Tara & Meredith
I had known Meredith all my life.
Growing up on a hillside overlooking the sea, I was constantly outside. Most of my childhood was spent running down to the beach, building sandcastles and splashing around in the high tide. I first met her when I was six years old.
She was swimming close to shore, something her parents warned her never to do. Like any free-spirited child, she forgot or chose to ignore her parents' warning and swam up to me. She had never seen a surface dweller in her life.
She was a mermaid, like the kinds you read about in fairy tales. Even as our technology advanced and we continued to explore the depths of the oceans, they remained hidden from us on land. Meredith never could say how they did this, even as we grew up. Or she was instructed not to.
That first day I laid eyes on her, I ran out into the water. The tide was low, and I hadn't noticed. Entranced by the sight of a real mermaid, I kept wading through the water, until the footing gave out beneath me and I plunged into the depths of the sea. I didn't know how to swim properly, so the thought of drowning was the only thing flashing through my mind at the time. Fortunately, Meredith was there to save me.
Risking her own life by potentially revealing herself to my parents, she helped me back to the shore. Once I had regained consciousness and coughed up most of the seawater I'd swallowed, I saw her face to face. Her eyes were as blue as mine, and her hair just a few shades lighter brown than my own.
"Thank you," I had told her. Six year-old me didn't truly grasp the severity of the situation I had just been in.
"You're welcome," she replied. I noticed she was trying to wiggle her body back into the ocean, but the sand wouldn't let her.
Behind me, I could hear the voices of my parents. My first instinct was to call out to them, to tell them of the mermaid who saved my life. But when I saw the look of terror on Meredith's face, I realized what I had to do. So I pushed her back into the water, and she vanished beneath the surface.
My parents were crying once they got to me. It's not that they were neglectful, leaving a kid as young as me alone by the water. I had been playing out here all my life, and had never once disobeyed their cardinal rule about going into the water alone. When they asked why I had done it, I had to make up something. If Meredith was still nearby, she'd know if I told them about her.
"My toy went into the water, so I tried to get it."
It was good enough for them. They repeated themselves several times, I recall, about the dangers of swimming alone. I knew all these things, and still I couldn't help but cry when they kept repeating it over and over. I hadn't done anything wrong on purpose, but at that age emotions sort of just overwhelm you. The worst part was that I wouldn't be allowed back down by the beach for weeks to come.
And once I was, it was under constant supervision. I played with my back to my parents, looking out to the ocean all the time. I wondered if it had been a crazy dream, or if Meredith just wouldn't show up anymore if they were around. On more than one occasion in the weeks to follow I asked them to leave me alone, but they never did. So I kept a constant vigil over the sea, to no avail.
That is, until Meredith finally contacted me through a seashell. I found it lodged into a sandcastle one morning when the tide was low. So low, it had to have been made before sunrise. So I took the seashell with me, and left for her in return my toy shovel for building sandcastles.
And it wasn't until I got home later that day that I bothered to put the seashell to my ear. As you know, when you do that, you can hear the sounds of the waves anywhere you go. But the seashell didn't host those calm waves within. Instead, once it went up to my ear, I heard Meredith's voice almost as clear as the day I first met her.
"My name is Meredith, what's yours?"
The days came and went, and with them the seasons of summer and autumn and winter. Spring came, school started for me, and finally I was allowed back out onto the beach alone. Of course now my time out there was limited by the waning daylight. What's more, it had been months since I actually saw Meredith or even communicated with her through an exchange. My parents didn't want me losing my few toys in the ocean, so once they realized the shovel was missing, they kept a closer watch on my bucket.
Our family was always poor, you see. My father was a laborer as I grew up, barely earning enough to put food on the table. The bliss of childhood coupled with my parents' comforting veil kept all this a secret from me until I was much older. I always got the most to eat of the three of us, and thankfully never left the table hungry. There were times when I saw my father smiling at me as I ate.
"Where's your dinner, daddy?" I'd ask him.
"Oh I already ate, pumpkin. Go on, eat up." He'd answer, always with a smile.
And I'd always smile back, and gobble up whatever was on my plate. But as the years rolled on, I saw with my own eyes how the life drained from his face. I got a little taller, he got a little thinner. It got to a point where I was ashamed to even ask him if he had eaten those days he sat with nothing on the table in front of him.
