It was a door standing at the side of the road, unsupported and unconnected to any wall or structure. Amira slowed from a jog to a walk to a stop, eyeing the door from her peripheral vision as she paused her music. She saw plenty of oddities on her daily runs — like the unicyclist in the park, or poems scrawled in chalk on the sidewalk, or a single bedazzled high heel stuck in a tree — but this door gave her pause.
Maybe it was the fact that it was standing on its own. Maybe it was the slowly growing puddle of water pooled at its bottom edge, where the rest of the pavement was dry. Maybe it was the scene painted on the door: at the bottom, pink rocks or coral poked out of a pool or lake. Sinuous trees were growing out of the water as well, twining around each other in the blue gloom. Or were they trees? Maybe they were some kind of rock formation, though Amira didn’t think rocks could form such organic loops and whorls. At the top of the door they came together like a round window frame to give a glimpse of sea life beyond, with stalactites (or were they stalagmites? Amira couldn’t remember) hanging from the very top of the frame.
Amira squinted at the door, checked the street for cars, and walked closer. Was it just the diffuse sun from the overcast sky that made it look like those fish were moving? Maybe?
The puddle at the bottom of the door was definitely growing, though.
On a whim, Amira lifted a hand to knock on the door.
But someone on the other side knocked first.
She started backwards, staring, and looked up and down the street. There was no one around. When she leaned over to peer behind the door, holding her breath, there was no one there, either.
Someone knocked again.
Amira grew up with all the fairy tales and fantasy the other kids did. She read about wardrobes and rabbit holes and so forth — worlds that opened up to little girls with fair hair and gingham dresses, not to a thirty-year-old IT tech in sweaty running gear and a headscarf. But here she was, with a door standing on a sidewalk in her quiet neighborhood, and someone was knocking.
She took a deep breath, turned the knob, and pulled.
The door opened — something opened. It was as if the door became something translucent, between air and glass, and separated from the scene painted on it, so that in the end she was standing before the exact same underwater view with her hand on a nearly-invisible door.
The mermaid on the pink rocks blinked up at her, her hand still raised as if to knock again.
“… Can I help you?” Amira asked.
“Oh.” The mermaid blinked again. She had no hair. Her skin was the silvery gray of a dolphin, with a swoop of black markings that started at the crown of her head and trailed down her back. “I was expecting a sea witch.”
“Uh, sorry. I’m pretty good at C++, but I wouldn’t call myself a witch.”
The mermaid frowned at her. Amira hurried on. “I think maybe you’ve got the wrong door.”
“Maybe.” The mermaid put her head on one side. “Maybe not. Do you want to come in?”
Amira’s spine tingled. “Why?”
The mermaid smiled. Her teeth were spiky and very white. “Come in and see my kingdom. I’m a princess, you know. You could be too. Come in and I’ll teach you to breathe underwater, to sing the songs of whales, to be untouchable as shark skin or sleek as a seal. Come in.”
“Don’t mermaids, like, drown sailors?”
“You’re not a sailor, are you?”
Amira had to admit that was true. And why shouldn’t she? What was holding her here? Work on Monday? Was she ever going to get a chance like this, a chance to be Alice or Dorothy or Wendy?
“You’ll have to lose this, though,” the mermaid added, lifting a gray hand and gesturing around her head. “You can’t swim with all that around your head. It’ll only drag you down.”
And that decided her.
Amira shook her head and smiled. “No, no thank you. I hope you find a princess — but it’s not going to be me.”
And with that, she shut the door — and the door was only wood, and the cave was only paint. But there was a dark patch on the pink rocks, now, as if something sleek and wet had been lying there moments before.
Amira shook her head again to clear it and put her earbuds back in. There was a shower at home with her name on it; that was the only water she wanted to be under at the moment. And though she thought wistfully of learning to sing whale songs, she didn’t regret it.
Nobody needed to tell her what would drag her down. She knew perfectly well: it’s the people who tell you that crap that’ll do it, every time.
Even if they’re mermaids.