“Are you just going to stand there staring at me all day?”
Gen blinked, because 1) She was seeing something that shouldn't exist and 2) It seemed to know English. Which it was using to talk to her. In a pretty damn demanding tone, considering it had washed up on an isolated, rock-strewn corner of beach wrapped in a fishing net.
The … person-fish-magic thing, which Gen was not going to call a mermaid, because then she'd be functionally insane flopped fruitlessly at the netting that bound its arms to its sides. It looked look a man, right up until you got to the hips, where the skin turned gray, like a dolphin's, and instead of legs, feet, ankles, the whole shebang, there was a tail with a … tail. Flippers? Fluke? Whatever it was, it didn't belong on a human.
“Are you in costume?” she asked, tentatively.
“Yeah,” it said. “I work at Disneyland.”
Apparently, it knew pop culture references.
Gen tried to apply the costume idea to the thing she saw in front of her. It wasn't quite working. The muscles flexing in that tail didn't look like human muscles trapped in a funky, rubbery costume. They looked real in a way she didn't understand and couldn't quite describe, because she wasn't an expert on any kind of anatomy.
That's when Gen realized it was bleeding. “You're hurt.”
The thing flopped back against the rocks. The net had been doing some scissoring, cutting crisscrosses into its skin. “I got stuck in a damn ghost net and washed onto shore. Of course I'm hurt.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Do they have a lot of those at Disneyland? Drift nets?”
The creature hissed. “If you're not going to help, you can leave me alone any time.”
“I don't have a knife.” Gen eyed him. His shoulders were broad and muscular, and he was long; he'd easily be over six feet tall, if he had the ability to stand. If she got too close, he could probably knock her down and – she didn't know. Bite her? Punch her face?
“So you're not helping. Leave.”
“I have a golf cart, if I can get you to it. Can you survive out of the water for a little while? I have a whole kitchen full of knives. I just didn't bring any to the beach. I could leave you here and come back, but the tide's rising and you might get washed back out. Or someone else could find you. Or there could be sharks, since you're bleeding –”
“I can handle sharks.”
Gen doubted that was true, considering it – he? – didn't have use of its arms.
The thing frowned. “Did you just offer me a ride in a golf cart? To your house?”
Gen shrugged. “A little?”
“Are you planning on holding me in captivity? It won't work. This isn't my only form, you know. I just thought this was a situation that required arms. Until they got stuck, too.” He looked a little hopeless then. Frustrated. He had a nice, friendly face. Gen didn't see any fangs.
No, Gen didn't know about his multiple forms, if he even had them. It wasn't every day that one encountered things.
“I wasn't planning on it.”
“Are you insane, then? Because I think most people don't stumble over a merman and offer to take him home for a warm meal.”
“I offered knives, not food.”
For some reason, that made the merman deflate. “Oh.” He gave her a quick, pleading look. “I breathe air. If I get washed back out or caught on these rocks, I'll probably drown.”
“So cart?” It wasn't so far off; Gen had driven out here, not walked from the house. If anyone saw her and the merman-thing, she could claim it was a work of performance art. People tended to accept that artists renting oceanfront houses were slightly touched in the head.
“There's no way you can lift me. I'm heavy, and so's the rope.”
“I can get you someplace a little safer, and then come back with the cart? I should be able to move you up a little, especially if you can push off with your –” she motioned to his tail. “Like a seal, maybe? You know how they kinda caterpillar?”
His eyebrows knit together. Maybe he hadn't seen caterpillars. “I won't be able to get over all the rocks that way.”
“I'm stronger than I look,” Gen offered. “I pull, you push, and we can get you somewhere where I can try to get the ropes off.”
“We can try,” the merman said, his voice skeptical. “Honestly, I wouldn't agree except, you know. Tides, rocks, and the fact that I'm an air-breathing mammal.”
Gen approached him, watching for any sudden moves. But the merman didn't move until she crouched down next to him. He turned onto his stomach. She gripped the net where it clung to his back, feeling little patches of merman underneath. His skin felt warm and wet, as if he were a human come in from a swim.
“I might have to drag you.”
“It's Gen. Genevieve. But I like Gen.”
“Jared.” Because that seemed like a normal name for a merman.
He squished up his tail which could, it seemed, bend in the middle to give him leverage, like a human scooching on their knees.
"This has been a weird day," Jared said.
Gen started to pull.
“I'm bored. It's been like a month. I've read every single one of your magazines, and I can't swim in this.” Jared slapped his tail lightly against the surface of the water, as if threatening to flood the bathroom. Again.
