Becoming mermaids, p.1
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       Becoming Mermaids, p.1

           Jamie Gann
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Becoming Mermaids

  Becoming Mermaids

  by Jamie Gann

  Copyright 2017 Jamie Gann

  Chapter 1: They Bore Her Up

  Samantha curled her toes into the beach sand, under a pier, under a moonlit sky. Fine grains of silt ground into her skirt— the washing machine was gonna be full of them. She crushed another handful in her fist.

  The bay was at the lowest point in its tide. The moon was full on the horizon, drawing all of the water toward it, like the train of a royal robe. The sun would be rising over the mountains in a few hours.

  This was Sam’s favorite spot, her private place to sit and think, between the salt-crusted beams of wood, sprouting clams. But she was not happy. She was embarrassed and sore. Her lover, Andrew, thought she was not spicy enough. At least, that’s what he implied when he said he wanted to spice up their love life. He said he loved her, but wanted to try something more sensual as an experiment. Unbeknown to either Sam or Andrew, she was far more sensual than he was, easily.

  Andrew’s experiment was entirely cerebral. He wanted to imagine growing fur and a tail, and other animal parts, while he and Samantha made love. He found some pictures on the Internet to aid his imagination. All of this was going on in Andrew’s head while the two of them coupled, rolling in the flannels that served as a bed in her tiny box apartment. Samantha was thinking of his skin, how smooth it was as it was, without fur, when she was jolted by an unexpected thrust that hurt her. She didn’t have time to react, to guide him, before it was over. When he rolled to her side, she didn’t feel any glow of warmth. She felt like an empty balloon. Andrew wanted to try it again someday.

  That’s why she got up and dressed, drove to the beach and climbed down the embankment to the gully under the pier where she ground sand in her toes and watched the silver waves dissolve and solidify the sand, over and over until dawn. She wanted to think about what she’d say to Andrew, how to tell him that his experiment backfired, but what she thought about instead was the first time she came down here, ten years ago, shook off her clothes and waded out like doomed Andromeda among the curling waves. The water licking her skin. The light of the moon gilding her and everything around her in silver. The grunions worming in the mud between her ankles.

  Samantha had a deep love of touch that she hardly understood and Andrew couldn’t begin to recognize. What he experienced through his eyes and turned over in his mind, she absorbed through the skin and churned in her belly. And despite all of this, he thought he was the more sexually adventurous of the two, and she thought she was more shy.

  The moon swelled and tinted orange as it slipped over the edge of the Earth, and everything went dark. The hour between moonset and sunrise was lit only by stars, which crowded the sky and reflected on the water. Sam couldn’t see the waves anymore, only hear them.

  And yet, she did see something in the water. Or if not seen, felt it, the way a fish knows it’s being watched. Hairs raised on the back of her neck. She thought she saw a log or something disturbing the flow of water. The pupils of her eyes dilated. The thing stared back.

  Samantha was aware of the face in the water, watching her, long before she moved. In the dim light, she couldn’t see the eyes, only shadows in the skull cast by the shape of its brow— a skeletal face. It was too dim for any colors other than gray, blue, and blackness. And it wasn’t above the water but in it: each inflowing wave obscured it, each outflowing wave revealed it.

  What eventually made Sam move was not fear but the overcoming of fear, the realization that it might be someone drowning out there— or someone who had drowned— and only she could help. It could take ten minutes just to get to her phone. Ten minutes could be too late.

  So Sam ran into the water, chasing the outflowing wave to where the body lay. When the next wave came in, it shocked her with cold— even in southern California, the ocean was frigid in spring. It went right up to her waist; she gave up trying to hold her skirts above it. Running through waist-deep water was next to impossible. She didn’t get very far before the wave flowed out again, revealing the face.

  By now, Sam was within groping length of the body. She was close enough to see that it was a woman, bare-chested, and deathly white. Before the next wave buried the corpse and pushed Sam off her feet, a crab crawled onto its cheek.

