Dennis saw it first in the doctor’s face, that their baby wasn’t normal. The doctor’s eyes widened and she actually pulled back her hands, just for an instant. She shot a sympathetic glance toward Dennis.
“Your baby’s head has crested,” she announced, all professionalism again. “Deep breath, Therese, then give me one more really good push.”
Therese squeezed half-moons into Dennis’s palm with her nails. First she wouldn’t meet his gaze, and then she did, looking almost sorry for Dennis for finding out like this. Therese, he thought, what have you done?
Therese moaned and Dennis, connected to his wife through their hands, felt the moment the baby came out. Therese’s eyes closed in shame.
Dennis prepared himself to meet his daughter.
What the doctor held in her arms resembled a jellyfish that had swallowed a human fetus. Its skeleton was visible through translucent blue flesh. It was a creature that belonged in the murky recesses of the ocean, not in the light of day. Therese had sworn to Dennis that she hadn’t visited the sea in years, yet here was the ghastly proof. She’d been carrying on an affair with a mer.
Only, as Dennis stared, he watched his daughter slowly decompress from her journey through the birth canal. Here a doughy elbow stuck out, there a foot twitched, complete with five perfect toes. A light spot caught his eye: the bridge of cartilage pressing against the skin of her nose. That provided him a focal point through which he suddenly recognized a fully formed and decidedly human face, grimacing and squinting into the light. There was the baby he’d seen in the ultrasounds. She didn’t cry. The doctor cut the umbilical and whisked her off to check her respiration.
Perhaps Therese saw what transpired on Dennis’s face, for she tentatively set aside her guilt and spoke one word: “Chelsea?”
Dennis shook himself. “What? Yes! Yes, Chelsea. There she is.” It was the name they had agreed upon. ChelSEA. Therese had suggested it, like a subtle confession, a scarlet letter. And yet, how ordinary it sounded.
“Chelsea,” echoed the doctor as she laid the baby in Therese’s arms. “Chelsea is a healthy…” she only hesitated a moment, “baby girl.”
Chelsea never did cry. Dennis made a habit of waking in the middle of the night to check on her, since she couldn’t tell him if anything was wrong. “Going to count our daughter’s bones,” he’d mutter to Therese. Then he’d stand over her crib and muse how frail she looked, absorbing moonlight into her translucent cheeks like molten glass.
Dennis glanced back at his wife, cocooned in sheets. She always slept with her back to him, but he noticed that she’d turned since he’d walked around to the crib, so that her back was to him still. What had become of them?
Chelsea was an ever-present reminder of the choices Therese had made. Dennis had a recurring dream where Therese would undress herself on a beach, scattering blouse, bra, socks, panties. Wave after wave would lap over her naked body, without receding, until she was fully submerged. And then the mer would arrive.
Therese wouldn’t talk to Dennis. Chelsea wouldn’t cry for his attention. Their house was a mausoleum for the life they might have lived. He wasn’t the first parent of a half-mer, but there were hardly books written on the subject. Still, he channeled all of his frustration into caring for Chelsea.
Even when her second birthday arrived and still she couldn’t walk, or even stand. And when four candles graced her birthday cake, but the most they could hope to get out of her were docile “Yip, yup,” guppy sounds.
On the morning after her fifth birthday, Dennis walked downstairs, poured Chelsea’s orange juice and cut a pear, which he set on her striped placemat with a napkin and fork. He heard the irregular thumps that announced her sliding down the stairs on her bottom. But when her face appeared around the corner, just above the floor, Dennis merely snapped his newspaper in the air and turned the page. He was aware of her crawling into the kitchen and climbing into her seat.
“Po Po?” she called to him pitifully as she picked up a slice of pear.
He had decided to be cruel for his daughter. Until she learned to walk, he would simply ignore her. She knew what he wanted.
Two days of this passed. Dennis nervously tapped the side of the recliner, hating and second-guessing himself, rereading the same page of his novel. Chelsea was a perennial presence across the room, sitting cross-legged in his favorite dress of hers (pink, to complement her blue). Then Dennis heard a small thud, and without thinking he looked over to see that she’d fallen on her bottom, eyes sharp with concentration.
