Mary’s cousin David is a little less than two years older than her, almost old enough for the draft, and he’s taking advantage of what might be his last Christmas home to practice being a hero.
He’s a Campbell. He should damn well know better.
“Grant Lake, Oklahoma,” her dad says, spreading newspaper clippings across the table. “Three drownings in the last five months, and a girl whose boyfriend just barely managed to save her. All of them in the same part of the lake, all of them were found with cut marks on their bones that didn’t look like scavengers. The girl who survived says she saw a child struggling not too far from shore.”
Mary stirs the clippings with a finger. The girl who survived is curly-haired, cute rather than pretty. Her boyfriend has lazy, laughing eyes. Mermaid, she thinks, and wonders what it’s like to go for a picnic by the water with someone you love.
“Mermaid,” says Aunt Barbara, on her way into the kitchen with her arms full of groceries.
“Mermaid,” David agrees.
There’s a loud clatter and a thud from the attic which is probably Uncle Jack struggling with the Christmas lights, but it brings Mom out of the kitchen with a meat cleaver in her hand. Mary’s fingers curl around the hilt of her boot knife, half-drawing it. Dad and David both head for the cabinet.
“Everything’s fine!” Uncle Jack yells.
“What are your plans?” Dad asks Mary and David, as if there hadn’t been any interruption. Mary wonders what Christmas is like at Gail’s house where nobody comes armed to the dinner table.
David sits up straighter. “Pour salt over her to dry her out, then cut her throat while she can’t fight back.”
I was going to sneak out on Christmas Eve and see Kevin, Mary thinks, and smiles and shrugs when her dad looks at her. Mermaids. She hates water-creatures. She hates killing things on family holidays.
“Mary can come with me,” David says grandly.
She catches him admiring himself in the mirror before they leave, adjusting his hair and checking the hang of his new leather jacket above his neatly-ironed jeans. She wants to tell him that there aren’t going to be any photographers or ticker-tape parades at Grant Lake, just mud and water and, if they’re unlucky, ice. She wants to tell him that they’re going to go dry a fish-girl up from the outside in and then bleed her drier so she stops drowning passers-by, and it’s not something you dress up for.
She hauls the bag of rock salt onto her hip, balancing it like she does the kids she sometimes babysits, and tells him, “If I get to the car before you, you’re not driving.”
David scrambles for the door.
Twenty miles out of town he turns the radio down and says, “If my number comes up, should I get married? I mean, I want to provide for Carol.”
Mary gives him an incredulous look. He takes it as an opportunity to tell her all about Carol Parker, the love of his life, who tutored him through algebra and—he says, and she doesn’t care enough to doubt him—looks amazing in her cheerleading uniform. “And she bakes the best pie I’ve ever tasted,” David adds.
“She does not,” Mary says, surprised for a minute into actually paying attention.
Scowling, David turns the radio back up. Mary leans her head against the window and closes her eyes and pretends she’s somewhere else having a normal life.
They get to the mermaid’s corner of Grant Lake in late afternoon, while the trees’ shadows fall like bars across the rippling surface of the water. Mary climbs out of the car, dragging the bag of salt with her, and takes a deep breath. There’s no ice, even around the plants at the edge of the lake, but everything smells still and cold.
“We need bait,” David says, hand over his eyes. “Should I go into town and find a steak?”
“David, it’s two days before Christmas and it’s—”
There’s a splash maybe twenty-five, thirty feet away, near a little rocky bluff, and a thin cry.
“She’s desperate,” Mary says. “I wonder why mermaids don’t hibernate.” When David doesn’t move, she says, “Well, come on. Get the salt and your knife.” If he wants to be the hero, the man’s man, he can do the heavy lifting.
She’s wearing layers: old jeans, a plain cotton blouse, a man’s button-down over it, a soft jacket with sleeves loose enough she can keep knives strapped to her arms when she needs to. David is shivering a little in his starch and shiny leather as he picks up the salt, but Mary leans into the wind off the lake, lets it take her hair.
David starts cutting open the top of the bag of salt while she kneels at the edge, looking down at the mermaid’s haunt about seven feet below her. The water stills, and Mary has just a second to think oh, hell before the creature’s leaping up, impossibly high, greeny-dark and slim and beautiful in the golden sunset light. Its hands close around her wrists like manacles and it drags her down, tumbling heels over head into the water.
She hears David swear, and there’s a thudding splash seconds after she’s landed. She forces her eyes open, straining to see through the shadowy and impure water, and sees the bag of salt crashed against some rocks which she missed by only a foot or so and which probably would have broken her spine if she’d hit them.
Mary kicks out, clawing at the mermaid, her reinforced boots slamming into the bag of salt. It’s dark and cold and her clothes are heavy, but David is an incompetent ass and he’s not going to save her. She can hear the mermaid laughing, a gurgling sound higher than the drumbeat of her pulse in her ears, and that chills her even more than the water.
It drags her back to the surface for a second—they’re nasty, nasty things, crueler than cats—and that’s its mistake. Her timing’s perfect when she gets a lungful of air, not a drop of water in it, and when they go back down she feels the burn of salt hard against her eyes.
There’s a painful grating feeling in her wrist when she yanks it out of the mermaid’s grip, but she curls her leg up, kneeing the mermaid somewhere around the bottom of its ribs, and manages to pull her boot knife.
It’s hard to see, harder to aim, and she misses and gets it across the collarbone. It doesn’t let her other hand go or stop trying to recapture her knife hand, more determined to kill her than to survive, and her second stab goes into its throat, deep and ragged. The knife slides away into the lake.
Her lungs are burning; her limbs are exhausted. The mermaid’s dying but she’s not far behind, black flickering at the edges of her vision, and she makes it to the rocks and sticks her head above water, dragging the mermaid with her.
David scrambles towards her from the shoreline, and Mary starts shivering so hard she’s afraid she’s going to fall apart. The mermaid is gasping at her side, choking on its own blood and drowning in air. David grabs her by the upper arms and pulls her up.
“You useless son of a bitch,” Mary says, teeth rattling against each other. “I am never—fucking never—going anywhere with you again. I’ll fight whatever we’re sent after for the honor of killing you.”
David doesn’t even try to tell the parents that he saved Mary. She has storm-violet bruises around both wrists and weeds dried in her hair and she is coldly, implacably angry. When her dad hears what happened he tells David he’s going to find a horsewhip and use it on him.
“Don’t.” Mary’s voice is a rasp low in her throat. She’s coming down with a cold, she thinks. Just in time for Christmas. “Just let him remember so he never, ever screws up this badly again.”
Dad looks at David, who gulps and nods. “I swear,” he says, voice cracking from nerves.
Mary rubs her ankle, the place where she should have had a knife. She’s cold and she hurts and she detests her entire family right now.
“No more hunts,” Dad says. “Not until you’ve shown me you’re not going to make a boy’s mistake and almost kill whoever you’re with again.”
“You’re not going anywhere with Mary again without an adult,” Mom says.
“Here.” Aunt Barbara hands Mary a mug of soup. She falls asleep in her armchair almost as soon as she’s finished it, and wakes up when the empty mug slips out of her hands onto her lap for just long enough to wonder whether maybe now she’ll be allowed to spend Christmas Eve with her friends.