Right around the time the Calypso Queen plunged from her balcony, Penelope was looking out from her own balcony. She wasn’t about to jump, nor had she thought about it. She was falling in a different way, killing herself slowly. She told herself time and time again that this was going to be the last bottle. She’d reach the end, feeling good about her dwindling need for another. But the final sips were never able to put her at ease, as last sips should. And once the warmth dissolved, there was no way to go about her day. So many moments were spent in a trance, thinking about that distant sweet smell of roasted poppy seeds—almost chocolaty. And getting a good night’s sleep? Forget it.
Still, no matter how badly Penelope craved the next bottle, once she had it in her possession, she would sit and stare for a good long while before taking that first pull. It was almost as if she had to convince herself that she could do it. She could control it. She even felt as though she didn’t want it. Then, the first sip would start the cycle all over again.
Throughout her lifetime, Penelope had heard from a handful of people that the ability to have a baby does not make one a mother. This is true. For far too long, she wasn’t a mother to Mac. She was just some woman who lay about most of the day, only sober between the hours of noon and two o’clock in the afternoon. Despite her good advice, and having been right about most things, Penelope’s own mother was an awful woman. She used to chase Penelope around the house with sheep shears, threatening to cut off her hair. She did once. Penelope promised herself that she was never going to be that kind of mother. But she turned into something worse. She was neglectful and conceited, and for reasons unknown to her, she still had people who loved her. For that, she would be eternally grateful.
As she looked out from the balcony at a beautiful day that was about to be wasted, someone knocked on her door. Clio was a loyal friend and a retired servant. Clio had known Otis since he was only a boy and had a heavy hand in his rearing. When Mac was born, she taught him many of the same life lessons and morals. She spent many of her waking hours in the castle, trying her best to conceal her resentment for the so-called suitors.
Their boorish manner and mindless vandalism of the castle bothered her thoughts even when she wasn’t around. Had she known how bad Penelope’s lust for laudanum had gotten, Clio would have smacked her sideways and tied her to her bed. There, Penelope would have remained until she had expunged that poison from her blood, until it didn’t cry out for more.
“Clio,” Penelope said. Her eyes were most lucid this time of day. Otherwise, Clio might have known something was wrong. “How are you? How have you been? Please, come in. Can I get you something to drink? Tea? Coffee?”
Clio tilted her head slightly before looking deep into Penelope’s eyes. It was a look Penelope would never forget. It was as if Clio didn’t recognize her—as if Clio had come to speak to Penelope, and the woman standing there was just some imposter.
“What is it?” Penelope asked, puzzled, and perhaps hostile as a result of her shame. Clio stepped in, hesitantly, leaving the door cracked behind her.
“What about him?” Penelope asked.
“My cousin. She works down at the docks. He saw Mac. About a month ago, he left with a Lost Boy crew. Apparently, he’s out looking for Otis.”
“That can’t be,” she said.
“I’m sorry I didn’t say something sooner. I just found out myself.”
“That can’t be,” Penelope repeated. “Can’t be. I just saw Mac.” She shuffled through her recent memories like a stack of playing cards. When she came to the realization that she hadn’t seen him in over a month and didn’t even know it, Penelope began to feel ill.
There is no greater love than the one a mother feels for her children. Motherhood is constantly changing. Even when all the right things are done at all the right times, most mothers will question and second-guess everything they do. It’s sacrifice; it’s heartbreak; it’s unconditional love. It’s rewarding and challenging all at once. It’s exhaustion from sleepless nights when she knows her child is hurting, and she’s helpless because there’s nothing she can do to make it better. It’s all those things and more. And, admittedly, it took Penelope much too long to learn all this.
When one thinks about what she’s willing to do to provide for her children and protect them—it’s almost animalistic. Mac was Penelope’s cub, but she was far from behaving like a mother bear. She burst into tears and buried herself into Clio’s loving arms. “It’s OK,” Clio said. “He’s gonna be fine. He’s a strong boy, like his daddy.”
“You’re right,” Penelope said, calming down. “We have to keep this a secret as best we can. Who else knows?”
“I’m not sure. I already told my cousin to keep quiet, and I trust him. But if anyone else knows, it’s just a matter of time before it spreads like fire.”
“Thank you, Clio,” she said. Penelope’s tears had finally subsided.
Out in the hallway, around a corner and well within earshot, Eury took a mental note of every word exchanged between the two. A satisfied smile laid claim to his face as he left before someone saw him eavesdropping.
Clio stayed with Penelope that day until dusk, refusing to leave until Penelope convinced her that she’d be OK alone, successfully hiding helplessness, shame, and a heavy heart. Penelope reached under her pillow for the fresh laudanum bottle she’d acquired that morning and carried it out to the balcony to catch the last few moments of sunset. It provided just enough light for her to watch the bottle fly upward from her hand before crashing into the calm sea below. It was the last time she’d ever touch a bottle of laudanum.
