The red velvet curtain rises. Music plays, a piece heavy with woodwinds, flittering flutes set off by the depth of oboes and clarinets. The lights above the aquarium shoot rays of violet and neon pink through the water. The smell of chlorine is strong, but it doesn’t bother the boy; it smells like sanitation, like germs burning away into the ether.
Then: a woman. A surge of red hair blown into view behind the glass, covering the painted face beneath. Shells the colors of a peach cover her breasts, secured by a seaweed-like ribbon. The water isn’t perfectly clear, a little murky, like old bath water, but he can still make out the curve of her hips and large, hollow belly button above her scaly green tail. Tommy would like her. Three more girls swim into view, their hair and bodies and fishtails twisting and tangling and sparkling, making the bottom of his stomach feel warm and full.
The boy skipped his SAT-prep class to be here; today’s lesson was “Mastering Vocabulary,” a class he could have taught himself back in seventh grade. He is happy to be here, in the company of mermaids instead of classmates.
Three men move up, press their dirty palms to the glass, pupils dilated and searching, but the boy doesn’t notice them. He focuses on the girls dancing underwater, something he didn’t even know was possible. They have clean, immaculate armpits and long fingers with chipped nail polish. A few thin, green strings dangle from one girl’s tail, missing sequins on another; their makeup, however, is un-smudged, and their hair floats around their heads, swaying to the music.
More and more girls descend, appearing like visions from the top or sides of the aquarium. Three mermaids in blue and pink bikini tops and shimmering tails perform synchronized backflips underwater, turning and somersaulting in a cloud of bubbles. Gray air hoses attach on each side of the tank, and every few seconds another girl takes her turn sucking on one. The boy looks away. It is unsanitary. So many mouths on a single apparatus.
They smile and wink, but there’s an artificiality about them, and he can tell they’re performing. The redhead, though, is different. She spins in circles over herself and pauses to look at the crowd, a hunger burning behind her glittered eyelashes. She doesn’t look at him, but rather through him, as though the glass is a two-way mirror and she’s unaware of the families and the excited children and the hobos with erections watching her every move. If mermaids weren’t just a fisherman’s fantasy, but something you could see and touch and love, she would be it. She is almost the real thing.
As he leaves, the boy takes one last look at the redhead; she is staring past his left ear, smiling, her hair waving goodbye.
At home, the boy goes straight to his room and pulls his iPad out of the protective sheath his mother made him promise he’d use. He Googles “Misty Waters State Park” and clicks on the Mermaid Roster. He combs through photos of the girls, and a few men, until he finds her: Mermaid Lucy. Her red hair is unmistakable, and she smiles at him from the brightly lit screen with large, snowy white teeth. Her bathing suit top is barely visible, dots of purple and red peeking up from the bottom of her photo, a faint shadow of cleavage in-between her modest breasts. Mermaid Lucy’s bio:
Tell us about yourself. I like country music and being outdoors. There’s more to me than people think.
What’s your personal motto? “I think everybody’s weird. We should all celebrate individuality and not be embarrassed or ashamed of it.” – Johnny Depp
Who is your role model? My dog Pepper—she’s always happy.
What is something most people don’t know about you? I like to scrapbook. And I work part-time at Applebee’s.
Normally he would scoff at a profile like this—who says their dog is their hero? A dog literally cannot be a hero because he acts on instinct, not out of valor or compassion or good intent—but there’s something about her picture that makes him pause. Her eyes seem to follow him from every angle; they smile at him and make him believe there really is more to her than people think. The other girls’ profiles scream words like “YOLO!” and “Dance like no one is watching!” but Lucy’s is different; her motto actually means something. If everybody is weird, that means he’s not weird. Or, he thinks, maybe she’s weird, like him. Maybe she’s a mermaid because she truly believes in the magic of it, because she wants to make people happy.
He Googles “facts about redheads” and clicks on every link on the first page. “Only 1-2% of the population has red hair,” he reads, which makes him revere Lucy even more for being unique. “In Roman culture, redheaded slaves were more expensive as they were thought to be strong and determined.” “Gingers have more sex,” reports another site, and the boy can feel his pants grow tighter at just the thought of it. He shakes away the image, embarrassed.
