Siren Song: Julianna Hernandez

Siren Song

Julianna Hernandez

 Atlantic City was old, fading, worn out. The city hugged the Atlantic Ocean, its resorts and once-famous boardwalk nestled between the New Jersey marshlands and islands. The boardwalk ran parallel to the gray sand. Screws jutted out from the wood in a few places, and the faded planks creaked and sighed under the weight of its visitors. Dotted throughout the boardwalk were hotels and casinos, the cha-ching, cha-ching, ping! of their slot machines drifting past the glass doors and into the brisk evening. The casinos were tall, proud structures that added half-hearted splatters of color to the muted gray sky. The Trump Taj Mahal was a sorry replica of its counterpart, its iconic white dome covered with bird poop. The lights on the guitar sign that marked the House of Blues flickered on and off. The Steel Pier extended perpendicular to the shoreline, a neon symphony of carnival games and amusement park rides that trembled each time they were forced to host a rider.

John and Natalie walked along the wet sand towards the Steel Pier, the waves kissing their feet as they wandered closer to the water. Their hands swung back and forth in the empty space between them. Natalie smoked a cigarette as she padded through the sand; her pink lipstick stained the orange filter. Their figures were silhouetted against the setting sun, and the sky was an unfinished painting of pinks, purples, and oranges. It was late fall—almost winter. The air was crisp, the beach empty of other tourists and locals.

“What should we do about the hotel?” John said.

Natalie shrugged and took a pull of her cigarette. “What do you want to do?”

John looked behind him. The Atlantic City Palace Suites was a small, blue hotel that sat at the base of the Showboat, a resort modeled to echo a sail. The Showboat towered over John and Natalie’s tiny hotel, and during midday it cast a shadow over the building. Polished, golden letters hung above the entrance to the Palace Suites to welcome its few guests inside.

“I could keep it,” John said. “If you’re okay with that.”

“Oh.” Natalie kicked at the ocean. “Sure. Keep it. You’ve always loved that hotel. We can add it to the paperwork.” She released a cloud of smoke into the air. The butt of her cigarette glowed softly like a firefly. “I’ll call my lawyer later.”

John frowned. He rubbed his right thumb over his bare left index finger. “Where will you go?” he asked. “Once everything is finalized. Where will you go?”

Natalie flicked ash onto the sand. “California.”

“That far?”

“I don’t know,” Natalie said. “I want to go somewhere new. I haven’t been anywhere new since we married, you know.”

“What about our honeymoon?”

“To Lake George?” Natalie dragged her foot through the sand. “Five hours away?”

“It was a great place.” John crossed his arms over his chest. “So what if it’s five hours away? It was beautiful. We were together. It was nice.”

Natalie turned her gaze to the ocean. “Sure. Yeah. I was just thinking…well. I’ve never been to California. That’s all.”

John stared at the casinos as they passed.

They arrived at the base of the Steel Pier. Large wooden columns hoisted the pier above the ocean, elevating the theme park’s rides toward the sunset. The Ferris wheel turned slowly, its carts swaying in the wind. Music from the merry-go-round blasted through the speakers. The smell of funnel cake and popcorn wafted toward the shoreline to mingle with the salty ocean breeze. John and Natalie came to a stop and watched the waves crash against the pier’s supporting columns.

Suddenly, the tide retreated. Beneath the wave was a large, scaly fin. It was exposed for no longer than a breath before another wave rushed in, hiding the creature from view.

John squinted. “Do you see that?”

“I thought I was imagining it,” Natalie said. “Probably just a beached fish. We should help it.” She jogged closer to the pier, the footprints behind her disappearing as another wave rolled into the shore.

When the tide pulled back again, John and Natalie got a clear view of the beached creature. Its bottom half was facing them as they approached. The tail was curled to form a hook, the tip of it extending towards its upper body on the sand. Silver blue scales ran down the tail, the neon lights from the pier waltzing across the surface. Another wave rolled in just as John and Natalie reached the creature. When the ocean retreated once more, they froze.

Natalie’s cigarette fell from her mouth into the sand.

“Holy shit,” John said.

The creature was not a fish—the scales ended where a human’s hip would have been. The upper half of its body resembled a woman. More silver blue scales were peppered throughout her outer arms and the sides of her face. Her hair was long and silver; it spread around her figure like a halo. She wore a bandeau woven out of ropes and fishnets. A seashell necklace hung from her neck. A pool of thick silver liquid was gathering behind her, trailing toward the currents. She appeared to be unconscious—her eyes were closed, her pink lips slightly parted.

“Holy shit,” John repeated.

Water slapped against the shore, white sea foam bubbling on the sand as the ocean inhaled. “A mermaid,” John said. He crouched next to the creature and moved a strand of hair from her face. “That’s what it is, isn’t it? A mermaid.

“I don’t…” Natalie trailed off. She rubbed her eyes and blinked when she saw the mermaid still remained in front of her. “What?”

Before John could respond, the mermaid sat up with a gasp. Her eyes were wide and icy blue, her chest heaving to match her staccato breaths. She clawed at her throat as she looked up at John and Natalie. Her tail flicked back and forth on the sand like a crazed pendulum.

John jumped back and stumbled into Natalie. “Jesus Christ!”

