From Katie Schickel comes The Mermaid’s Secret, an original, fresh, and absolutely captivating beach read.
On her twenty-third birthday, Jess catches the perfect wave–a wave that transforms her into a mermaid. Under the sea, a startlingly beautiful, dark place, Jess is reborn into a confident, powerful predator with superhuman strength –finally she is someone to be reckoned with. Meanwhile, back on land, Jess’s relationship with Captain Matthew heats up, and so does her search for justice for her sister Kay, who died in a boating accident.
Jess has thirty days to choose between land and sea; legs and fins; her humanity and her freedom. Who could ignore the freedom of the sea? Yet, the ocean is a dark, wild, lonely place. Is this a gift or a curse? Will Jess choose family and love, forgiveness and truth, or will she be seduced by the wild call of the sparkling sea forever? Please enjoy this excerpt.
Out the windows of Kotoki-Pun Diner, I squint into the morning sun toward the Atlantic and watch a set roll in. The last wave spikes into a perfect peak and peels right. If I close my eyes, I can imagine myself in that little pocket of power, ripping down the face.
“More coffee, Jess?” Anne-Marie asks, walking up to my table with a glass carafe smudged in fingerprints. Her eyes aren’t on me; they’re watching the ocean as well.
“I’m good,” I say. I haven’t even touched my first cup.
“Got a lobster omelet for the special. Side of coleslaw.” She straightens her apron.
“Lobster? For breakfast?” I pick at my nails, flaking black polish onto my bare legs.
“Honey, it’s summer. We’d put lobster in the brownies if they’d buy it.” She points her chin toward the sea, the waves, the distant ferries under sail somewhere between the mainland and our island.
A breeze blows in and I can smell the salt water. “Did you know that lobsters are part of the cockroach family? It’s literally like eating bugs.”
Anne-Marie doesn’t flinch. “Then they’re in good company in our kitchen.” She taps her pencil against her notepad. “So, what’ll it be? Haven’t got all day.”
“I’m waiting for someone. Can you give me a few minutes?”
She looks down at me. Her hard eyes soften. “Sure thing, honey,” Waitresses at Kotoki-Pun Diner are supposed to be prickly and tough. They’re always telling customers to “Hurry it up” or “Get your own damn ketchup.” If you talk back, they skimp on your order or eighty-six the fries on you, even when you know that places like Kotoki-Pun Diner have at least five years’ worth of frozen french fries stored in their walk-ins. For some reason, tourists love the abuse. I guess it’s because people are always trying so hard to say the right thing that no one ever says what they’re really thinking. Hearing the truth—for example, that you have no business ordering a strawberry sundae after chowing down a half-pound burger and side order of onion rings—takes people off guard. And being taken off guard is what makes people laugh. Wakes them up to the moment.
But I get special treatment. Special, awful treatment. With a side of pity.
Outside, a police siren wails. I lift my hoodie over my head and slink into the booth, the skin on the back of my legs sticking to red vinyl. Blue lights flash across the tin ceiling.
The diner door swings open and Sheriff walks in. There’s a slouch in his shoulders, which makes him look old and broken, like a schooner with a snapped mast.
All the locals in the diner know him and look up with reverence, or else sympathy. Hard to tell the difference. They nod, greet him with “Sheriff.” He knows them all and nods back. “Gary.” “Jean.” “Louise.”
The line cook looks up, wipes his glistening forehead with the back of a sleeve, and gives him a “Morning, Sheriff.” He swats at something I can’t see behind the grill. Probably a cockroach.
The woman called Louise keeps looking at him long after he’s passed her table. She has a smile on her face like she’s just been crowned Miss Ne’Hwas, Queen of the Lobster Parade. It gives me the creeps. Not just because it’s unnerving to see old people flirt, but because he’s not available. Look at the wedding ring, Louise. I want to tell her to go fish in some other pond.
But I resist.
He stops at my booth. Everyone’s eyes are on me—the line cook, that Louise lady. I know what they’re thinking. The delinquent with the hoodie and the black eye makeup, busted before breakfast. Must be serious. Drugs. Solicitation. Grand theft.
“You had to use the siren?” I say.
“I was running late.”
He sits down, pulls off his hat, and places it on the seat next to him. “For you,” he says, and slides a box with a pink ribbon across the table. “Happy birthday, Jess.”
I try to smile, but I’ve forgotten how. I feel the muscles in my cheeks draw my lips toward my ears. The skin tightens across my forehead. But my eyes don’t change. It’s a cartoon smile drawn by a big cartoonist hand in the sky.
“Next time, can you just pick up a phone to let me know you’re running late? Like a normal person?”
“I don’t trust mobile phones,” he says. “Reception’s spotty on the island.”
