Chapter Thirty

Nine months later

"Oh, please! That's nothing but a big pile of poo!" CC yelled and threw the book across the room, narrowly missing decapitating the lilac-colored orchid that was in magnificent bloom on her coffee table. "Hans Christian Andersen, T.S. Eliot, Lucretius, Tennyson, and now this horrible de la Motte Fouque person. Uh! None of them were even close to getting it right!"

CC sighed and retrieved the book, all the more irritated that she had to reach under the couch for it. Finally grabbing it, she made straight for the wastebasket in the kitchen, rolling her eyes at the title.

"Romantic Fairy Tales," she scoffed, and lifted the lid of the wastebasket. But, as usual, she couldn't make herself actually throw the book away. Shaking her head and mumbling, she marched to her spare room.

"There's not one thing romantic about that stupid story. As usual, the mermaid doesn't even have a soul unless she can get some mule-headed guy to marry her. And in this particular version, he betrays her for another woman and she still pines away for him."

In her spare room she searched through her new bookshelves, trying to find a place for the slim book. Finally she slipped it between a lavishly illustrated copy of Mermaids: Nymphs of the Sea, and Oscar Wilde's The Fisherman and His Soul. Then she put her hands on her hips and glared at her ever-expanding collection.

"All those words and you couldn't manage to capture more than a fraction of the truth. And none of you so much as hinted at the magic of his smile."

CC didn't say his name aloud; she didn't even think it. She couldn't. Even after nine months, she still felt too hollow and fragile. If she allowed herself to think too much about the empty place inside of her, she was sure that the shell of normalcy she had tried to glue together around her life would shatter. And then she didn't know how she would go on.

So instead, she haunted the bookstores and the Internet, always searching for everything and anything that pertained to mermaids. Then she devoured the pages as if they were her lifeline. Maybe they were. They kept her anger and frustration alive, which felt easier to live with than emptiness and despair.

She had gone on the Web and searched Amazon once using the term "merman." Two responses had popped up—an audio collection of Ethel Merman's greatest hits, and some kind of toy called Masters of the Universe Evil Enemies: Mer-men. After that, she had confined her searches to mermaids and mythology in general.

When she discovered her newest acquisition, the Romantic Fairy Tales book, she had been filled with an almost unbearable sense of anticipation as she opened its pages. The blurb on Amazon had said that de la Motte Fouque's classic tale was written about the mermaid Undine. It proclaimed that the story was about "a water nymph who falls in love, acquires a soul and so discovers the reality of human suffering." But, as usual, her reading had left her disappointed and irritated.

"It was nothing but another preachy allegory written by some old dead white guy," CC said miserably.

Then she sighed again and rubbed at the pink, puckered scar that furrowed across her shoulder, cringing at the dull ache that radiated down her arm. CC glanced at her watch.

It was almost 9:00 p.m. on a Friday night. Even on a hot August night, the opulent, Olympic-sized pool at her apartment complex would be deserted, which was just the way she liked it.

As she changed into her one-piece racing style Speedo and hastily pulled her shoulder length brown curls up into a tight ponytail she could almost hear her mother's voice echoing through her apartment.

"Dear, a pretty girl like you shouldn't be alone on a Friday night. It's just not good for the soul. "

The bathroom light glinted on the golden chain that always hung around her neck, and CC's lips curved into a bittersweet smile. With one finger she stroked the smooth, iridescent surface of the huge pearl. Then she looked at herself in the mirror, pretending she was speaking to her mother.

"My soul's fine, Mom. It's just not all here."

Imagining the shocked reaction on her mother's face made her lips tighten. She didn't like to think about the pain her accident had caused her parents. They had never left her side throughout her month-long hospital stay, and when CC was released to return to Tinker AFB, her mom had come with her and had stayed another two months, helping her with the painful rehabilitation exercise routine. She certainly would never say anything to her mother that would make her worry any more about her than she already did, which meant she could never tell her mother that she longed to be in another world and another time.

