At first, he thought she was a mermaid. Perhaps it was the pale sunrise or lingering sleep in his eyes, but when the waves swept her up on a bed of foam, he could have sworn it was a sea spirit. He dropped his rod, ran over and dragged her from the ocean. Her skirt was wound around her legs like a tail, seaweed was draped in her sand-colored hair, and seashell chips were strewn over her skin.
"Miss, are you okay?" He leaned over her as she coughed up water. He didn't know what to do, watching her choke up the sea. She managed to roll onto her stomach, propping herself up on her elbows. Eventually, the heaving stopped and she was quiet. "Miss?"
"I'm alright." Her voice was soft and melodic. "I'm just very tired."
She flopped on her back and studied him with storm grey eyes.
"What happened, Miss?" He knelt down next to her.
"Call me Halia. I was out sailing and a freak storm hit. My boat tumped. I was holding a life jacket, but when I got close to shore a big wave pulled it loose and sent me spinning. I was too tired to swim."
"How long were you out there?"
"Not long. The storm hit early evening yesterday."
He nodded in remembrance. "Where do you live?"
"Miramar. Where are we?"
She pursed her lips. "That's a couple hours away."
The rolling waves overtook conversation, and he stood. "Come inside. I have food and warm clothes."
Halia smiled. "That sounds lovely."
He held out a hand and pulled her to her feet, leading her towards the house.
"What should I call you?" she asked.
Halia was curled by the fireplace, wearing an old T-shirt and sweatpants. Nicholas handed her a mug of tea and sat down beside her. Silence settled between them in the crackle of the flames.
"Do you feel better?" Nicholas finally spoke.
"I do." The fire flickered in Halia's eyes.
"Are you here for vacation?"
"No, I just like to sail on the weekends. What about you?"
"Vacation. I come here to fish."
"What have you caught?"
"Not much, just a few Spanish Mackerel. When did you start sailing?"
"When I was about ten. There wasn't a whole lot to do where I lived, and sailing's fun. Where are you from?"
"Great city. Do you like jazz?"
"Actually yes. I can play some, if you'd like."
"I would like."
Nicholas got up and turned on the speakers. "You must be hungry. I can fry up one of those Spanish Mackerel for you."
She shook her head. "I'm vegetarian."
He came back a minute later with her plate. They listened to the jazz while she devoured her food.
"I need to find my boat," she spoke, setting her empty plate on the edge of the fireplace.
"How do you expect to do that?"
"Well, if you'd let me hang around here for a day or two, I'd wait for it to show up today and go looking tomorrow. It can't be too far behind me." She caught his eye and smiled.
"You can stay here." He returned her smile.
"Are you sure?"
"It's of no trouble."
The jazz playlist ended, and the room fell quiet. Halia turned from him, her eyes glazing over, and began to sing in soft, low tones with strange sounds he did not recognize.
"What song is that?" he interrupted after a few moments. She faced him, grinning ruefully as she fell back down to earth.
"It is an old song blessing boats and their sailors. I am praying for my boat to return."
"Could you teach me?"
She shook her head. "It can only be taught to people of the family. There is a way you can help though." She took his hands in hers. "You will add the strength of your spirit to the prayer."
Keeping her gaze locked on his, Halia continued singing. The song wound around him, pulling him into it. He could taste the salt in his mouth, hear the water crashing through his mind. Slowly, he slipped into the sea and floated away.
When Nicholas woke, the sky was ablaze in pink and orange. Halia was sitting on the porch, watching the waves. He stepped out beside her.
"You had quite a nap," Halia remarked, still facing the ocean.
"Sorry about drifting off."
"Don't worry about it. The song is meant to be a touch hypnotic."
Nicholas took a seat beside her.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" she breathed. He did not reply, instead turning to watch the fusion of hot and cold on the horizon. "Can I tell you a secret?"
He turned to her, nodded. She put her hand on his shoulder, leaning over to whisper in his ear. "My boat had a box on it, a box of pearls. There were almost three hundred total."
"I used to dive for them before I moved here. They're my lucky charms, so to speak. I fear they fell overboard. Will you help me find them?"
"Of course. I have a dinghy under the house. We can go looking tomorrow morning."
Halia pulled back, smiling. "Perfect."
When the moon had sunk and the sky was ripening, Nicholas woke Halia. Together, they hoisted the dinghy on their shoulders and carried it down the boardwalk to the shore. The pale light created a haze like twilight, and they slipped through the sand like sleepwalkers. Nicholas dragged the boat into the waves, letting it float on the edge of the water.
"Get in. I'll push it out then jump in." He waved Halia over. She obliged, sweeping up her skirt and stepping into the boat. Nicholas pushed it through the current until he was soaked to his waist. Then he climbed over the side. They each took an oar and began paddling. Halia directed them to the left, towards the corner of the sea.
They went quietly to the music of ripples and seagulls, bobbing along with the rhythm. Nicholas found himself nearly rocked to sleep a few times.
"Look." Halia pointed to a large shred of tarp tied to a piece of wood. "That's part of my sail. We must be close."
She scanned the waters to locate her shipwreck. Several minutes later, a flash caught Nicholas's eye.
Halia followed his finger to the water-warped gleam.
"I think those are my pearls." She beamed at him then stood and dove into the water. Reemerging, she flung her hair out of her eyes and hung over the side of the ship. "Come on in, Nick. I might let you keep some if you help me collect them."
He grinned. "Alright."
A splash and he split through the lukewarm water. The sting of salt was dull in his eyes and everything was bathed in sea-glass green, winding slow as honey around them. Halia darted past him like a fish then motioned for him to follow. Her eyes appeared bright blue in the slow-motion kaleidoscope of sea.
The gleam was clearer now, a suspended light in the water. It was just beyond his fingers. He dove deeper. Blinking to adjust to the more shadowy depth, Nicholas followed Halia down to the pearls. They were so close, perfect bubbles of white waiting for him. He was so close.
A small ache spread across the edges of his lungs; he paid it no mind. Halia was deeper, the pearls were deeper. Soon he would have them and rocket to the surface. Her skirt had become a tail, the result of twisting currents and water-logged eyes. Morning light flickered over her skin making it shimmer like scales. He was in a dream world, and he could only fall deeper. He dove again as the ache turned to flame licking his heart.
Halia looked up, and he watched her lips move. She was singing, the same song as yesterday. The echo ricocheted through him. The gleam had become almost blinding, silhouetting her against it. He could only see her and the bubbles of song.
Another stroke and he was there. Reaching out, he took a pearl in his palm. Halia took it from him. Seaweed was tangled in her hair like the morning he had found her. She took his hand as the song ended and smiled with the teeth of a barracuda. The gleam vanished, and all was dark.