Emma was eight years old when they moved to the Isle. The house, once a fishing cottage, sat alone in a field recently stripped of its pines and palmettos to make way for the Isle of Catalina.
“Lovely,” her mother said, gazing at the rough-rutted acres of dirt. “A blank slate. I can’t wait to see what you’ll come up with to do here, Emma.” She might have meant it: Emma’s father hadn’t left them yet, and Emma did have quite the imagination.
Emma collected magicada husks and strung them across her window to catch the afternoon sun in their tinsel-town wings. She found a creek, shucked off her flip-flops, and waded in to search for the blue glassy stones her father said were slag. She helped her mother unpack and hang up the poster of the girl in the pink dress dragging herself up the hill. And she wished for a friend.
By the second week, things had already changed, as things will. Emma’s father, a carpenter, had left in search of work since construction on the Isle was delayed. Emma’s father, the carpenter, had become the Worm who’d moved them out to the middle of nowhere and abandoned them. Her mother, a woman of only occasional inspiration, had retreated to the tattered sofa in front of the oscillating fan.
Evenings, Mama perked up a bit and opened a can of soup. She and Emma lay at opposite ends of the sofa and watched TV with the volume turned up to drown out the bug chatter outside.
“We’re living in a jungle, my chum,” Mama said, “without the greenery.”
Eventually, Mama resumed contact with the wider family and an uncle Emma had never met before began to visit. Then a house was finished next door and a family moved in. The house was storybook, with a peaked roof, window boxes, and real grass in the yard. Mama sent Emma over with a plate of frosted graham crackers to welcome them.
“You must come in and play with our Juney,” the mother said with her black hair swinging shiny beside her smiling face.
A redheaded child half-hid on the landing above. She pretended to study the wallpaper as she crept down the stairs sideways.
Now, mornings held promise. Emma shook free of her damp bedclothes and pulled on shorts and a shirt from the pile on the floor. After fixing Mama her special iced tea with the tonic in it, she’d grab a Pop-Tart and skip next door. Mrs. always seemed to be waiting for her, often opened the door before Emma knocked.
“Princess!” she’d call. “Emma’s here.” Juney would clatter down the stairs, jostle past her mother, and burst from the house. Emma and Mrs. smiled, so wonderfully unbridled was their Juney.
Juniper Berry Cole was a magical child, unfettered by convention. Every day she wore a pinafore over her shorts and a red jacket with yellow mittens hanging from the sleeves. The pinafore was for the pockets, the jacket for the color, the mittens for the pleasure of swinging. Emma didn’t have to be told.
They ran as far as possible before Mrs. could finish the Don’ts. (Don’t go near the road, don’t go near the creek, don’t go where I can’t see you.)
In the field, Juney twirled, her red braids rising, pinafore billowing, and mittens swinging wide. She was a fairy-tale child, a Heidi or an Alice, except that she hadn’t yet been orphaned or drugged. She’d spin, stumble, fall down dizzy, then point to where they’d go that day.
They became many things—scientists looking for plant cures, baby food makers looking for bugs—but mostly they were mermaids looking for water, terribly dried out and near death. Juney was Ariel and Emma was Beth, Ariel’s sister, who explained Ariel’s wishes to people. It wasn’t exactly The Little Mermaid, but it was a lot like it.
On hot days Juney pointed to the creek when she spun. They’d drop to the ground and drag themselves on their bellies, hauling their heavy tails behind them, until their elbows were scratched raw and their mouths filled with dust. If they didn’t find water soon, they’d fall into weakness and go to sleep in the sun. Their thin mermaid blood would boil and they’d die right there in the field. Their bodies melting into the earth, leaving no trace whatsoever.
Just past the cottonwood trees was the creek, shaded and cool. The mermaids shed their shoes and slid down the bank to dip their tails in the water. Birds sang and dragonflies whirled double-decker inches from her face, but Juney didn’t notice, so fixed was she on the sun-dazzled water. She’d have sat there all day if Emma hadn’t had the idea to make a mermaid pool. They waded into the creek and moved rocks to make a dam to make the water deeper to make a pool for mermaids to swim in. No one had to actually swim.
At the end of a day, they became girls again and returned to the cool of Juney’s house for apple juice and gingersnaps. Then the bath full of warm, pink bubbles. Juney closed her eyes, crossed her arms, and screamed as her mother tugged off the muddy pinafore. There was no question that Mrs. had talent. She spoke softly and held on far past the limits of most, but it was Emma who made Juney let go.
