Several years ago I applied to stay at Mermaid Cottages on Tybee Island, Georgia, in exchange for a short story to be published in a print anthology that would feature Mermaid Cottages. I turned my story in, but never heard back. Emails went unanswered and as far as I know the short-story anthology was never published. I feel bad about that because I was able to stay in a beautiful place for several days — for free. It took place so long ago that I don’t even remember who was behind the anthology. Someone from Savannah, I believe.
I was recently reminded of my story when a librarian contacted me. One of her patrons had requested the print version. “Is it available?”
There is no print version, only digital, so I decided to stick it up here in case anybody wants to read it. I know this isn’t the best way to read a story. I personally hate to read stories posted to blogs. My eyes! But here it is for the brave souls out there. This might be classified as a contemporary fantasy. Or not. Also, some formatting (indents!) is lost when you cut-and-paste to WordPress, so enter at your own risk…
SOMETHING IN THE WATER
© Anne Frasier/Theresa Weir
The mermaids come out at night. Nobody really knows why, but Tybee Island seems to be a hotbed for them, and people have taken to parking along the dunes with their headlights on, drinking and watching the half fish, half humans come crawling out of the ocean. It’s the Tybee Island equivalent to dragging the strip.
And so begins the article I’m writing for The Turnip. Title? Something in the Water. Under any other circumstances I’d love this kind of nonsense. And my boss’s heart was in the right place when he sent me to Georgia.
“Get out of Minneapolis for a while, Charlotte,” he’d told me. “Go someplace warm.”
What he didn’t say was get away from everything that reminds you of your ex-boyfriend. Every street. Every restaurant. Every venue. Even those ridiculous Segways remind me of him because we laughed at them together.
Eight years. I wasted eight years of my life. Not his fault. But good God. Why did it take us so long to figure out we were a poor match?
I’m a funny person. In fact, I’m one of The Turnip’s best writers. But as I sit in a Tybee joint called Fannie’s on the Beach, waiting for the magical hour when the mermaids come walking out of the ocean, I’m just not feeling it.
“Like another beer?”
I look up from my laptop and the one paragraph I’ve managed to write. I smile and push my empty mug toward the server. “I’d love one.”
“Are you here for the mermaids?” she asks.
“Yeah.” I try not to roll my eyes. I don’t want to make fun of their little attempt to bring in business during January, the slowest month. And it does feel nice to be warm for a change. But, really. Mermaids? I guess it made more sense than aardvarks.
“Have you ever seen one?” I ask.
“No, but my brother did. And not just one. A gang of ‘em. Walked out of the water straight at him.”
At The Turnip, we play it straight. That’s how our humor works. That’s why it works. I can do this, I tell myself. “What did your brother do? When he saw them?”
“Pulled out his phone and started taking pictures.”
“Good for him.” Long ago I’d made a pact with myself—if I ever spotted Nessie or Big Foot, my camera would be put into action no matter the circumstances. I’ve practice whipping it out and taking photos—like a kid with a toy gun. “You saw them?” I ask.
“Yeah, but… well, they just looked like guys. Just like any other guys. I mean, they didn’t have tails or anything. Because when they hit the beach the tails turn into legs.”
R-i-ight. “Were they naked?”
“I don’t know.”
“Didn’t you say you saw the photos?”
“They were blurry. And it was dark. And his flash didn’t work.”
She brings me another beer.
And I begin to feel better. A lot better. I’ve never been much of a drinker, and I’d forgotten how nice a buzz can be. Why haven’t I been doing this for the past two weeks?
My drunken fingers fly over the keyboard, and I laugh at my wit. My boss will love it. But then he loves everything I write. And I secretly suspect he loves me, but I won’t go into that. It makes me sad. So many people out there in love with the wrong person. In love with someone who doesn’t love them back.
I check my phone and see it’s almost midnight. Oops. Gotta go. Gotta see the mermaids.
I leave a nice tip. I mean, a really nice tip. I was once a waitress, and I know how much serving jobs suck, and I know how the tips are everything. Some waitresses support their families pretty much on tips alone. I often tip twenty-five percent because it makes me feel good. And a couple of times, when I was feeling especially flush due to some extra freelance income, I left fifty bucks for one beer.
I close my laptop and slip it in my bag. It isn’t until I stand that I realize how freakin’ drunk I am. Wow. I look around for my coat, then remember I didn’t need one; I’m just wearing skinny jeans and a black top. I drape my messenger bag over one shoulder. It slips off like there’s nothing there to hang it on, so I put it over my head and across my chest. And then I walk straight for the door, my feet feeling mushy and heavy and light all at the same time.
