Space Coast | Carolyn Oliver | The Piltdown Review

Space Coast

Space Coast
Photograph from Bigstock. Photo manipulation by William Shunn.

When she heard the heavy treads coming up the stairs, Pearl tucked a scrap of paper into a yellowed copy of The House of Mirth and slipped backward, letting the cool water tease open her operculum, stiff after half an hour in the air. She braced herself for another lecture. She’d probably gone too long without surfacing during the evening show, or maybe she hadn’t glued her fabric tail on properly. She hoped it wasn’t another problem with a customer; Mariana had been working late, and Pearl didn’t want to ask her twin to run interference again.

Delores emerged into the rooftop cabana first, balancing a cup of steaming tea on a thin saucer. Good china, bad news. Jack bobbed along behind her, his cheeks peony pink, his eyes too shiny in the dim light.

“Hi, Pearl—” Delores stopped, catching sight of the dark television screen as she set down the tea. “Something wrong with your TV?”

“No, I just got sick of all the campaign ads. Getting ahead with a little reading.”

“Oh, well, that’s nice, dear.” Delores gave the book an abstracted glance, then settled on the edge of the sofa, yanking Jack’s hand until he sank into the cushions, whose sigh of protest mingled with his own.

“You know we’ve been struggling lately,” said Delores.

“Hasn’t it always been slow in the fall?” Pearl asked between small, quick sips. She didn’t need to drink anything, but she liked the novelty of the hot, fragrant water. “Kids back to school, people saving their vacation days for Christmas?”

“Not just the end of tourist season. For the last few years. Remember the shuttle launch two weeks ago? Hardly any more customers than usual. You girls are wonderful, but a club with live mermaid shows isn’t the draw it used to be. The interior decorator we brought in said we’re ‘kitschy.’ ”

“What’s not to like?” grumbled Jack, eyes fixed on his fingers laced tight against one knee.

Delores ignored him, her folksy charm dissipating with the steam from Pearl’s tea. “We can’t get a loan to renovate. So unless there’s some kind of funding we don’t know about . . .” She studied her swollen ankles. “We’ll get through the election, hang on for the Endeavour launch at the end of November. Then we’ll close.”

The tea heaved in Pearl’s belly. “You’re selling?”

“To a developer. Been prowling for six months or so. The land is worth something, he says. Since it’s waterfront.”

Pearl supposed it didn’t make any difference. Even if new owners planned to keep the club and its centerpiece, an enormous saltwater tank, they couldn’t be trusted to keep her secret. She handed the cup and saucer back to Delores. “Thank you for telling me. I’ll talk to Mariana. We’ll figure it out.”

Delores nodded, approving. Brilliant Mariana was her favorite. When the girls were little, Delores had come down to their apartment on the cellar level to keep an eye on them during their mother’s shows. Back then Pearl could still fit in the oversized bathtub, and she’d watch while Delores braided Mariana’s silky hair. Out of the water, her own hair dried stiff in under an hour, crumbling to powder at any but the lightest touch. Sometimes, after she’d looked over Mariana’s homework, Delores sliced a cucumber and the three of them would lie back and listen to one of her meditation tapes, the cool moons gradually warming over their eyes. Except Pearl’s. She’d wait a while and then eat her still-cold slices, despite the inevitable stomachache, watching her sister and Delores as air pushed their bellies into soft mounds under their T-shirts.

Now, her news delivered, Delores bustled out, the teacup and saucer rattling faintly in her grasp. Jack trailed after, gathering Pearl’s overdue library books, smothering the crackle of their plastic covers against his shirt. Despite his size, his bowed shoulders made him appear frail, not like the man who with a jerk of his head warned away men he didn’t like the look of when they got too close to the tank.

Before Jack turned to leave, she called out, “Where will you go?”

“I dunno, Button. But I hope it has a big pool.” His key clicked softly in the lock.

Pearl slid back into the tank, pressing a heavy breath from her lungs. The water filled in the cracks and pores of her skin, parched from forty pages’ worth of air. Their mother had delivered Pearl and Mariana in a bathtub, and Pearl hadn’t been out of the water for more than an hour or two since. Its cold caress was usually a relief. Now, though, it felt like a boundless web of hooks tugging on her every scale.

