitchen.

“Foster parents get files?” Jonas asked, scraping his bowl. “You’ll be able to track down Daddy-o? Maybe pitch him headfirst into an industrial dryer and push Spin? Don’t even think about going without me.”

“Of course I’m thinking about going without you. Given Ellie’s phobia around grown men, it’s not hard to figure out who the bad guy is. And as a matter of fact, they
don’t
give very detailed files. You know the term hacker, of course.”

“Enlighten me, o brilliant fish tail,” Jonas said with a mouth full of strawberry ice cream. “Pretend I’m an ignorant slob just like you.”

“The term was
created
for Sam.” Fred was smirking in spite of herself. She’d figured
that
out on her own by age ten. “He could use a computer as a spyglass before anyone knew it was possible. And he doesn’t take a kid into his house until he knows
everything
.”

“Not very hippielike,” Jonas said, trying (and failing) to sound disapproving.

“Everybody’s got bad habits.”

“Fred! Sweetie!” Her mother, Moon, a short, good-looking blonde with silver streaks and shoulder-length hair, hurried into the kitchen and squeezed Fred so hard she nearly gasped. She was dressed in a faded pink T-shirt (one that had been red when Fred was a fourth grader) and jeans that clung to her chubby thighs. “What earth-shaking revelation brings you back home this time?”

“Earth-shaking,” Jonas said with a mouthful of chocolate. “Ha!”

“Oh!” Moon jumped, then beamed. “Jonas, sweetie, I didn’t see you there.”

“That’s because Fred’s all hulking ’n stuff in the doorway. Great ice cream.”

“I was not
hulking
.”

“Did you find the banana?”

Jonas nodded. “It’s beside the blueberry sorbet.”

“How do you stay so slim?” her mother wondered, eyeing the remnants of the heroic sundae Jonas had nearly demolished.

“Clean living,” he replied with his mouth full.

“And that cute new girlfriend, I bet.” Moon winked.

“That cute new girlfriend is my boss, and let’s change the subject,” Fred interrupted, because Jonas and Moon could banter for hours. “I gotta leave town for a while.”

“Business trip?”

“Yes,” Fred said at the exact moment Jonas said, “No.”

They glared at each other.

“Uh-oh,” her mother said, blue eyes twinkling. “And to think, it’s been so dull around here the last few months. Except when Ellie forgot to put the top on the blender,” she added thoughtfully, “and pushed Puree.”

“It’s no big deal, Mom.”

“It’s a
huge
deal, Moon,” Jonas said. “You look great, by the way.”

“I would find that flattering yet creepy,” her mother said with a smile, “if I didn’t know about your girlfriend. And as for you, Fredrika Bimm.” The smile vanished. “I wouldn’t stand a lie from you when you were three. What makes you think anything’s changed?”

“It’s a Pelagic.”

“Nor will I stand for your marine biologist geek-speak, which you so often use to avoid a direct answer. You can’t hide behind language, young lady, so out with it.”

Fred cursed the rotten luck of having a smart mother. “It’s a meeting, okay? A meeting of all the Undersea Folk. You know, the name they use for themselves.”

“It’ll be Mermaid Central,” Jonas added, “and Fred’s ringside.”

“Really?” Moon pulled up a chair and sat, leaning her elbows on the table. She was thinking so hard, her laugh lines were going the wrong way. “They’re having a meeting and they invited you?”

“Yeah.”

“Boggles the mind,” Jonas added, “don’t it?”

The laugh lines reversed and Moon’s face lit up. “But that’s wonderful!”

“Why,” Fred asked suspiciously, “is it wonderful?”

“It means they’re accepting you as one of them! And—and—”

Fred let her mother grope for words, not having the heart to say that Jonas, too, had an invitation to the Pelagic and certainly was
not
accepted by them. One didn’t ensure the other. And Tennian and Kertal had been creepily vague.

She didn’t like it. At all. She was only going because they’d gotten stubborn about Jonas and she couldn’t resist jerking their chains. It had nothing to do with the possibility of seeing Artur again.

Nothing.

At all.

