Chris blinked sleepily up at the clouds, shielding his eyes with one hand from the bright rays of the afternoon sun. He loved this; he felt like the only person in the world when he was out on the water alone. It was a beautiful, warm day, with the sun beating down on him, and the only sound the gentle slap of the waves against the side of the boat.
Technically he was fishing; he had gone as far as baiting a line and dropping it over the side. The pole was propped up next to him, close enough that he could grab it if he got a bite. But no one ever questioned why he came home empty-handed, and he preferred to use the time to relax and do nothing more strenuous than keep himself out of the path of larger boats.
He loved the sea; growing up on a small island meant it was his home as much as the rocky land, and he got restless if he didn't get a chance to climb in his little boat a few times a week. Of course, he got on a boat every day, boarding the ferry for the mainland to get to work. But it wasn't the same thing, no matter how fond he was of the lumbering masses that plowed their way back and forth over the narrow channel.
Chris frowned. It wasn't that his job was so terrible, but it wasn't what he wanted to be doing. He lolled his head back against the seat of the boat and allowed his thoughts to wander, a vivid fantasy of playing his guitar in front of a cheering crowd coming to the forefront, as always.
He heard music everywhere he went, in the rush of the sea, in the call of the birds, and all he wanted to do was to play some of that music. For someone. Anyone.
But right now he was a waiter. It wasn't a bad job; he worked at one of the nice places downtown and made decent tips. And since he worked an evening shift, he didn't have to haul himself out of bed at the crack of dawn like most people he knew. It gave him time to get out on the water and just drift and dream.
He would close his eyes and listen to the sounds of the water around him, and imagine that he could hear that one perfect voice, the one that would open his songs up, and make them speak to the whole world.
The water was deep and dark, cold and biting. Tangled seaweed rose up like grasping fingers, a dark forest on the ocean floor where someone could get lost if he wasn't careful.
The light was dim at this depth, filtering down murkily from above, but enough to catch the shimmer of fins as a solitary fish swam by. It darted playfully between the fronds, deeper and deeper into the seaweed forest, to where the sun never penetrated. The fish nosed happily at the strands, sucking up the algae that clung there, and never saw the shadow that passed behind it.
Its tail flashed silver between the fronds and then it was gone.
Ren laughed to himself as he tore away at the tough scales, his razor sharp teeth piercing the thick skin with ease. The juicy flesh hit his tongue and he smiled around his mouthful, slurping meat away from the bones and tossing them aside when he was done.
The remains sank, forgotten, to the ocean floor.
Ren pushed his way out of the seaweed, his dark, tangled hair indistinguishable from the plant life around him. His pale skin gleamed a faint blue, shimmering like the sea. He peered out into the open sea, large dark eyes unblinking as he sought signs of life.
But the ocean floor was quiet, the rocky bottom beneath him undisturbed by passing swimmers. The sea floor behind him was scattered with the remains of his meals, the rotting heads of fish drawing in small schools, nibbling away at his leftovers. But nothing substantial was in sight, nothing to challenge his dominion there.
He drifted out into the open, flicking his tail to free it from the clasping strands of seaweed. They clung to him, thick and slippery, and it was a minute's work to get himself free.
The moment he was out of the shadow of his submarine forest he turned his eyes upward, seeking movement above the water. Nothing stirred, the faint light that filtered down the only thing that met his eyes.
Sometimes Ren would see the seals that frolicked on the surface, cresting above the waves. They only came to his depth to pursue a fish, and when their eyes caught his they would turn and flee, a startled yelp bursting forth the moment their snouts met air.
Ren stayed at the bottom, merely watching their sport.
He floated on his back, his eyes moving restlessly, straining to make out something of the world above the water. He hated the seals, snarling at them whenever they came close. Why was it that they got to stay at the surface, their heads rising above the water, able to see the world beyond the sea?
Ren sank back, his skin brushing the rocky bottom. He had never been to the surface, although he liked the shallows best. He liked the light, the warmth of the water as he got closer and closer to land. He wondered what it was like for the seals up there, surrounded by that light, that warmth. He wondered what they saw when they lifted their sleek heads above the water.
Chris yawned, rolling to his side and nearly slipping off the narrow bench he lay on.
"Shit," he murmured, shaking his head and sitting up, glancing at the sun dipping towards the western horizon. "Shit," he said again, fumbling in his pocket for his phone to check the time.
It was nearly five; he had slept the afternoon away, lulled by the steady rocking of his little boat.
