October 2018 WinnerPosted 04/12/2018 under Magazine,
October 2018 Contest Winner
Avra Margariti is a twenty-year-old social work undergrad from Greece. She enjoys storytelling in all its forms and writes about diverse identities and experiences. Her short fiction is forthcoming in Wolfpack Press.
Jellyfish Fever by Avra Margariti
“Mama is dead,” Trixie says as if she’s talking about the weather.
Liza’s body has been down at the morgue for three days, so I don’t know why Trixie feels the need to state the obvious.
“Stop calling her that,” I say through gritted teeth.
When Trixie gets in this dreamy and childish state, she’s dangerous—to herself, mostly, but sometimes dangerous to others, too.
She drapes herself over the back of the living room couch, nose pressed against Liza’s aquarium. She drums her fingers, long nails on clear glass, tap-tap-tap, a monotone, grating sound. The amethyst-colored jellyfish inside—the only two miraculous survivors—seem unperturbed, floating around as languid and disinterested as ever.
I want to be those jellyfish. I want the world to seem as distant as a bad dream that can’t reach me through the amniotic-like water gliding over me.
I look down at my own nails, the bloody, bitten stubs. I curl my hands into fists and feel their rough edges pinch into my palms. The pain grounds me, just as tapping seems to ground Trixie.
“Liza always said we should call her Mama, didn’t she?” Trixie says. She winds a strand of hair around a finger, then chews on it absently.
It takes a while for my throat to be able to produce words. “Liza isn’t here. We don’t have to call her anything.”
I spit on the carpet for good measure.
I only hope she isn’t anywhere pleasant.
The lawyer calls again while I’m standing before the mirror, fighting a losing battle with my tie. The phone rings and rings. I punch the off button before Liza’s voicemail fills the room and makes my skin crawl with imaginary ants. On second thought, I yank out the cable, disconnecting the landline altogether.
“What you do that for?” Trixie asks.
Her voice is dream-like again, eyes glazed over. I saw her slinking upstairs to Liza’s room earlier. I don’t know how she can stand to go in there, but maybe the promise of Valium is enough to flick the ants off her skin.
“The ringing was getting on my nerves.”
“What do you think he wants? I doubt Mama left us anything.”
“Not our Mama,” I growl before I can stop myself. My mother went and drowned herself, Trixie’s died in jail, and hell if I know where either of our respective fathers are. “Guess we’ll see him at the funeral in a few hours.”
I have a pretty good inkling about what the lawyer wants, but I don’t tell Trixie. That weasel-faced man was there at the morgue when I was called to identify Liza’s mangled body after the car crash. He told me, The house belongs to the bank. You and your foster siblings should clear out before the end of the month.
The moment I announced Liza’s fate, Noah—that snotty kid who used to sleep in my bed when we were younger—packed his bags and vanished with barely a mumbled goodbye. Bay was long gone even before that. I still see her by the overpass sometimes, where she smiles at every car with cold and hunger in her eyes. We could’ve split months ago since we’re both eighteen, but I promised Trixie we’d graduate high school first. And now only Trixie and I remain, and that house, and Liza’s bedroom I can’t bear to enter.
Us and those two jellyfish, orbiting each other for all of their small eternity.
Trixie comes up behind me. She snakes her arms around my chest, her fingers twisting my tie into a perfect knot. Her black-rimmed, honey eyes meet mine through our combined reflection.
“There you go.” She smooths the tie down. “You’re as helpless as a baby sometimes.”
Baby boy, Liza used to say whenever she caught me dressing. Need help with that?
Trixie’s hands move away, but our eyes remain locked together. I want to peer into their depths and find the truth. Was it you, Trix? Did you screw with Liza’s brakes?
Just for a second, Trixie touches the dark shadows beneath my eyes, so lightly I barely feel it. Then she withdraws and busies herself with getting dressed.
Ever since I got the call about Liza, I’ve felt like old-TV static has wormed its way inside me. And I thought I was numb before.
Trixie mumbles to herself, something about the broken hair curler. She bumps her shin against the coffee table and performs a breathless half-giggle, half-moan. I find myself wandering over to the jellyfish tank. We never named them. There were four jellyfish once, as there were four of us kids. Only the two remain now, swimming away from each other, then coming together again as if the ebb and flow of them is an inevitability. Spinning, twining, coiling their gelatinous tentacles around each other, rubbing their semi-translucent bellies together. They separate into two creatures again and circle their tank in an elegant aerial dance.
I flatten my palm against the tank and wait. The bigger of the two jellyfish, the one with the blue-speckled back, drifts toward me. If it were a dog, it’d nuzzle my hand. As it is, the jellyfish just presses itself against the glass for a second. And in that second, I feel a jolt of electricity travel up my arm, all the way to my chest. Through the numbness, I feel something.
“I’m ready,” Trixie calls. “Let’s go bury M—Liza.”
“What about the jellyfish?”
She cocks her head to the side. “What about them?”
“We can’t leave them behind.”
I don’t know how I know this, but I do. A primordial chord vibrates inside me, some gut feeling that tells me I cannot—should not—abandon them in this house.
