A Random Aquarium at the Pier
~ Joshua Flowers
You stretch your tiny arms past the edge of the pier as an Atlantic wind billows your sundress. Beneath you, waves hit the thick, barnacled pillars of the pier with all their force, yet you feel no shaking. No one atop the busy tourist space seems worried about the sea’s casual wrath.
A finger snaps for your attention, but you don’t respond fast enough. Your mother yanks your hand into hers, her grip too tight, as she scans over the crowd on tiptoes. Her heavy purse dangles at the crook of her bronze elbow. She wears a white sundress similar to yours, but that is an accident. When she bought it for you months ago, she was too tired to notice she bought you a smaller version of something she already owned.
“Fucking place,” she whispers under her breath. You hear the swear but say nothing. Even you, for all your childish faults, can tell your mother needs a moment out of the sour, sweat-soaked air and noisy groupings of tourists. She needs somewhere dark where she can close her eyes, knock her head back, and take a deep shot of breath.
She decides on a destination and drags you. The fingers hooked into your wrist hurt. Not enough to bruise (not yet) but enough to notice. Poor child. You know your mother doesn’t mean it, so you’re trying hard to just be thankful she is spending her one day-off with you. Instead of sleeping, she’s exploring a pier she hates because you once mentioned over diner that you’d like to visit it.
The two of you move towards an uninteresting building laid next to others like a brick laid into a wall. The name escapes you as a pair of women in wide-brim hats obscure the sign above the door. Years later, when you have grown into the shape of your mother, you will tell your story to other girls grown into mothers, and they won’t believe you. You won’t believe you. That’ll drive you a little mad, but that’s alright. That’s what childhood memories are meant to do.
In the present, your mother lets go inside the dimly lit lobby. You find a seat on a bench bathed in neon as she pays for tickets. Your pink sneakers clash against the blue and black swirls of the carpeted floor. Whatever this place is, they regularly vacuum as it’s all too clean for the pier. Mother returns with two tickets: they have ghostly faces stamped above the word “ADMISSION.”
“Where are we?”
“Who knows, but it’s got air conditioning.” Your mother takes a deep breath. The cool lighting is enough to hide her burnt cheeks. She notices your apprehension. “It’ll be fun. Come on.”
You follow her further in. Truthfully, you would have liked to listen to the waves a little longer, but the money is already spent, so you keep your mouth shut. Besides, following at the heels of mothers is what children do.
Through a large pair of doors (one blue, one black) you find a man in a gaudy suit blocking your way. He greets you both with a deep bow and has the air of a theatre villain. A man of big monologues who is killed at the end by a simple kick.
“Welcome,” he says in a deep voice, “To my Aquarium of Horrors!”
First Exhibit—The Phantasmal
The tank is bright red and lights you in the color of a blood bath. The guide reads aloud from a notecard he produces from his jacket pocket. “Most screams can be pickled. All you need is the right apparatus, and a tank filled with special soul-absorbing jelly. Screams, being a shed part of the soul, usually dissipate in the air within moments, but the jelly prevents that dull end. If you bring your face close, you can see them bounce from wall to wall.”
With a smile, the guide gestures his white hand to the glass. You crane your neck back at your mother. She is near the entrance, raising an eyebrow at the sight. Her eyes lock with yours, and you can tell she wants to say, “It’s alright hun. You can get close,” but she hesitates. Her phone buzzes, and now that it’s in her hand, you know the words won’t come. She’ll ignore you until she’s ready.
The guide gestures again towards the tank. Mustering a little courage, you step up. The red glow is soft on your eyes. Staring inside is like peering into a massive block of strawberry jelly.
A foggy face presses against the glass in front of you with a soft thump. Their eyes are twisted and mouth wide in a scream. The face pulls away. Somewhere you can’t see, another thump.
You didn’t mean to, but you did. The guide saw.
The Drowned Man
Two spotlights illuminate a phony seafloor of foam. A pale white man is inside, sitting on a cheap fold-out chair. His shirtless body is bloated, and thin weeds of hair float above his mostly bald top.
