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Their bodies washed ashore in droves. In the beginning, it was chaos. There were simply not enough people to police the dead. Bodies were being taken from the beaches, in broad daylight, hacked apart by scientists and street vendors alike, parts sold on roadsides next to the boxes of tiger bone and rhino horn. Mermaids, came a collective whisper of mankind. Mermaids, ran the news channels, over and over until the word almost lost all meaning.
Mermaids. Human enough to empathise with, animal enough to recoil from. Not beautiful like the stories say; they are more monster than man, their spines too long and their tails twice the length of their human halves. Their fingers are webbed, their teeth are razor sharp. Their eyes have no whites, only blackness. Their gills bleed silver, slit throats spilling starlight amidst the foam of the crashing waves.
It is hard, these days, to find a beach not littered with their scales. Whether their glitter is on the sandy shores of Australia or among the pebbles of England, they have become as synonymous with the beach as waves or seashells. They are the size of pennies, bright like mirrors, like a full moon on a clear evening, like the eyes of a cat in the dark.
A live specimen has yet to be found. Only the dead, corpses piling ever higher, the smell of rotting fish carrying for miles inland. Some cities have started to burn the corpses. Others are still trying to bury them in unmarked mass graves, or study them, as if these slime-covered bodies could reveal their secrets to the universe. (They’re a delicacy in some places, especially the bit where human meets fish, apparently a meat that tastes unparalleled. Tender and sweet, say some. Cursed, say others.)
People are scared. People are praying. Turnout rates to Sunday masses have skyrocketed worldwide. God is on the tongues of millions once again. Please, God, what is happening?
(Is this the end?)
Margo is freshly turned eighteen, and she believes in nothing yet, not yet settled on where to place her convictions. She lives just far enough inland that she has never seen a fresh body washed ashore, only the dried, shrunken few that make it to the nearest museum in their neighbouring city. It doesn’t look real enough to her. Even the pictures on the news have that washed-out, grainy feel. Like a photoshopped phenomenon, a great big joke the world is all working on together.
Her father drinks—not enough to be a drunkard, but enough to be different from the man she remembers from childhood, big smiles, warm hugs. He functions, barely, enough to feed her and enough to work. He does something, numbers, she is not sure, but he types constantly on the computer, in between sips of beer. The condensation rings on his work table will never disappear, stains as everlasting as the stink of the house, the stillness of it since her mother left them both.
It was the same day the first mermaid washed ashore.
Margo tries not to tie any significance to that. Coincidences. She has never touched a beer, but she chain-smokes enough to rival a chimney. Another coincidence. She tries again not to think of it. You begin to lose yourself when you consider yourself the centre of the world.
The world is too big to be all for one person, she thinks.
At the same time, some days she could do with more space. Some days it feels like she has to hunch her shoulders just to accommodate the sky.
The days are long in Routwin, the kind of tiny backwater town that people pass through but never really stop in to take any notice of. There aren’t any jobs here, so people leave, first in a trickle but then in a tsunami gush, and the bleeding won’t stop because there aren’t any jobs, and the people who would make them are taking them elsewhere. It’s drying up in here, top soil blowing away to reveal harsh clay underneath.
Margo is one of the jobless few stuck behind, not the kind to move interstate for college, not the kind to want to start putting down roots at home. She feels in-between, trapped—ready to move somewhere, but not sure where to go yet. So she spends her time outside, kicking up dust until night forces her home. And even then, she does not always go back.
She wanders, adrift, untethered. An onlooker wouldn’t call her lonely. Margo tends to find herself in groups of people, in the corners of parties, on the fringes. Plenty of acquaintances, but no real friends. It’s not that they’re rude, or that she doesn’t like talking to them. It’s just she can’t shake this feeling of otherness, of unwelcome, of a grief over a loss not yet happened.
There’s a glass pane between her and reality.