I bang cupboards and open drawers, rifling through the kitchen feverishly. Trixie watches from the doorway, hugging herself. I find two clear food containers, shove one in Trixie’s hands on my way to the living room. I uncap the tank and dip the net into the illuminated, lukewarm water, soaking the sleeve of my overpriced rental suit. The jellyfish flee, and why shouldn’t they? I’m the disembodied arm descending from the sky. I could have them eating out of my hand, poke and prod and pierce their soft skin, rule over them forever.
My hand trembles so bad I drop the net. It sinks amid the colorful pebbles and plastic shipwreck without a sound.
Trixie’s hand grips mine. She retrieves the net and in two quick, fluid motions scoops up the jellyfish and releases them into their respective containers.
I let out a shuddery breath and wipe my dripping hand on my pants.
Trixie nods once, mouth set in a tight, adamant line. She doesn’t look spacey or lost in her haze anymore.
She takes my hand again without meeting my eyes. “Let’s go. They’re waiting for us.”
We sit at the back of the bus, eyes staring straight ahead as the vehicle lumbers up slopes and bounces over potholes. People come and go—old ladies pulling tartan shopping trolleys, men bent over their phones, rowdy kids skipping school—but nobody approaches us. I don’t blame them. Two teens with stony expressions on their faces and jellyfish on their laps must be a strange sight. I never blamed them—and yet I used to selfishly wish for somebody to notice what we hid.
My heart should be a thump, but it’s only a whisper. All the while I’m thinking, There’s nothing left for us, there’s nothing left for us.
There’s nothing left.
We reach the Evangelical Church Liza dragged us to for years, the cemetery looming behind it. The stooped, crying people in the yard remind me of Hangman stick figures. Like an unspoken agreement, neither of us rings the bell for our stop.
The road becomes even bumpier. My knees knock against Trixie’s whenever the bus makes an abrupt turn, the jellyfish pirouetting in the cramped space inside their makeshift tanks.
Out of the corner of my eye, I catch Trixie’s mouth moving. “We should take the jellies back home to the ocean,” she says softly. “It’s our duty, after everything…”
Her bottom lip quivers. She bites it, hard. I squeeze the plastic container and screw my eyes shut as the bus lurches forward.
There’s nothing left here. Nothing left.
“Be careful out there,” the driver rasps around his cigarette as we get off. “The currents’re strong today.”
I have to look away when Trixie smiles at him, little-girl sweet.
The bus stop is deserted; the broken-down sign and weed-infested footpath, post-apocalyptic. Trixie’s heels teeter-totter on the uneven ground. I feel a thorn digging into the sole of my dress shoe. Halting, I let my weight press on it.
The beach—a long, thin stretch of iridescent pebbles and pale sand extending in both directions and bordered by jagged rocks—is empty at this time of the year.
“We haven’t been here in a while,” Trixie murmurs by my side. “Remember?”
“Yeah,” I choke out.
How could I forget? Liza loved seeing us in our bathing suits. She would say, Come here, Malcolm, keep your Mama company. She insisted on rubbing sunscreen onto all of us kids, even though the clouds never let the sun peek through their cover.
The ants are back on my skin, prancing around like they own every inch of me. I put my nails to good use and scratch the ants right off. When I glance at Trixie, I see she’s kicked off her shoes and moved closer to the frothy strip of sand where ocean meets beach, spellbound. My body’s also drawn to the water; my jellyfish like a compass’ needle, the ocean’s pull irresistible.
The sea looks like a stormy, gray mirror fogged over. The waves crawl up our ankles, then climb higher to our shins. The wind whips my hair into my face.
Trixie brings her container close to her face and whispers something I don’t catch. I copy her, feeling like I’m in one of those dreams where you have to trudge through molasses-thick air.
“You’re going to meet your family soon,” I tell my jellyfish, trying to infuse my voice with certainty. “They’re all waiting for you, I know they are.”
I stare through the distorted plastic, but the connection I felt with the jellyfish back at Liza’s place has been severed.
I don’t know what’s happening to me, why some smidgen of self-preservation is choosing to come out of hiding now. My heart is somewhat louder in my chest. I can hear it as if I pressed a seashell to my ear, the distant echo of it.
“Should we count to three?” Trixie asks.
Her voice betrays nothing. I’m sometimes jealous of her ability to hide anything behind a childish-naïve-bitchy-flirty-aloof smile. Trixie has a thousand personas, all of them seemingly untouchable.
Channeling her, I make my voice steady and colorless. “One.”
The waves hit us harder as we wade into the sea. The water is a chilly shock. Trixie’s dress billows around her like a curious, tarry anemone. My pants become a million times heavier, like they could drag me to the murky bottom any second now.
When we’re waist-deep in water, we pause and regard each other. Trixie holds her container over her heart. She opens the cap solemnly, the sound swallowed by the ocean’s vicious shanty.
“Two.” My voice could belong to someone else.
With the jellyfish poised high like a supplication to the sea gods, we slide forward, synchronized. I’m taller than Trixie, but even I have to stand on tiptoe when the wind pushes the rolling waves our way. I’m painfully aware of every one of my breaths. Water covers my mouth, and I tilt my head upward.
