Each to Each The last words he had absorbed were the ones about Lazarus, come back from the dead to tell everyone . . . everything. That was all wrong, bogus. If you’ve seen death from the inside, Dorian thought, you keep your mouth shut. You don’t say a word to anybody. They wouldn’t understand you anyway.
"Dorian? Can you continue?"
He looked up, blank. Images of plummeting bodies still streaked through his head.
" ‘ Shall I part . . .’ " Mrs. Muggeridge prompted. Dorian pulled himself up from terrible daydreams and forced his eyes to focus on the page in front of him. Acting normal was a way to buy himself the privacy to think not so normally. He found the line and cleared his throat.
" ‘ Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?’ " His voice sounded too fl at. He tried to squeeze more emotion into it, though the words seemed uninteresting. " ‘I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.’ " Now Dorian saw what was coming in the next line and started to panic. He struggled to suppress the memory of those dark eyes looking at him from the center of a wave, the gagging taste of salt, that unspeakable music. Did Mrs. Muggeridge have any idea what she was doing to him? " ‘I have heard the mer . . .’ " He choked a little. " ‘The mermaids singing, each to each.’ " Now there was an audible tremor in his voice, and something rising in his throat that felt like a throttled scream.
"Please read to the end."
" ‘I do not think that they will sing to me!’ " Dorian spat it out aggressively and dropped the book with a crash. The rest of the students in the tiny class were staring, too shocked to laugh. But what did they know, anyway? "This poem is garbage! It’s all lies!"
"Dorian . . ."
"If he’d heard the mermaids singing, he wouldn’t be blathering on like this! He would be dead! Is this poem just trying to pretend that people don’t have to die?"
Mrs. Muggeridge didn’t even look angry. Somewhere between alarmed and amused.
"If you could read on to the end, Dorian, I think you’ll see that T. S. Eliot isn’t trying to evade intimations of mortality." Students started snickering at that. She always used such weird words. It was a mystery to him how Mrs. Muggeridge had wound up in this town. She was even more out of place than he was, with her dragging black clothes and odd ideas.
"No!" Dorian didn’t remember getting out of his chair, but he was standing now. His legs were shaking violently, and the room seemed unsteady. Mrs. Muggeridge looked at him carefully.
"Maybe you should step out of the room for a few minutes?" He couldn’t understand why she had to react so calmly. It wasn’t fair, not when she’d made him read those horrible lines. He stalked out of class, leaving his English anthology with its pages splayed and crushed against the floor. In the hallway he pressed his forehead against the cold tile wall. His breathing was fast and hungry, as if he’d just come up from under the deep gray slick of the ocean.
He could hear Mrs. Muggeridge serenely reading on. " ‘We have lingered in the chambers of the sea, by sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown. Till human voices wake us, and we drown.’ "
He felt like he was going to faint. But at least the poem got something right. Maybe he’d survived the sinking of the Dear Melissa, but he still felt like he was drowning all the time. Every time his alarm clock went off, he lunged bolt upright in bed, gasping for air.
When the class finally poured out into the hall, he straightened himself and trailed after them to chemistry. It was such a suffocating, sleepy, ragtag school, with only sixty students and three teachers. His high school in the Chicago suburbs had been twenty times the size of this place. Everything felt crushingly small.
Other students turned to stare at the two men in dark suits standing near a drinking fountain, but Dorian didn’t notice them. He was concentrating on fighting the wobbly sensation of the floor.
The men noticed him, though. Their eyes tracked him intently as he walked away, sometimes leaning on the row of lockers. A few minutes later Mrs. Muggeridge emerged, gray corkscrew curls bobbing absurdly above her head as she chattered to another teacher, the scarlet frames of her glasses flashing like hazard lights. "I suppose I’m behind the times. Apparently now it’s politically incorrect to make your students read poems with mermaids that don’t kill people. What a thing to get so upset about!"
The suited men glanced at each other and followed her.
