The Mermaid Kingdom
It was the summer after Uncle Billy died, the summer before I started sixth grade and my brother, Nick, started third. Our cousin, Meredith, was in and out of the hospital, seizing and vomiting. We knew because our Aunt Kira would call every day in a panic. She was a single mother and had to make money somehow, but with Mere’s condition she couldn’t bear leaving her daughter for more than a second. Aunt Kira didn’t know what to do. She didn’t know where to turn. Things had gotten difficult since Billy’s diagnosis.
“Drop her off here when you have a shift,” my mother said. “Stop complaining. Stop worrying. I’ve given you a solution. Take it or leave it.”
So Mere spent the mornings and afternoons with us in our mother’s mobile home in southern Arkansas. When Aunt Kira first dropped Meredith off that June, she greeted my mother quickly before diving into a lengthy speech about Mere’s inhaler and how to use it.
“When she can’t breathe, and her asthma is horrible, poor thing, you use the inhaler. There’s instructions here, but let me show you anyway.”
She continued the demonstration as I watched my younger cousin. She was five now, and she looked even smaller than she had the previous year. She clung to the hem of the blue shirt Aunt Kira wore to the hospital, half hidden behind her. The skin around her fawn eyes looked tired and pink and her light brown hair was pulled back into a ponytail. It was thin and chunks of it were missing. She frowned up at us.
“Please call me if anything at all happens and I’ll come running,” Aunt Kira finished. “I drop everything for Meredith. She means the world to me.”
We watched Aunt Kira bend down to Mere’s level, hold her hands and say a lengthy goodbye to her. She kissed the top of her head, rubbed her shoulders, and was gone.
Mom’s phone rang, and she went into the kitchen to answer it.
Mere stared at me and I stared back. Nick was sitting against the wall playing a DS game and ignoring us. Meredith held a small, heart-shaped purse in front of her. She swung it slowly as she turned her shoulders left and right.
“Whatchya got there, Meredith?” I finally asked her.
“Dolls,” she said. The word was barely a whisper, more mouth movement than sound.
I smiled. “We used to play dolls when you were younger. Do you remember? At your house while your dad was—"
“Daddy died,” Mere said in the same small voice.
“I have to get going quickly,” Mom said as she appeared back in the living room. “I’ll probably be back around four. I’ve left Meredith’s inhaler and medications in the kitchen. Were you paying attention to the demonstration, Sammie?”
My mom bit her lip, but said, “I’m sure you can read the instructions if she really needs it. Aunt Kira also said something about the seizure medication, but it’s fine. Probably.” She kissed me then Nick on the tops of our heads. Nick grunted and pushed away from her, smashing his fingers into the game’s buttons. Mom sighed and stepped out the door.
As soon as my mom was gone, Mere’s lips sprung into a smile. “Let’s play princesses,” she said, her voice a bit louder than it had been earlier.
Nick frowned into his game, his eyebrows creasing.
“Turn it off, Nick,” I said. “You should play with us.”
He sighed, an exasperated “ugh,” and snapped the game closed. We went outside and Mere ran immediately down the misshapen stairs of our rickety front porch to the apple tree. She began to pull herself into the easy-to-reach branches before I ran over to steady her.
“Wait, Meredith,” I said. “Don’t take it too quickly.”
“Okay,” Mere said.
She climbed up a few branches. I stood right by her, arms out and ready to catch her if she so much as stumbled. Meredith made it up about five feet off the ground and I said, “Okay, that’s probably high enough.”
“You’ve captured me,” Mere said. “Because you’re a dragon and I’m the princess. Nick, you have to be the prince.”
Nick saved Mere by training me to be good. He rode on my back as I stomped around and roared and laughed. We didn’t have much grass in our yard. There was a layer of yellow dust around the skirting of the mobile home. My knees quickly became scraped and dirty, small rocks embedded in my skin. Since we’d moved here from our apartment when I was three, the apple tree had shriveled in the poor soil. The trunk was knotty and the branches thin and stiff like lightning.
I lay in my bed that night, basking in the humidity as the summer sun finally sank, trying to imagine my silly, excited cousin in the hospital, hooked up to beeping machines, tubes threaded through her body. I tried to imagine her the way Aunt Kira described her.
