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By the time I was eight years old, I could control the wheelchair much easier. And that was a good thing, considering how fast it was barreling down the road. Not to worry, I was having a great time. And so were my passengers.
The town of
Andrew Hess sat on one armrest, clinging on for dear life, while his brother Jackson sat on the other, flailing to keep his balance. Edgar Wainwright stood on the rear axel, hanging on to the back of the chair with one hand, and keeping his glasses on his face with the other. Kate Silverman, the only other girl in our troupe, was on my lap, both hands over her eyes.
We had discovered that when you piled 5 kids on a wheelchair and pointed it down a long sloping street, you could get up a pretty good head of steam. The tricky part was stopping, which we didn’t always do gracefully.
“Lean left!” Andrew called out. He was the eldest of the group, and a natural leader. We all obeyed, and managed to slightly alter the chair’s course to remain on the street. The shops lining the street featured raised boardwalks in front of them. Hitting one of those at this speed would spell disaster.
Main Street leveled off toward The Coast Road, where we’d have to either find a way to stop, or we’d end up in the sea.
We reached the critical moment.
“Brake!” Andrew called out.
In a synchronized motion that would make the sternest military commander proud, the three boys each leapt from the chair. Andrew and Jackson each hung on to their respective armrests, sliding along the dirt and desperately keeping upright while doing so. Edgar, no longer on the axel, clung to the back of the chair, also sliding along the road. All three kept the soles of their shoes to the ground. To slip up now would mean a severely skinned knee and probably a spectacular tumble.
Kate and I, being ladies, were not expected to participate in such manual labor. Plus, they all thought I was paraplegic.
Twice, the chair tilted enough that I though we would tip, but the boys kept it level, and eventually, it slowed to a stop. We all cheered, briefly. Once the cloud of dust that had been following us caught up, our cheers quickly turned to coughs.
Seem a little stupid? Well it was. Especially since we did this every day after school. We weren’t always so good at keeping the chair upright, either. Often, it ended badly. And that makes it all the more stupid, because if my dress flew up a little too much people would see my tail. One time, after crashing, I ended up about 20 feet from the chair, and Andrew had to carry me back. I could see on his face he noticed my “legs” felt strange, but he must have written it off as the deformity from the made-up accident that supposedly crippled me.
But that was all in the distant past. Several days ago at least. Today we were victorious.
“You kids’ll end up in the drink some day!” we heard.
Through the clearing dust, we looked at the boat and the lone fisherman on it. We had stopped just short of the port promenade, a wide wooden dock with numerous piers jutting out all along the shoreline.
“Not today, David!” Andrew called back jovially.
“Don’t get too cocky, boy,” David chuckled. “I’m only courting your ma now. But someday, when she’ll have me, I’ll marry her. Then I’ll have to tattle you out when I see stuff like that.”
Andrew gave him a dismissive wave “That’s if she ever says yes!”
“Ho ho!” David laughed. “I’ll remember that. Soon as your ma and I get back from our honeymoon I’ll give you a tannin’!”
“I’ll be too big for you to tan by then, old man!”
“I got news for you, boy. You’ll never be too big for me to tan!”
It was a foregone conclusion that Hilda Hess, Andrew and Jackson’s mother, would eventually marry David Meadows. Everyone in town knew it. They’d been together for years; it was only a matter of time before she eventually relented to his constant proposals. They were treated as an engaged couple everywhere they went. She had lost her husband in the Smallpox outbreak of 1838. David had been left at the altar when he was nineteen, and had sworn off women for almost a decade before meeting her. He treated her well and got along great with her kids.
“Seriously, though,” David said. “I don’t know if that business is such a good idea. What if you end up in the water? What would Bonnie do? Poor girl might drown.”
Now that’s irony for you.
“I can swim, Mr. Meadows,” I said. “Really. It’s no’ all dead weight. I can move my legs a bit and my arms are strong from all the wheelin’ around. Shafe taught me.” After two years of watching “Shafe Mackenzie, Master Liar” at work, I was pretty good at it myself.
“Well, I didn’t know that. Good for you, Bonnie,” he said.