“Does a drowned man need much explanation?” The guide says with a soft, solitary chuckle.
The drowned man turns towards you, but you can tell he sees nothing. His eyes are foggy white orbs. He’s like dad back when he used to live with you, too drunk to see anything more than shapes. You glance at your mother, wondering if she notices too, but she’s still on her phone. She hasn’t pulled her face up since the screams.
Lights swirl around the center of the tank, twisting water in a dazzling display that catches your breath. Suddenly this strange trip is worth it.
“Sailors of olde would look for these out at sea. They’d bring their boats beside the churning light and toss a man down. If he came back up, he’d return with a new heading towards glory.”
You step closer, wanting to press your face to the glass like the pickled screams. Inside the light, you think you see yourself but older. The glass keeps you too far away to view clearly. There is so much you can’t tell. Are you beautiful? Are your father and mother nearby, or are you alone? The light gives you no answers. You want to get closer to it. Enveloped by it. Maybe then you would understand.
“Careful,” the guide says. You glance up at him. Something about his over-the-top persona keeps you on edge. “It is easy to get lost in a prophecy of the future. Usually, it’s of such amazing quality, one would forget they had to ever trudge through a less elegant past to reach their revelation.”
From the corner of your eyes, you see your mother finally put away her phone. She still lingers at the edge of the exhibit with a dull-eyed stare. You suspect she wasn’t even listening to the guide. Part of you wants to beg her over, afraid she might miss your dazzling future. Another part of you—the selfish, evil part of you that would wake your poor, overworked, exhausted mother from a nap demanding food and love—says, Keep this for yourself. She doesn’t care. It is a petty kind of revenge. New to you, but one you’ll understand better as you grow older.
When you turn back to the light, you see the specter of yourself walking alone. She is in some kind of large, empty space (for a moment, you think a field), and the moon hangs low in a daylight sky. There is something off about this older you, but the prophecy is too hazy to tell what.
Transfixed, you think about standing in the spot forever, waiting to see the final destination of your future self. Maybe then you’ll finally understand why this vision is so important. Why it grips you so strongly.
“What happens if someone stays in the light too long?” you ask, feeling a sting from your dry eyes. You’ve forgotten to blink.
The guide smiles. “Don’t you remember the last display?”
Second Exhibit—The Mawcillious Murderers
Congo Teeth Fish
Lime green lights illuminate the rocky tank. Its floor is decorated with plastic gold and toy skulls. Above the gaudy display, rows of teeth swim back and forth on tiny, red fins. Each tooth is the shape of a porcupine quill curved behind the body of the fish. Ironically, you can’t actually see their mouths. The teeth get in the way.
“The Teeth Fish are a rare breed that only exist in one, large lake in the Congo. The locals took great care to preserve the population as they subsist on a very meaty diet. Funnily enough, these hungry fish are not ones for cannibalism. Perhaps they find one another too difficult to chew?” He chuckles then checks his watch. “Look at that. Feeding time.”
A worker tosses hunks of cow into the tank. The clear water turns a messy, transparent red. Teeth swarm the meat and tear it apart in a feast so thorough they lick the blood from the water. In a blink, the tank is clean again like nothing happened. Just a tank full of teeth swimming about.
Maine Knife Lobsters
You ask your mother what she thought of the fish.
“It was a little dark,” she admitted, “But as long as you’re enjoying yourself.”
You say nothing. It takes a few more steps before your mother thinks to ask if you are enjoying yourself instead of presuming like she often does. As you answer, the next display greets you with angry smashes against glass.
You hear them before you see them. Their massive claws are as large as your head with white tips that darken into nightshade shells. The color just barely hides the lobster’s furious, pearl-shaped eyes. There are four in the tank, and when they see you, they go into a frenzy. Their attack is furious as they stab, as they pinch, as they want desperately to rip you down to the marrow of your bones.
The guide pulls out a notecard and starts to speak, but you can’t hear what is said of them over their infuriated drumming. It occurs to you that your mother probably didn’t hear your answer either. She says nothing about it, so you do likewise.