She pulled herself up by the edge of the stairs to stand on wobbly legs. Dennis quickly looked away, only to hear another thud. Followed by another. And another. This settled into a regular rhythm, neither speeding up nor slowing down: stand, let go of the wall, take a step, thud. This was it, Dennis realized, it was going to happen. He chanted to himself in time with the thuds: Come on. Good girl. You got this. But he didn’t dare look at her for fear of breaking the spell. Until she missed a beat and he glanced over to find that she was still standing after a single step. But she fell with the next one and crawled back to the wall to pull herself up and start all over again.
Dennis looked for Therese in the kitchen. Her head perked up, and he beckoned her in with his eyes. With rare excitement animating her features, she tiptoed into the doorway.
Chelsea was making more steps at a time now. Their living room carpet was a vast beige ocean, but she wore determination on her face as only a five-year-old could. Still Dennis didn’t dare look at her directly. He tapped the side of his chair more energetically, coaxing her forward. Come on, honey. Come to me, little goldfish. She was so close, he watched her from his peripheral vision, prepared to wrap her in a tight hug and pepper her face with kisses the moment her cool skin touched his hand.
Instead, she lunged–threw herself across the remaining couple of steps, mouth open. Dennis looked over just as she clamped down on the flesh beneath his thumb.
He shoved her away, harder than he intended. She crumpled to the floor but didn’t take her eyes off him. His own red blood beaded on her bottom lip.
Therese marched over, grabbed Chelsea’s thin arm and squeezed it to the bone.
“Therese. Hey, come on–you’re hurting her!”
“No, I’m not,” she replied, and indeed, Chelsea pouted in both of their directions but nothing more. She licked her lips.
Therese squeezed for several more seconds and then dropped Chelsea’s arm. She rounded on Dennis. “Are you happy now?”
“Excuse me?” Dennis angled his hand so that the blood wouldn’t drip on the recliner.
“Your daughter has walked. Has she proven herself to you? Are you content?”
“Yes, Therese, I’m very proud of her.” He spread his hands. “I’m not allowed to be happy for my daughter?”
“Let’s get a pool.”
There it was. Dennis squeezed his eyes shut. “Therese…”
“You goddamn know why not!”
Dennis’s words hung in the air. In that moment, Chelsea shifted toward her mother.
“She’s passable.” Therese shrugged. “She’s passably human, isn’t she? You can guilt and coerce her into walking and talking and playing nice with other kids. Offer her your shoulder to cry on when she gets bullied. Pretend she’s normal. I for one am not so cruel.”
“Don’t,” Dennis warned.
“Look at her. Really look at her. I know what she is.”
Dennis closed his eyes. Therese, nude at the edge of the water, toes curled in the sand, breasts rocking with each wave.
“She belongs in water. That’s her natural. Accept her for what she is.”
The mer flows to her, over her. She spreads her legs for it–it, thing, force of nature.
“Fine.” Dennis exhaled the word, visibly slackening. Therese planted a fish hook in his belly, and it was tearing his insides raw. His baby had finally walked! Dennis knew he did right for her, but hell, he just didn’t have the strength for it anymore.
“Do whatever you want,” he said. “Get a pool.”
A month later, Dennis and Therese stood on the fresh concrete and watched their daughter insinuate herself with the water. First her feet disappeared, lapped up on the first rung of the ladder, jelly-like muscle and intricately locking bones seeming to dissolve. By the time she was submerged, her brand-new purple one-piece seemed to be swimming by itself, blanketed by black hair with a sheen of green like seaweed. She didn’t take to the water–she was water. Occasionally an arm would surface, or less frequently her head, and Dennis would be reassured that she hadn’t melted entirely.
Therese was right; Chelsea’s introduction to the water was as natural as a bird jumping out of its nest to meet air for the first time. Dennis wanted to be thrilled that his daughter could have this, but instead he just felt as if he’d given up on her.
But then, he reasoned with a stroke of bitter honesty, maybe he was ready to give up on her. At least to this extent.