On my eighth birthday, I saw Meredith again. Almost two years after our first encounter. Once our little party on the beach had ended and my parents returned up to the house on the hillside, I stayed behind. Meredith emerged from the surface of the high tide, looking as old as I did.
"Hi, Meredith. I thought I'd never see you again."
"My name is Tara," I said, offering my hand to the mermaid.
"It's nice to meet you. Is today a special day?"
"Uh huh. It's my birthday. I turned eight!" I told her with an overwhelming sense of accomplishment.
"So I have to give you a present, right?"
"Do mermaids also have birthdays?" I asked her.
"Of course! Here, you can have this!"
Meredith took one of the seashells in her hair off and handed it to me. It was actually a clip, made of a seashell, some coral and a white fabric. It was one of a matching pair.
"Thank you!" I told her, putting it in my hair immediately. I did a poor job of it, though, so Meredith rose out of the ocean a bit to fix it for me.
"I have to go. Please don't tell anyone who gave it to you, okay? Promise?"
And with that, Meredith vanished back into the water. I wouldn't see her again for a long time. And really, if not for the clip she gave me, I would've continued wondering if it was all just an imaginary friend I cooked up without thinking about it.
My parents asked where I got the accessory, so I had to tell another little lie. That was the second lie I had told in my entire life, and I convinced myself it was important I lied in the first place.
"I made it myself. It's pretty, right?" I told them.
I'd later learn my parents never believed that lie. But they never bothered to ask why I lied. That was something I always wondered myself, after I learned they didn't believe me.
The autumn after I turned ten, something unexpected and wonderful happened. By this point in my life I had come to understand the sacrifice my father made constantly. And yet, we were able to take a few days for ourselves and have a little vacation.
Naturally I asked my mother how we could afford this, only to have my father overhear and butt in.
"Don't worry about that," he assured me with a smile. "Smile for me, would you pumpkin?"
And so I did. And I smiled all the more when I learned our vacation was to be a two day cruise on a small boat off the coast we lived on. So happy in fact, I immediately told Meredith of the plans. If there was a chance we could meet in secret out on the open water, I wanted to take it.
"What if someone else sees me?" She asked once I explained everything to her.
"Don't worry, I'm sure no one will see you!"
"I don't know... you know it's not allowed for us to meet. I don't want to get either of us in trouble." She explained.
I chose not to push the matter. The boat wouldn't be that big, and chances were either my mother or father would be nearby at all times. I also heard them say there would be another person on the boat with us. If either of my parents had seen Meredith, I was certain I could convince them to never say a word to anyone. But I couldn't trust the stranger.
So when the day came to set sail, I bid farewell to Meredith in secret. Looking back, it was a silly thing to do, since she would be closer than ever while we were out on the boat. Still, I dropped the seashell into the water once we were adrift; it was the same seashell she left for me four years ago. Only this time, I wrote a tiny message with a marker.
While sailing, I learned from the stranger that he was a friend of my father's, and he was letting us borrow the boat for the couple days. My father had been working himself to the bone, he said, and deserved the time off. There wasn't really much to do; I watched the waves with my mother, fished with my father, and talked at times with the stranger. One might think the whole ordeal was a hassle or a bother. And I'd be lying if I said it was the best time of my life.
But it was important to me. Especially now, looking back on it all.
The first night, I heard my name being called out from outside the cabin. It wasn't the first time it happened that night, but unfortunately each time someone else woke at the same time. After a few attempts, both my parents and the stranger seemed to ignore the cry, and stayed asleep. I snuck out onto the deck.
The voice came from Meredith.
"I'm so happy to see you!" She whispered as loud as she dared from the water.
"Me too! I thought you said you weren't going to talk to me here?"
"I had to," she said, offering me a seashell. "I found this, and I had to see what was wrong."
The seashell was the one I left for her when we set out earlier that day. The message I had written for Meredith had faded, with only smudges of the red marker left on the seashell. In truth all I could do was giggle at the turn of events.
"What's wrong?" She asked me, unsure why I found it funny.
