Ruby doesn’t like the lake.
Everyone else likes it fine, including her sister, Dip. It’s her favorite part of their property. When they were kids, she told Ruby it was actually the eye of an ancient, enormous crow, and that one day it would wake, shake their house and the forest off its back, and fly away.
That freaked kid-Ruby out. Teenager-Ruby still finds it creepy, but it’s not why she won’t go near the water.
Her entire life, Ruby has known that something lives in the lake. She’s never seen it, but she’s felt its fingers brush her ankle. She’s felt its gaze.
She should’ve talked to her parents about it. They’re researchers. Their field is magic. They’d know what to do about an evil thing hiding in the lake.
But she never did, and now she’s standing on the dock in a taxicab-yellow two-piece with goggles around her neck, frozen in fear.
“Just go,” she mutters. “There’s nothing there. Nothing but the lily. Just dive in.”
Her legs are calling bullshit. They aren’t moving. But something in the lake knows she’ll give in. The air trembles.
Ruby wishes she could hate Dip for this, but it’s in poor taste to hate a dying girl.
That morning, Dip had leaned in through Ruby’s bedroom window. The noon sun made her curly hair glow around her plump face.
“Wake up, lazy!” she said. “I’ve been up for hours, I’m bored without you, and we only have ten days of summer left.”
“Ten days of sleep, you mean.” Ruby turned onto her stomach and buried her face in the pillow.
Dip toppled through the window onto Ruby’s back. Ruby oofed. Dip somersaulted onto the floor and disappeared from view. She popped up at Ruby’s bedside and flashed her Come on, Ruby, let’s have an adventure smile. Ruby had never been able to deny that smile, and Dip knew it.
“Come on. We’re about to embark on our senior year,” she said with a grand sweep of her arms. “We’ll be graduating. We’ll be leaving.” Dip’s smile faltered. Before Ruby could say never, the smile revived, full-force. “I just want to go to the forest.”
The forest behind the lake. They’d explored it countless times, and always found a new secret. They discovered the colony of pixies by the stream in middle school. Every autumn, Dip led Ruby to a tree wrapped in honeysuckle that, when eaten, gave them helpless, breathless giggles.
So of course Ruby always agreed to Dip’s ideas. She wasn’t just the runaway Ruby’s parents took in when the girls were ten. She was Ruby’s best friend, her partner in crime, her sister. At school, Ruby was one of a few Asian kids. Dip wasn’t that much better off, being one of a slightly larger number of black kids, but she still punched the bullies who thought Ruby, the fat Japanese girl, would be an easy target.
They’d gone from Massachusetts to the depths of Fairy together. Getting up early on a lazy summer day to go to the forest was nothing compared to following Dip down the rabbit hole.
“OK,” Ruby said. “But we can’t stay out too late. I can’t take another interrogation from Mrs. Mathison.” Their nearest neighbor had been paying more attention to the girls than Ruby liked. What if Mrs. Mathison noticed that their parents weren’t just absent, as they often were when research called, but gone? What if she realized they were unlikely to come back?
“Everything will be fine,” Dip said. She crossed her heart to seal the deal.
A breeze too chilly for summer blows off the lake. Goosebumps rise along Ruby’s skin.
She closes her eyes and sees Dip in her bed. Ruby’s Dip was all vibrant color. She loved wearing oranges and yellows and reds and couldn’t be persuaded to wear anything “boring.”
It got them caught, once. In sixth grade, they accompanied their parents to northern Wisconsin and got snowed in. Dip convinced Ruby to sneak out early one morning to find the snow creatures their parents came to study, but instead of the white coats their parents bought just for this trip, Dip insisted on wearing her usual carrot-orange parka. They didn’t get within yards of the burrows without being spotted by scouts. Luckily, the snow creatures were harmless.
Ruby’s Dip was that Dip, the one in the impractical orange coat laughing as snow squirrels dance around her feet. The one beckoning her closer, saying, Ruby, come play with us!
The Dip back at the house is washed out. Her warm brown skin has gone pale, a yellow sneaker lost somewhere in the forest. Her brown eyes haven’t opened for hours.
There’s no time.
