“Anna?” a voice called loudly from the sidewalk. Then more sharply “Anna!”
“I’m coming Ri,” Anna replied, but continued to stare at the mermaid’s silky hair without moving.
“She always does this,” Ri grumbled from outside.
“Don’t worry,” said a male voice. “Your parents will find her and shove her out here soon enough.”
“I’m tired of waiting, though. Ash is already there, we gotta get going!”
“She’s not already there. You know she’s always late.”
“Still, at least she doesn’t have to lug munchkins around all evening.”
Anna rolled her eyes. Then just let me stay, she thought. Her parents weren’t too keen on her staying in the bar all night, but she didn’t care. She could wash glasses, restock drinks, or maybe just stand out of everyone’s way and stare at this painting all night long. Why couldn’t she just stay?
“I’d lug munchkins around all week if it meant I got to be with you.” There was a slap and then a giggle.
“At least Anna Marie will be there with her.”
“Yep, the two girls will keep each other company, which means –” there was a delighted shriek followed by another giggle.
“Sorry babe, I just can’t help it.”
Anna squinted her eyes, focusing on the picture and trying to block out Ri’s obnoxious voice. When had her parents gotten this painting? She didn’t know, but she could remember coming into the bar to help her parents set up for the night ever since she was little and just standing in the back corner staring at the mermaid, scales glistening in the water-diffused sunlight, hands and head stretched toward the invisible surface, golden hair floating around her perfect porcelain face. Like Ri’s hair. Anna had always wished her hair looked like that.
“Annamaria!” her mother’s voice called.
Anna sighed. “Bye,” she said to the painting, and walked out to the curb where Ri and Brock were receiving last-minute reminders.
“You have enough money?” her mother asked.
“Yes,” Ri replied irritably. “Mom, we’ll be fine.”
“We’ll be closing up around four or so. You can either come back then or stay the night somewhere else. Do you know whose house you’ll sleep at?”
“Probably Ash’s. Don’t worry, we won’t be on the streets all night.”
“And you’re going to pick up Anna Marie right now?” she asked Brock.
“Yeah. Oh, also, my mom wanted me to tell you that she’ll be here by the end of happy hour.”
“We’ll need her tonight, there’s a bachelorette party booked from ten to two.” Anna’s mother sighed. She turned to Anna, smiling. “Hey sweetie, you ready to head out?”
“Can’t I just stay here tonight?” Anna mumbled.
“Not tonight, honey,” she said, ruffling her hair. “It’s going to be too hectic, and it might not be completely safe for you. Besides, Anna Marie will be there. It’ll be fun!”
“Sure, fun.” Anna grimaced.
They arrived at the park at seven, but Ash was nowhere to be seen. “Where is she?” said Ri, not bothering to hide her frustration. Brock hugged her, trying to soothe her nerves, and Anna Marie looked around at the entrance curiously.
“I like what they did with the lights,” she said to Anna. Anna made a noise to show she heard, but didn’t bother to open her mouth.
She eyed Anna Marie grudgingly. Usually one sibling tended to inherit the looks while the other didn’t, but that wasn’t the case with Brock and Anna Marie. Both had the glossy, straight brown hair and lean bodies of their parents, and dark, captivating eyes. How was that fair? Ri had always been the prettier one, ever since Anna had been around to compare her to.
And now here was someone else for comparison. Ever since Brock and Ri started going out, Anna and Anna Marie had forced to spend time together. How convenient, their parents thought, that the kids had younger sisters of the same age. Anna Marie and Annamaria? They should get along well. In any case, it was nice that the four of them could go on double dates of sorts. Great, and convenient. The kids got chaperones, and the girls got babysitters. And the adults slept well every night.
It was just too bad that Anna and Anna Marie weren’t friends. Not that Anna hated Anna Marie, she just didn’t particularly enjoy spending time with her. She was nice enough to Anna, but not all that interesting. Anna Marie was a Pretty Girl, something Anna would never know how to be.
“Gosh, finally!” Ri exclaimed as Ash suddenly appeared with two younger boys in tow.
“Sorry,” said Ash, making a face. “Mom made me take the twins along, it took forever to get them out of the house.”
“Perfect, they can hang out with the girls all night,” Ri said, waving a hand dismissively in the direction of the Annas. “Let’s go in, it’s about to start.”
