This is from the rough draft, and it is basically the first chapter chronicling Grace's arrival in the mermaids' Archipelago. ©2008/Charlotte Marriott. All rights reserved.
I half woke up that night with the feeling that something wasn’t right, like I was being forced off course from wherever I should be going. I saw something that looked like a giant clownfish. I must be getting sick or something. Millie shouldn’t have gotten so close to me, I’d have to apologize…
The next thing was that I felt really hot and really dry. Whatever I found myself laying on was a lot grainier than my bed. I opened my eyes.
An expanse of pink sand stretched out as far as the eye could see. I saw sixty-foot palm trees and clear turquoise water. This was the strangest thing I’d ever woken up to before.
Or was it a dream? If it was, it was so vivid that the possibility of it being a dream hardly dimmed the sense of panic that seized every fiber of my being. I got up and almost screamed for the horrible sunburn I discovered in moving. I felt terrified.
“HELP!” I yelled. “IS ANYBODY OUT THERE? WHERE ARE WE?”
There was no reply. My eyes found a pile of garbage that was closer to the surf than I was. There was a rusted-out tin rowboat, some driftwood, an extraordinary seashell, a glass mermaid, a platinum locket, some tangled, ripped-up fishing nets, and a tattered sepia photograph of a girl around my age in a white eyelet sundress whose seemingly golden ringlets framed her heart-shaped face. Something about her made me feel a little less panicky, if it was simply the fact that if all this garbage could make it here, a ship must come by eventually. But no, the scantily clad subject of the photograph bore marks on her neck that were all but identical to mine! The photograph had several creases that I folded again to place the picture in the only pocket left me. Then I heard a girl’s voice.
“HEY!” I looked around; there was a turquoise-stained house and striding out from it was a short-statured girl with long, stringy strawberry-blonde hair, a Godfather t-shirt, and imperfect thighs. She was waving. “ARE YOU ALRIGHT?” she called.
It sounded almost as if she was accustomed to the idea of people washing up in her front yard on a fairly regular basis.
“Where are we?” I asked.
“It’s called Ridley Island,” she told me. “Hi. I’m Alex Jankowitz. Do you want to come inside?” She gestured toward her house.
“Do you have a phone?”
“No,” Alex said. “There’s no service out here.”
“Where exactly are we on a map?” I asked.
“Well, Deirdre––she’s a friend––she thinks that we’re somewhere in the Atlantic now, but it’s hard to say because the Archipelago migrates to pick up the newest arrival, which I suppose would be you. We’re not a hundred percent sure how that works. Where are you from?”
I didn’t answer. “This is madness,” I said. “I’m supposed to have my graduation party on Saturday, and I don’t mean a bunch of friends playing beer pong. I mean great-aunts and cousins telling me how much I’ve grown. This is too trippy.”
“Come in, Grace,” Alex said. “Come meet the others.”
“Others?” I repeated. “And what’s this whole new arrival business? Did you kidnap me?”
“No, nobody kidnapped you except Mother Nature,” Alex replied.
“And I’ll have you know that you can’t make me stay here. Someone will come for me.”
“What do you want from me?!”
“ Well, I think I’ll stay out here and watch for a ship.”
“Suit yourself. You’re always welcome in the house.”
Alex walked away. I looked at all of the garbage. Maybe I could make a house out of the boat. I set to work.
There were some bits of driftwood lying about that I found worthy of the status of logs, so I used two of them to prop up one side of the rowboat. I also draped the rowboat in part of a parachute that was lying around and took the photograph, the locket, the shell, and the glass mermaid into the shelter I’d made. Sitting in it wasn’t much fun, but my skin was cooked.
Without warning, my humble abode caved in on me. I exited, lifting the boat high enough to get out. I was staring up into the face of a stunning girl with dark hair and a severe expression. There was a new hole in the rusted tin that was very similar in size and close in proximity to her foot.
“This won’t do,” she said. “There’s a storm coming tonight and this little fort you’ve made will turn into an electric chair.” Her words had the ghost of a Mother-Teresa-ish accent and I was sure I would’ve appreciated them better if they came from Mother Teresa herself, though honestly I don’t think Mother Teresa would have ever dreamt of kicking down a fort upon its unsuspecting inhabitants.
“I’m fine,” I told her. For a second, the pain of my sunburn disappeared and she shuddered. Then it came back.
“My God, you’re foolish. But it’s your life.” She turned around and went back into the house as well. I wondered dimly if that was Deirdre. I wasn’t sure that even if the inhabitants of this house were okay, I could ever like this girl, whoever she was.
A few minutes later, after I had reestablished my little shelter, a third girl showed up by poking a friendly face into the opening.
“What are you, the Ghost of Christmas Future?” I bitched.
“I’m Nona,” she said. “And I think you should at least climb out for a second.”
What could it hurt to oblige? I clambered out of my little home and Nona made a face. “You’ve got some brutal sunburn, you know,” she said, but she wasn’t mocking me. She seemed kind.
“I know,” I replied. Nona reached out to touch the worst spot, my shoulder. I recoiled.
