Sea Child: A Boy’s Fable
Hector was just eight years old when he first encountered the boy with the silver tail. He'd been playing with some of the other boys in the water, an aquatic variation of blind man's buff, and had drifted out further than he'd intended. The waves seemed to taunt him, giving him a small nudge back toward the shore, and then a much stronger pull into deeper waters. He wasn't a strong swimmer yet, and when his toes could no longer reach the sand, he had begun to panic. The cold water drained the strength from his little body and the air from his lungs. He could not cry out, but only managed to gulp in a deep breath before a wave surged over his head, and he immediately lost track of which way was up.
A small, cold hand had closed around his wrist. Hector could not open his eyes underwater. At first he thought one of the other boys was helping him back to the surface, but when he remained beneath the water and felt himself being pulled along at a pace unbelievable for a young boy, even a Boy Scout who had earned all his badges for swimming, he became certain he was going to die. Some creature of the deep was dragging him down, down to the inky depths where beasts with sharp teeth and bulbous, glowing eyes lurked. His lungs were screaming for air, and he only by a small margin managed to avoid sucking in any deadly brine.
What seemed like half an eternity later, but could not have been much more than a minute as he was still holding his breath, Hector felt two cold hands push at the small of his back, and he burst to the water's surface, gasping, wheezing, and almost immediately collapsed into tears. He found himself clinging to a large, smooth, slightly slimy rock, and he let his upper body settle upon it, feeling that this rock was the finest thing he'd ever touched. Once he was certain he was, in fact, alive, and his breathing had become less frantic, he raised his head to examine his surroundings.
Hector did not recognize where he was at first. He was not so very far from shore, but he could no longer see his friends. He found that the rock he was holding onto was at the edge of a large cluster, almost an island. Gradually, the arrangement of rocks became familiar. His shivery sobs paused when he discovered that this spot was where the sea lions usually sunned themselves. Often he'd observed them from the shore, and tried to venture closer to get a good look at the funny whiskered creatures, but they always dove into the water and disappeared before he could get within a stone's throw of them. Of course, he would never throw a stone at a living creature, but beasts of the sea always knew to be wary of those land dwellers that walked on two legs.
He pulled himself out of the water and sat his bottom down on the rock. He remembered belatedly that someone had dragged him here, and he frantically glanced about to find them.
"Hello?" he called out, his voice weak and hoarse.
He was alone. His vivid imagination suggested to him that perhaps one of the sea lions, wanting to make peace with him, had saved him from drowning. He peered down into the water, and there, just beneath the surface, about three feet beyond the reach of his toes, was an indistinct figure. His mouth dropped open in shock at the possibility that his helpful sea lion fantasy might actually be true. However, the figure in the water was much paler than any sea lion he'd ever seen. He leaned forward, trying to get a closer look. The thing drew back, and then, little by little, inched closer. Hector maneuvered himself onto his belly, and reached a trembling hand into the water, softly beckoning.
He waited. Several slow breaths passed, and a small, cold hand touched his. A hand, not a flipper. A hand much whiter than his, and with thin webbing between the fingers, but otherwise similar in form.
The figure became more distinct, and a milky pale head broke the surface of the rhythmically rocking water. At first it looked to Hector like some sort of large anemone, but as it rose up further, he realized the strange living tendrils were something like hair. A child was staring back at him, a sea-child with large eyes, inky black in the center and shining silver around the rims. The nose was small, something in the middle between humanoid and amphibian. When the sea-child parted its lips, it sucked in a breath so suddenly that Hector nearly cried out in surprise. They both tensed, equally startled. Hector was still holding onto its icy cold hand.
His, he corrected himself. He was sure, somehow, that it was a boy.
"Are you real?" he whispered. A foolish question. Hector could see him, feel him, had been saved by him.
The sea-boy's head cocked to one side, not understanding his language but perhaps responding to his tone. His small, shell-like ears twitched. Abruptly he turned, freeing his hand from Hector's and diving beneath the surface. Hector watched the hairlike tendrils spread and fan out beneath the water like hundreds of tiny sea pens. He was reminded of the time he'd observed a group of larval salamanders in a stream while on a Boy Scout campout. They had similar tendrils, all around their heads, and someone had told him that those were their gills.
Moments later, the boy popped up to the surface again, this time closer to Hector. Hector smiled shyly. The pale boy looked back at him with a sort of amazement and smiled back as he breathed in a strange, halting pant. He drifted right up close to Hector, and white fingers plucked curiously at the heavy, wet fabric of his swimsuit. Hector, still lying on his front, watched over his shoulder as the creature's attention drifted down his legs to his feet, staring at them with an astonished expression. Those cold little fingers stroked the sole of one foot and grasped at his toes. Hector giggled. The sea-boy turned to grin at him, displaying rows of sharp little teeth, and rolled playfully onto his back. Up came a proud silver tail, where his feet ought to have been. It shone in the sunlight, flicking around cascades of crystal droplets, and Hector's mouth formed into a little "o".
"You're a...!" he gasped.
The creature flashed him an impish expression and swam even closer, his hands bracing upon the rock next to Hector as if he intended to pull himself up and sit beside the human boy. Before he could do so, his ears twitched and his features shifted all at once to startlement. He jerked his head to one side, looked in the direction of the shore with those wide, dark, silver-rimmed eyes, and then flipped himself over and dove, disappearing into the sea with one last flick of his gleaming tail.
"No!" Hector burst out, in anguish that this singular encounter should end so soon. He scrambled up onto his knees, searching for his new friend, but it was as if the boy with the silver tail had never been there at all.
When he heard his name being called in the distance, Hector looked to the shore to see distant figures approaching, and realized why the creature had had to flee.
Mother had wept with relief as she cradled him close, all the way back to their rented cabin, trailed by his father, sister, and a swarm of concerned friends. She swore several times that she'd never take her eyes off of him again. Hector was dismayed to hear such news, knowing instinctively that if he couldn't be alone in the water, he wouldn't see the boy with the tail again.
He hadn't intended to tell anyone what actually happened, but that night as he lay unable to sleep in the room he shared with his older sister during these seashore holidays, he could feel the story rising in him. Peggy might be the only person who would believe him. Although she ought to have been too old to have faith in such things, she'd been preoccupied with mermaids ever since mother had read her the Hans Christian Andersen tale years ago.
"Are you awake?" he whispered.
"Can I tell you a secret?"
In the moonlight, he saw her sit up in bed. Her enigmatic little brother rarely told her secrets, and to her it was an irresistible privilege. "Yes!"
"When I almost drowned today... it was a mermaid saved me." His heart thumped hard against his thin chest. "A real, actual mermaid."
Peggy took several moments to reply. "Are you teasing me?"
"No. For real. Cross my heart."
With a little gasp, Peggy threw back her covers and darted across the small space between their narrow beds to climb in with her brother. Hector was a serious little boy who never crossed his heart carelessly. "Was she beautiful? Did she have long, beautiful hair?"
