Bobbi, with an “i”, was staying with the Pryces, who owned a fish restaurant. They said she could sleep in the lobster tank, which was uncomfortable but at least it was full of seawater. Bobbi’s tail kept splashing, scaring the lobsters who scuttled to the other side.
“Do you think we should get a bigger one?” said Miriam Pryce to her husband, Hal, one night. Hal grunted.
“A bigger what?”
“A bigger tank. So Bobbi could be more comfortable.”
Hal’s nostrils quietly whistled and he said nothing until Miriam poked him a second time. “I s’pose,” he replied finally, before drifting off to sleep.
Bobbi’s presence in the tank unnerved the customers. At first, they thought it was some kind of publicity stunt, but Hal and Miriam went on KATU and assured the general public that Bobbi was, indeed, a real live mermaid. She was an exchange student from Atlantis. When Hal and Miriam retired and their children moved out, it got lonely in their little two-bedroom house on the East Side, that Hal’s parents bought in the 1930s. So, they applied to a program that placed foreigners with American families wanting to learn English. Only when Bobbi showed up in an airtight crate filled with seawater did they realize that they should have been a little more specific with the paperwork. Housing a mermaid wasn’t exactly easy.
Bobbi only spoke a few words in English, she spoke mostly Mermish or whatever they speak down in Atlantis. Mermish had a guttural sound to it, like the bark of a sea lion. From what Miriam gathered from the wet documents pinned to the crate back home, Bobbi was failing English and needed to learn enough so she could graduate from Mermaid School and attend college. There was a separate list of food allergies attached, but the ink on the page had blurred, so Miriam had no idea what it said. She could guess though. Miriam offered Bobbi a sandwich once and Bobbi screamed so loud, the gills on the sides of her neck puffed out, so Miriam put “sandwiches” on the new list. Bobbi only seemed to eat raw fish, which was fine, there was plenty of it. She liked the fish heads that the cooks usually threw out, so Miriam just had them save them in a bucket for Bobbi.
Soon, small crowds came to the restaurant to ogle Bobbi. Miriam wasn’t sure how Bobbi was handling the attention, but Hal thought that she seemed to be doing just fine. Bobbi would scream something in Mermish and splash her tail around, and the locals snapped photos and demanded selfies with her. Bobbi’s gender was something of an enigma, because Hal and Miriam mistakenly assumed that all mermaids were women. There were two small lumps of fat on her chest that indicated breasts, but they were covered in scales. Bobbi had long, flowing blue hair, but there was also some stubble on the sides of her chin. Bobbi seemed to favor the good-looking busboys who fed her lunch from a bucket, but she also liked the pretty young women who took endless pictures of her. Miriam thought that Bobbi was just being friendly, but then Bobbi’s gills became all red and engorged the same way they had with the busboys, and she had to quietly ask the young women to leave. “I guess it doesn’t matter,” Hal finally said at the dinner table one night after a long debate about whether Bobbi was a girl or not.
Bobbi also started to steal things. At first it was harmless stuff, like tiny bags of oyster crackers that were served with clam chowder or butter pats. But over time Bobbi starting felching things from the customers that posed for a photo op: jewelry, rolls of film, sunglasses, baseball caps. Anything that was not securely fastened on the customers’ person tended to end up in the bottom of the lobster tank, only to be fished out by a very annoyed Hal who offered the customers a voucher for free clam chowder. It got out of hand very quickly when Bobbi grabbed a woman’s service dog and tried to drown it, both of them screaming and thrashing in the tank. The very wet and startled Pekingese was returned to the woman, and Hal and Miriam had to close down the restaurant for the afternoon because the other guests became uncomfortable and left.
“What are we going to do?” Miriam said to Hal when all the restaurant was empty and Bobbi quietly returned to her normal splashing and babbling in Mermish. Hal had an idea, but he decided that he should wait until nightfall. He filled a cooler that he and Miriam sometimes took on camping trips with as much seawater as he could, and with the help of one of the cooks, stuffed Bobbi inside. Bobbi screamed from inside the cooler, and Hal and the cook wrapped bungee cords around it to be sure that it stayed closed. Once they carried the cooler out to Hal’s truck, Hal tipped the cook handsomely and started to drive. He got on Highway 26 en route to Astoria and Cannon Beach, the quickest way to the ocean from Portland. He turned on the local country music station as loud as he could to muffle Bobbi’s screams from the covered bed of the truck.
When they finally reached the coast, they were bathed in moonlight. He opened the back and tugged on the bungee cords, pulling the cooler out of the truck until it fell onto the beach. He dragged the cooler toward the waves, and then, with his pocketknife, severed the bungee cords, causing Bobbi to spill out onto the surf. Bobbi’s long body unfurled in the waves, scales glossy and smooth. She flexed her tail, and then in one swift motion, dove into the tide and disappeared. She never resurfaced, and Hal thought good riddance as he drove back to the city, mermaid-less. Miriam was waiting for them on the steps outside their house, waving him down as he drove into their covered garage.
“You have to turn back,” she said breathlessly.
Hal looked at her confused. “I thought you wanted her to leave.”
Miriam shook her head, blinking back tears. “I found her diary while you were gone.”
Sure enough, Miriam had. Bobbi had stolen a notebook from the front desk near the lobster tank which she filled with calligraphy, drawings of the Pryces, and poems about the various customers she liked. There were some very crude passages in English too, about how grateful she was staying in her new home and how much she loved her new human family.
“We can’t just leave her out there in the open ocean, all alone,” said Miriam.
Hal looked up at the moon and sighed. “All right. Let’s go find her.”
Kellye McBride lives in Portland with her dog, Pucci. When she’s not writing flash fiction, she works as a copyeditor for science and technical books. In a former life, she shelved books at a library and told fortunes before being burned at the stake.