November 29, 1962
Damp and heavy-limbed, nine-year-old Annie Bartlett jerked awake beneath her father’s chin. The scent of pine needles and lake mud snaked through jalousie windows. Lying still, Annie breathed her father’s expelled air, and thought of mermaids.
They lurked in Widow Lake, she was sure of it. She had only to unlock the mystery of breathing underwater, and her own transformation would be complete. Her mother, who used to be a professional skier at Cypress Gardens, claimed to know the secret to breathing underwater. She spent time with Annie in the lake, whispering words that awed and excited: “Learning takes time, but if you are truly dedicated, and want to breathe underwater more than anything in the world, you will succeed and become a mermaid.”
Annie could hardly wait for her next lesson. Once changed, she would fly unencumbered in that quiet, watery world, free of the restless tensions that permeated the Bartlett household and insinuated Annie’s dreams. Instinctively, she moved her ankles together, as when kicking water behind.
Her father stirred, and Annie froze. If he woke, he would order her from bed. Annie was too big to be crawling into bed with Daddy, but in her own bed, she dream-twisted. Her older sister, Leigh, drove her out as well, ordered Annie to stay on her own side of the room. Only her mother tolerated Annie’s knees and elbows, but Helen worked nights, didn’t arrive home until first light, now breaking. Annie would scoot when she heard the front door creak.
Her mother had been strange, lately. During the day, she roamed about the house there-but-not-there, blackout mask pushed to her forehead. When Annie talked, her mother stared as if she didn’t know where Annie had come from.
Leigh appeared in the doorway. “Get up,” she whispered, and gestured to Annie. “He’ll be mad.”
“Is Mom home?” Annie whispered back.
Leigh shook her head. Annie slipped from bed.
At thirteen, Leigh looked taffy-pulled: arms and legs too long, middle stretched thin. Her musk, both sweet and sour, was new. She was blonde and fair skinned, unlike dark Annie, with alert, suspicious eyes constantly surveying their father. Leigh had lately taken to calling him Ed.
“Get ready for school,” said Leigh. She stood flamingo-like before the full-sized mirror, one foot resting high on the other leg.
“But where’s Mom?” asked Annie.
“Late, I guess.”
“She’s never late.”
“Then I guess she’s dead.”
Leigh rarely spoke unless in sarcasm. Annie ducked the blow, and dressed for school. In the kitchen, she stood before the sliding glass door and looked at the lake, holding the white rabbit coat she got for her birthday. The newly hatched sun, already stoking, stirred the mist atop the water. November, and not even cold. Annie had been waiting weeks to wear her new coat, but it seemed this Indian summer would never move on. Her father complained, too. When it was warm like this, no one used furnaces, and he didn’t deliver fuel oil in the truck.
“Where’s your mother?”
Annie turned. Her father stood scratching. “I don’t know. She’s not dead.” Annie liked to say shocking things. Her father looked, and for those few seconds, was hers. She smiled.
“You want cereal?” Annie nodded. “Sit down, then.”
Ed looked at the stove clock. “I guess I’ll have to drive you to school in the oil truck.”
“Leigh hates the oil truck.”
“Leigh hates everything,” Ed muttered. He dialed while opening a milk carton one-handed. “This is Ed Bartlett. I’m looking for my wife. Is she still there?” Annie crunched corn puffs. “Well, if you hear from her, would you tell her to call home?’ He hung up.
Annie put on her rabbit coat.
“You don’t need that coat today, Annie. It’s going to get real hot.”
“But I want to wear it.”
Leigh glided into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door. “It’s her coat, “ she said. “Go ahead and wear it if you want to, Annie.”
Ed scowled. “When did you become head of this household?”
A soft light bathed Leigh’s face as she peered into the fridge. Ed pointed his chin at Annie. “Take off the coat. I told you, it’s too hot. Now, take it off, c’mon.”
Leigh slammed the refrigerator door. Annie looked at her.
“Just do it before he has a hissy.”
When Annie removed the coat, Ed seemed to implode. With controlled fury, he asked, “Did you take it off because I told you to take it off, or because Leigh told you to take it off?”
