Stuart's left shoe slipped off and dropped into the river. He held onto the ledge over rushing water, brown from the soil that last night's rainstorm had washed in. He'd taken just one step off the trail thinking he'd found a side path to explore, and slipped right down. If his other foot, the one that still had a shoe, hadn't landed directly on a sturdy root, he would be underwater by now. He was startled, but not afraid.
Bobby and Karen had been walking with him during the hike, and now were kneeling at the top of the ledge. "Holy crap, Stuart!" Bobby grabbed his wrist. "You all right?"
"Don't worry," Karen said, grabbing Stuart's wrist. "We'll get you up. It'll all be okay."
"Really, I'm fine."
They both seemed to have enough of a foothold to avoid slipping off. The two of them lifted Stuart off the root, over the ledge, back onto solid, if muddy, ground.
"Oh my God, that was so scary," Karen said. "Are you hurt?"
"I don't think so." Stuart checked himself, and only found some patches of mud on his clothes and the same Band-Aid that had been on his shin since Monday. He gazed over the ledge. He'd missed it so easily.
"You sure you're okay?" Bobby said. "You could have been killed." Some of their other classmates passed by, unaware that anything had happened.
"Yeah, I know," Stuart said. He was a little surprised at his feelings as well. All he felt was a strange calm. "But I wasn't." He was still out one shoe, though, and the other was caked with mud. "Man, and I just got these, too." He pulled off the surviving shoe, then peeled off his socks and stuffed them inside. No sense limping from uneven or soggy footwear. "Guess we might as well keep going."
"You're positive you're all right?" Bobby said.
"Positive. I just never felt like I was in any danger." Stuart started to point toward the ledge. "There was a—"
"Never mind," Karen said. "At least you didn't die. See ya." And she ran on ahead to rejoin her own friends. One of them, Helena, turned to greet her. For a moment Stuart hoped Helena might look his way, but no such luck.
"Well, whatever," Bobby said. "But seriously, how were you not scared out of your mind?"
"There was a root, and I got a foothold." Stuart pointed back like he'd originally intended. "And so—"
Down in the water, a girl's face was looking back up. Stuart only saw the dark eyes and soaked hair for a split second, then the face dropped below the surface. He shot to his feet. "Did you see that?"
"See what?" Bobby said.
"There's somebody down there!" Stuart stepped closer to the ledge.
Bobby grabbed him. "Dude, what the hell? You wanna fall again?"
Stuart took another look. He didn't hear a scream, or a shout, and certainly not a splash. "You didn't see her?"
"See who? Is somebody drowning?"
"N-no." She hadn't seemed to be struggling. In fact, she'd been holding steady against the current. And when she ducked underwater, it was less like she'd lost her strength, and more like she was trying to hide after being spotted. "She seemed fine. She was watching us."
"Watching us?" Bobby said. "In that water? You sure you saw somebody?"
Stuart supposed there was a chance it was an especially strange-looking fish.
"Maybe you're right," Stuart said. "Let's get going."
"Sure thing. Uh, how are you gonna explain losing your shoe?"
The last thing anybody needed was for Stuart's parents to raise a stink over his safety, especially when he was completely unharmed. Stuart shrugged elaborately. "Any ideas?"
The bus dropped the eighth grade class off at St. Anthony's Catholic School, where Stuart's mom was waiting in her car. In all, it had been a nice retreat. In addition to the hike, they had Mass at the picnic tables and broke into groups to do skits about various moral issues. Stuart's did one about sneaking into R-rated movies. And of course there were no classes whatsoever. It was a perfectly enjoyable day, even if he was no closer to getting Helena to notice him.
He stepped into the backseat, and his mom started the engine. "You're probably wondering why I'm barefoot," he said.
She glanced over her shoulder. "Actually, yeah. Something happen?"
"Well, we were on a hike, and my shoelaces got untied, so I'm just swinging my leg around, and I wind up flinging the shoe right off, right over a ledge, right into the river. All gone." Parts of that were true at least. The laces were undone, and he'd put off tying them. The shoe did fall into water. But the lie felt so flimsy, in spite of how much he and Bobby rehearsed it.
"Oh for the love of… Do you realize how much those shoes cost?"
