The Little Mermaid

Prequel to 'The Little Mermaid' * Honourable Mention in the Huntsman competition.* Sort of hybrid between Hans Christian Andersen’s original and the Disney version, with some of my own flair thrown in.* At fifteen years of age, mermaids are permitted the freedom to look upon those on the surface. And now it’s Cleo’s turn. What she’ll find, she has no idea, but she has an inkling it will change everything. ©Molly Looby

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My tail muscles worked harder than they ever had before. It only took a few minutes for my tail to feel heavy and want to stop. But I wouldn’t stop. Not until I broke the surface. My heart was squeezing in my chest, and I couldn’t take my breaths fast enough.

There it was. The way the light caught the ocean was different up here. Only another few moments.

I halted as I reached the point in the sky where the sea met whatever there was above it.

This was it.

The enormity of what I had to do next sent chills and tingles throughout my body. What if there was something up there? What if there was nothing up there? What if it wasn’t everything I dreamt it would be? But what if it was?

I held my breath and reached my hand out to touch where the ocean met the surface. My hand was shaking. Something cold touched the tip of my finger, and I yanked my arm back, staring at the spot I’d broken the surface. But there was nothing there. I edged closer and tried again.

This time when the cold feeling touched my finger, I held my hand there. It felt a little bit like something of a current up there. Little bit by little bit, I pushed more of my hand up into the new world. The way the water met the surface was obscuring my hand, making it look the wrong size. I waved my hand around in the unknown, and it felt so free. There was nothing slowing me down. No water to pull myself through.

It didn’t take long to reach my elbow, and with a shot of courage, I poked the top of my head out the water so my eyes could take it in.

Nothing.

My heart dropped. There was nothing here. The ocean ended and turned into waves that lapped against my face. But all around me, nothing. The ocean went on and on into the distance, and above me was a light-blue, similar to that of my tail. That seemed to go on and on too. There was a circle in the sky that was white-yellow, and it hurt to look at, so I shaded my eyes.

Where were the humans?

I stuck my head above the surface and took in my first breath of whatever substance I was in now, if anything at all. It was strange, there was nothing holding me back, but yet I felt heavier out of the water. The breath was cold and wrong, but I could breathe. My sisters had already told me that mermaids could breathe both the ocean waters and whatever kept the humans alive. Although, they also told me that humans would die if they tried to breathe in the ocean. Other than our tails, I’d been told we looked exactly alike, so I couldn’t understand why. Maybe if I met one I’d ask.

But where were they all?

With nothing to lose, I ducked my head back down into the ocean and swam for a good long while, watching the seabed beneath me rise up. My father had told me that the beach wasn’t the place for a mermaid, but I had to catch sight of a human. I didn’t want to descend back to the palace to tell Bay he’d been right and there was nothing exciting to see. He was wrong. There was something up here worth seeing. I could feel it.

Peeping my head out of the water, I hid behind a rock. There were noises in the air. Laughter. They sounded different on the surface. But yet the same. Humans and mermaids laughed the same. A thrill set along in my blood as I pulled myself up the rock. My arms struggled to hold my weight. The more of me rose out of the water, the heavier I became. I gripped on for dear life, just high enough to catch a look at the beach.

It was magnificent.

There were whole groups of humans splashing and laughing and talking. It was the most marvellous thing I’d ever seen. There were children and adults. Men and women. Even smaller, hairy-looking creatures that made loud sounds and chased colourful objects across the sand. They did look like us, only with legs. And a lot more covering their bodies. But it did feel different up here. The sort of current around me was not as strong, but felt sharper. My hair was dancing around me in a different way than in the ocean. It made me giggle.

A little boy looked right at me and pointed, so I threw myself back in the water, watching their legs kick as they kept their heads above the surface. They were the strangest things. They ended in little finger-type structures. Could they pick up things with them? I couldn’t get close enough to tell. I didn’t want to frighten them. Did they know what a mermaid was? If they didn’t, surely I shouldn’t be the one the show them. Or should I?

They must know. Mermaids had been venturing to the surface on their fifteenth birthdays for generations.

I poked my head out of the water again and crept closer to a group of humans who looked similar to my own age. Curious. The only difference appeared to be their legs. They were in a circle, throwing something back and forth between them. It fell faster than a rock or clam would in the ocean. But this object was round and floated on top of the water. One of the boys pushed down on it, forcing it under the water, and it sprung up by itself, freeing itself of the water. Fascinating.

As I drifted closer and closer, I could hear their voices.

“Hey! Stop it, Jason. You did that on purpose.”

They spoke my language too. They must know about mermaids. They had to. We were far too similar to be ignorant of each other.

A splash obscured my vision, and I let out a little yelp.

“Sorry!” Someone yelled in my direction. “Can you pass us our ball?”

Ball. I picked the thing up and spun it in my hands. It was lighter than almost anything I’d held of that size before. I threw it to them, and it bounced off one of the boy’s chests. Hard. He grunted and fell back in the water. Whoops.

I felt heat creep into my cheeks, and I grimaced. Things moved much easier up here.

All of his friends were laughing. He scowled a little and flung the ball at another boy.

Before I could escape, a girl grinned at me. Her blonde hair shone up here.

“Hey,” she said. “I haven’t seen you around here before. Do you go to St Johns?”

I didn’t know what that meant, so I shook my head.

“Cedar?”

I shook my head again.

“Are you new here?”

I nodded.

She beckoned me closer. “Want to join us?”

I eyed their distance from the shore. They were deep enough that they were only just touching the sand beneath them. They were balancing on the finger-things on the ends of their legs. As long as I stayed where the water was deeper, I could join them. Until they wanted to get out of the water of course.

So I swallowed down my nerves and swam up to the blonde girl.

“I’m Sienna,” she said.

“Cleo,” I answered.

“She does speak.” One of the boys laughed. He looked to be the tallest of the group, or maybe it was the way he was standing on the sand.

“Don’t listen to Jack,” she said.

Jack, the third boy, rolled his eyes. He wasn’t the one I’d hit with the ball, and he wasn’t the one they called Jason.

“That’s Ben.” Sienna pointed to the boy I’d hit with the ball. “And Jason. And this is Ami and Meg.”

Both Ami and Meg waved. Ami had shorter, brown hair, and Meg’s hair was red.

They had such interesting names. I’d never heard of them before, but somehow they fit. It must’ve been the same way they didn’t question my name. I wondered if there were any Cleos on the surface.

They all waved hellos at me and started throwing the ball around again. Jack moved a little closer to me. His hair was blonde and his eyes were blue. Just like Bay. In fact, he looked a lot like Bay.

“So, you’re new huh?”

I nodded.

“Where do you live?”

“Not far.”

“How come I haven’t seen you around?”

“I didn’t know this beach was here.” It was almost the truth. “I was checking out the area.”

“It’s a pretty great place to live.” He grinned. It was a beautiful smile.

“Well, the—” I stopped myself before I blurted the word ‘humans’ out. Did they call themselves that? “You’re all very friendly,” I recovered, trying not to grimace.

“There’s something strange about you.” Jack cocked his head to the side.

I tried to control my breathing, fighting the urge to plunge myself back into the water and swim as fast as my tail could push me in the other direction. But I held myself in place, trying to stay as still as possible without being able to balance on the sand like they could.

“I like that,” he said at last and winked at me.

I let out a huge breath and gave him a wobbly smile as he joined in with the game.

My heart gave a little stutter as I joined in too. They had no idea I wasn’t one of them. No idea I had a tail instead of legs. Or if they did know, it didn’t matter.

One thing was certain, humans were wonderful. I was in love with them all. 

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