“As Large as Alone” by Alena McNamara
Read our interview with Alena McNamara
As the boat slowed, Julia watched the girl on the public raft. She wasn’t pretty, in the normal way, but her whole body inclined toward a secret hinted at in the curve of her fingers toward her knee and the way she raised her head, half self-conscious.
When the girl met her stare, Julia glanced away. Their father gave her a grateful smile from the helm for watching her sister for the day.
Julia balanced a moment on the edge of the boat, and then jumped. Clutching a kickboard white-knuckled against her life vest, Mandy eased into the lake after her.
Mandy reached the raft first. The water from her splashing kicks rang hollow on the metal raft. “I’m Mandy,” she said, climbing up. “Who are you?”
The girl gazed at her, and then at Julia. “I don’t have a name.”
Treading water, Julia held her breath while the boat’s wake rolled past. It lapped against the bridge of her nose and her ears.
“I’m a mermaid,” the girl said. Her purple swimsuit was worn down to lavender in places, like Julia’s after her junior-high season on the swim team. “We don’t need names.”
Mandy grinned. “Yeah, right.”
“Mandy,” Julia said automatically.
Ignoring her – as usual – Mandy crossed her arms. “Prove it.”
The girl looked surprised. Not quite graceful, she unfolded to slip off the raft. Her sidelong glance walked pricks of raised hairs up Julia’s arms.
The water swallowed her. Mandy settled in to wait.
Julia told her, “We’re talking later,” and dove into the lake.
Just cloudy water, for a while, featureless. Little air bubbles stole out of the corner of her mouth, rushing for the surface. She let herself keep sinking. Fish flicked against her ankles, slick with scales.
At the bottom the girl lay in a bed of weeds, leaves and stems tangled olive-green around her. Deep rough wrinkles ridged her pale skin under the purple swimsuit, and her arms and legs lay swollen, angles not quite right. White foam clung to her nostrils, tiny drops of red to her ear where her hair drifted away. The skin on her leg peeled back so far that the bare white bone showed through.
Lack of oxygen tightened Julia’s chest. She touched bottom with one foot, pushing off against a rock slimy with algae, and shot upward. Her breath raced her to the surface.
“Well?” Mandy called.
Julia swallowed the tang of silt and lakeweed. She swam over slowly and hung on to the raft, not quite up to treading water. Not a mermaid. Vulnerable, lonely. Dead. “She’s down there.”
“Bet you she’ll be up soon,” Mandy said, smug in her certainty.
Swimming laps, slow steady strokes that curved her around the raft and back again, Julia tried not to count the minutes. She was at the furthest point of her circle, out where the weeds met the area cleared for swimming, when Mandy shouted.
The girl pulled herself up onto the raft, water running off her body. She looked just like any other girl, now, settling down next to Mandy, but Julia couldn’t keep from glancing at her with every stroke.
The tone of their conversation drifted across the water: Mandy excited, exclaiming, counterpoint to the girl’s voice, low and amused. When Julia’s path took her back around to the raft, Mandy was saying, “Just icky weeds? Don’t you eat fish?”
“Would you eat humans?” The girl caught Julia’s eye.
She knew the secret gleaming in that smile now.
“You don’t look like a fish. You don’t have scales,” Mandy said.
Out of the corner of her eye Julia could tell the girl still looked at her. Barely loud enough for Julia to hear, the girl said, “You just can’t see them.”
Tucking the memory deep away, Julia dove underwater again and kept swimming.
“We met a mermaid today,” Mandy said during dinner.
Their mother smiled. “Did she have a fish tail?”
“No. Not that I could see, anyway.” Mandy fiddled with her fork and the pile of thawed peas before her.
At her mother’s glance, Julia said, “Some new girl was out on the raft. Her family must’ve just moved in.”
Their father looked thoughtful. “There’s that couple over on the west side, they were up last weekend supervising the guys building them a dock,” he said, “but I didn’t think they had kids.”
“No, they did,” her mother said, and their father let it go.
Julia thought of lake-washed bones disturbed by new construction, and laid the peas out into rows across her plate.
