Fiction

 

IN THE WATER

     After my twin sister disappeared, I made my way up to the city's aquarium as often as possible. It was the only place I felt at home that allowed me to forget for a while. 

     One room had soft swirling lights that reflected an entire wall of water and created the illusion that everything was submerged. If a person's eyes unfocused, they could imagine they were inside with the fish, standing amid the faux coral and painted rocks. 

     I stood alone one day in the darkest corner, and all my senses tunneled into the exhibit. Behind the glass, I watched two seals play. They swam back and forth with their foreheads touching, and for a moment, they were not just twins but attached — born, sewn, or glued together. Exactly how they were supposed to be.  

     The pair didn't falter as they moved around nearby fish, and they swerved in sync near the edges of the glass.

     One was paler and swam backwards more than the other, but I couldn't tell why. Maybe their keeper understood why they twirled the same way every time, or why sometimes, when they got to the middle, they turned 90 degrees and stood in the water — stretching their bodies to look almost human. 

     Like selkies dancing for those that don't recognize what they are. Intelligent fey disguised as captive animals. 

     They finally separated, and I returned to reality. Feet shuffled on the carpet around me — a crowd dispersed. I hadn't realized how many people had arrived until I had room to move my elbows. My stomach dropped once the room was empty, it felt unnatural, and I wished I hadn't arrived so early. 

     I'd always preferred the company of others, while Amy hated crowds. She'd preferred silence and solitude since birth. Perhaps the biggest difference between us growing up. We looked a lot alike but bickered about the space needed to breathe.

     Perhaps the difference kept me safe that fateful night. I'd stayed at the dinner table, and she had sunk into the darkness. 

     I swallowed the lump in my throat as a ball of anxiety built in my chest. The crowd had moved on, but I stayed put, watching the seals dance around.

     The building faded away again until I swam in the ocean. I watched them move, exercise and play. Small schools of fish looked around for food and swam away at once. The two seals remained the only constant, and they didn't bother to check in with me. They didn't care that I was there at all. 

     They saw me as I needed them to, as I needed to be. They saw me as another ocean dweller — a mermaid in the water. A creature living among a thousand others that breathed water. That thrived and sustained off of it, unable to drown.  

     A tap on my shoulder ripped me out of my blue-tinted fantasy so fast I choked on the re-materialized air. 

     When I could breathe again, I spotted a familiar face. Sarah Jones, once a co-worker-turned-best-friend to Amy and me. She stood with her hands clutching her purse straps and a worried smile on her face. It reminded me of the grimace that used to appear when it was her turn to clean the spray-tan room all those years ago.  

     Unlike the vision that swam through my mind for a brief moment, her current-day stomach had gotten round.

      I couldn't take my eyes off it. 

     At least not until she slapped my arm, bringing attention to her face again, and she chuckled. "I was gonna tell you."  

     Now that I've seen it, I thought. You sealed your lips for at least four months, though.

      I understood why she would keep her pregnancy separate from Amy's death, even as the sour, bitter taste of bile filled my mouth. It still felt unjust that anyone could spend a day not feeling her absence — that they could have anything in a different compartment.

     I forced a hollow smile that crinkled at the edges. I told myself it was the best I could do, and maybe that was the truth.  

     It was sometimes, at least.

     "Can we…" Sarah trailed off as she looked around us. Her eyes swept across the entire seal exhibit, wall to wall, and then right back at me, as if there wasn't anything behind the glass that had a right to hold her interest. I clenched my fists. The perceived betrayal was irrational, but still, the anger soared through my body.

     "Go get lunch?" she finished. 

     "Sure." Staying put didn't seem to be a real option, anyway. "There's a cafeteria on this floor."  

     Sarah's jaw clenched. Her lips pulled a little tighter. 

     I watched her nostrils flare. 

     I tried not to think about whether I might miss the seal's strip off their skins and decide to come out into the audience for a little while. Moving at all seemed like an exhausting task.

     "Okay," she said. "Lead the way." 

     I knew I would win the fight — she'd already paid the entrance fee and never fought if she could avoid it. I wouldn't say I'm much more confrontational, but I picked my battles.

     I turned my back to her to give the exhibit one last look. In the middle was a single, lonely fish staring at the pair of us. The seals were busy eating or gallivanting behind the scenes. 

     With a sigh, I moved forward. "It's not far. The coffee's not bad." 

     Sarah laughed, and I grimaced.

