My arms burn, but I don't stop pushing.
Forward, back, forward, back.
The rowboat inches toward the beach, barely missing the skyscrapers that peek out of the waves.
“We need to go faster,” says Cyrus.
“Do you want to do it?” I snap.
He holds up a hand in apology and I grit my teeth. I had to cut off his left arm last year, when a rogue fishing hook ripped it to shreds. It was a close one; he’d lost enough blood to alert every shark in a ten-mile radius.
“We’ll get there…when…we get there,” I say, panting. Water-Riders are allowed to stick our boats close to the shoreline, but they can still drift far in a night. And as much as we want to take turns sleeping, it's no use now with three arms between us.
I row. Cyrus fishes.
I swing the boat around another skyscraper. The water is shallow enough here that the top three floors stick out of the water. The windows are long broken and the walls are cracked and covered in sea foam, but it's not the worse I've seen. No wonder there's a man huddled in the middle floor.
He's wearing torn pants and the peeling skin on his chest is the sign of a boatless Water-Rider. He stares at us and I try to ignore him as I row.
“Damn freeloaders,” says Cyrus. Too loud.
The man runs to the edge of the floor, only a few feet from us, and pulls out a knife seemingly from thin air. “Jealous, kid?” he asks in a raspy voice.
I shove my entire body against the oars and we soar away from the sunken building and the broken man.
“Can you keep it together for one second, Cyrus?” I don't know why he doesn't shut his mouth sometimes. It's not our job to care about freeloaders, or other Water-Riders, or anyone except each other.
Besides, it's not like the Coast Guard won't find the man and kill him anyway.
"Fine. Sorry," says Cyrus, shrugging. I roll my eyes.
It takes another half hour to reach the shore and my arms are rubber when the boat scrapes the sand. A guard walks toward us already; they line the shore as far as the eye can see, one every fifty feet or so. There's a cluster of shacks farther up on the beach, and a few lopsided buildings looming far behind them.
The Land-Livers. I don't have time to dream.
It takes every last ounce of my energy to drag myself out of the boat and stand in front of it, next to Cyrus. The guard is an older man with wisps of gray hair and not a single crease in his green uniform. He holds a clipboard thick with papers.
“Names?” he asks in a bored voice. He doesn't look up from the clipboard.
“Fox. Cyrus and Amira Fox," says Cyrus.
The man flips to the next page. He glances at where Cyrus's arm would be and back down to the clipboard. “Ah. Frequent flyers?”
"You could say that," says Cyrus. I hear the hard edge to his voice and press down lightly on his toes. A warning.
“And what’s the haul today?” the man drawls.
I walk around to the back of the boat and try not to show the shake in my arms as I pull out the fishing net and throw it at the guard's feet.
“Dolphin,” says Cyrus. “Three of them.”
The man’s eyes widen, and I purse my lips together to hide my grin.
“Haven’t had dolphin in a while,” said the man, scratching his chin. He walks around the net, nudging the dead creatures.
It was odd, the way the dolphins came up to us. Almost like they were lonely, too.
But we didn't hesitate. Couldn’t hesitate. They were dead and in the boat before another Water-Rider could see them.
“It’s your lucky day,” says the guard as he crosses something out. “You’ve made enough to earn you a night.” He nods toward the cluster of shacks further down on the beach.
“Three,” says Cyrus. I tense.
“You’re in no position to barter, kid.”
“And you’re in no position to refuse the only people who’ve brought you dolphin.”
The man stares at Cyrus for a beat. "How'd you get them, anyway?"
Cryus presses a finger to his lips. "Trade secrets, sir."
The man relaxes at that and chuckles. "Two nights. Another word and it'll be zero.”
I nod and speak before Cyrus has the chance. "Thank you. That's very generous.”
“Where do we put the boat?” asks Cyrus.
“You take it with you, unless you want it stolen.”
I press down on Cyrus’s foot again before he can argue. The guard turns around without another words and walks back to his post.
“C’mon," I say with a sigh. The conversation wasn't long enough to get the strength back in my arms, but the shacks are singing to us. Cyrus grabs the right side, I grab the left, and we start painstakingly dragging the boat toward the cluster.
We haven't slept on land since Mom and Dad died ten years ago. The Council shoved us out to sea before they were even in the ground.
“Wow,” breathes Cyrus when we finally reach the first shack and open the door.