Scrambling up, he revved the engine, pointing the boat home. If he didn't catch the next ferry he was going to be late to work, again. He gunned the engine and the boat shot forward, skipping gaily over the waves and churning up the water behind him.
It took precious moments he didn't want to waste to properly dock and secure the small craft, but he would rather be late to work than risk it drifting away, or a sudden rain shower soaking the interior.
Luckily his mother was waiting, aware enough of his habits to have his uniform laid out and her car keys in hand. She gave him a stern look as he came running up the path, but held her tongue. Chris breathed a sigh of relief.
The horn was blaring as the car screeched to a stop at the dock, and Chris flung himself out of the vehicle at the sight of the crew beginning to raise the loading plank.
"Wait!" he yelled, gripping his bag tight as he sprinted for the boat.
"Can't you be on time for anything, Thompson?" Justin called from a group of young men seated by the water.
Turning, Chris jogged backwards as his eyes sought out his friend. "Once we're famous rockstars, I won't have to be on time!" he called back, flashing a lopsided grin.
A chorus of laughter went up from the group, and Justin rolled his eyes. "Keep dreaming!"
Chris flipped him off as he pounded up the loading ramp, shrugging at the annoyed young man who was trying to cast them off. He had been known to jump from the dock to the boat once the ramp had gone up, and so was willing to call this 'being on time.
He slipped between the rows of parked cars and headed up the stairs to the upper deck. On a warm day like today the majority of foot passengers were crammed out on the open deck, basking in the sunshine and taking in the view as the ferry chugged its way towards the mainland.
Smiling, Chris stepped out into the open air, his eyes sweeping over the mountains rising up out of the sparkling blue sea. He wanted to be a successful musician and longed to travel the world, but no matter where he went, he couldn't imagine finding a place as beautiful as this one.
He leaned over the rail, peering down at the water and watching shadows dance over the surface, giving the impression of life and activity below the waves. He knew it was just a trick of the light, the large dark shapes that seemed to glide just beneath the surface. Although there were whales in these waters, they never came this close to the ferry route. Occasionally he spotted a dolphin at a distance, and seals were a common enough sight, but he still liked to imagine mysterious creatures inhabiting the depths, just out of range of human sight and understanding. When he was a child he had been convinced that every shadow was a lurking sea monster, something wonderful and unfathomable, just out of reach. He liked to imagine that was still true when he watched the water, that the sea was still as exciting a place of discovery as it had been when he was younger.
Chris sighed. He tried to capture some of that awe and wonder in the music he wrote, but he was becoming increasingly convinced that the world didn't have much magic to offer, at least not to him.
Ren swam through the depths with all the appearance of nonchalance, drifting along with lazy flicks of his tail, his eyes fixed straight ahead. But despite the causal way he moved, his senses were on high alert, his muscles tensed. He was aware of every movement in the dark water, every creature that passed by.
It was one of the most important rules of his life: appear like you don't have a care in the world but always be on guard against something bigger and meaner. The dark waters were a dangerous place, and part of staying on top was projecting the right attitude. Ren was big, one of the biggest creatures in the shallow waters, but he couldn't swim as fast as some of the other fish; their streamlined bodies cut through the water in a way his never could. And his mouth was pitifully small compared to his fellow ocean-dwellers—their whole heads appearing to open up and flash rows of glittering teeth. He had the advantage of his nimble hands and sharp claws, but they didn't do much in a head-to-head fight. When he fought it was with his powerful tail, but the best he could hope for when lashing out at his enemies was to stun them and escape.
So Ren kept to the shallows where the fish were smaller and tried to stay out of trouble.
A frown settled over Ren's face. He knew he was different from the other fish; he was shaped differently, he moved differently, and he knew he thought differently. From what he could tell, they didn't seem to think about anything but eating and breeding. Ren couldn't seem to stop thinking, wondering not just what things were, but why and what for? He wanted to know why animals behaved the way they did, why things were certain colours or shapes or sizes, and most importantly, why he was so different from everything around him.
It was impossible to know where he fit in. The shallows were safer because the fish were generally smaller and less dangerous, but somewhere in the back of his mind, a voice whispered to Ren to avoid the shallows, to hide deep in the depths of the ocean. It was the same voice that told him the surface was forbidden.
No matter what he did, that stern voice whispered, he should never go to the surface.