     "Maybe the decaf's not bad either," I said, trying to cover up my quick memory lapse, and she laughed again.       It felt familiar. 

     Safe. 

     A part of me still swam with the seals, happy to be rid of my human body and legs that ached whenever they had to carry me. Days in bed at a time, atrophy, and three hours straight of standing on my feet hadn't turned out to be a good mix. 

     A tail to replace them sounded nice. 

     Still, at least I smiled. 



     Sarah and I sat down at an off-balance table. It had a plastic copy of a mural glued to the top — vaguely water-themed, with few distinguishable features. The edges peeled in one corner. Lemonade and coffee sat between us. 

     More caffeine and sugar than I needed in the afternoon, but my eyes were heavy. 

     "I heard the news about the body, Hannah," she said, eyes glued to her drink as she wiggled the straw around. 

      An entire conversation floated between us while neither of us spoke, just like so many other conversations over the previous twelve months. For almost a year, every word spoken near me passed through an extra barrier — often, only the pity behind other people's eyes made it through. Since the day they found Amy's car on the side of the highway without her in it, the conversations' pace had changed and never fully recovered. 

     "It's good news." I meant the words, but they sounded like an affirmation as they hit my ears. Like I'm parroting my therapist. I might have if I'd gone for longer than a couple of months. 

     "We always did say knowing would be better." Sarah took a long pull of the pale lemonade and looked up at me again—only for a second—then around the cafeteria. Her eyes lingered the longest on the entrance, gazing back the way we came. Back towards the exhibit she'd found me at. "To be honest…" 

     The barrier snuck up again, hungry to devour more words that needed to be said, but Sarah didn't give it the satisfaction. 

     "I'm surprised you can be here like this. Around all this water in these dark rooms," she said. Her brow furrowed and faced me head-on, the most contact she'd been able to make in ages. 

      I knew that the water hadn't yanked Amy out of her car, stolen her clothes, or shoved her in a lake — the appearance of her body didn't change what comforted me. "The fish didn't kill her," I blurted out. 

     Sarah winced at the words.

     "I mean," I explained before any accidental implication could settle in. Looking crazier had never been part of my plan. "We came here as kids. " 

     We'd spent most of our childhood walking the halls, commenting on every update they made.

     Sarah nodded. 

     "Sometimes I see her face behind the glass." The sentence came out of me before I could hear how it sounded. "But mostly, it's soothing. I can lose myself in the water and the fish and the reflections." 

     Sarah nodded again, a faraway look on her face. "The funeral?" She held her cup between her hands.

     "Saturday afternoon." 

     Silence came after that. Not just an exaggerated moment—by the time I spoke again, both our drinks were gone. "Closed casket. No one needs to see her that way." 

     "I hope you know we all miss you."

     Her words slapped me across the face. 

     "I miss Amy." 

     As soon as I finished speaking I heard what I'd said. 


#


      I had lied that day in the cafeteria.

      I saw Amy's face in her coffin. 

      They had closed the lid but didn't lock it shut, so I pulled it open when no one else was in the room. I learned that morticians don't bother to make them look alive when no one will see their faces, and I learned that she no longer matched the reflection I saw in the glass. 

     I hadn't made it to the identification at the morgue, and I had avoided all the family meetings where they planned the funeral and legal stuff. My breath caught in my throat as I looked at her greenish-grey skin.

     My twin wasn't in that coffin. 

     As I stared at the sockets where her eyes used to be, I remembered the exhibit at the aquarium when I'd met Sarah. Tiny black pearls staring right through me, like the beady eyes of a bottom-feeding fish, eating whole and replacing what should have been a beautiful creature of the sea. 

     Amy never really fit in that well on dry land — never connected well with other people. Her human skin didn't shimmer like her seal skin would have. 

      Later, when I sat in the front row of cheap plastic chairs, I wondered if either of us ever belonged above the surface. Perhaps instead of being dragged, she'd pulled her way to the algae-covered lake, looking for her home. 

     Less heartache. Less pain. Less gravity. 

     The tail would've been a plus. She could've swum to solitude rather than running. Maybe then she would've danced with me, like the seals at the aquarium.

 

Author Bio:

 Alyson lives in Maryland where she got married, had her daughter, and began her writing journey. She has appeared in (mac)ro(mic), Wrongdoing Magazine,Twin Pies Lit, and Pyre Magazine,and HAD — among others. You can find her on Amazon, and Twitter @rudexvirus1. Her website is AlysonTait.com. Alyson also helps run Inkfort Press.

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