When I get the letter from one of my cousins that my mother died, I quit my job wrestling in Florida then move to New Orleans and work at the Aquarium of the Americas as a night watchman. It’s easy to convince myself that I’m being proud, that I’m working my way back home, instead of avoiding a small, empty house or finding my mother’s grave in a cemetery full of low, metal markers. Bill Elk, this guy I grew up with on the Reservation knows I need money when I call. I take advantage of this and he hires me then, offers his old friend a place on his couch. He feels like he’s doing me a favor.
Training for the job takes a few days. It amounts to little more than taking a few walks during the night, and spending the rest of the time in the security center, a room no bigger than a closet. It looks like most of the ones you see on TV, small and dark, ringed by silent black and white squares, empty, quiet hallways. Bill stays the first couple of nights, squeezes into the camera room with me. He shows me how to switch screens, zoom and pan. We go on checks, right after we lock the doors at closing, then again at midnight, and a last time at four, just before the early staff gets there to feed the animals and clean the exhibits. The first week, Bill tells me horror stories, about how some night watchman quit because they see things, or because they get tired of chasing people off after a few nights, or weeks, month or two.
After that, he tells me about all the animals, eels and sea horses, white-spotted Amazonian sting rays, poisonous frogs and photoelectric jellyfish no bigger than one of my thumbs. At night, the Caribbean section of the aquarium looks vacant, all the aquariums dark rectangles, circles and squares, like chunks cut out of the walls. I ask him why some of the exhibits are dark, and he explains that some need less light at night, but that all of the tanks have nocturnal settings, the illusion of day.
The last night he trains me, Bill brings a pack of hot dogs, cheap red ones squeezed inside thick casings. We stop in the Amazon exhibit, at the piranha tank. Bill opens the pack with a little folding pocket knife and pulls out a link, whole, and hands it to me.
“Go ahead,” he says.
I toss the hot dog in the water, and crouch, watch it float, tossing end over end, down to the bottom of the tank. The fish twitch and low green light rolls along their sides ahead of a wave of shadow. They stay in formation with one another, nose to tail in an even cloud. “They’re not doing anything,” I say.
He points at the tank. “Just give it a second,” he says. “They have to wake up.”
One of the fish breaks from the rest, noses down to the bit of meat. Another darts in, and another. The water churns in a cloud of silver bubbles around the hot dog and fish, calms. The fish fall upward in the water, back into formation, and I stand. “Neat,” I say. I try to sound interested.
Bill leans on the tank. He’s taller than me, but skinnier, looks stretched in cargo shorts and a too short t-shirt. He wears his hair the way we all imagine the old way, long to the shoulders and braided in one, thick braid. “Why do you want to work here?” He says. He drops a couple of pieces of hot dog into the tank.
“I needed the money,” I say. “And it’s on the way back to Oklahoma. Why?”
“You just never seemed interested in this sort of thing,” he says. The water churns and he drops another chunk in, waits, drops another. “In high school, it was all football and sports and drinking. Same thing until you left college. Then you ran off to be a wrestler.”
“Does it really matter why I want to work here?” I say. “I need the money and I’ll do the job.” I watch, as best I can, the fish attack the food, down in the low green night light, deep in the tank.
He looks at me, raises his eyebrows. He shrugs a little. “You just kind of disappeared.”
Overhead I hear a click and hiss, and thick mist tacks down on leaves and rocks, dimples water in the open tanks. I turn my face up and it feels good until the water mixes with the heat, thickens to humidity. Bill breathes out, loud, through his lips, and lets the last few pieces of hot dog roll out of his hand into the tank.
“Listen,” he says, “You know how it is back on the Reservation.” He puts the remaining hot dogs in a pocket, dips his hand in the water, quick, and wipes it on the leg of his shorts. “My mom went to your mom’s funeral, Cap.” He puts his hands in his pockets. “That was a month ago. What are you doing?”
The water spits and ripples, simmers a bit, and the fish calm, flick themselves back into neat rows. “I’m trying to work my way back,” I say. “I’ll get there when I get there.”