Hunger gnawed at her gut. She ran her tongue over her sharp teeth as she submerged until the cabana’s lights dissipated to a dim glimmer. From the roof, where the girls slid into the crescent of pool enclosed by the cabana, the tank spanned fifteen feet through the center of Sea Shell until it reached a false bottom, sand-strewn mesh over grates that allowed water to circulate to the lower level. Pearl could reach the bottom level through either a hinged grate or the hollow center of the artificial coral formation running up the center of the tank. When she wasn’t studying, she swam slow circles in the cool darkness, or tended to the filtration system and the huge ducts that pumped in fresh seawater from the ocean she’d seen only through layers of glass.

As she ate her kelp and mackerel, stored out of reach of the fishes’ quick jaws, she reviewed and discarded the options for making money that would have her splayed for vivisection, for the benefit of either tabloid readers or eager scientists and doctors. She was nearly thirty, and though she’d spent her life collecting information about the world, she hadn’t found a way to live in it yet. Which left one option.

Once she decided to track down her father, Pearl swam for the surface, pulverizing mackerel bones between her palms. The darkness suspended them like tiny broken stars.

In her locker, Pearl kept a lavender sequined tail, which she never wore; water-stained textbooks on subjects ranging from vertebrate biology to macroeconomics to twentieth-century American poetry; a piggy bank weighing at least ten pounds, a relic from the days before Jack had the top of the tank covered with mesh; an album half-filled with pictures of her mother and Mariana; a dozen orange sodas in glass bottles for special occasions; a round gray rock suspended in an acrylic dome; and her sister’s high school yearbook, borrowed permanently the night Mariana graduated, when she’d come home soaked in cheap champagne. Her sister’s face, its expression of uncomplicated delight one that Pearl had never seen in person, peered out from multiple pages. Between the ones devoted to the lacrosse squad and the Latin club, Pearl had hidden a photograph.

The picture was square, with rounded-off edges. A laughing woman sat perched on a large flat rock, tendrils of hair dripping to her waist, the outlines of her legs visible inside a fabric tail, hospital scrub green. The man leaning down to kiss her seemed to be studiously avoiding looking at her yellow bikini top, his amused glance focused upward as if to catch sight of a humming plane or a particularly cheeky seagull. His lanky frame extended out past the edge of the picture. Unlike most of the men in the crowd behind them, he had combed his short hair tight against his skull. If he hadn’t been so handsome, the pair of thick-rimmed glasses peeking out from his pocket and his short-sleeve button-down would have suggested a junior FBI agent or a low-level bureaucrat. This was Pearl’s father, the astronaut.

On the back of the photo, a phone number in Pearl’s feathery scrawl clipped her mother’s elegant small capitals (“LAURA AND PETE, 1971”). When she and Mariana turned eighteen and Mariana started her senior year, Pearl began begging their mother for a way to contact Pete, only to be used in case of emergency. Pearl promised she’d have Mariana go to him first, make sure he was okay.

In the end, Laura shrugged and gave Pearl the number, then took off for Europe, where, as far as Pearl and Mariana knew, she worked as an “aquatic movement consultant” for some kind of avant-garde circus. She was probably good at it, they agreed. Delores had promoted her to manager after an accident kept her out of the show for six months, and Laura replicated her smooth assurance in the water on the restaurant floor. On her watch the performers got along well, waitstaff turnover was minimal, and the tropical fish lived longer. Even her teenage daughters didn’t resent her when she started spending her time off teaching them to live without her. Mariana learned how to run a business, and Pearl learned how to survive. How to act like a girl acting like a mermaid.

The training was essential, shielding her from discovery by the outside world and the girls she worked with, first when the performances at the Seashell were meant for families, with rooftop photo-ops for little girls wearing red Ariel wigs, and later when—thanks to a consultant who told Jack and Delores that a higher-end name would allow them to charge ten dollars for martinis and a hefty cover for mermaid shows—the restaurant became Sea Shell, a not-quite-exclusive club for a primarily male clientele. Between working the shows and doing all the tank maintenance, Pearl earned her keep, a stipend, and silence; her mother found the arrangement distasteful but necessary. After she moved to Europe their mother checked in from time to time, but between Laura and her daughters there were no tethers, no hooks. She’d done her part, steered the girls safely to adulthood. Besides, they had each other.

