It began at the next morning’s breakfast on the wooden patio, when every color began to look off, as if a fluorescent light hung above his head, and Dylan could even hear the buzzing in the center of his ear. The lake looked wasted by overly green algae while the mermaid’s skin—or, rather, the skin of the actress playing the mermaid—gleamed sallow and sickly. They sat under a garish striped umbrella, orange, red, blue, and even the tablecloth they ate on appeared discolored as if it had hung for a year in a cloud of somebody’s smoke. This put Dylan in a ferocious mood, as it did when it happened at home, when all the colors changed on him, no warning, and he’d have to sit indoors with his eyes closed, his wife asking, “What is wrong with you now?”
“Edward, I wanted to thank you for saving me yesterday,” Aria said, enunciating the words as if delivering a theatrical speech. Her voice sounded coarse and cheap. “Your generosity is heart wrenching, your courage commendable. Should you ever be able to visit the bottom of the sea, I know my father there, king of all seas, would be most grateful to see you.”
She poked the fried egg with the tip of her knife, the yolk spilling yellow all over the plate. The color seemed obviously obscene. He kept glimpsing Aria’s thighs, he couldn’t help it, as she crossed then uncross her legs. The fin wasn’t in today’s script.
“Actually,” Dylan said, staring into his cup of gray coffee with the sugar cubes dissolving in the center. “I’d rather you not talk today, actually.”
Aria shrugged, shoving another bite of egg into her mouth. “Seems a dumb way to stray from the script.”
“Your voice isn’t what I thought it would be.”
I always wanted to be a noble. How they go about rescuing things on horseback or on their special adventures. I’d miss nothing about my real life, he had written in the journal in his cabin.
He wrote, Please do not make me go back to who I was, please.
In the afternoon, when every window in every cabin looked stained, when the mermaid’s hair was the color of dishwater, when he couldn’t bear to sit inside any longer on the loveseat which was the hideous pink of something made raw—he asked Aria to put back on her fin.
“I’d like to save you again,” Dylan explained, wanting the mermaid collapsed in his arms and cold like yesterday, when he had inhaled her sweet sea smell and everything was correct. He already had on his swim trunks. “Just wear your fin and swim out and wave your arms like we did before. I’ll come and rescue you. For five minutes. You don’t mind do you.”
Aria rolled her eyes. Dylan didn’t watch her legs walk up to the loft of the cabin.
“I need to be carried,” she shouted down to him minutes later.
“But you don’t have a voice,” Dylan pleaded.
“Then carry me.” He carried her to the water, where a motorboat was anchored in front of him, several hundred yards out in the lake. A man with mirrored sunglasses and a fishing rod waved at him. Dylan ignored the boat—this was his fantasy, he paid for it, it was no one else’s. He ran his hands over the smoothness of Aria’s fin, then he let her go.
She swam out, flipping her fin like a dolphin might, but when Dylan motioned her to stop, Aria only swam out further, now on her back, moving through the water with circling motions of her arms. She reached the boat. Dylan watched the fisherman lean down to lift her out of the water.
“No!” Dylan shouted, but the mermaid sat in the boat for minutes that felt like an hour, relaxing on her back, her fin flipping like a wing, while the fisherman reeled in one fish then another. “Get in the water!” Dylan yelled. “Aria!” He ran up the stairs to the cabin and found the butler changing the sheets in the bedroom. Dylan blurted out what was happening. The butler glanced out the window. “I don’t know who that man is,” he said. “She’s in the water now though. Get out there and enjoy yourself, okay? It’s your last day.”
When Dylan walked out of the cabin again, the motorboat was sputtering north, and the mermaid was flailing, as she was supposed to, in the correct spot of the lake. She splashed with her hands, making the high-pitched shrieks a mermaid might. Dylan pretended at first not to see her. He crouched down next to the roses in the garden and fingered a thorn. He savored the rose, which didn’t smell like anything, maybe they were fake. He glanced up to scan the lake. She splashed again, loudly. “I’ll save you,” he shouted, he dove in the water, swam out, he grabbed her arms, he dragged her back to shore, he called her “foundling” and toweled her off roughly on a flat rock with the towels the butler had brought for them. I want to carry you in my pocket like a pearl. I want to open you like an oyster. Once his breathing steadied, he asked her to swim back out for him to rescue again. She swam back out. Was rescued. Swam back. Was rescued. He wanted to carry her back in his teeth. He wanted his life to be like this always. To have a purpose. The motorboat man was gone, he was non-existent. Her skin reddened each time he saved her, her wig dripping, and she began to swim more slowly, more limply, until the butler grabbed his arm, when he was about to push Aria into the water again, to inform him their dinner was growing cold and it was time to come inside.
Debbie Urbanski’s fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming, in The Kenyon Review, New England Review, The Southern Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and the UK science fiction magazines Interzone and Arc. She is at work on a linked story collection about aliens and cults.
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