Natalie’s mouth was open as she stared at the mermaid. “This is a dream, isn’t it?”

The mermaid drummed her tail against the sand and shook her head. The seashells around her neck plunked together. She hiccupped and brandished her tail at the waves rushing toward her.

“Can she talk?” John said. He stuck his hand out in greeting. “Hey, it’s okay. My name is John.”

The mermaid swiped her tail through the water again, dousing the front of John’s khakis.

Natalie inched toward the creature, her hands outstretched. “Is she alright?” The mermaid cowered from her touch and dragged itself further toward the ocean. Natalie let her arms drop.

“Look. She’s bleeding.” John nodded toward the sand, where the trail of silver liquid had followed the mermaid’s scramble toward the water. There was an open gash on the mermaid’s back, close to its left side. A rounded, green piece of glass stuck out from the wound. Bits of a beer label was printed on the glass—Heineken. “Is that a piece of a beer bottle in her back?”

Natalie snorted. “Typical.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Natalie gestured to the cigarette butts and fast food wrappers half-buried in the dry sand behind them. “Look at this place. Are you really surprised there’s trash in the ocean?”

John drew his eyebrows together. “That’s a bit unfair.”

The mermaid hiccupped.

“We should call the police,” Natalie said.

The mermaid pounded her tail against the sand once more. Ocean water and sand flew around her. She squeezed her eyes shut and tugged at her hair, then let lose a high-pitched screech. John and Natalie covered their ears simultaneously. More silver blood spilled from the mermaid’s wounds and splattered onto the sand.

“What is wrong with her?” Natalie shouted through the noise.

As abruptly as the screeching began, it ended. The mermaid’s eyes rolled back into her head and she flopped against the sand, unconscious.

“I don’t think she wants us to call anyone,” John mused.

“Well, what do we do now?” Natalie demanded.

John looked up at the sky. The sun was still sinking below the horizon, the approaching nighttime darkening the edges of the sky like a vignette. He turned his gaze to the mermaid once more. Her scales twinkled and shimmered in the dying sunlight, a lone, chromatic streak in the dull composition of Atlantic City.

“Help me pick her up,” John said.

“What?” Natalie’s eyes widened. “Are you insane?”

“She could freak out and scream again—or whatever that sound was.” John pushed the sleeves of his jacket up to his elbows. “We can’t just leave her here, either.”

“Well, where do you want to put her, then?” Natalie said.

John’s eyes roamed over the mermaid’s figure. “I think she’ll fit in the bathtub.”

Natalie snorted. “You can’t be serious.”

John hooked his arms under the mermaid’s armpits and hoisted her half out of the ocean. “Well?” he said. “Come on.”

Natalie stared. John raised an eyebrow.

“Damn it,” Natalie said. “I hate you sometimes, you know that?”

John sighed. “I know.”

* * *

The mermaid barely fit in their bathtub.

John and Natalie took the service entrance at the back of the hotel. John supported the mermaid’s upper half while Natalie wrapped her arms around the tail as they carried the creature to their suite. Together, John and Natalie hoisted the mermaid into the bathtub and filled it with water. The end of the mermaid’s tail stuck out from the tub and its head rested at an awkward angle on the edge, but otherwise their new guest was fully submerged. Natalie extracted the piece of glass from the mermaid’s back and cleaned the wound. After they arranged the mermaid as best as they could, they changed into clean clothes. John returned to the bathroom and sat on the edge of the sink. He watched the mermaid breathe as the sun faded from the horizon. Natalie entered the bathroom a few moments later, a cigarette dangling in one hand and a first-aid kit in the other. She sat on the tiles next to the tub.

“What’s that for?” John nodded to the kit in her hand.

Natalie held her cigarette between her teeth as she opened the kit. “I need to stitch the wound in her side,” she said.

“Are you sure you can do that?”

Natalie glared. “I’m a nurse, John.”

“I know, but—”

The mermaid woke with a gasp and immediately shot upright. Water and silver liquid sloshed out of the porcelain white tub and spilled onto the tiled floor. Her face contorted in pain and she reached behind her, fingers brushing against the cut in her back. A low grunt escaped past the mermaid’s lips as she fell back against the edge of the tub.

John moved closer to the bath. “Hey, it’s okay. You’re safe.”

The mermaid sank deeper into the water. Natalie returned her attention to unpacking the first-aid supplies. In the tub, the mermaid remained silent, her blue eyes wide and piercing as she watched Natalie prepare the needle and thread.

“I’m just going to stitch that wound in your side,” Natalie said. “It won’t take long.”

The mermaid did not say anything and swished her tail back and forth. Her eyes ran up and down Natalie’s figure like she was sizing her up.

“I’m not sure if she understands—” John began.

The mermaid turned, exposing her wound. A small, crescent-shaped cut was on the left side of her lower back. Silver liquid oozed out of it and into the water.

“Thank you,” Natalie said. She put her cigarette out on the bathroom floor and moved the mermaid’s hair away from the wound. The mermaid didn’t flinch when Natalie’s fingers brushed against her skin, but she let loose a low moan when Natalie completed the first stitch.

“Hush,” Natalie soothed. “Don’t be afraid. I’ll be done soon.”

The mermaid whimpered, but she remained still.

