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That morning, before Anita walked the seven blocks to school, she hadn’t been able to find the permission slip for the trip to the aquarium. “Well Anita, I signed it and gave it to you last night, didn’t you put it in your backpack? You know, if you lost it, you can’t go on the trip,” her mom said, standing over her in a silk bathrobe, looking down imposingly. She sipped her cup of black coffee and watched her daughter scramble around the apartment searching wildly for the permission slip.
“But Mo-om, you never gave it back to me! I looked everywhere,” Anita exhaled loudly and threw her hands down on the marble kitchen island, which made a smacking noise and stung her palms. Her mom closed her eyes and pressed the two first fingers on her right hand to her temple, massaging it. Anita knew she shouldn’t make a fuss in the mornings because her mom was always very tired and had raging headaches. Last night she’d come back late again, and had to pay the babysitter extra for staying overtime. When her mom had gotten up that morning, she’d joked about how terrible she looked. But Anita still thought her mom was glamorous, even with a bathrobe on and dark bags under her eyes.
Her mom opened her eyes and glared. “Sorry,” Anita mumbled, even though she wasn’t. She pressed on. “Mom I’m gonna be late, please, please help. If I can’t go I’m going to miss out on everything. They even have a new shark exhibit that I’ve never seen before!”
“Anita, why? Why are you yelling? Why didn’t you put the permission slip in your bag? Why do you have to see the sharks so badly? Why?” Her mother’s voice got louder and she stepped closer to Anita after every question until she was practically yelling on top of her.
“I just do, that’s all,” Anita mumbled to the floor, not wanting to look up into her mother’s red-rimmed eyes.
Her mother sighed and drew back, touching her fingers lightly to her temple again. “Just go check the bedrooms or something. It’s got to be around here somewhere.”
Anita darted down the hall to the bedrooms while her mom stared blearily after her. The master bedroom was dark and messy, and the furniture and decorations all looked gray with the morning light fighting to get through the blinds. The comforter on the bed was rumpled, and the pillows askew. Her mom’s dress from last night and the outfits from a few nights back were strewn across the carpet and half-empty glasses of water were haphazardly placed on the edges of the desk, wardrobe, and nightstand. As Anita sifted through the scattered papers from her mom’s work on the desk she caught sight of the permission slip trapped beneath one of the many glamour photos that her mom kept around the house from her modeling days. Anita stared at the way her mom glared regally out of the frame and how her high, sharp cheekbones made her look like something from another world. Her dad had taken this photo. Before he left them, on the Fridays her parents weren’t out they would all rent a movie and sit on the floor eating Chinese takeout. Her dad always talked the whole way through the movie about when he and her mom were dating. He told Anita that one of the reasons he’d fallen in love with her mother was the way she glowered at the camera. Like she wasn’t going to take any cr*p from a machine or the person behind it. Then he’d reach over and tickle her mom and she’d laugh and they would all leave the takeout in boxes on the floor and go out to eat.
Anita snatched the permission slip and hurtled crazily through the house over to the front door.
“Hey Mom, don’t worry, I found it! See you!”
She turned slowly around, her hand still on the knob. “Yeah Mom?”
“Are you sure you don’t want to change into something nicer, maybe a skirt or one of those new shirts I bought you?”
Anita pulled awkwardly on the threads at the bottom of her shorts. “It’s okay, I’m late anyway.” Her mom knew Anita didn’t like to dress up, so why did she always ask such dumb questions? Anita tugged harder on the threads. Her mom was deliberately making her late for the trip.
“How many times have I had to tell you not to tug on your clothes? You’ll only ruin them. Is that what you want?”
Yes, thought Anita sullenly. “Sorry Mom,” she said, and then burst out the front door and tore down the sidewalk, gripping the permission slip in one sweaty hand.
She sat next to Cheryl on the bus ride there. Cheryl and Anita were best friends because they lived next door to each other and played on the same soccer team. Anita was the better one, of course, because she could run faster and she wasn’t afraid of pushing other kids out of the way to get to the ball.
“Cheryl, I almost didn’t even get here! My mom never gave me the permission slip and she made me look all over the house for it. Then I ran the whole way to school! That’s seven blocks, you know. And I ran it in probably like, five minutes,” Anita’s hair was flying in all different directions and her face was flushed. “Can I sit with you?”