It's tiny, with blue paint peeling off the walls. A crab skitters along the sandy floor and I jump over it. There are two tattered cots, each covered with a thin blanket.
"Luxury," moans Cyrus as he jumps into one of the cots.
I sink into the other. It's hard and bumpy, but I’ve never felt anything so sturdy.
“Two nights. I can’t believe we get to stay here for two nights,” I murmur.
Cyrus already starts to snore.
I look over at him and smile. He looks like Dad—high cheekbones, a thin nose, hair bleached from the sun. He's three years older than me.
The dolphins were all his doing. Even with one arm, Cyrus can catch anything. This is his accomplishment; he should sleep.
I sigh and slowly sit up. I give my arms a shake before stepping outside the shack and closing the door. The sun is beginning to sink below the horizon.
The boat is small, but still far too large to fit inside the shack, and we don't have anything to tie it up. Cyrus insisted we use all the available space for storing fishing gear. I suppose that was the right choice; we wouldn’t be at the shacks without the gear.
Then again, we wouldn’t survive without the boat.
The guard was right; the boat might get stolen. I sit inside it, near the back, and grab my knife. There’s not a peep from the others shacks, though. Most trades end in credit, anyway.
“Two crabs? That’s a ten-point credit. Nine-hundred and ninety more, and that’s a night!”
Still, better safe than sorry.
Stars blink through the darkening sky. That's one good thing about most of the land disappearing: no more pollution.
Mom and Dad experienced the rising of the oceans first-hand. Dad’s position on the Council was the only reason we started off as Land-Livers. I was five and Cyrus was eight when the Council gave us a boat and forced us to leave. We wouldn’t have survived if it hadn’t been for Old Man Fishbones.
Land-Livers. I dream about them every night. None of the constant swaying, the sunburns, the bleeding skin. A diet beyond fish. But only the wealthiest are Land-Livers, and Cyrus and I just spent every singe credit we'd gained over the past decade.
My eyelids grow heavy as I lean against the curved back of the boat, listening to Cyrus's muffled snores and the roar of the waves. It couldn't hurt to close my eyes, just for a few minutes.
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Um, why are you so fast at writing? And yes— definitely series material here. Keep writing, Leilani. :)
I had an unusual amount of free time yesterday! :D I like to get the main parts of the stories done early and then edit the rest of the week. This one definitely needs some edits, lol. Thanks so much, Scout. :)
Ahh, I love this subject of story so much. This reminds me of Waterworld, but if it were done right. What happened to their parents to force them off of the Council? Who is Old Man Fishbones? Will knife guy manage to make his way off of his skyscraper and float over to where they're docked and steal their boat while she's napping? It's safe to say my interest is most certainly peaked. You did a great job with this prompt, and I really enjoyed the back and forth between her and Cyrus. I'm looking forward to reading more of your work!
As always, thank you so much for your comment, Stephen!! I would definitely love to explore the answers to those questions in future stories. :)
This story drew me in right away- the narrative voice is distinct and beautifully written and the characters feel so real and intriguing. Thank you for sharing!
Thank you so much, Claire! I so appreciate your comment. :)
I want more! I love this world and need to read the next of their adventures! ~Ria~ P.S. Could you check out my stories? Thanks! :)
Hi Adrienne! Apologies for responding so late--my work is crazy! Thank you so much for reading and commenting. I would love to check out your stories! :)
No worries! I totally get it - life sometimes doesn't allow any other stuff. Anytime!
Work in progress. I'm considering turning this into a short story series!
You created such an amazing world so quickly! I wish the story had a bit more stakes, which would have made this short story a cohesive one. I definitely only think this is the beginning. I hope you keep writing this story! I really want to know what challenges these two come across!
Thank you so much for reading and commenting, Jamie!! I totally agree with your comment—I wish I could have fleshed this out a bit more. I’d definitely like to develop this into a much longer story someday! For now, I’ll keep an eye out for prompts that could work for a continuation. :)
It's such a fantastic start. I can't wait to read more of your writing!! You're very talented.
That made my whole week. :) Thank you so much!!
I was really hooked into this - a short series would be great!
Thank you so much, Grace! I'm definitely considering it! If a suitable prompt arises. :)
I'd like to see this one expanded too. So many questions...Great story!
It's a short story, but enough world-building is given to tell us the nature at which this world functions