The steel dome was freezing cold.
An opening in the ceiling weeped light into the structure below, allowing hairlike strands of mist to dangle inside. Below, the meandering confines of an immense glass tank were scratched by a flurry of fingernails, seeming to pulse and quiver before the eyes.
A clump of matted grey fur fizzled down from above, suffusing the air with the scent of musk and decay.
I inhaled deeply, feeling the hot flush of oxygen in my gills, and placed one claw on the skylight. The upper reaches of the dome lurked above the water’s surface, distorted and dazzlingly bright. A carpet of algae flaked under my touch, expelling a salty aroma.
I wound my body around the banister rimming the tank, my reflection splintered like shards of glass in the steel’s surface.
I thrashed my tail, lunging upward with such vigor that the water smacked me in reproach. A swarm of bubbles tickled my nostrils, and I scrambled at the glass for a handhold, lunging repeatedly for the surface.
My claw caught on a metal protrusion, just as my tail got tangled in the strands of seaweed that resembled dreadlocks on an aquatic goddess.
A flurry of bubbles hissed as I crashed back into the water, the frigid metal of the tank kissing my spine.
I could just make out the outline of a ladder above, the rafters sagging underneath its weight.
Trepidation oozed down through the skylight, and I shivered, creeping downward with my belly scales catching on nubs of coral.
“Dammit!” I exclaimed, punching at the sand.
I closed my eyes, allowing the murk to engulf my vision as tendrils of seaweed tickled my feet.
“That was a success,” snapped a familiar voice.
I peeled open my outer eyelids, sighing in a puff of bubbles. The current sent a flurry of anxiety through my stomach.
“Hiya, Vy!” Kel darted forward and grasped my front claws, her cornflower eyes sparkling. She leaned in to bump her snout on mine, and I felt my heart leap up and down, bouncing in my throat. “Soooooo… find anything?”
A smile crept slowly over my snout. “There’s a handle.”
Kel grabbed my arm, her tail whipping from side to side. “An escape route!”
“It wouldn’t open.”
“Cause you’re a weakling, or cause it’s locked?”
I punched her shoulder, and she beamed ever wider, gently swishing her frills to clear away the kelp.
“I think…” I tried to remember the flashing memory lurking behind my eyelids, that second when I could see above the fractured surface. “I think there’s a lock…”
Kel’s shoulders slumped.
“… but there’s a ladder above the skylight! So that must be how -”
“The Inspectors arrive!” She crossed cobalt arms over a muscled torso, making my eye twitch.
After a beat of silence, she asked, “What, you don’t want to leave?”
“I mean… I wanted to know if it was even possible…”
“Cool, now we know. Let’s leave! This place gives me the heebie-jeebies.”
I chuckled. “Yeah.”
She peered at me, long and hard. “You’re afraid of those fools on the surface? Think we’ll be chopped up for sashimi?”
“I mean… look at us! We aren’t human, that’s for sure!”
She stared at my expansive ribcage strung with curtain-like frills, and my turquoise scales flecked with silver and opal.
“Looks mighty fine to me,” she murmured, and a hot flush crept down my neck.
“Kel… I want to leave, I really, really do. But -”
“Hey, I get it,” she insisted, reaching for my claws. Shafts of light tinkled across her scales, making my head feel fuzzy. “Listen – we’ll wear capes and wigs, makeup, sneak out at night, stick to the coasts-”
“And if we’re caught?”
“We’ll be trading one prison for another!” I massaged my scalp, sighing.
“Hey – chill! There’s nothing wrong with us – people will just have to deal. Listen, we’re not freaks. Whatever that Inspectress tells you -”
“Kel… I can’t do this anymore. I want to be better… I can’t stand being so alone-”
“Guess I don’t count as company.” Kel arrowed away, a fizzling trail of bubbles blinding me in her wake.
“Hey, I didn’t mean it like that!”
I thrashed my tail and paddled after her.
The emerald-tinted waters of the kelp forest withdrew their tendrils, revealing a seabed peppered with garden eels and coral stubs, shrouded in sapphire scarfs.
“Kel!” I called. “Kel, please…”
But her sleek silhouette vanished behind a cobalt curtain, and I let myself drift limply down to the seabed.
I ran my claws through plumes of sand, feeling each granule wedge and dislodge under my talons. The current wound gently around my body like layers of cloth, which shifted gently from side to side.
