Harper woke up when the sun was just beginning to set, and squinted at the dim orange light streaming in through her curtains. For one moment—one brief, glorious moment—she’d forgotten about the night before, the night when her little sister had been attacked before turning into some kind of mermaid and disappearing in the ocean.
Then it all came back to her. Her head throbbed at the memory, and she squeezed her eyes shut.
After Gemma had swum away, leaving Harper alone on the dock at Bernie’s Island, Daniel had checked on Alex to make sure that he was all right. When they’d arrived at the cabin, Alex had been lying unconscious on the floor. Harper hadn’t seen what had happened, but it wasn’t hard for her to imagine.
A horrible bird-creature stood over him. Its mouth was filled with razor-sharp teeth, and massive black wings stretched out behind it. Then it had shifted, changing form into a different kind of monster—the beautiful Penn.
It was almost impossible for Harper to wrap her mind around. When Alex had come to, he’d been certain the things he remembered were a bizarre dream brought on by head trauma. But Harper and Daniel had been forced to tell him that it was all true. The monsters were real, and Gemma was gone.
Then, after all of that, Harper knew she had to go home and attempt to explain to her father what had happened, even though she didn’t understand it herself. Not that she could tell him the truth—there was no way any sane person would believe it unless he witnessed it for himself.
So Harper told Brian that Gemma had run off with Penn and her friends. It was something close to the truth, but even that was still hard for him to comprehend. Harper stayed up all morning convincing her father that Gemma wasn’t coming home, and that was one of the hardest things she’d ever had to do.
But she knew things were only going to get harder. Harper didn’t even know what Penn and the other girls were, let alone how to stop them or how to get Gemma back.
Lying in bed all day wouldn’t solve anything, though. Harper rolled over and grabbed her cell phone from the bedside table, meaning to check the time, and noticed she had two missed calls from a number she didn’t know. Gemma had left her cell phone behind, so if she called, it would be from an unfamiliar number.
Harper’s heart dropped to her stomach. She’d been so dead tired that she’d slept right through her phone ringing. Harper hurried to check her voice mail.
“You have one new message,” the automated voice told her, and Harper cursed herself under her breath. If she’d missed a call from her sister, she’d never be able to forgive herself.
“Hey, Harper, this is Daniel,” his deep voice came through the phone.
“Daniel,” Harper whispered, and put her free hand on her forehead, listening to his message.
“I got your number from the surly girl at the library. I wanted to make sure that you got home all right and see how you’re doing after … well, you know, what happened last night.
“I’ve been keeping an eye out for Gemma, like you asked me to. I took the boat out earlier, but I didn’t see her. I’ll keep looking, and I’ll let you know if I find anything.
“So anyway, give me a call later.” Daniel paused. “I hope you’re doing okay.”
When his message ended, she left her phone at her ear for a minute, even after the automated voice assured her that she had no other messages.
It was thoughtful of Daniel to call and check up on her, but Harper couldn’t call him back. The strange dalliance she’d had with him had to be pushed out of her mind. If he found out anything about Gemma, Daniel would let her know, but that was the only time she should be talking to him. Whatever was happening to Gemma came first. Harper had to deal with that before she could think of anything else.
Harper had slept in her clothes from last night, and they stank like the ocean and sweat. She grabbed a change of clothes, then crept across the hall to the bathroom in case her father was home. There was nothing more she could say to him about Gemma’s disappearance, but she knew Brian would want to keep rehashing it until it made sense.
She cleaned up quickly, then got dressed. She started to sneak back to her room when she glanced over at Gemma’s. Something about the sight of the darkened room broke her heart. Pausing at the doorway, Harper couldn’t help but wonder if Gemma would ever stay in this room again.
Harper swallowed the lump in her throat and shook her head, trying to shake off the feeling. Of course Gemma would stay here again. Harper wouldn’t stop until searching until Gemma was home.
When Harper turned back to her own room, she nearly yelped in surprise. Alex was sitting on her bed, staring down at the floor and looking forlorn.
“Alex?” Harper managed once the beating of her heart slowed. “What are you doing here?” She stepped into her room.
“Oh, sorry.” He lifted his head and motioned toward the downstairs. “Your dad let me in. I came over to talk.”
She glanced back behind her, half expecting Brian to be standing in the hall eavesdropping, and then she shut the bedroom door.
“How did my dad seem?” Harper asked.
“Okay, I guess.” Alex shrugged, and she noticed a cut on his forehead, probably from whatever had knocked him out last night. “A little sad and confused. He asked me about Gemma, but I told him I don’t know where she is.”
She’d meant to call Alex so they could get their stories straight about what had happened to Gemma. The truth was that they didn’t know where she was, and that was as good an answer as any.
“So, what the hell happened last night?” Alex asked her directly.