The name stirs a fantastical hope in you. Dragons? Here? They’re real? You feel like the main character of a fantasy book, about to discover the beginnings of a magical adventure.
Your smile fades when you see them. They look like sea horses, but instead of flowery limbs, these dragons have coral spirals shaped like buttercream frosting flowers. The fish don’t swim but hop across the sandy floor in spasmodic jerks. They float from one spot to the next as if pretending to swim and failing.
Nothing in this exhibit captivates you. Your mother stands by a corner, rubbing the dried sweat from her face. She closes her eyes like she’s trying to beckon a quick moment of sleep. You’ve never seen anyone sleep while standing up (like you’ve never seen teeth fish, lobsters, or dragons before today), but if anyone could do it, it’s your mother.
This is the first day off she’s had in weeks. After this, she goes back to work at the midnight shift. You know it’s likely Granma will put you to bed again when you get home, but maybe if you sleep in late, you might wake up with your mother in her bed. You could sneak into her arms. Snuggle beneath them. Pretend she had never left at all.
Third Exhibit—The Horrors
At first, you think it looks like an octopus. A very thin, very sickly-looking octopus. When you count the tentacles, you realize there are too many, then think it resembles more a floating patch of seagrass. In the shaggy, flowing mass, you see something beneath. A boney, withered arm. You blink, and it vanishes in the shuffle of tendrils.
“There are maybe two hundred Dredges in the world. They roam the ocean floor as if searching for something, but no one knows what. In all observation, no one has ever seen them eat, yet they do hunt. A Dredge will grab fish and smash their heads against the nearest rock. They’ll let their dead prey float in the water and move on, perpetually continuing their search. Sometimes unlucky explorers will swim too close to them. They often end up like the fish.”
As you stare, a boney foot like a burned-up skeleton appears before disappearing again. It takes you too long to realize the creature isn’t swimming but walking. In the sand, you can see the marks of the shriveled tentacles dragging behind. There are no footprints.
Your mother steps up behind you. “This one kind of reminds me of your father,” she says as a little joke, but you don’t laugh. This isn’t the one that reminded you of your father. She hadn’t been paying attention for that one. Noticing she has a little more peppiness now that you’re both somewhere cool, you decide to leave that annoyance behind. This is your favorite version of your mother: the one that has the energy to give you attention.
The two of you stare at the Dredge for a long while (to the irritation of the guide who wishes to move onto his next horror), and each of you guesses a thing it might be looking for. Treasure. Friends. Cigarettes. A drink. The principal’s office–you say this one and your mother laughs, remembering the time she needed twenty minutes to find the parent-teacher meeting. Family.
Both your jokes die off from boredom as you realize the Dredge has been simply walking in circles this entire time.
The Discarded Warrior
They look like a knight but not. They’re a fish. Kind of? It has a thick tail and two arms, both poking out a round shell. The shape is awkward as if it’s hunched inside. You can’t tell if it has a human head or fish head beneath. Somehow it sees you then swims to a corner. You hear crying as if someone was sobbing right by your shoulder.
“What you see is a thing from an ancient race that took up war against an even older enemy. Unsurprisingly, they lost. Their war had been needless and futile, ending in a defeat so thoroughly gruesome, each subsequent generation only knew how to cower.”
The thing breaks off a sharp shard from a corner of its shell and tries to stab itself through the chest, but the shell blocks the blow. The crying intensifies, and you realize you’ve never seen something so large cry. Not an adult. Not your mother nor father. After a certain age, you expect people to forget how. This unhealthy notion will be reinforced when your Granma passes and your mother will be too proud to show her tears. That will be hard, but not nearly as hard as when your father swerves into a canal. For that death, your mother will dance with revelry.
At the display, your mother is bothered by the stabbing. You can see her hand twitch to shield your eyes but stop because she knows you’ve already seen too much. Trying to protect you now would be silly.
Once the shard of shell shatters in the creature’s hand, it tumbles over the sand to get to the other corner. It breaks off a new piece and returns to attacking itself.
