Neela: The Blue Pearl

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Chapter 4

Neela had a new morning routine. She would get up as early as possible, fix her hair, slip on a flowy dress, spritz coconut body spray all over, and walk as fast as possible to the pier. Some mornings she would add the additional step of incorporating little decorative items into her hairdo. She had become quite fond of using her mother’s necklaces in this way. She would weave them into her hair so that tiny silver moons and stars streamed down from her creations like the ribbons of a dream catcher.

Cheveyo eagerly awaited her arrival every morning and looked forward to seeing her ever-changing creations.

On her off days, they would stay together from sunrise to sunset, exploring the island well beyond her driftwood boundary. On her work days, the two would talk for an hour or so, and then he would walk her nearly home in time for breakfast, kiss her hand, say goodbye for now, and remind her that he would be waiting at the pier after work. Her work days became a total blur. Every moment of her time away from him was spent fixed on thoughts of her time with him.

Delila and Mari missed their friend, but they could see that she was blissfully happy, so they graciously and temporarily faded into the background of her life. Delila spent most of her time chasing after her steel drummer, and Mari continued to occupy her time with romance novels and meditation.

Unlike the ladies, Henry stayed, fearful, in the foreground of Neela’s life. He watched Neela day after day dance around the house and for brief moments transform into her mother. He was conflicted on what was best for her. He had always secretly wanted more exploration to be a possibility for her, but an exploration of the heart wasn’t what he’d had in mind. He thought it much more dangerous than most adventures she could pursue. His worry consumed his daily thoughts and prevented his nightly rest.

Henry always missed his wife—her laugh, kindness, smell—but at this point in his life, he missed her wisdom most of all. Every night he talked aloud in hopes that she could hear him from wherever she may be and intervene. One early morning when sleep evaded him, he started to feel the presence of true hopelessness.

“I’ll tell ya, life hasn’t got any easier without ya, hon. I wish you could be here to see Neela; she’s so beautiful and kind, just like you and Nika. She needs you both more than ever. She’s got herself mixed up with this… well… I don’t know what… and I’m just damn terrified that I’m gon’ lose her too—”

“Grandpa?”

“I’m at the kitchen table, Neela.”

“Are you talking to someone?”

“Your grandma.”

“Are you okay?”

He cleared his throat and struggled to keep the tears that filled his eyes from spilling out onto his face. She felt around for the other chair at the table. She held the back of the chair with one hand and located the table’s edge with the other. She gauged the distance between them, adjusted the chair, and then slid into her seat. Once settled, she placed her hands on the tabletop. She could feel pictures scattered about. She couldn’t see the images but knew the faces Henry would want to see.

“Grandpa, really, are you okay?”

“Not exactly.” He continued to fight back tears, only noticeable to her through his delay in response and a rarely heard fragility to his voice.

“What’s going on?”

“Ya know, this is tough for an old goat. All I want in this world is for you to be happy and safe, but it seems like I can’t have both.”

She didn’t know what to say, so she sat quietly. She could hear him shuffle through the photographs until he settled on one. He described it to her as his most cherished memory. She knew it must have been the photo that he used to keep in his wallet. The one that he had recently transferred to his makeshift keepsake box to ensure that his lifestyle didn’t eventually destroy it.

She could only vaguely remember the image of the photograph, that of her grandmother holding her mother as a small child. However, she could vividly remember how her grandfather used to hold it most nights before he went to sleep, the sound of his thumb rubbing back and forth across its crinkled surface, and the grief-stricken expression on his face. She was somewhat relieved that she could no longer see that expression, but she could still hear the same pain and desperation in his voice that was once visible on his face.

“After they died, my heart was broken all to hell. I thought the ache would kill me. But you gave me a reason to push on. I know I haven’t been perfect, but I have done everything I know to do to keep you safe—”

“I’m going to be okay, Grandpa.”

“DAMMIT NEELA, you’re too young to be all wrapped up like this, AND you’re too smart not to know this will come to a bad end.”

Neela started to cry.

