TILL HUMAN VOICES WAKE US
I was one of four who made it back to land, crawled up spitting brine onto the gritty shore. I’d forgotten the sheer unclean foulness of sand on my skin with nothing to wash it away, the way saltwater tasted to my human mouth, the slowly building stickiness of drying hair. Someone had called the police, out of concern or out of fear; I thought the latter, perhaps, more likely, here on a beach where mermaids sang, and the police carried earplugs with their nightsticks.
The police kept tugging at something in our hands, and I looked down to see a long string of pearls spilling through my fingers. I remembered thin cold hands, not human, pressing the pearls on us. Then even that memory faded, lost in dark confusion. When the officer finally got them free, the pearls collapsed, wet sand crumbling in his fist. He made a noise of disgust and stripped his sand-packed glove into an evidence bag. I doubted he would find anything there but sand, in the end.
They wrapped me in a blanket, eventually. It seemed like a long time later that they took us to the hospital. Doctors pricked our fingers for blood, poked and prodded, but the room was full of cops with wary eyes. The others were still unconscious, another man and two women, and I imagined I must look the same as they did, damp-skinned with seaweed still tangled in their hair, eyes heavy-shadowed under fallen lids.
As we awoke, the police asked us, What do you remember? and the memories slipped away as they asked, like the last traces of a dream. They left behind only faint, distorted impressions: fear, hunger, loss. The memory of pushing slowly, blindly through dark waters, the merfolk around us effortless and graceful among the shadows. They had traded us among themselves, for pearls and stones and shark teeth, and hurt us sometimes for their own amusement. Even as I tried to grasp the memories, they melted away, leaving only traces of beauty and terror.
When the doctors released us they took us back to the station. We waited in stiff, uncomfortable chairs as they searched databases for us, missing persons files going back for years. When they found us, they looked between our faces and the photographs with slowly dawning horror.
“Computer says that’s you,” the nearest officer told me, her voice sick. I only half-recognized the man who stared back at me from the screen, his skin the brown of wet sand, his face unfamiliar, strangely alive even as he smiled the awkward smile of the DMV.
The others were looking at their screens, I thought, with much the same weary blankness I felt, as though they had shown us a picture of a long-dead pet and expected us to run calling its name. Names, I thought, yes, and tried to read the words on the screen. The letters seemed to shift and twist, and it took long moments before I could resolve them into words. Geoffrey—I could make out that much, though the last name was only a distantly familiar set of scribbles. The line for age I couldn’t even find.
“Geoffrey,” the officer said, and I tore my eyes away from the screen, thinking that she must have read my mind until I realized she meant me, was calling me by a name I was supposed to recognize. “It says you’ve been missing three years, and some of the others even longer.”
Three years made as much sense as anything, I supposed, and I tried to blink acknowledgement, so I wouldn’t have to find the words to speak. My throat felt choked by dry air and the look of pity and horror on her face.
“What I don’t get,” said another officer, leaning on the desk across the aisle and staring at me with cold eyes—not as cold as the merfolk’s, but cold enough, and wary. “What makes you so special? The sea takes a person or two every year; it doesn’t give them back.”
I tried to smile at him, but it was hard to remember the sequence of muscles, and I wasn’t sure what my face looked like. No one smiled back.
“They grow tired easily,” I said, and this time the words came out properly, like I had a voice again, though the sound to my ears was uncomfortably solid, so rough it hurt. “They must have gotten bored.”
Hotel beds were a mystery, unyielding, unlike the constant shifting of water. The hospital at least had been brutally clean, but they sent us away after our examination, as if we might be a threat to the other patients. The hotel smelled of cigarette smoke and dust, the opposite of water, and I breathed it in and tried not to miss the sea.
They’d put us all in one room, for the first night, which was wise and foolish of them. We were lost and waterlogged. We hated the sea, but we understood it. In the sea we could be sure of our humanity, if nothing else, but here we felt as much like merfolk as humans. We had dreamed in the depths of coming home, but now it seemed we had no home, and in the night our despair fed each other’s.
