One of Mama’s boyfriends took us on a trip when I turned four.
We visited this restaurant that had a special mermaid show. Metal bleachers lined up in front of a giant pool with see-through sides. Mermaids swam around in time to music while I watched with rapt attention.
Even though I could see the clear little tubes they used to breathe, even though I could tell the fins were made of fabric, it was magical to me.
I think I fell in love that day.
Inside the gift shop I found a stuffed blue-green mermaid with yarn hair and sparkly scales. I begged Mama to get it for me, but she said no. We never had much money.
The next day we went tubing in the river.
The tubes were black and slippery, the water dark. Not sparkly blue water like the mermaids had. I didn’t like it but I knew better than to complain, especially with Mama laughing extra loud and Mama’s boyfriend drinking beers from the floating cooler. He had what Mama called a movie star smile, but it just made him scary.
I held on to the tube as hard as I could, until my muscles were burning. It was too big for me to lay over the top, too big around even as I floated in the center, my arms slung over the large rubber sides. The river bumped me this way and that, taking me away from Mama until I pumped my legs to get back to her.
It happened suddenly.
The water got rough.
My hands slipped from the rubber.
I kicked hard against rocks smooth with algae. It hurt but I knew I couldn’t stop.
The water sucked me down.
One minute I was floating in the middle of a big black tube. The next I was completely under, black currents swirling me around in circles, like a leaf in a hurricane. I remember the fear of it, the way I felt freezing inside, even colder than the water surrounding me.
The current slammed me to the bottom, the rocks hitting my back.
Then my head.
I don’t remember what happened next, but someone must have pulled me out of the water.
Mama bought me the mermaid with green-blue hair to make me feel better. I kept that mermaid for a long time. Even after Mama was gone. I like to think it means she loved me, even if she ended up loving needles more. I found her in the bathtub one night, her grown-up things spilled over the cracked tile, her eyes open, her hands cold.
I didn’t ever like swimming after that, even in sparkly blue pools.
After that I went to live with Daddy in the trailer park. I think he felt bad for what happened with Mama. He had this careful voice he used with me, like he thought I might cry. Even though I never did.
Daddy brought me to his parole meeting once. I sat in a chair with itchy fabric and wooden arms, trying not to look at the other men in the waiting room. The officer wore a brown suit, not a police uniform. He asked me if I liked living with Daddy.
He leaned forward, his eyebrows pressed together. He had a big nose and a shiny head, but not in a bad way. It made me trust him. Like he was a regular person. I didn’t trust people who looked too slick and handsome, the kind of men Mama dated.
The kind of men who bring needles as presents. The kind of men who disappear in the middle of the night with our rent money.
“Are you sure, Penny? You can tell me the truth.”
I think he wanted me to tell him about the gambling, the nights we would go to the bar, when I would sit in the corner with a book while the men shouted and smoked and drank. The way Daddy would sometimes lose everything, even bus fare, and we would have to take the long walk back to the trailer park.
“I like it here,” I tell him, because I do. There are no needles, and most of the time there’s enough food. I can’t trust that anything else would be better. “Daddy takes good care of me.”
It was almost true when he brought me to his card games. The owner of the bar was named Big Joe, and he would usually give me a plate of French fries and a Sprite. Mostly I ate every day. That didn’t last forever.
Once Daddy said I was old enough to stay home, it got worse.
He started staying out overnight, only coming back the next morning, his clothes rumpled and his eyes red. Then it was two days. Then three.
Now I watch the dirt road from the window, wondering if he’ll come back tonight. I tried to make the box of mac and cheese last, but it’s gone now. My tummy makes a loud sound. Daddy won’t have much money, if he comes back now. He never does after the long trips. But I still keep wishing for him. Even if we were hungry, we would be together.
This is the longest he’s been gone.
Worry presses down on my chest, making it hard to breathe. What happens if he doesn’t come back? The same way Mama didn’t come back? No, don’t think like that. So I keep looking out the window, hoping I see his large form coming zig-zag down the lane.
When it gets to be nine o’clock, I take a bath and get into my favorite nightgown. I try to keep a regular bedtime even when Daddy’s gone. It makes me feel like there’s a grownup in the trailer.
I climb into bed, staring through the blinds on my window.
My bedroom faces the back of the trailer park, away from the city lights. I can see a line of dark trees that move in the wind.
Then a flicker of something. A light. A fire?
