Bait Shop on the Bridge

I work in an all-night bait shop. When I tell my parents this, I can tell they pity me. Or they’re embarrassed. Probably a little bit of both. When friends ask, “What does your daughter do?” they have to say, “She works at a 24/7 bait shop,” and then their friends ask, “But isn’t she thirty-one?” and my parents’ smiles get tighter and thinner, so tight and so thin that the embarrassed “yes” has to work its way out, squeeze itself through the middle of their teeth.

I don’t know how to tell them it’s my dream job. I work nights, full time, which means I’m mostly left alone. The shop sits at the center of the Courtney Campbell Causeway, the bridge connecting Clearwater and Tampa. At forty-five feet above the water, we’re known as one of the best spots for night fishing, our shop off the path where people jog or fish or walk their dogs—the bridge sandwiched by two trails—the only high-level pedestrian bridge in Florida.

The bait shop itself is small, smaller than my living room, which is saying something. Nets hang on the walls as décor next to yellow warning signs that say things like old fisherman xing and fisherman on board. The prize yellowtail my boss’s dad won is mounted on the wall, a black-and-white photo of him framed above it, something she put up in honor of his passing. The air smells like salt water and coffee and the live fiddler crabs we sell. It’s all “very Florida,” as the tourists like to say, though I’m still not sure what that means. I’ve lived here all my life—this city, this state—but I can tell they don’t mean it as a compliment.

I spend most of my shifts drinking coffee behind a desk, where I work on my graphic novel between customers. There are so few of them. They’re the early risers, the ones fishing over the bridge at three in the morning. When the getting’s good. They come in for coffee and a new line, some bait we got in that week and are sure to run out of soon. The daytime crowd’s doing.

It’s mostly the same eight or so people, the night customers. I know them all by name, and they know my name too. “Evening, Harper,” says Thomas, or, “Have a good one, Harper,” says Billy. I speak only when I’m spoken to. They speak only when they’re spoken to. I love them. We are so much alike, the night crowd and me. No one has the stomach for small talk. These guys can skin a fish with their bare hands, can stare the raw guts of their midnight catch in the eye as they do it, but they can’t handle small talk. They’re the only crowd I want to be around anymore.

The customers, the night folk, they don’t make me perform. They don’t accuse me of being angry or passive-aggressive because I’m quiet. And when they ask me how the graphic novel’s coming, I know they really mean it, because they’re not a crowd who asks questions they don’t want the answers to.

“How’s Sally doing tonight?”

Sally is one of my characters.

“She’s been better,” I say. “Just got her wisdom teeth pulled out.”

“Better off in the long run,” says Eli. “Worse down the road when it goes unaddressed.” He puts his bait down on the counter, live pinfish by the dozen. I’m surprised.

“Grouper tonight?” I say. Eli’s more of a trout guy.

“Tis the season,” he tells me. I ring him up. Warm silence. I hand Eli his change and his bait and wish him good luck. “Appreciate it,” he says, and then he leaves the shop.

That’s it. That’s the end of the conversation.

Like I said—dream job.

▴ ▴ ▴

I learn about the siren before anyone else. Sorry, let me rephrase that. I learn about the siren before the rest of the town, before the rest of Florida, before the moms and the dads and the teenagers of the world wake up a few days later and watch her on the news, because the night crowd is the first—the real first—to spot her out there in the water, because they decide to come tell me about her, too.

It’s predawn when it happens, almost the end of my shift. I’m hunched over my pages, drawing Sally. Her friend’s invited her over for a potluck. Sally stands there now, outside of her friend’s door, a vat of mac ’n’ cheese in her hands. She’s excited to eat solid food again, her mouth all healed from the surgery. But Sally is terrified. She hasn’t been to a party in months. Her therapist said it would be good for her, that surrounding yourself with friends is a vital part of healing from trauma. From assault. While it’s tempting to stay isolated, Sally knows it hasn’t helped. If anything, she realizes, it’s only made things worse. The bell above the bait shop rings. I look up.

John’s in the doorframe, and I can tell right away he’s got something to tell me. He’s a person who holds his emotions in the space between his brows, the rest of his expression neutral as the Gulf on a windless night. He hoists his thumb over his shoulder, voice even and matter-of-fact. “There’s a siren out there,” he says.

I put my pencil down. “What?”

“A siren,” he repeats, just a fraction louder, and I can tell he thinks I didn’t hear him the first time. Like them, I’m not a person who asks questions I already know the answers to.

I get up from behind the register and follow him out. His gait is fast, but only compared to his usual strides. I walk beside him, hands stuffed into the pockets of my jeans. The air is salt and velvet blue.

We stand on the bridge and look over the water together. Eli and Thomas, Billy and Isaac. Lucas, Matthew, Aiden, and John. I’ve never stood out here with them like this. There’s been no reason to.

John points up ahead. “Do you see her?”

I do. Through the incoming purple of sky, I do. She hovers in the middle of the sea, dark hair pulled back into a messy beehive. The proportions of her face are normal enough to appear human, but off enough to raise wonder. Her expression is small, sharp, but her eyes are the biggest I’ve ever seen on anybody. They’re almost too far apart, those eyes, and yet I can’t imagine her any other way. Her shoulders are exposed. Her collarbone, her neck. When she starts singing, it is all raw steak and gravel.

I turn to the fishermen, nervous, but none of them go slack-jawed. None of them move closer to the railing, pupils dilated into trance. They stand and stare with furrowed brows, hands stuffed into the pockets of their waterproof overalls, their stormbreaker fishing bibs, a row of monarch oranges and yellow charcoals. “Yeah,” I say, “I see her.”

“What do you think?” says Isaac.

