It's never easy being the new girl. Doing it more than once was no guarantee that it would be. Even after a whole year had passed, Hailey still didn't have anyone she'd call a real friend. True, there were the girls who let her sit with them during lunch and sometimes asked if she'd like to go with them to the mall after school, but she'd never taken them up on the offer, always making up some excuse about her mom wanting her home early. Maybe she just wasn't ready to make new best friends.
Not like she and Claire weren't still in touch or anything. They'd been e-mailing each other nearly every day since Hailey'd arrived in Australia, but it just wasn't the same as being able to hang out together. Though she'd never dropped hints or anything, Hailey could tell that Claire wasn't doing that much better than her. Dealing with bully Cecilia Banks was easier thanks to Cecilia's father Mr Banks, and the dreamy lifeguard Raymond had managed to convince his dad that college could wait another year. It just wasn't the same, though. There was no good substitute for a friend you could tell everything to and have sleepovers with. Not even the tall handsome blonde lifeguard did the trick, though it did ease the pain. On the bright side, now that classes had ended, Claire was coming to Australia to spend the summer with Hailey and her mom at their house. It was Tuesday today; Claire's flight left tomorrow morning, Stateside time.
And on a very bright note, there was Aquamarine, the bubbly blonde mermaid she and Claire had helped in her quest for love. The mermaid had last visited Hailey a month ago, but like Claire, she was also on her way over. Because of the distance she had to cross, Aqua's trip via swimming would take much longer than Claire's plane ride. According to Claire's last e-mail, Aqua had left for Australia three days ago. Judging by the length of the mermaid's previous trips, she'd probably arrive a day or two after Claire. Hailey couldn't wait for her best friends in the world.
Unfortunately, she had to, though only for a short while. In the mean time, here she was strolling down the beach and just wishing time would go by faster. Not many people ventured this far from the pier, and the few that did, aside from her, were asleep on the sand under beach umbrellas. The area of the beach she walked down happened to be at the foot of a fairly high elevation with a few houses several meters back. Trees were scattered along the ridge, providing some measure of shade from the sun. Hailey reached up and adjusted her sunglasses so that they sat more comfortably on the bridge of her nose. Her mom had said to bring a hat; Hailey, of course, hadn't listened, deciding that the sunglasses were enough. Aside from the shades, she wore a pair of cargo shorts over a bathing suit, a shawl draped around her shoulders and tied at the front. A pair of flipflops protected her feet from the hot sand. Behind the shades, her eyes were half closed from boredom. For a place with so many ways to kill time, there sure wasn't a lot to do. She pushed the big toe of one foot under a seashell on the sand and kicked it up into the air, catching it in the palm of her hand. Why couldn't distractions just drop in like that?
That was when a distraction in the form of a person did drop right in. A boy hit the sand right in front of her, flowing into a shoulder roll and coming up twisting so that he was facing her when he stood.
"Hey Hailey." She recognized him instantly; Ryan Hardy was in most of her classes at school. He didn't have a lot of friends, but he was well-known as someone who refused to let anything get boring when he was around. He was a bit below average height and fairly good-looking, with his wavy dark brown hair and equally dark eyes. Ryan had also been one of the first people in Australia to talk to her; at first he'd spoken in a very convincing Aussie accent, but dropped it after admitting that he wasn't from the Land Down Under either.
"Hey Ryan. Um, what was with the…" She let her voice trail off and nodded towards the ridge.
"Oh, that. Well, you know, I just wanted to try climbing a tree," he indicated the one growing right on the edge, "and I sorta fell out of the branches." As if to make a point, there was a snap from above, and a tree branch about as thick as Hailey's arm dropped right between them. Ryan stared at it for a few seconds before suggesting that they move the conversation, "somewhere less prone to accidental whackage." He led her closer to the water, stopping along the way to pick up a couple of flat skipping stones.
"So what're you doing all the way out here?" he asked, cocking back his arm to throw a stone.
"I could ask you the same question," she replied.
"You could, but I wouldn't answer, least not until you do. I asked first."
Hailey lifted one corner of her mouth in a half grin. "Just going for a walk."
"Nothing to do?" he asked with a sidelong look, mimicking her amused expression.
"Oh, I wouldn't say that," he said as his arm whipped forward, sending the stone over the ocean. Hailey counted four skips. "So long as you're alive, there's always something to do."
