The world was a wash of green outside Shawna’s bedroom window. Light splashed through the trees, down onto dandelions and patches of water. A breeze blew in from the ocean, a taste of salt in the air. The radio on her night table played Steve Miller and she spun the volume louder, leaned back against the window’s splintering frame. Everyone else from school was down on the boardwalk, flashing their first fake I.D.’s or getting their true love’s name airbrushed across a t-shirt, but she could only handle solitude, right now.
Shrill laughter shattered the calm, as it often did. Damn neighbors.
The kids from next door were gathered by the side of the road, giggling around a puddle from last night’s rainwater. The eldest, the boy, threw something down into the muck. It thrashed around frantically.
“Michelle! Amy, Kevin, come here immediately!” A voice sharp from their porch.
The trio scattered towards their yard and disappeared behind the bang of a screen door. Silence.
The puddle rippled. Shawna slid down from her cushion and walked to the edge of the cracked asphalt. Her bare feet mashed down the giant prints of trucks, quads, she recognized Pete’s Jeep in there. The graveyard shift had stolen her brother away tonight–he’d slicked his hair back and suited up in the casino’s signature gold and blue, headed out to the blackjack buzz. She reached the brown water and knelt down, cupped her hands around the panicked movement and lifted it up. A minnow.
As a child, she too had dipped her arms into the tank outside the tackle shop across the street, fascinated by the soft brush of silvery fishy bodies swimming against her skin. But to take one out, to watch it suffocate? Death was death, no matter how small. She quietly seethed.
The minnow flopped around in her palms. She considered putting it back in the tank, but it was covered in mud. Probably not good for the other fish. Why not carry it to freedom?
Shawna walked back to her yard, down to the swamp. She shook her head to ward off descending mosquitos, held her breath against the stillwater stink. The tank flashed in her mind, the little fish doomed to be food, and she thought about bringing the whole school of them down here. Futile, the shop would just get more of them. Can’t save them all.
She crouched down in the weeds, pierced the scum of algae and sank her hands beneath the water. The mud dissolved in a little cloud and the minnow appeared, circling once in disorientation before darting away.
Godspeed, little one!
Shawna stood up and wiped her hands on her cutoffs, tossed her feathered hair out of her face, made her way back to her cushion and a fresh beer.
She stared out at the puddle, thought about the little fish trapped, unable to breathe. Tires bouncing through the divots in the road, oblivious drivers. A delicate body crushed beneath their wheels. She closed her eyes, shook her head. Tonight would be lonely enough. She drank quickly to drown the memory.
* * *
The radio gave way to television as the sun went down, moving lights to keep warm by. Shawna flipped through the news, some battle of the stars thing, a generic crime drama, nothing good. She tripped on the fraying afghan and tossed it back on the couch, walked to the hallway. To her left, the bathroom, and then her own room. To the right, Pete’s. All the way back . . . no.
The bedroom had been left just the way it was the night of the accident. A shiny turquoise dress was laid out on the bed, matching heels on the floor below. Shawna couldn’t bring herself to put it away; it was too easy to see her mother flung back on her pillows after a grueling shift, or vamping it up before the doorbell’s ring. Cleaning up would destroy the shrine.
She went to the back porch. Off in the distance, an endless river of red lights flowed out to the casinos. Hot out tonight. She loosened the top buttons on her thin plaid shirt. No mosquitoes, weird. No swamp stench either, more like the scent of a summer garden. She walked down to the water. The surface was as black as a witch’s mirror, cleared of algae. Everything foul had receded, like a filthy house scrubbed clean for party guests.
On impulse, Shawna dipped a toe into the water.
It rippled through her body, unexpected delight. The water beckoned like a ragged bathtub. Sharp sticks, the teeth of tiny creatures, but it felt so good. She immersed her whole foot. Could she touch the bottom? Snakes! Snapping turtles! Her leg descended anyway. Soft and smooth, safe as a cup of tea. She leaned forward, stepped in with her other foot. Mud oozed softly between her toes.
It felt like invitation. A watery world opening its hands, caressing her legs with soothing heat. Her rational mind kept looking for danger but she sensed none. She would not be harmed in here, she was strangely certain.
