Read Fins Are Forever Online

Authors: Tera Lynn Childs

Fins Are Forever (19 page)

“We knew you couldn’t be here on your actual birthday,” Aunt Rachel explains, “so we thought we’d surprise you with an early party.”

The hostess arrives at her podium, grabs a stack of menus, and leads us to the private dining room in the back.

Someone has transformed it into an underwater dream.

“This is just…” I take in al the decorations—streamers curling down from the ribbon in half a dozen shades of blue and green; big party-store cutouts of starfish, sea horses, and tropical fish; and tiny twinkling blue and green lights circling the room. My eyes tear, and I feel the emotion tighten around my throat. I take a quick breath to regain my control before saying, “Magical. Thank you.” Realizing that this could not have been the effort of just one or two of my friends and family, I add, “Everyone.”

“What are we waiting for?” Quince asks, rubbing his palms together. “Let’s eat.”

He holds out the chair at the head of the table, motioning for me to sit there. When I do, he takes the seat to my right.

Everyone fil s in around the table, and the waiter starts bringing in sushi.

A tray of cone-shaped shrimp tempura and California temaki.

A beautiful platter of New York and Philadelphia maki.

A rainbow array of anago, himachi, and toro nigiri.

This is what birthday bliss is al about.

When the waiter pops his head in to see if we want more, everyone groans. I exchange a look along the length of the table with Tel in—the only person at the table who could possibly keep up with me when it comes to sushi consumption—and we share an omigod-I’m-so-ful look.

“I couldn’t eat another morsel,” I announce.

Sounds of agreement come from everyone at the table.

The waiter nods and disappears.

“Now,” Aunt Rachel says, reaching beneath her seat and pul ing out a very smal box wrapped in homemade purple paper, “it’s time for presents.”

Everyone cheers and I blush. This is my least favorite part about human birthdays. I get so embarrassed. Under the sea a birthday is just a celebration, not a gift-giving occasion. Getting gifts is great, but I get squirmy under the spotlight, everyone watching while you careful y—or carelessly—open your package.

But as a ful -time land resident, I’l just have to get over it.

Aunt Rachel sets her gift in front of her and says, “I’d like to save mine for last, if that’s okay.”

“Open mine first,” Shannen says, nodding at the yel ow-and-orange package next to my water glass.

“Okay.” I smile as I reach for the box.

“There’s a tradition,” Aunt Rachel explains to Doe and Tel in, since they probably don’t know, “that if the birthday girl tears the wrapping paper on her first present, she gets as many spankings as she is old.”

Being ful y aware of this tradition—and Aunt Rachel’s determination to uphold it—I use my fingernail to slit the tape securing the yel ow wrapping paper. In seconds, I’ve dewrapped the gift and handed the paper to Aunt Rachel for inspection.

“Sadly,” Aunt Rachel says with a mock frown, “Lily has managed to avoid getting spanked for four birthdays running.”

Everyone laughs. I take the opportunity of their distraction to open the white box that contains Shannen’s gift. Inside, on a bed of yel ow tissue paper, is a bright orange calculator with yel ow keys. I lift it out and play with a few of the buttons.

“It’s for the SATs tomorrow,” Shannen explains.

“It’s perfect,” I say, pushing out of my chair and giving her a hug. “Every time I have to solve a math problem, I’l think of you. It wil help me focus more.”

Shannen beams.

“Mine next,” Doe says, passing an unwrapped box down the table.

Sinking back into my chair, I take the box. This is momentous. She’s participating in a human ritual. It must be a sign of progress, right?

I give Doe a smal smile before pul ing off the lid.

I gasp.

“I just thought,” she says, “that since you made one for Quincy, maybe you’d like one, too.”

“Doe,” I say, ful of emotion as I pul out the inch-wide sapphire blue sand dol ar. “It’s beautiful.” I hold up the necklace for everyone to see. Quince reaches beneath his black T-shirt and pul s out the matching necklace I made for him just a few weeks ago.

The smile he gives me might seem perfectly ordinary, but it’s not. It says, There’s hope for Doe yet.

I completely agree.

“Thank you, Dosinia,” I say sincerely. “I cannot imagine a more perfect gift.”