You’d think we live on the moon. But it’s not quite the moon. It’s Ne’Hwas—pronounced nuh-he-wuz, as all tourist brochures by the cash register point out. According to the plethora of marketing materials designed to drum up summer business, we are “a quaint island in the Gulf of Maine with lush mountains and glorious beaches … a charming retreat for the whole family … a world-class fishing destination … a perfect mix of rugged nature and refined living.” If I were to write my own brochure, I might add “isolated, suffocating, and haunted.”
I pull off the ribbon and open the box. Inside is a comb carved of bone, its prongs sharp and buffed to a polish. On the handle, four concentric spirals swirl outward from a star inlaid with black onyx.
“It’s the Passamaquoddy symbol for strength,” Sheriff says. “I got it at a strange little shop downtown. Right near your apartment, actually. Lady in the shop told me it’s made out of sperm whalebone.”
I turn it over, admiring the intricate carving, the burnished bone. It’s a unique piece. Very cool. Very me. I’m thankful it’s not something girly that I’d never wear, like a pair of pewter sand dollar earrings from the Anchor’s Away gift shop downtown.
“It’s legal,” Sheriff says. “I checked. The tribe gets special dispensation for collecting whalebones under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.”
I fumble through a series of responses, trying to find an appropriate way to express my feelings. Finally, I mumble out, “Thanks, Dad.”
I never call him Dad. He’s always been Sheriff. He earned that nickname when he was a kid, and it stuck. Apparently, he was always keeping other kids in the neighborhood safe, facing off against bullies, rescuing people from rip currents and rising tides. He was the sheriff in town, there to protect and serve all.
Well, almost all.
I pull off my hood and let my hair fall down to my shoulders. I twist it into a bun, and stick the comb in. “What do you think?”
“It’s very becoming on you,” Sheriff says. “She had one with the symbol for harmony, but I thought this suited you better.”
“Yeah, harmony isn’t exactly my thing.”
“I was going to get you a pretty little sand dollar bracelet,” he says.
“But that old woman was quite insistent on this comb. She’s Passamaquoddy, just like you. Figured she probably knew more about it than I do.”
“Sometimes I think you’re more interested in my Passamaquoddy roots than Mom,” I say.
“It’s who you are, Jess. You have to honor that. Your heritage is as old as the rocks that line Kotoki-Pun Point.”
“I’m half Creary, too,” I say, but as I look into Sheriff’s blue eyes and freckled Irish skin, I don’t see any of me in him. I inherited my mom’s dark skin, high cheekbones, and golden eyes. I definitely look more Native American than Irish cop.
“Did you hear from her?” he asks, cradling the cup of coffee Anne-Marie has set down for him.
“Not even a card.”
“Well,” Sheriff says, blowing into his cup, “don’t hold it against her if she doesn’t call you today. She’s hurting.”
“We’re all hurting.”
The first year after you lose someone, there are no birthday parties, because celebrating doesn’t even enter your mind. Holidays only serve as reminders of what you’ve lost—the first Thanksgiving Kay and I won’t stay up all night watching a Godfather marathon; the first Christmas Kay and I won’t crack ourselves up by sneaking chunks of coal into Sheriff’s stocking. The birthday Kay would have turned twenty-four. These are days that are best left ignored. And people understand. By the second year, though, the world has moved on, and expects you to move along with it. Only, I haven’t. And neither has Sheriff.
I look out at the waves again. A gust of wind churns the surface into a thousand whitecaps.
Not that suffering is a competitive sport, but if there were a family lottery on misery, today I’d be the winner. Today, I’m twenty-three and getting older every day. Kay will be twenty-three forever. From this day forward, I will be older than my older sister. From here on out, I’m the first. I’m the one who gets to experience adulthood, marriage, childbirth, and old age. I’m the one with my whole life in front of me, with all the shimmering hope that implies. I’m the lucky one who gets to do extraordinary things and make a difference in this world.
I’m also the one who gets to fail to live up to my potential, screw up everything I try, push away the people I love, and end up as a huge disappointment to everyone around me. Happy fucking birthday to me.
Sheriff changes the subject. “Are you working for Harold this summer?”
“Tips are good.” I dump a packet of sugar into my coffee and swish it around.
“It’s a little late, but I can get you an interview at the park. If you want.”
I sigh. “To do what? Work as a ticket taker for minimum wage? I’ll make triple that on the fishing boats.”
“There are good benefits working for the state.”
“Here it comes.” I give him my petulant-child look. I’m good at that one. I’ve also got I-don’t-give-a-crap-what-you-think ungrateful teenager and go-ahead-dare-me-and-see-what-I-do rebel girl down solid.
He’s undeterred. “You have to think about the long term, Jess. Are you just going to stay on Ne’Hwas for the rest of your life? There’s more opportunity on the mainland.”
“You’ve been on Ne’Hwas your whole life.”
“There’s more for you out there.” Instinctively, he points west. “The world is your oyster.”
