This is dedicated to Kÿndra, who gave me the seed for the story. More importantly, she makes everyone around her a better person.
So, my English teacher suggested a thing. That thing is to write down some of the stuff that happens to me. I think he’s pretty sure I need therapy or something, but whatever. I’m fine. He claims that sometimes it helps to process stuff when you can see it on paper. I’m not sure what he means by that. Like, I lived through it? All the processing in the world won’t change things.
So here I am, bored with nothing better to do, so I figure, why not? At least if I do this maybe I’ll have cheat sheets for when I’m old and need to tell stories in the home I get put in.
So, I guess this is the wackiest thing that ever happened to me, and it’s totally not even believable, so why not start there?
The thing you need to know about this, it was totally not my fault. The Turners are just too good for themselves. They’re from this weird church that are mostly awesome, except they don’t do any kind of thaumaturgy, not even to keep track of where their kids are. (Which is something parents do, even though every kid learns how to make it look like they’re somewhere else in like, third grade, so what’s the point?)
Unlike most of the weird fundamentalists, they don’t hate it, they’re just like “Oh, it’s not for us.” They even let their kids learn the theory behind it, they just can’t actually do it. They don’t ever get preachy, and Mr. Turner actually invited me to church with them once, and when I hesitated, he was all “It’s alright, you don’t have to, but if you ever want to, blah blah blah, don’t worry you can still hang out with my son.”
So when they invited me to go camping with them, I was all for it. They were just going up to Nehalem Bay for a few days. Mom works a lot, and they knew that Dad was out of the picture, so I think maybe they wanted me to have some sort of essential kid experience.
Everything was great, we were all having fun and junk, and Ez I and I even managed to mostly stay out of trouble even though we’ve been best friends since always. On Sunday they had to drive for a couple of hours to get to a church, which meant I had a good chunk of the day all for me, which is cool, except it’s also really boring when you’ve gotten used to doing all the stuff with your best friend.
Okay, so I took the canoe out without a buddy, that’s a fair point. Maybe this whole thing was a little my fault. But I’m still blaming the Turners, because they took me there, and had a canoe, and it’s totally their fault a merperson stole my phone.
Right now, you’re probably thinking that I’m a stupid teenage kid trying to sound totally cool by making up a story about merpeople. Yes, I’m a teenager, and I have been know to do stupid things from time to time, but this happened. You can check on Instagram if you don’t believe me.
Anyway, I was out on the bay, because I may be a city kid, but that doesn’t mean I can’t paddle a canoe, and I really like the water, and I was bored. Ez and I had been out a bunch of times, and when we figured out that there was a spot that actually had decent cell signal, we started taking selfies on the water, because reasons. I’d paddled out there mostly to check Tumblr, because signal on the beach was crap and I was going through withdrawals.
Right in the middle of reblogging some comic book stuff, I hear this voice and almost tip the canoe over.
“Watcha doin’?” it said, and I’d never heard anything like it. It was kind of high-pitched, and the inflection was just, weird, off, like someone who didn’t speak English and had only ever read it.
So, I’m trying not to end up in the water and looking around like an idiot because seriously, how do you sneak up on someone in a boat? when I see a head poking out of the water. The first thing I notice is the long hair. The second is that the face is sleeker than usual, like it’s some sort of high-speed, low-drag face. Then I noticed the greenish skin, really light green, like the kind of green that looks like a good idea on a tee shirt but makes you look horrible.
“Uh, checking my phone?” I said, because I’m a master of the obvious. I couldn’t even think of anything else to say.
“Okay.” the voice said, only it sounded more like oh-kee. “That’s the thing you use instead of singing, right? To say stuff to people really far away?”
That finally made me realize that I was talking to a merperson.
“Uh, yeah? I guess. I mean, it lets me talk to people really far away.” That’s me, master of sounding like a dumbass. “That sounds stupid. Sorry. I’ve just never talked to a merperson before, so I might sound like an idiot.”
The merperson made a noise, which I guessed was laughing, because they were smiling.
“It’s okay.” they smiled, and they had way too many teeth. “Most leg people I try to talk to just make noises and talk too loud.”
“People can be jerks.” They looked confused, so I tried again. “Uh, they can be rude and mean for no reason, I guess. Especially around someone different from them.”
The merperson just nodded, like they totally understood.
“Jerk. That’s a good word for bad people.” they said.
“So, my name is Kim. What’s yours?”
“Uh, you can’t really say my name without being in the water…” they replied, kind of sad sounding, maybe? “Maybe you could call me Nell?”
“Nice to meet you, Nell.” I smiled then, because seriously, I was talking to a merperson, and that was pretty awesome.
“Where is your other person?” Nell asked.
“Oh, Ez? He had to go to church.” Nell had that confused look again. Merpeople don’t really talk to us that much, because people are jerks and we used to do all sorts of shitty things to them. We still do, really.
“It’s where we go to talk to God.” I explained.
“Don’t you have anything to talk to God about?”
