Into the Deep

by Missy Fleming

"Into the Deep" by Missy Fleming No one understands the fury of the ocean like Zoey.

Ten years ago, she lost her leg in a freak shark attack. The night after her sixteenth birthday, she has yet to accept her awkward prosthetic limb or the fact she will always be different. Wary of the sea, and its hidden threats, she ventures to a bonfire at the beach. She's mesmerized by its awesome power, wondering what she ever had to fear, until a rogue wave sweeps her into the cool, salty water.

Zoey believed mermaids were creatures of legend, characters in silly children's stories, but it's hard to ignore the captivating tail that's suddenly appeared, or the sense of finally being whole. She abandons her life on land in search of answers about who she really is and where she came from.

What she discovers is a kingdom full of intrigue and danger, as well as a royal father she never knew existed. Settling into her role as a mermaid princess, she learns her family is under attack, both on land and in the water. Raging storms swell up, threatening coastal cities, and sea levels rise practically overnight, endangering the lives of everyone she loves. Determined to stop the strange phenomena, Zoey becomes caught up in the race to track down what, or who, is responsible for the catastrophic events.

But, Zoey possesses another secret, one born of legend and more powerful than any mer or human can imagine.






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Chapter One

Fat raindrops pummel the car as I watch my classmates filing onto the bus. My biology class is taking a field trip to the aquarium and while that makes me nervous on its own, the weather isn’t the reason for my clammy palms. The uneven, puddle filled parking lot worries me and I adjust my prosthetic leg restlessly. Ten years and I still haven’t gotten used to its foreignness or found a way to be graceful.

“Are you sure about this, sweetie?” my mom inquires.

“I have to. It’s either deal with the trip to the aquarium or fail,” I mumble, annoyed by her constant worrying.

“Maybe I should go with you.”

“Mom!” I screech. “No way. Trust me, the last thing I need is to advertise how much of a freak I am.”

She reaches over and tucks a stray lock behind my ear. “You’re not a freak, Zoey. But have you seen this?” She drops a folded newspaper in my lap.

A colorful advertisement for the aquarium’s new exhibit, Predators of the Deep, stares up at me and I can’t stop the shudder that rips through me. Darkened silhouettes of sharks dominate the picture and my mouth goes dry.

As long as I can remember, the ocean has represented something unattainable. It mocks me, a luscious blue reminder of the pieces that are missing. I’m not a sunny beach girl, obsessed with spending my afternoons and weekends perched on a strategically placed towel. In fact, why we continue to live in San Diego is a mystery. Whenever I ask Mom she just gets this vacant expression on her face and clams up, a definite sign she’s hiding the true reason.

To be honest, when I stare out at it I’m filled with pain. The leg I lost years ago twitches and burns in an invisible memory of what changed that day. It only happens near the sea and my doctor claims it’s mental. I see the reason for my loss which, in turn, becomes pain. It’s such a weird sensation—shooting agony in a limb I no longer have. I should be thankful, that I do realize. I’m alive. I survived. What else can I ask for?

Endless rain, cool temperatures, and cloudy skies are what I live for, days I don’t have to worry about showing my legs in public. Of course I can’t say it out loud, not anymore and not without drawing strange looks. Conditions are worsening across the planet, putting those of us who live on the coast in peril. Beaches are closed, ports are flooding, and suddenly global warming isn’t an improbable event. Experts across the globe say it is happening, now.

It’d be easy to get out of this trip. Given my history, the teacher wouldn’t object. Facing an exact duplicate of the creature that took my leg when I was six terrifies me, but it’ll be simple enough to avoid.

Studying Mom’s concerned profile, I’m reminded how beautiful she is. She doesn’t appear a day over thirty and I often catch the boys at school checking her out. Unfortunately, we look nothing alike. Her hair is white blonde, falling down her back in a cascade, of which I’m absolutely jealous. Even her green eyes pop and compliment her peaches and cream complexion.

I, on the other hand, have black hair which curls uncontrollably and is impossible to comb, so mostly I wear it up in a ponytail. It’s not that I’m not pretty. I just always feel like the single unsharpened crayon in the box next to her. My ice blue eyes and tan skin must originate from my father, a mystery mom guards fiercely. It doesn’t matter anyway. When people glance at me, their gaze rarely goes above the waist and my hitching gait. On the outside I’ve learned to convince my mom, my doctors, and my physical therapist that I’m fine, but it’s tough not to notice the weight of everyone’s gawking. A teenage girl’s biggest wish is to be normal, to fit in. It’s not working out too well for me.

