Clara Chae was a well-adjusted girl. That was what everyone said, nodding in approval. There were stories out there of children like her, orphaned by unusual catastrophes, who had grown up to be quite troubled. Like Harold Dunn, whose parents had been killed by rabid werewolves when he was ten. Now he was growing out his unkempt hair, and eating all his meat raw and bloody, and communicating entirely in snarls and howls. Dropping out of college to prowl through the woods and catch rabbits. Getting dirt under his long, jagged fingernails. Everyone shook their heads and clucked their tongues. Poor Harold Dunn. His poor grandparents, too, trying to handle him.
But Clara was a well-adjusted girl. Exceptionally well-adjusted, really, all things considered. Everyone remembered when she had first arrived in town to live with her aunt. Such a skittish little girl, then, and always crying, and only ever calling after her parents, saying umma, appa, as though it would summon them. Well, she had only been six, and it was a terrible thing that had befallen her. No doubt about that. Everyone murmured sympathetically of how she had woken one morning to find that her parents had turned into salt. They said the neighbors had found her hours later, curled on the threshold with the front door wide open, knees pulled up to her chest and her face streaked with tears. Too afraid to stay inside with the salt statues of her mother and her father, too afraid to venture outside alone. They said she had been sitting there so long her own skin had been crusted with salt and sand blown in from the sea.
But now—Clara was a well-adjusted girl. Soft-spoken and mild-mannered, and maybe a little shyer than was ideal, but she was pretty enough when she smiled, everyone agreed, and generally well-liked. A decent student to boot. Yes, a well-adjusted girl. What a relief, everyone said, looking at each other knowingly. What a relief she wasn’t like Harold Dunn. It would have been such a shame.
Clara knew how to be a well-adjusted girl. She smiled, and did her homework, and shopped with her friends, and went on dates to the movies, and let the nicest boys kiss her on the doorstep. Now and then they pulled away a little confused, wondering at the taste of salt on her lips. But Clara only ever shrugged and blushed and looked just as mystified. She knew how to be a well-adjusted girl. And certainly, a well-adjusted girl wouldn’t creep into the kitchen at night. Of course not. A well-adjusted girl wouldn’t throw her head back in the dark and pour salt into her wide open mouth—so much salt that tears burst from her eyes and her tongue writhed with memory, and she dropped the salt shaker, choking, and it spun out on the kitchen floor—no, of course not. No well-adjusted girl would be doing that.
And Clara was very good at being a well-adjusted girl. So good, in fact, that even her aunt, her gomo, was surprised when, on her eighteenth birthday, Clara left home without a word. The only things she took, it was said, were a jar of seashells and a lunch box of rice, kimchi, and Spam. Everyone was shocked—utterly shocked!—that such a well-adjusted girl would up and leave like that. She had no reason to go anywhere, they whispered to one another. No reason! A good girl like that.
Clara was tired of being the well-adjusted girl. Very tired, in fact. So she pressed her foot down hard on the gas and kept it there all day, and all night. And early the next morning, she was sitting on the cold wet rocks of a jagged shoreline, on the outskirts of the seaside town she had lived in with her parents. She opened her lunch box: rice, kimchi, Spam. Her favorite when she was a little girl, before her parents turned to salt. She ate in silence, listening to the sound of waves crashing against the rocks—the very sound that haunted her dreams. As the sun broke through the horizon, she stood up and spilled the rest of the kimchi into the water to attract the mermaids, and when they came she paid them in seashells to swim her far out into the ocean. Clara was tired of the well-adjusted girl. So tired. Here, she thought to the waves, wash her away. Take her. She dove deeper, the taste of the sea strong and salty in her mouth, like loss, like homecoming. She dove deeper, and the mermaids followed.
Naomi Kim is a Korean American writer raised in the South, though frequently mistaken for a Midwesterner. A recent graduate of Brown University, she is now a first-year PhD student in English at Washington University in St. Louis. Her writing has previously appeared in Lunch Ticket, Unbroken Journal, Patheos, The Waking: Ruminate Online, and other publications. Find her on Twitter @thisis_naomikim.
photo by Nikolay Zherdev (via unsplash)