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Best Served

L.C. Hu is a curious collection of contradictions: an art major who prefers to write, a cat-lover allergic to cats, and a fan of rules who hates being told what to do.
There was a monster in Hannah's kitchen.
She had invited it in, but that did not make it any more welcome. It leered at her from above a brown paper package, and from within it: a long-faced man presenting her with a lean, red cut of meat.
"Mermaid," the man said.
The bloody smell of the meat made Hannah's stomach flip. She reached past him to wrap it up again.
"You swear, after this, my brother's off the hook? He doesn't owe you anymore?"
The man hooded his eyes and crossed his arms over his chest. She wished she could scrape the smile off his unwelcome face. "Cook it proper. Then we'll talk."
She pointed towards the dining room. "I don't cook with an audience."
"This time you do," he said. "Gotta make sure you don't try nothing... fishy." When she didn't laugh, he sneered at her. "Don't look at me like I'm the bad guy here. It's your brother who's done us both wrong. Who made promises and then didn't pay. Won't be pretty if you turn out the same."
"I keep my promises," Hannah said, glaring.
She dragged a chair out of her office and shoved it into a back corner of the kitchen so he'd stay out of her way. Then, with a deep breath, she headed into her walk-in refrigerator. She picked items off the shelves with the speed of familiarity. Sesame oil, garlic, soy sauce, ginger, lime. Green onion. She'd keep it simple. Safer, working with an ingredient she had never tasted.
Like an eel wriggling through her fingers, the thought came and went: she could taste it. She shuddered, feeling her gorge rise. Never, she answered herself. It was horror enough to unwrap the purple-red cut, to pick up the firm, slick flesh and move it to the cutting board. The sea-and-blood odor was so strong it invaded her mouth and lingered on her tongue with an aftertaste like tears.
Behind her the man said, "Don't you want to know how I got it?"
Hannah shook her head. But as she sliced into the mermaid meat, the sound of her knife work became the hush-hush of the sea, murmuring the answer in words she knew she shouldn't understand but did.
A song and a pretty face in the water and a plea for help. The way we lured them in once, they lured us in.
"Us?" Hannah said. Her imagination supplied the living image, the fishbelly-white body, the pretty face, the flash of silver tail. Smiling, plush lips to conceal sharp teeth. The snare and bite of a woven net into that tender, wet skin.
The heavy strike of the cleaver, severing fish tail from human body.
The man asked,
"Us what?"
Hannah ignored him. She cut and trimmed three more steaks, though she meant to take only one, and as her knife slicked through the flesh she heard,
You know.
"Mermaids."
Yes. So many of us, but how could we resist? He had such a pretty voice before he drowned. We all came to listen.
Hannah thought of her brother, because he was the best singer she knew. Of his voice, last heard two days ago, panicky over the phone, begging her to help him. He owed money to some bookie who happened to be a real foodie. Who was getting some special ingredient. Something he didn't trust to just any old chef. But Hannah had a Michelin star. If she'd just cook for the man... all would be forgiven.
"What did he sing?" she murmured, as she laid the steaks out on a plate. The moment the words were out of her mouth, she regretted them. She didn't want to know. She only needed to cook, to save her brother's life. But in the soft sound of meat coming to rest on porcelain, she heard:
La mer, the sea. He sang about the sea. A berce' mon coeur pour la vie.
Hannah remembered her brother leaning against the kitchen counter in her parents' house, arms crossed, singing while she cooked. He loved that old song. And she had always laughed at him when he sang it, because he was so afraid of the open water.
The chill of the mermaid flesh crept through her fingers, into her hands and up along her arms. As her whisk scraped against the side of the marinade bowl, she whispered, "What did he look like, this pretty face?"
She picked up the red, red meat and slipped it into the marinade with a soft splash.
You know.
Hannah's hands shook as she turned on the overhead fans and lit the indoor grill. She saw her brother's face, bloated like over-risen dough, glistening, somewhere at the bottom of the sea. Knew that he had sung, sobbing, a gun held to his head as he was forced into the water. That he had kicked and fought as the mermaids came to drag him down into their watery domain.
We fought too, and we screamed.
Sour bile flooded the back of Hannah's mouth and she fought to swallow it down. As her tears fell onto the grill, they sizzled, and the mermaid whispered,
Finish cooking.
"How can I?" Hannah asked, but the mermaid was silent.
She waited for the grill to get hot, and then laid the mermaid steaks on it. The smell of the steaks made her mouth water, meaty and oily and salty-sweet. She seared them like tuna, left them rare and cool on the inside. Sliced them up and plated them and scattered them with green onions, drizzled them with ginger-infused oil, encircled them with a swirl of wasabi-based sauce on the plate.
The man had left his seat sometime while she was cooking. He was right behind her when she turned to present the plate to him. He didn't bother with the fork she offered him. He picked the sliced mermaid up with his fingers, gobbled it up eagerly. Smacked his lips, wet with saliva. Eyes gleaming, he said,
"Bobby never was a liar. You're a good cook."
"Was?" she said, her heart drowning. But he didn't hear her, or didn't care. He pushed past her and attacked the other steaks, which she had cooked only because they were already cut and she didn't want to waste them. He grabbed them up and tore them with his teeth. Red juice ran down his chin; it filled the room with the smell of the sea.
In the sound of his smacking, Hannah heard gleeful, encouraging murmurs. Gooseflesh broke out all over her arms.
She never saw him swallow the last bite. She only saw his eyes widen, gleaming like pale jellies, and then saw him grab his throat, which bulged grotesquely. He wheeled towards her, his eyes accusing, and slapped his hands over his ears. She backed away, groping behind herself for her knife. If he came at her, she thought, she would do it.
He took three steps towards her, and keeled over, slapping hard against her clean tile floor.
A chunk of mermaid, half chewed, flew from his lips as he landed at her feet. In the wet plop Hannah thought she heard the mermaid's self-satisfied laugh; and then she realized it was her own.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, March 10th, 2015

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