Or, more accurately, Pearl had Mariana. It was Mariana who suggested the correspondence courses, Mariana who wrote the vague “special circumstances” letters that allowed Pearl extra time to complete her work, Mariana who suggested Pearl think about what she would do if something happened to Jack and Delores. It was Mariana who provided cover when Pearl’s body became a problem every so often, maybe once or twice a year, when someone—always a man—noticed something odd about Pearl. No matter how tacky her iridescent pastel fabric tail, no matter how careful she was to surface as often as the other girls, someone always realized she was too natural in the water, too fearless. Inevitably, he’d ask Delores for her number, or keep showing up to scrutinize her, even if she was “sick” for a week. Then Mariana would have to come in, pretend to be Pearl, give him a good look at her two legs, and send him on his way.

Pearl knew her sister hated coming back to the club. As a kid she’d escaped to friends’ houses as often as she could, but their mother was strict, down to the minute about curfews, always afraid Mariana would let something about her slippery sister slip. She never did, though. Kept those secrets close and tight, suffocating them before they could get a gulp of the humid Florida air.

Pearl picked up the phone and dialed. Spoke to a stranger, hung up, dialed again. Tried not to splash with impatience. She hated the cold press of the phone to her ear, the tiny holes that caged and squeezed the sound. Four or five unfamiliar area codes later, a wary voice answered when she dialed a Florida number.

“Is this Pete?”

“Yes.”

“This is Mariana.” Pearl guessed that her mother wouldn’t have mentioned her existence, even to her father.

“I’m sorry, who?”

“Laura’s daughter. She was a performer in a mermaid show, at a restaurant near Cape Canaveral? You met her back in the early seventies?”

His clipped businesslike tone disappeared. “Yeah, I remember her. But she said she was going to—wait, what do you want? You’re too old for child support, you know that, right?”

“I know. I’d just like to meet you. Talk to you in person. The restaurant is a club now. We could meet here before it opens, so it would be quiet. Next Saturday?”

“Is your mom going to be there?”

“No, she’s out of town.”

“Okay.”

Pearl gave him the address, then hung up and called her sister.

“Pearl, this better not be about an extension on a paper.” Mariana’s voice was groggy, and Pearl thought she could hear sheets rustling, and someone else’s whisper.

“Hi. So I’m all set with extensions, actually. I don’t want you to get angry, but I need a big favor.”

“What did you do?”

“Nothing. Sort of. Jack and Delores came to tell me that they’re selling the place, so unless I can come up with a lot of cash, I’m out of a job. Also a place to live.” She paused, working up to it. Mariana hated their father from a distance, incredulous that he’d left them to fend for themselves. Maybe she hated their mother too, a little. Pearl understood how her twin felt, even if for her it was easy to imagine watching a clutch of eggs in their papery cases drift away on a cold, fast current. “Anyway, I kind of—I called Pete. And pretended I was you. And asked him to meet me—you—here on Saturday morning.”

Mariana swore and spluttered. Pearl put the phone down for a second. Her ear hurt. When she picked up again, she interrupted Mariana’s impressive stream of profanities.

“Look, I know you hate him, but it seemed like he didn’t even know we existed until I called. Maybe Mom never told him about us. You,” she amended. “Besides, I couldn’t think of any alternatives. I figure that if I’m going to buy the club I need about ten times what I have in that account you set up for me. And don’t even think about offering me a loan. You’re up to your eyeballs in debt from law school. I did the math.”

“Fuck,” Mariana whispered. Pearl heard the pop of her knuckles cracking. “How are we going to do this? You’re not planning to let him see you, are you?”

“No, I’m not stupid. I figured you could bring that little tape recorder thing and I’d stay in the center of the tank, in the coral. He won’t see me, but I’d kind of like to see him.”

“You think he’s got that kind of money?”

“Can you think of anyone else to ask?”

Mariana was quiet for a moment. “I’ll see you on Saturday.”

Pearl hung up and glided back into the water. The relief was instant. Her skin felt tight, ready to peel. Like one of those Italian frescoes Mariana loved. Pearl had seen pictures of her final project for her art degree: Neptune and his sea nymphs splashed in bold paint across a huge wall, then meticulously deconstructed and half restored. In a wave’s sweep, both perfected present and decayed memory. Like Mariana couldn’t make up her mind.