My heart pounds harder. I can feel it thump in my chest. Darkness creeps up in my mind. What if Daddy’s out there? What if he couldn’t find his way home? He knows the way, but if he’s been drinking a lot he might have gotten lost.
He’s never been gone this long. That must be him.
I want it to be him.
I don’t know whether the ache in my heart is hope or fear. Both.
Mostly I know better than to go outside after dark. Even if someone bangs on the door, the lock stays turned. Unless it’s a policeman with a badge. But I’m too awake to fall asleep.
Then there’s another flash of something bright through the trees.
I open the door slow, as if something in the shadows might jump at me. There’s nothing, only the soft whisper of grass in the wind. No one mows around here. Weeds come up to my knees. Brambles poke the bottoms of my feet. I press through the trees, determined to find out what’s on the other side.
There’s a watering hole around here somewhere. I’ve never been there. Never wanted to. But I’ve heard some of the kids on the bus talk about fishing there, before they moved up to middle school. I don’t think they really meant fishing anyway, not with the sweet smoke floating through the brush.
The air sounds different as I reach the water. More of a gentle hum. Less rustling of leaves. I peek over a bush to see a wide black lake. It’s bigger than I would have thought. The moon draws a long oval across the surface.
Then I see him.
A man sitting on the ground, his elbows resting on his legs. He’s watching the water like it’s got the answers he’s looking for. Like there are mermaids inside.
Something stings my leg. An ant? I jump, bumping into the bush.
The sound breaks the silence.
He stands and faces me, moonlight across his face. He’s younger than I thought. Maybe in high school. I think through the families who live in the trailer park, but no one has a kid his age. And I would remember him if I had seen him. There’s something about the way he holds himself. Smooth and strong, so different from the hunched over way people move around here.
He’s got something in his hand. It glints in the dark. Some kind of weapon.
“Who’s there?” he says.
He doesn’t sound afraid. I don’t want to be afraid.
But I am. I take a step back, breaking a branch.
“Come out where I can see you! I have a gun. I’ll start shooting if I have to.”
Shooting? Part of me wants to run the other way, to keep running until I make it back to the trailer and lock the door. But what if he does start shooting? I take a step forward.
I’m standing in front of the trees, trembling too hard to speak. He’s maybe a few yards away, but it might as well be a few inches. Too close for me to run.
“Where’s your daddy?” he says, like maybe he knows him.
I lift my shoulder. “Dunno.”
That’s a scary question for a boy to ask a girl. “Are you?”
He lowers his weapon. “No one comes here. There’s nothing but bugs and dirt. And maybe wolves.”
Wolves? No one told me about wolves. “For real?”
“Haven’t seen one, but I have a knife. I can fight if I have to.”
“You don’t shoot them?”
He looks away, like he’s embarrassed. “That was a lie.”
I understand that. And it means he was scared, even if he didn’t sound like it. I understand that, too. I take a step closer to him, curious now. “Why are you here then? If there’s nothing but bugs and dirt?”
“Better than home. Why are you here?”
Because I’m hungry. Because I’m lonely and afraid. The lake glistens dark, looking more like ink than water. “You ever go swimming?”
He’s probably not afraid of the water. “Are there sharks?”
“Sharks don’t live in lakes.”
Bending down I touch the surface and find it cold. “What’s here then?”
I pull my hand back. “You fight those too?”
“Nah, they have to be pretty desperate to go after a person. Mostly they eat fish.”
Alligators don’t sound like fun, whether they’re desperate or not. Wiping my hand on my nightgown, I move away from the water. There’s a little space with no weeds coming up. Only dirt. A sleeping bag and some food. Clothes spread out like they’re drying. How long has he been here?
I glance at him. “You live here.”
He lifts his chin. “And you live in the trailer park.”
The way he talks to me, it’s like I’m his equal. A person.
Most people dismiss me as soon as they look at me. I know I’m small, maybe smaller than other girls my age. Even Mrs. Keller looks at me different, like I’m special.
This boy talks to me rough, like he knows I can take it. There are twigs on the ground. When I pick one up I realize it’s a reed from the water, dried out and snapped.
I press the sharp tip to the dirt and draw one side of a heart. Then the other.
“Go home,” he says.
When I’m alone it feels like I’m on the moon, far away from anyone who can help, from anyone who would want to. “Daddy didn’t come back. He went drinking.”
“Does he usually do that?”
All the time. “But I ran out of food.”
