On the first anniversary of his employment with Liquid Innovators Incorporated, Oliver Thistle was given a certificate, a pen that changed color when the top was clicked, and a key on a length of blue yarn which granted him access to The Fountain. Oliver had only seen The Fountain from far, far away, from the one window on the thirtieth floor where his cubicle resided. He didn’t quite understand the mystery surrounding it, nor the desperate plug through three hundred and sixty-five days of service in order to see it up close for the first time, but Oliver was not the type of man to look a gift horse in the mouth. So, he pinned the certificate at a place of honor beside his computer monitor, tucked the pen into his pocket, and took the elevator to the ground floor where he was directed by a voice over the loudspeaker to insert his key. It took a humiliating amount of groping to find the hole before he inserted, turned, and a second pair of doors parted, revealing The Fountain.
It was impressive, he had to admit. The center sculpture—a scene depicting the elusive, nameless founder of Liquid Innovations standing atop a mound of peons scrambling for the opportunity to touch his hand—was so tall Oliver had to shield his eyes against the sun to take in the whole marble spectacle. Surrounding the fountain which sprayed brilliant, artificially blue water was a wall which cast a wide berth between the fountain and its visitors. The wall permitted visitors to toss their coins over the side, but made it difficult to see where they fell.
Thieves, Oliver figured. Don’t want thieves wading in and stealing the wishes.
Because even he knew that’s what they were. It was written plainly at the bottom of his work agreement under “Benefits:” After one year of full-time employment at Liquid Innovations without interruption by illness, death, or unusual animal attack, employees are granted once yearly visits to the fountain where wishes may or may not be granted, depending upon barometric pressure and the whims of Human Resources.
Oliver strolled around the perimeter of the wall, studying the markings that seemed to illustrate some kind of war between paperclips and staplers. He was stalling, of course. He had only ten minutes to make his wish, but no idea what the wish ought to be. He could just as easily give his wish to someone else—according to the employee handbook, wishes were transferrable—but, seeing as this was his first, it would be wrong, even ungrateful, to not use it.
At the far end of the fountain, out of sight of the elevator, the wall dipped slightly and Oliver caught a glimpse of movement in the water. A trick of the light, probably, but he had to force himself to blink after a while. Could light tricks make the water ripple like that?
He glanced up and noticed a hand-written sign which read: Coins must be legal tender. No bills! And no wishing for a raise. It’ll reflect poorly on your next review.
It hadn’t occurred to Oliver to wish for money. Even so, it was prohibited. What did people wish for, then? World peace? Seemed boring to him. He considered asking some of the others as they peered over the wall, but he was running out of time. To make matters worse, he’d skipped breakfast and his stomach growled loud enough to draw pitying looks. He fumbled in his pocket and withdrew a handful of change, mostly quarters. Ticking started in his head and he couldn’t focus and he’d never been that good under pressure especially that time in elementary school when the teacher called on him to read aloud from Where’s My Underwear? and bit his tongue halfway through and cripes he just wanted a sandwich…
He pitched the handful of coins over the wall and closed his eyes and pictured a roast beef on toasted rye with lots of vegetables and vinegar and a side of barbeque potato chips. His mouth watered.
Oliver frowned, but didn’t open his eyes. He didn’t know how long he had to keep his eyes closed for the magic to work and he was really looking forward to that sandwich.
“Take my fucking eyes out, why dontcha?” It was a woman’s voice, hoarse-sounding and far away.
“Um, sorry?” Oliver said.
Oliver opened his eyes and saw the back of a woman’s head, disappearing beneath the water.
Back at his desk, Oliver found a white lunch bag, the corners damp with grease. Inside was a handful of freshly fried chips coated with barbeque flavor dust and a large roast beef sandwich. He bit gratefully into the sandwich and thought, Should’ve asked for no mayo.
With the hunger monster sated, Oliver disposed of the empty bag and sighed contentedly. Then, he thought of the girl in the fountain. How did she get there? Was she lost? Had she fallen in? Did anyone know about it? If so, what was being done? Was there a rescue committee?
The intercom on his phone beeped, followed by the grating voice of his boss’s secretary, Arnold. “Thistle, you’re wanted in the Purple Room.”