"Then dig a hole and bury me in it," she said, turning to continue her walk.
He caught up with her after she'd gone ten steps, probably having finished his stones first. "Come on, Hail." He was the only one so far to have given her any kind of nickname. Not counting "new girl," "newbie," or anything else of the sort, of course. "There's tons to do."
"Okay. Name one thing."
Ryan laughed. "Ever been on a jet ski?"
Hailey smiled. "No."
"There's a first time for everything, wouldn't you say?"
Hailey screamed, her eyes squeezed tight and her arms locked around Ryan's chest. He didn't seem to mind; on the contrary, he was laughing his head off. The jet ski sent sprays of water up behind it, roaring along at high speed. Ryan turned sharply, almost putting the vehicle on its side.
"Still think there's nothing to do around here?" he shouted.
Hailey opened her eyes when she felt the jet ski slow down. "Should we be out this far?" she asked; the people on the beach were barely distinguishable.
"I've been farther," he replied in a tone that sounded reassuring, but the words really didn't help much.
"Can we please head back?"
"Fine," he muttered, turning the jet ski around. They sped back to the small boathouse hidden behind some rocks. The structure and jet ski technically belonged to Ryan's parents, but they used neither one and so let him take the jet ski out whenever he wanted so long as he kept it maintained. He pulled into the boathouse and killed the engine, then waited for Hailey to dismount before getting off himself. He knelt and chained the jet ski to the wooden dock, then pulled the boathouse water gate shut. "Let's go get something to eat."
"It's always food and fun with boys, isn't it?"
"Occasionally we take to beating each other senseless for no good reason. So, food?"
"Sounds good to me."
Over chili-n-steak sandwiches and lemonade, Hailey was finally able to learn more about the enigmatic Ryan Hardy. It was a well-known – but never publicly admitted – that nobody really knew anything about him; no one had ever even seen where he lived. Rumor had it that he'd never asked a girl out since arriving in Australia.
Not that he didn't show interest in girls; his relatively close friends said that when pressed, he gave them names of girls he found attractive. Hailey couldn't help but wonder if her name had ever come up.
"So you've been here nearly a year," he said, taking a sip of his drink, "and you still haven't made any friends?"
"I've made friends," she retorted defensively. "Just not, you know, no close ones. No one I'd miss."
"No one you'd miss if they died, or no one you'd miss if they left?"
Hailey pretended to think that one over. "Either one."
"Still miss your old town, huh?"
"Well, how long did it take you to make new best friends?"
The speed with which he answered surprised her almost as much as the answer itself. "Not long. A day, maybe two."
"Really?" she asked skeptically.
"Don't believe me?"
"Well," she said slowly, gathering her words. "It just doesn't seem like you have any really close friends. I mean, the guys who sit at the same table as you at lunch are probably the closest, and I've never seen you hang around them after school."
"That just means I don't have any best friends at school. It doesn't mean I have no best friends at all."
"So who're your friends outside of school?"
"Everyone's entitled to their secrets," he said mysteriously.
"Come on," she prodded.
He just shook his head and took another bite of his sandwich.
Hailey woke up extra early the next morning. On a whim, she grabbed a pair of binoculars before leaving the house, along with a bag of gummy worms for some semblance of breakfast. Something in her gut told her that if she could find Ryan, she'd learn exactly what he meant by not having any best friends in school. Claire's flight was leaving today – well, tonight for Hailey, morning for Claire – and for the simple reason that they were best friends, Hailey wanted to tell Claire about Ryan before she came over.
To do that, however, Hailey would have to find out Ryan's secret.
She walked for several minutes, popping a gummy worm into her mouth every three or so, before she saw Ryan. Like yesterday – and every other time she'd seen him, come to think of it – he wasn't dressed for the beach, wearing a pair of dark denim pants and a white t-shirt, with black shoes on his feet. She noticed that he had a bulging satchel over his shoulder; the shape of the bulge told her nothing about what might be inside. His pace was unhurried, but still gave the impression of trying to get somewhere as soon as possible. Hailey was careful to fall behind enough that she could duck behind a tree while some still lined the beach. It took a few more minutes of trailing before she realized that he was heading towards the boathouse. Clearly he intended to take the jet ski somewhere; the only other vehicle in the derelict structure was a motorboat that had definitely seen better days. But why the satchel and the secrecy if he was just going for a ride?