The guide shakes his head. “It’s all for show. If it truly wanted to end things, it would. Even the most pitiful of us can think of at least one way to the grave.”
They dance the way only things that swim can. Six fins entwined within one another push the creature up to the top of the tank before it spins above—showing off dazzling, orange scales—then dives down. With a twirl, it stops itself from smashing against the steel floor. They hadn’t bothered to put up any flourishes in the tank. No illusions to distract from the fact this is a beautiful thing inside a cage.
The guide tells you he knows nothing of the Visitor, just that they aren’t from your world. You think he’s lying. The fish appears normal albeit strange. It’s like a giant goldfish, a size between you and your mother. The size of an older sibling.
As you move, The Visitor follows, dragging itself against the glass to get closer to you. You put a hand where its body would be, and it spins in delight. Your mother pulls out her phone to get a video, but the guide blocks her. He reminds her that there are no pictures or recordings allowed in his aquarium.
They both look away as The Visitor folds its fins over the glass where your hand touches. You think the fins resemble the ribbons on your school’s maypole piled atop the ground. You can see something stir beneath.
It stings your palm through the glass, and you jump back. Neither the guide nor your mother notice, still arguing about the picture policy. You shake out your hand, and the pain vanishes. There is no mark on the glass. Your palm appears fine. The orange thing dances excitedly as you move on. All the while, your mother complains about being unable to capture the memory.
The hallway curves as if you’ve reached the end, yet the guide brings you to one last thing: a rickety, steel plate cage dangling from a chain above a pit. He opens it and gestures inside. “We have a special exhibit under construction, though considering what wonderful guests you’ve been, I thought you might enjoy a glimpse.”
Your mother places both hands on your shoulder as if ready to pick you up and carry you away. The guide sees this but doesn’t take it personally. To show you it’s safe, he steps inside the cage first then twists around the empty space.
Still unsure, your mother looks to you, lets you decide. Deep inside your soul, something beckons you to see what’s next in a language you don’t know but think you could pronounce if you tried. A meeting that almost feels like fate. A name half-noticed further down the page by a wandering eye.
You shrug, and your mother takes this as affirmation for one last horror. The two of you step into the cage with the guide. The door shuts on its own, and the cage lurches downward like an elevator. The soft neon that had accompanied you the entire time fades as you sink into a pit of shadows. The cage drops fast enough for you to feel it in your stomach. It’s tough to keep your pink sneakers steady.
The cage slows and gently settles atop a bed of sand in a pitch-black room. You can’t see the edges of the walls or ceiling. Only dark abyss. The cage opens, and the guide shows you out.
“Don’t wander away. We wouldn’t want you two getting lost.”
The guide says nothing more. He stands with his hands behind his back, gazing at the distance. You stare too yet see nothing. A long time passes, and your mother asks if maybe you should leave. You ask for five more minutes. After coming this far, you want to see this last thing.
Six glowing eyes open in the air a great distance away, and you realize you’re not in a room. What exists around you is a sky without stars and a horizon that never knew light. The six blue-light eyes, positioned like a spider’s, don’t illuminate its own body well. The head is like a sea-rotted cube that has eaten off its own corners atop a too-thin neck that disappears into the abyss. The lights face you. Stare back at you. For minutes, you try to decipher the rest of its body through the dark but cannot. In a blink, the eyes inch closer.
“We should go,” your mother says, a rattle in her voice. You and her look back. The guide is gone. The opened cage remains.
When you check on the eyes, they are far too close. They loom like a set of blue suns. You still can’t see what kind of body the neck leads to. Your mother grabs you by the wrist and drags you back into the cage.
The door shuts.
The cage goes up.
Your mother shifts her hands over yours then squeezes.
As you fly away, the eyes follow. They keep pace. Between the two, you worry the cage is slower even though your guts strain from its momentum. You expect a shadow drenched limb to appear from the darkness to smash you apart.
Despite your fears, you see nothing. Only the eyes.
