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ISSUE 30

AUG 2019

3LBE 30

FICTION

Front & Back cover art by Rew X

Scales

2735 words

Listen to this story

Narrated by the author
Duration: 20:47

 

“Sorry about your dad.”

           

Liv’s voice slid down my neck like muddy water, the gravel in it catching at my skin. I didn’t want to look up but I could feel her standing there, could see the chipped black polish on her quick-bitten thumbnail from the corner of my eye.

“Thanks.” I met her gaze, seafoam green, the softest thing about her. She pulled her lower lip between her teeth and let it go; there was nothing sexual in the gesture but my cheeks burned anyway. The swell of voices ebbed and flowed around us as students crossed the courtyard. From my usual perch on the dry fountain in the corner I could almost close my eyes and hear the sea, the rise and crash of waves and below them, far below, the faintest whisper of my name—

“I heard they found his boat.”

The dull throb of blood in my cheeks grew hotter. I stood up from the concrete lip but suddenly Liv’s hand was on my arm. It was the first time she’d ever touched me, the first time I’d seen her touch anyone, and the shock cut my breath like drowning. She leaned in close enough that I could see the places her dark eyeliner had clotted on her lashes.

“Don’t you want to know where it took him? The storm?”

I pulled my arm away, stumbling backwards with my own momentum; through the ice that filled my lungs I managed, “Fuck you.”

“I can help you!” Liv called as I plunged into an eddy of freshmen.

• • •

That night I dreamed of him again. Not us below the waves but high above them, soaring like ospreys over whitecaps. My father showed me how to tilt my hands and dip so I would spin, dive, skim the sea; the roaring wind whipped our laughter into screams and miles away I saw my mother, clumsy, so heavy on the ground.  

Years passed in the sky before my father pointed at a small dark whorl far below, a shadow in the water. Grinning he took my hand and angled bare feet to send us down, down, and the shadow grew clearer, made itself a shape, no rock or seal but a dead man’s swollen head.

I struggled to yank my arm away as salty rot splashed up into my face, but my father held me fast against his side as he sank his teeth into his own corpse’s cheek. Because I couldn’t watch I stared past him into the water and there, deeper than light—a flash of pale green eyes.

• • •

The next day Liv found me on the football field during lunch. I didn’t protest when she folded herself down and matched my pose, laced Sharpie-stained fingers across her stomach. She’d covered her hands in fish scales.

“I could do it for cheap.”

“Do what.” Again I didn’t want to look at her. Again my head turned against my will, drawn into her cold and breathless orbit as grass tickled the bare skin of my thighs beneath my skirt. Liv kept her mouth thin and solemn but her eyes shone bright.

“Bring him up before he goes too bad.” And then, as if I weren’t already pale as codgut, “Your father.”

“Why are you doing this?”

“You’ve always been less of an asshole than some.”

I turned my face back up to the sky. My throat was thick, vision hazy. “So buy me a soda.”

“Sure. Although I should warn you, nights will only get worse. Next time you’ll take a bite of him yourself. Pepsi or Coke?”

The class bell clanged before I found my words. But I tracked her after school.

Liv drove a car even older and more battle-scarred than mine. Which was saying something, considering Dad had driven the Volvo all the way from Virginia back in the ’70s. He’d picked up a smear of every state along the way but Liv’s rust had the grimy, sunbaked perfection of a museum piece. I caught her with one arm exposed, about to pull the door shut and close herself inside; for a second it wasn’t Liv at all but a long, slender spider retreating into a hole in the sand.

“Wait.”

Liv did, her fingers on the door. She didn’t crane her head to see me, didn’t twist her torso from the car. When I made it to her side she was gazing at her fingernails, or maybe at her hand, turning her palm this way and that. I knew then that she wouldn’t tell me, not for cheap. Not for cheap at all.

“What do you know about my father?”

“Hop in. I’m feeling waffles.” Liv slid her gaze towards mine without lifting her head, a funny shyness to it that was probably as fake as her box-black hair. I couldn’t tell for certain. Nothing had seemed entirely real for weeks. I got in the car.

We left the school parking lot in a haze of muted, golden light. The summer days were long enough my mother wouldn’t expect me back for hours and hours, if she had me in her head at all.

I thought, I should be careful, but Liv’s car smelled like rain. Not sharp, not of salt. It gave me space to close my eyes and let her drive, the silence between us as frail and delicate as her gauzy black sleeve.  

