Through the screen door, even from across the street, a mother’s voice could be heard telling her son to, “just get the mail, will you?”
The boy came bursting through after the voice, his face all knots of exasperation and what could’ve even been sadness. He’d yelled at his mom again, and he didn’t know why. They had just been having a normal conversation.
“How was your day?” she'd asked.
“It was alright. Nothing much happened.”
But then she brought up the fact that he’d skipped out on the entirety of fifth and sixth period.
“Where were you?”
And he’d blown up.
He could’ve told her that he’d skipped class to go with some friends to the 7-11 to buy sodas and snacks, then to the skate park to bum around and practice kick flips for like an hour, but how would she ever understand that? Instead, he’d just told her that it was none of her business and used a word that should’ve gotten him grounded for at least a week, but instead her mouth just got really tight and small.
Then she told him to get the mail.
The boy followed the concrete pathway that went straight from the front door to the mailbox, and made sure not to step on any of the cracks, because he wasn’t angry enough yet to risk putting his mom in the hospital. He jerked the mailbox’s door open and collected the small pile of bills and sales fliers. In among them, at the very top of the pile, in fact, was a white envelope with no return address or stamp, not even the name of who it was addressed to. He turned it over to see if there was anything on the other side. Nothing. It was entirely blank. And the envelope was a little heavy. He could feel something thin and inflexible inside it.
He ripped it open and pulled out the letter it contained. Something metal flashed as it slipped from the tri-folded sheet of paper and clinked off the cement street curb directly below the mailbox. Whatever it was went careening into the grass and he had to comb through the shaggy lawn to find it back again. It was a key. He didn’t know what it was for, so he put his attention back onto the letter.
Here’s what it said:
This will come as a surprise to you, but you are not what you seem. You are not who you think yourself to be. Your father is not your father.
If you wish to learn more, then take this key to the fitness center on the corner of Monticello and Pembroke and open the I-6 locker.
There, you’ll find the truth within.
You’re always in my thoughts,
The boy read the letter what must’ve been five times. Between sentences he kept looking around to see if anyone might jump out at him and tell him it was all a joke. The street and sidewalk around him was pretty dead, not a soul in sight, and if someone was watching they probably wanted him to follow along with the letter’s instructions before announcing it was all a prank. He shrugged. He could go along with it. For awhile at least.
He threw the rest of the mail back in the mailbox and began to walk the three blocks to the fitness center.
Unseen by him, a squat, heavily bearded figure unstuck itself from the tree it had been hiding behind and began to walk in the same direction as the boy did, on the opposite side of the street. Even to the casual observer, the figure moved strangely, as if its legs had far too many joints—or else they were simply boneless—and in its rush it kept putting a foot wrong and risked twisting an ankle. In fact, it should’ve broken both ankles multiple times over, but even when one of its shoes ended up facing the wrong direction it was able to right the error after a moment of considerable concentration. Other than that, the figure looked like any other middle-aged, epically-bearded man who had made it his past-time to follow a lone child over several city blocks.
The boy arrived at the fitness center and went inside, with the figure arriving a minute later to wait outside. The lockers were at the back of the building and the boy weaved his way through the gym equipment and overdeveloped bodies to get to them. Back here, there was the faint tang of stale body odor and unwashed workout clothes and tennis shoes barely broken in. He found I-6 easily and used the key to open it. Inside, there was just one of those cheapo, pay-by-the-minute flip-phones and another letter.
Good. You have not yet faltered in your quest to learn the truth.
My number is programmed into the phone. Call it.
The boy flipped the phone open and opened the contacts list. There was only one for him to call. He hit dial on it.
Outside the fitness center, the figure’s right pants pocket began to buzz. The figure pulled out it’s own phone, identical to the one the boy had just received, and answered:
Though they were only tens of feet away from one another, the boy’s voice came through tinny and small. “Who is this? Is this Mal? Funny joke, bro, why don’t you come out now?”
“This is your father,” the figure intoned in a deep voice.
“Yeah, sure you are. If this isn’t Mal, then who are you?”
“You may call me Henry. It’s as good a name as any.”
“…right. Look, if this treasure hunt is over, I would like to just head home now, alright?”
“What is your name?”
The boy was uncertain whether he wanted tell the voice his name. He posed the answer as a question, “Sam?”
