by Ekaterina Fawl
This is a bonus story to our Anthology, ‘Ocean’.
Until she met Ari, Ellie didn’t remember having any dreams. Now she had two, and they kept recurring.
The first one, unsurprisingly, was of drowning. She was flailing underwater, every movement a painful struggle: her leaden arms wouldn’t move, her lungs burned. And just as she was sinking into the roaring darkness, a sleek black silhouette descended on her and a maw full of needle-sharp teeth snapped at her face.
She screamed then, pushed the last of the air out and inhaled, panicking. But instead of lungful of salt water she breathed in clean air and always woke up, half from the surprise of it.
The other dream was about making love to Ari on the beach, near the spot where he’d rescued her. Her palms slid over his heated skin and caught on droplets from the surf, smearing them into tiny patches of cool friction between them. She tasted ocean salt on his tongue. The sky was the perfect azure backdrop for his smiling face and the sand was warm, soft and yielding under them, and by some dreamland magic didn’t get anywhere near her soft bits.
She clearly made some sounds when she woke up from that one, too, because Ari got up from the couch without fail and shuffled to her bedroom door to check up on her.
“Just weird dreams,” she’d tell him, and he’d go get her a cold glass of water.
“Was I there?” he always asked with an awkward grin while she drank.
“No,” she always said.
Neither dream was exactly rooted in reality.
There had been no shark attack. Ellie’d mistimed the wave, fallen and slammed her head on the edge of her surfboard. Next thing she knew she was back on solid ground.
It had been a windy, grey day, great for the waves – a little too great to surf alone. The sand she lay on felt like a giant antique washboard: cold, rock-hard and ridged, slathered in scummy foam. Her head was spinning, full of scalding pain, and there was a streak of watery vomit all down the front of her wetsuit.
The surfboard was on the sand too, a few yards away. There was a swollen ringed bruise on her ankle where the leash had been attached. Its other end still hung off the board, ragged as if sawed through by rows of sharp teeth.
A naked man knelt next to her, shivering in the breeze, his chest and thighs covered in goosebumps.
Ellie rolled to the side, sobbing from the pain, and coughed and spat until she felt finally empty of water. Then she curled up on the awful cold sand, reached for his hand and held it until her eyes stopped streaming.
He let her clutch at him. His eyelashes were still clumped from the water, his damp hair twisting into ringlets. There was a long ugly white scar running from the base of his neck all the way down his side. She tried not to stare at it, or at his soft tackle, or at the sand caught in the hair there.
“Where are your clothes?” she asked when her throat worked again. It was, in hindsight, not the best opening line, but he was cold and she was worried that his nudity might be distressing him.
He waved vaguely at the ocean and said in a hoarse, strangely accented voice, “Don’t worry about it.”
He must have ran into the surf to rescue her, after he saw her bump her head and go under. If he dropped his clothes on the sand or took them off in the water, they’d be pounded by the waves into the rocky bottom by now, soaked and ruined even if they could find them.
He helped her to the rock where she’d hidden her clothes. She made him put on her shorts, and they just about fit over his slim hips, even though the waistband cruelly cut into his flanks. She limped back to the village leaning on his shoulder, still in her creaking wetsuit.
She’d been renting a tiny room above the pub. Now, out of season, she was the only holidaymaker in the village except for a quiet family with two preschoolers. By the time she went down to breakfast they were usually coming back from the beach.
Upstairs, he helped her peel off the suit and put her in her unmade bed. He filled her bedside water bottle, dabbed at her forehead with something stinging, produced a plastic beach bucket from somewhere and shoved it under her bed. She caught his hand again, clinging to his warmth with her icy hands, and he sat on the floor by the bed, accepting that he was captured and tethered in place.
She woke several times through the night, sometimes sick, sometimes deathly thirsty, sometimes just shivering in remembered fright. He was there, moving in the dark but always close enough to touch, whispering soothing words she only half-understood.
In the morning she found him curled up on the floor, fast asleep, completely naked again. She couldn’t blame him: the shorts must have pinched.
She crept out, still wobbly on her feet, and went out into the drizzly morning. The tiny convenience store across the road had a corner dedicated to beach tat, and she bought a set of clothes for him: the plainest shirt from the gaudy patterned selection, board shorts, flip flops.
“You’re that lass staying at the pub? Not going surfing by yourself in this weather, are you?” the shopkeeper asked.
“Oh, no, giving that a rest for now. Had an accident yesterday,” Ellie admitted. “Hit my head.”
She lifted her hair to show off a small cut and an alarming blotchy bump swelling across her hairline. The woman gasped and tutted and offered a pack of painkillers.
