My eyes open. Water surrounds me, mimicking the air I’m supposed to be breathing in.
Breathe… Water. I’m under water. But I’m breathing? How is this possible?
‘Good morning Sleeping Beauty,’ I hear.
‘It’s not morning, idiot.’ Rave’s voice.
My chest rises and falls as I sit up, the sand below me stirring a bit. I try to talk like how they do, but sputter and cough and choke on the water around me.
How do they do that?
I hear movement behind me. I spin around, my hair moving slowly across my vision and revealing Tamir. He wears a smile and seems to almost glow.
I look down at myself. A slight light of the color of blue begins to gradually grow brighter until I can no longer see anything around me. My body itches and burns, as if a fire was lit and I stand too close to it. I twitch frantically, unable to find a way to dissipate the pain.
I can hear Tamir and Rave’s excited voices drifting through the water and into my ears. They’re babbling about something, but my brain is too preoccupied to comprehend the exact words they speak. But maybe they can help with this strange feeling…
I glance around for them, but the light coming from my skin is too bright and I can’t see past it. It’s like a blanket covering my vision. I begin to panic.
Suddenly, I feel a hand on my shoulder and I whip around as fast as possible. The dreadful glowing stops, fading out like the sky does when the sun disappears past the horizon. Tamir’s eyes stare into mine. They’re full of wonder and questions, the colors of the forest blending together in his irises.
I open my mouth to try and speak again, to ask them what they are, to ask them what’s going on, but I end up swallowing the water, the liquid scraping down my throat. I cough, water exploding from my mouth.
‘Move your voice to the back of your throat,’ he says, his lips moving only a little bit as he talks. ‘It’ll help you breathe through your gills.’
Gills? I wonder.
He must have caught the question playing on my face because he turns his head and points to the back of his neck. There, lie three slits, the flaps atop them opening and closing as he breathes in and out. The way they move remind me of the waves arriving and leaving the shore at the bottom of the island.
I reach up to touch my own set of gills, to find them moving as I “breathe” as well. They are slightly sensitive, I realize as I press my fingers down a little harder in disbelief. I’m like a fish.
How is this even possible? The scales, the boy, the gills… My brain can’t wrap around the idea that people—that I could survive down here if I needed to. Do the Tribe Leaders know about this? Is that why we can’t touch the water, because we could survive down here? Or are we not allowed to because not everyone can and it wouldn’t be fair?
‘Just try it,’ he says, breaking me away from my accusing thought process by placing a hand on my shoulder. The touch sends tingles down the length of my arm and I’m taken slightly aback. ‘Try saying your name.’
I take a deep breath and close my eyes, pushing away all of the questions. Forming my mouth to say my name, I try and force my voice to the back of my throat.
‘Cr…’ I say, my voice distorted and strange.
‘That’s it—keep trying!’ Tamir says excitedly, moving away a bit.
A smile spreads slightly on my face at this.
‘Cress—’ I cough, choking on the word.
‘She’s almost got it,’ Rave smiles as she swims over to us, her long red hair swarming around her and hiding the rest of her body as she moves through the water.
Something brushes the top of my foot, startling me, and Rave stops and floats erect in the water beside us. It’s then when I realize that their legs aren’t legs at all, but tails. Tamir’s is a light green, the color of leaves in spring, with a simple split fin protruding from the bottom, while Rave’s is white with large orange and black spots scattered all over it, several types of fins stuck against the scales. Two in the back and one on each side, each one varying in colors aligning with her tail’s design.
What are they?
What am I?
‘One more time,’ Tamir says, his eyes sparkling as his face grows somewhat serious. ‘You can do it. This is always the hardest part.’
I give him a strange look, wondering what it is he means. The hardest part? Has there been anyone else like me? Could they be like me?
‘Cressa-la,’ I finally say. A single spurt of joy slips through me, somewhat calming the fear and worry of being down here momentarily. ‘Cressa-la,’ I repeat. ‘My name is Cressa-la.’
‘You did it!’ Tamir exclaims and pulls me into a hug. I’m startled by this, and, after a long moment of embrace, Rave clears her throat, smiling. Tamir backs away, his tail brushing my toes again and making me jump at the feeling. ‘Sorry,’ he says. ‘I just get excited about these things.’
‘He gets excited about a lot of things,’ Rave smirks, something strange flashing in her eyes.
‘I’m just a happy person is all,’ he smiles at me once again. ‘I can’t wait for you to see—’
‘Hey!’ I hear from behind me.
Rave and Tamir freeze, their frames growing rigid within a moment.
