The first time I saw her was after the Purge. It should have been impossible. She was supposed to be dead. And she nearly was.
I almost didn’t notice her. I’d been so lost in self-pity, she almost died right there next to me. I was sitting on the edge of the water, my scuba gear spread out beside me, considering just throwing it all into the ocean and walking away. The thrill of the job, diving, observing and recording aquatic life, things that no one else got to see, was now gone. The peace I found reaching depths that few on land ever got to experience, evaporated the moment I put a price tag on it.
It was the sudden splash that attracted my attention. The splash that, looking back, I was surprised she even had the strength to make. I’d turned toward the noise and there she was. Her teal tail was wrapped in the thick twine of the hunter’s nets, streaks of blood flowing down onto the sand, and the glowing skin I’d observed on so many of her kind was dull and pallid. But she was, impossibly, alive. The last of her kind. The last mermaid.
I’d spent years watching them, recording their patterns, their habits, their lifestyles, and now the last one was about to die beside me. It seemed almost fitting, given the part I had played in their destruction.
But she didn’t die.
It took weeks of nursing her back to health, but when her wounds had almost healed, she looked up at me from the shore just outside my beachside shack.
“How can I repay you?”
I refused to meet her sparkling, emerald eyes. Weeks of caring for her and I hadn’t once made eye contact.
“You don’t. You go hide and do not come to the surface. Ever.”
She didn’t argue. Her head dropped and she pushed away from me. My hand, that had been removing the last of her bandages, slid down the smooth length of the scales of her tail until it rested on air. I watched her disappear into the waves.
I didn’t see her after that, but I often sensed her presence. When I was diving, rediscovering my love for the ocean I’d exposed for profit, I felt her, just out of sight. At night, she hovered right off shore and knowing she was there comforted me, a comfort I didn’t deserve.
I took to sleeping in my hammock on the shore so I could hear her splash to the surface every night and spread out on the beach beside me. I assumed she was lonely, like me. And sad, but for different reasons. Her family was gone; mine, just out of reach. We were kindred spirits in a way, my actions the cause of our grief. We didn’t talk, didn’t interact, we simply lived side by side in peaceful sorrow. Until Alexa Winters called.
“Rich Easter! Our local, yet elusive, celebrity.” I shivered at the label and she noticed.
“You don’t like the term?” She stepped back, motioning for me to come inside. “Your research was integral in the capturing…”
“Yes.” I was well aware of the implications of my research. My daughter’s hatred of what I had done, her absence and my solitary lifestyle were proof of that. “Though that was never the original intention of my work.”
The door swung shut behind me as I stepped into a massive front hall bathed in tile. Ms. Winters and her family funded everything in the city, from the hospitals to the universities to the TV Stations. Their home showed it.
“Well, useful nonetheless,” she said as she lit a cigarette. Smoke surrounded her dark hair and sharp, angled face. “Mr. Easter, I have something to show you.”
I followed her through the bowels of the Winter estate. The twisting turns and long hallways eventually led to a plain, white door with a hefty padlock. She didn’t say anything as she used one hand to spin the combination and the other to hold her cigarette. When the door opened, she wordlessly started down a set of stairs and I followed her trail of smoke. When she stopped, it appeared we’d reached a rotunda.
“I don’t show many people what I am about to show you, Mr. Easter.” She turned, running her hand along the wall until there was a click and the room in front of us was flooded with light. I squinted against the sudden brightness and my stomach flipped as I took in the room. Cages lined the walls of the round chamber. Ms. Winters gave me a nudge, urging me farther into the room.
It was like the Purge all over again. The Purge that I’d helped begin.
In the dark days after the declaration that all creatures not of human descent should be rounded up and destroyed, cages just like these lined the streets. The public hurried past them, lowering their eyes because it was too gut-wrenching to see the creatures—that often looked human—cowering or howling for their families. But they’d been told it was for the best. Science showed the creatures had dirty genes and top officials said they were dangerous. Even Alexa Winters agreed. Especially after the wereboy attacked and killed her only son.
Now, looking around this room, this twisted version of Noah’s Ark, I felt that same twist of guilt in my stomach I’d felt during and after the Purge.
The werewolf in the cage to my immediate right sighed deeply and leaned back against the wall from his sitting position on the floor. He was in human form but I knew he was a wolf-man because of the sign attached to the front of his cage. There were other signs, too.
I vaguely wondered why they didn’t use their power and strength to simply break out. Then, I saw the gun. Perched outside of the werewolf cage, it was aimed inside and a long piece of wire led from each of the bars of the cage, to the trigger. I assumed the bullets were silver. My eyes fell to the vampire’s cage, laced in garlic, in which sat a young girl, barely sixteen.