“You saw her,” Mandy said later in their shared bedroom. “You did!”
“I know,” Julia said, sitting down on her bed. “I saw her. But you know them – they think you’re too old to be making things up.” They’d started telling her that even earlier, seven to Mandy’s eight.
“But it’s not just stories.” Mandy plopped down on her own bed, slapping at a mosquito that had found a way into their cabin. “I know made-up things aren’t real. But she’s not imaginary.”
“I know,” Julia said again. The back of her neck itched with the grit of dried lakewater.
“If it’s real then they should know about it. But they won’t even listen.”
Leaning forward, Julia said, “Let’s promise to keep it a secret between us. To keep her a secret between us.”
Mandy pinky-swore with her solemnly. Julia padded over to turn off the lights. Just before she flicked the switch she looked back at her sister, now just a huddled lump of sheets that shifted to snatch again at the mosquito’s thready whine.
“Got it!” Mandy said.
In the darkness Julia felt her way back to bed and lay there, staring up at the ceiling.
Pinky-swear or no, she didn’t believe that Mandy would keep their promise.
Julia sat backwards in the boat the next morning, watching the last lingering mist swirl over the water in their wake, and only looked around when the motor cut out and the boat drifted to a stop.
The raft floated light under the weight of morning sun. The girl had never promised to be there again when she’d slipped into the lake the day before, but Julia had thought–
Maybe she’d never come back. Julia hoped she wouldn’t. Mandy didn’t need any more confusion over what was true.
Mandy leaped off the boat, splashing her. Julia followed her in. The water wrapped over her like a second skin, and she wondered if this was what it felt like to be a mermaid.
Not, she reminded herself, that mermaids were real.
Mandy took up her perch on the raft, dangling her feet in the lake. Julia wanted to sit and wait with her, but her shoulders ached to swim laps. She’d made her circuit seven times, strokes pulling her muscles loose and easy, when she caught a glimpse of something underneath her.
Holding her breath, Julia plunged her head beneath the surface and opened her eyes, gliding. The girl swam ten feet beneath her, arms moving languidly through the water, as whole and pristine as she was on the surface with Mandy.
Julia surfaced and took a few more strokes. Her chest felt empty, buoyant. Without quite a conscious decision, she drew in a deep breath and looked down again.
The girl met her gaze and pushed off the bottom with one foot. She drifted up through the water. No air in her lungs to buoy her up to the surface, she just floated there, much closer now. Close enough to touch.
Her eyes were as dark as the bottom of the sea.
Julia reached out, half afraid her skin would slough off at a touch, or feel rubbery and loose over rotting muscles. But it was just cool and slippery, like fish scales, and her fingers slid along it easily.
It was easier to think of her as a mermaid when they were touching like this.
Gently, the girl drifted closer. Their lips touched. Julia let her eyes close, savoring the contact. The girl’s mouth slipped open over hers, and Julia’s lips parted without a thought.
Water rushed into her mouth. She pulled away, escaped air whirling in bubbles around her, and kicked for the surface. Breathless, floating belly-up, she rubbed the water from her eyes.
By the time she’d recovered, the girl sat on the raft with Mandy, answering her questions about mermaid life.
Julia swam laps the rest of the day. Even when her fingers had wrinkles like raisins, she stayed in the water, sneaking glances toward the raft.
The girl ignored her completely.
It stormed the next day, hard enough that the window-screens still held water a day later. They caught Mandy trying to start the boat, wearing only her swimsuit and shivering so hard she couldn’t shift the clutch. Before the end of the evening she had a cough and a slight fever, and their mother tucked her up in bed early. She was still sick the day after, when the rain had stopped but the clouds not yet cleared, wrapped in blankets all but her scowling face.
“Julia,” she said.
“What is it?” She crouched by Mandy’s bed.
“Tell her I’m sorry I couldn’t come today.”
Julia swallowed. “I will,” she said, and when Mandy’s scowl deepened, “I promise.”
“I thought I might take the canoe out today,” Julia said at breakfast. Only one motorboat’s growl had broken the quiet of the overcast lake since dawn.
Her father glanced at her mother.
