In the end, it is easy for Gracie to leave.
She has never felt more claustrophobic in her life as she stands, waiting, in the kitchen. All at once she is struggling to breathe. It is the middle of a school day but her father is at the office, her mother gone to the park with the baby. She does not hear the phone calls, her principal's shrill voice clogging up the answering machine, as her eyes remain transfixed on the back of her hand.
Standing stock still, she pours the contents of the glass onto her skin. The water pools on the floor, tiny droplets splashing her legs, and when nothing changes Gracie knows she has to run.
Before she has a chance to think, she is paused at the threshold with her hand, still wet, clutching the door handle. She had stuffed a duffel bag with her art supplies, managing to fit two or three dresses in, and the cynical part of her mutters something about priorities as she finally opens the door. With no money but a twenty dollar note shoved in her sock, she tries not to think of Julia as the sunlight hits her face, hot as a bonfire.
Her stomach sinks when she grasps at her neck to feel nothing but empty air. It is easy for Gracie to leave, but it is hard not to look back.
She decides that she has had enough of the sea. When she leaves water, she chases fire, and the smoke is choking as it burns her throat and fills her lungs. She crams the tobacco into the paper, pinching the cigarette between her fingers, cursing when she realises she has forgotten to buy filters. There are always people to help here, though. The woman with the white hair at the stall next to hers offers a filter with a kindly smile.
Nobody at the market needs to know that she is only eighteen. She has always been good at disguising herself, playing the part, but she is an old soul by her nature. Fooling the customers into offering her a place to stay or believing that she is a graduate from the local art college is just fine for now. Gracie smiles coyly, dodging questions about her art as they offer her fistfuls of notes. Her watercolour paintings and charcoal sketches attract dozens; customers crowd around her makeshift stall and gawk at the pieces in a way that reminds Gracie of the puffer fish she used to see at Drayton's Reef. Of course, no one else on the face of the planet had seen the wonders of the ocean from such depths before. Well, no one but she and—
A voice, a new voice, snaps her out of her reverie. The man tips his hat at her before taking it off to fan himself in the baking heat. She returns his smile and cups her chin in her hands, batting her lashes and laughing at his jokes. He is younger than he looks, she thinks, but there is an air of maturity in his boyish charm, his eyes dark and alluring, drawing her in as they chat beneath the midday sun. He is smart like her, quick-witted, and when he rakes his hands through his long hair Gracie feels a small part of herself unravel.
Peter Watsford is nothing like him, and maybe that is what draws her to him. He spends his days busking for loose change, his nights by Gracie's side, and within a fortnight she is living out of his used van and coming home to his arms. When she wakes in the afternoon with shaking hands, her past caught in her throat, he holds her and does not ask any questions. Peter writes songs for her, cooks for her, lives for only her, and then everything is happening so quickly that she does not have time to breathe.
She had once fantasized about coming home, in the beginning. Her dreams were filled with her parents' smiling faces, her baby sister cooing with delight as she returned to her family. This time, they would promise she didn't have to go back to school; she could be an artist or a model or a scientist or all of the above if she wanted. The girls would forgive her, of course they would, welcoming her home with open arms and a rusted locket that once lived at the bottom of the moon pool. Julia wouldn't be angry. Louise wouldn't even chastise her recklessness. He wouldn't have so much as glanced at another girl since she left. He would give her room to just be Gracie when she returned, and she would be happy. It would be different, this time.
Now, as Gracie clutches her swollen stomach, she knows she can never go home as surely as she knows that Peter is not her baby's father.
Named for her grandmother, Annette is born kicking and screaming as dawn begins to break. There are no words to describe what Gracie feels when she first holds her for the first time, but for half a heartbeat she forgets all that she left behind, her two sisters and the love of her life, and that is more than enough. This tiny being, her face contorted and scarlet-red, is more magical than anything she has ever experienced. As happy tears fall into her daughter's hair, she tries not to notice the resemblance in eyes as blue as a springtime sky.
Every day comes with new challenges as her little girl begins to grow. Gracie is clueless but she learns along the way, holding her close to her chest and humming lullabies as she cries through the night. Still, she sees him in everything Nettie does. The guilt gnaws at her heart when Peter abandons his passion to while away the hours in an office cubicle. Soon they can afford a house, though, and Nettie takes cautious steps as her mother tries to swallow the word 'home'.
The years pass sluggishly, yet all at once. She is starting to question, really, whatever made her so fond of Peter Watsford in the first place. He juggles a second job, and a third when the old van finally breaks down, but offers his help when he can. Gracie watches from behind a cloud of cigarette smoke as he balances her daughter on his hip. He calls her 'Annie', and that fact alone makes her blood boil, but as he teaches her to cook she begins to wonder how he would parent. If he would call her by a nickname. If he would ruffle her shock of golden hair, like Peter does. If he would, when he finally realised what a wretched person she was, leave without a backward glance.
