By Shelly Jones
Dar sat in her room and waited for the waters to come. The alarms blared in the distance, swelling over the valley, alerting the townspeople to evacuate if they hadn’t already. Dar wondered about the animals. What would the rabbits and chipmunks do as millions of gallons of water flooded the area, held back by the newly built retaining walls Pop and the other local men had helped build. Would they know to move, or simply slip into their holes only to discover a watery world above when they tried to resurface? Would that be her, Dar wondered, a tiny being regretting its decisions to burrow away? No, she decided, and sank further down the wall into the floorboards, wrapping a frayed comforter around her. The waters would be here soon and she would be happy to see them.
Pop had packed up the house, but Dar had refused to let him touch her room, preferring she select which knickknacks to store, which to keep in the water with her. Even then she had known she couldn’t leave. That there was no life for her beyond Neversink. Not now.
Dar sat in the corner of her room where her desk had been. She could see the indentations in the wood, mapping out the missing bedposts and nightstand, the floorboards discolored where the sun had blanched them. She had never seen her room empty before and she recoiled at its hollowness, how the slightest noise like her shoe scuffing or a mouse chittering within the wall, echoed. It was as though she were already in a watery cave, a grotto all her own. She imagined herself like a character in one of the pulp magazine stories she liked to buy at Mr. Sullivan’s shop. The characters were always finding themselves alone in a strange world, or a distant planet, navigating foreign terrain, surviving the elements. That would be her now, she realized, hoping she were as clever as the pulp heroes, as brave.
She had been buying a new magazine when she felt it, a tail sprouting from her back. It erupted from her with a rush and she gasped, backing up into the rack of magazines. From behind the counter, Mr. Sullivan stared at her over his spectacles, brow furrowed, gray whiskers twitching on his chin.
“Everything all right?” he called over to her. She pressed her hand on the small of her back and felt a lump sticking out from her spine, a bulge beneath her dress where the zipper started. She tried to think of a lie, her fingers still holding her page in the pulp magazine, a woman scaling a red dune stretched across the glossy cover.
“Yes, sir,” she swallowed, and replaced the magazine in its holster. “My seam split, I think. It needs mending. Sorry,” she managed, face flushed and shuffled toward the door, her back hidden from view, her hand still pressed against the bulge.
He nodded and glanced down at the counter, letting her pass. “Your ma will fix that. She’s handy with a needle. Just like her ma,” Mr. Sullivan called out as Dar slipped out the door, the bell jingling, drowning out his words.
When she came home, Dar feigned sick and went to her room. She pushed the desk chair in front of the door, so her parents couldn’t come in. Stripping off her dress, she took the little hand mirror her mom had given her for her thirteenth birthday and examined her back. The bulge looked like a fish tail, a forked bit of flesh that stuck out from her. She tried to poke at it and realized she could feel her finger with the fin. Panic knotted her stomach and sweat pricked at her scalp as she stared at the protrusion. She lay in bed and wept for hours, sometimes feeling for her back, to see if it were real, if it were still a part of her. Sometimes she wondered if she should show her mom, but the thought of the worry, or worse, horror, on her face was something Dar knew she would never forget. In the quiet dark of the house, she could hear her parents in their bedroom talking.
“It’s probably her time of the month,” her mother whispered to Pop. “I’ll check on her in the morning.” Pop had grunted some reply, but Dar couldn’t hear it. Her head pounded from her sobs, her throat raw. She fell asleep in a puddle of her tears and dreamed of her escape.
The alarms still blared in the distance, and Dar imagined her parents driving toward the school a few miles away, the pick-up truck overflowing with furniture and boxes tied down with rope. They had told her to wait for them in the schoolyard, that they’d pick her up once they were finished packing before driving to her uncle’s hunting cabin, where they would live for a few months while they searched for a new home. Pop had plans of building a new cabin for them, but the work on the reservoir had battered his back, and Dar doubted a new cabin would ever be built. Dar had agreed to the plan, but when the school bell rang dismissing classes, she had slipped through the woods and taken the back roads home. She watched her parents from a tree as they packed up the last of the house. Her mom folded the quilt her grandmother had stitched for their wedding and placed it gently across her lap as she settled into the truck. Pop tightened the ropes and took a last look at the house, the porch steps sagging, the paint chipping under the eaves, mold gathering on the roof in spots. He climbed into the truck, kissed mom, and they headed down the driveway. As Dar dropped down to the ground and watched them turn onto the county road, she thought for a moment Pops had seen her in his mirror, thought she saw his gray eyes grow wide at the sight of her. But the truck continued down the road, dirt billowing in its wake, and she slunk toward the house. He hadn’t locked the door, but that wasn’t unusual, she realized. Besides, who was going to risk drowning in order to steal their leftover wares, Dar thought. No one. Except her.