We all knew who would be the first to try. He didn’t even get the sheets around his neck before we carried him to the bath. He went still in the water, rigid and afraid. He relaxed slowly as we washed his hair and spoke to him, human voices with the cadence of the ocean, and eventually, he sank back into sleep.
We dried him, returned to our beds, and waited for the second of us to fall. I barely remember my time in the tub; that night, we all did our parts, and we all feared.
When morning came they found us huddled in our beds, dreaming, and one of us woke screaming at the sound of human voices and the sight of ordinary daylight. I don’t think it was me.
The officer who had brought us to the hotel watched in grim silence as we crawled from our beds and took our turns in the bathroom. None of us, I knew, looked at the tub as we dressed.
She didn’t say, “Are you ready?” until we were, and then just led us away. I was wearily grateful for that, that she ignored how lost we were but still gave us someone to follow.
There was talk at the station about returning us to our families, about whether they should keep us in custody to identify danger in the water, and we shuffled our feet and tried not to look as if all the things they described were beyond our comprehension.
Our officer said the name she had told me was mine, and after a moment I recognized it and looked up from my contemplation of feet and carpets and all the things that had not been real only a day ago. She said my name again, Geoffrey, and I made eye contact and half-nodded.
“Can you live on your own, do you think?” she asked, a little slowly, like she might have asked it before. I shrugged uncomfortably and glanced around at my fellows, who avoided the officers’ eyes with the same unease I felt.
“Can they at least go back to their families?” an officer toward the back asked, and I shrugged again, miserably, into the silence.
“They could work at the aquarium,” another man suggested, and the rest snickered.
A desk phone rang sharply into the fading laughter, and we flinched as one. Our officer, who had brought us from the hotel, reached out to lift the nearest headset. I had trouble understanding—hard enough to follow any conversation, let alone one with only one side.
Mermaids at least were easy to understand, singing truth at each other through the water.
She put the phone to her shoulder, perhaps to muffle the sound, though I knew the voice from the other end would hum into her chest, spread to fill the air in her lungs, the reverberations echoing through her bones like ripples, like waves.
“They’ve found another body,” she said. “Not clear if it’s alive. I know you’re not really up for much yet, but do you know if there was another of you? Could you try to ID it?”
That she called the body an “it” might have been a bad sign, but the mermaids called us all it, us humans. I looked at the others, and we nodded reluctantly, eager and frightened to return so close to the sea.
The body, when we found it, was pale all over, like waterlogged parchment, almost translucent, with long black hair spilling in all directions. The hand was the giveaway, seven thin broken fingers pointing toward us like a crooked accusation. That it had legs, half-covered in kelp, was meaningless; that part could even be glamour still clinging, to fall away with a touch like the pearls had crumbled into sand. But we all knew what seven broken fingers meant, and we recoiled, stumbled back up the beach.
They saw us move and drew back further, hands reaching for radios and nightsticks, and the officer in charge turned to us and growled something I didn’t catch. One of us shook her head, long black hair swaying with the motion, but that one had yet to start following the conversation, and shook her head at every question, so I doubted it was an answer. I turned to look at our officer in the hope that she would translate.
She argued with the man in charge, and he returned and spoke more slowly. “You all backed off fast when you saw it,” he said. “What is it? What does it mean?”
I did not want to bring bad news, did not even want to say the words aloud in human speech and make them true when their watery unreality was frightening enough.
It was another of us who spoke, smaller than me, and paler, with fragile blue-veined hands, her voice shaking almost as much as mine would have.
“You have not found a human,” she said, I saw recognition and fear in their faces, like a superstition coming true. They had kept their distance from the body, but I saw them shift further away at her words. Perhaps they could not see the added fingers, the strangeness of the body; perhaps only we who had been there could see it. Still, even before we drowned, we had known better than to touch what the tide brought. “This is an execution.”
“Being—” the man broke off, then shook himself. “Being beached like this, that’s a punishment? What could be bad enough that they’d do this to their own?”
The woman who had spoken before had worn herself out of words, and bowed her head, silver curls sliding down to shield her face.
I said, “Murder,” and when the police turned to face me, I added, “Grievous insult.”
