It’s usually in the evening when I start to miss Leslie. During the day, I’m too busy. The flood tour is radically different from the volcanoes. I still caution people to keep their arms in the boat, but it’s less urgent. There have been suggestions that the water has strange properties, but we’ve all been splashed a little bit. Hell, we sell sealed bottles of the stuff, and I’ve seen the interns whose jobs it is to bottle it. They seem mostly fine. Prone to staring into the water, but maybe they were always dreamy. More importantly, I have to remind our guests to not approach the mermaids. They are the main attraction. You can see them sunning themselves on the lower buildings, if we’re lucky, one will leap out of the water. Sometimes, they bump against the boat’s hull. They don’t mind posing for photographs, but like legged women, don’t care for strangers attempting to touch them. I give three tours a day, and there are two other guides as well. Three people work the shop as well, and they prefer if the guides don’t interfere.
I guess, I’m saying is they’re all pretty cliquey. But I guess Leslie and I would have seemed pretty cliquey too. The only one who really talks to me is my driver. He drives me back to my neighborhood at night, and we chat a bit. I’ve invited him to get a drink, but he has a family.
I’m renting a room in a commercial area. A place where the buildings are close enough together, and they’ve set up bridges between them. Former balconies and widow’s walks are now front entrances. There’s a bar set up in one house, and that’s where I end up most evenings. A limited food menu that mostly consists of macaroni and cheese enhanced with whatever meat or vegetables they can get that day. The bar has become a haven for other disaster contractors.
I sit down next to a woman who has billed herself as the preeminent disaster mathematician. I have no idea what that means, but she says it’s important to sometimes be on scene to get a true understand.
“Numbers are great, I love numbers, I’d fucking fuck numbers if I could. But sometimes, you need to remember that numbers aren’t all there is.”
Marisol, on the other side of me, rolls her eyes. She’s here updating the survival guide for an electronic handbook.
“I work for a hotline. We help people, yes, people, not numbers, in need.”
She’s only recently been promoted, and this is her first assignment. I like Marisol, but she’s pretty disdainful of my job, even more of the sort of people who my company caters to.
“These places are already fragile, and in comes the morons, walking over anything, using up the already limited resources.”
“It brings in money, and that’s not a bad thing,” the mathematician says. She puts her hand on mine. “You have nothing to be ashamed of.”
“And how much of that money stays in this community? It just gets sent back to their corporate headquarters, surprisingly located far from any of the disasters they profit from.”
They’ve been having a variation on this argument for three nights. That’s when I miss Leslie the most.
Behind us, there’s a table of aid workers. I’ve seen them here in the mornings, matching uniforms, all smiles and cheers (they literally do a cheer before they head out), but at night, they wear cocktail dresses and play drinking games. They kind of intimidate me, and I’ve almost never seen any of them separate from the group. Just one night, when one of them sat alone at the bar for a few minutes to write a postcard. For a moment, it looked as though she was going to tear it up. But then she handed it to the bartender, asked him to put it with the rest of the outgoing mail. She shook her head, and rejoined the others, a party girl again.
When I’ve had my fill of macaroni and beer and arguing, I head for home. It’s just two bridges away, and I’ve already learned to navigate it while being a teensy bit drunk. There’s a man outside, and he’s talking to the water.
“I miss you, Maggie. I know we can work it out. Just come back inside. You can keep the tail. I love the tail, it’s beautiful. But I miss you.”
Then I realize, there’s somebody in the water. The woman glances at me and frowns, Then, she does a sort of twist, dives into the water and swims away, faster than a person could swim.
“Yeah, she’s a mermaid. For a while, she stayed near our building. We’d lived together. But, she’s roaming farther and farther away. I don’t think I’m going to see her again.”
“Come on, I’ll buy you a drink.”
“I think I want to be alone.”
“Bullshit, I’ll buy you a drink.”
We return to the bar.
I remembered something Leslie said, “Every disaster is somebody’s little apocalypse. You might hear about a tornado hitting a small town, or miner’s trapped in a mine, and it doesn’t seem like that big a deal, not when there are wildfires and tsunamis killing thousands of people, but when you lose your home, your livelihood, it’s still an apocalypse. If all you really have is a single friend, saying goodbye to that friend feels like the end of the world.”