Part U, in a continuing story from A to Z [link to the beginning]
After several more hours of torture, watching Sam try on a glut of dresses, Zoey desperately needed to expend some pent up energy. Fortunately, Ferraro had decided there would be no more work or lessons for anyone until after the ball.
“I’m going for a swim in the cove,” she told Sam. “You want to come along?”
Sam gave her a dubious look. “That place is creepy. I went in once when I was little and there were slimy things in the water.”
Zoey hadn’t noticed any seaweed, but who knew what might be in there with the way the cove changed almost at whim.
“You can sit on the beach, all prim and proper like a little old lady,” she teased, laughing. “Be sure to call for help if I start to drown in slime.” She made gurgling and gagging noises and soon both of them were laughing.
“I do want an excuse to wear my new clothes,” Sam said, holding up a couple pair of shorts and some T-shirts. They were still sort of dressy looking for someone her age, but a big improvement over what the girl had been wearing.
“The only excuse you need is wanting to be comfortable.”
“Hey, Zoey?” Sam sounded hesitant.
“Thanks for doing that with me. Looking at dresses and stuff,” she said quietly. “I didn’t want to go in there by myself.”
Oh hell, now she felt bad for avoiding it. “Sam, any time you need back-up, you let me know. I’m there. Just, please, no more today.”
“Deal. But don’t forget, you still need to pick out shoes.”
“Oh, for godsakes. Help!” Zoey faked a plea, “The girl is trying to kill me.”
They agreed to meet up in the kitchen after they changed, where they packed a picnic lunch. Or, more accurately, where Mrs. Darby shooed them out of the way and packed it for them. And Zoey dutifully phoned Ferraro, as agreed, to let him know they were leaving the house and where they were going.
Someone had arranged to have the weeds cleared from the stone steps and, between that and the low tide, they easily made their way down and set up a blanket on the narrow strip of sand between the cliff and the rocky shoreline.
Zoey had gotten a key to the beach shed from Benton a few days earlier, after her grudging promise not to create any havoc with the contents, but hadn’t had time to investigate. She left Sam to sort out the food and was almost to the shed when she heard a sound that stopped her dead in her tracks.
Giggling. Children giggling.
Zoey raced back over the sand to where Sam was sitting, ready to defend her if needed. Although how she’d defend against ghosts was beyond her. She slowed her approach when she realized Sam was giggling too.
“Sam? Are you okay?”
“Of course I am. Come meet the ghosties, they say they’re sorry for bothering you the other night.”
“You can see them? Wait. They talk?”
“Well, they talk to me. Maman never could hear them, but they loved her. They always came to listen to her read bedtime stories when we’d visit here.”
“I’ve only heard them giggle.” Zoey squinted in the sunlight. “Where are they?”
Sam pointed to where the water lapped gently against the beach. “They’re splashing each other in the shallow water. See?”
Zoey could just barely make them out, shimmery and almost transparent in the bright light, splashing and giggling, darting about and floating, having a grand old time.
She felt another presence then. Uncomfortable, like someone was staring at her. Slowly, senses on full alert, she scanned the cove for intruders. There. A flicker of light, a reflection off something on the aged side of shiny. She relaxed and smiled as she realized what it was.
“Hey, Sam,” she said. “Will you be all right here for a few minutes? I want to go check out something over on those rocks.”
“Stay out of the water until I get back,” she said sternly.
Sam shuddered dramatically. “There’s nothing in the world that would make me get into that water.”
Zoey ran up the switchback path that led to Bubbie’s cave, smiling when she saw the dragon sitting at trail’s end, sunning herself, using the huge stone walls on either side as arm rests.
“Who is this then, schlepping up to my cave all casual like she just left yesterday.”
“Hello to you too, Bubbie. It hasn’t been that long.”
“A dragon could die between visits such as yours.”
“I thought dragons couldn’t die,” Zoey teased.
The dragon heaved a huge smoky sigh. “Only from sorrow and loneliness, but don’t mind me.”
Zoey sat down on a small boulder. “I’ve been meaning to come see you, but things have been sort of hectic. How are your babies?”
