Seagulls screeched as they landed at the docks to inspect the day’s catch. Clouds bulging with rain reeled in from the horizon to hide the blue morning. The winter chill could not penetrate the warmth inside the harbourside diner. From his booth by the window, Carter kneaded the calluses on his palms and watched the men outside spill silver-green mounds of fish into iced containers.
Annie placed a plate of pancakes in front of him, set out cutlery and a napkin.
‘Molly came by yesterday again, didn’t she?’ she questioned, concern lining her eyes.
‘Yeah, she did,’ Carter answered. ‘She doesn’t visit any of the others, only me.’
Annie sat opposite him in the booth. ‘You’re like an uncle to her.’
‘She visits because she thinks she’ll see Bill and can walk home with her daddy like she always used to,’ Carter spilled syrup onto his pancakes. ‘You gotta take her to see someone.’
‘She’s not, she’s eight and still thinks Bill is alive. It’ll just get harder for her, Annie.’
Annie’s lips pursed into a thin line and her eyes flicked between Carter’s hands and his face. She slid out of the booth and untucked the notepad and pen from her apron pocket.
‘It’s been eight months,’ Carter countered. ‘You’re not helping her.’
‘She’ll get over it on her own,’ Annie muttered.
She left him with a cutting glare and trudged off to serve the next table. By the time he started eating, Carter had lost his appetite. He forced himself to eat half of his pancakes. Spongey in his mouth, soaked with maple syrup, but heavy as stones in his stomach.
Annie did not look up from the register when he paid his bill. Not even when he left her a ten-dollar tip. As soon as he left the diner, the crisp air seeped through his clothes and bit at his skin. He rubbed his coarse beard and pulled his beany over his ice-cold ears. Light rain accompanied him home.
Thunder roared at the oncoming evening. Grey sky above cracked open and veins of silver light bled into the sea. Waves battered the shore and pelted seaweed, stones and all manner of dead things onto the sand. The grass and trees failed to stand and defend the beach house against the wind.
It rattled windows and hardwood foundations. Cupboard doors quivered on their hinges and crystal glasses in the kitchen cabinet chimed together. Carter sipped his coffee and watched the storm rage on. The wall clock in the corridor rung to signal the turn of the hour.
Carter shivered and rubbed the cold from his arms and neck. Another sip and the coffee warmed his throat and chest. His lips curled over his teeth at the bitter taste. The coffee slapped against the sink as he spilled it. Wind smacked the window and he flinched. Beyond the dunes and mounds of seaweed, a man was crawling out of the water.
The man’s arms wobbled as he dragged himself up the shore, away from the freezing waves. He did not stand. His legs drooped behind him, limp, leaving a long trail in the sand. With one last heave up the shore, the man fell face first into the sand, immobile.
Carter threw open his front door and ran out into the storm. Rain bulleted his face and bare arms. His feet smacked against the hardening sand and he skidded to a halt in front of the washed-up man.
White tattoos swirled over its wet, ink-black torso and down over angular hips to where legs should be. A long dolphin tail, rigid with muscle, stretched out across the sand. Saltwater lapped at the edge of the fins. The creature’s chest pumped with shallow, wheezing breaths. Sharp, distrustful black eyes glared up at him.
Another roll of thunder and the earth quivered. Carter looked to the wild sea and the battling beach shrubbery. He ran his hands back and forth through his hair, pressed his palms into his eyes. Calluses scratched his eyelids. He couldn’t let it die here.
Wrapping his arms around the creature, he hoisted it up off the sand and dragged it up the beach. Blood streaked the asphalt as he pulled it across the road and up his driveway. Rain drenched his clothes and he was shaking, teeth chattering. So cold his gums and bones hurt.
‘That’s a big fish, Carter!’
The cold rain trickled into his heart and froze it. Molly stood at the end of the driveway in her little yellow raincoat. Under the raincoat’s plastic hood, she was grinning. Carter lifted the creature up by the underarms and carried it up the steps and into the beach house. Molly bounded up the driveway and onto the porch.
‘I want to see it,’ she ran into the house after Carter.
‘Go, get—just stay in the kitchen!’
The tail left a trail of seawater across the kitchen floorboards and down the hallway to the bathroom. Carter slipped on it and slammed back onto the bathroom floor. The back of his head ached.
‘Fucking shit,’ he rubbed his scalp.