There were only two reasons anyone went into the Purple Room. Unfortunately, those two reasons changed on a monthly basis, so as Oliver trudged across the cubicle floor, down the long hallways dividing Us from Them, and into the foyer outside the Purple Room, his stomach danced a complicated tango of emotions, most of which involved a good amount of sweating and paranoia.
Arnold sat behind his desk, a headset dwarfing his already small head. Cords ran from it to various phones placed at strategic points on the desk. He glared at Oliver as he wafted a straw mat over a miniature fire pit. “Wouldn’t look so smug if I were you.”
Oliver thought he looked anything but smug. Constipated perhaps. He’d forgotten how badly red meat messed with his gastro-workings. Still, he said, “Sorry,” because that’s what was expected.
Arnold grunted. “Once I’ve finished with these meeting minutes, I’ll escort you in. Just stand there for now and try not to get in the way.”
Several minutes later, a pale purple light shown beneath the monstrous oak door that led into the purple room. It flickered in a series of short and long flashes which Arnold studied with a mix of relief and frustration.
“She’ll see you now.”
The doors opened as if on cue, bathing the foyer in hazy purple light. The light wrapped its tendrils around Oliver’s shoulders and hips and pulled, gently, until he stumbled into a wonky, walk-drag into the Purple Room.
The Boss was a sentient roll-top desk with eyelashes drawn in black marker along two, small drawers. Liquid Innovations’ official statement was that The Boss had taken the stagnant form in order to reinforce the Buddhist ideals she’d embraced when corporate life interfered in her personal life. Everyone knew it was a lie—The Boss didn’t have a personal life—but no one ever felt the urge to voice these opinions out loud. More likely, The Boss had gotten herself cursed by a rival company—officially, there were no rival companies—and was loath to admit it.
Oliver stood with his hands clasped behind his back. He’d always been a man keen on eye contact—there was integrity in eye contact—but he couldn’t be sure where The Boss’s eyes actually were. So he stared at a stain on the carpet in the shape of Florida.
The Boss’s roll-top shuddered and a voice like wind through glass wisped through the cracks. “We hear you have questions.”
“No, ma’am,” Oliver said.
“You visited the fountain.”
“You have questions.” She said questions in a way that sounded like contraband.
He shouldn’t have been surprised by the fact that The Boss had been reading his thoughts. Along with a W2 and Safety Release Form, at the start of employment, he’d signed an information waiver. It wasn’t specific, and he hadn’t given it an extra thought.
He pinched his thigh and tried to think only of the pain as he said, “No, ma’am.”
The Boss leered with her drawers. “See that you don’t.”
Oliver thought of only blackness for the rest of the day. Long, stretchy, soupy blackness with black bits in. He thought about black skies and black water and all the different shades of black that could fit in a small closet. After the work day was done, he thought about black holes on the train. He thought about blackboards with black chalk on the walk from the train station to his car at the Park and Ride and black folders with black pages until he was inside his little house with the door shut, curtains closed, and the phone off the hook.
It was finally safe to think about the girl in the fountain. Not that there was much to think about. She had dark hair—black or brown he couldn’t quite remember—and she’d yelled at him with a voice that sounded like… what had it sounded like? A girl’s voice, he supposed. Not that he had much experience. Oliver’s interactions with the female gender tended to be short, curt, and on one memorable occasion ended with him bent over the bathtub, scrubbing lasagna out of his hair. He was a nice guy, and nice guys always got the short end of the pink stick.
But, being a nice guy, he also had a special radar for Women in Trouble. They called to him, these Damsels in Distress, with their minds. So intuitive was this radar that most women he’d saved didn’t know they needed saving until after the saving had been accomplished. They never thanked him properly—and what hero really needs a thank you, anyway?—but Oliver liked to think they wrote about him in their diaries, or told their friends about him, or simply wished they’d thanked him before the moment had passed. As a nice guy, all of these were enough. And the more he thought about the girl in the fountain with her dark brown or black hair and watery voice the more he realized that she was In Trouble.
As his for-one frozen turkey medallion dinner spun in the microwave, Oliver considered the girl in the fountain’s plight. Surely she was trapped in the fountain, forced to accept coins in exchange for wishes? And surely someone with equal parts bravery and kindness could rescue her from this terrible fate?