“Fine, I guess. But you have to sit on the inside. I’m talking to Emma and Jeanie,” Cheryl said to some object out the window. She pulled her legs up to her stomach and Anita climbed over and flopped down in the seat. Cheryl turned away and resumed her conversation with Emma and Jeanie. Anita watched her long, straight chestnut hair and purple headband bob up and down as the other girls said something that made her laugh. Anita had never disliked Emma and Jeanie, but she did now. Why were all of them ignoring her? And since when was Cheryl so interested in them anyway? They were kind of boring. She supposed Cheryl had been acting kind of weird lately. She rarely sat next to Anita in school anymore, preferring to sit up in the front row with Emma and Jeanie and Melissa and Ingrid instead. But Anita hadn’t really given it too much thought because they still went to soccer practice together and went over to each other’s houses after school. Well, mostly to Anita’s. Cheryl liked Anita’s mom because when she came home she would always swish around the house and say something mysterious before disappearing into her bedroom, only to reappear an hour later looking like she had come out of a magazine. One time, Cheryl told Anita she wanted to be a model someday like her mom had been. Anita just kept her mouth shut and nodded because she didn’t really see how that was possible since both of Cheryl’s parents were no taller than 5’7.
Cheryl kept her back turned to Anita the whole ride, only occasionally glancing nervously over her shoulder at her friend. Anita made sure to keep her eyes focused on the seat in front of her and spent most of the time picking the fluff out of a hole because she didn’t like the silent apology Cheryl was trying to message Anita with her eyes.
The best part of the aquarium is the sharks, Anita thought as she pressed her nose up against the cold glass wall and peered into the depths of the tank. She couldn’t see anything but the dark, endless water. She sighed and her breath left a foggy, mushroom-shaped imprint on the glass. Whenever Anita’s father took her to the aquarium they’d always go to see the sharks first because he said that their eyes intrigued him. Her dad could spend hours looking at things like that, like he was taking enough mental photos to fill stacks and stacks of portfolios.
Half of her fourth-grade class was waiting outside with two of the volunteer parents. Including Cheryl and her new best friends. Anita couldn’t believe that they were such chickens. Sharks were cooler than anything else at the aquarium, because they had sharp teeth and were a little bit scary. But whatever, it wasn’t her problem that they were missing out. She turned away from the glass and glanced up at the sign near the entrance. No running, no flash photography, no tapping on the glass. Ms. Levine told them all that before they came into the exhibit, which was kind of pointless. Only someone stupid would run across the wet floors of the aquarium. You would definitely fall, and besides, you’d just get in trouble with Ms. Levine and then she’d call your parents.
Danny ran across the wet floors up to the railing and bumped into Anita on purpose. “Move,” he said. Danny was the most annoying boy in her class and possibly the world. He thought his spiky gelled hair made him really cool, which gave him the right to say whatever he wanted. Most of the dumb jokes he cracked were directed at Anita, about how she wasn’t a real girl because she had short hair and wore cargo shorts and played sports in the playground with the boys. A grin split his face in half and he narrowed his piggy little blue eyes, then shoved her over again with his shoulder.
“Make me move you greasy rat-boy,” Anita said, and pushed him back hard, but not hard enough so that Ms. Levine would notice and get them in trouble.
“Greasy rat-boy? God, you’re so weird.” Danny chuckled derisively. Anita burned and clenched her fists. Her face twisted into an ugly mask as she opened her mouth to say something back, but nothing came out.
“This place is so lame. But it figures you’d like it. Have fun staring at water.” With that, Danny jogged over to a pack of his baboon friends. His belly stuck out like a pregnant woman’s from his sports jersey, and it rose up slowly into the air and then crashed down again with every movement. When he reached the group of boys, he said something to them and they all laughed and glanced over at Anita. Her eyes swept the room for something small and hard she could peg Danny with, but she couldn’t find anything and by that time he’d gone over to the museum section of the room to stare at the pictures of shark attacks.
The door to the exhibit opened, and Anita screwed up her eyes against this sudden invasion of light. A few more people walked inside and a breeze from outside blew in, wrapping around Anita’s exposed arms and legs, giving her goosebumps. She shivered and rubbed the bottom of her sneaker along the opposite calf, pulling out a few threads from the frayed bottom of her cargo shorts. Her mom always told her not to ruin her clothes. She said that Anita should care about the things she had on, even if they were only the everyday shorts and t-shirt. Anita stopped tugging at her shorts and leaned over the bar, looking in at the tank, where she saw a small shark.
