It’s a beach town. The surf is good, the fire pits are fought over, and the Mexican food? Excellent and authentic.
This is not Lincoln, Nebraska.
This is the location of the Palmx team getaway. Eric’s first time, he’s only been working there for a month. Long enough to get to know everyone and understand that they’re different in California, and after the initial delight over his Midwest accent, they don’t seem to have much time for him.
Chief Technology Officer. More like backend developer. As if he belongs in the back room, neglected and forgotten.
The office is in San Diego, where they don’t have the Heartland Museum of Military Vehicles, they don’t have the Dodge County Fair.
Dealing with difference, with absence and miscommunications on a daily basis, Eric can’t even enjoy FaceTime with his girlfriend; he’d had the genius stroke of breaking up with her before he left for California.
So who is left for him to complain too? His co-workers? Project Positive Thinking? Hardly. His family? No way Jose.
“You’ll come back speaking Spanish,” his father had said.
“I hear about all those gangs,” lamented his mother. “I don’t want you getting mixed up with…those people.”
“San Francisco’s full of freaks,” his little brother had added, just to be helpful.
San Diego is 500 miles from San Francisco, but that doesn’t matter. Once you’ve accepted a job in California, you may as well tell your folks you’ve decided to move to China. Or Mars.
Ah yes. Here’s the ray of light in this cloudy picture. Here are the girls. Because, and this is something Eric didn’t tell his family, and certainly didn’t tell his girlfriend (as well as the point that as CTO, he doesn’t expect to take a salary for the first six months) – every other member of this 10-person company is female.
“Hey, Bobbi,” Eric says back.
“I didn’t know if you were coming,” the CEO says, grinning at him.
Eric nods. “I said I would.”
They car-pooled here, but no one had told Eric. He pulls up in his dusty Dodge truck, pulling a red cooler from the bed, looking every bit like a country boy, while the others pile out of their shining compacts and SUVs.
Eric remembers seeing Bobbi’s car on his first day and laughing. “Wondering when I’d see my first Tesla.”
“Driving’s a drag. If I could Uber everywhere, I would,” Bobbi says, dismissing the car, the obvious money, with a wave of her manicured hand.
Half of the women are heading off to the changing rooms, the others are already in swimsuits and bikinis.
Alicia runs up to him, the youngest of the group, her eyes masked by Ray-Bans. She’s the pigtailed, perky voice of Palmx customer service who spends her day saying a winsome sorry when users can’t log-in and then passes on the problems to Eric who can translate and then pass them onto the right team member, front or back end, mobile app or Chrome extension. She’s spent so long sitting beside Eric, her eyes wide at how smart he is, and she’s even taken to giving him thank you hugs.
You’re like a…what’s a guy witch called?
You’re like one of those!
Today she’s wearing a red push-up halter that give the impression she’s wearing shells on her chest.
And isn’t Alicia just the sheer opposite of Eric’s ex?
“Borrow your truck?” She asks. “Got a friend with some beach chairs.”
Eric isn’t a fan of people driving his Dodge, but Alicia’s hand is already outstretched, expectant.
“Drive a stick?” he asks.
“No problemo!” Alicia replies. She grabs the keys and jogs off.
Eric watches her go, blinking at the sun. “She going to pick up a bunch of chairs by herself?”
Bobbi adjusts her bikini bottoms with practiced fingers. “No problemo,” she replies. Bobbi laughs and adds, “Alicia does an hour of Cross Fit every morning before work. She’ll be fine.”
“Come on,” Bobbi says, grabbing Eric’s hand, and they walk down to the sand. “That’s not beer is it?” she says, nodding at the cooler. And she whispers, “Strictly prohibited.”
Eric blushes. “Actually, I didn’t bring…I mean, there’s some soda.”
Bobbi laughs. “What’s in there?”
“Well, you said to block out the whole day, so I made a couple sandwiches.”
