"Puka Shells" by Michael Colbert

Michael Colbert

Michael Colbert

Michael Colbert is a queer writer based in Maine, where he’s at work on a novel about bisexual love, loss, and hauntings. He holds an MFA from UNC Wilmington, and his writing appears in Esquire, NYLON, Catapult, and Electric Literature, among others.


Puka Shells


The Coast Guard had issued a warning about the mermaids of San Diego. Protestors plastered posters on telephone poles and on the walls of the bathing houses by the beach. Skyler ripped one from a bulletin board on his way down the shore. The photo showed a skeletal siren underwater, hollows for her nose and eyes, ribs like oxen bones straining gray skin. “They’ll kill you” was all any of the flyers said. More missing, just another, last week.

The protests had started when the toddler of young millionaires drowned. She’d been playing at the dock’s end while her parents made a deal with a brand that would pay them to post pictures on their social media accounts. They found her body a few days later. Nobody had seen a mermaid, but the media was willing to rewrite negligence with Anti-Siren rhetoric. Years ago, the mermaids were sexy, cool, local icons, a national curiosity. They strutted on scaly legs to taco trucks by the shore. They did Q+As with schoolchildren at the boardwalk’s end. Their supporters on land yelled at the Coast Guard trucks. Now, the Coast Guard looked for mermaids and only saw the threat of being pulled under, defenseless as a ragdoll.

Skyler had started coming to the beach after work to read. When heat rash blossomed in his skin, he dove into the surf. Ally had been his girlfriend all through college, the last few years in San Diego, too. They’d shared an apartment, adopted a mini-Aussie when she insisted that was what they needed. So they trained the dog and brought her on Saturday morning powerwalks. Then Ally started bringing up The Night. The Night was when they’d had a threesome with their gay friend Andy. She said at the time that it was sexy that Skyler was bi, but she couldn’t scratch the idea that maybe he needed to “try out men.”

Also, she had moved to Chicago, law school. She’d had enough of beachside tacos and puka shells, Skyler and their life here.

Skyler was reading a book about LSD, which he didn’t open again after dunking in the ocean. Drying on his belly, he did not hear the man come up behind him, only turned when he heard the crinkle of his plastic bag of dried mango. With spindly fingers, the man plucked a piece. Skyler assessed him through his sunglasses. He’d always been into surfers–biceps in neoprene, butts flattened by wetsuits. The man wore puka shells over his wetsuit, and his frosted tips dribbled down his forehead like trails of water down a sandcastle. He looked like the kind of guy who shopped at Pac Sun. Before Skyler could think twice, the man reached a piece of mango to Skyler’s mouth. He took it. The man nuzzled into Skyler’s jaw, neck, chest and kissed him. His mouth was briny, like he’d tumbled straight off his board onto Skyler’s towel. Then again, Skyler didn’t see a surfboard. He pulled off his sunglasses and, weaving fingers through the man’s hair, pulled him in.

“I’m Skyler,” he said.

The man was Chris.

Chris had Skyler’s hand in his. As the moon rose, they found privacy under a pier. Chris turned around and Skyler unzipped his wetsuit, unwrapping his slick torso, pulling the suit below his crotch. Hard, they sucked and thrust. Skyler swallowed the salt and then they waded into the water to wash their skin clean. Eating tacos on the pavement, pinkies caressing, holding, Chris crowned Skyler with his puka shells before disappearing down the shore.


A few years ago, news of the mermaids of San Diego had come to light when an orca trainer dove into the tank at night. With a kick she unfurled her tail, soaked the cameras, and freed the orcas. She hadn’t bothered tampering with the security footage, so the clip made headlines. Ann Curry remarked, “What majesty,” on NBC News.

Skyler’s mom had taken him to the aquarium the next day, before the footage went national. She’d gotten off work, and he’d been asking, asking, asking about the whale show. Yellow police tape cordoned off the amphitheater. His mom lit a cigarette when he wouldn’t rally at the beluga tank. Even if the aquarium were fully open, Skyler would have found something to complain about. She’d always known he was different, had never known how to ask.

