“Are you sure this is safe?” River asked, trying not to be sick over the side of the boat as it sped along choppy waters just off the coast.
“One hundred percent!” Ace grinned at her, so very sure. He’d made the trip a number of times, after all.
River gripped the straps on her life jacket a bit tighter, not quite trusting Ace. He had a habit of inflating statements. They were on the way to meet friends at a bunch of small islands just off the coast, where there were some strange rocks jutting out of the waters. Rumor was that the islands were cursed, that people that went in on foggy nights never made it back out.
The little speedboat, Ace’s baby, was coming up on the islands fast and River wasn’t sure she was so up to the trip any more. Spending a half hour alone with Ace was bad enough, but cursed islands? It wasn’t worth seeing all her old friends.
“Maybe we should go back,” River shouted over the wind and waves, pushing jet-black hair from her face. “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea, Ace.”
Laughing, Ace shook his head. “No way! We’re almost there!”
River opened her mouth to protest some more but stopped. Something about the way he laughed told her she wasn’t going to get anywhere by complaining. Ace had made up his mind and she’d gotten on the boat with him – so where Ace went, River went. Resigned, River settled in for the rest of the trip.
They stayed in relative silence. Between the roar of the boat, the crashing waves, and the whistling wind, there wasn’t much to say anyway. Soon, the islands loomed ahead. Even sooner, Ace was navigating through them with practiced ease.
Finally, River spotted some of the people they were meant to meet with on the biggest island. It wasn’t much bigger than the others, but it was taller and flatter and had some neat trees growing on it. River could see two of their friends, Asher and Ryder. Asher and Ryder went everywhere together, and neither had a gender.
Both of them waved as Ace pulled his boat up. They were both pretty cheery people, and River relaxed a bit. Once Ace gave her the okay, River hopped into the cold water and paddled over.
“River!” said Ryder, wading in to pull River into a tight hug. “I haven’t seen you in so long!”
“Oh, I know,” said River, “I’m sorry.”
“That’s alright,” chimed in the paler Asher, “You’re here, after all!”
“Yeah, me too!” Ace laughed, sloshing loudly in the shallow water we were all standing in. “Come on, it’s cold down here. Let’s go see the others!”
“Who else is here?” River asked, following behind.
“Just Axel and Grody Brody,” said Asher, laughing when Ace made a face.
“Why do you call him Grody Brody?” he asked.
“Because when we were kids, he would eat dirt and worms to gross us out.”
“Ew,” said River. “I forgot about that.”
Everyone laughed, coming around to the trees. There was a thin line of smoke coming from behind the biggest one, where Axel stood smoking a cigarette glamorously. Brody stood over her, braced against the tree. Axel looked less than thrilled to have him there, puffing smoke in his face at every opportunity.
“Hey!” said Ryder, catching their attention. Axel quickly slipped out from under Brody, smiling at the four of them. “I thought you quit, Ax?”
Axel shrugged, dropping the butt of her cigarette and grinding it out with her heel. “I did quit. Last year. I started again this year.”
Ryder laughed, “I guess it has been a long time since we saw each other.”
Axel smiled, coming over to throw a dark, lanky arm over their brown shoulders. “Well we can party now that everyone’s together again.” Looking at the lot of us, she swept a hand around. “This is everyone, right?”
Ace nodded, gesturing back to the boat. “Well that’s everyone I said I would bring in Maria.”
Brody’s nose crinkled, “Maria? You call your boat Maria?”
Ace frowned. “What’s wrong with that?”
River rolled her eyes and turned to Axel, Ryder, and Asher, leaving the two boys to bicker amongst themselves. The three of them didn’t seem invested in the argument either. After a moment, Ryder pulled out their cell to check the time and announce that it was late afternoon.
It wouldn’t be until sunset, when the fog rolled in, that things would turn sour.
It happened fast. One moment, there was a light mist back-lit by the setting sun, the next, none of them could see a foot in front of themselves. As the sun’s light faded, even that was a blessing. Ace was the first to stumble off into the dark, shining his phone’s light in wide arcs. It disappeared quickly, then there was some splashing.