But Ren couldn't remember who had told him that. For as long as he could remember, he had been alone, amid a sea of fish. He knew no other creatures remotely like him. There was something about the seals' flippers that reminded him of his own hands, but they were shorter, stumpier and far less useful. The paws of the otters he sometimes observed playing when he drifted too far into the shallows were closer; agile and able to grip and claw. But even though they were good swimmers, the sleek bodies of the otters were nothing like his own.
It was a puzzle; Ren didn't seem to fit with either the creatures that lurked in the depths or those that played at the surface. Yet there must have been someone like him once. Someone who told him never to go towards the light, the warmth.
Someone who told him that his place was in the cold and the dark.
Ren was on his back, watching the way the light sparkled above the surface of the water, when the shadow passed overhead. He blinked as he was cast in darkness, frowning at the black shape above him. It was one of the big ones; much bigger than any of the animals he knew that played on the surface.
Sometimes these shapes were monstrously large, seemingly casting the whole ocean into darkness. Those shapes sent Ren swimming for his seaweed forest, diving into the safety of the strands, hiding until the darkness passed. Those shapes churned the whole ocean, sending the water at the surface into a frothing frenzy and disturbing everything beneath it. The darkness seemed to go on forever when those shadows passed overhead, and they always left Ren trembling.
They were larger even than the whales that lived in the deep sea, massive animals that swam passively along, several times the length of Ren's body. He had only glimpsed them moving past, their sheer imponderable bulk causing him to shrink away. But even the whales were dwarfed by some of the surface shapes, and Ren couldn't even imagine what kind of creatures could be that large. The very idea of it was monstrous, something far beyond the grasp of his imagination.
The shape above him, though, was not a terrifying one. It was smaller, casting only a very slight shadow on the sea floor below. Ren eyed it wonderingly. He had no idea what these surface creatures were. They never dove into the water, like the seals or the otters, so had he never seen one face to face.
It was perplexing; the shapes were clearly comfortable on the water, lingering for long periods of time on the surface, and yet never diving beneath, never swimming. Like with so many things, Ren longed to know, to understand what seemed just out of his reach. He couldn't fathom what kind of creatures they could be, and he eyed this one with interest. It didn't do much, though, just drifted along on top of the water.
The urge to swim up and get a closer look was so strong that Ren found himself drifting upwards without conscious thought.
But no, he couldn't. The surface was dangerous. He wasn't sure why that was the case, but perhaps these shapes had something to do with it. All he knew was that he must never get closer.
Despite the fact that the shape was merely sitting at the surface, Ren refused to leave. He just knew that the moment he turned his back, something exciting would happen. So he stayed put, swimming restlessly, darting in and out of the dark shadow cast by the shape on the ocean floor. To entertain himself, he tried to picture the creature in his mind—what it looked like, what it ate, how it swam. He tried to imagine what it was thinking as it sat there above him. Did it think like Ren? Was it lonely, too?
It was getting quite late, the light filtering into the water dim and red-tinged when he heard it : a soft sound floating down from the dark shadow above.
Ren's head jerked up, peering above him in wonder. He had never heard anything like it.
It was almost like the whale-songs, low sounds reverberating sluggishly through the open sea. He heard them sometimes at a distance, calling to each other in deep, haunting tones. The way this sound lifted and swelled reminded him of the whales, of the dark open water they inhabited. But it didn't echo the way the whale-song did, low and deep, pulsing through the waves.
This sound was light and airy, so soft at times that Ren had to strain to hear it. He held himself as still as possible, not wanting to miss a note.
It was beautiful, much more beautiful than the call of the whales. Their songs always sounded the same, but this noise moved from one tone to another, every sound pleasing to Ren's ears.
He strained to hear more, to catch each change in the melody that seemed to surround him.
Eyes drifting closed, he let himself be caught up in the sound, feeling it wash over him like the warmth and light that drifted down from above. It seemed to fill his whole body, coursing through him and making something buried deep inside him sing in response.
When the sound stopped and he opened his eyes, Ren found he was closer to the surface than he had ever been before—much closer. He jerked back, startled, and went careening downward, toward the safety of the depths, even as his heart cried out for him to go back.
Chris strummed at his guitar, letting the notes flow from his fingers rather than playing a particular song. He did his best thinking with his guitar in hand, the smooth wood resting against him, the strings digging into his fingers. His thoughts could drift as he plucked notes from the air, the melodies he picked out perfectly matching his mood.
The notes he played today were soft and slow, a bit melancholic. Chris could hear his longing reflected in them, the yearning for something more from his life.
