Part 2 of 2
Read part 1 here
Anna has gotten used to cold showers. Her camper is by far the smallest in the RV park and her 6-gallon water heater inevitably empties long before she’s finished showering. She refuses to go to bed reeking of dead fish, so she stands under the frigid water, teeth chattering, while the grit and brine rinse out of her hair. She hastily towels off and pulls on her sweatpants. But then she stops, half-naked, and stares at her reflection in the mirror.
In the years since her surgery, Anna has gotten very good at avoiding mirrors. Her face is unfamiliar, brown and freckled and far older than she remembers. The rest of her skin is a sunless, curdled white, hanging and bulging in awkward places—except for her chest, which is almost perfectly flat. A pair of neat scars run parallel to her ribs. Anna touches the scars, which are irritable from the perpetual chafing of her mastectomy bra, and then delicately pokes at the sore area under her left armpit. She’d stopped worrying when the swelling went away last month. But now it’s back. It feels like someone buried a soft-boiled egg under the skin.
She pulls on a sweatshirt. There are two more lumps under her throat, on either side of her windpipe. Maybe she’s coming down with a cold? God, she hopes she’s just coming down with a cold. The unfamiliar woman in her mirror gives her a knowing, frightened look.
She’s going to have to call the doctor.
Retreating to her tiny kitchenette, Anna dumps a can of green beans and tuna into a pot with some cooked macaroni. She’s hoping for something resembling tuna casserole, but she’ll settle for anything edible. Lately she’s been spending an increasingly large fraction of her minute food allowance on a creature that shouldn’t exist, and she’s down to canned goods.
While she’s stirring the pasta her phone rings. Anna glances at it and grimaces. She doesn’t recognize the number, but she knows the area code: central Florida. The area code of her ex-husband Alex, and of his lawyer. She lets the call go to voice mail.
She sits down at the dinette with the pot of noodles. It’s not half bad. She chews slowly, trying to make it last. Halfway through the meal she retrieves her phone and plays the message—if it's bad news, it won't go away by her ignoring it. But instead of Alex she hears her daughter, speaking to her from two thousand miles away:
“Hi, Mom. It’s Sage. I guess that’s obvious, huh? No one else calls you Mom. This is my new number. Dad got me a new phone. I’m allowed to have unlimited minutes, as long as I pay for it. Which makes it sound like we’re getting along, but we’re not, because he’s an asshole and a total hypocrite. I’m not allowed to date anyone, and I have a 10 o’clock curfew, but he’s got his friend Laura, and just ask me what time he came home last night. But Laura is just a friend, so it doesn’t count. Well, guess what, I have a friend, too, and his name is Dylan, and Dylan has a car, and last night he picked me up so we could go over to his friend’s place, some guy named Cruz, because am I seriously supposed to follow a curfew when Dad doesn’t even come home at night? Cruz has this big house by the ocean with a giant pool and a bar, and we swam and drank and watched the sun come up. And then Dad came home an hour after I did. He burned me some eggs for breakfast and he never noticed my hangover because he was working so hard pretending like he’d actually slept in his own damn bed. Look, I’m telling you all this because I promised I would. I’m keeping my promise. But Mom, you promised, too. I swear to God, if you tell Dad about Dylan, I will never tell you anything again. Not one goddamn thing.
“I guess this is a shitty phone call. I’m sorry, I’m just so mad at Dad. And I think I’m about to get cut off. I love you.”
The message ends. Anna stares at the phone. Five year ago, when she made this pact with Sage, she wasn’t bargaining on hearing about Alex’s girlfriends, too. Is her daughter trying to hurt her? Probably not. After five years apart they barely know each other. This is a stranger, this angry fifteen year-old who sneaks out to all-nighters at rich kids’ houses and hides her boyfriends from her father.
Her daughter is a stranger, but the worry still eats Anna inside out, like an acid.
She turns off the lights and stretches out on the built-in sofa-bed. The moon’s disfigured disk glides through the foggy back wIndow of the camper. Drifting off to sleep, Anna wonders idly how old Alex’s new girlfriend is.
