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Yuki: Good evening everyone! The new year is off and running and the holidays are firmly behind us now. We’ve finally managed to put away all the decorations and clean up the last bits of tinsel and glitter and confetti.

Assistant: *shifty eyes*

Yuki: What is it? Wait…what the hell is all this tiger stuff? I didn’t take you as the sporting type.

Assistant: Umm…Yuki, none of this is for the Super Bowl.

Yuki: Aw, hell! Chinese New Year? How are you so into celebrations?

Assistant: I mean, they’re fun, right? And it adds a little bit more color to the place.

Yuki: I suppose so. And these little stuffed tigers are really cute. But no parties this month, okay?

Assistant: Alright, alright. I’ll keep it simple.

Yuki: And speaking of that, the woman in tonight’s story has a relatively simple job: wander around, find picturesque travel locations, take some pictures, write about it, and get out. Her next destination won’t quite go the way she’s expecting.

***

The road into town was at least 300 metres above sea level, with an amazing view Shamsiya Mandal thought to herself as her camera lens followed the treeline. The forest-covered hills obscured several homes on the slope, while the bulk of the town was nestled between the forest’s edge and the Pacific ocean. Stunning blue-green waters shimmered beneath the sun and a near cloudless sky. She snapped a couple pictures.

Shamsiya wiped the beads of sweat from her brow and took a hearty chug from her water bottle. A cool dip in the water and some rest would do her body good.

Probably an hour and a bit, she reckoned, and she’d be down at the hamlet. Her stomach growled. Some fish n’ chips would do some good, too. She hoisted her backpack over her shoulder and started her hike down the narrow road.

* * *

Two hours and a full stomach later, Shamsiya stood from the table at a little quiet cafe off the main drag in the town and followed the sound of the crashing waves. With the exception of some funny looks she got from the server and some of the other patrons, it was a pleasant stopping point so far.

Standard fare for all the locales she’d passed through on her trip: small grocer, small businesses lined up and down the way, a few sprinkled for garnish down the offshoots, and houses and park spaces keeping them all snug and warm. A little bit of an oddity, but no real biggie: there was a lack of any kind of business chain, no matter how small. No IGA, no Eagle Boys, not even a Vinnies or Salvos. Everything, down to the optometrist, seemed to be independently run. And there was no real estate, not even locally-owned. Even the smallest towns have agents at the ready. From the amount of homes and shops she saw, there had to be at least two to three thousand locals. Plenty of space to increase the numbers exponentially.

The ocean’s horizon was finally visible when she followed a road leading out of the CBD that crested a hill. She was taken aback with the sight that greeted her: the endless stretch of beach was jam-packed! People were tending to the businesses, surely, but the crowds on the sand and in the water had to be double the population—at least! The car park was only half-full and the kerbside spots were vacant, same for some 15-minute spots outside the newsagent.

This little places is a curiosity, alright, Shamsiya thought.

Crowds really weren’t her thing, so Shams passed on through without a word, trying not to meet the eyes of any of the townsfolk. She took her shoes off and turned left halfway to the water and guided herself down the beach, away from the other people.

More confused and highly curious gazes fell upon her; she pretended not to notice—didn’t even pick up her pace across the fine white sand.

Strange and unsettling, but God, the beach and its rocky bookends were too good to pass up. She told herself she’d come back later when it was less crowded and snag some photos.

Grains of sand became blades of grass and Shams had a look inland. There looked to be a motel or something a ways up the slope near the base of the cliffs she’d come down earlier. Her legs were certainly going to be fucked on the journey, but an afternoon nap and, hopefully, a soak in a tub would do her wonders.

* * *

Another icy gaze from reception, but mercifully the woman at the counter confirmed they had a vacancy and handed over a key and pamphlet for room service, take-away, and an area map for Mermaids Bluff.

The weary traveller crossed the threshold of her temporary dwelling and sighed with relief as she tossed her bag to one side. Once her phone was plugged in and charging (8%), she flipped the electric kettle on, started up the bath, and relieved herself of her clothing. Shamsiya wasn’t even halfway through her cuppa when she passed out in the cool bathtub water.

An hour and a half later, Shams was feeling invigorated and mildly pruney. She exited the tub and used one of the large bath towels to pat down her skin and remove the excess water. Rather than get dressed she let the room’s AC waft over her bare skin.

Using her mostly-charged phone, she dialed out to her editor.

‘Shams, how you doing? You’re not meant to call for…another five days.’

‘Yeah, I know. Made a little detour on my way; hope that doesn’t put us off by much.’

‘Shouldn’t matter if you’ve got some good stuff.’

‘Oh…I’ve got something alright…not sure if it’s a good or a bad thing yet.’

‘How d’you mean?’

‘Well, on one hand, it’s a fantastic “get away from it all” kinda spot. No big commercial chains; everything seems family-run; no tacky tourist attractions or souvenir stands; I didn’t even see a single car from this decade. No out-of-state plates either.’

‘There’s a downside?’

‘All the strange looks I’m getting…’

‘Like you’ve shoplifted something?’

‘Like I’m just…different from them…or, I dunno, like they know that I know some sort of secret…just weird.’

There was a pause on the other end. ‘Have you seen much diversity in the town? Or they all whiteys?

