When I found her, she was nearly frozen from the sea, blue-lipped and chattering. Her hair was dripping, and she’d been swimming in her underwear. She had huddled into herself halfway between dunes and water, and couples angled their paths to avoid the shivering creature.
Growing up on the docks, I used to listen for mermaid voices. I’d gather bits of shell and bone and cup them in my hand: mermaid remains. I knew it was a girl’s hobby, not meant for boys cutting lines and tossing guts, but still, I wandered the edge of the water, looking. When I found one, I decided, I’d keep her hidden beneath the dock and bring her half my sandwich every day.
The rhythm of my days remained the same through every year I’d know. Age had only changed my evenings and my gut. In childhood, nightfall found me at the kitchen table, warmed by the oven, three of us silently eating potatoes and ham. Days ended now with pool and countless pints. Women took nothing from me but money.
So when I saw her, I stopped, my body claimed by an old need remembered. She sat beside a sad pile of clothes: some faded jeans, a sweater, those tiny white socks with a colored ball of fluff at the ankle. I asked if I could help and she nodded, so I dressed her, tossing the weight of her limbs. She must have been drinking wine coolers; she smelled like peaches gone awry.
I wished I had a blanket and a fire. She didn’t want to go back, was all she said. Some man had taken her friend, would be taking her now in a room with two beds. I told her my car would warm her and laid my keys inside her fingers. The heat inside my own sweater was unbearable. I took it off and wrapped her in it.
Because it was my home, my car was a dump, the back seat piled with laundry and burger bags. Her fingers, white and trembling, could not unlock a door, so I let her in. We listened to the engine and when the car felt ready, I turned the air to blast. The heat dried my eyelids and I rested them. I imagined her swimming underwater, her fingers spread, her hair soft. I made fists around the insides of my pockets. I could barely breathe.
I think I need some time, she said. She leaned her head against the seat and met my eyes. You don’t mind?
I shrank and fumbled with the door. I’ll finish my walk, I said. When I get back, I’ll buy you coffee. We’ll get you your own room. I calculated the contents of my pocket: enough for one night, at least.
The beach was gray. I kicked at piles of seaweed and held my shirt against me. Couples passed, clutching each other, their dogs storming ahead. I couldn’t wait to find her where I left her, asleep by now maybe, warm now maybe, and grateful. I bought a cup of coffee for her hands.
When I got back, the car was running but empty, the keys locked inside, hanging from the ignition. I spotted her two blocks down the road, still in my sweater, the fuzz balls on her socks bobbing as she walked. I set the paper cup down on the bumper, preparing to follow, but she disappeared inside one of those shops that sells presents made of shells and glue and sand.
Jennifer Berney lives in Olympia, Washington, where she cares for a bevy of chickens. She teaches writing at South Puget Sound Community College.