In golden summer sun Mariana bloomed, her curls a dark halo, but in the cool autumn light filtering through the rooftop cabana windows, her flyaways looked unkempt and windblown. Mariana ate her bagel in big bites, as if having her mouth full would keep her from saying something she’d regret. She was tired. It was her first election season as a lawyer, and it had been more tempestuous than she’d expected. Besides work there was a steady stream of dinners and fundraisers and galas. Delores showed Pearl the pictures in the paper sometimes, the long column of her sister poured into a simple dark gown.

Pearl shared a piece of smoked salmon with Capulet, her favorite nurse shark, the only one who liked mornings. She’d tried to ignore her sister’s silence, but she couldn’t overlook Mariana’s paint-flecked Gore/Lieberman T-shirt.

“You realize you have a fifty-fifty chance of that going over well?”

She shrugged. “If he’s put off by a political T-shirt when he’s meeting his daughter for the first time, that’s all we really need to know.”

Pearl rolled her eyes but changed the subject. “I can’t wait for the election to be over. The ads have ruined TV.”

“Yeah, we—I hate them too. I’ve been working on landscapes at night. To relax.”

Pearl pounced: “We?” The paper never mentioned a date when it ran Mariana’s picture.

Mariana pointed to her full mouth, then to the clock. Pearl filed away her questions for later, ate the last piece of salmon, and slipped into the pool without a splash, giving her tail a few lazy undulations until she disappeared into the mock coral. She took an ugly floral bathing cap off a branch, tucking her black hair away as she broke the surface of the water again.

“Thank you for doing this,” she said.

Mariana, who had jumped a little at the sound of her voice, nodded. “You’re welcome,” she said around a bite.

Pearl smiled, slow and shy. She closed her third lid, the effect like a wash of breath across cold glass, and turned toward the coral, concentrating on blending in. Soon her larger scales turned mottled blue green, and her skin took on the cold look of corpses.

Mariana’s mouth went dry. When Pearl disappeared underwater, she spit the last piece of her bagel into her hand. After she locked the door to the cabana, she tossed the bagel off the side of the building, into the ocean. A second later careening gulls made it disappear.

Through a screen of artificial coral and passing fish, Pearl watched Mariana open the front door for a tall, thin man. As her sister steered him toward a table near the tank, his head swiveled slightly, assessing the room. Pete had traded his thick glasses for silver rectangular frames, which complemented the streaks of silver at his temples. Mariana swiped the portable phone from the hostess stand before they sat down, and Pearl was glad for her caution when their father’s calculating gaze followed her to the bar, where she poured a vodka tonic for him and a plain soda water for herself. His hair was still scraped back as it had been in the photo, but now, in his expertly tailored gray trousers and linen shirt, he looked sleek and powerful. From her mother’s stories, she’d expected a reserved, civic-minded explorer. The man sitting across from her sister was a barracuda prowling for its next meal.

Mariana slipped the dictaphone from the pocket of her jeans but kept it out of sight, under the table. They talked for a few minutes, probably just chat, Pearl figured, until Pete leaned in and gestured at Mariana’s shirt. She grimaced and shook her head. Leaned back and waved her arm at the room, its angles softened in the morning light. Pete’s expression didn’t change. Pearl flicked her tail uneasily, dislodging a clownfish from its hiding place.

She held her impatience in check through a few more minutes of back and forth, punctuated by Pete breaking off and staring at the tank for a second, almost right at her. Then they got up. It looked like Pete asked one more question at the door, but Pearl couldn’t be sure; they were too far away to see clearly.

In the cabana, heat seeped through the seams of the doors and windows. Mariana, her face impassive, swirled little galaxies in the water as her twin listened to the recording. Pearl had been too nervous to pay much attention to Pete’s voice on the phone, but now she registered that it was slightly wheezy. She imagined him walking on the moon and leaving some of his breath behind, inevitable and unintentional as a footprint.

After a two or three minutes’ worth of uncomfortable pleasantries and half-truths—Mariana admitted to being a painter, omitted her law degree, and insinuated that she still worked at the club—Pete said, “Listen, I don’t want to be rude, but I’ve got appointments today. Why am I here?”

“It’s fine. I know it’s sudden, but something’s come up, and I could use a hand. A loan, to be honest. Most of my friends are still paying off college, and my mom’s out of the country, and since you work in the space program, I thought—”

“You thought I’d help you get rid of your little problem?”