He Googles “mermaid myths” and stumbles upon a Native American legend from the Lenape called “The Lost Boy.” In the tale, a young boy is carried away by a wave and was thought to have drowned. The boy’s parents visit a mystic who tells them that a beautiful woman took their son to live with her at the mouth of the river. The next day, his parents stand on the riverbank and see the missing boy with a mermaid by his side. Because he seemed so content, they left him to live in the water, and it is believed he still swims the river with the siren seductress to this day. The boy imagines Lucy leading him into the water and letting the ocean engulf him. He thinks it wouldn’t be a half-bad place to live, down deep where it is dark and unexplored, a place where maybe he could feel free.
He Googles “Lucy Tampa, FL” but the 1,440,000 results are overwhelming, and he only gets through the first seven pages before he rubs his eyes with his knuckles and flips back to the Misty Waters site again; he stares at her picture for three and a half minutes.
He looks at the time. He sets out a shirt and pair of pants for tomorrow on his dresser, takes a shower, and goes to bed six minutes ahead of schedule.
The next day, the boy does a Sudoku in his car, which he finishes in 107 seconds. The air is thick and swampy, but the air conditioner in his mom’s old Camry hasn’t worked for three years and he’s started not to mind the heat even as sweat drips down his back and into the gap of his khaki cargo shorts. Most of the kids from school are down in Panama City or making out with college students on the beach, or possibly even visiting university campuses for spring break, but he’s here, in the Misty Waters parking lot, flipping through his puzzle book for a crossword he hasn’t done yet.
There’s a knock on his window.
“Hey!” says a voice, muffled through the glass and the heat. “Hey man, is that you?”
The boy jumps, his book falling from his hands to his lap and sliding down to the floor of the car. He looks up to see Elijah Ackerman. The only things the boy knows about him is he’s in his senior seminar class, is the “Team Manager” for the school football team, and is half Jewish; he knows this last thing because for some reason Ackerman makes sure everyone knows it.
The boy puts up a hand, a half-hearted salute, but doesn’t look up at Ackerman’s face. The buttons of his shirt are pressed hard up against the car window, so hard the boy imagines them poking back into his skin, leaving round imprints on his white belly.
“What’re you doing here?” he asks, and the boy can hear Ackerman’s mom calling his name. “I’m here with my dumb parents,” he yells through the window. “My sister wanted to see this shit. You know how it is.”
The boy nods his head, shrugs, avoids eye contact. His mom calls again.
“Alright, alright, I’m coming! JESUS!” Ackerman says, and flips her off behind her back. The boy can see the mother waddling ahead, nearing the entrance; the two halves of her body moving separately from one another, her behind thrusting to the left when the rest of her moves right. His little sister’s lop-sided pigtails bounce with each step. “I gotta go. Mom’s being a bitch. See you in there?”
The boy stares at him, Ackerman’s fat nose touching the dust on the outside of his window. He shrugs, and Ackerman slaps the window and jogs away. The boy moves his car to the back of the lot and waits until most everyone has cleared out.
The last show has already started when he walks in, and a chubby brunette is performing a solo in the tank. He stands in the back near the trashcans, the smell of hot dogs and stale ketchup emanating from the overfilled bins. The floor underneath him is sticky, the bottoms of his sneakers anchored in place by discarded gum and spilled soda.
Twenty minutes go by and not a single strand of red hair has shown itself behind the glass. Inside, the aquarium goes dark and the house lights come on, revealing the boy and one of the homeless men from his first visit as the only audience members. The man wanders over, right arm outstretched, and for a second the boy thinks he’s going to grab him, maybe try to rob him right here in this worn-down replica of paradise, but instead he grabs a half-eaten box of Milk Duds from the top of the garbage, pours them all into his nearly-toothless mouth, and wanders away.
