Mermaids: Part II
Anne-Marie breached the surface of the water and spun around in search of the boat. It bobbed atop the waves about a hundred yards away. She spit out her breathing tube.
“Hey!” she shouted. In the boat, she saw Harry stand. He waved.
Anne-Marie lifted the street sign into the air. It caught the sunlight and flashed green. A celebratory shout bounced across the water to her ears. She let out a giddy chuckle and kicked toward the boat, using the street sign as a paddle to propel herself through the water.
The boat grew larger and larger. Her legs burned with the responsibility of keeping her afloat. Her lungs ached from the effort. When she finally reached the boat, she was out of breath from exertion and excitement. She held the street sign in the air and Harry grabbed it and placed it inside the boat. She then kicked around to the back of the boat and hoisted herself up the ladder.
Before she was completely in the boat, Harry engulfed her in a fierce hug.
“You did it, Honey,” he whispered into her wet hair.
Anne-Marie nodded mutely into his shoulder. Her throat suddenly felt tight, and tears mixed with ocean water on her face. “It looked so much like it did when I was young,” she said. “I saw the town square, with the old banyan tree. I saw the Andersons’ house where I played when I was in grade school. It was so strange and so familiar.”
Harry’s arms tightened around her. She closed her eyes are buried her face into the crook of his neck.
Anne-Marie pulled away to look at her children. They stood before her with tired, uncertain eyes. River’s lip puckered in a telltale way.
She knelt down and pulled River into a hug. The girl resisted at the cold dampness of her mother’s wetsuit, before relaxing into the hug.
“We did it, baby,” Anne-Marie said. “We found Mommy’s old home.”
Irma was the first of many hurricanes the family lived through. Anne-Marie grew accustomed to helping her father put the plywood over the windows of their home in late summer. She had the emergency supplies list memorized by the time she was ten. As they tracked storms on the weather channel, she developed an uncanny ability to predict which storms would make landfall, and which would spin harmlessly into the cold waters of the Northern Atlantic.
When Hurricane Thomas dumped thirteen feet of rain over them in 2023, Anne-Marie watched from the only unboarded window as her parents tried to secure their new hibiscus tree against the wind. The rain hammered on the window, blurring her parents’ figures. William whined nervously and Anne-Marie handed him his teddy bear. She hopped down and had towels waiting for her parents when they came in drenched and wind-worn. The storm pushed water from the Gulf inland, flooding their street and stopping just shy of their front door. For the next few weeks, their parents carried Anne-Marie and William to their car parked at the end of the street, sloshing through knee deep water.
Frogs spawned in the stagnant flood waters and their offspring speckled the exteriors of the houses for miles. People took canoes and kayaks to and from their houses, to the grocery store, to work. From the window, Anne-Marie waved to the man in the wide-brimmed hat who glided down their street every morning in his canoe.
When Anne-Marie was in middle school, she missed over a month of school due to power outages in the north side of the county to Tropical Storm Polinna. In high school, classes were cancelled when Hurricane Arthur, a slow-moving Category 3 brushed against the coast, an increasingly common event for early May.
All the while, news anchors, politicians, and show scientists argued the existence and relevance of climate change, and people’s responsibility and power to stop it. As Anne-Marie walked home from their bus stop with William and Cameron, she would imagine that they walked at the bottom of the sea. She could nearly feel the ocean clawing its way slowly inland, unnoticed to everyone except for those living on the coast, and suddenly, Anne-Marie couldn’t breathe.
The summer after her senior year of high school, she avoided the beach, after reading a report of a fisherman who had lost his arm to a strain of flesh eating bacteria, after sticking his finger on a hook. When she went off to college, she studied Biology and biodiversity, a field with a rapidly decreasing subjects of study.
The thunder that was so evident in her as a child quieted. The lightning of her passions diminished. As she learned more about the enormity of the problem that faced their world, the more overwhelmed and hopeless she became. She still carried with her the childlike conviction that she could-- should-- save the world, but it was smothered by the smallness she felt in the face of this most heart-wrenching problem.