The swamp led towards the marshlands bordering the highway. She and Pete had followed it years ago as children, wanting to know where the water went, although they’d gone safely in sneakers up on the land. She felt now as she did then, too curious to be afraid of anything. And the water felt wonderful, melting over her feet, as if urging her on. She waded away, and her house grew smaller behind her, disappearing into the darkness.
The air was fragrant with wet soil. Thick moss blanketed the roots of the trees in green velvet. She stepped over sea shrubbery and small animals scurried away as her feet made loud plonks back into the muddy broth. Slivers of moonlight guided her through the curving trail of water.
And then the marsh. The swamp trees gave way to stalks of beige, thick clusters shielding her from the highway. In the distance, the giant billboard faces of Kenny Rogers and Neil Diamond grinned in greeting, silver paillettes shivering in the night breeze, spilling from a cartoon jackpot as spangled as a showgirl’s ass. Streaming headlights, drivers who had no idea she was watching them.
The water forked off in several directions, beds of cattail-dotted dirt separating pool from pool. She spied something glittering through the stalks, small splashes up ahead. She walked slowly, trying not to disturb whatever was there.
She tiptoed around the cattails and found herself gawking at a thick fall of pine-colored hair, skin like matte jade. A woman was sitting in the water, reclining against the bank, a decadent smile on her lips like a lucky gambler lazing in a VIP jacuzzi. Oilcloths and the remnants of a Van Halen t-shirt were knotted together in a ragged bikini top. Behind her, a pile of driftwood, discarded soda cans, pieces of a broken mirror stacked with seashells.
She gazed at Shawna with sapphire eyes and leaned back on her elbows, flashed a shameless grin, and lifted an emerald fish tail up from the water. Dazzling scales caught the starlight, dripped water as she showed off.
Shawna tried to stammer a greeting, an apology for invading her space, anything, but she was speechless.
“Beautiful night, isn’t it?” casual as cocktails, as the mermaid lowered her tail back into the water.
Shawna, still staring, tried to nod.
“Oh, come on. All this peace and quiet and moonlight, you know this is better than whatever’s going on in those buildings over there. Those big bright ones by the beach?”
“The casinos? Oh, fuck yeah.”
The mermaid laughed. “Come, sit by me.”
A necklace made from the ring tabs of soda cans, nails tipped in azure points. A mythical creature, yeah, but who seemed to have the same ravenous appetite for glitz as the women who haunted the blackjack tables. Not so different. Shawna waded up beside the mermaid’s elbow, sat down on the bank.
“I called you here, with water.” The mermaid’s blue eyes were amused.
“You saved one of my brethren today. So I opened the marshlands in gratitude. For you, the swamp is a swimming pool. The pond, the river, the ocean, all of it, it’s safe for you. And you’re invisible from human sight as long as you touch the water.”
Entrance to places unthinkable, the slime and reek purified for her tender human feet. What did one say when something this priceless was being bestowed? Hell, what did one say to a mermaid? Shawna managed a quiet, bewildered “Thank you.”
The mermaid raised a palm. “It’s a choice. You can come back as long as I have your voice, and no one else. The second you speak to another of your kind, the water turns cold to you once again.”
Shawna whirled her feet in the warm water. She’d known the stay was temporary before anything had to be said. There was always a catch. “OK.”
“Then welcome.” The mermaid leaned forward, crawled on her hands in the shallow water, stretched out that fabulous tail the full length of her cove. She swam out to further water, looked back at Shawna as if inviting her to follow. But Shawna held fast to the bank. The night was bizarre enough. She wasn’t ready to slip beneath the surface.
The secret would be clamped between her teeth for as long as she could make it last.
The mermaid’s head dipped beneath the water, and Shawna waited for her to pop back up again, but she didn’t. Of course not. Fish-people didn’t have to breathe above water.
Suddenly she felt chilled, alone in the empty cove, and she got up off the bank. She didn’t see the mermaid again as she walked the water trail back through the marsh, and then through the tangle of the swamp, finally stepping up onto the familiar dirt of her yard. Yellow light still burned in the kitchen where she’d left it, and the clock said it would be a while before Pete got home, but she felt drained. She shed her cutoffs and collapsed into bed, exhausted.