Chelsea lay face-up on the concrete in a yellow bikini. It was the third of March, and she was sixteen. Sixteen was important, because her Po Po was going to take her to the ocean this year. He’d promised it, when she was five and he’d had to cover up the pool in the winter for the first time, condemning her to five months of the hard earth beneath her feet and thin air against her skin. He hadn’t expected her to remember, or to remind him every birthday without fail. But he’d promised, sixteen, this year.
Chelsea slipped her left hand beneath the tarp covering the pool. Her anxiety leached out with her body heat. She watched a “V” of small, black birds flying overhead. She snapped her teeth idly at them, wondering if flying felt like swimming for the feathered and hollow-boned.
“Hey,” someone hissed.
Chelsea’s ears perked up. The voice came from behind the fence which had always been, as far as she was concerned, the edge of her world.
She stalked over. It was white plastic with gaps no bigger than a ruler’s edge. Still, she pressed her eye against a slot and realized that she could make out a fuzzy vertical strip of green grass and yellow siding.
Someone rapped three times a short distance away. Chelsea jumped and repositioned herself. This slot was dark… someone in the way?
She tap–tap–tapped in response.
And was rewarded with a throaty laugh and shuffling of feet as her mysterious companion moved to hit the fence farther down. It was a girl’s voice. Chelsea was there in an instant. Soon they were tapping out a musical call and response, the girl laughing without restraint, Chelsea snapping her teeth happily as if she were soaring in pursuit of clever little birds.
But their dance was disrupted by a call from her Po Po. “Chelsea! Dinner!”
Chelsea froze mid-swing. She backed up, raised her foot, and kicked the fence with all her might. She meandered into the house as the rattling fence reverberated through the neighborhood.
“What was that?” asked Po Po.
She ignored him as she dragged an extra large shirt over her bathing suit (a rule at the dinner table). She walked to the kitchen with closed eyes, her translucent lids giving the impression of looking through murky water, and landed moodily in her seat. Chicken and baked potatoes. Chicken was a stupid bird that couldn’t fly, so she concentrated on the potatoes, lathering them with butter until they were mushy and yellow, then molding them with her spoon into the shape of waves.
Her head snapped up and she locked eyes with Po Po. “When,” she enunciated, practicing each syllable in her head before shaping her tongue around it. “Take. Me. Ocean?” She punctuated her question with a smile.
“Oh, Chelsea, I will take you, honey.”
She set down her spoon carefully while she waited for Po Po to finish that thought.
“I’m just not sure you’re ready yet. The ocean’s a–”
“Promised!” She shoved aside her plate, dislodging most of its contents. “Promised. Sixteen!”
“And it’s still a promise. But honey, you’ve got to prove you’re mature enough. The ocean’s a big place. If you ever got lost, there’s no way for us to find you.”
She couldn’t hear this. She covered her ears over her hair, squeezed her eyes shut and imagined water that moved her instead of parting mindlessly, waves that both pushed and embraced, fish and mollusks and seaweed that filled every inch of it with movement and purpose. The sea was alive, it beckoned her, and she had waited her entire life–sixteen years!–to meet it. She opened her mouth, not to scream but to reason and plea, to put words to the lunar tide of longing that swelled within her breast, threatening to drown her if she couldn’t reach her true home. But Mama cut her off.
“No, Chelsea! You’re not ready, and you may never be. Unlike your father, I make no promises. You either belong in this household or you belong in the sea. There’s no visiting, no compromise. Now eat your dinner and stop complaining.”
Chelsea looked helplessly between Mama and Po Po, unused to them teaming up. She pushed her chair back and stood up, but the fight was out of her. They didn’t even call to her as she escaped outside, where she tapped on the fence without response.
Po Po opened the pool the following morning, although the sky misted a chilly March shower and anything green was still locked inside the frozen earth. He didn’t even try to put on a good face as he did it. Chelsea breached the surface soundlessly and immediately started swimming laps. She wanted to disappear, and that was exactly what she achieved. The first time she surfaced to breathe, she saw that Po Po had already retreated inside.
“Hey, Chelsea. Chelsea!” whispered a voice. Her neighbor’s face peered over the fence. She was Chelsea’s age, with short blonde hair and a shiny green stone pierced through her nose.
