One of the countless things he had asked us about was our father, and my mother told him the truth—in front of Dafne, too. My mother told him our father’s downward spiral leading to imprisonment had been many years in the making. Jamil was surprisingly accepting of it. He said that he had been aware of our father not being around much, even if his symptoms had been so severe that he couldn’t quite form the conclusion as a coherent thought.
I looked at him now as he stood next to me, his face turned toward the ocean, his brow slightly furrowed. I slid my hand into his and squeezed it. He was still like a stranger, to us, and to himself. I hadn’t wanted to overburden my family with too much information about supernaturals, but my mother had insisted that I tell her what happened to me.
“How are you feeling?” I asked Jamil, my voice slightly hoarse from underuse.
He nodded slowly, glancing down at me with his dark eyes. “Okay,” he said.
He paused, running his tongue over his lower lip.
“What are you thinking about?” I wondered.
“I… I don’t really know,” he replied, running a hand through his dark hair. “Everything that I couldn’t think before, I guess… I’m honestly not sure what my life was before now. It’s almost like it never happened. As though I’ve just woken up from a long, strange dream. And how I am now was my natural state all along. Like I just needed something to wake me up… am I making any sense?”
I nodded encouragingly. “I understand.”
“Thinking back on it now,” he continued, “it seems to be a blur of colors, frustration… and Mom.”
I smiled, tears creeping into the corners of my eyes. “You know Mom didn’t love you any less because you were autistic. She would’ve continued caring for you for as long as she physically could.”
He swallowed, his own eyes moistening. “I know.”
My eyes traveled to his lower arm, bare beneath his T-shirt. His tattoo was gone, as was mine, and everyone else’s who had returned from The Oasis. This had been part of Ben’s deal with the jinn. It was strange to be without the tattoo. I’d had it for such a long time that I’d gotten used to its unpleasantness.
I’d been scared at first that the removal of Jamil’s tattoo could somehow affect the miraculous recovery he was exhibiting. That perhaps, since I was no longer officially part of the Nasiri family, they were no longer interested. They would withdraw this gift from me. Thankfully, the cure that the jinn had given him seemed permanent, unaffected by whether he remained branded by them or whether I remained one of their serfs.
“I feel… excited,” my brother murmured, interrupting the silence that had fallen between us. His eyes were filled with wonder as he took in our breathtaking surroundings. “I can walk, talk… heck, even think clearly. It feels like I’ve entered a new world where anything is possible.”
I reached my arms around his neck and pulled his head down so that I could plant a kiss on his cheek. “Anything is possible,” I whispered, clamping my eyes shut. The words lanced through my heart as they reminded me of the small hope I still clung to that Ben would return to me.
Jamil looked down at me thoughtfully, wiping away my tears with his thumbs. He kissed my forehead. “You really like that boy, don’t you?”
I gave him a pained smile. “Yeah,” I croaked.
Although I shed silent tears in bed each night, I’d been trying so hard not to break down in front of my family. But with my newfound brother looking down at me, his eyes so similar to my father’s, it exacerbated my emotions—the grief I felt over losing Ben—and I couldn’t stop myself. I buried my head against my older brother’s chest and sobbed.
“Hey,” he soothed me, rubbing my back. “It’s okay. I’m sure you’ll see him again. He’s a vampire, right? They’re supposed to be immortal?”
I couldn’t bring myself to answer, but I appreciated his comforting all the same, no matter how baseless it was.
Screams pierced the air. Jamil and I whirled around to catch sight of our mother and sisters moving frantically toward the shore. Women tended to overreact to creepy-crawlies and slimy things in general, me being guilty of it myself, but from the urgency of their movements, I quickly realized that they had seen something much worse than a hermit crab.
“Mom?” I yelled. “What’s wrong?”
I sped up, knowing that I would reach them with my speed before they exited the ocean. Quickly outpacing Jamil even with his long legs, I hurtled toward the waves. Jamil and I had wandered some way up the shore, but it didn’t take long for me to come within ten feet of them. I would reach them before they reached dry sand—
My mother took a tumble, and she fell beneath the surface, while my sisters hurried ahead.
“Mom!” I yelled again.
I hurried into the waves and had just about reached her when, in a blur of red and teal blue, something slimy and heavy shot out from the waves and slapped hard against my face. I lost my footing, staggered back and fell. I shot back up to my feet. My head felt dizzy from the assault. To my horror, I found myself staring down at a blue-tailed mermaid with flaming red hair. Her arms were locked around my mother’s neck, causing my mother to struggle and choke for breath as the waves rolled over her. The mermaid tugged on her and began retreating deeper into the ocean.
“No!” I screamed.
I launched myself into the waves and managed to grab hold of my mother’s leg before the creature swam out of reach.
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