Somedays, she really regretted the tail. It was shimmering and blue and honestly very magical, but it was also heavy, like the disappointed looks her parents gave her when they realized what she had done. To them, it seemed she had thrown away almost three whole years of a good, solid college education to go chase out her wildest dream, one she had had since she was a tiny girl, still wrapped up in her mermaid blanket and hopping around the first floor of her family’s home. To her parents, it seemed she had left their dream of a stable future for her own dream of glitter, and water, and make believe. In all honesty, though, this glitter, and this water, and this make believe, was all very real. The job paid well, too, so at the end of the day she had to think her parents were embarrassed of her career. They wanted her to be a lawyer, defending the weak and needy against the harsh claws of injustice and instead she was swimming at the local aquarium, surrounded by sharks and dolphins and of course, the occasional flatfish. From the law of the land to the code of the mermaids, she had to admit it was a steep drop. She just wished her parents would consider that she loved her job a lot, and that sometimes that overrode the regrets and the concerns and the instability of what she did for a living. It wasn’t as though she was a little girl anymore, regardless of her mermaid tail and bright blue hair, and for once she wished her parents would realize that she knew, more or less, what she was doing. Sometimes, she really regretted the tail, but then she remembered what it was for, and the hassle of getting into it and then getting into the tank dissolved as she watched the people, children and adults alike, gaze through the glass in wonder, believing at least for the moment that there was something beyond the realist realm they were born into.
“Are you ready?”
Darcie nodded, fixing the ends of her hair into braids. It was difficult enough to manage out of the water, but she did her best to keep it bright and blue and braided, the three b’s her boss had gifted her in a manual for new mermaids. That was chapter one, she thought, recalling her first few days at the aquarium. She had come such a long way since then and it was refreshing to realize this fact again and again as the days went on.
“Almost. Is there a big crowd here today?”
Her friend and occasional fellow mermaid, Consuelo, tilted her head to look down the hallway, where the audience was filtering in. “I think we have a few school trips here today, so yeah. Oh here,” Consuelo handed Darcie one of her hairpins; it had fallen under her chair, “You dropped this.”
“Thank you.” Darcie stabbed the pin through the end of her braid and smiled. First show of the week, of the day, of the month, and she was ready for action. For the first time since starting to work here, she’d been able to help write a script of sorts for the mermaids and men and well, merfolk in general to act to. As much as she loved the original show, it could get draggy and repetitive and she felt like if the aquarium wanted to keep using the mermaid as a draw, they needed to pick up the pace. In her story, which of course had to be simple in order to get done well, she played a mermaid who was trying to find her way to a party. Along the way, she met several interesting characters, including a pink haired merperson named, appropriately, Fuschia, a large whale with glasses, three singing crabs, a beautiful sea princess with a crown made of tuna cans, and her brother, the charming but evil villain. It seemed more complicated than it was, Darcie had explained, when presenting the script to the aquarium’s director. And today she could only cross her fingers and toes- albeit they were tucked into her tail- that the show went as, well, swimmingly as she wanted it to. This could be her chance to do something, to make a splash, in the world of sparkling show business.
“Are you nervous?”
Consuelo wasn’t in the show this time, a side effect of the orders her doctor had given her after her last appointment. Being a mermaid was not advised after a severe concussion, he said, and Consuelo took his advice. “Well,” she said, “You do look nervous.”
“No kidding. I’m scared senseless.”
“Something, ah, fishy about the whole situation?”
Darcie laughed despite her shaking hands and the rest of her trembling limbs. There was always a cold before the even colder water, and she was feeling it strongly in her feet, starting at her toes and snaking its way up her ankles. “You’re funny, and no, I don’t think anything bad will happen, I’m just wondering what they’re gonna think. Remember last time? There was a news reporter.” Darcie applied another layer of waterproof lipstick. “And they wrote all about the dangers of our show.”
Consuelo knocked her fist against the side of her skull, just light enough to make a point. “Oh, I think I’d know all about the dangers of our show. But that doesn’t mean I love it any less. It’s amazing, if you really stop to think about it.” She shook her head and sat down next to Darcie on the bench. “Mermaids. Who would’ve guessed?”
“Not my parents, that’s who.” Darcie’s smile retracted. Her parents were going to be out there today. She’d invited them a few days ago, using the fact that she was a primary writer for the script they’d be doing. Consuelo didn’t know, but she could tell something was wrong.
“Your parents are kinda the worst.”