The boat ride back to the marina was a triumphant one. Anne-Marie sat with her children in the front of the boat, letting the rushing, humid air dry her hair and crystalize the salt on her skin. River was snuggled against her side, fighting valiantly to keep her eyes open. Johnny sat on the bench opposite them, the green street sign nestled like a treasure in his lap. On their left, the sun sank lower and lower, burning the sky in flaming colors of orange, gold, and scarlet.
Anne-Marie stroked River’s soft hair and kissed the top of her head. She turned to look over her shoulder at Harry, who gave her a tired smile, as he squinted into the wind. She looked back out to the sea and saw the silver flick of a fish’s tale. Anne-Marie frowned. The tail had been scaled, so it didn’t belong to a whale or dolphin, but it was far larger than any fish she’d encountered. A tarpon, maybe? A great largemouth bass?
“What kind of fish do you think that was?” she called to her husband over the wind.
“What fish?” Harry replied.
Anne-Marie scanned the water again and caught a flash of silver swimming alongside their boat. She pointed. “There, do you see it?”
She stared at the fish, made blurry by the water. The fish acted in the most peculiar manner, as if it were curious about their boat. Anne-Marie had seen this behavior in creatures with intelligence, like dolphins, but this behavior was outside of the expectations for a fish.
Harry leaned his head over the edge and shook his head. “No, I don’t see anything.”
Anne-Marie glanced back at the water, but the fish had vanished.
They reached the marina as the last light of day gave way to darkness. Harry navigated the boat to the dock, and Anne-Marie hopped out and quickly tied the line around the piling. Johnny climbed out after her and tied down the line near the stern.
Harry handed off the sleeping River to Anne-Marie and then grabbed the street sign.
They had to log their findings with the organization, or this attempt would be considered a failure, and count toward their five recovery attempts. The paperwork took a sluggish ten minutes to complete. As the clerk took the street sign to document and file it, Anne-Marie felt a hollow pull in her chest.
“They’ll give it back to us when we’re finished,” Harry assured her.
“Right,” Anne-Marie said as she stared after the portly clerk. She blinked. “Right,” she said again. She smiled at her husband. “Just tired, I guess. Let’s get something to eat. Tomorrow is going to be another big day.”
There is a certain amount of irony in the fact that among all the deaths that were attributed to the rising ocean waters, not a single incident was that of drowning. The water drowned many things: trees, houses, cars, schools, banks. But not a single death due to drowning was reported between the years 2038 and 2045, the years that Anne-Marie silently thought of as the Bad Years.
People died, Anne-Marie didn’t know the exact number, but the deaths were due to disease, famine and insufficient access to clean water. Diseases like West Nile Virus ran rampant as mosquitoes had increased areas to lay their eggs. Water, contaminated by human waste and agricultural pollutants seeped into the streets. The great agricultural industries in the center of the state failed to support the demands of the desperate population, as roadways became unusable and food distribution failed.
Anne-Marie worked for the Florida Marine Conservation Effort, a small non-profit in Miami during the beginning of the Bad Years. The first order of permanent evacuations came in late August of 2038, as hundred of thousands of people were forced to leave behind the material evidence of their lives, taking only what could fit in their cars or suitcases.
The mayor of Miami spoke passionately on national news stations that this would not be the end of their great city, and that she would fight every day to unite the people she governed with their homes once more.
Kelsey, Anne-Marie’s coworker in the FMCE shook her head. “Refugees,” she said. “That’s what we are now.”
The issue of what to do with the influx of displaced people became a national problem.
Several states claimed that it was a state rights issue, and that each state should be able to decide their own limits.
“We simply do not have the infrastructure to support a million more people,” insisted the governor of Georgia, a few days after Tampa and Sarasota announced the mandatory evacuation of nearly 400,000 people. “We’ve already accepted people from Miami, Fort Myers, Boca Raton, and Homosassa. There aren’t enough jobs to go around.”
