“You hear it then?”
Gavin sat with his hands resting on the unpolished surface of the pine table. His eyes gazed unfocused into the space directly ahead of him, head unturned so that he did not look at her standing breathless behind him.
A few moments before, her feet had been pounding on the stairs, and moments before that her hands had been sliding sweaters into the hardwood dresser of the unfamiliar room upstairs. Dinner had been a quiet affair. Afterwards he had placed the key to her father's home in her open palm and asked if she would want him to come along in the morning when she went to sift through the old man's belongings. She had shaken her head and after saying goodnight she had gone upstairs to unpack.
Sliding sweaters into the hardwood dresser of the unfamiliar room upstairs. Now her heart was hammering against her chest. Momentarily that was the only sound. She struggled to put it together, seeing him sitting there so calm and still. There had been a smile in his voice when he had asked,
“You hear it then?”
And she wondered if she had imagined it, that scream slashing through the silence. Listening to her own heart and ragged breathing, she studied the back of his head, his wavy dark hair. She began to believe she had overreacted. That sound… maybe it was nothing.
Then it pierced the stillness again with its shrill, hollow sound, filling her with a panic and dread so terrible… she looked to the door, took a step toward it. He moved abruptly, upsetting the chair and taking hold of her wrist. She stared with wild blue eyes into his now somber face. He shook his head.
“Never. Never go out to them, no matter how they call. They’ll kill you. They always do, no matter what music you think you hear in their voices.”
She looked at his hand on her wrist then back at his eyes, her breath coming in little heaving gasps. He released her, immediately stepped back and righted the chair.
“Music?” she finally stammered. “In that, that…awful…”
“Hmmm,” he said moving towards the antique coal stove. He put the cast iron kettle on to boil. “I had wondered about that. Bill Summers, he heard music, and your father, he heard it too. And I hear it, the ballads my mother used to sing… but a woman, I‘ve wondered what a woman would hear.”
“My father? What are you talking about, music? What the hell is that? What animal makes a sound like that? I thought… I thought at first it was children screaming, or coyotes…” Kate shook her mane of long red hair. “What? What makes a sound like that?”
Gavin took two bright red mugs out of a pantry and set them on the table. Kate jumped as the wailing and cackling started up again. As it died off she rubbed her arms and a tear fell from her eye. Gavin watched the tear slip down her cheek from across the room.
“Why don’t you sit down Kate. There’s no sense standing there. I’ll make you a cup off coffee.”
He turned his attention to a silver tin and proceeded to remove a heaping scoop of aromatic coffee beans from its hidden depths and put them into a small battery powered grinder. Kate moved slowly towards the table and took a seat in the chair he had recently occupied. His attention remained fixed on the work of preparing coffee, he neither spoke nor looked at her, simply poured the fresh coffee grinds into a glass French press then added the hot water. He glanced at her when the wailing started up again while he poured the coffee into their cups. Kate slammed her hands down on the table and coffee spilled up over the brims of each mug. Her shoulders crept up towards her ears and her head twisted on her neck in a dramatic cringe.
When the sound stopped she looked back at him and saw that he was smiling slightly, gazing beyond her at the door. After a moment he shook himself and set the kettle back on its hook. He wiped the spilled coffee up with a dish towel and pushed a mug towards Kate.
Seating himself at the opposite end of the small square table he began to sip at the steaming brew.
Kate looked nervously over her shoulder at the door.
“Is it locked?” she asked
“They can’t come out of the water.” he answered.
“What?” Kate asked her voice rising, “What can’t come out of the water?”
“The sirens.” Gavin told her. “Mermaids.”
“Go to hell.” she said viciously. His face went blank. He stroked his cup.
“Not Anderson's little mermaid.” he said, “No. The real, soulless thing.”
“You’re insane.” she said and laughed a little, clapping a hand to her mouth. “It’s coyotes, right? Or it’s, like, wolverines or something.”
“They are most definitely aquatic, adapted to salt and fresh water, like manatees, or certain sharks, because they made it upstream to the lake, where they got Summers. Your father, he-”
“My father.” she interrupted him. “Did you kill my father, you lunatic? And this Summers guy? Your snapping up all the property around here. That’s what they said down in Danville, you’re buying everything up. All except the federal lands. And what, my father and this other guy, they wouldn’t sell? That it?” Gavin looked at her for a moment. He couldn’t have been more than 38, but there was a solid band of silver in his hair over his left ear. One hand absently brushed the fabric of his blue flannel at the collar.
“Wow,” he said leaning back in his seat. “This isn’t Scooby Doo you know. You always this paranoid? No I didn’t kill your father.“ He stared at her hard for a second or two before sighing. “If anything he’s killed me. He’s the one that invited me up here. We met at UC Santa Barbara last year, when he was still a professor there. I was part of a brown bag panel about the long term environmental impact of the gulf spill.” Gavin stopped and stroked his grizzled chin.
