PART III - Two Years Later
Days and nights blur into each other in miserable succession on the lifeboat, and Margot herself is too far gone to say just how long she and her brother have been adrift, but she remembers distinctly that Mason took the last of the water for himself three days ago.
He is watching Margot now, and his eyes on her are hungry. There is a knife in his pocket, and Mason’s hand is in the pocket, fingering it, almost constantly.
When he decides to kill her he won’t cut her throat or stab her in the chest, Margot supposes. She believes instead that Mason will try to climb on top of her and hold her down and cut her wrist, then hold it over the empty bucket, or else to his own mouth - less blood wasted that way - but he isn’t going to taste a drop of her if she can help it.
A pair of dolphins have been hanging around the boat, but now they disappear in a hurry, and in their wake a sharp grey fin cuts through the water.
“Shark,” Mason says, unnecessarily.
He is watching the dark water intently as the fin grows nearer, and Margot begins to rise to her feet, a barely conscious idea that she might push him over for the shark to contend with animating her aching body.
Then the shark-finned beast surfaces, his huge form rising up from the water silently and with barely a splash.
Mason faints dead away, rolling off the bench he was sitting on and into the footwell. Margot’s own scream is nothing more than a bitten-back croak.
Her eyes go to the teeth, which are sharp and numerous and bared, before her feverish brain has time to register the almost-humanness of the thing, and though she is a woman accustomed to living in a state of existential dread the fear she feels now is very bad.
Margot struggles to control that fear as she meets the eyes of the gigantic… whatever he is. They are very dark, those eyes, like polished hunks of obsidian mounted in the beast’s skull, and Margot cannot begin to fathom what might be going on behind them, and when he reaches for her Margot kicks out and scuttles backwards, putting as much space between herself and the beast as she can without falling out of the lifeboat.
The hand pauses and then withdraws without touching her, but now Margot thinks she sees something dangerously wounded flash across its dark eyes. That she does not know how to appease the beast multiples the terror that is already fluttering like a trapped bird inside her ribcage.
Her head is full of fog, and behind her cracked lips her tongue is swollen and rough as sandpaper, and looking back at him as he stares at her, maybe as unsure about what to do next as Margot herself is, she begins to wonder if he’s real at all.
That sense of unreality grows when another one rises up from the shadowy waves next to the first. This one is considerably smaller than the first, and instead of short cropped dark hair the newcomer’s hair is long and silvery and embellished with shells and rings that have been braided in among the flowing locks. For these reasons, as well as because the second beast doesn’t frighten her as badly as the first, Margot concludes that she is looking at the female of the species.
The smaller one sweeps her hair back primly, carding clawed fingers through it idly as the bigger one gestures at her, and a word suddenly strikes Margot.
“Mermaid,” she whispers, wondering why it didn’t occur to her before. Perhaps fairy tales about merfolk and classical stories about seductive sirens prepared her for something prettier and more human-like than she is looking at now - though the smaller of the pair is strikingly beautiful - but Margot can think of no other explanation for the beings before her.
When she speaks, both merfolk turn their heads to look at her, though Margot thinks only the smaller one understood what she said; the smile she gives Margot is pleasantly amused, but beside her the big one’s toothy leer turns vaguely puzzled.
As though by some unspoken consensus, the two of them turn back to each other and, still bobbing in the water, begin to exchange a series of complicated gestures. Margot has a strong sense that they are debating her fate, and she is right about this, though not necessarily in the way that she thinks. Margot decides that the smaller one must be advocating on her behalf, that she is perhaps even trying to save Margot’s life from her brutish mate.
The big male’s gestures have become more emphatic - violently insistent, Margot thinks - and in response to whatever he’s communicated to her the mermaid looks to Margot again, and this time Margot thinks that she sees speculation on her face.
The big one taps the little one’s shoulder impatiently, and when the mermaid returns her attention to him he continues to gesture at her.
He has a lot to say, it seems to Margot, who fights against the grey curtain exposure and severe dehydration wants to draw over her consciousness while she waits to see what, if anything, the merfolk will do with - or to - her and her brother.
