My guilt for ignoring my blog has lessened. I have focused on my creative writing for the past year and my first short story was published in the 2015 edition of RAIN Magazine. I had to immerse myself into rewriting and editing this piece of work. This poor little blog, straightenupandflywrite.com, was neglected while I polished my short story. I then focused on the submission process to various publications. I certainly received my share of rejection notices. When I finally received the “Yes, we will publish your story!” email, I was elated.
The genesis of this short story began in a writing class, Introduction to Short Story, through the Lighthouse Writers Workshop, located in Denver, Colorado. This story, “The Mermaid,” was the final story I shared among the group. Workshopping is a brutal procedure; brutal yet necessary. Without cross talk, each participant tells the writer exactly what works and what doesn’t work in a story. They catch grammatical errors and question the structural architecture, too. This feedback is essential for successful revisions and how the work should be edited. Many published authors, including Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Jennifer Egan, belong to writing groups. A workshop class is similar to a writing group. The difference, of course, is the fact that the participants pay a fee to take the class and then will disperse, going their separate ways after the class ends.
With permission to post this on my blog from RAIN Magazine, I would like to present the story, “The Mermaid.” I would also like to acknowledge Laura Holgate, who created the original artwork for the blog header.
By Laura L. Roberts
I was awakened by a gentle shake. A small hand covered my mouth. I opened my eyes to see my younger brother staring down at me. Scott was seven; a tow head with big, blue eyes. I had the distinction of being called a dishwater-blonde. I never liked this name. My mother insisted this was the correct term. I was a gawky, large-toothed ten-year-old girl with hazel green eyes and boring, dishwater-blonde hair. Our older sister, Bernice, was a pretty auburn brunette. Quiet and shy, my fifteen-year-old sister spent most of her time in her room with her door closed. She would sit on the floor in front of her stereo, large headphones on, listening to the Moody Blues or Cat Stevens.
“Shhhh,” Scott said to me. The need for silence was necessary. I crawled out of bed and we approached the staircase in unison. Sitting on our butts, we gently slid down, one orange shag-carpeted stair at a time.
We tiptoed through the living room and into the kitchen, foraging for something to eat. I opened the refrigerator. No milk, as usual. Grabbing a box of cereal, we both headed back into the living room to watch Saturday morning cartoons. We sat close to the television console, to keep the volume at a minimum. We took turns, grabbing handfuls of dry cereal from the box, carefully monitoring the sound of each crunch.
If we woke up our mom and stepdad, the results could range anywhere from a quick back-hand, a prolonged spanking, or a week-long grounding. It all depended on how bad our mother’s headaches were after a night of socializing.
We had moved to Seaside, Oregon from Chicago about three months before. Since the death of our father, when I was almost seven, we moved a lot. This move was, by far, the most unsettling. We had a new house, new school, new locale, and a new dad. My mother wanted us to refer to our stepdad as ‘Dad’ but I already had a dad and he was dead. My mother slapped me whenever I referred to my stepdad by his given name. Tim had no problem with me calling him by his name. My mother seemed intent on forgetting about my dad, moving forward with life, whether I was ready or not. So, around mom I called Tim, Pappy. Around Tim, I just called him, Tim.
Mom and Tim embraced the early-70’s social scene in the small, North Oregon coastal town. They participated in singles and couples bowling. They played bingo at the Catholic Church. They went square-dancing at the Grange Hall. They watched country western bands at the American Legion. If they weren’t participating in some group activity, they would head to the Elks or Moose Lodges, where there would be gambling machines and cheap drinks. The only night they spent at home was Sunday. We would eat TV dinners and watch Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom or The Wonderful World of Disney. This meant no headaches on Monday morning – the only morning of the week we could actually speak at a normal level before noon.
While Yogi Bear and his buddy, Boo Boo, were trying to steal a lunch basket from a hapless family at Jellystone Park, Bernice emerged from her bedroom. I gave her a little wave as she walked through the living room into the kitchen. She smiled and gave a wave back. She returned with two glasses of water.
“Good morning, Chicklets. This will help to wash down the dry cereal,” she whispered. She then returned to her sanctuary, closing her bedroom door.
After watching a few more cartoons, I said to Scott, “Go get dressed.” We met by the back door. I helped him button up his lined, brown corduroy jacket and tied his blue, canvas tennis shoes. I put on my plaid jacket and then tied my tennis shoes. I went to the change bowl and grabbed a quarter. I knew that one quarter would not be missed. Without brushing our teeth or combing our hair, we slipped out the back door.