The other woman among us, the one who had shaken her head, said, “Freeing prisoners, or poisoning the waters.”
“All right,” our officer interrupted. “But what did this one do? Do you know?”
“Theft,” we said in ragged chorus. “Release of precious property.”
“We were not set free,” said the first to speak, who had had hope.
“We were not sent as bait,” said the second, who had had none.
“We were stolen,” said the last of us, his voice frail and sick. “We were stolen, and they will want us back.”
No one knew how the merfolk might try to draw us back into the sea. No one even knew how people were taken, why some disappeared and not others, whether we had been lured or forcibly dragged into the water. And we still didn’t quite know why we had returned. I remembered the thin cold hands, broken now, draping my wrists in pearls. Perhaps our owners were meant to think we had taken their riches and swum for shore. Mermaid politics were complex, but escaped property would be shameful to anyone.
They had punished the transgressor, though, and now it only remained to see if they would feel the need to pull us back—whether there was any point in our returning to human life when we might vanish again any day. The police asked us question after question, but we hid even from the few memories we had. There was music all through those memories, and the swallowing dark of the sea, and we avoided the thoughts at all costs.
Days passed, though, and we were not pulled back into the water. There was no reason to think we were safer at the precinct than home with our families, no reason to hide our names for fear of giving false hope.
I had, they told me, some family; we all had families, demanding our release. Mine wasn’t much of one—a sister, and a sister-in-law, an uncle who lived far away. My sister and I were estranged, they said, and I rolled the word on my tongue to feel the sound it made. Estranged, I had known that word, but it had never before seemed to fit me so precisely.
We may have been estranged, but my sister and her wife came anyway. I supposed that was what you did, for family. I had to meet with them alone—the others had their own families to contend with.
As I waited in one of the interrogation rooms, our officer came by to remind me again what their names were. “Marian,” she said, “and Simone.” She must have seen the blankness in my face, because she added, “Marian is your sister.”
I nodded shakily, and she left, returned with two women following. Marian was my sister, I thought, I could remember that. If only I could tell which one she was.
Once we were seated, the woman on the left said, “Geoffrey,” staring like she barely knew me. It took me a moment, caught as I was in remembering her name, to realize that this was mine.
I said, “Marian,” because I remembered it first, and then “Simone,” dragged awkwardly out of memory, but they only stared at me in disbelief. I glanced at the officer, but her expression told me nothing except that I had probably not switched their names.
“We just heard,” the one who was probably my sister said, and I envied her that we, trapped as I was in a room like a terrarium with none of the others.
She hadn’t asked me a question, so I didn’t answer, and I saw them both relax as if they had expected a fight. The other woman, the one who was probably Simone, said, “We would have come sooner, if we’d known.”
They both looked expectant, now, so I said, “Yes.”
“What happened to you?” Marian asked. I flinched at the rise in her voice and caught the table to stay in my seat. “You’re not…” She turned to the officer. “Are you sure that’s even him?”
“It’ll be another day or so before the DNA results come back,” the officer told her, “but yes, we believe so.”
I had seen what I used to look like, and how I looked now, painfully thin, my hair grown long. Most of all, I suspected, it was the lack of life they saw. Even my photograph had looked more alive than I did, its eyes alert and watching where mine seemed fish-dull and blank.
Simone touched Marian’s hand, obviously reassuring, and then turned to me. “This must be as strange for you as it is for us.”
I thought about it. “They tell me it’s been three years since I last breathed air,” I said, and somehow that surprised a laugh out of her.
“All right, you win,” she said, smiling at me. “It’s got to be a lot weirder for you.”
When our families finally left us to regroup, we were all shaken. Marian had vibrated with relief and frustration, exhausting to be around. One of us, the silver-haired woman—her name might have been Claire—had settled on the narrow lobby couch with a hand on another of our shoulders. Daniel—David? —trembled under her grasp. He was younger than the rest of us, I thought, and his father had come to see him. I thought they must have looked alike, once, David and his father, before the sea.
I sat beside Claire as we waited for the fourth of us to return. She set a hand on my shoulder, gently, as she had on David’s, but removed it when I twisted away. A door across the room opened, and the last of us came out, Padma, from a meeting with almost a dozen relatives and a young man who stood apart and watched her family with blank eyes.