“Nat’rally,” I said. “Just two more years and I’ll be his pilot!” I was eagerly awaiting my chance to go to sea with Shafe. Just another two years until I was ten years old. Lotti had assigned me the birth date of August 4th, 1836. The 1836 was probably right, but the August 4th only had around a 1:365 chance of being the day I was born. Though “born” isn’t quite the right word. I later learned I hatched from an egg.
“That reminds me,” David said. “Andrew, don’t forget you’re coming to sea with me this Saturday.”
“As if I’d forget!” Andrew beamed. It was his big day. He was ten years old now and it was time for his first time out fishing like a man.
Jackson looked over at his brother with a mix of admiration and envy.
“Why don’t’cha come aboard and I’ll show you some knots you’ll need to know,” David said.
“Sure!” Andrew said, abandoning us for David’s boat.
This was where the five of us usually parted company anyway. “See you at home, Andrew,” Jackson said, heading south toward their home.
“Yah,” Andrew said absently, boarding David’s boat.
Kate straightened out her dress, then straightened out mine. “There ya go, Bonnie,” she said. “See ya tomorrow!” With that, she trotted back up Main Street toward her father’s hardware store, where she would spend the rest of the day stocking, cleaning, and occasionally even seeing to customers.
“Hmm,” Edgar said, pensively.
This caught my attention. Edgar was a quiet boy. If he made a noise, it meant something. And this didn’t sound good.
“What?” I asked, looking at his concerned expression.
He nodded his head northward. “Dad.”
Indeed it was. Joseph Wainwright strode down The Coast Road toward us. This was uncommon to say the least. Usually Edgar’s mother picked him up.
“Boy, get over here!” Joseph called out, louder than was necessary.
“Yes, sir,” Edgar calmly replied and walked to his father.
Joseph grabbed him by both arms roughly. “What did I tell you about playing with those kids!? Didn’t I make myself clear?”
“Sorry, sir. We just all come home the same way from school is all, and-“
“I don’t want you around their type, you hear!? How many ways to I have to put it!?”
“Shut up, boy! And get to the house!”
Without a word, Edgar walked toward his home.
Joseph gave a long glare at me, but said nothing.
“What’s the problem, Wainwright?” David said, from his boat. “They’re just kids playing.”
“This don’t concern you, Meadows.”
“What possible harm could Edgar come to from playing with-“
“I said it don’t concern you!” Joseph snapped. “He’s my boy, I set whatever rules I want to set, and I got no obligation to explain to anyone! Mind your own business!”
David watched wordlessly as Joseph stormed off. After a few moments, he asked Andrew “Does he beat Edgar? I mean, more than a normal father would?”
“No. He doesn’t beat him at all. Why?” Andrew asked.
“All right,” David said, “I suppose he’s right, then. Isn’t my business.”
I sat patiently and waited for Lotti to pick me up. I hoped she would come soon, I was parched. I spent about 6 hours at the schoolhouse every day. Fortunately for me, most kids went home for lunch (school was a lot less formal back then). So I would get a quick soak in while Lotti made me something to eat.
As I saw her rounding the corner and coming in to view, I breathed a raspy dry sigh of relief. The sea was right in front of me, of course. But it would have been difficult to explain to the many onlookers why I’d leapt in.
The following Saturday, we were all bored. At least, everyone but Andrew.
Andrew was off on his first excursion with David, no doubt it the proudest day of his life. We kids had seen him off at the port; the men on the other boats calling out to him, welcoming him to the trade. His mother didn’t come, of course. How can you be considered a man if your mom sees you off to sea?
We never realized how much Andrew drove our activities. Lacking him, we were at a loss. Technically, by the complex rules that govern child pack behavior, Jackson should have been the new leader. He was the former leader’s brother and a boy. But he had no ambition.
Fortunately for us, Kate took charge and suggested the swimming hole. She was next in line for leadership, being the oldest at 11 years. Edgar was with us as usual, in direct violation of his dad’s edicts, so discretion was paramount. This made the remote swimming hole an ideal suggestion.
Jackson and Kate stripped to their underwear and got to the serious business of swimming and dunking each other mercilessly. Edgar sat near me as we watched them frolic.
“Don’ you want ta swim?” I asked.
