She Who Lies in Secret
Derek stared at the house. His body was half out of the van, one foot resting on the gravel driveway. “It looks fake.”
His mother shut the driver’s side door and stood eyeing the old mansion. “Oh, it’s real. The dirt’s real. The rat poop’s real. The boxes of moldy crap—”
“I just can’t believe anyone actually lives like this.”
“Well, he doesn’t, not anymore.”
Derek crossed himself, and his mother slugged him in the arm.
The house loomed like a storm cloud. The porch was stacked with old appliances, motorcycles, and lawn mowers. There were dozens of dirty windows covered by towels or blankets. Birds’ nests drooped from overhangs. Grasshoppers jumped back and forth in the waist-high lawn. Behind the house, a sheer cliff dropped fifty feet to jagged rocks and the endless expanse of the Pacific Ocean.
“You could never raise kids here without developing an ulcer,” Derek’s mother said. She tried her key in the front door, and it opened without a fuss.
Derek stared at the interior of the house and sighed. No way was this worth ten bucks an hour. “This is going to take forever.”
His mother walked inside and pulled out her notepad. “We’ll have this baby back on the market in a week. Okay, two.”
Derek took a few steps into the living room. The table was piled high with magazines with titles like “Hydroelectric Co-op Bi-Monthly.” But what really caught Derek’s eye was the sound system. Speakers covered one entire wall. Cords ran every which way, each one leading back to an old combination record/tape player. Derek ran his hands over the silver and wood surface. He smiled appreciatively.
“What are they going to do with all this stuff?”
Derek’s mother peeked around a corner, notepad in hand. “We’re supposed to pack anything that looks salvageable into boxes. Somebody is coming with a U-Haul on Monday.”
“So what happened to this guy?”
“He drank himself to death,” she said. “I’ll do the upstairs and the attic. You take the ground floor and the basement. Just get an idea of what needs doing, and let’s get out of here. I’m not dressed for this.”
Derek made his way from room to room, making mental notes. In the bathroom he found a black leather glasses case with gold letters on it: “C. L. Shunt.” No wonder the guy drank himself to death. In another room, Derek found a framed photo of a twin engine bomber and its crew. He assumed one of the smiling young men was Mr. Shunt.
When he finished with the first floor, Derek stood in the doorway that led into the basement. The blackness below was total. He could see only the first step of a wooden flight of stairs. A smell like rust and water damage wafted up.
He clicked on his little LED keychain and started down the steps. The ceiling was low as he descended, and the walls hung with cracked cords and cables.
Derek stood in utter darkness at the foot of the stairs, shining his dim light back and forth. There were some homemade shelves full of mechanical equipment along one wall. Another wall covered in tools. A large, empty aquarium. Dozens of boxes. In short, lots of work ahead.
He was turning to leave when he noticed something out of the corner of his eye: a quick flash of red through a crack in the wood paneling. He walked slowly up to the crack and peered into it. There was a room beyond, lit only by occasional red flashes. He shined his light upward and saw that the paneling hung from a track that ran along the ceiling and into a slit in the concrete foundation. A door.
Derek slid it open.
The walls of the hidden room were covered in levers and nozzles and indicator lights. One light was blinking. Dust had settled in a peculiar pattern on the concrete floor, rings of concentric circles growing larger and larger as they moved outward toward the walls. Inside these circles, Derek spotted the hatch. It bulged up from the concrete floor like an enormous eye, as big around as his dining room table.
Derek moved slowly toward the hatch. He lifted and lowered his feet carefully, reluctant to scuff up the pattern in the dust. In the center of the hatch was a small, rectangular window, and below it, dark water. Bubbles swirled against the glass, joining together, splitting apart. He leaned over and shined his flashlight straight down into the water. The way the beam disappeared into the dark depths made his stomach turn.
Before he could think about what he was doing or why, he walked over to the control panel and pulled the lever next to the blinking red light. The light went out, and there was a loud, airy “whump.” It reminded him of the noise canisters at the bank made when sucked through the overhead tube to the teller.
Something splashed against the window of the hatch. Derek whirled and ran to it. Some kind of brick floated lazily into the darkness, dissolving into a brown and pink cloud. Derek watched it disappear, leaving the water cloudy with debris in the beam of the flashlight.
“Let’s go!” came his mother’s voice from the top of the stairs. “We’re burning daylight!”
Derek ran out of the room and up the stairs. His mother had lost her jacket somewhere, and sweat soaked through her shirt.
“I take it all back,” she said. “This is going to take a month. At least.”
That was fine by him. In the light of the late morning, the room with the hatch already seemed like a dream. The fear had faded into a strange, distant longing.
Everything in Derek’s life made sense, even the painful things. His life was one long string of mundane disappointments. Middle-class white kid’s parents get a divorce. Middle-class white kid enrolls in an out-of-state school to get away from family issues. Middle-class white kid drops out, moves in with his mom, and works for her cleaning business. Derek couldn’t even feel bad for himself without growing bored of his own complaints.
Against the dull, gray backdrop of his life, the room with the hatch seemed strangely bright. In a day or two, he would have all the time in the world to explore the room properly. He looked forward to it.
It was not the response Derek had hoped for. It had taken a full hour talking with the clerk in the bookstore before Derek could decide what to get Sophie for her birthday. He settled on a vintage copy of Pride and Prejudice with a worn leather cover. He wrapped the book in old newspapers and tied it with an aged yellow bow. It should have been a perfect gift, but Sophie didn’t look impressed.
“Do you like it?” he asked.
Sophie’s eyebrows pinched together. She was probably trying to look emphatic, but it looked more like she was staring into the sun. “Yeah. Of course I like it. It’s a really great book. Thank you.”
“I just thought, you know, you like to read. So.”
“Yep, love to read. Thanks again. Thank you.”
Now or never, Derek. “Hey.” Gulp. “Do you have plans this weekend? Because I’d really like to take you out for your birthday.”