“It's been a week. You can't swim anyway. That's why you're here in the first place. Because you can't swim.” Gen checked one of the bandages on his back, which she'd told him to keep out of the water.
Between the ghost net and the rocks, his tail had been cut pretty badly, leaving deep crisscrosses. Gen was doing her best to keep them from getting infected, but she worried because he needed ocean water to live, and that stuff wasn't clean. She was also getting a little tired of hauling fresh basins of seawater in from the beach. It took forever, first to get it onto the golf cart, and then to carry it, bucket by bucket, into the bathroom. At least the house was all one floor.
He shot her a wounded look. “I can swim. I'd just be slower.”
At least he seemed able to dispose of his own poop, somehow, because there were limits and turning the bathtub into a merman's bedpan was definitely one of them. Gen was already using the outdoor shower, because getting naked to use the shower stall would have been unfortunate and awkward, and wearing a bathing suit would not have discouraged him from talking to her while she tried to relax under the spray. He didn't quite seem to understand clothes, judging from his interested tugging at her T-shirt a few days ago.
“Do you have any more of the chewy things?” he asked, after a moment. “I liked those.”
“Gummy bears? No.” Gen worried a little about messing his digestive system up, since when she'd asked, he'd claimed to eat mostly fish, sometimes crustaceans, sometimes seaweed. “Do you know how much longer it will be until you're okay to swim?”
Jared ducked his head. When dry, his hair was shiny and soft-looking. It fell over his eyes, but it was also obvious that he cut it frequently. Gen wondered how that worked. “I'd like everything to he closed over, and then – I dunno. It's the ocean, you know? Being in anything but peak condition can lead to trouble.”
“Being in my bathtub can't be good for you, either. Not if you need to be here much longer.” Gen chewed her lip. “The porch has a hot tub. I'm not sure it will be much better. But maybe I can see how well it's working –”
“I can be out of the water for a little while,” Jared said. “I just can't let my tail get dry. Apparently, we used to hang out on rocks and archipelagos and stuff all the time, just as long as we could keep our lower bodies wet. But that stopped around the time you humans got to being everywhere." He frowned. "Our other forms are nicer, anyway.”
Jared barreled on. “If I could just keep my tail wet – with those clothes you people wear for no good reason? Maybe not all the time, but that way I wouldn't have to be by myself in here or the hot tub –”
Gen wasn't so sure she wanted that much water damage. At the same time, it was a little cruel to keep him near-caged, wasn't it? Maybe she could allow it in the kitchen. Just not on the wood floors or the carpets or the furniture. Human houses were not designed for marine mammals.
“I'll see if I can come up with something.”
He beamed at her, quick and bright, like a puppy. “Really?”
“Really, Jared. Cross my heart.”
Since he'd been staying with Gen, he'd spent most of his time being surly and snappish, probably because he was injured and uncomfortable with what had to seem like captivity. But he also seemed intensely curious about food, and clothing, and the dating tips in Cosmo. When Gen did something he liked – which mostly seemed to involve giving him sweets – he gave her the biggest, purest smiles, and she found herself wanting to see more of them.
Unfortunately, she got curious, too. “When you talk about this other form ...”
Jared actually looked embarrassed. “I don't think I should say. I just, I get, um, bigger and better-suited for ocean living. It's nothing you need to know, except if you try to expose me, I'll switch. It will probably suck for both of us, but it'll be worse for you.”
Gen was pretty sure he was bullshitting her.
“Not that I think you will.” He smiled again, smaller this time, almost shy, almost queasy. "I know this isn't fun for you, either."
Something else occurred to Gen. “Is anyone going to be looking for you? Family members? I have no idea how I'd be able to tell them you're okay, but I hate to think they're out there worrying you've been eaten by a shark.”
He didn't bother scoffing over sharks, like he usually did when Gen mentioned them. Instead, his face fell, and his shoulders slumped. “I – no. No one's going to be looking for me. We're, um, we're solitary creatures. We all hate each other.”
That was definitely bullshit.
Gen had no idea what to say, so she busied herself neatening her medical supplies.
Water hit her shoulder.
She looked up. Jared's eyes were suddenly bright with mischief, as if the last ten seconds hadn't happened. “Do you know any games? I like games.”
Gen knew there were some old board games in one of the closets, but she wasn't sure if that's what Jared meant or how suitable they might be for mermen. Maybe she could try card games? Go fish? Gin rummy?
It turned out that Jared was a quick hand at Texas Hold 'Em, and Gen was going to have to buy a lot more gummy bears.
