Helen Drops the Bomb
This short story was originally intended to be part of the prologue to Book # 2 in the series, Tails From Colony Island. It was intended to kick off a sub-plot which wound up being smaller than I originally planned. There is little, if any, “need to know” information in the story and thus I decided to make it a short story and leave it at that.
The story has its beginnings in Chapter 15 of Urban Mermaid where the reader is introduced to two minor characters living on the south end of Colony Island. Avery Johnson is a the owner of a “mom and pop” grocery store and the only human resident on Colony Island.
Helen Johnson is a mermaid and Avery’s mate of thirty years. She has repeatedly begged Avery to become a merman but his standard response is that he has no time for “fishy foolishness”. The sand in Avery’s hourglass is running out and Helen has decided to use the ‘nuclear option’.
The story still needs some work. There’s plenty of dialogue but not much in the way of descriptive language. I plan to continue polishing it as time goes by.
Helen Drops the Bomb
A Colony Island Short Story
Helen Johnson anxiously paced back and forth in her home of thirty years. Waiting for her husband, Avery, to come home was killing her. What was taking him so long? It should be simple. Close the till. Turn out the lights. Lock the door. Come home. Shuttering their mom and pop grocery store was a fairly easy task, so why the delay?
Maybe he knew what she had in store for him and was deliberately dragging his heels. Helen looked around the living room and the pictures on the fireplace mantle caught her eye. So many memories. She had carefully planned this evening and their three sons were away from the house, engaged in other activities. Her eldest and his mate were in their own home, tending to her adorable granddaughter. The middle son seemed to be on the cusp of choosing a mate and Helen knew where he’d be and who he’d be with. Her youngest was off on a camping trip with his friends. She had begged him to stay nearby but her motherly intuition told her they’d swum to the Bahamas.
Helen sighed to herself. Her darling boys. She was so proud of them but she wished she’d been able to give each one the undivided attention normal merboys received. Avery was adamant, however, about staying the way he was so Helen resigned herself to having her children close together like they did on the mainland. That way, Avery would be able to see the boys grow up, choose a mate and maybe even breed a grandchild or two before there was no more Avery.
Raising the boys, mostly on her own, had not been easy. Her mate was tied up with the store and while the family was well provided for, Helen wanted more time with Avery, something it seemed she would never have. He couldn’t come along on family swims – he was human, after all – so spending time together in the sea was out. Despite the lack of what most merfolk would regard as a full-time father, the boys turned out well and all would soon be gone from the house. So would Avery.
“Helen? I’m home.” Avery shuffled through the kitchen door with a sack of groceries in one arm and a gallon of orange juice in the other. His mate walked through the door from the dining room, asking what had taken him so long.
“I’m sorry about that. Some newly landed ferals came in to the store late this afternoon, and I spent way over two hours explaining how food on land works as well as introducing them to the concept of can openers.”
“Well dear, you’re finally home and that’s what matters.” Helen began putting the groceries away. “Unless you’re starving, I need to discuss something with you before I fix dinner for us.” Helen had decided that hunger would put an edge on things for their discussion and she needed for things to be in her favour as much as possible.
“Sure, sweet thing. What’s up.”
Helen was arranging the last of the grocery items on the pantry shelves. “Go ahead into the den. I’ll be there in a sec.” Alarm bells were already sounding in Avery’s mind but he nonetheless did as he was told. He had just settled in to “his” chair when Helen came in, sat down on the sofa, and smoothed her skirt around her. There was a moment’s pause as the waning light illuminated the den.
“Avery, I’ve been meaning to ask this for a while, but I’ve never found the opportunity. I need to know how you have planned to take care of me after you’re dead.” The last three words were spoken with a choking sound in her voice. Her mate’s eyes literally bugged out and for a second, she thought she’d triggered a heart attack. “Say what?” Avery was incredulous; where was this coming from?
Helen pulled herself together, stiffening her spine as well as her resolve. “Just what I said. I’d like to know what you have set up for me. You’re almost 60 and will be dead and gone by the time you’re 70. I need to know what I have to look forward to so I can make my own plans for the next hundred years or more.”
Avery was flummoxed by this bolt from the blue, but Helen was right about one thing, the men in the Johnson family tended to shuffle off their mortal coils between the ages of 64 & 70. “W-w-well … I’ve got a bit set aside for you.” Actually, it was more than a bit thanks to George Tench’s shrewd investment advice but still, it wouldn’t carry her for a hundred years … thirty maybe, but not a hundred. “I guess I figured you’d find another husband … I mean mate … once I was out of the way.”
“Dear, you are my one and only. I knew that from the moment we first met. You’ll still be my one and only when I enter the sea for the final time, a century – or more – from now. Have any other ideas?” Hellen was in command of this discussion and it was going to go just the way she wanted. For his part, Avery was on the spot and he didn’t like it one bit. His brow beetled as he tried figure a way out of this mess he’d somehow landed in. “Well, you could always go live in the sea. I understand the cost of living is pretty low out there.”
