Welcome to the February installment of First Sunday Short Fiction. Please enjoy the story, and remember if you want to submit a story of your own, you can find instructions on our submissions page.
Mother Storm by Michelle Simkins
A Saturday morning jogger found it on the beach, its scaled legs refracting rare October sunlight, casting rainbows on the sand. He couldn’t detect a pulse.
Reporters and photographers wondered aloud how there were no clouds of insects, no bloated limbs, no putrefaction. Only this tiny creature on the beach, sparkling in the morning sun, just out of reach of the receding tide.
When Rebecca sees the report on the evening news she cries. Chelsea hugs Rebecca tight.
“Softie,” Chelsea says, but her voice is gentle and her arms are warm.
“It’s so tiny,” Rebecca says. “Just a baby.”
Dad is a janitor at the police station, where the inexplicable body rests in cold storage until the biologists from the nearest university come to examine it. He saw the body when they wheeled it in.
“It’s some kind of monster,” he says, digging a pack of cigarettes from his jacket pocket and stepping outside.
“Have some cookies,” Rebecca’s mother says, dropping a plate of snickerdoodles on the coffee table and disappearing into her office.
Everyone always scatters when Rebecca cries, except Chelsea.
They put the cookies in a bag and take them to the beach, even though it’s started raining, and the wild coast winds blow raindrops into their faces so hard they feel like tiny ice chips. There’s a place where a cliff juts out into the ocean, cutting the beach in two. A tunnel passes through the rock. The girls sit on the damp stones at the mouth of the tunnel and survey the beach, all rocks and crows and seagulls, but no tourists on a rainy Thursday evening in mid-October.
Rebecca loves the beach like this, though today her sadness over the baby mermaid overwhelms her pleasure at the sight of the rolling gray waves.
The cookies are soft and warm, and when they are devoured Rebecca leans on Chelsea’s shoulder and closes her eyes.
The wind rises higher, the waves speed up the beach, and within ten minutes they’re driven from their perch by the incoming storm. They hurry to the closest coffee shop, which is full of teenagers and harried parents with young children. By some miracle a table by the window empties as they arrive. They sip hot cocoa (Chelsea) and caramel apple cider (Rebecca) while the darkness descends over the now violent ocean.
“I don’t know why it’s upsetting me so much,” Rebecca says, staring out the window. She hunches over her steaming drink, letting the warmth of the stoneware mug flow into her body. Chelsea covers Rebecca’s free hand with her own and squeezes it gently.
“Maybe because it’s so tiny,” she says.
Rebecca takes a sip and closes her eyes, warmed through now, almost too warm. She sets her cup on the table and unwinds the scarf from her neck, a gift from Chelsea on her last birthday, hand knit in ocean blue, an undulating wave pattern, warm and soft. Chelsea never stops creating. Even now she’s digging a tiny notebook and pencil from the pocket of her huge parka, a hand-me-down from her grandpa who left winter things behind when he moved to Arizona for his arthritis’ sake. She begins to sketch: the rocks, the gulls, something simple to keep her hands moving, she would say, though to Rebecca even the simplest of Chelsea’s creations is magical. Rebecca can barely draw stick figures. Chelsea says she’s glad Rebecca can’t draw, because she is Chelsea’s biggest fan.
Rebecca watches Chelsea’s dark, muscular fingers conjure a crow on a rock from the paper.
“But also,” she says. “I don’t know. I feel like I lost something. Is that crazy?”
Chelsea looks up from her paper, tilts her head like she’s studying Rebecca’s face.
“Is it like when your aunt lost her baby?”
Rebecca ponders this for a moment, taking another sip of her drink and thinking back to her sorrow as she watched her aunt struggle with the death of a six month old child, lost to a rare genetic condition Rebecca didn’t fully understand. She had felt the loss of the baby so keenly, though they’d all known it was coming, though it wasn’t her loss, not really, just a cousin she barely knew. This wasn’t the only time such a thing had happened, but it was the worst.
“I think it is,” she says. “Weird.”
That night Rebecca dreams of swimming through murky waters, her long dark hair floating around her face like ropes of seaweed. The dream is so vivid she wakes cold and weary. She shuffles to the kitchen on the leaden legs of a swimmer just out of water. The news is on again in the living room, a segment on the sudden storm no expert predicted. Towns along this stretch of coast are flooding, houses have been damaged by water and wind, power lines are down. Soon a state of emergency will be declared. There is talk of evacuation if conditions worsen.