I didn’t really know how to answer that. God and I didn’t really have a relationship. I had a bunch of questions, but none of them had any answers in the bible, at least not any useful ones. I must have shrugged or something, because Nell dived down really fast, and I caught a glimpse of their tail, which was kind of reddish and seemed like maybe it had a pattern, but Nell was moving too fast for me to get a good look. A second later their head resurfaced, closer to the boat.
“I’m sorry.” Nell said, “Was that jerky of me? I don’t want to be jerky.”
“No!” I said, way too quickly. “It’s just, some people don’t like talking about that stuff, and I’m one of them. It’s not a big deal, though! We could talk about something else.”
Nell nodded, then cocked their head to one side. They were keeping most of their body under the water, and their face was really sleek, but I wasn’t sure if they were a mermaid or a merman. That kind of bothered me, but not as much as it bothered me that it was bothering me. I try to be better than that, because I don’t want to be jerky.
It must have been bothering Nell, too.
“Are you a boy person or a girl person?” they asked.
I did not freak out, because unlike sometimes when I get asked that, there was absolutely no malice in Nell’s voice. The problem was, when someone is being a jerk, I have an answer. This time, I didn’t, really.
Nell must have picked up on my problem, because they dived down again, and came up looking, worried, maybe?
“Did I ask something jerky again? I don’t talk to leg people very often. I’m not trying to be jerky.”
They looked like, well, not like they were going to cry, because why would merpeople even be able to cry, but like they were really ashamed of themselves and if they had tear ducts they might cry.
“It’s okay.” I tried to sound really reassuring, and I guess it must have worked, because Nell relaxed a little. “It’s not a jerky question at all, it’s just the way you said it made it seem a little jerky.”
Nell went back to looking confused, and started sort of sinking down, their chin breaking the water. I didn’t want them to be confused, so I just started talking.
“Most people I know are either boys or girls, and you can tell them apart because of the way they dress, or how their body is shaped and it’s not a big deal, right? So most people never have to ask. Some people, though, they get born in a boy body, but they aren’t really a boy, so they dress like a girl and try to change their bodies so that they’re more like the body they know they were supposed to have. Some boys are born with girl bodies, and they do the same thing.”
I paused, but Nell didn’t freak out. They obviously kind of got it, at least.
“People like that, who got born in the wrong body, well, a lot of people are jerks at them. They get called names, sometimes they get beat up. It’s really scary, being born in the wrong body. When you ask someone if they’re a boy or a girl, it can sound like you’re going to be a jerk.”
I’d figured out now that merpeople expressions were pretty close to human expressions. Nell looked horrified.
“Yeah, it sucks. So, trans people, the people who got born in the wrong body, sometimes jerks ask them if they’re a boy or a girl. And no matter how they answer, it the wrong answer. So, asking someone like you did can seem really jerky.” I paused. “I don’t think you were trying to be a jerk, though.”
Nell shook their head. They seemed like they were still trying to figure the whole thing out.
“How do you ask, then? I don’t want to be a jerk.”
“The way most people do it, they ask ‘How do you identify?’, because your own identity is something that’s more real than what other people say about you.”
Nell nodded. They put their arms up on the canoe, crossed. The boat kind of rocked, and Nell moved their body, and they must have been using their tail to keep the canoe from flipping over.
“Kim,” they said carefully, “how do you identify?”
I tried to make my face really neutral. I must have been a little successful, because Nell waited patiently.
“Well, Nell,” I took a deep breath, “I don’t know.”
Nell didn’t say anything, but they didn’t look confused, either. If I was right about merperson expressions being close to people expressions, they looked like they were sad for me.
“I was born a boy, and I don’t think I’m a girl on the inside.” I said, and it was really strange. I’d never said any of this out loud before.
Nell reached out, and gently touched my arm. They smiled, and didn’t try to make me talk.
“I think…I guess I think I must be like, part girl? Because I think about doing girl stuff, and being more girly, but I also like boy stuff and I don’t want to be either sometimes…
“That’s why I kind of freaked out when you asked me if I was a boy or a girl. I’ve met a lot of jerks, and I guess I don’t look or act enough like a boy, because the ask that a lot.” I didn’t add that sometimes they asked with their fists.
Nell squeezed my forearm, and I smiled at them. Even though I’d never said anything, to anyone, ever, I’d been thinking it for as long as I could remember. Putting it in to words made it more real, somehow. Before, I could just pretend that I was just a regular dude. Now, though…
Nell must have picked up on my imminent freak out, because before I could finish the thought they pushed themself further up into the boat and pointed at my phone.
“You and your friend, you’re always pointing those things at yourself. Why do you do that?”
“It’s for selfies!” Yeah, not talking about my weird boy-girl thing was kind of nice.
Nell nodded like that made perfect sense. I’ve done that often enough to know that they had no idea what I was talking about. I pulled up the camera and smiled.
“See, you hold it up, and then push this,” I tapped the screen and heard the snap, “and then you’ve got a picture of yourself!” I showed them the screen, where I was grinning like an idiot.
