Atticus lived a hundred years, married twice, and loved only one girl. She became more a legend than a girl as the years went on. Her straw-blonde hair took on, in transit from one telling to the next, the pale white of a spirit. Her denim cutoffs and wicked grin became a billowing Victorian petticoat, her soggy daisy crown a shimmering tiara.
Death has a way of glamorizing all things, especially love.
But Atticus never wavered. He remembered his girl exactly as she had been the day she drowned. He remembered the small wet hills of her breasts when she was hoisted from the water, and the seaweed plastered to her arm like a patch sewn over a tear. He remembered the sound of his pocket watch ticking like her heart was in his hand, the last gift she would ever give him.
His youngest grandchild, and the most intuitive, Mary, would sit by his favorite chair in the evenings and struggle with her knitting. “Tell me about the girl you loved,” she would say. She was a romantic creature; it showed in her large, dark eyes. She had a whimsical and restless heart. One day she would be tall. She would be a Queen of Spades, the boys folding before her like unworthy Kings.
“Her name was Beth,” Atticus began the story. “She was a mermaid.”
“Was she pretty?” Mary asked, for the nine-hundredth time in her nine years.
“I thought so,” Atticus answered. “She had freckles that spread out from her neck and up around her face like gills.”
“I have freckles,” Mary said.
“Yes you do, and they’re lovely,” Atticus said. “But Beth’s freckles were different. They had been given to her by the sea witch. She was born an ordinary human girl, you see, but she never felt right on land. Her father was a pilot, and she tagged along on his flights, thinking there might be a place for her in the sky. But it was the water that enchanted her.”
“’Beth, Beth, Beth,’” Mary trailed, making whooshing sounds with her teeth to simulate the ocean’s call.
“Yes,” Atticus said. “That is exactly what she would hear.”
“And she answered the call,” Mary goes on, having memorized every word. “And the sea witch made her a mermaid.”
“But not always,” Atticus said.
“A sometimes mermaid,” Mary said, her eyes widening with importance. She abandoned the pink tangle that had become of her knitting. She was forever trying to create things, all of which ended in chaos.
“A sometimes mermaid,” Atticus agreed. “She was born human. And humans can never fully become something else. That’s why Beth drowned; she stayed in the water even after it was time to leave.”
Mary’s eyes filled with tears and she launched into his lap and hugged him. Small children are all elbows and knees, and her embrace was painful on his old frame, but he would never tell her so.
His grandsons burst into the room after that, all heavy stomping feet and muddy jeans. Not one ounce of passion among the lot of them. His son and daughter-in-law followed, pushing buttons on the microwave, crinkling grocery bags, turning on the television until the rooms were filled with sound, until Mary had disappeared completely.
It was the only story Mary liked to tell. Beth was just a girl who had drowned, her father would say. Sweetheart, it’s just a story Grandpa made up to scare us, her mother would say (but Atticus had never liked Mary’s mother very much). Mary’s brothers teased her about it. They chased her along the beach, waving their arms, yelling, The scary mermaid is going to get you! Listen, you can hear her splashing! Look, I see her dress floating on the water! They were terrible brothers, and she daydreamed the sea witch would rise up from the waves and stun their mouths into frightened O’s; she daydreamed the sea witch would turn them into scurrying crabs.
Sometimes, feeling very alone in the world, she thought about ways to summon the sea witch. She would’ve liked to be a mermaid, even the sometimes kind. She would have liked to be someplace pretty and full of colorful fish, where nobody would make her feel stupid or small. She stood at the water’s edge, listening to it hiss around her skinny ankles. Mary, she willed it to say. Mary, Mary, Mary. But it never did, and her heart sank to think that she would never be anything more than a girl.
But one night, towards the end of the summer, she had a dream. A pocket watch was sinking in the water, and it settled in a coral reef, the gold chain landing below a frenzy of striped fish. Mary had seen the watch; her grandfather wore it in the pocket of his green flannel shirt. There was a voice in the water that called itself the sea witch. It told Mary that it missed the sound that clocks made. The sea witch said that she would trade that sound for some of her magic if only she could.