The Friday after Mere visited, Nick, Mom, and I were eating dinner together when Nick asked if Mere was going to come with us out onto the river.
“I guess she’ll have to,” she said. “Kira’ll have to find someone else to watch her if she’s too sickly.”
“She’s not too sickly,” Nick said.
Mom paused. “Nick, Sammie. I’m sure you realize that Meredith being out on the boat with us brings up a whole host of issues. I’ll have to convince your Aunt Kira to let her come. I know that Meredith will be fine, but your aunt is nervous about her.”
Nick and I looked at each other.
“Tell Aunt Kira that we’ll be missing her if she doesn’t come with us,” I said.
Mom and Aunt Kira were on the phone for the better part of an hour. Nick and I couldn’t tell what was happening because the only things Mom was saying were “of course” and “yes I understand but.” Eventually, Aunt Kira did agree to let us take Mere off her hands for the weekend, but only after my mom promised to make Mere put on a lifejacket, renew her coat of sunscreen at least once an hour, and be sure that Mere was never too far from her inhaler.
Mom did none of these things.
Mere, again, forgot that she was meant to be sick, and was much too excited to remind my mother of Aunt Kira’s rules.
“Where’s Mere’s lifejacket?” I asked my mom as she unpacked our beach bag from the car.
“She doesn’t need one,” my mom said.
“Aunt Kira said that she doesn’t know how to swim,” I reminded her.
“She’ll be fine,” my mom said. “The water isn’t too deep by the island, and I know you’ll keep an eye on her.”
She leaned in closer. I could see that her eyes were watering though she didn’t look sad. “And Aunt Kira is overreacting, don’t you think?”
I agreed with her, but didn’t say anything. I went over to Mere, who was waiting wide-eyed and expectantly by the car.
“C’mon,” I said, taking her hand. We walked down the dock and waited with our toes in the water for my mom to untether the boat.
“I’ve never been on a boat,” Mere said.
“You’ll like it,” I said. “It’s really windy and Nick and I have an island.”
“You have an island?”
“Not really. We play on it.”
“Can we play mermaids?” Mere asked.
“Sure,” I said.
Mere sat right at the front and screamed and cheered into the wind. Mom pressed us faster and faster, making us leap over our own waves. When we got close to the island, she sputtered out the engine. Nick and I were entrusted with our younger cousin and we waded out to the island. As we stood in the sand, we watched the boat putt a little ways away and anchor. This is where my mom stayed, spaced out. She would tell us that she was “gathering her thoughts” or “clearing her head,” and when we came back, she would be happier than when we’d left her, but it was a bad happy. Something unnatural. Her speech would be off—a bit slurred maybe—and her eyes would be too green and shiny, her pupils like pinpricks.
“She’ll be back to pick us up,” Nick assured Mere, but she didn’t seem worried. She was busy taking in the island.
We gave her the grand tour. The island wasn’t big. There was a thin strip of beach stretched around it with a dense clump of trees in the middle. The whole thing buzzed with gnats—the sand, the beach, the driftwood. The beach was covered with the rotting skeletons of fish, thick clumps of slimy seaweed, and, of course, garbage. Syringes, condoms, you name it, it was on our beach, but we were all much too caught up in the excitement to truly see the island for what it was; an overgrown lump of dirt and trash floating in a brackish river.
And there was the stream. It ran off of the river and right into the trees. As we waded through the warm shallow water, fat leeches hooked themselves onto our ankles and toes. Once we got back on the boat, we would have to dig our fingernails under their suckers and pry them out one by one. The gnat cloud got thicker the farther we walked into the trees and vines that sheltered the banks of the stream. But it was our space. Our secret space.
“Mermaids live here,” Mere informed us when we took her up to the basin where the stream curved into a pond. It was deeper here than in the rest of the stream, but still shallow, only rising to my thighs. The pond was surrounded by rocks and logs where Nick and I would sit and talk or fill the discarded syringes with brackish water and shoot them at each other.
“This is the Mermaid Lagoon,” Mere said.
