I was walking along the shore down at the local beach early one morning when I came upon a starfish in the sand. It had been stranded by the outgoing tide. This is not an unusual circumstance in and of itself; starfish are often stranded on beaches in this way. In fact, a famous story (which may or may not have been published in one of those chicken soup books--I wouldn't know, because I hate that feel-good drivel and wouldn't be caught dead reading such sentimental claptrap) talks about an old man walking down a similar beach where thousands of starfish had been stranded and, one by one, throwing them back in. Someone observes that with so many starfish littering the beach it will be impossible for the old man to save them all. He plucks one up and tosses it back in the ocean, replying, "It made a difference to that one." If I had been there, I would have pointed out to the old geezer that starfish can survive up to five days out of the water and that the return of the tide in six hours or so would have rescued them just fine. See? Claptrap.
It was, perhaps, because I was thinking of that "story" that I stopped to get a closer look at this particular starfish. There was nothing unusual about its appearance. I'd seen many such creatures in my daily beach walks, and this one looked much like the others. I was about to step over it and continue on my way when the strangest thing happened. It spoke.
"You aren't really going to just walk past, are you?"
"Uhm, uh, what?" I'm very articulate when echinoderms with no vocal chords talk to me.
"You're just walking past."
"Well, yeah. I'm on a 'walk.' It's what I'm in the middle of doing."
"No you aren't. You're standing."
"Momentarily." I couldn't believe it. I was getting lip from a starfish.
"Well, then. I'm glad I caught you in your moment of rest. I need your help."
"Wait for the tide."
"I'm not throwing you back in. Wait for the tide like all the others of your kind." I resumed my walk.
"Wait! Please, that's just the problem. This isn't my kind."
Now that was an odd thing to say. Odd enough to get me to stop. "Say again?"
"This isn't my kind. Or rather, I'm not this kind."
"Not what kind? You're not making any sense." The fact I was saying this to a talking starfish made me feel more than a little silly.
"No. I…I'm not saying this right. I'm not a starfish."
I stared at the little creature. "Five arms, crusty skin, about as big as my hand. You sure look like a common starfish to me. No way you're going to convince me you're a clam."
"I am not a starfish or a clam. I am a princess."
I opened my mouth to speak, but no words came out.
"Did you hear? I am a princess, not a starfish."
I finally succeeded in forcing out speech. "I heard you. I…just don't believe it."
"Why is it so hard to believe?"
"I'm looking right at you. You're a starfish."
"You're also hearing me. Since when do common starfish talk?"
I chewed on that. The creature had a point. If I accepted that this starfish could talk, was it such a stretch to think it may not be a true starfish at all, but a princess in the form of a starfish? Uh, yeah!
"All right, this has gone on long enough. Jack, Stan? Where are you guys hiding? You've planted a microphone and got one of your girl pals to act as voice, right? Where’s the camera?"
I looked around, but there was no one in sight. The beach was empty. Maybe they were up on the cliffs in the distance with a zoom lens. I snatched the starfish up from the sand and inverted it, searching for the microphone.
"Hey, watch it. Don't be so rough."
I ignored the voice, turning the starfish over in my hands. There were no electronics in sight. Maybe on the inside? I looked for a seam.
"You know, you're cute when you're frantic."
I paused in my search. "That's disturbing coming from a starfish."
"I told you, I'm not…."
"Not a starfish. Right." I turned the starfish over one more time. It moved. I sat in sudden realization. This was a live creature; there were no seams, no electronics. She may be telling the truth.
"Starting to believe me?"
"Thank Poseidon," she said. "I was beginning to think you were daft."
I might be, I thought. I'm talking to a starfish claiming to be a princess. "How did this happen to you?"
"I angered a sea witch. She changed me into this."
"And how are you supposed to change back?"
"A man has to kiss me."
"Figures. And so you beached yourself in the hopes some poor sucker would come past and you could convince him."
"That's it in a clamshell."
I sighed. "Let's get this over with then."
"You mean you'll do it?" For a creature with no discernible mouth I could practically see her smiling.
"Why not? Either this is a huge hoax and the video being shot is going to go viral on YouTube, or you're telling the truth and I help you out. Either way, it'll be done and I can finish my walk."
I brought the starfish to my mouth and kissed it.
The change was instantaneous. One moment I was holding a starfish, its spines poking my nose, the next my hands were cupping an angular face, and soft lips were pressed against mine.
Soft slimy lips that tasted like fish.
"Ewww!" I scuttled backward, dumping her off my lap. Her hair was the color of sea foam, as were her eyes, but it was the flopping fish tail that held my gaze.
She was a mermaid.
"You said you were a princess!" My tone was all kinds of accusatory, but I didn't care.
She drew herself up. "And so I am. Princess Oleronna Atalantia."
"You're a freaking fish!"
Her eyes flashed. "And you are an ignorant land worm." She turned, and with a great flop levered herself into the ocean. There was a splash as her tail impacted the water, and she was gone.
I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and spit, trying to get rid of the taste of her. It lingered.
"Gross. They never showed this part in Splash."
I picked myself up off the ground and resumed my walk. No way I was ever telling anyone about this. Not ever.
* * * * *
It only took Oleronna a moment to find her two friends.
"Did you get it?" she asked.
Tellerine smiled and held out the image recorder rod. "All right here. We can upload it to the 'seine' as soon as we get home. I can't believe he fell for that old princess transformed by the witch routine."
"He's a land dweller. They're all as stupid as sea cucumbers."
"How did it feel, Oleronna," Molly asked, "kissing the human, I mean."
Oleronna grimaced. "Like licking a rock out of water. Dry and rough." She shuddered with the memory.
"Oh come on, it couldn't be that bad."
"Trust me, it was."
The three friends swam back into the depths.
"You think this will go viral?"
"I sure hope so."
"Next time, I wanna be the one on land and you can do the recording."