Daria ran, crashing through the brush and almost losing her footing in the slick brown leaves. Her chest was already tightening, her breath getting ragged but there was no time to dig out her inhaler. She wondered how far behind the boys were. She wasn’t as fast as them, but she had to stay far enough ahead to get to the water first.
The three 10th grade boys had surprised her when they appeared on the dirt track that led to the walnut grove, her neighbor and ex-friend Ricky, his buddy Jess, and some new kid she hadn’t seen before.
“Look, it’s Daria Vader,” Jess had grinned and made swooshing noises, waving his arms like he was brandishing a lightsaber.
“You know that character kills off pretty much everyone, right?” She kept her voice flat. The nickname referred to her black clothes, and rather than fight it she leaned into the dark and scary image. It was easier.
Daria hadn’t looked up from where she crouched to sort through the black and green hulls of the walnuts on the ground. Wilkins Walnuts would pay twenty dollars for a hundred pounds of the nasty things and she wanted to have spending money of her own for the trip next week. Besides, they were just stupid boys.
“Guess we’ll have to kill you first then,” drawled the new kid, and something whipped past her and bounced off the walnut tree with a thwack. Daria jumped at the noise, then whipped her head around to glare at the intruders. The first two boys always harassed her when they found her in the woods, mostly names and bad jokes, but this new guy had a handful of rocks. He smiled showing teeth, and she felt the chill of it across the clearing.
“Hey man, she’s not a squirrel,” Ricky said, and he sounded disappointed that she wasn’t a small furry rodent they could torment.
The new boy ignored Ricky and pulled his arm back.
“What the-“ Daria ducked as he threw, the rock sailing past her shoulder. “Hey!” What was this kid’s problem? She managed to dodge the next two rocks. Ricky and Jesse were snickering harder after every miss, maybe if he couldn’t hit her he would give up.
The rock thrower wheeled on them.
“Don’t just stand there like a dumbass!” he shouted. Jess scrabbled in the leaves for rocks of his own, but Ricky stepped back, rubbing his empty hands on his pants. He might have been having second thoughts, but not enough to help her.
With two of them throwing the rocks came faster. She felt one hit the side of her ribs, then a sharp pain as something bounced off her head just above her hairline. She crouched down and squeezed her eyes shut, one walnut juice-covered hand clamped over the spot.
“Got her! Three points for a head shot,” Jess crowed.
“No way, that was one of mine,” the other boy argued.
They didn’t see the flush of her skin as anger filled her like fire, burning down from the throbbing lump on her head in a flash through her belly and out to her limbs. Her brain stopped sending conscious thoughts, her body reacted and grabbed up the garbage bag of black walnuts she’d been collecting. She gripped the bottom corner of the bag and swung the open end towards them in an arc, gooey black projectiles flying.
The argument ended in shrieks as walnuts pelted them, leaving dark splotches that would stain for days. One splatted against the side of Ricky’s neck and he ducked in reaction, another hit Jess in the forehead. She grinned as they yelped and stumbled, but the fire left her as fast as it had come. She could hear her mom’s voice telling her to stop looking for trouble, that the woods were so big she didn’t have to fight with the boys, that it would be easier to avoid confrontation in the first place. So much for that idea.
Her only ammunition gone she turned and ran into the trees. That was a mistake, because predators can’t resist fleeing prey.
As she scrambled between the trees she kept moving downhill. Water would flow downhill, if she could just get to the creek before they did she could lose them. Over her heart pounding and her breath wheezing she could hear crashing and shouts off to the left. They couldn’t see her and having to hunt for her would slow them down. If she was lucky they’d go the wrong way, but she’d never been very lucky. She spotted a ravine cut by rain and followed the channel down until she saw water glinting through the trees. She was almost there, almost safe.
“There she is!” The sound of the voice overloaded her system and wiped all the thoughts from her mind except that she had to get away.
They were baying behind her like hounds, their voices getting closer and making her skin tighten and ripple as the hair on her body stood up in alarm. She couldn’t go into the water while they could see her, couldn’t change in front of humans and give herself away but she kept running toward the creek. A rock whipped into the leaves beside her, too close. She jumped down the overhang and skidded to a stop in the gravel at the edge of the water, gasping for air as her eyes darted back and forth. She was desperate for someplace to hide, but there was nothing.