When they had stepped into the forest earlier that day, Dip had paused, closing her eyes.
“Shh!” Her eyes opened, and she ran off. Dip had a natural sense for magic, better than anyone Ruby knew. Their mother thought Dip’s magic came from the same place as her hair, which was white as stars. Mom said her hair was likely “a limited mutation caused by fetal magical interference.” Dip called it “weird magic shit.”
Ruby’s magic sense, on the other hand, was below average — literally. There were tests for these things. Blood tests. A device like the black-light wands in CSI that highlighted traces of magic. Practical tests, like “turn on this light with your mind” or “re-shelve those books, also with your mind.”
Ruby couldn’t even move a pencil.
As such, their adventures generally consisted of Dip catching wind of magic and running off, with Ruby left to chase her and stumble into whatever trouble she found.
It never occurred to Ruby not to follow.
When Ruby caught up, Dip was on her hands and knees, digging into the earth near the edge of the lake. She’d already gone past the topsoil.
“What the hell?”
Dip paused in her search to smile at Ruby. Her this is gonna be cool smile. “Come on,” she said. “Help me out here.”
They dug until dirt was caked under their fingernails. They unearthed a box. A plain thing, with rusted clasps and warped wood. Dip started to open it.
“Wait!” Ruby said, catching her arm. “Maybe you shouldn’t. You don’t even know what it is.”
“Nope!” Dip said. She lowered her voice, and spoke conspiratorially. “Treasure, do you think? Or a time capsule? Maybe some secret letters, or a still-beating heart?” When Ruby didn’t laugh, her voice turned gentle. “Ruby, it’s the forest. It would never hurt us.”
Ruby wanted to say, You trust magic too much. You always have. You don’t even see the evil in the lake. The forest has never hurt us before, but it could.
But she didn’t say it.
Dip opened the box.
Inside was a flower made of stiff dark cloth. It had circles of triangular petals, like a water lily.
If Ruby knew anything about magic, it was that everything has some sort of hidden meaning, even flowers. Later, while ripping through her parents’ study for clues, she looked up water lilies. They signified “purity of heart.”
Dip smiled a far-away smile, and stroked the lily.
Ruby wouldn’t ever forget the way Dip stiffened, or the choking sound she made when she fell to the ground, convulsing. Ruby heard herself screaming Dip’s name like it wasn’t really her, like it was someone else, in some other forest. She’d read what to do if someone was having a seizure, but she couldn’t remember all of it, and some of the rules were contradictory. Was she supposed to hold her down? Was she supposed to back up, give her space? Was she supposed to put a belt in her mouth to keep her from biting off her tongue, or, no, that was old-fashioned, wasn’t it, that would hurt her—
There was no time.
Picking Dip up and running to the house was a blur. Ruby was a big girl and she was strong but not exceptionally so, and god, this always looked so much easier in the movies. The run was hard, painful. She kept having to stop, drag her sister through the grass. She’d never wished so badly for her parents to be home again. They would know what to do. But they’d never returned from their expedition at the start of summer to the Black Forest. All Dip had was Ruby, and Ruby wasn’t sure she was enough.
The chill wind returns, circles Ruby, pushes her closer to the lake. She takes a few halting steps forward. Ruby thinks she sees movement out of the corner of her eye, ripples in the water, but when she looks, there’s nothing.
Last year, Dip convinced Ruby to sneak out of the house late at night. The moon is full, Dip said, and if you dive into the reflection of the full moon, you’ll have good luck all month.
Ruby had never heard that superstition, but Dip knew these things. Ruby followed, thinking Dip was referring to Mrs. Mathison’s pool. Not the lake.
I can’t, Ruby said. She didn’t blame Dip for bringing her there, or for giving her a perplexed look when she froze at the edge of the dock. Ruby never told anyone about what she felt in the lake, not even Dip.
What’s wrong? Come on! The moon’s in just the right position.
Dip raced ahead. Ruby convinced herself she was being stupid and followed. She watched Dip jump, watched as she plunged through the reflection of the full moon. She watched the moon disappear into ripples.
She watched without breath, because there was something reaching up to the dock and touching her ankle.