It is just before Nettie's tenth birthday when it finally happens. He holds her hand in both of his, the third finger conspicuously bare, and Gracie forces herself to meet his gaze. Peter begs her to commit with bitter tears in his eyes. She is a free spirit, she says, casting her eyes away and biting her lip against the shame. She does not want to be tied down, she tells him. Truly, she does not want to marry Peter with a thousand lies hidden behind her teeth. After all, did he ever think to ask?
And then he does.
Gracie winces against the smoke as it catches in her eye, fumbling blindly for the ashtray and blinking through the pain. She stubs out her cigarette, cursing, before turning back to the page in front of her. It has been hours since Nettie left for school, but still the paper remains blank. She stares into the white. It stares back. Her hand is beginning to cramp from holding the brush in position for so long. There is nothing else for it, now. As she rises from her chair, its wooden legs scraping against the floor, she knows it is time to face the inevitable.
She is grateful, of course she is, that Nettie is not half as rebellious as she was in her early teens. Her mother has not to worry about lies and secrets, only the boredom that comes with long school days spent chain smoking in front of the easel or waiting by the letterbox for Peter's cheques. The empty hours leave her with plenty of time to think. She is not sure, now, if the memories come uninvited, or if she is forcing herself to recall them so she never forgets.
They spent that summer in front of the camera. It seemed that every waking moment was accompanied by a blinding flash of light. When she thinks of those few months, a feeling of anticipation settles in the pit of her stomach, the impatience of waiting for the picture to develop. It made sense, at the time. Everything that they did was so special, so surreal, so magical. They knew they wouldn't believe how happy they could be unless they recorded it all.
(Besides, they didn't have much of a choice. His voice echoes in her head, gushing about his new camera, a state-of-the-art model he refused to put down. Julia called him a nerd when he spent half his life savings on a new tripod. She merely smiled. Back then, it was rare that she wasn't smiling.)
This is how Gracie find herself on all fours, peering underneath her bed, until she finds the jewellery box with the tiny dancer. She dashes to the kitchen table to open it. The passage of time has slowed the ballerina's tune to an eerie pace, but still she spins in an endless dance as Gracie coughs and hacks through the dust. The contents of the box have not seen the light of day in nearly fifteen years, yet she still remembers it all; the string of pearls she wore the night she first kissed him; the vial of sand from the moon pool they used to experiment on; the receipt from the Diner when she and the girls giggled over strawberry milkshakes.
And then, buried beneath it all, the photographs.
She suddenly finds herself scrawling across the page, hardly noticing when the watercolours stain the tablecloth, or when her old brushes shed on the paper. Every now and then she remembers to glance at the photo, and it stares at her from the corner of her eye. Red and blue meet in the middle to make purple, the shade a little warmer on one side, a little cooler on the other. Finally, with an exhausted sigh, she sets down the brush and stretches her aching hand.
Gracie has not cried like this in years.
Later she will show Nettie the painting, who will be proud, relieved, grinning. She will look at her younger self, coloured in shades of purple with her arms around her two best friends, and see her daughter's features for the first time. She will answer her questions truthfully. She will meet two pairs of eyes as they see from behind the paint. She will laugh through the stories, and the tears, all the love she had and lost.
She will decide it is time to return to the sea.
It is not home—heaven knows she is not ready for that—but the chill in the sea breeze makes it a little more bearable when the car chugs to a halt at the side of the road. Nettie still dozes inside, her legs propped against their luggage; their two lives are small enough to cram into a carload of bags, contained in suitcases, summarised in boxes.
Chewing on a stick of nicotine gum, Gracie slams the door behind her. She pops the hood of the car and narrows her eyes. A familiar voice suddenly sounds in her ears. Alarmed, she bites her cheek by accident and tastes iron, cursing herself for abandoning her smoking habit prematurely.
With shaking hands, she tries to focus on the task in front of her. She had been too distracted to notice the Lamborghini that had pulled up behind her used Ford, let alone its driver, and now there is nowhere to hide. Even after all these years, she finds herself reaching for the empty hollow at her neck to ease her nerves.
Reluctantly, she turns her body toward him, but refuses to meet his eyes as he makes his way to her. "What do you want, Karl?"
He shrugs with one shoulder. "Been a while, huh?"
She is relieved, then, to spot the broken connector. In record time she has it repaired, plugging the wire back in and closing the hood. "Keenly observed."
Karl takes a drag of his cigar and blows the smoke in her face. There are times when she truly regrets giving up her powers. Today is no exception as she indulges in the fantasy of blasting him with a spray of water.
She keeps her gaze averted, but he persists, his tone derisive. "You're not even gonna ask me how I am?"
"If I did, you might tell me you're doing well," Gracie retorts, "and I definitely don't want to hear that."
"Huh." Karl stubs his cigar out on the side of the car. Her blood begins to boil. "And here I thought you were gonna be nice to me."
Her eyes bore into him, cold as an icy sea. The years have been kind to Karl; there are a few new lines in his face, silver sprouting at his temples, but otherwise he looks the same. He still dresses in clothes she will never afford, still looks at her as if she is no more than something unwanted stuck to the bottom of his shoe.
"After what you did to Julia, why would I be nice to you?" She spits the word like a curse as she stares him down.