Mere was a mermaid named Seashell who had gotten lost but that was okay because she met Princess Sammie and Prince Nick. They were her friends who were magical and changed her tail into legs and all three of them lived in the Mermaid Lagoon happily ever after the end, but then Nick looked down at his plastic Scooby-Doo watch and it was almost 4:30.
“Mom’ll be mad if she can’t see us on the beach when she comes to pick us up,” I said, so we walked back to the shore.
My mom wasn’t back yet. In fact, I couldn’t see the boat at all, so we sat on some rocks with our toes in the sand and waited. Nick picked up the rough brown shell of a freshwater mussel, locked shut, and showed it to Meredith.
“Do you wanna play veterinarian?” he asked.
“Okay,” Mere said.
“Nick, I told you, veterinarian is mean.”
“Oh, who cares, Sammie. It’s fun.”
“Mere, don’t play veterinarian with Nick.”
“I’ll show you,” Nick said.
“Nick, if you do…” I trailed off, unable to think of a threat.
“You’ll do nothing,” Nick finished for me with a proud smile.
Still holding the mussel, he reached under the light waves that lapped the beach for a syringe. It was filled with water already and he squirted a few drops out the top, his tongue poking out between his teeth.
“Doctors use these,” he explained to Mere.
“I know that,” she said.
“All you have to do is take the mussel and you hit it really hard against a rock until it opens.”
He slammed the mussel on the rock between his legs several times making a horrible chinking sound. He then pushed his tiny fingers in between the mussel’s shells and split it open. Fleshy pink strings snapped.
“It’s dead,” I said.
Nick and Mere ignored me.
“That’s the mussel, Mere,” Nick said, pointing at the peach-colored mass in the shell. “And we pretend its sick and that it has to get better.”
“It’s not sick!” I said. “It’s dead--you can’t make it better. You can’t hurt something to make it better. It doesn’t work like that.”
Nick ignored me and stuck the mussel with the syringe. The mussel and shell filled with water; its juice drained into the river.
“If you inject ‘em a lot you can make ‘em really big,” Nick said.
“Nick,” I whined. “Please stop.”
“It’s just like me and Mommy,” Mere said as she watched the mussel expand bigger and bigger like a water balloon.
“What?” I asked.
Mere looked at me and opened her mouth, but all that came out was “Never mind.”
“Do you wanna try, Mere?” Nick asked. “I found another syringe.”
Mere nodded and Nick handed the needle over to our cousin. Unable to witness anymore, I walked over to a rock a little ways away and plucked the leeches from between my toes.
After that first trip to the Mermaid Lagoon, Mere loved mermaids so much that we started playing mermaids at home instead of princesses. And then we were playing princess mermaids.
When it rained one day and we couldn’t go outside, Nick remembered the fairytale book.
“It’s got mermaids in it,” he said. “Do you wanna read it, Mere?”
We called it a fairytale book, but it wasn’t really. It was about vile pixies that stole children and soulless mermaids who were immortal, cursed to remain in the sea forever. It was meant for adults, not children. Obviously, Mom hadn’t flipped through it much before buying it.
Nick handed me the book. I sat on our old, stained sofa, Mere on my right and Nick on my left, and flipped through until I found the mermaid story.
The story was about a man who met a mermaid while walking along the seashore late one evening. She was so beautiful and looked so blue and cold in the chilling night air that he wrapped her in his cloak and took her home. Soon they were married, and not long after, had a son together. But throughout the entire relationship, the mermaid never uttered a word. This was very strange, and though the son seemed perfectly content with his parents and his home, there was talk among the townspeople that the man had married a malevolent spirit. A demon. So incessant were these rumors that the man began to believe them himself. He became terrified and his terror turned to aggression. He drew a sword and threatened to kill his son if his wife would not speak. She did, but all she said was, “You’ve lost your wife, your child, and yourself” before vanishing into thin air. A few years later, the mermaid was supposed to drag her own son into the ocean to drown, but I never told Mere that.