Bill looks like he wants to say something else, but I ask him where to next, what else I need to know. High up, in the ribs of the greenhouse, the sprinklers stop. A few more drops fall, slap the rocks and wide dark mouths of aquariums, slower, until they stop, too.
“Nothing,” he says. “There’s nothing else.” He pulls a hand out of his pocket, holds it up. “I could spring for a bus ticket.”
“It’s fine,” I say. “I think I have it covered if you want to go home. I know you’re scheduled tomorrow.”
He tilts a little in the dim light to look at his watch, puts his hand back in his pocket. “It is late,” he says. “Anyway, you never know what might happen. Call if you need me. I’ll lock the doors behind me.” He turns and leaves, down an incline and away around a brown slump of ivy-crowned rock.
I watch the piranha a bit longer, blunt foreheads nosed into the fake current. I think about dipping my hand in, wonder what the fish feel like, the still, open eyes and slick scales, rough edges of uneven teeth.
The next day, Tuesday, I watch people file out through the doors at close. Tourists leave first, a clump of overweight people and skinny people, tall and short, foreign students and art students with over-sized sketch pads and tackle boxes of paint supplies; strollers and mothers, little, clustered systems of relatives, aunts, uncles and in-laws. A man walks by with his daughter on his shoulders, a couple behind them holding hands. Both look to be about my age, not quite into their thirties. They go into the people crowded around the doors and lose hands, but she grabs the back of his shirt between two fingers, and he reaches back and hooks a finger in the waist of her pants. They look at each other and smile, leave, and I lose them out in all the people. After the last visitors leave, the girl that runs the gift shop pulls the cage across the entrance and looks at me. I wave and she looks down, walks back to the register. She opens it and starts pulling out money, arranging it into stacks.
While the rest of the staff leaves for the day, I do my first check. Inside, the aquarium feels like I imagine a reef must feel, jagged and narrow, smaller than it looks on the outside. With the low ceiling and the low hum of dim tanks, I imagine all the building above, so close, like a depth of water, and the ground beneath my feet water, too. I imagine floating there, alone, and have to walk through the arched water tunnel at the Caribbean Reef tank looking at my feet, through the rest of the crowded area and smaller tanks, the otter and penguin houses, the island terrariums of bright, croaking frogs.
I feel better when I get to the Amazon and Mississippi River exhibits. The trees and brush are close and the open tanks smell like low tide, but I can see the glass ceiling overhead. Outside, jet contrails cross the sky like unraveling seams. I stop and catch my breath, watch the sky purple past white metal and glass, out over the river and the jagged silhouettes of passing ships.
I finish my walkthrough and go back to the security room, check all the cameras. At eight, the phone rings once, twice, and I answer.
“How’s it going?” Bill says. “How’d it go last night? I guess we just passed each other at home today.”
On one of the cameras, I watch shadows outside the Gulf tank. Uneven black outlines of sharks and smaller fish, a blot of turtle on the gray screen, pass across the floor and up the wall, disappear into deeper shadow at the ceiling. “The fish are still swimming,” I say.
Bill clears his throat.
I lean back and prop an elbow on the arm of the chair, rest my head in my hand, and rock a little, back and forth. “Was there something else?” I say.
“You seemed angry last night. You still seem angry. I just wanted to help,” he says, breathes heavy across the phone.
“I don’t need help,” I say. The camera in the gift shop pans across coffee mugs and shot glasses, rows of stuffed otters and big-eyed pink turtles wearing hooded sweatshirts, children’s t-shirts, plush puppets, socks, paper weights, world music soundtracks for all the IMAX movies playing at the theater. “Not anymore help than you’ve given me.” I hate to sound ungrateful, so I tell him the help is appreciated. “I just don’t think you’d understand. And that’s not your fault.”
“You have to let someone try, at some point,” he says. I hear his stubble scrape across the phone. “We were friends at one point.”
The gift shop camera pans back to its starting point. “Have you ever noticed how everyone scatters when they leave the Reservation? We all leave in ones and twos and threes. You and I left together. Then we all separate and go our own ways,” I say. “Is that how it works for normal people? Or is that just us?” I lean forward and the chair creaks out a quick groan, metal against metal. “I’m an orphan, now, and you’re the only Indian I still know.”
