The alarm clock was ringing. Mia opened her eyes woozily. The lids were stuck together with sleep and her shirt was stuck to her with sweat. When she sat up, pixels gushed into her eyes and for a few moments all she could see was black. Then they slowly subsided and she stood up out of bed.
She stumbled to the bathroom and splashed cold water on her face. She felt much more refreshed after that.
In the afternoon, when she came home from school, her limbs felt heavy and she wanted nothing but a hot shower. Was she more tired than usual? On second thoughts… no. This was just the normal aftermath of a school day.
The next day was the same. When she woke up, she felt drained and far from refreshed. But washing her face made her feel a whole heap better. As the day progressed, she began to feel more and more tired. When the bell rang for lunch, she instinctively followed her feet into the bathroom where she stumbled to the sink and slopped handfuls of water on her face. Immediately, her drooping eyelids snapped up and she saw everything with a clearer focus. Her brain started spinning at normal speed again. She splashed more water on her face then washed her hands for a long time. She enjoyed the feeling of relief that flooded her when her skin came into contact with the cold, crisp water.
She took to giving her hands and face lengthy washings at every break time at school.
One time, Mia’s year level had a three-day camp.
The camp stood on the foothills of a tall mountain. One of the activities was a long hike up the mountain. She was having fun up till that point, enjoying the free time that the teachers were giving them, playing games with her friends and intersecting it all with frequent visits to the bathroom. But on the hike, there was no access to water. None but that in her drink bottle. Not even halfway to their destination, she had already used all of it to wash her hands and face. Now, there was nothing for her to drink or wash with. She began to feel sick and dizzy. She barely saw the breathtaking scenery to the left of the track that her friends pointed out to her, where the side of the mountain dropped down like a cliff. Her back ached. Her eyes blurred. Sweat dripped down from her forehead and dribbled into her eyes and mouth. The hot afternoon sun beat down on her back. Her legs got heavier and heavier. She held back vomit as the bile rose in her throat. Topping it all was a claustrophobic sensation of suffocation. She opened the lid of her bottle and tipped it upside down in desperation, hand cupped underneath. Nothing came out, not even the tiniest drop. Reaching their destination took an eternity.
Coming down again was slightly easier, but hell nonetheless. When they finally reached the bottom and the teachers dismissed them for free time again, she rushed into the bathroom and slapped handfuls of icy water on her face. The relief was exhilarating. She turned the tap on full and stood there with both hands underneath, water dripping from her face. She stood there for a long time, cool water streaming onto her hands. When she finally emerged outside again, her friends had already missed her.
“Where have you been?” they asked frantically, gathering around her. “You’ve been gone for so long! We’ve looked everywhere!”
“I – er – I had a stomachache,” she lied sheepishly, smiling in embarrassment.
She felt much better after the long trip to the bathroom. But it was a relief when camp ended. She couldn’t look at the mountain without feeling sick.
One day, Mia splashed her face and washed her hands at break time as usual but by the time the next class started, she already felt tired. She found it increasingly hard to concentrate and fell asleep near the end. It was around this time that she found that splashing her face with water at break times was not enough anymore. She spent her time in her classes watching the second hand of the clock mounted on the wall, willing it to go faster. Her eyes blurred and drooped; keeping them open took an effort. Her brain slogged around the inside of her head in slow motion like a bowl of thick porridge. When the day would finally end and she made it back home, she would barge straight into the bathroom and have a long, icy shower.
It was around this time that her parents made a ground-breaking announcement. Mia had been the only child for nine years. But now, that was going to change.
“Amazing news, Mia!” They were sitting at the dining table, about to have dinner. Mia’s mum patted her cheek and exchanged an excited look with Mia’s dad. “You’re going to have a baby sister!”
She smiled blearily up at her parent’s radiant faces. “Wow, I’m excited,” she said breathlessly. Part because she was excited to have a companion, albeit one that would be ten years younger than her; part because she was feeling suffocated again. “Thanks, Mum! Thanks, Dad!”
