by Lukas Tallent
The first time they did it as husband and wife was at night in the shower of her cousin’s condo in Panama City Beach. After the wedding, reception, and the eight-hour drive from Tennessee, they were exhausted and horny and wanted to be clean. Against the fog-prone glass door, occasionally slipping on the checkered tiles.
The next morning, Darren found his wife, a fresh and powerful designation, on their small balcony, a cup of coffee cradled in her hands. He watched her watch the ocean, the wind torment her sandy hair. Her feet were propped on the railing, and on exhibit, her small ankle tattoo of a crab.
As he kissed her and slouched into a chair, she said, “You didn’t use a condom.”
She handed him the mug with starfishes on its side and said she would get another.
He offered to get it himself, but she told him it was okay, she felt domestic. Odd, because domesticity was not her nature. His wife was from Boston, and her accent made her sound like she’d just been in a bar fight. With a short scrape of her chair on the concrete, she left the table.
Condoms, he figured, didn’t matter so much now. Something about married couples “protecting” themselves seemed wrong.
When she came back, she was distressed. “You’ve impregnated me.”
“You can’t know that quickly,” he said.
But she was at the age of knowing, she said, a time when men and women become so in tune with their bodies to boldly prophesize.
She predicted that their child would be a boy, that they would name him Fenway, after the park in her hometown.
She was an archeologist, almost. They met in the Starbucks on campus, where after listening to her order a pumpkin spice latte with her strange New England tongue, he was unable to resist asking what she studied. “Mermaids, at the moment,” she said, and to prove her point, she unzipped her backpack and placed three volumes of sea lore beside his register. The sight of those books, her stalwart conviction in their findings, and her willingness to hold up the line behind her in order to talk to him—well, it made him feel as if he were standing on top of a skyscraper, that if he pitched slightly forward, he would fall towards doom. Or perhaps, salvation.
Their first full day on the beaches of Panama City was spent acquiring sunburns on their forearms and thighs and lower backs, as well as discovering all the little corners and crevices sand could get to. As they made love that evening, he started to reach for a condom, but his wife shrugged and said, “What does it matter now?” When they were through, he waited for more, either about how much closer such lovemaking made them, or perhaps more likely, their supposed child.
But his wife fell asleep while watching a rerun of a program on the hunt for real-life mermaids. A team of marine biologists had discovered the remains of several humanoid creatures in the Mediterranean and Northern Atlantic that corresponded with ancient descriptions of the mythical creatures. After an hour of the science and expert testimony, he nudged her and said, “Look honey, they’re about to find them.”
“Oh…Flip,” she muttered and threw her arm.
What was—was that—why would she whisper his name?
Darren thought, at first, that it was nothing. Flip had been Darren’s best man, and he trusted the television, the soft, well-educated voices of the commentators with captions of their many degrees appearing at the bottom of the screen.
But the more he thought about it, the more the evidence mounted—the adaptive evolutionary pattern, the coves to avoid, the disappearances, their diets—it all made sense.
Feeling overwhelmed, he got up and paced naked around the condo, poured whiskey into a tumbler. Sat back down and flipped—er, changed the channels—and hoped that this simple, repetitive motion would calm his nerves.
But his thoughts warped with the night, the whiskies, and the future? What would happen now? What if CNN picked up the story, then FOX? What if Monday morning MERMAIDS DO EXIST!!! straddled the front page of The New York Times? And the rest of us? Those pitiful and uncovered mermaids. Their inelegant bodies, soaked and mushy, displayed on the beach as if they were stillborn. Not little red-headed princesses. He turned back to channel 33, where one of the scientists on Nantucket now kneeled closer to the dead creature, lifted its jowls, and showed the world her aquatic canine teeth.
Ariel—his wife—still slept ludicrously beside him. In the warm glow of the television, he realized that maybe she did know. Maybe he had in fact impregnated her, maybe a child’s cells already multiplied and divided within her womb, and maybe those cells included none of his own DNA. He didn’t know whether it would be a boy or a girl. Only that if it were the latter, the responsibility of telling her the truth would be his, and his alone.
Lukas Tallent lives in New York City. His work has recently appeared in On the Run, SORTES, autofocus, and many other places. You can find more of him at lukas-tallent.com.