The ocean-scented air filled Rio’s lungs as he bent over his knee and took long, greedy gulps of air. His heart was hammering in his ears and his skin was slick with a fine film of sweat. The soles of his feet protested but he couldn’t turn back now. Straightening up, he flexed his arms over his head to try and ease the burn in his muscles before unclipping his water bottle from his belt and unscrewing the cap. The water was tepid as it rushed down his sore throat. He felt as though his insides were on fire. His leg muscles quaked a little beneath him, now that the adrenaline from his early morning jog was wearing off.
Stretching his hamstrings out one final time, he cast a weary glance at the shimmering waves as the tide went out ever so slowly. Exhaling through his nose, he fastened his almost empty bottle back to his belt before dragging his heavy feet to the concrete steps that led down to the sand and pebble beach below. The dunes of sea-smooth pebbles crunched and clicked under his feet as he waded his way towards the wooden pier that stretched out over twenty meters into the frothing water.
A light wind rippled the vest that hung over his svelte muscles and he quivered as his skin rapidly cooled.
The water looked so refreshing that he was practically itching to take his clothes off and dive into the lapping waves, and douse his body with the cool saltiness. He wanted to propel himself off the weathered planks and into the dark blue abyss beneath the glittering waves and simply lose himself. He wanted to get away from everything, not that his life was especially stressful, he just felt like being suspended in the water made him invincible as well as alienate him from the hurried blur of day-to-day life.
With a sigh, he shook his head. There was no time for floundering around today.
Stuffing his hands in the pockets of his jogging bottoms, he took his time strolling down toward the end of the pier. It may as well have been a walk to the end of the earth, as far as he was concerned, for swimming to him was simply Heaven. The planks creaked under his weight as he moved along the narrow boards. The water gushed and frothed underneath his feet, beckoning him to delve deep.
A ripple of pleasure went through him as he toed his shoes off and then clawed his sweaty socks from his feet. He stuffed them into his trainers and set them to one side before dropping to his knees and swinging his legs over the edge. The breeze cooled his feet down so much he curled his toes tightly before dipping his legs under the water. Hunching over with his elbows on his knees, he sighed and bowed his head, the light breeze ruffling his dark auburn hair.
He didn’t have the energy just yet to go back home. The house would be empty anyway, since his mother and sister had gone over to France to see his grandparents on his mother’s side. He was going to be alone for the next couple of months. His sister, Ginny, was taking a year away from education and after she went to stay with their grandparents, she and their mother were going to head over to Cyprus and explore other cities a little. Rio wouldn’t have minded going, himself, but he had swimming practice and try-outs for the Olympic scouts in the summer. He needed to train as much as possible.
He wiggled his toes in the gently lapping water before leaning back on his arms and tipping his head back. The sunlight instantly warmed his cooling skin. Dotted along the small harbor Rio could see the bleached white underside of moored boats, the metal rungs clanking softly in the air. It was a calming scene that he was suspended in. He wished he didn’t have to break the spell, but his wristwatch bleeped, alerting him that it was now 9AM.
He needed to get back home and ready himself for the rest of the day.
Dragging his aching legs back up to his chin, he patted his shins dry before pulling on his limp socks and trainers. Standing up on tiptoes, the planks creaking under his mass, he stretched all his stiff muscles before raking his fingers through his stringy hair. A shower was in order as soon as he got in.
Taking his hoodie off the splintering planks, he tied the sleeves around his waist and turned his back on the soft call of the ocean as it glittered in the sunlight. The pebbles clicked and clacked underfoot as he started mounting the dunes on the way to the main road. His mind was trailing along to what he’d be able to get up to in the next month or so with a free house and no one to bother him. Perhaps he could have a little pool party. He hadn’t had one of those for ages and considering how unseasonably warm it was for April, what better excuse for his after training sessions? He could even invite Michael and Sean over. Rita and Nick still had some exams to get through before they could concentrate completely on training.
Just as he was about to mount the concrete steps up to the main road a strange sound caught his ear. Swiveling on his heel, he narrowed his eyes and strained his ears, searching desperately for anything out of the ordinary that could’ve made such a high-pitched screeching sound. Other than a few moored boats in the sandy pits near the water, he couldn’t see anything. A lone gull circled over by a small cluster of boats. Another soon, joined and then another, cawing loudly. Had that been the sound he was hearing? Frowning, he was about to continue on his way when he heard it again.
It was definitely not a sea gull.
His curiosity got the better of him; he let his heavy feet guide him back down the few concrete steps he’d mounted, pebbles crunching underfoot as he made his way over to the moored boats. They seemed to grow in size as he neared them, looming over him. He shivered as the shadow engulfed him, blocking him from the gentle heat of the sun. The shade was ever-so-similar to water. It sent ripples running through him.