She shakes her head as if Eric is impossible. “Crazy, we’re grilling steaks and kebabs, I told you that.”
“Yeah,” says Eric, “I turn that off when I’m working.”
Bobbi shakes her head again. “Well, we gotta fix that.”
Sure enough, there’s a grill set up and two co-workers are unpacking food and drink.
“I did bring a pie,” Eric says.
“Huh,” says Bobbi. She lets go of his hand and pats his arm. “Where’d you get it?”
Eric coughs. “I baked it.”
“No…shit,” Bobbi says, drawing out her surprise. She tilts her head at him. “You know we do have pies in California. There’s a place on Park Boulevard I can take you. Excellent mini pies.”
Eric smiles. “Yeah. I like to make my own. Razzleberry.”
“Cool beans,” Bobbi says. She asks the girls, “We bring any ice-cream?”
“Got you covered,” says Eric, putting down the cooler.
“Vanilla?” asks Bobbi blandly.
“Well, yes. I mean, it’s a pie, so-”
“Wonderful,” Bobbi says. The hand back on his arm, patting. “I’m so glad you came.”
They eat, and this is the good part, because the veggies are fresh, the steak is tender, and California does some things right.
Alicia returns with the truck, small miracles, and they arrange the chairs in a lazy circle.
Another good thing. Everyone tries the pie, it is declared out of this freaking world-good. He sits back and looks up at one more good thing; a perfect, clear blue sky.
“You’re a pie wizard as well!” says Alicia, brushing pastry crumbs from her lips.
And Eric wonders, is there a point where Alicia will decide to take things further, wanting to be spoon-fed a little pie, or even better, snuggling onto his lap? Because this girl is obviously thirsty for him.
Eric basks in a rare moment of popularity, and it’s only a few seconds later when the marketing manager points out a couple of surfers strolling down the beach. Tanned, muscular, and looking as though they were born to do this.
He closes his eyes. If that’s his competition, he may as well just take his pie dish and go back to his apartment. When he opens his eyes, Alicia and one of the others are putting paper plates and plastic cups into trash bags, the others are unrolling towels and lying down, looking determined to do precisely nothing.
Bobbi is standing up, looking over the others, reminding Eric of a mother hen.
“Can we talk about the investor meeting?” Eric asks Bobbi. “I’ve got an idea for the presentation.”
“It can wait until tomorrow,” says Bobbi.
“Just a quick-”
“No business talk today.” Bobbi says. She looks him up and down, and Eric already knows that his clothes – Gap T-shirt and blue Wranglers – are wrong.
Relaxed fit? Is he fifty years old? Eric knows that the others laugh at his clothes, but isn’t a perk of being a programming nerd that you can wear what the hell you want?
To work, it seems that’s true, although Bobbi has excused him from next week’s Series A meeting. He wanted to say, Don’t you want a guy in there, offset all that progesterone?
Truth is, most of the girls look fitter, and just like Alicia and her cross-fit, stronger than Eric.
“Did you bring your swim trunks?” Bobbi asks.
Eric shakes his head.
Bobbi says, “You know why I bring everyone here?”
Eric nods. “It’s like a team-building thing.”
“Sure, but why here?”
Eric looks around the beach and shrugs.
“Laid back,” says Bobbi. “They can keep LA, Orange County; those places try way too hard. It’s less of a scene here. You got surfers, cyclists, sunbathers, we’re all just here to have a good time.”
Less of a scene? If only Eric could show Bobbi what’s going on in his hometown right now. Women wandering around Wal-Mart in their PJs, guys shopping for lumber at Lowe’s. Anything California can do, Lincoln can do it slower, dumpier and less fashionable.
“You happy here?” Bobbi asks.
“I saw some amazing flowers when I was driving up, all these different colors,” Eric offers, “Like a rainbow.” Although by ‘here’, he’s pretty sure Bobbi means Palmx.