“I blacked out,” Ellie said, now with some perverse pride, as if the gruesome part of the story turned it from being her stupid mistake into something dramatic. “Nearly drowned. Ari rescued me. I’m just replacing his clothes, he–”
“Ari,” Ellie said again, unsure now. First time she asked his name he gave her a string of sounds she couldn’t replicate, let alone memorise, so he shortened it and seemed happy enough with how she sounded it out. But maybe she was way off, and he just hadn’t wanted to torture her with pronunciation while she was still hurt and dizzy. “I thought he lived in the village? A tall man about my age, dark hair, a scar right here…”
“Oh, him.” The shopkeep wrinkled her nose and hurried to finish the sale. “No, he’s not from around here.”
Ari was still asleep when Ellie got back up. She woke him with a pat on the shoulder and demurely placed the folded clothes over his groin.
He rolled his head back against the dusty floor, stretching the kinks out of his neck, and gave her a smile. His teeth were a little uneven, but in an endearing way.
“Hello,” he said. “Good to see you up. I was worried.”
“I was just shaken up a bit. Lunch?”
She waited outside the door while he got dressed, and then led him downstairs, to the table by the window she’d been thinking hers for the last week.
“Right here?” he asked. Everyone else in the pub seemed to have their eyes on them: a group of old men drinking pints by the unlit fireplace, several generations of women having cream tea at the largest table of the room, the landlady watching them from the bar.
“This is the best eatery in town until the restaurant opens, so yes,” she said. “Why? Oh, but you didn’t go home yesterday. Will someone be worried? Do you need to call them?”
He shook his head.
“Well, if you need to use my phone, just say so,” she said. “Oh no, did you lose your phone yesterday? I’m happy to replace everything. The clothes are yours, obviously. Sorry they’re so tacky.”
“Did they not tell you about me yet?” He twirled his finger, pointing at all the locals at once.
“They just said you’re not from here.”
“That’s one way to put it,” he huffed and finally took a seat at the table.
“So where’s home?” she asked after they ordered food.
He stared over her shoulder, across the water, toward something hidden in the mist and rain.
“Far away,” he said. “But there’s not much left of it now.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, imagining a war-ravaged town in a desert somewhere, or a concrete wasteland of a failed regime.
“You should be,” he said. Suddenly, for the first time, there was something dark and unpleasant in his expression.
She stared at him, taken aback. Whatever had happened to his home wasn’t her fault, she wasn’t responsible for some calamity across an ocean. She voted progressive, shared all the links her activist friends posted, even went to several protests. She was, if anything, part of the solution. He had no right to shame her.
“But you live in this village now, right?” she asked instead.
“No. I just…” He made another of his vague sweeping gestures toward the water. “Float around.”
“Well, where do you keep your things? Did you leave them on the beach? Do we need to–”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Are you all alone? No family, or…”
“Why is that strange? You’re alone too.”
“I’m on holiday. I came here to get away for a bit.”
She’d felt like she needed it. She spent her weekdays at work, Saturday running errands and seeing friends and family, and Sundays all alone, cocooned in blankets on her sofa, not speaking to a single person, lost in a book or binging some TV. This break was supposed to be a fortnight of Sundays, and she’d loved it so far. But suddenly she realised she’d been horribly, bitterly lonely for a while now.
And he seemed stuck in the first village he’d reached after his escape across the water, on his own; isolated, unwelcome, warily watched by everyone.
“I don’t know what’s keeping you here,” she said. “But this might not be the best place. I don’t suppose there’s much employment here, even in summer. In the city there would be more options. Opportunities. I’d be happy to take you, and you’re welcome to stay with me. Crash on my couch for as long as you like. It’s the least I can do.”
“That’s not a good idea,” he said, gazing sadly at the picked-clean fish bones his plate.
“Why not? No strings, I promise. Well, if you want to pitch in with the chores, that’ll be great, and once you find a job you can help with the bills, but… Honestly, I just want to help. Just a thought. The offer is there.”
He stared at her for an uncomfortably long time, as if searching her face for signs of ulterior motives.
“What the hell, let’s try,” he said finally with a smile. He picked up the seabass carcass from his plate, snapped the head off the spine and popped it whole into his mouth.
The thin bones crunched under his teeth. Ellie suppressed a shudder and smiled back.
They got into town well past midnight. Ellie spread clean bedding on the sofa, gave Ari a fresh towel and a new toothbrush, and collapsed into her bed.
She was up before the sun, drenched in sweat, shaking from her first drowning nightmare. She sat in her bed, peeling her soaked pyjamas off her skin, and wondered if she’d made a mistake. Ari could be gone by now, with all of her valuables. She would have almost preferred that: she didn’t know how to talk to him. It had seemed so easy on holiday, but this was real life, and she wasn’t sure there was a place for him here.
He was in her kitchen, freshly showered, wearing her bathrobe. Water dripped from his hair onto the cotton, soaking it through, as he gazed at the cityscape out of the window and ate tuna out of the tin with a teaspoon.