“Sssss-am.” The voice savored the single syllable of the boy’s name. “You don’t know how happy it makes me to know this.”
“Seriously, who are you?”
“I want to tell you the story of your conception, Sam. I want you to finally realize what you are.”
“Nah, I already know that one. It’s pretty gross.”
“No, Sam, the true story.” The figure stared at the large, plate-glass windows of the fitness center, with its ghostly gym-goers drifting in and out through the glare of the day. “But not at this time. Not while you’re where you are now. We must meet in a special location for you to learn the truth.”
“You mean this scavenger hunt isn’t over yet?”
"No. But before you go there, you must first acquire something for me. For yourself.”
“What is it?”
Henry told him and ended the call.
He (Henry identified as a he, though the circumstances of his existence made the matter of his gender a bit nebulous) pocketed the phone and began to walk away from the fitness center, so that he wouldn’t be there when Sam exited. Now it was as though he was leading the boy onward toward their next destination. To keep himself occupied during his wobbly-legged ambling, he went over in his mind not the boy’s conception, not yet, but his own.
This happened probably around two hundred years or so ago: Henry’s mother had traveled downstream in the river that was her home. She didn’t understand why she was doing this, just that something kept calling her on. It was many miles that she traveled. “It was as if there was a voice in my head that I couldn’t hear,” she’d told him, so many times that the exact cadence of her words were forever burned into his brain. Words world-weary in her mouth, gnashed by the knowledge of what would come next. “Each morning I awoke from the nest I’d made in the mud and traveled onward. And each night I laid down again with the surety that I had not come yet to where the voice was meant to be.” It was at this time that Henry’s father was also on a journey that he could not explain.
Henry never knew his father, so what details he had about the creature came only from his mother, who only knew him for a few blissful days. But she assured him that his saltwater-good-looks all came from his dad, while his brain and sensitivities came from her. The two of them had met at the estuary of his mother’s river. His father had traveled hundreds of nautical miles to arrive there to be with her. His father had heard the same silent voice calling to him, and it was love-at-first-sight (though that could’ve merely been an embellishment on his mother’s part). In any case, they'd spent three days together there, where the muddy waters flowed out to sea. An injection of aqua pura from melting snows flowing into the salt-stirring currents of the ocean. They made love to one another again and again and again (which, yes, he was with Sam on this one, that’s a pretty gross thing to tell your kid about).
But in the end, they were merely star-crossed lovers, and his mother, a naiad who could only survive in the freshwater of a river, and his father, a triton who could do no less than the same in the salty sea, had no choice but to go their separate ways.
So what did that make Henry? He wasn’t quite sure. But if he had to pick, he would call himself a naiad because he was born and raised in the river. Except, everyone knows that naiads are female and he was far too bearded and brusque to pass as a female. And a naiad’s entire raison d’être is to seduce men and drown them in the river’s waters; and, while times have certainly changed over the years, he’d had little luck doing this himself. Thus, he’d chosen to see himself as male and considered the matter sorted.
Breaking from his reverie, he saw that he, and soon Sam as well, had arrived at their next destination. It was just a small, locally-owned grocer’s, but it was the nearest place where one could buy raw fish fresh-caught the day before, if not the morning of. Henry lined up at the fish counter and Sam ended up a few people behind him. The naiad bought a trout for himself and, as the fishmonger wrapped his purchase in butcher paper, had a quick, whispered conversation with the man before moving away. He’d told Sam to pick out whatever fish drew his attention most. He was happy to see that the boy chose a healthy-looking perch, which had been his favorite as a boy as well.
When Sam tried to pay at the register he was told that it had already been covered by the man who had come before. Sam looked all around to see if he could identify who this was, if he could put a face to Henry’s name. But the naiad had already exited the grocer’s, and was now ringing Sam up on the cheapo phone.
“Yeah?” Sam spoke into the phone.
“You picked well, Sam. I can’t wait to share a meal with you for the first time.”
“You expect me to eat this? We’re going to cook it first, right?”
“Sam, Sam, Sammy, have you not had sushi?”
“Yes. Once. I hated it.”
Henry couldn’t help but be displeased by this answer, but he said, “Well, maybe you just haven’t had the proper experience of sushi yet.”
