Accidentally Paranormal, Book 16
“On the real?” the dark-haired, eerily pale woman—wearing a hoodie and a T-shirt that read “Not Today, Satan” with slim-fitting jeans—asked her very pregnant friend. Who, by the way, dressed like Grace Kelly and smelled like a luscious rose garden.
“Yes, Nina. On the real.”
“Like a tail, and scales, and one of those little beaded B-cup bras?”
The pregnant woman sucked in her cheeks, her nostrils flaring. “No beaded bra, but definitely a tail. It’s quite beautiful, in fact. I mean, as tails and scales go.”
“So lemme see, Wanda,” she insisted with a pleading tone that held a hint of strangely malicious glee. Her beautiful eyes gazed curiously as she peeked over her friend’s shoulder from the hallway leading off the changing rooms.
But Wanda put five pale-polished nails to the woman’s shoulder and shook her head. “Only if you promise not to stare and make rude jokes.”
“Don’t be a moron. Of course I’m gonna stare and make rude jokes, Wanda. She has a fucking tail, dude. She’s in the middle of a public pool floor, under the stairs to the diving board, no frickin’ less. Who wouldn’t stare at that shit?”
“Nina…” the woman said with a warning tone, her high cheekbones turning a pretty pink.
Wanda and Nina—both very nice, solid names. It’s always pleasant to have a name to attach to the people talking about you and your “predicament” as though you’re not even in the same room…while you’re on the floor…literally flopping around, looking for cover.
Nina, holding an equally beautiful dark-haired little girl with curly hair and the cherubic face of an angel, wearing the sweetest purple tutu swimsuit with ballerinas on the chest, pushed her way past the pregnant Wanda at the entry to the pool. She looked down to the blue-tiled surface of the flooring where Esther Williams Sanchez lay.
And then her mouth fell open.
Immediately afterward, she clamped her mouth shut and her shoulders slumped in a pouty way. “Is this another wormhole, Wanda? Like Shamalot? I don’t wanna go back today. I have shit to do, and it always takes days for me to readjust to the time zones. It’s like fairytale jetlag, dude.”
A woman with long, glistening blonde hair, styled similarly to a Kardashian’s, skidded into the pool area on a pair of burnt-orange heels so high, Esther thought surely she’d pitch headfirst into the pool. And then she thought what a shame that would be, because all that beautiful fake blonde hair would undoubtedly turn green if the pool’s chemicals were to touch it.
“Ho-lee fucksticks!” the blonde shouted, her words echoing in the chlorine-scented air as she stopped just short of the tall dark-haired Goddess, who grabbed her by the arm to steady her and keep her from falling into the pool. “Is she a…?”
Nina, obviously recuperated, said, “No, Marty. She’s not. This is all just a big fucking joke because that’s how we roll at Mommy and Me swim class. We prank each other all the time. Last week, we fucked with all the moms by telling them we found Nemo in the pool.”
Marty rolled her sapphire-blue eyes and let out a ragged sigh, cupping the back of her neck and massaging it with her fingers. “Shut it with the sarcasm, Dark Overlord, and tell me what happened. I have a headache the size of your mouth and I’m tired. It was a long day at Bobbie-Sue.” Leaning over, she dropped a kiss on the baby’s forehead and smiled. “Did you find something awesome at swim class, Charlie Girl? Who’s Auntie Marty’s favorite genie princess?” she asked the baby.
The baby answered with a squeal of joy, holding her arms out for her aunt to take her from her mother. Which Marty did, pressing kisses to the baby’s chubby fists, making her coo with delight. Then she looked at the women named Wanda. “Her tail is spectacular, don’t you think? And that hair! I’d kill a bitch to be in this kind of humidity and still have it fall all down my shoulders in those luscious rainbow curls.”
Wanda eyed her tail and fins, the iridescent scales shimmering in a pale yellow and melting into shades of aqua and teal, and nodded. “It truly is magic.”
“It’s fucking yellow,” Nina muttered.
Marty smiled distractedly at Nina before her face became serious. “So, what do we have so far, girls? How the heck did this happen?”
Esther squirmed uncomfortably. Well, she tried to squirm uncomfortably, but her tail (her tail!) made it almost impossible to move due to its heft and length. Also, if she moved the wrong way, her suddenly luxurious rainbow-colored hair would reveal her very naked breasts.
Wanda, with the swollen belly, dressed in a light blue maternity dress and conservative yet fashionable low heels, shook her head. “We don’t know. I tried to talk to her, but she clammed up.” Then she looked to Esther with her soft brown eyes, made up quite tastefully in pastel eyeshadow colors. “No pun intended, of course.”
Clam up. Hah! Well, if nothing else, they had a sense of humor. Esther had a sense of humor, too. Which is one of the reasons why she’d agreed to take the Mommy and Me class for first-time swimmers—the only class they had available at the Y at this time of year, now that summer was over and fall classes had begun.
She’d taken it at the urging of her friend Juanita, because Esther was thirty-two years old, couldn’t swim, and she was tired of hearing her friends tease her when they went to Mexico for impromptu vacations and she sat on the beach all alone due to her fear.
Marty eyed Esther with a critical glance. “Any idea why a woman of her age is taking a class at Mommy and Me?” She paused and then gasped. “Wait! Is there a child involved here? Where’s the child? Oh, hell. Please tell me there’s not a baby in the mix, Wanda.”
Wanda shook her head and picked invisible lint from Marty’s sharp beige suit before straightening her dark brown and rust scarf. “No children involved in the making of this…this…whatever this is. I mean, I know what this is, but you know what I mean. I did manage to get that much out of her before she stopped talking to me. So, I’m not sure why she’s at a Mommy and Me class.”
Marty sighed, now massaging her forehead as she looked to Nina. “Did Big Mouth scare her? How many times have I told you when you find yourself in a position where someone is afraid, don’t make them more afraid, Nina?”