Dorian kept trying to draw the girl he’d seen. If he could set the memory down in black ink, slap it to the paper once and for all, then maybe he could finally get her out of his head. He drew exceptionally well, but every time he finished a new picture he couldn’t escape the feeling that something was missing. The drawing he was working on now showed a towering wave with a single enormous eye gazing out from under the crest. The eyelashes merged with curls of sea foam.
He couldn’t understand why he hadn’t been afraid at the time. The fear had come much later, after he was obviously safe, and the fits of nauseous terror that seized him were infuriatingly senseless. But when the ship was actually crashing, wrenching up under his feet, and people were dying all around him, he’d felt perfectly composed and confident.
He also didn’t know where the instincts that had saved him had come from. If he’d done even one thing differently, he knew, he wouldn’t be the sole surviving passenger of the Dear Melissa. He’d be as dead as the rest of them, as dead as his whole family. If he hadn’t faced down that girl in the waves—or that thing that wasn’t a girl, not really, but a monster with a beautiful girl’s head and torso—if he hadn’t sung her own devastating song right back at her, then it would have been all over. She would have murdered him without a second thought. But sitting under the cold fluorescent lights of the chemistry lab, he knew that singing in the middle of a shipwreck had been a bizarre impulse. Inexplicable. How had he known?
Who would have ever guessed that the way to stop a mermaid from killing you was to sing at her?
She’d dragged him out from the wreckage, swimming away with him clasped in one arm. They’d raced at such speed that the blood had shrieked in his head. The foam-striped water had rushed across his staring eyes. He’d struggled not to inhale it, and he’d failed again and again. Salt burned his lungs, and the cold water in his chest swelled into a bursting ache. But every time he’d thought that he was really going to drown, she’d pulled him up above the surface and let the water hack out of him, fountaining down his chin. She’d let him live. Only him, out of all the hundreds who’d set sail together.
She’d even spoken, once. Now that he had time to think it over, he realized one of the weirdest things about it all was the fact that she’d used English instead of talking in some kind of mermaid gibberish. Take a really deep breath, okay? We have to dive under again. Her voice was gentle and much too innocent-sounding for something so utterly evil.
He hadn’t answered. He’d been too pissed off to speak to her, though now looking back, he realized that he hadn’t felt nearly furious enough. He’d felt the kind of anger that would have made sense if he’d been having a fight with a friend, say. As if that monster with the silvery green tail was just a girl he knew from school or something. Worse, as if she was someone he liked.
She’d belonged to the pack that murdered his mother and father; his sweet six-year-old sister, Emily; his aunt and her husband; and all three of his cousins. He should hate that mermaid girl more than anything in the world. He should dream about dismembering her with his bare hands.
Instead he dreamed about her dark eyes watching him as he sprawled on the shore gagging up a flood of sour, brackish liquid. She hadn’t swum off right away after she’d shoved him up onto the beach, and he’d had time to memorize her pale face and dark jagged hair set like a star in a gray-green curl of sea.
He dreamed about her song.
"Charlotte Muggeridge? We were wondering if we could speak to you for a few minutes." The taller of the two men folded back his suit lapel to show her his badge. Mrs. Muggeridge goggled at him in absolute confusion.
"Anyone can speak to me!" She was alone with the men in the teachers’ lounge. The grubby vomit orange sofas sagged in patches like rotting fruit. Inspirational posters urging them to strive for their dreams had faded to anemic tints of jade green and beige. No one sat down. Instead she swayed a little, staring from one glossy, polite face to the other. Both the suited men met her gaze with bland determination. Both had empty blue eyes and freshly shaved cheeks. "You can’t actually be FBI! That is, of course you can speak to me, but . . . I couldn’t possibly have anything to say that you might find interesting . . ." She trailed off, then glanced up at them with new sharpness. "I hope none of our students is in trouble."
"No one is in any trouble, ma’am." Mrs. Muggeridge’s eyes were darkening with a feeling of aversion for the tall man, though she couldn’t justify her dislike. He was perfectly well-mannered. "There was an incident in your third-period English class?"
That bewildered her, again. "Certainly nothing I couldn’t handle without help from the FBI!" She gaped at them. "Don’t you have more important things to worry about than an outburst from a fifteen-year-old boy?"