Answer: he wasn't.
Ryan suddenly stopped and turned around. Hailey threw herself sideways behind a fallen log before he saw her. That proved it; he didn't want to be followed. She waited ten seconds, then slowly got to her knees and peered through one of the log's still-leafy branches. Ryan had resumed walking, though at a faster pace. He hadn't seen her, but his suspicion had still been heightened.
Hailey waited until he was quite a distance away before getting up to follow, this time sticking to the tree line. She remembered the route to the boathouse, most of it, and decided to risk letting him get out of sight, then running through the trees. It would take him a few minutes to prep the jet ski, enough time for her to catch up and find a place from which to watch. Once he had disappeared around the large rock that hid the boathouse, Hailey stood and sprinted down the path between the trees, occasionally leaping over large roots, though these were few and far in between. Finally, she came in view of the boathouse and quickly dropped behind a boulder.
The back door was open; through it, she could see Ryan opening the watergate, satchel still over his shoulder. Once he'd done that, he knelt by a small trunk in the corner that she hadn't noticed the other day. From the trunk he took a length of chain with a small-ish hook on one end. He coiled the chain around one arm and pushed it up so that it hung on his shoulder. She watched with growing interest as he mounted the jet ski and fired it to life. He roared out of the boathouse.
Hailey jumped to her feet and sped down the beach, keeping him in sight. She noticed that he wasn't going far from the shoreline, though she couldn't figure out where he was going. She was so focused on him that she didn't notice when the beach ended until she tripped over a rock.
"Ow!" Hailey looked up; the sandy beach sloped upwards, turning into a slightly steep cliff. She realized that wherever Ryan was going on the jet ski, the only way to find out would be to get to the top of the precipice.
It was a much easier climb than she expected, even with her flipflops. Once atop the rock face, she stopped to take in what she was seeing. The cliff overlooked a magnificent cove; the emerald seawater sparkled in the sunlight, and a large rock shaped vaguely like an oversized armchair sat in the center of the circular bay. The cliff narrowed to a rock wall roughly a meter thick that curved around and left only one entrance to the secret bay.
It was through this access that Ryan came on his jet ski. Hailey snapped back to her senses and dropped to lie on her belly, bringing the binoculars to bear on Ryan. The high elevation made her hard to see, and the camo-painted binocs blended in with the shrub she had taken refuge behind.
Ryan rode the jet ski to the armchair-rock, bringing it so close that it was touching the edge. He shrugged the chain from his shoulders. She noticed suddenly that a stone ring, just wide enough for the hook on the edge of the chain, sat right above the water level. Ryan hooked the jet ski to the rock; clearly he intended to stay for a while. He climbed onto the part of the rock that would be the backrest and made himself comfortable, apparently waiting for something. "What are you doing?" she silently asked.
Minutes passed, and still nothing happened. Hailey was about to get up and leave when she saw movement in the water. Something was making a beeline for the rock, and whatever it was was moving fast. Ryan noticed it too, but reacted very differently. Through the binoculars, Hailey saw him smile. A dark spot under the water grew rapidly; whatever the thing was, it was coming to the surface, and fast. Hailey held her breath: finally, some answers!
A figure burst from the water, splashing the rock, though not Ryan, who was mostly shielded by the rock's high side. Sunlight glinted briefly off bright green scales, though Hailey had a quick view of what looked like hair. Whatever it was dove again so quickly that Hailey hadn't gotten more than a glimpse – but she already had a good idea of what it was. She pressed the binoculars so hard to her eyes that she felt the skin around them being stretched, but she didn't care; she had to know. Was that what she thought it was? "Come on, come on," she quietly willed…whatever it was.
Ryan, she saw, wasn't the least bit surprised. He was expecting it!
Five seconds later, it resurfaced, this time at the edge of the rock. Hailey's heart leapt into her throat.
It was a mermaid.
