Three jobs through school meant graduation came a semester after all of the classmates Kim had entered with. If she’d known more than two or three of those classmates, maybe that would have been a big deal. But there were bigger deals, in the grand scheme of things. Like not paying student loans, and getting grant funding for research projects. And it’s that grant funding for research that’s brought Kim to Oil City.
Specifically, its $25,000 (plus housing in a dark, three-room cabin normally maintained by the NPS) for 12 months of marine bio-anthropology. The title of the grant proposal had been Contemporary Mermaid Economies of the Pacific Northwest, which, now, Kim isn’t sure is a feasible scope of research. At best she’s going to get Contemporary Mermaid Economies of the Jefferson Cove Area.
But, still. Big deal. She tells herself this again and again as she unpacks her suitcase in the dark and the cold. It took longer than she expected to reach the cabin, and she hasn’t eaten since the morning, and she’s not going to be able to eat until tomorrow when the nearest grocery store (the Kalaloch Mercantile, 20 minutes south) opens, and she’s exhausted from the drive but this is a big deal. This is the chance.
From her window, she can see the faint outline of the coast. Even from here, even in the dark, even in the cold, it’s beautiful.
The first mermaids she meets don’t want to talk to her. They catch one glimpse of the determined blonde woman in a North Face vest, carrying a clipboard, combing the beach with the determination of a census taker, who calls out to them with the odd accent of someone who learned Mer in the classroom, and all dive out of the way. One grey-green flash after another, leaving behind only the baskets they were weaving, the shells they were sorting, the outlines of their powerful bodies that wash away in the water of low tide.
Kim doesn’t blame them. She stands a respectful distance from the rapidly discarded workspaces and it feels very familiar. Jimmy told her once that her intensity could be a little bit frightening, like people weren’t sure if she was mad or not. People are put-off by her energy. Even, it turns out, mer-people.
Kim Wexler is nothing, quite genuinely nothing she often feels, if not determined. Every morning, she wakes in her little cabin and makes herself a cup of tea and tells herself try again. It’s not so different from college, in this regard. Just because nobody believes in you doesn’t mean you can’t do it. Should a full grant from the Oceanic Economic Agency be proof that someone believes in her? Should her full scholarships have been proof? She doesn’t dwell on it. Faceless organizations give money to suit their own interests. It has nothing to do with her.
What does have to do with her, instead, is the reaction of the local mermaid community. All that matters is that at some point in this project, they will have to talk to her. They will have to explain their migration routes and trade policies and thoughts about off-shore drill placements.
From her window, if she looks through her binoculars early in the morning, she can see them huddling for conversation in the tide pools. Like her, they wake early, they appear determined, they go through their days determined and inscrutable. One, in particular, with dark hair and dark eyes, appears particularly so. Sometimes, though Kim tells herself it can’t be true, that mermaid looks up at the cliffs and it seems as though she sees her. It seems as though they see each other in a very particular way.
“What are you hoping to get out of your work here?” The dark-eyed mermaid at last calls out to Kim.
It’s now nearly April, and for months Kim has been forced to write her notes based only on what can be inferred through absences. Things like closed economy and traditional arts. But its 2021, that can’t be all there is, and if that is all there is, is that enough to convince the Ocean Economic Agency that offshore drilling ventures are genuinely damaging? Or would they consider those things acceptable collateral? Probably the latter, given that they get their money for grants like hers from goddam BP…
“I’m studying the economy,” Kim says, which is as much as she feels comfortable getting into with any of them right now.
“Who’s sponsoring you?” The dark-eyed mermaid bobs in the water, just far enough out of reach that they’re both shouting a little bit.
The mermaid disappears under the murky blue of the silty near-shore water. Kim feels her chest suddenly too tight, like she’s old toothpaste being squeezed by the hand of God. So much for everything. At least the landscape is beautiful. She closes her eyes and breathes in deeply. The sea-salt air, the pine, the musk of damp decaying logs scattered on the rocky shores. This is not the worst place for her life to be over.
“Are you all right?” The voice of the mermaid is close.
Kim opens her eyes and sees her in full. She’s pulled herself up to the sand, is sitting with her long tail curled up around her. It’s a beautiful tail, too. Her scales, in the bright morning spring light, are a grey-blue, reflecting the sun above them. There is a pale pink hue in the fine edges of her tailfin. She is astoundingly beautiful, Kim realizes, and then realizes that she’s taken too long to respond. “I’m sorry, yes.”