Not there not there not there, she whispered as she waited for Dip to surface.
Ruby ran as Dip’s white hair broke through the water. She was gone before Dip could call for her. Dip never asked what happened.
Now Dip was dying, and Ruby couldn’t run away.
She closes her eyes and tries to believe.
Ruby was so drained by the time she had gotten to the house that she barely got Dip into her bed, but she did. She covered Dip with a blanket. She didn’t know what else to do. Her heart pounded from the run and she couldn’t catch her breath, but she couldn’t stand still, couldn’t rest.
She had to find out what was wrong with Dip.
She scrambled down the hall to her parents’ study. The box was old, the water lily magic, and it was in their own backyard. Her parents had to know about it. There had to be notes. A cure.
Ruby was thankful, for once, for all the deals she’d made with her mother. Ten dollars to transcribe notes; a spell in exchange for dusting the artifacts; her pick for movie night if she reorganized the files. She knew their system by heart. There was a whole filing cabinet on Phenomena: Local — anything to do with the forest, lake, and surrounding areas would be in there.
She paused, hesitant to touch the pristine files with her still-muddy hands. Her parents would kill her.
Her parents weren’t there, might never be there again. Dip was dying, and there was no time, and what did some dirt matter anyway, god, why did Ruby always have the stupidest thoughts under pressure?
She opened the bottom drawer. Her fingers ran across them and dirt fell into the folders, smeared across tabs. She brushed a folder marked Serendipitous Greene.
Ruby knew it was there, of course, and knew why. A strange, magical little girl had showed up at their house one day. Her parents loved Dip, but they’d studied her, too, at first. The little black girl with the white hair and ability to make dying flowers thrive, to make stars a little brighter, to make the rain end a little sooner.
Ruby felt sick thinking about the early days, when Dip first arrived, when their parents ran all those tests and had to be reminded that it was getting late and Dip should be asleep. They got a little out of hand when there was interesting magic to be understood. They didn’t mean to.
Excuses, all of it, and their parents had spent seven years trying to make up for it.
It was never quite enough.
No time for this.
There was one slim folder for the lake, and Ruby had never opened it. Even in the times she’d most convinced herself that there couldn’t be anything in the lake, she couldn’t open the file. She was afraid it would answer all of her questions, confirm all of the doubts in the shadows of her mind.
She was afraid it would tell her there were no answers at all.
No time, no time.
She opened the file.
There were only two pages, and the top one contained a sketch of a water lily alongside typed notes.
Ruby read. Her heart started to beat slower, louder, like when time slows down in a movie.
Dip was dying.
The lily in the box was a curse. It was never meant to be dug up or handled. It had spells on it to ensure that the magic within couldn’t be sensed. The box was intended to sit deep in the earth, protecting something nearby. A real water lily that amplified magic and life force. Not the sort of thing you wanted in the wrong hands.
Ruby’s family had lived by the lake for generations. It was her great-great grandmother, Chiyo, who hid the real lily at the lake’s bottom and constructed the curse.
Ruby knew about Chiyo. There was a portrait of her in the living room. Ruby used to push a chair against the wall so she could stand nose-to-nose with her. Chiyo was a powerful witch, world-renowned, but more importantly to Ruby, Chiyo was fat. Ruby grew up with a skinny mother and aunts and cousins. Skinny, far as the eye could see.
Whoever painted Chiyo didn’t shy away from detailing her double chin or the tiny, pale stretch marks on her thick arms. Her cocked eyebrow dared anyone to come at her.
She was strong.
Ruby wanted her strength. She liked to think she had a little of it.
But she didn’t have Chiyo’s magic, couldn’t have hid the lily or cast the curse. It was a nasty curse, too. The lily amplified life force, and the curse took it away.
Dip’s life was draining out of her, right into the real lily.
A petal from that lily was the only thing that could save her.
So fucking simple.
So fucking hard.
How was she supposed to get it without being cursed herself? Even though the cloth lily had been unearthed, it still protected its living twin. There wasn’t anything in the notes, so she flipped the paper over. But first she saw the other page in the folder.
Another sketch. The whole page was shaded dark, and in the depths, something long and curved waited. Something with razor teeth. Something with intelligent eyes.
