Underwater Ferris Wheel
On their first encounter that star-blitzed night, the mermaid saw a bright red ferris wheel encapsulated in luminescent white. It was a strange thing, perched on top of a barnacle-encrusted island about two trenches across. When she swam closer and climbed with soon-to-be blood-encrusted hands, she did not notice the paperman perching on top of his blue and gold carousel. As he welcomed her, the mermaid nearly fell back to the inky waves if not for his ribbon hands. He annoyed her, but still curiosity continued to bite her heart.
"You built this thing-"
"Ferris wheel," interrupted the paper man with a tilt of his star-ridden top hat, smiling widely.
"This ferris wheel," she pronounced with difficulty. "This ferris wheel is built in a place where no one can appreciate it."
"Are you sure? Many mermaids come here, though mostly at daytime."
"Do they…" she trailed off. A new emotion came to clutch her heart and even her stomach.
"Is something the matter? Do you fear your kind, little one?" he asks gently.
She shook her head and told him nothing. The encounter ended with her swimming out of his clutches and back into the icy sea.
The mermaid came back the next night and was surprised to see the paperman looking at her again, pointing out that she came back from the same spot.
"I knew you could not resist. Most of your kind don't," he sang out triumphantly as his pale white feet disentangles into paper ribbons, making him rise higher than normal and easily scooping her up on top of the ferris wheel. Much to her surprise, the carriage was filled half-full with water.
And her mouth filled also with awe once the paperman rose then put his hands together for the island to come to life.
Lights brighter than stars slowly began to dot the surface of the rock and soon she could make out the tip of the carousel and the yolk yellow track of the roller coaster below. There was also the magenta-painted tunnel of love snaking to her right and the chartreuse and orange-colored bumper cars to her left. More and more colors and rides flooded her sight and soon her eyes watered. It wasn't like her home, where she only saw blue and green.
"It's atrocious," she whispered as the paperman lands by her window.
"I do not know if I should cringe or laugh at that comment," he laughed. She slowly started to see the colors closer and closer as the ferris wheel turned. "Look up. So far you're the only mermaid to see the stars up this close. Extend your hand."
"It's like you're touching them, isn't it?"
And she began believing his words since.
On their third encounter the mermaid decided to brave the roller coaster and ride the bumper cars. By dawn they were at the edge of the island, far from the lights and sounds to face the morning star.
"Did you build them?" she pointed at the direction of the ferris wheel.
He nodded. "It was easy to cut the rocks. This place was like a mountain before I added my own touch to it."
"And how did you paint everything? How did you build the lights?"
He smiled. "You ask so many questions I don't want to answer."
Both of them didn't speak to each other afterwards.
It was raining hard when the mermaid rose to the surface one evening. It was the first time she experienced rain and the first time to realize that her skin was too sensitive to let the drops fall like torrential bullets on her skin.
She saw nothing amidst the rumble of the rain. The lightning provided her sight a second later.
There was no color from the ferris wheel or from anything. But she saw white and calls out to it.
The paperman was dangling helplessly on the end of the carousel. Quickly she swam forth, but knowing she cannot reach him even if she does try, and knowing the mere force of pulling him away will tear him to shreds, she just looked on praying for the best.
The storm ended as soon as it came and the paperman stared at his park, stripped of color and life.
"Not to worry," he smiled at her, tottering carefully near the edge face the mermaid. "I've been in this situation countless times."
She gives him a pained smile and cursed herself for being helpless.
He put his hands together again and the rock forms of the rock-hewn rides started to cascade with color. "It's probably been decades since I was put here. I don't remember much anymore. My skin and my body do not tell me how much time has passed since."
She tried to open her mouth to apologize, but he simply raised his hand.
"I'm sorry for keeping secrets. It's the first time, to be honest. No one asks questions. They merely want to have fun. I thought that was enough. And then you had to ask."
