Marcos was excited and honored to be the first among his peers to explore this particular stretch of water. There were others who were better prepared, better qualified for the job, and yet his boss had bequeathed it to him.
“You’ve done well, Mr. Clark,” Mr. Jones said. “The work you’ve done for the company is exemplary.” His boss gave him a quick pat on the shoulder. “I know this assignment may seem daunting, but I trust you. It’s time to go out there and prove yourself. I know you’ll make me proud.”
Drawing some courage from the memory, Marcos, with help from one of the boatmen, slipped into his dry suit. Marcos, although by no means an inexperienced diver, was not used to the stiff and heavy material, and he felt awkward as he moved to the edge of the boat. He was used to lighter material and diving into warmer waters, where he snapped photos of brightly colored coral reefs, exotic fish, and plant life.
This assignment was much different. He was in northern Minnesota, not off the coast of Australia, and the body of water was the cold Lake Superior instead of the warm, tropical waters he was most familiar with.
Marcos took one look at the dark water and suppressed a shudder. There was something foreboding about the lake. A few years back he’d had the pleasure of enjoying a dive at the Great Barrier Reef. The water had been so clear and blue, you could see everything for what seemed like miles. At Lake Superior, the only thing Marcos could see as he sat on the edge of the boat was a black sheet of dark, murky water broken up only by the waves. Even though he didn’t believe the strange stories that had been circling about the lake for a year now, he could certainly understand how some could believe strange creatures lived in its depths.
Mr. Jones’ voice filled his head again: “This is a delicate assignment. The media has made such a fuss over it, and the stories have reached every corner of the world. Even though it’s been almost a year since the last sighting, sonic radar is still picking up evidence of something strange. Whatever those fishermen saw is still there and everybody is dying to know what it is.”
The light in Mr. Jones’ eyes had startled Marcos. It was the look of a hunter who’d caught sight of its prey. Mr. Jones wanted evidence of the phenomenon for the fame and fortune it would bring his company, but he also wanted to see for himself what the fishermen saw that day. Mr. Jones needed that vindication of his own beliefs.
Marcos scoffed. If mythical creatures did exist, why hadn’t anybody discovered them yet, especially with the recent advances in technology? Not even magic could hide something forever.
He was curious, though. Lake Superior seemed like such an obscure place, but suddenly the lake and the entire state of Minnesota was on international news. What the fishermen saw was real enough to cause this much fuss. The name they gave it, though, was what struck Marcos as odd. Mermaids? They didn’t exist. It’s likely the fishermen had seen nothing more than a large fish. Maybe they had even seen a fresh-water shark. Improbable as it was, it made more sense than mermaids.
“Are you ready, Mr. Clark?”
Marcos glanced up at the diving instructor and nodded. He checked himself over one last time and took a deep, steadying breath. He put his headgear on, made sure his goggles fit snugly, and slipped into the cold water of Lake Superior.
The water closing in over his head was a bit disorienting. Even with the lantern attached to his headgear, it was hard to see. For a moment, fear overtook him. Marcos briefly wondered if the entire assignment was pointless, but he pushed those thoughts aside. He had an hour to accomplish what he came here for before he ran out of oxygen; there was no time for doubt.
His partner was gesturing at him. ‘This way,’ he mouthed around his mouthpiece. Marcos quickly followed. For half an hour they swam without seeing anything, not even a lone fish. Marcos grew increasingly worried but he tried to keep faith in his partner. The man had been working this case for almost seven months now. If anybody knew where to find what they were looking for, it was he.
Suddenly, there was movement on Marcos’ right. He quickly turned his camera in that direction but there was nothing there. Feeling more unsettled than before, Marcos looked around him, wondering what could have disturbed the water like that, and wishing his light penetrated the darkness better.
He turned again to catch up to his partner, who was already a couple dozen feet ahead of him. He didn’t get very far before there was movement again, this time to his left. He froze, his eyes searching desperately for whatever was hiding in the shadows just beyond the light from his headlamp.
