A hollow, dripping sound rang in Michael’s ear. He opened his mouth to speak and water poured out causing him to vomit and cough until his lungs were empty. The ground he was laying on was rocky and damp, but he wasn’t underwater anymore. Around him all he could see was darkness.

Every part of his body was aching, with a particularly sharp pain in his right leg. When he moved his hand to feel what was causing the pain he grabbed something about the size of a cantaloupe. The object was soft and wet. Michael squeezed it and heard a muted hiss and gurgling sound. He quickly jerked his hand back.

“Shara?” he asked to the stillness, “are you here?” His voice was trembling, and his eyes darted in every direction hoping to get a glimpse of his surroundings.

“Of course I am, silly,” came a reply in what sounded like Shara’s voice, though it was raspy and old.

“I . . . I’m scared, Shara. And I can’t see. And my leg hurts. I think I’m hurt real bad. I . . .” His voice was overcome with fear and trailed off into unrecognizable muttering.

“It’s okay, I’m here. I forgot you can’t see in the dark like me.” The room suddenly illuminated with an eerie, fiery glow as Shara lit an old, oil miner’s lantern. Michael’s father had always speculated that the Swimming Hole was an outlet from on old mine that had been abandoned, and as the light filled the room, he realized he was correct. It had probably been more than a hundred years since this old mine had been used. “I have plenty of these old lanterns. I hardly ever need to use them.”

Michael glanced around the mine. It was cold, dark earth, carved out by the brute force of man. The flickering light danced along the cracks and crevices making shadows that made the walls look alive. Michael could almost feel the earth reaching out to grab him.

“Is this your den?” he said aloud as he glanced around the room. His gaze was measured and slow; he knew he would see something horrible if he allowed himself to take in too much at a time, and wanted to hold that off as long as he could.

“Yes, it is. And it’s your new home. This is where I’ve been keeping all my men since I started living here.”

“All your men . . . ?” Michael’s gaze finally made it down to his leg. Lying there was the heavily rotted corpse of a man whose legs and left arm had been removed. Entrails and rotted flesh lay behind it and thick layers of mud hung in clumps. Michael’s face contoured to a look of disgust at the ghoulish sight.

Then it moved.

The silence of the cave - interrupted only by the occasional sounds of dripping water - was suddenly shattered by Michael’s screams of horror. The creature had taken a sharp bite out of Michael’s leg and torn off a thick strip of flesh. While he had been unconscious it had devoured his leg up to his knee.

With violent passion, Michael’s arms and leg flailed erratically as he tried to move back from the creature. His broken arm folded under him, sending pain shooting through it and the stump of his leg only pounded uselessly at the ground, sending blood flying in all directions. The corpse looked up to him and, using its one arm, thrashed violently to propel itself onto Michael.

It hissed and snarled as Michael brought up his good arm to hold it back. Its hand griped Michael’s stomach and dug deep into his flesh to hold its ground. Michael swung his arm blindly as he looked around for a way to escape the creature. It suddenly bit into his forearm and tore out another chunk of flesh. With every bite, its strength increased. Michael rolled over, beat the creature, kicked and screamed in horror trying desperately to get free.

“Shara!?” he yelled, his voice straining and his face warped between surprise and brutal aggression. “What is this thing?! Help me! Oh God help me!”

“Silly,” her voice came from the shadows; it was more raspy than before but still had the bubbly edge it always had. “That’s just Harvey. He’s just trying to heal, you know. I’m probably going to finish him today and he knows it. Are you two done playing?”

“We’re not playing!” Michael’s voice continued to strain over the splashing of water and wet pummeling sounds of his fist on the rotten flesh of the corpse. “Get if off of me!”

With a sudden splash Shara was in the water. Michael felt her hand on his arm and he was suddenly hurled back, his back cracked as his momentum was abruptly stopped by the rock wall of the cavern. He heard himself yell and stop suddenly as he hit the wall. A pounding pressure resonated in his body and he collapsed into the water. He tried vainly to rub his head but was only able to wiggle his arm limply. Shara had pulled his good one out of socket and the other was only hanging by a lose bit of muscle.