Several days away from Calypso Island, in one of the colder parts of the ocean, a large passenger ship traveled north on a predetermined route that would stop along several island chains. Ithaca was one of its ports. As they had been ordered to do, the Calypso Queen’s most trusted guards passed a message out to the Sea Witch using her network of trusted merpeople.
The Sea Witch slithered gracefully through the icy depths, lighting the black around her with an eerie turquoise hue. Bobbing her torso and tentacles to move forward, she looked up and caught a glimpse of a black ship with a red stripe running down its center.
“Otis.” She grinned, looked up, and shifted her trajectory to slant upward, stretching and spreading her tentacles behind her until they were one hundred times their original length. Keeping pace with little effort, she ran her fingers over a tiny spot on the bottom of the hull before endless locks of glowing tentacles groped over the rest. Each one, searching for weak spots, attached like a parasite and began digging into the soft dimples of the ship. As she rooted in further, the captain, who was about to go to bed, turned to his first mate. “Why are we stopped?” he asked.
Most of the ship’s occupants were asleep in their bunks or were in their rooms preparing for sleep. Only a handful lingered on deck. The adults were discussing how cold the water must be while the children made use of their visible breaths by pretending they were adults having a smoke. Suddenly, everyone stopped what they were doing and stood in silence, stoned by the glamour of the alien fluorescence glowing beneath the ship.
Once the Sea Witch’s outreached tentacles had completed their penetrative assault, she closed her eyes and began to twist them around. The ship moaned in pain. Moments later, the sound of cracking wood filled the air, only to be interrupted by the panicked screams of waking voices.
Angry tentacles sliced through each deck, sending the still-waking residents running in one direction, only to be met by another tentacle. She dissolved the ship. Bodies, beds, and splinters were all that remained in the frosty water. And she carried no more emotion about it than a god would feel by stepping on an anthill. These little mutants were ants as far as she was concerned.
She hurriedly searched through every man, killing each one she concluded not to be Otis with the swift strike of her tentacle. The women and children were left alone to freeze to death. All in all, there were one hundred and one souls on board who didn’t live to see the following day.
Enraged that none of them were Otis Seehus, as the Calypso Queen had promised her, the Sea Witch ran her fingers through the frost accumulating in her blond hair and calmed her nerves. This was no time to be irrational. Maybe he was supposed to be on board, but circumstances within or beyond his control hat kept him from boarding. Maybe he didn’t trust the Calypso Queen and didn’t want to fulfill travel arrangements she’d arranged for him.
“I wouldn’t trust her if I was him,” the Sea Witch said, casually glancing at a baby doll as it floated by. “What an ugly little doll.”
The Sea Witch floated away from the wreckage to a place less cluttered—a place where she could think. Keeping only her torso above the surface, she slid through the water and glanced up at the bright mixture of stars. There are only two main routes that can get him to Ithaca from Calypso Island. If he didn’t take this ship, does that mean he won’t be taking this route?
She ran her palms over her face once more, still gliding, still thinking. Steam poured from her skin and trailed like ghosts in her wake as she continued to drift farther from the shipwreck. “What to do? What to do?” She ran her rough tongue over her green teeth and licked her salty lips before lowering into the icy abyss.
The ocean can be a lonely place—the loneliest place. If you’re in it long enough, especially alone, it’ll do things to you. It’ll make you see things. It has no regard for your well-being. But truth be told, for the most part, it probably doesn’t even know you’re there. This makes it all the more terrifying how much of a stranglehold it’ll put on your emotions, especially fear—whether it’s fear of the unknown monsters lurking beneath the surface or that of the vast sky and its unpredictable weather. While the massive stars glisten across the slow-moving sky, seemingly spying for some entity that doesn’t have your best interests at heart, the vessel moans out, breaking the deafening silence and making your heart spike.
As the sun set on Otis and his stolen vessel, he hadn’t been able to shake the feeling that his current reality was actually a dream. He also pondered the thought that he had died and had entered some sort of afterlife or underworld, as current circumstances didn’t allow him to believe this was any sort of heaven.
Unable to sleep, he approached a large wooden wine barrel sitting in the central stern and grabbed a ladle resting on its lid. He raised the lid, plopped in the ladle, and shot back a large gulp. His bitter reaction should have kept him from drinking the rest. He never was much for wine. But he scooped out two more gulps before replacing the lid and going to his cot to lie down and look up at the open sky.
