For 2022, I’ve been wanting to write more ‘creature features’ and generally improve my short story writing. My partner got me a Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual for my birthday so I came up with the idea of writing a story every week based on a different creature from that – All There in the (Monster) Manual. Hope you enjoy!
This Week’s Inspiration: Merfolk
Opening night at the town carnival. Five delinquent friends steal an obviously fake ‘dead mermaid’ from the new freak show. But some truth to the legend may place them in lethal danger.
Portsmith Pier Amusement Park’s annual opening night was a big event for locals. Little else worth doing happened in Portsmith for most of the year. Neon painted the seedy carnival games and rides as dusk settled. Located off the centre of town, the amusement park clustered along a massive pier that stuck out from the grey shore.
Smells of fryer oil, grilling onions and spun sugar wafted off the carnival. Barkers for the games started to warm up their lungs, a mix of experienced carnies and high school kids in their first jobs. Starlike patterns of lights blinked across the ferris wheel, which groaned threateningly as its benches went around and around. The ancient rollercoaster shook like a wet dog as cars barreled up and down its wooden tracks. The tourist season hadn’t started yet so locals far outweighed out-of-towners. Teenagers in packs, couples, and families with overhyped kids. Since the amusement park rides hadn’t really been run in nine months, locals made better crash test dummies than tourists. They were less likely to have the money to sue if something went wrong.
Under the pier, a forest of wooden pillars supported the amusement park and its patrons. Waves lapped the greasy sand. Noise and light and grit sifted through gaps in the boards overheard. Homeless sometimes bedded down in the shadows.
“Shotgun it, you pussy!”
Nick was tall and well built with a wispy moustache. He’d be going to college on a football scholarship in the fall. The rest of the group had all graduated as well but their futures were less certain. Nick kept one arm wrapped around Blake’s shoulders, keeping her close at all times.
Evan struggled with the can of beer in one hand and his keys in the other. One key protruded between his fingers. Drilling it into the side of the can, he managed to open a ragged hole. Evan snapped the can open, raised it to his lips and sucked down the beer inside. It shot down his throat and felt like it was going straight to his head.
“Yeah, boy!” Chuck said.
Chuck slapped Evan on the lower curve of his stomach. Still the new kid in town, Chuck had moved to Portsmith halfway through their final year of high school. He came with a mullet and collection of death metal t-shirts, and lots of wild stories that nobody believed about all the crazy shit he and his old buddies used to get up to. Bubbles burned Evan’s sinuses. He choked and spat, dropping the beer away from his mouth.
“Pussy,” Nick said, as Evan coughed.
“I bet I could drink twice as much as any of you fucks,” Amy said.
Amy was Blake’s ugly friend, and she knew it. While Blake was small and willowy, a haunted beauty that made all the guys terribly jealous of Nick, Amy was big and heavy with crude features. She tried to make up for it by being brassy and loud, lecherous, and generally better than the boys at things boys seemed to respect.
“When can we go to the carnival?” Blake asked.
“Calm down, babe, when we finish the beers,” Nick said.
Evan did his best to finish the beer, in spite of the trickling hole near the base. He, too, wanted to impress. Evan was thoroughly average in every way, at least for Portsmith. His parents had wanted him to get a job at the amusement park that summer. They wanted him to get any job that would take him actually or were threatening to kick him out, the park had simply been the most immediately available. But Evan couldn’t stand the humiliation of serving his former schoolmates who had actual plans for the future, as well as teens from the grades below him and the tourists. Always the tourists, that locals made such a show of hating.
The opening of Portsmith Pier was an event on its own but the five teenagers had brought along a couple of six packs to lubricate the occasion. Amy’s older brother bought them for the group. The five of them finished both packs before stumbling back up the stairs that led to the pier’s parking lot.
Evan wouldn’t have admitted it but after three beers in quick succession he felt buzzed. He found himself thinking too hard about how to put his feet down so he didn’t stumble. About keeping the expression on his face neutral. Carnival food smells made him both hungry and nauseous.
“Let’s get something to eat!” Chuck said.
“Nah, let’s go on the rides first.” Nick shook his head.
“What about the games? Win me something!” Blake said.
“I don’t want to carry that shit around with us all night.”