The boy stays. He wonders if Lucy will walk out this way, if perhaps the dressing room is somehow underneath the tank, if she’ll see him and say: Hey, haven’t I seen you before? Let’s go somewhere.
“Excuse me?” There’s a tap on his shoulder that makes him jump.
“Don’t touch me!” he yells as he swats the hand away. A woman in a blue polo shirt with a smiling, yellow-haired mermaid logo stitched onto the breast pocket takes a step back, her mouth and eyes open in surprise. His shoulder is on fire with her touch, and he feels like he could explode and disappear at the same time.
“I’m sorry, hun, it’s just that…we’re closing, so I needed to—”
“I do not like to be touched,” he says.
His head is cast down and he can see discarded snack bar receipts and rusted loose change littering the ground. A ripped foil wrapper the color of a gold coin catches his eye, the letters “TROJ” in black print emblazoned across the top, and he thinks about the people who have hooked up here. There’s the young couple he saw on his last visit, the sweaty sides of their torsos stuck together through thin tank tops, skipping off to the bathroom between shows. He imagines them shoving their bodies against the dirty walls of a stall, her back pressed against the rough carving of “JACKIE WARSAW IS A CUNT,” wet toilet paper sticking to the bottom of the guy’s flip flops. Then there are the homeless men who stand behind the trash can at closing and jerk off to the images of the mermaids they’ve stored in their heads, finishing up just before the woman in the blue polo comes around to shoo them away.
His hands begin to cramp, a symptom of an anxiety attack creeping out of his head and moving its way through his extremities, and he narrows his eyes, blurring out as much of the filth as possible. He thinks of how Lucy is above this, how this sticky ground doesn’t deserve the presence of her step, how he wants to rescue her from this place. And then, he thinks of himself with Lucy, in her dressing room with her fin strewn over a chair and the straps of her bikini top swinging by her sides, her red hair covering her face, pieces of it sticking to the wetness of her lips. He imagines himself carrying her out over his shoulder, delivering her to a cleaner, purer place, a place she belongs. He wonders what it would be like to feel the touch of a hand other than his own. He tries to envision kissing her, but it makes him shudder to think of having someone else’s saliva in his mouth, germs crawling everywhere.
He is shaking his head back and forth, a kind of thrashing nodding, though he is unconscious of it.
“I apologize,” the woman in the polo says, and takes another step back.
The boy turns to leave, but pauses right under the glowing Exit sign and says, his back still to the woman: “The schedule said Lucy was working tonight.”
“I’m sorry?” the woman says.
“Lucy. She was supposed to be in the last show. She wasn’t.”
“Oh. Lucy. Um, I really don’t know, hun. Maybe she called out sick?”
“But the schedule says she’s working today,” he says, and pulls out his phone. “Look, I’ll show you.”
“Well, yes, you’re right,” she says, the two of them leaning over the glowing light of his screen. “But I guess she didn’t come in today. I don’t know what to tell you.”
“Maybe tell me why her name was printed on the schedule when in fact she’s not working today. Isn’t that false advertising? Don’t you think that’s misleading?”
The woman sighs, apologizes again. “Is there anything else I can help you with?”
“Obviously not,” the boy says, and turns to walk away.
At home, his iPad informs him that Lucy isn’t performing for the next two days. He searches for the closest Applebee’s restaurants to Misty. He narrows it down to three possible locations. He writes out a schedule with times and addresses so he can be sure to hit all three by dinnertime.
Applebee’s #1. He sits in the parking lot and watches people walk in sporadically. Two o’clock isn’t usually primetime, but the restaurant has more people than he expected. He watches an older couple sitting by the window, cutting and buttering and arranging their food, not talking. He thinks how nice it must be to have the company and distractions another person can offer, but not have to talk.
At 2:15 he gets out of the car and walks toward the entrance, smoothing the wrinkles in his shorts with the dampness of his palms.
“Hi!” says a hostess, a plump girl in a black shirt and khakis. “Welcome to Applebee’s! Just one today?”