“Wait,” she said. Holding my arm still, she touched the area with the most sunburn. My shoulder felt good, like I’d just experienced Alaska’s entire dark season instead of baking in the sun all day. “Better?” she asked.
“Yes, thank you,” I said grudgingly, as Nona un-sunburned me everywhere else I had been burned. “What are you, a fairy?”
“Not quite,” Nona replied. “Do you think I’m magic?”
“I think I’d believe anything at this point.”
“Well, come into the house. We’re nice people. Can you believe that?”
“I don’t want to…”
“But can you?” Nona asked again. I wasn’t sure if she had signed my soul to the underworld or anything, but she had completely reduced my sunburn to a healthy-looking tan. With the remembrance of the pain still embedded among my most recent sensory memories, it almost seemed a fair exchange.
“Yes,” I resented. I followed her into her house.
We went into the dining room. There was an insane amount of food here, and almost anything you could imagine, and even though they said they had made all of it it because I had arrived, the roomful of young women who received me here could only persuade me to eat an egg. Despite this, I was painfully hungry.
“Welcome, young one,” said the girl in the middle. “I’m Filomina. This is Adelaide, Sky, Deirdre, Nona, Jehona, Alex…”
I was too disoriented to pay attention.
“Hi,” I said. I didn’t eat anything else, but sat there waiting for whatever they planned next.
“Deirdre,” Filomina beckoned, “would you be so kind as to show our new arrival to her room?”
“Sure thing,” said Deirdre, in an Irish brogue. It was not the socially inept mermaid who had visited me earlier. She had dark, reddish-brownish hair and dark eyes and she seemed kind and motherly. “Come along, then, Grace. You’ll be rooming with Alex and me.”
“Mind if I help them?” Alex wondered aloud in Filomina’s direction.
“I actually wondered if I might have a word, Alexandra,” Filomina told her. Alex’s expression faltered for a split second.
“Sure,” she responded, almost too immediately. “Sure, Filomina. What seems to be the trouble?”
“Come on,” Deirdre elbowed me. “Alex’ll catch us up in just a minute, I’ll wager. She was so excited when she found you…so glad that Damsel didn’t find you first.”
“Damsel?” I repeated, confused. Was this a term I ought to know?
“Oh, right,” said Deirdre. “You wouldn’t know. Damsel is our rival pod. We’re Ridley. The Ridley Pod, on Ridley Island. Filomina’s our leader, if you hadn’t guessed.”
I kept seeing the fish in my mind’s eye––an angular, cerulean fin and something like a gigantic clownfish. But so indistinctly. Had it all been a crazy dream? Was I dreaming still? We walked on until Deirdre, who I half hoped was just a figment of my imagination, seemed satisfied by the door at the far end of the hallway and stopped to bolt it open.
“Follow me, because this’ll explain everything.”
I hoped with everything in me that this wasn’t some strange cult thing. I was not having children just to eat them to please the fertility spirits.
“Come follow me,” Deirdre repeated. I obliged.
The room was homey, eclectic, and comfortable. Not too tidy, not to messy, not too old, not too new. There were two beds. One was obviously Alex’s; the other must belong to Deirdre. “Go lie down,” she instructed me, moving toward an inside door and easing it open to reveal a full bathroom.
“They’re bringing your furniture in now,” Deirdre said. “Nona just has to find the parts. I think she’s looking for the right allen wrench.”
The room had been divided into sections; you had to walk through Alex’s to get to Deirdre’s. The furniture was eclectic and the walls were painted indecisively. Lace curtains blew away from the perfect pink sand and turquoise water where, in the distance, a pod of whales was leaping beyond the palms. By the window in a cage was a tannish lizard with spiky skin and a lizardy face.
“What is that?” I asked.
“Galadriel,” said Deirdre, going to the cage to procure the lizard. “She is a bearded dragon.” Deirdre stroked the dragon down its back. “She was given to me by someone really special.” She smiled almost sadly to herself. “Oh! We need to get this done. Go sit.”
I did as I was told and sat awkwardly on Alex’s bed (it was closer).
Deirdre emerged from the bathroom, brandishing a turkey baster full of water. She looked upset.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“It’s nothing,” she replied. “I just had this lovely task the last few times someone came in and it’s getting tiresome.”
“Well…are you good at it?” I inquired. Deirdre laughed, hiding her face in her palm.
“I’m not so sure skill is of the essence here. Perhaps you can tell me once I’m through.”
“Okay, I’ll try.”
Deirdre laughed again, but it was a nervous laugh. She was taller than the others I had seen and I thought she might be completely made of muscle, though her muscles were pretty. Her skin was tan and her choppy reddish hair was broken up only by the interlude of a florescent bandanna.
I sat up on the bed. “You’ve got to lie down, Grace,” she repeated. I complied.
She syringed some water into a slit on the left side of my neck. I breathed it in––my body worked without me.
For a split second, I was just shocked by the cold and by the strangeness of her action. A second or an eon later (I was unable to differentiate), I felt strange. Something happened to my legs. They felt different––I looked down at the mass of electric blue below me––
I had a mermaid’s tail.