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The tail of emily windsn.., p.1
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       The Tail of Emily Windsnap, p.1

           Liz Kessler
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The Tail of Emily Windsnap

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or, if real, are used fictitiously.

  Text copyright © 2003 by Liz Kessler

  Illustrations copyright © 2003 by Sarah Gibb

  First published in Great Britain in 2003 by Orion Children’s Books a division of the Orion Publishing Group

  Published by arrangement with Orion Children’s Books

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, transmitted, or stored in an information retrieval system in any form or by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, taping, and recording, without prior written permission from the publisher.

  First electronic edition 2010

  The Library of Congress has cataloged the hardcover edition as follows:

  Kessler, Liz.

  The tail of Emily Windsnap / by Liz Kessler ;

  illustrated by Sarah Gibb. — 1st U.S. ed.

  p. cm.

  Summary: After finally convincing her mother that she should take swimming lessons, twelve-year-old Emily discovers a terrible and wonderful secret about herself that opens up a whole new world.

  ISBN 978-0-7636-2483-5 (hardcover)

  [1. Mermaids — Fiction. 2. Swimming — Fiction. 3. Houseboats — Fiction. 4. Neptune (Roman deity) — Fiction.] I. Gibb, Sarah, ill. II. Title.

  PZ7.K4842Tai 2004

  [Fic] — dc22 2003065284

  ISBN 978-0-7636-2811-6 (paperback)

  ISBN 978-0-7636-5240-1 (electronic)

  Candlewick Press

  99 Dover Street

  Somerville, Massachusetts 02144

  visit us at

  Can you keep a secret?

  Everybody has secrets, of course, but mine’s different, and it’s kind of weird. Sometimes I even have nightmares that people will find out about it and lock me up in a zoo or a scientist’s laboratory.

  It all started in seventh-grade swim class, on the first Wednesday afternoon at my new school. I was really looking forward to it. Mom hates swimming, and she always used to change the subject when I asked her why I couldn’t learn.

  “But we live on a boat!” I’d say (we actually do). “We’re surrounded by water!”

  “You’re not getting me in that water,” she’d reply. “Just look at all the pollution. You know what it’s like when the day cruises have been through here. Now stop arguing, and come and help me with the vegetables.”

  She had kept me out of swimming lessons all the way through grade school, saying it was unhealthy. “All those bodies mixing in the same water.” She’d shudder. “That’s not for us, thank you very much.”

  And each time I asked her, that would be that: End of Discussion. But the summer before I started middle school, I finally wore her down. “All right, all right,” she sighed. “I give in. Just don’t start trying to get me in there with you.”

  I’d never been in the ocean. I’d never even had a bath. Hey, I’m not dirty or anything — I do take a shower every night. But there isn’t enough room for a bathtub on the boat, so never in my life had I been totally immersed in water.

  Until the first Wednesday afternoon of seventh grade.

  Mom bought me a special new bag to carry my new bathing suit and towel. On the side, it had a picture of a woman doing the crawl. I looked at the picture and dreamed about winning Olympic races with a striped racing suit and blue goggles just like hers.

  Only it didn’t happen quite like that.

  When we got to the pool, a man with a whistle and white shorts and a red T-shirt told the girls to go change in one room and the boys in the other.

  I changed quickly in the corner. I didn’t want anyone to see my skinny body. My legs are like sticks, and they’re usually covered in scabs and bruises from getting on and off The King of the Sea. That’s our boat. I admit it’s kind of a fancy name for a little houseboat with moldy ropes, peeling paint, and beds the width of a ruler. . . . Anyway. We usually just call it King.

  Julia Cross smiled at me as she put her clothes in her locker. “I like your suit,” she said. It’s just plain black with a white stripe across the middle.

  “I like your cap,” I said, and smiled back as she squashed her hair into her tight, pink swimming cap. I squeezed my ponytail into mine. I usually wear my hair loose; Mom made me put it in a scrunchie today. My hair is mousy brown and used to be short, but I’m growing it out right now. It’s a bit longer than shoulder length so far.

