Soooo… the world has pretty much gone to hell. If that wasn’t already obvious by the fact that I’m using a trash can as a bout, it was now.
Sweat built up my noodle-estic arms as I paddled with a stop sign. My eyes kept a close watch on the ocean's surface, waiting for the mermaids to find me and try to drown me like they did with any humans brazen enough to island hop.
My destination? Zillowburg’s main headquarters. Er… rather the top of Zillowburg’s main headquarters. After the ice caps melted thanks to, drrrrrrrrrrrruuuuuum roll, please? Ba-da ba-da ba-da da-DUM!
Ding ding ding! We have a winner!
I sighed and kept rowing. I've been in my own head so much, I've started imagining game shows about the end of the world. God, I'm so alone.
Anyway, contestants, the only places that weren’t completely submerged by the raised ocean were the tops of huge corporation buildings. In other words, corporations ruled the earth, killed it, and now are the only ones that get to survive it. That's capitalism in a nutshell, folks.
Unless you’re me and desperately trying to cross the Atlantic Ocean. As my wanna-be watercraft reached Zillowburg Island, I docked in the shadows of the AC unit. Best they not see me or they’ll probably kill me. I tied down my boat and crept around the AC unit to see where their food stash was. That's how island-hoppers (typically food thieves) like me not die.
Most corporate islands don’t like me on their land. An most mermaids don’t like me in their water—after humans ruined their homes and killed their coral reefs. Can't really blame them for wanting to murder us... But the bottom line: I’m not really wanted anywhere.
This is turning out just like my parents' divorce in the sixth grade.
That doesn’t mean I can’t sneak into the huge food tent besides Zillowburg’s main tent and make myself a nice sardine and strawberry jelly sandwich.
Don’t judge me.
Licking my lips and staying close to the ground, I stalked my way over to the food pantry tent. Gosh, what kind of rich person food do they have in there? I stuck my nose up in the air and stiffed. Smells like salmon with truffle oils. My stomach growled, begging me to continue.
Once the coast was clear, I dove into the food tent. Nobody. Just the way I like it. I rubbed my hands together like an evil little raccoon. Holding my bag open with one arm, I used the other to plow food off the shelves and into the bag. Every footstep, no matter the direction, made my heart pound harder. My anxiety told me I’d have to wait until I was back at sea before I could snack. That didn’t stop me from shoving a croissant in my mouth and chewing while I worked, though. Multitasking was a quality skill.
After my sack was full, I slugged it over my shoulder like Santa and headed for the exit. As I set a foot outside, an obnoxious voice boomed from inside the main tent. “My dearest employees—” I snorted at the word ‘dearest’. “I have done what many deemed impossible and… captured a mermaid!”
My eyes widened. Say what? Do these corporate imbeciles really have so little respect for the ocean that they would continue to threaten it and their creatures? Just leave it alone already!
The voice continued “Legends says…”
What legend? We’ve known mermaids were real for less than a year.
“... that mermaids are the most beautiful creatures on the Earth. Behold! A mermaid.” The swoosh of a curtain replaced his voice. The crowd oohed and ahhed at the mermaid.
I bit my lip. Admittedly, I was curious as to what they looked like. And the main tent was right there. Plus, it could be good scientific research since I’m an oceanographer…
I crept forward to the main tent’s entrance. Just one look, then, I’m out of there, I promised myself. Swinging the tent’s flap back, I set my eyes on the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen.
A mermaid, with a scaly, rose gold tail that swallowed her up to her hips. Trapped in a huge, dirty fish tank on wheels, her curly black hair and ragged braless T-shirt floated in the mucky water. Fractured seashells dotted her hair. Her hands were pressed to the glass as she stared out into the audience that whooped and hollered at her. Fear shone in her eyes.
My stomach sank, forgetting about my hunger. How could they keep someone so beautiful in such a disgusting tank? I clenched my fists. While my head still wanted to get away while everyone was distracted, my heart refused. No. I had to help her.
While I crouched along the edge of the main tank, making my way towards her, I noticed something. All of the employees had tattered clothing and skinny limbs. A few people with tighter clothing revealed their ribs poking through their skin. Looks like the boss was starving his people to keep a thick stash of food. The bag of stolen rations grew heavy on my back.
Finally, I reached the edge of the stage. Where do I go from here? I doubt they’d just let me run out of here with her. No, I needed a distraction… ooh, I just thought of one.
