A Short Story by Regina Kenney
Janie ran in a zig-zag path to crunch leaves along the pond’s edge. The leaves in the old wood had begun to fall and burst with reds, yellows, and oranges. She stopped occasionally to pick up a red leaf to put in her school bag for later. The red leaves were special, Boney told her so.
“Mom, I saw a mermaid today!” Janie skipped through the kitchen tossing her book bag around like a waltz partner.
“That’s nice, honey.” Claire poured macaroni into a boiling pot and took a long drag from her cigarette. Macaroni for the third night in a row.
“Boney showed me where she lives. She is beautiful and now we are best friends. Mom, can mermaids talk?”
“I don’t know sweetie.”
“Elizabeth doesn’t talk. But she likes to listen.”
Ollie started to wail. “Oh for Christ’s …” Claire wiped Ollie’s face hard with a cloth and unbuckled his chair. He stumbled a bit then started to wander into the living room.
“She has the prettiest hair… and I made her a pink friendship bracelet at recess and Mrs. Clark said-”
“Janie, watch your brother. Go in the living room and play.”
Janie didn’t mind watching her brother even though he was two years older than her. Ollie didn’t have enough oxygen when we was born and developed what her mother said were ‘problems.’ He could barely walk and he couldn’t speak except moans but the Boneyman told Janie that was a good thing because it meant that he was good at keeping secrets.
“Ok, Ollie, you’re the Minotaur and I’ll be the inventor who’s trying to escape!” Janie squealed as Ollie chased her across the living room.
“Quietly, play quietly!” Her mother yelled from the kitchen. “Beth! Dinner in fifteen!” She waved the packet of cheese powder and dolloped butter into a bowl.
“I’m going out,” Beth said from the hallway mirror where she applied the final layer of gray eyeliner. She smacked her lips and threw the lip gloss into her messenger bag.
“The hell you are. You have to watch Ollie and Janie.”
“Oh no! Here’s comes the Minotaur!” Janie squealed as she rammed herself into the sofa pillows.
“Mom. No.” Beth yelled, “Mary is having people over.”
Claire took a deep breath. Looked out the kitchen window. “You see Mary every day in school, you can take one night and watch your siblings.”
“Oh, so you can go out with that skeez you met online?”
“He is not a skeez. His name is Jim. And he owns his own construction firm.” Claire relaxed her fists and continued to stare out the window. One hour. One more hour then it’s Miller High Life and peace.
“You always do this. I never get to go out.”
Janie bounced in the kitchen, “I met a mermaid today.”
“And you think that your life is so much more important -”
“Beth! Boney showed me where a mermaid is today!”
“Just leave whenever you want and I have to stop everything I’m doing-”
“Beth! Her name is Elizabeth and she has the prettiest hair-”
“Shut up, Janie!”
“Don’t talk to your sister like that.”
“If you’re so worried about how I talk to her then why do you think it’s a good idea for me to watch her?”
“Beth. Stop. I am going out. You are watching your brother and sister. End of story.”
Beth stomped out of the room as Claire reached for another cigarette.
Janie sat on the floor and started to hum to herself. The linoleum tile had cakes of dirt in the tracks since Janie could remember. She would spend hours staring at the octagon flower pattern and tracing the escape route of ogres who were being pursued by an evil princess.
Ollie howled from the living room. He had fallen and hit the corner of the coffee table.
Claire rushed to the living room, shouting, “God damn it, Janie. I told you to watch him.”
Claire examined herself in the mirror. Her red cocktail dress revealed her underwear lines but the neckline looked great – just a hint of her black bra showing. Jim would love it.
It was their third date in two months. Between working at the Ponderosa six days a week and driving Ollie to medical appointments, she finally had another night off.
“Kids, I’m going out the door. Don’t stay up late, and Beth – no inviting people over, got it?”
Beth chewed on her hair as she watched her Mom rush out the door. She took out her phone to text her boyfriend Ted to come over. He was an idiot, but he was her idiot and greatly improved a Friday evening stuck at home with her half-siblings.
“Boney said one day I’m going to be a mermaid.”
“Who’s Boney?” Ted passed the vodka to Beth and reached for more Cheetos.
“Just ignore her, it’s her imaginary friend.” Beth put her tongue over the bottle so it looked like she was taking a big swig.
The TV flickered, lighting up the large 1970s flower-power wallpaper the previous tenants put up. Janie played with dolls on the floor and Ollie, oddly quiet, stared out the window – smiling at something in the woods.
“He’s not imaginary. He’s real. And he lives in the woods. And he has blue skin.”
“Yesterday it was green skin.” Beth flicked TV channels.
“His skin looks different on different days. It depends on where he sleeps the night before.”
“That is trippy.” Ted said, keeping his eyes on the television.
“She started talking about him after Dad took off.”
