“Oh, good evening everyone! You seem to have caught me at an awkward time. No, I’m not slacking off, if that’s what you’re thinking. Honestly, I didn’t think you’d be back here so soon, what with that last viewing and all.
“Not that it needs justifying, but if you work hard, you should play equally as hard…mmm…maybe moreso. A little bit of sport or whatever hobbies you may have eases the tension and allows you to decompress and not think too much about anything else. Trust me, in my previous life I tried to juggle full-time school and 40 hours of work per week; not always the best of times–”
“Yuki? How many parts orgeat syrup and lime juice was that again?”
“Three parts and two! What? Nothing wrong with letting my assistant learn some basic bartending skills. He’s only serving, not drinking. AH! Thank you!”
“No problem. Gonna clean myself up now.”
“Bet you didn’t imagine disc golf could be so–”
“Tiring and painful?”
“You’ll get used to hit. Don’t you take PE every day?”
“Nothing on that level…”
“Well, go on then, put on the hot water and relax. I’ll mind the lab in the meantime. Now, while he goes to recover, why don’t you gaze into the Void and have a look at one Marty Watterson, whose swimming hobby will send him through an ordeal terrifying–”
“Don’t make the ‘stroke’ pun, please.”
“Take your damn shower!”
Danielle Watterson didn’t feel like she had slept all that long, maybe closed her eyes and nodded off for twenty or thirty minutes and nothing more. She had been reading a bedtime story to her daughter, Emily, and almost made it through to the end until she realised her little girl was fast asleep. Too comfortable in the moment, Danielle told herself she’d only rest her eyes for a minute or so—which turned out to be a full night’s sleep. She brought her eyes up from her watch, in less than an hour she’d have to get Em up for school.
Danielle eased herself off her daughter’s bed and placed the storybook collection on her dresser. She let a stifled yawn and walked quietly out of the room and looked back. Her little girl was surrounded in an aquatic dreamscape: walls painted in varying shades of blue—dark to light, from bottom to top—with dozens of sea creatures and plant life along the walls; her bed was littered with whale and shark plushies; an aquarium sat atop a desk further back in the room with her little Betta fish; even the book that Danielle had been reading to her were filled with tales of mermaids, sirens, and sea witches.
A familiar sensation washed over Danielle and snapped her out of her thoughts—call it a sort of spousal ESP. She closed the bedroom door behind her and made way to their room down the hall, expecting the typical scene even before she entered. And she was right. An empty bed with her side neatly folded and undisturbed, her husband’s side unfolded, cluttered, and empty.
‘Damn it Marty,’ she couldn’t help saying under her breath. She and her husband would have a few words after she watched Em hop on the school bus.
Sanctuary. That is what Marty thought of the silent hall. Somewhere he could be at ease; a place where he could be at peace with himself and have all the troubles in the world roll off his shoulders. No, it wasn’t a church or some secret hideout in which nobody on Earth could find him. It was a swimming pool. Many years ago when he was still a child his mother had brought him up to this very centre for lessons. After that day, as often as he was able to manage, Marty would run down to the Silver Water Swim Centre from his family’s apartment and spend an hour or two there. Over time he’d learnt to hold his breath from mere seconds to minutes at a time. He would cannonball into the deep end, breathe in a lungful of air on the way down, submerge himself to about half-depth and just float there. Marty would twirl about slowly, staying in place, and just be at total peace. It wasn’t the ocean waters he wanted to live by, but it still worked wonders for him. Yes, every time he walked through those chlorine-scented halls he was in complete tranquillity.
Except for this particular morning. For the first time since he started coming here with his mother those many years ago he felt stress. No, it would not do at all.
‘…it’s getting worse for you every day!’ Danielle continued on, trying to reason with him. ‘How many times do I have to fall asleep alone and wake back up the same way? How many hours do you have to be here?’ Marty’s only response was a deep sigh and a slight shake of his head. ‘You have a wife and daughter, don’t you think it’s time you spend a little more time with us than being here.’