Chelsea waded to the side of the pool and smiled for the first time since last evening. She gestured with both hands, beckoning.
The girl glanced toward Chelsea’s house, where the door was still shut, and then back at her own house. “Okay,” she whispered. “Don’t go anywhere.”
Her face disappeared and Chelsea heard scraping and fumbling with something heavy and metallic. Then the girl popped all the way up to her waist and swung a leg over.
Chelsea swam to the opposite end of the pool and back again in her excitement. The next time she looked, the girl was hanging backwards from the fence, feet dangling. Chelsea decided to play a trick on her. She submerged in wait.
The water closed off the outside world like a bubble. Sunlight trickled down to the bottom so that even she couldn’t see where her limbs ended and the water began. She looked up at gray clouds and the tip of the white fence distorted in the water’s surface. Soon the girl’s face appeared as well, seemingly worlds away.
With a thrill that made her shiver, Chelsea set her feet flat on the pool floor and kicked up with all her might. She broke the surface just long enough to pull the girl down with her.
The girl didn’t even have time to scream before the pool claimed her. Chelsea released her immediately to let her catch her breath, only to dunk her all over again. The water churned white with their thrashing. Stimulated, Chelsea swam to the opposite wall and back again, then pulled her neighbor back in just as she was climbing out. Then she grabbed both of the girl’s hands as if inviting her to dance. But the girl got her first good lungful of air and screamed wordlessly in Chelsea’s face.
Startled, Chelsea let go and watched as the girl heaved herself out and collapsed on the concrete like a drenched ferret. She staggered back up and didn’t look back until she was well away from the edge of the pool, shivering and coughing and crying. Then she turned away without a word and left out the front yard.
Po Po appeared in the doorway an instant later. “Was that you screaming?” he asked, mildly alarmed.
Chelsea ignored him and sank beneath the surface. Eventually he left as he always did and Chelsea was alone, knowing that she’d just scared away her very first friend in the world.
Chelsea swam monotonous laps. Pool toys floated like bloated dead fish, or sank to the bottom like neon shells. A week had passed since she’d scared her neighbor away, and there had been no inviting taps against the fence since. She didn’t even know her name.
Chelsea knew the length of the pool like the length of her arm and could close her eyes without fear of hitting the side. She swam until she needed a break, which took the bulk of the morning. Then as she waded toward the ladder, she looked up and there was her neighbor, standing a safe distance from the edge of the pool for who knew how long.
Chelsea froze. The girl was all seriousness now, none of the laughter on her face that came so easily before.
“What,” said Chelsea after a moment, “Is. Yer-name?”
“Oh. Devon.” She edged minutely closer.
“Safe. Promise,” assured Chelsea. “And… sorry.”
Devon nodded and walked to the edge, where she squatted to Chelsea’s level.
“I’m sorry, too,” she said. “I thought you were just something, you know, weird and exotic to do shit with. That’s a high complement coming from me, seriously. But you’re the real deal. You’re a mer, right? I had no idea mer were so… human.”
Chelsea just waded in place, meeting Devon’s gaze.
“Look at you. I love how you look so fragile, but you’re anything but. Man, I’d love to see the full sunlight shining through you. I mean, you’re beautiful.”
Devon extended her hand tentatively, and Chelsea moved forward until the hand touched her cheek. She felt it tremor and then relax. “Sorry, I guess I expected you to be slimy or something. Can I… kind of awkward… can I see your heart?”
Chelsea rolled down the top of her bikini to reveal her beating heart tucked inside fiberglass ribs.
“Can you,” said Chelsea. “Take. Me. To the. Ocean?”
A smile spread across Devon’s face like the sun spilling its bounty over a watery horizon. “I could do that, yeah.”
Chelsea stepped out of Devon’s used Oldsmobile onto a rocky shore. A steady wind whipped her hair about her face and she tasted salt water on the back of her tongue. Muted sunlight filtered through a steel gray sky making the whole scene look flat, like entering a painting.