“Ellie,” he said with his sweet toothy smile. “I was going to make you breakfast. What do you eat?”
They fell into a simple routine: she went to work and came home to a freshly made dinner, the small apartment made warm and golden by his presence. In the evenings they sat on the couch together, talked, or watched TV. He told her about his day, the places he’d explored. When it rained, he lay back and stared at the skylight, tracing each raindrop down the glass with his eyes as if they were telling him a story: twists and turns of the plot, an inevitable happy ending when all the drops pooled together against the edge of the frame.
On weekends they had breakfast – bagels for her, kippers for him – and went wandering through the neighbourhood or took a trip to the city centre. At first she worried about overwhelming his senses, but at the same time she wanted to impress and dazzle him. She kept pointing out the landmarks, uncharacteristically proud of their grimy grandeur.
“My culture is a few millenia older than yours,” Ari told her. “I’ve been to a city before.”
He loved the skyscrapers, the vertical tunnel spaces between them, that shift in perspective that made Ellie feel like she might fall into the sky if she wasn’t careful, zooming between the rows of glass windows. The endless streams of cars and people around them soothed him, but he hated the park, of all things. He stared at the wrinkled water of the pond with a mixture of wistfulness and dismay, and declined her offer to throw lettuce to the ducks.
It took her a week to ask him about his scar.
“Fishing accident,” he said, rubbing the knotted white tissue at his neck.
“Were you a fisherman?”
“In a way,” he answered, and she assumed that it hadn’t been entirely legal. “I was young and stupid. My father saved me, and… he was hurt too. He didn’t make it.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“I didn’t get along with my siblings after that. They’re trying to build a new home, keep our traditions alive. I don’t know if there’s any point now. I don’t exactly fit in back there. It’s been easier on my own.”
He plucked at the tassels on the throw and gave her a sideways glance.
“I saw you on that beach a few days before you fell,” he said. “You were alone, and seemed so happy. I liked that.”
“I’m not that much of a hermit. I see my family all the time,” Ellie said. “It’s just… Sometimes I feel I don’t exactly fit in either. My parents live up North, my sister is supposed to visit on Saturday…”
For a moment she wanted to arrange to take Emmeline out for lunch instead of inviting her to the flat, or to ask Ari to go for a walk. Hide him from her, like a dirty secret.
“You’ll meet her,” Ellie said firmly. “She’s… well, you’ll see.”
When Emmeline turned up Ari was in the kitchen, shirtless, in his board shorts and an apron, cleaning a large fish he’d brought from the farmers’ market. After the introductions Emeline pulled Ellie to the sofa, where Ari wouldn’t hear them over the running water.
“Why don’t I know anything about the new boyfriend?” Emmeline demanded.
“He’s just a friend. He’s crashing on the sofa until he finds something permanent.”
“Where do you know him from? Work? Uni?”
“I don’t have to tell you everything. It’s none of your business, actually.”
“Did you meet him on that holiday? Ellie, he could be a grifter! Men like that prey on lonely women–”
“He just needs a place to stay.”
“What happened to his old place? Did his wife chuck him out? Are you his rebound piece?”
Ellie took a breath and finally said it out loud:
“I think he’s here illegally. A refugee, probably.”
“You think? You mean he didn’t even tell you? Or do you think he’s lying to you?”
“I didn’t ask. I don’t want to pry. These are obviously painful memories…”
“Are you listening to yourself? He could be anything! He could be stealing your identity, or making bombs in your bathtub while you’re at work!”
“What? That’s racist!”
“And what race is he, exactly? Do you even know?”
“Why are you being such a shit?”
“Why are you being such a moron? Hey, there’s a homeless guy doing drugs outside your building, are you going to invite him too? He could join you two for a threesome!”
“It’s not like that! We’re friends!”
“You’re not friends! You know nothing about him! And don’t even start – you’re drooling all over him, it’s pathetic. If you’re not having sex, it’s only because he’s stringing you along. He’s using you!”
“Stop yelling, he’ll hear you!”
Emmeline threw her arms up and stormed out through the whole flat. At the door she turned and went back into the kitchen, where Ari was still elbows deep in the fish.
“If you hurt my sister in any way,” she hissed at him, “I will find you, whoever you are, and I’ll rip you apart.”
She slammed the door on the way out and Ari turned back to his work. He had the fish pinned in the sink, stripping off its scales with the back of Ellie’s fruit knife. The bottom of her sink gleamed, as if strewn with silver sequins.
“I’m sorry,” Ellie said.
“Never mind,” he said and gutted the fish with one swift slash of the knife. “I’ve heard worse.”
They shared the meal curled up on the couch, and then she gathered the courage to talk to him.
“Did you hear what she said?” she asked.