Little Emily would just be getting to class, like the rest of the children, while the adults were at their respectable jobs, or just climbing back into bed after hustling the kids out the door. It was this time early in the morning and late at night when he could have the place to himself (sometimes that meant even slipping the old janitor that roamed the halls a few bucks to tell people the place was temporarily closed).
Marty strode through the halls, Danielle still at his heels trying to convince him to come back home. He readjusted the green and white striped towel around his neck and tried to pay more attention to their echoed footsteps instead of his wife’s voice. They approached the glass door that led to the lounge area which overlooked the Olympic-sized pool. The walls that faced the outside, along with the ceiling, were primarily glass, several inches thick, only a few lamps here and there, but most of the lighting in the room was natural. The sun was rising beyond the far wall and was sending a brilliant orange glow into the room, the trees scattered about the back of the property were silhouetted beautifully, giving a lovely scenic view any painter would kill for. Already, his frustration began to fade away, and he set the small bag he carried onto a chaise lounge and draped his towel over the top.
‘You’re not even going to talk to me about this, are you?’ Danielle said, defeated, her arms crossed.
Marty held his head down for a moment before raising it and turning to her, ‘You used to swim like this. Those few vacations to the beach my family took? From the first time I met you when we were kids and every time after until I came back on my own, that was where I found you, out in the ocean. I couldn’t even get you to come out on the sand.’
‘I grew out of it, though,’ she replied. ‘Being in the water was more natural to me than breathing air, I just got tired of it after all those years. I wanted to be far away from the sea. Your interest in the water wasn’t what kept me around… It was you and nothing else. That was just how we happened to meet. It’s not my life anymore. Why else would I want to move in from the coast? Please.’ She grabbed him lightly by the arm. ‘Let’s go home, we’ll walk back hand-in-hand, lie down together and drift off to sleep.’ She added: ‘And have Em wake us up so we can make her some chicken nuggets and let her tell us all she’s done in class today.’
Marty turned back to her and gazed into her eyes. It reminded him of the first time they embraced, back when they were thirteen. He cupped her chin with one hand and whispered softly, ‘Just one hour.’
The hopefulness that appeared on her face for those brief few seconds disappeared in a fraction of that time. She scowled and backed up from him. ‘Fine, be that way, arsehole.’ Danielle turned on her heels and stomped out the door, being sure to slam it as hard as she could.
Taking off his shirt, Marty closed his eyes and let the newly-found silence calm him. He dropped his clothes on the chair and padded down the concrete steps and over to the diving board. Before hopping off he took in a lungful of air and smiled; it was his place again, his sanctuary. He took two big steps out and dove into the water. He plunged all the way to the bottom, brushing the bottom of the pool with his fingertips. Rising up slowly, Marty closed his eyes and let himself float there, in perfect harmony with the water. It was odd, he swore he heard singing coming from the surface. The notes penetrated the depths and a faint melody swam around him.
Four minutes later, his head popped above the surface. He tread the water and brushed the blond strands from his eyes.
Something was wrong.
He rubbed his eyes again, making sure he wasn’t seeing things. For a moment there, he thought he was in the ocean, just clear light blue skies and nothing but miles of water in every direction. But even with his eyes closed, his nose deceived him too, he was picking up a strange smell, not that of chlorine which he was accustomed to. Hesitantly he put his lips to the water and sipped. Saltwater. Alright, this wasn’t funny. Where the hell was he? No sign of land in any direction, what about below? He took in another lungful of air and forced himself downward and swam. He couldn’t see any sign of the blue- and white-striped bottom of the pool. Marty stopped himself from going down too far, the pressure was being put on severely, and light wasn’t reaching the bottom. Wherever it was it was down there, it was well beyond what he could swim in a single breath.
Right in front of his eyes as he swam to the top a school of fish passed by. He felt his heart race now; he was beginning to panic—and in the water no less. This was unheard of. Never in his lifetime did he think that he could feel such a way in his sanctuary. Then again, this wasn’t his place, was it?