“I don’t have any food,” he says.
I shrug, because that’s not why I’m out here. Not now. Something worse than hunger has been hounding me since Daddy left. The fear that he won’t come back. Like Mama.
My stomach feels so high it’s almost in my throat.
“It’s okay,” I say, the same way I told the parole officer. The same way the boy told me he had a gun. It’s a lie we tell to make ourselves feel better.
He studies me, his dark eyes narrow. “What’s your name?”
“Penny. What’s yours?”
“Quarter,” he says, his face completely serious.
It’s such a grown-up joke. I make a face. “What do you eat then?”
“Fish, sometimes. If I can catch them.”
He’s living on fish? Then he’s probably hungrier than me. “Like the alligators?”
It would be nice to catch fish, if I knew how. If I wasn’t so afraid of water. If I didn’t dream about slipping under. “Did your daddy teach you how to fish?”
“No. I don’t have a pole or anything.”
“Then how do you catch them?”
He doesn’t answer for a long time. I almost think he’s done talking to me. Then he says, “How long can you hold your breath?”
The question makes me shiver.
“Dunno.” I’ve never stayed in water long enough to find out.
“Most people can hold it for two minutes. Then carbon dioxide builds up in your blood. Your eyes get dark. And then you take in a breath full of water.”
My eyes widen. Black water. Sharp rocks. “You’re talking about drowning.”
“I don’t drown. Not for five minutes. Not for ten.”
I suck in a breath, part surprise and part awe. He’s like a wild animal. A tiger. Or maybe that black panther from the Jungle Book. Some people would think he’s strange, but it’s really normal people who are dangerous. With their needles and their movie star smiles.
He doesn’t seem to realize how special he is, though. He looks almost sad about it. “Fish don’t expect that, a person being so still. And when they’re going by me, I stab one with my knife.”
I can’t even imagine getting into the water, much less putting my head under. And staying there. He really isn’t afraid of anything. Not like me. “For real?”
He shrugs. “It’s weird.”
“I wish I could do that,” I say, my throat tight around the words.
“Well, sure,” he says, his voice sharp. “It’s on every little girl’s to-do list. Learn ballet. See the Eiffel tower. Stab a fish with a knife.”
“I wouldn’t have to wait for Daddy to come home for food.”
He looks away. “The whole camping outdoorsy trend isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. There aren’t any pillows, for one thing.”
That sleeping bag can’t be comfortable on dirt. Why does he live out here instead of in a trailer? Why would anyone choose rocks over carpet? “Your daddy never came back home, too?”
“Oh, he’s still there. That’s the problem.”
My heart squeezes. It’s bad to want your daddy to come home, worse to wish he wouldn’t. Whatever happened to this boy must be truly scary. “How long have you been here?”
“Maybe six months.”
Six months is a long time.
The solution seems simple. I’m afraid to be alone in the trailer without a grownup. He’s almost a grownup. “You can stay with me,” I tell him. “I’ve got a pillow.”
It means he wants me to leave, how short and sharp he said it. Something keeps my feet stuck on the ground. The empty trailer doesn’t feel safe anymore.
This wild boy could protect me, with his knife and his courage.
“Can I sleep here tonight? I won’t get in the way.”
He studies me for a long moment. “Get in the sleeping bag.”
Only then do I remember that some men do bad things to girls. “Why?”
“To sleep,” he says, his voice mean. “What would I want with a puny kid?”
That’s a good answer. I climb into the sleeping bag. It’s not as soft or as warm as my bed at home, but it feels so much better. Like I’m safe here, even if I don’t know his name.
Like I can breathe again, even though I’m so close to the water.
“I’ll see if I can catch something,” he says, “but the fish aren’t active at night. And it’s harder to see. Pitch black. I have to go by feel.”
He can do that? And it’s even more surprising that he would do that for me. It must be freezing in there. Why would he help me? No one else does.
I want to ask him why he talks to me like I’m somebody.
I want to ask him why he cares.
Instead I say, “Thank you.”
Only when he ducks his head under do I see the green corner peeking out from inside his backpack. Money. I know enough about gambling to know that Daddy will come back empty handed. That means there won’t be food, not for days. Or money for the gas bill. Or the lot rent.
And I know enough about gambling to know that I don’t have a choice. You have to play the cards you’re dealt. I reach out and grab it, crushing the soft bill in my hand. Then I turn toward the tree line and run.