Summer Crime Scene
A month before we found the mermaid, the carnival came to town. This is important, and you should remember it. By the time it had left, my parents had started arguing over everything ranging from the cutlery placements to my father's vasectomy, even though whenever I asked mom, she always told me to chalk it up to summer irritability. By the time it had left, two Russian trapeze artists had gone missing and only one had been found again, her hands suspiciously empty of the 50,000$ they had taken from the ringmaster. By the time it had left, the worst drought since 1965 had already begun melting our spines into something that resembled the 50 cent putty Mr. Warner had sold at the corner store.
At the end of May, heat was dripping from every corner, every eave, gathering in honey-golden droplets on street signs as the few brave souls reckless enough to venture outside drove by in cars that turned the air a glassy silver with exhaust. Whenever anyone got too close to the road in bare feet, it reared its lazy head, turning asphalt into a scorching swathe of sun—blinded cement that burnt knees to tinder. A dry languidness wrapped its fingers around our throats and squeezed gently; the twins who lived down the street from my old house sat on their front porch most mornings and let their legs swing, and in the afternoons, most of our neighborhood went trooping over to the creek, never mind the fact that not a single person could actually be bothered to go into the water.
In June, Bobby sprained his wrist skateboarding, and when he came back from the doctor, he had bruises the color of tarmac lacing themselves sideways up his elbows and down the angles of his knees. The only thing I wanted then was for the carnival to come back to town again and the only thing he prayed for was to have his dad come home from the city so the two of them could go hiking up into the woods like they used to before his dad turned into an alcoholic. Since our purposes didn't align, we were quiet whenever he came over. It was too hot to question anything but the strength of the air conditioning. The ice cubes in our cups only clinked twice on the rim before they were gone. The days slipped between our fingers like spring rain, dripping once, and then twice, before it was Sunday again and another week had passed.
It was also in June, if I'm remembering correctly, that my parents first mentioned divorce. Dad didn't move out though, hadn't even thought of doing it, at the time, and so it was just the three of us stuck in a matchbox house, acting as if everything were fine and normal and not very much aflame around us. There was always tinder in the air, the gravel of my father's voice rasping against my mother's words, the two of them cleaving each other into jagged pieces by the end of every day, falling into bed in pieces and waking up only halfway mended. Mom started sipping discreetly out of coffee mugs, and the smell of alcohol fell over the dining table like a veil. (There were reasons, you see, that I stayed out with Bobby so late into the afternoon.)
Now here is where we get to the important part of the story. If I recall correctly, it was in July on a Monday, when Bobby and I found the mermaid. We were down by the dry creek and the wild wheat was up to his shoulders and my elbows in some places, and in others, dry dirt stirred into silver clouds of dust as we kicked it up. The morning haze had just cracked open and the sky was the same color as broken yolks sizzling gently on the sidewalk, like that half carton I'd emptied out on the cement two days before because I'd tripped and dropped the box — despite my mother's warnings — because I'd seen a man that looked suspiciously like my dad driving down the road with a woman that looked suspiciously not like my mom leaning on his shoulder.
We were playing tag, or painful chase, or whichever other game it is that only needs two players, and he was running after me, and I was laughing. We were laughing, and the sunshine was riotous, scattering loosely over the tall grass, skimming my shoulders as I tripped over an exposed root. By the time I'd sat up my knees were scraped and dusty, and I'd seen the lip of a well to my right.
"Are you all right?" Bobby had asked. He was looking down at me with concern, but I was looking past him, at the light glimmering from the open pit.
At first glance the silver-green scales I saw seemed almost innocuous. Then I'd crouched over the ledge on both hands and feet and at the bottom of a hole that seemed to stretch on out into infinity, I'd seen a mermaid. I can still recall, vividly, her eyes, wide, pleading, two little specks at the end of an endless tunnel. (Some nights, even now, it's all I see when I look into a blank wall, but back then the only thing that had hovered in front of me was the possibility of something new.)
She was too far down for me to make out anything other than the glitter of her tail and the blanched-white of her face clearly, but I remember now, that her hair was straw-gold, a solar flare underneath the shaded rim of the well. She sat against the wall in a way that reminded me of my old babysitter, slumped over on the sofa on the nights when I wouldn't behave. There was a crumpled plastic bag in the shallow, silty water by her, and from what I could see, an eight-pack of Budweiser that was already three cans empty. In a cardboard box, we could see cash spilling over, dollar bills overflowing into silty water until the mud around her looked grassy. It reminded me of the green glass bottles my mom used to crack open and chug every night after dad had to 'work late' but to Bobby it was only another sign that we'd finally found the supernatural. After all, there wasn't a man in town who could resist drinking a whole pack of beer in one sitting if it was available, and there wasn't a woman we knew who could keep from running to the department store when she had more than fifty dollars in hand. Bobby wrinkled his nose, and I squinted.
"Do you need help, lady?"
He was the one to speak up, but we both stuck our heads over the opening of the well. The mermaid startled up, and the sound of splashing water echoed up to us, dimly, along with a garbled shout that had twisted itself twice over by the time it made it up to us. Her hair flashed as she moved into the edge of the sunlight, then disappeared as she stumbled back into the shade. The two of us stared down. From our vantage point, the dazzling shine of her tail as she swayed back and forth was the only thing we could make out clearly.
"Did she just ask us if it was going to rain?" Bobby scratched at his head, not at all mindful of the dust that had already begun to settle on the back of his neck.
I shrugged. There was dirt in the shape of crescent moons beneath my fingernails, and I had begun the hard work of chipping it away. "Maybe. But don't you think we should tell someone about this?"