He had worked a terrible shift the night before, the restaurant packed by the Friday evening crowds. There had been a mishap in the kitchen just at the height of the rush, and all the orders had been delayed by twenty minutes. The customers had been rude, the cooks had been frantic, and it was the wait staff that took the brunt of the abuse from both sides.
Chris was sick of it. He was sick of guys in nice suits being rude to him to impress their dates. He was sick of watching skinny women order twenty-five dollar entrees and then barely touch the food on their plates. He was sick of cleaning up after people who ate like pigs, even in a nice restaurant. He was sick of wasting his time at work or on his long commute when he could be doing something more productive; namely, working on his music.
He strummed harder, volume picking up, notes dancing off into the air around him. There was no one around to complain about his playing, about his noise. That was why he loved playing out on the water, even though he had initially been wary of taking his precious guitar on the boat and risking damaging it. He couldn't afford a new one at the moment, not when he was hoping to save up enough to move out on his own.
Chris didn't want to leave the island; he would live there forever if given the choice. But there weren't many places for a poor waiter to rent, and being on the mainland would cut his commute in half. Living downtown also meant he could get more involved in the music scene, and maybe the band could actually play a paying gig one day.
He sighed. He could dream, anyway. And that's all he felt like he did these days: dream. Dream of a future that was more exciting, more fulfilling, just more. His fingers unconsciously began picking out a song, one of his songs. The music swelled around him, singing out his longing, even if it was only for the waves to hear.
Since the first time, Ren had barely strayed from the spot where he had heard the noise. When he had gotten over his fright and drifted nearer the surface again, the sound was gone, and so was the surface-creature. Ren had swum until his tail was tired, hoping to find it again, but with no luck. There had been other surface-creatures, but no matter how long he lingered beneath them, the sound didn't come.
He could only conclude that they didn't all sing. It had been a special creature that had made that beautiful noise, which had so touched him.
So Ren hovered in the shallows and waited impatiently for the creature to return. Even though he knew he'd never meet it face to face, Ren thought he and the creature perhaps had something in common. It's song—sad, somehow, and full of yearning—marked it as different from the others of its kind. Ren knew what it was like not to fit in, and he wanted to swim up to the creature and reassure it, to somehow let it know that he understood how it felt.
But, of course, he couldn't. No matter how beautiful its song was, Ren couldn't swim closer, couldn't peek his head above the surface and see the animal that made that lovely sound.
Still, he decided, there was nothing stopping him from hearing the song again, if the creature should happen to come along.
And so he waited.
Ren was starting to think he'd never hear the song again when the first faint notes reached his ear. He was hiding within the dense seaweed, waiting for his next meal to swim by, when the sound came. In a second he burst forth from the undersea forest, his meal forgotten, large eyes seeking out the creature.
It hovered on the surface, a small dark shape above him. There was absolutely nothing to distinguish it from the other nameless creatures that floated by overhead except for the song it sang.
The notes drifted down to Ren, soft and sweet, seeming to beckon him closer. He hesitated, his ears straining to hear. After a moment's indecision, Ren allowed himself to swim upwards, just enough so that he could hear the song better.
The sound grew louder as he neared, swelling and seeming to fill the sea around him. Ren's heart thumped within his chest, excitement coursing through him as he allowed himself to creep just a tiny bit nearer.
It was the third time the creature had come, and Ren was listening with rapt attention as the song washed over him. It was livelier this time, happier, and Ren's tail twitched in sympathetic glee.
He loved how varied the song could be, speaking of emotions Ren had never heard other creatures express. Even the whales or dolphins, the most understandable creatures in the sea, didn't seem to share his sorrows, his joys, his worries and his triumphs. Not the way this creature, this song, did.
Ren drifted ever near, forgetting about the sea and the other creatures around him, forgetting to be vigilant and wary, vicious and defensive. When the creature sang he could forget his worries about being attacked, or finding his next meal, and just let himself drift away on the melody.
The warmth that touched his cold skin told Ren he was getting too close, swimming too near the surface, but he couldn't make himself turn away. He hovered in the shallows, his eyes fixed on the dark shape that marked out the creature's form.
"You're so full of shit!" Justin laughed, leaning back on his elbows on the seat of the boat.
Chris reached out a foot to kick his friend but gave up when he came several inches short. He strummed harder on the guitar in his hands instead. "I'm telling you, this is the song that's going to make us famous," he insisted with a grin. "That is, if I let you tag along. Jackass."
Justin guffawed, spilling a bit of his beer. "The only thing that's going to make us famous are my good looks."
