“Lec, you can’t keep doing this.”
Alec digs his fingertips into his brow, barely managing to keep his breathing regular. “Dad, I’m not crazy. I’m not. I actually found something this time, okay? If you would just listen, for once—”
“I’ve been listening for years, Alec,” his father hisses under his breath like he does when he doesn’t want anyone in his office to know who he’s talking to. Alec presses the phone closer to his ear and grits his teeth. “Every single time you call me, you think you finally found it, but you have nothing to show for it.”
“I just told you, I found something this time,” Alec insists. “It could change everything.”
There’s silence on the line for a moment. Then, just behind a strained sigh, “Okay, then. What did you find?”
“A fish, Dad, washed up on shore and practically chewed in half. The bite radius was too big to be any of our otters but too small to be anything else in the water.”
“A fish,” his father breathes, laughs, and Alec’s face falls. “You find a half-eaten fish and you immediately scream supernatural.” It’s almost hysterical, a bitter sound that sinks into Alec’s veins like cyanide. He’s laughing at him.
“You always fucking do this,” Alec seethes, the handle he has on his resolve slipping like water between his fingers. “You never fucking listen; why can’t you just—”
“You are chasing a fairytale,” his father snaps with finality. “There’s no such thing as sea monsters, Alec. There never has been, and there never will be. Next time you call, why don’t you start by asking how your mother’s doing?”
The call cuts out before Alec can say anything else, and it takes every bit of strength he has not to throw his phone at the wall.
Alec walks into the lab with his wetsuit already on. His blood is crawling beneath his skin, begging him to move, to just get going and never stop. He wants to find something, is desperate for it, but progress is so painstakingly slow.
“Hey, boss!” Yoli calls from a table near the center of the room, where she was just doubled over a half-dissected fish. Her eyes are three sizes too large behind the magnifying goggles she’s wearing, and her dark hair is a frizzy crown around her head. Alec gives an ambiguous wave, setting his bag down on the storage table beside the door.
Yoli sets down her scalpel, tugs off her goggles, and stands up. “You tell your dad about the mackerel?” she asks, still entertaining that painful enthusiasm she can’t seem to shake.
Alec huffs, nothing left but an angry buzz at the base of his chest. “Can’t say I didn’t try."
Yoli stops next to him, eyes dark and lips pulled down. “He shut you down again, didn’t he?”
Alec brushes past her gently, making his way down the row of tables. The fish has been sliced open at the belly and spread out for examining, the bite on its flank so deep that it cuts almost all the way to the dorsal fin. It’s a big fish, two feet long and close to twenty pounds—a king mackerel. It’s the first time they’ve seen one this close to shore in months.
Alec slips on some gloves and traces a finger along the jagged edge of the bite. It’s a massive hole in the fish’s side, almost three inches in diameter, twice the size of any bite his otters could inflict. Not that they would start at the side, anyway; a fish this large would have been brought to the shore and consumed head first.
“Am I crazy?” Alec asks because he can't keep thinking it for fear of eventually believing it.
“No way,” Yoli says immediately, coming up beside him and gesturing at the fish. “Alec, look at this thing. That bite is far too round to be anything but an otter in those waters, but we’ve already measured all of them. It doesn’t line up. It has to be something else.”
Alec looks up at Yoli, at the hard line of her brow and the determination in her eyes, and takes a deep breath. He nods, unable to do anything else.
“Come on,” Yoli says after a moment. “Why don’t we go say hi to the kids?”
"Can I ask you something?" Yoli asks as she tosses a small trout to the raft of otters gathered near the dock. Sylvia and Lune squeak at the others as they wait for it to sink, and then they all dive for it.
Alec grins. "Yeah, 'course."
Yoli adjusts her grip on the fish bucket, wet shoes squeaking against the dock. "Why is your dad so against your work?"
The breeze picks up a little, brushing Alec's hair into his eyes. He shifts his weight onto his left foot and holds out a hand to Mira when she surfaces nearby. Beads of water line her whiskers. She nibbles on his finger for a moment before she realizes he’s not holding anything, and, with an indignant squeak, she disappears back underwater.
“He wants me to join the family business,” Alec sighs. “Carry on the legacy and take care of my mom. That’s been his plan for me since I was young and she first got sick.”
Yoli tosses another trout into the water. “Why can’t you take care of her and do what you want at the same time?”
