“I think she’s the one, Dad. Please try to be open minded, okay?”
“I’ll try, Dawson, but you’re not making it easy, insisting I meet her out by the swimming pool.”
“I told you, she’ll be more comfortable this way. She’s nervous about meeting you.”
“If that’s the case, wouldn’t it make more sense to meet over dinner at Joe’s? Or grab a cup of coffee somewhere? Or a drink, even?
“All right, all right. Let’s just get on with it. How is she not freezing, anyway?”
Dawson slid the patio door open so father and son could step onto the concrete terrace leading to the backyard. The inground pool beyond their lounge chairs and barbeque glimmered. “I cranked up the heat.”
Underwater lamps and knee-level lights around the pool created a soft glow. Wisps of steam curled up from the surface. Paul saw a shadowy figure in the furthest corner, a few feet to the left of the diving board.
Dawson’s smile stretched across his face and his eyes twinkled. He swept a hand toward the pool. “Dad, this is Penelope.”
A gentle splash sent ripples across the surface and Paul watched as a silhouette glided toward them—arms outstretched, hands together, hair flowing, and tailfin pumping up and down.
Penelope broke the surface in the shallow end of the pool close to where the to two men stood. She rested her arms on the tiled lip and let her body float behind her. She looked up at Paul’s face. He saw pleading in her eyes.
“Hi Paul. It’s nice to finally meet you,” she said in a quiet voice. She lowered her eyes as soon as she finished talking.
Paul gawked. He scrambled for something to say, but he rejected statement after statement as quickly as they came to him.
“Dad?” An expectant look flashed in his son’s eyes.
“Ah, hi. Penelope. That sure is some get-up you got there.”
“Isn’t it?” Dawson gushed. “Completely custom made. She got it online. It’s one of a kind, just like her.”
Boy, was it ever. Below her waist, overlapping, quarter-sized, silicone scales sparkled in graduated shades of blue. They covered her lower half and culminated in a feathery fin at least three feet wide from tip to tip. An ornate corset made up of synthetic shells, pearls, and swirling seaweed filigree covered her torso. Classic white clamshells shrouded her bosom.
Penelope wore a shimmering tiara swathed with pointy whorled shells, sea stars and scallops. Glittering beads and little polished cowries dripped off it over long pale pink tresses.
This is the one? This shy little thing playing dress up in the back yard? Paul continued to stare.
“Isn’t she beautiful, dad?” Dawson prompted.
Paul had to admit, she was. Weird, but definitely attractive in a sweet sort of way.
“Dad, don’t you have anything else to say?”
“Uh, I’ve got dinner. Inside. If you’re hungry.”
“Okay, dad. Let me help her out of the pool. We’ll catch up.” Dawson unfolded the towel and silky garment draped over his arm.
“Is she going to change?”
“Of course not. We’ll be there in a minute.”
Paul waited at the table. He opened the chardonnay and gulped down a glass. He knew it was rude, but he needed to calm his nerves so he didn’t do anything worse. He thought of how ashamed his wife would be of his ill manners. And then wondered what Melody would have made of this whole situation. Maybe he’d found a consolation at last—she was spared seeing their only child not only fail to launch, but now going gaga for a wannabe mermaid. He huffed to himself, amused. Ha, I’m glad meeting in the pool made her comfortable, because it’s made me a wreck.
Dawson walked in carrying Penelope. She was small but with the rubber tail and all, Paul guessed she was at least one-thirty, one-thirty-five. He didn’t remember his son being that strong. Dawson carefully lowered her into a chair across from Paul and then took the seat between them.
Penelope wore a long robe. She appeared dry everywhere except her hair.
Paul cleared his throat and held up the bottle of wine in offering. Penelope nodded slightly so Paul stood and poured her a healthy serving. He moved to fill Dawson’s glass as well, but his son covered it with his hand. “I’ll be driving her home later. None for me.”
Paul’s eyes opened a little wider. His son was not one to turn down a drink.
Paul sat. “I made salmon. Do you eat, uh, fish?”
Penelope smiled for the first time and let out a little laugh. “All the time.”
Much to his surprise Paul found himself charmed.
At some point, Paul complemented Penelope’s tiara. Before she could thank him, Dawson cut in. “Isn’t it great? She makes them and sells them online. You wouldn’t believe how much she gets for the fancy ones. She has a waiting list a mile long. My Penelope is a world-class jeweler when she’s not busy being a mermaid.”
“Does being a mermaid keep you pretty busy then?” Paul ventured with a smile.
“Yes,” Penelope answered with a modest nod.
“I wasn’t serious…”
“Dad, she’s part of a mermaid community. They do a lot, a lot of public service.”
“Really?” He arched an eyebrow in Penelope’s direction.
