Rest Stop Stories Episode 5: The Mermaid of the Merrimack
There was a mermaid in the Merrimack River. Someone had spotted it from the shore in Haverhill and hadn’t gotten any pictures. But when another guy in Newburyport saw it a week later, he had his phone out in time to get a blurry shot.
This was enough to set it all off. While the local papers weren’t about to report anything based on this shaky footage, the local gossip channels were all over it. Town facebook groups were filled with stories of alleged sightings, people calling bullshit over these sightings, and plans to team up and track whatever it was down.
And of course, the low-hanging jokes about pollution in the Merrimack. Which, to be fair, is a valid issue that should really be addressed.
It was a muggy July day when Martina’s best friend mentioned the mermaid. They were sitting under a tree on the shore, watching the river flow lazily by as they drank tall cans of Arizona ice tea.
“You hear about the mermaid?” Daisy asked.
“Mermaid? My dad was talking about it. Apparently, people keep seeing it in the river.”
Something fluttered in Martina’s chest, but she hid it behind a casual sip of her drink. “That’s stupid,” she said.
“Seriously,” Daisy agreed, picking at a patch of grass beside her. “We have fucking Ariel in the river?”
Ever since they’d left middle school last month, Daisy had been using the word fuck as often as possible. She told Martina it was so that she’d sound mature when they started high school in the fall. Martina thought it sounded weird but she wasn’t going to tell Daisy that. Maybe Martina was the weird one and everyone swore in high school.
The mermaid lingered in Martina’s mind after she got home. She was quiet at dinner, pushing her chicken around her plate and not hearing her mom’s questions about how Daisy’s family was doing. She went to bed early and dreamed of shimmering fins in dark water.
The next day, Martina’s mom brought her to practice swimming laps at the YMCA. She wanted to make the swim team this year and if she was going to have any chance, she needed to focus on her form. But today she couldn’t focus. Her long black hair felt constrained under her swim cap and she pulled the cap off after only two laps. From there on in, her hair trailed behind her in the water and plastered itself to her face every time she reluctantly emerged.
They passed the river as they drove home, crawling in traffic over the bridge. Martina gazed out the window at the brown, sluggish water. Could there really be a mermaid in there?
Once again, she was quiet all through dinner. Her dad looked at her with concern, asking if maybe she wasn’t feeling good. It could be a summer cold. Just because it wasn’t flu season didn’t mean she wasn’t at risk. Especially spending all that time in a public pool. Chlorine can’t work miracles after all.
Tonight, Martina couldn’t sleep at all. She dozed for a moment and woke abruptly, smelling the river through her open bedroom window. That was all the sleep she got that night.
The next day she saw Daisy again. This time they were draped across Daisy’s bed, letting the breeze from the box fan on her dresser cool their sweating skin.
“Have you heard anything else about the mermaid?” Martina asked, reaching over Daisy for a handful of chips.
Daisy picked at her shorts. “Uncle Carlos said a guy in a fucking sailboat saw her here in Lowell.”
“I mean, I think her?” Daisy said. “I could be wrong though.”
Hours later, Martina was in bed early. Her father had urged her to go to bed and get some rest, not believing her when she said that she felt fine. So here she was, wide awake and smelling the river through the blades of the fan in her window.
She needed to go to the river herself and see if this was true. She didn’t know why she felt this pull, but it was there and it was powerful.
She slipped through her darkened apartment, listening for the sound of her parents snoring as she moved. The door slid shut behind her and she felt her way down the dim hallway to her apartment building’s front door.
Her neighborhood was silent, but things started to pick up as she made her way downtown toward the river. It was midnight and nobody paid her any attention as she passed by bars and restaurants, live music and neon lights spilling out onto the streets.
Only one person asked if she was alright, a college-aged woman with long blonde hair whose speech was slurred as she grasped Martina’s shoulder and asked if she was lost. Martina had never actually seen a drunk person before and she felt a slight thrill as she smelled the beer on the woman’s breath. She shook her head, then started to walk away as the woman wandered back into the bar.
Under the bridge, it was quiet again. The water moved silently as Martina stood on the edge and watched. The lights on the bridge glowed a soft purple above her and the colors seemed to seep into the river itself. In the lights of the bridge and the buildings beyond, she could see shadows dancing out of the corner of her eye, but no mermaid.
Then there was a splash. Lots of things could have made that splash, but Martina knew in her core that that was the splash of a mermaid’s tail. She began to walk in the direction of the noise, following the path along the river. As she reached the glowing lamps along the official trail, her view of the river became clearer. But she still didn’t see the source of the splash.
Then she heard it again. But it was from the direction she’d just come from. She felt a flash of frustration, but it was mostly buried under the giddy excitement. It was here, it had to be.
She looked out over the Merrimack River, the river she’d passed every day without a thought for the whole fourteen years so far of her life. It looked new in the lights of midnight in the city, something exciting and thrilling just out of reach.
Another splash directly in front of her. And Martina saw the fin.