Ace’s voice was muffled, and we heard him shout back that he’d found the boat.
“We should go after him,” said Brody, standing somewhere away from the others.
“No,” protested Ryder, holding on to Asher’s arm a little tighter.
Axel, a bit to their right, added, “Yeah, that’s not a good idea.”
River, a little in front of those three, just kept her light trained after Ace, hoping he would come back. It was about then that the singing started.
Now, a siren’s beautiful voice lures sailors to their deaths at sea. Her voice shows them everything they could ever want, if only they could swim out to find her. Without a name, she is a disembodied voice in the mist.
And Ace was the closest thing to a sailor on the island.
The singing sounded strangely clear in the fog. Axel commented on it first, shushing everyone’s chatter to make them listen.
“There,” she said, pointing towards where Ace and the boat Maria were. “It’s coming from over there.” Without another word, she began walking towards it. River stopped her when she tried to brush by, grabbing the taller woman’s arm.
“We don’t know what that is, Ax!”
“Ace is over there, what if it’s some kind of cryptid and he takes all the credit?” She grinned, breaking free of River’s grip to pursue the sound.
Brody followed closely after her, saying, “Yeah, what she said.”
Ryder groaned, and Asher sighed, shuffling over to where River stood, baffled. The song was pretty and rather alluring, but the three of them remained skeptical. None of them said anything for what felt like ages as the fog grew even thicker around them. It was starting to become frightening how little they could all see.
Finally, there was an end to the eerie song in the mist, just as Axel and Brody began splashing about in the water. For a moment, as Axel and Brody clambered into Ace’s boat, there was a deep silence around the other three. Then, a soft voice from behind them, off the short cliffs and below, in the water.
“Come,” it said, “Come to me.”
Asher and Ryder shared one short look before they turned and fled, leaving River behind.
“Wait!” She tried to plead, stumbling in the dark and falling flat in the sand. There was a sputtering of the motor coming to life and more splashing as Asher and Ryder made haste onto Maria, but River didn’t come. She sat up and sucked in a sharp breath, grabbing at her ankle. It hurt, bad – she had twisted it.
The voice came again as she sat there, trying to work through the pain and stand up, saying, “You’re safe with me. Come to me.”
River managed to stand up, terrified. Something about the voice was alluring, and she almost wanted to listen to it. But she didn’t, limping her way to where the others crammed into Maria, where the fog was just starting to lift a little. The others shouted at her when they saw her coming.
Even Ace wanted her to move quicker as she sloshed through the shallow water toward the boat. It had drifted far enough away that River was sure she’d have to swim – and she was right.
Just as her toes left the safety of the ground, though, something wrapped tightly around River’s ankle. It yanked her under and the boat’s engine revved. River, scared and scrambling to swim back up, was sure they would leave her behind.
Something touched her face and her eyes shot open in the stinging water. Her hands scrabbled over the skin of another, dark hair floating in wild tangles around her as she fought to get free. The hands gripped her face tighter, nails – claws? – biting in deeply. River panicked, kicking and twisting and fighting to get free, but it was to no avail and she was running out of breath!
Finally, the creature moved forward, parting the floating hair and drawing their faces close. Her eyes were dark where it should have been white, with rows of sharp teeth and gills on her neck. She leaned in and gently kissed River’s forehead, then let her go.
River came back to the surface sputtering and coughing, reaching for anything to hold her above water. Her hands met hard plastic and she held on fast. It was a life preserver, and on the other end of the rope, Asher, Brody, and Axel were heaving. They dragged River to the boat and pulled her aboard as Ace eased the boat forward. There was still fog, so he had to be careful, but he was getting them out of there immediately.
It wasn’t easy to maneuver the boat, but Ace got them all out of there safely. The boat wasn’t quite meant to hold as many passengers as it did so it was slow-going back to the mainland. But, Ace, Axel, River, Ryder, Asher, and Brody, all made it back in one piece.
They would not be returning. Or at least that had been the plan.
She had to know.