But instead of Alex or Sage, Anna dreams of phosphorescent underwater caverns where matriarchal clans of merpeople hunt giant Pleistocene fish. The merwomen are shapeless leviathans covered in long, algae-green hair, but Felix and his merboy friends wear swimsuits and flippers and look almost fully human, like Aquaman and his Atlanteans. Even in this new body, Felix is easy to recognize: he’s the mer-prince with the fishbone crown and the glowing trident.
“A papillomavirus!” Enrique crows.
Tacked up over the computer, a plump girl in a bikini slurps on a popsicle while riding a bicycle through a painting of a beach boardwalk. The pin-up is tame compared to the stuff Enrique posts in the lounge and over Anna’s desk. He probably thinks it’s tasteful.
“This is for both samples?” Anna asks.
Enrique clicks between lab reports. “Yes, from the live tilapia and from the biopsied sample you brought in. Remind me where you got that sample? We’re still waiting on a complete sequencing, but they appear similar.”
“So it’s a contagious cancer?” Anna feels ill.
“We-l-l-l-l…” Enrique hedges. “Pre-cancerous tumors, technically.”
“But why are all the specimens deformed? Does it only affect fish with congenital defects?”
Enrique leans back in his chair. “That, or they were exposed to the virus in the embryonic phase. But all of the live specimens had depressed immune reactions. We’ll need to monitor the progression and test for transmission of the papillomavirus between healthy specimens.”
He positively glows with happiness. A mystery, a unique new disaster, and they’ll be right on the front line as it unfolds. They will be flush with funding and grants and student interns and dead fish and necropsies. He offers her co-authorship on any papers written about the papillomavirus. He invites her out for a celebratory drink.
Anna turns him down. She can’t even be bothered to come up with a decent excuse. Enrique seems baffled, irritated. She should be grateful for his generosity.
She doesn’t care. She’s never hated him more.
The hospital room is aggressively air-conditioned and the white blanket is far too thin. Coming out of anesthesia there is a pronounced delay between Anna’s brain noticing how cold she is and her body finally acknowledging it. But when the shivering begins, it is in earnest.
Eventually her head clears enough for her to locate the call button. The nurse turns out to be an enormous man named Lionel, who is sporting a cozy-looking cabled sweater over his scrubs. While Anna is asking him for extra blankets the oncologist shows up, bundled up in a winter coat and a thick scarf. Dr. Parvez is a tiny, precise woman who avoids saying anything either reassuring or discouraging about the surgery. She explains that she has removed the swollen lymph nodes from under Anna’s arm and done a partial lymphadenectomy of the ones in her neck. There may be some soreness of the incision sites. Anna should keep them clean and avoid strenuous activity for a week. Dr. Parvez’s office will call Anna with the result of the tissue biopsy within 6-10 days.
Once they are gone, Anna climbs out of the bed. By now she is shivering so hard she is practically convulsing. She finds her suitcase and changes into her own clothes. The nurse in the cabled sweater returns without any additional blankets, but with the paperwork for her discharge. Anna takes these to the front desk and exits the arctic medical complex in favor of the merely chilly parking lot. Once inside her truck she turns on the heat full blast.
Loma Linda is very pleasant, full of palm trees and vivid green lawns. Snow-capped mountains tower to the north and east. The afternoon traffic is heavy enough to create a proper rush-hour gridlock on the highway.
It’s all far too lively, far too colorful, far too much for Anna.
But instead of heading straight back to the safety of the desert, she turns her truck north onto the 215 and grinds through stop-and-go traffic towards San Bernardino. She exits after a few miles and drives through a run-down neighborhood to a tiny, independently-owned copy shop. The dark-haired girl behind the counter has thin, penciled-in lines where her eyebrows should be. She fetches a cardboard box, opens it, and hands it to Anna.
“Oh,” Anna says.
Inside are pages from dozens of comic books. The staples have been removed from the bindings and each of the separate sheets has been laminated.
“I was afraid to re-staple them,” the girl says. “Because if they really go underwater, the water will leak in through the holes and get to the paper.”
“No, you’re right,” Anna says. “This is great. This is fantastic. Thank you. How much do I owe?”