The beautiful Nina pushed her hoodie from her head and flicked Marty’s arm, taking the baby back. “Shut your Botoxed lips, Blondie. I haven’t said jack shit. I was handing off Sam to Heath when all this went down. Speaking of, we better send him home with the kids so we can spend the next nine frillion hours of my life listening to the fish cry and carry on about how awful this is.”
Wanda looked up from her phone. “I just texted him. He was in the parking lot waiting for me. And please, Nina, don’t be so crude. You’ll make her think we don’t care. Plus, it’s not like you don’t have nine-frillion hours. You, my dear, have eternity.”
Sam must be the baby with the strange complexion Nina had been carrying around in the pool along with her little girl Charlie. He was quite small, in Esther’s opinion, for a swim class. But then, who was she to talk? She was in her thirties and still afraid of bathtub water deeper than four inches.
A tall, devastatingly handsome man with dark hair and gorgeous eyes, wearing a casual navy-blue pullover shirt and low-slung jeans, appeared behind Nina, carrying Sam. He put a hand to Wanda’s waist and asked in a husky tone, “Trouble, honey?”
She patted his cheek lovingly and smiled, pressing a kiss to the baby’s cheek and nuzzling his button nose. “Or something.”
“Remember what we discussed, okay? Please?” he reminded her in a tone that spoke of a serious conversation they’d had.
Wanda smiled coquettishly at Heath and batted her eyelashes, rubbing her belly. “Promise, no heavy lifting today. I have to watch out for junior. He’s my first priority. Always.”
“First, that’s my daughter you’re carrying around. And that’s not what you said when you picked up the car to collect Sam’s teething ring, young lady,” he teased good-naturedly.
Picked up the car? Like, the car-car or a toy car?
“Oh, stop. The SUV’s not that heavy. I certainly wasn’t crawling under it with this belly, and that’s Sam’s favorite teething ring. How could I leave it there until you got back from your golf game? And this?” She pointed to her belly. “Is a boy, Heath Jefferson.”
Okay, So Wanda had picked up a car-car. Not a toy car.
What the fresh hell?
Standing on tiptoe, Wanda kissed her husband’s lips. “You take the children home, would you, please? I promise to be very careful. No heavy lifting. Okay?”
Nina nudged Heath’s wide shoulder. “Don’t worry. I got her back. We won’t let her do anything she shouldn’t do. Text Greg before you leave and he’ll come get Charlie from you. Carl’ll worry if she’s gone for too long, and Calamity’ll have a cow if Carl gets upset.” Nina plopped kisses on each baby’s forehead and waved them off.
“Stop being a worrywart, Heath. Would we, in a million years, let anything happen to Wanda and baby Jefferson? Never. We got this,” Marty said, blowing kisses to the babies and waving to Heath before she turned around and narrowed her gaze on Esther, like she had a purpose and Esther was her mission.
Esther, who still hadn’t spoken a word, fought a cringe under Marty’s scrutiny.
As a general rule, she liked to observe people, situations, life, more than she liked to interact. At least at first. Her job as a divorce mediator required she pay close attention to body language and inflection and all sorts of things. But right now, after what had happened when she’d been the last in the class to climb out of the pool, she didn’t have any words left to offer.
Instead, she’d just sit here under the diving board until this thing attached to her like some sort of colorful, yet, admittedly beautiful growth went away. It would go away, right? It had to go away…
On a sigh, Wanda slipped her arm through Marty’s and they made their way the short distance to the diving board.
Marty sat on her haunches and looked at Esther with the prettiest sapphire-blue eyes Esther had ever seen. “I’m Marty Flaherty. What’s your name?”
“Swear to fuck, if it’s Ariel, I’ll piss myself,” Nina cackled, coming to stand behind her friends.
Marty reached behind her back and swatted Nina’s leg without even looking. “Find your inner marshmallow, Elvira, and show some empathy,” she ordered, as though the order made any sense at all.
Now Wanda gazed at her, genuine concern on her finely boned face. “You’re frightening us, honey. Please say something. We want to help. I promise you, we can help if you’ll let us.”
Yet, Esther cringed, attempting to inch farther away. After everything she’d heard, she was convinced these people were either all part of some weird cult of unbelievably pretty people who believed they had superpowers, like super-strength, or she was having a nightmare. A stone-cold, really real, scary-AF nightmare.
“Fuck, Wanda. Am I gonna have to haul this chick out to the car?” Nina complained, as though she hauled chicks with multicolored tails every day. “Because I’m tellin’ ya, Marty’s gonna have to move that shit-show of Bobbie-Sue crap out of the backseat. Her car’s the biggest one we have, and we’ll never stuff her ass in there with all that lip gloss.”
Suddenly, and quite without warning, Esther found her voice. “Bobbie-Sue? Do you sell Bobbie-Sue?” She’d sold Bobbie-Sue once, in order to pay for college.
She’d been about as bad at it as a breast implant salesman at a porn convention, worse at trying to put all that makeup on her face, let alone anyone else’s. All that talk of color wheels and blend, blend, blend was not her gift.
Marty smiled warmly, her eyes lighting up. “She speaks! Yay! Now we’re getting somewhere. And I own Bobbie-Sue, honey. I’m an honest, reputable businesswoman. And my husband owns Pack Cosmetics. We’re in the process of merging the two companies right now. Which is why I missed Mommy and Me class tonight with my little girl, Hollis. But now you can see, you have nothing to be afraid of.”
Tentatively gazing at the women, Esther confessed, “I tried to sell Bobbie-Sue to help pay for some college courses.”
“Yeah, and you bought what with that pile of cash, a pack of pencils? Some Ramen noodles for a week?” Nina asked on a cynical snort.
“Actually, it was a loaf of bread and a bottle of mustard from the Andes. Did you know they even had their own mustard in the Andes?”