John grimaced and rubbed his ears. He turned away and walked into the living room. He sat down on the couch and switched on the television, increasing the volume to drown out the mermaid’s pain-filled groans. He tossed the remote on the glass coffee table in front of him, his gaze drifting outside the living room window. It was a young night now, the moon filling the space where the sun once was. The neon lights of Atlantic City stared back at him through the glass.

Natalie emerged from the bathroom half an hour later, wiping the silver from her hands onto a towel. She glanced at the television and settled her eyes on John sitting on the couch. “Thanks for the help,” she said.

“What?” John frowned. “You were taking care of her.”

Natalie took a seat on the opposite end of the couch and lit a cigarette. “She passed out,” she said. “I stitched her up, though.”

“Alright.”

They watched the commercials playing on the television screen.

“Maybe we should call someone now that she’s settled,” Natalie said. “About the mermaid.”

John rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. “Who? The police?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Natalie, they’d think we’re insane. Hell, I still feel like I’m dreaming or something.” John shook his head. “What will they do, anyway? We should just bring her back to the ocean, once she’s well enough to go back. It’ll be like she was never here.”

Natalie’s eyes drifted down the hallway toward the bathroom. She rolled her cigarette between her fingers. “That’s it? Just leave her in the bathtub?”

“Well, where else do you want to put her? The sink?”

Natalie glared. “Somewhere more comfortable.”

John picked at the fraying armrest of the couch. “She’s already passed out.”

“When she wakes, then.”

“Alright. Sure.”

Natalie nodded. She stood from the couch and moved toward the kitchen. She rummaged through the refrigerator and pulled a frying pan from the cabinet. Three clicks followed by a soft whoosh sounded through the suite as Natalie turned the stove on. John did not move from the couch, the lights from the television illuminating different shadows on his face as the scenes changed. When Natalie rejoined him in the living room, she had her cigarette between her teeth and a plate of sunny-side up eggs and toast in each hand. She handed one to John took her original spot on the couch.

“Eggs?” John said, raising an eyebrow.

“The mermaid was heavy. I’m hungry.” Natalie balanced a plate in her lap. “She’s asleep, anyway. I’ll check on her afterwards.”

John smiled as he picked up his fork. “I just can’t remember the last time you cooked.”

“I cook,” Natalie said. When John rolled his eyes, she said, “I cook sometimes.”

John scoffed.

“Okay,” Natalie laughed. “You’re the better cook. But I think I’ve improved in these last ten years, don’t you?”

John broke a yolk with the tip of his fork. “Yes,” he said. “It’s been a great ten years.”

Natalie’s smile melted. She brought he cigarette to her lips.

“Is there anything—” John cleared his throat. “I have to ask. Can we talk about it?”

Natalie breathed out. A puff of smoke wafted into the air.

“Is there anything at all that I can say to change your mind?” John asked.

Natalie did not say anything.

“I don’t care about the—well, you know. We can try again. Or we can adopt, or something. We still have everything in the spare bedroom.”

Natalie looked away. She reached down to put her cigarette out at the edge of her plate, but she missed and instead put it out in the yolk of her sunny-side up egg. She placed her plate on the coffee table and moved to the far wall to face the window. “I’ve told you a thousand times that we want different things now,” she said.

John let his fork fall onto his plate. “I just don’t understand. We talked about it in college. I thought you wanted—”

“People change their minds,” Natalie said.

John stared at the cigarette in Natalie’s egg. A golden yellow river flowed onto the rest of her uneaten meal. The yolk crawled to the half-burnt toast and then started to ooze its way around the circumference of the plate. Cigarette ash floated in the broken yolk like small flakes of pepper. Natalie’s cigarette remained half-submerged in her egg, a weak line of gray smoke still trailing from the end.

“What made you change your mind?” John asked.

Natalie looked up at the ceiling. “Stop asking me that question.”

John tugged his hand through his hair. “I know—I know it’s been hard. But you’re the one that wants to leave, and you owe me an explanation why.”

Natalie trailed a finger along the windowsill. “I don’t owe you shit, John.”

“Do ten years of marriage mean nothing to you?”

Natalie spun away from the window. She opened her mouth and took a breath to respond, but instead released a long exhale. The casino lights flickered through the window behind her. John gripped the armrest of the couch, his chin raised as he locked eyes with Natalie.

“I’m going to check on the mermaid,” she said finally.

“Natalie—”

“If you don’t stop talking right now,” Natalie said, “I’ll scream.”

John snapped his mouth shut.

Natalie stalked to the bathroom, her head high. She did not look back. The bathroom door shut behind her with a soft click. John remained in the living room until midnight, but still Natalie did not emerge. He went to check on her before heading to bed, the bathroom door creaking as he opened it slowly. Natalie sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the tub. Her back was facing him, quiet snores filling the silence of the bathroom. Her arms rested on the edge of the tub, her head pillowed near the crook of her elbow. The mermaid was still asleep in the bath. Pale moonlight trickled through the window and reflected off her scales, creating a baby blue kaleidoscope pattern on the ceiling. Her silver hair floated around her in the water.

John went to the master bedroom and took the spare blanket from the bed. He returned to the bathroom and draped it over Natalie’s shoulders. She did not stir.