I attempt to lighten the heavy mood in the car with dry humor. “Don’t worry. What are the odds of a person being attacked by a shark twice in one lifetime?”

“Not funny.” Her lips turn down. “Be careful, okay? I have to keep you safe this week.”

“What’s so special about this week?” When she doesn’t answer, I groan. “You’re being weird and secretive again. I really have to go, Mom.” I lean over and kiss her cheek, then open the door and shuffle as fast as I can to the bus. The heavy rain drenches me in seconds, but luckily most if it stays out of my leg and I manage to avoid the puddles, a minor miracle.

I clamor up the steps and my best friend, Charlotte, has saved me a seat beside her, close to the front. She flashes a bright smile my direction, waves of sunny blonde hair spilling past her shoulders.

“Ugh, Mom’s losing her mind,” I complain as I plop down next to her. “She’s keeping something from me and I can’t figure out what. I’m turning sixteen this week, so she should realize I’m practically an adult.”

“Your mom loves you, Zo. You’re lucky.”

Her wistfulness deflates some of my frustration. Charlotte lives with her grandmother, Netty, and both her parents died when she was a baby. “I know, but she actually tried to talk me out of going today. Assumes I’ll freak out around the sharks.”

Charlotte pulls a chunk of hair forward and examines it for split ends. “Well, it’s not like you’ll offer up another leg for their enjoyment. She should realize you don’t have to go near them if you don’t want to.”

“Exactly what I said!” Wiggling in my seat, I stretch my right leg out in front of me and scowl at it.

Under the denim is a carbon fiber artificial prosthetic that no matter how hard I try, I can’t accept. Granted, it’s lightweight and the most technologically advanced model available, but it doesn’t belong. Often, I wish we lived someplace cold where I could cover it with jeans and boots year round. Here, I’m surrounded by shorts and bikinis and flip-flops—things I cannot wear. That’s not accurate. The truth is I’m not brave enough to wear them.

It’s not that I feel sorry for myself. I’ve come to terms with certain realities and limitations, but sometimes I see a cute skirt and my self-confidence plummets. I worry about walking down the hall, if my limp is more noticeable than it was the day before, especially if the stump is bothering me. I’ve heard endless stories about girls, amputees, who own their situation, refusing to let their artificial leg prevent them from running track or wearing short shorts. Sadly, I haven’t found the strength yet. Acceptance is not a miraculous solution.

The only details I remember about the attack are what come from confusing flashes of images. I recall falling out of the boat Mom was piloting and watching her execute a turn to pick me up, but after that it’s a red blur of teeth and pain and blood.

“Did you ask about the party on Saturday?” Charlotte’s question brings me back to the moment.

Some kids from school are having a bonfire at one of the remaining open beaches and Charlotte has been invited. She insists I accompany her, that my aversion to the ocean is silly. It’s tempting. I mean, not only will I be face-to-face with the thing I simultaneously love and hate, I can hang out and strive to be normal for an evening.

“I said you were taking me to dinner and a movie for my sweet sixteen. If I tell her, she’ll freak and lecture me on all the reasons I shouldn’t go. It sounds fun and I’m excited. She’d ruin it.” I chew my lip. “Is that mean?”

“Nah. It’s a natural human curiosity to confront that which is considered scary or intriguing. If you’re afraid, test yourself, which you’re doing. You haven’t been to a social event like this. I’m proud of you.”

“Wow.” I pat her leg. “Impressive, Miss Fortune Cookie. Seriously, Char, sometimes you sound much older than sixteen.”

Her face twists up comically. “Like, OMG, you’re so mean!”

“Better, a little scary, but it’s better.”

“Just consider what I said.” She turns serious again and rolls her pretty blue eyes. “I adore your mom, but she needs to let go, let you live your life.”

Our conversation is interrupted by the bus pulling into a large lot. The trip took longer than usual, as we had to bypass a couple washed out roads. Even the wide expanse of concrete making up the parking area resembles a lake. Mr. Campbell, our biology teacher, stands up before anyone can exit and says, “I’m certain you’ve heard about the strange weather phenomena affecting the oceans lately.”

