“Hey!” yelled Greg.
Zach cringed at the sound of Greg’s voice. He had seen Greg’s approach, and he had watched as Greg paused at the park entrance, looking around as if expecting to see any one of his usual group of friends lounging around. Of course, they weren’t there. If they had been, Zach never would have taken the chance on sitting there in the open, enjoying the early spring breeze and sunny day as he lost himself in the pages of a new book. Zach was a slight child with mousy brown hair, glasses, and perpetually skinned knees and elbows. He was gangly, awkward, and shy. In short, he was the perfect victim. He and Greg lived on the same street. They attended the same school. They were in the same class, and they had been friends, once upon a time. Their paths had diverged around second grade, when it became obvious Fate had graced Greg with the type of physical growth and perfection that changes perfectly normal little boys into bullies. While Greg grew bigger, stronger, and more attractive, it seemed Fate had decided to give Zach the gift of character forged by hardship. Greg became the leader of his own band of elementary-aged hooligans, and any fondness or friendship he might have felt for Zach had been forgotten. The two boys were in the fourth grade now, and they hadn’t been friends for a long time.
“Just keep walking,” Zach muttered under his breath, as if saying the wish out loud would make it come true. His eyes met Greg’s and, in that instant, he knew he was out of luck. Greg grinned and waved, crossing the park toward him.
“Hey!” Greg repeated, sliding into place on the bench next to Zach.
The old wood groaned a little under his weight, and chips of green paint flew off in his wake. Zach sighed in resignation as he closed his book. He stared at a particularly large paint chip that had stuck to Greg’s jeans. It looked just like one of the smaller Hawaiian Islands. Zach found this funny but, instinctively, he kept it to himself. It was the kind of observation that usually led to him getting a black eye or having his head stuffed into the toilet at school. Discretion really was the better part of valor; Zach had learned this lesson the hard way.
“How’s it going? Wanna see what I’ve got?” Greg asked, the words tumbling out of his mouth on top of each other in his excitement. He nodded down at an object he held in his lap. It was wrapped in a scarf to protect it from the chilly wind, but Zach could see a distinct, round shape under the layers of material. He guessed it was a bowl of some kind.
Zach glanced over, unsure how he should respond. In his experience, these were both loaded questions, and any wrong move, no matter how small, could lead to serious physical consequences. When you were the nerdy kid, you learned pretty quickly that safety was an illusion — nothing more than a delicate dance with those around you. Greg’s eyes were bright with excitement, and he couldn’t stop grinning. He looked exactly like a nine-year-old boy full of manic zeal, and Zach felt his stomach clench in dread. There wasn’t going to be any easy way of getting out of this situation. And, really, he didn’t have a choice but to look at whatever it was that Greg wanted to show him. For the moment, the two of them were friends again, and Zach’s best option was to play along and hope for a good outcome.
“Yeah, sure,” Zach replied, clearing his throat. He cringed at the nervous gesture, hoping Greg was too wrapped up in his own excitement to notice.
“Awesome,” Greg said. He started to unwrap the bowl, and his breathing quickened as he unwound each layer of material. It huffed out of his mouth in sweaty puffs, which hung in the chilly air between the two boys. “I’m lucky I found you,” Greg continued. “You’re the only one I know who’ll appreciate this. Those other guys wouldn’t get it. They’re lame — not like you. But you’ve got imagination. You’ll see how awesome-cool this is.”
It was all Zach could do to keep from rolling his eyes and snorting in derision. At one time, he might have been taken in by Greg’s “hey, we’re all friends here” act. But that was a long time ago, during that brief moment in time when the two boys had been friends. Now, Zach knew better. Mentally, he translated Greg’s babbling into what it was: an admission that he had tried showing this amazing new discovery to his group of friends, and they had rebuffed him. Zach remembered, all too well, the Sea Monkey debacle of a couple of years ago. He had a vivid memory of Greg promising everyone a big reveal once his prize packets of Sea Monkeys arrived in the mail, and an equally vivid memory of Greg struggling to live down his friends’ ridicule when the village of sea monkeys had turned out to be teeny, tiny brine shrimp. They hadn’t even had crowns or anything, and, for a few blissful days, Greg had been relegated to the “outcast” group at school. Of course, it hadn’t lasted, but Zach was willing to bet Greg remembered it, too.
“It’s nothing like that whole Sea Monkey thing,” Greg prattled on, confirming Zach’s thoughts. “That was lame. What a stupid move, believing in those things.” He laughed — a short, sharp snort of noise that expressed how foolish he had been — and shook his head as if he couldn’t believe what a moron he had been in his younger days. “I told those other guys that. I told them it wasn’t anything like the Sea Monkeys. This is real. Like, really real. But would they believe me? No.” He huffed in anger as he muttered under his breath, “Morons.” He paused, playing up the feeling of drama and tension for the big reveal as he removed the last layer of scarf to show a little fish bowl, about half full of water. “Anyhow,” he said, “Take a look.”