We walked several blocks to the main street, kicking every rock that had the misfortune of crossing our path. The sun was shining but there was an autumn briskness to the air. Big, white, puffy clouds meandered overhead. In the drug store, we went to the penny candy section. After paying for the sugary loot, we walked up Broadway Avenue. We stopped on the bridge that crossed over the Necanicum River. We un-wrapped the candy and began to eat.
I said to Scott, “Cross the street and stand on the other side of the bridge.” He crossed the single lane street, stood near the bridge railing, and looked over to me.
I shouted over to him, “I am going to let my wrappers go and you look to see if they come out of the other side!”
I dropped three wrappers into the water, watching them disappear under the bridge. I ran across the street and then stood near Scott. We peered through the side railings, scanning for the wrappers.
Finally, Scott screamed, “There’s one! It’s right there!” My eyes followed his outstretched finger. The wrapper bounced along the top of the water, swirling around the current, and then out of sight.
We continued on Broadway, gazing at the collection of wares in the windows of the tourist shops. Mugs, hats, scarves, coasters, trivets, shot glasses, t-shirts, stuffed animals, umbrellas – all marked with the words, “Seaside, Oregon.” We strolled up to the kite shop. Large kites made out of brightly-colored materials were displayed prominently in the front windows. We walked inside and began to look around.
Hanging from the ceiling, on the blue nylon background, a satiny white castle adorned a kite. There was one tall turret in the center, with two smaller matching turrets on each side. Behind the castle was a rainbow. The kite tails matched the colors of the rainbow. I stared at the kite, longingly.
I remembered the last time I had flown a kite. My dad was still alive. We went to the park on a family outing. As my mom held the handle, my dad ran with the kite, launching it into the air. Once the kite was in flight, we three kids each took a turn holding the handle. I had so much fun on that day; a day that happened so long ago.
“How much is this?” I asked.
The clerk said, “The one with the castle?” I nodded.
“$75.00,” he replied.
Scott and I just looked at each other. I only had two pennies in my pocket. We continued to walk through the store for a few more minutes and then began to leave.
“Hey, wait!” called out the clerk. “I can give you this kite.”
He handed us a crudely-made brown paper kite with wooden sticks. “These are free,” he said, as he pulled out a good measure of string and tied it to the cross sticks. He then attached a wooden dowel to the other end of the string to use as a handle. Scott and I were excited. We now owned a kite.
Scott and I left the shop and began to run for the beach. As we reached the promenade walk, I turned to Scott and reminded him of the rules. “Stay on the dry sand,” I told him.
We were not allowed to walk on wet sand when we were on our own. We had to be with adults to walk near the water’s edge. Tim had warned us about the sneaky eleventh wave. This eleventh wave could swell out of nowhere, rushing ashore to knock you off your feet, dragging you out with the undertow – never to be seen again. I never understood how to accurately identify the elusive yet deadly eleventh wave. How was I to know if the first wave I saw was actually number one? Maybe I came upon the shore in time to actually view wave number four? What would happen if I made the mistake with my counting? It was just all too much math for me to wrap my mind around so I determined that the next wave could always be the eleventh wave. It was better to be safe than sorry. I didn’t want to get sucked out into sea. I couldn’t even imagine how I would feel if I lost my little brother to the ocean.
We walked down the promenade stairway and onto the sand dunes. Sand blew against my cheek, creating a stinging sensation. I licked my lips and within seconds sand coated them. Taking the back of my hand, I brushed off as much as I could but I could still feel the gritty texture of sand on my tongue.
I unwound the string and handed Scott the kite. “Run,” I shouted to him. With the kite in hand, he ran ahead from me. I let the string slacken. The kite caught the wind and then turned downward, crashing into the sand. I ran up to Scott and the kite. I handed him the dowel. I picked up the kite and then began to run as fast as I could, throwing the kite over my head. The wind lifted it into the sky. For several minutes, we watched the kite dance in the wind, bobbing and swirling, moving side to side. A big gust pushed hair into my eyes, blocking my vision. Scott yelled, “Oh, no!”