As he looks around the dining room, the only other person eating unaccompanied is a man who looks older than his grandfather, sipping soup from a spoon too big for his mouth. His face feels hot and he wants to throw up, or punch the hostess for making him feel this way: embarrassed and alone. It’s the same anger he felt when his mother told him Tommy was dead: a desire for violence against something larger than himself. He nods and meanders behind her to his table, not looking at any of the other patrons on his way.
He is seated at a table by the window, two sets of silverware wrapped in pressed white napkins before him. He thinks of Lucy in the Applebee’s uniform and wonders if she’ll be wearing pants or shorts and what she looks like without all her mermaid makeup on. He looks around, waiting for a glimpse of red hair as the restaurant starts to thin out: the lunch rush is over and it’s hours before dinner. He orders a Sprite from a boy not much older than he is. Half an hour goes by; while he waits, he memorizes the menu and determines how many possible lunch combinations there are: exactly 200.
He wishes Tommy were here to sit with him, fill up the empty space across the table and stop the stares he feels from other customers. Next week it will be four years since the ocean took him, swallowed him up and spit him out onto the Miami sands, still tucked neatly in his wet suit, his lips as blue as the sea. They spread his ashes on the beach he washed upon.
After an hour and two Sprites more, the waiter says he has to order something else or unfortunately, he’ll have to give up the table. He wants to ask if Lucy is working today, if she even works at this restaurant, but the words won’t come; he is unprepared for either answer. He takes one last look around the place, even peering into the kitchen at the several men in white pantsuits and hairnets, and asks for the check.
Applebee’s #2. The early dinner crowd has arrived and he’s the youngest customer by at least thirty years. When the hostess asks how many, he says “Two. I’m meeting someone,” so she grabs two menus from behind the front podium and leads him to a small table near the bathrooms. A man sitting in front of him, also alone, wears a plastic tube across his face with two nozzles in each nostril. There’s a tall, silver air tank on a small dolly next to the table. He thinks of Tommy in the hospital: all the wires and tubes and noises; he remembers the smell of urine and pudding cups, watching his brother succumb to the water he so loved.
The boy listens to the old man breathe as he chews his food, small particles sticking to his lips and chin like a child. He coughs each time he swallows, a wet hacking muffled by the napkin over his face. On his left hand is a dull brass wedding ring.
The boy looks around for Lucy.
“Hey there sweetie,” says his server. Turning to look at her, he’s startled—her face is made up like a clown, bright pink rouge and blue eye shadow all the way up to her brow bone. Her face is round and her eyes are big, bulging. “What can I get you started with today, handsome?” He pauses at her last word. No one has ever called him that before, not even his mother.
“A Sprite. Please.”
“Goin’ for the hard stuff, eh?” she says, and elbows him in the arm. He pulls away quickly, but she doesn’t notice.
The man with the tank never looks up, just keeps his eyes on his food. He imagines Tommy calling him an old fart, chewing his own food slowly and letting it fall out of his mouth in mimicry.
The boy pulls out a crossword puzzle while he waits for Lucy to appear. 28 across: sixth most abundant element in Earth’s crust: SODIUM; 34 down: was visibly distraught: WEPT.
“Whatcha got there, darlin’? A puzzle?” The waitress breaks his concentration and sets down another soda. He notices the man with the air tank is gone, and it makes him a little sad. “You gonna eat or just suck down sugar all day?”
“Actually,” he says, “while Sprite does have the same amount of sugar as other soft drinks, colorless sodas won’t stain your teeth because of the lack of dye. So, it’s at least the lesser of the evils.” He is surprised by this admission, shocked at how comfortable he feels speaking around this woman.
“Is that right?” she says, and laughs loudly. “I’m a sucker for sweet tea myself, but I’m glad you’ve found somethin’ that works for ya.”
After he finishes his last Sprite, the waitress asks if that’ll be all. He pauses before asking his question, the muscles in his hand beginning to cramp and his heart sprinting to an invisible finish line under his shirt. He stutters almost every word. “Is, um—does Lu-Lucy work? Here?” He tears his straw wrapper into bits while he talks.