I’m still staring at her, waiting for someone to answer Isaac’s question, when I realize he’s talking to me. “I don’t know,” I say, because it’s true. “I’ve never seen one in real life. Have you?”

Isaac shakes his head no. So do the others.

“Should we call someone?” says Matthew.

Billy is solemn. “No,” he says after a few moments. “Once someone finds her out there, it’ll be all over the news in no time. She won’t have a moment of peace until people get bored again.”

Eli nods in agreement. “He’s right. Best just to let her be.”

▴ ▴ ▴

It’s exactly as Billy predicted.

A few days after our conversation on the bridge, a worried mom calls into the station. Her boy came home crying that morning, screaming about his inflatable ball and the sea and how the mean lady with the big hair wouldn’t throw it back.

Within the hour, it’s on every local news station. Then the big names. Then YouTube and Twitter and Instagram. Most people call it a hoax, get to picking the footage apart like Loch Ness or Bigfoot or whatever else. The mom recorded the siren on her cell phone, an older model than most nowadays, and no one’s been able to get a good shot of her since. But other people are already talking about packing up for the weekend and heading down to the Sunshine State. “Mermaid enthusiasts” they call themselves. I almost leave a comment on one of their posts. Save yourself the money; this kind of thing is super easy to fake.

I’m back at my apartment—one bedroom, one bath—and all I want to do is sleep, but right as I’m about to drift off, my cell phone starts vibrating. I glance at the caller ID. Mom. I run a hand down my face before answering, my back to the mattress as I reach for the phone. “Hey.”

“Good morning!” she says. “How did you sleep?”

“I haven’t yet,” I tell her. “Just got home from my shift about thirty minutes ago.”

“Right,” she says, “the bait shop.”

There’s a pause, a long one, which wouldn’t bother me if I didn’t know how much it bothered her. There’s so much pressure to fill the silence.

“So, have you seen it yet?” she says.

“Seen what?” I say.

“The mermaid,” Mom says.

“Siren,” I say. My mom thinks that I think I’m smarter than her. I don’t. This is another thing people accuse quiet people of. “Sorry,” I say. “I shouldn’t have—”

“It’s all over the news,” she says, too excited to care about my mistake. “Did you see the clip they keep showing? The tail?”

I haven’t, actually. I’ve seen reporters talking about it, and screenshots on my feed, but I haven’t played the video itself. It feels disrespectful somehow. Invasive. Like watching a celebrity sex tape, uploaded without their consent. “Aren’t people saying it’s a hoax? Seems like this type of thing normally is.”

“I don’t know,” Mom says, voice singsong and flute-like. “It looks pretty convincing to me.”

Silence again. I ask her how the garden’s coming along, and she tells me all about her eggplants and the starfruit tree and the rosemary. All I have to do is listen, but my brain is fogged over with a desperate need for sleep. It takes a while, but when she pauses, I jump in. “I’m glad it’s doing well,” I say, “but I really need to crash now. I’m sorry. Tell Dad I said hi.”

“He’s right here,” she says. “Do you want to talk to him?”

I’m embarrassed to say how much effort it takes not to sigh directly into the phone. It’s not that I don’t want to talk to him. It’s that, if I do, I know it’ll be another forty-five minutes before I’m left alone to sleep. “I can’t right now,” I say, “but I’ll call this weekend.”

“Your father misses you, Harper.”

“I know. I’m sorry. The job’s full-time, and when I’m off I’m either sleeping or working on the graphic novel.”

“Graphic novel?”

I bite the inside of my cheek. I thought getting an agent would make them respect me more. My parents, I mean. Or at the very least, they’d start judging me less for working at the bait shop. But it’s just another thing in my life they don’t take seriously. I think, at first, they tried to, would occasionally ask how the novel was coming along, but it’s been a year since I’ve signed that contract, and I think they just expected more by now, some tangible proof that they didn’t raise a failure. I can’t tell if they’ve put it out of their heads completely or if pretending they don’t know what I’m working on is some kind of power move. The last time I visited them in Jacksonville, my grandma called to see how I was doing. I’m still not sure what she asked my mom, exactly, but from the kitchen I heard her go, “Oh, you know Harper, she’s an artist,” and the way she said artist did not feel proud or complimentary or good.

“Yeah,” I say, and make sure my voice sounds bored. Unaffected. “The one I’ve been working on for that publisher.”

Another swath of silence. This time, I refuse to fill it for her. “Oh,” she says. “Of course.” And then, “Well, I better let you get to sleep, I suppose. Nighty night.”

“Night,” I say, and hang up the phone.

▴ ▴ ▴

The mermaid enthusiasts turn out to be a little less dedicated than they like to believe. If they’d done their research, they would’ve discovered that sirens are typically nocturnal, that the little boy who happened upon her in the water caught her right before she turned in for the day, whatever that looks like for a siren. This is all to say that we don’t run into the tourists, but the night crowd and I do spend the first part of my shift picking up their litter from the bridge. My boss doesn’t tell me to do this, but it feels like my responsibility all the same. When I walk out to the bridge with rubber gloves and a trash bag, the fishermen are already at work. They cast their nets and draw out plastic bottles, crushed aluminum, potato chip wrappers. We work in silence, opening the trash bag for each other, catching stray litter with the bottoms of our shoes when our hands are too full to reach down, until finally the bridge is clean and the water is clean and the trash bag can’t hold any more.

I’m about to walk back to the bait shop and put on the first pot of coffee for the night, when Aiden takes out his thermos, fills the lid, and hands it to me. It is black and rich and has the aftertaste of molasses. “Thank you,” I say, and Aiden nods.

The siren appears shortly after. Her voice rises from the Gulf like steam from a kettle, demanding and impossible to ignore. Lucas tells me they’ve switched from live to artificial bait for the time being. “We don’t know what she eats, so we thought this would be safer for now.”