She sat on the lounge chair next to us and watched them go, then murmured, “Our parents were hoping we would get engaged.” She nodded toward the young man. “That’s what they tell me.” She didn’t seem happy or sad. She added, in a reluctant, baffled voice, “I had thought… I thought I liked…”
I looked up at her, saw remembered fear in her distant gaze, and offered, “Women?” so she wouldn’t have to say it.
She shook her head—tilted it side to side, really—in lieu of answering. I decided, after a moment, that she probably meant yes.
A few days later, they sent us home, assuming if we had not been dragged back into the water yet, we were safe enough for now. No one said that if the merfolk came, the police would be helpless against them in any case. They had been taking one or two of us a year for as long as we could remember—and from other coastal towns—and no one knew exactly how they did it. Scientific missions here came back without data, their recordings static, their memories blurred. The few photographs that survived were as convincing as the Loch Ness monster to anyone who lived inland: enough to bring us plenty of tourists, but telling us nothing new. On land, mermaids seemed not to exist, beyond a few haunting notes when they sang, beautiful and inhuman as whale song.
Given that we were the first to return, no one knew quite what would happen to us—whether we would survive on land, whether we would return to the sea. With nothing more the police could do, our families made arrangements to bring us together again at the end of two weeks, as a sort of support group. They traded words and pieces of paper, and then the officers drove us home.
The trip to the house was brutal, cramped in hard bucket seats in the back of a police car. David sat beside me, anxious and strained, hands curled helplessly in his lap. We huddled closer together when we reached his house until his father came to draw him from the car. We would see each other soon, but it still felt like being torn from my last mooring. The rest of the ride was a blur, alone and dislocated without the others.
Marian and Simone showed me their home—I couldn’t tell whether we had been so estranged that I had never been there before, or if this was only another thing I had forgotten. It had wooden floors and warm colors on the walls, welcoming and unfamiliar after the sea and the station. They had made up the guestroom, and though neither of them seemed especially happy to see me, there was no mention of my being left to live on my own. If there had been any hesitation, it vanished, I thought, when they saw the way I touched the oven with hesitating fingers, only half-remembering how it worked.
Both of them had jobs to go to, during the day, as I gradually discovered. I realized that they were taking it in turns to stay home and watch me, try to talk to me, put a book in my lap or play me a song they thought I should remember.
Simone did this with care, as if I might break, but Marian shifted between fondness and impatience so quickly I found it hard to follow, resentment just beneath the surface. I wondered what we had done to each other, or if this was only the way she reacted to three years of grief come suddenly to an end, too much emotion finding only anger as an outlet, and me unable to respond in kind.
By the weekend I could make myself a sandwich and turn on the radio. I had always been a little backward on technology, I thought, and now I had lost three years. Their computer was thinner than any I had ever seen, and they carried whole libraries in a single artificial book. I stayed away from the electronics.
It had been nine days since the hotel room, fewer since the police station, and when David next tried to kill himself, none of us was there to stop him. We got the call from the hospital, and I sat in the dim living room wondering how we could have missed it. Somehow I had thought—surely we should have known?
I had heard no singing in the night, felt no urge to return to the water, but something had taken David and sent him bullet-wounded to the secure ward of the hospital.
“What was that about?” Simone asked, coming in, and her voice, careless and friendly, turned serious at my expression. “Hey,” she said, softening, “tell me what’s wrong. What happened?”
“David,” I said carefully, and it occurred to me that she might not know who that was. “He came up with us,” I ended up saying, and it sounded like a question.
“Sure,” she said. “Asian? Wears sweater vests?”
I had noticed neither of these things, but I nodded. “He’s at the hospital,” I said. And, realizing it was too far to walk and I didn’t know the way, “Do you think you could drive me?”
She grabbed her keys immediately, which was why Simone was my favorite. She waited until we were in the car and already moving to ask me what had happened. That was another reason.
“I don’t know,” I admitted as we drove. “I think—they said something about a gun.” I didn’t tell her he’d shot himself; it hardly seemed possible. I no longer wanted to die, quite, but if I had, I knew that I would have wanted to drown.
