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Midnight at the Fountains of Bellagio

Hugo and three-time Nebula Award finalist Caroline M. Yoachim is a prolific author of short stories, appearing in Asimov's, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, and Lightspeed, among other places. Her work has been reprinted in multiple year's best anthologies and translated into Chinese, Spanish, and Czech. Yoachim's debut short story collection, Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World & Other Stories, came out in 2016. For more, check out her website at carolineyoachim.com.

It's nearly midnight, and the evening is blistering hot with desert air so dry it makes me wish I was doing a third show with Cirque de Soleil tonight, sore muscles be damned. At least that way I'd be in the pool. But I promised Dad I'd meet him after work, and it's only a short walk to Caesar's Palace.
"You ready?" I always thought I'd be helping Mom deal with Dad getting old, not the other way around. She's the naiad of the Bellagio fountains, and he's just a line cook at Nobu, making lobster tempura and wagyu gyoza for the high rollers.
"Ready? No." He pulls out a cigarette and lights up, which pisses me off because he worked so hard to quit. "I hate seeing her like this."
"I brought the vase."
"Maybe tonight she'll agree to use it." Dad clings to the hope that we can save her. Any container would work, but Dad insists that it has to be this vase: mirrored glass etched with an intricate pattern of flowers and birds--hummingbirds and doves, nightingales and swans. Mom loves her fountain, but she sometimes talks wistfully about getting a pair of swans.
The fountains of Bellagio used to hold twenty-two million gallons of water. There were shows every fifteen minutes from 8pm to midnight--jets of water 240 feet into the air, an aquatic spectacle set to lights and music. In the center of it all, my mother would dance. Tourists stopped on their way to restaurants. Women in French designer dresses paid a quarter million dollars to push the button that started the show, all to impress their friends. It was the height of excess, but despite her fame, Mom always made time to dance with me when I was little.
There are only a few inches of water now, and there aren't any shows. Water is too precious to waste, and the fountain loses twelve million gallons of it a year when it's running. Dad and I climb down a maintenance ladder. When we reach the bottom Mom appears, ankle-deep in the glorified puddle that remains. Her hair is thin and white, and she looks small and fragile.
Dad takes her hands in his.
"You smell like an ashtray," Mom says. "I can't heal lung cancer, it'd take all the water I have left."
"There's still time," Dad tells her. "Nadia can take you to the indoor pool where she does her shows. I know it's not the same, but it's a big pool--"
Mom eyes me suspiciously. She's never liked women, and she can sense that I'm part naiad. "This is my fountain. You can't live here. I'm not leaving."
She doesn't even recognize us. First she wouldn't get into the vase because even half empty the fountains at Bellagio were nicer than any of her other options. Now she's too far gone to even remember her own family.
I could trick her, maybe, but should you save someone who doesn't want to be saved?
"Give me the vase," Dad says. I hand it to him, and he sits down with his back to the edge of the fountain, heedless of the water that soaks into his pants. "Do you remember the night we met?"
Mom doesn't answer, and Dad keeps talking. "It was midnight, and you were dancing in the fountain. I jumped in to save you, and you told me in no uncertain terms that you didn't need saving." He laughed. "You were right. I was the one that needed saving, and you had the magic to do it. To thank you, I brought you flowers every morning for a month, in this vase."
"I remember." Mom's voice is soft.
Dad holds up the vase. "There's a pond over at Embassy Suites with swans."
Mom takes the vase, and for a moment I think she might use it, but instead she shakes her head. "This fountain is who I am. If you move me to some pool or other place, I won't be me. I don't need saving. But you still do."
She draws all the water that remains into the vase, hundreds of gallons condensed into mere inches, swirling inside the glass. "Nadia. Remember me when you dance, and take care of your father."
She holds the vase in one hand and puts her other hand on Dad's chest. She washes away the damage from the cigarettes. "No more smoking, love."
All her water evaporates. It takes every ounce of her strength to heal him.
She disappears with the last of the water. For the briefest of moments, the vase stays suspended where she'd held it, then it shatters on the bare concrete. Dad bends down to collect the shards of mirrored glass, but to me it is just a broken vase, nothing to do with Mom, not really.
Somewhere, a clock strikes midnight.
There used to be shows at the Fountains of Bellagio, every fifteen minutes from 8 pm to midnight. I imagine the fountains as they once were, and Mom as she once was. In memory of that glorious past, I start to dance.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018

Author Comments

I sometimes participate in the write-a-thon, an annual fundraiser that generates scholarships and general operation funds for the Clarion West Writers Workshop. In order to entice people to donate, I offered my sponsors the chance to give me a flash fiction prompt--a list of 5-10 words from which I would pick three and write a story. Here is the list of words that inspired this story: desert, artichoke, necklace, mirror, bird, film. Thank you, Amy, for sponsoring me in the write-a-thon!

- Caroline M. Yoachim
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