As I walk, I begin this narrative in my head that describes how I feel. Outside, I wonder how I got to the bar, then I remember I rode a cute little blue bicycle with fat tires and a white basket on the front. I spot it. Right where I left it in the alley next to the ice machine. Didn’t even lock it down. I find myself close to tears when I think about all the honest people wandering around. Here I am, a woman alone, drunk, about to get on my bike and pedal back to the cottage where I’m staying.
My boss thought it would only be right to stay in a mermaid cottage.
I agree. My particular cottage, Marsh Mermaid, really isn’t a cottage at all, but a duplex located on Sixth Street, a few blocks from the ocean. I don’t know how I ended up with such a lavish place—two stories of tranquil, pale blue walls, a deck overlooking the marsh, and three bedrooms. Fancier than any home I’ve ever stayed in and an obvious accident, but I’m not complaining. I’ve been here less than twenty-four hours—long enough to seriously contemplate kissing Minnesota goodbye for good. Earlier I’d seen the sign at Fannie’s, so I know they need wait staff. Or maybe I can get a job at a local paper. Does Tybee have a local paper? I’m not sure about this. And If I move, what will I do with all of my black clothes?
I drop my messenger bag in the basket and straddle the bike. I think about pedaling to the water’s edge so I can pretend to see this phenomenon I’ve come to document. With clumsy movements, I shift the bike, turn it around so I’m facing the Atlantic Ocean.
It’s dark, and I can see the blur of moon behind the clouds, but light from Frannie’s illuminates the beach and reflects off the waves. It’s like an ugly and gorgeous painting. So many bad artists have tried to capture this very scene so that now, when I see it for real, it loses some of the magic because I’m thinking of the velvet painting that used to hang on the wall in my aunt’s beauty shop.
Somewhere in the dark is a sign that says NO BICYCLES. I pretend ignorance and take the wooden rampy thing that probably has a name I will discover if I move here. I’m pedaling fast now, before a cop spots me. And I think I can almost fly. At the end of the ramp my front tire hits soft sand and I do fly—over the handlebars, over my messenger bag with my computer and phone and camera. I think about the beer called Fat Tire, and I let out a yelp of surprise.
How do you like me now? I think, addressing the ex-boyfriend who is two-thousand miles away either sound asleep or partying or seducing some well-dressed, successful woman with a white Coach bag and turquoise necklace. I hurtle ungracefully through the air to finally land on damp, packed sand with a loud oof.
Yeah, I’m having the adventure of my life while you’re up there freezing your ass off in Minneapolis. Nanner, Nanner.
Or something to that effect. Not sure because I think I passed out.
Daniel heard them before he saw them. Talking. Plotting.
“Looking for mermaids.”
“Get her bag. Get her bag.”
“What about her?”
Daniel could hear their thoughts. Despicable thoughts. So, this was what his uncle had warned him about. The ways of humans. Of one-hundred percenters.
In his culture, women were revered, not brutalized.
Without thinking, he roared at them on legs that were surprisingly strong. When he reached the men, he grabbed them one at a time and tossed them aside, throwing them away from the woman. He felt like a superhero, and he was a superhero. But that thought didn’t stick, because the men he’d tossed aside didn’t remain tossed aside. They jumped to their feet and attacked him. They took him down. Their fists flew at his face, and their feet kicked him in the side.
The girl, the girl who’d been on the ground, came out of nowhere and jumped on a man’s back. She shrieked and poked her fingers in his eyes, and cussed like a fisherman. In the far distance, someone shouted. A cry for police. Sand flew, and the men ran like the cowards they were.
Daniel ran too.
The cowards who attacked me vanish. I turn to thank my rescuer and spot him running for the water. He’s thigh-deep when I catch up with him. I grab his arm, urging him back to dry land.
“Where are you going?” I shout, hoping to get through to him. He must be dazed and out of his mind.
He stops. He stumbles, then straightens.
Voices come from shore, and suddenly a bright spotlight illuminates his face. His head is bleeding. I can’t help but noticed how pale and how beautiful he is. Pale arms. Pale chest. Jeans riding low, weighted down by water. “You have to come back,” I tell him in a level voice that I hope won’t cause undo alarm. I stagger, then correct as a surge of water sucks the sand from under my feet.
He looks out at the depth of the ocean, then back at me. “I have to go home,” he says, and his brow furrows in confusion. His hair is black, and his eyes are a strange and wonderful green. He allows me to lead him to shore where people are gathering, drawn by the commotion. Some break away to help us.
“You’d better get that looked at,” the man with the spotlight says. His statement is met with nods and murmurs of agreement.
“Call 9-1-1,” I say. “He needs an ambulance.”
“No!” My rescuer jerks free of my grasp. His voice drops, as if he realizes he’s overreacted. “I don’t need a doctor.” This is now a whisper, for my ears alone. His chin is down, and he’s not looking at anyone.
