On the abandoned shores of Ellis Island, New York, Mira watched the pink horizon blend with subtle tones of grey and muted purples until the broken sky became an endless abyss of blackness and countless stars. Even the Statue of Liberty was barely visible anymore. Only a faint tip of Liberty’s torch stuck out of the brazen waters that had risen steadily each year for the last one hundred years.
Most of the land masses on Earth were now covered in water, with exception to mountains, and a few regions that had been prepared before the Great Deluge. Because scientists warned of the events that would transpire, the wealthiest of the world built upward upon some of the existing land to create higher ground level. Manhattan, along with Ellis island, being some of these coveted regions that the wealthiest did not want to give up to flooding.
Mira only knew of a few places still in existence, such as New York, New Jersey, and Washington state. She heard rumors there were bits of land on Africa, Europe, and Asia, but she never traveled outside of her home to know for sure. Besides, she would miss Nerin too much if she ever left, and she had everything she would ever need right here, right now. Hadn’t she?
Sliding his webbed fingers over Mira’s left shoulder, Nerin plopped next to her and took a deep breath. Handing her one of his many paper origami designs, he placed a dove into her open palm.
“For you. For peace....and overcoming fear.” Taking in a deep breath, he took pleasure in the smell of the salty sea. The ocean had captivated him, maybe as much as any young lady in Liberty Shore might captivate him. But his fixed gaze fell to Mira time and time again, more than anyone else. Something about her innocence and frankness drew him to her.
“Thanks,” Mira blushed. He always gave her things.
“I knew I’d find you here,” Nerin glanced in her direction, his eyes lit up like fire crackers.
“You know me well, I guess,” Mira blushed, her freckled cheeks reddening as she tilted her head towards him. Curling her legs underneath her chest, she shivered in the cool breeze and hugged her legs with arms covered in a maroon sweater. Nerin, enchanted with her beautiful, cherry-red hair, softly combed his webbed fingers through it.
“What is it about this spot?” Nerin raised a dark brow above his yellow eyes, untangling his hand from her hair.
“I don’t know,” she shrugged. “I feel on the brink of discovery here....like there is something more beyond the horizon.”
“Yes, more ocean,” he chuckled, the crooked corner of his lip rose when he laughed.
“Don’t poke fun,” Mira nudged him with a hard elbow, “Besides, this place is important to your...you too.” She almost said, “your kind, too,” but remembered she didn’t want to make that distinction yet. Others noticed her differences. She saw her differences. But no one said anything out loud.
“Yes...” Nerin rolled his neck back in thought; his shining, yellow eyes matched the stars radiance in the darkened purple sky. Mira never got over the fact that his eyes, everyone’s eyes, glowed yellow. Why hadn’t hers? “A lot of history here. It’s not called Liberty Shore for nothing. My parents told me this is the one place where Mers can live freely.”
Mira sighed, the mention of the word Mers always nearly brought her to tears. As if they somehow did not belong to the human race. As if their unique features existed only to remind the human world of the abominations of God. Why were there such class distinctions? After all, it wasn’t their fault the flood had happened.
One hundred years ago, humans began to reap what they had sewn. The Earth fought back with vengeance. Water saturated the planet in what had been dubbed the Great Deluge. Much of the land on Earth vanished underneath the seas. Many humans died, but those who survived became divided.
The human Epigenome began to adapt, more quickly than anyone realized. Within decades, new features began sprouting up on a number of babies, but not all babies shared these characteristics. A new class had been born and separated, exiled as others called it, but it didn’t matter the name given. The treatment and the result were the same. Humans did not want to intermix with this new breed....a breed dubbed “the Mers.” The more strange Mer features became, the more discriminating the human laws became.
“Have you ever even seen the outside world?” Fixing the falling sleeve from her shoulder, Mira met Nerin with those grey-blue eyes that pierced into his heart. She could say a thousand words with only a look. She had that look now as though she searched the deepest parts of his soul for answers.
“The out...side world?” The words caught in his throat. He had been to the border where Ellis Island met Jersey but no further. “Uh...no, not really. Why, you plan on going?” His expression cast a shadow of dread over her.
“I...don’t know,” she shrugged again, pretending she hadn’t thought about it or planned it over and over again in her mind. How she would sneak off in the middle of the night and peak, only peak, over the border line and, if no one was around, how she would high-tail it into the forbidden city. Sure, she might get dirty and acquire a few scrapes. Maybe even have a few hungry and homeless nights. But what she would find would surely be greater than she could imagine.
“You want to go. I know you, Mira. You can’t shrug and pretend. I see the longing in your eyes. You can’t hide from me.” And she couldn’t. Nerin had been her best friend for ten years. Ever since she had turned seven.
