Kathryn Michael McMahon
The great white who bit the salt-and-pepper-haired man on the foot would soon come to regret this impulse. The man flailed in the water and his wife watched, marveling at how he had managed to spill cranberry juice all over the breakers. Someone got out his phone to film it and she shouted at him, shouted for help, and smacked his phone into the sand. Some strangers came and risked their own lives, they would tell the news reporter, their own lives, and limbs, she would add, and they pulled the man out. An ambulance took him to the hospital. The man received a bionic foot with incredible sensors. The news reporter who had interviewed the strangers who’d risked their lives (and limbs) also did a follow-up with the man with the bionic foot. He told her he wondered whose idea it was to allow him to feel the gravel on the driveway. The news reporter surprised herself when she gave him her number. Their affair lasted two months until the heat of it collapsed upon its discovery.
Too angry thinking about the great white, the bionic man’s wife had not noticed the news reporter hit on her husband. Then she was culling mutilated socks from her husband’s drawer and she found a receipt bearing inky-blue, ultra-feminine numerals. Her husband blamed the affair on his foot and she blamed it on the shark. Neither blamed it on the reporter because she wore stage makeup and they agreed she must’ve been lonely.
The cheater’s wife decided on a course of divorce and revenge. She first learned to steer a boat and throw a harpoon, but that didn’t feel dangerous enough. She then learned to scuba dive, but disliked the mechanical octopus on her back. She turned to free diving and spearfishing. She knew she had made the right decision when she could stay underwater for ten minutes, twirling her hair like a mermaid, a mermaid years younger.
The great white who’d bitten the mermaid-woman’s husband felt guilty for her pain. When he told himself he’d thought the man was a seal, he was lying; he just hadn’t liked the way he’d talked to her and then chatted up the Spring Breakers half his age. The shark wanted to apologize, but her spear gun made him nervous.
An ex-wife celebrated her first alimony check with a cranberry cocktail and a rental right on the beach. Though small and rundown, it was all she needed to swim and twirl whenever she wanted. She bought a silicone tail, blue and green, that went over her hips, past the appendicitis scar and stretchmarks. Her spear gun grew dusty on the shelf and she finally sold it on Craigslist.
The woman bought books and learned about mollusks and starfish and the difference between male and female horseshoe crabs (size, the female is longer). She swam past the breakers, splashing into the unknown. The long arcs of her arms grew strong while her fingers pruned to pits.
The shark watched her twirling hair like seaweed and learned that she liked to swim every day at seven a.m., except in the rain. She was not afraid of a little rain, he later found out, but she knew sharks like him were drawn to the chaos of fresh and salt. Even though he liked her new tail and that she didn’t carry a spear gun anymore, he still felt uncertain about approaching her, so he watched her from the depths where the pressure matched his heart.
One day when he could bear it no more, he swam up with his best smile and said, “I’m sorry.” He was so nervous, he forgot to breathe.
The woman by now had realized that a shark was not to blame for her husband’s cheating capabilities. “You should’ve bitten him higher up.”
The great white had started sinking, but at her answer, he shot to the surface and breached, which cleared the beaches for weeks.
No one had ever leaped for her before, so when he asked if she wanted a ride, she said yes. She gripped his dorsal fin, and the denticles of his skin felt like a freshly trimmed beard. He was big — three times her size — yet he taught her to hunt from the depths with stealth. But he never dove too deep because he knew even though she was strong, she was still just a mammal.
She soon gave up wearing her tail, preferring the kick of her legs. They began swimming together every day, even in the rain, because with him, no one bothered her, and besides, they both liked how rain made them feel safe and alive. She missed him during thunderstorms and after the skies cleared, she would wade back into the water, looking for him with his broad, white belly just as he looked for her with her twirling algae-hair. When they found each other, she would greet him with a kiss to his nose, where the nerves were sensitive, and he tingled all over.
One day, she splashed up to him and she’d cut off almost all her hair (it had started breaking apart in the saltwater). She was slipping away; no more tail, and the hair, he thought, was her last anchor to the sea, to him. “I wish you could stay down here longer. Can you get gills?”