“What? No, I’m not pregnant. The money’s for a business opportunity. This place—I want to buy it, take over. I grew up here, watching the fish while I did my homework, that kind of thing. The owners are like family, but they’re getting old and need to sell. I only need a hand with the cash up front. The club is profitable. You’d get your money back, with interest.”

As Mariana tried to convey how Pearl felt about her home, Pearl realized she’d made a mistake, hadn’t thought far enough ahead. If the club were hers, or hers and Mariana’s, she still couldn’t run it alone. Not from the water. Her eyes flicked over to her sister, who’d gotten up and was idly paging through Pearl’s course files, alphabetizing as she put them back.

“What makes you think I could help you?” Pete asked on the tape.

“Mom said you worked for NASA. That’s a good job.”

Pete paused before answering. “I don’t work for NASA. I work for a lot of different people. I help them find things. Unusual things. Not the kind of job with a retirement plan.”

“So that’s a no.”

“Sorry. But you know, I heard a rumor about a girl here—what do you call them? Dancers? Performers? A real good one, a natural. I have a friend, a very wealthy friend, with a yacht. He likes talented girls. Might be interested in bringing one along next time he heads out. High seas for a few months, all expenses paid?”

“That’s interesting.” Pearl could practically taste her sister’s disgust, sour-bitter on her palate.

“Well, you have my number if you know anyone.”

“Thanks.”

The tape went silent, then started up again. Mariana’s calm, cool voice made a nuanced point about Florida election law before Mariana reached down to shut it off.

“You understand this isn’t going to work. And there’s no way in hell we’re calling him about his friend with the yacht. If there is such a person.”

“Freak show. I get it.” Floating on her back and looking up out of one of the high, narrow windows, Pearl thought she could just make out the moon’s faint outline in the pale sky. “How long have you known that he wasn’t an astronaut?”

“Since the day after you called. I checked mission personnel and support staff.”

“I never thought to look him up, even during those astronomy courses. I guess I didn’t want to know.”

Mariana didn’t like to linger over disagreeable facts. She turned back to Pearl’s files, rapidly filing psychology, oceanography, Spanish, statistics. “I’ve been thinking about it. Maybe we could move you to a sanctuary, some place reputable but out of the way, not open to the public. I think we could trust environmentalists. Greenpeace types. I have someone who could ask the right people, if you give me permission.”

“Who exactly are you dating?”

Mariana stopped flipping pages. “You have a term paper on ‘invasive species and marine ecosystems’ filed under theology.” When Pearl didn’t answer, she picked up a new file and relented. “Someone smart, with good connections.” She took a deep breath. “Pearl, the person I’m seeing—my partner. We’ve been together for a long time. Years. She’s a woman.”

“I kind of figured. You should bring her over. I’d like to meet her.” At this blasé pronouncement, Mariana nearly dropped the file on filter maintenance. “Hey, watch it. I might need that for repairs. Don’t act so surprised.”

“I thought you wouldn’t understand. I thought you’d shut me out, and you’d be alone.”

“Don’t you need to be smart to make editor-in-chief of the law review? It’s practically the twenty-first century. And we’re twins.”

Mariana raised one eyebrow.

“I’m a mermaid,” said Pearl. “Not a nun.”

The summer she turned twenty-two, Pearl had spent a carefully arranged hour alone in the water with beautiful, easygoing, med-school-bound Diana. It was dark in the tank after their last shift together, but Pearl could make out the plump, inviting curve of her lips, the twilight-lilac tinge of her closed eyelids, the faint glow of her skin in the weak moonlight. She’d kept Diana’s hands above her waist, mostly tangled in her black hair while Pearl skimmed her body with fingertips and tongue, the water lapping at them both. When she untied Diana’s lavender tail underwater, Pearl felt breathless for the first time in her life.

Mariana’s voice shook her back into the morning. “It would be pointless to ask more, I take it.”

“I was careful. And it won’t happen again. Can’t.” Diana hadn’t come back to visit after she left for school up north, and nobody else similarly inclined had appeared in the years when intimacy was still possible. There had always been large scales below Pearl’s navel, but over the previous decade the skin above it had developed a layer of miniscule scales like a shark’s, sandpaper-rough to the touch, though smooth-seeming from a distance. In the wrong light—any natural light—her skin shimmered silver like it had been airbrushed over her flesh. When she met Diana the scales were still matte and thin, easy to ignore. In the years since, Mariana was the only person she allowed to touch her.