• • •

Liv took me to the diner by the wharf where the fishermen docked their ships: longliners and gillnetters, trawlers looped with netting and of course the crabbers, low, scrappy, like my father’s boat. I’d eaten here dozens of times with my parents or, more recently, alone—waiting for him to get in so I could drive him home and rack up the miles on my learner’s permit. Not since the storm, though. Which she must have known.

“So,” Liv said when we sat, and slapped her laminated menu onto the table between us. “Whipped cream or no?”

“I don’t care.” I didn’t want to push her, could sense the kind of life that hummed and snapped beneath her skin—how she would be quite capable of causing pain. “But they make the whipped cream themselves.”

“Mm.”

She flagged a waitress who knew me and ordered waffles with whipped cream and a vanilla milkshake. Two cherries. The waitress put her hand on my shoulder before she left, squeezed once; I had to fight the urge to run outside and flail my arms until I shook her pity off. Liv watched my face, or searched it, thoughts darting across her gaze like minnows in sunny water.

“Well?” I asked when I couldn’t stand it anymore. For a second I thought she’d put me off again, find another trick to play, but instead Liv’s lips curved into something sharp and narrow. No pity there. Under that smile I could breathe.

“Okay,” she said. “He’s in the dark. Way down. Almost too far to reach.”

“Are you saying… is he alive?”

“No.” Her answer, swift and definitive, didn’t hurt me like I thought it might. But something did change inside my chest, a sort of giving. Cardboard finally crumpling underneath a weight.

“I don’t understand. What am I—the dreams? And what you said.”

“He’s not alive,” Liv said again. She put her elbows on the table and leaned closer, all angles. The waitress clicked back and swept a platter of waffles down between us, the milkshake. Two cherries. Two straws. “But,” and Liv took one thick straw between her fingers and bit it lightly with her teeth, eyes on mine. “There’s a place where he isn’t dead either. That’s where you go at night. That’s where he wants you to stay. But I’ll be honest with you. It’s not him you visit. Or it won’t be, soon enough.”

She never offered me the second straw. I wouldn’t have taken it. But that second cherry sat atop the thick, foamy head of her milkshake all the way to the bottom.

• • •

In the sky my father smelled like lobster dinner. Salmon on the grill. Like summer and stars and sea salt spray. We punched through clouds that turned our skin as damp and puckered as an hour in the water, kicked back our feet to catch the thermals rising up, up, up. He held his hands out to compare our raisin fingerprints, but when our palms touched, his skin sloughed off in chunks. Birds fought for scraps of him but my meat fell down into the waves where something quick and lithe caught it from below.

• • •

I sat with her at lunch, though I was afraid to look closely at why. Nobody said anything but I felt them watching, people who knew me, knew her. Across a white plastic table we picked at our chicken fingers and coleslaw, a box of chocolate milk for Liv and apple juice for me. She watched me pierce the foil ring with the sharpened tip of my straw in one hard jab. It was a tiny, pointless savagery I hated because I knew, even as I did it, I was doing it for her.

Liv picked up a piece of chicken and inspected it, the sanitary cafeteria light stealing all the green from her eyes and turning them as alien as the fish scales not yet faded from her hands.

She said, “You don’t have a lot of time.”

I placed the tip of my fork against a chicken finger, stabbed it slowly. Took a bite. Too much breading, not enough meat.

“Men aren’t so good with tides, you know? I’d give it another day or two. Not more than three.”

The coleslaw was awful too, so much mayonnaise I couldn’t taste the vinegar.

“We can do it at your house if you want.”

My mother on the couch in her underwear, a liter of wine half-drunk at her elbow, unable to stand even if she wanted to?

“No. Not my house.”

“Mine, then.”

“What about your parents? Do they know—all this?”

“Don’t worry about that. Can you come tonight?”

I sucked my apple juice, throat still tacky with slaw. Nodded while I drained the box. Liv smiled as my stomach clenched and coiled: all that sugar. She said she’d drive. It was so easy to let her.

We left before school ended, cutting out of study hall with the smokers. Liv seemed like the type to smoke but she only led me through their butt-littered shortcut through the woods behind the football field. I trailed my fingers along rough trunks and soft young ferns, trying to feel the plants in a way that would linger past this moment, but those sensations were too difficult to keep. Everything was too difficult to keep except the marks Liv left when her gaze skated across my skin. The memory of flying. The smell of rot and brine.

We looped back to the parking lot and took her car north along the coast, past my neighborhood, past the larger marina, all the way up to the cliffs. Something tugged at my chest as we drove, a fishhook pulling me back, but Liv drove faster than the line.

