Sam Jones had come to this seaside town to escape her problems. It turned out that more than a few of hers were the kind of problems you carried with you but the space did help. After all, her parents had never been interested in following her even when she lived in the same house as them, drug dealers stuck to areas where there were people to sell to, and even a bad reputation could only spread as far as people were willing to carry it.
Sam had taken more than a few pains to drop hers, along with most other traces of her old life. She’d cut and bleached her hair, taken up running, and fallen into a version of the vegetarian diet her parents had tried on her as a child. There was still fish involved, because the other alternatives were tofu or beans, but it was something.
The drugs were probably the hardest part of the process and, despite being clean for almost a year, the odd urge still came up. Mostly for cigarettes, seeing as people smoked those even in the smallest town, but it was easy enough to replace that with a piece of hard candy to work over until the desire for a smoke passed.
There were things she couldn’t change of course. The scars from various misadventures with needles and other sharp things, along with other casual abuses, were as much a part of her skin as her freckles and the deadness in her eyes never seemed to lift no matter how hard Sam smiled at her reflection, but she was used to those things.
Some part of her hoped that it would eventually go away, that her better choices would wear that emptiness away like the ocean wore away at the chalk cliffs, but there was another part that said that sadness was carved into her bones, as immutable as granite and infinitely less forgiving to those it fell on.
For now, she’d just take it one day at a time and, today, she was taking some time to herself.
Sam walked along the beach, stepping over the rough rocks that interrupted the long stretches of damp sand, only stopping to pick up trash to carry away and the odd animal washed ashore to throw back into the sea. Most of them were probably long past helping, but she did it anyway on the off-chance they weren’t.
If it helped them, it was good karma. If it didn’t… well, it made her feel better for having tried.
So there Sam went, picking her away along the sand, just out of reach of the surf, until something stopped her.
A white thing laying on the sand, partially covered by seaweed and a tangle of heavy grade fish net. Was it some kind of… fish or dolphin? Maybe a seal?
Sam’s heart skipped a beat as she finally processed what she was seeing.
That was a man lying on the sand, his body twisted around inside that net, his only clothing some sort of weird swimmer’s leggings which looked like the sort of high-end equipment that only belonged to professionals or the absurdly dedicated.
That made it ironic, then, for someone who loved swimming so much to die by drowning.
To Sam’s eye, he looked fairly fresh, without any of the disfigurements that usually followed most deaths and the natural processes of decomposition. Not that she knew much about those things, but film, television, and books had given her enough of a sketch to make assumptions off of. Really, the only sign that he was dead at all was the fact that he was candle wax pale and… well, not moving.
Just to be sure, she checked his pulse the best she could, pulling at the fishing net until she could reach inside properly. Nothing, and the skin of his wrist was just as clammy and cold as the fall air.
Pity. Not just because he was beautiful either, but Sam wouldn’t deny that played a large part of her reaction. It was like someone had brought one of those statues to life – the proper, carved marble Renaissance kind that looked like they’d walk off the pedestal if you breathed on them right – and then just… thrown him away, like he was some sort of broken toy rather than a person.
Didn’t make a lick of sense to her, but the idea of ‘life was rarely ever fair’ wasn’t a new concept in Sam Jones’ understanding of the world. People like her who were nothing but trouble lived while people who were just minding their own business died. Now she had to go back to the village and get some help, even if it was just the sort that figured out what his name was from dental records.
Abruptly, those cold pale fingers twitched and then slowly curled around her wrist. A low, almost impossibly quiet exhale of air rasped out from in between the man’s lips before all the facts slid together correctly.
Dead, no. Almost dead, yes. And, if Sam Jones remembered her movies correctly, almost dead was still slightly alive.
She tore off her coat, wrapping the stranger up in it as she tore away the fishing nets. Every inch of his skin was cold, clammy, and stiff, but that matched what she understood of hypothermia. Hypothermia was the condition of being too cold and if you fell asleep while in that sort of condition, you usually died. So, that meant get him warmed up quickly, ideally by getting him off of the wet sand and into a warm house.
Her place – an isolated cottage that was a decent walk from the town proper – wasn’t too far off, but there was no way she could carry a full grown man even that distance. Or maybe she could, even if it would hurt, but what was a little pain compared to someone else’s life?
“Hey,” Sam said, hooking one of her arms under one of his and bracing his body against hers. Even through the layered jumpers she was wearing, she could still feel the cold pouring off of him. “You think you can walk at all?”
Before he could respond, she moved to pull him upright, reaching down to help him bend his knees before realizing there wasn’t a knee to bend.