Marty shook her head and clucked her tongue. “Sounds like you didn’t work the program… What’s your name?”
“I’m not sure I want to tell you because I’m pretty sure you’ll laugh.” After that Ariel crack, she knew they would.
“Aw, they won’t laugh,” Nina reassured her. “I will, for damn sure. Trust and believe. But these two sensitive snowflakes would rather die than hurt your fucking feelings.”
Giving them all a sheepish glance, she winced even before she spoke. “It’s Esther…”
Wanda leaned in, her eyes questioning. “Esther…?” she coaxed with a hopeful glance.
She swallowed, smoothing her hands over the long length of her new locks. Just say it and get it over with. You’ve lived with it all your life, for pity’s sake.
Well, sure I have. But that was just a bunch of lame jokes about being named after a famous synchronized swimmer and not actually being able to swim.
It wasn’t because I had a tail with a fin.
“Esther Williams…er, Sanchez. Esther Williams Sanchez,” she finally blurted out.
There was a short silence while each woman processed who Esther Williams was as the lights from the pool played against the ceiling and the floor continued to dry around her.
“Like the famous synchronized swimmer?” Nina crowed, holding her belly before she doubled over at the waist.
And then they all began to laugh.
Wanda was the first to recover, sputtering against the back of her hand and using her thumb to wipe tears from her eyes. “Ladies! Stahhp!” And then she choked out another string of hyena-ish giggles before she straightened and cleared her throat, composing herself. “Girls. Knock it off! There’s someone in need. Also,” she said, her eyes imploring Esther’s, “please forgive me for behaving so poorly. I’m given to fits and spurts of all sorts of crazy emotions since I got knocked up. I wasn’t laughing at you.”
“But I wasn’t laughing,” Esther protested, catching a glimmer of her yellow and aqua tail under the pool lights before briefly clenching her eyes shut.
Wanda bit her lip to keep from laughing again. “Okay. I was laughing at you. But you have to admit, it’s kind of funny, your name being…and you ending up a mermaid.” Wanda shook her head as if it would help clear it. “Never mind. My apologies for being so rude.”
Esther watched this all play out, but simply said, “No sweat.”
Marty plopped down on the ground, holding her belly after laughing too hard, then she reached out a hand and placed it on Esther’s arm. “I’m sorry, too. Now let’s get down to business, Esther Williams Sanchez. How did this happen?”
“I’m not sorry, ’cuz that shit’s funny, but yeah. How the fuck did this happen? Like, how do you have legs one minute and a tail the next?” Nina inquired.
Esther stared at the length of her body, and then she looked up at the ladies, all expectantly waiting for her to answer. The pressure to explain became intense. “I…I don’t…”
Tears began to form in the corner of her eyes and panic swelled in her chest. Her heart raced, crashing against her ribs until she thought surely it would burst through the wall of her chest.
Nina rasped a sigh, planting her hands on her hips. “Fuck. Here we go, girlies. Meltdown in three, two—”
And then Esther screamed.
She screamed loud. So loud, it reverberated around the Olympic-size swimming pool, swirling and swishing as it wended its way into one ear and out the other.
And she didn’t even care if she came off as some hysterical, screeching shrew—something she despised in most women.
She had a tail.
A whateverthehell you wanted to label it.
She had it and it was attached to her and she didn’t know how to get away from it.
So, she gulped in a fresh breath of air and screamed again.
“Shut the fuck up, Rainbow Brite!” Nina roared at Esther, hiking her up on her shoulder as she stomped her way out the back door of the Y into the early fall air. “You’re killing me, for fuck’s sake!”
Still, she struggled against this woman who had to be as strong as Thor, her grip was so tight.
Then there was a hand on her bare back, soothing, warm. Wanda’s voice wafted to her ears. “Esther! Listen to me. Stop screaming. You’re going to draw attention to us, and you, and I’m thinking you’d prefer not to be seen this way just yet. Also, I don’t relish the idea I’ll go to jail for aiding in the kidnapping of a mermaid. Now, I swear to you, we’re going to help, but you have to stop screaming.”
“Wanda? I swear on my GD blood supply for the next year, I’m gonna sock her in the mouth if she doesn’t quit squirming! She’s damn slimy! I’m gonna end up dropping her headfirst if she doesn’t knock it the fuck off!”
“Esther!” Marty yelled into the near-empty parking lot, putting a hand on Nina’s shoulder to thwart her movement. She took hold of Esther’s face with both hands and lifted her head until their eyes met. “Stop. Struggling. Stop. Screaming. Understood? I’ve had a brutally long day. My head is pounding, which is crazy because I’m a werewolf and we don’t get headaches. My feet are tired, my eyeliner’s running, my back hurts, and my Spanx are too damn tight. Now, knock it off, shut your face, and let us help you!”
Whatever it was in Marty’s tone, whatever words she used, or maybe it was just that she was disgusted with herself for screaming like some hysterical, out-of-control girl, Esther instantly stopped struggling and blew out a breath, letting the cleansing, cool air of early fall seep into her lungs.
“Okay,” she murmured as they stopped in front of an enormous black SUV with tinted windows.
Marty patted her cheek and smiled a weary smile. “All right then. Now, let’s get you in the back of the car, and very calmly, you’re going to tell us what happened and how this came to be while we get you somewhere safe. Okay?”
She took in three or four more gulps of fresh air and nodded with a bit of difficulty, due to the weight of her new hair. “Okay.”
“No more screaming?” Marty asked as she pulled something from the back of the SUV and put the backseat down.
Esther shook her head, so heavy with hair, her body trembling violently. “Not a sound.”
Throwing a blanket around Esther’s shoulders, Marty opened the back of the SUV. “Nina? You push her through the back, I’ll pull her in, got it? Wanda, turn the car on and turn the heat up, please.”