“I doubt it.” Sam huffed into the other end of the phone, exasperated by the goose chase this Henry-person was leading him on. “Alright, where to next? Don’t tell me you’re going to take me to a comedy club.”
“No, even bet— Wait, why a comedy club?”
“I don’t know. Maybe you want me to get up on stage and slap myself with this fish.”
“No. Now, as I was saying, we are about to meet in the most glorious place a father and his son could ever meet.”
It had happened one night about fourteen years ago. Henry had been idly swimming back and forth through the river’s waters, thinking to tire himself out before sinking to the bottom to rest for the night, when a shrieking woman appeared. It wasn’t the kind of shrieking a horror-movie aficionado might expect to hear in the middle of the night, but the kind a child would utter while being spun on a merry-go-round. The woman came running straight to the river’s edge. As she went she discarded her clothes left and right before appearing as a naked blur diving into the water. Henry regarded this display from his vantage point only thirty feet away.
The woman surfaced and called, “Jeremy? You coming?”
Henry didn’t know it, but this woman was a newly-wed, and Jeremy was her newly-minted husband. This was their wedding night, and they’d decided to have a little fun by sneaking down the river to do a little spawning under the cover of night.
But Jeremy didn’t appear.
And unknown to both of them: Jeremy had celebrated a little too much. He was, at that moment, laid passed out on the floor of the couple’s honeymoon suite in their riverside hotel.
“Jeremy? Where are you?” she called again.
Henry realized that this was maybe his one and only opportunity to fulfill his destiny as a naiad. So he rose from water and let out a loud bark of laughter he hoped was a close approximation of Jeremy’s.
The woman turned around and saw him there behind her. She examined him for moment, her eyes just pinpricks of light in the dark. Henry risked coming closer to her.
Then a peal of laughter burst from her lungs and she began to splash him.
Soon he was upon her, pushing her beneath the surface of the water, and allowing her pull the two of them back up.
“No, no, no, no, haha! Stop it! I think there’s a fish swimming between my legs! Stop!”
Their lips locked before they went under again and she breathed air into him, which he sucked at greedily. Then, not wanting this moment to end too soon, he changed his mind and blew the air back into her again.
“Hey,” she said when he allowed the two of them to surface once more. She whispered, “Let’s move over to the shore.”
He followed her lead and the two of them entered the shallows, where a drowning was still achievable, but not without audible thrashing.
Not that it was the kind of thrashing he found himself then doing. 'Mother nature finds a way' and afterward he found himself so spent that he no longer had any desire to drag her out into the depths again.
She leapt up from where the two of them had lain and began gathering her clothes. “Race you back!” she announced. “Then, maybe we can have a repeat performance, huh?”
She took off. That was the last he saw of her.
Now, fourteen years later, he was here at an aquarium with their offspring, and he was about to show the boy everything that he was. Henry stood beside a large tank of freshwater fish. He’d briefly phoned Sam and told the boy to meet him there.
The naiad kicked off his shoes and revealed the tips of tentacles. He removed his pants and to show more of the same. A naiad at heart, but a sea-centaur, a triton, in appearance. As soon as his shirt was gone he gripped the lip of the tank and pulled himself up and over. This is how he wanted to appear when his son saw him for the first time, in all of his unmasked glory.
He settled into an awe-striking pose and waited for Sam to come into view.
Sam, meanwhile, wended his way through the various aquatic exhibits. He hadn’t wanted to think about it earlier, but since this Henry-person had brought it up, he found himself repeating in his mind the story his mom had told him about his conception.
He wanted to be able to arrange his facts against any Henry might tell him.
According to his mom, she found out she was pregnant with him about two-and-half months after she'd married Sam’s dad. They had been (and this was the gross part) going at it like jackrabbits ever since their wedding night, hoping to conceive. But up until her wedding night she'd been on the pill, because she hadn’t wanted an “oopsie” before she was a married woman. She was old-fashioned like that, she’d said.
Would his mom cheat on his dad?, he wondered. He didn't think so—her being old-fashioned and all. But what did he understand of adult relationships? Still, things weren't adding up for him. He hoped, of course, that this Henry-guy was wrong and he'd gotten the wrong kid or something.
Oh well, he’d know soon enough. The freshwater wing of the aquarium was coming up just now. And the tank beside which he and Henry were supposed to meet was almost in view.