“Out? Like to eat?”
Derek tried to smile confidently. “Yeah. Food, for your birthday. A celebration kind of date…thing.”
Sophie’s expression fell from confusion into weary sympathy. “Derek. I’m sorry—”
“Yeah, I know.” He stared at his hands. “I’ve got this part down. ‘Just friends.’ Right?”
Sophie dropped into the booth across from him and leaned in close. Her eyes were intense behind her black-rimmed glasses. When she spoke, her voice was an angry whisper. “I do not have time for this right now. If you’re not going to order, then I need to get to my other tables.”
“Uh, chicken fried steak?”
“I’m serious, Derek. I’m in the middle of a double-shift. My feet hurt. My sister is watching Jaren. I’ve barely seen him in a week—he probably thinks she’s his mother. I am many, many thousands of dollars in debt, and the only job I can find right now is this one. So if you’re really here for a chicken fried steak, that’s fine. Otherwise, I don’t have the time or the energy to worry about your self-esteem.”
Derek shook his head. “I’m sorry.” He didn’t know she had been feeling this way.
“And now you make that face, and suddenly, on top of it all, I’m a huge bitch who can’t even get a present without freaking out. Happy birthday to me.”
Sophie turned and walked crying through the double doors into the kitchen of the diner. Derek sat in silence for a moment before pulling out a pen and writing, “I didn’t mean to upset you. I’m sorry,” on a napkin. He folded his menu and tucked it in the box by the door on his way out.
The first day back at the old house, Derek’s mother kept him busy packing boxes. It was exhausting. Physically, because the boxes were numerous and heavy. Emotionally, because Sophie’s brutal rejection was still so fresh in his mind. And mentally, because only a few feet below him, the hatch waited in the dark basement.
Halfway through the work, a friend’s air conditioner froze over and dripped gallons of condensation all over their new carpet. It was an emergency, and his mother had to go.
“You can finish up in here and then head home,” she said. “I’ll see you there.”
Derek finished up in the bedroom he’d been packing—C. L. Shunt had covered this room in speakers as well—but instead of going home, he headed downstairs.
He found the hatch as he’d left it. The red light was blinking again, and Derek let it. He walked the circumference of the room. None of the levers were labeled; whoever used this place must have had every button and crank memorized. Derek began to deflate. Maybe this was just a custom septic system. Maybe the brick he’d released into the water was just a cleaning tablet.
He was almost ready to give up when he noticed a dial between two of the control panels. When he brushed the cobwebs away, he could just make out the outline of a thin safe nestled inconspicuously between the panels. He touched the little combination dial. The water beneath the hatch stirred, a single, frantic splash against the glass.
Derek pulled his hand away and froze. Slowly, he craned his neck to look behind him. The water was settling, the bubbles quieting themselves beneath the little window. He looked back at the lever. The little red light was still blinking.
“Go on,” a female voice said. “Pull the lever.”
Derek turned toward the exit. There was no one there.
“I’m not behind you. I’m right in front of you.”
Derek’s head swam. He shined his light around frantically, looking for an overhead speaker.
“Over here, silly.” The voice was girlish and cheery, yet warm, sincere. There was not a drop of malice or mockery in it. “I’m under the hatch.”
A single thought repeated in Derek’s mind over and over: this is really happening. He couldn’t disbelieve the voice. It was too brilliant, too vivid to be anything short of absolutely real.
“I can hear you so clearly,” he said.
The voice giggled. “Has no one ever spoken into your heart before? What’s your name?”
“Derek. What’s yours?”
“Uh-rai-ee,” the voice said. “You spell it A-R-A-I-E. Can you see my name now?”
“Araie,” he said. “Araie?” The word felt strange in his mouth.
“Nice job! And you spell your name D-E-R-E-K.” Araie sounded proud of herself.
“That’s right.” Derek chuckled in spite of himself. “First try. Not bad.”
“Pretty good, eh?” Araie’s laugh almost made Derek want to cry. Her voice was his by-gone childhood. It was gentleness. It was beauty.
“Will you pull the lever, Derek?” Araie asked. “If you do, I’ll tell you a secret.”
Derek glanced over at the lever. “A secret?”
“That’s what I do. I tell secrets. It’s what my name means.”
“More like, ‘She Who Lies in Secret.’ Or ‘Secret Girl.’ Something like that.”
Derek walked over to the hatch and shined his light into the water. It was too murky to make anything out. “Where are you?”
“At the bottom.” Her voice was sad now. “I can’t swim up to the top anymore. I’m too weak. I’m hungry, and it’s hard to breathe in here. I’m so glad you found me, Derek.”
“Who put you in here?”
“Clyde did,” Araie said.
“You mean C. L. Shunt?”
“Yeah. He caught me and put me in this tank.”
Derek’s mind swam with questions. “He caught you? How? Where did you come from?”
“Pull the lever, Derek, and I’ll tell you my secret.”
He walked over to the console, took hold of the lever, and pulled it. Another bank canister sound. Another splash. Derek watched a brick disappear into the depths of the tank. Amidst the cloud of pink and brown that came from the brick, Derek caught a glimpse of something in the tank, a string of unearthly blue lights that danced rhythmically for a moment, then disappeared.
“What did I just do?” Derek asked.
“You fed me. Thank you.”
“Yeah, but what did I just feed you?
“Dried fish pieces.”
“That sounds kind of gross, Araie.”
She giggled again. “Telling you my secret will clear some things up for you. But you have to promise never to tell anyone. It complicates things too much, and I can’t change that for anyone, not even you, Derek. Is that okay?”
“Yes,” he said. “I agree. Tell me your secret.”
Araie’s voice lowered. “My story begins, like all things, in the sea.”