In the bedroom, John climbed into the left side of the bed. He brushed his hand over the pillows and empty space next to him before turning away to face the wall. He fell asleep staring at the painting of the Atlantic City boardwalk hung up in the bedroom. The outside lights from the Steel Pier’s carnival rides stretched through the window to illuminate the painting in a faded neon pink.

* * *

The first morning with the mermaid was gray. Clouds blanketed the sun, casting a monochrome tint to Atlantic City below. It was colder than the previous day, a firm wind wandering through the empty boardwalk as if in search of something. The tents housing the carnival games on the Steel Pier flapped in protest. The ocean heaved against the pier’s wooden columns, water splashing over the small amusement park when a particularly large wave broke against the extended boardwalk.

Inside the Palace Suites, John and Natalie attempted to move the mermaid into their spare bedroom. The mermaid’s silver blue scales contrasted with the room’s light pink walls. They placed their new guest on the air mattress they prepared in the corner of the room. While Natalie called out sick from the hospital, John fed the mermaid vegetable-flavored Cup Noodles—the only food he could find in the suite aside from the eggs in the refrigerator. The mermaid smacked her lips after each slurp. Only ten minutes after finishing her meal, the mermaid started to wheeze. She clawed at her throat, and her breath hitched when she saw the stuffed turtles and dolphins scattered throughout the room. When the mermaid’s face turned into shades of blue and purple, John scooped her into his arms and carried her back to the bathtub. The creature calmed when she was placed back in the water and fell unconscious a few moments afterwards. She did not wake for the rest of the day. When the gray sky faded to black, Natalie braided the mermaid’s hair before falling asleep on the bathroom tiles next to her.

On the second day, it rained. It started slowly, quietly, the drops pattering against the glass windows of John and Natalie’s hotel. As morning slipped into afternoon, the rain swelled. Panicked winds swirled through the beach. Natalie watched the waves rise and fall through the bathroom window, a cigarette sandwiched between her fingers.

“This city is truly a damn mess,” Natalie said.

A low, vibrating note resounded from the mermaid’s lips. She pointed outside the window with her tail, her eyes wide.

“We’re safe in here,” Natalie said. “Don’t worry. It’s just rain.”

The mermaid shook her head, her braids swinging with her movements. She flinched when a burst of rain spattered the window and pounded her tail against the tub. Cracks extended beneath her tail in a spiderweb pattern. Water sloshed out of the tub and onto the floor. John entered the bathroom a few moments later.

“What happened?” John asked.

Natalie stood halfway between the window and the mermaid. Ash from the cigarette in her hand fell to the floor like ashen snow. “She’s just afraid of the thunder, I think,” Natalie said.

The mermaid shivered.

“Is she cold?” John crept towards the tub, careful not to make any sudden movements. The tub was now half full—the other half of the water was slowly spreading over the bathroom tiles. “Let me run some warm water for you.”

The mermaid swished her tail back and forth as John turned on the hot water. She sighed and hummed softly as the water filled the tub. Her voice was sweet and soft, and her tone was melancholy—like a long-forgotten lullaby. Her tail continued to tick even as John shut off the water.

“Maybe she’s just hungry,” Natalie suggested.

John dried his hands on his pants. “Maybe. Cup Noodles isn’t very nourishing.”

“Cook something for her, then.”

“We only have eggs.”

Natalie frowned. “Can she eat eggs?”

“What, is she vegan?” John turned his gaze to the mermaid. “Are you vegan?”

The mermaid snorted.

“See?” John said.

Natalie took a drag of her cigarette. “We should go food shopping, anyway. We’ve been running out of food for weeks. Maybe we should go to a pet shop or something, too.”

John wrinkled his nose. “We are not feeding her fish food.”

“I didn’t say that,” Natalie said. “We should get something to dechlorinate the water. She’s been in the tub for a few days now, and I’m afraid that’s it’s dangerous for her.”

“Why?”

Natalie flicked ash from her cigarette into the sink. “One word,” she said. “Tuna.”

John paled. “That was one time,” he said.

“That was the first and only time.”

John shrugged. “He was a cute goldfish. Maybe I should go down to the Steel Pier today and win another one, so the mermaid could have a friend.” When Natalie stared at him, he pointed his finger at her. “Admit it. Say, ‘John, that was such a cute goldfish you won for me. You’re the best husband ever.’”

“He was cute, until you didn’t dechlorinate the water when you cleaned his tank.”

“I forgot.”

Natalie rolled her eyes. “I can’t trust you to take care of anything, can I?”

John froze. Thunder rumbled across the sky. For a long moment, he and Natalie stared at one another. Natalie crossed her arms over her stomach.

“That was unnecessary,” John said. His voice was low, quiet.

Natalie pressed her back against the bathroom wall and slid to the floor. The mermaid’s eyes flitted back and forth between them.

“You—” John worked his jaw. “You know I would’ve taken care of her.”

Natalie leaned her head against the tub.

“It’s been a year,” John said.

Natalie kept her eyes on the floor. “I know.”

“It was hard for me, too.”

“I didn’t say it wasn’t.”

“You act like it wasn’t. You shove all these papers at me only two weeks ago and say you need to get away, like you’re the only one of us who lost something that day. She was as much mine as she was yours!”

