A Tail and Two Legs
By Sam, age 19, Massachusetts
Sweet Designs Staff Intern
Sweet Designs Featured Writer
"You're going out?" his mother asked sternly.
He jolted at the sudden sound, causing his knuckles to bash against the metal doorknob. He turned and found the outline of his mother, arms crossed, standing in the hallway. A soft glow of light from a lamp at the back of the house silhouetted her. Darkness shadowed most of her face, but it didn't dishevel the quizzical stare and discerning frown she greeted him with.
"Steven," she warned. She rarely called him Steven. "It's 2:30 in the morning. Where do you think you're going?"
He didn't answer immediately. This wasn't his first time getting caught leaving the house at a strange hour.
"The beach," he answered honestly.
"The beach?" his mother repeated skeptically.
"There's going to be meteor shower tonight," he quickly added. "Remember? I showed you the article about it this morning."
"And you need to go to the beach to see this meteor shower when we have perfectly nice windows in this house because ..."
"Seeing it at the beach would be cooler?" he responded. "Besides, it would sort of be like the last hoorah before the whole big college thing."
His mother's frowning lips pressed into a thin line. A moment of heavy silence passed as she looked him over. Her eyes landed at his feet. She let out an exasperated sigh and shook her head.
"You should at least be wearing something other than flip-flops. It's cold out there at this time of night. Do you have your cell phone?"
"Yep," he said, the sides of his mouth perking up at his mother's wavering. He patted the bag strung across his shoulder. "I've got a cell phone, a flashlight, extra blankets, everything I could possibly need."
His mother let out another sigh.
"Just don't wake me up when you get back. Oh, and make sure you lock the door. I'm too tired to deal with burglars at the moment."
"You bet," he promised. And with a salute goodbye, he disappeared out the front door and into the darkness.
The house where he lived and grew up was one of many beach cottages sandwiched among the larger vacation homes and smaller beach shacks. It was nearly autumn, so most of the summer inhabitants had already abandoned their vacation spots and moved back to reality. This left the houses and the beach without the lights, laughter, and loud music of the late night summer beach parties. He preferred it like this, everything dark and quiet.
He had lied about having a flashlight. He didn't need one. He had traveled to and from the beach so many times he knew the way there better than he knew the layout of his own room. He made his way around empty houses and across driveways until his feet finally reached the beach. He kicked off his flip-flops and let the sand absorb his feet. He walked toward the ocean, the soft, light sand becoming darker and damper as he approached the water. As he drew closer to the ocean he looked up at the stars. The sky was moonless and clear and every star glittered.
She was waiting for him, sitting at the edge of the water. Her tail sketched spirals and zigzags into the inch-high waves washing over her scales. Her long, wavy hair fell against her shoulders and bare back, softly swaying to the music of the gentle sea breeze. He approached her, a thunderstorm echoing in his rib cage.
They first met on a night much like this. He wasn't able to sleep and had tried walking along the beach to ease his persisting tensions. He found a comfortable enough spot on the sand, closed his eyes, and fell asleep listening to the sound of crashing waves. He woke up to find his pants soaked with salt water and a beautiful, worried face hovering above his.
They had both panicked at the sight of each other, squirming to opposite ends of the beach in a fluster of flying limbs. He had almost been too busy easing his heartbeat back to its normal pace to notice the splash made by a silver fin disappearing into the dark sea. Wondering if the salty air had finally gotten the better him, he walked home that night in shambles, walking into houses and tripping over his own feet.
Unsure of his reasons for doing so, he returned to the beach the next night. He waited until the soft pink line across of the horizon signaled the return of the sun, but there were no signs of her. Yet he still returned to the beach the next day, and the next day, and the next, until finally she reappeared.
She was tentative at first, remaining a moonlit speck amidst the dark abyss of the sea. She wouldn't stay long. She would merely flutter along the surface of the water for a short while before growing bored and swimming away. Little by little, however, she swam closer and stayed longer. On those nights, she would stay afloat and examine him, as if it were strange that he would still be there. Eventually, she braved the shore.
The sound of his footsteps pressing into the sand caught her attention. Her head turned, and when she saw it was him a bright smile jumped across her face.
"Stevie!" she exclaimed. She was one of two people allowed to call him that. The other was his mother. He had tried to teach her to say 'Steven' that first night she came ashore, but it didn't stick. It should have bothered him more than it did, but he rather liked her calling him Stevie. He just wished his head wouldn't spin as much when she did.
"Hey," he answered, offering her a reserved smile of his own. He sat down next her, the current of water rolling past his toes to the edge of his shorts.