“Take a lifejacket,” her mother said, with a sigh.
Outside, the air still smelled like rain, and the water gave back the matte grey of clouds. The weeds near their dock tangled around the paddle. The green stems against pale wood made her think of the girl. Julia shook them off.
Coming up alongside the empty raft, she leaned over to tie the canoe up and then eased herself onto the platform. The metal slats pressed cold against her legs. Huddled there, hugging her knees for warmth, she waited.
The girl’s head broke the water first, shattering the tiny ripples any calm lake had. They just looked at each other for a moment, Julia keeping in her head what she needed to say. Slowly, the girl swam to the raft and pulled herself up. Their arms brushed.
Julia leaned away. She said, “You have to stay away from Mandy.”
It wasn’t, she thought with grim amusement, what the girl had expected her to say.
“She tried to go out and see you yesterday. Even after she couldn’t start the boat. She said that she’d be fine below the water, that down there it didn’t matter whether it was raining.” Julia pressed her thumbs together, squeezing until the nailbeds turned white. She couldn’t, didn’t want to imagine Mandy’s body dredged up from the bottom of the lake looking like the girl’s. “Now she’s in bed with a fever. What do you think would’ve happened if we hadn’t caught her in time?”
“She would have drowned.”
The girl had fallen silent. She picked at the abandoned spiderwebs wadded on the side of the raft, not meeting Julia’s gaze.
“Because of all your stories about mermaids.” Julia stared out at the lake, determined to say nothing more.
“They’re true,” the girl ventured.
Julia whirled around, the wet bottom of her swimsuit skidding on the raft. “I don’t care if they’re true,” she said. “I care about my sister believing that she’s a mermaid too, that she can breathe water and live in a lake.”
“No,” the girl said, considering, and Julia stared at her. “You do care if they’re true. You care more than she does.”
“But you don’t believe.” She leaned closer. “Do you believe this?”
This time when they kissed the lake stayed where it should. The girl’s teeth were cool and slick, and they tasted of weeds and deep water.
Both Julia and Mandy stayed in the day after that, though the weather was fine. The girl was waiting for them on the raft when they came the next day, though, legs curled under her like a tail. Mandy scrambled up next to her, and Julia turned to wave her father off. It had taken Mandy fifteen minutes to convince their mother to let her out on the lake; Julia had had to promise that she’d make sure Mandy didn’t stay in the water too long.
The boat’s engine muttered over the water as her father pulled away from the raft. The wake spread out across calm waters.
“Where do all the other mermaids live?” Mandy asked right away. “Is there a mermaid kingdom?”
The girl darted a guilty look at Julia. Pushing off from the raft, Julia started to swim laps, splashing loudly until she was far enough from them that she wouldn’t hear the answer.
Later, the girl coaxed Mandy off the raft. More comfortable in the water than Julia had ever seen her, Mandy paddled around with her kickboard, pretending to be a mermaid. Julia slid up to the raft again and hooked an arm around the rail to watch. The girl swam alongside Mandy, laughing and beckoning her on, never quite there when Mandy reached for her.
Kicking harder, Mandy splashed the water high, and the girl swam back around to show her how to move more smoothly. Ten minutes later, she was raising much less water and noise.
Joining Julia at the raft, the girl glanced after Mandy. Something twisted in Julia’s chest. Over the years, she had made three attempts to teach Mandy that kick, but Mandy had never even tried.
“She’s getting better.”
Julia nodded, curling her fingers. She wanted to touch the hollow of the girl’s elbow. She wanted her to go away, to stop filling Mandy’s head with tales of mermaids and teaching her to kick right. She wanted Mandy back in the cabin, and the girl’s fingertips against hers with all the weight of solitude behind them.
“I didn’t tell her,” the girl said. “That we have a kingdom.”
Pulled back to the water, Julia asked, “What–”
“I told her mermaids live in lakes like this. Alone.”
Their gazes met for a long moment. “And what’s the truth?”
The girl just turned back to watch Mandy, smiling a little.
Near midnight, Julia woke with a start at a scratch on their window. A tree branch, she thought, and turned over to go back to sleep.