"No... it was a boy mermaid."
"Oh." The girl considered this for a minute, and then added, matter-of-factly, "Merman then, not mermaid. Don't you know 'maid' means 'lady'?"
They lay in silence for several minutes, weaving fairy tales in the privacy of their own imaginations.
"Don't tell anyone, Peggy," he whispered before either of them could fall asleep. "Not even mama. No one, ever. They'd think we're foolish."
"Our secret?" she whispered back, and he could hear the smile in her voice. "Just for us?"
"Just us. Do you promise?"
"I promise, Hec. I promise forever and ever."
* * * * *
Hector dreamed of the boy with the silver tail over and over. Mother was true to her word and kept him close, and he had no opportunity to search out his new friend. His heart hung heavy in his chest when they had to pack up and drive home. He felt as if leaving the seashore would break the spell forever, and going back to his normal life would mean he'd have to accept that he'd imagined the whole thing.
Nonetheless, Hector clung to his memory of the sea-boy. Peggy asked him about it now and then, but eventually her interest in mermaids moved on to boys, while he remained preoccupied with silver tails and everything to do with the ocean. He was a child of the sea now, and worked on his swimming skills at every opportunity. He even secreted away Peggy's neglected copy of "Andersen's Fairy Tales", and read the mermaid story over and over by lamplight while the rest of the household slept. Often he wept over it, finding that the tale brought him an aching, yet irresistible sadness. He had begun to experience a near destructive longing for the sea, feeling a kinship with the mermaid who had sacrificed everything for a chance at life on land.
The family only had the budget for a seaside holiday every few years, and some of Hector's obsession had dulled by the time they returned. At a distinguished eleven, he was ready to leave behind most childish fancies, but his memory of the sea-boy lingered, and as soon as he was near the ocean again, his longing rushed back. Mother and father stayed close when he went in the water, not seeming to care that he was a much stronger swimmer now. They would not let him out of their line of sight. Even if they had, Hector held little hope he'd see the creature his mind was now suggesting to him had been a daydream. Still, he was drawn with longing to the cold depths, and to the rocks way out where the sea lions basked, where he was under no circumstances allowed to go.
By thirteen, he'd accepted that there had never been any sea-boy with a silver tail. He continued to pore over Andersen's mermaid tale in private, finding that it still drew him in. He felt like he belonged in that story somehow, though he could not yet make sense of the instinct. That summer at the seaside he spent little time in the water, but mainly explored the fascinating ecosystem of the tidal flats, or brooded upon the ocean from shore with a book in his lap as he watched the boys he used to play with show off for girls.
Back at school, things were strange. Hector felt he was late to bloom, and that he was missing something important when the other boys talked endlessly of pretty girls. Hector was more interested in the swim team. He enjoyed the water, as well as the camaraderie. The water seemed the only place he wasn't the odd man out.
He still thought often of his strange childhood hallucination. When he called to mind the details, Hector wondered at the fact that he had not been afraid of the appearance of a semi-humanoid creature with a fishtail, milky skin, and small, sharp teeth. He'd not been a brave child, and didn't even like to sleep with the lights out. He didn't like spiders, mice, or snakes. He had liked the sea-boy very much.
Sometimes he still carried around the volume of Andersen tales, carefully tucked between schoolbooks in his backpack, a sort of talisman that made him feel less alone. He managed to keep it from everyone until his mid-teens, when an older, more athletic boy had bumped into him in the hallway while he'd been at his locker. His open bag tumbled to the floor, and the Andersen book leaped free as if it had a life of its own.
"What's that?" the larger boy guffawed, seizing it and showing it to his equally large friends. "You keep dirty pictures in here, candy ass?"
Hector bristled as the boy flipped through the pages. The miscreant had no right to touch his sacred book. "Give it back!" he demanded.
The older boy was still laughing as he found there was nothing in the book but what its cover suggested: "Fairy tales for a fairy!" he jeered as his friends laughed with him, and a small crowd grew.
All the breath left Hector's lungs. For a brief time, it was like the sensation of drowning. He went very red.
"Look at his face!" sputtered the boy still molesting his book. "He's not even denying it! Fairy boy, fairy boy! You want your baby book back, fairy?"
Hector took his mathematics textbook in hand and swung it with such force and speed that he surprised himself most of all. The bully went to the nurse with a bloody nose, and Hector had earned detention for the first time in his life. The only thing that mattered to him then was that he got his book back.
He'd demonstrated well enough that he could defend himself physically if necessary, but Hector was by no means immune from teasing, insults, and rejection. The other students didn't seem to care nearly as much about the fairy tales as they did about him being a "fairy". Of course they had nothing to go on to demonstrate that he was indeed what they accused him of, but that was never the point. Names stuck, and an opportunity to make sport of an outsider made them feel more confident in themselves. He had already been an outsider for as long as he could remember, and had accepted that even if it grieved him at times. What he regretted most now that he had a label was that the boys on the swim team, the one small group he felt he belonged to, had begun to shut him out. They didn't want a "fairy" looking at them in the showers before and after practice. Ironically, they spent a great deal of time looking at him, looking for signs. It made him feel especially self-conscious. In turn, they noted his silent discomfort and took it, as had the bully who'd taken his book, as a tacit confirmation.
Hector wasn't one to fuss, but to withdraw. He withdrew further and further until he barely felt he existed. He went to school to do his work, and kept out of everyone's way. He swam as much as he could. He worked at the Woolworth's after school a few days a week, stocking shelves for pocket money that mostly just collected up in a shoebox. He tried to offer it to his mother and father to help toward a trip to the seashore while things were lean, but they refused it, encouraging him to save up for a car, or to take out a nice girl. He didn't want a car, or a nice girl—he wanted the sea.
Another summer passed without the holiday he longed for. To fill those desolate months, Hector worked as many shifts at the Woolworth's as they would give him. After his shifts, he often lingered at the luncheonette, sipping a Coca-Cola, or a malted milk when he felt indulgent, as he read book after book.
Halfway through the summer, Hector was particularly missing the ocean and decided to drown his sorrows with a chocolate shake. He watched the boy behind the counter mix the beverage. Recently, he'd often paused to notice the boy who doled out ice cream sodas and sundaes. His nametag read, "TOMMY". Tommy was handsome and blonde, with the wholesome, all-American good looks of a youth straight out of a soda advertisement. The gleaming marble counter was usually lined with girls in braids and ponytails, swinging their feet as they sipped drinks or nursed sundaes and attempted to catch his eye. Tommy indulged them often, leaning over the counter to meet their gazes, sometimes winking, making gently flirtatious remarks that spurred choruses of female giggles, and plenty of nickels were left for him.