The gulls screeched and cawed overhead, gliding in the still air. He frowned up at them; they normally only ever circled like that when there was some form of carcass they could pick apart. Perhaps a small net of fish had washed up on the shore? Or maybe someone had drowned? Dread flooded his stomach like icy water as he stopped at the bough of one of the boats. What if it was someone who had drowned? He hadn’t brought his mobile with him; how would he be expected to call the police?
A tremor ran down his spine as he brushed his hair out of his eyes and peered around the end of the boat.
Within the sandy pit sat a small rock-pool where some crabs would normally skitter back and forth. Today there weren’t any. Among the scattered brush of silky smooth pebbles and crunchy seaweed, was a strange tangled mass that glimmered in the sunlight. Sprays of blood dotted the damp sand.
A gull swooped in low over his head and cried out. He swung his arm out to stop it from colliding with him, before taking a few tentative steps closer to the shimmering mass. Had some large fish caught in the next when the tide was in? There was no movement from underneath the thick black netting, but there was only one way to be sure. He didn’t want to interfere; least of all he didn’t want to openly serve the gulls a catch as huge as this.
Walking down the length of the creature, he estimated that it was at least six feet in length, if not, more.
“... The fuck,” he cursed softly as he crouched down at one end of the covered creature.
He could see, through a tight cloak of net and seaweed, that there were dark scales flashing through in the sun. However, instead of being fairly wet and glossy, they were dull and lacking the all-natural colour -whatever that had been -they were also fairly cracked and drying out along the blunt edges. He was just frowning and about to shift the heavy fishing net a little to get a better look, when -what he assumed was -the tail twitched a little, shifting the entire bulk of the creature.
Rio lurched back, landing on his arse in the damp sand and nearly knocking his head against the weathered underside the boat.
His heart hammered in his chest as another shrill cry erupted from the mass.
That’s when he saw them.
Long, bone-white fingers reaching out through the black webbing, making it tent upwards. He felt sick to his stomach but he couldn’t look away. How could he? The gulls cawed over his head, one of them attempting to take another dive at the immobile creature. It pecked and prodded at the creature, fluttering its wings and letting out a shrill cry.
“Piss off!” Rio sneered as he threw a large stone in the direction of the gulls.
He didn’t hit any, and for a brief moment he was relieved, until they took another swoop at the creature now thrashing in the tangled netting. He aimed another couple of smaller stones at the gulls, making sure to draw closer to the creature. He couldn’t deny his curiosity. His heart hammered in his chest as he turned his attention back to it.
He could feel the sweat on the back of his neck starting to bubble up again as the sun climbed higher in the sky. Cuffing his forehead, he crouched down, his aching muscles screaming for him to turn around and ignore this anomaly. He knew he couldn’t, though. A rather ordinary day had suddenly gotten extremely interesting. Not to mention he was frozen to the spot as he tried to peer through the tangled mass of knots and seaweed to see what he was actually ‘looking’ at. He could see something pale in there, but he didn’t know if that was just the bottom of the rock pool. The rocks were incredibly uneven as he adjusted his weight on his knees.
′What is that?′ he thought as he grabbed a handful of the netting and tried to claw it away enough to peer through the small gaps.
Deciding that he was getting nowhere, he stood up and gave a few swift tugs, lurching the creature and causing the low water in the pool to slosh around. He backed away several meters to pull off as much of the fishing net as possible, before tossing it down onto the sand, exhausted. The net was a lot heavier than it looked.
“Fuck!” he cursed as he moved back over to clamber up over the jagged black rocks around the rock-pool. He was aching all over.
The run plus all this to-ing and fro-ing was aggravating his muscles to no end. Standing to his full height on the rough rocks he looked down and felt the air hit his lungs hard. It was like he was suffocating at an oxygen bar.
He couldn’t believe his eyes. Literally. There was no way on God’s good earth that his eyes weren’t deceiving him.
Laying at an awkward angle in the barely filled rock-pool was the stark-white fleshy body of what looked like a young man, probably around Rio’s own age, or a little younger. Although it could’ve been a girl if it hadn’t been for the thin weight of muscle on the flat chest. The thing looked so androgynous.
However, that wasn’t the reason as to why Rio was having trouble breathing; the real reason was of the fact that, as he raked his eyes down over the lithe, dried-out white body, where he should’ve blushed and looked away at seeing genitals, there was -well -nothing. Nothing, that is, except for the pebbling of dried green and blue scales cutting through the milky white flesh. Layer upon layer of crisp scales trailed down the length of what should’ve been a pair of legs.
