• Erin Snedeker

Mermaids: Part 1





Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Okeechobee Island. AFTER


The boat cut frothy white foam through the swamp colored water. A mere thirty feet long, it had been recruited from its old life of leisure to its new, utilitarian life of salvage. It bobbed and bounced against the waves, but the sky was clear and so they kept going. This was their third attempt, and they were only granted five before they were placed at the end of the cue again.


Aboard, a man was at the wheel, his skin burned by the sun and the wind, his hair in salt encased strands. A woman stood at his side with a GPS in her hand. She stared at the GPS with fixed concentration. In the front seat, two children, a boy of twelve and a girl of eight sat wrapped in puffy orange life jackets. They squinted unhappily against the wind and salty spray. Near the back of the boat was a tangled pile of diving gear.


The woman put her hand on the man’s shoulder and he pulled back on the accelerator. The boat slid to a stop and bobbed as a white wave rolled from stern to bow.


“This is it,” said the woman as she stared at the GPS. On the tiny black screen, a green dot and a red dot blinked, the green dot nearly directly over the red one.


“Are you sure, Anne-Marie?” the man asked. “We can keep looking.”


The woman nodded and gazed out over the wide expanse of water. “I’m sure. This is home. I can feel it. Somehow...” She looked back at the man. “Let’s drop anchor, I’m going to program the buoy.”


The man looked like he wanted to add something, but sighed and nodded. “Kids, this is it. Come help.”


The children scampered barefoot to the back of the boat.


Anne-Marie knelt in front of them and adjusted her daughter’s hat to better protect her delicate skin. “River, go help your father,” she said gently. “Johnny, you can help me with the buoy.”


River ran to her dad and he handed her a rope to hold while he retrieved the anchor. Johnny followed Anne-Marie to the storage bench. Anne-Marie moved aside the vinyl cushion and hoisted up the seat to reveal a roomy storage compartment. She pulled out the small red sphere, rope, weights, and a black device that resembled a small calculator. She handed the weights and GPS to Johnny and threaded the rope through the buoy, and then through the ring at the corner of the device.


“Okay, read the coordinates to me,” she said. She pointed at the GPS screen. “Just there.”

Johnny read the numbers as Anne-Marie punched them into the device. “Perfect, thanks big guy,” she said with a smile. Johnny handed her the weights and she secured them to the other end of the line.


On the other side of the boat, Anne-Marie heard the splash of the anchor. She double-checked the knots and made sure the device was properly programmed. The light blinked green and comforting. Her heart hammered as she tossed the buoy over her side of the boat. She watched the weights sink and disappear into the murky water. The buoy swayed in the waves.


Anne-Marie dressed silently in the scuba gear as her family watched. Her fingers shook with adrenaline, as they had the last two times before as she clipped and zipped herself ready. She couldn’t help but think of what was below the surface. An entire civilization drowned in the brackish water. She tried and failed with the back zipper twice before her husband’s hands gently covered hers and pulled the zipper closed.


“Thanks, Harry,” she said softly.


Harry nodded. His hands gripped her shoulders. His blue eyes searched her face. “Are you sure you’re okay to do this? I can go instead, just to see if this is it.”

Anne-Marie shook her head. “I know what I’m looking for. Stay with the kids, it won’t take me long. It’s either the right place...” her mouth felt dry, and she swallowed, “Or it’s not. It won’t take me long to find out.”


Harry nodded and removed his hands. He bent his forehead to hers and she closed her eyes. “I really hope this is it,” he said.


“Me too,” she whispered. She stepped back and perched on the edge of the boat. “Well, wish me luck,” she said. She gave her kids a nervous smile. They looked back with tired eyes. She pulled her mask over her face, fitted her oxygen tube in her mouth and fell backwards into the water.


Florida. BEFORE


Hurricane Irma slammed into the southwest coast of Florida September 10th, 2017, costing billions of dollars in damage, leaving thousands of people homeless and millions without power. Winds of upwards of 165 miles per hour tore roofs from buildings and ripped trees from the ground by their roots. Torrential rains ravaged the land, pounding their earth, sneaking past sandbags and into people’s homes where it collected and swelled.


It moved slowly, causing severe thunderstorms into the mountains of Northern Georgia and Tennessee. Millions of people fled in anticipation of the storm’s destruction. Those who stayed told tales of terror, haunted by the sounds of the wind as Irma screamed in fury and drenched the world in her wrath.


In the midst of the storm, a baby girl was born. Her parents named her Anne-Marie, and later nicknamed her their Storm Child. Since their home was without power, the hospital allowed the new family to stay for a week while the new father made living arrangements. They wouldn’t let the newborn go to a home with no power in such heat. For after Hurricane Irma finally dragged herself away, a heat wave followed in her wake. The sun thrashed the soaked land. Humidity hung heavy in the air as the already saturated sky attempted to pull Irma’s moisture from the ground. Gasoline and ice became the most sought after commodities. Damp, exhausted people spent hours in the few restaurants that somehow still had power, leeching off the air conditioning and ordering countless iced drinks before going back to the breaking, tedious work of clearing debris and sorting through the damaged artifacts of their lives.