“Some. Don’t worry, I only use your bathtub to soak in.”
“I know.” She nodded. Since he’d moved in the bathroom never seemed quite dry. She’d have to do something about the mold on the tiles eventually. “But about the other thing…”
“You don’t have to,” he started, turning to her, and her breath caught for a moment just from their faces being so close.
“I really like you,” she said. “That’s true. I think I should be honest with you. I know I said this would be just until you get back on your feet. But if you want us to be… If you want to be with me, to stay with me…”
He gently took the plate from her hands and put it on the floor along with his. She stared at him, her heart in her throat, stunned anew by his beauty, the stark symmetry of his face, the deep warm shade of his eyes.
“Looks like you dreamt about me after all,” he said.
“It’s not like I meant to. I thought it would be creepy to tell you.”
“I know you didn’t mean to. I like you too.” He opened his arms to her. “Come here.”
There was a strange sadness in his voice, and later she’d be kicking herself that she hadn’t stopped to ask him what was wrong. But she just eagerly bounced along the couch, slotted her body alongside his, shivering at the touch of his hands to her sides, and kissed him.
It felt nothing like in her dreams, but then, none of this was like in that dream. They were on her couch, hundreds of miles away from the beach. Her wall clock was ticking overhead, cars whizzed past the building, the room was full of the warm, familiar, domestic smells, and he felt so right in her arms, like he’d always been there.
His kisses were soft, leisurely but thrilling all the same. His scent changed with arousal, a deep, salty, musky note that made her near dizzy. She pushed her tongue deeper into his mouth and pulled at the waistband of his shorts.
He caught her hand and gently wrapped his fingers around her wrist, holding and stroking at the same time.
“Not tonight,” he said. “Let’s take this slow.”
They stayed on the couch for another hour, just kissing. It was a strange, half-forgotten thing to want so much and not go any further. Back in her adolescence she’d wasted days making out with not-quite-boyfriends on top of their neatly made beds in their childhood bedrooms, barely daring to touch each other anywhere, eagerly tormenting themselves with exquisite, sharp and desperate lust. Now she wondered if she’d robbed herself of this because the need had been so easy to sate since, it didn’t seem worth enjoying.
“Tomorrow I’ll try to explain,” he said when it was already too dark in the room to see his face. “Why this, between us, is more complicated than I want it to be.”
“All right. Do you want to sleep in the bed tonight? With me?”
“Not yet. Maybe after – maybe later.”
She left him on the couch and went to the bathroom. When she came out, teeth brushed and still-flushed face cleansed and moisturised, he’d already made his bed and was smiling at her from the pillow, and beckoned her closer for one last chaste kiss.
In the morning he was gone.
He left everything behind: the cheap phone and all the clothes she’d bought him except for the ones from the tourist shop back on the coast: tatty pink shirt, the shorts too tight around his thighs and the cheap flip-flops with soles already cracked.
Ellie called in sick, rented a car and set off back to her holiday destination. Half-way there she texted Emmeline asking to water the plants, and got a call from her right away.
“Where are you going?” Emmeline voice rasped out of the car’s tinny speakers. “Is he taking you somewhere? Are you being human trafficked?”
“He left, all right? Happy? I’m going after him.”
“Did he rob you? Whatever he took, small price to pay for a life lesson. Don’t chase him, that’s mad. Just call the police. I’ll come in and give my statement and help you sort everything…”
“He didn’t! Can you listen – he left me!”
“Probably with all your financial information. You have to change all the passwords and cancel your cards, and–”
“He didn’t take anything! We kissed, he said he liked me, we didn’t even – and then he left!”
“Ellie, munchkin, come on. He probably just had a moment of conscience and decided not to break your heart. He mooched off you for weeks and now he’s off with your banking details, that’s all there is to it. Let him go.”
Ellie clenched her teeth and carefully eased off the accelerator back to the legal speed limit.
“The only reason he’d want you to go after him is because he was playing a long con and that’s part of the script. If he’s just a good guy who liked you but chose to leave, then going after him is stalker behaviour. You get that, right?”
Ellie hung up and drove the rest of the way without music, accompanied only by her swirling thoughts.
She got to the village pub just before the last call, and desperately grinned at the landlady.
“I’m looking for Ari. He hasn’t been here lately, has he?”
“They don’t really stick around,” the landlady said. “Don’t expect he’ll come to the village any time soon.”
“Well, where could I go to find him? Do you know? Do they have a camp, or…”
The landlady shook her head and went back to polishing glasses. Ellie rented her old room, still empty and already musty with disuse, and spent the night staring at the ceiling, wondering if Em was right. If the last thing Ari wanted was for her to find him.