Margot cannot, at this point, know that Hannibal and D have decided to let Will decide what should be done about the lifeboat and its dying cargo. From her position, Margot can tell only that some consensus has been reached between the two of them, because they stop gesturing at one another.
Then, moving gracefully but with shocking speed, the smaller one hoists her body up over the side of the boat, and Margot is surprised to see that she doesn’t have a fish’s tail at all, but rather a set of long and powerfully muscled legs.
“Hi there,” Margot says, and is shocked by the coarseness of her own voice, and dry frog croak of it. It is not how she wanted her own voice to sound, looking up at this stunning creature that is - perhaps - here to save her.
The leggy mermaid notices Mason, slumped on his side halfway beneath one of the benches, and is clearly surprised to see him there. Clapping her hands sharply for attention, she looks back to the big male and gestures at him.
He shrugs, momentarily bobbing lower in the water from the movement, and then follows a short gesture up by drawing what is clearly a question mark in the air. The mermaid leans over Mason, and when she spreads her long-fingered hand over his mouth and nose Margot imagines for a moment that she means to smother him, but it seems she is only feeling for breath. Convinced that Mason is still alive, she draws her hand away.
The mermaid relates this information to the big one with a quick gesture that Margot is coming to understand is not only a type of sign language, but one that is at least in some way related to the kind of signing that human beings use.
The big one mimes wiping sweat off his brow and smiles, and now that she has had time to process things and is somewhat less frightened Margot sees that his face is disfigured by scars. He’s covered in scars, in fact, as is the other one, and Margot thinks about the way her own skin is marred beneath her clothing and wonders.
These signs of what appears to be concern from the strange pair allow Margot to reign in a small measure of her remaining fear, but in its wake the desperate aching thirst dominates her again, and though she is ashamed to beg she says, “Water - please. Can you get me some water?” only wondering if the mermaid can understand her after she’s choked out the words. Speaking has caused her dry lips to crack open and bleed, and unbidden her tongue darts out to try to lick up the little drops of moisture, and beneath the desperation Margot is disgusted by the taste and by herself.
From what seems to be a great height above her, the mermaid reaches down and puts a hand on Margot’s shoulder, patting her reassuringly, and Margot thinks that she would weep if her body were not so worn down and desiccated.
It occurs to her suddenly that these two sharkish not-merfolk merfolk are probably just hallucinations brought on by the misfirings of her failing brain, but there are worse things that the dying light of her imagination might have cooked up, and she doesn’t try to talk herself out of the hope that leaps into her heart when the long-legged mermaid picks up a length of rope and ties it hitch at the front of the lifeboat, before tossing the remaining length of rope over the side to her mate.
As the big male begins to tow the boat toward God only knows where, the mermaid slides back into the water to give him a hand.
The fog is coming back in again, and Margot is not sure how much longer she will be able to stay conscious herself, but she has the presence of mind to take Mason’s knife and hide it away.
She dozes for a while after that, laying down on the hard wooden bench, her sense of her surroundings fading in and out, and when she lifts her head to look around again she sees that they are drawing close to a small island.
The sight of the beach and its inhabitants makes Margot wonder all over again if she is simply hallucinating everything.
There’s a man there, reclining on the beach, scarred up and sunburned like the denizen of some brutal primordial Eden, and nearly nearly naked among the smaller creatures - children? - who play in the shallows.
One of the little ones tug at the man’s hand and points out towards the lifeboat, and as he stands to gaze in her direction curiously Margot realizes that he can’t see her.
She sits up, and everything changes all at once.
The children scatter, two melting into the waves while a second pair breaks for land, and the easy happiness melts from the man’s disfigured face. In its place, Margot sees baffled fear and a deep dark rage vying for a place on the scarred territory of his face.
A man who gets angry in that way - whose anger is shot through with such profound terror - might do almost anything, and as he steps towards the lifeboat Margot feels herself getting scared all over again.