What Hector admired about Tommy had nothing to do with the reasons girls mooned over him. It was the way he acted so coolly, no matter what the situation. He could tell Tommy only flirted for the tips, and the moment the girls got up from their stools he was completely disinterested. He didn't leer after them like so many boys did. Even when some customer got angry and made a fuss, Tommy was patient and courteous. He seemed to rise above everything.
Although, it was true he wasn't unpleasant to look at.
Hector was distracted watching him scoop ice cream when something wet and very cold struck the back of his neck, and slithered down into his shirt. Hector let out a high-pitched yelp. His back arched involuntarily, trying to shrink away from the shock of the ice against his flesh, and his elbow bumped his glass. It toppled, spilling most of its contents across the counter, and then rolled off the edge before Hector could recover himself enough to catch it. It smashed on the red-and-white checkered floor, flooding melted ice cream and scattering glass shards across the clean tiles. He stared down at the mess, paralyzed.
The raucous laughter of several teenage boys filled the silence that followed the shattering of glass.
"Nice going, spaz!" jeered a familiar voice. "Aren't fairies supposed to be graceful?"
Hector continued staring at the floor, waiting for the laughter to end. He didn't have to look up to know who had thrown the ice cube at him, and who was continuing to make "fairy" comments.
"That's enough!" a commanding voice spoke up, causing Hector to lift his head. "You boys are out of here!"
Tommy was emerging from behind the counter, confronting the bullies. Hector had never heard him speak so forcefully, and he was rapt. There was some resistance from the troublesome boys, but soon they were heading for the exit, muttering curses behind them.
It was only when Tommy bent down to pick up the larger pieces of glass that Hector was spurred into action. He grabbed a handful of napkins in an attempt to help mop up some of the mess.
"I'm so sorry," he exhaled. "I'm so very sorry. I can't believe I was so clumsy. Whatever the glass cost, I'll pay for it."
"Forget it," Tommy replied, glancing up to make eye contact with him. "You know none of that was your fault, don't you?"
Hector's mouth worked, trying to form an answer, but he could come up with nothing. "Um, let me help you at least," he stammered, maneuvering himself so that he could dismount his stool without stepping in any of the mess.
"No, no," Tommy said quickly, holding up a hand, palm facing him. "Please, don't get up. I've got it. I don't want you stepping on any glass."
Feeling very small and very raw, Hector obeyed, allowing Tommy to mop up all around him. He was used to sweeping up around the five and dime, and it felt wrong not to help, even if he was off duty. He didn't know what to do with himself, so he tried to read his book, but it might as well have been in a foreign language.
He didn't realize how much time had passed, but Tommy soon startled him by sliding over a fresh chocolate shake from across his accustomed side of the counter. Atop the crown of whipped cream, a trio of glossy red cherries winked at him, rather than the usual one. He looked up, and Tommy immediately averted his eyes, as if embarrassed. Hector pulled a quarter out of his pocket and slid it over to the other boy, but Tommy shook his head and pushed it back.
"It wasn't your fault," he reiterated. "You're not paying for two shakes."
Hector wrung his hands, staring at the coin lying on the freshly wiped marble. "Thank you," he whispered.
It was the best shake he'd ever had, but he couldn't bring himself to look up anymore, nervous now of meeting Tommy's eyes. When he was finished and ready to go home, Hector pulled a nickel from his pocket to leave as a tip. The quarter was still lying there, gleaming beneath the lights. His hand hovered over it for a few moments, and then pulled back. A thirty-cent tip was exorbitant, he knew. It was more than the cost of his shake. But Tommy had earned it, and what else was Hector going to do with his money? He forced himself to look up. His heart pounded against his ribs, and throbbed in his ears and the tips of his fingers. Tommy had his back turned as he polished glasses. Not wanting to be noticed, Hector grabbed his book and retreated. He glanced back once, just before slipping through the door, and glimpsed the two coins still lying there. Tommy was taking off his apron, at the end of his shift.
What if he didn't get the thirty cents? What if someone else noticed?
Hector fled the store in embarrassment, wishing more than ever that he were invisible... or better yet, at the seashore.
He stopped, his insides clenching up. When he turned back to see who was jogging up the sidewalk to catch up with him, he experienced a brief moment of confusion. He didn't immediately recognize the older boy without his apron and little white hat.
"I think you left this."
Hector looked down as Tommy held out his hand, a quarter resting on his upturned palm.
"Um," Hector stammered, "yes. I know I did. It's yours."
Tommy looked uncertain, almost vulnerable. He even looked younger. In the Woolworth's, with his apron on, he'd seemed so in charge, but now that he was out here, dressed like a regular fellow, Hector realized that he was simply a person, perhaps with some of the same insecurities and uncertainties as himself.
"It's too much," Tommy insisted, trying to press the quarter into his hand.
"No," protested Hector, retreating. He was smiling sheepishly now, his cheeks aflame. "I... I think it's not enough. I've never had such, um... impeccable service at a lunch counter."
Tommy reflected back his smile and dropped his gaze, closing his fist around the coin. "I didn't do much. But thanks." He shifted his weight from foot to foot. His blue eyes flicked up, now with a puckish glint dancing in them. "I guess I could always sneak it back into your pocket when you're not paying attention."
Hector grinned and turned even redder when the other boy's hand darted in the direction of his pants pocket, brushing against his hip as he squirmed playfully away.
"So... can I walk with you?" Tommy asked.
Unsure why he was asking but not objecting to the company in this case, Hector nodded. He turned to resume his usual route home, this time with a companion. He didn't know what to say, so he remained silent until Tommy spoke up again:
"You're the shy type, aren't you? Quiet. Probably smart. Reading a lot."
"I guess." He shrugged. "I like books more than people."
Tommy smiled at him, though there was sadness in it. "I suppose I'm not surprised, considering how people seem to treat you."
Hector looked down at the sidewalk and said nothing.
"Is it true?" Tommy's voice was almost a whisper.
"That... the thing they said about you."
Hector went all hot and cold. "Why? Why are you asking me that?"
When no answer was forthcoming, Hector felt an ache of despair well in the pit of his stomach. Probably Tommy would assume as everyone else did that it was true, just because he hadn't immediately denied it. People were so frustrating. He craved the ocean more than ever, wanting to lose himself in the soothing rhythm of the waves, the salt spray, the darkness of the cold, fathomless depths.
"You want to go to the park?"
Hector balked. "The park...? Why?"
"Please. Please just go with me."
He went. Uncertain of everything, he wandered along winding green paths at Tommy's side. Neither spoke, and Hector's nervousness grew. He was beginning to think this could be a trick, and Tommy, despite all appearances, might be in cahoots with the bullies. They were going down quieter, more heavily wooded trails now, and Hector imagined that they'd be waiting for him around the next bend, waiting to pound him.
Tommy took him by the wrist, and he stiffened. There was a secondary trail veering off to one side, a barely-there beaten track that could easily be missed by most passersby. Tommy was attempting to pull him down this trail.