* * *
“Hey! Shawna, wake up! Ugh, you smell awful.”
Shawna opened her eyes, rolled over to face a giant red cartoon tongue. Pete was sitting on the side of her bed in a Rolling Stones t-shirt and jeans. “I don’t know what you got up to last night, but whatever it was, you need a shower.”
She sniffed. The swamp. The mermaid. Holy shit, it had been real.
“Want some breakfast?”
She almost said yes but quickly bit her lips, nodded.
“OK.” He got up. “A couple old biddies almost got in a fistfight at my table tonight, Alexis versus Krystle, totally. I thought they were going to put each others’ eyes out with their shoulder pads. Fucking hilarious.” He padded out to the kitchen, opened the fridge door with a bang.
She peeled back the covers and saw her legs covered in caked mud, a blade or two of hitchhiking grass. She pulled on a robe, walked out to the bathroom. Along the way, she heard Pete turn on the little radio over the sink and begin singing along with Rod Stewart. Who she didn’t think was sexy. At all.
She undressed within pink tile, cool pale porcelain. The shower’s water fell at a controlled temperature, crystal clear, sanitized of mermaids and minnows and anything fishy and fantastical. A touch of chlorine, just to be sure. Depressing thought.
Pete was fully immersed in his morning ritual by the time she was dressed, winding down from a 6a.m. quitting time with a spatula and a whisk and a lot of sizzling. She sat down at the table and watched his hands move in a graceful ballet across the pan handles, the carton of orange juice, the twist-tie on a plastic bag of bacon. Thought about the way the cards flew through his fingers with a magician’s flair.
“So, it was around 3 a.m. when these two broads come down to my table. Their old men, out at Scandals watching the girls or whatever, probably stuffed hundreds in their hands and told them to get lost, you know, so they’re already sore about that.” He brought over a pair of breakfast-filled plates and sat down. “Well, they start a fight over some handbag one of them saw in a window, they both wanted it but the shop only had one. I swear, the casinos are going to turn into malls, everybody who wins has to go out and get a souvenir, some Gucci shit or whatever. They’re going to make it so the winnings never leave, just you watch.”
Shawna thought of hands heavy with jewels, clutching twenties crisp from the teller window, as his story degenerated into a screaming match and eventual security-guard involvement. Too easy to imagine: high ceilings in gilded blue, swooping palatial over islands of green felt and tumbling treasure-chest coins, a seaside castle with its doors open to all. Benevolent showtime face covered in a migraine of tinsel, greedy for Christmas accounts and welfare checks, college tuition and emergency funds. Anxious tri-state gamblers crowding the gates, playing two, three slots at a time, furious to be pulled from their troughs. And they were so ready to blame the dealing hands when their luck went south. The inevitable arguments, the occasional drink thrown in Pete’s face, and one scary time, the cracking knuckles waiting for him by his Jeep. But nothing could keep him from the game.
“Whatsa matter? You haven’t said a word all morning.” Pete had already torn through the bacon and was finishing up his eggs. She stretched a hand before her throat, pantomimed pain. “Ahhhh. Strange, this isn’t the time of year for colds and shit. I think we got cough syrup if you need it. I’m gonna go get a shower, get some sleep. You gonna be all right?”
Shawna nodded and tried to look convincingly afflicted.
He stood up. “OK. And you know, you gotta start getting out of the house. I know how bad you miss Mom, but being here all the time, it’s not good for you. She’d tell you the same thing, you know it. Tell you what, I’ll get you a shuttle pass, hook you up with stuff around the boardwalk. When you get better, of course, yeah.”
She nodded vigorously.
He kissed her on the cheek and broke into opera as he crossed the living room, picking up stray laundry as he went. She stacked the plates and began to giggle, stifling her laughter to one low throb in her throat, realizing in horror what she’d done. She prayed that since it hadn’t crossed her lips, and Pete was in the other room, it wouldn’t count.
Shit, shit, shit.
Well, she’d find out.