"I forgot the water would wash away the marker. Silly me!" I put the seashell on the deck behind me.
"So what did you write on it, then?"
"Just that I was sorry we couldn't have fun out here."
In the light of the pale moon, I could see Meredith's smile. Unfortunately, our fun lasted only that small moment. Without saying a word she vanished underneath the surface of the sea again. Before I could say anything, I felt someone's presence behind me. I turned around just in time to see them step on the seashell.
The person was my father, who let slip a bad word when he felt the hundred stings from the broken seashell. After a few more giggles at his expense, he got around to asking me what I was doing out on the deck at that time of night.
"Looking at the ocean," I told him. While not the whole truth, it wasn't a whole lie, either. So I decided not to count it.
My father sighed before asking me to come back inside the cabin and go to sleep. I obliged him, knowing full well Meredith wouldn't be coming back. Had she not been so quick, my father would've caught a good look at her in the moonlight. From that moment on, I truly understood Meredith's plight about avoiding contact with anyone else.
That night, I slept soundly. Nestled close to my father's warm chest and strong arms. If only that moment lasted much longer than it did.
My father died when I was twelve years old.
Years of going hungry just so I could live a healthy, happy life had taken their toll on his body. Being a laborer, it got harder and harder for him to do his job the thinner and weaker he became. One day he just never came back home. I remember my mother being worried sick all night long.
The next morning, a man came in from town before I had to go to school. I never heard what he told my mother; I only remembered seeing her break down in tears afterward. Looking back, I somehow knew what the man had told her. I couldn't help but cry, too. It only got worse as the days passed by, and we had to deal with the funeral.
I was eventually told how he died. It got too hard for him to lift the bags at his job, but he never complained. Not once. Had he done so, he would've been given another task, his old boss assured us. He didn't, though, fearful of being let go. So he tried to life the same load, and lost his balance. He took a tumble down some stairs, and that was the end of it. The knowledge nearly killed me, too.
Of course, my mother did her part and told me never to blame myself. I assured her I didn't; all things considered, even at that age, I knew better than to put the weight of my own guilt on her shoulders. And I tried to convince myself of the lie, but I couldn't. I still kept count of how many lies I told, and that was the third.
Things only got worse for us. Without my father, our family had no income. The little house overlooking the sea on the hill was fortunately ours, so we didn't have to worry about a roof over our heads. However, we still needed money to live, so things changed radically overnight. Mother mourned like anyone would, but she still had enough of a head on her shoulders to think ahead.
I quit school and started working in town. Odd jobs for several hours in various spots, such as the bakery, the grocer, and even cleaning bathrooms in corner drug stores. My mother had it worse in a way: she was a janitor at my old school. It was hardest at first, especially since most everyone there knew who she was, who I was, and most likely the reason I wasn't there anymore.
Working was my life now, and I almost forgot about Meredith. One day, some months after the start of this tragedy, I had a day off. No work at any of my usual places, so I went down to the beach. Scattered around the whole place were seashells and other knick-knacks from the ocean. Some had been sitting in the sun so long, they had been buried anew under the sand. And as if waiting for me all that time was Meredith.
"It's been so long since we've seen each other, Tara." She said to me from the deep end of the tide.
"It's hard to come down here now. I need to work to help my mother."
I went on to explain how everything happened. It was hard at first, explaining the concepts of money and business. Merfolk apparently had nothing of the sort past a barter system like humans in antiquity. Meredith was truly sorry about my father's passing, but there wasn't much else she could say beyond that. I had moved past it by now, so her words only reopened the wounds for me.
But then something happened that changed everything. And looking back, I wish I had done things differently.
"Would this help?" Meredith removed the pearl necklace around her throat and handed it to me.
"I can't take this."
"Please. I don't need it as much as you. Maybe it'll help you." She closed my hand around the necklace.
So I took it. I was grateful, to be sure. Simply selling the necklace would earn our small family enough to get by for a month, if not more. We wouldn't have to work as hard for a short time. It could even be the start of a new outlook on life.
But then Meredith asked me something. Something I'll never forget.
"Do you want me to get you more?"
I should have said no.