He turned, and his eyes were sharper than I'd ever seen them, sharper than my fathers had been the day my mother had served him divorce papers. Sharper, even, then the glass on the floor had been after my mother's first drunken rage. Ignoring the high-pitched cries of the mermaid, Bobby grabbed my wrist and dragged me into a dead sprint, until we were back on his fronch porch and the screen door was slapping shut behind us.
"She's magical," he said firmly, breathing heavily as he leaned against the laminate wood table. Around us, the kitchen cabinets were sun-softened and a walnut brown. He was staring at me with sullen eyes, and as he leaned in close I could smell grape soda pop on his breath. "If we tell the grown-ups they'll take her away, and then we won't have her anymore."
He told me that she was our secret. That she was our mermaid, and telling anyone else would mean that she would become someone else's. That telling her would ruin things, would ruin everything, and we would have nothing left.
"We won't have her anymore if we tell someone," he repeated. "That means we can't say anything."
His voice was low, insistent, cupping my shoulders before letting go. He sounded like my father had, when I'd caught him with his mistress. His voice was breaking on the same syllables. The same emphasis on anyone and can't say anything. The only difference was that I'd told mom about that and I knew, I knew that since it had gone so badly I couldn't tell her about this. Because what if Bobby left too?
I nodded. He smiled back. By then the sharp possessiveness that can only belong to children too young to realize the difference between want and need had already wrapped a hand around our throats. I was caught. He was caught. The two of us looked down into the well and the second we looked up again at each other it was too late for her.
"Yeah," I said. "She's our mermaid."
Our words had tangled in our lungs before they had ever even had a chance to burst forward, and from that second onwards, there was never even a question of going to the adults. I didn't want to share her, the mermaid, our mermaid. I know Bobby didn't, either. Because what was a carnival compared to a real-life mermaid? What was an ice pop, or cherry slushies, or even two double chocolate fudge cups compared to a real, live, mermaid? Especially one with flaxen hair and marble-green eyes and scales the color of sunlight on the marsh water before the swamp had been all dried up by the heat. She spoke a different language, too, one with warbling syllables and gentle consonants and we were all proud of it, proud of her, our mermaid, who was so pretty and could do so much. We didn't understand what it was that she was singing, we couldn't make words out of the high, trembling sounds that fluted their way out of the darkness of the well, but still, we thought they were beautiful.
We were children then, who didn't know any better, and in some ways we will always be those children, crouched against the dusty ledge of an open-mouthed cistern, listening in wonder to the elasticity of a stranger's voice. I know Bobby, in his own way, has never been able to move forward from that July, and on a certain level, neither have I.
"I have to go now," Bobby said then, around an hour after that. He avoided my eyes as I stared at him, and then pulled his sleeves further down. We both knew that the bruises up and down his arms had been there far too long to have been the same ones from his skateboarding incident, especially since the said skateboard had been broken in half during one of his father's drunken fits.
"You won't tell anyone about her, right?" He was already turning to go, but I still had something left to say.
"She's not—" I tried to begin, but Bobby cut me off. His eyes were burning, burning and viciously bright as they stared into mine.
"She is," he insisted. "She's a mermaid and if we tell anyone about her the spell will be broken and she'll die."
"Okay," I said, uneasy. "Fine."
Together, the two of us admired the elasticity of her voice, even as it wrapped bruised fingers around our dusty elbows and pulled us even closer into the shade of the well.
It was two days later in August, on a Thursday evening that the drought broke. The rain started while I was eating dinner with my mother, the two of us sitting adjacent to each other on the far left side of the kitchen table. Again, my father was out, working overtime or wooing his secretary at the only steakhouse in town.
"Is there something wrong?" Mom looked over at me, my poor, eight-year-old self. She was already halfway through her second wine glass, and the first bottle, which had disappeared surreptitiously early in the afternoon, was already under the sink with a dozen others. I was gripping the spoon so tightly it cut edges into my fingers.
I opened my mouth. Mom was not looking at me, her gaze skimming right over mine. Her eyes were like river-stones, a smooth grey, except her pupils were bereft of the sun-warmth gold I was so used to seeing down by the creek. She was cradling a bottle to her chest like it was salvation, and in some ways, maybe it was. I thought of the last words my father had ever said to me, the way he had wept when he'd begged me not to tell my mother about the woman he was seeing. I thought of the look in my mother's eyes when I had told her, two weeks later in the kitchen, I thought of the way she'd shattered a dozen dishes against the drywall and then locked herself in the master bedroom. I shut my mouth again, my jaw clicking audibly.
That night, as the rain drummed on the roof, I heard the front door slam. The tell-tale sound of the engine starting was loud against the back of my skull and turning onto my side, I could see water streaming down the glass of the window. I could almost imagine stagnant puddles rising, river tides pulling me under as if I were the one huddled against cold cement and the wet uncertainty that tomorrow morning would bring sunshine. I stared outside at the clouds, pregnant and grey and weeping.
As I tried to sleep, the way the wind tore at the eaves sounded almost like a prayer. For the first time in months, I was cold. Through the wall, I could hear my mother sobbing. Through the wall, I could hear my father's gusty sigh, could almost imagine the way he was dragging a hand through his hair as my mother wept in the bathroom. Through the wall, the sound of the shower leaked through. The drain gurgled, wet, clogged, as if someone was swallowing water and begging for air. It was my fault. I knew that, and yet I could do nothing about it. Mermaids can't drown, right? Dimly, as I turned over in bed, I could almost imagine the frantic flash of silver-green scales, the swirl of sun-bleached hair as if down a gutter.
Amy Wang is a fifteen-year-old high school freshman from California. She has been nationally recognized by Scholastic and was a mentee in Adroit's summer mentorship. In her free time, you can find her reading fanfiction.