to the seas again
Truthfully, it began with a mermaid; I find that all the best stories do.
Before the mermaid, however, there was a girl.
There's a path near my house that circles a lake, withdrawing from it to meander through woods. I walk it sometimes, when I have too many thoughts and too little to do. I was taking a stroll by the aforementioned lake when I heard a splutter, a splash - the sound of someone surfacing. I turned, wondering who...
The solitary swimmer's features were obscured by a curtain of dark hair. She - for it was certainly a she; that was readily apparent from the slim shoulders and the pale, skinny arms that rose as she pushed her hair out of her face - cleared her throat. "Hello?" she tried cautiously. She had the most beautiful eyes I thought I'd ever seen: large, dark and long-lashed, they were like two pools of ink, in sharp contrast to her pale skin. She wasn't quite white as a page - but she was close. Those long lashes seemed even thicker, even blacker, logged with water, and she blinked furiously a few times, squinting against the light. "Ah," she said, seeming to spot me. "Hello."
It was too late to walk on. I paused, my mouth opening and closing as I struggled to recover my voice.
"I see they have fish on dry land as well," she said, and at my helpless glare just proceeded to grin at me. She was a girl of contrasts: her lips, too, were pale, only a slightly healthier shade than the rest of her, but her hair was nearly as inky as her eyes; her accent seemed at times almost identifiable, then veered off into another region entirely - she sounded as of she were from everywhere and nowhere.
"This fish can read, at least," I snapped, gesturing to the clear "no swimming" signs a few feet away.
Her head turned; realisation dawned. "Oh. Those." She made no move to get out of the water.
"Don't you want to - ?" I gestured to the path I was on.
She looked at me in surprise, as if the idea hadn't even occurred to her. "I..." she began, for the first time seeming uncertain, "don't think that would be a good idea."
I could have continued on my way; certainly, it would have made things easier, and none of this might have happened. Something, though, made me stop and consider her further. "What are you doing, anyway?"
She minutely shook her head. "An experiment. One that hasn't gone particularly well." Her mouth gave a despairing little downwards twitch.
I couldn't help noticing something - the water, as it was, lapped at her shoulders, and... "Are you even wearing any clothes?"
With an impish little half-smile, she answered, "Some."
The silence lasted for a moment - an interminably long moment, for me, and an embarrassed one - before I retorted, "Well, I'm not asking which. I refuse to walk into that one."
She frowned. She seemed to have no response at her immediate disposal. "A trap, I think?" At my nod, she murmured, as if to herself, "Not an expression I've heard." She smiled at me once more. Those eyes - formerly bottomless, intimidating - came alive with it, as if twin fires had been kindled in their depths. "Thank you."
She was - this was strange. A girl skinny-dipping in the lake? "Right," I said. "Well." I turned to leave, and she didn't try to stop me.
As I stepped into the woods, I heard the oddest sound from the lake, as if the water were being disturbed. Then a thud, a gasp, and... hurried, pattering footsteps across the path. I turned, but I saw nothing.
"Hello?" I called. Again, nothing. The wind - and only the wind - stirred a few leaves on the nearby bushes, prompted a murmur in response from the trees. Feeling like a fool, I returned to the path and carried on. No sound of movement - and indeed, no odd, beautiful swimmer - followed me home.
"Lana?" Mum called as I closed the door.
"I've just got in. Please tell me you did the washing-up."
"Also yes." I hesitated as I headed through the front room. "The oddest thing happened when I was..." Perhaps not.
"Nothing," I managed. I reached the kitchen, lost in thought. The urge to tell her had subsided, replaced by a rather dissimilar one - to hold the day's events close to my chest. It was too interesting; its lustre would be dulled if I shared it, the swimmer no longer mine but my family's to peruse, to deride. Not that she was mine, but the event itself... It was a story to tell, but not today. "Just went for a walk. How was your day?"
She was browsing the fridge, but looked to me and settled into the usual narrative. "Oh, y'know - the same. George was talking about the wedding again; apparently Leah's turning into a bit of a Bridezilla. And Rupinder's considering the Crown & Rose for the office party, though I'm not sure..."
Things settled into their usual rhythm, and the interlude in the park was forgotten.
I could hear the wolves howling at the door. The wind screamed, rushed and battered, threatening to shake the house's bricks with its tantrum. Hardly the day for a walk, yet still I found myself drawn to the door.