As Araie spoke, Derek lost himself in her story, letting her perfect voice wash over him. In time, even her voice dropped away, and Derek found himself standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier. The change was so subtle, he might have been standing there all along. The hot sun beat down on his neck, the cool air blew up from the surf. The ocean stretched for miles in every direction. There were bodies in the water, and the wreckage of airplanes. Fish and sharks churned the waters, drawn by the blood. Gulls perched on the floating bodies, sharp beaks tearing away bits of flesh.
Derek felt himself drawn to the edge of the deck. Down below, in the water, he saw a lifeboat. There were five men in it, passing around a bottle with a Japanese character on its label. They wore United States Navy uniforms. Fishing poles dangled and nets hung over the side of the boat, and they already had a good catch. One man smoked a cigar and rested his feet on a dead shark in the bottom of the boat. A long, serrated knife stuck up from the shark’s head.
Suddenly, the men began to struggle with one of the nets. When they wrestled the net to the deck and examined their catch, the men fell silent.
Lying in the boat was the strangest, most beautiful creature Derek had ever seen. Blue veins and pale muscles, visible through the creature’s translucent skin, flexed and shifted with mesmerizing grace as she struggled to right herself in the boat. Thin, silver membranes stretched between her delicate fingers. Wild, black hair flowed down from her head and pooled in the bottom of the lifeboat. The hair grew finer and lighter toward the ends, as if it had never been cut.
When she finally struggled free of the net, Derek fell to his knees at the edge of the ship and gasped. Below her waist was a long, frilled, eel-like tail that coiled around itself. Lights dotted the length of it, glowing a surreal shade of blue that he’d seen only once before. In another life. In an old house. Swirling gracefully down in the water of the hatch.
When she lifted her head to peer through the strands of hair covering her face, Derek caught his first glimpse of her eyes; almond-shaped, too large to be human, and the color of sea ice.
When Derek finally blinked, he was standing in the house again, but upstairs. Everything was decades newer, but there was still plenty of clutter. Metal panels, boxes of bolts, tubes of sealant lay on tables and counters and chairs. A young, blonde man from the lifeboat —Clyde Shunt, Derek thought—came into the living room carrying another box. Black letters on the side read “Bomb Shelter Components 3h-3w.” Derek followed Clyde into the basement.
A large aquarium hummed silently against one wall. Araie’s pressed her hands to the glass, her large eyes watching Clyde sadly. Clyde stormed past her and set the boxes on a pile of broken bricks and dirt. He picked up one of the heavy digging tools resting nearby and walked into the room where Derek had found the hatch. Derek turned to look at Araie, sadly staring out from her prison. When he tried to move toward her, he was pulled along behind Clyde as if on a leash.
The hatch was completed. The floor was clean, the panels shiny and in working order. Clyde looked many years older now, his face creased with frown lines, and dark circles shadowed his eyes. Derek wondered how much time had passed as he stepped from one room to the next.
Araie’s aquarium had moved to the floor in front of the hatch. She looked like she was crying, but underwater it was hard to tell. Clyde opened the hatch and roughly took hold of one end of the aquarium. His hands shook as he tipped it over. Araie slid down one side, scrambled to keep her hold on the slick glass, then fell awkwardly through the open hatch, bashing her ribs on the lip. Clyde slammed the lid shut, and the locks hissed closed. Derek ran to the hatch and pressed his hand to the glass. Araie reached up from the bottom and pressed her hand to his. Under the water, her terrified eyes had no shine. Her pale lips formed words:
Derek jolted upright. The hatch was there, but the room had aged again. He pressed his hand to the glass, but the murky water was empty. He was back. Araie was at the bottom of the tank, he knew, too weak to swim to the top. His tears dotted the window of the hatch.
“I will,” Derek said. “I will help you..”
Blue lights swirled in the bottom of the tank. “I wish it were as simple as grabbing me and carrying me to the ocean. I’d never make it that far in the open air, not in the shape I’m in, and I can’t swim up to the top anyway. This tank is deeper than it looks, and I’m too heavy for you to carry. It’s the tail.”
Derek laughed. “What do we do then?”
“Clyde built this tank out of bomb shelter parts. He was a brilliant engineer. Every week or so, the water in my tank is supposed to be cycled out and replaced with water from the ocean. The water comes in from a pipe at the bottom of my cage, but the pipe is covered, and it’s too small for me to fit through anyway. I won’t get back to the ocean that way.”
“Are you sure?”
“We can worry about that later. The motor that cycles the water is broken. I need you to fix it. When I’m healthy again, we can figure out a way to get me down to the shore.”
“Just tell me what to do.”
“First, go to the safe on the wall and open it.” Araie told him the combination, and he entered it. Long rolls of paper fell out of the safe into Derek’s hands. He unrolled one part way. It was a blue pencil sketch of a long cylinder, divided into sections and labeled with various notes and snippets of arithmetic. Plans for the tank.
Derek shook his head. “I can’t read these.”
“I’ll help you with that, no sweat,” Araie said. “You get to do the hard part. It’ll be exhausting work, but I’ll pay you for your help.”
“Pay me?” Derek laughed. “What, you have a seashell purse down there?”
Araie giggled. “No, silly. I’ll pay you with the only thing I have: secrets.”
“Secrets? Like what?”
“Like anything! Everything you could ever want to know. Secrets are better than money. Even better than fish!”
“That good, huh?”
“You betcha! Isn’t there anything you want? Anything you’ve been working toward? I can give you the edge you need to do your best.”
Derek smiled. “You sound like an infomercial.”
“What’s an infomercial?”
“You’re supposed to know all these mysterious secrets about anything and everything, but you don’t even know what an infomercial is?”
Araie laughed. “Just playing with you, Derek. Come on, give me a little credit.”
Derek stared down at the hatch with his mouth open. Every time he thought he had Araie figured out, she took him by surprise.
“I’ll give you one secret today,” Araie said. “And I’ll give you another one for each day after that. But remember, we have to work quickly.”
“Just tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.”
“We’ll be a great team, I know it!” Araie said.“So what do you want to know for today?”
Derek’s mouth moved without his permission, like the word had been pulled out of him. “Sophie.”
