Well, guys, everything’s a mess. My hair is a mess, my apartment is a mess, my social media is a mess… but that’s just how it be sometimes, you know?
So, in light of the mess, I’m giving myself a free pass to post a short story. I have never gotten feedback on this story before, so I’m curious to see how it does. I think this will actually be a good opportunity for me to get out of my own head writing-wise, which is where I’ve been spending a lot of time as of late.
I don’t hate this story; it’s not as grotesquely weird as The Sink or as tragic as The Enemy of My Enemy by any stretch of the imagination. And maybe that’s my problem with it–it’s so light and teen romance-y. Yet I still feel like it’s missing something, so if you have any idea as to what that may be, I’m all ears.
And as always, if there’s something you’ve posted that you’d like some feedback on, feel free to drop it in the comments and I’ll gladly reciprocate!
So, without further ado.
Grandma used to say that soul-searchers slept in caves by the sea, and that if you caught one and woke it up, it would grant you a wish. I don’t know about that, but I do know that someone has been living in the cliff caves along the bay. They must be either incredibly crazy or incredibly powerful, because the sea is anything but tame this time of year. My sister, Arianna, says she doesn’t believe in soul-searchers, but I’ve seen the want in her eyes at the thought of a wish. What would she wish for, I wonder? For Jordan Petra to like her? For a spot on the varsity volleyball team? For Dad to come back?
That’s the one I would wish for. Maybe.
Two days after the last time we’d gone out searching the caves, a storm as angry as a heartbreak blew in and tried to tear the harbor in two. We went out the following morning to survey the damage and look for anything valuable that might’ve washed up in the fracas. Shells or sea glass, mostly. Ari sold them at the farmer’s market alongside my mother’s pottery. I got a ten percent cut of the profits, non-negotiable. She was going to college next year, after all, and I still had two years left in the dregs of high school. She needed it more than I did, she said.
We found a lot of flotsam and jetsam, and little shells here and there, but no big-ticket items. That is, until I spotted a person lying facedown in the sand, washed up like a castaway.
“Ari, look!” I sprinted forward, hoping to get to him first.
It was a boy our age, maybe a few years older. He had no clothes. He was so pale, we thought he was dead. Ari made me check his pulse, and just as I pressed my fingers to his cold neck, he started awake, spluttering water out of his mouth and nose. His eyes were pale blue and glossy like pearls, glazed over as if he were blind. Yet he appeared to look right at us as he came to his senses.
“Water,” he said.
“Lucy, go get water. And a towel,” Ari ordered.
I ran up to the house—beachfront, so not far—and brought back a bottle of water and a beach towel. Ari was talking to the boy now, who still lay on his stomach in the sand.
“What’s your name? Do you remember?”
“Sen,” he said.
“Sen? Just Sen?” She motioned frantically for me to hand her the items, which I did. She threw the towel over him first and then opened the water bottle. “Here. Drink.”
He propped himself up a little more and guzzled the entire bottle, spilling half of it into the sand. “Thank you.”
“What happened? Were you capsized?” Ari asked.
He drew the towel around him as he sat up and shook his head. “Was swimming. Caught in the storm.”
“Yeah, but was there a boat?” she asked.
He shook his head again. I thought it had been a trick of the light, but he actually had silver hair. “No boat. I live in the cliffs.” He motioned in the general direction of the bay, its granite cliffs wrapping around the coast like a gated fortress.
My eyes went wide. “That’s you? We knew—”
“You’re the one who lives in the caves,” Ari interjected. “The one we’ve been looking for.”
“Not me anymore,” he said. “Not after that.” He brought his hands to his head as if it hurt.
“You’re a soul-searcher, aren’t you?” I said before I could stop it. He looked up at me but said nothing.
“Lucy, don’t be ridiculous,” Ari snapped. “He’s probably just in shock. Come on, let’s get him to the house.”
We managed to get him up and kind of walking, supported between us as we led him to the house and dumped him onto the living room couch. I went upstairs to look for some clothes for him, something unisex. I settled on plaid pajama pants and my dad’s old Stonington High t-shirt. When I brought it down to him, he was asleep, so I left them sitting on the coffee table.
Ari sat in the driftwood-colored easy chair adjacent to the couch, staring at Sen in deep thought. Mom was at work, which meant we had approximately eight hours to think of a good explanation. But that’s not what was on Ari’s mind.
“If he’s actually a soul-searcher, you have to let me take the wish,” she finally said.
I crossed my arms over my chest. “I thought you didn’t believe in those ‘ridiculous’ folktales.”
