You are Dave Strider, and you are going to kill your cousin Rose.
Or more specifically, you are going to kill her mother, your bro, and everybody who thought this was a good idea. And then you’re going to kill your cousin Rose for living out here.
The beach is so stupid. Man, you are way too cool for this shit. There’s nothing to do, there’s just sand and like a trillion more gallons of water than actually need to exist and rocks and crabs and whatfuck. Down the road a ways is the touristy part of this godforsaken town, with a hell of a lot of shops and people walking around, but it’s all fucking quaint and so cute and old and fuck
you fucking hate New England.
There are trees. There are fucking trees that give way to the fucking ocean and everybody says that it is such a fucking beautiful tourist place and oh let us go take a historical tour of Boston and then come back to Rose’s lovely beach home and look at the beautiful sea.
Bro called it “culture” with half a smirk that told you he knew exactly how much of an asshole he was being. Rose insists that you need to lighten up and try to enjoy life. Her friend Jade (how the two of them are friends you cannot fathom, they’re polar opposites) thinks you’re the fucking best.
The one good thing about this is that there is delicious ice cream.
Rose and her mom have this old Victorian-esque house, it probably has some sort of past. There’s a widow’s walk at the top that you can still access, and that was pretty cool, going up and looking out and picturing the wives staring out across the vast expanse. The whole property costs a fortune and will go down with a massive fucking fight if there’s ever a hurricane.
But you’re not in the house now – you’re out in the sun (“you’re so pale, Dave, you ought to get out more often” quoth your oh-so-concerned aunt) with the breeze whipping your hair all over the place. At least Rose doesn’t make fun of your shades out here, since you actually have an excuse. The first day here, you got the worst fucking sunburn of your life –
“Fucking hell, I’m from Texas, I thought I was immune to this shit” –
“The sun is highly reflective from the water so it’s as though you’ve been exposed to twice the normal amount of UV rays” –
“I look like someone tried to bake me into a pancake and then got bored halfway through.”
Now you use about half a bottle of sunscreen before you do anything.
“Dave.” Jade tugs on the sleeve of your t-shirt. “Dave, let’s go tide pooling.”
You sigh. “Okay.”
Tide pooling isn’t that bad – actually, a part of you thinks it’s pretty fucking cool, you’ll have to collect some of the dead stuff in here and see if you can preserve it – but it means climbing over rocks. And jumping between them. While salty sea spray washes around with the rolling of the tide. It’s out now, just starting to come back in, and it’s weird watching the water inch slowly closer.
Also, you can’t swim.
One bad experience in the kiddie pool when you were little – falling into the five-foot-deep end and feeling like you were going to die before Bro jumped in and fished you out (fully-clothed, you remember, and he kept patting your cheeks and making sure you could breathe and weren’t hurt). That was it. Done with the water.
Of course, now he finds your fear hilarious (asshole), and it’s not like you’re going to explain to Rose.
“Dave, I thought you of all people would be excited to show off in a bathing suit.”
“Are you saying I’m hot? Do you want a piece of this, Rose? That’s kinda messed.”
“I’m saying you think you are.”
“I wouldn’t go swimming in that sewage and fish shit for all the irony in the world.”
You’re drawn out of your thoughts by a glint of something sharp on the rocks. You turn – some douchebag probably left a beer can out here – and just catch what looks like a glimmer of fish scales disappearing under the waves. Huh. Weird. “Are there dolphins out here?”
“Um, I don’t know! Maybe. Why, did you see one?”
“Just saw a hugeass fish is all.”
“Oh, cool! I think there’s a lot of big fish in the open ocean, but not many near here. Hmm, I’ll have to look up the dolphin thing. Oh – Dave, what is this, is this a hermit crab?”
She’s kneeling by one of the pools, staring into the depths. You plop down beside her, making sure your sneakers have a firm grip on the stone. The two of you are relatively far out – these rocks extend ages into the water – and suddenly a wash of spray blows straight into your face.
Jade bursts out laughing as you wipe your glasses with your shirt, not that that’s all that dry either. You groan but then give her a tiny smile, because whatever, she's having fun. “Yeah, it’s a hermit crab.”
It’s the next day (day four of twelve of this shitty vacation) that you see the weird scales again. You’re leaning on the railing of the widow’s walk, blasting hip hop beats through your ear buds so loudly you can’t hear the fucking sea gulls. A crow lands on the railing five feet from you. You flip it off.