It costs a couple hundred dollars: several weeks of food, far more than Anna was planning on spending. She pulls a piece of plastic out of her wallet and hands it over the counter. Dizzy with adrenaline, she holds her breath while the eyebrow-less girl runs the card. She had cooked up a story about how her son was training to be a lifeguard and wanted reading material for when he was practicing holding his breath at bottom of the pool. But the girl doesn’t ask any questions; she simply hands Anna the receipt to sign.
And then Anna is walking out the door with what might be the best Christmas present she’s ever purchased: a dozen issues of the Holy Grail of comic books, Aquaman en español. All of them are laminated and waterproofed, so that Felix can take them underwater to show his brothers and cousins.
Coming back over the mountains, Anna's heart rate gradually drops back to normal. The desert is so much calmer, so much safer without all crowds and the colors and emotions that leak across the Inland Empire from Los Angeles. The desert has all the same emotions, the same colors; they are just sun-faded, dusted over, dormant.
But when Anna reaches the edge of the Salton Sea and rolls down her windows, the rotten sulfur stench hits her like a physical blow. She’s suffocating, she’s trapped. This place is a shithole. This place is poison; it kills everything that touches it. She needs to get out, get away.
She takes the turn-off to Bombay Beach and heads into the tiny convenience store, suddenly intent on spending the last of her pocket money on alcohol. As she wanders the aisles contemplating the paltry range of foodstuffs and the excellent selection of cheap beer, the door bangs open. Four teenagers, two boys and two girls, head for the snack foods and the cigarettes. They throw mixed volleys of Spanish and English across the store at other.
Teenagers never used to intrigue Anna. But somehow, improbably, the boys remind her of Felix. She wonders if the girls are like Sage. Without meaning to, she finds herself listening in on their conversation as she studies brands of diet soda and cat food in the next aisle over.
They are discussing the Salton Sea monster. The boys, apparently brothers, have a video camera and a boat. They are trying to convince the girls to come out on the sea with them. Because everyone knows the only sure way to get the monster to come out is to bring along pretty girls, the more the better.
“A pervy sea monster!” One of the girls moans theatrically. “¡Qué padre!”
The boys laugh.
She buys a six-pack and carries it down to the marina, stopping to use a rusting fifty-gallon barrel as a bottle opener. She picks a level spot on the crumbling concrete to settle down and sip her beer while she watches the sunset. It really is the most spectacular show in town. Too bad the town smells so goddamn awful.
As the sun tips below the mountains, a group of teens trots down to the water’s edge carrying an old rowboat. Anna recognizes them from the convenience store. They haul the boat into the water not twenty feet from the big white-and-red sign that states the marina is closed until further notice.
Anna gives them one chance in ten of spotting a sea monster. One in twenty of not having imagined it. She finishes her beer and starts back to her truck. But then she hears the kids shouting.
“Hey, stop it!”
“No lo hago. It’s not me.”
“Oh god, it’s under the boat!”
It’s hard to tell in the twilight, but Anna thinks she sees an almost-but-not-quite-human head rising out of the water just behind the boat. A hoarse, familiar voice comes across the water:
The girl at the back of the boat shrieks and tries to scramble away. The boys shout at her to sit down. She doesn’t. Still screaming, she grabs the arm of the other girl. The little boat tips.
“Sit down! Don’t—chingado.”
In slow motion, the boat rolls, sending the lot of them into the water. The two boys and one of the girls pop up beside the boat, hooting in shock.
“Fuck! It’s cold!”
“Taya!” The girl palms her wet hair out of her face, searching for her friend. “Where’s Taya? Taya!”?
The second girl thrashes to the surface several meters away from the boat. She starts to yell, but swallows water instead.
“Oh god.” Anna starts running. “Felix! She can’t swim! ¡Ella no sabe nadar!”
Anna plunges into the water. The coldness is shocking. Gasping, she wades forward, forcing her leaden limbs to begin the motions of swimming.
The other three kids cling to the sides of the boat, looking around in panic. Taya surfaces again, even farther away, screaming bloody murder.
“Let go!” Taya flails in the water, punching and slapping at something below the surface. “¡Ayúdeme! It’s got my legs!”