She rol s her eyes and shrugs, as if my compliment means nothing. I can tel she’s proud of herself. Besides, with her powers revoked, she can’t flash-freeze sand dol ars anymore. She either planned this ahead of time or asked for help.

The girl may pretend like she doesn’t care about anyone but herself, but she’s proving that’s not true. In more ways than one.

Brody hands down an envelope. “Now mine.” I rip open the top of the plain brown envelope, curious as to what kind of present might be in here. When I pul out a sheet of paper and read the contents, I realize what his gift is.

“No way,” I say, rereading the letter. “Are you serious?”

“As Olympic gold.”

“What?” Shannen asks.

Aunt Rachel asks, “What is it?”

I clear my throat and read the letter. “Dear Teachers. The fol owing students wil be absent from class on Thursday and Friday to attend the boys’ state swimming championships:

Brody

Bennett,

Kevin

Velasquez,

Raymond Flynn, and team manager Lily Sanderson.

Please gather their homework assignments so they may complete them on time. If you have any questions, please cal my office. Coach Hil .”

“I don’t get it,” Shannen says.

Doe asks, “What’s the gift?”

So excited I might just burst, my gaze meets Brody’s across the table. “I get to go to State.” The silence around the table seems to say, “And… ?”

“Managers never get to go to State,” I explain, “since it’s usual y just the coach and a couple of swimmers. This is”—I shake my head at Brody—“awesome. Thank you.” In my three years as swim team manager, it’s always been a bittersweet end to the season—having to hang up my record book while a handful of swimmers got to travel to Orlando for the state meet. It’s awesome that, as a senior, I’l get to go, too.

Brody just earned triple points. Not only for getting me the letter, but also for knowing how much it would mean to me.

Maybe he wasn’t quite as self-absorbed as I thought.

Maybe this gift-getting thing is worth the torture after al .

I look around expectantly, wondering whose gift wil wow me next.

Without saying a word, Quince pul s a smal box from the inside pocket of his jacket. He slides it across the red tablecloth.

My eyes meet his as I pick up the box and pul off the red ribbon. It feels like we haven’t had much time together as boyfriend-girlfriend since I came back, but the look in his eyes is al I need to see the promise of a long future between us.

I absently lift off the lid and reach inside. My fingers curl around a cold metal object.

Glancing down, I find a starfish-shaped silver key ring.

“It’s beautiful,” I whisper.

He leans close. “Turn it over.”

On the back, inscribed in a delicately curving script, are the words
Forever, princess. I love you
.

Tears instantly fil my eyes.

“I love you, too,” I mouth.

“What?” Shannen demands, reaching across the table to take the starfish. When she reads the inscription, she’s struck speechless.

The key ring makes the rounds of the table, eliciting shrugs from the boys and sighs from the girls. When it makes its way back to my palm, I clutch it close to my heart.

“Thank you,” I say, though words can’t entirely express what I’m feeling.

“After that,” Aunt Rachel announces, “it seems apropos to give you my gift next.”

She lifts the flecked purple package off the table and hands it to me.

Her eyes are wide with pride and expectation as I peel off the wrapping. It’s quite a smal box with hardly any weight to it. Maybe it’s a gift card? I could use a trip to the mal for some summer beach staples. Flip-flops, bikinis, tank tops.

I’m always up for a shopping spree.

But when I pul the lid off the box, it is not a gift card resting on the tie-dye pink-and-purple tissue. It’s a key.

I don’t get it. I already have a key to the house, both front and back doors. There aren’t any other locks in my life, except for the combination on my locker at school. No key required.

And it’s not exactly shaped like a house key.

“What’s it for?” I ask.

Quince smiles, taking the key and inspecting it like he’s never seen it before, but I get the feeling he has. “A Toyota Corol a, if I had to guess.”

Aunt Rachel nods.

“A car?” I gasp.

“Your father and I agreed,” she says, “that you wil need your own transportation once you begin col ege.”
If
I begin col ege, I almost say. The pressure of tomorrow’s SATs is enough to make me think I’l never get accepted.

But today is a celebration, and I refuse to dwel on the negative. And besides… I have a car!

