“I’m a mermaid” she said through the bedraggled tangles of her salt-bleached hair, but the track-marks on her arms suggested otherwise.
The legs where a tail should have been were a dead give-away too.
She was just lying there on Malibu Beach, covered in wet sand and gasping in the late-afternoon sun, her fair shoulders turning slowly pink as they burned.
I sat down next to her, curious.
“And what are you doing here?”
She offered one word, “banished”, and then fell silent.
I stood again, picked her up and dusted her off.
“You wanna get something to eat?”
It seemed like the right thing to do. We walked back to my car and she fell exhausted into the passenger seat, raining dried bits of beach all over the carpet. Her eyes drooped closed and I fastened her seatbelt around her.
I drove back along Highway 1 and up Sunset into Hollywood. We stopped at Mel’s Drive-In on Highland, a few blocks from my apartment. She wolfed down a tuna salad and two plates of fish and chips. I couldn’t believe that anyone so skinny could eat so much. I guessed it had been a few days since her last meal.
She finished with an odd little burp and then turned her gaze on me. I noticed her eyes for the first time – so dark that the pupils seemed to merge with the irises. She smiled, a huge open grin which was gone as fast as it came. I felt my heart jump.
Who was this girl?
We walked out to the parking lot.
“Whaddya wanna do now?” I asked her.
I figured she didn’t have the money for a motel so we drove slowly back to my place. She pressed her nose against the window of the car, gawping at the immaculately dressed, perfectly bleached and deeply tanned Hollywood crowd.
“Like fish.” she said suddenly.
I glanced at her, puzzled, and she turned to me.
“Vacant. Four-second memory” she elaborated.
I smiled. “I thought goldfish had a three-second memory?”
She grew deadly serious, turned her black eyes full on me for a second and then shook her head whispering “Shhh.”
“Four seconds. Smart ones five. Still can’t hold a conversation though.”
I was silent after that, and two blocks later we turned off onto Hobart Boulevard – home.
I didn’t even have time to show her my bed. She flopped down on it still dressed and passed out. I left her where she was and went to buy some food at the 7-Eleven on the corner. Frozen fish seemed to be a good idea.
I checked on her quietly when I returned half an hour later. She was shivering on top of the bed, bone-white and covered in sweat. She was murmuring the word “palace” to herself over and over again. I figured she must be going through some kind of withdrawal, and suddenly I felt helpless.
I’d picked her up because I felt sorry for her, but my apartment certainly wasn’t a rehab clinic. “Palace”. Was that a nickname for her dealer? Maybe the place where she got her drugs? There was no way I was about to start venturing out into Los Angeles looking to score heroin from the sort of people who carry guns as badges of honour. I carefully put a blanket over her and left her to her fevered dreams.
She awoke six hours later and padded into the lounge.
I showed her to the bathroom and told her how to work the taps. I left her a towel and listened to the sound of water rushing into the bath which echoed through the door. It seemed to go on forever, and I started to worry that she’d flood the place and get me evicted.
But it stopped before any ill-fated tide washed out into the rest of the apartment and I heard the splashes as she climbed in. She was there for two hours. Every twenty minutes I’d knock on the door and call out to her. She always answered but I was terrified that she’d drown herself.
Eventually she emerged wrapped in a towel and disappeared back into my room. Ten minutes later I heard a call. “Hello?”
I went to see what she needed.
As I pushed the door open and saw her I gasped. I probably should have turned away, but something kept me riveted. She was sprawled naked on my bed, legs parted, her small breasts rising and falling as she breathed. She beckoned to me.
“Banished, I am” she said. “Done wrong. But the legends say that if a human man takes me, takes me in and makes me his for a day, the ocean can be mine again. Will you save me?”
I stumbled back towards the door. “I… I can’t.” I stammered. “I mean, I don’t know you, and I just wanted to help, and…”
“My only hope?” she half-asked, half-stated, turning her head to one side.