“Nothing,” Derek said. “Never mind.”
“You said ‘Sophie.’”
Derek walked over to one of the walls and slid down it. He rested his arms on his knees and sighed. “This girl I went to high school with. She’s still in town. I’ve been, I don’t know, trying to get close to her, but it’s complicated, and she’s really smart, and I’m—”
“You want some help?” Araie asked. “Just say the word.”
“Don’t you have a rule against this? ‘No interfering in matters of love and free will?’ Something like that?”
Araie was silent. Derek imagined her looking at him and smiling, blinking her large eyes as if to say, “Nope. Why would I?”
“All right, Secret Girl,” Derek said. “Let’s get this show on the road.”
That evening, Derek drove his mother’s van to visit Sophie. He set the large package he was carrying on the step and knocked. Sophie came to the door and smiled sadly when she saw him.
“I’m glad you’re here,” she said. “I owe you an apology.”
Derek put up a hand to stop her. “Say no more. Totally my fault. I should have given you your real present first.”
“Derek, you don’t need to—”
“Sorry,” he said, picking up the large package. “This isn’t negotiable. You are required by law to open this present. If you hate it, I’ll even burst into your house and track down the book I gave you. I’ll take them both back, and I’ll buy myself a big, manly ice cream cone.”
Sophie laughed cautiously.
“Just open it.” Derek held the large, rectangular package out to her.
Sophie set the package back on the step. She began slowly unfastening the tape.
“What are you, my grandmother?” he said. “Come on, rip it apart.”
Sophie laughed. She took a handful of wrapping paper and tore it free—with more than a little satisfaction, Derek thought.
“No way.” Sophie lifted a massive water gun out of the shredded wrapping paper. “This is the biggest water gun I’ve ever seen in my life.”
“Mine’s in the van,” Derek said. “Yours is a little bigger, but I’ll have speed on you. And mine’s already full, so you have until I get back to prepare to defend yourself.”
Sophie’s face lit up with childlike excitement, but immediately, as if someone had thrown a switch, the look vanished. “Jaren will be getting home in a few minutes. So I can’t really—”
He reached into his back pocket and produced a small water pistol. “Let’s hope he’s a good shot.”
Sophie laughed. “Derek, he’s three.”
“Then it’s time he began his training.”
Sophie sat on the step and laughed.
“Laugh all you want,” he said. “But I’ll be back inside of fifteen seconds. There’s a freezing cold gallon of water with your name on it.”
Derek turned and ran toward the van. Sophie scrambled for the hose in the flower bed, cranked on the water, and began filling the tank on the water gun. Derek reached into the back of the van for his own gun.
It was all out war. When Sophie’s sister arrived a half-hour later with Jaren, Derek and Sophie were drenched and filthy. The hose had gotten involved early on, and both of the combatants had taken a spill in the wet grass a time or two. Jaren looked confused when he first arrived, but joined in enthusiastically when Sophie handed him his own gun. Sophie’s sister politely declined to participate, and when Sophie shot her in the butt as she was walking away, the game escalated to a whole new level.
When it was dark, Sophie and her sister took turns in the shower while Derek changed his clothes in the van. Sophie’s sister didn’t say anything, but she smiled at him on her way out the door. Sophie emerged from the shower smelling wonderful and looking cute in her pajamas. She brought Derek a cup of chai tea. Jaren came out of his bedroom once to tell him thank you for the water gun, and Sophie gently led him back to bed with a smile. When she came back out, she plopped down on the couch next to Derek.
“Thank you,” she said. “This is the best birthday I’ve had since I was fifteen.”
Derek smiled. “I was going to make a cake, but you really don’t want me to make a cake.”
A comfortable silence passed between them. Sophie’s expression was softer than Derek had ever seen it.
“I didn’t deserve this,” she said.
“I wanted to make you happy.”
Sophie smiled. “You did. You really did. You want to see something pathetic?”
Derek nodded without hesitation, which made Sophie laugh again. She stood up and went back to her bedroom. She returned with a stack of books. Derek looked at them, one after the other.
“Pride and Prejudice,” he said.
“And those are just the ones I still have,” she said. “People have been giving me classic literature since I was twelve, back when all I wanted was to read R.L. Stine and V.C. Andrews.”
“You’re a smart girl,” Derek said. “I don’t think people can picture you reading The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena.”
“Exactly!” Sophie said. “I mean, my mom’s a career waitress, and Dad’s a cop. Everybody thought I’d be the family’s ticket out of Bluecollarsville. I did too, I guess. But one day I woke up, and my wall was covered in trophies and certificates, and I didn’t own a single book that was any fun. Well, I kept the fun ones in a box.”
He nodded. “Do you know why I liked you in high school? I mean aside from the gorgeous librarian look?”
Sophie laughed. “Why?”
“Because of art class. You were so prim and proper all the time, and then you’d get a hold of a brush and the darkest, most beautiful things would just pour out of you. I would look at you across the room and think, ‘I want to see the world the way she sees it. I want to see her life from the inside.’”
“All that work, and the only thing in my life that’s worth anything came out of my biggest mistake. My life from the inside makes no sense.”
“That’s what I like about it.”
“That and the gorgeous librarian thing,” Sophie said.
“I’m serious. Guys look at you and think, ‘If she just shook her hair loose and took off those glasses—’”
Sophie took off her glasses, pulled the clip out of her hair, and shook it loose. When she kissed him, she did it with her whole body. She folded into him, pressed him into the couch. Derek put his hands in her wet hair, grabbed her shoulders and pulled her hard down on top of him. Sophie was frantic, taking his hands and making him touch her where she wanted to be touched.
But by the time she took off her shirt, Derek wasn’t kissing Sophie. Not anymore.