“He doesn’t think this is a sustainable job,” Alec replies, standing up from his crouch. He watches Lune float in circles with his belly to the sun, a piece of trout cradled between his front paws. “He thinks all I do is feed otters and chase fairytales.”
“But that’s not all you do,” Yoli insists.
Alec scoffs. “Try telling him that.”
It’s quiet for a minute. Alec doesn’t meet Yoli’s eyes, watching the otters bicker with each other over who gets to drag the trout to shore. Lune is still doing circles, perfectly content on his own. He never was much of a team-player. Alec thinks he can relate.
“You’re gonna find it,” Yoli says, belatedly. “What you’re looking for, you’re going to find it. I know you are.”
Alec chuckles. He doesn’t share her confidence, but he appreciates her support.
He’s about to voice his thanks when he notices a cloud of red at the surface of the water. Frowning, he follows the trail with his eyes and sees Rocky floating on her side a good distance from the group. She’s licking insistently at what looks like a scratch on her left hip. Alec’s heart leaps into his throat.
“Yoli, look!” he exclaims.
Yoli gasps when she sees, crouching at the edge of the dock to try and get a better look. “Are those…?”
Alec doesn’t let her finish, immediately making his way down the dock. “Come on,” he says, but Yoli is already close behind.
Rocky puts up a good fight when Yoli and Alec fish her out of the water. It takes a lot of soothing conversation and even more special treats, but eventually, she calms down enough to be examined, and Alec is positively buzzing.
Four clean slashes along the otter’s hip, thin and deep and evenly spread out.
“Look at the width of these gashes,” he says to Yoli, who turns her attention away from Rocky’s bristly head to look. He removes the cleaning pad from the wound just long enough for her to see.
Yoli squints behind her glasses, then nods. “Definitely too small for a dog, and alligators aren’t native to Oregon. Couldn’t be a hawk either, or else there would be three gashes up here and one underneath. Cat, maybe?”
Alec shakes his head. “Not around here. No cat would get that close to water that cold, and Rocky wouldn’t venture that far out without the others. This wound is fresh, anyway, must have happened during the feeding.”
“What could it have been, then?” Yoli asks, bewildered. “That wound could only be the result of claws, but what out there in that river could have claws that thin and that long?”
There’s something in her voice, just beneath all the science and logic, that suggests she’s having the same thought Alec is, but neither of them dare say it. Excitement bubbles in Alec’s veins as he meets Yoli’s eyes.
“I have an idea, but it’s a little crazy.”
Yoli laughs. “We’re researchers, Lec. Nothing is crazy, only theory that is yet to be proved.”
Alec smiles. “You finish patching up Rocky,” he says, getting to his feet. “I’m gonna bring the boat around. It's still got the cage on it, right?”
Yoli hums noncommittally as she starts applying ointment to Rocky’s wound. A moment later, she looks up, brows knitted in confusion. “Wait, the diving cage? They were planning to move it to storage soon, but I don’t think they’ve done it yet. Why? You do know sharks don't swim in that river, right?”
Alec slips on his wet shoes and grabs the keys to the boat, flashing Yoli a grin from the door. “Told you,” he simply says. “I have an idea."
By the time they make it far enough out that the water is deep enough, it’s almost dusk. Darkness has already started settling in. Going through all the safety checks and getting everything ready is a chore with just the two of them, but they manage to get it done fairly quick.
Thirty minutes to sunset, the cage drops.
It hits the water with a splash, sinking down until only a quarter of it is still surfaced. It floats there until Alec is ready to go in, and Alec is half-tempted to just skip the oxygen, take a deep breath, and free-dive it. Yoli keeps him in check, helping him slip the hookah harness over his head and the mask over his ears. There’s a camera around his neck that Alec maneuvers around the harness.
“Are you sure you don’t want to just use a tank? It’d be safer,” Yoli offers for the third time, skeptical and worrisome and far too patient for his ambition to bear.
Alec shakes his head. “Thank you for looking out for me, but there’s no use wasting the oxygen. I’m only gonna be down a minute.”
“Are you su—”
“Yoli, please, it’s gonna be dark soon,” Alec insists, grabbing her arm. Yoli squints at him, and then sighs.