“I have no idea.” Harper shook her head and sat down in the chair in front of her desk. “I don’t even know what those … those things were.”
“I can barely even remember what they look like anymore.” His brow furrowed as he tried to think. “Last night’s a weird blur of images that don’t even make sense.”
“That’s probably because you hit your head,” Harper said.
Alex seemed to think about it for a minute, then said, “No. I don’t think so. I remember everything really clearly until we were in the cove and that song started.”
Harper had actually forgotten about the song until Alex mentioned it. She couldn’t remember the words, but the melody surfaced, like a half-forgotten dream.
There were a few minutes in the cove that Harper couldn’t really remember, either. The events were a haze of confusion, though she recalled a longing and a pull toward the phantom song. Daniel had helped keep her from diving into the ocean the way Alex had, but that was about all she could remember until they were on the boat again.
“Did you swim to the island?” Harper asked, realizing that he must have.
“I think so.” He shook his head again. “I can’t really remember much. There was the song, then I was swimming, and then I was on the island. Those pretty girls were there, and … and Gemma. She kissed me…” He swallowed hard.
“Do you remember the creature?” Harper asked.
“The bird?” Alex asked, and she nodded. “Is that what it was? A really big bird?”
“It was more like a bird-monster,” Harper tried to explain. “But then it changed and turned into Penn.”
“So those pretty girls are some kind of shape-shifters?” Alex asked. “Because they turned into fish, right? Gemma and the girls turned into fish, then swam off?”
“Mermaids, I think,” Harper corrected him.
“This is so insane,” Alex said quietly, almost to himself, then he looked up at Harper, his dark brown eyes locking seriously on hers. “Stupid question time, but I have to ask. Gemma hasn’t, like … always been a mermaid, has she? This isn’t some family curse thing like on Teen Wolf?”
“No.” Harper smiled despite herself and shook her head. “No. There’s no history of mermaids or any other mythological beings in our family.”
“Okay. Good,” Alex said, then changed his mind and wagged his head back and forth. “Well, not really. If you knew what this was, it would be easier to deal with.”
“It certainly would,” she agreed.
“So you don’t have any idea what Gemma or Penn or the girls might be?” Alex asked.
“No,” Harper admitted regretfully.
“And you don’t know where they went?”
“So. How are we gonna get her back?” Alex asked.
“Well…” Harper took a deep breath. “We figure out what they are and how to stop them, then we find them and we take Gemma back.”
Marcy had been talking for a while, but Harper hadn’t been listening. She sat at the desk, staring into space and trying to figure out what to do.
When Alex left the night before, they’d both agreed that they had to continue on with life like normal until they found Gemma. That meant going to work, even when Harper would rather be at home scouring the Internet for clues about what Gemma might have become.
She’d spent a lot of time on sites that claimed to be experts on Bigfoot and el chupacabra, but nobody had heard of a bizarre bird-monster that also turned into a fish- human hybrid and a beautiful teenage girl.
By the time she fell asleep very late last night, Harper had begun to believe that she’d made up the whole thing. It was some weird stress-induced hallucination. That was the only logical explanation for what she’d seen.
“But I was like, you can’t make a fur coat out of basset hounds,” Marcy was saying when Harper started tuning back in. “It’s not like I’m Cruella De Vil, you know?”
“No, it’s not,” Harper replied absently.
Marcy scoffed and stared at her above her dark-framed glasses. “You haven’t listened to a word I’ve said, have you, Harper?”
“You’re not Cruella De Vil.” Harper forced a thin smile at her.
Marcy rolled her eyes. “Lucky guess.”
“How is that lucky?” Harper asked.
The bell of the library’s front door rang as it swung open, and Harper pulled her eyes away from Marcy’s annoyed gaze to see Alex come striding over to the desk. He grinned broadly, which was a massive change from the grim expression he’d worn last night.
“You heard from her?” Harper blurted out, interrupting Marcy midsentence after she’d begun talking about basset hounds again.
“No.” Alex’s smile faltered for a moment as he rested his arms on the desk in front of her. “But I do have good news.”
“Yeah?” Harper leaned forward.
“I figured it out.” His smile returned as brightly as before.
“Sirens?” Harper frowned in confusion. “Like police sirens?”
“Is this about Gemma?” Marcy asked, managing to sound concerned for once. “Did the police find her?”
“No,” Alex said. “Where’s your section on mythology?”
“Mythology?” Harper echoed, as he was already taking a step back from the desk.
“Yeah, like Greek mythology,” Alex elaborated.
“Back in the corner, past the children’s books,” Harper said, motioning to the other side of the library.
“Great.” He smiled wider, and before she could ask him anything more, he darted back to where she’d pointed.