The string had snapped and the kite flew higher and higher. It thrashed around, spinning uncontrollably, lurching through the air. We ran along the sand dunes after it. Scott was trailing me by several yards. I stopped, waiting for him to catch up, and then we continued to run together toward the runaway kite. It began to disintegrate. One small piece landed in the sand dunes and a larger piece landed in wet sand. We collected the small piece first and then went to retrieve the larger piece. We both knew the rules; we walked toward the wet sand anyway. Picking up the tattered bits, we just stood on the water’s edge, as the spent waves uncurled just a few inches of water near our feet.
We walked down the beach, lingering on the forbidden wet sand. The air smelled salty, fishy. The sound of the breaking waves created a consistent din. Seagulls bellowed their cries, circling overhead, and then swooping down close to us. The waves glistened, sparkling like glitter. White foam appeared on the shoreline, dissipating into the wet sand.
I looked at the sea foam and thought of the fairy tale that my dad had read to me when I was around Scott’s age. It was the story of a little mermaid who had fallen in love with a handsome prince. She made a deal with the Sea Witch to trade her voice for human legs to get the prince to fall in love with her. The witch warned her that if she failed, she would turn into sea foam. The prince married another and the heartbroken mermaid fell into the sea, becoming foam. I then realized the little mermaid and my dad had something in common. They both had died from a broken heart.
“Look!” Scott pointed. In the waves, a round, green glass float skimmed along the top of the water. It was a Japanese fishing float. About the size of a softball, these floats were used to hold up fish nets. The ocean currents travel between Japan and the North Oregon Coast, bringing debris back and forth. Finding a Japanese float was a rare occurrence but not entirely uncommon. We Americans could find beautiful glass fishing floats as debris. The Japanese, unfortunately, seemed to get nothing more than plastic garbage from us. Not a fair trade at all.
I made up my mind that I would retrieve the float. This was my opportunity to become someone important, someone special among my new classmates. No longer would I be called the new girl in school. People would refer to me as the girl who found the Japanese glass fishing float.
I turned to Scott and said, “Stay here or else!” I wasn’t sure what the threat of ‘or else’ would entail but I did not want Scott to follow me. As his older sister, I was responsible for him.
I ran into the water, trying to stay at knee-high level. The cold water chilled my feet and lower legs immediately. My feet sank a little into the immersed sand bed, making me unbalanced. The waves would push me toward the shore and then pull at me, trying to drag me out to sea. I continued to pursue the float. It was so close and yet the waves would either thrust the float away from me or tug me away from the float. I intensified my pursuit, inching into deeper water.
Within a matter of seconds, the water was almost waist high. I turned and saw Scott, standing on the shore. He was wide-eyed and scared. I gave him a ‘thumb’s up’ as I grabbed the float. It was slippery, smooth to the touch. I tightened my grip to avoid dropping it, preventing the sea from reclaiming it. Then something heavy brushed along my thighs. Down in the water, I saw her. She was naked. She didn’t have any legs. Just below her waist, I saw what looked like fringe. It reminded me of the fringe on those groovy leather jackets but this fringe was made out of her skin. Long, dark hair covered her face and her hands didn’t have any fingers on them.
I was startled by her presence. I screamed. I tried to move away from her but a wave knocked me off of my feet. Without taking my hands off of the float, I got up and tried to run toward dry land. Another wave came and she followed me. I looked over my shoulder at her. The sea parted her hair, exposing her face. Her eyes were sunken. They were shiny, filmy gray in color. Her mouth was widely agape, with no lips, and only teeth. I thought she would bite me but I then realized her mouth was frozen in a watery scream.
The undertow caught us both. It yanked my feet out under me, pulling me further into the ocean. An incoming wave covered my head, submerging me. I tumbled around and around underwater. I was unsure which way was up, to the open air, so I held my breath. I tried to open my eyes, instantly aware of the burning sensation of the salt water. I could taste the essence of the sea as water entered my nose, filling my mouth. Then I felt her next to me. She moved slowly to my left, into the watery darkness. I moved to my right, away from her and the shadows, breaking through the surface. I gasped for air and began to kick my legs, grateful for the waves that carried me closer to the shore.
By now, an older man and woman had joined my frightened brother on the beach. The man ran out into the waves and grabbed me. I still had the grapefruit-sized glass float tucked under my left arm. I began to cough up swallowed salt water as he helped me sit on the dry sand. I set the float down on the sand next to me.