CC shook her head. No, she wouldn't let depression win—she refused to live as a morose shadow. She felt like she had spent the past nine months trying to give birth to a new self, and she had to keep reminding herself that the birthing process always involved pain. It was just another part of life.

CC forced herself to smile as she pulled on her terrycloth cover-up, grabbed a towel and her swim bag and hurried out her apartment door. The water would make her feel better. It always did.

Mrs. Runyan was just coming up the stairs, and she waved a cheerful greeting.

"Going for your nightly swim, dear?" she asked.

"Yes, ma'am." CC smiled warmly at her. CC and her neighbor had grown very close in the months of her recovery. She felt honored to have been gifted with the friendship of another wise woman.

"Well, it's a lovely night for it. The moon is full and the sky is clear."

CC glanced up in surprise. The butter-colored moon was just rising, full and lustrous, over the greenbelt that backed their apartment complex.

"You're right. I hadn't remembered that it would be a full moon tonight."

At work CC had been preparing for another of the Communication Center's endless inspections. She had only been back full-time for three months, and she was so busy that she had completely lost track of the phases of the moon. Now she felt an unexpected rush of pleasure at the thought of swimming her laps beneath the beauty of the full moon.

Mrs. Runyan smiled mischievously at CC and tapped her on the nose. "Better keep your eyes open tonight. Wonderful things happen during the full moon."

"I'll remember, Mrs. Runyan. And I'll also remember our date tomorrow night to watch An Affair to Remember," CC said as she hurried past her friend.

"You had better, young lady. You're bringing the champagne!" the old woman called good-naturedly after her.

CC was still smiling as she swung through the wrought-iron gate to the pool. She sighed happily. As she had hoped, the pool was totally unoccupied. It never failed to surprise CC how quickly the residents of the pricey complex lost interest in their beautiful facility.

The pool was magnificent. It was a huge rectangle made of aqua-colored tile, hand painted around the rim with images of frolicking fish. To one side of the pool was a built-in Jacuzzi, complete with a fountain and cascading waterfall. Expensive deck chairs were clustered in neat circles around glass-toped, canopied tables. Thickly cushioned lounge chairs dotted the edge of the pool.

CC shrugged off her cover-up and fished her goggles out of the bag, then she left both bag and wrap in a heap on the nearest lounge chair. Eagerly, she approached the deep end of the pool.

Tonight the turquoise water was illuminated from above as well as below. Like hidden lanterns, the recessed lighting cast a magical turquoise glow through the calm water, while on its surface the moonlight danced and played, breathing life into the water's stillness and temporarily lending it the appearance of ocean waves.

The last time she had seen the moonlight reflecting off the ocean she had been in the arms of…

CC's breath caught in her throat, and hastily she reined in her thoughts. She hadn't been prepared for the sudden powerful image or for the painful memory it had evoked. In the past nine months she had discovered that memory was a tricky thing, and to keep from being dragged into its vortex of pain she had to stay vigilant, only allowing certain memories to sift into her consciousness, one at a time, and only when she was well prepared for them. Tonight she hadn't been prepared, and her desire for Dylan was a sharp yearning.

CC rubbed at her eyes, reminding herself firmly that she was finished crying. She was getting on with her life. Then she turned her face up to the moon.

"I hope you can see me," she said. "You were right; I did make it. I am strong."

A little breeze whispered around CC's body, ruffling the fine hairs on the back of her neck before it blew across the pool, causing the surface of the water to ripple in response.

CC smiled. "Thank you, Mother, for not allowing me to forget the magic that I still hold within me."

Feeling her soul lighten, CC fitted the goggles on her face and took several deep breaths. Then she sprang in a graceful arc into the water. Kicking, she angled to the surface where she started the steady, measured strokes that would carry her lap after lap across the pool.

As she counted laps, CC thought about what a shock her sudden love of swimming had been to her friends and family. Her first real request as she was recovering from her shoulder injury was to be taken to the water—any water—and allowed to swim.

"But dear, you've never liked the water," CC's mother had said, clearly confused by her daughter's unusual request.