“Alex,” Harper said as she stood up, but he just kept going, disappearing between the shelves of books. “Marcy, can you cover the front desk? I have to go see what he’s up to.”
“Uh, yeah, sure,” Marcy said, sounding just as confused as Harper felt. “If it’s about Gemma, take as much time as you need. But I have no idea what mythology has to do with her running away.”
“Yeah, me neither,” Harper muttered, then followed Alex to the back of the library.
She found him already leafing through a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in the middle of the mythology section. On her way after him, it had occurred to her what he meant by sirens, but the pieces didn’t completely fit.
“You think they’re sirens?” Harper asked skeptically.
“Yeah.” Alex nodded without looking up from the book.
“I don’t know, Alex. That doesn’t make sense.”
“Think about it.” He lifted his head to look at her. “The song? That’s what sirens are known for. Not to mention the whole mermaid thing.”
“Right,” Harper agreed. “But what about the bird-monster thing?”
“Still sirens.” He flipped a page in the book, scanning it frantically. A moment later, he smiled again and held the book out to her. “See for yourself.”
“What?” Harper asked, and Alex tapped a passage.
Aloud, she began to read, “Why should it be that they have feathers now and feet of birds, though still a girl’s fair face, the sweet-voiced sirens?”
“See?” Alex said almost gleefully.
“Maybe you don’t remember it, but Penn’s face was not that fair when she turned into the bird thing,” Harper pointed out.
“Obviously this isn’t completely accurate,” Alex said, refusing to be deterred. “Some books say there are only two sirens, while others say there are as many as four. Some describe them as mermaids, others as birds. None of them get it completely right, but maybe that’s because they change form.”
Harper narrowed her eyes, thinking. “What do you mean?”
“Maybe Ovid saw them as a bird.” Alex pointed to the book in Harper’s hands. “But others saw them as mermaids. The girls can change their shape, like you saw. The only constant is their song. And we know they have that.”
Biting her lip, Harper stared down at the book in her hands.
What Alex said made sense. Or it would have, if any of this made any sense.
“This is mythology, Alex,” Harper said, shaking her head, and she handed the book back to him. “None of this is real.”
He groaned. “Oh, come on, Harper. You saw the same things I did. This is real, and you know it.”
“Fine.” Harper crossed her arms over her chest. “Let’s say you’re right. What we saw...they were sirens. Is Gemma one of them? How did she become one?”
“I don’t know. So much of what I’ve read contradicts itself.” Alex motioned to the shelf of books beside him. “I was researching on the Internet all night, but I was hoping that maybe actual books could offer some clarity.”
“Well, how did the sirens become sirens in the first place?” Harper asked.
“From what I can tell, it had something to do with pissing off one of the gods.”
Alex turned away from Harper to focus his attention on the books. His fingers trailed along the spines as he scanned for a title.
“What are you looking for?” Harper asked, moving closer to him to help him look.
“I read a passage from a book online. I think it’s called…Argonautica or something.”
“Here.” Harper reached up past him, taking a worn copy from the top shelf.
She picked up an encyclopedia on Greek mythology, then started grabbing any book that might possibly have information on sirens, including one called Mythology for Dummies.
As she began gathering books, she handed them to Alex. Once he had a small stack, he sat down on the floor right between the two shelves and spread the books out around him.
“There are tables we can sit at,” Harper said. “There’s even an overstuffed couch.”
“Here’s good,” Alex said, already flipping through one of the books.
Shrugging, Harper sat down across from him and folded her legs underneath her.
“So.” She rested her arms on her knees and leaned forward.
“Tell me what you already know.”
“I don’t know how much I ‘know’ per se, since there seems to be a lot of misinformation,” Alex said.
“You think they became sirens because they angered the gods?” Harper asked, and he nodded. “But Gemma didn’t anger any gods.” Then she changed her mind and shook her head. “At least, I don’t think she did.”
“I don’t think she did, either,” Alex agreed. “So maybe she isn’t one.”
Harper thought back to the end of the other night, when she’d seen Gemma disappear into the ocean in the pale pink light of early morning. Even then, her tail had been unmistakable. Gemma had definitely had a mermaid form.
“No, she’s one of them,” Harper said definitively. “And it doesn’t really matter to me why or how she became one. I just need to know how to get her back.”
“That’s the tricky part.” Alex grimaced. “I haven’t read about any way to undo their curse. Only how to kill them.”
“Well, we don’t want to kill Gemma, but I wouldn’t mind killing those other bitches,” Harper said, a little surprised by the vengeance in her own voice. “How do we do that?”
“I don’t know exactly. Apparently, the sirens are fated to die if someone hears their song and escapes it,” Alex said with a sheepish expression on his face.
“But you heard the song, and so did I, and we escaped it,” Harper said. “And they didn’t die.”