It’s autumn, chill enough now that Margo can see her breath form before her eyes. The local news is torn between celebrating Josie’s one-hundredth birthday (the oldest living citizen of Routwin!) and the fact that mermaid corpses have been found in an iceberg along the nearest coastline, a two-day trip by car. The pictures are particularly eerie, especially when the screen cuts from the wrinkled face of a centenarian to the too-smooth, too-pale faces of inhuman beings. Their teeth could break bone, so sharp and beastly. An infomercial begins to play as Margo shuts the television off.
Her skin itches, burns. She scratches at her elbows, her knees, the joints where the itch is worst. She’s seen her doctor about it, been given a cream to apply. It doesn’t help. Nothing does. Thankfully, it doesn’t hurt, it’s just there, like an electric current beneath the skin. She leaves the house. Her father doesn’t say anything.
She doesn’t say anything either.
The local café knows her order well by now; it’s never coffee, just raisin toast and a glass of water to wash down the cigarette she always has before going in. Some people give her judging looks, telling her with their eyes that this is how you’ll die, smoke on your lips and tar in your lungs. Margo just looks straight back at them, lets her eyes mirror theirs until they turn away. Her shoulders may bow to the sky, but not to other people.
After ordering, Margo sits down with a book she never reads—Dickens, this time—usually in a seat by the window with a good view of the inside of the shop and the small park across the road. She comes here for the noise: the cluttered chatter, the grind of coffee beans and the frothing hiss of hot milk. She comes here for the noise, because the silence at home is overwhelming, until she feels like she’s drowning, until all she can hear is this roaring in her ears, like she’s in the middle of a waterfall.
Outside, under the dying branches of some tall tree, there are a group of people dressed up as mermaids. Shirtless and barefoot, despite the cold, wearing long flowing skirts with shore-swept scales sewn into the fabric. The tails glitter—as a warning, a lure. It’s not that unusual to see people like this, people who believe the rush of the dead onto the beaches is a sign of something—anything to assign order to anarchy.
Margo’s raisin toast is burnt. She bites into it anyway, eyes glazing over the random page of A Tale of Two Cities that lies open in her lap. The toast is bitter on the tongue, even to a mouth used to the taste of smoke and ash. She watches as the people outside loiter, eerily stock-still, as if playing at being corpses.
When she leaves the café, the skies are stained magenta and indigo and the pretend seafolk are still frozen, blue-lipped statues that betray their living status with their faint, visible breaths. The word pity crosses her mind for a heartbeat, but that’s not right. That doesn’t quite explain this gnarled, twisted feeling in her gut that forces her to finally look away. Apart from Margo, few passers-by spare them a glance. Routwin may not be a seafaring town, far from it in truth, but the hysteria has long reshaped the meaning of normalcy, even here.
Margo walks home in the gathering dark, with dusk wrapping cold hands around her shoulders. Her knees itch, and she picks at the skin at her elbows. She wants to scratch all over, through her denim jeans and leather jacket. The inside of her throat aches, and she wants to cough, but can’t. She wants to claw at her throat, but doesn’t.
Her fingers are growing numb, but Margo revels in that, pressing her cold hands against her red-hot skin. She wants the cold to overtake her, to put out the fire of her body. The clay underfoot reminds her it hasn’t rained here in years, hasn’t snowed in decades. The air tastes metallic, and her mind wanders back to the last time she kissed someone; a mouthful of braces and warm, warm lips.
This is not where she is meant to be.
This is not where she belongs.
Arriving home, a disquiet grows. None of the lights are on. Margo walks inside, cautious, burning. The rooms are all … clean. There are no empty bottles on the tables, no dirty dishes in the sink, and the shelves appear ordered and dusted. There is food in the fridge—not junk food either, leafy green vegetables, the kind Margo never sees at home, only in the stores.
“Hello?” she calls out, both a question and demand. She feels a stranger in this once familiar space. Her steps are slow, her movements alien even to herself. There are flowers in a vase on the dining table. Sunflowers—her mother’s favourites, once upon a time. A note sits beside them, her father’s tidy scrawl revealing a tumble of apologies all in a row.
