The showers by the filthy restrooms don’t work, but she presses the metal button and closes her eyes, remembering fresh water. She runs her fingers through her hair and pisses on the sand. Then she begins the long walk to the pier, which still bustles, but with a different kind of activity, the pushers and prostitutes having taken over. They give her weird looks when they see her baby bump. She smiles and explains that she is looking for the old aquarium. A woman with perfect eyeliner and no front teeth points north but warns her that all the fish are dead.
She walks on, past the old carousel and the now empty vintage candy stand. It is coming back to her. She remembers this place. She goes down the stairs to the aquarium and is reassured by a tattered banner announcing feeding times for the seahorse family. Yes, this is definitely the right place. She pushes open a cracked glass door and proceeds, waddling a little, down a ramp into humid darkness laced with decay.
A woman sits in an algae-lined touch tank that was once filled with pastel sea stars and squishy sea cucumbers, creatures that made little kids squeal. The woman is naked except for a halter top covered in little shells and anchor charms. She seems confused when she sees the baby bump but then she says, Ten bucks. Or any food you have.
I don’t have any food. And I haven’t seen a ten-dollar bill in forever.
Then I can’t help you.
Are you the mermaid?
Ha. Not exactly. Or I could be. But you need to pay.
There used to be a mermaid around here when I was a little girl. You could get a picture with her.
Nice. Listen, sweetie, you’re in the way. I might have a customer.
There’s nobody outside.
The woman sighs. This is no place for a pregnant lady.
But I’m going to have a seahorse.
Congratulations. Now get out of here.
Fine, but I’m coming back for this tank. I need it. The ocean is going to turn me inside out. Soon.
She goes back outside and sits down in the sun. Her back is aching. There is no way she can keep walking.
She wakes with a start after an unintended nap, but when she thinks of opening that glass door again, she feels like a little kid pestering her parents in the middle of the night. This is something she barely remembers, but there was a time when she lived in a house and had two parents who slept in a bed. Then there was the mobile home, but, as her mother insisted, it was in the classiest location ever, near Paradise Cove in Malibu, with a man who was not her father. Still, no matter where she lived, she always felt like she was on the outside. The kid who could never get her teacher’s attention. The tag-along who was invisible to the other little girls, even when she was invited to the party.
Her mother had warned her about everything. No mushroom clouds, no secret concentration camps, but they’ll keep pushing you further to the edge until you’ve lost all ground. It’s easy to be forgotten.
She opens the door and slips back into the warm darkness of the aquarium.
Little has changed. The mermaid looks at her in surprise, then recognition, then annoyance. There is a man with her now. He is wearing a sailor suit, but it’s impossible to tell if he’s really in the navy or if this is his fetish.
You, get out. Now.
The sailor turns and frightens her with his glare. Her dry lips quiver but form no words. She spends the rest of the day wandering around the pier until she settles, once again, on the aquarium steps. Late in the afternoon the touch-tank mermaid appears, no longer angry, and shakes out an old sheet.
Do you want me to help you take care of it? Is that it? Because I don’t do that anymore, honey. It’s too dangerous and you’re definitely too far along.
No. It’s not that. I’m not worried about that.
She doesn’t know how to explain herself. She imagines a sea creature inside of her, never a baby, and when it comes out, she will give it to the ocean. If it’s even breathing. She knows nobody, nothing, lives long in this world. All she wants is soft fingers on her flesh, a warm palm, the sensation of another human body near hers. She has an idea.
Do you give massages?
Who told you that?
Someone on the pier, she lies. A woman.
The mermaid tosses her head, and then her expression changes so that it almost looks like she’s consenting. Is it your back? Is your lower back bothering you?
Yes. It’s my back.
I guess I could do that for you. Massage your lower back. But you’ve got nothing to trade?
Maybe we could trade massages.
The mermaid smirks but they end up walking into the dark aquarium together. They find an empty tank and climb in, pressing their bodies against tiny grains of sand as the salty dust kicks up around them.
What happens next is like drifting. She grows so warm that she could easily fall asleep, or better yet, drop endlessly through space. It’s pleasant yet disorienting to surrender to someone else, to lose consciousness knowing that another living person will stay awake. She wishes she could fall asleep forever.
As she nods off she is already starting to dream. She’s down at the sea with the mermaid, but they are both young girls and the world is back to the way it used to be. She feels hopeful. Even the light is different. The mermaid kisses her forehead and tucks her into the blanket of sand.
Jan Stinchcomb’s stories have appeared most recently in Whiskey Paper, Atticus Review, Five:2:One andGamut Magazine. She is the author of Find the Girl (Main Street Rag, 2015) and she reviews fairy tale-inspired works in Notes From Rapunzel’s Tower, her column for Luna Station Quarterly. She lives in Southern California with her husband and children. Find her at http://www.janstinchcomb.com or on Twitter @janstinchcomb.