“Do you want to hear a fairy tale?” Grandpa Red wheezed.
Screens with green lights and strange beeps mumbled next to his bed in the great house. The metronome of the heart monitor tick-tocked down the halls, reminding everyone that Grandpa Red was approaching the clearing at the end of the path.
Lisa sat on the wooden stool next to the bed, her bare toes cold against the ancient hardwood floor. It was a school night, but her father told her she wouldn’t be going to school for a few weeks. Grandpa needed them close by. This was fine with Lisa. The seventh grade was slow torture. Mr. Carter was teaching her class about integers. Lisa didn’t understand why they started calling plain old numbers integers. The big numbers on the chalkboard all looked the same to her. Adults seemed to have bigger names for everything and she supposed it was time to start learning what they were.
Grandpa Red had a growing headache the doctor’s called a brain tumor. The headache would grow and grow like a tree until it filled Grandpa Red’s brain with too many roots. Her father warned that it made him a bit crazy.
“Yes, Grandpa. Tell me a fairy tale.” Lisa took his hand. His skin was thin like the flimsy paper in the bibles tucked behind the pews at church.
“Do you believe in mermaids?”
“When I was a girl.”
“You’re still a girl.”
“I’m almost 13. Then I’ll be a teenager and I’ll be able to drive soon. Daddy let me drive in the parking lot behind the grocery store last week. I was good.”
Grandpa Red shifted beneath the folds of the white sheets. The skin under his eyes hung loose and his jowls had tiny dark holes on them. Lisa listened to his warm breath wheeze out from the frail lungs desperately clinging to life within the brittle bones of his rib cage. Dying didn’t scare Lisa, but she was afraid of facing the future without Grandpa Red by her side.
Her earliest memory of Grandpa Red was from her first birthday.
Lisa couldn’t tell if the memory was real or something her overly imaginative mind conjured, but that didn’t matter. When she thought back to that day the image was clear as a bell and she would cherish it forever.
The day was bright. Half eaten slices of cake and pizza littered the picnic table. Grandpa Red wore a fuzzy flannel shirt. Cotton bristles from his sleeves scratched her cheeks as he lifted her up over his head. Her diaper was soiled. Remnants of frosting were drying fast between the chubby holds of her neck in the hot sun, but she didn’t care. This old man loved her and she loved him. It seemed that everything around Grandpa Red was touched by a pinch of magic.
She grew to love his pancakes when everyone hated them. Her left knee bore a thin scar from a tumble on a red tricycle he’d bought for her fourth birthday. There were countless nights where she dozed watching Peter Pan battle Captain Hook on TV with a belly full of buttery popcorn and her head resting in the crook of Grandpa Red’s arm.
Grandpa Red coughed. He wiped the spittle away with the tip of the bedsheet.
“Should I get someone?” Lisa asked.
“Absolutely not. I’m about to tell you a secret story. It’s for us to share and no one else until the time is right.”
Lisa thought back to what her father told her about the brain tumor making Grandpa a little cooky.
“Okay, Grandpa. Tell me your story.”
“Come a little closer. I don’t want the grown ups to hear.”
Lisa slid the stool closer and rested her head against his chest. His heart was still beating strong. She listened to his tale.
“Have you heard of the lost city of Atlantis?”
She nodded, remembering a Disney movie from a few years ago. “It was washed into the ocean by a tidal wave.”
“That’s rubbish. Atlantis is not lost. It’s easy to find for those who know the way and it has always been underwater. It’s where the merpeople live.”
“Mermen and mermaids. The first of the merpeople was a goddess called Atargatis. She was a beautiful goddess with immense power. She came down from the heavens to adventure on Earth and she fell in love with a shepherd boy. But, immortal gods aren’t supposed to fall in love with fragile mortals. One night, Atargatis fell asleep next to the shepherd boy. She dreamt of thunder and the heavens opened up. In her slumber, her powers brought down a bolt of lightning killing the shepherd boy.
“Atargatis banished herself to the sea. The ocean welcomed her and using her powers she transformed into the first mermaid. Atargatis went into the deep and a school of dolphins followed her. With the wave of her magic hand, she transformed them into the first merpeople. Together they built Atlantis and for thousands of years they thrived.
“The gods of Olympus grew jealous of Atlantis. Zeus thought Atargatis was building a city to challenge Olympus and Poseidon was enraged that a goddess would build an empire in his domain without permission.
“To punish Atargatis and the merpeople of Atlantis, Poseidon summoned the Leviathan. The Leviathan emerged from the dark inky black of the deepest caverns of the ocean. It’s a monstrous beast the size of a skyscraper. Its scales are hard as diamonds and its razor edged teeth would make any god tremble.