“Flower Fields. Ranunculus flowers,” Bobbi says. “They do that every year.”
“Awesome,” says Eric, remembering how much he hates that word.
“Well,” Bobbi says, “We’re going catch some rays, then cool off in the water, play some games, then we’ll get some more food – there’s a truck that does amazing carne asada. Then we’re going to find a ring, make a fire, tell stories. Sound good to you?”
Eric nods. “Sure. I mean, I won’t go swimming, but yeah.”
“Strange guy, coming to a beach without trunks.”
“Just not my thing.”
He wasn’t fat in Ohio, far from it. As soon as his plane touched down in San Diego International, Eric felt like a blimp, as well as a bumpkin.
He’d told his parents, I know it’s going to be different, but I’m going to give it six months, see if I like it. Now he’s not sure if he’ll last a whole month.
Christ, twenty six years old and he already feels like his time, his life, is running out. Kids like Alicia, snapping at his heels.
Bobbi nods. “Well, I guess you’ll just have to admire all the ladies in their swimsuits.” She shrugs. “Or the guys.”
“Ladies,” Eric clarifies. Jesus, is he really that dull, that lacking in sexual charisma that Bobbi doesn’t even know if he’s straight?
As if to reinforce the point, Bobbi says, “I know you’re kind of outnumbered at Palmx.”
“I don’t mind.”
“I want you to like it here. But…I need us to keep things professional, no office romances. Besides, everyone likes you, I think we’ll all kind of seeing you as a big brother.”
Eric stares at her. “We’re the same age.”
Bobbi raises her eyebrows. “Are we? Huh… She looks him up and down. Well, like a brother anyways.”
“Maybe not all of you.”
Bobbi twists her lips. “Oh Eric, you mean Alicia? Believe me, she’s like that with everybody. Don’t get mixed signals, honey, going to make things super-awkward.”
Eric gets up. “I think I’ll take a walk.”
Bobbi nods, and she lies down beside the other women. “Two mile sea-walk running between the power plant and Pine Street. There’s stairways that take you back to the beach and plenty of benches.”
And then she’s lying down, conversation over.
Is she looking? With the sunglasses, it’s impossible to tell. Probably not. Probably has forgotten all about him.
Eric walks across the sand, fuming. Big brother?
Sure, they’re young women. Young enough, there’s no one over thirty. If the venture capitalists take a bite of Palmx, will these women reward them? Do they know have any idea what they’re doing?
Eric is young too. They’re mistaking his conservative dress, his small town background, for being old, past it. He knows how to have fun, he’s just not used to having it at the beach.
There, a few feet away, the steps Bobbi had told him about. He rejects them and heads further along the beach.
Two guys saunter past with surfboards, ready for the waves. Don’t these people have jobs to go to? This emphasis on having a good time, of being in the moment, Eric finds it exhausting.
When his co-workers Postmates their lunch on Monday and ask, “how was your weekend?” he’s had to make things up, anything rather than tell the truth.
Read a book. Watched Netflix. Played with his Spotify playlists.
And he swims. His apartment complex has a pool and he swims at night, in the dark, looking up at the stars. He does have swim trunks, he just doesn’t want his body compared with the others on the beach.
He keeps on walking, away from the surfers, away from the muscles and tans and beautiful people. He comes across a shady cove that at first glance looks out of place. Doesn’t it seem to shimmer at the edges, like part of this beach has been Photoshopped?
And isn’t there music coming from inside. Singing; a woman’s voice, haunting, magnetic.
A silly idea.
He doesn’t have to investigate. He’s not being drawn to it. Why not just take a break from the sunshine?
No more waves. Just the drip-drip of water into a pool. Eric crouches to look into the water, into himself.
Too pale. A flimsy face, all that time learning to code, he should have been playing with the other kids, he should have been learning how to live.
Drops land in the center and cause a ripple effect.
And the face gets interesting. Fascinating.
A wink, a grin.
