“Do you love me? Truly and for real, with all your heart?”
He almost laughs. But gazing into the dark eyes of the wonderful, beautiful, and, admittedly, strange girl he met three months ago, he finds that she is serious.
“Yes,” he answers with a smile, and he means it.
She beams. It’s a rare sight to see her grin. Her elfin face lights up, and her eyes sparkle when she laughs.
“Okay,” she says, excitedly. “I mean, that’s–that’s great. I love you, too.” For all her awkwardness, she means it, too.
He leans in to kiss her. Her lips are warm and soft, and she kisses back softly at first, then deeper. Briefly, he thinks he wouldn’t mind if hers were the only lips he ever kissed for the rest of his life.
Suddenly, she pulls back. The laughter disappears from her eyes.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“You love me?”
“Yes,” he repeats, bemused.
She nods. Not quite looking him in the eye, she wraps her arms around him, leaning her head on his shoulder.
“Then I’m sorry,” she says.
And before he can ask what she means, he feels the sharp, sudden pain of a knife plunged into his back.
Chewing slowly, the girl stares out at the sea. She watches the waves caress the sand and then retreat, over and over and over again. She swallows the last piece and licks the blood off her fingers.
Her lover lies next to her. His ribs are split open, reaching up to the sky like a hand emerging from the gash in his chest. There is a hollow space where his heart used to be. She can still taste it on her tongue.
Scooting closer to the shore, she lowers her bare feet into the water and waits.
The waves lap at her ankles. The tang of flesh and blood is strong in her mouth.
“He wasn’t it, was he?”
The girl flinches, then tries to pretend she hadn’t. She glares at the newcomer over her shoulder. “Go back to Hell,” she snaps.
He grins. He is a tall, lean man, dressed in a sharp, white suit. He looks almost out of place standing on the beach, the sand dusting his polished shoes. But he matches the ominously cloudy sky, she thinks, and the comparison is fitting.
“Scared you, didn’t I?” he taunts.
She turns away to face the ocean again, not giving him the satisfaction of an answer. Neither of them say anything for a few moments.
He murmurs, “It truly is amazing.”
“What is?” Then she winces, silently cursing herself for rising to the bait.
The man flashes her a brilliant smile. “The things a mermaid’s soul can do for my powers. Silently shifting from place to place is just the tip of the iceberg, and much more preferable to all the fire and smoke and the smell of sulfur, in my opinion. And this human form is wonderful. Perfect for getting close to young girls.”
“To take their souls, too?” she says with a quiet anger.
He laughs, the bastard. “No, no, of course not. Their souls are not of any value to me. I tear them apart and desecrate their flesh, and then leave them for their mothers to find.”
The lingering taste of blood in her mouth suddenly makes her nauseous.
“And how are you doing, dear?”
She doesn’t even notice him approach, until she sees him from the corner of her eye sitting down beside her. Instinctively, she inches away.
“Still looking for the love of your life?” He peers at the lifeless body, lying in blood-soaked sand. “So you can take away his life?”
She doesn’t answer. She stares straight ahead at the wide expanse of blue, clutching her hands until her knuckles whiten, wishing the sound of the waves could lull her away.
“How does it feel?” he whispers in her ear. She recoils from him.
“What is that emptiness like? Is it literally hollow, an endless wasteland that traps you in its infinity? Or is it heavy? Does it weigh on you like–well, I can’t compare it to an emotion, since you’ve probably forgotten what those are.”
“I haven’t forgotten,” says the girl, flatly. “I just can’t feel them.”
“Of course. It’s still disappointing, though, considering my follow-up question.”
He pauses for effect, another sly grin tugging at his lips. Tired, she decides to humor him. “What?”
“How does it feel, knowing the one thing you desire is so close yet so far from your reach?”
He draws from his pocket and holds out in front of her a small glass bottle. Swirling and dancing inside is a cloud of blue smoke, shimmering like sunlight on water.
It won’t work. She knows it. But she tries anyway.
She grabs for it.
He yanks it out of her reach just as her fingers brush the glass.
“Uh-uh. It doesn’t work like that, sweetheart. Don’t you remember our deal?”
I don’t remember agreeing to that deal.
“Your heart and soul and tail–everything that made you what you were–belong to me, to do with as I please, until you can find someone who loves you deeply, with a pure heart. And you must devour that pure heart.”
She rolls her eyes. “What does it even mean, a ‘pure’ heart?”
“That’s for you to find out, dear.”
She glances at her latest catch–what’s left of him–and sighs. “I doubt it.”
He shrugs. “Well, there are plenty of fish in the sea.”
“Ha, ha, you’re so funny.”
“Not to encourage you or anything, but there are billions of people walking on this pathetic surface world.”
“I can’t keep eating human hearts. My butt’s getting bigger.”
“Try that exercise thing everyone’s talking about. Get out, stretch your legs a little.”
“You’re hilarious,” she deadpans again.
He stands up, brushing sand off his slacks. “As far as I’m concerned, you’re gonna be stuck like this for a while. Why not try to enjoy it a little?”
“Easy for you to say.”
He smirks. “I suppose. I’ve never had a soul to begin with, so I wouldn’t know what it’s like to lose one.”
“Hmm,” she mutters.
“And you could argue that I got the better end of this bargain. Speaking of bargains…” He glances at his watch. “I have appointments to keep. Girls to see, ill-advised decisions to coerce them into making–I’m a busy, busy man.”
For now, she thinks. When I take back what’s mine, you’ll be nothing but an imp again and I will squash you.
“Have fun,” she tells him.
But he’s already gone. She sits alone in the sand, watching and listening to the rhythm of the waves.
The water has left her feet cold and numb.
Eventually, she rises, stretches her limbs, and sets to work hauling the body into the ocean.
One down, billions more to go.
Plenty of fish in the sea.
Maybe she would try online dating.
Ellen Chao, Age 17, Grade 12, Frank Sinatra School of the Arts High School, Silver Key