"Let me go," Hector gasped, yanking his arm away from the other boy, and dropping his book in the process. His hands shook when he tried to bend down to grab it, and he dropped it twice more. Despite the humiliation it caused him, he began to cry.
"Hey," Tommy said with aching tenderness, leaning down to pick up his book for him. "Hey... please don't. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you. Please, Hector... look at me. Can't you see I don't mean you any harm?"
Hector blinked several times to clear his vision. He ventured a look up at Tommy as the taller boy held out his book. Hector took it cautiously. Tommy truly did look about as benign as a boy could. "Why are you doing this?" he whispered. "Why are we here?"
"Because... because... I just wanted to be somewhere with you. Away from everyone. Away from those chumps."
Hector reached up to knuckle away his tears, still at a loss to understand. "But why?"
Tommy sighed, and glanced up and down the path. Quickly he took Hector's hand, and leaned in, placing a gentle kiss near the corner of his mouth that lingered a few moments before he straightened, flushed and breathing heavily.
Hector stood frozen. The place where he'd been kissed still tickled. A shiver passed through him, traveling all the way to his toes. "Oh," he whispered.
"I've been wanting to do that," Tommy said. His voice was trembling. "You're... different. And I like you. And I guess I thought... I hoped you might...."
"...Be a fairy?"
Tommy dropped his eyes. "Please don't say it that way."
"I'm sorry," Hector whispered. "There just... aren't any nice words for it, are there?"
Frowning, Tommy shrugged. "There are a lot of not-nice words for it. But it's really called 'homosexual'. My uncle told me he read a book about it. My folks don't let me talk to him anymore... but I don't believe he's a bad person. And neither am I. And neither are you."
"Well," Hector mused, "whatever you call it... I don't know what I am. I'm just... lost."
"Let me help you," Tommy breathed, venturing closer, almost close enough to kiss him again. "I'm lost too. I just know when I'm with a girl, it's... like pretending. But this, it feels real. It feels right. Let's be found, together."
Hector squeezed his hand. This time, he allowed himself to be led down the narrow path. When he saw where it led, he felt a sense of calm wash over him. There was a tiny lake ahead of them, one he'd never known existed.
"Oh, this is wonderful!" he gasped. "Water is my favorite thing in the world."
Tommy looked back at him, grinning. "Yeah? There are lots of turtles living here, and frogs, and sometimes I see a great blue heron. I'm all about the wildlife."
They settled on the mossy bank, and Hector allowed Tommy to continue holding his hand as they watched the turtles swim. He kicked off his shoes and dangled his feet in the water, relishing the refreshing cold. If he couldn't be at the seashore, this wasn't too bad a substitute, and having someone next to him, liking him, was an unanticipated pleasure. Tommy leaned over and kissed his cheek. Hector turned his head, smiling, and then Tommy's lips were covering his. Hector rarely gave much thought to what it might be like to kiss someone, but the way it felt was unexpected. It was like being underwater, floating, wrapped in warm silence. Within moments, he was slaking a thirst he hadn't known existed in him. Wrapping both arms around Tommy, he sucked at his mouth as the other boy sucked at his.
The snap of a twig echoing across the smooth water tore them apart, panting. They scanned the landscape for signs they were being watched, and saw no one. It might have been only an animal, but now Hector felt a sharp dig of fear in his guts, and was keenly aware that this reaction had to mean they were doing something wrong.
"We shouldn't," he whispered, still staring out across the lake.
"Because... because it just... it isn't done!"
Tommy took his hand again. "Be that as it may, we did it. The world hasn't ended, has it?"
"I need to go home!" He freed his hand and snatched up his book before leaping up to return to the little path they'd taken to get here.
Halfway back to the main trail, ferns swishing around his calves, Hector slowed to a stop and turned to face the other boy. There were tears in Tommy's eyes, almost spilling over, and he felt a throb of guilt. His throat burned, and he could feel a hot pulse in his swollen lips. He felt he could neither stay nor go without tearing himself apart.
He made a snap decision and lunged toward Tommy, pulling him into a tight embrace. They clutched each other like two drowning creatures, each huffing hot breaths into the other's ear.
"Are you afraid you'll go to hell for kissing me?" Tommy whispered.
"No. I don't think I believe in hell."
"Are you afraid people will hate you, or say terrible things about you?"
"No. They already call me names and think I'm strange."
"Are you afraid of going to jail?"
"No. I hadn't even given that a moment's thought."
Tommy pulled back from the embrace just enough to meet his eyes. "What then? That's everything I'm afraid of. What's the worst that could happen?"
"I'm... I'm just... afraid," Hector breathed, scrunching the fabric of Tommy's shirt in his fists. "It's my family, maybe. I don't feel very close to them, but... they're good people, and they don't deserve to be humiliated."
An unsteady smile twitched at Tommy's lips. "I knew as soon as I first saw you that you had a kind heart."
Hector rested his head on the other boy's shoulder. He didn't feel like a kind person, but the validation was soothing. "Walk me home?" he whispered.
Tommy walked him home, and did so nearly every day they shared a shift that summer. Hector told his parents Tommy was his best friend, and they were delighted enough that he had one to give the two boys their space, assuming that behind closed doors, the only thing going on was talking about girls.
Tommy's defiance of his own fears emboldened Hector to set aside his own, and they bonded over their shared secret. Finding opportunities to be alone a few times each week for the remainder of the summer, they made the most of their shared privacy, falling in love with the reckless abandon that is the sole domain of youth. Having had little use for most of the world since childhood, Hector had no problem shutting it out in favor of each chance to enjoy Tommy feasting on him in a flurry of lips, eager hands, bared flesh, and tangled limbs, punctuated with impassioned whispers of dedication and plans to increase their closeness while protecting their secret.
The prospect of school starting up again was unpleasant enough to avoid until it was only days away. Hector was starting his final year of high school, and Tommy would be attending college. Both kept part-time positions at the five and dime, but they soon found that their schedules rarely overlapped.
As their occasions for alone time dwindled down to once a week, and then even further to only a couple of times per month, Hector began to feel he was going into hibernation. It was reminiscent of when he was craving the ocean, and had to wait yet another summer to return to where he belonged. He went through his days as if in a dream, barely there, doing only what was necessary, his existence fuelled solely by the promise of regaining who and what he loved.
With graduation on the horizon, Hector put up an appearance of being responsible and thinking of his future. He told his parents he had been applying to colleges, and even that he had been accepted to one, when in reality his only plan for the future was Tommy and the sea, which in his mind now existed together in some hypothetical endless summer holiday. Heedless of reality, he poured all of himself into this goal, and as soon as he had confirmation that their traditional holiday at the seashore would finally be happening, he asked for permission to invite Tommy along. An opportunity to take Tommy to his favorite place in the world, to explore the beaches and tidal pools and swim in the ocean together, was everything Hector wanted out of life, and nothing on either side of that imagined perfection seemed to matter.