Jared had a lot of upper body strength – enough that he could haul around the sheer weight of his lower half anywhere that he couldn't wiggle it along. He could climb onto the kitchen counters, although doing so dislodged the damp towels he wrapped around his tail or, worse, popped open some cuts.
He usually waited to find the candy before he called Gen in to pick up his towels and help him re-wrap his tail. He liked Snickers and marshmallows, in addition to gummy bears. He also had taken a liking to maple syrup, blueberries, and Tom and Jerry cartoons, which he discovered when Gen moved the TV so he could see it from the porch window.
She wasn't sure it was the best thing for him. Then again, he was pretty well versed in American pop culture for an aquatic mammal. (When Gen asked him where he'd learned to read, he'd just looked at her and asked “Where did you?” Clearly, some topics were off limits).
Gen wouldn't recommend merman husbandry to anyone. Jared bored easily. He didn't seem to sleep, and he soured easily when left alone. He didn't like any of the seafood Gen prepared, cooked or no, even if she bought it at the fish market.
“How can you eat this? It's been dead for hours.”
“But you like candy, which is composed entirely of chemicals and dye?”
Jared blinked his hair out of his eyes, like he didn't understand Gen's point, even though he clearly did. “Not those circus peanut things or black licorice. Those are terrible. Can you get more Skittles?”
Gen gave in way more often than he should: The sweets made him happy, and as far as she knew, this was the only time in his whole life he'd ever get to have them. The same was true of the other things he decided he liked – kiwis, orange juice, strawberry ice cream, although the latter was followed by the unfortunate discovery that merpeople were lactose intolerant. “I don't usually have a sense of smell,” he said, once, when Gen decided to try her hand at a cake mix. “I think things taste better when you do.”
She discovered he could be a bit of a prankster. When she got mad at him for hiding her keys at the bottom of his hot tub, he moped around like a kicked dog. He learned how to cheat at card games almost as quickly as he learned how to play them, and it would have been annoying if he hadn't made the most ridiculous 'sly' face when he did so.
He became pretty good at inching from the covered porch with its hot tub, into the kitchen, down the hall, into the bathroom and back (he'd figured out to use the toilet, though Gen had never witnessed such and did not want to). There was carpet in the living room, though, which usually kept him out. Usually. Unless he really wanted something, and then he'd get his chest and tail covered in rug burn, which made him pout.
“You're supposed to be getting better,” Gen told him. “If we don't get you out into the water soon, your tail's probably going to atrophy.”
Jared's face clouded. “Why would you even say that?”
But it had been three weeks, all but the deepest cuts were healed up, and Jared still wasn't ready to go back. He said he still hurt, like maybe he'd bruised or cracked a bone, and it wasn't like Gen was going to haul him in for X-rays to make sure he was telling the truth, even if he seemed awfully active for someone in pain.
He grew more and more relaxed around her. He talked her into pulling up a chair next to the hot tub, where they chatted for awhile about television shows, until he commented that he understood her wanting to cover her lower half, because legs were weird, but he had no idea why human women insisted on clothing their tops, since those looked perfectly fine. Then he'd backtracked, almost mortified. “I'm sorry. Was that rude?”
“Yeah.” Gen didn't see any reason to lie. But he looked so sad so fast, she found herself scrambling to reassure him. “But I think you're weird looking, too. Honestly, I think it would be weird if we each thought the other didn't, um, look weird. I mean, we're completely different species.”
It was true, if also strange to think about. Gen wasn't sure how Jared's people stayed hidden or even why they wanted to, but she also didn't think it was her place to question it.
“You like my upper half, though, right? Because I think you'd be pretty, if you weren't deformed below the waist.” Jared's cheeks dimpled, letting her know that he was kidding. Mostly.
“I'm not the one with the giant, rubbery whale tail, or whatever that is.” Gen reached out and poked at his arm, making him twitch away. “Plus, according to my world, you're not even supposed to exist. I think that makes you the weirder one.”
“Hey, you're the one who came across a so-called mythical creature and decided to haul him home in a golf cart, stick him in your bath tub and feed him waffles.”
“You stole those waffles.”
"Yeah." Jared's expression softened. "I'm glad you're so damn weird, Gen.”
"I should probably go do things."
Of course, the next day, he was grumpy and spent most of the day submerged in the hot tub, coming up only for air and peanut M&Ms. Gen left him alone. She knew it had to be frustrating to be stuck on land, where he was heavy and clumsy and entirely dependent on her. She would've hated it.
Taking care of Jared wasn't always easy on Gen, either. She figured a day of sullen merman was a day she could devote to painting, which this whole trip was supposed to be about. Near-isolation, oils and a rocky shore.
