I was driving through the city in a furious, gully-washing storm. It was 2 AM. Someone was waving me down.
What the hell? It was a teenage girl, sitting in a wheelchair. Rain was practically dancing off the sidewalk. I opened the door.
“Where to?” I yelled.
She shoved a picture at me. I turned on the interior light and wiped it with my thumb. I knew the place but it’d be a five-hour drive.
Before I could say how much, she held out a mess of money; twenties, fifties, all soaking wet. Like she didn’t know what it was.
“Okay, okay,” I said.
I climbed out of the cab. It was like standing in a car wash.
“You want to go on the back seat?”
She nodded. I lifted her up like a bride. Rain ran off my face into her lap. She was light as a child. I settled her inside, put the chair in the boot, and we took off.
We were headed for the coast.
From the interstate highway we went cross country. Nothing but trees, like driving down a black corridor. The girl wiped the window, looking out. Her passive expression never changed; blond hair dripping rain all over my new leather seats. I found a hand towel in the glove compartment.
“Want to dry yourself?”
She didn’t answer. I kept looking at her in the mirror. She was so pale, like something out of another century. That dress. Not even a coat on her! A runaway? Kicked out of someplace? But who would do a thing like that, what for? Better keep it light.
“This a last-minute vacation?”
She made an X on her throat, parted her hands in a flat line. So, there it was. She couldn’t even talk.
After a while, she lay down across the seat and went to sleep. She looked about ten years old. Not my problem, I said to myself, and kept on driving.
Hours later, dawn came up. Rain had laid a sweet shine over everything. We’d reached the road that overlooks the bay. I hadn’t been out this far for a while. It was beautiful. I looked at the picture. A little different but this was it alright. I congratulated myself on still having a good memory.
I didn’t know she’d woken up. She wanted to get out. We were at some steps leading down a steep incline to the beach. The place was deserted.
“You meeting somebody?”
She shook her head. I felt like a cop.
“You in some kind of trouble?”
No sign; she wasn’t going to tell me. I let go a heavy sigh. I got out, helped her back in the chair and we settled on the ride.
“You take it easy.”
Her hand was pointing at the sea. What now? Then I got it.
She nodded vigorously.
“Oh no, I’m sorry, lady. I can’t take you down the god damn beach. I’m a cab driver for Christ sakes!”
I shouldn’t have shouted but I was tired. The despair in her face. She was way too young to be looking like that! And I was too god damned old.
I locked the cab.
“I guess we’ll have to mind those steps.”
I carried her down carefully and went back up for the chair. My knees had something to say about that. But once we were on the beach, it was kind of fun making tyre tracks in the sand. As we got closer to the water, she was thumping the armrest like a sea lion. I had to smile.
Sun ignited the waves spreading around us. Then they pulled away, like a giant sucking through his teeth. They were ruining my shoes. But I couldn’t stop laughing. We were practically in the water. She was reaching down trying to touch the waves.
I was rolling up my pants. Suddenly she yanked the wheelchair forward and threw herself in!
It happened so fast. And then the damnedest thing, she just disappeared. I’m ashamed to admit it but I can’t swim. I dashed into the water up to my thighs, quivering like an arrow. I had a terrible feeling. Did she just drown herself?
I waited, scanning the bay. There, floating back towards me. Oh, dear god please no!
I lifted it out streaming, held it in the sunlight. Her dress!
When I looked up, there was a shadow under the water, twenty yards ahead. I tried to focus on it, but it kept moving. It stopped. I was so scared.
Something was coming out of the sea. It was rising slowly, opening up like a sail. I nearly screamed.
But it was her. She was looking right at me. I’ll never forget it.
She was naked, pure white from the belly up. From her waist down to the water, she was brilliant green. Her arms were stretched out to balance herself. She looked incredible. This was who she was, where she was supposed to be.
We kept looking at each other. I was outside of time. When she finally dived, her hair followed her down like a rope of gold. I glimpsed a long flippered tail where her legs used to be.
Then the sea, the sky, returned to its limitless peace. I never saw her again.
I stood there in the water, a long time. I was angry. Someone had tried to take her away from this. Don’t ask me why, I just knew it. They had failed, but I didn’t believe they had good intentions.
I couldn’t handle my own thoughts anymore and it was getting cold. The empty wheelchair was lying in the sand.
As I turned to go back, I heard something, coming a long way off. It came from the ocean. It was a lovely, insistent sound.
She was singing.
Philip Howarth is a Reception Worker living in Sheffield, UK.