Eric scrambles away, succeeding in falling backward and crashing onto the rocks.
“Ow. Jeez. Ow!”
He watches as a woman more beautiful than anyone at the beach, anyone he’s ever seen, rises out of the water, long hair shining, water rolling down her skin.
She must be alien, she must be from a whole different planet. And then that idea is confounded when she speaks with a West coast accent.
“If you’re looking for the food trucks, you need to take the steps off the beach.”
“Nuh-no,” Eric stammers. “I’m not, I’m not looking…”
Although he definitely is. He’s staring. He can’t keep his eyes off her.
Forget Alicia, forget any of them at Palmx. This woman, this creature, is magnificent. And it’s about more than just her skin and hair, her shape and color. Beyond just pretty eyes or full lips, the woman seems to radiate attractiveness.
“Were you…were you singing, just now?” Eric asks.
The woman, the something-else, nods. “I get so bored.” She blinks. “Did you like it?”
Eric nods. He knows right here and now, he’ll want to do exactly what she tells him.
The idea is at once wonderful and terrible.
“What are you looking for?” she asks.
He should run away. Run back to Lincoln. Get a job at the pig farm, learn how to put up drywall. Anything but stay here.
“Tell me what you’re looking for.”
“I messed up,” Eric blurts. “I’m a loser, I thought I had a chance with a woman I work with, with any of them, but they don’t see me, they don’t even think about me that way.”
“Hmm,” the woman say, and she strokes her chin with a single finger. She looks him over and there’s something playful in her expression when she lifts herself out of the water and folds her legs underneath her.
“Holy cow,” whispers Eric.
Because those aren’t legs.
He should call her out, he should laugh at the costume. He’d seen a little girl at the hotel wearing something like it at the apartment pool, insisting she wasn’t a girl, she was something very special, refusing to leave the pool – I’ll dry out! – until she was negotiated out with promises of Legoland.
“My name’s Mercury. What’s yours?”
Difference being, this isn’t a costume.
Eric gazes at Mercury’s lower body and then at her tail as it flaps lazily on the rock.
“You’re…wow, you’re a…” Eric blinks. “Eric.”
“Pleased to meet ya,” says Mercury, and she smiles, revealing teeth that are both beautiful and deadly.
Is that a normal mermaid thing?
“Mershark,” Mercury says, as if she’s reading his mind. “Kind of the same, kind of not.”
Eric shakes his head slowly, even though the evidence is right before his eyes. “That’s not a thing,” he whispers.
Mercury looks down at her body. “And yet, here I am.”
Flowing red hair. Ariel with teeth. Ariel without the crab. Or maybe that’s Eric’s new role. Does he want to be her side-kick?
She gives him a sympathetic look. “So the ladies don’t want you.”
Eric nods. “The California ones don’t.” He points at himself and says, “All the guys look amazing, I can’t compete.” He frowns. “They can’t resist them.”
He watches as the mershark’s tail twitches. Happy dog or irritated cat?
“And is that what you want?” asks Mercury. “To be irresistible?”
Eric shrugs. “Little bit wouldn’t hurt.”
“Oh, don’t be shy. This isn’t an everyday meeting,” Mercury says. “Don’t waste it.” She rubs her hands together and flashes her teeth again. “Take it.”
“Fine,” Eric says. “Sure, I want them to be all over me. I want them to adore me.”
Mercury nods. “Irresistible. Adore.” She strokes her hair with her fingers, and Eric has time to wonder what it smells like, what it feels like, before she says firmly, “I can do that.”
“How do you mean?”
Mercury gives Eric a thin-lipped smile and says, “I didn’t come to Carlsbad to work on my tan.”
She puts a hand on her chest, and that’s when Eric notices that she’s naked. No shell push-up for her. How did he just notice that?
“I’ll do it,” she says. “Make them adore you.”