“Hmm, I don’t think we got a Lucy here, baby. We got a Lacey though—that who you lookin’ for?”
Applebee’s #3. It’s 5:30 now, an hour before his mother expects him for dinner, and this location is twenty-two minutes from his house. He tells the people at the front he’d like to order takeout, so he puts in for a Cowboy Burger and takes a seat near the bar to wait. Two men in business suits sit drinking beer from a glass, slapping their knees in laughter discussing fellow colleagues, commiserating about their wives. The sound of their voices annoys him, so he moves a few chairs over. The bartender asks if he can get him anything, and the boy notices he looks a little like Tommy: blonde hair that’s just barely too long, a stoned, faraway look on his face. He wishes his brother had taken him to just one of the beach parties he used to rave about, with the Miami girls and their thongs, Latin music and dancing on the sand, watching the waves roll in as the sun crept up over the horizon and the world began to wake.
The boy bows his head and asks for Lucy, but his voice is so soft the bartender has to ask him to repeat himself. “IS LUCY HERE?” he says quickly, shouting.
“Geez, man. Yeah, Lucy’s here. She’s in another section though. Do you want me to get her for you?”
After all this, his first instinct is to say no. No, he doesn’t want the bartender to get her like she’s a puppy in a pet store he can take home. No, he can’t possibly face her, tell her this is the third Applebee’s he’s been to today looking for her, and now his stomach hurts from all the fucking Sprites he drank. No, do not go get her, because he has nothing to say to her, because he didn’t think this far ahead, because really, he never thought he’d actually find her. He wants to rip off all his clothes he’s so hot, like the thermostat suddenly broke and the fire from the kitchen has made its way into his belly, his lungs.
“Hey, Luce,” the bartender calls, barely audible over the commercials playing on the TVs overhead and the businessmen still drinking and laughing. “Luce! Your friend is here, or something.”
The boy doesn’t look, switches his gaze to the television playing a “Seinfeld” rerun and pretends he’s not this friend, not the person here to see Luce, just a boy getting a takeout Cowboy Burger.
“Who?” a soft voice surprisingly close to him says, and the bartender points in his direction. He keeps his eyes on the TV.
“Um, hello?” she says. He lets her words settle in his ears, a foreign sound, but musical. She sounds younger, her pitch higher than he imagined. He looks at her, and for a moment he doesn’t recognize her, can’t understand how she looks so different without her costume and pink lips and, he assumes, red wig. Her hair isn’t even really a color, more like the memory of a color, a mix of pale yellow and light brown, like something faded and weathered.
“Can I help you?” she says when he doesn’t answer, and when he sees her teeth, he knows. Her left front tooth is crooked. Lucy, the real Lucy, has beautiful teeth, including two large straight ones in the front. This girl, with her nearly undetectable eyelashes and small, pointed nose, is an imposter.
Without saying a word, he gets up and heads for the exit without his burger. He pushes on the door that says “Pull” and his body slams into it, the handle smacking him in the hip, making him yelp. He hears cackles behind him and imagines the fake Lucy laughing and rolling her eyes with the bartender, the fake Tommy.
He sprints to his car without looking back and pulls out of the lot with a screech.
Two days later, the boy is back at Misty Waters. The schedule online told him Lucy is working today. In his button-down shirt and chinos he pressed himself this morning, he makes his way to the entrance. He realizes he didn’t bring anything with him—no gift or card or bouquet of flowers—so he buys a half a dozen candy bars at the Snack Hut and hopes they are a suitable replacement for a box of chocolates.
He watches two shows in a row, fidgeting with his keys in his pocket, grasping the melting candy in his sweaty hands.
“Hey man!” a voice says, and when the boy pulls his eyes away from the tank, he sees Elijah Ackerman. This time he is alone.
“Couldn’t stay away, eh?” he says, and tries to wink, though both eyes end up closing at the same time. “I guess I’m caught. Not here with my mom this time. Glad to see I’m not the only one who digs this place.”
The boy stares, raises his eyebrows, and turns back to the tank.
“You got a favorite?” Ackerman says.