"Nice day?" she asked. Her voice had a childlike quality to it. It was soft and innocent and unusually high pitched. She had only been using it for a few months. Hearing her speak had been funny at first. Strange huffing and puffing and gargles coming out of her mouth, but by watching and mimicking the way his mouth moved she was able to catch on quickly.
Her first word was 'Stevie'.
Since then, she had progressed from naming the things around her to naming things in books she'd never seen to forming small sentences. Most of their rendezvous together now involved him bringing a picture book he found from his childhood collection or at the library, and pointing out the names of objects in the books.
Sometimes, if she didn't quite comprehend something, he would stand up and do an impromptu performance of charades. Flapping his arms to show bird, pumping his legs to show run, and she would laugh.
He loved her laugh. It erupted from her mouth like poetic notes from a song. She sometimes said his name the same way she laughed. When she did that he usually found his heart vacationing in his throat, preventing him from breathing.
"Yes, I had a nice day. How was yours?"
She paused for a moment, her smile faltering slightly as she figured out how to respond.
"Good!" she answered ecstatically, her smile returning. "I saw big swimming turtle."
He laughed at her enthusiasm. "Sea turtle," he corrected. "I saw a big sea turtle."
"Sea ... turtle," she repeated.
A brief moment passed. A moment of tender smiles and admiring glances. His hand itched to hold hers.
She was the first to break away from the moment, her face slightly flushed.
"New book?" she asked, looking at his bag.
"No, actually," he said, sliding the bag off his shoulder and laying it to the side. The bag had mostly been for show, to convince his mother he was heavily packed for a night at the beach. "Today, I have a surprise."
"Sur-prize," she repeated unsurely.
"Yeah, um, it's something different. It's, um, something more special."
He looked up at the stars, trying to remember where in the sky the article said the showers would start.
"There!" he exclaimed, pointing to a small cluster of stars he recognized. "Look over there."
She followed his finger to the stars, but found nothing other than the usual sparkly dots she normally saw. She looked back at him, her brows furrowed in confusion. He was also looking up, anticipation plastered on his face. Her stare drew his sight back to her.
"Don't worry about it," he reassured her. "Just keep looking." He turned back to the sky.
She frowned slightly, but looked up at the sparkling dots again. Her eyes scanned for whatever he wanted her to see. A sudden line in the sky caught her attention. Her eyes blinked in confusion. She tried to find the line again but it was gone. Then another line soared across the sky and vanished. Then another. And another.
She gasped. Her eyes became dinner plates, staring at the visual feast in front of her.
"The, the, the, the, the, the, they're ... they're ... they're ... Name! Name? Name, name, name, name, name!"
"They're called falling stars," he told her.
"Falling stars," she repeated.
"You know, when most people see a falling star," he added, "they make a wish."
"A wish?" she asked curiously.
"In other words, when you see one of those dashes of light, you close your eyes and ask the star for anything you want."
"Yep, anything. The key thing, though, is you can't tell anyone your wish or else it won't come true."
"Secret wish?" she asked, putting her index finger to her lips.
"Secret wish," he concluded, copying her gesture.
She turned back to the stars, her eyes daring another to fall. She didn't have to wait long. A line of light soared across the entire plane of darkened sky. Her eyes snapped shut as her mouth began to frantically whisper the inaudible hushes of a wish.
He noticed a strand of wavy hair sticking to her cheek, out of place from the rest. Without realizing it, his hand moved and guided the strand behind her ear, his knuckles skating across her soft skin. He'd forgotten what her skin felt like.
Finished with her wish, she turned to him with an inquisitive stare. Their eyes met. If her voice made her childlike, her eyes made her wise. They were like the sea, deep pools of dark green carrying the secrets of the world beneath their surface. These eyes had seen the smallest coral become the greatest reefs and the most magnificent of ships become nothing more than tombs. He wondered how many others' gazes she had sought with these eyes. It pained him to wonder how many sailors, marines, and fishermen might have been close enough to see the wonderment of her eyes.
He had never dared to ask her age. Numbers and time seemed unnecessary and too complicated to explain. She appeared to be in the prime of youth, maybe a few years older than him. A thought in the back of his mind protested that she was probably ageless, as ancient as the sea itself. This thought put a sour taste in his mouth. To be ageless meant she had already lived lifetimes without him. It meant countless encounters with other meaningless boys sitting on beaches. It meant she could have learned to speak from some snarky sailor and had merely forgotten how after hundred of years without use. It meant he wasn't as special to her as she was to him.