Zach leaned over and felt his breath catch in his throat. Greg had set up the bowl like a mini aquarium. In addition to the water, there was sand at the bottom. Greg had placed rocks so that they jutted out above the water, and he had added a little, rainbow-hued castle, and some plants beneath the water’s surface. And there, on top of the rocks, was something Zach couldn’t believe. Something beyond anything he could have expected to see — ever. Something that shouldn’t … that couldn’t be real. And yet, there it was, right before his eyes, as real as it could be.
“Is that a …” Zach whispered.
“Yeah. A mermaid!” Greg finished, interrupting Zach. The note of smug triumph in his voice was unmistakable.
She was sitting on one of the rocks, glaring back at the two boys as they bent their heads over the little fish bowl. She had long, red hair that was wet enough to cling to her body in ways that made a nine-year-old boy’s mouth run dry and his imagination run wild. Although hidden behind her hair, Zach could tell she was naked from the waist up. From the waist down, she was a fish, with iridescent scales that glimmered blue and pink and green in the shifting light and a finned tail that flapped angrily against the water’s surface. Each barely-audible splash it made seemed to tug at Zach’s conscience. She was tiny and amazing and perfect. And, immediately, Zach knew she shouldn’t be here. Such things didn’t belong in fish bowls. It was wrong, like capturing moonbeams and hoarding them in a jar on your shelf. But one glance over at Greg told Zach he would never be able to explain any of this. Greg’s eyes were full of greedy lust. He was completely taken with his prize, and there was no way he would ever let her go. Zach felt a companionable sort of pity for the mermaid. After all, the two of them had a lot in common. They were both prisoners of circumstance, stuck inside lives for which no sane person ever would have wished.
“But how?” Zach breathed, unable to take his eyes off of her.
“I found her. In a puddle near the river, after it overflowed. She was just there, sitting. Like she was waiting for me to take her home. Her name is Puddles,” Greg said.
Puddles. Zach frowned at that, and the mermaid hissed in response to the word, revealing rows of tiny, razor-sharp teeth. He would never know what her name really was, but it couldn’t possibly be something as ridiculous as “Puddles”.
“You should let her go,” Zach said, surprising himself as he heard the words fall from his mouth. He hadn’t intended to say them out loud, and he steeled himself for the inevitable, violent reaction.
To Zach’s surprise, it didn’t happen. Greg shrugged and shook his head.
“No way,” he said, adamant. “I found her, and she’s mine. I’m keeping her.”
Zach frowned down at the little mermaid. She was angry now, but, in a week or two, she wouldn’t have the energy for anger. Living like this would suck the magic out of her, and she would become sad and pathetic. Zach could hardly bear the thought of it, and it drove him to bravery.
“You’re wrong,” he said, shaking his head. “She’s not a pet. She doesn’t belong in a fish bowl. Can’t you see that? She’s amazing and magical. She’s beautiful, and she needs to be free. You can’t capture a moonbeam or a dream and keep it in a jar.”
Greg frowned at Zach. “You’re nuts,” he said, at last. “That doesn’t even make sense. She’s not a moonbeam or a dream. And she is in a jar, so there. I’m keeping her.”
Zach sighed. “You don’t get it. You never will. Because, right now, you’re the one in charge. You’re the bully, and you’re the biggest, baddest kid around. But that won’t always be true. There’s always someone out there who’s bigger than you. Right now, out there somewhere, there’s this guy. And he’s sitting in a park like this one, on a bench like this one. And he’s holding a box. He’s looking inside there, and there are trees and grass and a bench, just like this one, inside the box. And on the bench, there are two boys, just like us. And that guy is watching us both. He’s thinking how neat we are, and how he can’t wait to show us off to all his friends so he can be a big shot. But then, maybe, he thinks he doesn’t need two new pets. And he wonders … What would happen if he took his magnifying glass and angled it, “just so”? What would happen if he focused the light through the magnifying glass onto us? Would we burst into flames? Would we scream and run around in a panic? Would it take very long for us to burn? And he’ll do it. Because, to him, we’re not even real. We’re just things, inside a box — or a fish bowl. And that’s why you should let her go.”
Greg stared at Zach for a few long seconds. And, for a moment, Zach thought his words might have gotten through. He could see the wheels turning in Greg’s brain as he processed Zach’s sudden outburst. It seemed like Greg was right on the edge of changing his mind. And then, the tide shifted. Greg hunched his shoulders and shook his head, stubbornly.
“Whatever,” Greg said. “You’re a douche. I shoulda known better than to show you something like this. You can’t handle it.”
Zach sighed and gathered up his book. He glanced into the bowl and said a silent apology to the little mermaid as she glared back up at him. He wondered if she realized he had tried to free her, and, suddenly, he felt sad — heavier than any kid should feel. It was all hopeless, wasn’t it? Everyone was a pawn to someone bigger and meaner, and it would never change.
“Suit yourself,” Zach said as he walked away, “But you know I’m right.”
“Whatever,” Greg snorted, flipping off Zach’s retreating back. “You don’t know anything.”
As he sat there in the spring sunshine, Greg told himself he was right. Zach didn’t know what he was talking about. He didn’t know anything, and keeping the mermaid was the right thing to do. After all, he had found her. Finders keepers, right? The breeze stopped, and Greg glanced around, wondering when it had gotten so hot. He shrugged off the sudden feeling of unease, gathered up his fish bowl, and bolted for home.