Outside, the clouds groaned as they split open and released more rain. Water ran down the windows in rivers. Lightning crackled across the sky followed by claps of thunder so strong they made the glass shake. The lights flickered.

“Well?” John snapped.

Natalie looked up from the tiles. Her eyes were red. “What do you want me to say?”

Lightning flashed through the window. John took a deep breath and closed his eyes, then turned on his heel and stormed out of the bathroom. The mermaid watched him go, a low hum emanating from her chest. John slammed the door behind him as he entered the bedroom, the sound echoing throughout the suite until it was swallowed by a clap of thunder.

Natalie did not move from her spot on the bathroom floor for a long while. When she finally stood, she drove to the nearest grocery store to get food and a small tube to dechlorinate the bathwater. The bedroom door was still closed by the time she returned. At dinnertime, Natalie cooked scrambled eggs, but the mermaid refused to eat anything except for Cup Noodles. As Natalie fed her, the mermaid continued to swing her tail toward the window. At one point, she lifted her hands out of the water and moved them up and down in a wave motion.

“It’s just rain,” Natalie said. “That’s all it is.”

Natalie stayed with the mermaid until the creature fell asleep. The mermaid’s tail was drooped over the edge of the tub, still reaching for the rain falling outside the window. When Natalie emerged from the bathroom, the suite was dark. The bedroom door was slightly cracked open this time, the silhouette of John’s sleeping form visible through the opening. Natalie opened the door further and leaned against the frame. She closed her eyes and exhaled a long breath from her nose.

“How is she?”

Natalie straightened at the sound of John’s voice from the bed. She smoothed her shirt and cleared her throat. “Asleep.”

“Alright,” John said. “That’s good.”

“It is.” Natalie sat at the foot of the bed. “About earlier…” She looked away. “I’m sorry.”

John propped himself up on his elbows. “I know.”

Natalie swallowed. “You know, I’m glad we found the mermaid.”

Another flash of lightning. “Me, too,” John said. He sat up, the blankets rustling as he moved. “I can’t remember the last time we’ve been…” He waved his hand through the air between them. “Like this.”

Natalie smiled. A shadow passed over her face. “I can.”

A soft rumble of thunder, a whisper of wind against the hotel.

“It’s not over yet,” John said. “We can find another way.”

Natalie traced her finger over John’s ankle through the sheets. “I can’t stay here.”

John stopped Natalie’s hand with his own. “It’s not about that. It’s about staying with me.

Natalie bit her lip. “No, John.”

“Am I not enough to make you stay?”

“Am I not enough to make you leave?”

John closed his eyes. “We’ve discussed this. My livelihood is here. You’re a nurse, but all I’ve got is this hotel, here, in this city. And…I grew up here. My parents, my family—”

“Right.” Natalie stood. “Your family.

John clenched his fists. “I didn’t mean it like that. You’re my wife. I—”

“I understand, John.” Natalie pressed her hands together in front of her mouth as if in prayer. “Listen, I’m not mad anymore. It’s fine. I understand. I do.” She retreated to the doorframe. “It is what it is.”

“Natalie, wait.” John pulled the blankets aside. “Come here. Stay.”

Rain pattered against the bedroom window.

“Goodnight, John.” Natalie shut the door, the sound echoing through the suite.

Natalie laid down on the living room couch. She fell asleep facing the hallway leading to the bathroom, listening to the sounds of the waves crashing against the shore.

* * *

On the third morning, it stormed.

The rain fell horizontally, tilted by the wind. The thunder and lightning from the previous day quickened in its tempo, unrelenting in its assault against Atlantic City. Waves heaved against the shore. The ocean ran up the sand as it reached out to the boardwalk. Water fell in streams from the roofs of the casinos onto the soaked, worn wood of the boardwalk. The rides on the Steel Pier were abandoned—the Ferris Wheel no longer turned, and the roller coasters were silent. Neon lights continued to blaze and dance on the carnival rides for an absent audience.

John and Natalie woke close to midday, thunderclaps shaking the floor beneath them. John paused in the doorway of the bedroom and met Natalie’s eyes. When she sat up, he joined her in the living room and switched on the television set.

 “We’re not sure what we’re seeing here, folks,” the weatherman said from the television screen. His face was white, and his hands trembled as he gestured at the green screen behind him. “What started as a storm yesterday has since sucked away the water from the shorelines. We estimate the storm—hurricane, tsunami, whatever it is—will make landfall by sunrise tomorrow. Governor Chris Christie is ordering immediate evacuation of all areas near the shore, including Atlantic City.” The weatherman shook his head.  “I—I don’t quite know what’s happening here. We’re cutting to a live image now to show you the magnitude of the storm.”

Natalie leaned forward. Thunder rumbled across the sky.

The television cut to an aerial view of Liberty Island, the Statue of Liberty illuminated like a beacon in the night. Lady Liberty stood tall and proud as she hoisted her flaming torch toward the clouds. The New York City skyscrapers stood behind her, a jagged cacophony of buildings silhouetted against the silver moonlight. Everything about the scene looked fine, normal, in tune—except for one thing.

The New York Harbor was missing.

The spaces where dark blue water was meant to be were instead replaced by heaping piles of gray trash, dirt, and algae. Lightning flashed outside, followed by another clap of thunder.