Eric frowns. “You mean, hypnotize them?” He takes the moment to imagine a group of brainwashed women, eager to satisfy his every need, and his penis twitches curiously, making him glad he’s in jeans and not giveaway swim shorts.
“More like a make-over,” Mercury replies. And without explaining further, she says, “But I need something from you.” And she gives Eric a look that is so powerful, so deep that he is suddenly terrified.
The mershark giggles. “Carne asada from that food truck. I’m starving and that damn place is addictive. I’d walk up myself, but hey, you know, not really an option.”
She slips her lower half playfully and Eric thinks of the little girl at the apartment pool, trying to make a big splash. She had giggled, shrieked, insisted on her father throwing her in the air again and again.
“Well?” Mercury asks. “Do we have a deal?”
And abruptly, this is much too intense. Eric looks down, watching their reflections. He could dive into the water, he could swim down a dark tunnel and never come back.
“Yes,” he whispers. Let’s have a make-over, let’s change the world. And with that one word, the softest of affirmatives, he is pulled forward towards the mershark, and he cries out. She is beautiful, but Eric is sure he will drown.
“Hey, Eric’s back!”
As soon as he returns to their spot on the beach, his co-workers surround him.
“What happened to you?” one of them asks.
“Yeah,” says Alicia, pouting. “We were worried!”
“Come on guys,” Bobbi says, “He went for a walk, that’s all.” She pats the sand beside her and Eric sits down.
Eric nods. “No big deal,” he says, even though this is the very biggest of deals.
Alicia scrambles over so she can be beside Eric. “Didn’t want you to get lost in the ocean,” she says. And another woman says, “And eaten by sharks!”
The women laugh and for a moment Eric feels dizzy with fear. Do they know about Mercury? Or even worse, was it all a set-up? A woman in a costume after all? A viral YouTube humiliation in the making.
“Oh, I’m sure Eric can look after himself,” Bobbi says. She winks at him. “You’re quite an athlete, aren’t you.”
Again, this must be a set-up, no one has ever accused him of being fit.
And then he looks down at himself, and when Bobbi says, “I see you found your swim trunks,” he nods and replies, “Yeah, I was just kidding about that. I love the ocean and the water’s beautiful here.”
His shorts are simple, black. Nothing very special, but he’s not wearing anything else. And his body has been transformed. Not bulging muscles, nothing monstrous, but slim and toned with a perfect tan.
His skin glistens with water and when he touches his hair, it’s damp from the ocean.
It feels like camouflage, like a super-hero costume, and Eric can’t resist adding, “Wish I’d brought my board with me.” He winks at Alicia. “Surf’s up.”
Alicia gives a soft moan of delight and scoots closer so that she’s right beside him, and her pigtails tickle his shoulders when she leans in and says breathily, “You should try Windasea? Have you been?” She nods so hard her head might just fall off. “One of the best surf spots in San Diego county, a lot of the professionals go there, because of the A-frame waves the reef break creates, and they…” Alicia frowns at Bobbi. “What?”
“Take it easy,” says Bobbi. She puts an arm around Eric’s shoulders. “We all know you like surfers, but Eric isn’t an ice-cream, you can’t just lap him up and not share him with the rest of us.”
The women laugh and Alicia blushes, but she doesn’t seem put off. Instead she says softly, “We should all go swimming, and then she puts her mouth to Eric’s ear and says, “I’m the strongest swimmer, we’d probably leave them behind.”
Bobbi rolls her eyes. “Don’t wear the poor thing out,” she says protectively. “Although you probably have plenty of stamina, don’t you honey.” She strokes Eric’s left leg, making him jump with surprise.
“Hey,” she says, “I didn’t know you had a tattoo.”
Neither did Eric. He looks down with surprise – will it be his ex-girlfriend’s name, or something hokey? Instead, he finds a well-inked picture of a shark. It looks vicious, deadly.
“Beautiful,” Alicia murmurs, stroking the skin with her fingers. “Work of art.”