The splashing suddenly stopped but it was now replaced by silence. Michael heard slurping and crunching sounds. With all the strength he could muster, he forced his eyes to open to small slits. In a moment they shot fully open to take in the horrific spectacle before him.

Shara was facing Michael with the corpse in her hands. Its arm was gone, leaving its head the only limb that could flail in protest to what was happening to it. Shara’s skin was thin and tight; tearing like paper as her joints moved, revealing rotten muscle mass and bone under it. Her bones appeared to be trying to escape and tear through her skin, giving a sharp, angular contrast to her once smooth and graceful body. She was smiling as she munched on the creature’s flesh, stopping only to tear off another strip.

But more than the horrid spectacle of the rotting mermaid devouring the rotten man, Michael stared at her eyes. As the skin around them had rotted, they had enlarged and more than ever, were the focal point of her face. They stared fixated on Michael and for the first time he saw them for what they were and understood why he could never look into them.

The mermaid’s eyes did not conceal a deep evil, but instead, held a long, unrelenting pain. It was her eyes that held the brunt of her self hatred and terror at what she was. Her body and face; the elegance of her movements and bubblyness of her personality, her absentminded behavior; all these things hid the truth. They hid her horror and fear of herself. But not her eyes. Her eyes could not hide her true self; they screamed out brutally and wept. And it was her true self that Michael was afraid to see.

Michael wanted to yell, he wanted to stand and run and scream and cry and escape. But he was fixed where he was; his mouth agape as every bite she took from the rotted creature brought new life into her flesh. She smiled sweetly. And hair began to flow from her head. Her skin began to heal and fill out, hiding the bones under it. The skin on her face flushed with color again and softened, making her eyes appear to shrink. Yellow all but faded away as her almost alabaster tone returned all over her body and the crimson of her lips shown bright and beautiful.

“I’m still hungry,” she said softly, looking down at Michael. Her sweet voice had returned. She smiled pleasantly. Michael continued to lay motionless, staring at the beautiful creature in front of him. For the first time, Michael was able to meet Shara’s gaze and look her in the eyes. Deep within him, in a place far removed from this place and this time, he felt pity.

Then Shara blinked. And Michael screamed.

There was no way for him to defend himself by this point. With all his injuries, the most Michael could do was kick and it was his good leg Shara attacked first. But he could still scream. And with every ounce of will he had left, he filled the abandoned mine with the sounds of horror and pain as Shara devoured the entirety of his lower body, up to his abdomen. Then she swam back, to bathe in the light of the miner’s lamp.

“There!” she said. “See? I’m all better. I’m beautiful again!” She laughed, splashed the water with her tail and ran her fingers along her smooth, soft skin and through her silky, blue hair.

Michael lay there in silent shock, only gasping and muttering mindlessly. Shara looked at him. “Look!” she said. “See? I’m pretty again. See?” She continued to run her fingers over her skin. Michael gave no response.

Shara huffed and blew her hair out of her face. “Well, I’ll just let you stay with the others.” She smiled, picked what was left Michael up, carried him to the far end of the mine and dropped him into a pit.

Michael felt himself fall and slam suddenly into the ground. He lay there gasping, like a fish abandoned on a beach. Then he felt a sharp pain on his back, then another pain on his shoulder, then his arm and his other arm. He yelled and thrashed what he could of his arms to roll over on his back. All around him were the sounds of hissing and gurgles and there were sounds of tearing flesh and crunching bones.

With his arms useless to him, he began to snap his teeth in the direction of the sounds in retaliations. Suddenly he felt putrid, spongy flesh in his mouth and bit violently and tore it loose like a rabid dog. And as it entered his mouth he felt it merge with him, and in that moment he could feel his arm begin to heal. But it was only for a moment, and he realized he needed more. Madly, he began to bite at the creatures just as they bit at him, and tore flesh from them.

He bit and screamed and flailed at the creatures until it all became a blur. Eating flesh and being eaten became the same. The only motion in the pit was a glutinous orgy. And it became impossible to separate any of the hideous, immortal creatures from another.

All the while, the mermaid sang them a sweet lullaby.

The End