She pushed away the memory of the night with Diana and the regret that it was the only one she had. “What did Pete ask you at the door?”

Mariana shut the filing cabinet harder than was strictly necessary. “He wanted to know if we’d ever seen a rock in plastic. If Mom had it or if she’d given it to me.”

“Huh.” Pearl tilted back in the water, opening her operculum and letting her gills work for a few moments. When she resurfaced, Mariana was sitting on the couch, arms crossed.

“Pearl.”

“Yeah?”

“You know where it is, right?”

“It must be worth something if he’s curious about it.”

“I know what you’re thinking. It’s a bad idea.”

“Maybe. I’ll talk to Jack first, see if there’s any possibility they can take me with them. And you can ask your girlfriend—it wouldn’t kill you to tell me her name—to look into sanctuaries, okay? I’m not reckless. And I want you to have a life. I know you had to stay because Mom left.”

She dove down to the cellar before Mariana could react. Sometimes it was better not to linger.

Halloween was just as exhausting as usual. Even though it fell on a Tuesday, Sea Shell stayed open late, and when Joan called in sick Pearl worked two shows back to back. The orange and purple lighting turned the familiar grotesque; she found she couldn’t ignore the leering men looming toward the glass. Dread settled over her in a thin layer, like a slime of algae over rock.

After closing Jack came up to the cabana to drop off supplies and pick up her mail, which she didn’t have ready. She dried her hands on one of the bleached towels he stacked next to the pool, then scrambled through her locker for the exam on North American geography and her latest problem set in accounting. While she addressed the packet, Jack shuffled around the room, sweeping stray sequins and pins into a little pile with his heavy shoes. When he took the envelope from her, he smoothed its surface with his hands, as if it were a rumpled costume.

“Delores wants us to move closer to her sister.”

“Which one?” Pearl kept flipping through a magazine he’d brought up. It would be easier for him if he didn’t have to look at her.

“The one in Phoenix. Hot there too, but dry heat. I guess there’s a big condo complex, all the work taken care of for you. Not that you don’t pay for it. Oh, hell.” He ran a hand across his face. “I’m sorry, Pearl. It can’t work. There’s no privacy, and I don’t even know how we’d move you that far, and Delores—well, it’s her time now. I promised her. You know what she’s had to put up with. What I used to be.”

Four or five years earlier, a man had snuck up to the roof during a show, the last performance on a weeknight. Just a few guys at the bar and a few others clustered close to the tank. The drunk, a big guy, twice Pearl’s size, had jumped into the tank and gone for Melanie and Samantha, yanking their air hoses to pull them close to him. Pearl, who’d felt the tremor in the water down her lateral line instantly, grabbed her utility knife from its place in the tube coral. Sank the knife into his arm and her teeth into his leg.

She could still see his blood ribboning in the water, could still recall the strange feeling of hunger—no, something past hunger, something closer to desire—that washed over her. Delores hooked the guy almost immediately with a life preserver and a broom handle. Pearl let him go so she could push the flailing girls to the surface.

Jack didn’t call the police, but the man in the boxy navy suit who arrived minutes later flashed a shiny badge at the gawking customers and sent them away with vague explanations about parole violations. Delores bundled Melanie and Samantha home with two weeks’ vacation. Once they were alone, Jack’s friend in the blue suit dragged the blubbering man up to the roof, not bothering to bandage his wounds. Pearl watched from the shadow at the edge of the tank as he slammed the drunk’s head against the cement. The motion was economical, fluid. A shark snapping bait off a hook.

Delores hosed the blood off, but Pearl could still see the ghost of the stain. Jack bought stronger mesh to cover the tank, and he brought in the nurse sharks too. They were harmless, really—Pearl kept them well-fed and well in hand—but nobody, drunk or sober, had tried jumping since.

She never saw the man in the blue suit again, but the tension between Delores and Jack simmered for months. It spiked when a reporter came down to cover “the girls who swim with sharks.” She radiated energy and intelligence as she interviewed Delores and Jack and the performers working that day—all except Pearl, who caught a glimpse of the small woman from her hiding place in the coral. Later, Callie told her how Delores sent the reporter away when she started asking about the man who’d jumped in the tank. The next day Melanie and Samantha got coveted dance jobs on two different cruise ships. They sent postcards sometimes.