Carnival games stuffed with cheap toys and buckets of minor prizes lined the entry onto the pier. Some of the major prizes were as big as the children playing but all shoddily mass produced and shipped from China. Evan could see Nick’s point but he also noticed how hurt Blake looked, even if she tried to hide it. When Nick went away to college, their relationship was almost certainly over. At this late stage, Blake seemed to want something to show for the courtship even if it was just some cheap, mass produced toy.
They rode the dodgem cars first, smashing into one another relentlessly as the teenager running the ride, a couple of years younger than them, told them to stop. Evan’s stomach sloshed uncomfortably. The roller coaster was made up of tiny cars that only fit two people and rattled endlessly around the wooden track. Nick and Blake went first. Evan was forced to ride with Chuck wedged in his lap, their knees barely fitting inside the car.
Blake insisted they ride the ferris wheel, although Nick dismissed it as lame. They went up together. Evan was stuck with Amy. Their chairs rocked and swayed, and the wheel groaned as the lights of the amusement park shrank away. In front of them were the lights and low, rolling hills of town, and all around them the inky blackness of the ocean. Amy used the opportunity to run her hand up the inside of Evan’s thigh but he pushed her away.
“Oh, what? You’re holding out for her, am I right?” Amy jerked her head forward, to where Nick and Blake were sitting. “What’s the plan? You wait until Nick goes off to college, say nothing, and then swoop in like some kind of consolation prize for being stuck in Portsmith?”
Evan said nothing, afraid of what the others might overhear. His cheeks burned against the cold wind sweeping the upper reaches of the ferris wheel. He and Amy finished the ride in bitter silence. Once they rejoined the others, Amy acted like nothing had happened.
After getting some junk food, Nick played one of the carnival games for Blake. He won her a small pink bear, which Blake tucked protectively under her arm. Evan’s awkward buzz had at least worn off and he felt less self conscious. The five of them wandered back down the fairway, looking for a way to kill time and dollars. The main attraction on that end of the pier was the haunted house. Looming and black, covered in fake spiderwebs, skeletons and wraiths.
“Hey, what’s that?” Evan pointed to another building, hidden slightly behind the haunted house.
‘FREAKSHOW’ said the sign on the smaller building’s rooftop. Paintings of what looked like old carnival posters decorated the sides. ‘The Tattooed Lady’, ‘The Dog Boy’ and ‘The Mermaid’ among others.
“Is that new? I don’t remember it being there last year,” Blake said.
“It don’t look new,” Nick replied
“Yeah, I don’t think so.” Chuck nodded.
“What the fuck would you know, Chuck? You weren’t even here when the carnival was open last year.”
“Was that where the House of Mirrors was?” Blake asked.
“No, that’s still over there.”
“Should we go inside? I mean, you know, freaks,” Evan said.
“Hell yeah, freaks! Let’s go,” Nick said.
Evan and the others gave their tickets to another bored teenager at the entrance. The freakshow was dark and made up of little rooms and halls separated by curtains. Nothing but old black and white photos filled the first room. Old fakes, some of them looked like. One showed a bunch of cowboys posing with the body of an impossibly giant bird. Another, similar, captured hunters in the Amazon with an enormous snake. Lots of photos were of old carnival performers, real freaks, from the Twenties and Thirties or whatever. Conjoined twins, dwarves, a one-armed strongman. A fat and bearded lady who probably wouldn’t look out of place in any Walmart you visited today. Another, a tattooed lady, photographed naked except for a loincloth while covering her breasts. A freak back then but Evan doubted anyone would look twice at her walking down the street in normal clothes now.
“Fake,” Nick said.
The rooms were only big enough that one group could travel through them at a time. It didn’t matter, the five teenagers appeared to be the only ones in the building. The next room had more photos and one wall covered by a curtain. ‘Push the Button to Reveal THE DOG BOY!’ read a sign by the curtain, over a red button. Nick hit it and the curtain peeled aside accompanied by the sound of a wolf howling. A mannequin covered in faux fur to make it look like some kind of werewolf lurked behind the curtain, covered in ragged clothes.
“This is gay as shit,” Nick said, and Evan felt a little defensive since he’d been the first to notice the freakshow.
“Amy, is that what your vag looks like?” Chuck said. “All covered in hair?”