The eyes that had always watched her.
For a moment, the whole world went blurry-faded-dark. Ruby fell back, caught herself with her hands against the floor. Her weight hit one wrist too hard, but the sharp pain cleared her head.
no time no time no time
Ruby tried not to think about how her parents had to know this thing was in the lake, and if they were so damn good at magic, shouldn’t they have known it wanted their daughter?
Breathing heavily, she examined the back of the water lily page. There were more notes, and they told her how to get the real lily — how to touch it without being cursed. It was a list:
- a heart filled with light and great need
- a heart willing to sacrifice
- a heart
Rules. Rules, and qualifications, and puzzles, and restrictions, that’s all magic was. Dip called it “balance.” Ruby called it “ridiculous.”
But for once, the balance worked in Ruby’s favor. She considered herself someone good — someone with light in her heart. She was in great need.
Dip was in great need.
She was willing to sacrifice.
The last line just said “a heart”. She didn’t know what else it was supposed to say, but she had two out of three. It would have to be enough.
Why did it have to be this lake?
Ruby closes her eyes and thinks of Dip in her bed, losing her life. Dip wouldn’t hesitate. Dip would already be halfway down.
Ruby’s toes curl against the dock, and her fingers curl around a vial of seaweed-green potion that will let her breathe underwater for a few hours. She and Dip had snuck some from the study when they were eleven and used it to show off at the public pool. They made bets with the other kids and won them by staying underwater for two minutes, three, five, ten. They came home with an empty vial and backpacks full of dollar bills and candy.
Dip never minded the consequences. She thought adventures and memories were always worth it.
“For Dip,” Ruby whispers.
She knocks back the potion like a shot, snaps her goggles over her eyes, and runs. Her feet thud on the dock. She hears splashing alongside her, as though her progress is being followed.
and for a fraction of a
she is suspended in air,
As she passes through the surface, Ruby feels slime on her skin. Algae, or maybe she really is in a crow’s eye.
Her long black hair hangs above her, suspended in murky water.
The water is cool, but not freezing. It would be bearable in any other lake.
She resurfaces, panting. The potion can take a few moments to work, and it hasn’t kicked in yet.
no time no time
The thing with the razor teeth and intelligent eyes is riled up by her presence.
Are those fingernails brushing against her ankle?
She dives. She kicks furiously, makes her way deeper and deeper.
She can see, but not well. She can’t see whatever is watching her. She knows it’s there. Why won’t it just take her? What is it waiting for?
She never thought the lake was this deep.
Her arms and legs are tired, but at least her lungs don’t burn.
The glow of white petals, of a water lily rooted at the bottom of the lake.
She reaches for it.
Strong arms snake around her waist and pull her back. Webbed hands spread over her stomach. She kicks and her feet meet something hard. Slick. Scaled.
She feels the brush of lips on her temple.
“Quiet,” says a woman’s voice in her ear, like the whisper of water falling from cupped hands. “Calm.” One hand strokes her hair. Ruby’s too scared to move. “There’s nothing to be frightened of.”
Ruby tries to talk, but the potion’s power doesn’t extend that far. Only bubbles emerge. The woman laughs.
“Would you like to talk?” she asks. Ruby nods.
The woman turns her around, and for the first time, Ruby sees the presence that has watched her all her life.
She’s a mermaid, or something like it. Her body is dark and striped and scaled. Long, nearly translucent night-sky fins line the outside of her arms and the back of her tail, which is just as thick as her torso. Her eyes are golden, and her black hair trails up so far into the water that Ruby wonders how she doesn’t get tangled in it.
The mermaid presses her fingers to her lips, and then to Ruby’s.
“Speak,” she says.
“Who are you?” Ruby asks.
“You couldn’t pronounce my name, darling, but I took to calling myself Chantal some time ago.” She laughs.
Ruby doesn’t join in, but Chantal isn’t bothered. “It’s a bit of an inside joke, I suppose.”
“Oh,” Ruby says.
“It’s OK. You wouldn’t know the mythology. I know your French and history grades have never been the best. You’re more of a math and science girl, aren’t you?”
