Tiffany Tzeng | Art by Yanru Zhou
Seawater was a disgusting but necessary evil. Jones missed being able to breathe clean, odorless air. Now, breathing was a chore, as though his respiratory system thought water was the consistency of syrup. He had never seen any of the others in his pod have this problem, or at least, they’d never talked about it. Damn his weak lungs.
Jones never quite got the hang of his gills. He touched the repulsive flaps of skin on either side of his neck, wincing as he felt them pulsate. He knew he should just let them take over and do what was “natural”, if it could even be called that. Despite his asthma, he missed breathing the land dweller’s way.
Something rough brushed against his arm. It was too dark to see clearly underwater, but he knew it had to be either Saatchi or Borges. Probably Saatchi, since his lower half resembled a shark’s tail, complete with powerful fins and sandpaper skin. Jones tried not to shudder when a hand nearly as coarse as the sharkskin and just as dangerous clasped his shoulder. He turned to face his pod mate, clumsily churning his arms to stay upright in the water.
Saatchi was barely visible in the darkness, but Jones felt his presence pressing upon him. Borges was somewhere to his left reaching for something strapped to her back. Saatchi and Borges had assured him that his senses would sharpen over time and with practice. However, they had both mastered theirs within a few days. It had been two weeks since Jones came to live with them, but he still could not fully control his heightened perceptions. Nor could he swim properly yet. His mother never let him learn how to swim out of fear of an accidental brush with an Amphi and Jones couldn’t bear to leave the shore. This was what they got for tempting fate.
Saatchi pointed upwards and Jones followed his finger with his eyes. An oval shaped obstruction interrupted the otherwise regular surface that they came to recognize as the sky. Moonlight created warped shapes on the water and filtered through only a couple feet below the waves, rendering Saatchi, Borges, and Jones invisible to the unsuspecting people in the embarrassingly flimsy boat. Romantic as it was, they should have known better than to venture out at night. Jones couldn’t quite blame them, though; the allure of the ocean at midnight had been enough to draw him away from his relatively safe home to the beach and to his subsequent abduction.
Near imperceptible waves rippled from the boat. Jones knew that if anyone was talking, Saatchi and Borges could feel the vibrations and confirm their presence. More skilled Amphi could translate these vibrations into words, but none in the trio were at that stage yet. Whoever was on board was moving, but didn’t seem alarmed.
Jones pulled and pushed another pump of water through his lungs, almost missing the vertigo of breathing too hard and too fast. Underwater, he could only breathe too hard and too slowly. Saatchi patted his arm again and slid away to float on the other side of the hull. Borges took his place, her pale eyes reflecting what little moonlight reached her face. She grinned with all of her needle-like teeth as she handed Jones a tangle of ropes. She didn’t offer him her spear, not that he would know how to wield it. The cords were salvaged from fishing crews and tied boats, then artfully woven together in a series of hard knots. Despite himself, Jones felt himself smirk. How ironic that the fishermen were caught by the fish nowadays.
Borges gave him a quick punch to the shoulder with her bony knuckles and backed away to join Saatchi. Saatchi joined the spiky Amphi, bestowing upon Jones a smile meant to look reassuring. Two sets of fangs.
Above them, the boat rocked slightly, the resulting ripples making Jones’s skin tingle. If he had the ability to, he would be sweating profusely. Instead, he wrung his hands on the rope and watched the hull, glancing down at Saatchi every few seconds. It was nearly time.
Jones let himself rise just enough so that he could barely see through the waves and gauge the number and size of the people onboard, but not enough to be seen. There were two of them, both teenagers, a boy and girl. Both were scrawny and tall, neither of them the fishing type. They were talking, but the two feet of water and several feet of air distorted their voices too much for Jones to understand.
A sharp jolt of motion hit Jones. The new instinctual part of his brain told him that Saatchi had just snapped his fingers. Trying not to think, Jones propelled himself upwards, his powerful tail churning while his arms played along, controlling the angle of his ascent, the drag of ropes weighing him down somewhat. He caught a final glimpse of Borges giving him a jaunty salute, her mess of a mouth still stretched in a grin. Jones only had time to wonder if she was still smiling because her lips were stuck in that position when, suddenly, white foam filled his vision and the roar of water breaking over his head washed his mind blank.
Jones tried to hold his breath as his entire body exited the water, but sea water still flowed from his gills anyway. He was still processing the pain of his lungs struggling to convert from taking in water to taking in air when he felt something whack him in the jaw. Thrown off balance, he knocked into the side of the boat. The roaring in his ears was replaced by panicked shouts and shrieks. Something flat and wooden smacked the hull, narrowly missing Jones’s head. The net was gone from his hands. Jones’s heart pounded rapidly. This was the first time in a while he had heard anything besides the burbling of water and his own blood being pumped throughout his body, but he wished that it was any other sound besides this terror induced screaming.
