GS 1st Annual Flash Fiction Contest Winner
There were reports of mermaids off the coast. Barrett and I drove to Washington from Iowa, our hands on our knees. A millionaire had offered one million dollars for proof. We put off our resentments and went hunting for the mermaid.
Barrett carried a bucket of bait and two fishing poles. “The man won't have any boats 'til later,” he said. The ocean was calm. The baby kicked, assaulted my insides. I wanted s'mores. And Raisin Bran. “What if the baby comes out with pterodactyl hands?” Barrett asked.
There was an island of garbage headed to the coast from Japan, all that wreckage from the tsunami crossing the ocean like an army. A mass as big as California, someone said. It could be radioactive, it could turn us into mutants.
I wasn't sure that I was in love, but you have to try when you're having a baby I suppose, you have to try. “What if she or he has a wolf head?” Barrett asked.
Women wore handmade mermaid-skirts. I squinted at the horizon for moving islands.
A diabetic man in a wheelchair sold wood-carved mermaids. He wheeled down the boardwalk and offered me one.
“I don't really need one,” I said. “But, they're beautiful.”
“For the baby, then?” He asked.
Barrett talked to a mermaid-woman. She was young, fertile, beautiful. I couldn't really blame him for desiring.
“For luck,” the man said. I realized he had placed one in my hands while I was watching Barrett. “No charge, no charge,” he said and turned away, heading off after two younger women in bikinis.
“What is that?” Barrett asked when he came back. I had fallen asleep in the sand, staring out at the water. There was a boat ready, but the man was charging three times the normal rate. Inflation due to demand. Barrett reached out for the mermaid, but for some reason I held it close to my belly and turned slightly away. I pressed it against my stomach. Barrett whimpered and held out his hands, begging. As I walked away, he said, “What if the baby is made of fire?”
I slept with the mermaid under my pillow. I dreamt of its wooden face, the intricate lines in her hair, the scales on its tail, the water beading on its skin. I could tell when Barrett tried to wrest it away from me and somehow held it tighter.
It had been only a couple weeks since the doctor stood in front of me, holding my hand, saying something about abnormalities. “It's early, yet, so we won't quite know for a while how things will go,” he said. I felt suddenly warmed by his touch, my face flushing. “We'll just have to wait and see,” he said, and Barrett chanted those words on the drive home, an incantation to ward off evil.
There were hundreds of people on the beach, some searching for mermaids, some looking to the edge of the world for what was coming. I told Barrett I was not feeling well and he took a boat out alone. There were false proclamations of sightings. A man claimed he would bring back a mermaid by night. They cheered him on as he took the boat back on the water. The woodcarving was safe in my bag. I talked to the growing thing inside me. We already know there's something wrong, like you'll join us with translucent skin. Your whole life could be darkness. You might not ever know what a hammer is, a lion, bombs, broken glass, razorblades. Two men dragged a burlap sack through the sand. “We got your proof!” they yelled. The fake mermaids shed their shimmering skirts and ran. Frat boys, surfers, grandmothers gathered, people pushing through the crowd. The men laughed and unfurled the bag, a life-size plastic sex doll falling out, a scaly green tail affixed over its legs. The crowd rebelled in shouts and whispers. One of the frat boys attacked one of the men, punching, punching, as his fist came away red. I could save us, I said to my belly, I could walk into the ocean and drown us both.
Barrett returned with nothing. In bed that night he tried to make love to me, but I rolled away to the edge of the bed. I reached out for the mermaid, but he jumped out of the bed and over me, grabbing the mermaid. “What is this?” he asked. He shook it in the air. “What is this?” I walked to the window. I imagined dark, hulking shapes moving on the ocean, coasting closer and closer. A mass as big as California. Who knew what was possible?
Barrett yelled— to God, to me, to the unborn child inside of me– until he tuckered himself out and collapsed on the bed, falling asleep with the mermaid in his hand.
I returned to the beach and listened to the waves. Most people had gone home. I watched the moon-road shimmer on the water. Out there, the artifacts of lives drifted toward the shore. Soon they would arrive and crowd the beach and the onslaught would push it farther and farther onto the land. I prayed it would cover the beautiful things, that the blanket of debris would spread across the world, so that everything would be even and everything could start over. The baby kicked. No one had found any sign of mermaids other than the woodcarvings people held like totems. I closed my eyes and imagined the baby looking like a blowfish, then as a teenager that was impossibly strong, able hold up twice or three or four times his weight. Then I saw the baby like a reptile, regenerative like a lizard, able to regrow something lost, like a faulty heart trying to rebuild itself, the body always trying to become whole.
Justin Lawrence Daugherty's fiction and nonfiction have appeared in or are forthcoming from The Normal School, Barrelhouse, Bluestem, The MacGuffin, Midwestern Gothic, Heavy Feather Review, Recess Magazine, and elsewhere. He is the Managing/Founding Editor of Sundog Lit and lives in Omaha, Nebraska.