BY FLORA COLLINS
Runner-Up for the 2012 Adroit Prize for Prose
Judge: Kirk Nesset
Debbie Bell liked capturing frogs, and putting them in a cake pan, racing to snatch them if they tried to leap away. Frogs were slimy in a different way than her armpits were, and she found this a sort of delightful phenomenon. One day she wanted to bathe with them in the sink, and maybe their slippery feet or tongues would touch her in places her mother had stopped caring about.
Debbie would also draw what she’d seen in Malcolm Shorter’s brother’s magazines in chalk on the sidewalk outside the trailer park. She’d wait gleefully for a spanking or some precious, sexy swear word to be flung at her, but no one ever noticed anything around there, especially what the kids were up to.
She made Poptarts and fed them to the birds. She went on the roof of the trailer naked and tried to sunbathe. She fried eggs on the concrete, but the spatula was too weak. She hid in her room all day and stared at the cracked ceiling but that always got her depressed and itchy. Debbie was seven years old and she was bored.
One day the Poptarts ran out, and even though there were birds swooping in the sky, she couldn’t play. She wasn’t wearing anything but sagging underwear, so she put on one of her mother’s shirts and took a cigarette from the pack on the counter.
Debbie stepped outside and thought about letting the sun light her cigarette. Her face would explode into a thousand, million pieces that would get lodged into the asphalt, and somehow little flowers would grow with her nose and eyes and mouth on them. She let the cigarette dangle from her lips instead, and thought about her mother in the bathtub sometimes in the evening with her legs stretched out and the lighter in one hand and the soap in the other.
Debbie knew that there was a pool somewhere near her home. She hadn’t been to a pool in two years, a lifetime, and she craved chlorinated water today like one craved whipped cream or clam chowder. It was a special kind of want, specific in its intensity and meaning. She walked out of the park, kicking an empty Sunkist can, liking the echoing sound it made.
The pool would be somewhere down the street, she thought. Last time she’d gone to one, her doll had gotten wet and her mother had thrown it away. She’d cried and screamed in the water and was snatched away like the frogs she wanted to keep. But she missed the smell though, and the shrill voices of people because people weren’t usually around her much, except at school.
She was barefoot. The sidewalk was nasty and blistered her feet, and so she ran. It was like moving through curtains and sheets. Her thighs clung together and her toes pinched, so she stopped and fell, scraping her knees in the process. But she was there, she was at a pool and the gate was wide open.
Beer cans floated in the drizzle of water that was left of the pool and undergrowth whipped through the stench of empty cat food containers and ice cream wrappers. It was a smelly, toxic, isolated paradise. She had every prop to make a tea set or play House. If she concentrated really hard she could still smell little bits of chlorine that had stuck around just for her. And as she stepped closer into the filth, she found a mermaid.
Debbie knew it was a mermaid because the creature reclined by water, as mermaids tend to do. She lay in underbrush near the entrance to the pool and wore a yellow sundress. She was a bit younger than Debbie and her skin was tinged blue. Her hair was matted and huge buzzing flies covered her, vibrating in the heat. Her eyes were glassy like a calm sea and her skin was icy. And she had legs.
She was beautiful like Lucky Charms drowned in discolored milk or the cat with half an ear that always came around for food. She was lonely and washed out just like Debbie felt whenever she stared at the cracks in the ceiling.
She must have lost her way out of the ocean. She must have touched solid ground and turned human and now she was deflated. Her eyes shone up to Debbie, round and pleading for water. Debbie touched the mermaid’s hair and a chunk came out in her hand.
Debbie had an idea and she smiled at herself for being so clever. She raced home, avoiding the sharp edges and sticks, her little feet padding against the sidewalk now unaware of the oppressive heat. She threw open the door of her home, letting it bang lifelessly as she scurried around looking for the wagon.
She had it tucked away in the closet, rusted and squeaky with an unrecognizable smell. And so she went flying down the street again, pulling the red cart that screeched tirelessly on the sidewalk. She didn’t remember getting the wagon, only that it had laid untouched for months and now she was heroic and it was being used for the right reasons.
She trotted over to her mermaid. The creature lay stretched in a seemingly uncomfortable position, her legs twisted backward in an illusion of squatting. Her arms lay limp. One extended into a moldy hotdog and the other was nestled in an army of ants.
Debbie grabbed the hands first and tugged, practically slipping on the dry grass. Her mermaid was resistant though and Debbie scrunched up her face and kept her feet anchored. Slowly, slowly she lifted the mermaid and the creature landed into the groaning wagon.
And Debbie knew that today, even with the sun searing the dried grass and her raw, red skin, she’d achieved her goal. She wanted a gold star, like she’d gotten on a reading test or a piece of candy like her mother gave her every time she made her own Chef Boyardee.
So she plodded down the street with a grin, the mermaid flung in the wagon, like the doll that’d gotten wet a long, long time ago. She could hear the creature’s nails scraping against the pavement and the soft flap of the dirty yellow dress lifted by the tiny whistle of wind that was now blowing. Debbie greeted the birds and the one-eared cat when she got back to the trailer park and she found herself humming a tune she’d learned in music class.
She let the water run in the tub, filling it up before she turned off the faucet. She stripped back down to her sagging underwear, but then took that off, too. With gentle effort she lifted the mermaid into the clear, calm water, following closely behind.
And like her mother held her soap and lighter, her grasp meaningful and delicate, Debbie clutched her mermaid, waiting until that magical moment when the legs would begin to glimmer with scales and those dry, cracked lips, not unlike the sidewalk, would smile in gratitude.
And the day waned, but the mermaid remained stoic, her veins still and blue against her translucent skin, her chest silent and unmoving, as Debbie’s heart beat vigorously in a vicious, earnest pattern against the foundling’s chest.
Flora Collins grew up in Manhattan with her parents and cats. She recently graduated from The Chapin School in New York City, where she had been a student since Kindergarten, and is now a student at Vassar College. She has written for Teen Vogue and hollywoodilfe.com, and has won several Scholastic Art & Writing Awards for fiction.