"I'm sorry. The ledge was just closer than I thought, and I just don't know my own strength. I've still got those old Chucks—I can wear those."
"Those ratty old Chucks. Fine. Let them fall apart. If you want anything newer, you pay for it."
"Okay." Frankly, he preferred the Chuck Taylors anyway. They'd been his gym shoes all year, and were functional and comfortable. He wore penny loafers more often anyway.
"So you've been barefoot all day?" his mother said.
"Half the day. It actually wasn't that bad. Except on the gravel at the parking lot."
His mother sighed. "As long as they're still in one piece. Just take a shower when you get home, in case you picked up a tick."
Mom drove over the rolling hills of their neighborhood, and across the creek that cut through it, and pulled into the driveway and parked behind the house. There was a patch of trees past the backyard, with the creek just beyond them. While Mom went to unlock the door, Stuart touched the asphalt with his toe, and winced at the heat. He put his socks back on and hopped out of the car.
He found his mom frozen at the doorstep. "What is it?" he said.
She was staring down at his left shoe. Totally dry, totally clean.
Stuart and his mom looked at each other. It hardly needed to be said, but Stuart let it out anyway: "How'd that get there?"
Eventually Dad came home, and Stuart told him about his day, and after dinner, showed him the shoe that had so strangely reappeared at the doorstep. Dad crooked his eyebrow. "You're saying that fell into the river, and somehow found its way all the way here, all on its own?"
"It got here somehow," Stuart said. "Maybe it's a miracle?"
"Hm. Maybe," Dad said. "St. Anthony is the patron saint of lost items."
"I think that's a different St. Anthony, dear," Mom said. "I just can't believe the teachers let him go barefoot so long."
"At least everything turned out all right in the end. Maybe next time tie them in a double-knot."
Stuart rolled his eyes. "But then I'll never be able to untie them."
"Of course you can. And it's better than accidentally kicking them off. Next time, who knows? It might fly into the back of a garbage truck."
"Right." Stuart went to his room. While he gathered up some X-Men comics to read, he glanced out the window, where he could see the red and orange in the sky behind the trees. It would have been nice to have some clue how the shoe came back to him. Sure, someone could have found it downstream, and maybe even cleaned it. But how did they find out where he lived?
The shadows were getting thicker and blacker among the trees, but he could still see the shimmer of the creek.
A figure emerged from the water. A woman—or, no, a girl, not much older than Stuart—with slick hair and a damp dress. She stood waist-deep, and turned her eyes toward his house.
Turned toward him.
Her eyes were solid and dark, no whites. Her hair looked less like hair, more like water gently flowing off her head. Even her skin seemed more like crystal than regular skin. She was watching him, and raising her arm in a small wave. She was beckoning him. Inviting him. He couldn't take his eyes off her face.
It was the same face he had seen in the river.
Stuart shut the blinds. His heart pounded, much more harshly than when the only thing between him and death was a root. Strange women do not simply appear in creeks and invite young boys out into the dark. Should he tell Mom?
He peeked through the blinds. The girl was gone.
Or maybe she wasn't real at all.
Stuart sat on his bed and started reading some X-Men. The girl's face was the strangest and most captivating thing he'd ever seen. Even as far away as she was, he could tell she was beautiful. Possibly even more than Helena.
The next morning, after buttoning up his shirt and fastening his belt, he checked through the window again. No weird water girls this time.
There was, however, an old receipt stuck in the outside of the windowsill.
Stuart pulled it open, and caught the receipt just as it began to fly away in the wind. There was a message written on it, in lovingly crafted cursive:
My name is Melusine.
I'm glad you're all right.
I just wanted to make sure you got your shoe back.
Didn't mean to frighten you.
Meet me at the creek after sundown.
Stuart folded up the note and stuck it in his shirt pocket. So that was the person he had to thank. Melusine.
Second period was the boys' Gym class. Stuart met up with Bobby on the way to the locker room.
"So your mom buy our story?" Bobby asked.
"More or less," Stuart said, folding up the receipt and sticking it back in his pocket. He'd been rereading it yet again. "She was mad about the shoe, but… well…"
"What about it?"
"I'll show you. Just a sec." Stuart pushed open the locker room door, laid his bag on the bench, and pulled the zipper.