“Yeah. You can tell that to their faces. Because they’re out there today. They’re gonna watch our show. Me. In the show. They flew all the way out here to watch their daughter but I feel like they’re gonna leave here without one.”
Consuelo tilted her head sideways, her unbraided hair falling down the sides of her shoulders like soft chocolate in a fondue machine, rolling over and over white marshmallows. “You think they’ll disown you or something?”
Darcie sighed. “Or something. I think they hate me.”
“Have they said they hate you?”
“No,” Darcie shook her head, “They haven’t said it to me, at least not out loud, but I can feel it everytime they call me, or send me a card, or look at me. It’s, what’s the word?”
“Yes! Yes, that. It’s palpable. They hate me.” Darcie buried her face in her hands. Then, remembering the makeup, she snapped back up. “At least you love me.”
“That I do, that I do. But I’ll love you even more once you get out there and rock this show. Everyone’s rooting for you, no matter what your parents think. Don’t worry about them. There are other fish in the sea.”
“But not my parents. They’re the only fish like them I know, if that makes sense, and as much as they may hate me for the life I chose, I don’t hate them for that. They had a plan and I threw it in the air.”
Consuelo placed a hand over Darcie’s. “You threw it in the water. And then, look, it learned how to float. Not many people can say they swim for forty-five minutes with a fifty pound mermaid tail. But you,” she patted her friend’s hand, “You totally can.”
“Yeah, you’re right once again. Thanks. Um, I’d better get going, though, I hear the five till music playing already.” Darcie smiled again at Consuelo and then shuffled into the next room, where she dove into the top of the tank she’d spend the next part of a life; maybe it wasn’t entirely her own but in other ways, it really was. She’d created it, hadn’t she? And what more is there to a life if you haven’t made it, at least in some part or aspect, for yourself?
Darcie opened her eyes underwater. Her parents were in the crowd, behind two people and their baby in a stroller and a few teenagers with brightly colored hair, almost the same neon as Darcie’s own hair. Their eyes met hers and she looked away, back at the rest of the show's cast, all her many friends and in some ways, more family than her own. The villainous prince, played by a guy named Paolo, started off the show when the music stopped. The next forty five minutes were a blur of rehearsed and harmonious almost chaos, lit up by the tank’s soft blue lights and the watchful gaze of the audience. As it finished, as Darcie’s character arrived at her destination and the show was over and she fluttered into a graceful concluding bow, she caught her parents turned to each other, deep in whispers as she was in the water. She ignored them, bowed with the rest of the cast, and the curtains closed over the glass of the aquarium.
“How do you think it went?” Darcie asked Consuelo, blow drying her unbraided hair and resting her feet on the bench in front of her. She was changed out of her mermaid tale and top and was now wearing a cottony sundress she’d bought on the clearance aisle at Walmart. It had a cat embroidered into the corner and the collar was pink. Darcie found it ironic that she went from being a mermaid, a creature of the sea, to being a regular girl, one who wore Walmart dresses and talked with her friends. Her friends who, for the record, did not live under the sea. Unless you counted Consuelo, in which case she more or less did, at least part of the time.
“I think it went super well! The audience loved it. I went to the bathroom after it was over and you should have heard what they were saying. I promise they’re gonna start bringing their friends.” Consuelo uncrossed her legs and stretched them out. She’s been standing for a while and it was nice, even though she hadn’t been in the show, to rest. She missed being with the rest of the cast in the tank. It would be a few more weeks until she could join them, though, according to the doctors. She’d really conked herself out during the last performance.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure! It was amazing. You did really, really well. I mean, everyone else did well too but they loved you. I heard one lady telling her daughter they could ask you if you do parties. Do you do parties?”
Darcie rubbed her eyelids. Glittery makeup stained her fingers. “I don’t, but I could. Maybe. The whole tank thing would be tricky but it could work, I guess.”
“Are you worried about your parents? They haven’t left yet, I think they’re waiting in the lobby. I can go tell them-”
“No.” Darcie didn’t mean to snap at Consuelo but she couldn’t help it, her thoughts leaked out in her tone. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that for you. I’m not mad and yeah, thanks for offering. I don’t know if I can even talk to them. They were talking, I saw them, and they looked so… I don’t even know what they looked like. I can’t read them.”
Consuelo wasn’t concerned about her feelings being hurt, they weren’t. She was, however, worried about her friend. She wasn’t the type to be sad about what other people thought of her and today she hadn’t been herself at all. “I’ll go with you. To talk to them, if you want.”