His breathing was getting harder to control as, through the black mesh of the fishing net, he could clearly see that there were no white feet to meet his gaze. There was only a mottled excuse of oily green fins that could belong to the creature or to an assortment of dead fish that had also gotten tangled in the heap. A part of him wanted to touch it, to see if it was real, but another part of him was too transfixed to move.
At first glance the skin had been flawless, like sea-glass, however on closer inspection he could see that there was no belly button, no nipples, just a shiny white film of flesh that looked as though they had the imprint of scales without actually chiseling out of the skin. He swallowed hard as he saw that, instead of ears, there were two small hole-like incisions on either side of the head, with a ghost-like filmy fin following the curve of the jaw.
A shiver ran through him.
The sun had ducked behind a couple of fluffy clouds, yet the temperature had dropped so dramatically. Could there really be some rain on the way? He felt a little winded as he ducked his gaze and grimaced at the blood that gleamed over the white hands of the creature as they floated limply on the shallow water. Thin lacerations created a fine red web over its body. Had it clawed itself or were the rough rocks to blame? Why did he care?
Shaking his head, he cast a glance over at the few gulls that hovered by on the nearby rocks and the wet sand. They were eyeing the rock-pool with their beady little eyes. He was sure if sea gulls could lick their lips, they’d be doing so right now. As far as they were concerned this creature was theirs for the taking, to fill their bellies out and later to shit on young, unsuspecting children on the pier.
Staggering back onto more level ground, he braced himself against the boat and dry-heaved over the sand. It was all too much. The blood, the smell of the sea and old fish, the scale rot and sea-gull shit ... not to mention the creature ... it was just too over-whelming.
His shoulders shook again before his stomach flipped and he released what little breakfast he’d had earlier onto the sand between his feet. He grimaced as the taste and smell of his vomit assaulted his senses.
He shuddered violently and unwound his hoodie from his waist. He quickly shrugged it on to bar himself from the cold before leaning his forehead on the rough, weathered wood. Drawing in long deep breaths, he forced himself not to look back over at the creature. A lone caw from the remaining gull made him feel guilty. Then again it wasn’t his responsibility. With shaking hands, he hunched over and marched away from the scene, determined to put it from his mind as he mounted the concrete steps. He took them two at a time until he’d reached the top.
As soon as he reached the main road, a swift cold breeze rushed over him. He hunched over, curling his arms around his torso and forced himself to start walking. He didn’t even know if it was the right direction to home, he just knew that he needed to get away. The tarmac hurt his sore feet as he trudged his way along the road-side.
All too soon he was staring up at his house, his brain a screaming mess of white noise. The world hadn’t changed and yet everything looked funny, like the world was visibly tilting on its axis and warping his vision. Taking his house-key out of his pocket, he opened the front door and locked it behind him. He felt numb all over as his heart finally slowed to a normal rate. The appearance of the creature had knocked the air from his lungs. He felt as though he was in a corner of the universe that was unaffected by Time and Science.
The laws of physics seemed to surpass him entirely.
Running a hand down his face, he let out a soft groan and slid down the length of his door until he was settled on the laminate flooring of the hall.
He didn’t know how long he stayed there.
Long enough for his buttocks to go numb, he knew that, but he had no real way of knowing. He’d bowed his head to his knees and stayed there, crouched awkwardly against the front door for who knew how long.
When he finally leaned up he saw that the sky had darkened, or at the very least the sun was behind some clouds once again. Either way, his legs were numb and his appetite had finally crawled back up through the surface of the shock.
Feeling lethargic he dragged himself to his feet and shuffled into the kitchen. He opened the fridge and winced at the bright light and he tried to figure out what he could be bothered to eat, without wasting what was left of his energy on cooking. He felt strange, like he was drifting through a dream. He could wake up at any moment to see that he’d simply eaten too much before going to bed, or something equally as plausible.
He finally found a box of cereal and started to eat it dry as he slumped over onto the sofa and stared mindlessly as he flicked through TV channels. He finally found a channel that wasn’t too tedious and got comfortable for the duration of the day.
During an advert he called up his college and told them he was ill and made a few forced coughing sounds. Just this once, he needed to do nothing. He ate mechanically, trying to focus his mind on the TV instead of what lie out there, screeching on the beach for the gulls to go away. He couldn’t think about it. He wouldn’t. There was no good that would come from thinking about it -whatever it was.
His throat was tight and stiff as he tried to force it all down. He needed to eat, despite the vile taste of old vomit still lingering at the back of his throat. Another shiver ran through him. He drew a thick blanket over himself and nestled down, hoping that the exhaustion and the low temperature would help him to sleep. He hoped that this was all just a horrible dream. He’d wake up and everything would be better, or at least normal ... right? When he woke up the world would be normal and he would return his full attention to training and the Olympics.
No more late nights in front of the TV ... After this one, anyway.