“You know, a favorite chick. Most of them are busted, but there are a few hot ones.”
“Oh,” the boy says, and squeezes the chocolate until he can feel it soften under his grip like molding clay. “Yeah, I guess.”
“Come on dude, loosen up.” Ackerman grabs the boy’s shoulders and shakes them.
“No!” the boys yells, and pushes Ackerman backwards into a family of four. “You cannot touch me like that!”
“Whoa, whoa, chill out.” Ackerman holds up his hands and approaches the boy slowly. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know you had a thing about it.”
The boy says nothing; he watches as the third show begins behind the glass. The music starts and one of the younger mermaids with sandy-blonde hair swims along the periphery, circling the tank.
The boy’s eyes widen and a sickness that is not entirely unpleasant fills his stomach. Lucy twirls and blows kisses to the audience, fanning her tail from left to right. She pulls on the air hose with painted lips, and suddenly he feels dizzy, unsteady on his feet.
“Ohhh, she’s your favorite!” Ackerman says. “Not my type, but hey man, whatever floats your boat.”
“Shut up,” the boy says, both embarrassed at his transparency and enraged that a loser like Ackerman would disparage her that way.
“You want to know a secret?” Ackerman says, his voice low.
The boy shrugs him off and keeps watching Lucy, silently begging her to look his way.
“I can take you backstage. Get a peep at Ariel over there. Changing.”
“What?” the boy says, without meaning to actually say it aloud.
“Yeah, man. I know how to get to their dressing room. Last time I was here, I ditched my mom and sister and went exploring. I found a backdoor that isn’t locked that leads to where the girls stay between shows. You in?”
He imagines her inviting him in, offering him a Sprite, and—
“C’mon dude, it’ll be like an adventure.”
“I don’t know. Are there security cameras down there? Is there a guard by the door or anything?”
“Nah, man, this place can’t afford that fancy stuff. We just gotta be sneaky and not let anyone see us. You can be the lookout.”
The boy scans his surroundings, searching the perimeter for security cams, managers, janitors. Everyone is preoccupied with their own tasks: watching the show, emptying trash cans, chattering away on cell phones. He is nervous, but something in the pit of his stomach propels him forward, tumbling into Ackerman’s plan.
They wait until the show is over and everyone begins to shuffle about, forming lines at the restroom or rushing toward the food court.
“Okay, let’s move,” Ackerman says, and he leads them behind the bathrooms to a door marked “EMPLOYEES ONLY.” The boy is hesitant, afraid of getting in trouble or running into the woman in the blue polo again. “C’mon! Don’t you want to see your girl?”
Down a flight of stairs and around two more corners is another door where a paper sign written in sharpie reads “Girls Grotto” in flowing, cursive letters. “And now we wait,” Ackerman says. “We need to hide behind this corner until they come down. They usually leave the door propped open because it gets really hot down here.”
The boy crouches down on the cement floor, the candy bars squishing and shifting in his pocket. He tries to take long, even breaths like Tommy taught him to do, but it feels as if his lungs have shrunk and he can only take in half the air he needs.
After a few minutes, voices echo and bounce off the thick walls of the basement. The boy peeks his head out from the corner but Ackerman yanks him backward by his collar.
“Are you crazy?” he says. “They can’t see us! We’ll get kicked out for life!”
The boy listens for what he has imagined Lucy’s voice to sound like, feminine but mature, drawing out letters like “s” and “f,” making them linger.
The last girl of the group props open the door with a faded brown brick, allowing their voices to blend and sing throughout the bottom floor.
“You know what’s sad?” they can hear one of the girls say. “The old men don’t even bother me anymore. They used to creep me out, but now I just feel bad for them. That’s how long I’ve been here.” The other girls sigh and agree, and one tells a story about how one of the regulars looks just like her grandfather, and how every time she sees him, she could swear it’s her Pappy; the others laugh and tease her.
“Okay, see those mirrors on the wall?” Ackerman whispers. “We’re going to stand outside the door, really fucking quietly, and if we look into them, we can see the girls behind us. You can’t say a word. Just look.”
