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Mermaids Don't Exist

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When I was fourteen my father died speaking of mermaids. I remember that clean but unpleasant hospital smell and the last hacking cough he gave before telling me the very thing that stuck with me all the way until that night under the moon at Five Mile Lake, and further beyond.


“Mermaids are real,” he said to me. “I’ve seen them, and you know what—I’ve regretted never catchin’ that magic ever since. You ever see the other side of the world, son, you hold onto it. It’s worth it.”


I had no idea what he was talking about. The doctors told us that the cancer he had was so rapid and aggressive at the time that he was just babbling nonsense. Mom would sit and tut, and then say she had to go to work. Mom never really seemed interested at the end of dad’s life because to her it was just another thing—another obstacle to overcome before she got her pay-stub. Nothing he’d said to her really bothered her, and whenever he spoke in riddles, she’d just tut and shake her head, and act like us two weren’t really there.


I grew up thinking that the two of them weren’t so much a married couple as much as a necessity for me. I didn’t feel any love between them, and my father seemed to be more focused on throwing himself into fantastical tales of a life that I was sure he hadn’t lived. My mother seemed to just be a straight-cut, boring person who had no time for Dad’s bullsh*t. I don’t know how it worked, and I still don’t.


I never really believed the stories Dad told me. I stopped expecting Santa to come every Christmas when I was six and caught him munching on the mince pie that we left outside my door for Saint Nick. But he still told me of myths and mystery in the world through his stories of when he used to travel in his younger days—stories of meeting giants in Scotland that lived in caves, or when he met Bigfoot in Oregon. “He’s a kind soul. Loves privacy, but hates cats.” I’d listen intently, always wondering if those tales were true but as I got older, the mystery gave way to understanding of why parents give kids those false hopes and I simply stopped believing in what I’d never seen.


When He died it was a rainy Tuesday, and he’d passed in his sleep before we got there. Mom shed a single tear and then told me she was late for work. She kissed her husband goodbye as if he was a distant friend, let out a final sob, and left. I felt the cold, stiff hands of my father, wondering if life had ever gone through the veins—had blood really flowed in this wax sculpture that resembled my big, old dad? Yet the words that hung in my head were about the mermaids, and I never really knew why. I realized I’d never again hear his wacky tales, or spend an afternoon with him at the lake again and let tears stain my cheeks. I looked back once and remembered he told me I’d make him proud one day. “I’ll try,” I said as I walked out.


After the funeral I didn’t do much. The holidays from school had begun a week before I’d decided I’d spend them where me and Dad spent most of our time; Five Mile Lake—it wasn’t the most original name but it stuck with us because it made sense. It was a huge hole that was shaped like the number eight The first part was a mile long and the small gap gave way to four miles wide of water that flowed into the river out of the county.


Jagged rocks filled the edges of the place on the Southern side, and it was a very secluded spot all of the time. I remember spending weekends with Dad, fishing away until the late hours, cooking them on a small BBQ he’d always bring. As we sat, camped on the soft grassy embankment on the Northern side, I’d sit and listen to his stories; tales of how he befriended a clan of giants in Scotland was one of my favourites. Now it was just me, alone, with a fishing rod on a grey-skied Friday. This had been the sixth day in a row I’d come down here, and I had no complaints. My friend would only yammer on about things I couldn’t muster the energy to listen to. Max would talk about video-games, while Cassie would talk about her latest boyfriend, and Aaron would just ask if anybody wanted to smoke.


I didn’t catch anything—I hadn’t in the whole six days. It didn’t matter. Being here just made the pain of losing Dad a little less hurtful and that’s all I was looking for. I casted my rod out again with a maggot on it for bait. I watched the orange tipped float as it bobbed against the water and there it stayed until—



It went under the water but never came back up. I tightened my hands around the rod and yanked it back. My other hand went to the tackle and I began spinning the handle—it clicked rapidly as I yanked it back harder with gritted teeth. Something was pulling against the line. “Come on,” I said, suddenly getting into it. Whatever it was, it was big. I pulled harder but it was like I was trying to pull a rock out from under the water somewhere. Then my rod suddenly flew from my hands as if the fish had decided to grow arms and snatch it. I let out a gasp as I watched my father’s rod go flying into the water and away like the speed of light. “Holy crap!” I yelled as I watched it go. What had I almost caught?


