Looking for Mermaids

By Mary Shaffer
© 2004, New Moon Girl Media and used by permission. www.NewMoonGirls.com

13194-vintage-illustration-of-mermaids-or.jpg

I’m skinny with frizzy red hair that springs all around when I dance. Daddy says I remind him of a scrawny pine tree set afire like Moses’ burning bush. I think I’m more like a bouncy ball that someone hurled down a tunnel.

“Be still, Virginia,” Miss Dobson always tells me, but it’s so hard.

I am still when she gives back my history test. I fold the paper carefully into a square the size of a caramel and push it into the back of my desk. Goodbye, Abraham Lincoln. Goodbye, John Wilkes Booth. Why does a skinny fourth-grade pine tree need to know about you anyway?

Jenni Reed blows a fat pink bubble in my face. “What did you get on your history test?” she asks. “I got an A+.”

“Me, too.” My face burns red, so I examine the scab on my knee, which is lumpy and shaped like a fire hydrant.

“Did you get the bonus question?”

I nod, scratching a mosquito bite on my arm and looking out the window.

“What was it?” She blows another bubble.

I stare right at Jenni. “Have you ever wanted to be a mermaid?” I ask.

“You’re weird.” She turns around, flipping her bushy hair.

Miss Dobson is talking again, but I don’t hear. I’m a mermaid, weaving through strands of seaweed and cool water. Breaking through liquid glass, I absorb the sky with my senses. Waves pound like African drums. My tail flicks as I dance with the foam and the sun.

Suddenly, Miss Dobson’s hand slams down on my desk, and I jump like an exploding popcorn kernel. Her eyes are angry slits, and her mouth is a red slash.

“Virginia Jones, you haven’t heard a word I said,” she barks.

Narrowing my eyes, I try to match her face, but my lips quiver. I shrink down small, folding myself up like the history test.

“You must listen or you’ll never pass fourth grade. Do you want to be a fourth-grader your whole life?”

My head shakes no.

“Are you going to pay attention?”

I nod.

She sighs. “Good.”

I can hardly wait for dance class after school. My instructor, Miss Wendel, is completely different than Miss Dobson.

“Good, Virginia!” she shouts. “Lightly now! Aaaaand move!”

Today’s a good day for dancing. I’ve been trying to be still for Miss Dobson, so I joyfully jump, bend, and spin for Mrs. Wendel.

When class is over, I dance toward my house. I’m the bouncy ball again, springing off telephone poles and mailboxes. My dance bag thuds on my back, pushing me forward. Daddy’s at his computer when I get home. He doesn’t look at me, but I run to give him a hug.

“Hello, Virginia.” He pushes his glasses up on his nose and continues to tap tap tap on the keys as I watch.

“Daddy?” I ask quietly.

He swivels in his chair to look at me.

“Have you ever wanted to be a mermaid?”

Daddy looks at me above his glasses. “No, Virginia. Please don’t interrupt me, I’m busy.” Then he turns back to his computer. Tap tap tap. I walk away, wondering if there’s anyone out there like me.

***

Alice Petronski is my only friend at school. She talks a lot and doesn’t get mad when I don’t say much back.

“Alice,” I say.

“Huh?” Her freckled nose twitches, and she leans in across the lunch table. She’s surprised to hear me speak.

“Have you ever wanted to be a mermaid?”

“Nope. Mermaids don’t exist. I think…”

But I’ve stopped listening. I feel very alone. I want to stand on the lunch table and shout, “If there’s anyone out there who wants to be a mermaid, please raise your hand!”

But I don’t. “That Virginia girl is weird,” they’d whisper. “She’s going to fail fourth grade.” Then they’d all laugh.

I’m sad for the rest of the day and I don’t hear a word Miss Dobson says. I miss our homework assignment, so I have to ask about it. My teacher rolls her eyes and prints the assignment neatly on an apple-shaped notepaper. I shove the paper in my back pocket and run out of school.

As I pass the maple tree next to the school, I notice a small yellow-haired boy standing under it. His shirt sags off his bony shoulders, and there’s a giant band-aid on his knee. With two hands, he grips the handle of a battered violin case.

When he shakes his shaggy hair out of his face, I notice his eyes. Dark, dark brown. Round and deep on his little white face. He makes me think of the sun over the ocean and cherry Popsicles in July.

I run toward him, stopping inches from his skinny face. I breathe hard but say nothing. He watches me.

I swallow as I try to speak. “H-have you ever wanted t-to be a…” I can’t make myself say the word. I’m so scared he’ll say no. “Have you ever wanted to be a mermaid?”

My heart hammers so loudly I’m afraid I won’t hear him. Say yes! I want to shout. Say yes!

“No,” he says.

The world spins, and everything blurs.

“No, I want to be a dolphin,” he says. “I want to leap in the air with mermaids on my back and see the whole world without stopping to go to the bathroom.”

The world halts. All is quiet. The only people on Earth are this puny boy and pine tree me.

“You remind me of the sun over the ocean and cherry Popsicles in July. When I see you I want to dance.”

“You remind me of a bouncy ball,” he whispers.

I smile. My lips smile, and my eyes smile. I can feel smiles shooting out of my fingers and toes. And as I turn to walk away, I know the boy can feel them too.