  Julia and I sit next to each other sometimes. We’re not best friends. Sharon Matterson used to be my best friend, but she went to St. Mary’s. I’m at Brightport Junior High. Julia’s the only person here that I might want to be best friends with. But I think she really wants to be best friends with Mandy Rushton. They hang out together between classes.

  I don’t mind. Not really. Except when I can’t find my way to the cafeteria — or to some of the classes. At those moments, it might be nice to have someone to get lost with. Brightport Junior High is about ten times bigger than my elementary school. It’s like an enormous maze, with millions of boys and girls who all seem to know what they’re doing.

  “You coming, Julia?” Mandy Rushton stood between us with her back to me. She gave me a quick look over her shoulder, then whispered something in Julia’s ear and laughed. Julia didn’t look up as they passed me.

  Mandy lives on the pier, like me, only not on a boat. Her parents run the video arcade, and they’ve got an apartment above it. We used to be pretty good friends until last year. That’s when I accidentally told my mom — who told Mandy’s mom — that Mandy had showed me how to win free games on the PinWizard machine. I didn’t mean to get her in trouble but — well, let’s just say I’m not exactly welcome in the arcade anymore. In fact, she hasn’t spoken to me since.

  And now we’ve ended up in the same swim class at Brightport Junior High. Fabulous. As if starting a new school the size of a city isn’t bad enough.

  I finished getting ready and hurried out.

  “Okay, listen up, 7C,” the man with the whistle said. He told us to call him Bob. “Any of you kids totally confident to swim on your own?”

  “Of course we can — we’re not babies!” Mandy sneered under her breath.

  Bob turned to face her. “Okay, then. Do you want to start us off? Let’s see what you can do.”

  Mandy stepped toward the pool. She stuck her thumb in her mouth. “Ooh, look at me. I’m a baby. I can’t swim!” Then she dropped herself sideways into the water. Her thumb still in her mouth, she pretended to keep slipping under as she did this really over-the-top doggy paddle across the pool.

  Half the class was in hysterics by the time she reached the end.

  Bob wasn’t. His face had reddened. “Do you think that’s funny? Get out! NOW!” he shouted. Mandy pulled herself out and grinned as she bowed to the class.

  “That was completely out of order,” Bob said as he handed her a towel. “Now I’m afraid you get to sit on the side and watch the others.”

  “What?” Mandy stopped grinning. “That’s not fair! What did I do?”

  Bob turned his back on her. “We’ll start again. Who’s happy to swim confidently and sensibly?”

  About three-fourths of the class raised their hands. I was desperate to get in the pool but didn’t dare put mine up. Not after that.

  “All right.” Bob nodded at them. “You can get in if you want — but walk down to the shallow end.”

  He turned to the rest of us. We were lined up shivering by the side of the pool. “You guys will be with me. Let’s go grab some kickboards.”

  After he turned his head away, I snuck in with the group making th
eir way down to the shallow end. I’d never swum before, so I shouldn’t have, but I couldn’t help myself. I just knew I could do it. And the water looked so beautiful lying there, still and calm, as though it were holding its breath, waiting for someone to jump in and set it alive with splashes and ripples.

  There were five big steps that led gradually into the water. I stepped onto the first one, and warm water tickled over my toes. Another step and the water wobbled over my knees. Two more, then I pushed myself into the water.

  I ducked my head under, reaching wide with my arms. As I held my breath and swam deeper, the silence of the water surrounded me and called to me, drawing my body through its creamy calm. It was as if I’d found a new home.

  “Now THAT is more like it!” Bob shouted when I came up for air. “You’re a natural!”

  Then he turned back to the others, who were squinting and staring at me with open mouths. Mandy’s eyes fired hatred at me as Bob said, “That’s what I’d like to see you all doing by the end of the term.”

  But then it happened.