Instead, she was playing nursemaid to an injured merman. It was the kind of story she wouldn't mind never telling her friends.
The Little Mermaid marked the beginning of the end.
“It's awful! The merpeople are like fish, but then they breathe in water and air? Also, what kind of self-respecting merperson would turn into a human? Or agree to stop talking forever?”
“Not any that I know,” Gen mumbled.
She could admit it: She was starting to get frustrated.
Jared was clearly high-energy, and he was also bored, but none of that was Gen's fault. She knew he didn't blame her, at least not consciously – he even almost thanked her a few times – but she was also the only person around, and she had volunteered to help him. That meant she got the brunt of whatever he happened to be feeling, good or bad.
Jared looked hurt. “You'd be upset if a movie got humans all wrong.”
“You'd be surprised how many do. Remind me to introduce you to rom-coms.”
“We can't turn human.”
“I know, Jared. I've seen you flop around here like a seal for how many weeks? How often have you told me legs are weird and gross? Your other form – if you even have one – isn't a human being.”
Jared scowled. “I have another form. It's pretty nice.”
“You didn't use it on the beach.”
“It's not helpful on a beach. It's also not helpful to grow larger when you're already wrapped in netting that's so tight it's hurting you. By the time I saw you, you'd already seen me. If you'd run off, I would've been something else by the time you returned." Apparently, he didn't know about cameras. Or smartphones with cameras.
"You also would've been dead. Isn't that why you agreed to letting me cater to your every need for the last month?"
Jared thrashed his tail, making water spill over the edge of the hot tub.
At least she'd finally discovered aquarium sea salt mixes, so she could run the tub more or less like normal, just without ever using any of the heat settings and with frequent scrubbing, since Jared couldn't tolerate that much chlorine. He helped with that part; he did try to keep the things he used clean, most of the time.
It was just that Jared indoors was like having an hyperactive, climbing walrus indoors, except worse. Gen knew it wasn't his fault. They were two people – or one person and something close enough – that were never meant to interact in any significant way. Of course they were both going nuts right now.
Jared was still talking. “Here I was thinking I made the right call, because I'd found the one human on the whole planet who'd help me, actually help me, without trying to sell me to SeaWorld. Not that I don't know you're also completely insane.”
“How do you even know what SeaWorld is?”
“Why would you let me watch that crap?”
Gen didn't flip out. But she needed a walk, and she needed it right then and there. She grabbed her purse and her keys – which she'd started keeping on a coat hook – shrugged on her coat and went to wander above the pebbled shoreline.
She didn't know all that much about Jared's life or his background, except that he didn't want to talk about it. Ever. She was also pretty sure that he was healthy enough to return to his real life anytime he pleased.
So why wasn't he?
Did he not want to? Was he unable?
She sat down on a rock and listened to the surf. Gen was a reasonable person. A practical person. She wasn't silly enough to believe either one of them had developed romantic feelings for the other – they were, as Jared seemed to constantly remind her, disparate species with disparate idea of attractiveness and no desire to meet in the middle. Gen's feelings were complicated and confusing, but she wasn't that fucked up.
No, but she couldn't deny that something had gotten messy along the way. What was she supposed to do with a mythical creature who wanted to play card games and eat candy and freak out over dumb Disney movies that Gen didn't even like?
Was Jared still afraid of her keeping him prisoner? Did he think he couldn't leave?
Was there something else going on?
She stood up, brushed off her pants and headed back.
“Something could happen to you, and I'd never know,” Jared said, almost as soon as she reentered the house. He hadn't left the hot tub. Maybe he knew Gen didn't have it in her to clean anything else tonight. “When I'm back out there, I mean. Not that I could help if something happened to you now, either.”
Gen supposed it was difficult to keep in touch with someone busy being a sea creature. “Do you think I'm trying to keep you here? Or make you human? You're the one who wants to watch TV and eat candy all day. I don't force it on you.”
“No. I know, Gen. I think I just realized that, as messed up as this whole thing is, and as much as it sucks to be in this house – I don't –” He seemed unable to continue. “I'm really, really sorry, okay?”
She drew in a breath. “What happened to you out there? Don't say the net.”
Jared looked hopeless for a second, but then he just shook his head. He sank below the water. Which, granted, was a little difficult for someone his size in a small hot tub, not to mention a little dramatic for someone who required air to breath.
"Okay," she said, because there was no point in pushing if he was determined to hide. "See you tomorrow."