  Sam freaked and tried to swim toward shore, but with the falling of the wave, forced herself to look again. The eyes were open and unseeing. The mouth was ajar. Sam couldn’t bring herself to bat that crab away, and she would have screamed if it had crawled into the lady’s mouth. She pressed her hand firmly to her own mouth.

  In the moment when the water was lowest, the corpse’s eyes flickered to life and zeroed in on Sam. It said, “Can you keep a secret?”

  Sam bit her hand and tried to run, slipping in the soft silt just as the next wave picked her up and played with her. She got tangled in her own skirts trying to run or kick or swim. She splashed, no idea where the beach was. Two hands gripped her ankles and Sam fought like captured prey. Something was winding around her, slithering, and the deathly face rose once more from the water. Its wet hair clung to its shoulders, smooth as a seal.

  “I said, can you keep a secret?”

  Sam’s eyes bulged. She coughed and spat seawater— couldn’t keep it out of her mouth. Her body was a live nerve, ready to strike and kill, but she nodded. Or shivered. Or both.

  The lady hesitated long enough for the water to recede and they both sank back to the ground, into a puddle that bubbled underneath from clams. Their bodies were twisted together. Sam struggled to crawl out of the woman’s grip. Her now-limp, naked body rolled over on the sand. Sam stood, tripped on her own skirt and stood again, more than an arm’s length away. The lady was a mermaid.

  A mermaid! Its skin was twisted below the hips into a scaly column that curled around the shallow puddle, ending in the collapsed fan of a fishtail. Sam had only starlight to guide her, but she couldn’t make herself not see it. Her eyes darted from torso to tail, not comprehending. When the next wave came, she swam as hard and as fast as she could toward shore.

  She could tell that the mermaid was following her, lazily peaking its fin as Sam swam with all her might. She reached shallow water and ran, all the way up to where the sand is dry, under the beams of the pier. The mermaid bobbed on the next wave and got stranded when it slipped away. She dragged herself onto the sand.

  Sam’s legs itched to run all the way up the embankment and back to her car, but on dry land, she felt it was safe enough to face the creature, who was struggling to pull herself up onto the dry part, where it was softer and less tangible than the wet. Her dragging body carved a rut behind her, a snail’s trail in the sand.

  Sam gasped, “What are you?”

  The mermaid stopped for a moment and almost shrugged. A jewel dangled in the darkness between her breasts.

  Sam’s whole body shivered— she hugged her sweater and rocked to calm herself, but that only made it worse. The mermaid resumed her labors, pulling herself up to the first pillar of the pier. “You didn’t answer my question,” she said.

  “W— what question?”

  The mermaid cocked her head, incredulously. “Can you keep a secret?”

  “Sure— sure—” She nodded violently. “What secret?”

  The mermaid guffawed. “That I’m a mermaid, of course!” Her voice was full and brassy.

  “Oh. Yeah. Sure.”

  “Pull it together, will ya?”

  Sam struggled inwardly, then stomped, spattering sand. “How is this even possible?”

  “I’ll tell y’everything you wanna know. But first, I need your pinky swear that you won’t be handing me over to the authorities or anything. Last thing I want is to end up on exhibit.”
  “Of course. I would never.” Sam pulled the sleeves of her sweater over her hands, which huddled by her mouth.

  “Reason I wanna know is— look, I’m taking a real risk even talking to you. If it wasn’t for— I don’t know— boredom, I guess— I’d stay a hundred miles clear of any humans anywhere.” She panned with her hand while drawing out the an-ny-where. “You keep your promise and take me home with you, and I’ll make it worth your while.”

  “Home? You want—?” Sam’s voice dropped. “You want to come home with me?”

  She nodded. “Yeah.” An east coast accent. Maybe Brooklyn? Sam couldn’t be sure. “I got something I need to do, and I just need to shack up someplace a couple days to get it done.”

  “Uh, okay. Yeah, I guess that’ll be fine.” Sam couldn’t think of any way this could go wrong.

  A smile flashed across the mermaid’s lips. “It’ll be fun! Listen, I’ll tell you all about it on the way. But first...” She indicated with a glance at the long, hard struggle it had been to get as far ashore as she had.