  One minute, I was skimming along like a flying fish. The next, my legs suddenly seized up. It felt as though somebody had glued my thighs together and strapped a splint on my shins! I tried to smile up at the teacher as I paddled to the side, but my legs had turned to a block of stone. I couldn’t feel my knees, my feet, my toes. What was happening?

  A second later, and I almost went under completely. I screamed, getting a mouthful of water. Bob shouted to everyone to stay put and dove in, in his shorts and T-shirt, and swam over to me.

  “It’s my legs,” I gasped. “I can’t feel them!”

  He cupped my chin in his big hand and began a powerful backstroke to bring us back over to the side. “Don’t worry,” he said. “It’s just a cramp. Happens to everyone.”

  We reached the big steps at the side of the pool and climbed onto the top one. As soon as I was halfway out of the water, the weird feeling started to go away.

  “Let’s have a look at those legs.” Bob lifted me up onto the side of the pool. “Can you lift your left one?” I did.

  “And your right?” Easy.

  “Any pain?”

  “It’s gone now,” I said.

  “Just a cramp, then. Why don’t you rest here for a few minutes? Get in again when you’re ready?”

  I nodded, and he went back to the others.

  But the truth was, I’d felt something that he hadn’t seen. And I’d seen something he hadn’t felt. And I didn’t have a clue what it was, but I knew one thing for sure — you wouldn’t get me back in that pool for a million dollars.

  I sat by the side for a long time. Eventually the whole rest of the class got in and started splashing around. Even Mandy was allowed back in. But I didn’t want to sit too near those guys in case I got splashed and it happened again. I was even nervous when I went home after school — what if I fell off the pier and into the sea?

  The boat docks are all along one side of the pier. There are three other boats besides King tied up at ours: one seriously done-up white speedboat and a couple of bigger yachts. None of the other boats has people living on it, though.

  An old plank of wood stretches across to get you from the dock to the boat. Mom used to carry me over it when I was little, but I’ve been doing it on my own for ages now. Only just then I somehow couldn’t. I called out to Mom.

  “I can’t get across,” I shouted when she came up from below deck.

  She had a towel wrapped around her head and a satin robe on. “I’m getting ready for book group.”

  I stood frozen on the dock. Around me, the boats melted into a wobbly mass of masts and tackle. I stared at King. The mast rocked with the boat, the wooden deck shiny with sea spray. My eyes blurred as I focused on the row of portholes along the side of the boat, the thin metal bar running around the edge. “I’m scared,” I said.

  So Mom pulled the dressing-gown cord tighter around her waist and reached her skinny arm out to me. “Come on, sweetie, let’s go.”

  When I had made it across, she grabbed me and gave me a hug. “Dingbat,” she said, ruffling my hair. Then she went back inside to finish up.

  Mom’s always going to some group or another. Last year it was yoga; now it’s book group. She works at the secondhand bookstore on the promenade, and that’s where the group meets. It’s pretty cool, actually. At the store, they just opened a café bar where you can get thick milk shakes with pieces of real fruit or big chunks of chocolate chip cookie dough in them. I imagine the book group is just her latest excuse to meet up and gossip with her friends — but at least it keeps her focused on something other than me.

  Mystic Millie, who does Palms on the Pier, comes to stay with me when Mom’s out. Not that I need a baby-sitter at my age, but Millie’s okay. Sometimes she’ll practice her reiki or shiatsu massage on me. She even brought her tarot cards once. Apparently they told her that I was about to achieve academic success and win praise from all quarters. The next day, I got the lowest grade in the class on the spelling test and was given three lunchtime detentions to do extra study. But that’s Millie for you.

  Luckily, Millie’s two favorite shows were back-to-back on NBC Wednesdays, so I knew she wouldn’t bother me tonight. I wanted to be left alone, because I needed time to think. There were two things I knew for sure. One: I had to figure out what had happened to me in the pool. And two: I needed to get out of swimming lessons before it happened again.

  I could hear Mom belting it out all the way from her cabin while I paced up and down in the front room. “Do ya really love me? Do ya wanna stay?” She was singing louder than her CD. She always sings when she’s getting ready to go out. I don’t mind too much — except when she starts doing the video moves. Tonight, I hardly noticed.