* * *
Shawna dipped one fearful toe into the swamp, and to her relief, found it the same enticing soup as the night before. She’d hurried out the minute Pete’s Jeep had rounded the corner. The sky was black, the witching hour lit up with stars as she retraced her steps.
Flashes of hair like glowing grass, water flung like a handful of crystals as the mermaid languidly lashed her tail. Shawna waded to the edge of her cove.
“Ah,” said the mermaid. “You’ve come back. Enjoying your stay? Have you come to ask for another wish?”
“No,” said Shawna, splashing up past the giant tail and setting down a six-pack by the pile of driftwood. “Just came to hang out.”
The mermaid happily rooted among the bottles. “I’ve always wondered what these tasted like. Thanks!” She grabbed a bottle and twisted off the cap with her teeth, caught Shawna gaping at her as she spit it into the weeds.
“Don’t look so horrified. This is how we eat shellfish, you know.”
Shawna blinked, paused, and then burst out laughing, popping open a drink of her own. The beer was cold on her tongue, the water a hot swirl around her ankles.
The mermaid took an exploratory sip of her beer, licked her lips and chugged half the bottle.
“So . . . aren’t you supposed to be off in some mystical sea, off the map somewhere?” asked Shawna. “What are you doing in New Jersey?”
“I came in with the storm a couple nights ago. I was up north in Coney Island before that. You know they started throwing parades in our honor up there? Had to go see what that was all about.”
“Really! You know what goes on ashore?”
“More than you know, sister.” The mermaid leaned forward. Scrollwork cascaded delicately down her back in chartreuse neon, like the lines of a glowfish traced in her verdant skin.
Shawna gasped. “You have tattoo parlors? Under water?”
“Enough of your sailors sank into our seas–many of them had pictures of us drawn into their arms. Why not?”
“That’s awesome. What else do you have down there?”
“Nothing like your boardwalks, unfortunately. I love the flashing lights. What’s up there?”
“Well, there’s this tram car you can ride from end to end and it yells at everybody to get out of the way. There’s a bunch of shops selling shiny little knickknack things that you’d probably love. And there’s this incredible pizza place, my mom and I went there all the time before she . . . ”
Shawna faltered. It was like a black wave, the loss that stole the words from her lips, made her reel. “I’m sorry, it’s still so fresh.”
“What happened?” asked the mermaid, gently.
“She . . . well, my dad went first, when I was five, heart attack. I never got the chance to know him. Mom took it real hard. Cocktail waitresses don’t get time off to mourn in this business. I remember her crying in the bathroom while she was doing up the straps on her high heels. The show’s gotta go on.”
Shawna downed the rest of the bottle. “She’d only started going out again the past couple years. She’d been seeing this bartender. Nice guy. They had a date the night it happened. She ran out to the deli across the street to grab something and some tourist asshole pulled out of the lot without looking, the money just wasn’t burning a hole in his pants fast enough. She was dead before the ambulance showed up.”
“That’s awful,” said the mermaid. “She must have had a beautiful spirit, if she raised you to be kind.”
Random honks from the freeway. Shawna glanced in their direction, sighed. “My brother, Pete, he’s got the game in his blood. Daddy was a pro gambler and Pete always had to have cards in his hand, after he died. I didn’t get a chance to get something like that from her, you know, be her in some way.”
The mermaid put down her bottle, and held out her hands. This time, Shawna didn’t hesitate. She slid down into the water, let the mermaid gather her into her arms. The blue nails stroked her hair. Green skin soft under her cheek, warm like the water.
She remembered nights cuddled together under the afghan on the couch, eating popcorn and watching Alice. Telling Shawna stories about the customers, stroking mascara onto her daughter’s lashes while Donna Summer played on the stereo. How her face would light up when Jimmy called the house. I’m done with these barflies. Where’s your mother? Let’s all go for a walk on the boards. Gone.
“Let it out,” said the mermaid, tightening her arms around Shawna. “It’s the only way to get through it. Death is part of the cycle. Hers came early, much too early. But she’s in your face, and your voice, and your compassion. You can let go–you’ve got her within you.”