"What the hell?" Bobby said. "That's both of them."
"Yep." Stuart laid them aside and started unbuttoning his uniform shirt. He always wore a t-shirt underneath for Gym. "It was right at the back door when I got home. And…" And Bobby probably wouldn't believe a word about the weird water woman. "I dunno. Does the name Melusine mean anything to you?"
"Maybe it's Mellus-scene. But that's the name of the girl who returned it. Just wondering if you might know who she is."
Bobby shook his head. "Never heard of her. How'd she even know where to return it?"
"That's what I don't get," Stuart said. A girl like that could certainly have incredible powers he didn't begin to understand. On the other hand, she had been playing in the creek at sundown—something Stuart and his friends had done plenty of times before. "Maybe she lives in the neighborhood. Might have seen me wearing the shoes last weekend."
"But she would have had to be at the park, though," Bobby said. "Seems like a hell of a coincidence."
"I know, but…" Stuart tied the shoes on and rocked on his feet. "Y'know, these are pretty comfy. I guess Mom's right. Maybe it is time to get rid of those old Chucks."
Stuart swapped his loafers for the new shoes that evening, after dinner and after the stars began to appear. He'd waited at his bedroom window, watching the woods, thinking about Melusine's face. How gentle the curve of her cheek, how full her lips, what mystery hid within her dark eyes. Even at school, when he'd see Helena between classes, and even when he actually made eye contact with her during lunch, it was Melusine he thought about.
He saw Melusine's silhouette emerge from the water, and wasted no time running to the kitchen for a flashlight.
"Where are you off to?" Mom said as he put on the new shoes.
"Oh. There's… just… something going on at the creek. I thought I'd check it out. I'll be back in a little bit."
"But what's going on at—"
Stuart ran out and turned on his flashlight and dashed through the trees until the ground made a gentle dip. The light showed the water flowing past, and the girl standing in the middle of the creek, the hem of her skirt floating around her. Her skin wasn't just like crystal. Up close, she actually seemed to be made of water. She was still the most beautiful girl he'd ever seen.
"Y-You're Melusine?" Stuart said, his heart leaping at the sound of her name in his mouth.
"Yes I am. You even pronounced it right!" Melusine approached the creek bed. "You're wearing the shoes."
"Y-yeah, I appreciate it. B-but how?"
"How did I find it?" Melusine said. "Or how did I return it?"
"Both, I guess."
"Well, then…" Melusine moved through the water, somehow without moving her legs. As she rose up from the creek, and the hem of her skirt fell, it became clear that she didn't actually have legs. What she did have was a tail, itself seemingly made of liquid, and once her body was on dry land, her tail coiled up around her. "As you can probably tell, I'm not human."
Stuart couldn't say anything. All he could do was babble at the sight in front of him—the girl on top, the serpent's tail on the bottom. "Then what…?"
"I'm an Undine," Melusine said. "A water elemental. In essence, I am water, or at least, a personification of it. And I saw you at Audubon Park."
"I go there for peace and quiet sometimes. And yesterday, I happened to be there when you nearly fell in. I was prepared to catch you and wash you to safety, but then your friends pulled you up."
"Hm… Karen's not really so much a friend."
"Well, be that as it may, I did find your shoe."
"So… So how'd you get it back here?"
"A little alchemy. The right soils, the right metals. Once I was done, it told me where the shoe used to be. I wasn't expecting it to be right down the road from Mrs. Dale."
"Mrs. Dale? The piano teacher?" He passed by her piano-shaped sign every day on the way to and from school.
"I take lessons from her on Saturdays."
"You mean she—" Stuart hardly knew anyone more ordinary than Ms. Dale. "Someone like you?"
"She's a very open-minded woman. Plus…" Melusine shifted her weight, and the tail collapsed and splashed all around her. Left behind were two skinny but solid legs with bare feet. "I'm not usually wearing that to our lessons." She shifted her body again, and something like dye rippled over her skin, changing it to a tone that was pale, but more human. "I don't have to hide, necessarily."
Stuart couldn't stop staring into her eyes, which now had irises of aquatic green. "You're amazing."
Melusine started laughing. "Thanks. I never actually got your name."
"Oh. Uh, I guess you're right." He actually said "You're amazing" out loud? What was he thinking? "It's Stuart."