It was a trap. Annie didn’t know in which direction to step.
“Put it back on,” Ed commanded.
Annie blinked, confused.
Leigh took her sister’s hand. “Come on, Annie.”
“I said, put it back on.” Annie looked at Leigh. “Don’t look at your sister, look at me.” Annie looked at Ed. “Put it back on.” Annie slid her arms into the coat. Ed looked at Leigh, triumphant.
Stepping outside was like entering a closed-up car, and it wasn’t yet eight-thirty. Ed opened the passenger door of the fuel oil truck, urged the girls inside. Annie’s white rabbit coat dusted the seat as she slid.
Leigh stepped up, then pointed. “Hey, Ed, there’s mom’s car.”
Sure enough, Helen’s green Falcon sat parked in the front driveway. Ed blinked at it. “Get in,” he said, already moving toward the car.
Leigh called after him. “I don’t want to get in if we’re just going to sit here.”
Ed, head inside the Falcon, didn’t answer. Calling Helen’s name, he moved briskly to the house. Annie climbed from the truck, looked inside her mother’s car. On the passenger seat, her mother’s nurse’s uniform lay in a white heap, cushion-soled shoes on top.
Annie went into the house, stopped before the sliding glass door. Outside, Leigh crept into her peripheral vision. Annie followed her point. Lake fog, like velvet curtains, lifted, and suddenly Ed was running.
“Get back!” he called to Annie, who chased behind. “Get back in the house!”
Ed barged into the water, then dove. Six minutes later, he pulled his drowned wife onto mud-soaked grass and collapsed beside her. Leigh howled as if being wrenched into some unholy thing.
Annie looked at her wet, naked mother on the grass. She was not fooled. Her mother knew how to breathe underwater. She had become a mermaid, that was all. Annie shed her coat and draped it so that, when she woke, her mother would not be cold.
In the weeks following the funeral, Helen appeared to Annie in Widow Lake, a luminous cloud in the distance. When Annie swam toward her, Helen retreated. Annie followed until Leigh jumped in with an inner tube, and gave her holy hell for working herself into the middle of the lake.
“I was trying to swim to Mom.”
“We’ve been over this, Annie. Mom’s dead. She’s gone.”
“No. She breathed underwater, and became a mermaid.”
“There’s no such things as mermaids. Mom drowned, she did it on purpose, and it’s Dad’s fault.”
“No! She didn’t do it on purpose! She loves us!” Annie pushed from the inner tube, flailed toward deep water.
Leigh clamped a wrist and pulled Annie onto the inner tube. “Listen to me!” Leigh’s tone forced Annie’s eyes open. “I am very sorry Mom died. I’m going to miss her, too. But if you don’t stop this craziness, I won't let you sleep in my bed anymore.”
Annie could imagine nothing worse than being banished from her sister at night, when she most needed her. She stopped talking, but she didn’t stop seeing. There was Helen in white uniform on the school playground, peeking from behind a distant oak; at the end of a grocery isle holding a box of cereal. The appearances relieved Annie’s longing. She trusted her mother, too, knew, for instance, she would not jump out and yell “boo!” or turn into a skeleton hung with bits of rotting flesh. Slowly, Helen came closer. One day, she spoke.
Annie smiled. Of course it would be their little secret. Of course.
Helen told Annie she was spending too much time with Ed. If Annie insisted on being friends with her father, Helen would not come to her again. Annie argued, but her mother was firm. Annie must stop riding in the fuel oil truck, stop kissing Ed goodnight. It would be difficult at first, but Annie must understand, as Leigh did, that Ed had made them unhappy, and did not deserve her love. Only her mother deserved such devotion. After all, she had chosen Annie, would talk to no one else. Didn’t Annie want her to stay?
That night, Ed put his hand on Annie’s head, and she pulled away. He didn’t seem to notice, but Leigh did, and made room for Annie in her bed. Each time her father entered a room, spoke, reached for her, another heartstring broke, until, in time, Annie no longer felt the tug.