"I was a paperman, because I was punished to be. I needed to be isolated from my fellow not-papermen because I loved them too much. Too much, that I would present my love in horrible ways," he continues. The pinks and oranges from the sky started to cluster around, bathing them in the same hue. "Wonder how my wife and son are doing. I wonder if they're even alive today," his lips became a thin line.
"I'm sorry," she repeated.
"I really love colors," he smiled. "My world was full of them, and I wanted them for myself. That thought made me do bad things. I regret doing such things. But no matter how hard I try to change, I'm still a paperman."
She looked on silently. The simper lay still on his face.
And she simpered back.
"You changed though. You got shorter than last time."
"It's the rain's fault," he answered as the sea begins to glimmer. The sun was showing itself now.
She looked at the sunrise. Often she'd leave once she catches the sight of it, because of fear but this time…
"Aren't you going to leave?" he asked. "Won't your fellow mermen be worried about you?'
"Don't worry," she assured as the day began. "I also have no place to come back to."
And she told him more come the next time they meet. This time, she was riding the ferris wheel once more and had her hand out to grasp a star.
"Have you ever tried to get out of this place? Defy the one who punished you?"
He smiled. "I've tried for decades. I get wet in the water. I get tired if I fly."
"Has any mermaid asked you that question?"
"No. They probably want me to stay. And I'm more content here. Making people happy was something I wanted to do."
"Don't you want to see your family again?"
"They might be dead."
"What if there are other papermen like you? Don't you want a place to belong to?"
"And what about you?" his voice darkened and he jumped outside the window and back to the spot below.
She looked at his retreating figure helplessly and mouthed the answer that also plagued his mind.
"I'm a coward," she admitted after, as she tied a long strip of paper to her neck. He merely nodded and firmly patted her shoulder. "I wanted to be free and escape the responsibility I should be serving."
"You were a coward," he whispered. "I was a coward. Let's not be again please."
She smiled as she started to swim, faster and faster until the paper stretches up and brought the paperman up and up to the moonlit sky.
She looked back at the unlit carnival rides. This would probably be the last time she would see them again.
It took them four long nonstop days before the sunlight struck something solid. And their eyes couldn't believe the sight. Houses abound the island they were seeing and the people stared at the two of them and began pointing at them excitedly.
Then they spread out their hands, and suddenly flew at them.
"Papermen…" she murmured tiredly. The mermaid was too weak to continue swishing her tail but continued to swim harder. Soon, finally, the paperman can finally-
The mermaid stopped and looked up. The paperman had already cut his bond and was now soaring to greet his soon-to-be comrades. Not long after, they brought the mermaid in one of the papermen's mansions and they were delighted to know the paperman had an amusement park they can access to.
"I never thought there would be another paperman aside from us," one exclaimed as two paperwomen began to feed the mermaid with thin strips. She utterly forgot that papermen don't eat. They droned on and on about the benefits of staying there. It turned out that, like them, they've been punished to be papermen forever. They decided to rebuild their lives and stay there until luck shifts to their favor.
"You are welcome to stay with us," they earnestly told the paperman. The mermaid quietly poured more water on her tail to prevent herself from drying up. "And we would help you manage your amusement park. Imagine the possibility of us starting business with the mermaids like our lady here," the papermen politely nodded at her.
The paperman merely smiled at them. "Is there still a possibility that non-papermen exist?"
"Nay," one shook his head. "Their kind died out years and years ago. We never saw one visit this place, and our kind cannot swim or sail past the islands."
The mermaid raised her eyebrows. She was still pondering how they were able to construct their mansions. The walls didn't feel like they were coated with paper as the paperman's. Until dinnertime, she lay deep in thought, even when the paperwomen brought her back outside to the sea because there was no room for a mermaid to sleep in.
The paperman didn't leave her side.
"I'm still going to search for them," he said.
"Are you really going with them?" the mermaid asked with a faint tone of apprehension.
He nodded with a small smile.
"But-" he added. "Can you help me one last time? Can you help us go back there tomorrow?"
She bit her lip. The mermaid didn't want to help him. She knew something bad will happen if she does. But she looks on, nodding halfheartedly. She had no proof.