The next morning, Gen found Jared sitting on a kitchen stool, water puddling beneath him, because mermen didn't care about things like mildew or security deposits. He'd made coffee (well, he'd pushed the button; Gen had set everything up the night before, and he'd could've gotten his mug from the dish rack by the sink, which was in reach of the coffee pot for anyone with Jared-arms). He'd poured himself a cup and appeared to be brooding over it.
Gen wondered if she'd accidentally domesticated a merman.
The sheer surrealism of the scene did nothing to offset the sudden tightness in her chest, because somewhere along the line Jared had started to feel less like the world's most bizarre inconvenience and more like a friend, and he was hurting, somehow.
Also, she was pretty sure that this was it: He was leaving.
He looked up and smiled when Gen came in, but it wasn't his true smile, and that watery, lopsided thing was not an acceptable substitute.
She got herself a cup of coffee, pulled up a stool and rubbed a little at Jared's shoulder with her spare hand. She'd almost gotten used to the idea that he spent nearly all of his time naked, especially since nothing, um, dangled.
He sighed into his cup. “You haven't had a hard time hiding me.”
Gen withdrew her hand. “Isn't that a good thing?”
“No one visits you.”
She shrugged, not really sure where this was going. “I'm expected to be alone. It comes with the whole 'artist renting a house on a hostile stretch of beach' thing.”
Jared frowned. “You don't normally live here? You have a pod someplace? A family?”
“Did you think I didn't?” Gen had never been the most popular of people, but it wasn't like she was completely without a social network. She could sorta see where Jared might have gotten that impression, though.
He looked bewildered. “You'd go be by yourself on purpose? Why would you do that?”
His was a solitary species. Right.
“Sometimes it's nice, you know, to get away and recharge without having to deal with any other people. I e-mail my mom once a week when I go to a coffee shop with my laptop, but everyone knows not to call me unless it's an emergency.”
“If you have a family who will have you, you should be with them.” Jared spoke with real conviction. “It's not safe to be alone.”
Who will have you.
Gen nudged him with her elbow. “I think we have different sets of dangers. Other people make up a lot of mine."
He put his head in his hands. “I thought maybe you were alone, too. I'm sorry. I'm such an idiot sometimes. You can't have wanted me living in your bathtub –”
“Hot tub.” Gen was trying to wrap her head around the idea that Jared had been sticking around, at least partly, for her. Because he thought he'd found a kindred spirit? Because he wanted to think he was offering Gen something, not just taking advantage?
“ – or messing up your house or making you hunt for candy.”
“I wish I could hunt candy,” Gen said, before she could think better of it. “Did – did something happen to your family? Or was there a fight? Is that how you wound up in that net? I promise I won't get angry or flip out or run away screaming, no matter what you tell me.”
“I have met you, Gen.” Jared's voice came out muffled. “Aren't artists supposed to be a different kind of crazy?”
“No deflecting.” Gen tried for a stern tone.
He put down his hands. Slowly – just in case he was using them to balance – she folded her fingers through the closest one. Jared blinked down at the way their hands intertwined, like he didn't know that could happen. Maybe he didn't, if his species spent most of its time in a form that didn't have hands. If Gen was going to buy that one.
“I messed up real bad,” Jared said. “Real bad. We're not – we're not like I told you. We're not the biggest things in the ocean, so we stick together. There are other things that can look like us, and they will split off, but most of us just don't.”
“I kinda figured you weren't a lone wolf.” She stroked her thumb over the back of his hand.
He leaned against her, just a little. She tried to ignore the way one of his towels was seeping moisture into her cotton pajama bottoms. He didn't smell very fishy, which was in and of itself a little odd, considering.
Gen waited a moment, but he didn't seem up for saying anything else. “Can you tell me what happened?”
He swallowed hard. “We're very tight knit, but I don't want you to think we're the cuddle bunnies of the sea, either. It can be wonderful out there. But it's also – rough.” He closed his eyes, his tail slapping a bit against Gen's legs. It never stopped being weird. “I'm sorry. I can't. Maybe I could, eventually, but ...”
He was leaving. He didn't have time to grow comfortable enough to tell Gen whatever it was he only half-wanted to say.
“You don't have to tell me. I offered in case you needed – anyway, I just hope you weren't killing babies or something.” Gen realized she had no idea what kind of babies she meant. Merperson? Seahorse? Saltwater crocodile?
“No, as happy as I am that you'd go there.” He made a face. “The bottom line is that I've been banished. Eventually, I might find some other banished merperson and we'll make our own pod. Someone's bound to get blacklisted every decade or so. I wasn't even on my own that long before I got stuck in that net.”
But Gen understood: Jared was on his own. Jared hated being on his own. That's why he'd rather stick it out here, with some strange human woman, then go back where he belonged. If he was getting attached to her, it was because he had no other merpeople to attach to, like when racehorses bonded with goats and chickens.
