by Stefan Slater
This story was edited by Ashley Deng.
I never lost the habit of touching you when you walked by, not even as the feel of you split and sloughed off beneath my fingers. Mostly because I didn’t want the song in your shoulders, hands, and neck to leave without saying goodbye, even when you whispered that you’re right here.
We started going to house showings as soon as the scales began to shimmer under your skin like oil on water. You wanted a ranch-style house with a yard so when we got a dog, it could run. Our new home had to be on the water, obviously, so once the curse hit, you could come and go easily.
I was searching on my phone, both of us on the couch, looking at listings, when I asked about the curse. “Is it a freshwater or saltwater thing?” We had to be more specific for the realtor’s sake—can’t afford anything beachside.
You shrugged. “No clue.”
We never fought. But it got heated, because I couldn’t understand how you didn’t know.
“Your dad never told you anything?”
“Why would he?” you said, crossing your arms. You were only twelve when the curse took your mom. She’d known and never said a word about what swam in her blood. You remembered the big fight, them arguing, him yelling and throwing dishes, your changed mother begging, wailing for you both to stay, her claws raking wallpaper. He threw you in his car and sped off to a desert motel, far from water as possible. A neighbor saw your mother crawl into the nearby river. She never came back. Never sought you out.
No sure thing you’ll end up like her, your father said, always finishing that declaration with a sharp grimace. Made sure you never had swim lessons too.
“Doesn’t matter where we live,” you said, peeling skin from your knuckles, revealing scales like dimes.
Tears came most days. You sobbed and heaved when your body began to shatter and snap without a choice; you cried when you woke up shrieking from nightmares about black waves dragging you down into silt like smothering velvet. Right then, though, there were no tears—just slumped exhaustion, flaking skin, bloodshot eyes, lonely silence.
“It matters,” I said, reaching for your hand. “For us both.”
We found a townhome next to a creek, which fed into a marsh. When we opened the windows, you could hear frogs croaking.
It was long before we were married when you told me. We’d been dating a month and we were sitting on the couch in my cramped apartment, drinking cheap wine, watching a show about swamps. The narrator talked about how alligators rolled when they bit to rip apart their prey, and you said that might be you some day.
You laughed, spilling wine. “No, I don’t think so.”
You talked about your mom’s curse: no idea about the origins, but all you knew was that it hit when she was an adult. “Scales, gills, pointy teeth. The works.”
“I think so.”
“When will it happen?”
“Might not ever happen.” You waved me off, finishing your drink. “But if it does, it’ll be years from now. Like my thirties .”
I let it go because it felt far away. Because I didn’t know what we were then. Because you made me laugh. Because I couldn’t wait to make you smile. Because thinking about the next movie we might watch together, what we might have for breakfast together, felt better, more important, anyway.
I helped you prepare what you were going to say to your boss. “One, this is a genetic issue, not your choice. Two, you don’t need extended leave, just some time off until you shift human. A week tops, right?”
“Sure. Yes,” you said, trying to sound confident.
I made sure the freezer was stocked with shrimp, tilapia, and some salmon for special occasions. I started swimming again at the gym, even though I knew I’d be slower than you.
When we couldn’t sleep, the two of us staring at the blank ceiling, I talked to fight the quiet. There were specialists, I said, that could find cures for everything—even curses.
“Insurance won’t cover that,” you said, glancing at me in the dark.
You were still having nightmares, still dreading the nauseating pull of algae-choked water. You wouldn’t close your eyes. I couldn’t think of what to say, so I asked about your mother.
“Where is she you think?”
You touched my hand. “I like to think she found something good out there. Something worthwhile.”
I squeezed your fingers. “Maybe you’ll find something good in the water too,” I said.
I’d read online that there might be pain, vomiting, even blood. But it was easy for you. We stood in the backyard, listening to the frogs. Moon came up, I blinked once, and the change was over.
Shimmering scales, webbed toes, gills. You splashed into the creek, resurfaced, and laughed. I did too. You swam for a moment and went under.
I stayed in the yard, thinking you’d be quick. I fell asleep, right on the grass.
Sun woke me up, and all I saw was still water. Then your head, those saucer eyes, broke the dark surface.
“I need more time,” you said.
“Is it fun?”
You grinned, dagger teeth shining. “It feels like home. I can’t believe it. I had no idea.”
“Good,” I said, yawning.
“Go back inside. I’m fine, really.”
“How long will you be?”
I don’t think you heard. You dove under.
I watched the water flow sluggishly. You didn’t splash back up. Something low crawled through me. I felt a need to say goodbye. Almost as if I wasn’t going to see you for a long time.
Mosquitos whined. Frogs sang. Once I started to feel my arms getting sunburnt, I stood up.
I walked back inside and looked over my shoulder at the black water.
I know you’ll be right back.
© Copyright Stefan Slater
Stefan A. Slater is a writer from Los Angeles. His work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Mirror Dance, and The Arcanist. His website is stefanaslater.com.
Read the Rest of the October Issue
- The Ossuary at Ocean’s End by Marisca Pichette
- Elemental by Marlan Quade Cook
- portrait of a girl in water by Ashley Bao
- A Thousand Souls by Marie Brennan
- Seafloor Skull by Inkshark
- The Ghosts of Mermaids & The Answer Atop Mermaid’s Rest by Coral Alejandra Moore and Cathin Yang
- Awoken by Elyse Russell and Miranda Leyson
- The Abyssal Architect by Ori Jay
- One Last Shriek by Umiyuri Katsuyama
- Merfolks as a Passage from My Thoughts and Doings by Chinua Ezenwa-Ohaeto
- This Is Your Home by Stefan Slater
- Mermaidsong by Csilla Kleinheincz
- Fish Out of Water: How Mermaids Represent Disabled, Queer Folk Like Me by Melanie Jayne Ashford
- “a sea-like condition” by Felicia Martinez
- This Is You by Kathryn Kania
- Before You Go in Search of Spirits & The Truth They Hear in My Heart by Cathin Yang and Coral Alejandra Moore
- Dreams of Another Life by Elizabeth Kestrel Rogers
- Charting the Next Adventure by Meg Frank