“The little dears are getting so big. They’re napping now, waiting to come out and fly during the dusky time of day when people convince themselves everything is a trick of the light.”
“They’re beautiful. I’m so glad I got to see them.”
“Most of your kind lack the imagination for it,” the dragon said with a huff, compliment and insult rolled into one. She angled her head toward the beach. “I see your family has expanded.”
“No, not family–”
“Of course, family. You think I don’t know from family?”
“That’s what I want to talk to you about. Her name is Sam. Samantha Leighton, Ferraro’s niece.”
The dragon didn’t reply, just raised one hoary eyebrow. Waiting.
“Remember you said you’d guard my treasure?”
“Vowed. I made a solemn vow to guard your treasure.”
“Yeah, well. I didn’t have any treasure then. Now I do.”
The dragon frowned, thoughtful. “This girl is your treasure?”
“Oy. Always with the difficult treasure. You can’t find something nice I can keep in my cave?”
“Bubbie, I need to know– if something happens to me, I need to know she’ll be safe.”
“If something happens, she says. What, you forget I also granted you protection? This is nothing to you?”
“Of course not. It means the world to me. It’s just,” Zoey hesitated. “There might be a time when you can’t protect both of us. You might have to choose. If that happens, I release you from your vow.”
The dragon gave her a fierce scowl, golden eyes glittering, flames shooting from her nostrils. “No one has the power to release a dragon from a vow. ‘Tis why they are seldom made.”
Zoey sighed. She hadn’t thought this request was going to be difficult. Then again, she was dealing with a dragon. Unstable, unpredictable, unfuckingcooperative.
“Okay, how about this. If both of us are in trouble, you help her first.”
The dragon roared. “You dare to underestimate me?”
“I’m just saying. Some trouble is worse than others. I’m tougher than I look and can take care of myself.”
“You’re a puny human.”
“Hey,” Zoey protested.
The dragon shrugged, settling her bulk against the sheer stone cliff. “Yes, yes, fine. For a puny human, you’re not so bad,” she acknowledged. “You’re sure this girl is your treasure?”
Zoey followed the dragon’s gaze down to the beach where Sam was playing with the ghost children, sun shining on her smiling face, breeze ruffling her short hair, looking happy and carefree and young.
“Yes. I’m sure.”
The dragon nodded. “I thought as much.” She stood and spread her magnificent wings. Zoey cringed, knowing what was coming next, wondering how she was going to explain it to Sam.
“Now you worry? Please. The girl can’t see or hear me. Not unless I want her to. Now stand up.”
“ZOEY PRESCOTT, YOU ARE STILL UNDER MY PROTECTION. I HEREBY REAFFIRM MY SOLEMN VOW TO PROTECT YOUR TREASURE, AND SAMANTHA LEIGHTON.”
Zoey felt a bit pedantic about the need for clarification of the wording of that particular vow, but decided let it go. She was both humbled and reassured by the formality of it all. “Thank you, Bubbie.”
The dragon snorted fire again. “Go on with you now, burn off some energy. You’re throwing off sparks like a brawler dragon spoiling for a fight.”
Zoey acknowledged the truth of that, exhaling a burst of laughter at the sheer relief of being understood, feeling light-hearted for the first time in days, and ran back down to the beach.
Like Sam, she had opted for shorts and a T-shirt, deciding she’d rather wrestle the jet ski than swim. She wasn’t carrying enough gear to make swimming sufficiently challenging anyway, and needed the workout. She unlocked the shed and dragged one of the machines out onto the sand. She spent several minutes trying to find a fuel gauge or even a gas cap, until she realized it was electric. Or solar. Or nuclear. Whatever. At this point, she wouldn’t rule out any possibility when it came to Ferraro.
“That man has the best toys,” she murmured. She pushed the ski into the water, walking it over to in front of where Sam sat.
She tossed her shoes on the blanket. “I’m going to take this thing for a few spins around the cove.”
“You’re crazy. But have fun.”
“Oh, I will,” Zoey grinned.