Nell started clapping and I heard a click-click-click noise, kind of like someone typing really fast. It took a second, but I realized that they were giggling.
Quicker than I could see, Nell grabbed my phone and pushed off from the canoe. They were holding the camera up and snapping away, making faces and looking more excited than I had seen anyone in a long time.
Nell swam back, making sure to hold the phone out of the water, which was really sweet. They were sort of staring at the most recent picture. They handed the phone back to me, picture still on the screen.
They were sticking their tongue out of the side of their mouth, and had crossed their eyes. Their hair was kind of plastered to the side of their head. They looked really happy. Then I had a brilliant idea.
“Hey, these are great!” I said. “But if you want, this thing is waterproof, as long as you don’t go too deep…”
They grabbed the phone again and dove straight down. I got another look at their tail, and this time I a decent look at the pattern. It had a white stripe on either side, and the scales glistened in the sunlight. There was almost no splash as their tail disappeared, and I was kind of jealous, because I’m on the swim team and if I could hit the water like that, Coach Kyle would freak out in a good way for once.
I resolved not to worry, but after a few minutes, it was getting hard. My phone case was supposed to be impervious to water, but water always wins eventually. I was getting ready to stick my head in the water when Nell came up, giggle-clicking like people claim schoolgirls do.
“Sorry I was down so long.” they said. “It took a while to get the currents to play along with my hair.”
They handed me the phone. I pulled up the pictures, and Nell looked amazing. The sunlight lit up the water, but not too much. They were smiling, and their hair was spread out around them like a halo. It was the single best looking selfie I’d ever seen.
“This is amazing!” I said. “It looks really good!”
Nell smiled again, but it was kind of sad.
“Thanks. I’m glad I got to take it. And I’m glad someone got to see it.”
I thought about it for a minute. I knew merpeople didn’t have much in the way of electronics, because water, but I didn’t know much else.
“You don’t have cameras, do you?” I asked.
They just shook their head.
“What do you do for pictures?” I asked.
“We have, I think they’re called mosaic? Where you take a bunch of small bits and make them a picture? But they take a really long time to make.”
“I’m going to ask another kinda stupid question.” Nell looked at me, confused. “Do you live around here?”
Convincing Mr. Turner to take me in to town was tough, but he eventually caved when Ez pointed out that they needed s’more fixings anyway. Finding a copy shop that was open was tough, but not impossible.
We got back to camp, and neither Ez or his dad asked too many questions. When I said it was kinda private, Mr. Turner just kind of dropped it, and Ez let it lie, probably assuming I’d tell him later, even though I never did and he never asked why there were suddenly merpeople in my Instagram feed.
The sun went down, and we lit a fire and cooked hamburger à la foil. Then there were s’mores, of course. It was late, and we were packing up pretty early the next morning, so everyone kind of turned in.
I excused myself, grabbed the package I’d got in town and walked down over the dunes to the beach. I waded out a bit and the cold water hit me like a punch to the stomach. I pulled up the audio that Nell had recorded and hit play.
It took a few minutes, but then I saw them break through the water’s surface. They were smiling.
“Okay, Kim. I’m here. What is so important?” they asked.
“So, that picture was really great.” I started. “And you said it was really hard to make mosaics. So I did a thing.
“I don’t know how long it’ll last, and I have a couple ideas on how to get something a bit more sturdy, but until then, I wanted you to have this.”
I handed them the printout of their selfie. I’d had it laminated, then laminated it again, then I laminated it one more time to be sure.
Nell stared at it for a moment. Then she flung her arms around me and wrapped me up. I was off-balance, and I slipped and we both ended up in the water. Nell didn’t let go, but they made sure my head didn’t go under.
Eventually, they broke off the hug. I laughed, and they hugged me again, a little less intensely.
“Thank you, Kim.”
“You’re welcome. Like I said, I’m trying to think of a way to get you a copy that isn’t going to dissolve or float away or anything.”
“I hope you find your identity.” they said quietly.
“Can I ask something?”
“I don’t know a lot about leg people names, but isn’t Kim usually a name for girls?”
“It’s short for Kimball. But I don’t really like how Kimball sounds, you know? So I just sort of insisted that it get shortened.”
“Oh.” They looked at me. “By the way, you never asked me, but I thought you should know. I identify as a girl.”
She kissed me, then. Not in a sexy way, just on the cheek.
“I have to go.” she said, “But if you ever need to talk, come back here. I’ll keep an ear open for you.”
“Thanks. Talking with you has been really cool. And probably really good for me and junk.” I smiled at her. “Thanks for being you.”
“It’s the only person I can be.” she said, and slipped beneath the water.
So that’s the story of how a mermaid convinced me that I’m not really a dude, but not really a chick either. I’m still trying to figure out the details, and it sucks a lot of the time. I’m working on getting up the nerve to tell Ez, but that might take a while.
But I’m trying really hard to be the only person I can be.