When We Believed in Mermaids by Barbara O’Neal
My sister has been dead for nearly fifteen years when I see her on the TV news.
I’d been working the ER for six hours straight, triaging young humans from a beach party where a fight broke out. Two gunshot wounds, one that nicked a kidney; a broken cheekbone; a broken wrist; and multiple facial wounds of various levels of severity.
And that was just the girls.
By the time we made it through the triage, I’d stitched and soothed the lucky ones. The unlucky ones were sent to surgery or to the wards, and I dived into the break room fridge for a Mountain Dew, my favored way to mainline sugar and caffeine.
A television mounted to the wall broadcasts the news of a disaster somewhere. I stare at it sightlessly as I gulp the sticky-sweet soda. It’s night. Flames are erupting in the background. People are running and screaming, while a news anchor with tousled hair and a vintage leather bomber jacket offers the news in properly grave tones.
And there, right over his left shoulder, is my sister.
For one long second, she looks at the camera. Long enough that there is no mistaking her. That straight, straight blonde hair, cut now into a sleek bob that just grazes her shoulders, her tilted dark eyes and slashes of cheekbone, that fat Angelina Jolie mouth. Everyone always fussed over her beauty, and it’s that combination of dark and light, angles and softness that does it. She’s an exact mix of our parents.
I feel as if she’s looking through the screen, right at me.
And then she’s gone, and the disaster keeps going. I stare, openmouthed, at the empty spot she left, holding the Mountain Dew out in front of me like an offering or a toast.
To you, Josie, my sister.
Then I shake myself. This happens all the time. Anyone who has lost somebody they love has experienced it—the head in the crowd on a busy street, the person at the grocery story who moves just like her. The rush to catch up, so relieved that she is actually still alive . . .
Only to be crushed when the imposter turns around and the face is wrong. The eyes. The lips.
It must have happened to me a hundred times in the first year, especially because we never found a body. Impossible, given the circumstances. Also impossible that she survived. Not for her the ordinary demise of a fiery car accident or a leap off a bridge, though she threatened those often enough.
No, Josie was vaporized on a European train blown up by terrorists. Gone, gone, gone.
This is why we have funerals. We desperately need to see the truth for ourselves, see that loved one’s face, even if it’s marred. Otherwise, it’s just too hard to believe.
I lift the Mountain Dew all the way to my lips and take a long swallow of the thing we shared, this private reminder of all we were to each other, and tell myself it’s just wishful thinking.
When I leave the hospital in the predawn stillness, I’m wound up, both exhausted and wired. If I want to get any sleep at all before my next shift, I have to work off the grimy night.
Stopping by my tiny Santa Cruz house, 1,350 square feet on the edge of an almost-not-great neighborhood, I scramble into my wet suit, feed the worst cat in the world his half can of wet food, and make sure to move my fingers around in his kibble. He purrs his thanks, and I pull his tail gently. “Try not to pee on anything too important, huh?”
I load my board into my Jeep and drive south, not realizing that I’m headed for the cove until I get there. Pulling over into a makeshift space alongside the highway, I park and look down at the water. A few bodies out, not many at dawn. The water is northern Cali cold, fifty-three degrees in early March, but the waves are lined up all the way to the horizon. Perfect.
The trail starts where the sidewalk to the restaurant once was and veers down the steep slope in a zigzag carved out a few feet away from the cliff where there used to be stairs, our own private access to the isolated, hidden cove. The hillside is unstable, with a reputation for being haunted, and all the locals know it. I have the descent to myself. But then, I know the ghosts.
Midway down, I stop and look back up to the spot where our house stood, and the restaurant with its celebrated patio boasting the best view in the world. Both buildings lie in rotting planks and debris scattered down the hill, most of it washed away in storms over the years, the rest blackened by seawater and time.
In my imagination, the buildings stand in spectral beauty, the sprawling Eden with its magnificent patio, and above it our little house. Josie and I shared a room after Dylan came, and neither one of us ever minded. I see the ghosts of all of us when we were happy—my parents madly in love, my sister bright and full of boundless energy, Dylan with his hair pulled back in a leather string, racing us down the stairs so we could build a fire on the beach and make s’mores and sing. He loved singing, and he had a good voice. We always thought he should be a rock star. He said he didn’t want anything but Eden, and us, and the cove.
I see myself too, an urchin of seven with too much hair, whirling on the beach, the sky overhead blurring blue and white.
A million years ago.
Our family restaurant was called Eden, both exclusive and permissive, frequented by hippie movie stars and their drug dealers. Our parents were part of that world too—stars in their realm, each wielding power on their own terms, my father the jovial, welcoming chef with his hearty laugh and excessive habits, my mother on his arm, a charming coquette.
Josie and I ran around like puppies, sleeping on the beach of the cove when we got tired, underfoot and ignored. My mother was a great beauty who’d come for dinner with another man and fallen instantly in love with my father, or so the legend says. But if you’d known him, you would know it was entirely likely. My father was a massive personality, a charming, bigger-than-life chef from Italy, though people just said cook in those days. Or restaurateur, which was what he really was. My mother loved him to excess, far more than she loved us. His passion for her was intense, and sexual, and possessive, but is that love? I don’t know.
I do know that it’s hard to be the children of parents who are obsessed with each other.
Josie thrived on drama the way my parents did. She had both my father’s enormous personality and my mother’s beauty, though in Josie, the combination became something extraordinary. Unique. I can’t count the number of times people drew and photographed and painted her, men and women, and how often they fell in love. I always thought she would be a movie star.
Instead, she made of her life a great ruinous drama, just like our parents, with a suitably catastrophic ending.
The cove is still there, of course, even if the stairs are gone. I pull on my booties and weave my heavy hair into a thick braid. Light is spilling peach over the horizon as I paddle around the rocks and out to the line. It’s only three others and me. A nasty shark attack a few weeks ago has thinned the ranks of the eager, no matter how badass the waves.
And they are badass. Solid nine feet, with a gorgeous glassy curl that’s much rarer than people think. I paddle out and wait my turn, catch the line, and leap to my feet to ride right on the edge. This is the instant I live for, that moment when nothing else is in my head. Nothing can be. It’s me and the water and the sky, the sound of the rippling surf. The sound of my breath. The edge of the board slipping along the water, cold over my ankles even in booties. Ice-cold. Perfect balance, shivering, hair slapping my cheek.
For an hour, maybe more, I’m lost in it. Sky and sea and dawn. I dissolve. No me, no body, no time, no history. Just the deck and toes and air and water and suspension—
Until it’s not.
The wave rips unexpectedly and so fast, so hard that I’m slammed deep into the water, the washing machine of surging surf pounding my body, my head, the board, which tumbles too close, a dangerous power that could crack my head wide open.
I go limp, holding my breath, letting the water suds me. Resistance will break you. Kill you. The only way to survive is to let go. The world swirls, up and down, around, for endless moments.
I’m going to drown this time. The board yanks on my ankle, surges me another direction. Seaweed winds around my arms, swirls around my neck—
Josie’s face swims up in front of me. The way it was fifteen years ago. The way it looked on television overnight.
I don’t know how. I know only that it’s true.
The ocean spits me up to the surface, and I drag a breath into my oxygen-starved lungs. By the time I make it back to the cove, I am exhausted and fall on my belly onto the sand of the protected space, resting for a minute. All around me are the voices of my childhood. Me and Josie and Dylan. Our dog, Cinder, a black retriever mix, romps around us, wet and smelly and happy. Smoke from the restaurant fires fills the air with a sense of cozy possibility, and I hear faint music, weaving through long-ago laughter.
When I sit up, it all stops, and there is only the wreck of what once was.