Remembering how he met her, Nerin saw her standing by the tide, lapping over her bare toes. Fiddling with her damp dress, she splashed up water with each jump. Giggles puffed her cheeks and her cherry-red hair caught his attention. No one on Liberty Shore looked like her. He wanted one kiss.
Tip-toeing up behind her, Mira’s attention was focused on the salty sea. When Nerin stepped one foot behind her, he tapped her shoulder, causing her to flip around to greet him for the first time face-to-face. Puckering his lips, he waited for his kiss. His toes balanced, teetering as he extended his form forward.
Slapping her hand across his cheek, Mira’s cheeks turned blood red while Nerin’s face blushed pink. Surprised, Nerin stumbled backward while keeping his stark yellow pupils focused on her. Mira’s face bunched up like an animal warding off enemies. But as Nerin retreated, he felt sure in each step that he would see her again.
Lifting from his memory, Nerin fixed his attention on the Mira who now sat next to him...ten years older.
“I don’t want to talk about this,” Mira changed her mind. The truth was always too much for her to bear. What could she tell him? She wanted to break Mer law and jump ship? Well, it was more of a harbor of water with interspersed boat homes. There were a few walkways made of wood tied from pole to pole to keep them above the water, but still. Further, it would break human law and no Mer wanted the wrath of the Aristo City Hall, the highest branch of human government since the Great Deluge.
The notion of Mira leaving him, of risking her life, or putting the lives of Mers in danger all because of her curiosities left Nerin nervous and angry. Dusting her hands off against her faded jeans, she played with a hole in them that had formed over her knee, hoping to avoid another conversation about the outside world. But Nerin turned his whole body toward her; his hand tightly gripped her forearm.
“You DON’T want to go outside,” his voice rose, and he pressed his face closer. Shimmering yellow eyes scanned her delicate facial features, revealing his distress.
“You don’t know what I want,” Mira yanked her arm away and stood with a huff.
“I do. I heard every word. You-want-to-cross-into-forbidden-land!” He said it like he discussed the plague. “And risk all our lives!”
“I...I...,” she couldn’t think of anything to convince him of her reasoning. Mers were taught all their lives that crossing into human land is punishable. That it would draw danger to them. He would never understand.
Her eyes glanced at Nerin’s shocked expression, and then she knew she could say no more. Instantly, she was remorseful, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what I’m saying.” Extending her hand to him, he slapped his palm against hers and pulled him up. His anger had diminished at her touch and the mini-feud forgiven. He could never stay mad at Mira for long.
Walking away from the shore, where the ocean crested some of the scarce and coveted land, Mira and Nerin walked hand-in-hand. Not because they were boyfriend and girlfriend, though both had thought about it more than once, but because Mer tradition permeated Ellis Island -Liberty Shore-; friends always walked hand-in-hand.
Liberty Shore, as the Mers called it, had been Mira’s home for as far back as she could remember, and it covered Ellis Island and part of New York. But lately, she kept having memories of a different life. The kind of life where humans took care of her. Not surprising, after all, she didn’t look like a Mer. She didn’t have webbed feet or webbed thighs. She didn’t have gills underneath her lungs. Heck, she couldn’t even swim that well!
She had known for a while she wasn’t a Mer, but she would never tell that to her father or mother. After all, she wouldn’t want to break their heart. They raised her and told her, despite what she looked like on the outside, she was Mer in her heart through-and-through, and that was all that mattered.
The Mers, despite their aquatic features, always had something the human race envied: beauty. Despite the grotesque webbing of Mer fingers, toes, and inner-thighs, what made any high-class human jealous were the striking eyes, wavy hair, and creamy complexions. The human’s jealousy was so intense they did not care if a Mer was killed for their attributes. And some Mers were. They were hunted like fish to be sold to the highest bidder as prized possessions. Like slavery long ago, when humans looked at Mers, what they saw was property and commodity. The worst of these humans...Pirates.
The practice, though outlawed, still existed among the Pirate circles. The Pirates stole what they could to survive. Capturing and selling a Mer brought in plenty of money but only if the Mer features were at their best. To achieve this, experience had taught Pirates to keep the Mers alive in coffins of water aboard their ships, until they could be sold.
However, Pirates were far from Mira’s and Nerin’s mind. After scurrying around a few ponds and leaping over puddles like frogs, Mira and Nerin raced across the sporadic spots of soil. They ran as they did when they were children, racing through the neighborhood after school, only slowing when approaching her home. Mira always had the advantage in running as Nerin’s webbed feet were more suited for swimming.
