By Elizabeth Willsmore
An expectant buzz filled the room, the silence punctuated only by the breaths of the two women as Anya mulled over Susie’s words. Blinking, Anya absentmindedly tucked a russet curl behind her ear before glancing up to meet Susie’s intense gaze.
“I’ll do it.” Anya said the words firmly, looking unblinkingly at Susie the whole time. “But on one condition.” She rose to her feet until she was face to face with Susie.
“I want to know your stake in this,” Anya began, never taking her gaze off Susie’s calm, unflappable features. “You know why I need this, but why do you need it, Susie?” Anya’s voice dropped ever so slightly at the end, her eyes burning with curiosity as she searched Susie’s face for a reason.
This time, it was Susie who looked away, her dark eyes clouding imperceptibly as she took a small step back from Anya. A low hum seemed to fill the air, the tense silence mimicking the electrical buzz of the first strike in a lightning storm. Anya stood still as an oak tree. Her gaze lingered on Susie’s back, shoulders shifting with every breath, her tightly coiffed black bun quivering under the harsh basement lights. The tension in the air rose to a crescendo as Susie finally turned around, nude heels striking the floor with clear, precise clicks as she walked back to where Anya stood, motionless, in anticipation. Susie had retained her composure, her dark eyes glittering and unreadable. The only sign of discomfort was a slight hitch in her voice as she began to speak.
“A fair point, Anya. You and I don’t know each other very well, I suppose it would be appropriate for you to hear my ‘stake’ in this, as you so aptly put it.” Susie turned abruptly, walking towards the door, her footsteps ruffling the various stacks of files as she brushed past.
“Follow me.” Her voice rang through the air like an old church bell, the sound oddly strained in an otherwise silent room.
“Where are we going?” Anya asked as she hurriedly made her way through the rows of blueprints to where Susie stood waiting. The latter glanced back at Anya, a tinge of sorrow marring the dark calm of her eyes.
“Just follow me,” she replied, a somber smile whispering across her lips, “you’ll see.”
The air grew colder as Susie led Anya deeper into the basement, the slight incline in the floor matched by an equal decrease in temperature. As they descended downwards, a faintly fishy smell began to emanate from the darkness ahead, a combination of earth, brine, and stale ocean air wafting slowly upwards. Finally, Susie stopped outside a doorway, its edges so blended so perfectly with the outer wall it would have been impossible to see at first. Susie delicately placed her hand on a portion of the door where the handle should have been and it swung inwards, revealing a darkened room, its walls tinged in an ethereal aquatic glow.
Anya felt her breath catch in her chest as her eyes adjusted to the gloom and as the room’s true majesty came into focus. The walls were coated in a thin layer of what she could only guess to be fluorescent algae, the pearly green glow bathing the tables of old chests and glass cases in a watery halo of light. A small piece of iridescent glass on the table nearest Susie caught the light, reflecting a tiny prism of rainbows across the floor, stopping before Anya’s feet. She glanced up and met Susie’s gaze, the latter’s normally dark eyes sparkling with so much effervescent light and vivaciousness that Anya blinked, unsure if this was the same cool, mysterious figure whose call had so shocked her yesterday.
A sad smile crossed Susie’s lips as she walked over to Anya, pressing the small glass piece into her hand. Anya examined it slowly, almost reverently. The surface was softer than she expected, almost as if it were alive. She traced the slight curvature of the material in awe. It began to hum softly, so indistinctly it was more vibration than sound, and Anya’s eyes widened as she realized the nature of the object she held so delicately in her hand.
“Is this . . .” Anya’s words trailed off as she glanced up at Susie, her eyes alive and iridescent as the glow emanating from the singular scale still resting in Anya’s palm.
“Yes,” Susie whispered, “yes, Anya. It’s a mer-scale.” She gestured around the room, at the glass cases filled with intricately coiled machinery, the dark chests filled with files of waterproofed paper on which past generations had written stories, diaries, and accounts of life before humanity stepped in. Turning back to Anya, Susie rolled up the right sleeve of her blazer, holding her arm out into the eerie light of the room. In the center of her forearm, a patchwork of scales, all identical to the one in Anya’s hand, glittered in the algae-infused lighting. Susie fixed Anya with her intense, unblinking gaze.
“You asked me what my stake in this is,” Susie began, her voice calm and low. “This,” she gestured around the room with her right arm, the scales flashing brilliantly in the light, “is why I want you to build the underwater base. Because humans aren’t the only beings to suffer from rising ocean and carbon levels. Mer-people…” Here Susie paused, eyes still firmly fixed on Anya. “Mer-people…my people…our way of life is changing too. As ocean acidification rises, more Mer-children are born with respiratory problems. Our very future is at risk.” Susie took a step closer to Anya, placing her hand on the scale resting in Anya’s palm.
“I need someone to care about my people’s stake in this as much as I do,” Susie said, her tone unyielding. “And Anya, I think that person very well could be you.”