"In this case, ma’am, we think it might be important."
"A tenth grader didn’t care for T. S. Eliot. Send in the feds!" Her voice was heavy with sarcasm. The agents were glowering at her.
"Just describe the incident. Ma’am." The politeness was slipping now.
"Well . . . It was only that we were reading ‘Prufrock’ in class. We reached the closing stanzas, about the mermaids. And Dorian Hurst became very upset, for some reason. He jumped out of his seat and started yelling. But he’s generally been a very good student since he enrolled here."
The two men were obviously trying to keep their faces smooth and vacant, but something excited and a little disturbing started to show in the quick pointed looks passing between them.
"And what did Dorian say?" It was the smaller man speaking now. He had hanging jowls and a high, almost girlish voice. Mrs. Muggeridge thought it contrasted unpleasantly with his blocky gray face.
"He said that if Prufrock had really heard the mermaids singing, he wouldn’t have lived to talk about it." An eager twitch passed through the shoulders of the taller agent. He leaned in on her, and his blue eyes were as brittle as hunks of ice. But why on earth did he care? "It was a peculiar detail to quarrel with, but Dorian seemed very passionate about it. He accused Eliot of pretending we don’t have to die."
"I thought you said the name was Prufrock?" It was the shorter agent squeaking again. Mrs. Muggeridge looked at him with fresh outrage.
"T. S. Eliot is the poet who wrote ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’! How can you be so ig—" Mrs. Muggeridge stifled a number of extremely rude endings to the sentence.
"Did he say anything else?" The tall man sounded bored.
"That was all I let him say. He was being disruptive, so I asked him to step out of class." The shorter man’s upper lip suddenly jerked up in sneer, as if Mrs. Muggeridge had just confessed to doing something extremely stupid. It was all too much for her. "Now, would you please explain why all of this is important?"
"We don’t discuss ongoing investigations, ma’am." The tall agent turned abruptly toward the door, rapping a pen against his mouth
"Do you know anything about Dorian’s family?" The short agent twittered the question in a shrill, malicious tone. His eyebrows arched suggestively. The tall one swung back around, shooting what was obviously meant to be a quelling glance at his partner, but the little man only grinned.
"His family? No, I don’t. I think someone mentioned that he doesn’t live with his biological parents, but that isn’t so uncommon."
"They’re dead, is why. Sister, too. They all died in June." He seemed to enjoy the look of shock on Mrs. Muggeridge’s face. "Drowned."
Mrs. Muggeridge felt her mouth fall into an O of dismay as the tall agent jerked his partner’s arm and towed him from the room. She stumbled a few steps to the sofa and flopped down, leaning her head on her hands. "Oh, that poor boy!" She gasped the words out loud. "Oh, no wonder he was so upset!"
It still didn’t explain why they were so interested, though. Not unless they thought Dorian was hiding something.
His father’s second cousin once removed Lindy and her husband, Elias, had made it clear that they didn’t want to keep Dorian permanently. They were too old and tired to cope with a teenager. It was just their bad luck that they happened to live right in the town where he’d literally washed up and that his parents had included their phone number on some form they’d filled out. The result was that Dorian had been left with them more or less by default. They reminded him occasionally that this was just a temporary arrangement until something better could be worked out, but since nobody else was exactly clamoring to take over as his guardian, he had the impression that he’d probably be stuck with them for a while. They acted skittish around him, mincing and whispering in a way that made him queasy and impatient. The only good thing he could say for them was that they’d at least followed the psychologist’s advice to keep quiet about his connection to the sinking of the Dear Melissa. No one in his school knew he’d been on the ship, not even the principal, and he liked it that way. If everyone had kept asking him questions about it, he was pretty sure he would have gone insane.
He’d been asked way too many questions already, by a parade of out-of-towners flown in to investigate the ship’s crash. Therapists and cops, insurance agents, and even someone who claimed to be from the FBI. What had happened? Had he noticed anything unusual? And, of course, how on earth had he swum twelve miles alone in less than an hour? Some of them seemed to doubt that he’d been on the ship at all, though his name was right there on the passenger manifest.