Cutting onions before the diminutive kitchen TV, she said, “They say a mermaid freed the whales last night.” Skyler watched the footage with her, the splash, the mermaid leaping through the air, orcas pirouetting after her. His mom dragged on another cigarette when she tousled his hair, mesmerized face pulling to the TV screen.

Now, there were counter-protestors on the beach. Middle-aged women opposed to Anti-Siren rhetoric. Skyler waved on the way to his spot. He came every night and so too did Chris. They ate dried mango. They had sex under the boardwalk and ate tacos after, Skyler jamming wet feet into his Nikes. Chris was always barefoot, always in his wetsuit. He waved goodbye when Skyler walked home.

Within a week, Skyler started sloughing away dry skin from his arms at work. Before bed, he’d scratch and scratch his legs until they pulsed red. Taking off the shell necklace for sleep, he’d finally find rest. He didn’t want to remove the necklace. He’d huff its coral scent to feel bonded to Chris. Skyler’s coworkers teased him for it. “Nice throwback,” they would say, but then someone came in with crimped hair on Friday.

The dog found the first scale, ferreted it out from the bedsheets Saturday morning. She tried chomping down. Skyler wrestled it free from her canines and rubbed down its metallic surface. He flung off the covers. Blood stained the sheets. Where the scale had peeled from his calf, his flesh had congealed, coalesced, silvery and shimmering. In the night, he’d worried it away with his big toe. He took the dog for a run and she smacked her lips as if working a strand of hair from her mouth. She rolled in Skyler’s sweaty lap when they returned, looked at him with the devotion she conferred upon him only once Ally had gone.

Skyler showed Chris the scale that night after sex. Chris smiled, rolled Skyler onto his belly, and slipped inside. When he was done, he kissed up Skyler’s spine, and Skyler felt scales on his back shifting, pressed under Chris’s chin on his sacrum. Instead of tacos, Skyler tugged on the wetsuit Chris handed him and waded with Chris into the ocean, to knees, to chests, chins. Skyler scanned the horizon. The Coast Guard ship wasn’t far. Would they be watching? He held his breath and went under.

Chris peeled Skyler’s eyes open. Skyler followed him into the green. His legs had fused to a tail, cobalt and strong. The flapping was awkward at first. Chris lingered, twirled, gave him tips. This is your mermaid tutorial.

Underwater, they kissed and ate seaweed.

“There’s so much you can do now that you’re here,” Chris said.

He sang his words like a riddling sphinx, his voice mellifluous now in this sea.


Skyler spent all day thinking about when he could return. He biked straight to the beach after work to find Chris, so they could have sex, eat seaweed, sit on the shelf of the ocean and watch The Nature Channel, Animal Planet, the aquarium of the entire ocean, their blue world before them. Underwater, he felt the expanse loosen the cords in his chest. This was where he ought to be. He breathed easier, or maybe that was just the gills. He even came in the morning, waking earlier to squeeze in ocean time before work, sneaking past sunrise surfers, willing away the last sigh of air before he submerged. And in the morning, he met his first mermaid. She waved him over, kissed his cheeks, his lips. “You’re Chris’s boyfriend,” she said. “He told me you like ladies too.”

They dove deep together. The mermaid wrangled an octopus and he inked Skyler. “You’ve gotta come back,” she called on his way up, blinking away the sludge. When Skyler surfaced, the ink soaked into his skin and he scrubbed and scrubbed in the showers. He shifted when he heard vehicles crawling down the road. Two Coast Guard vans were patrolling, waving out their windows at surfers like they were giving out candy. Skyler bolted into the bathroom and drew his legs onto the seat, scales scraping the flesh of his chest. Two of them came in, chatting about the game. When talk turned to mermaids, Skyler peered down the toilet bowl and wondered if he could slip through the drain.

“We got a call last night,” one said, his voice high, hopeful. “A woman reported some activity by the boardwalk.”

