My sister and I raced along the Puerto Rican shore, chasing the waves and kicking sand and salty water at each other. I was the older by little more than a year—my laughter had the confidence of superior speed and strength, knowing that in the end I always won and she always lost.
The wind made our hair fly, defying gravity. We’d pay for it later when Mom had to brush it, but we never thought about that in the moment.
When Rebekah tired, she plopped down on the sand and squirmed around, digging her elbows in to make divots. She rested her chin in her hands and looked up at me, waiting while I sat more primly. I hated the feeling of sand in my swimsuit.
“So what are you going to name her?” Bekah flicked sand with her toes.
I looked out across the swells. We’d both been given puppies, little white mutts with irregular black blotches. Our parents had no time for pets, but we’d offered up the next several years of Christmas and birthday presents, promised a lifetime of chores, and guaranteed we’d take care of the pups better than we had our goldfish. Our incessant pestering eventually broke through their parental common sense.
“Perla,” I finally answered.
She grinned. “The mermaids will like that. They might even give her gills.”
I nodded. “And fins, don’t forget fins.”
Mixing worlds was easy for us—we’d been doing it for years. It started when we’d seen the back of a mirror, and Bekah thought the gray flatness of it looked like the sea, far out on the horizon where you couldn’t see the waves moving.
We imagined the ocean was an upside-down mirror, and mermaids and their pets lived just below the waters, protected by magic. People couldn’t see them unless they were below the surface and happened to look up, and then the reflection in the mirror would show everything. Turn around to look down, and—POOF!—it all disappeared. But if you looked up, the mirror showed the magic.
Talking until we fell asleep each night, we closed our eyes tight and dove down, twisting around to look in the mirror. Mermaids were always there, but they didn’t look like they did in the movies.
Their skin was luminescent, catching the sun’s light, like they had white pearly scales all sewn together across the top half of their bodies. Little fins grew out of their arms, soft, like a ridge of hair, colored to match their tails.
My sister saw long hair on her mermaids, but mine always had short, boyish hair. It bothered me that the hair would get caught in their spinal spikes. The spikes were swirled like a narwhal’s horn, and up to four inches long at the apex of the mermaid’s back. I suppose they were for protection from predators; a mouthful of that would deter even the biggest sharks.
The name Perla made me think of the mermaids’s skin, and a little part of me hoped that if my puppy was lost at sea, maybe a mermaid would help her because I’d named her after them.
Bekah and I went swimming, going out past the undertow and the waves. We floated, trying to figure out what the mermaids would have for dinner and thinking it must be very slimy from being under water. The sea cradled us in warm arms—we would reclaim the rocking sensation at bedtime. Neither of us could sleep without it or the sound of the sea outside our window.
That was our last day in the sea. Bekah, who was three weeks shy of her eighth birthday, fell ill the next day. She spent two weeks in doctors’ offices and hospitals before they finally discovered the disease; by then it was too late.
Then she was gone.
It took me twenty years to return to our beach. Standing by our sea, I felt the sting of salty waves touch the ragged shoreline of a heart that had never healed.
Looking down, I saw a divot in the sand at my feet. The wind carried laughter on it when it whipped by. When my eyes searched the horizon, there was a flash of sun on a school of fins.
“Tell her I hope she had a good birthday.” I told them. Twenty years melted away, and I was nine again. “I bet there was barnacle cake, and seaweed ice cream, and blowfish balloons.” My face felt stiff, a tight smile covered in tears.
“It’s too bad you can’t have candles underwater. She turned eight. There should have been eight candles.” I was knee-deep in the water now, and could feel the pull of the current. It would be easy to keep walking, to let the waves take me to her, and we’d live with our mermaids forever.
But I was thirty, not nine, and I had two children of my own.
“I wish you could meet them,” I told her. Then I turned and went back to my children.
It took me twenty years to sleep with the sea outside my window again. And it took twenty years before I told my daughter Rebekah about a puppy named Perla, who swam with mermaids and my sister under a magic mirror.
Jen spent most of her childhood traveling, so geographical roots never chose a home. Books were her roots, allowing her to pack best friends into boxes and find her home in worn pages. It didn’t take long for her love affair to pick up the pen. These days, she has settled in Columbia, MD, where she is frequently found sporting headphones and madly tapping away at her laptop. Her current projects include a sci-fi/paranormal YA novel, a second anthology by members of her writer’s group, and wasting time on Twitter and Facebook.