Daybreak usually found Neil Thompson walking down the shore. At this early hour, the deserted Maine beach was his and his alone. Thoughts about everything and nothing formed and vanished in his mind along with the waves. At fifty-two, few were the pleasures left to him from his childhood, and fewer the moments he actually got to enjoy them.
He loved this part of the beach, his own private sanctuary off the beaten path.
Further down the beach, the waves were washing against a large object, but the dim early light and the seaweed distorted its form. Frowning, he wondered if the sea would reclaim it or if he would find trash polluting his little piece of heaven.
Wind beat on the back of his neck as he tucked his hands into the pockets of his jeans. He left footprints that quickly washed away, while taking his time to reach the mystery item the sea had so generously brought to his feet.
His heart slammed in his chest when he finally realized what he was looking at: a dead body. Frozen to the spot, he stared as wave after wave crested over the white chest and dark trousers of a man’s corpse, and all he could think about was how much he truly wished the sea would take it back.
Holding his breath, he tried and failed to look away. His stomach felt too tight and heavy while his mind navigated a strange mix of morbid curiosity and utter disgust.
A particularly large wave crashed beside him, drawing him from his thoughts and reminding him that the tide forgave nothing on these ever-changing shores. A full minute passed before he resigned himself to the grisly duty of dragging the dead man out of the ocean’s grasp. He would need to call in the authorities on what was becoming anything but a normal day. Quickly, he dialed the number and waited impatiently.
Holding his phone in one hand, he reached for the man’s shoulder with the other. Movement met his touch, and he jerked his hand back in shock. Life still clung to this body. The man was still breathing.
“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?”
The voice on the phone caught him off-guard, and he almost dropped it.
“Yes! Hello? I’m Neil Thompson, I’m at the beach. I’ve just found a man here. He was brought in by the tide. I think he’s still breathing, but I—I don’t know what—”… to do…
The words stuck in his throat.
He’d honestly thought those were trousers. Through the dark seaweed, a hundred shades of blue glinted off each scale as the sun rose in the early hour, the sea no longer able to disguise what Neil had ignored before: A tail.
Longer than legs would have been, the tail rolled lazily with the tide, somehow at an odd angle. Instinctively, he took two steps back, almost losing his balance. Every fiber of his being screamed for him to turn around and run, but he was trapped in his fight or flight instinct.
Gentle waves reached them again and again as Neil struggled to breathe. Where knees should have been, a deep gash ran horizontally, torn flesh and scales the testimony of a gruesome accident. Closing his eyes, Neil swallowed bile.
In his ear, the dispatcher kept asking questions, though God knew about what. He wished yet again that the sea would take back what it had brought in.
“Mr. Thompson, paramedics are on their way, but we need an exact location.”
Hysterically, he looked around, a tiny part of his mind deciding this must be a prank. Somewhere, nearby, cameras were recording his reaction and one day soon he would be watching this on reality television, laughing at his gullible self.
And yet, no matter where he looked, or how much he wished it wasn’t, the beach was deserted.
This is real. God, this is real!
“Mr. Thompson? Can you hear me?”
Neil looked down at the man who wasn’t a man, coming to grips with the fact that myth had crossed into reality, and no one but him was witnessing this bizarre twist in his life.
“Yes!” he answered, snapping out of it. It didn’t matter if this was the strangest day of his life, he could only guess the man in front of him was having his worst.
“I’m here,” he reassured the dispatcher, giving his address and a good estimate of how far he’d walked away from his home. “I’m across from Cluney’s store. I’ll stand by to signal the ambulance, you won’t miss me.”
“Okay, Mr. Thompson, this is what I need you to do while help is on the way.”
The operator listed off tasks: get him safe, check his breathing, check his responsiveness to touch. Maybe there was more, maybe Neil only half understood what the woman was trying to tell him, but he had the insane need to correct his early statement. You’re not coming to aid a man.
She kept asking all kinds of questions, expecting him to do all kinds of things.
Placing the phone in his shirt pocket on speaker, he mentally went through the instructions from the dispatcher on what he needed to do. Finally, taking a deep breath, he fixed his eyes on the lifeless face. Several bruises were starting to turn purple alongside the right temple, certainly the product of one hell of a collision. Neil had to talk to him to see if he could get a response.
“Hey…” Neil whispered, his voice deserting him.
“Hey,” he tried again, sounding slightly louder. “Well, crap, I don’t know what I’m doing…” he murmured. Shutting his eyes tightly for a second, he took a moment to get his racing heart under control. He positioned himself above the head, and with trembling hands, he reached under the ice-cold armpits.