You catch the weird sheen in the water, sunlight sparkling even more fiercely than it does on normal ocean. But before you can focus on it, it’s disappeared – only to resurface a few feet away. There is a fucking fish stalking me, you think as shitty rap lyrics destroy your eardrums. Or stalking Rose. It’s a fucking duck that gets fed bread. Keeps coming back.
Or maybe you’re just losing it.
Someone tugs on your hand, and you nearly topple off the roof before you realize it’s just Jade. Whoops.
“I startled you,” she says as you rip out your ear buds. “Ha.”
“You didn’t startle me. Those were my fucking ninja reflexes getting tested. Check it out.”
“Uh-huh. Well, Rose says we’re going out on the motor boat tonight! They do fireworks displays near the main beach every Wednesday and she wants to watch without braving the crowds.”
Another tourist thing.
You’re going to fucking kill her.
“Are you scared, Dave?”
Rose smirks at you across the table.
“No, man, I’m so chill. I just like having lungs.”
She taps purple-painted fingernails, matching her eyes, against her lips. “Repressing phobias is universally considered to be an unhealthy practice, you know.”
“Showing your face is universally considered to be an unhealthy practice.”
“Look, I’m just not seein’ the point of being on a fucking boat if I can’t swim. If we sink, the rest of you will be all, ‘Shit, this is cool, I mean the Atlantic is cold as piss but other that we’re fine’ and I’ll be all, ‘Welp, I’m fucked.’”
“You’re quite welcome to stay home if you’re too frightened to come.”
“That’s a challenge, isn’t it?”
“A mere suggestion.”
“I will take that fucking challenge and roast it so hard you couldn’t eat it.”
“You’ll probably enjoy the fireworks. They’re not quite as spectacular as the fourth of July, but they’re pretty.”
First of all, it’s freezing. Second of all, Rose and Jade managed to get you and Bro to remove your shades so you’d “actually be able to see” (you get an amazing sense of satisfaction from the amount of time Bro spends grumbling about this). Third of all, you can’t get your life vest to buckle right and have weighed the embarrassment of asking for help above the fear of drowning. Fourth of all, you’re still scared shitless of drowning.
Apparently this is clairvoyance. You swear you see a flash of silvery scales again and lean over the side, trying to tell whether you’re hallucinating or the fucking fish thing has actually stalked you guys all the way out here. At the very same moment, you hit a wave wrong and salt water washes over the railing, over your hands, making them slick, and they’re slipping, and your weight is shifting wrong, you’re pitching forward –
You expect your life to flash before your eyes, but there’s only one real thought: Oh fuck, Rose and Bro are gonna feel like shit.
Your ankle catches on the railing for a second that’s too brief, just long enough to set your legs on fire, and then you’re airborne.
You face plant in the water; it feels like being slapped with a slab of ice. Someone shouts behind you as your body rights itself. Then the life vest slips over your head, leaving you unprotected.
Holy fuck, you are actually the world’s biggest fucking moron.
The boat is going like thirty miles an hour. They cut the engine before remembering that you can’t fucking swim over to them, and the cold is numbing you so badly you can’t feel your body anyway. Moonlight and stars swing above you. You hear the engine start again, they’ll have to loop around, it’ll be fine, Dave, you’re fine.
A wave washes over your head. You kick out blindly, panicked, desperately attempting to stay afloat. It’s fine, Dave, it’s fine, just need to keep sucking in air, paddle above the surface, fuck are these waves choppy tonight, fuck there’s water everywhere fuck you can’t breathe fuck you fucking moron why the fuck didn’t you fix your life vest fuck fuck there’s no air fuck where’s the surface fuck you’re spinning in darkness and you need to collect your thoughts but you’re fucking frenzied with terror
You struggle upward, kicking, writhing, but the water isn’t cooperating with you, you can’t fucking do this, and the moment your head breaks the surface and you try to suck in a gasp, you end up with a mouth full of salt. You’re coughing, spluttering, choking, you can’t fucking breathe you can’t stay afloat fuck your lungs burn so badly fuck where’s the boat fuck you’re going to die oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck I don’t know which fucking way is up –
The cold is everywhere, it’s inside you, you are actually going to die holy fuck this is kind of hilarious who has a phobia now Rose oh fuck oh man your chest is burning so bad and bubbles pour from your mouth and you’re pulling in please god I need air and nothing but more burning oh fuck this is the worst fuck fuck air I need air there is no fucking air and you can feel the weight of the water dragging you down too much water it’s all around you it’s trapping you.