  “Oh, it’s like a ten foot scramble to get up that embankment,” Sam pointed, “and then my car’s way across the parking lot. I don’t suppose I could— how heavy are you?”

  The mermaid shot her a mischievous look. “What’s a matter with you? Don’cha know you’re not supposed to ask a lady stuff like that? But no, I guess you couldn’t carry me. Not on your back, at least.”

  “I could pull the car around. There’s an inlet a mile down that the road leads right up to. Do you think you could swim all that way?”

  The mermaid rolled her eyes.

  A moment later, Sam was climbing the embankment alone, shaking off the dirt as she hurried to her car, keys like blades between her knuckles. She dropped heavily into her car seat. For a long time, she just sat there. Then she stomped and screamed and accidentally hit the car horn. “Okay, okay,” she said to herself, “I’m not going crazy. I’m just... going home.” She turned the ignition, revved the engine, and lunged through the gate to the open road.

  Her rendezvous point with the mermaid was in the rear view mirror.

  Suddenly, she hit the breaks and sat motionless on the road. “I can’t believe I’m actually considering this.” Giving in to hallucinations. Encouraging them, even. She looked up and down the empty road. “Maybe it’s... therapeutic. I’ll go there, wait a couple of minutes, and prove to myself it was all in my head. Right? Then I can forget it ever happened.”

  She ratcheted the gear in reverse and turned the car around.

  Chapter 2: Three Times ’Round Spun

  The mermaid waited patiently at the inlet. Swimming a mile required little more than an occasional flick of her tail— mostly gliding. The water in the inlet was calm, protected from the ocean’s swells by two large boulders that stood as guardians. Wooden rowboats lined the shore. A ramp led from the road down into the water, for launching trailers. At low tide, everything was grounded.

  The mermaid didn’t like to wait. Trapped by the narrow entrance to this harbor, she’d have a hard time escaping if anything went wrong. It was nearing the hour when fishermen set out for an early catch. She was having second thoughts about Sam— Sam probably wouldn’t double-cross her, but she wasn’t shaping up to be one to count on in a pinch.

  A car pulled slowly down the road, lights blinding. The mermaid sank until the water level crossed right through her open eyes. She was ready to dart. But the car kept on going. The mermaid rose once more, wondering if she should have waved her arms or something. “What the hell?” It was another car, not Sam’s.

  Finally, Sam arrived. She slowed, turned, and backed down the trailer ramp. Brake lights painted the surface of the water blood-red. The mermaid clenched her teeth as the car rolled into the water, halfway up the hubcaps, before stopping. “Hope she can drive,” she muttered.

  Sam’s foot plopped in the water outside her car door and she swore. Then she stood in the shin-deep brine, brushing her arms for warmth and looking at the stars.

  “Down here.”

  The sound of the mermaid’s voice surprised her.

  “Jeez, I’ve been waiting like forever. What took you?”

  Sam froze, big-eyed, as though she had never seen a mermaid before.

  “Nice car.”

  “You’re real!”

  “Honey, are we going to go through that again? Just open the door and hoist me up.”

  Sam nodded and opened the back door of her pinto. The mermaid swam to it— there was nearly enough water to swim— and she tried to climb in on her own. Sam stood behind her, holding the door.

  “A little help, please?”

  “Oh. Sorry.” Sam maneuvered into several different positions, not sure how to help, not quite willing to touch this figment of her imagination.

  “I don’t bite.”

  “I’m sorry, do you want me to just—”

  “Pick me up and put me in the car!”

  “Right. Okay.” Sam held the mermaid’s midsection, above the tail line, and tugged. Ineffectively. She felt bad about grabbing a woman’s naked hips, still more about the tail that should not be there. The water made everything slippery. Between the two of them, the mermaid managed to crawl partway into the back seat. Sam was obliged to help with the tail, but she immediately dropped it when she felt how slimy it was. It didn’t feel like skin at all.

  Pulling herself up by a seat belt, the mermaid turned and said, “What?”

  “Nothing— it’s just— nothing.”