Then she got out of her chair and rushed back to the bathroom to once again splash her face with water.
She had to take a day off school the next day because she felt too sick. She lay in bed for the whole day, splashing her face with water every ten or so minutes from her drink bottle beside the bed, not bothering to get up to visit the bathroom. She had two half hour long showers and wished for more, but she couldn’t because her parents would be angry at her for wasting water.
The next day, she asked for swimming lessons. Her parents agreed. They enrolled her in a program at the swimming pool three blocks away from their house. Her lesson would be once a week.
She felt particularly tired the day she started, around half a week later. They had gone for a run at the local park in PE class, but had only stopped for water once at one of the drink taps there. And not nearly as long as she would have liked. She felt dead when she came home.
But jumping into the water was like entering heaven. It was like an antidote to her fatigue. It sucked it away from every corner of her being and instantly making her feel energised and invigorated. Even though she had never really swum much before, she found that it came as naturally as breathing. She was by far the fastest in her class of seven or so people. The teacher was amazed and showered her with praise.
Much too quickly, the half hour went by.
“You must be tired, Mia!” the teacher said as everyone hauled themselves up out of the pool. “You’ve done so much today! You’re the fastest kid I’ve ever taught in this swimming lesson! Well, now you can go home and have a well-deserved rest.”
Mia gazed after the diminishing backsides of the other people in the class. She was the last person in her class still in the pool. Besides the teacher. She didn’t want to get out. Being submerged in water felt so nice.
“I feel like swimming for a little more,” she said.
“Oh ok,” said the teacher, a little surprised. “Well, you do that. I need to get ready for my next lesson. Have fun and see you next week!”
Mia spent another half hour swimming laps by herself before finally, reluctantly, getting out of the pool. She went to the change rooms to take her bathers off and put on her clothes. Then she walked back home. She felt quite normal, better than she had for a long time.
“How did your lesson go?” When she stepped in the front door, her mum emerged from the study and enveloped her in a big hug. “Was it fun?”
“Yeah, it was great!” Mia returned the hug with enthusiasm, her face flushed and radiant with pleasure. “I loved it so much!”
But the good feeling only lasted for half an hour. Then she started feeling tired again. She splashed her face with water, but it felt nowhere near as good as being in the pool.
A few weeks later, she upgraded to squad. It was three times a week, one and a half hours each.
The other people in the squad were a bit sceptical. “Did you say she only started swimming three weeks ago?” a kid named Harvey asked the coach as they stood at the edge of the pool, pulling on caps and goggles, about to get in. “We’re state level swimmers! Is she really fast enough?”
The coach looked at Mia apologetically. “Sorry, Harvey’s always like this,” he said. Then to Harvey, “Of course she’s fast enough. Haven’t you seen her in her swimming lessons?”
Mia jumped into the water without putting on a cap or goggles. It wasn’t as cold as she would’ve liked it to be, but it was still refreshing. Everything was clearer under the water, as opposed to the outside world, which was blurred by air and tiredness. Vaguely she heard Harvey say, “Doesn’t she wear goggles?” and laughed inside. Why would she want goggles? She was one with the water. She drew in a deep breath and shuddered with pleasure. Only when they started swimming their laps did she realise she’d just taken a breath. In water. She could breathe in water.
That evening, she told her parents about her predicament.
“Mum, Dad,” she said, when they had all gathered on the couch. Her mum had a small tummy now. “I have something to tell you. It’s going to sound crazy, but I promise I’m not lying or anything.”
“Go ahead, darling,” her mum said gently, peering anxiously at Mia’s face. “We’ll believe you, I promise.”
She felt slightly reassured at that. She took a deep breath. “I can breathe in water.”
Her parents stared at her in shock, utterly speechless. She explained from the very start, from a year ago, from that first day when she had woken up and felt refreshed after washing her face and how it had all escalated. She explained that was why she felt so tired after every day of school and that was why she love swimming so much.
Her mum’s face turned pale. Her mouth thinned into a little straight line with bloodless lips. “I’m afraid I don’t believe you, Mia,” she said tightly. “Humans cannot breathe in water.”
