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“Is this seat taken?” a woman made of sawdust and straw asked a man made of fire and brimstone.
He said, “No,” and they sat on the lip of a concrete fountain and shared a bagel with cream cheese. Behind their backs, a mermaid bared her breasts and spouted water from her ever-open mouth. She spread her green-algae arms and beseeched passers-by to drop in pennies and nickels and dimes. Make a wish. Any wish. It won’t come true, but at least you can say you tried.
The man leaned close to the woman and whispered, “You’re beautiful.”
A spark jumped from his tongue and set her ear on fire.
She splashed water on her face, dousing the flames, and said, “You can’t do that. You know you can’t get that close.”
He scowled at his lap and said, “Then what are we doing here?”
“No,” he said. “I mean, why do we still see each other like this if I’m not allowed to touch you and whisper sweet nothings?”
“I get bored sitting at my desk all day,” she said. “And you’re a good conversationalist.”
“I can’t just eat bagels for the rest of my life.”
“They sell scones.” She tipped her chin toward the pastry shop. “Or muffins, if you prefer.”
He shook his head. “I can’t just talk and talk and talk. My mouth gets dry and my throat burns.”
“You’re made of fire and brimstone,” she said. “Your throat always burns.”
“I’m a passionate man.” He struck his knee with his fist. “I need a passionate woman.”
“If you touch me I’ll crumble to ash and smoke and then I won’t be able to listen to your stories or laugh at your jokes. Is that what you want?”
“No.” He traced the crease in his trousers. “But I still don’t see where this is going.”
“Why does it have to go anywhere?” She shrugged. “Can’t two people just share a bagel by a fountain while discussing politics and religion or what the weather might be like tomorrow?”
He frowned, but gave no answer.
The fountain burbled and glugged, and the mermaid bared her breasts and spouted water and waited for someone to make a wish.
The man did not eat his bagel, and it burned to crispy charcoal in the palm of his hand. He dropped the black crumbs onto the pavement, brushed them aside with his shoe, and said to the woman, “How do you know you’ll turn to ash and smoke?”
“If I set you on fire? How do you know what will happen?”
“I’m made of sawdust and straw,” she said, shaking her head. “It’s pretty obvious, don’t you think?”
“What if you just keep burning,” he said, “and become a live ember? Like me? What if we burn together?”
“But what if?”
“What if you put yourself out?” She threw the rest of her bagel to a flock of pigeons pecking the ground near her feet.
“That’s ludicrous,” he said.
She shrugged. “That’s all I’m saying.”
He inched closer. She inched away. They went once around the lip of the fountain, inching and inching, finally returning to the place where it all began.
He tipped his head and stared at the sun and said, “Fine. I’ll do it. I’ll jump into the fountain.”
She laughed and said, “No you won’t.”
“I will.” He dipped one finger into the water to show her how serious he was.
The flame went out and his finger disintegrated to ash and the ash floated across the water. Tiny black specks swirling and swirling.
He held out what remained of his hand and said, “See?”
“Now look what you’ve done,” she said. “You’ve lost a finger.”
“What good is a finger without someone to caress and hold?” he said. “Without someone to love?”
“Don’t be a fool.”
His eyes flashed white-hot and he plunged into the fountain headfirst.
“Oh!” She covered her mouth with both hands.
The man made of fire and brimstone broke apart. His ashes swirled around the mermaid’s concrete tail, spinning and steeping, finally sinking to the bottom where they covered the shimmering coins with silt and clogged the drain.
The woman made of sawdust and straw pulled a penny from her purse. She rubbed the coin between her fingers and stared at the mermaid. Then she flipped the penny and took a step back. A copper hope winking – it span and span and hit the ground. She turned away and left it there.
Someone will find it later, she thought. A little boy or a little girl, a child who still believes in wishes and mermaids and things like love.
Valerie Geary has a BA in English. Her short fiction has been published with The Absent Willow Review, Colored Chalk, Menda City Review, The Molotov Cocktail and Foundling Review. She lives in Portland, Oregon and is currently working on a novel. Read more of her work as well as book reviews and author interviews at http://www.valeriegeary.blogspot.com.