“I’m sorry. I should’ve said it different. I just need to know that you understand the risk you’re takin’ givin’ everythin’ of yourself to a boy that probably won’t stick around here much after the summer.”

She continued to cry.

“Do you hear me, Neela?”

“Yes, sir,” she mumbled through her tears.

Her submissive tone generated immediate guilt within Henry. He didn’t want to hurt her. He wanted to protect her. He reached over to pat her hand that rested on the tabletop. She quickly swiped her hand back to prevent contact.

“Nika, you have to listen to me!”

“I’m not Nika!”

“What?”

“You said Nika. I’m not Nika.”

“No, of course not, I don’t know why I said that.”

“You have to stop doing this, Grandpa; I’m not my mother.”

“I know that, but I let things be before, and I lost everything.”

“You can’t keep bad things from happening without preventing all the good things too. I want to experience life the way you used to.”

“Adventures are over for me. I needed to be here for you.”

“Maybe that was true at one point, but now you’re in the place you’re in because you want to be. They wouldn’t want you so miserable the rest of your life.”

“I know that; I just miss them so much.”

“You used to tell me that we’re all connected through life and that no one ever really leaves you completely. But you have to live, REALLY live, to feel that connection again, Grandpa. They’re not gone, they’re just in a different place.”

He laughed softly as he dimly remembered sharing that belief with her when she was a young girl.

“How did you get so wise?” he asked.

“I have a very wise grandpa.”

They stood up from the table and held each other tightly. He stroked her hair gently, as he tended to do. She reached behind her head and grabbed his large, coarse hand. She pulled it down in front of her, held it firmly with both of her hands, and then patted the top of it. He felt comforted and somehow relieved by her mature gesture. He could hear the agonizing beeps of her alarm clock that had been going off in the distance for some time now. He knew she must have heard it during their conversation and chosen to ignore it for his sake. He didn’t want to be the reason she missed out on anything in life. To Neela’s surprise, he offered to turn off her alarm and encouraged her to go to the pier just as she was.

“Just go, have some adventure!” he said.

She smiled brilliantly and reassured him that she would be careful. In this moment, it occurred to him that he may have sheltered her from too much. After all, taking risks and seeking adventure had given Henry the love of his life, the home in his heart, and many, many treasured memories. Maybe Neela’s risks would do the same for her, he hoped at this point, anyway.

He opened the back door, handed Neela her cane, and held the storm door open for her with his back. He stayed in the doorway and watched his little girl transform into a young woman that was hurrying down the beach in her pajama dress, which, in all honesty, wasn’t that much of a deviation from her daytime look. Henry wasn’t completely ready to let her go, but he knew he had to ease up if he wanted her to be happy. She had found some adventure in this life, and it was time for him to get back to finding some of his own.

She reached the pier in record time. Cheveyo was waiting on her. He noticed right away that something was different about her.

“Are you okay?” he asked as he reached out his hands for her.

“I’m having some adventure,” she said as she flashed a coy smile.

She reached her hand up to his face, ran her finger across his full lips, and pulled him toward her. They both quivered in anticipation as their lips met for the first time. They kissed slowly, eyes closed. She held his face gently and he her waist securely. The wind swirled around them as they melted into one another. It was an experience that was better than she had imagined and one he had strongly desired since first sight of her. They detached ever so slightly.

“I love you, Neela.”

“I love you too.”

“You have no idea how badly I have wanted to hear you say that, but it worries me,” Cheveyo explained.

“Why?”

“I really should not be with someone like you.”

“Someone with a visual impairment?”

“No, of course not.”

“Then what is it?”

Cheveyo didn’t answer.

“If it’s the impairment, just say so. It’s okay, it scares people, I know that.”

“Who does it scare?”

“Boys. They always seem a little bothered by it.”

“I do not understand why humans do this to each other.”

“What?”

“Judge differences, assign less value, and treat one another horribly.”

“You said ‘humans,’ though.”

“I just meant people.”

“You think you haven’t done that by telling me that you shouldn’t be with me?”

“That was not my intention.”

“Then what is it? Why should you not be with me?”

“It is difficult to explain, and it is why I stayed away before.”