What she’d initially assumed to be some sort of swimsuit leggings was actually a tail; long, muscled, and covered in scales that rubbed against the skin of her palm like textured metal and with just as much heat to them.
Mermaid. Man. Person. Whatever the exact term was, it just made the situation a lot more difficult, even if it didn’t strictly alter her initial goal.
Sam adjusted her grip again, getting the closest she could manage to a bridal style carry without the benefit of knees to hold onto before lifting him up. He was heavier than expected, but somehow, she managed to get herself upright without dropping him.
She could probably chalk that up to clean living, if nothing else.
“Probably should take up strength training, ‘sides the running,” she wheezed to her semi-conscious cargo as she caught her balance again. Probably would have been a better idea to go get a sled or something, but too little too late now.
The merperson didn’t respond, instead letting his head roll over into the hollow of Sam’s neck where his faint, cold breath could send her spine shivering.
Least it would be a sign he was still alive, she rationalized as she turned back towards home, hands full of a being she’d assumed the stuff of fairytale until five minutes ago. “Right, let’s just hope I’m going about this the right way.”
Sam Jones was pretty sure she was going about this the wrong way. She’d never even kept a goldfish alive for more than a week, what did she know about taking care of a manfish?
Well, enough to guess that the bathtub was probably not the greatest choice, but it’s not like she had a lot of those to choose from, what with the fact that her house had a sum total of four rooms (bedroom, bathroom slash laundry room, kitchen slash dining room, and sitting slash entry room) and a half-attached barn to work with, which, when combined a crawling dislike of the idea of getting anyone else involved, took a limited set of options down to one.
She couldn’t quite put a finger on what she didn’t like about telling someone else about him, but it was a close cousin to the feeling she got when she thought about going back to her parents; the absolute dread certainty that they’d be all over her, smothering and controlling – in the name of helpful concern, of course – until there was nothing left to do but suffocate or run away again. Probably back into the arms of her neighborhood friendly drug dealer, seeing as that’s how she dealt with her lackluster family situation the first time ‘round.
Or maybe it was the sort of selfishness that came with keeping a secret treasure all to oneself.
Sam shoved that train of thought out of her mind as the fish in her pan started to burn. Removing it from the heat, she quickly picked up the pale meat with her spatula and split it between the two bowls, shoving it to the side of the laver and cockles. Hopefully, the seafood would go over well with her unusual guest, because if it didn’t, Sam had no idea on where to go from there. The sort of fish flakes you bought at the pet store maybe?
Walking over to the bathroom, she knocked twice on the door and called, “Room service!” before pushing it open with her foot.
The water in the tub sloshed as the merman looked over at her with a pair of eyes so blue that they looked like someone had cut out a couple circles out of the sky on the clearest, brightest day of summer for the express purpose of sticking them in his face.
His tail was hanging over the end, too long for the tub by a foot or more but not looking any worse for wear despite that inconvenience and with the advantage of proper lighting, it was now possible to appreciate the real beauty of those green scales; the way they shimmered gold, silver, aqua-blue, and every other electric shade in between every time its owner adjusted himself.
His wavy hair was another piece of art, though a bit quieter in its own way. A gradient between the extremes of brown and green, starting as a rich and lustrous Titian red at the roots and becoming a shade of seaweed by the time it reached his shoulders, the real trick was the way the light managed to pull not only red and gold highlights out of it, but green and that same electric blue from the scales on the other end as well. Attached to another person with a regular sort of body, Sam might have just assumed it was an excellent dye job or an inspired cover up of one of those ‘pool turned my peroxide green’ mishaps she’d run into after she’d started bleaching. Of course, hers had never turned out as neatly as his, but Sam wasn’t a mermaid and thus didn’t have mermaid magic to make her pretty.
The rest of him wasn’t bad either, especially now that there was a bit more color to him. While he was still pale skinned, there was some rosiness to it now that would have made it very easy to mistake the merman for a rather fit man if not for the… well, ‘mer’ part hanging over the far end of the tub.
“I got you something to eat,” she said, lifting up one of the bowls as she crossed the room, careful to walk on the throw rug rather than the damp tile. Slipping was the last thing she needed now.
The merman stared at the bowl, not even reaching up a hand to take it. Not that it was a problem; Sam had long ago discovered this set was very good at floating in an upright position. There was a small pleasure to eating macaroni and cheese while having a bubble bath after all.
“I get that you probably don’t use silverware under the sea, but I thought… well, once it cools down, you could probably use your fingers,” Sam said as she sat down on the toilet with her own bowl, stabbing into the fish with her fork and taking a bite. “See? Not poisoned. Barely even seasoned it, beyond a little salt. Figure that wouldn’t hurt you, seeing as you come from the ocean. Hard to get saltier than that.”
