The prompt from Search Engine Stories this week is – the boy and the mermaid.
Here is my story.
Joss came down to the breakwater most days, even now when he was technically not really a kid anymore. Nineteen was an adult. That’s what his mates said. That’s what his mother said, especially when she was trying to place the responsibility for everything upon him.
He was in his second year of University. He wanted to be a scientist, have a go at saving the planet, but she’d pulled the plug on him, spent all the money his Dad had left him on her drugs and her men who moved into the house and just took over.
His mates always asked him why his mother was attracted to such losers, almost beyond help. Joss knew the answer, although he hated to say it aloud : ’‘Because it makes her feel less fucked up than she actually is.’ What a reason for falling in love.
The breakwater was a treasure trove. Joss had found perfectly formed shells, sandwashed pebbles that were so smooth you felt reassured when you clasped them in your hand, and sea glass pointing outwards like the hand on a compass. Once, on a magical day he had found a coin from the 1880s. He knew it was valuable, he had looked it up on the internet, it was worth thousands, but he couldn’t part with it. It had come to him for a reason.
Joss watched as a water tern, lanky and industrious, rummaged in the mud for crabs. His feathers were brilliantly white as if he had put each one individually in the wash and hung them afterwards in the sunlight to dry. Joss wondered how a bird that searched for food in mud could remain so white.
Once he’d saved a little boy who had been flying a model airplane that crashed into the shallows. The little boy plunged after it not realising that just beyond the mangroves was a trough, a deep chasm where the current was strong. Joss saw him disappear below the surface and leapt in, diving below the water. The water was full of reeds, murky. Joss began to panic when he couldn’t see the boy, he couldn’t remember how long they’d been underwater. He thought it only took two minutes to drown.
The he saw the airplane with its bright yellow wings and the little boy’s hands clutching it. He grabbed him and pushed him upwards, reeds and mud in his mouth. The air was sweet, plentiful. There was so much of it Joss felt his lungs protesting, threatening to split.
The little boy’s mother hugged him so tightly black spots appeared before his eyes. She couldn’t speak, just hugged and pulled reeds out of his hair. Joss was embarrassed by the intensity of her gratitude. But he guessed he had saved the boy’s life.
Joss didn’t want to go home. There had been a fight last night between his mother and her boyfriend, Paul. He was a musician who was still trying to make it at fifty. He didn’t work, just did the occasional gigs for which he got paid in booze and drugs.
They had fought over drugs. Joss’ mother had used some of Paul’s. He hadn’t been happy and had pushed her with such force that she fell and slid right across the room. Joss had been incensed, punching Paul several times in the face. Paul had retaliated by breaking a chair over Joss’ head. Joss had a lump that throbbed when he walked and a fear that his mother would be injured or worse when he got home.
The house was quiet. It was dark but there were no lights on. Joss stumbled as he put his key in the lock. There were suitcases lined up by the door, cardboard boxes. He turned on the porch light and saw the suitcases were his. The boxes were full of his stuff.
His mother was sitting inside on a milk crate. She was smoking and drinking whisky straight from the bottle. ‘I’m sorry, baby, but you have to go,’ she said. ‘Paul can’t live with you in this house anymore.’
‘He can’t throw me out of my own house,’ Joss shouted. ‘He’s been on the scene for two months. You’ll probably break up with him next week.’
‘He’s not throwing you out of the house, I am.’ His mother couldn’t look him in the eye.
‘You’re choosing him over me? Your own son!’ Joss could hear the hysteria rising in his voice. ‘Where am I going to go? How am I going to live? I have no money. I’m a student, well, I was until you spent all of my Uni. money.’
‘I’ve put fifty bucks in your red suitcase,’ his mother sounded pathetic in the gloom. She started talking about how Joss would be all right, that he was a survivor, but his ears were full of the sounds of the waves crashing on the breakwater and he stopped listening.
He checked his room. His mother had been very thorough. He had slept in this room for nineteen years. He knew how the floorboards by the window creaked in different pitches according to how you leaned on them. And how the windows rattled when the southerlies blew. He had painted the walls two summers ago in white with a tinge of pale blue and had made the bookshelves in woodwork class.
Suddenly, it became urgent that he get out of there, this house that was no longer a home. He loaded all of his stuff into his car – an old Holden that leaked oil – and drove, blindly . Somehow he ended up at the breakwater, parking the car on the grass verge before plunging down the embankment.
The lap lap of the waves was soothing, but he saw a lone gull fly out across the water and the cut of its wings was so stark, so plaintive that despair filled his head and his heart. His Dad had been dead for six years. Joss missed him every day. His mother was a drug-crazed stranger. He couldn’t afford to go to University. He was homeless.
He began to fill his pockets full of stones. His shirt, his jacket, his jeans. Soon he could barely stand . He threw himself into the water. It was just like the time he had saved the boy, only darker. His last conscious thought was that there is a lot of truth in the saying – sinks like a stone.
The water was everywhere. Soft, comforting as an old friend. He moved through it as if in a dream. In less than a few minutes he had no further need for breathing. He could feel himself passing, unfocused, into the next world.
But arms began to pull at him, strong as the currents in the sea. And something that he could have sworn was a fin, gathered and pushed him out of the water. He coughed up water, mud and reeds, retching and writhing on the ground. Then he slept, dreaming discontented dreams until the sun began to cut through the rushes.
His chest was aching. He was gritty. The stones in his pockets were digging into his bones. One by one he pulled them out. His arms and hands were covered in scales, gold as stardust. He held one up to the light, it had as many facets as a diamond.
There was a splashing. Joss sat up, groaning. He saw her, sitting in the water, her long, golden hair splayed out behind her. She regarded him solemnly. ‘Foolish human,’ she said. Her voice sounded like water pouring on glass. ‘You are meant to live, not die. You are meant to rejoice in the gift of life, not make a mockery of it.’
Joss saw her tail, nestling in the shallows, her long, glistening gold and silver tail. He couldn’t speak.
‘For you,’ she said, indicating a bag at his feet. It was a bag he had seen some of the old sailors use, stitched at the edges, stained and discoloured. It contained more than a hundred of the 1880s coins.
Joss got to his feet, ready to thank her, but she was already swimming away, her tail sanctifying the waters. He stood watching the water for hours, hoping she would return, but the surface of the water remained unbroken. The mermaid had returned to the deepest reaches of the sea.
Image by Sorgiva at Deviant Art.