“Don’t they eat men?” I say.

“Yeah,” says Billy, “but they must eat something else in between, don’t you think?”

He seems nervous, like he got something wrong, and it takes me a second to remember that his question isn’t rhetorical. Sometimes, when the fishermen ask me things, I forget that they’re looking for my opinion. “Yeah,” I say, “that makes sense.”

“We don’t want her to think we’re trying to lure her in, that we’re trying to hurt her or something, so it’s best to stick with the artificial stuff for now,” says Isaac.

I look over the bridge to where the siren’s singing. She figure-eights through their lines like a synchronized swimmer gone solo, never once letting go of her song. The night crowd moves from left to right, casting and recasting, doing their best to stay out of her way. They’re surprisingly unbothered for people who prefer to be left alone.

When they retreat to the left, I move over to the right; if I’m going to be out here for a while, working at the coffee Aiden gave me, I can at least give them a heads up, warn them in advance when the siren’s swimming toward them again. But when I look over the bridge, the siren hasn’t moved. She stays there, like she was waiting for me to look over or something. I meet her gaze. She winks. Not once does she stop singing.

▴ ▴ ▴

I’m off on the weekends, but this doesn’t change my routine much. I still sleep during the day and get work done at night. All it takes is one time—one regular night’s worth of sleep—to throw me off schedule and mess with my head. So I stick to my routine. It’s safer that way. More productive.

The potluck’s turned into a whole other kind of party Sally wasn’t expecting. She and the popular girl from class, Isabelle, have found themselves paired off, escorted into a closet for that game teenagers can’t play without getting tipsy first, Seven Minutes in Heaven. Sally’s heart is racing. Her vision is white. The small, dark enclosure. The threat of intimacy.

The closet smells like mothballs and strawberry vodka, but Sally knows that last part is on them. Isabelle asks if she can kiss her, says Sally doesn’t have to just because the game says so, that they can fake it for the party’s sake and do something else for the remaining six minutes, but Sally gives Isabelle permission. Maybe it’s because Isabelle didn’t pressure her. Maybe it’s because she’s lonely, despite everything. Maybe it’s because she can’t believe someone like Isabelle would ever go for someone like her. Sally doesn’t know what else to say, so she opens her mouth, still kind of sore from the surgery, and lets Isabelle fill it with whatever she wants—tongue and teeth and sounds that are wet, warm vodka breath and little, satisfied hums. Sally’s breath hitches. She wants to run, but she relaxes into Isabelle instead. She lets herself feel safe.

I can’t imagine working during the day anymore. There are too many distractions. Phone calls, email alerts, errands to run—all the frivolous stuff that keeps me from doing what I really want to do. There are no interruptions at night, no one who needs my attention, and as I color in Sally’s hair, I remember how calm the fishermen were, how they moved around the siren—whatever they had to do to make sure they stayed out of her way—the constant drawing in and drawing out.

They’re more patient than me, the night crowd. I wonder if it’s a difference in personality or something that happens naturally over time. They’re all in their forties, those men, the youngest a decade older than me. All are married, some have kids; it’s one of the reasons they fish at night, the day reserved for family. As for me, I can’t imagine dating anyone right now. My schedule’s already full, and I want to have this graphic novel done by the end of the year.

Besides, first dates are terrible. I never know what to say.

▴ ▴ ▴

The first to go missing is Matthew.

We don’t notice right away. Or rather, we notice it’s been a few nights since he’s come out, but none of us make the connection. There are plenty of normal, everyday events that would keep him home for a few days. Not a big deal. But then Thomas goes missing. Then Aiden. Then Lucas, then Isaac, then John. I’m not a big hugger, but when Billy comes in at one o’clock in the morning, it takes an alarming amount of self-control not to throw my arms around him. Instead I make coffee. When I look back at Billy, I expect to see him browsing the aisles, distracting himself from the thing we’re both thinking about, but instead he’s looking at me. Right at me. His back is to the wall, his hands deep in the pockets of his orange, waterproof overalls, and the crow’s feet of his eyes are lined with worry. For himself, for his friends, but then, there—right at the very corners of them…

I feel seen when I’m with them. The night crowd. I feel seen in a way I don’t with anyone else. But sometimes one of them will look at me the way Billy’s looking at me now—like really, really looking—and I feel five years old all over again. I don’t know why. I feel them wondering if I’m okay, if I’m scared, if there’s something they could do or say to make things a little easier, and I feel like running away or crying or throwing my hand up over their eyes, a makeshift blindfold, feel like saying, “There’s nothing to see here, okay? There’s nothing to see,” but I feel like thanking them too, and I never know what any of it means.

I hand Billy his cup of coffee. “Thank you,” he says, in a voice I’ve never heard from him before. He doesn’t ask me to come out with him to the bridge—he didn’t ask for coffee, either—but I throw on my jacket, a lightweight hooded flannel, and together we walk into the night.

We stare over the bridge, out into the water. The siren is nowhere to be seen. After John disappeared—went wherever it is she took him—we figured she must be taking whoever shows up first. With no one there to save them. With no one around to reel them back in. But we know it’s her. We knew it the night Eli and Billy showed up around the same time, expecting Aiden, but the only sign of him having been there was his abandoned thermos.

They gave it to me, that thermos. I washed it out in the bait shop’s sink, the small kitchenette in the back. I keep it under the register now. For Aiden. Whenever he’s able to come home.

“Did you know,” says Billy, “that the first recorded sirens didn’t have tails?”

I turn to him, surprised. “Really?”

“Yeah,” he says. “They were winged creatures. Half bird, half human.” He pauses, and I can tell he’s debating whether to continue. “In one story, they were Persephone’s handmaidens. Before the curse they were normal, mortal girls. They loved her,” he says. “They’d follow her out to the fields when Persephone wanted to pick flowers. They’d keep her company. They’d sing to her.