In no way did Marty understand the situation. But he had to do something; soon his body would tire and he would eventually pass out from exhaustion, dehydration, or starvation. He would be damned if he were to drown! All he could think to do was to swim and hope that he reached somebody or something—whatever, it didn’t matter. But which way to go? Marty turned toward around and, not having anything to go on, picked a random direction then started swimming.
He kept his pace steady. He didn’t want to go too fast and tire out early. Marty tried to keep the thought of the sea creatures out of his mind, if there were small fish like the ones he saw earlier, there were usually bigger ones around to eat them.
He should have gone home with Danielle.
Marty took his watch off before he jumped into the pool, left it sitting right next to the diving board, so he hadn’t a clue how long he’d been swimming. The sun was just rising as he dove into the pool, now it was coming close to being at high noon. He felt the sun beating down hard on him as it reached its peak. What to do now? Still nothing in sight but miles of seawater, no land, no boats, not even a damned plane! And his limbs were growing weak now, after what seemed like hours and hours of nonstop swimming, he’d slowed down significantly.
Musical notes traipsed across his mind. Were they real? If so, who was singing them? It sounded like the same tune he was hearing just after he dove into the pool.
“Hello!?” Marty shouted. “Is anyone there? I, uh, I need some help here!” No replies ever came, just the continuation of the song in his head. Even with no one around, yelling this way helped calm him, there was always the possibility that someone could be close by. Logically, if a person could suddenly warp from a city pool to the middle of some unknown ocean, then it was entirely in the realm of possibility for a human to appear from nowhere to save him, right? Crazy thoughts, Marty told himself. Damn it, stay calm. It’ll be okay. His breathing slowed, he closed his eyes and just floated there.
His eyes shot back open, something brushed against his foot. Something soft. Then there was nothing—a fish maybe? No, definitely not. It didn’t feel like one. There it was again! Marty pulled his leg up. And whatever it was that was down there grabbed his other leg. Marty couldn’t help himself when he let out a shriek. There was something else with him. What, he did not know. Of all the kilometres of open sea and with nothing around he had to bump into whatever the hell was trying to pull him under! His arms flailed wildly, throwing water about. It felt like hands, two of them tugging with all of their might. He kept screaming, pleading with everything he had that at least one person would hear him, no matter how crazy that may have seemed.
Arms. Those were definitely arms wrapping around his legs, pulling him down. Why? What purpose did drowning him serve? Whatever this thing was, it certainly wasn’t biting or trying to eat him. The thing was pulling at his waist now, at his trunks. With all its strength it managed to tear the fabric to shreds, Marty could feel it happening below. Still, he kept trying to swim, but even with all his might he could not pull away. It was not like he was without any muscle. He was wiry but had always been able to overpower his larger friends when they roughhoused when he was younger. This thing was tugging at his body with the strength of a few men.
The creature’s arms finally came above the ocean water, now reaching behind his neck to pull him down. Marty grabbed its wrists and squeezed hard. But something made him lighten the pressure. The arms in his hands were human, and they were slender and soft. He forced his gaze down upon the water; he couldn’t believe what he saw, long locks of wavy black hair flowing from behind. Letting go of one wrist, he pulled a strand out of the sea. The person put their free hand on his shoulder, lightly this time—it was a girl. Suddenly he realised he felt breasts pushed up against his back. No longer did she try to pull him under.
Slowly, the girl brought herself around to face him. She smiled sheepishly. She had deep emerald eyes and skin so light she almost glowed in the sun. A moment of silence passed.
‘Are you lost too? How did you get all the way out here?’ Marty finally managed to ask the girl, who looked a bit distracted. She broke out of her trance and shook her head. The girl tried to speak, but all that came out sounded like light gasps. Great, she couldn’t talk. Marty shook his head and spoke softly, ‘I can’t understand you, I—’
The girl stopped him short, putting her fingers to his lips and pointed behind him. Nothing. He kept looking for what she was pointing at as he spoke. ‘What am I looking for? There’s—’ cut off again, not by her fingers, but by a large fin that brought its way above the water’s surface. You gotta be kiddin’ me. With a shaky hand, Marty reached out and slid his fingertips over the scales. The girl giggled. He took his hand and started from the tip and worked up the body of the fish. No way, she isn’t… this can’t be… The scaly surface faded into a soft tender flesh. Marty turned to face her again. She was smiling shyly and blushing a little, he looked down and noticed his hand had stopped on her butt.