He plunged underwater again, put his shoulder against the hull, and strained. But even with his newfound coordination and adrenaline, he wasn’t strong enough to do more than rock it from side to side. He was going to have to breach again. This time, Jones let the saltwater stream freely from his gills as he arced over the couple in their flimsy boat. His tail skimmed something warm and living and he re-entered the water with a great splash.
Jones circled the boat. His tail felt cold where it had brushed against human skin. He readied himself for a finishing blow to their companion, but stopped. There was no more movement on board. Had he managed to touch both of them? He resurfaced, shook residual water out of his ears, and listened, making sure to say a good distance away from the boat. Not that they were paying any attention to the Amphi in the water any more.
“Shit!” The boy screeched, wiping desperately at his cheek with his sleeve. The net draped over him like a shroud. “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit–”
He continued spewing the curse words as though it would somehow dispel Jones’s touch from his skin. But the damage was already done. Already, the skin around his neck was splitting into three parallel lines on each side, pink, bloodless, and strangely pulsating. Jones remembered how much it had hurt at first, though he knew most of the pain came from his panic and from trying to staunch the non-existent bleeding. Inside his body, his lungs would be converted to amphibious ones. His cardiac system would gradually balance itself with the salt content in the water so that he could safely ingest it without becoming dehydrated. Stage one reached in less than two minutes.
The girl gaped at her companion, looking almost like a fish out of water as he choked, unused to the new breathing apparati at his disposal. At the moment, his gills were dry and he would have to rehydrate them or else risk permanent damage. Jones rubbed his own gills in sympathy. The girl produced a bucket from under her seat, dipped it in the water, and splashed him. His breathing was still raspy, but was slowly evening out. The boy fell silent and drew the back of his hand across his eyes. He stood shakily.
“Jed–” the girl gripped the edge of the boat in one hand and held out her other hand in a “stop” signal.
The boy, Jed, looked pale with fear. “I- I gotta go,” he stammered, his teeth rattling from the cold. He held his arms out for balance and eyed the dark water, steeling himself for the plunge. His fingers flexed, no doubt feeling them gradually lengthening and becoming webbed. Jones remembered his own panic upon reaching stage two. Jed had about ten minutes before turning completely.
The girl shook her head and let go of the edge of the boat. Her eyes darted from the water to Jed, frosty clouds misting over her face. Her gaze met Jones’s, who was frozen in place behind her companion. Her mouth hardened into a flat line and Jones felt his stomach roil. She dragged her line of sight back to her companion, iron still set in her stare. Jed’s eyebrows rose as he realized what she was about to do.
She tackled him. Jed fell back onto his seat with a grunt, Mila’s arms still around his torso. For a few moments, the only sounds were of waves lapping gently against the hood and of their ragged breathing. The moonlight shone brightly on the couple locked in their embrace, but there was no tenderness in the silver light. Her eyes were wide and shiny, staring at a point beyond Jones’s head. Sea water and tears dripped off her chin onto Jed’s shirt. Jed, still shaking, lay his cheek on Mila’s head and closed his eyes. His exhale shook his shoulders and he curled over her form. The boat rocked gently.
Jones slid back under water, his eyes stinging. As his lungs filled with water once again, he wished he could drown. Instead, his gills started to pump, working even better than before. Someone’s arm shot across his shoulders, spinning him around roughly. Saatchi and Borges barreled into him. They couldn’t speak underwater, but their congratulations were explosive, Saatchi giving him a one armed hug and Borges punching his shoulder. Jones’s jaw still ached from the blow. He spat into his hand and something small and solid passed his lips. A molar.
Two splashes rang out overhead, one closely following the other. Saatchi and Borges paid them no heed; as a rule, new Amphi were free to choose whichever pod they wanted. Usually, they would avoid the one that had turned them out of bitterness. Jones hoped for his comfort and theirs that Mila and Jed would swim far, far away.
Someone tugged his arm. Saatchi and Borges watched him expectantly, their ever present grins not quite reflecting the moonlight anymore. It was time to go. Jones glanced upwards, but the couple was no longer there. The boat swayed as though its passengers were still on board and was simply stalling for the night. The net was gone from the boat, but he could spot it trailing from one of the two quickly shrinking figures beyond the vessel.
Jones opened his palm and let the molar sink, the pearl glinting until it disappeared to depths he had yet to reach. He turned back to his pod mates, giving them a gap toothed smile, which they readily returned. Together, they left the scene of the crime. Mila and Jed were safely on their way now, and he wished them well. Jones swam ahead of his companions and found that he could breathe easily.