Once a month there was an all-night event held in their local park, starting with a movie that was projected on a large screen strung between two trees, some snacks, some dancing, another movie, and more dancing. It was an event for people of all ages, but most tended to be under twenty years of age. Fortunately the park management turned a blind eye to illicit activities, as long as they didn’t get too out of hand.
Ri, Ash, and Brock migrated over toward a large group of teens from their school, yelling out to them and adding their quilt to the patchwork of blankets lying on the wet grass. Anna sat on the edge of the quilt, playing with the stem of a weed. Anna Marie and the boys sat down next to her, and Anna suppressed a sigh of irritation. She pulled her dishwater blonde hair up into a ponytail, trying to divert her attention from the inanity of the situation.
“What are your names?” Anna Marie asked the boys perkily. Anna looked at the twins. They weren’t quite identical, but they didn’t seem to be fraternal either. Both of them had short, thick black hair and shoulders that were broad for their age, but one had a longer face with brown eyes while the other had a shorter one with green eyes.
“Roland,” said brown eyes.
“Evan,” said green eyes.
An awkward silence descended upon the four of them. Anna thought of the mermaid, beautiful, calm, and completely isolated in her orb of ocean blue. Oh how she wished she could be submerged in that cool water, reaching toward the distant sun. Alone. Always alone.
“So… do you guys come to these things often?” Anna Marie said, desperately trying to make friendly conversation.
“No, this is our first time,” said Roland. Evan stayed quiet, staring off either into or through the bushes. He seemed to want to fade away just as much as Anna did.
“Oh, us too,” Anna Marie replied. She gestured at Anna. “Our older siblings are going out, that’s why we’re here.”
“Dragged along?” said Roland. Anna Marie nodded. “Same. Ash didn’t really want to bring us, but our folks thought getting out might be good for us.”
“Well, we’re being forced to babysit,” Anna Marie replied, and Roland laughed. Evan snorted, and Anna looked at him instinctively. He rolled his eyes at Roland and Anna Marie and, despite her irritation, Anna felt her mouth twitch up into a smile.
The projector finally flickered to life, and the crowd of youths slowly began to settle into expectant silence. The first movie of the night was a comedy one that Anna hadn’t seen or heard of before. She felt more than heard the crowd laugh in response to the film, allowing herself to be captivated and drawn deep into the plot, so far that in a way it seemed she no longer knew what it was actually about. When once again the dim lanterns on the trees lit up and the projector was turned off, Anna stretched tiredly and found that she could not remember any of what she had just watched. She turned to Ri, who was sitting on Brock’s lap.
“When can we leave?” Anna asked.
Ri looked at her, exasperated. “We can’t,” she replied.
“Why would you want to leave?” Anna Marie asked her. Anna noticed how, during the film, she and Roland had moved so close that their arms were brushing. Anna Marie suddenly appeared to be more radiant, more elegant, more whole than Anna had ever seen her before. Perhaps she wasn’t so boring after all. Anna looked at the fingers of Anna Marie’s and Roland’s hands, which had slowly begun to itch toward each other and intertwine. Their hands met each other and, quietly, Roland led Anna Marie out to where the teens had started dancing on the soft grass. Anna watched them go, her gut clenching with some feeling that fell between jealousy and fear. She glanced at Evan, whose eyes slid over from Roland and Anna Marie to meet hers as well.
He shrugged. “It happens, I guess.”
“Do you think we’ll ever understand how?” she asked.
“Yes,” he replied simply.
Anna looked away from him, out around at the park. The light from the lanterns lit up the trees and flowers, making them seem luminescent in an almost otherworldly way. The stars sparkled in a dome above the brilliant scene, and Anna was again reminded of the orb with the mermaid. She closed here yes and inhaled the sweet, humid air contentedly. Somehow, Evan’s assurance had calmed her. Perhaps this is what it felt like to reach for and finally get to that far-off sun.
Roland led Anna Marie back over to the blankets, and Anna smiled at the two of them.
“Having fun?” she asked Anna Marie.
Anna Marie sat down right next to Anna, so close that their arms were pressed up against each other, so close that their sides could melt into each other in the warm nighttime air.
“Sure,” she said. “Are you?”
“I guess so, yeah.” Anna looked around. “I never noticed before, but it looks really nice here. I like what they did with the lights.”
“Yeah,” Anna Marie said. “It is.”
“Hey, I just realized,” said Evan. “We never asked what your names were.”
“I’m Anna Marie,” said Anna Marie.
Anna paused. “Annamaria,” she replied, twirling a strand of golden hair.