“Where are your parents, young lady?” the man asked. The man wore a black stocking cap on his head. He had deep wrinkles on his face and kind eyes. He looked worried.
“At home,” I replied.
The woman began to chide Scott and me, “You should never come to the beach without your parents. Do they let you do this often?” She pulled a facial tissue from her coat pocket, offering it to me to clean the salty spittle from my face.
Scott replied, “We aren’t supposed to be here.”
I was still shaken. My teeth chattered and my lower lip was quivering uncontrollably. I stood up and said, “Thank you. We won’t come here alone again. Please don’t tell our parents.” I began to cry. Scott began to cry. The man and woman looked at each other.
The man said, “Alright, we won’t. Will you be able to make it home on your own?” Scott and I nodded yes.
I picked up the glass float and Scott and I began to walk toward the promenade stairway. I stopped, turning to the couple, and yelled, “Oh, thank you for saving me, sir!”
The older woman walked toward us. She pulled out two peppermint candies from her pocket, handing one to me and then one to Scott. I stuck the peppermint in my mouth. I appreciated her kindness and gave her a lopsided smile.
“Now, you two hurry home, okay, and please stay away from the water unless you have your parents with you,” she pleaded. I replied, “Yes, ma’am.” Once we reached the promenade, I looked back toward the ocean. The older couple remained in the same spot, watching us until we were out of view.
Scott and I walked in silence. My clothing was sopping wet. My shoes made a squishing sound with each step. I was so cold that I could barely feel my fingers and toes. It seemed like we had to walk a hundred miles to reach home. When we finally approached our house, I pulled Scott over behind some bushes.
“Scott, you can’t tell Mom and Tim about this ever! We will both get into some serious trouble.” I knew that I had committed a transgression worthy of being grounded and losing my television privileges. I added, “This has to be our secret! Pinky promise?” Scott replied, “I promise.”
We interlocked our pinky fingers. I began to walk toward the house but Scott remained standing behind the bushes. I ran back to him and motioned for him to follow me. He didn’t move. Walking up to him, I tried to grab his hand. He pulled away. He crossed his arms, his lower lip protruding.
“Sissy,” he asked, “What made you scream when you were in the water?” With concern, he continued, “Did you see a shark?” He looked at me, searching, without blinking. He needed an answer.
“Nope, I didn’t see a shark but I did see a mermaid – a scary-looking mermaid.” A typical seven-year-old, Scott took my words at face value. He then began to follow me home.
We crept through the back door. Our mother was in the bathroom, getting ready for the evening. She didn’t hear us enter the house. I motioned to Scott to follow me upstairs. Sitting in the recliner, Tim was all ready for the evening, decked out in his dress clothing – wide-legged slacks, wide-collared shirt, and neutral plaid blazer. The hint of Paco Rabanne scented the air. Without removing his eyes from the television, Tim asked, “Where have you kids been today?”
“We were just walking around town,” I replied. I hid the glass float under my coat, creating an obvious bulge, which remained unnoticed.
“You missed lunch, huh?” He asked. “Well, Bernice can make you some grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner, okay?”
Scott and I replied, “Okay,” as we hurried up the stairs. I made Scott cover his eyes as I changed into dry clothing. Within a matter of minutes, we were being summoned. I took the glass float and hid it under my bed. Scott and I joined the family downstairs.
My mother put a tube of lipstick and a powder compact into her pocket-book as she absent-mindedly kissed us each on the cheek. She wore a red, black, and white-striped wraparound dress with fancy, black pumps. Her lips were ruby red and her hair was upswept, held by a rhinestone-studded barrette. Bernice was given the reminder of our bed times and told to make grilled cheese for dinner.
“See you in the morning,” Tim said. We knew he and mother wouldn’t even acknowledge us until the following early afternoon.
Bernice went to the kitchen to make the grilled cheese sandwiches. Scott and I followed her. My stomach made loud, growling noises. Bernice grabbed a frying pan from the cabinet and practically threw it onto the stove. She pulled out the bread from its wrapper and forcefully put butter on each slice. She then retrieved the yellow-orange American cheese from the refrigerator. She assembled the sandwiches and began to grill them. She had a scowl on her face. In a quiet voice, I asked, “Bernice, are you mad at us?”
She stopped mid-flip. She stared at Scott and me for a moment and then replied, “Oh, no, my little Chicklets. I am not mad at you. Why don’t you sit at the table and I’ll bring you the sandwiches as soon as I am done.” I was relieved.