Peggy was to be married in May, and Hector thought he would be grateful to her for life. She was marrying a young man who came from money, which meant his parents were covering enough of the wedding costs to leave them with a budget for a summer holiday, and moreover, her excitement at being a wife meant she didn't have the time for, or interest in, holidays with her parents and brother anymore. There was, therefore, a vacancy, and permission was granted for Hector to ask his best friend to accompany them. He could scarcely contain his elation while he waited for a chance to tell Tommy. Fate seemed to be giving him a rare nod.
The chance came three weeks later, after a rare shared evening shift at Woolworth's. Hector rushed to finish cleaning up in time to catch Tommy before he could leave the luncheonette. To his surprise, Tommy's nametag now read simply, "TOM".
They walked together in the direction of the park without needing to discuss it.
"Why did you get a different nametag?" Hector couldn't resist asking.
"Well, we're getting older now," Tommy replied matter-of-factly, straightening his shoulders. "I don't think I can be taken seriously in the business world as 'Tommy'. It's going to be 'Tom' or 'Thomas' from now on."
Hector considered this for a minute. "Can I still call you Tommy?"
Tommy turned to smirk at him as they ventured down a wooded path. "Well, you know, when it's just you and me alone, I'm okay with a lot of things."
Hector smiled weakly. He wasn't exactly sure if that was an affirmative. Would he actually have to call him "Tom" from now on, if they were around other people? He felt disproportionately disappointed at the thought. Perhaps he just didn't want to acknowledge that they were becoming men. Or at least that "Tom" was a man. Hector still felt very much a boy, and he wasn't especially inclined to enter some new plane of existence wherein he'd have to begin caring about how he was perceived.
"I have news," he said, deciding to set the name issue aside for now. His hand tingled with the desire to take hold of Tommy's, but he couldn't. Not until they could be certain they were alone, which would usually be by the little hidden lake they'd come to think of as theirs.
"So do I," Tommy replied, his tone hushed.
They had a perfect spot at the lakeside, semi-sheltered, where they had passed many an hour in each other's arms. As soon as they had reclined on the soft grass, words shifted into second place as they fell into their usual habits. When they were lip to lip, with warm hands sliding eagerly beneath each other's clothes, there was room for little else in their minds.
Later, glowing with warmth and connection, the pair straightened their clothes and made room for other matters. Hector decided he wanted to leave his news for last.
"So what did you want to tell me?" he whispered, leaning on Tommy's shoulder.
It was nearly a minute before the equally hushed reply came: "I've been... seeing a girl."
Hector straightened, turning to gape at him. "What? You what?"
Tommy raised his hands in a defensive gesture. "Now, I don't want you to overreact, or misunderstand. Hear me out, okay?"
The warmth of their intimacy was leaving Hector in a hurry, to be replaced with a grim chill that reached down into his innards with icy fingers. "I'm listening," he exhaled, though he could already feel the pricking of angry tears around his eyes.
"You must have noticed how things are changing," Tommy went on in the tone of one delivering a lecture. "Two boys can get away with plenty in secret, but we're not boys anymore. At least, I'm not. We need to think about the future. People are going to start raising eyebrows at two men spending all their time together, and showing no interest in women. Surely you understand what I'm getting at."
Hector stared at him, uncomprehending. No words came to him, and the longer he stared, the more uncomfortable Tommy looked.
"We're not going to be able to get away with this much longer," he continued, determined but not sounding quite as confident. "I've been trying to... you know... blend in. And you should think about doing the same."
Hector took a deep breath, held it for a few moments, and exhaled shakily. "You have a girlfriend?" he asked in a weak, hoarse voice.
Tommy chewed on his lower lip while considering his response. "Sort of. Well... yes. She's a nice girl. She doesn't demand a lot of me, and she's... trusting."
"Trusting," Hector echoed, pressing a fist against the welling ache in his stomach. "You mean... she'll believe you when you lie to her."
Sighing, Tommy avoided his eyes. "It's not exactly my fault. The world expects a man to want a wife. Either I lie, or I'm a miserable outcast. Besides, don't talk as if you don't do plenty of lying yourself. It's not fair to get all judgemental with me when you lie to your parents constantly."
"That's different!" Hector exclaimed.
"How is it different? You love them, don't you?"
"Yes, but they... they're parents!" Hector huffed. "Parents and children always keep things from each other, and eventually you have completely separate lives! Those lies don't really hurt anyone. But if you start a serious relationship with some innocent girl... and God forbid, get married, have babies even...?"
"I still don't see what the big difference is," Tommy grumbled.
Hector covered his eyes with clenched fists. It was tying knots in his guts that Tommy wasn't even denying he might get married and have children. "Making a family... a whole family... based on lies? You really don't see why that's monstrous? Would you be a husband and a father, and have your little house with a little fence and a dog and little children running around calling you 'daddy', and it would all just be pretend to you?"
Tommy cautiously placed a hand on his back. "I didn't realize you'd be so upset, Hec. Though I've always known you have a tender heart. You're sweet to worry about hurting people. But they wouldn't have to be hurt, don't you see that? They wouldn't have to know anything was different from any other family. And it's not like I'd be incapable of loving them."
"Her?" Hector rasped. "You'd love her? Do you love her? Love both of us at once?"
"You're the one I love," Tommy assured him. "I could love her too, but just... in a different way."
Hector could barely breathe now. When he finally lowered his hands, they were shaking. "Do you actually want to be married? Make babies? Do you want that?"
"Well... sure. But it's not as if I could do that with you. What choice do I have?"
The tears started to flow now. Tommy tried to pull him close, but he squirmed away. "There could be lots of choices!" he exclaimed hotly, smearing his tears with the back of his wrist. "But you didn't even ask. You didn't even discuss it with me. How was I to know it would ever be this way? How could I know you were going to have a family? Do you really expect me to do that? To deceive some poor girl, and pretend I want her, and close my eyes and think of you while I put babies in her that I never wanted? Just so people won't think bad things about us? This is horrid, Tommy! It's a nightmare, and I want no part of it!"
Tommy sighed. He slowly got up, and wandered away a few steps, facing the water. "It was all for you, Hec. For us. I thought you could understand."
"It's not for me," Hector retorted. "It's because you're a coward, and because you think you can eat your cake and have it. If it were for me, you would have asked me what I wanted."
Tommy brushed his hair back in frustration, leaving it sticking up in all directions. He whirled to face Hector. "God, you're still such a child! I know what you want, Hec. You want to just be in love and be together and leave the world behind. We can't leave it behind! We live in it, and it's going to tear us apart if we don't learn to play along!"
"And you suddenly think you're a man just because you've been to college for a few months!" Hector shot back. "You don't know everything, and you don't have the right to make decisions for both of us. Ever since school began, things have changed. I hardly see you, and when I do, I never can tell what sort of person you are because we hardly even talk. And now you're not even Tommy anymore because it's not manly enough, and... and... we're losing everything. I'm losing you. Everything. Tommy...."