Wanda sighed a pretty, delicate sigh. “I can help, you know.”
But Marty shook her head, along with her finger, her bracelets clacking together. “No—no you cannot. Bun in the oven means nothing arduous. Heath would plain eat our faces off if we let you get hurt. Or are you forgetting our last OOPS meeting, where he threatened to tie you to a chair and have Arch force-feed you so much of his delicious food you’d be too fat to walk, let alone chase after a client?”
OOPS? What the hell was an OOPS meeting? Some kind of acronym for a weird addiction?
Wanda chuckled, a sound so light and as pretty as her sigh; it almost made Esther smile. This Heath wasn’t just handsome, he clearly loved his wife, and she hadn’t seen that kind of love since her grandparents.
“I remember the conversation well. Didn’t that happen while I was stuffing my face with that insane smoked brisket he made on the Fourth of July?”
Marty’s nod was sharp as she tucked the blanket tighter around Esther. “It was, and OMG, that brisket. It’s still slathered on my thighs. Now, please start the car.”
Wanda made a face at her friend, but she smiled as she did, and it was warm and fond. “I rather feel like we’ve switched roles, and you’re suddenly the one with a level head on her shoulders and I’m the one who needs direction and patience.”
Marty tweaked her cheek. “Well, don’t get used too it. There’s only so much nice I have in me before Nina Hulk smashes it right the hell outta me.”
“Hey! Yippy and Yappy? I’m carrying a fucking mermaid on my back like a sack of GD potatoes from the Shop Rite down the road. Get your pats on the back out of the way before I beat your asses with her tail.”
Nina stalked her way to the back of the SUV and let Esther slide down the front of her body until they were eye to eye.
“You’re strong,” she commented. Yes, it was a silly thing to say in light of the situation, but now that she was mentally mostly back in the saddle, she couldn’t help but mention it as she stared at this woman with eyes so black, they looked like coal.
“I’m also deaf now, too.”
“I’m sorry. It just hit me all at once, and I lost it.”
“Well, pay attention. I’m gonna hit you and your yellowness all at once if you scream like that again. I have sensitive ears. You feel what I’m puttin’ out?”
Esther’s breath shuddered in and out, condensation creating small puffs of clouds that escaped her lips. “I do.”
And she did. This woman was formidable. Everything about her—her strength, her body language, her piercing gaze—all said she was a force Esther didn’t want to reckon with.
“Good. Now, I’m going to turn your sparkly rainbow ass around and shove you in there on your side like I’m stuffing a sausage back into its casing, and Marty’ll haul you inside. One peep out of your big-ass mouth—one peep—and I beat the shit out of you with your tail. I’m not gonna end up on Cell Block D, fighting my way for top-dog status and making shower shoes out of panty liners and duct-tape, because I tried to do the decent thing. Understand?”
“We have simpatico,” Esther agreed, then biting the inside of her cheek to keep from crying out. She wanted to ask where they were taking her, but at this point, she was beyond hysterical and well into shock.
It almost didn’t matter what they did with her.
Nina nodded, her swirly hair falling around her glowingly pale face. “Good. Here we go.” Repositioning her so that Esther was literally tucked under her arm like a 2x4 length of wood, Nina put her upper body into the back of the SUV, laying Esther on her side before rolling her onto her stomach with a grunt.
Marty crawled into the driver’s side and reached over the top of the seat, her cheeks red, a bead of perspiration on her lip, and grabbed her upper arms, pulling on them as Nina latched onto the lower half of her body. They lifted and shoved until Esther was almost all the way in.
“Marty? Hold up. Problem,” Nina said, and Esther heard the concern in her tone.
Marty blew a strand of hair from her face, the SUV lights revealing tired lines around her eyes. “What’s wrong?”
“Her fin’s hanging out the back of the SUV, dude. She’s too damn long to fit. We can’t drive around Staten Island with her fin hanging out the back. People will think we’re batshit.”
They didn’t already think that? Surely, with all this talk of werewolves and lifting cars, someone had labeled them crazy at least once.
Rising to her elbows, Esther tried to make herself as small as possible and scrunch upward, but the weight of the tail made it almost impossible to move the lower half of her body.
But Wanda had an answer as she held up something Esther couldn’t quite see. “Tarp. Nina had a tarp in the back of her car. We’ll wrap it around her tail and bungee the back shut.”
That settled, they made quick work of things while Esther stayed as quiet as promised, afraid to ask what was next—because really, what could be next?
A gig at Sea World?
Tamping down another wave of rising panic, helpless as a newborn kitten, she still didn’t say anything as Marty roared the engine and shot out of the parking lot, with Wanda in the passenger seat and Nina in her car, following behind them. The exposed part of her tail and her fins flapped like flags in a hurricane, but the women had done a pretty decent job of disguising her.
“Where do you live, Esther? Can we get you into your place relatively unnoticed?” Wanda asked as they drove away from the lights of the YMCA.
Now hold on. Whoa and Nellie. She wasn’t bringing these people to her house. Where she slept. Wasn’t that akin to suicide?
But then, what were her choices? For all the kooky conversations they’d had around her about werewolves and such, they appeared to know what they were talking about. They’d swept in and taken charge and she’d hardly said a word.
Besides, who the frick did you call when you suddenly had a tail and fins? Who? Who exactly was in charge of that department? Disney?
Not to mention, how did you call when you couldn’t move out of your own way?
But Marty assuaged her unspoken fear. “Esther? It’s okay to bring us to your house. We won’t rob you, or sell you to the government for scientific research purposes and a new Maserati. Or worse, give your story to Inside Edition. Oh, and we won’t murder you. I know this is all happening very, very fast, but if we can just get you somewhere you feel safe, where we can have some privacy, we’re going to help you. And you’ll understand why and how women like us can help you, but it’s going to take a certain amount of blind faith.”