In the morning she went down to the beach, to the spot where they’d met, and wandered by the water, side-stepping the waves. She could barely believe just a few weeks ago she voluntarily went in there, alone, even though she had felt the ocean fighting her every movement and every moment in the waves had been an exhausting struggle. It was as difficult to believe that just yesterday she was kissing Ari on her tiny couch, falling for him, and now she was trying to chase him down, looking for an answer, which was probably very simple: he just didn’t want her.
She went back to the village to treat herself to a giant slab of cake before heading back to the city. The pub was empty except for an ancient woman sat all by herself with only a milky cup of tea and a paperback keeping her company.
“Are you that lass who went off with one of them fellows?” the woman asked, and Ellie cringed inwardly. She was a local celebrity, the hottest piece of gossip. People were coming to the pub just to gawk at her.
“Yes,” she said, and suddenly realised she wanted to talk about it, to let some of her hurt and confusion out. The old lady glanced at the kitchen door where the landlady was busy rattling the cutlery, and beckoned Ellie to join her at the table.
“Got you in trouble, didn’t he?” she asked.
“My own fault. My sister warned me…”
“I know girls these days just go off and have it done at the doctor’s. But if you don’t want to do a thing like that, there is a way. What’s your name, sweetheart? I’m Jane.”
“Ellie,” Ellie said. “Sorry, what?”
“Happened to me back in the day,” Jane said quietly. “Nearly seventy years ago now. He couldn’t marry me, of course, because they’re not, you know, Christian folk. But his family did right by me. Back then, if people found out, they’d shame me all my life. I told everyone I’d be away at my aunt’s for a while. And instead we went to his home.”
“Abroad, you mean? Across the ocean?”
“Oh, not all the way. They’re only local. So pretty it was, all crystals and lights. Pet fish and water snakes everywhere, playing in your hair, all the relations coming in from afar to see the new arrival. Some of them gave me such fright, poor things. Not all of them learn how to look pretty.”
Ellie tried to nod along, but the story made less sense by the minute.
“Told me they’d take a girl off me, but I could keep a boy. And what would I do with a boy? One like that, no less? I left it there, and they were ever so glad…”
“Where was that?” Ellie asked, not really hoping for a coherent answer.
“You can’t get there on your own. But there’s a cave nearby. There’s always someone there, they’ll sort you out.”
“Could you describe how to get there?”
Even asking that was mad. Whatever happened to Jane seventy years ago had nothing to do with Ari. Even if there was a cave where outcasts found refuge around these parts, and even if he was hiding there right now, she’d never find it from the old lady’s muddled directions.
Jane took an aged smart phone out of her bag and pulled up maps.
“Just look it up,” she said. “What chat apps are you on? Add me. I’ll send you coordinates.”
The narrow beach was littered with plastic debris: blue gas canisters, empty bottles, discoloured foil wrappers strewn under the cliff walls. The cliffs butted out into the sea exactly as Jane had described. The entrance to the cave was out there. Now, at low tide, it should be exposed.
Ellie changed into the wetsuit, trod over the sharp rocks and waded into the sea.
She thought it would be harder after all those nightmares. The waves pushed and pulled at her relentlessly, she had to fight the will and the force of the ocean every moment she was in it, but she wasn’t panicking and the taste of salt didn’t choke her.
At the tip of the rocky wedge a narrow gap between two rocks opened into a twisting passage, barely visible both from land and the sea. A perfect place for a secret cave. And an excellent death trap to get stuck inside, and, of course, she’d left her phone in the car, up on the cliff.
The tide was still going out. She had time. She squeezed into the gap and moved through the winding passage below the cliffs.
Soon the sharp turns obscured the light from the outside. She swam in the darkness, feeling slick rock walls with her palms. The ceiling, high at first, was now just above her, and by the sounds of water licking rocks in front of her, there wasn’t much space left to explore. Even if there had been some kind of sanctuary here seventy years ago, it was flooded now.
She rounded another bend and saw a shimmer ahead, deep in the water. The passage didn’t end in darkness and black water crashing against rock. There was something man-made, a light source, a mystery and an answer.
Dive for a count of ten, she decided. If she didn’t reach whatever that was in ten seconds, go back up and return with scuba gear. Or perhaps stake the place out and see if Ari showed up on the beach with grocery bags and a snorkel.
It only took two downward strokes to clear the stone lip between her and the light, but whatever glittered there only reflected the glow from above. The source seemed close. Ellie kicked her legs and raced to it.
She broke the surface and splashed in place, blinking salt out of her eyes and gulping in air.
She was in a cave. Its ceiling disappeared into the shadows a good twenty feet above. The glow was coming from the water surface, from the clumps of shimmering purplish algae.
There was a ring of rocky ground by the cave wall, only a couple of feet wide. Ellie scratched a mark into the stone above the exit tunnel, swam over and climbed out to rest.
There was plenty of washed up trash even in here. No large items had made it through the passage, but there were those ever-present foil wrappers, small plastic bottles, bits of unidentifiable junk.