“I think maybe he knew back then, he was… already thinking about it, that has to be the reason that he introduced himself to me. We got together later for drinks and he was asking all sorts of questions.… how much of the ocean floor is really charted, he wanted to know about ravines and sub aquatic caverns, we talked about the blue holes, how many new species had been discovered just that year… he was really interested. I remember I told him, I said, we have had a better look at what’s on the surface of the moon than what’s on the bottom of our oceans. Anyway, you know, he had my number and he called me two months ago and invited me up for a stay. He definitely knew then. He knew more than he told me. He didn’t just happen upon them Kate. He was looking for them. I didn’t know until after he died, when I went through his desk. Do you know that every man that has ever owned this cabin we’re sitting in has drowned? Same is true of the other three cabins here in Turner's Cove. The Summer’s place has changed hands a few times without a death in the mix. Your father knew all about it, that’s why he picked it, why he came here. He was looking for them.”
“Them?” Kate over enunciated. The cackling shrieks pierced the air again and she jumped and clapped her hands over her ears until it subsided. Gavin pushed his cup away across the table, leaned back in his chair, shut his eyes. As the wailing faded he hummed a few bars of a little melody.
“I don’t know how much longer I’ll hold up.” he confessed, opening his eyes and looking at her after what seemed like an unnatural period of time. “They come with the full moon, stay for a week. I don’t know for sure, but it seems like they come for a season then migrate or else stop singing for the rest of the year. All the drownings, they’re in the summer.” He fumbled in the breast pocket of his flannel and produced a pair of ear plugs. “This what I do to get through a night. This and caffeine. I can’t risk falling asleep while they’re out there singing. That’s how your father went, I think. I don’t know, really. The thing is, you want to go. So really you’re fighting against yourself, and eventually you want to stop fighting, give in to what you most desire, the source of that song. I’ve been holding on, waiting for you.”
“For me?” Kate felt her legs prepare for flight. Her body shrank away from the table.
“To close the sale of the property.” he said.
“Right. Because you want my father's cabin so bad.” she said coldly.
He shook his head.
“No. That’s what I told the agent, what I told you to get you here. Now you see the situation for yourself. And I can see that they don’t have a mesmerizing effect on you… What I want is to turn my property here in Turner Cove over to you.”
“What?” Kate’s brow wrinkled.
“You can keep people away from the cove, the drowning will stop.”
“Well, you can do that.” Kate said squirming in her chair.
“If I stay here I’ll die.” Gavin answered dispassionately. “That won't do any good. My brother will inherit, he’ll die, then his sons and so on. I need someone to understand what is happening here. That’s the only way to seal this place up. And your father brought me into this…There needs to be a champion Kate, a guardian at the gate.”
Kate rubbed her temples, shook her head.
“This is hysterical. I mean, do you hear yourself? You want me to give up my life and come here to protect the world from mermaids. Mermaids. God. I need to get out of here. You need to get out of here, you need a doctor.”
Kate pushed away from the table and stood up. The cacophonous screeching started up again and Kate froze where she stood. The paralysis lasted for only a moment. Then, determinedly, she turned and rushed out the front door, leaving Gavin behind shouting for her to stop. She ran down the driveway, her feet skidding over the gravel, and found the path that lead through the trees. Down the slope, legs pumping, heart hammering, lungs burning, she raced. The shrieking stopped but Kate went on, the pearly moon dangling solitarily in the sky above. She broke through the yellow sea grass onto the sandy dunes and slowed as she approached the hiss of waves braking on the shore.
She saw them then, three or four of them laying on the sand, the surf breaking over their glistening black bodies, others farther out rising and diving in the dark mirror surface of the sea. She stood stock still, the eerie sensation of having been drugged washing over her. She wanted to scream, looking at their eel-like tails, their tangled slimy hair, their glistening arms supporting them in the sand, but her throat was constricted by the force of emotion.
The distance was too great for her too make out the features of their faces but the mere suspicion of horrors brought her to her knees. They started up their wailing again, first one then another until it was a chorus of discordant voices piercing the air. One raised an arm and pointed to her. She could see the white of its eyes looking into hers.
She pushed herself up off the sand, scrambling to her feet and then ran back the way she had come. Bursting through the sea grass she collided with Gavin, whose arms gripped hers for only a moment before she pulled away and rushed past him, back through the trees, up the gravel drive.
Her hands were sliding sweaters out of the hardwood dresser, jamming them hastily back into an open duffel bag in the unfamiliar room. Moments before that her feet had been pounding on the stairs. Now she hoisted the bag over her shoulder and hurried back down.
The shrieking had become more hysterical, reaching a fevered pitch, like the excited braying of hyenas. She passed the square pine table where her cup of cold coffee still stood untouched. Gavin’s lay on its side, the coffee pooled around the ear plugs. Kate didn’t even pause to close the open cabin door, she simply rushed to her car, fumbled her keys into the ignition and sped away along the curving road, billows of dust rising in her wake.