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Beautiful Beast


On Sundays, Travis heads down to the shore to watch the mermaids swim in a deep-set cove. Bright-faced girls in pastel onesies, little breasts like cockle shells. They giggle and splash and lie on the crescent sand, tails become long white legs, seaweed hair gone flaxen. In the heat, their voices swirl with the wind and their breaths steal the air. Travis can do nothing more than sit high above on the cliff’s overhang, holding his chest and wishing just once, one of them would look up and offer a kiss.

He explains this all to his therapist as she taps her pencil against her teeth. “Why do you need to believe in mermaids?” she asks over the rims of her glasses. “You would too if you saw them,” he says. “They make you feel alive.” He’s forgotten the rule about not jumping to his feet and the therapist waits for him to sit. Then she smoothes the sides of her skirt and says, “Are you sure you’re not seeing seals?”

There is no good way to climb down the cove’s ragged cliffs. When the mermaids come, they swim around the furthest jut of rock, emerging where the waves become mist. Wild creatures, those girls. Animals, for sure. Unafraid of water or sun, knowing nothing of beauty’s ache. One kiss from a beast such as that could save a man. Release him from the weight of land—from therapists and homebound mothers and jobs digging holes for the city. And wouldn’t he be giving them something too? A rush of life outside of sand and salt. Something to remember for years and years. Yes, I came alive that day.

“Going? Going where?” his mother says from the shadows of the couch. Travis has a rope wrapped around his shoulder and a grapple he’s made out of serrated soup cans. “To the sea,” he says. “I’m finally going to do something. Something special.” He waits for his mother to stand, to block his way. Instead, she flips through the channels on the silent TV. “Nothing special at the shore,” she says. “Too many people. And teenagers too.”

At the cove, Travis stares down the cliff walls. The mermaids lie below, rainbowed on the sand, faces sunward, toes wiggling with the ecstasy of their existence. Travis works at the soup cans, pressing the sharp edges tight into the dirt and rock. Then he ties off the rope and closes his eyes. He should be thinking of his mother, afraid of light and noise and of the wide dangers of the sky. He should be thinking of his therapist, her request that he always, always come to her before doing anything rash. He should be thinking of a thousand things, of pounds-per-square-inch, of the strength of tin, of rock and dirt and angles of descent. But as he steps backwards off the cliff, ready to repel, he thinks only of the coming kiss, of the taste of salt and a wavering blue waiting to carry him away.

There is a moment between being airborne and being absorbed by the sea. The instant before nothingness when he knows everything. And what he knows is this: Five mermaids—five girls—watch a man fly. His back to them, arms outstretched as he swoops down towards the water not like a man but like something lit from within, a phoenix burning from shore to sea, trailing a roped tail behind him. Then, just as he’s ready to turn his head and share himself in full, the sea explodes in a crowned spray, the flying man vanishing into the waves. For a long while, the girls say nothing, each wondering what magic she’s seen. Why the air feels so thin and home so far away. Why the wind and sky and sun itself seem to have followed the man into the water, leaving their lips tasting of salt, burnt in a way they don’t understand—won’t understand until their lives go by and by and by and by and still they wake every morning thinking of that day, aching to see the flying man just one more time, the blazing man, the beautiful beast who took flight just so they might live.

Alan Stewart Carl is a Texan writer of fiction, essays and miscellany. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Mid-American Review, Storyglossia, decomP, Storyscape, Flashquake, Emprise Review and other cool places. Additionally, he is a fiction editor for The Splinter Generation and is pursuing an MFA from Antioch University. He can be tracked down at