"You aren't even a very good swimmer," her dad had added.

But CC had insisted, and, along with the blessing of her doctor, she had begun working in a pool with her physical therapist.

Now CC could say with confidence that she was an excellent swimmer, as a matter-of-fact; her physical therapist had said she showed a special aptitude for swimming. That had made CC laugh, and then, much later when she had been alone in her bed, it had made her cry.

Continuing to count laps as she kicked away from the side of the pool, she felt the tension in her body begin to relax. In the water, CC always felt secure. Lir had been right; it welcomed her with a father's touch—even if it she was only swimming in a man-made pool. And she ached for the sanctuary the water provided. The C-130 crash had been big news, especially after word of CC's dolphin saviors and Sean's resurrection had leaked to the civilian media. To CC's horror, reporters from all over the world had descended on her, all vying for a "personal angle to the tragedy." Apparently, leave me alone was a phrase that was not taught in journalism school.

CC only hoped that they hadn't been as tenacious about bothering Sean. She hadn't seen him since the rescue helicopter. She had been taken to the military hospital at Navy Siganella in Italy and rushed into surgery. Sean had ended up in Ramstein Air Base, Germany. She had only heard snatches of reports about him, but from them she had discovered that he had recovered, and that the doctors were calling it a miracle.

All she knew for sure was that she had nearly been responsible for his death, and that was a guilt she carried around with her every day. She had sent him a card—once. She'd addressed it to him in care of his fighter unit in Tulsa. She still cringed when she remembered her bumbling attempt at thanking him for exchanging places with her and her inept apology. He hadn't replied—and she hadn't expected him to.

Her stroke faltered, and she pushed thoughts of the accident from her mind. The moon was full, and she was alone, surrounded by the security of the water. All she had to do tonight was to stroke, kick and breathe—stroke, kick and breathe.

When she tilted her head up for her next breath, she thought she saw a shape pass over the moon. Clouds, she thought, and disappointment washed through her. She hadn't remembered the weatherman saying there was a chance of rain, but Oklahoma in the summer meant changing weather. With a burst of energy, she redoubled her efforts. If she was going to have to cut her swim short, at least she would be sure she got in a decent workout.

The shout came through the waves of water as more vibration than sound, and at first CC ignored it, thinking it was just the distant rumble of approaching thunder. At her next breath, though, the vibration turned into words.

"Sergeant Canady!"

CC ground her teeth together and came to an abrupt halt, treading water near the edge of the lap end of the pool. A man was standing several yards away from her. Through the blur of her goggles he looked tall and lean, but indistinct. She didn't bother to remove them.

"What?" she snapped.

"Are you Sergeant Canady? Sergeant Christine Canady?"

The man's voice was vaguely familiar, which told CC that he was probably one of the reporters who had been calling her for the past several months, whining for a story.

"Look, you shouldn't be here."

"I only ask if you are Christine Canady. The Christine Canady who was in the accident."

Irritation sliced through CC. She pulled her goggles off her face and brushed her escaping curls from her eyes.

"I don't want to talk to—"

Her words stopped as her vision cleared and she got a good look at him. She had been right, he was tall and lean, almost too thin. He was wearing faded jeans and a polo-style shirt. Over the upper right chest pocket of the shirt there was an embroidered emblem. The moonlight touched it, illuminating clearly the head of an Indian chieftain in the distinct pattern that was the well-known logo of Tulsa's F-16 Unit.

CC's eyes snapped to the man's face. His hair was military short, and he was clean-shaven. The raised pink ridge of scar tissue ran from the hairline over his left eye and down, marking a path over his well-defined cheekbone before disappearing into the shadows behind his ear.

"Sean?" CC's stomach heaved in a nauseating flutter.

His brow furrowed, and he hesitated before answering. CC thought that he looked nervous.

"Yes, but I…" Here he gestured abstractly and sighed, as if at a loss for words.