“Avery, do you not know anything about me” she asked with a distressed look on her face. Yes, I am a mermaid. Yes, I can live in the sea. But Colony Island is my home. The only home I’ve ever known. I love it here and so do most of the other residents. A vacation at sea is a lovely thought, but after 3 or 4 months, a year at the most, I’d be ready to come home. To Colony Island. Where I belong.” Helen’s voice took on a pleading tone. “Don’t you understand? I’m happy here and I’ve had a happy life with you. Hasn’t yours been happy too?” This whole discussion had Avery on his back foot. He’d come here because he loved Helen and it had been a nice place to spend his adult life. Why did she want to make his few remaining years so painful?
“You could always work in the store. You could even sell the business” he told her with a hopeful look on his face. Maybe this would derail the conversation which was going nowhere but downhill. “Avery, do you really think I’d be happy running the grocery store by myself for the next 80 or 90 years? Without you? As for selling the business, we don’t own the store, the town does. Yes, selling the fixtures, equipment, and stock would bring me a bit of money, but not enough to live on for very long. Our house belongs to the town so once our youngest has chosen a mate and bred, there’s no reason for me to stay here and pay rent. Selling the furnishings would also bring in a small amount, but like the business, not enough to live on for very long.
“Once the house is gone, what do I do? Become a sort of gypsy grandmother, living with one son until they get tired of me and then being passed on to the next one? Our boys might be honoured by my presence, but I assure you their mates will see things differently after a while. Avery, what happens then? Where will I go? What will I do?”
Avery’s heart was breaking. The thought of his beloved Helen being alone and uncared for was almost too much for him to bear. Somebody, please shoot me now! “I don’t know what to tell you, dear. I could continue working until I die in harness – which will probably happen anyway – but I will be able to add only so much additional money to the kitty. Can we stop talking about this, now? Before I break down and weep at your feet? I don’t know what to do and I’m totally out of answers.”
Helen found herself half wishing she hadn’t brought this up at all. It pained her to see him, her loving mate and the father of their children, grieving so much. Grieving about things he was powerless to change.
“My dearest mate, I so did not want to bring this subject up. I’ve avoided it for far too long, though.” She looked away for a moment. The tears were starting to roll down her cheeks. “I simply had to know before things went even further along than they are now.
“I wish there was a way out. For both of us. The only possible escape that I can see is … “ This was it. Time for her lay down her final card. She wondered if when he saw it, he’d turn the table over and walk away, Maybe, he’d just walk away. Given his earlier reactions to the subject, she wouldn’t be surprised. But maybe, just maybe, he would stay and talk about this final card. “ … is for you to become a merman. We could be together for a century or more and hopefully, Poseidon would call us both home at the same time. I know that you’ve been opposed to this ever since we were joined but we’re almost out of time and we now have only this one option on the table. I don’t want to live without you.”
So that’s her ulterior motive Avery groused to himself. I should’a known. Even with this knowledge in hand, he had to admit her arguments were incontrovertible. There was no way for him to escape the fact his clock was ticking down the final minutes and a “Hail Mary” was his only option. “Okay, but do we have to make a decision now? Can’t we accept that the topic is under discussion and come back to it in a year or two.”
“Avery, we don’t have a year or two. We may not even have a month or two. I’ve learned from the mayor there’s an age limit to all this. After you reach a certain age, it becomes nearly impossible to accomplish. It’s already going to be rougher on you now than if you had done when you first came here.” Helen wanted to add an ‘I told you so’ but chose not to make things even worse than they already were. “If you had done it at that time, you could have eased into life here on the island without anyone being the wiser.
“If you do this now, everyone is going to know but still, no one will really care other than to wonder why it took you so long.”
“Sweet thing, you know that I haven’t had the time for all this fish stuff.”
Helen was starting to become annoyed by Avery’s intransigence and it showed it her voice. “Fish stuff? That’s not much better than when you used to call it ‘fishy foolishness’. I’m a mermaid. All of my friends and family are mermaids and mermen. This is what we are. This is who we are. We’ve survived in the sea for millennia and now we live on land as well. I will not have my life, and the lives of everyone I know and love, reduced to ‘fish stuff’.” At this point, Helen was literally incandescent. She’d held all this back for nearly thirty years and was not about to pull any punches.
“How will you tell our sons, the ones I’ve had to raise largely on my own, that their lives are just ‘fishy foolishness’? Then there’s the granddaughter you dote on. Is her existence a mere trifle?” Helen’s words were really starting to sting and Avery was determined to at least put up at least something of a fight.
“If you haven’t noticed, I’ve put a roof over our heads, food on our table, and clothes on our backs for nearly thirty years, all the while, making our end of the island a better place than when we got here.”
“It has been duly noted and duly appreciated, love. But couldn’t you have found just a little time to swim with our sons? For years, they asked why you weren’t one of us. I made excuses but they got the feeling you thought you were too good to be one of us. Don’t you see? Your family loves, wants, and needs you; in the sea as well as on land. Darling, what are you so afraid of?”