The microwave dinged. Oliver shoveled the bubbling contents onto a plate and considered some more. He swallowed steaming-hot gravy-coated gloop and made a decision.
Oliver should have known something was wrong the second he brandished the elevator key the next day. He hadn’t done a very good job of hiding his intentions and he could feel The Boss probing around his brain, culminating in a sharp pinch just above his temple when he stepped into the elevator that would take him to the fountain.
The doors slammed shut and a voice came over the loud speaker. “Just what in sweet hell do you think you’re doing?”
He’d been prepared for this and had developed a perfectly good excuse. “There was a little mix-up with my wish yesterday. Mayo on my sandwich. I’m not usually one to complain, but—”
The walls shook with the loudspeaker’s sigh. “There are no take-backsies, no substitutions, no refunds…”
“I didn’t pay for it.”
“…no complaints, no arguments, and no just-to-be-sures.”
“But I just—”
“No exceptions, either. Visits to the fountain are allowed once a year. You’ll have to wait until then.” The voice cleared its mechanical throat. “Provided you make it that long.”
The doors opened and Oliver stepped back onto the cubicle floor, clutching the key like a talisman.
A lesser man would’ve abandoned the task immediately. Who knows what could’ve happened in a year? Wars were fought and lost, apartments rented and abandoned… a year brought with it a lifetime’s worth of detritus and it was hard enough navigating it without the added plight of a lady to think about. But Oliver was a Nice Guy. He could wait. He would wait.
The next year went by at the pace of an elderly tortoise with bad hips. There was a permanent ache in Oliver’s neck from peering out the window into the courtyard during every free minute. At around the four month mark, a blind gentleman by the name of Edward Mouss required assistance to his yearly fountain visit. By the time Oliver had reached Edward’s desk with an offering of a half-dead cactus, Edward had already chosen an escort.
There were moments of weakness, of course. Oliver was only human. At the lowest of the low, he’d almost managed to convince himself that the girl in the fountain probably didn’t even need saving. Thankfully, he shook it off and approached all the days that followed with renewed vigor until finally, the day of his second anniversary arrived.
He was presented with a cotton ball, a box of bent paperclips that, when linked end-to-end, spelled out HELP US, and another key.
Last year’s key still hung around his neck, the blue yarn frayed and retied in places where it’d broken. “Shouldn’t I just use this one?” Oliver asked.
Barney, Oliver’s direct supervisor, snatched it from Oliver’s neck. “It’s expired.”
Barney blew a kazoo and tossed a handful of confetti. “You have exactly twenty minutes at the fountain. Don’t be late.”
Oliver tied the key around his neck and bolted for the elevator.
“Yeah, yeah.” He jammed the key in the slot.
“Don’t let it touch you,” the voice added.
Oliver couldn’t figure out why he couldn’t let a key touch him—it was just a key, after all—but wrapped his sleeve around his hand anyway. There was a damsel waiting and he wouldn’t prolong her suffering.
When the doors opened, he expected to find a madhouse. Instead, he was met with an eerie silence interrupted every so often by the call of a bird or the trickle of water in the fountain. He circled the fountain wall twice before a soft giggle made him stop.
“Hello?” Oliver tried to peer over the wall, but as his nose broached the top an electric shock pinched the tip.
Another giggle. “Careful.”
He looked around, suspicious of everything in his peripheral vision. Was this a trick? Was The Boss testing him?
“This isn’t a test, sandwich boy.” A coin hit the invisible electric barrier and shot back with a spark. “It’s security.”
It’s a cage. He knew it. The girl was trapped.
“Have you come for another sandwich?”
Oliver had thought ahead this time, eating a large breakfast and a snack before his time came. “No, thank you.”
“It’s just as well. I hate cooking.”
Oliver was about to point out that the sandwich had been in a take-out bag from the shop around the corner, but decided it would only distract from his task. “Actually…” He put a hesitant hand on the wall and dropped his voice to a whisper. “I’m here to rescue you.”
When had it started raining? His shoulders were soaked and droplets slid down his cheeks and nose. He looked up to see a face staring back from the top of the wall.