“How could you possibly know my grades?”
Chantal waves a hand. “Oh, all the creatures in this lake answer to me. I talk to a fish, they talk to a turtle, they talk to a spider, the spiders watch you. There’s always spiders around, my love, and they’re always reporting back to me. I’ve been watching you for a long time.” She places a hand on Ruby’s cheek. “I suppose you don’t remember this, but we’ve met before.”
“I think I would remember that,” Ruby says.
“You were very small.” Chantal begins to circle her, tail dragging across Ruby’s legs. “You were playing on my dock. I saw you, and loved you instantly.”
“Like a sister,” Chantal says. “Like a child. A friend. A lover. I loved you in every way someone can love.”
Chantal smiles, and Ruby can’t name it like she can name all of Dip’s smiles, but it looks something like possession.
“People can’t normally see me. I’m too much a part of the water. I am the water. They see the lake, not me. But you saw me. You reached for me.” Then, in Ruby’s ear. “And you fell.”
Chantal turns away, and Ruby glances towards the water lily. There’s
“Your mother was in the front yard. Your father in Nigeria. Little Serendipitous Greene was seven years away.”
Ruby starts to pull herself in small strokes towards the lily.
“Your little lungs weren’t going to hold out for long.”
“Your mother saw you fall. She ran.”
“I wanted to keep you then, but she wouldn’t let me.”
Chantal appears in front of Ruby, and, with a smile, reveals a mouth of tiny, sharp teeth. “No, no, dear. Not yet.” Chantal wraps her arms around Ruby again. “You’re stubborn, like your mother. She saved you, you know, with her tempting words. Now I only see you through the spiders, or when that girl you call sister brings you close.”
“My mother never told me anything about this.”
“Oh, she wouldn’t have, sweetheart. The day she saved you, I bound her from ever speaking of me or what happened,” Chantal says. “I couldn’t risk that you’d grow up hearing stories that warned you away from my lake. And now you’re here. With me.”
“Please. I can’t stay. Dip needs me.”
“I need you. That’s why I made sure you’d come to me.”
Ruby pushes away from her, and Chantal lets her. “Wait— did you hurt Dip?”
“Oh, please.” Chantal rolls her eyes. “You aren’t that naive. You and that girl stomp around the forest all the time, and she only just noticed the box? No. Such things must be arranged.”
The fear deep in Ruby’s chest is giving way to anger. It spreads through her, makes her fingers tingle.
“I just boosted the magic’s signal a little,” Chantal says. “Made it easier for her to find.”
“Because, my tadpole, I know your path. My spiders have seen it. You were going to leave me.”
“You never had me,” Ruby spits.
“Close enough,” Chantal says, her voice turned harsh. “But your parents have been gone too long, and others are starting to notice. They’re planning to take you and your sister away. I have no quarrel with them taking her, but they will not have you.”
Ruby’s whole body goes cold. She’s wondered, of course, how long two teenagers could keep living in that house unnoticed. Her parents were smart with money, and they always paid off the bills for months in advance, especially when they were leaving on a trip. The house has been in the family for ages. Ruby’s only a couple of months away from eighteen.
No one had said anything.
She had thought they were going to make it.
“But it’s OK, now, Ruby, dearest,” Chantal says. “You’re here with me. You can stay, and you’ll be safe.”
“Doesn’t matter. Not like you do.”
Ruby almost shouts, No one matters like Dip! but she suspects Chantal wouldn’t be impressed. Anger won’t get her out of this.
“I can’t live underwater,” Ruby says, stalling. “I have that pesky human lung thing.”
“Ruby. Come on.” Chantal spreads out her arms. “I’m the mistress here. I’m the water. I’m the flora and fauna. Bypassing a need to breathe is easy as anything.”
What would Dip do? They got into magical trouble all the damn time. There were rules and loopholes and Dip always knew the solutions.
What did Chantal say?
Your mother saved you with her tempting words.
What did that mean?
“Oh,” Chantal whispers. “Look.” She grips Ruby’s arm, vise-tight, and points to the water lily. “It’s brighter, don’t you think?”
It is. It’s shining like a tiny star now.
