“Mom, what happened today?” Gemma asked.
“You have to get me out of here.” Nathalie grabbed a pink backpack from a pile in the middle of the floor, then flew around the room, grabbing clothes and junk to fill it with. “You have a car, right?”
“My car’s broken.” She toyed with the sunglasses in her hands and watched her mother trying to shove a Velcro Reebok into her bag, even though the bag was already overflowing. “Mom, I can’t take you away from here.”
Nathalie instantly stopped what she was doing, half crouched on the floor with the shoe and bag still in her hands, and glared up at her daughter. “Then why did you come here, if you’re not taking me away? Did you come here just to rub it in my face?”
“Rub what in your face?” Gemma shook her head. “Mom, I visit you every week. I just come to see you and talk with you because I miss you and love you. We usually come on Saturdays, but there’s been a lot going on at home.”
“So I have to stay here?” Nathalie straightened up and dropped her bag and shoe on the floor. “For how long?”
“I don’t know. But this is where you live.”
“But they don’t let me do anything!” Nathalie whined.
“Everywhere you live has rules,” Gemma tried to explain to her. “You’ll never be allowed to do whatever you want. Nobody can.”
“Well, that stinks.” She looked around the room in disgust and kicked a teddy bear that Gemma had gotten her for Mother’s Day.
“Listen, Mom, can I talk to you?” Gemma asked.
“I guess.” Nathalie sighed and went over to the bed so she could flop down on it. “If I can’t leave, we might as well talk.”
“Thanks.” Gemma sat down next to her. “I need your advice.”
“About what?” Nathalie looked up at her, intrigued that someone was coming to her for help.
“There’s a lot of stuff going on right now, and it’s all so crazy.” She chewed her lip, then looked at Nathalie. “Do you believe in monsters?”
“You mean like real monsters?” Her eyes widened, and she leaned in closer to Gemma. “Yeah. Of course I do. Why? Did you see one? What was it like?”
“I don’t know, actually.” Gemma shook her head. “It seemed sorta awesome, but I know it’s not right.”
“Well, what does the monster look like?” Nathalie asked. She pulled her legs underneath her so she could sit cross-legged, facing Gemma.
“I guess it’s like a mermaid.”
“A mermaid?” Nathalie gasped and her eyes widened even farther. “Oh, my gosh, Gemma, that’s so awesome!”
“I know, but…” She rolled her shoulders. “They want me to join them, to be a mermaid like them—”
“Oh, Gemma, you have to!” Nathalie cut her off before she could finish her thought. “You have to be a mermaid! That would be the most amazing thing in the whole world! You could swim on and on forever! Nobody would ever tell you what to do.”
“But…” She swallowed hard and stared down at her sunglasses in her hands. “But I think they’re doing something bad. They hurt people.”
“The mermaids hurt people?” Nathalie asked. “How? Why would they do that?”
“I don’t know. But I know they are. I think they might be evil.”
“Oh, no.” Nathalie chewed her thumbnail, considering her daughter’s story very seriously.
“So I think if I went with them, I would have to hurt people.” Gemma looked up, trying to hold back her tears.
“Then don’t go with them. You don’t want to hurt people. Do you?”
“No,” she admitted. “I really don’t. But … there’s this boy.”
“A boy?” Nathalie smiled widely and grabbed Gemma’s arm. “Is he cute? Have you kissed him? Does he look like Justin?”
“He’s really cute.” Gemma couldn’t help smiling with her mother staring so excitedly at her. “And we kissed.” Nathalie squealed in delight at that. “And I think we really, really like each other.”
“That’s wonderful!” Nathalie clapped her hands together.
“Yeah, but if I go with the mermaids, I’d have to leave him behind. I wouldn’t be able to see you anymore, either. I’d have to go away forever.”
“Oh.” She furrowed her brow. “Well. What happens if you stay? If you don’t go away with the mermaids?”
“I don’t know for sure. But I think…” Gemma took a deep breath. She didn’t want to tell her mother that she’d die because she had no idea how Nathalie would handle that information. “Something bad would happen to me.”
“So…” Nathalie’s face twisted in confusion as she tried to understand, and she chewed on a long strand of her hair. “If you go with the mermaids, you can swim around forever, but you wouldn’t be able to see me anymore, and you might have to do bad things.”
“But if you don’t go with them, something bad happens to you?” Nathalie asked, and Gemma nodded. “If you stay, will you still be able to visit me and see that boy you like?”
“I don’t know.” Gemma shook her head. “I don’t think so.”
“Well, then, I think you know what you need to do.”
“Yeah.” Nathalie nodded. “You have to go with them.”
“But I’ll have to hurt people,” Gemma reminded her.
“It doesn’t matter.” Nathalie shrugged. “You won’t get hurt. Either way, you don’t get to see me or your boyfriend anymore. So the choice really breaks down to being a mermaid or getting hurt. And you can’t get hurt.”
“I don’t know.” Gemma looked away from her. “I don’t think I could hurt people.”
“Gemma, listen to me. I’m your mother.” Nathalie took her hand and squeezed it emphatically. “I can’t take care of you anymore. I wish I could, but I know I can’t. So you have to take care of yourself.”
Gemma took a deep breath and nodded. “Okay. But I probably won’t be able to come around anymore.”
“Because you’ll be off being a mermaid?” Nathalie asked.
“Yep.” Gemma nodded and blinked back tears. She hugged her mother then, knowing this would probably be the last time she ever saw her. “I love you, Mom.”