She pulled away from him a bit more, separating herself from him entirely, and turned to walk home. She jumped down from the pier onto the sand and began stabbing her cane into the ground rather than with her usual swiping motion.

“Please wait!” he pleaded.

Neela stopped. Her feet were planted in the sand and her hand was firmly locked on the top of her cane. She swiftly pivoted back toward Cheveyo. The wind picked up and heavy clouds began to move in.

“I should’ve listened to my grandpa. He told me this would end badly.”

“It is not what you think.”

She turned back around to continue to walk home.

He walked shortly behind her. He tried not to grab her arm as he had done before, even though he felt desperate for her to stay. She continued to stab the sand as she stomped her way back to the cottage.

Drained of the earlier enthusiasm that had fueled her journey to the pier, the walk home seemed to Neela to take forever.

“Please talk to me, Neela!”

“No, thank you!”

“Please, Neela.”

She continued on and refused to respond. All of her energy went into holding back the anger that was welling up inside her. She wanted to scream into the universe that life had become acutely unbearable.

“I have had good reason for everything—what I said, the disappearing, even the sound on the pier!” he yelled out.

She suddenly stopped and pivoted around again.

“What about the sound on the pier?” she asked angrily.

“It was water, just not a natural wave, as I led you to believe.”

“I knew you were lying! Weaving that web of yours has become a full-time job for you.”

“No! I want to tell you the truth, but—”

“I’m listening!”

“It is really complicated; I would rather show you.”

“That’s not funny. Show me? Really, Cheveyo?”

“Yes. I think I have a way to show you, but you have to promise not to run away or tell anyone about it.”

“Oh my God, are you married? A serial killer? A married serial killer? I should’ve listened to Delila.”

“No, you know I am not. Please come with me so I can show you.”

She thought about how much it would break Henry’s heart if something happened to her and refused Cheveyo’s request for accompaniment. She couldn’t stand the thought of hurting her grandfather any more than he had already been hurt by loss. “If you can’t show me right here, then just forget about it; I’m not going anywhere with you.”

“I am afraid you might have a strong reaction and draw attention to us.”

“I might.”

“It looks like we are the only people on the beach, but there are always spectators somewhere in the distance.”

“Cheveyo, I am quite literally walking out of your life—now or never!”

She turned to walk away and was halted by his grasp around her left arm once more. This time she didn’t pull away or tell him to let go—she couldn’t. She was paralyzed. A surge of what felt like electricity traveled from his hand through her left arm and then spread all over her body. He pulled her in close to hide her reaction within their embrace. Her eyes flickered furiously as her mind was bombarded with blankets of colors that unfolded rapidly toward her.

A bright white light appeared in the center of the ever-changing tapestry of color and grew until it created a strikingly blank canvas. A small, frozen image appeared in the center of the canvas and grew in size until it filled her mind’s eye. The image thawed, movement began, and a scene emerged.

It was of a man floating in the ocean under the early morning sun, not too far from the shoreline. He looked as though he belonged in the sea, with his unnaturally smooth skin and uninhibited nature. He drifted alone at first and then was joined by a few others that varied in gender and skin tone. They had many similarities to the man. They, too, had a wild quality about them and incredibly smooth skin that lent them to an aquatic life. They also had long, free-flowing tresses like the man, but with differing patterns of braids woven against their scalps. The scene was completely without sound, but the interactions within the group supported a strong unity between members. One by one, the others left the group and disappeared under the surface of the sea.

The beautifully wild man was alone once more. In the distance, there was an old but sturdy pier that drew his eye. He swam barely beneath the surface in the direction of the structure. There was a young woman sitting on the side of the pier casually swinging her legs back and forth. The man watched the woman entertain herself and then swam to the end of the pier. The sea slowly rose up underneath him, carrying him above the handrail. The woman sat oblivious to his presence.

Suddenly, the man jumped from the water, exposing a peculiar lower body. It reminded Neela of an octopus, which she had seen in picture books as a child. It was comparable but much more earthy and much less whimsical than the images she could recall. During his leap and before he landed on the pier, his many appendages were reduced to two, which then transformed into human legs. The collapse of the water that carried him crashed into the pier. His human feet landed solidly on the pier, creating a thud.