“Yeah, but, you saw him. He looks exactly like how Grandma described them. And he’s weird. And he’s been living in the caves. If he’s not a soul-searcher, then what is he?” She didn’t wait for me to answer. “I need this wish, Luce. I need it so bad.”
“How do you know we don’t both get one?”
“In the stories, sometimes a group of people would find one, and it was still one wish. They’d wish for peace in the village or a good harvest or something. One wish. One.”
She wasn’t wrong. One sleep, one wish.
“What would you wish for?” I asked.
“I don’t know yet,” she said. “I’d have to think about it.”
“Do I get any input?”
She gave me her trademark look of doubt. “I already know what you’d say.”
“Not worth it.”
All will to argue evaporated with those three words.
Sen slept for the rest of the day. When Mom came home, we told her he was a friend and that we’d been out swimming. It was a hard sell—the water was about sixty degrees this time of year, which was normal for early summer in Maine—but she bought it.
I got up early in the morning, as per usual. Ari slept in until noon in the summers, so she had no idea how early I rose. The mornings were mine.
This morning, I thanked God more than ever for it—Sen was awake when I came downstairs, sitting on the couch with his head in his hands. He’d dressed in my pajamas. He looked up at me and smiled.
“Thank you for the clothes,” he said.
“Don’t mention it,” I said, sitting in the easy chair next to him. Muted, blue light filtered through the west-facing windows of the living room. You could see the ocean from here, sparkling like crisp, sky-colored champagne.
“You’re a quiet one,” he said.
“Am I? I guess so.” I had to get the focus off of me. “So… how are you feeling?”
He smirked. “Been better. But that’s not the question you want to ask me, is it?”
I hadn’t expected that. “Are you really… a soul-searcher?”
“I’ve never heard it called that, but yes.”
“Is it true that you grant wishes?”
He looked down at his hands. “Yes. One wish, for saving me. What would you like?”
I faltered. “Oh, um… well, you see, it’s Ari’s decision.”
He gave me a puzzled look. “Why? You’re the one who woke me up.”
“Yes, but,” I sighed, “she needs it more than I do.”
He got up and walked to the window to look out at the sea. Silhouetted against the dawn light, his lean frame became more defined, a lithe sea creature that moved with the currents, bending but never breaking. He turned to face me. “You’re lying.”
“No, I’m not.” I averted his gaze, his sea glass eyes that were somehow both unfocused and precise.
“You know, the stories tend to leave out the part about soul-searchers being able to read thoughts. Maybe that’s scary to humans. They don’t like the idea of something poking around up there.”
I stood up from my chair. “You can read my mind?”
“Not everything. Just the truths.” He walked back over to me and stood just inches from my face. “I know that not only do you not believe your sister needs it, but that you don’t actually want the thing you’d wish for.”
My pulse quickened. “You don’t know that,” I whispered.
“I know what you really want,” he said gently. His breath smelled like the sea as he leaned into my ear. “You want to disappear.”
I leaned away from him. I’d never told anyone that. It was so phenomenally selfish and petty that I’d buried it deep down where I hoped no one would ever find it, especially myself. And here was this mythical being telling it to me like it was written all over my face.
“I understand,” he said. “If there’s anything I’ve learned in my lifetime, it’s that you people value your secrets.”
“Not so secret anymore.” I lowered myself to the couch and watched him stare sidelong at the sea, caught somewhere between regret and longing. “Sen?”
He looked at me. “Yes?”
“Why were you on the beach?”
He sat down beside me, rubbing his palms against the plaid flannel of the pajama pants. “Can I tell you a secret?” Chuckling, he added, “Seems only fair, after all.”
It was something about the way he’d said it. Like he was looking for an excuse to confide in me. “Of course.”
“During the storm, I threw myself into the ocean on purpose. I wanted to die.”
I couldn’t imagine something so otherworldly flung around by the ocean, begging for death. “Why?” I asked.
“I’m the last of my kind.” He shrugged. “I got desperate. I was tired of feeling like I had no purpose. But I guess—obviously, the sea wasn’t ready to claim me. She spat me back up and said, ‘You want a purpose? Go find one.’”
“We can’t be it,” I said. “We just happened to be there. We just want our wish.”
“Do you? If I walked out that door right now, would you stop me? Would you tie me down and hold me hostage until I gave it up?”
“Ari might,” I half-joked.
“I’m not really a forceful person. So, no, probably not. You can leave if you want.” Though I really wished he wouldn’t.