She stumbled forward with bare feet on the smooth, hard rocks. Honking seagulls tugged at the corners of her attention. The ocean courted her with small, lapping waves, but she approached it diagonally, restraining herself, savoring the moment. Maybe just a little bit nervous.
First the ocean kissed the soles of her feet before retreating shyly. Then it tickled her ankles, wrapped around her knees, hugged her waist. Arrestingly cold. Chelsea felt more physically satisfied, more emotionally whole than she could ever remember.
When the next wave came, she dunked her head under it, lifted her feet and let it pull her into its bosom. She hesitated long enough to wave at Devon on the shore, her one true friend who had made this experience a reality.
As Chelsea waved, something in the water wrapped around her ankle and pulled her under.
Therese lay face up in bed, feeling anxious. She didn’t know why she felt this way or what to do with the feeling. Usually she slept until oblivion eluded her, dumping her into the waking, busy, tiring world.
But today she was full of nervous energy. She listened to a car pulling out of a driveway. Birds chirped in the cherry tree outside her window. Dennis unloaded the dishwasher downstairs. This suburban cacophony was enough to chase her out of bed and into the bathroom, where she turned on the shower to escape into its white noise.
While she waited for the water to heat up, she glanced out the window. It gave a clear view of the pool and her moody, implacable daughter who lived there. Only, where was that girl now? Steam curled invitingly out of the shower, but Therese ignored it, scanning back and forth across the pool’s surface. She should at least be able to spot Chelsea’s bathing suit, ripples in the water, her trailing green-black hair. Her daughter was perpetual motion, and motion caught the eye. Maybe it was just her anxiety finding something to attach to, but….
She shut off the shower and met Dennis downstairs in the kitchen. “Where’s Chelsea?” she asked him.
“In the pool, where she’d sleep if I let her. Why?”
Frowning, Dennis set down the silverware he’d been drying and walked outside. Half a minute later, he returned. “Is she in her room?”
Therese walked upstairs to check, knowing full well she wouldn’t be there. But where–how–could Chelsea go? As her mind started working, something made her think of that car she’d heard leaving its driveway–possibly that teenage girl next door. A week ago, she and Dennis had heard a girl scream who wasn’t Chelsea, and they’d wondered if it had been that neighbor. Would Chelsea seek out a girl her own age? As each unlikely event occurred to her, Therese started to build a narrative around them. What did Chelsea want, more than anything in the world? Now that the connections were formed, she found them impossible to dissociate in her mind. Neighbor, Chelsea, car. This was reinforced by the sense of inevitability that Chelsea would somehow, someday, find her way back to the sea.
“Get in the car,” she told Dennis. “Our neighbor drove Chelsea to the sea.”
Therese pressed her fingers into her temple as Dennis drove. Her elbow nearly brushed him, yet an invisible schism separated them, as always. Just like when they ate a meal at the same table, or lay beside each other in bed. Chelsea’s arrival had neatly cleaved their relationship. Equally true: Chelsea was the last thread that held them together. Dennis probably didn’t realize it, but Therese was terrified for Chelsea right then, and part of the reason was because losing her would be tantamount to losing him.
Dennis turned to Therese. He looked haggard, hunched over the steering wheel. She could see his mind working, imagining Chelsea drifting helplessly in a vast ocean. Or maybe he was afraid that she’d be happier there without them.
“Why, Therese?” he asked softly.
It took her a moment to realize what he was asking, for it was a sixteen-year-old question. Yet he’d never asked until then. “Does it matter anymore?”
“Of course it matters! I’ve expended far too much energy convincing myself that it didn’t. Why did you cheat on me? What were you looking for in the ocean? Did you find it?”
Therese sighed. “You must know, deep down, I’ve always been a little bit damaged. Love is a mirror. If I didn’t love myself, how could I tolerate it in your gaze? I did love you. I–” She stopped short of repeating that thought in present tense. “I thought you understood that about me, on some level.”
Dennis avoided meeting her eyes.
“I went to the ocean to feel something. It wasn’t your fault, nor was it anything you could fix. Yes, I found what I was looking for, and yes, I regret it.”
Therese heard seagulls, and suddenly they crested a hill and were looking straight into the throat of the ocean. But they had miles of it to search, so they lapsed into a sullen silence.