“The seaweed is always greener in somebody else’s lake. You dream about going up there, but that is a big mistake,” Emma sang until Juney loosened her grip.
“Thank you, darling,” Mrs. said to Emma.
After the bath, Juney, wrapped tight in a fluffy white towel and smelling like flowers, tried to put the dirty pinafore back on. Never before had Emma seen a child so determined to immerse herself in make-believe.
Emma’s mother didn’t have bath rules.
“How old are you now?” she’d said when Emma asked. “Certainly old enough to do your own hygiene.” Emma agreed, but she would have liked to smell the way Juney smelled.
Emma was always welcome to stay for dinner. Mrs. said they should invite Emma’s mother to join them. Emma said she’d let her know when her mother got back from New York, where she was working for the government.
After dinner the girls sat on a big white sofa in the family room and watched The Little Mermaid. Juney liked to hold her stuffed starfish and have Emma beside her but not too close. At first Emma thought this was because she smelled like Camels, but really it was because Juney didn’t like to be crowded. Or touched. She was artistic. So artistic that Mr. and Mrs. talked about sending her to a school for artistics.
“You can’t begin to give her the kind of attention she needs,” Emma had heard Mr. say to Mrs. in the kitchen.
* * *
On rainy days Mama talked about the Worm.
“‘Palm trees and bungalows,’ he says. The only palm trees I can see are on TV. And if this is a bungalow, I’m the queen of England.” Emma brought Mama her pick-me-up tea and slipped out the back door.
“Who’d like to make sock puppets?” Mrs. said as she laid out socks, colored yarn, and buttons. She looked even prettier today, with her black leggings and yellow tunic—cheerful clothes like Emma planned to wear when she grew up.
“Juney will want to make Ariel,” Emma said, reaching for the red yarn.
But Juney was busy with the button tub. Busy burying her hands in the tub, filling them with buttons, then spreading her fingers to watch buttons stream back into the tub—over and over until Mrs. yanked the tub away. This was a big mistake, but Emma didn’t say so. Sometimes it was more interesting to watch things go ahead and happen. Juney screamed her train-whistle scream and waved her hands in front of her face.
“Juney, dear,” Mrs. said, “please don’t do that.” Juney threw herself on the floor and banged her head on the rug until Mrs. gave back the buttons. Juniper Berry Cole was a magical child capable of great make-believe, but she forgot to please her grown-ups and that was always a big mistake.
“Just look at the world around you, right here on the ocean floor. Such wonderful things surround you. What more is you lookin’ for?” Emma sang until Juney stopped to listen. It was all about attention with her. Juney put the wrong amount of it on everything. Singing got her back, and when it didn’t, pinching did.
“Bless you, Emma,” Mrs. said. “What about you? What kind of puppet would you like to make?”
“I’ll just make Beth, Ma-am. Juney’s used to Beth.”
Mrs. smiled and kissed Emma’s forehead. She smelled like daffodils and her kiss was a butterfly.
* * *
“Emma,” Mama called when Emma returned home, “come say hello to your Uncle Charles.” They sat in the living room drinking under a cloud of smoke. Mama had changed out of her nightie into shorts. Uncle Chuck wore his usual cut-offs and tank top. Their faces were shiny red.
“Hey, little girl, whatcha got there?” Uncle Chuck said.
“Just a sock puppet.”
“Your mother says you’re always over there. What’s the deal? Crafts?”
“It’s cooler there. And crafts.”
“They have craft kits or what?” Chuck wanted to know. They studied Emma the way Juney studied lights, and Emma didn’t like it.
“They use whatever’s lying around, I guess.”
“Emma’s arty,” Mama said. “Always has been. Colored inside the lines right off.”
“We have stuff lying around,” Chuck said.
Just a bunch of empty bottles and cigarette butts, as far as Emma could see.
* * *
After the movie, Juney and Emma often played in Juney’s room—a pink room with a canopy bed. Emma planned to have one just like it someday. Stuffed animals covered the bed. More really than any one child could use.
“Hey,” Emma said one evening, “let’s make a zoo. What can we use for cages?”
Juney stood in the doorway and flipped the light switch on and off. She was looking for the colors that flashed off the glass tear drops on the chandelier, but it was dark now and they hung there empty. Juney began to whimper. As the lights flickered, Emma sensed their mermaid sisterhood flickering as well, so she did the only thing she could do: she slipped Juney’s beloved starfish under her shirt and headed down the stairs.
“I paid a shipload of money so you and June could enjoy the club pool this summer,” Mr. was saying in the kitchen.
“She doesn’t do well at the pool, Paul. She’s a special child with special needs.”