  I’d already tried asking her right when I got home if I had to go swimming again. She’d gone ballistic. “I hope you’re joking,” she’d said in that voice that means she isn’t. “After all the fuss you created, and making me buy you that suit. No way are you giving up after only one lesson!”

  I paced up to the gas stove in the corner of the saloon. (That’s what we call the living room.) I usually get my best ideas when I pace, but nothing was coming to me tonight. I paced past the ratty old sofa with its big orange blanket. Pace, pace, left, right, creak, squeak, think, think. Nothing.

  “Better tell me soon, baby. I ain’t got all day.” Mom’s voice warbled out from her room.

  I tried extending my pacing to the kitchen. It’s called a galley, really. It’s got a sink, a tiny fridge, and a countertop that’s always covered with empty cartons and bottles. Mom makes us recycle everything. The galley’s in the middle of the boat, with the main door and a couple of wooden steps opposite. You’ve got to be careful on those steps when you come in because the bottom one comes loose. I usually jump down from the top one.

  I paced through the kitchen and along the corridor that leads to the bathroom and our cabins.

  “How do I look?” Mom appeared at the end of the corridor. She was wearing a new pair of Levis and a white T-shirt with BABE in sparkly rhinestone letters across the middle. I wouldn’t have minded much except for the fact that she had bought me a similar shirt at the same time she got hers — and it looked a lot better on her!

  “Great.” A familiar sharp tap on the roof stopped me from saying any more. The side door opened and Mr. Beeston poked his head through. “It’s only me,” he called, peering around the boat.

  Mr. Beeston’s the lighthouse keeper. He comes around to see Mom all the time. He gives me the creeps — he looks at you out of the corners of his eyes when he’s talking to you. Plus his eyes are different colors: one’s blue; one’s green. Mom says he probably gets lonely up in the lighthouse, sitting around looking out to sea, switching the light on and off, only having contact with people by radio. She says we have to be friendly to him.

  “Oh, Mr. Beeston, I’m just racing out to my book group. We’re waiting for Millie to
show up. Come in for a sec. I’ll walk down the pier with you.” Mom disappeared down the corridor to get her coat as he clambered through the door.

  “And how are we?” he asked, staring sideways into my eyes. His mouth was crooked like the tie he always wore. His shirt was missing a button, his mouth missing a tooth. I shivered. I wish Mom wouldn’t leave me on my own with him.

  “Fine, thanks.”

  He narrowed his eyes, still staring at me. “Good, good.”

  Thankfully, Millie arrived a minute later, and Mom and Mr. Beeston could leave.

  “I won’t be late, darling,” Mom said, kissing my cheek, then wiping it with her thumb. “There’s meatloaf in the oven. Help yourselves.”

  “Hi, Emily.” Millie looked at me intensely for a moment. She always does that. “You’re feeling anxious and confused,” she said — with alarming accuracy for once. “I can see it in your aura.”

  Then she swept her black Mystic Millie cape over her shoulder and put the kettle on the stove.

  I waved goodbye as Mom and Mr. Beeston headed down the pier. At the end of it, Mr. Beeston turned left to walk around the bay, back to his lighthouse. The street lamps lining the promenade were already on, pale yellow spots against an orangey-pink sky. Mom turned right and headed toward the bookshop.

  I watched until they were out of sight before joining Millie on the sofa. We had our dinner plates on our knees and laughed together at the weatherman when he flubbed his lines. Then her favorite true-crime show started and she shushed me and went all serious.

  I had an hour.

  I cleared the plates, then rooted through the pen jar, got a sheet of Mom’s fanciest purple writing paper from the living-room cupboard, and shut myself in my cabin.

  This is what I wrote:

  Dear Mrs. Partington,

  Please can you let Emily skip swimming lessons? We have been to the doctor, and he says she has a bad allergy and MUST NOT go near water. At all. EVER.

  Kindest wishes,

  Mary Penelope Windsnap

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