"Stuart. It's a pleasure to meet you, Stuart." Melusine sat down on the damp grass—not that she'd mind getting wet. "Can you stay and talk? I've only had a physical form a few years. I didn't have a childhood, and I don't know a lot of people my apparent age. And you seem nice, Stuart."
"Sure." Stuart took a seat beside her. "Anything you want, Melusine."
And they talked. He'd never hung out like this with a girl before, but Melusine never made him feel ill at ease. She was so eager for a conversation, and she seemed genuinely interested in whatever Stuart had to say, even when he was describing the X-Men storyline he'd been reading. Melusine, for her part, told her story, but Stuart wasn't sure he understood it, especially the part about the alchemist.
"An alchemist?" Stuart said. "Like, he can turn lead to gold?"
"That's part of it," Melusine said. "But it's also experimenting with the natural forces behind everything. Transmuting non-living matter into living. Perhaps even finding the secret to immortality. It's how I was given a physical form."
"But what were you before that?"
"I was just… water. I don't really know how to describe it. I just… existed."
Stuart tried to imagine just existing without a body, and the best he could imagine was just floating around in an empty space. "So… do you like being physical?" Stuart's cheeks burned—that sounded so stupid.
"I do. It's more limiting, but sometimes the sensations are so overwhelming, I can't imagine going without them ever again. And if I could become human…"
She looked pretty human to Stuart, at least right now. "Huh?"
"I told you, I'm not human. Just an imitation. I don't even have a soul. But if I marry a human, I can acquire a soul, and take a fully human form."
"If you… m-m-mar—"
"It's either that, or someone creates the Philosopher's Stone." Melusine tossed a pebble into the creek. "But both of those are such a longshot. No point worrying about it now."
"But if you could get married…"
"I have a little while to think about it," Melusine said. "I still have a lot to learn before I'll be—"
"Stuart!" His mother's voice rang out through the woods. "Where are you?"
Stuart shot to his feet and yelled back. "I'm at the creek!"
"Come back inside! It's too dark!"
Stuart groaned, then said to Melusine, "Look, I gotta go." And just when the conversation was getting good. "When can I see you again?"
"Well…" Melusine stroked her chin. "I have a piano recital tomorrow night, right over at Mrs. Dale's house. Starts at six."
"Oh yeah, I can make it. Sure thing."
"Great. It's been nice meeting you, Stuart. I'll see you tomorrow."
"Bye, Melusine." Stuart watched her wade back into the creek. When she reached the middle, she dissolved totally into liquid, dress and all, and joined together with the current. He turned his flashlight back on, and paced back toward his house. His mother was waiting by her car.
"There you are," she said. "What was so important you had to go back there?"
"Oh, nothing," Stuart said. "I just… There's…"
"You were in such a hurry, must have been a big deal."
"Well… Okay, so there's this new kid in the neighborhood." He supposed that was true enough. "Thought she'd want to hang out. You know she takes lessons from Mrs. Dale?"
"Aha." His mother walked him to the backdoor. "So she does, does she?"
Throughout that Friday school day, Melusine was the first and last thing on Stuart's mind. Everything he saw reminded him of her—the tropical fish mural in the entryway, the flowing dresses on some of the younger teachers, the snake in Mr. Caulder's classroom, the water fountains. During morning Mass, he prayed so intently that he could someday marry Melusine and make her human that he barely noticed when it was time for Communion.
He'd never felt so strongly about a girl before, even about Helena. He and Melusine were meant to be together. He just knew it.
Stuart stayed in his uniform after school, so he'd look nice for the recital, but put on the sneakers Melusine had reunited. He heated up some chicken nuggets in the fridge and kept his eye on the clock. As soon as five-thirty rolled around, he ran out the door, gathered some flowers out of the garden, and made a beeline straight for Mrs. Dale's house.
A young man about his age answered the door. "Can I help you?" He wore a black suit and had three small freckles in a line on his cheek.
"I'm, um, here for the recital."
"Right. Come in. I'm Cameron."
"Stuart." He shook Cameron's hand. "You another one of Mrs. Dale's students?"
"No, but a friend of mine is."