“A few years later,” I read, “the son was playing on the beach while his father fished nearby. He wandered farther and farther away, drawn by something invisible that he could not describe. It was his mother, waiting for him in the white foam of the waves. Though he had little memory of her, he knew exactly who she was and ran into the water to meet her.” I looked at Mere. She smiled up at me. Her eyes were bright and her face looked round, like a child’s face should. I made her happy. “With a bit of mermaid magic from his mother,” I invented, “his legs transformed into a tail and the two merpeople swam off to the mermaid kingdom where they happily lived out their days. Completely alone now, the man lost his mind and died from a broken heart.”
“Hey! Sammie!” Nick exclaimed. “You didn’t do it right. You didn’t read it right.” He reached for the book. I arched my back and stretched my arm up over my head to keep the book away from him.
“Did too,” I said.
“You’re lying,” Nick said. He crawled on top of me, reaching for the book.
“Am not.” I kicked him to the floor.
“Hey!” Nick said. “Maybe you just don’t know how to read.”
“Maybe,” I said. I slid the book behind my back and pressed up tight against the couch so Nick couldn’t get it.
“Is there more?” Mere asked me. “Don’t they have adventures in the mermaid kingdom?”
“No,” Nick said, sulking from the floor. “The next story’s about fairies kidnapping a girl and accidentally drowning her except they don’t realize that she’s dead so it’s just her corpse sitting in a swamp for years and years and years.”
“They had lots of adventures in the mermaid kingdom, only they couldn’t write them down because paper disintegrates underwater,” I said.
Aunt Kira called Mom that night after dinner. We’d been eating ice cream sundaes, and when Mom turned her back to pick up the phone, Nick poured a whole shaker of rainbow sprinkles into his bowl. As the little balls of sugar hit the table and bounced onto the floor, I could hear Aunt Kira’s voice echoing faintly through the phone.
“Sammie is eleven how could she even know the first thing about her condition—she’s running through the dust all day—I know what you do for a living but you’re family and I thought I could trust you with my only daughter but maybe I can’t—you understand that with one call Nick and Sammie are gone.”
My heart flew to my throat. Sometimes my mom did things that scared me—it was the way her eyes looked, or how she would disappear without telling me or Nick where she was going—but that didn’t mean that she wasn’t my mom. I still loved her and I didn’t want to be taken away or be gone or whatever Aunt Kira was talking about.
Mere didn’t come the next morning, and that night, the police arrived.
They banged on the door so hard that the trailer shook and dust dripped from the ceiling. My mother stopped chewing and looked up, shocked.
“Arkansas State Police,” we heard a woman outside say. “Open up.”
Nick made a sound like a squawk.
My mother closed her eyes, swallowed, and stood up from her place at the table. We followed her to the door and peered around the corner as she opened it up. The policewoman shoved a paper into her face.
“We’ve received a tip that you’re trafficking and distributing heroin. We have a warrant and are going to search the house.”
“Yes ma’am,” my mother said. She sounded small.
The woman and two men made their way into the house. I felt the floor shake under their boots.
Nick gripped my elbow. “They’ve got real guns, Sammie,” he said.
I nodded. “C’mon.”
In my box room, we were quiet. We sat pressed between the wall and the bed, our shoulders touching. We held our breath as we waited for the stomping and shaking to stop. Mom had something to hide. We grew up knowing that in the same way we grew up knowing that while some kids had fathers, we didn’t and that was okay.
“Sammie,” Nick said. “We’re the bad guys, aren’t we?”
“I think so,” I replied.
Just then, the door opened. Both Nick and I breathed in sharply. One of the police officers looked over the bed and right at us. He came around and knelt down so he could look at us more closely.
“What are your names?” he asked.
“I’m Sammie,” I said.
“Nick,” my brother said.
“I’m Officer Osborn,” the policeman said. He held out his hand for us to shake, but we just stared at it. Officer Osborn sighed. “You don’t have to hide, Sammie and Nick. Why don’t you come out and sit with me in the kitchen?”
“Are you going to arrest us?” Nick asked.
“Of course not,” said Officer Osborn. “You’ve done nothing wrong.”
“What about Mom?” I asked.
“Let’s come talk in the kitchen, okay?”
We waited there for a little while, swinging our legs. Nick interrogated Officer Osborn about what Mom had done and what was going to happen to her, but he only answered with maybes and I don’t knows. It wasn’t long before the policewoman came into the kitchen, talking about stashes of bags and powder.