I fluttered my frills, kicking up a hailstorm of sediment that left trails of grit over my back.
Sometimes I wish I could bury myself in the sand.
I stared upward, at that far-off skylight wavering in its halo of sunlight.
How long it’s been since I’ve seen the sun…
Bouncing on a cloud of anticipation…
The embrace of leathery arms…
The cloying odor of melting asphalt, sticking in taffy-like strands to my heels…
Retreating to a back alley with his knuckled hand grasping mine, the hiss and chatter of neon lights like swarms of locusts…
His hand slipping beneath my prom dress, the fabric fluttering away like autumn leaves spooked by frost…
Standing slack-jawed as a serpentine tail extended…
As my lips, once held delicately against a man’s, slipped beneath scales…
And my clothing, which had cloaked my twisted form, shredded and discarded as my chest contracted to fill the expanse of my lungs…
And those gentle brown eyes white with revulsion…
Heart-stuttering sirens and blaring lights as I was slammed against a dumpster…
Betrayal and broken contracts, bloody crosses and calls for liberty that fell on the blind eye of justice…
The intercom crackled to life beside me, and my eyes snapped open.
“Kayla and Veronica, please stand by,” it hissed.
I rose up, dusted off residual grit, and smoothed my frill repeatedly. Kel materialized at my side.
Two sets of boots rattled across the skylight, fracturing the light and making us both wince. I glanced sideways at Kel, who flicked her tail dismissively.
“Please proceed to the Inspection.”
My claws shaking, I swam upwards towards the two shimmering figures. There was a mechanical hiss as the skylight descended into the water, the glass tank situated above it insulating the Inspectors from the watery depths of our home.
Kel shifted, reaching out to grab my talons. I silently squeezed her claw. She still refused to meet my gaze.
There was a moment of stillness as the dark eyes of the Inspectors scanned our malformed bodies, pencils clutched in white-knuckled fists.
“I see that you have made no progress in curtailing your physicality,” the male Inspector barked. “Take your hands off her at once!”
We stared at him in silence. I dug my talons into my palm.
“Very well.” He scribbled furiously on his clipboard, sweat gleaming on his brow. He sniffed. “I must inform you that I am extremely disappointed in your failure to comply with our program. Physical affection between patients is expressly prohibited.”
“Please, darling!” whispered the Inspectress. “Don’t be so hard on the poor thing… This is a learning process, and we need to encourage healthier choices with delicacy-”
Kel dug her talons into my palm and blurted, “You think we chose this?”
The Inspector’s lips stretched into a pale, thin line. “Dismissed.”
“I’m not leaving Vy alone with you people!”
“You will let go of Veronica this instant. And you would do damn well to respect those who feed and house you!”
“Please,” the Inspectress beseeched, her face putrid pink and pulsating. “Please, Veronica. Do this for me.”
“Ke-Kayla,” I murmured, withdrawing my claw from her grip. “Listen to the Inspectors.”
Shards of glass prickled in my throat, slicing my words into jagged edges and piercing tongues. Kel glanced over her shoulder, and then slowly pressed her forehead into mine, breathing deeply. She withdrew before I could muster the courage to grab her wrist and croak out my fear, to shatter the monolith of silence between us.
“What a sore disappointment.” The Inspector whirled on his heel and ascended up the rusted ladder, vaporizing into the sunlight above, leaving the Inspectress wilting in her white coat.
She pressed her face up against the glass, her features rippling and distorted, an obscene grimace curdling her smile. Tears and mucus smeared the glass as her bubble-gum chapstick burbled with saliva. Her lips parted, and I flinched.
But all she said was, “What has happened to you, my beautiful baby?”
“Mom… please don’t -”
“You were such a sweet child,” she sniffled. “Why did you reject the wonderful life you could have had? The pearly wedding dress and pillared cake, the peach-cheeked child bawling in a cradle… ”
“That was never what I-”
“Do you not care about our family? Do you not respect my wishes? Do you not remember the years that I wasted raising you, shielding you, granting you the armor that I have labored through life wearing?”
“I can’t abandon her!” I blurted. “Kel… she’s the only other -”
“You would choose that thing over your own mother?”