Ellie picked up a strand of algae to take a closer look. The fragile furry thread instantly lost its glow and fell apart in her fingers, turning into a string of slime. She picked herself up and walked around the cave, along the walls.
There had to be more to this. Jane had said there were always someone in here, but the place was too small even for a single person to camp out for long. Ellie knelt at the edge of the water and tried to peer through the glowing weeds and below the surface. There could be another tunnel under there, leading somewhere else…
Water surface broke noisily behind her, and a piercing shriek bounced off the walls. A grey shape lunged out of the water right at her, its maw wide open and lined with the long, crooked, sharp teeth straight from her nightmares.
Ellie screamed and toppled backwards just out of reach of the snapping jaws. The creature lurched closer but didn’t chase her ashore. It had slick spotted skin, rolls of open pink slits on both sides of its jaws, huge black eyes and sloping powerful shoulders, and it kept shrieking, thrashing in what looked like rage.
Ellie’s grasping hand closed around a hefty rock. She rolled up onto her feet, swung the rock and smashed it just above the creature’s glistening eyes. It shrieked higher, recoiling in pain, and whipped its long limbs out of the water.
Ellie had half-expected it to have flippers, and the arms horrified her more than the teeth had. The creature slapped a long fingered hand over the bleeding wound, and Ellie struck at those fingers, hoping to break a few small bones. She swung once more but the thing took a defensive swipe at her. Ellie dodged and threw the stone at it, aiming for the eyes.
“Next one in the teeth, you fuck!” she screamed, grabbing more stones from the cave floor.
The creature pulled back and sank lower, making shrill noises and rocking threateningly toward her. It almost seemed like it was trying to herd Ellie toward the exit, it as if its only goal was to force the intruder out of the cave.
Ellie knelt by the water and slowly put down the rocks.
“Hey hey, shh,” she crooned. “Calm down, I’m not here to ruin your nest…”
The creature dropped its arms and reared at her with renewed fury.
“Leave!” it roared.
Ellie recognised the voice instantly. The look in those grotesque sclera-less black eyes seemed familiar too. And there was a white scar running down the thick neck and disappearing under water, starker and bigger on the grey skin.
“Ari?” she asked. If she was wrong – well, looking silly in front of a water monster was the least of her worries right now. “Ari, you’re bleeding. Can you talk to me? Please?”
The creature sluggishly moved to the shore. It heaved itself out awkwardly, streaming pink diluted blood. It had two thick legs and impossibly long feet with toes both webbed and clawed.
Black hair on its scalp twisted into curls as it shed water. Either it had been too tightly plastered to skin to be noticed or it hadn’t been there at all a moment ago. By the time the thing rolled over it had a human face, Ari’s face. For a moment it looked sloppily pasted onto the monster’s body, but then he looked just as he did before: all human, with smooth skin where it wasn’t scarred or broken by her blows.
“What was that?” Ellie asked. Fear was gone now and she felt angry, fooled somehow. “An illusion? Was that your real face?”
He sat up and dabbed a his forehead, cringing at the sight of blood.
“Real?” he said. “Do you even know what that means? You only see what you’re capable of seeing, all of you.”
“You need stitches,” she said, reaching to take a closer look, and he pushed her hands away.
“This beach has tainted water, thanks to poison from your fields. This will get infected, stitches or not.”
“Well – you started it! You tried to scare me! What did you think would happen?”
“I was hoping you’d go away. Was that unclear? You have to leave before the others catch your scent. I’ll come with you. I’ll explain–”
Two more grey things soundlessly lunged out of the water and threw themselves at him. Their shapes shifted at once: their skin lost its wet gleam and grey tint, bodies elongated, hair swung down from their heads. Ellie grabbed another rock and smashed it into the back of the nearest attacker’s skull. It roared in pain and anger, still leaning its weight on Ari, and clawed at her with one arm.
Her suit split, but the scratch felt shallow. Ellie stepped back, aiming another blow, and a disgustingly sleek hand whipped around her neck from behind. There was a third one, and it had sneaked up on her.
Ellie blindly elbowed at it. Its flesh was so taut, cushioned in compact layers of fat, that it felt like punching a football. Another arm grabbed her shoulder and yanked backwards, and they were underwater.
She kicked and twisted, straining toward the purple glow above. The creature pulled her down with horrific ease, and she hadn’t had time to gather enough breath.
The creature flipped them both around in one easy motion, raising enough murky silt and debris to darken in the water, and pressed Ellie into the sharp rocks at the bottom. It grinned down at her with the same enormous maw that used to horrify her in her dreams, but now, as she dug her fingers into tendons on its wrists and tried to scratch at its eyes, all she felt was rage.
Fear didn’t kick in until she gulped in water and knew she was drowning for real this time.
