The beach was empty. Two weeks ago Mariah couldn’t take two steps without running into someone’s open umbrella or a cooler full of beer and Capri Sun. However, since tropical storm Ophelia had been upgraded to a hurricane, the tourists had been packing up and moving inland. Now, she could walk freely, stopping every few feet to pick up a stray wrapper or piece of sea glass.
According to the local weatherman, the storm was still a week away, but already the sky had become heavy with clouds and white caps were forming in the water and crashing around her feet. There was a small breeze that would soon pale in comparison to the winds that could send entire houses into the water.
Mariah continued her walk down the beach, keeping her eyes on the sand, looking for any small treasure that she could bring home. She wasn’t even supposed to be out near the water this close to the storm, according to her mom. Her mother was convinced that the hurricane was going to bring something dangerous to the shore.
“Rough waters stir up bad spirits, Mariah,” her mother warned. “Do not get caught out there alone until Ophelia has passed.”
She had rolled her eyes at her mother’s superstition. It had been a long time since she had bought into the stories of fairies stealing children in the middle of the night. Still, she felt uneasy walking down the empty beach with her mother’s warning echoing in her head.
“Hey!” a soft voice called out. “Come over here.”
Mariah’s head snapped up, looking for the source of the voice. The beach in front of her was still empty, save for a cluster of seagulls. She glanced behind her, wondering if she had made it up.
“You’re getting warmer.” The voice sounded amused, like they were playing a game. “In fact, you’re super hot.”
Mariah blushed, unsure how to take the last comment, still looking for the source of the voice. A small splash in the water drew her attention. A few yards into the water a small cluster of rocks stuck out over the waves and on top of the tallest one was a woman. Her tan skin glistened with water droplets and her long, dark hair was slicked down her back. Her dark red bikini stood out against her perfect skin. She smiled down on Mariah, showing a row of perfect teeth.
“You found me.” Her tone was still playful as she beckoned Mariah over. “Come here.”
“Are you stuck?” Mariah asked. The tide came in fast and she assumed that the woman had been sunbathing and not paying attention.
The woman scoffed. “Nope, I just want to show you something.”
Mariah stared at her for a second, feeling compelled to go see what the mystery woman could possibly want. Then she looked down at herself and realized that her jeans and sweatshirt wouldn’t let her swim all the way out to the rocks without weighing her down.
“I’m not dressed for the ocean,” she called out. “What do you want to show me?”
The woman’s brow furrowed, as if she hadn’t considered Mariah’s wardrobe an obstacle. “I can’t tell you. You have to see it.”
Mariah wanted to see what it was. She started to walk forward, getting her feet in the cold water before she stopped.
“My mom wouldn’t want me to do that,” she whispered, more to herself that to the girl on the rock. “She thinks the water is dangerous before a storm. She thinks it brings bad spirits to the shore.”
“Do you think I’m dangerous?”
The question caught her off guard; most people that heard her mother’s stories laughed it off as old superstitions. The way she had asked, though, made it seem as though she was serious, as if she was daring Mariah to say yes. An uneasiness settled in the pit of her stomach and she backed out of the water and back onto the sand.
“Of course not. I just need to get home before she starts to worry about me.” She turned away from the rocks and began to walk back up the beach toward her house.
“Wait!” the woman cried. “Don’t go yet, I don’t even know your name.”
Mariah paused, surprised at the desperation in her voice. She turned back toward the rocks and the mystery woman who was now slumped over, looking at her with pleading eyes.
“Mariah.” She smiled. “My name’s Mariah.”
The woman nodded and grinned. “Okay, Mariah, I’ll be back here tomorrow. If you bring your bathing suit, I’ll show you something amazing.”
“Wait, what’s your name, then?”
“Come back tomorrow and I’ll tell you.” The woman winked and waved her away, as if to say that their interaction was done.
Mariah turned and began to run home, unsure how she felt about the woman and the conversation they’d had. Logically, she was probably a tourist who was excited about some beached sea creature that she found on the rocks, but there was something just a little intriguing about the way she seemed so at ease in the middle of the rolling waves. What was even more compelling was the way she had looked at her, as if Mariah was the most interesting thing on the beach.
By the time she reached the back door, Mariah was out of breath and had kicked sand up her back. Her mother was waiting for her just inside the door with her hand on her hip and a look of disapproval on her wrinkled face. Her long brown hair, the same color as Mariah's, was tied in a knot at the back of her head.
"Where have you been, young lady?" she asked, as if she hadn't seen Mariah run up from the beach.
