Please note this story contains themes of depression and suicide; please consume responsibly.
Peridot was not expecting to pull a mermaid from the water. For starters, the water itself was a muddy estuary, a busy shipping lane filled with cargo boats and windsurfers and unexploded World War II detritus. Although there was plenty of animal life to be found beneath rocks and through binoculars, even the most ardent naturalists would hesitate before proclaiming the area magical. For finishers, Peridot was contemplating throwing herself into the water. Well, not throwing. That was a bit dramatic, a bit deliberate. It was more that she stood on the end of a concrete jetty as the tide came in and wondered what would happen if she went for a swim and stopped inhaling. Months later, a therapist would gently categorise this behaviour as suicidal, but at the time Peridot considered it a mental exercise, like the crossword. Regardless, she wasn’t expecting the mermaid.
Nor was the mermaid expecting her.
It would later occur to Peridot that if she hadn’t been so distracted, she might have noticed a shadow beneath the greyish waves. She might have thought it a fish or whale caught up in the tide—that was a thing, right—and called over one of the many beachgoers enjoying a sunny bank holiday weekend. She could have left someone else to deal with… her. She might have spent the rest of her life blissfully ignorant of the existence of… them.
Instead, a girl’s head and torso burst from the water like a geyser, grasping for the jetty and choking for air.
Before Peridot’s brain could finish thinking shit, someone is actually drowning, she had seized the girl’s arms, dragging her up onto the jetty like she was hauling shopping out of the boot of a car. By the time her brain caught up, her nose was clogged with salt water, her shorts were drenched and the girl—well, woman, maybe in her early twenties, like Peridot—was sprawled on the concrete, wheezing. Peridot realised she had collapsed on the jetty too, her legs scratched and glasses splattered. She took them off, did a bad job of cleaning them on her top, put them back on and noticed two things. One, her neck was exposed, revealing a tattoo of fish gills. Two, she was wearing absolutely no clothing.
‘Are you—are you hurt?’ Peridot asked. The girl blinked at her. What did medical shock look like? She was shivering badly, so Peridot shrugged off her overshirt—she’d brought one ‘just in case’, although had expected that just in case to pertain to the weather—and draped it over her shoulders. ‘You should go to the coastguard or something. I think there’s an ambulance up the beach. You just nearly drowned. Come on.’
The girl blinked again, gazing out at the estuary and back to Peridot. Maybe she had been on a booze cruise from London and fallen overboard. Maybe she’d been walking out on the mudflats at low tide and been caught off guard as the water surged back towards the beach. Tourists.
‘Where… where am I?’ her voice was heavily accented, although Peridot couldn’t place it.
‘Best seaside town in England. Can you walk?’
The girl stared down at her legs. She prodded one her knees, then wriggled her toes. She stretched out her legs and poked them some more, inspecting them carefully, then turned her attention to—
Peridot realised she’d need more than a shirt to cover up.
‘Excuse me!’ she called to a family halfway back down the jetty, ‘this lady’s just lost her bikini bottoms in the water! Would you mind please loaning her a t-shirt or something?’
God bless middle aged gentlemen named Oscar. After hurrying to the beach and back to fetch a large towel, Oscar looked for the missing bikini bottoms and ascertained that the girl, now fumbling with the buttons on Peridot’s shirt, was very lucky not to have drowned.
‘Rip tides are dangerous,’ he said seriously. ‘You should never swim wearing fashion swimwear, either. It’s too flimsy for actual movement. You want one of these racerback swimsuits like Pat’s got—’ a small child waved cheerily from a safe distance—‘much safer for proper exercise. Now, I insist on accompanying you to the paramedics. I think you should make sure all the water’s out of your lungs, miss.’
The girl blinked at him. She had put the towel over her legs but hadn’t attempted to move. ‘I think I am fine. Thank you. I am looking for… the government.’
‘The government?’ Oscar laughed. ‘Where exactly are you from?’
She blinked again. ‘A long way away.’
Oscar looked at Peridot. ‘Is she quite all right?’
‘I think she needs a drink of water.’ Peridot tugged on the girl’s arm. ‘Can you stand?’
It took her a moment; her legs were like a newborn fawn’s. Between trying to keep the towel steady and helping her to her feet, Peridot and Oscar both got a considerable eyeful of anatomy that neither had quite prepared for when they left the house.
Towel firmly knotted, Peridot took one arm, Oscar the other, and they led the girl down the jetty. ‘What’s your name?’ Peridot asked as they shuffled along.
Peridot thought it sounded bourgie, even by her own standards, but Oscar chatted happily about calypso music as he led them down the beach to an ambulance. Calypso seemed to revive a little as they walked. She didn’t have any shoes on, but she didn’t seem to have noticed. She was wearing a pretty silver nail polish on her toes, glittering like scales.
Those were scales.
When they reached the ambulance station and a caught the attention of a paramedic, Calypso adjusted Peridot’s shirt to hide the gills tattoo on her neck.
Those were gills.
‘Where exactly are you from?’ Peridot murmured as the paramedic checked blood pressure and concussion before proclaiming her perfectly healthy.
‘The bottom of the ocean,’ Calypso replied. ‘I’m here to save the world.’
Thank you for reading! Please consider sharing these stories with anyone you think might enjoy them!
Commissions are open until August 2020! Learn more here.
Did you know you can read my short stories before they’re public by joining my Patreon? When you join, I’ll name a character after you. Alternately, consider buying me a coffee – you’re still helping me to build a career, but with fewer direct debits.
Copyright © 2020 by Francesca Burke
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.