“Do you want to see a real police station?” Officer Osborn asked, but we knew we didn’t have a choice. “Come on, you can ride with me.”
And before we knew it, Nick and I were in a police car together. It was dark outside and lights and trees blended as we rode. The buzzing of Officer Osborn’s radio waved in and out of my ears until I felt sick.
We sat in the police station and watched police officers move in and out. They said things we didn’t understand. Nick fell asleep on his uncomfortable black chair before Officer Osborn finally reappeared.
“Your aunt’s on her way to pick you up,” he said, bridge of his nose pressed between his fingers. “I’m not sure if you’ll be able to go back with your mom tonight.”
“Why not?” Nick asked. He rose from the chair he was lying on, groggy.
“She’s got to hang out here for a while,” Officer Osborn said. “Make sure you’re ready to go,” he said as he walked away. “Your aunt should be here in a few minutes.”
Aunt Kira wrapped us in her arms when she arrived.
“I’m so glad you’re okay. It’s terrible, what Jenna’s put you through.” She released us and stood, shifting her purse on her shoulder. “You have to understand how much of a hassle for me this is, of course, taking you in as well. You know how sick Meredith is.”
But she took us back to her apartment and we fell asleep on the sofa bed that night. We woke up to Mere’s knees in our stomachs as she peered into our faces.
“You’re here!” she said happily as I peeled open my eyes.
“Yeah,” I said, sitting up.
“Does this mean you’re going to live with me forever?”
“No,” Nick said, also sitting up. “We’ve got to go back with our mom soon.”
“Mommy said that you might have to stay here a while,” Mere said.
“Might,” I repeated.
Mere’s face fell.
At that moment, Aunt Kira called us into the kitchen for breakfast. She placed a plate of bagels on the table with a container of cream cheese and a butter knife. She began spreading some cream cheese on a bagel for Mere.
“You’re going to have to stay here for a little while.” She exhaled heavily and didn’t look at me and Nick. “I’m not sure when Jenna will be released.”
“Is Aunt Jenna a bad guy?” Mere asked.
“Only sometimes,” Aunt Kira said.
“Then why is she in jail?”
“She made a mistake,” Aunt Kira said. She stopped spreading cream cheese and looked into Mere’s face. “Sometimes people become bad guys accidently for a little while because they don’t even realize what they’re doing is bad.”
“Could I become a bad guy too then?” Mere asked, wide-eyed.
“Not if you’re careful,” Aunt Kira said.
After breakfast, we played dolls. Because Aunt Kira lived in a fourth-floor apartment in a busier area than we did, we couldn’t play outside. Aunt Kira wouldn’t even let us out on the porch to look over the balcony, though that may have been because Nick announced that he wanted to lean over and see if he could land a glob of spit in the pool below.
Mere was quieter at her own house and something inside me knew that that was Aunt Kira’s fault. Every so often, Aunt Kira would come and interrupt our game by pulling Mere away to force the seizure medication syrup down her throat. She’d return to the game quiet, shaken, and uncomfortable. Her hands trembled as she wrapped her fingers around her Barbies. She would close her eyes and leave her sentences unfinished.
But it was soon forgotten as Nick stuck a doll behind the wheel of a pink jeep and pushed the car over my and Mere’s dolls who were putting on wedding dresses.
“They’re dead now,” he declared. “There was a car accident.”
“Nick,” Mere whined as I laughed.
She plucked the doll out of the jeep and tossed it into Nick’s chest. She explained to him how he should play Barbies.
“Car accidents are not allowed,” she said.
Most nights in the week and a half we stayed at Aunt Kira’s, I could not fall asleep. I lay awake staring at the ceiling. I could hear Mere crying in her room with Aunt Kira over her.
“Don’t cry, Meredith,” Aunt Kira would say through her teeth. “Take this. It will make it better.”
“You’re hurting me,” Mere said over and over again. “You’re hurting me.”
Sometimes, I would wake up to find Aunt Kira throwing items into her purse and rushing Mere out of the house.
“I’ve got to get Meredith to the emergency room, Sammie,” she would say when she saw me sitting up. “She’s just had a seizure.”
And then she and my cousin would be gone, and Nick and I would be alone.