Cheveyo released her arm, and the imagery immediately stopped. He guided her from her cane to the ground and positioned her next to him on the sand. Exhausted, he leaned against her for support. It had started to rain, but the two were unaware of the changed weather conditions. She felt a stinging sensation where he had gripped her arm. She ran her fingers over the area. Several narrow and intertwining welts began to form at the contact site. She sat stunned, fixated on the welts. She traced them repeatedly and felt a strange familiarity about the wounds.

“What was that?” she said, still dizzy with confusion.

Cheveyo struggled to find the energy to speak. “I am sorry if I hurt you. I have never tried that on a human before.”

“Human?”

“Do you understand what I have shared with you, Neela?”

“I don’t think so, not fully.”

“I know it was probably overwhelming.”

“What was that?”

“I will try to explain, but first, promise me that you will stay.”

“I promise. Now tell me, how did you do that?”

“I am an Ojigong.”

“A what?”

“We are what humans might think of as merpeople.”

“Are you trying to tell me that you’re a freggin’ merman now?”

“Yes and no.”

Neela was furious but remained silent.

Cheveyo tried to explain further. “I am not a merman; I was trying to give you something to compare us to. We are actually quite different beings—”

“That’s it! I’ve heard enough of this!” Neela shoved him off of her and pulled herself up by her cane, which still stood erect in the sand behind them. She tugged on the cane but found it difficult to remove.

“Wait! You said you would stay,” Cheveyo reminded her.

He tried to get up but was unable to rise. He was frantic to find words that would keep her from running away.

She continued to yank on her cane.

“You told me that people leave you in the dark. I lived in darkness before I met you and will again without you.”

It wasn’t exactly the same thing, but she couldn’t tolerate the thought of someone living in darkness, even if it was just metaphorical. She was angry and confused, but still drawn to him and very much wanted to care for him in his weakened state. She was pretty sure it wasn’t the smart thing to do and uncertain if it was the right thing to do, but she wasn’t going to leave him there alone like that. She temporarily abandoned her struggle for her cane and somewhat begrudgingly sat down next to him.

“Why are you doing this to me, Cheveyo?”

“Please just let me explain.”

“I’m not sure you can—this is insane!”

“Please, Neela.”

“Fine.”

“What I shared with you, it is similar to a memory. At times it will look like you are seeing it through my eyes and other times like you are watching the scene play out as a third party, like a movie.”

“I get it. It’s like scenes from different angles. I don’t really care about what perspective the images came from; I don’t understand how you could show them to me to begin with and what they are supposed to mean.”

“I showed you the images to try to explain what I am and how I become human so that I can spend time with you.”

“I just can’t imagine this to be true.”

“I thought your imagination would help you to believe me.”

“I can’t wrap my head around this.”

“I cannot prove it any further right now. I need some rest, but if you wait with me, I can let you feel the real me, out in the water.”

“I don’t want to go far out in the water with you.”

“I would not ask that of you. If you would just walk back to the pier with me after I rest a moment, I can transition in some of the fairly shallow water underneath.”

“You sound awful, Cheveyo.”

“I am weak, but I will be fine after I rest.”

“I don’t know what to believe, but I hate to hear you like this.”

She pulled him close to her and gently laid his head in her lap. She stroked his head and ran her fingers through his long hair.

“I need to prove to you that I am as I say I am.”

“What can I do to help you?”

“I need my eye drops.”

“Where are they?”

“They were in my pocket.”

She felt strongly she would be able to recognize the shape of the container, having had to constantly put drops in her own eyes since childhood. She searched his pockets.

“They’re not there, but I have drops at my house. I can go get them.”

“No. Thank you, but they will not help. They are not like your eye drops.”

“What are they?”

“They were given to me by the Boogolli. They keep me from losing my sight while on land.”

“What’s the Boogolli?”

“It is difficult to explain.”

“What does he do?”