Stuart took a baby carrot off the vegetable platter. "Oh, same here. She's—"
"There she is! Melusine!"
And there she was, in her human guise, wearing a floral summer dress, with no hint that she might ever have had a snake's tail. A look of alarm spread on her face when she saw Cameron together with Stuart. She marched toward them.
"Stuart!" she said. "I, um, see you've met Cameron."
"Uh, yeah." Stuart's fingers tightened around his bundle of flowers. "So you two are friends?"
"Something like that," Melusine said. She turned her voice to a whisper. "Cameron is… You remember the alchemist I was telling you about?"
Cameron's eyes flashed in a glare.
"You're his son?"
"He is the alchemist."
Stuart stared at the boy with three freckles standing next to him. "You?"
"Mel," Cameron said, "you said you hardly told him anything."
"You're an alchemist?"
"My mother's the alchemist. I'm more of an apprentice. Melusine?"
"We can trust him," Melusine said. "All I've told him is that I'm a water elemental, and you're an alchemist. That's all."
"Is… is there a problem?" Stuart said.
"No, no…" Cameron rubbed his eyes. "I'm just… freaking out for no reason. Any friend of Melusine's a friend of mine. Now, about those flowers."
"Huh?" Stuart had nearly forgotten he was holding them. "They're…" He absent-mindedly held them forward, toward Melusine.
She sighed, and accepted them, and blushed. "Stuart… I…"
"They're from my mom's garden," Stuart muttered. "I hope you like them."
"They're lovely," Melusine said. "Let me just put them in a safe place. Thank you so much for coming, Stuart." She walked into another room, leaving Stuart in the corner with Cameron, who was unscrewing the lid from a Coke bottle.
"So you're really an alchemist," Stuart said.
"Right. I know I don't look like it, but…" He took a small flask from inside his coat and poured a drop into the Coke.
Stuart scanned the room. "What the hell? You're spiking it?"
"No. Just watch." Cameron pressed his finger on four points around the cup while muttering something in some ancient language. He then lifted and swirled the cup. In only a few seconds, the color of the Coke changed to a light pink. "Try it."
Cameron took an uneasy sip. "Lemonade. You turned Coke into lemonade."
"I'm also the one who first summoned Melusine out of the water. She's been like a sister to me ever since."
"Wow. Like a sister, huh?" Stuart sipped again from the first cup as Cameron transformed another cup of Coke into lemonade. "You know, when I first saw you, for a second I thought you might be her…"
Cameron swirled the second cup. "She doesn't have a boyfriend."
"She, um, told me if she ever got married…"
"Mother will never allow her."
Stuart took another look at Cameron. His hair seemed to cast a strange shade over his eyes. "She only tolerates this," Cameron said, gesturing toward the small crowd gathered for the recital, "because it doesn't risk turning Melusine human. Mother wants—needs her to stay an elemental."
"So… she's the controlling type, huh?" Stuart began to consider why Melusine didn't talk much about her home life.
"You have no idea. Plus from what Melusine's told me, all Mrs Dale knows is that Melusine's an Undine." Cameron dropped a hand on Stuart's shoulder. "Look, I'm saying this as someone who'd kinda like to be your friend. Keep your distance from Melusine. I don't know what Mother would do if she found out."
Stuart saw genuine fear in Cameron's eyes. "Am I in danger?"
"Not from me, and not from Melusine, but—Oh, I think they're starting."
Mrs. Dale stood on the opposite end of the living room and clapped her hands. Behind her was a baby grand piano, and to her side were her students—not just Melusine, but other children, from grade school to high school. Stuart and Cameron sat together in the back. Mrs. Dale introduced the program and the students. A pair of second-graders did a duet, a talented fourth grader ran through a Mozart rondo, and Melusine performed the entire Tempest sonata. Her music was as beautiful as the rest of her.
And now Stuart knew she wasn't just an elemental longing to become human. She was a prisoner, longing to break free.
After the recital, he and Cameron gathered with her on the back porch. "You were amazing," Stuart said.
Melusine sighed. "I'm just glad I don't have to play that thing again for a while. Um, Cameron, can I talk to Stuart alone for a minute?"
"Sure." Cameron went inside.