Yeah, Pearl knew what Jack used to be.

He was still standing there, tracing her writing on the envelope. “It’s okay, Jack. I understand. Mariana’s helping me figure things out.”

“If you have trouble—I know they’re not good people exactly, I know you deserve better, Button—but some people I used to know, they have the resources to—” He waved at the tank, at her. “A club is a business. Taxes, health inspections, liquor license, deliveries, staff turnover. I know how hard you’ve worked, how many classes you’ve taken, but still, you need to be in the room, not—”

“Dead in the water,” she finished for him.

He winced, and Pearl caught the shine in his eyes. “I know a couple people I would trust, if you want me to call them,” he choked out.

“Thanks, Jack. I’ll let you know soon, okay?”

His offer was the same as her father’s, but even as she thought back to the man in the navy suit, she knew she’d take Jack’s predator over Pete’s rich friend without hesitation. Not that it would come to that.

Mariana hated the plan. But Pearl convinced her that it was best to keep their options open, since they hadn’t heard from any of the sanctuaries Mariana had contacted. No need to mention how the air at the surface was starting to feel thick, like a cloying syrup she had to pull into her lungs. She felt each motion of every warm body in the water like a shock, and minute changes in the tank currents had started shocking her awake.

Pete would meet them on the roof late on election night, after closing. He’d hand over the money to Mariana—a huge amount, but Mariana’s girlfriend was apparently some kind of research whiz, and that was the going rate—she’d hand over the rock, the end. Mariana would keep her job and own Sea Shell outright, but Pearl would run it behind the scenes, doing the books after hours, keeping all the staff Jack and Delores trusted. Just for a year or two, until they could figure out something more permanent. A launch pad for something better, she told her sister. She told herself she was buying time.

On election night Delores sent the other mermaid girls home early; the customers were glued to the TV screens above the bar and conversations were hushed, intense. Even the sharks were tetchy. Not long after the polls closed, a fight nearly broke out in the back corner of the room, and Pearl was glad Delores and Jack had decided against throwing a party.

At eleven-thirty the phone in the cabana rang.

“Pearl, I can’t come,” Mariana said.

“What happened?”

“It’s chaos here. Problems with ballots, exit polls—I don’t have time to explain, and if it weren’t so important you know I’d drop everything, but Pearl, you can’t meet him alone. We’ll find a time, maybe next week. Promise me—”

“I’ll be fine. I’ll leave a message after it’s done. Love you.” She hung up, the receiver landing in its cradle with a dull cracking sound. Mariana would worry, but she wouldn’t risk calling Jack and Delores, and she didn’t have Pete’s number. Pearl was already ten feet below the surface when the phone started ringing again.

She didn’t need to wait for her vision to adjust to the darkness in the cellar. She swept her hand behind one of the bubbling filters, grasping the little globe, slickly smooth. The moon rock inside was about the size of a charcoal briquette, pocked with holes like an old potato ready to sprout.

She closed her eyes and swam slow circles on her back, the million-dollar sphere balanced in the dip just below her rib cage. She knew from Mariana that it was illegal to own a moon rock. Even the astronauts weren’t supposed to keep them, but Pearl guessed that NASA probably looked the other way if a pebble or two went missing from a payload. Given the way it was encased, this was probably one of the stolen presentation pieces Nixon gave out to various governments before she was born. Somehow, even after what she’d learned, the idea that her father was a thief seemed more preposterous than the idea that he’d walked on the moon.

Pearl wondered, not for the first time, how her mother had ended up with it. Had he given it to her in a fit of braggadocio and booze? Had she nicked it one night while Pete slept next to her and the twins floated in her belly? What other secrets did her mother harbor?

She was practicing her sister’s harried just-got-off-work face and debating which tail would best hide her odd skin when she felt faint vibrations down her lateral line. She swam up until the scales on her fingers scraped the grate separating her from the visible tank. The fish were agitated, swimming too fast. The bartender had left the TV on, and she saw the patchwork red and blue of the country reflected in the glazed surface of one of her notebooks.

There was no time for her top or a fake tail. Not even her knife.