To be honest, it was kind of disappointing. The shark in Jaws was absolutely enormous. Two weekends ago, while her mom was out on a date, she’d watched the movie with her Russian babysitter. Anita had been so scared that she’d leapt off the couch and dumped the bowl of popcorn that she’d been holding in her lap all over the floor. It hadn’t helped that her babysitter had all the lights turned off and the sound turned up for effect and when the music played she’d reached her arm around Anita’s shoulders and poked her in the back of the neck. But this shark, the one in front of her, was puny. It couldn’t have been any bigger than Anita herself, and it definitely couldn’t have bitten a fishing boat in half. It swam closer to the glass, coming out of the darkness in the back of the tank. To Anita, the aquarium shark looked almost ridiculous. It was the only thing in the tank, which made it look even smaller as the expanse of still blue water surrounding the shark dwarfed it.
The shark came closer and Anita shivered again as she saw the jagged teeth all crowding over each other like they were in a race to get out of the shark’s relaxed open mouth. She leaned closer and stared, fascinated by its eyes. They were cold and alien, ancient and unseeing. They had a dead, predatory look and Anita thought she’d never seen anything so terrible. The shark’s tail moved languidly from side to side, and it propelled its body through the water with slow, fluid movements.
Suddenly, Anita heard a crash against the concrete floor and turned around, breathing in sharply. A man behind her bent down to pick up his cellphone. “Sorry,” he said, and flashed her a quick smile, then walked out the exit door. His voice sounded a little like her dad’s. Her dad used to chaperone all of her field trips unless he had a job to do. But he obviously couldn’t come to the aquarium today, because he lived in California. And wouldn’t he let Anita know first? She looked around and saw that the exhibit was practically empty. She jerked her head quickly from one side of her neck to the other, anxiously searching for the kids in her class and Ms. Levine. Where was Cheryl? Probably with stupid Emma and Jeanie. Before she decided that those other girls were her new best friends, Cheryl never would have left Anita. She would have poked her hard in the side when she noticed the rest of the class leaving. Cheryl wouldn’t have been watching the shark because she never got wrapped up in things like that. Anita would have left with everyone else. Panicked, her train of thought ended and her breath came in short, rapid segments. Her heart pounded faster as she realized that she was alone. She didn’t know any of the people looking at the sharks with her, and without the presence of her classmates, everyone around seemed sinister. She backed away from the shark tank and pressed up against a wall, biting her nails to stubs and shifting her eyes from one end of the exhibit to the other. How could they forget about her? They couldn’t have left for real. What if they were gone and she couldn’t find them? No, she shouldn’t worry, Ms. Levine or one of the volunteer parents would notice she was missing and come back for her. They couldn’t possibly leave her. Anita pulled out more threads from her shorts and wished fervently for her mom to show up and take her home. The room was too dark and even though it was clammy Anita’s palms began to sweat. She ran out into the museum part of the exhibit and her laces came untied, flapping behind her. She bent down to tie them but was then surrounded by legs and confusion and noise and she was too close to the ground, so she stood up quickly, breathing hard. She darted behind the black walls and behind glass cases, checking for Ms. Levine, Danny, anybody, but she didn’t recognize anyone. The skin on her forehead folded as her eyebrows knitted together, and her eyes stung with tears. The ceiling became low and the walls menacing, they loomed over her and pressed her into their darkness. Anita turned around and saw that she was backed against a giant picture of a massive grinning shark. She nearly choked at the sight of its eyes and teeth and ran hysterically out of the room back towards the damp tank area.
Anita heard a noise and jerked her head over her shoulders, her eyes wide and wild like a frightened animal. She saw Ms. Levine stalk towards her. Her chubby legs were tense and they moved swiftly, purposefully underneath her badly-fitted knee-length pencil skirt. Anita blinked her tears away and sniffled, then smirked as she saw her teacher’s outfit. Ms. Levine grabbed her arm and knelt on the floor so that she was looking her in the eye. “Oh my God Anita where have you been? I’m so relieved I found you... Are you alright? Thank God I noticed you were missing when we did the countoff... Anita, I told the class that we need to stay together as a group, and you completely disregarded my rules. You know, I’m going to have to tell your mother about this...” Ms. Levine led Anita out of the exhibit, towards the blinding sunlight on the other side of the exit doors, lecturing her the whole way. Anita let her squawky goose-voice bounce off the side of her head and watched Ms. Levine’s glasses come precariously close to slipping over the edge of her nose. What was her mother going to do anyway? Anita craned her head back over her shoulder to look at the shark tank one last time. She didn’t see anything.