“Well, it’s not all good deeds. We do photoshoots and get togethers. We support each other, but we also stage meet and greet environmental swims in public places to teach kids about protecting the planet and its creatures. And we volunteer for a couple of children’s charities. Visiting kids with cancer. Stuff like that. It’s actually fun. They get us. They have a way of seeing through to a person’s true self.”
“Dad, Penelope and I have big news.”
Paul braced himself. What would it be this time? Was she pregnant? Were they buttering him up for an investment in some business scheme? Was Dawson going to whip out a fin of his own? Paul opened a second bottle of wine.
“We’re moving in together.”
“Penelope’s moving into the basement with you?”
“No dad. We found a place, an apartment. It has a courtyard with a huge indoor pool. We got a two bedroom so there will be space for Penelope’s studio. It’s perfect for us.”
“How are you going to pay the rent?”
“We could afford it on Penelope’s income, but I need to do my share, so I talked to Blaine and got back on at Craftcade.”
Paul stopped drinking mid-gulp. Blaine was the most recent in a long line of Paul’s clients who had done him a favor by offering his deadbeat kid work. It never lasted long and the gig at Craftcade was no exception. “Blaine agreed to take you back?”
“Yeah. It’s not exactly my old position. He’s opened two new stores and really needs the help. I’m working as assistant manager at the newest location on Eighth. I know I’ve got to earn his trust again. It’s long hours helping with the rollout, but it’s worth it.” Dawson smiled at Penelope and took her hand in his.
Paul found this shocking. More shocking than his son’s girlfriend’s tail.
“I’m gonna clear some of this away. I’ve got dessert. Key lime pie. And I can put on some coffee.” Paul stood and gathered a few dishes.
“Did your wife paint that?” Penelope asked, gazing toward a large sandcastle painting in the living room.
“She did. It’s number five in the series that really launched her career.”
“It’s beautiful. Do you have the others?”
“No. Two are in museums, three are in private collections, and the last one she donated to the downtown library where it’s on permanent display.”
Sandcastle #5 was a masterpiece and had been Melody’s favorite. The subject was a sandcastle on a beach, but a trick of perspective made it unclear if it was a small castle viewed from a close distance or a large castle viewed from further away. It displayed either an enchanted palace jutting out of the ocean or a magical castle further up shore separated from the sea, depending on how the observer saw it.
“It calls to me. I’d like a closer look. Dawson, do you mind?”
“Of course not.” This time Dawson lifted her, chair and all, and carried her across the room. Penelope examined it closely. Paul stared, impressed.
“I’m going to give dad a hand with these.” Dawson grabbed some cups and silverware and followed Paul into the kitchen, where he pounced. “Isn’t she great dad? Don’t you just love her?”
“She seems nice enough, but don’t you find the whole mermaid thing weird?”
“No.” Dawson slammed a glass onto the counter.
“Don’t get upset, son, but what kind of grown woman goes around pretending she’d a mermaid?”
“She’s not pretending, dad. Jesus. I thought you’d understand.” Dawson’s jaw tightened as red started creeping up his face. “How many times have you, yourself told me, Mom was born to be a painter? You said that. Could you even imagine her being anything else? She was nothing like the other moms. She wasn’t like anyone else and you loved that about her.”
“Is it? What do you think her life would have been like if Grams and Gramps had forced her to go to nursing school? Or pushed business on her? What about you? What if someone said, ‘You’re not really an accountant. It’s all in your head. You’ll do fine as a builder. Or a lawyer. Or a god damn party planner.’ Do you think you could just turn off being an accountant and be a party planner because people expect it of you?”
Paul looked at his son, slack-jawed.
“She’s a mermaid, dad. As sure as you’re an accountant, Mom was an artist, and I’m a man in love. I think we’ll skip the pie. And don’t wait up for me. I’m staying at Penelope’s tonight.”
After Dawson stormed out, as much as one can storm while holding a mermaid, Paul brought the wine into the living room and finished it as he scrutinized Sandcastle #5.
Paul spent a couple of long lonely weeks waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it never did. In spite of all the years he lamented his unemployed, basement-dwelling son, he missed Dawson. He called Blaine to check up on him and got a glowing report. “He’s a new man, Paul. He’s happy and hardworking. I’ve promoted him to supervisor of all three stores.”
“Dawson willingly took on that kind of responsibility?”
“He jumped at the opportunity. Said he’s saving for a ring. He really loves Penelope.”
“Blaine, don’t you find the whole mermaid thing strange?”
“Well, Paul, my oldest and her wife are raising their kids pagan. My middle son pays good money to jump off bridges tied to a giant rubber band, and my youngest practically lives in some online space realm, so who am I to say?”
There was no denying Dawson’s new lease on life. Paul felt proud and knew he needed to make things right with his son and his future daughter-in-law. Marshaling his strength, he marched to the kitchen, grabbed a glass and fresh bottle of red, and headed to Melody’s studio.