Maybe a mermaid, I heard my father’s voice say. Oh yeah, I thought. Of course, Dad. It must have been one because you would have said so. I sat back on the rocky embankment and sighed. It must have been huge to pull my rod out my hands. After astonishment, sadness followed as I realized I’d lost my father’s last fishing rod. It wasn’t a good thing to feel after losing him. I stayed on the rocks for a while longer and tried to swallow the lump in my throat. I’m sorry, Dad. I didn’t mean to lose it. But knowing him, he’d simply tell me to not worry about it. That made me feel even worse somehow.




My friends had decided to surprise me a week later by showing up to the lake an hour after I did. Aaaron with his pack of cigarettes he’d stolen from his mother, Cassie with her phone glued to her hand, and Max who was playing away on whatever new type of handheld gaming gadget had come out. “Hey, Ropey,” said Aaron as he came and sat down on the embankment with me, running a hand through his fair, whitish hair. By then I’d managed to find my older rod—sturdy as ever and I kept my attention on it firmly, for fear the secret monster would pull it away from me again.


“What do you guys want?” I grunted.


“Wanted to come see you is all,” said Cassie, still typing away on her phone. The last I’d heard she was now with up with Jake Baxter after dumping Phillip Walker because their two week relationship was “nearing its end.” Aaron was already underway in lighting up a cigarette, and not even inhaling it. Max was sat on a rock higher up, nose-deep in his game.


“Alright,” I mustered, already wanting to be left alone.


“It’s so hot today,” said Max as he kept his eyes on the game. “We should go swimming.”


“Cassie’d have to drop her phone for three minutes and she can’t have that, can she?” said Aaron with a sarcastic tone.


“Oh piss off,” she hissed back. She turned her attention back to me as she pocketed her phone. “We heard about your dad. It’s not a good time we know.”


Just leave me alone. I didn’t want to be around people right now. Looking back at that time it was the worst mourning period, and everything people said felt fake to me. I’d heard it all through school and seen it. The weird looks and teachers offering their sympathies. It all felt like complete bollocks. I didn’t like being near my own mother at that point so what made them think they were special? I decided I’d humour them; the sooner I complied, the sooner they’d leave. I took my top off and told them we should just go for a swim. They all followed behind me as I removed my shoes and socks. Only my joggers were left. The sun was baking but as I stepped into the lake, it might as well have been the arctic. I dunked my head under and bobbed back up, waiting to get used to it.


“That’s better,” yelled Aaron behind me.


I swam as fast as I could away from them. Their voices grew distant behind me as I moved, my hands thrashing over me as I tried to swim harder and faster until my lungs were smoking with fire. Behind me, the three of them were playing around in the shallow end. I turned back to swim further in. My Dad told me that the middle of the first hole was the deepest part and the further away from them I was, the better. I kept swimming until finally I couldn’t feel the wet earth beneath my feet and then kept moving anyway.


I took a break when I’d made it to the middle of the lake. That’s better I thought as I laid back to float. My arms and legs felt hot from the constant movement, and I felt like I was suffocating. My friends didn’t make any attempt to come out, but I could hear Cassie and Aaron arguing in the distance. I floated alone, looking up at the clear blue sky. It was nice being out here listening to the water sloshing around me; the birds in the trees that surrounded the lake were almost yelling in a choir. And then I felt it.


Something slid under my legs. I thrashed onto my front then. Whatever it was, it wasn’t an ordinary fish. I remembered the thing I’d almost caught and the first word that came into my mind was shark. I felt the fins of it bash me. My heart raced faster than it had when I’d swam out here. I moved as fast as I could, swimming as hard as I could push myself. I knew there were no sharks in the lake, but I didn’t want whatever that was to touch me again. It was a scary thought, never knowing what lurked under murky water. I swallowed mouthfuls of air and liquid as I panicked until finally soft mud welcomed my feet. Every stride I took was huge as I tried to put distance between me and whatever it was out then. When the water was to my knees I bent over and felt as if I was going to throw up. With a turn of my head, still gasping for air, I looked to where I’d been and for the briefest moment before it bobbed back under the water, I could have sworn I’d seen a girl with dark red hair, staring at me.

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