Araie’s eyes were narrow, their blue almost lost behind long lashes. Her smile was coy and painfully alluring. He leaned in and lost himself, touching her shoulders, kissing her collar bone, her slender neck. Her tail coiled and uncoiled rhythmically along the floor, the lights along its length pulsing slowly. Derek’s hand trailed down her side toward where the skin became dark blue and slick. When his hand met cloth instead, Derek stopped.
“What’s wrong?” Sophie asked.
All of the tension in his body backed up into his veins, where it turned to acid. “Nothing,” he said. He kissed her again, but all he felt now was frustration. He pulled away.
“Seriously, what’s wrong?” Sophie asked.
“I just think we should call it a night.”
She reached out and touched his leg. “We don’t have to stop. It’s okay. I want to.”
But next to Araie, Sophie looked clunky and awkward. Her eyes were too small. Her body was too fleshy, too pink, too dry.
“I just have to go,” Derek said.
“How did it go?” Araie asked.
“A little too well,” Derek said.
“Secrets expose people’s vulnerabilities. You can’t blame Sophie for having them.”
“I know that, but I can’t help but feel a little cheated. I’ve lost some respect for her.”
“Because she decided she liked you?”
“That’s not it,” Derek snapped.
“Isn’t it? You have a pretty low opinion of yourself if you lose respect for a girl because she finds you appealing.”
“I don’t need to hear my own secrets, thank you.”
“I thought you liked this girl.”
He sighed. “She’s just not who I want.”
Aside from the incident with Sophie, things were going well. New cleaning jobs kept Derek’s mother from working on the mansion. She even asked him to take over until she could get the other jobs wrapped up. He would have plenty of time in the coming weeks to repair the tank. An extensive inventory of the basement yielded all the parts he needed. All that remained was the actual manual labor, which he quickly discovered this was more demanding than he had imagined.
Derek set aside an aluminum panel and stared at the monstrous engine beyond. “I can’t do this. I’ll have to take the engine apart before I can even reach the back of it.”
“You have to do it,” Araie said. “Please.”
“I just meant that it’ll be tough. I’ll find a way, Secret Girl.”
Araie giggled. “What do you want for today’s secret?”
Derek grabbed a ratchet and began removing bolts. “I want to know more about you.”
“Me?” She spoke as if she thought herself perfectly ordinary. “What about me?”
“Tell me about your home, your family, things like that.”
“I don’t have a family,” Araie said. “It’s just me.”
“You mean there aren’t any other—” Derek almost said “mermaids.”
As Derek worked, Araie told him about her world beneath the sea. She told him about conversations with whales and stingrays and even krill, who spoke in unison and didn’t have very interesting things to say. She told him about teasing sharks, about luring schools of fish into the depths with the lights on her tail to appease the giants that no human had ever seen. She spoke of epic battles between giant squid and sperm whales, of cathedrals of coral, of underwater caves larger than cities that sparkled with the light of the creatures who lived there. She spoke of the day she had been caught, when dreadful sounds in the world above had drawn her nearer to the surface than she usually dared.
Days passed, and with each one Derek spent his allotted secret learning more about Araie. When he could physically work no longer, when his body shook and his hands bled, he would lean against the hatch, and Araie would sing haunting songs into his mind. One day after dozing off, he noticed the pattern of concentric rings in the dust had returned.
“Are they from vibrations in the water or something?” he asked.
“Is this your secret for the day?” Araie’s voice lilted playfully.
Derek laughed. “Haven’t I earned a freebie?”
“I guess you have. The sand is magnetized.”
“Magnetized? By what?”
“That really will cost you your secret,” Araie said.
He left it alone. He didn’t care enough to sacrifice Araie’s stories. They were the only thing that kept him going, and he was too tired to argue. Sometimes he would look at the motor and its pieces and become almost paralyzed with exhaustion. Somehow each of these parts had a purpose, but right now it just looked like a mess.
I have the blueprints, Derek reminded himself. And I have Araie.
And I plan to keep it that way.
The milk bottle hit the tile and split in half. The explosion was cataclysmic. Derek’s mother spun around.
“I’ll clean it up.” Derek grabbed a rag off the handle of the fridge.
“Nothing. It just slipped.”
“It’s not because your hands are shaking?”
“My hands aren’t—” But they were. How had he not noticed before?
“Are you feeling all right?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m fine. I’ve just been working hard.”
His mother bit her lip. “I went by the mansion yesterday.”
Derek’s whole body tingled and itched. “Oh?” He had wondered when she would bring this up.
“Yeah. I had some time after I finished up the funeral home. It doesn’t look like you’ve accomplished quite as much as I thought.” Her tone was careful, and Derek could tell she was angry, but maybe more worried.
“Yeah, it’s a nightmare,” Derek said. “It has to get worse before it gets better, I guess.”
“It hasn’t gotten worse; it’s exactly the same.”
“I’ve been working in the basement lately.”
She nodded, but she wouldn’t look at him. Her expression spoke clearly enough: If you say so, sweetie. I’ll drop it. For now. “Sophie called,” she said.
Derek sighed. “Again?”
“You should call her back, Derek. Every time she calls, she sounds a little more frustrated.”
“Not my problem.”
“If you care about her, it is your problem. Whether it’s your fault or not.”
He tossed the wet towel in the sink. “Like I said.” He grabbed the keys off the counter, hoping she didn’t notice the way they clinked together in his trembling hand. “Well, I gotta get going.”
“To the mansion.” Her tone was accusatory.
Derek swung around and slammed the wall with his fist. “Yes. To the mansion. To do my job.”
Though he didn’t look at her on the way out the door, Derek could feel her back there, hands on hips, tears standing in her eyes. He hesitated at the door, almost turned around to apologize. But when he thought of Araie lying against the bottom of the tank, struggling to breathe, he took the final step out of the door, out into the day, and didn’t regret his decision in the least.
“More of the usual today?” Araie asked.
“I want to hear about the magnetized sand.” Derek said.
“The sand itself? The mineral composition of it? The total weight? I don’t think I can manage a grain count.”
“You know what I mean.”
