by Hannah Lackoff
1. THE STONE BOY IN THE FOUNTAIN
They meet by the fountain in the middle of the mall, where once bloomed a thick, green canopy woven with birds, but now stands a glittery, plastic model of a stone boy, water spewing out of the fish he holds in his hands.
The boys' hands are green, but it's not the green of pleasant mosses and coppery rust; it's the green of Hot Topic nail polish and wayward highlighters, of sale stickers and plastic house plants. He is fake, and he can't help it. He doesn't know any better.
The stones that make up the pool his fish spits into are fake, also. They are the hollowed-out, painted rubber of hide-a-key rocks. No one knows it, but there is a key inside each one. The ones who put them there no longer remember what they go to. Maybe castles, maybe treasure chests, maybe just old suitcases and lawn mowers. They sleep inside their rubber rocks.
There is a girl who loves the plasticine boy. She comes to visit him whenever she can. She is the one responsible for the nail polish on his arms and fingernails. She is short, and his arms are as high as she can reach. She spent an entire afternoon wearing her mother's vintage platform boots and painting his fingernails day-glo orange. The next time she came back, someone had painted every other nail purple.
It is, in fact, Hot Topic nail polish. It's not that she really likes Hot Topic, but once she really needed a plaid skirt when she was shopping with her aunt, and it is this same aunt who now gives her a gift card every birthday, and the same aunt who has yet to notice that the plaid skirt is the only new thing her niece has bought in three years. She doesn't want to waste the gift cards, so she buys things for the stone boy; nail polish and bangles, and once, a tweedy brimmed hat that, as it turns out, she was too short to put on the statue's head. So she gave it to her brother, and, after the bangles went missing, decided to stick to nail polish and other, more permanent attire. Once she bought a dozen tiny rhinestone earrings, took off the backs, and stuck them into the rocks under the water. This girl is the only one who has bothered to figure out that the rocks in the fountain are not actually made of rock.
The water, however, is real. Everyone has noticed this, because it has a weird smell. A smell the people in the mall can't quite place, because it does not smell like detergent or plastic or cologne. It smells like the earth. The real earth, the primal earth, the earth that the people remember from ancestral bonfires and tribal hunts. It smells like bloodlust and tree rot. It smells alive, but not for long.
When they come to the Mall, they have to sneak through the glass and under the metal bars. It's no secret; they come to steal babies. They hang out in babyGap and the toddler section of Sears, smelling of overripe strawberries and burning leaves. They can't touch the babies while you're there, holding the babies' hand, stroking their hair, feeding them cheerios from little plastic baggies. But the minute you step away—the very second your eyes glance to the side, or you stop to finger those ridiculously tiny cloth shoes and your little one walks on without you—that's the minute They wait for.
When you put that car seat on the floor for just a second while you pay the cashier, it's already too late. They have hands like spiders with golden fingertips, and They burn smoky holes in the upholstery when They get too excited. And it's hard not to be excited at the prospect of a new baby.
And it's not like the stories of old, where a sticky, sickly changeling is left in place of the healthy human baby. There's no doll or facsimilie left behind. Only burn marks like cigarettes; finger-sized holes around the buckle that might cause child services to wonder, after all, if you might have lost the baby without anyone's help.
But you'll know.
The loss doesn't feel real at first, but that clinging panic—that feels real. The cloying, fruity smell that you can't seem to get out of the car after you put the baby seat back in might not be real. But the finger burns are real; the singed threads of where the seat belt used to hold together are real.
And you cry at night, because you know someone took her. You hope she's all right; that her body isn't covered in burns like her car seat. You know you didn't lose her. And when you hold the little dress you were buying when she disappeared, sometimes you can smell the smoke of leaves. Sweet as milk, but bitter too.
3. TOO HOT
It's only April, and it's already too hot to be outside. The ground scorches and hums with an electric heat so intense I can feel it through my shoes. Only a few years ago I remember playing outside until June or July, we'd play soccer and stickball and four square in the streets and parking lots, but now the blacktop melts when you touch it, and if you stand on it too long you start to sink down down down into this enormous tar pit. Like how the dinosaurs died.
We live in a trailer outside of Burnsie. It's made mostly of tin, or aluminum, or some other kind of sheet metal. When it's about eleven o'clock, the sun is in just the right position to start heating up the roof and eastern walls. The light bounces around like off a magnifying glass or a mirror, and once, last August, it caught the grass on fire, and our front steps burned down. Now, we have concrete cinder blocks stacked up for a staircase, and we keep the grass cut real short and always have a fire extinguisher ready.
The walls are so thin and the inside is so dark that everything heats up real fast with all that sun shining on it, and by twelve thirty or one it's too hot to be inside, hotter even than the air outside, and so humid that your hair curls and your eyeballs start to sweat and the soles of your feet get so slippery that you can't keep your flip-flops on your feet, no matter what you try. Then we have to run for the car, the old car with the front upholstery burned off from the sun and the back seat smelling like wet mold, and the air conditioner fried years ago so that you can never decide if it's better or worse to leave the windows open.