“Felix!” Anna shouts.
Taya rises straight up into the air. She levitates there for a moment, half in and half out of the water, arms waving like she’s balancing on a submerged log. Then she slowly slips backwards, screeching, and disappears into the water.
Anna reaches the boat and the remaining three kids. “Come on, guys, kick.”
But they’re all watching the heaving, bubbling water where Taya disappeared. Seconds drag by, then a minute, then two minutes. Anna doesn’t realize she’s holding her breath until her lungs start to ache. She gasps. Have Felix and his mer-friends dragged the girl to the bottom?
The other girl pushes away from the boat and dog paddles towards the bubbles. Anna curses and follows her. The water surges around them. Felix pops up with Taya wrapped in his snake-like arms. The girl’s head lolls against his shoulder, unconscious from lack of oxygen or sheer fright.
“Llévela,” he croaks.
Anna swims over. “Okay. Démela. No, the other way. Aquí.”
Anna wraps her own arms around the limp girl in a rescue hold. She kicks back toward shore.
The other girl is gaping.
“You. Get your friends in,” Anna huffs. “Now. Ahora mismo.”
Behind her, the merboy vanishes into the sea.
Half an hour later the teenagers are all safely wrapped in blankets on the shore. A small crowd has gathered at the Bombay Beach marina. Someone in the town heard the commotion and called 911 while the excitement was going on, and the paramedics arrived while Anna was performing rescue breathing. Now Taya is resting on a stretcher under an electric blanket, showing off the bleeding gashes on her neck and arms, excitedly trying to talk through her oxygen mask to the hovering paramedics.
Assorted parents and guardians arrive. Anna stays by the water, watching the waves and shivering. All day long she's been shivering. She wonders when she'll be allowed to feel warm again. She keeps as far as possible from the emotional reunions, but the families eventually find her, led down to the beach by Taya's friends. Anna waits unhappily for someone to say something about sea monsters, but the kids just watch in subdued silence as Taya’s father thanks Anna over and over and over. The only surprise is when the other girl, whose name is Yasmin, steps forward and gives Anna a quick, fierce hug.
Finally the paramedics load Taya into the ambulance. The small crowd that has gathered at the marina begins to disperse, climbing into their own vehicles or disappearing into the doorways of the tumbledown beach houses. Anna watches the twinkling line of cars to turn off onto the highway and vanish over the dunes before starting her own drive home down the empty road.
“The girl is okay?” the merboy asks her, in Spanish.
Anna crouches down in the reeds with him. A little over a week has passed since Taya’s near drowning. Last Anna heard, Taya was being moved from the clinic in Brawley to a hospital in San Diego because the fluid in her lungs turned into full-blown pneumonia. Her temperature spiked at 104F, and she wasn’t able to hold down food. The doctors were testing her for typhoid and hepatitis. Neumonía, fiebre tifoidea, el virus de hepatitis A. Anna looked up the words before coming down here to find Felix.
The merboy listens as she explains. He listens, but he won’t look at her. He looks everywhere else: at the ground, at the sky, at the geese paddling in the pond. He fiddles with the blades of the cattails, pulling apart the seed heads and sprinkling the brown stuff over the water. He acts so exactly, maddeningly like a teenager that Anna wants to shake him, wants to snap at him to stop fidgeting. But she doesn’t know the Spanish word for “fidgeting.”
“Felix,” she says, “You and your friends have to stop. People were already talking about a monster in the sea. Those kids saw you. The people on the shore saw you. You’re just lucky that kid dropped his video camera in the water. I know you and your brothers and your cousins want to see girls. I know about machismo. But you guys have to stop.”
The kid shakes his head. He scratches at the white growth on his shoulders; it looks bigger than the last time Anna saw it.
But she can worry about that shortly. Now, she has to make a point. “The girl could have died, Felix.”
“No,” he says miserably.
“Sí. You have to tell your friends to stop.”
“No,” he says. “There’s nobody to tell. It’s only me. Lo hice. Fue mi culpa, my fault.”
“So, then,” Anna exhales, infuriated. “You. You have to stop.”