Chris snorted. They were well into their second six-pack, celebrating a rare night when Chris didn't have to work. Originally he had wanted to have band practice, but the band currently only consisted of him and Justin, and Justin had vetoed the suggestion in favor of getting drunk on the boat.
Chris wasn't really complaining. It was nice to unwind, and it was hard to practice when they only had a guitar and a bass, anyway. The band used to have a drummer, but Gus had announced that he wouldn't waste any more of his time on practice until they found a singer and some actual songs.
Chris frowned. He knew his songs were good, better than good, but he could never seem to find the right lyrics to go along with the melodies in his head. And, as Gus had pointed out again and again, no one wanted to listen to instrumental rock music.
Letting the song die away, Chris reached for his beer, determined to shake the negative thoughts. He was enjoying the stupid banter with Justin, and he wouldn't let Gus's practicality bring him down. Who ever heard of a practical rockstar, anyway?
“The only thing your face will do for the band,” Chris said, picking up his former train of thought, “is keep people from sitting in the front row.”
"Yeah, well your face is the reason why they keep the clubs so dark,” Justin shot back, leaning over to flick sharply at the end of Chris's nose.
Chris batted his friend's hand away, sloshing beer over both of them in the process. "Quit. You're wasting the beer!" he scolded. "And I’ll have you know, women think I’m gorgeous.”
"Narcissist," Justin teased.
Chris snarled in mock-outrage, leaning over to shove at his friend. "Says the man who spends an hour in the gym every day."
Justin laughed and shoved back, setting aside his nearly empty beer in favor of using both hands to grapple with Chris. It left Chris, still clutching his mostly-full beer, at a disadvantage. He tussled one-handed with his friend, laughing as they shot insults at each other, forgetting why roughhousing on a boat was such a bad idea until the instant he was going over.
Time seemed to slow as a hard push from Justin sent his feet shooting out from under him, and even through the haze of alcohol, he knew he wasn't going to be able to catch himself.
The cold water hit him like a slap to the face; he floundered helplessly as a wave pushed him roughly back, right into the side of the boat.
Ren swam slightly closer to the surface, wondering why the creature had stopped singing. He frowned, peering up at it.
The calm was broken by a large object crashing through the surface and barrelling towards him, startling a yelp from Ren, who darted aside.
The object—creature?—was diving down fast, as fast as the seals after a fish, plunging towards the bottom. Ren watched with wide eyes as it sank past him. It was no seal, that was certain, and Ren was creeping closer before he could stop himself.
The water had slowed the creature's momentum and now it drifted, unmoving, in the cool sea. Ren swam closer, his large eyes wide as he peered at the thing in front of him.
It took a moment for him to distinguish the shape of the creature, floating limply as it was, but soon his eyes were able to pick out its various parts.
Ren's heart stuttered in his chest as his gaze landed on a slender hand. He gasped and reached out without a thought, touching his own fingers to those of the motionless creature. It was eerily similar to his own. They lacked the webbing that helped to propel Ren through the water and the sharp claws with which he tore his food, but he couldn't deny how familiar they looked, so unlike the fins of the fish or seals.
At the first light touch he jerked his hand back as if stung, the feel of the creature's cool flesh seeming to radiate through his fingertips.
But he couldn't bring himself to swim away. Instead, he let his eyes drift up from that disconcerting hand, to a long arm, the same shape and proportion as his, and then a neck and face more similar to his own than any he had ever seen.
The creature's eyes were closed, its lips open, its skin glowing blue in the pale light that filtered down from above.
Ren frowned. Its lower half was incomprehensible to him, the tail divided in some horrible way, but what drew his attention was the creature's stillness. He glanced up, to the surface above them.
The creature had come from up there, where the seals and otters frolicked. Ren knew enough of those creatures to know that they were different from the fish; they couldn't stay under water for any length of time, instead returning again and again to the mysterious world above the surface.
Perhaps this creature was the same?
Its closed eyes and motionless frame looked almost dead, an idea that made Ren's stomach clench, although he didn't know why.
Acting quickly—before the stern voice in his head could stop him, stirring up doubts that would waste precious time—Ren gripped the creature under its arms. Drawing it close, he marveled at the way its face matched his own for a moment. Then he swam, up, up, closer to the surface than he had ever been.
As the light brightened around him and the water warmed, the creature's eyes fluttered and opened, fixing directly on him. For one long moment Ren met its eyes, fascinated by their brown depths. Then he pushed the creature up, above the surface and out of his reach.