The mermaid speaks, now, in English. A clipped accent, professional, like the instructors at Stanford. “I’m Lydia.”
Kim offers her hand. “Kim.”
The embrace is electrifying. Lydia’s hand is moist and warm, her grip is firm and certain. “It’s nice to meet you. I’ll have you know, I have many opinions on the work of your sponsoring agency.”
Kim smiles, the rush of gratitude so overwhelming her knees feel slightly weak. “I would love to hear them.”
Once a week, Kim has to go down to Kalaloch for groceries, which means that once a week Kim has to deal with all of Jimmy McGill’s voicemails and, sometimes, Jimmy McGill’s calls. “When are you coming back to California?” he asks, and his voice is tinny over the phone while Kim puts her weekly ration of tea, pickled herring, almond milk and muesli into her grocery basket.
“Look, I told you,” she has, of course, told him this many times, “Not for at least a year. It’s a year-long grant.”
“It’s not the same without you.” He sounds genuinely distressed. Like it’s her fault, somehow, that he decided not to come with her to Oil City. It’s not like she didn’t offer.
“Jimmy, please.” She pauses in the back of the store, as far away from the eyes of the bored man up at the checkout desk as possible, and curls into the conversation, shoulders up almost to her ears, “I told you. This is important. I’m not just going to go back to conning ghosts with you, okay? I like working with mermaids.”
“I’m not just conning ghosts, Jesus, Kim,” Jimmy’s voice does that annoying little uptick that lets her know that if she doesn’t end the conversation as quickly as possible she’s going to hear a lot more from him. “I’m working with the Fresno nightcrawlers, okay? They have—”
There’s no polite way to end this call. Kim braces. “We broke up, Jimmy. I’ve got to go. Stop calling. For, like, a week. At least.”
“Where is this coming from?” That earnest confusion, self-centered. “Did you meet someone or something?”
At once, she thinks of Lydia. At once, she burns with embarrassment. You’re not supposed to “meet” your research subjects like that. She hangs up the phone and then turns it off. She can’t have that conversation right now.
Kim hopes that the whole “ex-boyfriend who won’t fucking cut it out with pretending like the breakup just didn’t happen or is somehow something they can keep working through” thing won’t be a problem at her actual work, but it’s hard to hide that she isn’t sleeping well, that she doesn’t have much of an appetite, that she gets a headache when she thinks about it too hard. All of these things are things she has to explain to Lydia when, one morning in May, Lydia says, “You look exhausted.”
And when Lydia has heard all of these things, when Kim has come out about not just Jimmy but also her concerns about her grant, her concerns about what her life will look like after this grant, and her concerns about what her life looked like before this grant, she gently says, “That’s a significant amount of stress for someone your age.”
“I don’t know,” Kim tries to laugh it off, “Some people have mortgages. Or student debt.”
Lydia nods slowly. She is floating on her back in the water at the base of a great rock, looking up at Kim, who sits with her knees pulled up to her chest. On the horizon, a sailboat clips steadily northwards to Seattle. On the shore, several other mermaids play a complicated betting game with shells and kelp. Lydia’s dark hair frames her head like an endless crown, bleeds into the water around her. “You speak Mer perfectly well, you’re clearly not afraid of unusual and difficult work or you wouldn’t be attempting this project, and you’re quite bright, generally. Have you ever considered joining us?”
“What?” Kim sets her clipboard aside and leans forward, “What do you mean?”
“Well,” Lydia remains still, “It’s very unusual for people to become mermaids, but I’m sure they told you at Stanford that it’s technically a possibility, didn’t they?”
There had been mentions in textbooks, but, again, it’s 2021. Magic is useful only for quantum physicists and civil engineers, or so it’s commonly said. Nobody in marine bio-anthropology really lectured on “becoming a mermaid.” So Kim just shrugs and says, “It wasn’t a central focus in the curriculum.”
Lydia laughs. “I’m sure it wouldn’t be.” Then, serious again, the way she so often is, “But it is possible. I would consider it, if I were you.”
Kim nods. She doesn’t have to say she will. Lydia knows it.
The thing about becoming a mermaid is that it would pretty much fuck everything else in her life up. If she’s going to fuck everything in her life up for a woman, she needs that woman to be worth it. On summer solstice, Kim goes to the beach and watches the sun rise over the water with a weight on her chest that she knows one way or another is going to be moved somehow. Either gently lifted or roughly pushed all the way through her.
When Lydia arrives, Kim gets straight to business. “I like you. But I don’t know if I like you enough to be a mermaid. Does that make sense?”