Not Aquamarine, that was for sure. This mermaid's flowing hair was a deep brown, almost black even in the sunlight. Her tail was an emerald green. She wasn't as slender as Aqua, but she was incredibly beautiful. She was saying something to Ryan, probably a hello. She was strong; she didn't need Ryan's help to pull herself into a sitting position next to him, the tip of her tail still in the water. Ryan put one arm around her shoulders, opening the satchel with the other and talking all the while. From it, he took two wrapped sandwiches, a bunch of grapes, and a thermos. Hailey desperately wished she could hear what they were saying. It occurred to her that the mermaid was probably the first friend Ryan had made, the best friend outside school that he'd mentioned. It was probably why he maintained the aura of passive mystery around him; people who may have wanted to dig deeper couldn't really find any reason to do so.
The mermaid's hair began to shimmer, starting at the the tip and quickly moving up to her scalp. When the shine faded, Hailey saw that the mermaid's hair was now dry. "Neat trick," she whispered. Either she had more powers than Aqua, or Aqua just never saw a reason to show Hailey and Claire that particular one.
Now that it was dry, Hailey saw that the mermaid's hair was quite lush and wavy, not forgetting extremely long; it fell to her hips, or where they would be if she had them. Some of it fell diagonally across most of her face, hiding one eye and continuing over the side of her nose and pale red lips until it reached the base of her neck. Her mouth was perpetually turned up slightly at the corners – well, the corner that wasn't hidden by her hair – giving the impression that she was about to smile.
So this was Ryan Hardy's best friend in Australia. Interesting secret.
Ryan handed his friend one of the sandwiches, and she unwrapped it eagerly. Looked like she was a fan of landlubber food. Hailey focused the binoculars on the food; the sandwiches were filled with greens and some kind of meat, plus what was probably mustard. Ryan unwrapped his own snack as his friend bit into hers. Judging by her facial expression, the mermaid loved it. She chewed slowly and with gusto, a small smile on her face, the kind little kids put on when their moms buy them ice cream. Maybe Ryan didn't visit her everyday; it wasn't hard to believe that there were times he was too busy to come. Or maybe he just didn't make her that kind of sandwich very often.
Hailey's stomach grumbled, and she suddenly realized how hungry she was. Gummy worms, no matter how tasty, did not make a good breakfast. She was torn between her need to eat and her desire to stay and watch. How did she know that Ryan would still be there when she finished eating?
She bit her lip, thinking hard. It was possible that Ryan meant to spend the whole day with the mermaid, in which case Hailey could leave, have breakfast, and come back to the same scene. While she tried to decide what to do, Ryan raised the grapes to his friend's mouth and let her bite one off the bunch. Hailey's stomach grumbled again, only louder, and she made up her mind. She took the binoculars from around her neck and stashed them under the bush she'd been hiding behind. It was pretty unlikely that anyone else was going to show up anyway. Taking one last look at the scene below, she carefully made her way back down the slope, then ran for the food stores back at the pier.
Hailey took extra care not to drop her food as she dashed back to the cliff. It was a long run, and a bit difficult because of her having to carry a can of iced tea in one hand and a packaged meal and small sandwich in the other arm. She tripped twice along the way, though she managed to hold on to the food.
"Please let them still be there," she whispered, then stopped to catch her breath. The cliff was already in sight, and it didn't look that much farther. Hopefully Ryan and his half-fish friend had stayed. The sand hadn't changed since she took off down the beach fifteen minutes earlier; there were only two sets of footprints, both hers. The boathouse water gate had still been open when she passed it earlier; it was a very good chance that Ryan was still at the cove. She scrambled up the slope, then dropped to a crouch and made her way to the bush. Her binoculars were still there. She set the food to one side and picked up the binocs, pressing them to her eyes.
Yep, they were still there. The sandwiches were finished, and only a couple of grapes remained on the bunch. She noticed that he'd brought out two plastic mugs and was sharing something from the thermos with his friend, who was leaning against him, cradling her mug in one hand. The fingers of her other hand were twirling Ryan's hair. Interesting. Not that she'd ever really had any close pals who were guys, but Hailey couldn't remember when she'd ever run her hands through the hair of a boy who was just a friend. They weren't just friends, then. That was even more interesting. How did that work out? Sure, Aqua and Raymond had a budding romance, but that was different. Wasn't it?
Hailey dialed up the magnification, trying to read their lips. The mermaid took a deep drink, then set the mug down on the rock. Whatever she said next must've been something real mushy, 'cause Ryan grinned the kinda grin people only put on when that someone special says something sappy. He reached up and brushed the hair from her eyes, saying something that was probably as sentimental as whatever she had said. Then he leaned over and kissed her.
