Mermaid School

mermaid school

Missy paid $3,000 for her tail. It was an expenditure that left her parents gasping. She thought it was worth cleaning out her savings account to be the owner of an iridescent, scaly, surprisingly realistic silicone fish tail. It was an important step toward her goal of becoming a professional mermaid.

“Water shows are always looking for good mermaid swimmers,” she explained to her mother, who was weeping. “I’m learning so much in mermaid school, and owning a tail of this quality puts me ahead of the pack.”

“What kind of pack could there be for such a job?” her mother asked through her tears. “What about college? What about training for a job you can still do when you get older?”

“We won’t be around to support you forever,” her father added.

“I can teach adults and kids who want to swim in fishtails, I can perform in water shows, appear at events – .”

“Yes, and make pennies,” her mom interrupted, “with no health insurance or benefits.”

Missy hugged them both and continued to do exactly as she pleased.

~*~

Mermaid school was tough. Classes started at 6 a.m. in a foggy, chlorine-redolent indoor pool that their teacher, who insisted they call her Ariel, rented under the table from the motel night manager. The girls had to whisper so as not to disturb the guests. There Missy swam in a beginner’s tail made of swimsuit-fabric, learned to hold her breath for minutes at a time, to defy buoyancy and sink at will, to slow her heartbeat and respiration when every cell in her body screamed, AIR, AIR!

But the hard work was worth it. It was magic, pure and simple, to flip her fish tail and dive and somersault. Although she knew she had a long way to go, in her imagination she performed before a mesmerized audience and heard their applause.

“You’ll be a mermaid” Ariel said solemnly, “when you believe it yourself.”

Fellow students Patty and Donna became her friends. They practiced endlessly in Patty’s parents’ pool, honing the moves they felt sure would make them stars. When they weren’t swimming, they were sewing sequins on their costumes and while they worked, they dreamed. The Number One Dream was to be hired by Mermaid World to swim in the huge transparent tank and tour from city to city.

In fact, Missy was on her way to audition for Mermaid World when her car was T-boned by a driver who ran a red light. When she woke up, she couldn’t move her body below the waist.

~*~

Depression was just a word to Missy before the accident. Afterward, it became a watchword. She was only nineteen. Now she not only couldn’t be a mermaid, she couldn’t even walk across the room. Her stay in rehab didn’t produce any miracles. Somehow she just couldn’t put her heart into the exercises. What did it matter, anyway? Her dream was dead. Finally the doctor released her, begging her to keep working at home.

“You’re young,” the doctor said, “your body wants to heal, it wants to make new neural pathways and recapture what it has lost. Don’t give up.”

Missy stared silently over his head until he left.

Her parents rigged up a pulley with which she could lift herself between wheelchair and bed. They modified the bathroom so she could roll her chair right into the shower.

“I appreciate it, I do,” she said, hearing how flat her voice sounded as she looked into their hopeful faces.

She couldn’t share their hope because she knew her life was over. All day she sat in her wheelchair gazing out the window.

That’s where she was when Patty and Donna arrived. Even the sight of their car crunching up the gravel driveway did nothing to elevate her spirits. She greeted them listlessly when they entered her room.

“Up and at ‘em,” Patty said, grabbing her wheelchair and starting for the door.

“Where are you taking me? I don’t feel well enough to go anywhere.”

“Tough,” Donna said briefly.

Over her protests, she was bundled into the car. Her parents didn’t seem to be anywhere around to stop this kidnapping, which was strange. Usually they were hovering. Missy subsided into a corner of the backseat, not even bothering to look at the passing scenery. Sooner or later, they’d have to take her home. She’d just wait it out.

Their destination was the pool at Patty’s house, where the smell of chlorine hit her brain like a drug. Ariel was waiting. The three women stuffed Missy’s limp legs into her beautiful mermaid tail and propped her on the pool’s edge. After they’d slipped into their own tails, they took her hands and pulled her into the water. Patty and Donna supported her on either side, their strong legs working like flippers. As one, they rose and fell, dived and rolled. Missy gave herself up to the freedom of the water, allowing herself to recapture her old dream, if only for a moment.

That’s when she felt the first electric tingling of nerves and muscles in legs long dormant. She flipped her fish tail ever so slightly and Patty and Donna moved away. Missy floated, buoyed by hope, her hair drifting in the water like seaweed.