I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I wish I could’ve been better.
You’re eighteen, it reads. (I can leave you now.)
You really are your mother’s daughter. Remember that.
Bile rises up her throat, burns her insides in a different way. Her eyes fill with hot tears, but stubbornly do not fall. She sits at the table, tracing the condensation rings that cleaning could not strip from her, until the sun rises and bathes the room in gold. Margo is on fire.
The air in the room is not enough to breathe, doesn’t fill her lungs in the right way, and she rushes outside to light a cigarette with shaking hands, desperate for some sense of comfort. There’s a filter balanced between her lips and smoke on her tongue, but it’s not enough, it only makes her hack out heaving coughs and she feels like she’s drowning on her knees with her hands in the dead grass.
Over the next week, Margo stays at home, and no one chases up on her. She is not missed by the world outside. Her hands shake constantly, and her skin is an angry red all the time now. The creases of her elbows and the underside of her knees now bleed in small trickles, despite her cutting her nails, wearing thick gloves to hamper her ability to scratch. A part of her feels almost human only when she is crying hard enough to wet her cheeks, her shirtfront—problem is, she feels as though she has wept herself dry, and has left behind an indescribable husk.
She finds herself staring at the half-dead sunflowers, unable to bring herself to throw them in the bin. Instead, she refills the water of the vase, holding it under the tap until it overflows. Some of the dried blood underneath her nails washes away, reminding Margo how long it’s been since she showered. Leaving the flowers in the sink, she heads to the bathroom.
The shower looks unappealing, and she starts to turn on the faucets of the ancient claw-footed bathtub. Margo keeps adjusting the temperature until essentially only cold water is filling the tub. There is something soothing about the tiles under her feet, the sound of rushing water. A strange sense of déjà vu sweeps over her; a fleeting vision of her mother throwing in bath salts, humming advertising jingles to her. While Margo waits, she heads to the kitchen—for sure, their household no longer stocks bath salts, but she finds more than enough table salt.
Margo pours it all into the bath before turning off the taps. Stripping off her clothes feels like unshackling chains, and she stands straight for the first time in days. She sinks into the water, displacing it over the edges and causing a mess of her bathroom. It doesn’t matter.
The burning stops. A faint stinging rises at the places where the skin has broken and is bleeding, but even that too ceases once enough time has passed. In the right light, silver seems to shine through the cuts, as if she were diamond underneath. A numbness starts spreading over Margo, and even thought she is sitting as still as she can, the water ripples from her trembles.
She descends a little further, inch by inch, until her knees peek just above the water like newfound islands, and her nose hovers just above. Saltwater fills her senses, overwhelming, overpowering, soothing. Slipping takes no effort at all, her face fully submerged, and when she opens her eyes, they sting as she takes in the hazy edges of her body, marked with silver scratches and angry red welts, and the floating mass of her hair around her ears.
When her mother left, all those years ago, she took everything she could get away with. Margo had come home from school to see her father sitting dead-eyed in a living room stripped of valuables. The television gone, the DVD player and even the old VCR machine. The only trace of the family computer was its outline left in the dust of the table. In a twist of cruelty or misguided kindness, every photo of her mother has been taken, like she wanted no part of her to stay behind. If Margo concentrates, she remembers … silver hair, silver eyes. An otherworldliness. A cold touch.
Her father, in contrast, left everything. Too much, almost. The cleanliness, the food, the note, the hollow, desperate apologies. As if he wanted nothing more than to stay. Maybe, in her own way, her mother took him with her too, and it’s only now the body she left behind is following.
What’s left for Margo though? A house too full of memories in a town with no future in a world that is screaming for answers.
Margo wonders what it feels like to be one of those bodies, washed ashore. A marvel, a mystery, no explanation, no history. Margo closes her eyes underwater, imagines the feeling of sand and grit and scales against her skin. The silver of her scratches looks like scales, underwater.
(She takes a deep breath in.)