The ocean’s whisper filled the night air as Lydia walked across the cold sand. But she wasn’t here to listen to a whisper. She was looking for a song. She kicked off her shoes, left her clothes in a crumpled pile, and waded into the dark water.
Her skin instantly ached from the cold, and shivers wracked her body. She forced herself forward, one step at a time, till she was deep enough to throw herself into an oncoming wave. She gasped when her face hit the water, and the salt burned her throat.
She struggled forward. She wasn’t a strong swimmer, and the cold made her limbs heavy and listless. “I will do this,” she said, and choked on another mouthful of water.
In her senior year, Lydia’s homeroom desk was near the middle of the room, fourth row, third seat back. Donna Harrison sat in front of her. Sometimes, Donna’s long brown hair would brush against Lydia’s desk.
Lydia loved Donna’s hair. And her always-perfect nails, and the way her eyes crinkled when she smiled. Donna was on the basketball team and dating Tommy Miller. She’d been in Lydia’s class since second grade, and they’d never talked. No one ever talked to Lydia. But sometimes, Donna would smile at her when she handed papers back. Lydia always smiled back.
Lydia caught lilting notes over the sound of the waves and the hammering of her heart. The song pulled her now, her legs kicking, her arms pulling her forward without effort.
The siren sat on a rock, knees tucked up to her chin, singing up at the moon. Her eyes were shadows as she stared down at Lydia.
She finished her song and started another. Lydia couldn’t feel her fingers, though she could see that they gripped coarse rock.
Finally, the siren finished her second song. “Why are you here?” she asked, in a voice like shattered dreams.
Lydia knew just what that sounded like.
She’d asked Donna to sign her yearbook. It was a small thing, hardly out of the ordinary. Donna had spent a long time with her head bent over the blank page, her pen motionless in her hand.
Eventually, she wrote, “Lydia, I’m sorry. I wish we could have shared more. Goodbye, and good luck out there.” She signed her name with a big, loopy D.
Lydia reached out and ran her hand over Donna’s hair, just once. Donna didn’t pull away, and Lydia gathered up her courage. “I think you’re perfect,” she said. “I’ve always thought that.”
Donna’s smile was sad. “Only God is perfect, Lydia.”
“Why are you here?” the siren asked again.
Exhaustion tugged at Lydia’s limbs. The water felt warmer than the air, now. She thought about letting go, about letting it wrap her in its liquid embrace. Her teeth chattered as she answered the siren. “I loved someone, and she–she didn’t love me back.”
“That is what happens when you love,” the siren said. “But many people face unrequited love and do not seek me out. Why are you here?”
Lydia usually walked home from school. But one day, she didn’t. Tommy Miller dragged her into his Buick. His eyes were glazed and he smelled like rum, but he was still strong. “Donna says you’re a dyke,” he said. “You know that’s wrong, don’t you? I can help you. Like I helped her.”
“What do you mean?” Lydia said. Her head spun and her throat ached. Donna had said that about her?
“She told me about her impure thoughts, begged me to get them out of her head. I did, but then you put them back. But I can help.”
“I don’t want your help,” Lydia said. She punched him in the throat, scrambled out of the car, and ran. She ran to the beach, the one that nobody ever went to, because sometimes, when the wind was just right, you could hear the siren there.
“I don’t belong there,” Lydia said. “I don’t want to go back.”
“Don’t be foolish, girl,” the siren said. “You are angry, but it will pass.”
“Aren’t you lonely?” Lydia asked. “I know what that is like. Don’t send me away.”
The siren’s face was beautiful in the moonlight, her long hair as dark as the water. “What do you want?”
“I want you to teach me to sing,” Lydia said. “I’m here to learn your songs.”
The siren stared at her for a long time. “You don’t have the strength to swim back, do you?”
Lydia stood on the shore and listened to the siren sing. She heard her own loneliness echoing back to her, across the waves.
She thought about Donna, and what it must have cost her to write what she did. She wondered how much it would have cost Donna to do more.
Lydia wondered what she’d be willing to pay to reach out and end someone else’s loneliness.
“I wouldn’t go, even if I could,” Lydia said. “I’ve made my decision.”
The siren took Lydia’s hand and pulled her up onto the rock. “Stubborn child. Very well,” she said. “I suppose I have been lonely. I will teach you my songs.”