“They are not a he or a she the way humans define it. They are just a being that has lived an exceptionally long time and has gained an immense amount of wisdom.”

She wasn’t sure she wanted to hear much more information on the subject. The more Cheveyo spoke, the more anxious she became. She channeled her anxiety into a resumed search for the drops in the surrounding area. She brushed the sand out of her path with each hand as she crawled away from him. After some time, unable to find the drops, she became frustrated. She stopped searching and sat down to rest. She was fatigued and jittery all at the same time. It was a terribly uncomfortable feeling for her. She silently hoped she could refocus long enough to find the drops.

She went to get up and pressed her hand down on a small object. She exhumed the item from the sand and examined it quickly. It was a small glass bottle of an unfamiliar shape. She crawled back to him, tried to clean off the bottle as best she could, and placed it in his hand. “Is this something?” she asked.

He felt immediate relief from his instant recognition of the bottle. His sight had started to decline during her search, and he feared he would quickly be in the dark. He put a few drops in each eye as he lay flat on the sand. The drops soothed the dry ache and restored his sight.

Cheveyo sat up a little, reached out to Neela, and caressed her face.

“Thank you,” he whispered.

She leaned against his side. They provided support for one another to rest more easily. The rain had stopped, but there were still strong winds and heavy clouds in the area. They rested in the sand together for the next few hours. They both silently contemplated what might become of life after their walk to the pier. Neela was uncertain whether to hope for proof of human or Ojigong form at this point.

“Are you ready?” he asked.

“I guess.”

Neela was almost totally consumed by her fear, but she pushed on, stood up, and was able to help Cheveyo up as well. He took a few steps back and removed her cane from the sand with some difficulty.

She used her cane more for support as they walked than navigation. She depended on the cane, and he depended on her. While they staggered toward the pier, she hoped that somehow time would stop and/or rewind back to their first kiss. That way she could go back to rational, reasonable, normal fears of him breaking up with her or abruptly returning home—you know, some standard, brilliantly regular place that existed on dry land.

Unfortunately for Neela, time moved only forward, and she found herself under the pier before she was ready. She spiked her cane into the sand and continued to hold onto it for support. They stood together quietly and listened to the sound of the water drawing in and out. The feeling of the water running over her feet brought her almost to a panic. Cheveyo gently pulled her away from her cane. He held onto her hands loosely.

“Will you come with me?” he asked.

She was resistant.

“I really need to show you.”

“I’m scared.”

“I know, but this has to happen.”

“I’d rather go back to sitting on the sand together and just pretend you never said anything; is that an option?”

“You need to know that you can trust that what I have told you is the truth.”

“Okay… but hurry, before I change my mind.”

He carefully guided her forward. She squeezed his hands tightly. He stopped when the water was just above her waist.

“Do you have your balance?” he asked.

“I’m okay.”

He gently released her hands and backed away from her.

“It will not take long,” he reassured her.

She braced herself. There was no way to mentally prepare for… whatever the outcome, but she tried to calm herself with a few deep breaths. She felt a rush of warm water move through her legs, and then his hand reached out to her again.

She was hesitant but curious. She moved in closer. He guided her hand to his face. His face felt mostly unchanged. She moved her hand lower. His chest had an area of raised skin in a formation that felt intentional in its pattern but unrecognizable to her. She couldn’t recall if it had been there all along, but she told herself that it had. She told herself that everything was still as it was and that soon Cheveyo would reveal that this was a joke and then apologize for the poor taste of it all.

She moved her hand a little lower. Hope depleted as she noticed a sort of slickness to his skin while she perused his abdomen. She couldn’t ignore the foreign texture that seemed to only intensify the further she explored his body. He lowered her hand, with some pressure applied to encourage her to continue despite her reservations. She could feel the base of his appendages and then a separation and expansion of them beneath him. She methodically examined one. He swiftly maneuvered another behind her to create a seat for her comfort. She sat on the middle of the U-shaped appendage the way you would in a swing and continued the examination of his true and fascinating form. In this position, they drifted out a little farther than they had initially intended, but still managed to stay underneath the long pier.

“Am I scaring you?” Cheveyo asked.