"I was out picking up the shore." She pushed her way past her mother. "You know the tourists always leave a mess. They never think about what happens to their trash when they're gone."
Her mom followed her into the kitchen. "You should've told me that you were going out."
Mariah turned away so she couldn't see her roll her eyes. This was a conversation they seemed to be having a lot lately, as if she was expected to report back to her mom every movement that she made.
"Mom, I'm in college," she whined. "I don't have to tell you every time I want to go out to pick up trash."
"As long as you're still living with me, you will tell me when you're going out and where you're going." Her mom walked over to the stove. "Honestly, I'm just trying to protect you. If you go missing I need to be able to tell the police where you are."
Mariah wondered if her mother was worried about some guy kidnapping her from the beach, or if she was worried that the storm itself was going to take her. She had gotten extra protective and superstitious after her dad had gone missing when he went fishing during a storm two years ago and never came back. Either way, this wasn't a fight she was going to win. When mothers pull the 'I just want you to be safe' card it means the argument is over.
"Okay," she muttered and walked over to her mother. "I'm sorry, I'll try to remember to let you know next time."
Her mother just nodded, staring intensely at the pot she was stirring.
Mariah ran up the stairs to her bedroom. The only window looked out over the beach and the orange glow of the sunset. She still slept in the same twin bed that she got when she was ten, although she had given away the Powerpuff Girls bedspread that had come with it a few years ago. Posters of her teenage celebrity crushes lined the wall between picture collages of her and her best friends growing up together.
For years it had been her and her two best friends who had grown up in the houses on either side of hers. They had spent their afternoons playing tag on the beach until someone fell on a seashell or beer bottle and was too hurt to keep playing. Then, when they got to middle school they made friends with two sisters who had moved into town over the summer and the five of them became a force to be reckoned with. All the teachers knew not to let their group sit together or there wouldn't be a moment of peace in class. In high school, a few people came and went from their group: boyfriends and girls trying to assert their position in the school hierarchy. Her first girlfriend tried to hang out with the five of them sometimes, but would complain about being a sixth wheel or that Mariah wasn't paying enough attention to her. At graduation, the five of them stood together and threw their hats in the air, swearing up and down that they would be friends forever.
All of them left town after graduation, Mariah was the only one to stay home and go to a community college. It was different now; they talked on the phone as much as they could and they kept her in the loop of their lives, but she knew that it was more of a courtesy. They would come home for spring break with tiny bathing suits and some buff guy hanging off of their arm and a million stories about people they met and parties they went to. Mariah always made time to hang out with everyone, but it always felt like she was being left out of their great adventure.
Mariah plopped down onto her bed with a sigh, looking out over the blazing sunset. The woman on the beach had been something exciting, something new. She imagined what she could have wanted to show her, maybe some old pirate gold. Mariah could see herself carrying a stack of coins home to her mom, telling her that they wouldn't need to worry about the mortgage anymore, or the power bill, or tuition. It was unlikely, of course, but Mariah always got the sense that there was something special about the beach.
What was more interesting, though, was the thought of finding out the woman's name. Mariah wondered why she hadn't just told her on the beach.
Realistically, the woman had just wanted to make sure that Mariah came back, right? She had found something cool by the rocks and wanted to show her. There was also the flirting, or what she thought was flirting, maybe she just wanted to see her again. It had been a while since a woman had looked at her like that, and the memory of it sent her heart into a flutter.
Regardless of what the woman wanted to show her, or what her name was, Mariah knew that she would be going back out to the rock the next day.
When she woke up in the morning, she jumped out of bed and put on her swimsuit. She hoped that if she could get out the door without her mother seeing her, she wouldn’t have to explain where she was going. She crept quietly down the stairs and to the back door, hoping the hinges wouldn’t squeak too loud.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
Mariah paused halfway out the door. “I’m going for a walk, Mom. It’s no big deal.” She tried to sound nonchalant, willing her mother into believing her.
“In your bathing suit?” Her mom waved her arms toward her in frustration.
“I’m just looking for sea glass for my collage. I don’t want to ruin an outfit if a wave splashes me.”
Her mom glared at her. “Fine, but be home in one hour. If you miss breakfast I’m locking you in until the storm passes.”
Mariah felt the retort in her mouth, a repeat of last night’s argument that she was an adult now and could make her own decisions about where she went and when, but she knew it wasn’t worth the fight. So, she smiled reassuringly at her mom as she backed away from the door and off the porch.