But I couldn’t. I’m not one to take advantage. And those trackmarks, fading now, but still vivid on the insides of her arms…
“Put on some clothes and I’ll cook you dinner.”
She turned away from me, curling her arms up towards her head.
“My only hope” she whispered in a broken voice.
I put it down to delusions, maybe the drugs or her withdrawal from them. I wondered if there was someone I could call – someone with experience, someone who could help. Probably not in LA. Sink or swim in this town — on your own.
So I accommodated her for the next few days, unwilling to turn her out onto the street, and unsure of what else to do. She continued to eat prodigious meals, and she kept entreating me to make love to her.
I took her out to see the town. She tripped hopscotch-like over the stars on Hollywood Boulevard and spent twenty minutes riveted, gazing up at the Chinese Theatre. Her opinion of the people never changed, and she stated it often.
Her withdrawal seemed to lessen. She would still quake and shiver when she first went to sleep, but the subject of getting her a “fix” never arose.
And, of course, she reeled me in eventually. For all her troubles she was beautiful, and her innocent entreaties started to work their way past my principles and strike home where they could do most damage – my libido.
I’d tried to banish her to the couch, but just after I’d settled into bed a week after I met her she drifted softly into my room. She was naked again, and she slid softly between my sheets, pressing a warm hand against my chest.
“I just need to be close.”
I lay there, willing her to leave, trying to be as still as possible. When I moved to turn away from her and lie on my side, my hand brushed her waist. She grabbed it suddenly, firmly, and guided it slowly across her thigh, down between her legs.
“I have to have you” she whispered, almost a hiss. Despite myself, I fell.
“I’m drying out” she said to me. “So many glittery streets, but everything is so hard and full of bright light. I feel brittle. I need the ocean.”
It was the early morning. First light was washing through the louvers on the bedroom window, making her face seem almost ghostly next to me. I felt a pang of guilt.
I’d taken advantage, despite myself. I still didn’t know her story. Didn’t even know her name. I figured she must be from the coast if she missed the ocean – maybe Venice, maybe Malibu. Perhaps not even LA. Further north, somewhere like Santa Barbara. Another washed-up little white girl from a classy neighbourhood, led astray by this maddening sprawl held captive beneath its freeways. Led here, into a strange man’s bed, paying for random acts of kindness with her body.
I couldn’t take that payment, not without giving more. Not without keeping the balance in her favour. I gave her what she needed, driving her back down Sunset, back towards her beloved waters. She pressed her nose to the window of the car again, taking in the streets and the people as though saying farewell.
“Still fish” she murmured.
I only realised how shallow her breathing usually was when we crested a hill and the first glimpse of the Pacific dropped into view. I actually heard her lungs filling with air at the sight of it. Her eyes shone brightly, that luminous black that could swallow a man’s soul.
Traffic was light on Highway 1. Most people were already at work. I should have been too, but those excuses could be made later. Here and now, this seemed like something I should do.
She jumped from the car while we were still gliding towards a parking space. Her feet hit the floor at 15 miles per hour and she just kept running.
I slammed the car into “park”, ripped the keys from the ignition and took off after her, skimming over the parking lot and the sand, unable to make up the distance. I started shouting after her to wait and she looked over her shoulder, smiling at me dreamily.
But she kept on running, tearing her clothes off now, and splashing into the surf, water flying up above her head. Her skinny little body seemed to flash in the sun as the water engulfed her.
She kept on going, further and further out from the shore. I stopped when the water reached my knees, panting, and just watched her as she started to swim. Powerful strokes, almost fish-like, taking her
further and further into the Pacific.
When she was five hundred yards out, she turned in the water and gave me a long, graceful wave. I like to fancy that she mouthed “thank you” at me, but I couldn’t be sure over the distance.
She dived, and although I scanned the water for several minutes she never resurfaced. It was the last I saw of her.
I never did find out what she was called. But sometimes she appears in my dreams, skimming back through the waters of Malibu and up onto the shore. When she does, the first word she speaks is always her name.