I froze at the thought, suddenly too stiff to move. I would have wanted to drown. I would have wanted… I had wanted… There was surf roaring in my ears, and an echo of singing, and my hands reached for the door as if it would open to the spill of water.
“Geoffrey,” Simone said, and hit the brakes, and I didn’t know if it was the no-longer-quite-mine name or the jolt of the car stopping that shook me out of it, but I clenched my hands into fists to stop the tremors and took deep, gasping breaths.
“Everything is fine,” I said to her, and then couldn’t stop saying it. “Everything is fine.”
Simone drove to the hospital even faster after that. Because she thought seeing David would help, or just to get me out of the car, I didn’t know. I stared at the signs by the side of the road, and the crooked trails of tar running along the asphalt. I could trace them with my eyes, watch the idle branching of them, and breathe, and think about nothing. Beside me, Simone turned up the radio without seeming to think about it, the music entirely unlike siren song, and I remembered distantly what that had been like, when I was younger and happier, and adjusting the radio had been enough to make the singing fade unnoticed.
The hospital lobby was oddly elegant—it even had a fountain, and I was proud of myself for following Simone past it without a second glance. She knew David’s last name, which was more than I did, and it was a relief to get into the elevator, just us and no sound of water.
Simone pushed the button, and I stared blankly at the elevator doors and tried not to think about anything, which worked fairly well until Simone spoke.
“They said he’s on a secure floor,” she said, and her voice was careful. I looked sideways at her, not sure what she meant, and she said, “Suicide risk.”
“Oh,” I said. “Yes.” Her mouth tightened, which I suspected was disapproval, and I muttered, “Sorry, I should have said.”
“You told me you didn’t know what happened,” she said, and there was something—resigned, maybe even familiar, in her tone. I had only been frightened of the word—suicide—couldn’t bear to say it aloud. I had been asking myself the same question—what happened, what had made him do this. But it was possible that I—that Geoffrey—that I had often left things out.
“I meant,” I began, and hurried on at the impatience on her face. “I meant I didn’t know why he did it.” I tried to think of a peace offering, and said, “The gun part was true.” I was enough myself, now, to be distantly horrified by how small my voice sounded.
We rode the rest of the way in silence, but it wasn’t an entirely unfriendly silence, and I had to hope that meant I’d been forgiven.
The visiting area was nice, soft couches and thick rugs on the floor. The nurses standing guard stayed out of our way, mostly, quiet against the wall. David was curled up in a yellow sofa, one with deep enough pillows that he seemed to sink into it completely. His head was bandaged, but that was all. I had to assume he hadn’t been motivated enough, or steady-handed enough, to do himself much real damage. The singing in my head rose at the thought—perhaps he had heard the same music, and his hands had been clumsy with the call of the sea.
I refocused and saw Padma sitting on the opposite couch, watching him. She wasn’t moving, or speaking, and her fiancé and parents and a cousin or an aunt were all sitting around her talking softly between themselves, a little too animated, as if to make up for her silence.
Claire was in one of the chairs, and she looked up as we came in. I realized as she did that she’d been the only one in the room actually looking at David.
“Geoffrey,” she said warmly. “And…”
“I’m Simone, Geoff’s sister-in-law,” Simone told her. “Claire, isn’t it?”
Claire offered her a distant smile, already turning back to me, perhaps with the same feeling I had, that all other humans were too real, and only among ourselves could we speak comfortably. Or perhaps she only had a purpose, one I served better than Simone.
“He hasn’t spoken yet,” she said. “You should talk to him.”
I nodded reluctantly, made myself approach, moving slowly so Simone could stay with me, the only person in the room who made me feel human.
“Hi, David,” I said, and his eyes slid over to me and away, glazed and uninterested. “You want to talk about it?”
He looked at me again, this time incredulous, and I thought of how we had felt, coming out of the water, voiceless and strange. It seemed we had not all been getting our words back at the same rate. At home, Marian and Simone kept expecting me to talk back, to argue with them, like we must have fought before the water. Somehow that expectation pushed at my throat and my tongue. I remembered the way David’s father had looked, possessive, protective, and wondered if his family avoided pressing him, if his house had been silent.