“You wish you knew.” Amy cut her eyes at Evan.
The next couple of rooms were the same, with photos and lame replicas. Long panels of text explained most of them. Some of them did look kind of cool, Evan would argue, but they hadn’t come here to read. Photos of ‘Pinheads’, and a fake headless chicken that was meant to be a recreation of a real one that toured freakshows in the 1940s. And another mannequin with a Fu Manchu moustache and electric candle in the top of its head, dressed in Chinese robes, meant to be a ‘Lighthouse Man’ who used to give tours to people in China holding a lit candle in a hole drilled in his skull.
The last room was bigger than all the other rooms put together. Awkwardly shaped, cabinets and pedestals filled the space. They’d saved the best for last, although there were still no live exhibits of course. A cabinet with several shrunken heads and some primitive weapons sat by the door. Puckered brown features on leathery faces the size of softballs. Another case had a huge and deformed skull with a couple of gnarled horns, which the plaque called the skull of a minotaur. Under a glass dome was a skeleton less than six inches tall with a set of plastic wings wired to the shoulders. ‘Tooth Fairy Skeleton’ said the associated panel.
“Fake and gay,” Nick said. “This whole place is bullshit.”
“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio,” a voice said. “Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Blake let out a short scream. Another man, wearing a black coat, appeared among them as if from out of nowhere. Nick almost lashed out in surprise and the others jumped. Evan glanced around the man and saw a door gliding closed behind one of the curtains where he must have entered.
“Fucking shit,” Amy said.
“What the fuck, man?” Nick said.
The stranger didn’t seem to notice their reaction. Or he was used to it. In his sixties or even seventies, the man was tall, gaunt, but carried himself with a core of strength. Scar tissue marred the left side of the man’s face and mangled his ear. Emerging from his sleeve was one of those complex hooklike prosthetics that snapped open and shut. His gait was awkward and his right hand clutched an ebony cane with an ivory handle shaped like some kind of animal head.
“I hope you’re enjoying the exhibitions, I’m the owner of this particular establishment,” the old man said. “It’s taken me years to put them all together.”
Nick recovered his nerve and scoffed. “Oh, yeah? It’s bullshit, man, come on.”
“Oh, no, everything you see here is one hundred percent authentic.” The old man raised his cane and tapped the dome containing the tooth fairy skeleton. “These fairies, don’t let their size fool you, they can put up quite a fight. And you think that minotaur gave up his head willingly?”
“Right, is that how you lost your hand? Fighting the tooth fairy?”
“You’ll sleep far better at night not knowing how I lost my hand.”
The old man seemed captivated by Blake, who half-hid behind her boyfriend. He licked his papery lips as he gave her an oily look. The man wore glasses with the left lens completely blacked out but they slipped to the tip of his nose and revealed his left eye was milky white and blind.
“Rescuing a fair maiden, of course,” the old man said.
Nick looked genuinely angry, even as Blake shrunk away. He had a jealous streak and didn’t like anyone looked at Blake, even demented old freaks like this guy.
“Bullshit, man, it’s all bullshit, fake,” Nick said.
“I’m particularly proud of this recent acquisition. I discovered it here, right here, in the waters off your little town.”
The old man waved his cane toward another glass dome, sitting on a pedestal toward the end of the room. His left arm, with its hook, remained trapped against his side. A mummified grotesquery sat beneath the dome. It had two gnarled arms tucked against a narrow chest and a fishlike tail.
“If you’d like to know more, please, you can find my book in the gift shop,” the old man said.
Coat furling dramatically, he turned and exited via the same hidden door. His cane clacked against the floor. Before they could say any more, he’d disappeared.
“What a fucking asshole,” Nick said. “Who does he think he is, hitting on you like that right in front of me? He disrespected me.”
“He was a hundred years old, baby,” Blake said. “What are you going to do, beat up some old, handicapped guy?”
“I’ll stick that cane right up his crippled ass,” Nick said. “Stick that hook up there too.”
“Would you look at this thing? And he tried to tell us it was real?” Evan turned on the last exhibit the man had pointed them toward.
Inside the dome was a small, tanned monstrosity, curled in on itself and dried up like a mummy but a little over a foot tall. The plaque under the dome called it the ‘Portsmith Mermaid’. Its upper body looked like a baby or a toddler, ribs visible, with sticklike arms. Its lower body was a fishlike tail, also wrapped in on itself, with bones pressing against the withered skin.