On the day before they would have to leave the hospital, Anne-Marie’s father pulled off a small miracle and bargained his way into obtaining a generator. The generator was powerful enough to provide energy for their lights, refrigerator, and the small window air conditioner that sat in their bedroom.


On September 19th, the new family moved to their home on Lime Street.


AFTER


The water was murky, but not too bad. Anne-Marie saw a few flashes of silver-- sunlight glinting off scales before, with startled flicks of their tails, the fish darted away. Scraps of clear plastic floated in the muddy water, drifting, undulating like miniature jellyfish. The silent, immovable silhouettes of houses sat in the darkness below. Grave markers of another time.


Anne-Marie kicked smoothly onward. She turned on the flashlight at her wrist and a feeble beam of light reached into the darkness. An old telephone pole loomed into view, its wood barnacled and rotting. She gripped the pole and pulled herself deeper. Splinters of wood broke off and floated around her as hand over hand, she climbed down into the world of her childhood.


Anne-Marie had always loved the silence that water offered. The world of her childhood so loud, so full with the voices of billions of people trying to be heard, all clamoring, all arguing, all angry and morose and passionate and joyful. The violent language of leaders used to trouble her. The quiet mumbling of submission used to frustrate her. The water had been a solace, a reprieve, a place where the loudest voice was her own.


Now, the silent water sent a chill through her. The bones of old houses grew larger. The loneliness frightened her. The solitary sound of her breathing haunted her. How many voices had the rising waters silenced?

BEFORE


Anne-Marie lived up to her nickname as their Storm Child. Even as a baby, she preferred the outdoors to their modest home. Her long brown-blonde hair always wind-tangled. Her feet always bare and dirty. Her skin always stained nutty brown by the sun. When her younger brother, William, was old enough, she taught him how to climb trees, which branches were good, and which ones were too weak to support weight. She spent hours outdoors after school, snacking on the oranges that grew in their neighbor’s yard, biting into the bitter skin to peel them. She shrieked with joy when she splashed in the waves of the Gulf of Mexico. She slept through thunderstorms in the tree-house their father had built for her in the mango tree in their backyard. When their youngest brother, Cameron, came along, she told him stories of mermaids and wars waged at sea, and the hero who rode into battle on the back of a shark. Her greatest wish was to be able to breathe underwater, followed closely by the ability to speak to dolphins. She was wild, beautiful, powerful. A storm.


When Anne-Marie’s stories were too much for Cameron, William intervened.


“Mermaids aren’t real,” William snapped. “Stop scaring him.”


Anne-Marie was ready to lash back with a venomous retort when their father laughed. He pulled Cameron into his lap and tucked the boy’s golden head under his chin.


“Mermaids,” he said. “They’re very special creatures. They aren’t scary at all.”


“They’re not?” Cameron asked. His eyes were wide over his perfect round cheeks.


“No,” their father chuckled. “They keep our memories safe. And when we need to remember something, a mermaid will swim to the spot where they hid it, and bring the memory back to us. She’ll slip the memory back into our mind just before we need it.”


Cameron clutched his father’s hand and thought that mermaids still sounded pretty scary.


“But Dad,” William whined. “Mermaids aren’t real.”


“Oh yes they are, young man,” their father said. Anne-Marie held her breath, wanting so badly o believe him. “Any Floridian knows they’re real. I’ve seen one with my own eyes.”


William’s eyes bugged, but he remained silent.


Their father continued. “Memories are one of our most important treasures. They’re more important than houses, and cars, and diamonds, and money. Memories tell stories of where we’ve been, who we’ve loved, what we’ve learned. What are we without our memories?”


AFTER


Anne-Marie finally reached the bottom. A crumbling sidewalk partly obscured by green algae stretched before her. To her left, she saw the scraggly skeleton of an enormous banyan tree. Her heart skipped a beat. It looked familiar, but so had the street sign on her first attempt, and the office building on her second. Memories were slippery things, unreliable, especially given the distance of time to morph into the unreal.


She pushed off the telephone pole and followed the sidewalk. She swam between houses, tried to make out the name on a street sign, but it was too badly eaten by rust.


She flashed her light into the window of an old car, and the shining eyes of an eel glared back at her. A crab scuttled along a sheet of stained vinyl fencing.


She realized she was breathing faster now. Excitement itched at her fingertips. Her heartbeat drowned out the sound of her breath.


She remembered this street. She was sure of it. There, a car-sized rock of limestone sat at the corner. Over here, an old two-story house. A family had lived there. They’d had a tire swing in the tree in their front yard.


She kicked faster. Where was the street sign? The post at the corner of the two streets was devoid of markings, but she caught a flash of green glinting in the beam of her flashlight. She pulled the metal sheet from the ocean floor and brushed away the detritus.


Her breath caught in her chest. She gripped the metal in gloved hands, delighting at the firmness, the realness of it. And there, in peeling white letters: Lime Street.


She had found it. She was home.

 

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