Gen didn't want him alone out there, just him and the ocean full of things that could hurt him. But when she peered at his face, she saw both grief and real longing. Jared needed to go back. Gen couldn't keep him here. She wasn't even staying herself.
He brightened. “I don't suppose you're on a coast, wherever it is you really live? So I could visit sometimes?”
She wasn't. Otherwise, she wouldn't have traveled to one.
“I think we chalk this one up to a really strange once-in-a-lifetime friendship. I'm going to go home and convince myself I hallucinated a merman for over a month. And you'll – you'll go find some nice merpeople, banished or not, and when you tell them about the time you stayed in a human house, they won't believe a word. Or a bubble. However you speak out there.”
Jared braced himself. Gen didn't realize what he was doing until it was already over, his lips lifting from her cheek. “Did I do that right? I meant it as a sign of affection. Isn't that what it means?”
She squeezed his hand. “You did it just fine.”
He grinned at her like he'd never been even a little bit sad or hurt or bitter, ever, in his entire life. "Can I finish the gummy bears before we go?"
Gen kept him in the golf cart until the found an isolated stretch of beach, because other form or no, this would go better sans witnesses.
She helped him lower himself from the cart to a folded tarp. He curled up, arms wrapped around his tail, as she dragged him to the beach. She couldn't drive a golf cart directly into the waves, and there was no use healing him only to cut him open getting to the water.
In the sunlight, she could see small white scars covering his tail – marks from the very deepest cuts. She tried not to look. She kept going until her calves were submerged.
That was more than enough, because he met her eyes, and then he shifted and wiggled and a wave came, and he was gone. That was fine. He was a wild thing, and he'd sensed his freedom. You couldn't expect something – someone, Jared was a someone – like that to say goodbye.
Gen found an inclining, rocky outcrop and sat down away from the waves, removing her sodden boat shoes. The sky was cloudy. The ocean stretched gray-green and endless. She thought she saw a dolphin jumping at the far edge of the horizon, but it was too far away to tell. She closed her eyes and tilted her face toward what little sun there was.
She looked up and saw Jared bobbing behind the wave line. Anyone who didn't know better would've thought he was a human treading water. She didn't know how much time had passed.
“Come here!” When she didn't move right away, he began to wheedle. “Please?”
“It's cold!” she yelled back.
But he knew enough about her to pull out his most crestfallen expression. Gen wasn't sure he was the craftiest creature to swim the Earth, but he could definitely be manipulative. “Don't you trust me?”
The water was cold – not dangerously so, but also nothing she would've entered otherwise – but she put on her boat shoes and waded out, and as soon as the water hit her hips, she felt something moving around her legs. That was never a good feeling in the ocean, even if the thing bumping you was a personal acquaintance. Gen squeaked, and then strong arms were banding around her middle, pulling her farther out. She felt water push around her legs and realized it was being moved by his tail.
“You don't have to swim. I've got you.” He didn't take her out very far – just, she thought, where it was more comfortable for him.
He looked so at ease.
He let her tread water while he maybe showed off a little, twining and twirling around her, like a dolphin feeling particularly curious about a boat. Maybe mermen had weird farewell rituals. Maybe he just wanted her to see that he wasn't always clumsy and awkward, even though she'd had an inkling that he did a lot better in water. Maybe he wanted her to be the one that didn't and couldn't fit.
He popped in front of her. “I didn't mean to take off like that. It's just – man, the ocean. It's been awhile. When I looked back to shore, I didn't see you at first. My stomach might have dropped to my fluke.”
She supposed it was nice that he'd wanted a goodbye as well. “You're out of breath.”
He winced, although it didn't do much to detract from the overall joyousness that was Jared the Merman, Returned to the Sea. “I think you were right, and I did get a little out of shape. Flopping across your kitchen isn't the same thing as swimming.”
Gen gripped his forearms like they were flotation devices, and she'd just jumped off a sinking ship. “You'll be alright, though? You're not going to get a cramp three thousand miles from shore?”
He looked like he didn't know what she was talking about.
“And you won't swim into any more nets? Or get eaten by a shark?”
“I told you sharks don't bother me.”
“But that's bullshit. You have scars on your tail that aren't from that net.” Gen hadn't known for sure, but now she did: His expression was that of a caught kid. “I know you can't stay with me – you don't belong on land and I think we'd drive each other nuts eventually – but I'm going to be worrying about you because I'm okay being alone but you hate it. You hate it enough that you tried to live in a house.”