Awareness prickled along his skin. His gut was telling him there was something out there, and it meant him harm. It felt much larger than a fish and, for a wild second, he thought there really could be sharks in the lake. He could almost picture them coming after him, their powerful jaws with razor-sharp teeth chomping down on his legs and arms, ripping him to pieces.
Something brushed against his side and Marcos screamed silently. He swung his arm out and it collided with something solid. Marcos whipped around in the water, his heart beating a mile a minute, adrenaline pumping through his blood and making him dizzy.
Not more than a few feet in front of him was the most amazing thing he’d ever seen. He could hardly believe his eyes.
It was a mermaid. A real mermaid. Her hair was long, blonde, and swayed gently in the water. Her skin was translucent: Marcos could see the network of veins in the light. The last thing he saw before she swam away was a beautiful tail that sparkled like a million jewels.
Somehow, in spite of everything, he remembered to snap the picture. But what he saw in the flash of blinding light wasn’t something beautiful, but horrifying.
Dozens of merpeople, big and small, surrounded him. They swam lazily around him, a look of deep concentration and something more on their many faces. One of them, obviously male, swam within a couple feet of Marcos and looked at him appraisingly. Marcos didn’t like the gleam of light in his eyes. It was the look of a hunter who’d caught sight of its prey.
Suddenly, Marcos remembered something else Mr. Jones had told him: “Only one of the five fishermen who’d been on that boat returned to shore. Unfortunately, the man was in such a deep state of shock, he was unable to tell the authorities exactly what had befallen his comrades. The only thing he’d said was, ‘They’re real.’”
Marcos was in terrible danger. He bolted for the surface — a few of the merpeople opened their mouths in silent peals of laughter. Marcos swam as fast as he could, but the gear made him feel heavy and it was hard to swim with only one hand. It didn’t even occur to him to drop the camera. The picture he’d snapped was too precious, too important to let go.
They followed him, staying just outside the circle of light emanating from his headgear, taunting him with their proximity. He could feel their eyes on his back as he made a desperate attempt to get to the boat, even though, in the back of his mind, he knew it was in vain. If the hungry merpeople didn’t get him, time certainly would. The oxygen in his tank was almost depleted. Marcos knew an hour hadn’t yet passed, but panic and fear were speeding up his breathing, and it was burning through whatever precious air he had left.
Darkness and silence surrounded him. The water pushed in on all sides, encasing him. He felt the weight of his gear working against him, slowing him down. His arms were growing weaker; he was growing light-headed; black spots danced in the corners of his eyes. Still, he pushed on, clawing at the water, concentrating solely on reaching the surface.
The boat was within reach. He could pull himself to safety if he just stretched out his hand.
A white arm reached out of the darkness and grabbed his shoulder. A second hand clamped down on his wrist. A brilliant, blinding flash of hope swept through Marcos: His partners had seen him, they were going to pull him into the boat! But when he looked at the hands holding him, he saw the webbing between the skeletal fingers and knew they weren’t human.
The mermaid who had caught him looked him in the eyes. He had brilliant irises of blue with a sunburst of green around the pupil and, mesmerized, Marcos couldn’t look away. All thoughts of fleeing, of freedom, of living, vanished as he stared into those un-human eyes. He let himself be pulled back into the water, down into the black depths. At that moment, his oxygen tank gave out, and just as Marcos stopped breathing, sharp fingernails tore into him, ripping away his headgear and the heavy material of his dry suit. Soon, the fingernails were replaced by teeth.
Water filled his lungs. He gagged and swallowed more; he tasted blood. Weakly, in one last-ditch effort to save his life, he raised an arm and tried to push against the monsters feasting on him. But it was too late. He could feel his torn skin and knew there wasn’t anything left of him.
A few bubbles issued from his mouth as the oxygen finally left his body. The camera he had held on to through it all tumbled from his hand as he fell into the deep.
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