The sudden change in direction had caught Avery flat footed. To his mind, it hadn’t been a fair fight to begin with but he had been suddenly caught at his most vulnerable. He thought of stalling for a bit of time but saw that it would be useless. “Its … its … because I’m afraid I wouldn’t be myself after it was all over. Myself is the only ‘me’ I’ve ever know and I’m afraid that version of ‘me’ be gone for good when it was all over.” Avery rested his head in his hands. “I just want to be myself; Avery Johnson.”
Helen decided her response would need a deft touch to succeed. “Avery, dear, we are constantly changing; both of us are. You’re different from the good-looking human who first set foot on Colony Island and I’m a different mermaid from the one who asked you to join me here. Yet, at the same time, we’re still the same two people we were thirty years ago and we still will be a century from now … if you choose to join us. You’ll make a wonderful merman. You just have to believe you’ll still be the same Avery Johnson, only better.”
“I don’t know, Helen. I wish there was someone I could speak to about this; someone besides you. Someone who knows what it’s like to go through this sort of thing.”
Helen was starting to see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. “Dear, if we’d had this same talk two years ago, I doubt if there would be much I or anyone else could offer. Now, we have Peter Macpherson with us. Everyone knew that his conversion was happening and look how he turned out. Penelope is one lucky mermaid.” Helen decided to stop here before her envy turned the rest of her as green as her tail was.
“Yeah, and I’ll look just great with a beard and ponytail” Avery groused.
Helen tried not to let her disappointment show. “Well, dear, you don’t have to keep them if you don’t want to. On the other hand, you could use a bit of help up top” she said glancing at the paltry few follicles currently gracing the top of her mate’s head. “Why don’t you let me talk with Ilene Tench and see if she can set something up.”
Avery wasn’t very keen on seeking council and advice from someone less than half his age but he had run out of reasons to stall what seemed to be the inevitable. It was time to throw in the towel. “Okay. I’ll do it for you and you alone.”
“Dear, I’m very flattered you want to do this for me but the reason needs to be for yourself, as well. You need to want this for Avery Johnson just as much as you want it for the mermaid who loves him with all her heart.” She hadn’t meant to say this last bit, but Helen Johnson was starting to fall in love with her mate all over again.
“Okay. Okay” Avery said with a wry grin. I want to do this so I’ll be able to love and care for the mermaid of my dreams.”
Any other mermaid would have declared victory and swum home. Not Helen. There was a contingency item on her agenda and she wanted to publish it here and now. “Avery, there’s one other thing. Once you’re done and we’ve had a few years to swim together, I want us to breed like proper merfolk on a beach lit by the full moon. I love all three of our boys but I pray that Amphitrite will send us at least one girl.”
Avery did a quick bit of math and discovered that he might become a father again at the age of 91. “Helen, do you realise that I’ll be close to 110 when the fifth one graduates high school?”
“Yes, and you’ll be having a ball” she replied with a twinkle in her eye. Avery wasn’t quite so sure about the fun element of all this. “Besides, I’ll probably find that one daughter is more than sufficient.” Avery resigned himself to the inevitable. If the truth be told, he was immensely pleased his eldest boy and his mate had given him a granddaughter.
“I’ll need to apologise to our boys” Avery sighed. The thought, that his sons believed that being a merman was beneath him, really stung. “They have to know that it was never about them; it was all due to my fear and stubbornness. One of the main reasons I spent so much time at the store was so you could take them swimming as much as possible.” Avery was starting to get a bit weepy. “I’m sorry I missed swimming with them because I was a stubborn fool.”
Avery had seldom shown this much emotion during their thirty years together and it was affecting Helen as well. “Darling, there is no need to apologise. Simply tell them that you’ve finally made the decision to join us and they’ll be arguing over who gets to be the first one to take their old man for a swim.
“You will need to find the time to swim with them – as well as with me – and I may have a solution. Our middle son will choose a mate very soon and he’s going to need a regular job. Why not bring him into the business? If our youngest keeps bringing home good grades like this past year, he’s going to get a full scholarship to university. Why not give him the chance to earn some money to cover books and expenses?”
“You’re right, as usual, sweet thing” Avery said, resigning himself to the inevitable. “Can we keep this whole thing on the ‘qt’, though? Obviously, I don’t mind you & the boys knowing, but I don’t want anyone else around here learning about it, at least for a while.”
“Dearest, I’ll do my best, but once Grace Tench gets wind of it, the news will be all over the island in a heart-beat.”
Avery knew all too well about Grace’s gossip prowess. “Yeah, you’re right. I guess I’m not about to have any peace and quiet until I’ve got fins like everyone else” he said with a heavy sigh. “You seem to have all the connections. If you would, get things rolling for me. Meanwhile, I’m going to take a shower.”
“And dinner will be well on its way by the time you’re done” Helen responded. She’d call Ilene and the Mayor first thing tomorrow. Meanwhile, she had a dinner to cook for her merman-to-be.