Without warning, I jumped onto the stage, smiling and waving as though I belonged there. “Hello, all!”
Confusion spread the crowd. The boss gripped, unsure, his microphone as I approached him. “You’re not supposed to be here. Who are you?’
I waved him off as he shouted for guards. “Looks like I’ve got to go soon, but before I do…” I opened the food bag. “Have a ho ho happy post-apocalypse or whatever.”
I chucked the entire bag into the audience, letting the food spill everywhere as it flew. Everyone dove for the scraps, including the guards. “Wait,” the boss demanded. “Stop. Get the outsider.”
Oops, too late. This outsider was already back outside by the AC unit with the fish tank. I threw all my weight against the glass to knock it into the ocean. The mermaid stared at me with wide eyes, trying to figure out what I was doing. Panting, I said, “Just give me a minute. An apocalypse is going on and I’m still not in shape. Whew.”
With one final shove, the tank ducked into the ocean. The mermaid swam out, free. I wiped the sweat from my brew. For a brief second, the fear in her eyes switched to curiosity. But, before I could talk to her, she dove into the ocean’s depths. Just like that, she was gone
I hopped into my trash can boat. “Guess that’s that then.”
My stomach growled at me, annoyed. I rubbed it and began paddling away from Zillowburg Island. “I know, buddy. I know.”
A couple of days later, around midnight, still floating in my trash can, I curled up into a tiny ball, trying to fall asleep so I wouldn’t have to listen to my stomach anymore. As expected, I couldn’t because my stomach decided to try and eat itself. Regardless, I hugged myself tighter and kept my eyes closed.
That was until my trash can started to violently rock. Alarmed, I stood to find a mob of mermaids sticking their hands out of the water, attempting to capsize me. As the trash can shook, I grabbed my stop sign and started to jab at them with the stick end. “Leave me alone,” I cried.
One of the mermaids snatched the sign’s end, yanking it into the water—with me on the other end like reverse fishing. As soon as I entered the water, the mermaids lost interest in the trash can. The first one kept dragging me down as the others clawed at me with their webbed hands. The seawater stung my fresh wounds and eyes as I opened them to see my breath’s bubbles floating towards the surface.
I clamped my hands over my mouth. Panic flooded my veins like the ocean flooded the Earth. The moonlight dimmed the deeper I got until I couldn’t even see my trash can boat on the surface.
Come back, trash can! I’m sorry I never appreciated you.
Black dots swirled my vision. The lack of oxygen was getting to me. As I closed my eyes for what I thought would be the last time, the shimmer of rose gold tail caught my eye. Then I blacked out.
I woke in my apartment like the apocalypse never happened. Was it all a dream? Blind without my glasses, my hand felt around for them on my nightstand. They found a pair, but my eyes bugged out when I put them on. “Woah,” I said. “Too sharp.” I looked down at the glasses. They weren’t mine. And this wasn’t my apartment. Where was I?
I jumped out of bed and landed in sea water up to my mid-thigh. Swimming in the shadow water, the mermaid I saved handed me my glasses. “Th… thank you.” I muttered as I put them on. “So what’s ah…” I splashed my hands in the water aggressively. “This?”
She swam out into the apartment’s main room and I followed. I winced with every step, the scratches still stinging from the fight.
A row of windows lined the back wall of the apartment. Filtered sunlight drifted through the ocean from the sky, lighting the whole room up. Saltwater plants popped up everywhere, feasting on the sunlight. Tiny, exotic fish darted in between the plants and my legs. Despite being underwater, miraculously, this apartment’s tight seal had created an air pocket underwater with enough air and plants to support a human life for a little while. The water at my thighs must have been purposefully let in from a window to let the mermaid swim around in.
“I brought you here since you were injured and I couldn’t exactly bring you about the surface,” the mermaid explained. “I’m Iluka.”
“Elaine,” I said.
The stinging pain nagging me, I hopped onto the kitchen counter and started to dry off the wounds with a paper towel. Everything above the water level had stayed dry. “Do you know if this apartment has any disinfectants?” I asked. The ocean was hardly sterile. My stomach growled. Still on that, huh? With an embarrassed blush, I added, “Or food?”
Quickly, Iluka swam away and came back with a seal bottle of disinfectant and a handful of sea plants. She set both on the kitchen counter. “These are some of my favorite plants to eat. They grow in all sorts of places on these structures. Have some.”