Bernice set three paper plates on the table and filled three cups of Kool-Aid. She gave Scott the first completed sandwich. Within a few minutes, she brought me a sandwich. By the time she sat down with her sandwich, Scott and I were finished eating. I was too tired to talk. We sat in comfortable silence while Bernice finished her meal. After dinner, Bernice made us take a bath, put on our pajamas, and brush our teeth. We then spent a few hours watching television, allowing time for our hair to dry.
We watched one of my favorite programs, The Partridge Family. Scott and I laughed at loud. Bernice sat on the sofa in silence. Some of the jokes were too adult in nature for Scott and me to understand but we inherently knew to laugh along with the canned laugh tracks. The anonymous, unseen crowd laughed so we joined in the laughter, figuring it just had to be funny.
From time to time, I glanced over to Bernice. She seemed very sad to me. I wish she could laugh along with us but she remained quiet. She had said many times that she thought David Cassidy was really neat; I knew this meant that she thought he was really cute. Tonight, even David failed to make her smile. When she was sad, it made me feel uneasy. I didn’t understand why she was unhappy. I just wanted to fix it.
At bedtime, I crawled under my bed and pulled out the glass float, placing it underneath my covers. The sphere was smooth, cool to the touch. The blankets were unable to warm it. I couldn’t wait to bring the glass float to school on Monday. My new classmates would be impressed with my extraordinary find. They should be more doubly impressed that I had retrieved it on my own, triumphing over the treacherous eleventh wave.
I could hear Bernice tucking Scott into bed. I waited. She entered my room and said, “Time to go to sleep.” I reached under my covers and showed Bernice the glass float. I told her that I had found it.
“This is far out!” she exclaimed. I desperately wanted to make her happy, to see her smile, even briefly. I then gave the glass float to her. She held the float in her hands, rubbing it like a crystal ball.
“Oh, no, Sissy, you keep it!” I assured her that I wanted her to have it. She became teary-eyed and gave me the biggest smile. She seemed pleased, almost happy. She thanked me for the gift and kissed me on the forehead.
“I love you, Bernice,” I said, feeling it deeply.
“I love you, too, Sissy.” Holding the glass float in one hand, Bernice closed my door. I heard the muffled sound of her entering her bedroom. I knew she would sit on the floor in front of her stereo, with her big headphones on, lost in her music. I hoped, though, that she would look at the glass float and feel a sliver of happiness.
I fell asleep quickly. I began to dream of my day; the candy wrapper floating down the river, the kite flying freely in the sky. I dreamt of the beautiful, green glass float. I dreamt of my sister’s smile. It was a good dream. It was a happy dream. I then had an image of my dad. I remembered when he would hug me tight after he came home from work, kissing me warmly on my cheek. I missed him. I missed my mom, even though she was still here. I missed my old life.
My dream began to evolve into a frightening nightmare. I was in the moment, sitting at the dinner table with my family. My dad asked my mom for sodium of bicarbonate. He got up from the table, pacing around the room, rubbing his chest. She had the glass of the bubbly bicarbonate in her hand. He looked toward us, then directly at her. His eyes filled with surprise, fear. He dropped to the floor in a loud thump. The glass of bicarbonate dropped to the floor with a loud crash. Glass and foam spread out like a wave across the tiles, diamond-like shards glistening. My mom screamed, “Call the operator and ask for an ambulance!” My sister hurried to the phone. My mom was bent over my dad, slapping his cheeks, shaking him, yelling, “Charles!” He stared blankly up to the ceiling. His mouth was partially open. His skin began to turn to gray.
At the funeral, everyone was sad, solemn, dressed in black. I heard one of my aunt’s say to a neighbor, “I can’t believe he died from a heart attack at such a young age.” My dad died because his heart stopped. He died from a broken heart.
I drifted into another place. This place was dark, cold, and wet; salt water and sea foam. I was tumbling around and around. I was at the mercy of the tumultuous sea. I couldn’t find my way to the surface. I felt vulnerable. I struggled to breathe. I became immobilized with fear, longing for the safety of the shore. In the darkness, I saw her. The mermaid floated toward me, her dead eyes staring directly into mine. Her gaping mouth opened into a wide, grotesque, silent scream. I began to scream along with her.