The next morning, they would both look exhausted.
“Keep telling me the story with the mermaids,” Mere said once after Aunt Kira forced the inhaler on her. “I want to hear about what they did in the mermaid kingdom.”
So I told her about giant seahorses and how the little boy became the prince after he slayed a sea monster and saved his kingdom.
Two years before my mother was arrested, Aunt Kira told Mom that Uncle Billy was sick. Nick and I were six and nine. Mom decided that we needed to go to their house to keep them company. It would make Aunt Kira and Uncle Billy very happy, she said in the car. She told us that Uncle Billy had just gotten out of the hospital and he still wasn’t feeling very well, but we never knew what was wrong.
It had been the first time we’d ever been in a real house. Nick and I paused in the doorway, gaping at the high ceilings and hanging lights and shiny floors.
Our Aunt Kira, who Mom said I’d met once when I was three, though I didn’t remember, pushed us out of the way to throw herself onto our mother.
“Oh, Jenna,” she cried and threw herself into her sister’s shoulder. Mom flinched a little and tried to step back, but Aunt Kira was stuck on her. She raised her hands to Kira’s back and hesitantly patted her sister. Her shoulders were shrugged to her ears.
At that moment, I saw a little girl’s face at the top of the stairs. She turned the corner and disappeared when she caught me looking at her. I turned to say something to Nick, but he had disappeared too. He was banging on the living room piano with his fists.
“We have a cousin,” I said.
“Meredith. Mom said,” he replied, still banging.
“Let’s go find her. She’s upstairs.”
“Okay,” Nick said. He swung his legs off the bench with a final dissonant cluck.
It was obvious which room was Mere’s. A sheet of construction paper covered in pink and purple scribbles was taped on the front of her door. PRINCESS MEREDITH was printed along the top in an adult’s handwriting. I opened the door. Meredith, who was scribbling at her desk, turned to face me.
“You’re my cousin,” she said.
“Yeah. I’m Sammie. That’s Nick.” I pushed my brother into the room so that Mere could see him.
She nodded at us. “Let’s play princesses,” she said.
We played princesses and then Barbies in Mere’s room until Aunt Kira told us roughly that it was time for Mere’s nap.
Bored, we sat on the couch and watched a football game with Uncle Billy next to us under a blanket in a recliner. We could hear Aunt Kira in the kitchen crying about how she was a single mother and a widow and would have to raise Meredith alone.
“I’m not dead yet,” Uncle Billy called.
It got quieter in the kitchen.
“Nick and Sammie, right?” Uncle Billy said when the house caved into an unsettling silence save for the buzzing screams on the television.
“Yes,” I said.
“I’m Billy. Uncle Billy, I guess.”
I nodded. I already knew that.
“Are you bored? I understand that this probably isn’t particularly interesting to you two.” He gestured to the football game.
“Yes!” Nick said.
Uncle Billy laughed, but it quickly turned into coughing so heavy that I thought he must be choking on his internal organs. My eyes widened. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do, but it calmed down after a minute.
“Sorry,” he said, clearing his throat. “Here.” He pushed what looked like a little gray box towards us. “It’s a DS. Turn it on. You can play games on it.”
And we did. We took turns and bickered and laughed and yelled instructions at each other.
“We should get going,” my mom said with a sigh as she walked into the living room.
I turned the game off and pushed it back towards Uncle Billy. “Thanks,” I said.
“Oh no, keep it,” he said. “It’s yours.”
“Really?” Nick asked.
“Really.” Uncle Billy replied.
A week and a half later, we were back with Mom in the mobile home. She explained how she would have to go back to the police later, but for now they were “trusting” her. She said that the police knew that she loved us and didn’t want us to be separated. She said that it was Aunt Kira who’d paid the bail.
She didn’t seem happy about the last bit.
We were quiet when we ate dinner, and Nick and I were shaking in the silence.
“Are you a bad guy?” Nick finally blurted. He covered his mouth with his hands as soon as he said it, as if that could push the words back in. I looked from him to Mom, who was staring at him shocked.