“It looks like the storm began gathering two days ago and increased in strength through yesterday,” the weatherman continued. He frowned as he spoke and kept his hand pressed to his earpiece. “I’ve never seen anything like this before. We recommend immediate evacuation for all those in affected areas—”

A piercing wail sounded from Natalie’s cell phone. John’s own phone went off from the bedroom. On screen was an emergency message: SEVERE WEATHER ALERT. HURRICANE AND TSUNAMI WARNING FOR ATLANTIC CITY AREA. EVACUATE IMMEDIATELY.

“Two days ago,” Natalie muttered. Her gaze drifted to the bathroom. “You don’t think…?”

John shook his head. “No way. It’s just a storm. Tsunami. Hurricane. Both.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “There’s a science to this. It’s impossible.”

“More or less impossible than finding a mermaid on the beach?”

John sat down on the armrest of the couch. Natalie said nothing as the camera cut to the missing New York Harbor again. Lightning streaked across the sky, briefly illuminating Atlantic City in a blinding white flash.

The mermaid shrieked from the bathroom, her voice echoing through the suite.

Natalie immediately ran to the bathroom, John on her heels. The mermaid was smacking her tail against the edge of the tub, her chest heaving as she took deep breaths. Her eyes were wide as she stared outside the window at the rain spilling from the sky. Before John or Natalie could speak, the mermaid wailed, the same pitch and tone as the first day they met her. John and Natalie’s hands immediately went to cover their ears. The mermaid wailed and wailed until she ran out of breath, and when she stopped she started to thrash. She pulled at the braids Natalie had weaved in her hair and shrank against the tub, moving as far away from the window as possible.

Thunder slammed against the building.

“No way.” John glanced at the ceiling as the lights sputtered. “It’s just a coincidence.”

“She knew about it, John.” Natalie nodded toward the mermaid and paced across the tiles. “Don’t you remember all the pointing she did to the window when it started to rain? Somehow, she knew about it.”

            “Natalie, it’s impossible.

Natalie pointed at the mermaid. “So is she.”

John leaned against the edge of the sink. He ran a hand down his face. “Let’s say I believe you,” he said finally. “Let’s say she knew about it.”

The mermaid hummed. Her silver blue scales casted swirling patterns on the bathroom wall as her tail moved.

“If that’s true,” John continued, “then there’s only one solution I can see.”

Natalie stopped pacing. She took her spot on the floor next to the tub, as she had done so many times before. “Bring her back, you mean. Toss her into the storm, after you were the one that wanted to bring her here.” She traced her fingertip along the porcelain. “Leave her.”

“I didn’t say that,” John replied.

“Well, what else did you have in mind?”

The mermaid straightened her back. She narrowed her eyes at the gathering storm clouds, her tail ticking back and forth to match the beat of the thunder.

“Did you see that news clip?” John pointed toward the television in the living room. “We—this entire city—are in danger. We need to leave.”

Natalie chewed on her lip. “I could be wrong,” she said. “About the storm.”

“Maybe.” John looked away. “We were never going to keep her, anyway. She was just supposed to stay until she got better. We should bring her back, to be safe. If we’re lucky, maybe the storm will stop.”

“We should take her with us. We can put her in the backseat of the car.”

“Don’t you remember the last time we tried to take her out of the water?”

Natalie tugged her hand through her hair. “I don’t want to chuck her into the ocean.”

“I don’t want to, either.” John crossed his arms. “I just think it’s for the best.” When Natalie did not move, he added, “But it’s really up to you. I won’t force you.”

Natalie laughed. It was a discordant sound, like an untuned piano or a broken bow grating against the strings of a violin.

“I think it’s for the best,” John repeated.

“And you always know what’s best, don’t you?”

“Natalie, what else do you want me to do?”

Natalie folded her hands together. She sat on the edge of the tub.

“Alright. Look. Just…stay here,” John said. “I’ll call the guests and tell them to leave.” He glanced at the mermaid again before retreating to the living room.

When he was gone, the mermaid placed a hand on Natalie’s leg. She pointed toward the storm again with her tail and tilted her head, her scales flashing with each strike of lightning. Natalie covered the mermaid’s hand with her own and squeezed. Her eyes roamed over the siren’s figure, finally settling on the bottom half of the tail that was too large to fit in the small tub. Natalie moved to the other side of the bath and hooked her arms underneath the mermaid’s armpits. She dragged the mermaid toward her, careful to avoid bumping the silver head against the faucet. When the entire tail was submerged, Natalie stepped back. This time, the mermaid’s shoulders and arms stuck out from the tub.

“Come on,” Natalie said. Another flash of lightning underlined the bags under Natalie’s eyes, the crook of her nose, the quivering shadow below her bottom lip. She returned the mermaid to the original position and tried to stuff the fin into the curve of the tub. “You can fit.”

The tail sprung outward from its forced position, slapping Natalie in the face. Natalie landed on her butt as she fell to the floor. The mermaid hummed.

Natalie wrapped her arms around her knees. “Damn it.” She slammed her palm against the tiles. “Damn it!”

At Natalie’s outburst, John erupted into the bathroom. “Natalie? What’s wrong?”

“She doesn’t fit.” Natalie laughed, her shoulders shaking. “She won’t fit in the tub.” Natalie took a stuttering breath. “She just doesn’t fit in the tub.”