“Okay, okay, here’s the deal: I’ll move you out of the sea, and you don’t bite my head off, okay?”
The man was heavy, and with some considerable effort, Neil dragged him out of the water. Part of Neil expected the tail to turn into legs. Part of him expected those eyes to pop open and sharp teeth to start gnashing at him.
None of that happened.
He took his phone out and went back to the dispatcher. Drowning people swallowed a lot of water, she informed him. Neil had to move his unconscious victim onto his side in case he vomited.
Neil stared at the tail on his victim, and almost laughed. This man was the furthest thing from drowning that one could get. In fact, maybe he should be pushing him right back into the sea.
“Mr. Thompson, do you understand?” the dispatcher asked, concerned.
“Yes,” he said, absently nodding.
He’d just found a mermaid—merman—yet no one would ever believe that something so fantastic could happen to someone so mundane.
Turning to look down the road, he strained to hear the ambulance sirens, but all he heard was the sea. He still had time.
Hanging up, he deftly turned his phone camera on and began gathering proof of what he was witnessing. No one would ever doubt what he’d just seen.
* * *
To the untrained eye, the hospital Emergency Room was nothing more than a chaotic arrangement of people shouting at each other and working their shifts on caffeine alone.
Well, that last part is true, Gwen Gaston thought, the last drops of her coffee still tasting like heaven. She’d been crazy for a fourth cup of liquid energy since two patients ago.
From her vantage point on the opposite corner of the ER entrance, Gwen watched gurneys and paramedics come and go, their patients delivered to the capable hands of her colleagues. Being the ER on-call surgeon guaranteed she never got bored, which was the main reason why she’d applied for the position two years ago. She’d been missing the adrenaline from her early days as an emergency doctor, and the intricate puzzles and challenges each ambulance brought to her hands.
Her timer went off, the cue for getting back to work. She threw the empty paper cup into the nearest trashcan and rubbed her hands in anticipation.
She was overweight and out of shape, and she knew she didn’t look like the ideal surgeon to handle the turmoil of the ER; half her diet consisted of an unhealthy dose of soda and chips to compensate for long hours at work, but damn, was she good at what she did. Most days that included patching people up from the inside out, six cups of coffee, and a good measure of yelling.
The speaker overhead chimed and a man called a code blue for the trauma room. Her phone began buzzing with an alert at the same time: they needed her to start prepping for emergency surgery. She walked faster.
“What do we have?” she asked to no one in particular on her route to her new patient, slipping out a pair of latex gloves.
“Some idiot in a mermaid costume half drowned down the beach,” one of the paramedics told her. His partner looked anything but amused. In fact, the guy looked downright scared.
“Okay, he’s stabilizing now. Can someone get that tail out of the way?” Dr. Bill Shore ordered, sounding calm and collected despite such an odd request.
She entered the trauma room and the smell of the ocean hit her before she could even take a good look at the man. She’d been expecting a half-assed costume made out of cheap plastic in pinks and yellows, adorned with shiny fake gems to complete the look. What she wasn’t expecting was how real the disguise looked. It was decorated with hundreds of tiny bright scales, complete with thin lateral fins that were torn everywhere. The length of the tail reached all the way down to the floor where people narrowly missed it with their shoes.
“What did you page me for?” she asked, mentally shaking her head at the crazy things she had to put up with in her line of work. This close, she could see small clusters of scales framing the youthful face and parts of his shoulders, which then disappeared down his back. His ears were pointy, and his skin almost translucent.
“We’ve been having a hard time with his vitals, and I could really use your help figuring out where he’s bleeding. We can’t seem to keep his blood pressure up.”
Gwen’s fingers expertly palpated the abdomen, looking for the elusive internal bleeding. Intrigued at what she felt, she started listening with the stethoscope a moment later, while monitors kept pace with a weak heartbeat and shallow breathing. Bruises adorned the right side of their patient’s head, and she would bet good money that his right wrist was broken.
What the hell is this? She thought as she kept moving down, unable to identify the internal sounds. Something was seriously off, she just couldn’t put her finger on what.
“Can someone page neurology, please?” Bill ordered.
“Are they filming something nearby?” Jackie, the senior nurse on staff asked, while touching the line where skin became tail. “This costume is definitely professional. I can’t find where it comes off.”
Still listening, Gwen’s eyes fixated on the middle of the tail, where she could see sluggish blood pooling onto the gurney. That gash was bleeding real blood.