Paul stood in front of the door for an eternity. He had closed off the room on the day of the funeral and no one had set a foot inside since. Paul squeezed his eyes closed, held his breath, reached for the knob and turned it.
Paul inhaled the chemical smells of oils and acrylics and felt Melody’s presence. Everything was exactly where she had left it, canvases, paintbrushes of all sizes, and shelves covered with knickknacks—driftwood, shells, and sand dollars. Paul picked up a big bleached conch and put it to his ear. Whispering waves transported him to happier days—romantic moonlit strolls with chilly surf tickling their bare feet, tidepool explorations with their excited young son, and blazing bonfires on the beach.
He poured a glass of wine.
“Our son is in love with a mermaid,” Paul announced to the room. “He’s going to marry her. I didn’t make a great first impression.” Paul took a sip, put down the glass, and started sorting through stacks. “I kind of messed things up. Oh, hell. I blew it babe. I’m going to need your help to make it right.”
Paul spent the rest of the evening rummaging, reminiscing, and drinking. It wasn’t nearly as painful as he expected. Around midnight he found his prize—three rough sketch studies for Sandcastle #5. They weren’t as pretty as the final work but they revealed thoughts, plans, and dreams behind the painting. Paul wrapped them in craft paper, texted the framing company Melody always used, set them on the front porch for the courier and went to bed.
A sensor chimed as Paul walked into the frame store. A stocky woman with maraschino cherry hair styled into a mohawk fin greeted Paul from behind the counter. “You here for the sandcastle sketches?”
“They turned out great. Take a look.” The three drawings shared a single frame, laid out side by side, matted in dark green.
“Thanks. I do my best work when I’m inspired.”
“You like them?”
“Love them. They feel like home. I have a thing for all subjects aquatic though.” She stretched her arms forward and rotated them. Reef tattoos covered every inch like colorful sleeves. Drawn in, Paul spied eels poking out from rocky caverns, orange, yellow, and purple fish darting here and there, swaying corals, and an octopus extending tentacles in all directions.
“Wow. You’re a regular mermaid.”
“I sure am. I’m the rarest kind of mermaid. The two-legged variety.” She winked. “There are more of us around than people realize. But we’re easier to spot when you know how to look.”
Armed with his peace offering, Paul headed to Dawson and Penelope’s place.
The minute Paul walked through the door, warm air and the clean smell of chlorine hit him. It was just as Dawson had described– a large courtyard with an enormous swimming pool surrounded by two levels of numbered apartment doors. It reminded Paul of a Holiday Inn Holidome they stayed at when Dawson was little.
Penelope was cowering in the far corner of the pool, turned away from Paul. Something rained down on her. She covered her head with her arms. Paul followed the projectiles to their source and saw two boys on the balcony. The older one tossed Ninja Turtle arms, legs, heads, and shells and yelled, “Get out, weirdo.”
The younger one launched hard plastic Happy Meal toys and shrieked, “freak, freak, freak.”
Paul leaned his parcel on the wall and turned to the boys. “What are you doing? Stop it, now,” he thundered.
The boys paused their onslaught, but the bigger one challenged. “Why should we? She says she’s a mermaid. My mom says she’s looney. Get out, looney. We don’t want you in our pool, looney.”
“Your mom’s wrong. She’s no looney. She’s a mermaid.” Paul said it with such conviction a questioning look crept into the boy’s eyes.
Paul doubled down. “You have a real, live mermaid in your pool. Do you know how rare and lucky that is? They’re magical creatures, you know. Offending one is stupid.”
He extended his arms down so Penelope could grab hold and pull herself out of the water. With a splash, she perched on the ledge next to Paul’s feet.
The smaller boy looked downright worried. The spokesboy, uncertain. “How would you know?” His voice wavered.
“I was married to one, although it took me a long while to realize it.” Paul turned to Penelope. “Can I help you to your apartment? I brought something for you and Dawson.”
Penelope nodded. Paul leaned down, placed an arm around her back and one under the bend in her tail and scooped her up. Paul looked back up at the boys. “Don’t waste time. Learn to spot mermaids now, fellas. It’ll serve you well.”
He turned to Penelope. Gratitude shone in her eyes.
“I’m an old guy still figuring things out. I do okay, but I’m not as bright as my son. He’s an enterprising young man with his eyes on the real prize. He knows treasure when he sees it—the rarest kind of treasure.”
Katrinka Mannelly writes and lives in Fircrest, Washington with her husband Brian, daughter Tigist, dog Queenie and cat Riptide. “Triangulation: Extinction,” Parsec Ink’s 2020 annual speculative fiction anthology includes her short story “No One Needs a Chiweenie” Her flash fiction “Twinkle,” is currently featured on https://www.metastellar.com. Her book, “Section 130” is available at barnesandnoble.com and amazon.com.