John knelt in front of Natalie and gripped her shoulders with his hands, his arms bridging the chasm between them. Neither of them said anything for a long moment. The mermaid fell still. John closed his eyes and pressed his forehead to Natalie’s. She collapsed into his embrace and ran a fingertip along John’s jawline, over his ear. Wind rattled the windows throughout the suite.

“I want to wait until sunrise,” Natalie said into John’s neck. “If we have to bring her back, I want to stay with her for as long as possible.”

John carded his hand through Natalie’s hair. “Alright. We’ll bring her back an hour before sunrise.”

Lightning illuminated the sky, followed by another clap of thunder. This time, the lights went out, plunging Atlantic City into a cold, gray darkness. The mermaid startled in the tub, sending water flying through the air. John and Natalie did not move from the floor, rocking back and forth as one.

When the mermaid calmed, she continued to hum in a low voice as soft as silk. The measures of her melody were muted only by the booming thunder.

* * *

John and Natalie sat in the bathroom watching the clock on their cell phones. It was almost six in the morning—only one hour until sunrise. They had spent half of the previous day preparing the hotel for the storm, putting sandbags by the entrances and boarding up some of the windows. The rain continued to pound against the hotel as they worked. By the time they finished arming the Palace Suites, Atlantic City was surrounded by an inky night sky. John and Natalie remained in the bathroom in the spare time they had before sunrise, a pile of empty coffee mugs piling in the corner as the hours crawled to dawn. Lightning set fire to the storm clouds, its quick flashes the only source of light aside from the soft glow of the few candles Natalie could find. Thunder rumbled across the sky like a beating drum.

There was a soft flick as Natalie lit a cigarette. “So,” she said. “I guess it’s time.”

John glanced at the clock. “Seems like it.”

Natalie took a long pull of her cigarette. She did not say anything.

“Come on,” John said. He stood and extended his hand toward Natalie. She rolled her cigarette between her thumb and index finger.

John wiggled his fingers. “I’m not going to bite.”

Natalie took John’s hand and climbed to her feet, squinting through the darkness. Natalie had lit a single candle in the bathroom to provide some light. The scent was some kind of pumpkin spice flavor, and it fused oddly with the mermaid’s salt water aroma. The mermaid was humming to herself as she swished her tail back and forth in the tub.

“We’ll have to carry her,” John said over the sound of the rain.

The mermaid immediately turned toward John’s voice, her blue eyes settling on him and Natalie. She bit her lip and inclined her head toward the rain pouring out the window.

Natalie dumped what was left of her cigarette in the toilet. “How do you feel?”

The mermaid sighed. She pointed outside the window again with her tail.

“We know,” Natalie said. She smoothed one of the mermaid’s braids. “We know.”

The mermaid’s blue eyes turned downward. She ran a fingertip over the surface of the bathwater. When John and Natalie moved closer, the mermaid tensed. She gripped the edges of the tub so hard that her knuckles turned white. The porcelain cracked under the force of her hand.

“Maybe there’s another way.” Natalie’s eyes were glassy as she looked at John.

John leaned against the wall. “I don’t know how to stop a giant storm coming to take away a mermaid.”

“Let’s—let’s put her in a pool. An indoor pool. We can board up the windows, prepare it for the storm—”

The building shook as lightning lit up the sky again, thunder cracking a few seconds after it. The flame on the lone candle in the bathroom flickered.

“We can’t,” John said. “You know we can’t.”

Natalie did not respond. The rain was loud now, so loud that John and Natalie needed to raise their voices in order to hear one another. Their ears popped constantly as the atmospheric pressure fell and the storm grew closer. The toilet made bizarre slurping sounds that bounced off the bathroom walls.

“There’s nothing else we can do,” John said.

Natalie fell silent. For a moment, she and John stared at one another in the dim candlelight, neither one moving at all. The toilet’s slurping sound began to crescendo, and another clap of thunder made the building shake. The mermaid covered her ears and hummed louder.

“It’s for the best,” John said.

Natalie buried her face in her hands.

“Let’s go—”

BOOM!

The bathroom window exploded like a firework, glass raining down all over the porcelain tiles. The mermaid shrieked as shards of glass peppered her skin and rainwater spilled inside. Winds rushed into the bathroom, knocking both John and Natalie onto the ground. Another streak of lightning illuminated the sky.

“Get outside!” John screamed. “Go! Go!”

Together, they hoisted the mermaid out of the bathtub and carried her into the living room. John shut the bathroom door and shoved a table against it when the winds forced it open. The mermaid lay sprawled on the living room couch as Natalie stroked her hand and attempted to soothe her. Small, fresh cuts were visible on the mermaid’s arms from the implosion. John and Natalie’s own hands were bleeding from glass that had cut into their skin.

Natalie kicked the wall. “I fucking hate this city.” She wiped her face with her sleeve and sat on the arm of the couch.

Outside, the wind howled. The bathroom door rattled as the storm attempted to escape into the rest of their suite.

“We have to go,” John said.

Natalie wiped her face with her sleeve. “Fine,” she said. She swallowed. “Alright.”

