‘The Expressway’ by student Clarisse Emily Stevens was developed in Building a Strong Narrative in 2020.
‘Do you hear that?’ said Hush, moving the drapes aside and peering through the living room window. ‘Sounds like the ocean.’
Mercy didn’t look up as her needles clacked. ‘I doubt it. The ocean hasn’t come by in years.’
‘Wow,’ said Hush. ‘That’s quite the sight.’
‘Is it, now?’ He’s just saying that to get me out of my chair.
‘Almost here,’ he whispered.
Mercy looked up then, her eyes sharp. She dropped her knitting and hauled herself to her feet. And there, rushing down the Expressway, came the ocean. It rolled over itself, fish jumping from its glubbering depths. Seaweed crawled along the shimmering dream-road, attaching itself to cars, lampposts, fire hydrants.
‘Rats!’ cried Mercy, jumping back. ‘Get the boards up, Hush!’
‘Don’t worry, Merce, these windows are sturdy, they’ll hold.’
‘Sturdy, my giddy-aunt!’ Mercy pushed past Hush, reaching for the lever above the window frame. It took the metal slats scuttling across the glass for Hush to pull himself from the window.
‘Really, you’d think you would’ve learnt some restraint by now,’ Mercy tutted, reaching up and tracing a sigil on his forehead.
He looked at his feet. ‘I don’t know what came over me.’
‘Well lucky for you, I do.’ She collapsed into her chair. Her knitting had managed to get tangled in the short moments she’d left it to itself. She pulled at the threads –unravelling, trying to get it back to something she could work with – but the ocean outside made her uneasy and her hands weren’t doing as they were told.
A knocking sounded on their door.
‘Well hey, Lanie,’ she heard Hush say.
‘Is Mercy in?’
She sighed; this scarf was never going to get done.
Lanie was soaked, her dark curls dripping, feet making obscene noises as she shifted her weight. ‘I’m sorry for interrupting your evening,’ she sucked in a breath, ‘but it seems I’m in need of some assistance.’
‘Hah! Did the sealike embrace mesmerise you?’ said Mercy, shooting a look at Hush beside her.
‘Indeed, it was very enticing,’ said Lanie, scratching her neck where a flush was spreading.
Mercy huffed. ‘All you young folk are the same, hearts stronger than your heads.’ She grabbed her raincoat and her umbrella, following Lanie to the threshold of her apartment.
‘Be careful, Merce,’ called Hush after her.
‘Be careful yourself,’ she grumbled back.
The doorway looked just about ready to burst, the wooden edges straining, a small waterfall flowing from the top. A puddle was spreading on the carpet, the welcome mat looking miserable. ‘Hendricks is gonna have your head about that,’ said Mercy with a nod toward it.
‘She’ll get over it eventually,’ Lanie sighed. ‘Like she got over the scorch marks on the bench. And that pet rat I had.’
‘You’re terrible,’ chuckled Mercy as she shook out her old bones. ‘Let me see what I can do.’
She drew the symbol of the dancing fish on the door with the end of her umbrella. A gentle breeze started up, which built to a gust, blowing all their loose ends about the place. Mercy reached for the doorknob and felt immense pressure from the other side of the wood. Before the water could tumble down upon them, her umbrella popped open. Mercy’s muscles strained as she pushed back, refusing the flow passage into the hall.
And then the pressure lessened, a little and then some more, until it relaxed completely. Mercy inched the umbrella down, just enough to peek over, then exhaled and lowered it all the way.
A wall of water stood before them. In its depths they saw that the ocean had claimed the apartment. Finned and scaled creatures swam and crawled. Molluscs popped up along the furniture in a way that alluded to majic at work. ‘Wow,’ said Lanie, reaching out as a large salmon swam past.
Mercy smacked her hand away. ‘Want to ruin all that work, do you?’ she said, a lightheadedness washing over her. She grasped the handle of the umbrella to keep herself upright.
Lanie grabbed her elbow. ‘You alright, Mercy?’
A keening escaped Mercy’s throat. Something was going wrong in that body of hers.
A woman spied them through the window on the other side of the apartment. She grabbed the top of the windowpane and pushed herself through, slipping in feet-first. She had hair that reflected light and skin that shimmered with scales. A Murky Woman.
And then Mercy knew what needed doing. ‘It’s time to meet with Old Moorfenn, I suppose?’
The Murky nodded, hand outstretched.
‘Stay here,’ she told Lanie, handing her the umbrella. Hush would be fine. He'd have to be.
‘Mercy, I don’t think you should – ’ but before she could finish, Mercy pulled up the hood of her raincoat and entered the flow, a scaled hand grasped in her own. Sigils glimmered along the lining of her hood as a bubble of air formed around her head. She drifted, following the Murky out of the apartment, into the throes of the ocean. They swam over the Expressway, road shining cerulean in the ocean’s phosphorescence. Upwards they moved, above the apartments with their shutters up, and the ones who hadn’t been quick enough. A limp arm floated out one window and Mercy looked away before she saw the face. The ocean was not always kind, that she knew.
* * *
They found her legs, first; her skin a deep green, calves thicker than the two of them combined. They ascended, following her body and its great height until they found the face of Oona Moorfenn, the Murky progenitor, just metres below the water’s surface. From her sleeves flowed schools of fish, sharks and whales, aquatic plants. Where Oona Moorfenn went, the ocean followed.
She’s here, sang the Murky to her mother.
Oona Moorfenn turned to them, long hair floating about her face.
Mercy tried to concentrate. She shook her head, a pressure building behind eyes that refused to focus. The sigils on her hood started to dim, and then vanished entirely. Her breathing bubble began to shrink. ‘Oh dear,’ she said, and then couldn’t say a thing more for there wasn’t the air.
Oona reached for her and then she was being gently lifted, up, up, up. Mercy gasped as she broke through the surface of water, salt on her tongue; the familiar eyes of Oona Moorfenn like black pools, taking her back to her girlhood days.
‘I brought you the ocean,’ said Oona Moorfenn.
I never asked you to, thought Mercy. I do not need it. But she did, didn’t she? She spread out on Oona Moorfenn’s hand, looking up at the hazy night sky and remembered her childhood home, remembered dipping her toes in rock pools and chattering to waves. I had a good life. Perhaps it’s time for me to start again.
Oona Moorfenn smiled and cupped her hand, patting Mercy’s hair with one large finger. Beneath her touch, Mercy began to shimmer.