The woman thought about what he was really asking, which might’ve been a tad soon, but the freedom of gills appealed to her, and, anyway, her landlord had been slow about fixing the leak in her roof. So she said, “That’s a great idea.”
She went home, fingertips eroded into canyons, and looked on the internet for “best local plastic surgeon” and made an appointment for a consultation.
When the receptionist told the plastic surgeon that his two o’clock wanted chest work done, he was not surprised, because even though it was boring, it was his bread and butter. But when the pretty woman came in, he furrowed his brow. She carried herself with a severity that did not normally accompany a woman trying to pump her chest full of self-esteem.
“What can I do for you?”
She pointed to her ribs. “I would like to get gills.”
The surgeon almost dropped his clipboard. He’d heard of patients wanting O-cup breasts and fewer toes and even cat whiskers, but this was new. “Why?”
“I want to be a mermaid.”
He looked at her face that caught the sun and kept it and he agreed, knowing she would make him famous.
The woman who would be a mermaid returned to the sea and found her shark. “It’s going to take six months before I can go back in the ocean. They need to re-route blood vessels and add a special coating to my lungs.”
All he heard was, “Six months.”
“It’ll be over before you know it.” She pet his nose and he was a sea sponge in her hands.
The surgery was long. In the black, she dreamed of fish flickering in sunlight, dancing for their own splendor.
During recovery, the surgeon came to check on her every day and she began to look forward to the smell of his aftershave, which was not something she had ever smelled at the beach. Come to think of it, underwater she could never smell anything, anything at all.
Because she was not a cheater like her ex-husband, she decided to tell the shark they were through. She met him at high tide and he came right up to the shore, which cleared the beaches, except for her, kneeling in the sand.
Had six months come and gone so fast? “Are you ready?”
“No.” She wanted children and adoption was not an option she felt comfortable with and, anyway, this was all for fun; it wouldn’t’ve worked out between them.
She stood and clutched her chest because her new gills ached and he thought it was her heart, so he watched her go, kicking crests of sand in goodbye. She did not turn back.
She’d shot out of the ocean, breaching his trust, and then the tide left without him. He realized a few moments too late that watching her walk away had been a subconscious act of self-destruction. He struggled to breathe and the more he wriggled, the further he wedged himself into the sand. There was no one around to help; to risk their lives (or limbs), but when people returned the next day, they found a dead shark and said, “Cool,” and took pictures with it. An enterprising man charged the town to get rid of the shark and he took out its teeth and cleaned them and dried them and sold them.
The plastic surgeon who had checked on the woman every day had done so because he wanted to avoid a lawsuit but also because he wondered what it would be like to make love to a woman who didn’t have to use her mouth for breathing. He was glad she hadn’t asked for a tail because it would’ve probably killed her and if it hadn’t, it would have definitely impeded the lovemaking. He discovered her kisses tasted of seawater, which was the first time she hadn’t surprised him and he liked that she could do both.
She, too, enjoyed new surprises; her healed gills were erogenous zones in their own right. In his pool, she discovered a disconnect from air benefited her. Upside down, blood rushing to her head, she pushed into the side of his pool, rough and prickly, and thought of her shark until she thought of nothing but the crest of the wave starting in her toes.
The woman who would’ve been a mermaid did not return to the ocean much. The surgeon would’ve wanted to join her and she didn’t want him losing a foot or worse. And her guilt repelled seawater.
Though the surgeon knew nothing of the shark, he knew she missed the sea. One day after stopping at the convenience store for more condoms (the receptionist had required his spare), he stopped at the souvenir shop next door and bought his mermaid a shark tooth pendant.
She wore it both because he had given it to her and because no sharks had recently cleared the beaches, so she knew it was her great white. She wore it between her breasts, sharp between soft, and once in a while it would scratch her. Then she’d stroke the serrations and examine her gills in the surgeon’s full-length mirror and think of what would’ve, could’ve, never should’ve been.
KATHRYN MICHAEL MCMAHON writes literary and speculative fiction. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Subtopian, A cappella Zoo, and Apocrypha and Abstractions. She is an American raised abroad and has found a home in Vietnam where she works as a preschool teacher. Sadly, this has failed to cure her phobia of stuffed animals.