“And then there was Hades,” says Billy, and hesitates. When he speaks again, his voice is careful. Soft. “Are you familiar with this part of the myth?”

My breath hitches, a sharp inhale beyond my control. Hades and Persephone. It’s a story that people have since tried to romanticize, but I can never look past the original tale. Persephone’s abduction. Hades emerging from the Underworld, taking her. Taking Persephone without her consent.

I think back to the night I first met Billy. How close I’d come to ending it. Billy’s no fool and neither am I. He has to know something happened, the state I was in when he found me on this very bridge, but I’ve never shared anything personal with him, never shared anything vulnerable with the night crowd in general. I can talk about it through Sally, but that’s it. That’s it. I can’t do anything else.

It’s unbearable. The weight of it. It’s unbearable and paralyzing and I don’t want to breathe into the clay. I don’t want to give it any more life than it’s already taken from me, numb from the inside out. I don’t want to say it. I don’t want to say the word.

“I’m sorry,” says Billy, and his tone is racked with guilt. “I shouldn’t have—”

“Persephone’s handmaidens,” I say, interrupting him. “Tell me more about them.”

And Billy, God bless him, jumps right back into the story, does not draw out what doesn’t need drawing out. “Right,” he says. “Demeter, Persephone’s mom: she put it on the maidens to find her. She gave them wings of gold and sent them on their way. But of course they couldn’t find her, Persephone being in the Underworld, so Demeter took her grief out on the girls. She cursed them, sent them into exile, an island called Anthemoessa, and told them they’d be stuck in their bird form until someone—sailors—could pass the island without being drawn to their voice.”

It is the longest I’ve heard Billy talk in one sitting. I don’t want him to stop. “And then they’d be free?”

“No,” says Billy. “If a sailor wasn’t lured in, if the sirens’ singing didn’t work, the girls would immediately die.”

Ahead of us, the Tampa skyline. We watch the Gulf catch its rainbow light, the reflection like stained glass, a shimmering of golds and reds and eager blues. I’m struck with the impulse to press my ear against Billy’s chest, a conch shell found whole on the beach, and listen to the sound of his heart, alive and rooted here, the present, but the bell above the bait shop grabs my attention. A customer, not a regular, paces outside, the be back in 5 sign hanging from the inside of the door, right where I left it.

“You should go,” says Billy.

“No way,” I answer, surprising myself. Billy’s tackle box sits at his feet. He plans on staying. “If I leave, she’ll be here in minutes.”

He takes out his cell phone and shows me a message from Eli, who says he’ll be here in half an hour. I look at the time. 1:30 a.m. “I won’t risk it if I see her,” he says. “I promise. From what we’ve seen so far, she’s always shown herself first. If she appears, I’ll reel in.”

I look back out to the water. Not a splash.

“Hey, lady!” The customer is shouting at me now. “You open or what? Yelp says you’re 24/7.”

Billy puts his hand on my shoulder, tentative and warm. It is there for seconds only before he draws back into himself. “You should go,” he says, voice calm, but when I look back at him, he’s glaring at the customer. “But come back out if you need something.”

I’m not the one who needs protecting right now, I want to say, except we both know it’s not that simple, not that matter-of-fact. That both of us, any of us, are always on the line.

I leave him there. I leave Billy alone on the bridge. The Yelp guy is needy and rude and talks down to me the whole time he’s there, only leaving when Eli comes through. I’m relieved to see him, but before I can say anything, Eli looks at me, visibly concerned, and I know what he’s going to say before he says it. “Hey, Harper. Have you seen Billy tonight? His tackle box is out there, but I don’t see him anywhere on the bridge.”

▴ ▴ ▴

A few days later, Eli goes missing. Afterward, no one comes into the bait shop for close to a week. When the bell above the shop does ring, it’s not just one person, but eight. Eight different people. Eight different women. I’ve never seen them before, but I know. I know before any of them speak.


“Yes,” I say, swallowing hard. “That’s me.”

I’m cocooned at once, arms that wrap around me, strong and maternal and sure. She holds me close against her, rubbing my back the way moms do. “I’m Anna,” she says. “Billy’s wife.”

I’m overwhelmed with love and grief. How to describe caring so much for a person you’ve only just met? I don’t like hugging strangers, but Anna doesn’t feel like a stranger to me. I hug her back. Tightly. “I’m so sorry.” It’s the only response I can muster. If I’m as scared as I’ve been for the night crowd, I can’t stomach what Billy’s family—what any of their families—have been going through.

“You have nothing to apologize for,” says Anna, and introduces me to the rest of the women. Seven of them show me nothing but kindness, a solidarity between us that feels both ancestorial and foreign. They tell me how they begged their husbands not to go, to just take a break until the siren returned home—wherever home is for her—to not risk fishing, that they’d manage financially until everything calmed down. I’m listening as best I can, but I’m distracted by the one woman glaring at me, her side-eye strong as rip currents.

Does she blame me for her spouse’s disappearance? I don’t understand what’s happening, at least not at first, until she says, “Eli seemed to think highly of you; he trusted your opinion over the word of your manager.” She looks me up and down. “I wonder what you did to deserve that?”

Jennifer.” Anna’s voice is sharp. Condemning. She holds my shoulders, protective, and I finally see what she—Jennifer—is seeing: a temptress in the dark. As though it’s me, not the siren, who’s the real threat.

It’s never occurred to me that the wives of these men would perceive me as anything other than a person who sells bait and draws. To be viewed as such is shocking. The idea of explaining to her how queer people love, what chosen family means to us, feels strange. I don’t think I’ve ever had to. I don’t think I care to start now.