And then it starts to feel different.
Not warm so much as empty, like you’re losing your grip on yourself and you know you’re losing consciousness and okay, if you are going to die then losing consciousness right now sounds pretty chill, you can deal with that, hopefully they find your body before the salt disfigures it and what the fuck are you even thinking about this for and all sensation is fading.
You wake up to pressure on your chest and a volley of water erupting from your throat. It burns even more on the way up than on the way down, as if that was possible. You reach for the strength to groan, but you can’t find any, and before you can dwell on this too much you feel a warm mouth on yours, air rushing into your lungs. More pressure, more water, leaving you gasping like a beached whale.
“Oh good, it worked,” a voice says. “Are you awake?”
There’s the groan.
Your back rests against something cool. Shivers race up and down your arms. Maybe you have hypothermia. It wouldn’t surprise you.
“Can you open your eyes?”
You manage, blearily, to make your eyelids work. They flutter, giving you a glimpse of a night sky, shimmering moonlight, and a boy in serious need of braces or something. He has the bluest eyes you’ve ever seen, they gleam almost silver in the dim light, and dark hair plastered to his forehead and neck. Sweet. You don’t seem to be as dead as you thought. Must be some badass lifeguard.
Your gaze travels down to find a bare torso that melts into –
You take it back.
You’re definitely dead.
Another second allows you to process that it’s the same silver glint you’ve been seeing all over the fucking place, and it matches the sort of silvery glint in his eyes. It ends in a silky gray fin, the tips of which trail into the water.
He strokes your cheek with his fingertips. Thin webbing stretches between each one. He’s warm, warmer than anything else right now, you guess he must be if he’s a merman who has to live in the fucking ocean all the time, fuck, is this real life, this can’t be real life, you’re having a weird dream, you’re actually dead and this is your dying brain consoling you about the fact that you’re a fucking moron, fuck.
“I have to get you back to the main land, you’re freezing,” he says.
“Aren’t we…?” You twist your head to the side and discover that nope, you’re on an outlying rock. The main beach, ablaze with twinkling lights, is maybe five hundred feet in the other direction, separated by black ocean. You think you can hear people calling your name. “Ah, fuck.”
“Yeah.” He smiles slightly at you. “I think you’re going to be fine, though. I’m John.”
John the fucking merman.
What is even happening.
“Dave Strider,” you croak.
“Can’t you swim?”
There’s a fucking mermaid dude
asking you if you can swim.
You shake your head. “I never learned,” you say. “Just so I could fully enjoy the irony of this moment.” Fuck, talking hurts, scrapes your chest inside out.
You’re so cold.
He pulls you into a sitting position. You sort of flop against his shoulder. “I have to carry you back,” he says.
“Fuck no, I’m not going back in that water.”
Ow. Ow your fucking chest ow.
“Sorry. I can swim fast, I promise it’ll be less than thirty seconds.”
“I’m a human icicle right now, man.”
“I know.” He pats your head, pushing hair out of your eyes. You want to protest that the gesture is condescending, but you can’t waste precious breath. “But you need to wrap up in a blanket or something, and I sure don’t have one. Better we go now than never.”
One absolute shitfest thirty-second frozen ride from hell later, you’re lying on the sand and John is calling for help. You think he’ll probably melt away all mysterious merman-like before anybody can get there, so you reach out and catch his wrist.
“Why d’you hang around Rose’s so much?”
John smiles. The water washes up around his glimmering tail. “I’m lonely, I guess.”
“Did you give me fucking mouth-to-mouth?”
“It worked, didn’t it?”
“Oh man. I made out with a merman and I wasn’t even fully conscious for it.”
People are coming closer now, you can hear them yelling your name, edging down the beach. You’re not sure whether they heard John’s call or not. Either way, they’ll be here soon.
“Wait,” you say as he starts to slide back towards the water. “Be my redhead princess and live in my castle.”
He gives you the weirdest look you’ve ever seen.
“The Little Mermaid…? No?” You really need to stop talking. “Shit, if you’re gonna stalk me more, at least make your presence known.”
He smiles, teeth and eyes sparkling. Everything about the guy apparently sparkles. Maybe that’s a merman thing.
Holy fucking shit you’re talking to a merman.
You’re still not quite over this.
“I could teach you to swim,” he suggests.
The footsteps are coming closer.
“I promise I won’t let you drown,” he adds with a little laugh.
You can’t believe it, you blame it on the absolute surrealism of the moment
but you nod.