Mary interpreted this in a way that only a small child who still believes in magic can.
It was very early when she climbed out of bed. So early that her brothers were all snoring in a mismatched chorus; she passed their room that was full of open mouths and limbs dangling from bunk beds and the smell of unwashed hair. Her bare feet made no sound; she had learned to be as quiet as she was invisible in her house.
She found her grandfather downstairs in his recliner that had duct tape patching its holes; Mary’s mother was not a fan of the recliner, and she had tried several times to be rid of it, but Atticus was attached to his things and concluded that the only way to keep his favorite chair was to sit in it as often as possible, even if his bones were sore and he should have been in a proper bed.
He was snoring, but not in the crude way her brothers did.
She tiptoed closer. It was dark, and for the first time in her life she heard the ticking of all the clocks the house contained. Clocks biding time; clocks that would chime at the hour, or erupt with alarms when it was time for school and work and chores. She felt like an ungrateful girl for never having noticed them before. For having so many clocks and not realizing there existed a creature in her dreams that longed for just one of them.
But her grandfather loved his watch even more than he loved his recliner. She’d seen how angry he could get about his things; he yelled at her parents about them. He even yelled at her brothers sometimes when they were noisy or they burped at the dinner table. But he had never yelled at her.
She rocked on her heels and weighed her love for her grandfather against her pity for the sea witch in her dreams. After all, she had been the one calling to the water, and here it had answered her.
Quietly, quickly, she snatched the gold chain that dribbled over her grandfather’s pocket. He stirred, and she ducked into the shadow beyond the strip of moonlight. But he didn’t wake.
To reconcile her guilt, she decided that she would share the magic with him when she had it.
Mary waited patiently for Saturday, beach day. She spent the daylight hours outside, because it left a pain in her chest to watch her grandfather search for his missing watch, which was tucked in the pocket of her best dress in the closet—the one that was only for church in the wintertime. But at night she dreamed of the sea witch, who never showed her face or her body, but whose presence caused the kelp to sway, and the winds to pick up, and the boats to clatter against the docks. She was waiting, waiting, waiting in a place without clocks.
By the weekend, Mary’s dreams had started to wake her. On the way to the beach, as her brothers shouted and fought over the only working pair of headphones, she slept and dreamt of hands reaching out for each other in the water. When they arrived at the beach, her parents laid down the towels and staked the umbrella and did their best to coat Mary’s brothers with sunscreen before they ran off like unleashed dogs.
Mary distanced herself from the others and stood at the water’s edge. The waves hissed around her skinny ankles, closing her in and then letting go.
She threw the watch into the sea.
A moment too late, she had second thoughts. The watch was already gone. The sea had a way of making things disappear. It did offer something in return, though. Just as she was trudging away from the water, sick to her stomach with guilt, she was sure she heard her name.
Atticus didn’t wake when his family returned from the beach—his son, married to the wife Atticus never much cared for, and the three boys who filled the house with the noise of things breaking, and Mary, whom he adored. And for several hours, Mary was the only one to notice that the noise of their return hadn’t woken him. He sat very still in his favorite chair, his hand in his pocket as though reaching for his watch. And Mary sat at his feet, worrying a ball of yarn with tears in her eyes, waiting for someone to notice.
He would always be reaching for his watch. That’s what she was thinking. For all of eternity, he would never find it.
But on the morning of her grandfather’s funeral, a week later exactly, Mary awoke from a dream she couldn’t quite remember. The thought of it haunted her as she slipped into the black dress her mother had laid out.
It had been something about the water, she thought, trying to remember, and a boy whose face was obscured by the water, and a girl with yellow hair. The whole thing left her feeling tranquil, which she thought unusual for the morning of a funeral.
When she stood before the mirror to fix her hair, she noticed that her sparse freckles had multiplied. They trailed down her neck, in a pattern that reminded her of gills.
Thank you, Lauren! Readers, you can visit Lauren here at her website for more information on her books WITHER and the upcoming FEVER!