And in that moment, she passed the final exam of mermaid school. She believed.

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Dreamcatcher

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The minute she saw him, she knew he intended to kill her.

He stepped from behind the car parked next to hers, appearing suddenly in the dusk. He was a stranger, yet familiar – there was something about the set of his ears, the shape of his chin. He didn’t speak, but no words were needed. The blade he cradled in his hand spoke for him.

“What do you want?” She’d meant to make her voice strong, but it came out a gasp.

“Now take it easy.” His thumb caressed the hilt of the knife. “I’d hate to have to hurt you. Why don’t you just come with me like a good girl?”

She remembered her self-defense classes: don’t show fear, don’t back down, and above all, don’t go quietly. Straightening her spine, she met his eyes and shouted, “Get the hell away from me.”

“Why, Mattie, is that any way to treat your long-lost brother?”

She awoke, as she always did, sweating and trembling. The dream came so often these days, and for no reason she could pinpoint. Just my brain cleaning house while I’m asleep, she counseled herself. It means nothing.

She wished she could believe it.

Why this persistent dream of a brother she never had? The feeling of doom and danger that came with it – what was that about? Despite her determination not to succumb to superstition, she couldn’t help speculating whether the dream was some kind of omen. But if it was, what was she to do about it?

If only I had a brother or sister. If only Mom and Dad were still alive. I could talk it over with them, with family. But she was the only child of two only children – no aunts or uncles or cousins, let alone siblings. When people began remarking on the dark circles under her eyes, she decided it was time to seek help.

“I don’t think I really need a shrink long-term,” she said to Dr. Musgrove at their get-acquainted session. “I just have this one dream that is…troubling.”

“Why don’t you tell me about it?”

She did, looking anxiously at the doctor’s face as she finished. “So, what do you think? Am I Cuckoo for Coco Puffs?” she asked, trying to laugh although her voice shook a little.

“Not a bit,” Dr. Musgrove said with a smile. “But I think it would be good to explore the meaning behind this dream, don’t you?”

“I guess,” Mattie said doubtfully. “I was kind of hoping you could give me a logical explanation.”

“I wish I could. You’ll have to do the heavy lifting on this, but I’ll be here to help.”

The dreams continued during that long, stifling summer without any hint of a therapy breakthrough. Mattie was discouraged and ready to quit when Dr. Musgrove suggested hypnosis. At first, she said no.

“I don’t want to surrender my will to anyone, not even you,” she protested.

“Hypnosis doesn’t work like that. You’ll still be in control. It’s just a state of deep relaxation that frees the mind to solve problems.”

It did seem to help. When the dream hadn’t disturbed her sleep for a whole week, she began to hope it was over. But then a few nights later, her “brother” was back, flicking his knife, leering at her. Her own strangled scream woke her.

“Enough! I refuse to be a victim to this irrational fear any longer.”

That day, she bought a handgun and had her first shooting lesson.

~*~

She wasn’t even surprised when she recognized him. Out for the evening at an unfamiliar pub with friends, she saw his face reflected in the mirror behind the bar. When she met his eyes, he smiled. Then he came over.

“Don’t I know you?” he said.

“No!”

Mattie’s friends looked at her in surprise.

“Oh, sorry, my mistake,” he said, holding up his hands, backing away.

She left soon after that, unable to sit still with the fierce anger that consumed her. Her heels hit the sidewalk hard and her hand closed on the gun in her purse. She knew he’d be waiting for her in the parking lot. Let him try it. She was ready. Let him just try it.

He stepped from behind the car parked next to hers. “I know we don’t know each other, but – well, this sounds crazy – I dream about you all the time. I dream that you’re my sister.”

He fumbled in his pocket. He was reaching for the knife, and she knew exactly how he’d hold it, how his thumb would rub along the hilt. How he’d sink that knife into her. She pulled out her gun and fired.

When he fell, his hand came out of his pocket and his cell phone skittered across the sidewalk to her feet. That’s what he was reaching for? She’d shot him for assault with a cell phone?  Shuddering, she bent and picked it up. The screen was open for a video call.

He looked out at her with the leering smile from the dream and said, “Why, Mattie, is that any way to treat your long-lost brother?”

The screen went dark. In the distance, she heard sirens.