Anna turns her back on Jennifer. She smiles at me, apologetic, and gives me her number. “Call me if you learn anything new, okay? We gave your manager our information, but she didn’t seem as distressed as one would think. And Billy…he was always so protective when he spoke of you. You know that, don’t you?”

A lump forms in my throat. I’m afraid to speak, afraid of crying in front of this woman who is going through so much more than me. I should be the one comforting her. Not the other way around. I manage a small nod.

When they leave, I collapse into my chair. Everything keeps getting heavier and heavier and I don’t know what to do. Predictable as the tide, I try my best to distract myself with the graphic novel.

A few weeks after the party, Isabelle asks Sally if she can spend the night. Sally hesitates, decides it’s okay as long as they stay at Sally’s place. It’s safer that way. To stay on one’s home turf.

Later that evening, cuddled in Sally’s bed—their favorite show playing out in front of them—Isabelle starts kissing Sally. It’s good and warm until it’s not, until Isabelle’s hand drifts under Sally’s shirt.

Sally pulls away, a full body flinch, and Isabelle immediately withdraws. “Shit,” says Isabelle. “I’m so sorry; I shouldn’t have assumed you were ready.” The thing is, Sally does want Isabelle to touch her. She wants to touch Isabelle back. But her body is a clamshell sealed shut, her fear a plastic six ring, choking the sea turtle of her mind.

Sally apologizes to Isabelle for disappointing her, who shakes her head no in response, puts a comforting arm over Sally’s shoulders, pulling her in close. “You have nothing to apologize for,” says Isabelle. “And besides—we have all the time in the world.”

Sally leans her head against Isabelle’s arm. Closes her eyes. She is not as confident as Isabelle. She knows, instinctively, that their time is limited. That her silence, her unspokens, will destroy what has only just started.

When the bell above the bait shop door rings again, it’s my boss. “Go home,” she tells me. “It’s not safe.”

I like my boss, I do, I’m just not used to seeing her. She works day shifts, leaves me what needs taking care of on sticky notes. “It won’t be safe tomorrow, either,” I say.

“I know,” she says. “That’s why I’m sending you home for the week. Hopefully we’ll know more soon, but if not, we’ll reconvene when the time comes.”

“I’m worried,” I say, a vulnerable confession that makes me uncomfortable, but it comes out before I can stop myself. When I close my eyes, all I can see are the fishermen, the siren’s stare, Billy’s abandoned tackle box.

She nods. “Consider it a paid vacation; you don’t have to worry about missing a week, okay? Scout’s honor.”

My boss is a kind person. She takes good care of me, really. But she doesn’t know me at all.

▴ ▴ ▴

I used to nightmare a lot. That’s how I found the bait shop. Waking up in a bed full of sweat at two o’clock in the morning, getting into my car and driving nowhere. Nowhere to no one. Just following the highway until it spat me out onto the bridge. I parked. Stood with my feet tucked between the railings. The water looked the way it did just the other night with Billy, the sheen on the Gulf alive with skyline, glowing there in front of me. No siren. No night crowd. The surface of the water hungry for the splash.

I raised my foot. Began to climb.

“You okay, Miss?”

He was clean-shaven at the time. Billy, I mean. He stood several yards away from me, uncertain. I hated him for interrupting. For seeing me. “Couldn’t sleep,” I said.

He held his fishing pole over his shoulder. With his free hand, he pointed up ahead to the shop, the now hiring sign on its door. “Heard they’re looking for someone who can’t sleep.”

I followed him because I didn’t care. I followed him because why not? Then suddenly I’m being introduced to the owner—my now boss—and she’s getting me an application form, and Billy’s getting me coffee, and just like that I’m employed.

That was six years ago. I was twenty-five. Now I’m thirty-one and the nightmares are back. They’re different, but back. Here’s one from last night:

I’m lying in bed, which is the worst start to any nightmare, because it tricks you into thinking that everything’s normal, that you’re still in the realm of reality—same apartment, same bedroom, same everything.

There’s a knock at the door. Gentle, but loud enough to stir me. I answer quickly, thinking maybe it’s my boss with some good news. They’ve found the boys and all is well, but this is a nightmare, and nightmares don’t end like that.

When I open the door, I’m too shocked, too horrified, to do much of anything, even scream.

The fishermen stand in a huddled mass. They don’t look at each other, just me, the pupils of their eyes clouded over in milky white, drained of life and will. Their bloated bodies reek of decay, fish left to rot in the sun, while seaweed and deep-sea crustaceans cling to their shoulders, their hair, the exposed flesh of their faces that gray-purple color of the drowned.

I don’t know CPR, but I beat on their chests like a toddler mid-tantrum, my fists pounding against their sternums, desperate. “Wake up,” I tell them. I’ve remembered how to scream. “Wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up!” It is the loudest my voice has reached in years.

At the front of their pack, Billy’s dead eyes latch onto mine. His mouth starts to open, and for a moment I’m hopeful, but then I see it coming, emerging from his throat until the head is fully exposed—the beady eyes, the green-gray scales—until the fish, still alive, lands squirming in my palms.

▴ ▴ ▴

It’s a little after midnight when I get into my car. I play my favorite album on the way to the bait shop because I know very well it may be my last time hearing it. I slept as much as I could during the day before packing, my fishing pole and bait thrown into the trunk.

I don’t fish, but we get 25 percent off at the shop, and it feels like sacrilege to work there and not have a pole. Now, though, I’m glad for it. The bait too, a small bag of emerald shiners. Not that it matters. The models, the brands. It’s not what lures her, what draws her out. Or at least that’s my theory. I’ll know soon enough.

