When Peter was twelve years old, he saw magic for the first time.
It'd been a drowsy, boring summer spent far away, in a place Peter had no real attachment to and no desire to visit, and nearing teenhood, he'd gotten a terrible mood that had not dissipated since his mother told him they were going away for the month. He'd cried when packing and screamed when he was shoved into the car, but by the time they'd arrived, his temper had dimmed into a faded, nagging thought in the back of his mind. It clouded his vision of the beach--which was quite lovely, as beaches tend to be--and ruined at least half of his father's vacation.
Peter, of course, did not care. He resorted back to childhood habits, eating begrudgingly and sulking around the living room, splaying down on the floor like a starfish. Even the dog began to mimic him, laying down his head onto his stomach and napping peacefully as Peter began an unspoken rivalry with the television to see which one could make more noise. He sighed and mumbled and sometimes shouted--for the rest of her life his mother would claim her migraines were caused by him during that trip, a statement he denied as fervorously as he did everything else. He complained when they went on the boat, claiming it gave him sea sickness, rolled his eyes at every movie they watched. He refused to read the books his mother had packed, instead leafing through the forgotten tomes that had been left throughout the house by former tenants. When Peter, two weeks into the trip, went on his tiptoes to reach for the dictionary, his father snapped.
"We've been here for fourteen days and you haven't set foot on that beach once," his father said. "Let's go."
He kicked and screamed, but to no avail. He was forced into swim trunks and flip flops and dragged into the sand. He stood on the shore and cringed when his feet got soaked. From the walkway he picked up big leaves stained with dirt and spatched brown--he dipped them into the water, let them float in the waves, following its movements with the palm of his hand submerged. When his mother called out his name, he ran to her immediately; she'd found a jellyfish. It looked and felt slimy, slipping through his fingers when she laid it on his hand. He poked it and stretched it and threw it down, once, to see if it would jiggle. By that point it had been hours, and his parents left to go make dinner. Peter complained as he had inside--he didn't want to leave. He sat down on the sand next to the jellyfish and tuned out his parent's mumbling. He didn't care; he had his own world to take care of, new things to explore. He was not yet hungry, but from looking for that feeling, he'd found something else, a strange new appetite the long minutes spent on that beach had only festered. He wanted to explore.
Once they'd left, he got up and walked along the shoreline, stepping in and out of the wet sand, marking the places the tide touched with the tip of his sandal. When he looked back, the scratches were gone, faded away like scars. He shook his head and walked defiantly, shoving his foot to the end of his toe in the sand, determined to leave a part of him behind on the ground. But it didn't matter--it always went away.
Frustration bloomed in his chest. He stomped his way to a collection of rocks down east, now so far he could no longer see the rented house, not even when he squinted. Determined, he climbed. The rocks were not big, but Peter was a small child--he palmed the rough surface to rise onto it, and in doing so, cut his hand. He swore--and smiled. He was alone, he realized, and that thought made the pain go away. He swore again, a harsher word than the one before, the one that his dad had yelled watching basketball once, the one that had made his mother gasp when she heard it. He laughed, freely now. He was still so young, he knew, but didn't feel it. Sitting down on the beach by himself, blood oozing out from his hand, he felt grown, and he reveled in the idea of not needing anyone at all. What a great world that seemed, one where he was the sole resident, judge, jury and executioner alike.
Until, of course, he heard a little voice.
"Hello," it said, and Peter turned to look.
There was a girl laying down on the rocks. She was looking up at him, chest heaving, the sound of her breathing louder than her voice. She had long dark hair and sickly pale skin. Peter noticed first her veins, visible underneath her face, pulsing blue, then her features. As a man, Peter was still not able to describe what she looked like correctly. He recalled big shapes, commanding angles--at school, looking down at his homework, he stared at the drawing of pyramids and tried to piece together her face. It was so odd, he'd thought, years later, even when I was looking directly at her, I could not see what she looked like. I blinked and she was gone, returning the next moment like a wraith.
"Hello," the strange girl repeated, climbing up higher onto the rocks. Her lower half was submerged, following the movements of the waves. Her waist was thrown back and forth as if she was dancing.
"Hi," Peter whispered, feeling strangely frightened. His mother had warned him once never to talk to strangers, but surely she didn't mean strangers like her, who smiled at the sound of his voice, eyes lighting up like a match being struck, suddenly and overwhelmingly.
She opened her mouth but her voice caught. She drew a hand to her throat, squeezing tight. Peter started, but could not find the strength to move. He was repelled by this weird girl as much as he was drawn to her, in a way he could only describe as a moth to flame. Surely, slowly, and undeniably.
She struggled through the words. "What is your name?"
