“Wake up, you dumb fish bitch” the man screamed, clapping his large palm against a metal bucket of pink chum. “You know the drill. I said get up!” He clonked his boots heavily against the platform and peered into the small tank. Obscured by the synthetic waves and masses of manufactured coral and seaweed, a purple blob darted beneath the platform. “I can see you, I don’t have time for this shit. We open in 10 minutes.” The man peered once more into the water with his calves tucked beneath him in a squatting position. Exasperated, he shouted and inadvertently toppled the bucket into the pool. “They always give me the bad ones” he said, wrinkling his nose at the contents of the bucket.

The man’s wide frame loomed over the tank, his hand outstretched and vulnerable to the creature’s abysmal frustration and resentment. The lights below the tank flashed on. Beneath the surface, an empty bench and posters of colorful sea creatures glared back at the creature through the tank’s glass enclosure. Behind the man, the creature placed her webbed palms onto the platform. They’d receded into a shade of gray, scaled and bathed in a sticky sheen of goop.

The man felt a push against his back and shrieked loudly as he teetered awkwardly into the water. He coughed and grasped in vain for the taser he’d loosely fastened to his pants.  The taser, a tool the man relied upon to discipline the unruly sea creatures he’d been assigned to train, sunk. The man rose to the surface and his blurry gaze met with a set of amber eyes. A mane of thick, silvery curls framed the creature’s rich and almost jewel-like brown face. The man reoriented himself. “Bad! Bad!” He raised a threatening hand and pointed an empty taser-holster at the creature, shouting expletives. “You think you’re funny?”

A smirk formed upon her lips, full and tinged blue from years of electrical shock, fickle feeding schedules, and having remained within the confines of her chemical ridden tank. The man blinked, and for a moment, both remained still. Small chunks of pink mush settled around them.

An intercom sounded and welcomed today’s visitors to the aquarium. “Shit!” The man scanned his surroundings. He had drifted away from the platform. “We’re opening now. You better look happy or else” he said, though the sea creature’s figure had been replaced by the upturned bucket bobbing towards him. The man's nostrils was flaring, his jaw clenched. “Always playing fucking games, stupid ass bitch.” The weight of the man’s boots grew heavy and he treaded toward the platform.

He felt a tough wack against his back. “What the hell?” Beneath him, scales that had once shimmered a radiant blue, reflected a bruised and dull shade of purple. The creature’s fin was wide and webbed, and edged with a papery material that shone like streamers below the water. The creature encircled him, squeezing tightly and yanking him below. “Help!”

The man’s shouts slowed to a whimper and he thrashed around, seizing at the sea creature’s hair. The creature pulled the man further below, clawing at her captor’s throat and pressing her scaled fingers into his eyeballs until she felt the ridges of the man’s skull. The man’s mouth opened and closed, his body writhing violently. “Bitch,” she mouthed, and sunk her teeth into his cheek until she caught bone. Her expression seemed to simulate the vicious temperament of her captors. The man’s pink flesh drifted towards the surface, trailing dark swirls that blossomed into a cherry red at the tank’s surface. She smiled once more, dragging his limped carcass towards the tank’s faux sand floor.

Five minutes later, a small group of elementary school children gazed through the glass wall. “Look, Ms. Robin! Ms. Robin, look!” The teacher nodded absently, turning her attention to a student who’d wandered to a farther exhibit. The children ooh’d and ah’d at the creature’s beauty from a distance. She smiled back at them, lifting the corpse’s arm in an enthusiastic wave. One of the children, a boy called Jacob, leaned closer toward the glass. He shrieked and began to cry.

“OK, guys, we get it. She’s pretty. But what’s the dark stuff in the tank” a girl asked. She pressed her glasses to her face and crossed her arms. ‘Cara’ was stitched into her cardigan.

“Maybe it’s blood” another student said. He nudged Cara jokingly.

“You’re not funny, Liam” Cara said.

Liam stuck his tongue out. “Stop being such babies, guys, it’s just for show. He’s probably not even real.” He tapped at the glass and pressed his nose against it, grinning.

The creature had turned away from them, pecking at the man’s forehead with a long, curved nail.

“Does Little Jacob need to go home to his mommy” Liam asked.

Jacob, who was distinctly shorter than his peers, frowned. The ends of his khakis had been rolled and pinned. “Shut up, I’m not even crying anymore, you turd” Jacob hiccuped. “Halloween was a month ago, Liam, I’m not stupid.”

“What does that have to do with anything” Liam asked.

“Why would they have scary stuff when it’s not Halloween?”

Cara huffed, exasperated. “You guys are both stupid. Obviously it’s blood. My friend said her mom didn’t let her come ‘cause they don’t support creature-stealers. Maybe they hurt the mermaid.”

“OK and you’re lame.” Liam responded. “It’s just the aquarium. Who cares?”

“My dad is a policeman and he sees dead people all the time. You’re disrespecting a future U.S. police officer.” Jacob stomped his foot. “That guy is dead, I know it.” He said, and sniffled. His eyes were wide, and he stepped further away from the glass. “I’m pretty sure he’s dead.” The creature had piled rocks atop the man’s lap, holding him in place. Her tail flickered back and forth.

Liam shrugged. “Wait, didn’t she used to have a boyfriend or whatever?” His brows furrowed and he bit the nail of his thumb in concentration.

“How am I supposed to know” Jacob asked with a high.

Liam rolled his eyes. “We go on the same field trip every summer. I’m pretty sure last year there was a boy one that swam with her.”

The teacher flipped through the pages on her clipboard. She pressed her hand against Liam and Jacob’s backs, scooting them towards her. The children formed a crescent around Ms. Robin, blocking her view of the glass wall. “Unfortunately, her friend passed away. They said he was bad so they had to put him down.” Ms. Robin’s voice was low, and she glanced at her students.

“Bad like he was sick” Liam asked.

“I bet the creature-stealers made him sick” Cara said. An alarm had begun to sound, noisily urging visitors to evacuate the exhibits. The students clasped their hands over their ears, scrunching their faces in discontent.

Jacob peered back at the creature, who had abandoned her project and retreated to a dark corner of the tank. The creature’s tail lay outstretched, curling awkwardly at its end. Her chest heaved as if from exhaustion, and her hair fanned itself delicately around her. She pointed towards the dead man. Jagged, red lines had been carved deeply into the man’s forehead, his flesh peeling to expose white bone.  

Jacob read aloud, “Bad.”

StoriesMecca Mustafa