The air is cool tonight. Cooler than normal anyway, at least for Florida. At the bridge, I sit on the railing, dangle my feet over the water. A dangerous move, one that would disappoint the night crowd, I know, but I’m thinking of the siren and her strength and what it would feel like, my body slamming up against the metal banister of the bridge before being taken. Pulled down beneath the waters, the surface hitting like concrete before it’s nothing but blue cold and surrender.

I weave a shiner onto my hook. Breathe. Reel back and cast into the Gulf.

I try not to think of my parents, but it’s impossible. I didn’t call them, is the thing. I didn’t call them before coming here. It’s not that I didn’t think about it. It’s not that I didn’t want to. But what was I supposed to say? “In case I die tonight, I just wanted to let you both know how much I love you. Oh, where am I going? I’m going to the bridge where I work to lure that siren into kidnapping me in order to save eight of my regulars who I’ve known for six years. I know it’s pathetic and I know it sounds sad, but they’re the safest I’ve felt around anyone in a long, long time, and to be honest with you, Mom, they’ve shown more interest in my life than you have in the past six years, so I’m going to risk it because the idea of them dying has sent me into a tailspin. But I love you both regardless and just wanted you to know before leaving. Please don’t call 9-1-1.”

Time clicks, one minute meshing into the next. This is where their patience comes from, I think, and where my anxiety begins. I was okay on the drive over. Or at least, okay as I can be under the circumstances. But it’s sitting here, waiting, that’s doing me in. Waiting for her to come get me. Or worse. Waiting for nothing at all.

But I shouldn’t have worried. Not about that, anyway. She’s there within thirty minutes of my casting, and when something pulls at the end of my line, I know immediately that it’s her.

I hold on. Tightly. I let her pull me in.

▴ ▴ ▴

When I am being pulled under, when I am sinking at torpedo-like velocity, Sally sits back home on my desk. It is the last thing I did before leaving. After packing my car, after sleeping as much as I could, I sat at my desk and worked on my graphic novel. Two hours of uninterrupted drawing. A luxury, any other time before now.

Sally and Isabelle have been dating for three months and Isabelle is frustrated. Beyond some light kissing, Sally won’t touch Isabelle, nor is Isabelle allowed to touch her.

Sally knows they’re on the precipice of Doomsday, wants so badly to keep Isabelle by her side, but she cannot put it into words, the fear lodged deep in her middle.

“Are you not attracted to me anymore? Is it shame? Was I just an experiment? A one-off?”

No, no, no, no. Sally answers truthfully, a part of her breaking with each new question, however reasonable they are. But there is the lie of omission. The reason why Sally can’t bring herself to give or accept the kind of love Isabelle is offering. The past too loud, too present, hands that refused to take No for an answer.

And Isabelle feels unwanted. Unloved. Is suspicious of Sally and her intentions.

They are sitting on Sally’s couch, in Sally’s living room. Sally stares down at her hands. Fidgets. She would like to take Isabelle to the movies. She would like to hold Isabelle’s hand. Something pricks at the back of Sally’s eyes. Her throat feels funny. Her mouth is dry.

“Sally,” Isabelle says. “Can you at least tell me why? Please. Please. I just need to know what it is. If there’s something I’m doing wrong.”

And Sally can tell by the way Isabelle says it that she needs to answer now. Right now. That if there’s hope in salvaging their relationship, in healing the hurt she’s caused, it’s up to her to answer.

Sally opens her mouth. Goes to speak. Nothing.

Isabelle doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t yell. But she does get up from the couch. She leaves Sally in the living room—still sitting, still hunched—and closes the front door with a bang.

Sally’s eyes are wet. Her stomach hurts. She is afraid of everything. She is afraid of everything, all of the time.

▴ ▴ ▴

I really wanted to finish.

I really wanted to finish their story.

▴ ▴ ▴

The next time I wake up, it is all dark blue and purple.

It takes me a moment to remember where I am. Or at least where I should be, based off of my last waking memory. The bottom of the Gulf. The ground shifts uncomfortably beneath me, the sands in constant motion from the water’s push and pull. I wonder at the life of crustaceans, how one can live with the floor giving way, folding and unfolding beneath them. Every new step, a risk.

I’m so lost in the absurdity of my being here that it takes me a minute to check on my breathing. Or rather, how it is I’m breathing at all. I close my eyes. Exhale. Feel the waters rush through my neck and out again. I raise my hands to where I know the carotid arteries rest warm beneath my skin and feel them. Gills. They’re soft to the touch, like butter left out on the kitchen counter just a fraction longer than needed.

Up ahead of me, the siren. I watch her tail enter the mouth of a sea cave, its walls of coral and stone.

I follow her. That she will do to me whatever she’s done to them—the night crowd—does not enter my mind. My fear stays focused on what I will find inside, not on what could become of me after. I don’t think it’s bravery so much as it is instinct, though I couldn’t name what instinct I’m betting on if I tried.

I walk farther into her cave, led by the split ends of the siren’s silver tail. What awaits me around the next corner would be beautiful if not for the men on display, if not for the way my stomach curls in on itself, my throat tight with nausea and dread.

Forests of kelp shoot up from the floor, swaying like wind chimes against the sea. Light pours in from a place I cannot find, filtering through the kelp and giving the surrounding waters a hue of hazy green. Fish of different variations swim lazily through tangled ropes of kelp, but I am not looking at the fish or the forest or the rays of fractured light. I am looking, instead, at the night crowd.

They hover above me, lined like trophies on a mantel. Matthew, Thomas, Aiden, and Lucas. Isaac, John, Billy, and Eli. Arranged in the order of their capture. Kelp strangles their wrists, their ankles, their limbs splayed out like starfish, their eyes closed to the world. To me. From where I stand, I can see them—gills on the sides of their necks, just like mine. Billy’s chest rises. Falls. I am delirious with the discovery of their survival; cautious optimism anchors me to the floor of the Gulf.