Shit, the guy was probably married with a wife who’d already popped out a litter of guppies. No, she had enough on her plate without worrying about Artur and who he’d been banging and what he’d been up to. Like…like…

Thomas! Thomas, for instance. She wondered what Thomas would think of the Pelagic. Shit, that was a lie. She knew exactly what he’d think. He was a marine biologist; he’d be wild to go.

Firmly, she shoved Artur and Thomas out of her mind and focused on what her mother was saying.

“—maybe even see your father again!”

Fred’s jaw sagged and she clutched the back of the empty chair so hard she heard it crack. Here was a nightmare she had never even considered.

“You’d better sit down,” Jonas worried. “You look really white. Even for you.”

“I’m not going to the Caymans for a fucking family reunion!” she yowled.

“Oh, this Pelagic thing is in the Cayman Islands? Lovely this time of the year.” Moon frowned. “I think. It’s not hurricane season, is it?”

“Mom, I don’t even know if my father will be there.”

“It’s a big meeting? Important? Obviously someone tracked you down and presented an invitation. That’s a lot of trouble for, say, a slumber party.”

“Yeah,” Fred said grudgingly.

“So it’s obviously a very important thing, this Paregoric, if they’re tracking everybody down for it.”

“Pelagic. A paregoric makes you pass out. On second thought,” Fred admitted, “that might be the right name after all.”

“Then he might be there! In fact, he’s
sure
to be there!”

“Wait, wait, wait.” Jonas held up a strawberry-stained hand like a traffic cop gone off his diet. “I thought Artur said your dad was dead. Remember, last fall? Just before Fred broke down the kitchen door?”

“He said he
thought
Fred’s dad was dead. That he hadn’t been seen for many years. But the ocean is a big place.” To Fred’s dismay, Moon had that “everything will work out” expression on her face. “He could be alive! Sure he could! And Fred could meet him.”

“Mom, I wouldn’t know my bio-dad if he swam up to me and hooked me in the gut. And he wouldn’t know me.”

“Then I’ll describe him,” she said, and the horror continued. “He was built like a swimmer—”

“Ha, ha.”

“—with the broad shoulders, you know, and the narrow waist? Oh, the body on your father! It was too dark to see his hair color, and besides, his hair was wet, but I imagine it’s a darker shade of yours.”

“Mom, I’m going to break Jonas’s ice cream bowl and eat the pieces if you don’t stop.”

“His eyes were the purest green I’d ever seen, even darker than yours, sweetie. He was…” She looked over her shoulder, satisfying herself that Ellie and Sam were engrossed in SpongeBob. “He was the most mesmerizing creature I’d ever met.”

“Vomit, vomit, vomit.”

“I hardly noticed when he was inside me because I was just so enthralled by his eyes, his hair, his shoulders…and then it was done—”

“Mesmerizing,” Jonas noted, “but fast.”

“—and then he rolled off me and dove back into the ocean and I watched for him until dawn, but he never came back. I watched for him at that spot every night for three months.” Moon sighed and looked out the kitchen window. “But he never came back.”

“You want me to track that shitheel down? Fuck that!”

“Fredrika,” her mom warned.

“Mom, he banged you and then he forgot about you. If I
do
find him, I plan on kicking the fins out of him. Nobody treats my mother like that!”

“Fredrika, Sam and I will not be here forever.”

“Not the ‘you gotta find a man’ speech again, for crying out loud.”

“I’m not implying you need a man to be happy. I’m saying your blood relatives are rare and wonderful things. Yours in particular,” she added, unconsciously eyeing Fred’s hair. “If you could find your biological father…Even if it’s true, even if he’s dead, maybe you have…I don’t know…aunts? Cousins?”

“Forget it, Mom. It’s a Pelagic, not a family reunion.” Whatever that meant. “I’m going to this meeting and that’s it. Jonas thought we ought to stop by and let you know we’ll be out of town for a while.” And it was for just this sort of reason that she tended to avoid trips to the Cape. “Oh, and I gotta get something out of Sam’s office. And then we’re out of here.”

BOOK: Swimming Without a Net
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