The girl’s face rose pale against the glass, and Julia was half standing before she knew it, fumbling her slippers onto her feet.
When she came out of their cabin, easing the screen door shut behind her, the girl stood on the end of their dock, watching the lake and waiting. Brushing through a cloud of gnats and leaving a trail of footprints across the dewy grass, Julia went to her.
The girl turned as Julia stepped onto the dock, one hand chafing her elbow as if she were cold. “Is everyone asleep?”
“Worried about Mandy?” Julia smiled, sleepy. “Never let her know you can go off the lake.”
“I hardly knew, either,” the girl said. “I just kept going. But that wasn’t what I meant.”
Looking up at her, she said, “I don’t want to be lonely. Not tonight.”
When Julia didn’t back away, she threaded her hands through Julia’s hair, one finger at a time. “I like your hair down.”
She kissed Julia, and for a moment Julia lost herself in it. Then she pulled away, stepping back. “You’re–” None of the ways to finish that sentence ended well. Julia took a deep breath. “I can’t. I’m sorry.”
Julia could still taste the lakewater on the girl’s teeth. “I don’t even know your name,” she said, helplessly. “You said mermaids don’t have them, mermaids don’t need them, but you’re a dead girl lying on the bottom of the lake and I don’t even know who you were.”
All the girl needed to say was, You know who I am now. Isn’t that what matters? But she just stared.
Around the dock, the lily pad blossoms were moons against the dark circles of their leaves.
“A – dead girl?”
Forced into her suspicions, Julia said, “You don’t even know who you were.” She shivered against the night chill. “I can’t.”
“I’m not dead.” She touched her face, her arms, hugged her body. “Am I dead?”
Julia had been as stupid as Mandy.
“How could I be dead? I can walk, I can talk, I can – breathe.” Her fingers flew to her throat. “Oh my God,” she said, her eyes wide. “I can’t breathe.”
“It’s okay,” Julia said. She reached out. “It’ll be okay.”
The girl pushed her hands away. “I’m dead! It won’t be okay. It isn’t okay.” She spun and ran, diving off the dock before Julia could open her mouth. Weeds danced wildly around the spot where she’d vanished, lily pads bobbing in the ripples.
Julia stood alone on the dock.
Tucking her slippers far under the bed to hide the damp marks of dew, Julia slid into her bed. The quiet sounds of their parents’ sleeping breath came through the wall.
“She’s my mermaid,” Mandy said, conversationally.
Julia – startled – sat up. “How long have you been awake?”
“Long enough. I guess I’ll share her, though,” she said.
She flopped back down. “Good night, Mandy.” Maybe if she pulled her sheets over her head Mandy would leave her alone.
“I figure,” Mandy said, yawning, “you probably won’t get another chance.”
Julia stared through her sheets at the ceiling, listening to the high-pitched whine of that one mosquito that had managed to get in again. After a time she sat up again and groped under her bed for her slippers.
Mandy, if she was awake, had the good sense not to comment.
Dawn found her on the raft, buckled into a lifejacket and huddled underneath a heavy blanket, canoe tied up and nudging the raft with every swell of water slopping hollow against the shell. She yawned, rubbing at the gritty corners of her eyes.
The girl surfaced a few feet away, water running off her dark hair. She swam to the raft, as easy in the lake as ever, and pulled herself up to sit next to Julia. After a moment, Julia offered her a fold of the blanket. They edged together, not quite touching.
“Your hands are cold,” Julia said.
She reached out and, carefully, tucked one of them between hers.
“They aren’t going to warm up,” said the girl.
With great concentration, Julia laced her fingers through the girl’s. She thought before she spoke, of mermaids and death and loneliness.
Finally, she said, “I know.”
About the Author
Alena McNamara grew up in Minnesota, where visiting cabins on lakes is a common activity, and now lives in Massachusetts (which has fewer lakes but considerably more ocean). She attended the 2008 Odyssey Writing Workshop and Viable Paradise XV. She can be found at aamcnamara.livejournal.com or on Twitter as @aamcnamara.
Read our interview with Alena McNamara