He gave the same answers to all of them: he didn’t remember anything. He’d been standing on the deck, and everything had gone black. He’d come to on the shore.
It had turned into a kind of game. They asked the same questions; he gave the same answers. Like some kind of nightmare merry-go-round: I don’t remember, I don’t remember, I don’t remember.
He wasn’t about to tell them that he’d been rescued by a killer mermaid.
His reserve wasn’t only because they wouldn’t believe him or that they might even throw him into an asylum for hopeless lunatics, though those were definitely factors
It was all just too private: the mermaid girl’s painfully beautiful face, the searing amazement of those voices, the squeezing closeness of death. He wouldn’t have described it even to his best friend, much less to a bunch of pushy, self-important strangers.
For all he knew, he might be the only person on earth who had heard the mermaids singing and lived. The memory was his. It was all he had to make up for the loss of his family. The dark-haired mermaid’s song burned his sleep, twined through all his waking thoughts.
Over dinner Lindy asked him at least five times if he was enjoying his macaroni and cheese mixed with hamburger meat; every time she asked in precisely the same simpering, anxious voice. Pink scalp winked through the wisps of her fuzzy, apricot blond hair, and her pale eyes looked permanently frightened inside their red rims. She made Dorian think of a sick, senile rabbit.
"It’s delicious," Dorian replied automatically. He kept looking over at the window, where early twilight glowed between red checkered curtains. The kitchen was prim, secure, and always extremely clean. A painted wooden bear in a chef’s hat and apron stood on the counter, forever frying a wooden egg. A game show host jabbered on the TV about how fabulous that evening’s prizes were. How long would it be before he could get away? "I’m going to go study at a friend’s house. Okay?"
Lindy and Elias both nodded so cautiously that it was like he’d just confessed to suicidal impulses and they were terrified of saying something that would push him over the edge. Not that suicide seemed like the worst idea ever sometimes.
Dorian scraped and washed his plate. It was important to keep going through the motions. Convince them that he hadn’t been driven totally crazy by the trauma. It was bad enough that he screamed in his sleep sometimes. They were probably already afraid that he was going to come after them with an axe.
He had to find the mermaid who’d saved him. Not to prove to himself that she hadn’t been some kind of hallucination—he knew what he’d seen. But she owed him an explanation at least. After all, what kind of reason could she have had for murdering so many people? Absolute evil? If that was it, though, why make an exception for him, singing or no? He didn’t deserve to be alive when his parents and Emily were dead.
He needed to talk to her, needed it urgently, and he told himself that it didn’t matter why. He just had to hear what she would say. But how was he supposed to find a mermaid? Steal a rowboat and go paddle around in the open sea like an idiot? He’d been brooding over the problem for weeks, and tonight he thought he might have found an answer. It was worth a try at least.
It was only the middle of September, but it was already cold enough that he pulled on a parka and hat before stepping out into the wild dusk, where the wind reeked with the weedy, fishy breath of the harbor. The smell always brought back the sickening taste of mingled bile and salt water horribly flecked with the sweetness of the previous night’s chocolate cake that he’d disgorged that day on the shore. His stomach lurched a little from the memory, but he did his best to ignore it.
The small tan house stood on a narrow street that ran straight down to the tiny harbor. The hill was steep enough that the sidewalk was a staircase with broad cement steps. He could see the black masts of a few sailboats crisscrossing like chopsticks in front of the electric blue sky while farther up clouds sagged in a violet jumble. He walked between glowing windows, heading for the sea. It was obvious he’d have to walk for a mile or two, past the beach north of town where she’d left him, then up onto the low, ragged cliffs where a path wound through stands of half-dead spruce. The farther the better, really. She wouldn’t want to come too close to a town.
He didn’t want to care how she felt about anything, but sometimes he couldn’t help wondering if she still thought about him. Maybe she’d completely forgotten him in the three months since she’d swum with him in her arms.
Then he’d remind her. He wasn’t about to let her forget what she’d done. He’d show her what a big mistake she’d made by letting one of her victims survive. Especially since that survivor was him.