The room my father dies in is green: green like his eyes, green like the carpet of the house we used to live in, when we lived under the sea. He dies with those green eyes open, gone milky under a film of cataracts. The nurse who comes to take away the body looks at him with disgust, but then, they all do.
“Are you the daughter?”
She inspects me with her bureaucracy eyes, and I sense her grudging approval. I only spent two years there, two years in the pressurized dome that was our family’s refuge. I am not like him. I’m not like her either, but at least I’m not like him.
My father was not a strong man. His limbs were rubbery and slack from the years spent underwater. Some people, like my old foster parents, said his brain got rubbery too, clogged with the seawater seeping through his eardrums. That’s nonsense, of course. My father was always well protected whenever he left the airlock, in the bulky scuba suit that made him look like Superman instead of the hundred-pound weakling he really was. But people will believe what they want to believe.
While the nurse rolls my father onto a gurney and heads for the incinerator, I gaze out the window at the skyscrapers that line the avenue, polished black surface as far as the eye can see. I don’t turn around until I cease to hear the nurse’s squeaky shoes, and then I slip away.
On Tuesday afternoons I take the bus out to the suburbs, to attend my support group. They have all kinds there: sea people, glacier people, people who grew up in floating villages the size of three square city blocks. It is hard for people to adjust after living in these conditions, they say. It is a state requirement to attend.
It takes all kinds of people to build America.
A woman named Dolores leads our motley group. She is young and eager and hopeful and mindless. Every session begins with a variation on the same question:
“When did you figure out you were different from other people?”
When you told us, I want to say. But if you do that, you don’t get your subsistence check. “I… I was nine years old. Some kids pushed me down into the mud on the playground. They called me mermaid. They were so cruel.” I hang my head, putting my hand over my mouth so she doesn’t see the smirk.
That’s the kind of answer she loves to hear. Her pleasure is evident. “And how did it make you feel?”
“Awful,” I say. “Awful.”
Dolores grew up in a split-entry house in a subdivision called Mulberry Creek, with fifty other families exactly like hers. Despite its name, there is no water in Mulberry Creek. Just a lot of split-entry houses.
In the ocean, there are no subdivisions. That’s only one of the things that make it so dysfunctional.
“Today we’re going to do a little bit of art therapy. I want you to draw a picture of your ideal home. What would it look like? What would it contain?” Dolores passes around pads and crayons, enough for the entire group.
Also, there is no art therapy in the ocean, as there are no counselors there.
The secret I don’t tell them is this: I loved it there. I loved every second of it.
When you grow up in one of Earth’s most uninhabitable locations, you don’t expect much in the way of amenities. That’s why they house us in dormitories, one person to a postage-stamp-sized room. Communal bathrooms and kitchen, a small backyard for us to pace around in and tend. It’s not much, but between the monthly checks and the free medical care, it’s a pretty sweet life for someone like me.
But it makes some things hard. Dating, for one. Can you imagine bringing a guy back to a place that’s designed to mimic your abusive childhood home under the sea, and trying to convince him you’re a nice, normal girl? That’s why we usually date each other, though that has problems of its own. Namely, the self-pity patrol.
“I grew up on an ice floe near Greenland,” a guy named Mark or Matt, says.
“It was a very traumatic experience. I mean, I was really affected by it.”
“Takes one to know one.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever get over it,” Mark-or-Matt says, shaking his head. “There’s just no way.”
“I don’t blame you.”
“It was a terrible way to grow up.”
It’s a good thing I like being alone.
When night comes, they turn on the wave machines in the ocean peoples’ wing, to remind us of home. We’ll go crazy if we aren’t immersed in our natural environment, no matter how dysfunctional our natural environment is. That’s what the top experts say, so it must be true. At first it kept me up, but now I’m indifferent. You don’t really hear it after a while.
But when it does keep me up, I like to pretend that I’m back there, back underneath the ocean, in the thick wool blankets my mother used to wrap us in. Together in our aloneness, my brothers and me, the only children for miles.
A hologram of a fish swims past me, on the wall above my cot. You can’t even see fish in an underwater sea-floor dome, but they don’t care.
I don’t know where my brothers are now. They probably live a life a lot like me, in the cities they were taken to after we were all rescued and separated. I wouldn’t know how to contact them if I wanted to.
Sometimes memories are enough.
When I met my father for the first time in thirteen years, he was starving and homeless, having hitchhiked from Albany, New York, which is where he was placed after we were rescued. He bribed my address out of a state worker sympathetic to our case. They exist, though they still don’t like to touch us. He was dying of cancer. I took him out for coffee, and we got to talking.
“I never should have made your mother move.” His walrus mustache trailed into his coffee cup.
“You don’t have anything to apologize for.”
“I’ve ruined your life. You can’t ever be normal because of me. I’m the one that made us move.”
“I liked it there. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
“You can’t get a good job because you didn’t go to school. Because of me.”
“Drink your coffee,” I said.
“We shouldn’t have run. Things aren’t so bad here.” I followed his gaze out onto the street. His breath quickened as he watched the riot of flesh and metal streaming down the street, the crowded angry world. “We thought they were bad. There were too many people, too much noise. Life wasn’t exciting anymore. But excitement doesn’t matter. We should have stayed put.”
With a quick gesture I turned his attention back to the table, back to me. “I love you, Dad.”
He sighed, added cream to his coffee, and swirled it around, a miniature Charybdis.
I touched his gnarled hand with its delicate network of veins and looked out the window, up to the sky. The stars weren’t out right then, but they would be soon. And I thought then that someday I would like to be among them. In my mind, I buried my feet in the soil of a virgin planet, strange waters lapping at my shinbones. Here and now, I traced the blue highways of my father’s hand.
Erica L. Satifka is a writer of zines, short fiction, and comic books living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her short story “Automatic” appeared in the January 2007 issue of Clarkesworld Magazine. She hopes to grow up and become a librarian someday.
Like most of my stories, it started with the first line, which popped into my head and didn’t let go. I knew I wasn’t going to be writing about merpeople, so who else would live under the sea? That got me thinking about adventurers, what would happen to people who decided permanently to live “on the edge,” and what their lives would be like if they returned to the overcrowded, oppressive society that caused them to run in the first place.