"I owe you a lot, dear one," the paperman told her as he nudged in closer. "One day, I'm sure I'll be able to pay you in full."
The mermaid stared at him trying to string words to tell him.
"You can visit my place even when I am away to find my family," he said as he threw a silver key at her. "So you won't be lonely. If I come back, return this to me, alright?"
She looked at him morosely. She desperately wanted to say that she regretted advising him to free himself from the comfort of his beloved amusement park. She then thought about the possibility of him chastising him. She wants him for herself. That was the least thing he wanted her to do.
She smiled to prevent her tears from rolling. "I'll try."
"Come back to your fellow mermen. The last thing I want to happen is to see a loyal customer to feel sad when I'm not around."
She shook her head. "If I go back, I won't return."
He locked his gaze at her. She was choking back her emotions and was now holding onto his papery hand. "I killed my friend. They'll kill me in her stead."
"You cannot be-"
The bright red color of the ferris wheel and the blood mixing with the water slides back and forth her head. "That's the penance of the likes of me. She was turning mad. She wanted to kill my father. I do not- I cannot-"
He embraced her. She could feel his skin clinging onto hers. She was trembling, unable to take in the sight of the moonlit night. "I'm scared. I'm scared. I'm scared…"
The next morn confirmed her fears.
The paperman wasn't with the others as they tied their strings on her body.
"Where is my companion?" she asked hollowly.
The papermen smile at her.
"It would be best if you lead us there. Otherwise, we would be willing to rip your dear friend to shreds."
"The island has many possibilities for business. Your friend, like the ignorant human owners of this island were too 'virtuous' to fucking see it. I do not work with idiots. If you care not to follow our orders-"
"Traitors," she whispered contemptuously. Silver blades began to caress her neck before she was able to spit at him.
"Bad idea, honey," smirked one. "Now be a good little mermaid and bring us there otherwise your precious little paper man will earn a little dip. It's nice to see the paper soft, right? It's more painful for us anyway."
She let them tie their strings tightly on her neck.
"No funny business eh? If one of us falls, I'd make sure to kill your friend."
The mermaid's eyes narrow as she began swimming, faster than she ever did in her life. Day and night, she wasn't able to appreciate her trip. The more she listened, the more she wanted to stop. But seeing the red ferris wheel and her paperman friend perching at the window like the times of old made that tiny flame in her heart burn brighter and brighter.
It exploded once they landed on the island. They roared with delight at the sight of the ferris wheel and the carousel. Two already slithered to the bumper cars while some tried turning on the tunnel of love.
"Your promise," she said stonily. Her right hand continued grasping onto the key, untarnished still by the salty air.
The paperman head snaps his fingers and one henchman brings out a satchel. He throws the satchel at her. "We don't need you anymore. The paper here's enough for us to sail back there in one piece."
She catches it and opens for the contents.
They were bits and bits of paper. One bit had the same star pattern as those in his top hat. Her blood ran cold.
She took the deepest breath she could muster, savoring the smell and the memories of the carnival rides she took with the paperman. This was the last time she'll be breathing the air on the surface.
In the end, she really was going home.
The mermaid grasped the key tightly in farewell and threw it at site near the ferris wheel before swimming back.
It took five seconds for the other papermen to realize that the island was sinking. They tried to spread their arms to form their wings, while some tried salvaging the dry papers from the ferris wheel, but everything was in vain. She looks on and wonders if he wore the same surprised expression as theirs as they clutched on anything for dear life. One tried to chase her, but she was too fast.
By the time the tip of the ferris wheel disappeared from the surface she swam back underwater, trying to chase the former red anomaly she remembered so well on their first encounter. She manages to touch it and bids it a silent adieu as it sinks to rest at the bottom for eternity.
With a swish of her tail, she swims on forward, past the carousel, the roller coaster, and the tunnel of love. Once more there would no longer be the colors she remembers so vividly.
Looks like I can't be away from you for long, she beams silently, now merely seeing the blue and green of the ocean deep as she swishes her tail. Time to go home.