Hailey's jaw dropped and banged against a rock, but she didn't notice. The mermaid threw her arms around Ryan's neck and pulled him closer, a smile on her lips. Well, the part that wasn't busy otherwise. One thought entered and stuck in Hailey's mind.
"Gotta tell Claire." Her food forgotten, she dropped the binocs and raced for her house, almost falling all the way down the slope. This had definitely gone up on the Unbelievable Things That Happen During Summer scale, from Pretty Cool to OMG. It was a long run, and she felt like she was about to die when she finally staggered up her front steps. She could barely get the door open before she collapsed on the floor. It took five minutes for her to catch her breath, another ten before the stitch in her side went away. When it did, she quickly got to her feet and lurched into the kitchen, taking a pitcher of cold water from the fridge and quickly drinking it down, though some splashed onto her shirt. After that, she grabbed the phone from its hook on the wall. Her mom only let her call Claire in the States if it was urgent, but this definitely counted as urgent. Despite it being around 10:30 in the evening over there, she knew Claire would still be awake; Hailey herself hadn't slept at all the night before flying to Australia. The phone rang thrice before Claire answered. She didn't sound the least bit sleepy.
"Claire, it's Hailey. I've got big news." She heard something moving around; maybe Claire was pulling up a seat.
"Okay, you remember that guy I told you about before? Ryan?"
"Oh yeah, the one you said was kinda cute and really mysterious and you'd totally say yes if he ever asked you—"
"Yeah, that one," Hailey cut her friend off. "Anyway, I found out why he doesn't have any close friends at school."
"Because he has a very special friend outside school."
"Oh, Hailey, I'm so sorry." Huh? "Now he's never gonna ask you out."
"Wait, what are you talking about?!"
There was an awkward pause. "That's not what you meant, was it?"
"Oops. Sorry. So what did you mean?"
Hailey shook her head, though Claire couldn't see the gesture of annoyance.
"I got up early this morning and followed him to this cove really far down the beach. I don't think I'd've gotten there even if I was really bored and took a long walk."
"It was really well hidden, too. You'd think something the size of a cove would be hard to hide, but not this one. It was surrounded by really high walls and it only had one entrance from the sea, and I think that was a pretty complicated entrance too, 'cause it looked like it was sort of spiraly and—"
"Get to the point already!"
"He has a girlfriend."
"So? That's nothing big. Sad for you, but otherwise—"
"A girlfriend with fins."
It took a minute for the words to sink into Claire. "No way."
"Way." Hailey looked around and spotted a carton of juice sitting by the fridge. She tucked the phone between her ear and shoulder, then grabbed the carton and drank deeply.
"Bullseye, Claire-dy Cat," Hailey replied, wiping her mouth on the back of her hand.
"That's definitely a big secret," Claire said. "You sure about what's going on between them?"
Claire didn't even ask whether Hailey was certain of what she'd seen. That was what Hailey really missed: the absolute trust one put in her best friend. She didn't have that now because, well, she didn't have a best friend anywhere nearby. "It's not Aqua, though, is it?"
"Nope, definitely not."
"And you've never seen her before?"
"I've only ever met one mermaid, Claire."
"Look, you know how Aqua can have legs during the day? Maybe this girl goes around in daylight looking normal."
Hailey had forgotten that little tidbit of information. She thought hard, trying to place the mermaid's pretty face somewhere aside from the cove. If she went around as a human, she'd probably stick close to Ryan. She'd never seen him anywhere but school, though. Well, school and the beach. She realized that she didn't even know where he lived.
"Don't think so, Claire. I don't see the guy around much, though, so I wouldn't really know."
"Hmmm. That's interesting."
"And we're going to find out more when you get here."
"If this involves more breaking into beach clubs after closing hours…"
"Don't be such a scaredy-cat, Claire-dy Cat. And no, no beach clubs." She heard a sigh of relief from Claire, which prompted her to add, "Probably his house."
"Hailey, if I get arrested—"
"Then I will personally break you out of whatever state penitentiary or dingo pen they put you in, okay? Relax. I'll think of something."
"That's why I can't relax."
"See ya in a few hours, Claire-bear."
"See ya, Hail-whale."
"If that was a comment on—" Click. Beep. "I'll get you for that," Hailey muttered as she put the phone back on the hook.