Her dad’s face was as ashen as her mum’s. “Mia.” He seemed to be holding back anger. “Is this to try to take even more time off school?”
Mia stared at her parents’ faces, mouth agape. Didn’t they say they would believe her? Didn’t they offer their support? “I promise I’m not lying!”
“No more sick days off school,” her mum said, ignoring her. She exchanged a glance with her dad. “Should we take away her swimming too?”
Her dad surveyed her, disappointment in his eyes. “Maybe not for now,” he said. “At least she’d good at and likes swimming, if not school.”
The next day, they took her to the local clinic. She repeated everything to the doctor. His reaction was similar to her parents’: sceptical, scornful, disappointed at her obvious (or so he thought) lying. He conducted a series of tests anyway. But as he predicted, he could detect nothing abnormal. Mia went home with her parents even more disappointed than her and as convinced as ever that she was lying. But to their word, they let her continue swimming.
A few weeks later, she upgraded to the second highest squad in the swimming club. There was training seven times a week; five afternoons and two mornings. Each session went for two hours. Her teammates were no less than awestruck by her, crowding around her to ask questions in every available moment, constantly exclaiming ‘How are you faster than me already?!”
Fast forward a few years. Mia’s little sister had been born. Her parents had named her Sophie. By now, Mia’s life revolved around the pool. She came to every training session every week and spent all of her spare time swimming laps by herself. Her grades at school weren’t the best, but they were acceptable, so her parents let her go to the pool whenever she liked. They had become resigned to her enormous love for water and queer everyday behaviour. They had taken her to several doctors to try to find a problem which they could then fix, but all their searches proved just as fruitless as the first’s.
She had started to feel a mental need for water on top of the overwhelming physical one. She was drawn towards the pool like there was an invisible rope pulling at her.
It was summer. Sophie was three years old. Mia’s parents decided to take her and Sophie to the beach to have some fun. “You’ll be able to swim there, too,” Mia’s mum said as they piled picnic mats, a huge umbrella, and bags full of swimwear and food into the boot of the car. She looked fondly down at her odd little daughter. Mia could get medals at the National Championships now; she was very proud. She just hoped that Mia’s grades wouldn’t slip any further.
After a long drive, they finally arrived at the beach. Mia stepped out of the car in her sandals, shorts and t-shirt and poured some water onto her face, eyes squinted in the glaring sun. The heat basked her body and she shivered uncomfortably. She preferred cold over hot anytime. Her dad hoisted little Sophie onto his hip and together they made their way down the scorching sand to an empty space on the crowded beach below.
As soon as they had set up their picnic mat and umbrella and put everything down, Mia set off for the sea. She felt an invisible force tugging her towards the water. She wanted nothing than to be submerged in that vast expanse of cold, salty blue.
She reached the wave line. Goosebumps rose on her feet at the cool, welcoming touch of the water. Little waves bumped against the front of her calves. A warm breeze blew her hair in her eyes. All around her was the excited squeals of little kids splashing in the waves and building sandcastles.
Soon, she was knee deep. Then waist deep. The waves were higher now. They smacked against her chest. The water was colder. Every part of her thrilled with the ocean’s embrace. It felt even better than being in the pool. Here it was cleaner, colder.
Soon she was up to her neck. Cold water sprayed onto her face and her ponytail dragged behind her in the water. There were hardly any people this far in. The sounds of happy families playing in the shallows slowly faded into the distance. Then her head dipped into the water and her feet floated off the sea floor. She opened her eyes and in front of her was a whole different world. Eerily blue and dark and silent, that went further in than her eyes could penetrate. She drew in a deep breath and marvelled at the cold, clean water that rushed into her chest. It filled her with renewed energy. She kicked forward and realised that her legs weren’t legs anymore, but mermaid fins. A shadow emerged out of the deep blue in front of her and beckoned with a finger. It was another mermaid. Mia smiled and followed it without looking back. At that instant, she knew. This was where she belonged.