The words fell out of her mouth before she could stop them at the thought of seeing her small cottage on the beach, of being around her things, and her dog Mooky and cat Marsha. “I live near South Beach—in a small suburb called Oyster Hollow. In a cottage that used to be my grandparents’ before they died. Ironically, right on the beach.”
Wanda leaned forward, her slender finger hovering over the navigation system. “Your address?”
“But wait! I don’t have my key or my purse or—”
Wanda held up Esther’s purse and smiled. “You mean this? I took the liberty of grabbing it from your locker. I hope you don’t mind.”
“But I locked that before…” She shook her head. If the woman could lift a car, surely she could pop a locker. Duh.
As Esther spewed her address and said a silent prayer these people were only superficially bananapants, not deep-seated-crazy psychopaths, Wanda typed in her address and sat back, the streetlights flashing over her classically beautiful features.
Marty looked into the rearview mirror, her bright eyes sparkling. “What do you do for a living, Esther?”
“I’m a freelance divorce mediator.”
“Oooh, fun times, I’ll bet,” Marty murmured, twisting a strand of hair around her finger.
Or not. Divorce mediation was a sad, sometimes exceptionally ugly job. She often wondered why marriage had ever been invented, for all the torture people put each other through over ridiculous things like leopard-spot ottomans and silverware.
One couple had fought so long and so hard over a single picture frame before they’d agreed to settle, Esther had come close to threatening to drop the stupid thing at the dump and set it on fire.
It was disgraceful—which was why she wasn’t a fan of marriage, other than that of her grandparents, who’d been married for fifty years until her grandmother, Consuela, had succumbed to Alzheimer’s. Her grandfather had died of longing for the woman he’d loved for over half a century.
But their love was rare, and almost inconceivable today, with so many things like the Internet and social media interfering, keeping people apart in worlds they’ve created on a computer rather than inspiring them to spend time together.
“It’s challenging. That’s probably a better word.”
Wanda threw her head back and laughed. “I can only imagine. I’ve been divorced. Years and years ago, mind you, but I just can’t understand all the fighting over useless things. I say just kill them and then you get to keep everything.”
Esther clamped her mouth shut, a shiver of fear running along her arms.
There was a short pause, where Wanda’s words hung in the air like ticking time bombs, before Marty laughed out loud. “She’s kidding, Esther. Promise. Wanda’s got a case of raging hormones these days. She just says whatever she thinks lately, but we’re all very happily married, I assure you.”
“Good to know,” she muttered.
As Marty took a sharp right on what felt like two tires, Esther didn’t budge, the weight of her tail holding her steady. When the surroundings became familiar, and she saw the lights of her tiny white beach cottage, set far apart from her neighbors, she almost cried.
Home was good. Home would at least make some of this better. Mooky and Marsha were there, and there was some leftover lasagna in the fridge from last night, and if they could make this tail go away, she’d send these people home and cuddle on the couch in front of a fire with her furbabies while she watched The Big Bang Theory reruns.
As Marty pulled to a stop, the women looked around, scanning her small front yard with potted mums she’d purchased last year and wind chimes hanging from the maple tree.
“Looks pretty quiet. How far away from your neighbors are we, Esther? Can we get you inside without them seeing?”
“Mostly everyone’s gone, now that summer’s over. The Reynolds are my closest neighbors, and they packed up and went home after Labor Day. I think we’re okay.”
And thank God, too. Little Stacy Reynolds would have a field day if she saw Esther had a tail and hair like a mermaid. Stacy loved a Disney princess almost as much as she loved vanilla ice cream with rainbow sprinkles.
Marty nodded her head and popped the car door open. “Then let’s get you inside. You good, Wanda?”
Wanda smiled an affable smile, holding up her hand and spreading out her fingers to examine them. “Oh, I’m fine. I thought maybe I’d do my nails while you and Nina do all the work.”
Nina knocked on Wanda’s window, her eyes blazing hot. “Knock it off, Wanda, and stop being a pissy bitch! We’re not treating you like the good china because we like it. We’re doing it because we want you to have a healthy baby. Now quit feeling sorry for yourself and haul your big ass out here and do what you do. Nurture. Listen to her cry. Pat her on the back, bake her some fucking cookies.”
Wanda lifted her middle finger at Nina and stuck out her tongue, but she popped the door open and hopped out of the SUV, stalking past Nina to Esther’s front door with her purse tucked under the crook of her elbow.
Marty, who’d come around the car, looked at Nina and blew out a breath. “She’s a lot these days, huh?”
Nina snorted her commiseration. “No shit. I swear, some days I wanna wring her dry of all these hormones flooding her brain cells like some kind of mad cow fucking disease. Maybe it’s because she’s half vampire, half werewolf?” Nina shrugged her shoulders. “I dunno what the fuck it is, but Christ in a bikini, I don’t know if I’m gonna make it to the end of this pregnancy.”
As Esther watched this all unfold, again, the words she was hearing—words like “vampire” and “werewolf”—fought to terrify her, really seep into her brain and make her lose it all over again.
They thought they were werewolves and vampires. Like, seriously creatures from mythology? No way was she letting these people into her house
Aw, hell no.
That was when she opened her mouth to scream.
Almost as if Nina sensed Esther’s discourse, her fear, she craned her neck in Esther’s direction and gave her that death-ray stare. Esther clamped her mouth shut as fast as she’d opened it—because that woman was terrifying.
And then she went about self-soothing.
If she looked logically at what had happened to her, if she gave realistic credence to her new tail and fins, how could she discount werewolves and vampires?
Yet, how was she going to live with the idea this was all real? Were there more of them? How could she tell? Were there more of her? Was she really a mermaid? Forever?
She didn’t have time to think much more on the notion as Nina grabbed hold of her tail and pulled her from the SUV, tucking her back under her arm like she was no heavier than Wanda’s purse.