“Its potency has been increased,” she said, coming up behind me. “The real stuff just burns them a little. This will eat her skin like battery acid.”
I stared at her as she looked around the room proudly.
“Besides,” she added, tossing her cigarette onto the cement floor and stomping it out. “They don’t have any reason to escape. They’re the last of their kind. The very last. No families. No partners to mate with and spread their filthy genes through our world again. We let them get out of control once. It won’t happen again.”
“But…” I tried to whisper around the bile forming in my throat, “Why not just kill them? Why…” I motioned around the room, “this?”
She shrugged. “Call it a hobby. Something just for me. They took something from me I’ll never get back. I’m returning the favor.”
“Why are you showing me this?” I whispered, though I already had an idea. In my head, I saw a flash of green tail, heard the familiar splash that signaled her appearance.
Ms. Winters lifted her hand to just below her chin and wiggled her slender finger toward the center of the room.
I turned. I’d been so distracted by the cages I hadn’t even noticed the empty display in the middle of the room: a large pool with a rock in the middle. My stomach rolled.
“I have a job for you.”
“But … they’re gone.” I tried to keep my voice steady around my lie. “They were all caught in the round up.”
She smiled a knowing smile. “You know as well as I do that’s not true.”
How did she know?
“Well, I don’t want your money.”
“I thought you might say that. So, I’ve added … incentive. I know your daughter’s schedule, her school address. I know your ex-wife’s address, and I know people who will do anything for a buck. You’re familiar with those people, Mr. Easter. You used to be one.”
I shook my head, “You can’t do that. I’ll report you. I’ll tell the papers, the police.”
She laughed. “I own the papers and the police. Who do you think funded the paycheck that bought your research? I own this city. You can’t fight me.”
“Please, come out!” I called from the beach, knowing she wouldn’t be far. “It’s okay, I know you’re there. I need to talk to you.”
She surfaced sheepishly a few feet from the shore. The waves carried her up to me and she settled onto the sand, her mossy, dark hair falling across her bare chest, her tail tucked under her.
I stood in front of her, towering over her but feeling small.
“I have a problem.”
She reached up and took my hand. How was hers so warm? “Tell me.”
I told her everything, from the moment I walked into Alexa Winters’ home to her impossible request and her threats to my daughter.
“I came here to catch you. To take you to her.” Suddenly my legs would no longer support me. I fell to my knees in front of her and grabbed her shoulders, meeting her eyes for the first time since I’d known her. They sparkled like the sun on the water and it was like the first time I dove into the ocean alone — peaceful and exhilarating at the same time.
“But, I can’t…” I whispered. “I can’t do it.”
I felt her body relax under my grip and she sighed, bringing her hands to either side of my face. “You will.”
“What? But … you’re the last of your kind. If…”
She cut me off. “Yes, I am. But you are not the last of yours. You have a family, a daughter that needs you.”
“No.” It’s a guttural noise more than a word. “Don’t you know who I am? What I’ve done to you?”
“I killed you all. It was my research that helped them hunt you down, my observations of your family and your people … it was my work that sentenced you all to death. I sold it. I profited off your extinction.”
Her hands were still on my face, mine still on her shoulders, but she pulled her gaze from mine and her hair fell down like a curtain.
“I don’t deserve your help,” I told her.
She lifted her head again, her eyes meeting mine but no longer sparkling. They were dark and stormy and determined. “It doesn’t matter. Your daughter does not deserve to suffer for your mistakes. You sentenced me to a life alone. Let me have this final act of kindness.”
The last time I saw her, she was drifting into the net attached to one of Alexa Winters’ boats. She’d lifted one hand, slowly, sadly, before disappearing under the surface. The boat would drag the net to the canal that ran behind the estate and from there she would be transferred to her new home as the prize piece in the collection of Alexa Winters.
I was informed by Ms. Winters, after I was assured my daughter was safe and my payment was deposited, that the collection would soon be moved to a new, unknown location. Obviously, she didn’t trust me. I would have to move fast.
I threw a crowbar, a blow torch, my diving knife and a gun into my dive bag. My ex was already on her way out of the country with Molly and I’d transferred my entire payment into her account.
I secured my dive mask and broke the surface of the waves, the ocean welcoming me home. I could swim to the canals and from there find a way into the estate’s basement. If I couldn’t, I would make one. As soon as the weapons were cleared from the room, the others would be able to help me. They would all be free and the last mermaid would not die on display. I may have put her there, but I would not leave her there.
For more about Rich Easter, Alexa Winters, and The Purge, check out, The Exchange