“Do not worry,” says the siren. “I am not holding you here.”

I crane my neck back until I see her. She swims in circles above the men, haloing us with sound. It’s the first time I’ve heard her talk. Even her speech rings of music. “Why am I here, then?” I ask. My voice only wavers a little.

“I thought you were one of them,” she says. “I did not recognize you until the last minute.”

“I am one of them,” I say. Night owls. Sea dwellers. The quiet ones.

The siren tilts her head, curious. “Male…?”

I am surprised by my own answer. “Does it matter?”

“Yes,” she says. “It does.”

“Is that what this is then?” I ask. “You took them because they’re men?” It’s what sirens do, I know, but she’s done something different from the legends. She has decided to keep them alive.

“They wanted to hurt me,” she says, “as men so often do.”

I frown. “These men? Specifically?”

“They came for me in their boats,” she says. “One tried to kill me with that.” I follow to where the siren points, her arm slender and pale, a translucency that unsettles me. On the floor of her sea cave, a spear, its handle long, its head a seven-pronged trident. I shiver. I cannot deny her this fear, yet something’s still not right. I’ve known these men for six years. I can tell you what’s in their tackle boxes by heart. I can tell you who prefers what kind of pole. The night crowd fishes from the bridge, exclusively. The night crowd doesn’t use spears.

“What time of day was it?”

“Dawn,” she says.

The mermaid enthusiasts.

Her eyes narrow at my silence. I’ve taken too long to gather myself. “Do you not believe me?”

“I believe you,” I say.

Her shoulders relax. She knows that I’m telling the truth.

“These are the wrong men, though.” I soften my voice. I don’t want her to think that I’m angry, or at least, I don’t want her to think that I’m angry with her. I’m not. “These men don’t use spears or boats, and they only fish at night. When they first spotted you out in the water, the only other person they told was me; they didn’t want people to come looking for you.” I pause. “Do you believe me?”

The siren looks me over. Her hair is not up in her usual beehive; long locks of ebony flow around her like eels. She takes her time deciding, until— “Yes.” She turns from me then. Makes to swim away.


The siren turns back around.

“I need your help getting them down, getting out of here. I don’t know how to get back to the surface without you.”

The siren swims closer to me, the distance between us still prominent, but I no longer need to crane my neck back to see her. “I will take you home,” she says, “but the men stay.”

Confusion begets panic begets anger. I wasn’t angry with her before, but I am now. “What? Why? You just said you believed me.”

“I do,” she says, “but it doesn’t matter.”

The hinges of my jaw tighten. My brow folds in on itself. “What do you mean, ‘it doesn’t matter’? It matters a lot. You’re keeping these men captive for things they didn’t do.”

The siren stares at me, sure of herself. “If not today, then tomorrow.” Her voice is level. Calm. I find it infuriating.

“What does that mean?”

Her face mirrors my confusion, minus the anger. It’s as though she can’t understand what I don’t understand. “It means that one day, they will tire of the night. It means that one day, they will use spears and boats instead. It means they did not hurt me this time, but one day, they will.”

Silence ensconces me. I don’t know what to say. After a moment, I clear my throat. “That’s a dangerous assumption to make.”

“I believe it is more dangerous not to.”

“I’ve known these men for years,” I say. “They’re not who you think they are. I get what you’re saying, but…they’re not. They’re not like that.”

The siren begins swimming toward me again, filling the gap between us. I keep thinking she’ll stop, but she doesn’t. She doesn’t stop until we’re inches apart. She raises her arm. Holds my chin between her fingers. Her grip is a gentle one. There is no malice in the way she looks at me. “You said no. You begged him not to. And then he did it anyway.”

The entire world feels lodged in my throat. I swallow. Hard. “Yes.”

“Were you close?”

I nod.

“How many years did you know him before he did not take no for an answer?”

Salt blurs my vision. It is not from the Gulf. “Three.”

“And was there any time in those three years—any time at all—that you thought him capable of such violence?”

She is staring at me. She is waiting for an answer. She is waiting for me to be honest.

“No.” My voice cracks over the admission, the unspoken words still lodged in the core of my throat. I would have trusted him with my life. The pad of her thumb smooths my cheek. When she speaks next, her voice is soft. Tender.

“If not today,” she says, whispering, “then tomorrow.” The siren turns away, leaving me alone in my shame. My naivety. The belief that there are people incapable of violence, when the truth is that anyone is capable of anything.

I look up. I stare at the night crowd. My night crowd. I stare at Billy. I imagine his face above mine, replacing the one who is culpable. His hand over my mouth, killing the scream. His words hissed into the pink of my ear. You’re supposed to be a lesbian. You’re not doing a very good job right now.

Could Billy do that? Could he do that to me? To another human being? Everything I know about Billy says no. Everything I know about life says yes.

Up ahead, a dolphin swims by. Something rests on the crown of its skull. It takes me a second to realize what it is. An octopus. I immediately tense on behalf of the invertebrate. I wait, anxious for the dolphin’s signature shake-and-toss, for it to throw its head back and destroy the eight-legged cephalopod, to tear its body apart, piece by tentacled piece.

But the dolphin does something different. It lowers its head into a patch reef, where the octopus’s legs wrap around the coral, dark as midnight. The dolphin watches, patient, until the octopus is properly camouflaged, black as the ink in its body. Until—even though I know it’s there—it becomes impossible to see.

And then the dolphin swims away.


Several yards away from me now, the siren stops her swimming. Her body stills, but she doesn’t turn to face me.