I listen close, hoping to learn more about what is happening. People are genuinely starting to view it as an end-of-the-world preview or sign of the heavenly rapture. There are so many conflicting reports, including rumors of violent attacks by marine animals which haunt my dreams.

“It’s more important than ever to appreciate the beauty found in our oceans. The increasingly fragile environments are under assault and, for once, not only from humans. Earlier this morning, a rogue wave capsized not only a fully occupied cruise ship but dozens of shipping barges. Survivors are scarce. Also, off the coast of Japan, millions of dead fish washed ashore and scientists are struggling to figure out why. Appreciate what you see today. As fast as conditions are changing, it may be the last chance you have to observe many of these species.”

He sounds extreme, but it’s exactly what I’ve heard on the news. The confusion and dire circumstances are frustrating world leaders. What he described is only the beginning. The so-called freak accidents connected to the sea are increasing at an alarming rate.

I shove it aside. There are more pressing matters to deal with, starting with the sharks inside this building. After we pile off the bus, Charlotte drags me inside while I fight to calm my rioting stomach.


Chapter Two

The vaulted ceilings of the aquarium’s entrance are lined in rock, similar to being inside an underwater cave. Blue lights embedded in the walls ripple, giving the illusion of movement. My skin turns clammy and Charlotte lays a comforting hand on my arm, reminding me it isn’t real.

“Why does this bother me?” I whisper.

“Because you had a pretty traumatic experience as a kid,” she replies in an equally soft tone. “And you still bear the scars from it. It’s only natural you have an aversion to the water, especially the ocean. You’ll be fine.”

Her reassurance helps and slowly the weight lifts from my shoulders. I can do this.

Mr. Campbell gives everyone their stamped tickets. “Do not lose these. You’ll need them to reenter if you have to return to the bus for any reason. You’re on your own until eleven, which is when we’ll meet for the dolphin show. Afterward we’ll have lunch and then I’ll take you to the Predators of the Deep exhibit to discuss the specimens there. It’ll tie directly into our lab tomorrow. Please attempt to behave. I know it can be difficult.”

Great, now I’ll have to at least try and venture into the shark exhibit, especially if he’s planning on quizzing us tomorrow.

Charlotte and I lag behind then wander into the first set of exhibits. A fleeting moment of panic sweeps over me, causing my pulse to pound in my ears. I suck in a few calming breaths. Thick glass separates me from the water. I have to remember that, but I’m also aware of the memories pressing in.

Then, I enter another world. A magical one I never knew existed. Tanks of jellyfish fill my sight. The muted lights accentuate the creature’s luminous colors and soft instrumental music plays through the speakers. I stand in the middle of the room, keeping the weight off my prosthetic and plenty of distance between me and the unknown.

One particular tank is full of pale, translucent pink jellies. The slight movements hypnotize me. Each organism has to be at least a foot long and they float peacefully, their tentacles tracing invisible messages behind them.

We explore deeper into the aquarium and discover floor-to-ceiling windows of glass housing the animals, giving me an unobstructed view of a world I have only dreamed about. Most are saltwater fish, brightly colored and all shapes and sizes. Again the only light comes from the exhibits themselves, casting a flickering pattern on the floor and walls. Same as the lobby, it gives me the illusion I’m actually underwater.

I pause, mesmerized by the stunning creatures, and tentatively step closer. The placard says it’s an exact environment of what is found in the South Pacific, near coral reefs. Blue and yellow striped fish circle lazily and orange clownfish poke out of huge sea anemones. Bigger varieties float higher up, silent patrols guarding the skies. Manta rays, with their flat, triangular bodies, cast shadows below. Starfish cling to the colorful reef and a crab sticks half its body out of a small recess in the floor, surveying the surroundings before scampering back inside.

The scene delights my imagination and I wonder how it would feel to snorkel among them, to spend my days as part of their environment, like my mom, who’d once been a pro surfer. When she was my age, Lindsay Lawson was a household name, a girl who reveled in her thirst for adventure. She gave it up when she had me. Now, the only surfboard we have sits in the garage, covered in an inch of dust.

I don’t notice the group of fish gathering in front of me until it’s gotten fairly large. In surprise, I draw back and study them. They float level with me, representing every color of the rainbow—purple, yellow, vivid green, red. A couple smaller ones swim in circles and wiggle. My lips turn up in response. Their fins and tails flutter faster in reaction, or that’s how it appears, which is completely insane.