‘Oh! My bad, sorry about that.’ It was his turn to give a sheepish grin and blush. But this only made the girl—mermaid—laugh. His mind snapped back to more important matters at hand. ‘Umm… You wouldn’t happen to know how I could get back home do you?’
The mermaid’s eyes looked away from his, lit up, and returned. She smiled and nodded enthusiastically. He heaved a sigh, ‘Thank God. Can you please show me the way?’
Her hand grabbed his and she started to pull him under again. He resisted. ‘Hold on. I can’t go down that way, I can’t breathe underwater.’ She turned to him, in what looked like a pout, but didn’t last long as she came forward and embraced him. She brought her lips to his, opened her mouth and breathed in. Marty pulled back almost immediately, ‘What the hell?’
Once again she tried to pull him under.
‘No, I already told you that I can’t.’
Without a word, she grabbed both of his arms gently and pulled at him, her eyes pleading for him to come under, as if to say ‘yes you can’. He gave in and swam under with her; she led him about three metres down. Keeping close to him, she held them in place for a few minutes. It was then that Marty realised he wasn’t even trying to hold his breath anymore, he wasn’t tensed up, holding back air in his lungs, he was ‘breathing’ freely. At this point, he didn’t bother asking how. So much had happened that morning already that he would’ve deemed impossible even hours before, why bother questioning anything else? The mermaid tugged at his hand and looked expectantly up at him. He gave her a nod and she led him into the ocean’s depths. The tune kept following him.
Several minutes passed and Marty hadn’t the faintest idea where she was taking him. They didn’t cover a lot of area fast, she led him in one direction and very slowly over time went further downward. She was allowing his body to get used to the pressure of the water, and she would probably do the same when they came back up; no sense in killing somebody that you’re trying to help out, right? Nothing, he was surprised to see, stood out in this place at all. It was just shades of blue. And for the length that they swam they encountered not even one other sea creature. Strange, considering the ocean population was substantially larger than that of the land-dwellers.
That was when he heard it, the most enchanting sound to reach his ears. It came from in front of them, but from below. The brunette mermaid stopped and put her hand tightly around his. What’s going on here? Another stunning cry. It began to circle them, whatever it was. Certainly a monster couldn’t produce such a lovely sound, but wait—there were more, at least two others, who also joined in the festivities. Now the mermaid turned to him, letting go of his hand, and smiled. Seductively? Even in the shallow light her emerald eyes still glimmered.
She leaned in close, placing her small hands upon his chest, her lower body pressed against his. It was the first time he was aware that he was actually naked with the woman, the torn fabric lost ages and several metres ago. Those voices. The mermaid put her arms around his torso, and he followed likewise, putting his arms around her waist. He was growing aroused. She pressed closer. He wanted to stop, but this whole crazy situation…
His childhood fantasies were becoming a reality. Why would he ever give up the ability to live under water, to mingle with mer-people? What else out there was for him to discover?
He moved in to kiss the girl, wife and child nowhere in his thoughts. Sharp pain rose from Marty’s back, his body stiffened. The mermaid held still and released the tight grip on his back. She breathed hard and deep and pulled her lower body away. He looked down at her face, and she smiled.
This time, Marty’s heart nearly stopped. Her entire upper half may have been completely human in appearance, but her smile was not. If it was possible to have a cold sweat cover your body underwater, he was positive it was happening now. Her toothy grin would’ve fit perfectly—if it were fixed onto the body of a Great White. Jagged teeth, four rows deep caught his eyes. He would have been crazy not to scream at that moment, especially with the hungry look that she had in her eyes—and no, it was not a seductive one.
