Coral Reef

Becky worked as a cashier at the grimy pet shop round the corner with the hundreds of iguanas in that cage by the window, blinking for eternity with one drippy eye.

She stood behind the counter and watched the cats and the fish go back and forth from one glass wall to the other. Sometimes she got tired and tapped her pretty little claws on the scuffed counter. Sometimes she got jazzed and walked up and down the aisles, greeting every fish she saw who mouthed hello. Every night she wrote in her journal expressing the feeling that she “was waiting for something” and had “been waiting her whole life” and “didn’t know what to do about it or how to stop.” 

And one time this guy named Jonah came in and asked if they were hiring and she said no. He was the local superhero but no one needed saving anymore. When she shot him down he didn’t leave cause he still needed something to do during the day and also cause he hadn’t talked to anyone in weeks on account of voluntarily cooping himself up in his apartment. Another reason why he didn’t leave was cause she was attractive to him in a sexual way but also attractive in the way that genuinely nice people are attractive to others who appreciate such traits. So he said, “Hey, wanna know something real fresh?”

“Yeah, alright.” Every time she met a boy she hoped he would help catapult her miserable body into a worthwhile existence.

“I can breathe underwater.”

He wanted to impress her real bad, so he walked behind the counter where the big fish tank was, that glass rectangle that acted as the gaudy aquatic headboard to the store’s dirty bed vibe. The expensive fish were kept there, the ones that cost, well, some of them, $10. He stripped down to his tiny black underwear and lowered himself in all careful-like, making sure he didn’t get anybody’s fins caught between his toes. People who came in to buy cat toys and dog beds thought he was part of a new display cause all the fish were swimming around and hiding in him like he was a large, flesh-colored coral reef. And Becky knew. She thought, “This boy’s different, he’s special.” By his face—the way it looked under the water, the way his nose went up and then down and twisted slightly with the small current, the way his eyes scrunched up when he smiled at her and blew bubbles—she knew. She asked him, all flirtatious like, “What can’t you do?”

And he said, “I can’t do most things, but I can love you.” 

So she took him out and brought him to a fancy restaurant where he ordered flounder, “because they chill on the bottom,” and she ordered the soup of the day and a knot of tangled leaves because she wanted something light and healthy but she also wanted the soup.

Later, when they were in her small warm room, Jonah said he felt like her son and she was like his mother, because he had never had one, and she said, “But everyone’s got a mother.”

“I don’t.” And he looked down and she stared at the top of his head, specifically his part, which edged its way through the dense mass like a thin white river through ancient black rock. She thought of erosion, she thought of fossils.

Becky held on tight because it was night and everything was over. She told him she had always loved him, even when he had not existed in her world. They sat on the velvety sofa suspended like a big brown-speckled algae eater locked by its own mouth-strength onto the side of a green-socked fish tank. When the room turned purple and blue and gray Jonah said, “I’m an astronaut., and she saw him in a space suit and helmet deep below somewhere and she shuddered   and it was several hours later when she opened her eyes and realized she was holding on to nothing. 

Rachel Howard is a student at Rutgers University-Camden and an employee of a grocery store. In ninth grade she won 2nd place in the Walt Whitman Poetry Contest. More recently, her poems have appeared in Underground Pool, the literary magazine of the University of the Arts, and the now defunct Black Book Press. None of her novels are being published soon.