“Can’t,” Edgar said passively. “I never learned how.”
“Ya live in a fishin’ village an’ can’t swim?”
Picking up a nearby stick, he drew triangles in the dirt. “Father forbade me to learn how,” he said.
“Why would he do tha’?”
I watched as he drew letters and numbers around the triangles. “What are ya drawin’?” I asked.
“I just learned it yesterday at the library,” he explained. “For triangles with a square corner, if you know how long two of the sides are, you can figure out how long the third is.”
“Well if this third is the longest side, you add the squares of the two sides together and-” he looked up into my blank expression. “It’s just some math. It’s not hard. I learned it at the library.”
How old were you when you learned the Pythagorean Theorem? Edgar was nine.
“So yer dad’ll let ya go to the library, then?”
He nodded. “Yeah. People think he’s a bad person and mean, but he’s not.”
“Hmph,” I snorted. “Why won’ he let ya play with us then?”
He shrugged. “He’s got rules. I follow most of them. He’s my father. I assume he knows what’s best for me.”
“Jackson!?” came Kate’s panicked voice from the water. “Jackson!?”
Jackson was nowhere to be seen. Kate stood on the edge of the water staring into the murky depths.
“Where is he?” I said as Edgar stood to get a better view.
“He went under a while ago!” Kate said, panic starting to edge in to her voice. “He was just swimming like normal. Nothing seemed wrong. But he’s been down too long!”
“Jackson!” I called out.
“Jackson!” Kate echoed.
Edgar surveyed the scene. He knew there was no point in calling out to a boy under water. I knew it too, of course, but emotions ran high and I wasn’t thinking clearly.
Thoughts raced through my mind. A person’s life was surely worth more than my secret. I didn’t care if the whole town found out I was a mermaid, I had no intention of letting Jackson drown.
“How long has he been down?” Edgar said, with measured control.
“At least a minute!” Kate replied.
“You’re the only one who can swim,” Edgar said, “Take a really deep breath and jump in, swim in circles as you go down.”
“Right!” Kate said, diving headfirst into the water.
“We’ll give her 20 seconds before I go in,” Edgar said. “One… two… three…”
“You can’t swim!”
“Five…I can try… Seven…”
The terrain near the water’s edge was too rough to navigate the wheelchair, but with a good shove from my extremely strong tail, I was sure could clear the distance and land in the water. I wheeled as far forward as I could and gripped both armrests, lifting myself into a launching position.
“Twelve… thirteen… fourteen-“
Kate breached the surface, pulling Jackson with her. He let out a gasp and cough.
“Deep breath, Jackson,” Kate said, “Deep as you can.”
Jackson got up on all fours and violently coughed up water, then followed up by vomiting.
She patted Jackson’s back. “That’s fine, that’s fine. Deep breath.”
Jackson started crying. “I goh stugg in ne mud at ne bottom,” he sobbed. “I couldn’ get ouuuuut!” He wailed again.
“It’s all right now, Jackson,” Kate said. “You’re back up.”
Watching the scene play out, I had been frozen in rapt attention. Finally, I relaxed my grip on the armrests, and settled back in to the seat. I noticed Edgar staring at me with analytical eyes. I could almost see the questions forming in his mind. Why would a mostly-paralyzed girl be planning to jump into the water? I hoped he would discount it as over-excitement on my part.
We didn’t speak of Jackson’s near-drowning to anyone. Letting that kind of information out would lose us our swimming hole privileges. Besides, that evening was dedicated to celebrating Andrew’s first day on the job. Why ruin it?
The informal party at the Hess household featured delicious German fare; I ate more kinds of meat than I thought existed.
That evening, at bedtime, Shafe and Lotti rolled me out to our dock. I could go myself, of course, but someone had to bring the wheelchair back in.
“Enjoy yer time as a gel, lass,” Shafe said, almost reading my mind. “You’ll be workin’ plenty once I get ya out ta sea wit’ me.”
“Go on, then,” Lotti said, kissing me on the cheek. “off ta bed with ya.”
I leapt into the water and swam out to sea. I had learned through experience not to sleep too close to the shore. If I didn’t want to be awakened over and over by random currents, I had to get reasonably deep where the water was still.