Shams laughed. ‘White, ranging from pale to lightly tanned.’

‘I think that’s your problem right there.’ Shams heard the rustling of thick paper on the line. ‘None of your other cities and towns were like that. Plenty of Asians and Aboriginies in photos and interviews. What’s the place called?’

‘Mermaids Bluff.’

‘Never heard of it.’

‘I think there may be a reason for that…,’ Shams reflected again on the chilly reception thus far, ‘but it really is one of the prettiest places I’ve seen on this whole project.’

‘Mmm…tell you what, stick around for a day or two. Take some photos and write a quick summary and send off everything the next chance you get.’

‘Okay, I’ll ring you again before I leave.’

‘Excellent, Talk to you then.’

‘Bye.’

‘See ya.’

* * *

Shamisya’s stomach dictated that she go out for a late dinner. She put on her clothes begrudgingly and grabbed the Kodak from her bag and headed off. Partway down the narrow street, she noticed a thin trail down through the surrounding forest. Her eyes followed the straight-shot and made an imaginary line from the point the dirt path went beyond her sight. Beyond the tree tops was a hidden beach separated from the one she walked across that afternoon. The left-hand cliff that jutted out far into the ocean, the one she thought of as part of the beach’s bookends, separated it from the rest of the town.

The sun was descending, but she presumed she’d be able to snap a few photos with her trusty camera and get to a cafe or pub before full-dark.

One foot in front of the other, Shams carefully made her way down the path. The shadows around her deepened and the shimmering sunlight danced through the leaves. The sparse rays reflected off something to her left. Whatever it was, it was mostly obscured by the thick patch of trees and shrubs. There was no visible trail from the one she was on, but felt brave enough to cross through; spiders and snakes be damned. Whatever it was it was large and a grey-ish colour and until she saw it up close, Shams thought it to be a large boulder.

It was not.

It was a statue.

Shams readied her camera and snapped a quick picture. She stepped around twigs and roots and into the small clearing. Before she could focus on the design of the statue, another object caught her eye. It was mostly hidden by the tall grasses, but something was slumped on the ground.

Shamsiya’s eyes widened, a cry lodged itself in her throat.

It was a body!

She rushed over and knelt down next to the figure. It was a young man, probably in his late teens or early twenties. He was soaked to the bone and cold to the touch.

‘Ohmygod, ohmygod,’ Shams muttered to herself over and over. She put her camera aside and dug into her pockets for her mobile. It fumbled in her hands as she dialed 000 with her thumb.

Boopboopboop.

‘Fuck.’ The call failed; no network connection. ‘Damn it all!’ Though frustrated, she was mindful enough not to toss her phone in frustration. She’d have to jog back up to the motel and tell someone.

…or was she closer to town now?

Her attention turned back to the boy…maybe he wasn’t dead; maybe he was just unconscious…

No…his frame was ice-cold. His skin stark-white with a blue tinge. He wasn’t breathing.

What the hell? It was as if he’d drowned, yet the the sands were still a good ten to fifteen minutes away on foot and on a plane several metres below their own. Maybe—

SNAP!

Shamsiya spun herself around. Standing behind her, hidden amongst the shadows of the trees, were two lanky figures. They stood eerily still, like scarecrows watching over the crops.

SNAP!

Another twig snapped on her left. A much taller figure stood, towering over her, just centimetres away.

She only managed a gasp before a hand clasped tight around her throat. It was so cold! And not entirely solid. Before everything went black, she caught a glimpse of her attacker’s green eyes, unconcerned, its face expressionless. Stringy, dirty blond hair fell down the narrow cheeks. A fuzzy, pins and needles sensation started at Shamsiya’s feet and crawled up her body. It was like she was slowly lowering herself into the ocean. Her clothes and skin soaked through. Blackness started in her periphery and grew and grew. Her eyes burned. The taste of saltwater met her lips and forced its way into her mouth and down her nose.

Shamsiya was drowning. The world around her was black. Her body numbed. She was scared and shivering.

And then there was nothing.

* * *

The tall figure took in a breath of air—its first ever on land. It was wonderful! It stretched and bent its newfound legs, the scales and fins having shed seconds before. It kept hold of the woman and brought her gently to the base of the statue; a life-like depiction of their ancestor. The first of their kind on land.

The smaller two figures, hesitant at first, came from the shadows and took the body of the teen and they, too, placed it at the statue. They looked up at the taller figure and smiled in tandem.

Together, the three figures bowed their heads in silent contemplation. After a beat, the three walked into town, the new legs surprisingly limber and strong, enjoying their first moments of their new lives on the surface.

***

Yuki: Pity about Shams there, being liquidated and all. Bonus though, she won’t have to put up with going through another series of celebrations and parties…or at least keep up after them.

Assistant: Hey, it’s only these decorations, for real. And no party hosting duties.

Yuki: Mmm…

Assistant: Look, I even have proof.

Yuki: What are these?

Assistant: Tickets for all the activities in Chinatown. Lantern lighting, dragon boat races, all the good stuff. Food vouchers, too.

Yuki: Holy crap! I mean, I suppose we can cut outta work early some of these days. All right, you’re on. This week we’ll only work on updating the systems, defragging, routine maintenance. Cool?

Assistant: More than.

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