Stuart's heart ran a hundred-mile dash. This was the moment, he just knew it—this was when she'd return his profession of love, and they could start preparing for the future, whether Cameron's mother liked it or not.
"Listen, Stuart," Melusine said, and gazed over the backyard, and let out a weary sigh. "I'm flattered by the flowers and everything you've said. Really, I am. But… I don't know what kind of signals I gave out last night. This just isn't what I intended."
Stuart's racing heart fell into mud. "What do you mean?"
"Just this whole idea of… Look, we only just met last night. And now you're head over heels, and… and I'm just not ready to deal with that. I just wanted to make a new friend."
Then this was it—the "Let's be friends" speech. Last time he'd gotten this, it wasn't even from somebody he liked. It was from some girl in fourth grade who chased him around during recess, then suddenly sprang that on him. But hearing it from Melusine, after the feelings he'd been through today… "But if you get married…"
"Stuart, you're only, what, fourteen? Thirteen? And I've only had this form a few years. And again, we've only known each other a day. Neither of us can look that far in the future. Besides, if Cameron's mother finds out…"
"That's what this is really about, isn't it?" Stuart said. "Cameron's afraid of her, too. Well what's she gonna do to me? I'm only fourteen!"
"She's a powerful alchemist, and is the most petty and vindictive human being I've ever met. She would absolutely take a relationship as disloyalty and would punish both of us for it. So you're right, it is partly about her. I want to keep hanging out with you. I couldn't live with myself if anything happened to you because of me."
Stuart found an old question popping up again. "Am I in danger?"
"But I love you."
"I don't know that you do," Melusine said. She glanced at the screen door, where Cameron was knocking on the glass. She beckoned him out, asking Stuart, "Aren't there any girls at school you like?"
Every word she said left a new crack in Stuart's heart, with only a black void within. "I mean, there was Helena. But—"
Melusine held up her hand, and listened to something Cameron whispered in her ear. "Damn, we don't have much time. Stuart, you said her name was Helena?"
"Let me see that." She took Cameron's cup and touched it on various strategic points. "Take a sip."
"What'd you turn it into?"
"I didn't change the drink," Melusine said. "Just what it does."
Stuart took a sip. If it wasn't Dr. Pepper, it sure tasted like it. As it passed through his throat, he realized what a terrible idea it was to take a drink from them with no questions asked. They both wanted him to back off. What if this was poison, or something to erase his memory? What if it meant he'd never see Mom, or Dad, or Bobby, or Helena—
Her face appeared clear in his mind's eye—her brown eyes, her toothy grin, her ponytail. Only a few days ago she was the only thing he could think about. He'd been sharing a class with her since fifth grade, and only known Melusine what, twenty-two hours? And he'd already done more to express his feelings for this water elemental than an ordinary girl in his own class. Melusine was right. He didn't need to torture himself over her. Not when he had Helena to look forward to on Monday. Or heck, why even wait? "I should call Helena."
"Give it a shot," Melusine said. "I'll be rooting for you."
"Sure," Stuart said. "You guys let me know when you wanna hang out, okay?"
"I'll swim by when I do."
"Good meeting you," Cameron said. "And good luck."
"Thanks." Stuart strolled through the backyard toward the woods, and crossed past the neighbors backyards until he got to his house. It would be so simple to look up Helena's number, give her a call, ask her out to a movie. He'd already given Melusine flowers and told her he loved her. He could certainly just tell Helena he liked her.
Just as he reached his parents' property, he ran across two kids, a boy and a girl, standing by the creek. The girl's eyes met his. They seemed strangely cold for such a little girl. "Hello," she said.
"Hey," Stuart said. "You kids lost?"
"Oh, we're just checking on Melusine."
"Mother's worried about her," the boy said. "You go to her recital?"
Mother. The boy said it the same way as Cameron, with the solemnity of naming a dictator, and the loyalty of a person who served one.
"Who's Melusine?" Stuart said.
"Never mind," the girl said. "I'm sure she'll turn up."
Stuart made it to his backyard, and checked over his shoulder as he hopped onto the doorstep. The creepy twins were both gone without a trace. Wherever Melusine was, he hoped she was okay, and that whatever those two were planning, nobody was in any danger.
He opened the door, slipped out of his shoes, and swiped the cordless phone from the kitchen to take to his room.