I rub my temples. “Do you know how corny that sounds?”
He tightens his jaw and he touches the bridge of his nose. “It’s not too late to get your degree. You liked biology, remember? You were very good at it, if I recall.”
“Yeah, I like biology, but you can’t just take biology. You have to sit through all those other classes, too. I tried it, Sheriff. College wasn’t for me.”
“If you’re not going to go back to school, you should at least build your résumé working for the state.”
“I don’t want a crappy job working at the park. I like working on boats. I like being out on the water. It’s the only place I like to be.”
He slaps the table. “It’s not always about doing what you like. You can’t just party your summer away and hope to get by all winter. You’re not a kid anymore. You have to think about your future, Jess. If you put in your time working for the state, you can move through the ranks. It can be your ticket out of here.”
I throw my hands up. “I’m not her, okay?”
His face falls. The very mention of my sister casts him somewhere far away. He puts his coffee down and wipes imaginary crumbs off the table. “I know you’re not her.”
Anne-Marie comes over to take our order. “You two ready?”
Sheriff pulls a menu out from behind the napkin dispenser.
“Got a lobster omelet for the special today,” Anne-Marie says.
Sheriff shakes his head, his eyes still on the menu. The slouch in his shoulders has deepened since we’ve been sitting here.
“I’ll have blueberry pancakes,” I say.
“It’s her birthday,” Sheriff says, trying to sound cheery, but hitting a flat note instead.
Anne-Marie puts her hands on her hips. “Why didn’t you tell me? How old are you now?”
I cringe. “Twenty-three.”
Anne-Marie looks out the window, through all the birthdays that have come and gone. “Ah, to be twenty-three again. Well, happy birthday. Extra whipped cream for you.”
Sheriff concentrates on the menu intently like it’s a work by Shakespeare or something, but I can tell his mind is far away from breakfast combos.
Anne-Marie can tell, too. She takes the menu out of his hands. “OJ. Two eggs over easy, bacon, home fries, whole wheat toast. Buttered.”
Sheriff nods. “Thank you.”
I can’t bear the weight of my father’s grief for another minute. It’s like watching a pilot whale beach itself on the sand, giving up on any chance of rescue. Kay was twenty-three when she died in a boating accident two summers ago. She was heading to law school in the fall and had an amazing future ahead of her. Instead, she got in a boat with Trip Sinclair.
It’s the tragedy that has come to define my family.
It didn’t take long for my mom and Sheriff to start sabotaging their marriage after that. Every time they looked at each other, all they could think about was what they’d lost. Their gifted daughter, the scholarship student, the athlete, the most likely to succeed. The girl who was going somewhere. The good one. The pretty one. All that potential, splattered molecule by molecule into the sea.
My mom finally split after Christmas. Said she was going on a spirit journey. Packed up and caught the ferry west, where she couldn’t be pulled anymore by tides or constant reminders of Kay. She hugged me for a long time at the ferry dock. She had a curious look on her face, one I didn’t recognize. It seemed like she was holding so much back. She told me she loved me and that she’d see me soon, but that was six months ago. Soon never seems to come.
I don’t fault her for taking a break. Believe me, I know what it’s like to want to drop everything and run. To escape. That’s another thing I inherited from her. But her absence is starting to eat away at both me and Sheriff.
We sit in silence.
“Any big birthday plans tonight?” he says finally.
“Sammy has a party planned. It’s supposed to be a surprise, but you know Sammy.”
He throws his head back. Yes, he’s known Sammy her whole life. “What tipped you off?”
I think about this for a second. It was strange when she went on a cleaning rampage in the apartment, clearing the bathroom vanity of all her hair products and lotions. She must have originally planned to have the party at our place. It was also very un-Sammy-like to sneak into her bedroom to make phone calls every time we were watching The Bachelorette. I mean, she’s practically had phone sex with Spencer while sitting right next to me on the couch. The girl doesn’t keep secrets.
“She kept insisting that she didn’t have plans. That was it,” I say. “She’d bring up the lack of plans, even if I didn’t ask.”
“Rookie mistake,” Sheriff says.
“Well, have fun,” he says. “No drinking and driving.”
“You can always call me if you find yourself in a situation.”
I give him the you’ve-got-to-be-kidding look.
“I get it. I’d embarrass you. But season opens today. Things are always chaotic the first week. You have to be extra cautious.”
I look out at the waves again. Season. All of life on Ne’Hwas revolves around that single word. “How many people do you think are blowing chunks on the ferry right now?” I ask.
He looks out the window, too. “Onshore wind. East-southeast. Perfect seasickness conditions. I’d say sixty percent.”
I give him a conspiratorial laugh. “Seventy-five. At least.”
“Now that’s one seasonal job you definitely don’t want.”
Copyright © 2016 by Katherine Schickel