They scoot along the wall like movie spies, walking on the balls of their feet until they get to the outside of the door. The boy looks in one of the full-body mirrors, braced to see Lucy in her underwear or sitting in her bra combing her hair, but instead he sees two other mermaids in sweats sitting cross-legged on the floor of the tiny room. He hears other voices but doesn’t see Lucy, so he stretches his neck out to see more.
“I can’t see her,” the boy says. Ackerman flicks him in the shoulder and mouths shut up, putting a finger to his lips.
The boy waits several minutes longer, listening to the girls talk about their boyfriends and breakups, and gossip about other mermaids. He feels his insides contract tightly and then expand to their full width, pushing against the walls of his body. There’s a dripping sound somewhere far off he hadn’t noticed before, probably, he thinks, sewage water from the bathrooms above. He feels sick, the same feeling he got after the first time he ever drank alcohol at Tommy’s insistence the week before he died. Their mother was at work, and Tommy had burst into his room with two plastic grocery bags in hand.
“Hey, little bro!” he yelled, and dropped the bags onto his bed. “I’ve made an executive decision: I’m gonna get you drunk today.” The boy still remembers Tommy’s smile, the excitement he felt at ushering his little brother into this rite of passage, and though he knew it was wrong, and had read all about the perils of alcohol and underage drinking, he spent the next three hours suffering through four Miller Lites and a few sips of Mad Dog 20/20. He spent the next morning in agony, vomiting and balled up under his covers.
“You’re a man now,” Tommy had said, and slapped him on the back, and that had made all the sickness worth it.
That same nausea is back in his throat now, and the drip is getting so loud it makes his head ring. He coughs, loud and wet, his stomach retching with the effort to both clear his throat and stifle the noise.
The girls all cease talking at once. “Did you hear that?” one of them says.
Silence engulfs him. Ackerman glares at him, mouth agape. They both stand as still as their shaking bodies will let them, afraid to move and more afraid to stay.
“Uh, can we help you?” says a girl’s voice. The boys turn their heads to find a blonde in a cut-off T-shirt and cotton shorts. She is holding the door open with one hand, the other hand on her hip. They all stand there, staring at each other, silently, until the boy’s cough comes roaring back.
“Who is it?” another shouts from the dressing room, and it startles him.
“Hey, kid,” says the blonde. “What the fuck are you doing down here? And you, too.” She points at Ackerman, who has already started hyperventilating. “Get out of here before I call security, you creeps!”
Ackerman turns and runs, stumbling on his way and grabbing onto the wall for support, but the boy stays. He wants to escape too, but his feet won’t work and his mind is blank.
“Are you deaf or something?” the blonde says, and one by one, each girl emerges from their grotto and stands before him. Then he sees Lucy.
He points at her, wordlessly, his eyes fixed on her bare face, her wet hair wrapped in a towel.
The others walk toward him, shielding his view of Lucy.
“Do you know her?” another girl says.
“Yes…well, not really, but I’ve been looking for her. For a long time,” he says.
“This kid is wacked,” the blonde says. “You’re as bad as the old guys who follow us to our cars at night.”
“No,” he says. “I’m not.” She bends down to remove the brick and close the door, and the boy feels his window of opportunity literally closing.
“Wait!” he says. “I brought her this.” He reaches his hand into his pocket and his fingers are submerged in melted chocolate. In shock, he leaves his hand hidden.
“You better pull that little hand out of your pocket right now, kid, or I’m calling the cops,” the girl says, and he sees that Lucy has stepped forward to stand in front of the others.
The boy pulls out his hand covered in the sticky mess and the girls erupt in laughter. He looks down to see the candy has seeped through his pants and half of his thigh is stained brown.
“You’re a mess, kid,” the blonde says, shaking her head. “Come on over here, hot stuff, and maybe Lucy here will give you your first kiss.”
The boy stands in the doorway, his grimy hand tucked behind him. Lucy steps forward into the hallway and kicks the brick to the side. “Give me some privacy with my not-so-secret admirer, would ya?” she says to the group, and closes the door behind them. “What’s your name?”
