Ariel in Real Life by Rebecca Jarrett

She’s been sick for so long that she has almost forgotten what being normal feels like.

It feels like all she knows now is death, and dying. Her parents dishing out too much money on endless medical bills. Having no hair and getting stared at in public. Being told no, you can’t take Pilates/get a tattoo/pet that dog/go to that concert, you’re too sick.

It’s when she’s on the beach for the last time, lying in the sand, that she finally remembers.

She remembers being a little girl, obsessed with mermaids because her hair was long and red, just like Ariel’s. She was so excited that there was a princess that looked like her. The day she watched it for the first time, she made her parents sign her up for swim lessons so she could be Ariel “in real life.”

She remembers turning four and having her birthday party at a wildlife preserve. They got to hold spiders and snakes and many other animals that she hadn’t yet learned to be afraid of. Later that day, they decorated small, smooth stones to look like ladybugs and bumblebees.

She remembers the day that her sister was born. She was only five, and she was supposed to go over to a neighbor’s house to sleep, but she got too scared. Her dad came home early and put on The Wizard of Oz while he took a nap. When they went to visit, they got in trouble for bringing in outside food – her mom’s favorite apple Nutri Grain fruitbars.

She remembers telling her friends on the playground that she was moving to Georgia. When they went house hunting, she got fleas from the carpet in one of the houses, and carsick in the realtor’s car from too much sweet tea. Later, back at the apartment, she got in trouble for trying to teach her one-year-old sister how to do a forward roll on a not yet fully developed neck.

She remembers loving school so much that she would do anything to spend extra time there. At an after school camp once, she tricked some fifth-graders into believing she held her breath for three whole minutes by puffing out her cheeks and breathing out of her nose. Over the summer, she begged her mother to buy her workbooks, and played school with her stuffed animals.

She remembers breaking her arm playing tennis, but nobody – not even her mom – believed her. They thought she just wanted to sit out for the day, and told her that if it still hurt after practice, they would take her to the hospital. She played through the pain and after, when her arm still hurt, went to the doctor, who told her mom that it was a greenstick fracture. Her cast was hot pink.

She remembers her first dog. She got him in eighth grade, after a trip to the Humane Society. He had one blue eye and one brown eye, and he loved eating Cheerios so much that she considered changing his name. Her senior year, her parents sent him to live on a farm, because they didn’t want to take care of him when she left for college. They told her she could always visit him, but she knew it wouldn’t be the same. Six months later, her little sister got a puppy. 

She remembers leaving home for college the first time. Her dad cried. She insisted on driving the entire 1,038.8 mile trip by herself. After she unpacked her dorm, she stood out on the balcony and breathed in the fresh air.  

The cawing of seagulls pulls her from her reverie. She opens her eyes and takes a deep breath, relishing the warmth of the afternoon sun. She takes in her surroundings: the little boy with the bright red kite shaped like a fire truck, the golden-haired dogs frolicking in the surf without leashes on; her parents, a few meters behind her, looking relaxed for the first time in years.

The tide is coming in, and the water is almost at her knees. It’s coming. She closes her eyes again, for the last time.

In her mind, she imagines the shore at sunset, the sky’s warm red and orange hues melting into cool purples and blues like taffy on a hot day. The heat of the sun beating down on her now makes her feel just as sticky, but not quite as sweet. She hugs her arms around herself, tight – so tight her bones pop.

As the cool water envelops her, she grows gills and a tail. A mermaid, transformed, swims beyond the pier, off into the horizon.


-Originally published in The Elixir’s 2016-17 print edition

-Photo credit to The Epoch Times