“Gross, man,” Chuck said.
The thing’s face was particularly grotesque. Its eyes were sewn shut. Part of its face had collapsed in on itself but a shag of dark hair clung to its wrinkled scalp. Despite all that, it did look disturbingly human except for the mouth. The mouth was propped open and seemed entirely too wide, and was filled with needle teeth. It reminded Evan of a lamprey, with row upon row upon row of tiny but razor sharp fangs.
“Bullshit, another total fake,” Nick said.
“Not even an original fake, it’s a replica,” Amy said. “I’ve seen this thing before, it’s like, a classic fake called the Fiji Mermaid or something. They took a mummified monkey, and sewed its top half to the bottom half of a dried up fish.”
“How stupid does that old man think we are? This place was a total ripoff.”
“We should break some of his shit,” Chuck said.
“That’d show him for checking you out.” Nick looked at Blake.
“Nick, just forget it.”
“Let’s bust it up,” Amy said.
“We should steal it,” Evan heard himself say.
Nick looked up, interested. “What was that?”
“Steal it, I mean, take the mermaid if he’s so proud of it,” Evan said.
“Yeah! Yeah, nice one,” Nick said.
“Fuck yeah, that’d be awesome,” Chuck said. “Me and my old crew, we used to take weird shit from places all the time and keep it in our, like, clubhouse.”
Nick seemed genuinely excited by the idea. Blake didn’t, but looked tired of contradicting him. Of Evan, Chuck and Amy, their eyes and frozen grins betrayed their nerves about actually performing a criminal act but none of them backed down. They kept feeding off one another instead. Nick grabbed the dome. To their surprise it wasn’t secured and lifted free easily. Nick looked thrilled.
“Blake, Blake, put it under your dress,” Nick said. “We’ll walk out of here pretending you’re pregnant.”
“No way!” Blake shook her head hard from side to side.
“I’ll-, I’ll do it,” Amy said.
Amy stepped up and took hold of the mermaid as Nick held the dome aloft. Its skin was dry and spiny. Her face had an expression of disbelief as she lifted the mermaid off its stand. Chuck’s eyes darted nervously. Evan swallowed but said nothing and Nick replaced the dome. Seeing no going back, Amy shovelled the mermaid beneath her sweatshirt. She settled it as best she could but it was still an awkward, jagged lump.
“Let’s get out of here,” Nick said. “Let’s go!”
The five of them left the freakshow unseen, the exit dropping them into an alley between buildings. Amy awkwardly held her midsection. Following Nick, the other four hurried back down to the base of the pier and threaded through the crowds. Evan felt totally conspicuous and expected to be stopped by security or to hear the voice of the old man shouting after them at any moment, but they made it to the exit and headed toward the parking lot.
“So, ah, what the fuck are we actually going to do with this thing?” Amy asked.
“Man, we’re so fucked if they catch us with it,” Chuck said.
“They’re not going to catch us, don’t be a pussy,” Nick said. “The dude had one dead eye and was probably half-blind in the other one. What’s he going to tell anyone, a bunch of teenagers took it? Maybe? He doesn’t even know it was us and there’s hundreds of people here tonight.”
“So what are we doing?” Evan said.
“I got an idea,” Nick said. “He said it came from the ocean right here, right? Let’s put it back where it came from. Let’s give it a burial at sea.”
The five of them continued down the shoreline. Chuck stopped them for a second and ran off. He returned a couple of minutes later with another six pack of beer he’d bought from some guys on the edge of the pier’s parking lot.
“How much?” Nick said.
“Twenty bucks,” Chuck said.
“You paid twenty bucks for a six pack?” Nick laughed. “Dumbass.”
They followed Nick away from the lights and noise of the carnival. Amy kept the mermaid under her shirt. A police cruiser trundled by but thankfully they didn’t stop in spite of Chuck doing a poor job of hiding the beers.
Down the shoreline was a small harbour, one of several attached to Portsmith. Evan and the others had all broken in there before. Often enough that they didn’t really consider borrowing one of the small boats left unsecured in the harbour a real crime at all, not on the level of their theft of the mermaid. They climbed around one end of the fence. Security lights beamed across the wharves. Rows of fishing boats and a few pleasure craft were tied along the moorings. Everything was quiet except for the sounds of the boats jostling against one another and against the docks.