"Lana?" Mum said from the sofa, craning her neck to watch me. "I don't think that's a good idea, love. Look at the weather."
I didn't need to; I could hear it. Even so, something made me itch with restlessness; something called me to lean towards the door almost unconsciously, to keep tapping my feet to a tune no-one could hear.
"Mum, I'll be less than twenty minutes. I simply... I need some air."
She sighed. "Go, then. If it'll stop you pacing."
I smiled. "Thank - "
"Twenty minutes, or I come hunting."
With that, I was out of the door. The wind and rain buffeted me; they stung my face, making me shiver and pull up the hood of my coat. It barely helped, but my ears felt a little better.
Part of me knew exactly where I was going; the other part of me vehemently denied it until I was taking the path again, nearing the lake. I reached the "no swimming" signs, then I turned; and no matter how much I'd pretended otherwise, I knew who I was looking for. The water churned, thrashing with the rain - but no pale hands and feet stirred it, and no inkpool eyes met mine.
I sighed and headed for home.
Monday dawned grey and wet, but at least the wind had dropped. Hard rain still bit at my skin as I walked to school - I spent the journey grimacing and wishing with all my heart I'd brought an umbrella. The hood wasn't nearly enough.
When I arrived at "the institution", Bernice gave me a smile that stretched nearly ear to ear - blonde, bubbly and often cheerful, her luminescence made me look mousy and taciturn in comparison. That wasn't exactly the case; I was well-liked enough, and I reserved a smile and and the odd bad joke for my classmates. Clad in a bright pink parka, she looked oddly like a Barbie doll just arrived from the North Pole as she hurried to meet me. I told her so.
"Oh, thank you," she sighed. "Not the Barbie thing again, come on, don't start with that..."
It was a running joke amongst our friends: pretty, happy and able, she was like the doll come to life - or made to be the popular girl in some terrible teen movie, with jocks and nearly-as-pretty friends in tow. As it was, however, she seemed perfectly happy with our small, friendly group of five, and with me - brown-haired, gangly and thoroughly average - as her closest confidant.
As she examined me, her face changed, something clouding her happiness. With some trepidation, I watched her uncertainty become a full-blown cringe, and then she said, "Your eyeliner..."
I raised a hand to my face, and a sad grey smudge was left on my fingers. "Oh, God." I hadn't even considered it, distracted as I'd been by hurrying to avoid lateness. "How bad is it?"
Her sheepish attempt at a smile was answer enough.
I considered my options, then settled for sighing, "Oh sod it." I thanked her for telling me, and then together we commenced an odd sort of semi-run in order to reach room 112 before the register was taken.
After we prepared to part ways. She was heading to the maths block, a place I had no business with at A-level; I'd walked away from the subject after much frustration and little reward for my efforts - though I was proficient enough, it had brought me no joy. My love lay with the sciences, and it was to physics I headed now.
Bernice paused as she was about to go. "Lana?"
"You've been acting weird. Is something wrong?"
It hadn't crossed my mind; but her question and the concern with which she looked at me made me nervous, and suddenly uncertain. I shook my head and tried for a smile. "No. Not at all."
It seemed to reassure her well enough, though anxiety still lurked in her eyes. "I just... You're quiet, but you're not..." She frowned, searching for the word. "...distant. I don't like it."
Guilt rose in me. "Sorry. It hasn't been intentional."
She nodded. "Miss Farbyle let us out five minutes early." She dug around in her bag, eventually producing a small packet of makeup wipes. She gestured vaguely to her face. "You might want to sort yourself out."
I nodded and did so.
Seated beside me, Gemma asked, "Who's the goth?"
The question made me glance around to find its subject; when I succeeded, my breath caught somewhere in my throat.
It had been two weeks, but those eyes hadn't changed at all.
"Lana?" attempted Gemma, nudging me.
She seemed even paler in the bright sunlight we'd finally been blessed with; her red shirt drew attention to the unreal whiteness of her skin, and its fit did the same for her slenderness. She looked as if she'd never seen sunlight in her life - she looked, yes, a little like a goth, or a gothic painting, and breathtaking with it. Then she smiled at me, suddenly real and suddenly teenage. I'd thought she was somewhere close to my own age when we met, but still she seemed out of place here. I hastily looked away, and the moment fled.