Mariah retraced her steps up the beach, making a note to collect any sea glass that she found in case her mom asked about it when she got back home. The clouds had darkened even more, making the ocean water look black. The winds kicked up and sand whipped around her, stinging her bare skin. There was no way that the woman was going to be able to swim out to her rocks in these conditions, but Mariah continued, hoping that she’d show up anyway.
When she could see the cluster of rocks, Mariah slowed a little, searching for the woman, wondering if she could have made the whole encounter up.
“I knew you’d come.” The familiar voice made her jump.
The woman was on the beach this time, standing a couple feet away in the same red bikini she’d been wearing the day before. Mariah realized that she hadn’t gotten a good look at her when she was on the rock, because she would have risked drowning if she had known how beautiful this woman really was. Her hair dark fell around her face, wet, as if she had already been in the water, framing the most striking blue eyes Mariah had ever seen. It was as if she had pulled the color out of the ocean herself.
The woman was only a couple inches taller than Mariah, but the way her eyes seemed to see right through Mariah made her feel tiny in comparison. Mariah looked down at her feet and started tugging on the string of her swim shorts.
“You said you’d tell me your name if I came back today,” Mariah mumbled, staring at her feet.
The woman stepped closer, close enough to reach out and touch. “Maeve.”
“Huh?” Mariah looked up into her blue eyes.
“My name,” the woman spoke slowly, “is Maeve.”
Mariah nodded dumbly. “It’s pretty.”
“So are you.” Maeve grabbed her hand and Mariah felt her heart quicken. She was suddenly acutely aware that she was standing alone on a beach with a woman she barely knew. The woman stepped closer, leaving inches between them. “Are you ready to see my surprise?”
Mariah wasn’t sure if she was joking or not; there was no way she was going to be able to swim out to the rocks with the waves crashing the way they were. She wasn’t that strong of a swimmer, but she couldn’t find the words to decline, so she just nodded.
Before she could react, Maeve wrapped her arms around her waist and pulled her against her body.
“Kiss me, then,” she whispered.
Mariah looked at her with wide eyes. Not that she’d never kissed anyone before, but there was something about the vulnerability of being alone with someone who had just told her their name that made her pause. However, she could feel Maeve’s cool skin pressing against hers and her pulse beating rapidly, as if she was nervous too. Mariah reached up and threaded her fingers through Maeve’s hair and leaned into the kiss.
Mariah had heard people describe kisses as magical, and she had assumed that they were exaggerating, trying to make it seem like something physical had a deeper meaning. She understood now, though, that a kiss could send an electric shock through a person’s body and steal the air from their lungs. The whole world seemed to tilt under her as she held the other woman close, trying to hold on to the magic for as long as possible.
When she pulled away, the first thing she realized was that the rain had started. Ophelia had arrived six days early and Mariah was on the beach in nothing but a bathing suit. The second thing she realized was that she couldn’t breathe. She tried to suck in air, but there was a wall in her throat that was keeping her lungs from expanding. She looked to Maeve in a panic, not understanding what was wrong.
The other woman took her hand and began to lead her toward the water. The waves crashed violently on the shore, threatening to wash her away, but still she followed. When they got to their knees in water, a wave swept over their heads and knocked them over.
As soon as her head was under water, all the panic left her. Maeve continued to pull her out until they were both completely submerged. The other woman looked back at her, her blue eyes cutting though the water, and smiled, showing a row of jagged, sharp teeth. Mariah barely registered what was happening when the hand around her wrist tightened and she was being pulled downwards.
She struggled and kicked away, but the hand held strong, pulling her deeper until she knew that she was too far under the water to get back to the surface. When she stopped struggling, the thing that had dragged her down stopped and looked at her, the illusion had fallen away and she was staring into two round eyes, surrounded by dark red scales. Its hand released her wrist and came up to her face.
Mariah shook her head and tried to swim away, but it held her firmly, bringing its lips to hers. Again, she felt the electric shock run through her body and she understood why her mom had warned her to stay away from the water. When it pulled away, she knew she needed to breathe again.
She swam futilely upwards willing her arms to carry her up before she had to take a breath. For a second Mariah thought she was going to make it, then she felt a hand grab her ankle and she let out the little breath she had. Her body tried to inhale, sucking in a mouthful of water. Then, she was being pulled back down, away from the empty beach.
Alexis Boucher is an aspiring urban fantasy writer who currently lives in Burlington, Vermont. Her work has been published in CHIVOMENGRO, Champlain College's online publication. She is interested in water magic, strong coffee, and local cryptids.