“Daddy didn’t take off. The Goblins got him. Boney saw.”
Ollie’s face fell and he started to whimper. He kept staring at the window while tears ran down his face.
“Janie, take Ollie to bed.”
Janie unbuckled Ollie from his chair and held his hand as she brought him to their room. “Tomorrow after school I’m going to ask Boney where mermaids come from,” Janie told Ollie as she helped him lay down in his bed, “And then I’m going to ask him to make a map where Daddy is.”
Ollie jumped out of bed and started to cry, pointing at the window.
“No, Ollie. I told you. We have to keep it open. Otherwise, Boney won’t be able to come in.”
Their neighbor, Miss Annie, watched the kids on Saturdays after Diagnosis Murder. Poor Claire had to work and Miss Annie was too warm-hearted to let the darlings fend for themselves, though she did accept a humble $5 an hour for her Bingo.
Janie’s chatter interrupted her thoughts.
“I met her last week on my way home from school through the park and I go see her every day after school and we hold hands and I gave her a friendship bracelet and sometimes I brush her hair.”
“… Your mother lets you walk home from school alone?”
“It’s only across the park near the pond.”
“Now there’s a good boy, eat all the peas.”
Ketchup smeared across his face, Ollie smashed the remaining peas down into a mash.
“Can we go to the park today?”
Beth walked into the kitchen, opened the fridge and took a long gulp from the milk carton.
“Oh Beth, that is a terrible habit. Unsanitary.”
“Sorry, Miss A.”
“Oh, I have a grand idea. Beth, why don’t you take your sister to the park while I clean Ollie up from lunch?”
Beth glared at her sister. It had been a week since her mother came home and found her and Ted on the couch with a bottle of vodka. She hadn’t been able to leave the house except for school. “Alright,” she said, and texted Ted to meet her at the park.
Janie jumped up and ran to the bathroom to get a brush.
“You two behave and come back before supper time.” Miss Annie called as Janie skipped out the door and Beth sauntered after her.
The park consisted of a thick wood beside a river-fed pond, more weeds and cat tails than water. Beth sat on the bench as Janie ran to the pond. A wooden dock had fallen into the pond and the planks stuck up, making a stepping path into the rush. Janie and skipped on the planks, disappearing into the weeds.
“Hey skank, your Mom finally cooled off?”
Ted sat beside her and put his arm over her shoulder.
“The mermaid! She’s still here!” Janie squealed. She had come to the larger wooden platform in the rushes that bordered the deep end of the pond. The end of the platform jutted out of the weeds and Janie could see Beth sitting with Ted. She laid on the platform and got a hairbrush out of her knapsack.
“No way! The infamous mermaid, eh?” Ted started to get up.
“Stop. Don’t feed her delusion. Janie, get away from the water!”
“But her hair is tangled!” Janie reached into the water with the brush.
“Janie. Stop it.”
“I have to brush her hair!” Janie moved her body further towards the water with her high tops pointed on the planks.
Beth ran to the weeds thinking, The last thing I need is that twerp to fall in.
“God dammit, Janie. Mom is going to freak if you fall in.”
Beth skipped on the wooden planks and made it to the platform. She reached Janie and yanked her arm out of the pond. A flicker of blonde caught her eye and she looked in the water and gasped. Staring back at her was the pale face of a young girl with her eyes open and arms stretched out. She swayed with the water and her skin was a pale blue-green. Her fingernails looked like the tips had been scratched off and floating on one of her wrists was a pink friendship bracelet.
Beth grabbed Janie’s shoulder hard and pulled her away as Janie wailed.
The cops fished the body out and the corpse was identified immediately. Elizabeth Morring, age 19, disappeared from her home eight days ago.
Claire came home to a hysterical Janie and a room full of police officers with pens and papers out.
Janie sobbed into Beth’s shoulder as the police psychiatrist left the living room after getting Janie’s statement. “Why did you take her away? Mermaids can’t live on dry land.”
Beth heard the psychiatrist consult her mom through the hallway connecting the kitchen.
“… And she had been talking about a ‘mermaid’ for a week?’
“I didn’t think anything of it. She always tells stories like that, she’s a very imaginative child.” Claire’s voice shook. She was still in her work outfit and she stood holding her arms steady.
“Mrs. Adams. I know this is upsetting. But you have to understand. Children as young as three years old can determine the difference between what is make-believe and what is real. This is not normal behavior for a seven-year-old. Did she make any indication that this was frightening to her? Did she say anything to the effect that this was different than her other imaginary friends?”
“No. She didn’t seem scared at all. She seemed happy. She just kept talking about her new friend Elizabeth the mermaid and how she couldn’t wait to see her…”
The police psychiatrist looked up from his notes. “How did she know the victim’s name was Elizabeth?”
Beth held onto Janie hard and thought about Boney.