“Go home,” Bill says. “You still have family there.”
“I have aunts and uncles,” I say. “The same cousins everyone else has. I’m going back.” I look at the theater camera, gray grain over rows of rigid, empty seats. “I just can’t yet. Ask me again after my first paycheck.”
“Do what you have to do, then,” he says. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
I hang up and watch the screens a bit longer, a mosaic of black and white, filtered shadows, and the long dark of empty hallways.
Later, I go to the balcony just off the food court and smoke a cigarette. Somewhere down along the river, I hear an accordion, then a trolley passes behind the building, under the bridge and away, and the accordion music goes, too, and all I hear are cars and far away yells, rough bar music over the low tops of buildings. I finish the cigarette and go inside, lock the door.
Something falls behind me in the food court. It sounds like boxes and silverware, empty plastic cups clanking out across tile. I turn around.
“I’m a professional wrestler,” I say. I hear something that sounds like a stifled sneeze from behind one of the counters. “Who’s there?” I walk over to the counter and I imagine I look like a cartoon thief, tiptoeing towards the low red counter and registers, the stacked, empty pizza boxes. “I know you’re back there,” I say. “Come on up.”
I almost convince myself I imagined the whole thing when a girl stands up from behind the counter. She holds up a hand. “Hi,” she says. She smiles. She has dark hair corkscrewed with curls and green eyes, wears a plain white t-shirt with a pocket and baggy shorts.
“Can I help you?” I say.
“This looks really bad,” she says. She chews on a thumbnail. “I can explain.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I lost my purse and got locked in while I was looking for it.” She crosses her arms, looks up at me. “Are you really a professional wrestler?”
“Yes,” I say. “You didn’t try to find someone? I didn’t see you on my walkthrough earlier.”
“I got scared and hid,” she says. “Plus, once I was here, I thought it would be cool to spend the night.” She bends and starts picking up clear plastic cups, stacks them upside down on the counter.
I put a hand on top of the cups. “How old are you? You wanted to spend the night?”
She moves my hand and stacks a few more. “Twenty-five, and yes, I did,” she says. She finishes the cup and starts gathering the silverware on a red plastic tray. “I told you I got scared. You’re a professional wrestler.”
“Did you find your purse?”
“No,” she says. “I hid.” She finishes putting all the loose silverware on the tray. “Do you mind if I put these in the sink?” She nods backwards with her head, towards the kitchen.
“Yes,” I say. “Put them down.” I wave her towards me with a hand. “Come out from behind there.”
She puts the tray down and the knives and spoons, forks, rattle. Out from the counter, she seems shorter, comes just up to my chest. I feel sluggish and big, too small for my body when I see her shoulders, thin brown legs.
“You’re trespassing,” I say. “I need you to come with me so I can call the cops.”
She looks up at me, winks. “Why would I want to come with you if you’re going to call the cops?” She crosses her arms.
“You’re not going to make me chase you, are you?” The drink machine shakes and a motor inside hums, ice clanks over ice. “What’s your name?”
“Jennifer,” she says. “And you are?” She offers me the back of her hand like I’m supposed to kiss it.
“Cap,” I say. I ignore her hand, scratch at my beard.
“Like captain?” She says.
“My dad fought in World War II. The soldiers got comic books in their ration packs and my dad loved Captain America.” I scratch my neck, all around the collar of my shirt.
“World War II?” She says. “You don’t look that old.”
“He was almost sixty when I was born,” I say. “You lost your purse?” I feel hot, and brush my hand through my hair.
Jennifer looks around the food court, at all the chairs on top of tables, the low glow of drink machines. “Yeah,” she says. “Could you help me find it?”
“I’ve got to call someone,” I say. I start breathing hard, bend at the waist, put my hands on my knees. “You’re not supposed to be here.” The room tilts and I fall.
I wake up on the food court floor, and sit up. Jennifer sits next to me, cross-legged, with a steaming paper cup, offers it to me.