“You can come up any time you want,” Anne-Marie’s dad said for the hundredth time when she talked to him that evening. “There’s room for you here.” Her parents had moved to Ohio a few years ago when her father accepted a position as an English professor at a university. Her brothers had moved with them. They’d had enough of life in Florida.
Anne-Marie clutched her phone to her ear and sighed. “I need to stay and help as long as I can. I volunteered to help with evacuations.”
She knew by his tone that her father was not happy to hear this, but all he said was, “Be careful, sweetheart. We all love you and miss you.”
Anne-Marie fell asleep nearly as soon as she was finished with her dinner-- a fast food sandwich wrapped in greasy white paper. She gave her French fries to Johnny, showered, and climbed onto the lumpy mattress in their hotel room. River was already sleeping on the other side of the bed. She kissed her daughter’s salty head and turned off the light. Her muscles relaxed, melting into the mattress, and her eyes fluttered closed.
She was back at the dive site, near the telephone pole that she’d used earlier to pull herself downward. She was standing on the sidewalk at the bottom of the ocean floor. Even though she didn’t have on her diving gear, she could see and breathe normally. The water was clearer than it had been earlier that day, and the sunlight was enough to illuminate her surroundings. The water played with the light, making it dance dreamily.
She followed the sidewalk in the same way she had before, her hair floated like a cloud around her head. She walked past the bones of the old banyan tree. She turned at the corner where the ice cream shop used to be. She stopped for a brief moment in front of her old elementary school, seagrass swayed to silent music in the windows of the old dance room. The Anderson’s two story home with the tire swing in the tree in their front yard. The tree lay on its side, obscuring most of the house from view.
And finally, Lime Street. It looked the same as she remembered. The tidy duplex, the vacant lot with the small grove of orange trees, her friend’s house across the street from her own.
Her certainty wavered. Did she really want to see what had become of her home? In her mind, her home had remained as it had been when they’d lived there. Perfect. Untouched by the waters that time had brought. Was she ready to face what had become of her home?
The frame had partially collapsed under the weight of the ocean, but peeking about the house, she could still see the hulking shape of the mango tree. Paint flaked away and floated in the water like suspended snow. Anne-Marie drank in the sight of her home, a home that she thought she’d never see again. She tried to imagine each room as she’d known it. In the far left window, that had been her father’s office, the walls lined with floor to ceiling bookshelves. And the room next to that, the music room with the tinny upright piano that she used to practice on. And in the farthest window on the right, her bedroom…
Anne-Marie frowned as she looked at her old bedroom window. A figure darkened the window of her childhood bedroom. Long dark hair floated around the figure’s head, the only part of the figure that moved.
An eerie feeling overcame Anne-Marie. She didn’t want to see who it was, but her feet moved her closer and closer to the window until she was inches from the glass. The figure was that of a woman. Long hair, a small nose, cloudy violet eyes.
Anne-Marie stared transfixed at the woman in the window. Her heart pounded. Her mind begged her to run, but her legs would not obey.
The woman blinked, startling Anne-Marie, and then the woman’s eyes fell on her. The woman’s mouth opened, and even though Anne-Marie couldn’t hear it, she knew the woman screamed.
Then, with a startling burst of speed, the woman darted up out of the house, through a hole in the ceiling, and with a flash of a silver tail, the woman vanished.
Anne-Marie bolted upright and stumbled out of bed to the bathroom. The fan buzzed loudly as she turned on the light and shut the door so she wouldn’t wake her family. She stared at her reflection in the mirror, white face shiny with sweat, eyes wide, mouth in a tight, terrified line. She gulped in great shaking breaths of air.
It was a dream. It wasn’t real. Of course she knew that, but the calming thoughts were ineffective against the hammering of her heart or the shaking of her knees.