As his increasingly panicked words fragmented into sobs, Tommy returned to his side and pulled him into a tight embrace. "I'm sorry, Hec," he whispered, kissing the top of his head. "I'm sorry things turned out this way. I'm sorry the world is against us. I'm sorry if I wasn't as open with you as I should have been. I guess we both didn't want to have to acknowledge reality. Just... please don't throw away what little we have because it's not ideal. You could have a family, and maybe you'd even like it. We could go through it together. And we'd still tell people we're best friends... and whenever we can be alone...."
Hector shook his head slowly. "No," he squeaked out, and sniffled. "I don't want to trap some girl into a fake family. I don't want to be the one you're thinking of when you're sleeping with someone else. I don't want just the scraps left over after you've cared for your real family. I don't want to be the perverse secret that would tear that family apart if we were caught. You have to choose."
"Really?" Tommy exhaled, struggling between comforting him and increasing temptation toward exasperation. "Is that honestly what you expect of me? Give up everything, just to sneak around with you? Never have a normal life, because you're too immature to handle sharing?"
Hector pulled away from him. He picked up a pinecone as he stood, and flung it into the water, watching the resulting concentric ripples across the otherwise glassy surface. "Is that what you'd tell your wife if she found out, and her heart was broken?" he asked, whisking away a few more tears with his wrist. "She's too immature to handle sharing? Is it always someone else's problem when you hurt someone?"
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"What do you think it means?" Hector cried, turning to face him, arms tightly crossed. "You've been with someone else, and you won't even admit you've done anything wrong."
Tommy furrowed his brow. "So you're saying... I cheated on you? This is what's really bothering you?"
"That... and other things."
Tommy's mouth tensed into a tight little line for a few moments, and when he spoke up, his voice was strained: "When did we ever define what this was? When did we ever make promises?"
The words were salt in his already smarting wounds. "You said you loved me."
"I do, Hector. But does 'love' mean some sort of bondage to you? Does 'love' mean I have to be with only you, forever, regardless of the fact that it could get us both into a lot of trouble? Ostracized from society, at minimum? When I tell you I love you, it's because I enjoy being with you. It was never some sort of... proposal... or volunteering to put my entire future at risk for your sake."
Hector swallowed hard against the searing lump in his throat. "I wasn't expecting you to surrender your soul to me. I just want to be with you. I want more of you, not less. I thought we both wanted the same thing."
Tommy raised his hands in a helpless gesture. "This is just another example of why you need to grow up, Hector. Listen to me! We do want the same thing. But there's so much more to life than what we want."
"I know there is!" Hector hollered, losing his temper now, though there were still tears streaming down his flushed cheeks. He kicked at the ground, sending a clod of grass and dirt flying. "Stop accusing me of childishness! You're the one who wants to have it all, not me. You admitted you want to get married and have kids—"
"I never said that!" Tommy snapped.
"Yes you did! I asked you if you wanted a family, and you said yes! But you also want to keep me on the side. I'm ready to give up everything else life has to offer if I can just have you... but you're not willing to give up anything. You have to take risks and make sacrifices if you really want something in life. You have no sense of commitment! Instead you're folding to other people's expectations because things might get risky or difficult if you even try for what your heart wants. Maybe you're the one who needs to grow up!"
"You don't understand!" Tommy growled, slamming a clenched fist into his opposite palm. "I said I wanted everything with you, but I'm settling for what I can get. How can you ask more of me? You think I'm not making sacrifices?"
Hector scowled. "Gee whiz, I'm sorry you have to sleep with girls when you're not with me. You must really be suffering."
"Damn, you Hector!"
"Damn you right back... Tom!"
They stared at each other in silence, both hurt, angry, and fearful.
"I guess we don't really want the same thing after all," Tommy mumbled.
Hector's chin trembled. He took a hesitant step forward, and when Tommy melted and held out his arms, he ran to him. They squeezed each other so tightly that neither could breathe for a several moments. When they loosened their grip on each other and met eyes, Hector realized that he wasn't the only one crying. He held his breath, waiting for Tommy to assure him that it would be okay, that they'd figure things out, together.
Instead, Tommy took his hand, and pressed a small, flat object into it. When he looked down, Hector saw that it was a quarter. He knew Tommy had kept the quarter from their first encounter, and carried it with him most days. It had become a symbol to both of them, and Hector understood the meaning of it being returned to him this way.
"It's yours," Tommy whispered, and sniffed. "I'm sorry, Hec. It was always doomed from the start, wasn't it?"
Hector said nothing, and closed his fist around the coin. The tears that had been streaming a minute ago dried on his cheeks. He didn't move when Tommy took a step back, and shortly thereafter, left without another word.
Hector sat at the water's edge until it was starting to get dark. He'd expected to cry like he'd never cried before, but instead nothing happened. As soon as that quarter had been placed in his hand, his emotions seemed to have turned off as if a switch had been flipped. He searched inside himself, trying to find a feeling, but there was nothing there anymore. Just cold.
But a mermaid has no tears, and therefore she suffers so much more.
* * * * *
School passed without any fanfare. Hector had already quit his job at the Woolworth's, not wishing to lay eyes on Tommy again. He didn't feel he had any use for the money anyway—nearly everything he'd earned remained stuffed in a shoebox.
He felt an unshakeable sense of finality as he packed for his holiday. Beneath all of his preparations was an assumption he would not be back here again. Before leaving, he dropped the quarter Tommy had returned to him into his shoebox full of money, and wrote "For Tom & his future wife" on the lid. The box remained next to his pillow.
"I'm sorry your friend couldn't come," Hector's mother remarked after far too long a silence had settled over their drive to the seashore.
"Yes, well," Hector murmured, staring out the window, "he's been quite busy with his job, and his classes, and his girlfriend."
"Oh, is she a nice girl?"
"He says so. I never met her."
Another silence ensued, and when Hector looked up, he caught his father's gaze in the rearview mirror. The man quickly returned his eyes to the road ahead, and cleared his throat.
"Hector," he said in an authoritative yet hesitant tone, "we've been concerned about you."
"Well... always so quiet. Can't say boo to a goose, it seems. So much on your own, except when you were with that friend of yours, that you spoke so little of."
Hector looked out the window again. "Is there something wrong with being quiet?"
"There could be," his mother ventured, "if it causes your loved ones to worry. We don't know what you might be thinking, or feeling, or really what you're up to most of the time."
"So I must be up to no good?"
"That's not the point, sweetheart. We just want you to know you can talk to us. You seem... unhappy."
"There's more," his father cut in.
Hector glanced at his parents in time to notice a brief, silent argument between them. Dad seemed to win.
"Hector... you haven't shown any interest in girls. Ever. For years, your mother's been saying you just need some more time to grow up, but nothing's changed. It's not normal."
