The Immortal Mermaid


This is Jessica.

She is Cayce’s older sister, who was one of my childhood friends & fellow classmates. She was 3 whole years older than me, but she didn’t seem to know that when it came to friendship.

She (and her glorious hair) became my object of worship. I loved that girl; she was second only to Ariel as the mermaid queen of my heart.

She was only 10 years old the day she died; I’m the only one who saw it happen.

August 18, 1995 — 19 years ago today. With Cayce’s permission, this is our story.*


Summer was drawing to a close in Whitefish, Montana. I was soaking up all the lake days with my friends that I could, but there was one particular, special, day that I was looking forward to.

Swimming Pool on the Mountain Day.

My mom was planning on attending a Big Adult Conference of some kind, along with Cayce & Jessica’s mom. The hotel (?) that was hosting the event was at the ski resort on Big Mountain, and had its own pool. It was one of the fanciest things I could think of, and Jessica was going to spend the whole afternoon swimming with me there. I don’t remember what Cayce’s plans were; I just remember being sad she couldn’t come.

The only thing I noticed when we entered the pool area: we were literally the only people there. No guests, no lifeguards. But we were strong swimmers, and having a whole pool AND hot tub to ourselves was the stuff of dreams.

We played and splashed and laughed for hours, alternating between the big pool and the hot tub. I never wanted the afternoon to end. I kept my eye on the clock, knowing how many minutes were cruelly creeping by until our moms picked us up.

Our skin was starting to wrinkle and I was getting cold.

“Let’s go in the hot tub one last time to warm up!” she said.

“Okay! Wanna play the hold-your-breath game?” I replied.

She smiled. It was a competition we’d been duelling at all afternoon. One turn at a time, dunking under, the other person watching the clock to count the seconds. We averaged between 30 and 40 seconds each time; one minute was the winner we’d never achieved.

She dunked, and then I did. She dunked again, and then I did. She was determined to beat me the third time. I counted the seconds on the clock. When she passed 35 seconds, I knew she would win. 40…45…was she going to seize the one-minute winner-takes-all goal?

People often say, when a life-changing trauma occurs, that “everything happened so fast.” For me, it was the exact opposite. The seconds crawled by like snails, and she was still under the bubbles. Despite a pit in my stomach that said something was wrong, I laughed and said, “Okay, okay, you win! You can come up now.”

Maybe she didn’t hear me. Almost two minutes. I reached into the water to tap on her head.


I grabbed her shoulder and started shaking her.

She was stuck.

“Jessica! JESSICA!” I started screaming and glancing around. As had been the case all afternoon, no one was there.

Suddenly, her body bobbed to the surface, but her head was still down in the water, and I couldn’t. pull. her. out.

I don’t understand. What is happening. Why won’t she come back?

I fled the hot tub, determined to find help. I reached the door, opened it and stopped in my tracks.

Carpet. Nice, clean, fancy carpet. And there I was dripping wet, remembering that someone had told me to never step on anyone’s carpet when I was wet. Mold would grow underneath, and the carpet would be ruined.

This thought kept me from running any further. So I stood at the doorway, calling out over and over, even though I could see no one.

In desperation, I ran back into the hot tub, and tried with all my strength to remove Jessica from it. Screams echoed off the tiles.

It felt like hours. It felt like being abandoned. It felt like all my fault. But there was a tiny part of me that was sure she was going to pop out of the water like a fish any second now with a smile on her face, declaring herself the winner of the game for all time.

SLAM! The door burst open, and a man ran in, like a guardian angel who’d gotten caught in traffic.

“What happened?” He had dark hair and a strong build, but even he strained to free her.

I froze, my words pouring out slowly. “We were playing…a game…she was holding her breath…and…she never came up.” Would this angel blame me?

“Okay, honey. I’m gonna go get some help. Are you okay here for a minute?”

I nodded. What was one more minute?

I never left her side. I had started to shake. I thought I was cold, but now I know it was probably something else.