The wind howled as the ocean water she so loved to look at from her wood-framed windows rushed to the shore. It was so much cooler here, especially now that fall was on the way. The taste of the salt in the air was different, the tang in her nose sharper somehow.
In the distance, Mooky, her half wire-haired terrier, half Doberman, barked at the unfamiliar voices and noise from behind the front door.
“Mook! Knock it off, bud!” she yelled as Wanda jammed her key in the door and popped it open, running her hand over the wall to find the light switch.
She heard Mook’s nails on the bleached hardwood floors as he ran for the kitchen, where he’d try to make himself as small as he could under the kitchen’s dark gray quartz peninsula until she reassured him it was safe, but she only caught a glimpse of Marsha, curled up on her favorite chair, fast asleep on a red-checked throw.
As the room became enveloped in the soft lighting from the recessed bulbs in the ceiling she’d personally chosen when she’d remodeled, Esther almost sighed in relief.
She loved her little cottage on the beach, with its comfortable seating and bits of red and turquoise accents for color, her reclaimed dark wood coffee table, and a big fireplace done in white brick with a rustic wood mantle.
It made her happy, swell with pride that she’d picked everything out, and done a lot of the renovations herself.
But then she shivered. Now she had to find an explanation for these women as to how this had happened, and sound like a complete moron when she revealed she had no idea how she’d gone from limbs to fins.
“Ohhhh,” Wanda breathed, her eyes scanning the living room, open to the small dining room and kitchen. “It’s beautiful, Esther! How warm and inviting. I love, love, love the fireplace and that bleached-wood clock over it. I’d kill to have that over my mantle. Beautiful!”
That’s when she stiffened in Nina’s arms and attempted to crane her neck upward. Were they scoping out her house so they could dump her and steal all her worldly possessions?
Wanda bent down and looked her in the eye with a hint of laughter on her face. “We’re not here to steal your things, Esther. I promise. I’m just commenting on how lovely it is because I’m a decorator at heart, too. There isn’t a Home Goods store I haven’t tapped every corner of. Please relax. Oh, and I love the pops of red and turquoise in the pillows, and the watercolor painting. Beautiful.”
“Hey! DIY Diva, she’s no lightweight,” Nina complained, hoisting her higher against her waist. “Where do you want her?”
“Put her on the couch, Nina. It looks like she’ll fit,” Marty ordered, pointing to her beige sectional with fluffy red and turquoise pillows in various textures and sizes.
As Nina unceremoniously dumped her in the midst of her throw pillows and cushions, she brushed her hands together. “So, what’s next? Do we blow-dry her?”
“Blow-dry me?” Esther squealed, trying to sit up.
“Yeah, dude. If we dry you out, you’ll get your legs back. Like Ariel. Didn’t you ever see The Little Mermaid?”
Oh my God! She hadn’t even thought about that. “My blow-dryer! It’s under the sink in the bathroom. Let’s try!”
Marty ran a hand through her hair and frowned. “You don’t think that’ll really work, do you? It seems a little farfetched and fairytale-ish.”
Nina threw up her hands and said, “Well, Splash was the same damn way. Remember Daryl Hannah in a tub? Fuck if I know, but what else you got, Blondie?”
Wanda crossed the room and went down the short hall to her master bathroom. Esther heard another vague “Ooooh,” probably stemming from her new white-and-gray-marble bathroom, before she reappeared with the blow-dryer and handed it to Nina, who plugged it in and began running it back and forth over her tail.
Marty sat on the chest of drawers Esther used as a coffee table, moving her candleholders and a pot of succulents out of the way, and said, “So explain how this happened, Esther? Just tell me about the incident—who, if anyone, was present, and we’ll go from there, okay? Why were you at a Mommy and Me class anyway if you don’t have children?”
Speaking of children. Damn, she’d forgotten about Mooky and Marsha. “Mook? C’mere, buddy. It’s okay. C’mon, pooky!” she called, watching him poke his Doberman-like head with the crazy mix of wiry hair from beneath the peninsula, but he hesitated.
Nina handed the blow-dryer to Wanda and sat on her haunches to peer under the peninsula, patting her thigh, her tone soft and sweetly pitched for someone so crusty. “Who’s so handsome?” she asked, as Mooky cocked his head. “I’m Nina, Mooky. Cool to meet you. Come say hello, dude.” She patted her thigh once more and waited.
Mook considered, much in the way he always did when he met someone new, and then he was in Nina’s lap, licking her face like he’d always known her, his excited whimpers drawing Marsha’s interest. Nina scratched the unusually long length of Mooky’s neck and whispered encouraging words that made Marsha curious enough to hop off her favorite chair and saunter toward them with a cautious stride.
Nina took one look into her green, marble-like eyes, and like magic, Esther’s caramel and white cat jumped into this strange woman’s lap and purred, rubbing her face against her arm.
As Nina gathered them into her lap, petting and cooing, and Wanda diligently blow-dried her tail, which wasn’t going away at all, Marty asked again, “Esther? We need to know how this happened? I really need you to talk to me. Some things you might not find terribly concerning could actually be of great concern. So, let’s do this, please?”
That was the million-dollar question. How had this happened? One minute, she’d been in the pool with Maurizio, her sexy Italian Mommy and Me swim instructor. The next, everyone had cleared the pool and she was lingering on the steps, marveling over her bravery for actually attending the class and getting in the water all the way up to her waist—when wham!
She had a tail with fins. And it was beautiful; so magnificent, she almost couldn’t believe it was attached to her. When she was done accepting the reality that this tail wasn’t budging, she’d panicked, afraid to call out…afraid to move…afraid.
And she relayed as much to Marty, who’d taken over the blow-dryer while Wanda went off to the kitchen in search of tea bags.