Tears rolled down Shawna’s face, fell into the marshwater. Grief came on like a flood, and the pain burst forth in the shaking of her shoulders, small convulsive cries of pure anguish. Her mother wasn’t coming back. She gave it voice, let it loose from the depths of her damaged heart as the mermaid silently held her.
* * *
“Shawna! Hey, Shawna!”
Pete hadn’t even gotten his work uniform off yet and he was already waking her up. “Somebody tipped me a fuckin’ grand tonight! Come on, you gotta get up and have a drink with me!”
She tried to smile at him but her head hurt, light headache. No, not ready to get up.
“Your throat still sore? That’s OK, I’ll have a double for both of us.” He yanked up the blanket and started tickling her feet.
No! She bit her lip to keep from laughing. A hidden kingdom was crumbling under her brother’s loving, oblivious hands. She kicked him square in the chest and knocked him off the bed.
“Hey! What’s the matter with you? Fuck, that hurt!” He got up, smoothed down his uniform. “Fuck it, make your own breakfast.” He stomped out.
Shawna wished she could apologize. Yeah, Pete, sorry about that, but there’s this mermaid, you see, and I haven’t really hung out with other women since Mom died, and your girlfriends don’t count.
She heard him rattle around his room, saw a flash of jeans as he passed by her door. His Jeep peeled out of the driveway.
Best make the most of the limited time she had, now that it was exacting small prices.
Out to the backyard. Mercifully, no one was up next door, no high-pitched wailing to disrupt everything. The swamp glittered beneath the morning sun. She had it all to herself. Invisibility, huh?
She pulled her Flyers jersey over her head. Gentle wind blew across her breasts, exquisite. She tugged down her panties and stepped into the light-drenched water.
Amazing to bathe outdoors, free from leering eyes, defensive little teeth, pollution. She sat down in her weedy little bath, green all around her, dappled with wildflowers. She felt like an antique painting, maybe tempting some enraptured lover from the riverbank. Or just enjoying a moment of sensuous solitude. The breeze played with her hair as she breathed in the dawn air and closed her eyes.
She hadn’t opened herself completely to the gift, she realized, and to lose it before she’d done so . . . she was ready for it now.
She spread out her arms, let the light wash her body in burning gold before leaning back and completely immersing herself.
* * *
“So what’s with all the trash? And this driftwood? Is it art or something?”
“Oh, trash to you, but it’s stuff we don’t have underwater. You’d be surprised what people throw away.” The mermaid played with her ring-tab necklace. The silver caught the moonlight, shone beneath her face.
“Ha! That’s like me and Pete, when we were kids, collecting paint cans and rusty tools and stuff around the boatyard. Thinking it was pirate booty.” Shawna adjusted the neckline of her bathing suit, a navy one-piece halter, before leaning back and stretching out in the water. “Being out here makes me feel like I’m five years old again. Playing in the dirt, but somehow you make it glamorous. Like a European mud bath or something.”
The mermaid grinned. “I’m not so sure I’d be as charmed by your casinos.”
“Oh, you wouldn’t.”
Suddenly, the squeal of tires braking, metal slamming into metal. They heard the stomach-turning flip of a vehicle at high speed. It battered loudly against the asphalt as glass exploded across the highway.
Game over, Shawna.
Her heart leapt. She knew the doors would close eventually, but not so soon. Smoke was rising over the reeds, and the smell of scorched rubber intruded on the cove, urgent as screams.
It was her choice, but it didn’t feel like one. Someone else’s carelessness stole the swamp away from her, but she couldn’t leave whoever was out there to die.
The warmth of the water, the blaze of the stars. Scales winking from beneath the water, green and fantastical. The mermaid’s face was already receding into something alien, otherworldly, an image from a fairytale book. Shawna drank it all in, imprinted the scene like a snapshot in her mind: remember this.
“I’ve got to go. I’ve got to see if they’re hurt,” biting off the words, fighting back tears. There were so many questions left to ask, and now she’d never know more about the tattoo parlors or green fish-people or anything else about the cities beneath the waves.
The mermaid looked at Shawna, her blue eyes shimmering.
Someone was probably bleeding to death and that thought never left Shawna’s mind as she threw her arms around the mermaid, greedy for just a few more seconds before the water turned bitter and murky again.