“No, but I’m a little scared of sharks. I don’t know if it’s safe to be out this far.”

Cheveyo let out a guttural laugh and explained that sharks wouldn’t dream of invading the territory of an Ojigong.

She seemed more uneasy to him at that.

He asked again, “Are you sure I have not scared you?”

“No—surprisingly, no. I’m not scared of you. You feel kind of incredible, actually. I’ve never felt anything like it,” she said as she continued to caress him.

He pulled her in closer to him. She stroked his face and ran her fingers through his hair. She felt that his ears were a little less pronounced and his hair was braided up against his head on one side. She ran her fingers down his braid and pulled some of his hair that flowed behind him forward to his chest.

“You still feel like you, though.”

He leaned down to kiss her. The sweet sting of his lips radiated warmth throughout her body.

“Now, that’s a little different,” she said with a smile.

“You are my blue pearl. Such a rare find,” he said as he stroked her collarbone and kissed her again. “I do not want to leave you, but I will need some rest if we are to be together tomorrow.”

She was overwhelmed by her mind and body’s reaction to his new form and couldn’t find any words to reply.

“Let me get you home. We can meet here in the morning if you like.”

She held on tightly around his neck and felt a surge of energy as he carried her to the water’s edge. She felt a great amount of strength and speed in his new form. He helped her to stand with his appendages in a way that felt strange but abundantly helpful. Once she was steady on her feet, she realized that she had been gone for most of the day and worried what grief this must have caused Henry. She felt another surge of warm water cross her feet and believed Cheveyo may have been trying to transition in order to take her home.

She quickly spoke up. “You can stay in the water. I’ll be fine. I need to go check on my grandfather, but I’ll be back tomorrow.”

“At sunup?”

“I’ll be a little later than usual, but I’ll be here as soon as I can,” she said as she walked out of the water.

“Till then, my blue pearl,” he whispered to himself as he watched her hurry away.

He watched her until she was out of sight.

Back at the cottage, her grandfather was in an unexpectedly delightful mood. He was cooking an early dinner for the two of them and didn’t seem at all bothered by the duration of her outing.

“That must have been some adventure today! You’re soaked,” Henry said as she entered through the back door.

“I’m going to go change and come back for dinner. It smells amazing.”

Neela quickly dried off and searched for clean pajamas. She ran through multiple scenarios in her mind of how dinner was going to go. She wanted to tell her grandfather about Cheveyo. He believed in King Azul—maybe he would want to hear about the Ojigong, or maybe he would want confirmation that he was right, and manlike creatures of the sea did exist. Cheveyo had asked that she not share his true form with anyone, but did that include Henry…? She played with the idea of telling the truth as she walked to the dinner table. She was still undecided by the time she took her first bite.

“So how was it?” Henry asked.

“It’s delicious.”

“No, not how is it, how was it…?”

“Oh, my adventure today. It was pretty good.”

“That’s it? You’ve been gone all day, and it was pret-ty-good?”

“Well, we enjoyed the storm together, and then Cheveyo took me out in the ocean.”

“In a boat?”

“No… he is kind of teaching me how to swim a little bit.”

“You know how to swim.”

“Yeah, but I don’t swim in the ocean anymore.”

“He didn’t have ya far out there, did he?”

“No, we stayed in shallow waters.”

“Good. Hopefully he will keep to the shallow waters, if he knows what’s good for him.”

“Yup, I’m sure he will,” she reassured Henry quickly as she slurped up more spaghetti.

“I had some adventure myself today.” Henry said with a mischievous tone.

Neela exhaled deeply and internally thanked God that he’d decided to change topics, as she didn’t want to destroy his rarely present good mood with the truth.

“Your friend Mari came by lookin’ for ya. Seems like I’m not the only one noticin’ that you spend all your time with that Chevron boy.”

Neela noticed the butchering of her love’s name. However, she knew that Henry was probably intentionally trying to get a rise out of her. If she gave him a reaction, it might derail the conversation to a very unpleasant space, so she ignored it as best she could.

“I didn’t realize she was worried. She seemed happy for me last we spoke.”