“I swear, I was just sitting on the steps of the pool in the shallow end, being one with the water and all that jazz Maurizio taught us today, and kaboom! I almost drowned trying to get out of the pool. Between my Rapunzel-like hair and my tail, I gained what feels like fifty pounds. Thank God for upper-arm workouts, because I hauled myself out of the pool and managed to pull myself to the diving board before I realized I had no idea what to do. Who to call. Like, who do you call when you have a tail? Sam and Dean? Mulder and Scully?”
Marty worried her lower lip as she paused, pinching the bridge of her nose before she asked, “Did anything unusual happen in the pool? Did you feel anything strange? See anything strange?”
Esther shook her head, pushing her flowing locks away from her face as more of that panic swelled in her gut again. “No! Nothing. Though, I admit, I was terrified to get in the pool—really terrified. I can’t…well, I can’t swim. I know, that sounds ridiculous at my age, but I can’t. I took the class at the urging of my friend, who’s good friends with the instructor. I did it because I want to go on a cruise with some of my girlfriends this winter, and I didn’t want to be odd man out again. It just happened it was the only class they could fit me into. I figured, who better to take swim class with than a bunch of kids, right? At least I could keep up.”
“You live on the beach and you can’t swim?” Wanda asked, moving around her kitchen and opening cabinet doors.
Esther cringed at the question, even though she heard no condemnation in Wanda’s tone. But the reasons behind her reaction were still as raw as they’d always been. Twisting a lock of her hair, she began to fiddle with it, wondering how she’d ever get it into a ponytail and still be able to hold her head up. “I know it sounds silly, but I love the water. I grew up around it. I love looking at it, hearing it at night as it rocks me to sleep. I love the smell of salt in the air, and I love a good storm. I even love to build sandcastles. In fact, I won a competition here two years ago during the summer for one of my sand castles. I’m just afraid to get into it.”
But she’d done it tonight. Okay, she’d only gone to her waist, but she’d done it, and she’d like to think her grandfather, Salvador, would be proud she’d at least partially conquered her fear—a fear he’d often soothed as he’d rocked her to sleep after a nightmare of that horrible night.
Wanda rifled through her antique-white kitchen cabinets and found some tea bags, then set about filling her teakettle. “So, you can’t remember anything unusual happening before you suddenly had a tail? You’re sure?”
Now she felt like the accused. Why would she lie about something like that? Suddenly, it was all too much—too overwhelming. She struggled to sit up straight, pushing the pillows on the couch out of the way. She decided to divert the spotlight off her, something she did often with couples in mediation.
“Here’s a question for you guys—who are you? And why do you care what happens to me? Why are you here right now, helping me at all?”
They all stopped what they were doing and looked up before Nina sighed and muttered, “Here we fucking go. Wanda? Find some hooch in those cabinets. She’s gonna need it.”
* * * *
A half hour, two shots of tequila and the absolute most terror she’d ever experienced in her life later—barring one incident—and Esther had to admit, Nina was right.
She did need the hooch. She needed all the hooch.
As she stared at these three women, two of them now redressed in their “people” clothes, as they plucked each other free of hair, as Mooky and Marsha stared stoically at them, Esther tried desperately to untie her tongue.
Putting a knuckle in her mouth, she prepared to bite down hard to check and make sure she was really awake. As her teeth hit skin, and she bit, everything remained the same except her finger hurt.
She still had an effin’ tail, and Nina had fangs, and both Wanda and Marty had patches of hair sprouting from various parts of their bodies.
She held up a hand and inhaled as Wanda set a steaming cup of tea down next to her on the end table. “Let me get this straight. You, Wanda, are half werewolf, half vampire. Nina, you’re half vampire, half witch…and Marty’s just plain old werewolf. Am I correct? Because when it comes time to identify you, I don’t want to be an insensitive shlub and mislabel. With society the way it is these days, you can never be too careful.”
Marty looked at her thoughtfully, deeply gazing into her eyes as she placed her scarf on the arm of the couch. “Are you sure you’re okay, Esther? I know it’s a lot when you first see all the commotion and snarling and hair and teeth. There’s lots and lots of hair and teeth, but we’re really no different than you.”
But Nina swatted her on the back, jolting Esther forward with her strength. “Aw, she’s fucking fine, Marty. Right, Esther? Took that shit like a total champ. If we gave out awards, I’d give you one for best non-freak-the-fuck-out in a real-life performance.”
Rather than fill the shot glass again, Esther grabbed for the whole bottle of Cuervo and took a long slug, letting the heat of the alcohol warm her from the inside. “Do I get a trophy?”
Nina cackled, tucking her fangs back into her mouth and slapping her on the back again. “See? She’s fucking fine. She’s got chops. That’s good. You’ll need ’em.”
Wanda took Esther’s hand and began rubbing it to warm her cold fingers, while taking the tequila away from her, handing it to Nina, and replacing it with the warm tea. “Esther, you can tell us if you’re not okay. You can also ask us questions, if you’d like. Nothing’s too risqué or off-limits.”
“How?” She squeaked the word out. How had all these women come to be?
Marty stretched her arms up toward the ceiling. “Long story short, an accident. Probably something similar to yours.”
“So, chemical spill, nuclear power plant explosion, bad pharmaceuticals?” she joked.
Wanda chuckled softly and smiled warmly. “No, but we can tell you the stories, if you’d like. It happens in all sorts of ways. An accidental biting, a scratch, you name it, it’s happened. But that’s why we do what we do. Because we had something life-altering happen to us and we didn’t know where to turn. Now we help people with the same sensitive issues.”
Now Esther, her mouth falling open, breathed, “There are other people like you? Like me?”
Nina cracked her neck by rolling it from side to side. “If you only fucking knew. Listen, let’s get on with this shit already. We need to find your people so we can hand your ass off to them and they can take care of you so we don’t fucking have to. We have enough of you crazies running amok to last more than ten eternities. I don’t think we’re going to be able to rent a fucking hall big enough to hold all of us for barbecues and bullshit if we add someone new. Especially if the dragons come. Shit gets real when the dragons come. Something’s always goddamn on fire.”