 

Just Friends

Just Friends sunflowersRainey was less than happy when Joe asked her to accept a very important delivery he was expecting. It had to be signed for, he told her, “and I’ll be at work.” She knew that was code for, “while you get to stay home and do whatever you please, so the least you can do for me is this one, small favor.” Words like that were better left unspoken, but they rolled around underfoot like unexploded ordinance.

She’d had plans for that day, a day of sunshine after ever-lasting showers. It would have been good to get out. Instead, she was stuck waiting for the doorbell to ring. But she acquiesced because that’s what married people do for each other. It meant she’d miss the second monthly Friends of the Library meeting. Not that her presence was essential, but it was a group she enjoyed and she hated to miss two meetings in a row. They’d think she was sick or something.

With her plans laid waste, she found it hard to settle herself. She read the morning paper for a few minutes, then tossed it aside. Picked up her library book, but couldn’t get interested. Watched ten minutes of the morning news before giving up in disgust.

She phoned Joe at work. “Are you absolutely positive your package is coming today? Do you have any idea what time?”

“You know better than to ask. Amazon giveth and Amazon taketh away, but Amazon saith not what time. They did say what day, though, and it’s today. Why? Is it too much trouble for you?”

“No, no, I’ll do it. Just wondering.”

“Look, I don’t ask for much,” Joe’s voice took on the whiny tone she hated.

“I said I’ll do it. There’s the doorbell now.”

She hurried to the door, but was only in time to see the delivery guy swing into his truck and zoom away. So much for the all-important signature. She looked right and left, but there was no large brown cardboard box on the porch. Then she spotted a florist’s arrangement of bright yellow sunflowers tucked beside the doorstep. They flared like a beacon against the brick of the house.

“Wow! What special occasion did I forget?” She scooped up the flowers and searched for a card, but there didn’t seem to be one.

“That Joe! He’s making up for ruining my day. How lovely.”

She reached for her phone and punched redial.

“Hello?”

“Joe, you’re a sweetheart! Thank you for these beautiful flowers.”

“Flowers? I don’t know what you’re talking about, honey.”

“Oh, c’mon. Who else would send me flowers? There’s no card, but I know they’re from you.  What a nice way to thank me for staying home to receive your delivery. Which, by the way, hasn’t come yet.”

“Yeah, that would’ve been nice, all right. Wish I’d thought of it.”

“You really didn’t send them?” She heard her voice go soft with disappointment.

“Sorry, I really didn’t. Look, gotta run, see you tonight.”

And he was gone, leaving her with what she was beginning to think of as the Mystery of the Flowers. Maybe they’d been delivered to her house in error. But no, there was her name and address on the little envelope. The enclosure had apparently gotten lost.

Could it have been her parents? They’d never done such a thing in their frugal lives. Her sister, ditto. Her brother – forget it, not if he lived to be a hundred. One of her friends? It wasn’t her birthday, nor had she done anything noteworthy that called for a floral tribute.

An old boyfriend then, someone who still thought of her fondly. Her memory turned to a certain boy she’d dated in college. She remembered his soft brown eyes, his kiss. But that was thirty years ago; she was married now and undoubtedly so was he.

Maybe the flowers were sent by a shy neighbor, someone who thought she was special, who liked to see her walking the dog or weeding the flower-bed. Glancing down at her frayed jeans and stretched tee shirt, she ruled that out. Neighbors saw too much to have any illusions. No, it had to be someone else. But who?

The sunflowers were losing some of their appeal. In fact, they were beginning to give her a headache. Hoping Joe’s package wouldn’t come for a few more minutes, she headed down the driveway for a mind-clearing walk.

Her eye caught on a square of white at the curb where the delivery truck had paused. Stooping, she saw it was a florist’s card. Aha! Here it was, the answer to the Mystery of the Flowers. All her speculation was about to end. She’d know who admired her, who wanted to brighten her day, who might be thinking of her that very minute.

She postponed looking at the card, savoring the moment, speculating. Life was full of unexpected twists. What might be set in motion by the little piece of card stock in her hand? With a shiver of anticipation, she raised it to her eyes and read:

“Get well soon. Friends of the Library.”

~*~

Rainey didn’t cook supper that night. When Joe came home, he found her in bed with no sunflowers in sight.