“Thank you,” Shawna whispered.
She lifted her head to gaze into those radiant eyes one more time.
The mermaid took Shawna’s face in her hands and kissed her on the forehead.
One final, fierce hug before Shawna jumped up out of the cove, onto the dirt. She ran through the reeds towards the noise, looked back just once to see the glitter disappearing between the cattails. Choking back a sob, she burst through the reeds that bordered the sides of the highway.
A Cadillac had spun out from the road, the driver’s side crushed inward and a body lying face down near the hood. About fifty feet away, a Monte Carlo lay on its side. A woman in a ripped lavender gown staggered into view before Shawna could see anything else.
Blood ran down her cheek and she clutched a shell-shaped purse. Shawna wanted to check on the body but she took the woman’s arm. Keep her talking, keep her alive.
You can’t save them all.
“What’s your name?” The air turned chill as cold water slid back into place. The spell was broken.
“Barbara.” Hair coming loose from an elegant chignon, a nasty red smack on her temple.
Shawna put an arm around Barbara’s trembling lilac shoulders. “Barbara. Where do you live?” she asked as she scanned the rubbernecking traffic. The highway was full of speed traps, there had to be a cop out there patrolling the area.
“Absecon.” Dazed, Barbara stumbled. Shawna caught her and lowered her to the ground, gently pried the story from her. Kids at home with a babysitter. Anniversary, a weekend at the shore. Her satin heels lay piled together in the dirt.
Lights flashed. A police car rode up the shoulder. Doors slammed, someone’s meaty hands pulled Barbara away from her. Voices, loud and demanding all around Shawna. Was she in the car? Had she seen what happened? She was left alone once she established she was just a bystander. She felt icy and exposed in just a bathing suit, and she slipped back through the reeds before the cops thought to question her more.
She walked beside the water, weeds stabbing into her bare feet. The air thickened with swamp-stink once again, and mosquitoes brushed against her face. Invisible to traffic, she heard idling engines, conversations, stereos of cars stopped on the road. Roberta Flack’s duet with Peabo Bryson played out across the traffic snarl, jacked way, way up. One of her mother’s favorites, red nails lowering the needle to the record, slow-dancing with Jimmy across the living room. Beyond the marshlands, the moon’s reflection twinkled on the ocean’s surface, lit it up like the floor of a vast disco. A beautiful sight on an increasingly painful walk back.
Roberta’s sweet vibrato stayed with Shawna as she clawed her way through the swamp, looking for the narrowest point to cross back to the other side. She couldn’t bear taking even one step through the water, and despite her wounded feet, jumped over once the opposite bank drew close enough.
Slap, slap, slap on the kitchen linoleum, little red prints she’d clean up later. She hung her suit on the shower rail, changed into a t-shirt and cutoffs but didn’t wash off. That was for tomorrow, when the sunrise would cast the mermaid firmly into memory. Shawna wasn’t finished with the night yet.
She opened the door to her mother’s room. The turquoise dress still lay on the bed, awaiting its evening out. Across the dresser, lipsticks, compacts, a plastic butterfly-shaped dish full of earrings. A pot of green glittering eyeshadow caught her eye.
The cards are how I keep him with me, Shawna. You didn’t know Dad that well, but I did. He’s with me all the time, now.
She unscrewed the lid, dipped her ring finger in the mermaid’s scales, the color that coordinated with her mother’s work uniform. My trapeze costume, she’d called it, painting up before her shift. Shawna looked in the mirror and dabbed it on.
I’ll keep you both in the shadows of my eyes.
She stepped back to look at herself. It was probably terrible by Glamour‘s standards but she didn’t feel lonely anymore. She ran her hands over her waist, down her hips. Would she fit into Mom’s dresses? She’d find out. Later.
She climbed up onto the bed, lay back on her mother’s pillows. They smelled faintly of Shalimar. Yes. She’d wear that, too. She reached for the turquoise dress and hugged it to her muddy, bleeding body. Memories faded into dreams; her mother beneath the afghan, the mermaid’s embrace. She could still feel their arms around her.
I will not forget. I will never forget . . .
She soon fell asleep as she lay submerged beneath sparkling blue.