Hector looked down at his hands. He knew he should have been afraid, but he still didn't feel anything. "There's nothing you need to worry about," he said. "I keep a lot to myself. It's just the way I am. I'm pretty much grown up now, aren't I? I'll be leaving soon for college. I'll probably find a nice girl there. High school girls just aren't very mature. I'll grow up, and I'll have a normal life. I'll be a normal man with a normal wife and normal kids. Everything's fine."
His father looked at him in the mirror again, and then turned to have another silent exchange with his wife. Few words were said for the remainder of the trip.
When they reached the cabin, Hector took only enough time to change into his swimsuit before hurrying to the beach. As he inhaled deep lungfuls of sea air and felt the cool water lap at his toes, he was enlivened, somehow more real and tangible than he had felt in years. There were times he'd been with Tommy and thought he'd been truly alive, but he'd forgotten how wholly he belonged to this place. This was home.
He only wished he didn't have to be so alone.
Hector walked along the surf, his feet feeling connected to the cool, wet sand and the foamy brine. The sea foam brought to mind that dark yet fascinating fairy tale he used to read over and over. Details of the story flooded toward him like rising tide, and he paused his steps, feeling breathless now as it took on a layer of meaning he'd never been able to grasp before. Like the mermaid, Hector had been loved by his Prince, but never had a chance to belong to him—not in this world. The honor he'd craved went to another. A suitable bride.
With eyes already glazing she looked once more at the Prince, hurled herself over the bulwarks into the sea, and felt her body dissolve in foam.
The emotions that had been eluding Hector now began to brew, and he resumed his walk along the surf, this time increasing his pace. He didn't realize he had a destination until a familiar arrangement of rocks materialized in the distance. He could spot signs of activity, and knew the sea lions were out. As soon as he entered the water and started swimming toward them, they made their lumbering way, one by one, down from their perches and disappeared into the depths.
He was weeping when he found his familiar rock, and threw himself upon it, purging the depths of his hurt and hopelessness. He cursed fate, or God, or whatever was responsible for him being born this way. He begged to simply be able to dissolve away, as had the mermaid who, like him, was helpless to earn the full and complete love of the one she desired.
Once he had cried until he ached, he clumsily pulled himself up fully onto the rock, which was smaller than he remembered, and sat down to gaze out at the sea he'd longed for his whole life. It was only the thought of going back to the human world that made him feel the panic of drowning, and his languishing heart begged for a savior, cherishing his childhood fantasy of being rescued by a boy with a silver tail. Was there no witch that would let him trade any valuable piece of himself for even a day down there in the dark and cold and quiet?
He remained there for hours, searching the water for answers, and contemplating the ramifications of simply not returning to shore. He didn't want to cause anyone inconvenience or grief, leastwise not his parents, who had always meant well. Still, his options were limited if he refused to play the game Tommy was playing.
He made an abrupt decision and pushed himself to his feet only to dive, disappearing into the brine just as the sea lions had. His legs and arms fought with the water, clawing, pulling, and pushing his way deeper and deeper. The air left his lungs bubble by bubble, and soon his chest was screaming for breath. His limbs grew clumsy, numbed. He wrestled with his own weakness, with his body's complaints. He had no sense of direction anymore, and his head was growing light as his heart and lungs panicked.
The darkness beneath swallowed him up, the sea water entered him, and the panic passed. He was finally at peace, and there was soft light on the other side of the darkness.
* * * * *
Hector awoke with painful reluctance, pulled out of what felt like the sweetest dream, though he could not recall a single detail of it. His body protested consciousness. Hot blades speared through his lungs as he attempted to inhale. He curled into a fetal position, only now finding that he was lying on his side on wet sand. Something cold and slick pressed against his back. He began to cough, and it was a pain he'd never known before. He moaned hoarsely between laborious intakes of breath. His stomach clenched violently, and he vomited up great quantities of saltwater, punctuated by more coughing. His head, lungs, and stomach all pulsed with agony.
The cold pressure between his shoulder blades slid beneath his chest, gently encircled and lifted him from the sand, turning him over. His eyes were bleary and burned with salt. He blinked several times and reached out a hand, half-blind. His palm came to rest against cool, smooth scales. He strained to see what was wrapping itself around him, and recognized the indistinct features of a face too pale to be human.
The mermaid kissed his high and shapely forehead. As she stroked his wet hair in place, it seemed to her that he looked like that marble statue in her little garden. She kissed him again and hoped that he would live.
Hector closed his burning eyes and coughed until he retched, though there was nothing more in his stomach to be expelled. The heat of unbidden tears sliced down his cheeks. Cold fingers traced those hot lines moments later. The pallid face gazing down at him like the moon drew closer until there was nothing between them. A cold mouth sealed over his.
One December when he was six or seven years old, he'd been helping his father unpack and test strings of Christmas lights. Not noticing how ragged one of the wires had gotten, he'd carelessly tugged at it, and when he pushed the metal prongs into the outlet, a surprising, tingly vibration had surged up his arm. The sensation had been very similar to the arresting cascade of minute tingles that was flooding into him now, starting at his lips, and then filling his mouth like something palpable, dancing and tickling down his throat, his esophagus, his windpipe.
Then a surge of air was forced past his lips, inflating his lungs with a cold, electric, thrumming breath of life. His spine went rigid for a few moments, and then, as he relaxed, all of the pain and discomfort that had been assailing him melted into bliss.
The cold, unearthly mouth pulled away from his, and he exhaled with a tremor that shook his entire body. He blinked a few more times, and his vision cleared enough to meet the strange, yet familiar pair of black and silver eyes staring down at him.
"Are you real?" Hector whispered, unconsciously echoing the same question he'd uttered the first time he'd come face-to-face with the creature he remembered so vividly, yet had convinced himself had never existed.
Feeling alive and strong, breathing easily, he maneuvered himself so that he could sit upright under his own power, only now noticing that he'd been curled up halfway in the lap of his rescuer. As he looked down at it, he saw not legs, but shining silver scales that stretched all the way down to a broad fishtail, now waving lazily in the lapping surf. His eyes swept upward. From the waist to neck the creature was like a man, except for the impossible whiteness of the flesh and a random scattering of scales across the chest where Hector had a few sparse hairs. No longer a little sea-child, this was a man.
Merman, he told himself, remembering his sister's voice from nearly a decade ago.
He'd grown much bigger than Hector, broad and well-muscled. Here and there across his white flesh, arcane symbols had been scarred into him like tattoos.
Hector hadn't noticed how his companion was studying him in return until a webbed hand reached out to touch his chest, curiously fingering the fledgeling hairs that had sprouted there only within the past year. He gazed at the eyes raking over him and a bloom of joy curled his mouth into a grin. As he had at the age of eight, Hector knew instinctively that he was in no danger, even as the merman opened his mouth to reflect back the smile and revealed two neat rows of impressively sharp teeth.