“You’re a good one, you know that?” Darcie finished brushing out her hair and stood up. “If you come with me now, we’ll go get sushi afterwards.”
“Sounds like a plan. But could we do La Xilitla instead? Their pozole is amazing and you haven’t had it yet. I can call in and we’ll get them to go.”
“Yes. Let’s do that.” Darcie took a deep breath. “To the lobby?”
“To the lobby.” With that, the two girls went to find Darcie’s parents.
They found them sitting next to a tank full of scrabbling crabs, all of them climbing over each other and making loud clacking noises with their claws. Her mother was wearing a red parka. It was over eighty degrees outside. Her father was wearing a crocheted hat. It was also red. Darcie’s parents were red to her blue. Perfect.
“Hey, mom.” She nodded at her mother and then to her dad. “Hi, dad.” She tapped Consuelo on the shoulder. “This is my friend, Consuelo. She figured she’d meet you guys while you were here. We’re thinking of being roommates, it would be pretty cost effective, more so than my apartment now.”
“Right,” her mother’s lips were prim, tight, “Because I’m sure you need to save all the money you can in this job.”
“I make a lot of money, actually. And maybe moving in with her has nothing to do with money, maybe I just want to have a roommate.”
“Are you missing the college experience?”
“I think we should go.” Mr. Reese said, grabbing his wife’s sleeve, “Darcie. Was nice to see you. I liked your show. I hope you’re happy here and if you want to come for Thanksgiving, you’d be welcome to.” He shot a look at her mother. “No matter what this one says.”
Consuelo stuck out her hand and Mr. Reese shook it. “It was nice to meet you, sir. I’ll take good care of your daughter.” Mr. Reese winked at her and nodded, he was sure she would do her best. “It was nice to meet you too,” she added, “And I just want to tell you that your daughter is one of the best and most hard working people I know. If you want to be embarrassed of anyone, it should be yourself. You raised her well and now you’re running out on her for what? You don’t like her job? That’s stupid.” She crossed her arms. “That’s all you.”
“I raised her to make a good name for herself in the real world, not to come and play pretend with a lot of freaks. I wanted a daughter with natural colored hair, for Pete’s sake, and then I come here and see she’s swimming around in this tank like it’s some kind of art? And to think people pay to see this nonsense. It’s honestly such a waste of talent. Don’t bother coming home, Darcie, unless you’re coming back with a business card for an actual job.” Mrs. Reese pulled her parka on tighter and started towards the door, but then she turned to look at Consuelo. “And I’d be surprised if you managed to pay your half if you were to be roommates. You smell like spices. And I don’t like my food seasoned.”
“That’s enough, Kerin. There’s no reason to act like that.”
“You don’t tell me what I need to say or not, man. This is my daughter-”
“No, she’s our daughter. But you know what? You’re not acting like any mother should ever act. This isn’t who I married. You’re being ridiculous. Go back to the hotel. If you didn’t come to enjoy her company, I don’t want to be around you either.”
“I can’t believe this. I thought you were on my side.”
Mr. Reese stepped away from his wife and took his red hat off. “Yeah, but I watched her show like you wouldn’t. I separated my wishes for her future from the choices she made and I saw that all this,” he gestured to the aquarium, “Made her happy. Really happy. And that’s all I’ve ever wanted for her.”
Mr. Reese didn’t follow her out of the aquarium. He, Consuelo, and Darcie went to La Xilitla, a wonderful green food truck on the corner of Wilder and Sixty. They ordered ten tacos al pastor, one large bowl of steamy warm pozole, and three horchatas, a drink to cool their hot bones. As they sat at the picnic table, hands toasty and tacos delicious, Darcie realized a few things. She mulled over her thoughts as they ate, as she watched her father and Consuelo laughing over her mother’s wildly rude antics, and realized it was okay. It was okay that her mom didn’t like her job, or her, or Consuelo and at this point it was okay even if she didn’t like her dad. Mrs. Reese was an unhappy woman. Maybe it was a natural character flaw, maybe it was something that had tainted her from joy in the past, or maybe she just was too concentrated on reality to find magic in the everyday things. Whatever it was, Darcie wished her well. As she found today, in the kind eyes of a sweet girl named Consuelo and a kind dad named Hector and a houseful, well, tankful really, of wonderful merfolk. She was okay, and like Consuelo told her, there would always be other fish in the sea.