Tess and I sit on the bottom step of the concrete stairway leading from our neighborhood down to the lake. We’re only eight, and not allowed to be on the beach without parents, so we sit in this border region and dig our toes in the sand without technically breaking the rules.
We watch as everyone packs up their folding chairs, tri-colored umbrellas, and tropical print towels. The clouds on the horizon darken to mirror the grey waters below, and we know a storm is coming, but we don’t leave yet because our houses are just around the corner. We still have time.
“What do mermaids do during a storm?” she asks. She’s six months younger than me and obsessed with Disney princesses. Her parents are still married.
“Swim deeper,” I say.
Whitecaps appear in the distance, rising up and rolling toward the shore. Most of the boats have disappeared from the lake, but a few stragglers speed toward the glowing lighthouse at the mouth of the harbor.
“What about lightning? Does it hurt them like it hurts us?”
“No. Mermaids can absorb the lightning.”
“How do you know?”
“I just do.”
Tess wraps her arms around her knees and pulls her toes out of the sand. She cranes her neck to look back up the stairs towards the houses.
“It’s getting cold,” she says. “We should go.”
“Not yet.” I slide down off the step and sit in the still-warm sand. I imagine diving under the white foamy waves, swimming deeper and deeper until the sun disappears from view.
Tess flops down on the other side of the couch in a huff. She doesn’t say anything, but I know she’s angry that I don’t have my driver’s license yet. She doesn’t turn sixteen for three more months. I didn’t tell her that I failed the test.
“What happened to your leg?” she asks. I look down and see that the hem of my skirt has drifted up just enough to reveal the pale white skin on my thigh where a weeping red line connects two of my most hated moles. One is shaped like a fried egg—a light brown oval with a dark, almost black circle in the center—and the other looks like a UFO in profile. Only it isn’t an unidentified or flying object. It’s my skin, stuck on me forever despite my desire to claw it off. I wiggle my hips, lifting one side, then the other off the couch, and I tug the skirt down to cover the full set of straight, parallel, white lines that surround my moles.
“I slipped shaving.” I know she doesn’t believe my lie, but I say it anyway.
She rolls her eyes, and shows me a cigarette hidden in the palm of her hand. She glances at our mothers, standing in the kitchen chopping bell peppers and shucking corn, oblivious to their daughters.
“Let’s go for a walk,” she says.
I follow Tess out the back door and watch her light up as soon as we’ve turned the corner. She leads a zigzag path through the neighborhood, but like always, stops at the top of the lake’s steps. Storms this year have washed away the sand. Waves brush against the concrete. Tess takes a long drag and flicks away her cigarette butt. It disappears beneath the green, algae-bloomed water.
I push the stroller along the black asphalt. It’s the seventh time I’ve looped around the block and I’ve already memorized the lines of tar that crisscross the old concrete road. Like reading tea leaves at the bottom of my cup, my mind organizes them into the familiar shapes of characters in Lily’s books. I walk next to Peter Pterodactyl and then across Sammy Saguaro. Whalen the Whale is just around the corner. I’m tired and my feet hurt but I keep going. Lily only sleeps when she’s moving. It’s been five months since I slept.
As I finish my eighth circuit, Tess waves from the screened-in porch and holds up a pair of Coronas. Her crop-top lifts enough that I can see the smooth, taut skin surrounding her belly button. I feel my own midriff jiggle with each step.
“Come join us!” She calls. Our mothers recline on adirondack chairs next to her, sipping Shandies. The midday air is hot and demanding. I close my eyes and imagine slumping onto a soft cushion, letting my body descend into relaxation. I can almost feel the cold beer in my hand and the breeze from the fan spinning above.
My steps slow. “She might wake up,” I say.
“Let her cry it out.” Tess pops the cap off the bottle and takes a swig. “She has to learn eventually.” Her words match our mothers’—an undisturbed reflection.
Lily stirs. I see little ripples of movement and her tiny fists jerk up and rub her eyes.
“I can’t.” I resume our familiar rhythm, turning back toward the lake. In the distance, the sun glitters on the water, stretching across the horizon. Lily settles back to stillness as a pair of young neighborhood girls skip past me, barefoot in their swimsuits. I watch their ponytails swing.
Victoria Miller has an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. When she’s not slurping the best ramen in LA or proclaiming her hatred of olives, she finds time to write short stories and work on her first novel. Find her on Twitter @tigrvix