Eyes and hands explored new fascinations, learning the alien landscapes, textures, and temperatures of each other's flesh. Hector tentatively touched the strange anemone-like tendrils that he'd long ago surmised were gills. The other shivered at the touch and pawed at the boy's damp hair.
"Do you have a name?" he wondered aloud. "I'm Hector. Hector."
He patted his own chest as he repeated his name. The merman twitched his shell-like ears and cocked his head. He worked his mouth into shapes that seemed to be trying to imitate what the boy's mouth did, but all that came out was a brief series of consonant-like clicks that Hector found charming.
If his silver-tailed savior had a name, it wouldn't likely be one he'd have any ability to utter, Hector thought as he admired the foreign symbols etched across the milk-white flesh. He decided he would have to give the creature a human name. Naming the merman after Hans Christian Andersen was an attractive choice, though he didn't like Hans or Christian.
"Anders," he stated, placing his hand over the silvery-white, pearlescent scales clustered at the center of the merman's chest. "Anders. A-a-a...?"
The newly christened Anders was spreading his mouth into the shape of a vowel in imitation of Hector. Only breath came out. Hector leaned closer, breathing back at him. Only a handsbreadth apart now, they breathed at one another, one warm and one cool. Anders raised a hand, placing it between their mouths so that he could feel his own cold breath on one side and Hector's warmth on the other. Enthralled, the pale fingers stroked Hector's lower lip, and then entered his mouth, finding his tongue. Hector remained still, permitting each exploration, and tasting salt where Anders touched him.
The webbed fingers slid down his chin, and Hector watched the merman's mouth as he leaned even closer, nearly touching. Anders formed his mouth into a little round kiss, and inhaled sharply, chilling Hector's lips. Understanding the suggestion, the boy leaned in, trembling, and sealed his lips over the merman's. He exhaled a deep breath into Anders's mouth, filling his lungs as his own had been filled earlier. He felt the merman's cold body rise and shudder in the throes of a new thrill, perhaps finding the sensation of being warmed from the inside as surprising as Hector had found the chill of the other.
The sun had gone from the sky. Hector was vaguely aware that meant he must have been out a very long time, and missed supper. None of that mattered at the moment. What mattered was lying back on the beach with this magnificent creature reclined against him, gazing at him as if he, and not the silver-tailed savior, were the magnificent one. What mattered was the exquisitely slow sweetness with which Anders's cool lips caressed his, the occasional trading of breath, and the tacit communication of eyes and exploring hands.
He grew concerned, however, when Anders began to squirm with noticeable discomfort. Hector scarcely had to guess at the reason—he was a creature of the sea, and had been out of the water for quite some time.
When Hector rolled both of them over and began to tug on the merman's hand, coaxing him back to the water, the excited, toothy grin Anders flashed him was a delight to behold. Both exactly where they wanted to be, they laughed and frolicked in the water like children, making the most of the day's remains. Anders played with Hector, splashing him with his tail, putting up a pretense of a chase even though the human boy had obvious disadvantages. Hector could not remember ever spending a happier hour, and a growing sense that it was coming to an end flooded his insides with a burgeoning grief. Fatigue was rapidly draining him, and the sky was darkening to the point that he could scarcely find Anders's silver eyes anymore. He wound his arms around the merman's neck and clung to him, letting Anders tow him along the surface of the water with leisurely flicks of his tail.
"I don't want to go," Hector whispered. "Please don't make me go. Just let the world stop so I can stay here forever."
Anders stroked his hair and his back with a soothing touch, and continued swimming, keeping Hector's face carefully above the surface. Hector felt so comforted and safe that he nearly drifted off to sleep as he relaxed against cold flesh and scales, with the rhythmic muscular motions of Anders's tail rocking against his lower body.
Hector didn't know how far down the beach they had been, or how long Anders had been swimming with him, but he soon opened his eyes and noticed starlight glinting off of the waves. Before long there were more lights, this time originating from land. Campfires and electric lights signalled the proximity of the human world, and Hector dreaded going back with an intensity that twisted his stomach into a sour knot. Even now, the cold didn't bother him. He had been a child of the sea for as long as he could remember, and he belonged to it now more than ever.
Feeling himself once more pulled onto solid ground was a rude awakening. Hector grabbed hold of Anders's wrist.
"Don't go," he begged, though he knew he had no right. Anders could no more survive near the shore than Hector could survive the depths. The bitter cruelty wrenched at him, and a sob arose from his burning throat.
Anders embraced him, imparting all the comfort he could while there was still time. He nuzzled the warm tears that poured down Hector's cheeks, and licked up the salt they left behind. Hector found his lips in the starlight and kissed him fiercely, as if to forge an unbreakable connection.
Too soon the merman was retreating back into the water with a final caress of his thigh, and then his calf, and then his foot. Hector tried to compose himself, but moments later, in a panic, he threw himself back into the water, his arms grabbing for the solid body he needed to hold onto. Anders found him, and embraced him only to haul him back onto the beach.
They wrestled there, equally strong-willed, Anders determined to push him back toward his own people, and Hector unwilling to be returned. Hector, however, was much weaker in body, and could no longer fight.
He lay back with the surf lapping at his feet, staring up at the stars that were blurred and refracted through his tears. The cold of Anders's final kisses and touches lingered, tickled at his skin, equally a pleasure and a torment.
Hector didn't know what time it was when he finally staggered to his feet and turned himself in the direction of his parents' cabin. What could he tell them? What would they demand of him? He wove a tale as he shuffled in the direction of the lights. Something about meeting a girl, and falling in love. That might be the only thing that would placate them.
Halfway back to the cabin, he stopped. Everything felt wrong. Sand had given way to grass beneath his feet, and it was wrong. The night air tickled the bareness of his damp flesh, and that was wrong. He was about to go weave lies to people he cared about, to find some pretense of a normal life others expected that he never wanted, and that was especially wrong.
Hector thought of how he'd felt when packing for this holiday, the sense of finality that had lodged itself within him. He'd prepared for this. He'd quit his job, made no plans, embarked upon this trip with the intention of staying forever. In his own way, he had said goodbye, and now everything in him was screaming to move forward, not back.
He turned, and began to run. His feet found the soft sand, and then the surf. He threw himself into the water, shed his swimsuit, and felt that, finally, everything was okay. He swam with all the strength left in his aching limbs until a cold, slick body found his in the darkness and wrapped itself around him, and they understood one another.
Hector felt himself pulled beneath the surface, and down, down to the impenetrable darkness and chill. It seemed at first that he no longer needed to breathe, but eventually his lungs ached and panicked. It was then that Anders's lips found his, and once more breathed a tickling, thrumming flood of life into him as they descended, locked together.
He had never liked the sea before, not until he met the merman. That fascinating male creature of a man who had taught him to swim and nearly drowned him in the process, never imagining that what he had really accomplished was filling his lungs with air for what felt like the first time ever. It sounded silly to say, but it was just how he felt: when they were together, though they were underwater, he could finally breathe.