Carissa McDaniels is not a mermaid.
She wears big earrings and draws tiny dichotomous flowers on the back of her notebook with a Sharpie. She swears she’s in love with Crawford Close, and this is the biggest reason. A mermaid would never love someone like Crawford.
Ashley Burgess is also not a mermaid. She plays volleyball and field hockey, and at the end of eighth grade, she started spelling it Ashleigh and now she goes back and forth like the spellings are the names of two different people. The one who likes Schubert and Barber, and the one who hit Monica Ortega in the shin with her field hockey stick and took her mother-of-pearl barrette just because Monica said that Soulja Boy was better than Akon. Monica, by the way—also not a mermaid.
What happened is this:
My brother Trip almost drowned at Malibu. He was out in the south swells and got tossed and there was no way to shake the undertow. He told all his friends that he got lucky and washed up on a sandbar, but what he told me is different.
He said a girl pulled him out. She had storm-colored eyes and black hair. Or maybe green, he said. It was hard to tell if it was green. She leaned over him, looking down into his face, and then she was gone.
Later, he said, he just kept seeing her around—she was always there in the periphery. It was weird, he said, how she wouldn’t leave him alone. He said it made him nervous. I didn’t tell him that he should be grateful. That when someone saves your life, sometimes you just have to let them.
I started looking for her, trying find her face among the girls on the boardwalk and at the mall, the ones at school. The ones he went out with and the ones he brought home. I thought if I could find her, I could thank her for saving him, and maybe that would make up—a little—for the fact that he hadn’t.
I think now that it wouldn’t have made a difference.
My brother Trip drowned at Malibu. The riptide was strong and the sea must have wanted him bad, because no one almost drowns and then actually does.
Everything in my life can be divided neatly into before that day, and after. The house got quiet, then silent, and that was okay, because even my voice had started to sound different. At night, I would wake up from dreams where all the windows exploded inward, showering my bed in a glittering wash, covering the carpet like sand. It was a house of glass, but not the kind you throw stones at.
I heard once that if you drown in the ocean, the water doesn’t rush into your bloodstream like it would in a lake or a swimming pool. Instead, the salt sucks your own plasma out of your blood and into your lungs. You’re drowning in your own fluids, but it takes longer. You can still be resuscitated after six minutes. You can be saved.
What they don’t tell you is, it burns like hell, and everything in my life had become just another metaphor for drowning.
On warm nights, I would get out of bed and walk down Llorona Drive to the sea. I didn’t go down to the water, just stopped at the top of the beach and stared out.
Then one night, as I stood on the sand, high above the tide, I saw the dark shape of someone else. A boy was standing fifty yards away, by the closed-up taco booth. He was looking out at the horizon, where the moon sank low over the water, gold as a peach.
When he saw me watching him, he let his head slump forward, hands in his pockets. Then he turned and came toward me.
He wasn’t drunk. At least, I don’t think so. He didn’t list or stagger. Sometimes boys from the college wandered down onto the beach, hooting and laughing and yelling obscenities, but when he came up to me, he didn’t smell like anything but salt.
He didn’t say anything and his hair was tangled, hanging in his eyes. He came closer than is good to come when you’re walking up to a stranger, but I didn’t mind. In the dark, his eyes were thunderhead-gray, wet and sad.
He gestured to the breakers and I shook my head. He touched my hand, not holding it, but just with his fingertips. Then he ran away down to the beach and dove in. I stayed where I was.
He surfaced farther out than I’d expected, far beyond the pounding the surf. I saw moonlight in his hair, but his face he hidden by shadows. He raised one hand and waved it, just once, like he was calling to me.
I shook my head, not for him, but saying it to myself. No. But he was already coming back, walking up out of the surf with the water pouring off him.
When he slipped one arm around my waist and the other under the back of my knees, I didn’t struggle. I wanted to tell him that my brother was dead from not loving a mermaid, and that every night was a shower of broken glass, but I didn’t know how.
I wanted to tell him that no one had touched me in months.
His shirt was wet and it soaked through my pajamas, warmer than was even possible. His skin was slick from the salt. I clung to him, arms around his neck as he waded back into the surf. Waves churned around his thighs, and slapped my bare calves.
He waded out deep, holding me against his chest as the ocean billowed and rocked all around us. I thought of Trip, how when I was little, he would carry me out and then suddenly let go.
But the boy’s arms were steady and the sea was calmer past the breakers. I was crying now, in slow, noiseless sobs that matched the waves, and against his damp neck, the tears just kept disappearing.
He lay back and floated, letting me rest against him. I closed my eyes, knowing that he wouldn’t let go. That I would remember to thank him.
That someone could rescue a person by carrying them out to sea.
Photo by arindam