“This one’ll do,” Nick said.
They climbed down into a small wooden boat, a dinghy with an outboard motor. As long as they returned it to roughly the same spot no one would come after them for borrowing it. Nick untied them from the wharf. Amy pulled the mermaid out from under her sweatshirt. Blake kept hugging the pink teddy bear that Nick had won her to her chest.
Drifting away from the larger boats, Nick yanked the starter and fired up the outboard engine. It was loud in the quiet of the abandoned harbour. A couple of oars and some life jackets were tucked under the seats. Chuck started pulling beers off the six pack he’d bought and handing them out. Nick, sitting at the back, cracked his open and steered them out the mouth of the harbour with his other hand.
“Man, this is crazy,” Chuck said. “This reminds me of the time me and my buddies stole this dude’s dog. Like this dude was a drug dealer-,”
Chuck babbled on and Nick steered them onto the open ocean. Moonlight glimmered off the inky expanse. They could still see the amusement park, of course. Patterns flashed over the ferris wheel. Music and noise travelled a long way across the water.
“We’re really doing this, huh?” Evan said. “I mean, even if it is a replica of an old fake, that thing probably cost the old dude a lot of money.”
“Fuck him,” Nick said. “What, are you pussying out on us?”
Evan shut his mouth again. The dinghy bounded across swells, motor growling. The motion threw them around, and the nose chopped at the water and sent up sprays of froth. Nick headed further and further out. The shoreline was a vague silvery string of sand, reflecting moonlight. Portsmith Pier became a strange miasma of neon colour, the patterns and buildings all blurring together. Without discussion, Nick brought the boat to a stop and shut the motor off. They drifted, slowly turning in the water.
“Give me that thing,” Nick said.
Amy handed the dead mermaid to Nick. Evan had imagined something of a little mock ceremony to mark the burial at sea, to add some levity to the whole thing, but Nick seemed past joking around. He was just pissed off and wanted to break something. Standing up in the boat, he pitched the mermaid out over the ocean in a perfect spiral. The stolen exhibit sailed into the night sky. They watched it land a good distance away, a small splash, and it was gone.
“Should we say a few words?” Chuck said.
“Shut the fuck up, Chuck.” Nick sat back down heavily and caused the boat to rock.
Nick guzzled the rest of his beer and tossed the can overboard as well. He gestured to Chuck for another. The rest of them drank in silence, except for Blake. The boat rose and fell, and drifted, but it was a long way out from shore with nothing but open ocean all around them. Amy started to get flirty with Chuck but kept looking back at Evan.
“So, what are we doing?” Evan said. “Should we go back, or-,”
They were interrupted by a piercing scream. Human, but too loud and sustained to come from human lungs. And so far from shore, nothing could be less expected. All five of them shot upright. They looked around for another vessel. Evan dropped his beer, spilling it across the bottom of the boat. He groped in his pocket for his phone to use it as a flashlight.
“My baby! What have you done to my baby?”
A woman’s head and shoulders emerged from the ocean nearby, dark hair plastered against her scalp. Their dinghy drifted closer and Evan raised his phone. The woman rose out of the water to her waist. Her skin looked green, patterned with dark blue in the glow of Evan’s flashlight. She was naked. Fins fanned off the outsides of her forearms. Fringed gills carved across the underside of her ribs. Hugged to her chest was the dead mermaid exhibit that Nick had casually thrown away.
“My baby!” The mermaid screamed.
“Holy shit,” Amy said.
“No, no, can’t be,” Evan said.
Evan leaned over the side of the boat. His light gleamed off the surface. Under the black water, however, he got impressions of a long and sinuous tail. The other four all looked frozen.
“Monsters! Monsters, landfolk monsters!” Screaming, the mermaid revealed a mouth filled with rows and rows of needlelike fangs, just like her child only bigger.
“Fuck!” Nick yelled.
The mermaid dropped back into the water, disappearing down to her eye line. She let go of her dead baby. Then, suddenly, the mermaid catapulted herself out of the ocean. The movement revealed her fully. Her long, sleek tail looked almost serpentine but with diaphanous fins, the same green and blue pattern as her upper body.