She crept along the water trying to stay out of sight behind the bank. The voices didn’t sound as loud as she followed the water past a shallow area that rippled and gurgled around mossy rocks. She reached the bank that had been cut away by years of spring floods and followed the trail to the top where kids used a rope swing to drop into the deep pool below.
Suddenly a hand grabbed at her shoulder, the fingers snagging in the fabric of her oversized hoodie. She jerked away, but the hand lost its hold and she had pulled too hard, she couldn’t stop herself. With a small screech she plunged over the edge into the cold water below.
Down, down to the bottom, she sank, the cool water a relief and a terror. The change was on her as soon as she submerged, skin rippling with color as it shifted to blend in with her surroundings, the small fins at her hips tenting her hoodie as they stabilized her descent. Her black pants ripped at the seams as her legs flexed and fused together, thickening into a muscular tail. Her breathing changed from a wheeze to a gurgle, then the water flowed over her gills and her chest was no longer tight.
Her eyes had turned almost black, the pupils dilated to take in the small amount of light that penetrated the murky water stirred up by her fall, and she knew that if the boys saw her there was no way they’d recognize her like this. Would that be good or bad?
It occurred to Daria that this wasn’t what she had planned, but it might save her anyway. She pulled the hoodie over her head and tucked it under her body as she settled to the bottom in the deepest part of the pool, disappearing into the muck and decomposing leaves. A black catfish shuffled aside, making room for her in the debris.
“Where is she? Holy shit, where is she, Cole?” Ricky’s voice had jumped a full octave and cut through the water.
The boy who started all this, Cole, kept his voice hard. “I didn’t push her man, she just fell. This is not my fault. It’s not my fault!”
In the background Jess was supplying a constant mantra of “Oh god Oh god Oh god Oh god-“
“It sure as hell is your fault,” Ricky shouted. “Daria! Daria where are you?” He kept calling her name, his voice moving up and down the bank above the pool but she didn’t move. It served him right if he thought she drowned, and if they didn’t see her anywhere maybe they would leave. All she had to do was wait.
“Jesus Christ, it’s not like anyone is going to miss her,” Cole said. The words felt like a dart shot through the water into her chest.
“She can’t swim you asshole!” The still surface shattered with a splash.
Someone was in the pool with her, obscured in a haze of bubbles. She stayed still, only her eyes moving as they tracked the disturbance. She saw Cole’s bright white shoes first, a stupid thing to have worn into the woods. His swimming was terrible, his arms and legs thrashing in different directions and not helping him get any closer to the surface.
Oh no, she thought, her stomach turning over. Seriously? She told people that she couldn’t swim as a cover to keep out of the water but she’d never met a kid who actually can’t. Maybe he’s just freaked out and he’ll get it together in a minute.
As the bubbles thinned she could see his eyes, staring blind and wide with panic under swaying red hair. He kicked hard once, twice, and almost got to the surface. His efforts made the water churn around him, but then he sank again. Her animal brain, the part that drove her panicked flight through the woods, whispered that she could just let him drown, after all he wasn’t upset when it was her they thought was dead. Her dark eyes glinted at the thought, but she’s not like him.
She let out a bubbly sigh and pushed off the bottom slowly, the mud swirling around her. Her tail trailed behind like a rudder so she could circle behind him with as little disturbance as possible. Even with her improved vision her own hands were barely visible to her, the skin adjusting in color and pattern as she pulled herself across different areas of leaf, mud and rock, her body’s camouflage perfect. Movement was the one thing that might give her away but she couldn’t let him die.
Coles’ kicks were slowing, his hands stretched out but dangling instead of trying to paddle. If she was going to get him, it had to be now. Daria pushed up, gliding toward him just as another body hit the water. She saw Ricky’s face scanning the pool and stopped moving but she wasn’t close to the bottom anymore and this far up she couldn’t blend, there was too much light. Ricky’s eyes locked on her and his mouth opened, the water vibrating with his scream.
Daria shoved Cole toward him as hard as she could, it was the best she could do for him now, she had to save herself. A single flick of her tail spun her in a turn as fast as a bluegill strike and with a few short strokes she shot into the fast channel that would carry her downstream. She hoped it was enough, that Ricky would get Cole out, and that he didn’t see her clearly enough to realize he was looking at a mermaid.
All content Copyright Amelia Lynch, Writer June 2022