I awkwardly shifted through the plants. In the end, the only edible plants I could identify was cordgrass and orach. “Thanks,” I said, taking a bite.
“Do you like reddie?”
I almost choked on the orach. “The what? What did you call it?”
She pointed at the orach’s huge red leaves. “The reddie.”
“Oh, you call this plant ‘reddie’. That’s so cool. I’m an oceanographer and us humans call it orach.”
Her eyes shone as Iluka repeated it softly, “Orach.”
“What’s the strigge called?” She pointed at the cordgrass.
“This cordgrass is quite tasty, no?”
I munched on it, gagging a little. “It’s… edible.”
She laughed. I loved the way she laughed, with a little snort every now and then. So cute. I blushed when she noticed I spent too long looking at her and switched to focusing on the plants instead. “What about the marree?” Iluka asked.
“That’s the halimeda plant. It’s not edible for humans, actually.”
She picked it up and took a huge bite with a childish smile. “That’s a shame. They’re delicious.”
I giggled. “Now I know how a dog feels about chocolate.”
As I looked back up, I noticed her staring at me, a new glimmer in her eye. We made eye contact, and this time, she looked away, a small blush on her face. Before I could stop myself, I asked, “Why did you save me from the other mermaids and bring me here?”
She curled her hair around the whole palm of her hand as she spoke, “Well, you freed me from my tank. It seemed like the least I could do. I thought I could help heal you after the fight, so I brought you here where the other mermaids that want to kill you and mean humans that want to kill me, can’t find us.”
“Is that so? Well, thanks, I guess. That was very kind of you.”
She blushed harder, making me blush harder, making her blush harder, mak—well, you get the idea. It was a vicious cycle. “No… no problem.”
I glanced around the apartment. “I guess I should stay here until my cuts heal. Swimming out in the ocean would be painful right now. Though, I should still leave as soon as I can. I don’t know how much air there is in here or how long it will last—even with the plants.”
Iluka’s face fell. “Of course. That’s the logical thing here…”
With a small smile, I added, “It’s a good thing I’m a slow healer.”
She frowned. “That sounds like a terrible thing.”
“No, what I mean is…”
“What if you got shot? How would you heal? Would you die?”
Confusion spread across my face. “You think I’m immune to bullets or something? Yes, I would die.”
“Then don’t get shot.”
“I… I wasn’t planning to?”
About a week and a half later, all my cuts had fully healed into my perfect brown, scarless skin. I've never been so angry about being healthy. The air was getting thin in the apartment. It was clear I would have to live soon. During the last day, Iluka mostly lounged around the apartment, in a sour mood. My heart sank. I was hoping she liked me and we had connected—maybe as a friend to cure my loneness, or more if she was up to it—but it seemed like she was just tired of me after all of this time.
I clapped my hands awkwardly, earning the attention of Iluka. “So... I guess I should get back to the surface now. Since I’m healed.”
“Oh, yeah,” she said, unenergetically. “Let’s go get you back up there.”
My heart sank further, but together we left the apartment.
Since we were a couple of stories under, and I wasn’t the best swimmer, I held onto Iluka’s back as she swam up. Our heads burst through the surface and I gasped for air like a dehydrated carp. I crawled my way onto the apartment complex’s roof, flopping onto my back.
“I guess this is goodbye,” Iluka said.
My gut twisted at those words. But my head expected as such. “I guess,” I said, weakly.
She waved goodbye, bit her lip, but didn’t leave. Her eyes appeared red and swollen.
“Oh my god, Iluka…” I said.
She chirped up, “Yes?”
“Do you have pink eye?”
She frowned. “No, I don’t have pink eye.”
“Then what’s with your eyes?”
“Oh my Poseidon, how obvious could it be? I was crying.”
I cocked my head, confused. “Why? Does saltwater sting your eyes?”
“No, I’m upset that this is where we must part ways.”
“Why ‘must’ we?” I asked. “Because I don’t want to.”
“Because… because…” Her brain stalled as she tried to find an answer. “Huh, I don’t know. I just figured that a human and mermaid wouldn’t be able to stay together.”
I held out my hand. “So, you wanna stay together?” I asked.
She took it. “Definitely.”
And that’s the story of how I got a mermaid girlfriend.