Blue lights swirled in the water, but they seemed dimmer, to move slower. Derek hoped it was his imagination.
“It’s because of me,” Araie said. “When I talk to you, it magnetizes things.”
“You’re going to have to back up and explain that.”
“You’ve heard of electric eels?”
“You’re an electric mermaid?” Derek asked.
Araie laughed. “The similarities don’t go very far. They finger paint; I’m Monet. They zap stuff; I step right into your heart and speak to you.”
A thousand little tumblers in Derek’s mind clicked into place. Why he had never thought of it before, he couldn’t say. Did he really think that this conversation was the same for her as it was for him? He only got to see and hear what she showed him, but if she knew all those things about Sophie, if she knew words like “magnetize” and “infomercial” then that meant—
“You can read my mind, can’t you?”
Derek swallowed. “So you know, then. How I feel about you.”
“And you’ve seen—”
“What?” Araie giggled. “The naughty thoughts about me?”
Derek dropped his wrench.
“Derek, I come from a world with no pretenses. The ocean is one big, violent orgy. Everything fights and dies and eats and reproduces. It’s very raw. So if you’re worried you’re going to scare me off just because you’ve been rehearsing mating with me, I wouldn’t worry about it.”
Derek laughed. “Sorry. I’m not sure what to say.”
“When you’re the only one of your kind, you miss out on all the reproducing. The fact that you think of me in that way is kinda nice. It makes me feel special.”
Derek shrugged and laughed at himself again. “Any time.”
That night, when the work was done, Derek fell asleep against the hatch. He dreamed of Araie rising out of the ocean, salt water trickling down her body. The lights along her tail pulsed slowly. When Derek looked away, Araie told him not to, that it was okay to look at her. Derek turned around and looked and followed her into the ocean.
Days passed. Derek’s hands shook worse. Araie’s lights slowed down and eventually disappeared entirely. Her voice was still cheerful and urgent, but quieter somehow. Thankfully, the motor was nearly completed, little more than a day’s work if Derek’s hands cooperated. Sometimes as he worked, he would blank out and stop moving. He would stare into the depths of the engine, squatting silently with a wrench or a screwdriver in his hand. There was nothing in his mind when this happened, and not even Araie could break through. But after a moment or two, Derek’s brain would jump back in, and he would continue his work. He imagined cool, fresh water roaring into Araie’s tank. He pictured her little body heaving as it took in the oxygen rich water, her eyes looking around in delight, her radiant smile. He pictured her swimming to the top of the tank, where he could finally touch her.
Where he would kiss her and tell her that he loved her.
One day, Derek ran into Sophie at the store. He clutched the tubes of sealant he was carrying and tried to hurry past, but she stopped him.
“How are you doing, Sophie.” It wasn’t a question; it was a reflex.
But Sophie answered all the same. “Confused, actually. Worried. Wondering if you’re getting my calls.”
Derek sighed. “I’m really busy. My mom has me working the mansion by myself.”
You don’t look so good.”
He glanced at his grease-stained clothes. “No, I imagine not.” He tried to walk past her and dropped one of the tubes of sealant in the process. He stooped to pick it up and dropped the rest of them. Sophie bent down to help him.
“I’ve got it,” he said.
“Let me help you.” Sophie grabbed three of the tubes and held them for him.
“I don’t want help,” he said. “And I don’t have time to talk. I’ve got to get back.”
“It’s a house, Derek. It’s going to be there. What’s so important that you—?”
Derek pictured Araie at the bottom of the tank, lying in water murky with fish pieces and filth. He pictured her floating dead to the top like a goldfish. He grabbed the tubes of sealant out of Sophie’s hands, managing to hold onto them this time. “I have to go.”
Derek slept at the mansion again. His dreams about Araie had grown gruesome. He would be touching her, kissing her skin when it began to rot beneath his lips. He would look up in time to see her half-skeletal face whisper, “Help me.” He woke up. His cheek was cold from the hatch.
“We’re running out of time,” Araie’s voice said. “I’m scared.”
“I’m here, Araie, I’m here.”
“I need you to keep working,” she said.
Derek tried to stand, but his legs failed him. He fell forward onto the hatch and hit his head. Blood spattered the glass.
Araie’s blue lights flickered in the tank. “Are you okay? Oh, Derek, no. You’re bleeding.”
Derek wiped the blood away. “I’m fine. It’s. Nothing.” He was so tired. Words came in slow bursts. “We’ve got to get that water. Going. For you.”
Derek picked up a tube of sealant and stared at it. It was just a shape. It had no meaning.
“Derek!” Araie shouted. Derek jumped. “I know you’re tired, but there’s no time! I’m getting—” She was crying.
“Do you want a fish brick?”
“No.” Her voice was a pitiful, sad squeak.
Derek took a deep breath. “Listen to me, Secret Girl. We’re tired, and we’re weak, but we’re going to do this. One more day, and I can have this done. I won’t stop until we’re finished, okay?”
She actually sniffed. “Okay.”
“Okay. Team Araie is on the job!”
She laughed through her tears, and Derek got to work.
He worked like a man in a dream. He stared at the green button that would bring the engine to life once it was finished. An hour of work left, maybe two. Araie’s voice grew flighty. It sang songs with no particular tune. Random images leaked into Derek’s mind. He could feel Araie imagining herself swimming free. The sensation drove him to work faster.
Suddenly, as he worked, the light in the other room turned on A female shape appeared in the door.
“Mom, I don’t have time to explain this.”
“Not Mom,” Sophie said.
“Go away.” He tried to keep working, but her presence was like bees in his brain.
“What is this place? What are you doing down here?”
Derek turned his head. “Go away, Sophie. I’m serious. I don’t have the time.”
Sophie’s voice and posture hardened. “I think you need to make the time.”
He stood up and stared at her.
“I know I was an idiot all those years,” Sophie said. “You were right there, and you were so good to me, and now that I’ve come to really like you, you’re doing this to me, and I just can’t make sense of it. Are you punishing me?”