Amy was closest to the side where the mermaid launched herself. The mermaid grabbed her as she sailed over the boat. Chuck was knocked aside. Blake screamed. Evan managed to keep his flashlight pointed at the mermaid the entire time. Amy was pulled over the side. She and the mermaid entered the water with a terrific splash.
“What the fuck? What the fuck?” Nick yelled.
“Amy!” Chuck shouted.
Froth bubbled to the surface. Amy didn’t come back up. The boat had been knocked sideways and continued drifting in a circle as the remaining four on board panicked.
“What was that?” Blake yelled.
“A mermaid! It’s real, there’s really a mermaid!” Evan said.
“It can’t be, it can’t be real!”
Chuck leaned over the side, searching the dark water. “Amy! Amy!”
The mermaid shot out of the water right in front of Chuck. Grabbing Chuck, jaws filled with razor sharp fangs yawned open and she bit down where Chuck’s neck met the shoulder. He screamed as blood spurted across the boat. Lunging backward, the mermaid yanked Chuck out of the boat. The two of them disappeared as well, failing to resurface.
“Start the boat! Start the fucking boat!” Evan said.
Nick stared back at him. “What?”
“Start the boat, we’ve got to get back to shore!”
Nick snapped out of his fugue and turned on the motor. He grappled with the starter cord and heaved it to life. The motor snarled. Nick groped for the tiller.
“Go, go, go!” Evan yelled.
Nick pushed the outboard up to full throttle. They hurtled around in a circle as he sought out the shore then opened up toward it. Their wake foamed behind them, with no sign of Amy or Chuck. Blake twisted and turned, still holding the pink teddy.
“She’s coming! She’s coming!” Blake screamed.
Like a dolphin, the mermaid arched out of the water and dove beneath it. She kept pace with the speeding boat. Nick didn’t steer with any particular destination in mind. He pointed them at the closest point of the silvery shore he could see and arrowed toward it in the straightest line possible. Evan and Blake kept looking for the mermaid. They ignored how the boat bounced across swells causing their teeth to clack together.
“Fuck! This can’t be real, what the fuck?” Nick said.
Suddenly, the mermaid dove under and didn’t come back up. Evan had a sense of it still powering forward. They were several minutes from shore at their present speed.
“Where is she? Shit, she’s gone, where is she?” Evan said.
Moments later, something thumped against the boat. They slowed and felt off balance, as if something had just increased the drag on the boat’s hull. Evan looked down, holding his phone. Beer cans and lifejackets rolled around the bottom of the boat.
Nick was half-standing, bracing himself as he steered. Suddenly, the bottom of the boat exploded under one of his feet. A green hand clawed through the hole and grabbed him by the ankle.
“Fuck!” Nick screamed.
Nick’s whole leg, up to the crotch, was yanked through the hole. His other leg folded beneath him. Screaming, he lost control of the boat’s steering. Evan’s phone spiralled out of his hand. It dropped into the water off to one side of the boat.
“She’s got me! Ah, my leg! She’s breaking my leg!”
Evan reached for Nick, trying to help. With tremendous strength, however, Nick was pulled down and literally through the bottom of the boat. His other leg and hip broke through the boards. Bone and wood were tested against one another and both snapped. Shrieking, Nick’s upper body was pulled through the hole, hands grasping, and he disappeared. Water immediately began flooding through the crater left behind.
“Nick!” Blake screamed. “Nick!”
The boat soared wildly from side to side. Ocean poured through the hole. Seeing no other option, Evan leapt over the hole and grabbed the outboard’s tiller. His feet were soaked. Wrestling with it, he pointed them back in a straight line toward the shore.
The beach was close enough now that even in the dark Evan could make out details. They could swim for it, if need be, but not with that thing in the water chasing them. Evan planned on ramming the boat full throttle into the shoreline. He didn’t care if the impact sent them flying. Then, they would have to get up and run as fast and as far from the water as they could. But the boat was floundering as it filled with water. Its gunwales sank closer to the surface of the ocean with every passing second. Beer cans and debris sloshed around the bottom of the boat. And as with every second their weight and drag increased, the boat’s motor slowed and struggled.
“We’re going to have to swim for it!” Evan said.