“Oh, and she is, she just wanted to check on ya is all. Then we got to talkin’, and she invited me to meditate with her on the beach.”

“Well, did you?”

“I used to meditate all the time. Took me forever to find my groove, but I went.”

“That’s awesome!”

“I had forgot how much I used to love to meditate.”

“What happened after that?”

“We talked about all sorts of things—religion, books, movies, loved ones—next thing ya know, we talked at the coffee shop in town, then walked with our coffees to the market, and, well, time got away from us, I suppose. I just got home a little while ago and thought, why not go ahead and start dinner, with all my treasures from the market?”

“You did have a little adventure of your own today.”

“Yup.”

“Good for you, Grandpa.”

“Did ya know that Mari likes Rumi?”

“Yes, I most definitely did. She quotes him all the time.”

“I told her about our little spat this mornin’, and she told me a Rumi quote I hadn’t heard in years.”

“What was it?”

“What?”

“The quote?”

“Oh, how did it go, um… ‘Raise your words, not your voice. The rain grows the flowers, not the thunder’… somethin’ like that.”

“Oh, I just love that.”

“Me too.”

“So are you gonna see Mari again?”

“I don’t know about all that.”

“No, you’re right, you just spent the whole day together, probably don’t have anything in common,” Neela said sarcastically.

“I’m sure she has real sophisticated types around. She don’t need this old goat crampin’ her style.”

“I don’t know… You both have this, like, old hippie way about you.”

“I don’t know if I like how ya say ‘old,’ or ‘hippie,’ but I’ll have you know that the hippie scene was a gas, baby, and your grandpa was one groovy cat, man.”

Neela laughed at him and started to clear the table. He continued to rattle off slang terms from a different time until he was abruptly distracted by Neela’s arm.

“What in the hell?”

She covered her arm where Cheveyo had touched her and struggled to find a good explanation.

“Oh, I got stung by a jellyfish. I forgot to tell you.”

“Move your hand, let me see it,” Henry said sternly.

She reluctantly removed her hand and exposed the welts. Henry gasped, then trembled as he tried to steady himself in the chair next to her. He said nothing while he traced the wounds.

She tried to assure him that she was okay and that it probably looked worse than it felt.

“I know sure enough what this is, and it was no jellyfish.” Henry took her hand to his face and ran it across his scar above his left eye.

“Do you remember the story?”

“Yeah, the king of the merpeople, or whatever, blinded you, flung everyone else overboard, I remember,” Neela said flippantly.

“Yeah, but what I didn’t tell you was those fellas he flung overboard washed up a few weeks later. What was left of their bloated bodies had distinct patterns of welts all over them.”

Neela was a little shaken by Henry’s reveal and didn’t know what to say. Cheveyo seemed so kind and protective of her, so different from Henry’s description of the king. She wanted so badly to defend Cheveyo’s kind, but she knew that Henry wasn’t in the right headspace for that.

“I hate that for them, I really do, that sounds awful, but it wasn’t any sea king that gave me these marks, it was a jellyfish.”

Henry was skeptical.

“I promise, that’s all it was! I really am fine.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes, Grandpa, I’m sure.”

“Well, be careful out there, Neela.”

“Okay, I will.”

She excused herself to her bedroom and was thankful that she’d been able to exit a conversation that may have eventually forced her into devastating revelations. She climbed into bed early, with what little energy she had left, and quickly fell asleep. The setting of her dreams would from then on be an amalgamation of her early visual memories, her imagination, and tidbits of the images transferred from Cheveyo.

This night, she found herself sitting on a very familiar pier, watching Cheveyo swim in the waters beneath her. His muscular upper body was beautifully sun-kissed and his lower half, when visible, continually changed colors. Other Ojigong came to the surface to meet her. They looked as they had in the transference, but she was able to explore their appearance more fully in her dreams. They were untamed and uncategorized. They were truly free, without all the divisive labels that weigh most humans down on earth. She wanted to be just as unencumbered as they seemed to be. She longed to swim with them, but just before she could jump in from the pier, her alarm went off.

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