He shakes his head. “Usted no entiende. Yo no tengo una familia bajo el mar. No tengo los amigos, ni hermanos ni primos. Todo eso fue una mentira, una ficción. They don’t exist. I made it up. I made them all up.”
Anna opens her mouth, but she doesn’t know what to say.
“No tengo a nadie.” In English he speaks slowly, pointedly: “I have nothing. I have nobody.”
The merboy turns and slithers into the water. Anna calls him again, but he’s already gone.
Once again Anna’s water heater runs out of hot water well before she’s done showering. This time she avoids the mirror as she towels off, checking the incisions on her neck and under her arm by touch alone. Despite her post-surgery plunge in the Salton Sea, they seem to be healing.
She makes dinner, a big thick pork chop and a real salad. It’s a meal for a special occasion, for a celebration: in this case, the letter from the cancer center in Loma Linda. The letter says the same thing that the oncologist told her on the phone: there were no abnormal cells in the biopsied tissue. The blood tests indicated a bacterial infection. The affected lymph nodes were probably more sensitive to infection after radiation and chemo. Copies of the lab reports are included, as well as a prescription for an antibiotic. She re-reads it: No abnormal cells. It has been five years, and insofar as anyone can tell, Anna is cancer-free.
Free. She is free to go or to stay.
She doesn’t notice the missed call until she goes to set the alarm on her phone. There is a voice mail from Sage. Her daughter’s voice sounds muffled, like she’s trying not to cry.
“Hi, Mom. Happy belated New Year. I’m sorry I’m calling so late. Is it late where you are? I can never remember. It’s pretty late here. And I’m sorry I didn’t call for Christmas. I love the green dress you sent me. Where did you find it? Dad’s out again, I guess it’s officially a date. There’s not much to tell, really. I broke up with Dylan, so you don’t have to worry about me sneaking out to parties anymore. Dylan said he was only with me for my boobs, which is fine, because I was only with him for his piece of shit Toyota. And, and I don’t know, he’s still in the honors classes, and I got told I wasn’t honors material, and we’re really just not hanging out with the same people. Oh god, I never told you about the classes. I’m sorry, it was just so humiliating. I know you’re going to be upset. Please, please don’t tell Dad about Dylan. I know you guys don’t talk, but please? I never told Dad. Sorry. It wasn’t going to last, and it just never seemed worth the fight. And I’m sorry I never call. I guess I’m saying sorry a lot. Thank you for the dress, really, it’s gorgeous. Mom, I love you. I miss you.”
Anna switches off the phone and puts her head down on the table next to it. What happened with Sage’s classes? Why doesn’t Alex tell her these things? Or did Sage hide that from her father, too, like she hid her boyfriend? Anna feels awful about never returning her daughter's earlier call, but the time zones really are hard to work around. And with the surgery and with Felix, she was just so busy.
And none of it is an excuse, not really.
Last week, after the incident at the marina, Anna put in an application for a job with the National Park Service in the Everglades. Anna hates Florida. But right now, she hates California more, and Florida is closer to Sage.
She thinks of the green dress, a lacy thing that she spotted in the front window of a quinceañera outlet in San Bernardino. Sage always had a soft spot for pretty dresses and for the color green. But now the dress seems inappropriate, too frilly and far too young. Anna is sending presents to the ten year-old girl she left behind in Florida.
If she gets the Everglades job, she has no idea what she’ll do.
She takes the big cardboard box off of the sofa-bed. She still hasn’t given Felix the laminated comic books. She still hasn’t told him what Enrique’s lab reports said about the growth on his back. She has no idea if Felix gave the papillomavirus to the fish, or if the fish gave it to Felix. She needs to ask someone for help, but there’s no one to ask. Enrique? No. There’s no one.
She thinks of Felix sleeping under the water, maybe curled up on a rusting box spring that he dragged over near one of the geothermal hot spots. Or maybe he’s sprawled in the cab of a waterlogged truck, all by himself. So perfectly and permanently alone. No tengo a nadie.
“You have me,” she says to the black waters outside.
But it doesn’t count. It doesn’t count because she doesn’t want to be here anymore, because in her heart she is already packing up and driving away. And you can’t say you’re there for someone when you’re already somewhere else.