“Thanks,” Eric says.
“You just get better and better.”
“You too,” Eric blurts, and there’s action between his legs as Alicia strokes the tattoo with feathery fingers. He looks behind him, back along the beach. They should find somewhere private, secluded; Alicia couldn’t be any more obvious and Eric is only too happy to fool around with her.
“Okay,” says Bobbi, “Enough petting, the poor boy only just got back from the water.” She puts a protective arm around him, and Eric has to swallow his laughter.
Will Mercury deserve twice as much Mexican food if he’s pursued by two women? And he has time to ask himself some significant questions – How long does the transformation last? Is it forever? And does he look the same but better, or does he look like a different person? He’s not seen his reflection since the change, since he came back coughing up water.
And then Bobbi says something strange.
“So did your mom want to kill you?”
Eric blinks at her, baffled. “What? No.”
Bobbi shakes her head. “If I got ink at your age, my mom would’ve grounded me for life.” She laughs. “That way she’s making you drive that dirty old truck? Punishment?”
“I like my truck,” Eric says defensively. “Good luck fitting those beach chairs in your Tesla.” And besides, he wants to say but thankfully doesn’t, who’s paying for that car? You’re not even drawing a salary, so what does that make you? Daddy’s little trust fund?
He removes Bobbi’s hand from his shoulder, gently but firmly and gets to his feet, brushing sand from his toned legs.
He nods at Alicia. “Wanna swim?”
Alicia grins. “Sure.”
Bobbi looks at him. “You just got back!”
Eric shrugs and says, “I’m feeling very energetic today.” He looks at the other people on the beach, scans the competition, and for the first time, he doesn’t fear anyone. Look at his tan, his physique. He tightens his stomach muscles and smirks.
Yeah, no wonder Alicia is all over him. He really is a shark.
And they’re off, walking across the warm sand, and Alicia takes his hand and swings, and Eric looks at her and thinks, For what Mercury’s done for me, I should just buy her the whole damn food truck.
“Wait,” calls a voice behind them. It’s Bobbi. Oh, come on.
Eric turns and faces his CEO. “What’s up?”
But it’s Alicia that Bobbi talks to.
“Be gentle with Eric, would you please? I know you’re soft on him and I know you two are closest in age, but I don’t need my customer service manager playing in the sand dunes with my high school intern. Lawsuit waiting to happen and trust me, we don’t need that kind of publicity. ”
Alicia blinks in surprise, but perhaps the most shocked is Eric.
“What the heck?” he blurts. “I’m not a kid, Bobbi.”
“I thought…” Alicia says. “High school?”
“You can check his driver’s license,” Bobbi says. “He’s a senior, but come on Ali, it’s bound to end in tears or worse.”
Alicia puts a hand on his shoulder and then pulls it back, blushing. “Hey, I’m sorry, Bobbi’s right, it’d be like me taking advantage.”
“I don’t need protecting,” Eric growls, but it’s no use. He looks out to the ocean, feeling his own blush of shame. Too young for a woman who can’t be more than 21 years old? But sure, college graduates don’t go with high school seniors. Or at least, they shouldn’t.
Bobbi gives him both a firm look and says, “I promised your mom I’d look after you.”
And as soon as the words are out of his boss’s mouth, Eric knows that they’re true.
They weren’t true ten minutes ago, but they are now. The truth is on his license, it’s waiting to be told if he calls home.
This isn’t the start of his California career. It’s summer work experience, before going to college.
What did Mercury do to him?
He pats the back of his shorts and comes up empty. His wallet and keys must be back with the others. And the thought of walking back to all those women, it feels unbearable.
“Can I borrow some money?” he asks Bobbi, seeing how easy it is to fall back into a teenage state of mind. “I want to try the food truck.”
“Sure,” says Bobbi brightly, “All that swimming, you must be hungry.”
She offers him a twenty and he takes it, giving both women a nod before he turns and walks away.