Molly’s shoes squeaked against the tiles. ‘Oh, it’s a mermaid!’
‘Get out, Molly!’
She jumped in shock and backed out of the bathroom. The creature groaned. Carter got to his feet, pulled the thing up and dropped it in the bathtub. The creature’s head lolled back, mouth opening to reveal a grey pointed tongue and eight rows of pin-thin white teeth.
Carter turned the knob and let cold water fill the tub. Blood turned the water a bright red. Two long gills lined the sides of the creature’s throat and pulsed with every intake of air. It began to stir and lift its head. Carter turned off the water and left to see Molly.
Butter was smeared across Molly’s tan face. She didn’t look at Carter while she ate her sandwiches. Settling back in his chair, he drew his jacket around him to warm up.
‘I’m sorry I yelled at you, Molly.’
‘S’okay,’ Molly sniffled and wiped her nose with the back of her hand.
‘What are you doing here, today?’
She stopped chewing. ‘Dunno … Wanna see you.’
Carter bit his bottom lip. ‘Eat up, your mum will be here soon.’
‘Can I see the mermaid?’
‘No, you can’t.’
Molly’s eyes widened. ‘But it’s a mermaid.’
‘Those things can be dangerous,’ Carter said as the doorbell dinged. ‘Mum’s here. C’mon, time to go.’
Molly stuffed the rest of her sandwich into her mouth and clapped the crumbs off her hands. Floorboards creaked as Carter headed to the front door. Molly’s footsteps were feline taps behind him. He opened the front door to Annie’s stern white face.
‘Thanks for calling,’ she looked through him. ‘C’mon Molly, in the car. Quick, before you get wet.’
Molly put her hood up and waddled to Annie’s silver car parked in the drive-way. The rain had eased to a gentle patter. Carter rubbed his beard, his thoughts swimming back to the thing in the bathtub.
‘Annie, I can take her during school holidays. But you need to look out for her right now.’
Anger flared in Annie’s blue eyes. ‘I’ve got a lot to deal with, Carter, I can’t be on top of her every second of the day.’
‘What about your mother, can’t she watch her? You can’t just let Molly out on her own,’ Carter pressed.
‘It’s not as easy as you think. Before, Bill was—’
‘It’s not easy, I know, but you’re all she’s got. She’s eight, she can’t be on her own.’
‘You know, you would’ve saved me a lot of trouble had you just told me Bill was going out that night,’ Annie jangled her keys and headed to her car.
‘What?’ Carter spat, following her down the steps. ‘What did you just say to me?’
‘That night, you could’ve told me Bill was out with you. I would’ve left work and found him. I would’ve stopped him.’
‘If you’re looking for an argument, Annie, I’ll fucking give it to you. I’m not Bill.’
‘I’m not looking for an argument,’ she mocked. ‘I’m just saying that you could’ve stopped it from happening. You were there with him, at the pub.’
‘He said he was going to check the boat. How the fuck was I supposed to know he was going to blow his brains in the harbour?’ Carter wiped his mouth, thoughts bouncing against the inside of his skull, and breathed.
‘He would’ve told you he was depressed, you should’ve pieced it together. He told you everything.’
‘Yeah, before he married you. If anyone should’ve known he was going to kill himself, it should’ve been you—his wife. But turns out you still have your head up your own arse.’
Annie struck him across the face. The slap stung his cheek, handprint already reddening on his skin. From the front-seat of the car, Molly stared at Carter. As soon as Annie got in, she began to question what had happened. Annie revved the engine and screamed her daughter into silence.
Carter rubbed his cheek and went back inside.
Water sloshed whenever the creature moved. It settled as Carter opened the door. He carried a plate with lettuce and canned tuna on it. There was a curious glint in the creature’s dark eyes. It scrubbed its hands in the red bathwater.
‘Can you change the water, please?’
‘You speak English?’
‘I speak many languages. Change the water, I’m sitting in my own blood.’
Carter hummed and avoided looking directly at the creature’s face. He drained and refilled the tub. The creature reached down to pick up a lettuce leaf from the plate. It flapped the leaf and let it drop onto the tiles.
‘The tuna, then?’
‘It will do for now.’
‘Didn’t think you’d eat fish, considering …’ Carter gestured at the creature’s tail.
‘I don’t consider it,’ the creature peeled open the can, sniffed and scrunched its nose in disgust. ‘If fish don’t want to be eaten, they should swim faster.’