They don’t shrink as if you’ve outrun them but blink out one by one. You and your mother are in pure, total, heavy darkness for but a moment before the cage pulls itself back up into an aquarium flooded by neon.
You’re at the end, and a nice teenager in a booth thanks you for stopping by then points at the gift shop. Inside are some cheap stickers, poorly made stuffed animals, and shirts. On a shelf, you learn the creature with six eyes is called Ortro and priced at nineteen ninety-nine as a black threaded ball with six felt dots stitched into it. The rest of the selection is equally disappointing, but your mother encourages you to pick something out.
“You want to remember today, right?”
You do. After all, it was a day spent with your mother. You pick out a t-shirt with “The Aquarium of Horror” printed on the front. The font choice is dull, and there are no pictures to add visual flair, but it fits over your white dress. A few months later, you’ll lose the shirt and forget the name of the place as the memory nestles alongside forgotten dreams.
A few steps, and you’re back on the hot pier. The air-conditioning had become so natural that you forgot how sweltering it is outside. To fight against the heat, your mother buys ice cream. The two of you sit on a bench as waves of people pass by. Some chocolate drips onto the shirt, but the dark blue fabric makes it impossible to notice.
The two of you chat about the aquarium, and she asks if you liked it. You said you did, and it’s true. Listening, your mother nods. She asks what your favorite display was. You say the prophecy. The swirl of lights and the shadow of your future self still linger in the back of your mind. You hope to dream of it like you sometimes do of when your mother and father got along.
In fact, you will dream again of it. Much, much later, after the prophesied event had already occurred. You’ll wake from the dream, covered in sweat as your own child lays nestled beside you. Memories of the aquarium will feel so clear you’d think you’ve read it in a story. The difference being, you finally understand the prophecy as if submerged in it like a sailor of olde.
The light tried to tell you of a disastrous family diner. Your mother will say something of your then dead father, and you’ll explode on her. The first time in years. It will be an awful fight that ends in you fleeing with tears. On the drive back home, you’ll think of your childhood because what else has your mother left you to think about? Intrusive thoughts will hit one after the other, and the small space of your car will start to suffocate.
You’ll stop beside a random field, get out, and walk through it as if hoping to vanish into the distant tree line. Each step through overgrown grass will bring a new memory, and soon you’ll traverse through the long history of quiet moments that made up your life. Not just the bad, but the good too. Like the day your mother took you to a random aquarium on the pier. You’ll remember the shirt you lost, and feel a pang in your heart knowing it’s gone forever.
In that field, you’ll reflect, and it will be one of the most important moments of your life. It’ll be when you accept how hard your childhood was for both you and your mother. You’ll appreciate how much work your Granma put in to making a home, how tough the long hours had to have been for your mother who surely wanted to spend more days at piers with you, and how despite the massive love for your father, he was never a perfect man. That will also be when you allow yourself to hurt, to recognize the pain of wishing your mother had more to give, and that wishing for attention never made you selfish.
You will stand beneath a ghostly moon lurking in the shifting twilight, and despite the conflicting feelings of love and pain, you’ll decide to forgive your mother. In forgiveness, you’ll find a new, strange, horrifying, mesmerizing, beautiful peace you’ll have never thought possible before.
But that moment is in the future. There is no forgiveness in you now because you’re just beginning to recognize the pain.
As you two talk, the heat beats down on you. You watch the energy melt from your mother. You try to ask about her favorite part of the aquarium, but she gives vague answers. Some passersby step on her toes. Her face gets angry and red, blending with the sunburn set into her cheeks. Sweat soaks through the dress, making your new shirt heavy.
Your mother checks the time and accidentally lets out a sigh. You pretend not to notice, but your mother panics. She yanks you by the wrists to haul you to another attraction. Somewhere away from the heat and bitter guilt that swims behind both your heels.
Joshua Flowers is a graduate of the University of Maine Farmington and has lived in Maine for over a decade despite a tumultuous history with snow and ice. His work has been seen in All Worlds Wayfarer and Flash Fiction Magazine.
He tweets his existential crises @FlowersisBrit.