He leaned in and kissed her, tugging for a second on her lower lip.
“Um.” Gen went back to treading water, partially because it suddenly seemed weird to touch him, partly because she needed to generate warmth. “Was that another sign of affection? Or a goodbye?”
“I don't really mind legs,” Jared said. “Not if they're yours. Especially the knee parts. They're all knobby.”
Was he propositioning her?
Gen's mind hit that wall with a smack. “Jared, we're different species with, um, differences.”
He seemed fascinated with the water's surface. “How long will you be around?”
“I've got another month on the lease. But that's not –”
He talked right over her. “I thought I might stick around this shoreline for a little while. It's probably going to take me a month or so to get strong enough to head out into deeper water. You could visit me while I recover?”
Gen paused. “I'm not sure that's the best idea."
"You ... you really don't want to see me again? Ever?"
"It's not that." Gen shivered. "I know even hanging out with a human has to seem better than being alone right now, but that's not a forever situation. You're going to find some nice, banished mermaid. Or, I dunno, make friends with dolphins or sea turtles.”
“Sea turtles? Gen, I'm never going to meet anyone like you ever again, and not just because I won't be looking like this after I leave. If this is all we're going to have, why can't we just have it?”
She stared at him.
He fumbled. “I don't mean things where our differences are relevant, necessarily, and I don't mean you taking care of me, because as much as I like 24/7 access to candy, I don't think either of us can handle much more of me pretending to be a house pet –”
Gen swallowed a little sea water. “Jared, you are going to have to be real, real clear about what you mean, here.”
He slumped lower into the water. “I mean you bring the laminated deck of cards and some snacks down to the rocks a couple of times before you leave, and we talk and play games, and I get another month of not knowing what it's like when you're gone forever.”
Right. Because when Gen left, Jared would be alone.
She knew he needed someone, but she also knew she couldn't ever be that someone, and she resented him a little for making her feel like she could want to be. It was all so stupid. Jared was bewildering and odd and Gen never knew quite what to make of him. He wouldn't stop throwing her for loops.
“You do remember we haven't even known each other that long, right?”
“So why not know each other a little longer?”
“Because it's just delaying the inevitable!” Gen flailed her hands, splashing water. “Why did you kiss me? Do you have any idea how weird this is getting? You can't get attached to me! Especially not like that.”
“I don't know! Cosmo said to? And it happens in all the damn movies.” Jared huffed. “We're not like you. We don't have romance. That's a human thing. We just have our pods. Our families. We're physically affectionate when we're … affectionate, but I don't know how it's all supposed to translate. I figured you wouldn't like me rubbing my whole body over you.”
“Um, good call.” She wasn't sure she believed he didn't know what kissing meant. Then again, Jared did have a really bizarre mishmash of human knowledge. She wasn't ever going to learn how he'd acquired any of it, because this was it for them.
Dammit. Gen didn't get like this. Whatever this was.
“I kind of like the kissing,” Jared said.
Gen would have knocked her forehead against something, except she was in the ocean. She remembered that this was the last time she'd see him. Her fingers were starting to go numb. “I don't want to fight right now.”
“Humans hug. That's a way, um, safer way to say goodbye.”
They looked at each other.
Gen sighed and paddled toward him. “Like this.”
Jared made a weird, snorfling sound into her hair, even as his arms squeezed around her like he'd never let go. “You look so terrible in the water. How does anyone move that slow?”
She tapped his shoulders and his arms dropped back to his sides, creating an awkward moment when Gen had to start treading again and accidentally kicked his tail. “Don't you dare swim into any more nets."
Gen lasted a week.
For better or worse, the place she'd rented had become that place she'd shared with a merman, and Jared's memory wasn't fading just because the whole experience had been weird or never should have happened in the first place. None of it felt unreal. If anything, it was the empty, clean house that seemed like something from another universe.
She emptied the hot tub and drew a tarp over it.
She did the best she could everywhere else. She laughed a little when she found bags of candy in odd, low places. Clearly, Jared had started stashing snacks for maximum convenience.
She didn't miss all the work – who would? – but she kept expecting to see Jared draped in wet towels and wearing one of his giant, toothy smiles and asking her if Scrabble was waterproof after it was already halfway in the tub.
His memory was a ghost. A giant, loud, half-aquatic ghost.
She missed him, when she didn't have to, not yet, because he'd been willing to stick around as long as she was there.
She found herself driving down to the place where she'd last seen Jared, carrying supplies. She didn't know if he'd be there. She just knew she wanted him to be.