The machine was completely silent, and at first she missed the sound of an engine. But it was powerful and soon she was racing across the water, leaving waves in her wake and then coming around to jump them. She felt the burn of exertion in the muscles of her legs and arms and shoulders, and pushed herself harder, hoping the workout would result in the kind of much needed sleep caused by physical exhaustion. She raced the wind and spun in circles until she was dizzy and then raced some more, laughing at the speed and power and freedom of being one with the machine and the water.
Taking a break, she steered to within a few yards of shore, calling to Sam, “This thing is awesome. I wish it were a two-seater so I could give you a ride.”
Sam shook her head. “No way. I’m keeping my feet on land.”
Zoey looked at the meter showing the remaining charge and calculated she had at least another twenty minutes or so. But the ghosts were gone and she didn’t want Sam sitting there feeling bored and left out.
“I’m going to take another quick spin. You want to head back up to the house?”
“Nah, I’m having fun watching. I’ll wait.”
Zoey waved to Sam and was turning the ski into deeper water when she felt something cold brush against her foot.
“Hey, knock it off,” she said, thinking one of the ghosts had stayed behind to play. She felt it again and gently kicked out with her foot, pushing it away.
It came right back. A more insistent nudge this time, cold and sort of slippery. A fish, she decided, and slowly steered the ski away.
She felt a tug on her leg as she increased speed and realized something was wrapped around her ankle. Damn, what a time to get caught in seaweed. As she slowed to see how tangled she was, she felt a stinging pain in her ankle.
She looked down just in time to see something pale grey and shiny wrap itself higher around her calf. Oh god, not seaweed. It was a tentacle.
She felt cold flesh slide wetly around her other ankle. Another tentacle. Fuck. She revved the ski at full throttle, trying to break free, but the tentacles just tightened.
Was it an octopus? No, they don’t attack people. Neither do wolves, said a little voice in her head.
“Zoey?” Sam called from shore, worry in her voice. “You okay?”
“I’m fine,” she called, lying for all she was worth. She could certainly handle a misguided little octopus. “Just a bit of seaweed.”
“Do you need me to come help?”
Zoey looked up to see Sam wading into the water. “NO. Stay back. Get out of the water, Sam,” she ordered.
The tentacles gave a firm tug and Zoey tightened her grip on the handlebars, fighting just to stay on the ski. Whatever this thing was, it was strong. She looked out over the water and saw that the surface was bubbling and roiling now, the entire cove sloshing back and forth like water in a tipped bowl.
Okay, so maybe she couldn’t handle it.
“Zoey? What’s happening?” Sam sounded panicky. Zoey needed to get her off that beach.
“Sam, I’ve got a little problem here. Run up to the house and get help. Now. GO.” Zoey glanced away from the tentacles long enough to see Sam running up the steps, screaming for help. Good girl.
She felt something cold slither up the outside of her thigh, higher, over her hip. She looked down in sick fascination as the tentacle just kept coming, longer and thicker as it rose out of the water. It circled her waist and Zoey took one hand off the ski to grab at it, pull it away.
It was too slippery. Slimy. Using both hands now, trying to get a grip on it before it could tighten its hold. She felt another one slide up her other leg, watched as it too wrapped around her waist and over one shoulder. The tentacles had suckers and she felt them latch on, even through the thin wet fabric of her T-shirt, their barbs piercing and stinging.
Caught, helpless, she felt herself being lifted off the ski. Higher and higher over the now wildly churning water. She could see an enormous grey shape under the water, easily forty feet long, undulating and shifting. More tentacles lifted out of the water as the entire thing came to the surface, displacing water in a rushing sluice.
Eyes. Two huge glassy black eyes. Sharp beak nestled smugly in the center of writhing arms. Elongated body. Pointed tail. Not an octopus, then.
No, she knew what this was.
Dangling over the water, unable either to attack or defend herself, Zoey had the fleeting irrational thought that she was one of the few people to ever get this close to a giant squid. Lucky her.
And then the thing dragged her underwater.
U is for Underwater