“It might be painted on the skin,” Gwen absently explained. She stopped listening and started seeking where real muscle became part of the disguise. Her hands methodically felt beside and beneath the smooth texture of the tail, imagining how two legs would be able to fit in the narrow outfit. Where knees should bend, she unexpectedly felt a pulse.
She looked up at Bill, who was busy checking the monitors.
“I need to see what’s going on down here,” she said, signaling the tail.
“Okay, on three!” Bill said, and deftly they moved their patient onto his side. The back was as meticulously decorated as the tail, the blue scales following the spine in a narrow line, all the way to the back of his neck. The deep gash ran from one side to the other, cutting through several layers of tissue.
“Let’s clean this wound,” Gwen ordered to their other nurse, Oscar. It unnerved her that she could be fooled by an elaborate Halloween costume. She pressed down on her newly discovered pulse point, and saw the tail twitch further down. Blinking, she pressed again, sure she was imagining things.
It twitched again.
“We really need to get this thing off,” she heard Bill saying, but he sounded so far away. “Gwen, how bad are his legs?”
“I can’t find—”she started to say, sounding equally far away. The gash hypnotized her, forbidding her to even blink. Some forty percent of the tail had been cut deep, and her surgeon’s brain automatically calculated the odds of keeping the limb or amputating it.
For the first time, Gwen saw that tail as part of a body.
“It’s not a costume,” she muttered, bewildered, but only Oscar turned to look. Everyone else kept going at it as if they were treating a human.
“What?” Bill asked while he listened to the lungs with his stethoscope.
“It’s not a costume,” she repeated louder, turning to look at Bill with round eyes. “It’s—it’s real!”
Only Oscar understood her, moving away immediately, his eyes going as big as hers.
“What are you talking about?” Bill asked, forgetting his stethoscope.
“The ta—tail is bleeding,” she forced herself to explain. “There’s a pulse, even a reflex. Bill, I can’t find any legs in here.”
This time, Jackie moved back. Frowning, Bill moved next to her to take a closer look.
“X-rays,” they said at the same time.
Hesitantly, Oscar helped her and Bill to place their patient on his back. Two seconds later, they cleared the room to evade the momentary radiation.
“I’m sure this is perfectly logical,” he told Gwen, looking through the door at the impressive tail that still touched the floor.
“Birth malformation?” she offered, equally locked on their patient’s body. “With that length?”
“Someone’s playing a prank on us,” he muttered, entering the room once more. Behind them, only Oscar entered willingly.
“Or maybe he was playing a prank on someone else and it went horribly wrong…” she reasoned, looking at the monitors, “You can’t fake these vitals.”
By the door, Jackie made the sign of the cross. On the hall outside the room, the paramedics argued with each other about who’d been right.
This is becoming a circus.
“We’re not dealing with a Disney character!” he snapped. She silently agreed: she doubted she’d ever seen a Disney character with abs like those. She chuckled at the stupid thought, barely containing a full blown hysterical attack.
“Get the labs done,” he told Jackie, the poor nurse looking paler than their patient while she fled the room.
“Get another gurney,” Gwen ordered Oscar. “We need to level off that tail.”
More people crowded the door, blocking anyone who was actually trying to work. The news of what was going on in the trauma room was spreading like wildfire.
“This is getting out of control,” she warned Bill, for the first time chaos taking over their highly tuned and efficient ER.
“Listen up!” Bill roared, walking towards the door, towering over everyone. “This is not a mermaid, and this is not a freak-show! Get back to work and let us save this man! NOW!”
They cleared out in two seconds flat.
“Are you sure?” Oscar asked, bringing the gurney Gwen had asked for into the room.
“YES!” Bill shouted, impatience showing through. “And whoever suggests otherwise—”
He didn’t finish, but the meaning hung in the air. Silently, Oscar helped her get the tail up.
“Here, let’s see…” Gwen murmured, clinical eyes looking for a better angle into the wound. They turned their not-mermaid onto his side again, and methodically she assessed the damage.
“He needs the OR,” she said aloud—for his not-tail, she privately added.
“He’s going to need a whole lot more than that when he wakes up and explains what the hell is going on here,” Bill murmured under his breath.
She couldn’t agree more.
The excerpt that you’ve just read is the first chapter the book Underneath, a merfolk tale. If you liked it, there’s more!
I had the pleasure of reading the entire manuscript as Michelle was creating it. It’s fast paced and good to the very last drop.
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An injured merman is found washed up on a beach in Maine.
Merfolk have been hiding in plain sight for centuries. Now they are now torn between sacrificing one of their own—or telling humanity the truth.
Underneath, a merfolk tale takes the reader on a journey through secret societies, conspiracy, investigation, parental love, and coming-of-age