“Charlotte,” I whisper. “Check this out.”

I move aside, making space for her, and a tingle creeps up my spine when the group moves with me. To test it, I step to the other side of the window and they follow again.

“What’s up?” Charlotte asks, standing beside me. “What’s with the fish?”

“No clue. Watch this.” I shift from side-to-side and they swim back and forth. The size of the school keeps growing, too. More start dancing—I don’t know what else to call their wiggling movements. They remind me of a puppy wagging with its entire body.

Charlotte laughs in delight, entranced by their reaction. “I’m kind of expecting them to break into a song and dance number.”

I laugh with her. Without a doubt, it’s the strangest thing I’ve ever seen.

“Go to the next window. Maybe that’s what it is, Zoey.”

I walk five feet to the next observation area and wait. A few seconds later, the entire happy parade gathers in front of me once again. People nearby notice what is happening and crowd in.

On a whim, I turn a complete circle. Part of me expects it, but I’m shocked as the school mimics my action, each animal completing one rotation. I repeat my motion one more time and so do they.

Now it’s creepy, unnatural. Charlotte’s mouth gapes and I wish I have some of her wise words to use. She sort of resembles one of the little creatures with her face like that.

“Dude, that’s crazy,” someone behind me says.

I turn to find Scott, star of the basketball team and junior class hunk, smiling at the aquatic display on the other side of the glass. Impatiently, I brush my hair out of the way. Even on a decent day I’m not his type, not nearly shiny and glossy enough, but I still hold myself taller, straighter.

“What’s the sickness fish catch? It’s twirling disease, right?” I blurt after wracking my brain for a witty response. That certainly wasn’t it.

“Whirling disease?” he says. “That’s in trout, freshwater fish. Maybe you just caught their attention.”

I’m too distracted to do anything other than smile shyly at him and wander into the next area with Charlotte close behind. Surrounded by water and he is what makes me uncomfortable. Awesome.

“He was totally flirting with you. Scott’s so cute. He’s…” Her voice trails off as she glances around with her mouth, once again, hanging open. She isn’t staring at me, but over my shoulder. “I don’t believe it.”

She points and I turn. We’re in another section, with different fish whose enclosures don’t connect to the dancing, obviously sick guys, but these are doing the same thing.

The placard next to this display even says they’re from a separate part of the Pacific. They move happily, caught up in my every gesture. A cold, hard rock of anxiety settles in my stomach and my hands start to shake. I’m frantic for a logical explanation to their behavior.

From my peripheral vision I spot Mr. Campbell passing through, talking with Paula, the class suck-up.

“Mr. Campbell. Can I ask you a question?”

He ambles over. “Of course, Zoey.”

“Have you ever seen behavior like this?”

Pushing his glasses up his nose, he steps closer to study the fish, who continue to show off. “Very odd. I’m no expert on marine life, but this is quite mysterious.”

“It only gets weirder. Show him,” Charlotte orders.

Aware I have an audience, I walk between two windows, followed by a line of tiny wiggling bodies.

“Extraordinary. Somehow you’re capturing their attention.”

“Is it possible that whatever is affecting the fish in the oceans is affecting these?” This question also comes from Charlotte.

“Hardly,” Paula provides in her high, snobby tone. “Most of these creatures have spent their lives in captivity.”

“Not necessarily,” our teacher begins, “it’s actually quite possible. A lot of mysterious behavior is being exhibited by the world’s sea life. This could be connected somehow.”

He hasn’t exactly alleviated my unease because, for some reason, I know his explanation isn’t right.

Everyone hangs out a while, captivated by the show, and the weight of their gazes is intimidating. For me, it’s such a curious thing. Oddly enough, it’s normal. No, not normal, that isn’t correct. I mean it isn’t surprising. I wouldn’t dream of uttering these words aloud, but the way their gaze is fixated on me leaves me feeling whole or accepted. I’m honored by it even as it causes my heartbeat to skyrocket. I mean, I’m far from special.

Mr. Campbell breaks the silence. “As interesting as this is, it’s time for the dolphin show. Perhaps we can come back later and check if they’re still acting bizarre.”

Taking a final glance behind me, I let Charlotte pull me along with the crowd.


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