The door opened again, this time with 6 big, too-late guardian angels to help me. I sat on the edge of the hot tub, curled up with my arms wrapped around my knees as they suctioned to the bodice of my swimsuit.

I had no concept of the time anymore.

It took all 6 of them to finally bring her limp body out of the water. Her princess hair covered her face, and as they laid her down on the concrete, one of them began CPR, sweeping the hair away. She was a light blue.

That’s when I started to cry.


Every time I recall that day, it feels like a dream. I’m certain that I blocked some memories in self-preservation; what 7 year old wouldn’t? I remember the helicopter that took her away, the gravel that bit my wrinkled feet as I walked across the parking lot, covered in a blanket.
Later, at the hospital, they wouldn’t let me see her, just told me what I already knew. Her hair, that I’d wanted so badly, had gotten sucked into a filter at the bottom of the tub. We’d never seen it coming.

Nobody asked me what happened. Not the hospital, not my mom, not a pastor or a therapist. I was never asked, so I never said anything. I just tried to forget, and kept my hair short, avoiding hot tubs at all costs.**

I didn’t see Cayce much*** after that; I was pulled out of school to begin homeschooling less than a year later.Ā 

But this I do know: Jessica was a piece of goodness and kindness and gentleness that the absolute senselessness of Life elected to take out before she could spread her beauty beyond her corner of the world.

I hate that, and I hate the part that I played in it. That will never be taken away from me, from her family. This is a scar we will always share, as though she had been the blood and bone joining us together until we were ripped apart.

But I have absolutely no doubt that we will see her again one day.

I can picture her now, swimming towards me, laughing and splashing, saying, “THERE you are! I’ve been swimming all day waiting for you, silly! Hey, did you know we can be mermaids here if we want? Come on, I’ll show you!”

And when I jump in the water, all the pain and fear and confusion of that day will be washed away in the waves. The sun will never set, and skin will never wrinkle from swimming too long; lungs will be more than lungs and we will be more than girls. Finally. Forever.

* Some location and timeline details may have changed due to my faulty memory. Apologies.
** I can say that I love hot tubs again, and that, this year, I’ve let my hair grow the longest it’s ever been.
*** We are now reconnected through the lovely Internet, and all has been restored, thank God.


20 thoughts on “The Immortal Mermaid

  1. Oh Carly… I don’t understand why this stuff happens. I don’t think we are meant to.

    I read this at the gym, just standing to the side with my jaw dropped. I can’t believe no one thought to help you process this as a child… What a horrible thing to overlook, and such a disservice to a child’s soul.

    I am glad you are reconnected with her family and that you were able to tell this story in a way that honors her so beautifully.

    • It is definitely pretty effed up, now that I’ve let myself remember these details. My mom was a therapist, so I guess she thought she could take care of me if any “reactions” occurred. I do not remember the days that followed Jessica’s death at all.
      I’m so glad I reconnected with her family too – it was finally through talking to them that I realized it wasn’t my fault she died, and that they didn’t ever hate me at all. That belief was an intrinsic part of me for a good 10 years.
      Thanks for reading and being here. ā¤

  2. Wow ā€“ I have so many emotions running through me after reading this. Horrified that you had to witness this and feel so powerless, especially at such a young age. Sad that such a bright light was extinguished too soon. Pity at the thought of what you and her family had to endure. Anger that no one was there to help you in your time of need. Powerful story and your ending was beautiful.

    • I feel those exact same feelings, especially now that I’m an adult and I can think of many 7 and 10 year olds that I know…I feel sick to think of them going through something like this. And just how everything could have been avoided – oh there’s no lifeguards, maybe we shouldn’t swim here. How I responded to the carpet shouldn’t have even been an issue in my mind. None of this HAD to happen.
      I thank you for sharing your feelings with me, and I am pretty damn proud of that ending too, if I do say so myself.