She was just going to flat-out ignore the reference to dragons for now. Vampires and werewolves were plenty to process, thank you very much. “My people? I don’t have any people. I mean, my parents and grandparents are gone, and my uncle Gomez, my father’s brother, died a few days ago. I have no one…”
When she said those words out loud, she realized for the first time just how alone she really was. There was no one left but Mooky and Marsha and her.
Not that her uncle’s passing had made a big difference in her life, unfortunately. He’d never been interested in communicating with her. She’d hardly known him.
Emptiness settled deep in her chest, poking at her vulnerability and making her swallow hard. She had friends, and Mooky and Marsha. That was plenty, and she’d damn well be grateful.
Noting her hand trembled, Wanda squeezed it tight. “I’m so sorry about your uncle, Esther.”
She shook off the despair threatening to take over and squared her shoulders. “No, no. It’s okay. We were never very close. He was a little kooky. A nice enough guy, from what I understand, but very introverted with his work. He was a scientist we hardly ever saw.” Apparently, according to his suicide note, a very depressed scientist. But she couldn’t dwell on that now, and she didn’t want to offer TMI.
After her grandparents’ deaths, she’d tried to get her uncle to meet her for lunch or maybe even just some coffee or a drink. The hope was, they’d at least connect on some level and neither of them would be all alone in the world. But he’d been as introverted as her family had always said he was. He’d never returned any of her calls, and aside from the few colleagues from the lab he’d worked for and herself in attendance, his funeral had been a desolate one.
Her perspective on losing her uncle felt more as though she were on the outside looking in. It was almost as if she’d come across his death by overdose in a newspaper article, and she had fleeting feelings of sympathy in the way she would if he were a complete stranger.
In fact, she’d only actually been in his presence three times in her life. At her parents’ and grandparents’ funerals, and once at a family barbecue. But her grandfather had always spoken of Gomez with such pride, she’d attended his funeral out of respect for him.
When his attorney had notified her of his death, he’d told her Uncle Gomez had left instructions to notify his closest living relative, whoever that was at the time, and that he’d left his worldly goods to science and his funeral arrangements were all pre-planned. All she’d had to do was show up.
She hadn’t asked many questions because, in her mind, there wasn’t much to ask. But now she was vaguely curious about how he’d come to that point in his life.
Nina sat at the edge of the coffee table, scooping a bewildered Marsha off the floor and rubbing her chin on the feline’s head. “But you do have people, dude. You must. Otherwise, how the fuck did this happen?”
Esther shook her head. “Maybe I’m just tired, but how could my people be the ones responsible for this?” She waved a hand down the length of her tail. “I don’t have people who are mermaids. I have people who were immigrants from Venezuela who came to this country for a better life and ran a shoe store for almost fifty years before they retired.”
Nina shook a finger at her, waving it under her nose. “I mean your new people, Esther Williams Sanchez. Your mermaid fucking people. Believe me, they’re out there, and I don’t GD well know how or when, but you can bet your sweet, slimy ass, they’re gonna show up sometime soon. They always damn well show up. Now, they could be good people or they could be bad—”
“Nina!” Wanda chastised with a stern tone—just like the ones the nuns from Catholic school used. “Don’t frighten her. For the love of Pete, let her adjust.”
But Nina scoffed, now scooping up a stiff Mooky, too, easing her magic hands along his back until he relaxed. “Please. Adjust. Hah! We all know how that fucking goes, Wanda. Let’s just tell her the truth and stop easing her into it. It’s better than fucking sprinkling that shit with sugar all the time. Her life’s going to change in a big damn way. Some good. Some bad. Probably a whole lot of bad before it gets good. So lay off the bowl of sunshine with whipped cream on top and—”
Her doorbell rang, interrupting Nina’s tirade about sunshine and sugar and shit and a lot of words Esther couldn’t process for the tequila she’d consumed.
“I hope that’s Arch,” Marty murmured as she rose to answer the door. “I texted him about an hour ago now. Darnell, too. We need to find some information on merpeople and who can help us get Esther’s legs back.”
But Esther, suddenly petrified it could be a neighbor, cringed, pulling the blanket from the back of the couch and attempting to cover her tail with it.
Which was rather like trying to cover a beached whale with a hand towel, but whatever. “What if it’s not the people you texted?” she asked, terrified.
Nina smiled at her with confidence, rolling her shoulders as she set Mooky and Marsha down on the floor. “Then we’ll fucking handle it, of course.”
As the door swung open, and the cold wind rushed in, a very large, very good-looking man literally pushed past Marty until he was almost inside the cottage.
But Marty, clearly offended, shoved a hand into his shoulder and frowned disapprovingly. “Excuse me, but who the hell are you and how dare you push your way in here like you own the joint?”
“Is this where Esther Sanchez lives?” he asked in a very distinct but light Australian accent that, under normal circumstances, would have sent shivers along her spine—because sexy. Very sexy.
Instead, it wrought panic and fear in her.
“Who the fuck are you and why the fuck do you want to know?” Nina asked, bouncing from foot to foot like a jazzed-for-fight-night boxer.
“I’m Tucker Pearce, and I need to speak to Esther Sanchez immediately,” he insisted, his square jaw clenching.
Nina instantly went into attack mode, sidling up to him and giving him a wild-eyed stare. “Yeah? Well, I’m Hits First Asks Questions Later, and if you don’t back the fuck off, mate, your intestines are gonna be the shrimp on my barbie.”
And then he saw Esther, her fins draping over the end of the sofa, her hair falling down along her lap, and his eyes—his beautiful hazel eyes, with just a fleck of gold in them—went wide.
That’s when he said, “Well, fuck all.”