"Peter," he whispered. "What's yours?"
The same happened. She'd let her hand drop when she finished speaking, but then threw it up again the moment she went to answer. Peter was annoyed by the gesture, and snapped, "If you have a stutter, grabbing your neck won't help, you just look stupid."
The girl stilled, her eyes widening. She coughed up sounds he could not make up as proper words, and her irises darted from side to side, almost like she was reading a hard sentence and trying to make sense of what it was saying. She let go of her neck, but in turn dug her nails into the stone. She choked out, "What?"
Peter rolled his eyes. He'd already had his fair share of the girl. His stomach was rumbling--by then dinner would already be done. He'd hurry home and keep this weird experience to himself, feeling no need to think of this girl any longer. He shot up to his feet, dreading the walk home, when he heard a shriek.
He turned his head back towards the water. "What?"
"Name," she said, pointing at her chest. "Ariel."
Peter couldn't help it--he smiled. "What, like the movie?"
She nodded vigorously. "Movie. Ariel."
He looked her down, as far as he could. The sky was darkening slowly, the ocean turning a deep black. She clung to the rocks tightly but did not get up from the water, which made him anxious. Was she stupid, or trying to play a game? He was too old for pretend.
"You don't look like her," he said angrily. "Your parents should have picked a better one."
"I know yours," she gasped. She was speaking faster, he realized. At least she did that. "Peter. Movie, too."
He rolled his eyes. "I hate that movie. It's stupid."
Ariel cocked her head. He took it as an invitation. "It's a stupid story about a stupid girl--her parents are stupid, too. Everyone in that movie is dumb. If Peter Pan showed up at my window, I would shove him off it and hope he crashed when he landed."
"Pan," she repeated. Peter found himself drawing closer. Her voice had something nice to it, a melody in the way she said her vowels, as if she was speaking in cursive. "Red hair."
"No, silly," he said. "Ariel has red hair. Peter has yellow."
She looked confused, so he tore up a strand of his hair. He sat back down and got close, trying his best to show her. "Yellow, see? Like me. That's why my parents called me that. But you don't have red hair like Ariel, yours is black."
"Black," she repeated, mirroring his movements. She grabbed a strand of her hair and shoved it in his hand. It was slimy and sticky with sand, stringy to the touch. It reminded him of the jellyfish, and he cringed. Ariel looked alarmed.
"Trouble?" she asked, sounding exasperated.
"Your hair is gross," he said, wiping his hand on his trunks. "Ariel is a mermaid, but even she has better hair."
Her eyes narrowed, and suddenly she smiled. "Mermaid!" she shouted, and dunked beneath the water. Peter craned his neck toward the ocean, and saw the exact moment her tail appeared from the waves.
He screamed, scurrying back. His palm ached from the cut, his heart was hammering in his chest. He was dreaming, was his thought process. He had to be. Or this was a prank, and he'd turn his head and see a man pointing a camera at him. But when he turned, there was no one but the wind carrying up wisps of sand down the shore line. Peter swallowed down the lump at his throat, and carefully looked back at Ariel. She was still there, back at the same position she was in before. She looked at him curiously, but now he could see a certain hunger in her eyes. She watched him so attentively, as a hawk does a mouse. There was an intelligence in her gaze that had been hidden away by her speaking, a veil having been lifted that showed him exactly what she was.
And the worst part was Peter was no longer scared. He was curious.
Carefully he laid on his chest. He stuck out his hand as he’d been taught to do when meeting someone he wanted to impress. Ariel did not seem scared of him, instead itching closer and, with the velocity of a snail, laying her palm down onto his. It was all he could do not to flinch--the texture of her skin was revolting. She was hard to touch but felt clammy, like it was coated with something he couldn’t identify. Her wrist against his made him shiver. She had a pulse, at least, and he was grateful for the least bit of normality in her, but she was unusually cold, the warmth he imagined dead people would have. Peter forced his eyes up to her face. She didn’t seem dead, the way she was staring at him. He’d been wrong, before. She wasn’t a hawke looking for its prey--she was a cat looking out to a plane and hoping one day to be able to reach it.
“What are you?” he whispered, though he already knew the answer. Something more than I.
“Mermaid,” she said, micking his tone. Peter grinned, desperately hoping she wasn’t the type of magic that was able to read his thoughts.
“No, you’re not,” he said. “You’re something, but not a mermaid. Mermaids don’t look like you.”
“Something?” She asked.
“Something else.” When he spotted the confusion in her eyes, he added, quickly, “Something better. We should name you something else. Ariel doesn’t suit you anymore.”