The Calypso Queen, he thought. What is she up to? And what, if anything, will she do when she finds out I wasn’t on that ship? Otis began to think about the people—the children—he saw getting on that ship. “Oh, no.” He felt a cold, remorseful shiver and closed his eyes. “What did she do to that ship?”
As the dawn sun turned the insides of Otis’s eyelids orange, he sat up and walked to the stern, popping a lid off a different barrel. This time, it was the water. He cupped a splash between his palms and rinsed his face. Beads ran down his beard and back into the barrel before he brought up another couple of handfuls. Digging his wet fingertips into his eyes, he felt the vessel come to a sudden stop.
The force brought him forward a few steps, but he remained on his feet, confused as he looked over the ship’s ledges and then the bow. Fifteen to twenty feet in front of the vessel, a thick cluster of blond locks rose through the water’s surface.
Otis was overcome with fright and curiosity, but he blushed as the smooth skin of her neck, shoulders, breasts, and abdomen followed behind the beautiful face of the Sea Witch. Once her waistline had barely broken the surface, she locked herself into place, holding his vessel still with her unseen tentacles.
“Hi there,” she said, her green teeth front and center.
“You’re not real,” Otis said, quickly convincing himself that this was indeed a dream.
“Sorry, love. But I am. Have been as long as they’ve been talking about me.”
“No. No. This is just a bad dream. You are just a dream.”
“That’s good,” she said. “This will be a lot more fun if you think you’re dreaming.”
“And why’s that?” he asked.
“If you think you’re dreaming, you might be able to actually convince yourself that you’re about to wake up. When you don’t, I’ll get the best fight I can out of the great Otis Seehus.”
“How do you know who I am?” he asked.
“Honey. I’ve been waiting for the queen to turn you loose for some time now. I can’t believe she actually did it.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about you, war hero. They can’t say I’m just a myth forever. One of these days, I’m going to kill enough of their heroes, and they’re going to know, once and for all, I was here. And I was real. And I was always better than the best of you.”
“Who’s they?” Otis asked.
“Who isn’t?” She sneered. “Why weren’t you on that ship? A lot of people had to die for you. I would have let at least half of them live had you been on there, where you were supposed to be.” Her words grew angrier. “You have any weapons on board?”
“Yeah,” he answered.
“Get them ready, war hero. Let’s see what all the hype’s about.”
Otis remained still, waiting for her to reveal something, anything, about her personality that he could use against her.
“Go on,” she said, reassuring him. “Get whatever you need, and do it fast because I’m not going to say it again.”
Otis gathered two swords, a bow, and several arrows before tapping the knot on the rope attached to his anchor. He raised a sword in each hand.
“OK, then,” she said. “Here we go.”
Several of her tentacles rose from under the water, swarming and swatting him. He batted them off with the razor-sharp swords, sending slices of tentacles and detached stingers about the deck. This didn’t anger her. She actually seemed somewhat amused, as her regenerative limbs replaced any that he happened to chop off.
“What else you got?” she asked, running her tongue over her mossy teeth. He picked up his bow and fired an arrow at her face. She caught it with her left hand. He fired another. She snagged it with her right.
“Oh, Otis. I don’t know if I’m shocked or disappointed that this is all you have to offer.”
Finally, Otis threw a lasso over her head, wrapping her torso and pulling her arms tight against her side. Still carrying a look of amusement, she let loose another smile and raised her dripping tentacles from the water and into the air. After a brief pause, she slammed them down on the deck, causing the vessel to burst in several spots, sending splinters into the air and provisions into the water. The vessel’s anchor slid between the jagged crevices of the deck and splashed in the water. Only then did she realize that the anchor was attached to the other end of the rope that Otis had used to wrangle her.
The anchor sank and jerked her down with such force that Otis had just enough time to get into position, hopping onto a wine barrel and praying that his timing would be flawless. Sinking rapidly, she used her tentacles to free herself from the lasso and swam back up with a fury. She saw Otis’s legs dangling in the water next to the large wine barrel. Suddenly, those dangling legs disappeared, shrouded by a growing purple cloud. As she came up for Otis, the sweet violet nectar filled her nostrils and made her eyelids go weak. She sank back down into the abyss with a grin affixed to her lips, and her tentacles retreated to their standard size.
Otis wrapped his arms around a nearby piece of the vessel and held his breath, only able to hope the wine had worked. He began to kick his legs away from the scene and spent the next few minutes percolating in the fear that she was going to yank him under. She never did. Through all the commotion, one of her tentacles had scraped a shallow flesh wound into his neck. He rubbed the painful mark with his right hand, causing the pain to grow worse with touch.
“Ow,” he said, weakening. He repositioned his arms and their grip on his floating chunk of debris. His vision grew blurry, then black.