“It’s coffee,” she says. “I went into Haagen-Daas while you were out and made a pot. Was that normal? The passing out thing?”
I take the cup and sip. “You shouldn’t be here,” I say.
She props back on her arms. “I couldn’t leave, could I?” Behind her, a scale Great White shark hangs from the ceiling, modeled in mid-strike, teeth floating out in a jagged circle. A scale Whale shark hangs next to it, peaceful, trailing smaller fish and bits of sea weed sculpted in imaginary currents.
“Listen, just leave and come back tomorrow,” I say. I wave her away. “I’ll look for it tonight and put it in lost and found with your name on it. I just want to be alone.” I stand, put the coffee in the garbage.
She looks up at me. “What if you pass out again and there’s no one here?” She uncrosses her legs and stands. “Is this a steroid thing?”
I wrinkle my forehead, squint at her. “What?” I say. “Why would it be a steroid thing?”
“You said you were a professional wrestler. I thought they did that sort of thing.” She uses both hands to hook hair behind her ears.
I feel myself start to breathe quick again and I take a few deep breaths, close my eyes, open them. “I wasn’t that kind of professional wrestler,” I say. I start walking towards the security room, around the atrium rail and back past the frogs, through the dark press of black tanks in the Caribbean exhibits.
She follows. “What kind of professional wrestler were you, then?”
I walk faster and she speeds up. “I was that kind, but I didn’t make steroid money.”
“Did you have a wrestler name?”
I stop at the security center door, turn around. “Just leave me alone. I don’t even care if you spend the night anymore, or if you find your purse or not. I’m going to go into this room and I want to be left alone.” I close the door and sit, lean back in the chair, and fold an arm over my eyes.
A few minutes later, she knocks on the door. “Are you alright?” She says. The thin door muffles her voice, makes her sound sad.
“Don’t you have anything better to do?” I say.
She’s quiet, and I think maybe she left. I lean closer to the door.
“No,” she says. “Not really.”
I lean back, throw my arms up. “I can call the cops,” I say. “I have a phone in here.”
“You’re not going to call the cops, or you would’ve already.”
“How do you know I haven’t?” I say.
I look at the bank of cameras, find the one that points down the long hallway towards the security room door. She looks like a small ghost in the velvet grain of the camera. She sits with knees to her chest, back to the door, lays her head back and closes her eyes. “Then you wouldn’t be threatening to call them now.”
“You won’t leave me alone,” I say. “This is like a hostage situation.”
“No,” she says. “It’s not. You can come out when you want. You just won’t.” She looks up, opens eyes tiny and dark on the screen. “Why did you run away from me?”
“You’ve got to leave eventually,” I say. “People start getting here at five to feed the animals.”
She looks at her watch, a tiny thing like a kid’s meal toy, crosses her legs. She rests her hands in her lap. “It’s just midnight. We can talk until then, right? Why did you run away from me?”
I look at the phone, think about calling the cops, Bill. “Because you won’t stop asking questions,” I say. “You won’t leave me alone.”
“You seem awful scared of me to be a pro wrestler.”
“Why are you stuck on that?”
“I’ve never met a pro wrestler before,” she says. She looks up, and for a minute I think she sees the camera, but then she looks off, down the hall. “It’s creepy out here. Can you at least open the door?”
“You could go home,” I say.
“I don’t have a home.”
“You could go to your parents.”
“I don’t talk to my parents,” she says. She stands, crosses her arms, and faces the door, leans in a little. “How about yours?” Her voice sounds louder, clearer.
“My parents are dead,” I say.
I watch her stand outside the door. She sways a little, rubs her eyes with both hands, stops. She looks away down the hall, and back at the door. “Cap,” she says, “I think someone’s in here.”
I hear a crash somewhere outside, farther out in the aquarium. I look at the camera banks, scan the first row and the second. Midway through the third row, on the camera outside the penguin house, I see three people. One stands to the side and the other two yank at one of the benches screwed in the floor across from the tank. They pick it up, and I cock my head, like a dog hearing an unfamiliar sound, when the pair take three steps, and heave the bench through the glass. One of them reaches in and grabs a penguin, cradles it, wiggling, across his body like a watermelon. The three run off and around a corner, appear on the next set of cameras heading through the further exhibits, doubling back to the front doors.