“Fine, you insufferable bastard, but take this.” Yoli shoves something in his hand: a small box with an antenna and a big red button in the center of it. A panic button. Alec glances at it, then at Yoli. “It’ll transmit to our radio, so if something goes wrong, just press it and I’ll know to bring you up.”
“You’re the best,” Alec says, pecking her forehead for dramatic effect. “Don’t know what I would do without you. I’m going now.”
Yoli gripes about how irresponsible he is until he’s all the way to the edge of the back deck. He stops only to secure the hookah line and fix his earplugs before he jumps.
The cold hits him all over as soon as he breaks the water, only his head remaining surfaced as his feet hit the bottom of the cage. He throws an eager thumbs-up at Yoli, who rolls her eyes, and a second later, he’s sinking.
The horizon is painted a pale pink even underwater, and the color rapidly dims the further down he goes. The light attached to his mask switches on automatically as it senses encroaching darkness. Fish scatter in every direction, the unnatural presence of the cage disturbing the peace. Alec breathes slowly, careful not to take too much at a time, and waits as his body sinks with the pull of the cage. Less than a minute later, the cage stops, suspended in open ocean and surrounded by light too dim to see through.
Glancing up, his light catches on bits of chum that float down around the cage. Alec glances around for any sign of life larger than the regular fish. The only thing he hears is the warbled sound of oxygen flowing through the hookah line.
Minutes pass. Alec turns in weightless circles, waiting to see something, anything, and hoping he wasn’t wrong.
He’s starting to consider calling it when he glances sharply to his right and catches a glimpse of a tail disappearing into the dark. He goes still, staring through the bars and waiting for another glimpse, but there’s nothing.
He looks to his left and sees it again, except this time it flees when the light hits it. He sees nothing more than the sharp, silver edges of a tail fin.
An idea hits him suddenly, and Alec reaches up to turn off his light. Darkness entraps him as he fumbles for his camera and turns it on. Using muscle memory alone, he changes the setting to infrared and immediately screams bubbles into the water.
A face, hairless and pale and acutely human, stares at him through the bars of the cage.
Alec drops the camera in his panic and backs into the far side of the cage. His heart thunders in his chest and into his hands, but he forces himself to pick the camera back up. Taking measured breaths, he lifts the camera and looks again, but it’s gone.
Alec turns in a circle, desperate not to miss his chance, and finds it off to his right, gliding slowly around the cage, watching him. Alec zooms in, and sees—
Slitted eyes and sharp teeth, dark hair that billows behind its head. A bare torso that bleeds into a tail—the same silver tail—lined with sharp-looking spines. Scales blanket its arms all the way down to its webbed hands, fingers extending into claws that are as long and thin as a cat's.
A mermaid, alive and in the flesh. Alec can hardly believe it.
Blinded by an emotion he can't quite name, Alec snaps a picture. The creature screeches—a thin, eerie sound—as the flash goes off. Baring a whole set of needle-like teeth, it lunges at the cage, at him. Alec can’t move away fast enough. Agony licks hot up his chest to his neck as it slashes at him, severing the hookah line. His airway fills with water, and all he can taste is blood.
Alec scrambles to escape its reach. Echoing all around him is more eerie screeching and the uneven sound of the mermaid struggling to break through the bars. He can’t breathe. There’s fire in his chest, and he can’t breathe.
By some stroke of luck, he remembers the panic button Yoli gave him, reaching into his vest and closing it in his fist. Fear builds with the pressure in his brain as he hears the sound of metal groaning, unable to see anything more than the outline of a nimble body, and then—
Up, up, up he goes, his lungs seizing in his chest. The screeching follows him until he breaks the surface.
“—lec! Alec, oh my god—”
“I found it,” Alec wheezes as he rips off the hookah mask, coughing up water and heaving for air. The words bubble out before he can stop them, blood and more water and unshakeable relief coming up with them. Yoli, a mess of fear and confusion, hauls him out of the cage, and he collapses to the deck with the camera still hanging from his neck. Fumbling hands apply pressure to the gashes in his chest.
“I—found it, Yoli,” Alec splutters, and the words taste like blood. “I have to—my dad, I have to—”
He sits up, despite the agony all over him and the protests from Yoli, and looks out at the water. Above the horizon, the sky is on fire.
Below that, just barely, is a pair of slitted eyes and a crown of dark hair.
It stares at him, and he stares back.