“That’s the only thing I’ve read so far,” Alex said. “But according to what I read in Homer’s Odyssey, the sirens should already be dead.”
“Great,” Harper muttered. “So basically what you’re saying is that you don’t know much more than I do?”
“Not really, I guess,” he said. “But at least I figured out what they are.”
“That’s a start,” Harper admitted grudgingly, and picked up a book off the floor.
With no better plan, Harper and Alex were left researching everything they could on sirens. As they went through the books, they spoke very little to each other. They were both too focused on figuring out how to rescue Gemma.
Harper wasn’t sure exactly how long they’d been sitting there reading, but she’d had to change positions because her legs had gone numb. She sat with her back resting against the shelf behind her, the copy of Argonautica spread out across her knees.
Even Alex had moved, probably for the same reason. He lay on his belly with the book open before him. His fingers were buried in his dark hair, and his handsome features were hardened in concentration.
Harper glanced up from her book and caught sight of him.
Something about the intensity of his expression moved her.
His devotion to Gemma nearly rivaled her own, and that made her feel a bit better. She wasn’t in this alone.
“What are you doing?” Marcy asked, and Harper looked up to see her coworker standing at the end of the shelves with her arms crossed over her chest.
“Um…” Harper glanced back at Alex for help with answering the question, but he looked as lost for words as she was.
“Did you plan on doing any more work today?” Marcy asked. “Or were you going to hide out here all day?”
“Well…” Harper shifted so she was sitting up straighter. She knew she should be working, but she didn’t really want to abandon her pursuit, either. That felt more important than scanning in overdue library books.
“If you didn’t feel up to working because of Gemma running away or what ever, then you could’ve just said so,” Marcy went on. “You didn’t need to sneak off on false pretenses.”
“No, we didn’t,” Harper said quickly.
Marcy narrowed her eyes, apparently hearing the conviction in Harper’s words. “What are you doing?”
“We’re, um…” Harper glanced back again at Alex, who hurried to provide a reason.
“We’re, uh, we’re reading . . . books,” Alex responded lamely. Harper gave him a severe look, like she thought he was an idiot, and Alex shook his head and shrugged.
“What are you reading?” Marcy asked. When neither of them answered, she bent down and picked up the nearest book, which happened to be called Sirens: Handmaidens of the Sea.
“This is what you meant by sirens?”
“Uh, yeah,” Alex said.
“Those really beautiful, creepy girls,” Marcy said, putting the pieces together rather quickly. “You think they’re sirens?”
“Well . . .” Harper swallowed and decided to answer honestly. “Kind of. Yeah.”
“And they took Gemma or had something to do with her running off?” Marcy asked, her voice keeping the same monotone it always had, betraying neither a hint of skepticism nor belief.
“Yeah,” Alex admitted. “We think so.”
Marcy seemed to consider this for a moment, then she nodded as if it all made sense to her, and sat down on the floor.
“Have you figured out a way to get her back yet?” Marcy asked.
“Not yet,” Harper said cautiously. “We’re still looking.”
Marcy held up the Sirens book. “Have you looked in this one, or do you want me to look?”
“You can, if you want,” Harper said.
“Yeah, that’d be great, actually,” Alex chimed in with more enthusiasm than Harper, who was still a bit reluctant to trust Marcy’s acceptance. “There are a lot of books to cover.”
“Cool,” Marcy said, and opened the book.
As Marcy began to read, Harper exchanged a look with Alex, but he just shrugged and went back to reading his own book.
Harper couldn’t let it go that easily, though. She wanted to, but even after actually seeing the monsters, she’d found it hard to believe in them. And Marcy seemed to trust it with almost no evidence.
“So . . . that’s it, then?” Harper asked.
“What?” Marcy lifted her eyes to look at Harper.
“You just . . .” Harper shook her head, unsure of how she wanted to phrase it. “You just believe in sirens?”
“I don’t know.” Marcy shrugged. “But you guys seem to, and I’ve never known either of you to be totally insane, so I figure there must be some truth to it. Besides that, I always knew something was off with those girls, and they fit the bill as sirens.”
“Oh.” Harper smiled wanly at her. “Well, thanks for the help.”
“No problem.” Marcy smiled back and readjusted her glasses. “My uncle saw the Loch Ness Monster once, too. So I’m a bit more open to things than you.”
Bewildered, Harper shook her head. “Okay.”
“Not that I don’t appreciate the help,” Alex said, as if something had just occurred to him, “but shouldn’t one of you be at the desk in case someone else needs help?”
“There’s a bell up there,” Marcy said. “And this is more important, right?”
Harper normally took her job seriously, but Marcy was right.
And Harper had an awful suspicion that if they wanted to help Gemma, they had better do it soon. Or it would be too late.
Copyright © 2012 by Amanda Hocking