    • Thank you so much for reading and responding. I certainly hope strength and peace are mine. Even if I don’t feel it sometimes, I’m glad that it’s visible to you and hopefully others. šŸ™‚

  3. I appreciate so much that you’ve taken such care in writing this, it couldn’t have been easy for you. You’re so generously gentle in your telling. I’m sorry I wasn’t there, especially after. I remember not wanting to torture you with memories by forcing you to remain my friend, that it would be less painful for you, but I’ve missed you terribly all these years.
    I love you always, please know that never at any point were you considered responsible for what happened. Again, I love you.

    • Cayce…thank you. I was so worried that I would ruin your life by writing this, and your words are like healing a wound. I wish we had stayed closer friends as well, but we were just kids and didn’t know what the hell was happening to us. I understand. We’ll see each other again, either in this life or whatever comes after. I love you too.

      • Carly, this is Ike, Jessica and Cayce’s dad. Thank you for your writing about the day Jessica died. I had only heard the version from Joani, (their mom and my beautiful wife). Several days after Jessica died, I went to see your mom. That was when she still lived near the Exxon station at Hwy 2, west of Columbia Falls. It was difficult for us to talk about it and my main purpose at that time was to make sure you were okay. Jessica was to be taking care of you at the time of the accident. We had trained her to swim so something like this could never happen. It was such a sad time for all of us. I still count the years, months and days, every day. We later found out that the drain in that hot tub had been condemned and was supposed to have been replaced. There was only one drain so all the suction was concentrated there. It also had a spinner in it so it sucked her hair in, then knotted it on the other side so it couldn’t be pulled out. The shut-off valve was supposed to be in reach of the tub. In fact it was behind an iron locked door in the basement. Over the years Joani and I have helped to get the laws changed on the construction of hot tubs and pools to make them safer so others don’t need to suffer as we all have. We had a hot tub in our house at the time. We took it out and have never been in one since. Again, I thank you for writing about it. I’m truly sorry for the pain it has caused you over the years. It was something that caught us all by surprise. No one would ever have suspected that could happen. God bless you, and Joani and I wish you well.

    • Cayce, I don’t know if your dad will see this, but please tell him I am shocked and saddened by what he shared, but also thankful to know those extra details. I am nothing but grateful that your family received my telling of the story so well. Praying God grants us all grace to get through these days. ā¤

  4. Carly, this is heartbreaking. I cannot even imagine how awful it had to have been for you and to write about it after all these years. This is a beautiful tribute to your sweet friend. I’m so sorry.

  5. Oh, Carly. I’ve seen you write such gorgeous prose about far too many heartbreaking, confusing stories. I’m an adult and I don’t know how to process things you lived as a child. I have so much praise for the way you’ve made your own path, the way you’ve injected love and insight into horrible darkness… and I hear all of this every time you open your mouth and sing.

    The ending you wrote to this story? I want that for you, very badly. And I know you will meet all the lost loved ones again. But until then, I’m sincerely hoping you don’t have to become any stronger through adversity. Enough. Time for all Carlies to shine, and play with loons in the morning mist, and be in love with a world that loves back.


    • The fact that you have so much going on right now, but you took the time to share these thoughts with me is enormous for my heart.

      I’m kinda hoping I don’t need any more “character development” for awhile. Still recovering from this summer’s events. But I will keep singing and being mermaidly and I will think of you every time.

  6. Pingback: Baby Button Needs You To Stop Praying For Him Now | she's a butterfly, pretty as a crimson sky, nothing's ever gonna bring her down.

  7. Hey Carly…was reading this over again as I do from time to time, and I had a question…I always thought that her hair got stuck in one of the jets on the side of the hot tub, at the crown of her head, like when you dunk in and lean your head back. But here you state that it was at the bottom of the pool, that’s somewhat harder to understand…sorry if it’s a bit morbid to ask, I’ve just had this thing about understanding every possible detail I can, as though it would change the outcome…

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