She snaked through the coral structure, holding her hair with one hand to keep it from billowing, giving her away. Pete wasn’t in the water. He could be at the edge of the pool, waiting for her, but the only way to know was to surface. A folder drifted past her, then another and another, the paper inside melting to milky pulp.

Only the top of Pearl’s head and her eyes broke the surface of the water at the very edge of the pool. Pete was crouched in front of her filing cabinets. She couldn’t see his face, just his arms methodically tossing folders, papers, everything into the water. The House of Mirth floated by. He’d just started on her locker.

Pearl berated herself. Of course a person capable of stealing a moon rock once would be capable of stealing it again. Of course he’d be capable of having his daughter watched, or bribing someone at the club for information. If Mariana sacrificed yet one more thing she cared about for the sake of keeping Pearl safe, she’d arrive any minute to find a father perfectly capable of hurting her. And Mariana had spent her life orbiting her sister like a satellite, invisible in the penumbra of the glass walls that circumscribed Pearl’s existence.

Pearl wished she could tear her own recklessness to pieces.

She bared her teeth and sank down, then turned, lashing her tail once, twice, three ferocious times against the water.

The effort launched her into the air. She landed hard on the ground, registering the gun next to Pete, his scream as her vise grip found his ankle, and the figure standing at the door in the same instant. In the few breaths it took to drag her father back toward the water, she placed the other person. She’d expected Mariana, but this woman was short, with dark brown skin and hair cropped close to her head: the reporter. A small knapsack fell out of her hand, but she didn’t scream at the sight of a bare-breasted mermaid about to drown a man. She simply cocked her head to the side and waited.

Five minutes later, Pearl emerged from the dark water to find the reporter peering at the remaining contents of her locker, hands clasped behind her back. Below them the sharks circled and darted and swerved in a seething mass of muscle, enjoying their last easy meal.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t know your name,” Pearl said, breathing hard.

The reporter smiled. “Stella.”

“Nice to meet you, Stella. Could you hand me one of those sodas? Take one too if you want.”

She drank half the bottle, the bubbles sizzling in her throat, before she realized Stella probably wasn’t carrying an opener. She reached for Stella’s bottle and flicked the cap off with a sharp nail. It landed on the floor next to the gun with a plink. “My sister sent you?” she asked.

“Yes. There’s going to be a recount, and probably lawsuits, so she can’t leave tonight. I don’t think she expected this.” Stella’s gesture encompassed the flotsam in the water, the disemboweled sofa, the costumes knifed into confetti.

“Neither did I.” The air felt unbearably thick and warm. She dipped into the water for a moment, brushing away an electric-blue fish floating on the surface. After she’d reversed the flow of water, sending the contents of the tank spilling into the Atlantic, she’d killed all the non-native species as quickly and mercifully as she could.

“You should probably get going,” she said when she came back up. “Take the yearbook—it’s Mariana’s. She never tells anyone she was the valedictorian. Please tell her to have Jack and Delores get here before the staff comes in tomorrow, okay? Like, way before. And please give her this.” She rolled the moon rock toward Stella. “I think you’re the person who knows what to do with it. Thank you for all your help.”

“I would do anything for Mariana,” Stella said, placing the rock and the gun gently in her knapsack.

“No other reporter would give up a story this good. I know you love her.”

Pearl finished her soda, resisting the water’s downward pull. Nothing she could say would be right enough; she hadn’t taken a course for this moment. So she settled for directness. For options. “I’m sorry we never got to know each other, and I’m sorry things might have been hard with my sister because of me. Because she could never leave me.”

The salt smell of sea air pulsed through the windows. Below them, water whispered over bone.

“I want her to be happy,” she continued. “You probably know her better than I do now. So it’s up to you if you want to tell her that there’s a little island off the coast of Maine she might like to paint. Isle au Haut. In July, maybe, after this is all over.”

Just after dawn, Stella described to Mariana how her sister’s fin, a silver archer’s bow, disappeared into the roiling water—but only after it loosed a constellation of droplets that fell to earth like silent, lustrous pearls.

In the murmuring night, the black velvet waves splintered the moon’s reflection into glossy sequins. Pearl tasted their sweetness, letting the light-soaked water flood her gills until she swelled with breath and breathlessness at once. Then she swam north.  

shortlink: dogb.us/coast

          

               

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