She sat down on a damp rock, crisscrossed her ankles and munched on a chocolate pretzel. A small dorsal fin appeared, maybe twenty feet off. She didn't think it belonged to a shark. She tried to throw a pretzel at it, but the wind caught it and buffeted it back.
“Nice.” Jared's head poked out of the waves, a moment later and much, much closer. “Did you come here just to fail to pelt me with candy?”
Apparently, she'd gotten lucky enough to land a grumpy Jared. Had he been watching for her?
“I'm getting rusty.” She held two Ziploc bags: one with cards, one with poker chips.
His eyes lit up, but only for a second. Then, he was back to looking wary. “What is this?”
“Cards and snacks, as requested.”
He chose a rock a little below Gen, hauling himself halfway out of the water. He looked fine. Healthy. He hadn't lost any weight, which was actually kind of surprising, since he had to be getting more exercise and less food. “That's not what I meant, and you know it.”
Oh God. She'd trained him to notice her bullshit.
She left the food and cards where they were and climbed onto the lower rocks, where the spray splashed against her bare legs. “My first plan made more sense, I think. But nothing about you and me makes sense, so why am I even trying? We're friends. It's weird. But I don't want or need you out of my life.”
“But you're leaving.”
She shrugged as best she could while trying to get to the water's edge. “We'll deal with that when we get there. If we want to see each other again, we'll figure something out.”
He narrowed his eyes. “I'm not supposed to get attached to you.”
“You'll be in good company. Or company, anyway.” She was close enough to touch him now, so she did, scraping wet hair back from his forehead. He allowed the touch, but his brow furrowed beneath her fingers.
“We're different species,” Jared said quietly. “That's kind of a big one.”
“It might not be relevant.”
He closed his eyes, looking pained. “It might be. A little. If you want it to be.”
She wondered if this was how things like ligers and mules happened.
Gen honestly wasn't sure about sex with Jared – how she felt about it or how it would work – but she also wasn't sure that's what he was looking for, specifically. She kinda doubted either one of them was ready to leap into it, in any case, though all that talk of yucky legs was starting to feel like so much hot air.
She kissed him. His lips parted, maybe in surprise. He mostly just let her tongue move around his mouth, his own movements tentative. His hands came up to skate over her shoulders, dampening the fabric. He tasted warm and salty. Gen was somewhat relieved not to detect any fish.
He made a soft noise, and warmth bloomed through her. She liked him. She liked kissing him. She didn't know what that meant. She didn't think it was something she had to understand right this second.
When their mouths separated, he cupped the back of her head, pressing their foreheads together. “I wasn't lying about the romance. We stay with our mothers and siblings and visit other pods to mate. We might stay with a guest pod a while, but it's never –” He seemed to realize he was babbling merpeople secrets. “This, the way I'm feeling – it's really, really strange, Gen. You have no idea.”
It struck her that Jared could have kids somewhere.
“I think I have a bit of an idea,” she said.
His hand fell to play with the ends of her hair. “Yeah?”
She pulled back and met his eyes. “Humans usually don't bring dolphins home from the beach. They don't feed them candy or teach them poker or kiss them.”
“I'm not a dolphin.”
She raised her eyebrows.
Jared was clearly trying for a scowl. He was also clearly failing. “Bottlenose dolphins are a completely different species, and they're jerks, and we don't get along. I'm a merperson who happens to look like one most of the time. Just not with you. Which you should be happy about, because I think humans aren't allowed to put wild dolphins in their bathtubs.”
“Like that wouldn't have ended really badly for you, too.” She poked his chest. "Plus it's even odder to say 'merperson.' You don't exist to us, remember?"
He caught her hand and held it. He really did like physical contact. She wondered how he'd known not to engage almost the entire time they'd lived together. Maybe he'd sensed it wasn't a good idea to pull her into the water. “Are we really doing this?”
Gen's cheeks heated. “Is it okay if we take it slow? Stick with kissing and card games and just kind of feel our way through it? It's a lot, and I think you're a little ahead of me on, um, some things.”
He sat straight up, nodding fervently. “I don't understand everything and I don't want to mess it up, and not just because you're the only person talking to me. So don't think that, okay? I wouldn't have started talking to anyone else.” He smiled, bigger than she'd ever seen him, his whole face transformed. “You're practically the best person ever.”
This was weird, and it wasn't going to get less weird, and Gen doubted it was going to get any easier, either. They weren't meant to be together. Jared still had to live in the ocean. Gen still couldn't. They didn't make sense. Nothing about them did.
“I brought five kinds of candy.”
He bobbed up and smushed his lips against her cheek, happy, like a kid. “I think that other rock's big enough. Who's dealing the cards?”