“How could I-”
“I warned you to stay far away from that girl! She was the first to develop that heinous affliction anyway! Wandering around with her talons on full display – I should have known then, I should have seen her for the monster she was, corrupting you with her condition-”
“It wasn’t -”
“They always go for the children – soft, innocent things without reason-”
“I grew gills LONG before I met Kel-”
“Then it must be my fault you ended up like this?” Her eyes darted about the tank, her spine contorted and hunched. “I must not have sanitized your bedsheets at night… I must have exposed you to the ocean air too early … inflicted some sort of trauma -”
“It’s not your fault,” I whispered. “It’s no one’s fault, really – I’m just… me.”
“But there has to be SOMETHING!” Her mascara was sticking in tar-like clumps to the glass. “You are – most people are not -”
“What do you want me to do, mom?” My voice cracked. “You can’t fix me. You can’t hide me. You can’t keep me in this aquarium forever -”
I reached out a claw and pressed it against the glass, and she raised swollen eyes to mine. She smiled slightly, and she reached out to press her hand across from mine… until I spread my talons, revealing the webbing between each spindly finger.
She burst into tears, her face swollen with rolls of fat and woe-betide wrinkles.
I recoiled, my frill twitching erratically. I could feel my heart rattling my ribcage. “Please, mom! Just let us go. You’ll never have to see me again, you can live a normal life-”
“If you really loved me you would try harder to change!” she wailed, crumpling in on herself, varicose veins throbbing through her porcelain skin. There was a snot-streaked pause as she awaited my reply.
The water teemed with my silence.
The Inspectress bowed her head. Her white coat was stained with streaks of reddish grime. She pulled a lever, and the skylight slowly ascended to its original position with an oily sigh.
I buried my face in my talons, my shoulders quivering uncontrollably. “KEL!” I screamed into the abyss. I whirled around, blinded by bubbles, thrashing desperately as briny tears dissipated into the depths. I slammed my eyes shut, feeling a scarlet pulse pounding in my skull, panic engulfing me.
Warmth suddenly embraced me from behind. “I’m here! Vy, I’m right here…”
“Oh, Kel,” I sighed, leaning into her soft embrace. I peeled open my eyelids, and she stroked my cheek with one gentle thumb. “I’m so, so sorry.”
Her eyes sparkled. “I can’t believe you share half your DNA with that bitch!”
I laughed weakly. We wobbled there together, our hearts thumping in tandem to an unseen melody. I closed my eyes again, the darkness that cloaked my vision now soft and starlike, a silky veil that painted over the pain.
“Heeeey, pssst!” Kel whispered into my ear. “Vy!” I heard the metallic clink of steel.
“Shhh… let’s just stay like this for a second.”
We swayed into silence again.
“So, thing is…” she coughed. “Listen – I tried to bury myself in the sand after our little convo-”
“Oh my god-”
“But just when I thought for SURE I’d suffocate – I found these.”
My eyes blinked open.
She spun a keychain on one finger, her eyes bright as an evening star.
“And after that catastrophe – don’t you think it’s time? That woman will never be-”
I shushed her gently. “I get it, Kel. Let’s get out of this place.”
We stared at each other for a twilight moment.
The keys to the skylight winked at us, flashing their jagged, imperfect edges.
And then we rocketed upwards, two gleaming pillars of froth and bubbles that burst through the surface and leapt through the skylight, the keys clicking against the scarred glass.
Fresh air buffeted our scales, sunlight suffusing our vision with pearly pain. Water oozed off us, vaporized in the sun-warmed steel of the dome that had obscured our sky.
Kel’s soothing presence was honey on my sore soul, and I munched on a mouthful of fresh air in delight. I tilted my head upwards, and saw, for a split second, an opalescent sphere beaming behind morning mist.
“Kel… Kel, LOOK!”
“I can’t believe it.”
We stared at the sky and its tissue-paper clouds.
“Kel. It’s the ocean.”
And there it was, a vast stretch of milky blue in the distance, frothing with felicity.
“Oh… it’s beautiful.”
She turned, beaming at me. “It really, really is.”
We sat, and stared, in contented silence.
I’ve seen the sea, its undulating embrace teeming with swarms of minnows, its briny depths and silvered quiet.
I’ve heard tales of the scaled tails and finned fingers that welcome the weary and embrace the disgraced in the depths – wanderers darting through sapphire sound.
I’ll swim out to sea, I’ll swim out to see, I’ll swim and see and soar with Kel.
Kika is an aspiring scientist, poet, and political activist. She delights in exploring the natural world, writing poetry, studying microbiology, cooking, and drinking chamomile tea.