I reached out, moving slowly so he could dodge me, and touched his throat, remembering how my own throat had choked against speech. “Why did you do it this time?” I asked, and was horrified at myself even as it turned out to be the right question, as he finally focused with recognition and grief.
“Nobody understood me, before,” he said softly, and I felt sick with bitter knowledge. I remembered that, feeling young and directionless; I could feel the family pressure that, even unspoken, must have pressed on every choice he made. “Now I don’t even understand myself.”
Back home, I wondered—would it happen to the rest of us? Had David been caught by the song of the merfolk trying to bring us back, or only lost in his own despair? I tried to remember my own fall into the sea, the singing that had drawn me in. But my thoughts grew hazy when I thought back, the smell of salt, the wet sand, the pull into the water, all running together like water smearing the ink on a page.
I remembered that I had been miserable, and angry, but those seemed like such distant feelings compared to the numb isolation I felt now. Trying to bring it back made it hard to inhale, my ribs too tight, like I once might have thought it would feel to breathe underwater.
Underwater, breathing had been easy, though speaking was largely impossible. We fought, at first, but the mermaids couldn’t seem to understand us as we shouted bubbles through the water, and they hurt us if we struggled when they used us as game pieces or toys. When they grew bored, they left us alone, so we drifted in the dark water. Somehow, however long I swam, I never reached the air, and the mermaids always found me. It was cold and suffocating and frightening, but there had been some relief in giving up, in the loss of control, in letting myself become a thing instead of a person. I had wanted that escape, before I entered the water. It had been the only relief in drowning—the only part that had turned out as I expected.
Looking back to that day, to my last time on land, I knew I had walked the shore several times before, trying to commit—even that last moment, I had not been sure. Had it been the same for the others? Looking for release, and finding the sea? Each time I visited the beach, the rhythm of the waves seemed closer to matching my heartbeat, the soft roll of water and harsh screams of the gulls a little more like someone calling my name.
There was music, though, that last time, sweet and achingly sincere, like a child making a solemn promise. I could feel the music as much as hear it, smooth, consuming, like water closing over my head. There was a rightness in the way the foam washed against my leg, in the solid weight of soaked jeans. I breathed in the smell of brine and safety.
Everything would be all right, in the water. If only my hands were steadier on the doorknob, the water rising against my legs as the music soaked into my skin.
I was standing in front of the screen door, looking through it at my sister. Marian was watching me like she had never seen me before—she seemed to wear that look constantly—though by now she had been seeing me for weeks.
At the moment, though, even I didn’t quite know what was happening, except that it seemed even the memory of siren song could be enough to pull me in.
That was why the merfolk had never come to fetch us, I realized. It was all a game to them. They knew they would not have to leave the water. They knew that we would be hungry to return. They could wait, and sing, and laugh at our efforts to stay on land and make a life with the water always pulling us back.
Better not to think about it. And, better, perhaps, to forget the way the world had seemed before the beach, the gray indifference and bleakness of everything, the way I could hear the water calling because I had no energy to keep from listening.
“Hi,” I said, and saw her shoulders relax, though she still watched me like I might slip past her into the night. Padma stood behind her, and it was a surprising relief to see someone like me. I focused on her and said, “Welcome,” and felt some of my tension ease.
“Geoff,” Marian said, and I watched her decide not to interrogate me in front of company. “It’s… good to see you. Look, Simone told me about your friend, and I thought you might like to have one of the others over, support each other.”
I didn’t say that Claire was the one who actually managed to support any of us, that she would have been a much better choice. It seemed like something I might have said, once. Now it took too much effort, and, thinking it through, I realized Marian had understood more than anyone else, to guess that spending time with another of us would help rather than hurt.
“Hi, Padma,” I said dutifully, and thought how much better I felt just seeing someone I knew was like me, and I asked, “Marian, when does Simone get home?”
We ended up all having dinner together, and watching Padma watch my sister and her wife was a surprisingly effective antidote to the siren song still fading from my mind.