Now, Ellie thought, looking at the blazingceiling above her. This is more like a civilisation millenia older than ours.
There was a pattern to the crystals above, a beautiful unbroken rhythm. The purple glow played on their sides, sparkled and refracted differently whenever Ellie turned her head or moved her eyes, though part of that could be her watering eyes that were still seeing double.
“Ellie,” Ari was saying nearby. “Don’t panic. I’m here. It’ll be fine.”
She rolled her head toward the sound and saw him: naked, kneeling, with his arms wrenched back, bound by thick undulating ropes.
She tried to get up and reach for him, to free him, but an insistent force pushed her back onto something soft. The same ropes, glistening and thick, were all over her torso, spasming gently against the surface of her wet suit. Small suckers opened like greedy mouths on the underside, grasping at rubber. Tentacles, she thought weakly, and felt a massive, disgustingly soft body shift behind her.
There was a monstrous face with a beak for a mouth hovering behind Ari’s shoulder. The tentacles left round bruises on his skin, like that time Ellie went to a spa with a friend’s hen party and decided to try “cupping”.
She stifled a panicked wheeze in her throat. Ari relaxed against the hold with visible effort and forced a smile.
“It’ll be fine,” he kept saying pleadingly. Ellie carefully tensed against the tentacles, glad she couldn’t feel their texture through the neoprene. She felt – surprisingly well, unlike the last time she had drowned. Her chest and throat didn’t ache, her head wasn’t sore and she didn’t feel like she’d swallowed half the ocean and now had to puke it out.
There was a lump on the side of Ari’s face, over the wound she’d given him. A small half-opaque creature slowly puffed and deflated against his skin, as if sucking out infected blood.
A naked arm snaked around Ellie’s torso and splayed a hand over her stomach. It seemed almost human-looking, with only slightly webbed fingers and long conical nails, green and the base and blueish at the tips.
A melodic voice said a long string of words in a language Ellie didn’t recognise, guttural and choppy. Ari grimaced and rolled his eyes.
Ellie craned her head toward the voice and saw, at an uncomfortable angle, a lovely woman’s face, a little spoilt by large flat black eyes and the utter absence of nose. She smiled down at Ellie, showing six rows of teeth, one behind the other.
“Don’t be afraid,” she said. “I’m just trying to understand why our little Ari brought you here, if you’re not with his child.”
“And I said I’ll explain myself after you let her go,” Ari said.
“Let me get this straight,” Elie said before the woman could answer. “You drowned me, and then revived me, I guess, all while you thought I was carrying your, what, nephew? Cousin? I don’t want to say grandkid – I have no idea how to tell your age.”
“I’m Ari’s sister, Anamita,” the woman said. “You killed our mama, poisoned her with your filth. You killed our daddy with your harpoons and knives. We’re much gentler with you than you deserve. Why did he bring you here?”
There were others in the cave, dozens of shapes hovering around the glittering sheer pillars, under arches bent at impossible degrees. Some looked just like people, though most had something odd about them: a feature out of proportion, a strange hue or pattern of spots on their skin. Some looked like long-limbed seals, some like giant coiling serpents with human heads and torsos, some were indistinguishable from octopuses: resting half-submerged in the clear pool, brightly coloured, with sad moist eyes,. Ellie was at the shallow end of it, water just lapping at her flanks. It seemed unnaturally blue and clear, like on doctored photos of pools at fancy holidays villas.
“He didn’t bring me here,” Ellie said.
“Ellie, don’t, just don’t say anything,” Ari begged. “They won’t hurt you. Just be quiet.”
“I don’t want them to hurt you either,” she said, trying to ignore the way the tentacles shifted against her. “I found this place on my own. I didn’t like how we left things. I wanted to apologise.”
“Apologise?” Anamita asked. “What for?”
“That’s between us,” Ellie said. “Let Ari go. He did nothing wrong.”
“This is for everyone’s safety,” Anamita said. “A human has never found us before, so our traditions don’t have the answers here…”
“I know that’s not true,” Ellie said. “Humans have been here before and left freely. I tricked one of them to find this place. I won’t tell anyone. What, a crystal cave under the cliffs, full of merfolk? Right, if I want to get committed.”
“Those humans were special,” said a man to her left, stood proudly naked before her. He was astonishingly beautiful, with bright green eyes and ringlets in his hair, his profile bold like on an ancient amphora. “They were in love with us, full of our spawn. They spent months here, nurtured and nourished in our ways. We knew they wouldn’t betray us. We can, of course, easily arrange for that. I guess my baby brother didn’t quite manage, ah, Ari?”
“Don’t!” Ari screamed, thrashing. “Don’t you dare! Don’t touch her!”