He tilted his head as if considering her words and then carefully picked up his fork. Once he confirmed that the piece of machined steel wasn’t going to jump to life and bite him, his grip tightened and he started imitating Sam’s movements, right down to blowing on the fish when it was too hot to eat immediately.
“You’re a smart one. Going to have to keep my bad habits to a minimum around you, lest you end up a ne’er-do-well too,” she murmured around a mouthful of cockles. She swallowed and tried to smile engagingly, only for the expression to falter after a second. “Betchya could guess I don’t get a lot of company out here. Can’t say I like humans that much anymore. They see something about you and, no matter what you’ve been doing now, they decide in their heads what you are and how they can treat you. It gets a bit lonely, but I can survive it. Even if I do end up talking too much when I’m not alone.”
There was another quizzical tilt of the head from the merman and then a slow, uncertain smile that stabbed into Sam’s heart like a knife despite the utter absence of malicious intent behind it.
She stood up quickly, almost dropping her bowl and fork in her scramble to get to her feet. “Well, I’ve got… chores to do. Dishes. Dusting. Stuff. I’ll get yours later.”
Sam tried to shove those startled blue eyes out of her mind as she practically ran into the kitchen, shoving the dirty dishes into the sink before she let herself sink to the floor, tangling her fingers in her hair.
Fantastic. She had a crush on a fish. This was why mermaids were a bad idea.
“I’m starting to think you understand English.”
The merman tilted his head at Sam, that damn smile coming back to mess up the rhythm of her heart. From her current angle, with her sitting on the floor with her back against the wall and him leaning over the edge of the tub, chin rested on his crossed forearms, he could be mistaken for a normal human until you calculated how long he’d been in the tub and the lack of wrinkles that usually came from doing that.
Of course, the tub was drained at the moment. Sam knew enough to know that water that had anything living in it needed to be changed every so often unless you wanted it to change itself into water with nothing living in it. That her mermaid was functional without the water helped the process, though she was loathe to remove him from the tub after all the trouble of getting him in there in the first place.
It was three days since she’d brought him in and Sam thought she was beginning to get a feel for him as a person, despite him never saying a word during that time.
If she had to sum him up in something as simple as words, he was the mysterious type who knew things; the sort who let others answer the questions put to him just by smiling or frowning at the right time. The small sort of expression too, nothing that anyone would really describe as lighting up a room or properly stormy, but the sort of expression that caused a minute shift in the wind; detectable, but never so obvious as to be known to anyone that wasn’t paying attention.
Maybe it was just the most efficient way of communicating for him. He was certainly good at them, seeing as he seemed to have one for almost every mood. This one was the one Sam had mentally labeled as ‘indulgent’. A clear agreement, but nothing truly eager.
“Puts you ahead of half the people I went to school with, at least,” Sam continued, hugging her knees as she rocked forwards and back again. “Bloke named Baz – short for Balthazar, couldn’t tell you why his parents named him that or how anyone got ‘Baz’ out of it – couldn’t write to save his life, but he was fair up on his numbers. ‘course, he got most of his practice selling drugs, so I suppose I shouldn’t complement him too much on that point. Wouldn’t be surprised if he’s dead by now, considering some of the rumors I heard about his ‘business’ partners.”
Somehow, despite the lack of response, it was easier to talk to the mute merman than anyone else. Maybe it was because he never looked like he was judging her, which was either because he didn’t care or that he had no idea what she was really talking about – understanding of English or not, the understanding of those words in the context of Sam’s life wasn’t guaranteed to follow it.
She dragged a hand back through her hair, feeling the exact place where the bleached silky blonde hit the coarser dark brown roots. It’d been a few weeks since her last bleach and while it was still in the realm of ‘stylish’, it would only be a month or so until it wasn’t.
Another set of fingers, wider and stronger and rougher than expected, laced around hers, combing through her hair smoothly and gently.
“You’re just bound and determined to make me fall in love with you, aren’t you?” Sam muttered to the merman as he leaned over the lip of the tub, arm stretched all the way out just so he could reach her.
He merely smiled in response, that twist of the mouth and crinkling of the eyes saying ‘maybe’ as clearly as the spoken word, as he continued the action, leaning further and further over the lip of the tub so he could reach more of her scalp.
Then, because wet curved porcelain isn’t the best thing to balance all one’s weight on, he slipped, falling over into Sam’s lap, his tail hitting the tile floor with a thunderous slap.