“Keep making excuses, and she’ll get real special.”
“She can’t help it.”
“You’re raising a fairy princess, Marilyn.”
It was true that Juney was like a princess. She didn’t worry about details or others, and though she was older, probably eleven, she was never helpful. You needed servants to help raise a princess. Emma had seen Mrs. sitting in a chair looking out the window with a tissue box in her lap. Perhaps she would’ve preferred a child who wasn’t so special. Or royal.
* * *
One morning Uncle Chuck brought Mama and Emma a window unit. As it rumbled the little house to freezing, he set out craft supplies. Plaster of Paris, a plywood board, a hammer.
“Emma,” he said, “you ever hear of mosaics?”
She hadn’t. Chuck showed her how to mix the plaster and smear it on the board. How to break wine bottles and set the shards in plaster to make a picture. She made a mermaid of course; the green glass was perfect for the tail. Mama donated her red bead necklace for hair.
* * *
“Don’t-cha want to stay with me today and keep cool?” Mama said from the couch the last day of summer. “If I get to feeling better, we could go out and buy you a new lunchbox.”
“No thanks,” Emma said, “Juney and I have plans.”
They’d go to the creek. It was that hot.
The row of rocks was still there, the pool was still holding water. They’d make it deeper.
Emma rolled rocks under the water with her feet. Juney used her pinafore until a rock ripped through it. Carefully she pressed the torn edges together and watched them fall apart.
“Juney!” Emma called, “You have more of those at home. Let’s get in!”
Side by side they slipped into the pool and held on to the rock wall.
“Swish your tail,” Emma said. And they did.
“Put your face in,” Emma said. They did.
“Now get your hair wet.”
Juney looked so much like a real mermaid with her pale skin and streaming red hair that Emma was not surprised when she let go of the wall and turned away. Gathering her shoulders and ducking her head, she dove under. When she flipped her tail, the sun caught her scales and turned them from gray to emerald.
* * *
Soon after that day, school started and Emma’s mermaid world ended, as worlds will. There was third-grade homework, Brownie Scouts, and a playmate who spoke. The Saturday she went to Juney’s, no one answered the door. Through the front window she saw no trace of her friend. Emma figured the artistic school was the sleep-away kind. She’d seen her working in the yard. Mrs. had waved to Emma, but her eyes no longer sparkled.
Emma thought about her alone in that big empty house, sitting with the tissue box. Emma could heat up soup and sing for her. Make her pick-me-up tea. She could wear Juney’s clothes and stay in Juney’s pink room. She could fill that house with the sounds of a child again.
Emma’s own mother was getting dressed and going places now—the local salon, the liquor store, the VFW to play bingo. She’d even taken up bottle-cap art. Spent hours sorting little caps and gluing them on boards to make surprisingly recognizable images of her favorite movie stars.
Which mother needed her most?
Emma had her things all packed in her mermaid backpack along with Juney’s starfish when Mama came down with bronchitis and needed her again.
“Why so glum, Emma-my-chum?” Mama asked when Emma brought her tea one morning. “You miss that freak child?”
“Not really,” Emma said. Her mother wouldn’t understand.
Now and then Emma did think of Juney and the fun they’d had. Sometimes she wondered about Juney’s school, but then she’d stop herself and think instead of Juney’s green tail and how the scales had lit up when she dove under.
“Her mother was a flake,” Mama said.
And so Emma learned how to shut out her mother’s voice, something she was going to do eventually as a teenager anyway. She found she could do it with music on her cassette player with headphones. She’d be listening to the Beatles in her room and look up to see her mother leaning against the door jamb with her mouth moving. Eventually, even with her ears unprotected, her mother’s words failed to reach her, as though she was speaking under water.
When Emma finished community college with a certificate in accounting, she found a job farther north and moved away. Uncle Charles was living with Mama, but then Uncle Charles died and Mama called for her. Mama wanted to move to a condo and needed help packing.
“You can do this,” Emma’s boyfriend, Frank, said. “Go down, help her out, and come back. Three days—tops.”
* * *
The house was smaller, dingier, as though smoke from all Mama’s cigarettes had seeped through the walls and stained the white clapboard gray.
“Don’t let the cool out,” Mama said as she opened the door. She was thinner but still strong when she hugged, and Emma couldn’t back away. “Your hair is short,” she said, pulling pieces of Emma’s hair down onto her forehead. “You need bangs to soften.” Hers was finally gray; it sat on her head like a helmet of cobwebs. “Your room is ready. I boxed your stuff.”