Natalie stepped away and moved closer to the mermaid. She sat on the arm of the couch and wrapped her arms around her stomach. John’s fingers trembled as he reached out, and he kept his gaze on the floor to avoid the mermaid’s piercing blue eyes. The mermaid smiled and hummed in response, inclining her head towards his touch.

John looked away. The storm released another bolt of lightning, another clap of thunder.

“Okay,” Natalie said finally. She shook her head. John reached out to soothe her, but let his hand drop halfway when Natalie stood from the couch. “Let’s go. “

John swallowed. Natalie moved to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him, facing the mermaid soaking their couch.

John glanced at the window. The black sky was already blending into a light gray mixed with pink—the first sign of the approaching sun. Atlantic City itself was completely dark. The casino lights were off, the Steel Pier resembled more of a black hole than a boardwalk of carnival rides and games. Dark storm clouds rolled through the sky.

“I’m sorry,” John said.

Natalie joined her hand with John’s and turned her gaze to the gathering storm outside the window. John stared at their interwoven fingers. The mermaid hummed.

“It’s not—” Natalie’s breath hitched. “It’s not you, you know that? It was never you.”

John rubbed his thumb against Natalie’s hand. “But after this is over,” he said, “you won’t stay.”

Rain drummed against the glass. The ocean was violent—wave after wave after wave heaved against the shore, the tide moving in tandem with the thunder.

When Natalie did not say anything, John hung his head. He let his hand fall from Natalie’s grasp.

“You were right,” Natalie said. “There is nothing else we can do.”

John folded his hands behind his back. “I know.”

Natalie leaned her head against John’s shoulder.

“We’ve got to get the mermaid back in the ocean,” John said. He glanced at the window and grimaced at the scene outside. “I don’t know if we’ll make it.”

Natalie smiled. “That’s alright. Let’s try.”

* * *

They almost made it.

The rain pounded against the boardwalk like a drum, claps of thunder and lightning adding more to the soundtrack of the storm. It rained and rained and rained, yet John and Natalie continued to carry the mermaid between them toward the Atlantic. The famous Atlantic City boardwalk was empty aside for the unusual trio. They could barely walk or hear one another as they pushed against the storm. A few hotel signs were knocked down—they lay broken throughout the boardwalk and the beach, forcing John and Natalie to weave around them. The wind dragged pieces of the sign for the Taj Mahal Hotel & Casino across the sand. Natalie barely dodged a flying piece as they got closer and closer to the ocean. Still, the hotels and casinos remained standing, the boardwalk remained intact, and the few that were left in Atlantic City were safely tucked away in their homes. For a few moments, it looked like Atlantic City would withstand the storm.

Then the wave came.

There was a rumbling sound as the water gathered and rushed toward the beach. The wave cast a shadow over Atlantic City, towering over it for a brief second before it crashed against the shore. The earth shook as the wave threw itself onto land. The ocean rushed toward the boardwalk, reaching out to it like they were old friends. John and Natalie froze as they watched the wave surge toward them. They were halfway between the ocean and the boardwalk, the last line of defense against the storm.

John met Natalie’s eyes. They did not say anything, the mermaid still occupying the space between them.

Natalie shouted, screamed the words: “I’m glad we tried.” The wind snatched her voice away, hurtling it across the city—but not before John smiled, eyes twinkling, lips shaping his response: me, too.

Before John or Natalie could move, the water swept them away. The mermaid tumbled into the ocean. John and Natalie were not far behind her as they disappeared underneath the waves.

The Steel Pier was the first to go. The large, supporting columns that held its attractions above the water snapped under the force of the ocean. Carnival rides, games, and food stands collapsed into the sea with a loud slap. The Ferris Wheel and roller coasters crumbled under the wave and were quickly swallowed by the inky water of the ocean.

Second was the Atlantic City boardwalk. Water burst through the cracks from below as the wave made its way deeper inland. The broken signs and garbage that littered the boardwalk were swept away by the ocean. Then, the boardwalk itself exploded as the damp wood finally gave out.

The casinos and resorts went next. Tons of water burst through the glass windows and doors of the Taj Mahal, Showboat, Bally’s, Caesar’s, the Atlantic City Palace Suites. Water rushed inside and swallowed slot machines, cigarette butts, and poker chips. The shiny golden sign of the Palace Suites was pulled into the sea. The ocean sucked in pieces of the casinos and buildings that crumbled, greedily drinking more and more of the city itself until there was nothing left.

When the storm was over, and the ocean returned to where it was meant to be, the city was in ruins. Pieces of buildings were scattered throughout the empty land. Mounds of seaweed and dead fish covered the ground—gifts left behind by the ocean. The boardwalk was gone. The casinos and resorts that dotted the skyline were ripped down, torn away, drowned.

Still, the sun rose the very next day. Its rays pierced the ocean, golden streams reaching through the shallow green and into the deep blue. The splintered light barely kissed the creatures living just below the surface. The mermaid’s silver blue scales glimmered in the underwater sun, the strokes of her tail creating its own current alongside the waves. Her shadow passed over the remains of Atlantic City forever buried under the sea—the Show Boat, the Ferris Wheel, pieces of the boardwalk, the golden sign of the Palace Suites.

The mermaid sang as she laid America’s Playground to rest, her voice low and clear as the notes echoed through the Atlantic.

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