The man laughed and held his open hand an inch away from Ellie’s face. Its warmth bloomed pleasantly against her wet skin and surged through her whole body in a hot, painful, excited thrill.
She twisted against the tentacles, squirming with sudden heady lust, desperate for this man’s touch, ready to crane her head to rub against him like a needy dog.
“What the fuck is that?” she gasped. The cave was full of crackling noises: she assumed they were all laughing at her distress.
“It’s nothing,” Ari said. “It’s the same thing you feel for me. It’s how we make you feel. It’s nobody’s fault, that’s just how you people are.”
“Aken, stop,” Anamita said, and the pulsing heat in Ellie’s groin lessened. “We don’t force anyone. But we need to do something about this situation.”
The giant red spotted octopus holding Ari produced a string of bubbling sounds from his beak. Ari furiously scuffled on his knees, trying to kick back at it. His teeth bared, elongated out of the proportions of his mouth.
“Ike, shut up,” said Anamita. “We’re not going to eat her, we don’t do that. It’s because of you Ari is like this, because you and Aken have bullied him all his life!”
“I’m fine now,” Ari said. “Let me go. I’ll behave.”
Anamita nodded and the tentacles slipped off Ari’s body. He rubbed at his skin, stood up and abruptly launched himself at Aken.
They both fell into the knee-deep water and viciously grappled there, both rapidly morphing into their seal shapes. Several octopuses began prying them apart, but the rest of the crowd simply gawked and made cheering noises.
“Males,” Anamita sighed. “Will you be fine if we release you?”
Ellie nodded and was instantly let go, and crouched next to Anamita. She wanted to peer through the water to see if Anamita had legs or a tail, but that seemed rude.
“This site is compromised,” Anamita said loudly. “Too many humans know about it, it took this one no time to find it. We’ll collapse the structures, pull up plants and guardians and head for the open ocean.”
“And then what?” Aken yelled, twisting out of the loose hold of one of octopuses managed to get on him. “They riddled our cities with plastic, they tainted our fish, plundered our water! Now they force us from our last ancient home at these shores, and we do nothing? No retribution, no vengeance?”
“This place is a poison deathtrap,” Anamita said tiredly. “We should have abandoned it generations ago.”
“Our ancestor’s graves–”
“Yes, along with the ancient graves. First we get ourselves to safety and make sure we live another day. Then we decide what’s next for us all.”
She moved through water in smooth snaking motion and pulled Ari from the fray into her arms. He stilled in her embrace, hiding his half-human face against her blue striped shoulder.
“I’m so sorry,” he muttered.
“It’s all for the best,” Anamita said. “We’ll find somewhere clean and safe for us all. There must still be good places somewhere. Now, I have a lot of work to do. See your human home safe, will you?”
They swam out of the cave and to the shore. Ari followed Ellie up the cliff to the car, and she changed right there on the hard shoulder.
“Well,” he said, awkwardly twisting his human fingers with soft, short unkempt nails.
“Can we talk?” she asked. “Get in the car for a bit, please. I don’t want passing cars to honk at you.”
He squeezed into the rental, naked and dripping, and she took the driver’s seat.
“I shouldn’t have come after you,” she said. “I wanted to hear you say you forgave me. That’s just how us humans are, I guess. And now I’ve ruined things for your whole family.”
“Ana never does what she doesn’t want to do. She’s been trying to move the shoal for years. You just gave her an excuse the others will swallow. I don’t know what I’m supposed to forgive, Ellie.”
“That I made a move on you. You were my guest. For all I knew, you had nowhere else to go if you didn’t want to be around me after that. And I know how much it hurts when you think you’ve made a friend, and they you find out they were just after one thing all along.”
“I know we were friends,” he said. “It’s not your fault. I thought, if I worked to suppress it maybe you could resist. Some people are immune.”
“Why did you kiss me? If you didn’t want to be with me, why not just say no? Why run off like that?”
“How was I supposed to say no? I made you feel all that lust, and then I’d deny you? Those stories don’t end well. And I did want to. I just didn’t want to force you to want me you. I hate the very idea.”
“Have you considered that we just might like each other?” she asked a little crossly, thinking about his pliant lips, and his patient kisses that had seemed to be all about her pleasure.
“We can’t ever know if it’s real. You’re beautiful, your soul is warm and brave, so my instincts home in on you. It’s a primal urge. And when I infect you, your lust affects me, and it’s just an endless vicious circle of blind obsession–”
“Isn’t that just how people fall for each other?”
“Your people, maybe,” he grumbled.
“Would you like to go home with me?” she asked. “Once we figure out what to do about your legal status I could get you a job at the aquarium, I have connections.”
He chuckled and looked back at the water, wistful.
“It would be a shame not to give it another try,” he said. “Let’s see what happens.”
She started the car and turned inland, back home.
If you enjoyed this story, please check out Ocean, for more!