“There!” Therese called out about twenty minutes later. Dennis spotted it at the same time and hit the brakes. A vaguely familiar Oldsmobile was parked a little ways off from the road. Dennis pulled up behind it, and Therese was out of the car before he could cut the engine. Sure enough, their neighbor stood at the edge of the water, looking in.
“Can you see her?” asked Therese, traversing the rocks with bare feet.
The girl started. Her face was ashen and her eyes rimmed red. She shook her head mutely.
“She was pulled in. I don’t–I don’t know how. She was looking at me, and then she was just gone. I swear–”
“Fine.” Therese dismissed the girl and strode straight into the water.
The first wave hit her like a wall of ice. She was still in her nightgown. Its hem floated around her waist as she plunged in deeper.
There were no sharks in these waters. Only one thing could have pulled Chelsea in. Her real father, the mer, had somehow sensed her in his domain. And reclaimed her.
Therese unbuttoned the top button of her gown. “I’ve returned! Remember me? Where are you?”
She hesitated once the water reached her chin. The waves didn’t break over her anymore, but buoyed her, her feet finding and losing the shell-strewn floor. Chelsea was nowhere in sight.
She leaned forward and began to swim, only to be buffeted back by something stronger and firmer than a wave.
“Wait!” she gasped as she went under.
The mer reunited with her body. Therese opened her eyes, but there was nothing to see. Unlike Chelsea, the mer lacked human form; it was water with intention, passionate and wild. It pressed against her underwear. Suddenly she was seventeen years younger again, throwing herself into the ungentle arms of the ocean and truly waking up for the first time in her life. Her body responded, even as her lungs strained for air and consciousness threatened to abandon her. She existed on the hairline between perfect awareness and senseless oblivion.
Her face broke the surface and she gulped air. “Where–”
The mer pushed her under again. It was on top of her. In the white froth of their struggle, she could almost make out its ever-changing silhouette.
But Therese pushed it back firmly. Without surfacing again, she regained her equilibrium and mimed language. Us, she pointed between them. Child, her swelling stomach. She waited a moment to let that sink in. Here, she pointed down and shook her head. She doesn’t belong here. Then she placed her palm flat on what might have been the mer’s chest. Please.
The mer pushed back against her hand, so that she could feel its strength and pride. Then it retreated backward and disappeared, and Therese surfaced eagerly for air.
She pushed her hair out of her face and squeezed her eyes shut against black spots that swam in her vision. She vaguely noticed that Dennis was calling her name now and had entered the water behind her, but she lacked the strength to reassure him.
She spotted something in the distance, a moving bump in the water like a living wave. Something vaguely reminiscent of seaweed was suspended inside it: long green-black hair. The wave closed the distance at a surprising rate, and then submerged without warning, propelling Chelsea neatly into Therese’s arms with her remaining momentum.
But she was floating face-down, just a tangle of hair and a yellow swimsuit. Therese lifted her daughter up with numb hands. Her face materialized seemingly out of the ocean, features limned as the water dripped off them. Her eyes were closed, and she was nothing but dead weight. Therese propped her against her shoulder and stroked her hair with the same hand that held her. “Mama’s here now,” she muttered. “Wake up.”
“Is that her?” asked Dennis, who was close behind her now.
“Yes, help me.”
As Therese maneuvered toward him their eyes met, just for a moment. A frisson passed through her, full of feelings she had long thought buried. Meeting Dennis again in this cold, harsh environment; they were just two warm, floating bodies attracted to each other. But the weight of the ocean leaned on their relationship, like the weight of Chelsea in Therese’s arms.
Chelsea spasmed and coughed water down Therese’s shoulder. “There you are,” she gasped as all of the day’s adrenaline drained out of her at once. Chelsea clung tight, shaking and coughing.
Dennis was there too, rubbing her arm. He snuck a glance at Therese like the very first time they’d met at the campus library.
Chelsea clawed Therese’s back feebly, grasping for something solid to cling to. “I want,” she murmured. Her mouth worked, trying to shape the words that came so hard for her. “I want. Go. Home.”