The drive back to Albuquerque happened only after Penny swam for almost another three hours with her mother. During that time she mastered complete control over her ability to function as a mermaid and to transform from mermaid to human and back. Penny discovered that in order to transform her legs to a tail and back to legs it was necessary for her to be in contact with large amount of water, such as an ocean, lake, or swimming pool. Leigh told her that the smallest body of water in which she could transform was bathtub, and she would need to fill it up about two thirds of the way full.
While going home Penny discovered two new things. One, she discovered her mother’s age: she was forty-seven. Penny had always thought her mother looked far younger than that, maybe late 20s, maybe early 30s—but never someone nearly fifty years old. Lee said it was because mermaids aged slowly and that it was possible for both of them to live to be almost two hundred years old.
The other thing she discovered was that her mother was installing a pool in the backyard. Now that Penny had come into her own as a mermaid, Leigh saw no reason to keep her from the environment in which her mother and grown up. It may not be like swimming in the ocean, her mother told her, but it Lee should be able to spend half the summer being her other self without having to leave her own backyard.
There was one stipulation, however. While Penny could have her friends over to swim, she could never reveal to them what she really was: she could never tell them she wasn’t truly human.
“Over the years I thought several times of telling a few of my friends what I was, maybe even showing them.” Leigh gripped the steering well and looked straight ahead down the interstate. “And every time I got closer to wanting to reveal myself, I’d get overcome with fear that something bad was going to happen. Whenever I thought I wanted tell my closest friends that I was really a creature they thought of as mythical, eventually I’d realize I couldn’t.”
Leigh reached over and patted her daughter’s hand. “My biggest fear is that some lab, some agency, would take me and put me in an aquarium to study. To that end up spending the rest of my life there until I died—or until they killed me.” She glanced once at Penny then back to the road. “And I fear they could do the same to you. They probably want to know everything about how you worked, especially if they discovered your father was human. I can’t have anyone hurting you Penny: it would kill me if something happened to you because you told people what we were.”
Penny shook her head. “That won’t happen, Mama.” She glanced out the passenger window at the desert beyond. “I’ll keep our secret; you can trust me.”