But it's all worth it when we get to the mall.
The mall is a sweet, cool oasis where the wind that blows is cold and smells like plastic and cinnamon. We try to eat only the coldest foods when we visit there: lemonade and frozen snickers bars and the ice cream that comes in tiny, colored beads. We like to sit by the fountain where the stone boy with the fish lives. We can put our feet in the water and wash the tar off our shoes until the security guard shoos us away.
Then we wander through the stores where unruffled black and white models smile coolly down from larger-than-life posters, their clothing billowing in the breeze by the lake which would in reality cover them with ash or burn them with ozone. At the very least, their pretty bare feet should be blistered and puckered and dented with sand.
We have never seen the ocean, but in the mall advertisements we imagine it as it once was. Sometimes, we like to try on swimsuits and stand in front of an air vent, just to watch the goosebumps prickle our skin. We lick the salt off pretzels and pretend it is the sea. We turn drinking fountains up too high and try to catch the spray on the lenses of our borrowed sunglasses.
It is not the sea and it never will be, but when we lay in the unoperated massage chairs and drink our strawberry smoothies, we can pretend.
Because what is the mall, if not a land of pretend? Even ordinary people, non-aluminum trailer people, come here to pretend. That they have money, that they have somewhere to wear those fancy clothes. That they can fit into that size they used to wear.
We like to think we are better than them. That we appreciate the mall more. That it is our Mecca, our Valhalla, our Heaven. When we die, be it of old age, disease, or heat stroke, we would like to go to a place like the mall. Our souls would like to laze by the fountain and watch the people go by. We think we could do it. Spend an eternity in this plastic paradise.
4. A PROBLEM, MR. GREASE
"Mr. Grease," she said, "I'm glad you could come." Her tone is clipped, blank, professional. She wears a gray suit dress and black-rimmed glasses. Her dark hair is pulled up into a tight, no-nonsense bun. I don't know if I like her.
"No problem," I say. "It's kind of my job." Her eyes flick to the left. I think my casual tone makes her uncomfortable.
"Ma'am," I add. Her eyes flick again.
"Miss." I look away so I can't see if she continues to twitch.
"What can I do you for?"
She sighs and apparently gives up.
"There is a problem, Mr. Grease," she is dramatic. "With the fountain."
"The one with the boy peeing?"
She sighs again. She is like a caricature of an exasperated schoolteacher. Does she take off her glasses, and let down her hair, and turn into a sex goddess?
I wonder what kind of underwear she's wearing. I can't help it. Is it a red, surprisingly sexy kind? Is it gray and structured like her suit? Does it button up the front? I giggle at this. She's probably twitching her eyes at me.
"The Youth Holding Fish is not– urinating– Mr. Grease. The fish in his arms is spewing forth water, most likely in reference to some sort of Oceanic-based horn of plenty—"
"Yeah, yeah," I interrupt. I know all this. Everybody knows this. But from a certain angle, he really does look like he's peeing.
"The problem, Mr. Grease– actually there are several problems– the major problem is the smell."
"The smell?" I ask. I feel like a detective from a pulp novel. I imagine I've got a little notebook and maybe a pipe. Some shiny shoes.
"The water coming out of the fish smells very strange."
"Something's fishy," I say. She is not amused. My shoes are actually worn out, shit-brown flip flops, and my feet are freezing in the air conditioning.
"And the other thing– someone keeps painting the statue with some sort of permanent ink that we can't wash off. We were hoping you may have some sort of super-powerful cleaning solution you might be able to use." It is funny to hear this woman use the word "super." It makes her sound like a perky teenage girl.
"I'll see what I can do." I tell her. What I want to tell her is that it's not a real statue. It's made of plastic. Those flecks aren't mica, they're synthetic glitter. And I've never liked even the real statue of Youth Holding Fish. The boy's inhuman face and strangely large hands creep me out a little. I wouldn't mind the little fucker getting a paint job. Hell, I'd help out.
"We really appreciate it." How she can walk so fast in heels, I can't imagine. My left flip-flop thong is stretched out and threatening to detach from the bottom. I can barely keep up.
"People expect to see Youth Holding Fish when they visit the Burnsie Area Mall. They expect to see him unmarred by pranksters. They do not expect to smell him."
As we start to get closer to the statue, I can see what she means. The smell isn't unpleasant, exactly. It's just strange. Alien in this enclosed space. It reminds me of the way my grandparent's house smelled, back when I was very small. They had a window box where they grew string beans. The water smells like the bean plants smelled when Gram and Grandpa waited too long to pick them; sweet and earthy and a little uncomfortable. It was a smell that burned all the way to the back of the tongue and didn't want to leave in the usual way. I decide a cherry smoothie is probably in order before I start this job.
"As you can see, Mr. Grease, it's rather overpowering."
I nod in agreement and forget to be a smart ass. She smiles a little. Her eyes behave like a normal person's for a moment.
"I'll see what I can do," I say again, and this time I really mean it. The smell is making me feel weird. Not nauseous exactly, but uncomfortable in my brain.
