I want to be human. When I was six years old I asked my dad to explain why I didn’t have a mom. He told me that she walked on land. Since that moment, I’ve wanted this singular thing above everything else. There was a catch, of course. In my world, it’s tradition for those born on land to spend the following eighteen years beneath the waves. In that final year we’re taught the secret to gaining our legs and finding our human parents. We’re allowed to stay on land if we wish, or return to the sea. Most of us, when given the choice, return to waves and tides.
“Net,” a voice thick with memories washes over me. “Where are you?”
In the deepest part of me, deeper than the cracks that run along the sandy floor, I know that I will never return to the sea. It’s not that I don’t love my dad, I do – more than anyone in my life, I do. But a life beneath is dull and boring. Almost eighteen years have passed for me, so I’ve done everything and seen everything there is to do and see. The glimpses I’ve taken in have sustained me through the bleak years of living with gills and fins.
Swimming past the now-dead garden of nauplius that I’ve tended all my life, I watch the sunlight streak down through the water and ripple across the seafloor. My heart tightens a little as I see the neglect. This piece of sand was a gift from my dad. Something to keep me from pestering him about the world of humans. A distraction. It was beautiful once, and it served its purpose.
There’s a slight tremor in the water. Someone – which is far better than something – is swimming toward me quickly with a kind of single-mindedness. It’s exactly that single-mindedness that I know belongs to Line. I linger a moment before spinning to face him. He looks ready to burst with a secret held too long. This look is how I want to remember him, at least until he turns eighteen and joins me up there.
“Damn, Neti,” he says, a little out-of-breath with the effort of tracking me down. “I’ve been calling you for kilometers.”
“Line,” I finally answer. “Sorry, I’ve been too much in my head today.”
He’s smiling his familiar smile. I return his grin with my own. Line’s been my best friend and main competition since forever. We both cut our teeth on the same schools of fish, learned how to read the underwater currents, and we both learned how to transform from our half-human, half-fish forms into full sharks. But where he’s a dark-striped tiger shark, my lineage is that of a white shark. Powerful and sleek. Up until recently, I’ve beat him at all our games.
He swims close and runs a hand along my arm. “Tonight’s the last night this year to see the squid’s mating dance before you go topside. Do you want to go with me this year?”
Laughing, I nod. Line and I have watched the bio-luminescent-filled night for all the years we’ve been friends. How had I forgotten that tonight was the last time we’d see it together? I wonder how many other things I’m forgetting in my desperation to become human.
“I’ll be waiting by the heating vent, as always.” He turns to swim away. Then turns back to say, “There’s something I want to give you tonight. It’s a surprise. Don’t be late!”
I wave at him as he flicks his tail and disappears into the watery void. His tail movements are mesmerizing, and I suddenly wonder if I’ll pay as much attention to my own legs when I finally have them. Walking upright will take a little getting used to, so I attempt to shimmy through the water vertically. The sensation is at once odd and at the same time comforting.
Tonight feels like it’ll be an adventure. I wonder if I’ll have the patience to wait until it starts. Then the rumble in my stomach sounds, and I’m off to find a nice afternoon meal.
I find my way to the heating vent. The water is dark here, having no source of light, so I must use all of my senses. Before I reach the vent, I can smell that Line’s already waiting for me.
Unfortunately, so is Stinker, whose smell chokes me. His real name’s Skaay or Sukkwan, but we’ve long forgotten which. Even his mom calls him Stinker. The reason for this is because he never cleans his teeth after he eats and refuses to allow the remoras to do their job and clean away the filth that gathers along his body. The result is the smell of rot that permeates the water around him.
Inwardly, I sigh at the first whiff of him. Outwardly, I say, “I’m here.”
Line immediately sidles up beside me, grabs my hand in his and pulls me into a warm current. Our laughter fills the space between us. Stinker, who isn’t the brightest coral in the reef, trails behind us. We continue to swim quickly, and the distance between us and his rank odor increases with every stroke of our tail fins.
Line, whose hand is still holding mine, and I let ourselves be carried along for the ride. We shush each other’s excitement, trying to quell all of the sounds and movements we make so that the squid won’t fear our presence here.
Then it begins. There aren’t any songs, which so many other sea folk sing, when the mating dance begins. Our eyes fill with the blinking flashes of light. It seems as though all of the stars have fallen down into our world to illuminate us. The faint blue light glows in Line’s eyes, and I don’t know why I can’t pull my eyes away from him. Maybe it’s because I’ll have to wait six months to see him again, and by then he’ll be human too. Different. He smiles as he watches the soft-bodied squid undulate in the water.
“Where’s my surprise?” I whisper, squeezing his hand in mine. “You promised to give it to me tonight.”
His eyes turn away from the brilliant display around us to look at me. A squid shoots between us, causing our faces to glow for a second. Before this, I never noticed the slight way Line’s mouth curves down before it turns up at the corners; or how his eyes sparkle, not only with the light of a thousand glowing squids, but also with an inner light.
He leans toward me, oddly nervous, but hopeful. “It’s right here.”
Then he kisses me. His lips are soft. Not at all like what I imagined. Everything I had once believed about kissing was wrong. We don’t make silly puckering fish faces. I don’t accidentally use my teeth to bite or tear. My lips part slightly on their own. I can taste Line’s mouth, his tongue hesitant at first, on mine.
The absolute quiet that I’ve craved for such a long time surrounds us and protects us. We’re still two separate bodies. Yet now that we’ve pressed our lips together, somehow we’re the same creature. My fingers grip his muscled arms. He slides his hands to rest at the small of my back, pulling me closer to him.
The squid continue their beautiful dance around us and we say good-bye with our kisses.