Her yellow (not blonde, but banana candy yellow) hair was braided in an intricate pattern around the crown of her head and trailed down further than Oliver could see. Her skin had an opalescent sheen to it and as she tilted her head, her cheeks flushed different shades of pink and green. But what struck him most were her eyes—bright and amethyst with feline pupils that dilated as a cloud passed over the sun. She leaned forward on her elbows and grinned, revealing twin rows of sharp, white teeth. “Is that so?”
Later, Oliver would congratulate himself for not fainting at the sight of her. Looking at the girl in the fountain was like looking directly into the sun. “Yes.”
“No reason.” She disappeared behind the wall.
Oliver was about to call out to her when the ground shifted. He scrambled for the wall only to find that it wasn’t there. Clawing air, he fell forward onto a stone bench. His lip skidded on the corner leaving a trail of red across the seat.
“For a land-dweller, you’re not very good at the standing thing.”
He spit. “The ground doesn’t normally move.”
“How dull.” The girl perched on the bench and patted the spot next to her. “Sit.”
From the hips up, the girl resembled any other that passed through the doors at Liquid Innovators, Inc., apart from the crustaceans clinging to her breasts. The one on the left peered at him with insect-like eye stalks; the one on the right raised a claw in warning. From the hips down, scales flexed and shimmered with her movement. He was fairly certain the scales ended in a tail, but thought it’d be rude to ask. She tapped the bench with a long, pointed nail and he realized she was waiting for him to say something. Oliver’s throat seized and his brain disconnected from the satellite. He’d never been any good at small talk.
“You could start with my name,” she prodded.
“Name,” Oliver said.
“That was a joke.” She tapped the back of one of the crabs on her chest. “Shelly. Get it?”
He laughed once, loud and more like shout, sending birds flying from the trees.
She pretended not to have heard it. “My real name can’t be pronounced by anyone who hasn’t been instructed in the five dead languages, but you can call me Flora for short.”
“Oliver,” he said.
“I like it.”
Water sounds faded into the background and an annoying ring started in Oliver’s ears. He stuck his pinky finger in and wiggled it around. Didn’t help.
The corner of Flora’s mouth lifted. “It’ll go away in a few minutes.” Then, “How did you enjoy your sandwich last year?”
“It was nice, thanks.” The ringing had faded in the left, but intensified in the right. “Hit the spot.”
“Good, good.” Flora patted his leg. “I like to hear that.”
Once the ringing dwindled to a dull roar, Oliver’s mind circled back around to his mission. “Rescue,” he muttered.
Flora’s scaly hips wriggled and her skin prickled. “Ah, yes. My hero.” She grinned. “Shall I tell you about the first time I was rescued?”
Oliver found himself nodding without trying.
Flora opened her mouth but a man’s voice came out. “Oy! You! Time’s up!”
A bulky security guard in a stiff, white shirt lumbered toward them. “You there!”
Flora muttered something Oliver didn’t quite hear before sliding back into the fountain. She gripped his leg and spoke with her eyes straight into his brain and without opening his mouth he promised to come see her again.
He blinked and he was back at his desk, hands working without his mind, shuffling papers and stamping folders.
His cube mate, Charlie, peered over the partition. “You okay, Oliver?” One of her mousy-brown hairs drifted from her head and landed on his hand. “You look a little off.”
“Fine,” he said.
He stared at the hair until quitting time.
It started as a tickle in the back of his head, like a memory forcing its way to the surface. Two words: Save me, and he saw them everywhere—spelled out in his Alpha-Bits cereal, written in the rain as it streaked his windows, in the drops of urine that somehow always missed the toilet bowl.
In the months following his second visit to the fountain, Oliver cashed in his sick days (even the Only For Use During a Plague day), and spent hours perusing the stacks at the Liquid Innovators Community Library (renamed after a large donation was made last year). Instead of cards, users were relieved of one quarter hour of their lifespan in return for use of the books and materials. If Oliver had been keeping track, he would have realized his life had been considerably shortened in his search for information on Flora.
The books in the library weren’t arranged in any particular order, and in most corners they weren’t even on shelves but stacked high and precariously. One such stack gifted Oliver with a black eye and bloody lip while he reached for a copy of Stanislav Tolyevsky’s WATER IS WET. He read it cover to cover, along with a dozen other water and water-animal related volumes, only to find himself no closer to any answers.