“Do you really want to do this?” Ace’s voice was apprehensive. Something Ace wasn’t usually, but in this case …
“Yes,” said River. She wanted to go back, she needed to know what she’d seen was real. The others, minus Axel, hadn’t wanted to come, making some kind of excuse so they wouldn’t have to face whatever had been there with them on the island.
River needed to know, though.
“It’s a bad idea,” sang Axel, lounging against the side of the boat. She seemed right at home on the water, despite how nervous she really was. “You’re going to get yourself eaten by whatever it was.”
Ace smiled, trying to keep from laughing. “It’s a curse, not a monster.”
“I saw a monster.”
They both turned to River again.
“Tell us again how it had black eyes and hair and looked just like one of us,” said Axel sarcastically. “Come on, it was just some seaweed, or a hallucination, or something.”
“It wasn’t,” insisted River. “I wasn’t just seeing things.”
“Look,” said Ace, “We all know what we saw, and we saw River get pulled under the water. Right, Axel?”
“… Yeah, I guess.”
“Right. So there has to be some kind of explanation – and I’m not saying it’s a monster, because it’s not – so at the very least, we could take another look.” Ace tried to look hopeful, nearly failing.
“Besides,” added River under her breath, “We’re almost there anyway.”
And she was right. The boat was coming up on the islands quickly, and there was already a fog around them. Eerily enough, the fog clung only to the islands, drifting away over the waves. When Maria was pulled up alongside the big island again, River hopped out.
“Be careful!” said Axel, concerned. She was tough around the others, but River knew that it was just an act. “You don’t want to drown already.”
River rolled her eyes, wading away from Axel and Ace on Maria. “I have a life jacket on.”
“You did last time, too,” Pointed out Ace. River waved him off.
Soon, she was wading up on shore, surrounded by mist. Axel and Ace’s voices were muffled and grew quieter as River moved on. Soon, she was by the trees at the far side. Under the biggest tree sat a woman, humming and combing her fingers through her hair. She wore very little besides seaweed and netting.
River paused, squinting through the fog to see her.
The woman stood, smiling with rows of razor-sharp teeth. When she spoke, her voice was soft and lilted pleasantly with an accent of some kind. “You again,” She said. “You’ve come back!”
River nodded, swallowing thickly. Suddenly, she was afraid again. She didn’t know why, this woman – this creature – didn’t seem all that threatening. Still, she found her limbs frozen and fingers shaking.
The woman approached slowly, like one might approach a wild animal, scared that it might run away. “You are lovely,” she said, reaching forward.
River flinched, stepping away from her. The ends of her webbed fingers were tipped with sharp claws. There was no doubt in River’s mind that they could cut through flesh like a hot knife through butter.
She frowned, letting her hand hover in the air a moment before letting it drop. “You are afraid of me.”
Clearing her throat, River managed, “You tried to drown me.”
“I did no such thing,” another smile full of razor-sharp teeth. “I pulled you under to look at you.”
“I can’t breathe under water.”
“Well, I didn’t know that!” The woman giggled. “You were just so beautiful! I had to see.”
River took a moment to breathe. This creature thought she was beautiful? Finally, she asked, “What are you?”
Her answer was quicker than River anticipated. “A siren,” she said confidently.
“So you kill men?”
“Sailors,” She corrected. “And you seem to be becoming one, coming out to these islands twice now.”
Nervously, River laughed, “I’m no sailor.”
The woman smiled again and nodded, looking unconvinced. “I won’t harm you, though. You’re too interesting.”
“Thanks, I guess?”
River stared. The siren seemed so innocent, in a way. River found herself drawn to her. And with that realization, she balked. “I have to go,” she said, turning to flee. A clawed hand clamped around her wrist, but she twisted free of the strangely-gentle grip.
“Already?” said the siren behind River, following her hasty retreat into the fog.
“Yes,” she insisted, picking up her pace, nearly tripping a few times. To River’s relief, the siren stopped following at her answer, disappearing into the mist with a mournful sigh.
“Goodbye, then,” said the woman, just as River sloshed into the water once more.
River would not return.