• • •

This high on the bluffs, even the wind was nervous. Gusts clung to the sandstone, broke free for long enough to howl before they fell back towards the sea. Below us, a hundred feet or more, waves slammed against the side of the cliff. Sunset wouldn’t blacken the water for hours and now each whitecap snapped a set of frothy teeth.

Liv stood next to me, our toes inches from the edge. She seemed horribly delicate against the empty air but her sleeve whipped my forearm like fire coral every time the wind clawed away from the rocks.

“Here,” she said, pulling me back outside myself. In her hand a shard of obsidian caught the light. “You know how this works?”

“I’m not a cutter.” I’d seen other students eyeing my arms in the weeks after the storm. Curious. Expectant even. But Liv only smiled and pressed the shard into my hand.

“It won’t hurt for long.”

The chunk of black glass weighed down my palm, warm from her fingers, its dorsal edge so keen the final centimeter glowed a muddy yellow: my own skin showing through from underneath. Something coiled within me, a kind of recognition.

“If you do this with me,” Liv said, “you won’t be the same.” A gull shrieked, four more answered.

“But he’ll be back? He’ll be safe?”

A nod.

“Say it out loud.” My vision blurred around her face, a wave of vertigo that sent me swaying towards the cliff. For the first time I grabbed her, the obsidian edge just missing her arm. Liv didn’t flinch and suddenly I wanted her to, the wanting hot and tight inside my belly and that pain was good, almost perfect. “Swear to me!”

“Your father back and safe, your mother like you’ve dreamed her, and all this yours to keep. Or I swear I’ll jump off this cliff tomorrow.” With every word she spoke my vision cleared, stabilized, narrowed in around the shapes her pale lips made as she promised me. Past her the gulls were fighting in a blur of wings and noise. Liv took my wrist in both her hands, cradled my palm like a fragile and valuable thing.

“Now,” she whispered, and pressed her mouth against my knuckles where they curved around the glass. Then she pushed my arm up until that keen edge kissed my throat below my ear. “Your turn. You know what I need you to say before we begin?”

And with my chest so full of churning life, the open air before us impossibly large, I did.

I told her, “Yes.”

• • •

I didn’t dream of him that night. Instead I dreamed of her. Morning sunlight dragged me from the deep, dark places Liv had showed me in my sleep, but I tasted salt and when I touched my fingers to my mouth they came back red.

I tried to think of what we’d done, how I’d gotten home, but it wasn’t there. My mind had been filleted, everything after that windy cliff plucked out.

In the shower pinpricks marched along my spine, across my chest. I looked down to find faint pockmarks on my skin: itchy crescents in strange patterns on my shoulders, my forearms, one fragile swath beneath my breasts. Fear, cold and sweet as rain, collected in the divots on my belly. Water stung my throat but a scar had already formed beneath my jaw, a single white line like a solitary gill.

Downstairs I found my mother flipping pancakes with two butter knives. One earring, sea glass set in silver, dangled by her jugular. The other ear was bare. When I spoke, I heard my own voice as if across a long and empty room.

“I need to stay home today. I think I’m sick.”

“You don’t look sick.”

Except she didn’t turn to see. She sounded normal, sober, but then I watched my mother try to lift a pancake with the butter knives. She dropped it on the floor, scrabbled for another without a second glance. My knees turned queasy-weak; I blinked and there were no butter knives, no pancake on the floor. I poured myself into a chair and scratched my arms, the webs between my fingers.

“But I’m not the law around here.” My mother turned and pointed over my head with a normal spatula. “Ask your father!”

Hers was the distant voice now, muted by the water in my ears. Seafoam eyes swam in the gleaming silver of our teapot. The rest of our kitchen went splotchy, unfamiliar, like a watercolor of a place you almost recognize.

The bargain took, Liv said inside my head. Cold fingers brushed against my thighs. Don’t worry, cold lips on my cheek. My promise stands. I’ll help you get used to the dark.

Footsteps slapped against the linoleum at my back. I tried to turn but the room dissolved into a thick and briny fog; all around me the sea swelled up, crashed down, birthed and killed and birthed again. I was in the waves, beneath them, sinking down—

And Liv floating beside me, her tattered lace a floating trail of jellyfish tendrils, Sharpie scales an inky rash that matched my own—

 

 


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Jaq Evans writes about monsters, nature, and people trying their best. Jaq is a Stonecoast MFA candidate at the University of Southern Maine as well as a first reader for Pseudopod, and her work has appeared in The Molotov CocktailApparition Literary Magazine, and others. Find Jaq on Twitter @jaqwrites, or learn more at jaqevans.com.