1 * * *
Each to Each The last words he had absorbed were the ones about Lazarus, come back from the dead to tell everyone . . . everything. That was all wrong, bogus. If you’ve seen death from the inside, Dorian thought, you keep your mouth shut. You don’t say a word to anybody. They wouldn’t understand you anyway.
"Dorian? Can you continue?"
He looked up, blank. Images of plummeting bodies still streaked through his head.
" ‘ Shall I part . . .’ " Mrs. Muggeridge prompted. Dorian pulled himself up from terrible daydreams and forced his eyes to focus on the page in front of him. Acting normal was a way to buy himself the privacy to think not so normally. He found the line and cleared his throat.
" ‘ Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?’ " His voice sounded too fl at. He tried to squeeze more emotion into it, though the words seemed uninteresting. " ‘I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.’ " Now Dorian saw what was coming in the next line and started to panic. He struggled to suppress the memory of those dark eyes looking at him from the center of a wave, the gagging taste of salt, that unspeakable music. Did Mrs. Muggeridge have any idea what she was doing to him? " ‘I have heard the mer . . .’ " He choked a little. " ‘The mermaids singing, each to each.’ " Now there was an audible tremor in his voice, and something rising in his throat that felt like a throttled scream.
"Please read to the end."
" ‘I do not think that they will sing to me!’ " Dorian spat it out aggressively and dropped the book with a crash. The rest of the students in the tiny class were staring, too shocked to laugh. But what did they know, anyway? "This poem is garbage! It’s all lies!"
"Dorian . . ."
"If he’d heard the mermaids singing, he wouldn’t be blathering on like this! He would be dead! Is this poem just trying to pretend that people don’t have to die?"
Mrs. Muggeridge didn’t even look angry. Somewhere between alarmed and amused.
"If you could read on to the end, Dorian, I think you’ll see that T. S. Eliot isn’t trying to evade intimations of mortality." Students started snickering at that. She always used such weird words. It was a mystery to him how Mrs. Muggeridge had wound up in this town. She was even more out of place than he was, with her dragging black clothes and odd ideas.
"No!" Dorian didn’t remember getting out of his chair, but he was standing now. His legs were shaking violently, and the room seemed unsteady. Mrs. Muggeridge looked at him carefully.
"Maybe you should step out of the room for a few minutes?" He couldn’t understand why she had to react so calmly. It wasn’t fair, not when she’d made him read those horrible lines. He stalked out of class, leaving his English anthology with its pages splayed and crushed against the floor. In the hallway he pressed his forehead against the cold tile wall. His breathing was fast and hungry, as if he’d just come up from under the deep gray slick of the ocean.
He could hear Mrs. Muggeridge serenely reading on. " ‘We have lingered in the chambers of the sea, by sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown. Till human voices wake us, and we drown.’ "
He felt like he was going to faint. But at least the poem got something right. Maybe he’d survived the sinking of the Dear Melissa, but he still felt like he was drowning all the time. Every time his alarm clock went off, he lunged bolt upright in bed, gasping for air.
When the class finally poured out into the hall, he straightened himself and trailed after them to chemistry. It was such a suffocating, sleepy, ragtag school, with only sixty students and three teachers. His high school in the Chicago suburbs had been twenty times the size of this place. Everything felt crushingly small.
Other students turned to stare at the two men in dark suits standing near a drinking fountain, but Dorian didn’t notice them. He was concentrating on fighting the wobbly sensation of the floor.
The men noticed him, though. Their eyes tracked him intently as he walked away, sometimes leaning on the row of lockers. A few minutes later Mrs. Muggeridge emerged, gray corkscrew curls bobbing absurdly above her head as she chattered to another teacher, the scarlet frames of her glasses flashing like hazard lights. "I suppose I’m behind the times. Apparently now it’s politically incorrect to make your students read poems with mermaids that don’t kill people. What a thing to get so upset about!"
The suited men glanced at each other and followed her.
Dorian kept trying to draw the girl he’d seen. If he could set the memory down in black ink, slap it to the paper once and for all, then maybe he could finally get her out of his head. He drew exceptionally well, but every time he finished a new picture he couldn’t escape the feeling that something was missing. The drawing he was working on now showed a towering wave with a single enormous eye gazing out from under the crest. The eyelashes merged with curls of sea foam.
He couldn’t understand why he hadn’t been afraid at the time. The fear had come much later, after he was obviously safe, and the fits of nauseous terror that seized him were infuriatingly senseless. But when the ship was actually crashing, wrenching up under his feet, and people were dying all around him, he’d felt perfectly composed and confident.
He also didn’t know where the instincts that had saved him had come from. If he’d done even one thing differently, he knew, he wouldn’t be the sole surviving passenger of the Dear Melissa. He’d be as dead as the rest of them, as dead as his whole family. If he hadn’t faced down that girl in the waves—or that thing that wasn’t a girl, not really, but a monster with a beautiful girl’s head and torso—if he hadn’t sung her own devastating song right back at her, then it would have been all over. She would have murdered him without a second thought. But sitting under the cold fluorescent lights of the chemistry lab, he knew that singing in the middle of a shipwreck had been a bizarre impulse. Inexplicable. How had he known?
Who would have ever guessed that the way to stop a mermaid from killing you was to sing at her?
She’d dragged him out from the wreckage, swimming away with him clasped in one arm. They’d raced at such speed that the blood had shrieked in his head. The foam-striped water had rushed across his staring eyes. He’d struggled not to inhale it, and he’d failed again and again. Salt burned his lungs, and the cold water in his chest swelled into a bursting ache. But every time he’d thought that he was really going to drown, she’d pulled him up above the surface and let the water hack out of him, fountaining down his chin. She’d let him live. Only him, out of all the hundreds who’d set sail together.
She’d even spoken, once. Now that he had time to think it over, he realized one of the weirdest things about it all was the fact that she’d used English instead of talking in some kind of mermaid gibberish. Take a really deep breath, okay? We have to dive unde...