The boy says nothing. Instead, he stares at the hair peeking out from the towel—not a wig, but amber red and real. Without makeup, her eyes look smaller and her forehead shines, reflecting the fluorescent lights of the basement. She looks older than before, but none of that matters.
“Okay, I’ll go first,” she says. “My name isn’t really Lucy. We’re not supposed to use our real names here; you know, for safety reasons. So, if I tell you who I really am, can I trust you?”
“Alright. I’m Sheryl,” she says, and extends her right hand.
The boy stares at her, then looks down at his chocolate-stained pants, his hand still behind him.
“Oh gosh, I’m sorry,” she says. “I forgot. It was so nice of you to bring me…something. My husband never buys me candy!”
There is a stabbing in the boy’s chest he has never felt before. It’s not like the anger he feels when his mother grounds him, or even the emptiness he lived in right after Tommy died. It’s something more present, something that physically hurts.
He wants to tell her about his search for her, about how her profile made him feel less alone. He wants to ask her about the Johnny Depp quote, if she feels like an outcast too, if maybe she is a little like him. But he doesn’t ask her these things, and in the midst of his not asking, he remembers that Elijah Ackerman is gone, which makes him feel even more alone in the musty hallway. He aches for Tommy to be next to him, to smooth-talk his way out of this mess and somehow convince Lucy, and perhaps the blonde, too, to accompany them to dinner. It’s the least we can do after startling you lovely ladies, he would say. Later that night, at home, Tommy would throw the boy a beer and they’d cheers to the mermaids, the women of the sea. He has never missed his brother more than at this very moment, and before he can try to stop it, his eyes well with tears.
“Listen,” Sheryl says, “I’ve got to get changed for the next show. Do you want me to sign something for you, or…?”
The boy shakes his head.
“Okay then. It was nice to meet you, Mr. No Name. Hope to see you out at a show sometime.” She smiles, but it’s not the same one she flashes behind the glass during performances; it’s not the kind of smile that shows all of her teeth, the kind that makes creases by her eyes. This smile is smaller; only one corner of her mouth is up-turned, her naked lips pressed tightly together. She walks back into the dressing room and doesn’t prop the door back open. He can hear the girls shouting, asking her what the “little boy” wanted, and he hears Lucy—she will never be Sheryl to him—shushing and scolding them.
He stands at the door for a long time. Finally, when he hears someone inside say it’s almost show time, he turns and walks down the hall and back up the stairs, stopping only at the Men’s room to wash his hands and blot paper towels at his ruined pants.
Inside his car, the air is thick and wet with heat. He sits for a moment, lets the warmth fill him up, looking at the park in his rear-view. He does not see Lucy at the entrance, running toward his car or waving him down. He waits a while, just in case, but after almost an hour, he feels that sick-drunk feeling again and starts the ignition. He points the car in the direction of Miami, towards the ocean.
When he gets there, he sits on the beach and watches the sun slip down below the horizon. He tries to envision Tommy on his last day out on the water, his last day on land. He can picture his brother struggling to reach the shore, gasping for air and swallowing mouthfuls of sodium and magnesium and microscopic oceanic debris. He can picture him lying flat on the sand, bystanders rushing to his aid, but none with any clue how to help. He wonders if Tommy’s last moments were peaceful, like the way he used to describe the perfect surf: calm, and smooth, and free.
The sky is now a deep Egyptian blue; the water is black and quiet below it. The reflection of the new moon bounces around in the waves, bright and electric. The boy wonders what life is still undiscovered in the depths of the sea, in the places where even the light cannot reach. He knows the bottom of the ocean is the blackest black, with lunar-like trenches and colder than a tundra, but life still exists there, even when it shouldn’t. He imagines a red velvet curtain rising, illuminating each cave and crevice for him to explore, unlocking the secrets of the sea. He hopes, against all logic and possible reality, that Tommy is somewhere down there, with a siren seductress by his side, and that he is free.