Miss Farbyle cleared her throat, and we all gave her our attention. It was a relief not to look at the ethereally pale girl beside her. "We have a new addition," she announced, adjusting her glasses and nodding at the arrival. "Say hello to Eve Ford."
Eve - as I now knew her to be - raised a hand slightly sheepishly in greeting. It was such an ordinary name, somehow; it wasn't conspicuously Greek or particularly otherworldly. It weighed her down and made her vulnerable.
The class muttered a "hello" - though a few rebels chose "hi" - and then Eve took a seat a few tables away from me. I pretended not to notice, suddenly overly interested in my hands and my desk.
"Do you know her?" Gemma asked, her eyes straying to "the goth".
I shook my head. "We met once, and briefly. Hardly worthy of note."
"Hm," was Gemma's sceptical reply, and she let it hand in the air before she asked, "Have you done the chemistry homework?"
The day passed uneventfully; I spent it studying and thinking - fretting - about my forthcoming chemistry experiment. By the time I had my last lesson - English Literature - I was almost sleepwalking. Reaching my classroom, I took my usual seat and buried my head in Jane Eyre, our set text, while I waited for the lesson to start.
"Ah!" I heard Mr. Greenwood say. "Newbie."
Surely not - ? I withdrew from my book, raising my head, and was somehow unsurprised when I saw a flash of scarlet accompanied by black hair.
"I was told you'd come," Mr. Greenwood continued. "Take a seat."
She faced the class, her eyes trailing over the laughing, tight-knit boys; the popular kids, practically horizontal in their seats, half of them fiddling with their phones; and finally me, the quiet, mousy student in the corner pretending to be interested in Jane Eyre. She hesitated, then chose to sit with none of the aforementioned - she took the long, four-seater table second from the back, in front of mine.
It was the only one that was empty; it meant nothing. I kept reading.
She wasn't directly in front of me; there were four seats between us, and yet that distance felt like an ocean - insurmountable, nervewracking.
A couple of minutes later, it became obvious she didn't feel the same way. I looked up from my page at the sound of a throat being cleared. That smile had returned to unbalance me once again, and she told me, "Eve."
"My name is Eve," she reiterated. She cocked her head. "Though I suppose you already know that, with Miss Farbyle's useful little introduction this morning. Really it should have saved me the trouble of doing this." She offered her hand. It was rather a bewildering gesture, considering we were two teenage girls in a modern comprehensive, but I shook it anyway.
"Mm." Her lips twitched as she struggled to contain a laugh. "We've met." She paused. "As I recall, I wasn't wearing much."
Laughter burst from me, unexpected and louder than I'd intended it to be, in its turn triggering a similar reaction from Eve. We soon found ourselves stifling embarrassing giggles.
She sniggered. "It isn't as if you saw anything, at least."
I raised an eyebrow, gaining enough confidence to reply, "Ah. That's what you think."
Those black, black eyes widened, and she clapped a hand over her mouth. "Oh, no..."
We turned in unison. Mr. Greenwood was watching us with crossed arms, giving us a mock-offended look reserved only for students who'd transgressed, but beneath that there was something else: curiosity. I had no real friends in his class; I was often quiet, far more engaged with the books we studied than my classmates. It was if he were seeing another girl in my place, someone he was unfamiliar with. "Am I really that boring?" he jested. "Is Jane Eyre really a comedy?"
I could only muster an embarrassed clearing of my throat, but Eve grinned and said, "Sorry, teacher."
It was an odd phrase, but one I thought little about as the class wore on. Eve seemed unfamiliar with the text, but it was early in the term - most of us were. She smiled through most of the lesson, seeming enamoured with it in a way that was alien to us, the disgruntled students with little choice but to continue our education; it drew the eye, made us watch her rather than Greenwood - or perhaps that was only me. She toyed with her hair often - it was long, just brushing her thighs - and when thoughtful, she'd run her fingers through it, absentmindedly brushing. It wasn't as if my eyes were constantly on her; no, I copied from the board, made notes, read the assigned pages. Yet my concentration was unusually limited; I found myself waiting for her reactions, trying to work out the length of her hair, when I should have been reading.
It meant nothing. She was new - we would all be enthralled with her until we got some idea of her personality, dispelled any remaining mystery.
It started with Eve.