“What’s wrong? Are you sick?” he asked.

“Apparently, and I’m not getting up until I’m better,” she said. “From now on, you can sign for your own darn deliveries.”

 

Obsession

 

 

Suddenly, nothing on the dashboard worked. The speedometer fell to zero, the clock went dark, the heater fan and radio stopped, and worst of all, the headlights faded and died. Jean stood on the brakes and brought the car to a halt. Automatic locks went “thunk,” trapping her inside. The hair on her arms rose and her pulse quickened. This could only mean one thing: alien invasion.

It’s exactly the way they said it would be. Everything electrical shuts down when there’s a spacecraft in the vicinity.

She peered through the windshield at what she could see of the black sky, but no eerie light appeared. Maybe it’s directly overhead with the lights off. Right above me where I can’t see it. I need to text David and tell him I love him one last time… but no, of course my phone doesn’t work. This is it. It’s happening.

In her agitation, she involuntarily pushed on the gas pedal and the engine responded with a roar. All the dials on the dashboard came to life again, the windshield wipers whispered, the radio blared and the door locks disengaged. She drove home, raced into the house and found her husband snoozing in front of the television. She got right in his face, her words tumbling over each other.

“Everything in the car quit working, then it all started back up again, I know there must have been a spaceship overhead, it was exactly the way it’s been described. Did you see anything? Hear anything?”

David yawned, stretched. “It’s probably the alternator. I’ll look at it tomorrow.”

“But…”

“Geez Louise! When you hear hoof beats, you cut straight to zebra, don’t you? I’m goin’ to bed.”

~*~

Jean had a thing about creatures from another planet. Her mother claimed she’d been permanently scarred by seeing E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial as a child. Jean had identified so completely with Drew Barrymore’s character that for days she practiced her piercing scream so she’d be ready when her own personal E.T. showed up and tried to phone home. Everyone agreed the screaming practice was a trial, but for the most part, her family was indulgent. Jean had a lively imagination, a sign of superior intelligence, they said fondly; she’d outgrow her preoccupation with alien invasions soon enough.

Only she didn’t. She reported sightings of saucers and landing lights on a regular basis. Her school essays were full of pseudo-scientific “findings” she gleaned from the Internet. She saved her allowance for a trip to Roswell, New Mexico.

Teachers tried to reason with her. A psychologist was consulted. Even the family’s minister took a swing at Jean’s obsession – because that’s what it had become – but all appeals to logic failed. She was unshakable. She knew what she knew.

When she started going out with David, Jean did try to behave more normally. She practiced yoga and meditation, went for long walks, read a lot. After they married, she promised to forget about extra-terrestrials, or as David called them, her little green men. For a week at a time, she’d manage not to go outside before bedtime to check the sky. It made her more, rather than less tense because what if they came when she wasn’t watching? It was better to be alert and ready. Besides, they might very well be friendly aliens. She didn’t want to miss that.

She knew David was growing increasingly impatient. He organized an intervention in which the whole family gathered to express concern. Jean listened politely, but nothing they said connected with her.

“It’s okay,” she said. “You just don’t understand.”

That last summer Jean began staying outside most of the night. She’d spread a blanket on the grass and doze, waking frequently to scan the swirl of stars overhead. In July, David packed a suitcase and left. He said he couldn’t take life with a nut case anymore. No one blamed him. Her baffled family tried tough love: “When you’re ready to accept help, let us know.”

The house felt wrong without David in it and Jean seldom went inside after he left. Her days were spent waiting for night, for that was when they would come. In darkness.

~*~

Jean woke slowly. It was an effort to open her eyes in the white light, such painfully bright light. Her brain took a while to process what she saw: a huge circular shape centered in a radiant nimbus. Was she dreaming, or was this was what she’d been waiting for all her life? A hatch opened and a ramp whirred softly to the ground. Deeply-buried memories stirred and lifted her to her feet.

“You’ve come back for me,” she said. She walked into the light.

~*~

Her father reported her missing after twenty-four hours. Authorities were dismissive; the woman had a history of instability. She’d probably decided to go off somewhere and eventually she’d come back, that’s all. There was some puzzlement over a discarded shoe in a circle of burnt grass, but that was just the kind of odd thing you might expect from Jean. Who on earth could understand why she did what she did?

Who on Earth…