Dar slumped against the baby blue walls of her room with a thud. She could feel the tail growing longer beneath her, curling around her legs beneath her skirt.
“They told us you were going to be a boy.” She remembered her mom explaining, half-apologizing for the blue paint one day when Dar was around eleven. “We could repaint it someday if you want,” she had offered. And Dar had watched her pop’s eyeroll, imagining the cost and the hassle of repainting her room. But Dar had always liked the color, feeling a kind of peace wash over her when she stared at the walls, like laying in a field and staring up at the sky. The walls expanded outward, and reassured her of all the possibilities that lay beyond the room, beyond her home, beyond Neversink. Dar wasn’t sure any other color could do that. Certainly not the pink her mother had suggested one day. Dar had said nothing, and the discussion of painting her room never came up again.
Dar could hear the water in the distance, like a swarm of bees reverberating through the forest. Soon, she thought. She was looking forward to the water, feeling it all around her, finally being alone in its depths. She wondered what it would be like to swim above the houses, rooftops sticking up from the bottom of the reservoir like crooked teeth. She would float above them, the way she had once in a dream, flying across town toward the river, escaping at last. How often had she wanted to swim in puddles, or float down her muddy county road after a downpour, only to be locked away by words like “lady-like” or “proper”?
She swished her tail and let it drum against the walls, calling the water to her.
Dar wondered if her mom noticed the missing knife, the one she had taken from the kitchen drawer. She had slid it beneath the loose floorboard in her room beneath the desk, where she had kept secret odds and ends: a brick-colored stone smoothed soft from the river, a ribbon from girl named Margaret in her class, and a dried lilac, its tiny florets brittle and cracked. She had laid the knife there and made her Pop promise not to pack up her room. She would do it herself, she had insisted. “Save your back,” she finally said and Pop smiled and rubbed his spine against the door jam like a bear against a tree trunk.
Now, Dar held the knife in her hand, the skin on her bare arm scaling. She wondered how long she could wait, how long she could breathe underwater before she’d need to do it, before she’d need gills. She opened her door, her windows, and stood with the knife against her neck. The roar of the water was louder than the alarms now, she realized. Dar wondered if her parents were still waiting at the school, if they had turned back only to be waved away by police and fire trucks blocking the road to the reservoir. Were they calling for her in the school yard, searching the woods where she spent hours playing? Had they known she ever played there? Had they known what she ever did when she wasn’t with them?
The scales were sprouting along her skin now, iridescent in the sun that shone through her bedroom windows. They shimmied azure and tourmaline like the sequins of a dancer’s dress she had seen once in a magazine. Dar smiled, imagining herself swimming in the reservoir, her body lithe and pearly, glinting in the light. She wondered if the townsfolk would come looking for her, if they would recognize her as that awkward local girl who hid behind the magazine rack and spent hours in the river searching for crawfish, the hem of her dress discolored from the mud. Would her parents see her, fins bristling in the waters Pop had corralled, building a new home for her?
Dar could feel the water coming, a wave of cool air prickling her face. “Storm’s coming,” her Pop used to say when the air smelled electric, the wind promising rain. She imagined running through the woods in a rainstorm, her toes squishing through the mud, her hair falling around her in wet hanks.
Fins were sprouting along her arms now, and they twitched, eager for the water. She dropped the knife with a clang on the dank floorboards. Gills fileted her neck scales and she flexed them, aching for the water to fill her up, to devour her and this old room, her old life.
Dar waited, breathless. And then, all at once, she was finally home.
Shelly Jones (she/they) is a Professor of English at a small college in upstate New York, where she teaches classes in mythology, folklore, and writing. Her speculative work has previously appeared in Podcastle, New Myths, The Future Fire, and elsewhere. Find them on Twitter.