“Can we talk about this later?”
“Just tell me why,” Sophie said. “Why, the moment I begin to feel something for you—”
Derek exploded. “That’s the most important thing, isn’t it? What you feel? A guy throws a couple water guns at you, and you drop your pants. How can anything you feel be worth my time?”
Sophie looked like she’d been slapped. She lowered her voice so he could barely hear. “I know I’m stupid with guys. I thought that things would be different with you, but clearly—”
“They aren’t,” Derek said. “I’m just one more giant dick. Go cry it off.”
Sophie shook her head, sudden clarity in her eyes. She took a step toward him. “This isn’t you, Derek. What’s happening? What’s wrong?”
“I’m done explaining myself.”
“You haven’t explained anything. But you can. Tell me. You were there for me. Now I’m here for you. Let me look at that cut on your head.”
Sophie took a step forward. Araie died again in Derek’s mind, floated to the top of the tank and bobbed limply. His grip tightened on the wrench. “You turn around and walk away, Sophie. I’m giving you three seconds.”
Sophie didn’t flinch. She kept walking toward him, hands out. “I’m not going anywhere.”
In Derek’s mind, Araie rotted and dissolved into the water of the tank.
“One,” he said.
“Count if you want, but I’m not going to leave you,” Sophie said.
“Three,” she finished for him.
Derek swung the wrench and hit Sophie in the arm. Bones cracked, and Sophie screamed and fell against the hatch, her eyes wide.
Derek looked down at the wrench. Up until the moment he’d swung it, he had only been planning to scare her. He hadn’t given his arm permission—it had just moved.
“Get out!” he roared through his tears. “Damn it, just get out!”
Sophie crawled to the door and struggled to her feet, clutching her arm. The look she shot back over her shoulder cut straight through Derek, not because it was accusatory or cold, but because there was nothing but fear in the expression. He thought of the way she had laughed during their water fight.
“I have to save Araie,” Derek whispered. “I have to save her.”
When the last echoes of Sophie’s footsteps faded, Derek threw the wrench across the room and slid down the wall, sobbing.
“Derek,” said Araie.
“There isn’t time.”
Derek picked up the wrench and went back to work. He worked furiously. His whole body shook. He fell down as he worked. He dropped things. Bolts rolled under the motor and he had to fish them out.
“Faster,” Araie said. “There’s no time. They’re coming for you.”
“Sophie’s dad is a cop, remember?”
Derek took one deep breath. He blew all his anxiety out. His hands still shook, but bolts seemed to fasten themselves. Belts wrapped wheels and stretched into place on the first try.
“Faster,” Araie said.
“I can’t go any faster!”
“Damn it, Derek, you better figure out how! If they take you away, I’m going to die in here!”
Derek began to cry, but he didn’t stop working. “I’m trying! We can do this!”
And he tried.
“They’re outside, Derek,” Araie said. “We have to try it. Push the button.”
“But if it’s not finished—”
Araie shrieked. “Push it, damn you, we’re out of time!”
Derek looked for the button and couldn’t find it. The light had burnt out. “No, no.”
“Find it,” Araie said.
Upstairs, a door banged open. Derek felt around for the button, accidentally smearing some of the sealant.
“Find it, Derek!”
“No, no, no! Where is it?!” He reached into his toolbox for his flashlight, but his fingers were numb with wounds and calluses. Everything felt the same. He flung the toolbox across the room.
Footsteps started down the stairs.
Araie’s voice became calm, seductive. “Just find the button and push it, Derek. Then we’ll be together.”
Derek crawled to the toolbox and found the flashlight. The glass was broken. He thumbed the switch. Dead. He howled.
Footsteps echoed from the concrete outside. Voices called his name.
“They’re here.” Araie’s voice was blade-sharp. “Fight them!”
He could barely see through the tears and sweat. Lying on the floor in front of him was a crowbar. He picked it up.
The men with flashlights spoke, but Derek couldn’t make out the words. His mind was full of murder. He turned to face them, the crowbar dangling at his side. More shouting from the men.
“Kill them!” Araie screamed.
Derek stared at the crowbar in his hand—it wanted to move so badly, but he wouldn’t let it. Not this time.
There was a click and a twang, and suddenly his body was not his own. It seized up, pulled in on itself, and a horrible pulsing click shot up and down his limbs. Araie? No, one of the men had used a taser. Derek blacked out.
He felt men handling him, cuffing him.
“Drugs, you think?” said one.
“Did he look sober to you?” said another.
“What was he doing down here?”
“Looks like he was trying to fix that boiler.”
The man chuckled. “To each his own.”
“This ain’t funny,” a third voice said. “That little shit broke my girl’s arm.”
Araie screamed his name over and over. Derek told his body to sit up, to run back and push the green button. But his body was done taking orders.
“I’m sorry,” Derek tried to tell Araie. “I can’t move. I can’t do anything.”
Araie had ceased to be a thinking voice, a loving friend. Now she was a fire that burned in his mind. She threw his name at him like lightning, scorching him. It hurt worse than anything he had ever felt. Lying in the ambulance, Derek tried to lift his hands to cover his ears, but he couldn’t make them move.
The next hours and days were hell. His dreams were fevered nightmares. He saw strange things and distant places, events without context.
A naked Asian man stood on the edge of a cliff and drove a bone knife into an infant. He dropped the bleeding child into the ocean. Blue lights swirled in the water. He gestured madly in the moonlight, eyes rolling, arms flailing as if casting a spell.
Dead soldiers floated in the water, surrounded by pink clouds of blood. The sharks who had gathered to eat scattered when they saw the blue lights rising from the depths. Men were pulled beneath the waves. Pieces surfaced.
A young Clyde Shunt and four other men stalked the decks of a ship, shooting others in United States uniform. On the deck, blood-soaked in the moonlight, the men knelt before a large tank of water.