I open the door and look at Jennifer. “Stay here,” I say. I hear the penguin downstairs, bleating like a goat, quick feet, and hurried voices getting closer to the front doors.
I run out and down the atrium stairs, just as two of them run past and through one of the front doors, one of them carrying the penguin. I start out after them when the third runs out behind me. He tries to stop and run back into the aquarium, but I tackle him. I roll over behind him and lock one of his arms over his head, grab the other wrist and pull it up behind his back. I stand up with him.
“You’re hurting me,” he says. He sounds like a teenager, wears black jeans and a tight black mesh shirt, silver rings on all his fingers.
I twist his arm up further behind him. “Where are your friends going?”
He laughs and I twist his arm until his shoulder pops, falls out limp next to him, dislocated. I let go and he falls, grabs the shoulder with a hand, starts crying. I go to my knees over him and punch him in the face. “Where are they going?”
Jennifer stands at the top of the stairs. “Cap,” she says.
I punch him again and his head snaps back. Blood flies out across the floor in a string.
“I called the cops,” Jennifer says. “You have to stop.”
I roll off of him and sit, legs spread out to either side. I look at the palms of my hands, my bloody knuckles. I look up when Jennifer crouches next to me. “Just calm down,” she says.
I lay my head on her shoulder. She curls her arm back around my head, cradles me into her neck, and I cry until the police get there.
After the cops come and ask questions, cuff the goth kid, two of the three squad cars leaves. The last cop tells me he needs to call whoever is on duty to come to the Aquarium, and that Jennifer and I should stay on hand. I go to the water tunnel, a glass arch slicing through the Caribbean Reef exhibit, and stop in the middle. Shadows like long darts pass across the carpet. A stingray swims overhead, a silent black kite in the dim water. I close my eyes again, and imagine the building a dark crush of water.
“I’m not bothering you, am I?” Jennifer says. Veins of light cross her face, break and meld on her forehead and cheeks.
“Does it matter?” I say.
She looks down, and I tell her no, she’s not bothering me.
“So you didn’t lose your purse?” I say.
“No,” she says. She clasps hands behind her neck, touches elbows in front. “I needed somewhere to stay.” Her arms fall. “But I wasn’t in on the penguin heist. I swear.”
“Maybe not,” I say.
A stingray picks up a mouthful of rocks and drops them overhead. They tumble down the slope of glass and fall through the water, irregular dots of black in the murky.
“You’re probably going to get fired when your supervisor shows up,” she says. She looks up the arch of glass.
“Yeah,” I say. “I guess I’m going home.”
“That’s not so bad, then,” she says. She puts a hand on the glass, watches a fish pass and pause, swim away.
I watch her watch the fish, then I watch it go too, around an artificial reef and out into the dark. “That’s what I’ve been avoiding,” I say.
I wonder why she cares, why I want to tell her. I think about Bill. “I hate the Reservation,” I say. “We didn’t even live on reservation land because my mother was a white woman. We lived out on the edge of town, away from everyone. When my father died, she refused to leave. All I can think is she must’ve been miserable, that she must’ve died with all these faces around that looked nothing like hers. My dad had five sisters, and they all hated my mother. I wonder if anyone was even there when she died.” I look at Jennifer.
She blows over her hand and the condensation gathers around it, beads out across the glass. “It’d be crazy to have a home and not go to it if you could.” She looks up at me, hand still stretched out across the glass.
I look at her and think about my mother, about all the faces she must’ve seen before she died, aunts, uncles, and in-laws, cousins of cousins, wide faces and dark hair, like mine, like my father’s.
I look at the outline of her hand, silver water webbed between fingers, bent around the lower curve of palm, through to the tank beyond, thick with slow shadows, silent in the crush of water. The condensation warms and fades, all but the curves of fingertips, and those fade, too.
PJ Underwood lives, writes, and teaches in Tupelo, Mississippi. “Cryptid” is the first chapter of a longer work.