CC stared at him, and then, ashamed of herself she looked quickly away. He'd had part of his head sliced off. It was a miracle that he was walking and talking, so it shouldn't be surprising that he got words mixed up, or that he seemed confused about what he was trying to say. When CC met his gaze again she gave him a tentative smile.

"How about I get out of this pool so we can talk?"

Sean nodded and CC swam away from him to the ladder. As she started to climb out of the water she called to him over her shoulder.

"Can you wait a second while I get my cover-up and dry off a little?"

"I would wait an eternity for you, Christine."

Sean's words filled the night.

Like she had been hit in the stomach, CC's body jerked in response. She missed the next rung of the ladder and tumbled back into the water. Gasping, she kicked for surface, but, before she reached air, strong hands grabbed her arms and pulled, lifting her up to the side of the pool where she sat in a heap, coughing the water she'd swallowed and staring at the pale man who crouched beside her.

"I would never let you drown," he said softly.

"Why?" CC shook her head, pulling back from him. "Why are you saying these things?"

"Christine, I…" Sean reached for her and she lunged away from him.

"Please stop!" Her whisper sounded like a hiss of angry steam. "I know you've been hurt, and I know I'm responsible. But you have to stop talking like this."

Sean's face twisted in sadness. When he spoke, he kept his tone kind, like he was trying to reason with an upset child. "I told you once that I made my choice freely, and that I would make it again. That has not changed. You did not cause it, my love."

"There!" CC exploded to her feet. She wrapped her arms around herself as if she was afraid she would break into pieces. "That's what I mean. Stop staying those things."

Sean stood slowly and took a tentative half step toward her, but when she backed away from him, he stopped, holding his hand out like a peace offering.

"I cannot stop speaking thus to you. My words are truth," he said.

"Why are you doing this? How are you doing this?" She felt herself begin to shake uncontrollably.

"Christine, do you not know me?" he asked gently.

"I know who you sound like, but he's dead. I watched him die in another world." CC covered her face with her hands and sobbed.

Sean crossed the space between them and took her into his arms. At first she struggled, but soon she just stood there, rigid with pain in the cocoon of his unfamiliar embrace.

"I see that I must convince you." She felt the warmth of his breath against her wet hair. "Then let me describe for you a place. It is a place you would easily recognize, for there is none other like it. A ring of stone stands proudly in the middle of clear waters; its dome is open to the sky."

As he spoke, CC lifted her face so that she could look into the hazel depths of his eyes.

'The waters there are lit by luminous fish and filled with the magic of sea horses moving together in a dance of mating." He smiled tenderly at her. "It was there that you first loved me, but I believe that I have loved you forever—that you were a part of me even before we met in the storm that was your mother's creation. And I will continue to love you for an eternity, Christine."

Hesitantly, as if she were afraid he would disappear if she moved too quickly, Christine reached up and touched his cheek.

"How?" she asked.

He turned his head so he could kiss her palm. "I do not know, but I like to think of it as a gift from a goddess. I am sorry it took me so long to come to you. Being human is a very odd thing." He paused and laughed with a sound so familiar that CC's heart quivered in response. "When they die their bodies do not return to water. They stay intact, as if waiting for another's soul to fill them, but this body was…" He paused, shrugging his wide shoulders. "It was very badly damaged, and it has taken me longer to heal than I would have thought possible. Many said I would not heal at all, but they did not know the promise I had to fulfill."

"Dylan." CC breathed the word.

"Yes, my love," Dylan said.

CC felt the pain within her shatter and dissolve. In its place she was filled with an overwhelming sense of joy. Then her eyes widened in wonder.

"It's the opposite of all those mermaid stories that humans have written!" she exclaimed.

He gave her a quizzical look.

"In those stories the mermaid is saved by the love of a human man—and if he doesn't love her, she dies."

Dylan's smiled mirrored her own. "It appears the humans had it wrong. It is the woman's love that saves the merman's soul."

"Or maybe they just save each other," she said.

"And so we shall, Christine."

"For an eternity."

"For an eternity," he assured her.

And as he claimed her lips, their ears were filled with the magical sound of a goddess's delighted laughter.

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