“You look so funny in that thing,” Mira pointed at the wavy movements of his kilt.
“What else could I wear? Pants?!” Niren jested, a tug at his inner legs, catching the webbing of his thighs. The webbing that extended from his upper inner leg to several inches above the knee reminded Mira that pants with their inner seams would not fit Mers. She had grown used to Mers walking around with kilts instead of pants, but the sight of Nerin in one always made her blush.
“Maybe a long tunic?” Mira teased, and Niren rolled his eyes.
A minuscule, three-roomed shack made of wood hung high on thick stilts. What humans would call a combined living/kitchen area and two bedrooms, the Mers called a litch and two sleepers. Mers didn’t need homes as much as humans did. They spent most of their time in the ocean. When they spent too many days out of water, Mer skin began to shrivel and dry like a snake shedding layers of skin, the sight not often pretty.
Home really meant a place to eat and sleep, and other than those two activities, Mers rarely stayed inside. As bedtime approached, Mira rushed up the cracking wooden steps and swung the door open. Niren waved good-bye after her retreating form and leapt off the steps into the puddles draining from underneath her house; a house, like many others, that harbored puddles...a result of the Great Deluge. If not for the stilts lifting the shack, the home would be submerged in salty water.
Entering her home, Mira’s eyes gazed over the wooden furniture. Most furniture had to be of wood because the factories were destroyed in the flood and left little capability to make anything else. But what Mers lacked in material, they made up for in artistry. Hand-carved flowers and geometric shapes decorated most pieces.
Mira’s father and mother, otherwise known as Zale and Marina, sat in the litch, relaxing in a set of wooden rocking chairs that surrounded the table. They rocked back and forth, making the hand-carved tulips on the arms of the rocking chair appear to blow in wind. Mira’s father kept a close eye on her as she strolled inside, hoping they wouldn’t notice she was late...again.
“What?” Mira’s guilt gave her away, and she threw her arms up, fingers fanning.
“You know I expect you home before dark. No telling what kind of dangers you might run into out there.” Crossing his arms over his chest, her father stood. A strong man with muscles carved from years of hard, outside labor. No stubble grew over his pointy chin as Mers didn’t have body hair over their soft, luminescent skin. Like most Mers, he remained shoeless. They preferred to travel over land on webbed feet, for the thick layers of extra skin provided comfort like a shoe.
“I...,” she didn’t want to fight, and she had recently learned in school all of the real reasons for danger, but she had to stand her ground. After all, she was notorious on Liberty Shore for her out-spoken personality. “I wanted to see the sunset on shore. Is that so wrong?” She innocently batted her long lashes, a habit she couldn’t help. Being the only one in Liberty Shore with long lashes, legs, real toes and fingers, the Mers thought of her as an angel. The young Mers anyway, the older Mers knew better. They’d seen war between humans and their kind. They’d seen how fiendish humans could be.
But the brutal history that led to Liberty Shore, wasn’t taught to Mers in school until they turned seventeen. This violent history is what Mira and Niren now understood. Until seventeen, the Mers lived in a bubble of ignorance. They were only warned to come home before dark. The reasons extended as far as, “because I told you so,” or “because it’s dangerous,” but rarely did parents talk about the real reasons.
“Yes, it’s wrong when you know good and well that we expect you back before dark and especially since learning about all the atrocities our Mer ancestors had to endure at the hands of humans and Pirates. I would think school would have scared you straight.”
“I...” What could she say? I’m not a Mer. “I’m sorry. I won’t stay out late again.” But both she and her parents knew she would. Something on the edge of the horizon, between Liberty Shore and New Jersey, beckoned to her, like a taunting ghost calling to her night and day. Too many unanswered questions left her restless.
She quickly fell asleep after she flopped on her small, quilted cot. It was not very large, not a king-sized or queen-sized bed, but more of a twin-sized bed. And all hers. How could she complain, no Mers slept in anything larger than two yards of space. Space was an expensive commodity with land so scarce. Somewhere in the middle of her dreams, she awoke.
A “who-who” sprung from the mouth of the owl perched on the lone, naked tree outside of her stained window. Midnight, a sliver of moon reflected silver light over the tree like the delicate veil to a wedding dress. She couldn’t take her eyes off the spotted owl that wore his feathers like a wise man wears his beard. Each sound he made posed a question to her. “Who-who,” the owl sang again and she flung her legs off the cot with a huff and pressed her pudgy nose to the window, “who-who.”
“Yes,” she sighed with a set of hands to her hips, “I want to know w-h-o I am too.” With that, the owl flew away and disappeared into the black abyss of sky.
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