“You think?” the other asked.

“She sounded pretty tweaked. But we’re following up on every call.”

When the door opened and the beach swallowed them, he released his legs, gasping. Octopus ink had stained the toilet black. On the shore, the counter-protestors held poster boards above their heads. We stand with mermaids. One green and blue world for all. They remembered the glory days. They narrowed their eyes when Skyler watched for too long, glowering at inked skin. He wouldn’t go to his mom’s for a few days. She’d see the mark yearning out from his collar.


“We need an escape plan,” Skyler said. He’d found Chris underwater before their usual time. He’d rented snorkeling equipment. When he’d put everyone on the shore out of sight, he tugged the snorkel underwater and inhaled through his gills. “The Coast Guard got a report about us.”

Chris picked kelp from his teeth. He handed Skyler a piece, and he chomped. Chris spoke only after the kelp was gone. “You’ll dry up if you stay on land too long. I think we need to go deep for a while.”

“How long?” Skyler said.

Chris shrugged, threw a pebble at a jellyfish. “I don't know. Probably forever?”

“No way.” Skyler huffed. He’d imagined riding east with Chris, dodging the Coast Guard on land, sleeping in motels with quarter slots in the beds, diving into the Atlantic on Cape Cod before sunrise. Wasn’t this about choice, coming and going as he pleased?

“You’d be surprised,” Chris said. A school of fish darted overhead. Chris blew a stream of bubbles their way. “I’ve been down here since 99. At some point, you have to go under or everyone you know begins to wonder.”

They’d grow old together, except they wouldn’t, bodies encased in mermaid immortality. So only the world above would continue. Maybe they’d forge through the water, find another seaside city to stage their fling, boardwalks and jellyfish, roller coasters and kelp. Maybe they’d be fashionable again one day, teenagers would idolize their scaly backs and rainbow hair. By then, would Skyler be more merman than human? He could only ever appear as one at a time. What would he do with the dog?

The Pacific darkened with the vanishing sun. When Skyler felt the moon cooling the water, he stroked Chris’s cheek. “Give me a few days,” he said.

Chris nibbled on Skyler’s ear. “The ocean’s bigger than you realize.” Chris slid away, started swimming off. “We need more mermen in the fold.”

Skyler brought the snorkel to his lips when he found the surface and walked home.

At night, he scrolled through Ally’s photos, examined her Midwestern life. He’d only go where oceans forked together, the Great Lakes too bleak, too distant. His thumb hovered over the call button but never touched. In the clutch of a dream, he texted her, I’m finally trying out men. He didn’t hear anything in the morning.


On his last day, he petted his dog. She yelped, circled his ankles, and guarded the door. He would take her for one last run. She’d be gone by the time he returned. He wanted her to be their adventure companion, to crown her a merdog with puka shells, to envelop her in his new world. Dogs didn’t make the trip.

He’d called his mom the night before.

“I’m going away for a while,” he’d said.

“Do you need me to dogsit?” He heard the news on the same kitchen TV, the snap of her lighter in manicured fingernails.

“Don’t you want to know where I’m going?”

“Where are you going?” She’d always been petulant, had always said, “Don’t be so dramatic.”

“Into the ocean,” Skyler said, over-determined. She’d recall the mermaid on the news, the glow of his face when he saw her swim away. I always knew, she’d say, or, Your aunt swore you’d get pulled under. Instead, she said, “You can leave the dog with me. I’ll take her running. I’m on a fitness kick.”

Her crate, her food, and gnarly rawhide stacked by the door. She’d been sleepy all morning, hadn’t known today was special. She looked at him, eyes blank as bread dough, tongue panting until he opened the door.

He had to trust the connection went deeper with Chris, that this world would yield to him. Or maybe it wasn’t so simple. He’d try it with Chris. If it failed, there were more merpeople in the sea. The full surface of the world had been revealed to Skyler. That night he would take one last breath and descend, swim out to sea until the tides changed again.

He clipped on her leash and they ran.