Rebecca pokes at her instant oatmeal and thinks about her dream. She enjoys swimming, but fears deep water. She’s content to love the ocean from the safety of the shore. For all that, the dream seemed more real than the kitchen table and her unappetizing breakfast.
She wonders when the scientists from the university will arrive to carve the body up. The thought makes her stomach heave a little and she dumps the last few bites of her oatmeal in the compost bucket under the sink. At least the storm will slow them down, she thinks.
The wind is tearing cedar shingles from the houses and flinging them down the streets. But Rebecca goes to the beach anyway, drawn out into the wind and rain by something she can’t explain, by some kind of need that tugs on her stomach relentlessly. She goes to the place where the jogger found the baby. The sand is clogged with piles of waterlogged tree trunks, barnacle encrusted shells, and massive tangles of seaweed still attached to fleshy, bulbous roots. Dead fish fill the air with the stink of ocean rot, and seagulls preside over the wreckage with quarrelsome glee.
She climbs onto some half-buried tree trunks at the edge of the waves, and she’s sure she sees a shape gliding just under the surface of the churning water, something human-ish. She crouches down to get closer to the water, hoping the waves won’t suddenly rise high and sweep her from the debris. She holds onto the broken stub of a tree branch to steady herself.
There it is again, a moving shadow. And she hears a sound like distant wailing, muffled and distorted. She leans forward, one hand still around the branch, one resting on the sodden wood beneath her. A cold wave pours over her rubber boots and soaks the sleeve of her coat. She gasps but doesn’t move, because she is sure the shape is coming toward her.
And then a clammy hand reaches out of the water and grasps hers. The wailing of the wind stops. She looks at the hand, as her heart thuds furiously and her blood sings with fear. The hand seems almost human, except for the fine silver scales shining in the dull afternoon light. Webbing translucent as a wedding veil stretches between the fingers.
Just beyond the hand a face emerges from the water. Its wide, round, pale eyes, its hairless and earless head, seem alien. But the full lips and prominent cheekbones might belong to a human supermodel, the bone structure is so fine and pronounced, the lips so smooth.
Rebecca and the mermaid stare into each other’s eyes. The creature’s eyes seem full of sorrow.
Rebecca blinks and sees a flash behind her eyelids, the tiny silvery creature alive and speeding through the green-gray deep. The sadness knifes through her harder than ever, and she closes her eyes again and knows she sees what the creature has seen, a memory. And the loss she feels is also the creature’s. She opens her eyes again.
“I’m sorry,” she says.
The mermaid opens her mouth, and the wailing rises again. Rebecca understands it was never the wind making the sound. The clammy hand releases her wrist, and the mermaid is gone.
Rebecca rises on shaky legs and stares out at the storm. She realizes she’s shuddering all over, drenched through, but she can’t stand the thought of the mermaid alone in the water, wailing for her lost child. Or the thought of the baby being mangled in the name of science.
She turns to scramble over the piles on the beach and hurry up the steep hill to Chelsea’s house.
Chelsea is still wearing her pajamas—worn flannel pajama pants with dinosaurs all over them, and an orange t-shirt with a faded Fanta logo. Her dark cloud of hair is slightly flattened on one side. She exclaims over Rebecca’s drenched clothes, but Rebecca grabs her arm and leans close, whispering her request. Chelsea stares at Rebecca for a few seconds before saying, “You’re serious.”
“If my mom finds out she’ll kill me,” Chelsea says, “Or worse, ground me until I leave for college.”
“Will you?” Rebecca asks.
“Okay,” Chelsea says, though there is doubt on her face. Rebecca kisses her, quickly, on the mouth, and rushes out the door.
She bursts into the living room, and her mother begins a lecture on dirty shoes and clean floors, but stops when she sees the look on Rebecca’s face.
“It’s a baby,” Rebecca blurts.
Her father turns in his easy chair. Both parents are silent.
“The body they found. It’s just a baby,” she says. She’s crying again, and it makes her angry at herself, but she has to make them listen.
“How do you know?” her father asks.