Padma talked about her family during dessert, and Marian, with what I was beginning to recognize as a familiar lack of tact, responded with something snide about arranged marriages.
“It isn’t exactly arranged,” Padma argued, soft-voiced but silencing them with the sheer fact that she was arguing. We didn’t like conflict, coming out of the sea, where we had never dared express our will. “It could be, that’s, you know, that’s a little old-fashioned, but I wanted help finding someone. If I said no, not this man, they would find another.”
Marian took a breath to say something, and I saw Simone shift in her seat, just slightly. Marian sank back quietly into her chair, as if this were a well-known signal, and Simone said, “It’s lovely that your family cares so much about you.”
Padma nodded, although she didn’t seem entirely happy, and Simone asked her, gentle the way she sounded when she spoke to me, “Did you have someone else in mind?”
After a moment, Padma said, “Not exactly.” She trailed off, looking hopefully between Marian and Simone.
Marian still looked blank, but I saw Simone’s whole posture change, softening into understanding. “Have you told your parents?” she asked.
Marian started as she got it, something in the way Simone moved or spoke making it obvious to her as Padma’s body language had not. She threw me a startled look, as if wondering whether I had understood, and I hunched into my chair, not sure how I had surprised her.
When I came back into the conversation, Padma and Simone were talking about how to tell her mother, and I saw something between hope and resignation in Padma’s face, at least an acknowledgement that hiding hadn’t worked either. I wondered whether that was why she had drowned, whether she had chosen the ocean over facing the truth.
“Make sure,” Simone told her, “that they know this isn’t just since the mermaids. But maybe they’ll be relieved that it’s only this. You know they’ve been worried sick.”
Padma’s smile was crooked, like she knew it wouldn’t be that easy, but it was a smile, and when Simone offered to help her, she seemed sure she could do it alone. As she left, I told her, “We would come with you, any of us.”
She blinked at me, then nodded. “I’ll call you,” she said, and ducked out the door.
“You knew,” Marian said, when Padma was gone. “That’s why you asked her to stay.”
I shrugged, not sure whether her stare was an accusation. I knew Marian was still angry with me for things I could barely remember—things I was only beginning to guess. When we fought, I could hear the echoes of earlier conversations sometimes, that I was selfish, that I was manipulative, though I seemed to have too little voice or sense of self, these days, to manage either. In arranging dinner, though, I must have been falling into old patterns.
I took a breath to apologize, and as I did, I saw Simone about to speak, trying to head my sister off, perhaps. But Marian pushed on. “You—before you—before. You never approved.”
I blinked at her, trying to remember. What I knew of my sister came mostly from now, through the waterlogged haze of drowning, but I pushed back into the half-remembered past before the ocean. Simone had been a matter of indifference, I thought, because I had not got on with my sister. It had never been the other way around.
“Well,” I said cautiously, and neither of them interrupted me. “I don’t… I don’t think so, actually.” I let myself drift back to the beach, and saw my own anger and my own loneliness, Marian only a distant figure failing to save me.
It must have looked like I had deserted her, turned on her when she came out, and I didn’t quite know how to tell her I had only been too self-centered, too lost in my own unhappiness. “I don’t remember anything like that.”
Simone put a hand on Marian’s shoulder, and I saw my sister’s mouth twist like she was fighting not to cry.
“We just didn’t get on, maybe,” I offered, and that wasn’t all of it, but it was a start. “And then we weren’t there for each other.” That had been the worst of it, I thought—how desperately we had needed each other, and how little we had done, how little we had understood each other. “I never cared who you dated.”
I thought back to our high school days and remembered a tall boy with greasy green-streaked blond hair and a glossy band T-shirt. I couldn’t find his real name, but I remembered I had nicknamed him after whatever I’d been reading at the time, and said, “No, wait, there was the Jabberwocky. I hated the Jabberwocky.”
Marian laughed, a startled, broken sound, and reached out to hug me, too rough and too hard. I leaned in anyway, pressed my face down into her hair. Simone put an arm lightly around us, and we stood there, one or all of us shaking, in the warm-lit hall of my sister’s house.