In the weeks to follow, things started to turn around for us. The necklace didn't fetch as much as I had hoped, but we were able to eat a bit more. Of course my mother asked where I had gotten it. She was truly fearful I had turned to crime to make ends meet. So I fed her another lie. This was my fourth.
"I found it on the beach. Maybe it washed up here from a shipwreck?"
"Tara, please tell me you didn't steal this. Stealing isn't the answer to our problems." Mother begged. I was truly thankful I didn't have to lie again so soon.
"I promise I didn't. I've never stolen anything."
When we sold the necklace in town, it was my mother who had to lie. It was a family heirloom, according to her, and our situation demanded we make a sacrifice.
"Some sacrifices," I corrected her in the shop. She looked at me with an expression I could never forget nor explain. A mixture of horror, surprise and wonderment.
While it wasn't technically a lie, I'm almost certain it should count as one. Meredith had promised me she'd bring more jewelry from her world under the sea to help us out. And now, inadvertently, I had let my mother in on the plan. She played along, almost as if she'd always been an expert and spinning falsehoods. In a way, that terrified me more than anything else in the world at that point.
And yet, she never asked me what I meant with that statement. I think she was afraid to at that point. I think she still clung to the belief, the suspicion I was a thief. And from that point on she never looked at me the same way again. Not that it mattered, really. Things were about to get better for us.
Meredith made good on her promise. She brought bracelets, necklaces, earrings; this time made of more than just pearls. These accessories had gemstones as large as coins grafted into them, and were easily worth ten times as much as the original necklace.
"How did you get all this?" I asked her when I saw the trinkets.
"I asked for them. They were gifts." Whether or not this was true, I never found out.
"Thank you. I don't think we'll ever ask you for anything ever again."
As I walked away from the beach, Meredith called out to me. She had one last thing to tell me.
"Remember our promise? You can't tell anyone about me!"
And that was lie number five.
Years passed. I was fifteen, and things were going well again for mother and I. The jewelry made it possible for me to return to school, and she could get a different job. It didn't pay as much because she worked less, but we didn't need the money any more. Things weren't perfect; my father was still gone, after all. But the dark times had ended for us.
It started anew when I answered the door one day. It was a gentleman caller, and in his possession were the earrings Meredith had given me. Mother wasn't home, so I was all alone in confronting this problem.
The man explained that he acquired the earrings, and looked into their origin. It turned out they were actually stolen property, missing well over twenty years. They belonged to a wealthy woman from across the sea, who came to our country on a ship. The earrings, along with other pieces of jewelry, were stolen from her during the voyage, and were never found. What made it all worse is that the pieces were unique, made for the wealthy woman in her native country. And a simple visit confirmed this.
"What does that mean?" I asked the man.
"It means, young lady, that we'll have to place your parents under arrest. This was sold by your mother as a supposed 'family heirloom'. Which means..."
"... they stole it."
The reality of the whole situation hit me. The man would wait there with me for my mother, as to not give her reason to flee. Of course I knew my parents hadn't stolen the earrings. They had never been on a ship their entire lives. The earrings came from Meredith, which meant somehow they ended up at the bottom of the ocean. Or merfolk stole the jewelry themselves.
"If I tell you where I got the jewelry, do you still have to arrest my mother?" I asked the man, desperate to fix this problem.
"You mean you got a hold of the jewelry? Not your parents?" He asked. I nodded.
"No lies, now. Little girls shouldn't tell lies." He warned me in a condescending tone. It had been some time since anyone had called me a 'little girl'. Perhaps that fueled what I did next. How I turned the promise I made Meredith into lie number five.
I took the man down to the beach near our house. I told him to stay out of sight, and use a pair of binoculars I lent him to see what I wanted to show him. And then I went down to the water, and waited. Meredith had a way of knowing I was there, so she didn't take long to surface.
"Tara! It's been a while. How are you?" She asked, never suspecting what I was actually doing.
"I just wanted to say hello." Lie number six.
"That's nice. Is everything going well? Do you need more jewelry to sell?"
"No. But listen, I have to go, okay? I really just wanted to see you." Lie number seven. I had gotten to the point where I was telling more than one at a time.
