“They weren't ugly then,” she said, her voice disproportionately defensive. Maybe one day he’d learn to keep his mouth shut. It didn't do to ask people questions, here. Not that he’d really asked so much as--”Look,” she said, cutting into his thoughts. She lifted her shirt with her arms crossed, so he could see everything. The soft brown of her areolas. The gentle curves of her breasts.The six raised, red lines above them, three on each side of her sternum, as if her ribs had burst out of her chest searching for light.
The orderlies came and took her then. Removing clothes was Not Done. He supposed the powers that be thought only insanity might cause someone to expose their flesh. He would have to wait until another day to tell her he thought her scars were beautiful. Another day, when he might find a way to inquire, without asking, of what scourge they were emblems.
The patients called her The Little Mermaid. The name seemed right to Adam. There was something of the ocean about her. Since her very first day at the hospital, he’d felt her presence tug at him like a tide.
Other people noticed her too. Over dinner he heard mention of her misbehavior. “Showed her tits to Adam here, didn’t she?” gloated Linda. He bent his head further over his plate. He hated being looked at. That was one thing he liked about the mermaid. She always seemed to be looking into the distance. Her blue eyes were cloudy. He’d sometimes wondered if she could even see at all, but she never bumped into anything so he assumed it was just that her thoughts were far away.
Time went slowly at the hospital. There weren’t enough walls. Adam had to move a lot to stay out of sight, and sometimes moving too much made people look at him. His preoccupation with the mermaid distracted him a little. She wore pale blue shoes. It was safest to look at feet. It didn’t attract attention unless he stared. He looked all the time for her blue shoes, and if he found them, rested his eyes there until he had to move again.
“You want to know,” she said one day. They were sitting in the common room, their battered chairs close but not too close, lest the orderlies separate them. Intimacy was not encouraged, no matter how innocent.
When he looked closely, he saw that her shoes were really a paisley pattern, a faded swirling wash of green and blue and white. The leather was deeply seamed, thirsty for polish. They had the lugged black sole worn by English street kids, but instead of laces they had green ribbons, which must have been pretty once. Now they dragged, dirty and knotted as the mermaid’s hair, tattered as sea kelp.
“You want to know,” she repeated, her voice mocking. “You wouldn’t believe it. Nobody does.” Adam focused on her lips, parched and cracked as mudflats at low tide.
“I’ll believe you,” he ventured. He wanted to give her a sign of his sincerity. A reassuring touch was out of the question. He tried a small smile.
The mermaid laughed. “You just want to get in my pants,” she said, and got up.
The next time she came near him was days later, at lunch. He was surprised. The mermaid usually sat with the mutterers. Maybe she thought their endless murmur sounded like waves. Maybe she just liked to be left alone. Adam was in his usual seat, half hidden behind the disused piano, left side to the wall. Linda sat across from him, as she often did. She liked to torment people.
Adam squirmed with anxiety. He wanted to know the mermaid’s name. He used his left arm to make a little wall in front of his face and ducked his head to hide from Linda. At last he blurted out, “What’s your name?”
“Emily,” the mermaid told him, between mouthfuls. It was grilled cheese for lunch. Adam wondered if Emily ate fish; they’d had fish sticks yesterday. But that made no sense. She wasn’t really a mermaid. He snuck a glance at her. She didn’t seem to notice, though Linda did.
“Sit up straight, Adam,” Linda said in her prissy voice. Adam fled.
Saturday night was movie night. Adam sat on the floor behind the pool table, listening to explosions and exclamations from the speakers in the next room. The mermaid - Emily, he reminded himself - came and sat beside him. Away from the stench of the cafeteria, he could detect her faint, briny aroma. They sat quietly for a little while. From this nearness, Adam could see the dirt caught in the creases of her blue shoes. Quite suddenly, Emily grabbed his hand.
“Do you promise?” she whispered, holding his hand tightly. There was only one thing she could mean.
“I’ll believe you,” Adam answered.
“They weren’t ugly then.”
“They aren’t --” Adam started, but Emily cut him off before he could finish.
“They were gills,” she said, “for a little while.” Adam kept silent. It made sense. Her scars were gills. Of course. She lifted his hand and pressed it to where one red line crossed her clavicle. The sea rose up in him then. He heard the cry of gulls. For a moment they dove together through deep water.
Her voice brought him back. “You can’t burn down anything underwater,” she said.
“Or drown it,” Adam ventured. It must have been the right thing to say, because she squeezed his hand again before letting go.