“No,” Mom said softly. “No. Of course not. I sell—I sell medicine to people to make them happy. It—it makes them feel things that they don’t feel normally. My customers forgot how to feel happiness or excitement, but they like the medicine because it can make them happy and excited again. The cops are silly, Aunt Kira is silly. The police think that I’m a bad guy because I do everything I can for you.”
We lapsed back into silence, but I think Mom was crying behind her hands.
We were silent the rest of the week. Mom stayed in the trailer, but Nick and I sat in my room with the door closed, taking turns on Uncle Billy’s DS.
“Do you know what would be fun?” Mom said on Thursday during dinner. “If I took you to the island on Saturday. I know that’s one of your favorite places to play.”
“Mere has to come too,” I said.
And after a long phone conversation with Aunt Kira, it was decided that Mere could come, as long as Aunt Kira could come too.
I swallowed and looked at Nick, but that would have to do.
On the boat, on the way to the island, Mom convinced Aunt Kira to relax. Mere was a smart kid. She could take care of herself, she said.
“You’ll be able to see her from the boat, I’m sure,” Mom said.
Aunt Kira sniffed. “I don’t trust Sammie to look after my child, but she’s done it before, I suppose.”
“Mere will be fine,” Mom said as she anchored the boat.
Aunt Kira grabbed my wrist before I jumped off into the water.
“Keep her safe,” she said.
“I will,” I said, wrenching myself free.
When we got to the beach, Nick and Mere wanted to play veterinarian again. They sat in the sand as waves washed over their toes. Nick dug for syringes and Mere began to collect mussels on a rock. Instead, I picked up strands of seaweed to braid into crowns.
“Mommy plays veterinarian with me,” I heard Mere telling Nick. “Only I’m the seashell and she has the needle.”
“What do you mean?” asked Nick.
“Sometimes we play doctor, and she says she makes me better, but she gives me gross things to drink and sticks needles in my arm and then we have to go to the hospital.”
“That’s not a game,” Nick said.
I felt something inside of me. A deep, churning rage simmering behind my heart. I stared at the slimy leaves in my hands. As I twisted them together, they broke apart. I dropped the half-completed crown into the sand.
Nick handed Mere a syringe and she filled the mussel with water until it grew bigger than her fist. She closed the shells around the swollen mass, slowly squeezing the water out, before launching it far into the river.
The plop as it landed beneath the waves was satisfying, but the raging fire in my chest still burned. The mussel was still dead.
“Let’s go play mermaids now,” she said.
Before we hiked up the stream, Mere shed her lifejacket.
“It makes me feel like a bubble,” she said. “I don’t like it.”
We let her leave it in the sand.
As we pushed through the trees and vines, Mere announced that we were on a mermaid hunt and should be quiet so as not to scare the mermaids from their lagoon. We walked in silence, Mere wildly looking around, ready to spot a mermaid, and Nick and I watching her.
She didn’t find anything until we got to the Mermaid Lagoon.
“Look, there,” Mere whispered. She pointed into the thorny tangle of trees and vines above us on the bank.
I didn’t see anything. The breeze shivered through the leaves, but there was no mermaid.
“I don’t see it,” Nick said.
Mere shushed him. “She’s sitting right there. Wait here. I’ll go talk to her first.”
Mere approached the spot on the bank that she had pointed to. She whispered something then paused and nodded and whispered something else. Though I couldn’t see anything at all, this mermaid was as real to Mere as Nick and I were.
“Guys!” Mere finally said, whirling back to face us. “The mermaid isn’t a mermaid! She’s actually the ghost of a mermaid!”
“A ghost?” Nick repeated.
I thought of the story I’d read her almost a month ago. To Mere, “malevolent spirit” meant only “ghost mermaid.”
“What’s her name?” I asked.
“Seashell,” Mere said. “She lived in the mermaid kingdom but she got lost, so then she had to come to Mermaid Lagoon. She likes it here though. And we’re best friends now.”
“Can we play with Seashell too?” I asked.
“Lemme ask her,” Mere said. She pushed through the brush up the hill, walking on her knees and digging her nails into the dirt, back to where Seashell was presumably waiting for her. She was quiet for a few moments. Then she nodded and slid back to us through the dirt, pushing little rocks into the water in a rush. “She says you can’t.”