“That’s Dip, in there.”
Dip could make the stars a little brighter. Their mom once made a deal with her — If you tell me how you do that, no curfew for a week. Ruby always took Mom’s deals, but Dip was a better haggler. She bargained her way into a month.
Your mother saved you with her tempting words.
“What did my mother give you?” Ruby asks.
“In exchange for me. What did she give you?”
“An IOU.” Chantal purses her lips. “Not enough. You’d think I could get whatever I want for her only child, you’d think it would put me in a good bargaining position, but she has magic, too. It’s nearly as strong as mine, and when you factor in the adrenaline from seeing you in danger, well. But still, an IOU from a witch of her caliber isn’t a bad deal. Unless she really is dead.”
“Would you deal with me?” Ruby asks. “For Dip’s life. For letting me take the water lily back to her and save her life, would you make a deal?”
Chantal considers Ruby. “You love her.”
“In every way someone can love,” Ruby says. Looking at the lily makes her eyes hurt, like staring at the sun.
“What would I get in this deal?”
“What do you want?”
Chantal shifts in front of her, blocking her view of the lily. “You have to come back. Not immediately. I’ll be generous. If I let you take that lily and cure her, you will come back to me in one year. One year with her, forever with me. Fair?”
It isn’t fair at all. Ruby swallows hard, and thinks of Dip, and magic numbers. “Five years,” she says.
Chantal smiles. “Three. Final offer. If you don’t take it, Dip dies, and you stay here anyway.”
Three years could be enough. Maybe she doesn’t have to come back. Maybe they can find a way around the deal. Dip is brilliant. She’ll know what to do. They’ll go to the Black Forest, find their parents, and figure out a loophole.
If they can’t…
“Deal,” Ruby says. She holds out her hand. Chantal takes it, pulls her in, and places a tender kiss on her cheek.
“And, of course, I’ll need some collateral.” Chantal presses a hand against Ruby’s chest, and at first, nothing happens.
Then her hand sinks in.
Ruby tries to scream, but she can’t. It doesn’t hurt, exactly, having her heart removed. It’s more like the way your stomach leaps into your chest when going down a sudden drop, the way, for a moment, you’re empty. Only worse. Only a million times worse.
Ruby’s beating heart rests in Chantal’s hand. It doesn’t bleed. With every beat, it glows a gentle star-white. “Don’t worry. I’ve left a convincing double in its place, but it has an expiration date of — can you guess?”
“Three years,” Ruby whispers.
“Good job. Now, if I were you, I’d swim before I change my mind.”
Ruby doesn’t need to be told twice. With a pit in her chest, she dives for the water lily. She touches it, and a single petal releases. When Ruby turns, Chantal is gone — at least from sight.
Ruby swims, hard as she can. Back through the darkness. Back through the eye. Onto the grass and mud, and she runs.
She doesn’t stop until she gets to Dip.
Despite the fact that Ruby couldn’t stop herself from holding the petal too hard, it remains perfect and intact. Magic. She rubs it across Dip’s forehead. It glows, brighter and brighter, until Ruby can’t stand to look at it.
Then it’s gone.
Ruby expected Dip to just wake up — a miracle, proof that magic was good for something.
But no. Dip continues to sleep, for seven days and seven nights.
Less of a miracle, more of a fairy tale.
The pit where her heart used to be grows deeper and darker with every day that Dip doesn’t wake up, with every day that Ruby has to think Was I too late?
She drags the living room recliner into Dip’s room. All Ruby can do is watch and wait.
She tries not to think about the deal, or about her heart at the bottom of the lake.
She stops checking her own pulse, which is off by half a beat.
At the dawn of the eighth day, Ruby wakes in the recliner to Dip’s soft moaning and stirring. Dip’s eyes flutter open. A smile forms on her face that reminds Ruby why she could spend eternity with Chantal if it meant a little more time with Dip.
Ruby knows, as Dip reaches for her, as she says, “I’m guessing you have a hell of a story for me,” that she can deal with it. She can deal with being watched from the depth’s of a crow’s eye. She can deal with the uncertainty, with the fear, with three years of potentially hopeless research, with Chantal holding her heart.