“A car! It’s an amazing gift, Aunt Rachel,” I say. I wrap her in a tight hug. “I just hope I can learn how to drive.”

“I’l teach you,” Quince says.

I raise my brows. “Just like you’re teaching me to ride Princess?”

When I came back to Seaview, he promised to teach me to ride his motorcycle. Let’s just say that the couple lessons we’ve had have ended roughly. No blood, but a few scratches—on both me and Princess. One more trip into the garbage cans, and Quince wil rescind his promise to teach me.

“By the time I’m done with you,” he says, “you’l drive like a NASCAR champ.”

I grin back at him. If anyone can teach me how to handle a car, it’s Quince.

I don’t see how this surprise party could get any better.

At the other end of the table, Tel in shoves back in his chair and stands.

“I regret to say I have no gift for the birthday girl,” he says.

Reaching for his water glass, he continues, “So I would like to offer a toast instead.”

Everyone else stands and lifts their glasses as Tel in speaks. I stand, too, because I’m not sure what else to do.

“To my guppyhood friend,” he says. “The princess of our hearts. A kind and generous and openhearted person who would give up anything and everything to be with the one she loves.” He flicks me an unreadable look. “Even her title.

To Lily.”

He lifts his glass, and everyone else says, “To Lily,” and fol ows suit.

Everyone except me. And Quince.

They’ve missed the subtle shark attack Tel in lobbed into the room.

“What does he mean?” Quince demands.

I swal ow hard. “About what?”

I throw Tel in a glare—does he know what he’s done?—

but he just smiles and lowers himself back into his chair. He knows exactly what is about to happen. This is al part of his plan, part of his proposal.

“You know what,” Quince says, his voice deceptively calm.

“Giving up your title? He’s not serious.”

“Quince,” I say, glancing around at the eager eyes watching the shipwreck in progress, “can we talk about this late—”

“What does he mean, Lily?” His voice has taken on that tone that says, Tel me the truth right now or I’m walking.

“By Thalassinian law,” I begin, “any royal princess who is not bonded by her eighteenth birthday…” It’s hard to say this out loud, but I have to. “Loses her title and her place in the succession.”

Quince’s Caribbean blue eyes bore into me, his brows drawn together in a look of utter confusion. He shakes his head, like this can’t possibly make sense.

“As of midnight on Tuesday,” I explain, “I wil no longer be Thalassinia’s future queen.”

Everyone stil standing drops into their chairs, except Quince and me, accompanied by various sighs and gasps.

Doe already knew this, of course, but it’s a shocker to the rest of the party.

The look in Quince’s eyes could melt a hole in the hul of a battleship.

He’s about to say something when the waiter pops in and asks, “Are we ready for cake?”

I don’t take my eyes off Quince, who closes his eyes, shakes his head, and drops back into his chair. Whatever argument we’re about to have isn’t over, but I get the feeling he doesn’t want to ruin the party. At least not for everyone else.

“Yes,” Aunt Rachel says with forced cheerfulness. “Now would be an excel ent time for cake.”

I slowly lower into my chair, not bothering to pretend I don’t know why Quince is upset. This is the one teeny-tiny part of the staying-on-land bargain that I’ve neglected to mention. I was going to wait until after my birthday, until after Tuesday and the ritual was done, before tel ing him al about it. Partly because this is the reaction I expected. Partly because the decision is a personal one. Mine and mine alone.

Thanks a lot, Tel in. I throw a glare his way just as the lights in the room go dark and the waiter, fol owed by the hostess and two sushi chefs, walks in with a candlelit birthday cake.

As everyone breaks into a chorus of “Happy Birthday,” I try to enjoy the moment. To enjoy celebrating my eighteenth year with my closest land friends and family. But even though he’s forcing out the words, al I feel is anger rol ing off Quince, in tsunami-sized waves.

“Make a wish,” Aunt Rachel says.

I take one look at the round white cake, decorated with blue-and-green waves and the words HAPPY BIRTHDAY, LILY, and tears fil my eyes. Closing them quickly before anyone notices, I suck in a breath, quickly compose my wish, and blow.

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