"Ouch. That hurts, you know?" He holds a hand to his chest, feigning offence. "It hurts, right here."
Gracie flips her dark hair over her shoulder and bites her tongue against a string of expletives. "Goodbye, Karl," she says, slamming the car door so forcefully that the windows shake.
"You know," says Karl, "what you did to Julia was so much worse than what I did!"
She stiffens, but keeps her composure.
"And to Louise, too!"
This time, she holds her middle finger out the car window. She steers with her other hand and tries to swallow the lump in her throat. A small part of her envies her daughter as she naps in the backseat, oblivious to this grown man's imperiousness.
And then he says something that breaks her heart.
Later, she drops Nettie to her new school. Karl's words swim in her head, pooling in her stomach, a knife twisting in her chest. She thinks she will be hearing them until her last breath. In a sea of faces, she wonders who it could be.
No wonder Max married someone else!
Nettie kisses her cheek when she answers the door. A laugh that becomes a cough rises to her mother's throat when she asks to be called 'Annette' for the umpteenth time. Gracie merely shakes her head. Though she is older now, with a budding career as a sous-chef, a beautifully furnished home, a child, Nettie is still as mystifying as ever.
Strange smells waft through the kitchen. This week she tackles Cypriot cuisine, adding pepper and thyme as she labours over the stove. She chastises Gracie when she chews with her mouth open or rolls a cigarette beneath the table. Nettie tells her she needs to get her hair cut. She barely notices as her curls skim past her waist. It has been a long time since Gracie could look in a mirror.
She sees much of herself in little Charlotte, her inquisitiveness, her creativity, her stubbornness. The toddler has her father's eyes, but she would recognise that sunset hair anywhere. Gracie holds her tight as she squirms restlessly in her lap, reaching for crayons with her small dimpled hands. She wonders aloud where clouds come from, why fire is hot, or why the ocean is salty (she tries not to think of the other person Charlotte reminds her of). Even now, Gracie can see her granddaughter in a cap and gown, accepting her diploma with a gracious smile. There will be more for her, she thinks.
Later, as Charlotte's brown eyes flutter closed, Gracie tells her stories of the sea; the darkness of the deep ocean, the power of Mako Island, the joy of swimming with dolphins or finding herself miles away from home. She lets herself remember the speed and exhilaration, the freedom, the excitement, the magic of sharing the mystery together.
Of course, she will not mention the lies, heavy as concrete in her mouth, the suffocating feeling of the endless experiments, the bone-deep fear of their secret being revealed. How it felt to toss her locket into the moon pool. How it felt to give it all up. How it felt to run.
It is only when Charlotte is fast asleep that Gracie gazes at the full moon to say that, yes, I was a mermaid once.
The retirement village is nice, Gracie thinks. Not yet sixty, she is probably a little young to be here, but decades of smoking have caught up with her, or perhaps it was the… metamorphosis in her youth that aged her so rapidly. They tell her three months, although they said that before, six months ago. It has spread almost everywhere, they say. But what do they know?
A kindly nurse leads her outside. The decking overlooks the sea, its waves choppy, turbulent, and the brine in the air is overwhelming. It is home. She sits in a wicker chair and tries to be discreet as she rolls a cigarette, her fingers not as nimble as they once were. Later, she will lean out her window when the last lights are off. She will not know that this cigarette is to be her very last.
For now, she is happy to rock in her chair with the old jewellery box in her lap. Gracie prises it open. The rusted ballerina spins, her song finally acquiescing to dead silence. She fingers the string of pearls, the first letter that her sister sent, the yellowed Diner receipt, the biology report that earned her an A+, the card that Charlotte drew for her 57th birthday. And then, buried deep where no one could possibly find them, the photographs.
It was the first day of summer holidays, she recalls. Their class had gathered on the beach that day to celebrate the end of exams. Gracie's arms are around him. They stare into the camera with matching grins, blissful, youthful, and free. She remembers how the wind howled that day, how careless she was with the sand between her toes, how it felt to laugh, to love, to be with him.
Still Gracie watches the water. At least she and Max are looking at the same ocean.
a/n: hello everyone! thank you so much for reading. i have so many feelings about max and gracie, especially given how multifaceted gracie's character is even though we know so little of her. this fic is largely based on a dodgy conspiracy theory/headcanon about max being charlotte's grandfather which you can find more info on in the dark recesses of my tumblr somewhere!
the fact that gracie died so young (around 57 if i'm correct?) will always be absolutely heartbreaking to me. i decided that her mermaid transformation in her youth contributed to this, and gave her a bad smoking habit for good measure. if you guys have any kind of gracie thoughts feel free to share in reviews/DMs, she's my fav!
i also must apologise for the botched excuse for mechanical engineering (?) seen in the exchange with karl. also, i totally believe there was a nauseatingly cute 50s-style diner in the former mermaids' day where the juicenet/rikki's café is now. of course, the title of this piece and the final few lines are inspired by that especially devastating part of season 3. you know the one.
thank you so so much for reading! leave a review if you'd like!
Lots of love,