"Maybe it's in the pipes." I say in my best detective voice. I put down my toolkit and stretch my arms up over my head so I can loosen that kink in my shoulder, but also so she can see how tight my muscles have gotten since I took this job. "Maybe something crawled in there and died."
The eyes flick again. Shoot, I've ruined the moment. Oh well. She probably just has normal, boring underwear on under there anyway.
It's a little too small. He kicks and kicks his tail, and scootches forward a half centimeter at a time. Up ahead, he can see a bend in the pipe getting infinitesimally closer. He kicks again, but he's getting tired, weaker. His fat little body has blocked up the pipe too well, and the water around him is trickling by. His face is drying out. His gills pump in the air, needing oxygen, needing water. He kicks his tail harder and harder and shoves his weight forward, just a little. He tries to blink, but his eyes are too dry. Everything starts to spin and fade away. He feels like he is floating above himself.
Hurry, the others think at him. For a moment he doesn't want to answer; he wants to stay stuck forever and float off to whatever is next. But then he remembers why he has come here. He remembers the great pleasure he will have when he holds one in his arms, when his mission is complete.
Stuck. He manages. Push.
Fat? says someone.
Fat, he says back. Fat fat fatfatfat. Later, his fat will be good. He has been proud of his body; the sleek muscle and the rippling scales. He could breech himself using only his tail. He was the strongest, so he went first.
Push, they say behind him. Push push pushpushpush. But it may already be too late. His vision is turning black, dark storm clouds coming from all directions. He feels hot. He feels cold. Someone bites him on the tail and he comes back.
Kick, he hears, and he can feel them kicking behind him, a great wave of glittery blacks and whites and golds, all those little bodies pulsing together as one, and he starts to slide a little, and the water that slips out around him is cold and wet. And they come to the bend in the pipe, and he shouts Bend! with his renewed energy from the mass behind him, and the mass behind him shouts Bend bend bendbendbend! back at him. They push and push and he feels a great tear in his right fin. The pain is searing, blinding, and his vision flickers even worse than before. He can feel the scales scraping off, tearing and ripping along his side and over his back and he wants to shout at them to stop pushing! but he knows the only way this will ever stop for good is to let them push him out into the water.
And they do.
When he is free of the pipe, at first he doesn't even know it. He lies stunned at the bottom of the pool, barely breathing. The water seeps over him, and he slowly begins to moisten again. He can hear the plop plop of the other fish falling from the pipe, can hear them squeal with glee and splash and wiggle. Someone comes up beside him and nudges gently against his wounded side. The pain still bubbles there, but the water has cooled it.
Is it bad? she asks.
He can barely answer. He just wants to float until it all feels better.
6. THE BABY IN THE STROLLER
The baby in the stroller is the only one who sees the fish plop out of the pipe into the fountain. He giggles and claps his hands and kicks his little baby feet. His mother is talking to a friend and doesn't see what he sees. She rocks his stroller back and forth, tipping it up on its back wheels and then down to the floor again. The motion is like the motion of the waves. He swims like the fish in the fountain; up and down and up and down. The fish look at him. They swim towards the edge of the fountain, lining up like soldiers. Then, as the baby watches, they start to change.
There's a little ripple around each fish, which blend together on the surface of the water, and soon it is dappled as if by raindrops. The underside of the fountain gleams reflectively, and there's a flash like a camera, and little men start climbing out of the fountain. The water steams off of them, and they shake their hair dry.
Their limbs are long and thin like sticks, and they are the color of sticks, too. They scamper like cockroaches over the floor towards the baby, and he stops giggling as they get closer, and he breathes in his breath to scream and then they are upon him, hands burning like little knives, sawing through the restraints, carrying him off around the side of the fountain.
His mother feels the weight difference when she tips the stroller back again, but by then, of course, it is too late.
7. SHE SCREAMS
She screams, of course, and people look up, in unison, but it is still late. Everyone smells strawberry and smoke, but they never find the baby.
Never before had they attempted such a daring move in such a public place. The plan with the fountain was treacherous but ultimately more successful than they could ever have dreamed. They will try again soon. They will slip through water fountains and soda machines and air conditioning vents. But tonight they have to get their precious bounty back home. Their bounty screams and squalls as they take turns holding him, but he cries a little softer at each burn.
In the morning, the strange earthy smell from the water in the fountain is gone. Instead, there is a fruity, plasticy smell which is mostly camouflaged by the smoothie stand across the food court and the perfumery upstairs. When the plumber kicks the children out of the fountain to get a closer look at the pipes, he notices an orange and yellow fish flopping in underneath the spray. It swims in circles, bumping into the sides. One of its fins is missing.
The plumber buys a smoothie and drinks it while he makes a call on his cell phone. He sits on the fake rocks and slurps up the icy red syrup through a clear straw. When he is finished, he rinses out the cup and scoops up the orange and black fish. He has a nephew he thinks will like it.
And as the day turns into evening and the food court begins to empty, one small girl in a plaid skirt is left, painting the fountain boy's fingernails gold and smearing strawberry lotion onto his dry, dry skin.
Copyright © 2012 by Hannah Lackoff