“The Leviathan encircled Atlantis. Killing any merman or mermaid who ventured beyond the city borders. Poseidon trapped the merpeople and none were allowed to leave. For two thousand years, the merpeople were held captive by the Leviathan.
“The merpeople had power. They had magic bestowed upon them by Atargatis. Together, they forged a weapon. A golden trident that could pierce the thick hide of the Leviathan. A single warrior was chosen to face the beast.
“This warrior’s red hair shimmered in the sun rays that broke through the blue waves. Amongst the merpeople, he was the fastest swimmer and boldest warrior. He took the trident and swam out to meet the beast and liberate his people.
“The squirming body of the great beast slithered from the depths to confront Atlantis’s champion. The Leviathan’s stomach grumbled as it prepared to strike. The warrior fled. In the face of the great beast, he’d lost his courage, abandoned his people and ran. The Leviathan chased him across the Pacific, snapping at his tail fin.
“The warrior collided with the beach and washed ashore. The Leviathan swam back and forth outside the surf waiting for its prey. The warrior could either plunge back into the ocean and face certain death or shrivel up on the beach and die for merpeople don’t last long out of the ocean.
“A young woman came to his aid. When the warrior saw her running towards him, her golden locks bouncing in the moonlight. He grew legs...his body transformed into a human shape.
“The warrior called himself Red like the color of his hair. He fell in love with the girl. They made a family together and the warrior put Atlantis behind him. Life here on the land has been wonderful, but the girl I fell in love with is gone. You have strong parents here to look after you. It’s time for me to go. I need to get back to Atlantis.”
One of the monitors perched behind the bed let out a shrill. Green waves bounced ferneticly across the black screens monitoring his Grandpa Red’s vitals. His chest rumbled and he gripped her hand.
“Lisa, listen to me. Take me to the ocean. In the morning, before your parents wake. You need to take me to the ocean. I must return to the water before my body gives out. It’s time to confront the Leviathan.”
Lisa’s parents and two nurses burst into the door. Her father shoved her aside. The machines screamed out. One of the nurses pulled out a syringe and stuck it into one of the tubes in Grandpa’s arm.
His old body relaxed. The convulsions ceased. His eyes fluttered as he drifted off.
Her father turned to her.
“Lisa, your grandpa needs to rest and so do you. It’s getting late.”
Lisa dragged herself to bed. She looked out the window into the night sky and cried herself to sleep. Grandpa Red was dying.
She dreamt of dark waves and the white foam of the surf flowing over the beach. In the dream, beneath the moonlight a red headed mermaid clung to life on the sand. She saw a woman running down the rocks to the stranded merman. It was her grandmother, young and strong before the wrinkles and gray hairs washed the golden blonde away. Lightning crackled against the sky, sparking against the water. Black fins broke the surface and then plunged back down to the depths.
The Leviathan waited.
Lisa awoke in a cold sweat. She slipped into a fresh pair of jeans and pulled a sweater over her head.
The door to Grandpa Red’s room creaked as the old brass hinged swung open. She paused in the dark of the hallway, listening for anyone coming.
“Lisa?” Her Grandfather’s broken voice called out to her. “Lisa is that you?”
She made her way over to his bed.
“We need to go. I’m almost out of time. You need to take me to the ocean.”
Lisa bit her lip. Had the brain tumor driven him mad?
“No one else will believe me. Only you. Only my brave little Lisa. Our secret story.”
His crooked fingers snaked out from the sheets and grabbed her by the wrist.
“The story doesn’t end here in this house. Now, help me into the wheelchair.”
Lisa pushed the wheelchair next to the bed. She pulled back his sheets. Grandpa Red’s bony legs swung over the edge. He teetered as he sat up and grabbed onto her to steady himself. Lisa slid him into the chair. His body was all bone and skin, the muscle eaten away by father time.
On the way out, Lisa swiped the keys to her father’s Volvo. It was parked in the driveway. Mom’s Mini Cooper was parked next to it.
It was dark. The salty air from the shore wafted in the air and the shrill of crickets sounded off. Grandpa was alert and was getting stronger with the excitement. He propped himself up in the passenger seat. Lisa reached over to buckle his seatbelt and he swatted her hand away.
“No time. Get in and drive before anyone catches us.”
Lisa closed the door as quietly as she could. She looked back at the house and took a deep breath. What if she was wrong? What if the big headache had taken over Grandpa Red’s brain?
The lights in the house flickered on. The front door blew open and her father loomed in the doorway.
“Lisa? What are you doing?”
He spotted the wheelchair near the car.