‘We’ve got to get you home,’ Rave says.
‘We can hide her,’ Tamir says to her quietly.
Rave shakes her head. ‘They’ll find her.’
‘What’s going on?’ I ask slowly, trying to train my voice to stay at the back of my throat so I can talk.
‘It’s the Flatfins,’ Tamir responds quietly, taking one of my hands and beginning to pull me. ‘They’re the cops of our clan.’
Rave takes my other hand and we begin to race through the water.
‘If they catch us, we’ll be killed and thrown onto shore with the—’ she stops herself as she looks at Tamir, who give her a sharp glare.
‘With the what?’ I ask, the water making it difficult to speak well.
Neither of them answers me as the sand climbs closer to the surface of the water. The two of them begin to dodge massive amounts of fish and rocks covered with colored creatures. Green plants begin to become numerous.
Soon the water is only about a foot beneath my feet as they decide to slow down. Rave and Tamir let go of my hands and look around them, breathing hard.
‘I think we lost them,’ Rave says quietly. Tamir only nods.
I stay quiet, looking at my surroundings. We float just before a patch of greenery, several fish darting in and out of them. I begin to sink to the ground.
Tamir moves his tail and is able to meet me just before I touch the sand below. Rave searches around some more before she too drifts down to our level.
‘You cannot tell anyone of this,’ Tamir almost whispers to me. ‘Or you will die as well.’
‘Why?’ I ask. ‘What is all this?’
Tamir glances at Rave, who shakes her head at him, her face serious. He sighs and looks back at me, his eyes searching my face quickly, as if he’s looking for something.
‘A secret to you,’ he says quietly, sneaking a glance up to Rave. ‘Don’t let your Tribe Leaders know.’
Tamir closes his eyes and snaps his eyes up to Rave, who has moved herself up toward the surface to keep watch. Impatience radiates from Tamir’s body, but I can tell it’s not because of me. He wants to tell me whatever it is. But why can’t he?
‘That’s something that has to remain unknown to you for now,’ Rave says from above us, coming down a handful of feet so we can understand her better. ‘But you’ll know soon enough. Tell your Tribe Leaders nothing of this.’
‘Then what do I tell them?’ I ask.
‘You woke up on the shore,’ she says simply. ‘Just swim that way. You’ll find air and your gills will seal themselves off. No one can see these. They’ll know you’ve been in the water and you met a… one of us.’
I’m silent for a moment, my eyes moving from Tamir to Rave and back. ’You want me to lie?’
‘For now,’ Tamir interjects. ‘Just for the time being. Just until they tell you themselves.’
‘How long will that be?’ I ask.
‘Until you’re eighteen.’
‘But that’s a year away!’ I cough from my sudden shout, water going down the wrong way. ‘I can’t keep all of this hidden for a year. I don’t even know if I’ll…’ My voice fades out as I place my hand on my forehead.
Tamir touches my chin and lifts it up, sending tingles down my body once again.
‘You can do it,’ he smiles, his eyes looking over my face once more. His right hand cups my cheek and I feel my heart bruising my ribcage. Suddenly he looks up at Rave. ‘I’ll swim her to shore. You keep a lookout for Flats.’
Rave groans but turns around anyway. Tamir takes my hand and begins to pull me.
‘Just alternate kicking your feet,’ he tells me softly. I do as he says, and soon I’m swimming almost next to him. He looks over and smiles softly for a brief moment, something in his eyes—the only way I can describe it, really—seeming familiar. His focus changes back to the water ahead of us, shaking his head as we close in on the shore. He begins to slow down and I stop kicking my feet.
‘This is where I stop,’ he sighs.
My feet touch the underwater sand now, my head almost breaking the surface above.
‘You can swim the rest of the way. It’s safe. You’ll go back to normal.’
‘What about the scales on my legs?’
Tamir looks down, a slight look of surprise crossing his face.
‘Already?’ he breathes.
‘What?’ I ask.
He shakes his head. ‘Cover them up somehow. I’ll see you on the next full moon.’
‘But I thought—’
He shakes his head. ‘Things have changed. I’m sorry. I’ll see you on the next full moon, Cress, I promise.’
I begin to correct him, but he’s already swimming away, his tail moving up and down in the clear blue water around us.
I make my way to the shore, his words replaying in my mind. Things have changed. It echoes inside me as I crawl onto the sand.
But what is it that made them change? I wonder, looking out at the water once again, its mysteries seeming to call me back, whisper for me to find filling answers to my uneasy questions.
And I have several of them.