“What? Why not?” I asked, but Nick looked pleased.
“She says I can’t tell you what we’re doing.”
“Yes you can. I’m your cousin.”
“Yeah,” Nick added. “Everyone knows that you’ve got to tell your family all your secrets or else you’ll get in trouble.”
“Okay,” Mere said. “I’ll tell you.” She dropped her voice as Nick and I leaned in. “She told me that I am a mermaid. Kinda. Daddy was a mermaid. It’s like in the story. Seashell wants to take me back to the mermaid kingdom so me and her and Daddy can all live there together and have adventures every day.”
“Uncle Billy wasn’t a mermaid,” Nick said. “I met him. He had normal people legs.”
“Shut up, Nick,” I said. “But he’s right,” I added to Mere. “Your dad wasn’t a mermaid. He was a merman.”
“Right,” Mere said. “A merman.”
“That’s stupid,” Nick said.
“Shut up, Nick,” I said again.
“Yeah, shut up, Nick,” Mere repeated, smiling up at me.
Mere relayed everything Seashell told her about the mermaid kingdom to us. It was called Atlantis and it was beneath this very island. How Seashell could have gotten lost but was able to tell Meredith exactly where her home was located was beyond me, but I didn’t question it. There were towers of stone and rainbow-colored fish that could talk and Seashell was a princess and Uncle Billy was the king and they sat on thrones made of pink coral. Uncle Billy also held something that Seashell called a “big golden fork” and because all the mermaids were also ghosts they didn’t need doors they just slid through the walls. Most importantly, Mere said, was that no one was ever ever allowed to be sad or sick. Those things just didn’t happen in the mermaid kingdom.
And Nick and I told Mere that the mermaid kingdom sounded pretty neat.
“I hope you have fun there,” Nick said, “without us, I guess.”
And then it was time to go.
“Seashell’s coming with us,” Mere said.
As she announced this, a ripple echoed through the basin, starting just below where Seashell had supposedly been sitting.
Neither Nick nor Mere seemed to notice.
When we got to the shore of the island, Mom’s boat was waiting for us several yards away where it had anchored. I could see Aunt Kira waving frantically at us. She was yelling something that I couldn’t quite hear.
Mere flinched when she looked at her mother. She swallowed, shook her head, and paled as if she was about to be sick.
And then it seemed forgotten.
“Look!” she squawked the same way she had when we arrived at the basin. “It’s Daddy! He’s here! Seashell, he’ll take us back!”
Before Nick or I could say anything, Mere was gone, running into the foam of the waves where my uncle was supposedly waiting for her. But this foam wasn’t white like in the story. It was thick and yellow like urine.
My blood twisted in my veins. There was something I knew that Mere didn’t: the real ending to the story. There was no mermaid magic. No mermaid kingdom at all. And though to this day I’d like to believe that she and Uncle Billy lived happily ever after in the mermaid kingdom, I know she drowned in a brackish, polluted river not far from a trailer park in southern Arkansas.
I ran in after her calling “Mere, Mere,” but there was no answer, not even bubbles rising to the surface.
My heart lifted from my body. I could feel Mere, she was right there, just waiting. I splashed blindly under the water where she disappeared. There was no longer a fire behind my heart—it was more like a waterfall, my insides rushing and tumbling inside of me, desperate, but there was nothing more I could do. I looked to the boat for help, but Aunt Kira had my mom backed into her seat, yelling in her face. Back on the beach, Nick stared through me. He didn’t move. I don’t think that he could. After nearly fifteen minutes, I joined him, drained. He had slunk down into the sand and was silently weeping.
“I bet the mermaid kingdom’s stupid anyway,” Nick said thickly, wiping his nose.
I didn’t answer. I stared out at the river, at the boat. Aunt Kira, who didn’t seem to understand that Mere was gone, was still screeching at us.
The echo of “NICK. SAMMIE. MEREDITH. TIME TO GO. NOW.” flew over the beach like a breeze.
“I saw him,” Nick said suddenly. “I saw Uncle Billy. I really did. We should’ve gone with her, Sammie. Maybe the mermaid kingdom is stupid, but this is probably stupider.”
And I thought so too.