‘Are you a god, or …?’
The creature laughed. ‘Why? Do you want me to be?’
Carter frowned and turned off the tap. Bits of tuna lodged between the creature’s teeth. With pointed nails, it began to pick the food out. It licked the inside of the tuna can and recoiled when it cut its tongue on the metal, threw the can on the ground. Carter placed the can back on the plate and stood up to leave. The creature grabbed his arm.
‘You’re in anguish. Like your veins are straining to keep everything in. Your upset clogs the air,’ the creature lowered its head. ‘Go now. Your grief is making me ill.’
Carter hurried out and slammed the door behind him. He tried to breathe but couldn’t swallow the air. Tongue heavy and dry in his mouth, he wiped the wet heat from his eyes and tried to breathe again.
The television buzzed from distorted sound. Carter turned down the volume at the sounds of the doorbell. Grumbling, he got up off the couch and went to open the front door. He found Molly waiting on the porch with a bright smile.
‘Hello, Molly. Shouldn’t you be at home with Grandma?’
‘Gran went to the pokies.’
‘Oh, did she?’ Carter sighed. ‘C’mon, I’ll take you to your mum.’
‘No, no, I wanna stay here,’ Molly clutched his hand.
Carter’s mouth twitched into a brief smile. ‘All right, I’ll make you a sandwich. Go in the lounge room and watch some cartoons.’
Molly skipped past the threshold and down the hallway. Carter went into the kitchen and opened the fridge, taking out butter and containers of lettuce and ham. He opened the cupboard above and reached in to get out the bread.
A high-pitched screech pierced the air. Growls and splashes followed. The screaming went on. Carter dropped everything and sprinted to the bathroom.
Molly was hunched on the wet bathroom floor, her hand hovering over her wounded arm. Blood dotted the tiles and sprayed across the side of the tub. Her mouth strained around her open jaw as she howled in agony. Tears streamed down her panicked red face. A chunk of her forearm had been bitten off. Carter swept her up off the floor and held her tight against him, staring at the thing in the bathtub over her shoulder.
The creature licked the blood from its teeth, picked out the flesh with pointed nails.
The not quite white walls of the hospital made his head swim. Heeled boots clicked against the polished floor. Carter got up from his seat to greet Annie as she left Molly’s room.
‘What have you done?’ Annie hissed, her lips curled against her teeth. When he didn’t answer, she beat his chest with clenched fists. ‘What have you done?!’
‘I didn’t do anything,’ Carter said through his teeth.
‘You did this. She was with you.’
‘Don’t be stupid, Annie. Do you really think I could’ve done that?’
‘I’ve called the police. They’ll arrest you, I’ll take you to court. You’ll never see my Molly again, you’ve probably done other things—’
‘I didn’t do anything to Molly. I would never—’
‘You took advantage of her.’
‘Listen to yourself. Just actually think before you speak, Annie. You’re shocked, stressed, just calm down.’
Annie shook her head, incredulous by what he was saying. Carter put a hand on her shoulder and she flinched like she had been burnt. There were footsteps coming from the end of the corridor. Two police officers headed toward them.
‘The police are here, they’re here for you,’ Annie spat, and went back into Molly’s room.
The officers approached Carter. He bowed his head, tried to breathe.
The policewoman paced around Carter in the claustrophobic silver room. Carter bounced his leg under the table. The policeman penned his statement.
‘Is that everything?’ the policewoman asked.
‘That’s the truth,’ Carter confirmed. ‘You have to believe me. I could never hurt Molly, she’s like a daughter to me. I would die before I hurt her.’
‘Are you taking any illicit substances?’ the policeman asked.
‘No, no, I don’t even smoke,’ Carter leaned across the table. ‘That thing is in my bathtub. Check my house if you don’t believe me. When you find that thing you have to kill it and throw back into the fucking sea. You have to. Please.’
The policeman ordered his papers and gave a pitiful smile. ‘We’ll be sure to. Don’t worry.’
The policewoman went in first. Her partner followed her, frustration making him tense. Their boots squeaked against the floorboards.
‘C’mon, there’s nothing here. Carter’s got a few screws loose.’
‘I just want to see, maybe there’s something else.’
They turned into the bathroom. Water splashed as the thing in the bathtub moved. The water was bright red from blood. The creature showed its pin-thin white teeth, and beckoned the officers to come closer.