“What?” Blake looked at him in terror.
“We’re going to have to swim!”
The boat dropped, suddenly swallowed by the surface. Water smothered the outboard engine and killed it. Both Evan and Blake flung themselves free. Both hit the water swimming, thrashing their arms and kicking. Evan powered toward the shoreline as hard as he could.
“Evan, help me!” Blake said.
Blake had dropped her teddy and her bag. She swam as hard as she could but she was still struggling. Evan glanced back but didn’t stop. If he didn’t make it out of the water, the mermaid would kill him. It would kill them both. Survival instinct took over.
Suddenly, Blake disappeared under the surface. With the speed at which it happened and the way she threw her arms up, it was obvious she’d been pulled under. Evan looked back again, horrified, but kept swimming.
Reaching the shallows, Evan felt loose sand underfoot and he struggled to stand. He kicked and staggered through the breakers to the wet sand, the water level falling away over his waist and his legs. He felt exhausted, in shock, and sick with terror.
Evan stumbled along the shoreline. Small breakers crashed and washed up around his feet. One foot wore a soggy sneaker while the other sneaker was lost. Of Blake or any of his friends, there was no sign.
The mermaid appeared from the waist up in the moonlight. Her hands curled into claws. Mindless rage painted her face.
“Monsters, you monsters!” The mermaid shrieked.
From behind Evan came a loud whack of sound that made him jump. Something sailed past his shoulder, trailing a thin, dark cord. It shot out over the water and punched the mermaid in the centre of her chest with a meaty thwack. The mermaid went rigid. Some kind of harpoon jutted from between her breasts. The cord led from the butt end of the harpoon and then past Evan’s side.
Evan looked back up the beach. Holding some kind of oversized speargun attached to a tank of compressed air was the old man they’d met in the freakshow. With stunning strength, he pulled the cord tight and started to reel the mermaid closer and closer. The mermaid screamed and fought. Glasses sliding down his nose again, the old man looked to Evan with his one working eye.
“Hey, boy, want a job?” The old man asked.
One year later, Portsmith Pier Amusement Park’s opening night before the official tourist season kicked off was a big event. Neon painted the pier. Locals thronged among the carnival games and along the rest of the fairway.
Looking to kill time and get away from some of the crowds, four teenagers sought out the entrance to the freakshow they’d spotted behind the looming haunted house. They paid their tickets and went inside. The black and white photos and cheesy exhibits were met with derision. It wasn’t long until they made it to the last room.
“Oh, my God, that’s disgusting!”
Mummified, behind glass, the body of something labelled the ‘Portsmith Mermaid’ took up one wall as if crucified. Its skin was dried out and tanned brown. Bones pressed against leathery skin. Its face was locked in a horrific expression and its eyelids sewn shut. A large hole gaped between the withered husks of the figure’s breasts.
“It’s like they sewed the top half of a dead chick to some kind of big fish,” one of the women said.
“Fake as shit,” one of the guys added.
“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio,” a voice behind them said, making them all jump. “Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Sean: Really enjoyed this one. I think the simplicity of the story appealed to me, a lot of room to explore more of the visual and the other senses. And something I’m enjoying more and more about short story writing is how it can feel like taking a snapshot of a much larger world. Like the freakshow owner, you just know there’s so much more going on with that guy. You know there’s more stories to tell while on the flip side, there’s a lot you don’t know. Like just whose side is he on, good or evil? There’s a lot to feed the imagination in that.
Some inspiration for the Portsmith Pier came from Stephen King’s ‘Joyland’, Richard Laymon’s ‘Funland’ and Luna Park in Sydney. Those two person cars on the roller coaster at Luna Park are no joke, my partner and I barely fit! Oh, and of course, some inspiration for the freakshow came from Ripley’s Believe It or Not in San Francisco and the New Orleans’ Museum of Death. Both great, super fun places to visit.
For another take on a mermaid story I would encourage you to check out this one I wrote and released last year, Mermaid’s Tear. There’s even a mobi file if you’d like to download it and take it away with you, as it’s a bit closer to novella in length. And in case you’re wondering, some of the freakshow exhibits were references to other stories or at least story ideas such as the tooth fairy skeleton as a reference to Fairies in the Garden.
Next Week’s Inspiration: Shadow