Speakers blared music, rattling bedroom windows, shaking dirt down from the cracks in the ceiling. Clyde Shunt lay in his bed and watched the clumps of dust fall to the floor. His shaking hands folded the pillow under his head to cover his ears.
Over every image, each nightmare vision, Araie’s voice never stopped shrieking Derek’s name.
Days later, Derek awoke in his cell. He rolled into a sitting position on the edge of his bed. Outside a high, barred window, the moon glowed. He put his face in his hands. He imagined his mother being called in for questioning, the look on her face when they told her what he’d done. He thought of all the things he had said to her about Sophie about how he didn’t care.
He pictured three year-old Jaren signing the cast that wrapped Sophie’s left arm.
Derek collapsed against the wall, his sobs the only sound in the world. That is when he realized Araie’s voice wasn’t calling his name. She was silent. For a moment, relief washed over him, then blistering regret. How could he blame Araie for things his fevered mind had imagined? That was like blaming someone for what they did to you in a dream. And how could he blame her for being frightened? Especially now, when— When she was probably—
Derek’s mother kept her eyes on the road. She wouldn’t look at him. Derek stared out the window. They passed kids playing in a sprinkler, a man waxing a red car, a woman walking a poodle.
“Derek? Are you listening?”
He looked up. “Sorry. I am now.”
“Tuesdays and Thursdays,” his mother said. “Those days are therapy. Mondays you meet with the guy from the police department. Mr. Schmidt, I think.”
“And we have court again on the 18th. Sophie is willing to drop the charges if you’ll keep up with your therapy, but her parents are ready to string you up. We just need to show them you’re getting better.”
“Oh, and your neurologist wants to see you again in two weeks.”
He looked out the window again. Far away on its hill, the mansion stood tall against a blue sky. Seeing it in the daylight, with white clouds overhead, Derek’s mind flooded with thoughts of Araie, his friend, his love, his Secret Girl. He thought of their long conversations, of her stories and songs. He remembered his promises.
The van halted at a stop sign, and Derek threw the door open and ran. His mother called after him. He heard her door slam.
He pumped his legs and filled his lungs and willed the world to fly past him. His mother’s voice was never far behind. He leapt over a terrace and lost his footing, skidding into a curb and scraping his chin. Blood ran down his shirt. He got up and kept running. When he reached a neighborhood, he vaulted fences and ducked under tree limbs. His mother’s voice trailed away. He was losing her.
Derek made his wobbly legs obey him. What he lacked in balance, he made up for in pure will. He scrambled through a patch of cacti, climbing up a steep hill, his palms and knees bleeding. When he reached the top, the mansion was near enough he could see the yellow police tape in front of the door. Derek gritted his teeth and pushed himself harder.
He tore through the tape. He threw himself against the wooden door until it splintered and cracked down the middle. He forced his body through the opening, splinters digging into his skin. Over and over, Derek’s mind chanted a single word:
Araie. Araie. Araie.
He flew down the stairs. The consoles were ablaze with blinking red lights. Tools and plans were still scattered across the floor. Derek found the page for the consoles. He read furiously, following along with his finger. He darted over to the console and mashed down on the black button that would open the hatch. The locks blew with a hiss.
He didn’t care about anything now. He didn’t care how much she weighed, how weak she had become. He would carry her down the cliffs to the ocean. The fresh water, the salt, the blue sky would have to revive her. Derek grabbed the handle of the heavy steel hatch and pulled it open. The water smelled like rotting fish, but he didn’t hesitate. He dove headlong into the murky water. He swam deeper and deeper, groping for an arm or a tail, until finally his body forced him to swim for air. He shot upward, his body jerking involuntarily, fighting him. Finally, Derek burst out of the water and sucked in a breath, arms flailing for the sides. One clumsy hand snagged the edge of the heavy door. It fell, hit him on the head, and snapped shut. The locks hissed closed.
His head buzzed, and he nearly lapsed out of consciousness. When his senses cleared, he was sinking into the depths of the tank. His body screamed for air, but the request seemed far away now. He spotted a thin, silver bubble of air at the top of the tank, maybe enough for one breath, but he would probably never reach it. So he let himself sink. As his eyes adjusted to the murk, he could just make out a slender form at the bottom of the tank. Derek took every last ounce of strength, funneled it into his arms and legs, and swam down to meet her.
Derek wrapped his arms around what felt like Araie’s limp tail. His mind buzzed again. Not yet, he told his body. Not until I’ve seen her. Not until I’ve held her and told her good-bye, and that I’m sorry for breaking my promise.
Derek dragged Araie upward to where the blinking red lights illuminated the water. It felt right, to die here with her. She was everything he wanted, everything in the world that mattered to him. Now that she was gone, he only wanted to follow her. He swung her body up to meet him. Bubbles trickled out of his mouth as he waited for her beautiful form to swing into view, so he could wrap himself up in her arms and kiss her pale lips good-bye. Her hair tickled his arms.
You’re where you belong now, Secret Girl. We both are.
Air shot out of Derek’s mouth. His stomach lurched. Every hair on his body stood straight up. Derek stared into the bloated, white eyes of a massive deep-sea eel. Needle-like teeth bristled from powerful jaws. A flowing mane of external gills swirled lazily in a halo around its head. Derek could not look away. The red lights blinked, and the face disappeared and reappeared, dead eyes staring, sometimes seeming to smile mockingly, other times ready to accuse him, to shriek his name into his mind like bolts of lightning.
He stared until his air ran out. No matter how he squinted, Derek couldn’t make the dead eel look like it loved him.
Steve grew up listening to his dad’s ghost stories and never recovered. He attended Uncle Orson’s Literary Boot Camp in 2009 and currently lives in Oklahoma in a small house full of girls. His stories have appeared in Intergalactic Medicine Show, Redstone, Daily Science Fiction, and others. His nonfiction blog posts have been featured by Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
© 2012 All rights reserved Steven R. Stewart.