He also had forgotten to release Sam’s hair on his way down.
Yes, she thought to herself as she pushed aside the pain in her scalp and started checking the merman over for injuries, this fish was definitely going to end up killing her and it probably wouldn’t even be on purpose.
Time passed on and Sam Jones felt like she was falling into a rhythm. She set up a curtain in the bathroom so they could both have a little privacy when it was required. The sponge baths she was reduced to weren’t quite as pleasant as a good bubble bath, but it wasn’t like she could haul her fishy flatmate out of the tub and leave him to dry out on the couch for the half hour it took to get a decent soak. She could live without access to the tub, he couldn’t.
As for food… well, fish wasn’t bad, and if she seasoned it right, it wasn’t bad having it at almost every meal. She’d probably have to go into town to restock sooner than later, but that was still a week or so off.
All and all, it was a good price for company, silent as it was.
So, naturally, it couldn’t last and two weeks after Sam Jones brought her fishy friend into her home, someone knocked on the door.
Sam dropped the book she’d been reading to her merman, fumbling to catch it again before it could fall onto the damp tile. “Shit!” she hissed as she just managed to catch it and started scrambling towards the door.
Oh god, let it not be someone who would barge in, let it not be someone who absolutely had to snoop –
Sam pulled the door open and locked eyes with Mrs. Mathews, the middle-aged fishmonger’s wife, complete with her customary gingham dress and heavy rubber galoshes under a careworn shawl. On the upside, she wasn’t one of the town gossips. On the other, she was one of the only people in town that would have a legitimate reason to ask what was going on in the world of Sam Jones.
“Are you doing alright out here, Sam?” Mrs. Mathews asked, cutting off the storm of internal screaming.
“Perfectly, why? Do I not look alright? Maybe a touch peaky around the edges or something?” she replied, the words spilling out of her mouth like water and just managing to land in the right order by sheer chance.
The woman didn’t reply immediately, instead leaning over to peek into the house. “You haven’t been into town for a few weeks.”
“Really? I didn’t notice,” Sam lied. “Been sort of busy with– with– with things.”
“What sort of – oh my.”
Sam followed Mrs. Mathews stare and found her jaw dropping.
Her merman was standing in the middle of her living room on a pair of very human legs and without a stitch of fabric on him apart from the towel he was tousling his hair with, leaving nothing but the angle of his stance to cover up the exact details of how human his lower half was at the moment.
Undaunted by the staring or the stunned silence accompanying it, he flashed a smile – innocent on the surface, but with an easy mischief playing under beneath it – at the two women before walking out of sight into the kitchen with a smooth gait that shouldn’t have belonged to someone who most definitely didn’t have legs ten minutes ago.
Mrs. Mathews licked her lips, fascination burning in her eyes like a coal hiding in the depths of a dark fireplace. “I see why you’ve been keeping to yourself these last few weeks.”
Sam’s jaw managed to rehinge itself in time for her red face properly caught fire. “It’s not –”
“Oh, no need to deny it to me, dear. I understand completely.”
Sam was pretty sure that she didn’t, but it was easier to just nod and accept the conspiratorial wink and puckish chortle that Mrs. Mathews gave her before leaving than try to spin a story with a tied tongue with a stutter and a scream lurking right behind it. Besides, she had bigger fish to fry.
She stalked into the kitchen and immediately had to refocus her eyes on the cupboards, because the other option was to let her gaze wander somewhere else, where it would most likely stay until something interrupted the ensuing stupor.
Thankfully, the opportunity for that distraction came and passed quickly as her merman turned to face her, his smile widening to show off pearly teeth and an equally unmissable pride. If that pride was in himself for having pulled off the ‘tail to legs’ trick while no-one was looking or successfully pranking the two women, Sam couldn’t say.
“Couldn’t you have done this a few weeks ago, instead of making me haul you around every time you fell out of the bath?” she asked.
The smile fell into a put upon puppy dog frown that made full use of those brilliantly blue eyes.
Sam almost relented. Almost, because she knew that the puppy dog frown only came out when he was trying to convince her to be sympathetic and give him something that he wanted. ‘Just one more story before you go to bed, Sam’, that expression said. ‘Just a few more minutes before you stop combing my hair, Sam’, was another possible translation. Right now, it was very much a ‘oh please, don’t turn me out of your house, Sam,’ sort of look.
“I’m not kicking you out,” she said. “I just want to know if I can finally take a bubble bath again.”
The curious look that followed that just confirmed that Sam Jones would probably not be taking that bath alone. That he probably wouldn’t be interested in leaving after was implied, but Sam couldn’t quite bring herself to mind.