  Sam reached around the tail column with both arms and heaved it into the car, feeling it write against her body. Slipping in the half-foot of water, she nearly fell in the back seat with her. Sam apologized again and got the door, careful not to pinch the creature’s huge tailfin. It folded and unfolded like a fan, right in front of Sam’s face. She shut the door and got in the driver’s seat.

  Sam adjusted her rear view mirror. The long, slick body of a mermaid spread across her whole back seat. The creature’s skin was arsenic white and her tail was pale silver, making it hard to see any difference in color where they fit together. Below the bellybutton, her midriff just kept going down in a column that tapered to a rattling fan. She was picking the flecks of seaweed off her wet skin and scales.

  The mermaid looked up at her driver. “34th and Madison, and step on it!” she galled.

  Sam put the car in gear and struggled to drive out of the water, the engine gurgling horribly.

  * * *

  Samantha drove slower than normal, periodically glancing in her mirror at the mythological creature in her back seat. More than once, she swerved, narrowly avoiding a skid off the road.

  “What’s your name?” she asked at last.

  “Coquette,” replied the mermaid.

  “Seriously?” Sam said, chewing back a smile. “That’s a name?”

  “It was in seventeenth century France.”

  Sam glanced in the mirror again. She didn’t look like she was putting her on. Could this creature have once been a human being? Finally, she said, “Coquette?”


  “You’re four hundred years old?”

  “Jeez, look out!”

  A passing car laid on its horn and veered around them, disappearing in the darkness ahead. Sam white-knuckled the steering wheel. She fixed her mirror to see properly out the back, and what she saw made her stomach drop.

  “Oh no. Oh God, no.”

  “What now?”

  Soon the red and blue lights flashed all around them, filling the night. “Oh, Coquette, I’m so sorry.”

  “What is that?”

  Sam’s mind raced. Could she hide the mermaid? There might be enough junk on the floor of the back seat for Coquette to hide herself? If a cop walked around her vehicle, shining a pen-light in all the windows, what would he see?

  Before she could say anything to Coquette, the police car zoomed around them, chasing the c
ar that had sped by earlier. Sam flushed with relief.

  “What?” The mermaid still didn’t understand.

  “That was a police car. The, um, musketeers.”

  “I know what cops are, jeez! It’s just— they looked different last time.”

  “Have you done this before? Come on land?”

  “Now and then,” she said, up on her elbows, peering at the pulled-over car and the police as they slowly passed. “Let’s not do that again.”

  “Of course.” Sam loosened and gripped the steering wheel.

  A few stoplights later, she said, “I’m Sam. Samantha. Sam is short for Samantha. It’s not a boy’s name.” Coquette wasn’t interested.

  Chapter 3: Freaky Fish-Fry

  By the time they reached her apartment, the sun was starting to light the sky, its full brilliance still hidden under a ridge of mountains. Sam’s apartment complex used to be an old motel, all concrete with a kind of permanent scaffolding to reach the second floor. “I’m upstairs,” she said, apologetically.

  “Cripes! You couldda told me! I’d have waited for the next moongazer.”

  “It’s right on the end. I’ll help. I promise.”

  Clamoring up the stairs with a fishtail worked about as well as might be imagined. Coquette walked on her palms and forearms while Sam struggled to hold the slippery tail, almost like wheelbarrel-racers. They were both out of breath when they reached the top.

  Fumbling with the keys, Sam noticed a piece of scrap paper, taped to the door. It was Andrew’s handwriting, saying, “Could have left a note.”

  “What’s the hold-up?” Coquette asked.

  “Shhh! Someone’ll hear you!” The sky was already pink with sunlight, reflecting over the mountains. “It’s from my boyfriend.”

  Coquette palmed her forehead. “You couldda told me that, too!”

  “Yeah, well, I didn’t think of it.” Sam was starting to get testy. She swung open the door and said, “Get in.”

  Coquette crawled over the threshold and whistled. “Nice place,” she lied.

  “I’m serious. The neighbors will hear.”

  “I used to have a place like this in Miami. Before the boom.”

  Sam shut the door hard and crossed her arms. “Alright. Explain. You weren’t always a mermaid, were you? What happened? How is this possible?”

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