“You’re right,” I say. “I know you’re right. I know it’s safer, safer to not…safer to not get close. Safer to not let them in at all. But I can’t do that. I can’t. I tried and it just made it worse. All of it got so much worse.” My voice rises in volume. Not yelling, not angry. Just trying to reach her, trying to understand myself better. “I can’t go through life like that. I wish I could, but I can’t. If I believe every new person I meet is—” I stop. Collect myself. The gills on my neck pump and pump. “I know why you don’t trust these men. It’s probably stupid that I do. But that’s the truth: I do. I do trust them. I don’t think they’re incapable of anything, I just don’t think they will. I don’t. And if I’m wrong—if something in them changes, if they reveal themselves as something I couldn’t predict—if they come for you—then you can take me. When you come back for them, you can take me again, too.” The siren turns around. Looks at me. Our eyes lock in on each other and do not let go. “I mean it,” I say. “You can take me too. You can eat me, or tie me to your kelp, or keep me down here as your live-in maid, or do whatever it is you need to do, but please give me a chance first. Please. Please give them a chance and let them go, let them come home with me. Because I don’t think I’m wrong. I don’t. And I don’t think these men—the ones you have here—I don’t think they’ll do anything to make you come back for them, but if they do, you can have me too. I swear it. You can keep us down here forever, and I won’t try and stop you. I won’t say a word.”

It’s a while before she moves toward me, the siren with her skin so pale I can see her veins, pink as arteries, the siren with her inkblot hair and silver tail, the siren with her voice like an unpaved driveway, rough around the edges but oddly, oddly pleasant, its bumps and upturned soil reverberating through the body.

We are face to face. Nose to nose. She forgoes my chin and, this time, cups my cheek instead. I swallow. “You would make a beautiful siren,” she says, and I can tell from the tone of her voice that the sentiment isn’t rooted in threat. That she’s being sincere.

Embarrassed, I say the first thing that comes to mind. “I can’t sing.”

The siren raises her eyebrows. Smiles. “Can’t you?” she says, and puts her hand over my eyes.

In seconds I am sleeping.

▴ ▴ ▴

I wake up to heavy coughing and the sound of my name, repeated to me in a tone that indicates panic—the voice is calm, level, but you can hear it, right there beneath the surface of control.

I want to open my eyes, to let him know I’m alive, but I remember my nightmare from the other night—their bloated bodies, the dead fish—and close them tighter. My punishment. The audacity of believing in closure, in something like coming home.

“Harper? Harper, can you hear me? You’re okay now. We’re okay.”

I open my eyes. Billy stares down at me, searching. Searching for life, his eyes bright with pleading. I have never seen him look like this. “Hey,” I say. And then, turning my head to the side—the familiar barrier, the rails that separate us from the Gulf—“Are we on the bridge?”

Billy laughs. His neck drops between his shoulders, two hills that sag with relief. “Jesus,” he says, and laughs again. Scrubs his face with his open palm. “Fucking hell, Harper.”

He helps me up—carefully, gingerly—and when I’m on my feet, when I stumble over myself, he is not the only one to steady me. From behind, a calloused hand grips my shoulder. When I turn around, I see them. All of them. Soaked to the bone and beautiful, beautiful and alive.

Aiden’s hand stays on my shoulder until it’s clear I won’t fall again. Eli is still coughing, Lucas slapping his back to help get that last bit up. John holds Matthew in a hug so fierce that Matthew’s feet leave the ground, airborne. Isaac wrings out his shirt. Thomas picks kelp out of his hair, from behind his ears. “Got it all?” says Isaac.

“No,” says Thomas, “but you don’t want to see where the last few are.”

I laugh. Everyone stops what they’re doing. Turns to look at me.

I’m surrounded at once, hugs that lift me off my feet, my soaked clothes against their soaked clothes, sighs of relief and barks of laughter, the impossible outcome of our being alive.

It’s the first time I’ve seen them in the daylight, I realize, the sky around us pink with dawn, painting their complexions in early morning glow.

Across from us, the bait shop. Its neon sign, its Crayola blue open. I go to move toward it, to make us some coffee, when Billy’s voice calls me back. “Look,” he says, and nods out to the Gulf.

We gather at the bridge, all nine of us, ten if you include her—the siren. We stare at her, down there in the water, her hair back up in its beehive, the unnervingly pale skin of her shoulders, two ice caps in the middle of the sea.

She looks at me. Winks and blows a kiss.

We are only just registering the gesture before she turns away, singing as she swims from us. Away from the bridge, away from the bait shop. I can’t say what comes over me exactly, just that I’m suddenly on the banister, feet tucked between the railing’s metal bars, waving even though she can’t see. “Good-bye!” I yell, because I want her to hear me, to know that I won’t forget.

I’m about to hop off when Billy steps up too, positions himself on the bridge next to me, his rubber boots slick against the rail. “Good-bye!” he says, waving at the siren’s retreating frame. “Be careful out there!”

Soon the whole night crowd is with me, next to me on the railing. Waving, shouting farewells and safe travels, blessings for and from the sea. The siren stops swimming, a safe distance away, but when she turns to face us again, her eyes lock on to mine, stunned. A guarded disbelief.

She raises her hand from beneath the surface. Looks at me—at all of us—and waves.

We do not stop waving until she’s past the horizon, until we can no longer see her. The surface of the Gulf pink with morning, our clothes already beginning to dry.

Samuel Clark holds an MFA in fiction from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and is a 2021 participant in the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop for Spiritual Writing. His work appears in literary magazines such as BOOTH, Blood Orange Review, Gris-Gris Literary Journal, the Conium Review, Artemis Journal, and the anthology Transmasculine Poetics: Filling the Gaps in Literature & the Silences Around Us. He lives in Colorado with his adopted cat, Emily D.
Find out more about Samuel and his work in our series "What's In My Desk?"