“You’re head.” My voice holds a pleading quality. I wonder if I’m still drunk, but I don’t think I am. The adrenaline must have driven the alcohol right out of me.
“I’m fine,” he tells me.
“You should get yourself checked out, just to be sure,” the man with the spotlight says.
My rescuer leans close to me and whispers: “I don’t have insurance.”
I understand about no insurance.
“Can I call somebody for you?” I say.
“No. I don’t live around here. I’ll be okay.” As I watch, he wanders toward the street.
A cop shows up and gets some information. The entire thing takes all of two minutes. A woman has collected my bike and is standing beside it on the boardwalk. In the basket is my messenger bag. I thank her and mount the bike, grabbing both handlebars and pedaling in the direction my rescuer has gone.
I catch up with him outside Fannie’s where he’s leaning against the wall in the shadows. I wonder if he’s homeless.
“At least let me clean up your head,” I say. “And get you some dry clothes.”
“I’ll be fine.”
I try another strategy. “Well, then walk me home. Those guys could still be out there. They could be waiting for me.” In truth, I have the feeling the cowards are long gone.
He straightens and squares his shoulders, the hero again. “Okay.”
The cottage is quite a distance, and we walk with the bike between us. He touches the white handlebar grip nearest him. “I’d like to ride one of these sometime,” he says with an odd reverence. For some weird reason, I think about the cross-stitch my aunt used to have about a fish and a bicycle.
Inside the cottage, I make him sit at the kitchen counter. We’re both wet, with patches of sand here and there. “It’s not as bad as I thought,” I tell him once I’ve washed the blood from his head. A lump and a cut.
“Told you so.” He smiles, and my heart pounds.
We talk for hours, and I find out his name is Daniel. I once wrote a piece on past lives, and now, with the way I feel… It’s like I’ve known him forever. Always and always. Daniel and Charlotte.
My phone rings. It’s the ex. I don’t answer.
“Who was that?” my new friend asks.
I’m not the kind of person who sleeps with a guy on the first date. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s not me. So to find myself in bed with the man who rescued me…well, it’s like living a fairytale, and the sex part just seemed to happen. Just seemed the thing to do.
At some point, we both fall asleep. Deep into the night, a noise awakens me. An odd slapping sound, followed by a groan. I grope for a light, find it, and hit the switch.
And there he is.
On the floor. Thrashing and flopping.
Like a fish.
My camera is in the other room, so I reach for my phone, the way I’ve practiced so often. I snap away. At the same time, I’m horrified by my actions. He puts up a hand, palm out, like some celebrity warding off the paparazzi.
I blink, and the fish tail is gone. Gone. He’s just a naked man lying on the floor of Mermaid Cottage.
“Oh my God.” I shut off the light. “I’m SO SORRY! I must have been dreaming.” I’m babbling. In my mind’s eye, I can see the tail. How crazy. I’m mortified.
“Give me your camera.”
I shove it into his hand. The light from the screen illuminates his gorgeous, gorgeous face as he deletes the photos. Then he tosses the phone back to me, gets up, gets dressed, and leaves, slamming the door behind him. Just like that.
I throw on a T-shirt and shorts and follow him. It’s exactly six blocks to the ocean if you stay on Sixth Street. Which he does. He crosses Butler Ave, then takes the wooden walkway over the dunes. The path is arched, and I stop when I reach the highest point. To the right is the wooden swing where I sat…was that just yesterday? Where I took a picture of myself, dressed in my black winter clothes.
He’s walking to the ocean. I want to shout, I want to stop him. Instead, I watch. He pauses long enough to shuck his jeans, kick them aside, and continue walking. Then, never hesitating, he strides toward the reflection of the full moon on the water. As I watch, he steps into my aunt’s velvet painting.
Chest deep, he dives. He vanishes. Then a tail appears. A big, beautiful tail. Then he’s gone.
Back at Marsh Mermaid, I open my laptop and pull up my photos. My laptop and camera are synced—something the merman didn’t seem to know. They probably aren’t up on that stuff, living at the bottom of the ocean and all that.
But there they are. The photos I took of Daniel on the cottage floor.
His scales are the most beautiful shade of green, his tail a navy blue. These pictures could set me up for life. I would never have to work again. I could leave Minnesota. I could get a place on Tybee Island. I wouldn’t need that waitress job. I wouldn’t need to find out if Tybee had a newspaper.
I stare, memorizing Daniel’s beautiful face, his eyes, his hair. I think about the hours we spent together. He seemed so much like me. Just like me.
If I move to Tybee, will I see him again? I imagine myself growing old, standing at the water’s edge, waiting, watching for him to come back. Maybe he’ll come back before I get old. Maybe he’ll come back next month. Or next week.
I highlight the images… and hit “delete.” Later, once the world is awake, I’ll head to Fannie’s to fill out an application.