“Is Grandpa in there?”
He descended down the path towards them.
Lisa grabbed the arms of the wheelchair and flung it up the pavement. It crashed into her father’s shins and he stumbled into a bush. She ran around the front of the car and climbed in the driver's seat.
As she slid the key into the ignition, her mind raced back to the empty parking lot where her father taught her drive. She put the Volvo into reverse and hit the gas. The wheel whirled beneath her hands and the back bumper took out the great house’s mailbox as the car spun out into the street.
Her father got to his feet and charged down the driveway towards them.
He stopped in the middle of the street in front of the Volvo.
“What do I do?” Lisa’s voice trembled.
“Destiny awaits!” Grandpa Red shouted. “Hit the gas!”
Lisa slammed her foot down. Her father lunged out of the way. The passenger side view mirror struck him in the hip, knocking him to the pavement.
The beach was ten minutes away. Lisa had made the drive with her parents a million times, but she was always in the back seat. She came to a red light and hit the brakes. The car lurched violently and Grandpa Red knocked his head against the door.
“It’s all right. Don’t stop. Don’t stop for anything.”
The streets were empty. It was 6:30 in the morning and the purple hints of sunrise peaked out from the horizon in front of them. It was a straight shot to the beach. Eight blocks and they were there.
Headlights winked in the rearview mirror.
Lisa’s head spun around. Mom’s Mini Cooper was barrelling down the road towards them.
Grandpa Red reached out and gripped her shoulder. “Time to go, Lisa. We are in the home stretch.”
She could see her father’s face in the rear view mirror now fast approaching. The Mini stopped behind them and her father climbed out of the car.
Lisa turned to her Grandpa. “How do I know you aren’t crazy?”
Her father limped to the driver window and banged on the glass. He was wearing a bathrobe. A purple bruise was forming on his cheek and there were leaves stuck in his hair.
“Lisa get out of the car!”
Grandpa Red squeezed her shoulder. “Have faith.”
Lisa looked at her father. He shook his head. She pressed the gas. The Volvo lurched towards the beach.
Lisa wrestled with the wheel. The car screeched and caromed off the curb like an unbroken horse trying to buck its rider. Lisa gritted her teeth as they drove into the beach parking lot, scraping the side of the car against the metal post by the entrance.
“Keep going!” Grandpa Red roared. “Drive straight onto the sand up to the water!”
Lisa kept her foot down on the gas. The old Volvo bounced as it jumped the curb. The suspension tossed them about as the car bounced across the sand and fishtailed.
The car halted.
Lisa let off the gas and pressed it again. The rear wheels kicked up a wave of dirt in the Volvo’s wake but they weren’t moving.
“We’re stuck.” Grandpa Red pushed his door open. “We need to go the rest of the way on foot!”
Lisa clamored out and fell to her knees in the soft, damp sand. Her father pulled into the parking lot and got out of the car. She got to her feat and trudged to the passenger door.
Grandpa Red wrapped an arm around her neck and rose. His heart beat strong against her shoulder. He was wheezing hard and snot poured out of his nose as he coughed.
The ocean was thirty feet away.
Together they walked, inching towards the surf.
Her father was on the beach now, running after them.
The waves broke over their feet. Lisa’s shoes slushed with water. Grandpa Red fell to his knees.
“Deeper,” he said. “You need to take me deeper.”
Her father yelled out. “Lisa stop!”
She blocked him out and pulled Grandpa Red into the waves. His head went under. The white wash of the tumbling water sucked the rest of him down. A wave crashed into the side of her head, knocking her into the water. She lost her grip on Grandpa Red and fell into the dark blue. Her face slapped into the sharp sand and she lost her footing. She inhaled in the salty water and clawed futilely at the sea, struggling to find the surface.
Strong hands grabbed her collar and hauled her up. Her father stood waist deep in the surf.
“What the hell are you doing?” He yelled through the waves. His eyes shifted around the surf, scanning for Grandpa Red. His mouth swung open and he let go of her collar.
Several yards out, a red headed man broke the surface. He was magnificent. The cold water of the pacific dripped down his rippled chest. The sunlight glistened across his taut, muscled arms. In his hand, he raised a golden trident.
“She was helping me.”
“The fairy tales were all real, son. Lisa was the only one young enough to still believe in them.”
The sun rose over the horizon, covering us in a bright orange light. In the distance, dark fins broke through the surface in a menacing circle.
“It’s time I confront my demons.”
Lisa shivered in the cold. Her father put an arm around her. The red hair of the merman dipped below the surface. His golden trident shimmered a radiant glow as he torpedoed towards the Leviathan.