I had a usual spot. Over time I had decorated the area, as little girls tend to do. Rocks and shells I had deemed interesting surrounded my sleeping spot in concentric circles.
In movies, a mermaid’s tail is kind of like a person’s legs. It bends at the “knees.” Of course this is because the actress playing the mermaid has legs inside a prosthetic tail. I can assure you a real mermaid’s tail doesn’t work that way.
The only bones in my tail are vertebra. I’m as flexible as a cat. I can effortlessly curl my body into a circle. And this is how I usually slept, using part of my tail as a pillow. It’s quite comfortable. These days I have a tank to sleep in, with a soft padded bottom for comfort, but I still adopt the same position.
I’m not sure how long I slept. And I don’t fully remember the details of what happened next. But I do remember the way I was awakened.
It was a chirp. A loud one. Loud enough to awaken me. As I groggily came out of my slumber, I wondered how a bird could be chirping when I was a good 50 feet under water.
I stretched and opened my eyes. Instead of the usual sunlight pouring in, I saw a weak, pre-dawn light reflecting on the waves above. It was barely morning. I knew Shafe would be awake, preparing his boat for the day’s work. I deliberated on whether to go back to sleep, or swim over to the boat to wish him a good morning.
I never got the chance to do either. I heard another chirp. The same sound that had awakened me in the first place. I turned toward the source and found myself staring into a pair of eyes looking right back at me. One of the eyes was scarred, lifeless, and white.
Old Milky hovered a foot from my face. He’d waited patiently for me to finish waking up.
“Uh-“ I said, and then he attacked.
Swimming forward with all his might, he slammed his snout into my throat. I managed to bring my arms up defensively and block part of the blow, but it was still devastating. I gasped for water as he drove me into the seabed, neck first.
Flailing wildly, I managed to scratch at his face with my fingernails, and rolled to get my neck out from between his muzzle and the mud. Now free, I put my tail to work and shot away at high speed. He gave chase, gleefully clicking and chirping.
I remembered our earlier confrontation, and knew he could catch up to me. I was nowhere near the deep waters that had saved me before.
For the first time in my life, in a pressure situation, I thought rationally.
Whipping around 180 degrees like a snake, I charged past him before he could react. I sped directly toward the shore. If I couldn’t get to deep water, I’d go for shallow. I could safely beach myself and be out of Old Milky’s reach. If he followed, he’d be doomed.
The seabed rose quickly, and changed from mud to sand. I was nearly to the shore when I heard a splash from behind me. Old Milky had launched himself entirely out of the water. I barely had time to speculate on why when I had the answer.
He came down nose first on top of me. I spun to face him as he entered the water and deflected him with my tail. But he got me good. Real good.
His snout slammed into my chest. The dull crunching sound of broken ribs was followed immediately by unbearable pain. I screamed in agony. He was momentarily taken aback by the noise, but quickly recovered. It wasn’t a surprise to him anymore. He remembered out last encounter.
I couldn’t move. I could barely breathe. The dry land that would be my salvation was just 20 feet away but it may as well have been a mile. A red cloud enveloped my head and I realized I was exhaling bloody water.
Old Milky came in for the kill. Mouth wide and teeth bared, he lunged at my side to take a bite out of his downed prey. I blocked with my arm, so he bit that instead.
Again, pain seared me to the core of my being, but I probably have it to thank for staying awake. Filled with rage and acting purely on animal instinct, I pulled my arm and head together with Old Milky still in the middle. And I bit the bastard back. Right on the snout.
I sunk my teeth in as deep as I could, biting with all the strength my jaw could manage, and gnashing side to side for maximum effect. I felt a sick satisfaction in his surprised squeak of pain.
Then, he suddenly flew up and out of view. I heard a splash nearby as he re-entered the water elsewhere. More splashing followed. Almost panicked and frantic. But whatever it was, I wasn’t involved. After a few seconds of this, I heard his clicks and squeaks of indignation receding into the distance.
The edges of my vision grew black, and the blood kept coming out with every exhale. I saw was Shafe’s boots standing next to me. I felt him lift me out of the water.
And then I passed out.