“Sorry about Uncle Charlie,” Emma said, “I couldn’t get away.”
“It’s OK,” Mama said with a wave, “I have pictures.”
“Of what? The body?”
“They don’t let you do that anymore.”
Not much had changed. A larger flat-screen TV and a glossy leather recliner. Beside the recliner was an oxygen tank, plastic tubing coiled on top. Mama had emphysema; the cigarettes were gone.
“I’ll bet the place looks different to you,” she said. “They finished the Isle. Put some trees back in—hello. Packed it with prefabs. Nothing original like this one.” She sank into her chair and clipped the tubing to her nose. “I saved your art. We had it on the walls till now.”
Chuck had brought Emma Paint-by-Number kits after Juney. Sitting with her mother at the wobbly kitchen table, she’d carefully filled in each of the outlined areas with the designated color. She’d been proud of the pictures, though less so as time went on. No matter how thickly she gobbed on the paint, you could still see the lines between the sections.
“Bedtime,” her mother said at seven thirty. Grasping the oxygen tank pole and pushing it ahead of her like a walker, she headed for bed.
In the morning Mama sat in her chair and watched Emma wrap plates in newspaper.
“Do you ever think about your little friend?” she asked. “Joan, was it? Didn’t talk. Retarded or something.”
“No.” Emma said. Her mother was tarnishing her memories the way her cigarette smoke had stained the walls.
“They bought that house just for summers. Assholes.”
“They were nice.”
In the afternoon the cicadas geared up like tiny buzz saws and Mama grew cranky. “You never visit. You never call me with your problems like other daughters do.”
You are my problem, Emma thought.
“I might not have been the best mother but I was there. That woman—what’s-her-name’s mother—how does someone do that? Just walk away? And your father—don’t get me started.”
“Nap time, Mom?”
In Emma’s room were boxes labeled E’s artwork, E’s schoolwork, and M business. Inside M business were her mermaid things. The sock puppet, the Little Mermaid backpack. Inside the backpack was a toothbrush, the cigar box of slag, and Juney’s starfish.
“Accounting?” Mama was leaning against the door jamb. “‘Doesn’t sound like my Emma,’ I told Charles. ‘She’s arty.’”
But Emma had exactly the life she wanted. She was an accountant because numbers were finite. Her relationship with Frank was uncomplicated too. Juney and her family had shown her that people could live in better ways.
“Remember the mosaics? We had that one hanging in the living room.” Mama said, pointing to a large package in the corner. “Gorgeous. The Coles would never have hung it over their mantle, you know. Even in their summer place.”
“Hoity-toity assholes. Who puts their ten-year-old in a home just because she won’t talk?”
Emma remembered the shiny black car pulling out of the driveway, the tires shushing through wet leaves. Juney, drawing in condensation on the rear window, her pale, round face growing smaller and smaller until the car looked like any other car driving away.
“You played with that child every day.”
“Assholes. Especially him. They were happy enough to have you babysit all summer, then the second they don’t need you, it’s ‘Keep her away from us. She’s upsetting my wife.’”
Their blank faces when they’d opened the door. Mr. staring at her bulging backpack and dirty feet in flip-flops.
“I can stay if you want,” Emma had said.
* * *
“She had a pink canopy bed,” Emma said.
Another wave of dismissal. “Water under the bridge, honey. They were lucky to have you.”
Emma and her mother ate tuna sandwiches on the tiny screened porch. They listened to Isle air conditioners rumbling on and off as they ate and sipped—Emma her beer, Mama her oxygen.
“We’ll go see the new place tomorrow,” Mama said. “It’s swank.”
In her room, Emma pulled the trash bag from over the mosaic. It was heavy as a plywood board loaded with plaster and glass will be. Ridiculously heavy. The mermaid was blocky, a childish image with a round head, square belly, and beaded strings of hair. The face was flat, no artful shading of features there. Two blue bottle caps for eyes, a red one for the mouth—the face of a blow-up doll. The green glass tail ended in what you’d expect—a two-pronged fin. But there were places in the cobbled tail where the curved pieces of glass she’d so carefully chosen conspired to create the impression of undulation, and Emma was pleased.
Abby Lipscomb is a former family therapist whose work has been published or is forthcoming in Boomtown: Explosive Writing from Ten Years of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA Program and in The Broad River Review, The Greensboro Review, Sou’wester, The Evening Street Review and storySouth. In 2012 Abby’s work was awarded the Rash Award for fiction, and she has been honored as a finalist for the 2016 Danahy Fiction Prize. Abby lives in Salem, Virginia.