Peter released her hand, reaching up to her face. Mindfully, he touched her cheek. She didn’t cringe like he’d expected her to. She made a soft sound, less like a sigh than it was an intake of breath, and leaned her head into his hand. Peter smiled, thinking she really was like a cat. A strange, secret beauty, curious and possibly feral. The thought thrilled him.
“Kitty,” he said. “That’s your name.”
“Kitty,” she repeated, and smiled when she saw he was, too. She had such an odd smile, never opening her mouth. Even when she spoke, it was tight-lipped, almost moaned.
“Open your mouth,” he said. She looked confused, so he said it again, opening his the moment after. She seemed to understand, for she parted her lips wide. This time, Peter was not frightened.
Her gums were almost black, her tongue unnatural red, like she’d sucked on a lollipop for too long. Her teeth looked like a shark’s, and Peter felt a strange rush of excitement travel through his body. He’d learned about marine life last year at school, had done a project on whales for his finals. But it had always been the real predators that fascinated him. Kitty, seeming unsure of what to do, stuck out her tongue, and her lower teeth moved forward to accommodate it.
“Cool,” Peter murmured. “Can you do this?”
He flipped his tongue, making a cone-like shape. Kitty tried, but failed. Her tongue was not shaped like his, he realized, pointy like an arrow instead.
“Aw, that’s okay,” he said, though he felt strangely disappointed. He wanted to show her things, he realized. Wanted to teach them to her like an owner does to their dog. It amused him to imagine her flipping on her tail like a seal at the Sea Park, bobbing a ball on her nose. He laughed, and she did, too, a hoarse sound that seemed to burst from her chest. It sounded less like a laugh than it did a cough. It sparked something in him, a real, cruel, needy feeling. Peter felt an odd attachment to her, then, the thought of having to leave slashing at his chest.
“Close your eyes,” he sputtered, “and your mouth.”
She did so. In an impulsive movement, Peter leaned in and kissed her.
It felt awful. Her lips felt like sandpaper against his, her cheek scraping his chin with a hurt that shocked him. Almost immediately she went against him, like he’d seen girls in movies do when the hero kissed them at the end. It gave him immense pleasure, so he didn’t pull away, even though his body shouted at him to do so. She smelled salty, less fishy than he’d imagined, like she’d been scraped down so thoroughly that texture overwhelmed smell. He copied the films as much as he was able to, bringing up a hand to her face. Though it was repulsive, he grabbed her hair. She whimpered against his mouth, and finally he let go.
He stared at her, heavy-lidded, and tried to make sense of what he had just done. He wanted to yell it out as much as he craved to forget it. Kitty was looking at him with terror in her face--maybe she hadn’t enjoyed it, he thought, but then figured she hadn’t had much experience kissing in her life. Who could she have made out with, a salmon? The thought made him smile. Surely he was a better kisser than a fish.
“Smile,” she said, poking his cheek. “I know you.”
Peter grabbed her wrist, keeping it on his face. “Do you?”
Kitty nodded. “You know me, too.”
Did he, though? He had to wonder. How long had he been standing there? His parents would be furious. He rolled his tongue against his teeth, looking for a reminder of what had happened, but couldn’t find any. He’d seemed to have been scraped clean of her. Even her smell was now a foggy, distant memory. He could recall the saltiness of her mouth, but there had been something else, hadn’t there? His hand at her pulse was the only sure thing of hers he could recall. He looked at her, drawing a picture of her in his mind, but when he blinked it was gone again, like the footprints he’d tried to make at the sand. He let go of her and shut his eyes as tightly as he could. He didn’t speak, afraid it would encourage her to stay, when he wanted her to be gone. He counted to five.
“Peter?” her voice was guttural and half gone.
“Go away,” he rasped out, afraid to look at her. He wasn’t scared--he couldn’t be, anymore. But the reminder of her was disturbing, and he could only imagine that when he grew older, this day would become a splotch on his record, a moment of weakness he could not bear to remember. His mother had told him to be kind to strangers--his father had said it was best to be honest. Kitty wasn’t a stranger, not anymore, he couldn’t even wish her to be, so he figured it was alright to be cruel. He was never honest except when he was wicked.
“Go away,” he said again, more forcefully. He couldn’t hear her breathing over the sound of the ocean. He had no idea if she was waiting for him to open his eyes.
So he didn’t. He stayed with them shut until he heard his parents shouting his name. He got up blindly and turned his back to the waves. He ran midway until he opened them again, never turning back to see if she was gone.
When she slit back into the water, her hair floated up around her, and she shut her eyes. She stuck out her tongue, hoping to taste the familiar life, but all she could feel was him, like a handprint stitched into her skin, clutching her tightly the way the salt did.