He didn't even know her name. He wasn't even sure mermaids had names. He wanted some things to be kept a secret. By keeping parts of her a mystery, he was able to preserve the fantasy. He was able to imagine the idea that mermaids didn't exist. That a mermaid, a beautiful, smiling, laughing mermaid, couldn't possibly be sitting next to him. Making her incomplete made her not entirely real. He didn't want her to be real. It would hurt too much to leave her if she was real.
"I have to go," he whispered.
He stood up, grabbed his bag, and brushed the sand off his shorts.
"Next time. When?" she asked.
He looked down at his feet.
"There can't be a next time," he told her. His eyes didn't leave the sand, but the confused look he imagined on her face haunted him.
"Why?" she asked.
He hated that word. How innocent it sounded. He didn't know how to explain college and expectations and the complicated things humans do in order to grow up. Trying to explain it would only confuse her more. Would only make it hurt more.
Every word he wanted to tell her died on his tongue. Lost, empty, he did the cowardly thing. He ran, leaving her questions unanswered. She called after him. His name, the beautiful way she said his name, begged him to come back. He didn't go back. He didn't look back. His eyes only watched the mechanics of his feet carry him home.
A few days later, he was landlocked in what could have passed for a desert. It was hot and dry and his clothes stuck to his skin. He had chosen this school because of its location. He wanted to get out and try somewhere new. But the buildings he found charming in the brochure now looked tacky and zealous. The sun felt like hot steel against his eyes and the heat scarred his throat.
His roommate introduced himself as Brett.
"So, what's it like living by the ocean?" Brett asked.
"It's cool, I guess," he answered. But thinking about the ocean only made him think of her, and he nearly threw up all over his new roommate's shoes.
He didn't sleep at all that first night. Even with the chirping of the crickets, it was far too quiet.
A few weeks later, he received a phone call from his mom. She congratulated him on adjusting to college so well. She later added that she already had a buyer for the house. She said she would be able to move out by Halloween, that they'd be able to spend Thanksgiving in their new home. Near the city. Far away from the sea.
He couldn't feel his legs when he lied to his mother and said, "That's great."
Later that day, he bought a CD of "Relaxing Ocean Sensations" in the hopes that it would cure his restless insomnia. It did, but he fell asleep dreaming of deep green eyes and soft, charming laughter. He threw the CD away after the second night.
Halfway through sophomore year, his advisor noticed he had taken a keen interest in courses related to oceanography and marine life.
"Would you like to major in marine biology?" his advisor asked. "We have a great dual study program with one of our sister schools."
By the next semester, he had transferred to the sister school located off the coast of the wrong ocean. He found that the ocean waves on the opposite side of the country had a different sound than he remembered. He worried that it was not the ocean that had changed, but him.
While a part of the marine biology program, he met Professor Bradley. Professor Bradley's goal was to discover the lost city of Atlantis. They had long discussions over coffee about mythical sea creatures. They debated the existence of giant squids and mermaids in modern times. He didn't tell Professor Bradley about her. He didn't tell anybody about her.
Professor Bradley introduced him to an internship aboard an ocean exploration vessel. He mechanically typed in data while more experienced researchers used submarines to explore the depths of the sea. The crew took a liking to him. They called him Guppy. They offered him a job on the boat after he graduated.
He went back to his old house once, during the summer after he graduated, a few weeks before he was to sail. The elderly couple who lived there had turned it into a bed and breakfast. When they found out who he was, they offered him his old room free of charge.
He walked the beach a handful of times. He didn't find any sign of her.
The day before he is set to sail, he sits in his kitchen reading the paper and drinking a glass of orange juice. The doorbell rings. He puts down his paper, but brings his orange juice to answer the door. He opens the door to find her standing in a white sun dress.
"Surprise!" she says. Her voice has changed. It is more sophisticated now, but still just as musical. The orange juice falls to the floor. He is too focused on her to notice whether or not the glass breaks. Her hair is lighter and straighter without the natural curl of salty breezes. Her eyes are a much brighter green, a dazzling emerald instead of the color of the deep sea.
"Stevie? It's me," she clarifies, perplexed by his stiffness.
He knows it's her. He knows it's her and then some.
"Look! I have legs," she says, and does a little twirl to show them off. "Stevie?"
Hearing her say his name again is just enough to send him into action. He throws his arms around her, holding her body closely against his. He lays his head in the alcove of her neck and combs his fingers through her hair. She smells like sea salt.
They stand in the open threshold, holding each other, spilled orange juice at their feet. Outside the sky is clear and blue. The weathermen say it will be the perfect night to star gaze.