I could tell he read that, because he grinned, his features elvish and wry. He put a hand over mine, and my fingers involuntarily flinched. “Would you like me to show you?”
“Show me what?”
“What disappearing feels like?”
“Promise, you still decide what to do with your wish. Give it to your sister, use it to restore your old life, the choice is yours.”
Maybe it was the ethereal glow of the morning and the way the light reflected off Sen’s silvery hair. Maybe it was how everything was tinted blue, augmented, dreamlike. Maybe I was just crazy. “Okay,” I said. “Show me.”
I really didn’t think about the fact that we hadn’t brought any diving equipment until after we were already out in the sailboat, but Sen didn’t seem worried in the slightest. Somehow this didn’t surprise me.
“Don’t need it,” he said. “I’ve done this hundreds of times.”
“How?” I asked, and then I remembered: “My grandmother used to say you were shapeshifters who’d turn into fish or dolphins.”
He laughed. “I wish. No, it’s much less glamorous than that. I’ll show you. Come with me.”
He took his borrowed shirt off. I blushed, even though I’d seen his sleek, almost pearlescent skin before. It was different now that we’d talked, now that he knew things about me. He dove into the water in just the pajama pants and seemed completely unfazed by the temperature, which was probably about fifty degrees. The kind of water you only swim in if you’re crazy. Or a local. Or both.
“Come on in,” he said when he resurfaced. “That water’s great!”
“Bullshit,” I retorted as I lowered myself into the water, wincing as the cold sucked the air right out of my lungs. I waited for my body to adjust before finally letting go of the boat.
Sen swam up to me and smiled. “Ready?”
“Follow me.” He ducked under, as did I, and when I opened my eyes he was in front of my face, his pale skin luminescent with the reflection of the water, his hair soft and buoyant. And maybe it was just a trick of the light, but were his hands and feet… webbed?
“I’m going to show you how to disappear,” he said, his voice unnaturally clear. Ari and I used to make a game of it, shouting things at each other underwater and trying to translate. This was as understandable as his voice had been in our living room.
I wasn’t really sure how I was supposed to respond, nor how I was supposed to react when he proceeded to kiss me and at the same time blow air into my mouth as if I needed resuscitation—though it couldn’t be air, he’d talked it all out of his lungs, hadn’t he?
“Now, breathe,” he instructed.
What? You are crazy! I thought, making a face to match.
He laughed. “I promise it’ll be okay. Just breathe. I’m doing it. The air I gave you will dissolve if you don’t start breathing.”
He was right—he did appear to be breathing water. I hadn’t known that about soul-searchers. I thought they lived by the sea, not in it.
With a new urgency, he said, “Lucy, breathe!”
I’m going to die, I thought as I took in water through the nose. At first it felt like someone had shoved a breathing tube up my nasal passage, like I was being put on life support. Then it went down my throat and into my lungs, where it felt like congestion, the backend of a cold. I coughed a steam of bubbles, and all the while I thought, I’m going to die. Go up. Get out of here. Get air.
Then, the second breath: this one was different. It felt like thick air, like a sauna without the heat, like the swell of the air currents before a storm. I inhaled again, breathed water, and suddenly I felt liberated. Warmer, even. I smiled. Sen smiled back.
“Wow,” I said, my own voice now clear and audible. “How is this possible?”
“Couldn’t really tell you,” he said with a smirk. “I’m not a scientist.”
I laughed and started swimming, basking in this new, exciting state of being. The waters were calm, crystal blue, dancing and commiserating with the sunlight above us. We stopped near a rocky formation jutting out from the bottom of a cliff and rested.
I could get used to this. I could disappear.
“You still have to surface from time to time,” said Sen. “But so do I. But the longer you’re under, the more you get used to it. In time, you wouldn’t need me at all.”
I looked at him to see what sort of expression accompanied that statement. To my pleasant surprise, it was disappointment.
“I wouldn’t leave you,” I said.
He smiled. “So what do you think? Is this what you want?”
I looked around at the stark, glittering serenity of the ocean and considered it. It would be so easy. Too easy. I’d dreamt about the day I’d leave for so long, having it suddenly placed in front of me brought into sharp relief an uncomfortable fact: if I did, I’d be no better than Dad. What did I have to run from aside from responsibility?
But at the same time, I didn’t want this to end. I didn’t want Sen to go away.
“I know what to wish for,” I said. I told it to him without speaking, and he smiled.
“That’s an interesting wish,” he said. “Are you sure about it?”
“One-hundred percent,” I said, and took his hand in mine.