Marty pushed away from her with all his might, turned his body around and sped away as fast as he could. He prayed that the other creatures—mermaids he’d figured—would not follow. They did. But for some reason, they lagged behind. The brunette one, however, did not. Perhaps it was her hunt and not theirs, he was her quarry and she would take him down. Like hell! A slender hand reached from behind and clawed at his legs. He kicked harder. His body started to ache, all the swimming for the past few hours was finally catching up to him; he wouldn’t be able to go much longer. He was starting to slow down. He could hear the mermaid’s hungry cries. The likelihood of his survival was not good, he knew for a fact that kilometres of water surrounded him, he knew his body was quickly running low on energy, the mermaid would not give up the chase and would catch up to him. He also became aware that he was holding his breath again.
If he was going to die here, it was going to be on his own terms. Marty cast a glance to the surface. His body had grown accustomed to the pressure of the ocean water, if he ascended fast enough, there would be the off-chance that he would die from decompression sickness. Most of the time divers would receive mere joint pains, but severe cases had resulted in death. Even if it only rendered him unconscious, he would be less aware of those monsters devouring him alive!
Marty raised his arms and slammed them downward and repeated, still kicking hard to quicken his ascent and to keep the damned mermaid off his ass. Bright, white light, the sun was still out, he was going to make it to the surface! He pulled himself up harder, faster. The melody was still fresh in his ears. Please, God.
With his eyes closed, Marty broke the surface of the water and screamed. This was it, he was going to die, one way or another. He waited. What would hit him first, the joint pains, the air bubbles coursing through his body, bursting the smaller blood vessels and capillaries as they went along? Or would the jagged teeth of the mermaid pierce his flesh first? Come on, dammit! Make it quick! For the last couple seconds he thought of Danielle and Emily—painfully regretting that he had not spent more time with them like he should have. He should have shown them more affection when they needed it. They deserved it. He wished that he would have walked home, side-by-side with the love of his life. It had been forever since they had been able to do anything alone together. Even something as casual as that would have been a fine start to a day—
The singing stopped.
‘Marty? Are you okay?’ Danielle’s voice echoed in the empty room. His eyes flew open in a flash, he turned to see his wife standing next to the diving board. She came over and leaned down into the pool. ‘I didn’t mean to scare you like that… I just came to say that I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that to you.’
‘No.’ He swam to the side and pulled himself out of the water. His legs were shaking and there was a slight tremor in his voice as he spoke. He was also stark naked.
‘What happened to your trunks?’ Danielle addressed the tattered remains on the pool’s opposite end.
‘I don’t know. It’s not important right now. You had every right in the world to be angry with me. I should be the one to say “I’m sorry”. And I am, Dani. No more swimming, only when you guys want to. I promise.’
‘What on Earth changed your mind?’ she asked, grabbing his striped towel to put around his waist.
He wouldn’t be able to tell her the truth, she’d think he’d gone crazy. ‘Your words sunk in the second I took a dive into the water.’ He pulled her close and embraced her. ‘I love you so much.’
‘I love you too,’ Danielle replied. ‘Still wanna take me up on that offer?’
Marty entwined his fingers in hers. ‘Lead the way.’
Out in the hallway, the old janitor passed by the happy couple exiting the pool area. The woman—Danielle, he was pretty sure her name was—had turned to him for a friendly ‘hello’. He shook his head and smiled. Prettiest green eyes he’d ever seen.
“It’s great to have a way to relax, and Marty learned the hard way to not let it consume you. Remember, balance is the key…or as close to it as possible. That’s what I said before right?”
“Yuki, the alarm went off. Time to get back to work.”
“Alright, alright. I can have the rest of my drink later.”
“Really? In your pajamas?”
“C’mon, man. I need the scale to tip in favor of relaxation this week. It’s not going to be the new normal around here…there’s enough of that going around as it is in some places.”
“Fine. But you’re at least putting the labcoat on if we’re doing practical experimentation.”