It’s strange. I thought the sky would be dull and milky, but the more I look at it, the bluer it seems. Is this the last thing my mother saw before she drowned? Vast blue all around?
“Ready?” Trixie gasps. “Don’t be sad. It’s what the jellyfish want.”
My throat has closed-off again, so I settle for a small nod. Together, we overturn our containers and free the two jellyfish that have been trapped in Liza’s house for far too long. Plop, they go. The flabby, slimy creatures look stunned at first. Then they jerk their flowing tentacles, propelling themselves deeper into the ocean. Farther away from us.
It’s over in seconds. Soon, even the swirling bubbles pop out of existence, and we can no longer spot the pair of them in the hazy water. Somehow, I didn’t think it’d happen this fast. I don’t think I’m ready to say goodbye yet.
I’m not ready.
“I hope they end up together,” Trixie says in a tiny voice.
The thought never occurred to me before. For years they’ve swum in the same tank, but now they have an entire ocean separating them. There’s no guarantee they’re going to meet their families. No way to know if they’ll—we’ll—float toward something better.
Will it hurt? God. I don’t want it to hurt. Not now that the numbness has begun leaving my body, carried away by those currents the chain-smoking driver warned us about. A belated sob claws up my throat; I snort in water. The shock makes my heart jump start, louder than ever.
“Trix,” I sputter. One more step and I’ll be completely submerged. Just one more step… but my knees lock up. My heart plunges to the seafloor as my body flails to stay afloat.
A teary smile shatters her bravado, and she’s the Trixie I remember from our younger years together. It’s that smile that does it.
Trixie’s lips curl around the word ‘three.’
I scream, “Wait!”
Just like that, the spell is broken. I throw an arm around her waist and haul us both backward. I expect resistance from her, that familiar stubbornness, but she goes limp against me. And then we’re scrambling away from the deep, splashing through the shallows, where we stir up whirlwinds of sand and scare away silvery minnows. Panting, we collapse into a frantic mess of limbs on the shore.
The waves crash around us, louder than ever. They thrust burning, salty foam up our nostrils as we dry heave and pat ourselves to make sure we’re here, all in one piece. Hysteria comes next, bubbling snorts and cackles that hurt on their way up. Dark seaweed tangles itself in Trixie’s hair, so she looks like a vengeful nymph that’s crawled out of the depths of the sea. My hair’s plastered to my scalp, my skull throbbing with the realization of what we were about to do back there. The sand gets everywhere. Coarse and abrasive, it rubs against our skin and sticks there like fingerprints, only to be washed away in muddy rivulets by the next deafening wave.
I don’t know who reaches out first, but suddenly we’re grabbing at each other, mouths smashing together. The kiss is sloppy and fever-hot, the clink of teeth followed by the iodine tang of bitten tongues and the cleansing sting of saltwater. Our soggy clothes turn into a second skin, but our fingers still fumble their way underneath the layers of funeral attire, to caress freezing, prickly flesh.
It’s like the moment death is off the table, suddenly everything else is on. The second we stop seeking our watery graves, our base, primal instincts kick in.
Trixie climbs on top of me, grinding down hard. I flip her onto her back with my knee pressed between her legs. We keep rolling around in the sand, pure grief, pure want, pure animal. The waves try to pry us apart, but we find each other time and time again. All I can hear is the water, but even its furious din is eclipsed by our groans and moans, our cries and laments. The sound of each other’s name swells and crushes louder than the waves.
And then Trixie, still straddling me, strikes the wet sand on either side of my head with her clenched fists. She opens her mouth wide, cursing Liza in a guttural, savage wail. A wave covers us both head-to-toe, but I can still hear the echo of her screams. The ocean has nothing on Trixie’s menace.
My eyes burn. It’s because of all the seawater. That’s what I tell myself, why I’m crying like a baby.
Goddammit. I never once cried when Liza did whatever she wanted with me. I tried to divert her attention from Trixie. I was strong. I was stoic. And now that she’s dead, I’m neither.
All through Liza’s sick whims, Trixie was there. With her wry humor, unorthodox sweetness, and steadfast way of holding on, Trixie was always by my side.
I gather her shivering body in my arms. The fire in my bones has settled. The waves are no longer trying to beat and bruise us. They lap at us, gentle, inquisitive. Trixie’s sharp bursts of breath even out. She presses our foreheads together, her hands cupping my face. Her lips brush against mine, softly, so softly, like she’s afraid of ruining something precious.
And at that moment, I feel everything.
“I’m sorry, Malcolm,” Trixie says, over and over again.
She buries her sobs in the crook of my neck, and I hold her tighter than I’ve ever held anything before, my own thread of life included.
“What are you sorry for?” I ask, although I know already.
“For not being braver before,” Trixie says. Then: “We should’ve gotten rid of her sooner.”
It feels like hours later when we stagger back to the bus stop, sore, dripping, and shivering. Holding hands. We will blame that moment of madness on the jellyfish later. But for now, we sit on the salt-encrusted bench, curled around each other.
We breathe in the ocean breeze, and I swear that, for the first time in years, my heart feels light enough to float.