So I said goodbye to Meredith, and went back up the road towards my house. The man was no where to be seen. Even at our home there was no trace of him. I thought -foolishly I'll admit- that I had scared him off somehow. That by showing him Meredith, he'd turned tail and fled forever.
What's worse, when my mother got home, she asked me something.
"Did something happen, Tara?"
And that made eight.
Two weeks later, it happened.
The man was back, and this time he had my mother with him. As well as a dozen other men. It was so close to summer, and yet they were all wearing black suits. I feared the worst: that they were finally here to arrest my mother and do away with me somehow. Apparently, that wasn't the worst outcome. At least, not for me.
They were there for Meredith. And I was to help them catch her.
I refused, of course. I would never betray Meredith's trust like that. At least that's what I told myself. I had already betrayed her once before by letting the man see her in the first place. But I'd quickly find out that my co-operation wasn't a request. It was a threat.
"You'll do as we say, or your mother goes away for a very long time. And you will lose everything."
"You can't do that!" I protested.
"We can. Unless you provide tangible proof to the contrary, your mother and father were responsible for grand theft. Do you understand?"
I did. And even if it cost me my life, I wasn't going to let them harm either my mother or Meredith. On the spot I came up with a plan. The first part of the plan was a lie. The ninth lie.
"I'll do it."
I explained to them, remembering my first encounter with Meredith, that the best way to get her onto the shore where she was most vulnerable was to pretend I was drowning again. She would rush to my aid, and save me by dragging me onto the beach. Once there, she'd have some trouble getting back into the deep water, and that's when they'd be able to catch her.
The men didn't raise any complaints with the plan. They talked it over amongst themselves in secret for only a moment before allowing me to take the lead.
So I rushed out to the beach. Even if Meredith was on the lookout for me, it'd take her a short time to swim up to the beach to meet me. My plan was to jump right into the deep end and drown before she got there. She'd realize it was too late, see the men coming, and swim back to safety. They'd have no choice but to let my mother go, and the only casualty would be me. And with only nine lies under my belt, I felt I deserved this fate.
In all these years hanging around the ocean, I honestly never learned to swim. In a way, I always figured I could count on Meredith to save me again. What makes it all worse in the end is that faith in her was well placed. I let myself sink into the ocean, and didn't struggle to stay afloat at all. The human body has a way of reacting on its own, though, so staying perfectly still once I subconsciously realized I needed air was impossible. It was my hope it wouldn't be enough movement to warn Meredith in time.
To be honest, I passed out.
I have fuzzy memories of what happened next. And really those memories have faded over time once I was told what happened in reality. My plan worked flawlessly. Meredith was unable to make it back into the ocean before the men rushed in and captured her.
But if there's one thing I do remember clearly from that day, it was the look of terror on her face as she was forced into a box.
It was my sixteenth birthday.
Money was never a problem anymore for my family. For our 'co-operation' in one of the greatest scientific finds in human history, we were awarded honors and money beyond our wildest dreams.
And while my dress and jewelry showed it, my expression never did. I stood in front of the giant tank, the first true visitor to the world's soon-to-be greatest aquarium exhibit. Just past the thick layer of glass was Meredith.
I put my hand on the glass, and she noticed. The day they took her, she was wearing the seashell clip that matched mine. She still had it now, and I was wearing mine. She swam up to the side of the tank, and put her hand in front of mine. We were almost in direct contact.
There was only one thing I had to say to her.
I don't think she heard me, but she understood me all the same. Her eyes closed, and I could see clearly tears forming at the corners of her eyes. Even underwater, her tears were visible to all.
I never got the chance to tell her it was my fault. I wasn't sure even if the people who had taken her let her know. I wasn't even sure if they were aware she could actually speak. But at that moment, I knew she knew. She pulled her hand away from the glass, and reached for the clip in her hair. She opened her eyes, and smashed the clip against the glass.
The sudden action made me flinch and pull my own hand away. She glared at me in silence from her side of the tank, and turned her back to me. I thought to say something else, to try and beg for her forgiveness. To explain that what I did, I did to help my mother avoid a consequence neither of us ever foresaw when she offered to help me. But it wouldn't matter. The damage was done.
I turned around and walked out. It was the last I ever saw of Meredith.
And that was a cold truth.