He built a fort out of the books and curled up in the middle with a copy of THE BIG BOOK OF FISH RECIPES as a pillow. Maybe if he rested for a while. Started fresh.
Oliver had just closed his eyes when something sharp jabbed his backside and his limbs flailed, destroying the fort. He spun around, armed with a pencil.
“They’ll see you hanged if’n they catch you with that, boy.” The jabber—a hunched old man with hair like stretched cotton and an oddly pointed nose—waved a letter opener. “Best be hidin’ it before they see.”
Oliver tucked the pencil into his pocket.
“Not that.” The mole-man clucked and snorted and pointed. “That.”
Oliver turned his head and was met with the image of a half-fish, half-human male riding the back of what was either a small whale or another large man. Oliver scrambled to his knees and snatched up the book, which nearly fell apart at the spine. It hadn’t been there before. He was sure of it.
Oliver looked up to thank the mole-man, but he was gone.
Keeping one eye on the office door where the librarians hibernated between supervisory shifts, Oliver tucked the volume beneath his shirt and sprinted for the door.
NOTES ON THE WAR
Having much experience in the world of fish, that is, preparing and eating it, I’ve found them to be a docile creature. It boggles the mind how these fish people have come to declare war on each other. Lesser minds have argued that it’s the human half that drives the warring instinct, but all learned men know that the warring gene lies in the middle toe. As these fish people have no toes, it ought to be impossible that they should want to fight.
But I digress.
I’ve been stationed at the coast for nearly a month now with little to report. The argument has escalated beyond petty squabbling and reached sharp-stick poking. Occasional flotsam reaches my cabin in the waves, which has been bagged and labeled [redacted].
So far, the engagement has yet to reach the [redacted] but will report should anything change.
Oliver flipped through several more pages, most of which were blacked out, scribbled over, and scratched clean through.
She’s back. She might be in trouble.
And then, on the next page.
The rest of the pages were covered in crude sketches of someone who looked disarmingly like the girl in the fountain, each sketch more hurried than the last.
Oliver read the book through three times before drawing what he believed to be the only conclusion: Flora was a casualty of war. Liquid Innovations had abducted her in order to protect something and kept her as a wish-granting slave. He paid little thought to the fate of the book’s author.
There were three weeks left until his third visit to the fountain. He tucked the book beneath his pillow and dreamed of Flora.
“As I was saying…” Flora brushed a chunk of hair away from Oliver’s forehead. She continued as though they hadn’t been interrupted by a full year’s time. “The last time I was rescued didn’t turn out so well.”
The buzzing was worse this time. It was like his skull was swarmed with mosquitos. “I’ll fix it,” Oliver said.
“I know you will, doll.”
“We’ll go to Florida. You’ll like it there. Lots of water.”
“And I’ll buy you flowers every day.”
Flora brushed her nose against his. “What else?”
His chest felt heavy. There was a bug in his eye that flitted every time he blinked. “I’ll cook. I’ll learn how to cook.”
She nodded to herself. “Shush now.”
“My legs hurt.”
“That happens. It’ll pass.”
Oliver didn’t feel the water until there were several feet of it over his head. It calmed the buzzing in his head, so the panic didn’t immediately set in. Flora hugged him to her chest and swam and swam and then his chest hurt outside and inside and he couldn’t breathe.
Then he could.
The pain in his chest continued, though, until twin bulges appeared with the relief of a ruptured cyst. Flora stripped his shirt off and wrapped it around herself. He tried to kick away but his legs wouldn’t obey. The watery haze cleared and when he looked down, he saw a fin and breasts and he knew when he touched his hair it would feel the way Flora’s had felt.
She touched his face.
Rather, he touched his face.
Flora’s face was now his and his was hers.
He kissed her.
She sank deep into the fountain, clutching her new, aching breasts until a pair of crabs clung to them and kneaded relief.
Oliver Thistle didn’t stay at Liquid Innovations long enough to see a fourth year. He left without notice and without the few personal items at his desk. Someone started a rumor that he was headed to Florida where he planned to learn how to cook.
After a brief period of adjustment, the fountain was reopened with only one change: rather than coins, wishers were asked to provide a roast beef sandwich with fresh chips, hold the mayo.