She’s shivering violently now and peels off her wet coat, holding on to it so it doesn’t fall on the clean floor. “I know I sound crazy,” she says, “But I think I saw its mother. And I think she’s making this storm happen.”
“Honey, did you hit your head?” mother asks.
But Rebecca’s dad drops the footrest on his recliner and leans forward. “Are you sure?”
She nods. Her teeth begin to chatter.
“This is ridiculous,” her mother says, and takes the coat from Rebecca’s hands, then pulls off her soaked hat and scarf and heads toward the laundry room. “Change out of those wet things,” she calls over her shoulder.
Rebecca steps out of her rubber boots.
“Dad,” she says. “She wants her baby back. The storm won’t stop until we give it back.”
“You’ve never lied to us,” he says. “That I know of. So let’s just say I believe you. What are we supposed to do about it?”
“I have an idea,” she says.
“Not until you put on dry clothes,” her mother says, returning from the laundry room. “Upstairs.”
Rebecca obediently runs to her room and peels off her wet things. She puts on dry clothes, not even sure what she’s grabbing from her closet and drawers, and races back downstairs to share her plan.
The gray day is fading by the time their plan is ready.
Dad’s pickup has four-wheel drive, but the trip to the police station is still dicey. At one point he has to stop the truck so the three of them—dad, Rebecca, and Chelsea—can heave a fallen tree off the road.
He pulls his truck around the side of the building and cuts the engine.
“If we get caught, I’ll lose my job,” he says.
Rebecca doesn’t know what to say. She loves her dad. But she can feel the creature's anguish like thorns in her stomach, and she needs to make it stop.
He pats her shoulder awkwardly and gets out of the truck. He disappears around the side of the building, and the lights on the outside of the building go out. He reappears and enters the building. Rebecca and Chelsea hold hands, waiting for his return, hoping no one is there to catch him.
When he reappears in the doorway and waves them in, Rebecca wilts with relief.
She manages all the doors for Chelsea, whose arms are full.
“Quick,” dad says. “I don’t know who gets the emergency alert when the power goes out. Someone might come to check.”
The windowless morgue is pitch black, lit only by the moving beams of their flashlights. Dad opens three drawers before finding the right one. The small silvery body has lost its gleam, though it’s still whole and beautiful in the same alien way as its mother. Chelsea places her bundle on an empty steel gurney and removes the blanket, and they look from one creature to the other in awe.
“You’re really good,” dad says, and Rebecca’s heart swells with admiration for the girl she loves. “It’s identical.”
He reaches out and touches the fake baby. “It even feels real,” he says. “But they’ll know it’s a fake as soon as they examine it.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Rebecca says. “It’ll be too late by then.”
“I hope I don’t get fired,” her dad says.
But it’s dad who carries the baby out, wrapped in Chelsea’s blanket. He drives them to the beach where the baby was found. Rebecca takes the tiny, nearly weightless bundle. Chelsea helps her across the debris, and Rebecca kneels in the same place she saw the mermaid, placing the bundle on the tree trunk and pulling aside the folds of the blanket tenderly. The creature’s wailing hurts Rebecca’s ears. She places the baby on the unquiet water. It bobs and rotates on the surface like an unmoored boat.
And the creature’s face emerges once again from the waves.
“I’m so sorry,” Rebecca says again. And though she knows the creature can’t understand her words, she thinks it understands their meaning. It pulls the tiny body to itself and curls around it, and the wailing reels out into the stormy twilight for the space of three heartbeats, and then fades away. The creature looks at Rebecca solemnly, then sinks beneath the waves and glides off with its burden.
Chelsea helps Rebecca to her feet and hugs her tight enough that she begins to feel earthbound again, no longer drifting on a wave of sorrow into the cold ocean. They trudge up the beach in the near dark.
By the time they reach the truck the rain has stopped.
story ©Michelle Simkins 2017
photo ©Michelle Simkins 2015
About the Author:
Michelle Simkins runs Hagstone Publishing from her home office in Portland, Oregon, where she writes sporadically, knits obsessively, gardens haphazardly, reads voraciously, and watches too many reruns on Hulu with her wife.
She's been a witch for nearly two decades, but don't worry--she only uses her powers for good.
She has published several knitting patterns (available on Ravelry), and a tutorial on creating smudge sticks from easily found plants (available in the Hagstone Publishing shop).