It was a long drive to any of the beaches, and even then the road kept its distance from the water. The nearest access point was a cliff overlooking the sea, the edge only about twenty yards from the street. That was near enough that, as we pulled up in a soft crunching of gravel, I could see Claire sitting at the edge, staring down into the waves, just as the police had said when they asked us to talk her down. For anything less, even weeks after my homecoming, I doubted Marian would have driven me so near the sea.
I crept closer, so as not to surprise Claire into a fall, but she turned and smiled at my approach.
“Of course they would call you when my daughter saw I was missing,” she said, which explained the woman waiting in a dark blue car as we drove up. “I’m sorry. I just wanted to see.”
“To see what?” I asked, sitting beside her. This close, the sound and smell of the ocean was almost overpowering. I didn’t dare look down. Instead I focused on her face, watching me with the quiet confidence I remembered.
“I was happy enough before the call,” she told me. “Not like you. But when I heard it, I thought that God was finally calling me back to him.” She smiled, a little. “But we all came out again, so I must have been wrong, and it wasn’t our time. We all have a new chance at life. Today, though, I just had to be sure that I was committed to a new beginning.”
I stared at her, awkward. I said uncertainly, “You came here just to test yourself?”
Her smile widened. “I’m fine,” she said proudly. “I don’t even hear them anymore.”
Behind us, someone approached and stopped a few yards away. I turned to see David waiting, swaying, ever so slightly, like the wind might blow him over.
Or like he was standing in a tide, I thought, moving with the waves, and I rose to set my hand on his shoulder. He stopped swaying at my touch, and refocused from the sea to my face.
“Rock music,” I told him. He looked blank, but I went on determinedly. “Or pop, or opera, whatever you like. When you get home. Listen to something that isn’t them.”
Padma joined us, and I remembered that Claire wasn’t the only one who had been worrying me. “What did your mother say?” I asked her, and she smiled, not entirely happily.
“She asked me if all of you were gay now,” she admitted, faint laughter in her voice, and I tried to smile back. “She said she wants to find me a nice Indian girl like they found my brother, but she hasn’t told my father, or my aunts and uncles, so, anything can happen.”
Claire said, “Anything can happen.” Padma shrugged, but her smile grew steadier.
“I’m going back to school,” David told us, words spilling out of him as if he’d been storing them for weeks. “Community college, close to home. They’ve got counselors and I’m starting with just math and art—I would never have taken art before.” He glanced up to see us watching, and looked quickly back down. “You guys could come over sometime if you want. My mom’s family doesn’t know what to do so they keep sending me movies to watch while I get better.” His voice was strained with the effort of optimism.
“That sounds like fun,” Claire told him. “My daughter, she went there, when she was your age. We could go talk to her sometime if you wanted.”
David nodded hesitantly, and she set her hand on his shoulder. For a while we stood in familiar silence, just staring into the waves as if we might see our faces reflected in the water.
There was a flicker, the tip of a tail breaching the water, and the sun turned the gray fin brilliant with color, like light on a film of oil. The singing rose in my ears, and I breathed in the smell of the sea, and I could almost forget the fear and the pain, and Marian waiting in the car. Beside me, David stiffened, and I had to resist the music enough to grab his arm and keep him there, and that anchored me, somehow. On my other side, Padma leaned in, and Claire’s hand brushed me as she put an arm around David’s shoulders, and together we were enough to brace ourselves against the pull of the tide.
Eventually we left, returning to our cars, Padma detaching herself first to go back to her family. I turned to watch the others leave, the smell of the ocean still pulling at me, and I wished it could be easy to return.
I finally got in next to my sister. She grabbed my arm, briefly, hard, before returning her hand to the gear shift. I turned up the radio as we pulled away, Padma’s car ahead of us and David and Claire following behind, and let the last traces of singing fade with the drumbeat. We pulled back onto the road, all of us, and headed together back toward home.
©2018 by Rachel Halpern
RACHEL HALPERN is a graduate of Stonecoast MFA and the Alpha Writer's Workshop. Her work has previously appeared in Daily Science Fiction and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She likes cephalopods, superheroes, and goat cheese on everything.