Lydia smiles. It’s a rare, true smile, where her whole face relaxes. When Kim can see this part of her, she almost feels like it would be worth it, right now, no more conversation. And the weight in her chest is, after all, gently lifted when Lydia says, “Well, of course. It’s a serious consideration. I’ve never even seen you in the water. Can you swim?”
“Then come with me.” Lydia gestures widely, “Don’t worry about your clothes, they’ll be here when you get back.”
Naked, painfully aware of herself, Kim steps into the water. The summer sun overhead burns hot, bakes the sand behind her, but the ocean itself remains cool under its surface. She takes a deep breath when she’s neck deep, and then lets herself become submerged.
For years, she has been in and out of the water only in wetsuits and SCUBA gear. Most swimming in marine bio-anthropology really just consists of hopping in and out of research vessels, staying afloat only as long as it takes to gather information. There has been no joy in movement for as long as she can remember. So it feels unusual, almost frightening, to move her bare limbs in open water, to come up for clear air without the impersonal assurance of safety that a boat offers.
“You have good form.” Lydia appears beside her, puts her warm hand on Kim’s back. “Really.”
Kim turns over, rests with her face towards the sun, and Lydia joins her. They hold hands like otters, floating on the gentle current back towards the shore. “Nothing like you.”
“I’ve been doing this for longer than you have.” Lydia squeezes Kim’s hand, then, abruptly, kisses Kim’s cheek. “You’ll get there.”
Kim hopes that’s true. Every morning, for the whole month, she swims, entirely naked, out into the water to be with Lydia. Sometimes other mermaids join them, sometimes its just the two of them. When it’s just the two of them, sometimes, and then with greater and greater frequency, they swim to a protected cove where a rock cave gives them the privacy they need.
“I was human once.” Lydia wipes her mouth with a certain daintiness after eating Kim out, like she’s just had a Michelin 5-star dish. “I don’t know if that helps you make your decision or not, but it is data.”
Kim reclines on the sun-warmed rock and watches the seagulls in the open air. “What changed?”
“I was tired of the way I was treated.” Lydia pulls herself up next to her, and they hold each other loosely. “By everyone in that life. It wasn’t reasonable to endure that.”
Kim nods slowly. “I don’t know if what I feel is proportionate. I don’t know how much someone is expected to be able to reasonably endure.”
“I worked,” Lydia says, and her voice takes on a slightly distant edge, as though she has recited these facts to herself enough times that she no longer feels any attachment to them, “For a company that valued me only in as much as I created value for them. And I worked, on the side, for men who did the same. I was very good at creating value. But in the end it turned out that the value I created proved not to be attached to me. When I was in danger, I was no longer valuable. The things I did that were, the things I created that could be sold for enormous amounts of money, the work I did that meant our stocks went up, those things were somehow separate from me.” She rolls over, props herself up on her elbow, and meets Kim’s eyes. The water beyond her reflects back on her, her great dark eyes shine. “Is it reasonable to endure being devalued?”
If Kim finished her report now, if she took her findings to the grant agency and their big oil patrons, what would happen? Would the mermaids of the Pacific Northwest somehow enter the stock exchange? What has she been doing here, other than serving someone else’s interest because they told her it was worth her time to do so? What the fuck, how much is 25k in the face of the rest of her life?
“I’m not offering you something easy,” Lydia continues. “I don’t want you to think that this isn’t a life that has its own difficulties. But it’s different. You wouldn’t be alone.”
Kim finds her voice, surprised at how difficult it is to speak through her sudden emotion, surprised, again, to hear that she sounds so certain, “I think I’d prefer that. I’m not averse to a challenge.”
Lydia squeezes her hand. “I know you’re not.”
In Fresno, Jimmy McGill finishes a long night of canvasing with the nightcrawlers. Stuck in the morning commute traffic, he calls Kim again. Again, the phone rings until it drops. In Los Angeles, the grant administrators try again to reach their specialist, and again there is no reply. In Washington, a phone rings in an empty cabin until it turns out of battery and leaves only three silent rooms for the NPS rangers to find abandoned. Kim’s disappearance will remain a mystery to everyone but Kim, who is out in the water, swimming into the blue, no longer feeling the cold. She is pushing further and further and when she feels she might be too tired to keep going, when the shore is hardly a shimmer on the horizon behind her, she feels a hand, warm and strong, entwining their fingers together. A kiss giving her breath, a breath she can feel blooming across her neck, and then she is diving with Lydia, deep into the dark, deep into a new life.